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 279.

An attuned ear hears a shackle when it falls. It’s a surreal sound, when an instrument of inhumanity hits the ground broken, clanging with its iron weight of history. Instinctively listen for the heart-piercing exultations of emotion that echo out powerfully. Also be stopped still by a black hole of quiet horror that you may yet again hear that shackle clink close around a human body.

If the pores on your skin raised, as did mine when I heard Justice Devindra Rampersad’s judgment on Thursday, it’s because I never anticipated that a shackle’s fall could sound and feel like the force of a supernova when it collapses, its vibration sheer disintegrating your heart, leaving you in breathless tremors and shaking tears.

The boldness of the judgment and the interval of freedom it created for the first time in hundreds of years, like a slash in colonial space-time continuum, can’t be anything but celebrated.

There are thousands of bodies in the nation which had been existing in fear, shame and silence and which, for the first time, felt included, protected and free. It is like the future time-traveled and arrived to rock the vibrational field of the present, in a way so many citizens dared to dream, but despaired they wouldn’t live to see.

Justice Rampersad’s judgment in Jones v TT ruled that Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, which criminalize buggery, or acts of anal sex, and same-sex genital touching, are unconstitutional. He held that the “savings clause”, which retains the legality of colonial law despite our republican status, doesn’t apply. This is because, in 1986, the Sexual Offences Act was repealed and “replaced”, thus creating new, post-1976 law.

Also new law was created with the unprecedented extension of penalties for buggery from 5 years to 25 years and creation of a new prohibition, titled “serious indecency”, and explicitly meant to criminalise lesbianism for the first time (by legislating that only men could have sexual access to women). In other words, this is new law, not simply a re-enactment and continuity from 1925.

Second, he argued that even if the savings clause could hold, its intention was to continue and preserve protections of citizens’ rights in the move from colonial subjection to independent nationhood, not deny rights, discriminate or victimize. In this case, relying on the savings clause as justification goes against its spirit.

Additionally, he agreed that Jason Jones’ right to privacy was denied, observing that such privacy had not been conceptualized in early colonial law, but was now an accepted ideal. Use of the savings clause to deny that right again defies its intention.

Regarding the Act itself, its violation of Sections 4 and 5 of the constitution were already acknowledged by parliament in 1986. It is possible to infringe upon individuals’ constitutional rights, under Section 13 of the constitution, but the burden is on the parliament to fully justify its necessity, which it has not done. Passage of legislation by 3/5 majority, however procedurally legitimate, isn’t enough.  Religious or majority view and public opinion isn’t enough. Political expediency is far short of enough in the face of signed international conventions and global and liberalizing standards of dignity, decency, equality and human rights. Claiming parliamentary prerogative isn’t enough, or might be enough in Britain where no constitution exists so parliamentary law is highest authority, but not in Trinidad and Tobago where the constitution should be supreme.

In other words, Jah bless our republican status and the possibilities for future-facing Caribbean jurisprudence. Why rely on British law when we have our own constitution? Why still carry habits of prisoners when we are freed from such imprisonment?

Without the savings clause as a defense, the 1986 Act was always unconstitutional and unjustified, and unreasonably and arbitrarily denied rights to privacy, family, intimacy and equality to all citizens and couples. Its legitimacy was founded on its own fiction and presumptions, like the emperor with no clothes.

To write that race, colour, gender, age or sexual orientation is not all that encompasses a person’s soul nor their value to society or themselves is to wield something other than the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This is the ultimate dream of Caribbean emancipation.

For this to occur in real life and in our generation is overwhelmingly beautiful, and feels cosmically huge. On appeal, we hope the disturbing metallic edge of manacles, re-clasped on those who call for our love, is not something we have to hear. To them, do not turn a deaf ear.

Post 252.

An historic victory was won last week when child marriage was prohibited by amendments to the marriage laws of Trinidad and Tobago. This was a victory for the women’s movement, supported by male allies and working across race, class and religion, despite how fraught that can be. I was relieved both PNM and UNC MPs voted for an amended law. I was sorry the change failed to happen under Kamla Persad-Bissessar as early as 2010.

The call first came from the Hindu Women’s Organisation (HWO) more than six years ago. Organisations such as the IGDS and FPATT became involved by 2013. Lobbying expanded over the last two years, as a coalition of civil society organizations, including Womantra, CAISO, the Network of NGOs of TT for the Advancement of Women, the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago (AFETT), the YMCA, CAFRA and more, was brought together by Folade Mutota and WINAD.

It was discriminatory for girls to be marriageable earlier than boys. There was no contemporary reason for this other than girls’ sexual vulnerability at a younger age. The solution isn’t marriage, it’s transforming such vulnerability to older male sexual predation. That this was overwhelmingly an issue affecting adolescent girls points squarely to how gender inequality leads to denial of full self-determination at a much younger age for girls than boys.

The majority of these marriages were between girls under sixteen, and boys and men who were, at times, much older.  This is not the Ram and Sita or Romeo and Juliet story of two teen secret lovers nor of their unwed adolescent sexual experimentation nor of family protection of two secondary students supported to finish both this and tertiary schooling.

Largely working class girls, perhaps with limited educational support or options, and definitely limited prospects for occupational advancement, were experiencing the greatest vulnerability to early sexual initiation by adult men, who usually also had low educational or occupational achievement.

Marriage may have seemed like a secure economic option because an older man promised to look after them. Perhaps, they were seduced by a feeling of adulthood that sexual relationships bring. Maybe they were in love or escaping oppressive and insecure family conditions, or they got pregnant and marriage seemed the next step. It’s likely they didn’t have a clue about the compromises, conflicts and responsibilities that come with partnership with a hardback man.

Rather than “the destruction of family life”, what was destroyed was the legal access of adult men to teen girls. This was necessary if we recognize how gender, religion and class unequally impacted thousands from lower-income families.

There were recommendations that teenagers over sixteen, but within three years of age, be allowed to marry. Such an exception had merit. That the exception didn’t make it to the legislation is a complicated story about the AG vs the HWO and the coalition.

What happens to the babies of unwed mothers? Families and partners can still love and support them such that teenage girls finish schooling, can secure their own income and can decide what they want out of their lives. A change to the marriage law in no way affects this.

If lack of respectability associated with unwed pregnancy is a major fear, then the solution is to give girls knowledge, support and access to contraception.

Adult hypocrisy, rather than “strict family values”, is at stake here for no one wants to girls to have sex, whether by choice and desire or by grooming and predation, without the threat and likelihood of dire consequences. So no one wants to prepare them to protect themselves if they do. When they are made pregnant, everyone can treat them as if they are responsible for the shame. The solution can’t be marriage to the same adult man who didn’t know or care enough to use condoms or protect a teenage girl’s future freedom in the first place.

Too early pregnancy isn’t a more important issue than too early marriage. Like child sexual abuse, they are consequences of adult failures to acknowledge girls’ sexual vulnerability and empower even poor girls to secure better options. If we care as much as we say, all the other work must now gain momentum.