The Empty House of the Homeland

On February 27, a man of the people, a pie street vendor, was unjustly fined in the city of Caibarién, Villa Clara. The unfairness comes from the very nature of the vendor’s activity in relation to his personal purpose: to earn the bare minimum, to survive. It comes from his asymmetrical position with respect to the State that fines him using dubious legal figures and that has done nothing so that this street vendor could find other ways of earning a living. It also comes from another fact: the vendor has no way to pay this questionable fine. His situation is an insurmountable pothole, a blind alley, a step into the dark and no longer being able to see.

The unusual thing about this case is that this awful experience led the vendor to start a protest. He could have gone home, quietly, and then make an effort to pay the fine. He could have committed some desperate, but not public, act. However, the vendor took the leap that not many take: he turned his experience into action, he gave others a chance to act, he offered them a reason to transcend their own limits.

The vendor climbed onto the roof of the bicycle cab where he transports the pies day in and day out and, with his hands behind his head, declared himself in peaceful protest. “Let the police come,” shouted the citizens who crowded around the man. The one recording began to call for solidarity beyond Caibarién and Cuba, and people began to shout, “Patria y vida” (Homeland and life). The police arrived and issued their usual threats: they asked for ID cards; everyone would be fined. But the people did not leave. The action had gone to another level, the level of collective indignation. No one wanted the street vendor to get off of the bicycle cab anymore. They had identified the only possible solution.

This story of Caibarién appeared in three fragments; three videos that include the moment when the street vendor is taken by car to the Government and everybody follows him so as not to abandon him, and the moment when everybody is already there, waiting, and the president of the local government comes out to explain that the fine will be withdrawn and that even the situation of the street vendors will be analyzed in order to find a long-term solution, more satisfactory for everybody.

The injustice has been recognized on the basis of the non-functionality of measures that suffocate the common citizen, who often depends on low paying jobs to make a living. After this, perhaps the street vendors will be less harassed, but it will not mean that what they do can be elevated to the status of enterprise; they will remain at that lower level because the State has so decided, just as restaurants are not restaurants but food processing spaces. One of the big problems in Cuba is that entrepreneurs are confined to the eternal status of precarious producers; sometimes they are not even producers, but only middlemen: they exchange, buy and resell, they earn a small amount by taking advantage of the general shortage. In Cuba, opportunity is too often built on the non-opportunity of others, on the exceptionality of luck or crime. And the only one who benefits from this is the State.

Let’s play the harp in Parliament

Jacobo Londres tells us that Zoé Valdés should have a space, something she has demanded so much, to speak before the European Parliament, because nothing else will be able to show so effectively the rampant madness in which Castroism has plunged us. I think this is awesome.

The controversy over who should have gone to speak at that forum is, to say the least, unnecessary, because it was an event inspired by and organized around the song “Patria y vida” and its impact. The same song sang by the people in solidarity with the street vendor in Caibarién. A song that Cubans inside and outside the island have turned into a hashtag, inscribed on walls and even tattooed on themselves. When something shows that capacity to multiply itself, going through such different levels of interpretation and appropriation, it does not find plausible refutations. There will always be those who criticize, but that is unimportant.

What is interesting in this polemic that does not reach the level of polemic (of who is better and of the harp), are the prejudices implicit in such a claim. Prejudices that we will all have to face, whether the dictatorship falls or not. Prejudices that are also evidence of that regime and of its permanence for too long among us. The regime has imposed certain logics; it has positioned issues and false debates and priorities. That is why fighting against the regime, or rather, making our way through it, also implies the ability to circumvent those debates that generally take the aspect of dilemmas. The danger of dilemmas is that no one comes out of them well: a competition in which everyone always loses. To place limits on thought before even starting to think is not a good way to foster creativity, the generation of new horizons.

The first net gain of both the song and the European Parliament event is diversity and, more than that, the almost shocking evidence of a demand. All the song’s authors and performers are black or mulatto. Many have disassociated themselves from that later, but the fact is so visible that it cannot be denied: it is a slap in the face. Nor does it need any far-fetched analysis. Neither does the phrase “Homeland and Life”, whose value lies precisely in the simple overcoming of a dilemma too long active within the Cuban imaginary and behavior.

If we establish an analogy with the case of the street vendor from Caibarién, we could say that here the winning formula of the State has been inverted, according to which opportunities for the most vulnerable would only come from the spoils of those who have more benefits or some extra benefits. The opportunity here has its origin in an anomaly. It originates in the capitalization made by the market, but it also originates in the positioning of the politically incorrect as a new paradigm in Cuba. And it also originates from the recognition among the songwriters themselves, who share similar backgrounds.

Franz Fanon said that colonialism was exhibitionist and therefore many of the manifestations of resistance were also exhibitionist. There is almost nothing more exhibitionist than a negro curro, for example. The challenge is that these manifestations can be camouflaged and generate other less obvious, subtler expressions: to maintain openness, after all. And I believe for sure that is the case of the song “Patria y vida”, due to its authentically popular character, its intrinsic ease, in spite of its high-flown character. They are like the different houses within the Yoruba practice in Cuba: they claimed a long time ago, with or without Yoruba Association, their independent condition. Likewise, “Patria y vida” can be agglutinative, and even include a certain degree of national superstition, but it will never set itself up as an excluding canon. It will always open an opportunity for alternative expressions. The European Parliament event confirms this intuition: it was diverse in every sense and anti-establishment at the same time. Because discrimination is almost always literal, vindication should not be, it should include the possibility of escape.

Something equally significant in that event is that presented how the folds that power generates in the history of countries are reflected in individual stories. The prohibition on the island for so many years of the music of Arturo Sandoval or Willy Chirino created a split, but at the same time an enigma, a healthy curiosity and a desire to consume the forbidden. Hearing them speak, one can link that irreverent propensity to the knowledge of the cruelty of the injustices inflicted upon them. The reasons for that injustice are very similar to the reasons for the injustices suffered by us. This confluence is more than a meeting of generations or a revenge of culture against the continuous attempt to pervert history. It is the finding of a common path in the symbolic sphere, but also in the sphere of the human. It is to look each other in the eyes, doubly.

In the end, there is always the sensation of an unexpected gain, because it is somewhat unusual for a song to generate such a stir. But the unusual is the sphere of art. Cuba’s situation is so precarious that perhaps the things that produce changes are the most basic. People has been operating from there for a long time. We survive and we think badly, so it is possible that we might need the jolt of the shout and of certain basic enunciations to start the wheel of change and turn diversity into multiplicity.

Our liberating expressions must serve to save the pie seller from a fine.

Pedro Luis Ferrer has a song that I often quote; it is entitled “Si no me voy de Cuba” (“If I Don’t Leave Cuba”). It deals with the impossibility of pigeonholing the Homeland, but in the same way almost any other feeling or place of enunciation. They are generally places that have been disrupted. It does not mean that they are not concrete, but that their concreteness is emotional, not rational. That is why one makes so many mistakes from them. And suffers.

The Homeland is like an empty house that fills up depending on the life of its inhabitants: their needs, their purposes, their incomes and their tastes. It also can become empty. In fact, its emptying is perhaps as essential as all the rest. Creating space. To know how to change. I don’t know if there is anything before. I don’t know if there is anything before the ridiculous love for the earth. I don’t know if that ridiculous love is everything.

Anamely Ramos González. Bachelor in Art History and Master in Cuban Cultural Processes. She was a professor at ISA for more than ten years. Independent curator and art critic. She coordinates the Loyola Forum project, about social debate on current Cuban issues.


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