Dedicated to the memory of Guillermo Álvarez Guedes and Armando Roblán.
There’s nothing that tyrants fear more than humor.
We tend to forget that the first publication to be shut down in Cuba was Zig-Zag. It was a funny weekly, illustrated with excellent caricatures, that in 1959, a few months after the madhouse was inaugurated, amid laughter and jokes, severely criticized the dictatorship that was beginning to dig its roots.
Leopoldo Fernández, known as Tres Patines, had to flee into exile shortly thereafter because he appeared onstage in a comedy skit looking at a display of portraits of important people, Fidel Castro among them. Leopoldo lifted that picture from the table, chortled and exclaimed: “Allow me. I’ll hang this one myself.” He had to leave the country in a hurry.
In Franco’s Spain, no one could draw caricatures of the Caudillo or make the most innocent joke about him. La Codorniz (The Quail), a satirical weekly that leaned to the right but was intelligent, roguish and trenchant, as befits the genre, was fined for publishing a weather report that said, “In general, a cold wind from Galicia will bring a chill to Spain.” You just didn’t mess with Francisco Franco.
The key to that attitude is the way in which power is exercised in tyrannies. The boss imposes himself by fear. As Machiavelli explains in The Prince, obedience is not caused by love but by terror, and terror is always grim. It is not a question of the heart but of the bladder.
Besides, that’s the way of exercising authority that the Alpha monkey enjoys, from his place in the apex. He likes to intimidate his subordinates and feels enormous pleasure when he finds proof that his enemies fear him. That’s why he bosses others around. Therein lies his joy.
For this type of psychopath who devotes his life to climbing to the summit, an emotional reward can be found in perceiving the effluvia of a crowd that surrenders itself to him amid a mixture of conflicting feelings where fear prevails. It’s like the abusive father or spouse: he takes pleasure in seeing terror in the eyes of his interlocutor.
In Cuba, the dictatorship placed Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and Col. Tony de la Guardia before the firing squad for various reasons, but the most serious one, in Fidel Castro’s opinion, was a recording made by his secret service in which the two men mocked “the Old Man” and cracked jokes about him. They had lost the reverential fear that Castro demands, and that attitude was unforgivable. That’s why he killed them. They no longer “respected” him and, within the logic of dictatorial power, that attitude was one step away from conspiracy to overthrow.
A few days ago, Guillermo Álvarez Guedes died. He was an excellent stand-up comic who sowed jokes all over Cuba, the way sappers plant mines on enemy roads. His irreverent humor was explosive and the regime did fear him but couldn’t keep his cassettes from circulating from one hand to another. Even those in power listened to him and laughed, but in secret, because a good revolutionary could not surrender to a funny adversary and give up a few laughs. Good revolutionaries can only laugh at yanqui imperialism. Poor people.
I end with an anecdote told to me by Armando Roblán, another great Cuban comedian and humorist, who died last January. Because it’s almost incredible, I will confirm that he told it to me in the presence of journalist Olga Connor, at her charming house in Coral Gables.
One of Roblán’s many talents was impersonation. In 1959, he imitated Fidel to perfection. In theaters and on TV, he would put on a fake beard and an olive-green uniform and impersonate the then-young c omandante, replicating his nasal voice, which sounded like a hoarse adolescent and bore the slight intonation of someone from eastern Cuba. Some clueless listeners applauded him because they believed that he was the Maximum Leader, as Castro’s sycophants used to call him.
One afternoon, Roblán received a mysterious phone call. It was a passionate lady who wanted an intimate date with him. Roblán was young and single, so he asked her to meet him in a public place, so he could ascertain if she was as beautiful and seductive as her voice or if it was a hoax.
The girl was gorgeous. She did, in fact, want to go to bed with him, but imposed a curious condition. He had to don a fake beard and speak to her in bed as if he were Fidel.
“What did you do?” I asked Roblán.
“I gave in completely,” he said. “I spent the afternoon making love to her and watching her excitement mount as I shouted: ‘Fidel, for sure! Slam the yanquis hard!’ ”
Sometimes humor has unexpected consequences.