[13 January 2009]
Fifty years ago, on 1 January 1959, the three month offensive by the Castro led rebel forces against Cuba’s dictatorial president, General Fulgencio Batista, succeeded. Deposed, Batista fled the island for the Dominican Republic ending Cuba’s flirtation with international capitalism, which, though it had brought wealth had vastly widened the gap between rich and poor. Reflecting on events three years later, activist, academic, and author of Pichón: Race and Revolution in Castro’s Cuba, Carlos Moore, observed, “I loved the revolution, but I had lost faith in the regime.”
And well he might. Clashing for the second time with the revolutionary authorities, he faced an indefinite stretch of hard labour on the sugar plantations, punishment for his condemnation of the racism embedded in the new government. But we are jumping ahead of ourselves. As much travelogue and socio-political observation as it is memoir, Carlos Moore’s Pichón tells, in grippingly erudite text, how a boy who grew up in the Cuban backwater town of Central Lugareño became one of the leading theorists and commentators on race in Cuba and internationally; and unashamedly stuck his neck out to do so.
We start, then, in the late 1940s Central Lugareño of Moore’s infancy. An unremarkable town which, in the book’s first sentence, Moore dryly notes that he “hated.” From a poor family of Jamaican decent, it was only his father’s standing in the community which prevented Carlos’ particularly dark skin and African features from becoming a source of overt prejudice in the predominantly Hispanic society. Set apart from his siblings by skin tone and hair type, schoolmates and adults alike would remark upon his status as the family’s “negrito.” When compounded with the Jamaican roots, however, and Carlos became to some, in the words of his young next door neighbour, the lowest of the low, a “pichón.” The term was first used by poor Hispanics toward the Haitians who arrived, starving, on the island in the late 1920s fleeing economic destitution at home. The Haitians, so impoverished they could barely afford food, were said to eat their own people. Thus, the insult alluded to the supposed cannibalism and savagery which could be distinguished in a marked racial group. Moore’s first awareness of his body was, then, an awareness of its difference, of the racialised signs it carried.
In the turmoil preceding the revolution, Moore and his family escaped to the United States. A teenager, now living in a Brooklyn ghetto, Moore attended the local high school where he attracted the attention of his English teacher. Invited to a meeting of black intellectuals, he was pointed in the direction of Harlem’s National Memorial African Bookstore. He also happened upon the bohemian hangouts of New York’s Lower East Side, where sex, communism, and Cuban solidarity, became uneasily entwined. Unafraid of voicing his opinions, and with a determined ability to make connections with the people who mattered, Moore soon found himself at the front line of black left wing politics, working for the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s UN mission, and speaking on a soapbox on Harlem street corners. He soon caught the attention of the FBI. Moore’s memories of events are illuminated by clippings from the file held on him by the American security agencies who had, it seemed, been keeping tabs on almost everything he was doing. Astonishingly, though Moore notes this only in passing, these events were taking place while he was still enrolled, and attending classes at, high school. Moore achieved more before his 18th birthday, than many fit into a lifetime.
By the age of 19 he was resolute. “I no longer had any illusions about American imperialism,” he notes, “I deemed myself to be at war with the United States on several fronts.” Meeting Castro, if only for a few brief seconds on his visit to the New York City following Cuba’s Bay of Pigs invasion, Moore decided he would abandon the United States, rife with racism and imperialism, for the social and racial equality he expected to find in the country of his birth. The reality was rather different. Cuba might have a socialist leadership, but this did not necessarily equate to the effacing of racial inequalities. Questioning this with the upper echelons of the leadership, nearly cost him his life. “To most, the Revolution was Fidel,” Moore remarks, “but I had lost that unquestioning conviction in his politics and his ideology. I had been too close to the top and it smelled rank.”
Moore’s text is refreshing. Fifty years after the revolution, Cuban politics is something about which most people have an opinion, but with little empirical grounding. Thus, Cuba has become in discussion little more than a metonym for pro- and anti-socialist dogma. Through Moore’s writing, we are offered a personal context through which to interpret the ins and outs of the island’s politics. Moore’s memoir shows him to be an exemplar of a relevant academic. His theorisations on race come, not from pipe-and-slippers ruminations in a plush university common room, but from a lived experience of injustice. Finally, his text makes thrilling reading. As a scholar, Moore’s work has received great acclaim, and as an activist his influence has been similarly widespread. With the Cuban revolution’s 50th anniversary eliciting a huge range of books, this offers a little more than most.