Cuba, 2015



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Clyde Taylor {New York, New York}

Editorial Note: Fidel Castro invoked a seductive binary as an aesthetic approach to reading the world when speaking about the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987 and 1988 during the Angolan liberation movement; the world would know itself in terms of before and after it. Toussaint L’Overture says “Let them tremble when they reach our coast ...” Fidel says “You will never have Cuba”. The nuances of concession, negotiation, and intermingling often get lost in headstrong revolutionary-period narratives. The before-befores and after-afters are important. Sex, Lies, and Tourism, for instance. In Cairo, on behalf of Namibia, Cuba just wanted to be at the table, after all.

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As Gertrude Stein is famously reported to have said on her death bed, “Alice, what is the answer?” No response: “Alice, what is the question?” Stein observed a sound path: in order to find the best answer, you need to find, or choose, the right question. Here I track maybe six answers searching for the right question to be put to new relations between the United States and Cuba.

Historian Gerald Horne offers an answer to a question few have bothered to ask. He argues that economic and political pressures from the African presence was a major reason why the colonial elite decided to wage a war for independence. (“Negro Insurrection and Foreign Invasion: Slavery, 1776 and the Founding of the United States”)

The political outlook in the early (U.S.) American colonies was fraught with chaos and insecurity, much of it gathered around the presence of the African. The slave trade, one of the most stupendous profit-making operations in history, was under attack from abolitionists in London. As commodities, humans are more complicated than rice, sugar or tobacco. The Crown deployed Africans as sailors and soldiers keeping the peace. The numbers of Africans grew to an alarming ratio. Real and rumored insurgencies had to be factored into every calculation, even more when African rebels combined with Spanish or French enemies to attack settlements. To deal with these and other pressures, the colonists went to war.

I once wrote that war has been good for black Americans. No matter which side Africans supported in the Revolutionary War, for instance, some were sure to benefit. That was a miscalculation. What I saw as the potential for African Americans to capitalize on the discombobulation of wartime, the American “fathers” saw as signs of an unreliable alien in the Blacks. Horne quotes Benjamin Franklin: “Every slave might be reckoned a domestic enemy,” and finds John Adams and James Madison in agreement. These founders of the republic sniffed the disagreeable prospect of Pan-Africanism and Du Bois’ ideal of a world-wide coalition of people of color, what he called “the darker races,” before the age of imperialism made such links clear.

The gains U.S. Blacks have salvaged from U.S. wars have to be measured among mixed considerations. How do such gains related to gains made from resistance to injustices? And are these gains only relative to the wider framework of the global struggle against racial colonialism? Most U.S. war-like actions have been aggressions designed to suppress people of color, as Du Bois and others knew. American imperialists in Du Bois’ time saw an affinity between “the little brown brothers” abroad and their counterparts at home. The minor benefits that fell to African Americans were side effects that never threatened the status or privileges of white freedom. The perception of U.S. Blacks as semi-aliens and potential threats lies sleeping in the White American imaginary, raising its unhinged head to expose President Barack Obama as a Mau Mau from Kenya.



What has this to do with Cuba?

The wart on the face that America shows the world was rapped by Samuel Johnson well before the 1776 revolt. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” The Confederacy followed the example of the original founders by going to war for their independent, God-given right to decimate another people. To paraphrase the definition of Freedom in Ambrose Bierce’s satirical Devil’s Dictionary, “A political condition that some nations seek to enjoy in virtual monopoly.”

Frederick Douglass hammered still-ringing questions in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It is one of the great American documents, an unarguable delegitimization of the intent behind the Declaration of Independence. “[Y]our shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock ... a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” Here he upends the face-off between civilization and savagery, a chosen trope of the racial colonizer. The bite of Douglass’ words is the fiercest anti-racist language we hear until Malcolm X speaks a century later; the cover up has had a lot of success. Douglass knew what few see clearly today. Some independence declarations are made to end oppression. Others are made to extend it. The search for freedom in the birth of the nation was at its core a search for the freedom to oppress.

How long. How long after New world nations got their independence did it take them to end slavery? Mark that time and you find a trail to conquest-driven freedom. Haiti holds one end of the spectrum, ending slavery in 1804 in synch with its victory over the French colonizers. It went on to promote emancipation at large. “In 1816,” writes Eduardo Galeano, “it was Haiti that furnished Bolivar with boats, arms, and soldiers when he showed up on the island defeated and asking for shelter and help.” In exchange for military troops and aid, Bolivar promised President Alexandre Petion that if he was successful in his mission to decolonize Latin America, he would free the slaves. That promise was largely kept. Venezuela, Colombia (including Panama), Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia all began ending slavery around 1815, soon after winning independence from Spain, though the process wasn’t completed in some of these countries until 1854. At the other end of the spectrum, as Horne notes, slavery in (U.S.) America escalated after the Revolutionary War and became more brutal. The American democracy continued to produce “the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes” for eighty-nine years, the crowning record, and racial segregation for another century.

What has this to do with Cuba?

Remember the Alamo? Honestly, no. The Euro-Americans who died at the Alamo were martyrs to the right to bring slavery into Mexico which had abolished it in 1829, as well as to grab land from the Comanche in Mexican territory that extended as far north as Colorado. To bring success to their mission the settlers played the Independence card, declaring themselves the Republic of Texas. Once the dust settled, the new nation seceded from Mexico, gained huge land spaces, and then got itself annexed to the United States with the right to slave labor guaranteed. When Rick Perry and other Texans bluster about seceding from the U.S., they are not channeling the Confederacy as much as waxing nostalgic for the time when Texans used the independence gambit and got away like bandits.

(A few die-hards pretend that the Republic of Texas was never fully annexed, and today run a kind of Mom and Pop shadow government. A candidate for governor recently ran as a secessionist and got 19,000 votes.)

Declaring independence has been a key maneuver among the “Little Europes”-- overseas colonies whose European settlers came in numbers and settled to stay, like Canada, Australia, Kenya, Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa. Some of these immigrants adopted strategies from the Yankee playbook, going to war if necessary. The freedom they sought, the freedom to oppress, has been described by George M. Fredrickson as “white freedom” in his book "White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African history." “Sometimes…the cause of white freedom and independence was directly linked with a desire to maintain flagrant forms of racial hegemony.” Gerald Horne notes that when Ian Smith declared the independence of Rhodesia from Great Britain in order to block decolonization of what is now Zimbabwe, he “argued that his unilateral Declaration of Independence was a replay of 1776.”

Ancient history. What about Cuba today?

Cuba shares a painful historical experience with the Philippines. Sectors of the Filipino population fought a war of liberation from Spanish colonialism that was gaining momentum until the United States came in and car-jacked their insurrection, defeated Spain and battled the Filipino revolutionaries in a very bloody war (during which Americans refined water-boarding). The Philippines were shifted from one Euro-American colonizer to another. To save face, the Spanish colluded with the Americans to stage a phony naval battle before surrendering. This is a meme of Western colonialism, passing dominions around like call girls at a Dominique Strauss Khan party instead of letting them fall into the hands of the locals. Some say this Philippine intervention is ancient history; but it is easy to match similar tactics in the U.S. attack on Vietnam’s revolution for self-determination.

The staged event, the manufactured threat, the call to an endangered honor, the seething media blitz are all part of the tool kit of U.S. expansionist geopolitics. “You couldn’t make this stuff up,” says the CIA chief in a Jason Bourne movie. But the real CIA and the Pentagon with their media hacks have no writer’s block when it comes to fabricating a pro war scenario. Richard Sanders has framed a compilation: “How to Start a War: The American Use of War Pretext Incidents.” Pretexts for military offensives are no more occult than espionage, black ops, war game and white-washing historical narratives. Much of the discourse of U.S. state-craft is in fact pretexts. The Declaration of Independence for example works also as a Declaration of Innocence pre-texting present cut outs and future double-dealing.

How does this relate to Cuba?

Remember the Maine? I was taught to remember it as an atrocity to be avenged by Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill. The Maine was a battleship that in fact blew itself up in Havana harbor by letting fire get into its weapons storage. The domestic war party cranked up its mob patriotism and stole another revolution in Cuba at the same time as in the Philippines.

We mis-remember the accidental tragedy of the Maine. What we don’t remember is the Cuban revolution for independence from 1868 to 1898, because, as Ada Ferrer points out, (U.S.) Americans have a way of ignoring the realities of the people they engage with. Ferrer reminds us of this key struggle in the island’s history in her book, "Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898". And what a revolution it was! It was a striking stand-alone insurgency beside the raids for white freedom launched from 1776 on. The planters bent to necessity and joined with slaves, who consequently became ex-slaves in an army that was deeply integrated, with troops of all races commanded by officers that included Black and Mulatto generals. The most illustrious of them was Antonio Maceo. Maceo and his successes against the Spanish colonizers were victories fought for the ideal of making Cuba a multiracial, antiracist society. There were, he declared, “no whites nor blacks, but only Cubans.”

As in the Philippines, the U.S. snatched the prize. “United States intervention,” Ferrer writes, “at its most basic level, blocked an independence sought by violent and peaceful means for three decades.

The multiracial and antiracist principles of the Cuban revolutionaries were running against the tide of supremacist ideology of social Darwinism and the pseudo-scientific racism of Arthur de Gobineau. “[I]t is clearly significant,” writes Ferrer, “that in an age of ascendant racism, the United States opted to temper the victory of a multiracial movement explicitly antiracist.”

Once the U.S. took over the administration of Cuba from the Spanish, they disarmed the nationalist revolutionaries and gave favorable positions to Spanish bureaucrats. They engineered a reversal of the revolutionary ethos, demanding that Cubans prove their readiness for independence by miming “civilization and modernity” as defined by the occupiers. General William Shafter: “Self-government! Why these people are no more fit for self-government than gunpowder is for hell.” One test of civilized behavior set up by this occupying army, which included many Texan troops, was to re-subjugate Blacks. The Cuban elites gave in with only a little resistance.

At some points questions become answers and vice versa.

Where has the U.S. intervened in support of a movement for freedom, independence or self-determination of people of color? Instead its habit has been to watch for the rise of liberation movements among first world peoples and like a shark smelling blood move in for the kill. Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano analyses this aspect of white freedom as “the coloniality of power.” He writes: “One of the fundamental axes of this model of power is the social classification of the world’s population around the idea of race, a mental construction that expresses the basic experience of colonial domination and pervades the more important dimensions of global power, including its specific rationality: Eurocentrism.”

When the Fidelistas rolled into Havana victorious over the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, they carried memories of the earlier Cuban revolution that the U.S. had tried to erase. The 1959 revolution “embraced the independence movement as its spiritual and ideological predecessor,” writes Ada Ferrer. “It extolled the anti-imperial and antiracist nationalism of nineteenth century figures, and it excoriated the intervention of the United States. By its own account the revolution of 1959 represented the fulfillment and embodiment of nineteenth century patriotic ideals, thwarted by the intervention of the United States in 1898 and by the decades of direct and indirect American rule that followed.”

If J.F. Kennedy had understood more of this history, he might not have greenlighted the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Castro revolutionaries predicted a U.S. counter-revolutionary assault, and counted on it. The CIA planning for this counter-revolutionary coup began on schedule under Eisenhower a few months after the Cuban liberation. The pretext this time was that the invasion was supposed to look like it was executed by Cuban exiles in the United States. In the mix was the fantasy of the Cuban people rising up to greet the invaders as liberators, throwing roses in their path and joining the counter-revolution. The threat of communism was also part of the ticket, even though as we have seen, the pattern was set long before communism became a global factor. Not long after the “perfect” military fiasco at the Bay of Pigs (which included plans to simultaneously assassinate the Castro brothers and Che Guevara), the revolution declared itself Marxist-Leninist. The Bay of Pigs was an attempt to baby-snatch the new Cuban revolution like the one in 1898.

The rationale that a communist Cuba must be eliminated is only the latest iteration of the (U.S.) American fear of and hostility toward alternative political possibilities. Long before Marx, the Haitian Revolution was opposed by the United States out of fear that it would spread a contagion (a “domino effect”) for liberation from slavery and White colonialism. Fearing a liberated Haiti, Thomas Jefferson “warned that Haiti had created a bad example and argued it was necessary to ‘confine the plague to the island.’" The U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba has tried to revive the “White Curse,” as Eduardo Galeano calls it, placed on a free Haiti. From some angles, Cuba looks like the twentieth and twenty-first century version of Haiti -- a thorn in the side of American dominance. The dissonance between the American and Cuban way of addressing freedom springs from roots in the colonial past, a struggle for or against the persistent coloniality of power. Apartheid in South Africa offered a challenge to the two ways of making free. The U.S. supported the Apartheid government until forced to change its policy by international and national pressure through divestment and economic sanctions, including African American protests led by Randal Robinson and TransAfrica.

That’s the American side of the story; a credible run against type; one more time when unloved protesters saved the country from its worst impulses -- for a minute. But the remarkable Cuban contribution to the overthrow of Apartheid pales in the U.S. memory like the revolution of 1868. Cuba supported liberation movements in Africa from 1960, in the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia, and most importantly in Angola, where it sent over 55,000 troops to confront and defeat the South African Defense Forces. It was this exceptional act of popular liberation that drew the Apartheid regime to the negotiations that ended its White supremacist order. It was the flip side of the Bay of Pigs invasion, a brilliant military campaign to liberate instead of a pitiful flop of an invasion to repress. Nelson Mandela saluted this act: “What other country has such a history of selfless behavior as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa? ... In Africa we are used to being victims of countries that want to take from us our territory or overthrow our sovereignty. In African history there is not another instance where another people has stood up for one of ours ... The decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor.” This story is told in Cuba, An African Odyssey, a masterful documentary made by Egyptian filmmaker Jihan El Tahri, available on YouTube.

Two societies in the Western hemisphere, wide apart in their ideas and practice of freedom and humanistic values. The gulf gapes when Little Havana propagandists denounce Cuba on human rights while ignoring the innocent and tortured political prisoners on Guantanamo, Cuban land that the U.S. seized after the 1898 invasion.

So, we come to the question we’ve been searching for.

Will the opening of new contacts between the U.S. and Cuba produce benefits for Cuban people not only in material health, but spiritually and culturally as well, since the concept of how to be human splinters, with one society modeling itself as universal and transcendental norm? Can U.S. foreign policy, unfolding in screeds of freedom and free trade, put aside its appetite for vulnerable anticolonial movements? (Do we remember Grenada?) Will that policy try to make of the Castro revolution a forgotten history the way it did the rebel republic of 1868?

The right wing castigates Obama for this deal of opening to Cuba because “we haven’t gotten anything” for it. This sounds like a design to update the terms for ending the U.S. occupation after 1898 “civilization and modernity.” What will the price be to earn membership in “the international community?” Laid out in Americanist rhetoric, it will necessarily be a demand for Cuba to make itself a place more to the liking of U.S. interests -- a nation closer to the Batista Cuba that the Fidelistas overthrew -- that’s what counter-revolutions do.

Or, will the Cuban people hold onto their well-graced identity, with its rhythms, flavors and colors, its soulful humanism, confident in the joy of their freedom to grow, free from any freedom other than their own? -END-

Dr. Clyde Taylor is author of The Mask of Art: Breaking the Aesthetic Contract Film and Literature)

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