A communist government stands on the brink. Party officials see their power dithering and proclaim they are stronger than ever. A capitalist neighbor prepares its armed forces for a flood of refugees. Thousands have already risked their lives to come. Families separated for decades are eager to be reunited with loved ones. The free world waits, dangling exotic foods and innumerable shampoo brands to further entice the deprived subjects of a failed socialist experiment. On one side of the boundary, intellectuals debate whether the people really have a right to be reunited. In the dark, secretive side of the boundary, intellectuals mutter a little about a so-called new way and then become strangely quiet. Both sides are blind to what will really happen: There won't be a reunion; there will be a takeover. There won't be a new way; there will be a shopping spree.
The place and time I've described is the two Germanys in 1989, a setting that reveals many similarities when placed on top of the current situation with Cuba and the United States. German intellectuals were at odds with both governments. Intense debate in 1989-90 on what form reunification should take was directly followed by a scandal in the summer and fall of 1990, during which Christa Wolf and other East German dissident writers were revealed to have been informants for the Stasi. These events forced Andreas Huyssen in 1991 to proclaim, "Something is rotten in the state of German culture."
Switching through temporalities, we find ourselves shortly before another falling wall. Fidel Castro has taken ill and charged his brother Raul with running the country. We are preparing for a lifted embargo. American and Cuban American intellectuals are wondering whether Miami's elite ought to be allowed to return and do business in Cuba after Fidel dies. They will of course try to return. Capital doesn't take well to borders. Greed will always advance colonialism. Writers, journalists, and teachers in the United States will need to challenge the inevitable media portrayals of na´ve-looking residents from a recently freed country in jubilant shopping mode. Images of East Germans crossing the border to try their first banana, drink real coffee, and sing along with David Hasselhoff have untruthfully reworked the victory for human rights over oppression into a victory for consumerism over shortages. Even though the residents of Cuba won't be clamoring for bananas or coffee, the media will disproportionately dwell on scenes of visitors gawking at the Japanese sedans and backyard swimming pools of their Miami kin.
Today, intellectuals on the island are pointing to their old plea for multiparty elections. Just pointing. Quietly and with no renewed vigor, because Raul Castro was a close friend of Luis Pavon, a party official who cracked down on writers and dissidents in the '70s. Their task is all the more difficult, given the constant surveillance and threat of incarceration. But they do have the western hemisphere's most literate population to their advantage, a population who is keen on discussing the details of a "new way" beyond communism and capitalism, that is, whenever a BBC reporter or American student on study abroad isn't asking for their opinion. They must however be wary of "the embargo in the mind," which can continue long after the end of Castro's regime. The German equivalent, die Mauer im Kopf, or wall in the mind, results from the vast cultural and material disparities which still persist between West Germany and the new states of the former East Germany. Entire industries in the East, which formerly were nationalized, have been deemed unprofitable and shut down. As a result, unemployment is much higher than in the West, there are fewer holidays and longer work hours, and the population is decreasing rapidly along with a severe brain drain. Furthermore, East and West Germans, though being close in heritage and ethnicity, often claim they don't understand each other. No doubt the same will occur when the Cuban diaspora sees its embargo end and tears down its wall. Will we really recognize our relatives? Will we really understand each other? Which side will claim the other side is lazy? Promiscuous? Uneducated? Ask a German from either side, they'll say all of that about a German from the opposite side. Such insults can already be heard today within the Cuban diaspora about "the other Cubans."
The failure of German intellectuals was their inability to properly explain and advocate a new way or, to use their language, a third path. That inability was then followed by nasty in-fighting, born out of revelations of involvement in the Stasi by authors. When the communist party relinquishes control in Cuba, a vast government archive will be open to researchers. Upon inspection it may come to light that many Cuban dissidents, authors, and activists have ties to the Cuban Stasi, the ComitÚs de Defensa de la Revoluciˇn. They can then follow the example of their German counterparts and vilify each other. If they do, something is bound to feel rotten in the state of Cuban culture. Or they can take a reconciliatory approach, making a distinction between CDR informants who needed a mechanism for survival and CDR informants who were callous in their participation. This is not meant to imply that all Cubans or Cuban writers, journalists, and teachers are informants. Journalist Raul Rivero and writers Jorge Angel Perez and Anton Arrafat, for example, consistently demonstrate their incorruptibility. Nevertheless, an intricate and omnipresent network of spying does exist in every community in Cuba.
There is another problem for the post-embargo period. Both Cubans in Cuba and Cuban Americans are utterly lacking in any attempt to come to terms with the past. Both sides insist their path up to now has been the right path. One side of the diaspora, in the United States, has habitually cowered from racial integration or women's liberation. The other side, on the island, can't imagine any form of emancipation without government involvement. The task of Cuban and Cuban American writers, journalists, and teachers is to promote the principles of reconciliation and peace at every juncture, but especially during transitions like the one we're experiencing now. This is an opportunity to learn from the very recent history offered by the collapse of communism in Europe. If the mistakes of even the recent past can be avoided, then we will never need to discuss a so-called failure of Cuban intellectuals.
In one of the old "Workers' Palaces" on Karl-Marx-Allee in East Berlin, a McDonald's has opened up. The gap between rich and poor is increasing dramatically in all five federal states of the former East. Unemployment is mounting and young people are moving in droves to cities in the West. Racist and nationalistic ideologies are on the rise. Where there was once much hope for a new way, there remains only the gunk of a rapid capitalist takeover and the resultant cultural deterioration. Meanwhile, Castro lies sick in hospital. Today's intellectuals have no excuse for not knowing what happens next, because we've been here before.
Bryan Aja is a graduate student of German at San Francisco State University. His parents are from Cuba.