- May 26, 2011 • 01:16h
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That January 8th, the caravan made its triumphal entrance into Havana from the Central Highway. It continued up the Avenida de las Misiones, paused for a good while at the yacht Granma, and then at the Presidential Palace, to greet Manuel Urrutia, the recently installed president, who gave his undivided attention to the bearded ones. Fidel Castro boasted that the place did not tempt him: “You would like (…) to know how I feel (…) upon entering the Palace. I will confess my feelings: exactly the same as at any other place in the Republic. It doesn’t stir any special emotions in me.”
He then suggested they head in the direction of Camp Columbia, that military symbol of the Batista regime. And off went the armored cars, first down the Malecón, and then along 23rd and 41st streets, the feverish crowds parting to let them pass. They were not paying respects to a president, they were worshipping a Messiah.
Upon their arrival, the national anthem rang out and the ceremony began. The student leader, Juan Nuiry Sánchez spoke, followed by the now forgotten commander, Luis Orlando Rodríguez. Another commander, Camilo Cienfuegos, managed to squeeze onto the dais (by that point, the Cuban Revolution had already named more commanders than there were in all of World War II). Around 11:30 at night, after Fidel Castro had begun his speech, some white doves were released. It is said that thousands of cages were opened, but, in truth, there were but three birds, launched nearby, from somewhere among the crowd. First, one of them alighted on Castro’s left shoulder, who looked heavenward as the crowd burst into applause. Then the others arrived. It was a perfect moment to be immortalized in an image, as, indeed, it was, thanks to the opportune clicks of various photographers (José Pepe Agraz, Alberto Díaz Korda and Tor Eigendal are but three of the most famous). The orator managed not to scare off the birds and, later in his speech, now more relaxed, he unexpectedly turned to his comrade on the dais to coin a famous phrase: “Am I doing all right, Camilo?” And the addressee nodded twice in the affirmative. The doves, by then, had already taken flight.
Many of the emblematic photos of the Revolution carry with them a small “mythology.” Fifty years later, historians and commentators do not agree as to how the dove came to perch upon that olive green jacket. The different versions range from the “highest point” theory (the six-foot-two orator), to a diet of lead birdshot meant to prevent the birds from gaining too much altitude. There has even been mention of an expert pigeon-keeper accomplice, who had applied male dove pheromones to the jacket to recreate an effect that had been previously noted among the flocks. The most widely held theory is the one proposed by the journalist Luis Ortega, who asserts that it was all planned ahead of time by Luis Conte Agüero, then Secretary General of the Partido Ortodoxo, and who, though he is now in exile, was, in those years, a close collaborator of Fidel’s:
“He waited until the moment when the crowd had fallen into a trance. It was a sea of delirious people. Fidel’s voice was already hoarse. He could barely speak over the crowd’s applause and howls. It was at that moment that Conte Argüero, in a biblical gesture, released the dove. His eyes followed it tenderly through the air. His dove would fly toward Fidel and would land gently on his shoulder and then a roar would erupt from the crowd. But, no. None of this happened. Conte Agüero’s dove took flight, made a few loops in the air, and disappeared into the distance.
Already a poet, a wail escaped Conte Agüero’s lips. He had been betrayed by a dove. But then something extraordinary happened, something truly miraculous. Another dove appeared out of nowhere and landed on Fidel’s shoulder. The new dove was whiter and more beautiful still than Conte’s dove. It was a revelation that left poor Conte trembling. What he had carefully arranged as a publicity stunt had turned into a veritable miracle.”
By chance or not, the doves accomplished their symbolic mission. People spoke of peace (the theme of that speech at Camp Colombia) and of the Holy Spirit. Also of Santería rituals, in which the white dove is the symbol of Obatalá, the Chosen One, the Son of God. “People thought that Fidel was Christ’s messenger,” sums up the black commander Juan Almeida, in a dithyrambic documentary directed by Estela Bravo. Even the Diario de la Marina, the most respectable and conservative of the Cuban newspapers of the period, made reference to the symbolism of the dove in an editorial dated January 9th:
“We, together with the overwhelming majority of Cubans, cannot believe that such an event could have been mere happenstance, an insignificant anecdote. No; in that white dove upon Fidel’s left hand, we see a clear sign of the Almighty, because this universal symbol of peace wholly encapsulates and expresses the great desire, the unbroken will, of all Cuban people.”
The Cuban Revolution embodies a tremendous symbolic paradox in exploiting the prestige of various images in which myth seeks to invade the place of history. By now, history is no longer something that happens, or even something that “happened,” but rather the legacy of “false truths” in black and white that command eternal validity. But the most emblematic photos of the Cuban Revolution are not exactly “documentary”: they bring with them high levels of idealization and aestheticization, that is, the exact opposite of historical objectivity.
At a midpoint between publicity stunt and miracle (like Conte Agüero’s doves), stand that handful of images whose glamour only increases with time. Today, the Revolution “are,” in reality, those hypnotic fragments of the past, converted into spurs for the conscience, but also into obstacles to rational judgment. “The knowledge gained through still photographs,” observes Susan Sontag in her well-known 1973 essay on photography, “will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be knowledge at bargain prices—a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom.”
The more one reads about the dove affair, the more layers of myth surface. The custom of releasing doves is, in truth, a throwback to an old ritual performed by French colonists to mark the founding, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, of some of the best known towns in Cuba. But in Cuba, doves are also a symbol of bad luck. White doves are the animals sacrificed to Olofi, Oloddumare’s messenger on Earth, and to have manipulated them in captivity would, according to the Yoruban religion, occasion terrible consequences (perhaps this explains why Conte Agüero would have rewritten his actions a posteriori). In terms of the symbolic prophecy of peace, a simple historical review —such as Hugh Thomas’— serves to reveal the white dove as the falsest of all omens.
As in all mythologies, here, meanings are perfectly contradictory and deceptive. Nevertheless, that night of January 8th, 1959, marks two fundamental shifts that went unnoticed in all the photographic glamour. First: it was the moment in which Cubans stopped judging politics based upon facts, and began, instead, to consider it as a regimen of symbols. Secondly, as Norberto Fuentes explains so cogently in his monumental Autobiography of Fidel Castro, that moment, in which the dove’s chosen one permits himself to joke, before the multitudes, by disingenuously asking his guerilla comrade if he is doing all right, marks the beginning of the absolute power that Fidel Castro has held by force during the last 50 years, much to Cuba’s misfortune.
Few revolutions are as photogenic as the Cuban one. Perhaps this is because it coincided with a boom in photojournalism, a postwar genre, and offered the possibility of melding the profession of documentary work with the (North American) photographic tradition of visual humanism in which social and political antagonisms were overcome.
The ideology behind the photographs that established the celebrated agency Magnum, in 1947, was not too far removed from the mythological model used to represent the Cuban Revolution in many of the most important North American media circles.
Some of the greatest photojournalists of the era, such as Burt Glinn, Lee Lockwood, or Grey Villet, walked through the convulsive city like schoolboys at a party. They took photos of themselves, posing with firearms. They saw themselves not only as witnesses, but also as participants in a singular moment. And their photos, which should have shown the panorama of radical change, instead show an idealized epic.
All this is complemented by the propagandistic use to which Fidel Castro put Cuban publicity photography, a genre established in the 1950s in New York. The case of Osvaldo Salas and his son, Roberto Salas, serves as a good example of how Castroist epic photography is constructed by means of the same advertising tricks and tics of the ’50s. And then, of course, there is Korda. Alberto Korda, trained in studio photography during the ’50s, was not only the creator of the famous image of Che Guevara that has become the most reproduced photograph of all time, but was also the sophisticated architect of the eroticized public image of the Caribbean Revolution.
Europeans were not to be left behind. Inspired by Jean Paul Sartre’s visit to Cuba, many photographers and archivists made pilgrimages to the island in search of the perfect image, the “decisive moment” of “the Cuban exception.” Two good examples are Chris Marker and Agnès Varda.
In 1961, the year before making his celebrated La Jetée, the filmmaker Chris Marker went to film in Cuba. The result was an emphatic documentary, Cuba sí, that can be regarded today as the first part of La Jetée, a futuristic fable told as a journey to the past, a story of another world, also threatened, held in thrall to a foundational experiment. Far from the director’s intention (aristocratic origins, Marxist ideology, almost a radical leftist), seen today, Cuba sí reveals the terrifying mark of a filmmaker who has captured, almost without realizing it, the keys to a mythological transformation proposed as a New Beginning, a dystopic rebirth.
For those of us who grew up in the Age of Disbelief, this documentary and its voice-over (La Jetée is also narrated in voice-over) represent scraps of an almost inconceivable memory, an eruption of images intermingling executions and bullfrogs, the poet Nicolás Guillén and a supposed “Athenian democracy”, children and five-cent cigars, military marches and street rumbas. This was Cuba, and it is likely that it will continue to be such for a long time to come. The air of frank primitivism revealed in various episodes of Marker’s documentary has to do with the spirit of a threatened world, but also with the idea of a natural primordial origin, a primitive world such as those we see in certain science fiction movies, that reappears here with tropical trappings (that vilage on stilts, that casual hiker, that celebration of eroticism, that sudden swamp).
The other great “Cuban footage” from the 1960s is Salut les cubains, a “film-hommage”, created from 1,800 photographs selected from more than 4,000 that Agnès Varda took during her trip to Cuba in 1962. With this film, she completes a cycle that runs from mythological images to “revolutionary filmic tourism,” a genre that would flourish during the following two decades and would end up reduced to a didactic vision of documentary photography.
In all of these supposed “visual testimonies” there is a strange mixture od realism, advertising photography (that had taken up the baton of Modernism), social commitment, souvenirs of a different culture (a photographic tradition of the nineteenth century)… The photographs that “documented” the Cuban Revolution were moving ever farther away from the “social fact” in order to insist upon the enchantments of aestheticism. By some sort of “miracle”, the island became the enormous laboratory of a visual myth that has been producing meaning over the course of five decades.
Ernesto Hernández Busto
Photo: Burt Glinn: Cuba. La Havana. 1959. Thousands of supporters flocked in front of the Presidential Palace in La Havana to welcome Castro and Urrutia.
* This essay was published in the 82 issue of Review. Literature and Arts of the Americas. Translation: Jessica Powell.