I have spent countless hours and thousands of words on this blog. Mostly, I have written out of frustration of what I was seeing, of how authentic cultural practices were being modified to cater to foreign aesthetics, thirsty for the consumption of an exotic, yet accessible culture. Looking back at a lot of what I have written, it truly has been aimed at de-centering the perspectives Europeans and people from the U.S. have about Cuban dancing, and refocusing on what is actually happening in the island, on the authentic.(1)
I have not updated this blog in a long time. Mostly, most of what I had wanted to say, I have said, and it’s now here on the Internet for people to find and revisit. Today, however, I want to try to take a break from my hiatus, not to talk about dance or music–at least not in an overt fashion–but rather to talk about culture and global cultural dynamics as it pertains to Cuba vis-a-vis Europe and the U.S. If anything, this has been the all-encompassing theme of this blog, and I wanted to delve deeper into why I write what I write, and why I write it in the way that I do.
To do this, I am going to use as a starting point the protests that occurred in Cuba last year. I will connect this seemingly unrelated event to Cuban dance and music and the contents of this blog later in this piece. I want to start here because the response of many non-Cuban people to the protests was emblematic of the dynamics between Cuban culture and those outside of it who consume and ultimately reshape it.
In July of 2021, Cuba went through an unprecedented, historic event. For the first time ever since 1959, Cubans launched to the streets throughout the island, demanding a better country, and a more democratic government. Many protesters were beaten, disappeared, and jailed. Many are still serving sentences for protesting peacefully, and will continue to serve them for many years ahead.
Cuban people wanted liberty, freedom, and an end to tyranny and decades-long, asphyxiating dictatorship that infringed on their human rights on a daily basis, and invisibly controlled their expression like a Foucaldian panopticon.
In response to this, people outside of Cuba started asking for an end to the embargo.
This left me aghast. To many outside of Cuba, the solution to these protests was to end the embargo the U.S. has had on the island for decades. However, if any of these people who proposed an end to the embargo would have actually watched videos of people in Cuba protesting, and listened to what Cubans were clamoring for, they would have never heard the word “embargo.” In fact, the end of the embargo as an end-all-be-all fix was the official stance of the Cuban government, not the Cuban people who were protesting said government.
In other words, to these people who apparently were posting/talking/making videos in solidarity with Cuban protesters, the power to change the situation in Cuba did not rely on the Cuban government, but rather on a foreign one: the U.S. If the United States were just to be good neighbors and end this crippling, unjust embargo, the problems of the people living on the island would go away.
In doing so, people with no stake in the matter completely circumvented the concerns of the Cuban people who were protesting. And rather than being allies and amplifying the voices of those in the island, they subsumed the protests under their own limited understanding of what was happening in the island, and continued perpetuating, knowingly or not, the government’s narrative, which was that the embargo was the problem, and not the government itself.
Doing this infantilized the Cuban protestors because, in this scenario, they only needed a big, strong, powerful country to stop bullying them. It rendered them powerless because they could not do anything about their situation, only the U.S. could.(2) It took away their agency–and by extent that of the Cuban government. And most importantly, it ignored them.
And so I had to start asking myself, why were people so keen on fixing everything by lifting the embargo? Why were people so insistent on not listening to the voices of Cubans living in Cuba who were risking their lives protesting?
Here is my take.
For the cultural tourists, Cuba was an exotic island lost in time with its cars from the 1950s that still ran somehow, and music reminiscent of soundtracks from old movies with a Latin theme playing on the streets. Any “Cuba” Google Image search would help illustrate this point. (3) For the politically inclined, Cuba was a beacon of hope against imperialism. For the racially conscious, Cuba was a lesson in equity. To acknowledge the actual reasons for the protests, which had very little to do with the embargo, would have crumbled all of this.
For people who have gone to Cuba and/or in some way enjoyed their cultural products (i.e. dance and music), the embargo was the narrative that easily absolved them of blame. Indeed, to admit that the problem was not the embargo, to actually acknowledge the reasons why Cubans were protesting, would be to admit that they knowingly have traveled and enjoyed themselves in a country where the government restricts the freedoms of its people, while they themselves experienced none of these restrictions. Where they were treated like first-class citizens, while Cubans were treated differently.
All while barely noticing any of this because they were so focused on having a good time.
It had to be the embargo. It couldn’t be that something was rotten in the inside. Cuba was such a great time!
People latched onto the thing that was comfortable within their beliefs and did not upend them. It’s what people do.
Part of why I have stopped writing on this blog is that I became tired of beating the same horse with the same stick. Most of the things I write are in response precisely to what non-Cubans already believe about Cuban dance and music. And while it is important to dissect these beliefs because many of them are buttressed on a market for consumption of Cuban culture that benefits from decades-old stereotypes and half-truths, and reshapes culture at the beck and call of the customer–it is tiring, specially because I constantly feel like I am repeating myself, with the exception of when I write about musicality.
Beliefs at the hands of those with little power are just that: beliefs. Beliefs at the hands of those with power can turn into action–for better or worse. I say this because non-Cuban people control the market for Cuban dance and music outside of Cuba. They impose the expectations of what Cuban dance and music should be, outside of Cuba. When Cuban instructors and musicians go into this market, they reshape what they bring to fit the new paradigm. This could be as innocuous as changing a word. Such is the case for “timba”. The same artists that fifteen years ago would have called their music in Cuba “salsa” are now embracing the label of “timba” because that makes them more marketable outside of the island. On the dance front, the indiscriminate and musically deaf fusions between casino and Afro-Cuban dances are what sells. As such instructors adapt, when they had never done that when they taught in Cuba.
This is not to say that Cubans are powerless in how they portray their own culture to the world, but rather it seeks to point out the power that you have, within a consumer market, to reshape a culture. Because there is a clear power dynamic here. Indeed, any time you pay to take a Cuban dance class or attend a Cuban music concert, you are engaging in a transaction where you have the more valuable currency, and by extent more power to dictate the terms of this transaction–and therefore reshape the product to your liking.
Indeed, this is not happening to Cuban culture only. If you look closely at the bachata scene, at the kizomba and zouk scenes, at pretty much any non-European dance that has become popular in Europe and the U.S., you start noticing the same discussions about instructors altering the dances, marketing them less authentic by fusing them with something else, etc. In other words, reshaping culture to fit the demands of a market that simply seeks to sell whatever sells best.
And this dynamic is as old as, well, colonialism.
Cultures which have benefited from colonization have become accustomed to reshaping other cultures to fit their own needs.
It is no wonder, then, that when the protests in Cuba occurred last year, people outside of Cuba, particularly people whose countries have benefited from colonization, were able to reshape the reasons for the protests into what was convenient to them (and it was very telling and ironic that they chose imperialism), so that they could carry on with their enjoyment of Cuban dance and musical products.(4)
It is no wonder, either, that this blog gets backlash. From its inception, it has always sought to question what the European and U.S. markets were selling as “Cuban culture”, and shed some light instead of what was actually authentic. In other words, culture is not transactional. This has often been met with aversion from many people because it has poked at some sensibility, stemming from living in a society that benefited from colonialism, that they have not fully explored within themselves. After reading what I write, people have called me arrogant and have condescendingly told me to change my tone so that it is more appropriate to their comfort levels.
Yet that is precisely the point: listen. Listen specially when it makes you uncomfortable. The people of Cuba could have used that last year.
No change has ever happened when people feel comfortable.
(1) In language acquisition, an authentic text is a text (visual or oral) made for native speakers of the language by native speakers of the language. In this context, what is authentic can be thought about as a dance made by Cubans for Cubans–or in other words, without trying to cater to what will sell outside of the island.
(2) Sadly, this is something that has been internalized all around. During the protests in front of the White House in Washington, DC, hearing Cubans chant “Intervention!” was as common as hearing them chant “Freedom!”
(3) For a more nuanced discussion of how Cuba became a placeholder for an amalgamation of disjointed Latin America and and Spanish cultural practices to create the feel of the “Latin” in U.S. cinema, which of course had audiences abroad, see Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s The Havana Habit.
(4) By this I do not mean that a person is actively engaged in colonizing practices, but rather that the benefits of colonization are so steeped into the culture that the person does not even realize they are benefitting from it.