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. Read More

Embargo Cult and Techne Rituals

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If during republic and dictatorship Cubans adequately summoned the lords of cargo and led the island into a secular order of consumption, then the Revolution of 1959 sent that American modernization into a Cold War remission, one in which the Soviet Union stepped in as the new Cargo kings. In the wake of the collapse of Soviet subsidies and soviet structured import and export markets, Cuba turned to China, to Europe, to Venezuela.  But the cargo could not compensate for the broad range of commodities that the Soviet years had brought, and the embargo, and its reinforcement in the Helms Burton Bill, became a new looming reminder of the cargo that could not be.  Now, if a cargo cult is a set of practices that mimetically reconstitute the actions, instruments, and signs that can summon cargo, then the Cuban state, by continuously invoking the embargo as a condition of collective existence, has in effect created a cult of negative cargo, a cult of scarcity, of that which never comes, can never come.  It remains to be seen if this cult is at an end.

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Cuba Cargo/Cult

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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. Read More