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Cuba After Castro: A Conversation with Lanie Millar

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Lanie Millar, Kluge Fellow

Lanie Millar is an assistant professor in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Oregon. While at the Library of Congress on a Kluge Fellowship, she is doing research for her book manuscript on post-revolutionary literature from Cuba and Angola. Her project is titled, “Cuba and Angola: Cultural Conversations Before and After the Cold War.”

How did you get interested in Cuba?

Cuba was always on my radar because it is one of the most important Latin American literary and cultural centers. In my first year of my PhD, I went to a summer Portuguese program where I discovered poets like Agostinho Neto and Noémia de Sousa and novelists like Mia Couto, Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa and Luandino Vieira. When I came back, my dissertation adviser mentioned in class that Cuban poets and novelists had gone to write about the war in Angola, and very few people knew about or had studied their texts. I wrote my final paper for her class on that topic, and through that project discovered Caribbean studies. So I came to Cuba through Angolan literature in a way, an unusual path.

Have you been? In what circumstances?

I have been a number of times for conferences and research purposes. I was excited to see the places I had seen in movies and read about in books, but I got hopelessly lost many times trying to track down places I had read about! People in Havana spend a lot of time in the street chatting with neighbors and passing the time. On one visit the neighbors where I was staying were so amused to see me walking back and forth every day looking for some house or museum that they started calling me “la andona,” “the big walker.” It made me laugh every time. I really love that aspect of Havana—the sense of life lived in public spaces. People can be so generous, too. More than once someone spontaneously paid my bus fare because they assumed that as a foreigner I wouldn’t have the right change. Things in Cuba aren’t always easy, but it is a generous and fascinating place.

We all knew that Fidel Castro would eventually fade from the scene – did the reaction to his death surprise you?

I wasn’t surprised at all by the variety of reactions to his death. I expected to see people who celebrated what they saw as the death of a dictator, as well as those who mourned the passing of someone that they saw as a leftist hero (particularly from elsewhere in Latin America). There have been some very nuanced, thoughtful responses that did not fall into either of these two camps. I think the fact that he had been around for so long, and that the Cuban Revolution was so important to 20th-century history meant that people have had a long, long time to think about what his legacy means.

How do you view Castro’s legacy on race?

One of the issues that complicates how Castro is remembered is the question of racism in Cuba and abroad. Castro famously declared in a 1961 speech that racism in Cuba had ended, and he justified Cuba’s African interventions, especially in Angola, by appealing to solidarity with African-descended people. Many of us remember that Nelson Mandela went to Havana after he got out of prison to thank Fidel for what he had done to help end racial discrimination in Africa. Many, many Afro-Cuban intellectuals and artists have explicitly credited the Revolution’s efforts to end racial discrimination with opportunities that they may not have had in the pre-revolutionary era. However, at the same time, there are just as many criticisms of the way that the Revolution ignored institutional racism that continued in the Revolution, and of the largely white leadership under Castro. Cuban scholars have explored how Cuba’s longstanding 20th-century ideas of mestizaje, racial mixing, influenced the post-revolutionary idea that discrimination was a thing of the past. Historian Christine Hatzky has argued that racial stereotypes about Africans persisted among Cuban soldiers who went to Angola. So the landscape is mixed—I think the reactions to Castro’s death encompass all the complex realities and legacies that his long political life represented.

How does one do research in the history of a place where there is so much emotion? What are your strategies?

This is such a good question. When a U.S.-based researcher goes to somewhere like Cuba, you are stepping into what is both a fraught historical relationship, and, at the same time, one that is characterized by a profound intimacy. So many Cubans have family in the United States. The most helpful piece of advice I got was to participate in conferences and formal events, getting to know Cuban institutions and scholars, to be able to engage in scholarly conversations that are meaningful to everyone. My Cuban hosts have almost always been enormously generous. A lot of research access in Cuba depends on whom you know, and stepping delicately and respectfully goes a long way for everyone.

Are Cuban archives accessible? Reliable?

Yes and no. Many of the cultural archives, particularly those housed at major institutions—the National Library, particular authors’ personal papers and collections, film archives—are often accessible, particularly more recently. Unfortunately, Cuba, like many places in Latin America, has been the victim of large amounts of cultural theft, so librarians and archivists are understandably careful about access. It is definitely also the case that different materials in Cuban institutions have been more or less available at different times depending on the changing political landscape. I have been able to access some unique things, but have also been very reliant on people who have had access to archives that other researchers probably haven’t—for example, the political scientist Piero Gleijeses’ book “Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa 1959-1976.”

What does Cuba’s intervention in Angola tell us about the shifting dynamic of the Cold War in the late 70s and early 80s?

One of the most interesting aspects of researching connections between Cuba and Africa has been, for me, learning that we cannot understand the Cold War only through the lenses of the two superpowers. For a long time, you heard from the U.S. perspective that Cuba acted internationally as an agent or even a puppet of the Soviet Union. Gleijeses’ and others’ work have done away with that notion, by showing instances where Cuba acted independently or defied Moscow’s interests. There were extremely important ideological and cultural networks among Latin American and African intellectuals in the mid-late 20th century that don’t make sense if we only think about U.S. or Soviet interests. Anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-imperial solidarity, for example, was an important motivator of these connections.

What was U.S. policy toward Africa, and specifically South Africa, at the time?

The U.S. was extremely concerned about the proliferation of socialism and communism in Africa, and saw the pro-Apartheid South African government as a bulwark against the spread of leftist ideologies in Africa. They had supported ousters and assassination attempts against leftist Latin American leaders, including Castro, and the U.S. was involved or perceived to be meddling in Africa, too. For example, suspicion circulated that the U.S. was involved in the 1961 death of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected leader of Congo-Léopoldville (now the DRC). While Carter approved of economic sanctions against South Africa, Reagan preferred encouraging moderates within the Afrikaner government, and blocked both domestic and UN sanctions until South African president Botha’s infamous 1985 speech in which he declared that South Africa would never have a one-man-one-vote policy. I think we can’t underestimate the symbolic importance of these actions by the U.S. Many leftist and nonaligned  governments in Africa came to see the U.S. as opposed to their interests, as was the case with the Angolan majority MPLA party. After South Africa invaded Angola’s borders in 1975, and together with the U.S. began to offer covert support to Angola’s main opposition party, Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA, leftist parties and governments saw that as a betrayal of anti-colonial ideals.

What about Russia and China?

The USSR had been more willing than China to offer support to African movements—think of Nelson Mandela’s ANC, for example. I did some extremely interesting research in the Portuguese archives over the summer, about how the Soviet-Sino split was debated among Angolan independence parties. One of the Angolan MPLA party’s founding leaders, the poet Viriato da Cruz, left the party and lived in exile in China when others chose to follow the Soviet model. And Cuba got very close to the USSR around the time that their interest in Africa was getting underway.

Which Library of Congress collections are you working with?

There are so many wonderful collections at the LOC! I’m working with a variety of materials. The LOC has a lot of journals and newspapers from both Angola and Cuba that I am looking through to document different perspectives on the Angolan war and the Cuba-Angola alliance. There are also a number of Cuban films about the war, visual materials and testimonies of Cubans who went to Angola that are held here. And, since my book is about how this era influenced post-Cold War literature from Cuba and Angola, I am using many more recent publications, including literature, from these two countries as well. There are some amazing things at the LOC.

What other kinds of sources do you use? Oral history, songs, works of fiction?

My book is focused on works of fiction, but fiction that’s saturated with references to other types of media and history. I am referencing films, speeches, poetry, journalism, testimony.

Internet access is beginning to spread in Cuba; will that change everything?

It definitely has the potential to change a lot of things. Internet has been available for a while, but unevenly. There have been state internet centers with “managed” internet connections for email and things for a while. Now there is wifi in some public places, including at the University of Havana. That is a recent thing. People can pay the high prices to get computer access at tourist hotels, but it’s not too common to have internet at home. Plus, there is a thing called the “paquete,” which is a big package of tv shows, sports broadcasts, you name it, that people can pay to download on their own drive and use at home without an internet connection. So there are a lot of ways that people get around the current restrictions, but more internet access will definitely change things.

Will U.S.-Cuba relations improve with Castro’s passing? What do you see in the years ahead?

I honestly don’t know. Fidel was an enormously important symbolic figure, and his brother Raúl is still in charge. I think a lot will depend on who Raúl’s successor is. It seems clear that many American companies are extremely anxious to begin business dealings with Cuba. There has also been increasing support with younger generations of Cuban-Americans for lifting the embargo. On one of my visits to Cuba, an economist at the University of Havana talked about how though Cuba would benefit enormously from ending the embargo, many Cubans are wary of the tidal wave of American interests that could result. They’re aware of the necessity to approach post-embargo development carefully. I think ending the embargo is a real possibility for the future, but I don’t know when it might happen. In many ways, I would expect that the embargo is associated with the Castros and with the old Cold War politics, and those old enmities could potentially be mitigated or disappear in the post-Castro era. But over the decades lots of people have predicted futures for Cuba that never materialized. Cuba manages to keep surprising us.

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