The many deaths of Fidel Castro

A few weeks ago, when I checked Twitter and saw that Fidel Castro had died, the news felt strangely distant. True, Fidel was a giant of the twentieth century rather than the twenty-first, but I think that feeling of observing the news of his death from afar had more to do with the fact that we (Cubans and Cuba-watchers, journalists, scholars, beret-wearing backpackers) have already been living with the spectre of his death for so long. And, as he has faced death so many times through the years, the mere fact of his death – now material, tangible – seems hardly enough to stop him from living on.

A political map of Cuba

Political cartoon by Graeme Mackay, 2 August 2006.

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Laughter, the Canadian election and the niqab debate

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Let me begin by clarifying: I’m not talking about laughing at the niqab, but at the niqab debate (or #niqabdebate) as it has become known in Canada in the last six weeks. The niqab debate that loomed so large in the 2015 federal election, a record 78-day campaign that reached its finale Monday night, and that may (arguably) have precipitated the collapse of the social democratic alternative (arguably) in Canada. The debate provoked by Conservative race-baiting in an impressively cynical bid to profit from the seldom-acknowledged but very real prejudice of white Canadians. The bullshit niqab debate.

Let me back up a bit.

In 2011, the Canadian federal government banned the wearing of face-covering garments during the swearing of citizenship oaths. This, it was said, was to ensure that the oath was actually said – that is, that the prospective citizen’s lips were moving – a problem that could be solved by standing within earshot. It served no purpose for identification either, as all candidates for citizenship have, by the time they reach the point of swearing an oath, already braved a gauntlet of background checks, paperwork, regulation photos, and meetings with officials. They also reveal their faces to an official for identification purposes immediately prior to the ceremony. More to the point, as journalist Justin Ling so aptly said only a few weeks ago, “All would-be citizens are required to actually sign the oath of citizenship, which is the legal part of becoming a citizen. For the oral exam part of the ceremony, you may as well be reciting ‘Hypnotize’ by Notorious B.I.G.”

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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!

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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.

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From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the 21st Century

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Five years ago, I spent six months living and working in Cuba – a fact that, in casual conversation, generally provokes expressions of envy and eye rolling about mojitos, salsa music, and academics who don’t really do any work. Cuba is as much a fantasy as a real place. It is totally invested with the romantic and ideological dreams of wildly disparate constituencies: armchair socialists and campus lefties, right-wing US politicians and Cuban émigrés, cocktail-swilling package holiday tourists, and adventure-seeking backpackers, amongst others. Cuba is a steamy and exotic Caribbean island, with rumba dancing and free-flowing rum. Cuba is a repressive and secretive regime. Cuba is a test workshop for socialist ambitions the world over. Cuba is a fantasy.

It was ideas like these about Cuba, Cuban politics, and Cuban people that drew me there in the first place, and the resulting book – built on those months of ethnographic research and on the doctoral dissertation that followed – has recently been released under the title From Cuba with Love: Sex and Money in the Twenty-First Century (University of California Press 2015). Rahul, Nivi, guest poster Dunja, and Pablo will be commenting on it over the next few days, followed by a rejoinder from yours truly.

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What We Made At ISA: Art as Subject, Art as Method

Our panel at ISA 2015 began with a comment made in a panel at ISA 2014 in Toronto: “I knit in panels. And this is the first conference I’ve ever attended where I’m the only knitter.” The speaker was Kate Daley, knitting in hand, and the conversations that followed eventually became “Art as Subject, Art as Method”, an innovative panel at this year’s conference in New Orleans.

The role of art in international politics has largely been ignored, a fact which Christine Sylvester has highlighted repeatedly [1]. In our panel, we wanted to combine study of art with the practice of art. Shifting the focus from what we make to the act of making itself, we asked what an engagement with the material, visual, sensory, and creative elements of art and craft could bring to the study of politics, employing not just colour and texture, but also interaction and sensory experience as tools.

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Why Tell Stories – Or Rather, Why I Tell Stories

This post has been slowly taking shape in my head since last year’s ISA in Toronto.  A year late, I know, but maybe now it can act as some kind of refresher as we head into this year’s festivities.  (In fact, as I write these words with a cup of tea in front of me, I’m watching the last of the sunrise over Faubourg-Marigny.)

Last year, as there has been for a few years now, there was a roundtable that consisted of people telling stories – personal stories, political stories, literary stories. The room was packed, as it always is for the storytelling roundtable. People stood leaning against the walls, cross-legged on the floor, and sometimes two to a seat. The air was warm and still. The stories were touching, wryly acerbic, and occasionally silly. One storyteller, though, both caught and divided the audience’s attention. She told a powerful story of victimisation in multiple voices, drawn from our own ranks at the ISA, and laid bare the systemic problem of sexism and sexual harassment in the academy. It was the sort of story that had half the audience stunned into silence and the other half nodding in knowing agreement.

In the wake of that story, the discussion took on a life of its own, with a number of audience members calling for solidarity, empathy, and action. Others were shocked and claimed no knowledge that such a world existed under their very noses. Still others shrugged it off, saying that the story lacked an understanding of the complicity of its own narrator (or rather, its narrators) – that it was a kind of call, but one that should not be answered. Sitting in the audience, I said nothing, watched and listened as the tension in the room crested and abated.

Two years earlier, in a similar conference room in San Diego, I had told a story of my own. I hadn’t planned to tell that particular story – in fact, I’d decided months earlier to present a piece I had written for my doctoral thesis that had gotten a warm reception in other settings, which has since appeared here in another form. That was someone else’s story, from my fieldwork in Cuba. But, about two weeks before the start of the ISA, a story of my own came to me all at once and I wrote it in less than an hour. I brought both with me to the roundtable and sat them on the table in front of me, in case I lost the nerve to tell my own story, but somehow I managed it, shaking hands and all.

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Love, Sex, Money and Meaning

UPDATE (8 September 2014): Megan originally wrote this as a guest post, but is now with us more permanently.

This post is based on stories about sex, love, tourism and identity relayed in Cuba in 2010, and is (loosely) based on, and at times excerpted from, an article of the same name just published in Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. All names, many locations, and some additional identifying details have been changed in accordance with the interviewees’ wishes.


Havana's Malecón, or seawall, close to Calle 23 and not far from where I interviewed Yakelín.

Havana’s Malecón, or seawall, close to Calle 23 and not far from where I interviewed Yakelín.

Yakelín comes to the Hotel St. John nearly every day around two o’clock in the afternoon. Most days, Jean-Claude is already there, ensconced on the terrace with a glass of dark rum, chatting amiably with the staff, or pensively smoking a cigar as he waits. When she arrives, she kisses him discreetly before settling down for a drink on the terrace. The hotel is rather unassuming, but it sits just steps from the busy east end of Calle 23, known as La Rampa, and blocks from the historic University of Havana, and as such Hotel St. John has become a haven for tourists and foreign students who come here for strong coffee and cold beer. After an hour or so, Yakelín and Jean-Claude walk away together, hand in hand.

This same routine has been going on for more than two years now, since the day that Yakelín first met Jean-Claude, walking along Calle 23 with a friend. She was 21 years old, living in a small flat with her mother, father, brother, two sisters, aunt, uncle, two cousins and her grandmother. After spending her teenage years at a boarding school in the countryside, she had elected not to continue to university and was back in Havana with her family. Like so many others, her family worked hard to make ends meet, and Yakelín was looking for ways to lighten the burden. Not long after they met, Jean-Claude made her a proposition.

He suggested that, since I was en la lucha [struggling to get by], you know, he suggested that I no longer be in the streets [looking for leads on work, food, clothes] and that he was going to help me resolver mis problemas [solve my problems]. And since then, he’s my boyfriend.

Jean-Claude is married, but Yakelín says that in spite of that they have a “formal relationship” – she lives in a comfortable casa particular, for which he pays, and they spend every afternoon together. As a retiree, Claude lives more or less permanently in Cuba, leaving only to attend to his affairs in France and returning laden with gifts including clothing, jewellery, and even a television. He provides her with spending money and helps to support her family as well. She says she loves the independence he has given her, even though she readily acknowledges the implied contradiction – she has found her freedom in total dependence on him. Yakelín has no official work at present, because she feels that the meagre salary is simply not worth the trouble.

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