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Carrie Hamilton: Excerpt From Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory

March 6, 2012

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hamilton book cover.jpgPhotograph courtesy of the University of North Carolina Press

An excerpt from Carrie Hamilton’s upcoming book, Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory.

By **Carrie Hamilton**

Near the end of his classic essay “Socialism and Man,” Ernesto “Che” Guevara writes, “Let me say, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” The text, in which Guevara outlines his concept of the “new man” under socialism, has inspired generations of revolutionaries around the world. It is a meditation on the relationship between the individual and the collective and the roles of the masses, the party, and the revolutionary vanguard in constructing the new socialist society. “Socialism and Man” celebrates the role of the revolutionary leader in awakening and leading the masses and emphasizes sacrifice, heroism, bravery, and hard work as the essential qualities of the revolutionary.

As numerous commentators have pointed out, the “new man” celebrated by Guevara was very much a man. The only passage referring to women, following closely on the statement about love, reads:

The leaders of the revolution have children who, when they start to talk, do not learn to say the word for father; wives who must be part of the general sacrifice of their lives to bring the revolution to its destiny; circles of friends that correspond strictly to circles of comrades in the revolution. There is no life outside it.

Guevara’s life reflects the ideals laid out in this passage. “Socialism and Man” was written as a letter to the editor of a weekly newspaper in Montevideo, Uruguay, in March 1965, while Guevara was touring Africa. Earlier that year, the Argentine revolutionary had left Cuba, leaving behind as well a wife and several children, to return to guerrilla warfare and foment revolution in other lands—a move that would lead, ultimately, to his death in Bolivia two years later. But the text also expresses many of the wider expectations and values of the Cuban Revolution during its first decade: solidarity, collective spirit, total commitment to the cause, and sacrifice. Moreover, the passage above reflects an assumption that the nuclear family is the natural basis of society, the domain of women and children, while public political leadership is the realm of men.

I know many people who are activists of little worth. There are people who use the membership card as a step, to climb the ladder. I believe what Che said. For me Che is the greatest figure.

The juxtaposition of revolutionary love and familial/couple love represents the reverse of sociological and historical interpretations of political love as pathological and typical of authoritarian modes of government. (…) Here I broaden the focus beyond feelings between leader and followers to different ways in which love, romance, and intimacy become associated with political causes at the same time that political change shapes memories and ideals of interpersonal relationships. In the stories of revolutionary commitment that follow, love moves between different subjects and objects and between the personal and the political.

Heroes and Sacrifices

The Revolution is a love story, a beautiful romance with life, something lovely. Very few people have experienced that in the world, very few people. (Juana, b. 1935)4

I was the girlfriend of that young man who played basketball and was a member of clubs. With the triumph of the Revolution […] I had to define myself. […] The Bay of Pigs was April, I went to the literacy campaign in May. We fought. That was the only boyfriend I had. He said to me, “Either the Revolution or me.” And I said, “The Revolution.” (Rosa, b. 1939)

I think if every honest person who has lived here in Cuba does an evaluation of his or her life, they have to say that the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban Revolution as event, is extremely important in the lives of every one of us who lived through that moment. On a very personal level, I want to say that it was the most important thing in my life in every sense. It is the most important event of my life, because it’s the greatest thing that has existed in my life. It’s been a transcendental event in my life. I imagine that for many people it’s been the same, for others it’s been bad, but…Who would ever have told me that that 1st of January would have meant so much? (Jorge, b. 1942)

Let’s say that my father had an excessive commitment to the Revolution during his life and until his death. He had a big commitment. That helped me, obviously, to understand the revolutionary process, to follow it. But it also meant that sometimes he didn’t take care of […] the guidance he could give us. And it was my mother —semiliterate—who tried to guide us. But who didn’t have all the elements that could have helped us […] Without wanting to, I almost became like a father to my brother. (Salomón, b. 1962)

I always thought that I was one of those 100 percent Cubans, always. And that was wrong. I always thought of myself as very Cuban. I always thought that I loved the Revolution. I always believed that. And that wasn’t true either. So, I was also hypnotized by the collective hysteria. (Carlos, b. 1954)

Juana: Love and Loss

Metaphors of romance and heartbreak are commonly evoked in explaining the relationship of the international left to the Cuban Revolution, especially during the 1960s.5 But inside Cuba too the Revolution is often allegorized as a love story. This is clearly expressed in an interview with Juana, born in 1935 in Havana to an educated, white, Catholic, upper-class, and ultimately revolutionary family. I interviewed Juana, aged sixty-nine at the time, with a Cuban colleague. We went to her apartment in a relatively comfortable Havana neighborhood, where Juana lived with her partner of almost twenty years,

Yolanda. Juana was frail and using a wheelchair, and Yolanda, some years younger, dedicated much of her time to caring for Juana.

Although Juana speaks of her family as the most important influence in her life, her interview contains few references to private relationships. Her story is a political one in the elite sense, and she takes obvious pleasure in telling us about her involvement with the Revolution and some of its leading adherents while a young woman in the 1960s. Even when one of us asks Juana directly about her personal life, she returns quickly to politics. Her marriage, her divorce, and her son get brief mention in contrast with the long list of prominent public figures from her political and professional life. But this does not mean that her interview is devoid of feeling. To the contrary: Juana associates the world of high politics with sentiments of romance and intimacy. Her presentation of the history of Cuba, before and after 1959, has an element of the fairy tale about it:

Instead of telling us stories, fables […] my parents told us things about the history of Cuba. Something I later did with my son. I told him episodes in the history of Cuba. Those were the stories I grew up with, because my father was a historian as well. He was illustrious.

Juana’s father will prove the predominant role model in her life as she tells it, a personal and political mentor and one of a series of strong male figures. Her tales of the 1960s are filled with the names of famous revolutionaries, but the one who stands out is Che Guevara (…):

I know many people who are activists of little worth. There are people who use the membership card as a step, to climb the ladder. I believe what Che said. For me Che is the greatest figure. The new man and the highest step. That was a man. That was an activist. That’s why the little children say, “We’ll be like Che.” Ah, if only we could be like Che, all of us. All of us, not just a few more. I feel an admiration and respect for Che like nothing else. […] [His] very appearance was heroic.

Juana had met Guevara a few years before his death (…). But her description of him is not purely or primarily personal; in her evaluation, Guevara fulfils the criteria he himself set out in “Socialism and Man.” “Che” is the true revolutionary, antithesis of corruption, political cynicism, and ambition: the ultimate hero. Her words of praise, which Juana speaks with tears in her eyes, imply that in her case Guevara’s “revolutionary love” for the people is reciprocal.

(…) In the opening quotation cited above, Juana describes the Revolution as “a love story, a beautiful romance with life, something lovely.” The idea of national history as a “love story” is not new; nor is it unique to Cuba, though it has a long tradition in that country. In her study of the nineteenth-century “foundational fictions” of Latin America, Doris Sommer argues that “[r]omantic novels go hand in hand with patriotic history in Latin America.” Juana’s loving recollections of Guevara and her early years of political activism are also examples of a gendered memory of the Cuban Revolution. (…)

If it is difficult to imagine a Cuban memory of the past fifty years that does not revolve around the revolutionary victory of 1959 and its aftermath, it is still worth asking why certain parts of that memory are emphasized above others. Why is Juana’s account of the Cuban Revolution a predominantly male affair? Can her interview help us to answer the question, posed by oral historians Selma Leydesdorff, Luisa Passerini, and Paul Thompson, “How are stories forgotten, and is it possible to learn more about how a male-defined collective memory is shaped?” It is not as simple as saying that the history of women and the Cuban Revolution has been forgotten or silenced. There are numerous studies of women under the Revolution.10 Certainly a woman such as Juana, with her direct personal involvement, would be more than aware of women’s roles in her country’s history. Yet her life story is dominated by memories of men, with women in the background. Furthermore, she echoes revolutionary rhetoric inside and outside Cuba by citing Che Guevara as the model revolutionary.

(…) Juana’s interview provides some evidence of how this “male-defined collective memory” may become intertwined with individual memories to form a mythic memory of the Revolution as love story. Her interview demonstrates that largely unconscious factors, such as the importance of male role models and the visual and rhetorical domination of male heroes in the public sphere, may prove equally strong forces in shaping memory as daily conscious awareness of women’s roles in history.

Emotion also plays an important role in shaping “male-defined collective memory.” (…) The romantic love story, with its personal and political pedigree, resonates with both speaker and listener: a tale of a commitment that is not strictly rational and is both beautiful and unique. I do not suggest that the love story has a universal appeal or cannot be analyzed for political meanings. But what Passerini calls “love discourse” functions to naturalize social relations of power in ways similar to the national “foundational fictions” studied by Sommer. Put another way: remembering in the name of love can be an act of political seduction.

Salomón: Fathers and Sons

Before calling upon women to take part in the “general sacrifice” for the revolution, Guevara declares that the children of revolutionary leaders will not learn the word for father. The sacrifice of male leaders will therefore take the form of distance from the family home and in particular from their offspring. If some men, in particular those born before 1940, saw this sacrifice as natural and even desirable, interviews with their female contemporaries and with younger narrators suggest that paternal absence in the name of revolutionary responsibility could be experienced as an emotional loss and a physical burden, for women and children alike.

This feeling is keenly expressed in the interview with Salomón, a black Communist Party activist born in 1962. Salomón had been working for some years for a trade union and was in a long-term relationship with a female partner at the time of the interview, although he wasn’t living with her and had had several liaisons outside their relationship. He has no children (or at least none that he mentions). Salomón’s deceased father is the central character in his life narrative. The relationship between father and son and the mixed personal and political legacy of the older man in the life of the younger are suggested by the move in the interview between an image of a role model who was the ideal revolutionary, on one hand, and someone who neglected his family in the name of political commitment, on the other. The frequent mention of Salomón’s father—defined by his absence both during life and after death—contrasts to the place of the narrator’s mother, with whom he lived at the time of the interview, but who is mentioned only occasionally. Salomón’s first reference to his father introduces the theme of a double absence, as well as the ambivalence that will circulate throughout the interview:

Let’s say that I had a normal childhood with parents who, within their possibilities, gave me what they could. My father wasn’t a professional. He was a worker, a carpenter. He’s dead now. My mother was a housewife. She never worked. Maybe because of the machista sentiment of my father: “Here at home, I’m the one who maintains the home. You take care of the children.”

Salomón explains what he means by “normal”:

A normal childhood is, let’s say that I was raised without a hostile environment at home. I consider an abnormal childhood where there’s a couple that throws pots and pans all day, they’re angry, the child is in the middle, he’s there absorbing all those negative things. That wasn’t my case. My parents had a harmonious marriage…all the time. A bit with my father’s absence because of activities inherent to his responsibilities as Party Secretary, which he was at work. Because of his commitment to the revolutionary process he was almost always mobilized. If it wasn’t in the cane field it was in some other activity. So I saw very little of my father. In the first years of my life I saw very little of my father.

Did you feel that absence of…

I felt the absence. I don’t like to say it but I know that’s how it is…I have seen it after all those years. I was my father’s favorite. It wasn’t my brother. So my father was always very attached to me. […] I almost always left school and went to work with my father. I spent my holidays at my father’s work, I spent my whole holidays at my father’s work, in the workshop. [I have] pleasant memories of his workmates, very pleasant memories of the workmates he had at the time. But I did feel his absence when he wasn’t there, when he was mobilized, when he was cutting sugarcane…The whole time in the cane fields. That absence was difficult to overcome because on top of it we lived alone with my mother, my father, my brother, and me in one house. We have a small family, it’s not a big family. So visits were also very short. For that reason I say that my childhood was normal. We didn’t feel a hostile environment. My parents tried, as I said at the beginning, to give me whatever they could within their reach. My father sacrificed a lot. I remember that I had my first bicycle at age five. It was a huge sacrifice for him because a bicycle was expensive. You had to line up to buy a bicycle in those first years.

(…) Later in the interview, in the excerpt cited in the opening above, Salomón judges [his father’s] choice as “excessive.” As the interview progresses, he is more specific:

When I say an excessive commitment to the revolutionary process I mean…he never doubted going when…they assigned him a task…Giving something, let’s say, not material but rather something from a spiritual perspective, giving something to the Revolution. If they told him he had to join a mobilization in Camagüey, he didn’t think twice about it. He went to Camagüey. There was a hurricane and they told him that there was a restaurant or something that had been damaged, or to make some furniture, he set off…Maybe he forgot about the family at a certain point. My mother sometimes complained that he spent so little time at home. Because when he wasn’t being mobilized outside the province, he was in the sugarcane harvest. And when he wasn’t in the harvest, he was in Party activities, like the Party Secretary. And so…his commitment…That’s why I said his was…not excessive, because we can never measure the commitment to the revolutionary process.

But yeah, he spent a lot of time away from home in activities, be it for the party, or part of his job. Because he was one of the ones who stayed after his regular work hours. […] All that made him get home late, and me too because I was always with him. It was very difficult. And those things, those complaints…I remember my mother complaining. She said to him, “Well, the thing is, you spend more time at work than at home.”

(…)

Salom&oactue;n obviously admires his father’s commitment and strives to emulate it in his own life. But his decision not to formalize his relationship with his partner and to continue to live with and care for his aging mother may reflect an attempt to reconcile the political and personal aspects of his father’s legacy (they also reflect the tradition of adult children in Cuba caring for aged parents, as well as Havana’s interminable housing shortage). A similarly ambiguous heritage can be detected in Salomón’s declaration about friendships:

I think…everyone in one way or another has inherited from their parents that sense of solidarity, of getting along well with your friends. I’ve never had arguments with my childhood friends. We’ve had different points of view. Some of them are part of this revolutionary process, others not, and I respect their ideas.

This principle of respecting one’s friends, regardless of political differences, stands in stark contrast to Guevara’s claim that there could be no friendship outside the framework of the Revolution. On a political level, Salomón’s reflections about the uncertain inheritance from his father help to explain his criticism of some aspects of the Revolution:

I think we have lost some values lately. There’s been a loss of values in our society. Maybe that didn’t happen at the beginning of the revolutionary process. People had a bit of a blind faith in the process. Afterwards, we’ve realized that within the process we’ve made some mistakes. That’s why we went through the Rectification of errors and negative tendencies. But in those early days there was a blind faith. I remember, and I admitted that my father had an excessive commitment to the Revolution, that led to his neglecting the family in some way, and those were complaints of my mother. Well, over the years he also changed his commitment, because he started to realize, he could be committed but there were also things that had to be corrected. We had made mistakes. […] I think we’ve evolved over the years. The Revolution is made up of outstanding moments. We’ve had many outstanding moments, but we’ve also had very sad moments.

________________________________________________________________________

Carrie Hamilton is a professor at the University of Roehampton in London. Her latest book, Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in March 2012.

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