Cuba beyond Castro!
by Playthell Benjamin
As the Cuban Revolution neared its 50th anniversary, much speculation occurred regarding what course Cuban society will take once its aging leader Fidel Castro passes from the scene. Any conjecture on the direction of Cuban society in the post-Castro era begs the question of what will be the character of US/Cuban relations in the future. Internal policy in Cuba has long been shaped by American foreign policy toward that Spanish-speaking Caribbean island ninety miles from the shores of Florida—the largest and most richly endowed island in the region in terms of natural and human resources.
It is impossible to understand the character of Cuban society today and seriously contemplate its future without taking the realities of the 1959 revolution and the American reaction to it into account. Whether we consider the poverty that plagues the island, the repressive internal policies, the refugees who brave the Florida straits, the ignorance of many young Cuban Americans about the motivations of the revolution that transformed the island in 1959 and the man who led it, any review is incomplete without an understanding of US policy toward the island nation. This is because the revolution, which has shaped contemporary Cuba more than any other event in the twentieth century, was in reaction to a system of social and economic relations largely determined by US interests.
In extensive interviews with American journalists Frank Mankiewicz and Kirby Jones, some fifteen years after the revolution, Castro spoke candidly about the conditions that gave rise to the revolution:
“To understand this it is necessary to understand Cuba as it was before the revolution. We had for example, close to 600,000 unemployed men out of a population of 6,000,000, We had a 30 percent illiteracy rate, more than a million illiterates. We lacked sufficient schools; more than 50 percent of the children did not attend school. We had a very bad public health situation, a high infant mortality rate, and other very serious problems, such as prostitution—close to 100,000 women lived off prostitution. We had gambling and beggars on the streets. In today’s Cuba you do not find any of these problems. Unemployment among the male population has disappeared and close to half a million women have joined the work force in addition to those already employed. Prostitution, begging, gambling, were eradicated. Illiteracy was overcome.”
Later, when Ballantine published these interviews as With Fidel, Arthur Schlesinger, a historian and former advisor to President Kennedy who had once supported aggressive policies toward Cuba remarked that “the time has come to rethink our policy toward Cuba.” His words ring true a quarter of a century later as the Bush Administration, driven by the local politics of the Miami based Cuban exile community, has returned to the aggressive policies Schlesinger rejected.
Saul Landau, American journalist and filmmaker, and professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic University, has documented Castro in four separate films, corroborates the charismatic leader’s sentiments. “Infant mortality rate is equivalent to that of the U.S. and is certainly better than Washington D.C.; their life expectancy is the same as in the U.S. When the Cubans wash ashore, the “desperate” refugees have no cavities. [They] don’t suffer from diseases that people in the Third World tend to suffer from.” Literacy and infant mortality rates indicate how a society invests its resources, and the latter specifically correlate to the general health of the population. So in comparison to Brazil, the largest nation in Latin America that had five times more infant mortality—140 per thousand births vs. 27.4 per thousand—the stunning achievements of Castro’s regime in the area of developing human capital become evident.
Socialist order, people-oriented economic priorities, hard work, and discipline are the mainstays of Cuba’s achievements, but without Russian subsidization of their sugar production not nearly as much could have been accomplished. Russia’s economic support effectively shielded Cuba from the drastic fluctuations of the world market and the misguided protracted American economic embargo.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of those subsidies, along with an American embargo which was reinvigorated under the Bush administration, are at the root of the present economic crisis in Cuba. As a result, Cuba has placed renewed effort on promoting the tourist industry, which was de-emphasized during the early years of the revolution – as the Jamaicans say: “Empty belly mek dog lick sore foot.”
The Cuban revolution began as a democratic nationalist movement. It was a struggle against economic exploitation of the laboring classes and the police-state tactics of the rich, corrupt Cuban oligarchy and their armed agents who were prepared to use as much force as necessary to maintain the status quo. In his book The Mafia in Cuba, award-winning Cuban historian Enrique Cirules documented the underworld’s involvement in Cuban life as going far beyond the influence of whores, gambling, cocaine, or even control of the major nightclubs, hotels and casinos.
The Mob also became a major force in politics and economics. Less than two years before the revolution, Cirules wrote that “the US press assured readers that Congress was accumulating evidence to imprison the principal Mafia leaders on home soil. In Cuba, however, they ran a network of untouchable businesses, in which semi-legal control merged with gang-style law, because the Mafia’s contacts reached everywhere, even to the presidential office.” The American government was more than familiar with the Mafia presence in Cuba and there is irrefutable evidence that the CIA turned to heavyweight Mafia Don Sam Giancana to try and assassinate Castro, in an attempt to promote counterrevolution.
Fulgencia Batista: Cuban Dictator and American Puppet. His Corruption and Ruthless Oppression Sparked the Revolution!
Added to the injuries suffered by the poor in Cuba was the outrage felt by those principled middle class nationalist intellectuals—like Fidel and his comrades, who became the theorists and organizers of the revolution – about the pervasiveness of crime and corruption in their society. Under Batista the Mob had free reign in Cuba. Indeed, they were major factors in Castro’s radicalization. Few Americans who criticize contemporary Cuban society and its suspicion of American intentions understand the powerful role of organized crime in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Furthermore, “legitimate” American businessmen often conducted themselves little differently, making it a distinction without a difference for the Cuban people.
Castro was a bourgeois lawyer with a social conscience and a belief in democratic reform until General Batista overthrew the government and set up a military dictatorship in 1952, which led a disillusioned Castro to conclude that democratic reform in Cuba was impossible. This realization drove him to become a revolutionary, and sixteen months later, he led the attack on the Moncada Barracks that launched a years-long Cuban Revolution which would force Batista into exile and bring Castro to power on New Years Day in 1959.
Reflecting on her youth in the 1920’s, when the white Cuban upper class experienced a wave of prosperity due to the high price of sugar post-WWI, Fichu Menocal, the daughter of a banker and granddaughter of Mario G. Menocal, the US-backed president of Cuba from 1912 to 1920, paints a poignant picture of the corruption and decadence of the deeply racist white Cuban elite that was wiped away by the Revolution.
Fichu recalls that among the island’s wealthy families “…there was a rivalry—who was going to have the most fantastic party; Parties that could cost $50,000. At that time that was an incredible amount. I went to practically all those parties. And we forgot absolutely what was below. We drifted so high on that cloud of golden prosperity…everybody just went to Paris and bought their frocks. Summer frocks, winter things.” But their taste for French finery hardly stopped there. “Everybody, they either had a Florentine chateau, or a Versailles-like chateau and everybody was rolling in millions, when I look back on that display of wealth, who could think at the time that anybody in Cuba could be miserable.”
Her remembrances of those halcyon days for the clueless Cuban elite reminds me of the entries in the diary of Louis XVI of France on the morning before the revolutionary Jacobins stormed Versailles palace, took he and Marie Antionette prisoner, shipped them off to Paris and beheaded them in the Place de la Concord before a cheering crowd. When Fichu’s reveries of white upper class life in pre-revolutionary Cuba are contrasted with the remembrances of Nicholas Guillen, an Afro-Cuban and poet laureate of the nation, it is easy to see why there was a revolution. Guillen sums up the situation for the masses of working class Cubans, urban and rural, and black Cubans in particular, in his epic poem I Have: “I, John-only-yesterday-with-Nothing, and John-with-everything-today, with everything today, I glance around, I look and see / and touch myself and wonder / how it could have happened?”
Still other white Cubans hearken back fondly to the days before Castro’s revolution. Mariano Molina, president and owner of a mechanical engineering firm in the U.S., left Cuba in 1959 to study at North Carolina State College in Raleigh. He describes his initial experience in the college town as “a big surprise to me. North Carolina in the 1960s [was] completely segregated; blacks and whites would not be together. I thought the south was very culturally primitive in terms of racial issues.” His memories of the culture he left behind are of “Cuban people [who] were really happy with the way things were, for the most part. Obviously, the wealthy ones were really happy.”
Alas, to my black American ears this sound like the white folks I interviewed in Florida during 1988 about the 1950’s, they speak fondly of the civility of race relations and mourn the passage of “The Beloved Southern Negro after Dr. Martin Luther King came to town.” However having grown up in Florida in the 1950’s I know that’s a fiction of silly deluded southern WASPS, and Molina’s memories of a “really happy” Cuban people belong to the same class of fairy tale.
I have interviewed many Afro-Cubans over the years who tell a very different tale. And all of them who grew up in Senor Molina’s Cuba fervently supported the Revolution. The blacks who deny this should be viewed through the same lens as Michael Steele, the black hustler who is the front man for a racist Republican Party that tries to convince the world that the racist elitist Republicans are friends of Afro-Americans.
Critics of the revolution often overlook areas of Cuba’s contemporary infrastructure that parallel or surpass the standards of more developed nations. This is particularly true for Cuba’s education system, which is without question one of the most advanced and resourceful in the world! Castro’s government approaches learning as a lifelong process and treats quality education, like adequate health care, as the birthright of each Cuban citizen.
From pre-school care to educational programs for parents, citizens of all ages benefit from the demanding expectations and highly trained teachers that are the hallmark of Cuban learning. In fact, an estimated 30,000 senior citizens will have graduated from Cuban universities as a result of the program for older adults initiated in 2000. And over 630,000 Cubans have received a free university education under Castro.
Cuba budgets nearly twice as much of its GDP for educational spending, more than any other Latin American nation, and its secondary schools consistently rank among the highest in the world in math and science performance. Likewise the island’s 48 universities are among the most highly respected in the Western hemisphere. More than 76,000 international students from 123 countries (including the U.S.) have received free educations from Cuban universities, and 6,000 will be granted scholarships next year alone. Cuba’s medical schools and the health care system they support are so highly regarded that each year over 100,000 foreign patients travel to Cuba for treatment. Moreover, Cuban ophthalmologists are universally considered to be among the finest in the discipline—all of this despite the island’s crippling economic crisis.
At the same time, Castro’s focus on cultivating a highly educated society created a potential thorn in his side. “When you have an educated population of leaders and thinkers, you cannot expect them to be submissive,” notes Alejandro de la Fuente, author of A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in 20th Century Cuba. “You cannot educate people and tell them—as they told us—‘Now you are educated can you please shut up.’ We wanted to say things. We want to debate. We didn’t want violence.
“When perestroika was happening in the Soviet Union we hoped there was going to be space for a free and open debate about the future of the country. That hope was very much crushed, foreclosed, and never allowed to happen. I felt we had no voice, and couldn’t have any voice. Anything we said could be seen as an attack; once you are in that position, you either leave, go to jail, or you conform and lower your head and take it. I was too young and not ready to lower my head or go to jail so I left.” De la Fuente, now a professor of Latin American/Cuban History at the University of Pittsburgh, took his leave of the island in 1992. He says:
“Power has its own logic. [The government] realized it was easier to not have to respond to an active, critical citizenry. They don’t care if you complain about a lack of food or electricity as long as you don’t criticize Fidel and don’t do anything about it. Again, it is a question of power. Once you open that door it is hard to close. The experience of the Soviet Union terrified them, and they wanted to keep that door shut because if people were allowed to demand explanations they would have a lot of explaining to do. So it was better to impose silence.”
Not only has Castro’s insistence on widespread educational opportunity yielded unpredictable results, but state-sponsored arts initiatives have also seen periods of bounty and scarcity. “In the 60s the Cuban Revolution obviously had a huge impact on Latin American film,” notes María Cristina Saavedra, assistant professor of Spanish and English at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. “Film was really seen as an arm of the revolution and a way of fomenting revolution. After 1990 production went down incredibly; it was quite dramatic. The money just wasn’t there. This led to a lot of co-productions in many countries, one of those being Spain. That is one way people have gotten around the whole issue of a lack of funds.”
Lack of resources notwithstanding, Saavedra is impressed with what she calls a “much more committed cinema that stands in great opposition to the hegemony of Hollywood.” She directed the university’s recently aborted study abroad program in Cuba, which she had hoped would grow its relationship with the University of Havana, but she foresees little hope for the program’s revitalization given recent US governmental restrictions placed on study abroad programs in Cuba.
She points out that “filmmakers in Cuba have always tried to link the current social and cultural context of the revolution with the political processes on the island and revisionist view of colonial Cuba. In Suite Habana there is no dialogue; what you are hearing are the sounds of the city. It is a very stark view of the city and what daily life is like in Havana, sort of looking at things from a much more realistic and not ‘politically correct’ perspective.”
She also notes the 2001 award-winning film Video de Familia, which she says portrays “some of the issues that are confronting average Cubans in terms of the dynamics of family abroad. It is supposed to be set up as a family video to be sent to a family member in the States. In the context of the film family secrets come out…It’s a really fine work.”
That world-class art continues to spring from the small island is incredibly surprising to many outsiders, especially the music and dance, which just as in the US is the gift of the neo-African culture of black Cubans. “You have got to keep one thing in mind: Cuba has been the cradle of salsa music. We could go back before Cuba and say we owe this to the Africans,” says Jesse Herrero, band leader and producer of Son Sublime, a Cuban charanga orchestra in the New York area
Herrero, who is a vice president at JP Morgan Chase, got his first instrument when he was nearly ten. “I lived under Fidel for five years, and things were rationed in a way that if you wanted something you had to get in line and sometimes you would sleep there and wait for a store opening. I was on line to buy a toy, but the people before me got everything. The only thing I could get was an accordion, which was probably better than any toy I could have gotten.”
Herrero’s passion for classic Cuban rhythms—Rumba, danzón, mámbo, chá-chá-chá, són, bolero, guaracha, and son montuno, all essential to the form—has brought him an appreciation of the work of contemporary Cuban artists like Los Orishas, a popular hip hop group whose style incorporates traditional Cuban rhythms, pays homage to the birthplace of hip hop in New York, and tackles themes familiar to Cubanos. “In one of their songs they did an arrangement that is wonderful, like chá-chá-chá. I think that rap is not easy to listen to, although it can be poetic.”
The legendary hip hop impresario Fab Five Freddy, who hosted the first rap show on MTV, Yo! MTV Raps was shocked by the rap scene he discovered in Cuba. “I met a brother there named Pablo Herrera who was the pivotal figure in the hip hop scene. Pablo was an incredibly knowledgeable cat who spoke English like he grew up in Brooklyn with me. And he knew the whole history of hip hop, all the old school stuff and everything. They even had tapes of my TV shows!”
Ariel Fernandez, founder and editor of Movimiento, a state-funded hip hop magazine, told me when I interiewed him on WBAI:
“Rap music is the voice of the Afro-Cuban in popular culture. It aggressively asserts our cultural identity as black people, which is not recognized in official government policy which asserts that ‘we are all Cubans.’ But we insist that we are culturally different from white Cubans in significant ways, and this is based on our African heritage and centuries of historical experience with racism on the part of Hispanic Cubans. Although instititional racism has been outlawed, the ideology of white racism remains embedded in the culture. If you listen to Cuban hip hop you will see that the artists use rhythms from our Afro-Cuban musical culture.”
However this is not the first instance of cross-fertilization of Afro-Cuban and Afro-American musical forms. During the first half of the 20th century, the virtuoso Afro-American trumpeter, bandleader and Jazz innovator John Berks “Dizzy” Gillespie collaborated with Mario Bauza, an Afro-Cuban multi-instrumentalist who was fluent in the language of European classical music, Jazz and the Afro-Cuban musical tradition. Together they produced a hybrid musical genre known as CuBop.
It was a blending of elements from the modern complex improvisational style invented by Gillespie and Saxophone genius Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, called BeBop, with the Son Montuno Afro-Cuban orchestral form. CuBop is the basis for all “Latin Jazz.” The Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra featuring the Afro-Cuban congero Chano Pozo became the signature American exponent of CuBop, while Machito and his Afro-Cubans became the Cuban vehicle for the new sound. All Latin Jazz has its roots in CuBop, whether they know it or not. It is a sound that continues to flourish.
I first heard Afro-Cuban music in 1959, the year the Cuban Revolution succeeded in overthrowing the fascist Batista military dictatorship. I was a student at the all-Black Florida A&M University and there were several Afro-Cuban students studying in the world-famous music school, which had produced the renowned saxophonists and trumpeter Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and his brother Nat. The Afro-Cuban students would play Jazz with the Afro-American musicians, and on occasion they would get together and play the Son Montuno.
I fell in love with the music upon first hearing. At the time I played the trap drums, but I would later ditch them and study the Conga drums, which led to my longtime friendship with the great Mongo Santamaria and my marriage to an Afro-Cuban woman. I even became a good enough congero to substitute for Mongo himself with his great band – which featured the brilliant flautist Hubert Laws – in concert. Mongo’s band created a new fusion of styles that combined Afro-Cuban Music, Jazz, and Rhythm and Blues. My love of playing the Conga drums remains undiminished after half a century; hence I am a living example of the power of Afro-Cuban culture and its influence on US culture.
In addition to a festering race problem, Cuba has failed to deal with the problem of rising expectations in an increasingly youthful population who do not remember the glory days of the revolution and are tired of the sacrifices it continues to demand. And considering the men who are most likely to succeed Fidel, this generation gap is bound to widen.
The Cuban Constitution decreed that the First Vice-President will succeed the President, which means that Fidel has been succeeded by his brother Raul, who as head of the party, military, and the state, thus controls all the instruments of power in the Cuban government. He can be expected to surround himself with the same kind of people who advised Fidel—people like Vice President Ricardo Alarcon, a foreign policy specialist who is committed to Castro’s vision for Cuba.
In the days following President Bush’s second inauguration, Alarcon was frank in an interview with Landau. “I think that there are discrepancies in his second inaugural address. He talked about carrying the fire of freedom throughout the world. Without sounding rude, I’d say this is, at the very least, an over-statement. He isn’t going to carry anything much further. He’s already having difficulty in maintaining this fire in Iraq. If he wants to do that around the world he will not succeed. Indeed, he’s not succeeding in Iraq.
“Cuba is one of the places mentioned, not by Bush but by [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice, the day before. I advise them not to try. It will cost a lot of lives if the Americans attack us, more than those dying in Iraq, because this is not a divided country or society that has been suffering under a dictatorial regime. The opposite is true. You will find here a free society, finally emancipated from half a century of oppression and corruption imposed by the US.
We attained our independence in 1959 from US domination. That is a fact of history. From an ethnic or cultural point of view we are a unified country, an island on which a common culture and common identity has evolved. We are prepared to make life impossible for an invader.”
Castro has pointed to the sustained American embargo as the root cause of Cuba’s economic problems, while more and more of America’s allies are ignoring it. Most European and Latin American countries trade with Cuba, and Canada and New Zealand have publicly rejected the embargo policy as a violation of their national sovereignty. The decision of the Cuban government to relax its economic laws to encourage foreign investment has already resulted in hundreds of joint ventures with foreign companies that are reinvigorating the economy. Furthermore support for the embargo’s demise is growing in the American business community, Congress, and even among the younger generation of Miami’s Cuban-Americans. If sentiments continue to build in that direction, the embargo may well not continue after the Bush Administration.
“Everybody is waiting for the day Fidel dies and I think most people in and out of Cuba think that no significant changes are going to happen as long as Fidel stays in power,” says Professor de la Fuentes. “The big question is what happens afterwards. Most people believe there will be some sort of process of transition. For ordinary Cubans there are several important issues; first the social programs that have been established since the 1960s.
Cuba has fairly successful healthcare and education systems that by Third World standards are pretty good, and for people in the street, these are the things that matter. Then there is the issue of property; many people live in property that belonged to others in the 50s. What is going to happen to these people? There is also unemployment, which is fairly low in Cuba only because the public sector is inflated tremendously. Many people have jobs in public sector that would disappear under different conditions.”
“My hope is that when the change takes place it includes a combination of social and domestic policy freedoms with an emphasis on social programs, including care for the poor and disadvantaged in society. That is one thing that has kept Cuban socialism in power. Care for the poor and disadvantaged is not a bad thing. My guess is committee government,” says Landau. “His brother will be the nominal president, and I am pretty sure there is no one else that will command consensus. Fidel said his brother will take over. They have been operating for 46 plus years; there is no reason to think there is much uncertainty. There is only one Fidel a century—for good or for ill. There is only one person who ‘when he walks into the room the wind does as well’. He is charismatic in the sense of going back to the root, meaning god-like attributes. He is not replaceable.”
“I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama
of my country, but by thoroughly expressing
the Negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic arts of the blacks
In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth
Hallucinating figures with the power to disturb,
The dreams of exploiters”
Benjamin is a veteran political journalist out of Harlem NY. His essays can be read on his blog site Commentaries on the Times.