A Cuban Anthropologist’s Lapse

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez

Miguel Barnet. Photo: ahs.cu

Miguel Barnet, a prominent Cuban anthropologist, suffers lapses in memory from time to time. These are brief instants when he forgets important things. For example, he forgot the confidence and affinity that, in his works at least, he professes to have for the poor and the marginalized.

He forgets the reasons that compelled him to “write” one of the classic works of contemporary Cuban anthropology: Memorias de un cimarron (Memories of a Fugitive Slave).

Many of the works that Barnet has realized include, in one way or another, the issue of inequality and poverty in Cuba. From the very beginning of the revolution, Miguel Barnet was part of a community of intellectual youths who took to the streets to rescue and call attention to the lives of common people.

It was necessary to dignify the poor and the people as a whole, since they would be the main figures of the nascent transformations. He wrote about sugar mills, the cultures of various trades, the living richness of the poor and many other similar issues.

Yet there are now moments in which Miguel Barnet forgets the ethical significance of his work, and as a consequence of this forgetfulness he ends up “disengaging” from those who he used to defend. The innocents of before are looked upon as guilty today.

What’s being said here is more than a personal opinion. Barnet himself has recognized it in public (though he doesn’t talk about forgetfulness or his loss of memory). He speaks of “doubts,” of abysmal doubts that grow impatient in his soul.

But things of this nature don’t emerge in the form of wild screaming from the rooftop; their popularization demands some care. For example, they demand contexts that enjoy a certain intimacy.

One such context that fulfills this requirement is the seminar organized every so often by Catauro, a magazine that specializes in anthropological issues, and one that is edited by Miguel Barnet himself.

It was in one of those seminars that I had the unpleasant opportunity to hear Barnet reflect on that feeling of doubt that makes him question the dignity and legitimacy of poverty.

In this seminar Barnet posed an unexpected question to those in attendance. He requested his colleagues in the social sciences to help him to elucidate the causes that give rise to situations of extreme poverty in today’s Cuba.

Perhaps the real moment had arrived for Barnet to talk about the poverty that is suffered by those who are “incapable and lazy,” a poverty that the corrupt pre-revolutionary governments erroneously believed themselves to have discovered in Cuban society prior to 1959, and that only now, well into the 21st century, can we accurately diagnosis.

I remember, though not with complete precision, some of his comments in that seminar:

“But what have these people done over such a long time of the revolution?”

“Could it be a lack of capacity to avail themselves of the opportunities provided by the Cuban government?

“No, I can’t understand it as having been produced by the inefficiencies of the system…, these are lazy people, incapable people.”

“No, no – I don’t want to be a fascist! That’s why I need someone to remove these doubts: Why this type of poverty in Cuba, these people living in cardboard houses, in abandoned swimming pools, under porticos?”

Barnet was forgetting many things; that’s why the doubts began to flow. He forgot, for example, how the dismantlement of “Las Yaguas” was carried out, at the biggest slum in Cuba in those initial years of the revolution.

It was said that marginal neighborhoods like Las Yaguas were the results of the poor functioning of the pre-revolutionary politico-economic system. Protests were organized against attempts at mass eviction on the part of the government of that time. This was part of a noble struggle carried out by the residents against those eviction efforts.

The absence of policies and programs to address the demands of the Las Yaguas residents was also criticized. In addition, members of the Federation of University Students (FEU) undertook fundraising campaigns to help those residents subsist during those precarious times. Two ideas seemed to sum it all up: political corruption and hatred of the poor.

This was an outlook that formed a part of the ideology of the revolution. It implied recognizing poverty as a moral situation for the poor and as a direct consequence of the contradictions of underdeveloped capitalism.

It was seen as a phenomenon that would disappear with the development of the socialist revolution. Work around this was done on two fronts: the elimination of poverty and the generation of pride and self-respect among the poor as human beings. Barnet dedicated himself to that second task.

He proceeded along that path up until one day things began to change. They changed so much that now it’s Barnet himself is the one encouraging opinions that indirectly promote evictions from the current slum neighborhoods of the country.

In this way history is repeating itself. After 50 years of supposed revolution, hell is again populated with the poor and the excluded.

Meanwhile, Miguel Barnet enjoys his canonization in life, taking as his all the glory that he can accumulate while he remains alive, though at the price of distancing himself from the people and what was his world.

To blame the people it’s not necessary to be a fascist. All one has to do is to belong to that group of illustrious Cuban intellectuals who totalitarianism counts as its sympathizers, those fellow travellers and card-carrying members of the party, as one totalitarianism scholar would say.

If we were allowed to be condescending towards Barnet, we could say that his attitude is a consequence of either “artistic extravagance or professional naiveté.”

If these were times for demanding strict accountability, we would say that his complicity was a betrayal of the Cuban people at a time when the government — in exchange for loyalty to its totalitarianism — promotes fanatics desirous of social recognition.

Yenisel Rodriguez

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez: I have lived in Cuba my entire life, except for several months in 2013 when I was in Miami with my father. Despite the 90 miles that separate Havana and Miami, I find profound reasons in both for political and community activism. My encounter with socio-cultural anthropology eight years ago prepared me for a commitment of love for cultural diversity.

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