Carlos Manuel Álvarez, writer: ‘There won’t be a democratic solution for Cuba, unless it’s led by women’

The award-winning Cuban journalist and author believes that the end of the dictatorship on the island “is already happening.” In a conversation with EL PAÍS, he laments the fact that leftist governments condemn the Nicaraguan and Venezuelan regimes, but don’t speak out against the dictatorship in his own country

Carlos Manuel Álvarez
Carlos Manuel Álvarez in Mexico City on April 27.Mónica González Islas
Carmen Morán Breña

The most hilarious anecdote told by Cuban journalist and writer Carlos Manuel Álvarez in his book The Intruders is about the political police in Havana. An officer called him on his mobile phone last year:

“Carlos Manuel is in a green taxi, driving along the Malecón.”

“How is that possible,” he replied, “if I’m Carlos Manuel?”

“Oh, shit!” the informant shouted, before hanging up the phone. He had called the man he was spying on by accident.

Such an unavoidable mistake – made by countless people on a daily basis – reveals the space for error that can be found within the solemnity of the Cuban dictatorship. Notably, such humor is usually fatal for any regime that aims to be feared.

In his book, Álvarez, 33, peppers the text with his reflections on Castroism. He also offers biographies of the young artists and academics who, like himself, belong to the San Isidro Movement. In November of 2020 – in response to the imprisonment of rapper Denis Solís in Havana – they engaged in a hunger strike. This gave rise to a new wave of dissent, with historic street protests breaking out on the island.

The police cracked down. A few weeks later, Álvarez ended up being deported from Cuba, where the walls were already closing in on him. He continues to live in exile in New York, but recently, he travelled to Mexico City to promote his book. Despite the repression and humiliation of the regime, he doesn’t abhor the word “revolution.” Rather, he prefers to entrust it to women and Blacks – the only groups, he argues, who can get Cuba (and the wider world) out of its overarching problems.

Álvarez fears that, one day, Castroism will shed its dictatorial clothing without abandoning the social, administrative and economic organization that has been tattooed by the regime on the skin of Cubans. “That’s a real risk,” he notes. Meanwhile, a new generation of young writers, rappers, scientists and artists – who were born into material and political misery – represent today’s dissident movement.

Carlos Manuel Álvarez (1989)
Carlos Manuel Álvarez in Mexico City, on April 27, 2023.Mónica González Islas

Question. As your book asks, what kind of dissidents are you? And what are your differences from the previous generation?

Answer. The San Isidro Movement is inscribed in a tradition of resistance that allows it to have a degree of importance and success in its civic management… [it] has an esthetic and a political proposal that have gained traction for two reasons: [firstly, because of] growing access to the internet in Cuba, which establishes communication networks and ways in which public discourse moves beyond state intrusion, [giving] greater visibility to injustices and repression. On the other hand, it’s an independent movement with a very clear popular substratum, made up, at its heart, by young artists, poor, Black, lower-class people, who are the pulse of the street. [The San Isidro Movement] is an extremely subversive and highly changeable organization, willing to reinvent itself.

Q. But didn’t these movements also happen in the past? Weren’t there also artists and intellectuals with different voices who led the resistance in Cuba?

A. Yes, all of this took place. Rather, these movements [have culminated] in a process that has not been interrupted in the last 20 years, since the Black Spring, when Fidel Castro imprisoned 75 independent journalists and shot three young men for hijacking a boat to escape to Florida. From then until today, that gesture of disobedience hasn’t been interrupted.

This is the first political proposal of a generation born or educated after the 1990s. The [change] in Cuba with the collapse of the Soviet Union is fundamental: while formally the political regime continues to be maintained, social life in Cuba has changed drastically. [There’s] openness to tourism, some migrants [who return to visit], there’s access to foreign currency. All of this has generated a state of affairs that is just as terrible… but much more open than the first 30 years of the regime. We have been formed in a less closed society than those who preceded us.

Q. Someone in the book says that the regime knows that creativity melts its power. Is creativity the key element to defeat the dictatorship?

A. At least to resist it. If there’s something that the totalitarian machine is interested in, it’s repeating gestures, placing us in a zone of tedium. The machine wins if it bores us. But the individual has to place himself in a very purposeful place. If you only plant your body – without offering a transformative [alternative] to power – power is going to sweep you away. If they put you in jail, you awaken a wave of solidarity… but the 15th day that you are jailed no longer has the same impact [as the first].

Q. In 2020, the San Isidro Movement used a very old tool: the hunger strike. Did it make a difference?

A. It’s an example of how there’s a political response that has worn itself out. I think that [we] resort to hunger strikes because all other spaces of expression have been kidnapped… all you have left is your body. The hunger strike is an expression of engulfment; you are eating yourself, because power has brought you to that point. You snatch the body away from power and tell it that the one who is going to do the annihilating is me – I’m not going to allow you to annihilate me. It’s a gesture of death […] the progress of death in real time. However, in recent years, Cuba has resorted to hunger strikes on such a daily basis that I don’t know if it has ceased to matter, or if it still has an impact.

Q. One of the protagonists in your book wants to be fashionable and famous – something that Cuban students are scolded about in schools. But in the dissident movement, these qualities are an expression of political power.

A. That expression shows that the perception about the isolation of Cuba is wrong; that the narratives are not connected with what happens in the rest of the West. I see it as a typical sign of a change in discourse that is very recognizable in any context, not just the Cuban one. There’s this idea that pleasure must be disputed with power. [Dissidence isn’t only about] direct confrontation… [it must] go against all forms of solemnity, against the rigor and formality of the political.

Q. The real protagonists of this book not only have political dissidence in common. Most of them come from broken families, or from the poverty that the Cuban Revolution promised to combat. The book raises the question: how do you discipline a boy who has become accustomed to carrying a cell phone, when he doesn’t even have proper shoes?

A. Maykel Osorbo, for example – who was jailed in re-education centers since he was little – what can power threaten him with? How can it displace him, if he’s already been displaced from everything? How can you banish him, if he’s already banished? Hence the title of The Intruders – these are people who are intervening in a place where they are not welcome, the institutions of social life, of art, of politics.

When someone who has been in prison for half of their life – almost without knowing why, in a spiral that criminalized them, or required them to commit acts of that nature – suddenly goes to prison for a political cause, the difference is almost [inconsequential].

Carlos Manuel Álvarez (1989)  escritor y periodista cubano durante una entrevista en la Ciudad de México por la presentación de su libro ¨Los Intrusos¨.
Carlos Manuel Álvarez in Mexico City, on April 27, 2023.Mónica González Islas

Q. Seen in this way – to the extent that the island is impoverishing and repressing generation after generation – the dictatorship is wearing itself out, because it can no longer discipline these young boys. It is the beginning of the end?

A. From my perspective, yes. We’re talking about a state that can no longer welcome the entire population like a herd under its wing. It’s a state [that is] incapable of satisfying any material good, a minimum standard of economic stability. It’s a parasitic state. I think people know that after having grown accustomed, for decades, to being dependent on state subsidies – without any type of individual autonomy – to suddenly being given very little [and now being] required to survive on their own. Perhaps the people of my generation can [survive] more easily [in the current structure]... but I don’t think my parents’ generation would know how to manage.

Q. And yet, the dictatorship persists with the dictator dead. Why doesn’t it fall?

A. It happens more often than you think. [Regimes] invent or generate a Frankenstein that has even more power than the actual tyrants themselves. There’s a moment when you realize that, if dictators wanted to overturn that monstrosity they have invented, they wouldn’t even be able to. That ideology – that bureaucratic, repressive, military structure – already generates its own organization and operation, independently of the tyrant. The way of reading totalitarianisms goes through the central figure, through the figure of order… what they decide, what they don’t decide… it may seem like it’s all pure individual management, or pure arbitrariness, or centralized power. But suddenly, the dictator ends up being subordinate to the structural order that he created.

Q. Do people not know how to defeat the Frankenstein that has been created?

A. I believe that something changed in the national life with the death of Fidel Castro. The next day, the regime wasn’t overthrown… but we’ve witnessed modes of dissident expression that used to be more dangerous, due to [Castro’s] presence and the way in which the entire country gravitated towards the dictator. His death kind of freed up a place within the same political order – everything seems more flexible, or finishable. But, above all, to give a direct example, we understood that – although it wasn’t said openly – the death of the tyrant [saw the end] of the consensus that he generated. Whether this consensus had been generated out of conviction or through terror, it was understood that the punishment that [the regime] can inflict on you now is more restrained. They think about it more. Fidel could capitalize on his name, shoot three people and maintain the system. But now, it’s more difficult for [the authorities] to shoot you with impunity, because the consequences could be different. I think that the powers that be know it, as do those who protest. Those who have succeeded Fidel don’t enjoy anywhere near the level of credibility that the tyrant had within his constructed tyranny.

Q. Why then has an implosion not occurred?

A. I’m not able to say why. There’s no reason to explain why the regime is still standing.

Q. Has the nostalgia of the global left resulted in complacency with the Cuban dictatorship?

A. Without a doubt. There’s a kind of historical complicity with the Cuban regime by the Western left in general, [revealed by] the tacit ways in which the abuses of the Cuban dictatorship are condemned… if they’re even condemned at all! This mildness accompanies the structural injustices that allow the regime to survive.

Q. This reluctance to express condemnation doesn’t occur when it comes to Nicaragua, for example.

A. Gabriel Boric – the Chilean president – usually condemns the Nicaraguan or Venezuelan dictatorships whenever he’s at an international event. But the mother of these authoritarianism regimes – Cuba – is rarely mentioned. It’s evidence of how there’s a level of sentimentalism within a certain faction of the left, which maintains some abstract values that are sustained by the concrete sacrifices of Cubans, whose bodies are subjected to constant poverty, misery and repression.

Q. Would you dare put a date on the end of the dictatorship?

A. The end is coming, the end is coming. But I believe that it will not come with a drastic blow, from one day to the next. The regime is mutating in its ways of survival. If 30 years ago one could speak of a purely Stalinist power, I believe that what exists in Cuba now is a kind of state capitalism that maintains the rhetoric of the Cold War to justify itself… but the ways in which the economy is managed responds to another global order. And I don’t believe that, when we get out of the current state of affairs, we’ll inevitably be in a more prosperous place. It seems to me that, unfortunately, the future of Cuba is mortgaged.

Q. One may think of Mexico. The “perfect dictatorship” of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI, which ruled Mexico uninterruptedly from 1930 until 2000) didn’t go through a democratic transition, even though regime change technically took place at the turn of this century. In some ways, Mexico maintains the undemocratic structures that were created by the PRI.

A. The PRI’s structure, yes. There’s also the opposite case of Spain – which did well (after Franco) – but, for example, while the Pinochet regime gradually dissolved [in Chile], its power remained in some ways. We tend to believe that dictatorships are immovable – that they continue as they are because certain structures are maintained – but in Cuba, we’re already dealing with a regime that has inevitably had to cede certain quotas of power. Although there’s this terrible evidence that remains… proof that we can formally end Castroism, but that the political, administrative, social, and economic structures will remain as they are.

Q. What does it mean when Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador awards his country’s most illustrious medal to his Cuban counterpart, Miguel Díaz Canel?

A. It’s fodder for the Latin American right, while it also discredits the renewal of the left taking place across the continent. What Andrés Manuel does – and what the [traditional] Latin American left does – ends up generating a complicity that doesn’t allow a future transformation for the region in general. I believe that Latin America, unfortunately, still carries in its emotions the kind of patriarch that Cuba was. Gestures like that further radicalize the Cuban opposition. [Those who remain on the island] continue to take on a regime that destroys any democratic proposition. It’s very harmful, not only for Cuba, but for the region. It’s a high price to pay for a gesture of this nature, which has an important symbolic power. But, in the long run – for anyone who is on the left of the political spectrum – [such actions] are unjustifiable.

Q. You live in New York, rather than in Miami. Is there a message in this choice, regarding how you position yourself against both the Castro dictatorship and against capitalism?

A. I don’t think I have the most harmonious relationship with the Cuban exile institution. I call it an “institution” because the Cuban exile community is extremely rich and diverse. However, it seems to me that [this community’s] political voice [has been] kidnapped by a sector that capitalizes on the freedom of Cuba, treating it like a business. The way in which they claim to defend it and the rhetoric [they use] is very Castroist in its ways. [It] reminds me that Castroism became a culture, a habit, that always accompanies you. Freeing yourself from [this culture] doesn’t happen by moving away or going into exile, but by unlearning and understanding what it means to be a democratic person.

I don’t like to put myself in the position of the exile who attacks Miami, because Miami is my country, too. But yes, I have a very clear dispute with many exiles, because they believe that the way in which I am interested in managing my own condition of exile is sacrilegious or disrespectful. Because that institution already has a [template] prepared for the duty of the Cuban exile. Those forms of obedience… if they didn’t interest me in Cuba, they certainly don’t interest me abroad.

Q. You develop this idea in your book… the notion of false solidarity. We want to be free, but we don’t want the slave to be freed, because we need martyrs.

A. Absolutely. For me, the political discourse on the part of [many] Cuban exiles fails enormously [because] they are thinking of the Cubans in Cuba as cannon fodder – they instrumentalize those lives all the time. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not in favor of the embargo. Because the embargo demands sacrifices from bodies that have been asked all their lives to sacrifice themselves. They think that the restrictions are going to stifle the regime – something that has not been proven, [as it] simply ends up having an impact on people’s practical lives. But they believe that [sanctions] are justifiable, because they’re going to eliminate a greater evil. It’s the same discourse of Stalinism: sacrifice today, give up your lives today, because tomorrow, we’re going to reach paradise… something that never occurs. Paradise is always one step ahead, [while] the end of the dictatorship is even one step further.

Q. There are those who say that the advances of the San Isidro Movement are not as irreversible as you consider them to be.

A. It’s certainly debatable, but there are facts that could deny that. There’s a change in the political consciousness of Cubans. In July of 2021, there were massive protests… tens of thousands of people in the streets throughout Cuba, something that had never happened, not in 60 years. If we do something that has never been done before, but believe that just because we didn’t overthrow the dictatorship that [same] day means that it doesn’t count, we’re not understanding the cumulative logic that [these events] have. There is a rupture between citizenship and power – between the people and the state – that the regime has not managed to heal. The bone is still broken and in full view of everyone.

Q. What role is feminism playing in Cuba? And what role could it play in overthrowing the dictatorship?

A. A fundamental one. [Feminism] is a revolution everywhere, just like the end of slavery once was. It’s becoming more and more articulated in Cuba, more and more a leading civic force. Feminism has been and must be a revolution.

I don’t know whether to speak of hope or confidence, but if I had to bet my money on someone to get us out of this quagmire – and not only in Cuba – I would only bet on women and Blacks, because the [difficult] state of affairs that we find ourselves in is the fault of white men. There won’t be a democratic solution for Cuba unless it’s led by women. There cannot [merely] be a patriarchal substitution of power. Women are fundamental… they have to lead us.

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