Fighting Over Fidel

fidel

Fighting Over Fidel –
The New York Intellectuals and the Cuban Revolution
By Rafael Rojas
Princeton University Press – £24.95

The Moon of the Cuban
Revolution’s gone under
the Laughing Carib-
I told you so!

[…]

What’ll we do for new
hope for the masses now
politics shows its tricks
How should I know?

Communists, Capitalists
play up to the masses
and both are sincere but
Business is slow!

Cut up the world, and
You’ll see the right answer
Words are the weapons,
the weapons must go!

(Allen Ginsberg – in the poem devoted to the closing of Lunes de Revolution)

When I lived in New York, I had the great fortune to interview Allen Ginsberg in his East Village apartment, who, it has to be said, remained true to his inexorable Howl induced, esoteric self.

We discussed everything from the validity of poetry to Bob Dylan (who he admitted was his favourite poet), American politics to William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac to nineteen-fifties/sixties Cuba; the latter of which is more than well assimilated and brought to bear in the fifth chapter of this overtly, eye-opening book, Fighting Over Fidel – The New York Intellectuals and the Cuban Revolution.

Aptly entitled ‘Moons of the Revolution,’ author Rafael Rojas traverses the entire trajectory of the Beat Poets fraught relation(s) with Cuba when he writes: ”Many members of the Beat Generation were enamoured with the Cuban Revolution and travelled to the island in order to directly experience its social and political process […]. These were the years (1960-62) when US policies toward Cuba were turning increasingly hostile, as reflected in the American-supported Bay of Pigs invasion, other violent US actions against the Cuban regime, and the Kennedy administration’s subsequent declaration of a trade embargo against the island […].

From his journal notes, we know that Ginsberg came under great pressure during the US hearings against the FPCC at the beginning of the 1960s. That pressure only increased when Castro declared the ”socialist” character of the revolution just hours before the Bay of Pigs invasion. As the revolutionary leaders pronounced their public declarations of Marxist-Leninist ideology, the position of figures like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, who had defended the Cuban Revolution as standing for another kind of Left, was put in a state of suspense.”

Needless to say, said ‘suspense’ led Ginsberg to write his first critical poem on Cuban socialism, when in December 1961, he penned the following:

Allessandri [sic] of Chile, trickery and oily manners, Castro
     of Cuba, a big cigar and he wants to be a hero too,
He thinks of his name in the future & shuts down the Moons of
     the Revolution.-
The Moon of the Cuban Rebellion’s gone under the laughing
     Carib!

All the above said – which is clearly open to a myriad of interpretation given how things are continuing to pan out in today’s Cuba – these 250 pages (not including Notes, References and Index) sets much of the record as well as the narrative straight; especially so far as the backdrop of the ideological confrontation betwixt the Cold War and the spiky/inevitable breakdown of relations between Havana and Washington are concerned.

As such, from ‘Hipsters and Apparatchiks’ to ‘Socialists in Manhattan,’ from ‘Negroes with Guns’ to ‘The Skin of Socialism,’ Fighting Over Fidel is a superbly written and well put together book. Each and every chapter sheds yet more (profound) significance upon a most turbulent time in recent history, which, in relation to 1960s New York, Rojas wholeheartedly underlines in the book’s Introduction: ”That decade and this city constituted a microcosm of activity whose resonance was felt around the globe. New York in the 1960s was the moment and the place for progressive movements of all kinds: artistic vanguards, women’s liberation, sexual liberation, civil rights, and opposition to the Vietnam War. But these movements and struggles were also privileged scenarios for the emergence and circulation of debates over the ideological identity of Cuban socialism – its truths and its errors, its coincidences and divergences from the Soviet model, its lessons for the Western Left – as well as for the articulation of critiques of US government policy towards Cuba […].

In New York, with its strong liberal and socialist traditions, the Cuban Revolution was discussed as nowhere else, just as the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War had energized the city’s public discourse decades before.”

Just as the very same city (and the UN?) now endeavours to comes to terms with the terrible fiasco that is Brexit – and the potential pulling apart of the European Union. Admittedly, a revolution it might not be (yet), but if current hatred and division is anything to go by – might it be a matter of time?

Either way, Fighting Over Fidel is a terrific read; one I’d highly recommend to anyone remotely interested in Cuban politics. Not to mention the Beat Poets.

David Marx

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