Fernando Ortiz Today

This week in North Philly Notes, Robin Moore, editor of Fernando Ortiz on Music, writes about the relevance and influence of Ortiz’s writing on Cuban music, history, and culture

Who is Fernando Ortiz, why should anyone care about what he wrote, and what does he have to offer to readers today? Those are important questions, especially given that Ortiz lived and wrote many years ago; that his writings focus primarily on black music in other countries; and that—as an author trained in late nineteenth-century Europe—he inherited many biases toward Afro-descendant expression. As such, some of his observations sound dated or even racist by the standards of the present day. The relevance of his writings in 2018 may not be immediately apparent to everyone.

I first became acquainted with a few of Ortiz’s books as a graduate student at the University of Texas in the early 1990s. I planned to write a dissertation on Cuban music, and Ortiz loomed large as an individual who undertook the first detailed studies of Afro-Cuban culture in that country, based in large part on ground-breaking ethnographic excursions and interviews. His work was impressive in many respects: he published tremendous amounts of material, many thousands of pages over the course his career, and on a wide array of topics. He read widely in half a dozen languages. His knowledge of Cuban history and access to primary and secondary sources supporting such work were extraordinary. Fernando Ortiz on MusicSMIt became clear to me that countless individuals interested in black history, African-influenced languages in the new world, drumming and dance traditions, Afro-descendant religions, the Atlantic slave trade, and other topics had drawn heavily on Ortiz as they pursued academic work in the US, the Caribbean, South America, and elsewhere. Those influenced by his work in the U.S., for example, include the dancer Katherine Dunham; the anthropologist and founder of black studies in the United States, Melville Herskovits; and the art historian Robert Farris Thompson. Simply put, Ortiz was very influential; and if his work had written in English rather than Spanish, I am certain that it would have met an even more enthusiastic reception internationally.

Cuba, along with a few other Latin American/Caribbean countries, has a unique cultural profile because of the large numbers of enslaved Africans brought the island, and the fact that many of them arrived rather late (clandestinely the slave trade continued there well into the 1870s). In broad strokes, Cuba and the United States share a history of European colonization, the decimation of local indigenous populations, and the use of slave labor. Yet the fact that free and enslaved Africans and their descendants have constituted a majority of the island’s population for most of the past two centuries, and that African-derived traditions have been re-created in overt ways there, means that Cuba looks and sounds very different from the United States. I find that the study of Cuban music and history suggests interesting points of comparison for those based in the U.S. It helps us recognize similar Afrodescendant cultural influences in our own country. Cuba’s music and dance traditions that blend influences from West Africa and Europe are quite similar to our own, providing insights into processes of cultural fusion and how Afro-descendant cultures manifest themselves in repertoire such as black gospel. Reading about Cuban and Caribbean history helps us situate US history within a broader framework and makes us realizes that our “unique” cultural forms — from rap to blues to jazz — emerged out of broader processes.

Not only do I find the ethnographic data in Ortiz’s work still broadly relevant, but I consider even his ideological flaws and limitations to be instructive. The post-WWII period, which represents the apex of Ortiz’s career, was one in which leading authors throughout Europe and the Americas began to seriously question racist beliefs about non-European people for the first time. Much of this soul-searching was inspired by the Nazis and their horrendously racist views of non-Arian people, of course, as well as political challenges to colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Ortiz’s struggles with entrenched Eurocentric points of view, notions of racial and cultural hierarchy, and the “proper place” of Afrodescendant culture within his country represent a corollary to similar debates taking place throughout the Western world and beyond. Including Ortiz in the study of racial debates of the era expands our understanding of such discourse beyond the spheres of U.S. and European academia. It helps “decenter” that literature by underscoring the important contributions and perspectives of those in developing countries. And it helps us better appreciate the true extent of slavery’s impact on politics, culture, and ideology throughout the Western hemisphere.

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December 17, 2014

This week in North Philly Notes, Yolanda Prieto, author of The Cubans of Union City discusses President Obama’s landmark Cuban policy change, while reflecting on her own experiences as a Cuban American.

As a Cuban American who favors the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, I choked up with emotion when watching President Obama’s historic television address on December 17, 2014 announcing that he was changing the policy of isolation towards Cuba. After all, Obama explained, more than 50 years of acrimony between the two countries had not accomplished anything. Instead, engagement could lead to a more fruitful relationship, and it could possibly bring economic improvements and more freedoms to the Cuban people. Americans could also travel to Cuba under a broader range of categories, which could generate more contact and understanding between the two countries. These changes would happen even though the economic embargo, imposed by the United States on Cuba in 1962, would remain in place. To lift the embargo, Congress would have to repeal the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which strengthened and extended the existing embargo on the island. Regarding the embargo, Obama urged lawmakers in his speech to lift it because the law was anachronistic and it no longer served any real purpose.

At exactly the same time, President Raul Castro made the same announcement on Cuban television. In both countries, the news was received with great surprise. The road ahead would be difficult, but these steps marked a historic beginning.

Cubans of Union CityIn Cuba, people were elated. Praise for President Barack Obama abounded, and American flags were displayed on balconies and bike taxis. In Miami, where most Cubans outside of Cuba reside, the reaction was mixed. Many Cubans approved of President Obama’s plans, but many others disapproved. Relations with Cuba, they think, would only serve to enrich the coffers of the Cuban government in Havana.  But the majority of Miami Cubans favor normalization of relations. A survey conducted by Bendixen and Armandi International in March, 2015 revealed that 51 percent of Cuban Americans support the efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, while 49 percent do not. Approval for the politics of normalization is growing among Cubans who do not live in Miami; 69 percent of Cuban Americans who live outside of Miami support normalization.

Although approval is high among younger generations of Cuban Americans, it is declining among the older population. Disapproval is also vociferous among Cuban American Congress members. In Cuba, some dissidents oppose normalization while others welcome it. It is also possible that some in the Cuban government do not agree, especially those hard-liners that see any contact with the United States as detrimental to Cuba.

What led to this change in the American position toward Cuba? According to William Leogrande and Peter Kornbluh’s book Back Channel to Cuba, there has been ongoing, secret, often surprising, dialogue between Washington and Havana. Along with the invasions, covert operations, and assassination plots, there have been efforts at rapprochement and reconciliation. However, most of these efforts had fallen through the cracks. Discussions between the two governments have been largely limited to specific problems, mainly in times of crisis, such as migration talks and more recently, talks about drug trafficking.

Recently, there were rumors that President Obama might tackle the U.S.-Cuba relations issue during his second term. Many believed that the incarceration of Alan Gross, the American contractor employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was the main obstacle to a change in policy. He was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and then prosecuted in 2011 for bringing sophisticated telecommunications equipment into the island against Cuban law.  At the same time, there were three Cubans jailed in the United States. They were part of the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban nationals convicted in Miami in 2001 for conspiring to commit espionage and for conspiring to commit murder. Two had already been released.

The December 17. 2014 announcements were preceded by 18 months of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials.  They met in Canada and in the Vatican. Canadians helped, as did Pope Francis, who wrote letters to Obama and Castro urging them to work for an end to the impasse. Finally, on December 17, Cuba and the United States announced that they had agreed to exchange prisoners: Cuba would free Alan Gross and a high-level Cuban working for the Americans serving time in Cuba for espionage. The United States would in turn free the three jailed Cubans. Additionally, Cuba would free 53 Cuban political prisoners.

Since December 17, 2014 there have been talks between U.S. and Cuban officials to work out the details of normalization of diplomatic relations. There have been two meetings in Havana and two in Washington, with an additional one scheduled for May 21 in Washington. One topic of concern has been the reopening of the embassies. Simultaneously, a flurry of activity has taken place. Trips and delegations of politicians, businessmen, artists, have arrived in Cuba looking for their space in this new climate. Representative Nancy Pelosi went down with a delegation early this year. Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, visited the island in April accompanied by business leaders, including some executives from pharmaceutical companies. A number of officials, from government to private industry are urging that the embargo be lifted to completely normalize relations. Other major changes have taken place or are in the works. For example, President Obama recommended that Cuba be removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. There have been advances in the area of telecommunications, banking, trade, U.S. exports to the private sector in Cuba, and travel, both by air and sea.

Among recent visitors was French President Francois Hollande who met with Raul and Fidel Castro.  He also urged the United States Congress to lift the embargo.  More recently, Raul Castro met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The reason for his visit was to thank the Pope for his efforts to promote rapprochement between Cuba and the United States and to prepare the way for the upcoming visit of the Pontiff to the island in September, 2015.

Who benefits from normalization? First and foremost, the Cuban people. One expectation is the increasing economic development of Cuba through investment and trade. Hopefully, ordinary Cubans will gain through an improvement of the economic situation, both in terms of greater possibilities for consumption and possibly the creation of jobs, especially for the poor, who lack material resources due to meager salaries and lack of money through remittances from relatives abroad. The very poor and non-whites are often the ones who do not have family in the United States. There is also a very positive effect on Latin American regional relations. Obama probably had that in mind all along, as the Summit of the Americas in Panama revealed. Most Latin American countries wanted the return of Cuba to the Latin American family. The United States had opposed that. The meetings in Panama showed how the change in the U.S. position positively altered the climate among all nations.

Finally, these changes could be very beneficial for the Catholic Church, other religious groups, and other members of Cuba’s civil society. The Catholic Church already participated in talks with the government in 2010 to release political prisoners. Before and after those talks, the Catholic Church and the government have maintained a constructive dialogue. In the words of Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega, “for the church, the improvement of bilateral relations will be very beneficial… It will be easier to obtain help that we receive from other world churches to do our charity work in Cuba. The dialogue between church and state will not be broken, it will continue.”

Normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States will not be an easy journey. For one thing, the U.S. embargo of Cuba presents legal obstacles to many of the changes that the two governments want to implement. But the process has already started, and it seems that there is no way back.

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