What Do Proletarian Heroes Smell Like?
The production of new colognes leads to an uproar at Granma.
In Guillermo Rosales’ short story collection, El juego de la viola (published in English as Leapfrog and Other Stories), Ágata, the awful grandmother of a wicked little boy, says that the Communists “all walked around with the back of their pants stitched up” and “smelled like a bicycle workshop.”
- Is it worth-while to focus on the last images and letters coming from the inside of the last living utopia on Earth? Is Cuba by now a contemporary country or just another old-fashioned delusion in the middle of Nowhere-America? A Cold-War Northtalgia maybe? Can we expect a young Rewwwolution.cu within that Ancien Régime still known as The Revolution? I would like to provoke more questions than answers.
- Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo was born in Havana City and still resides and resists there, working as a free-lance writer, photographer and blogger. He is the author of Boring Home (2009) and is the editor of the independent opinion and literary e-zine Voces.
In another reference to Revolutionary undergarments, in Life is Elsewhere the Czech novelist Milan Kundera uses the symbol of the young poet Jaromil’s “lousy” underwear to ridicule socialism’s inelegance. Coincidentally, a grandmother also harasses that character.
Ah, but communist regimes have also sought their own elite glamour and their own aroma of a working-class high-life. In Cuba, for example, the obsession with aromatic oils sits between the concepts of communist kitsch and capitalist complacency.
A couple of decades ago, the Cuban business group Labiofam created fragrances called “Alejandro” and “Celia”: “products named symbolically for Revolutionary figures.” These were obviously an aromatic tribute to then Commander-in-Chief Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz and his unofficial First Lady, Celia Sánchez Manduley. Labiofam would later release a “Lina” fragrance in honor of Lina Ruz, the mother of Fidel Castro and also—of course!—the grandmother of Dr. José Antonio Fraga Castro, CEO of Labiofam.
Barely a month ago, the accredited international press in Cuba announced Labiofam’s latest perfumes: none other than “Hugo” and “Ernesto.” And so the noses of the world will never forget the scent of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto Ché Guevara.
“Ernesto” is described as “woody with a refreshing note of citrus and talcum powder,” while “Hugo” is “rather more suave and fruity, with hints of mango and papaya.”
“It is not propaganda; it is a tribute,” declared biochemist Mario Valdés, head of development for both fragrances.
The very next day, everyone was talking about the official scandal, which came from the official Communist newspaper Granma. An editorial piece titled “Los símbolos son sagrados” (“Our symbols are sacred”) stated that both products were to be banned, despite being ready for production after a year spent in development.
Almost a declaration of war, the succinct Granma editorial explained that, according to the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers, neither Guevara’s nor Chávez’s relatives were consulted before they were turned into perfumes. This contradicted what Labiofam’s representatives had told the Associated Press. Worse still, Granma threatened that “the appropriate disciplinary measures will be taken to rectify this serious mistake,” because “initiatives of this kind will never be accepted by our people nor by the Revolutionary Government.”
The situation resembles a comedy movie in the worst North Korean cinematic tradition. (In that other totalitarian nation, the cinematography is presumably conceived exclusively to please their supreme leader.)
In something of an anticlimax, Dr. Fraga Castro sent a letter to the relatives who were supposedly offended by the names of the colognes. In the style of his uncles, Fidel and Raúl Castro, he railed against the international press’s freedom of expression in its “ill-intentioned, twisted focus,” “the media spectacle,” and the “ferocious campaign of disinformation,” among the other “mean-spirited interests of a press that lies and launches attacks.”
As Joaquín Sabina sings in El muro de Berlín (The Berlin Wall), “no one knows whether to laugh or to cry” when they see this maelstrom of fear and mediocrity, of smells and horrors. In the end, Grandma Ágata is right, not so much about the bicycle workshop smell as the stitching up of the weakest part of the pants.
Even hatred smells in Cuba. Or at least that is what the Countess of Revilla de Camargo wrote to Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, after the Revolution confiscated her property: “Your stench makes me nauseous. And my perfume sickens you too.”