One can scarcely open a travel magazine or newspaper in these months in the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations without finding something about the vibrant art scene in Havana — about the jazz clubs like La Zorra y el Cuervo and Jazz Café; about dancing to the rhythms of son; about alleyways turned into improvisational public art “communes”; about inventive musicians who continuously repair their instruments from whatever spare parts might be available; or about dancers whose tights might have been purchased in a flea market but whose raw talent and deft athleticism equal that of any dancer on any professional stage in the world.
Art is only part of this fascinating picture. Aged Havana Club rum is drunk exceptionally well at the Hotel Nacional, in spaces preserved virtually intact in all their glorious 1930s splendor. To drive in one of the glossy American cars from the 1950s is to travel back in time to an age of carefree innocence, strangely preserved in a world that is decisively not American. Sailing magazines are full of new Caribbean itineraries that go from the cays of the Bahamas to Havana Bay, and a recent New York Times travel section features a three-page spread on the glories of Cuban cigars.
Even in Havana, and especially in restored Old Havana, one has the sense of a place on the verge of becoming a theme park, specializing in a nostalgia for a past that is outside the historical realities living just nearby. But these reasons and many more are why Havana is and will continue to become a “hot” destination.
The reality is more complex. Havana is a place layered with history. That history is written everywhere on the city landscape. Alongside the pulsating music and the irrepressible rhythms of Cuban dance, glimpsed through the smoke-wreaths of the Cohibas and the Montecristos, one finds a city and a country whose historical wounds are centuries deep. Some can be read on the landscape of once-grand buildings built in neoclassical style, as well as on the worn facades of Miami-style high-rises and the irredeemable Soviet-era housing blocks. Some will blame the U.S. embargo for the decay; others will fault decades of communist rule. Surely there is enough blame to go around.
But these wounds go much deeper than the crumbling infrastructure of today’s Havana might tell. The wounds of Cuba go back to the colonization of the island in the 15th and 16th centuries by ambitious Spaniards. That colonial history has been superseded many times, but never fully healed. The scars it has left in its wake are many. More than 1 million slaves were imported to Cuba, approximately three times the number that were brought to the U.S. The U.S. support of Cuba’s independence from Spain did nothing to help heal the past; it became a way to bolster U.S. economic interests in sugar, tobacco, and fruit. Before the revolution that Castro led, the fields were worked by laborers whose poverty was the basis of American corporate wealth.
No wonder there was a revolution. That revolution wagered for a better future, but the appropriation of private property (much of which was U.S. owned) did little to help Cubans develop a sense of their own political identity. Indeed, there are intellectuals in Cuba today who will argue that Cubans have long had to develop ways to live on the margins of the law — not because they are outlaws, but because they and the official legal and political systems have never embraced one another.
It may not be the obligation of politicians, revolutionaries, or tourists to deal with the scar tissue created by the historical past. But who can? The exiles who fled from Castro were faced with the impossible task of balancing the insult and outrage of devastating loss against the prospect of healing wounds from outside their own place of origin. Many remained resentful. Cuba’s Soviet supporters certainly had no desire to help the island deal with its past.
Little wonder then that the U.S. embargo — itself one of the more recent in the series of wounds to Cuba — has been so vigorously supported by the Cuban exiles who had come to live in the U.S.; little wonder too that it is resented by many Cubans today, who are willing to look past the gross deficiencies of a dysfunctional Communist regime in order to blame the United States for all the sins of the past. Here too there is plenty of blame to be shared.
Within the complex reality of Cuba today, the music plays on. The dancing continues. Artists enjoy privileges not available to other Cubans. Indeed, the arts are among the most important bases of Cuba’s resilience. The same inventiveness that has allowed Cuban car owners to keep the Fords and Plymouths from the 1950s in perfect running order, without access to any new parts, demonstrates a related kind of resourcefulness.
But the danger is that the music and the dancing and even the old cars will become the basis for yet another wound to Cuba — this one inflicted by North American tourist hordes — where the arts could in fact play a healing role. The arts have enabled Cubans to survive and to celebrate life. They have allowed for veiled political speech in times of repression. But can they now play a role in coming to terms with Cuba’s past?
For the sake of contrast, it took Germany decades after the Second World War to come to terms with the wounds that had been created during the Nazi era. Art played a major role in recognizing, reflecting, and mourning a history of unspeakable deeds. That mourning was not just for the souls who were lost but for a living nation that had to climb an Everest of guilt in order to see a clear way to its own future.
Cuba is not Germany, and its wounds are very different. And yet in the opening of Cuba art is at risk of becoming an entertainment commodity, supporting a new wave of experience that will do nothing to help Cuba come to terms with the injuries it has suffered over the course of centuries past.
Art in Cuba offers the world an example of creativity and resilience; it will now help fuel consumerist tourism, and with that the development of the Cuban economy overall. But these things will not necessarily help Cuba heal the wounds of its long suffering past, and that healing is some of what Cuba needs in order to create a new future for itself.