The first episode offered some promise. The second left me completely unsatisfied.
I just sat through an hour of the second part of PBS‘ Black in Latin America documentary series, hosted by Henry Louis Gates. It was supposed to document how the Cuban Revolution of 1959 affected race relations on an island that has had a tumultuous history with its own identity.
Instead, I got a whole lot of pap about cultural phenomena I already knew about, and very little information on what I wanted to know.
I will grant Dr. Gates one handicap: since he was filming directly in Cuba, there is little doubt the authorities were controlling his footage. There was little chance he was going to capture–nor did he seem to want to capture–the real essence of Cuban society today. If you wanted to get a snapshot of the Afro-Cuban experience before 1959, this was a good start. Then again, most of it wasn’t new to me.
Cuba had been a port of entry for African slaves since the 17th century, although the brunt of Cuban slavery would come in the late 18th and early 19th century, as the island surpassed Haiti as the main supplier of sugar in the Caribbean. Slavery was abolished late, in 1886, and independence would come after two long wars and a stifling US intervention (1870s-1902). During that time, the plantation economy translated into society as well, as a caste system kept African culture in the background.
In the 1920s, Cuba began to accept its African heritage, first among intellectuals and then among the populace through music such as son–the forerunner of mambo and other Latin musical forms. Yet society, the economy and the government had grown largely segregated, in the typical pattern: whites had a lot, blacks not so much.
Then came a bunch of white guys–two of them really white (one had a Spaniard father and one was a quarter Irish)–who decided to start a revolution.
It took 40 minutes of a one-hour program to finally get to the good stuff–you can guess how well it was covered.
Since 1959, the Cuban government under the Castros, Fidel and Raul, had declared racism to be non-existent in revolutionary Cuba. On paper, at least, there was no distinction between white and black for housing, jobs, education, health care, etc. Gates interviewed two Afro-Cuban participants in the Revolution who lauded its egalitarian spirit with regards to education and health care. To be sure, these are advances (though possibly superficial, as I implied in my earlier study of Cuba) would make any Cuban proud, especially those of color who were on the outside looking in.
Today’s Cuba, where tourism and the “double currency” of the CUC and the Peso Nacional rule the roost, has caused a re-emergence of latent racist tendencies that are supposedly “illegal”, since even acknowledgement of racism in Cuba is seen as counterrevolutionary. Gates interviews young artists and musicians who are trying to bring these concerns to the Cuban public. The tourism industry, they acknowledge, has pushed darked Cubans back into the background. Furthermore, the double currency creates a rift between state workers and those in tourism,who often make up to 20 times more.
I could have told you this in my travelogues on Cuba.
So why was I unsatisfied? Apart from social programs to lift up the Cuban masses, Gates did not address the one issue I had with the Revolution: how “white” is the ruling elite of Cuba now?
Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos: the main actors of Cuban revolutionary history were as white as Robert E. Lee. Have any blacks come anywhere close to such positions of power and influence? In the 53 years since the triumphal march into Havana, how many blacks have sat on the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party? How many have sat in the Congress of People’s Power, the rubber-stamp legislature? How many sit on the Council of Ministers? Are there any black Cubans in real positions of power in government, in state industries, in diplomacy, or in the armed forces?
In short, how far down the totem pole do we have to go from Fidel and Raul to find a powerful, influential Cuban of color?
As much as the rhetoric says so, there clearly still are haves and have-nots in Cuba. Gates seemed so caught up in the rah-rah of the social agenda that he neglected to investigate whether a black person in Cuba had any chance of real political or economic power.
Maybe it was too sensitive a topic to fly in the face of Cuban censors. To have Cubans acknowledge a lack of blacks in power, especially on record, is tantamount to admission of racism, which leads to charges of treason and all the fun activities that come with it. At the very least, he showcased a black commander in the armed forces and discussed the “whitewashing” of independence hero Antonio Maceo (Did they tell you about the reason his statue’s turned around, Skip?).
Nonetheless, in a place where power is paramount–especially political and military power–to not research African entry into the machinations of the revolutionary state is a grave omission on Gates’ part.
Next week, Gates will be covering the African experience in Brazil. Although he gets only an hour, I sincerely hope it’s a more prudent use of time.