The dream is over. Well, maybe not quite yet, but the wake-up call is ringing. By all accounts, including the unofficial world of people still connected to the regime, the grand passionate dream that is/was the Cuban revolution is heading to a close. But on this side of the 90-mile arm of sea that separates what has been called “the two Cubas,” that dream has also been, if not a nightmare, at least a troubled sleep.
Stateside, the dream is called el exilio , which David Rieff translates literally for the title of his new book, “The Exile.”
Rieff is the exile’s wake-up caller. His book, which is one breathless, highly-charged thesis, argues that the exile is over. The community that calls itself el exilio has become what its members feared most: merely Cuban-Americans, a hyphenation that, according to the Latino National Political Survey, was avoided by nearly all respondents of Cuban background, who preferred “Cubans.”
In spite of their unprecedented success in American life--a success Cuban-Americans flaunt on every available occasion--Miami’s Cubans have clung stubbornly to the pain of alienation and rootlessness, to the “specialness” of being Cuban, to the very notion of “Cubanness.” As if without the pain of being Cuban they would be nothing. They have clung to that pain as the French protagonist of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” clung to her mourning for her German lover; as she said in the Renais film that serves as a counterpoint in Edmundo Desnoes’s famous rumination on Cubanness and revolution, “Memories of Underdevelopment,” she “wanted to have an inconsolable memory.”
It was Edmundo Desnoes’ point that Cubans are too fickle to nurture such an exquisitely perverse notion of the self. Though Rieff does not charge Cubans with fickleness, he does argue that, like their compatriots sticking by the end-game slogan of “Socialism or Death,” Cubans simply cannot withstand the force of history. On the island, they must face the bankruptcy of Communism, and in Miami, they must face the need to become Americans after 30 some years of “the exile.”
While he moves through his argument, Rieff gives us a fascinating intellectual portrait of a people misunderstood by their hosts and probably even by themselves. He unravels the causes behind the Cuban-American mistrust of the Miami Herald and the campaign mounted by right-wing exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa to discredit the newspaper. He uncovers the anti-American resentments nursed by Cuban-Americans in spite of their American flag waving. He places in perspective the panoply of political opinion among Cuban exiles, clarifying the radical differences in a community that too often appears monolithic to the outside world, and he also finds common denominators among these opposing personalities. Mostly, he follows the quest of a Cuban-American architect, Raul Rodriguez, and his wife Ninon, both of whom become frequent travelers to Castro’s Cuba searching for a way to connect with their roots.
Though I’m sure there will be the usual charges of dilettantism, Rieff is on no safari here. The Cuban-American community is very much his turf, not only because of his prior research for his book, “Going to Miami,” but because, quite literally, some of his best friends are Cubans, starting with the days when the likes of Nestor Almendros (to whose memory the book is dedicated) would baby-sit the young David to help out Nestor’s friend and the child’s mom, Susan Sontag. From his early, intimate contact with the exiled Cuban intelligentsia to his adult work as an editor of Latin American writers, Rieff learned the formidable nature of Cuban culture. His book shows he has read well and conversed even better.
It is precisely here, scaling the cliffs of high culture, that Rieff and I part company. It came early in my reading of “The Exile,” when Rieff dismisses a Cuban-American’s excited claim that the famous singer of Cuban popular music, the late Beny More, was the greatest Cuban who ever lived.
“Imagine if you met a Dane,” argues Rieff with his friend Raul Rodriguez, who is the central character in the book, “and he said that the most important Dane who ever lived was not the philosopher Kierkegaard, or the astronomer Tycho Brahe, or even Hans Christian Anderson, but the comedian Victor Borge. Now arguably, Victor Borge is the most famous Dane in the world at the moment, but to take him as a model seems like an awfully modest ambition. Why not love Beny More’s music, but aspire to something better?” A couple of paragraphs later, Rieff tells us how he felt that “there was something immensely frivolous, as well as immensely sad, about hoping that a pop singer’s lyrics could effect the national reconciliation.”
Rieff, whose cultural sophistication is staggering, gets easily lost in the dark forest of pop. If by importance we mean influence, one could argue that the most important American who ever lived could very well be Elvis Presley. The central importance of pop icons like Elvis or el Beny in modern lives is something outside Rieff’s universe of philosophers and astronomers, as is the fact that when, in the 1960s, young people in both America and Britain would claim that “Clapton is God,” they meant it.
Frivolous to think that pop lyrics can effect the reconciliation of a small nation? Perhaps. But by now it’s common knowledge that the pop Zeitgeist of the ‘60s, trickled out to the East, affected, in no small way, the downfall of Communism. All you need is love.
In Rieff’s book one can find evidence that “the exile” exceeds the borders set by the Castro exiles, whose arrogance I find even more annoying than their non-Cuban neighbors in Miami do. Before they came north, some of us were here already, have always been coming here. Our exile is an old tradition, as Joan Didion made quite clear in her excellent book on Miami. Jose Marti, the arch-Cuban, lived nearly all his adult life in exile, quite a bit of it in the U.S.; he came back to Cuba to fight the war of independence from Spain (the original Cuban revolution) and was instantly killed.
In Rieff’s book we also find evidence that our Cubanness is as short-lived as our exile is long. Marti was a first-generation Cuban. So is Fidel. My own mother was nearly born in the middle of the Atlantic, and half her siblings were born in Spain. Our Cubanness is, quite likely, an act of the will, an invention. And Rieff sees this as proof of its evanescence. But someone as well-read in Cuban letters as Rieff should know that the thrust of Cuban culture--of all Latin American, perhaps of all American culture--is to replace reality with invention. Not as literature or art. No. As life.
That I am now violating the rules of logic and reason is obvious. Rieff has argued his thesis like a trial lawyer, and I cannot disprove him in that dialectical stage. Instead of writing a refutation, though, I should sing a trova , or beat out the rhythm of a rumba guangaco . I am acting impossibly Cuban now, like the over-excited Cuban-Americans who challenge him in the book with totally illogical arguments.
For all his closeness to Cubans and Cuban culture, I sense an American’s irritation in Rieff. In his “Going to Miami,” he said he had Cuban and American friends there, but the two had nothing to do with one another (I can say almost the same thing about my Miami friends). Rieff tries hard to be fair, and he does expose the way Miami’s non-Cubans seriously misunderstand Cubans. But in the end, he runs out of patience with Cubans. I, for one, don’t blame him.
The obsession with what Rieff calls el tema , the endless talk about Cuba, is depressing. As Cubans starve and Cuban-Americans punish Cubans for not joining the exile by starving them--that is the real result of the Cuban-American intransigence reflected in the 1992 Torrecelli Act, strengthening the economic blockade--I cannot help but see us as a horrible people intent on fratricide and suicide at the same time. So what’s the use of talking? Our predicament is, to paraphrase the African-American T-shirts, “A Spanish Thing You Wouldn’t Understand.” Cuban reports in the Spanish press use a word that means nothing in Anglo America but may well explain everything: numantino --pertaining to Numancia, the city that in old Iberian times preferred to starve to death rather than to surrender to its enemies.
“Socialism or Death” is a numantino slogan, since, as Rieff correctly points out, it’s the same thing. An even closer metaphor is the Spanish Civil War, in which compatriots hurt each other terribly for the sake of honor, patriotism, the motherland. If things continue, Cubans will starve to death and we Cuban-Americans will have to live with our conscience. Perhaps that will be our inconsolable memory.
I have a vestige of hope that, like the cult of Beny More, is rooted in our popular music. Afro-Cuban songs are rich and varied, but most of them share a common structure of feeling. It’s the old division of a Cuban song into something called largo and montuno , the last word meaning from the hills or countryside. The largo half of the song is often a classic love tune, which, in the European tradition of much popular music of the Americas, can be a lover’s celebration of the beloved but, more often than not, is a lover’s complaint. The African beat here is subdued, while the singer croons his or her chagrin, usually in a formal language rich in extended metaphors and flowery imagery.
As anyone can probably guess, the montuno takes the opposite tack: Sure, I’m in pain, babe, but not for long ‘cause I’m going to party. The beat heats up, the backup singers take up a refrain, and the lead singer improvises clever lines to fill the call-and-response with the kind of boastful sexiness that is a trademark of most African-American music. You can hear this in any salsa tune.
Rieff’s book is all largo : essentially sad, perhaps even tragic. The Rodriguezes give up their quest for Cubanness when they realize their son is not going to follow them spiritually, no matter how many times they take him to Cuba. The exile is over for them, and by extension, for all Cuban-Americans. Cubans weren’t all that special, after all. They just hung on to their dreams longer than most folk.
But I don’t think the Rodriguezes have really accepted their hyphenated Cuban-Americanness, although I do hope they have given up the pathologically compulsive nature of their Cubanness. And yes, I think there is something special, even if what stands out right now is how hellbent Cubans and Cuban-Americans are in destroying Cuban civilization by clinging to a bankrupt ideology and Mad Hatter government on the island and, from here, taking out our frustrations on our brothers and sisters.
If only Beny More were alive.
I swear by the white steed that led Jose Marti toward sudden death when he finally came back to Cuba to face himself, that if el Beny could kick in the montuno , we could dance the madness away.