The White Males of Cuba’s New Bills

Dmitri Prieto Samsónov

HAVANA TIMES — We had been waiting for the new bills for months. As the Cuban Central Bank had clearly explained at one point, when “working class pesos” (Cuban pesos or CUP) began to be accepted at stores that sold products in “foreign pesos” or “remittance money” (Cuban Convertible Pesos or CUC), both customers and cashiers ran into the problem of having to handle great volumes of cash. There were no peso notes with denominations large enough to make these transactions simpler – the largest existing denomination was of 100 CUP, a little less than 5 dollars or CUC. Buying a TV or microwave oven using these bills was becoming a true ordeal.

The new money has already been put into circulation. The new paper notes are decorated with the faces of Julio Antonio Mella (1920s student leader and founder of the Cuban Communist Party), Ignacio Agramonte (one of the initiators of Cuba’s first war against Spanish colonialism and co-author of the first Constitution of the Republic in Arms) and Abel Santamaria (second-in-command of the movement that led the attack on the Moncada and Bayamo garrisons in 1953).

The back of the bills show depictions that evoke the personalities on the other side: the University of Havana, the Guaimaro Assembly, where Cuba’s 1869 constitution was approved, and the Moncada Garrison, respectively.

I have a feeling I will never earn a salary in those higher denominations bills.

But I’ll be focusing on something else right now.

Last year, my friend, filmmaker Yaima Pardo, brought to my attention how Cuban bills only showed men of war, and how the only black person that appeared on our bills (the 5 peso note) was General Antonio Maceo, known in Cuba as the “Bronze Titan.”

Some denominations (including the new ones) also show the face of revolutionary Celia Sanchez, but she is visible only if the bill is held against the light – it is a watermark used to prevent counterfeiting. “The only woman printed on Cuban money has been made invisible, and one has to make an effort to make out her face,” Yaima was saying to me then.

At the time, Yaima and I had dreamt up new bills, but the bank got ahead of us. I do not in any way question the merits of the men whose evocation will accompany the commercial exchange of cash from now on. The three are great heroes and intellectuals who gave their lives for Cuba.

But what of Mariana Grajales, a black woman, the mother of Maceo? What of Jose Antonio Aponte, an African-Cuban who set in motion of the conspiracies of 1810, the first to bring whites, blacks and people of mixed race together in a popular insurrection calling for an independent Cuba? What of Dulce Maria Loynaz, who probably never held a weapon in her hands but who, the daughter of an 1895 war general, was a renowned poet and Cervantes Award-laureate and, most importantly, maintained the Cuban Humanities Academy operating in her aristocratic Havana mansion during the extremely hard years of Cuba’s controversial post-revolutionary cultural policies?

Why don’t our bills show the faces of poets Jose Lezama Lima and Jose Maria Heredia, who was also a government representative in Mexico, where he lived, banished by Spanish authorities, and wrote the first text recounting the history of Latin America that we know of?

Why not Carlota, a black Cuban woman whose name was used by Cuba’s military operation in Angola? What about Lydia Cabrera, the renowned ethnographer who “co-discovered” (if something that was always there to begin with can be “discovered”) Afro-Cuban mythologies and left for Miami (the place of her death) after 1959?

Why not Severo Sarduy, another figure who emigrated following the revolution of 1959, a gay essasyist who took part in the French post-structuralist movement?

There are far too many names of this nature. Even though I believe that money should one day cease to exist, I cannot help notice the biased nature of our current bills.

Are we to believe that a country is forged by white warriors alone?

Cuba’s Central Bank has lost a formidable opportunity to reaffirm this real (and widely ignored) diversity, the diversity that is invoked again and again by the mainstream media in Cuba today.

One thought on “The White Males of Cuba’s New Bills

  • for me is kind of reasonable that in a regime like ours, people devoted to fight for the independence and freedom appear on our bills rather than poets. I could agree about Mariana Grajales but her son (who was more notorious) is in there and it could be seen as repetitive. The people you mentioned are not insignificant at all but they are not even in our school books, or they are briefly mentioned. So I think selecting the most notorious ones, at least from current government perspective, is not totally unreasonable. For example: I asked some colleagues if they knew who Carlota or Lydia Cabrera were and none of us knew. So Dmitri, despite the fact you are half Cuban, I can assure you, you know more about Cuba than most of Cuban people. So maybe they just choose the ones every body knows without any intention of racial or gender discrimination

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