Cuba's first Presbyterian church was built in 1906. You can visit it by walking through Old Havana!
Cuba's first Presbyterian church was built in 1906. You can visit it by walking through Old Havana!
The historian Nancy Mitchell once observed, regarding US relations to Cuba that “Our selective recall not only serves a purpose, it has repercussions. It creates a chasm between us and the Cubans we share a past, but we have no shared memories.” Mitchell is quoted in Piero Gleijeses’s masterpiece Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa 1976-1991. Her observation is quite accurate: for many Americans Cuba and its role in the world has been defined by the anti-Castro community in Miami, Florida, leaving little room or consideration for events or policies that did not fit squarely with this perception. The US and Cuba, although only 90 miles away from each other remain estranged in our historical and cultural memory. Two tenets drive most Americans’ view of Cuba: 1) the government is Communist and is hostile to the world and its own people (this perception is driven by the Miami Cuban exile community and Cold War historical inertia; 2) Cuba invades other countries (such as Angola)—this assessment is informed by the lack of information many Americans have regarding Cuba’s internationalist activities. This book offers a thorough review of the events that began in the 1970s and ended in 1991 and provides a very clear view of how southern Africa became another stage for Cold War politics. With any scholarly book that is of significant length (this book is over 650 pages long) I had some concern that the central thesis might be lost in the jumble of names, policies, concepts, battles, etc. This was not the case here. Gleijeses did a superb job researching this book (over 10 years), sifting through materials in archives, conducting interviews with participants and examining other primary sources in over 20 different countries. You could not be more thorough. Gleijeses deftly funnels the vast reams of information into a very easy-to-read narrative that is not overwhelming with names, dates, etc. Too often, historians fall into the trap of name-dropping, that is, peppering their text with so many names that the reader loses track of who is who, who did what, etc. Gleijeses has an excellent command of his information and expertly controls the pacing of the appearances of so many individuals in this text. With other books, I have often had to go to the index frequently to remember a name, title or some other important attribute of someone who appears in the text because of the plethora of names that emerge as the narrative continues. This did not happen here. Only a few times, did I have to go to the index to remember who someone was. This is a testament to Gleijeses’s skill as a historian and a writer. Years ago, someone disdainfully said to me that “all historians do is remember dates.” I wish I could show him this book so that he could see that what historians do, especially one at the top of his game like Gleijeses, really do.
My knowledge of Cuba’s role in southern Africa was minimal. I only knew about its involvement in Angola because I have lived in Cuba for the last four years. This book was extremely educational for me. The narrative is excellent, and the information is presented in a very simple yet informative style. I love how history repeats itself and I enjoyed this quote from George Ball, former under secretary of state: “Myths are made to solace those who find reality distasteful and, if some find such fantasy comforting, so be it.” (p. 29). This reminds me of a certainly individual in Washington, D.C...
What did I take from this book? One, that for all the talk about how President Jimmy Carter truly wanted to normalize relations with Cubans, his actions spoke otherwise. Gleijeses explains that “Carter then called both Castro and Rodríguez liars, telling members of Congress that the evidence of Cuban complicity had been collected over a “long time” and came from “many…top-sensitive sources.” Gleijeses adds that the then Policy Planning Director Anthony Lake observed afterwards, regarding Carter’s efforts to unfairly discredit Cuba, that “I thought we were hyping a crisis that should not have been hyped—unless you had reliable intelligence.”
Second, South Africa’s efforts to manufacture and control consensus in South Africa as part of its plan for a Constellation of Southern African States, led it to become very aggressive in its approach to Angola, the MPLA and the FAPLA (if you want to know the meaning of these acronyms, read the book!).
Third, that despite its role in successfully defending Angola from insurgent (UNITA) and South African aggression, Cuba finds itself having to deflect unfair criticism. One moment in particular stayed in my mind. Defending the presence of Cuban troops in Angola in the 1970s, Fidel Castro exclaimed, “Our soldiers are internationalists; they are not mercenaries.” (p. 79). He reiterated this point later by saying that “Internationalism is the duty to help others.” (p. 82). Of course, this depends on how a country is “helping” another country. For the US, which was supporting the UNITA insurgents in Angola and South Africa, which regularly ordered military incursions into that country, Cuban internationalism was viewed as a form of “imperialism.” But this was a convenient interpretation since it was really the US and South Africa that had less than noble intentions in their approach to Angola.
Chester Crocker, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, played a pivotal role in negotiations with the Soviet Union, Cuba, Angola and South Africa. I am glad that Gleijeses portrayed his role in such an important light. As I write this review, I noticed that a Ryan C. Crocker, co-wrote an op Op-Ed piece in the New York Times today titled “Dismantling the Foreign Service”. I could not determine if he is related to Chester Crocker, but his warning against the current administration’s approach to the State Department is timely and important.
Gleijeses’s book is magisterial in its breadth and attention to detail. But more importantly, it provides valuable information on an area of Cold War history that many people are unfamiliar with.
Exploring Afro-Cuban Feminism
Abroadia recommends that you follow the excellent blog "Negra Tenía Que Ser." The latest post discusses Afro-Cuban feminism.
The violent confrontations in Charlottesville, Virginia the weekend of August 12-13 forced the nation to reconsider its history and what aspects of it have been promoted at the expense of others. White supremacists, Neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and others gathered in Charlottesville to protest the announced removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from the campus of the University of Virginia. Counter-protestors showed up to challenge them. Many have argued about the right of freedom of speech and others have said that all symbols of the confederacy must be abolished or removed because they commemorate an ugly portion of American history or that some were constructed in the period of Jim Crow to intimidate immigrants and African-Americans. These are complicated times indeed.
Unbeknownst to many Americans Cuba is having a similar internal dialogue. Located in a beautiful rotunda on Havana’s famous Avenida de los Presidentes (Avenue of the Presidents) lies an imposing yet beautiful monument to a man forgotten by Americans, but remembered by Cubans. Featuring many Roman columns and a resplendent and large statue, this monument is an homage to José Miguel Gómez, former president of Cuba from 1909-1913.
However, there is a controversy surrounding the very existence of this memorial (pictured above). In 1912 José Miguel Gómez ordered the massacre of over 2,000 (some claim as many as 3,000) members of the Partido Independiente de Color (PIC), an all Afro-Cuban party committed to defending its right to promote the cause and interests of blacks in Cuba, protesting a discriminatory law (la ley de Morúa). This tragedy is not discussed in Cuban history books and mirrors the current polemic in which the US is currently enmeshed. In Cuba many people are not aware of the May 1912 massacre while in the US many do not realize that most of the Confederate statues and symbols that appear in public places throughout the South were built in the 20th century as a form or resistance against the federal government, immigration and blacks.
As we know passion, uninformed by history, can transmogrify into hysteria and this is what we saw coming from the white supremacists, et al, in Charlottesville. Noted historian Jon Meacham, observed in a recent article that, “If we don’t face them [facts] forthrightly, we risk living in worlds of fantasy and fable, subject not to reason, the greatest of gifts, but susceptible to passion, the most dangerous of forces.” In the US reason has been overtly challenged by passion regarding the symbols of the Confederacy, while in Cuba no one knows the dark history of the man commemorated by the shrine on Avenida de los Presidentes, although the hip-hop group Obsesión has led the charge demanding that the monument be torn down.
Lord Bolingbroke once wrote that “History is philosophy taught with examples.” We have to ask ourselves what kind of example we are teaching these days.
 Meacham stumbles, however, when he equates Andrew Jackson as a visionary of the caliber of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He writes that all three of them “believed in the transcendent significance of the nation, and each was committed to the journey toward ‘a more perfect Union’”. He seems to have forgotten the brutality that Jackson (known as “Old Hickory” by Caucasian Americans and “Sharp Knife” by Native American Indians) displayed toward the indigenous Americans. Jackson certainly believed in a “more perfect Union” but this was built on the genocide of the Native American Indians. Interestingly enough, Jackson has two statues that feature prominently on US public spaces. Meacham, unfortunately, did not address this in his article).
For the last few years now many people have speculated what Cuban youth feel about Fidel Castro. I attended the memorial at the Plaza de La Revolución yesterday and I took this picture of a Cuban university student. What do you think this picture says?
Student Thoughts in Cuba about Presidential Debate and the Election
As we experience Election Day in the US, I thought I would share the thoughts of some American and Cuban students who watched the third presidential debate. Here are their thoughts.
James, American Student #1: Donald Trump was ridiculous and idiotic on so many levels. There were so many inaccuracies in what he said. I don’t like Hillary Clinton, but she performed really well and she almost actually made me believe she would be a good president. Whereas I went in thinking she would be a less terrible president.
Sarah, American Student #2: I think Hillary did really well. She managed herself well on stage and she thoroughly explained the policies she wanted to cover and explaining why they would be better for Americans.
Alberto, Cuban Student: This was the first presidential debate I ever saw and it was funny to watch each candidate insulting each other, but if that is what democracy is really about then I don’t really like it. I am pretty sure that Hillary Clinton has a plan; she has some policies to follow and I don’t think Trump has anything. He has fancy ideas in his head and that is not good for the United States and it is not good for the world. And that is not good for the future.
Like many people in the US, some Cubans follow the US presidential election campaign by watching South Park.
If you would like to learn more about Havana, then check out this excellent website about life in Cuba´s wonderful city. Photographer and documentary maker Nad Yaqub has created the Havana Life Project for those interested in experiencing Cuba through honest and thought provoking images. Enjoy! Keep up the great work Nad!
Note: the photo above is from The Havana Life Project website.
Several days ago I received a text message from AT&T on my new iPhone, which until then did not work because I did not put a Cuban SIM chip in it. I was surprised to learn that the phone now operated. I checked the message and I saw that AT&T offers its customers who visit the island service. But it is pricey. $3.00 per minute is steep! And unfortunately, this service still does not extend to Cubans. Hopefully, one day soon, it will! Until then, many Cubans, like the young lady in the photos, will have to make to as they always do to chat, etc.
On Friday, October 7th the Cuban national soccer team played team USA in a friendly match. The US won 2-0, but Cuba showed some very adept skill in attack. What I enjoyed was the ambience. The Cuban high school students cheered wildly and at the end started chanting "U-S-A." It was a great day for all. Jill Biden also joined the contingent of Team USA supporters. After the game, I spent time with the Outlaws (formerly "Sam's Army"), hardcore Team USA fans. All in all, a great day! I hope it is the first of many such encounters between the US and Cuba.
Cuba is very sexy these days. With more people making plans to visit Cuba it has become very important to know how to get there and what to do. Abroadia is here to help you create an academic/cultural experience in Cuba. If you are looking at other options, check out this article in The New York Times.
The US Census mischaracterizes its Hispanic population by limiting their identification options. This article proposes a better solution based on a principal-agent approach.