New Books About Cuba
By: Robert Birnbaum
Source: The Morning News
June 9, 2009
Boston writer Roland Merullo, in Fidel’s Last Days (Shaye Areheart Books) takes on the amorphous period that marks the decline of Fidel and his cadre. There is a lot of spycraft and bureaucratic chicanery being employed by various government and non-government operatives, whose real allegiances (as the reader is no doubt supposed to question) may or may not provide dramatic tension. Former C.I.A. agent Carolina Perez is an interesting character—having given up a promising career to join the supeR -secret (and wealthy exile-sponsored) White Orchid in its mission to rid Cuba of Fidel. Across the straits, Carlos Gutierrez, minister of health and a member of Castro’s inner circle, is recruited to aid in Castro’s curtain call.
The Bacardi name, instantly recognizable as a brand, is also attached to a family with a rich Caribbean history—a century and a half of which is intimately entwined with the growth of a Cuban national identity. Professor Pérez, cited above, comments about Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause (Viking) by Tom Gjelten:
Contained within family genealogy are often found profound insights into the history of an entire people. The Bacardis represent one such family. Gjelten has fashioned a splendid prism through which to cast new light on the human dimensions of the Cuban past. The epochal transitions of Cuban national formation are experienced through successive generations of Bacardis, revealing the complex ways that a people are overtaken by the forces of their own creation. Anyone with an interest in Cuban history – and a fondness for Cuban rum – will find the Bacardi family history irresistible.
University of North Carolina mentor and scholar Louis A. Pérez, Jr. has created a singular oeuvre (On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture; The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography; Winds of Change: Hurricanes and the Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Cuba; To Die in Cuba: Suicide and Society) and his recent Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos (The University of North Carolina Press) “is in one sense a summation of his distinguished work over the past several decades,” as distinguished historian Walter LaFeber points out. He goes on to sagely assert: It is particularly significant because the U.S.-Cuban relationship is going to have to be fundamentally rethought and reshaped in the near future, and this work not only provides critical information, but also acts as a loud warning about how that debate must not be conducted. This is exactly the kind of book policymakers and the chattering classes ought to be reading—something beyond the ignorant regurgitations of past thinking.
Awareness of the mafia in Cuba (or at least in Havana) began with Coppola’s The Godfather, Sydney Pollack’s Havana, and the startling (well, to some people) revelations regarding the spy agency/mob attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. T.J. English’s Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba…and Then Lost It to the Revolution (William Morrow) is a sobering and compelling (considering the American love affair with its gangsters) account of the way American organized crime attached itself to Cuban society—documenting the machinations of Meyer Lansky and his cronies to gain control of Cuba’s sin industries.
Chicagoan and DePaul University mentor Achy Obejas (Days of Awe), whom Junot Díaz, with a small slight of hand, calls “one of the Cuba’s most important writers,” has a new novel, Ruins (Akashic Books), which deals with a concern that no doubt has confronted and continues to confront many Cubans—loyalty to the Revolution, its ideology and precepts, and the ongoing Cuban reality. The book’s main character, Usnavy, remains a good 26th July adherent from 1959 even beyond his best friend’s departure during the 1994 Mareil Boatlift. The discovery of the potential value of an oversized stained-glass lamp he inherited from his mother puts his dismal but well-ordered life into disarray.
By now, the presence of pre-’60s American cars is very much a part of the picture of present-day Cuba. Not quite preserved in amber (no American auto parts have made it to the island for half a century), about 60,000 cars are kept rolling with bailing wire, chewing gum, ingenuity, and the waving of chicken claws. Barcelona based journalist Richard Schweid traveled the island creating an auto-centric account of Cuban life in Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba (The University of North Carolina Press). Not quite as interesting as Carlo Gebler’s Driving Through Cuba: Rare Encounters in the Land of Sugar Cane and Revolution (the Irish writer’s hunt for a 1959 Coup deVille Brougham), but packed with anecdotes and everyday life moments. By the way, the title refers to the claim that Fidel rode to the embattled Bay of Pigs in an Oldsmobile.
Cuban (and Cuban-born) literary scholar Eduardo R. del Rio interviewed a dozen Cuban-American writers (all born in Cuba) to investigate their commonality in One Island, Many Voices: Conversations With Cuban-American Writers (University of Arizona Press). He spoke with Nilo Cruz, Roberto Fernández, Cristina García, Carolina Hospital, Eduardo Machado, Dionisio Martínez, Pablo Medina, Achy Obejas, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Dolores Prida, and Virgil Suarez—but as the title of this anthology indicates, commonality was not the case. He concludes:
What strikes me most is how unique each of them is. At first this seems like a trivial, inconsequential observation. However, when I consider my mission was to collect a group of ‘similar’ writers, all of whom left Cuba as children or young adults, their divergence forces me to examine the issue more closely.
Happily, del Rio’s mission is ambient to the good stories and vivid voices encapsulated in this collection.
Finally, in addition to Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, here are five essential books about Cuba.
Cuba: Or the Pursuit of Freedom (Da Capo Press) by master historian Hugh Thomas is the original comprehensive survey of Cuban history from pre-Columbian innocence to Spanish conquest to American annexation to the revolutionary present.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante was the quintessential Cuban man of letters and his Mea Cuba (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), a collection of prose miscellany, showcases his wry wit, penchant for puns, and encyclopedic overview of Cuban literary culture.
Many writers have attempted to write the Cuban-American exile story; with Los Gusanos (HarperCollins), gringo John Sayles lays out a compelling tale as illuminating as any documentary on Cuban-American relations during Fidel’s tenure.
Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria’s The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (Oxford University Press) among other things dispenses with the myth that Castro was scouted by the U.S. major leagues and was signed…well, you can guess the rest. Echevarria also does well to restore dignity to Caribbean and Cuban beisbol that suffers at the hands of other nasty yanqui habits and attitudes.
Texan musician Ned Sublette, founder of Qbadisc records, taps his unparalleled knowledge of Cuban culture and music to provide the informed and impassioned history Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press). P.S.: A second volume is forthcoming.
By: Jason Smith
May 1, 2003
Cuba: Picturing Change. By E. Wright Ledbetter, with essays by Louis A. Pérez, Jr., and Ambrosio Fornet. University of New Mexico Press, 216 pages, $39.95.
The boy flies. His body not quite horizontal, his arms thrust out and back. All we get in this silhouette is the white of one upturned palm, the soles of his feet, the pocket lining of his swimming trunks. Behind is the coastline of Havana, running from the boy’s head down his spine and then out of the shot; below is the sea. The boy is no longer leaping — rotate him just a quarter turn counterclockwise and he’s standing on tiptoe, maybe at the water’s edge — but he isn’t diving yet, either. He simply flies, lingering over an ocean that, for better or worse, holds his future.
The boy is Cuban, and in some ways, Cuba. This photograph, writes renowned Cuban author and screenwriter Ambrosio Fornet, is a metaphor for a moment of transition: “what hangs in the void like a giant question mark is Cuba’s immediate fate.” It’s the cover of Cuba: Picturing Change, a book of E. Wright Ledbetter’s large-format photography with essays by Fornet and Louis Pérez, Jr., professor of history at Carolina.
These are not the bright images of cozy architectural decay and dashingly mended old American cars one expects in photographs of Cuba. Ledbetter turns his lens to Cuba’s people, who shine through his stark blacks and whites. A boy spins a top on his palm. Children line up for a slide. A dog waits on the street corner. Men play dominoes. A rabbi looks up from his desk.
“In this work I have tried to examine the compassion and sense of hope of the Cuban people,” Ledbetter writes. “I have tried to portray the determined rhythms of the Cuban culture, where we may see joy, peace, and individual strength, but where we may also find insecurity, uncertainty, and vulnerability. I believe — and a number of these photographs reflect this — that Cuba is on the verge of a new ‘revolution,’ and barring substantial political and economic reforms, the Cuban people will be mostly subject to, rather than a part of, any changes that may ultimately occur.”
Change is embedded in the condition of being Cuban,” Pérez writes. Those changes can come in the form of natural forces such as hurricanes, or market forces — “where the fluctuation in the world price of sugar by a mere penny or two signaled the difference between dazzling prosperity and abject poverty.”
Ledbetter’s photos, writes Pérez, suggest the vitality of a people and place in a time of transition. “These are ordinary people during extraordinary times,” Pérez writes, “without illusions, without self-deception, but always with self-possession, focused on change and the future — again.”
Biography of a Runaway Slave
By: Miguel Barnet
THE LITERARY WORK
A biography of Esteban Montejo set in Cuba from his birth in 1860 to the turn of the century; published in Spanish (as Biografía de un cimarrón) in 1966, in English in 1968 under the title Autobiography of a Runaway Slave, and in 1994 as Biography of a Runaway Steve
Written by Barnet in the first-person voice of Montejo, the biography recounts Montejo’s life as a slave, runaway, plantation worker, and rebel soldier in the Cuban War of Independence.
Miguel Barnet was born in 1940 and raised in Havana, Cuba. In the late 1950s he became interested in Afro-Cuban religion and trained as a folklorist under the direction of Fernando Ortiz, a pioneer in the study of Afro-Cuban culture. The Cuban Revolution (1959) had a tremendous impact on Barnet’s life and outlook, and fueled his passion to learn about the people of Cuba. In 1963 he first heard of Esteban Montejo, who was then 103 years old. Interviews with the former slave and runaway evolved into Biography of a Runaway Slave, which is considered the first Latin American testimonial novel. Barnet has continued to experiment with this form in La Canción de Rachel (1969) and Gallego (1981). Although his international reputation rests on his testimonial novels, his poetry has won Cuban and international awards.
Events in History at the Time the Biography Takes Place
Sugar is made out of blood
Sugar has held paramount importance in Cuba’s economy and society since the nineteenth century, during which sugar plantations expanded considerably in size and number. By the 1860s so much land and energy were devoted to sugarcane that the colony—Spain’s last major possession in Latin America—had to import food from Spain, the United States, and elsewhere. Cuba depended greatly upon the success of the sugarcane harvest, and on the labor of slaves in the cane fields and sugar mills.
Working on the sugar plantations, the slaves cleared virgin forest, planted the sugarcane, and harvested it. White overseers directed the work, often resorting to violent punishments to discipline the slaves, including public whippings and shacklings and even murder if the slaves resisted. The hardest season for the slaves was the harvest, which lasted for six months and demanded as many as 20 hours a day of labor in the fields.
Sugarcane had to be processed in the plantation’s mill, or trapiche. Directed by a white overseer (at times an American or Englishman), called the “sugarmaster,” slaves transformed the cane—by crushing, boiling, crystallizing, and draining it—into cane syrup, muscovado (unrefined sugar), molasses, and white sugar. Work in the sugar mills, though less arduous than in the fields, was still backbreaking, and fatal accidents with machinery were not uncommon. Beginning in the 1850s the increasing use of centrifuges allowed dry white sugar to be separated easily from the muscovado. Improvements in machinery throughout the nineteenth century allowed larger and larger mills to operate. The slaves continued to fill unskilled positions; blacks, it was believed, did not have the intelligence to direct the extraction process or handle the steam engines used in the mill.
The planter, or owner of the plantation, rarely appeared in the mill or the fields. Many did not even live on the plantation, but resided in the capital, Havana, or in another city or town. Occupying the upper echelons of Cuban society, the planters consisted of two groups: they were either members of oligarchic and interrelated families that had been in Cuba since before the nineteenth century, or self-made immigrant men from Spain and elsewhere in Europe. The established families tended to be old-fashioned and slow to change, in contrast to the immigrants, who spearheaded the mechanical innovations in sugar production.
In the nineteenth century increasing numbers of African slaves entered Cuba. The expansion of the sugar plantations generated a growing need for field hands that the existing slave population could not meet. There was a low rate of childbirth among these slaves, explainable by the fact that more male slaves had been brought over than female because women were considered inferior for sugarcane labor. The infant mortality rate and the death rate from accident, overwork, or epidemic were also high. Other factors contributed to the decrease in the domestic slave population, too. Cuban slaves could purchase their own freedom, and many took the less costly course of simply running away. A typical sugar plantation had to replace 8 to 10 percent of its slaves annually.
Whereas in the United States the slave population expanded steadily over several generations, in Cuba slaves arrived in huge numbers during a short span of time. This explains why in 1870, during the time of the biography, as many as 75 percent of slaves in Cuba had been born in Africa. Most of these people came from the Atlantic coast of Africa, where they lived in nations that were broadly defined by ethnicity, culture, or geography. The two largest nations were the Lucumi (Yoruba) and the Congo (people from the Congo River area). Some of the smaller nations included the Carabali, the Fanti, and the Ebros. Once in Cuba the slaves became homogenized into large categories. It was common practice for whites and blacks in Cuba to stereotype slaves and free blacks according to their nation. For example, Congos were said to be short, Carabali proud, and Lucumi industrious.
Slaves lived in barracoons, small, hot, cramped quarters that had only one entrance, which was locked at night. With only a small hole or barred window for air, the rooms grew stiflingly hot. Fleas and ticks were a constant nuisance in the barracoons, whose conditions incubated disease and ill health. Next to their quarters, slaves grew small fruit and vegetable gardens to supplement their monotonous diet of beans, rice, and beef jerky.
Children began working at five or six years old. They progressed from chores around the mill and fields to full-time labor in the fields before they were teenagers. Some children were trained to become servants and nurses in the owner’s house. As in other slave societies, the easier life indoors caused envy and distrust between the household servants and field hands.
Slaves sustained much of their former African culture in Cuba. Food, games, language, music, divination, magic, and religion from many regions of Africa continued and merged with one another and with European cultural forms in Cuba. In contrast to the whites, who mostly imported their culture wholesale from Europe, the slaves fused or syncretized African and European sources to develop their own spiritual and material dimensions of life, which helped to sustain them under the brutality of slavery.
Santería, a Yoruba-derived religion that mixed African and European sources and remained hidden from the surface of the society, is a case in point. Lucumi slaves brought the worship of or-ishas, or African gods, to Cuba. There the orishas acquired the names and likenesses of Catholic saints, since the colonial authorities would not permit the open worship of African deities. For example, slaves fused or syncretized Oshún, the Yoruba divinity that controls love, marriage, and children, with Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre, the Catholic patron saint of Cuba. Oshún’s love of copper facilitated her syncretization with this Virgin of Copper (the Spanish word cobre means “copper”). The island’s resources prompted modifications, too. Coconuts became the symbols of the orisha, replacing the kola nut used in Africa.
Although they were expected to be baptized and to convert to the Catholic faith, most rural slaves had very limited contact with the Church beyond a rudimentary baptism, which meant little to the participants besides payment to the officiating priest. Barnet explains that “the plantation bell calling [the slave] to the implacable chores of the day had much greater significance than the bell on the chapel; the work-bell was resonant and cruel, the worship-bell dull and hollow” (Barnet, “The Culture that Sugar Created,” p. 43). In contrast, the continuing belief in African gods brought solace and meaning to the slaves’ lives.
The santeros, or Santería priests, worshiped their gods under the gaze of plantation overseers, the Catholic Church, and other authorities by keeping secret the African identity of the saint to which they ostensibly prayed. At fiestas for a certain Catholic saint, the blacks joined the parades and celebrations that outwardly expressed their devotion to the saint, and held their own separate and private celebrations for their version of the saint. In the cities, cabildos, or fraternal clubs of blacks and mulattos, were important incubators of Santería and Afro-Cuban culture. The practice of Santería and other African lore became a badge of identity that distinguished its practitioners from Cuba’s Spaniards, Creoles, and Chinese.
Although Santería and other African cultural expressions began exclusively with blacks, elements of this culture spread throughout Cuba among the lower classes of all colors. White overseers learned some aspects of Afro-Cuban belief and culture through their black mistresses and through daily contact with slaves. White children reared by black and mulatto nurses were taught African-derived beliefs while still in the cradle. Yet, because of class consciousness and racism, upper-class and, later, middle-class Cubans did their best to reject or ignore the African roots of Cuban society.
The end of slavery
On August 26, 1833, Great Britain passed the Emancipation Act, abolishing slavery in all British lands, including colonies; for humanitarian reasons and to protect their economic interests in the West Indies, the English pressured Spain to abolish slavery in Cuba. If abolition were achieved, Cuba’s industries would not have an unfair economic advantage. Planters, of course, felt threatened by the prospect of abolition since this would seriously cut into their efficiency and profits. Neither the poor white farmers, called guajiros, nor the significant number of free blacks and mulattos on the island would deign to do the work of the slaves in the cane fields, preferring starvation to such labor. The planters feared that without slavery there would not be enough workers to harvest the sugarcane. A failed harvest would devastate them economically. The Spanish authorities exploited the planters’ fear by threatening to free the slaves if the planters agitated for independence. The worldwide pressure to end the slave trade ironically prompted one of the largest importations of slaves ever into Cuba: between 1856 and 1860 some 90,000 African slaves were brought.
As Chinese-Cuban Population Dwindles, Traditions Die
By: Carrie Stetler
October 18, 2013
Kathy López grew up in Miami, a city filled with Cuban immigrants. But it wasn’t until graduate school that Lopez, a Rutgers history professor, first heard of Chinese Cubans, or “Chinos Cubanos,’’ as they’re known.
Their history was much different than her own, but it struck a chord with Lopez, who is half Puerto Rican and half Irish. “Some of my interest stems from being of a mixed ethnic background myself,’’ says Lopez, who recently published Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History. (University of North Carolina Press, 2013)
Although only about 150 native Chinese live in Cuba today, in the mid-1800s, there were more than 100,000, nearly all of them men. They were brought to Cuba as indentured laborers, enticed by worthless contracts that promised them freedom after eight years. Many died on sugar plantations not long after arriving. But the Chinese eventually became part of the nation’s fabric, commended by José Martí and Fidel Castro for fighting against colonialism in the Cuban independence wars, and later, in the Cuban Revolution.
Today, their population has shrunk dramatically because of the high rate of intermarriage and restrictions on immigration under Castro. But despite their small numbers, and their history of hardship, Chinese Cubans thrived for many years and left their mark on Cuban culture.
“The story of the Chinese in Cuba is really a story about adaptation and resilience,” says Lopez, who teaches in the Department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies and the Department of History, School of Arts and Sciences. “Chinese have been central not only to Cuban history, but to the history of the Americas. They can help us understand the linkages among race, labor and citizenship in the era after slavery and beyond.”
The Chinese presence in Cuba began in the 19th century, when recruiters went to port cities like Hong Kong and Macao, coercing men to sign contracts to work for minimal wages in exchange for eventual freedom. They functioned as a sort of supplement to slave labor, augmenting the African slave population that already existed in the country.
“Some of the men were outright kidnapped,’’ says Lopez. “Some were told they were going to San Francisco.’’
In Cuba, they were known as “coolies,’’ a derogatory term for indentured Chinese laborers. “They were treated as badly as slaves,’’ she says.
But although there were sporadic waves of anti-Chinese sentiment over the next several decades, the Chinese in Cuba didn’t engender the same degree of racial animosity encountered by Chinese in other countries. Their support for Cuban independence during the Spanish-American War and the Cuban revolution was one reason. “It’s something Cubans grow up hearing about. As time went by, they were treated as Cubans,’’ says Lopez. Many indentured laborers who earned their freedom remained in Cuba. “Most had been promised return passage to China when they were indentured and never got it,‘‘ she says.
In Cuba, when the Chinese gained their independence from bondage, they opened small businesses, including fruit and vegetable stands, laundromats and cafeterias that served Cuban food with a Chinese twist, such as fried rice. Many married local women, especially Afro-Cubans, and assimilated further into Cuban culture.
“I think the most interesting thing about the Chinese experience in Cuba is the high degree of interracial marriages and children of mixed descent,’’ says Lopez.
After the Communist revolution, many middle-class Chinese Cubans fled the country, along with other Cubans. Some moved to Cuban-American enclaves in Bergen County, where they still live. But in Cuba, there are so few Chinese-Cubans many refer to “a Chinatown without Chinese,’’ says Lopez.
The century-old Chinese newspaper press in Havana has closed because the 80-year-old editor was one of only a handful of people in the city who knew traditional Chinese characters and could operate the complex machinery. The Chinese, however, have made more lasting contributions to Cuban culture. The “corneta china,’’ a reed instrument introduced by the Chinese, is a central part of Cuban music, says Lopez.
Chinese opera became popular after Chinese-Cuban girls learned to perform it – despite the fact that they didn’t speak Chinese. And there are still strong efforts to preserve Chinese Cuban culture and pass it down to younger generations. “It’s the Chinese of mixed descent who are at the forefront of these revitalization efforts and who have also embarked on journeys to explore their ancestry,’’ she says.
*For more Cuban literature, check out other works from José Lezama Lima, Alejo Carpentier, Reinaldo Arenas, Guillermo Cabrera Infante.