Since April 28th, the people of Colombia have virtually shut down the nation with repeated general strikes. For nearly three months, thousands have been in the streets all over the country demanding that its right- wing president, Ivan Duque, step down. They also want economic reforms, including higher wages, and increased taxes on the rich. Their demands include reduction in transportation fares and better health care.
And the response of the Colombian government? Absolute repression from its police and military including sexual assault, use of live ammunition (with 42 killed so far), deployment of tear gas, bashing in the heads of peaceful protestors, and even the criminalization of those who supply medical assistance to the wounded and food to activists in the street.
And what about the response of the U.S mainstream media (MSM), the president and “our” representatives in Congress? Given their outrage over comparatively minor protests in Cuba, surely, they’d express support for Colombians battered in the streets.
But no, there hasn’t been a peep out of them – no word of solidarity with demonstrators nor criticism of the hugely unpopular Colombian administration. No calls for regime change or U.S. intervention. Not even the beginnings of public conversation led by our intrepid MSM.
And then there’s the involvement of Colombian paramilitaries in the assassination of Haiti’s president just last week. Turns out that several of the well-financed assassins were from Colombia and had actually trained in the United States with ties to the CIA, DEA and U.S. military establishment.
Just imagine if the Haitian assassination had involved Cuba and Cubans. Imagine if the paramilitaries implicated had been trained in Russia or China?
What do you suppose would have been the response of our “leaders”?
Go even further . . . Ask yourself how the United States would have responded had a Washington Post reporter been killed and dismembered in Cuba as Jamal Khashoggi was in the Saudi Arabian embassy less than three years ago.
What if such a crime had occurred in a government office in Havana with the proven direct involvement of Cuban President Miguel Diaz Canel? Would the White House and Congress have responded as they did when Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi Crown Prince (no democrat he), was shown to be directly responsible for Khashoggi’s butchering? Would our officials with their heart-wrenching concern for democracy and human rights in Cuba have thrown up their hands in helpless impotence as they did in the case of MBS?
We need no more than considerations like those to reveal the hypocrisy of the United States government, academic establishment and “free press.” They care not a whit about human rights, basic freedoms, democracy, or government repression – unless the alleged violations can be connected to a government that refuses to fulfill its expected role as vassal of the United States in service of its country’s rich and powerful strongly allied to their counterparts in “America.”
The exact opposite happens when any government (like Vietnam’s, Cuba’s, Venezuela’s, Nicaragua’s or China’s) shows concern for ordinary people – mothers and children, the houseless, the hungry, the sick, workers, and the elderly. Ditto when governments in question assert ownership and control over their own resources.
Such “regimes” are quickly marked for change. Regardless of their accomplishments, they’re dismissed as “socialists,” or “communists,” subversives or terrorists. So, the United States routinely interferes in their elections, finances demonstrations of the well-off (which are publicized by the media those same elite control), organizes paramilitaries as “freedom fighters,” and (if push comes to shove) invades the country to finish the job.
Until “Americans” are willing to recognize that shameful pattern, till we can look in the mirror and recognize that the United States is indeed the world’s greatest force for evil and the cause behind most of its conflicts, we’ll continue to naively buy “official stories” about the designated enemies of the rich and powerful. We’ll continue in our delusions about our country’s exceptional virtue, about U.S. consistency in supporting democracy, rights and freedoms.
In other words, we’ll continue to be patriotic. But we’ll have morphed into oppressors ourselves! Maybe we’re already there. I suspect we are.
A few days ago, I received a disturbing email blast from Lyle Roelofs, the president of Berea College (where I taught for 40 years). It was about recent “Events in Cuba.” The notice was upsetting because it reflected the one-sided narrative of the U.S. government and its subservient mass media.
This is not to vilify Berea’s president who is sincere and well-intentioned. It is however to demonstrate the effectiveness of U.S. anti-Cuban propaganda that would have even academicians think that “our” government has a leg to stand on in its denunciation of anti-democratic measures anywhere, of intolerance of any dissent, or of police attacks on peaceful protestors.
See for yourself. In his characteristic spirit of compassion, the president had written:
Many of you are aware of the ongoing unrest in Cuba as the country struggles with severe blackouts, a food shortage, high prices, lack of access to COVID-19 vaccinations as outbreaks increase, and an unstable economy. Residents of the island nation have taken to the streets to protest, filming conditions to share with the world. In response, the repressive government shut down the internet.
While we all care about the people of Cuba as our fellow human beings, a number of members of our immediate community have family ties there, as well, so our concern extends particularly to them in this worrisome time.
President Biden addressed the situation on Monday urging Cuban leaders to hear the people and address their needs rather than enriching themselves or trying to repress their human rights.
At Berea College, where one of our eight Great Commitments calls for us to create a democratic society, we align ourselves with the people of Cuba and echo the President’s sentiments. In a democratic society, organizations and the government can cooperate to address the sorts of critical problems currently being faced by Cubans, but which are found to a lesser extent elsewhere as well. For example, at Berea College our Grow Appalachia program combats food insecurity in Appalachia working to ensure community members have enough to eat and teaching them how to grow their own food.
Globally, the U.S. and Cuba are among the countries that signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a list of 30 rights that every human being is entitled to. The right to free speech and health are most relevant to the current events in Cuba. It is our hope that tensions will ease soon, the leadership there will work to provide food, access to vaccines, and make improvements to stabilize the country’s economy, and that this crisis will be an opportunity for improved relations with other countries, including our own, allowing urgently needed assistance to flow to the people of Cuba.
In solidarity with Cubans and Cuban-Americans,
What follows is my response in hopes that it might help Dr. Roelofs and the rest of us to be more cautious in accepting party lines about “official enemies” such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, China, Russia. . .
It was with rather eager anticipation that I opened your recently emailed note entitled “Events in Cuba.” Because of Berea’s commitment black, brown and impoverished communities, I thought your notice would express solidarity with virtually the entire world in its yearly demand that the United States lift the Cuban embargo (Cubans call it a “blockade”) especially in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, I found your comments quite incomplete and misleading. Together they gave the erroneous impression that:
All Cubans (“residents of the island nation”) endorse the anti-government street demonstrations
That Cuban leadership is ignoring the COVID-19 pandemic
That the same leadership is resisting improved relations with other countries including the United States
That Cuba should combat the island’s food insecurity by teaching people “how to grow their own food”
That Cuba is out-of-step with the United Nations and its “Declaration of Human Rights” by specifically depriving its people of health care
That President Biden has satisfactorily “addressed the situation on Monday urging Cuban leaders to hear the people and address their needs rather than enriching themselves or trying to repress their human rights.”
Such commentary appears to simply repeat the U.S. official story about Cuba without even once mentioning:
Its development (unique in the former colonies) of several WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines
The U.S. policy of blockading sale of syringes to Cuba thereby preventing the country from administering its own COVID-19 remedies
Cuba’s long-standing attempts to feed its own people by extensive, government sanctioned urban gardening projects and by environmental policies that make it arguably the greenest country in the hemisphere
The fact that similar demonstrations are happening all over the world including U.S. allies such as Brazil, South Africa, Haiti, Lebanon, Colombia, India, Ethiopia, Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan (not to mention Black Lives Matter in the U.S. and the January 6th assault on the Capitol) — without comment on your part or emphasis in the mainstream media at large
The allied fact that “a number of members of our immediate community have family ties” in the countries just mentioned.
I am making these observations as a longtime friend of Cuba and (of course) Berea College. I have visited the island many times, never as a tourist, but always as an educator and researcher. In fact, the last course I taught at Berea (Summer 2014) had my wife Peggy and me leading another study tour of Cuba.
I have published many articles on Cuba including here and here about the country’s vaccine research and development. My daughter was treated for appendicitis while visiting Cuba two years ago. After spending five days in the hospital there, she was released virtually free of charge.
With Jose Gomariz (a Cubanist scholar, Jose Marti specialist, and former Berea College professor of Spanish) I once taught a Berea Short Term course at Havana’s Instituto de Historia de Cuba. The course was entitled “The African Diaspora in Cuba.” When I visited Cuba with the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs, I was befriended by a family outspokenly and fearlessly critical of the Castro government. And in my many stints with the Latin American Studies Program of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, we took students to Cuba each semester to meet government officials, opposition forces, and diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. In all, I’ve been there around a dozen times.
During the Fidel Castro years, I vividly recall a U.S. Interests Section spokeswoman revealingly lamenting the fact that Cuba (as she put it) did not hold presidential elections (thereby demonstrating her misunderstanding of Cuba’s electoral system). “As everybody knows,” she admitted, “he’d win hands down.”
What I’m suggesting is that there is much more to the Cuban story than we’re led to believe by United States propaganda against that beleaguered country.
By simply rehearsing the U.S. official story, Lyle, I suggest that (uncharacteristically) you are not helping the Berea community understand Cuba, its history, and the role of the U.S. in creating misery there, or what our government could do this very day to relieve it – namely lift the embargo and allow the import of syringes into the country.
Recently Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” explored “The Case for People’s Vaccines.”
While those interviewed by Ms. Goodman called for early and affordable access to inoculations in the Global South, no mention was made of perhaps the most promising source of such therapies. The neglected source was not only promising, but implicitly revealed the swindle represented by Big Pharma’s anticipated exorbitant prices for Covid-19 vaccines.
It may surprise readers to know that the source in question is Cuba.
In fact, Cuba is the first nation in Latin America to receive authorization from the World Health Organization (WHO) to perform officially sanctioned tests of the four vaccines it now has under development. Those trials have already completed their clinical stages. Promising results so far have Cubans looking forward to completing the (cost free) inoculation of its entire population of 12 million by the end of March 2021.
The vaccines under trial are named Soberana 01, Soberana 02, Abdala (CIGB66) and Mambisa (CIGB669). None of them is dependent for its preservation on super-cold temperatures.
Mambisa is worthy of special note, since as a nasal spray, it requires no needles, but responds locally to the specifically respiratory nature of Covid-19.
Failure to report such developments even on “Democracy Now” illustrates the complicity of our mainstream media in shunning any news from socialist nations like Cuba that might possibly illustrate the superior ability of their economies to deliver high quality, no-cost healthcare to citizens even during a worldwide pandemic. Moreover, absent the profit motive, Cuba will predictably deliver its vaccines to its neighbors at vastly cheaper prices than its capitalist counterparts.
Cuba’s Vaccine History
This prediction is based on the fact that Cuba has long been a supplier of vaccines and doctors not only to the Global South, but to countries such as Italy during the height of Covid-19’s first wave. Additionally, with its unequaled ratio of doctors to citizens, the island nation’s response to the pandemic has effectively limited documented coronavirus infections despite supply problems caused by the continued U.S. embargo of the island.
All four developments (the superabundance of doctors, the relative control of Covid-19, Cuba’s research capacities, and the export of medical care to other countries) result from the foresight and vision of Fidel Castro, the revered father of his country. In the early 1980s he sparked initiation of a vigorous homegrown biotech sector – largely to cope with the U.S. embargo’s persistent attempts to deprive the island of medical supplies.
The result was the emergence of 20 research centers and 32 companies employing 20,000 people under the umbrella of the state-run BioCubaFarma Corporation. Recently, spokespersons connected with the corporation tweeted, “The #CubanVaccineCOVID19 is dedicated to the sower of dreams: Fidel. Our tribute to the one who believed in the strength and future of #CubanScience.”
BioCubaFarma produces 8 of the 12 vaccines Cuba uses to immunize its own population against diseases such as measles and polio. Cuba has also exported hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to more than 40 countries (e.g. to deal with meningitis and hepatitis B).
All of this represents just one more illustration of socialism’s comparative efficiency in the face of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Even a poor blockaded country like Cuba can respond to an unprecedented crisis such as the coronavirus without holding sick people hostage to the confiscatory demands of privatized natural monopolies like Big Pharma. The latter’s claims to mammoth profits based upon (largely government-funded) costly research are simply ideological cover for overweening corporate greed that none of us should stand for.
People’s vaccines can be produced at warp speed and at low cost – despite news blackouts even on “Democracy Now.”
Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KINGS 4: 8-11, 14-16A; PSALM 89: 2-3, 16-19; ROMANS 6: 3-4, 8-11; MATTHEW 10: 37-42
Today’s first reading from the Jewish Testament’s Second Book of Kings sets the tone for this Sunday’s reflection. It is about a privileged woman (from biblical Shunem) who is given a new lease on life by creating a room “upstairs” for a prophetic presence and voice. Doing so brings her new life beyond anything she had dared hope for.
Her situation taken in conjunction with our day’s other readings can be understood as calling us all to clear space in our minds for recognizing our own inner prophets. Currently, that means attuning our consciousness to the oracular nature of the shouts and denunciations raised in our streets. The black voices resonating there are far more perceptive and informed – more prophetic – than anything we hear from white politicians and talking heads on TV. In effect, the tumult in the streets calls us to recognize the truth of black supremacy.
To see what I mean, let’s think about prophecy as referenced in today’s liturgy of the word. Then consider the analytical advantage native to the truly exceptional among us (our African American sisters and brothers). Finally, let’s entertain suggestions for creating suitable space in the upper reaches of our minds for black prophets who possess the power to change our nation’s collective life.
The reading about the Shunamite woman comes from the part of 2nd Kings that details the words and deeds of the great prophet Elijah and his successor Elisha. For our purposes today, those details are not important.
What is important is to rethink the category of prophet. Most lump the term together with something like fortune teller. They think prophets are primarily concerned with the future.
But that’s where they’re wrong. Biblical prophets were not principally concerned with the future. They were not fortune tellers. Instead, they were understood as spokespersons for God. Though some functioned as court advisors, most were primarily defenders of the poor and oppressed – the real “chosen people” of Israel’s God throughout the Jewish Testament.
As such, prophets had their eyes firmly fixed on the present. Their task was twofold. It was first of all to denounce and secondly to announce. Prophetic denunciation targeted kings, rich landowners, bankers, the royal classes in general, and temple officials. The habitual crime of the well-off was their systemic exploitation of poor peasants and laborers, and those forced into debt peonage. In fact, if you examine the parables of Jesus, you’ll find most of them addressing the situations of such people. Yes, Jesus appeared in the prophetic tradition.
The second prophetic task was to announce a new future for the oppressed. For the prophets, another world was possible. Another God was possible. Jesus called that other world “the kingdom of God.” The phrase and its parabolic descriptions in stories like the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan captured what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar.
That God was “Father” to the poor, their “Good Shepherd,” the Great Liberator of people like those Jesus himself befriended – prostitutes, beggars, insurgents, lepers, foreigners, drunkards, the hungry and thirsty, social outcasts, children, and repentant tax collectors.
Besides being a prophet, Jesus himself was a poor man – a day laborer (not a priest or rabbi) who had been an immigrant in Egypt as a child. From the beginning of his public life, he was under surveillance and investigation by the authorities. They identified him as a terrorist and subversive. He finished as a victim of state torture and capital punishment.
All of that means that (according to Christian faith) God chose the socially marginalized and rejected as the vehicle for revealing the true meaning and purpose of human life. It’s as if (according to divine epistemology) the poor are somehow more connected with Life itself.
African American Exceptionalism
What could that mean for our actual world that’s now on fire with insurrection? And here, let me emphasize that I’m not just referring to Minneapolis, but to the rebellions that Twin City has evoked across the country and across the planet. Does it all suggest that African Americans know more than the rest of us? Does it suggest that as a people, they’re more perceptive – more prophetic – than the rest of us?
Cuba’s great poet and historian Roberto Fernandez Retamar thought so.
I remember 20 years ago when he addressed my class (about half of them African American) when we were in Havana for a month studying “The African Diaspora in Cuba.”
In his riveting presentation, he described the descendants of African slaves as the world’s most exceptional people. They are, he said, the strongest, most beautiful and most intelligent humans on earth.
Professor Retamar reasoned as follows:
Slave traders in Africa began by selecting the sturdiest, best looking and smartest specimens to sell to their slaver counterparts in the New World. (It’s the way the market works.)
On the Middle Passage to distribution points like Cuba, up to half of those so carefully selected perished; only the strongest survived.
Then on auction blocks in places like Charleston and New Orleans, none but those with the best characteristics and strongest bodies were again selected by discerning slave buyers. (They examined teeth, hair and limbs as if the slave wares were horses.)
Only the best and brightest of those so purchased survived the harsh conditions of slavery to reproduce and have their offspring once again culled and selected.
The repetition of such processes for 300 years produced the super-race of people that continues to exhibit admirably courageous survival characteristics to this very day. Despite all the obstacles, they’re the authors of the unparalleled moral achievements embodied in slave rebellions, the abolitionist movement, and in civil rights struggles – the most spiritually-grounded, inspiring and influential causes in the history of the world.
Moreover, African American achievements in the arts, especially in music including spirituals, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and hip-hop rank with the highest contributions that westerners have made to world culture. The black community’s tremendous athletic achievements are second to none.
Yes, Dr. Retamar concluded, the African diaspora represents the best and brightest of the human race. They are the most beautiful, strongest and smartest of humans. Their wise and perceptive prophetic presence is based on an American experience that is truly exceptional. It has much to teach us about what blacks are especially privy to – about the nature of Life Itself and the unending struggle for justice.
With all of that in mind, please reread today’s liturgical selections. As I said, they’re about making room for prophets (like Elisha and the ones in our streets) in the upper reaches of our minds. What follows are my “translations” of the readings. You can read the originals here to see if I got them right.
2 KINGS 4: 8-11, 14-16A: Despite obstacles of wealth and power, even the privileged can make room for prophets who speak for the poor. But to do so, the rich must carefully create space in the upper reaches of their clouded minds. “Up on the Roof,” they should cultivate quiet, rest, and space for reading and enlightenment. Such provision will free their inner prophet and yield new and unexpectedly welcome life.
PSALM 89: 2-3, 16-19: So, repair to your own “upper room” every day and there discover transcendent security, strength, joy, fidelity, and commitment to God’s justice. Doing so will even confer ability to discern political leaders who exhibit such qualities.
ROMANS 6: 3-4, 8-11: In fact, the whole point of following Jesus the Christ is to die to the comfortable but misleading wisdom of the world and rise to God’s new life as exemplified in the poor man, Yeshua. That life is lived entirely for justice despite the world’s threats.
MATTHEW 10: 37-42: Notwithstanding such intimidations then, be open to prophetic voices. Depart from familial truisms even as taught by your parents and (ironically) as accepted by successfully indoctrinated children. Such departures represent the only way to find your True Self. But be forewarned: the state will incriminate and crucify you even for giving a cup of cold water to thirsty oppressed people. Do it anyway and learn to live with the resulting fulfillment and happiness.
Today, we are called to imitate the Shunamite woman who welcomed the prophet Elisha.
She prepared space for him, and provided him with a bed, table, chair, and lamp. She welcomed him to her dining room, fed him, and made him feel at home.
Today’s liturgy of the word calls us to do something similar. It suggests that we use this time of COVID-19 respite to make room for our inner prophet who turns out to be black and (because of a unique experience of oppression) is especially insightful and aligned with the divine purposes of the universe.
This is the time to figuratively enter that space in our attic, to turn on its lamp, to meditate and read something like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. While we’re at it, we might watch something like “The Help,” “Malcolm X,” “Amistad,” or “Glory.”
Today’s readings (and our very times) call us to rethink everything, turn it upside down, see it with new eyes, and perhaps recognize the truth of black supremacy.
Readings for 4th Sunday of Lent: 1 Samuel 16: 6-7, 10-13A; Psalm 23: 1-6; Ephesians 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41
This week’s liturgy of the word centralizes the concepts of blindness and darkness on the one hand and vision and light on the other. The constellation of readings is extremely relevant to our situation during this election season and time of Coronavirus.
Taken together, they claim that in the end, the processes of the Loving Universe (aka God) differ sharply from the choices of “the world.” While the world chooses the rich and powerful to lead, God chooses the least. What the world calls “seeing” is really blindness enshrouded in darkness. What it calls blindness is deeply perceptive and surrounded in light.
I’ll get to those readings in a minute. But before I do, consider their relevance to our culture’s own highly cultivated blindness.
On Our Blindness
Yes: from birth we’re taught to deny what’s staring us all in the face. We’re actually trained to be blind by our parents, culture, teachers and holy men. That imposed condition is exhibited today as we confront the world’s current pandemic crisis brought on by the Coronavirus.
Think of how our politicians both Republican and Democrat want us to deny what we’ve all seen with our own eyes.
Begin with the Republicans and Mr. Trump. (This is quite amusing.) Mr. Trump actually wants us to believe that he deserves a grade of “A” for dealing with the crisis that surfaced last December and which he ridiculed, belittled, and mocked all the way up until last week. Despite that clear record, the man’s dared to say, “This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
Then there was Joe Biden’s admonition last week that we all close our eyes to the achievements of the Cuban revolution. This man was shocked and appalled by Bernie Sanders recognition regarding Cuba that “. . . (I)t’s simply unfair to say everything is bad.”
“No,” Biden insisted, since Cuba is a “brutal dictatorship,” it’s somehow wrong to recognize the truth acknowledged even by the vice president’s own mentor (Barack Obama). Obama said, “The United States recognizes progress that Cuba has made as a nation, its enormous achievements in education and in health care.” Biden doesn’t want us to see any of that.
But there’s more – even apart from the arguable fact that for nearly 20 years, the most brutal human rights violations in Cuba have been carried out by the United States in its heinous hellhole known as Guantanamo Bay.
Cuba’s Enlightened Humanity
The “more” is that Cuba is exhibiting much greater humanity and skill in dealing with the Coronavirus than is the United States. That is, even in this time of pandemic, “we” not only refuse to lift sanctions on Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, and the other countries we’re punishing for crimes very similar to our own and even surpassed by “friends” such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and the Philippines. We’re actually intensifying the sanctions in the case of Iran while it’s an epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Evidently, for our leaders, there’s no recognition of human solidarity that transcends political considerations. They want us to forget that we’re all in this together – to be blind.
Meanwhile, Cuba has given docking privileges to a British cruise ship (and medical treatment to its passengers and crew) after those same privileges were refused elsewhere – even by Great Britain’s former colonies. Cuban authorities gave permission, they said, out of “humanitarian concerns” and the need for “a shared effort to confront and stop the spread of the pandemic.”
But Cuba’s response to the Coronavirus goes far beyond a one-off act of compassion. The country’s entire healthcare system is better equipped than ours for dealing with recurring epidemics like COVID-19, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and flu. And it’s not just a question of a Caribbean version of Medicare for All.
No, Cuba has a whole army of doctors to care not only for its own people, but also stands ready to respond to crises outside its borders. And it has done so repeatedly – even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The country also offers free medical education to students from the United States, provided they pledge themselves to serve their local communities on their return home. Moreover, every barrio in the country has a doctor known by name, because she makes house calls!
Add to this Cuba’s highly developed system of urban and community gardens, its use of animal-intensive rather than carbon-intensive plowing, and its generally low-carbon economy, and you’ll see why it’s better equipped than we are to deal with food shortages caused by a breakdown of the commercial supply chain during emergencies like the one we’re now experiencing.
Then there’s the Cuban education system vilified here as propagandistic – as though ours were not. Besides the exemplary literacy program implemented at their revolution’s outset, Cubans study colonialism, imperialism, and the way capitalism works to cause, profit from and exacerbate inevitable human disasters like pandemics, hurricanes, world hunger, and climate change. The 60-year blockade and quarantine imposed on the island along with the presence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp provide teachers with close-to-home illustrations of capitalism’s brutality. Meanwhile, our version of schooling (even at doctoral levels) never touches such matters. So, whose system is propagandistic?
The bottom line here is that far from being a brutal dictatorship, Cuba presents us with a model of response not only to COVID-19, but to healthcare in general, climate change, and education. It’s just that we’ve been made so blind by our political “leaders,” teachers, and priests that we cannot see it.
With all of that in mind, consider today’s liturgical readings and what they have to say about seeing, insight, and light on the one hand blindness, superficiality and darkness on the other. Again, the selections could hardly be more relevant in this election season and time of COVID-19. Here are my “translations” of the texts. Once again, I urge you to read them for yourself here.
1 Samuel 16: 1B, 6-7, 10-13A
The Spirit of Life chooses national leadership from the least in the working class: The prophet Samuel was a great seer gifted with divine insight. Sent to the home of Jesse in Bethlehem, he sought Israel’s new King not from among the wealthy, but from a herdsman’s seven sons. However, his sharp prophetic perception found none of them worthy. “Have you no other son?” the prophet asked. “Well,” Jesse said, “David, my youngest is out in the field tending the sheep. But surely, he can’t be . . .” “Bring him to me,” the prophet growled. So, the youngest entered, red-faced and handsome. Seeing with God’s eyes, Samuel proclaimed, “This indeed is God’s chosen.” He then anointed David’s head with oil. And God’s Spirit rushed in upon the unsuspecting youth.
Psalm 23: 1-6
We can trust such choices by the Great Spirit: This is true because ultimately the Holy Spirit is humanity’s shepherd; there is nothing, then, to fear. She has created for us peaceful pastures near gentle refreshing waters. She is our guide and encouragement even in moments of darkness when we are overwhelmed by threatening circumstances. Her spirit nourishes us and protects us from all enemies and has done so throughout our entire lives. Who could ask for more?
Ephesians 5: 8-14
Trusting the insights of seers like Jesus confers salvific vision: Thanks to the enlightened Jesus (and other seers), our once darkened lives are now filled with light, goodness, justice and truth. We can finally see! In fact, we can become light itself. So, when shameful evil comes into our presence, it is exposed as such; it is transformed into light and quite disappears. Seeing with enlightened eyes is like awaking from a deep sleep or even rising from the dead.
John 9: 1-41
An illustration of how Jesus, his example and teaching can cure our blindness: As Light of the World, Jesus demonstrated the very meaning of enlightenment, when he met a beggar who was blind from birth (a metaphor for each of us). Living in blind darkness, Jesus said, is not the result of sin, but is part and parcel of the human condition. Escaping such shared handicap means overcoming the “wisdom” of the crowd, parental formation and religion itself. It means making choices based on personal experience of divine insight and then following Jesus (or some other enlightened avatar).
Wow! What clear direction at this crucial time! Seeing with God’s eyes reveals a world 180 degrees opposite the one endorsed by our culture, politicians, and even most church leaders. One hundred-eighty degrees!! If they say white, think black. If they say true, think lie. If they say peace, think war. We will not go far wrong adopting the working principle that our leaders lie whenever they move their lips. And that’s the truth.
Specifically, at this time of national choice and raging pandemic, the readings suggest that all of us are blind and zombie-like; we’re the walking dead. We can’t see what’s staring us in the face.
Contradicting today’s first reading, we reject worker-friendly leadership in favor of billionaires and corporate lackeys.
Blind as we are, we’re easily convinced by serial liars like Trump and Biden that up is down and that greed is good.
We actually still believe that even after Vietnam, Iraq, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Yemen, prison camps and baby jails on our southern border – after alliances with the likes of Bolsonaro, Duterte, MBS, Netanyahu . . . — we can still lecture the world about our need to combat “brutal dictatorships.”
We still believe that our election system – even after retention of the Electoral College, Citizens United, gerrymandering, voter suppression, hackable voting machines, and mile-long lines on election days – is still somehow the world’s gold standard for democracy.
Above all, we still impossibly believe that capitalism is at all capable of functioning effectively at times of crisis like the ones we’re facing now. (Here in mid-March, it can’t even produce Coronavirus test kits equivalent to what China’s been using since December!) Somehow the belief in capitalism’s superiority persists even when the record shows that in time of war, natural disaster, and predictable systemic failures, we always resort to socialism. In fact, the rich demand it! That’s because socialism is less rigid and more efficient!
In the case of Cuba, we can’t even recognize that a poor socialist country, oppressed and impoverished by 60 years of U.S. quarantine and blockade has shown itself more flexible, generous and humane than its uber-rich capitalist neighbor to the north.
They’re at it again – red-baiting Bernie Sanders. Because the senator from Vermont has (like President Obama) recognized the educational achievements of the Cuban Revolution, he’s being attacked as an apologist for brutal dictatorships everywhere. The syndrome played out in yesterday’s episode of “The View,” and last night in the South Carolina debate.
It’s all so tiresome – so 20th century, so chauvinistic.
It also contradicts my own personal experience of Cuba over many years of visiting the island, where Fidel Castro remains as revered as George Washington here in the United States. By most on the island, he’s considered the father of his country. (I remember a U.S. embassy official in Cuba lamenting to my students that if free and fair presidential elections were held there, Castro would win “hands down.”)
However, more recently still, such demonization of Cuba and Fidel Castro flies in the face of an experience my daughter and her husband had of the Cuban healthcare system just two weeks ago. I want to share that story with you. It sheds light not only on Cuba and Castro, but on Medicare for All.
But before I get to it, consider the attacks on Mr. Sanders.
According to the simple-minded received wisdom here in the U.S., no one is allowed to tell the truth about a designated enemy. That is, you can’t say anything good about any government that refuses obedience to U.S. empire. And that’s true even if, like Cuba, the said government provides enviable education and childcare, or if health services are free there for everyone.
Meanwhile, to say anything bad about a “friend” – apartheid Israel for example – is absolutely forbidden. As an international outlaw, Israel can transgress UN resolutions against its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. It can even kill with abandon peaceful protestors including Palestinian children, the elderly and disabled. However, to criticize it for doing so – to propose boycotting, divesting, or sanctioning Israel’s internationally proscribed occupation of Palestinian territories – is not only unacceptable but actually forbidden by law.
(In case you haven’t noticed: no debate participant has or will ever accuse anyone on stage of supporting a “brutal dictatorship” in Israel – or in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Brazil, Honduras, Hungary, Turkey . . .)
I mean, instead of thinking critically or just recognizing undeniable facts, U.S. citizens and candidates for public office are virtually commanded to see and describe the world in terms of good/bad, black/white, friends/enemies, vendors/customers. To make even unsubtle distinctions in those regards is beyond the pale. In terms of electability, its’ the kiss of death.
To put it kindly, such thinking is not only simple-minded; it is childish. It’s insulting. It dumbs us all down and makes us stupid pawns of publicists and propagandists supporting reflexive U.S. ideology.
As a result of such stupidity, Bernie Sanders had to limit his “defense” of Fidel Castro to acknowledging the virtues of teaching people to read and write. He could easily have added points about free education through university level and praise for Cuba’s medical system that provides healthcare for everyone on the island – including visitors from other countries. However, to do so would have opened him to attacks alleging that his free college tuition and Medicare for All programs will inevitably lead to the Cubanization of America.
Not even Bernie Sanders has that much courage.
Healthcare in Cuba: A Recent Experience
And that brings me to the personal story I promised earlier. Just two weeks ago, it involved my daughter, Maggie, and her husband, Kerry as they led a weekend excursion to Cuba.
The junket was the payoff of a fund-raising project for our local Montessori school in Wilton, CT which our daughter’s five children have attended. At an auction held for its benefit, Maggie and Kerry had “sold” the trip to several parental teams. That was last fall.
So come early February, everyone went off to Cuba, even though Maggie was feeling poorly from the outset.
By the time the group arrived in Havana, our daughter was experiencing severe stomach pain that literally brought her to her knees. The next thing she knew, she was being whisked off in a cramped taxi to the Clinica Central Cira Garcia, Havana’s “hospital for tourists.”
There, admissions officials checked very carefully to see that Maggie and Kerry had the required health “insurance” which is included in the purchase price of airline tickets to the island. Then, following an x-ray, our daughter was informed that she was having an appendicitis attack and that an immediate operation was imperative.
The long and short of it is that the laparoscopic appendectomy took place, that hospital care was excellent, and that it cost her and her husband not a dime for the operation or for her five days in the hospital. (They were however charged $50 for each of the two nights Kerry stayed overnight there, and a few dollars for laundry.) In other words, the operation had been paid for by the airline ticket “insurance” which was really a tax on all travelers pooled to meet the cost of health emergencies like the one I just described.
The same procedure in the United States would have cost on average $33,000.
The point here is twofold. The first is that “Americans” need to exit the 20th century once and for all.
Cuba is not our enemy. In fact, it never was until U.S. policy (intolerant of people-friendly socialism) made it so. Moreover, Fidel Castro remains a hero to most Cubans and to most informed people in the Global South. His “repressive” policies were absolutely necessary to protect his country from actual U.S. invasion (e.g. the Bay of Pigs in 1961), from numerous CIA attempts to assassinate him, and from a 60-year long embargo intended to undermine Cuba’s economy, including its health and education programs.
To understand that point, think about our own country’s response to 9/11. Think about the Patriot Act, about resulting restrictions on travel, about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, imprisonment without trial, torture of suspected terrorists, and extra-judicial drone killings even of U.S. citizens. Think about the panopticon surveillance systems uncovered by Edward Snowden. Think about encouragement to inform on neighbors and others.
Were those responses to 9/11 brutal and repressive? No doubt, they appeared that way to their victims. But undeniably it’s what governments do under threat from external enemies and their internal agents. In that regard, the U.S. is no different from Cuba. George W. Bush, Trump – or Obama for that matter – are no different from Castro, except in their wider swath of brutality.
The second point is that Cuba’s social system as experienced by our daughter is unprecedented in the impoverished world of former colonies. No other victim of colonialism has been as committed to caring for its people, its children, or its environment as Cuba. But instead of being rewarded for such achievements, it is consistently vilified by U.S. politicians and a mainstream media stuck in Cold War thinking.
Thank God that the Sanders revolution invites us to leave all of that behind. His opponents should follow suit.
So far in this series, I’ve been trying to trace my personal development from ethnocentrism to world-centrism. The tracing has had me recalling leaving home for the seminary at the age of 14, then traveling to Rome for 5 years following my ordination in 1966. From there I spent a year working for the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky, and then decided to leave the priesthood. I subsequently began my 40 year career of teaching at Berea College. My first sabbatical in 1984 took me to Brazil; that was followed by language study in Nicaragua, some teaching in Costa Rica, where I also worked in a liberation theology think tank, and then several trips to Cuba. In this posting I tell of a mind-expanding six months in Zimbabwe — my first time in Africa.
Fresh from my first trip to Cuba, my family and I spent 1997-’98 in Zimbabwe – this time accompanying my wife, Peggy, who had received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in the capital city at the university in Harare. In terms of critical thinking, our experience in Zimbabwe helped me further reflect on the importance of Franz Hinkelammert’s observation about the centrality of utopian concepts in critical thinking. Zimbabwe embodied a problem that must be faced by any critical thinker in the mold of what this series intends to explore: Which utopia is a better guideline for structuring a just society – a world with room for everyone, or a market free of government regulation?
That is, if Cuba demonstrated utopian commitment to Hinkelammert’s capacious world, Zimbabwe revealed what typically happens when socialism’s goals are dropped in favor of capitalism’s utopia. Let me share with you my personal experience in the former Rhodesia, for it provides a case study in systemic critical thinking about the way social problems can implicate us all.
To begin with, the Zimbabwe my family discovered in 1997, had experienced the triumph of its bloody socialist revolution in 1980 under the leadership of ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). After its triumph, and unlike Cuba, ZANU was very cautious in the socio-economic reforms it implemented. True, ZANU established as its goal economic “growth with equity.” And towards that end, its policies followed the Cuban model through programs of modest land redistribution, as well as emphasizing education, health care, higher wages, and food subsidies. This required large government programs and expenditures. In those early days, ZANU devoted approximately 50% of its annual budget to such endeavors. These reforms succeeded in significantly raising living standards for the country’s overwhelmingly black and poor majority. After years of apartheid, they were finally experiencing living room.
However, from the outset, ZANU chose not to institute truly comprehensive land reform to aggressively redistribute white-owned acreage to poor black farmers. Instead, it left 70% of the country’s productive capacity in the hands of the former Rhodesia’s white settler class and under the control of foreign corporations.
Then in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had supported socialist revolutions everywhere, Zimbabwe, like Cuba, lost a role model as well as a major source of foreign aid. Socialism seemed entirely discredited. So like other socialist countries, Zimbabwe found itself at a crossroads. Its question was that of every socialist country at the time: Should we continue on the socialist path or admit defeat and surrender to the apparent inevitability of capitalism?
Whereas Cuba, despite overwhelming pressure from its virulently hostile North American neighbor, chose to remain with socialism, Zimbabwe decided otherwise. Acceding to the recommendations of the United States and the International Monetary Fund, the country embraced capitalism and drastically restructured its economy. It lowered taxes on local (usually white) commercial famers as well on foreign investors. It cut back on social programs, lowered wages, and devalued its currency. The idea was to create in Zimbabwe an investment climate attractive to multi-national corporations, whose wealth would finance jobs and trickle down to the country’s poor masses.
When our family arrived in Zimbabwe in 1997, the effects of such counter-revolutionary reforms were visible everywhere. On the one hand, Harare seemed to exude prosperity. Downtown streets were broad, clean, jammed with traffic during rush hours, and largely absent of the beggars, homeless, prostitutes and street children we had encountered elsewhere in our travels.
The apparent prosperity was commercial too. Stores in Zimbabwe’s capital were modern, clean and well-stocked with items from all over the world. The East Gate Shopping Center was a monument to it all. Standing at the corner of Second Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue, it was a block square mall five stories high. Entering this darkened underworld from the sun-drenched pavement outside, patrons were suddenly transported from steaming Third World Africa to very cool and exotic locations resembling Paris, São Paulo, or New York. The transition was a day to night experience. In the mall the hour was always post meridian, brightened by shop lights, garish neon signs or by commercial manifestos with the same light-bulbed borders otherwise reserved for backstage Hollywood dressing rooms. Four sets of glass-enclosed, stainless steel elevators whisked shoppers and office workers to their respective destinations. The layers of overhead walkways were constructed of dark green girders, pipes, tubes and mesh floors all made of hard, cold steel. The appearance of complex, unending scaffolding and catwalks gave reluctant testimony to the unfinished impermanence of the New World Order congealed in the mall’s defiantly postmodern architecture. At the same time, though, the formation trumpeted the fact that Zimbabwe was part of it all. East Gate housed thoroughly up-to-date clothing shops, shoe boutiques, candy and liquor stores, pharmacies, beauty parlors, sporting goods outlets, and food courts.
It all stood in sharp contrast to Cuba. During this same historical period, after losing overnight 70% of its (Soviet) trading partners, the island found itself plunged into a decade-long depression far worse than anything Americans had experienced after the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Survivors of the “special period” recalled that the average Cuban adult probably lost about 20 pounds. A sociologist told me “We all looked like those pictures of World War II concentration camp internees.” Yet astoundingly in Cuba, not a single school or hospital closed, and unlike European countries after socialism’s demise, there were no riots in the street, much less any counter-revolution.
Yes, Cuba was apparently miserable under socialism, while Zimbabwe prospered under its new allegiance to capitalism. But was the difference merely apparent? My personal observation and experience with Zimbabwe’s working class and maid system made me wonder. Both showed the country’s underbelly where the vast majority lived in distressing poverty that (in contrast to Cuba) remains to this day.
Anyone could see the distress each morning. Beginning at sunup, around 5:30, a long procession of tan mini-buses transported to the city center waves of black workers from their shacks in the “populous suburbs” that had little to do with East Gate prosperity. Life there was like living in the favelas we experienced in Sao Paolo and Recife. As the vehicles arrived one after another, the waves crashed together to form a turbulent sea of humanity walking, jogging, running, frowning and chattering along streets like Alexandra Park’s Barrowdale Road.
Dressed in heavy wool sweaters and toboggan watch caps of navy, sky blue, red or black, machine operators, plant janitors, maids, gardeners and factotums hurried to assume duties in the industrial centers, or in the homes of well-off whites who meanwhile breakfasted securely behind well-locked gates invariably patrolled by huge fierce dogs. The wealth disparity between blacks and whites was there for all to see.
Each morning innumerable underpaid and overworked maids bravely made their ways from the Chitungwiza slum to Alexandra Park and other white sections of Harare. It was the same “maid systems” we had encountered in Brazil and throughout Central America. Actually, I realized, it’s a step below slavery. At least in the slave system, owners had to provide food, shelter, clothing and health care for their workers and offspring. With capitalism and the “maid system,” the master class could wash its hands of such concerns, pay a pittance, and leave the maids to figure out how to take care of their children and make ends meets.
Yet I have to admit that in Zimbabwe, we found ourselves cooperating with that very system. And using maids made us complicit in the exploitation of workers throughout the Third World. The wage we paid our maid was the same Nike workers received in Taiwan — $1.50 a day. The hours she worked were as long as theirs — twelve. The ideological justification for not providing higher pay was identical as well. “We know the wages are terribly low,” employers everywhere in the world have said from time immemorial. “But if forced to pay more, we’d have to go without employing these people at all; we simply couldn’t afford them. As a result, they’d be laid off and have no income. At least under the current arrangement, they have some money coming in. Moreover, if as an individual, I could afford to pay more, it wouldn’t be fair to other employers who might not be able to do so. It would just create tension between them and the maids they’ve hired. We’re trapped in a system without a just alternative.”
This is the sort of contradiction Zimbabwe revealed to me – including in our own lives. So who was better off, Zimbabweans or Cubans? Which country made the better choice? Whose utopia is preferable? And should our family have cooperated with the one Zimbabwe’s governing elite chose? Answering questions like those reveal the essence of the critical thinking recommended here. What do you think?
My first trip to Cuba took place in 1997. Berea College sent me there as a delegate with The Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a Cuban specialist from our college spent a month on the island teaching a January Short Term course for Berea students. It focused on “The African Diaspora in Cuba.” Years later, I attended a two-week Conference of Radical Philosophers in Havana. Then there were those trips I earlier referenced with students from the Latin American Studies Program I taught with in Costa Rica. My wife and I also co-taught a summer semester course in Cuba three years ago – just before President Obama began lifting travel restrictions for Americans.
To repeat, those experiences gave me the chance to examine a culture and system of political economy attempting mightily to implement Marx’s critical theory. The efforts have continued for more than 50 years, even in the face of fierce and often terroristic opposition from the most powerful country in the world, located not 90 miles from Cuba’s shores. Despite those impediments, and since 1959 Cuba has largely succeeded in providing for itself what human beings care most about.
(And here, I’m sorry to say, my time on the island has made evident the real “fake news” and analysis into which Americans have been indoctrinated for more than 50 years. For I am about to present a series of “alternative facts” that illustrate the need for critical thinking beyond the Propaganda Model Noam Chomsky exposed in Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions.)
So what do human beings really care about? Most would probably say that they care about their health and that of their families. Education would also be important. They want safety in the streets. They even desire some years of retirement toward the end of their lives. Most also care about the well-being of the planet they’d like to leave to their grandchildren.
In all of those terms – addressing what most humans truly care about – my trips to Cuba show that Marx’s critical theory has guided Cuba to provide a way of life that far outstrips even the United States. That’s right. Consider the following:
* Education in Cuba is free through the university and graduate degree levels.
* Health care and medicine are free.
* Cuban agriculture is largely organic.
* 80% of Cubans are home-owners.
* Cuban elections are free of money and negative campaigning. (Yes, there are elections in Cuba – at all levels!)
* Nearly half of government officials are women in what some have called “the most feminist country in Latin America.”
* Drug dealing in Cuba has been eliminated.
* Homelessness is absent from Cuban streets.
* Streets are generally safe in Cuba
* Gun violence is virtually non-existent.
But what about Cuba’s notoriously low incomes for professional classes? They have doctors and teachers earning significantly less than hotel maids and taxi drivers who have access to tourist dollars. Professionals, it is often said, earn between $20 and $60 per month. Taxi drivers can earn as much in a single day.
Of course, there’s no denying, the growing income gap is a problem. It’s one of the most vexing issues currently under discussion by the Renewal Commission that is now shaping Cuba’s future after years of consultation with ordinary Cubans nation-wide.
And yet the income gap has to be put into perspective. That’s supplied by noting that Cubans do not live in a dollar economy, but in a peso arrangement where prices are much lower than they are for tourists. One also attains perspective by taking the usually cited $20 monthly wage and adding to it the “social wage” all Cubans routinely receive. And here I’m not just talking about the basket of goods insured by the country’s (inadequate) ration system. I’m referring to the expenses for which “Americans” must budget, but which Cubans don’t have. That is, if we insist on gaging Cuban income by U.S. dollar standards, add to the $20 Cubans receive each month the costs “Americans” incur monthly for such items as:
* Health insurance
* Home mortgages or rent
* Electricity and water
* School supplies and uniforms
* College tuition and debt
* Credit card interest
* Insurances: home, auto, life
* Taxes: federal, state, sales
* Unsubsidized food costs
The point is that those and other charges obviated by Cuba’s socialist system significantly raise the wages Cubans receive far above the level normally decried by Cuba’s critics – far above, I would say, most Global South countries.
None of this, however, is to say that Cuba (like our own country) does not have serious problems. Its wealth-gap though infinitely less severe than in the United States holds potential for social unrest. And hunger (as in the U.S.) is still a problem for many.
To address such challenges and to responsibly integrate itself into today’s globalized economy, Cuba is embracing reforms that include:
* A reduction of the government bureaucracy.
* Changing the state’s role from that of owner of the means of production to manager of the same.
* Increasing the role of cooperatives in all sectors of the economy (see below).
* Connecting wages with productivity.
* Expanding the private sector in an economy based on the general principle, “As much market as possible, and as much planning as necessary” (to insure a dignified life for all Cubans).
* Elimination of subsidies to those who don’t actually need them.
* Establishing income “floors” and “ceilings” rendering it impossible for Cubans to become excessively rich or poor.
* Introducing an income tax system in a country that has no culture of taxation – itself a tremendous challenge. (So tremendous, a Cuban friend told me, that a tax system is “impossible” for Cubans even to contemplate.)
* Perhaps even more difficult: establishing some kind of “wealth tax.”
* Incentives to repopulate the countryside with a view to ensuring Cuba’s food sovereignty.
And don’t think that after the implementation of Obama’s new strategy for overthrowing Cuba’s government, that the island is about to descend to the levels of other countries in the former colonial world. Yes, the island has opened itself to capitalist investment, but it’s been doing that with European countries at least since 1989. But the opening is taking place on Cuba’s own terms – tightly controlled by government regulation. At the same time, Cuba is vastly expanding its already strong cooperative sector, while reducing its state-run monopolies. Fostering cooperatives means that workers collectively own the enterprises that employ them. They receive the same kind of aid from the Cuban government as that extended to capitalist enterprises in the United States and elsewhere in the Neo-liberal world. In Cuba, the aid takes the form, for instance, of tax breaks, subsidies, holidays for workers, vacations, etc. The idea is to have co-ops enter into competition not only with other cooperatives, but with private sector concerns on a level playing field.
The hoped-for response from workers isn’t hard to imagine. All of us prefer being our own bosses and controlling our own workdays, rather than taking orders from Starbucks in Seattle.
As I write, my wife, Peggy is in Cuba for three weeks with another class of Berea College students. It will be interesting to hear her report when she returns.
“I don’t understand why Fidel doesn’t allow free elections in Cuba. After all, he’d win hands down every time.”
I remember how astonished I was when the young spokesperson at the U.S. Intersection in Havana pronounced those words about 20 years ago. But I had heard her correctly. Despite being a U.S. diplomat, she was admitting that Fidel Castro was extremely popular with Cubans. Her concession contradicted the official U.S. position repeated incessantly since 1959 – and regurgitated mindlessly by U.S. commentators last weekend on the announcement of the comandante’s passing.
The young diplomat’s recognition of Fidel’s popularity was confirmed for me again and again as I visited Cuba repeatedly since 1997. That was the year of my first trip there with the Greater Cincinnati Council of World Affairs. Two years later, I and a colleague led a group of Berea College students to the island for a month-long January Short Term study of the African Diaspora in Cuba. Subsequently, while teaching in a Latin American Studies program sponsored by the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, I visited the island perhaps eight times as the term-abroad program for U.S. students brought them there each fall and spring. Then three years ago, I returned to Cuba to teach a Berea College summer term there. I’ll return with a similar program next May.
All that experience has given me a love for Cuba and Cubans – and a deep appreciation for the Fidel Castro as one of the most important political figures of the 20th century. Few (outside the United States) would disagree with that evaluation.
But there’s another dimension of Fidel’s person that strikes me as important in these days of widespread religious fundamentalism. As a theologian, I have come to see him as the era’s most theologically sensitive political leader. (My evaluation includes people like Jimmy Carter. Of the two, Fidel was far better informed.) As such he calls friends of revolution everywhere to take theology seriously as an instrument of human liberation from narrow Christian supremacist understandings of faith.
That particular observation is based on a close reading of Dominican Friar, Frei Betto’s book Fidel and Religion (F&R) published in 1987. The volume was a product of interviews between Betto and Fidel carried on over a period of 23 hours in the 1980s. On its publication, F&R sold more copies in Cuba than any previous publication.
In Betto’s work, Fidel highlights the convergence of communism and Christian doctrine. He also expresses his appreciation of liberation theology, and explains the superiority of Cuban democracy to that practiced in the United States. His observations give the lie to our young diplomat’s claim that Cuba lacks free and democratic elections.
Fidel on Communism & Christianity
Read for yourself what the comandante says about coincidences between communism and Christianity. (All page references are to Frei Betto’s F&R. New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc. 1987).
“There are 10,000 times more coincidences between Christianity and communism than between Christianity and capitalism” (33).
“I believe that Karl Marx could have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount” (271).
“. . . (F)rom the political point of view, religion is not, in itself, an opiate or a miraculous remedy. It may become an opiate or a wonderful cure if it is used or applied to defend oppressors and exploiters or the oppressed and the exploited, depending on the approach adopted toward the political, social or material problems of the human beings who, aside from theology or religious belief, are born and must live in this world” (276).
“. . . (I)f (the Catholic bishops) organized a state in accord with Christian precepts, they’d create one similar to ours. . . All those things we’ve fought against, all those problems we’ve solved, are the same ones the Church would try to solve if it were to organize a civil state in keeping with its Christian precepts” (225).
(Referring to Catholic nuns) “The things they do are the things we want Communists to do. When they take care of people with leprosy, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases, they are doing what we want Communists to do. . . In fact, I’ve said it quite publicly. . . that the nuns were model Communists. . . I think they have all the qualities we’d like our Party members to have” (227-8).
“I could define the Liberation Church, or Liberation Theology, as Christianity’s going back to its roots, its most beautiful, attractive, heroic and glorious history.” (245)
“It’s so important that it forces all of the Latin American left to take notice of it as one of the most important events of our time” (245).
“We can describe it as such because it can deprive the exploiters, the conquerors, the oppressors, the interventionists, the plunderers of our peoples, and those who keep us in ignorance, illness, and poverty of the most important tool they have for confusing, deceiving and alienating the masses and continuing to exploit them” (245).
“He who betrays the poor betrays Christ” (274).
Fidel on Cuban Democracy
(Referring to the U.S. system) “I think that all that alleged democracy is nothing but a fraud, and I mean this literally” (289).
“It cannot be said of the so highly praised Western governments that they are generally backed by the majority of the people. . . Let’s take Reagan, for example. In his first election, only about fifty percent of the voters cast their votes. There were three candidates, and with the votes of less than 30 percent of the total number of U.S. voters, Reagan won the election. Half the people didn’t even vote. They don’t believe in it” (289).
“An election every four years! The people who elected Reagan . . . had no other say in U.S. policy . . . He could cause a world war without consulting with the people who voted for him, just by making one-man decisions” (290).
“In this country . . . the delegates who are elected at the grass-roots level are practically slaves of the people, because they have to work long, hard hours without receiving any pay except the wages they get from their regular jobs” (290).
“Every six months they have to report back to their voters on what they’ve done during that period. Any official in the country may be removed from office at any time by the people who elected him” (291).
“All this implies having the backing of most of the people. If the Revolution didn’t have the support of most of the people, revolutionary power couldn’t endure” (291).
“In other words, I believe – I’m being perfectly frank with you – that our system is a thousand times more democratic than the capitalist, imperialist system of the developed capitalist countries. . . really much fairer . . .” (292).
“I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody, but you force me to speak clearly and sincerely” (292).
But what about Fidel’s nearly 50-year reign as President of Cuba? And what about the puzzle of my diplomat-friend? If he’s so popular, why didn’t Castro run for president the way U.S. candidates do?
I asked my friend Dr. Cliff Durand about that when he recently visited our home. Cliff is emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Morgan State University, and the founder of the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He has been leading trips to Cuba every year for the last twenty years, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Havana. He’s the most informed USian I know about things Cuban.
Here’s what Cliff said:
The diplomat was correct: Castro was extremely popular with the majority of Cubans. He was regarded as the father of his country – like George Washington.
More accurately, he’s like Franklin Roosevelt who was elected four times here in the U.S.
Who can say how many times Roosevelt would have been re-elected had he not died, but had come to power as Castro did at 33 years of age?
Moreover, (as noted above) the U.S. electoral system doesn’t work so well. Most people don’t even vote. Campaigns are interminable and extremely costly and wasteful. And (as indicated by the recent U.S. election) their results often don’t even reflect the will of the majority of voters.
Cuba’s conclusion: there’s got to be a better way.
Cuba’s way (like that of Great Britain – and of the U.S. for that matter) is not to elect the head of state directly, but to have electors make the choice.
So elected members of parliament appoint Cuba’s president.
And (as my diplomat-friend indicated), they (election cycle after election cycle) chose their equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt.
My own conclusion is that Fidel Castro was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. He was an insightful (atheist) theologian of liberation. As a true Communist, he was more Christian than many popes. He was more democratic than most USians can begin to understand.
“Why the New Pope Must Resign.” That was the title of an article I wrote just after the election of Pope Francis in 2013. In it I joined Argentina’s Horacio Verbitsky and others questioning the role of Jorge Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-’83).
Since then, friends have asked me about that. “What do you think now – in the light of the fresh spirit of reform the pope has introduced – in the light of his tremendous popularity? Surely you were mistaken in your original, hasty judgment.”
That’s the typical question and observation.
My answer has been that I’m delighted with Pope Francis and the direction his papacy has taken. Both his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, and especially his new eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’are magnificent. Their criticisms of capitalism-as-we-know-it as the structural cause of world poverty and environmental destruction couldn’t be a clearer endorsement of a form of liberation theology that is both spiritually moving and politically engaged.
I’m glad the pope didn’t resign. Pope Francis is great.
But in response to my friends, I also add that the issue of Father Bergoglio’s involvement with the Dirty War is not resolved. Nor should it be ignored. Recalling its elements holds lessons for us – about the Roman Church’s history of supporting oppression, about whitewashed historiography, and most importantly, about the possibility of repentance and deep personal change.
Consider the first point, the Church supporting fascist oppression. It happened in Argentina during the Dirty War as it happened in Germany under Adolf Hitler.
When Bergoglio was Jesuit Provincial, he was accused of turning over to the army two of his Jesuit colleagues and former teachers, Fathers Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics. Both had been pro-socialist clerics and members of the Third World Priests’ Movement (MSTM). Such membership was considered a capital crime by the country’s ruling junta.
Yorio and Jalics had been embroiled in a long-standing feud with their Provincial not so much about their MSTM affiliation, but about their activities in a slum community the two priests served and lived in. Bergoglio didn’t have much time for Jesuits in his province being associated with left-wing causes – nor for versions of liberation theology tainted with Marxist analysis.
Like John Paul II and his chief advisor Josef Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI), he preferred a strain of liberation theology that prioritized the poor, but apolitically without revolutionary aspirations. Bergoglio liked to call that strain the “Theology of the People.” It prioritized their reflections on the gospel, and popular devotion to images, novenas, etc. Other versions of liberation theology were too “ideological.”
After being arrested and tortured, both Yorio and Jalics accused Bergoglio of fingering them to the army.
Father Yorio died without retracting his accusation. Fr. Jalics at first didn’t want to discuss the matter, saying that he and Bergoglio had reconciled.
Beyond the case of Yorio and Jalics, there was that of Father Christian Von Wernich. He had been a police chaplain during the Dirty War. After its conclusion, during the process of national reconciliation, Von Wernich came under investigation for his direct roles in police tortures and murders.
In response, while Bergoglio was a member, the Argentine Bishops’ Conference protected Von Wernich by transferring him to Chile under an assumed name. That is, the Bishops Conference treated accusations of torture and murder in exactly the same way bishops throughout the world had often dealt with allegations of sexual abuse of children: transfer the offender and cover up the past.
So, the question becomes, was Jesuit Provincial Bergoglio, like the predominant leadership of the Argentine Catholic Church, somehow cooperative with the ruling junta?
This brings us to my second point about historiography.
In defense of the future Pope Francis (and of the church hierarchy in general), his biographer, Austen Ivereigh, offers explanations that end up sounding much like the defense of Pius XII vis-à-vis the Nazis and his failure intervene against the Holocaust. Ivereigh argues:
When the military took over in 1976, Argentina (like Weimar Germany) was in a state of political and economic chaos.
So virtually all segments of society welcomed the military take-over (as Germans and the German Catholic Church welcomed Adolf Hitler).
The military’s brutal Dirty War was secretive about the extremity of its measures. (Fr. Bergoglio testified that it took him some time to realize what was happening.)
So people like Bergoglio didn’t really know what was going on (just as Germans claim they didn’t know about the concentration camps and ovens).
When he did find out (like Pius XII) Bergoglio “worked quietly” to help potential victims escape – while fulfilling his primary duty of protecting the Jesuits from suspicion, investigation and reprisals from the ruling junta.
As with Germany such reasons end up sounding like excuses that raise suspicions of cover-up and historical obscurantism. They evoke the following observations and questions:
Bergoglio gives every indication of being on the same page with John Paul II and Josef Ratzinger who also largely “looked the other way” when confronted with evidence of government brutality in dealing with left-wing elements of the clergy and faithful, e.g. in Central America in general and in El Salvador and Nicaragua in particular.
Bergoglio clearly shared their disdain for priests involved in politics.
If (as Ivereigh suggests) Father Bergoglio was so well-connected and friendly with all factions (including government officials and military leaders on the one hand, and their opponents including MSTM members on the other) how could he not have at least suspected what was really happening?
If Jalics had forgiven Bergoglio (as he originally had said) what had he forgiven?
Why did Jalics apparently change his story a few days after Pope Francis’ election? On being repeatedly contacted by the media about the issue, Jalics said, “The fact is: Orlando Yorio and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio.”
Father Yorio offered no deathbed recantation of his charges against Bergoglio.
And that brings me to my final point about repentance and its significance for Catholics today.
As Ivereigh indicates, the prevailing method of dealing with such contradictions is to reluctantly argue that Father Bergoglio perhaps did cooperate with the military – as did so many other churchmen in positions of authority during the Dirty War. However, in Bergoglio’s case, he also courageously helped many escape – at some risk to himself.
But then at some point, he underwent a kind of conversion and is now a progressive. At least at the administrative level, Bergoglio’s own testimony indicates that he experienced a profound conversion. He confesses that as a young Jesuit Provincial (he was only 36 when appointed), he was too headstrong, uncompromising and authoritarian.
Indications are, however, that the about-face went far beyond managerial style.
The exact turning point in the process remains unclear. It could have come after Bergoglio was virtually drummed out of the Jesuits by progressive elements which saw him as an impediment to the Society’s reform in the spirit of Vatican II.
Afterwards he spent two years in a kind of exile and deep introspection. Ivereigh reports that Bergoglio passed days hearing the confessions of simple shantytown poor people. He also spent hours in semi-depression, simply staring out his window. Colleagues worried that he was sick. Was it some type of breakdown?
Whatever the case, clear evidence reveals a subsequently changed man. Previously he was criticized by more liberal fellow Jesuits and others for failing to ask important questions about poverty. As they put it, “He’s great at ministering to the poor. But he never asks why they are poor.” (The criticism evoked the famous comment of Dom Helder Camara, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”)
But as pope in Laudato Si’ Francis makes no bones about why the poor have no food, or jobs, or homes, or education. With observations worthy of the MSTM members he rejected, the pope says, all of those problems are connected by the invisible thread called deregulated capitalism. His encyclical says that poverty, environmental destruction and a whole host of other problems are caused by capitalism-as-we-know-it. (So, predictably and true to Dom Helder’s words, Rush Limbaugh and others call Pope Francis a communist.)
Evidence of radical theological change goes much further. Consider, for instance, that Francis has:
Surrounded himself with liberation theologian advisers concerned with history and structural analysis.
Rehabilitated and consulted pro-socialist theologians blacklisted by his two predecessors – most prominently among them Brazil’s Leonardo Boff.
Identified Marxism as similar to the teachings of the early church fathers, claimed Marxists as his friends, and referred to them as “closet Christians.”
Echoed Latin America’s liberation theology speaking of Christian faith as “revolutionary,” because it challenges “the tyranny of Mammon.”
Peppered both The Joy of the Gospel and Laudato Si’ with frequent uses of the loaded word “liberation” contrasting the deleterious effects of “liberation” of markets (from government control) with the liberation of peoples proclaimed in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Has similarly made Medellin’s phrase “preferential option for the poor” the watchword of his papacy, even going so far as to identify it with “the gospel itself.”
Beatified the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who is considered the patron saint of liberation theology. (Romero did, by the way, confront the ruling military and lost his life as a result.)
Described the world’s dominant economic system as running “counter to the plan of Jesus.” He said the system now in place and Jesus’ hoped-for Kingdom of God have different aims.
Worked with the Obama administration to open doors to Cuba which for more than 50 years has struggled to construct an economic alternative to capitalism-as-we-know-it.
In keeping with the insights of liberation theology, the pope has turned working against capitalism-as-we-know-it into a moral issue. In Laudato Si’ he wrote: “working for just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor” – is a “moral obligation.” For Christians, he said, “it is a commandment.” Here the pope echoed what he said in The Joy of the Gospel where he identified the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation that is “inescapable.”
All of this represents not only a personal conversion for Pope Francis, but a summons to his Church to follow in his footsteps.
What he has written in “The Joy of the Gospel” indicates that he recognizes in a Church the same crisis he underwent. It is out-of-touch and in need of a complete overhaul. “Everything must change,” he has said.
For too long, he has written, the Church has been mired in an authoritarian judgmental paradigm and in viewpoint-narrowness that has focused on important but non-essential matters foreign to the focus of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom. So-called “pelvic issues” were of little concern to Christianity’s Great Master.
The pope implicitly calls Catholics resembling his former conservative, apolitical self to engage in the process of political, economic, and ideological change before it’s too late. Stop staring out the window at a world falling apart, he tells us. Emerge from denial and obstructionism and come to grips with climate chaos and changing the economic system that causes not only environmental destruction, but world hunger, poverty, high infant mortality, and war.
Those are statements Fathers Yorio and Jalics could fully endorse.