Interview: Dr. Denise Blum

Dr. Denise Blum is Associate Professor in the Department of Education at Oklahoma State University. An educational anthropologist who has been conducting research in the Republic of Cuba since 1995, Dr. Blum received a Wenner-Gren Conference & Workshop Grant to organize ‘Rethinking Public Anthropology through Epistemic Politics and Practice’ at the Hotel Habana Riviera in Havana, Cuba, in collaboration with Rodrigo Espina Prieto and Rosalin Bayona Mojena of the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research. We spoke to Dr. Blum to learn more about this unprecedented collaborative project.

 

Could you talk a little about how this project first got underway? What goals were you hoping to accomplish?

In November 2014 I was on sabbatical in Cuba, doing follow up research about my initial research with 9th graders in 1999 now as 30 year olds to see how their lives had played out. Did they fulfill their aspirations of their high school years? What correspondence did their schooling have with their current employment and quality of life?

I was invited by the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research in Havana to collaborate and receive mentorship on my current project during my sabbatical.

During this time I initiated a conversation with my mentor, the Associate Director of the Institute, about the possibility of applying for a Wenner-Gren grant to bring an anthropology workshop to Havana.

It must be understood that, first of all, no one in Cuba has a Ph.D. in Anthropology, unless they were able to leave the country to obtain it. The discipline of anthropology was eliminated from The University of Havana at the beginning of the Revolution and did not rear its head again until the mid 2000s.  A course in anthropology may serve those in the natural sciences now, who pursue a career in archeology, forensics or health care.  A master’s degree in anthropology was recently created in 2008 and so far two selected cohorts have been able to pursue it——again for the same types of careers aforementioned. Therefore, the career as an anthropologist still does not exist in Cuba.

With this problematic and the desire to collaborate with the United States on this grant, we thought it to be most practical to focus the workshop on applied and activist anthropology. Regardless of recent changes, the Cuban government and society feel strongly about goals of social justice. Anthropological fieldwork, in general, does not always serve this purpose. Therefore, this way we could assure to serve Cuban interests the most, considering differing ideologies and politics, and bring focus to the workshop.

To be efficient with our time together, I advocated for the invited participants to be all Spanish-speaking.

 

How many of the non-Cuban participants had prior experience with the country? 

Surprisingly, out of the 13 participants, only 5 participants had visited the country previously.

 

What were some of the challenges of hosting a workshop in Havana? 

I assumed that all of the Latin American participants would not have any challenges while in Cuba. One really difficult situation is money.  A participant from Brazil called me at 11pm at the hotel and told me that the airport “Cadeca,” or money exchange, would not change her reales and asked me that if she got a taxi to the hotel ($20 USD equivalent) would I be able to pay for it. I agreed and fortunately all of us had enough extra money to pool our funds during the entire time to cover her expenses because nowhere in Havana (banks included) would they change her reales nor could she withdraw money on her bank or credit card.

For others, they brought some cash, thinking they could put many of their expenses on credit card. Very few places take a credit card: typically only hotels and very expensive stores. So people did ask to borrow money from me, and I was glad that I had extra cash. In addition, everything is much more expensive than you can imagine; oftentimes you would pay more than in the United States for the same item.  For example, at a restaurant, it might be difficult to pay less than $10 USD for a sandwich and drink. You have to really know Cuba to find the restaurants in Cuban pesos; then your meal might cost the equivalent of $5 USD.

For clarification, there are two currencies in use in Cuba: CUCs and the Cuban peso. The CUC, or convertible peso, has been in use since 1994, when it was treated as equivalent to the U.S. dollar. Officially exchangeable only within the country, its value is $1USD and is the more dominant of the two, especially for tourists.  The Cuban peso is valued at 22 Cuban pesos to the US dollar and is typically used by Cubans to obtain the limited goods that the Cuban government offers at the bodega, where the ration booklet is in effect, but staples are limited. Most Cubans earn salaries in Cuban pesos (average Cuban salary varies between $20-$30 a month), as they work for the state. They must convert these pesos to CUCs to buy almost everything they need, which are at prices equivalent to stores in the US, take for example, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, etc.

Definitely the most difficult situation for me was the money. I have been traveling to and doing research in Cuba for 20 years and am very resourceful and well networked, but I had never done a workshop before and this brought a couple of major challenges.

First, I was dealing with the logistics with a Cuban scholar who did not have a phone, not to mention internet for Skype. She typically used a pay phone on the street when making phone calls to anyone in Havana or she called from the phone at the research institute. However, neither place is equipped (because others need to use the phone too) to deal with lengthy phone calls (more than 5-10 minutes). This entire workshop was planned via email without ever talking to my contacts in Cuba—-hundreds (if not thousands) of emails Cuba-US. So many details and frequently there were misunderstandings. In addition, I had to communicate with the other 12 participants (3 from the US and 9 from Latin America), organize passport information and information for a Cuban visas, write letters of invitation in Spanish and English, translate wiring forms that were written in English to Spanish so that the Spanish-speaking folks could fill them out and my university could disburse traveling funds to them (there were also mixups with the money not arriving at the proper bank). None of the aforementioned went smoothly. In fact, the scanned passport pages would not pass through email. The Cuba side did not have access to Dropbox, so I had to find someone traveling to Cuba to take all of this paperwork on a flashdrive to the Institute.  There were glitches at every turn, costing more time and energy on my part.  Creating the program was a collaboration that went through many renditions until the day before the workshop. Some of the initial participants dropped out at the last minute. I invited new ones and the process of getting them into the workshop was repeated with these new participants.

In addition, a Dropbox was created so US and Latin American scholars could deposit select research articles, which could be uploaded to flashdrives to share with the Cubans in the workshops. Folders (with paper, program, and pen) were created at my university for the workshop. We had, with 6 Cuban panelists, a total of 22 presenters for the workshop and 38 Cuban scholars attending in the audience.  Everything for the workshop was created with 60 people, presenters and audience, in mind.

The major challenge for me was that I had reservations at the Hotel Riviera via email based on prices I saw on their website at $35 USD per night. When I arrived in Havana 4 days before the workshop began, the hotel told  me that that website operated under a different entity than the hotel and that they could not offer me that price. I contacted the website and they did not have those rooms available any longer.  The hotel was quoting me $144 per night for a double and $125 for a single. The rooms were not paid for —–only reserved—-and I had 12 people arriving in 48 hours to Havana.  Needless to say, I did not have the cash to pay for this. The Latin Americans would not be able to afford the rooms at this price, and all of the other hotels, which were only slightly lower in price, were booked.  We looked for peoples’ homes to place the participants—–nothing available. Finally, I decided to pay for the rooms through the agency. They accepted my credit card because it went through a bank in Amsterdam. I asked all of the Latin American participants to pay me $35 per night (for 3 nights) and the 3 US participants to pay me the full amount.  I never revealed this story to the Latin American participants; I absorbed the cost and was a nervous wreck in the process and broke out in hives that didn’t disappear until the workshop was over.

Other than the various situations with the money, it was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, partly because it brought so much meaning to all involved, an eye opener every day. My mentor, renowned cultural anthropologist, Doug Foley, had always wanted to conduct research in Cuba and for various factors in his life, stayed in Texas and accomplished his well-known ethnography on the raza in South Texas instead. He has spent years living vicariously through my research and this was a thrilling experience for him.  When I was able to finally take him to a school compound on our own, where I had connections to the teachers there, we were able to visit several classrooms and hear from students. This was an unplanned visit. What he witnessed and his reaction was so moving to me; it was additional confirmation to me that I had had the best mentor possible in my career as an anthropologist. He said, “This is very emotional. It has touched my heart.”  We all strive to be understood. I’m sometimes seen as fanatical about Cuba’s education system, and finally, the person who had been reading my work all of these years understood me and knew why Cuba’s education system is truly revolutionary. This marked an important moment for me.

 

It was very important for your workshop that you publish on a Cuban press. Could you talk a little about the Cuban publishing process?

Oh my gosh.  Well, since I did the bulk of the legwork on the workshop, the Cubans at the research institute will review the manuscripts. The Juan Marinello Research Institute has its own publication press.  In Cuba, typically you have to pay to fund your book and most Cubans find funding from external sources. We were quoted that $3000 will fund 1000 copies of the book (approximately 250 pages) containing chapters from those participants who presented research and ideas on activist and applied anthropology at the workshop. This will be published in Spanish and be able to have a further reach to Cubans, rather than being published outside of the island. Our manuscripts are due by March 4th and the hope is that the book will be published by September 2016.

 

What was it like working with Cuban anthropologists? Was there anything particular that caught you by surprise? 

That there are no Cuban anthropologists, except Jesus Guanche, who was able to obtain his Ph.D. outside of Cuba.

 

Finally, what did you take from this remarkable (indeed, groundbreaking) experience? Does the group have any plans on working together again in the future?

The Cubans commented on how rich in information the group was and how cohesive we were as a group—-that there a strong, warm personal connection and solidarity—- where few people knew more than one other person besides myself.  Everyone was very very appreciative of this opportunity. Everyone learned something new and has maintained contact.

Charlie Hale, UT Austin senior anthropologist, has talked about having a follow up conference in Austin that might focus on the role of emotion in activist work.

I am bringing 3 Cubans to a conference in Austin in about a month.

 

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