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An Empire of Vice | The Nation

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An Empire of Vice

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What the "exotic" label also tends to conceal about Cuba is that to its own people as well as outsiders, the island has long been as much an idea as a country. At least since José Martí, the great poet laureate of Cuban independence, began composing odes to the island's "half-breed" soul in the late 1800s, there has existed in Cuba an obsession with reflecting upon and debating the national character. This tradition is perhaps most memorably manifested in the seminal anthropologist Fernando Ortiz's argument, in Cuban Counterpoint (1940), that all of Cuban identity and culture--from the rumba to the mulata to the cigar--can be understood as outgrowths of an economy based in producing tobacco and sugar for export. The discussion has taken many forms, but perhaps the dominant current in Cuba's politics and intellectual culture has always been the struggle over cubanía, or Cubanness. Fidel's revolution, before it was Marxist-Leninist or Castroist or anything else, has always been framed and experienced in Cuba as a nationalist struggle. Accordingly, it was not solely on the grounds of Marxian virtue but also cubanía that Fidel battled cocaine and prostitution as "un-Cuban" in the 1960s (never mind the Havana Mob's avoidance of the drug trade, or that sex-for-pay held a prominent place in Cuban society long before its exploitation by yanquis) and contended, during the 1970s, that Cuba's military involvement in Angola and Mozambique was driven by Cuba's core identity as an "Afro-Latin" nation.

About the Author

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro teaches geography and literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Fidel's custodianship of cubanía has deep roots in a much longer history of Cuban men of privilege (and usually light skin) defining the nation's identity. Batista was a mulatto cane-cutter's son; Fidel and his brother Raúl were the children of wealthy Spanish landowners--putative members, that is, of a class of Cubans who thought the déclassé rule of an uneducated army colonel a national shame. Not every member of Cuba's elite who came to support Castro against Batista in the 1950s was driven by prejudice; Fidel has always been a strong antiracist, in his way. But the machista worlds of elite Cuban politics and culture have always been paternalistic, whether in José Martí's wishful 1891 declaration that in Cuba "there are no races," or the longstanding tradition--from Nicolás Guillén's iconic 1930 poem "Mulata" to innumerable paintings of the copper-skinned Virgen de la Caridad--of holding up the sexy mulata as embodiment of cubanía, while affording to actual brown-skinned Cuban women little place in that nation beyond its brothels and kitchens.

After racial discrimination was officially banned in 1960 by his revolution, Fidel blithely declared that racism was defeated in Cuba. As in 1891, the actual situation was more complex. The masses of Afro-Cubans who'd lived in illiterate destitution since slavery--and seen 6,000 of their forebears massacred in a horrific 1912 race war--had the most to gain from socialist projects in housing, healthcare and education. That Cuba's 4 million blacks still provide a key base of Communist Party support is a measure of how much their lives have improved under Fidel. But as Carlos Moore writes in a poignant new memoir, Pichón, Castro's blind spots with regard to race have at times also been pernicious. Pichón takes its title from a Cuban slur for Jamaican and Haitian laborers who survived the Depression by scrounging for slaughterhouse scraps in the manner of ugly black buzzards, or pichónes. The book begins with Moore recounting a rural Cuban childhood of being tormented by the fists and epithets of white schoolmates. Then comes the story of his personal epic: leaving for New York City at 16 in the late 1950s and falling into the black radical demimonde of Maya Angelou and Malcolm X, then returning to Cuba as an ardent Fidel admirer in the early 1960s, only to be imprisoned and exiled by Fidel's revolution for daring to protest the race prejudice of certain of its ministers.

Moore renders this tragic tale with frank clarity. He met his mentor Angelou in a Harlem bookshop shortly after his arrival to the cosmopolis in 1958; scarcely two years later, he directed an occupation of the UN General Assembly to protest the US-sponsored killing of the Congolese freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba. It was during Castro's own 1960 visit to the UN--during which Fidel stayed at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem to convey solidarity with those oppressed by the US empire at home--that Moore decided it was his revolutionary duty to join the cause.

Returning to Havana in June 1961, Moore sought to put his skills as an English speaker to work at the Foreign Ministry. He became convinced that the bureaucrat denying his requests for a job was doing so on account of his dark skin, and he took the audacious step of traveling to a provincial army barracks to demand a meeting with the only Afro-Cuban member of Fidel's inner circle, the guerrilla hero Juán Almeida. Almeida indulged the headstrong youth with a warning to "stop talking as you do," but once back in Havana, Moore was "detailed" by the revolutionary police and tossed into a new jail made from a converted mansion on the city's outskirts. He was released a few weeks later with no charge or explanation and eventually found work in another branch of the government. But in late 1962, after some months of increasing disquiet about the revolution's puritanical excesses--with police sending homosexuals to labor camps and forcibly shuttering Afro-Cuban social clubs--Moore encountered his old nemesis in the Foreign Ministry. Furious that the young negrito was still at large, the bureaucrat promised to ensure that Moore was "take[n] care of" for good. That afternoon Moore knocked at the door of the Havana embassy of the new West African nation of Guinea and requested asylum; a few weeks later he left Cuba on a freighter bound for Africa. Eventually settling in Paris, he went on to write Castro, the Blacks, and Africa (1989), a controversial radical critique of the revolution's race mores whose exaggerated animus, given the experiences related in Moore's more personal and worthwhile memoir, is perhaps now clearer at its source.

When Moore went into exile in the early 1960s, most Cubans who fled the island belonged to its white upper classes. The arch-right-wingers among them nurtured a deep anger about Castro's "giving it all away" to the riffraff and pichónes. Their story is perhaps less tragic than that of exile families with more liberal pasts like the Bacardis, owners of the eponymous liquor empire, whose story Tom Gjelten traces in his splendid family chronicle Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba. The tale begins with the penniless Catalan immigrant Facundo Bacardi's discovering, in the 1860s, a new way to distill sugar cane into clear white rum. His son Emilio Bacardi became a key ally of José Martí in the fight for independence in the 1890s, and the Bacardis' 1950s heirs were fervid Fidel supporters--but then left the island and became fervid Castro-haters when he ordered a state takeover of the company they'd spent a century building from scratch. (One of Fidel's great claims to revolutionary virtue is that he did not spare his own parents' latifundio from being nationalized and split up in the first agrarian reform.) Family sagas about seized storehouses and abandoned mansions compose the sacred text of mainstream Cuban-exile politics. But as stories like Carlos Moore's show, belonging to a class of Cubans whose lot the revolution improved granted no exemption from being tyrannized by party discipline and hierarchy.

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