Te Doy Una Cancion, Fidel Castro.

In a bar in Mexico City, Diego Fonseca learns that Cuba’s longtime strongman has finally died. A meditation on the passing of adolescent dreams, on revolution gasping out its life on a hospital ventilator, on how Fidel became Castro.

I remember a song from when I was a boy.

I always remember a song from when I was a boy.

The song went:

I give you a song and make a speech
about my right to talk.
I give you a song
with my two hands,
the same hands used for killing.
I give you a song
and say homeland
and keep talking for you.
I give you a song
like a gunshot,
like a book,
like the guerrillas,
like I give love.

Now as an adult that song of my youth still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up and makes me bite my lip and makes me raise my eyebrows and kick back with my hands behind my head as if it were not just a song, but all the Romantic revolutions that I could ever fight for.

A song, a book, a poem, a story, a love affair: There is a time in our lives when their meanings take on the intensity of a wildfire and we live them passionately. At other times, we ask ourselves how we could have been so naive or stupid or gullible, to fall for such an obvious trap. Love and revolution are deceiving. You enjoy them, but if they last until the end, you end up wounded.

This song was, for me, the Cuban Revolution and Commander Fidel. And this same song — which I did not see before, but I see now — was also the Tyrant Fidel. When I was young, he was a Romantic hero. As the years went on, he turned into a Roman hero. Words say so much: When we are close we call each other by the first name; with distance, we use last names. Fidel ended up being Castro.

That song always contained the entire Revolution, but only time would reveal its artifice. As a kid, I read that the song and speech were love because they just were, that talking was the defense of an elemental right, that saying homeland made your chest puff up, and how it puffed. ‘Song + homeland + book + word + love’ hid the dark side of the moon. I did not see, as I would see years later, that behind the book was a story and that behind those words there were guerrillas and that the guerrillas would have to end like all groups end. And I did not see that in the end the love was going to be hard, difficult. Abusive.

We will remember Fidel’s death because for many of us it will be the last act of our eternal adolescence, as if the past were breathing through a tube, comatose, waiting for someone — not me or you — to pull the plug. This was my immediate obituary the night of his death: We were laughing and drinking mezcal and beer and eating grilled octopus in a hipster restaurant in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighborhood; Spanish and Mexican journalists and myself, the Argentine, a parody of a Che Guevara follower, with a worn-out back and more desire to take a nap than to fight a rematch. Someone opened Twitter and the world opened before us. Fidel had died. The Commander. The Tyrant. The owner of Cuba.

We made a toast. I guess we drank to youth and failed dreams. And we closed the door, taking a last look at who we once were. Who does not want a more just world? Who doesn’t feel let down when those who say they will make it more just turn out to be thugs? If there were tears they were dry, but I think in general there was more resignation than sadness. We knew it was going to happen. Castro’s obituary has been in the works for the past 20 years.

The air of sorrow ended a few minutes later when someone spoke of a dignified death, and that one acknowledgment — Castro going out with some kind of heroic legacy — paved the way for a little rhetorical battle. A clumsy (waiter, more mezcal) but friendly and never bitter discussion took up a good part of the following hours. The usual topics were there: an educated Cuba versus an illiterate Latin America, a defiant Cuba versus the empire, a dignified Cuba versus nations where the right wing had taken over history. But as the discussion wrapped up, the song from our youth stopped sounding like the nice version of ‘homeland + book + word + love’ and became grating. Fidel’s Romantic Cuba never existed with the tyrant Castro’s Cuba.

Fidel’s death was a letting go. Like a grandfather on life support — let go. A deep coma — let go. A vegetative state — let go. Fidel’s death was a slow one in daily doses that was observed by the world through the glass of the fishbowl where Cuba floated, alone. Fidel seemed to want to cling to history like it could provide him with a miracle, or like there was an agreement that could guarantee him perpetuity, in power or in bronze. And he died not like Romantic heroes but like a dictator, old and sapped, instead of with his penis erect, young and erect. Fidel did not die for the cause: The cause was his death. The Romantic Fidel ended up the Roman Castro: Consumed by absolute power, landlord and believer, mystic and messiah, insisting Cuba could only be run by a group of geriatric revolutionaries, anachronistic and gasping.

I have lived most of my life in a tug of war with Castro and the Revolution. My Romantic side was misinformed because that is what heroic love is for, to bury yourself to your balls or breasts without thinking about it too much. My rational side started to understand too soon that one can love on a whim, but if there is nothing in front of you other than a big hoax it is better to cut ties, break your heart, and move on. It is perverse: That first love, one thinks, could have been different if… And then the revolution turns into a grammatical exercise in conditional verbs and your heroes turn into a sphinx that needs too much context and the official voice of priests to be understood.

I will not talk about the right-wing governments. Their miserable faults account for a large part of the history of Cuba and its revolution, a tiny island fenced off by an absurd embargo that punished the people to teach the leaders a lesson. But I am interested in Latin America’s left-wing because it sees itself as the heir to the healthy truth in a world facing alienation and the (excuse me here) false consciousness of the pro-imperialist middle classes.

Latin America’s left wing, then, emboldened by a moral superiority only they believe in, has let itself be sheltered by an opportunistic cynicism for too long. It sang a thousand songs to Fidel’s Cuba while at the same time pardoning Castro’s Cuba for crimes it would never tolerate from the right wing in its own countries: political prisoners, persecution, silencing opposition voices, the exodus of millions of people, decades of hunger, class privilege, political killings. It took less time for the United States to lift their criminal embargo and understand it was necessary to deal with the misery of the realpolitik to resolve people’s lives than it did for the left to take off their sanctimonious capes from the political inquisition and admit that, well, shit, it seems the Cubans did not do everything right after all. The Latin American left is still locked inside that youthful song where ‘homeland + book + word + love’ hide the adversary’s bullets. While the world buries a man who ran a country for 50 years, there are people who believe you keep Fidel without Castro.

But enough. Older now, one wants to go back and hug the Romantic who was: Kid, it is over. This is the way it is. And one could even give the sermon, a load of truths filtered by history that would let your younger self avoid committing errors. But then one would not be oneself, nor would history be this world. So you, in the future, commit the mistake of sizing up the world with instruments that are too modern. The if onlys provide a self-placating calm. But the future, which is today, has a huge advantage: One no longer has to guess about history because history ends up sweeping away every misplaced piece from the past.

I put on the song by [Cuban folk singer] Silvio [Rodriguez] when I got back to my hotel room in Mexico.

I paid as much attention as I could:
I give you a song
like a gunshot,
like a book,
like the guerrillas,
like I give love.

And nothing happened. It sounded like marvelous stolen poetry to me, devoid of the elegiac meaning I had instilled it with. It went back to being Romantic and the gunshot was not fatal and the guerrillas were not destined for failure and the hands did not kill. All these sentences turned into metaphors for the immediate, spontaneous and wonderful contradiction of loving and being.

I played it as yet another requiem for my past, not as a memory for the dead New Man. History had swept up another of its huge crumbs. Fidel and Castro are leaving. With their gunshot, their word, their guerrillas.

Hear Silvio Rodriguez singing Te Doy Una Cancion here.

Diego Fonseca Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.

  • John O Duke

    The voice of the revolution and yet a change of heart…