Against Tyranny (From St. Petersburg to San Isidro)

The resignation of a nonagenarian Raúl Castro as head of the Communist Party, the most important position in the Cuban hierarchy, suggests that at last at this point “discomfort” or “illness” of the body have defeated the will or whim of power. Passions that in the discourse of the powerful are usually confused with a collective mandate, with a patriotic duty or a sacrifice on the altar of the Revolution and the future. After an eternity of 62 years, however, the abdication of another Castro no longer means much in practical terms. As expected, the recent Party Congress has not drawn a dividing line in Cuba’s reality.

After the coitus interruptus of the thaw with the United States, if anything has perturbed Raúl Castro sleep in recent years, it is the transfer of that absolute power he belatedly inherited: his merit has been this controlled descent —despite the perennial economic mess— into the new situation. A mechanical phase of totalitarianism that Joseph Brodsky knew in his Soviet years and described in his essay “On Tyranny” (Menos que uno; Siruela, 2006). Strictly speaking, Raúl Castro’s departure only formalizes a single-party bureaucratic variety of authoritarianism stripped (by biological means) of the original leadership and finally emptied of any allegedly transcendental content or aspiration.

It is true that he also knew how to wait, he knew how to be faithful and efficient, and that for decades he tempered his command within a military order that is the mirror in which the Party looks at itself. Raúl Castro knew how to wait like someone who expected nothing. But it is also true that Fidel Castro’s brother carried the label of “historic.” The double path of nepotism and the revolutionary foundational myth perhaps decisively set him apart —in a way that his administration did not deserve, much less his surly public persona— from the variant of the integrally bureaucratic tyrant as defined by Brodsky.

A Party man like Miguel Díaz-Canel —a tautological piece that waits in its orbit as a government official until a series of discards or purges elevate it to the apex of the mechanism— does meet that profile. “The monotonous stolidity of a party program and the gray, mediocre appearance of its leaders please the masses as they see their reflection on them,” Brodsky writes. “To become a tyrant, the best thing is stolidity.”

“Now all that is gone: burning issues, false beards, Marxist studies,” says the great Russian poet, referring to the former heyday of the underground parties. “What’s left is the waiting turn for the promotion: endless paperwork and the search for reliable cronies. There’s not even the thrill of not blabbing, as [the chosen one] is sure to lack any attention-worthy detail for the walls riddled with hidden microphones.” And he adds: “What gets someone to the top is the slow passage of time, whose only consolation is the feeling of authenticity that the venture gives: what takes a long time is real. Even in the ranks of the opposition, the progress of the parties is slow; as for the party in power, it does not have to hurry anywhere and, after half a century of domination, it can, in turn, distribute time.”

Brodsky’s description refers to the last stage of real socialism in the 20th century. A moment that the machinery of the regime never accepts as terminal, since a massive deficit of historical intellection, or a highly narcotizing dose of hypocrisy, are necessary conditions for its reproduction for some time.

It has been years since the natural history of the totalitarian disease reached that point of gravity in Cuba. And now, without recognizing it, they have had to formally decree it.

View of the Plaza de la Revolución / Photo: Jesús Adonis Martínez
View of the Plaza de la Revolución / Photo: Jesús Adonis Martínez

The symbolic capital of the charismatic leader (who has died) has been exhausted; the irrevocable failure of the utopia has been diagnosed and the project has been postponed indefinitely. The historical energy of the Revolution, which only lasts at the syntagmatic level (“the Revolution”), has been squandered.

In today’s Cuba, the discourses are definitely leaning towards extreme pragmatism, except for that epic-rheumatic interface that the official media insist on disseminating. What prevails, on a social scale, is people looking for an exit, the search for individual salvation. As for the government, economism, continuist reformism or vice versa flourish; also, a punitive legalism, that is to say, the obsessive bracing of its own structures: the threatening and punctilious disqualification of adversaries which, in the paranoid language of the State, seem to reproduce themselves like mushrooms on the walls of a dungeon, are televised for hours on end. The fine, the police summons, the interrogation, those minor, brief and formerly veiled genres are becoming more and more popular.

And, to top it all off, many pieces of the machinery have begun some time ago to conspire —although perhaps only preconsciously as far as the system itself is concerned— against themselves. The de facto State capitalism that —under military management, and with strict control of its immediate benefits— for the time being keeps the Cuban regime afloat is the greatest symptom in practice of a decisive, fatal contradiction.

“A tyrant always uses the time that should be devoted to thinking about the soul to hatch plans aimed at preserving the status quo,” says Brodsky. And in this sense, a power that only seeks to reproduce itself at all costs —abandoning all original horizons of meaning, and all those principles that now resemble sticks in the sectarian and bureaucratic wheel of the government— constitutes tyranny par excellence.

In any case, the guidelines set by the “historical generation” dictate that Díaz-Canel will not be a ruler for life. He is 60 years old, and he has a decade as respective limits at the head of the State (since 2018) and of the Party.

And that non-biological boundary[1] reinforces, if it were possible, the notion of the Party as “an industrial base [for] the reproduction of tyrants:” “Now that I think about it,” Brodsky points out, “the substitutions in the party are the closest thing to the resurrection that we can witness. Naturally, repetition breeds boredom, but, if you repeat things in secret, there is still room for fun.”

This is the game to which the 8th Congress of the Communist Party has stubbornly invited us. The tyrannical game of repetition, once is taken that small quantum leap between the historical, the dynastic or the Castroist… and that supposedly endless age of the total technical reproducibility of power.

The paradox or the irony lies in the fact that we have surely witnessed in Cuba, last November 27, the cancellation in advance of this profoundly reactionary era of technocratic Castroism and of the pretended political shielding according to the empty logic of the single Party.

Since totalitarianism decrees the invasion of intimacy, and even orders a sort of state of exception over the conscience and memory of the subject, who spies on, condemns and even punishes himself…, it was precisely in those elusive territories where, throughout the 20th century, the last frontiers of singularity were installed and the last battles for free will were fought against the power of the State. The aesthetic and political ideas that circulated thanks to the samizdat; the Writers’ Bookstore (Moscow, 1918-1922) and all the works smuggled from or to (for publication) other countries; the fear confessed by Virgilio Piñera in the National Library; the verses of Osip Mandelstam against the Ossetian Stalin that nobody saw written but that so many memorized, and then the testimony of his wife Nadeyda; the tortured and free sensibility of the loving Reinaldo Arenas; the poetry of Ajmatova, Tsvietaeva or Padilla; thousands of men in search of meaning in the nights of the gulag or the UMAP; the inner exile and suicide of poets; the complicity or disgust threading the crowd of anonymous citizens…, just to mention a few Soviet realities. All these are in the first and last instance events —skirmishes or prolonged war campaigns— of refractory memory and conscience, verified under an iron atmosphere of surveillance, secrecy and conspiracy.

This is also the case in Cuba at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. The difference lies in the immediacy and potentially viral reach with which initiatives such as the San Isidro Movement (SIM) and the N27 group, which emerged after a protest of more than 300 artists, activists and independent journalists at the gates of the Ministry of Culture in Havana, manage to communicate their opposition to totalitarian power.

Statue of José Martí. Havana / Photo: Jesús Adonis Martínez
Statue of José Martí. Havana / Photo: Jesús Adonis Martínez

If the historical times on which the traditional writer operates —say, a poet like Josep Brodsky or José Martí— are the past and, hopefully, the future; the time of the performance (see Luis Manuel Otero, coordinator of the SIM), the denunciation post and the live feed on Facebook, is precisely the present moment, the most rabid and “unmentionable” present.

The technological change brought about by the access to mobile data and the social networks —the 3G service started operating on the island at the end of 2018— has not only favored the emergence and relative influence of an independent press and artists, but also implies the emergence of a new syntax —multiple, synchronous, asystematic, but increasingly supportive— for criticism, activism and political dissidence.

It happens, as Brodsky pointed out, that the tempo of the parties is too slow, as is also, in comparative terms, the tempo of the official propaganda media, the repressive and the judicial machinery of the authoritarian state.

So, if “secrecy is an old complex of the parties” and “visual redundancy” is one of the favorite weapons of totalitarianism, there is nothing better than broadcasting live the disruptive sequences of protest and repression.

Still a good part of Cubans on the island do not move from their seats —immobile and aphasic— in their condition of spectators of a particular staging that is presented to them as absolute. Those of us who followed the process of normalization of the relationship between Washington and Havana, initiated on December 17, 2014, were just that: spectators. And those who have just emigrated during these years have been, at most, spectators who have gained a new perspective.

However, on November 27, 2020, several hundreds of Cubans acquired in a few hours their condition as citizens of a democratic Republic “with all and for the good of all” where it was possible to hold power directly accountable. That Republic was precisely prefigured in the collective gesture of having gathered there to condemn the previous night’s repression —the violent eviction and arrests carried out by the State Security— against the hunger strikers (and in some cases also thirst strikers) and the rest of those quartered at the SIM headquarters, at 955 Damas Street, San Isidro neighborhood, Old Havana.

Perhaps it is worthwhile to briefly recount the dizzying sequence of events in November: rapper Denis Solís, a member of the SIM, is accused and convicted in an express trial for “contempt” at a police officer who had previously entered his home without permission and without a warrant (the video of the event went viral on social networks).

Note then how one thing leads to another… And how it all starts with an act of raw individual affirmation —whose basic content is not in Solís’ words (“Trump 2020”, etc.)— in the face of a State that aspires to cross all thresholds, without exception. And how that becomes, rather soon, a collective gesture of radical and peaceful disobedience in Damas 955. And how such a gesture of solidarity, in which the body is put or offered, will install in a few days a narrative of life or death that makes the past and the future of the nation collide in the present time of those subjects that we have before our eyes. A narrative that is transmitted through the network and live, and that apparently has the virtue of being metabolized at the cellular level (after all, we are in the field of “biopolitics”), in the minds and bodies of others. And how it is precisely that, the hasty diagnosis of that decisive effect, which ends up provoking the police operation of November 26 at night. And how that new blind burst of state violence is the definitive condition of possibility for the collective state of citizen lucidity that affected the demonstrators on the 27.

In these months, events have continued to accumulate.

On the one hand, assassinations of reputation televised in prime time and acts of repudiation against activists and opponents, surveillance, house arrests, arbitrary limitation of movements and police cordons, or else arrests, interrogations and imprisonments (such as that of Luis Robles).

On the other hand, the performative tension and, above all, the ideological irreducibility of the SIM, whose gestures put categories such as “black,” “people,” “dissident,” “popular culture” in a new light, and move the “poor neighborhood” from the background of our national narrative to the foreground. Also, the activism of N27, articulated on the basic premise of civic and creative freedoms: the “right to have rights.” “We want an inclusive, democratic, sovereign, prosperous, equitable and transnational country,” reads their Manifesto of this April 12.

The declaration of N27 saves with the simplicity of an enumeration the false antagonistic dichotomy, that dialectic trap set by power in Cuba: sovereignty or democracy. The official discourse exalts the sovereignty of the nation or the Homeland while denying or disqualifying, as apostasy and mercenarism, any autonomous initiative to democratize it or, according to the dialect in use, to change the regime. The deliberate confusion consists in omitting that the sovereignty of a virtuous Republic would reside, not only in the government or the formal structures of the State, but above all in its own citizens full of human and political rights.

Hence, it is my status as a citizen —assumed as an intellectual and political stance— what defines my opposition in the same gesture and with the same naturalness to the totalitarian administration of time, space and the political forces of the nation, and likewise —as is a policy that takes hostage a part of the welfare and sovereignty of the common people, and that serves as an alibi for despotism on the island— to the foolish embargo of the United States against Cuba.

The succession and interconnectedness of the recent events suggests the eventuality of an ever more acute and more extensive conflict. Lately, we have seen in Cuba the magnitudes of protest and, of course, of state violence rise. Power trying to repress the effective translation, the political journey from the map of social networks and virtual communication —an interactive and multidimensional map— to the territory of the polis: the streets, the walls, the public square.

As so often has happened, the catalyzing substance may be (the possibility of) a death that no one really wants, but around which we all fly in circles: the meager weight of the human condition evoked by an unarmed individual who defies the ultimate power. Precisely that —that perfidious symbolic conspiracy that would irreversibly tear the artifice of our reality— the State Security wanted to avoid when, before dawn broke last May 2, it entered again Luis Manuel Otero’s house.

The previous week, Otero had declared himself, sovereignly, on hunger and thirst strike. We know the immediate causes. This April, he had been arrested and imprisoned for the umpteenth time. His home, raided (as in November); his works of art, destroyed or confiscated.

And now we know that a fatal logic prescribed the following.

If the man and citizen Luis Manuel Otero is watched at all hours, if he is censured, slandered, locked up and harassed whenever, punctually, the State so wishes… If his paintings, his drawings or his garrote —a colonial instrument of torture turned into an instrument of a performance in which Otero remains immobile for many hours during five days, held by the neck and with his hands tied behind his back— , if his art is destroyed or expropriated in the height of cynicism and impunity… Then the day will come when the human being and the artist Luis Manuel Otero will start to work on that ultimate and first matter that is his own body and will undertake in solitude the most intimate and devastating ordeal to which the “political animal” (Zoon politikón) can devote himself.

Because we know it is not only about the immediate facts, as we know it is not the last wave or the last storm but all the power of the ocean that drags the victim of a shipwrecked.

And there we all go sailing…

Let’s finally say that Otero’s self-inflicted shipwreck is the art of illustrating in a single body, at the stroke of hunger and thirst, what the tyranny of the immense sea consists of and what each one of us is, separately, at its mercy. (Then, except for basic solidarity or empathy, the exact values of his blood chemistry are no longer important).

I wonder, in recent months and days, how many people will have begun that political and anthropological transition between the condition of mere spectator and that of citizen? How many will have already completed that journey and how many will complete it in the immediate future? And what is the critical point at which the transformation of an individual precipitates the transformation of a country and of an era?

We do not know in Cuba. Joseph Brodsky did not know it in his day, as he had already left St. Petersburg.

The Party has just started another five-year term towards eternity. We know that tyrannies always prefer unexpected endings.


[1] From now on, there is also a maximum of 60 years to join the Central Committee of the Party, and 70 years for top leadership positions.

Jesús Adonis Martínez (Pinar del Río, 1987). Journalist. Editor of the independent magazines El Estornudo and Rialta. Studied for a Master's degree in Political Science at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Former columnist for Oncuba Magazine and correspondent for Agencia Prensa Latina. He has published articles in several Cuban and Latin American media.


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