An Unorthodox Look at Haiti and Cuba (I)

Interview by Yusimi Rodríguez

Dmitri Prieto and his book Transdomination in Haiti.

HAVANA TIMES, July 7 — Dmitri Prieto Samsonov needs no introduction for HT readers who know him as a contributor to the site. At this point it is not news that last year he won the Pinos Nuevos Prize for his book “Transdomination in Haiti (1791-1826): A libertarian look at the first victorious social revolution in the Americas”, which was published for the Cuba International Book Fair. It’s always a pleasure to talk with Dmitri, and this title is a good excuse to do so.

HT: If you had written this book after the earthquakes that occurred in Haiti, it would not have been very surprising to me because many songs, poems, and stories were dedicated to the country after the disasters. One could say that Haiti has become sort of fashionable. But you wrote this book before all this happened. I wonder, first, why you chose Haiti in order to address the issue of transdomination since you are Cuban-Russian and have perhaps dealt with this phenomenon from these other perspectives. Second, why this post-revolutionary period? Haiti is usually praised here for being the first successful social revolution on our continent. It is always spoken about in a triumphalist manner.

DMITRI PRIETO: “There is a wonderful novel about that, The Kingdom of This World. In it, Cuban author Alejo Carpentier reflects upon what led to that revolution. Everyone studies it, but speaks very little of it from the sociological point of view.

“Regarding your other question, transdomination is the basis of the book, of the research I’ve done, and of the things I’m writing now. However, transdomination is not something I invented. I think those who carried it out in Haiti and elsewhere invented it. It is defined as the emergence of a new dominating system after a revolutionary triumph, despite that revolutions are supposedly carried out in order to end oppression and create opportunity, equality, and freedom.

However, what often comes after a revolution is a new system of domination, or as Holloway says in the prologue, a worse system. As you said, I am Cuban-Russian, I have ancestors there too. The concept of transdomination arose from questions regarding Stalin’s crimes and all that has happened there since 1917.

I wondered how it was possible that the Soviet Union could veer away from the attractive ideas of the social revolution toward an era of domination, under Stalin and others, and systemic deterioration that eventually led to a transition to classical capitalism.

When I started asking myself these questions I looked for other similar cases. Haiti is usually hailed as the first successful social revolution on the continent, and in that sense it achieved what the Soviet Union did. People like to talk about the October Revolution (1917), the Bolsheviks, the taking of the Winter Palace. But few remember the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion when the sailors and workers of Petrograd rioted. Many of those who had carried out the revolution were called counter-revolutionaries and were killed.

Haiti was the first successful Afro-Caribbean and Latin American revolution, but what I’m saying is that victory is not enough to accomplish the purposes of a revolution. I have been studying Haiti for six or seven years. First from the legal point of view, then from the angle that it was a revolution by African descendants, which led me to look at the Cuban case.

We can say that our revolutionary process over the last 205 years has been shaped by two great revolutions, Haiti and Russia, which was another reason I was fascinated with Haiti. The book, which was part of the master’s thesis I did in London, originally included other countries. But my tutor told me that Haiti’s case was sufficient; it is fascinating enough on its own. There were other proposals to analyze Russia and Cuba. But the Russian process is too vast a topic to be covered in a thesis and Cuba is an ongoing process that I am part of in a way.

HT: I’m glad you mentioned Cuba because I wanted to ask you the following question: In the preface, Holloway mentions a group of countries that have experienced transdomination. That is, a revolution has taken place that has resulted in another system of domination or, as he says, in some cases has led to a worse society. He mentions Russia, North Korea, China, Vietnam, but does not include Cuba, my question is: Do you think our country has escaped transdomination after the Revolution?

DMITRI PRIETO: “Well, you would have to ask Holloway why he didn’t mention Cuba. I think transdomination has been a nearly universal process and it’s very difficult to point to any society that has escaped it after a revolution.

Hannah Arendt has a book that I think is called On Revolution and in it she talks about the difference between a social revolution and á political revolution. For her, post-revolutionary US was successful because it was only a political revolution, not a social revolution as was the case in Cuba, Haiti and Russia. That is, the US revolutionaries of 1776 did not intend to change the social structure of their country. Here we can invoke José Martí, when he says that they achieved independence, but not revolution. For him, a revolution that only achieves independence has no right to be called a revolution (to call it so, it must at least abolish slavery).

Then comes the question: Is there some sort of curse on social revolutions, on any proposed radical, profound change? Many critics of “utopia” say that behind revolutionary radicalism is the intent of rational control over all human activity and any attempt to control involves a controller, a “strong” government, a politiburo, a team of sages directing the whole society.

“In the case of Cuba I think it is obvious that we can talk about transdomination and we must study it. For example we have publicly discussed what happened to sexual, religious and cultural minorities in the 60’s when the UMAP work camps were created and those who seemed “weird” were sent there.

Widely known are the views of people such as Alfredo Guevara or Silvio Rodríguez regarding the bureaucracy that affects us all and is also a form of domination. There are research projects approved in Cuban academies that are looking at coloniality and transdomination from a historical heritage perspective. It’s real and palpable research.

An example of transdomination is that the story of the unsung heroes of November 27, 1871, the black Abakuá who gave their lives trying to save the medical students who were going to be executed, has been lost to memory even though the Revolution fought for the emancipation of African descendents. A political cultural of colonialism was imposed and that event was not publicized.

Action to commemorate a forgotten part of history. Photo: Nov. 27, 2006

One way to oppose transdomination is to recover popular historical memory and radically restore the revolutionary project. I think that is what must be done in all cases where there is a threat of or a clear presence of transdomination.

HT: One thing that I found most striking in your book was the fact that Simon Bolivar, El Libertador, did not invite Haiti to the Amphictyonic Congress of Panama.

DMITRI PRIETO: “But he invited Britain”

HT: How is it that the great liberator of America did not invite the first country where a revolution triumphed on the continent, but instead, as you say, invited Britain?

DMITRI PRIETO: “Look, this has to do with the world-system and the concepts of decency. Another important aspect you did not mention in your question is that the Haitian leaders really helped Bolivar and all those who sought freedom for America. The government of Haiti, of Pétion in this case, only required that Bolívar free the slaves as one of his first acts after winning the war.

Due to class alliances this was a problematic for Bolivar, as it was later here in Cuba. The slaves were not freed as promptly as Haiti expected. The goal of the Amphictyonic Congress of Panama was the integration and international recognition of this new America. Bolivar wanted to rescue the ideal of the republic and show that America was able to live independently.

That implied a level of “decency” and Haiti was seen as a country of black rebels, as a kind of palenque in the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, Haiti occupied a lowly position in the world and Bolivar did nothing more than validate this status. He satisfied the rules of behavior imposed by global economics and the system of international relations. You could say that El Liberator was not radical enough.”

HT: A while ago you mentioned the Abakuá who attempted to rescue those medical students in 1871. You said that the concealment of this historic memory is an example of transdomination in our country. How do you explain that in the country that helped the African continent to achieve its liberation from colonialism and the apartheid regime, that has sent many doctors to Africa, and that has provided educational opportunities for many young Africans, there are still expressions of racism here and the actions as those of Abakuá remains unacknowledged? Even today the execution of the medical students is officially commemorated, but homage is not paid to the Abakuá.

DMITRI PRIETO: “Yes … what we just said about Bolívar somewhat applies here as well. Successful revolutions often lack political radicalism in the implementation of their future. Eradicating racism would definitely require a profound change in the public’s mentality, but there must also be an institutional dimension. I think that in addition to the international image that you mentioned, there has been significant progress on the race issue in post-revolutionary Cuba and it would be unfair not to recognize it and would be a historic mistake to think that Cuba is now as racist a society as it was before.

Bear in mind that Cuba, before the United States, chose an African-American president, Mr. Batista, who turned out to be no good. But he was a constitutionally-elected president (in 1940, long before his coup d’etat). He was a mulatto, which was really something for the time. Anyway racism affected him to some degree because there were clubs he could not enter. We must also remember that Batista came from the popular class. He was not the typical rich and aristocratic politician. I think Batista’s political biography is interesting because it helps paint a picture of Cuban society at that time. ”

“Then came the people’s Revolution or the triumph of a popular armed insurrection. We must ask ourselves who are “the people.” I think that’s the great mystery of it all. When we speak of racism, we must look at who is affected by it and how much it is encoded in things like skin color, physical features and hair type. To what extent is racism cultural, that is, dependent on where people live, what they do, how they behave, what music they like.

I do not think in the case of the aforementioned Abakuá skin color is the main factor. It is often easy to dismiss this racial aspect. But things get complicated when we look at the cultural dimension. In other words, to what extent can Cuban popular culture insert itself into an erudite institutional image.

You can even say that image is bleached and Europeanized, but I insist that the issue goes much further and is much deeper than skin color. I think that it is more than a matter of contrast between black and white. It is a clash of two worlds. We know that from the beginning the Abakuá society was an integrationist society. It’s not a blacks-only thing; there are many whites who are Abakuá.

But it is very difficult to incorporate Abakuá society into an erudite institutionalized lifestyle like that of the modern European world, which to some extent the institutionalized dimension of the Cuban Revolution was an expression of, as is Marxism, as was the Soviet revolution, and to a certain degree the Haitian revolution, because it was a modern revolution. Hence the great tensions within post-revolutionary Haitian society. ”

HT: Okay, let’s accept that in this case the prevailing factor was cultural. It is true that Abakuá society is difficult to assimilate; in addition we should also note that at the beginning of the Revolution, all religions, not just African ones, but including Christians were … we won’t say prohibited, but …

DMITRI PRIETO: “Marginalized”.

HT: OK, marginalized. So let’s leave off the example of the Abakuá for the moment and look at how history is taught in this country … I think you’ve written about it. Here the history of Greece, Rome, Africa, and Egypt is studied. But we do not study black Africa, it seems that the history of black Africans begins upon arriving in Cuba as slaves. We know nothing of these civilizations on their continent. It’s as if we descended from wild tribes. I studied Cuban history in elementary and high school, and also in my freshman year of college. We only touched on the Independent Colored Party during high school. What do these examples show us?

DMITRI PRIETO: “That’s practically the norm. In Cuba there is racism, the history of Cuba is “bleached”. History is universally taught from a Eurocentric perspective in the schools and in the media due to a deep consensus. The problem is that it does not reflect the whole of Cuban society and institutions.

You bring up another very unfortunate situation. Most books that talk about our religions of African origin or the ethnic groups that were brought here by force can only be purchased in CUC, when they should be made available to all Cubans. I do not want to dwell on the issue of education, because racism is not the only problem there. Education in Cuba is a great mystery.

If I say, ok, let’s examine history with an egalitarian perspective, giving each group the credit it deserves. Well, then you have to analyze the history curriculum, the general curriculum, and how the educational institutions function. My opinion on the subject of education, beyond that racism exists and must be eliminated, is that eliminating it alone does not end it.

Imagine you add integrationist content about Africa and African descendents and the racial issue to school programs. What will happen next? If those programs and especially the pedagogical praxis remain as dogmatic, authoritarian and boring as they are now, nothing will happen. In fact, the results may be counterproductive.

I am convinced there is a glaring need to reconstruct our educational policies, which would aid in eliminating racism and other problems. Already there are more black faces appearing on TV and more reporting by black or mulato journalists. But does this eliminate racism? It is a first step that I think should be welcomed.

In the case of the education system that first step has yet to be taken. However, I insist that the problem is much deeper. Often, when studying the racial problem in Cuba it is thought that the actions used in the United States could work here, but we must take into account the big difference between the two societies, and also look at what is happening now in Europe where multiculturalism is in crisis.

This is evident in the number of votes garnered by right-wing and conservative parties. The leaders of Germany and England have spoken out against multiculturalism.

I think this deserves a radical response from the left, not only against racial discrimination but against discrimination of any kind. Because there is also the issue of gender and, of course, the LGBT issue, and of course the class issue.

In Cuba we also have a regional prejudice that is tremendously damaging to human dignity. Folks from the east are treated differently, regardless of their race, although most are of dark complexion. Before the triumph of the Revolution there was also strong discrimination against Haitians. But we can happily say that such discrimination has disappeared.

They were on the bottom rung because not only did they suffer racism, but black Cubans discriminated against them for being foreigners. They suffered true acts of genocide. I think that the elimination of that situation is one of the noble deeds of the Revolution that must be recognized. The Haitians were granted Cuban citizenship and practical recognition. But it’s obvious that all of that was not enough.

To conclude this part, I’d like to say that I think it is very important to study African history. I have had the opportunity to study the Yoruba civilization and I think it is just as interesting as the East Indian, Mayan, Aztec, and Asian civilizations, which have not been sufficiently studied either. I seek a history that is much less colonized, with a very special place for those African groups that contributed most to the formation of Cuba. It should also be an unbiased history, free of myths about those peoples, who also practiced oppression and slavery.

So, in the end it’s all very complicated and it is necessary to approach the subject from a revolutionary point of view in the sense of uncovering the chasms, observing them with courage and beginning to rebuild everything that needs to be rebuilt. ”

To be continued…