The invisible boot
A personal note on Cuba and what it can teach Americans now
The difference between the communist system and the capitalist one is that both kick you in the ass, but in the communist one they kick you and you have to applaud, while in the capitalist one they kick you and you can scream. I came here to scream.
-Reinaldo Arenas, Antes Que Anochezca
It’s hard to convey to those who live in the free world what life is like under a totalitarian dictatorship. I’d never experienced anything remotely like it before I traveled to Cuba to report a story in 2017 for WIRED magazine, and it was one of the most memorable and unpleasant experiences of my life.
The first thing is the fear: you as an individual exist naked and without any recourse against the depredations of the state. I was reporting illegally, with no journalist visa (which would have taken at best months to get). The police could have knocked on the door and hauled me away to the ‘cuartico’ (little room) at Villa Marista, the Cuban Lubyanka, or disappeared me into some other extrajudicial hole. The authorities did just that yesterday to Camila Acosta, a correspondent for Spanish newspaper ABC for ‘crimes against state security’. All the Founding Father rhetoric about tyrannical kings and their obsession with habeas corpus suddenly make more sense when you’re confronted with an unaccountable state machine and no recourse to rule of law or individual rights.
All that Americans have known since World War II is yet higher plateaus of freedom and material wealth, with all the horrors of the world—killing fields, political prisons, autocratic demagogues, a real resistance—held so far out of their mind’s eye they don’t even know what they look like anymore. There is no law of physics that dictates that must continue however.
The second noteworthy thing is all the deception: in Cuba everyone lives enmeshed in a web of ever-changing lies. Truth, by any definition, is non-existent, as all official media becomes a form of propaganda that’s necessarily repeated by everyone, chorus-like. As a cope, everyone has a half-dozen make-believe realities in their heads, which they selectively deploy depending on whom they’re addressing. I’d ask person A about person B and they’d warn me they worked for the state and to be careful; I’d then speak to person B and they’d tell me the same about person A (perhaps both were correct). To both of them I’d lie about what I was doing in Cuba since I wasn’t supposed to be there; I also started living in a web of lies. The public face of everything is a regimented fantasy, and underneath that is an ever-shifting haze of rumor, speculation, and wishful thinking.
The American tourists who visited Cuba during the Obama period saw nothing other than a Potemkin Airbnb reality they inhabited for a few dollar-fueled days1. To really feel the brunt of the Cuban state you need to live as Cubans do, or run afoul of the tiny window of relative freedom the state affords foreigners. It’s hard to see because three generations into the revolution, Cubans have been so well-trained and beaten into submission, the repression is something they reflexively enact.
I’ll share two anecdotes where that normally translucent atmosphere of repression revealed itself.
The first was while I was meeting one of the tiny number of independent journalists who around 2017 were tentatively stepping out of the official channels and launching their own blogs. (He’s in the United States now but I’ll keep his name out of it.) The scene was the Café Mamainé, one of the few trendy hangout spots that had sprung up recently in the relatively upscale Vedado neighborhood of Havana. The journalist was recounting his independent reporting from the eastern part of the island after Hurricane Irma, when the government (as with COVID) was caught horribly unprepared.
“By showing the reality of the government’s lack of preparation, we hope to increase accountability in our democratic process….”
Me, the idiot American who didn’t quite understand yet how this worked, interrupted him:
”What accountability? What democracy? This is a total dictatorship.”
He stared at me like I’d relieved myself on the cafe’s floor, looked quickly around us, and then proceeded to utterly ignore what I’d just said as if it hadn’t happened. In Cuba, there’s very much a Set of Things You Cannot Say, and ‘cancelation’ is a rather harder proposition there than it is in the US.
While nothing in America is remotely at the level of Cuba, it sure seems we have a growing taste for apocalyptic politics, orthodoxies enforced by public acts of repudiation, snitches sanctimoniously ratting out people publicly for personal gain, lists of Things That Cannot Be Said, and citizens huddling in private groups to share ideological samizdat they dare not discuss in public.
The second example was at a festive barbecue held in the studio space of one of the small number of Cuban artists who have managed to sell their pieces overseas for hard dollars, and who lived a relatively comfortable life. The company was friendly, composed of sets of mutual friends with family in tow. The hour was late, rum had flowed, and per usual, the Cubans settled down to a convivial game of double-nine dominoes. One boy, I’d guess his age around nine or ten, was engaged in the age-old ritual of punking his elders by telling salty jokes he’d heard from adults. It was the classic humor format of putting different stock characters in a comedic situation, and joking about how they’d handle it. In this case, the joke was about waiting interminably for a bus, a common Cuban occupation:
Y la divorciada (and the divorced woman)…
Y el cuentapropista (and the small-business owner)…
Y el fidelista (and the Fidel supporter)…
Suddenly the warm atmosphere was shattered as everyone, as if on a pre-arranged signal, raised their voices at once. Everyone chastised him loudly, as you would a child about to stick their hand in a fire. One couldn’t joke about Fidel supporters, even in a private social setting among friends: who knew who was an informant? Nobody wanted the knock on the door or the acto de repudio the next day.
And just like that, the domino game went on and the boy stopped with his jokes. The reflex was simply automatic, as natural as covering your face when sneezing.
That’s the reality of Cuba you don’t see from a tourist hotel. So is this:
Despite the various challenges we face currently, the reality is that Americans have never really known hard times within living memory—real hard times, not invented ones based on Twitter dramas and ‘misinformation’. All that Americans have known since World War II is yet higher plateaus of freedom and material wealth, with all the horrors of the world—killing fields, political prisons, autocratic demagogues, a real resistance—held so far out of their mind’s eye they don’t even know what they look like anymore. There is no law of physics that dictates that must continue however.
The perfect is often the enemy of the good, and the hellbent drive toward some supposed utopia often ruins an imperfect society that would be better served by a more fervent embrace of its founding principles. We’ve lived so comfortably in the society those principles created, we delude ourselves into thinking they can be dispensed with in the name of some newfangled orthodoxy.
The sad reality is that countries can and do choose to collectively commit suicide, as we’ve seen with Syria and Venezuela more recently, and Cuba more distantly. Embracing some revolutionary philosophy that promises to heal all ills and right all wrongs in one swoop, and then exploiting the worst human tendencies to implement that wild-eyed vision, is the sure path to ruin. While nothing in America is remotely at the level of Cuba, it sure seems we have a growing taste for apocalyptic politics, orthodoxies enforced by public acts of repudiation, snitches sanctimoniously ratting out people publicly for personal gain, lists of Things That Cannot Be Said, and citizens huddling in private groups to share ideological samizdat they dare not discuss in public.
America wasn’t built on ‘cancelation’ and ‘content moderation’ guidelines and ‘problematic’ this and that; it was built on the inalienable right of every citizen to tell their government, as well as any fellow citizen, to go fuck themselves and read and write and do whatever they like. The perfect is often the enemy of the good, and the hellbent drive toward some supposed utopia often ruins an imperfect society that would be better served by a more fervent embrace of its founding principles. We’ve lived so comfortably in the society those principles created, we delude ourselves into thinking they can be dispensed with in the name of some newfangled orthodoxy.
As California governor Ronald Reagan said in his 1967 inaugural address:
Perhaps you and I have lived too long with this miracle to properly be appreciative. Freedom is a fragile thing and it's never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. And those in world history who have known freedom and then lost it…have never known it again.
Such a people is then condemned to live in the crumbling ruins of their once-beautiful country, as Cubans are now, struggling feebly for their own subsistence and against their own government. If you’re fortunate, you live out the rest of your days nostalgically recalling what your nation was once like, as my grandparents did, while having to build a new life in a foreign one. Some mistakes a free people get to make only once.
¡Viva Cuba Libre!
Americans often operate under the delusion that they somehow bring democracy and human rights in their luggage, and dispense it along with the dollars they spend on mojitos. Is a visiting ‘Madison’ from Orlando going to work some democratic magic that Heinz from Dusseldorf or José María from Sevilla (both of whom have taken their cheap, Euro-trash vacations in Cuba since the 90s) somehow did not? I’m skeptical.
The more clear-eyed Cubans, particularly those who’ve personally profited from the opening, will mutter that at least it’ll create some capitalism-oriented pseudo-bourgeoisie that can then demand rights from the government. If Cubans now have the spare cash to buy smartphones and pay for creaky data plans (and use them to publicize government abuse), it’s partly due to that opening. Possibly so. Time will tell.