Obama and Cuban myths debunked
Without any shots, threats or military invasions, the US's 44th president, Barack Hussein Obama, arrived in and departed from Cuba. Cubans all over were glued to their screens, engaging in the inevitable debate about his visit's motivations and, more recently, its effects. Beyond the images and speeches, the end of antagonism with the "restless and brutal north" has rattled, like an invisible earthquake, the myths upon which our national narratives have been based. Among them: Cuba-US relations and the role assigned to non-whites in the national ideology, and the coalition under which the nation has been defined.
Cuban patriots, from Saco to the Castros, have understood our proximity to the United States as the crux of our political and economic destiny. Panic about the island becoming another Haiti, along with the criollo elite's aspirations for greater commercial and freedoms, made an alliance with the north attractive to 19th-century Cuban capitalists. The US stood out as a beacon of modernity in the industrialized world, while the Spanish Empire was faltering, the Latin American nations independent and exhibiting a resentful spite for new forms of dissent, internal and external.
The wars of independence and the first great Cuban exodus to the US led to an understanding of the specific possibilities and threats posed by the growing empire. The threat was fully manifested by the US invasion of 1898, and the interventionist guarantee embodied by the Platt Amendment in 1901. Protests by patriots like Juan Gualberto Gómez, Enrique José Varona, Rubén Martínez Villena and Julio Antonio Mella bolstered the anti-imperialist school of thought founded by José Martí.
The invocation of this anti-imperialist tradition has been vital to the nationalist narrative of the Cuban revolution, and instrumental in galvanizing an international coalition with the socialist camp, liberation movements in Africa, and the international Left.
But now the north has landed at Jose Martí airport. The absence of Raúl Castro at the foot of the ladder which Obama descended illustrated the tensions under which vessel of reconciliation has set sail. Much to the dismay of my former professor of Defense Preparedness, the island did not run for shelter. Despite the joint "securities," the people flooded the streets and crowded at their windows and balconies, overcome with unbridled joy and emotion. Thus far Obama's doctrine towards Cuba appears to have suspended the interventionism endorsed by the Monroe Doctrine. Under a charismatic aura of diplomacy, the new "soft power" is obviously rooted in more subtle and responsive reasoning, one stemming from geopolitics and contemporary capitalism. Our nationalist rhetoric was not prepared for this. And Barack Hussein Obama forges ahead, unflappable, despite our demands, our crises and our political insults.
Obama has been dealing with the scrutiny of his detractors ever since the commencement of his candidacy for the presidency. There has been plenty of racism, with his ability to govern being called into question, an affiliation with Islam being alleged, and the veracity of his birth certificate being questioned. Inaugurated as the president of the most powerful nation on earth, his rhetoric on the matter has been contained, but this has cannot be said of his vision. The first family has projected an impeccable image of respectability, without sacrificing their identification with the US's black culture and the Diaspora. As a newcomer to the White House, and not without controversy, Obama replaced the bust of Winston Churchill for one of Martin Luther King. At numerous social galas, not only have the Obamas celebrated the excellence of black painters, musicians and dancers, but have made doing so politically fashionable.
The Obama family's decolonizing efforts could not have been complete without visiting Cuba, where the political castration of blacks has been part and parcel of the national education program. Blacks created wealth for white criollos, wielded machetes against the Spaniards, and were butchered in still unknown numbers in 1906 and in 1912, closing with blood a century of struggle for civil rights in the framework of the nation. And the alleged eradication of racism under the revolutionary doctrine has not prevented the black man, as a figure, from remaining a symbol of barbarism, ignorance and national ridicule.
Inside and outside Cuba the aggrieved used Obama's black body to exhibit their criollo class of racism, and we saw him parading in memes and cartoons as the rumba-dancing black, the black musician, the black congo, and the black coachman. Racist caricatures remain commonplace forms of offense, as we were recently reminded by an article in the Tribuna de La Habana "Negro, tú eres sueco?" ["Blackie, are you Swedish?"]
Fortunately, Obama does not need a Swedish passport to shop at a very expensive boutique, as he simply embodies the power of the most powerful empire on earth. However, all that power could not conceal his down-to-earth nature. His controversial and informal "Qué volá" (How are you?) left an amicable echo wafting through the air of the city's most run-down neighborhoods, those harboring most of the black population. Obama danced the tango in Argentina, but did not dance in Cuba, nor smoke cigars. Instead, he visited a family restaurant owned by a black family, poorly represented in the new middle class, and called for greater participation by Afro-Cubans in the new economic plans.
According to the tenets of criollo racism, a Cuban mulatto would not go to Harvard to marry a poor woman darker than himself. Obama, according to this perverse logic, is at least a paradoxical mulatto, which in English calls us to a new national coalition. Through Babalú, St. Lazarus, Jesus Christ and the divine intervention of the Holy Father, the 44th US President appeals to older and perhaps more appealing beliefs than political ones. No wonder Marx called it "the opium of the masses." According to the Obama Doctrine, with that opium it is possible to establish a new, imagined community, a new brotherhood with more affinities than differences, with more affection and less rancor. Since its first tweet, or his choosing an eatery in a humble neighborhood to have dinner with his family, it was clear that he was more interested in the people than protocol. So, he sat down at the table of the comedian Pánfilo, a character associated with rationing cards, to play dominoes and let him win.
Obama's political jujitsu, with his speeches in Havana, featured a range of appeals calling for a New Cuba. His own personal history demonstrated by itself the need for protest and dissent. "When my parents met they could not have married in many states in my own country. But, thanks to dissenters like Martin Luther King and others, I have been able to become the US president." His unhesitant inclusion of Cuba's exiles and dissidents as necessary and indispensable players in the nation's future unfortunately puts to shame a regime that has buried its humanity under slogans and uniforms.