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Epiphanies of Struggle

Vista del Amanecer en el Tropico by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

THE STRANGEST witness to appear before the Watergate Committee on summer television was Bernard Barker, charged with recruiting the Cuban exiles who actually performed the burglary. Unrepentant, he seized the chance to justify the operation, but his speech was like stills from a film of the early 60s; he talked of his love for Cuba, of his memories of the Bay of Pigs invasion, of our duty to the Cubans we had promised to set free. But the rest of the United States has managed to forget the years devoted to crushing the "Communist island within ninety miles of our territory." Neglect has proved to be a simpler policy than military invasion. Extremist groups may still throw a hand grenade down the gangplank of a Russian cruise ship or threaten the airlines of countries resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, but the lurid billboard in San Juan that showed Cuban soldiers executing prisoners before a bloodsplashed wall disappeared years ago. Hardly anyone remembers its inscription.

It is surprising that only now, so long after he left Cuba, has Guillermo Cabrera Infante published Vista Del Amanecer en el Tropico, (View of Dawn in the Tropics), his denunciation of the Cuban Revolution. Surprisingly, because it took so long for such a beautiful damnation to arrive from the Cuban opposition and because despite the passage of time, this book is as bitter as though its writer had left the island yesterday. Cabrera Infante has been an opponent of the Cuban government since he left the island in the early sixties. Like many exiles, he supported Castro at the beginning of the revolution; for three years he as a cultural official in the revolutionary government, a founder of its Film Institute, and director of a literary magazine, Lunes de Revolucion, that was closed down in 1961. After conflict over a film that was not funded because its theme was "decadent," he left the island on a diplomatic mission, never to return. Though he is too idiosyncratic for any political group to trust him, the prestige of his first novel, Three Trapped Tigers, has given him authority as a spokesman for refugee Cuban intellectuals.

Vista del Amanecer, Cabrera's newest statement, published in 1974, is a grimly serious book, soaked with desperate humor. It is a collection of short pieces, difficult to define, few of them more than a page long, meditations on images in Cuban history. At worst they resemble Reader's Digest fillers, but at their best they are epiphanies. Each one presents a static image or a brief moment. To explain the colonial period, for example, they describe engravings: conquistadores meeting Indians, bloodhounds catching a runaway slave.

The pieces provide a view of history as a museum display. Like a wax museum it has its chambers of horrors--but everything in good taste and proportion, subdued by aesthetic distance.

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"It was nine o'clock in the evening and the senator had a cafe con leche with a roll in his favorite cafe. At that moment two men entered, took out some enormous pistols and shot at the senator. Innocent or guilty, what is certain is that the senator was eating a roll when they killed him, staining his white linen suit with spilled blood and cafe con leche."

Cabrera's pessimism and deadpan irony cement these fragments into a book. Whether he is describing some feat of unbelievable bravery, such as peasants armed only with machetes attacking a Spanish cavalry unit, some amazing apathy or some quite ordinary cowardice, he always deflates heroic claims that men control their destiny. Battles are planned with strategy and won by blind chance. So many of these incidents are simultaneously horrible and funny that the reader is only left wondering, or cynical.

The chronological succession of the anecdotes supports and forms Cabrera Infante's argument against the Castro government. It takes a brief look at early colonial history, then concentrates on three struggles: the wars for independence, the struggles against the dictators, and the Revolution. Cabrera shows that the history of cruelty and violence on the island has known no beginning or end. Forced to adapt to a life of continual war in order to survive, Cubans have become indifferent to the potential terrors of their situation. "... his host brought him an aspirin, and finally the young terrorist lay down on his bed in the room where he had been hiding almost six months now. They put the dynamite inside a closet in the room in which his parents and his oldest daughter slept. About an hour later another terrorist appeared to take back the borrowed dynamite. He was very nervous and on leaving the house he hesitated an instant before stepping down to the gate."

Cuba has contributed a number of inventions to the progress of warfare and repression. The Spaniards bred the slavehunting dogs, "Cuban hounds", that were exported to the United States. Spanish generals invented the system of concentrating a rural population in garrisons and declaring anyone outside them a rebel that the United States would employ in Vietnam under the name of "strategic hamlets" policy. Cuban revolutionaries refined the techniques of urban terrorism as far back as the 20s.

Cabrera attacks the Cuban revolution simply by describing selected scenes. He tells of a waiter turned terrorist who becomes a police interrogator, lives in a confiscated mansion, and wins the rank of commander. He recalls some comic and heroic escapes, such as the two men who stowed away in the landing gear of a plane flying to Spain; one of them fell out during the journey but the other arrived eight hours later, half-frozen. The charge that the book spins is guilt by association: the Cuban Revolution was conceived in this tradition of violence and it is essentially the same creature. The wars of independence were a slaughterhouse, the years of terrorism were a nightmare, and the present government is a prison. It is unfortunate Cabrera fell victim to such a bitter, hysterical argument, but it is the only one that is consistent with the pessimistic vision of his book, that denies change is possible. His last words are that the "sorrowful, unhappy, and long island" will always be there, "after the last Cubans, surviving all the shipwrecks and eternally bathed by the current of the gulf: beautiful and green, imperishable, eternal."

There is a moral argument to be made against the Cuban revolution, and at the last moment Cabrera invokes Human Rights assuming the voice of a mother wailing for her son who was left to die without medical attention in prison. But Cabrera is no social activist; he is a self-exiled superfluous man, a film critic in a country that could no longer afford to import movies, who vents his pessimism and alienation in a very powerful book. Its clipped and limited range brings it up short of what it could have been. An intellectual document is still needed to remind us that revolutionary Cuba, whatever its great accomplishments in renovating its society, is not the "island of utopia" that some people say it is. So far, Vista del Amanecer en el Tropico is the best that has been written.

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