Introduction: Cuba as Dreamworld and Catastrophe

From the Series: Cuba as Dreamworld and Catastrophe

Photo by Михаил Ковенский, licensed under CC BY SA.

In June 2002, Fidel Castro briefly collapsed while giving an address on the campaign to constitutionally declare that “Cuba is and will always be a socialist state.” As the cameras quickly panned away from Castro to take him out of focus, individual Cubans gasped along with the rest of the world. The question of Castro’s mortality, or immortality, became the topic of the day. Sitting in my apartment in Havana at the time, my phone began to ring off the hook, each caller posing the same question: “Are you watching the news?” How could you miss it, I thought, with the only three television channels broadcasting the same speech. Several of my Cuban friends mused: “What will happen to us?”

Rumors began to spread that, on July 4, Cubans in exile in Miami would arrive by the boatload at the waterfront area of Havana, the Malecón, to rescue their relatives from socialism. The images of the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and, more recently, the balsero crisis of 1994 were obvious points of reference for the idea that such an event could actually take place. Cubans engaged in casual conversation on the streets and in the markets about who would go and who would stay, if the rumor were true. While Castro quickly recovered from his spell of exhaustion (which was, his supporters claimed, why he had collapsed), many individuals were still anxious about who his successor would be. His younger brother, Raul, then the head of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, was simply “too radical,” many complained. Others concluded that nobody else was competent enough to carry the torch of Cuban socialism with the passion and ferocity of Fidel.

As July 4 drew nearer, people became more and more anxious, and both radio and TV stations started broadcasting warnings that the Malecón would be off-limits that day. No explanations were given. On July 4, from the view of my eighth-floor high-rise apartment facing the waterfront, the sea was calm and not a boat was in sight. Venturing out of my apartment with a close friend of mine, a fellow anthropologist from Canada, I made my way toward the waterfront, despite warnings from Cuban friends that we were “completely crazy.” Those friends opted to stay home, reminding us that as foreigners with passports, perhaps we could at least feign ignorance. Within a block of the Malecón, we saw a smattering of police in riot gear standing guard, but nobody else was in sight. The Cubans we did see, for the most part, were going about their everyday lives.

Within two days of the big event, the rumor had lost its significance and people had little to say about it. When I asked one of my neighbors, Maite, who had dramatically cried in my living room when Fidel collapsed, about the fate of Cuba after Castro, she remarked, “I will deal with that day when it comes.” In February 2008, when Raul Castro was officially recognized as president of the Cuban Council of State, many who had predicted widespread social unrest and protests quietly resigned themselves to the changing of the guard. “Es lo mismo, con los mismo,” concluded Maite. “It is the same with the same.”

Fast forward to December 17, 2014: after years of hinting, President Barack Obama finally announces a rapprochement with Cuba, rejecting the failed, Cold War–era policies of the past. Shortly thereafter, precipitous changes in relations between the two countries were outlined, including formalizing diplomatic relations, rescinding Cuba’s classification as a state sponsor of terrorism, and other turnabouts in trade relations, migratory accords, and foreign capital investment. The media frenzy following these political acrobatics reenacted the now all-too-familiar mise-en-scène of capitalist-democratic politics as a cipher of change for Cuba’s stale socialist climate. Yet what should we expect of these changes for Cubans, whether they are in Cuba, in a self-declared state of exile, or, the newest category to emerge, living abroad (residentes permanentes en el exterior)? And what of the myriad publics that consume Cuba? In the United States, scholarly, popular, literary, and journalistic renderings of Cuba offer a variety of depictions, from anachronism and forbidden tourist enclave to a country on the verge of something (greatness or collapse?) or in transition (to what?). Cuba has simultaneously been described as a socialist utopia and a model of a failed totalitarian state.

In recent months, the cacophony of discourses on Cuba’s speculative futures has entered an unprecedented phase. On November 25, 2016, the death of Fidel Castro reignited uncertainty and heated questions about the future of the country. His passing triggered strong emotions as Cubans all over the world either lamented or celebrated the news. This range of reactions was even more salient in the wake of Donald J. Trump’s election as the forty-fifth president of the United States. Shortly after Trump took office, press secretary Sean Spicer announced that “we are in the midst of a full review of all U.S. policies toward Cuba.” If the Trump administration’s approach to Barack Obama’s domestic and international legacies so far is any indication, Cuba-related policies under President Trump may look very different indeed.

This Hot Spots series attempts to interrogate how Cuba is interpellated by diverse audiences to think with and about the complexities and paradoxes of everyday, textured accounts of life in opposition to, in the shadows of, or at the vanguard of living la Revolución at this historical juncture in U.S.–Cuba relations. The series is broadly tied together under the rubric of Cuba as dreamworld and catastrophe, in a nod to the work of Susan Buck-Morss. For Morss (2000, x), “Mass utopia, once considered the logical correlate of personal utopia, is now a rusty idea.” The utopic dreams of the twentieth century, articulated across a diverse political spectrum of regimes, be they capitalist or European socialist, have repeatedly turned into nightmares. How, then, should we approach an examination of Cuba, an actually existing socialist state persisting long after the disintegration of European socialism, at the brink of supposedly momentous change? How do we make sense of and interpret the vexing realities of determination, nostalgia, hope, loss, bewilderment, and promise? Must utopic dreams always turn to nightmares?

One answer can be found in the acclaimed documentary Suite Habana (2003), by Cuban director Fernando Pérez. It provides a moving account of the quotidian lives of thirteen people living in Havana. Relying on a carefully curated soundtrack and iconic imagery, the film has little to no dialogue. Instead, the ebbs and flows of the lived urban landscape are subtly revealed as subjects navigate in and out of the wide camera lens, revealing stunningly picturesque moments as well as parts of the city in decay, with crumbling infrastructure and hollowed-out buildings. At the end of the film, a brief biographical sketch is provided for each of the subjects. Their dreams for the future are noteworthy: to climb high, to travel and return, to reunite my family, to play in an orchestra, to perform on a big stage, to wear a different suit every day. Nearly everybody has a dream. There is one outlier, though. Amanda, a seventy-nine-year-old retired textile worker on a pension, has to sell peanuts in a park to make ends meet. She dreams no more, the viewer learns. For Amanda, it may be es lo mismo, con los mismo. But this sketch might also mean that Amanda’s desires and aspirations transcend the limited options that have been made available to her. Hers may be a dream put on hold.

Like the subjects of Suite Habana, the essays in this series open up a space for critical dialogue on a diverse set of intersecting themes: race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, performance, belonging, social inequality, technological advancements, and health and the body. Each contribution, far from offering neatly packaged answers, offers a glimpse into ongoing debates and discussions around the cultural, economic, and political issues facing Cuba in the twenty-first century.


Buck-Morss, Susan. 2000. Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.