Cuba in Context
By Abe Loomis

With relations between the U.S. and Cuba poised for sweeping change, Williams professors with ties to the Caribbean nation take stock—and share their thoughts on what may lie ahead.

In April, music professor Ileana Perez Velazquez was watching news coverage of a New York delegation’s visit to Cuba when something unexpected happened. She received several emails from musicians in Cuba who wanted to perform her work.

“They found me on the Internet,” she says—something that would have been unlikely a few months earlier. Most Cubans don’t have easy access to computers, and Internet use is monitored by the government. More importantly, ever since the Cuban-born Perez Velazquez traveled to the U.S. against her government’s wishes 22 years ago, her music, which has garnered respect worldwide, rarely has been performed in her homeland.
But in December, the U.S. and Cuba made a historic announcement: After 50 years of hostility, the two countries would work to re-establish diplomatic relations.

Hearing from the musicians, Perez Velazquez, who’s won numerous awards and was recently named one of five Cuban composers to watch by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, was cautiously optimistic. “They must have some hope that things could be more flexible and open,” she says. “I sent a bunch of music over. We’ll see what happens next.”

For some Williams faculty members watching closely as this new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations unfolds, the interest is scholarly. Carmen Whalen, history professor and chair of Latina/o studies, teaches courses on Cuban migrations. History professor Shanti Singham spent last summer in Cuba studying the African roots of Cuban art. Next year, at least half a dozen courses—in disciplines including comparative literature, environmental studies, history and music—will address Cuba in one way or another.

But for three professors, intellectual interests in Cuba are entwined with deeply personal ones. James Mahon, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Political Science, has been visiting the island for decades, feeding his fascination with Cuba and his broader understanding of Latin America with conversations with Cubans from all walks of life. Meanwhile, Perez Velazquez and Peter Montiel, the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Professor of Economics, are Cuban-born.

The three are hopeful for Cuba’s future. As Montiel says, the normalization of diplomatic and trade relations with the U.S. “was long overdue. As a Cuban, I’m all for it.”

Still, it’s hard to tell how much will really change between the two countries—or how quickly—now that one of the last pillars of the Cold War is being dismantled.

A Revolution’s Legacy

GettyImages-460608558-retAs a macroeconomist, Montiel would love to conduct research in Cuba someday. “I work on other developing countries,” he says. “So to think about my own country going through this would be irresistible.”

But in the 56 years since he left Havana for Miami at the age of 8, Montiel has returned only once. In 2003 he took advantage of a Williams trip for young alumni to “gain some insight into just how much of Cuba I had brought to the U.S. with me” and “to sort out, on an intellectual level, my opinions about the Cuban revolution.”

Montiel’s father was a high school classmate of Fidel Castro, who would go on to become the leader of Cuba. They studied under the Jesuits at El Colegio de Bele?n in Havana in the 1940s and then went to law school together at the University of Havana, where students carried weapons and political debates could end in gunfire. Castro used to visit the elder Montiel’s home in the capital city, sometimes borrowing items he couldn’t retrieve from his father’s ranch in Oriente Province.

Montiel’s father worked for the revolution that deposed President Fulgencio Batista, and he supported Castro’s rise to power.

“But there was a split between the radicals and the moderates in the summer of ’59,” Montiel says. “My father, like most people, was a moderate.”

Life became increasingly difficult for those who disagreed with Castro. They lived under the threat of losing their jobs and homes, of imprisonment and, in some cases, of assassination.

“My father had to leave in a hurry,”Montiel says.“He basically drove his car onto a ferry, landed at Key West, and that was it. We followed five months later.”

Soon after, relations between the U.S. and Cuba worsened to the brink of catastrophe, with the U.S. imposing economic sanctions, the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s.

Those years continue to color U.S.-Cuba relations. Politically, the effects of the revolution and communism are a source of pride for many Cubans and pain for many Cuban-Americans, Montiel says. Both countries continue to regard each other with suspicion, if not hostility.

Mahon, who teaches the Williams tutorial Cuba and the United States, has had access to Cuba for decades as a scholar of Latin America. When conversing with government officials, he says, “I’ll act nai?ve and say things like, ‘You guys are all so popular and you’re doing so many great things for Cuba. Why don’t you just have elections? You’d win.”

Among the responses, he says, are: “‘All the best people are in the Communist Party, so it’s no use to have another party,’ ‘The Americans would manipulate an election,’ or ‘The exiles would manipulate it.’”

For everyday Cubans, Mahon says, “It goes something like this: ‘I’m a good socialist. I haven’t known anything else. I wouldn’t sacrifice the conquests of the revolution—in health care, in education and in national sovereignty—to anything.

“‘I just wish they would trust me more. I would like to have more freedom, more choices, more than one news program at night. And I would like to have more of a connection with the world.’”

While that connection appears to be growing, much depends on the Cuban political landscape. Change seems possible for the first time in decades. Rau?l Castro, who took over from his brother in early 2008, says he will step down in 2018. If he does, it will mark the end of 59 years of Castro rule in Cuba. First Vice President Miguel Di?az-Canel Bermudez is the likely successor. But what comes next isn’t clear.

“We’ve had these thaws before,” Mahon says, referring to times when U.S.-Cuba relations seemed to be improving. “Yet in the past, generally, something has happened to disturb them.”

Di?az-Canel might be that disturbance. Mahon calls him “a cipher.” “He’s vigorous, young and considered to be a hard-liner. … We don’t know whether he’s a Cuban Gorbachev or someone who wants to radicalize.”

Another question is how the push to strengthen ties with Cuba will play out politically in the U.S. Efforts to ease travel restrictions and establish a diplomatic presence there have been blocked by Congress. Meanwhile, normalization of relations is shaping up to be an issue in the 2016 presidential race.

H1000924-Food_ration_book,_Cuba-SPL“People who oppose ending the embargo because it will give a new funding source to the Castro brothers are absolutely right—it will,” Mahon says.“The question is whether the gamble is worth it [for Cuba]. Because, on the other side, once you’ve ended the embargo and you’ve opened up, the regime loses the argument that the reason that ‘Fulano’”— the Cuban equivalent of “John Doe”—“doesn’t have chicken on his ration book is all about the U.S. They won’t be able to say that anymore.”

Nor will an end to the embargo bring about an end to Cuba’s economic woes, Mahon says.

“Investment is sorely needed, even just everyday repairs and maintenance to capital stock and housing stock,” he says. “You have buildings falling down—something like one per week in central Havana.”

Says Perez Velazquez, “Havana looks like a city that went through a war, but, in this case, a war with time.” The buildings and the road, water, sewer, electrical and phone systems “haven’t been repaired for 65 years. No city can stand that without falling to pieces.”

On top of that, an invasive plant called marabu?, or sickle bush, is “taking over the countryside,” Mahon says. The spiny bean plant grows 20 feet tall, creating an “impenetrable thicket” that’s destroying agricul- tural land and is expensive to control, discouraging foreign investment.

Cuba can benefit from marketing its highly educated workforce, Montiel says. And there are other hopeful possibilities. Members of the New York delegation that visited in April are working on an agreement to allow a Buffalo, N.Y., cancer institute to bring a Cuban vaccine for lung cancer to the U.S. for clinical trials.

Still, it’s critical to alleviate Cuba’s economic woes, Perez Velazquez says. “Hospitals are in bad condition; patients need to bring their own sheets, pillows, clothes. It’s difficult for a patient to find a prescribed medicine.”

Says Mahon, “The idea that the U.S. embargo cripples Cuba at this point is a satisfying fiction for the Cuban regime and maybe some others. What’s hurting Cuba is its centrally planned economy.”

Deep Roots

SuperStock_1885-10718Perez Velazquez still has family and friends in Cuba and returns when she can. The first time was in 2002 as part of a Williams Winter Study class on Cuban music and dance.

“It was a challenging trip, due to the many restrictions and the lack of communication between the two countries,” she says. “But the students loved it and, after they returned to campus, continued practicing and performing the dances and music they learned.”

That trip was also the first time she’d seen her mother in a decade. Perez Velazquez grew up in Cienfuegos, a picturesque port city on the southern coast. Her mother’s father, Juan Vela?zquez, owned a convenience store and was devastated when it was declared state property after the revolution of 1959. Her parents, meanwhile, were of Castro’s generation and had worked to support the revolution.

“It’s interesting to grow up with different opinions in the same house,” says Perez Velazquez, who lived with her extended family. “That taught me a lot—how people should get along even if they think differently. Respect for each other has to be more important than political belief.”

Perez Velazquez also grew up with music in her home. Her grand- father befriended members of Orquesta Arago?n, a local charanga ensemble that caught the attention of RCA Records and other big labels in the U.S. Though not a musician himself, Vela?zquez was determined that his daughter would study music.

“My mother would play the piano, but just because he liked it,” Perez Velazquez says. “She would play in the afternoons. As soon as I could, I would jump on the piano. I started learning when I was 3.”

Musical training in Cuba was open to anyone who showed promise, so Perez Velazquez began music school at the age of 6.

“That was a positive result of the revolution,” she says. “In the U.S., for a kid to study music seriously, the parents need to have money to pay

for private lessons. Not in Cuba. I still think that’s a very positive way to do things.”

In ninth grade, she was selected in a national search to attend high school in Havana at La Escuela Nacional de Mu?sica. She won another competition to attend the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). That year, she says, the institute had room for only three pianists and one composer. She was chosen for both the piano and composition spots.

By the time she graduated in 1987, Perez Velazquez had reached the pinnacle of the state-managed musical meritocracy. She was interested in electroacoustic music, but Cuba offered no training in the field.

Then life took a sobering turn. Following the collapse of its patron state, the Soviet Union, Cuba entered what Castro dubbed El Peri?odo Especial en Tiempo de Paz—the Special Period in a Time of Peace. For most Cubans that meant hardship, hunger and breadlines—some- thing Perez Velazquez had never before experienced. Her rations were cut to three eggs and a small portion of beans each week, with less than a bottle of cooking oil per month. In a year and a half, she lost 30 pounds.

In 1991, she was participating in a music festival in Cuba when she met Jon Appleton, chair of the music department at Dartmouth and an electronic-music pioneer. He invited her to study at Dartmouth, but her requests for a student visa were repeatedly denied, both by Cuban officials reluctant to release a musical prodigy and by American officials who refused to admit a Cuban who wasn’t a political refugee.

She left Cuba for the first time in late 1992 to attend a composition workshop in Bogota?, Colombia, and—despite grumbling from her government—stayed on when the Universidad Nacional de Colombia offered her a professorship. Appleton met her in Bogota? and accompanied her to the U.S. Embassy, where she finally secured a travel visa. She went on to earn a Master of Art in electroacoustic music from Dartmouth and a Doctor of Musical Arts from Indiana University. She came to Williams in 2000 and, a year later, became a U.S. citizen.

Looking back, she says, “The entire situation was sad for me. I would never have done it if I had a choice. I wanted to learn things that weren’t  available to me at that time. And I learned so much that I’ve never regretted it. But it meant that I couldn’t go back to Cuba for a long time.” Keeping in touch with her family in Cuba was complicated. “They didn’t have a phone line at home, and letters would take several months to reach either way,” she says. “I found out that my grandmother had died by a letter that arrived two months later.”

Prior to her most recent trip to Cuba, with a Williams alumni group in 2012, Perez Velazquez tried to arrange a visit to the ISA. No one returned her emails. She later found out that her former colleagues and friends at the ISA couldn’t reply because the administration didn’t approve of her visit.

So she showed up unannounced, with the alumni in tow and a gift of orchestral chamber music, choral scores and compositions from the 20th century that were rare in Cuba. ISA then treated the group to a concert.

“It was a very emotional encounter,” she says. “To see such talented young students working with such limited resources, on an old Russian piano, out of tune. The building, so beautiful while I was a student there, had deteriorated tremendously. It was sad.”

An Enduring Identity

Both Montiel and Perez Velazquez have watched the consequences of U.S.-Cuba relations play out in their families’ lives and their own. But they also have a sense of the abiding values of a nation with a strong identity rooted in place and family.

“It was a given,” Montiel says, “every single Sunday, my family would go to my grandmother’s house and have the same meal—chicken with rice, very traditional—and fried plantains and flan for dessert. There was a big boulevard with a big park in the middle of it. The kids would play, and the grown-ups would sit around and chat. Then we would walk down to the bay, to a seaside drive called the Maleco?n.”

Similar traditions continue in Cuba and, for those who left, in Miami. “Cuba has almost been recreated in Miami,” Montiel says. “The music and the cuisine today are not that different from my childhood.”

His own three children have had “a lot of contact with their cousins and their grandmother. They love Cuban food.” One daughter has already visited Cuba, and the rest of his family is clamoring to go.

Though Montiel didn’t raise his children to be bilingual, “Later in life they all wanted to learn Spanish,” he says. “And we talk about [Cuba] a lot. It’s a little surprising to me. They see themselves as Cuban-American.”

Says Perez Velazquez, “Being Cuban has always influenced my work as a composer—in the harmonic language and in my rhythmically intricate, multi-layered textures, which are influenced by Afro-Cuban percussion. I tell my student composers at Williams to pay attention to the rhythm and texture in a way that is not encountered often in Western music.

“Living in Cuba, you are exposed to so much popular music all day long, everywhere you go,” she says. “Everybody plays drums or dances in the streets or has their windows open with the music loud. I had classical training in the conservatory, and I absorbed the popular side of it just living there, growing up in that environment.”

The enduring rhythms of life there, along with a fierce national pride, make Montiel skeptical that there will be an “Americanization” of Cuba if and when relations between the two countries improve.

After the revolution, both radicals and moderates had “a real con- cern for Cuban sovereignty,” he says. “Among the people who stayed in Cuba, there’s a real desire to protect what’s there. Rau?l Castro talks about negotiating in good faith with the U.S., as equals. That is a big, big deal for Cubans.

“I think there is going to be a lot of resistance to being overwhelmed as relations are restored,” he says. “There will be commercialization. There will be billboards and placelessness, I’m sure, in some parts of Cuba, and there will be McDonald’s. But there’s little chance that there will be a huge cultural revolution. … I just don’t see it changing—at least not in the short run.”

Abe Loomis is a freelance writer based in Western Massachusetts.