Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Down and out in Havana

(July 2002)

From Socialist Review, No.265, July 2002.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Is Cuba free from capitalism? Chris Harman looks at the novels of a writer who does not think so

Sometimes a novel can engross and repel you at the same time. Certainly that’s what happened to me with Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Anclado en Tierra de Nada (Anchored to the Land of Nothing) – the first part of his Dirty Havana trilogy.

It repelled me because it belongs to the genre of what might be called ‘lower depths’ fiction. This wallows in the dirt, squalor, drunkenness and mechanical, dehumanised sexuality of those who live on the margins of society, where the artistic petty bourgeois merges with the lumpenproletariat.

The genre shows part of the underneath of society – but only the part that doesn’t fight back and create solidarities of its own. Once you’ve read a few works like that you don’t really want to read any more.

But Gutiérrez’s novel is engrossing because it is set in a place much of the left believe is free from the commodification and alienation of capitalism. Yet Gutiérrez depicts life for the poor in Havana as not being that much different to that in a dozen other Latin American cities. They have to slave or hustle to eat. The words ‘dollars’ and ‘hunger’ are continually on their lips. Unless they get the one they cannot assuage the other. So they live in order to work rather than working in order to live. If they can’t work, they sell what is at hand – tin cans cut up to make cones for ice cream, a second hand refrigerator, their bodies to tourists along the Malecon seafront.

The slogans of the regime may once have meant something. The fictional narrator of the novel used to believe in them, and Gutiérrez himself was once a member of the armed forces, a cane cutter, and in the Communist Party. But now they disguise the reality of an increasing gap between the rich who have access to dollars and the poor who don’t:

‘They are making themselves rich with the hunger of the poor. It is a new era. Suddenly there is a shortage of money. It’s as it always has been. Money crushes everything. Thirty five years contracting the new man. It’s all over now.’

The novel is set in the early to mid-1990s, when the collapse of the USSR and its trade links to Cuba produced an enormous economic crisis in the island:

‘Cuba was entering the most serious famine in its history. No one imagined all the hunger and the crisis that would come about. The crisis was violent and went deep into the small corner of everyone’s soul.’

As a result, the impressive eight-storey buildings that line Havana’s seafront are like

‘a splendid majestic castle in the middle of a hurricane. But inside it’s falling to pieces, and it’s an incredible labyrinth of stairs without bannisters, darkness, foul smell, cockroaches and fresh shit ... Thousands of people crowd into them like roaches, skinny, underfed, dirty, unemployed people, drinking rum at all hours, smoking marijuana, beating on drums, and multiplying like rabbits, people without perspective, with limited horizons.

’Those who give the orders cannot remotely imagine what it means to live six or seven to a single room of four by four metres, with a bathroom shared between 50 or more people.’

Gutiérrez does not see himself as a political writer. What matters is ‘reality. As hard as it is. Taking things as they are in the street. Seizing them with both hands, and, if you have the strength, lifting them up and letting them fall over the blank page.’ This leads his narrator to be as cynical about the promises of a better life in the US as about the system in Cuba.

Some readers will reject his account of the lives of the poor in Cuba as simply lies – just as many people rejected similar such accounts of life in Russia or Eastern Europe a couple of decades back. But others will want the sort of explanation Gutiérrez does not try to provide. For without such an explanation it seems that revolution can never change things for the better.

The explanation goes back to the very character of the Cuban Revolution of 43 years ago.

Most great revolutions involve massive uprisings by the lower classes which throw up organisations of their own which fight to control society from below – the Parisian sections in 1792-94 during the French Revolution, the Paris Commune in 1871, the soviets in Russia in 1905 and 1917, the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council in 1956.

The Cuban Revolution was different. The old state run by the dictator Batista was so corrupt that it was incapable of satisfying the elementary demands of any class – rich or poor. Even the US government eventually withdrew support for Batista. Under such conditions the presence of a small guerrilla army (200 or so fighters) in a remote part of the island was sufficient to cause the armed forces to collapse.

There was general rejoicing when the rebel army entered Havana in 1959. But there was not the creation of a new form of revolutionary democracy from below. Instead the leaders set about establishing a new state structure from the top down and using it to build up the Cuban economy, encroaching on US property interests in the process.

This was too much for US imperialism. There was an attempted invasion in 1961, and the imposition of economic sanctions that have lasted ever since.

The sanctions crippled the attempt to build up the economy. The country was too small and too poor to pull itself up by its own bootstrings.

Che Guevara came to believe the only way out was to spread the revolution, and left to fight guerrilla actions in Congo and Bolivia. The other leaders persisted with the top-down approach to economic development. They tried to use the one resource the island had in abundance – sugar cane production – to break into world markets in 1970. The attempt meant subordinating the whole country to commodity production – and its workers to the harsh rigours of alienated labour.

Much of the sugar was sold to the old Soviet Union, and its rulers saw Cuba as a useful pawn in their global Cold War conflict with the rulers of the US. Their roubles kept the Cuban economy afloat, until the USSR itself collapsed amid economic crisis in 1991. The Cuban regime survived, but only by the further commodification of society described by Gutiérrez.

Most people in Cuba tolerate the regime because they do not want gangsters from Miami and their friends in the White House to take over the country. The left internationally has to stand firm with them against this threat. But this should not mean romanticising Cuba. When we say another world is possible, this includes for the people depicted in Gutiérrez’s novels.

Some will reject his account of the lives of the poor in Cuba as lies

Last updated on 27 December 2009