Post 287.

Wandering through Havana’s streets and Cuban history this week, I wondered what lesson to draw from their contradictions.

Then, independent Afro-Cuban artist, Nancy Cepero, softly shared a saying she lives by, “Cuando la verdad despierta, no puede volver a dormirse”. In English, “when truth wakes up, she cannot go back to sleep”. I’ve been walking with it since.

I was here in 2004, still dreaming of the 1959 Cuban revolution and its renegade socialist idealism. The Museum of the Revolution, with its bullet-holes, and letters and photographs of lost, loved comrades, struck my heart with the intimacy of its remembering.

Trinidad and Tobago has nothing like that for the 1930s height of Indian-African labour solidarity nor independence in 1962 nor Black Power consciousness in 1970 because we identify with the modern and Miami, as if our past and its foot soldiers have neither familiarity nor value.

It’s like Ziya said to me during one of our moments of internet connection, “Auntie is travelling to a better place than you”. “Where’s that?” I asked “Walmart”, she responded, leaving me mid-sentence about the devastation of hurricanes on the Cuban economy, the crumbling dignity of once-beautiful buildings, and the inspiration of a place that bravely waged armed war against imperialism and injustice.

Now in 2018, I know better than to over-invest in myth. At the same time, I still can’t shake off admiration for a boldfaced, small-island Caribbean experiment that might have succeeded if not for the punishment of a half-century US blockade, the wielding of tightly controlled state power, and human fallibility.

Listening to lectures on sociology, economics and international relations with the fourteen UWI graduate students whom the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) brought here on a study tour, we heard the official story: everyone has a house, women are excelling in academics and professions, sex workers are assisted out of their exploitative occupation, the nation is a democracy, and racism is firmly rejected by the state.

Later, as we listened to the marginalized voices of Afro-Cuban scholars, grandmothers, lesbians, trans-women, sex workers, poets, artists and activists, the official story rang as both narrow and untrue.

In her own youthful experience, Nancy felt too excluded from the Cuban revolutionary dream to identify with its national women’s organization, the Cuban Federation of Women (FMC), to which all women automatically belong.

In her twenties, she was a generation too far from 1959 for nostalgia. She hasn’t seen enough Afro-Cuban or politically independent women, or both, to feel such state politics is truly inclusive.

She’s not alone. Afro-Cubans describe the invisibility of their role in Cuban struggles and how blackness still correlates with greater poverty. It’s a continued injustice that one isn’t really supposed to organize against. Still, once alert to your reality, it’s impossible to be lulled by yesterday’s dream.

In old Havana, we almost missed a small plaque dedicated to the massacre of about 3000 Afro-Cubans who were forming an independent party in 1908.

Such struggles against racism are hardly taught in schools, we heard. Many countries, including the US, with its whitewashing of vast Indigenous genocide, are guilty of such amnesia. That’s why truth awakens and then quietly seethes.

The polishing-up of Old Havana has meant that its urban neighbourhoods are increasingly becoming wealthier and white as poor Afro-Cubans are pushed to outskirts.

Their buildings may be left to fall apart slowly over years and eventually become unlivable, while a new hotel might be up and running in the same spot in a year. All over the world, valuable urban real estate changes hands through such gentrification.

The IGDS brought our graduate students here so that they could be intimate with iconic places of Caribbean envisioning and resistance; so that they could know our own regional history of small island big dreams. The kind of dreams that confront the Goliath of elites, empires, global economic orders and big-stick neighbours with a slingshot, small like Haiti, Grenada or Cuba.

Students also learned a lot about the risks and challenges of being truthful about failures amidst hugely admirable successes in health, education, international solidarity, and equality.

In sleep, you can dream to change the world. However, having awakened, you can learn from the ancestors and become better makers and movers of history.

It’s a less romanticized Cuban revolution that teaches the lesson students need. When truth wakes you up, do not go back to sleep.

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Post 101.

This week, listening to 30 year old memories of the Grenada Revolution, all I could think about is the legacy of forgetting. My generation feels almost no connection to the vision of the revolution, the sweat and solidarities of the women and men involved, and the reverberations of pain that rippled across the entire Caribbean when gunshots, assassinations, US occupation, and fear, secrets and loss marked the end.

Being as intimate with that history as we are with the long plot of Game of Thrones or the personal sagas of the Kardashians could change us all. Claiming Cuba’s attempt to strike out against passivity about our economies and lives would help us realise that what happens in Chaguanas West matters less than what deals our Ministers sign, without a study to stand on, for highways to be built or tar sands to be mined.

Party school wouldn’t be about the history of the party but about the history of political attempts to free us from the kind of development that creates more who have but, inevitably, many who will not. It would be a place for establishing adult education at night in every school or mobilising community campaigns to grow the vitamins we need in our backyards or advocating for an end to criminalization of young people’s same sex desires in the law.

The Youth Arm of the UNC or the PNM wouldn’t be limited to election campaigning or proving loyalty to the leadership.  Imagine if those very youth learned about the bloody resistances that mark the country from Sangre Chiquito to San Fernando. They would start roaming the nation and the region to fill up on lessons of how politics can be and has been done differently. Party schools that teach them etiquette, correct dress and their leaders’ biographies would be rightfully empty.

If the Women’s Arms of the parties were even once taught about the role that women can play beyond waving flags, you think housewives would be running around in hot sun securing votes for a parliament and a Cabinet that remains indecently, overwhelmingly dominated by men? Knowing their power, these women would rise up and say no to inequity at the top because party school taught them this is what they do. They would wield the names of women from Elma Francois to Jacqueline Creft like a bilna and a balisier, symbolizing to their parties that it is these women’s struggles that they came to continue.

For all their participation in their political parties, not a PNM or UNC Women’s Arm activist can stand on a corner, while Celine Dion or Bryan Adams blares from the loudspeakers, and ex-tempo about how women and men from little two by four countries dreamed for more and then fought for those dreams until big stick diplomacy beat them into their corner. This is why today’s leadership will not organize for all out regional self-determination. Caribbean people have not recovered from the economic and political punishments and pain of Haiti, Guyana, Cuba and Grenada.

What can my generation could do to remember Grenada, plan a new revolution that promises never to leave women behind and invent a regionalism that fits our realities thirty years later? I know young feminist women and men from Guyana to Barbados to Jamaica. We can mine our islands and our seas for more than oil, we can mine them for memories. All those still alive, who are holding them safe and close, are just waiting for us to ask the right questions. I’m humbled by how much there is for us to know and to still achieve.