Museum Cuba

The Pope’s recent visit to Cuba has unleashed a storm of commentary and claims from the usual quarters. Conservatives in Miami are angry that the Pope didn’t meet with dissidents. The Castro government is undoubtedly happy about the Pope’s condemnation of the US trade embargo, but less pleased with his comments about Marxism. But even this can’t bother Cuban officials much. After all, Fidel himself declared in 2010 that the “Cuban model” no longer works.

The papal visit is a minor footnote to global affairs, an elaborate dance of two entities seeking relevancy wherever they can find it. Media coverage inflates this event in order to exaggerate the details: a dissident is arrested and silenced, Fidel pokes fun at the papacy qua occupation, and so on. And the usual pro- and anti-socialist rhetoric from Havana and Miami, respectively, obscures what lies in plain sight—behind the pomp and circumstance, reform and revolution, and Cold War political parameters, Cuba moves along the same path as the rest of the world. That is, the island is slowly but inexorably rolling back what would be called the welfare state if Cuba were another country.

State interventionist capitalism, Keynesianism, Fordism, socialism—these are labels that now describe a bygone era. The Cold Warriors on both sides of the Florida Straits continue blithely, not realizing that the battle of ideologies is over, and that both sides lost (notwithstanding the single triumphant decade of the 90s during which the “West” thought itself best). Now austerity is the watchword in all corners of the globe. Even Cuba.

As in so many other places, the state now appears as an impediment to both the right and the left. It’s an obstacle to the former, because its ideology of freedom demands that economic choices be left to the sacred individual; to the latter, because state management of production and distribution has reached its historical limit, and because the fight to save the welfare state is a defensive struggle over its ruins.

The Cuban state stakes its reputation and bases its legitimacy on precisely this welfare state that the revolution built when it was still revolutionary, when it was still a movement of the masses. It now finds itself in a situation in which it must continue to describe its mission as socialist, anti-imperialist, and egalitarian, even as it is forced to take measures which liberalize the economy and dismantle the social safety net.

For anything at all to be preserved of the Cuban Revolution, a left movement will have to arise independently of the state, which can commemorate past victories, but can’t create new ones.

The following text is a brief excerpt from my dissertation. It’s a reflection on two museums and the petrification of revolution.

Rachel Weiss, in To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art, observes that “the Museum Cuba had replaced the Utopia Cuba.” In other words, the commemoration of the revolution has replaced the revolution itself. This is particularly evident in two of Havana’s most important museums: the Museum of the Revolution, housed symbolically in what was the Batista regime’s Presidential Palace (bullet holes left during a failed attempt to assassinate the dictator are still visible on the building’s main stairway and in its central patio), and the José Martí Memorial that overlooks the Plaza de la Revolución.

Bullet holes at the Presidential Palace

The Museum of the Revolution, just a stone’s throw from Angel’s Hill (made famous by Cirilo Villaverde’s novel Cecilia) and the church where José Martí was baptized, memorializes the armed struggle upon which the current incarnation of the Cuban state is founded. In the absence of the socialist triumph that the state once proclaimed, the Museum of the Revolution feels like the architectural manifestation of an oxymoron. In a kind of viaje a la semilla, the displays move back in time to Playa Girón, the fight in the Sierra, the Granma voyage, Moncada. The old uniforms and weapons make it clear that the revolution belongs to another era. The fact that the museum exists seems only to confirm that the revolution no longer does, and that the living struggle of the masses has become ossified and institutionalized.

At the José Martí Memorial, a similar sensation takes hold. Scattered tourists amble through the plaza, photographing themselves in front of Enrique Avila’s iconic sculptures of Camilo and Che. It’s August and sunny, so they do not linger. A few workers grind away with stone saws, working to repair the marble at the base of the imposing monument, known locally as La Raspadura. Inside the star-shaped monument is a museum filled with photos and paraphernalia. Most relate to Martí and his associates, but an entire section (contained in one of the star’s outer vertices) is dedicated to the monument itself. Confronted with the old designs, sketches, maquetas, and photos of the monument’s construction, one realizes that the museum devotes considerable space to memorializing itself.

According to the information in the official guidebook, for sale at the museum, the José Martí Memorial was inaugurated in 1996, during Havana’s museum boom. It’s telling that this museum in particular—ostensibly dedicated to Martí but in fact a grandiose gesture of self-legitimation by the Castro government—insists on semantically doubling the monument: memorializing the act of memorialization. This strange inversion corresponds to a historical moment in which the revolution’s only way forward (i.e. the only way it can justify its continued existence) is to look back and memorialize its own achievements, including its successful completion of a monument that Republican Cuba had begun but never finished. Ironically, the Martí Memorial’s self-referentiality eliminates whatever possibility it had of fulfilling the promise made on the cover of its guidebook. Here, a blue and white sky evokes the stripes on the flag flapping in the breeze next to the massive statue of Martí at the museum’s entrace. Against this background, the upward thrust of La Raspadura directs the eye to the slogan: “Algo más que piedra.”

1963 Martí 2012