Cuba libre

By David Iaconangelo

The Cubalogues: Beat Writers in Revolutionary Havana,
by Todd F. Tietchen

(University Press of Florida, ISBN 9780813035208, 208 pp)

Revolucion Cubana

Cover of Album de la Revolución Cubana, a trading card album published in Havana in the early 1960s. Image by Jeremy Richardson, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

The Cubalogues begins, as just about any book dealing with the recent cultural history of Cuba must, by touching upon Fidel Castro’s June 1961 speech “Words to the Intellectuals”, in which he declared:

The Revolution must act in such a way that the entire sector of artists and intellectuals who are not genuinely revolutionary might find a place to work and to create within the Revolution, so that their creative spirit will have an opportunity and freedom of expression within the Revolution, even though they are not revolutionary writers or artists. This means that within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing . . . as [the Revolution] comprises the interests of the people and signifies the interests of the entire Nation, no one can rightfully make a claim against it.

As Todd Tietchen notes, this speech marked most plainly the moment at which the hardline Communist elements of the Revolution turned their sights on the cosmopolitan strain within it. “Words to the Intellectuals” portended the closing of Lunes de Revolución — the literary supplement edited in part by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and which reflected his omnivorous tastes and aversion to political allegiances — and the banning of P.M., the short film directed by Cabrera Infante’s brother, Saba, for its cinéma vérité-style depiction of Havana nightlife, thus inaugurating a period of intense official involvement in the ideological content of artistic endeavours in Cuba. Just from the passage quoted above, one gets a pretty good sense not just of the creeping authoritarianism of the ensuing years, but also of the coercion and harassment employed to influence cultural output. I think not only of Reinaldo Arenas’s tribulations, but also of the scene in Wendy Guerra’s novel Todos Se Van (2006) in which Fidel himself appears at a new post-Revolution art school constructed on what used to be a golf course, and, as he goes around looking at the canvases and praising the works, places his hand on the young artists’ shoulders.

The arc of post-revolutionary Cuba makes for a compelling narrative — early days of feverish artistic invention by pro-revolutionary cosmopolites are followed by the fall in which fascist elements consolidate their power and bear down on their liberal compatriots. But what distinguishes Tietchen’s book is its treatment of “an explicitly political subgenre of Beat travel narrative” — the Cubalogues of the title, which include C. Wright Mills’s Listen, Yankee! (1960); “Cuba Libre” (1960), by LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka); Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Poet’s Notes on Cuba” (1961); Marc Schleifer’s “Cuban Notebook” (1961); and Allen Ginsberg’s “Prose Contribution to Cuban Revolution” (1962). These writers were associated with the Beat movement of the 1950s and 60s — largely bohemian and pacifist, and advocating greater room for sexual and expressive freedom. Their trips to Cuba were largely funded by the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and their narratives railed against the United States Left’s willingness to let corporations’ interest become synonymous with the national interest — and, in turn, set the parameters of respectable political discourse. I mean this last bit in reference principally to “what’s fit to print.”

An important concern of the Cubaloguers was that Castro’s revolution was not getting a fair shake in the American mainstream press: reporters and commentators were groundlessly representing the revolutionary government as a little USSR-in-the-tropics, and such representation was an indicator that a worldview featuring protectors of American corporate interests on one side and Communists on the other had entrenched itself as an orthodoxy among politicians and the public at large. The defining moment of this new orthodoxy, according to Tietchen’s history, came in a 1952 Partisan Review symposium in which “twenty-four leading intellectuals” claimed to exhibit “a more ‘affirmative’ attitude towards American institutions and American culture,” and nearly all the respondents agreed with the idea that “intellectuals were now more centrally aligned, if not wholly identified, with American political, economic and cultural institutions.”

Tietchen obviously shares the Cubaloguers’ antipathy to this state of affairs, and his account of its effect on US foreign policy towards Cuba depends heavily on his consideration of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. — author of The Vital Centre (1949) and advisor to President John F. Kennedy — as the most influential proponent of this new orthodoxy. Tietchen traces Schlesinger’s time battling leftist figures in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Office of Strategic Services on into his career as presidential advisor, during which he evidently lent his support, in a memo to Kennedy, for a “quiet infiltration of anti-Castro exiles into Cuba and subsequent [US military] support through air drops” — though he also warned the president of the uproar such tactics would cause internationally. The picture that emerges from this account is one in which Schlesinger and other hawkish liberals sought to stake out a claim to the political centre; Kennedy’s New Frontier’s progressive legislation, then, was a vital counterpart to their anti-Communist platform, as it co-opted their leftist opponents’ claim to the moral high ground.

In opposition to such maneouvering towards an orthodoxy was what Tietchen calls the Cubaloguers’ “stranger” vision of democracy, as elaborated by poet and Beat forebear Robert Duncan. Tietchen points to this “formation of an ineluctably diverse political coalition based . . . on a convergence of marginalised and differentiated human subjects across horizontal points of contact” as a common guiding ethos among the writers he treats. But even more consequential, I think, is his idea that the Cubaloguers’ emphasis on improvisation and spontaneity — essential, formative values for the Beats — accounts for why the Cubalogues read the way they do. Indeed, these writers’ political concerns were inseparable from their aesthetic concerns. They seem to have had a clear sense that their duty as intellectuals in the United States was to the revolutionising of their culture’s dominant ethics, and the aesthetics which expressed them. And because they believed themselves to share certain aesthetic sensibilities with the Cuban Revolution, these writers felt comfortable getting fully behind it during those first few years, and to varying extents afterwards.

Tietchen’s book is well researched, smartly argued, and quite successful at rehabilitating an unfair popular image of the Beats as apolitical deadbeats. He situates the Cubaloguers skilfully and interestingly among the ideological and political battles of that time. And the book hits the right note in closing with a call for still “stranger” notions of democracy in the age of an Obama presidency which has also tried for a rather unaccommodating political centre. But in light of Tietchen’s nod to how the aesthetics of the Cuban Revolution was part of what attracted these Beat internationalists, there’s one point I feel especially deserves to be touched upon: how new technologies have made it easier for democracy-promoters and social entrepreneurs to organise and secure money to effect change in a place they’ve never been to, and about which they may know next to nothing.

The modern internationalist may find himself in the position of promoting mobile phone drives in Cuba without ever having woken up in Havana. The fact of global citizenship is becoming more real without necessarily becoming more tangible, and internationalists can increasingly divorce themselves from the aesthetic qualities of a place while still driving change in it. Internationalists — whether they be intellectuals, non-profiters, bloggers, or others — in the US and other First World economies are increasingly going to feel a sense of conflict between their duties as national and global citizens. Should an American citizen, for instance, devote himself to promoting greater access to new technologies in Cuba, or should he mobilise his efforts towards protesting the embargo? If it does indeed come to a choice, should domestic activism take precedence?

Tietchen does well in taking up the American intellectual’s duty to speak the truth about his own government’s transgressions, and his book deals with artists whose sense of duty to their art and to their role as national and global citizens came, in those first years of the Revolution, into total alignment. For me, at least, reading this is an exercise in nostalgia.


The Caribbean Review of Books, January 2012

David Iaconangelo is a writer, translator, and former editor of ZafraLit. His essays and fiction have been published in Words Without Borders and Baltimore City Paper, among other publications.