And the patriarch lost his first crop
to weeds, threw a rod in the tractor,
dug a basement and moved the trailer on
for extra bedrooms, cut the water lines
for a ditch, subdivided the farm
and sold the pigs for sausage. I told John
they were his, they were no longer mine,
I couldn’t be responsible.
The wire connecting our voices was silent
for a moment. “You stupid sonofabitch,” was all
he finally said. “You poor stupid bastard.”
David Lee, “The Farm”
It is the 2016th year of our lord and the curvy lady hails a ‘55 Chevy Belair Machina on Calle Neptuno. It rumbles and putts black soot. She has finished her day’s work at the ministry. She is the Socialist Man, a willful and content cog in the great machine. But does she feel deeply any injustice, committed anywhere? Does she see the forest and not the tree? Does she comprehend the evil in this world? Does she feel it may be vanquished? Does she understand her social duty? Does she know she must sacrifice? The woman is a silhouette in the twilight, she and the American car of the old world an afterglow of the dream.
And if in this dream we find corporeal Havana, the lived aesthetic, then in the ubiquitous Alberto Korda photograph of Che Guevara, ideological godfather to Cuban socialism, amigo to Fidel himself, we find the platonic and divine ideal. Che: the doctor and the executioner, the fighter and the sex machine, the hard-line commie and the vagabond, the banker and the poet, the man deemed by Jean Paul Sartre to be “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.” Since his death, Che has come to exist in the heroic domain, but even in life he knew himself in historical terms. As he prepared to enter a doomed war against western-backed leaders in the Congo, he wrote:
I wish to say, at the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality. This is perhaps one of the greatest dramas of a leader; he must combine an impassioned spirit with a cold mind and make painful decisions without flinching one muscle. Our vanguard revolutionaries must idealize their love of the people, for the most sacred causes, and make it one and indivisible. They cannot descend, with small doses of daily affection, to the places where ordinary men put their love into practice.
Che had a dream, and its realization was contingent on the education and basic re-forming of man itself. Morality would be its own incentive. Transcending the newly conscious individual, who would “readily pay his or her quota of sacrifice,” the socialist dream would live on. Transcending even the nation of Cuba, itself at the vanguard, whose fate might easily have rested in nuclear annihilation (a risk which both Che and Fidel, on its behalf, made clear they were willing to take) for its misdeeds against the corrosive and enslaving forces of imperialism, the moral “satisfaction of fulfilling a duty” would be enough.
I flew from Boston to Cuba, a journey made possible by the belated new policy of the Obama administration, in the wee morning hours after the American election. My Uber driver shook his head as Trump’s acceptance speech turned to static in the tunnel to Logan International. “I don’t even blame him,” he said. He kept repeating it. He was a large man, probably half black. His voice was deep. “I don’t even blame him. He ran a campaign on bigotry, and that’s what people wanted.”
And then, still in a daze and literally ill, I was teleported and all of the sudden – (oooweee) – Havana, where the balls on even the little doggies hang low, and uniformed high school couples cop feels on the park bench, and the manly men scrub their Vespas, and the children whack a bound-rag with a baseball bat, and the reggaetón rumbles, and the saggy-eyed women take it in from the stoop (and the edgy ones sip on three year Havana Club rum from old plastic water bottles), and churros are 5 pesos, no extra charge for the leche.
Some billboards in Havana say “Embargo: The longest genocide in history,” and they depict the island in a noose. Others say “health for all” on a sky-blue background and they render the flag into a heart. Near the Bay of Pigs, a lorry driver learns things like this is the furthest the mercenaries got, or this is where Fidel fired from the tank, or this is how many years into the revolution we are. In 2016 the number was 58.
Fidel once said that elections were not necessary because his ascendancy meant the people were in power. That was 1959, shortly after the revolution, and the people roared in approval in the Revolutionary Square. When he died in November, college students marched en masse to the same Revolutionary Square, chanting “I am Fidel, I am Fidel.” Even graffiti, typically reserved for political subversion, colored the city: “Yo Soy Fidel.” And, all the while, the first commercial flight from the US to Havana in half a century touched town at Jose Marti airport.
Cuba ranks 171st in the world on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index (The United States ranks 41st). Monolithic state run media and repression of dissident bloggers and slow and expensive state internet are among the culprits. The woman I lived with in Central Havana told me that in her opinion, anyone who protests the government does so not out of genuine conviction, but out of greed for the kickbacks they surely receive from the Miami Cubans (whose dastardly nature was confirmed by reports of people dancing in the streets of Miami-day after Fidel’s death). She also said that literally every problem of the Cuban state was traceable to the U.S. embargo. It’s worth noting that Barack Obama told Jon Lee Anderson, who wrote an excellent biography of Che, that his Cuba policy is designed “not to take America out of the equation but to remove it as an excuse for Cuba feeling trapped in its past.”
It’s inspiring to read about people like Che, who took the world by the horns, who were individually consequential, and knew it, too. They make you wanna stop fucking around. You learn about them and you go home feeling like you have some agency in the scheme.
And yet you also wonder about Che, vanguard revolutionary, with his historical self-consciousness, with his disdain for the moderate, with his fatalism and his epic eschatology of global political revolution – what was life like for him at the day-to-day level?
His beloved mother wrote to him after the Cuban revolution: “do my letters sound odd to you? I don’t know if we’ve lost the natural way of talking used to have, or whether we never did have it.” And the letter ends, “yes you’ll always be a foreigner. That seems to be your destiny forever.”
Che wanted to export the revolution to his home country of Argentina, and it was largely this ambition that brought him to Bolivia. Upon his capture by the Bolivian military, Che was said, perhaps apocryphally, to have told his executioner “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, you are only going to kill a man.” He thought the revolution would continue. He thought the vision would be realized. It was bigger than him, and it did not need him any longer. He never did go home.
And now, as the United States inauguration approaches, and we feel not just as individuals but as a nation or even as a world that dark wind rising towards us from somewhere (perhaps not so deep) in our collective future, we grasp for visions. We listen to our departing president, who has always, as David Remnick puts it, taken “the long view,” who has said that “at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.” The message feels almost radical now, as he hands the job off to a depraved and cynical man who is pathologically convinced of his own personal greatness.
Barack Obama, reader and writer, student of the American tradition, says that the revolution has already occurred. He says that the groundwork is not in fact rotten but sound, and will remain thus so long as we keep our own cynicisms at bay. He tells us what feels woo-woo and trite in this cynical age, things we’ve heard before, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice if we try.
And what he tells us finally, is that he can and will descend proudly to the realm of the ordinary men, because this is where meaning has matter, and this is where revolution has substance, and this is where sacred causes have grounding because it’s the level at which life is lived, and here, as part of the motley society he has presided over for eight years, quietly working to get his paragraph right, he will put his love into a hopeful practice.