Cuba II: Overcoming systemic discrimination, confronting imperialism

When considering Cuba today—and thinking beyond what you think you learned from Godfather II—it’s useful to consider what Cuba was like before Jan. 1, 1959. To do so, I went back to one of my venerable university text books, Modern Ideologies, by Max Mark (New York: St. Martin’s, 1973. p. 172):

  • U.S. interests owned 40 per cent of the sugar land, including seven of the ten largest plantations. Much of this land was acquired after the Spanish-American War. 
  • U.S. interests owned 54 per cent of the sugar mills and 90 per cent in the telephone companies, electric power supply and railways. 
  • The most depressed group was made up of people who lived in rural areas. In 1946, eight per cent of the farmers owned 71.1 per cent of the land that was owned by Cubans, while 39 per cent owned only 3.3 per cent.
  • The typical Cuban agriculturist was a landless day-labourer who worked for wages in supervised groups, employed for only a few months of the year.
  • Their lives were in sharp contrast with life in more cosmopolitan Havana, where 87 per cent of homes had electricity. In rural areas, only 7 per cent of dwellings were so equipped. 

I would add that before the 1959 revolution, 85 per cent of Cuba’s trade was with the United States.

Let’s go more deeply into the history of Cuba at the hands of the imperial powers: Spain and the United States. Despite losing most of its other Latin American and Caribbean colonies early in the 19thcentury, Spain had managed to hold onto Cuba until the Spanish-American War near the end of the century. A rebellion by African slaves in 1812 had been crushed. An independence struggle launched in 1868 failed after 10 years of fighting. Spain finally abolished slavery in Cuba in 1886. Another revolt, this one led by the writer José Martí, broke out in 1895.

The U.S. newspaper empires of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed against each other with sensationalistic stories of Spanish oppression in its remaining colonies, especially Cuba. In what is widely believed to have been an “inside job” to provide a pretext for war, the U.S. battleship Maine was blown up in the Havana harbour on Feb. 15, 1898. U.S. ships blockaded Cuba and land forces were deployed. By August, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were all occupied by the United States. In a treaty at the end of the year, Spain conceded Cuba’s independence. Fierce resistance continued in Philippines for years afterwards, and the other former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Guam remain in U.S. hands to this day. 

At first, the U.S. established a military government in Cuba. A new constitution in 1901 contained the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban internal affairs. It also gave the U.S. a naval base at Guantánamo. 

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbour Policy, the United States abrogated the amendment in 1934, but kept Guantánamo. For almost 20 years, the United States has operated an illegal prison camp for alleged terrorists at its Guantánamo base.

The stories of the struggle in the 1950s to rid Cuba of the dictator Fulgencio Batista—Fidel Castro’s raid on the Moncada barracks in 1953 and subsequent trial (“History will absolve me”); his return from exile in Mexico aboard the Granma in 1956 in the company of his brother Raúl and Ernesto “Che” Guevara; the guerrilla war waged from the Sierra Maestra mountains; the eventual triumph—are better known and well-told elsewhere, as are the tales of clashes with the United States (the “Bay of Pigs” invasion, the missile crisis).

What’s not as well-known are the early steps toward transformation, especially those that placed previously impoverished people—especially women and people of colour—at the centre of attention, a sharp break from “the discrimination inherent in patriarchal and segregationist societies.”

Key here was creation in 1960 of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) under the leadership of Vilma Espín as a space to drive and achieve many goals of the women’s movement (“the revolution within the revolution,” as Fidel called it): participation, pay equity, universal day care, reproductive rights, and paid maternity leave. For more than 60 years, Cuba has made consistent gains in health care and education, and shared its accomplishments with people in other developing countries around the world.

Across Latin America, impoverished people saw the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on Jan. 1, 1959, as a sign of hope. Across the region, protests against poverty and oppression grew in the 1960s, and armed rebellions began in many countries. On July 19, 1979, came the triumph of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) in Nicaragua. In most places, however, military force (with training and funding from the United States) crushed the revolts.

Latin American churches, meanwhile, were changing too. The old strategy of training elites in hope that they might show mercy to the poor was an obvious failure. Building from the methods of popular education, churches encouraged lay people to come together in “base Christian communities” (comunidades eclesiales de base—CEBs).

Theologians came to describe the reflection carried out by oppressed people on their processes of social and political change as liberation theology. When you talk with people in Mexico or El Salvador or Argentina about their inspiration for involvement in struggles for social change, many say it was through participation in the CEBs—or their parents’ participation.

In my next post, I will share more about the role of churches in contemporary Cuba.

When elites see their wealth threatened, they move heaven and earth

On Nov. 11, 1979, San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero preached on Mark 12:38-44, The Widow’s Offering: Jesus watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” 

Colombia’s president sends more troops to Cali to try to quell a month of protests. The British magazine The Economist invites a resurgence of U.S. imperialism to thwart the Mexican president’s option for the poor. The six-decade-long U.S. blockade of Cuba is so severe that the country cannot obtain sufficient syringes to protect its population with the vaccines it has developed.

And I think of the words of St. Oscar Romero on Nov. 11, 1979, when he offered a warning about money when it becomes an idol:

It’s natural that when the right feels that their economic privileges are being threatened, they will move heaven and earth in order to maintain their idol of wealth.

Next Sunday, June 6, Mexicans and Peruvians head to the polls. In Mexico, these mid-term elections—the national legislature and many state and local races—are marred by violence: at least 35 candidates of various parties have been murdered. In Peru, it’s the second round of voting to elect a new president: from the left, Pedro Castillo stands a reasonable chance of defeating Keiko Fujimori, despite her powerful, rich supporters.

The Economist’s attack on Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by his initials as AMLO) in startling. There are reasonable grounds to debate this policy (the pandemic response) or that development plan (the tourist train in the Yucatán peninsula that is opposed by Indigenous people in the region), but The Economist argues that he is a populist comparable to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and that democracy is threatened:

Mr. López Obrador divides Mexicans into two groups: “the people”, by which he means those who support him; and the elite, whom he denounces, often by name, as crooks and traitors who are to blame for all Mexico’s problems. He says he is building a more authentic democracy. 

Left: Cartoon by Israel Vargas, The Economist, May 27, 2021. Right: cartoon by El Fisgón, La Jornada, May 29, 2021. (“The Economist: The magazine of the True Oligarchy.”)

It then goes further, suggesting that the United States get involved in Mexico’s internal affairs:

The United States needs to pay attention. Donald Trump did not care about Mexican democracy. President Joe Biden should make clear that he does. He must be tactful: Mexicans are understandably allergic to being pushed around by their big neighbour. But America ought not to turn a blind eye to creeping authoritarianism in its backyard. As well as sending vaccines, unconditionally, Mr. Biden should send quiet warnings.

So, what is a populist anyway? 

A Venezuelan friend who lives in Costa Rica, José Amesty, says populism is a term used by elites when they do not understand what is going on. I would refine that slightly and suggest that it is a term used by elites and technocrats to describe political movements that reject their narrow economic priorities—maintaining their own privileges—by putting social goals first. 

Amesty cites AMLO: “supporting the poor, supporting elderly adults, supporting youth: if that is to be populist, then add me to the list.” AMLO stands in the tradition of Lázaro Cárdenas, the revolutionary Mexican president who in the 1930s led a land reform that put half of the farming land in the hands of local community councils (ejidos) and who nationalized the petroleum industry.

Populism is one of the least useful terms in our political lexicon. I think we’re clearer when we use tags that are generally understood: left (social democrat, socialist, communist), centre (liberal), or right (conservative, traditional, elitist, militarist). Better yet: actually describe the content of political platforms. What does this candidate stand for? With whom do they stand? 

The government of Iván Duque in Colombia and the candidacy of Fujimori in Peru are projections of traditional elites trying to hold on to their power and economic privileges against diverse social and political movements that would empower people who have usually been locked out of power: the rural and urban poor, Indigenous and descendants of Africans, women and LGBTI people. 

In that sense, democracy in Latin America is not so much being threatened as it is still being invented.

A faith that does justice

The Risen Christ: Detail from the central mural of the Iglesia Santa Maria de los Angeles en el Barrio Riguero, Managua (Jim Hodgson, 1984)

Things that have been different in the past can be different again in the future.

If, like me, you are distressed by actions of religious extremists and their allies among Canada’s bishops against global partners of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P), then it is useful to remember how some forward-looking people were inspired by the Second Vatican Council and by social and political change in the global South to create the organization back in the 1960s.

Today I share with you the text of an interview I did in February 1989 with Bill Smith, a Scarboro Missions priest who had just finished 15 years of service as D&P’s Central America project officer. Bill died less than three months later, just after arriving in Brazil. 

I share Bill’s words to me that day in Montreal 32 years ago as a sign of what has been possible, and of what can be possible yet again. 

The interview was published in Scarboro Missions magazine, September 1989, pp. 4-7.

Bill: I was 50 years old last November, so I begin by saying this is quite a remarkable phenomenon to have lived so long in a world where the majority of people do not even attain early adolescence. It is not at all remarkable in the North American continent but it is very remarkable if set in the framework of what we traditionally refer to as the Third World.

To place in context where I am and the journey that I have made, we would have to go back almost 30 years to Vatican II. A revolutionary process was underway in Christianity by the early 1960s. Women and men in the Church had become identified and involved in life and death struggles of primarily peasant farm peoples with whom they had been working, and with the struggles of oppressed people. Out of this context emerges later on in history what they refer to as the theology of liberation. This theology denounces injustice and announces that the gospel is involved in bringing about change and justice. Vatican II was a moment in this century when the Catholic church which over a period of hundreds of years had distanced itself from the radical message of the gospel, got in touch with its roots again, and that has made a profound change throughout Christianity and throughout secular society as well. It certainly made a profound change in myself.

The articulation of that “new vision” of society and the now famous encyclical of Paul VI, The Progress of Peoples, state that the Church does not have economic answers, nor does the church have any particular model of society, but only suggests that men and women working together must build a society based on the logic of the poor majority. There was also the serious question of the absolute right to private property on which our North American society is based.

We witness this radical change in the thinking and the living of the gospel message because the Catholic Church is no long a white, middle-class Western and European church but is a peripheral church made up of men and women who are not attached to the status-quo of the present economic system that we see primarily in the West called Capitalism, but who are looking for and demanding, in the name of their faith, a radical change in the structures of society.

So today, I no long think that mission is primarily the proclamation of a message that is assented to in faith, but today it is an evangelization based on a faith that does justice. So mission is no longer considered as only the work of missionaries, who leave their country to proclaim the gospel in distant lands.

When I first went to Brazil, I thought that mission would be working in the Amazon. But what I had originally thought, in my simplicity, that there were frontiers and barriers between countries, was again part of a mythology. I discovered that there was a social, economic and ecological vision of men and women that was being imposed by the powerful over the weak. I have also witnessed a church that has done a self-critique and had realized that it does not own the gospel, and does not own the historical Jesus. I have seen the Magnificat lived in the sense of the ‘great’ being questioned and pushed to the wall by the ‘small’ who have been lifted up. I think that is amply illustrated in the case of Nicaragua and El Salvador. Despite literally millions of dollars per day being put into machines of death, the men and women of Nicaragua and El Salvador are building a society precisely that comes out of this new awareness of social justice. These are poor people, suffering people, who are the victims of an unjust and aggressive war. 

A different era of North-South cooperation: Bishop Bernard Hubert, Longueuil;  Fr. Bill Smith, SFM; Bishop Remi de Roo, Victoria; Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, São Paulo.

I would say that the major changes that I discovered in working in Central America over the last few years has been primarily a tremendous awareness of people, of men and women and peasant farmers who are capable of seeing very clearly what is going on. Where is the creativity taking place in the world today? Men and women in the Third World see clearly and understand that there is a structure that has been put in place. And that poor housing and lack of schools and lack of health facilities and lack of education is no indication of any kind of inferiority. But it is a provoked phenomenon. It is something that is determined. What I get very excited about is this tremendous creativity where poor people are looking a life and asking, Why can’t everybody have a decent life? Why can’t we build an economy in which people don’t have to be destroyed through pesticides? Why can we not build a society where justice applies to all, and where women are not chattels and objects but full human beings with all the rights that men have? And why cannot religion, instead of being something that suffocates and destroys creativity, be the source of new energy, integration and wholesomeness?

Growth takes place when people begin to come to grips with the real issues in society, when we get beyond the guilt of feeling responsible for what has happened in the Third World, to where we feel we are co-responsible for transforming our Third World here in Canada and all the other Third Worlds. People are coming together and trying to understand, moving beyond mythology to an understanding of society. That is what I see having happened in this period for the past 30 years.

I think that Development and Peace has fundamentally held on to this meaning of the encyclical The Progress of Peoples and realized quite prophetically that social change is fundamentally all about empowering people and not about technology or funds or even personnel, that transformation takes place when people begin to come together and share. Solidarity, so beautifully stated in Nicaragua, is the tenderness of peoples. So that if you are going to have social change then you have to have the empowerment of people who are going to bring about change.

Q: Who are the major actors to bring about change in society in Central America?

It is the majority of people who are the peasant farmers. Women and men involved in alternate forms of education for the ordinary people, since to be ‘educated’ has been primarily reserved to the elite. What Development and Peace does, and I think does well and with a great deal of respect is to accompany groups, communities and other popular organizations in Central America who are involved in the very democratic process of resolving their own problems through new forms of popular education. So we don’t tell them what to do. They present projects to Development and Peace for financial help. So that is one leg. Development and Peace walks on two legs. Its other leg is here in Canada because it has to be involved in what is happening here. If you are not, what kind of credibility can you have by being in another country? Thus, Development and Peace has to conscientize or educate us Canadians here in Canada. This happens by bringing peoples, spokespersons, men and women to be with us. It is those two legs or accompaniments that make for an exciting development journey.

We must note, however, that the people in the Third World are no longer talking about development. They are talking about liberation and they are talking about liberation in a broader context—social, economic, political and religious liberation. And so the evangelist goes out and ends up being evangelized. The teacher becomes the student. The Third World peoples do need us as we need them to walk together, to listen to each other, to be strengthened, to be empowered mutually, to bring about precisely this vast change that we need in our own Canadian society. St. Augustine says Hope had two beautiful daughters: one of them called Anger because of the way things are and the other called Courage to work to change things, to bring about change.

That is what I have learned, what the Third World has taught me, and I would hope that at the end of all of this, if indeed there are any titles left to be handed out, I and others would be entitled to the name Companion. I think that is what Development and Peace is, I think that is what Scarboro is and it is something that I aspire to as well.

Q: What did you do in Central America?

I was a bridge, a contact between farmers’ groups, unions, women’s groups, health groups, popular education groups, human rights groups and Canadians. Solidarity has to be personalized. I mean people have to sit down and break bread together. That is what Companion means, and that is when Jesus was recognized on the road to Emmaus. He walked with them, he talked with them but it was when they broke bread they knew Him.

What is important is the quality of life here and in the Third World and the exchanges and dialogue that takes place. I carry in my heart so many wonderful people and I think that is what is important. So much so that now I can go back to Brazil in a totally renewed, energized way and do exactly the same thing. Nothing but to be present, which is to accompany, and to come back to my own people once in a while and say, “You know folks there are really doing some tremendous things right now,” in São Paulo or wherever it is one happens to be.

Q: What were some of the successes you experienced?

Well, I think that the beautiful successes are the struggles of the people in Guatemala, people in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, people who have been faithful to their commitment to bring about social justice. Part of the work, it seems to me, is to bring people to another level of awareness that life is precious and that there are things that we can do. We are not helpless. Also at home, to denounce the violations of human rights; to open our borders to receive people who are driven from their homes; to be courageous enough to denounce international terrorism; to be courageous enough to make available sources of information so as to counter the lies that are put forward in the press. The important thing, I’ve learned, is that we are not helpless. And as Nicaraguans have taught us, those who struggle never die. They are always present. We will be remembered because we are part of a process. A process that did not begin with us, a process that does not end with us. The responsibility we have is handing on that mandate to others.

Q: What do you think Canadians can learn from your experience?

That we are not to be paralyzed or overcome with guilty but we must begin to work here. It is to the degree that we are involved in our own community here in Canada that we can understand what other people are doing. There is communion that is possible. We can understand each other because we have had the same experience. There is, and very much so, a new awareness and commitment in Canada to come to grips with the real issues in society, to repair the damage that has been done. So there is a great deal of hope, that is what’s so exciting.