This week marks the release of Cubanthropy: Two Futures That Happened While You Were Busy Thinking by Cuban art critic and curator Iván de la Nuez, translated from Spanish by Ellen Jones. To celebrate, we're excited to share with you an excerpt from the book, taken from its first chapter. In this sparkling collection of cultural criticism, Iván de la Nuez explores the effects of the policies that have tried to constrain or liberate Cuba in recent decades. These essays cover not only Cuban politics and culture, and that of the Cuban diaspora, but also racism and Big Data, Guantánamo and Reggaeton, soccer and baseball, Obama and the Rolling Stones, Europe and Donald Trump, and more. In doing so, de la Nuez approaches his criticism with singularity of purpose. He does not set out to explain Cuba to the world, but rather to put the world into a Cuban context.
EXCERPT FROM CUBANTHROPY: TWO FUTURES THAT HAPPENED WHILE YOU WERE BUSY THINKING
BY IVÁN DE LA NUEZ, TRANSLATED BY ELLEN JONES
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA: 1990-1991
It starts with the suspension of the Cold War, and Cubans at the center of the conflict.
It starts with the ageing New Left invoking the sixties in order to demonstrate the rightness of Cuba choosing to go it alone outside the Soviet Bloc, and with the sprightly New Right rejecting the sixties in order to emphasize their victory over communism.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea . . .
In 1989, the old revolutionary guard looks back to the sixties to recover Cuba’s glory days.
In 1989, the new conservative guard looks back to the sixties to bad-mouth North American decadence.
It starts with Reagan and Bush Senior proclaiming their victory over communism and with the United States shaken up by a sense of catharsis that had to be contained as quickly as possible.
Daniel Bell believed that modern excesses had inverted the famous eighteenth-century motto: private vices, public virtues. This “most brilliant of conservatives,” according to Habermas, was persuaded that in the United States, thanks to the sixties, vices had become public and virtues—hampered by the prevailing way of life—had become private.
On the basis of this conviction, not just Bell but also Kramer, Podhoretz, Kirkpatrick, Novak, and Showell, along with other neoconservative think tanks, managed to pull together the cultural strategy of neoliberalism. For them, if social modesty had led capitalism to hide behind the skirts of the Welfare State, now the time had come for it to show its face: to insist, with no beating about the bush, that the problem wasn’t that the system had failed but rather that it had been an “overwhelming success.” And if the sixties had brought the national agenda into question, it was now time to banish all doubt once and for all. To which end, the New Right were kind enough to reconstruct the genealogy of the conservative tradition, rescuing the lost aura of the elite, dusting off Adam Smith, and harking back to the golden years of Philadelphia.
In case that wasn’t enough ammunition, there was always Reagan to confirm that leadership was indispensable; Milton Friedman to give credence to the idea that the market was invincible, and Bell himself to argue that a return of the protestant ethic was inevitable.
All agreed on the harmful impact of hedonism on capitalist competition. And between them they tilled the authoritarian soil of the “neoconservative revolution” that commended Jesse Helms and his Moral Majority against internal threats as much as Chuck Norris and his lethal minority against external enemies.
The neoconservatives longed for an imperial culture gone astray, and the communist hecatomb served them their lost grandeur on a silver platter once again. It was a return that would allow them, meanwhile, to adapt the old Monroe Doctrine of 1823—which prohibited the intervention of European powers in the internal affairs of countries in the American hemisphere—to the brand-new global era.
This time, not only the American continent but the whole world would be “for Americans."
Cubans have danced to this music since 1959. They have been in the very nucleus—rather than on the periphery—of a Cold War constant that has condemned them to live in an anti-project. In such a way that, once the Berlin Wall came down, the island elite also felt obliged to replenish their symbolic arsenal in order to survive the Friendly Empire and stand alone against the Enemy Empire. And to achieve this, the best thing was to reinforce the connection between National Identity and Anti-Imperialism. Or to resuscitate, in the post-Soviet world, the initial halo of a revolution that was once young, original, and also—it’s worth reminding the colonial souls among us—Western.
This resolve was anchored in an irrefutable truth: Cuba’s short march through history has almost always been out of step. Although the island achieved its independence at the end of the nineteenth century, several decades after most other Spanish colonies, by the middle of the twentieth century it mounted the hemisphere’s first socialist revolution. And although in 1989 the Soviet Empire collapsed along with its galaxy of “sibling countries,” nine thousand kilometers away Cuba was managing to survive as a communist country outside the defeated Bloc.
What was the explanation for the persistence of Cuba’s regime, alongside those of China, North Korea, and Vietnam? It was precisely that exceptional story, which contained enough signs that the country had never been just another star in the Soviet galaxy. In the nineteenth century, Cuban thinkers were busy insisting that Cuba wasn’t Cipango or Albion or Sicily. Now, heading into the twenty-first century, it was time to make clear it wasn’t Bulgaria or Romania or Albania either.
Just in case, Fidel Castro had already erected his tent on the outskirts of the perestroika. He called it the Process of Rectifying Errors and Negative Tendencies, and it was via this process that he redoubled the nationalization of the economy, revived a Che Guevara half-buried in the pro-Soviet era, and, now involved in processes of indoctrination, replaced the Russian language with English and replaced scientific communism with subjects that reinforced the authenticity of the Cuban model. Speaking of which, even certain magazines previously considered sympathetic to socialism (Sputnik or Novedades de Moscú, for instance) were declared subversive.
In Cuba—going it alone, disconnected from a world that had survived the fall of communism—the ecstasy of exceptionality reached its peak. For this reason, nationalist intellectuals came to the fore once more; whether they were Catholics—Cintio Vitier—or followers of Che Guevara—Fernando Martínez Heredia and other Pensamiento Crítico magazine editors and contributors—they had been suspicious during the Stalinist era. A few now dedicated themselves to the task of authenticating a Cuban tradition based on an amalgamation of the concepts of Identity, Homeland, and Revolution. It was all an exercise in cultural fortification against the global post-communist, multipolar world rising up threateningly across the sea.
With Soviet help diminishing, China not yet having reached its apogee, the conflict with the United States still ongoing (including Exile, Embargo, and the Guantánamo naval base), and the Bolivarian States yet to be born, in Cuba the nineties highlighted an exclusive—and exclusionary—pathos that rejected any knowledge opposed to the official line.
There was also, in theory, support for those in power to retain it under different circumstances. Because at the end of the day, we’re talking about power, not philosophy. To the extent that, during those years, I explained the national discourse of the Cuban Revolution by resorting to the figure of a piston: any space Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea that expands outward ends up getting compressed inward again. And the demands Cuba was making around the world for the right to diversity weren’t often met at a national level.
According to the official logic at the time, compared to the rest of the world, what made Cuba different was that it was revolutionary. That said, any kind of difference arising internally was considered counterrevolutionary. Depending on the case and the particular charges brought, difference might also be considered globalist, pro-imperialist, postmodern, neoconservative, or diversionary (I know of one that ticked all those boxes at the same time).
Exacerbating everything was the ongoing confrontation with the United States. Without that tension it’s impossible to understand Cuba’s symbolic dimensions: the image of the small state against the Great Empire. This conflict, more than its internal political model, is the fire that has fed the Cuban singularity, even in the most critical and extraordinary moments of its discourse. It is the principal attraction ensuring the continuity of the Revolution’s seminal imaginary, even long after it was institutionalized as a communist state.
If internal history had told us we were exceptional by tradition, the United States made us exceptional by obligation. If in Cuba there was only ever one election candidate, or the Beatles were banned, or men couldn’t have long hair, or post-structuralism was censored, or the government never changed, or we had strange allies, it was for one very clear reason: the powerful enemy opposite us.
Can anything be achieved between the hard, irreconcilable lines drawn on either side of the Gulf Stream? Every essay in this book examines that territory. That area that will never appear in the annals of Great Causes, but rather in the almost domestic sphere of small consequences. In the spaces where culture modestly achieves its goal of bringing official powers—whichever form they might take—under suspicion.
In that vein, there was the challenge posed by the new culture led by the sons of the Revolution, by that New Man outlined by El Che, who, as the Cold War intensified, decided to try out his very own private glasnost.
There were a number of different projects operating in Cuba in 1990 that revealed this surprising irruption. And to be sure, the macro-political disagreement between the governments of Cuba and the United States didn’t help much. Just as would happen years later with artists from the Axis of Evil countries delimited by George W. Bush, in the era of Bush Senior one was always at risk of being crushed between two dogmatisms.
Even so, it fell to those new intellectuals to reinscribe the country into Western culture after years of the Soviet model, apparent or covert, a process facilitated by the fact that communism in Eastern Europe was to pass away.
The problem is that the Cuban government was not prepared for this ideological, aesthetic, and political avalanche that strained the foundations of its cultural policy: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.”
Despite it all, the arrival on the scene of the baby boomer generation triggered by that same Revolution was inevitable. Osvaldo Sánchez called them “the children of Utopia”—the only ones who had never known anything but the socialist experiment. They wouldn’t be, as Alejo Carpentier predicted of his generation in the thirties, “the classics of a new world,” but they were the perfect symbol of the Cuban model’s advancing years.
And the thing is, despite the US embargo and the collapse of the Communist Bloc—the usual explanations for the island’s catastrophes—it’s the rupture caused by this movement that Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea allows us to decipher the irrevocable meaning of the subsequent Cuban crisis. In the fact that the children of socialism were to find, one day, that the Revolution had turned into the State, that the capital-E Enemy was also allowing (as in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) an authoritarian hierarchy to crush even the slightest attempt to change from within, that the ideology had acquired the status of a fundamental (and fundamentalist) commodity of the system, and that every Cuban family was uprooted: with a doctor in Moscow (not Zhivago, mind you), a martyr in Africa, a lost relative in Miami, and—the most perfect metaphor for their existence—a refugee adrift in the Gulf Stream.
The most notable change, and the most feared, was in the visual arts, which were used to impose trends and establish leadership, all with a shrewd eye for communicating cultural messages. So, for instance, when the street art group Arte Calle flooded the city with graffiti, announcing “the concert’s happening,” they weren’t betting on the spectacle actually happening, but rather on the spectacle of it not happening. Their message relied not on their followers’ complacency, but rather on their insatiability.
In contrast to the catharsis stopped short by the neoconservatives with which this chapter began, when the Berlin Wall came down, we found no dissolving of culture into politics in Cuba (a common complaint from the new censors in the United States). On the contrary, it was the practical and rhetorical uses of politics that colonized the cultural movement, and indeed other areas of society. Whether down the transcendental road of the sixties, or via the laudatory reproduction of the Soviet model applied in the seventies, what is clear is that the following years saw culture harassed by the same trans-political universe.
Would we ever be able to effectively dismantle either world?
This was, in good part, the question that emerging intellectuals and artists were asking at the end of the twentieth century in Cuba: whether Cuban culture was to arrive, by means of its institutions, at a democratic synthesis that assumed plurality, or whether each of us was to set out on our own expedition toward definitive dissolution.
Perhaps it was too soon to abandon socialism, but too late to return to the Revolution.
IVÁN DE LA NUEZ is an essayist, a critic, and an art curator. In 1995, he received the Rockefeller Fellowship for the Humanities. He has written art and literary criticism in numerous media, such as El País and the cultural magazine, La Maleta de Portbou. He has been director of the Center for the Image of Barcelona, La Virreina, as well as curator of several highly relevant exhibitions. Author of different anthologies, such as Cuba: The PossibleIsland (1995), Landscapes After the Wall (1999) or Cuba and the Day After (2001), his essays "The Perpetual Raft" (1998) and "Red Fantasy" (2006) have achieved a great reception amongst the critics and the public, and they have been translated into several languages.