Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Politics sucks, Victoria": José Latour's Comrades in Miami

How's this for a simile to make the pulse quicken?:

"For the next fifty minutes, like a nearly invisible virus invading an organism several trillion times its size, the purring outboards slipped the cigarette in."
The place is a cigarette boat easing quietly into harbor near Key West, Florida, under cover of night. The cargo and crew are six Cuban defectors. The passage is from José Latour's Comrades in Miami, and I like it for several reasons.

The simile is striking, the ominous image of the virus bumping up against the soft, reassuring purr of the motor, the tiny virus making its quiet way into the unimaginably huge organism (When was the last time you read trillion outside a story about the U.S. budget?) But mostly the little bit of wonder is both magical and touchingly human, the sort of thing I could well imagine myself thinking in a similar situation.

Latour's compassionate humanity comes through as well in his choice of multiple points of view, which permits considerable sympathy even for the novel's worst, most unrelievedly evil character.

The book's political stance is decidedly anti-communist and anti-Castro. Still, Latour is probably not universally loved by the anti-Castroites who are the Cuban-American community's public face in the United States. Here's one of the defectors, a central figure in the novel:

"`But we've reflected on the excesses of democracy and the shortcomings of communism a hundred times. Are we going to do something about it? No, right? So leave it to the naive dissidents who risk their freedom, maybe even their lives. They haven't figured out that when communism falls, Cuban-Americans will give them a medal and a pension before rigging the elections and taking charge. Politics sucks, Victoria."
In a news note relevant to a recurring motif in Comrades in Miami, President Barack Obama will allow Americans to make unlimited transfers of money and visits to relatives in Cuba.

Click here for two more novels unlikely to earn their authors tickets to a Fidel Castro celebrity roast.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Blogger Loren Eaton said...

That similie is certainly striking. I'm not used to hearing about our southern neighbors coming in on cigarette boats, though. A raft once washed up on the beach five minutes from where my parents live. I went to see it. The people who braved the ocean in that deserved a medal.

April 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, one of the novel's protagonists/defectors, the speaker of the second passage I quoted, has enlisted an officer in the Cuban navy to take him and his wife to Florida and to defect. Hence the cigarette boat.

Yes, ninety-something miles on ragtag rafts. That's quite something. Had the raft you saw been left in place as a shrine to its builders?

April 14, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

No, the authorities took it away, I think. We showed up maybe an hour or two after it landed. If I remember correctly, the thing couldn't have been more than thirty-or-so feet in diameter.

April 14, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seeing that must have made you feel like you were in a Cold War thriller. How many people had come over on it? Those people were long gone by the time you arrived, I would guess.

April 14, 2009  
Anonymous Dave Riley said...

Maybe actual situation is closer to this comment and interview with Leonardo Padura ( in the ShotsMag crime fiction zine) who is referred to as Cuba's Hammett -- and the Godfather of crime fiction on the island.

Dissidents with book deals come cheap for all the denigration they can spread about Cuba. While I support Cuba no one is going to suggest that the strictures of the "Special Period" haven't been tough nor is it up to me to argue that people who leave Cuba shouldn't choose to.

After all they are allowed to leave unlike the way that US citizens are disallowed from visiting.

But there's a certain servile advantage to be gained if you professionalise your dissident status from an off shore vantage point in the same way that Cuban bloggers are turned automatically into martyrs or experts on democracy (in the same way as George Bush was an expert on democracy).

In the meantime the massive cost of the blockade, the sheer havoc and financial terrorism it causes has turned the Cuban people into chronic, brutalised victims of US spite.

In Latour's case, it seems to me that the revolution 50 years ago has served him very well indeed and after one rejection he began to look elsewhere for a publisher.

Why not? Why put up with the "Special Period" and the blockade when you can make a new nest elsewhere, very much richer and with more comfort and fame in...Canada.

But like the Haitian who washes up on the Floridean shores, drowned or half drowned -- unless you have some edge the US can exploit, no one will want to know you let alone publish your creative thoughts.

April 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave: I have read one of Padura's novels. While it's not at the top of my list, I do remember being surprised at the degree to which he portrayed persecution of homosexuality, a theme he takes up the ShotsMag interview. And his characters, who seem to spend disproportionate amounts of their time smoking and drinking, are no socialist heroes. So I'm open to the suggestion that artistic freedom is available, at least for some. For how many, I don't know. But I also noted this from the Padura interview: "What happened in the 1970s to this group of writers, actors, painters etc., was a debt that was still unpaid by Cuban society." That's awfully recent, and perhaps to some are haunted by the ghosts of repression for longer than others.

Life in America is, of course, tainted by official euphemism, though I'm not sure anything rises to the level of "Special Period." Do Cuban media capitalize the phrase?

Padura's comments about his attachment to his country are touching, and I mean that without the least bit or sarcasm. I'm a bit uneasy, though, with its corollary implication: that people who try to flee Cuba are unpatriotic. That's uncomfortably close to the American "love it or leave it."

I would note also that Latour's view may be more nuanced that you give it credit for. The passage from which I took the title of this post is rather harsh on Cuban American dissidents.

April 17, 2009  
Anonymous Dave Riley said...

I agree with all of what you say and do note that period in the early seventies as when there were indeed a falling out among Cuban writers and intellecturals.

But my point is that it is very relevant to this debate that those who seek to lecture Cuba on human rights and democracy are so often massive hypocrites. Such as by the same country which set up Gauntanemo Bay-- which is also in Cuba.

It is true that those who leave are often labeled as "unpatriotic' but the term hasn't the same shallow weight as in the US. Cuba's long term struggle is for national self determination when the US resolved the question of independence in 1776.

So the term is much more virulent than the association you may have with its use in the United States as those who stay also stay among some significant degree of sacrifice for the sake of the gains the revolution have mustered.

There's a self evident logic, albeit biased perhaps, to the abuse, isn't there?

How is Cuba "independent' when it is savagely isolated by the United States, when its airways are seeded with US propaganda and there has been 50 years of sabotage and assassinations orchestrated by the neighbour to the north?

How is Cuba independent and determining its own existence when everyone knows both on and off the island that regime change will be enforced by the US as soon as any opportunity exists to do so.(As they tried to do with the Bay of Pigs invasion...as they did in Iraq only recently)

And any debate about human rights is warped by the prism that dissidence, while it may occasionally be treated unfairly, is also presumed to be a ticket to guaranteed US political and financial backing.

Left I on the News has a post today on Cuban "political prisoners" that seems salient to this discussion.

I don't doubt that there are strictures on some artists in Cuba -- but I note that there is a major debate at the moment about opening up to more free form political discussion. I think it's true that Cuba has a nanny attitude some times to debate and criticism from within the country.(But history suggests that Cuba is always changing.)

But while such nannyism has grown up as a response to US interventions concerns, Cuba is no longer so isolated in Latin America and I think the Venezuelans have shown that you can foster a debate on a massive scale and still win at the polls precisely because you had it out and won that debate.

But while Cuba remains under siege it is always going to be difficult to find the right balance between freedom and 'defence' both in the real world and in the minds of Cubans.

Writers and intellectuals aren't quite in the same boat as the general populace who may value such things like free health care and education more so than they. There is going to be a different tug of loyalty based on what you have learnt from your own experience to value most.

April 17, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, I may take several comments to reply to that long comment of yours. I agree, of course, that the U.S. is more likely to make heroes of dissidents from Cuba than from less convenient nations, and that lucrative opportunities exist for those qualified for the work. And, with the Soviet Union gone, the U.S. has far less reason from a security point of view to isolate Cuba than it once might have had.

With respect to the immediate occasion of this exchange, you criticize Latour for fishing for another publisher after a single rejection. He says one of his books -- I'm guessing the one you have in mind -- was condemned as counterrevolutionary. The two explanations are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I don't know the implications such a condemnation would have for a Cuban writer. But I can well imagine that it might make him consider his options elsewhere. And if Latour's sole motive was martyrdom, I suspect he'd have chosen the United States as a destination, rather than Spain and then Canada.

I also think one needs to tread carefully when declaring the powerlessness of small nations in the face of mighty neighbors. You say "regime change will be enforced by the US as soon as any opportunity exists to do so." The U.S. has not had a great track record enforcing regime change in Cuba, and Latin America's newer wave of leaders is not exactly a nostalgic American Cold Warrior's dream.

"But while Cuba remains under siege it is always going to be difficult to find the right balance between freedom and 'defence' both in the real world and in the minds of Cubans."That is an awful decision for anyone to have to make.

April 18, 2009  

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