“Soy Cubano, Soy Popular”: The Obsession with Cuban Identity

The desire to define Cuban identity has long occupied political, social and cultural discourse on the island and abroad. Antoni Kapcia writes that “one dominant, and overwhelming, feature of Cuban political culture [is] the obsession with identity, which dominates politics and dissidence from late in the colonial period until the present day” (2000:24). Arturo Arango similarly suggests “even for those who… continue to be bitterly opposed to the Revolution, whatever is Cuba remains a near pathological obsession” (1997:123). Rafael Hernandez and Haroldo Dilla go as far as to suggest that a “worldview characteristic of Cuban culture [has existed] from its inception…in the seventeenth century” (1992:31-32). The notion of an archetypal national identity is prevalent in many nation states, often existing as a tacit or seldom overtly voiced set of stereotypical characteristics bound and defined through historical, social and cultural factors and interrelations with other nations. Ernest Gelner refers to this practise as ““garden cultures” (1983:7), which are presumably surveyed, tended and codified by specialist experts.” (Edensor, 2002:3). In the case of Cuba, there has been something of a determined attempt to ‘pin down’ and rigidify this national identity; to find definitions and examples of a singular Cuban identity and find that singular identity represented in everything that is ‘authentically’ Cuban.

Before assessing why such a practice may have been desirable (to some) throughout Cuba’s fractious history, it is worth attempting to bring into the open some of these assumed, though widely acknowledged and still potent, symbols of ‘authentic’ Cuban identity, and address the ways in which these symbols have manifested themselves. This section does not purport to outline precisely or in its entirety the ‘space’ of authentic Cuban identity as delineated in official discourse. Such an endeavour would be impossible, even when considering the notion of a ‘fixed’ identity, precisely because so many of the markers of national identity remain tacitly assumed; indicated obliquely in disparate forms, and seldom addressed overtly. Rather it seeks to illuminate some of the key markers in the boundary delineating this space, and illustrate some of the examples of the obsessive search for markers of that same Cuban identity.

“Whatever is Cuban”: Searching for Authentic Markers.

The Cuban academic and radio presenter Mario Masvidal makes clear both the potency  of symbols of national identity, when discussing Cuban music:

For decades… Cuban traditional dance music – they stereotype we all have in our minds – you know, salsa, mambo, rumba, all that… has become a banner of patriotism in Cuba, especially after 1959 (2007)

Such an assertion makes clear that there are markers of national identity that are clearly recognised (if the reason why is not always made overt) as ‘banners’ of national identity; ‘fence posts’ which can be planted in delineating the boundary around a defined space of identity.

I would like to suggest the notion that this Cuban identity – the notion of an authentic, rigidified and holistic definition of Cubanness – exists as something of a constructed space, the interior of which is perhaps not clearly defined. However, the ‘perimeter’ of this space is demarcated by certain overt markers; cultural symbols which can be given meaning as points of definable ‘Cubanness’ and from which a boundary defining the space within can be constructed. Perhaps ‘fence post’ is the wrong term to use – though I find it apposite in describing both a fixed and visible marker, and a point which can be connected to other such markers to construct something of a boundary- for these identifying symbols may also act as ‘gateways’ into the identity space being constructed. One may stake a claim to one (or more) of these cultural symbols – one may find oneself identified by them – and thus ‘gain access’ to the collective identity space within. Conversely, however, one may find oneself ‘denied’ access to particular gateways where one either does not recognise oneself, or one is considered unable to claim ownership of the cultural symbol.

To put this hypothetical framework into action, I will outline several examples of what I believe may constitute these fence posts around the space of ‘authentic Cuban identity’. Once again, this does not claim to be an exhaustive practice (nor does it necessarily concur with the assumption that these cultural symbols are necessary to claim ‘Cuba’ as part of any individual or collective identity, as the main body of this work will discuss). Rather, I provide a few examples of points in this Cuban identity space, and how they have become integral to the construction of what is often a narrowly defined and ostensibly permanent national identity.

Hecho en Cuba’: Autochthonous Cultural Production

One recurring theme that could account for the stereotyped notion of Cuban music “we all have”, according to Masvidal, “in our mind” (Masvidal, 2008) (an assumption that carries a lot of weight with it) is the discourse of autochthonous creation of these styles of music that abounds. These dance musics – along with chachacha, guaguancó and, more broadly, the ubiquitous clavé rhythm – are seen as not only indicative of a Cuban identity, but somehow natural to Cuba; indigenous and native to the island. Raúl A Fernandez speaks of this indigenous cultural identity when discussing the “rhythmic building block” of Cuban music, the clavé, arguing that this, and other features of “Afro-Cuban” music have “proved difficult to handle for North American as well as Latin American musicians and audiences from outside the Caribbean” (1994:109). Even in their assessment of the interpolating voice of rock and roll throughout Cuba’s post-Revolutionary history, Deborah Pacini Hernandes and Reebee Garofalo talk of “Cuba’s Revolutionary government [doing] everything in its considerable power to disrupt the economic and social mechanisms it held responsible for the spread of rock and to
stimulate alternative musical practices based on autochthonous Cuban traditions” (2004:44); a history that, whilst recognising the appearance of ‘foreign’ musical influences within the island (something other musicologists may be reticent to do), also makes clear the notion of autochthonous musical practices as a self-evident fact in Cuba’s cultural identity.

This discourse speaks of an isolated region of musical and cultural proclivity; a ‘lost world’ of strange and ‘hard to understand’ rhythm, unlike, and unsullied by, anything from the ‘outside’ world. It is a trope that Kofi Agawu recognises in discourse surrounding the construction of ‘African’ in music, which tends to be described “as complex, superior, but ultimately incomprehensible” (1995:380). Agawu goes on to note both that this esoteric quality “has been promulgated by both Western and African scholars” (ibid.:383), and also that:

the notion that the distinctive quality of African music lies in its rhythmic structure, and consequently that the terms African music and African rhythm are often interchangeable, has been so persistently thematized in writings about African music that it has by now assumed the status of a commonplace, a topos. (ibid.:380).

The converting of rhythm into a synecdoche for music – indeed for culture, or even perhaps for identity itself – is a topos common in Cuban discourse also. The ‘heartbeat of the Cuban nation’ that is the clavé rhythm; indicative of, and essential to, an authentic Cuban identity, is painted as a all-encompassing cultural symbol; unique to Cuba, indigenous to Cuba, and thus indicative of this space of ‘authentic’ Cuban identity[1]. It is no consequence, as will be discussed below, that many of these mythologised ideals of Africa are replayed as one of the ostensibly central tenets of this construction of authentic Cuban identity.

Even for a country so politically and economically annexed (at least from the US) as Cuba, the notion advanced by the likes of Raúl Fernandez (1994) and Hernandez and Dilla (1992), of entirely indigenous musical production, confusing and incomprehensible in its exoticism to the ‘outside world’ is a spurious claim, one that reveals a telling ideological construction of a Cuban identity post-Revolution that sought to reject the overbearing influence precisely of the United States. As Raúl Fernandez reluctantly (it seems) concedes, “Latin Americans define themselves with reference to the presence and vicinity of the Collosus of the North” (1994:111), and the scant ninety miles of the Straits of Florida, in conjunction with the overly ‘familiar’ nature of Platt Amendment US-Cuban relations – “familiar to every Cuban schoolchild for more than a century… evok[ing] the humiliation of the settlement imposed on Cuba at the close of the US occupation” (Richard Gott, 2004:110) – the ‘Collosus’ has weighed heavy in self-definition of Cuban identity.

Indeed, as Louis Perez notes, the space of Cuban identity was often defined by this colossal neighbour in the period between independence and Revolution:

[The] images Cubans sought to negate[2] were precisely the ones that succeeded in representing Cuba as a commodity. The contest for control of representation and self-identity was rarely easy and almost never won… if the United States served as the place of personal fulfilment and professional accomplishment, it was necessary to conform to what popular tastes and market forces proclaimed ‘Cuban to be’. (1999:215)

So in the vehement assertion of autochthony that pervades Cuban musical discourse, there is an attempt to distance the island from its American-inflected history; to mark the Revolution as a schism that simultaneously broke from, and reclaimed, the past. Perez (in a book tellingly entitled “Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy”) again makes this clear when asserting of the root-and-branch socio-political reorganisation that the Revolution undertook that:

Almost all government… at all levels, was stigmatized by association with the discredited [Batista] regime… That the United States played so prominent a part in this discredited past all but guaranteed a day of reckoning. And, indeed, many of the early reform measures were designed as much to reduce the capacity of the United States to continue to function as a power contender as they were to improve Cuban living conditions. (2003:239)

The Revolution presented a Cuba that had not only excised the Yankees from its contemporary political and cultural landscape, but had wiped all memory of its influence from its identity too. Robin Moore notes that musical expression was one key area in which this cultural cull was most eagerly played out:

The leadership of the late 1960s… focussed on culture and the media as the most central site of future conflicts with the capitalist world. As part of a new ideological offensive they began to condemn everything associated with the United States and Western Europe as corrupt and contaminated (Aria, 1982:28); this is the period that witnessed the censorship of most rock, jazz and other North American music from radio and television (Moore, 2003:16-17)

A poignant allusion to this excision of “discredited past” in favour of promoting a ‘pure history’ is given in the Cuban film “Chico y Rita” (Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, 2010). On returning to Havana, and the nascent Revolution, the titular protagonist – piano player and composer Chico – is told his jazz band concert at the Riviera hotel is cancelled: “they don’t like this kind of music anymore. Jazz is considered imperialist. It’s the enemy’s music!” laments a hotel worker. And in that sense, it was necessary to ‘reclaim’ another strand of Cuba’s history, and present it as integral to a newly self-defined (and all-encompassing) Cuban identity; one that would further distance the island from the Colossus to the North.

“The Blood of Africa”: An ‘Other’ Root

To define this distance from the United States, constructions of Cuban identity turned to a remembrance of, as Kofi Agawu defines it, “one of [the] most cherished sources of fantasy and imaginative play” (1995:384): Africa. Cuba, a nation which, precisely owing to the heavy US influence, was among the most racist islands in the Caribbean (Sujatha Fernandes, 2003) began to embrace ‘Africanness’, emboldening this facet of national history as a candidate for Cuba’s ‘authentic heritage’ as opposed to its sullied Platt Amendment recent history and it anathematic epoch as a Spanish colony. The reclamation and realignment with Africa would help solidify the Revolution’s position in opposition to the two erstwhile imperialist forces in the island’s history.

In this manner, Hernandez and Dilla assert that of the “worldview characteristic of Cuban culture” (1992:31-32), one of the central tenets has been its ‘root’ in Africa. They suggest one thread in running through Cuba’s established identity is the “early and active African component of national identity” (ibid.). Certainly musically, the prefix ‘Afro’ seems almost inextricably attached to the word ‘Cuban’, particularly when one considers the globally indicative styles of rumba and son. As Fidel Castro himself made clear, in typically bombastic terms, at a public speech in 1975, ‘Africa’ holds a central place in the identity not only of the nation, but of all its inhabitants:

We should tell the Yankee’s that they should not forget… we are an Afro-Latin country… The blood of Africa runs abundantly through our veins. (in Pacini Hernandez 1998:114)

The assertive rallying cry is found in Cuban mottos such as “el que no tiene de Congo, tiene de Carabali” (“he who does not have[3] from Congo, has from Carabali”). However, extolling the ‘Africanness’ inherent in all Cuban identity seems somewhat incongruent with the notion of the ‘colourless society’ the Revolution supposedly heralded. The issue of race and its role within the space of ‘authentic’ Cuban identity has a much more chequered past. The Cuban journalist Lourdes Chacón Núñez points out that whilst “there is no institutionalized racism in Cuba, according to article 42 of the constitution… racism is part of the Cuban mindset and defines Cubans’ social and cultural self-perceptions” (2009:37). This assertion seems to sit fairly uncomfortably with the ‘official’ account of views of a nation who take such pride in their ‘African blood’. As Sujatha Fernandes points out, in the utopian fervour of the Revolution, “it was considered unpatriotic to speak of race, or to identify oneself in racial terms, rather than as just Cuban” (2003, p.584).

There can be little doubt that the ‘African’ Castro extolled in his hyperbolic discourse was at least in part politically motivated, aimed as much at delineating what Cuba is not as confirming what it is. The group to whom the assertion is made is crucial. Castro, in front of “more than 1.2 million Cubans” (Pacini-Hernandesz, 1998:114.) in attendance at this speech, is talking (albeit in a pejorative manner) to the United States; it is, one could argue, the US that he is trying to convince as much as the Cuban population. Alejandro de la Fuente picks up on the concept of politicisation of race within Cuba, suggesting that the idea of ‘Africanness’ being a central part of Cuba’s national identity has been a “formidable ideological weapon against the United States” (de la Fuente, 2001:18). Of course, in the nascent days of Cuba’s Revolution in the early sixties, the United States was embroiled in a bitter fight to accept an African presence within its own officially constructed national identity; the civil rights movements. The chance to demonstrate to this eternal enemy that this contentious facet was always already integral to the Cuban identity was perhaps too good to miss.

It is in this manner that the ‘Africanness’ of Cuba’s official identity was rendered as little more than a semi-mythologised ‘root’; a pan-national base upon which the island has discovered its own voice (the coterminous invocations of slavery, of endured oppression and eventual triumph over cruel masters perhaps symbolic for the Revolution’s own ‘struggle’ against the US, and the previous manifestations of Cuban rebellion over the Spanish). Pacini-Hernandez and Garofalo suggest as mush in claiming that “the state’s support for black Cuban culture [in the 1960s] was uneven at times.  It tended to be more enthusiastic about those forms, such as rumba, that could be presented as “folkloric” and displayed in theatres and museums” (2004:53). The connection to Africa, although discussed in such all-encompassing terms as an integral part to all Cuban identity, was thus concomitantly presented as a ‘finished’ cultural dialogue; Africa was in the blood – in the roots – of all Cuban identity, but not, it would seem, in the present day. As such, discourse around Cuba’s African heritage focussed upon reimaginations of Africa. As Fernandez’s definition of ‘Afro-Cuban’ music demonstrates, the myth of an exotic Other is played out with intention in the construction of Cubanness:

Afro-Cuban music… is sensual, of the senses, of physically tasting and touching. Its references to gustatory feelings are abundant… Musical tones are not tonal colorations but rather flavourful morsels, juices, spices, to be felt in ones mouth (Fernandez, 1994:118)

In its ‘Afro’ root, ‘Cuba’ is given its visceral, distinctly non-American, inflection.

The above is not to suggest that the concept of ‘Africa’ existing within Cuba – either genealogically, culturally or in identity construction – is always either politically motivated or imagined. Patently this is not the case, as Cuba, along with most of the Caribbean, saw vast numbers of Africans brought to the island under the auspices and trauma of slavery. There was also a renaissance in African derived culture in the 1920 – the so-called afrocubanismo moment (Robin Moore, 1997:2). However, Robin Moore suggests that this period was the true beginning of a recognition of the place of specifically Afrocuban art forms (ibid.:1), calling into question Hernandez and Dilla’s assertion that Cuba’s Africanness has been accepted and celebrated since the sixteenth century. So whilst the ‘connection’ to an African element of identity remained (and has remained) an integral part of Cuban society[4], as the subchapter below focussing on race and religion in the Special Period will attest, in its politicisation of identity construction, the Revolution sought to control and delineate the space of Africa within its nation’s identity, and this meant that many pertinent symbols and identifiers of a contemporary link to Africa, such as African-derived religious and spiritual practices such as Santería, were shunned (Perez, 1999). Further, the assertion that this African ‘root’ to identity was inherited by all Cubans perhaps robbed many black Cubans of a significant personal identity marker in the face of on-going threat of racism, exacerbated by the claim that it had been officially vanquished (Berg, 2005, Chacón Núñez, 2009).

“David y Goliath”: The Defiant Nation.

If the ‘return’ to an African element of national identity was aimed at creating a cultural distance between Cuba and the US, then the process was perhaps indicative of another pillar of Cuba’s supposedly unchanging identity. Hernandez and Dilla’s outline another central thread in the authentic space of Cuban identity: the “rebellion against both internal and external repression, underlining rejection of a colonial domination and a united front against external enemies as radical features of cultural expression.” (1992:31-2). The ‘Colossus of the North’ in the imagination of the Revolution is not just an antithetical Other, it is the most recent incarnation of the perennial ‘external enemy’ that would visit wilful damage on all aspects of Cubanness, not least its self-defined identity. Thus Cuba is cast as David against a changing-same Goliath, and as such an integral part of the nation’s identity becomes a defiant unity against, combined with a mistrust (even a fear) of, external forces.

One need only look at the ubiquitous political billboards[5] peppering the highways of Cuba – now as emblematic a tourist image of the island as cigars[6], white sandy beaches, crumbling colonial edifices and hedonistic parties – for evidence of this purportedly indicative Cuban defiance. They propound and repeat slogans of the Revolution, reify its leaders and seek to reassure a nation that the Revolution is a living, continuing process: one that is “doing fine[7]”. But alongside these more positive billboards sit constant reminders of both American aggression and Cuban defiance against the US. Posters decrying the failed invasion at ‘Playa Girón’ (the bay of pigs), and those alluding to the imperialism of the United States abound[8]; many make reference to the “Cuban Five”; five ‘heroes’ of the Revolution, convicted of espionage and jailed in Miami. The constant assertion that ‘Volverán’ – “they will return” – perhaps the most emblematic rallying cry and identifier of this supposed thread of Cuban defiance.

But if this construction of Cuban identity claims that this strand of defiance is unique to Cuba, Catherine Moses suggests that the invocation of a perpetual external Other, always on the cusp of intervention, is not:

The [Cuba] State justifies much of [its] demand for absolute loyalty by pointing to the looming threat posed by the United States. The Revolution considers the United States to by the enemy. Around the world, the threat of an external enemy has been a significant factor in helping authoritarian regimes stay in power[9]. (Moses, 2000:12)

The insistence upon defiance against this ever-changing, though always present, external enemy is a trope that seeks firstly to link the most celebrated aspects of Cuba’s history. By drawing parallels between the current blockade visited upon the island by the US and the wars of independence against the Spanish, the Revolutionary government assumed a position of protectorate of the island, and thus staked a claim to continuing the work of these nationalist heroes. But they sought too to further drive a wedge, ideological, political, economical, but crucially in perceived national identity, between the US and Cuba, and further, by asserting that the island was under perpetual siege from an enemy bent on destruction, they sought to confine the notion of Cuban identity to the island itself. Cuba – and thus any definition of Cuban identity – necessarily had to be found within Cuba. Such a definite delineation of identity, drawn so closely around geographical boundaries, in effect attempted to deny to the ever-increasing numbers of Cubans leaving Cuba – most, in the early days of the Revolution, to Miami (see Pedraza Bailey, 1985) – a claim to bringing their national identity with them. As Mette-Louise Berg notes:

Those Cubans who chose to leave Cuba after the Revolution were no longer deemed to be Cuban; inclusion within the new Cuba was defined in territorialised, Revolutionary and socialist values. The narrative was hegemonic in the public sphere until the economic crisis of the 1990s. (Mette Louise Berg, 2005:135)

Dismissed as ‘gusanos[10]; traitors to the Revolution, those who left Cuba were stripped of their Cuban identity by a process that assumed that defiance against an external enemy was an integral part of Cuban identity. If, as was insisted, the US was (and still is) the embodiment of that enemy, any person opting to live within the antithetical Other necessarily rescinded their claim to being Cuban.

In all these fence posts of an apparently monolithic Cuban identity, is demonstrated the desire of the Cuban government to have the nation speaking with one, unified voice. This is not to suggest that these elements are not to be found in Cuba (at any or all moments in the half-century of the ongoing Revolution). As mentioned above (and expounded below), a celebration of an African identity within Cuban identity has indeed been central in the discourse surrounding Cuba, and Cuba’s post-colonial history has been far from free of outside intervention. But what occurred in the fervour of Revolutionary rhetoric, was an attempt to unify the nation by pinning down the borders of a single space of Cuban identity. In doing so the Revolution forged a rigidly defined space of identity for the nation, one from which there could be little deviation, and in which dichotomies and schisms political, economic and geographical were mapped onto one another to cement the feeling of an isolated and singular Cuban identity.


[1] This topos is problamatised by Nanette de Jong (2006) as she outlines the significance musical symbols such as the clavé rhythm have has in the construction of identities other than this autochthonous, isolated Cuban identity. In particular, de Jong looks at the place of the clavé, along with other ‘Cuban’ musics in the place of identity in Curacao

[2] The images Perez is talking about here are those of sexualised, hedonistic dance music, which “respectable Cuban society” baulked at (Perez, 1999:202)

[3] The use of the verb ‘Tener’, though not as remarkable in Spanish, does throw up some interesting side issues about ownership of history and identity in translation to English.

[4] Another telling connection to Africa which exists outside these ‘finished root’ paradigms is the Cuban operations in the Angolan civil war of the 1970s.

[6] “The words Cuba and Havana are synonymous with the delights, the virtues, and the vices of the smoker. We all know that the luxury, the enjoyment, the aesthetics, and the snobbishness of smoking tobacco are associated with these three syllables: Havana.” (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1995:lxi)

[7] One common billboard slogan is that of Revolutionary commander Camilo Cienfuegos: “vas bien, Fidel” “you’re doing fine, Fidel”

[8] During George W Bush tenure in the White House, billboards likening him to Hitler were not an uncommon theme.

[9] It is interesting to note that the neoliberal demand for an external enemy as the method of unifying a society – as exemplified in the Bush administration’s ‘War on Terror’ – works in exactly the same manner as Castro’s “authoritarian” approach.

[10] The word ‘gusano’ literally translates into English as ‘worm’. It is the pejorative epithet given to ‘traitors’ to the Revolution, and is most commonly used to refer to those Cubans who emigrated to Miami.

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