July 14, 2021

ANTONIO GARCÍA MARTÍNEZ: The Real Cuba Isn’t a Potemkin Airbnb.

To live in Cuba is to live in a web of lies. It begins with the media, which is pure propaganda repeated by everyone, chorus-like, or else. As a cope, everyone has a half-dozen make-believe realities in their heads, which they selectively deploy depending on whom they’re addressing. I’d ask person A about person B and they’d warn me they worked for the state and to be careful. Then I’d then speak to person B and they’d tell me the same about person A. Perhaps both were correct. I wasn’t exempt: I’d lie about what I was doing in Cuba since I wasn’t supposed to be there. Everything is a regimented fantasy. Underneath it is an ever-shifting haze of rumor, speculation, and wishful thinking.

The American tourists who visited Cuba during the Obama period saw nothing other than a Potemkin Airbnb reality they inhabited for a few dollar-fueled days. To really feel the brunt of the Cuban state you need to live as Cubans do, or run afoul of the sliver of relative freedom the state affords foreigners. I’ll share two anecdotes where that normally translucent atmosphere of repression revealed itself to me.

The first occurred while I was meeting one of the tiny number of independent journalists who around 2017 were tentatively stepping out of the official channels and launching their own blogs. (He’s in the United States now but I’ll keep his name out of it.) The scene was the Café Mamainé, one of the few trendy hangout spots that had sprung up in the relatively upscale Vedado neighborhood of Havana. The journalist was recounting his independent reporting from the eastern part of the island after Hurricane Irma, when the government (as with COVID) was caught horribly unprepared.

“By showing the reality of the government’s lack of preparation, we hope to increase accountability in our democratic process….”

Me, the idiot American who didn’t quite understand yet how this worked, interrupted him: ”What accountability? What democracy? This is a total dictatorship.”

He stared at me like I’d relieved myself on the cafe’s floor, looked quickly around us, and then proceeded to utterly ignore what I’d just said as if it hadn’t happened. In Cuba, there’s very much a Set of Things You Cannot Say. “Cancellation” is a rather harder proposition there than it is in the U.S.

The second example was at a festive barbecue held in the studio space of one of the small number of Cuban artists who have managed to sell their pieces overseas for hard dollars. The company was friendly, composed of sets of mutual friends with family in tow. The hour was late, rum had flowed, and per usual, the Cubans settled down to a convivial game of double-nine dominoes. One boy, I’d guess his age around nine or ten, was engaged in the age-old ritual of punking his elders by telling salty jokes he’d heard from adults. It was the classic humor format of putting different stock characters in a comedic situation, and joking about how they’d handle it. In this case, the joke was about waiting interminably for a bus, a common Cuban occupation:

Y la divorciada (and the divorced woman)…


Y el cuentapropista (and the small-business owner)…


Y el fidelista (and the Fidel supporter)…

Suddenly the warm atmosphere was shattered as everyone, as if on a pre-arranged signal, raised their voices at once. Everyone chastised him loudly, as you would a child about to stick their hand into a fire. One couldn’t joke about Fidel supporters, even in a private social setting among friends: who knew who was an informant? Nobody wanted the knock on the door or the acto de repudio the next day.

And just like that, the domino game went on and the boy stopped with his jokes. The reflex was automatic, as natural as covering your face when sneezing.

That’s the reality of Cuba you don’t see from a tourist hotel.

The Castro regime has long viewed The Lives of Others as a how-to guide for better government.

Read the whole thing, which includes a cameo from then-Governor Reagan in 1967.

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