The Cuban Revolution and Machismo

Isla 70, Raúl Martínez, 1970

by Alexander McGregor

As long as nothing happens anything is possible.
– Graham Greene

With this beautifully modest sentence Greene excavated one of the most essential and enduring myths of the Cuban Revolution. Following the sheer, inviolable force of gravity that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, so much freedom was promised to the people, who in turn expected so much liberty, and yet the revolutionary soil proved infertile. In the construction of a genuinely socialist state, shaped upon Bolivarian principles, arguably little has been achieved in the last fifty years and the regime, apparently, withstands the inevitable decay of popular support through both repression and an almost mystical, religious prosecution of the ‘eternal possibility’: keep fighting, oh sons of Cuba, one day we shall be finally rid of our enemies and then we may be truly free.

Indeed, strolling around Havana one cannot walk a kilometer without encountering a mural demanding the Cuban people hold tight the fist of the revolution. Che Guevara’s face repeatedly implores you to continue to ‘love’ and be ‘faithful’; at every corner Camilo Cienfuegos’ image urges you to continue the fight for the revolution; and the Granma, the yacht that carried Fidel Castro and his small band of revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba at the outset of the guerilla war against Batista, is on public display inside an enormous glass mausoleum evoking comparisons with Lenin’s tomb in Red Square. If Lenin was the Soviet Union’s father, then the Granma is the womb of the Cuban Revolution.

Here though, lies one of the key distinctions between the Russian Revolution and its Cuban counterpart. While the October Revolution of 1917 eventually developed into a highly patriarchal, bureaucratic state, the Cuban version was dominated from the start by a decidedly Latin machismo. This has led to a historical irony rarely treated seriously: the very machismo that facilitated the revolution prevented its social development along (what Castro described) as egalitarian-Marxist lines. At this juncture one might reasonably question the difference between patriarchy and machismo. Indeed, both promote hierarchical, vertical societies dominated by men. However, machismo is more complex, more romantic.  Undoubtedly it argues the primacy of the masculine, but machismo also claims simultaneously to adore the feminine, to wish to nurture and protect the female. This is bound with another feature of machismo absent from patriarchy, the profound sense of honour that comes from a man protecting his family. This last facet essentially renders machismo inflexible and this lack of malleability caused the people of Cuban to fight relentlessly against the Batista regime and, after 1959, to resist with equal verve any fundamental changes in the nature of what it was to be Cuban and to be a man.

Hegemonic machismo was prevalent through Latin America, especially during the 19th century through literary depictions of the caballero. Its origins have often been attributed to the epic poem Martin Fierror, written by Jose Hernandez in 1872 but it became crystalised in the revolutionary tradition of Cuba. Simon Bolivar’s wars of liberation throughout South America were a significant influence on Castro and the image of Bolivar upon his horse, galloping in the sun, sword blazing with reflected light became the undying romantic image defining what should be the actions of a glorious revolutionary. Indeed, as far afield as Paris and Brussels, statues of Bolivar heroically depict him astride his horse. More pertinently still, the Cuban patriot, Jose Marti represented the exemplar model of a free Cuban. Marti was a poet and a revolutionary, personally leading his men into battle against Spanish imperial rule, eventually dying in conflict in 1895. The myth of Jose Marti as both a man of arms and a sensitive, artistic soul, both masculine and feminine, formed the Cuban ideal of manliness. His bust is near omnipresent on the streets of Havana often mounted underneath the Cuban flag. This revolutionary tradition inspired Castro and attracted individuals of a similar persuasion to Cuba, most notably perhaps the writer Ernest Hemingway. The novel The Old Man and the Sea serves as a paean to Cuban machismo. “You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him”, Hemingway wrote, “for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?” In these few lines one can find the supposed dignity of masculinity and its promotion of a struggle against dominance that powered the Cuban people’s desire for liberty during the Batista days. One can also detect the sentiments of love that Che was to repeat to engender commitment to the revolutionary cause.

Having developed a culture based upon such principles and having unleashed it upon their enemies, the government of Castro found it practically impossible to deconstruct it. After all, as Graham Greene wrote in his South American set novel The Honourary Consul, “‘Oh, everything here is machismo,’ … ‘Here machismo is only another word for living. A word for the air we breathe. When there is no machismo a man is dead.’” In Jose Yglesias’ In the Fist of the Revolution: Life in Castro’s Cuba published in 1968, the author demonstrated that many ordinary Cubans did not see the contradiction in supporting a government that publicly argued for equality between sexes and a more intellectualised citizenry, and the maintenance of their old machismo values. Writing of a young man and his Hungarian communist wife, Yglesias recounts that “Mella knew it was not right to believe as he did that men could sleep with all the women they want and still have the wife remain faithful, but he felt that he was making an important concession by insisting that the husband must respect the home by allowing no scandal to touch it because of his behavior.” A later passage, a discussion with the Hungarian woman, makes this essential contradiction even more apparent.

You remember the performance my students put on at the school? Well, during the Playa Giron there was a morning at the Cultural when all the schools participated and those dances were listed on the programme for the last act. When I saw it would be after lunch before they went on, I ran back home and prepared Mella’s lunch, left him a note, dressed Mellita again and went back to the Cultural. Mella came home and then to the Cultural. He grabbed me by the arm and forced me to come home and serve him the food. I was so ashamed in front of everyone. The food was all prepared, he only had to warm it, but that was not proper for a man to do… I think Cuban men are this way because of customs. It is going to change with the Revolution… It will take 50 years. I know Mella has a psychological problem. He is, as the Cubans say un abusador – a bully. But although they do not act the way he does, Cuban men generally believe the way he does. Oh, the ideas they have about what makes a man a man. A man who helps in the house – he must be that way! Effeminate.

This was the reality from below following the Revolution. Cuba was a society in transition without any previous expression of national identity in a statist sense. The government attempted to counter this dominant social paradigm through education and literacy movements. Indeed, statistically these proved to be incredibly successful. Within the first year of the revolution there were 700,000 newly literate Cuban citizens. Due to health care initiatives, by 1975 infant mortality had fallen to two thirds of the pre-revolutionary level. Further legislation from above attempted to engender Castro’s egalitarian-Marxism. In 1960, the state established the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) that succeeded in obtaining more places at university for women. Today there are more women than men attending medical school in Cuba. By1975, the FMC managed to have the Egalitarian Family Law passed. This legislation proclaimed that men must perform one half of the household domestic chores. However, enforcing such laws remained decidedly problematic. Moreover, it is easy to overestimate the success of the legislation from above. For example, by 1985 only 19 percent of Cuban women were members of the Communist Party.

If Castro’s government attempted to erode the power of machismo from above it also became entangled in a web whilst simultaneously pandering to it. The attempts to promote gender equality in the face of resistance from both men and women can be easily accounted for. Indeed, parallels can be drawn between Revolutionary Cuba and Israel. The ideologies of both states seemingly regard the equality of women as a natural right and, furthermore, the perception of geopolitics reinforces that position. Whether the following is in effect true is not applicable to this discussion, however, it is certainly a reality that both Cuba and Israel believed themselves to be surrounded by enemies who were actively planning for the state’s destruction. Under such circumstances it is only natural that distinctions between male and female become irrelevant. 50 percent of the officers in the Israeli Defense Force are women compared to 13.4 in the US and 13 in the UK. Both Cuba and Israel did not require able-bodied men to defend it but rather committed, invested citizens. They are both small, arguably isolated nations with few people. If you had a pair of hands, you were expected to use them to serve the ideals of the nation. To some extent Cuban machismo accepted this but what it could not contemplate was equality afforded to homosexuals. The Castro government genuinely feared for its survival in the years following the Revolution, as the Bay of Pigs invasion and Operation Mongoose made clear, and as such it required a unified, disciplined nation of revolutionaries. Knowing that machismo would not tolerate open homosexuality, the regime made a Faustian pact.

We can understand quite readily why a society, irrespective of the ideology of its government, premised on the naturalness of machismo would both fear and loath homosexuality. It represented a perceived corruption of the romantic caballero ideal: after all machismo in homosexuality was recognizable but a populace still emerging from illiteracy largely considered its application abhorrent. Reinaldo Arenas’ novel Before Night Falls highlights this point. “The gay world is not monogamous,” Arenas states, “almost by nature, by instinct, the tendency is to spread out to multiple relationships, quite often to promiscuity.” Cuba’s gay world is not monogamous: neither is the young revolutionary Mella’s. Perhaps in this similarity is why many ordinary Cubans found, in Arenas’ words, “the homosexual world… something sinister and desolate”. Consequently, Castro’s government did not allow homosexuals to join the military, despite its needs. However, still requiring all those with a pair of hands to use them, suspected homosexuals were dispatched to what amounted to labour camps. Moreover, local police were not discouraged from attempting to eradicate homosexuality, as Arenas’ experiences testify, enabling prejudice to masquerade as Revolutionary duty.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Castro refused to acknowledge any difficulties in the transition to a socialist society beyond economic struggles. Perhaps the demands of the cold war created an understandable siege mentality. Nevertheless, it led to some brilliant absurdities such as the occasion when Castro claimed that there were no longer any prostitutes on the island. Equally, it led to repression that was if not exactly state-sponsored or endorsed was certainly tolerated. Following the end of the cold war Castro became less circumspect. In 1993 he said, “Today we cannot speak of the pure, ideal, perfect socialism of which we dream because life forces us into concessions”. Was this finally an acknowledgment of the need to redouble efforts to create the society he always argued for or was it another example of Greene’s idea in action: “As long as nothing happens anything is possible…” Since leaving power, Castro has become even more open about the difficult choices machismo forced his government to make, calling the treatment of homosexuals an “injustice” adding that, “Avoiding the CIA, which bought so many traitors, was not easy, but if anyone has to take responsibility, I take mine. I will not hold anyone else responsible”. This is an odd sort of confession that both acknowledges and denies the problem at the same time.

Clearly statistical, educational, legal and rhetorical progress, often significant progress, has been made to rebuild Cuban society over the course of the Revolution to date. But machismo lingers. It remains a fundamental pillar upon which the whole idea of a man’s role, and by extension therefore a woman’s role (as mothers, wives and daughters), is explained. If it is allowed to fester, to remain unmet it may develop or metamorphose leading to more violent actions against outsider groups than those documented by Arenas. If it is removed too quickly, too dictatorially it could lead to a more violent reaction. Indeed, as Graham Greene wrote in Our Man in Havana, “They can print statistics and count the populations in hundreds of thousands, but to each man a city consists of no more than a few streets, a few houses, a few people. Remove those few and a city exists no longer except as a pain in the memory, like a pain of an amputated leg no longer there.”

About the Author:

Alexander McGregor is the author of The Catholic Church and Hollywood (2013) and The Shaping of Popular Consent (2007). He was awarded a PhD in History from the University of East Anglia. Dr McGregor is the head of history at the United World College of South East Asia. His research interests include cultural theory, ideology, propaganda and education.