Sunday, 11 January 2015

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

One of the more popular and worshipped Orishas (loosely translated as “deities” from the Yoruba language) in Cuba is Babalú Ayé, usually syncretised with his Catholic counterpart St Lazarus. Babalú is said to “own” smallpox, leprosy and venereal diseases. What this means is that many followers of the religion we call santería (an amalgamation of Catholic and Yoruba deities) call upon the Orisha when their health or that of their relatives is poor. They make promises to him, promises that might include making a pilgrimage every year to a shrine built for St Lazarus just outside Havana. Most of us are familiar with St Lazarus’ own biblical story, how he was miraculously brought back to life by Jesus four days after his death. In the case of Babalú, he is punished by Olofi for disobeying him. Olofi is one of the highest authorities in Yorubaland and he banishes Babalú away. The latter resurfaces in Arará territory and becomes a new deity or "fodú", Dasoyí. This is a story of death and resurrection.

Death and resurrection. Was the inspiration for Obama and Raúl?

That might or might not have been the reason why both US president Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro Ruz chose the 17th December to bury the hatchet and announce to the world that they would start working towards an improvement of the diplomatic relations between both countries. 17th December is the day when both St Lazarus and Babalú Ayé are celebrated in Cuba. It is also the day when many people decide to make the pilgrimage to El Rincón, the shrine to St Lazarus just outside Havana. Death and resurrection. US and Cuba, “besties” again. Did you, reader, remember to place you bets on this one? If you did, whatever odds you had, you must have had a nice windfall to spend on your Christmas shopping.

Since the news came out I have been asked constantly for my opinion. I don’t mind that, after all I am usually the only Cuban in the room whenever I go to a dinner party or friend's birthday celebration. But as I said to a reporter from The Guardian when they interviewed me a day after Obama and Raúl made their announcement, you can put twenty Cubans in a room to discuss these latest developments and you will have twenty different opinions, probably shouted out at the top of our lungs.

The embargo and the consequent “Cold War” treatment towards Cuba was, is and will continue to be self-defeating. It served no purpose in the 60s and it has no place in our modern, globalised world, in the 2010s. Instead of undermining Fidel’s rule and later on that of his brother’s, the blockade strengthened it as it provided an easy excuse for the dictatorship’s shortcomings. The embargo isolated Cuba, the consequence of which was the development of a siege mentality under which politics became black and white and any type of nuance was frowned upon and harshly dealt with.  Because of its illegal and unjust nature the blockade also put the US government at odds with some of its own allies. The message to the rest of the world was clear: we can do this to this small country for the simple reason that they have dared, dared! to make a decision on their own fate. I have no truck with Fidel and company, and readers of this blog know how critical I am of the regime, but you don’t go around wanting to bump off leaders of other nations and expect people to like you.

However, even a partial lifting of the restrictions that have existed for so many years is welcome news. I feel cautiously optimistic, though. The key word here is “cautiously”. To me this piece of good news ought to be accompanied by practical steps towards the creation of a democratic state in Cuba. How could this come about? There will have to be several factors involved; I’ll just focus on a few.

First, I would dissolve the Cuban Parliament as it is now and call for a general election within eight to ten months, even a year. That would give time to people to organise themselves and think of the better ways to move forward. That would mean that a multi-party system would need to be formally introduced and allowed, a feature of democracy that is conspicuous by its absence in Cuba. Second, the press would have to gain a greater degree of independence so as to be able to conduct a fair reporting on the election process and other matters. Third, the judiciary, a strong tool of the Castro regime, would have to become as impartial a body as possible. Parties participating in the general election would have to present realistic, achievable and evidence-backed solutions to the challenges faced by my fellow compatriots. Amongst the solutions there should be an economic plan for the continuous growth of small and medium social enterprises with the proviso that profits generated by these businesses must not end up in the pockets of greedy shareholders but rather be pumped back into the system through taxation.

Of course, these factors mean nothing as they will not become reality. At least not in the near future. Cuba is far too precious for the regime to let go of so easily. Also, we should not dismiss the role of the US government. As long as they keep meddling in our affairs, they will continue to provide ammunition for (younger brother) Castro and co. Furthermore, the US is in no position to teach other countries lessons on democracy or foreign policy. For evidence of this look no further than the recent report on the CIA operations following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the role that torture played in obtaining intelligence. When it comes to its domestic affairs, it appears that the social and political system have failed a huge chunk of the population. When people talk to me about the two planes the Cuban government shot down back in the nineties when they illegally entered our territory my current response is: how would you feel if the Cuban government sent two planes to New York with a huge sign reading “I can’t breathe”? Fair? Quid pro quo? I thought so.

As I mentioned before, according to lore Babalú Ayé winds up in another land, the land of the Ararás. Whereas the way to perform his dance when he is an Orisha in Yorubaland is by pretending to be a very old man with gnarled hands, foaming at the mouth and saliva running his face, once he becomes Dasyí his dance is more upbeat with a more celebratory tone. Let us hope that this is the reason why both Obama and Raúl chose the 17th of December to announce their new love-in. And since this is my first column of the New Near and we are discussing openings, here’s Cuban quartet Sexto Sentido singing for Elegguá, another Orisha, the one who holds the keys to fate, the one who opens and closes roads. Here’s to a better 2015!



© 2015

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 14th January at 11:59pm (GMT)

24 comments:

  1. Things can only get better? I wish I believed that - while, like you, I'm relieved that, at last, the ridiculous blockade seems to be over, that doesn't mean that Cuba can now sail away with the blessing of the U.S. One of the things I realised when I was there is just how complicated it all is - and can echo your reflections that there are almost as many opinions as there are Cubans! But I do hope this means that some of the hardships (like the shortage of antibiotics) can, at last, be a thing of the past.

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  2. Interesting essay--I liked how you intertwined folklore and current affairs. Personally, I have felt for a long time that our polices toward Cuba have been an embarrassment and am glad Obama announced the change which should have been done earlier in his administration (but I also realize the politics at home made that impossible). Blessings!

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  3. Bueno ya veo que has terminado con tus buenas vacaciones blogueras, espero que las fiestas hayan ido bien con buen descanso, buena comida y buena compañí de tu familia.
    Un abrazo y nos seguimos leyendo.

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  4. Such an eye-opening post, CiL. As I have never been to Cuba, all I know of that fascinating country is what I read here on your blog...and I do find it so interesting.
    That the stalemate between the USA and Cuba finally seems to be lifting is great news, and I really do hope things will be a lot better from here on.
    However, as you say, there will inevitably still be "almost as many opinions as there are Cubans", so it will be anything but an easy transition. Still, I do hope there will be a positive resolution soon. It seems to me the country has endured too many hardships for far too long.

    Have a Great Sunday! :)

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  5. They can say it will be lifted but I'll believe it when I see it, US seems to be full of hot air and nothing more.

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  6. We're lucky to know you. Thanks for the insight.

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  7. it is interesting the development of relations...and peoples responses to it as well...there are still some cold war feelings out there about communism...and even fear...we share a sphere of influence, so if we can develop relations i think it is a very good thing....

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  8. Cautious optimism is at least a step in the right direction. Fingers and toes crossed.

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  9. I'll take cautiously optimistic although I haven't witnessed much change. How cool that the Guardian came for your analysis! I smiled at your response of 20 different opinions. I read yesterday in the New York Times that an unfounded rumor about a change in US immigration policy has lead to an increase in attempted (dangerous) ocean crossings. I feel more hope from the singing.

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  10. Hey Cuban! Happy new year! I hope all is well with you! I imagine you have been beset by questions. I am in agreement with many of your views here and certainly hope for the best. (I am probably in agreement with all of your views here, but I am always reluctant to make a sweeping declaration as I may have misunderstood something!) The singing is just beautiful. I am not slavic but was in a slavic women's singing group at one point in my life--the most famous recording of that type of group is the Voix Bulgare--quite different and yet there is a quality of harmony that is very similar too. Thanks as always for your kind comments at my blog. All best--k. (I am having trouble with blogger--so in case I can't sign off properly this is manicddaily at wordpress.)

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  11. I'm so glad you addressed this topic. Thank you. I also appreciate the added insight into the significance of announcing the changes on December 17th. Hopefully, this will lead to a true resurrection of common sense and a return to friendship based on compassion

    Here's to a more hopeful 2015.

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  12. lol, glad you liked my header. :)

    The music you share today are very lovely. I enjoyed listen to it. :)

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  13. I think it is reasonable to say Fidel Castro formulated the catalyst through his actions/decisions which led to the embargo in 1960. For the next few decades, factors such as the "Cold War" between the Soviet Union and the United States, the influence of hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles/refugees who fled to the U.S. and the Cuban exportation of revolution/troops to African and South American nations made it impossible for relations to be normalized. The longevity of the "Castro boys" probably is the primary reason steps being taken now did not begin at least as far back as the 1990s.

    Personally, I would not be surprised to see another revolution erupt there when the Castros are under the ground and/or I would not be surprised to see Cuba in general and Havana in particular return to the way they were during the 1950s -- as de facto colonies for U.S. corporations and syndicated crime operations.

    An interesting topic and post, CiL. I hope you will write more as things develop with this changing relationship.

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  14. What an interesting story and perspective. I hope relations between the two countries remain respectfully resurrected.

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  15. I echo Ygraine's comment, and I am so very happy to see you back. :)

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  16. I also agree with Ygraine. I worry about the world so will pounce on any good news. Countries do tend to interfere with each other and then we wonder why things go wrong.

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  17. yeah - here's to a better 2015 - i'm curious how things are going to develop - a colleague of mine is in cuba at the moment and it will be really interesting to hear from him once he's back

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  18. Welcome back and Happy New Year.
    I am hoping for the best for Cuba and the US
    I so enjoyed the music ...wonderful ...

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  19. Happy New Year! This is the year I visit Cuba! Maybe some of the travel restrictions will be lifted now and it won't be so complicated. What a crazy embargo it has been. Obviously the Americans see that they've cut themselves off from a big market. I hope it all goes well...export some of the wonderful music to the US. Now wouldn't that be something!

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  20. Seguro que sera una buena cosa para Cuba e incluso para el turista que muchas veces se encuentra muy limitado en el país, pero quizás se va a perder el encanto que encierra Cuba.
    Un abrazo.

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  21. Many thanks for your kind words. Those who have been following the news about Cuba recently probably know that another 53 political prisoners have been released. Hopefully this signals change.

    Greetings from London.

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  22. How strange... the link on my blog already shows your next post ("Living in a Multilingual World") that doesn't exist yet...
    Anyway, I read this one too but didn't get to write a comment at the time. Very interesting the parallel you're making. I've been to Cuba several times, it's true mostly in the tourist area, but I've been to Havana too and to Trinidad too. I love it and my heart weeps for it. I hope that something good wil come out of this - I'm sure it will come- but I'm also wary of the big corporations...
    Greetings from Montreal

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  23. Oh what an interesting analysis! The orishas do point to other realities going on. I totally agree with you about the embargo, I always looked at it as a bullying tactic and I'm ecstatic about the lifting of the travel ban. I think caution is the right attitude about the overall outcome though. So you have ended with an ode to the trickster? Now what does that signify?

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