Monday, February 18, 2013

Free to Be...

If I had to describe my time in Cuba with just one overwhelming feeling, it would be “comfortable.” I felt very, very at home where ever I went on the island. I was no longer the “fly in the buttermilk” that I've been all my life, with the exception of within my group. No matter where I went, brown people outnumbered white people and that eased me, unconsciously, sometimes. I guess internally, my mind recognized that I am among my people and there was no need to be on guard.

Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, where Cuban founding father Jose Marti and other  war heroes are buried

In my home land of the United States, Blacks, whether they want to admit it or not, walk around constantly on guard when out and about, both in and out of the ghetto,  out of an innate fear that your actions might be misconstrued by the powers that be. It doesn't matter how rich you are, how long you've lived in the area, where you happen to be. One day the stars can line up and for some reason, the police, your neighbors, your alleged friends, suddenly don't recognize you and things happen. You're thrown in jail or accused unjustly for driving down the wrong street, or walking into the wrong store. We have yet to solve the myriad of problems generated from slavery and the resulting residue of institutionalized racism that persists today.

In Cuba, we were eight fellow travelers from the United States, five white and three Black. Our tour guide was Cuban, white Cuban. Our tour leader, who lives in the United States, was originally born in Iran. In this group I will not use the term “American” to refer to us, because at least one of us was from Canada. True, he was born in North America and lives in the USA. Technically, the term “American” does not apply to Canadians, only those of us born in the USA. We USA born tend to forget that we share the continent of North America with at least two other countries. And, in the rest of the world, outside of the USA, Canadian is good, while Americans are not viewed as positive or good people in general. “Americans” are viewed as rich and generally clueless about the pain and suffering our country, our government causes others around the world.

Our group also represented a very successful slice of US society, professionally and financially. We were all past or approaching retirement age, baby boomers, with the exception of our tour leader, who was a very young 35. Outside of our Cuban tour guide, surprisingly, the next youngest was me at 62.

Another common denominator was our politics. We were all rabid liberals, who spanned the country from east to west, and who had voted for Barack Obama. None of us was happy with his policies, as well as his timid nature in governing, but each of us shuddered at any mention of the currently available alternatives. Of course, none of us knew any of this before we booked the trip. We were complete strangers until we met up at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. The US is more united than we think.

Now I would be remiss if I painted Cuba as this fantasy island totally free of racism and bigotry. It's not. More slaves were brought to Cuba than to the United States. Slavery ended in Cuba, several years after it was outlawed in the US. Rich Cuban landowners practiced the same racism toward Blacks that whites practiced in the US. In fact, just after Cuba's War for Independence from Spain, the USA tried to get Cuba to enact Jim Crow segregation laws in order to “control” the black population. But founding father Jose Marti refused to be bullied. The biggest upshot of the Cuban War was that the country managed to kick out the Spanish, but got saddled with the US and its race/ color based bigotry against blacks, browns and the indigenous peoples.

White racism on both Cuba and in the United States has always been fueled by the need to propel the economy and fear. The need for free labor to work the sugar cane, rice and cotton fields and the fear of possibly being murdered in their beds due to their treatment and disenfranchisement of a huge portion of the population in general. Simply put, slaves and blacks outnumbered whites, therefore whites felt they had to enact rules, regulations and engage in behaviors to convince slaves and free people of color not to mount a revolution similar to what happened in Haiti. 

The current embargo, now stretching 60 years, is very similar to the one the US enacted against Haiti when that island sought to get rid of the French. The US sided with the French for exactly the same reasons. Haiti has never recovered. Cuba despite some hiccups has basically refused to allow the US to overturn its melting pot. Batista, who was overthrown by Fidel Castro was Black, in fact. And that is what fuels my comfort. . It's not about wealth, or importance of position or the amount of material goods that we can accumulate. It's a feeling of internal peace devoid of stress and tension, that my skin color alone, is not going to get me in trouble or prevent me from working or going to school, ever again. 
Ministry of the Interior, Revolution Square, Havana Cuba

I am free in the United States of America. But I feel truly free in Cuba. That is the difference to me.

Part II tomorrow...

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