“We declare that democracy is not compatible with oligarchies or Ku Klux Klan or executions such as those of Rosenbergs. We declare that democracy does not reside only in votes, which have too often been manipulated by politicians and latifundistas. This is only a farce, not democracy.”
– Fidel Castro 1960
By Emma Galvin. I’m sitting in the late September sun in the steps of the University of Havana. It’s my favorite place to sit, tucked in against the almost 300-year-old steps—easy to see but not be seen. My attempts to blend in are, as usual, rendered entirely futile as a Cuban man spots my height, my US-made backpack and my Birkenstocks. He asks me the time in Spanish, and then, my accent confirmed, asks me where I am from in English. I tell him the uncomfortable truth: the US.
His face lights up and he calls excitedly to someone up ahead of him. “This one’s from the United States!” A tall blond man comes lumbering back towards me. He gives me a handshake that would feel more natural in a boardroom. “Oh, that’s great, are you studying here?” I explain that yes, I am here for a semester with a study abroad program through Brown University. When I say Brown, his face lights up in a way that makes me brace myself. “Oh, that’s greeeaat.” He says, settling into an ever wider stance. His niece studies there and just loves it. He puts his sports sunglasses on top of his head and leans in towards me, using the conspiratorial tone reserved for fellow countrymen in a foreign land.
“He just strangled it, didn’t he?”
It’s an indication of my own naiveté that I don’t know exactly what he was talking about. I give him a blank stare, well-practiced after a month of minimal Spanish comprehension.
“Castro! He just paralyzed this country. It’s totally stuck. Tragic.”
He shakes his head and we look together out over the newly condemned steps of the University, over central Habana and towards the sea. Below us groups of students in state uniforms talk and laughed. A bearded man pushes a cart selling Granma, gum and maní. Behind us, distantly, I hear the speaker from a state-sponsored student rally and I find myself totally without words.
November 8, 2016. The air of the Melia Cohiba Hotel Smoking Room is dense and completely still. Our nervous laughter has long since faded into silence. The CNN commentators swirl states dizzyingly across the large screen TV. The meaning of their words can’t penetrate the hazy room. 209 Clinton. 248 Trump.
The morning after the election, my 11-year-old host brother comforts me over breakfast: “Emma, don’t worry both candidates were imperialist anyway. Your politics are just a façade.” With his precocious vocabulary and crisp white state school uniform, I find it difficult to argue. I’m not exactly a Clinton fanatic myself, but that Wednesday morning, election talk is everywhere, and I find the two candidates’ shared imperial mentalities to be meager comfort.
While perhaps a bit surprised by the outcome, the Cubans I spoke to didn’t seem remotely scared or disappointed. Most of their concerns focused around the embargo, and what the Trump presidency would mean for the normalization of Cuba/US relations. It’s not a misplaced concern: at different points Trump has said that he wants to open a hotel on the island, and that he would reverse all of Obama’s movements towards normalization.
His hateful rhetoric and corruption seemed to faze no one, many going as far to say that Trump was simply the most honest embodiment of US politics. In the Cuban context, this makes sense. Donald Trump, as a figure, confirms the Cuban state-sponsored narrative of US values almost to a T: capitalist, xenophobic, racist, sexist, greedy and orange. Many people expressed to me that “he’s just the first honest US politician,” a sentiment I felt wildly underequipped to respond to. On one hand, November wasn’t an easy month to defend the so-called American ideals. On the other hand, I believe implying that Trump represents the majority of US Americans vastly overestimates his reach.
In addition, “elections” in Cuba are virtually non-existent, and public participation in the democratic process is usually approached with a decent degree of skepticism. Indeed, many seemed pleasantly charmed by the freshness of my outrage, as if it was cute I had ever believed in US electoral democracy in the first place. “Welcome to the world,” one Cuban friend told me. “Governments are corrupt.”
So many narratives of US exceptionalism pivot around our democracy. 220 years of peaceful transitions of power. It’s the one element of our institutional legacy I still allowed myself to have pride in; it promised me we wouldn’t get “stuck.” But our current leader didn’t win the popular vote. 25.5% of Americans voted for Trump. Does masquerading behind the shreds of democratic ideals make it any less morally reprehensible to allow a bigot to take office?
I saw thousands sobbing at Castro’s funeral. Sobbing. Regardless of the trials of day-to-day Cuban life, there was an admiration for what he represented as a leader in defiance of imperialism. “He had his faults,” I was told again and again, “but he was the only politician we’ve ever had who tried to keep his promises to his people.” A champion of the people. The rhetoric sounds too familiar. How can populism have such different faces?
Castro is dead now, but our American zombie democracy lives on. I do feel paralyzed, if not by Trump himself, then by the systems that allowed him to get here. I feel paralyzed by the electoral college, by the DMC, by voter suppression, by Congress. By the deeps schisms within our own country. By the interlocking roots of white supremacy. By the enormity of our façade.
I never came up with a response for that man on the steps. I suppose being stuck is all relative to the direction you want to be headed in.
He just strangled it, didn’t he?
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