Muslim Press has conducted an interview with Susan Babbitt, an associate professor of philosophy at Queen’s University, to discuss Cuba, Fidel Castro, the U.S., and imperialism.
Here’s the full text of the interview:
MP: How do you describe Cuba’s internationalism? For instance, how did the country react to the call to fight ebola?
Susan Babbitt: In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Few have heeded the call [to fight ebola], but one country has responded in strength: Cuba.” Cuba responded without hesitation, sending more than 450 doctors and nurses, chosen from more than 15,000 volunteers, by far the largest medical mission sent by any country.
Cuba may be the only country on the planet that has had a selfless foreign policy. Political theorists think this is impossible. Cuban presence in Angola, for example, according to UK historian Richard Gott, was “entirely without selfish motivation”. Cuba sent 300,000 volunteers between 1975 and 1991, more than 2,000 of whom died, to push back and eventually defeat apartheid South Africa. In Pretoria, a “wall of names” commemorates those who died in the struggle against apartheid. Many Cuban names are inscribed there. No other foreign country is represented.
The United States claimed that Cuba was acting as a Soviet proxy but according to US intelligence, Fidel Castro had “no intention of subordinating himself to Soviet discipline and direction.” He criticized the Soviets as dogmatic and opportunistic, ungenerous toward Third World liberation movements, and unwilling to adequately support North Vietnam. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoire 25 years later that Castro was “probably the most genuinely revolutionary leader then in power”
US Intelligence even identified the real motivation for Cuba’s costly involvement. Castro, it was reported, “places particular importance on maintaining a ‘principled’ foreign policy . . . [and] on questions of basic importance such as Cuba’s right and duty to support nationalist revolutionary movements and friendly governments in the Third World, Castro permits no compromise of principle for the sake of economic or political expediency.” In 1991, Cuba’s “great crusade” led Nelson Mandela to ask, “What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?”
Cuba`s internationalism continues. Cuba began exporting doctors in 1963, when Cubans traveled to the newly independent Algeria. After Hurricanes George and Mitch devastated Haiti, Honduras, and Guatemala in 1998, Cuba sent 2,000 doctors and other health professionals. They were replaced by other Cubans willing and able to work where no health services previously existed. After Hurricane Katrina, Cuba offered to send, at no cost, 1,586 medical personnel and 36 tons of emergency medical supplies to the United States, an offer that was turned down.
Cuba’s response to the Ebola crisis was no miracle. It has an explanation. It is in the history of ideas – going back two hundred years. Explained philosophically, internationalism is a practical, not most interestingly moral, obligation. José Martí, who was not alone with this view, believed human beings, like every other part of the universe, are causally interconnected, both with the environment and with cohabitants of that environment. He maintained such a view because he believed in science: Human beings are part of nature. We think, act and grow within networks of cause and effect, dependent upon others. On such a naturalistic view, there is no mystery about why a poor country pursues internationalism: We live well only if others live well.
MP: What’s your take on Fidel Castro’s legacy? How do you analyze his opposition to US socio-political dominance?
Susan Babbitt: Fidel Castro is a man of ideas. He has opposed imperialist ideology, which is also a self-interested view of human beings. Martí argued against this view as did Cuban philosophers who preceded him, Félix Varela and José de la Luz y Caballero. They rejected European liberalism. It should be rejected by activists everywhere.
Fidel is not recognized enough for being a philosopher. In Caracus after Hugo Chávez was first elected he said people suffer because of “nicely sweetened but rotten ideas ... that man is an animal moved only by a carrot or when beaten by a whip”. That is, we suffer because of ideas about what it means to be human. Marx, after all, thought human beings are distinct from other animals because we care about such an issue: We don’t just try to realize our nature. We need to know what it means to do so.
In capitalist societies, Marx argued, we suffer “unnatural separation” from our own humanity. We are alienated, not just from others but from ourselves, and from our “species essence”. To live well, Marx wrote, we must fulfill our “natural vocation” for “conscious life activity” and judge it to be a human one: “Human beings will only be complete when the real individual . . . has become a species being”.
That means we become real when we understand, and feel, our connection to others, even those far away. In Caracas, Fidel Castro said, “We are winning the battle for ideas… They discovered ‘smart weapons’ but we discovered something more powerful, namely, the idea that humans think and feel.” Che Guevara knew this idea. He famously argued, against the Soviets, that human beings are not primarily motivated by material incentives. Even in the USSR, “nicely sweetened but rotten ideas” were holding sway. Cuba has not followed the same path as the USSR. For this reason, many believe, it did not suffer the same fate.
In Cuba, questions about “species essence”, or what it means to be human, have always been part of the broader, global struggle, for peace and justice. Thanks to Fidel! In a speech on December 2, 2001, months after the attack on New York City, he said, “There is no more powerful weapon than an individual who knows who she is and where she is going”. Martí said knowing oneself, as human, is every person’s most difficult task.
Fidel has kept the “battle for ideas” alive. We, in the rich part of the world, are in desperate need of this battle. Martí also writes, “the only result of digging up external gold is to live without gold inside”. This is a striking claim. It not only suggests that we might not spend our lives “digging up external gold”, as if we might live better some other way. It is also striking because it suggests the “gold inside” might not be there, that it might be missed. “Gold inside” is not whatever we think it is.
The “gold inside”, meaning humanity, has to be discovered. Indeed, for Martí, discovering it is our most difficult task. This is because, like Marx, he maintained that human beings must create the world that creates us. US philosopher Allen Wood notes that many Marxists miss the “mystical shell” of Marx’s naturalism, that is, his vision of who we are as natural creatures within a causally interconnected universe, needing to discover conditions, not just for living a good human life, but for imagining its possibility. It is that part of Marx to which Fidel Castro has remained loyal. Wood’s point is that “Marxists” mostly missed it. Marx said once, “All I know is that I am not a Marxist”. Marxism, like Cuba’s history and significance, has been distorted. If Fidel Castro were listened to, as the philosopher he is, this would be better known.
MP: What were the results of US economic sanctions against Cuba? Has Washington been successful in imposing “democracy” on Cubans?
Susan Babbitt: The US does not know what democracy is. This is known throughout the Third World. When Egypt was rising up in 2011, I heard an interview by a US media outlet with a prominent Egyptian activist for democracy. The interviewer asked “What can we do to help you?” She said something like: “Get your own country in order. Stop offering such a false conception of democracy to the rest of us. Your example is confusing, and is destroying the prospects of people elsewhere for real democracy.
Simón Bolívar was a liberal, a man of the Enlightenment, admirer of Hobbes and Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau. But even Bolívar considered European and US philosophers naïve about democracy and political freedoms. They were ignorant about the consequences of imperialism, not knowing what it meant to be “even lower than servitude . . . lost, or worse, absent from the universe”. Bolívar famously commented that Latin Americans had been sent misery in the name of liberty.
Martí warned “slaves of Liberty” about the same naïve conception of democracy that bothered Bolívar. Martí predicted political freedoms would not endure without a deeper kind of freedom, rooted in self-knowledge. He went so far as to proclaim, in his influential “Our America”, that the biggest hurdle was not, after all, US aggression; rather, it was that Latin America “show herself as she is … rapidly overcoming the crushing weight of her past”.
He raised a question that would not occur to European philosophers: If one is lost or absent from the universe, how is one known? How does one know others? If one rules the world, one doesn’t ask how the world’s peoples are known. One assumes they are known or one doesn’t care, or need to.
Martí, as revolutionary, articulated for his region an ancient philosophical imperative: Know thyself. Unlike Europeans, enthralled by what Che Guevara called “the myth of the self-made man”, Bolívar, Martí , Guevara and of course, Fidel, knew the dehumanizing “logic” of imperialism. They wanted human liberation and they did not take the “human” part of that concept for granted. This motivated Bolívar in his drive to transform institutions, and in his insistence on strong central government to do so. It motivated Martí, who abandoned liberalism in his youth, and whose independence program, as a result, was a “revolution in thinking”.
MP: How has the US interference in Cuba affected the country?
Susan Babbitt: It has affected the country economically, as is well-known. I don’t have the statistics. The embargo, better known as the blockade, has been condemned by the entire world. Every year at the UN General Assembly, Cuba puts forth a motion condemning the illegal and cruel sanctions placed on Cuba by the US since 1962. The sanctions were tightened after the collapse of the USSR. Every year that vote is supported by even representative at the UN except for the US and Israel and usually a third country such as the Marshall Islands. (Some countries abstain under pressure from the US). This vote gets very little attention in the North American press. Canada supports it every year, even under Harper’s conservative government. How could it not?
But the greater consequence of US interference, in my view, is that Cuba has not been able to pursue and perfect its model of democracy. Arnold August has done an excellent job (in two books) of researching and explaining Cuba’s model. ‘Democracy” means rule by the people and Cuba has a system of government, called “People’s Power”, expressing the idea of direct representation. It is not our way of pursuing democracy, which may not be democratic in the true sense. Are we really ruling ourselves?
Cuba has done things differently. The theory is there and their system can be evaluated according to that theory, which is interesting. It involves not just a view of democracy but a view of human beings and what it means to be one. It has only been 60 years that the Cuban revolution has existed. The world deserves to know the results of that “experiment”. (Why is our system not called an “experiment”?).
There are many Cubans who want the Cuban government to move toward capitalism. This is completely understandable. People want the material goods that they see available in the US and Canada. But they do not always know the poverty of spirit that goes with it. Why is it, for example, that five teenagers in a middle class town in Ontario tried to kill themselves in one day? We know about the suicide epidemic in norther Ontario, rich Canada’s “third world”, but even in the south, economically developed as it is, children lack meaning in their lives.
It is not surprising that Cubans leave Cuba for the US. The more interesting question, though, is why so many stay, committed to a new direction. There is an answer to that question that needs to be explored. It has to do with a vision of what it means to live well. But Cuba has not been able to fully pursue this vision because of US interference at every level, including assassination attempts on the leaders. Much has been written about US terrorism against Cuba. Saul Landau made a documentary film called “Will the real terrorist please stand up”. It is only one of many research efforts to bring to light the formidable barriers placed in the way of Cuba’s efforts to take a different direction.
MP: What's your take on the sanctions imposed on Venezuela? How have these sanctions affected Venezuelans?
Susan Babbitt: What is surprising is that the US claim to be acting in defense of human rights is even credible. That they can even make that claim, and not have it laughed off the stage, is an indication of what Noam Chomsky calls “the depth of imperialist mentality”. The former president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández, said that what the US was doing was so obviously directed at “regime change” that it did not need stating.
I do not know all the ways the US has meddled in Venezuela. Venezuela has rich resources. US interference has nothing to do with democracy. John Pilger has made an excellent documentary called “War on democracy”. Again, the tragedy for the world, is that we may not see the results of Chávez’s vision of 21st century socialism. It is no surprise at all that Venezuelans want something different. But there are many who still do not want US capitalism. They do not want to go back to being a US colony. This is the more interesting question.
In the early 1990s, when I first went to Cuba, the economic situation (just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and eastern bloc) was dire. Cubans were skinny. There was no food and there were daily black-outs. But I heard Cubans saying ‘We don’t know where we are going but we are not going to turn back”. That was the more intriguing question. I am betting the same is occurring in Venezuela. The future is unclear but many still do not want to return to US domination. These are the views that need to be understood, even if (and I do not know whether this is true) they are the minority.
The world needs a different direction, rooted in a more sensible and humane vision of who we are. For that reason we need to hear those people, the ones who will not turn back. They are throughout Latin America. They know the history of the hemisphere. We don’t hear their voices in the North. We need to.
MP: How should such subjugated countries fight imperialism?
Susan Babbitt: They should join Cuba’s battle for ideas. Many activists think more abstract “theoretical” questions are a luxury. There is no time, they say, given global crises, for such ivory tower work. They say all the work should go toward politics and economics. But the latter depend upon ideas. Empirical research is always dependent upon ideas. Political strategy depends upon ideas. This is well-known. Every observation you make depends upon a concept. You see some colours and shape and you see it as an apple. You wouldn’t see an apple if you didn’t know that concept. This is a simple example but the same holds for freedom, democracy, love, solidarity.
Every act of deliberation, no matter how simple or supposedly private, depends upon general concepts, which are shared. When you think about what it means to live a good life, to be a good friend, to be free, to be happy, you are drawing upon philosophical concepts. The early independence activists in Cuba, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, knew this to be true. They were not revolutionaries, like Martí later, or Fidel and Che, but they knew the power of ideas. For the sake of revolution, they argued for the primacy of philosophy in school curricula. They knew Cubans, and Latin Americans in general, needed to know how to think. Martí’s independence program is sometimes called a “revolution in thinking”. He knew Latin America’s independence required more adequate concepts. He knew that, as part of the political revolution, they had to displace the “nicely sweetened but rotten ideas” mentioned above.
In 1998, Fidel Castro said that Cuba’s humanist project explains how Cuba had resisted the US financial, commercial and economic blockade. The explanation is the power of ideas, specifically ideas about dignity, and its practical significance. In 2003, closing an academic conference on Martí, Fidel Castro said the only effective response to increasingly sophisticated weapons and an unjust world order is ideas: “sow ideas, sow ideas, and sow ideas; sow awareness, sow awareness and sow awareness”.
Some will shake their heads. But philosophers have argued for more than half a century that understanding is limited by expectations rooted in background beliefs. This means that when we don’t believe something possible, we do not see the evidence suggesting it is possible. Challenging accepted ideas, including philosophical ones, makes it possible for people to act and think differently.
MP: How do you compare Western philosophy to Cuban philosophy with regard to human freedom?
Susan Babbitt: There is much to say on this question. Cuba resisted the US embargo. It also defied predictions of its imminent collapse in the 1990s after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. And when Fidel Castro stepped down in 2006 because of illness, Cuba again defied predictions— this time of internal squabbling and chaos. Julia Sweig, US Rockefeller senior fellow, noted a “stunning display of orderliness and seriousness” and concluded that the Cuban Revolution “rests upon far more than the charisma, authority and legend of [Raul and Fidel Castro].”
That “far more” is philosophical. It is a vision of what we can be and what we can know as human beings. It predates Martí but was most radically realized by Martí, who thought political freedoms do not long endure without spiritual freedom. For him, this meant a capacity for sensitivity and humility, needed to respond properly to beauty, whether in ideas, people or events. Only such responsiveness permits knowing the unexpected, which may be humanness. It is a vision, closer to Eastern philosophy than to Europe, that challenges the now deeply entrenched belief, almost impossible to dislodge in the North, that freedom is about having, not being.
Even two hundred years ago, radical Cuban independence activists argued against European philosophy that emphasized individual freedoms. They faced three empires –the UK, the US and Spain – and the “necessary evil” of slavery. Like Martí later that century, they took the question of dignity to be politically urgent. Threatened with annihilation, they asked how to discover humanness. They wanted human liberation, not the false freedom, consistent with imperialism, being proclaimed abroad.
The problem is not just that European philosophy, as argued by Simón Bolívar, presents a naïve view of human freedom, ignoring the reality of those disqualified from the “human” part of human freedom. The greater problem is that it does not allow for alternatives, being dominant. US political philosopher, Charles Mills, suggests that there are no alternatives to liberalism. There are alternatives. But they are mostly from the South. Bolívar articulated a problem that still exists today: Academics talk easily about freedom and equality without bothering to ask how we know the human beings to whom those concepts are meant to apply.
This includes ourselves. Martí took this very question to Latin America’s children at the height of his career. His famous children’s journal, The Golden Age, teaches about dignity. Yet, rather than focusing on Latin America, it offers image after image of faraway places. This is because, for Martí, to know and respect themselves as human ends, children must experience sameness between themselves and others far away. They must look outward, not inward, building and feeling connection. Only in this way can real humanness be known, by accessing knowledge beyond “the Yankee or European book”.
Armando Hart, minister of culture during Cuba’s famous literacy campaign (1961-2), now a renowned philosopher, writes that anyone who cares about global justice in the 21st century should consider the damage done to the world by European philosophy. He has in mind the idea that we live best when we live “from the inside”, satisfying desires. It is a view that ignores a reality that Martí, and philosophers like him, could not ignore, namely, that the “inside” is a product of the “outside”, which may be dehumanizing. This mattered to Martí because he was a liberator. It should matter to those trying to know the world as it really is, not as we expect it to be.
Susan Babbitt is the author of four books, most recently Humanism and Embodiment: From Cause and Effect to Secularism(Bloomsbury 2014) and José Martí, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Global Development Ethics: The Battle for Ideas(Palgrave Macmillan 2014). She is also co-editor (with Sue Campbell) of Racism and Philosophy(Cornell 1999). She teaches courses on Social Diversity (Phil276),Development Ethics (Phil310, and DEVS309 taught at the University of Havana), Philosophy of Latin America and the Caribbean (Phil307); Philosophy of Culture (Phil412/812),Science and Society(Phil203), Contemporary Moral philosophy (Phil347), and Topics in Feminist Philosophy (Phil 454/854).