Latin American Societies
The Cuban Mile
The Cuban Mile, written by Cuban native Alejandro Hernandez Diaz, is a story about two Cubans who set sea for Miami in hopes of finding more successful lives. The author writes as if he was one of the refugees, and we are reading his journal entries. The journey lasts seven days, with obviously many entries per day. The entries are categorized by how many miles these two men have traveled by that point. The narrator and his brother in law are on their way to meet Cynthia, who is the sister of one and the wife of the other. She was awarded the opportunity to study in America and believes her loved ones can enjoy greater success in a capitalist society.
Each man has his own reason for leaving his country; the narrator, only 20, wants to be a painter and feels no ties to his family or country, while his brother in law, 28, is a sailor and wishes to reap the riches of America. It really is unclear as to why the narrator would risk his life to leave Cuba, the only apparent reasons are his isolation from his family and his desire to be with his sister, who has faith in him and believes he can be a great painter in the United States. Obviously, his brother in law wishes to be with his wife, while he has dreams of sailing yagts living in excess. Neither likes the other all too much, they seem to have sincere contempt for each other as they are actually quite opposite and don’t understand one another much. The sailor is the macho, right wing type, while the painter has an effeminate, artistic flair to him. Along the trip, “Commodore”, as he’s called by the narrator, attempts to pass the time with chatting, while the narrator prefers to read the books he brought along. Occasionally they’ll interact, swaying between playful poking fun and long monologues that the other doesn’t listen to.
The goal of these two refugees is to be picked up by the United States Coast Guard and be brought back to American soil. On the fifth day, the see another ship, but it’s not that of the Coast Guard. Commodore paddles ferociously, so as to not be seen by what he perceives to be a Cuban vessel. To loose weight and travel faster, he instructs his partner to toss over his bag of books. The narrator, torn over whether or not to make such a sacrifice, accidentally throws over their water supply in his confusion. As they slowly dehydrate and become sicker, as storm comes through, and this is all the Commodore can take. He lets himself get thrown into the ocean, where he presumably drowns. By the next day, the narrator himself dies, and his corpse flows along in their boat.
I personally did not find this book to be entertaining at all. Towards the end I found myself pushing along faster, but my motive was not curiosity to see what happens caused by literary suspense, it was impatience to finally get this assignment over. I’m assuming that, although perhaps not entirely, the story was supposed to be somewhat humorous, because I could find little substance to it, but I found all the little rants of the narrator to be quite annoying. Speaking about the Commodore once in Miami, he says “Smile, smile you bastard and enjoy the mediocre ideal of sipping Coke and Bacardi while you sit at a bar in Little Havana trading lies with Sylvester Stallone.” I’m sure its well within the character of a young aspiring artist, struggling and forming his thoughts and beliefs, apparently the black sheep of his family, to be bitter and ridicule or question everything around him. My problem is, I couldn’t figure out what the point was- if I or anyone else wanted to the rants of a confused mind, all we have to do is think back to the weird, misunderstood kid in high school. If we do that, we remember why not many people liked him. Its one thing to be or relate to that kid, we all have a little of that in us, but its another to take his diary and publish it, thinking it would make a good book, whether he’s on an adventurous journey or not. If there were other insights in the book, at least one other voice, or even a purpose, then Alejandro Hernandez Diaz would have the makings of a possibly good book, at least unique and hopefully interesting.
I think what left such a sour taste in my mouth was that occasionally it would seem like he was on the track to making some kind of point, or even simply giving me a meaningless chuckle, but every time he would cut short and move on to a completely different idea. If the book was to be just a typical drama, then the characters would have to be developed much more for the reader to care about their fate or their ideas and opinions. I’m really just lost as to what the author’s agenda was. On the back it talks about the “study of the psychology of risk and desire.” All I got out of it along these lines was how the pain was so unbearable (the tens of pages of sheer whining might have been my biggest pet peeve) that he had to resort to sleeping pills as an escape from his hyper imaginative mind. While the risk is obvious, due to poor character development I’m not sure what their desires even were. There is very little background given on these two, life in Cuba remains a mystery, and what they wish to get out of America is so simple and basic it becomes unclear. It’s like listening to a press conference of a bad politician, when they say things like “I want better schools for our children.” There are different ideas of what a better school consists of, or how to achieve even that same idea. It’s just a blanket, watered down statement that says absolutely nothing, and that simply was my take on this book.
Now, given the fact that I almost feel like I read nothing, I’m not quite sure how to relate this book to a social theory discussed in class. In going through my notes, I see that in many ways bits and pieces of this book contradict Modernization Theory, so I will attempt to show in what ways. First of all, the most glaring aspect is that Emile Durkheim thought that people in underdeveloped nations needed to change their values and beliefs to fit those of the United States in order to develop or modernize. In my view, especially in the case of Cuba, it seems most people do share many of our cultural beliefs, otherwise there wouldn’t be thousands who risk their lives to come ashore, or a book written with really only two characters, both of which attempt to reach the U.S. That’s two out of two, 100%, and this won the National Young Cuban Writers award for best novel. Demand for American products such as Coke would not be so high if not for the Cubans’ desire to be more American. So, assuming as I do that the beliefs are there, then Durkheim is wrong in at least this aspect of his thoughts that contributed to Modernization Theory.
This also goes against Max Weber’s idea about the Protestant ethic. Assuming that Cubans do have adequate beliefs to develop in place and that the vast majority are not Protestant in faith, then one would not need to be Protestant or believe in predestination in order to obtain the “necessary values” to develop their country. “Salvation Panic” isn’t the only reason for one to work hard to succeed.
Also, Weber’s assumption that third world countries (although I guess technically Cuba would fall in the second world) have a fatalistic attitude must also be false. I don’t think someone considered to be fatalistic would risk their life to better themselves. They wouldn’t consciously decide that there is a better life for them and take control of their lives and risk everything in the hope of affording themselves better opportunities. Things like hope and a desire to risk one’s life don’t seem like characteristics of a fatalist, in fact these two ideas are in direct contradiction. If you want to talk about a dichotomy, I would say right there is one; at least a concrete one, not the construct of someone’s mind like Durkheim’s comparison of traditional and modern societies.
Although this wasn’t nearly as complete a rebuttal against Modernization Theory as Dependency Theory is, and even though I wouldn’t recommend reading this book to anybody, in many ways The Cuban Mile did have shades of contradictions to this theory present within its cover. In a few instances the narrator will take you back to the island and give a few insights into their way of life, and in a few other instances he will show a glimpse of what might be going through the mind of a normal Cuban and what kinds of be