When Fidel Castro embarked on his march across the Sierra Maestra Mountains in July of 1953, the world looked to Cuba as a symbol of hope that World War II’s ideals of democracy and freedom still had a fighting chance. Hope grew into belief on New Year’s Eve, 1958, when Castro’s forces ousted the authoritarian government of Fulgencio Batista in Havana. For a moment, the small island nation seemed like a beacon for other countries striving toward self-determination under the yoke of repressive regimes. But by the time President John F. Kennedy gave his ill-conceived order for the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961, it had become all too clear that the principle of “right versus wrong” had given way to a new Cold War paradigm of “us versus them,” in which traditional ethics played little part. It is at this precise moment that Connie arrives in Havana in Anna Veltfort’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Goodbye, My Havana: the Life and Times of a Gringa in Revolutionary Cuba.
While it’s easy to lose sight of the stories of individuals within the grand narratives of geopolitics, Goodbye, My Havana succeeds in focusing its attention on the lives that affect and are affected by this moment in history. At first glance, Veltfort’s fictional alter-ego, Connie, may seem idiosyncratic. A refugee from postwar Germany whose mother, Lenore, brought her to America, only to settle in another war-torn country at the behest of a new husband, Connie’s personal history hardly matches those of most Cubans. Her subsequent experience as a college student and member of Havana’s clandestine and endangered LGBTQ community seems to pull her further away from the everyday.
But by approaching Castro’s Cuba from the margins, that is, from Connie’s experience as a woman and member of its LGBTQ community, Veltfort creates a unique lens through which to observe the mechanisms by which a political system acts upon those who live within it. In Goodbye, My Havana, the Cuban revolution’s prescribed limits of freedom are most evident in the relegation of women and LGBTQ individuals to the periphery, where their rights quickly erode and their personhood is more easily dismissed. The benefit of hindsight shows Castro’s regime working inward from there. Once it had stripped the most vulnerable of their rights, it was easier to impose a system of authoritarianism on the remainder of the populace.
For Connie, the hypocrisy of Cuba’s supposed freedom starts at home, with her stepfather, Ted. Despite his professed revolutionary Communist commitment, Ted treats his wife and adopted daughter as second-class citizens. While his fervor for the cause knows no bounds, the hopes and dreams of the women in his family hold little purchase. Despite Lenore’s protestations, Ted uproots an already-displaced single mother and child to move the family to Cuba. Regardless of his speechifying about equality for all, he refuses to invest in his adopted daughter’s education.
In public, the marginalization of Connie and others manifests itself as endless street harassment that begins on the second page of Goodbye, My Havana. Arriving by boat but unable to disembark immediately, 15-year-old Connie looks out from the deck onto her new home and wonders aloud, “But why are all those men holding their penises and staring at me?”
While an emotionally abusive home life and constant street harassment were traumatic enough, they pale in comparison to the palpable threat of physical violence that pervaded political life in Cuba for members of the LGBTQ community. Starting with the justified paranoia of Connie’s first girlfriend, then building to the purges of LGBTQ individuals from academic institutions, and crescendoing in Connie’s arrest, along with her then-girlfriend, for homosexuality, the book deftly raises the stakes for marginalized groups while dispelling any lingering romantic notions about Castro’s regime. One gets the sense that Cubans who were unable to live up to increasingly stringent “revolutionary” ideals were living under an ever-tightening screw.
Interspersed within these overarching threads of social justice are vignettes of everyday life that seem alternatively familiar and foreign to readers who did not experience that time and place. For instance, Connie’s discovery of the Beatles and learning to do the Twist are relatable enough, while the government’s mandate that she and her classmates participate in the country’s seasonal food harvests couldn’t be more removed from the experience of most contemporary American college students.
Though some of these vignettes add color and nuance to the story, others detract from its trajectory and momentum. A two-page anecdote about a short-lived romance between Connie and a young man struggling with addiction and depression seems to emerge from and disappear into entirely different narratives. Likewise, a quick sketch about the time Connie unknowingly ate too many pot brownies has no apparent bearing on the rest of the book.
Despite these occasional misplaced interludes, Goodbye, My Havana offers a unique lens to view post-revolutionary Cuba, where utopian dreams were deferred for so many. It is also a resonant reminder that social movements are not defined by the rhetoric of their leaders, but by the freedoms afforded or denied to those communities that society most often marginalizes, and that it is in such communities that we are most likely to find the seeds of actual, meaningful change.
Goodbye, My Havana: the Life and Times of a Gringa in Revolutionary Cuba by Anna Veltfort (September 2019) is published by Redwood Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.