I remember it as if it were yesterday when my old man took me to see the first Elpidio Valdés feature film in 1974. Having just debuted in the city of Santa Clara, we had to jump through hoops to find a taxi willing to take us all the way there from the town of Encrucijada. Thanks to the help of one of my father’s many friends, we were able to sneak into the Cubanacán Cinema, now long gone. Around the corner and in front of an improvised ticket booth set up for these types of events, a large police unit tried controlling half of Villa Clara Province that had descended on the Provincial capital for the movie’s premiere.
I have seen that film around fifty times. I doubt there are many who can beat my record. Whenever it played in Encrucijada’s movie house, I would go see it the four nights in a row of its run.
I was and still am a fan of this fictional military leader of the Cuban Wars of Independence. It is no wonder I stored all the Elpidio Valdés animations from before 1990 on my computer. On top of that, I also own a copy of the quickly-forgotten series Más se perdió en la guerra, or Más se perdió en Cuba,* the title changing depending on whether it was distributed on the island or in Spain.
However, and in the spirit of René Descartes, I decided a while back to take on the task of doubting everything as far as possible so I could take ownership over the truth that allows me to reason on my own without prejudice or imposed dogmas. This is why I have also chosen to analyze Juan Padrón’s greatest creation according to my own criteria.
Since I do not want to bore my readers, I will only highlight the following thoughts. Authority figures are beyond reproach in all the Elpidio Valdés cartoons. Throughout this character’s adventures in the fight for Cuban independence, it is clear that the struggle’s leadership exists in a different reality than the rest of the characters. It is never the brunt of jokes, not even indirectly. All other characters can certainly be ridiculed, but certainly not the leaders of the cause. Now compare the reverence given military leaders in Elpidio Valdés to the treatment afforded the renown comic book characters Astérix and Obélix, both of whom enjoy national hero status in France.
Gallic chieftain Astérix is simply another pathetic member of his tribe. He threatens his wife with a rolling pin, is even less eloquent than Cuban Vice-President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, and more unintelligible than “ Cantinflas”. Astérix never manages to effectively lead his subjects, since they are in fact his equals.
Is the image of a leader projected by Elpidio Valdés compared to Astérix’s an illustration of the anthropological damage inflicted on Cuba by the long-drawn-out Castro regime? Or is it perhaps the exact opposite, since the Cuban impulse to bow down to authority existed way before the arrival of the current regime? This may also help explain why this dictatorship seized control so effortlessly.
It is no coincidence that the two most successful dictators of Cuba and Spain went to great lengths to present themselves as beyond reproach. In other worlds, their success was linked in no small measure to the impeccable personae they projected. This should make Cubans cognizant of the fact that our respect for authority is an age-old social disorder inherited from the Spanish founders of our culture.
Whether it is due to an anthropological pathology, or the reinforcement of the preconceived notions of the majority, the Castro regime has only reinforced our sacrosanct view of authority, which evidently existed in Cuba even before 1959. In light of this, we are faced with a dilemma far greater than just having to overthrow a dictatorship; we are being called to launch a cultural revolution.
Please do not think that I am calling for anything to be erased from our past. Whether Cubans like it or not, Elpidio Valdés epitomizes a quintessential part of our culture, much like the whole corpus of Greco-Roman literature – which despite echoing the common justifications of its age for slavery – is still part of the Western canon. What all Cubans need to do is study our overall culture, and Elpidio Valdés in particular, using Cartesian doubt. By simply applying methodological skepticism, Cubans would automatically understand why we submit to authority as we do, a fact that distinguishes us from the French in every single segment of society.
*Translator’s Note: Literally “More was lost in the war,” and “More was lost in Cuba,” respectively. Meaning “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” this expression refers to what is known in the U.S. as the Spanish-American War. The former term is more common in Cuba, while the latter is used most often in Spain.
Translated by José Badué