January 16, 2009

Cuba Reflections by Donald W. Bray and Marjorie Woodford Bray

Cuba Reflections
by Donald W. Bray and Marjorie Woodford Bray 

Donald W. Bray and Marjorie Woodford Bray teach at California State University, Los Angeles, and are coordinating editors of Latin American Perspectives

Our admiration for the Cuban Revolution and support and concern for its success go way back, and the Cubans’ transformation of their country into a nation of social justice and equality has inspired our teaching and informed our lives.
When the Cuban Revolution took power at the end of 1958 we were at Stanford University in the Hispanic-American and Luso-Brazilian Studies Program. The program published the monthly Latin American Report, an important source of information in the era before business newsletters were available. Of course we all followed the events in Cuba with great excitement. Following a year of research in Chile, Don Bray stopped in Cuba on his way back to the United States, taking one of the last U.S. commercial flights into that country in 1960. Cuba was then still searching for an effective path to transformation. A new day had come, and change was happening all around, but what system would replace prerevolutionary society?

When we returned to Stanford, everyone in the program knew about the impending invasion of Cuba, and the director, Ronald Hilton, had discovered that preparations for the onslaught were under way in Retalhuleu, Guatemala. The Report published this information in its Cuba section. Journalists at the Miami Herald told us that similar training was going on in Florida but that they could not publish it, and that information also appeared in the pages of the Report. At the same time Don and the graduate student who wrote the Cuba section, Ray Higgins, were briefing C. Wright Mills for a national television debate with A. A. Berle over Kennedy’s Cuban policy. It promised to draw attention to the fact that there was another side to the controversy that was not being heard. Mills was a dynamic speaker who could have made a substantial impact on people’s thinking. On the night of the debate we turned on our set with great anticipation only to hear that Mills had suffered a heart attack and his place was being taken by a congressman who had no clue about what Mills had planned to say. After the invasion Higgins was illegally interrogated at his residence on campus by the CIA. He never told us what happened, but he was shaken and soon left graduate school. The upshot of Hilton’s courageous willingness to expose the invasion plans was that, as a condition for a Ford Foundation grant, Stanford had to abolish the program that he had created. In 1968, Don Bray, Timothy Harding, and S. Dorothy Fox visited Cuba as the first U.S. academics to travel to the island in years. Their success in reaching Cuba was the result of a Byzantine bureaucratic process that included locating an unmarked office in a Mexican government building and entering to find an empty room with a door with a sign that said “Do Not Knock.” That door ultimately led to an official called “El Doctor” who was master of the enabling stamp and pleased that someone had finally asked him to use it. This secret procedure had been unearthed by fellow Stanford graduate, Larry Pippin, who then did not have time left to test the information.

In Cuba, Harding and Bray were provided with a car, guide, and driver who took them to every place they requested to see. Their guide encouraged them to use every morning, afternoon, and evening to visit factories, refineries, farms, schools, hospitals, and meetings of unions, block committees, and other organizations. They also planted coffee trees with other volunteer laborers. A young woman in her twenties ran a giant cement complex, and another youth ran the largest agricultural experimental operation. When they returned to Cal State University, Los Angeles, where they now both taught, they were able to tell their classes firsthand how Cuba was being transformed. They also spoke at many venues in Southern California, sharing this knowledge. In several instances they were heckled and assaulted by a band of Cuban exiles under the command of “Comandante Duarte,” a residual part of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTEL Program. Scheduled appearances by Bray led to two burnings of the legendary folk music site the Ashgrove. The second arson caused its permanent closing. When a waitress who had witnessed the second attack saw one of the perpetrators on the street, she had a policeman arrest him, but a judge dismissed the charges. The primary place where the Chicano movement originated in Southern California was Cal State LA. Most of its founders studied Latin American history and politics. They were aware of and inspired by the Cuban Revolution. During the 1970s we watched from afar as the Cuban Revolution persevered despite the constant efforts of U.S. leaders to undermine the process.We taught and wrote about Cuban solidarity with the rest of the world, especially its momentous actions in Africa, helping to stop the army of South Africa in Angola and setting in motion events that would lead to the liberation of Namibia and the end of apartheid. By the 1980s we could visit again and personally observe the progress that Cubans were making in local democracy and the rectification campaign. During this time Marjorie Bray was one of the editors of Latin American Perspectives who traveled to Cuba to arrange for the publication of articles by Cubans in a special issue of the journal. Then came the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the challenges of the Special Period. Despite the terrible sacrifice forced upon the Cuban people by the abrupt curtailment of Cuban trade, the revolution survived and recovery began. Once again the Cuban leadership showed its capacity for pragmatic response while maintaining socialism against all odds. We were able to share with our students the truth about this tenacious people, contradicting the disinformation that filled the statements of U.S. officials and the media. Finally, in 1999 came the opportunity we had been waiting for. With the help of Saul Landau, who was teaching at Cal Poly, Pomona, Cuban scholars came to our campuses to speak to our students about Cuba, and the following spring we took six students to Cuba. We continued for five years taking large groups to Havana, the latter groups under the hospitality of the Cuban Movement for Peace. This was a life-altering experience for these students. Among the first group, one earned a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, specializing in Cuban history, and is now teaching at Central Florida University. Another is finishing his Ph.D. in history at Indiana, another teaches Central American studies at California State University, Northridge, and two helped start a nongovernmental organization to help immigrants in Los Angeles. Many from later groups became teachers. For us it was wonderful opportunity to forge relationships with Cuban scholars who came to include Soraya Castro, Marta Nuñez, Ricardo Nuñez, Carlos Alzugaray, Pedro Monreal, Julio Carranza, and Manuel Yepe, to name but a few. Although our university had a site license for travel to Cuba, each year the arrangements for the trip became more difficult. In 2004, new rule changes by President George W. Bush made it impossible to continue. We hope that educational travel to Cuba will resume under the Barack Obama administration. The Cuban Revolution has energized our pedagogy. Since the 1960s many of the efforts by Latin Americans to overcome social and economic problems have come to grief as a result of the actions of the United States. It has been our lot to expose these actions. Often, our assertions have been met by disbelief or doubt or even contempt by our uninformed colleagues. The fact that we have been proven right is rarely acknowledged. But we have been heard by our students, and the stalwart survival of the Cuban Revolution has allowed us to convey to them a message of hope that a better world is possible and worth struggling for.

Issue 164, Vol. 36 No. 1,
January 2009 124-126
DOI: 10.1177/0094582X08329176
© 2009 Latin American Perspectives

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