One way to understand any revolution is to understand the “histories of humiliation” that they emerge from. A people in motion whose historical trajectory is impeded by some immovable, intransigent Great Power, will, by some law of popular physics, find a way to resume their motion unimpeded. When Castro spoke of Cuba under American imperial rule as the “brothel and Las Vegas of the Caribbean”, he offers us the dialectical inversion of Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister who in 1926 referred to the Caribbean as “the slums of empire”. Next to these slums stand the grand hotels and casinos built by the empire; in the case of Cuba, 90 miles of its coast is the “monster” José Martí once wrote of, which could enjoy the sweetness of Cuba’s relegation to nothing more than a monocrop plantation producing 17% of the world’s sugar. Meanwhile, the “Good Neighbor” wrote Cuba’s history for it, offering Amendment after Amendment to any narrative of Cubans as anything more than slumdwellers. It didn’t matter if Cubans rebelled against the Machado dictatorship in 1933: the U.S. government could withhold recognition of Ramón Grau San Martin, and it was as if this democratically elected leader had been written out of history. To understand the Cuban Revolution, then, is to understand an island enslaved, first on the plantations of Spain, then abandoned to the periphery of history as nothing more than a sugar mill and tourist resort.
John Quincy Adams had written in 1824 that “there are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation; and if an apple severed by the tempest from its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom”. But if every action has its equal and opposite reaction, then the Cuban Revolution stands as the bright star contesting the gravitational pull of the American black hole. Castro had said that history would absolve him; little did he know that it would also absorb him. The priests of santería would place “protections” in Castro’s path and dubbed him “El Caballo” (the Horse). “The horse had mysterious qualities to believers, the santería priest being known as the “horse” of the saints.” A religion fundamentally a product of the Spanish (and British) colonial abduction of enslaved Africans to Cuba would embrace a revolution that offered the descendants of slavery what they still desired: emancipation.
But an idealized history cannot be the result of a necessarily progressive revolution. Instead, we find “fusion”; as Susan Eckstein notes, “it became not uncommon to find among the laboring classes statues of Santa Barbara, a syncretic, brown Virgin, alongside glasses of water for the spirits and pictures of Fidel, Che, and other revolutionary heroes”. She is left to observe that “the revolutionary government was not merely haunted and “held back” by traditions rooted in the past. Castro also astutely used history, historical symbols, and national passions. Even after a generation of Communist rule he still identified the revolution with the island’s main national heroes, heroes of Cuba’s struggle for independence, and with the major battles of the independence movement. He portrayed the revolution less as a break with the past than as a fulfillment of the revered heroes’ mission”. The promise of the Cuban Revolution was to realize that the past cannot be undone, but the future is constantly rewriting history. Cuba cannot unwrite the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and imperialism, but it can ensure that it is never again condemned to this fate. Today we can still hear Cuban representatives warn about the American desire to convert the island “back into a casino”. To Cubans, the revolution offered both a future and the chance to rewrite history. From the early drafts, we observe that there will be no return to the periphery of the past.
By Joseph Mullen