On election night 2008, I am in the fancy Hotel Rivera on the Malecon in Havana Cuba.
There we are, a group of us from Brown and a group from Harvard, watching our election on CNN in English from a bar in a hotel where my own brothers would not be able to enter, would not be able to get a room or eat a meal with me because of the segregation between locals and tourists. And very much because of the color of their skin.
The room is filled with cigar smoke. I light a cigarette, enjoy the luxury of indoor smoking, and sip coffee. I am sitting with our faculty advisor, who is Cuban, and his childhood friend, Evelyn.
Three talking heads appear on the screen, sitting together at one table, each with a laptop in front of them.
“Yo no se pa’ que cada uno de ellos tiene una computadora si están haciendo la misma mierda” . (I don’t know why each of them has a computer if they’re doing the same shit). Evelyn laughs. “You say things like a Cuban, but with this Spanish accent, it’s so funny, so precious.”
That’s me. The Cuban/Gringa, the one who can have the expressions without the accent. The bloodline without the skin tone. The fascination without the experience. I live in the distance, my soul somewhere trapped between those 90 miles of shark ridden waters, in the in-betweens, always just short of arriving.
Obama, a Black man, wins.
The white students cheer and hug. The sistahs cry. One sistah from Harvard practically falls to her knees. The bartender cheers. My advisor cries. His friend cries.
And there I am, sitting in my own cloud of smoke, in the solitude of radical principle.
I fully understand the significance of this moment. And his speech… his speech was moving. It was. But I cannot be moved to cheer or cry. Fall just short of arriving.
“I hope one day, we can have an election like this here in Cuba.”
My head spins.
An election. Democracy.
What does it all mean at the end of the day? Does it mean people will eat? Does it mean the jails would be freed? Does it mean the wars will stop? Does it mean the mining, extraction, rape and pillage of our Mother Earth will stop? Will it stop all the lynchings? Will the state ever stop lynching? Will democracy do that? Here it has not. In Cuba? Will it?
Democracy as we know it in this country, in this hemisphere, is rooted in plantation slavery and the colonization of this land. All of it. Its roots are bloodshed, burned villages, maimed bodies, sharks.
I can’t help but feel elections are distractions.
Let me be clear. I was not jaded. I was awakening.
I arrived in Havana in late August, as part of a program with Brown University and Casa de Las Américas. I was ecstatic. Not only to be able to study at Casa, but also to be just two hours away from my brother and my extended family, whom I had met only three times in my life previous to that semester.
Being there then also meant I would miss the US Presidential election, which I was very happy to miss. But I soon found myself inundated with that conversation from all angles: from the American students I was living with, from my family and friends in Matanzas, even absolute strangers, who realized I was a gringa as soon as they saw me, and would strike up conversation on the street.
I had expected and anticipated the reaction from my fellow classmates. “What! You aren’t going to vote!?! But why?!” This was in so many ways our generation’s election, our first great stamp on the course of US history, and I wanted nothing to do with it. As an anarchist, and an abolitionist, I was not going to vote in a US presidential race. I had heard it before, the “people died so you could vote” comments, the liberal gaze of disgust. Do not get me wrong, I fully understood the significance of voting into office the first Black President of the United States. My mother grew up during Jim Crow. But I have long understood the state to be the force that had kept me away from my family for decades (via the Cuban Embargo)– that on top of our history as a colonial enterprise, and I wasn’t buying in. Black or not, he was still vying to be an Emperor, and Black or not, I wasn’t gonna just drink the Kool-Aid. Artificial flavor, like drones, will kill you.
But then there were all the unexpected emotions, the difficulty that ensued when I spoke with my Afro-Cuban family about Obama. “Obama”, they’d say, placing their index finger to their opposite forearm, a motion that signals ‘race’ — “he might help us, he might lift the embargo, don’t you think?”
I don’t remember exactly how I had responded then, but it was probably something along the lines of, “I don’t know… I don’t believe anyone, regardless of who they are, will lift the blockade any time soon.” I could see the confusion, the pain, the drop in smile lines. I was being honest, but their reactions were visceral, and I didn’t know what I could do or say to escape from those moments, to restore their Hope in Obama, which I saw was a Hope in something much bigger. Cubans know Hope all to well. They fought and won a revolution against American Empire and have stood strong for over fifty years. Over fifty years! On the flip, my brothers and sistahs in Cuba have been living under the thumb of a white Cuban dictator who speaks highly of racial equality and solidarity abroad but doesn’t engage with it for everyday folks, including my family. I saw there in their faces that the Hope in the first Black leader of America had little to do with the US. It was much bigger in that. It was a sincere Hope in Blackness. In the potential of Solidarity Amongst Brothers. A Hope that a shared legacy of slavery would foster an inevitable unity. But Hope, they, we knew, is a fickle friend indeed. And it would soon be clear that this notion of solidarity, this Black Face, was the mask US Empire needed most.
Their faces at my disgust, combined with watching sistahs cry on Election night in Cuba, at a hotel that their English words and US citizenship meant the difference between us inside and us outside the hotel… left me with a sinking resolve, and a desire to somehow, tap into that moment.
Being a radical during an election can either be isolating or invigorating. That night, I chose the latter. From our residency, I wrote a letter to friends and comrades back home. In closing, I said,
“People are feeling up, they are feeling empowered, they are feeling capable and excited to build and create. So tomorrow, when you talk to people, ask them what they want to see come about in the world, ask them what they want to change, and ask them what they plan to do in their own communities and families to make that happen. We cannot hide under our blankets of cynicism and wait for the revolution to come…Smile with them, learn from them, and listen.”
Now, here we are again, four years later. But it is not the same old song and dance. US multicultural (racist) hegemony has made great strides thanks to President Obama. He has single handedly helped the national discourse on race be less and less about ideological and institutional white supremacy and more and more about identity politics than perhaps any other person in our history. This is not an “elect our first Black president” election. So what does that mean? It means we have to really examine our desire to keep him, (or this system in general) in power.
Yes Obama is an amazing orator, and yes, he is captivating. And yes, he has some background as a community organizer, which is rare for people who hold any type of political office. But it was clear early on that Obama would throw his own people under the bus in order to get elected. Remember Jeremiah Wright? Remember when Obama said there were no people more oppressed in the world than the Palestinian people? Right, my point exactly. ‘Coz he said that shit when he ran back in 2008, and never said it again. Look. Reality is, that he may be Black, but as the President of the US, he is an Emperor. And no one should stand behind US Empire.
When I returned from Cuba in December 2008, Providence was almost completely boarded up. With so many foreclosures, and the winter icy air, my small but vibrant city felt like a desert town. Meanwhile drilling for natural gas began to threaten the Northeast. Then the Zionists massacred thousands of people in Gaza. We all watched Obama keep his mouth shut. The economy tanked. It was impossible to find a job. School loans built up. People were homeless. There were tent cities and evictions. Then Haiti. Then the BP Oil spill. The Arab Spring. Fukushima. Occupy. Gaddafi’s assassination.
A lot has happened over the past four years. Life, has happened. And US Empire has begun to wobble its way downward, thrashing about crushing everything in its path, taking the very lifeblood out of the earth in its way to its loud, violent, death.
Let us not forget Guantanamo. Let us not forget the Mexican Border wall. Let is not forget Palestine. Iraq. Afghanistan. Libya. Let us not forget drones. And let us not forget the horrors of the machine back home. More incarcerated persons than any country on the planet. Coal. Oil. And now Natural Gas. People are dying because of this country and its policies every single day.
Yes, Romney is an overt racist, sexist, homophobe. He has no concept of unemployed, underemployed, working people’s lives. His “binders full of women” comment will go down in history as one of the stupidest comments ever made. And his body language is straight off the plantation, with his inner monologue all sorts of exposed. “Shut up Negro. I’ll put you back in chains Nigger, before you can mispronounce Univisión.”
Yes, even I want Obama to clock Romney’s ass. Yeah right. Let someone like Fidel be told he’d “have his turn when I’m done talking,” That shit would have been ova! Fidel would still be going off.
But reality is, Obama does not challenge US embedded racist logic any more than Romney does. Last week, he spoke of undocumented youth, saying, “We will go after the criminals, the gang-bangers, not the students.” The very labels he uses to describe us are based in white supremacist logic. The criminals versus the intellectuals. Pure Eugenics. Both agreed last week that family and schools would change the “the culture of violence”. This was their shared answer to a question about automatic war machines being made available to the public, a question that was in obvious reference to a white man who ordered automatic weapons on-line and then shot up a movie theatre. (He of course is now deemed mentally ill. Because white folks who kill people must have something wrong with them, because that’s just not what white people do. Ignore 500 years of colonization, slavery, industrialization, sterilization, eugenics, gas chambers, and drones, please). To revert that conversation to be one about the ghetto is just plain old racist. But that is the point: as the President of the United States, you must protect white violence at any cost, by whatever means necessary.
I could go on about their shared views but I won’t. What I will say is this-
Four years ago, after watching Obama win the election, I wrote a letter to friends and comrades in order to find means of connecting with my own people. I was Hoping for movement times.
Four years later, my Hope is that people have been able to see the forest for the trees.
I now have a beautiful daughter. I am thinking of her future. I cannot vote for someone who will keep abortion rights but support gas drilling, which is a practice known to harm the reproductive system and cause miscarriage, birth defects, and death. I will not support anyone who believes in the extraction, mining, and rape and pillage of our Mother Earth. I will not support anyone who wants to lock my people away. I will not support someone who bombs other women’s children. I will not.
Election Day is fast approaching. If you are voting, whomever you plan to vote for, please think about that. Please think about what it means to vote for persons responsible or to-be-responsible for bombing other people’s children. Is it worth it?
Remember the Arab Spring. Remember Occupy. Remember Chile. Spain. Greece.
We no longer need to Hope for movement times.