Socialist Nostalgia, Cuban State Power

Is it ever possible to reconcile clashing visions of national memory?

Twenty years after the USSR’s collapse, the late Cuban filmmaker Enrique Colina produced a documentary about the Soviet legacy in Cuba that quickly became an underground hit. Los bolos en Cuba y una eterna amistad, released in 2011 and translated as “The Russians in Cuba and an Eternal Friendship,” cast a wistful, casually satirical look back on the 1970s and early 80s, the period when the Soviet Union’s influence on the island was at its peak. The film was slated to debut at the Havana Film Festival, but festival organizers excluded it from the competition for awards. In protest, Colina withdrew from the festival entirely, leaving his work to circulate hand-to-hand via thumb drive.

Other than the film’s irreverence, it is hard to know what could have been so objectionable. Taking his title from the mildly derisive nickname (“bowling pins”) that Cubans once gave to Russian visitors, Colina combined interviews with archival footage to create a largely warm collage of material and psychic residues from the Eastern bloc: Soviet-made electric fans still cooling homes, photo albums of early Russian technical and military personnel on the island, childhood recollections of idealizing cosmonauts. The documentary thus joined others—including 2005’s El telón de azúcar (The Sugar Curtain), 2006’s Todas iban a ser reinas (We Were All Going to be Queens), or Colina’s subsequent La vaca de mármol (The Marble Cow) in 2013—in expressing a Cuban version of German ostalgie, or its various Russian and Eastern European genre equivalents.

Whatever their excesses, harebrained schemes, and ideological castles made of sand, Colina seemed to suggest, the 1970s and 80s were the “good years” when Cuba delivered a modicum of abundance and equity to its citizens. Right … ? Perhaps it was that hint of doubt—the crucial difference between a “restorative” and more richly “reflective” brand of nostalgia, as per Russian American cultural theorist Svetlana Boym’s memorable distinction in The Future of Nostalgia—that irked cultural authorities. That, or the implication that Cubans’ good days were behind them.

Without naming such nostalgic discourses directly, University of Florida historian Lillian Guerra takes aim at the amnesias they perpetuate in her latest book Patriots and Traitors in Revolutionary Cuba, 1961–1981. Where Colina documented sentimental attachments to a lost socialist golden age, Guerra argues that those same Russo-Cuban exchanges contributed to a stark regime of discipline and exclusion on the ground. Where Los bolos en Cuba traced the physical and affective remnants of a bygone era of travel and trade, Guerra describes the tentacles of a security state that innovated upon the practices of Eastern Europe, deputizing everyday citizens in the work of surveilling their peers and, just as important, themselves. Leading up to and especially during Cuba’s culturally Sovietized era in the 1970s and 80s, Guerra argues, political institutions and discourses on the island enforced a rigid demarcation between patriotic revolutionaries expected to show absolute loyalty to the state and nonconformists and outright traitors thought to deserve ostracism, or worse.

There is no wistfulness in Guerra’s account, in other words, “reflective” or otherwise. The book thus raises the question of whether it is ever possible to reconcile clashing visions of national memory.

At the same time, Guerra’s somber vision stands apart from her prior work. Guerra’s scholarship on post-1959 Cuban history has never been nostalgic, per se. But even when exploring the machinations of state power, her prior writing left more room for acknowledging why some Cubans might retain positive memories of the campaigns and critical efforts in the revolutionary era to which they had contributed. By contrast, reading Patriots and Traitors leaves one with a harsher impression: that any nostalgia Cubans feel for socialism’s past—however colored by sarcasm—is a lingering, corrosive product of the state’s successful efforts to shape the popular imagination in the first place.


And Cuba Shall Lead Them

By Andrew Klein

Lillian Guerra is the most influential historian of the Cuban Revolution of her generation, and certainly in the United States. For more than a decade, she has pioneered innovative methods for reconstructing the political, social, and cultural history of revolutionary Cuba “from within.” Some have mischaracterized this imperative as idealizing citizen participation and ignoring the revolutionary government’s disciplining power. Others have suggested the trend undersells the importance of diplomatic history, especially US-Cuban relations and the effects of aggressive sanctions.

On the contrary, any historian of Cuba knows that Cuban state institutions after 1959 became omnipresent in Cubans’ lives, and that government leaders never ruled an island completely unto itself—especially given the ups and downs of their alliance with Moscow and the threat of the United States 90 miles away. Nonetheless, given the enduring perception that Cuba’s history is reducible to a Cold War fable, or a story of bearded rebels and secret diplomacy, recent scholarship has revisited the past 60-plus years from the inside out and at the crossroads of state structure and popular agency. It is an enduring testament to the imperial gaze that making the case for this kind of scholarship so familiar in other contexts is even necessary.

Guerra began this work in her award-winning 2012 book Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959–1971. It was not an easy task in a country where the archives of government institutions are not exactly open books. Nonetheless, through extensive readings of rare revolutionary-era state press; memoirs; censored film; interviews; and, yes, some lucky archival finds, Guerra constructed one of the most compelling accounts to date of the radicalization of the Cuban Revolution from an anti-imperialist, ideologically heterodox movement in 1959 to a one-party socialist state after 1961.

Importantly, she did so through a sophisticated excavation of the ways Cuban officials explained the meaning of revolutionary policies to citizens and how citizens constructed their own interpretations of those policies in turn. The evolving relationship between state and citizen discourses about the Revolution—as much as the concrete actions of the revolutionary government—was one of the book’s central themes.

Because of this focus, hope courses through Visions of Power’s pages, albeit fading as years elapse. That hope begins with the triumphant Revolution, which Guerra insists was necessary and encompassed more than a restoration of procedural democracy in the wake of the 1952–1958 regime of Fulgencio Batista. Guerra makes this point vividly through her analysis of a mass rally dubbed the “concentración campesina” in July 1959, for which middle-class Havana residents welcomed 500,000 peasants into their homes.

Yet even after the elimination of competing political currents, the breakdown of US-Cuban relations, the nationalization of most foreign- and Cuban-owned private businesses, and the consolidation of one-party rule—all in quick succession—journalists, cartoonists, filmmakers, artists, and everyday citizens, now from within openly socialist state institutions, still insist that it is their right to point out “their” revolution’s faults. Guerra’s work laid bare the frequently devastating consequences of their questioning, like the marginalization and exile that befell the creators of El Sable (The Saber), a short-lived humor supplement to the Union of Communist Youth’s newspaper. Yet, for all the book’s examination of the repressive outcomes of the emerging political order in the 1960s (especially forced labor camps for sexual and religious minorities known as the UMAP), “the Revolution” resists complete appropriation by the state made in its name. Citizens’ attempts to claim and effectuate their own meanings of “the Revolution” provide an inspiring leitmotif. And even though those efforts fail by 1970, leaving trails of bitterness, their protagonists at times still remember them fondly.

Patriots and Traitors is a fitting sequel to Visions of Power in many ways. Guerra’s knack for cobbling together alternative archives in the face of official silence is once again on display. The book also deepens her examination of what she previously called a “grassroots dictatorship,” where citizens not only collaborated with the state to keep tabs on suspected dissenters but willingly conceded individual political rights as the required price for defending national sovereignty and social gains.

Crucially, Patriots and Traitors extends the chronological reach of Guerra’s prior scholarship into the understudied 1970s and 80s. (By contrast, Guerra’s 2018 monograph, Heroes, Martyrs, and Political Messiahs in Revolutionary Cuba, 1946–1958, represents a prequel.) The 1970s are often described as a decade of Soviet-influenced “institutionalization” rather than euphoric “experimentation.” Still, readers familiar with Guerra’s earlier work will notice a darker turn that cannot be explained by the expanded temporal coverage alone. Early chapters, for example, detail the forced re-education and rehabilitation of political prisoners in the 1960s. Later sections expose the relentless political education programs to which young Cubans were subjected in the 1970s as well as pressures to report on the ideological weaknesses of their peers. In short, one is less likely to come away from Patriots and Traitors with any redeeming, or hopeful, perspectives about citizen participation in the Cuban revolutionary project.

If Cubans are ever to get beyond the binary of patriots and traitors, excavating that binary’s workings is a historical and civic necessity.

To be clear, Guerra has not lost her interest in popular resistance or revolutions that might have been. These themes emerge forcefully through interlocutors like Ernesto Chávez. A once-devoted volunteer teacher in the Revolution’s early education brigades, Chávez furnishes Guerra with a copy of the letter he wrote to Cuba’s titular president in 1970 to protest his trial by members of the Union of Young Communists for supposed ideological indiscipline. Agency is also evident in the accounts of former residents of urban slums who denounce favoritism among government elites as well as their own forced relocation to government-built public housing. Toward the end of the book, Guerra advances the novel thesis that citizen exhaustion with expectations for “perfection” under models of “communist morality” across the 1970s contributed to the social explosion of the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, which saw 125,000 Cubans leave the island in a span of several months. Put another way, if the binary of patriot versus traitor provided an organizing principle for Cuban society, many defied its terms.

At the same time, Guerra makes a blunter argument than in her prior work about the oppressive nature of the Cuban revolutionary state and its reliance on citizen accomplices. If Visions of Power elucidated the policing of thought, behavior, and ideas as key features of the revolutionary experience by the mid-1960s, it nonetheless treated “the Revolution” as an evolving, maybe even salvageable, “palimpsest”—“a struggle between a handful of revolutionary leaders to reconcile their vision of Cuba’s past and future with the multiple visions that the Revolution continuously unleashed,” as she put it.

Patriots and Traitors, by contrast, focuses on the increasing ubiquity, and insidiousness, of what Guerra calls Cuba’s “total state,” especially by the 1970s. The phrase “total state” is meant as a nod to totalitarianism while indicating that the Cuban state was not a mere copy of Eastern European models. It may need a more exact definition, not least because the word totalitarian trickles into Guerra’s vocabulary occasionally. (And perhaps its aspirations were more total than its effects, given evidence of citizen agency that runs through Guerra’s story.) Still, another lexical turn is just as revealing: the phrase Communist state appears just four times in Visions of Power; in Patriots and Traitors, it appears on 37 occasions and becomes a recurring refrain.


Cuba & the US: Necessary Mirrors

By Geraldo Cadava

Departure or not, Guerra’s more pessimistic depiction of Cuban revolutionary experience and state-building would find better company among Cuban artists today than it might have ten years ago. Cuban ostalgie continues to rear its head, including in more acerbic varieties emphasizing fewer past glories than Potemkin villages. (See, for example, 2015’s excellent La obra del siglo.) But if Enrique Colina’s comedic jaunt through the 70s bore the imprint of state-led visions even as it poked fun at them, recent films by younger Cubans raised “after the fall”—and who have less direct memories of socialism’s “high point” to claim their affections—have become much more uncompromising in confronting the traumas of those and prior decades. Consider Sueños al pairo (Dreams Adrift), a documentary about the scorn heaped upon a singer who attempts to leave the island during the Mariel Boatlift; or 2016’s Santa y Andrés, a fictional examination of a gay writer confined to house arrest in the early 1980s and the complicated friendship he forms with a local revolutionary peasant sent to be his minder. These films, like Guerra’s latest scholarship, challenge the state’s historical memory canon forthrightly. They also emerged out of an increasingly daring Cuban independent film scene, freed by digital technology and international partnerships from needing to rely on Cuba’s lone state-run film agency.

Despite these new creative possibilities, the fate of each film reveals that the dichotomy of patriots and traitors is still alive in Cuba in many ways. Sueños al pairo was censored from the 2020 Muestra Joven de Cine Cubano, a festival dedicated to up-and-coming filmmakers. Marginalized from future professional opportunities in Cuba, its codirectors are now in Europe in quasi-exile. Similarly, Santa y Andrés was censored from the Havana Film Festival in 2016. After further brushes with Cuban authorities, its director, too, recently left the country.

And yet, the films’ mere existence—and their wide circulation via the internet and other informal means—suggests that the world that erected the binary between patriots and traitors exerts much less of a hold on Cuban imaginations today than it did previously. This is despite the now post-Castro Cuban government’s attempts to recycle that binary constantly, as could be seen in the state’s repressive response to and rhetoric about historic antigovernment protests on the island in July 2021.

A growing critical consciousness is cause for hope—but only if the necessary pursuit of accountability, memory, and change can somehow avoid perpetuating the binary of patriots and traitors in reverse. That won’t be easy, as suggested by any cursory look at the political culture of the Cuban expatriate community in Miami. Guerra’s book does not offer a roadmap to reconciliation. It angers more than it heals. On the other hand, if Cubans are ever to get beyond the binary of patriots and traitors, excavating that binary’s workings is a historical and civic necessity. icon

This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava. Featured-image photograph by Yerson Olivares / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)