CubaCargo/Cult is written to reflect on certain tangles and possibilities in thinking Cuba beyond the market, beyond the nation, beyond charismatic leaders and millenarian epochs. To think Cuba, too, beyond and before empire and the state. By invoking the term, I am putting into play an idea that can help us to think many aspects of Cuba’s modernity, to break the frames of development, democracy, socialism, empire, and cold war. Cuba is a long way from Melanesia, with a history at the heart of empire, capital, and material and human cargo. But the economies, dynamics, and narrative force of Cargo Cults are well suited to thinking about its modernization, its revolutions and its present. Thinking Cuba with Cargo Cults helps us rethink cults of political, critical, and theoretical desire that have interpreted this process. And, in many ways, Cuba has been narrated as a Cargo Cult for a long time now. The U.S. story for Cuba is a Cargo Cult story: the tropes of native desire for modernity and its cargo, like the tropes of the childlike logic, primitive ingenuity, or the calculating affect and transactional spirituality of Cubans haunts our hegemonic misunderstanding of what Cuba means.
Certainly the developmental and political narratives of Cuba are punctuated by the logic of the cargo cult: for a nation-state framed by the spectral plenty of empire and by real economies of scarcity, the desperate desire for the “cargo” of modernity, technology, and progress is a constant and a commonplace. Neo-colonial relationships, a monoculture economy, Soviet clientelism, and then its collapse, all this made more desperate the desire around that modern and hard-won cargo (meat, dolls, rice, cars, refrigerators, bicycles, jeans, flatscreens, air-conditioners, laptops). The U.S. embargo and Soviet clientelism created new cargo and renewed the fetish for the old: it literally turned into cargo what would otherwise have been a more or less “normal,” or normalized flow of commodities in uneven development.
But “cargo” it was, and “cargo” it continues to be. The word helps us think beyond the mirages of globalization to remind us of geopolitical isolation and the remissions of modernization. Tapping the forms and narratives of the cargo cult liberates us to reimagine Cuba, and the US, in ways that strip away the logics of neocolonialism to their bare essentials, and reveals the magical thinking and cargo cult logic that are deeply embedded inside the false market rationalism of globalization . The magical content of cargo, the time of waiting, the scanning of the horizon: for Cubans living scarcity, commodities are the key to dreams and new epochs. The intricate means and social rituals devised to obtain them are not deluded, or wrong, or merely “false consciousness.” The modern Cuban Cargo Cults are practical way of knowing and being that are overread by analysts, or misread by theorists of free market and of base and superstructure. The charismatic leaders and messianic times, the political prophecy of the last 60 years, here and in Cuba, can be thought of as producing Cuban cargo stories, which we own and project, as Lamont Lindstrom writes, “Cargo cults are Melanesian, but cargo cults accounts belong to us.”
Cuba Cargo Cult is also meant to signal the ways that Cuba has become a cargo for our cults, a content that will be delivered and will in turn deliver us. We wait for the Cargo, real and metaphorical, from Cuba. The rituals that surround Cuba, the mere name of Cuba as Cargo, the fetishes of Cuban commodities in rum and cigars, the grand epochal shift that Cuban Cargo will signal. But the progress, excess, and plenty that Cuban Cargo implies, will also bring us magic: helping to confirm our modernity, the rationality of markets, the latency of monstrous and irrational capitalism, and the possibility, finally, that someone, perhaps a whole country, can finally be delivered with the cargo that has never delivered us.