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The Failure of Cuban Intellectuals

The Failure of Cuban Intellectuals
by Bryan Aja
March 22, 2007

A communist government stands on the brink. Party officials see their
power dithering and proclaim they are stronger than ever. A capitalist
neighbor prepares its armed forces for a flood of refugees. Thousands
have already risked their lives to come. Families separated for decades
are eager to be reunited with loved ones. The free world waits, dangling
exotic foods and innumerable shampoo brands to further entice the
deprived subjects of a failed socialist experiment. On one side of the
boundary, intellectuals debate whether the people really have a right to
be reunited. In the dark, secretive side of the boundary, intellectuals
mutter a little about a so-called new way and then become strangely
quiet. Both sides are blind to what will really happen: There won't be a
reunion; there will be a takeover. There won't be a new way; there will
be a shopping spree.

The place and time I've described is the two Germanys in 1989, a setting
that reveals many similarities when placed on top of the current
situation with Cuba and the United States. German intellectuals were at
odds with both governments. Intense debate in 1989-90 on what form
reunification should take was directly followed by a scandal in the
summer and fall of 1990, during which Christa Wolf and other East German
dissident writers were revealed to have been informants for the Stasi.
These events forced Andreas Huyssen in 1991 to proclaim, "Something is
rotten in the state of German ."

Switching through temporalities, we find ourselves shortly before
another falling wall. has taken ill and charged his brother
Raul with running the country. We are preparing for a lifted embargo.
American and Cuban American intellectuals are wondering whether Miami's
elite ought to be allowed to return and do business in Cuba after Fidel
dies. They will of course try to return. Capital doesn't take well to
borders. Greed will always advance colonialism. Writers, journalists,
and teachers in the United States will need to challenge the inevitable
media portrayals of naïve-looking residents from a recently freed
country in jubilant shopping mode. Images of East Germans crossing the
border to try their first banana, drink real coffee, and sing along with
David Hasselhoff have untruthfully reworked the victory for
over oppression into a victory for consumerism over shortages. Even
though the residents of Cuba won't be clamoring for bananas or coffee,
the media will disproportionately dwell on scenes of visitors gawking at
the Japanese sedans and backyard swimming pools of their Miami kin.

Today, intellectuals on the island are pointing to their old plea for
multiparty elections. Just pointing. Quietly and with no renewed vigor,
because was a close friend of Luis Pavon, a party official
who cracked down on writers and dissidents in the seventies. Their task
is all the more difficult, given the constant surveillance and threat of
incarceration. But they do have the western hemisphere's most literate
population to their advantage, a population who is keen on discussing
the details of a "new way" beyond communism and capitalism, that is,
whenever a BBC reporter or American student on study abroad isn't asking
for their opinion. They must however be wary of "the embargo in the
mind," which can continue long after the end of Castro's regime. The
German equivalent, die Mauer im Kopf, or wall in the mind, results from
the vast cultural and material disparities which still persist between
West Germany and the new states of the former East Germany. Entire
industries in the East, which formerly were nationalized, have been
deemed unprofitable and shut down. As a result, unemployment is much
higher than in the West, there are fewer holidays and longer work hours,
and the population is decreasing rapidly along with a severe brain
drain. Furthermore, East and West Germans, though being close in
heritage and ethnicity, often claim they don't understand each other. No
doubt the same will occur when the Cuban diaspora sees its embargo end
and tears down its wall. Will we really recognize our relatives? Will we
really understand each other? Which side will claim the other side is
lazy? Promiscuous? Uneducated? Ask a German from either side, they'll
say all of that about a German from the opposite side. Such insults can
already be heard today within the Cuban diaspora about "the other Cubans."

The failure of German intellectuals was their inability to properly
explain and advocate a new way or, to use their language, a third path.
That inability was then followed by nasty in-fighting, born out of
revelations of involvement in the Stasiby authors. When the communist
party relinquishes control in Cuba, a vast government archive will be
open to researchers. Upon inspection it may come to light that many
Cuban dissidents, authors, and activists have ties to the Cuban Stasi,
the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución. They can then follow the
example of their German counterparts and vilify each other. If they do,
something is bound to feel rotten in the state of Cuban culture. Or they
can take a reconciliatory approach, making a distinction between CDR
informants who needed a mechanism for survival and CDR informants who
were callous in their participation. This is not meant to imply that all
Cubans or Cuban writers, journalists, and teachers are informants.
Raul Rivero and writers Jorge Angel Perez and Anton Arrafat,
for example, consistently demonstrate their incorruptibility.
Nevertheless, an intricate and omnipresent network of spying does exist
in every community in Cuba.

There is another problem for the post-embargo period. Both Cubans in
Cuba and Cuban Americans are utterly lacking in any attempt to come to
terms with the past. Both sides insist their path up to now has been the
right path. One side of the diaspora, in the United States, has
habitually cowered from racial integration or women's liberation. The
other side, on the island, can't imagine any form of emancipation
without government involvement. The task of Cuban and Cuban American
writers, journalists, and teachers is to promote the principles of
reconciliation and peace at every juncture, but especially during
transitions like the one we're experiencing now. This is an opportunity
to learn from the very recent history offered by the collapse of
communism in Europe. If the mistakes of even the recent past can be
avoided, then we will never need to discuss a so-called failure of Cuban

In one of the old "Workers' Palaces" on Karl-Marx-Allee in East Berlin,
a McDonald's has opened up. The gap between rich and poor is increasing
dramatically in all five federal states of the former East. Unemployment
is mounting and young people are moving in droves to cities in the West.
Racist and nationalistic ideologies are on the rise. Where there was
once much hope for a new way, there remains only the gunk of a rapid
capitalist takeover and the resultant cultural deterioration. Meanwhile,
Castro lies sick in . Today's intellectuals have no excuse for
not knowing what happens next, because we've been here before.

Bryan Aja is a graduate student of German at San Francisco State
. His paren
ts are from Cuba.

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