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 IV: Rethinking development in a revolutionary situation

“Peace + Friendship = Development”

My time in the Dominican Republic and Mexico had convinced me that most proponents of “development” failed to address the unjust structures in the world, including inequalities that have roots in colonial times. Development needed to be understood (as Gustavo Gutiérrez and others argued) in terms of liberation: a radical transformation of global systems of power and domination.

And so, once I had the opportunity to work among churches in Cuba, I was eager to learn about the practice of development in a revolutionary, socialist society.

In the years after the Cuban government’s rapprochement with organized religion in the early 1990s, some churches and especially their ecumenical agencies made major efforts to contribute to the overall well-being of Cuban society. Cuba was in its “special period” of adjustment to the loss of the Soviet Union as a major trade and aid partner. Cuban churches drew from their own creativity and resources from their global partners to assist.

Today, church-based development programs include strong emergency response capacity and training to manage small businesses and to produce and conserve food (including urban farming). Such training includes empowerment of vulnerable groups, notably farmers with disabilities and senior citizens.

Juan Carlos Cabrera, Sibanicú, Camagüey: a hearing-impaired participant in the CIC’s project with farmers who have disabilities.

The Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) has long supported a pastoral ministry among people living with disabilities. In recent years, that ministry began to focus on farmers with disabilities. You can hear from some of the families and learn about their work in a video I helped to make with The United Church of Canada in 2019. 

In Cárdenas (near Varadero in Matanzas province), the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) has run a “meals-on-wheels” style program for people in need because of age or illness. Support goes beyond delivery of a daily meal, and includes (according to need) provision of clothing, laundry service, house-keeping, medication, and attention to health and hygiene. 

Much of the food used in that program (and in schools and hospitals around Cárdenas) is produced at CCRD’s 32-hectare farm, El Retiro. It is also a place for training of farmers in the area. You can read more about the farm and about agriculture in Cuba in an article by Gary Kenny (a friend and former staff colleague at the United Church).

CCRD’s farm: “development means that… everyone has a voice”

In conversations with CCRD staff in March 2018, the word “development” kept coming up. I asked them what the concept meant to them. At first, they did what I sometimes do: add an adjective (“community development” or “participatory development”) or an object (“development of capacities”). Eventually, they said: “that everyone has a voice.” And: “Participation means the extent to which people can participate in community, as persons; to express themselves, with their collective and individual interests.” 

In practical terms, that means holding fast to a vision of the common good that embraces all—even as the Cuban government opens the economy to small business initiatives. Tourists already know independent restaurants (paladares) and bed-and-breakfast places (casas particulares). But now there are beauticians, repair shops, and designers of fashion and everything else. In Cuba, they are called cuentapropistas: people who work on their “own account.”

At the same time, the government also encourages people to take up farming. But the new farmers need training in everything from bookkeeping to organic farming practice. This work is carried out in a decentralized way by the CIC together with CCRD and various NGOs and state agencies. Challenges include lack of machinery; ecological awareness; impacts of climate change (drought, hurricanes); market distortions (some hotels buy directly from farmers, bypassing public systems intended to ensure food security for all); and the risk of introduction of GM seeds. 

The Cuban Council of Churches’ areas of work.

As market systems evolve and while holding fast to that vision of the common good, CIC and CCRD are taking up concepts of “social and solidarity economies” and structures of cooperatives (as opposed to individual or competitive initiatives). These are not top-down programs, but initiatives hatched in networks across the country. The idea is to get people with different interests matched up with people who have capacity and experience within the same area, working with municipalities, churches and other non-governmental organizations. The networks come together without money for projects, but proposals can emerge from their work—which is what happened with the effort to support farmers with disabilities.

In Cuba and beyond, debates continue about development. We may have “sustainable development goals,” but does the practice change? Are we transforming systems and practicing liberation?

From their experience, Cuban church leaders and theologians contribute to the global ecumenical conversation that unfolds in the World Council of Churches and the ACT Alliance of 135 faith-based development and relief agencies.

In December 2010, Reinerio Arce (a former CIC president who was then serving as rector of the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas) called for what he called “prophetic diakonia.” (Diakonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to service—every kind of service: helping people, serving at tables, and offering leadership in faith communities.)

“In our country the churches are playing a more active role serving the people in need at this moment when our economy is shifting increasingly; we need to build capacity for this task,” he said an interview with the WCC news service.

“God sends us out in mission to bring the good news to the poor and oppressed, in word and in deed. Faithful to this call, we try to serve human needs, focusing on the marginalized, the ‘least of these,’ not only by comforting them but also by addressing the root causes of their pain, sorrow and shortages. This ministry of prophetic diakonia seeks to confront the powers of this world that lead to violence, exclusion, death and destruction, and it calls for the transformation of unjust structures and practices into God’s kingdom of justice, with fullness of life for all and for creation.” 

In Matanzas on Oct. 4, 2016, we watched on TV (left) as Hurricane Matthew crossed southwest Haiti before moving on to eastern Cuba. Three days later, I joined CIC staff as they continued their emergency response (right), including provision of shelter in churches.

Cuba III: Churches emphasize the value of dialogue and mutual listening

When protests broke out on Sunday, July 11, President Miguel Díaz-Canel went to the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, southwest of Havana, to talk with protesters about their grievances—something the presidents of Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Guatemala and Haiti never did despite months of protests in their countries.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel hears from the people of San Antonio de los Baños on July 11 (Photo: Estudios Revolución). Right: Bishop Griselda Delgado of Cuba’s Episcopalian (Anglican) Church (Photo: Jim Hodgson)

In the wake of the protests, Cuba’s churches called for dialogue. The Catholic bishops warned against “a rigidity and hardening of positions” and encouraged “mutual listening.” The bishop of the Episcopalian (Anglican) Church, María Griselda Delgado, said: “There will always be divergences, diverse opinions, different thoughts; there is the richness and integrity of being a People. It is necessary to raise the value of dialogue to seek understanding.” (Several of the church statements are posted in English on a Facebook site related to the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) On Aug. 6, the Cuban Council of Churches and leaders of its member churches met with President Díaz-Canel, along with the Student Christian Movement and other ecumenical groups.

Like many Canadians, I made my first visit to Cuba as a tourist. That was in 1992, at the height of the “special period” when Cubans faced hardship as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and sought new ways to engage with the rest of the world. 

From 2000 to 2019, I had the privilege of visiting the country almost every year. For two decades on behalf of The United Church of Canada, I worked alongside Cuban churches and their ecumenical organizations (the Cuban Council of Churches, the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas, the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue in Matanzas, and the Martin Luther King Memorial Centre in Havana).

Canadians visited Cuba; Cubans came to Canada. The relationships were lively: rooted in love and mutual respect, and not immune from political and religious controversies. We learned together and taught one another in formal and informal settings—academic exchanges (faculty and students), congregational twinning, and participation together in international settings (World Social Forum, Hemispheric Social Alliance, World Council of Churches, ACT Alliance, and others). And we worked with U.S. churches to help maintain and strengthen their ties with Cuban churches in the face of official U.S. hostility to Cuba. My occasional conversations with Cuban government staff and politicians were friendly and informative.

All of those efforts are about building bridges, sharing stories, promoting dialogue. We could even find common ground with the government of Canada’s “constructive engagement” policy approach to Cuba and, for many years, collaborate in official development assistance projects.

And so, I welcome the voices of those Cuban churches that work in favour of dialogue and realistic approaches to solving problems.

Theology in Revolution

For the Cuban churches, the years following the Cuban Revolution were challenging. The new government was suspicious of churches that had aligned themselves historically with the elites or that operated as “missions” that were dependent on U.S. support.  The government restricted religious activity. Many ministers and priests left the country, though there was more enthusiasm for the revolution among lay people. Atheism became official state policy and religious believers were discriminated against in employment and education.

View of Matanzas from the Evangelical Seminary of Theology (SET); Sergio Arce in 2007. (Photos: Jim Hodgson)

Some among those who stayed—or, as in the case of Presbyterian theologian Sergio Arce Martínez, returned—developed a “theology in revolution” in the 1960s. Arce was concerned not with a God “up there,” but rather with God “down here” as experienced in human history, especially in the revolution against poverty, exclusion and imperialism. Christians from other parts of the world attended the 1966 Tricontinental Congress in Havana, and then the Cultural Congress held in Havana in January 1968. That event was attended by several Catholic priests whose declaration was read aloud by Fidel Castro at the closing.

Elsewhere, other processes were underway: the Roman Catholic Church’s II Vatican Council (1962-65) and the meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín in 1968; the growth of Christian base communities; Priests for the Third World in Argentina in 1966; the World Conference on Church and Society, held in Geneva in 1966, that identified the close relationship between peace and justice; and emergence of the National Organization for Social Integration (ONIS) in Peru in 1968, the Golcanda group in Colombia, also in 1968, and Christians for Socialism in Salvador Allende’s Chile in 1971. All of these currents—including the Cuban Revolution itself—influenced each other and played a role in the articulation of liberation theology by Gustavo Gutiérrez and others in the early 70s. The confluence of those processes, plus the Catholic Church’s articulation of the “preferential option for the poor” in the late 70s, and patient work by Christians in Cuba to overcome the revolutionary government’s early distrust of organized religion, resulted in the Communist Party’s decision in 1991 to drop its requirement that party members be atheists. More Cuban Christians began to attend worship and join churches.

Use and abuse of organized religion

The U.S. government has made no secret of its intent to use religious groups to subvert the Cuban Revolution. Most blatant in this regard was the May 2004 Report to President G.W. Bush by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, chaired by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. The commission promised to use religious organizations in “building a free Cuba.” It also proposed to “differentiate the leadership of the Cuban Council of Churches” from its members (p.64). 

Read now, almost two decades later, the report is as ludicrous as other Orwellian lies from the Bush era, like the ones about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or that Afghans would welcome foreign invaders. 

Even so, you can see the effects of the approach in the attacks today on the Cuban Council of Churches in responses to its social media posts. 

With graver consequences, networks of conservative Christians oppose gender equity, same-sex marriage and Trans rights as if they were attacks on the “traditional family.” Any criticism of the fundamentalist view draws charges from the U.S. government that Cuba is attacking religious freedom. (I’ll look at LGBTI rights in a future post.)

In facing the alignment of fundamentalist Christian religion with right-wing politics, Cuba is not alone. Across Latin America and beyond, many of these groups seek to use state power to impose their narrow moral agenda. I have written about this phenomenon previously (in the context of Colombia) here.

Next week: Unwrapping development, Cuban-style; LGBTI rights and inclusion; and something along the lines of “how to confront imperialism without losing your soul.”

Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, met Sept. 9 with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, and with scientists who developed Cuba’s Covid vaccines.