- Café, Culpa and Capital: Nostalgic Addictions of Cuban Exile
Prologue: an anecdote over coffee
David Rieff opens The Exile, his study of “Cuba in the Heart of Miami,” with a chapter that combines an archetypal formulation of the expectation of a general return with anecdotal details of specific recent voyages back to Cuba on the part of various Cuban exiles. 1 In many ways Rieff’s work in The Exile demands this precarious balance between archetypal and anecdotal treatments; the archetypal especially asserts itself in the qualities Cuban exile shares with traditional patterns of exile inscribed, for example, in the historical books of the Old Testament. To the extent that Cubans in exile persist in toasting to a “next year in Havana” which never comes, the culture clearly marks itself within, and according to, the contours of a historical paradigm that both promises return and staves it off by virtue of its structural reliance on the indefinite deferral of that return. In this sense the toast exhibits the double edge of any performance of the historical via a precedent model: it may assert a historicity in that performance, but it also marks the assertion of historicity as performance, and as performative. Return is certainly not guaranteed by the invocation of any historical or traditional archetype of exile; and to wait for such a return to realize itself only holds one (individually, collectively) at bay, at the mercy of whatever palliative effects are held by such a redemptive and impossible promise. 2
It is, of course, at the level of the archetypal that the Cuban exile imaginary finds itself held in captivity, in a hopelessly idealized addiction to the redemptive promise of return. On this level, Rieff tells us, even the “people who ate, slept and breathed exile politics” realized the faith in the promise was becoming increasingly embarrassing, something to hide but certainly not to abandon; the topic of return, referred to by that community as the theme, el tema, “only came up haltingly” in public conversation, or it “had to be precipitated, like a chemical reaction, by a long boozy evening.” 3 The persistent, abstracted tema, perhaps the most eloquent symptom of the larger archetypal malaise, appears, then (as a de-sublimated chemical precipitate) only in combination with other addictive substances. In the context of this anecdote, the substance is alcohol; [End Page 63] but Cuban exile culture is if anything eminently susceptible to the seductive call of other material substances, as well as other abstracted substantives.
As with the veiled anecdote of the boozy evening, Rieff oftentimes regales us with a touch of the dramatic. Another perhaps more tellingly general anecdote dramatizes an encounter between a Cuban exile mother and the son who has just returned from a brief trip to Cuba:
Later, over coffee, . . . the traveler is more than likely to be reproached. “When you left, I thought I would die, and while you were gone, I died a little each day,” a Cuban mother of a friend of mine told him the day after his return . . . [H]er remark was the kind of reproach indulged in by Cuban mothers, who in Miami are often indistinguishable in terms of stereotypes from the Jewish matrons of Miami Beach. It was posing, and performance, of course, but only trivially. Cuban Miami . . . is a place where the dead are never far from people’s minds, and in which the past and the present are constantly elided. 4
The Cuban mother guilts her son, on one level, for the betrayal his return poses to the larger archetypal idea of Return; to this extent the rhetorical distance between stereotype (her resemblance in behavior to the “Jewish matrons of Miami Beach”) and archetype (her faith in the archetypal structure of exile drawn from Jewish tradition) is suggestively short, and certainly “performative” to the extent that it invokes the authority of certain preexisting discursive models. As short indeed is the psychic distance between motherly guilt(ing) for personal abandonment, its accompanying anxiety (the worry over what might befall her son in Cuba), and the larger guilt built into the structure of exile, the guilt of abandoning the motherland, of...