04 June, 2016

Communism, Consumerism and Celebrity

By Tishani Doshi

When in Cuba, guess whom Tishani ran into. Kim, scion of the reality-star Kardashian family. Safe to say, the clash was more than one of culture.

This May I finally got to Cuba. It’s always had an allure. Partly because of Fidel Castro — something about a cigar-smoking, tracksuit-wearing president (now past), who crawled through jungles and has been telling the Americans where to stick it for sixty years, appealed. Plus, Buena Vista Social Club. Plus, rumba and mojitos. Plus, all-round sexiness evoked by a capital like Havana (which, to be annoying, I sometimes pronounce Habana, even though this is pushing the limits of my Spanish).

If you’ve seen any footage of Havana you’ll know to expect 1950s American convertibles (running on Russian parts), crumbling Spanish colonial buildings and other signs of Technicolor communism. What you don’t expect is to feel like you’re walking around a film set, also circa 1950s. It’s all very glamorous and on the cusp, what with the thawing trade embargo and the recent comings and goings. When my husband and I landed there the Rolling Stones and the Obamas had just come and gone, and now, it was Karl Lagerfeld who was having his moment in the sun.

The “let them eat refried beans” set of Havana were all agog about this fashion show that was going to kick all other fashion shows to the moon on their skinny asses. All sorts of celebrity sightings had been made — Tilda Swindon, Charlize Theron, Vanessa Paradis, Gisele. It was a full-fledged mini movement with a name “Chaneleando,” — a little disconcerting for a first time visitor to the island considering the only other movement they’re known for is “Viva la Revolución!”

Just think— one of those dapper little Chanel boy bags could sustain a Cuban family for 13.8 years.

I had come to Cuba expecting to see political posters and cut outs of Fidel and Raúl everywhere. (I come from Tamil Nadu, where we’re used to a bit of political bombardment). My husband had last been to Cuba in 1997 for the funeral of Che Guevara (Che’s body was returned to Cuba by the Bolivians 30 years after he was executed). My husband remembers a sweltering day in Santa Clara, and Fidel making one of his historic three-hour speeches. When you wander around the streets of Havana now, it’s Che that you see plastered everywhere — raffish, guerrilla, hipster god. My idea of Che is basically the famous image of Alberto Korda superimposed upon Gael García Bernal. Add to this the fun fact that he died with a volume of Neruda in his pocket.

As the trip unfolded I found out that Che was the one who had established Cuba’s first corrective work camp, that he ordered thousands of executions. So... not as universally loved as his posthumous PR campaign would have us believe. Of the brothers Castro I saw only one etching in a stone pavement (as though they’d been lovers who’d once been there). There is, of course, the Museum of the Revolution, which features lots of Castroism, (and lots of Che), and when you drive into the countryside there’s the odd billboard with Fidel in camouflage, but mostly when I was in Cuba, it was Che, Chaneleando, and Kim (not Jong-un, but Kardashian).

The last person I expected to be discussing in Cuba was Ms K. How it happened was that we were driving to the Bay of Pigs (yes, that historic landmark of the Cuban Missile crisis, now a beach paradise where you can eat your body weight in chicken and rice for $15 and then fling yourself into a turquoise sea). I mentioned (caustically) that aside from the many Hollywood sightings, Kim and Kanye had also been spotted. The jokey part was that not many Cubans recognised them because Wi-Fi is limited on the island. Cubans are watching telenovelas and reruns ofFriends, and as a result have not been keeping up with the Kardashians. This delighted me because while I may not have strong opinions about most things (I live in a cave), there are a few things I do get my pants knotted up for, and Kim Kardashian is one of them. My main grouse being, “Yes, but what does she do?”

Mostly I barrel on with my opinion unchallenged. The Kardashians are just one more of those phenomenons no one really admits to loving like Donald Trump or Fifty Shades of Grey. This time however, I was challenged by the only person in our car whose birth more or less coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall. My friend Stephanie made a spirited case for why Kim Kardashian is a feminist and could even be considered a feminist icon. Kim had created an empire worth billions of dollars because of her astute business sense. In this age of slut-shaming and body-shaming Kim represents a strong figure of female empowerment. She has her own kimojis and kim-oticons.

Feminism isn’t and shouldn’t be about a certain kind of woman that we deem worthy of our attention. It shouldn’t be based on class or education or decorum. It’s about advocating women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality, and given that Kim just bailed her husband Kanye out of his $53-million debt from the earnings of her Kim Kardashian: Hollywood video game (if you believe Twitter), she ain’t nobody’s trophy wife.

My husband, who is a journalist and, therefore, a seasoned shit-stirrer, put forward the claim that the rest of us in the car (fuddy duddies) needed to get with the times. For Millenials, he said, it’s of no consequence whether or not someone has a specific talent for which they then become famous. It’s enough if they are famous. They aren’t picky about a person’s skill set. All that matters is that you’re out there, doing something. He compared us to the naysayers back in the day who believed the Rolling Stones were playing devil music, and that bikinis were immodest (wait, some people still think that), but you get the drift.

Chastened, we moved on to another subject we could all agree on: the genius of Prince.

I hate to admit it, but one of the great takeaways from Cuba was that Kardashian conversation. I flew directly from Cuba to the United States, which must have been how Dorothy felt when she returned to Kansas from the Land of Oz. With a thud. All around the evidence of exactly the kind of things that communism and Castro have tried to keep from Cuba for so many years. Consumerism for a start. In Cuba there are no chain stores, no souvenirs (except for cigars and rum), no malls. In America if you wanted to sell your Aunt Sally’s knickers on E-bay someone would probably want to buy them. In Cuba, you hardly see any plastic. In America, every single plastic spoon is individually wrapped in plastic and when you start thinking of where all those plastic spoons end up you start getting palpitations so bad you need to pop an Ativan (couldn’t find one of those for love or a donkey in Cuba).

I don’t want to sound like it’s all dandy there, because as another friend rightly remarked, the Cuban government have been very good at giving Cubans freedoms and life essentials that cost — education and healthcare, for instance, are free. But the freedoms that are actually free — the freedom of speech, freedom to access information, freedom to assemble; why have they not given them these?

As Cubans transition into a new phase, there will be things in their culture which will be gained and lost. Part of the complexity of having these free freedoms is the notion of choice. There will be things that offend — why, for instance, do guys with a special knack for kicking a ball in a net deserve to make millions of dollars while teachers get by on next to nothing? There will be commodification of everything from Che Guevara as poster-boy of the anti-establishment to the Kardashians taking over the world. There will be bafflement, as in, that Chanel boy bag costs how much? And most complicated of all, you will find yourself mirroring the very things you’re raging against (see preening shots of author and Kim K against colourful convertibles in Cuba). Still, it’s better to have those freedoms than not. I’m with Kim on that.

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