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

A Debate on China: Competitor, Adversary or Enemy?

As noted frequently in these pages, China has gradually become the most prominent bete noire of American empire. As such it has displaced Russia which had successfully reprised that role for at least the previous four years.

China’s new status has raised the question for many: Is it truly an adversary of the U.S. — or even an enemy? Or is China simply America’s latest very challenging competitor?

Recently, Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist, Glen Greenwald attempted to answer those questions. He moderated a highly informative 90-minute debate on China between Matt Stoller and Kishore Madhubani.

Stoller presented a bill of particulars against China. He is a fellow at the Open Markets Institute and the author of Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.

Madhubani, on the other hand, described China in more sanguine terms. Madhubani is a Singaporean academic and former President of UN Security Council (2001-2004). He also served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. (1984-’89, 1998-2004). He’s the author of Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy.

What follows is a quick-and-easy outline of the arguments presented first by Stoller and secondly by Madhubani.  I conclude briefly with my own perspective that takes issue with both debaters. Each of them along with Glen Greenwald, erroneously accept without question the categorization of China as a violator of human rights. In reality, I argue, China is more a human rights champion than the United States itself.

I

Matt Stoller: China is Not Merely A Competitor

A.    Though not exactly an enemy or adversary, China is a threatening bad actorB.    Witness China’s Growing Economic Power Globally:
         1.     In a very short time has transitioned from a severely   underdeveloped country to the 2nd most powerful economy in the world.
         2.     It’s now the #1 trading partner of more than 100 countries.
         3.     It is a firm ally of the world’s economic elite from Wall Street to Brussels.
         4.     Its low wages and lack of worker protection have led U.S. and other international corporations to relocate American jobs to China. 
 
C.     Witness China’s Repression:
         1.     It does not share West’s values of free speech, free press,    freedom of religion, and democratic voting.
         2.     Since the 1980s China has been “hiding its power and biding its time,” but is now openly demonstrating its intention to export its oppression as shown in China’s:
            a)     Increased military spending
            b)     Building of a new centrally controlled internet architecture
            c)     Export of sophisticated surveillance systems
            d)     Undermining of international institutions such as the WHO
            e)     Retribution against those who even mention its oppression of Muslim minorities or its coverup of the Coronavirus outbreak 
            f)     Treatment of Uyghurs in concentration camps
            g)     Police violence vs. those seeking greater freedom in Hong Kong
            h)     Long-standing military threats against Taiwan
            i)     Building of artificial islands in the South China Sea beyond internationally recognized maritime borders
            j)     Installation of military weapons there
            k)     Bullying of Philippine fishing vessels
            l)     Naval forays into the Indian Ocean ostensibly to combat piracy, but really to expand its capacity for military operations
            m)     Buying up of newspapers serving the Chinese diaspora in order to eventually coerce and control its members too
 
D.    Witness the statements of Xi Jinping who has stated that:
        1.     Socialism with Chinese characteristics is “blazing a new trail” for other countries seeking to modernize, while preserving their own sovereignty.
        2.     China is seeking a future where it will “win the initiative and have the dominant position.”
 
E.     What to Do about the China Threat?
        1.     Re-appropriate the values we say we honor, viz. freedom of press, religion, speech, assembly
        2.     Break up the alliance between China and the international economic elite
        3.     Punish U.S. companies that offshore jobs
        4.     Diversify U.S. supply chains
        5.     Bring production back to the U.S. and to democratic countries
        6.      Work with China on collective problems such as climate change
        7.     Show by these reforms that our system is better than the Chinese alternative

II

Kishore Madhubani: China Is Neither Hostile nor A Bad Actor

A.    In General
      1.     Competitors are not enemies.
      2.     One should not insult competitors or even adversaries.
      3.     There is no reason to regard China as a hostile country or as a   threat to the United States.
      4.     China has 0% chance of conquering the United States which has 6000 nuclear weapons, while China has 300. The U.S. spends five times more on its military than China does.
      5.     The U.S. has 300 military bases throughout the world (some very close to China’s borders); China has no foreign bases and (unlike America) fights no wars outside its boundaries.
      6.      The post-WWII world order characterized by U.S. hegemony was highly artificial given the location and comparative size of the U.S. population.
      7.     China and India with their huge populations and ancient cultures are now assuming their normal, rightful places in the world.
      8.     Before WWII, both China and India had been prevented from adopting those positions chiefly by colonialism.
      9.      The Chinese government enjoys the support of the majority of its people. (Without that approval it would be impossible to control 1.4 billion people.)
      10.      In fact, 130 million Chinese leave China each year and then return home. There are no Chinese refugees.
 
B.    Chinese Ambitions:
      1.     Unlike the USSR under Khrushchev, China never boasts that its system will replace that of the U.S. or other countries.
      2.     Its leaders believe their system is good for China without claiming its aptitude for other contexts.
      3.     They just want China to be strong with its own population prospering in an external environment conducive to that end.
 
C.     What about Repression in Hong Kong?
      1.     It’s true that Chinese citizens do not have the same rights to free speech as Americans.
      2.     But they have more such freedom than previously.
      3.     Remember, that during 150 years of British colonialism, there was no democracy or freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
      4.     Chinese authorities are especially sensitive about Hong Kong because it’s a symbol of British oppression and of its having forced China to accept opium commerce centered there in 1842.
 
D.    What about Oppression of the Uyghurs?
      1.     Remember that the Muslim world is going through a major transformation – struggling to modernize and reinterpret relations between religion and politics.
      2.     Remember too that when the western countries came together in the UN to condemn the treatment of Muslims in China, not a single Muslim country supported the resolution, while a large number of those countries supported China.
      3.     Instead, Muslim countries agreed that the U.S. should:
          a)     Stop bombing Islamic countries (President Obama dropped 26,000 bombs on seven Muslim countries in one year).
          b)     Try to help the Chinese deradicalize and modernize the Uyghurs in China.
 
E.     What about Chinese threats to American labor?
      1.It’s true that China’s low wages, lack of labor protections, and absence of labor rights is attractive to American producers.
      2.However, it is a mistake to blame China for the loss of jobs.
      3.After all, China did not force U.S. manufacturers to move.
      4.China joined the WTO at the invitation of the United States.
      5.We must also remember that the relatively recent and sudden introduction of 200 million new workers into the system of globalized capitalism is only the latest expression of the “creative destruction” endemic to and celebrated by that system.
      6.Sweden and Germany saw the creative destruction coming. To prepare for it, they invested heavily in the retraining of their workforces to equip them for participation in the new economy. The U.S. did not.
 
F.     What the U.S. should do:
      1.Distinguish between defending America’s primacy and defending the American people; the two are quite different.
      2.Stop fighting wars in the Middle East and focus on the welfare of its own people.
      3.Remember that it is no paragon of respect for human rights. For instance, it is the 1st modern country to reintroduce torture.
      4.Keep in mind the figure “Six billion” – i.e. of the number of people who live outside both the United States & China. They’re much more sophisticated, well-informed, and nuanced in their understandings than previously. They don’t buy the American good guys/bad guys dichotomy.

III

Evaluation

My overall response to the Greenwald interview is one of deep appreciation. It brought together two very articulate, well-prepared, and authoritative proponents of comprehensive arguments most often advanced about the nature of China’s participation in the global community.

At the same time, I found myself disappointed that both Greenwald and Madhubani accepted right-wing framing of the position that China is a violator of human rights in contrast to westerners’ valuing free speech along with freedom of religion, press, assembly and the right to vote.

Certainly, there is no question about China’s repression in the areas of speech, religion, and press. But that does not deprive it of any possibility of claiming to be a champion of human rights.

The fact is that the UN Declaration of Human Rights as well as its other official statements present the world with a long list of such entitlements ranging from the ones just mentioned to the rights to jobs, food, shelter, clothing, health care, to children’s rights. 

Another fact is that no country in the world honors all human rights. Instead, all of them (according to whether they fancy themselves “capitalist” or “socialist”) prioritize human rights.

Capitalists accord first place to having commercial and legal contracts honored. They then list freedoms of speech, religion, press and the right to vote as their other preferences. However, if trade contracts are under threat, capitalists quickly dispense with all those other rights – as is demonstrated by their support of repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Brazil and the Philippines.

As for the rights to food, shelter, and clothing (as enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights) the United States has never recognized any of them as such (having refused to sign the enacting protocols). According to all U.S. administrations such “rights” are merely “aspirations.”

Priorities in socialist countries such as China and Cuba are different. For them the rights to food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, and jobs hold primacy of place.  Freedom of press, speech, and religion, as well as voting rights are dispensable as long as those preferred rights remain under siege.

I only wish Greenwald and Madhubani had made those distinctions. It would have helped the audience understand that indeed China does not respect human rights, while the United States does.

But (even more importantly for purposes of critical thinking in this country) listeners would also have understood that China indeed respects human rights while the United States does not. 

It is therefore unseemly for westerners to beat China with the human rights club. Too bad that Greenwald and Madhubani didn’t recognize that impropriety.