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A review of PBS “Black in Latin America. Cuba: the Next Revolution”

By M.E.Diaz, media, Race, Reviews, Video - lecture and discussion Add comments

Watch the full episode. See more Black in Latin America.

(You can view the entire episode by going to the PBS website)

Just this week, PBS has been showing a series on race in Latin America. This is Prof. Maria Elena Díaz’s very illuminating review of the Cuba episode:

The story begins with slavery & sugar, the 10 years war (with a slightly inaccurate and very rosy take on Cespedes and this war–you may take a look at the Cespedes’ manifesto (in Chomsky et als’ Cuba Reader) it is very problematic–there is actually no abolition of slavery, Cespedes is very careful on this controversial issue, at most grants a very limited gradual abolition with very problematic terms on how a slave can even join the liberation army, no freedom to do so, etc).

The program covers  the war of Independence through, of course, a bit of Marti (and his ideology compressed into the phrase “we are all Cubans”) and particularly less well known  issues around the figure of Maceo (a few bites with NYU Professor Ada Ferrer). Then a bunch of history compressed on the iconic “Maine” explosion (perhaps because there is the tangible monument). The interview with this historian (Iglesias?) is not too enlightening, frankly. They could have pulled anyone from the street to say that. These bites try to compress Louis Perez’s book <The War of 1898> and miss quite a bit, but ok, it was mostly background and perhaps it did not want to alienate a North American audience too much, particularly these days when similar adventures are being played out in other latitudes. The occupation and new segregation policies introduced during the occupation are mentioned (missing the white diplomatic corps, though) and the compliciteness of the white elite with these policies is noted.  The Platt Amendment is not mentioned,  which is quite basic, but the narrator pointed out  there had been de facto colonialism (“from Spain to the US,” he said, to put it softly).  It mentioned the white/Spanish immigration and the full emphasis on “whitening”  which it could have contextualized a bit better by framing it in  the greater turn of the century trend of “whitening”  as part of the wider scientific racism, eugenics and the idea of “whiteness” as “progress and civilization”–going on elsewhere in L.A. (Brazil being the best known case in L.A. but elsewhere too–not to speak of course Europe and US as the emblems of modernity and progress to be imitated). It could have emphasized the universal male suffrage guaranteed in the Constitution of 1901 that became an  element  in the self-definition of the new Republic as a “racial democracy,” a claim that was challenged by  Yvonette and the Partido Independiente de Color. It dedicated a good number of bites to the important Race war of 1912 and showed the brutal cartoons that illustrates the political unconscious of the time.

The  periodization then moves to the 1920s noting that it represented the beginning to the move toward greater acceptance of “black” music and cultural traditions previously marginalized, when not outrightly persecuted . It could have explained that this coincided with broader emergent nationalist trends  throughout L.A, in the interwar period. It touches on the famous story of Machado’s birthday event as a kind of lithmus test of how far black music or culture (i.e. the son) had become accepted in power circles at the time. Perhaps it could have mentioned Guillen, and Wilfredo Lam, as the show cases in “high culture” in Cuba during the following years, but it focused on popular culture, and that is just fine. It also runs through this period with some interviews with soneros and some pretty bold footage of some carnival scenes (backed by the state in the 1930s for commercial purposes) that might not be altogether accurate.

The film rightly mentions the decree to end discrimination in the public sector in the 1940s, but did not mention that, contrary to the Const of 1901, this one was explicitly guaranteed in the social democratic Constitution of 1940. (The question of implementation is a separate one.) It could have covered more about the black organizations and clubs operating throughout this period, those would have been nice memories to recover from informants, but the program sticks to the script of what are pretty much commonplaces in the academic research by now– it does not engage in any original research as mentioned above. for the 1950s, it notes the usual common places (Batista, mafia, tourism, etc); puts a good light on black participation in the 26th of July Movement by using Comandante Dreke as narrator.  Chailloux got too emotional on the Literacy Campaign and that prevented her from speaking more eloquently (Gates has to pull out the words from her), but her tears were eloquent of that moment too. It highlights as well Fidel Castro’s declaration against discrimination (I think 1960), and then moves on to the issue of economic and social advancement and rights–the infrastructure and superstructure line that becomes emblematic of the Revolution’s position on race (and represented as well through the figures of Dreke and Chailloux). I thought it covered the debacle of the special period effectively as well as the effects of the dual economy, the greater access to dollar paying jobs by white sectors. (It skipped throughout the waves of emigration and exile).The discussion on the lingering of racial prejudice in Cuba that has been recently exacerbated  by new global factors is actually tame.

Overall, I thought the program was very good and quite restrained. I suppose it will be shown in Cuba at some point. I wonder about  reactions to it  in the island and in Miami–a reception study of some kind would be nice.

6 Responses to “A review of PBS “Black in Latin America. Cuba: the Next Revolution””

  1. Grete Viddal Says:

    Prof Maria Elena Díaz speculates of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s 2nd episode of Black in Latin America, titled “Cuba: The Next Revolution”, “I suppose it will be shown in Cuba at some point.” Really? Hmm, they’d have to re-title it to say the least. I’ll try to find out if Prof Gates has received any indication from Cuban media or institutions of the possibility of presenting the film. On Cuban television, I can’t imagine it. Maybe at a local institution. I am toying with the idea of bringing a copy along for the library at Casa del Caribe in Santiago de Cuba on my next visit, but without Spanish subtitles the potential audience is very small.

  2. Marial Iglesias Says:

    Hi, I’m “this historian” (Iglesias?) whose comments were “not too enlightening” to the point that “they could have pulled anyone from the street to say that”. I suppose that it is right that I alluded to very well-known issues which can be found in any Cuban history’s textbook (Louis Perez Jr. is not the only authoritative voice on the war of 1898) but it was a documentary designed for a broad (North American) audience and not for specialists on history of Cuba. In any case I wanted to let Prof. María Elena Díaz know that, however they could have pulled anyone from the street to speak about the Maine incident and American occupation, I’m more qualified than the average person as I published an award winning book about the first US military occupation, “Las metáforas del cambio en la vida cotidiana”(1898-1902)(yes, occasionally, we also publish books in Cuba). It has received several prizes, including the Clarence H. Haring Prize, a quinquennial prize awarded by the American Historical Association “to the Latin American author who has published the most outstanding book on Latin American history during the five years preceding the year of the award”. It has been recently translated into English by University of North Carolina Press and will be released this month, under the title of A Cultural History of Cuba during the US Occupation, 1898-1902.
    Best wishes,
    Marial Iglesias

  3. Maria Elena Diaz Says:

    To Prof. Marial Iglesias.
    I apologize for the “[?]” which referred to my fading memory after a first viewing of the program and a rushed response. I’m posting a correction I made in the UC-Cuba site subsequently (May 4). I thought that your comments regarding the Maine and the intervention in 1898 were indeed quite elementary, what probably may be found in any Cuban textbook (or perhaps even a North American one these days). I found the comments “elementary” because the program used the expertise of “talking heads” in a very rudimentary and scripted way. I suppose that is what you had agreed to say. But later you made more enlightening comments, comments people really do not know about (like the segregationist policies introduced during the occupation). The visit to the “santero veteran” was perhaps one of the most original moments in the program (see below). Would you care to answer the questions I raise below? Had the family been contacted before to tell them about their ancestor’s letter and, as a courtesy, give them a photocopy of it perhaps? What else does the letter say? It would have been fantastic to hear the voice of the old mambi on other topics. Another possibility would have been to post a transcription of the letter in the program’s website. Or perhaps you can post it here? It was a wonderful document.
    Mil disculpas otra vez. Please do not take it personally. I think the scripting, the drastic editing of professional historians’ comments, and overall the under-utilization of experts left much to be desired. Realmente le resto mucho al documental. Es una de mis mayores criticas a un programa que, por otra parte, me parecio muy bueno.

    !Felicitaciones por su premio! Leere su libro (prometido) y ya que esta traducido al ingles, hasta podria asignarlo en clase.

    Aqui va mi contestacion al comentario de alguien que pensaba que mi referencia habia sido a la Prof. Carmen Barcia. (Posted en UC-Cuba, May 4, 2011):

    “I was not referring to Carmen Barcia, although she probably was left with even less to say than any other professional historian interviewed. I was referring to M. Iglesias and her explanation of the Maine and US flash intervention in the war and expelling of the Spaniards (the whole N.A. representation of that “Dirty Little War” that Louis Perez’ challenges and Cuban historiography as well).I want to make a correction. While Iglesias’s comments on the Maine and 1898 were quite elementary, she does make some more important interventions later which I missed. She is the one who notes some of the segregationist policies introduced during the US occupation. She is also involved in perhaps one of the few displays of original research (albeit very scripted too)–the letter of Vicente Goytisolo and the visit to his family with the purpose of presenting and reading the letter in front of the cameras. (I wonder why the family had not been contacted before this occasion, or had the letter just been found?). I wish the whole letter had been read. Admittedly, the comments on Goytisolo’s literacy were a bit patronizing.

    I close shop now and retire from the UC-Cuba “forum” on the PBS program. Maybe others will volunteer other comments and ideas. How about the images and the footage–does anyone have any comments on that aspect of the documentary?


    Maria Elena


  4. Maria Elena Diaz Says:

    To Marial Iglesias,

    Correction. My post correcting myself on the [?] [see above] on UC-Cuba was on May 2 (not on May 4)–that is, before your own post on May 3 here in etnocuba.

    To Grette Vidal,

    Do take the program to Casa del Caribe. They understand and speak English. No big deal about the subtitles. And send many regards to folks there.

    Maria Elena

  5. ariana Says:

    Clarification to readers: UC-Cuba is a list-serve for University of California faculty and students interested in Cuba-related issues.

  6. Maria Elena Diaz Says:

    By the way, I’m going to post some more subjective and controversial comments I made on this program aside from the review based on the historical bytes above. These comments, in turn, address some circulating comments that may be read in between the lines –so my comments below represent some hidden polemics perhaps.

    I must say that I found Gates’ PBS program on Cuba very good. Frankly, that is how I teach this too (in finer grain, of course). I think he has been fair in his coverage. It hits on the main points–rushes through them, to be sure, but this is a 55 minute program, it has to be done with bites. The bites are illustrative of major points at various periods, and it periodizes correctly. In general, some points and trends could could have been better contextualized but the program popularizes most of the recent research (alas, I’m sorry Gates did not visit El Cobre, and the Monument to the Cimarron there…). The program does not engage at any point in original research through interviews; the interviews in the program are there to illustrate scripted points in a few bites. But the script is pretty accurate and fair, I think. In fact, I find it subdued.

    I liked the fact that Gates focused on hip hop for the post special period (the current period) and the the fact that he gave them a forum in the program to play (he even gave them the last word). He also gives space to Dreke and Chaillox (the “romantics” as he calls them, perhaps overwriting their voice) and they make their case well, great ambassadors of that side of the current implicit debate in Cuba on race relations.

    On the ajiaco scene–a bit corny—-it is one of those scripted themes about the “creolization” or “cubania” ideology of race in Cuba that is always exotic and “colorful”, perhaps it should have been congri, granted, but it was a way of getting in Fernando Ortiz in a safe way I suppose. He is a problematic figure. For any celebratory association to the concept of transculturation from his middle period, there are disturbing ones from the earlier one (the “Order and Progress,” whitening, eugenics etc. period): for instance, his criminal ethnography in is highly problematic. The scene on the skull of Maceo is linked, of course, to the influence of eugenics “scientific” racism of this period.

    On Gates’ Spanish pronunciation failings, they did not bother me. I have plenty of those in English myself and hope people do not judge me too harshly on them.

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