By Victor Fowler – Jun 5, 2021
A joint statement has circulated on human rights in Cuba, prepared by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and the Harvard University Institute for Afro-Latin American Research.
The breadth of the respective fields of work of these institutions, as well as the areas they share, suggest that this confluence for the preparation and public presentation can only be due to an absolutely exceptional situation of the Afro-Latin American and Afro-American communities. In this way, while the coincidence between fields of action is verified at the continental level of Afro-descendant populations, we can imagine the existence of a kind of “spillover effect” that translates into what is pointed out in the document also operating as an example or guide at least for subaltern groups in Latin America (for example, indigenous people) and minorities (for example, Hispanics) in the United States.
I was a fellow of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies in 2000 and of the Hutchins Center for African and Afro-American Research together with the Institute for Afro-Latin American Research at Harvard University in 2016. Although I am not totally sure of it, I believe I have been the only Cuban resident of the island who has enjoyed such a condition in these three institutions. Given that, in addition to this I am a writer and Black, the invitation to dialogue that the document insists on and the attention it places on Cuban Afro-descendant groups encourage me to share some assessments.
The document announces itself as the product of “research and teaching units,” proposes a “strong condemnation of the recent repression by the Cuban government against artists and activists who seek artistic freedom and freedom of expression” and calls for an alignment with that position. What are we to make of this text that says that the Cuban state media discredits “activists including visiting Harvard artists” as “mercenaries” or “agents of hostile foreign governments and organizations,” while not saying the tiniest word as to whether there really are mercenaries (without quotation marks), government agents and foreign organizations operating against national stability in Cuba and financed with money from the United States? Not from private organizations, but from state budgets, annually assigned to change (whatever this may be) the Cuban national reality.
Is there any connection between the delivery of these funds to the hands of Cuban actors and the political attitudes (and public expressions organized as acts of opposition) of such actors? Not to include, as part of the panorama of the island that the Statement draws, even if as a minimal consideration of some cause-consequence link between financing and political projection, is either a case of hallucinatory innocence or a typical example of ostrich behavior, with the head buried in the sand so as not to see.
Furthermore, the document “whose main intention is to express support for the participants of the so-called San Isidro Movement” proposes a genealogy according to which this event arose in response to “the Decree 349 that criminalizes independent artistic creation”. Once again, the text prefers not to say that Decree 349 not only does not criminalize independent artistic creation, but it turns out to be nothing less than that which defines jokes and racist acts in shows and other public acts as subject to administrative and even criminal sanction within the institutional system of the Ministry of Culture, as well as in non-institutional spaces for artistic presentation. Here it must be added that the decree, which was never applied to any artist, was debated between cultural authorities and artists in meetings held for this purpose in all the country’s provinces in environments for constructive dialogue.
Using the historical poverty of more than 200 years, in San Isidro (“it is a poor neighborhood inhabited mainly by Afro-descendants,” says the document), makes equivalent different temporalities and, above all, minimizes even practically erases the enormous dignifying impact that the Cuban Revolution of 1959 had on the populations of the place. That is why, instead of an amorphous mass of “poor” (abandoned, alienated, without access to any possibility of development) there are – as in the most dissimilar spaces of the Island – polyclinics, schools, cultural institutions, etc., at the service of a universe of people of the most varied professions, races and cultural levels.
Although Cuban poverty is undeniable, identifying it as a detonator of social discomfort (articulated or not in the public space) without saying a line about the immediate, direct responsibility of the continued embargo/blockade policy of the United States against the island for 60 years is a doubly questionable decision: as an academic model of analysis for a social event and as an ethical gesture.
At this point, there is no way that this embargo/ blockade does not force us to take such a position that affects all fields of thought and life; especially because it depends (for its enactment and sustainability through continuous reformulations) on the enormous disproportion that exists between the most powerful nation in all human history and an underdeveloped island with a weak economy. From here we should see in a different light if the island’s authorities made (or are committing) errors in the administration of their small economy because what the ethical gesture forces us not to keep silent is that this has happened under from one of the most violent disintegrating pressures that any country has ever suffered.
As for the so-called Movement of San Isidro, there are a few seconds of a recording made with a cell phone in which Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara (the main leader) seems to be answering some critical question that an elderly woman has just made; here, in the tone of his response, Otero, visibly upset, reprimands the woman with a phrase: “That’s why you deserve to eat little dogs.” For those unfamiliar with Cuba, the scene speaks of humble “hot dog” packages, which is not only what this poor woman manages to buy, but what the State (whose economic structure is hit relentlessly by the diversified attacks that are woven to conform the embargo/blockade) manages to offer its population. The interest of the scene, an isolated instant in this person’s history, a few seconds without apparent significance, is precisely that the exchange makes transparent that “the real” is not about artists opposing a ministerial decree, or about “human rights,” nor about polite requests for “dialogue and understanding,” but about the projection of a political actor situated in the line of Cuba’s return to the circuit of the same dependent capitalism from which it once emerged.
If de-provisioning in conditions of external hostility is painful, what is really terrible and despicable is that Otero, with complete political vacuity, does two terrifying things: he presents himself as a supposed racial leader, but speaks to a woman who is also black with the language of authoritarianism and an absence of empathy that the memory of these poor sectors registers as coming from the authors of that white hegemony that has always repressed them. And, perhaps worse still, his response implies the assurance that – whatever may be the post-socialist world model that Otero imagines for the country – poor sectors such as those that this woman represents (from San Isidro to all the poverty zones) are going to get something better.
Certainly, it is not lost on me the ease with which here, at this exact point, it is tempting to introduce an ironic comment and affirm that, whatever the outcome, the poor person in the post-socialist world will eat better; but then it would also be necessary to affirm that this is a universal truth for any underdeveloped area of global capitalism or (as I have heard on numerous occasions) to unite the two realities in an amazing combination: to maintain that Cuban post-socialism is going to be full of possibilities thanks to the high level of education and culture in the population (due to the Revolution itself, which they deny!) and to identify and translate this educated population with a huge potential reserve of workers, technicians, service employees and professionals of all kinds at the service of the kind of transformation of the country that takes place when the final encounter with big capital happens (which is very unlikely not to be largely American).
This dream of surrender, incapable of perceiving the violence of poverty that capital generates in underdeveloped areas, is the bearer of a past – present debate and reduces the people to the level of whether or not he or she eats something better than that “little hot dog” without being able to see, interpret or place in their analytical structures those guarantees that – for the development of the human person – the socialist state of a poor country offers its populations in the spheres of health and education (both free and universal), labor protection and the security of never being forced to leave the dwelling you live in for economic reasons.
All of the above is without taking into account that the reduction of the horizon of expression of the poor sectors that this woman embodies (for example, placing the event at the level of an exchange about food) cancels the option of freedom that that person has chosen for himself. That is to say, since she is at the opposite of Otero (and that is why he reprimands her), then we must accept that she decided to give her life (and this is the case since she is an older person) to a way of existing in the country where the scale of measuring freedom and, above all, the ways of achieving human fulfillment are different. The key here is to ask ourselves if perhaps the fusion between the color of the woman’s (black) skin, her age, the neighborhood in which she lives (the San Isidro of historical poverty) and the difference in appreciation with respect to Otero do not simply mean that the woman judges the reality of the present and takes a position from a memory of exclusion continually reactivated through the protections and opportunities for fulfillment, growth and freedom of being that these sectors have received from the Revolution. Where, in the Harvard document, is the voice of this woman heard with the truth of which she is the bearer and what – throughout the entire country – she symbolizes; the voice of black people (or not) who, in the popular sectors, position themselves at the antipodes of the “movement” of San Isidro?
I still have one more comment and this one regarding the differentiating and terrifyingly exclusive nature of the proposal; that is, regarding the way in which three academic institutions position themselves in the face of the political situation of a country located in a continent whose recent dynamics are part of a political upheaval that include murders, mutilations, disappearances and torture (among other forms of police violence), political corruption at very high levels, coups d’etat that follow the model of “lawfare”, political kidnappings, murders of journalists, caravans of thousands of people desperate because of poverty, etc. In this way it is grotesque, ridiculous, shameful and horribly offensive and cruel (especially very cruel) for those who have suffered terrible state violence in recent times in Latin America to read a fragment like the following about the San Isidro neighborhood:
“The nature, quality, and intensity of the state violence unleashed against its residents resembles forms of racialized state violence in other countries across the Americas, including the United States, which we have also denounced vigorously from our platforms. Cuban Black lives also matter.”
Since absolutely none of the varieties of violence mentioned before take place in that San Isidro that they imagine and defend, I am going to make a public request to my colleagues: I beg you to have the honesty and the courage to repeat and explain what you have affirmed to the relatives of the dead, tortured, mutilated, disappeared, to the women who were raped, to those who have lost their sight, to the families of social leaders and journalists murdered in all these countries of the continent. Not in conferences, chairs, magazines and printed or virtual documents, not in a radio booth or in front of a camera, but in front of specific people, in the flesh, looking them in the eye, people whose lives (or those of loved ones) have been destroyed by the violence of the state in its repressive and punishing variant as well as by the abandonment of the state, this last truly the other side of violence. As far as I know, there are no documents – issued by this triad of Harvard institutions – that refer, with the same urgency and intensity of concern (and never less) to the situation of “human rights” in any other country on the continent; and, in parallel, neither, as far as I know, are there urgent declarations and statements of solidarity from the leader of the San Isidro Movement and of those who follow him concerning social struggles such as those that, in the last year, have taken place in Bolivia, Chile or Colombia, all with a significant component of left-wing political activism.
But much worse still is that we are not aware of any joint statements from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and the Institute for Afro-Latin American Research at Harvard University (and remember that I ask that this be done “with the same urgency and intensity of concern and no less”), regarding the situation of “the human rights of Black communities in the United States”. Not based on the idea that these are transitory and correctable “failures” or “problems” of the system, but rather focused on understanding suffering as a matter of “human rights” which, as such (for example), deserve petitions of solidarity and campaigns of international condemnation in all types of organisms and political scenarios. To speak as if the structural violence that the capitalist model produces during its operation, as part of its own internal logic, was not a matter of “human rights”, but of another order (whatever is said and imagined) is an impoverishment of the tools of social / political analysis, a manipulation of knowledge, a ruse loaded with ideological obedience or a vulgar act of moral duplicity.
In addition to all that has been said, to dismiss the multiplicity of efforts with an egalitarian intention, undertaken by the Cuban State since 1959, with a capricious sleight of hand – thanks to which the document applies to Cuba an interpretation of the past, present and future more suited to the American nation – is a theoretical non-sense bordering on ethical monstrosity; because a substantial part of what the Cuban State has not been able to offer to these Afro-descendant populations in the country (or to any population, in general) is exactly due to the brutal, sustained, interwoven and extraterritorial impact of the policies of imperial hostility from the United States accompanied by its various allies.
How do we understand and how do we accept a transfer to Cuba that the document makes of the dynamics of poor Afro-American communities through the use of the phrase: “The lives of Black Cubans also matter”? Where in Cuba do we find the most sordid and aggressive aspects specific to a model of structural oppression within poor communities? The previous government of the United States made the destruction of the Cuban economy a favorite topic of its discourse (many will remember the threats Trump made while speaking of his next projects against the Island, he warned – in a televised intervention – to his followers and the world: “They don’t know what awaits them”). How do academics manage not to find any relationship between the dynamics that may take place in the spaces of poverty in Cuba and this articulation of imperial evil?
I leave for the end a happy coincidence. Still recently, in that place of historical poverty that is San Isidro, a cultural complex was inaugurated, whose name is “Oficio de Isla”, an open institution aimed at the community for exchanges and artistic expression. This happened despite and in the midst of the numerous economic constraints derived from the current Covid-19 pandemic; that is, when the last of the pennies count the most because there are hardly any. The coincidence is especially interesting because “Oficio de Isla” is the title of a theatrical piece, which in that same neighborhood had numerous performances last year and which entirely involves this same Harvard University from which this document now comes; the piece in question, presents a history of national resistance based on the famous visit of more than 1,200 Cuban teachers to Harvard University during the summer of 1901.
Living is such a strange experience that in this story I have a particular place. I spent an entire academic year at Harvard, as a guest on a research scholarship precisely for two of the institutions that signed the document I am commenting on; During that same time, the director Danny Gonzalez Lucena did the research work for his documentary “The Cubans of Harvard” for which I had the honor of being a co-writer. I have to recount it because it was this documentary that inspired the theater piece “Oficio de isla,” conceived by Arturo Sotto and directed by Osvaldo Doimeadios. The title of the work, in turn, was the name chosen for the cultural complex that I referred to earlier, located right in the same neighborhood of San Isidro that the Harvard document tells us about.
Faced with the sad example of “academic interventionism” that stars the trio of institutions mentioned, I applaud what the theater piece and the cultural complex “Oficio de Isla” represent precisely for those popular sectors: another way of access to knowledge and enjoyment of the best culture, a space for spiritual development, another sample of the interaction between populations and the institution and, not least, one more episode in the history of resistance and national culture.
Featured image: Cuban poet Victor Fowler responds to “academic interventionism” regarding Cuba by elite US educational institutions. File photo.