From Cha-Cha-Cha to Che! Che! Che!: Deconstructing the New, Improved, Postcolonial White Man’s Burden

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A prime example of such bigoted condescension is an article recently published in the travel section of The Telegraph, which in many ways continues and pays homage to that venerable genre of British prose, the colonialist travelogue, in which the writer is always very careful to camouflage all condescension and in which all foreign squalor is turned into charming differences, or “local “colour” (Italics mine).15 Essential to such writing is the conceit that the differences between the observer and the “other” are substantial, and that this chasm allows the observer to never lose objectivity or to pass judgment. A second conceit is assuming that the “other”, who is so sorely lacking in the same refinements as the observer, is “exotic” and not bound by the same concept of shame, and is therefore somehow closer to nature, that is, closer to a primitive stage of human development. To hide all signs of contempt, the primitive other is romanticized and portrayed as guileless and shameless, and as capable of living with less comfort and of enjoying his or her and animal instincts more fully than the reserved and civilized observer. Underlying all such conceits is another one, which is very slippery and so carefully encoded as to pass unnoticed, that is, the pact established between author and reader, and the encoded language of the author/reader that seals that pact and allows shared values to be exchanged or even shaped through the writing and reading processes.

Key to this pact is the concept of “local colour,” which is so freighted with meaning as to defy definition. “Local colour” is shorthand for all those very carefully constructed sentences that refer to exotic peculiarities, sentences that are intentionally bereft of explicit judgment but packed with details that highlight the difference between the “other” being described and the reader’s own familiar world. The assumption encoded into the term “local colour” is obvious: while the familiar seems bland, or colorless, the unfamiliar can seem brighter, or more colorful, like the grass that is always greener on the other side of the hill. The greater the difference or oddness, the brighter the local color. And, usually, the brighter the “local colour” the wider the qualitative gap between the other and the author/reader, and the more careful the encoding of all judgements about the inferiority of the other vis-a-vis the author/reader. It stands to reason, then, that places where people themselves are of a different color – which in the case of the British usually means a darker pigmentation – the meaning of “local colour” assumes various shades of meaning. It is no accident that British reserve and politeness made “person of colour” or “coloured person” the acceptable term for all dark-skinned others. It is a loathsome term that so carefully encodes and veils a whole forest of prejudices – and, sadly, it is also the term that is now politically correct for all those who are judged to be non-whites by white elites, such as the author of this essay..

Attempting to provide her readers with a taste of “local colour “ Schuckburg begins her piece in The Telegraph with a thick description of the exotic and very African primitiveness of Havana, where shoes and shirts and decent clothing and sports equipment and even teeth are unnecessary items and where the savage, animalistic rhythms of the jungle – or bush, as British prefer to say – prove so irresistible that even the elderly feel compelled to dance the day away:

I sit on a bench in a tiny park, and the colour, music and exuberance of old Havana engulf me...An intoxicating blend of Spanish guitars and African drumbeats drifts from a nearby bar, where an elderly couple is performing an afternoon salsa...Three barefoot boys in tattered shorts kick a dented can over the cobbles...Bare-chested men exchange jokes as they push barrows of rubble. A grizzled, toothless man approaches me and holds out his hand. I give him a few tiny coins.

Ay Dios mio! Jesus H. Almsgiving Christ! Did the coins really have to be few and tiny? Yes. You bet, yes. Those are perhaps the two most important words in that opening paragraph, for they help to establish two key principles in the slippery, always well-encoded pact between the travel writer and her audience: 1. The observer’s superiority and benign condescension, which are the very basis for her objectivity; 2. The inferiority, simplicity, and primitiveness of the Cubans, who are very happy with their subaltern status. The outstretched, begging hand reifies the shamelessness of Cubans as well as their submissiveness, and marks them as primitives. The begging toothless man also confirms the fact that the author is cavorting with inferior subalterns in a much clearer way than any of the other not-so-subtle clues in that first paragraph, including the shirtlessness and shoelessness and the dancing to African drumbeats in the middle of the afternoon. The coins themselves reify the observer’s superior elite status and the native’s inferiority. Their small size and number are mentioned (or invented), perhaps as a Freudian slip of sorts, to subtly reveal to the right kind of reader the hidden racist code that permeates the whole article: the few tiny coins sum up the author’s esteem of the ultimate worth of these shameless primitives, whom she is glad to observe from a safe distance, as one who travels through Cuba rather than as one who lives there, day after day. The almsgiving, then, confirms. Shuckburgh’s own superior status perhaps a bit too colourfully, for through this symbolic exchange she reveals her own shamelessness to the beggar and her readers, that is, her shameless, thinly veiled contempt for a nation of beggars who are so care-free as to crack jokes while hauling away the rubble of their own crumbling dwellings and her shameless glee at finding a place where the natives are thrilled to receive even the tiniest of gifts from those who go slumming on their island.

One must also ask: Is Ms. Shuckburgh at all aware that her opening paragraph could be taken as an indictment of the Revolution and proof positive of its many failures? How could the Revolution be praised as a great success when Cubans beg on the streets, or wear tattered clothing, or no clothing at all? Why is there rubble to be carted about in barrows? What has been wrecked? What is crumbling? Why barrows? Where is the power equipment? Where are the trucks? Where are the great sports programs? Why are the boys kicking a dented can on the street rather than a ball on a grassy field? Why are they barefoot? Where are the shoes promised to everyone by the Revolution? Where is the Revolution’s great medical and dental care? Why is the grizzled man toothless? Why did he lose his teeth? Aren’t there any dentures to be had? Or razors?

Could it get any worse than this? Unfortunately, yes. The reader has no trouble finding out where the rubble comes from and why it has to be carted away.

As I look up, a woman leans from an ornate, rusty balcony to hang out washing and waves down at me. Beneath her, the peeling stucco façade of the once-grand house is criss-crossed with wooden scaffolding. It's a typical sight.... Many incredible buildings are crumbling....Beyond Plaza Vieja, the streets are potholed and strewn with rubbish, and families sit on doorsteps in front of squalid, sparsely furnished rooms. The average wage is £ 7 a month [ $13.17 in American dollars] - food is scarce, and housing is in crisis.

And it keeps getting worse. Shuckburgh admits not only that once-lovely Havana is falling to pieces, but that the only money spent on repairs comes from Unesco World Heritage funds rather than from the Revolution, and that the tiny fraction of dwellings with “leafy courtyards” that are refurbished by Unesco are not used to house or school the shirtless, shoeless, toothless Cubans she so seems to love and admire, but are rather dedicated to “vibrant art galleries” that cater to tourists only. To her credit as a journalist, Shuckburgh does pause her rickshaw long enough to consider what benefits, if any, Cubans may expect from their government’s heavy investment in tourism, which has now become the Revolution’s leading industry, especially after Fidel closed down over half of Cuba’s sugar refineries in 2005. But the news is just as depressing on that front.

The Cubans I speak to hope that tourism and foreign investment will help to alleviate poverty, but admit that the tourist peso, worth 20 times the local peso, is itself creating class divisions between those with access to it and those without.

Jesus H. Cheek-turning Christ! If this is praise for the Revolution, then please never let this journalist deliver my eulogy!

But maybe I should change that plea; perhaps she could be a great eulogist after all. Ms. Shuckburgh does have a way of turning dross into gold, or at least of making leaps of faith that would make John Wesley and Soren Kierkegaard weep for joy. Since Saint Ignatius Loyola was blessed with the so-called “gift of tears” and wept constantly (a rare mystical favor that signaled perfect empathy with a suffering world and its crucified Savior), I doubt that Shuckburgh could ratchet up his weeping, but I am certain Saint Ignatius could jump for joy and cry at the same time, for her faith in the Revolution is of exactly the same sort as the faith he wished all good Catholics would manifest, as he very clearly explained in his Spritiual Exercises, in the thirteenth of his “Rules for Thinking With the Church:”

If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines it.16

Undaunted by the many references she makes to the misery endured by Cubans, she makes a giant leap of faith and finds ways to see white as black and to praise the Revolution and its leaders. Shuckbergh waxes poetic about Fidel. After describing the museum that has been set up in Havana to honor Simón Bolivar -- the revolutionary leader who led South America’s bid for independence from Spanish rule in the early nineteenth century – she bemoans the fact that Britons don’t have any real heroes such as Bolivar that they can look up to. In contrast, she observes, “Cubans are lucky” to have “several giants to worship - not lightweight media celebrities, but principled, visionary reformers.” Right at the top of her list of “principled, visionary reformers” that Cubans get to “worship” (her verb, not mine) stands Fidel Castro, the very same man who bears the responsibility for the crumbling buildings and the shoelessness and all those other miseries she has just so aptly described.

There are few photographs of him, and no statues, but for most Cubans, Castro is a living legend who has maintained his communist ideals despite the collapse of communism elsewhere, and despite sanctions and embargoes from the "Enemy" to the north.

And so the twisting leap of faith is made. It may be an elegant pirouette, and perhaps an admirable one, in a fundamentalist postcolonial sort of way, but it nonetheless a frightening one, which requires a deep abiding trust in the wholesale superiority of abstract ideals. Fidel is great, she tells us, because he has pigheadedly forced an entire nation to follow communist principles that were long ago abandoned elsewhere throughout the world as a resounding failure, and because he has done so without any regard whatsoever to the price paid by Cubans. She also thinks that he is wonderful for having stood up to the United States, the great “Enemy,” and all its bogus sanctions and embargoes.

Among the many items that Shuckbergh fails to mention –such as the fact that the embargo has not stopped the United States from being Cuba’s top foreign supplier of agricultural products for many, many years– the most significant one to omit is fact is that Fidel has stifled all dissent in order to stick to these principles , and that in the process he has created one of the most brutally repressive regimes in the history of the Western hemisphere, a regime far worse in human rights abuses than any of those that are normally considered heinous, such as those of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the Somoza family in Nicaragua. But the human rights issue is too big for her to ignore altogether. Nearly everyone on earth is aware of the fact that there are two million Cubans in exile (about 20% of Cuba’s total population), and that these exiles tell tales of kangaroo courts, unfair imprisonment, torture, and summary executions. So, in order to make mention of this subject and not have it affect her leap of faith, Shuckburgh makes light of it. And she does so in the most reprehensible way imaginable, by using the fear-ridden comments of the natives as testimonials that should be taken at their face value, and by offering up undigested knee-jerk clichés and Revolutionary groupthink slogans as proof of the fact that Cubans are really, really happy with their lot and especially with their self-appointed “visionary” worship-worthy Maximum Leader. Of course, it helps that she already thinks of Cubans as simple subalterns who are very happy with their deprivations, and even happier with Fidel’s loathing for democracy. Prejudice has everything to do with her wilful blindness and her seemingly naive acceptance of silence as proof of unconcern..

The Cubans I speak to all share Castro's patriotism and his distrust of democracy, and are intensely proud of Cuba's egalitarianism, education, health care and sporting achievements. None of them mention human rights or freedom of expression.

How wonderful. Yes, I suppose the barefoot boys who were playing with a can were intensely proud of Cuba’s sporting achievements. And, yes, of course, everyone in Cuba discusses politics openly, especially with foreign journalists who might quote them. Why not ask any of the two million Cubans who have fled their island home about those human rights abuses – especially those who were prominent artists, writers, musicians, or athletes and were born after the Revolution turned their island into an egalitarian paradise?. Any of them could explain to her in great detail why no one living under that regime would dare mention the subject to a foreign reporter, or even to a neighbor or relative, or trusted friend. All Cubans know that they can end up in prison for saying the wrong thing, and they also know that any of their neighbors, relatives, or friends can turn them in to the authorities as “counter-revolutionaries” for questioning any aspect of the Revolution’s policies. They are also very painfully aware that there are rewards for those who tell on others and that anyone – including one’s own children or parents – can reap great benefits and gain greater control of their environment by acting as chivatos, or sntiches. Of course, the Revolution does not call them snitches, but principled heroes.

Supporters of the Cuban Revolution and of Fidel’s coercive state love to gloss over the human rights issue, principally because they choose to believe that Cubans are different, and that they don’t care and are perhaps incapable of appreciating individual rights or freedom of expression. Many Cuba supporters also blame the United States for turning Fidel into Mister Mean, for forcing him to be hard on his own people, malgré lui, in spite of himself.

Ms. Shuckburgh hinted at this in her travel piece, but Brian Wilson, who was quoted a few pages back, is very frank about his blame-throwing. Again, as is often the case with postcolonial neocolonialists, his arguments circle back to some very bigoted, condescending view of Cubans as different. Wilson concludes his piece in The Guardian by blaming the United States for all of Cuba’s current woes, including Fidel’s repressive policies. But Wilson would not dare to even hint that there was repression of any sort in Cuba. No. In a stunningly brilliant example of British understatement, evasiveness, and condescension, Wilson speaks of seeing “political paradoxes on every street corner”, hastening to add that such “paradoxes” were the “inevitable” result of forty years of American aggression, and could be ultimately dismissed altogether because they were “irrelevant to the bigger picture of what Cuba represents as a symbol of human potential”17

I am willing to wager that for Mr. Wilson “political paradoxes” can only exist in the third world, among the lesser folk, and that while he would also probably speak of Mao’s or Pol Pot’s atrocities as “paradoxes”, he would instantly switch from speaking cooly about “irrelevant paradoxes” to railing in a much less detached manner about “political repression” or “human rights abuses” when dealing with Hitler’s Third Reich or the Soviet Empire, simply because those being skewered by totalitarianism in such cases were Europeans. More than that, I am certain that if he and all his relatives and friends and fellow countrymen were the ones being silenced and deprived of all liberties for the sake of abstract ideals, as citizens of the United Kingdom, Mr. Wilson would not only scream bloody murder instead of whispering about irrelevant paradoxes, but also wage guerilla warfare in the sad remains of Sherwood Forest against the buggers who dared to deny his rights.

Whether or not Mr. Wilson or Ms. Shuckburgh or any other such neocolonialist bigot is ever consciously aware that the double standard they apply to repression is based on racial lines makes no real difference. The bigotry is there all the same, whether or not it is consciously accepted. I have circled back to Mr. Wilson because his rhetoric is so transparent and so revealing of the hidden prejudices that make it so difficult to have a genuine dialogue about Cuban history with those who have already made up their minds that Fidel’s totalitarian nightmare is some sort of utopia. Whenever I try to expose the reigning North American and European view of Cuban and Latin American history as an awfully inaccurate caricature, I often get the same distrustful and somewhat hostile reaction. One incident in particular will forever remain seared in my memory, smoking and stinking until the day I die. Perhaps even in the afterlife too.

A year ago, the public library in Westport, Connecticut, invited me to speak about my memoir. During the question and answer period, one lady asked me why I was defending Batista, the dictator ousted by Fidel Castro. I very politely explained that I was doing nothing of the kind, and that if she were to read my book she would see that I loathed Batista. I also explained that Batista was despised by nearly every Cuban, including those who have fled from Fidel, and added that sometimes a very bad tyrant can be replaced by an even worse one – an easily verifiable fact in human history that many Americans seem to have trouble understanding. Then an elderly gentleman began screaming at me: “You people are ruining this country! It’s because of you and all your fellow right-wing Cubans in Miami that this country is going to hell! If it weren’t for you people we’d have a different president right now and we’d all be better off! It’s all your fault that we are at war in Iraq! You people should just keep quiet and leave us alone, or get lost!”

Then I noticed the number tattooed on the man’s arm. I didn’t have to ask. He closed his diatribe by letting us know that he was a Holocaust survivor who had been sent to a Nazi death camp as a child.

That someone who had suffered so much due to bigotry and stereotyping should be yelling about all of us exiled Cubans as “you people,” blaming us for ruining his country, and that he, of all people, should fail to understand the many similarities between his behavior and that of the Germans who sent him to a death camp, took me aback as nothing else ever has. That he should harbor such animosity towards me, personally, and towards all Cuban exiles also taught me a valuable lesson, without which I would not have been able to write this essay: that victims of bigotry can be bigots too. Anyone can be a bigot, even those who have suffered greatly, and the more outrageous the prejudice, the more likely it is that it will be invisible to the person who harbors it. In other words, bigots hold their prejudices to be “self-evident truths,” or facts, or perhaps even sacred beliefs. And this is why it is so hard to change a bigot’s mind.

Bigotry is unreasonable, and it on images. The simpler the image, the bigger the lie, the deeper the bigotry.

No wonder Che is so popular. And no wonder that I and every other Cuban exile who try to expose him and his stinking Revolution are called liars. No wonder the world has come around in the twenty-first century to finding in him, a homophobe who was Grand Inquisitor and Lord High Executioner rolled into one, the embodiment of rebellion against oppression.18 No wonder this “visionary” hero who stealthily embodies bigotry has earned himself the chance to become

a new, improved Rudyard Kipling for the postcolonial world. And a fashion statement to boot.

Che has become a totem. And it is taboo to mess with totems.

Allow me for a moment to turn to a contemporary of Kipling’s, Emile Durkheim, whose book Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1906), can shed much light on Che’s place in our culture.19

Emile Durkheim, thanks to whom universities now have departments of sociology and religious studies, figured out a century ago that societies depend on myths, symbols and rituals as much as religions do, and that states and nations are faith systems established gradually by groups of individuals who project emotional and psychological energy onto certain symbols,. These symbols, or totems, as Durkheim called them, eventually come to represent the whole community, and to transcend it: they become the society’s grand axis, the ultimate reference point for its ethical code, the very means of distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad, holy from deviant, clean from unclean. Totems define every society and how it regulates behavior: at the very same time, they are a reflection and the touchstone of a society’s values.

If you doubt that Che has become a Durkheimian totem, please read Sarah Shuckburgh’s travel piece on Cuba from beginning to end, for she gives voice to the totemic irrationality of the cult of Che perfectly. Her adulation of Che not only borders on idolatry, but also on mysticism, and bears all the tell-tale marks of totemic worship, which always involves a search for wish-fulfillment and the projection of values onto history.. After describing all of the hardships Cubans have to endure nowadays, she projects her own feelings onto an abstraction of all Cubans who still live on the island, saying that despite all of their suffering, “Cubans remain cheerfully egalitarian, and as enthralled as ever by their most famous hero.” Then she lapses into her own adolescent totemic fantasies: “I remember my own Che Guevara poster, pinned to my bedroom wall 35 years ago.” Like some teenager poring over photos of her idol in fan magazines, Shuckburgh loses even more of her British reserve and lets loose one of the most superficial and puerile assessments ever made of Che Guevara , the man and the totem:

I marvel at how photogenic Che was - his romantic features utterly mesmerising, from classroom to battlefield. During his brief spell as a short-haired government minister, he looked like a portly Lord Lucan, but luckily, by his death, the Heroic Guerillero had lost weight, and grown his hair and beard, and looked beautiful once more.

Swooning over Che’s “precious relics” at his mausoleum - a “lock of hair, wisps of his beard, and remnants of clothing he was wearing when killed,” from which she actually believes she should keep “a respectful distance,” she enjoys a Durkheimian epiphany of sorts in which she is able to juxtapose totems and realize her pure devotion to the replacement of Christian beliefs by communist ideology. Sadly, when all is said and done, she realizes that her totem Che and his glorious Revolution are all about a leap of faith, without any apparent awareness of her own assent to a monstrous fiction:

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