Since The Obamas (And Assorted Others) Are In Cuba…

Photo: Reuters

…good a time as any to get into some basics. Yeah, there’s already the overdose of “historic importance of this visit” and “new era in relations” (though to be reminded that the last Prez in Havana was Calvin Coolidge in 1928!) (which meant my Cuban-born grandfather was reading about it in New York when he was 25; see PALOMINO AND CUBA AND TUSKEGEE segment from article below)

And yes there are “normalization” issues to discuss and “business” items to pre-set. With not much room for more on the agenda. The baseball game. The address on television. Dinners…a stroll or two through those streets…those cars…

I traveled there with a group of radiojournalists. Almost 35 years ago. We were asked to bring samples of our work. At the time I had an afternoon drive talk show on WLIB. With a heavily Black, Latino, and Caribbean audience. A couple of days after giving the Cubans the tapes, a small group of our handlers came over. By that time they learned my mother’s father was Cuban; and took to calling me by her surname. Oye Palomino! One or two also knew I had been a leader of the Young Lords Party. So that I was a bit crazy was no surprise.


“On the tape, you made fun of El Presidente Reagan?” It was more like a subdued statement than a question. “Yes?” I answered. “There was a state dinner and they were hosting the French President. And served macaroni and cheese.” “But — — you laughed at him! On the radio!” “Maybe the French President LOVES macaroni and cheese. But this is also a man who knows food. Serving macaroni and cheese at a State dinner was laughable. And to my audience, who were given processed cheese by the government as a bad substitute for real food, it was a pathetic reminder.”

Pero — — the secret police. The FBI. Weren’t you afraid of ‘the knock on the door’?”

“I had already been locked up in Federal Prison por mi politica’ when I was 22. I had been watched and targeted by the FBI, the NYPD, the Secret Service, and every branch of the military since I was 19. Que se joda! Lock me up for sarcasm and every person who gives a damn will shout. But, in my country, I still had rights. I wasn’t saying kill this President. I said, Laugh at the pendejo.

“No, in the United States, I wasn’t afraid. I had already been to prison. I knew what it looked like. What it felt like.”

(If Trump wins, we’ll revisit this)

“I know it’s way different here. To speak out. Someday soon, maybe…”

They looked at me in amazement.

I wasn’t feeling bold. Just sad. Cuba had been an inspiration. It was also in my blood. Separated by fate, the culture and rhythms and history and sensibility vibrated in me thanks to a strong grandfather, and a wealth of interaction on the Cuban side as a kid. Filtered obviously through the diaspora. But like everything else, there must always be room to grow. Too much in Cuba had…stagnated.


(Left to Right:; eBay;

Michelle, Malia, and Sasha should at least check out a taste of Afro-Cuban culture. See where some of the slave ships that left Africa landed. Visit folks that have kept the spirit of the diaspora vividly alive. Hear the chants and drumming. Let your body sway a bit. Heck, Michelle, show off a mambo. And wow los Cubanos. It will beat anything you can say in Spanish.

Stop and walk along El Malécon, a splendid seaside boulevard. See if the government has let young people hang out as they usually do unless an American President is visiting and all that youth has been cleared, and let Sasha and Malia talk fashion and music with their peers. They will be surprised at what young Cubans find popular and what’s not. And by how much they know. Even in this semi-closed off society. It might be too much to hope, even in this fantasy, for spontaneous exchanges of hopes and frustrations. But that is where a real “normalization” would begin.

I know when I was there, I was blown away. Young people were getting new music from Florida and Jamaican radio. DVDs from crew members off cargo ships. Even MTV bootlegs circulated by Party insiders with access.

Though the itinerary is tight and was planned in advance, and the President seems to want to squeeze in the priority of meeting with “dissidents.” To know Cubans the Obamas need to get hit with a blast of Afro-Cuban. And not just in some staged “folkloric” presentation (though that’s better than nothing). They must feel those rhythms that survived The Crossing. Survived the Spanish conquisatdores. Survived American battleships and “expeditionary forces.” Survived Batista. Survived the damned Soviets. And begin to understand the life force inside Cuban people. That spirit which figures out how to invent car parts. How to still have hope. For a better day.


So many musical choices I could share with you. Beny Moré. Machito Mario Bauzá Graciela. Bébo. Irakere.

But, though recorded in 1968 in New York City, you can’t get a better example of Cuban “roots” music than this track. “Ya Yo E” from the legendary album Patato & Totico. One of those “desert island” treasures. This is the sort of thing I grew up hearing many of the original musicians play while jamming at my grandparents’ house in El Barrio. As they swam in burnished memories of very late nights creating music outside under stars and balconies in the callejons of Santiago de Cuba and La Habana. Juan “Curba” Dreke is on lead vocal here; opening for about 46 seconds with a dialect that’s a Spanish — Yoruba hybrid, Lucumi. Then Carlos “Patato” Valdez comes in on lead conga. Eugenio “Totico” Arango and Virgilio Marti are also on vocals. And among the musicians are Arsenio Rodriguez, tres guitar. And Israel “Cachao” Lopez on bass. In the worlds of Latin and jazz, each of those names might be said with a bowing of the head. They are all in the pantheon of Greatness.

What the heck. Here’s another. “Que Linda Va.” So you can catch Arsenio.


Listen to the unique sound Arsenio gets from his trés. Six strings. Three tones. Three pairs. His development of the son montuno leads to his claim that he “invented” the mambo. And he’s got an argument. Homeboy was blind. And sure could cook.


NBC Screengrab (ibtimes uk)

A battalion of business honchos and the politicians who facilitate them also landed in Cuba. The Cuban people may wind up longing for Marines instead. But, that’s for another debate. Here I just want to mention a fear about this trip that has tightened around the neck of a little-mentioned group of Americans: Puerto Ricans. In Puerto Rico.

For years, going back three decades and getting louder since, Puerto Ricans on the island have told me they were nervous about the day when Cuba and the U.S. resume relations. Because U.S. business will flock to Cuba, they say; and leave Puerto Rico.

“We will be left adrift,” I was told, “not a state and not independent.” “Cuba will be sexy and new. We will be last year’s fashion.”

Already Puerto Rico is in economic crisis. The so-called “leadership” has been and is pathetic. U.S. business and its politicians have gotten what it wanted. This is one reason why many voters have moved from the present “commonwealth” status to statehood. “At least, SOME protection.”

Ain’t gonna happen. Three million mostly poor people of color who lean Democratic?

But the United States of America does have a debt to Puerto Rico. I don’t believe in playing a blame game. There is no getting around the role of the U.S. in creating Puerto Rico’s mess. It cannot now walk away and say “Cuba, baby! You lookin’ good, comrade! Hey we’ll help you turn that Varadero Beach into a prime resort destination. Heard you got some oil offshore. You like Hollywood? No, new casinos doesn’t necessarily mean the Mafia is coming back. All those doctors and trained professionals who’ve had nowhere to grow? Have you met the people from our pharmaceutical and tech companies?”

Mr. President. You will not be in office as these gears turn. It will all be someone else’s “problem.” But you must at least launch a warning about losing Puerto Rico. And exploiting Cuba. Even as a clique there may seem to welcome it. Even as big business here drools.

Unless you want to visit each island in ten years. And cry.

Que te váya bíen.

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