The Special Period: An Evental Moment, and a Splintered Island

The 'camello' bus has become a symbol for the various crises of the Special Period

It was Cuba’s links with the ‘Colossus to the East’[1] that was to herald the end of this epoch of fixedness, and herald a new era in Cuba’s history. Much of the discourse surrounding Cuban studies focuses on apportioning the island’s history into distinct epochs, and in doing so tends to focus primarily upon the Revolution of 1959 as the beginning of a ‘new chapter’. However, a second significant temporal dichotomy arose with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ‘período especial en el tiempo de paz’ (‘the Special Period in times of peace’, or ‘Special Period’ in colloquial Cuban discourse) was a time of near-famine, scarcity in all consumer goods, economic collapse and tremendous social upheaval beginning in the very late 1980s, and continuing in earnest throughout at least the first half of the 1990s. The traumatic upheaval devastated Cuba, rupturing established frameworks and impacting upon every aspect of Cuban life, from the most quotidian acts to the most profound level of identity. Louis A. Perez Jr. sums up the significance of the Special Period when writing it:

will no doubt be remembered as one of those temporal divides by which people experience the momentous transitions of a historical epoch. The período especial has served to demarcate the life of a generation, to persist hereafter as the reference point by which people often make those profoundly personal distinctions about their lives as ‘before’ and ‘after’. (Perez, 2006:xi)

The Special Period impacted not only the Cuban populace, but also the highest echelons of the Cuban government. The vast political, social and economic upheavals forced the hand of an increasingly desperate and reactionary government. “Ideological rigidity yielded to pragmatic improvisations” (Perez, 2006:303) as previous sacred cows of Cuban political ideology were torn asunder in radical contingency plans that questioned the socialist rigidity of the political landscape, and thus certain tenets of this tightly defined Cuban identity (see Perez, 2006, Betancourt, 1991), forcing Castro himself to concede:

Today we cannot speak of the pure, ideal, perfect socialism of which we dream because life forces us into concessions (Castro speech, 26th July 1993, in Perez, 2006:305)

The result was the desire, perhaps even the need, for a new narrative of Cuban identity, one which could help make sense of the traumatic changes the island was experiencing. As Berg points out:

The rapid changes in the economy and social structure made the socialist narrative appear inadequate to many Cubans. It no longer held the appeal it used to, its explanatory powers in the present diminished… As Edward Bruner argues, new narratives emerge “when there is a new reality to be explained, when the social arrangements are so different that the old narrative no longer seems adequate” (Bruner, 1986:181-2) (Berg, 2005:133)

The Special Period, for many Cubans, made the old narrative of what constituted Cuban identity insufficient. In this sense I would argue the Special Period can be seen as constituting an ‘event’ in Badiouian terms, “compelling the subject[s] to invent a new way of being” (Badiou, 2001:42), one that perhaps bookends that other Cuban ‘event’; the Revolution of 1959[2]. By highlighting the lack of fidelity in the ‘old event’, and exacting “traumatogenic change” (Sztompka, 2004) upon all aspects of Cuban life, the Special Period forced Cubans to adapt in ingenious, often illegal, and occasionally drastic ways to survive, but also forced many Cubans to redefine their relationship with, and the identity of, their nation.

However, as well as being defined as a more proactive ‘event’, the Special Period was certainly traumatic, with all the debilitating and destabilising issues that such a term carries with it. Kai Erikson’s assertion that “’trauma’ has to be understood as resulting from a constellation of life experiences as well as from a discrete happening, from a persisting condition as well as from an acute event” (1995:184, emphasis original) provides an apposite model for understanding the grinding hardship of scarcity of almost all goods, punctuated by individual crises in the guise of political repression or familial exodus that constituted the Special Period. In a more abstract manner, the trauma of a severely shaken confidence in the established identity of a nation loomed. The Special Period, splintered the homogenous definition of ‘authentic’ Cubanness as both the notion of national unity, and the fervent ideological rigidity of the Revolution began to disintegrate.

If concessions and traumatic events led to the necessity to re-narrated both Cuba’s history and identity, then one demonstrable avenue in which this ‘new Cubanness’ found expression was through a shift in both the listening and playing habits of Cuban musicians. As Vincenzo Perna attests in his work on ‘timba’ music[3], “the fall of the Soviet Union had unleashed in Cuba changes that have created a totally new social and musical environment” (2005:2). There was a noticeable rise in popularity (or at least a rise in prominence) of foreign musics as heard, but crucially, as played in Cuba (Sujatha Fernandes, 2003 and 2006). While there has perennially been a ‘foreign’ (notably United States) presence influencing Cuban music (Perez, 1999), by the mid-90s foreign musics began to be understood and co-opted as distinct ‘genres’. This move towards distinct genres understood in their entirely contrasts with previous manifestations of American music in Cuba which were, as Pacini-Hernandez and Garofalo state “fragmentary… and highly de-contextualised” (1999:19). Hip-hop and various sub-genres of ‘rock’ music (punk, heavy metal, thrash metal) began to rapidly mushroom in popularity[4] (Sujatha Fernandes, 2003, Pacini-Hernandez and Garofalo, 1999 and 2004). New genres of music which staked a claim at being authentic interpretations of contemporary Cuba also began to emerge. Perna suggests that ‘timba’ began to incorporate “issues of race, class and gender that rarely surface in official discourses” into the narrative of Cuban society (2005:3), whilst musicians in other genres (such as Pedro Luis Ferrer) ‘revived’ “forgotten” genres from Cuba’s rich heritage to provide social commentary and thinly-veiled social criticism.

However, alongside these radical reinterpretations of Cuban music and identity, there came a distinctly nostalgic reimagining of a golden past, indicated most overtly (and most popularly) by the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ project. Cuba simultaneously reverted to the quasi-colonial image of itself; one at least partially defined from without (Perez, 1999) in an attempt to coax and reconfirm the benign, hedonistic stereotype of Cubanness to the huge influx of tourists now propping up the beleaguered Cuban economy. Finally, and with yet another wave – perhaps the most condensed – of migrants, the perennial boundary-made-geographical of Cuban identity – the Straits of Florida – was called into question. Not only Miami, but the very act of crossing that liminal oceanic space itself began to be written into the narrative of Cuban identity. The Special Period made that act of crossing part of Cuban identity; one which every Cuban had at least some personal knowledge of.

However, although many have sought to emphasise the fractures, temporal and cultural, that occurred as a result of this traumatic time, others have begun to tease out the social and political threads that weave their way through the supposed clean breaks. Antoni Kapcia highlights the apparent paradox, and the necessity, of speaking of continuity in change when addressing Cuba’s history:

To talk of continuity, in the context of an apparently ever-changing Revolution, is inevitably to invite surprise among lay observers, used to seeing the process portrayed as a zigzag trajectory… the ‘history by phases’ approach has also been tempting because it becomes easier to explain the contradictions that have characterized the whole process by categorising periods, hegemonies and directions. (2000:221)

Kapcia further notes that most significant of socio-political continuity of the Special Period: that it “proved not to be the end of the [Revolutionary] system but its nadir” (2005:180). Despite the trauma of the Special Period, Castro, and the Revolution, remained a central tenet of the Cuban identity, in discourse within and outside Cuba. Perhaps then a more moderate approach to the Special Period is required; one that treats it with the eventual magnitude it clearly had (and still has) in the national psyche, but also searches for the continued facets of this ‘narrow’ definition of Cuban identity. So, as Stephen Fay assesses Cuban identity through a framework “where the schism between antes and después is softened and the frontier between dentro and fuera becomes blurred.[5]”, I aim here to treat of the Special Period with a similarly liminal approach; between, or perhaps simultaneously, a schism and a continuum to blur the boundary between antes and después (before and after). Cuban identity was not rewritten, but reinterpreted in the confusion of the Special Period. In the following section, I address some of these points of contestation and the way in which they impacted upon and renegotiated the above described version of Cuban identity, concluding by addressing the state of Cuban identity at the moment – the beginning of a new millennium – that Porno Para Ricardo formed.

Traumatogenic change: The Negation of an Ally

Although the Special Period is officially the name given to the series of contingency plans drawn up by the Revolutionary government, in colloquial discourse, the name evokes more immediately a force (or more precisely a removal of a force) from without; the withdrawal of economic and political support, and the eventual collapse of, the Soviet Union. The Special Period was, in many senses, done unto Cuba. The disintegration of one of the two world superpowers, fulfilled the four criteria of Piotr Sztompka’s definition of “traumatogenic change” (2004) in a number of locations around the world:

The traumatogenic change seems to exhibit four traits. First, it is characterised by specific speed. The obvious case is that the change is sudden and rapid, occurring within a span of time relatively short for a given kind of process… The second trait of traumatogenic change has to do with its scope. It is usually wide, comprehensive, either in that it touches many aspects of life – be it social or personal life – or that it affects many actors and many actions…

Third, traumatogenic change is marked by specific context, particularly substance, either in the sense that it is radical, deep, fundamental – that is, it touches the core aspects of social life or personal fate – or that it affects universal experience…

The fourth feature… has to do with the specific mental frame with which it is encountered by the people. It is faced with an unbelieving mood; it is at least to some extent unexpected, surprising, precisely “shocking” in the literal sense of the word (2004:158-9).

These four elements – sudden, comprehensive, radical and shocking – sum up a Cuban experience whereby its sole link to global discourse and trade – the one pipeline through the US blockade – was rapidly and irrecoverably severed. Yet, where Soviet collapse may have been a celebrated form of traumatogenic change in many of the bloc countries of Eastern Eurpoe – that is, fulfilling the four characteristics laid down by Sztompka, but met in broadly positive terms – the trauma in Cuba took on a unique nuance, as Ernesto Betancourt notes:

We must remember that Cuba joined the Soviet Bloc of its own volition. The Soviet Army did not conquer Cuba as it did conquer Eastern Europe. Therefore, the analogy being advanced that the collapse of Communism there is a predictor of what may happen in Cuba is spurious. Nationalism is not working against Communism in Cuba, quite to the contrary nationalism works in Castro’s favour. (1991)

As a result, the eventual collapse of the U.S.S.R. was met in Cuba by a confusing concoction of nationalist fervour which sought to reassert the previous omniscience the Cuban government had covered itself in, and often previously unthinkable concessions, made out of a basic need to survive, which led inevitably to the questioning of the rigidity and ubiquity of Castro’s government, (indeed, of Castro himself).

Though the economic and political changes wrought by the removal (and disappearance) of this world-power ally were profound, as traumatic were the cultural ramifications. For Cuba’s relationship, and identification, with the vast reams of imported Soviet culture was suddenly severed. What had been an ubiquitous cultural marker for a whole generation of Cubans, was suddenly, in adulthood, expunged not only from the contemporary landscape, but an effort was made to ‘forget’ this slice of Cuba’s history. ‘Russia’ was a clear and present influence and referent within Cuba throughout the 1970s, not only politically, but culturally. Soviet cartoons were a staple of Cuban television, as were Russian lessons in school. Though these factors may seem facile in the face of vast economic subsidies and staunchly defiant ideological alliance against the United States, they were significant for the generation of children who would reach adulthood during the Special Period, and as such must be considered a (potential) constituent part of a national Cuban identity. Soviet culture became a branch of Cuban culture for this generation; ‘Bolek and Lolek[6] are as nostalgic a memory for Cubans as they are for Eastern Europeans of the same generation.

However, even before the Iron Curtain was fully torn down, Castro was already seeking to distance the country from its former patron. As Ernesto Betnacourt notes, “Castro foresaw the present [i.e. 1991] situation in the Soviet Union. In his speech on July 26, 1989, Castro predicted that, as a result of the trends there, the Soviet Union could eventually disintegrate.” (1991). Thus began the policy of “the “Zero Option”, which [sought] to adjust consumption to a level of zero Soviet supplies” (ibid.) which ran parallel to the increasing crisis of the Special Period. As well as economic reduction, the policy, either deliberately or vicariously, endeavoured to excise cultural imports and the place ‘Russianness’ had within the Cuban identity; denying its legitimacy as a fragment of an identity on the island. It is true that, despite the proliferation of Moskovich and Lada cars still traversing the potholed roads, seldom can any reference to Russia or its legacy be found within Cuba. Culturally speaking, the Soviet Union was ‘written out’ of governmentally defined ‘authentic’ Cuban identity. This is more than just a matter of ‘moving on’ from a now defunct past; there seems to be a deliberate move to disallow this thread of Cuban identity. It existed only as a tacit palimpsest; written over, rubbed out, or, in Orwellian terms ‘never having existed’.

This is one aspect of the Cuban identity that was not (could not be) recontextualised, reinterpreted or renegotiated in the eventual tumult of the Special Period. There was no chance of doing so, as the cultural marker itself – the Soviet Union – ceased to be. So, while Castro it seems had foreseen such traumatogentic change in the policy of ‘Zero Option’, the Cuban populace were not quite so prepared, and the excision, the denial, and enforced illegitimacy of what had been a significant remembrance of childhood for many Cubans, was a culturally traumatic experience. Jeffrey Alexander writes specifically of cultural trauma, suggesting it occurs:

When members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways (2004:1)

Not wishing to overstate the impact of the denial as authentically Cuban of this singular facet of childhood remembrance, it is perhaps indicative of a broader series of cultural traumas experienced in the Special Period. Indeed it is worth remembering that Soviet culture in many of its imported guises were not selectively and actively ‘chosen’ by Cubans[7]; they were in many senses ‘enforced’ upon them as more of a political by-product. However, once engrained into remembrance, to have them suddenly removed – forcefully in the present, and surreptitiously from the past – could represent something of a cultural trauma, most notably as the ability to reclaim and recontextualise these cultural elements was denied. Unlike the other aspects of Cuban identity renegotiated throughout the Special Period, notions of ‘Russianness’, it would appear, lay dormant and silent.

Los Hijos de Guillermo Tell”: Social Commentary and Political Critique

As the crisis in all aspects of Cuban life increased throughout the early 90s, the “pure, ideal perfect socialism” Fidel Castro claimed was the Revolution (in Perez, 2006:305) had been necessarily compromised by the often drastic concessions enforced upon it, leading to the previously omnipotent vision of the Castro regime being questioned. Although the role of musicians as cultural and political commentators was apparent in Cuba before this period – Carlos Puebla’s acerbic pro-Revolution (and anti-United States) songs a case in point – unlike previous generations engaged in political music, the subject of criticism for this new vanguard of Special Period musicians was not overseas – it was not the ‘foreign goliath’ but much closer to home. The Cuban government itself was called into question, as was the tacit assumption, held since the 1960s, that the ‘Cuban way’ (significantly a singular way), both culturally and politically, was the ‘right way’, or the only way. The fact that Cuba now “found itself virtually alone and isolated, with few political friends” (Perez, ibid:292) made some question the previously unquestionable. Nowhere is this better demonstrated musically than in Carlos Varela’s ‘Guillermo Tell’ from the 1989 album Jalisco Park.

The song ‘Guillermo Tell’ is well known and well loved among many in Cuba. It provides an example of protest against the ageing government; a regime that young Cubans had experienced nothing but throughout their lives. Whilst the lyrics to the song may be poetic, couched in metaphor and allegory, listening to the live version of this song[8] shatters the illusion that these lyrics are a personal, hidden protests. The song itself is superficially about the tale of William Tell and his desire to shoot an apple from the head of his son. However, Varela adds a potent twist to this familiar tale. At the climactic middle point of the song, Varela sings, with a buttoned-down calm that belies the significance and anger of the words:

Y se asustó cuando dijo el pequeño, 

Ahora le toca al padre la manzana en la cabeza

And it surprised him [William Tell] when the little one said,

“Now it’s time for the father to put the apple on his head”

The subtextual message is clear; it is time for the overbearing ‘father’ (read either Fidel Castro, or the wider regime) to step aside and let the younger generation assume the reins of power. Such a message, even one so disguised in metaphor would have been hard to imagine at the beginning of the 1980s, and it was in no small part due to the questioned omnipotence of the government that this message found its way into a Cuban dialogue.

What is so important about this case study is that even though the lyrics of this song are couched in allegory – nothing overtly critical is said of the regime – there is an implied message delivered to the audience that is well understood; the veil of metaphor here is all but transparent. Also of note is the strong and irrefutable personal voice utilised here; the synergy of speaker and message; this is Carlos Varela’s song, his message, his critique. There is no attempt made here to obfuscate the singer. Perhaps this trope is indicative of a paradigm shift in Cuban musical practice, one in which singers themselves ceased the (enforced) self-censorship many theorists have noted exists in Cuba:

[band leader Giraldo Piloto suggests] that, in Cuba, singing a ‘problematic’ song in public, in theory, is not forbidden. What happens, rather, is that the media, by banning specific songs and marginalising certain artists on the airwaves, pressurize musicians into self-censorship. (Perna, 2005:92)

Artists found that in many instances [in the Quinquenio Gris] they could no longer voice their true opinions; as a result they began to censor themselves, avoiding controversial issues and choosing ‘safer’ subjects in order to avoid scrutiny. (Robin Moore, 2003:17-8)

Catherine Moses makes the same point of Cuban society in general, evoking the authoritarian omniscience the government purported to have, and suggesting that this trope of self-censorship is indicative of Cuban society in general, not just its music:

The Castro regime effectively uses blackmail to create fear and keep people from acting against the regime. If there is something that the state can take from an individual – a professional opportunity, a child’s position in a good school, permission to leave the country, a dollar earning job – it has power over that person. It is to that power that Cubans succumb. (Moses, 2000:18-9)

However, what Carlos Varela’s song shows is a negation of this self-censorship, a radical alignment of singer and song, and an unabashed, albeit poetic and thus ostensibly ambiguous, social critique of the stagnation and rigidity of Cuba’s political regime.

The power of the message is certainly not lost upon the audience in this live recording. Indeed, in many respects, the potency of the message is increased by the reaction and en masse singing of the assembled audience. As the above quoted line is delivered by Varela, there is an eerie, almost spectral, surge of noise from the crowd. Some whistle, others sing, others shout the lyrics back to Varela, still others simply scream, as if unable to voice coherently their emotion. This collective voicing of accord and outpouring of emotion dies down as quickly as it begins. It sounds hesitant, yet uncontrollable, as if the sentiment had been on the tip of the audience’s collective tongue, yet never voiced. As soon as it emerged, it is checked, self-regulated and suppressed in fear of retaliation from some unseen force, indicative perhaps of the lingering self-censorship at this early stage of the Special Period.

So the Special Period witnessed something of a negation of the self-censorship implicitly imposed by the omnipotence of the state, and led to more overtly critical social commentaries in song. These commentaries were often voiced by single figures, who asserted that these were personal opinions and refused to shy away from their “true opinions” (Moore, 2003:17). It is a trait that lends further evidence to the notion of reinterpreting and renegotiating the notion of Cuban identity; one that took its cues from established tropes of Cuban identity, and renovated them to speak of Special Period Cuban society.

“Like Smoke Under a Door”: Tourism, Balseros and Musical Dissemination”

One mechanism facilitating this bricolage of global cultural sources was the opening up of channels of musical dissemination within Cuba. Although foreign musics had permeated the relocated iron curtain of blockade and political recalcitrance in Cuba’s post-Revolution-pre-special-period epoch, as many commentators have noted, these foreign sources were often “fragmentary, intermittent, and highly decontextualised” (Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo, 1999:19) and often considered ‘problematic’, or even as “enemy propaganda” by officialdom (Moses, 2000:14). However, these rivulets of cultural information, described by Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo as akin to “smoke seeming under a closed door” (2004:44) were to expand rapidly in the Special Period; swept up on the tide of human movements that both traumatised the nation and effectively saved the economy. For the Special Period saw mass human/cultural influx as well as exodus. As Cubans left in their droves, so tourists flooded in.

Those Who Came: Tourism

The cessation of Soviet subsidised trade to and from Cuba in the Special Period left a chasm in the Cuban economy that the government needed to fill. One of the central elements Castro opted for was tourism. Opening Cuba up as a tourist resort (albeit one still denied to US citizens[9]) and promoting joint ventures with international businesses to construct luxury hotels provided much needed revenue. “Foreign tourists were to become Cuba’s principle source of foreign currency” (Gott, 2004:290) throughout the Special Period, and Louis Perez provides some interesting figures that demonstrate the rapid increase in tourism, numbers rocketing “from 350,000 in 1990 to more than 500,000 in 1992, and 620,000 in 1994 to 740,000 in 1995” (Perez, 2006:309).

However, the terms under which these tourists came to the island were more problematic. With their much needed investment came a new wealth of problems for the Cuban government. As Richard Gott notes, “the economic policy makers… wanted and ‘isolated enclave of foreign investment and tourism’ that would provide the hard currency needed to maintain the social structure without changes” (Gott, 2004:290). It was the intention of the Cuban government to keep tourists and Cubans as separate as possible, keeping tourists within the luxury resorts and exclusive hotels, whilst keeping Cubans out. “Virtually all Cubans were denied access to most dollar tourist hotels” (Perez, 2006:309), a theme picked up by Pedro Luis Ferrer in the song ‘100% Cubano’. Although recent changes to the country’s law now permits Cubans to stay in many of these hotels, this amendment was only passed in 2008 by Raul Castro[10]. Cubans still have to pay the extortionate (relative to national salaries) rates to stay at these hotels, meaning that, in reality, one is still unlikely to see Cubans staying in these hotels. The movements of tourists are similarly restricted by bureaucracy when visiting Cuba. Tourists need to apply, at the Cuban consulate, for a specific visa (at additional cost) to visit a Cuban house for example.

Yet, as Richard Gott details, this philosophy of inviting tourism but attempting to keep tourists and Cubans apart was “soon revealed to be wishful thinking” (2004, p.290). As many Cubans took (relatively) lucrative jobs working in tourist resorts, and with tourists desiring to visit ‘the authentic Cuba’, it proved impossible to prevent contact between these two groups. And the “arrival of many tens of thousands of foreign visitors during a time of economic crisis served to set in relief the sharp contrast between deteriorating national standards and affluent tourists” (Perez, 2006:309). Thus it could be argued that this influx of wealthy tourists demonstrated, particularly to young Cubans who had not seen first-hand the benefits of the nascent years of Revolutionary society, the sharp relief between their lives of austerity and others’ lives of luxury. Jaime Suchlichi suggest as much in noting that “foreign remittances and tourism have accentuated the differences in society between those with dollars and those without, and have increased racial tensions, since most dollars are received by Cuba’s white population.” (2000:58). This disparity in dollar acquisition may have also contributed to the recognition of racism still endemic in Cuba, and to the reaffirmation of a separate, ‘black’, identity in the Special Period, as noted above. That this contributed to a feeling of resentment towards the Cuban government is undeniable and is, in part, a cause of the surge of critical music aimed at the government that the Special Period heralded.

However, I would like to posit yet another critical influence that came from this influx of tourist to the island. For with them, these tourists brought their own culture, their own music and, in many cases, fuelled by the desire to experience foreign culture on the part of the Cubans they met, tourists were instrumental in helping to disseminate foreign music across Cuba. Tourism increased the wealth of foreign musics available on the island, and helped to facilitate the dissemination of that music. As one example, the Cuban singer/songwriter Mariley Reinoso Olivera[11] spoke of her experiences of the ‘cultural tourist’ groups who would visit her university and of her experiences of working as a hotel entertainer in the Special Period. She remembers that these groups of tourists:

On special cultural tours, tourists would come into our university classes and talk to us for a while and give us books and CDs. Then you would make friends with them, many came back the next year and you could ask them to bring you certain music. That’s how I heard ‘The Cranberries’ and many, many rock bands (2010)

Perhaps the ‘gifts’ of CDs and other cultural items helped to piece together the otherwise “fragmentary” shards of foreign cultures that made their way into the island. These tourist-brought CDs would become the raw materials around which mix tapes and, later, burnt CDs were forged and passed around friendship groups, cementing smaller-group identities with common musical networks. Speculatively speaking (as much more research on this period of covert musical dissemination is needed), whilst the knowledge of ‘traditional’ Cuban musical material was almost inescapably ubiquitous, searching out and ‘knowing’ these foreign imports became an active process; one garnering prestige[12].

Those Who Left: Emigration

The cultural flow was not only one way in the Special Period, as yet another vast wave of migration – the so-called ‘balseros’ (‘rafters’) – left Cuba in droves throughout the Special Period: “467 in 1990, 2,203 in 1991, 2,548 in 1992, and 3,656 in 1993” (Gott, 2004:299). The vast numbers of Cubans leaving the island – some 17,000 by the end of August 1994 (Maria Cristina Garcia, 1996:79)- were traumatic enough, as traumatic certainly as the two other incidences of mass migration Richard Gott suggests are the first ‘two exoduses[13]’ in Cuba’s post-Revolution history; 1965 and the 1980 Mariel boat life. But to compound the trauma was the apparent acquiescence of the Cuban government in allowing this new “vintage” (to use Silvia Pedraza-Bailey’s adoption of Egon Kunz’s 1973 term) of migrants to leave. Amid seething discontent and riots in Havana, Castro effectively gave free reign to his dissenters to leave unhindered, as Richard Gott writes:

In the wake of the August riot Castro declared that his government would now officially relax its migration controls. Anyone who wished to leave would be allowed to do so… Hundreds flocked to the island shores, to embark of boats and rafts. (Gott, 2004:299)

The result was a devastating haemorrhaging of population that compounded the effects of the earlier Mariel exodus in driving Cuba’s younger generations from the island. It was a process that touched every family in Cuba in some manner. The exodus ceased “on September 9, [when] the [Cuban and United States] governments reached an agreement: the U.S. would accept a minimum of twenty thousand new immigrants each year… and in turn the Cuban government agreed to restrict illegal emigration. (García, 1996:80), but by that time, another of Cuba’s young generations had been dealt a severe blow to its physical location and sense of collective identity.

However, this ‘vintage’ of refugees arguably differed from its forbears – certainly from the politically motivated emigration of the 1960s (Pedraza-Bailey, 1985). For this instance of physical relocation didn’t demand as necessary the relinquishing of a claim to some form of ‘Cuban’ identity, as previous bouts of migration tended to. In the immediate aftermath of Revolution, those that left the island were, according to Pedraza-Bailey, predominantly those from the “upper and upper middle class” in Cuba (ibid.:9), to whom the Revolution was abhorrent. Pedraza-Bailey speaks of these first two moments of mass emigration from Cuba as “distinct refugee “vintages”, alike only in their final rejection of Cuba” (ibid.:4). In these vintages of ‘exiles’, Cuba existed only in a pre-Revolutionary nostalgic haze, becoming more nostalgic (and more hazy) as time passed. The contemporary Cuba was wiped from the collective memory, becoming only an epoch removed, which would have to be waited out until the nation, and thus its place within their identity, could be reclaimed. Such omissions from collective memory and identity are lamented by Ricardo Pau-Llosa:

Nowhere is the death of this once great nation [“precatastrophe Cuba”] more painfully evident that when talking to young Cuban Americans in Miami, the so-called capital de exilio. These children of exile seemed to have received little or no information about Cuba from their parents. Typically Cuban Americans have no idea who key figures in Cuban history and culture were… Cuban American ignorance of Cuba mirrors that of North Americans, for whom Cuban history began with the communist takeover in 1959… Like their North American counterparts, Cuban Americans latch onto talk about the embargo – regardless of the position they take on the issue – as an unconscious way of announcing that they know nothing (else) about Cuba. (Ricardo Pau-Llosa, in O’Reilly Herrera, 2001:221)

In these previous moments of refugee/ exile/ emigration, there is a distinct motif of severing all ties – geographical, and ideological – with Cuba, expressed by the writer Herberto Padilla as both a physical dislocation, but also by being physically dislocated, one’s identity being necessarily compromised and confused:

When I arrived in New York March 17, 1980, I knew that I would be separated from Cuba forever. I no longer hoped that there would be substantial or immediate change. (Heberto Padilla, in O’Reilly Herrera, 2001:211)

In my opinion, exile is one of the biggest catastrophes of any age; however, it is worse for writers. You are disconnected for your natural environment or milieu and from your native tongue, and thus you are never the same again. (ibid.:213)

Yet heralded by the dramatic events of the Mariel, the Special Period emigrations saw a distinctly different ‘vintage’ of emigrant. They were, by and large, younger, less politically ‘pushed’ from Cuba and more, Pedraza-Bailey argues, economically ‘pulled’ to the US. Talking of these later vintages, Pedraza-Bailey asserts that:

“increasingly, the emigration ceases to be a political act and becomes an economic act” (Amaro and Portes, 1972:13). Although de jure the new immigrants were considered political immigrants, Amaro and Portes affirm that de facto they increasingly came to resemble “the classic immigrant”. (Pedraza_Bailey, 1985:17)

Also salient in the 1980s immigrants is their youth. Most of the immigrants were young male adults, single or heads of families who left their wives and children behind. (ibid.:26)

These trends continued in 1994, with younger generations of Cubans seeking economic opportunities in the US. Such narratives abound in the poignant documentary ‘Balseros’ (Bosch and  Domènech, 2002) in which the rafters themselves, though clearly frustrated by the social inequality and hardship in Cuba, tend to be more economically motivated that politically. This, of course is something of a false dichotomy; as has been seen throughout this work, all manner of social and economic practises in Cuba are at some level controlled and facilitated by the Revolution, thus legitimate complaints about economic hardship necessarily are vicarious critiques of Revolutionary policy. However, I would tend to argue that unlike the distinctly political migration immediately following the Revolution, the Special Period balseros demonstrated less umbrage with the Revolutionary usurpation of Cuban identity, and more with individual economic circumstances. Certainly they felt that their innate Cuban identity would not be compromised by leaving the island; ‘left behind’ by the process of emigration. Thus once in the US, their vision of Cuba, and the place it perhaps played in their newly contextualised identity was significantly different from these older vintages. Pedraza-Bailey again provides apposite evidence for such an assertion, suggesting both a rift in the Cuban-American community based around generational and ideological differences in approach to Cuba:

Among other splits, such as social class and wave of migration, the Cuban community [in Miami] is certainly cleft by age, by generation… This gap represents more than [a generational gap]; it is the difference between political generations (Pedraza-Bailey, 1985:21)

and also differences in the remembrances of Cuba:

The early refugees’ nostalgia attached them to the Cuba they knew, that was. The Mariel refugees’ is for the Cuba that is. (Pedraza-Bailey, 1985:29)

These assertions would tend to suggest that there was less of an inclination to relinquish the Cuban aspects of identity upon reaching the US; that links not only of communication but also of identity stretched more easily across the Straits of Florida for this Special Period vintage. As a result, perhaps Special Period conceptions of the physical space of Cuba began to expand. Those who left were no longer written off as dissidents, gusanos, and, by virtue of their emigration, ‘non-Cuban’. Perhaps nationality as part of identity travelled with this vintage of Cubans in more applicable and pragmatic terms than it had before? ‘Cuba’ was the Cuban people, wherever they moved to.

The geographical expansion of the space of Cuban identity could be one of the composite factors in the globalising rhetoric seen in the above discussion of timba and hip hop. If autochthonous, isolated musical materials were seen as something of an obsolete concept, and the boundaries between local and global influences were deliberately being blurred in these new Cuban genres, then perhaps this wave of migration, though traumatic socially, provided a much-needed expansion of geographical and cultural horizons, without compromising the authenticity of the notion of Cuban music.

Of course this influx of Cubans to the US provided more than just an ideological expansion of musical horizons. Again, to reference Pedraza-Bailey, this new vintage was predominantly young, and it takes little conceptual leap to suggest that their knowledge of “the Cuba that is” would wish to translate to the “US that is”, and that this newly acquired cultural knowledge would be shared with friends and family via gifts sent ‘home’. Evidence for the importance of this avenue of musical dissemination is anecdotal – referenced in passing by Vincenzo Perna (2005) and Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo (2004) in their respective account of timba and Cuban hip hop – but the significance of ‘mix-tape’ culture; musics received through familial channels from the US[14] and then passed around friendship groups, is unquestionable. Such routes of musical dissemination question the imagery of ‘smoke under a door’ as voiced by Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo, and throw up some fascinating questions about the renegotiation (and bypassing) of the conventional roles of musical and cultural ‘gatekeepers’, the establishing of channels of swapping potentially ‘problematic’ musical material, and the significance these new musical channels had in shaping the sound of ‘Cuban’ music. It is an area which requires discrete study, as it may shed much further light on the contestations, renegotiations and continuums of Cuban identity in this fractious period.

An ‘Archipelago of Individualism’? The Splintering and Re-coagulation of the ‘Cuban Voice’

The traumas and travails of the Special Period forced Cubans to redefine notions of Cuban identity on every level – from the grand, over-arching narratives of history, culture and politics, to the minutia of everyday life, to even the geographical boundaries of the nation. In concluding, I present the theory of Antoni Kapcia that in the Special Period, the notion of a unified Cuban voice; representative of the populace both spatially and temporally, with tendrils of authentic Cubanness reaching both through time and unifying space, was irrevocably fractured in the Special Period. “Cuban culture [became] ‘un archipiélago’ of individualism” (2005:191), claims Kapcia, in addition to which I would suggest that Cuban identity became a similar archipiélago; stemming from many of the same sources, but distinctly and individually defined and possibly even isolated from one another. Many commentators, Kapcia included (2000, 2005), have noted that participation in overt displays of national community diminished dramatically in the Special Period, and as Jaime Suchlichi notes, Cuban identity retreated back to the individual, familial scale (if ever it had existed in national(istic) terms):

Introduced by Castro in the 1960s, this concept [of the “new Cuban man”] called for a change in the values and attitudes of most Cubans. Allegiances would be transferred from the family to the party and the fatherland. The influence of the church would be eliminated. Devotion to the cause of communism would prevail. Man would consciously labour for the welfare of society, and the collective would supersede the individual one. (2000:78-9)

However, as has been demonstrated in this account of Cuban identity in the Special Period, many of these supposedly obsolete markers of identity were reclaimed and reused in a time of ideological and identity crisis; religion, the family and the needs of the individual were all facets of the Special Period, outweighing for many the rhetoric of socialism, the nation and the collective. “After forty years of education and indoctrination, the “new man” is nowhere to be found” claims Suchlichi (ibid.:57). Of course this is in part due to the very apparent economic and social crises of the Special Period which made scarcity an ever-present concern, and physically separated families. But in part, it represents a move away from the rigidified, collective definitions of Cubanness to more individually constructed definitions. Truly an archipiélago of ‘multiple Cubannesses’.

This retreat into individualism and fragmentation of the national voice, led Vázquez Montalbán to describe an environment in which “the newest Cuban art and literature ignore and sense of identification with the Revolution” (1998:359-360). Cuban art, it seems, ceased to show fidelity to the ‘event’ of the Revolution and national terms, and began to couch itself in the familial, the small-scale, the ‘everyday’ (removed from socialist idealisation), notions of hybridity and change, and the deeply personal. So in this traumatic era of uncertainty, mass exodus and fundamental changes to previously unchangeable signifiers of Cubanness, Arturo Arango’s assertion that Cuban ‘artists’ “have opted for [exile] far less than other sectors [of society]” (1997:122) takes on an added significance[15]. If Cuban culture had become individualistic, yet notions of Cubanness were still a central concern, then one must assume that there was a fundamental shift in what was seen as constituting ‘Cubanness’, at least in the world of the arts. In place of a singular ‘authentic Cubanness’ were smaller, distinct ‘authentic Cubannesses’, tentative steps towards subcultures even[16], which took their authenticity from the Cubanness of the individuals within them rather than some spurious historical lineage. Jennifer Hernández, keyboard player in heavy metal band ‘Escape’ perhaps sums up this sentiment best in the documentary ‘Cuba Rebelión’ (2009): “the media don’t pay attention to us, but they have to realise, the music we make is Cuban music too”.

In addressing the above quote, it is necessary to examine the ‘space’ that is being contested. For here we see played out a ‘Secondspace’ Cubanness, as theorised by Henri Lefebvre; a Cubanness that is “primarily produced through discursively devised representations of space, through the spatial working of the mind. In its purest form, Secondspace is entirely ideational, made up of projections into the empirical world from conceived or imagined geographies” (Edward Soja, 1996:78-9); a Cubanness that can sound however the individual imagined it to sound. As opposed to the previously (ostensibly) ubiquitous ‘Cubanness’ that encapsulated ‘all that is Cuban’ into ‘one voice’ (a ‘Firstspace Cubanness’, again to use Lefebvre’s definitions), the ‘Secondspace Cubanness’ that many musicians in the genres of rock, hip hop and timba of the Special Period imagined was individually defined and deliberately personal. More accurately, a series of Secondspaces were imagined, each one different, each one an island in the chain of Kapcia’s archipelago. Yet, paradoxically, accompanying the negotiation of multiple ‘Secondspace Cubanness’ in music, a return to a ‘Firstspace’, authentic ‘traditional’ Cuban music emerged. Spearheaded by the global popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club[17] and engorged by the mass influx of tourists, who brought with them their own perceptions of and desires for Cubanness, Cuban music began to be re-imagined in concession to these tourist perceptions (Barker and Taylor, 2007). The romantic image of 1950s Cadillacs and Buicks avoiding ocean spray on the pot-holed Malecón was recreated for this tourist market. With it, an ‘exotic other’ and a musical form to fit were re-imagined. Where many musicians were reconstructing their cultural identities to incorporate foreign musics, co-opting them to reflect a contemporary Cuba, the renewed pressure of tourist perception, and Cuba’s place within the world music circuit began to reshape a retro(gressive) Cuban identity that coincided with its own ideals. This Firstspace reimagining of Cubanness may have only represented one of the many Secondspace archipelagos – one of the potential definitions of Cuban cultural identity now – but it was certainly the most dominant on a global scale.

As the new millennium approached, and the nightmare of the Special Period receded, Cuban identity had been reclaimed by many, reshaped by some and changed by an epoch that made top-down, holistic authoritarian notions of what constituted a Cuban identity anachronistic and irrecoverable.

[1] As opposed to the “colossus to the north” (see Raul Fernandez, 1994:111)

[2] Revolution is used by Badiou as an example of an ‘event’.

[3] Timba is a genre of Cuban music, Perna argues, that grew out of, and thus represents, the Special Period and the impact it had upon Cuban identity.

[4] The logistics of such a mushrooming in popularity would, in itself, warrant its own discrete study. How rock and rap were heard and disseminated in a country in which all music is prohibitively expensive, and foreign music was illegal to own, speaks of a tacit communication across the Straits of Florida, and of hidden cassette-culture communities in Cuba. Sufficed to say here, Cuban rock musicians I have spoken to have all mentioned the importance of such avenues of music dissemination in the formation of their identity and the ‘rock scene’ in Cuba.

[6] Bolek and Lolek was a Polish cartoon running from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s which was televised in Cuba, and became very popular.

[7] Although the extent to which any generation of children in any country actively selects the cultural materials delivered to them as a generation is probably a moot point

[8] It is interesting to note that this live version of the song is the one Varela included on his ‘best of’ album ‘Los Hijos de Guillermo Tell’ (The Children of William Tell). It is clear that he too realises the power in the communality of this performance. The live performance also appears on the Luaka Bop Cuban compilation ‘Cuba Classics 3 – Diablo al Infierno!’ (Nasatir, 2008). It is no exaggeration to suggest the live version has become more popular, more recognisable than the ‘original’ studio recording.

[9] And indeed to Cuban citizens themselves.

[10] The details (albeit from a partisan perspective) of this amendment can be found at the following website:

[11] I should point out that Mariley Reinoso Olivera, as well as being a Cuban musician is also my wife.

[12] The process is discussed, albeit in parody, in the Porno Para Ricardo song ‘Black Metal’ (see chapter 4)

[13] Gott calls the 1994 balsero exodus the “third exodus” (2004:298), naming these two earlier events as the precursors to the Special Period migration.

[14] And, with increasing numbers, music from other locations important in the Cuban diaspora, such as Mexico, Spain and Venezuela.

[15] It is worth noting that Arango’s assertion here is not backed up by any analysis of Cuban migration statistics. For such analysis, I refer to Aguirre (1976), Aguirre and Bonilla Silva (2002) and Pedraza-Bailey (1985). However, that Arango would make such a claim, albeit anecdotally, is a telling face, and one worth exploring in its own right.

[16] The question of subcultural Cubanness will be addressed in chapter three.

[17] A group that Barker and Taylor claim were not well known within Cuba itself (2007).


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