The Real Cuba Isn't a Potemkin Airbnb
Antonio García Martínez on what people taking to the streets are protesting.
In the annals of 21st century American cancellations, Antonio García Martínez will surely have an entry and it will go something like this: In 2016, the Cuban-American wrote a best-seller called Chaos Monkeys. The book was a Gonzo-style memoir about the tech industry of which he was a player; he ran Facebook Ads. Fast forward to this year, when García Martínez was hired as a senior ad engineer for Apple. Then, after a single month on the job, he got the boot after a group of Apple employees claimed his popular book contained “overtly racist and sexist remarks” which “directly oppose Apple’s commitment to Inclusion & Diversity.” (Matt Taibbi’s take on the whole sordid episode is the one to read.)
García Martínez has handled the matter with the kind of perspective and good humor that can only come from a person who understands that as terrible as American-style cancellations are, there are other countries in which the situation can be far, far worse. In his essay today, he reminds us that as mad as our culture has become — and he very much believes that it has — Americans are a world away from the Cuba that his parents and grandparents fled. The Cuba where, right now, three generations after the revolution, people are being beaten in the streets for demanding vaccines and freedom.
The difference between the communist system and the capitalist one is that both kick you in the ass, but in the communist one they kick you and you have to applaud, while in the capitalist one they kick you and you can scream. I came here to scream.
— Reinaldo Arenas, Antes Que Anochezca
It’s hard to convey to those who live in the free world what life is like under a totalitarian dictatorship. I’d never experienced anything remotely like it before I traveled to Cuba in 2017 to report a story for WIRED magazine, and it was one of the most memorable and unpleasant experiences of my life.
The first thing is the fear: you as an individual exist naked without any recourse against the depredations of the state. I was reporting illegally, with no journalist visa, which would have taken at best months to get. The police could have knocked on the door and hauled me away to the cuartico (little room) at Villa Marista, the Cuban Lubyanka, or disappeared me into some other extrajudicial hole. The authorities did just that yesterday to Camila Acosta, a correspondent for the Spanish newspaper ABC for “crimes against state security.” The Founding Fathers’ warnings about tyrannical kings and their obsession with habeas corpus hit differently when you’re confronted with an unaccountable state machine and no recourse to rule of law or individual rights.
The second thing you notice is the deception: 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.
So is this:
Because the press is unfree in Cuba, the story is fractured but sometime around Sunday July 11 protests broke out in Cuba’s San Antonio de los Baños. To chants of “‘we want vaccines”’ and “down with the dictatorship,” Cubans marched in an unprecedentedly anti-government and open fashion. Protests soon spread to major cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba and they continue even now. An uploaded Facebook video — which was soon yanked, but not before being uploaded to YouTube by dissident media 14ymedio — shows hundreds of Cubans protesting in the streets.
A comment from a protestor walking in front of Cuba’s soaring capitol summarizes the gist of the protestors’ grievances: “We’re here because of the repression against the people. They’ve got us starving to death, all of Havana is falling apart, and we don’t have homes. We have nothing. There’s money to build hotels and all sorts of things, and us, they’ve got us hungry and experiencing great difficulties.”
Another protestor yells from behind: “62 years of dictatorship!”
Despite the various challenges we face, the reality is that Americans have not known hard times within living memory — real hard times, not invented ones based on Twitter dramas and “misinformation.” All that Americans have known since World War II is ever higher plateaus of freedom and material wealth, with all the horrors of the world — killing fields, political prisons, autocratic demagogues, a real resistance — held so far out of their mind’s eye they don’t even know what they look like anymore.
But there is no law of physics that dictates that the good times must continue.
The sad reality is that countries can and do choose to commit suicide, as we’ve seen with Syria and Venezuela more recently, and Cuba, three generations ago. Embracing some revolutionary philosophy that promises to heal all ills and right all wrongs, and then exploiting the worst human tendencies to implement that wild-eyed vision, is the sure path to ruin.
America is not remotely at the level of Cuba, but it sure seems we have a growing taste for apocalyptic politics and orthodoxies enforced by public acts of repudiation. We have developed a high tolerance for snitches sanctimoniously ratting out people publicly for personal gain, lists of Things That Cannot Be Said, and citizens huddling in private groups to share ideological samizdat they dare not discuss in public.
America wasn’t built on “content moderation” guidelines and “problematic” this and that. It was built on the inalienable right of every citizen to tell their government, as well as any fellow citizen, to go fuck themselves and read and write and do whatever they like. The perfect is often the enemy of the good, and the hellbent drive toward some supposed utopia often ruins an imperfect society that would be better served by a more fervent embrace of its founding principles. We’ve lived so comfortably in the society those principles created that we delude ourselves into thinking they can be dispensed with in the name of some newfangled orthodoxy.
I can’t help but think here of the president who avidly fought the empire of which Cuba was once the extension. In his 1967 inaugural address for California governor, Reagan issued a warning:
Perhaps you and I have lived too long with this miracle to properly be appreciative. Freedom is a fragile thing and it's never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. And those in world history who have known freedom and then lost it . . . have never known it again.
Such a people is then condemned to live in the crumbling ruins of their once-beautiful country, as Cubans are now, struggling feebly for their own subsistence and against their own government. If you’re fortunate, you live out the rest of your days nostalgically recalling what your nation was once like, as my grandparents did, while having to build a new life in a foreign one. Some mistakes a free people get to make only once.