Cuba VI – James Baldwin, racism, imperialism and ourselves

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.

James Baldwin: “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.”

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.

Yesterday (Sept. 16), Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador welcomed his Cuban counterpart, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, to events marking the 211th anniversary of the beginning of Mexico’s fight for independence.
“I have said and I repeat: we can be in agreement or not with the Cuban Revolution and with its government, but to have resisted for 62 years without submission is an indisputable historical feat.”  Texts of their speeches (in Spanish).

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.

Gail Walker (left) of Pastors for Peace speaks to a gathering at College Street United Church in Toronto in July 2018.

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.

In Canada, there are a variety of solidarity networks, including the Canadian Network on Cuba and the Canadian-Cuban Solidarity Association (CCFA) that promote friendship and share information. CUBAbility, a Toronto-based group, sends musical instruments and other aid. Some churches (notably The United Church of Canada) and trade unions work with partners in Cuba.

Cuba V – Moving forward on LGBTI rights 

“I am never afraid to show my true colours because I prefer to be hated for what I am than to be loved for what I am not.”
In Matanzas, beginning in 2013, a group of LBGTI artists built an alliance with the Afro-Cuban population in their barrio, Pueblo Nuevo. Together, they got permissions and funding to restore a historic building and clear a rubbish-filled street so as to create a new street: The Callejón de las Tradiciones. The Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue supported the AfroAtenAs project, and opened a channel to the Embassy of Canada in Cuba, whose development office provided financial support.
 

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. 

Ofelia speaks at an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Matanzas seminary in October 2016. 
In 1967, Ofelia Ortega was the first woman to be ordained in Cuba’s Presbyterian-Reformed Church. She served the World Council of Churches as its theological education secretary from 1988 to 1997. She returned to Cuba to serve as rector of the Matanzas seminary, and later created the “Christian Institute for Gender Studies.” The institute provides space for reflection, training and exchange on issues related to gender justice in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Ofelia has also served in Cuba’s parliament (the National Assembly of People’s Power) and as president for Latin America of the WCC.

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”).


With regard to LGBTI rights, Cuba has advanced from the first decade of the revolution, when many gay men were placed in re-education camps. That experience continues to inspire films and novels, and despite apologies—including the one from Fidel Castro in 2010 in Spanish here; in English here)—feeds anti-Cuba rhetoric from people who have no interest in queer and trans rights.

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.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted his support for this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. The event, celebrated globally on May 17 since 2004, is celebrated in Cuba each year with parades and conferences. Images on the right are from an article in Granma newspaper on the new family law.

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.

Left: your bloguista with Mariela Castro. Right: In March 2014, Gary Paterson (then the moderator of The United Church of Canada) and his husband Tim Stevenson (then a Vancouver city councillor) spoke with students, faculty and community members at the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas.

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”).

“My family is very original:” a poster co-produced by Cuba’s Metropolitan Community Church. Right: Rev. Elaine Saralegui during a visit to the AIDS Memorial in Toronto in 2016.

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.”

Left: With Alberto Abreu Arcía in 2015. Right: Jorge González Nuñez, president of Cuba’s Student Christian Movement.

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.”

Next: some reflections on imperialism.

Colombians ask: “Peace? What peace?”

Lilia Solano, a human rights defender who was one of the organisers of Peace, What Peace?

In recent days, I participated in a zoom-based conference with the Peace Commission of Colombia’s Senate. Since a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla army, the FARC, was signed in 2016, implementation has not gone well.

By the end of 2020, at least 238 former fighters had been murdered—victims of targeted assassinations.

Meanwhile, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented more than 400 slayings of human rights defenders since 2016, of which 108 happened in 2019 and 53 in 2020. Human rights defenders include community, small-farmer, women, LGBTI, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian leaders as well as activists for the rights of victims and their families.

My own presentation followed those of some of my friends and heroes: 

  • Former Senator Piedad Córdoba, who led efforts to free people who had been captured by the FARC in years before the peace accords
  • The Portuguese activist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who said that “what has prevailed until now is neoliberal peace” that only opens space for transnational corporations. What has to change are the conditions that led young people to join the guerrillas.
  • From ecumenical colleagues came the reminder that the struggle for peace with justice must be global. Rudelmar Bueno de Faria of the ACT Alliance noted the role of religion in the conflict in Colombia, warning that history will not forgive those who have “played with the peace processes.”

In my remarks, I went a bit further regarding the questionable role of religious organizations in the search for peace.

I was at the marvellous ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, in October 2016, when news came that a referendum to approve Colombia’s peace agreement had failed. It was quickly understood that fundamentalist Christians had intervened in the public debate, and rallied their bases to vote no by arguing that the peace agreement promoted “gender ideology” and would destroy the family. In reality, the FARC rebel army had acknowledged its crimes against women and LGBTI people, and apologized. Both sides pledged to do better on gender justice and the rights of LGBTI people.

For me, having worked with faith-based organisations in Colombia and their allies abroad since 1993, the vote result and the reality that some Christians worked against peace, was a disappointment. I had seen people like Lilia Solano (pictured above), a Mennonite who works among human rights NGOs and in Colombia’s legislative branch, and Fr. Javier Giraldo, the Jesuit human rights defender and founder of the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, risk their lives for peace. I thought of friends who are leaders of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Mennonite Churches and Roman Catholic religious communities who would share my disappointment, together with people in organisations like the DiPaz inter-church peace coalition, the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz, and the popular educators and trainers of community journalists at CEPALC.

Their persistent witness guided me when I spoke the next morning to people who were gathered at the seminary to celebrate its 70th anniversary and to consider the future of ecumenical theological education in Latin America and the Caribbean, I said it seemed to me that the voices of moderate or progressive Christians were marginalised or discounted in a climate of fear generated by the shrill voices of the Christian right and their political backers. That day in Cuba, I said:

“A good theological education, offers ways to read the bible, to interpret scripture, to understand the limits church authority in civil society. In a good theological school, one learns to use the Bible to interpret the Bible, to use the texts that we have of the teachings of Jesus about the love of God and of neighbour so as to understand other parts of the bible. Without good theological education—and, by extension, good Christian education within the churches—the public square is surrendered to the most retrograde and hate-filled voices of Christian fundamentalism, empty of love and forgiveness.”

My remarks Thursday, March 18, to the Colombian Senate’s peace conference took up similar themes.

“This increase of inequality and violence contrasts with the experience of churches and social movements that uphold fullness of life and defend the dignity of women and LGBTI people. They create spaces for mutual listening, weaving networks and planting seeds of peace and justice as they raise their voices for a world of greater solidarity.

“Those of us who are too often the objects—and victims—of hate speech need your voices, you artisans of peace, and of religious leaders who promote an understanding of Christianity that is inclusive and respectful of diversity, who promote contextual and liberation theologies, who can join dialogue over differences and are reflections of the reality in which we live: who speak, in the end, of the love that should exist among all of us

“In place of fear and prejudice, let us build alliances of solidarity across all borders.”