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GUANTANAMO, CUBA – Cool sounds from warm musicians greet Chicago blues players, journalists and educators here in this palm-laden place most Americans only associate with a U.S. Navy base-prison and the famous “Guantanamera” song. Yet, there’s so much more to this lovely, working-class city in Cuba’s El Oriente Province than that.
Folks here are kind; their rich history is deep. Many of them remind me of the West Siders and the South Siders. And just like people on the West Side and South Side get less attention than folks on the North Side, people in the Eastern part of the country – El Oriente – get shortchanged from the western part where the famous capital, Havana, is located. I think of El Oriente as “Cuba’s Mississippi.” And while the whole country is slowly mixing revolutionary socialism with market capitalism through private entrepreneurship like “paladars,” which are privately owned restaurants often in someone’s house where the government grants licenses, it seems prosperity is slow to reach here where the revolution was launched. Most of the citizens here are Black and Latino.
People often speak to me in Spanish and occasionally Haitian Kreyol, thinking I understand those popular languages in this region. My Spanish sucks. I do know a little Kreyol and French. I’m a board member with the Haitian American Museum of Chicago and the Afro-Latino Historical Society.
Before we left, School of the Art Institute Professor Rashayla Marie Brown, an Afro-Cuban, said, “The Cuban government is slow to promote Blacks to high-ranking government positions.” On the tour bus, one of the Chicago musicians, Shanta Nurullah, asks “if racism exists” in this socialist country.
“The short answer is Y-E-S, but the longer answer is it is not as racially institutionalized here in Cuba as it is in the United States,” said group leader Marguerite Horberg. “It’s more complicated.” Books I read in advance of the trip confirm what she said and what we saw. It’s generally acknowledged that the 1959 revolution improved life for most of the poor Black and working-class people, which might be one reason it seems the upper-crust Whites fled for Miami and the working-class Blacks stayed in Cuba. Not so much for many professionals of all stripes who earn nearly the same as laborers despite the socialist government’s free education, health care and subsidized food and housing that everyone gets. That situation has been made even more complicated with remittances (money sent from U.S. Cubans to their relatives back home) that have been mainly from Whites to other Whites, with Blacks not getting a lion’s share of the fresh capital. “And while it’s visibly apparent that lighter-skinned Cubans are prominent in high government positions and lucrative tourist jobs, it’s not necessarily because of White supremacy or institutionalized racism,” Horberg adds. Conservative Cuban exiles in Miami’s Calle Ocho barrio argue “the revolution has hurt everyone.”
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We see little hurt. We’re here jamming with Cuban “changui” counterparts. Changui (a Bantu word for “dance”) is a mix of Haitian, African, Spanish, French (“tumba francesa”) and indigenous secular and spiritual sounds. It’s often called “Cuban blues,” according to local musicologists. That’s because its lyrics — mostly romantic — are sometimes about depressing themes like how “the decades-old U.S. embargo is strangling our country and the U.S. military base and prison at Guantanamo is giving us the blues.” The U.S. Navy base has been here since 1903 and extended in 2003 because of what’s called the Platt Agreement, which Cubans signed under duress of occupation by the U.S. military more than a century ago.
Today, Cubans argue it’s an affront to their sovereignty. “Senator Orville Platt introduced the amendment, and it passed by a vote of 43 to 20. In addition to allowing the United States its say in Cuban affairs, it also dictated that Cuba lease or sell the U.S. lands for use as naval stations or for coaling, including the naval station located at Guantanamo Bay,” according to Reference.com.
Cubans we talked to cited several human-rights abuses connected to the U.S. base. Sources include bilingual intellectuals: tour guide Vlad Falcon, poet Ruben Reve Planes and University of Santiago historian and Duke University graduate Dr. Hebert Ramiro Perez, who gave me a signed copy of his classic history book on Jose Marti, Cuba’s founding father, and Antonio Maceo, a Black general from this area.
There’s buzz about our trip. Perhaps that’s why our cultural tour is visited by high-ranking U.S. State Department and Cuban Ministry of Culture officials. The wonderful thing is politics are left at the front door once the music starts. Cubans open with “changui,” then invite thumb pianists Shanta Nurullah and Ayana Contreras (also a DJ), trumpeter Ben La Mar, guitarists Andres Flores and Jaime Garza Rodriguez, to jam. It tops a fun-filled trip led by Horberg, founder of the HotHouse, now celebrating its 30th anniversary promoting “World Beat” music and 12 trips to Cuba. Our delegation also includes Shelby Richardson, Monica Murphy, Mary Ferazza, Karthik Balaji and bilingual Jennifer Moran, who helped translate an interview I did with a Cuban soldier in Angola conflict zones 30 years ago when I was a very young war correspondent. Now, I’m a culture reporter.
One the most delightful jamming sessions occurs at Dr. Adela Blanca’s “patio,” which is a changui salon at her humble house where the surgeon incorporates music in her community health practices. She sings, dances, plays claves and teaches citizens – many of whom are males with diabetes – preventive health measures. She plans on visiting Chicago to meet with public health officials this fall if there are no visa issues. She’s smart, charming, committed and reminds me of my mom. While wine made by one of the musicians flows here, most of our delegation jams at her house. The ONLY reason this former percussionist doesn’t join is I need to record the video. Our group also played at Guantanamo’s House of Changui, an elite school, as well as the popular Casa di Trova where American and Cuban, young, rum drinkers and tee-tootlers play together, dance together and merge music from the Americas with a distinctive African common base.
In 1990, I was invited to Guantanamo by 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell to document thousands of then harshly treated Haitian detainees in the prison. While grateful he paid for a round-trip ticket to and from Cuba, I was not able to make that trip. I did visit Havana twice, though, in 2015. Today, the Haitians, and even later the hundreds of Cuban detainees who a couple decades ago were fleeing the country in dinky little boats, are gone; and only 41 detainees (mostly Muslims from the Middle East) remain here.
One of the most famous was Mohammad Salahi, “prisoner 760” – who, according to a March 12 60 Minutes, was here in infamous Camp Delta for 12 years. Today, he’s back in Yemen. He’s reformed, no longer a jihadi. Most of the rest are said by U.S. officials, though, to be “terrorists.” No country wants them housed in their nation, least of which is Cuba. People here want the prison and the base closed, according to Cubans interviewed in the Calvo Aspira documentary, All Guantanamo Is Ours. They are not as the lilting ballad suggests “Guantanameras” (Cuban residents of Guantanamo). “We want the Yankees to go home!”
Meanwhile, in the bigger Eastern Province cities like Holguin, Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba we visit, citizens warmly welcome the Windy City musicians with the HotHouse Chicago-Guantanamo Blues Exchange to share our respective “blues” with their city’s great players until they visit us later this year to jam their distinctive century-old music in Pilsen. In sum, we are cultural diplomats. Bravo!
ABOUT STAN WEST: A former foreign correspondent for the San Francisco-based Pacific News Service, Stan West has been a conflict journalist and culture reporter most of his career. West has written and co-authored several award-winning nonfiction books including Suburban Promised Land, which won the 2010 Illinois State Historical Society Award for Excellence. He teaches writing, television, first-year seminar and media literacy at Columbia College Chicago.