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The Obamas and the Blacks of Cuba: Some Questions of Power, Agency, and Representation

03/28/2016 04:43 am ET | Updated Mar 28, 2016
  • Odette Casamayor Cuban-born scholar and writer, Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut.
NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

On his last day in Havana, President Barack Obama addressed a brilliant speech to the Cuban people, the climax of a historic visit -- between March 20th and 22nd -- to the socialist nation considered as an enemy until December, 17th, 2014. "In America" -- Obama said -- "it's still possible for somebody like me -- a child who was raised by a single mom, a child of a mixed race who did not have a lot of money -- to pursue and achieve the highest office in the land." These words raised an unexpected question to myself: Would a Black Cuban ever become president in the island? What present and history have actually shown is the scant presence of Blacks in the wealthiest and most influential sectors of Cuban society; while they remain majoritarian in disempowered and poorer strati, and in prisons, of course. This situation, denounced in recent years by intellectuals, scholars, artists, and activists is blatantly evident for every visitor discovering that not only the owners but neither the clients of the most prosperous businesses are rarely Blacks.

This is the Havana where Obama landed with Michelle, Malia, Sasha, and his mother-in-law; followed by a large delegation that included other African-American personalities, such as Jackie Robinson's widow and daughter. It is thus understandable why this visit -- the first U.S. presidential visit to Cuba in 88 years -- might have had a significant impact, particularly for Cubans of African Descent. For them, it is unusual to have the opportunity to publicly celebrate not only a powerful Black man but also his family. Their presence made clearly visible something that wasn't of course inexistent in Cuba, but has been historically denied or misrepresented: Black agency. It is undeniable that many Black Cubans has always excelled as great patriots, intellectuals, artists, scientists, politicians, but their achievements are rarely explicitly acknowledged as part of an Afro-Cuban legacy. When Afro-Cubans receive public recognition, they are praised as raceless Cubans. As a result, contemporary Black Cubans have to strive to recover their own history, rewrite it, and find their very own historic role models.

In Cuba -- as throughout the Americas -- Blacks are not commonly associated with Power, which explains why the arrival of the First Family heightened a sharp contrast, particularly in images showing the encounters of Barack and Michelle Obama with their Cuban governmental hosts. Perusing these images, the racial imbalance of the Cuban power was barely attenuated by the persistent yet isolated appearance of one or two Black male members of the revolutionary elite -- such as Esteban Lazo, President of the National Assembly of the People's Power, who was conveniently displayed near Barack Obama at some specific events, like the State dinner at the Palace of the Revolution. In a country which last census (2012) estimated that 35.86 percent of its population was Black and Mixed-race, Lazo is one of the only five Blacks that can be included within the actual Cuban nomemklatura, composed by some 131 members.

But the attempts of the Cuban political elite to appear more diverse weren't extended beyond the doors of the Palace of the Revolution. When the First Lady met with young Cuban women we didn't see Afro-Cubans faces. Likewise, images documenting her visit to the "Rubén Martínez Villena" library, where she and her daughters planted magnolias and donated a bench, seemed to have been taken in an European country rather than in Habana Vieja, a part of the city with a strong Afro-Cuban population.

Yet the Obamas aren't the first African American celebrities who have recently set foot in the streets of Havana. After filming the Cuban chapter of his series Blacks in Latin America, "Cuba, The Next Revolution", Harvard Professor Henri-Louis Gates Jr. has almost become a new Havana neighbor himself. In addition, some successful Black couples have disrupted the Eurocentric Cuban imaginary since Beyoncé and Jay-Z chose Havana in April 2013 to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, collecting the sincere enthusiasm of the crowd. But the most spectacular Havana bain de foule was received last year by Rihanna, who adventured herself in the streets of El Cerro -- a notoriously neglected neighborhood -- even practicing some Cuban dance steps in the sweaty ballroom of La Casa de la Música. Right after her Vanity Fair's photo shoot under the lenses of Annie Leibovitz, Rihanna was spontaneously surrounded by Cubans of all races, although the presence of Blacks was significant.

President Obama couldn't mingle with the crowd and hadn't the opportunity to capture the real life in impoverished neighborhoods, but he was aware of the pervasiveness of racial inequality in the island. In his speech to the Cuban people, he expressed the willingness that the Cuban/US engagement will help lift up Afro-Cubans, "who have proven there's nothing they cannot achieve when given the chance." Made in a nationwide broadcasted event, this was an unequivocal recognition of Black Cuban agency, which constitutes an extraordinary occasion for Afro-Cubans. Today, must images of Cuba tend to ignore the real agency of its people of African Descent; an agency not limited to their performance as musicians, dancers, and athletes but rather as Cubans voicing their own messages and working together to change their situation. Which was an idea that Obama repeated throughout his stay in Havana: the present and the future of the island is the responsibility of all Cubans.

Meeting with self-employed entrepreneurs, President Obama remarked the need to offering everyone the chance to succeed, "including women and Afro-Cubans," he insisted. The challenge now is how to give Black Cubans access to the same opportunities their fellow citizens enjoy. In the early years of the revolution, the racial gap was undoubtedly addressed through policies intending to eradicate all kind of inequalities, by providing equal access to high quality health care, education, culture, housing, and employment. But we live now in a present driven by totally different economic and social dynamics. Recent reforms, while encouraging small entrepreneurship, have also promoted the rising of a wealthier class in the island. The capital invested in new business is generally provided by relatives or friends living abroad. Blacks are less likely to receive substantial remittances, since the majority of wealthy exiled Cubans are White. Is in this type of situations where I see the real obstacles to President Obama's good intentions to help disempowered Cubans. In addition, Black Cubans and Black Cuban-Americans have a scarce representation in the current negotiations between the United States and Cuba. At least, this is what the publicized images of these meetings show. It also seems that very few Black Cubans were among the entrepreneurs invited to meet with Obama during his stay in the island.

By the last minutes of his groundbreaking speech, President Obama confirmed that, instead of asking the people of Cuba to tear something down, he was encouraging young Cubans to build something new; and insisted that President Castro shouldn't see the United States as a threat. Now, if the United States abandons its role as the enemy against which the Cuban identity has been shaped through more than half a century, then this identity adamantly preserved by many Cubans in the island and abroad must be revised. Under the imperative of maintaining national unity in the face of counterrevolutionary aggressions in the 1960s and 1970s, the struggle against racial discrimination was once considered instrumental by the government. Though it was also for the sake of national consensus that racial identification has been obliterated in Cuban history under the weight of a mythic concept of nationhood. When racial segregation was officially ended in 1959, difference was supposed to be diluted within the masses facing a common enemy (the United States), sharing a single tradition, and immersed in the building of tropical socialism. But, today, when the confrontation between the two countries is fading, what would prevent Black Cubans from expressing their racial concerns, presenting their own agenda, rethinking the nation in their own terms?

Before the arrival of Barack Obama, Cubans were already under the challenge of reinventing new strategies of identification. In recent years, the denunciation of the scars left in the Afro-Cuban existence by slavery, discrimination, inequality and racial prejudice, has shown the necessity of bringing into the light of day a discussion always muzzled.

And behind the generalized avoidance of the racial debate, in the island and among its exiled community, I find the traces of Fear. Conscious or unconscious fear of missing historic privileges. Fear, also, of being prompted to work on the reinvention of the self as Cubans, once the rigid idea of a confrontational Cubanness becomes obsolete. Finally, fear of recognizing themselves exposed to the untamed energies of a global context. Cubans are not exceptional, and Black Cubans aren't either. They are part of the Global African Diaspora. There, I wait for many Cubans to jump against the mere idea of considering that Black Cubans may share similar experiences with other communities of Afro-Descendants in the Americas, particularly with African-Americans. Throughout Cuban history, literature and politics, the slightest intention to compare Afro-Cubans with African Americans has been seen as a sacrilege. Certainly, Black Cubans didn't experienced Jim Crow or suffered the atrocities committed by the KKK; yet in 1912, thousands of Blacks were killed when the Partido Independiente de Color, which advocated for the civil rights of Blacks, was savagely repressed. Why these facts wouldn't leave deep scars, transmitted through generations of Black Cubans? All people of African Descent in the Americas share the same long-lasting pain provoked by these scars. They have to be revealed, if we want them to heal.
And from there on, aware of ourselves, we might continue our path, together, as Cubans.

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