Response to Sidney Brinkley's article
entitled "Racism in Cuba and the Failure of the American Left."
|Response to Sidney Brinkley's article entitled "Racism in Cuba and
the Failure of the American Left."
Opinions Are Political
It is always difficult for me to read articles written on substantive issues by a person who clearly has not studied a subject; yet draws huge conclusions based on a teeny bit of information. While everyone is entitled to his or her opinion on any subject, some opinions are clearly based upon serious consideration of sought after and studied information and others are not. Mr. Brinkley's article is one that is not.
The first problem with the way he constructs his opinion is not that he only had a week to spend in Cuba, but that he so arrogantly thinks he can know a people, their society, their racial sensibilities - which are all very complex - from one week only. I, as an activist/historian - who has researched and written on Cuba, the US and racism, and have traveled there many times over the last 15 years - am still learning and still searching for insight into these matters. I would never write in such an emphatic and unbalanced way and claim to know things without more study. If Mr. Brinkley has indeed done more study, he did not share his depth of research in his article.
The second problem is that even with a week, he could have done more as a journalist. His article would have been more meaningful if the reader got a sense that he had talked to black Cubans and Americans living there, if he had scanned the daily newspapers, if he had asked taxi drivers and hotel workers what they thought, and so on. Why did Mr. Brinkley not talk to any black Cubans about his experiences? Again, if he did that, it did not come through in the article. Also, background information on hotel development, the tourism industry, different types of restaurants like paladars, snack bars, etc. and differences in service between Havana and say Santiago de Cuba or Santa Clara would have given his article more validity and made for a richer, more thoughtful analysis. For instance, does he know that Havana is considered the "white" city while Santiago de Cuba is considered the "black" one by many Cubans? What does this mean in terms of race relations in one city versus another? Cuba is a big diverse island.
And then, there is his opinion about what the CBC and the TransAfrica sponsored delegations did and did not do on their separate trips to Cuba and what they did and did not ask. How does he know what went on during those trips? He states that they should have by-passed the "Castro-sponsored tour" and should have asked Fidel tough questions about race. How does he know who sponsored their tour? I happen to know from Cubans who took them around and from folks who went on the delegations that many did ask tough questions of Fidel and Cubans in general. In fact, one Cuban friend of mine said that some of the questions were so tough that she was made a bit uncomfortable. Thus, did Mr. Brinkley talk to anyone who went on those trips or did he just come up with his assumptions from thin air. I also know, that unlike Mr. Brinkley, these delegations did visit multiple sites - child care centers, work sites, cultural venues, etc. and therefore there opinions were based on a wider variety of experiences than those limited hotel and restaurant stories of Mr. Brinkley. If Mr. Brinkley did have more experiences - other than in restaurants and hotels - they are not reflected in his article.
More importantly, why has Mr. Brinkley chose to so roundly attack US Black initiatives in Cuba? And never mention the Right? Never mention Jesse Helms? Never mention the fact that the majority of Afro-Cubans basically trust in the revolution? Never mention that Cuba has provided safe harbor for political exiles such as Assata Shakur and given critical support to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa? What is he trying to do?
African-Americans are making a major "ethnic intervention," in Cuba, articulating what is in essence a Pan African position by saying "we" are concerned with Afro-Cubans. They are in effect challenging the right wing Cuban voice (which is really racist) as the only legitimate "ethnic" link to Cuba. Whether Mr. Brinkley agrees with their ultimate conclusions or not, his refusal to see the broader political picture is disturbing. (Below I will discuss in more detail why the Black Left has taken the position it has in relation to Cuba).
And finally, to base any current opinion on Cuba on a trip taken five years ago is very problematic indeed. The situation in Cuba is very fluid and always has been. It is a revolution in the making. It has never been static, especially in terms of social and economic policy. The Cubans have always been up against an economic and political wall and so have had little to loose from trying all sorts of innovative as well as problematic (my opinion) policies. Thus, their big socialist experiment has been full of little experiments. They initiate new initiatives, some work and some don't, and so they withdraw those they think are bad. In fact, one of the most interesting things about Cuba, to me, has been its ability to review policy, admit mistakes, change policy and attempt to move on. Thus, Mr. Brinkley needs to be careful about using old anecdotal situations to reflect on Cuba today - whenever that today is. Unless he is doing history, his analysis always needs to reflect Cuba's ever-changing landscape.
Racism, History, Capital
Given all of these contextual problems, Mr. Brinkley, nonetheless writes as if he has found all the answers. He has discovered that "racism is racism wherever it is found," and that there is "white minority rule" in Cuba, which he associates with South Africa. He raises a host of questions about black percentages in different sectors of Cuban society and states that "there are virtually no Afro-Cubans found in the hierarchy of the Cuban government and that they are not found anywhere else in anything close to their numbers in the population." He says the "hotels are entirely staffed by White Cubans" and he then attacks the American Left (which he never defines) and states that they have blinders on as "Castro has [played them] like a fiddle." He says he left Cuba "disappointed and disillusioned [for he] fell for the propaganda that, except for the US embargo, Cuban would be a success story." And he ends up by saying that he is "not anti-Castro [just] pro black."
While there is clearly validity in the questions Mr. Brinkley raises (just like opinions, he has a right and maybe a responsibility to raise tough questions), that validity is tested by his weak attempts to answer his own questions. This of course leads to some gross errors in information. But more importantly, his questions and assertions lack an understanding of the relationship between history, economics and the world of ideas and reflect ideological assumptions that call into question his final claim that he is in fact "pro-black." Let me start by saying that Mr. Brinkley is absolutely correct when he writes racism has not been eradicated in Cuba. He is also correct when he states that as far as race is concerned the embargo is not solely to blame. Cuba has its own colonial/slave experience, and thus it's own indigenous and historically evolved forms of racism. The Cuban revolution also made certain choices, early on, that decentered the cultural fight against racism. However, Mr. Brinkley is wrong when he implies that neither US imperialism, nor the US embargo nor global capital has had anything to do with these racial developments in Cuba. In fact, to think about his hotel and restaurant experiences without thinking about these issues is ahistorical and erroneously unhinges what in fact is inextricably linked. (I will address this below)
Mr. Brinkley is also wrong when he states that neither the Cuban government nor the Black Left in the US has ever recognized and attempted to tackle continuing problems of racism in Cuban revolutionary society. One small case in point happened at the third Communist Party Congress of 1986. The Cuban leadership admitted that it had not adequately dealt with the race question and that racism continued to exist in Cuba. They instituted an affirmative action policy aimed at increasing the number of blacks, women and youth in government and other high positions of power.
I happen to know that some whites, men and older blacks have grumbled when asked to retire so that their positions could be filled by one of the marginalized groups. Thus, the Cuban leadership reviewed its policies around fighting racism and deemed it not working. Also, the Writers Union, within the last couple of years has called for better representation of blacks in the media, particularly television. And within the last two years, a series of anti-racist commercials have been launched on Cuban television. I have seen one or two of them while there. There are also publications and newspapers in Cuba, which now consistently deal with this issue.
Mr. Brinkley should also note, that there are blacks in the "hierarchy of the Cuban government." The Communist Party Secretaries, of the two key provinces -- Havana and Santiago -- are Black, Juan Carlos Robinson and Esteban Lazo Hernandes. And many other leaders of Cuba's trade union federation, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, Peoples Power assemblies, the Union of Young Communist, the Women's Federation, etc. have always been black. These are some of the MOST important positions on the Island. Thus, while I would agree with Mr. Brinkley and the Cubans that there needs to be more black representation, there have been blacks in key places and shifts and nuances in Cuban policies, which Mr. Brinkley ignores. Oh to answer his questions about doctors: he wanted to know how many of Cuba's doctors are black. According to AfroCubaWeb, 13,500 of Cuba's 64,000 doctors are black. But Mr. Brinkley, should check this out: we in the US only have 17,000 black doctors. Thus, Cuba with a population of 11 million has nearly 13,500 black doctors while we here with a population of 290 million have only one thousand more!
In addition, while Mr. Brinkley might be correct in saying that the white Left in the US has not adequately dealt with the race question in Cuba, he is totally wrong in reference to the Black Left. Johnetta Cole, early on, in her co-written pamphlet Free and Equal: the End of Racial Discrimination in Cuba (1978) and her 1980 essay, "Race Towards Equality: The Impact of the Cuban Revolution on Racism" (Black Scholar no. 11, Nov. 1980), acknowledges both the successes and the failures of the Cuba's struggle against racism. And, I, James Early, Clarence LuSane, Manning Marable, Joy James, and a host of blacks who are clearly on the Left have critically written on race in Cuba. In fact in 1993, I wrote in an essay entitled "Back to the Future: Cuban and African-Americans in the Time(s) of Race" (Contributions in Black Studies, no 12) that:
This essay was published in the Cuban journal Temas, as well.
My point here is this. Both the US-Black Left and the Cuban leadership has acknowledged the continued existence of racism in Cuba. While there are clearly those Cubans, who think the best way to deal with racism is to ignore it, there are others pushing hard against these opinions both within and outside of government. Mr. Brinkley's tirade, then, about the total lack of anybody, either here or there dealing with racism is wrong. He in fact, has set up straw men, which do not exist. In fact, most black Cubans will tell you that racism remains a problem, but they still support Fidel and the revolution. (This is something Mr. Brinkley does not interrogate, but I will below.) They also agree and disagree on how best to handle racism within the revolution. In fact, I have attended conferences and sat around kitchen tables where blacks, whites and people of color heatedly debate, amongst themselves, the issue of race in Cuba, which I happen to believe is healthy.
Thus, the Black Left, of which I am a part, have historically given critical support to the Cuban revolution, and has not been "played like a fiddle" as Mr. Brinkley would have his readers believe. And we, like Afro-Cubans, continue to support the revolution for some very real tangible reasons. It has been and continues to be in black interest to do so (which I will prove below). Moreover, while the Black Left has never viewed the US embargo as the only reason for racism in Cuba, it has always seen, the role of the US in Cuba as a major force in the promotion of racism and economic hardship. Why? Let me explain:
First, from the very beginning, U.S. imperialism militarily and politically propped up and empowered a white a racist Cuban elite, that in all likelihood would not have been able to sustain power against the military leadership and socially progressive ideas of Cuba's radical people of color - Juan Gualberto Gomez, Paulina Pedroso, Pedro Ivonnet and others. (In fact, the armed forces of all of Cuba's wars of independence were largely of color.) Then, between 1902 and 1959, the US established near total economic domination (US controlled telephones, textiles, oil refining, mining, railroads and the vast majority of agriculture) and pushed as far as possible its ultra-racist styles of power, which were of course integrated and intertwined with Cuban ones.
Second, when the revolution occurred in 1959 Cuba's people of color as a whole were at the bottom of Cuba's socio-economic ladder. This was at least partly because of US colonialism. While there were many whites among them, blacks, because of racism and colonial repression, were more likely as a whole to be illiterate and unemployed and to lack adequate housing and health care. When the revolution announced that it was launching a socialist revolution, Cuba's white racist elite fled to Miami and was given a privileged immigrant status. The US, attempted to crush Cuba by imposing an economic blockade and blackmailed as much as possible, other Latin American, Caribbean and European countries into doing the same. Thus, just as Cuba was launching a more equitable distribution of resources, the economic rug upon which those resources had been largely constructed was yanked from beneath them. Nearly 100% of its historic trade in technology, its medical supplies, its paper products, its car parts, its typewriters, it tractors, its building materials, its electrical wiring, its telephone systems, its food imports - given that food was imported from the US because US companies had turned much of Cuba's farm land into sugar and tobacco producing plantations - were gone in one fell swoop. The revolution was faced with some tough choices. Its people faced starvation (it takes time and capital to transform land historically used for commercial crop production into food production; post-colonial Africa faced a similar problem).
But Cubans were determined not to give up. With barely a Band-Aid, a sanitary napkin, or a tractor wheel, the Cubans began building their revolution as best they could. Economically, without significant trade in the West, they began trading with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Having to import and export goods thousands of miles away was costly, as compared to 90 miles away. They bartered sugar for oil with the Soviet Union (among other things) and sold some of their oil for hard currency other places. In fact, one critique is their continued dependence on sugar production, but that is what the Soviet Union needed and wanted and they needed a marketable product - oil. Nonetheless, they used that hard currency to import certain things that they did not produce. Socially, the Cubans instituted class-based affirmative action, dictating by law that food, land, health care, housing, education and employment would be guaranteed and equally distributed to all, even if it at times the rations were small. In hard times, rationing is the only way to guarantee that the more strategically placed don't hoard and the poor and homeless don't die. Afro-Cubans overwhelmingly supported the revolution because it had the potential of significantly improving their life chances. Imagine our own country: If we had guaranteed food, shelter, education, full employment, etc. the lives of blacks would be significantly enhanced, whether we ever engaged in discourse about racism or not. Politically, the Cubans began to institute popular power through neighborhood, women, youth, trade union, and cultural organizations.
The Cubans then - black and white - had hard choices to make. Do we paint the buildings or feed the people? Do we tear down all the crumbling 17th century structures when we have no other places for people to go? Do we take away all property from middle class whites and give them to the black poor? Or do we allow every Cuban to stay in the ONE house they already possess (not more than one) and begin building new houses for those whose housing either is non-existent or whose housing is dilapidated? Do we capitulate to the US and have them come in and build our houses (and re-institute imperialism) or do we give the materials to the people themselves and train them to build their own houses? Do we alienate a sector of our population (whites) whom we need, by making race an up front topic of discussion (when the white elite left, Cuba lost 3000 doctors) Or do we do what we can in areas that we can and improve the conditions of our most poor (which are largely black but also white) through equal distribution of health care, education housing, etc.?
The Cubans, then made those hard choices, some of which we can be critical of. However, I often wonder what we, here in the United States, would do, should we ever be clear enough, unified enough and organized enough to actually have a revolution? What would we do after the seizure of state power, what would we build in the wake of hundreds of years of social, economic, and political inequity and racism, sexism, homophobia? How would we reconcile, for instance here in Chicago, the rich elite of the North Shore with the poor of the projects? How would we build houses for the thousands of homeless with no capital and constant invasion possibilities? How would we deal with child abusers and their abused, with men who believe in beating women and the victims of domestic violence, with gang members and drug addicts and their children. With millions of whites influenced in varying degrees by racism, how would we retrain them. Do we kill everyone that does not agree with the revolution? While some bloodshed will be inevitable, after the seizure of power, are we prepared to put millions of people before the firing squads or do we figure out ways to maintain the revolution and deal with them?
This, then is what Cuba faced! But astonishingly, and I say astonishingly, the Cuban
revolution made great strides. Even though it still had not painted all of its buildings
and many people continued to drive out of date cars, by 1990, the life chances of regular
black and white Cubans had significantly improved. In fact, they were proud of what they
had done with so little. According to World Health Organizations statistics, by 1988, the
Cubans had increased the caloric intake of its population to such a degree that Cuban's
rate of malnutrition had decreased from 30-40% in the urban areas and 60% in the rural
areas in 1958 to zero throughout the country. Its illiteracy rate had decreased from 25%
in 1958 to 2% in 1988. Unemployment had gone from 25% in 1958 to 3.4% in 1988. It's number
of Day Care centers had gone from zero in 1958 to 1000 in 1988. Its student population at
all levels had increased from 811, 345 in 1958 to 3,500, 000 in 1988. Its teachers at all
levels had gone from 22, 595 in 1958 to 300,000 in 1988. It universities had gone from 3
in 1958 to 40 in 1988. And is life expectancy had risen from 57 years in 1958 to 75 years
in 1988 (which is higher than in many African-American communities in the US today). Its
infant mortality rate had gone from 60 deaths per 1000 in 1958 to 11.1 in 1988. This
figure was better than both the south side (17 per 1000) and west side of Chicago (27 per
1000) in 1988. It is also better than Haiti, which in 1988 had 118 deaths per 1000 and
Bahia, Brazil, which had 168 deaths per 1000.
This is the record upon which the US Black Left, Afro-Cubans, and Africa base their critical support. And while, counting numbers of blacks in key "hierarchical positions of power" is important, counting numbers, alone is not necessarily the only measure or the best measure of black progress. Neither is counting the number of blacks with Afros and braids. While these can be indicators of black progress and black pride, they can also be misleading if ideology and class are not taken into account. After all, blacks hold the top government positions in Nigeria, Kenya, Burundi, and Haiti. But this had meant little in the life chances of the masses in those countries. We, in the US, have Clarence Thomas in the Supreme Court, and Colin Powell in the Military. We even have Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey. While it might in some way aid in the very long run white attitudes about blacks, has it meant better lives for the black poor? I think not. Thus, for the Black Left, being "pro-black" involves looking at more than blacks in "hierarchies of power." And being internationalist means listening to the voices of blacks in their own countries before framing political questions around race. Most Afro-Cubans support the revolution and want an end to the blockade. Being on the Black Left also means taking stock of the worldwide assault of people of color and making reasoned political and strategic decisions about allies and enemies. Neither Fidel nor the Cuban revolution is an enemy of black people. In the broad scheme of things, Cuba has clearly been an unbending ally to the struggles that matter most in the fight against racism. The CBC, TransAfrica, Nelson Mandela and other African leaders clearly understand that. In the words of Nelson Mandela:
Cuba, then, while not a racial paradise, has advanced the struggle against racism, both in its own country and internationally. However, since 1990, these advances have been significantly challenged. With the collapse of socialist Europe, Cubans, again, felt the full impact of the U.S. blockade. Imports and Capital during the early 1990s were at an all time low. In 1993, when I visited the Island, everyone I knew was nearly 15 pounds thinner; again, because rather than create a haves and have nots, all persons' guarantees of cooking oil, fruits, meat, vegetables, milk. were reduced. Defining it as "the special period," times were hard and Cuba, again, had to make some tough choices. They decided to open up Cuba to foreign investors, who now because of the end of Cold War were prepared to engage in more trade with Cuba. They also decided to allow Cubans to obtain (from relatives abroad largely), and spend, dollars. In addition, all sorts of new economic initiatives, largely government but some private, were launched. Given Cuba's natural and cultural resources, tourism has become a primary area of expansion. However, Cuba, in their attempt to maintain some control have entered into joint ventures with foreign investors; whereby the Spanish or Italian concern, for example, own 49% and the Cuban government 51%. This has allowed the Cuban government to get capital in the country through investment itself and tourist dollars, without turning over the economy to foreigners completely.
But it has also proved difficult. Mr. Brinkley, in fact, is correct when he says that some of Cuba's new hotels only want whites in the front offices. He might also say that racial profiling has also increased as white Cubans have more dollars (because of family remittances from Miami) and blacks don't. Thus, blacks, it is assumed, are more likely to engage in criminal behavior around those areas where dollars are, hotels. However, he is wrong when he says that all hotels are like that or that average Cubans are not fighting back and/or that the Cuban government is completely unresponsive. Just one small example: the Havana Libre Hotel a few years ago was part owned by a Spanish businessman. This businessman went about firing older and blacker workers, as well as engaging in other unscrupulous behavior. The workers took it to the Cuban trade federation and after some deliberation and weighing of a lot of facts, the government decided to cancel that contract with that businessman. There are other stories such as this, but maintaining the gains and equity is clearly not easy, especially given the pace of tourism development. Someone told me that nearly 100 hotels have been built in the last 8 years. But again what choices did the Cubans have. What choices would we have made?
Thus, I would like to wind down with a story that an African-American friend of mine living in Cuba shared with me. She said: One day, a black Cuban friend of hers came to her house. He was on his bike and he seemed upset. He arrived at her door, disheveled and said: "give me some rum, I need it." She said, what's the matter, why are you so upset? He grumbled and said I am too angry to talk about it, so just give me the rum. She gave him the rum and decided she just better drop it. The next day he came back and his mood was considerably better. She asked him what had happened the day before. He said that he had been riding his bike when a police car came so close that it grazed him and knocked him off. He said he had been so angry that he called the policemen and his mother all kinds of names. The policemen, then, he said, got out of his car and called him and his mother all kinds of bad names. My friend, now really concerned said, "well then what happened after that? He said that he and the policemen got into a fistfight. He said: "I through some good licks and so did he." My friend said, oh my god, what did the policeman then do. He said, the policeman got back in his car and drove away and I got on my bike and came over here!
My friend was astonished. She and I both know that such a thing would never have happened in the US or in apartheid South Africa. The police would have either beat, tortured, killed or arrested the person and that would have been that. Over my many years of traveling to Cuba, I have heard many such stories and been astonished by my realization that while Cuba has not completely solved racial, or many other, questions., it has indeed pushed forward towards a new and different kind of society.
Therefore, Mr. Brinkley's assertion that "racism is racism wherever it is found" is ahistorical and unscientific. Some societies are better than others on this question. He needs to contextualize his very personal experiences in the real world or risk joining right wing forces that are really "anti-black." And please, his notion that Cuba has "white minority rule" similar to apartheid South Africa is simply ludicrous. He should ask Nelson Mandela what he thinks of this.
Unless cited in the text, data and quotes for this article were gathered from the following sources. Medea Benjamin, No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today, 1984; Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, Report, 1982; Catholic University Association, Survey on Cuba, 1956-57; International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Report on Cuba 1951; Demetrius S. Iatridis, "Cuba's Health Care Policy: Prevention and Active Community Participation," Social Work, January 1990; Abel Prieto Morales, "Education as Transformation: Identity, Change and Development," Harvard Education Review, February, 1981; "Methods and Means Utilized in Cuba to Eliminate Illiteracy," UNESCO Report, 1965; Jonathan Kazol, Children of the Revolution, 1978; Human Development Report, United Nations Development Program, 1994; Marifeli PÈrez-Stable, The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course, and Legacy, 1993; Margaret Randall, Gathering Rage: The Failure of 20th Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda, Monthly Review, 1992; Miguel Angel Centeno & Mauricio Font, Toward A New Cuba: Legacies of a Revolution, 1998; Sandor Hablesky and John M. Kirk, Twenty Five Years of the Cuban Revolution, 1959-1984, 1989; Lois M. Smith and Alfred Padula, Sex and Revolution: Women in Socialist Cuba, 1996; Cuba Update, no. 3-4, 1993; Julie M. Feinsilver, Healing the Masses: Cuban Health Politics at Home and Abroad, 1993; National Urban League, State of Black American, 1987, UNICEF Report, 1989, Gramma, January, 1990; Gramma, January 28, 1990; Jorge Domingues, To Make a World Sage for Revolution, 1989; Jorge Risquet, Changing the history of Africa, 1989; Sergio DÌaz-Briquets, Cuban Internationalism in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1989; Nelson Mandela, Speech, First South African Cuban Solidarity Conference, Johannesburg South Africa, October 1995.
Copyright (c) 1999 Lisa Brock. All Rights Reserved.
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