Obama, Timochenko & the Rolling Stones, together in Cuba

Gathering in Cuba Raúl Castro and Obama, and Kerry and the FARC, and having Mick Jagger jump up and down, is a way to bury the revolution in a revolutionary way. Español Português

Abel Gilbert
30 March 2016

The Rolling Stones backstage before their concert at Ciudad Deportiva on March 25, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images. All rights reserved.

It looks as if the island is once again at the centre of history. Once again, sadly: a hurricane comes and devastates the sugar plantations, the houses, and it all has to be raised back again. But who would dare to contradict the feeling that the planets are aligned once more in the Caribbean?

Barack Obama landed in Cuba to turn around a history of bad relationships and melt the last remnants of the Cold War theatre of operations. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC), headed by the guerrilla leaders aliasTimochenko and Ivan Márquez, and the Colombian government met in Havana with US Secretary of State John Kerry and received the support and encouragement from Washington to walk the remaining little stretch to put an end to the fifty-year old bloody armed conflict. As a symbolic closing ceremony, the Rolling Stones Ltd. were presented to a crowd in Havana's Sports City. "Half a century later," the Cubans were saying, thrilled by the light and sound power and the figures walking across the stage. Thousands of smartphones, probably purchased with money sent by relatives living in the US, recorded the concert scenes. They will be saved together with the certainty that this was the night it all began to change really fast.

Everything seems so simple ... But this "half a century later" encloses one of the big paradoxes of the current times. I would like to go three weeks back, if I may, when Mick Jagger was in Buenos Aires, for something happened in Argentina's capital that may help to understand what has happened in Cuba. Jagger allowed pictures to be taken of him at the Recoleta cemetery, where Eva Peron is buried. Were these the pictures of a tourist fascinated by funeral architecture? Or is Jagger telling us, surrounded by those aristocratic tombs, like some Dorian Grey tory: "I am beyond time"? This is possibly the mystifying essence of the game mentioned in Sympathy for the Devil, one of the emblem songs of the group, with which the concert ended in Cuba. The song suggests a game of permanent and slippery ambiguity, which is already half a century old, about the time Cubans believed they were waiting for Jagger and friends.

48 years ago, Jagger did not define himself as a conservative with a small c (i.e. someone who rejects the state’s tax burden and is tolerant on moral and freedom of expression issues), nor were the Stones a limited company yet. Not at all. In 1968, the year Sympathy for the devil was released, Sir Mick was emerging as a referent for the protests which were beginning to rock Europe. Or, at any rate, this is the way in which some in the pro-Castro left wanted to see it, and Jean-Luc Godard too. The latter’s film One plus one shows in detail the recording of Sympathy for the devil. The first shots in the film display the outline of the song. There are only unplugged instruments. The film ends with the Beggars’ Banquet album version. This work in progress, alternating with contributions by several armed members of the Black Panthers, was to Goddard a metaphor of the revolutionary process. What did the filmmaker think? What uses did he assume that voice, sexed-up body and images were to have? Jagger had been inspired by The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-Stalinist satire. The novel lends itself to countless readings, but perhaps none of them is up to Goddard’s expectations. The lyrics of the song are so devious that the National Review, the journal of the enlightened US right, chose it in its article Rockin 'the Right as one of the 50 most conservative songs. I do not think that people in Cuba, in Argentina and in Colombia have been much concerned about these issues. The Stones’ uses avoid any such questions.

But does the song remain the same? The title of that mid-seventies Led Zeppelin’s Madison Square Garden concerts film refers to something no one can elude: the meaning of a song is always contingent, volatile and utilitarian. Otherwise, how are we to understand the course followed by Stairway to Heaven, Zeppelin’s hippie anthem which has been competing with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries for the first place in the iPod playlist of the US soldiers who monitored by air and land the intervention in Iraq between 2003 and 2013?

In Cuba, the Stones also played Street Fighting Man, a song that in a sense relates with the "old Cuba", that which used to display its insurrectionary and challenging image to the world. That year, 1968, Jagger talked in London with Tariq Ali, the Bristish Marxist writer, of Pakistani descent, who was a member of the New Left Review and The Black Dwarf magazine. Ali later recalled those meetings in Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties. After the Tet offensive launched by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese on January 1968, the protest movement against the Vietnam War grew like wildfire in England. Thousands of demonstrators fought with the police in Grosvenor Square. Jagger was (this time) among the protesters. He wrote Street Fighting Man under the impact of the beatings by the mounted branch of the metropolitan police. The song is rudimentary music-wise, but it carries the energy of a vertiginous era: "Summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street."

In an interview published by the International Times, the author went further than the song lyrics: "The system is rotten (...) the time has come, revolution is valid." Excited by the circumstances, and in the midst of preparations for a second mass mobilization, Jagger offered the lyrics to The Black Dwarf. The magazine printed them under a quote from Engels ("An ounce of action is worth a ton of thought") and a title: Mick Jagger and Fred Engels are fighting in the streets. When the mix of Street Fighting Man was finished in May, coinciding with the events in Paris, it was decided not to release it as a single in England. The record company feared that it would be blamed for inciting rebellion.

None of this was at stake in the island. The Stones Ltd. is a global entertainment device and, as such, it spread its music on an island that is not only no longer able to promote revolutionary change: that revolution no longer exists and has not existed for many years now (much as the septuagenarian Stones are no longer those lewd young men who used to frighten the parents of the kids who listened to them). Today, the island is moving inexorably towards capitalism. It will be, first, capitalism with a strong state presence. But, at some point, the emerging bourgeoisie will demand what Obama came here to preach. Jagger and his band came to celebrate the inauguration. Arguably, they sang to those Cubans who had been thrown out of the party for decades. But their great concert could also be thought of as a more oblique way to praise Obama’s great diplomatic victory: he has re-established ties with Cuba and has played an important role in Colombia’s peace agreement (the US is convinced that when elections are held there, the FARC, which will have turned into a political party, will get very few votes). Besides, Latin America is turning right again.

If 2005 is often remembered as the year when George W. Bush’s aspiration to convert the continent into a free trade area was defeated, 2016 threatens to be the year when hardly any remnants of that anti-American spirit will be left standing. Argentina has already turned right, Brazil is about to do so, and it is assumed that the same thing will happen in Venezuela. At the end of his mandate, Obama will be able to say that he can get Satisfaction.

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