As we struggle to respond to this situation, it might be helpful to reflect on the teachings of Fidel Castro, arguably the greatest revolutionary of the twentieth century, with respect to the question of race and politics. The teachings of Fidel, on race and other matters, have guided the Cuban Revolution since 1953. Study of his teachings has emerged as a significant activity among Cuban academics and intellectuals in recent years, and academic centers dedicated to his thought are being established.
Fidel persistently taught that discrimination against persons for motive of race has no place in a truly revolutionary process. As merely one example, at a press conference on January 22, 1959, three weeks following the triumph of the revolution, Fidel stated: “In our revolutionary struggle, we have shown total identification and brotherhood among persons of different skin colors. In this sense, we are followers of the thought of Martí, the apostle of our independence. We would not be revolutionaries, and we would not be democratic, if we were not divested of all forms of discrimination” (Castro 2016:73).
Fidel considered that it ought not be necessary to dictate a law defining the rights of blacks, because the revolution is based on the principle that all persons have rights, by virtue of their being human and members of the society. He considered it impossible to fight prejudices with laws, because you could not impose penal sanctions on anyone for having them; you are not going to eliminate erroneous thinking with a law. Rather, he called for the public condemnation of all persons that possess the absurd prejudices of the past. Sadly, he observed, there are humble persons, such as workers and tenant farmers, who have prejudices and discriminate. You have you have to speak to them, he taught, persuading and demonstrating, with faith that the people are intelligent, reasonable, and capable of listening.
Persuasion was not the only strategy. Fidel maintained that one of the historic sources of prejudice in Cuba is racial separation in schools. Beginning in 1959, he called for the development of free, public, and integrated schools, not only as a strategy to universalize access to higher levels of education and to open economic opportunity, but also to provide an atmosphere in which children of different colors will study and play together, and they therefore will develop unprejudiced attitudes. (Fidel himself, as a child, began his schooling in such an environment). He promised that the revolution would create public schools for all, with all the necessary funding for the schools, including clothes and meals, where necessary. And the schools will develop recreation centers, providing an atmosphere of play with adult supervision.
Analyzing the issue in 1959, Fidel considered that the most serious problem that blacks confront is the denial of employment and discrimination in employment. He noted that in colonial times, slaves had been forced to work fifteen hours a day. After the abolition of slavery and during the neocolonial republic, blacks were liberated from forced work, but they were denied the opportunity to work and to earn a decent standard of living. As a result, Afro-Cubans were disproportionately represented among the 700,000 unemployed Cubans in 1959. The Revolution pronounced the need to find employment for those without a work, and everyone is in agreement, Fidel observed. “And when everyone says that employment must be found for 700,000 Cubans without work, no one is saying that employment must be found for the whites only, or for such-and-such only; we are speaking of the need to find employment for the 700,000 without work, be they black or white” (Castro 2016:76).
Let us reflect on what Fidel said here from the point of view of a political strategy. First, we should note that what Fidel was saying in 1959 was consistent with what Fidel had proclaimed in his 1953 trial, in a speech that was subsequently printed and distributed clandestinely as “History Will Absolve Me.” He spoke at that time of the problem of unemployment, without mentioning the racial distribution of unemployment. Similarly, he spoke of the problems of inadequate land for peasants, woefully inadequate rural and urban housing, insufficiently and highly priced electricity, and the lack of health care, without mentioning their impact by race; and he proposed specific policies for the resolution of each these problems, without regard for race. That is, his strategy was a political discourse of commitment to the providing of land, housing, electricity, and health for all those who need it, be they black or white.
Fidel was aware, as we have noted, that among the people with modest means are those with the absurd racial prejudices of the past. The revolution intended to overcome such prejudices in time, through persuading and educating the adults and providing high quality, free, and integrated education for the children. But for the moment, Fidel saw the political necessity of including persons with absurd racial prejudices in the emerging revolutionary subject. He anticipated that decisive revolutionary steps in defense of the rights of the people would provoke an aggressive reaction by powerful actors; and accordingly, he discerned that a unifying consensus among the majority of the humble was indispensable. So his political strategy was to call both blacks and whites to revolutionary action by committing to resolve the common problems that both had, without mentioning the racial distribution of these common problems.
Fidel could have pointed out that the plan would benefit more blacks than whites. But he did not do so. Why did he not? Because politically, it made no sense to do so. What would be the advantage of doing so? Everybody knew it to be true, but to mention it, or even worse, to give emphasis to it, would risk inflaming the racist passions of the whites with modest means, which could provoke serious divisions between whites and blacks, undermining the necessary unity of the revolution. The trick was to keep the racist passions from boiling over, not by compromising with a racist mentality, but by attending to the problems that all had, without unnecessarily mentioning racism as one of the sources of these problems. The unity of the people must be forged and maintained.
And the necessary unity of the people was indeed a theme to which Fidel turned in a speech on March 29, 1959. “We, who are one people, in which are included persons of all colors and of no color; we, who are one people constituted by different racial components; how are we going to commit the stupidity and the absurdity of giving shelter to the virus of discrimination? Here in this multitude I see whites and I see blacks, because that is the people, the people is integrated by whites, by blacks, by mulattos, and by persons of all colors!”
In 1959, Fidel viewed racial prejudice as an absurd legacy of the past. He considered it especially absurd in the case of Cuba, inasmuch as few in “whites” in Cuba could claim to belong to a “pure race,” as a result of the Moorish colonization of Spain prior to the Spanish colonization of Cuba. However, even though absurd, Fidel discerned that racism could not be eliminated easily, and he considered racial discrimination to be one of the most complex problems that the revolution had to confront.
On the basis of this understanding, Fidel led the revolution to a program of comprehensive action involving universal, free, fully funded, and integrated public education; patient and persistent persuasion and reasoning; and condemnation of racial discrimination in employment as counterrevolutionary. The comprehensive program of action was combined with a discourse that stressed the necessary unity of the people and that gave emphasis to the universal benefits of the program of action.
Fidel emerged to a position of charismatic authority by proclaiming fundamental truths to the people, standing in contrast to the politicians of the past, who had to speak in half-truths and distortions in order to represent covertly the interests of the powerful and the wealthy. Fidel’s capacity to proclaim fundamental truths reflected an ability to understand social dynamics and a moral commitment to social justice and to the humble. But Fidel also possessed the political intelligence to understand that some truths should not be stated too frequently, not until the people are more politically mature.
In an extensive interview in 2006 with Ignacio Ramonet, a well-known French intellectual of the Left, Fidel reflected on the gains and limitations of the Revolution with respect to race since 1959. First, he noted that scientific investigation since 1959 has shown irrefutably that the differences among ethnic groups are minimal, and they have absolutely nothing to do with ability or intelligence. However, in spite of the fact that science now has come to the aid of the struggle against racism, discrimination survives.
The persistence of discrimination is found even in a society like Cuba, in which the struggle against racial discrimination has been a sacred principle of the Revolution. In analyzing this situation, Fidel distinguishes between the subjective dimension, pertaining to the attitudes of the people; and the objective dimension, having to do with social and economic conditions. He maintains that, because of the revolutionary education of the people, what he calls “subjective discrimination,” rooted in absurd ideas of the unequal abilities of ethnic groups, has been eliminated in great part. However, discrimination still exists today in the form of “objective discrimination,” which is a phenomenon associated with poverty and with the unequal distribution of knowledge. Accordingly, even though the Revolution has attained full rights and guarantees for citizens of all ethnic groups, it has not had the same level of success in eradicating the differences in social and economic status between blacks and whites. Blacks do not live in the best houses, they are disproportionately represented in the poorer neighborhoods, and they receive less than their white compatriots in remittances sent by family members resident in other countries. These are racial inequalities in social status that are a consequence of historic discrimination, in that they have historic roots in the slavery of the colonial era and in other forms of exclusion and discrimination of the neocolonial Republic.
Although the Revolution has been able for the most part to eliminate subjective discrimination, prejudicial attitudes persist among the people. Fidel cited an example of a Cuban television program that wanted to promote confidence in the efficiency of the police. In the first place, the program focused on the street crimes of the poor rather than the white-collar crimes of the managers. In addition, the great majority of the delinquents were blacks and mixed race, with very few whites. To associate crime with a particular ethnic group serves no purpose, Fidel maintained, and it functions to enflame the population. But in spite of the survival a level of prejudicial attitudes and assumptions among the people, Fidel maintains that the Revolution has attained much with respect to race, and there remains very little subjective discrimination. What exists in Cuba today is objective discrimination, in Fidel’s terminology, rooted in historic and systematic patterns of exclusion and denial of rights during the colonial period and the pre-revolutionary neocolonial Republic.
Fidel observed in 2006 that he and the other revolutionary leaders were naïve back in 1959 to have believed that the total and absolute equality before the law would end discrimination. Since that time, we have learned that prejudicial attitudes can be eliminated for the most part, through integrated public schools and political education. But the elimination of socio-economic inequality, reflecting the historic association between race and poverty and between race and education, is a more complex challenge.
There is some tendency for leftists in the United States to castigate Cuba, or to consider its revolutionary example tarnished, because it has not completely eliminated what Fidel calls “objective discrimination,” or racial inequalities with respect to socio-economic status resulting from previous historical patterns of domination and discrimination. The International Socialist Review, for example, argues that the colorblind strategy of the Revolution, in which the revolution addressed the social problems that the people confronted without consideration of their race, is to blame for the persistence of a level, although much reduced from pre-revolutionary levels, of racial inequality in income and status.
I think the U.S. Left should approach Cuba with more humility. Revolutionary practice is the basis of our understanding, and we all learn from the ongoing practical experiences of revolutionary projects. And revolutionary practice is far more advanced in Cuba than in the United States, with respect to race as well as other issues pertaining to revolutionary social transformation. We in the United States have not been able to develop a sustained popular movement that has influence in our society, even less have we been able to take political power and to test our ideas in practice. The social foundation of our thought is limited, and therefore we have a less developed revolutionary understanding. This should give us humility with respect to Cuba, guiding us to a listening mode, trying to understand how Cuban leftists were able to get the support of their people and take political power, thus providing the political foundation for beginning the socialist transformation in practice in accordance with their ideas. We should not be criticizing from our more limited social base; we should be listening to what Cubans are learning, so that we can improve our own revolutionary thought, practice, and strategies.
From a more humble vantage point, listening rather than opinionating, we could not fail to observe the significant achievements of the “colorblind” strategy of attending to the social and economic rights of all, regardless of race. It was central to the taking of political power and subsequent significant reduction in socio-economic inequality and in prejudicial attitudes. The colorblind strategy was certainly the right road, taking into account all that it has attained. At the same time, it can be seen today that the colorblind strategy has not accomplished the complete elimination of racial prejudice or of a structural discrimination that is intertwined with class. This invites reflection on what steps should be taken now, and such reflection appropriately occurs in each national context, taking into account particular historical, political, and social conditions. There is an international dimension to this conversation, but such international dialogue must be based on recognition of the particularity of each context and on respect for the achievements of revolutionary projects in lands beyond one’s own nation.
In the next three posts, I will be reflecting further on race, with respect to the world, the USA, and Cuba.
Castro, Fidel. 2006. Cien Horas con Fidel: Conversaciones con Ignacio Ramonet. La Habana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado. [English translation: Ramonet, Ignacio. 2009. Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography. Scribner.
__________. 2014. History Will Absolve Me: Speech at the Court of Appeals of Santiago de Cuba, October 16, 1953. La Habana: Editora Política.
__________. 2016. Un Objetivo, Un Pensamiento, Tomo I. La Habana: Editora Política.