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Thursday, March 23, 2017
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- With books in hand, the Russians have returned to Cuba.
For thirty years they were an indispensable presence on the island. The then Soviets provided socialist Cuba with international political, economic, and military support in a world clearly divided between two blocs and swept by the frigid winds of the Cold War and threats of atomic conflagration.
We Cubans had electricity and watched television (innumerable films and even “Russian” cartoons) thanks to Soviet oil; we read books and periodicals printed on the paper they sent us; we built up a defence with their weapons and equipment, baked our bread with Soviet wheat, and ate tins of “Russian meat”. During these three decades, tens of thousands of Cubans studied in Moscow, Leningrad, Kazan, and other cities of the gigantic country, and thousands returned with Russian brides -not all of whom were Russian, strictly speaking.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and with it the indestructible friendship, the oil vanished as well, and the paper, and the wheat. The new countries that sprung up from the ruins of the union unanimously opted for a return to capitalism, and capitalistically demanded money for trade. Cuba had to maintain its system of socialism in the most desolate solitude. There followed the awful crisis whose official and historical name -the Special Period in Times of Peace- doesn’t begin to convey the intensity of the hardship, the shortages, and the desperation that average Cubans suffered through.
The reaction was immediate: as soon as this provider of technical assistance and resources collapsed, its previously suffocating and expanding presence in the Cuban culture and daily life ended in an instant. Of the Russian women married to Cubans, most fled, unable to take the chronic blackouts and shortages. No visible traces were left of the thirty-year social, cultural, and political marriage: not a single custom, popular dish, or even military base, all of which vanished as well. The Russian footprint in Cuba was simply wiped clean, and in no time at all nothing remained of the complicity between the two countries aside from a few ideological notions and political practices that even the Russians would eliminate in their own country but that Cuba’s leaders chose to retain.
In recent years, Moscow has initiated a rapprochement with Cuba, urged by prime minister and former president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, who has sought to revive Russian pride and greatness and its prominence on the political map. Cuba, crippled by a tightening US embargo, has long needed all the political support and economic and trade help it could get. It responded enthusiastically to this gesture. The exchange between the countries revived, though in a different form: it was no longer a product of socialist geopolitics but rather a group of tactical, trade, and political agreements based on common interests between two countries with different, if not antagonistic, economic and ideological systems.
This new contact has brought with it various psychological and historical advantages: a nostalgia for the old days of brotherhood, or the fact that virtually no historical analysis of what happened in the Soviet Union in its 70 years of socialism, deeply scarred by the political methods of Stalin, was to be found in Cuba -nothing about ethnic cleaning, the forced displacement of populations, terror as a state policy, ecological disaster as the price of development at any cost, or even the shady extraterritorial adventures (Poland, Spain, the Caucasus, and certain Baltic countries) planned by the Georgian secretary general and continued by his heirs.
Now, with books in hand, the Russians are returning to the island. The Russian Federation was the guest of honour at the Cuban Book Fair (February 12-March 7). The event was transformed into a platform for a massive disembarking of figures from Russian politics and the contemporary Russian art scene. Books (in Russian), films (Russian and Soviet), and dance companies were at the forefront of this attempt to restore the closeness between the two countries shattered for almost two decades, during which insults and accusations of disloyalty were exchanged in abundance.
Though the Cuban press may at times filter, for example, commentaries on the devastating effects of socialist realism on Russian art, it is clear that the image Russia is presenting of itself and its present bears little relation to what it was in the 1990s, when the country tipped into the void, and the cradle of the socialist revolution renounced the principles that it had proclaimed for 70 years, opening its arms and soul instead to the most savage form of capitalism in what we in Cuba called the “desmerengamiento”, or the collapse of the great meringue.
This stable and prosperous country, respectful of the differences between us today, is nonetheless, a capitalist country, and for reasons of dialectical and economic logic, it must carry along with it the characteristics of the system studied and condemned by Marx which led the Bolsheviks to foment revolution so many decades ago. Perhaps the most unexpected lesson generated by these developments is that we are learning, now, that there are evil and less evil (indeed almost good) forms of capitalism, and that the past is a book from which we can lift favourable chapters and skip over those that stir contention, for the benefit of politics. Always politics. (END\COPYRIGHT IPS)
(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.