“Just as Martin Luther King deserves praise for the ‘content of their character’ quote—Castro also deserves credit for his colorblind approach to race.”
ernie Sanders has recently taken heat for his comments about Fidel Castro. He had praised the Cuban Revolution for having raised literacy rates. Make no mistake: Castro was a brutal dictator, and I have expressed this on many occasions—and so has Bernie. But, like it or not, Castro did improve the literacy rates in his country. Is it so hard to admit that a stopped clock does mark the right time twice a day?
A comparison with another Latin American country is in order. Milton Friedman, the famed neoliberal economist, also took heat for praising the economic policies of Chilean (and U.S.-backed dictator) Augusto Pinochet. When Friedman was awarded the Nobel Prize, there were protests because of his views on Chile. Yet, just as Sanders, Friedman emphasized that he only approved of a specific aspect of that dictatorship. Today, the same people who so vehemently oppose Sanders because of his comments on Cuba, give Friedman a free pass. Why? Clearly, out of pure ideological prejudice.
If Sanders makes it to the White House, I hope he can look up to Castro in another important aspect that is not so frequently discussed in media. Bernie, just like Castro, is a socialist. And, socialists actively seek wealth redistribution. If Sanders is elected President, I do not think he will carry on the sorts of aggressive Communist policies that Castro so ruthlessly pursued. However, in a country with an increasing inequality gap, Bernie will certainly try to narrow that gap.
Now, on many occasions, Bernie has clearly said that his main concern is class. He cares about the working class, regardless of their skin color. Yes, he acknowledges the injustice of slavery, Jim Crow, and all the rest, but he refuses to say that those have been the only injustices in the United States. Poor whites are victims, too, and they do not deserve any less attention than so-called “people of color.” As has been shown in various studies, excessive concern with so-called “white privilege” ultimately drives liberals to say that poor whites deserve what they get. Bernie would never say such a preposterous thing.
That is why, as opposed to other more opportunistic Democrats, he is not jumping on the Reparations bandwagon. In fact, in an age in which another Democratic candidate chose to manufacture dubious genealogies with some remote Native American ancestor (so as to prove herself not fully white), Sanders is the anti-identity politics man of the Left. He has boldly said that, “it’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me!’” In one brilliant comment, he dismisses the Left’s obsession with identity. Obama promised to be a post-racial President, but, as I have argued, he fell short. I think Sanders has a better chance of bringing the United States to a much-needed post-racial era.
As it happens, Sanders can look up to Castro in this regard. Cuba could have been a hotbed of identity politics, yet Castro skillfully avoided that. Slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886. As in the rest of the Americas, slavery in Cuba was racial: white masters owned black slaves. By the time Castro made his triumphal entry in Havana in 1959, there were laws similar to Jim Crow legislation.
Castro put an end to those laws. Of course, racist attitudes continued. Yet, he realized that the only way to put a real end to racism was by encouraging color-blind nationalism. As Thomas Chatterton Williams would phrase it, he encouraged Cubans to unlearn race. He was pressured to implement affirmative action programs, yet he refused to do that because that would make race the prime identity in Cuba. Instead, he opted to make Cuban nationalism the most important identity in his country. His message was clear: We are all Cubans, and, in the face of American imperialism, we must unite. By encouraging a melting pot approach, Castro hoped to melt away racial differences.
Has this approach given good results? I would say so. Black people in Cuba complain about many things (as in any dictatorship), but racism is usually not one of them. Black intellectuals (usually foreigners, seldom Cubans) typically point out that positions of power are overwhelmingly occupied by whites in Cuba. That is an indisputable truth. Yet, I am still not at all convinced that racial disparities are ipso facto evidence of racism; I think Coleman Hughes is onto something when he calls this way of thinking the “disparities fallacy.” There could be a gazillion reasons why an ethnic group does better than another ethnic group, and racism does not have to be one of them.
The Caribbean is a place where there has always been the potential for tremendous ethnic violence. Even after two hundred years, the specter of the Haitian revolution still lurks among the island nations of the region. And, in countries such as Trinidad and Guyana, people of African and Indian ancestry are frequently at each other’s throats. Castro brought about a revolution, but he managed to avoid these problems.
As with most Latin American nations, when it comes to race, Cuba has an additional complication: Its mixed-race population is large. So, the moment a politician proposes reparations or affirmative action, you struggle with deciding who deserves what. In the last few years, Brazil implemented affirmative action programs. But when not-too-dark looking people came forward collecting checks because they proved they had some remote Native or African ancestor (the same sort of thing Elizabeth Warrens wants to do), the Brazilian government faced a problem. Dark-skin people complained that light-skin people were unfairly benefited. The government’s solution was to implement affirmative action tribunals, in which claimants would be examined on the basis of their physical appearance. Soon, Brazilian judges found themselves measuring noses and skin colors to determine how black someone is: the same sort of thing South African public officials did in the Apartheid era.
I suppose Castro anticipated these complications, and he found a more efficient solution: Disregard identity politics and focus on economic inequality, regardless of color. In some respects, the United States is becoming like Latin America. Millennials are happy to date and marry someone from another race. This will no doubt complicate plans for reparations, affirmative action, and identity politics as a whole—as it will become more difficult to place people in boxes and decide who is what. You do not want to have the kind of tribunals they have in Brazil. If Sanders is elected, he will need to reckon with this reality, and he may have to look up to Castro as a model in this regard. In that case, conservatives will have to give the devil his due and admit that—just as Martin Luther King deserves praise for the “content of their character” quote—Castro also deserves credit for his colorblind approach to race.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80