On the Island of Anomie

In his speech in Havana today, president Barack Obama praised the ingenuity and hopefulness of the Cuban people. But in the Cuba where Juan Orlando Perez lives, half a century of rule by an unlimited and all-powerful ‘revolutionary’ state has emptied the island’s people of common purpose and hope; the empty slogans have replaced the nation they claim to represent.

A deeply pessimistic view from Havana’s new online magazine El Estornudo:

Cuba is a failed nation. It is not a failed state, like Iraq or Syria or Haiti or other unfortunate former-countries. It is the nation that has failed in Cuba, not the state. The Cuban state has not lost control of its borders or abandoned entire provinces to be pillaged by rebels and insurgents.

Every morning in schools students yawn out the national anthem and twice a year, parliament listens to the government ministers and votes through, with generous unanimity, every one of their initiatives. The newspapers celebrate national holidays, on television they show variety shows and baseball and soccer games, the mail is delivered, universities hand out diplomas and medals, and those opposing the government are diligently arrested and beaten.

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Old Havana, Cuba. Photo CC: Ramon Rosati.

It is the nation that has broken, while the state continues to function with slothful normality. The nation has disappeared, but the state sends ambassadors to 194 countries and prisoners to 200 jails. The nation has dried up, leaving just a shallow footprint in the ground of the island, but workers still punctually receive their tiny salaries, a million timesheets are printed, signed and filed every day in a hundred thousand offices with vastly different levels of authority and qualities of ventilation, while the National News informs us nightly about the weather and the horrific catastrophes wracking other countries.

The nation has been shut down, perhaps definitively, but publishing houses still turn out painful collections of poetry and biographies of people of interest. They pass them out, counting each gram, along with the bread and the rice. Hotels, hospitals and brothels are open, and each child who is born gets a name, an identification number and a rickety place in the world.

The Cuban state is one of minimums, giving people enough food so they don’t die of hunger (not a bite more), a well-calculated number of hours of television to keep them distracted (but not too many; would not want people to tire of television and ask for something else) and only the necessary number of blows, those that are inevitable, fearing that one more kick, another broken nose, and everyone will spill out into the streets to protest.

Cuba is not Denmark, but it works, and there is almost a new art in that. If an aspirin makes it into the country, it is sold to the first in line. Every family gets water for an hour everyday and, in times of drought, a bucket full of water. If, unexpectedly, a house is built, it is given to the government minister who needs it most, and if there are not any government ministers left without houses, it goes to some Olympic champion living in a shack or a shanty, and if there are not any of those either, it goes to the family that has been living in a shelter for the highest number of decades.

If there is new issue with unsettling consequences for the country that needs to be covered in the newspapers, they send the journalist who can most convincingly treat the issue as if it were still 1975, with the strict optimism of that era. Issue resolved.

The nation, however, has failed in its most essential functions. As a nation, Cuba no longer has purpose or direction; it longer has a reason to be. It is no longer apparent what it provides for itself or for the world. Neither liberty nor justice nor riches does it provide, nor has it provided them for a long time. Sugar: Cuba doesn’t make much anymore. Coffee: barely a pinch. Cars, airplanes, computers: Cuba placidly lets the Germans and the Chinese make them. The lake of oil on which the island supposedly floated has never been found, so Cuba continues greedily milking Venezuela’s oil. The president of the United States and the Pope are more popular in Cuba than any Cuban who does not make dance music, and maybe, if one were to investigate, even more popular than the musicians. Cubans clog Central American highways trying to make it to Texas and the Strait of Florida trying to make it to Key West, and they stack up outside embassies in Havana demanding visas to go almost anywhere. The intellectual magazines cite Gramsci and Foucault, talk about power and citizenship, about democracy and social economy, as if the writers were Mexicans or Argentines. When the police forcibly interrupt a march of 15 or 20 women, people hide and turn away instead of defending them, or they help the police and shove and insult the protesters as well. No one has ever gotten up out of their seat in the National Assembly to say, politely, “Enough”.

The Cuban state first degraded the nation and then thoroughly annihilated it. The state grew to be one hundred times bigger than the nation, and there was not room for both of them in that filament of a country. The nation gave away its place, turned itself over unconditionally to the state, resigned itself to that dark, silent death. Every component of the nation has betrayed it, the workers who have stolen cement, paint and gas instead of striking to defend their right to strike; the doctors who charge one hundred dollars to move a patient up to the front of the list for an operation; the young people who march in the streets with pictures of young people from other eras who, if they were alive now, would be in jail, or they would not be in Cuba; the loud-mouthed exiles who think Barack Obama should do for Cubans what Cubans do not know how to do or do not want to do. A nation that has gotten so used to living without freedom or hope and does not seem to be in a hurry to recover them, or even interested in recovering them, is no longer a nation. Few populations in this age have turned over so much power for so long to their owners in exchange for so little, and few have done less to free themselves. Without a nation to oppose it and correct it, the Cuban state has had no reason to change, or at least change any more than other countries ask it to change so they can treat it with the same cordiality they treat Switzerland. Clinging to the remains of a nation, or what they remember of it — their music, their somber heroes, their poets, 1959 — Cubans pretend to still be what they no longer are. But they are nothing. There is nothing that unifies them, nothing to motivates and moves them. There is nothing that can save them.

Juan Orlando Perez
Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.

  • ciplus11

    Juan Orlando Perez’s distinction between the nation and the state separates the oligarchs from the slaves with surgical precision. The efficiency of the state in oppressing the nation is heartbreakingly understated. Kudos to Brian Hagenbuch for a great translation.

    Let’s hope the future brings needed changes. Las Damas en Blanco and other dissidents need our active support more than our pity.