Una identità in movimento

"La Gaceta" Discusses Cultural Influence Of Blacks In Cuba

Luis Madrid

Under the heading "Glances at Cuban popular culture", the September-October 1998 issue of "La Gaceta de Cuba" contains numerous articles discussing the cultural influence of blacks in Cuba, the historical centrality of slavery and the struggle to abolish it in forging the Cuban nation, and the ongoing battle today to eliminate the legacy of racism inherited from capitalist society.

The Spanish-language bimonthly is published by the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Several of the topics addressed in the issue were among the questions discussed last November by the delegates to UNEAC's sixth national congress.

Most of the authors underline the particularly rich and complex process through which Cuba's national identity — Cubanía, as they call it — has been, and continues to be forged. Some address particular manifestations of popular art, including music — "the backbone of Cuban art", while others still take up the decades-long effort by the working class in Cuba to develop a new set of values, a new culture.

The Cuban nation

"The word nation has gained prominence" in almost every aspect of Cuban life in the course of the decade, asserts Fernando Martínez Heredia in the lead article of this issue of "La Gaceta de Cuba".

Entitled "In the Furnace of the 1990s — Relations between 'National' and 'Popular', "Martínez's essay argues that this renewed presence is due in part to the "disappearance of safeguards that used to dominate Cubans' spiritual world", a reference to the political and economic ties Cuba maintained for three decades with the regimes of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union leading up to 1990.

The decade opened with the disintegration of those regimes, which translated into the collapse of 85 percent of Cuba's foreign trade — much of it on terms favorable to Cuba — making working people in the island more vulnerable to the workings of the world capitalist market and its crisis.

The disappearance, virtually overnight, of most of Cuba's foreign trade — occurring as the world capitalist crisis intensified, and compounded by the ongoing economic warfare organized by Washington — led to the most severe economic crisis in Cuba since the 1959 revolutionary triumph. Through the efforts of Cuba's communist leadership and working people, however, by 1996 the decline in industrial and agricultural production had bottomed out. Shortages of food and other essentials, though still severe, began to ease.

These "new circumstances and relations in which Cuban society is immersed", the editors of La Gaceta explain, coupled with a perceived "weakening" of Cuba's "national 'popular' culture" have been at the center of "some of the most intense polemics on Cuban culture in the last few years".

"National identity", writes Martínez, "is the result of a slow and prolonged accumulation of features... taken from numerous ethnic groups, their clashes, their relations, their fusion". In the case of Cuba, national identity is also "the result... of profound political revolutions that violently changed" social relations.

The development of the Cuban nation and its culture is intimately linked to its "colonial and neocolonial" past and centuries of production, especially sugar production, based on slavery. "In many respects we are all 'blacks' or something inferior to foreigners — even those who perceive their own countrymen as 'blacks' or inferior", notes Martínez.

This must be understood, he argues, because the weakening of Cuba's popular culture is rooted in the fact that "broad layers who have attained 'progress' as society perceives it", arrogantly dismiss popular culture as "pre-modern".

He sees the attitude by such layers as reflecting capitalism's ideological onslaught to "homogenize" culture worldwide, in an attempt to "neutralize, harness, and manipulate humanity's potential for rebelling as embodied in its advances, such as the growing tolerance in matters of politics, ethnicity, race, gender, and so on... Its rejection of poverty as a social, not a natural fact".

The role of the masses since 1959

Martínez calls especial attention to the watershed marked by the 1959 "socialist revolution of national liberation". Led by the Rebel Army, headed by Fidel Castro, "The masses of the oppressed broke free and multiplied their capacities to change society and themselves", he notes. "For years that liberating impulse has marched side by side with the revolutionary [state] power. This unity managed to knock down the limits of what is possible, and set out to change history".

During the UNEAC congress last November, President Fidel Castro recalled, "In Cuba we had to create a new culture, beginning with political culture — a different one from the culture of exploitation of man by man, of imperialist domination". He added, "if you want to make a revolution, if you want to change the existing economic and social order for an order based on equality and justice, you have to begin by changing the old culture of that society in many, many ways".

The accomplishments of Cuba's socialist revolution pointed a road forward for the masses of the oppressed in Latin America, thus raising the stakes for the ruling rich of the Americas, especially in the United States, to get rid of the threat posed by the Cuban example.

Soon after the workers' and peasants' victory, Washington set out to try and reverse the revolutionary course Cuba had embarked on. Such was the drive by Cuban toilers to defend their conquests, Martínez writes, that for nearly three decades the fight for socialism became practically indistinguishable from the development of Cuba's national identity.

Although filled with contradictions — resulting primarily from the spread of planning and economic management policies copied from eastern Europe and the Soviet Union — the 1970s were marked by a broad consensus among the Cuban people in support of the revolution, Martínez adds. But along with the consensus came a "bureaucratized ideology", he says, which not only assumed the right to decide what socialism was, but also became "the supreme bestower of grades, awards and punishments". It sought to exercise the same role on the cultural plane.

Martínez explains that a zeal similar to the one applied in the defense of the revolution during the 1960s, came into play on the cultural plane in the 1970s. In this stage "the national identity functioned as a defensive wall against 'actually existing socialism'".

In the mid-1980s a fight was initiated in Cuba to move away from the bureaucratic policies that had become increasingly dominant for nearly a decade. At its height, the rectification process — as this battle came to be known — took on the character of a growing social movement led by Cuba's most conscious and disciplined working people. As the economic and political crisis accelerated from 1990 on, many of the special measures associated with rectification, such as the spread of volunteer work brigades to build badly needed housing, had to be set aside.

The country's forced immersion into and greater subjugation to the workings of the capitalist world market in the 1990s, has resulted in a sharpening economic and social differentiation in Cuba creating a "dislocation between what is Cuban and socialism", Martínez underlines. Layers in Cuba that defend "the market, the drive for profit, individualism, and selfishness... are attempting to gain ground".

For those forces to succeed, however, Martínez argues, they would have to uproot "fundamental elements of Cuba's break with capitalist domination, and deeds and values" conquered since the triumph of the revolution.

Slavery has marked our culture

"In the course of our history nothing has marked our culture... more than slavery", underscores Joel James Figarola in his article, "Into the Depths of Cuba, and Popular Religions". Slavery permeated the whole of society, Figarola remarks. "In Cuba everyone owned slaves... Slaves were owned by whites, mulattos, blacks, and Chinese, as well as by artisans, peasants, laymen, clerics, masons, and members of the abakuá", the latter being secret societies formed originally by freed black men in Cuba.

As testimony to the political and cultural ground broken by the revolution, the abakuá societies' first national convention took place in May 1960. As regards Chinese, they were brought to Cuba as indentured servants at a rate similar to that of black slaves during the nineteenth century. Between 1853 and 1874, for instance, 150,000 were brought into the island.

The pervasiveness of these social conditions became a decisive factor, Figarola argues, that linked Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain with the struggle to abolish slavery. Even a New York Times correspondent noted at the time that in the Cuban Army of Liberation: "All regiments were made up of men of any and all colors... there was no regiment reserved for whites or blacks". Some even estimate blacks provided the majority of the army fighting for independence.

Although slavery can be legally eliminated, Figarola adds, its legacy, perpetuated by capitalism and the presence of the world market, "can continue to exist... in the minds of people for a long time afterward", manifesting itself in many ways.

He points to the precarious conditions many blacks live under, and "certain forms of racism that we, regretfully, are seeing reappear" in Cuba today. These include a racial "imbalance prevailing throughout our entire educational system", and the lack of serious studies that would help get at the root of other social questions, including the reasons for the disproportionate number of blacks in Cuban jails.

Reconquering blacks' role in history

A particularly interesting article in the issue deals with little known facts surrounding the Spanish colonial regime's killing of eight medical students accused of desecrating the grave of a Spanish journalist known for his allegiance to the colonial regime. The execution of the students "was certainly not the only 'historical event' that occurred November 27, 1871", writes Tato Quiñones. His article examines the way the revolutionary heritage involving blacks has often been overlooked or deliberately ignored.

In reviewing a hidden chapter of the otherwise well-known historical event that took place in the context of the first war of independence (1868-78), Quiñones goes back to quote a speech by Ernesto Che Guevara, the Argentine-born leader of the Cuban revolution, on the 90th anniversary of this event: "At the time, it wasn't just the blood of the students that was shed. I'll give you an underrated piece of news, one that even today is relegated to the background because it was of no significance for anyone else: The records show the bodies of five blacks killed by shotguns and bayonets".

Five black men — at least two of whom were members of abakuá societies — were killed while attempting to rescue the students facing the firing squad. While the execution of the students has gone down as an important piece of Cuba's history and is commemorated each year, no similar tribute is paid to the black martyrs.

This legacy, Quiñones writes, had been preserved orally by members of the abakuá. He includes excerpts of abakuá archival documents that back up its oral traditions. He remarks even more on the role of those traditions by drawing on a similar example involving General Antonio Maceo's 1893 underground visit to Havana. The abakuá provided Maceo, one the central leaders of Cuba's wars of independence, "with a safehouse near the harbor, in the area of San Isidro, from which Maceo communicated" with other independence fighters.

Intertwined with the confidence born of the renewed fight against the legacy of racism — along with gains made by women — is the tendency to engage similar battles on other fronts. A couple of articles in "La Gaceta", for instance, take up the greater tolerance perceived in Cuba today in regards to sexual orientation, and also address remaining challenges, including recognition of the need to combat prejudices against homosexuals.

Reflecting Cuban society, "Cuban cinema has addressed various problems faced by women", Mirtha Ibarra tells Mario Vizcaíno in an interview in the September-October issue. However, she adds, homosexuality "has been taboo, so I thought that addressing it was exactly the right thing to do".

Ibarra is best known for her leading roles in numerous films directed by her late companion and collaborator Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, including Hasta cierto punto (Up to a point), and most recently Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and chocolate) and Guantanamera.

"I wanted to speak about things I had kept inside of me for a long time", said Ibarra as she went over her script of Eramos tan vírgenes (We were so virgin). In it she tells the story of a lesbian writer who, after 30 years, returns to the island full of expectations, Ibarra's allegory to the question of gays in Cuba today. "As part of the generation of the 1960s... I felt an obligation" to address this question, she says.

This issue of La Gaceta de Cuba is precisely what its cover says: a "glance" at the way these and other questions are being addressed in Cuba today. It is also an expression of the confidence gained by Cuban working people to take on these issues, a confidence born of their capacity to overcome the worst of the economic crisis as they did earlier in the decade.

In the face of a deepening capitalist crisis — and its accompanying onslaught on the toilers, and on their culture of resistance worldwide — the capacity shown over four decades by Cuba's workers and peasants to struggle and win, Fernando Martínez writes, continues to represent "the example" for the oppressed the world over.

If that capacity is coupled with an effort to lead society "to look truthfully and without prevarications deep into its own bosom", Martínez concludes, one can envision the "extraordinary force" the Cuban revolution can rely upon to wage the fight to eliminate racial discrimination as well as any other challenges before it.

From: The Militant, Vol. 63, no. 13, 5 April 1999

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