Socialite Revolution: Dynasties, Aristocratic Touches, and Surrogate Royalty in Havana

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Nearly two years ago, I showed my lefty credentials at a dinner party by talking about Cuba as a process of “passive revolution” (more on that in a later post).  Reflecting on political familialism and wealthy dynasties (Clintons, Kirchners, Castros, Bacardis, Fanjuls), I argued with too much confidence that the dynastic politics of Cuba and the United States would own the future.  Turning to me in wry agreement, the writer Antonio José Ponte said, ironically, that his most perverse professional desire  for the future would be to edit a Cuban edition of “Hola,” and to cover in detail the gossip and rumor, the behind the scenes drama, designer gowns, and exclusive fotos of a historic and romantic Castro-Fanjul wedding of 2025.

The recent pictures of Paris Hilton with Fidel Castro Díaz Balart taken while the socialite was in Havana visiting the Habana Hilton  (opened by Conrad Hilton but funded with the pension plan of the Cuban Catering Workers Union) somehow fulfills and annihilates Ponte’s fantasy.   Paris’ comments suggest that the Hiltons owned the property when in fact they merely ran it, and her return seems to mark a symbolic taking possession and elegant relinquishment. Smiling side by side, the selfie socialite and the socialist scion (a good photogenic surrogate for his father) seem to annul sixty years of history.  Here we are, it seems to say, the celebrity descendants of two famous dynasties (three if you count the Diaz Balarts), and isn’t all that other nonsense irrelevant when a good selfie is all you need to heal the world.  One can almost imagine Paris in the near future naming her new baby Havana Hilton.

Bacardis, Fanjuls, Hiltons:  the returning seigneurs will be in the news more and more, as will the nostalgia of possession amid great dispossession.  A year ago, Alfonso Fanjul spoke of his recent and increasing visits to Cuba, and told the Washington Post, “If there is some way the family flag could be taken back to Cuba, then I am happy to do that.” But the return/victory lap of Cuba’s old and new aristocratic “dueños” has been going on for a while now.   And there are pictures to record the fantasies and traces they leave behind.

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In May of 2001, Rufus Arnold Alexis Keppel, the tenth Earl of Albemarle, came to Havana to marry his fiancee, Sally Tadayon at the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis.  Rufus Keppel, now the head of the designer shirt company Albemarle, had more than the usual nostalgic motivation for coming to Havana.  His ancestor, the third Earl of Albemarle, was the commander of the invasion and eleven month long occupation of Havana and the west of Cuba in 1762, an occupation which opened Cuban ports in ways unprecedented under Spanish rule, and also heavily accelerated the slave trade.  Rufus returned and staged an extravagant and period-perfect “royal” wedding, complete with carriages, celebrated in the church that the British used when they ruled Havana.

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Perhaps this reclaiming of droits de seigneur in Havana inspired for some the notion of another eleven months of prosperity as the austerity of the Special Period took its toll.  The photographic detail of children as flower bearers stroked by the Earl or girls running after the carriage musters a fantasy of Cuba, not only as a theme park of crumbling socialism, or  ruins in seductive light (something I wrote about in “Picturing Havana,” linked below).  With the Earl of Albemarle’s wedding photos and the many images of Cuba from that moment, Cuba seemed once more the  place to revive dynastic fantasies, indulge nostalgias of proprietorship, and pet brown children, who, long ago, might have been your servants or your slaves.

Meanwhile, offering a new fantasy of race and romantic tourism,  a different kind of royalty came to visit Cuba in the spring of 2013, inviting us to read their visit as a move in the legendary eighteen month campaign to change the Cuba U.S. relationship.

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Here the dynastic projection was about newness and future, about entertainment aristocracy and honeymoons, and apparently not about the past. The pictures of Jay-Z and Béyoncé in Havana, celebrating their fifth anniversary, made a big splash in the early spring of 2013.  Beyoncé looked resplendently Afrocentric, her hair uncharacteristically dark in box braids worn high on her head, and she wore designer outfits whose prints (especially the Thakoon mustard, black and white outfit she wore touring Havana) were reminiscent of African textiles (and acclaimed as such by African fashion websites).

The visit seemed very much like a visit of state, and the photos of the couple mobbed in the street or of Beyoncé standing with schoolchildren invite us to imagine them as celebrity surrogates on the diplomatic tour that Michelle and Barack could not yet undertake.  It felt for some of us like a rehearsal of things to come.  The sight of a gorgeously brown (decidedly unblonde) Beyoncé, and every fashion choice she made in Cuba, signaled other imaginaries and genealogies. On the one hand that glamorous dark skinned, dark haired Queen Beyoncé invoked the solidarity with Cuba of American black radicalism and left politics following the civil rights movement.  But her costume also obviously established a connection with Africa, South Africa, and Nelson Mandela, and retrospectively, seems to underline the moment of rapprochement when Obama clasped Raul’s hand at Mandela’s funeral.  Béyonce and Jay-Z (who was dressed more prosaically in US tourist and straw hat garb, from time to time smoking an habano) seemed to augur a different superstar dynasty for Cuba’s future, one with African roots and American glamour.

The many photo ops make it rather hard to believe the couple were simply there on vacation and not part of a larger choreography of celebrity diplomacy.  Whether walking in Havana or posing in the requisite vintage car, either holding the place of the Obamas or of countless African American tourists to come, the sight of Jay Z and Beyonce in Havana compensates for, or supplements provocatively the parade of white heirs and descendants with nostalgias of patrimony in Havana, suggesting that perhaps that other Washington based superstar African American couple is making it possible.  The visit of these other Carters to Havana was a jolt to the  imagination.  The photo ops of this American “royalty” in Havana signaled a change in the  image repertoire of Americans in Cuba, sending a signal to black America, launching a thousand conversations, and perhaps leaving a sign of the cultural economies and racial politics of dynasties to come.  The news of Paris in Havana is almost always robbed of revolution, but dynasties are forever.

 

Link:  Ana Dopico, Picturing Havana:  History, Vision and the Scramble for Cubahttp://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/nepantla/v003/3.3dopico.html

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