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.

Cuba I – The U.S. blockade is a failure

A recent article The Guardian begins with the proposition: “If the U.S. really cared about freedom in Cuba, it would end its punishing sanctions.” Yes, but I would argue that the U.S. cares nothing for Cuba: only that it cease to present a model of how to set social priorities for the common good ahead of narrow economic ones that benefit a wealthy minority, and that it cease to offer a pretty good model of human and ecological development that advances largely outside the global capitalist system.

The whole point of sanctions against Cuba (usually referred to more generally as the blockade or the embargo) has been to cause sufficient dissatisfaction so as to provoke regime change. 

“The blockade was not simply, as many believe, the cutting of an umbilical cord with the United States,” Colombia’s Nobel-prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez wrote 1975. “It was a ferocious attempt at genocide promoted by a power almost without limits, whose tentacles appear in any part of the world.”

The U.S. logic for the blockade was identified in soon after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in a memorandum written by Lester Mallory, deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, to his superiors on April 6, 1960 while Dwight Eisenhower was still president: “The majority of Cubans support Castro.… The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” [Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State.]

With dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington escalated measures intended to strangle Cuba, including the Torricelli Act (1992), Helms-Burton law (1996) and a portfolio of measures announced by G.W. Bush (2004). These measures included severe restrictions on financial transfers (including those by U.S. churches to Cuban churches) along with travel and exchanges of all kinds.

The administration of Bill Clinton (1993-2001) allowed increased travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. This was an attempt to “change” Cuba by encouraging grassroots contact that would spread new ideas in Cuban society. But what happened was that the minds of U.S. visitors were changed: they returned and advocated for an end to the embargo and for a more profound understanding of what has gone on in Cuba since the Revolution in 1959.

Late in the Barack Obama years, some sanctions were eased, diplomatic relations restored, and the U.S. president visited Havana in March 2016. His successor, Donald Trump, instituted 243 new measures against Cuba.

The new administration of Joseph Biden (the 11th president since Eisenhower) refuses to dismantle the sanctions, including those imposed by Trump. Among other things, those measures severely restrict remittances from and travel by Cuban-Americans to their homeland and visits by Cubans to the United States. 

After more than 60 years of trying, the strategy has failed. In June, the U.S. blockade was again condemned by 184 nations in the United Nations General Assembly, this time with only Israel supporting the U.S. position. Colombia, Ukraine, and Brazil abstained.

In the wake of scattered protests in Cuba on July 11, Biden’s gang added even more pointless sanctions. Much that is said and written about Cuba in the weeks since those protests is full of insight. See, for example, articles by Rick Salutin and Vijay Prashad who both compared Cuba’s situation with that of Haiti, which still suffers the consequences of the punishment France exacted after people held in slavery liberated themselves in the 1804 revolution. (Haiti was forced to pay the equivalent of about $25 billion in today’s dollars to compensate the former slave-holders, a debt that wasn’t fully paid until 1947, almost a century-and-a-half later.)

But there is also a lot of drivel emanating from the U.S. state department and the Miami exiles that shows up in mainstream media. Solutions will not come from north of the Straits of Florida, but rather from processes within Cuba. 

Every country on the planet encompasses different opinions just now about responses by governments to the pandemic. In that sense, Cuba is not different—though the government’s capacity to act efficiently is limited by that one simple fact: that the blockade continues. In effect, the United States has used the pandemic as an ally in its effort to suffocate the Cuban revolution.

Cubans struggle with income lost from the U.S. ban on remittances. The tourist industry suffers as the pandemic inhibits travel. Blackouts derive from the U.S.-induced crisis in Venezuela that has sharply reduced the supply of petroleum-based energy. There is inflation that is related to a complicated currency reform. 

On Feb. 18, 2021, U.S. and Cuban churches wrote to Biden, asking him to restore travel, remittances and trade with Cuba; to remove Cuba from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism;” to rescind Trump’s mandate to use extraterritorial provisions of the Helms-Burton law; and to rebuild U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba. 

Meanwhile, Cuban scientists developed Covid vaccines (Soberana and Abdala, which each require three doses for maximum protection), but the blockade hampers production and slows delivery of syringes and personal protective equipment. 

Difficulties notwithstanding, by Sept. 2, Cuba had administered at least one dose to 5.7 million people among a total population of 11.3 million. Of those, 4.6 million had received their second shots and just over 4 million their third. Vaccinations of adolescents and children began Sept. 3, using the Soberana-2 vaccine.

In days and weeks ahead, I will share some thoughts about Cuban history, religious issues that impact political debate, approaches to development and participation in Cuba, gender equity and LGBTI rights, and the broader struggle to overcome imperialism.

In Afghanistan, Colombia and everywhere, we must all become artisans of peace

A banner at the June 2010 protests against the fenced-off meetings of the G8/G20 in downtown Toronto. Photo: Jim Hodgson

While I was working to improve my French in Ottawa decades ago, I occasionally attended Mass in francophone parishes. One Sunday, this line got my attention: « Heureux les artisans de la paix… » (Mt 5:9, Jérusalem). Instead of “blessed are the peace-makers,” the text said “artisans of peace.” I love that. It implies arduous, loving work that will produce something both beautiful and useful.

As Taliban fighters move on to Kabul, and the rights of women and girls are again threatened, I feel anguish for all who have died, those who will die, and for all the lives ruined in this ill-conceived war. 

And I have to say: the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks should and could have been managed differently.

In 2001, Sept. 11 was a Tuesday. On Friday that week, I had lunch in a Toronto restaurant with Central American friends who had worked their whole lives for justice and peace and lost family members in the struggle. TV screens were showing the interfaith service underway at U.S. National Cathedral in Washington.

Led by President George W. Bush and evangelist Billy Graham, the service left me scandalized—discourse about enemies, not a word about love or peace—and feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of the war that everyone knew would follow. U.S. Navy Chanters at beginning and end. The closing hymn was The Battle Hymn of the Republic—“Glory, glory, hallelujah… His truth is marching on… terrible swift sword”—giving Christian blessing to the war. Then a benediction, that we might bear the days to come with strength. The recessional included the tolling of a bell and the colours of the various military services being removed. The political and military establishment returned to work, to duty. 

And so began the War on Terror, what Bush kept calling a Crusade.

A week later, the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) sent letters to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and to members of churches in Canada proposing a different approach.

The dogs of war were howling loudly, so the letters were scarcely noticed at the time. But today, as Taliban troops move closer to Kabul, they are prophetic voices crying in the wilderness (John 1:23). Their relevance today is in their warning against imperialist adventures and articulation of alternative approaches. These are lessons the world still needs to learn.

First, the letters insisted that perpetrators of terrorist crimes must be brought to justice, and that due legal processes must be followed. To the Prime Minister, the CCC said: “We acknowledge that in international relations due process is not always clear, but we remind you that the United Nations and its Security Council are the essential custodians of international due process.” 

The letters acknowledged global interdependence. The letter to church members said: “Whatever action is taken must fully acknowledge that we live in an interdependent world. It is no longer possible to believe that we can live in an island of fortified safety in an otherwise unsafe world.” It added:

“Co-operative international efforts to prevent terrorism must be supplemented by co- operation in developing a broad range of agreements that provide for the security of all. International agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, legal limits on small arms possession and transfers, and other international mechanisms are vital building blocks for a world community that cares for the security and safety of all of its citizens.”

The letters deplored the targeting of people of other faiths. “We therefore encourage Christians throughout Canada to join together with people of other faiths to offer solidarity and courage. Above all let us find a common voice in calling for security and safety for all the world’s people.”

The letters encouraged attention to root causes and a “justice and peace” perspective in the face of terrorist actions:

“It is not morally or spiritually acceptable to speak lightly of war. A campaign against terrorism is necessary, but only in the context of a broader commitment to justice. In the past, a single-minded campaign against communism in Afghanistan helped create conditions of terror in Afghanistan, including support to the now accused Osama bin Laden; it spawned the Taliban; and it contributed to enormous instability in Pakistan. So also an unthinking military campaign against terrorism could have immense unforeseen consequences if not guided by due processes of law, appropriate limits to force, and pursuit of justice for all.”

The letter to the Prime Minister was signed by: Janet Somerville, the CCC general secretary (and one of my former editors at Catholic New Times); Ernie Regher, the director of Project Ploughshares; David Pfrimmer, chair of the CCC’s justice and peace commission; and Bishop André Vallée, CCC president.

Instead of complex, long-term strategies of peace-making, a war strategy was followed: defeat the Taliban and the al-Qaeda network militarily and rebuild core institutions of the Afghan state. But the United States and its NATO allies failed to destroy either group, or to secure and stabilize Afghanistan. 

In April 2002, President Bush announced a version of the post-World-War-II “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, promising substantial financial aid. But development efforts were under-funded and U.S. attention shifted to that other perceived enemy: Iraq. 

What was needed in Afghanistan was not war, but a long, slow process of engagement, dialogue, community development, facilitation of victim-offender reconciliation: solidarity instead of imperial interference. You don’t have to like the Taliban to begin a conversation—but that might not have been the starting point anyway. It’s pretty clear that people in Saudi Arabia—a key U.S. ally and supplier of oil—bankroll the Taliban, al-Quaida and factions in Pakistan, promoting a fundamentalist version of Islam that is not shared by the vast majority of Muslims. 

Inter-religious dialogue has a role here too. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports the G20 Interfaith Forum, an event usually held just ahead of G20 meetings to look at issues of religion and sustainable development. It may be uncomfortable for their representatives to listen to people like me talking about LGBTI rights in a conversation about religious freedom, but from such encounters over time, change happens. And the United States needs to develop more honest relationships with its “allies” like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, engaging them on human rights, knowing that change won’t happen immediately but over time. Looking the other way doesn’t help Afghans or anyone else.

This week, I have been reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel, And the Mountains Echoed. Like his earlier novel, The Kite Runner, he sweeps across Afghan history and geography. On page 127, he writes of war, wars, “many wars, both big and small, just and unjust, wars with shifting casts of supposed heroes and villains, each new hero making one increasingly nostalgic for the old villain.”

We must all become artisans of peace.