The Dignity of Cubans is Pragmatic

by Pilar Montes

From the 2015 Havana Bienial.
From the 2015 Havana Biennial.

HAVANA TIMES — Some say that having dignity means thinking of oneself as an end. When we have dignity, our value stems not from our usefulness in terms of certain aims (even noble ones), but by virtue of our humanity.

That, at least, is what US philosophy professor Susan Babbitt (who holds a PhD and is an expert on Latin America and the Caribbean) maintains.

Reading one of Babbitt’s recent philosophical articles, I came across a different approach to the issue of dignity, a virtue which has never been associated with anything save the world of consciousness.

Dignity does not come easy. We must struggle to dredge up the best in us, and it is a spiritually gratifying and socially constructive task which can be diverse in terms of experience and emotionally rewarding, raising our self-esteem and both challenging and edifying us constantly.

Despite her youth, this philosopher has already published four books. Her most recent titles are Humanism and Embodiment: From Cause and Effect to Secularism (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Jose Marti, Ernesto Che Guevera and Global Development Ethics: The Battle for Ideas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Like a good scientist, Babbitt knows how to expound different concepts such that everyone can grasp them. The author agrees with something Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez said during the Summit of the Americas held in Panama this past April.

Fernández disagreed with the proposal advanced by Barack Obama, to the effects of “burying the past.” She argued that Cuba did not negotiate its presence at the Summit, that it had earned the right to be there after struggling for over 60 years with unprecedented dignity.

Cuban philosopher and revolutionary Jose Marti, Babbitt underscores, made “radical respect for human dignity” one of the goals of the struggle for independence against Spain in 1895. Referring to the Montecristi Manifesto, a political declaration issued by the Cuban Revolutionary Party, the professor stresses that “Remarkably, a political movement was giving priority to an ancient and fundamental philosophical question: how to know what it means to be human.”

Babbitt explains and approves of Cuban internationalism, because the history of Cuba makes the motivation credible. According to British historian Richard Gott, Cuba’s involvement in the Angola war, for instance, was totally devoid of egotistical motivations.

Significantly, in Pretoria there is a “wall of names” which commemorates those who died in the struggle against apartheid. Many Cuban names are inscribed there. No other foreign country is represented.

From the 2015 Havana Biennial
From the 2015 Havana Biennial

Many in the United States claimed that Cuba was acting as a Soviet proxy, but, according to US intelligence, Castro had no intention whatsoever to subject himself to Soviet discipline and direction.

At the time, the Cuban leader regretted the lack of support for Third World liberation movements shown by the Soviet Union, and that they should have been so reluctant to adequately assist North Vietnam.

Twenty-five years later, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would write in his memoirs that Castro was “probably the most genuine revolutionary leader then in power.” And one can say anything about Kissinger, save that he was a leftist.

US intelligence even identified Cuba’s real motivations when it reported that the island “grants special importance to maintaining a foreign policy based on principles…on issues of basic importance such as Cuba’s right and duty to support sympathetic movements and governments in the Third World, and does not allow for any concessions of principles for economic or political convenience.”

Any visitor to Cuba realizes that Cubans believe in sharing what little they have, not what they have plenty of. This creates skepticism and even contempt, for it comes across as a good but unrealistic idea.

According to Babbitt, it is realistic because the search for dignity has practical meaning.

Cuba has been putting an internationalist ethic into practice since 1963, when the recently emancipated Argelia was in need of medical aid. Following hurricane Katrina, Cuba offered to send a group of 1,586 medical professionals and 36 tons of medical supplies to the United States at no cost, an offer that was turned down.

More recently, in 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that few countries had replied to the call to fight against the Ebola outbreak in Africa, but that one country had replied with determination: Cuba. Cuba gave a prompt response, sending more than 450 doctors and nurses, chosen from among 15 thousand volunteers, the largest medical mission sent there.

Marti urged children in Cuba and throughout the region to have dignity. In his well-known children’s book, The Golden Age, he offers an image of distant places. He taught children that in order to know and respect themselves as human begins, they had to treat one another, and those of distant places, as equals.

Philosophically, internationalism is a practical – not a moral – obligation. Marti believed that human beings are causally interconnected, both with their surroundings and those who inhabit those surroundings. From this point of view, there is no mystery in the fact a poor country should want to implement internationalist policies.

In 1998, Fidel Castro said that Cuba’s humanist project explains Cuba’s endurance in the face of the US blockade. He invoked the power of ideas, specifically that of dignity and its practical meaning. In 2003, during an academic conference, Castro added that the threat of sophisticated weapons must be faced with ideas.

As relations between the United States and Cuba begin to thaw, Cuba is changing. Many will not want it to change too much, but such people often do not see the true reasons behind what Charles Taylor describes as the “age of authenticity,” where personal choice is of the essence.

Thinkers like Taylor and Babbitt call for connectedness as an antidote to liberal individualism and as a source of radical thought.

They point out that Cuban philosophers, and especially Marti, began to trace this path long ago in the hemisphere. Cuba should not stray from its philosophical traditions, traditions that are dearly needed up north, Babbitt claims.


6 thoughts on “The Dignity of Cubans is Pragmatic

  • September 10, 2015 at 8:28 am
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    That was funny…..!!!

  • August 27, 2015 at 9:51 am
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    Just to laugh at you, darling!

  • August 26, 2015 at 7:13 pm
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    YOU DID!

  • August 10, 2015 at 9:17 am
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    Talking to yourselves, I see…nobody is paying attention so good night.

  • August 7, 2015 at 5:59 am
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    The post writer, Pilar Montes, fails to tell the whole story. Here are a few that she left out. Re: Castro …. According to Peter Kornbluh, Kissinger often referred to Castro as “pipsqueak” in oval office meetings. Re: José Marti…..Marti is a well-documented anti-socialist. Re: Cuban sharing…like Jamaican sharing, Philippino sharing, Mozambican sharing and so many others. Re: Castro and his battle of ideas….of course the guy in a gunfight without a gun would say that! When Castro had Soviet nukes in his backyard, he wasn’t talking ideas. Instead he urged the Soviet President to launch a first strike against the US. A strike which would have certainly resulted in the annihilation of Cuba. Not a good idea at all. There are too many other omissions to list in this space. It is clear that the political biases of Professor Babbitt and that of Pilar Montes have colored their capacity to see all the facts.

  • August 6, 2015 at 6:47 pm
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    We who respond, do not have sufficient space to comment upon each and every one of the article’s assertions.
    But to take a few:
    “Any visitor to Cuba realizes that Cubans believe in sharing what little they have, not what they have plenty of.”
    Absolutely correct, that is part of their culture based upon “la familia”. The contribution made by the Castro family regime has been to increase the need for interdependence and hence sharing what little their subjugated people have by for example setting the pension at 200 pesos per month(US$8), by imposing rationing, by introduction of the CDR
    The Ebola outbreak in Africa. Pilar Montes chooses to ignore the fact that other countries – Canada was one of several – supported Medicin sans Frontier which had medical staff in Africa fighting Ebola over a year prior to Cuba joining the battle. I do not diminish Cuba’s contribution which ended a bit early. Pilar Montes chooses to ignore the need to build both permanent and temporary hospitals and the enormous contribution made by the USA sending over 3,000 personnel for that purpose. Canada too sent field hospitals – did Cuba?
    Worst of all,
    in 1998 “Castro added that the threat of sophisticated weapons must be faced with ideas.”
    Pilar Montes earlier writes:
    “Many in the United States maintained that Cuba was acting as a Soviet proxy, but according to US intelligence, Castro had no intention whatsoever to subject himself to Soviet discipline and direction.”
    In 1963 the world came nearest to a nuclear war.
    Should the USA have responded with “ideas” from the threat posed by Castro’s allowing the Soviet Union to place nuclear weapons in the Western Hemisphere either by “discipline and direction” or by the wish of Castro to launch nuclear attack?
    When Fidel Castro Ruz and his military chief Raul Castro Ruz sent 500 Cuban tank drivers to support the invasion of Israel by the Asad regime in Syria, who supplied the tanks? The Soviet Union!
    The surprise attack had a surprise ending. Israel won the Yum Kippur war! Maybe the Castro family regime should have attacked with “ideas”.

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