Sovereignty of Violence
Oh, joven heroe arrebatado por los dioses, palmo a palmo ha crecido tu hondo rapto y ya tiene el tamano de la isla, el sabor de nuestro aire y nuestro mar! iremos por las playas caminando entre tus dedos; escalaremos las montanas recordando tu rostro. no surcaremos las olas, sino tu ardiente pecho
[Oh, young hero snatched away by the gods,
inch by inch, handful by handful, your abduction has deepened
until it now is the size of the island,
the taste of our air and our sea!
We will walk the beaches between your fingers; we will climb the mountains remembering your face.
We will ride not the waves but your burning breast]
—Cintio Vitier, “Camilo Cienfuegos”
In a poem dedicated to Camilo Cienfuegos, Cintio Vitier addresses him as the mythical hero of Antiquity’s epics who has been abducted by the gods. Cienfuegos and Guevara were, according to Gott: “The two rebel coman- dantes, perceived as the most heroic, charismatic and romantic figures in Castro’s army” (Gott 2004, 167). Cienfuegos, commander-in-chief of the army in the Sierra Maestra and always loyal to the revolution, was lost in October 1959, as he was flying over Camaguey where he was to replace
Huber Matos. He was never found, nor were his remains. Much like in Guevara’s case, Cienfuegos’s sudden disappearance confirmed him as the mythical hero he had already become during the armed insurrection. These, at least, are the type of metaphors that circulated in political discourse and culture during the first two years of the Cuban Revolution. After the radical shift of governance, it became imperative to look for new forms of nation building. The revolution took form by bringing into play a new citizen with a new identity. Until then, Cubanness was defined by discourses of cultural miscegenation; with the revolution, national identity was transformed by a new revolutionary ethos. The discourses of racial and cultural difference that were part of the national imaginary during the Republic became political discourses of heroism, sacrifice, and patriotism. The new revolutionary citizen was a hero whose sacrifices would help build the nation. Central to this was the notion of violence.
Following the victory of the Cuban Revolution—and perhaps also influenced by the “silenced” event of the Haitian Revolution in 1791— Roque Dalton published an essay in the Cuban journal Casa de las Americas calling for armed struggle against capitalism (1963, 20). Jose Marti had already argued a century before that it was time for Latin Americans to begin struggling for their second independence from the political and economic influence of the United States (“Congreso de Washington”). Like Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, or Ernesto Guevara, other Latin Americans and revolutionary intellectuals of the sixties, Dalton argued that El Salvador needed to be liberated from its subjugation to the inequitable, corrupt, and bloodthirsty governments that had led it, from colonialism to the postcolonial period. While all these writers felt that armed struggle was the only means to achieve liberation, they had different reasons to make that claim. For Dalton a revolutionary had to take the same risks with weapons that a poet took with language, since both shared the same ethical responsibility. As the theoretical architect of foquismo and an advocate of guerrilla warfare, Ernesto Guevara believed that only an armed struggle would lead the masses to power. Indeed, Fanon’s theory of violence was very influential on Guevara’s thought.
This chapter looks at the deployment and interpretation of the ideological fantasies at play in the revolutionary process of the early 1960s, when the political foundations of the revolutionary movement were established. More specifically, I analyze the ideological legacy of the intellectual production of the 1960s—the first decade of the Cuban revolutionary period. The chapter deals with the ideas of novelty that arose to represent the new political ideology, as well as the cultural forms associated with it. It is important to note that revolutionary insurgence was postulated on its exceptionality. This originality was based on the concept of warfare and on political improvisation. What made the revolution a unique event was that it had not followed a theoretical program, which is why it did not lend itself to easy systematization and codification. In a letter written in 1960 to Argentinian writer Ernesto Sabato, Guevara explained that, in Cuba, revolutionary theory was codified after the revolution’s exploits, and not vice versa: “This Revolution is a genuinely improvised creation. We are thus also speaking with a new language, because we walk much faster than we think and structure our thoughts. We are in constant movement, whereas theory goes at a slower pace” (Guevara 2003, 269-70). This also means that the “new” was not easily identifiable. The desire to create and articulate the idea of novelty recurs in many of the essays from the sixties. The revolution was the culmination of the long-standing aspiration for political autonomy and independence. This meant that nationalism and patriotism became two key defining aspects of the “new.” In that regard, the Cuban Revolution was no different from any other political project of national liberation, or process of decolonization, for that matter. The consequence was the renaissance of an epic memorialization of war and the representation of Cuba as a nation under siege. This idea permeated all cultural production in the revolution’s early years. During this period, attacks by counterrevolutionary and U.S. forces justified for the revolutionaries a rhetoric of war and heroism. But as the years went by, the rebels who took power continued to cultivate the same imaginary of the Sierra Maestra. The tropes of heroism, sacrifice, war, and violence were the essential topoi of revolutionary rhetoric, and they became the values that every Cuban citizen needed to embrace.
Revolutionary subjectivity was characterized by the self-sacrificing attitude of the hero or guerrilla fighter. Many soldiers gave their lives for the country, and the government felt always indebted to them. In return for this sacrifice, other citizens also had the duty to sacrifice themselves for the nation: “Para ello, la Union de Jovenes Comunistas alza sus simbolos, que son los simbolos de todo el pueblo de Cuba: el estudio, el trabajo y el fusil [For this, the Union of Young Communists raises its symbols, which are those of the entire Cuban people: study, work, and the rifle]” (Guevara 2009, 353). Most importantly, armed struggle was justified as the only possible means that could lead to a revolutionary transformation and a just society. The rhetorical mirage that led to the legitimization of violence was articulated, I argue, through the sanctification and martyrdom of the revolutionary hero, who became the country’s only possible political Messiah. One can observe this logic at play in Fidel Castro’s thought and in Ernesto Guevara’s works, both deeply rooted in Fanon’s theories of decolonization. Fanon argued that the colonized had a legitimate reason to rise in arms against the colonizers’ oppression. His arguments were decisive in the struggle for decolonization. He refuted Octave Mannoni’s theory of the colonized dependency complex, giving agency to colonized subjects with his arguments on racial difference (see Fanon 1963). Drawing on existentialism and his reading of Sartre, as Rojas rightly points out, he was also the first to articulate the dynamics of oppression and alienation in the colonial process. Did these theoretical premises establish the conditions of possibility for a new and radical way to conceive of liberation? I will address this question by looking at early revolutionary discourse, social poetry, and three key revolutionary works. First, I analyze Castro’s justification of armed struggle in his self-defense narrative La historia me absolvera (History Will Absolve Me, 1954), and I analyze the logic of sacrifice by looking at Cintio Vitier’s poems “Cruz” (Cross) and “Cara o cruz” (Head or Tails). Second, I consider the Guevarian theories of liberation and revolutionary subjectivity in La guerra de guerrillas (Guerrilla Warfare, 1961) and “El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba” (“Socialism and Man in Cuba,” 1965). Among the numerous works about revolutionary heroism, I have chosen to look first at Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s earliest film, Historias de la Revolution (Stories of the Revolution, 1960), and then at Luis Rogelio Nogueras’s detective novel Y si muero manana (If I Die Tomorrow, 1978). Nogueras’s novel, which is from a later period, shows that the representation of heroism and violence that dates back to the early sixties remained a key aspect of revolutionary subjectivity until the eighties. It is my contention that the rhetoric of violence was at the core of revolutionary discourse during the first revolutionary decade and that political change (or construction) was based on destruction. More important, this discourse radically laid the ideological foundations of subsequent Cuban revolutionary rhetoric. The dogmatism that constrained cultural production during the “five gray years” (Quinquenio gris,1 1971-76) was a direct consequence of these premises.
In addition to looking at the different articulations of the new ideology, I also examine the aesthetic debates surrounding it. More specifically, I study the debates around socialist realism, especially Mirta Aguirre’s defense of it, as well as the conversationalist social poetry of the period. My argument is that—contrary to Guevara’s claim—Cuba produced its own version of socialist realist literature and that the social strand of conversationalist poetry was a good example of this. As a matter of fact, I believe that Guevara’s melancholic rendering of the New Man was also the model that inspired the heroic figures of these poems. Firmly anchored in the belief that form and content mirrored each other, materialist thinkers proposed socialist realism as the only form able to convey dialectical materialism. These aesthetic views emerged in opposition to idealism, the philosophy of the bourgeois representation of reality. This theoretical debate ultimately reintroduced the question of the national autonomy of the Cuban literary canon. In other words, at stake was the validity of the Western literary tradition and its ability to convey an objective and truthful representation of reality. Once more, the question of aesthetics was a question of national identity, as it had been for the literary tradition of the Republic. Most important, however, were the ideological interpretations of the claims to truth of two philosophical traditions, materialism and idealism, and how they were used to justify modes of governance. Scholars have pointed to the dynamism and transparency of these public debates to argue that that there was a space for political dissent and discussion.2 Whereas these claims were certainly true, state apparatuses were already imposing a rigid hegemonic state discourse in the 1960s.