Cuba: A Frank Response to the President of Berea College

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:

Dear Bereans

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,

Lyle Roelofs

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 enemiessuch as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, China, Russia. . .

Dear Lyle,

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:

  • The U.S. economic embargo of more than 60 years
  • The blockade’s intensification under President Trump
  • That the Biden administration has kept all of the restrictions in place despite the pandemic and the president’s campaign promises
  • The resulting devastating effects of those measures
  • Cuba’s world-renowned health care system
  • 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.

Respectfully, Mike Rivage-Seul

Peggy & I Study with Franz Hinkelammert in Costa Rica (12th in Series on Critical Thinking)

Franz & Peggy

The next stop on the critical thinking odyssey I’m outlining here was Costa Rica. There I finally met Franz Hinkelammert, whose Global South approach to critical thinking provided the theory I sought to make everything I had learned in Brazil come together. Recall that I had encountered his latest work while in Brazil. (Franz is pictured above with Peggy and me in 1992.)

Franz Hinkelammert is a German economist and theologian. After coming to Latin America in 1976, he lived and worked mostly in Chile. But then the 1973 U.S.-sponsored coup removed the democratically-elected Socialist president of the country (Salvador Allende). The subsequent installation of a brutal dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet, made Chile extremely dangerous for people like Hinkelammert. So he fled to Costa Rica, where he, liberation theologian giant, Hugo Assmann and biblical scholar, Pablo Richard founded the Department of Ecumenical Research (DEI), a liberation theology think tank. The DEI specialized in preparing grassroots organizers to work for social change throughout Latin America. However, its emphasis was not on “training” for activism, but specifically on analysis and critical thought.

My opportunity to study with Franz came with my second sabbatical in 1992. Peggy and I applied and were accepted as the first North American participants in the DEI’s annual Workshop for Invited Researchers. The eight-week course hosted about 20 scholars from across Latin America. Each of us had a research project whose goal was publication in the DEI’s quarterly, Pasos. Not surprisingly, mine was on critical thinking.

During the workshop, Franz, Pablo Richard, and fellow Chilean, Helio Gallardo were the principal presenters and discussion leaders. In his own lectures, Franz emphasized what is for him an enduring key idea about critical thinking. It is expressed most clearly in his Critique of Utopic Reason and also in his Critique of Mythic Reason. In both, he highlighted the essentially utopian nature of critical thought. Its point, he says, is not simply to analyze arguments for logical fallacies. Instead, it is political. It is essentially utopian – to create a better world by imagining the best possible world. Hinkelammert’s argument runs as follows:

  1. If politics is the art of the possible,
  2. Then a utopian idea of the impossible, but at the same time desirable, is required
  3. Not necessarily as a goal to be implemented
  4. But as a “North Star”
  5. Guiding critical thought and action towards what indeed can be practically accomplished.
  6. No such goal can be arrived at without utopian ideas towards which critical thinking gestures.
  7. Utopian thought comes naturally to human beings.
  8. In fact, critical thought without utopian concepts is itself unconsciously utopian.

Franz illustrates his idea by pointing out that utopias are not at all merely the province of starry-eyed idealists. They are essential for any critical thought intent on beneficial social change. In that sense, Franz’s own North Star for critical thought is the simple idea later articulated by the Zapatista rebels in Mexico as a world with room for everyone. Meanwhile, the capitalist utopian ideal is of a completely free market governed only by Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” That is the guiding constellation under whose direction all mainstream economic theory is fabricated.

Hinkelammert’s argument highlights the difference I’ve been trying to describe between critical thinking as taught in the United States and what I discovered in the Global South. In the Global South, critical thinking is concerned with the big picture – with entire systems, with social analysis of economic and political structures. As explained by Franz and others, it is by no means a matter ferreting out what is now called “alternative facts” or “fake news.” Such concern glosses over the lies embedded in the very parameters of perception which act as blinders for both students and their teachers. In that sense, the critical thinking I had become used to had been literally partial in its ignorance and denial of the experience of the world’s majority who live in the former colonies. From that viewpoint concentrating on logical inconsistencies or falsehoods in arguments divorced from the unexamined socio-economic matrix of capitalism only serves to normalize what should be completely unacceptable to human beings.

For Hinkelammert, that was the insight of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx. Marx in particular was a humanist who saw critical thought as focusing on human emancipation from the chains imposed by capitalism and the colonialism on which it depended. Critical thinking, in Marx’s estimation, involved identifying those chains and the steps necessary to humanize all relationships between persons and with nature itself. In theological terms, the mandate is: “Do what God did; become a human being!” That is the project of the type of critical thinking I was now encountering.

That, in fact, became what I subsequently attempted to communicate my students. And I began right there in San Jose. There, by mere coincidence and chance, I began teaching in a Latin American Studies Program (LASP). It was a term abroad for Evangelical students from the United States whose institutions were affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Teaching fundamentalist Evangelicals about colonialism, U.S. intervention in the Third World, and the history of capitalism was a wonderful challenge. Even more so was helping them understand liberation theology.

We clashed, especially at the beginning of our semester-long encounters. And (in terms of the topic at hand) that was because I was coming from the world-centric perspective of liberation theology, while their standpoint was almost exclusively ethnocentric. For them, the United States could do no wrong, and the Bible was to be taken at face value. To criticize the U.S. or to interpret parts of the Bible as myth, legend, or poetry was simply unacceptable.

I, on the other hand, owned the world-centric approach I’m describing here. I took to heart international polls that consistently identified the United States as the greatest threat to world peace.[1] Moreover, my approach to the Bible was informed by the historical critical methodology of modern scripture scholarship.[2]

Such challenges however were mitigated by the reality check the LASP program provided each semester’s cadre of students. I’m referring to four days among the descendants of African slaves in Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, as well as two weeks each in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. In each of those cases, we more or less followed the practice I had experienced in Nicaragua. In the midst of their studies, students lived with local families and received on-site presentations from indigenous tribal leaders, union organizers, politicians, historians, and church officials – most of whom were not ethno-centrists. Students uniformly described it all as life-transforming. And I’m sure that direct contact with the victims of what bell hooks calls “white-supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchy” made them more thoughtful about their reactions to world-centric perspectives.

Additionally, at least for me, those LASP trips – especially to Cuba – provided opportunities to observe and judge attempts to implement what Hinkelammert would call critical utopian theory.

(Next week: My learnings in Cuba)

[1] Bennett-Smith, Meredith. “Womp! This Country Was Named the Greatest Threat to World Peace.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 02 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

[2] “What Is the Historical-Critical Method?” The Historical-Critical Method. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

Fidel & Religion: in His Own Words

fidel-on-rel

“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).

Fidel on Liberation Theology

  • “I now have almost all of Boff’s and Gutierrez’s works” (214).
  • “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).

Conclusion

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.

Retirement Reflections: Lots of Travel So Far …

I turned 72 the other day. I’ve been officially “retired” for about 26 months. It’s time to assess my new status. I’ll try to do that in a series of postings on retirement. No doubt there are few who will care. And why should they? No, I don’t expect that many will read these postings.  I’m thinking of them more or less as therapy for me.

To begin with, I can’t tell you how many times friends and former colleagues have asked me “. . . and how do you like retirement?” The lilt of their question and the look on their faces suggests that they expect me to say “It’s been terrific. I’ve never been happier.”

However, it’s been more complicated than that. For one thing, I don’t think my retirement really began till about two months ago. That’s because since my end-of-career party in May of 2010 I’ve been teaching off and on in Costa Rica – in a Latin American Studies Program. Even apart from that, my bride of 36 years, Peggy, and I have been traveling almost non-stop. So I feel the jury’s still out on my particular retirement – at least if you think of it as kicking back, slowing down and withdrawing from the fray.

Let me get more specific. Travel-wise, here’s the way I’ve been spending my time for the past 26 months:

  • Three eight-week stints in Costa Rica teaching in a Latin American Studies program = 6 months
  • Five months in South Africa accompanying Peggy on her sabbatical in Cape Town.
  • Ten weeks with Peggy in Mexico while she researched her forthcoming book.
  • Three weeks in Costa Rica for Christmas with our entire immediate family (2011)
  • Two weeks with our daughter Maggie’s family on a Mexico vacation (2010)
  • Two weeks with Maggie’s family on a Mexico vacation (2011)
  • Five day visit with our eldest son, Brendan in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico where he’s stationed in the U.S. Embassy (2011)
  • Four visits with Maggie in her home in Westport, CT = 2 ½ months total
  • Three visits with our youngest son, Patrick in New Orleans where he taught first grade in the Teach for America program = 1 week total
  • Two summers in Canadian Lakes, MI – in the lake cottage we purchased from the estate of Peggy’s recently deceased father = 3 months.

TOTAL TRAVEL TIME: about 21.25 of 26 months or well more than the majority of my first two years + of retirement has been spent on the road.

I’m feeling it’s about time to settle down and find out what leaving employment behind is really like.

But so far It hasn’t been all travel. At the beginning, I set some definite goals for myself that covered areas of my life I wanted to grow in. Looking back, I can see that I’ve met some of those goals. Others . . . not so much. . . .  More about that in my next retirement posting.