by Pilar Montes
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.
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.