Real Socialism and “Coloniality” in Cuba

Yasser Farres Delgado

Cuba’s Ministry of Domestic Commerce. Foto: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Havana Times blogger Isbel Diaz’ recent experiences with Cuban State Security agents at the airport prompts me to introduce a concept that I believe describes current social oppression in Cuba precisely: coloniality. This concept appears to be absent from debates among “unconventional Cuban dissidents,” and I feel it can help drive home the need to overcome traditional dichotomies (such as Left/Right, socialism/capitalism) and envisage a future that is truly inclusive and just.

When I speak of “overcoming traditional dichotomies,” I do not mean looking for a Solomonic answer that would consist of a “middle road” between capitalism and socialism (as some social democrats often suggest), but rather conceiving a societal model that would break radically with both logics (and recycle parts of those systems, if necessary). This may sound like a utopian aspiration, but it is both necessary and feasible.

Isbel’s experiences demonstrate that the Cuban government’s crusade isn’t aimed exclusively at gusanos (government opponents), but at anyone who disagrees with the official discourse. Isbel has no ties to the anti-Castro Cuban-American community: he is an activist fighting for the rights of Cuba’s LGTB community, an ecologist and a libertarian socialist. When the international Left offers the Cuban government its blind, unconditional support, it is regrettably also supporting this type of oppression.

Coloniality As an Analytical Category

Cuba’s political situation is often described as a “dictatorship” or as “authoritarian.” These, however, are very limited terms that do not exhaust the complexity of social oppression as experienced on the island. The concept of coloniality can help us bring to light many subtle aspects of the kind oppression experienced under real socialism. I believe this is why a number of pro-government intellectuals have sought to discredit this concept.

Since the end of the 20th century, “coloniality” has become a fundamental category in many analyses of the process of domination and emancipation, in both Latin America and the world at large. It has allowed theorists to overcome many impasses within dependence theories and Marxism and revealed its potential as a tool for the construction of a future post-capitalist (and also post-Marxist) world order.

Part of Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez

To grasp the concept’s potential, we must first note that “coloniality” is not the same thing as “colonialism.” As Puerto Rican theorist Nelson Maldonado Torres, following Anibal Quijano, points out,

“Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation, which makes such nation an empire. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjetive relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performances, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of people, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breathe coloniality all the time and every day.”

Cuba’s official discourse commonly portrays the social process begun in 1959 as an emancipatory panacea. The revolution, it claims, put an end to class exploitation and to race and gender discrimination. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. What we find in Cuba, rather, is the continuation and updating of a series of power patterns that were established in the colonial era and which define what Walter Mignolo calls “the colonial power matrix.”

According to the official discourse, the history of Cuba describes an initial emancipation from the “European colonizer” and a subsequent emancipation from “American imperialism.” From this perspective, the socialist “New Man” represents a radical break with the two. However, if we outline the attributes of the colonizers, we find similarities with those colonized that remain hidden if we remain exclusively wedded to concepts such as “conquistador”, “imperialist” and “socialist.”

The Havana Cathedral. Foto: Juan Suarez

It would be impossible to exhaust the theoretical debate surrounding the concept of coloniality in a single post. The implications of the concept can be confirmed in practice in a rather straightforward manner. The central idea behind the concept, as Ramon Grosfoguel explains, is that a series of power relations suited to the colonizer’s hegemonic social model (white, Western, capitalist, military, Christian, patriarchal and heterosexual man) were established during the colonial period. The essential components of these relations continue to exist in modern republics, despite the fact these secured independence from their former colonial masters. This can be confirmed in many different ways in the “Americas”, including the United States and Canada.

Coloniality and Real Socialism

Cuba is no exception. The “New Man” ended up being an inheritor of these traditional power relations. In him we find male chauvinism, racism (institutionalized in various ways), Occidentalism (Santiago Castro Gomez and Ramon Grosfoguel have demonstrated the Eurocentric nature of Marxism-Leninism), a capitalist mentality (which persists in a conception of economic development centered on capital), militarism (through participation in the Cold War, etc.), Christian values (so-called “socialist morality” reproduces many elements of Catholic dogma and mirrors Catholicism in its rejection of any other ideology or world view), patriarchal patters (“State paternalism”, much maligned today, is only one of its expressions), as well as the phobia towards any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.

Towards the Decolonization of Cuban Society

Cuban society will not achieve true social emancipation and decolonization without breaking with these power relations, which persist within capitalism and socialism alike. This will only be achieved if, on the one hand, individuals experience a transformation and begin to accept all forms of diversity and, on the other, if public and State institutions change and facilitate mutual recognition and plural forms of exchange.

The first condition depends entirely on our postures as subjects. The second is something the Cuban State does not offer us.

  1. QUIJANO, Aníbal (2001) “Globalización, colonialidad del poder y democracia”. En AAVV. Tendencias básicas de nuestra época: globalización y democracia. Instituto Diplomático Pedro Gual, Caracas.
  2. CASTRO-GÓMEZ, Santiago (2005). La poscolonialidad explicada a los niños. Editorial Universidad del Cauca, Instituto Pensar, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Popayán.
  3. GROSFOGUEL, Ramón (2006). “La descolonización de la economía política y los estudios postcoloniales. Transmodernidad, pensamiento fronterizo y colonialidad global”, Tabula Rasa, 4, pp. 17-48.
  4. GROSFOGUEL, Ramón (2008). “Del imperialismo de Lenin al Imperio de Hardt y Negri: «fases superiores» del eurocentrismo”, Universitas Humanística, 65, pp- 15-26.
  5. MALDONADO-TORRES Nelson (2007). On the coloniality of being, Cultural Studies, 21 (2 y 3), pp. 240-270
  6. MIGNOLO, Walter (2000). Local Histories/Global Designs: Essays on the Coloniality of Power, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking. Princeton University Press, Princeton. [Versión española: (2003) Historias Locales/Diseños globales. Colonialidad, conocimientos subalternos y pensamiento fronterizo. Madrid: AKAL ]

11 thoughts on “Real Socialism and “Coloniality” in Cuba

  • Don’t ignore that fleet of BMW’s
    I think it probable that I am included in those you describe as Cuba-haters. We are exactly the reverse, we love Cuba and its people. We have Cuban families and homes. We personally witness the conditions under which Cubans labour, the need to find ways toi survive tomorrow, the need to not let the CDR (there is one on every block) hear your conversations. How to eke out the meagre rations, how to support the pensioners in the family who only receive the equivalent of $8 US per month as a pension. This is the REALITY of life in Cuba. The conditions for us are not a matter of academic theoretical debate, we are recording the cold hard facts of life in Cuba for Cubans.
    I happen to have day to day contact with the Cuban educational system, which like that in Canada is free. The problem now for the teachers is motivating the students “Why should I bother studying when I can earn more by buying 25 200gm loaves of bread at the Empresa at 5 pesos each, cycle around town selling them for 6 pesos each and earn more in an hour than you as a schoolteacher with a Master’s degree earn per day trying to teach me?

  • Castro-hater, maybe. Cuba-hater? Definitely, not! $100 per month is bad when you compare it to the price of chicken in CUBA! You don’t need to compare Cuba to the US to understand how screwed up the Castro economy is. When the cost of the average new car is more than $40,000 in Cuba and the average monthly salary is $24, what else needs to be said? Why is Chelsea Clinton’s good fortune a problem for you. When my neighbor gets a new sofa, I don’t begrudge them. My nephew realizes he is responsible for his own destiny and what Chelsea has or may receive is irrelevant. Fidel owns a country so not a good way to make your point.

  • Firstly, why do you Cuba-haters get so mad at the US-Cuba comparison ? You do it all the time, e.g. a monthly income of $100 is bad. Compared to what ? Everything on this blog is an implicit comparison to somewhere else. You hate the comparisons because it belies your line that all problems in Cuban life and society stem from the Castros. I’ll give you a USA to USA comparison to mix in w/ your bizarrely pollyannaish view that “somehow the little guy frequently prevails here. Chelsea Clinton. She earns $445 per second, reporting for NBC. That’s not a typo. She never went to journalism school. She is a member of several boards. Though she only graduated with a master’s degree in 2010, started teaching graduate level classes two years later at Columbia University’s School of Public Health. She lives in a 10.5 million dollar condominium in Manhattan. Her personal wealth is estimated by Business Insider to be 15 million. She makes $900,000.00 per year doing almost nothing. She is 34. Bet your nephew doesn’t know that, but I’m sure he is aware that Fidel has a 30 yr old Mercedes and a couple dolphins.

  • I have never understood why Castro apologists like you feel the need to point out US weaknesses in an effort to justify and defend the failings of the Castro regime. The US electoral process is flawed. No one disagrees with that. Moreover, there is an ever-increasing bias on behalf of the well-financed. However, time and again, despite the money and power, somehow the little guy or the under-financed will prevail. We have recently witnessed this in a US House race where a Tea Party candidate with very little money took out the House Majority Leader. It can and does happen all the time. Nonetheless, despite your valid criticisms of the US electoral process, it remains ‘head and shoulders’ above the puppet parliamentary process we see in Cuba. Do you really dare to compare our democracy to the Castro dictatorship? Only one family has run that country in 55 years! Yes, I have a nephew with a newly-minted degree in African-American Studies from San Jose State. He lives in the heart of the Silicon Valley where the average income is six figures and he can’t find a night security guard job these days. But despite his bleak prospects, he would not trade places with his counterpart grad from the University of Havana. Even if the Cuban grad finds a job, even with NO debt, he will never earn enough money to live. NEVER! With regards to my in-laws, the way the Castros see it, they will NEVER stop paying for their education. How else do you explain a Guantanamo household of two engineers, a teacher and a retired lawyer and the total monthly income received does not exceed $100?

  • As usual, you avoid my point. What about the fact the fact that Americans who are not members of the wealthy elite have no discernible impact on government policy ? Sort of takes most of the wind out of the Democracy vs. Dictatorship argument doesn’t it . Particularly when the Dictatorship is by many measures doing more to insure the basic needs of the majority, with many fewer resources. BTW, you mean to tell me you don’t know of any unemployed college grads here trying desperately to get by? How long did it take for your Cuban in-laws to pay off their educations ?

  • My disdain for the Cuban revolution is based on several things. Not one of them is a result of my years of hard work and sacrifice which have provided me with a comfortable life. I oppose the Cuban revolution because it represents 55 years of oppression. Every time I have to send a care package to my family in Cuba despite the fact they are all well-educated professionals, I am reminded how much that revolution has failed its alleged intended purpose. I could go on and on.

  • Democracy is a feature of the US system, but it is not a complete definition. It is more correctly defined as a constitutional republic, with regularly scheduled democratic elections to select candidates for public office.

  • Regarding the nonfunctional US “Democracy”, for starters how about the recent Princeton study by Martin Gilen and Benjamin Page, “Affluence and Influence” ? That study found that average citizens have little or no impact on government policy. Maybe as a Porsche driving, Chamonix skiing, man of leisure, you don’t notice these things… It would also explain your disdain for the Cuban Revolution.

  • It sounds to me like the concept of “coloniality”is yet another patronizing Eurocentric notion passed off as a sophisticated intellectual discourse by some hegemonic academics.

  • Once again, I challenge you to produce even one credible source that shares your definition of socialism/communism. Failing that as I am sure you will, is there a credible source that shares your view that democracy in the US is “NON-functional”. Given the rise in the Tea Party in the US, the argument can surely be made that Congress has become dysfunctional but to accuse the US of not functioning is a stretch. Well, maybe not for a guy who opposes the nuclear family but for everyone else….

  • What has not been eliminated by the Cuban revolution is the lack of democracy that existed under colonialism, neo-colonialism .
    Marxist thinking is top down and requires a non-democratic government and economy.
    The solutions to the problems of the totalitarian Cuban government and its government run economy lie almost entirely in democratic ( bottom-up) institutions .
    The problem with capitalism is also the lack of democracy in its entirely top-down mechanism. No sane populace, if given the opportunity -which they are not – would vote for a system where the top 10% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% .
    The wealthy in the U.S. have much more to lose were they to establish a functioning democracy in the U.S. than would the leadership in Cuba who, although better off than their countrymen, have nowhere near the inordinate wealth of U.S. leadership or the incredibly wealthy who own and control the GOUSA.
    Coloniality is another way of saying the same thing but far more confusing .
    It’s still just another way of saying totalitarian control.

Comments are closed.