Just Another Word

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Many readers turn to Liberty’s Reflections section first. I can understand why, though the very first bit I always read is the liberty quote at the bottom of the cover. Years ago I even contributed one, a saying by Antonio Maceo (1845-1896), a black patriot, general, and hero of the Cuban struggle for independence: “La libertad no se mendiga; se conquista con el filo de un machete,” or, “You can’t beg for liberty; it’s won with the blade of a machete” — the weapon of choice in a 19th-century sugar economy, though now with terrible associations since the Rwandan massacre. Recently, in preparation for a school presentation on Cuba, I watched the 2003 documentary “A Great Day in Havana,” a series of sketches about modern Cuban artists — sculptors, painters, performance artists, poets, and musicians — along with their comments and reflections. Of course, modern Cuban artists are all state-sponsored (woe to the unlicensed!), live privileged lives, and refrain from biting the hand that feeds them. The best part of the film, for me, was the rich, elision-riddled Cuban Spanish saturated with local slang and mannerisms, a Spanish I seldom hear in Arizona and, to an American English speaker, akin to listening to the cadences of a rural Irish brogue. And the music. Cuban music has always been world-renowned but under the Castro regime it has experienced the renaissance of creativity, innovation, and excellence that hardship and loss of liberty often seem to generate. Think of literature under the Soviet regime: Solzhenitsyn, Rybakov, Grossman, Akhmatova, Pasternak (and yes, Ayn Rand). But there is a big difference between state-sponsored art and samizdat, though the difference is less in music, which is a less overtly political art, than it is in prose, where a writer can rant to his heart’s content. Nonetheless, the closing composition of “A Great Day in Havana” stopped me cold and left my jaw agape. Carlos Varela, a state sponsored singer and songwriter who fancies himself unconventional and achieved a genuine hit with a song entitled “Politics Doesn’t Fit into a Sugar Bowl” (which includes the refrain, “Fuck your embargo!”) ends the movie with a composition whose chorus is, “La libertad solo existe cuando no es de nadie” or, “Liberty only exists when no one has it.” Imagine that on the cover of Liberty. Wonder at how the Cuban psyche has changed in the 100 years from Antonio Maceo to Carlos Varela, half that time trapped in a people’s paradise. Does the aphorism have such depth that I’m unable to plumb it? Is it postmodernism at its most abstruse? Have I lost my sense of irony, or is it post-post-ironic humor? No, it’s brownnosing hypocrisy of the worst sort; it’s Orwellian syntactical contortion disguised behind a grammatically correct string of words; it’s what Mikhail Sholokov did when he declared Stalin’s Belomor Canal — at the time communism’s worst slave labor atrocity, with a death rate of 40 laborers per day, mounting to a total of 25,000 dead — a healthy rehabilitation program. Perhaps he should have rephrased that to “Life only exists when no one has it.”

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