In the aftermath of the visit of US President Barack Obama to Cuba, the moderator of the discussion list of the Association of Black Sociologists, Rodney Coates, posted on the list a number of articles dealing with the issue of race in Cuba. Coates is Professor of Global and Intercultural Studies and Director of Black World Studies at the Miami University of Ohio.
One of the posted articles was “Sankofa Cuba: Racism and Revolution in the Afro-Cuban Experience” by Abdul Alkalimat. The article was published in the Fall 2013 issue of The Black Activist.
As the article observes, “every society has a master narrative,” a prevailing consensus that selectively identifies and interprets important events in the history of the society, and that frames contemporary issues. In the case of the United States, the master narrative has been shaped by the white power elite, and it is full of distortions and omissions. Indeed, this is unavoidable, because the narrative functions to manipulate the people into support of policies that promote elite interests. It proclaims the nation to be the most democratic in human history, and thus it must omit or minimize undemocratic components in US history. Especially important in this regard is the omission of the fundamental truth that the US economic ascent was based on the aggressive acquisition of territory, the commercial connection to slavery in the Caribbean, the development of slavery as a system within its own borders, and the imperialist penetration of all regions of the planet. Pretending to defend democracy throughout the world, the nation is in fact a global imperial power.
In contrast, the dominant narrative in socialist Cuba has been created by a multiracial movement formed by professionals, workers, farmers, students and women, which took power from a political class that represented the interests of a subordinate national bourgeoisie, international capital, and US imperialism. Once it took political power, the leadership of the popular movement took decisive steps in defense of the interest of the popular sectors, thus provoking the hostility powerful actors. Its best defense against them was the unified support of the people, which required popular understanding of the necessity of the decisive steps as well as the unavoidable hostile reaction. The Cuban Revolution has had an interest in forging a narrative that educates rather than manipulates the people, and thus it has developed a narrative that is grounded in an advanced integral philosophical historical social science, forged with the active participation of intellectuals and academics.
Alkalimat describes the formation of autonomous Afro-Cuban political organizations from 1812 to 1912, a phenomenon that is recognized in the dominant Cuban narrative. He also notes that from 1912 to 1959 autonomous black organization was not the pattern. Rather, there was significant Afro-Cuban leadership and participation in multiracial organizations, which included important organizations that were successful in mobilizing the people and in attaining popular support. However, the article does not fully appreciate the significance of this experience for the Cuban interpretation of its struggle.
In popular movements, there are competing strategies being proposed, with internal debates among the leadership concerning what strategies are going to be most effective. Often, these debates are resolved by the success of some strategies. This occurred with respect to the internal debates in the Cuban popular revolution concerning whether the guerrilla war in the countryside or strikes and sabotage in the cities would bring down the dictator. The debate was settled by events. The military advances by the rebel army in the countryside caused the dictator to flee the country, even though it is of course recognized that the contributions and sacrifices of the urban underground must be appreciated and honored.
Something like this occurred with respect to the issue of autonomous black organizations. The revolution triumphed with multiracial organizations that represented various popular sectors, who were organized according to occupation or function (in the rebel army and in organizations formed by urban professionals, urban workers, agricultural workers, and students) rather than by race or color. This experience led to the interpretation that multiracial popular organization is ultimately the necessary strategy for prevailing against powerful forces, accompanied by recognition that separate black organizations in some cases constituted a progressive dynamic that in a particular historical moment contributed to the advance of the Cuban project of national liberation.
This interpretation shaped the organization of the triumphant revolution, as it faced powerful counterrevolutionary forces. The people were organized as urban workers (including professionals), agricultural workers, small farmers, students, women and neighborhoods; but not according to race or color. The dominant revolutionary narrative maintained that to organize the people according to race or color would ignore the lessons learned in the long popular struggle, and it would undermine the necessary unity of the people. The revolutionary narrative was so overwhelming and so compelling that the renewed formation of separate black political organizations had very few advocates among Afro-Cubans following the triumph of the revolution.
In the Cuban popular revolutionary struggle of 1868 to the present, something significant occurred, namely, the Cuban peoples became a single people. Whether African or European blood flowed in their veins, all were actors in an historically and universally significant social process that dislodged from power those who were indifferent to the human needs of the people and who violated the dignity and sovereignty of the nation. Cubans became, above all, Cuban, determined to defend at any price what they had sacrificed to attain.
The contrasts of the Cuban experience with the United States are striking. In reflecting on the contrasts, we ought to perhaps begin with the position of white Cubans, whose historic position was fundamentally different from that of whites in the United States. Whites in the United States formed a settler society, and the great majority of whites economically benefitted, at least indirectly, from conquest, slavery, and the imperialist penetration of other lands. But in Cuba, only the national bourgeoisie benefitted from neocolonial economic structures. The white petit bourgeoisie and white workers and farmers found that the colonial and neocolonial situations restricted possibilities for the protection of their fundamental social and economic rights. The great majority of Cuban whites, like Cuban blacks, had an economic interest in bringing colonialism and neocolonialism to an end. Some members of the white middle class were confused by the ideological distortions; they cast their lot with the national bourgeoisie, allied with neocolonialism and international capital. Some would become infamous as counterrevolutionaries in Miami, greatly influencing the US image of the triumphant Cuban Revolution. But the colonial and neocolonial conditions of Cuba created something not seen in the United States, namely, a committed and informed radical petit bourgeoisie, which played an important role in leading a multiracial popular revolution against the (white controlled) neocolonial republic. In the United States during the period 1955 to 1972, white allies of the African-American movement turned out to be unreliable; in Cuba, by contrast, white students, professionals, workers and peasants became committed, reliable and even heroic allies of Afro-Cubans.
In the black experience in the United States, white racism is always present, either in a blatant or subtle form. On the basis of this experience, one could look at Cuba with a model of racism, seeing racial inequality and white prejudice. As with any social scientific model, there is an element of truth in this, and one can see signs of white prejudice and racial inequality, although much less than previously, and much less than in other nations. But models shape what we see, and they can sometimes cause us to overlook profound truths. In the black power period of 1966 to 1972 in the United States, black nationalist intellectuals formulated a colonial model, which sees racism as one dimension of colonial and neocolonial structures of domination, characterized by white control of the political, economic and cultural institutions of the communities and nations of the colonized. The colonial model provides a more multidimensional and global vision of race relations in the United States and the neocolonial situation of Third World nations. Seen from this colonial perspective, the Cuban Revolution, arriving to power through multiracial organization, and the African-American movement are allies in a common struggle. Indeed, all of the colonized peoples of the world, including Latin Americans of various colors as well as the people of Ireland, are allies in a common anti-colonial struggle, and they all have formed movements that seek a more just, democratic and sustainable world.
The United States government discerns that revolutionary Cuba is a dangerous example and a threat to the neocolonial world-system. It seeks to undermine the Cuban Revolution with various strategies, including seeking to discredit it with a model of white racism. The white racist model is a useful tool for the declining hegemonic neocolonial power, for it represents white liberal reformism, as against the revolutionary transformation of fundamental structures of the European-dominated neocolonial world-system, which provides sustenance for racism in its various forms.