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The sovereign has the power to kill or let live, and all other rights derive from it. The power of death and life has been exerted differently over the centuries, however. Premodern forms of power privileged the right to kill over the right to allow life, and the former has become, since modernity, the main form of power. How does the power to spare life manifest as a form of power or biopower (power over life)? Biopower is a form of control and subjection of the population to the law of the state. In Cuba, the two forms of power (the right to kill and biopower) coexist, but the latter has proven to be the most effective way to maintain the regime. During the seventies more emphasis was put on the right to sanction than on the right to let live. The first indication of biopolitical power’s influence in the nineties came when the Cuban government dubbed the period as the “Special Period in Peacetime” (“Periodo especial en tiempos de paz”).” In the aftermath of the Soviet bloc, the country sank into the worst economic and ideological crisis of the revolution. The government responded by taking drastic economic and social measures that put revolutionary ideals on hold. Since the Cuban Revolution was loosely based on Marxist doctrine, it was also conceived as a process whose different political stages would finally lead to a classless society. The revolution had indeed gone through different socioeconomic periods determined, unfortunately, by foreign policy rather than internal policies. As a consequence, the government had usually defined the different periods in relation to their antagonism to “imperialism.” The Cold War was a period “en tiempos de guerra” but, for the first time, the crisis was so intense that the worst enemy became real socialism. In these circumstances, and unwillingly, the government had no choice but to rely on capitalism. Socialism was put at a standstill, and capitalism was given the role of savior. On the one hand, there was no war to be waged against capitalism; on the other, the government calculated that its adoption of a semicapitalist economy would be temporary, exceptional, and “special.”
The eighties and the nineties could be a period of change and renaissance, or so everybody thought. Once the economy was reestablished, a new type of socialism could arise from the ashes. This explains why some scholars have argued that the state became more tolerant of criticism. During crisis periods such as the early 1990s, notes Susan Eckstein, “the arts . . . enjoyed [a] certain autonomy of expression, although explicit criticism of the regime was never tolerated and even allegorical criticism was not [permitted]” (Eckstein 1994, 25). In a debate about Cuban civil society—a hot topic during the period—Haroldo Dilla acknowledged that the role of the state had changed: “In truth, we were leaving a situation of the overpresence of the state; the news spread rapidly and everyone began clamoring for more civil society” (Dilla 1994, 165). Although the economic changes it made were not drastic, the government was forced to join the market economy.
Dollarization, the liberation of agricultural cooperatives, and the authorization of “cuentapropismo” (private business) and joint ventures with foreign companies were some of the government’s market reforms. But it took these steps reluctantly. During the Popular Power Assembly held in December 1993, Fidel Castro “inveighed against capitalism, its ‘excesses’ and the ‘profit motive’ ” (Perez-Stable 1993, 294). Almost half the population lived from the “remesas” sent by their families abroad or from the tourist industry. Although the government insisted on subsuming economic interests to political choices, new political strategies were essential to mobilize an economically independent population: “The citizens had access to resources that did not come from the state, a situation that threatened the paradigm of mobilization so important for political control. If a significant number of citizens became economically independent, how could they be compelled to listen?” (ibid., 295). The use of biopolitical power was one of those strategies.
A good example of these practices was the way the state dealt with the arrival of AIDS on the island. Medical sources claim that AIDS was brought to Cuba by military personnel returning from Africa in the late eighties and early nineties (Cooper, Kennely, and Ordunez-Garcia 2206, 821).1 The first case was diagnosed in 1985. The government came up with different strategies to prevent and combat AIDS. One of the most widely criticized plans began with the arrival of the disease and lasted until 1993 (Sweig 2009, 146). After a mandatory test, people infected with HIV were quarantined in special health facilities, where they received medical treatment in complete isolation from the outside world. A vast array of cultural production has focused on this particular form of seclusion of those suffering from the pandemic. Foremost in this production are the testimonies, memoirs, and short stories written by the patients themselves. A quasi-paradoxical characteristic of the health facilities, as the recent film Boleto al paraiso (Ticket to Paradise) shows, is that although the patients were confined, their living conditions were much better than those of the average citizen. In a period characterized by the shortage of food and the deterioration of the material conditions of daily life, the AIDS sanatoriums seemed like a paradise. At least this is the premise of Boleto al paraiso, where a group of young friends without a clear future transmit AIDS to each other in the hopes of ending their lives in a state sanatorium. The scene of ritualistic bacchanalia in which the friends pass the virus to each other is one of the most revealing depictions of the era’s biopolitical medical discourse. The viewer’s gaze is directed toward the different moaning faces as the friends have sex with each other. The camera shows long slow close-ups of their faces lit with candles, composing a sacred space of sorts.
As bodies change and move, the spectator no longer knows who is who. The bodies lose their individual identity, becoming one and the same. One realizes that they have crossed the threshold that separates life from death. They have become expendable bodies that will be subjected to the incarcerating power of an institution that both makes them live and normalizes their life with a metaphoric discourse that qualifies the illness as a plague (Sontag 1989, 142).2
The medical practices and discourses identified AIDS victims as “risk groups,” a denomination whose military allusions—conveyed in words such as defense, attack, invasion, etc.—cast them as a threat to society (Son- tag 1989, 183). As we will see in this chapter, these types of normalizing
Boleto al paraiso (Gerardo Chijona, 2011). Candles.
Boleto al paraiso (Gerardo Chijona, 2011). Alejandro and Milena.
discourses, whose primary and paradoxical purpose was the administration and prolongation of life, became common in the cultural politics of the late eighties and nineties. Zarza’s drawing captures the biopolitical nature of power discourses, an institutional rhetoric to keep alive those who are biologically dead. Biopolitical power is still present in our contemporary era. For instance, the daily column in Granma devoted to “Las reflexiones del companero Fidel” accounts for this gesture, too, albeit in a more metaphorical fashion. While decision-making power rests in the hands of Cuba’s current government presided over by Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s image and discourse still has a fundamental presence in the media. The prolongation
Boleto al paraiso (Gerardo Chijona, 2011). Alejandro and Lidia.
of his political life through mediatic power has been critical in preserving the socialist dream alive. When Fidel Castro’s health forced him to withdraw from the public sphere, the country’s anxious response made it very clear that a personalistic regime such as Cuba’s could not afford to lose the leader’s physical presence.
The uproar over the removal of the boy Elian Gonzalez from Miami, in the year 2000, was another sign of the deployment of biopolitical power. This effort was part of the “Battle of Ideas” campaign, inspired by Jose Marti’s affirmation in “Nuestra America” that “trincheras de ideas valen mas que trincheras de piedras” [Trenches of ideas are worth more than trenches of stones], simultaneously an affirmation of life and a rejection of antagonistic political positions (Marti 1997, 37). Fidel Castro introduced this campaign in December 1998, at the end of the seventh congress of the Union de Jovenes Comunistas de Cuba (UJC). Intended as a campaign for revolutionary achievements and values, the “Batalla de Ideas” began during the international conflict with the United States that sought to have Elian Gonzalez returned to Cuba. The aim, according to the government, was to deepen political consciousness among workers and young people. Symbolically, the fight for the child was a surrogate for the recovery of the body of the nation. Once Elian was won back by Cuba, he was given the same economic and social privileges of the apparatchik class, an effort to show that Cuba could also offer its citizens a prosperous and successful life. He was then made into a government media star, a leader of the Pioneers Movement, and the herald of revolutionary principles as he progressed through his military career. This is one the best examples of a power that exerts itself around the principle of life and that desubjectivates individuals by measuring life by its utility and its value, and not for itself (Foucault 1990, 144).