“To defend our beloved Cuba.” The closing line of this poem from the great Chilean communist and surrealist writer Pablo Neruda rather sums up how working and oppressed people – in Latin America and around the world – are feeling in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death. There is a lot to say about Castro the man, but it is far less important than the Cuban Revolution he helped lead, build and maintain for more than fifty years against the outside pressures of American empire.
Facts are facts, and the fact is that Cuba has universal healthcare and a literacy rate that is enviable by any standard. Its cultural policy during the 1960s and 70s – one that strove to eliminate the profit motive from the arts and put humanistic innovation at its center – was a point of reference for artists, poets and musicians across Latin America. Compare this to Cuba’s Caribbean neighbors – routinely treated as one big free trade zone for US capital – and the poignancy is clear. It is why Castro remained, despite so many valid and vociferous criticisms we might make of him from the Left, a symbol of self-determination and anti-imperialism. His death highlights an open question; not so much about Castro himself or even his own personal legacy, but of what will ultimately become of the “cup of wine,” the popular struggles and democratic dreams that Neruda describes. – Alexander Billet
* * *
Fidel, Fidel, the people are grateful
for words in action and deeds that sing,
that is why I bring from far
a cup of my country’s wine:
it is the blood of a subterranean people
that from the shadows reaches your throat,
they are miners who have lived for centuries
extracting fire from the frozen land.
They go beneath the sea for coal
but on returning they are like ghosts:
they grew accustomed to eternal night,
the working-day light was robbed from them,
nevertheless here is the cup
of so much suffering and distances:
the happiness of imprisoned men
possessed by darkness and illusions
who from the inside of mines perceive
the arrival of spring and its fragrances
because they know that Man is struggling
to reach the amplest clarity.
And Cuba is seen by the Southern miners,
the lonely sons of la pampa,
the shepherds of cold in Patagonia,
the fathers of tin and silver,
the ones who marry cordilleras
extract the copper from Chuquicamata,
men hidden in buses
in populations of pure nostalgia,
women of the fields and workshops,
children who cried away their childhoods:
this is the cup, take it, Fidel.
It is full of so much hope
that upon drinking you will know your victory
is like the aged wine of my country
made not by one man but by many men
and not by one grape but by many plants:
it is not one drop but many rivers:
not one captain but many battles.
And they support you because you represent
the collective honor of our long struggle,
and if Cuba were to fall we would all fall,
and we would come to lift her,
and if she blooms with flowers
she will flourish with our own nectar.
And if they dare touch Cuba’s
forehead, by your hands liberated,
they will find people’s fists,
we will take out our buried weapons:
blood and pride will come to rescue,
to defend our beloved Cuba.
* * *
Fidel, Fidel, los pueblos te agradecen
palabras en acción y hechos que cantan,
por eso desde lejos te he traído
una copa del vino de mi patria:
es la sangre de un pueblo subterráneo
que llega de la sombra a tu garganta,
son mineros que viven hace siglos
sacando fuego de la tierra helada.
Van debajo del mar por los carbones
y cuando vuelven son como fantasmas:
se acostumbraron a la noche eterna,
les robaron la luz de la jornada
y sin embargo aquí tienes la copa
de tantos sufrimientos y distancias:
la alegría del hombre encarcelado,
poblado por tinieblas y esperanzas
que adentro de la mina sabe cuando
llegó la primavera y su fragancia
porque sabe que el hombre está luchando
hasta alcanzar la claridad más ancha.
Y a Cuba ven los mineros australes,
los hijos solitarios de la pampa,
los pastores del frío en Patagonia,
los padres del estaño y de la plata,
los que casándose con la cordillera
sacan el cobre de Chuquicamata,
los hombres de autobuses escondidos
en poblaciones puras de nostalgia,
las mujeres de campos y talleres,
los niños que lloraron sus infancias:
esta es la copa, tómala, Fidel.
Está llena de tantas esperanzas
que al beberla sabrás que tu victoria
es como el viejo vino de mi patria:
no lo hace un hombre sino muchos hombres
y no una uva sino muchas plantas:
no es una gota sino muchos ríos:
no un capitán sino muchas batallas.
Y están contigo porque representas
todo el honor de nuestra lucha larga
y si cayera Cuba caeríamos,
y vendríamos para levantarla,
y si florece con todas sus flores
florecerá con nuestra propia savia.
Y si se atreven a tocar la frente
de Cuba por tus manos libertada
encontrarán los puños de los pueblos,
sacaremos las armas enterradas:
la sangre y el orgullo acudirán
a defender a Cuba bienamada.
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a Chilean poet, diplomat and politician. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and served as a senator as a member of the Chilean Communist Party. During his life, he published almost 40 volumes of poetry.