By Lisa Brock, Senior Editor and Academic Director, Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership
On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced to great excitement that he planned to modify the 55-year-old US blockade against Cuba. Given that Congress passed major pieces of the embargo law, Obama is limited in what he can do. Yet, a robust set of negotiations has begun. Lisa Brock recently returned from Cuba, where there is both excitement at the possibilities of open ties with the US, and concern over Obama’s hostile turn towards Venezuela, Cuba’s strongest ally. Interestingly, many of Brock’s US-based colleagues have asked her, did you yet see changes as a result of the US turn toward normalization? Brock’s answer is this: Cuba is always changing and has been shifting towards a mixed economy on its own terms for years. Normalizing relations with the US is just the latest move in this direction. As Tom Hayden wrote in The Democracy Journal,[i] it is not Cuba that has been stuck and isolated but the US. Brock, for one, has been writing about and engaging in solidarity with Cuba for 25 years.
Last summer (2014), my friend, colleague and “hermana” Dr. Digna Castañeda Fuertes spent three months with me, here in the US. Digna is a 78-year-old Cuban woman and is the first black professor emeritus in the 285-year-old history of the University of Havana. While this may at first seem dumbfounding, it shouldn’t. Harvard University, founded in 1636, did not grant emeriti status to an African-American until 1999, which was during its 363rd year. Slavery and racism prevented blacks from employment and status at most predominantly white institutions of higher education throughout the Americas until the 1960s. For US-blacks, increased opportunities in higher education are due to the Civil Rights Movement. For blacks in Cuba, it has been the result of the Cuban revolution.
Digna spent last summer with me because I am writing a biography of her. My desire to do this biography came about after an interview I did of Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando Casamayor for a British publication. It struck me that Gloria and Digna are not just Cuban collaborators with whom I have worked in solidarity for nearly twenty-five years. These two extraordinary women are the Cuban revolution. They were among the cohorts of young people who made the revolution, benefitted from it, still believe in it and are struggling to make it better.
Digna was twenty-two years old and a first year university student when the revolution triumphed in 1959. She remembers quite well that she and her parents struggled to pay that first year’s tuition. After the revolution, attending university was free. She remembers the cruelty of the Batista regime and how her father, known as the best tamale maker in Havana, suffered its indignities. She also remembers Fidel coming to her university at night to talk to students about the brave new world ahead. She was completely swept up by the promise of the revolution.
Like all university students at the time, Digna was charged with both studying and teaching. She taught secondary students by day, attended university classes at night, and on the weekends she worked with the youth who had returned from Cuba’s now famed National Literacy Campaign. In 1961, over 250,000 people participated in Cuba’s massive effort to end illiteracy in Cuba. They taught more than 707,000 other Cubans, most of them rural, to read and write. Almost half of these volunteer teachers were under 18 and more than half were women. Digna and her cohort taught these young people when they returned to Havana, so that they could continue to advance their own education. In 1959, Cuba had about a 60% literacy rate. By the end of 1961, it was at 96%. Today, Cuba claims one of the most literate populations of the world.[ii] Digna said: “While I was running all over Havana, and up all night with friends and comrades, those early days of the revolution were the best days of my life.”
Comparative Race Analysis and Transnational Solidarity
Digna, and I first met in 1990 during an academic exchange organized by the University of Havana and the US-based Radical Philosophy Association. Otis Cunningham and I were publishing a long review essay in Cuban Studies on Carlos Moore’s controversial 1988 book, Castro, the Blacks and Africa, and were on a panel with Digna, who served as a respondent to our piece. Moore’s book had created a big stir in both the US and Cuba because it argued that the socialist revolution of Cuba, and Fidel Castro, himself, were racist. Digna was an established scholar at the time and I was an emerging scholar-activist. Our panel opened up in a lively and hot conversation on comparative “race and racism” in the US and Cuba.
My colleague, Otis, and I argued that while Moore’s attack on the Cuban revolution was poorly researched and clearly unsubstantiated, it nonetheless gained wide readership because there had been so little written about race in Cuba since 1959. Digna, like many Cubans at the time, disagreed with us, arguing that racism was no longer a problem in Cuba. The revolution, at the time, held that racism was the result of economic and structural inequalities and that because those had been eradicated, racism in Cuba had withered away. While it was clear that the Cuban revolution had upended society’s systemic barriers to equality by guaranteeing free or nearly free housing, education, healthcare, and food for all, we still felt that without research and discourse, there was no way to prove or disprove a continuation of racist ideologies and cultural forms in Cuba.
In fact, we felt that Moore had written the book with an US-black audience in mind, with the aim of distancing us from any solidarity we might cultivate with Cuba. His language and his critique pushed our particular buttons. He argued that black Cubans lacked race pride and that many continued to be called mulattos. This of course was done without any attention to the fact that the tri-racial identification system of black, mulatto and white was common all over Latin America.
Even more curious was the fact that he talked about Cuba’s role in Africa as being hated by Africans, which was simply not true. Cuba had played a key role in defeating the apartheid forces in Angola, which led to the independence of Namibia and was part of what ultimately led to Mandela’s release and the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa.[iii] Yet, without counter narratives on the state of race and racism in Cuba, and with a cynical US-black population, we worried that Moore’s work was gaining traction.
Digna and her cohorts pushed back at that conference. While they applauded our Civil Rights and Black Power movements, they thought our focus on race was problematic. Cuba and the US were totally different, they argued, and Moore’s critiques were so off base that they did not deserve a response. After all, Cubans had not only liberated their country from the grips of US imperialism but were supporting African freedom movements and teaching tens of thousands of African students in Cuba. Black Cubans had also maintained their connection to African spiritual practice, through Santeria, Palo Monte, and other African-based religions in a way that had been largely lost in the US. The question then was nicely posed to Otis Cunningham and I, what have you done in the US? You have a lot of pride but no real power. We had to agree.
What began at that conference continued throughout the 1990s at engagements there and exchanges here. It was a wonderful laboratory for comparative race analysis in the Americas and we developed a rich transnational solidarity in the process. We worried together over questions of race on two levels. How do we compare and contrast the social construction of race in Cuba and the US, on the one hand, and how does racism and resistance to it manifest differently in capitalist and socialist systems. Yet, a third level has always also been present. What do socialism and the struggle against racism look like under the pressure of an ever-present hostile world power like the US and how might it look different without such pressure?
Race in Cuba Today
The discourse on race in Cuba has changed dramatically since these early days. Digna as well as most Cubans of African descent, and even Fidel Castro, now admit that they overestimated the power of systemic change to alter, in Marxist terms, “the super-structure” of racism. A lack of black representation in the curriculum and the media, along with the continuation of popular racist “stereotypical” images, exists in Cuba today. The decades-old lacunae on racial discourse in Cuba have led indeed to a reproduction of notions of white supremacy.
In the words of Dr. Esteban Morales, a leading sociologist and economist at the University of Havana:
Despite the radical nature of the process that got underway in 1959, the country’s social policies failed to take skin color into account. In terms of social policy, after the triumph of the revolution, all poor people were treated equally, without differentiating between whites and blacks. But this was something that needed to be done, because the color of one’s skin in Cuba is a significant variable in social differences.
Despite the fact that everyone’s living standards improved and black Cubans achieved a more favorable position over the last half-century, the profound differences did not disappear entirely. During the special period [the economic crisis of the 1990s, following the collapse of the East European socialist bloc], we realized that those who were hit hardest by the crisis were in fact black Cubans, who had fewer possibilities of forging a livelihood.
Even in Cuba today, being poor and white is not the same as being poor and black.
Morales and other black intellectuals, while believers in the Cuban model, have been meeting to address the issue of race in Cuba today. In 2012, he, along with others, created the Aponte Commission to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination in Cuba. 2012 marked the 200th anniversary of the 1812 José Aponte black-led rebellion in Cuba and was a good moment to launch such a project. 2012 also marked the 100th anniversary of Cuba’s Independent Party of Color, whose supporters were massacred (by Cuban elites and under US pressure) in 1912 after a popular uprising. Gloria Rolando released her documentary entitled Breaking the Silence on this history, which had until 2012 been largely ignored (or denied) in Cuba.
Black Cubans have also linked their current discussions of race to the UN’s resolution 68/237 which proclaimed 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent, citing the need to strengthen national, regional and international cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights by people of African descent, and their full and equal participation in all aspects of society.[iv] We here in the US have yet to really acknowledge this decade, even though the We Charge Genocide and Black Lives Matter movements are gaining increased international attention. What a remarkable opportunity that should not be missed.
Transnational solidarity is not blindly supporting those with whom we work, but joining together in a studied, yet politically sophisticated way, to critically engage each other on issues of social justice, so that we all learn and grow in the process. This is the only way to make a better world.
[iii] It would be like now, with the Ebola crisis, if someone was to publish a piece arguing that West Africans did not like Cuba sending hundreds of doctors to fight Ebola, because it is racist. It did not make sense. On his first international tour abroad, Nelson Mandela went to Cuba, visited Fidel Castro and thanked the people of Cuba for their support.