Havana Notes

It is early afternoon in Havana, and someone hands us a small flier. It reads: 

We are a collective of artists that come together every night at a small, dark and decadent underground hideaway. It also happens to be the best dance floor in the city. Looking for something with a little more edge than La Bodeguita or El Floridita? Come find us. 

In a few hours our large group – mostly white and indigenous United Statesians – are headed to the address provided. We walk down narrow, partially lit cobbled streets nestled between tall, ornate Old World buildings, past families playing dominos on card tables, countless stray dogs and cats, and the municipal headquarters for the Cuban Communist Party in Old Havana.  

There is, every few blocks or so, a building that is a shell of itself. Whether it is being renovated or torn down is difficult to tell. Investment for development and construction is painfully slow to come in. What’s more the city’s administration is determined to maintain as much of the aesthetic integrity of its architecture as possible. This means not just construction workers but artisans trained in crafts that haven’t been needed for most buildings in decades. Recently the government has set up colleges and arts schools dedicated to training young students in these crafts. But again, there are few resources with which to keep these institutions running.   

Occasionally, there are buildings that simply cannot be revamped or rebuilt, and these are to be demolished in order to put in a park or garden. In Old Havana – an area where structures are as much as five hundred years old – there is a notable lack of green space.  

The underground club is, as promised, small and dark. We each pay five dollars or convertible Cuban pesos to enter. We are given a free drink. After that each one is four dollars. Compared to what I am used to paying for alcohol in Los Angeles, this is a steal.  

There are two cozy rooms, one for the bar and one for the makeshift dance floor. In the middle of the latter is a small vinyl covered sofa. By the end of the night there will be perhaps a hundred people crammed in there, dancing to a mix between hip-hop, reggaeton and roots reggae. Our small group is likely the only American presence and, other than a couple of English rugby players, probably the only non-Cubans in the place. 

The artists’ collective hosting us is, for tonight at least, showing off its creative talents primarily through the medium of dance. The ceiling is criss-crossed with strong metal bars, not too unlike a lighting truss over a stage. Throughout the night, several young dancers will jump up on the sofa, grab the bars and perform moves that are physically remarkable whether you know dance or not. Dances that don’t merely employ the legs or hips or torso, but rely on the strength and flexibility of arms, necks, the ability to tangle and un-tangle one’s self from their partner in mid-air. 

There is a rather straightforward gender dynamic. Plenty of same sex couples dance with each other, and there are several non-binary dancers in the room. They are far from a marginal presence. In fact it is they who are often seizing the spotlight in the center of the room throughout the night. We sweat, we gyrate, we lose track of time for the sake of a place whose distinct air we have never breathed before. 

Catching my breath by the bar, I notice that as my friends and I come up, we happily pay the requested four dollars for a beer, a glass of wine, a shot of tequila, a mojito or Cuba libre. However, when someone from the neighborhood comes up, speaking Cuban Spanish, they aren’t charged a thing. Has this night been put on “for us”? Not exactly. We’ve been invited here to pay what are, by American standards, very cheap prices in order to pay for their night out, their revelry.  

And we have no complaints. We have been shown something of Havana that is quite separate from the official narrative. Something of the social rituals and leisure of people whose desires and stories have been shown to American eyes only through the most manipulated lenses. 

* * * 

I won’t romanticize Cuba, no matter how enchanted I found myself during our short visit. But neither should anyone concerned with the imaginary of human liberation dismiss it. Suffice it to say that in twenty years as a Marxist I’ve never encountered a theory that seems to satisfactorily explain the Cuban socialist experiment. The leftist realm of “critical support” seems to be entirely occupied by those either entirely uncritical or woefully unsupportive.  

The closest to an exception I’ve come across is that of CLR James and his co-thinkers. He understood that revolutions are less events than they are processes, and that processes can be shaped one way or the other by any number or combination of social forces.  

As such, his “critical support” of the Cuban Revolution was both genuinely critical and actively supportive. He was clear that the 1959 revolution had made massive gains in kicking out western imperialism and American interests, in redistributing resources to the poorest Cubans, but also that it had failed to put decisive democratic power in the collective hands of working people. He also gladly participated in the January 1968 Havana Cultural Congress, which was one of many such gatherings held in the city during the era of anti-colonial rebellion.  

This process – a process countless radicals found worthy of their participation – grabbed the imagination of people across the world during this era for a very good reason. For many Caribbean revolutionaries – not just James but Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Claudia Jones and countless others – the significance of the Cuban experience was found in the possibility it presented for the forging of a new, independent Caribbean identity. Specifically one that radically departed from the path of colonialism, subjugation, and genocide that western capitalism had imposed on the region.  

This vision is a powerful one, and it has endured through countless events and actions that could undermine it. Even as the Cultural Congress was underway, black Cuban writers and intellectuals critical of the government’s lack of action around racism were prevented from participating. In the later summer of that same year, hopes that Cuba might present a model of development independent from Moscow were dashed when Fidel supported the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring. And yet, the idea of Cuba as a locus of Caribbean liberation continued. Not because of what it had become, but because of what it might have the potential to be. 

Now, of course, that process is both isolated and stalled. Its horizons have been narrowed greatly. Not just by the fall of the Soviet Union, but the sclerotic imaginations of those who have inherited leadership from Fidel and the slowly dying original generation of revolutionaries. Miguel Díaz-Canel, president and likely successor to Raul Castro as First Secretary of the Communist Party, was born in 1960. He has little actual memory of the revolution or the dynamic processes it unleashed.  

The Pink Tide that briefly gave Cuba much-needed oxygen in terms of ideas and resources has receded. Chavez is dead and Venezuela is in crisis, thanks largely to US meddling virtually identical to what Cuba has been subjected to. Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America, now has a far-rightist in at its helm; he routinely threatens to sever diplomatic relations with Cuba. 

All of which needs to be kept in mind when considering the new travel restrictions imposed by the US this past Tuesday. Sixty years of these types of restrictions have done very little to destabilize – let alone dislodge – the Cuban government. It is worth asking whether they are in actuality even designed to. Cruise ships, private and corporate flights have been banned, but commercial flights are as of now unaffected, and people are still allowed to go to the island for business trips.  

The types of traveler affected most by these restrictions appear to be the tourist and the student. Steve Mnuchin, he who helped design Donald Trump’s slow-motion economic catastrophe in the US, claims the rules are designed to “help to keep US dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.” Except that these are visitors who are most likely to spend their money in ways that go most directly to ordinary working Cubans. For example, our ability to support a small artist collective. Pointing once again to the gap between the actual impact of sanctions and embargoes and their stated targets. 

These restrictions are, along with the above, an easy propaganda boost for Trump. Not just in terms of the saber-rattling against Venezuela, but in his renewed push to prove that “America will never be a socialist country.” Imperialism is talented at turning the economic into the ideological, and it has a readymade reserve of support in the most hardcore segments of Trump’s base. For these people the mere presence of a welfare state in Cuba is enough for them to denounce free education and healthcare as “communism” anywhere in the world. That such social programs are now popular demands among large swathes of young people in the US is all the more reason to punish its presence anywhere. The free movement of people and ideas be damned.  

Photos by Kelsey Goldberg