Some of the most common characteristics of the culture of socialism include its myriad political jokes.
One from the 1980s said:
Erick, a dog who lives in Leipzig, visits Gunther, his cousin from Frankfurt. He takes her for a walk and eats sausages. But Erick prefers those from the GDR, which are cheaper. They pass the Institute of Technology and Erick comments that the University of Leipzig is nicer and also free. They see Turks and Africans passing by who complain about the price of the rent; and Gunther says everyone in the GDR owns their house. Gunther invites him to listen to a Bach concert, and Erick replies that he has already heard more than enough of Johan Sebastian in the same church in Leipzig where he is buried. At the end of the day, Gunther said to him, “But cousin Erick, why did you come to Frankfurt, other than to visit me?” The other responds: “That I really wanted to bark.”
In his test on jokes in Eastern Europe and the USSR, Abel Prieto analyzes some of their topics and motives. Taking it as a mirror of the cultural contradictions of this socialism, he takes as an example the Misha bear, symbol of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, which he describes as a shameful imitation of a Disney character, aspiring to represent modernity. . There was such a cult of Western modernity in these countries that almost the main theme of these jokes was “the backwardness” that prevails in the socialist way of life. The author points out, however, that part of these popular histories also criticized this left-wing socialism and accused it of eroding ideals and historical legacies.
In Cuba, as we know, popular humor has not only targeted bureaucrats or Party (CCP) officials, but also intellectuals, farmers, the elderly, Canarian or Galician immigrants, Chinese, blacks, homosexuals, women, people from Pinar del Rio, Russians, tourists, people from Guantánamo, braggarts, soldiers, artists, priests and even Jesus, the Virgin Mary and God himself .
It was possible to hear these popular stories, by the way, told by some children of the Canaries, Galicians, Russians, as well as blacks, homosexuals, Catholics, intellectuals and members of the same Party. Discussing the extent to which these jokes project prejudices and stereotypes, differentiating between irreverence and rejection, attributing to them a sacrilegious effect or, on the contrary, seeing in them a way of exorcising our shortcomings, would give rise to debate. This could be based on impressions and reactions, as do the criticism of mores, anti-racist and gender activism, but also on the resources of literary research, anthropology, semiology, subaltern studies and the sociology of humour, which understands it as a cultural phenomenon.
As with other manifestations of culture, jokes are not the same chronicles of public opinion or mirrors of society as a whole. We could take them as representations that inhabit the social psychology of various groups, and that bring out all kinds of values, some considered negative. Since culture is not a paradigm of civility and fairness, jokes contain symptoms of social attitudes that we would otherwise consider non-existent or “overcome.” Of course, simply seeing them in this way does not exhaust their meaning or functioning in the process of a much more complex living political culture.
Of course, in this political culture it is also possible to distinguish elements associated with prejudices and ideological positions. In fact, when any Cuban picks up a joke, he has always been able to distinguish those who make fun of their faults in order to caricature them; and those that are more incisive, with the original mark of anticommunism. In these notes, I will deal only with the first.
A subject of Cuban political jokes has been, for example, the rhetoric of our relations with the socialist camp:
A priest and a colonel from the Ministry of the Interior, childhood friends, greet each other on the Place de la Cathédrale. They immediately wonder why the other took this path, and they find themselves in a philosophical discussion about matter and spirit. They decide to take an overtaking by Cuban who had had a few drinks as a referee. The priest asks him who created the world, and he replies that it is the Lord. But amid the rum haze, he finds the officer listening behind the priest and adds, “But he did it with the selfless and supportive help of the Soviet Union.”
A few years ago, a Cuban short film used the absurd as an artistic recourse to recount how certain State Security agents asked a citizen for permission to install microphones in his home. They argued that they were responding to the demand for transparency, and that they had also discovered that citizens’ opinions were useful to the Party. Always in line with absurdity and irony, the characters showed a tone of dialogue and understanding. To brand this political humor as subversive because it uses Security as material would be to censor, before pausing to analyze the vision it offers, an art installation like the ones I saw at the Havana Biennial, where, for example, a miniature replica of the Villa Marista (State Security headquarters) rub shoulders with those of Langley, Quantico, the KGB, the Mi5.
As we know, the art of socialism, from Vladimir Mayakovsky to Tomás G. Alea, put bureaucracy in the spotlight, ridiculing its mechanisms and mocking its triumphalist style. Cuban political jokes have done the same:
Papers are presented at a world conference on elephants. American newspapers deal with business and the elephant market; the French, on their sex life; the Germans, on prolegomena on a pachydermic phenomenology; the Soviets about their place in the struggle for peace. When the Cuban’s turn comes, he explains that he hasn’t had time to write anything, but wants to make a statement: “In 1999, Cuba will be the world’s leading exporter of elephants!
Probably nothing in Cuban political culture bears an imprint of real socialism comparable to the media. Criticized everywhere, congress of journalists and PCC included, the media continue to have this mark of origin, and were always the target of political jokes:
Reagan, Gorbachev and Fidel reach the afterlife, where they meet Napoleon. The latter tells them about the Battle of Waterloo. He tells Reagan that if he had had his air force, he would not have lost it (the battle); and neither, he told Gorbachev, had he had the naval fleet of the USSR. Then he said to Fidel: “If I had had the Grandmother newspaper, I would have lost the Battle of Waterloo. But no one would have known.
In its classic pattern, the dramaturgy of many Cuban stories incorporates the presidents of the United States, the USSR, and Cuba. The former are arrogant, unfit to decipher conservative riddles, slow; while the Cuban shows ingenuity and common sense, to end up “succeeding”. To a large extent, the character of Fidel in these jokes portrays the qualities with which Cubans identify.
The stories where Comandante Fidel appears as a character go back to the very beginning of the Revolution:
Fidel dies, but it is not known if he is in purgatory or in hell. Worried, Raúl calls both places and no one knows him. After a month, he decides to call the sky. When St. Peter answers the phone, he says, “Heavenly Cooperative, Patria o Muerte, Venceremos.”
The Fidel of these jokes alternates with living and dead, real and legendary characters, on the same level. Cubans visiting the USSR and Eastern Europe were surprised to compare this image with those of the leaders who populated the stories heard in Warsaw, Prague or Moscow. Although the mental agility and imagination displayed by the character can be classified as Cuban traits; his will, his perseverance and his power of persuasion reach mythical dimensions.
A joke from the 1980s says:
Fidel dies and appears at Heaven’s Gate, where he asks to speak with Jesus Christ. Saint Peter does not let him, but Fidel insists, until Jesus, curious, accepts. Although Saint Peter warns him that he cannot speak for more than 15 minutes, time passes and two hours later he decides to break it off, when Jesus says to Fidel: “I agree with all. What I don’t understand is why I have to be the second secretary.
While it’s overkill to interpret jokes as a social chronicle, there’s no doubt that, like works of art, these sources of humor make some aspect of the world around us sparkle.
Given the images on the island that have been circulating in recent weeks, one can see that there are many Cubas – not only inside but outside – who are portrayed in political jokes. This idea can hardly be better illustrated than in a story from the late 1990s:
The caravan with Fidel and the Pope is traveling along the Malecón, when a gust of wind throws the Pontiff’s cap into the sea. Fidel gets out, walks on the water, picks it up and they continue on their way. The next day, L’Osservatore Romano reports: “Miracolo all’Avana! Il Papa fa camminare sull’acqua Castro. Grandmother said: “Fidel saves the Pope’s hat. Another victory for socialism! El Nuevo Herald proclaims: “Castro is already on the verge of death. He can’t even swim!
Referring to humor in the culture of Cuban socialism requires, like everything else, marking the times. 35 years ago, in the mid-1980s, comedy groups began to grow and multiply. From their work and their perseverance was born a new art of comedy, with characters, workshops, groups of animators and dialogues with politics, without which comedy shows would be inconceivable, which could later do jokes about the ration book, company bosses or the Committees for the functions of guard of the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). Pushing back these boundaries of humor could foster a political culture capable of laughing at its excesses, of saddling solemnity, of bringing not only the ear, but also the voice close to the ground.
If among so many competing dreams I had to choose one, I would invite actor friends to contribute to the training of communicators, political executives, teachers and all those who have to lead or interact with different people. May they teach the art and technique of enchanting audiences, engaging in motivating conversation, igniting the imagination, provoking intelligence, making people think gracefully, from the a culture of good laughter that permeates the best of Cuban literature, theater, film, music and other arts.
Recovering the cultural heritage of Cuban political humor, and integrating it into life, in opposition to the cyber rags and vitriol that today pass through dialogue and reconciliation, would be one way of thinking about it.