In Havana’s Gran Teatro, the Sound of One Hand Clapping


Some readers have asked me for a translation of my latest post. Here it is, courtesy of the great David Landau:

In any dictatorship, applause is a liar. Silence alone is truthful. And during Barack Obama’s address, the silences that filled the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso were very loud indeed.

On the singular occasion of Obama’s operatic performance, silence was the co-protagonist. The balconies were teeming with the country’s royalty. Downstairs, on the orchestra level, was a group of black people dressed in white, looking like a flock of herons. Were they santero priests, or dissidents?

The two ‘absolutes’ of the occasion were sitting together in the same box. The ballerina’s arms described an arthritic port-de-bras; while the old leader played the country bumpkin that felt out of place at the summit of power. She, unable to contain herself, added a pair of balletic curtsies; while he, less authentic, shunned the attentions of his adoring public and directed them toward the podium.

But the empty air that Simon & Garfunkel once called “the sound of silence” was all-embracing. It pirouetted through the hall, showing itself in the gripped fingers of the spectators. It seemed that whenever their hands wanted to reach up and clap at the speaker’s irresistible phrases, the silence restrained their wrists in a judo hold.

That silence was the star agent of the security police. It had been fattened in a prison cell; a pacifier laced with cyanide had been put in its mouth. So it got a pig’s thick neck and a block head. If we had to describe it in human form, we would say it was Raúl’s lunatic grandson and knockoff, Raúl Guillermo Rodríguez Castro. We would picture the goons who took part in the roundups of Santa Rita Chruch, dragging the poor women who were writhing on the pavement. But silence is very much more oppressive. It bestrides all of Havana. Indeed, it is the despot that holds sway over the entire Island of Cuba.

Another kind of applause was audible in the hall: the sound of one hand clapping. To get over that static, the programmers broadcast a «musical repudiation»: recordings of Silvio Rodríguez, singing his own Fusil contra fusil and Te doy una canción.

Silvio’s is the elevator-music of the Castro state; he is the troubadour who takes the sting out of things and puts the conscience to sleep. If Cuba’s history were a succession of sugar harvests, then those false protests of patriotism would just make the dead time pass more quickly. Rather than history, though, it is Silvio’s own baseness and cynicism that has revealed him as a henchman, and his music as the white noise of a tyranny.

This morning, Obama was the Caruso who once more paid a visit to the Caribbean colony. He talked and he talked, his speeches becoming a metaphor of Castro’s longueurs. He used up time in a manner reserved for the all-powerful. He waged a veritable war of time.

During Obama’s talk at the Palace of the Revolution, the spirit of José Lezama Lima snuck up behind the areca palms. At the Gran Teatro, however, we met the baroque specter of Alejo Carpentier; this speech will surely be remembered as Obama’s own ‘Recourse to the Method’.

His defense of American democracy was not afraid to adopt, and to adapt, the Castro version of history as a clash between colonizers and colonized, between slaves and slaveholders, between the have and the have nots. Obama threw us Cubans in the same historical bag as any other Joe. As in an inspired, incongruent Dadaist poem, he tossed us and dropped us onto the table where Hemingway and Martí, Muhammad Ali and Teófilo Stevenson, Papito Valladares and Martin Luther, Gloria Estefan and Pitbull, Cachita and a platter of ropa vieja are dancing with each other.

Obama said that entrepreneurs should not fear the example of their American counterparts but should have the courage to be themselves. He said that hope is nothing other than the right to live by one’s own efforts. According to Obama, many had wanted him to “tear something down”, while he had come to ask the young people of Cuba to “build something new”.

In the most important speech of his life, at the selfsame lair of history, Barack Obama said that he was not being fooled by the «shameless old woman» –by history– and that we should get the past out of the way so we could speak without deceptions.

Then he turned up to the balcony –to the nonagenarians who epitomized what must be ushered away. He asked them to fear the Americans no longer, and to instill no more of that fear in their own people. And he was saying it to them –from an indisputable moral high ground– as “un amigo sincero”.

Without pausing, Obama went on to make the most eloquent defense of the Cuban-American exile that has ever been heard on Cuban soil. He spoke of those who had left; of the violent separations; of the pain within families. All at once, he had made himself into the spokesman and chronicler of the exile conscience.

Once again, deafening silence greeted the words of the US leader. It was a self-policing silence, but also the kind of silence that romantic novelists describe as «pregnant». Pregnant, indeed, with infinite possibilities that the reactionary tones of Guantanamera, in the voice of the late Joseíto Fernández, cynically tried to suppress.



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