Darkness and Light: Re-Visiting Cuba

Let me begin this concluding post by saying how great it has been to have my book, From Cuba with Love, read so closely and receive such thoughtful responses (all of which are collected here).  Thanks so much to Rahul, Dunja, Nivi, and Pablo for their thoughts, and especially to Pablo for organising this symposium.  And now for an attempt to come to terms with some of the questions that have been raised in the last week of posts!

Figure 20_Malecon on a Windy Day

The Malecón in Havana on a windy day, when high waves closed the road to cars, in 2010.

In the book, I expend quite a bit of energy trying to think about sex as a potential site of resistance, so I was fascinated to see a recurring concern (especially from Dunja and Pablo) for the flip side of that coin, or what might be called the darker side of jineterismo-as-sexual-practice.

Dunja writes:

I couldn’t quite shake the idea that there is a darker underside. Daigle, through her informants, lucidly describes ‘another world where love and money are not mutually exclusive, and where morality and sexuality do not exist in separate spheres’. If this means that a ‘real’, affective attachment can exist in relationships that involve material or monetary exchange, it also demonstrates that there is no purely affective sphere free from pragmatic considerations relating not only to survival, but also to profit. Are we not dealing, in this ‘other’ world, with the omnipresent, inescapable market as the most effective form of social control […]?

In writing the book, I was principally concerned with countering what seemed to be the prevailing assumption: that joy would be impossible in such a setting, that the people I met could not possibly find love in their relationships, revel in the escapist adventures they’d had (even if they were short-lived) and hey, the sex they’d had too. So much of what I’d heard about so-called ‘sex tourism’ – from some Cubans far removed from its reality, from international and domestic media, even from other scholars – centred on images of, if not exploitation, then certainly transactional encounters where emotion was either feigned or absent. Feminists like Laurie Shrage, amongst others, have called this “mercenary sex”, while Amalia Cabezas (in specific reference to Cuba) calls it “tactical sex”. The terminology alone demonstrates the problem: they define relationships by a perceived displacement of emotion by remuneration. Thus, in my book, I wanted to tell what Heidi Hoefinger calls “the other side of the story—the side which exists in the laughter among friends, in the little joys of daily accomplishments or in the personal satisfaction of helping loved ones.”

But the darkness — the potential for a marketization of affect and love that Dunja signals, and also for unequal relations of power in romantic and sexual relationships and a re-entrenchment of traditional gender roles — is very much present as well. (And this is in addition to the very real physical, sexual, and symbolic day-to-day violences suffered by my informants.) This is what I was trying to get at with my comments on ‘happy endings’ in my introduction to this forum: that jineterismo represents an opening, but not a pre-defined one. With this book and this argument, I’m not trying to suggest an exit from power relations or a solution to problems, or define what comes after resistance. The pieces in this symposium make me think that there may be more ground to cover here.

Likewise, Pablo (incisive as usual) notes that, “The basic counterfactual – that without poverty there would be no (or much less) jineterismo – is key.” And poverty is indeed a motivating factor, but part of what I am trying to do with this book is to embed the phenomenon of jineterismo in a patriarchal history wherein women have so often had to operate within confines that would have them seek their future security through their partners. Jineterismo is, in many ways, simply another part of that history or another point on that spectrum, rather than an either/or proposition.

This is connected to my deliberate choice, which Pablo acknowledges, to focus on the narratives of women who identified as or had been treated as jineteras in a variety of contexts – and not their foreign dates, the police, the state institutions, and so forth. Outside of some limited cases (which Rahul discusses so eloquently) the state actors’ narratives were lamentably inaccessible to me, but the foreign dates were a different story: though I never sought them out, I did speak to a number of them.  They were also quite a diverse group, but if I’m honest, on the whole they skewed towards the laddish and occasionally baldly misogynist. They told me that they valued Cuban women’s femininity and conformity to traditional gender roles, sometimes casting scorn on the women of their home countries. They winked and nudged about “what Cuban women are like.” I decided, for the purposes of this book, to put a pin in all of that and examine the motivations, attitudes, and ideas expressed by my informants, mostly young Afro-Cuban women. What was interesting to me was how they moved within restrictive raced, gendered, and ideologically-laden systems, and the patriarchal bargains they negotiated for themselves along the way.

This brings me to a very salient comment from Rahul: a warning against the “reconstructive ambition […] to extract out of a bleak story a silver lining that [my] subjects have not themselves found”, which I’ll discuss further below. In my own scholarly, professional bargain, I found myself willing to speculate and extrapolate what these relationships, taken together as a network, space, or community in the loosest sense, might mean for Cuba as a nation and an ideology. I was not, however, terribly willing to interpret what these relationships meant to the individual women themselves, or to pass judgement on their internal validity, as to do such a thing felt colonial in the extreme.*

Figure 17_La Semana

Cuba in the world, 1926. “The Republic to Uncle Sam: ‘Don’t try to pull a fast one on me, old man. Keep in mind I’m not a little girl: I’m already twenty-four years old!’” Source: Casa de las Américas.

It’s for this reason, amongst others, that I wrote the book the way I did. I led with experience rather than theory, and checked my theoretical musings at the door until the last substantive chapter – indeed, Nivi remarked on the limitations of this “lack of explicit situation and upfront theorisation.” This was deliberate, an effort to work inductively and not superimpose theories before I began, and to commit to writing chronologically, letting greater understanding develop in the text the way it did for me in the field and in the process of writing. My use of so many unexplained Spanish terms, on which Dunja commented, also fit into this attitude to writing as an effort to leave uncertainty and slippage in. I used the language to embed some of the locale in the text, and to reproduce a sense of unease in non-Cubans like me who will never fully grasp the “language of the tribe” (and, of course, to annoy my copy editors no end). And Nivi is right — these choices have their limitations.

Following on from discussions that he and I have had before in this space, and perhaps will again, Pablo points to the dangers of narrative, “that vague but increasingly popular sub-field (or is it a method?) devoted to exploring world politics from the situated perspective of someone experiencing it (that someone usually being the researcher themselves).”  The risks that Pablo raises — of navel-gazing, of speaking-for, of subverting criticism under cover of the ‘personal’ — are real, and I plan to take them up in more detail in two conference presentations that will soon become papers.

I’m going to finish with two fundamental questions that Dunja posed in her beautiful piece, and that I feel get at the heart of the book itself and the responses I’ve received to it thus far, both within this symposium and beyond it.

First, is this really political?  And on a related note, can we ever really avoid politics in Cuba? This brings me back to Rahul’s point about extrapolation and the “reconstructive theoretical ambition” as problematic. How can we draw together individual stories to make them mean something at a higher level – and should we? This is the crux of my political claim, though — my stance that this means something for Cuba’s place in the world and its own unique nationalist imaginary. I based this claim on the sense of comradeship (ironically enough) that was evident to me amongst the people I interviewed, and this is where I came to the notion of “sexual-affective economies” as spaces and potential sites of community.**  It’s true that politics is everywhere in Cuba, but only in the sense that the Revolution is everywhere — and everyone wants to know what phenomena like jineterismo mean for the Revolution.  My aim was to go beyond that, to an understanding of ‘politics’ as transcending the Revolution, a conceit which may or may not have succeeded.

Pablo points to the fact that, though I claim to centre the voices of the so-called jineteras themselves, I do more (and also less) than that by bringing in other archives, voices, and modes – and he’s right: the book is not pure ethnography but rather encompasses “cigar boxes, magazine covers, local religious practices, state correctional policies, political speeches, 19th century poems, 20th century ethnographies, and 21st century human rights reports.” This, I think, is a big part of the reason why. I was trying to draw out something broader. Both of these points on extrapolation and thinking like a jinetera merit more thought.

Secondly, who is this for? This is a question with which I struggle. Suffice it to say, Cuban state institutions are unlikely to take my insights on board. With this book, I am speaking in many ways to feminists and feminisms, and to their frequent blind spots about race, class, and postcoloniality, and the not-wholly-unrelated ideas they often put forward about sexual morality and the right kinds of sex to have — sex that fights the patriarchy. (See also some of the current contributions to debates about Amnesty International’s draft policy on sex work.) I am speaking also (and maybe quixotically) to a supposed ‘mainstream’ in politics and international relations that might not take sex and sexuality, narrative, art and music, or individual experience seriously. In that way, the research project is political, but it also speaks to politics as a discipline.

And with that, I think I will call it a day. There are many other insights across these four reviews that will stay in my mind for some time to come, I think, some more hard-hitting than the ones I’ve discussed here, and I plan to take some time to sit with those. I am truly grateful for the level of engagement, analysis, and even poetry that has gone into this symposium and the conversation we’ve had about From Cuba with Love — and the incitements to further thought and new insights.

* As this project developed from field research to thesis to book manuscript, I have been amazed at the number of times I have heard it summarised by others as a book about sexual violence. I was even asked to write a piece about it for an NGO blog on sexual violence, but when I wrote about the policing of sexuality and state policies on forced gynaecological exams, I was met with puzzled looks and requests to focus on the tourists. Virtually none of my informants claimed to have experienced sexual violence a the hands of a foreign date, and some even saw dating tourists as a means of escaping intimate partner violence in their lives, so the characterization of their relationships as violent seems based on a simple assumption of exploitative dynamics that I found problematic.

** By ‘community’ in this context, I mean the loose and informal solidarity that I observed amongst my informants, other like-minded young Cubans, and their international networks of friends, contacts, and lovers. I do not mean that it strengthens existing communities (neighbours, families, social groups) in Cuban cities and towns, though arguably foreign connections do much to support my informants’ extended social networks.

3 thoughts on “Darkness and Light: Re-Visiting Cuba

  1. Pingback: Darkness and Light: Re-Visiting Cuba | Mimic Brothers

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