I had a one-week writing retreat in Cuba in February 2017. As we landed at the Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport in Varadero, I realized I had left Canadian winter behind after a flight of just over three hours from Toronto. The contrast in temperatures was striking and heralded several other glaring juxtapositions. The vast and seemingly unending network of archipelagos was right before our eyes. Never has water been so pure, skies so blue and untrammeled by human activities.
Cuba appeared almost frozen in time; a calcified relic of a proud anti-imperialist past. The streets of Varadero seemed like an elongated show of 1950s American cars. The classic cars were maintained by the sheer ingenuity of the people given the frosty relationship between Cuba and global capital. Cubans fabricated the parts that kept the cars running despite decades of US trade embargo. The classic cars added a quixotic and exquisite feel to the streets of Cuba. A walk on the streets of Varadero or Havana had the distinctive feel of a museum tour. The Revolution Square in Havana had the authenticity of history stamped on it as it paid homage to Fidel’s fellow Marxist-Leninist revolutionary, Che Guevara, who met his death in Bolivia.
Of course, life is no vacation for average Cubans. The Amerindian population was almost completely annihilated by European colonialists following the 1492 “discovery” of the island by Christopher Columbus. Huge numbers of Africans were transported to Cuba to work on plantation farms. The mix of European, Amerindian and African populations has produced an aesthetically unique hybrid population.
The whole society bears the symbols and imprimatur of the indisputable colossus of Cuba, Fidel Castrol. It is an understatement to suggest that Fidel is a demi-god in Cuba. He was the god in Cuba. We learned those social activities even in tourist areas were suspended for 10 days following the death of Fidel in November 2016. That must have been a huge sacrifice given the effervescence of Cubans.
Cuba showcases the triumph of capitalism. The revolution died long before Fidel. Fidel Castrol tried but arguably failed to reach the heights he had hoped for Cuba. It was probably not for lack of efforts. Inroads were made in several areas including inheritance rights for women, relatively impressive rate of home ownership, 99.8% literacy rate (yes, that’s not a typo) and life expectancy of 78.7 years. The atheist communist government has endured although the handwriting has been on the wall for some time. Fidel’s brother, Raul, who took over the reins of presidential power from Fidel in 2008, has been encouraging private businesses as a way of creating employment and raising the standard of living. He seems aware of the danger of an economy that is dependent on tourism and the vagaries of a nascent oil industry.
Opinions are divided about the legacy of Fidel Castrol. In particular, his intolerance for dissent and clamp down on the press are legendary. Older Afro-Cubans, however, credit Fidel with fighting for their rights and stake in Cuba. Fidel was staunchly against apartheid in South Africa and lent moral support to the likes of Malcolm X. A professor of political science and African-American studies at the University of California Los Angeles, Mark Sawyer, has argued that Fidel “elevated the Afro-Cuban population to be the healthiest longest living black population in the world”.
Despite the best efforts of Fidel, the inequality in the communist country was difficult to ignore. Afro-Cubans remain the living embodiment of trans-historical subjugation — the enunciation of man’s inhumanity to man. They have survived the ordeal of slavery but like much of the Americas, consigned to the bottom of the social ladder. Race here remains a signifier only in a less overtly virulent form.
I was occasionally mistaken for an Afro-Cuban. My Spanish was non-existent, and I responded in English that I was not Cubano. The folks who asked—foreign and (mostly) local—often seemed surprised. Of course, the Afro-Cuban population has historical ties with today’s Nigeria, and I could recognize a few Yoruba words spoken in Old Havana. Fellow travelers were eager to hear about what the “real” Yoruba culture looked like, and I tried to explain the syncretic quality of the traditional practices in Cuba. Santería or Ifá has a visible presence in Cuba. Its priests and priestesses, who dress in immaculate white, speak a quintessentially Caribbean dialect of Yoruba known as Lucumi.
I had taken salsa lessons years ago and refresher classes in December 2016. Therefore, I was eager to see how authentic my salsa moves were in comparison to the Cubanos and Cubanas. There was a dance performance that brought back how Afro-Cubans got here. The group of dancers comprised three women and two men. All five were engaged in an ultra-disciplined sequence of transcendental rhythmic motion. Their movement ethereal yet so familiar; the music and songs composed on plantations; the dance fine-tuned across space and time. The songs sounded familiar and of course imbued with several Lucumi words that I could recognize. This was neo-Yoruba culture on display. The immanent hybridity of the cultural repertoire from which the performance drew demonstrated European inflections mixed with African percussion.
This was by far the most emotional moment of the trip. My Russian friend noticing how engrossed I was in watching and taking note of the dance said: “I think I have lost you.” I was indeed lost in the moment. We sold their ancestors into slavery. I too bear the responsibility of what happened. Slavery is a bad thing. No one should enslave another.
It was not all melancholic. The people were warm, friendly and welcoming. The trip to Havana from Varadero enabled us to bask in the culture and trans-generational tasteful architecture. You could not write here unless you were Ernest Hemingway, who had a café in Havana named after him. I came to the island to write but ended up learning more than writing. Cuba is bubbly, non-evanescent and untiring; a fine place to visit.
‘Tope Oriola is a professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. Kindly follow me on Twitter: @topeoriola.