(1) If Betsy DeVos met Ena Elsa Velázquez; (by Ru Dawley-Carr and Denise Blum)
Cuban Minister of Education Dr. Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella takes a break from her office at a new wiki hotspot in some unidentified park in Vedado. Drops of sweat slide down her back. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is on her phone in D.C. An AC unit, turned to 62º F, blasts the Emma Thompson smile off her face. In a gesture of goodwill—or simply to be facetious—Dr. Velázquez has reached out on Whatsapp. DeVos, feeling strong and swollen with cold air, Whatsapps back, and the two women discuss education today and what it means to be a national figurehead. What follows is a transcript of their “would be” conversation.
Dr. Velázquez: Ms. DeVos, I want to congratulate you on your successful nomination. ¡Qué complicado!—the final weeks were tense!
Ms. DeVos: Thank you. Please call me “Betsy.” Yes, the questions in the committee hearings were difficult, but I represent a fresh perspective on freedom and choice in education. Ultimately, the committee understood my ability to be an innovator and advocate for children.
Dr. Velázquez: Vice President Pence’s tie break for your Cabinet nomination was an historic event. We’ve never had such a situation in Cuba. I must say, I am pleased that renewed diplomatic relations let us Whatsapp about education. I have seen your website. Nice photo of you and your husband, by the way. If you tweet it, I’d be happy to like it! You look like Emma Thompson, you know that?
Ms. DeVos: Thank you, Ena. If nothing else, it is important to those outside of the US to realize that America is about freedom. This means that our schooling system should give parents the individual freedom to choose what is best for their children. You can tweet me on that, if you want (chuckle).
Dr. Velázquez: Do you include all parents—not just parents of high income—in this conception of choice? It is my understanding that families who struggle financially will be left out.
Ms. DeVos: As I mentioned in my 2015 speech at the South by Southwest education conference in Austin, there are several “inconvenient truths.” To address your question, all we have to do is look at what I called “inconvenient truth #6:” If you live in an area with quality public schools, you can most likely get a reasonable education. In most cases this means you do not live in an economically depressed area. If you don’t live in an area with good public schools, you can move to a different place, if you have the financial means to do so. If you don’t, you’re screwed. If your local public schools aren’t very good, but you have the cash, you can send your kids to a higher-performing private school. But, if you don’t have the financial resources, you are again screwed.
Dr. Velázquez: ¡Ay mi madre! It seems cruel to not care whether people have enough to have a decent education. In Cuba, our Revolution has provided a free and quality education to all, rich or poor. Just to notice what a priority it is, we spend 6.8% of our total GDP on education, while the U.S. spends less, only 4.8%. Considering the U.S. is such an economically prosperous nation, why doesn’t the government spend more on education?
Ms. DeVos: I’ll go back to my 2015 speech at South by Southwest and ‘Inconvenient truth #4:” “Government really sucks, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power.” We need to get rid of top-down solutions, let the people, not the government have more control and responsibility. We must become more innovative in our types of teaching and learning models. Competition will improve our schools, or we’ll close them down or convert them into something else. For example, right now we have different types of schools in the U.S. We have charter schools, magnet schools, virtual and blended learning schools, as well as private schools; parents can homeschool their children. As you probably know, I have been working tirelessly to promote parents’ rights to exercise their choice. This means a parent could use a school voucher, an education savings account, or a tax savings to move their children out of a failing public school and into successful alternatives, like a charter school or a private school. This range of options invests in what works, knowing that our families are being served with the education model of their choice.
Dr. Velázquez: Mire, Señora DeVos, in Cuba, thanks to our socialist government and our fundamental revolutionary values—upon which Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara conceived our quality public educational system, I may add—we have one of the highest literacy rates in the world, especially for a developing country. #AConvenientTruth#1 In addition, we have specialty schools for students who exhibit tremendous talent, like a sports or arts school, or even the Lenin school, which focuses on the natural sciences. Students must compete for acceptance into these schools, but the schools themselves are public. Because we are successful with these options, we have no need for private schools. Why does your government choose to invest in these public school alternatives?
Ms. DeVos: To support choice, of course. We live in a land of freedom, as I mentioned before. Freedom is our principle value: the American Dream! With poor student test scores and graduation rates from our public schools, our country’s education options need to be reconfigured and improved. As you can imagine, schools in low-income neighborhoods tend to have less resources and less qualified teachers, disproportionately disadvantaging students of color—of African American, Latino, and Native American heritages, along with immigrant students. Race and class combined tend to indicate the neighborhood public schools that will succeed or fail. This is unjust, and I want parents and youth to have the power to choose a succeeding school.
Dr. Velázquez: Did you just tweet at me? ¡Coño, qué rápida! I think I’ll retweet that! Anyway, I get it, B, . . . but how do you envision school vouchers and private schools helping youth to succeed? For example, how do you ensure that parents understand how to access and apply vouchers? I have read that in Nevada and Wisconsin, for example, it’s the middle and high income families that typically use vouchers, and that these families already were sending their children to private or religious schools. So vouchers—that serve 1% of students in the U.S.—have failed to increase access of low-income students in high performing schools. Instead, don’t vouchers pull public monies from public schools and direct funds to private schools?. Si saco la cuenta, Betsy, this policy will expand private education, religious or secular, and ultimately dismantle public schooling, and more likely leave the underserved in a worse situation. ¿Cómo tú puedes hacer eso, chica?
Ms. DeVos: Oh, that’s alright. I think I’ll share that on Facebook. Ven acá, Ena, failing schools will need to improve or close. Children should not suffer low-quality education. In addition, if teachers are not getting results, they are not doing their job right and should be fired, and the good ones will be rewarded.
Dr. Velázquez:. Pero, Betsy, you made it clear that some children may not get a first rate education. As our national hero, José Martí said, “Ser culto es el unico modo para ser libre.” Meaning, “People can only be free if they are truly educated.” I am concerned about what seems as a lack of public responsibility. So how do you ensure freedom for all people when not all children will have equal opportunity for a quality education? In Cuba, our socialist government believes in everyone working together for the good of all. And when there is a problem, school personnel and the community are in dialogue to help solve that situation, never considering relocating one’s child and leaving the school. The Cuban government assigns its education research group, The Center for Pedagogical Sciences, to investigate system glitches and find solutions.
Ms. DeVos: Sure, some level of governmental organizing is useful, but IMHO, I believe that states know better about their particular problems and contexts then the federal government and, therefore, should make their own decisions. I just accidentally hit “send” on FB myself—LOL. In the U.S., property taxes pay for public school budgets. We believe that because parents pay these taxes, they should be able to choose which school their child attends. I have heard that Cuban schools are severely underfunded and teachers don’t always show up. Consequently, parents who can, complement their children’s education through afterschool tutoring. I’ve also heard that because teacher salaries in Cuba are so low, they have a hard time recruiting for the teaching profession. As a result, there are less qualified teachers in the classrooms. Is that correct? What are you doing to address school funding, preparing quality teachers and addressing high teacher attrition rates?
Dr. Velázquez: It is true that teacher salaries are always something that we are trying to improve. There have been several pay raises for teachers, but the economy is in flux, especially with some capitalist measures we have entertained to try improve employment in all sectors. It is not uncommon for teachers to have additional jobs, like tutoring, to supplement their income or a job that incorporates some other type of entrepreneurial or self-employment situation. In a socialist society, the government ensures that the people have the basics. We prioritize and subsidize food, health and education so that no one goes without. We have a very high quality of life considering that we are a developing country, but I will not deny that we have economic struggles, which do affect teacher recruitment and attrition rates. I have spoken publically about these concerns. The Cuban government also believes that parents should be active in their children’s education and they are. Our socialist system addresses education as a social justice issue. We believe that it is every Cuban’s duty to contribute to society. The Revolution has made education a right and a duty for all Cuban citizens. It is the responsibility of our revolutionary government—and my office—to set the framework for our national educational system with trained experts to write policy and curriculum, and to study what works and what improvements need to be made. We ensure that all students receive the same quality education throughout the island, in urban as well as rural areas. Plenty of your own educational researchers, including UNESCO, have found our structure, method and results to be sound.
Ms. DeVos: The United States is much larger than Cuba. You don’t have to deal with borders like we do and the problems that people cause who try to immigrate here . . . taking our jobs and then there are children who can’t communicate in the classroom because they don’t know English. Part of my belief in choice means that states can determine what and how they want to educate their populations, including students with disabilities. The states should have all the power.
Dr. Velázquez: I thought that the US government made it a right for students with disabilities to have a proper education. And now you are leaving it as a question mark for the state to decide? How can this be effective? Furthermore, I have heard that in the US there are textbook conglomerates like Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin, and a testing culture . . . that standardized testing occurs frequently and teachers devote a good portion of their classroom time for months preparing students for these tests. Can you really claim that states and local teachers are making their own decisions? And are these decisions in the best interests of the children’s learning? What about their creativity and humanity? José Martí and Karl Marx recognized the importance of engaging one’s creativity in learning, teaching and labor, for which we have the work-study principle, with the idea of ensuring both the manual and mental aspects of our humanness. In what ways does the US education system cultivate children’s full human potential? Cuban children learn to recite poetry from José Marti, they have weekly music and art classes, and are groomed to perform whenever a visitor or special occasion arises.
Ms. DeVos: Charter schools, both for-profit and not-for profit, along with private schools, are our answer for students’ highest potential; they are not held back by the bureaucracy of a heavy government system and its many regulations. Public schools have long maintained a status quo education that renders mixed results and have been erroneously guided by teacher unions that are more concerned about teachers’ health care and pensions than actually teaching children. Indeed, marketization in education has led to some over-testing, and over-testing limits teachers’ curricular and pedagogical choices. But these public school alternatives should be the answer, providing not just parents but teachers with more freedom around what and how they teach. Less regulation will breed creativity, passion and a more authentic commitment. School leaders, particularly those of faith, should and can have greater autonomy in “taking charge.”
Dr. Velázquez: Your background is non-traditional for this office. You were the Chairwoman of an enterprise and investment firm, you led Michigan’s Republican Party, and you founded the American Federation for Children to promote school privatization. Your Windcrest Group website profile states you are an “advocate” and an “innovator”. I can only imagine how difficult it is to transition from corporate sector work to a context in which the products are not material products, but children. How are you managing this transition?
Ms. DeVos: You may just see me as a businesswoman, but actually I am also a woman of faith. That combination informs my perspective on schooling. I believe in traditional, Judeo-Christian values no matter the content of my work. Through my Christian faith and Biblical world view, I seek to transform US business, economic, political and educational sectors. I desire a return to traditional American values that ensure freedom. #IheartCouncilofNationalPolicy.
Dr. Velázquez: You say that you are promoting choice, but it sounds like you are promoting a particular set of views and values based on a certain form of Christianity. We promote values in Cuba but they are values that support humanity and social justice. Although people are free to practice any religion, that is not the basis of our government. We separate church and state. I understand that the Republican platform seeks to deregulate business or reduce economic oversight. However, speaking about schools . . . they prepare young people to be productive citizens for the workforce and for life. In Cuba, we do not see schools as businesses whose profits can be measured. These are our children. First and foremost, we must teach humanity.
Ms. DeVos: Schools reflect the political economy of their nation country. With a neoliberal market economy in the US, this is indeed reflected in our schools. For example, about 70% of charters schools in Michigan are for-profit. Individuals and businesses have generously contributed to schools to provide better options for children. This private charity is commendable—a true act of solidarity—and the for-profit element exists to motivate teachers and schools to make their best effort. #CapitalismMotivates
Dr. Velázquez: Repito, qué complicado. President Trump’s tweets about seeking to break the bureaucracy that holds back public schools from succeeding. However, I must ask: How are the proposed charters regulated? What are their admittance policies? I have been lead to believe that charters do not follow the same stringent hiring, evaluation and admittance requirements of public schools . . . nor do they require teachers to be certified. Charters tend to be highly selective, exclude academically low performing students and students with disabilities so that charters can appear to succeed academically. This would please the shareholders, no doubt, but how can this be considered sound and just for a nation? The conflict of interest is glaring. For-profit charters are unconscionable from a Cuban lens.
No doubt voucher expansion will cause an exodus of children from public schools into parochial, charter and private schools. Won’t this cause an even greater gap between wealthy families who access top schools and vulnerable families that attend their local, drastically defunded public schools? Why not take some of the great ideas you propose for charter and private schools and instead invest them in public education, in vocational education, and in teacher education? Wouldn’t that help improve not only the educational system but also strengthen your democracy? #PublicFundsForPublicGood
Ms. DeVos: I am confused—I see Cubans, especially young people, continuing to try to leave Cuba to have a better life somewhere else. How do you explain this?
Dr. Velázquez: True, Cubans are leaving Cuba. The US blockade impedes our people from having what they need, but we continue to resolver in whatever way we can. What is particularly problematic is that our society has invested in those young people, in their education and vocational training and our revolution needs them. Ask any Cuban who has immigrated how they compare their education in Cuba to their children’s in the US. Educational research on Cuban children in U.S. schools reflects their preparedness. From an early age in Cuba they are involved in service-learning work in a school garden and care for their school property . . . maybe even paint the school or clean the school grounds. When they complete pre, I mean high school, or mid-level tech training, the state guarantees them employment.
Ms. DeVos: Dr. Velázquez, I am hopeful that the embargo will become a thing of the past. President Trump has eyed Cuba for increased business opportunities. And I’m not talking simple website creation, although I think revolico is cute.
Dr. Velázquez: I too hope that the US will see fit to end the blockade. But let’s not let the economy eclipse our education conversation. Lately I have been reading Linda Darling Hammond. Oye esto, she writes so beautifully: “The fact that choice doesn’t guarantee quality should be clear each time we flick through 500 cable-TV channels without finding a single good viewing option. In public education, this kind of choice is not an acceptable outcome. The key question, therefore, is whether we can create a system in which all schools are worth choosing and all children are chosen by good schools.” Qué bello. You might consider consulting with her.
Before we part, I would like to leave you with a quote from our beloved José Martí, one that transmits a Christian sentiment with which you might resonate: “Everything that divides men, everything that separates or herds men together in categories, is a sin against humanity.” Let us not divide children and youth into categories of charter, for-profit and private schools, which will lead to greater inequalities, but instead unite them under an improved and more just public educational system. As John Dewey wrote in The School and Society, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (italics by author).
Ms. DeVos: Lovely sentiments indeed. Hopefully we’ll see the end to the embargo soon and we can meet in Varadero. By the way, do you think that you could get me a good deal on a beach house down there? I would love to bring my socios—Donald, Stephen, Vladmir, my husband, and my brother Erik. Then, maybe you can join me for a Cuba Libre and have a tete-a-tete?
Dr. Velázquez: Seguro que yes. Text me on my iphone. Ooops. Me tengo que ir—la guagua del trabajo me espera. #Socialismoomuerte #DarlingHammondshouldbesecretaryofed
About the author Related posts
Denise Blum is Associate Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Oklahoma State University. She has conducted research in Cuba since 1995. Her book "Cuban youth and revolutionary values: Educating the new socialist citizen" was published by the University of Texas Press in 2011.
J. Ruth Dawley-Carr is Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Minnesota State University at Mankota. She has been conducting research in Cuba on youth's civic formation and the role of teacher training.
(2) Cuban Travelogues into the Future’s Past (by Paloma Duong)
In the 1960s the world flocked to Cuba to see the birth of a revolution, and now, in the first decades of the 21st century, the world hurries to witness—travelers say—its last breath: “I want to go before it changes!” Beyoncé and Jay Z’s 2013 trip to Cuba has a lot more in common with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre’s 1960 historical visit than one might think.
Like the trip to the Soviet Union, or the trip to Mao’s China, the trip to revolutionary Cuba is a 20th century genre. By genre I mean that travel to these historical, geopolitical coordinates is generally framed by well-established tropes, characters, and plots. Their source is a vast and intricate textual and audiovisual archive of motley travelogues and reports: Henri Cartier-Bergson’s photo essay for LIFE magazine in 1963, to give a notable example.
Our contemporary traveler might ask at this point, “Why should I care about these old stories?” And we might ask this traveler, in turn, “Does this genre and its narrative commonplaces not frame your experiences, desires, and motivations? Are not these old plots and characters and settings the ones precisely behind the idea of going before it changes?”
These images of revolution and rumba, of a land frozen in time, rest on several faulty premises, but they are rooted in a curated selection of images, sounds, and expectations built over many years. It would be easy to demonstrate that Cuba has changed many times over in the last three decades, and easier still to point out the inadequacies of this specific notion of change as form of understanding history. But suppose, for a moment, that we consider this sentiment as a symptom of a more intractable condition.
In the 1960s, the trip to Cuba was usually undertaken by those curious about—and sympathetic to—the revolutionary process underway. In turn, criticism of such politically motivated travels was never far behind. Scathing indictments of commitment at a distance, neocolonial condescension, willful hyperopia, tribal sectarianism, and wanton exoticism have been de rigueur in commentaries about these ‘fellow-travelers’ and ‘political pilgrims.’ In fact, these disapproving texts can be said to comprise a supplementary subgenre of their own, and were directed in particular at those traveling from North America and Western Europe. (Meanwhile, a parallel and complementary travel archive of peoples and goods within these circuits remains largely unexplored.)
A casualty of Cold War sensibilities, travelogues to really existing socialisms consequently became nothing more than the target of habitual reactionaries and penitent apostates, or were quickly put behind and forgotten as a product of their time, as youthful indiscretions. (The corpus of the so-called “non-communist left,” for lack of a better name, has suffered an even worse fate, for many of the same reasons.) But a look back at why both the genre and the affectively charged responses it generated emerged in the first place, and a reactivation of the forgotten texts of radical dissent, might hold clues to new ways of seeing as we pack and unpack our bags.
“So that Mayakovsky’s suicide will not be repeated,” an occasion piece by the Mexican writer, philosopher, and activist José Revueltas, is a good example of the selective oblivion at work in these archival operations. Beginning with a meditation about his own travels to early revolutionary Cuba, Revueltas responds in this piece to the Padilla affair—the censorship event that irreversibly divided intellectuals in the left with respect to the Cuban revolutionary process.
Yet the exhaustive scholarship on this episode has passed over Revueltas’s intervention in favor of the more ordinary letters of support or denunciation of Sartre, Cortázar, and Sontag. Perhaps this is because the political position and the tenor of the text are quite different from the stock intellectual responses to the Padilla affair of Revueltas’s contemporaries: strident disillusionment (Mario Vargas Llosa), cautious criticism but principled commitment (Julio Cortázar), and private concern but public defense as political necessity (Gabriel García Márquez), to give three classic examples from the Latin American canon.
Even now, Revueltas’s 1969 essay reads as a theoretically shrewd and a hauntingly poetic analysis of the political and philosophical challenges confronting Cubans at the end of the long 1960s:
“A tremendous and incredible historical amnesia exists in Cuba and in all of Latin America. This contains the danger that revolutionaries of all countries may fall into the same negative experiences of which there are so many examples in the history of the Soviet and international communist movement. But there are books, there are documents, there are publications and it is unjustifiable that they not be read by the revolutionary youth of Cuba and all countries of the Americas in order to forewarn our revolution and our movement lest identical errors befall us; errors which history has already proven to be real betrayals of communism.”
On the same topic, the German poet and theorist Hans Magnus Enzensberger penned “Tourists of the Revolution” to show the limitations of a literature written by politically inspired travelers to ideologically exotic locations. But Enzensberger does so by looking at the aesthetic, material, and symbolic conditions of production of these texts, rather than by psychologizing the travelers’ motivations. These conditions were the propaganda wars and the utopian falsifications of both actually existing capitalist and communist political apparatuses.
To be sure, Enzensberger is impatient with the ideological incoherence of some of his colleagues. (He, too, would travel to and live in revolutionary Cuba in 1968 and 1969). But his observations are those of a strictly materialist observer:
“In Havana I kept meeting Communists in the hotels for foreigners who had no idea that the energy and water supply in the working quarters had broken down during the afternoon, that bread was rationed, and that the population had to stand two hours in line for a slice of pizza; meanwhile the tourists in their hotel rooms were arguing about Lukàcs.”
The larger epistemological issue, argues Enzensberger, is that these modes of travel and their narratives hinge on individual—and highly individualized, when they took place as part of official guided tours— experiences that were read in rarified informational contexts. Whatever their aesthetic value and political purpose, these narratives could hardly be asked to inform accurately, much less to offer the kind of comprehensive scholarship that could not be produced, yet was urgently needed. In this sense, a prescription at the conclusion of this piece might be as good advice today as it was then:
“Now that the objective difficulties are decreasing and it is becoming less and less a question, in many countries, of endangering anyone by talking with them, now that traveling is ceasing to be an individual privilege, it should then be possible to launch a massive attack on this overdue task that no one has performed as yet: the analysis of socialist societies or those that go by that name. Individual messengers cannot undertake such an investigation.”
The deep political crisis of the 1960s in the United States—and the Vietnam War in particular—had driven Enzensberger to stay in Cuba for a time. How many of today’s political crises tempt the contemporary traveler to see the island firsthand? How many of today’s democratic failures have inspired a look back through the archives?
Twentieth-century revolutions were events of global impact, constitutive of shared mass utopias. Consequently, their demise as laboratories of collective desires is the historical condition under which many of today’s travelers hurry to book passage to Havana. These locales offer opportunities for critical reevaluations of what these processes were, as opposed to what they called themselves. Only then can dormant imaginaries be called upon for redeployment.
Other frameworks, genres, characters, and plots might emerge as well. Is that not a more interesting motivation for all of us, enlightened travelers of the 21st, than going anywhere before it changes? We, the practical utopians, to borrow David Graeber’s term? A capacious, critical, political imagination that responds anew to long unfulfilled demands surely has plenty of work ahead. But unlike the fellow travelers of the last century, we can no longer travel to Cuba, or elsewhere, under the illusion of witnessing the ruins of a future past.
COVER IMAGE: Ry Cooder and his son, riding a Russian motorcycle through Centro Habana. Screenshot. Buena Vista Social Club. (Dir: Ry Cooder, 1999).
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Paloma Duong is Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is currently writing a book on postsocialist imaginaries, new media, and participatory forms of culture in contemporary Cuba.
(3) Havana City of the Dead (by Larry Catá Backer)
Where a city lays its dead to rest says much about the living. This past March, 2017, eleven graduate students from Pennsylvania and I visited two of Havana’s cemeteries: these cities of the dead set in stone a particular vision of the culture and history of the colonial and pre-1959 bourgeoisie on the island; one that reflects and reinforces the invisibility and neglect of the laborers that sustained the former.
We started at the most monumental necropolis in Havana—the Colón Cemetery.
Founded in 1876, the arrangement of the Colón cemetery is a physical manifestation of the social and political structures of colonial Cuba, eternalizing the hierarchies of pre-revolutionary society. At the same time, one sees in current burials manifestations of an ordering system that, although new, does not eliminate the stark status differences between the dead.
Our visit yielded a number of observations:
1.The old adage, “Death is the great equalizer,” does not apply here. Aside from their cultural and religious significance, cemeteries are spaces whose ordering logic depends on pre-established societal inclusions and exclusions such as race and class. Originally a burial ground for Catholics—and even though it may now be more socially open—the Colón Cemetery still primarily welcomes its own: the descendants of the Catholic elite whose tombs may still be found at the center of the necropolis, as well as in the lower orders that radiate toward the grounds’ outer limits. In fact, there has been little room for inclusion at this cemetery. The Jews and Chinese, for example, had to find their own spaces since the 19th century.2. The layout of the cemetery provides a physical manifestation of the social hierarchies that order urban spaces for the living. Thus the wealthy elites were laid to rest along the cemetery’s main avenue, leading to the Church that forms the center of the necropolis. Like the wealthy parts of Havana, the necropolis’ main avenue shows off the wealth and status of its dwellers. One need only take a drive from the wealthy Western suburb of Miramar to the poor harbor suburb of Regla, across Havana Bay, to see in the city of the dead a continuation of the spatial order established in the city of the living. It is also there that those socially useful individuals—especially those who gave their lives in the service of this hierarchy—are rewarded with the honor of eternal rest among the elite.3. Yet this social classification of space ought not be understood as a simpleminded application of Marxist notions of class struggle, physically manifested. The cemetery also fractures the population along immigrant, regional and racial lines. Thus, there are designated sections for Gallegos and for Catalans, for example. Afro-Cubans, in turn, were relegated to the farthest points from the center of the cemetery—with the notable exception of a mulatto man who had the good fortune to marry one of the wealthiest white women of the time, and whose remains are also located in the main street of the dead.4. The ordering of the cemetery also reminds the visitor that money can lubricate reform of even the most rigid gender norms and family status facilitates whether rebellion against social norms is tolerated or not. Placed directly across from the most prominent monument within the main street of the necropolis is the monument designed by Rene Lalique to house the remains of Catalina Laso, one of the wealthiest, best connected, and scandalous women in Cuba of the first half of the 20th century. She left her husband and children to take up with her lover, with who she fled to France. In France, they were able to obtain a marriage annulment (at the price of separation from her children) that eventually helped usher in revision to the law of divorce in Cuba. In death as in life she managed to utilize her wealth not to overturn society, but to manipulate its practices to her own advantage—something that is reflected in the upscale architecture of her tomb, a reminder of the tastes Catalina and her lover developed while exiled in France: a marble tomb, with a rose carved in crystal and placed in skylights on a half-dome, and sculpted black granite doors.
5. Popular saints might be more powerful than the Catholic-endorsed ones. Such is the case with one of the most popular tombs of the cemetery–that of “La Milagrosa.” Though not recognized by the Church, many people in Havana treat the woman buried there, together with her infant child, as a saint. And the saints of the 1959 revolutionary struggle peek around the edges of the main street and throughout the cemetery. Yet this is not a space for the revolutionary dead. For them, one must travel to the political burial grounds in Santa Clara or, more importantly, to the space that physically ties the 1959 to the 1898 revolutions, the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, in Santiago de Cuba, where Martí and Fidel Castro rest.
Indeed, one can tell a lot about a society by how, where, and in what order it disposes of its dead. The Colón Cemetery is a monument to a bygone age—by now, the highest levels of the political elite have moved on. But it remains a living space, as lively as the society around it, organized around race, ethnicity and social position even as the ruling ideology seeks to move in other directions.
While the physical remains of colonial grandeur are restored, revolutionary history is taking a backseat. The Chinese Cemetery, a few blocks away from the Colón, stands as a symbol of this decline. Many of those buried in the Chinese cemetery are veterans of Cuba’s War of Independence and the 1959 Revolutionary struggle. Yet, the facility’s disrepair is significant. Currently, a significant number of remains have been moved to a bunker underground, to protect them from grave robbers; it is certainly cheaper to do that than to repair the tombs and hire security. The Chinese cemetery is as dead as the Colón is a living space for the dead.
In stark contrast to the Colón, at the Chinese there are no entrance fees and no walking tours are offered to the occasional visitors. The day that our group went, the caretaker, not used to groups, was surprised at our interest.
A tour through the graveyard, however, clearly shows the important role played by Chinese immigrants in the making of the independent, and later revolutionary, Cuban nation. Yet, their heroic actions are hardly recognized. This silence is another instance of the gap between the bygone revolutionary ideals and today’s society.
It occurs to me that there is one element of hope. Given the emerging economic ties with China in the present moment, the Chinese state might be persuaded to aid in the rehabilitation of this cemetery, no longer in the name of socialist solidarity but as a historical symbol of human proximity. For, in socialist Cuba, business ties are beginning to weight more than ideological affinities.
What do these two cemeteries tell us about Cuba today? The Colon Cemetery, where the intellectual fathers of the nation, from Fernando Ortiz to Nicolás Guillén, rest side by side with families whose financial fortunes propelled Cuban independence, is a center of pilgrimage for Cubans and foreign visitors alike. Yet, they celebrate the grandeur of a stratified society, whose wealth was expressed through ostentatious pantheons and sculptures, and whose organization was geared to ensure that the dead knew their place—along racial, ethnic, and status hierarchies. The 1959 Revolution placed class struggle at the center of the new order. Yet the Colón-Chinese Cemetery axis might cause one to ask—to what extent is it still necessary to know one’s place in life, and how will that be reflected in death.
All images by Larry Catá Backer.
About the author Related posts
Larry Catá Backer
Larry Catá Backer is the W. Richard and Mary Eshelman Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law & International Affairs at the Pennsylvania State University. He is a member of the American Law Institute (ALI), the European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI), and a founding director of the Consortium for Peace and Ethics.
Fidel Castro’s death in November sparked questions about the relationship between religiosity and the state. The Cuban Revolution unleashed at least two decades of repression and condescension aimed at religious communities generally, and the Afro-Cuban religions in particular. Yet, many in the Afro-Cuban religious population understood the Revolutionary leaders to be drawing their power from occult, magical sources, and thus understood them to be religious.
Fidel Castro, in particular, was subject to persistent speculation throughout his leadership, which at times portrayed him as sanctioned by the Cuban-Yoruba deities, and at other times understood him, more ominously, to be an accomplice to grotesque sorcery and sacrifice that kept him in power. For many, Fidel’s once disdainful attitude towards the “black” religions was merely a clever cover designed to obscure his real, mystical source of sustenance.
But if the often disturbing images of Fidel’s hidden sorcery machinations conjure up a vision of the ordinary person’s impotence vis-à-vis the sly workings of an all-powerful brujo (witch) state, practitioners and Cubans more generally have often had admiration and respect for the hidden dimensions of political and social control. As Orozco and Bolívar wrote, “the peasants see him as God. The santeros believe he is the son of Obbatalá. His opponents see him as the devil. He claims to be a Marxist. But he admires Jesus Christ the defender of the poor. Only God and the oricha saints know who Fidel is.”
The fact that many revolutionaries initially hid their religious beliefs and affiliations, only to later “come out” following the Party’s decision in the early 1990s allowing religiosos to join the political process, adds to the pervasive perception that religion and politics are related in some way. This is so, even if this relation is obfuscated by the powers that be. Indeed, as Kenneth Routon says, mystical agents and spiritual protections of all kinds are often conjured up to protect against the all-seeing magical eye of the state and its occult neighbourhood-level bureaucrats.
Afro-Cuban religious practitioners resist their subordinate place in society by harnessing the power of spirits, gods, or indeed, leaders. So who will harness the power of Fidel? Will Fidel-el-muerto, just like the spirits of other Revolutionary heroes such as Antonio Maceo, José Martí, and el Che, appear at someone’s spiritual altar or inside their nganga in the near future?
But in this short piece, we wish to offer a counterpoint to the paradigm above. Afro-Cuban religion does not just symbolically resist or appropriate the power of the state. Instead, we suggest that Afro-Cuban religion proposes a new version of the individual altogether, which may or may not compete with the state’s understanding of the “new man.”
The existing literature on Afro-Cuban religiosity focuses on the politics of marginalization and resistance. In this sense, Afro-Cuban religiosity, through its various strands of tradition (such as Ocha/Ifá or Santería, Palo Monte, or Espiritismo, to mention only three), acquires an almost archetypal status, standing in for the Afro-Cuban experience in general. First, it indirectly expresses the historically marginal position of the Afro-Cuban population. Secondly, it appears to offer a means of resisting such marginality. But within a Marxist framework, this symbolic means of expression actually implies a failure to properly resist—that is, a failure to acquire a solid social consciousness that would accompany the material transformations of the oppressing conditions. However, what we want to argue here is that Afro-Cuban religiosity is, in fact, a thoroughly actual instantiation of resistance. The only caveat is that it might not be resistance as we expect it.
In our ethnographic explorations, we met people who were once active members of the Revolution, yet who now show a relatively open identification with Afro-Cuban religiosity. For instance, Julia, an Afro-Cuban woman born to a Revolutionary father and a santera mother, explained that in her youth she was an atheist and anti-religious. Julia aspired to participate in the construction of her new and promising regime. However, when she began to feel her first spirit possession episodes at boarding school, she began to retract from her political commitments, for fear that she would be ridiculed or reprimanded. For Julia, like for many other religiosos, her diminishing enthusiasm for the ideals of the Revolution ran parallel to her increasing embrace of her religion, at least until the 1990s, when the government reversed its repressive stance.
Yet Afro-Cuban religiosity has not fomented conventional forms of resistance. Instead, it yields a complex kind of individuality, and a private life of the ritual family, born from personal paths (caminos) that are often determined by oracles. This notion of personal destiny or path becomes a very real form of resistance, in the sense that it refuses to be encompassed by organized institutionalization, as well as resisting the centralization of its spiritual and cultural power.
In addition, Afro-Cuban religiosity was traditionally retracted from the public sphere (with a few notable exceptions, such as the letra del año, announced by the youngest priest of Ifá at the beginning of every year). Afro-Cuban religious organization instead made the home its basic architectonic-spiritual edifice and center. But there are signs of this private religious life moving into the Cuban public sphere, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the corresponding religious boom.
The first decades of the Revolution, which effervescently pushed for the mobilization and participation of Cuban citizenry, viewed Afro-Cuban religiosity with suspicion precisely because of its individualism and its focus on private life. It has sought to encompass the individual through all kinds of institutionalization, and only recently has this tendency subsided. The Revolutionary state now tolerates individuality, private initiatives, and religious, aesthetic and cultural choices to a far greater extent, and therefore Afro-Cuban religion has resurfaced.
On a concluding and perhaps ethnographically provocative note, we propose that it is precisely within Afro-Cuban religiosity that Cuban individuality has been traditionally developed. Whether or not Fidel becomes another spirit in the roster of muertos, his death places Afro-Cuban religiosity at the vanguard of the nascent paths Cuban individuality may follow.
About the author Related posts
Anastasios Panagiotopoulos was born in Athens, Greece on the 5th of February 1979. Completed a bachelor’s degree in Sociology at the Department of Sociology of the University of Crete, Greece (1997-2002). Then did a master’s degree (MSc taught program) in Social Anthropology (2003-2004), a second master’s degree in Social Anthropology (MSc by Research) (2005-2006) and a PhD in Social Anthropology (2007-2011), at the Department of Social Anthropology in the University of Edinburgh, UK. Currently holds a three-year post-doc position at CRIA, Lisbon, Portugal, funded by the FCT.
Diana Espírito Santo (Phd UCL, 2009) has worked on both Cuban and Brazilian forms of spirit mediumship. She is currently developing an ethnographic field on parapsychologists in Chile and Argentina, and works as assistant professor in anthropology at the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile, in Santiago. She is author of many articles, and of three edited collections including Making Spirits: Materiality and Transcendence in Contemporary Religions (co-edited with Nico Tassi, 2013). She recently published her monograph, Developing the Dead, with the University Press of Florida.