Cuba's Fumbling Marxism: An Eyewitness Account

Born in Scotland, educated in France and England, JAMES CAMERON has been a reporter for more than twenty-five years. As chief foreign correspondent for the London NEWS CHRONICLE, he was one of the first Western observers to travel freely in Red China, and his account of what was going on inside this Communist country was set forth in his book MANDARIN RED, published in 1955. Now a free-lance journalist, he traveled recently to Cuba at the ATLANTIC'S invitation. Here is what he found.

Meanwhile, the Yanquis continued simultaneously to be reviled, feared, and missed. History was of course being rewritten all the time, or, as was insisted, examined for the first time through the eyes of those who no longer sought to conceal its bitter aspects. Had not Jefferson talked of making Cuba's southern shore the frontier of “our empire of liberty"? Had not Monroe's Secretary of State announced that Cuba's annexation was an "indispensable measure"? People "remember the Maine" in different terms. To the United States those lives were bravely lost in the interests of Cuban independence, but most young Cubans now believe without question that the Americans blew up their own ship in Havana Harbor to justify their occupation of the island. They quote William Howard Taft only in his prophecy that the whole hemisphere must "be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, it already is ours morally." As so often in the past, and the present, the many good intentions and generous achievements of the United States are overwhelmed by the stupidities of the record. The occasional rich American estate owners in Cuba who contrived to be enlightening forces and benefactors in spite of being landlords have long been sunk without trace in the well-nurtured memories of the unscrupulous investors and gangster chieftains who were there too.

This is, of course, indispensable stuff for the maintenance of a revolutionary momentum in the face of many discouraging facts. When history is exhausted, there remains the looming presence of the U.S. warship on the horizon and the speculative but always dramatic suggestion of the U-2 overhead. These alone can be invoked to justify the hardships, the queues for the melancholy rations, the introduction of conscription. Only a few months ago Fidel Castro publicly agreed that the American economic blockade was the best help he could have for keeping on the boil the revolutionary mood he believes so necessary for Cuba's recovery.

"It is all, of course, a damned absurdity," said a Cuban official over the evening daiquiri, which is one of the last remaining solaces of the Havana scene, "economically, politically, any way you like to consider it. We are having a rough time, unnecessarily; the Yanquis are brooding and jumping unnecessarily; we Cubans of the ordinary kind are driven into a relationship with powers that are wholly alien to us geographically and ethnically, for reliable and decent as they are, the Soviéticos will never understand us nor we them. The wretched Norteamericanos are a global pain in the neck politically, but we got on with them as people. I was at Columbia three years. Now I can't even read a book in English less than five years old. As for what they know about Cuba—I haven't met an American for two years who wasn't a Party member or pretending to be. If this goes on much longer we shall really have forgotten all about each other what took us fifty years to learn. Then what?"

Saturday night in the Habana Libre—my own ancestral memories took me back to the palais de danse in Glasgow—a multitude of pretty girls provocative and unavailable, yet a dozen times more public necking than would be accepted in Moscow or, for all I know, Minnesota; a total and complete integration of color, the Negroes slightly more attractive and certainly more pursued than the whites.

"Compañero, the Inglés—what do you do here?"

"I do nothing. I try to learn."

"You will learn nothing here in this lousy place; go to my village. Forty people there can read and write; imagine that."

She was right; I later found that they could read and write. This was a phenomenon too; somehow the Chinese got the notion of sending to Cuba some hundred thousand little lamps, which became the propaganda symbol of enlightenment; all over the country the children were rammed through a crash course of literacy. Today the extraordinary spectacle, for those who seek it out, is that of a multitude of twelve-year-olds, complete with ritual lamps, conducting courses of reading and writing among the rustic middle-aged, who will accept the tutelage from the children that they would never accept from the bureaucrats; the young teaching the old. There is much in Cuba that is harsh and crude and wrong, but there was nothing wrong in this.

And yet again, who really knew what was going on? The young barbudos of the Twenty-sixth of July Movement, the heroes of the Sierra Maestra? The old guard of the Communist Party, on whom Fidel perforce increasingly relied? Was either of' these old romantics capable of running a country? Castro himself was clearly distraught with indecision, yet it was he who publicly denounced the veteran Communist Anibal Escalante, his friend, as mastermind of a wholly reprehensible Communist mutual-aid clique operating for the concealment of their own failures. In this he spoke, once again, wholly as a Cuban, for Fidel Castro's bland and total ignorance of the Party dialectic is his special charm. He claims to have read up to page 184 of Das Kapital's 600 pages: "I get my friends to read it up for me." Thus he acquires a high place in the U.S. demonology at what would seem to be modest cost.

Nevertheless, the island became full of Cubans who took the revolution seriously and were boning up on the works of the prophets, which seemed to have a curious effect upon Castro, who was forever insisting that an ability to quote the texts of Marx and Lenin did not necessarily equip a man to run a factory—any more, he said pointedly, than did a good record as a guerrilla in the Sierra. He seemed to have a powerful dislike of dogma, even anticlerical dogma. As an atheist, one of his most compelling arguments came in a speech during the Havana University commemoration of the death of José Echevarria, founder of the Revolutionary Directorate. The previous speaker had read Echevarria's

“political testament," leaving out the sentence "We are confident that the purity of our intention will bring us God's blessing." This greatly angered Castro. "Are we going to mutilate what the man believed?" he cried. "What kind of faith is that in one's own ideas? What conception is that of history? In our struggle the fact that one may be a believer, whether his religion is Christian or whatever, and the other's faith is Marxist, that is no obstacle, and we come here with this display of cowardice to suppress a phrase!"

You do not see as many priests around the streets of Havana as you might have six years ago; however, you still see more than you expect. The Madrid plane brought three Franciscans into town on one flight; they were met enthusiastically by three more, and all vanished into the city with jovial hand wavings. The attitude of the administration toward the Church is equivocal and, it seemed to me, slightly uneasy. Nothing whatever has happened to the major churches of Havana, which is just as well, since one at least, the Cathedral, is an outstanding building of Hispano-American taste. The Jesuits who built it were, to be sure, expelled, but that was in 1767. No one observably has interfered with its work, and its congregation continues, though obviously diminished. Five years is a short space in which to reorientate the thinking of several centuries. The government quite clearly accepts the fact that Cuba is a Catholic nation, and when asked, expresses its view in the phrase so familiar in Russia itself: "We do not persecute those who believe; neither do we encourage them. We do not sustain the Church in any way, but we do not interfere with it. We attempt to be builders, not iconoclasts. The next generation will tell.''

I noticed that the daily newspaper El Mundo carried a column of religious news, "Mundo Catolico." It was a notably offbeat experience to see among the headlines—"Homenaje a Frushchov," "Acto de Reafirmación Revolucionaria," "Necesario el Trabajo Constructivo cada Dia"—the daily calendar of saints; there enshrined among the heroes of labor was the Santoral del Dia: Santos Aquiles y Pancracio y Flavia, martires; Santo Domingo de la Calzada, confesor; German, obispo; Dionisio, martir.

But then, among the reports of the futbol and the basquetbol they also printed the results of the National and American League ball games.

A member of the Foreign Office took me to the Tropicana. It was a very beautiful establishment, crowded to the doors and dull as bean soup. I never was much of a nightclub man. The only time such a place has any value for me is when it is decadent; I regard progressive nightclubs as depressing. The show was lavish and the girls were pretty, but they wore flesh-colored tights, which I find somehow repellent. They sang and danced quite charmingly under an enormous sign that said: "Viva el Internacionalismo Proletario." My Foreign Office friend sat behind a bottle of Bacardi and told me about politics.

"Domestic affairs in Cuba are damned hard work. The Cuban worker is born a skeptic, with reason. He grew bored over the years with the useless promises of one politico after another; he didn't even expect them to come to anything. Now he trusts Fidel. But even now he still has to be reconvinced every day that we aren't joking about the revolution. Anyhow, it's a pragmatic revolution. I for one don't accept the dogmatism of the Soviets. We're dealing with Cubans, and I know how troublesome they are, being one. For example, maybe you can get Slavs to practice Marxist self-criticism. Not here; you know yourself that Latin Americans just don't admit personal error, and don't expect anyone else to. We would be a hell of a race to make over into good Communists. We're too hard to please. My own father now—he was quite a rich businessman; when the revolution came he cleared off to the States, because he knew he wouldn't get any more Scotch in Havana. Now he tells me he's thinking of coming back because he can't get any decent cigars in Miami."

"You still keep in touch with him?"

"Sure. Mail takes about a month; I think it goes through Prague or somewhere."

I remarked that it surprised me that an official of the revolution should continue to be in good standing when his father was a gusano. He shrugged. "I'm not responsible for him, nor he for me. And if we victimized every smart man who had gusanos in the family, we'd get nowhere fast."

He was elegant and cultivated and quite evidently profoundly patriotic, and his politics had a rare objectivity. He had decided that day to be critical of Mr. Jrushchov, as the Latins call the Soviet chief, because he had just read one of Mr. Jrushchov's polemics against modern art.

"He has every right to be a philistine if he likes, but not to set back all the progress of Russian art. We would soon fix him here."

And indeed I am sure they would, for nowhere else have I been shown as much appreciation for the functional uses of contemporary art; it was hard to find anything new that was badly designed. The picture gallery in the hotel was far ahead of the same manner of thing anywhere else. Havana has a stridency, a harshness, a rough edge to every joviality, but it is always prevented from collapse into vulgarity by a sort of inevitable decorum, a built-in appreciation of propriety.

My official friend was not the only one with reservations about the comrades from the East who abounded everywhere, lavishing their bounty and their techniques. The Soviéticos were considered bleak and unresponsive, though much admired for their patience in the face of disorder and inefficiency. The Poles and the Czechs seemed more acceptable. But almost all the técnicos were miles away from the Cuban temperament. Every responsible Cuban was aware, however, that without their help his revolution would long ago have been extinguished; moreover, he enjoyed the new national status that their presence in Cuba implied.

The most astonishing thing about Cuba was that it appeared to be the one country on earth to which no word had ever seeped concerning the Soviet-Chinese schism. Not only was there no comment in the newspapers; there never had been. On holiday occasions large portraits of Khrushchev and Mao Tse-tung were borne in procession side by side. Chinese and Soviet diplomats in Havana were distant, to be sure, but they did not make the tortured efforts to keep out of each other's company that they do elsewhere. When I asked my Foreign Office friend about this he shrugged again. "It is unfortunate, but it is nothing to do with us. Do you know how far away China is? About ten thousand miles. We are sorry, of course, but right now we're too busy."

Busy they were, but not, perhaps, enough. The total reorientation of emphasis in every trading relationship caused extravagant confusions. The United States used to take two thirds of Cuba's exports and provide three quarters of its imports. Now, nothing. Everything had changed. Orders previously made by U.S. brand name and catalogue number, and fulfilled in a matter of days by the Miami ferry, now had to be made months ahead, with unfamiliar specifications, and dispatched across the world. Long accustomed to the ferry service, Havana lacked warehouse space to store goods from thousands of miles away, and while United-States-made plants began to fall to bits through lack of equipment, the docks became jammed with undistributed cargo. Castro and his barbudos rampaged around making speeches, demanding that the loyal Cubans stop their mystical incantations about being "born again" and get down to sorting out the mess. Gradually it became sorted out.

Still, the inheritance from the old days was there; the mass of Cubans who had suffered under a bad regime for generations were saturated in the faults it promoted—laziness, indifference, carelessness, an eroded sense of initiative. It was not easy to evoke a totally new attitude toward property, to persuade that wasting it or misusing it was today not only foolish but undemocratic.

All this the técnicos Soviéticos observed with some pain. Their proclaimed objective was to advise and supply, but not to interfere, nor did they, even when they saw the Cuban concentration on grandiose projects and neglect of the sugar industry, which may have been the island's hereditary curse but must nonetheless remain its chief source income. Their economists flinched from the elaboration of the building projects, the wild ambitions of the architects, the delight in splendidly wasteful gestures of ostentation. They winced at the zestful amateurism of the bearded young state planners, whose first impulse had been instantly to set up factories to make for themselves all the things they could no longer get from the United States. When Che Guevara bought a hundred and forty small factories to produce things like fountain pens and cigarette lighters, the técnicos raised their eyebrows. He pleaded that they must have something to show for the revolution. The Cubans spoke longingly of heavy industry, of steel mills, of prestige shipping lines. Patiently the Russians pointed out that steel was now dirt cheap in the world market, and that shipping tonnage was idle all over the world.

The theorists said that every ruble of direct aid helps to keep things backward; that aid can actually retard development; that every nation must itself raise an important part of its capital development and work out its own economic salvation. Indiscriminate financial aid, they said, is a cushion against political and economic reality. The Bolivian Revolution of 1952, they said, had been drowned in a flood of dollars and never recovered its-momentum.

But the Cubans pleaded: We must justify our revolution; we cannot keep our standard of living low for years. And the Russians replied: Why not? We did.

"But, of course," said my friend, "they were different. Admirable, but different. Hence Cuba's reorientation toward Europe, with long-term credits backed by Moscow in, for instance, London. For that it's necessary that our image be solid, even, in a way, respectable."

There was the rub; the respectable image sorted awkwardly with—as one example—the Cuban commitment to encouraging a Castroist revolt in Venezuela. This is a very awkward problem for the Cubans, since they are half anxious to succeed and half not. They believe that a successful demarche in Venezuela would inevitably bring about U.S. intervention. So "don't," say the Russians;nthis is no time to precipitate crises. But "do," urge the Chinese; this is precisely the moment to put the gringos on the spot. "The fact is," said my friend, "the Chinese are a long way away."

I walked back through the steamy night. In the Avenida de los Presidentes there was a big building protected by a wire barrier and policemen who stepped from the shadows with their guns and required one to pass the place on the other side of the street. On the first occasion when this happened, I had taken the building to be the home of some dignitary who required special protection, which had seemed odd in view of the casual and random way the obvious big wheels of the government moved around town. This was not the case; the building was the Brazilian Embassy. Of late too many disaffected citizens, gusanos-come-lately, had strolled to this place and nipped briskly inside, thus achieving political asylum. "So now we protect the place," I was told. "We do not wish the Brazilians to be embarrassed."

Shortly thereafter the Brazilians broke off relations with Havana anyhow: another problem neatly solved.

Outside the hotel the big bookshop was open until midnight. All Cuba has an unquenchable hunger for books, for reading matter of any kind; there was not much for their comfort here—all the standard Leniniana in Spanish translation; everything one has seen in People's Democratic bookstores everywhere. The place was full. Even those official magazines with the standard colored illustrations of enraptured peasants in transcendental attitudes with sheaves of corn, the "Bulgaria Today" and "China Reconstructs" that are forced gratis into faltering hands throughout the world, are actually bought in Havana. There was a tall pile of a Mexican edition of John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding. It cost eight dollars. The manageress told me that they sold about two hundred copies a month, which must be at least a hundred and fifty more than are ever bought today in Locke's native land.

Of course, the collected works of Martí. How many millions of words did that strange and valiant little man produce? Yet there must be many people who remember the Maine who do not remember José Martí or what he did. In Cuba he is canonized, and Martí's liberating rowboat in 1895 is held to be the precursor of Fidel Castro's leaky yacht, Granma, in 1956. The picture of this frail dynamic patriot, with the burning eyes and the immense mustache, falling dead from his rearing horse under the Spanish guns is the universal symbol for Cubans, seen everywhere. This is owing partly to the law, passed in the earliest days of Castro's revolution, that no statues or images may be erected of living figures, however exalted, and no streets named after them. This avoids the proliferation of graven images of the present Maximum Leader; everything is sublimated in the old hero of the eighties, now beyond criticism. Nothing else is beyond criticism.

The Cuban revolution, which has held the imagination of romantic socialists for nearly six years, is facing its hardest time with toughness and élan, making a small success here and a big error there as its leaders ceaselessly admit—drifting perhaps into a bondage it did not plan. It cannot go on like this forever.

The Fidelistas had obviously believed in the possibility of creating a revolution that would be an inspirational model for democratic revolutionaries everywhere, progressing with the full support of the people whose liberties it protected. Indeed, its early appeal was its manifest concern for the people, their practical and cultural welfare, and its experimentalism and flexibility. It postulated the goodwill if not the actual help of the United States. Neither was forthcoming. Within two years the atmosphere had changed; the United Party of the Socialist Revolution had come to being on the principle of "democratic centralism" and was officially guided by "Marxist-Leninism," and the old PSP Communists were its core. The Soviet impact became dominant because the U.S. impact was denied. Perhaps it was inevitable; perhaps it need not have been that way. It seems probable that Castro deduced a lesson from the Guatemala of Arbenz: that any vigorous structural changes he might make would be interpreted in Washington as Communism, so he might as well do it thoroughly.

We already saw, during the 1962 missile crisis, how Cuba could have the world on the edge of the abyss as a freak of geopolitics. Since then the bitter hostility across the ninety miles that separate this island from the United States has become institutionalized into a seemingly inescapable fact of life. Americans may believe that another Bay of Pigs is unthinkable; no Cuban does. They brood endlessly on the tales of the exile organizations fretting and drilling away in Florida and Guatemala, sustained and nourished, they insist, by the CIA. They point to the remote outline of the U.S. warship, forever lying just outside the limits off Havana. They argue the economic quarantine which has isolated Cuba from everywhere except the Communist bloc and a few European eccentrics like Britain, France, and Spain, and which has bred a Cuban reaction almost tribal in its certainties.

So one lived in Havana on two continual levels—the emergency, the conflict, the tensions, side by side with the gay girls and the café crowds, the endless noise and chatter, the solemn Soviet technicians, the cigar-smoking elevator man to whom a razor blade or a tube of toothpaste is a dream of luxury.

To me the most irresistible analogy was that of Israel in the late forties: the same sense of beleaguerment, of privation, of defiance, of a citizenry under arms, of mingled regret and assurance. The effect was reinforced by the curious fluctuating cast of characters who seemed to fetch up in all public places, everyone with some motive other than the ostensible one—pretty girls writing theses, sociological delegates trying to sell textiles on the side, attractive widows who claimed addresses in Rome, saturnine Czechs, vague blond Englishmen forever excusing themselves for an appointment (What appointment? When was any appointment ever kept?). The Cubans, it seemed, were ready to put up with anyone, to fete them and pay their bills, to give themselves the illusion that once again Havana was a cosmopolitan place, and not a lonely, isolated fort.

The Cubans are brave and effervescent and feverishly reckless. Their society is, or could have been, the first of its kind in the hemisphere, even if the words with which they define it spring too often now not from the heart but are borrowed from the more banal jargon of an older and staler revolution.

Castro is young, vigorous, indefatigable, seemingly nourished by resources denied to most people, but he is not immortal. The security with which he surrounds himself may be much more tense than it seems; nonetheless he quite clearly takes fantastic personal chances in his sorties around the country. He has the De Gaulle-like idiosyncracy of goading his protectors by eluding them, and burrowing at random into crowds that could well, in the present neurotic conditions, contain the one hostile gun. One day, you say, that man will surely get the bullet. And inevitably you ask the question: After Fidel, what?

"Everybody says it; what does it mean—they said after Stalin, who? after Nehru, who? after Kennedy, who? A process is a process; Fidel started something he couldn't stop now if he wanted to.”

That is all very well; every revolution dominated by a personality has rationalized its continuance thus. A nation without a constitution, relying as this one does on the impetus of continued exhortation, will be in an excruciating dilemma when Castro dies, and this he knows and expresses in a way of which he himself may not be wholly aware. He is thirty-seven, and already he talks like a patriarch; it is his constant custom to refer to his, generation as in the past. His continual addresses to students emphasize that his revolution, the revolution of arms of the Sierra Maestra, is over and done and that the torch has passed from "his generation" to theirs. It is an odd emphasis from a young man still in his thirties. The vast problem that would face Cuba if Castro were to fall tomorrow is that the only effective organizational process that could be bequeathed would be that of the military, and almost certainly that of Ché Guevara, the only man in Cuba who faintly matches Fidel in energy and prestige—and who, as the prophet and apostle of the guerrilla, is himself already a symbol of the past. Everything that the revolution has achieved: the enthusiasm among the young, the near elimination of illiteracy and hopeless poverty, an honest if ineffectual government, the achievement of this mysterious Latin-American quality of dignidad—all these things remain still emblazoned on the banners; they have received no rationalization in straight political terms. There is a certain splendor, but there is no dynasty, no hierarchy, no line of succession; there is not even, as far as we know, a continuing theme. Fidelismo is not yet rooted in Marxism, or in anything else. While the completely romantic Cubans flinch from the drudgery without which no socialism can be established, the thing remains an imponderable.

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