The Rebel Rock Stars

What does it mean to a people to have metal guitarists as leaders? Camilo could be the 5th Beatle in the Hey Jude photoshoot – or he could have replaced the beardless Paul…

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Or perhaps he could have strummed country metal riffs with Lynrd Skynrd. Could he perhaps have added guitars to Tommy Iommi with the Sabs at the time of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath?

Sabs

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Quite a band – anticipating the 70s image by nearly a decade.

This is an often overlooked attribute of the revolutionary movement back in the 50s. Ginsberg’s beard had not yet grown bushy, but by the end of the 50s an unfettered, counterculture wildness had grown powerful in the US. The Beats are certainly evoked by the Cuban rebels, something reflected in the rousing and rhetoric-filled article of Herbert Matthews in 1957 following his clandestine rendezvous with Castro in the Sierra Maestra (and which began the lengthy controversy over whether he had depicted Castro as a modern-day Robin Hood – see Antony DePalma’s The Man who Invented Fidel Castro). This was the same year that Ginsberg’s HOWL was printed in the UK and was seized in the US on grounds of obscenity. September, 1957, saw the first publication of Kerouac’s On the Road. A spirit of non-conformity, Whitman-esque nature-roaming and rock n’ roll was rising in the sap of the US. This was precisely the spirit that Castro (initially via Matthews) tapped into in the early days of the Revolution.

How does one reconcile the paradox of rebellion and conformity? This is a permanent state of confusion at the heart of Cuban culture. ‘O pueblo mío insurrecto’ sings the voice of Nancy Morejón in one of her poems. The pueblo is insurrecto but the individual cannot be. Or can be only along the lines of the official insurrectionary attitude. A quote seen in many public offices and on street murals is of Salvador Allende: “Ser joven y no ser revolucionario es una contradicción hasta biológica”. Wonderful sentiment – wonderful line – difficult to enact within a state structure that determines what is deemed the acceptable revolutionary and what is deemed revolutionary against the revolution – hence counter-revolution.

The relationship between Western counter-culture and Cuba is a fascinating, and again confusing, history.

Support for the Revolution has been an act of non-alignment with western hegemony for decades.

In the year 2000, Fidel Castro himself inaugurated a statue of John Lennon in Vedado, Havana – in a park now called Parque Lennon.

Todo cambia – said the park warden – todo cambia. When one imagines that in the 60s the music of the Beatles was suppressed (not necessarily prohibited) owing to its decadent western sentiment. Todo cambia – this is a beautiful remark by the park warden (especially seeing as he’s probably said it a thousand times since taking the role of guarding the round spectacles that were constantly being swiped from Lennon’s face). Todo cambia could probably be the title for a (another) biography of Castro. Todo cambia being a reflection of his astonishingly canny ability to remain constant to some things and to adapt to others with a style of adaptation that makes it seem that he had always had that perspective. Think how he declared the Revolution a socialist one only after Playa Girón, yet made it out to have always been a socialist one – even right back to the wars of independence of the 19th C. This, despite the fact that Martí was sceptical of the rise of socialist ideas before the turn of the century. Castro’s homage to Lennon, and Alarcón’s references to Lennon’s persecution at the hands of the FBI and CIA, nine years ago, can be seen either as a splendid process of evolution, adaptation and reconciliation – or can be seen as a good PR stunt. Well, the two are the same. PR is about showing a particular image, and that is precisely what Castro has done since July 1953. He has constantly been a master of the image – something I address in the article about Lezama and the Revolution.

Are such things paradoxes and contradictions, or are they simply aspects of a complex and mutable political society? Parque Lennon is a 5-min walk from the statue of Martin Luther King on Calle 23. Two campaigners for peace celebrated in a land that still praises ‘TRABAJO, ESTUDIO, FUSIL’ (work, study, gun).

There’s even a political t-shirt that I’ve seen folk wearing with Che and Lennon side by side. What does it mean to have Fidel claim that he, like Lennon, has always been a dreamer? What does it mean to have Lennon sharing a t-shirt with Che? Lennon who declared the war was over as a means of having the war declared over – Che who declared that a revolution without guns is madness. If Ghandi, Lennon and Dr. King are revered alongside Che and Fidel – is there a discord? Allen Ginsberg,

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meanwhile, declared that:

America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I’m not sorry […] America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother Bloor made me cry I once saw Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have been a spy.

The strong leftwing sentiment of Ginsberg’s poem at once accords with the Cuba of 3 years after its publication. Gentle and hopeful. So when Ginsberg visited Cuba as an officially invited judge of a Casa de las Américas literary award, he discovered that counter-culture in one society does not necessarily mean cultural support in a counter-cultural society. Emilio Bejel summarises the case:

And it was in 1965 that American writer and gay activist Allen Ginsberg visited Cuba. In spite of his sympathy for socialism and the Cuban Revolution, Ginsberg had several disagreeable encounters with officials and expressed his rejection of the authoritarianism that was dominating Cuban politics at the cultural level. In his characteristically iconoclastic manner, Ginsberg broached the gay topic with some of the leaders, and the reply he received was often quite negative. He was finally expelled from Cuba. (Emilio Bejel Gay Cuban Nation, 25)

The episode is also briefly covered in two Ginsberg biographies that I’ve read: Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography (London: Virgin Publishing Ltd. 2001), and Bill Morgan, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (Viking, 2006). To date, the most extensive coverage of the episode was written by José Mario, who writes from his first hand involvement with Ginsberg in Cuba. Having read Ginsberg extensively, plus biographies, my feeling is that he acted splendidly as the great clown, the great court buffoon, and cared not two figs which apple carts he upset, nor whose corns he trod on.

Beautiful.

Camilo – The cowboy who overlooks the conference

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El Salón Frío – such as it is called – in one of the university buildings. Perhaps called so because of the arctic and thunderous air conditioning. Brits and Cubans, hammering through discussions of matters cultural, social and political. On the wall facing me was the smiling, bearded, cowboy-hatted figure of Camilo Cienfuegos.

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A 4 foot tall black and white photo portrait in a dark wood proud yet natty frame. Camilo – guapetón, outlaw, manly, rugged. The wide-brimmed hat and fading tone of the portrait give him a Zapata feel. What does he mean here? How would he spread his influence on the many encuentros in this room? A constant reminder that even the world of literary and cultural studies should allow the winds of the wild to ruffle the papers. Theory can carry a pistol too. Postmodern post-Structural post-script should fight in the mountains. Or is he laughing at us? Where does he go when the door to the Salón is shut?

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Who is behind me – a smaller, faded portrait in a musty thin frame? Lenin – the oriental eyes and jutting beard. Perhaps when the lights go out Camilo and Lenin drink rum and smoke cigars – perhaps they argue dialectic – perhaps they ignore each other.

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Fidel and Che in the corridors, in the Dean’s office, in the Vice-Dean’s office. Constant reminders of one’s historical and geographical location. Don’t forget who you are! Don’t forget who made you!

Icons fill the halls and rooms. Icons of iconoclasts. Who could smash the image of he who smashed the image? Who would dare? An icon is revered. An icon is the expression of godliness within human form. Raúl hangs over the central lobby (godliness?). Veneration for expediency. Godliness?

Iconoclastic icons.

What happens here at night?

La revolución como era imaginaria. Lezama y la política mito-poética

Tanto en los ensayos de La expresión americana como en los de La cantidad hechizada, Lezama Lima elabora una teoría en la cual la identidad cultural se basa en una visión colectiva de la imagen poética en la historia. Lezama explora cómo la historia de una cultura se construye a través de ‘las diversas eras donde la imago se impuso como historia’ (2001: 58). Ciertas culturas que analiza Lezama, como la etrusca, la carolingia, la bretona, etc. lograron esta especie de poder imaginario y así prefiguran en la historia como épocas significativas y dominantes. En otros ensayos, Lezama también explora el potens de las revoluciones históricas, argumentando que ‘las revoluciones son la gravitación de las eras imaginarias’ (2000: 443). Una revolución, vista de esta manera, es el ingrediente clave para crear tal era imaginaria. Como es bien sabido, la biografía de Lezama durante los años sesenta y hasta 1976 muestra aspectos de acuerdo y de desacuerdo con la revolución cubana. En este artículo pretendo seguir la propuesta de Emilio Bejel que ‘en el sistema lezamiano, la Revolución Cubana de 1959 constituye otra gran era de la imagen en Latinoamérica’ (1991: 136), y analizar hasta qué nivel Lezama visualizaba la revolución en términos estéticos, poéticos y culturales, y hasta qué punto podemos incorporarla en otra era imaginaria lezamiana.

Pinchar AQUÍ para ver el artículo en versión pdf.

The Revolution as an era imaginaria. Lezama and mythical politics…

In the essays of Las eras imaginaries and in La expresión americana, Lezama outlines a theory in which cultural identity is founded upon a collective vision of the poetic image in history, speaking of ‘the diverse eras where la imago imposed itself as history.’ Certain cultures that Lezama analyses, such as the Etruscan, the Carolingian, the Breton, etc. achieved this form of imaginary force. In other articles and essays, Lezama explores el potens of historic revolutions, arguing that ‘revolutions are the gravitation of the eras imaginarias.’ As is well known, the biography of Lezama during the sixties and until 1976 show areas of agreement and disagreement with the Cuban Revolution. In this attached paper I am not proposing to enter into this polemical biographical debate. Instead, following the declaration of Emilio Bejel that ‘in Lezama’s system, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 constitutes another great era of the image in Latin America,’ I intend to analyse the extent to which Lezama envisioned the Revolution in aesthetic, poetic and cultural terms, and to consider to what degree we can include the Cuban Revolution as another of Lezama’s eras imaginarias.

Click HERE for pdf version of article

Gypsies of Cuba – Gitanos de Cuba

Esteban Montejo talks quite extensively about the Gitanos in Cuba in the 19th Century, stating that ‘Los gitanos venían de su país. Yo la verdad es que no me acuerdo de qué país, pero era un país lejano’ (1966: 143), and concluding with: ‘Yo creo que todavía hay gitanos de esos en Cuba. De caminantes que son puede que anden perdidos por ahí. Por los pueblos chiquitos.’

Esteban’s comments are fascinating – is he referring to Spanish gitanos, or is he actually referring to the distant ancestry of the gitanos? If so, who told him of this, and at what stage? It is curious that critics and historians alike appear to have avoided this particular ethnological issue. Hugh Thomas only briefly mentions gypsies as notorious child-stealers (1997: 297). A brief search through search engines and databases brings up no results about the Roma (gitano) heritage in Cuba. For a linguistic study see: Valdés Bernal, S (1994), Inmigración y lengua nacional, Havana: Editorial Academia.

In conversation with Miguel Barnet, I asked him if he knew anything of Esteban’s reference to the gitanos, or whether he knew if anyone had conducted any study in this field. His response was simply that the gypsies came and went on the boats – that many of them were imprisoned because they were thieves, and that nobody, that he knew of, had studied the area.

Anyone with any knowledge of this field, please post comments below.

VISA

“There is no bad book that doesn’t contain something good” – so, I believe, said Borges quoting Cervantes. Well of the same idea, there is no bad experience, however vexing, that doesn’t contain something good – even if you remain wholly unaware of what the good could possibly be…

So say I in relation to the extraordinary consequences of choosing one path and not the other at the site of forking paths: TOURIST VISA or BUSINESS VISA… One path would be £15 plus the cost of return postage. And there the matter would have ended. The other path has turned out to have cost me around £400 plus SEVEN SOLID DAYS OF BUREAUCRACY.

Business visa needed as travelling to Cuba primarily to present at a conference.

Business visa £50 plus need to send passport.

Passport ‘lost’ in post (recorded delivery).

A day on the phone trying to locate missing passport, eventually given up for lost.

Trip to London (£40) following day to secure new passport (£117) plus, the next day, new visa (another £50).

Visa, however, only relevant to the dates of the conference. Once conference over, assure me the good folk of the Cuban consulate in London, I simply need to pop to an immigration office and pick up a tourist visa. Simple.

Nothing has been less simple in my life.

Conference ended on Thursday. All day Friday, with another Brit from the conference, running in the Havana heat from one immigration office to another, being told that changing visas is impossible. Only possibility is to leave the country and return on a different visa. A new letter from the Vice-Dean of the Faculty might, we are told, be able to solve the problem, but he himself will need to take the letter to the immigration office. Too late in the day to solve anything so matter postponed to Monday.

Monday spent going from immigration office to Vice-Dean’s office to International Relations Office at University. Matter postponed to Tuesday.

Tuesday spent dealing with different officials of different offices, with the prospects looking ever bleaker. Finally, the matter is taken up by the director of Int. Rel. When my colleague name-dropped some of the important people he had come to interview, she used these name-dropped references in her dealings with the various immigration folk. This appears to have jerked folk into action.

Matter finally resolved on Wednesday, with us taking a rep from Int. Rel. to two different immigration offices, plus the payment of $40 each, and finally a new visa in our passports.

Assurances are worthless. The consulate in London had no idea of the reality of the Havana situation. Similarly, when I asked for assurance in the Havana office that the new visa would not cause me problems at passport control on my departure from Cuba, I was assured there would be no problem. At departure, I was hauled into an office at the airport, grilled for 40 minutes about the oddity of the 2-visa passport, all the while hearing my flight being announced. I was the last one on the plane, after I nearly broke down in tears. Leaving Havana was, it seemed, a deus-ex-machina escape from the jaws of bureaucracy.

The basic causes of this difficulty is, I feel, quite straightforward: the consulate in London is not keep abreast of the changing and complex immigration policies on the Island. This is the same, apparently, for Cuban consulates and embassies in other places – Brazil, for example, keeps telling Brazilians that the tourist visa is for 80 days, when it is for 28. The essential issue is that visas can be changed, but only really from tourist to temporary residence – a process that takes a month and involves numerous forms and stamps etc. Quite simply, our situation had not really been dealt with before.

This is the problem of the Cuban bureaucratic mind – which is surprisingly similar to Titón’s riotous 1966 film Muerte de un Burócrata. If it can’t be done it can’t be done. If somehow a situation arises (in the case of the film, retrieving the worker’s card from the corpse in order for the widow to claim her pension), that has not arisen before, nothing can be done. The reason for this is that INITIATIVE, which in many job areas in Britain is a quality that is desired or required in staff, is forbidden. Still, even after 50 years, everyone is looking over their shoulder to see if they have unwittingly disobeyed state procedure. This is actually a very strong sentiment. We were passed from person to person, office to office, building to building – all because ultimately nobody was willing to let the matter rest with them in case they somehow caused some breach in the system by attempting to solve the problem.

The University of Havana is a very good example of this at the moment. The former rector, apparently, said a few things that brushed some minister the wrong way, and he was dismissed from his post within 2 hours. A new rector has taken over, and, apparently, all senior staff, both academic and administrative at the university, are nervous about what sort of person he may turn out to be, and are reluctant to do anything that has not simply been done a hundred times before. So I can fully understand why nobody was willing to deal with us. The trouble was, though, that the matter was not going away – and yet neither were we, as without the visas we would never have been allowed to leave, and so would have become zoneless zombies… We finally refused to leave the office of one member of International Relations, who became angry with us. It was at this point that the Directora started phoning left right and centre. She spoke to all the immigration offices that we’d visited, and said the most politically glowing things about us – that we were active in international Cuban solidarity, that we should not be treated with such disrespect, that my colleague is seeing Important People tomorrow who really do not want to hear about this treatment of compañeros etc. etc. Such initiative and problem-solving ability could, I feel, only come from somebody with authority. Although that is the case in the UK, one can usually fight one’s way to such a person of authority without too much difficulty…

So, to return to the mis-quoted Borges/Cervantes. What is to be gained from such a drawn-out and expensive experience?

How has this whole time-consuming and expensive process benefited me?

I’ve no idea.

It has been very interesting to spend time with my colleague from the conference. We spent many hours in lonely chairless offices together and have talked about many many things, from British political history to the role of governments in international drug trafficking. I’ve met many of his colourful friends here in Cuba. And, at the end of the day, it’s been quite an adventure. That seems, though, a huge price to pay for getting to know someone and having a bit of an adventure which is not really that adventurous.

I suppose I could just admit that there’s neither good nor bad that has come out of the whole story, it’s just how it is.

A test of my will, perhaps. An insight into the twisted Kafka-esque machinations of the bureaucratic labyrinth. Perhaps, as another conference attendee (an anthropologist) suggests, maybe there’s an article in this. Maybe there is (but surely I could have invented this story whilst lying in a hammock beneath palm trees with a piña colada in my hand!).

Maybe it was all part of an extensively elaborate plan by Destiny (or my guardian spirits) to ensure that I wasn’t in a certain place at a certain time where something untoward would have befallen me. Had I obtained the £15 visa – and had I not gone to London or to Immigration in Havana or whatever – perhaps I would have been struck by a bus or by swine flu. Obviously, though, I’ll never know that – that’s the nature of providence.

Perhaps I should just get on with the work in hand and forget the whole sorry affair. Good plan…