Defying Empire: Cuba's contributions to the fight against racism and white supremacy
Cuba remains under intense attack by the Empire precisely because no other country in the world has contributed so much and in so many ways to the struggle against white supremacy and what it represents.
The white capitalist cannibal has always fed on the world's black peoples. White capitalist imperialist society is profoundly and unmistakably racist.
White supremacy and racism cannot be dissociated from capitalism. It was racism and white supremacy that provided the cultural justifications for slavery and the concomitant slave trade, for European colonial expansion and imperialism, without which capitalism would not have developed. Racism and white supremacy also permeate the various hierarchies imposed by the capitalist system and which are fundamental to its maintenance. This intrinsic link between capitalism and racism becomes more explicit in colonialism. Walter Rodney, the important Caribbean historian and political activist, wrote in his book 'How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’:
‘It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent's raw materials and labor. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule.’
What organizes and instrumentalizes racism as a political power project is white supremacy. The only country in the world that, from its origins, has been conceived as a white supremacist power project is the United States of America.
The African-American historian Gerald Horne argues in his book 'The Counter- Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the origins of the United States of America' that the movement for US independence was born, on the one hand, from the fear of the colony's wealthy classes of a growing abolitionist movement in the metropolis, England, that threatened to end the basis of their wealth - slave labor. On the other hand, England also prevented the colonists from advancing westward, which was to remain indigenous peoples’ territory. For Horne, the war for US independence was in part a 'counter-revolution' led by the so-called 'founding fathers' with the aim of preserving their right to enslave other peoples, especially Africans, as well as to continue expanding the young nation westward by stealing more land from indigenous peoples where to deploy more slave labor.
In another book, 'The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism': The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean, Horne summarized this process thus:
‘Then finally, in 1776, they pulled off the ultimate coup and exhibited their novel display of patriotism by ousting London altogether from the mainland colonies south of Canada, while convincing the deluded and otherwise naive (to this very day) that this naked grab for land, slaves and profit was somehow a great leap forward for humanity.’
It was within this context that the armed forces of the USA were born and developed. The U.S. military originated in the war for independence against the British, that is, in defense of white supremacy and its project of slavery and land conquest. Thus, soon after independence, the newly created U.S. army engaged in its new task: genocidal warfare against indigenous peoples to ensure the territorial expansion of the new republic.
In 'The First Way of War: American War Making on the frontier, 1607-1814' another historian, John Grenier, argues that the US military was forged in genocidal wars against the Native American peoples, where virtually every means of destruction was allowed, all brutality was possible and there were no distinctions between civilian populations and combatants. One of the methods used by the U.S. military against the indigenous peoples was the destruction of their crops and food reserves, leading to defeat by starvation, a method widely used and perfected decades later in the Vietnam War. An unbroken historical line links the wars against indigenous peoples to the Vietnam war and the more recent economic embargoes against Cuba and Venezuela, among others. Economic embargoes are only a variation of this method, the objectives are still the same: to provoke famine, to punish civilian populations in order to subjugate or eliminate them. The extermination of the indigenous people, justified and driven by white supremacy, was so central to the politics of the time that participating in the military campaigns against the indigenous people was practically a prerequisite for becoming a candidate for the presidency of the new country. Being a slave owner seems to have been another prerequisite for the function of leader of the nation, since eight of the first Presidents were slave owners.
To secure a single front between white settlers against indigenous peoples on the one hand, and to ensure the practice of slavery on the other, the English forged an illusory 'alliance' across social classes among 'whites' that legitimized and allowed the exploitation, theft or extermination of all who were not 'white'. According to Gerald Horne, this 'militarized identity politics' - white supremacy - was at the basis of the colonial occupations as early as 1676, leading to the creation of a 'white man's' country, a first apartheid state, an example to be followed by South Africa. Violence against indigenous peoples and the violence inherent in the slave economy became common, 'normal' elements in the white mentality in the US to this day.
White supremacist entrepreneurship was not limited to the exploitation of slave labor on US plantations. The naval blockade and England's pressures against the slave trade caused the price of slaves on the market to rise, making it an irresistible attraction for profit-hungry white U.S. capitalists. African-American historian and activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote the following about the slave trade in the first half of the 19th century:
‘As a result, the American slave -trade finally came to be carried on principally by United States capital, in United States ships, officered by United States citizens, and under the United States flag.’ (1)
The Cuban Way
To a question from Ignacio Ramonet about when the Cuban revolution actually began, Fidel Castro replied:
'(...)the Cuban revolution began with the first war of independence, which started in eastern Cuba on October 10, 1868.'
And then Fidel mentions the following episode from the life of Simón Bolívar, the Liberator:
'After carrying out an expedition to Haiti, (Bolivar) returned to Venezuela and there, on July 6, 1816, he issued the 'Manifesto of Ocumare,' from which I quote:
"Our brothers who have groaned under the miseries of slavery are now free. Nature, justice and politics demand the emancipation of the slaves; henceforth there will be only one class of men in Venezuela, the citizens."
From Isla Margarita, the Liberator then went down the Orinoco River, landing at Angostura, where Ciudad Bolívar is today, and it was there that he drafted the ideas of the 1819 Constitution and decreed the abolition of slavery. It was then that José Antonio Páez, a patriot and new leader of the llaneros, decided to join Bolívar. From that moment on, victory was assured. I have taken the liberty of recalling this episode to show that in Latin American history, the abolition of slavery and independence are intimately linked.'(2)
While US independence is consolidated with the aim of extending and strengthening white supremacy inherited from Europe, in Cuba and Latin America the struggles for independence take place against European white supremacy.
This distinction was perceived by a profound and influential observer of the time: Alexander von Humboldt.
Between 1799 and 1804, Alexander von Humboldt, accompanied by the French botanist Aimé Bonpland, traveled through the Spanish American colonies of the time, exploring regions that today belong to Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Cuba. Back in Europe, Humboldt began publishing several books revealing to a curious and fascinated European public the natural and cultural riches of South America. While writing about the wonders of America's tropical nature and the cultural richness of its native peoples, Humboldt denounced, like no other before him, the horrors of slavery, the oppression of the indigenous peoples, and the injustice of the colonial system.
Humboldt presented a view of South American indigenous peoples and slaves of African origin completely different from the dominant conceptions of his time, rejecting the dominant endemic racism and the supposed 'superiority' of the 'white race', the foundation of white supremacy. Humboldt declared that the culture of the indigenous peoples was as creative and diverse as the European one, vehemently attacking one of the main proponents of the European 'scientific racism' of that time, the Count de Buffon, exposing the ridiculousness of his ideas.
On his return from his trip through Spanish America in 1804, Humboldt spent a short time in the USA where he met Thomas Jefferson, then celebrated President of that country. Jefferson shared the same interests as Humboldt in the natural sciences and both conversed at length when Humboldt was a guest at the White House. But there was one fundamental irreconcilable issue between the two: slavery. Thomas Jefferson, one of the 'founding fathers' of the new republic that advertised itself as the homeland of liberty and equality, was not only a slave owner but recognized the importance of slavery to the economic development of the United States. Humboldt denounced this hypocrisy and the underlying horror of such an idea of 'economic development'. Jefferson also agreed with Buffon's ideas about the 'inferiority' of the 'black race', which Humboldt considered foolishness.
Shortly after his return to Europe, in Paris, Humboldt was introduced to a young nobleman newly arrived from the Spanish colonies of America: Símon Bolívar, the future Liberator. Bolivar later recounted how his meeting with Humboldt opened his eyes to the wonders and potential of his own country, the future Venezuela. It was Humboldt who, in fact, made America known to Bolivar himself, as the latter mentions in his famous 'Letter from Jamaica'. The two met again months later in Rome - and this time Bolivar was already talking about the need for independence for Spanish America. At this time Humboldt's advice and wisdom were fundamental to the political maturity of the young Bolivar. Still in Rome, Bolívar would take the oath to free America, and then return to his country.
Years later, Humboldt wrote the following about the new republics of Latin America, the fruit of Simón Bolivar's struggles:
‘One cannot praise enough the intelligent legislation of Spanish America’s new republics, which, since their inception, have been seriously concerned with slavery’s total cessation. In that respect, this vast part of the earth has an immense advantage over the South of United States.’
‘In North America white men have created for themselves a white republic with the most shameful laws of slavery.’ (3)
Although Cuba also had slaves and racism, the demarcation between whites and blacks did not follow the same logic as the dominant white supremacy in the US. Spain used battalions of armed blacks in Cuba, for example, which in the eyes of white supremacists was the equivalent of a war crime. Spanish laws also allowed slaves remedies that would have been unthinkable under current legislation in the southern United States. A testimony to the difference in the treatment of blacks in Cuba and the U.S. was the massive flight of African Americans from Florida to Cuba beginning in 1819 when it was acquired from Spain by the Republic. The African Americans living in Florida knew full well what was in store for them under the new government and migration to Cuba was the best option. These African Americans brought with them an anti-Washington sentiment that would influence the entire island.
It was Cuba's independence and its subsequent fall under the dominion of the United States that definitively marked its attitude against white supremacy, generating a revolt that was not only against foreign domination, but against a deeply racist domination that tried to impose the same 'Jim Crow' system on Cuba, trying to transform a society with racism into a racist society according to the model of white supremacy. Anti-American, anti-Jim Crow sentiment and against the white supremacist domination project were already present on the island well before the revolution. As Gerald Horne wrote:
‘U.S. Negroes had begun looking to an independent Cuba as a haven, redolent with opportunity and relief from racism’.
And Horne further quotes the following testimony from an American of the time:
‘(...) colored Cubans look upon Cuba as their country in a much fuller sense than American negroes look upon the United States as their country.’ (4)
The Cuban Revolution as a challenge to white supremacy
The Cuban revolution liberated Cuba from the dictatorship of Batista and the domination of the United States that was exercised through this dictatorship. In the eyes of the Empire the revolution was a challenge to the white supremacist project of domination. And this challenge deepened when some of the first measures of the revolutionary government were to fight racism, correcting the injustices inherited from the slavery period of the island in a fundamental area: health.
Don Fitz, in his excellent book 'Cuban Health Care' wrote:
‘In pre-revolutionary Cuba, racism affected every aspect of medicine: there were fewer hospitals in rural areas and eastern Cuba where black people predominate; mutualist clinics had many fewer black enrollments and it was almost impossible for black people to enter medical school.’
‘It is hard to overstate the importance of the 1959 revolution, which ushered in the most significant changes in the lives of black Cubans since the abolition of slavery. Calls to serve in rural areas and eastern provinces were equivalent to fight structural racism.’
Faced with these attitudes of the revolutionary government in Cuba in comparison with the attitude prevailing in the United States in the same period, Don Fitz makes the following comment:
‘The outpouring of medical teams to poor urban communities, rural areas, and the eastern part of the island with coordination by the revolutionary government occurred at the same time that U. S. civil rights demonstrators were being beaten by police and attacked by dogs for demanding the right to sit at 'whites-only' lunch counters. This contrast was not lost on Cubans or many in the United States.’
The revolutionary government of Cuba also engaged in literacy campaigns for adults and children throughout the country, to correct another distortion inherited from the times of slavery, as illiteracy affected mainly and disproportionately the poor population of African descent.
With these campaigns for health and education, the Cuban revolution made a huge effort to recover the dignity of the poor population, especially the African descendants. Such measures were intolerable to white supremacists in the US, for as Gerald Horne asked:
‘Could Africans in the United States be exploited so shamelessly if Africans in Cuba were empowered?’ (5)
In light of this, it is not surprising that there has been intense U.S. hostility toward the Cuban revolution since its inception. And this hostility only increased when Cuba began to internationalize its struggle against white supremacy. This internationalization happened mainly in two ways, through medicine and, inevitably, through armed conflict.
The internationalization of Cuban medicine
Shortly after the revolution, facing enormous difficulties, Cuba was able to send medical aid to Chile, which had suffered an earthquake in 1960. Cuban medical brigades were also sent to Nicaragua in 1972 and to Honduras in 1974, when these countries were also hit by earthquakes. But it is mainly in Africa that Cuban medical aid was most committed. With the support of the then USSR, Cuba coordinated the first mass vaccination campaign against polio in Africa, in Congo, vaccinating over 61,000 children. Again, according to Don Fitz:
‘By the end of the 1980s Cuban aid had reached more than a dozen African countries. These included Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Vert, Ghana, Guinea, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, São Tomé y Principe, Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda, West Sahara, Zambia and Zimbabwe.’
In this way, Cuba sought to repair the distortions and injustices caused in Africa after centuries of colonial exploitation by white supremacists.
Cuba's other fundamental contribution to health care is through its Latin American School of Health, ELAM, where poor students from all over the world, mainly from Latin America and Africa, especially blacks, can study medicine, thus further expanding Cuba’s contribution to the world. According to Don Fitz, by 2020 ELAM had trained about 30,000 doctors from more than 100 countries.
At war with white supremacy - Operation Carlota
In Cuba we baptized the internationalist operation with the name of 'Carlota', in homage to an exceptional African woman who led two uprisings against colonial oppression on Cuban soil as a slave, and who - as they intended to do with Angola in 1975 - was dismembered by the executioners who managed to capture her in her second rebellious attempt.
Operation Carlota is perhaps the most decisive struggle against white supremacy and its violence in the history of the 20th century.
I quote here part of the introduction to a book about this conflict, the testimony of one of its most important participants, the Cuban Brigadier General Harry Villegas 'Pombo':
‘Between 1975 and 1991, some 425,000 Cuban volunteers, organized by Cuba's revolutionary leadership, carried out missions in Angola. They went there in response to a request for help from the Angolan government. In 1975, the people of that African country had just won their freedom from Portugal after almost five centuries of brutal exploitation and colonial rule. Now it was under attack by the white supremacist regime in South Africa and its African and international allies. ‘
‘The purpose of the Cuban mission, which spanned 16 years, was to help Angola defend itself and decisively repel this Washington-backed military aggression. The mission ended only after a resounding defeat was inflicted on the armed forces of the apartheid regime in March 1988, at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola, at the same time that a formidable grouping of Cuban, Angolan and Namibian fighters moved south towards the bases of the South African regime in its colony, Namibia.’ (6)
Stalingrad was the decisive battle that initiated the fall of Nazi Germany in World War II, inflicting a spectacular defeat on its army and the Nazis' white supremacist claims of exterminating the Slavs, 'subhuman' peoples - 'Untermensch' in Nazi terminology. Cuito Cuanavale was the Stalingrad of white supremacy in Africa. As Nelson Mandela declared on his visit to Cuba in 1991, soon after leaving prison in South Africa:
‘Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to independence, freedom and justice in Africa that has no parallel, because of the principles and selflessness that characterize it. Since its early days, the Cuban Revolution has been a source of inspiration for all freedom-loving peoples...’
‘Where is the country that has asked for Cuba's help and has been denied? How many countries threatened by imperialism or fighting for their national liberation have been able to count on Cuba's support?’
‘We in Africa are accustomed to being victims of countries that want to tear our territory apart or subvert our sovereignty. In the history of Africa there is no other case of a people that has risen up in defense of one of us.’ (7)
Cuba's victory over South African forces was instrumental in the fall of the apartheid regime in that country, as well as giving independence to Namibia, which was a South African colony.
In 1988 Fidel Castro gave the following statement about Cuba's participation in the Angolan war:
‘It is well known that the United States practically lost sleep over the audacity of a small country like Cuba being capable of carrying out an internationalist mission of this nature (in Angola). The fact that a small Caribbean country has been able to support the brotherly African people is something that goes beyond their conceptions.’
‘We know how the African peoples think, and this is another problem that weighs on U.S. policy. The peoples of Africa have seen in the United States an ally of apartheid, responsible for the survival of apartheid.’
‘Cuba has no economic interest in Angola or in Africa. Cuba is in Angola because it is fulfilling its duty to help the peoples.’
‘As we have said on other occasions, to be an internationalist is to settle our own debt with humanity. Whoever is not capable of fighting for others will never be capable of fighting for himself. (8)
Neoliberalism, neocolonialism and white supremacy in Latin America
Neoliberalism was conceived as a project of restoration of capitalism and resumption of power by white supremacy, a response to the alternative posed by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the huge crisis of credibility of capitalism after the First World War.
In the recent neoliberal advance in Latin America, it was white supremacy that mobilized and instrumentalized the most retrograde racism still present in this continent to attack the progressive governments of countries like Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela, among others. It is not by chance that in all the countries where the neoliberal offensive has triumphed, one of the first measures was the expulsion of the Cuban doctors, as was the case in Honduras when there was the coup d'état against President Zelaya, in Brazil after the coup against President Dilma Rousseff, or in Bolivia in the coup led against President Evo Morales. The short-lived government of Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia displayed all its racism by unleashing an unprecedented and murderous violence against the indigenous population, even attacking one of the most important symbols of the indigenous peoples of the Andes, the wiphala flag.
In Brazil, too, white supremacist support was instrumental in the rise to power of President Jair Bolsonaro. Racism, feminicide, homophobia, as well as attacks on indigenous peoples and the environment have increased exponentially under President Bolsonaro, as was to be expected given Bolsonaro's explicit alignment with and subservience to white supremacists in Washington.
Neoliberalism in Latin America is above all a neocolonial project. Neoliberalism and neocolonialism are the two expressions of the same Washington-based white supremacist power project. The brutal neoliberal attack on labor laws, public education and health care, and the environment has the explicit aim of reducing sovereign nations to the status of colonies. Neoliberalism intends to establish neocolonial administrations in Latin American countries. Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia, Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador, among others, are all examples of neocolonial administrations whose task is to oversee the transfer of natural resources and public goods from these countries to the metropolis, preventing by all possible means, including violence and terror, any opposition to this project. Exactly what white supremacy has always done wherever it has been able to impose itself.
Cuba remains under intense attack by the Empire precisely because no other country in the world has contributed so much and in so many ways to the struggle against white supremacy and what it represents. Facing the growing threat of white supremacy reorganizing itself under the neoliberal order and its neocolonial project, Cuba sets the example to follow.
- W.E.B. Du Bois - The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade
- Ignacio Ramonet – Fidel Castro, Biografia a Dos Voces
- Andrea Wulf – The Invention of Nature
- Gerald Horne – Race to Revolution
- Gerald Horne - Race to Revolution
- Harry Villegas ‘Pombo’ – Cuba y Angola La Guerra por la libertad
- Cuba y Angola La Guerra por la Libertad
- Cuba y Angola La Guerra por la Libertad
Del mismo autor
- United States, racism and anti-communism 22/03/2022
- Estados Unidos, racismo y anticomunismo 21/03/2022
- Racismo e anticomunismo, só para lembrar 18/03/2022
- Defying Empire: Cuba's contributions to the fight against racism and white supremacy 16/11/2021
- Contribuciones de Cuba a la lucha contra el racismo y la supremacía blanca 11/11/2021
- As contribuições de Cuba na luta contra o racismo e a supremacia branca 10/11/2021
- El neocolonialismo, la supremacía blanca y el desafío de China 08/04/2021
- Neocolonialismo, Supemacia Branca e o Desafio da China 06/04/2021
- Neo-colonialism, White Supremacy and the Challenge of China 06/04/2021
- Cuba's contributions in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic 01/03/2021