by Rose Brewer (Minneapolis)
As we struggle with capitalist crisis, rising white supremacy and state repression in the 21st century U.S., I was anxious to take a good look at 21st century Cuba. I spent two weeks this summer in Havana, June 15 to 30, searching as deeply as I could for understanding Cuban socialism today, its confrontations with racism/sexism/homophobia, and its vision of a new society. I left impressed with the seriously of the struggle, knowing it is crucial that the Cuban revolution be supported. No doubt, the issues the country confronts are difficult and complex, as are the global issues facing humanity and the planet.
I’m walking in Old Havana, a high trafficked area, catering to the tourist trade. A young Black Cuban woman slips up to me, giving recognition of our Black African commonality. But that wasn’t the end of the exchange. She slips a peso into my hand. I’m puzzled for a second. This is a monetary exchange. She wants a CUC for the peso. The CUC is the high valued Cuban currency that floats the tourist and newly emerging entrepreneurial sector. In the CUC, you get a high power currency. One CUC has 25 times the buying power of 1 peso. It is one for one with the dollar including a 10% surcharge on the dollar. This differential is real since the tourist economy is alive and growing. Whether Black Cubans are benefitting much from it is an open debate. My Cuban sister’s gesture speaks to the fact that the differential has created inequality and economic division within Cuban society. President Raul Castro recognizes the divisions caused by the dual currency system and expresses need for change. Yet, there is a philosophical debate underpinning this that goes beyond material inequality. The issue is whether material incentives are central to advancing the revolution. This can be contrasted to the emphasis on moral commitment to 21st century socialism. These debates are aspects of a complicated set of questions surrounding Cuba’s economic sustainability under US hostility and late capitalist crisis. The challenges are many.
Nonetheless, it is very clear to me that the commitment to socialist revolution is real and deep in Cuba. It is understood that revolution is a process, non-linear, and vexed by the current political moment. The very difficult reality of finding an economically sustainable model asserts the Black Cuban scholar, Esteban Morales, is front and center to the challenge of dismantling institutional racism in Cuba today. He states “poverty on the Island was also very white, but wealth was never Black.” This continues to be the case even as the revolution has profoundly advanced the health and educational prospects of Black Cubans. And skin color does matter in Cuba. Esteban goes on to point out “racism had not been eliminated with the 1962 assertion that racism and discrimination had been overcome by the revolution.” On more than one occasion I was told that this was an error by the revolution and needs to be/is being dealt with.
Indeed, the status of the Black Cuban population was the subject of several of my conversations with local scholars and community people. Mistakes have been made on the issue of racial inequality, I was told. It is clear that a so-called “color-blind strategy” doesn’t eliminate the racial inequities rooted in Cuban society given its history. One Cuban acquaintance, I’ll call Sasha, slowly and initially reluctantly began to speak of inequities and disadvantages for Black Cubans. This is articulated in the stereotype that the troubles are not rooted systemically but reflect “not working hard enough.” Erased in this stereotype, of course, is the hundreds of years of economic underdevelopment of African peoples throughout the diaspora by enslavement, colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy and capitalism. Yet, sadly, cultural imperialism is expressed in consciousness as stereotype.
I was also very interested in the position of women, especially Black Cuban women. It struck me that a promising move by some Cuban scholars is their beginning to articulate the relationality of classism, racism, and sexism. This complexity is what Black feminist thinkers, for a few decades now, call intersectionality. A reductionist class strategy will not resolve the complicated interrelationalities of gender, race, class, and sexuality. This is an important move by Cuban scholars, although connecting the frame to its practice and intellectual genealogy in radical Black feminist praxis is something that is missing from the Cuban analysis (at least that which I heard).
I wondered about Assata. There are images of the Cuban Five everywhere. I met Rene, one of the Cuban Five now out of prison. He served his sentence and is back in Cuba working to free the four left incarcerated in the U.S. It is agreed by our Cuban comrades that Assata is not a terrorist, but little else was shared. The focus is on continuing the international pressure on the U.S. government to release the remaining four Cubans and return them home.
While challenged from within and without, the commitment to universal education, health care for all, and a vision of a human centered society looms large in Cuba. This is the profound and imperative vision of revolutionary struggles all over the world—creating a deeply humanistic, shared world for the people and the planet. Deep political will is central to realizing this vision. In the worst days of the Cuban “Special Period” in the late l980’s and 90s, as one Black Cuban intellectual opined, it was political will that kept all the children in school, fed and nurtured them and kept the revolution alive. This is a powerful lesson for all of us committed to self-determination and transformational social change: political will. The Cuban people have engaged in nearly 60 years of revolutionary struggle and have much to teach all of us about the long haul –a luta continua!