Thursday, April 29, 2021
Monday, September 21, 2020
Recordando un poema de Robert Frost y las relaciones de Estados Unidos y Cuba*
En Cuba, el movimiento triunfa y llega al poder en 1959, no así en los Estados Unidos. El movimiento por los derechos civiles y políticos primero, y el movimiento estudiantil y contra las guerras coloniales después, solo logran algunas concesiones civiles y políticas. Pero esa lucha continuó en los Estados Unidos y parte de la población reformista y radical de jóvenes en el norte del país fue al Deep South para ayudar a obtener derechos sociales y políticos. El triunfo revolucionario en Cuba tiene un enorme impacto entre los luchadores por los derechos civiles. Y aun cuando utilizaron métodos diferentes --la no violencia--, reconocieron las contribuciones y los cambios de los cubanos.
En 1960 varios norteamericanos de izquierda establecen el Fair Play for Cuba Committee en favor de la Revolución Cubana y en oposición a la política de la administración Eisenhower. Muchos de sus miembros también pertenecían a la lucha por los derechos civiles de negros, blancos y trabajadores, entre estos el escritor James Baldwin. Ralph Feathrstone, uno de los líderes del Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), consideraba a Cuba “una zona liberada”. El poeta negro, de izquierda, LeRoi Jones escribía, “los Cubanos, y los otros nuevos pueblos (en Asia, África, América del Sur) del mundo no nos necesitan, y lo mejor que podemos hacer es no bloquearles el camino.” [Cuba Libre, 1960]. O sea, un sector significativo de la población negra norteamericana reconocía y apoyaba la autodeterminación, concepto que ya se defendía también en el sur de los Estados Unidos. La organización de solidaridad Fair Play for Cuba Committee existía contra la injusticia, y a su vez integraba a norteamericanos de todos los colores. En sí el “fair play” es lo que los sectores más necesitados pedían para sí y para el mundo.
Pero la relación y cooperación entre los movimientos progresistas norteamericanos y la Revolución Cubana fue atacada desde el primer momento. Ambos movimientos confrontaban a un mismo enemigo.
Poco a poco estas dos fuerzas fueron aisladas por la invasión organizada por el gobierno de Estados Unidos el 17 de abril de 1961 a Cuba. También la sistemática persecución de la izquierda por el Congreso [House Un-American Activities Committee], el FBI y muchas otras instituciones estatales tuvo sus efectos sobre esa relación. Los propios liberales norteamericanos corrieron en dirección opuesta a la revolucionaria. Pero la lucha por la justicia y por la igualdad de derechos democráticos continuó en los Estados Unidos, si bien cada vez más separada de la realidad cubana. La Crisis de los Misiles, de octubre 1962, fue un parteaguas que abrió una mayor brecha entre ambos movimientos. Ya a la Cuba revolucionaria se le definía como un enemigo de los Estados Unidos, mientras que el gobierno demócrata norteamericano de John Kennedy se identificaba con un sector reformista del movimiento por los derechos civiles. Sin embargo, la relación continuó a niveles menos conocidos. Pero no queda duda de que la Revolución Cubana y la lucha por los derechos de los norteamericanos tiene una larga y estrecha relación.
Esa historia, que sólo hemos tocado someramente, revela que las relaciones entre los revolucionarios cubanos y las fuerzas progresistas de los Estados Unidos tiene una larguísima historia. José Martí vivió durante años en Nueva York y Tampa. Exploró como pocos la historia de los Estados Unidos y la de Cuba, por separado y en relación con los dos países. Entendió como pocos el sentido real de lo que significa la independencia nacional. El movimiento progresista negro de los Estados Unidos también comprendió esa lucha. Martin Luther King fue clasificado por el FBI como un “hombre peligroso”. El gobierno de Estados Unidos también le dio esa misma clasificación a Fidel Castro. Ambos entendieron la relación estrecha entre la independencia nacional y los derechos civiles y políticos. Un país imperial no puede ser respetuoso de los derechos humanos y civiles. Y una colonia tampoco los respeta.
El 22 de octubre de 1995 Fidel Castro volvió a visitar Harlem. Dijo: “aquí en Harlem conocí a Malcom X, conocí a otras muchas personalidades. Eran días difíciles, siempre son difíciles los días, pero por delante estaba una lucha muy grande: las grandes batallas de Martin Luther King por los derechos civiles; las grandes luchas de las minorías negras, hispánicas, latinoamericanas de todas partes, por mejorar sus condiciones de vida; la lucha de los ancianos, los enfermos, todos.” 
El Congressional Black Caucus [CBC] de los Estados Unidos ha tenido una posición amistosa y solidaria hacia el proceso político y social cubano. Y ha representado el sector mas progresista y favorable a la normalización de las relaciones entre los dos países. Desde 1999 delegaciones y representantes del CBC ha visitado Cuba y se ha reunido con Fidel Castro. Cuba, a su vez, ha proporcionado becas a estudiantes norteamericanos con el apoyo de los Congresistas del CBC. Ya Fidel Castro había señalado que las circunstancias eran propicias para el mejoramiento de las relaciones pues “era necesario utilizar este momento histórico en que coinciden un Presidente negro en la Casa Blanca y una corriente de opinión favorable a la normalización de las relaciones.” 
Cómo tendrían que hablar el presidente de Estados Unidos y el ex presidente Fidel Castro sobre la historia de ambos países. Ya uno de ellos dijo: “en la buena voluntad y disposición de las personas hay infinitos recursos que no se guardan ni caben en las bóvedas de un banco. No emanan de la política única de un imperio.”  Bien vale recordar a Robert Frost: “Dos caminos se bifurcaban en un bosque y yo, /Yo tomé el menos transitado, /Y eso hizo toda la diferencia.”
See: Joy James, Review: Harlem Hospitality and Political History: Malcolm x and Fidel Castro at the Hotel Theresa, Contributions in Black Studies, Vol. 12, Article 12, 1994, Article No. 12. [http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi? article=1088&context=cibshttps://youtu.be/UAcgbsPgCbo
 L. Ralph, Fidel Castro and Harlem: Political, Diplomatic, and Social Influences of the 1960 Visit to the Hotel Theresa,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. See: https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1P3-494766291/fidel-castro-and-harlem-political-diplomatic-
 Fidel Castro, “Los 7 congresistas que nos visitan,” Cubadebate (Habana), Marzo 11, 2014. http://www.granma.cu/granmad/secciones/ref-fidel/art113.html
Sugerencia de lectura:
Lisa Brock y Digna Castañeda Fuentes, Between Race and Empire : African-Americans and Cubans before the Cuban revolution, 1998.
*El texto del poema de Robert Frost - The Road Not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
Dos caminos se bifurcaban en un bosque amarillo,
Y apenado por no poder tomar los dos
Siendo un viajero solo, largo tiempo estuve de pie
Mirando uno de ellos tan lejos como pude,
Hasta donde se perdía en la espesura;
Entonces tomé el otro, imparcialmente,
Y habiendo tenido quizás la elección acertada,
Pues era tupido y requería uso;
Aunque en cuanto a lo que vi allí
Hubiera elegido cualquiera de los dos.
Y ambos esa mañana yacían igualmente,
¡Oh, había guardado aquel primero para otro día!
Aun sabiendo el modo en que las cosas siguen adelante,
Dudé si debía haber regresado sobre mis pasos.
Debo estar diciendo esto con un suspiro
De aquí a la eternidad:
Dos caminos se bifurcaban en un bosque y yo,
Yo tomé el menos transitado,
Y eso hizo toda la diferencia.
Friday, September 18, 2020
"Interneting": or Studying with the Other*
All of us inhabitants of our planet
are Other for Others—
Me for Them, and Them for
Ancient cultures knew that everything in the World was interdependent. The modern era broke that view and only recently have we rediscovered Gaia – the close living relationship between living organisms and their environment.2 Now economic and political integrations implicitly recognize the need for collaboration. We must restructure and make our new and different interdependencies work.
The newest technologies allow us to access almost any part of the world as if we were all living in a virtual town with diverse and different histories, cultures, and languages. But this “techno” ability is misleading since inequalities in accessibility continue to exist and are even on the rise.3 Still, those who have the technological ability to know each other don’t have the need to do so. However, our hemispheric diversity demands that we form part of a symmetrical interdependent collaboration and a respectful dialogue. For this, we need materials, resources, capability, and will.
we are suggesting is outlined in the context of transnationalization and the internationalization
of education but with its own characteristics.4 My
profession –sociology-- has taught me (having given courses on
computer, Internet, and other various instruments that are such crucial
components of today’s teaching cannot replace mentors, tutors, teachers,
educators or trainers. At the same time, one teacher alone is not sufficient to
educate students who have the ability to electronically access libraries in
The metaphor of the information superhighway may now have a different meaning. A highway can also be a road on which we travel so quickly that the streets, landscapes and buildings pass us by without us even seeing them. We understand nothing. Information keeps growing and it grows more quickly and more out of context. In this sense we have traveled from one point to another without comprehending or understanding and for no particular reason.
On the Internet, virtual destiny does not coincide with reality. A real highway is not the same as a virtual highway. The Internet opens doors, but more so for young students in a virtual world that is “wide and foreign” when it should have “depth and be progressively knowable”. Meeting this objective requires the help of real people, specialists who can transform virtuality into reality. And that requires guides-professors at the beginning of the journey as well as guides-professors along the way.
Students and professors of one country may virtually explore other subjects in other countries, but in an increasingly global and interactive world, we need counterparts; this is part of the integration and interdependency. In other words, in addition to the collaborative work taking place among the students, collaboration must take place between the students and the onsite professor as well as with the professor-guide of the country being studied.5 This is key not only because we must be able to actively dialogue with those in the countries being studied (as opposed to virtual pages that use imaginary helpers), but also because in the process of interrelating ourselves, new realities are established and we learn – in practice – mutually. Only with the structure can we participate in a true symmetrical learning process that benefits everyone.
We need to develop “team teaching,” in which guides-professors in the country studied collaborate with onsite teachers who work directly with the students. This implies an integration whereby students and professors are present in the same place, but use Internet as a revised form of distance education.
Then we would have, in addition to distance education and studies abroad programs, a new experience that could be classified as co-studying with the studied abroad. We could call this “internetting” with the “other” countries / the “exterior, which is the true form – paraphrasing UNESCO – of together advancing intellectual knowledge.?
Nelson P Valdés, Ph.D
*The ideas, thoughts, and opinions expressed are not necessarily of the OAS nor of its member states. The opinions expressed are the responsibility of the authors.
3. One recent report reveals that in 2004 only 2.7% of university institutions had virtual programs and the number of students in those programs was 1.3% of the total. The study added “virtual higher education in Latin America is limited, not only because of the few (although growing) number of institutions that work with it or because of the small number of teachers involved and students reached, but rather because of the use (or rather underuse) of digital technologies (used almost exclusively to deliver content) and the paltry development of new pedagogical methods, which is a great contrast to the great possibilities offered by digital technologies in education to improve the quality of learning and further other functions of a higher education institution.” (See: Instituto Internacional para la Educación Superior en América Latina y el Caribe, Tecnologías de Información y Comunicación y Educación Superior Virtual en Latinoamérica y el Caribe, Ángel H. Facundo Díaz, Ph.D., Bogotá, 2004, p. 6.).
4. In the event we suggest the students and professor are in the
Saturday, September 12, 2020
The Rescue Operation Priorities in
“The contempt we have been taught to entertain for blacks, make us fear many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience.” – Alexander Hamilton in letter to John Hay, 1799.
“Only those who hate the black population, see hatred in blacks” - José Martí, Montecristi Manifesto, 1895
by Nelson P Valdés
recent earthquakes that have demolished the city of Port au Prince and its
surroundings have left Haiti stateless, ever poorer, desperate, and in need of
long term global assistance. A worldwide rescue operation has been initiated.
But, it is questionable to what extent the best interests of the people of
the foreign aid teams "rescued" and took out of the country the
non-Haitians, particularly the Europeans, Americans, and assorted other tourists.
The Voice of America on Jan. 16 reported: "In the last day or so the
Second, five days have gone by without any real significant distribution of medical supplies, food or water to the neediest people.
facts indicate clear priorities: the Haitians are not first in line. In fact, the
rescuers seem to have a widespread fear of the poor and desperate Haitians. A Scottish
reporter said, "aid workers in
Yet, the Haitians have been extraordinarily patient despite the fact that their world has collapsed around them.
assistance teams seem reluctant to distribute until they feel secure. Thus, the
Haitian people who wait for basic needs have not been mobilized to work on
their own behalf. Rather, the “humanitarians” treat them as children, with no thought
to providing them with the tools to help themselves. One Haitian consul to
Seemingly, the outsiders coming to help the people don’t trust the natives, despite the fact that the Haitians are dying, hungry, thirsty, sick, homeless, and with most of their families gone or lost. The Haitian chief of police, like most people in positions of authority, is a foreigner appointed by the United Nations.
the twice elected and twice removed political leader of the Haitians - Jean-Bertrand
Aristide is not permitted to enter his own country. In fact, President Obama
appointed one of those who ousted him - George
W. Bush – to help "supervise"
the "reconstruction" of
Perhaps it is too harsh but it appears as if those in charge think that a few thousand more Haitians dead would make it easier to control the situation. USA Today has reported, “Rescuers pulled a dehydrated but otherwise uninjured woman from the ruins of a luxury hotel in the Haitian capital early Sunday, drawing applause from onlookers who have seen little to cheer as the body count continued to rise from Tuesday's earthquake.”
They expect Haitians to remain patient, without food or water or aid to rescue their friends and relatives. Haitians are not even informed as to what to expect or when.
Ironically, US and NATO can quickly deliver death from the air, but, apparently won’t unleash their technology and resources to quickly save lives. United Nations tanks have been sent to different locations throughout what remains of the city, particularly the poorer neighborhoods such as Cité Soleil.  A poor substitute for food and water.
On January 15th, the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of
Affairs issued a report stating, "
is unclear who is directing what. Rear Admiral Ted Branch, the most senior
military official aboard the USS Carl Vinson stated, "We have lift, we have communications, we
have some command and control, but we don't have much relief supplies to offer…We
have no supplies at the airport that we have access to. There are other
supplies there that are under the control of other agencies, other
organizations and we haven't yet coordinated together to make those supplies
available for anyone to deliver."  The United Nations and the
American on the ground summed up the situation: "For the aid to work and
the teams of search and rescue workers to be able to do their job there is
going to need to be a major effort of all people to lay down their own fear
and personal need and allow the help to get to the worst off. Pray that people
will think of others as best they can and that relief will begin to get to the
places it is needed most."  Such fears, created and nurtured in colonial
times, have been reproduced for over two hundred years. Alexander Hamilton and José Martí recognized the
humanity of the former black slaves turned revolutionaries and told us to put our fears aside. As Linda Polman writes in The Times of
London class and racial fear by the rescue teams is costing the
lives of thousands in
 VOA Correspondent Reports on
relief Efforts in
,” VOA News.Com,01/16/10 Haiti
 “Fear of Looting as Desperation Among Haiti Earthquake Survivors Take Hold,” Scotsman.com, 01/15/10 http://www.scotsman.com/news/Fear-of-looting-as-desperation.5986768.jp
HaitiEarthquake Updates: Live Blog,” Guardian ( ), 01/15/10 London
 “Terremoto no Haiti: Consul Haitiano Afirma Que o Africano em si tem maldicao,” YouTube, 01/14/10 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UprgJGm-64
 “Apocalipsis social en Haiti?”, IAR Noticias, 01/167/10 http://www.aporrea.org/internacionales/n148906.html
”Hillary Clinton Meets With Haiti Leader After Arrival,” CNN, 01/17/10 http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/americas/01/16/haiti.earthquake/
: Ocha Sit Rep # 4” Haiti
 “After a Day of Deliveries, US Ship Runs Out of Aid,” AFP, 01/16/10
 “RD se vuelca en ayuda a haitianos,” Listin Diario (Dominican Republic), 01/17/10
 “Cargo Plane With
Hospital and Staff Blocked From
Landing in ,”
Doctors Without Borders, 01/17/10. Port-au-Prince
 “Overwhelming Sadness – Overwhelming Gratitude,” The Livesay [
] Weblog, 01/15/10 http://livesayhaiti.blogspot.com/2010/01/overwhelming-sadness.html Haiti
 Linda Polman, “Fear of the Por is Hampering Haiti Rescue,” Tomes Online, 01/18/10
Nelson P Valdés is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, founder of the
Latin AmericaData Base and director of the Cuba-L Project. He is a specialist on Latin Americaand writes for Counter Punch.
The author wishes to think the suggestions by Sandra Levinson, Ned Sublette and Saul Landau.
Sunday, July 22, 2018
revolutionary and that counter-revolutionary views should not be permitted to hide behind religion.
All radio and television stations create a network to transmit all major government acts and speeches.
March 13 - Fidel Castro sent a diplomatic message to the State Department saying that Cuba had no proof of American sabotage, but that Cuba had the "right to wonder whether those who want to destroy our revolution by economic means will stop short of other means."
US territory continued.)
Cuban peasants? Where was Mr. Eisenhower when the press was not allowed to express its views?" Dorticos denounced the US government for putting pressure on Cuba in order to defeat the country's hopes for social justice.
them, democracy is to respect the interests of a minority. Dictatorship, to them, is to defend the needs and demands of the majority of the people."
Recuperación Revolucionario (middle class, Havana based, Catholic); Rescate Revolucionario (some old Autánticos); Democratico Cubano (small Christian democratic group, young); the Asociacion Montecristi (anti-communist
a professional group, closely connected to the Autánticos); and the Frente Nacional Triple A and the CIA (a split-off from the Autánticos). [Note: The old Ortodoxos were not as involved in this effort].
Cuba a letter. The letter informed them that the trade agreement reached with the Russians involved the exchange of Cuban sugar for Russian crude oil. The letter went on to state that the US refineries in Cuba could still buy some of their supplies abroad but that 300,000 tons of Russian crude oil would be furnished to them since it would save Cuban capital. In other words, oil refineries had to BUY some oil from the Cuban state at the CHEAPER rate than what they paid to their own subsidiaries. But by June 11, the companies REFUSED to refine the crude oil.
Aug. 16 Cuba celebrates the anniversary of the death of Eduardo Chibás.
September 3 - The government of Taiwan broke relations with Cuba as Havana established formal diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China.
Oct. 11 - U.S. citizen captured in Escambray mountains, he was part of a counterrevolutionary guerrilla group.
Oct. 28 - Che Guevara left Cuba for a commercial and diplomatic tour of the USSR, Eastern Europe and China.
Cuban government. Cubela was a member of the Directorio Revolucionario that fought against Fulgencio Batista. He was NOT a member of the 26th of July Movement. After 1959 he did not play a significant role in the revolutionary regime].
Sunday, September 07, 2014
September 8, 2014
By Nelson P. Valdés as told to Nan Elsasser* in 1989
They are an unlikely duo: she is self-centered and he is self-sacrificing.
She likes to dance; he thinks it’s a waste of time. She is a hedonist; he is
a fervent Marxist. She is originally from Africa; he was born in Argentina.
About all they have in common is striking good looks and the love and
adoration of the Cuban people who have adopted them.
Official Cuba lionizes Ché Guevara, the hero who fought his way to power by
Fidel Castro’s side and was killed by government soldiers in Bolivia. When
Cuban soldiers return from supporting the Marxist regime in Angola, they are
awarded medals for following “el camino del Ché” (the path of Ché). Yet
within a few days of receiving their medals, the same soldiers will visit
Cachita’s shrine and leave their medals among the gifts of her devotees.
Cuba’s political, economic, and cultural life rests significantly on a shaky
compromise between the values represented by Cachita and Ché.
The Santuario/Basilica of Caridad del Cobre, called Cachita, the patron
saint of Cuba, is 12 miles west of the city of Santiago, over 400 kilometers
east of the Museo de La Revolución in Havana. It is at the Ermita, as well
as at the museum, that the rich history of revolutionary Cuba is on
display, flickering in the shadows of votive candles. In the half-light of
the tiny flames is the vial of hometown dirt that orbited the planet with
Comandante Tamayo, the first and only Cuban astronaut; gold, silver, and
bronze medals from the recent Pan American games in Indianapolis; and
petitions from Fidel’s mother from the days when her son was fighting in the
sierra nearby. Side by side with these artifacts of national unity and
revolutionary sacrifice are letters requesting a new car or a bigger
apartment, and the traditional honey and cigar left in exchange for good
In this small island nation, the fact that young communist
internacionalistas, the spiritual heirs of Ché, pay homage to a virgin from
Spanish colonial times surprises no one. Nor does the fact that Caridad,
alleged mother of God, most sacred of Catholic icons, bears the decidedly
unholy nickname of “Cachita,” central character of a popular song that
choruses: “Cachita está alborotá, ahora baila el cha cha chá (Cachita is
wild now she’s dancing the cha cha cha).”
Caridad del Cobre is not what she appears to be. And hundreds of thousands
of Cubans know the truth: Cachita Caridad del Cobre is neither Catholic,
Spanish, nor white. She is Oshún, the mulatto goddess of pleasure. An
African hedonist masquerading as a Spanish saint, a Catholic shrine in a
communist country, consumerist dreams in a revolutionary setting – Caridad
del Cobre epitomizes the contradictions and combinations of Cuban life. In
the past and in the present, Cubans have learned to live comfortably with
the combination of power politics and mystical imagery.
In a country accustomed to signs from the other world, it was logical, for
example, that Fulgencio Batista chose December 31 [rather than January 1st]
to abandon power and flee to the Dominican Republic. For Cubans, it is
essential to leave the old year’s problems behind before a new year begins.
On the last day of December housewives all over Cuba “se hacen la limpieza”;
they throw a bucket of water on the floor of the innermost room and sweep it
through the house and out the front door, pushing evil spirits along with
the dirty water. If Batista had remained, he would have been burdened
throughout the coming year with the bad karma of his defeat.
Nor were Habaneros surprised when a relatively unknown Fidel Castro
descended from the mountains of Oriente. Since Spaniards first landed in
Cuba with boatloads of human cargo in the early 1500s, the easternmost
province has been a refuge for those escaping tyranny. For the past three
hundred years, Santiago and the mountains that surround it have been the
actual and symbolic home of freedom. a cradle of rebellion, and the
preferred territory of the African gods called santos. In Oriente, where
Santería (the worship of African gods with the names of Catholic saints) is
the dominant religion, everyone understood when Fidel came down from the
mountain and told the assembled masses, ” . .I do not speak in my name. I
speak in the name of the thousands and thousands … who made victory
possible. I speak in the name of our dead … This time the dead will
continue to be in command.” It does not really matter that Castro was
probably expressing his heartfelt commitment to those who died in the
struggle to overturn Batista.
To believers, those words, like the white eleke (necklace) he wore around
his neck, were a sure sign that the gods were speaking through Fidel. Any
doubts were dispelled on January 8, when Fidel first entered Havana and
addressed the Cuban nation. I remember that day, because my family owned the
only TV on the block. Everyone in the neighborhood was either in our living
room, standing in the doorway, or looking in through the front window. We
were all listening to Fidel with one ear and to a neighbor with the other.
Until, seemingly from nowhere, three doves appeared and, illuminated by
television lights, circled Camp Columbia where Fidel was speaking. As if on
cue, one landed on the podium, and all of Cuba went silent. When the second
dove perched on Fidel’s shoulder, people gasped, then began chanting,
“Fi-del. Fi-del.” Over the years, many interpretations of this phenomenon
have circulated. The New York Times said the dove symbolized the dawn of
peace in a troubled land; the conservative Cuban press claimed the Holy
Spirit had blessed the revolution. Both missed the mark because, appearances
notwithstanding, neither Catholic nor Marxist-Leninist interpretations of
reality have deep roots in Cuba. Behind the icons and the anti-imperialist
billboards beat Santería drums.
Originally, Santería was a new world synthesis of various animist religions
from southwest Nigeria. When threatened by Spanish slave owners for
practicing heathen rites, African slaves clothed their beliefs in the
protective coloring of
Catholicism, and a new synthesis occurred. Today, the two religions share
the same altars, the same images, sacred dates, and even prayers. In January
1988, Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana visited the chapel of Santa
Barbara in nearby Guines (reputed to be a “bewitched” town). He was moved by
the profound devotion be observed, which be chose to interpret as a
manifestation of strong Catholic faith. But this chapel is maintained by
santeros, not priests. And while the forms of these two religions overlap,
the content does not. The eighty-year-old mayordomo who cleans and protects
the church will tell you that the real power dwells behind the statue of
Santa Barbara in the otá, or sacred stone of Changó. What distinguishes otá
from other stones is that sacred stones are alive. They grow up and have
children, assuring worshippers of a steady supply of supernatural energy.
The otá is not the only difference between Catholicism and Santería.
According to santero theology, Olofi created the universe. Initially, his
creation was immobile, but soon, bored with the static cosmos, be added
plants, animals, flowers, seas, clouds, rain, human beings, and more than
three hundred male and female gods called orishas. Each orisha, or santo,
bears both an African Yoruba name and a Catholic name, as well as unique
personalities and powers. Obatalá, for example, is unimpressed by money.
Oshún, on the other hand, adores it, although she prefers a good party.
Elegguá alone determines the future. What he predicts cannot be forestalled
by man, woman, or other gods.
Unfortunately, by populating the heavens with so many strong characters,
Olofi had also created interminable wrangling. Tired of endless conflict, he
chose Obatalá to rule over other gods and human beings, who were also
behaving poorly. Obatalá, who speaks through Fidel, is the leader, the god
of thinking and consciousness. He is also the god of justice.
In Santería, both men and women serve as santeros. Over them are the
babalawos, who have the power to make animal sacrifices, initiate believers
into the religion and read the future with the Ifá oracle or with the eight
largest pieces of a smashed coconut shell. Although there is a titular
“king” of babalawos, he lacks the theocratic and administrative control of a
Catholic pope. There are no “Thou shalt nots” that apply to all in Santeria.
Believers do not attain salvation through good works and a pure heart. They
get what they want in direct proportion to the adequacy of their offerings
and following what your orisha expects.
The santos communicate their feelings via the orishas, or supernatural
messengers. White doves are the messengers of Obatalá, the right-hand man of
the god of all creation. Thus when the bird landed on Fidel, everyone
watching knew that Castro was blessed; he was El Elegido (The Chosen One).
Since then, Fidel bas been called El Caballo (the Horse), the term used to
designate someone whom an orisha has mounted and possessed.
On January 8, 1989, thirty years after the triumph of the Cuban revolution,
Fidel spoke once again from Camp Columbia, and once again a white dove
perched on his shoulder. He spoke of sacrifice, commitment, and hard work,
and he invoked the spirit of Ché. But masses of Cubans attending the annual
event saw and heard the spirit of Obatalá – whether the dove, like the site,
was orchestrated, is irrelevant. What is important is the continuing
influence of Santería on Cuban popular culture, and, consequently, on
political life. Contemporary Cuban values are rooted in a past without hope.
Africans who had been seized and transported in chains across an ocean,
deprived of family, land, and language, had little incentive to believe in
their power to shape the future. Unlike Pilgrims, Puritans, and even
indentured servants, their futures were determined by the whims of a slave
master. In this despondent milieu, Santería was born and flourished. And in
times, led to revolts. A stepchild of medieval Catholicism and African
polytheism, Santería is the antithesis of Calvinism.
The descendants of slaves and landless peasants were convinced by the slave
plantation that material and spiritual well-being is not the reward for hard
work and clean living. Three hundred years of experience taught them that
happiness is fleeting and often achieved only at someone else’s expense.
Whether you acquire a new house or lose the one you already have, whether
the sugar content of cane is high or low, whether the economy prospers or
stagnates, depends not on budgeting, technology, or international banking
policies; it is in the hands of a pantheon of capricious gods. The Cuban
revolution has attempted to change that.
When Oshún asks for a sacrifice, she expects you to kill a pigeon; she is
unimpressed by Ché’s sacrifice, the kind where you die fighting
imperialists. Nor is she impressed by a capitalist working others or himself
to death, accumulating money for the benefit of generations down the road. A
people who worship the goddess of sex, lover of gold, and patron of parties
is not a people favorably disposed to endure the hardships required to
surmount economic dependency and construct socialism. Yet, Santería has
No one knows this better than Fidel Castro. For thirty years, Fidel, chief
apostle of revolutionary sacrifice, has dedicated himself to transforming
the ideology of the Cuban people; for thirty years he bas exhorted his
people to scorn the siren Cachita for the selfless Ché.
As perestroika rolled across the former Soviet Union and much of eastern
Europe, Fidel pushed “rectification” – a return to asceticism, voluntarism,
and collectivism. Political pundits interpreted Fidel’s endless sermons as a
direct challenge to Gorbachev’s neo capitalist policies. But Castro’s devil
was not Russian; she was/is a happy-go-lucky, mulatto goddess who cha-chas
to the name of Cachita. In a 1979 speech, Castro said, ” .. the most
powerful weapon … is an ethic, a consciousness, a sense of duty, a sense
of organization, discipline, and responsibility.”
Castro knows that to bring prosperity and socialism to an underdeveloped
society, he must provide Cuban citizens with a revolutionary version of the
Protestant ethic. He has to make people believe in their power to shape
their individual and collective futures. They must have faith that in their
labor lies the foundation for the future. In other words, they must emulate
Ché, a man who gave everything and asked nothing in return, a guerrilla who
believed devoutly in his ability to shape the forces of history by sheer
willpower. To this end, whenever children in the Young Pioneers (a Cuban
version of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. organized by the Communist Party)
set off to work in the fields or march in a parade, they raise their right
band and pledge, “Seremos como el Ché (We will be like Ché).’
Ironically, the same government which expends tremendous energy inculcating
revolutionary values has inadvertently enhanced the power and prestige of
Santería. When Castro assumed control of Cuba, be did not exhort the poor to
construct socialism through voluntary labor. As the bourgeoisie fled, the
revolutionaries seized their assets and distributed them among their former
servants, prompting the poet Nicolás Guillén, to write: “Te lo prometió
Martí y Fidel te lo cumplió.” (What Martí – hero of the Cuban war for
independence – promised, Fidel delivered).
In Santeria, promesa is a contract with a god-if you make an adequate
offering, your petition is granted. This unexpected bonanza reinforced many
people’s belief in magic. According to the First Party Congress in 1975,
Santería was permissible as folklore, a relic of an ignorant past. When
religious superstitions failed to wither away, the ever-pragmatic Castro did
more than recognize them: he permitted a national association of babalawos,
invited the Nigerian king of all santeros for a visit and promised to build
a temple and hold a national congress of santeros. In the interim, Santería
benefited from the revolutionary leadership’s confrontations with the
Catholic Church. As the authority of recognized “official” religion was
curtailed then, the influence of Santería expanded to fill the vacuum.
Finally, Santería’s prestige was augmented by the mass movement of Cuban
troops and technicians to Africa, where religions similar to Santería are
practiced openly. More than 200,000 Cubans have visited the motherland over
the last ten years. This re-acquaintance, instigated by the government, has
made it more difficult to repress African-inspired religions.
Castro is not unaware of the extraordinary convergence between Santería and
revolutionary holy days, nor is he above manipulating their significance.
January 1, the day of El Triunfo, is also Elegguá’s day. July 26, officially
commemorated as the commencement of the struggle against Batista, is also
celebrated as the day of St. Ann, mother of Mary, who, as any Cuban can tell
you, is really the benevolent Nana Burukú, goddess of Justice and mother of
Babalú-ayé. No one knows if it is coincidence or foresight that the red and
black of the 26th of July Movement happened to be the colors of this
But relying on signs from the gods is risky business. In 1987, the Ifa
Oracle, the annual prediction for the new year, announced that Castro would
die unless the Yoruba “king of kings; , the “great Oni” of babalawos,
traveled to Cuba and kissed the ground. The revolutionary government duly
issued the invitation, and a picture of the great Oni arriving at the José
Martí Airport in Havana graced the front page of Granma, the newspaper of
the Communist Party. Reportedly, the Nigerian kissed the ground. Fidel did
not die. And neither has Santería. Contemporary Cuban politics is the child
of an unlikely marriage. The children of the revolution admire Ché, their
handsome, idealistic leader; they worship Cachita, their beautiful,
fun-loving mother, and they hope to grow up to be both.
*Nan Elsasser is a free-lance writer and has lived and taught in the Caribbean.