This story is over 5 years old.


Cuban Humor Owes Everything to Fidel Castro

Most Americans don't realize this, but 'el Líder Máximo' was the inspiration for—and butt of—a lot of very excellent jokes.
av Yoss
Photo by George Mattson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

This is one of the funniest comments I've heard during these strange days supposedly filled with mourning and sorrow for the long-awaited death of Fidel Castro: What a paradox: You spend your life fighting capitalism only to die on Black Friday, with all those bargains.

On November 26, 1956, Fidel Castro set sail from Tuxpan, Mexico, to Cuba in a small yacht named Granma with 81 other dreamers keen to change the country's destiny. The conspiracy theory has more than enough supporters: Is it a coincidence or a shrewd historical calculation that el Comandante made his exit exactly 60 years later? Hard to know. Maybe saying his final goodbye on July 26, anniversary of the day in 1953 that they stormed the Moncada barracks would have been too obvious…


Some numerical appreciation is inevitable: From 1959 until 2006, Castro ruled Cuba with his tireless, inspired, almost hypnotic language, from the platform of the Plaza of the Revolution or before the cameras: a period of time that few kings and no dictator have equaled.

Another comic comment going around: It's sad, he resisted 11 North American leaders… and can't handle even 15 days of Donald Trump as president-elect.

What will remain after 47 years of Fidel's almost messianic leadership and absurd economic management? Of his anti-imperialist, Pan-American dream, apparently condemned to shipwreck as the remaining power of the Latin American left staggers toward its next debacle? His brother, Raúl, helmsman of the erratic Cuban ship since August 2006, when the Sierra Maestra hero renounced total control over the Caribbean island, has proved to be a lamentable orator. But at the same time, to much surprise, despite his tough military reputation and readiness to bear arms, he is also an excellent administrator of what the most strident Miami right-wingers call "the Castro family ranch." Although the struggles of Nicolás Maduro's Venezuelan government makes many suspicious that, with the end of cheap oil from Caracas, a new era of material shortages will be inevitable in Cuba, other optimists trust that, like his older brother, the president general will manage to scheme with the shiny new president Trump to attract the investments the economy of the Greater Antilles so desperately needs.


If literary transcendence awaits the deceased elder brother of Raúl, it will be, above all, for his role as primary hero of ingenious Cuban humor.

But these are just speculations, and what will happen remains to be seen. The obvious, the undeniable, during these nine days of national mourning without music and alcohol (in which the tourists who've had the good or bad fortune to witness his historic disappearance complain that Cuba doesn't seem like Cuba) is the tremendous importance that Castro's life and body of work has had.

And since I'm a writer and not a political or economic analyst, I'm not going to say anything more about the seminal role el Comandante played as inspirer of revolutions or leader of Non-Aligned countries and other Third World communities. Nor will I say anything about his erratic economic management, always trusting that a new rubric would lift the island once and for all up from underdevelopment while, at the same time, always paranoiacally cutting short any emergence of a prospering middle class if it wasn't linked to his political-ideological-familial faction.

This way, I'm sparing myself having to sing the inevitable little ditties of praise and criticism. Because if Fidel accomplished anything in his life, it was not leaving anyone indifferent. They loved and hated him, always intensely… and sometimes, like many Cubans, both feelings coexisted in an almost surrealistic way.


But I won't fall into senseless psychoanalysis and start to theorize about the father figure, respected and feared, who must be killed for us to become adults. No way. Too much of that has already occurred and is yet to come. My purpose in writing these lines is to speak, at least briefly, of the newly vanished personality's literary transcendence.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shares a joke with Cuban president Fidel Castro. Undated photo by PPO/Getty Images

To many, it will seem an absurd effort. Some may remember the old rumor that it was Fidel who inspired The Autumn of the Patriarch, the novel with which Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez joined the select club of those who have covered the fascinating subject of the Latin American dictator, including Miguel Angel Asturias, who wrote Mister President; Augusto Roa Bastos, who wrote I, The Supreme; and even the super-baroque Swiss Cuban Alejo Carpentier, who wrote Reasons of State. Memories will return to others of all the books on the titanic figure of the Commandante, from interview compilations like Fidel and Religion by liberation theologian Frei Betto or One Hundred Hours with Fidel (translated into English as Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography) by the Galician Ignacio Ramonet, to confessions in the worst sentimental style, such as those in Alina: Memoirs of the Rebel Daughter of Fidel Castro, or brainy and equivocal analysis, such as Castro's Final Hour by the once very famous and now almost forgotten Argentine American journalist Andrés Oppenheimer. All of these books more or less surreptitiously circulated during his life among Cuba's most avid readers, of course, as precious gems of purported objective analysis.


There will even be those who lament, in these post-Bob Dylan Nobel Prize for Literature days, that Fidel died before even being chosen for the highest literary distinction for his tirade, History Will Absolve Me, composed of inspired rubbish no worse than that of Hitler and Mussolini—or the rest of his extensive oratory that will surely fill dozens of volumes once collected, if anyone ever decides to take on such an enormous task. Does it really sound all that wild? Did Winston Churchill himself not win in 1953, for speeches collected in books?

Nor should we miss those who expect an avalanche of confessional books by cronies who had an intimate relationship with the great man: I Was Castro's Proctologist; My Life as Head of Fidel's Kennels; Memories of the Nightclub Dancer Who Got with el Comandante Once, and so on, ad infinitum or ad nauseam, whichever comes first.

But, in my humble opinion, if literary transcendence, in addition to political immortality that not even his worst detractors would deny him, awaits the deceased elder brother of Raúl, it will be, above all, for his role as primary hero of ingenious Cuban humor.

For centuries, power has been defenseless before the jokes and ridicule that strip from rulers their dignified gowns and appearance of being their homeland's saviors. Shouting "the king is naked!" can always be the beginning of a rebellion. Not in vain did they pursue the paranoid aide-de-camp of el Líder Máximo whenever a Cuban author dared portray him disrespectfully, like the irreverent Reinaldo Arenas or the witty yet ingenious Zoe Valdes, both forced into exile. In fact, so excessive was the zeal of the cultural police without uniform, that even the most fervent supporters of el Comandante ended up almost always refraining, just in case, from including any reference that was not very distant or indirect to the colossal figure in their pages. You couldn't take the chance that someone might misinterpret.


Sometimes, it's not even necessary to mention the name—its power makes one laugh:

A drunkard mutters at voices in his head: I know who's to blame for why everything's so bad… why there's no food, no clothes, why we can't travel. After a while, the inevitable happens: Someone reports him and G2 agents arrive and detain him. But when they interrogate him, severely—"Who're you talking about?"—the alcoholic says, very candidly: "About Bush, of course, who else if not him?" So they have no choice but to release him. Except, already at the door, the drinker turns around and says: "But I know who you had in mind…"

It took some work even for Hercules to cut off all the hydra heads, and similarly, not even the legendary efficiency of the Cuban G2 intelligence agency has managed to completely censor that splendid escape valve for popular discontent that are these jokes. The writer Jorge Mañach has already lamented, decades ago, that Cuban fondness for joking, for making fun of everything… that, nevertheless, resulted in the darkest hours of despair before the paternal totalitarianism of the revolution calcified into static dogma.

All his most envied and celebrated qualities have been simultaneously ridiculed by the relentless popular laughter.

They say that Fidel himself laughed a lot at the jokes that the common wit dedicated to him. I wish it were true, because there were many. All his most envied and celebrated qualities have been simultaneously ridiculed by the relentless popular laughter: his speech capable of convincing anyone, his ability to say one thing and do another, and of course always blaming Yankee imperialism for all his setbacks; his intransigence—until the opportunity to say and do exactly the opposite arrived.


Fidel dies and, nobody knows how, he goes to heaven, but San Pedro doesn't want to let him enter. El Comandante insists on an audience with God, and after much pleading, the doorman of paradise permits him to go talk to the Supreme Being… but only for five minutes.

All the same, he prolongs the dialogue behind closed doors for half an hour, two hours, three hours… and after the fourth hour, the Eternal Father and Fidel exit arm in arm, conversing and smiling. The Creator goes on to say, "Yes, well, that idea of socialism up here… what I don't understand is why I have to be only the second secretary of the party."

There are a thousand more like that, which I hope will soon be collected in a book. And if no one wants to take on the task, I unselfishly volunteer my services. I remember more than a hundred right now, and many are excellent. It'd be a book that, by the way, wouldn't be censored but sold on the island. Perhaps it would be the first authentic sign that things are really beginning to change, that the conceited trajectory of the static Revolution has once again been set in motion.

Although, of course, I fear that the next book, the one with jokes about the brother, still in power, will have to wait a while…

Born José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in Havana, Cuba, in 1969, Yoss assumed his pen name in 1988, when he won the Premio David in the science-fiction category for Timshel. Since then, he has gone on to become one of Cuba's most iconic literary figures—as the author of more than 20 acclaimed books and as the lead singer of the heavy metal band Tenaz. His two novels translated into English are A Planet for Rent and Super Extra Grande.

Translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein.