Love Among the Ruins

The Fallen

by Carlos Manuel Álvarez, translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
Graywolf, 143 pp., $16.00 (paper)
Workers repairing a colonial palace in Old Havana, 2007
Dario De Dominicis/LUZ/Redux
Workers repairing a colonial palace in Old Havana, 2007

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…

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