Kiss and Make Up? (III): Obama’s Cuban Vacay

Cubans observe Air Force One approaching Havana Airport on March 20th. Source:

Hell froze over. A sitting President of the United States has visited Cuba for the first time since the 1920s. It is the biggest step yet toward the normalization of relations that Cuba and the US began late in 2014. With this visit, Cuba has been officially elevated to the rank of countries the US has fundamental disagreements with but is still willing to talk to face-to-face and even seek cooperative agreements with, just like with China and Russia. Obama’s first-ever presser in Cuba, next to Cuban president Raúl Castro, proclaimed the new state of affairs.

Politico came up with a rather interesting play-by-play account of that presser, hailing it as “how Obama set a trap for Raul Castro”. Maybe, because according to that account Castro was visibly uncomfortable when a CNN reporter asked him about Cuba’s political prisoners, to the point that Castro ended the presser by saying that it was “not right” for him to be asked about the issue. And Obama was all too happy to join in on the fun and push Castro into the limelight. El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-speaking, Castro Brothers-criticizing official organ of Miami’s Cuban diaspora, passed judgment on that awkward day: Raúl Castro is not ready to field questions from anyone who is not on his government’s pocket. But what is more interesting to me is that both presidents have declared to the whole universe that they agree to disagree on stuff like human rights and political freedoms. In a retort to Obama, Castro said that it was inconceivable in Cuba for the government to not guarantee health care, education, food security, and social security; and that civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights were interdependent and indivisible.

So we now arrive at a conundrum reminiscent of The Odd Couple: can two countries with different and deeply held views on democracy make normalization work without driving each other crazy?

On the Cuba side, there is nothing wrong with demanding that socioeconomic equality be a foundation of the political system because it does have an effect on whether citizens feel that they are truly equal under the law, are wholly included in the political process, and receive the same opportunities to reach the peak of human promise. That is the spirit of the Cuban Revolution, and no one can blame it for that given the sordid state of Cuba before 1959. On the other hand, Raúl Castro did not explain what exactly did he mean by “political freedoms”, but it is obvious that dissent is not one of them. The reasons are not difficult to find if we put a little intellect into it. Insofar as socioeconomic equality is advertised to Cubans as both the ultimate source of all legislation, Cuban socialism can be considered to be similar in logic to the Rousseauian general will. And because the general will is always right, since it represents the very best interest of every single member of a political society, it is always better to obey a law that has its source on the general will, even if you disagree with it. If necessary (actually, as a matter of course in Cuba), citizens must be forced to obey such laws, as Tania Bruguera, “El Sexto”, the Ladies in White, Heberto Padilla, and Oswaldo Payá can tell. In short, speaking in Rousseauian terms, Cubans must be forced to be free. The problem, of course, is the same one that affects traditional religion: when ideas become an omnipresent and infallible dogma that does not countenance disagreement with it. In those conditions of forced groupthink, the economic, social, and cultural rights that the Cuban Revolution claims to have achieved, for all their validity, are pointless. That realization, by the way, is nowhere to be found in the minds of the people who support the Cuban political system under a “different strokes for different folks” take on democracy, which Laurence Whitehead describes in his chapter from the third edition of Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America as being infamously susceptible to use as a way to tolerate retreats from (liberal-)democratic values. One point for the US.

On the US side, neither is there anything wrong with asserting that no government, not even the most progressively-minded, should assume that individuality is superfluous, especially when it comes to the impact of government decisions on ordinary lives. This why the right to disagree with the government – the same right Cuban supporters in the US take advantage of when making their case against the embargo but seemingly cannot conceive Cubans on the island to have – matters. But we also know, unless we are actually living under a rock, that the US has ghastly flaws: rising income inequality, African-Americans killed by (usually White) police officers or overpopulating prisons, health care being a good on the market and not a right, politicians being sold to the highest bidder thanks to easily circumvented campaign finance rules, etc. In such conditions, the political freedoms for which the US is globally famous are equally pointless. Moreover, it is also a historical fact that despite rhetorical artillery barrages like Ted Cruz’s, the US does have a negative historical record in Cuba, among other counts, by virtue of negating its full independence after the Spanish-American War and enlisting the help of people like Fulgencio Batista, the dictator whose henchmen beat and tortured Cruz’s father. And when scandals like Abu Ghraib and the Guantánamo detainees show up, or when Obama does not appear to hold all Latin American countries to the same human rights standard he holds Cuba to, Obama’s human rights “trap” is, in reality, a flimsy one. One point for Cuba.

Assuming that normalization will survive the upcoming change in administration and a new Congress, the fact that the US is treating Cuba now in the same way it treats Russia and China is more promising than 50 more years of the same old policy of antagonism so cherished by the GOP, the hard line of the Cuban diaspora, and even Democrats like Bob Menéndez. (Donald Trump would not follow along. He would probably bomb Havana and have Fidel Castro waterboarded.) But that promise means that both sides have high expectations to meet. The US must recognize that it did not play fair with Cuba in the past and, accordingly, still not take normalization as a Trojan horse for the kind of arm-twisting regime change it has tried to carry out in Cuba for a long time. It also has to recognize that there is nothing wrong with socioeconomic equality in and of itself and concede that the Cuban Revolution has a good point there. But in turn, Cuba must recognize that the totalitarian model, with its penchant for repressing society, now belongs in the dustbin of history and that there is nothing wrong with recognizing political individuality, because it is impossible to expect all citizens to agree to what the government will do to them. Cuba does not need to continue emulating the atmosphere of Donald Trump’s rallies (“get him out of here!”) by ostracizing an artist who utilizes art as a vehicle for political self-expression, a mother that wants her son released from jail or someone like this guy. The bushes that survive the high winds are the flexible ones, not the stiff ones. Besides, the generation of the Sierra Maestra is withering away, including Raúl Castro, who announced upon his re-appointment as head of state in 2013 that he will retire in 2018. It is time to rethink the Cuban Revolution, especially when so many Cubans simply want a better life for themselves without having to vote with their feet.

But however you slice it, hell did freeze over. I guess that means the Curse of the Billy Goat will finally be broken and Cubs will win the World Series this year.

“The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention.” (Red Smith, New York Herald Tribune, October 4, 1951)


Postscript (May 24, 2017): To be sure, by the time normalization was announced, Raúl Castro was already presiding over notable economic and institutional changes. Perhaps the most notable of them is allowing for more self-employment and relaxing existing regulations on the establishment of small businesses – something unthinkable when Fidel Castro ran the show. For all his propensity to get irritated when the foreign press grills him on human rights issues, Raúl is (and always has been) a pragmatist, unlike his ideologically-driven big brother. But he is also under pressure: lacking Fidel’s ability to keep the Revolution afloat by sheer charisma, Raúl has to demonstrate that good governance is not tied to any one man, but a standardized feature of the political system. In the light of increasing skepticism, the hopes aroused by normalization in ordinary Cubans (which are not reducible to simply changing the regime, though), and his impending retirement, Raúl’s mission is a critical one.

Also, the Cubs did win the World Series in 2016.

Posted in Cuba, Foreign Relations | Leave a comment


A sympathizer of chavismo holds a flag and a Hugo Chávez doll while participating on the march commemorating the 24th anniversary of the February 4, 1992 coup. Photo credit: Oswaldo González. Source: Ministry of the Popular Power for Communes and Social Movements, Bolivarian Government of Venezuela

As I was doing some online research for a manuscript that will be sent to a peer-reviewed journal, I came across with the news that Venezuela observed the 24th anniversary of the event that made Hugo Chávez a household name: the military coup that he led in February 1992. The Bolivarian spin machine made sure that the significance of that event as they understand it was not lost on anyone (my translation):

With joy and patriotic sentiment, the revolutionary people commemorated this Thursday, February 4th, the 24th anniversary of the civic-military rebellion [..].

This commemoration began on February 4th, 1992, when Chávez, along with a group of military patriots and sectors of the people, initiated the struggles against the policies that favored oligarchic sectors and harmed the Venezuelan people.

In that context, the date represents the popular insurrection against neoliberalism and the capitalist system that devoured the resources of the nation.


It is important to highlight that this act of patriotism and gallantry was declared Day of National Dignity because it is considered one of the most transcendental events in Venezuelan history.

Every country can establish as many of these big days as it wants and justify them as it wants. But only so long as the justification makes sense. At a moment when the Venezuelan economy is in unquestionable shambles and the opponents of chavismo have made it all the way into becoming the majority in the National Assembly (the Venezuelan legislature), this particular commemoration has all the trappings and feel of a rally-around-the-flag ploy, conveniently set up to prop up the strained morale of chavistas and make everybody forget that things are just not good. Chavismo continues to be under siege even if it also continues to have the lion’s share of political power and a military that is unabashed about being ideologically pliant. Every time President Maduro insults those who do not agree with him, he gives Donald Trump a run for his billions.

I have always thought that the Venezuelan people (or rather, that 59% of valid votes for president in 1998) cannot be blamed for bringing Hugo Chávez to power. He was a product of the circumstances. In general terms, Venezuelans in February 1992 lived under a political system dominated by Acción Democrática (AD) and Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI) — two political parties that were practically indistinguishable ideologically, increasingly unrepresentative, and too willing to turn the other way rather than to crack down on corruption. The system, known by scholars as puntofijismo (named after its constitutive 1958 agreement, known as Punto Fijo Pact), was also fueled by oil revenues that were heavily spent on patronage and what was essentially a large welfare state. But by the early 1980s, when the global price of oil plummeted and Latin America entered its “lost decade” after the onset of the foreign debt crisis of 1982, the economic panic button was pressed. AD and COPEI governments tried to remedy the situation with neoliberal measures such as a sharp currency devaluation and spending cuts, but their unpopularity contributed to discredit the parties further and led to the 1989 street riots known as “caracazo,” as well as 5,000 more demonstrations in the following three years. Meanwhile, Hugo Chávez found time from his duties as an army lieutenant colonel to become a full-time conspirator and organize, along with other like-minded military officers, the February 1992 putsch.

What is interesting is that Chávez took his time in embracing socialism, so one can only wonder how much of a “popular insurrection against neoliberalism” his coup really was. Scholarly literature does cast a shadow of doubt: In “Venezuela: An Electoral Road to Twenty-First Century Socialism?”, Gregory Wilpert suggests that Chávez did not decisively declare himself a socialist until 2005 and his leftist inclinations were vague before that time (including his 1998 presidential bid); in “Crisis and Regression: Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela”, Heinz Sonntag argues that the circle of military conspirators who orchestrated the coup were less interested in socioeconomic revolution than in a purely political revolution (as in radically changing state institutions); and in “Explaining Democratic Deterioration in Venezuela through Nested Inference”, Michael Coppedge points out that the main goals of the February coup were to remove the elected but detested government, end impunity, and rekindle prosperity — goals widely shared among Venezuelans at that time. None of them, however, indicates the type of socioeconomic change advanced by 21st century socialism (as a matter of fact, two of Chávez’s co-conspirators, Yoel Acosta and Jesús Urdaneta, eventually distanced themselves from him once he embraced socialism). Coppedge also presents an interesting argument: ordinary Venezuelans got morally outraged because they were paying the consequences of corrupt adecopeyanos plundering oil profits and running the economy to the ground. Venezuelans did oppose neoliberalism violently, but Coppedge suggests it was because the economic crisis was not deep enough to adopt a “wait-and-see” stance. After 1992, says Coppedge, when a non-adecopeyano government implemented more neoliberal policies to reverse a more prolonged crisis, there was no second “caracazo.” In any case, it seems reasonable to think that neoliberalism was opposed in 1989 because it deepened an economic crisis that should not have happened in the first place, not because of anything reprehensible about neoliberalism itself. In this sense, the motivation for Chávez’s sabre-waving has more in common with the rationale behind the traditional Latin American coup (i.e. the military stepping in to save the country from its inept elected rulers) than with a crusade against neoliberalism. Forgotten by the current powers-that-be in Venezuela in the midst of that splendid display of ideology is the fact that a second military coup was carried out nine months later, the following November.

These statements do not intend to rehabilitate puntofijismo. If anything, they echo Jennifer McCoy’s thoughts in her article “Chávez and the End of ‘Partyarchy’ in Venezuela” on the dangers of over-institutionalization: the old parties grew so attached to their traditional ways that they could not — or perhaps did not want to — see the writing on the wall and adapt to new demands and new political actors. But by the same token, these statements do not justify anything that Chávez, Maduro, and their respective governments have done until now.

Rather than being the political equivalent of the Book of Genesis (or the Higgs boson, if you prefer), the 4F story is more like a fish tale.

PS: As a way to show that history repeats itself, especially to those who do not learn from the past, President Maduro has decreed the same currency devaluation implemented by adecopeyano governments. Most astoundingly, on a televised 5-hour speech, he expressed his hope that the people would understand his decision, alluding to the “caracazo” – and perhaps hoping that something similar will not happen on his watch.

Cited sources

Coppedge, Michael. 2005. “Explaining Democratic Deterioration in Venezuela through Nested Inference.” In The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin America: Advances and Setbacks, ed. Frances Hagopian and Scott Mainwaring, 289-318. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McCoy, Jennifer. 1999. “Chávez and the End of ‘Partyarchy’ in Venezuela.” Journal of Democracy 10(3): 64-77.

Sonntag, Heinz R. 2001. “Crisis and Regression: Ecuador, Paraguay, Perú and Venezuela.” In Democracy in Latin America: (Re)Constructing Political Society, edited by Manuel Antonio Garretón M. and Edward Newman, 126-158. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Wilpert, Gregory. 2013. “Venezuela: An Electoral Road To Twenty-First Century Socialism?” In The New Latin American Left: Cracks in the Empire, ed. Jeffrey R. Webber and Barry Carr, 191-212. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.


Postscript (May 30, 2017): The Wall Street Journal reports that Goldman Sachs (yes, that Goldman Sachs) recently bought $2.8 billion worth of bonds issued in 2014 by the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and initially sold to still unknown private investors. It was declared that the transaction was made with a London-based broker and not with the Venezuelan government itself, but GS is said to believe that a change in that government can increase the value of Venezuela’s debt if the new powers-that-be make changes in economic policy (ka-ching!). The Venezuelan government justified the deal, which is said to have boosted the country’s hard currency reserves, on the grounds that it needed more of them.

Of course some will argue that this gives GS every excuse to coax the US government into carrying a a forcible regime change in Venezuela and install a puppet government, in pure imperialistic fashion. That kind of narrative never seems to go out of style. And the Venezuelan opposition has already scolded GS for allegedly profiteering out of the suffering of citizens, to the point of announcing that the National Assembly will investigate what happened (all but completely disabled under Maduro’s orders, I wonder how). But for all we know about the private investors who bought those bonds, they may even be people within the “boliburguesía” (those who profiteer out of their connections with the Venezuelan government) — a deal that reeks of corruption. And if they were sold to anti-chavista investors, after so much vitriol from Maduro against what Chávez used to call “the rancid oligarchy”, it reeks of hypocrisy. Additionally, the WSJ piece points out another interesting thing: rather than making sure Venezuelans do not have to wait hours in line any longer to get toilet paper and other daily bare necessities, the government has made paying off its debt (including what it owes to Russia and China) a priority so as to avoid having to deal with the very negative consequences of a default. They could include the seizure of oil shipments — the ultimate chokehold for an economy that runs on oil, both literally and figuratively.

In other words, Maduro is doing what he and other radical democrats have accused neoliberal governments of doing — pleasing creditors to keep their heads above water while throwing ordinary people under the bus. It is just like what the Puerto Rican government is now doing under orders from the federally-appointed Fiscal Oversight Board.

So much for Venezuelan National Dignity.

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A Latin American “Asterix”

A 1984 Cuban postage stamp commemorating the 25th anniversary of Cuban cinema with cartoon character Elpidio Valdés on the forefront. Source: Radio Rebelde (Cuba)

This post contains links to video clips in Spanish.

I love Asterix. I have always been fond of the little Gaul who constantly outwits Julius Caesar’s legions while his superhumanly strong friend Obelix gives them a thrashing. More than the historical setting, what attracts me from that comic is the quality of the drawings and, especially, the humor. I have a handful of volumes at home; my favorite is one in which Asterix and Obelix join the legions, but obviously not out of treason. And one fine day, wandering around YouTube, I found out about a Cuban cartoon that may be Asterix’s kindred soul from this side of the Atlantic.

Created in 1970 by Cuban cartoonist and filmmaker Juan Padrón, himself a towering figure of Cuban animation, Elpidio Valdés tells the adventures of a brave cavalry officer in the National Army of Liberation (the mambises) during the 1895 Cuban War of Independence. Riding his loyal steed Palmiche and accompanied by his courageous companions Marcial and María Silvia, Elpidio constantly fights battles against and routs the Spanish troops led by General Resóplez and his colonels Andaluz and Cetáceo. Sometimes, Elpidio faces off against and invariably defeats the Cuban peasants fighting on Spain’s side (the rayadillos), especially the cigar-chomping Media Cara and his perpetually drunk stooge Cortico. Between 1970 and 2003, Elpidio appeared in 25 shorts and four feature films, and had his own comic strip for a time. Four decades after its creation, Elpidio Valdés is so beloved in Cuba that its main character is considered a pop culture icon.

It is important to point out that Asterix upends history because what happened in reality was that Caesar’s legions conquered the Gauls in 52 BC. In turn, Elpidio Valdés does not upend history; it depicts something that happened very repeatedly in the 1895 war: the mambí army trouncing the Spanish army in battle. But there is a reason why Asterix and Elpidio Valdés are kindred spirits even if their adventures have different degrees of adherence to historical facts: both characters represent people who appear at first to be no match to a superior opposing force but nevertheless find a way to defeat it. Spain had the weaponry and the numbers, but it was worn out by the mambises. It is, basically a David-versus-Goliath theme that can be found in other real life conflicts like the Vietnam War or the Soviet-Afghan War. And who does not like an underdog story?

Although the Elpidio Valdés cartoons are produced by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, ICAIC), itself a branch of the Ministry of Culture, they do not carry the openly propagandistic message of other animated works (this one in particular is considered by ICAIC itself to be the film that officially inaugurated its animation department), although Elpidio himself has made a few animated cameos in the (openly propagandistic) Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano. But the cartoon series does not fall far from the tree of the official zeitgeist: by tapping into a key conjuncture in Cuban history, Elpidio Valdés connects to an undercurrent of national liberation that lies at the foundation of the Cuban Revolution. To use history instrumentally is not new (in Mexico, PRI hegemony relied significantly on exploiting the imagery and pantheon of the Mexican Revolution), but to describe Elpidio Valdés in that fashion – as an instrumental use of history – makes sense. Given that conclusion, it also makes sense to place these cartoons within the basic guideline of Cuba’s cultural policy, as spelled out by Fidel Castro himself in the 1960s: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” (In all fairness, however, ICAIC produces animation that is not propagandistic or politically instrumental in nature, like the famous Filminutos shorts.)

And yet Elpidio Valdés cartoons are really cool. The shorts produced since 1978 have better looking drawings than those produced previously (production began in 1974, according to ICAIC) and, therefore, are my personal favorites. Throughout the whole series, though, there are generous sprinkles of humor and many adaptations of classic cartoon gags, like palm trees that double as daggers and sentry posts that become rockets (both seen in the second produced short). Every now and then, the bad guys even get kicked in the family jewels. Also, in Elpidio Valdés se casa (“Elpidio Valdés Gets Married”), Elpidio is so nervous on the day he weds María Silvia that at one point he leaves his hut all primped up, but with no trousers on (he is shown wearing skivvies, though). But these cartoons also have an educational element; one short is based on some of the firearms used by the mambí army and another one is centered on the weapon for which it became well-known, the machete (the latter has original music from Cuba’s leading nueva trova singer-songwriters, Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés).

In all, for all my criticisms of the Cuban government, its ideology, and its unjustifiable short leash on artistic expression, Elpidio Valdés is something I really enjoy watching. Like reading an Asterix comic book.

Bonus feature (in Spanish): Elpidio Valdés outsmarts the NYPD.

Posted in Cuba, The Arts | 1 Comment

About the Right to Rave

Cuban migrants in the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. Photo credit: Reuters. Source: Telesur

I have the impression that progressives have found a sneaky way to catch my eye: by obtaining my e-mail address without my knowledge and consent. For some time now, I have been receiving messages from the International Committee for Peace, Justice, and Dignity for the Peoples, a California-based activist network that initially demanded the liberation (which happened last year) of five Cuban intelligence agents indicted and jailed in the US for espionage and is currently campaigning to “support the just struggles of the peoples of the world, from Latin America and the Caribbean to the Middle East.” The messages they send make it automatically to my spam folder and, for that reason, they are ignored, but every now and then they send something that does catch my eye.

Hours before the end of 2015, I received from them a message wishing me a happy new year with a poem by Eduardo Galeano, entitled “The Right to Rave.” It is the next-to-last part of his book Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World and invites readers to “set our sights beyond infamy to imagine another possible world” – that is, a more humane and less consumption-crazed world where los jodidos (roughly translated to “The Screwed Ones”) can finally exercise their right to a dignified life. Galeano offers a long list of “raves” that certainly deserve the support of the whole human race, so there is nothing wrong with imagining that other possible world. Neither is there anything wrong – theoretically – with the Committee doing so.

Meanwhile, several thousands of Cuban migrants on their way to the US were stuck in Costa Rica since the preceding month, floating in a legal limbo after Nicaragua closed its border and sent soldiers and police officers to forcibly clear the area. Official Cuba was silent for days, only to declare later that those migrants left their country for economic reasons and therefore did not deserve to be treated like political refugees by the US, to which it blames for the crisis by keeping the Cuban Adjustment Act in the books. Costa Rica welcomed the migrants, but Nicaragua’s decision forced it to stop granting temporary visas and declare that neither will it admit more migrants nor shelter those it already has. In response, Central American countries have prepared a plan to solve the situation that includes flights scheduled for later this month to El Salvador, from which the migrants will be transported by road to the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Very likely, the dreamers of that other possible world that wished me a happy 2016 with that Galeano poem have not paid attention to these events. Their silence regarding the odyssey of these migrants is now longer than the Cuban government’s, but it is equally eloquent. Neither has there been any condemnation against the Nicaraguan government for beating and shooting (rubber bullets, though) a group of migrants that, under international law, are supposed to be treated with respect and dignity and not as common criminals. But in turn the Committee has plenty of condemnatory statements against the US because of the embargo and the Cuban Adjustment Act. In all, it seems that these supporters of utopia have determined that the Cubans stuck in Central America do not meet the necessary requisites to become part of los jodidos. For that reason, there will not be even a tuitazo on their behalf.

Those who emigrate rave about a dignified life that will allow them to realize themselves as human beings but cannot be obtained in their countries of origin. Cuba-based blog Havana Times explains the very plausible reasons for the rave among the Cubans that leave or want to leave: “[i]t’s not hatred towards the revolution [sic], its disillusionment. Too many economic failures; poor leadership; a bad system; far too many obstacles everywhere; too many prohibitions still standing; and scant, next to no power granted to the people to have a say in improvements. We rely 99.9% on a tiny and exclusive group of people who earned their right to govern the country more than 56 years ago in a guerrilla war and hold absolute power, propped up by laws and made legitimate by international recognition.” That is the self-critique that neither the Cuban government nor the International Committee for Peace, Justice, and Dignity for the Peoples will engage in because it is not convenient to notice that the emperor has been wearing no clothes for a very long time. (As of 2017, there has been a self-critique of sorts from the Cuban government.) On the contrary, it is better to continue waving the flag of the other possible world to prop up the crumbling revolutionary edifice, for the sake of utopia. In any case, that the Cuban government has said that the émigrés in question are mere economic émigrés is an admission (accidental, but still an admission) that the Cuban Revolution has nothing to offer, except maybe speeches bloviating against neoliberalism and defending the right of Bolivarian Venezuela to exist.

One of Galeano’s raves is that politicians will stop believing that the poor like to eat promises. That problem is not exclusive to neoliberal countries. The Cuban government and its fans at the Committee believe that the Cubans screwed by economic failures, obstacles, powerlessness, and lack of opportunities (not to mention political repression) like to eat the speeches delivered every July 26. Nothing can be further away from the truth. That is why it is embarrassing to assume that Cubans living in Cuba do not have the same right to rave the other Latin American jodidos have. Or that they do not have justified motives to emigrate, economic or not.

As far as I am concerned, my disappointment with the Committee is so great that from now on every e-mail I receive from them will be blocked without remission. Maybe I should have done that a long time ago.

Note: This post was updated in May 2017. An earlier version, written in Spanish, was published in Spain-based online newspaper Mundiario.

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Remembering a Writer Latin America Lost in 2015

Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)
(Photo source:

Although we cannot guess the time that will be, at least we have the right to imagine the time we want it to be. In 1948 and 1976, the United Nations proclaimed long lists of human rights, but the immense majority of humanity enjoys only the rights to see, hear and remain silent. What if we start by exercising the never-proclaimed right to dream? What if we rave, for a little while? Let’s set our sights beyond infamy to imagine another possible world:

air will be cleansed of all poisons except those born of human fears and human passions;

on the streets, automobiles will be run over by dogs;

people will not be driven by cars, programmed by computers, bought by supermarkets, or watched by televisions;

the TV set will no longer be the most important member of the family and be treated like the iron or the washing machine;

people will work for a living instead of living for work;

the penal codes will incorporate the crime of stupidity, committed by those who live to have or win instead of living just to live, like the bird that sings without knowing that it sings or the boy who plays without knowing that he is playing;

in no country shall young men who refuse to serve in the military go to jail, but only those who want to serve;

economists will not refer to consumption as “living standards” or the amount of things as “quality of life;”

cooks will not believe that lobsters love to be boiled alive;

historians will not believe that countries love to be invaded;

politicians will not believe that that the poor like to eat promises;

solemnity will not be thought of as a virtue and no one will take seriously anyone incapable to kid around;

death and money will lose their magical powers, and neither by death nor by luck will the scoundrel become a virtuous gentleman;

nobody will be considered a hero or a fool for doing what is fair rather than what is the most convenient;

the world will not wage war on the poor, but on poverty, and arms industries will have no choice but to declare bankruptcy;

food shall not be a commodity or communication a business, because food and communication are human rights;

nobody will die of hunger, because nobody will die from indigestion;

street children will not be treated like garbage, because there will be no street children;

wealthy children will not be treated like if they were money, because there will be no wealthy kids;

education will not be the privilege of those who can pay for it;

police will not be the curse of those who cannot buy it;

justice and liberty, Siamese twins doomed to live apart, will get together again, very stuck together, back to back;

a Black woman will be President of Brazil, another Black woman will be President of the United States of America, an indigenous woman will govern Guatemala, and another one will govern Peru;

in Argentina, the crazy women of Plaza de Mayo will be held up as examples of mental health, because they refused to forget in a time of obligatory amnesia;

the Holy Church will correct the Ten Commandments and the Sixth Commandment will order that the body shall be celebrated;

the Church will also dictate another commandment, one that God forgot: “thou shall love nature, of which you are a part of;”

the deserts of the world and the soul will be reforested;

the desperate will no longer be desperate and the lost will be found, because the desperate became so from too much waiting and the lost got lost from too much looking for;

we will be compatriots and contemporaries of all those with the will for justice and beauty, regardless of where they were born in and what they have lived through, without the smallest regard for geographic or time boundaries;

perfection will remain the boring privilege of the gods, but in this klutzy and fucked up world every night will be lived as if it was the last one and every day as if it was the first one.

“The Right to Rave” (fragment),
from Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (1998)

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It is Christmas in Latin America, as it is in most everywhere else. As I said once on Facebook, European colonialism is responsible for a lot of contemptible things, but it was also the vehicle for other things the region now takes for granted. In this festive season, I can think of two of them: the Christianity from which the Christmas celebrated in Latin America originates and the Spanish language most of its inhabitants utilize to express the feelings of happiness Christmas awakens. Those feelings are at their most creative through music and song, and I would like to sit back and reminisce.

I have always thought that Christmas songs in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, in comparison to northern latitudes, are steeped in its culture, personality, and warm weather. When I think of Christmas music in the US, I think of church hymns or mellow songs meant to be listened to over egg nog on a snowy night. Do not get me wrong here, because I like to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High” and both Frank Sinatra’s “Mistletoe and Holly” and Nat King Cole’s rendition of “The Christmas Song” are among my all-time favorite songs. But none of them say “home” to me. Puerto Rico, where I was born and grew up, is not usually mentioned as part of Latin America, but the Christmases I remember from my wonder years have a good amount of salsa and merengue music – two rhythms associated with those parts of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean that are always mentioned as part of Latin America. (To be sure, salsa did not originate in the Caribbean, but it incorporates Afro-Cuban rhythms and musical instruments.) For instance, a salsa song I remember from childhood is Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz’s “Aguinaldo navideño,” from one of my father’s records. In later years, thanks to a through-and-through Iowan friend of mine, I heard Johnny Ventura’s “Salsa pa’ tu lechón,” which I think is the way merengue is supposed to sound like; and “Lechón y bachata” by Chappottín y sus Estrellas. All three songs share a general idea I wholeheartedly get behind: Christmas is here, so let us grab some food and some booze and have a rollicking good time. I also think that very few Christmas songs from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean come close to the status of bona fide cultural institution like the Sonora Matancera’s “Aguinaldo antillano,” which is a Christmas salutation to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico; and mentions two different local manifestations of the Virgin Mary (the cult of which also crossed the Atlantic in the 1400s-1500s): Our Lady of Altagracia (DR), and Our Lady of Charity (Cuba). By the way, the lead singer here is none other than a youthful Celia Cruz, just on her way to become the musical legend she now is.

But not all of my Christmas recollections relate to salsa and merengue music. Another cultural institution, and another song I remember from childhood, is “Mi burrito sabanero,” sung to a traditional Venezuelan rhythm by a kids group called La Rondallita. Also, as a late teenager and young adult, I sang with the University of Puerto Rico Choir during most of my undergrad years, and part of the engagements we were expected to perform in were Christmas concerts held close to the end of the semester. The first half of the show was reserved to classical repertoire that could include Baroque or early music, works from the great composers, and maybe something more contemporary. The second half was dedicated to comparatively lighter stuff, which included works from Latin America. I remember three very melodious songs from those years. One is “Esta parrandita“, about a mom, her loving offspring, and the promise to reminisce happy times together. Another one, challenging to learn back then but enjoyable to listen at any time, is “¿Qué le daremos?,” which wonders which traditional Venezuelan foods and crafts will be given to Baby Jesus at the manger. The third one is “Festejo de Navidad,” in which Jesus is born in Lima instead of Bethlehem and Afro-Peruvians are gathering yummy food to give him. Years after leaving the Choir, I had the chance to see it rehearse “Los Reyes Magos,” a movement from Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez’s Navidad nuestra, itself a retelling of the Nativity story with the help of traditional South American rhythms. In this movement, played to a takirari, the Wise Men make it to the manger to leave their presents to Baby Jesus.

The point of the matter is that even though Christianity and Spanish came to the region through violence and bondage, they also left a mark that gives Latin American Christmas its own delicious flavor. After all, without them, Latin Americans would not be able to say to you, as I am sure they would, Feliz Navidad y próspero año nuevo (“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”).

And I wish all my readers just the same.

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The US Can’t Be All Bad, Now Can It?

Fidel Castro warms up before a baseball exhibition game in July 1959. Source: Courier Mail (Brisbane, Australia).

It has been told that Fidel Castro has a heart for baseball; he was even said to be considered so good an amateur pitcher that he was sought by the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Some baseball historians are doubtful of that account, though, and neither do they validate an anecdote told by itinerant third baseman Don Hoak (through ghostwriter Myron Cope) alleging that Castro crashed a Cuban pro-ball game he was playing in, took to the mound, asked for a glove, and threw several pitches at Hoak before being thrown out of the ballpark. Hoak’s made-up recollection ends with a curious statement: “I think that with a little work on his control, Fidel Castro would have made a better pitcher than a prime minister.” But one thing has been established: Castro did have an interest for baseball as a young man.

In a recently published journal article, Dinorah Azpuru and Dexter Boniface describe US-Latin America relations as “close but often rocky”. Although the article also asserts that anti-US sentiment in general is often contradictory (hence the significance of the apocryphal baseball exploits of a leader known to oppose the US), the authors identify a number of individual-level determinants of anti-US sentiment in Latin America. Member countries of the chavista ALBA are examined, but fellow member Cuba was not. No reasons are given; I speculate that it was because the type of public opinion data that could reasonably reflect on anti-US sentiment is unavailable for Cuba. Assuming that is the reason, gauging anti-US sentiment in Cuba is important because it could have an effect on the Cuba side of the current normalization effort. Given the lack of key data, we can only entertain some initial and highly probabilistic thoughts – more like puzzles – on this subject, some of them based on Azpuru and Boniface’s own review of the literature on anti-US sentiment writ large.

Contact-and-information theory (remittances): A report from the Inter-American Dialogue estimates that only 55% of Cubans residing in the US sends remittances to Cuba, at an average of $1,250 per sender per year and a total volume of $770 million per year. The report also suggests that as a result of changes in US policy that were implemented before the announcement of normalization, as much as 65% of Cubans residing in the US could be sending money to Cuba in the coming months, at an average of $2,400 per sender per year and a total volume of $1.7 billion. The prognosticated effect is manifold and significant: more household consumption, more personal savings, and more investments in small businesses. In Azpuru and Boniface’s study, those who receive remittances are not likely to harbor anti-US sentiments, but would that also be the case for Cubans who receive them?

Scapegoat theory: Azpuru and Boniface’s concentrate on citizen security (i.e. gangs and the drug war) and the impact of the global economic recession, which are not as relevant to Cuba as they are to the rest of Latin America. But the official statements from the Cuban government insist that the embargo, or what it still calls “blockade,” is an act of genocide (unnecessarily muddling the concept much to the chagrin of those victimized by instances of actual genocide) that has generated as much as $833 trillion in economic damages – more money by far than the proposed 2016 federal budget ($4.1 trillion). The implication is that the Cuban government blames shortcomings in key areas like public health, education, and food security on the US because it will not lift the embargo. How much of this translates into anti-US sentiment at the individual level, if at all? Could it also extend to those Cubans who receive remittances from the US?

Anti-market theory: Azpuru and Boniface also investigate whether or not ideology explains anti-US sentiment in Latin America and conclude that it does. In the case of Cuba, Fidel Castro’s public statements against the US between 1960 and 1991 (for all his fondness for the American national pastime as a young man) are numerous, well documented, and described by the authors as “symptomatic” of the anti-Americanism of Latin American Marxists. According to Azpuru and Boniface, the end of the Cold War resulted in the channeling of existing anti-US rhetoric into critiques of neoliberalism, given that it is championed by the US. Fidel Castro himself, though not in charge anymore, has a section in Granma (the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party) in which he expresses his pointed views on neoliberalism and US-Cuba relations. On the other hand, his younger brother and replacement Raúl is allowing (with evident hesitation, though) the establishment of small businesses, which could develop further if the trends forecasted in the Inter-American Dialogue report come to fruition. In addition, US companies are showing interest in Cuba and, despite continuing embargo restrictions, have already made deals with its government (not different from doing business with China, but unthinkable when Fidel Castro was in power). What does all this, and especially the latter point, have to do with anti-US sentiment in Cuba? Are Cubans cherry-picking?

Sovereign-nationalist theory: The Cuban Revolution, its regime, and its embrace of Marxism have decidedly nationalistic foundations; indeed, as The Economist observed in the wake of Fidel Castro’s retirement, that is one major difference with Eastern European Marxism, which was imposed by the Soviet Union. And the US is at the center of a major part of that story, from the Platt Amendment and the seizure of Guantánamo Bay, to the machinations of Ambassador Sumner Wells, to the support given to and very belated estrangement from dictator Fulgencio Batista shortly before the triumph of the Revolution. After that, there was Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, tons of CIA plans to assassinate Castro, protecting airplane bomber Luis Posada Carriles and, of course, the embargo. But people-to-people exchanges continue and there are minimal but concrete instances of intergovernmental cooperation, particularly on migration (to avoid a repeat of the chaotic 1980 Mariel boatlift and the balsero crisis of 1994). Is cool, calm, and collected pragmatism ruling over hot-blooded anti-yanki passion? And how does that influence opinions of the US on the street, if at all?

And then there is Cuban baseball. In a book he wrote about that subject (reviewed here), Roberto González Echevarría, professor of literature at Yale, argues that American culture is so deeply ingrained in Cuban culture to the point of being one of its many components; accordingly, baseball exemplifies a process where “the other” (to put it in some way) is absorbed instead of being repelled. That is a very significant claim, considering that the Cuban Revolution and its later embrace of Marxism have a decidedly nationalistic explanation, as I mentioned before. But given the popularity of baseball in Cuba and how good Cubans are at it (as a matter of fact, they sent players like Armando Marsans, Tony Pérez and Yoenis Céspedes to Major League Baseball) González’s point makes a lot of sense. Moreover, Cuban baseball in its infancy even had its own nationalistic undertone: Spanish colonial authorities forbade baseball during the turbulent days of the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), but Cubans saw the sport as a way to vindicate their nationalistic fervor. (By the way, the Havana Baseball Club – the first-ever Cuban baseball team – was established in 1868, shortly before that war began; in turn, Harry Wright’s Cincinnati Reds – the first-ever American professional baseball team – would not be established until the following year.) Again, are Cubans cherry-picking?

Azpuru and Boniface conclude their article saying that “[a] positive and better relationship [between the US and Latin America] can be achieved through a better understanding of how citizens ‘south of the border’ feel, what their concerns are, and particularly, what are the factors that generate antipathy toward their northern neighbor.” The same can be said about this era of détente between the US and Cuba: barring a full reversal under a Republican president (unless Rand Paul wins, which is all but improbable), a lasting normalization can be achieved if the US understands how Cubans feel and takes that input into account when devising what to do next. In optimistic terms, that will burnish its image in Latin America even more and reveal to Cuba that the US is acting in good faith. On a more perverse note, it will give the Cuban Revolution less chances to blame the US for its failures and no excuses to chase dissidents like the late Oswaldo Payá, the Ladies in White, Tania Bruguera, graffiti artist “El Sexto”, and others. (Hopefully, that latter point will convince hardliners in the US – from both parties – to play along and do something really bold about Cuba. Like lifting the embargo.)

But regardless of what will happen, I do not think that anti-US sentiment in Cuba being as complex and contradictory as it is elsewhere can be that far-fetched.

These two newsreel clips show Fidel Castro speaking in English (something he does not do in public anymore) and playing baseball. Enjoy.


Postscript (June 4, 2017): This recent online article sheds more light into Fidel Castro’s baseball myths and looks into other facets of his relationship with the sport. This news story published a few days after Castro’s passing briefly touches upon both subjects.

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