Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Comparative and Interdisciplinary Analysis From Cuba Counterpoints: (1) #HASHTAGFIDEL, (2) Cuban Theater Today, and (3) Havana's New Wedding Planners

Our friends at Cuba CounterPoints have published a great February issue for their Volume 14. We are glad they are back.  They have published three featured essays that are worth reading.

 In #HASHTAGFIDEL, Anna Cristina Pertierra explains the HASHTAG phenomenon in the context of the death of Fidel Castro.  She notes:
The rise of the #HastaSiempreComandante hashtag is interesting because it could represent the first major media event in which Cuban journalists fully embraced the role of social media in commentary and coverage. . . . Their invention and promotion of the #HastaSiempreComandante hashtag, and the online campaign they built around the hashtag in the days and weeks following Fidel’s death, showed a new level of engagement with recent and emerging social media practices of digital journalists elsewhere in the world.

Norge Espinosa, in the essay Cuban Theater Today, speaks to the state of Cuban Theatre today.  He notes
The Cuba represented in today’s theater is no less intense, in examples like these, than Cuba itself. The most theatrical blow that the island has taken in recent times is, of course, the one that struck us on December 17, 2014: the re-establishing of ties between the Cuban and American governments. In a show that opened in 2015, by a very young director, this surprising event became the axis of a political cabaret that was recognized as the best show of the year.

 And in Havana's New Wedding Planners, Haidi Härkönen unmasks the new faces of privilege on an Island no longer entirely isolated from the temptations of markets and privilege that marks the rest fo the world.
Since 2008, the increased opening of Cuba’s economy to private entrepreneurship has seen the emergence of new professions. In a recent story, Al Jazeera follows a Havana-based wedding planner as she prepares a luxurious celebration for customers who, like most of her clientele, are white Cubans living abroad. The case of the wedding planner allows us a glimpse into the new forms of privilege and success that have emerged in contemporary Cuba.
Additional articles are also worth reading. These include (1)  CD picks of 2016. By BILL TILFORD, (2) Salaries at a Stalemate. By YAILENIS MULET CONCEPCIÓN, (3)  On Neoliberal Populism. By ALAN WEST-DURÁN,  (4) On-the-Streets. Joseph SCARPACI Translates OSCAR CRUZ, and (5) the poem DRY FEET. By Eduardo Martínez.

Re-posting of the three essays follows below.  My thanks as always to Ariana Hernandez-Reguant for her critical work in pulling this together.

#HASHTAGFIDEL. By Anna Cristina Pertierra

On November 25, 2016, in the hours following the public announcement of Fidel Castro’s death, footage of the late-night television broadcast made by Raúl Castro began to circulate across social media platforms. On Facebook, one of Cuba’s most prominent news dissemination sites, Cubadebate.cu, posted footage from Raúl Castro’s announcement, with one small change. In the bottom right corner, they added a hashtag: #HastaSiempreComandante.

Attributed to Rosa Miriam Elizalde, editor of the Cubadebate website, this hashtag signaled an honoring of Fidel’s death and an affinity to his legacy. The phrase evokes the famous song Hasta Siempre, Comandante, composed in 1965 by Carlos Puebla in honor of Che Guevara upon his departure from Cuba. It was promoted by Cubadebate specifically, appearing on all of their coverage of Fidel, but was also taken up by organizations and social media accounts in other countries. Cubadebate’s online video of the Castro television announcement received over 350,000 views; it was shared more that 9,500 times, and had more than 6,500 reactions. Other Cuban outlets paled in comparison in terms of generating views, shares and comments for their online postings. For example, the national newspaper Granma’s version of the same video on their Facebook page received only about 80,000 views. The hashtag migrated to other platforms, including Instagram, where more than 7,300 images were tagged with #HastaSiempreComandante.

The rise of the #HastaSiempreComandante hashtag is interesting because it could represent the first major media event in which Cuban journalists fully embraced the role of social media in commentary and coverage. While other recent events in Cuba, such as the visits of President Barack Obama in March of 2016 and Pope Francis in September of 2015, received extensive coverage from Cuban digital media outlets including Cubadebate, the death of Fidel Castro was global news on a larger scale. Cubadebate was able to offer rapid coverage on the ground in Cuba of how officials and citizens were reacting in the aftermath of Fidel’s passing, which was quite distinctive from the stories and opinion pieces that emerged from U.S.-based press outlets or other international organizations.

Their invention and promotion of the #HastaSiempreComandante hashtag, and the online campaign they built around the hashtag in the days and weeks following Fidel’s death, showed a new level of engagement with recent and emerging social media practices of digital journalists elsewhere in the world. This engagement seems to have been a success, as Cubadebate’s visibility on social media networks rose most noticeably during the period, with staff attributing at least part of this visibility to the #HastaSiempreComandante hashtag. At a moment when Cubans themselves are increasingly gaining access to smartphones and social media, Cubadebate’s coverage of the death of Fidel offer some signs of future directions for new generations of Cuban journalists.

Hashtags are an emerging area of research for social scientists, including anthropologists. As verbal flags that allow social media posts to be tracked and organized, they can map the spread of ideas across networks that are rarely navigable on the ground. Anthropologists Bonilla and Rosa have described hashtags as an “indexing system in both the clerical and the semiotic sense” that might be understood as a new form of field site.

Much existing research on the role of hashtags in communicating media events has focused on examples of popular uprisings: the 2009 elections in Iran, the Arab Spring in 2011, and protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The role of citizen-journalist has been richly examined for spreading alternative or underground information and perspectives through social media. The speed and flexibility with which social media can avoid and subvert mainstream media outlets has been used by citizen-journalists and activists to rapidly – if sometimes fleetingly – raise awareness around particular issues, creating new kinds of publics that may be temporary or ad hoc.

In contrast to such examples of popular movements or anti-state protests, the death of Fidel and its coverage by Cubadebate centered around the celebration of a national figure, and the government of which he was leader. As such, the role of Cubadebate social media staff might also be understood as a digital successor to the television producers of broadcast media events—major occasions such as weddings, funerals and sporting events that media theorists have long argued offer opportunities for a mass audience to stop and see themselves in the midst of a shared historical moment. Internationally, hashtags have become an increasingly common feature of mainstream media outlets in broadcasting; the BBC has been using them on television news broadcasts since 2010. So in one sense, Cuban digital journalists may simply be developing similar branding and interactive practices to other public media outlets.

But a particular feature of the Cuban social media landscape is, of course, that a relatively small number of voices come from Cubans living within Cuba; currently, Cubadebate’s main audience lives elsewhere. The success of the hashtag was due in large part to circulation across international networks; the most influential Facebook sharers of the hashtag included the Students’ Federation of Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, the London-based Cuba Solidarity Campaign, the Government of Belize Press Office, and Alberto Rojo, a Filipino with a large Facebook following. With the mission statement of “fighting media terrorism,” Cubadebate seems to be working as a bridge between traditional Cuban news media outlets and networks of supporters of socialist Cuba internationally, for whom digital social media has become an increasingly important means of information sharing, activism and organizing.

In their hybrid position, then, the digital media producers of Cubadebate may at the same time be identifying with the discourses of activism while adopting the practices of public media outlets. Whether the success of #HastaSiempreComandante inspires Cuban public media organizations to venture further into the world of digital, viral and social media, remains to be seen.

Data for this article was collected using hashtag-tracking tools provided by Brand24.com and Keyhole.com.
About the author Related posts

Anna Cristina Pertierra

Anna Cristina Pertierra is a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University, Australia. An anthropologist by training, Anna’s research interests include media, consumer culture, and the material culture of urban modernities in Latin America and Asia. Her publications include Cuba: the struggle for consumption (Caribbean Studies Press 2011), Consumer Culture in Latin America (with John Sinclair, Palgrave Macmillan 2012), and Locating Television: Zones of Consumption (with Graeme Turner, Routledge 2013).


 Cuban Theater Today, By Norge Espinosa

Translation from the Spanish by Esther Whitfield.

When Antigonón, un contingente épico opened in 2013 in the space that is home to Teatro el Público, spectators in Havana were excited. The staging by Carlos Díaz, who has directed the company since its founding in 1992, renewed people’s interest in his craft: a series of aesthetic, erotic, political and moral provocations, combined in a theatrical poetics that aims to leave no-one indifferent. With this Teatro El Públio added to its repertoire the name Rogelio Orizondo, a young dramaturge who has recently graduated from the Insitituto Superior del Arte and is one of the most talented of the generation known as the “novísimos,” or “newest of the new.” On stage, three young actresses and two actors stood naked to express their idea of the Nation, their eroded relationship to the Fatherland and their revolutionary epic, in an act of disrespect that nevertheless confirmed them as Cubans and as witnesses, part and counterpart of an image of today’s Cuba. Carlos Díaz – who in the past has worked with texts by Shakespeare, Racine, Chekhov, Arthur Miller, Virgilio Piñera, Abilio Estévez, Rainer Fassbinder and Slawomir Mrozek – took a risk with this wild and violent declaration, showing that his past experience and new perspectives combined could produce surprises for his audience.

The Cuba represented in today’s theater is no less intense, in examples like these, than Cuba itself. The most theatrical blow that the island has taken in recent times is, of course, the one that struck us on December 17, 2014: the re-establishing of ties between the Cuban and American governments. In a show that opened in 2015, by a very young director, this surprising event became the axis of a political cabaret that was recognized as the best show of the year. Pedro Franco plotted with very young actors and actresses to creat CCPC: Cuban Coffee by Portazo’s Cooperative. The acronym recalls that of the former USSR (CCCP in Russian); and the show blends – with violence and nerve, in a postmodern collage full of Cuban humor – José Martí’s letters, poems and fragments from the theater of the “novísimos,” parodies of moments in national history, love songs and pop music, from los Van Van to Nueva Trova. El Portazo is the name of this group, which has tried to stay afloat by navigating the new forms of economic entrepreneurship that the Cuban State authorized after years of officially refusing economic alternatives. Thinking about theater as a show, driven by prices, demand and supply, and the interests of a viewing public, is a challenge that young artists have faced throughout these performances, as cast members have changed according to the dynamics that bring the real Cuba closer to the distorting mirror that is the Cuba of the theater, as well as vice versa.

Until the late 1980s, when the Island was a socialist bubble in the Caribbean sustained by the socialist nations of Eastern Europe, theater in Cuba was dominated by large groups. In 1989, the National Council of Dramatic Arts was formed as an entity that would govern theater across the country; as winds of change swept through the second half of the decade, the creation of small projects was approved. With these, actors and directors could try their luck beyond the larger groups and, if they were successful, form stable groups themselves. The unexpected arrival of the Special Period stopped in its tracks this post-Wall Cuba, a tropical bubble that forged ahead with European-style socialism even as it found itself alone in its utopian endeavors. Theater suffered a serious blow, and survived the power outages and transportation shortages as well as it could. Many theater artists fled to television or found work in exile. The breach that Cuban society lived left its mark on the theatrical image of the country, sometimes with strong political overtones that caused problems beyond the theater, thanks to the daring of pieces as interesting as Niñita querida (based on the text of Virgilio Piñera and performed by Teatro El Público in 1993); Manteca (based on the text of Alberto Pedro and directed by Miriam Lezcano for Teatro Mío), and El Arca (written and directed by Victor Varela for Teatro Obstáculo in 1995). At the same time, masters like Abelardo Estornio were rethinking Cubanness in works like Vagos Rumores and Parece Blanca – the ghosts of the poet José Jacinto Milanés and the mythical mulata Cecilia Valdés animated these modern revisions of the nineteenth century. And children’s theater was able to sustain spectators’ interest, thanks to dialogues consecrated artists like Armando Morales and René Fernández initiated with their followers and to the birth of groups that, like Teatro de las Estaciones, positioned puppet theater at the aesthetic vanguard.

The fragmented history of modern Cuban theater has had to reorient itself yet again. Intent in the 1950s on renewing itself through productions in small Havana theaters; expanded and driven to experiment in the 1960s, thanks to the frenzy of the revolution; constrained in the 1970s by censorship and official moral prejudice against homosexuals; reborn in the 1980s and attempting to staunch the wounds of the previous decades… This was all reworked once more in the survival mode of the 1990s, when events opened early to make the most of natural light as there was no electricity. In those years, Abilio Estévez wrote three of the period’s essential plays: Perla marina, Santa Cecilia and The Night: allegories of a Cuba in pain searching through its myths and poetry for the pillars of a new idea of salvation. Now that this frenzy is over, the best of Cuban theater is to be found in the works of a few easily identifiable groups that came to light in the 1990s. Teatro Buendía, founded in 1986 by the actress and director Flora Lauten, has given rise to such valuable projects as Argos Teatro (created by Carlos Celdrán), and El Ciervo Encantado, led by Nelda Castillo. Carlos Díaz, with Teatro El Público, has brought festive and provocative leanings to the idea of a visually provocative theater: he is the most versatile of our directors. Raúl Martín, a disciple of Roberto Blanco and Carlos Díaz, has armed his Teatro de la Luna with an apparently light aesthetic that nevertheless offers sharp insights on the pleasures and traumas of Cubanness, in spectacles like his Delirio habanero, with a text by Alberto Pedro, in which Celia Cruz, Benny Moré and a great Cuban barman meet one impossible night to invoke a lost Havana beneath the roof of a cabaret set for demolition. Teatro de las Estaciones has recuperated the memory of the Camejo siblings and Pepe Carril, founders of the traditional puppeteering profession and victims of the repressions of the 1970s. Memory, that fundamental obsession of theater, resolves itself as these directors dialogue with the echo of their masters, some already deceased: Vicente Revuelta (the island’s greatest creator of spectacles, founder of the mythic and now extinct Teatro Estudio), Berta Martínez, Roberto Blanco, Armando Suárez del Villar, etc. Virgilio Piñera, our greatest dramaturge, who died in 1979 completely ostracized from society, has made a forceful return to the stage since the 1990s in the hands of some of these creators; and as Carlos Celdrán proved with his extraordinary approach to Piñera’s Aire Frío, in 2012, he is an invincible classic, able to dialogue with spectators of any generation.

Coinciding on the Cuban stage at the moment are survivors of 1950s art theater; those who made their name as dramaturges and directors during the fervor of the 1960s (some still active, as are José Milián, Nicolás Dorr, Eugenio Hernández Espinosa and Gerardo Fulleda León); their heirs who were schooled at the Instituto Superior de Arte, and a newer generation: irreverent, crude, anxious for the change that their strident, imperfect, raw and poetic texts demand, as screams and not merely metaphors for the Nation itself. There are other groups, other longings, other qualities. Many of these stick to well-worn formulas and tired repertoires that contrast with what the more interesting companies in Havana and some provinces have to offer. Like a mirror of the island and its moment, theater takes place in an unresolved tension between longing and discovery, and sometimes sparks fly because of the critical nature of the works. “How will Cuban theater survive in the new moment that lies ahead?” is a question very like “how will the Nation survive?”: inside or outside the myth of the revolution, inside or outside official and alternative performance spaces, inside or outside proven forms or the new ones imposed sometimes too mimetically? Inside or outside this unsettled and unpredictable scene? As this question evolves, all Cubans – those of us who live on the island and those outside – will be main characters.
About the author Related posts

Norge Espinosa
Norge Espinosa is a Havana-based poet, playwright, cultural critic and LGBT activist. Among his many honors are the Premio de la Crítica Literaria in 2012, for Mito, verdad y retable. El guiñol de los hermanos Camejo y Pepe Carril (co-authored with Rubén Darío Salázar) and the Orden por la Cultura Nacional, awarded in 2014 by the Cuban Council of State. He is author of the Spanish version of Carmen La Cubana, a new musical that opened in Paris in April 2016 at the Théâtre du Châtelet.


By Heidi Härkönen

Since 2008, the increased opening of Cuba’s economy to private entrepreneurship has seen the emergence of new professions. In a recent story, Al Jazeera follows a Havana-based wedding planner as she prepares a luxurious celebration for customers who, like most of her clientele, are white Cubans living abroad. The case of the wedding planner allows us a glimpse into the new forms of privilege and success that have emerged in contemporary Cuba.

As seen on the video, the wedding planner and nearly all of her employees are white, young and pretty. The wedding planner shows the camera crew around her spacious home, new car and hip office. She explains she gains most of her business online through her 10,000 Facebook followers. Since the acquisition of the materials needed for weddings is often difficult in Cuba, her United States-based brother helps her by delivering items such as hundreds of candles. The machinery required for making decorations is brought from Panama, and flowers come from Ecuador. I was unable to verify the prices of her services since her website lacks all references to money, but it is likely that customers pay several thousand CUCs for their parties. The wedding planner works around the clock and laughingly notes she barely has time to see her spouse. She also praises her employees for their devotion to her company: “If you don’t have trained staff with a sense of belonging, without that in our work we couldn’t have reached this point.”

It seems that lavish weddings have gained more precedence since Cuba’s increased opening to global capitalism during the last few years. The emergence of flashy celebrations and new cosmopolitan entrepreneurs reflects larger, cultural, social and economic changes taking place in contemporary Cuba. It is related to emerging class differences and to possible shifts in Cubans’ understandings of family relations.

In 2007-2008, I conducted ethnographic research on kinship, gender and the life course amongst low-income, racially mixed Habaneros. My interlocutors were “ordinary Cubans” in the sense that many of them were employed at the state sector and most of them enjoyed, at best, a highly sporadic access to foreign remittances. In my research I focused on rituals such as weddings because they are representative of broader social relations. The weddings I attended differed greatly from those organized by the wedding planner: they took place in state halls and were often relatively relaxed. While many people organized a fiesta, some were married in jeans and T-shirts with only two persons present. Most importantly, my Cuban friends, for the most part, did not care much for weddings. There were no weddings amongst the circle of my close interlocutors during my nine-month-long fieldwork period. The weddings I managed to attend were due to friendly Cubans’ willingness to welcome a stranger to their parties.

Rather than entering into legal marriage, my interlocutors preferred to engage in consensual unions. They used the terms “husband” and “wife” interchangeably for both short and long-term love interests. In fact, many of my Cuban friends had a rather pragmatic relationship to marriage. Some rejected it on the basis of their fear that marriage would give their partner legal rights to their home and make them fall prey to predatory lovers looking to find a solution to Havana’s ever-lasting housing crisis. Others just did not care for formalities in their love affairs. One elderly couple had gotten legally married to “take the honeymoon” the state offers to married couples at a subsidized price as incentives for entering into marriage.

It is not that my Cuban friends did not care for love. Rather, they placed the greatest value in their relationships to their ‘blood’ relatives, which they saw as the source of reliable love, care and everyday help. Relationships with heterosexual partners were often laden with suspicion. Recently, researchers like Noelle Stout and Valerio Simoni have shown how love relations in contemporary Cuba are often fraught with fears about betrayal and material interests.In such a climate of insecurity, it is not surprising that most of my interlocutors were not interested in marriage. While many blame the changes of the post-Soviet era for the emergence of untrustworthy relationships, such suspicions may also reflect more long-term cultural and social tendencies. In the Caribbean, since the colonial era, kin relations amongst low-income, non-white people have emphasized the reliability of their ‘blood’ relatives over marital connections. Such understandings of kinship place great value in the position of women as mothers and cherish strong bonds between parents and children, sometimes at the expense of marriage.

The people who embrace grandiose weddings in contemporary Havana are usually white, wealthy and for the most part, residing outside of Cuba. The exclusive price of these parties places them out of reach to many people like my Cuban friends. The locals who manage to cash in from such new sources of income are disproportionally white and connected to international networks of cash, goods and information. Often to even become employed in such a field, a person has to be young, good-looking and light-skinned: the criterion of a buena presencia (good appearance) marginalizes people whose skin color is considered ‘too dark’ – and possibly also persons who are seen as being ‘too old’ or ‘too fat’? – from accessing lucrative jobs. Such business practices encourage individuals to create a new relationship to the state: as opposed to previous socialist loyalties, workers are now required to commit to private enterprises and a new work ethic that requires relentless labor, flexibility, odd hours and the prioritizing of work over socializing with family and friends – neoliberalism par excellence.

This cultural emphasis given to weddings carries the potential to promote normative notions of respectability in family relations. Traditionally, in the Caribbean, anthropologists have seen weddings as a class-defined status symbol closely related to Christian ideas of respectability (Smith 1996). In her study on colonial Cuba controlled by significant divisions of class and race, Verena Martínez-Alier noted that legal marriage had value as a significant status symbol amongst all groups in the society. Marriage was more common among the white upper classes, while both consensual unions and mother-centered kin relations (matrifocality) were widely practiced amongst the non-white population.

Soon after its entry into power, the revolutionary government sought to equalize Cubans’ access to legal marriage. During the 1960s’ campaigns of collective weddings and the latter institutionalization of state wedding halls, the revolutionary government aimed to grant all Cubans the possibility of celebrating weddings with a bourgeois luxury. The aim was to level class differences and promote greater stability in the family relations of the poorer, non-white section of the population. However, we know that, in practice, the value of legal marriage rather eroded during the years of the revolution at the expense of consensual unions and matrifocal kin relations .Nevertheless, simultaneously as the social power of state institutions is diminishing, entrepreneurs such as the wedding planner have become the symbol of success in the new Cuba.

What does the emergence of such grand scale weddings mean to ordinary Cubans who are unable to organize such parties themselves, tap into the revenues they create to the privileged few, or even to get invited to the fiestas? On the one hand, the appearance of such celebrations is another example of the emergence of intensified racialized class inequalities in contemporary Cuba. Havana’s new upper class distinguishes itself from poorer Cubans by engaging in forms of consumption inaccessible to others, such as sumptuous weddings. On the other hand, the new cultural centrality of weddings suggests a shift in understandings of kinship and gender towards pre-revolutionary values. If poorer people like my interlocutors begin to aspire to celebrate similar grandiose weddings and legal marriage gains a status value, such a shift in Havana’s ritual landscape carries the potential to promote bourgeois ideas of respectability. Such a shift may encourage more patriarchal understandings of family relations if marriage becomes a way to devalue single mothers and others who do not fit into the parameter of heterosexual nuclear families. Ostentatious weddings seem to be in the process of becoming the status symbol of wealth, success and white respectability that they were in pre-revolutionary Cuba, with the power to stigmatize those who are unable or unwilling to engage in legal marriage.
About the author Related posts

Heidi Härkönen

Heidi Härkönen is an Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her current research explores well-being and social change in contemporary Cuba through a focus on understandings and practices of body, personhood and care.

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