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…
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?
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.
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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).
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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,
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.