The concurrence this week of a federal election in Canada with the spurt of diplomatic action around the United Nations General Assembly reminds me that I value political debate, and that the world needs urgent action on multiple, related issues.
What we have in Canada is what Marta Harnecker and others have called “polyarchy”—the alternation of power among elites, or the choice from among the elites of whom we wish to govern us for the next few years. And no: we should not be satisfied with that, but rather build toward a system that ensures that everyone can have a meaningful sense of participation in the social, economic and political decisions that most affect their lives. That means having societies and governments that are strong enough to control the worst excesses of capitalism and flexible enough to embrace diversity.
But, in Canada for the moment, we have what we have. Perhaps the most optimistic view is that some sort of new coalition among Liberals, the NDP and the Greens will be strong enough to achieve solid measures to limit climate change, advance justice for Indigenous peoples, promote a global recovery from the pandemic, and quick action on housing and child care.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations, world leaders appeared at the General Assembly podium or via video link. Some emphasized the UN Charter, with its affirmations of national sovereignty and self-determination, and (rightly) criticized the sanctions applied by powerful states against the more vulnerable. Others promised new action to try to enforce their version of a rules-based international order (that is: the corporate-led, neo-liberal one).
Again, amidst the contradictions, one has to look for signs of hope. U.S. President Joe Biden, beset by divisions in his own party and fallout from his border patrol’s gross mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers, promised “relentless diplomacy” (an improvement, I hope, from “endless war”).
Biden held two online summits: one to try to advance action on climate goals, and the other to advance action on Covid vaccines—including the urgent need for a waiver that would allow more widespread manufacture of vaccines. Biden promised a new contribution of 500 million doses to the global effort, raising the U.S. commitment to 1.1 billion doses. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who joined Biden’s pandemic summit, promised in the Liberal election platform that Canada will donate “at least” 200 million doses of vaccine through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing program, by the end of next year. Critics say the contributions are insufficient.
Monroísmo vs Bolivarianismo
A few days earlier, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador convened leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) for a summit in Mexico City, in part, at least to strengthen the forum as a counter-weight to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).
Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro proposed replacing the “Monroe Doctrine” (promoted by the early 19th century U.S. President James Monroe—”America for the Americans,” meaning the United States and reflected today in the actions of the OAS) with a “Bolivarian Doctrine” that would uphold both the unity and the autonomy of the peoples of Latin American and the Caribbean, with CELAC as a space for common action.
Brazil and Colombia (led by the region’s two most conservative presidents) stayed away, but others either came or sent representatives. There were flare-ups over different approaches to human rights protection and economic policy, but in the end, the leaders issued a common declaration and called for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
In the 2010 interview when Fidel Castro apologized to gay Cubans for his government’s treatment of them in the 1960s, he asked, “Why hate the United States, if it is only a product of history?”
At the same time, we need to name what is going on. For the sake of describing the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and also economic, political and military power exercised in the world today, sometimes we talk about “Empire.” But there are moments, such as in discussions of Cuba (or in the wake of 20 years of war in Afghanistan), when we need to be more direct, and talk about imperialism: coercion and force used by stronger states against less advantaged peoples.
For the gay African-American writer James Baldwin (1924-87), the way that the United States behaved abroad was tied to racism and homophobia at home. In an essay on Baldwin, the Indian writer and academic Prakash Kona wrote:
“In sustaining the hegemony of powerful global elites who serve as engine for corporate capitalism America is guilty of keeping alive the notion of a civilization obsessed with its own sense of racial, moral and political superiority.”
To make his argument, Kona drew on Baldwin’s reflections on “American innocence” — “an innocence trapped in an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions” that for Kona is most “clearly revealed than in their foreign policy in the third world.” That particular quality of “American innocence” is demonstrated perfectly by Dick Cavett in a question to Baldwin that opens Raoul Peck’s brilliant film, I am not your Negro (2016, currently streaming here).
Peck again took up Baldwin’s themes in an essay in The Atlantic in 2000, saying that the people of the United States need to heed Baldwin’s words:
Why can’t we understand, as Baldwin did and demonstrated throughout his life, that racism is not a sickness, nor a virus, but rather the ugly child of an economic system that produces inequalities and injustice? The history of racism is parallel to the history of capitalism. The law of the market, the battle for profit, the imbalance of power between those who have all and those who have nothing are part of the foundation of this macabre play. He spoke about this not-so-hidden infrastructure again and again:
“What one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.” And more pointedly: “I attest to this: The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”
Cuba holds firm
While many other attempts to break free of U.S. hegemony over the Americas have been suppressed (Dominican Republic in 1963 and 1965; Chile in 1973; Honduras in 2009—to mention only a few examples) and others are under siege (Venezuela today), Cuba holds firm.
Many of us from the global North get involved in the global South out of a partly-formed sense of solidarity or misguided charity. We only start to think about imperialism when we see that our goals of social justice or an end to poverty are blocked outright by U.S. imperialism (the history of invasions and coups) or by systemic oppression and exploitation (debt, banking and trade rules, etc.). Social movements find that their way towards liberation is blocked by systems imposed from the richer, Northern countries.
Their starting point in Latin America was usually the problem Gustavo Gutiérrez described: poverty—and then what to do about it. My starting point has been among various expressions of liberation theology, social gospel or the preferential option for the poor, and aligning myself with similarly-inspired actions. Hence my support for political options like those taken in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and most recently (and still tentatively) Peru, and movements like the MST (landless people) in Brazil and the Zapatistas in Mexico. Those movements may not set out to be anti-imperialist, but to the extent that they are opposed by capitalism and its proponents, they must become anti-imperialist.
By way of conclusion, some ways to connect with others who work in solidarity with people in Cuba.
Pastors for Peace and the larger coalition of which it is part, the Intereligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), are based in New York City and led mostly by African-American and Latinx people. P4P has done a superb job of undercutting the US blockade of Cuba by simply breaking it: people go to Cuba in caravans, provide aid, and support US students to study medicine in Cuba. You can join their mailing list here for updates on Cuba.
The commission that is drafting Cuba’s new family law—the “Código de las Familias” that will allow same-sex marriage—is near the end of its work. On Sept. 7, the government announced that the new law will be brought to the National Assembly of People’s Power for approval, and then be put to referendum.
A day earlier, the commission heard from Rev. Dr. Ofelia Ortega. Now 85, Ofelia has been a leading proponent of change, speaking out while many other religious leaders are either afraid to engage or are opposed to change.
A decade of debate is likely to produce a law that is broadly inclusive—not just of equal marriage and common-law unions, but of the wide variety of family relationships in Cuba. Drafters speak of “ethical and spiritual values,” and of content that is legal and also educational. In her presentation, Ofelia said that beyond the legal issues, this is “a question of life.”
Some recent examples of the debate may be found in Spanish in Cubadebate (“human dignity as the basis for rights”) and Juventud Rebelde (“confronting myths about sexuality”).
Cuba has become a leader on LGBTI rights in the Latin American and Caribbean contexts:
Sexual activity between people of the same sex has been legal since 1979.
The 1975 constitutional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman was repealed in 2019.
The Cuban Constitution, amended in 2019, prohibits all discrimination on the basis of gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, among others.
Since 2007, Cubans have marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (May 17) with conferences and parades.
Since June 2008, qualifying Cubans have been able to have free sex reassignment surgeries.
Perhaps the strongest advocate for change is Mariela Castro, head of the National Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX). She’s also the daughter of Raúl Castro, the former president and head of the armed forces, and of the late Vilma Espín, founder of the Federation of Cuban Women.
In the first decade of the new millennium, Mariela and her staff at CENESEX led efforts to open up space for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. If the approach was once a bit academic, it cracked open space for open LGBTI events and organizing across Cuba.
In 2009, two of my Toronto friends, David Fernández and Jerome Scully, made a film about LGBTI people in Cuba that features an interview with Mariela—and conversations with lots of other energetic people in different parts of Cuba. You can watch ¿Oye qué bolá? Cuban Voices on Sexual Diversity.
In Cuba, some issues become a complex weighing of certain values—construction materials to repair churches, for example, as opposed to the stated priority for schools and hospitals—in the context of the common good. When Mariela spoke to the assembly of the Council of Latin American Churches (CLAI) when it met in Havana in 2013, she referred to that process by recalling her mother’s leadership in the struggle for women’s rights that is sometimes called “the revolution within the revolution.”
“Based on the experience of Cuba,” she said, “we affirm that change can happen with political will and popular participation.” That means taking consultation seriously and that’s why it is taking more than a decade to achieve equal marriage—even while the other side, made up largely of conservative Christians, engages in hateful rhetoric and seems tied to U.S.-based efforts to align fundamentalist Christian religion with right-wing politics.
When the United Church’s then-Moderator Gary Paterson and his husband Tim Stevenson spoke with students and faculty at the seminary in Matanzas, one of the people present was Elaine Saralegui. Elaine, a graduate from the seminary who at the time was working with a local church, had formed a LGBTI group called Somos (“We Are”).
Elaine told me later that the conversation with Gary and Tim spurred the group to further action. They connected with the global network of the Metropolitan Community Church (known in Cuba by its Spanish acronym, ICM), and have congregations now in Matanzas, Havana and Santa Clara.
As we know from experience elsewhere, new laws and political commitments to end discrimination are not always reflected in practice. In Cuba, as elsewhere, there are sometimes issues with how police treat sexual minorities, and race is sometimes a factor. Increasingly though, abuses are reported and dealt with. In 2015, I spent an afternoon in Cárdenas with a gay Afro-Cuban writer, Alberto Abreu Arcía. He maintains a blog, Afromodernidades, where he shares news of actions he takes against racism and homophobia.
Our conversation ranged widely through current events and literature (the excellent books by Reinaldo Arenas, who left Cuba in the Mariel boats in 1980 and died in New York 10 years later) and film (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Fresa y Chocolate, 1991). “These are specific representations of gay life in Cuba that are well-known outside Cuba” but, in Alberto’s view, “do not represent the variety of life in diverse currents, identities and classes.”
While appreciative of the work “at the top” by Mariela Castro and CENESEX, more needs to be done to address the roles of police, the justice system, schools and hospitals—whose personnel and actions have a huge impact on LGBTI people, and also to examine (not just in Cuba) the fault lines within and among the various groups lumped together under the alphabetic LGBTI: gender, race, class, incomprehension by many LGB of the T and the I, as well as to work through cultural reactions against English-language concepts represented by “Q.”
During the most recent events marking the Day against Homophobia, Mariela joined a panel in the presentation of a new book: Paquito el de Cuba: Una década de ciberactivismo, by Francisco Rodríguez Cruz and published by Editorial Caminos of the Martin Luther King Memorial Centre in Havana. The global LGBTI rights group ILGA shared an interview (with subtitles in English) that it did with him in 2018.
In the online book launch, Mariela noted the atmosphere of “low-intensity warfare” that affects Cuba, and that LGBTI themes at times are used to “attack the revolution.” The book pulls together 90 of Paquito’s blog posts where he tries to counter cyber attacks that spread misinformation about LGBTI rights.
In an interview this month with the WCC news service, the president of Cuba’s Student Christian Movement, Jorge González Nuñez, spoke of struggles for social justice in the digital age: “In Cuba, we speak of a ‘Media War’ to refer to the continuous attacks carried out by the United States government against the island. These are actions that in the name of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ use the digital media to censor and misinform. We are facing factories of fake news and trolls, with very sophisticated laboratory technology. Thus we live under constant siege in the digital space.”