The Opiate of the Masses

I had the privilege of visiting Havana, Cuba, recently.  I probably won’t be allowed back anytime soon for reasons that will shortly become clear.  While I was there, someone emailed to say, “You have a ‘Catholic Thing’ article up today on clericalism.”  When I finally got Internet access, I found that The Catholic Thing is blocked by the government in Cuba.  You cannot read it there.

When I mentioned this fact to Robert Royal, he told me he had been in Cuba when John Paul II visited and afterward had written an article critical of the government.  He has not been able to get a visa to return ever since. “Be very careful,” he advised.

I found the Cuban people to be ceaselessly kind and generous, always willing to give directions or help you find your way.  Havana is an amazing city with so many houses that are architectural gems, it is hard to believe that they all existed in one city. Architects and designers who specialize in classical architecture would have high-quality work in Havana to keep them occupied for the next forty years.

The reason traditional architects and designers would have so much work in Cuba, however, is because the government has done absolutely no maintenance of the architectural heritage in sixty years. The city of Havana is literally crumbling. Glorious houses with stately Corinthian columns and marble hallways are now dilapidated tenements with collapsed floors and pillars.  Most of the prime waterfront property along the Malecón, the wonderful waterfront esplanade in Havana, looks as though it came through a war.  But war did not cause this destruction. It was sixty years of authoritarian rule of a Marxist government claiming to be “for the people” and “for the workers.”

The city was once a sparkling gem. Houses of this quality are not uncommon, but they are rarely in this condition.

That’s an interesting concept given that the one new building we toured, a luxurious waterfront hotel, was financed by the Cuban military, designed by a French firm, and built by workers imported from India – in the great “worker’s paradise” the Cuban revolution was supposed to bring about.

An interesting tourist spot is the house Che Guevara was given to live in after the revolution, the man on all those T-shirts. It’s large, on the top of a hill, looking down on the city from across the harbor. Che didn’t live down among “the common people.”  He looked down on them, from above.

And the stories!  One man’s father who dealt with public infrastructure was called in one day to meet the new Minister of Industries.  Like most Cubans, he usually dressed in a light shirt without a tie because of the heat. But since he was meeting the new minister, he put on a coat and tie, as a sign of respect.  When he walked into the office, he saw a man from Argentina sitting behind a desk in a green army uniform, smoking a cigar, with his bare feet up on the desk, something the Cuban found disgusting and disrespectful.  The new minister glanced at him in his suit and said, “You are bourgeois.  You have three choices.  You can leave the country in a week, stay and be thrown in jail, or you will be shot.” He fled.

You learn many things in Cuba about living under a totalitarian government. There isn’t room to detail them all here, but many are things you might expect. “Life in Cuba,” as one Cuban employer who hires actual Cuban workers told me, “is …” – and here he paused searching for the right word — “hard.”

But I also learned something I hadn’t expected.  Movies and television shows make you expect that tyrannical governments force the people to be puritanically conservative, stifled, and repressed. What I discovered in Cuba to my surprise is that avant-garde art and bohemian lifestyle liberalism can co-exist quite comfortably with an authoritarian regime.

Cuban women are quite the opposite of “buttoned up.”  And the music and art in Cuba are superb. Havana may have crumbling houses, but the clubs and bars are lively. The parks are filled at night with people staring blankly at lighted cell phones screens, enjoying the public Internet service the government has installed around the city.

A Havana tenement: The conditions in which most Cubans are forced to live.

Our group had lunch every day at a parador, one of the private restaurants cropping up in Havana that the government no longer seeks to shut down because they need the tourist dollars. Each day on the television there was a show called “Cuban Clips,” which showed Cuban music videos.  There are a lot of them, it seems, and like all music videos, they are filled with young people dressed in the latest fashions, driving the nicest cars, dancing in the streets, in a bar, or on the beach, no scene over two seconds long, the lead singer gesturing directly into the camera the way all singers in music videos do.

Watching young Cubans in a club gyrate for hours to Cuban and American music videos (the line to get in the club stretched around the block) made me wonder whether Marx, if he were alive today, might have to re-think his comment about religion being the opiate of the masses. An honest assessment now would be that music videos are the opiate of the masses.

Then again, given the drug problems in America and elsewhere, perhaps we should simply say that opium is the opiate of the masses – opium and alcohol and music videos and “bohemian” clubs where kids can dance the night – and any concern they might have had for the common good of the society – away.

The Cuban government doesn’t care if you dress sensually, drink profusely, urinate on the street, make indecent art, or use half-naked women painted blue in your music videos as long as you don’t oppose the government.  And when you’re busy partying and dancing and being a “bohemian” rebel in your Che t-shirt, you don’t.

Havana after sixty years of decay

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.



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