I read the books Armando gave me, the book of stories about Che Guevara that tells how Che refused the gift of a bicycle for his daughter, because bicycles belong to the State, to the People, not to any particular individual.
I asked Armando why, if bicycles were for everyone and not for individuals, they made bicycles for individuals to ride? Why didn’t they make a gigantic bicycle that we could all get on and pedal together, millions of pedals moving at the same time, all riding in the same direction?
—Carlos Manuel Álvarez, The Fallen
Emigrating doesn’t just offer you the chance to find a better future—it also allows you to choose the past that you like the most.
—Enrique Del Risco, Turcos en la niebla (The Disoriented Ones)
Anyone who lives under the sign of things Cuban—as a national on the island, an exile in the diaspora, or (like me) an American-born descendant of Cubans—knows what it’s like to contend with the persistent scrutiny of one’s political views by both Cubans and non-Cubans. On the far side of the Florida Strait, there is an authoritarian state from which thousands have fled and that punishes any expression of nonconformity; a recent article in The New York Times noted that the Cuban judiciary convicts nearly four thousand people annually on the charge of “social dangerousness,” the catch-all term used to imprison political opponents who have not committed any crimes but are considered a threat to the regime. But the peculiarly psychological character of Cuba’s state violence (which is quite different from the mass disappearances and genocidal campaigns that have scarred other Latin American countries) coupled with the island’s celebrated subsidy of health services and education make for a social reality that is often difficult for outsiders to comprehend.
Cuba is a land marked by poverty but devoid of squalor, with a state that acts in the name of its people while stripping them of their civil rights. (I’ll leave to tenured Marxists the tired debate over whether meager food rations and declining medical and education services are more important than freedom of speech and assembly.) In my three decades of research on Cuba, I have encountered many foreigners who question whether a poor country that boasts such an abundance of erudite people can be truly repressive, as if wealth and civil liberties were required for intelligence to thrive. They are equally perplexed to find that Cuba’s citizens can be both demonstrative and guarded, and they often fail to realize that flamboyant cultural spectacle is less a sign of freedom than a cleverly orchestrated masking of material scarcity.
A fetishized version of the Cuban Revolution as a triumphant counterpoint to global capitalism—the state’s most powerful intangible commodity—continues to cast its spell on outsiders, while few Cubans would risk ascribing this attraction to political naiveté. The fixation of many around the world on Fidel Castro as a third-world hero, their morbid fascination with once-splendid Havana’s current state of ruin, the stubborn desire of some intellectuals to hold onto their visions of a tropical socialist utopia, the lurid attraction of sex tourism, and the tantalizing promise of a new territory for speculators all tend to make serious conversation about Cuban culture and experience challenging, to say the least.
Even the more knowledgeable foreigners who engage regularly with Cuba—as arts professionals, philanthropists, professors, and journalists—like our opinions to be measured and our cultural expressions to be exotic. Meanwhile, hardline Republicans seeking to nail down electoral votes in Florida court well-heeled Cuban-exile politicians and businessmen, and distance themselves from the fact that some of the bomb-wielding extremists of yore were trained and financed by the CIA. Wily street hustlers from Cuba, octogenarian musical virtuosos, part-time sex workers with college degrees, hipster artists peddling arcane political metaphors, and cultural orphans longing for a lost paradise—these have all done well as cultural exports, but their success suggests that Cubans must produce otherness in order to be seen on the world stage.
The Cuban milieu offers no respite from this prison-house of identity: the revolutionary state’s notorious capacity to exact demonstrations of loyalty is often mirrored by exile pundits in the US who demand that any Cuban who sets foot on American soil publicly reject the Cuban government in exchange for social acceptability.1 Nowadays they resort to social media shaming of those suspected of kowtowing to the Castros, but during my childhood, émigrés who favored rapprochement were targeted for assassination.2 Even in the 1980s, when I first published journalistic reports about Cuban cultural events, my mother received menacing phone calls from exiles purporting to be linked to Alpha 66,3 telling her that I should spend some time in Cuban jails to get a better handle on reality, while I amassed hate mail from die-hard Cuba supporters claiming that my criticisms of the system would imperil the revolution.
In the past twenty years the makeup of Cuban society and the ways Cubans reflect on it have changed greatly. The historic generation of those who made the revolution and those who fought against it is dying out. Their combative and isolationist worldview is utterly foreign to most Cubans raised in the post-Soviet era, as are the romantic accounts of revolutionary struggles and martyrs that once dominated official culture. The Cuban government continues to levy wild accusations at its more outspoken citizens, accusing them of having ties to the CIA if they receive money from abroad or maintain relations with foreigners, but nonetheless hundreds of thousands of island residents line up at Western Union offices these days to pick up their remittances from family and friends abroad, and choose to watch pirated American TV shows over Cuban state television. Scores of independent artists and writers circumvent state control of culture by launching crowdfunding campaigns and distributing their banned works online.
Whereas a tiny minority of the children of exiles dared to defy their parents and visit the island by joining the militant Antonio Maceo Brigade in the 1970s,4 a surprising number of Cuban-Americans now turn to nonprofits that specialize in packaging sentiment, jetting off to “home-stays” in search of their roots. The draconian restrictions on travel that islanders once endured were relaxed in 2013, allowing thousands of Cubans to spend time abroad without emigrating, provided they could secure visas and financing. Meanwhile, more than 270 dissident intellectuals and activists have been grounded in the past year because the government has decided their public statements about living conditions and human rights violations in Cuba constitute a threat to national security.
Cuban diaspora communities are now dispersed across Europe, Canada, and Latin America as well as numerous cities in the US that have accepted refugees since the 1980s—and more movement to and from the island has made those communities more porous. More than 57,000 Cubans from the diaspora have requested repatriation since 2013, something that was unthinkable in my youth. Not surprisingly, this increase in mobility has generated suspicion among exiles that some Cubans may be requesting asylum in the US based on false claims of persecution, in order to gain access to American benefits—like Social Security—that they then spend during extended stays back on the island; many exiles also resent that island-based academics and entertainers representing Cuban state interests may enter the US freely. But diaspora communities have become less politically and socially homogeneous than they once were. The majority of Cubans in the US emigrated since the 1990s, and they don’t look, think, or act like the first-wave exiles of the 1960s (many of whom are now trying to sue the Cuban government over their families’ confiscated properties).5 While they do not all express their political will by voting in US elections, many do make a political choice, returning to the island (and sending billions of dollars annually in remittances and investing in small businesses) despite their dislike of the Cuban government.
Perhaps most important culturally is the way new technologies have transformed how Cubans communicate with one another. Once upon a time, I had to wait for an operator to place a call for me in the middle of the night in order to exchange a few guarded words with friends in Cuba who sounded like they were on the moon. Dissident writers scrambled for ways to smuggle their manuscripts out of the country. Now, Cubans around the world chat on Facebook, publish literature and journalism online that is highly critical of the regime, exchange videos on YouTube, and form discussion groups on WhatsApp. The island’s government restricts access to the Internet and surveys usage, but the growing presence of smartphones and expanding Wi-Fi coverage have completely changed the way Cubans consume information.
Digital technology has also enabled them—albeit illegally—to produce alternative news programs, to tweet aggressively at politicians, and to participate in community-based activism. None of this pleases Cuban authorities, but the millions of dollars that the state reaps from its telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA, would vanish if those services were withdrawn. Cuban laws regarding enemy propaganda have not yet fully evolved to address the existence of online media. The state boasts a cadre of pro-government bloggers and trolls, but their efforts are easily detected and rhetorically weak. Vice-Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas, widely reviled for spearheading efforts to limit artistic expression, recently made himself look foolish on Twitter by challenging his critics to fistfights.
Measures taken by the Trump administration to intensify the economic embargo against Cuba and limit travel to the island may have put a damper on the hopes of many for normalized relations between our two countries—and given hard-liners in the Cuban government the perfect rationale for stepping up their persecution of nonconformists—but younger generations of Cubans refuse to curb their boldness on social media or in print. Two novels published in the past year, Carlos Manuel Álvarez’s The Fallen6 and Enrique Del Risco’s Turcos en la niebla7 (The Disoriented Ones), exemplify this resolve. The Fallen is translated into English with great precision by Frank Wynne. Del Risco’s novel has not yet been translated, but it should be, if for no other reason than to encourage Cuba-philes who don’t speak Spanish to stop fantasizing about Che Guevara and Fidel and pay attention to how American and Cuban politics shape Cubans’ lives. These writers are not just critical of their elders and the world they created; they are also quite ironic about the sanctimonious attitudes of the Cuban government’s opponents and the bewildering complacency of their compatriots.
Although they both convey the sense that the revolution failed, they don’t dwell on the causes of its implosion or on blaming its leadership, but rather on the travails and self-delusions of ordinary Cubans. Álvarez refers to his characters as casualties of a battle, whereas Del Risco’s are befuddled outsiders. Both writers suggest that after six decades of upheaval, abjection defines Cuban existence more than resistance to adversity. As one of Álvarez’s characters puts it, “I also realized that there was nothing better than not knowing, than not naming, not speaking, not explaining, not being able to. I slept peacefully at night, sheltered by the sickness.”
The authors concentrate on different groups—Álvarez on island residents and Del Risco on émigrés. They also hail from different postrevolutionary generations. Álvarez just turned thirty-one, and he shuttles back and forth between Havana and Mexico City. In 2016 he cofounded a startlingly trenchant online magazine of new journalism about Cuba called El Estornudo (The Sneeze). He also wrote an award-winning book of short stories and a collection of essays before finishing The Fallen, and has been named one of Latin America’s most promising young writers by the Guadalajara Book Fair and Colombia’s Bogotá39.
Del Risco emigrated to Spain in 1995 at the age of twenty-eight. In 1997 he relocated to West New York, New Jersey, also known as Havana on the Hudson for its large community of émigrés, and now teaches Spanish at NYU and maintains a vibrant presence on social media as a witty blogger about Cuban affairs. He is a political humorist who has published a short story collection, two volumes of satirical essays, and a memoir about his years in Spain, in addition to having edited an impressive compendium of texts by Cubans about their unsavory exchanges with state security agents.8 He was awarded the 2019 Fernando Quiñones Unicaja Prize for Turcos en la niebla in Spain, a notable achievement for a novel set in an immigrant community outside the Iberian sphere.
Intriguingly, the two novels mirror each other in their structure, both being divided into four interior monologues. In both books, the characters’ stories occasionally intertwine to create something of a Rashomon effect, as new details about events emerge from different perspectives. But the books differ greatly in tone and scale. Álvarez’s The Fallen is a relatively short novel whose story spans a brief period in the life of a small family in a small town near a sprawling tourist complex: an impertinent teenage son who is about to finish his military service; a dullard of a father who clings to his faith in the revolution and is on the verge of losing his job; a resigned mother who was once a dedicated teacher and now suffers from epileptic seizures brought on by chemotherapy; and a pragmatic daughter who supports the family by stealing from the hotel where she works. Their memories are rooted in the Special Period of the 1990s, when Soviet subsidies disappeared, the island’s economy tanked, and the revolution lost its ideological direction.
Although Álvarez’s characters deal with their poverty without wallowing in sorrow, he doesn’t attempt to romanticize them by suggesting that their hardships dignify them. When the son complains that he was deprived of toys and a TV as a child, for example, he wonders why his mother didn’t just divorce his father for being such a lousy provider. When the father denies to his superiors that his daughter is part of a ring of thieves at the very hotel that he manages, it is because he is blinded by his idealism about the revolution, not because he wants to shield her from punishment. Álvarez’s prose is terse, which is uncharacteristic of Cuban fiction, and often bleak. He casts a rather cold eye on the parents’ decline and the children’s moral failings. The mother describes her husband, for example, as being “so slow that his every action already contains within it its own repetition.” And in a blistering dissection of the revolution’s practice of awarding coveted commodities on the basis of exemplary conduct, the daughter recounts how the prospect of owning a television causes neighbors to attack one another and invent histories of hardship in order to seem more deserving.
Del Risco’s Turcos en la niebla, on the other hand, is a satirical epic that runs to more than 450 pages, with a story that stretches back to the early years of the revolution and extends to Obama’s 2015 visit to Cuba and Trump’s election. Living mostly in West New York, the book’s main characters are Wonder, a handyman whose sister is a celebrity artist who reacts to being evicted from his carpentry workshop by going on Facebook Live to tell his life story while brandishing a gun; British, an aesthete with a fabricated art history degree who wishes he weren’t Cuban (hence the nickname) and who is also an incorrigible womanizer; Alejandra, a divorcée psychologist who fled from Argentina to Havana in the 1970s with her leftist mother and who drifts from lover to lover while struggling with multiple cases of child abuse in her clinical practice; and Eltico, a resourceful Marielito (an émigré who came over in the 1980 Mariel boatlift) with a big heart who knows everything about every Cuban who ever settled in New Jersey but can’t bring himself to tell his young son that his mother is dead.
Exiles from every generation and every political persuasion find their way into Del Risco’s tale. Fidel Castro is invoked as a joke and a curse: British thinks of him to postpone ejaculation during his many sexual exploits, while the psychologist finds herself under threat from the parent of one of her patients, who proudly calls himself Fidel Castro while denying that he abuses his daughter. Although it’s not uncommon for immigrants to reinvent themselves in a new country—as a survival strategy or an escape from an unwanted past—Del Risco adds layers of irony to the usual plot twists of forged identities: characters find out as adults that their parents are not as politically pure as they had thought, presumed former enemies turn out to disappoint their wannabe assassins, and secret missions to “liberate Cuba” turn out to be ventures in human trafficking.
Del Risco’s style is at once sardonic and affectionate—you can tell that he loves his characters in spite of their weaknesses, especially when their antics are most revealing of their irrationality. With a language that is rich in Cuban argot but not at all dense, he captures Cubans’ profound resentment of the revolution’s obsession with mind control, as well as their penchant for pranks and irreverent cracks at everyone’s expense, including their own. “Don’t you know the joke about Cubans, that they are all bilingual because in addition to speaking Spanish they all talk shit?” says Wonder’s sister with a smile when she tries to convince homeowners in West New York to place toilets in their front yards so that everyone will know they are Cuban.
The characters in Turcos en la niebla like to be in America; however, unlike the characters in classic immigrant stories who strive to succeed in a new land, they don’t seem very interested in assimilating. Del Risco devises comic scenarios that highlight exactly what Cubans find odd about Americans, despite their longstanding familiarity with American culture. When British makes one of his American girlfriends cry by giving unsatisfactory answers to her questions about “their relationship,” he flippantly suggests that they marry in order to calm her down, and then comments to himself:
I’ve never understood American women’s relationship with marriage, which is to say, with the implied promise of a future. Getting married in Cuba is rather insignificant. It’s like getting a divorce or having an abortion. Just a procedure. But here, it’s as if it were magic.
And when Wonder, the evicted handyman, imagines his imminent encounter with the police, he tells himself:
But I will screw them over because before I put a few in front of me [as human shields] I am going to talk. And I am going to do it in Spanish. Not only because I will feel more comfortable. Also, to give myself time. If I speak in English, someone will alert the FBI right away. Or an automatic sensor that can detect communication containing terrorist threats will go off. The SWAT team would be here in ten minutes. No. I want to talk until dawn. I don’t want them to imprison me, I want them to kill me while the sun shines in my face, so that I die the way Martí did.
As someone whose personal and professional life has been shaped by cold war tensions between Cuba and the US, I find it both a pleasure and a relief to see the experience of a politically manipulated and misunderstood people depicted with such intelligence and clarity of vision. Álvarez and Del Risco each elaborate an extended metaphor that captures the essence of our people’s dilemma. Álvarez slips what at first seem like innocent stories about eggs and chicken into his novel; both foods are among the few sources of protein that ordinary Cubans can access. The father proudly recalls how his daughter learned as a child to consume her one fried egg slowly and savor each grain of rice on her plate. Things take an unexpected turn when the mother remembers how she and her husband rejoiced when she received a bit of chicken as a gift from the grateful parent of one of her students during the austere years of the Special Period, only to discover that their children didn’t want to eat it because they were unaccustomed to the taste of flesh. By the end of the novel, chicken is no longer simply emblematic of the hunger for more than islanders can have, it is a symbol of what they have become—confined animals.
Del Risco seems to comment on his own attempt to capture the aspirations and folly of his fellow exiles through British’s musings about the Hudson River School of painting. Those artists’ pristine landscapes were romanticized renderings of a wilderness that was quickly disappearing. Del Risco’s characters are hardly perfect, but their loyalty to their friends remains intact while their homeland is collapsing and their neighborhoods are being changed by new waves of immigrants from Central America. His raucous and lovable Cubans can maintain a coherent idea of their country only through the stories they tell one another. Both authors offer extraordinarily pointed and poignant commentary on one of the twentieth century’s most calamitous social experiments, and on the inheritors of its ruins.
While many public figures in Miami have demanded this kind of loyalty, the best-known influencer is the musician Alex Otaola, who has attacked Cuban musicians he claims are loyal to the regime. He hosts a daily program on YouTube. ↩
Ann Louise Bardach provides an excellent account of these hostilities in Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana (Random House, 2002). ↩
Alpha 66 is an anti-Castro paramilitary operation based in the southern United States, especially Florida; it was most active in the 1970s and 1980s. ↩
For more information, see Cincentaicinco Hermanos (55 Brothers, 1978), a documentary by Jesus Diaz about the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a group of militant young Cuban exiles who returned to Cuba in 1977. ↩
They are taking advantage of the Trump administration’s activation of a provision in a 1996 law that permits them to sue the Cuban government. ↩
The Fallen was published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo last September; the US edition, published by Graywolf, will be released in June. ↩
The title translates literally as “Turks in the Fog,” but it is a variation on an Argentine expression, “como turco en la neblina,” meaning a disoriented person. ↩
El compañero que me atiende (The Comrade Who Attends to Me) (Editorial Hypermedia, 2017). ↩