Life in a Polyrhythmic, Insurgently Evolving Cuba

Conor Tomás Reed May 19, 2015

HAVANA, CUBA — In El Callejón de Hamel, a dazzling alleyway in Central Havana, rumba musicians have performed every Sunday for more than two decades. When I approached it one afternoon in early March, the walls were festooned with Salvador Gonzáles Escalona’s intricate paintings and phrases inspired by the spiritual traditions of Santería and Abakuá, whose African roots predate slavery. Rusty steampunk sculptures hung from various ledges. At the center, about 10 women churned like an engine of sound and motion — drums, dancing, singing — encircled by an audience of 100 people. Half those present were tourists — many of whom stood eerily frozen in place — while the other half were Afro-Cubans, mostly younger folks, but also families and couples, who sang along, bobbed shoulders and waists and at times even dove inside to perform.

At one point, an old man in an aquamarine suit announced that one of the event’s founders had recently died, and so in 10 minutes everyone needed to go out to the street to pay their respects. As we exited the alleyway, a hearse drove up and parked in the middle of the road, at which point most of the tourists left. The drummers and singers resumed playing, we made an oval shape around the hearse and some tossed small offerings on top of its roof, already covered in wreaths of flowers.

A young man in chic green clothes and sunglasses suddenly appeared with two woven palm fronds, and proceeded to ease them over his head and shoulders and down his side in languid swoops, and then more quickly whip them outwards and away. The heat crackled, voices and drums merged, and the hearse began to move forward in a procession that stopped traffic for several blocks. It was a vibrant, polyrhythmic, insurgently evolving Cuba that exists outside the conventional images of the Right and the Left. While this was the only unsanctioned street demonstration I witnessed during my two-month stay in Cuba, it was the spirit of moments like these that I repeatedly sought out.

•   •   •

In late January 2015, fueled by mass street actions for Black lives that shut down almost every bridge, highway, and commercial center in New York City, I traveled to Cuba with my partner to learn where its own revolution stood. My partner led her college’s Cuban academic exchange program, while I studied the country’s system of popular education and researched a 1930 visit to the island by the Spanish writer Federico García Lorca. About a month beforehand, the United States and Cuba had announced they would re-establish diplomatic and economic relations for the first time in more than half a century.

The impressions that Cubans craft for tourists who visit the island for a week or two represent a familiar Cubanidad: mid-century automobiles, cigars, rum, rice and beans, revolutionary billboards, endless Che and Fidel souvenirs. If visitors go via a Cuban state-sponsored “educational tour,” their destinations are carefully vetted to ensure a favorable trip that features little interaction with the majority of Cubans who are not involved in the tourist economy. My intention was quite different. I came to assess how left-of-state Cuban activists — especially queer, trans* and feminist Afro-Cubans of various radical stripes build independent social power from below that critiques the government while furthering the 1959 revolution’s directions.

During my first few weeks in Havana, I became immersed in the whirlwind of cultural activities: dozens of museums, cultural and historical centers, festivals, park shenanigans, movie theaters, underground events shared by word-of-mouth. At Casa de las Americas, Havana’s premier cultural center, rooms were packed with people listening to discussions on a wide variety of topics.

At an evening LGBT-of-color poetry slam and party hosted by Proyecto Arcoiris, an anti-capitalist queer collective, I met cultural activists, popular educators, multilingual translators and a sizeable crew of South African students who are studying medicine for free in Cuba.

While the government keeps a wary eye on religious institutions and practices, Santería customs are woven into daily life — people lay out such offerings as stones, flowers, food, liquors and headless chickens at the base of ceiba and banyan trees, and wrapped candies are scattered at street intersections for the child orisha Elegguá. Men and women Santería initiates wear all white. Music and politics are infused with multiple layers of cosmological empowerment, and people regularly refer to orishas in their interpretations of events and decisions. Meanwhile, male revolutionary heroes — foremost Fidel and Che — are ubiquitously present in statues, billboards, murals, tourist wares, bookstall selections and street and plaza names. Monuments can also be found around Havana honoring fallen Irish hunger strikers, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, while a general awareness of past Third World liberation movements resides on the surface of the cityscape.

Since the mid-1990s Cuba has had two currencies, the regular Cuban peso and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), which is pegged to the dollar and worth 25 times as much as the local currency. A meal that costs 5 CUC may be affordable for tourists and Cubans who receive remittances from relatives abroad, but it is a sizeable chunk of a working-class Cuban’s 20-30CUC monthly salary, which is supplemented by ration books. The scarcity of basic items is an intractable reality. For instance, potatoes had been absent for several weeks, and thousands of people lined up around the city to buy them upon their return. Internet access is very limited, slow and expensive, so information is exchanged mostly by word of mouth, phone, radio and TV. An off-line data-sharing system via hard drives and thumb drives, the paquete, circulates most media on the island.

•   •   •

In mid-February, the Feria Internacional del Libro (International Book Fair) animated the city for a week and a half. Mainly situated at the Cabaña — an old colonial military outpost that used to house prisoners under both Batista and Fidel — the fair gathered thousands of participants. In a country with an almost 100 percent literacy rate achieved through a post-revolution campaign that brought waves of young teachers from cities into rural areas across the island, books and popular education are considered as crucial as bread. Therefore, book publishing is a big deal in Cuba, although book circulation is a different story — some titles are intentionally under-printed because of “ideological concerns.” Leonardo Padura’s El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs), an epic novel about the life and assassination of Leon Trotsky, was conspicuously difficult to find soon after its 2012 publication. Even so, people buy multiple copies at book launches for fear of small print runs — or, perhaps, with the hope of reselling them later at higher prices — and seek certain tomes like holy grails.

•   •   •

Almost a month into my stay, I became more attuned to Habana’s various armarios (closets), which is tricky because youth culture initially appears to be super queer — snug, colorful, punk witchy clothing, fluid presentations of sexualities and genders, with well-known Cuban films like Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) from 1993 and this year’s Vestido de Novia (Wedding Dress) animating public dialogue. The National Center for Sex Education, led by Mariela Castro, daughter of President Raul Castro, focuses on LGBT issues and implicitly aims to redress the past wrongdoings of homosexual “re-education” camps that briefly appeared in the Revolution’s early days. Yet, queer Cuban activists of color who engage with U.S. scholarship and movements are occasionally derided for sympathizing with “Yankee” analyses, resulting in a kind of self-imposed “embargo of the mind.”

Many queer Havanans are still discreet — strategically self-protective — about their lives. LGBT parties are announced by word of mouth and guerrilla flyering, while some lovers maintain secret relationships by not publicly acknowledging each other on the street or by referring to each other as “cousins.” Exchanges of nuanced glances texture the famed Malecón shoreline, public transportation and food markets. Meanwhile, language play enacts the in-between “e” instead of the feminine “a” or masculine “o” to defamiliarize and reassign gendered words (amiges, novies, Habaneres, compañeres), and loving self-selected nicknames like pajaritas for gay men, transformades and curioses replace the once-ubiquitous catch-all slur maricón.

•   •   •

Cuba is undergoing a lively, hotly contested public debate about race and racism, with an intricate cultural tapestry that interweaves African, Spanish and Taino histories, as well as Chinese, English, Irish and Welsh encounters. On March 21, UNESCO’s International Day Against Racial Discrimination, a wide array of cultural centers, mainstream TV shows and community groups drew public attention to what is always under the surface of daily life. While the Jim Crow-style racism that existed before the Revolution has been officially abolished, schools, neighborhoods and municipal resources are separate and unequal. Black Cubans make up 34 to 68 percent of the country’s population (based on divergent ways that Cubans identify their heritages), but are 75 percent of the prison population, according to the Afro-Cuban advocacy group Cofradía de la Negritud. There exist no racial discrimination laws, affirmative action policies or “diversity” scholarships because racism is said to no longer exist. U.S. writings in English on colorblind racism are not yet translated for Cubans to consider how we confront discursive silencing. At the same time, left-of-state Afro-Cuban critiques on the limits of “inclusion” and quota policies offer useful lessons for U.S. racial justice movements to measure how institutionalized solutions can absorb and neutralize political demands for much deeper changes.


Upon returning to New York City and becoming immersed in a new round of street actions, citywide campaigns and popular education events, I’ve been reflecting on how interactions across revolutionary traditions can be further developed in New York City, and with Cuba. In the process, endless squabbles between radicals up north can be converted into more amply utilizing our organizing liberties. I recognize that my critical views are from only two months of experiences in Cuba, and that they could easily be subsumed within a much larger momentum of critiques that intend to overturn the revolutionary achievements that have been made in Cuba. I also worry about how “normalization between Cuba and the United States” may be manipulated in already imbalanced negotiations under the shadow of a shared colonial history, as small autonomous Cuban movements struggle to assert their own visions and demands. I hope we can push beyond “normal” to something much more humanizing and revolutionary. In this process, here are some lasting lessons I’ve nurtured back here at home:

In-person extended dialogues, preferably with food and drinks, create more clarity and trust than words on a page or screen. Social change is neither solely linguistics nor a hasty sprint.

More often than not we inhabit multilingual spaces — exercise this strength or it will wither.

Quantity is not quality. Organizing 30 actions in 30 days doesn’t necessarily bring more people into movement(s), map strategic escalations, intersect struggles or build long-term sustainable power across communities. Our imaginative horizon should never be the end of the month, let alone the end of the action.

The digital divide is a real local/transnational issue. Don’t equate political commitment with up-to-date knowledge or Facebook post counts when for some it takes a day to download an article and for others news is instantaneous. Keep this in mind when making website platforms, data-heavy action announcements and complicated networks.

Beware the seduction of state power from above. Those who marvel at the possibilities of Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos should consider how leftist movements that won state power in Chile, Congo, Cuba, Ghana, Nicaragua, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and many other countries struggled to realize their goals in the face of opposition from U.S.-led imperialism, were brutally ousted from power or slowly ossified into a version their earlier revolutionary selves would have abhorred. Movements that feature electoral or state-from-above seizure strategies will always come up against these contradictions. The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house, nor is the master’s house where we should demand to reside.

— Conor Tomás Reed

The government-sponsored Cuban press paid close attention to the Ferguson uprising and our nationwide actions against police brutality, but only to decry injustice in the U.S., not to make parallels with racially motivated stop-and-frisks, incarceration and repression in Cuba. Only a few comparative writings appeared, such as Roberto Zurbano’s call for internationalist antiracism in “Contra Ferguson.” Meanwhile, even though the Cuban government unequivocally supports the Palestinian struggle, Afro-Cubans who move from the eastern part of the island — what used to be called El Oriente — to Havana are derogatorily referred to as “Palestinos” because they’ve relocated with few resources, families in need and cultural modes intact. Moreover, the long history between Cuba and such Black and brown radicals as Amiri Baraka, Stokely Carmichael, C.L.R. James, Betita Martinez, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Alice Walker and Robert F. Williams has long served internationally as a screen for the government’s treatment of Afro-Cubans on the island.

Since the Cuban Revolution swept to power in 1959 — a major anti-colonial victory by students, urban clandestine supporters (many of them young women) and guerrilla fighters via boat and mountain who all overthrew a U.S.-backed dictatorship — it has been deeply bruised by the boot of the U.S. embargo; the fall of the Soviet Union, which provided billions of dollars per year in aid; mass economic crises and social dislocations; and enduring racism, sexism and heterosexism. As a result, the control of a closely guarded government machine can feel as anachronistic as the faded billboards and freshly painted murals extolling its virtues. However, Cubans do have access to free and excellent health care and education, as well as inexpensive food, housing, public transit and telephones. Cuba’s past support for Third World liberation struggles and its present-day policy of sending legions of its medical professionals to serve in some of the poorest corners of the planet have helped to forge deep relationships with African, Caribbean and Latin American nations for which Cuba is still a beacon of hope.

Meanwhile, a still-evolving revolution from below has been nurtured by relationships between people hustling by all means necessary to survive and thrive — word of mouth about where to find this or that item, sudden delight in a chance meeting on the street, delicious meals from few ingredients, rumba dance parties with ecstatic children, hushed lucid dialogues, metaphor-laden songs about how to make changes in “mi casa.” Still, left-of-state activists in such groups as Observatorio Critico, Proyecto Arcoiris and Motivitos confront a reality in which organizing a protest about anything without governmental approval — planting trees for environmental justice, cleaning up the Malecón shoreline, holding a kiss-in or otherwise independently creating solutions — can garner years in prison, which keeps these activists isolated from the general population. Nevertheless, it’s inspiring to see necessity bring together anarchists and Trotskyists inside/against/beyond a Stalinist-oriented Caribbean state. Informal dialogues between these small but vibrant networks weave together concrete responses to concrete realities, and in doing so they have taken on a life independent of familiar political discourses.

Conor Tomás Reed has been a student, teacher, archivist and activist in the City University of New York since 2006, a co-founding member of the Free University of New York City since 2012 and on the research council of Lost and Found: A CUNY Poetics Document Initiative since 2013. Michele Hardesty contributed to this article.


Queer Voices from Cuba
By Isbel Díaz Torres & Logbona Olukonee

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