July 11, 2003

Cuban History: January 1959 May be the Only Fixed Point

By Marcelo Ballvé
El Tecolote

The photo, in black and white, captures the unclouded joy felt by the people as the rebel army entered Santiago, Cuba’s second city. Fidel Castro, who marched into the municipal building, basks in applause, surrounded by the exuberant faces of women and children inside the building. The commander-in-chief has his index finger raised in the air and his lips parted, as if he was preparing to say one of his famous speeches.

This image graced the front cover of the Granma newspaper—official publication of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee—the first of January of 1999, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.

In those first days of 1959, as the rebel army marched through the country, a kind of euphoria was felt throughout Cuba, liberated from a dictatorship by the guerrillas. The bearded rebel soldiers were received as heroes, embraced and applauded wherever they traveled.

In the contemporary Cuban imagination, that January of 1959 may be the only fixed point in the island’s history, because virtually all the rest of the island’s historic territory is contested ground. Historians from all spectrums of political affiliation agree that January of 1959 was a party.

But from there, the narratives run in divergent directions, divided by the political rift that also divides the Cuban people.

Today, the Cuban exile community, once almost completely obsessed with Castro’s overthrow, has devoted itself to compiling its own history and to detail its vision of Cuba, creating institutions to archive and systematize that vision. At the University of Miami, officials recently inaugurated a center for the study of Cuba, built partly with a $2.5 million dollar donation from Roberto Goizueta, a Cuban-American executive, now deceased, who headed the Coca-Cola Company.

According to Miami’s El Nuevo Herald Spanish-language daily, the library at this new Cuban studies building—one of several that already exist in Florida, where there are about 1 million Cubans—will house the world’s largest collection on the history, literature and archival material of the Cuban exile community.

University officials inaugurated the center Jan. 28 2003 to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary José Martí, Cuban poet and journalist considered the intellectual author of Cuba’s independence. The Martí anniversary also was celebrated with enthusiasm in Havana, where a conference was organized and a music concert was held in the Karl Marx theatre, with President Fidel Castro in attendance.

Of course, those who oppose Castro and those who support him, also contest the figure of Martí, among the most powerful symbols in Cuba’s nationalist thought. Each side accuses the other of having betrayed Martí’s vision for an independent and free Cuba. One side highlights Martí’s anti-imperialist writing, while the other underscores his eloquent defenses of liberty.

Intellectual activity within Cuba, directed by the state, and focused sometimes on tracing a direct line from Martí to the victorious rebel army, has not been less productive than the exiles’ history-making machinery. A different vision of island history has matured within the Cuban system. Although there may be many economic limitations—and others imposed by formal and informal censorship—a great deal of reading, study, writing and publishing is occurring.

Cuban publishers have released a stream of books that popularize historical reading. In 1993, historian Enrique Cirules wrote El Imperio de la Habana, a study of the 1950s, when the U.S. mafia lived its glory days and controlled hotels and casinos on the island. In 1999, Luis Báez, correspondent of the Prensa Latina news service published a series of interviews with figures like Raúl Castro—Fidel’s brother, already named as the next president—and Nicolás Guillén, a black poet who died in 1989.

In these books, the Cuban Revolution is linked with the longstanding struggle of islanders against outside dominance and influence, and also with dignity and social justice.

The exiles, in turn, have produced their own works of popular history, released by some of the largest publishers in Spanish.

In 2001, Carlos Franqui, exiled in Puerto Rico, who broke with Castro after having directed Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio) in the Sierra Maestra mountains, published a biography of Camilo Cienfuegos. Norberto Fuentes, a short story and essay writer who fled Cuba in 1994 in the company of Gabriel García Márquez, published Dulce Guerreros Cubanos (Sweet Cuban Warriors) five years later. This book is a portrait of the atmosphere of paranoia and craziness that reigned within the Cuban intelligence services during the decade of the 1980s. And also Carlos Alberto Montaner, a well-known newspaper columnist who lives in Spain, wrote a reinterpretation of Cuban history from the point of view of the Cuban exiles: Viaje al Corazón de Cuba (Trip to the Heart of Cuba).

The thesis that runs through these books is of a revolution that has been corrupted, sabotaged or even poisoned by an authoritarian government.

A historical vision, more than flags, symbols or traditions (that in many occasions tend to be regional and not national), helps to maintain the cohesiveness of nations. History, a sense of a shared trajectory, creates a coherent story out of the tumultuous confusion of the past. Like mythology, this story is key in preventing the fragmentation of societies. In these books, there emerges a deep rift in the historical thought of Cubans. This gap—which now reaches even the figure of José Martí, who lived in the 19th Century—will be difficult to narrow, and may never close completely.

(Reprinted from El Tecolote, July 02, 2003)

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