Cuban, American, AND Progressive
By Remy Kharbanda & Nadia Gonzalez
Introduction by Mariana Ruiz
This issue of Clamor focuses on excess and scarcity, and we have taken the opportunity to examine unbalanced viewpoints and extreme interpretations of ideology or doctrine. One topic readily discussed in Leftist circles but often lacking depth is Cuba/U.S. relations, where the experience of progressive Cuban Americans is often overlooked or dismissed from both sides of the debate. Ironically, we are in a unique moment in history regarding Cuba.
The Communist regime of Fidel Castro – in power since January 1, 1959 – has been a thorn in the side of U.S. foreign policy. Within this 40 year Cold War legacy, recent U.S. policy changes towards Cuba demonstrate the Bush Administration’s disdain for the sovereignty of any nation defining it’s own political agenda. Government policies have tightened an already punitive and unjust embargo and increased absurd travel restrictions where Cuban Americans may travel to the country once every three years and where violators may face fines of $25,000. The absence of solid economic planning by the Cuban state furthers hardship on the people. Poverty coupled with the lack of basic freedoms have forced the migration of Cubans to the U.S. in increasing numbers since the Special Period.
Fear keeps the Left from criticizing the Cuban government in the post 9-11 war on terror. Yet, only ongoing reflection can maintain the goals of the Revolution and social justice. Conservatives are already composing plans to descend on Cuba upon Castro’s death. Thus the Left, which rarely prepares offensive strategies, must think critically about the Cuban Revolution.
The following article on progressive Cuban Americans represents one of the first attempts, from inside this community, to engage the Left and initiate a crucial dialogue, which is long overdue. There are criticisms of both the Right and Left tempered by opportunities for a new movement led by Cubans and Cuban Americans. This piece represents what Clamor strives for: a thoughtful analysis of the issues while threatening the status quo.
In the United States, discussion on Cuba has been dominated almost exclusively by a tendency to either denounce or glorify — the former representing the stance associated with the Right-wing lobby, including the more extremist elements of the Cuban exile community; the latter more commonly identified with the Left. The disparity has been exacerbated by the current political climate, where a conservative foreign policy agenda is increasingly prevalent and those on the Left are struggling to stay afloat. Our intent for this article is to ask: where are progressive Cuban Americans in this debate?
The complexity of Cuban American experiences is not reflected in the denounce-glorify paradigm. On one hand, progressive Cuban Americans reject the ideology of the Cuban political elite; on the other, they find the Left unbending and unwilling to tolerate open dialogue. Many feel silenced, limiting their ability to articulate an alternative progressive Cuban agenda.
Regardless of how they see themselves, Cubans are a politicized people, a by-product of U.S.-Cuba relations, intensified by the island’s defiance of the U.S. for more than four decades. This article, based on conversations with a number of progressive Cuban Americans, intends to give voice to this community in hopes of diversifying the debate and recasting long-silenced progressive Cuban Americans as important political actors.
Growing up in Miami and being surrounded by more extremist elements of the Cuban exile environment discourages the expression of alternative viewpoints. Some of those we spoke with described a hostile and intimidating climate where any interest in Cuba or even minor differences in opinions casts suspicions and attracts aspersions. Pablo Soto, a musician and artist based in Berkeley, California, who moved to Miami from Havana when he was eight years old, spoke of how his interests in Cuban music and culture were viewed with suspicion: “the attitude was always, is it really that or is it that you are a communist?” Similarly, Yasmina Martinez (who asked that her real name not be used, fears any positive association with Cuba would negatively impact her livelihood), a musician born in Cuba but raised in New Jersey, told us, “If I’m not 100 percent against Fidel, 24/7, I’m branded as a communist and am blacklisted by the Miami lobby.”
As the schoolyard chant goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Many are quick to explain, though, that it is not just a matter of name-calling. The extremist lobby assigns the label “Communist” aggressively, as a weapon to undermine, discredit, and silence their opponents. Pablo explains that it’s not easy to challenge this mentality. “These people have a lot of power and a lot of money. If you don’t affiliate with [them], you become a victim to their hostility.” Yasmina mentioned such an incident involving a recent Cuban immigrant “[who] wouldn’t get on the radio and denounce Fidel, so one day, while he was riding his bike through Miami, he was hit over the head with a baseball bat.”
Furthermore, those we spoke with received little support from allies on the Left. Many experienced hostility and antagonism or have been confronted with stereotypes about their identity. “There is a stigma when you say that you are a Cuban from Miami,” says Onel Mulet, a musician and artist who grew up in Miami. According to Lara Comstock Oramas, who identifies as queer and runs LEFTovers Progressive Catering Company, “the assumption tends to be that we all are Right-wing.” Lara went on to comment on the tendency to conflate identity with politics, “If I’m doing something that is progressive, the assumption will be that that supersedes my identity.” Others described encounters with activists who, excited to speak to a Cuban in the U.S., became less interested upon learning that the individuals had been raised in Miami.
“Progressives have written off Cubans,” says Jorge Mursuli, a leading gay rights advocate who directed the Mi Familia Vota campaign in Miami in 2004, which registered over 70,000 new voters including many Cuban Americans. “The assumption is that our commitment to Republicans is deeply entrenched. [But] Cubans aren’t monolithic.” Jorge spoke about the absence of a progressive space in Miami, mentioning, for example, that there is only one Democratic representative in the city who speaks Spanish, highlighting the party’s distance from the Cuban American community.
Maceo, who describes himself as a radical Cuban Un-American, poignantly articulated the impact such stereotypes create when attempting to connect to the traditionally Leftist organizations involved in Cuba solidarity work. “With one group in particular, when I told them that I was Cuban, their immediate concern was, did I support the Revolution.” Maceo, who worked at a national education organization in New York before moving West, has experienced offensive encounters with predominantly white Leftists who have used the term gusano in relation to some members of the Cuban American community. Race relations are different in Cuba and the U.S. as many Cubans in Miami are perceived as “blancos of Spanish descent” in Cuban terms, explains Maceo; though they are still people of color in the U.S.
During a recent solidarity event in Brooklyn encouraging Americans to visit the island by challenging oppressive travel restrictions and maintaining communication between the two countries, a well-regarded North American activist gave a presentation stating that there is minimal opposition to the Revolution on the island and no shortages, particularly of medications. By presenting himself as an authority on Cuba, he created an environment hostile to any opinion that challenged such generalizations, especially after a progressive Cuban raised objection to the comments and was subsequently dismissed.
Nadia, who came to the U.S. as a Cuban emigrant in 1986, felt obligated to challenge the presenter’s comments, but not without first explaining their progressive political views in order to legitimize the comments. The event failed to highlight the specific impact of the travel restrictions on Cubans in this country, something that the Left should mobilize around given that thousands of Cubans in the U.S. have family in Cuba and would visit regularly.
The Left’s position on Cuba — with a heady mix of ideology, a failure to question, and a need to compensate for and justify some of the Revolution’s dysfunctions — has had the impact of denying Cuban Americans the opportunity to discuss current conditions in Cuba without being labeled reactionary and creating distance and mistrust where alliances and partnerships could exist. Lara says, “People on the Left — and it tends to be white Leftists — have a tendency to completely glorify Cuba. Yes, there are amazing things happening, but there’s also a lot of hardship. So it’s like glorifying the ghetto.”
Based on their personal and political experiences, Cuban Americans have a more complex analysis than either the Left or Right acknowledge. What may seem like ambiguity or contradiction to some is really the consequence of a multifaceted issue. As Lara says, “It makes me so angry because while I don’t completely support the Cuban government, I’m not Right-wing. At the same time, I have been to Cuba and seen the hardship my family has to deal with.” A political refugee who fell out of favor with the Cuban government after making a film about HIV/AIDS in Cuba and asked to remain anonymous, echoes similar sentiments: “I can’t chose between the U.S. government and the way the Cuban government is right now. For me, it is very frustrating dealing with Cuba. But I am passionate about my country’s revolutionary history.”
According to Hugo Perez, a filmmaker and writer who grew up in Miami, “most Leftists have allowed ideology to cloud their vision. The most I can do is point things out, but sometimes it’s not worth it because they’re so inflexible.” The rigidity experienced by many from their comrades on the Left undermines the lived experiences of progressive Cuban Americans. Seventy-seven percent of Cubans in Miami have family in Cuba. “When it comes to your family, you can’t look the other way for the sake of ideology,” says Alex Idavoy, Assistant Professor of Spanish and son of political refugees.
“The Left is insensitive to the pain of Cuban Americans who suffered and continue to suffer [dually] for the struggles of their parents and being separated from Cuba,” explains Onel. Pablo has strong feelings about the authority that Cubans have versus those who see and experience Cuba less intimately, “It really upsets me when some people feel like they can tell me how things are [in Cuba] when they don’t know what’s happening, they don’t live it the way I do. I try to tell them that the reality is much more complex than what they’re describing.”
According to Yasmina, “there is no room on the Left because people feel the strong need to defend Cuba.” Recently, many on the Left, citing bumped up sanctions and increased hostility from the U.S. government, have argued that the need to defend the Cuban Revolution outweighs the need to be constructively critical. One Cuban American involved in the progressive Cuban American movement told us that the embargo is a product of the de facto U.S. war on Cuba and he could not engage in any dialogue about current problems in Cuba lest he be seen as empowering Cuba’s enemies at a time when the nation’s sovereignty is vulnerable.
Regla Guzman, a high school teacher born in Cuba and raised in Brooklyn who describes herself as Left-leaning, understands these concerns yet prefers open dialogue. As she explains, “there have to be changes, but I also see the point about not articulating criticism of Cuba right now because it could be used and distorted. But I also feel it’s worth taking those chances if we want changes to take place, because they’re not going to happen by themselves. And those on the Right are going to do it anyway.”
Progressive Cuban Americans believe in social justice as much as those on the Left and see an honest dialogue as complementing such struggles. Pedro Benitez, a balsero who came to the U.S. at 18, says, “Cuba gave me things I did not realize until I came to this country, for example, a good education.” At the same time, however, he emphasizes that we “should be critical whenever the need arises.” As Regla articulates, “we have to question and strive to make things better. If we don’t analyze and only glorify, how will we grow?”
The main hope of most progressive Cuban Americans in speaking openly and honestly about current conditions is not to undermine Cuba but to make it better, for their own families in Cuba and for all Cubans. As Pablo states, “it’s very personal to be able to talk about and criticize my country. I understand very intimately what’s happening to my family and my Cuban brothers and sisters.” It is the inability and unwillingness to be self-critical that stagnates movements and threatens Cuba’s sovereignty as the post-Castro era approaches.
Everyone interviewed was adamant about their desires for Cuba’s future and the need for Cuba’s autonomy to be respected, indicating a commonality with those on the Left. “I hope that after Castro, people opt for not losing their identities to the U.S.,” Alex says. Pablo expressed, “My wish is that Cuba not be exploited by anyone. I don’t want Cuba to become like Puerto Rico.” These shared sentiments need to be nurtured in order to build a strong and supportive link to aid Cuba in her impending transition.
Despite their hopes for Cuba, many are wary and unclear about how to proceed. This is largely due to the political “black hole” that progressive Cuban Americans have occupied on these issues, impeding the development of a progressive identity. Conversely, many of those we spoke with are active in other movements but are neither politically vocal nor active on Cuban issues. For some, being excluded from the debate is what has impaired the larger community’s ability to realize their potential as important actors.
Nevertheless, there is a nascent realization that the destiny of the progressive Cuban American community requires a space reflecting the “grey” area from which they should articulate an alternative agenda. “If more progressive Cuban Americans organized, it would help Cubans in Cuba as well as Cubans in this country. It would also help with American politics toward Cuba,” says Pedro. Despite the sense of alienation, there is a desire to develop a movement representing the outlook and experiences of a progressive Cuban American generation, without the fear of retribution. Tools for communicating beyond the Left or Right would overcome the shared sense of isolation and move toward creating progressive leadership.
Clear communication develops avenues for engagement with Cubans in Cuba, particularly important in light of recent policy changes to the embargo and travel restrictions. Many expressed a desire to work with and build stronger ties to Cubans on the island considering the imminent political transitions. They suggested that recent immigrants or “new Cubans” should lead such organizing efforts, given their stronger bonds to the island and their abilities to bridge the gap between Cubans in the U.S. and in Cuba.
Maceo wrote in the essay “Dejé enterrado mi corazón” (I left my heart buried), “there is this myth that all Cubans are Republicans. Did you know that only eight percent of Cubans in Miami vote?” There is a large population of disenfranchised Cuban Americans, unrepresented in the U.S. political arena. A progressive Cuban American electoral voice could fill the gap brought about by the decreasing influence of the Cuban American political elite.
While they do exist, progressive Cuban American organizations are few and far between. Based on our interviews, there is a pressing need for this community, which is hampered by being scattered over a wide geographic area, to begin by building a base and initiating internal dialogue before articulating a political agenda. This could serve as a platform from which Cuban Americans could build solidarity with Cuba at the electoral level. Aside from conventional politics, which many expressed frustration with, other ways to build a community are encuentros, intimate gatherings focused on initiating discussion on shared interests regarding Cuba. A number of progressive Cuban Americans are already exploring alternative ways to dialogue through writing, music, and the arts. For example, during the special period, the “Bridges to Cuba” project sought to reestablish conversations between Cubans in both countries.
The Left can play a vital role in supporting this community by engaging with progressive Cuban Americans (as is done with other progressive struggles) and redressing tendencies that disregard the input of the progressive Cuban American community. Those on the Left who organize in other struggles need to make a concerted effort to reach out to Cuban Americans as a community and support their base-building. Alex recommends that Democrats reach out to progressive Cuban Americans in the same way that Republicans have reached out to the conservative Cuban community.
Ultimately, the Left and progressive Cuban Americans should support Cubans on the island in determining their country’s future. As Pablo asserts, “I think it’s important that progressive Cuban Americans support Cuba in its transition. But I think my cousins who are in Cuba need to take the lead.”
Remy Kharbanda is a New York-based activist and community researcher of South Asian descent.
Nadia Gonzalez was born in Cuba and arrived to the United States at the age of 16 in 1996. She attended CUNY Hunter College where she studied psychology and Latin American Literature.