Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Journey from the U.S.A. to Cuba

I came from a country
where some people have more
than they could use in 100 lifetimes,
while others have no place to live.
They call this a democracy.

Most people go to work
and do what they are told.
Then we come home where
we are told what is politically correct.
They call this freedom.

The government has violated treaties
all over the world and murdered millions.
They even take the food
out of the mouths of babies.
They call this civilization.

I came to a country
where the people didn’t like all of this,
where they made a revolution
and their voice was heard around the world.
This country is Cuba.

This is a place where the people
don’t have to pay for education or health care.
This is a place where they won
the right to control their destiny.
Some people call this a dictatorship.

In Cuba the people don’t have much money.
What they have was won through struggle.
They understand that they need
to defend the gains that were made.
Some people call this a police state.

I met a woman who was raised in a modest household,
and became a college professor.
Without the revolution,
she would have lived a life of ignorance and poverty.
And some say that Cuba is unrealistic.

I came from a country where the people
are alienated from the government and the press.
I went to a country where the people celebrate life,
and have a deep appreciation of those who choose to struggle.
And there was an ache in my heart when I had to go.

Yes, I returned to the place that claims to be
democratic, free, and civilized.
I left the place where this lowly worker
found genuine human solidarity,
and a people who have shown the world how to be free.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Cuban Five Are Home

A few days ago I learned of one of the most important events that has occurred in my life.  This was the freeing of the Cuban political prisoners held by the United States government.  The three of the five who were freed recently served about fifteen years in prison.  These were Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez, Ramon Labanino Salazar, and Fernando Gonzalez.  Rene Gonzalez and Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo were released from prison a few years ago.

In a Democracy Now interview with Gerardo Hernandez at the time of his return to Cuba, he gave the reason for why he decided to become a spy for Cuba.  He spoke about how the Cuban people had been exposed to terroristic plots of aircraft and hotel bombings that were organized out of Miami, Florida.  His decision to become a spy was to work to put an end to these terroristic acts.

Geronimo Pratt

When I listened to these words by Hernandez, I thought of the life of Geronimo Pratt (Geronimo ji-Jaga).  Pratt spent twenty-seven years in prison for a crime that the government eventually admitted he did not commit.  He received $4,500,000 as compensation for his years in prison.  Of that amount, $1,750,000 came from the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their role in his frame-up.

Geronimo Pratt grew up in Morgan City, Louisiana at the time of Jim Crow segregation.  He lived in a segregated neighborhood known as Across the Tracks.  As a young man, Pratt was arrested because his friend was accused of looking at, or whistling at a white woman.  Emmitt Till was lynched for a similar so-called offence.

The Black people of Across the Tracks organized to defend themselves against the racists who routinely carried out terroristic raids against their community.  In Louisiana, these forces were called the Deacons of Defense.

Geronimo Pratt eventually received military training and was a decorated soldier who participated in the U.S. war against Vietnam.  Eventually he learned that the Vietnamese were not his enemy.  However, the police department of Los Angeles, California had a routine practice of harassing the Black community.  He felt the community needed to be defended against this harassment, just as his relatives defended the community against the Ku Klux Klan.  In this effort, he became the Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party.  This is why Geronimo became a target of the police and the FBI.          

Cuba, before the revolution

Before the Cuban Revolution, the government, in effect, followed the dictates of Washington.  This meant that the Cuban people experienced the same kind of discrimination against Blacks as existed in the United States.  The government of Fulgencio Batista murdered an estimated 20,000 Cubans in his effort to remain in power. 

Sugar was the primary source of income on the island and about 500,000 workers toiled in this industry.  Most of these workers only had jobs for about three months per year, and needed to find a way to survive for the long months when they had no work.  These conditions drove many women into the cities where they were effectively forced to work as prostitutes. 

The Cuban Revolution

The Cuban revolution made a fundamental change in these conditions.  Health care, education, and the elimination of poverty became the top priorities of the government.  These changes created an atmosphere where Cuba today has twice the number of medical doctors per capita as the United States.  Infant mortality is significantly lower in Cuba than in many areas of this country.

The Cuban priority of health care has extended to the world.  Today Cuba has about 20,000 health care workers stationed in some of the poorest areas in the world.  Recently Cuba sent about 500 health care workers to fight the Ebola virus in Africa.  One Cuban worker has died because of exposure to this virus.

For many years thousands of Cubans risked their lives to battle the armed forces of apartheid South Africa.  The apartheid government used enormous resources in their attempt to impose a government on the people of Angola.  The defeat of the apartheid government in this war led to the freeing of Nelson Mandela from prison, the recognition of the African National Congress, as well as the election where Mandela became President.

At the same time as Cuba was making all these advances, the United States government maintained an economic boycott against the island.  The U.S. government adopted laws that made it difficult for the citizens of this country to even visit Cuba.  Even the owners of corporations who had investments in Cuba could have been arrested if they dared to enter this country.

The reason why the U.S. government has freed the Cuban Five is because all of their efforts to turn back the Cuban revolution have been defeated.  At the same time as Cuba has become more and more respected in the world, the U.S. economic boycott has proved to be incapable of bringing down the Cuban government.  In the world, this boycott has become an embarrassment.

Certainly the ruling powers of the United States will not give up their efforts of overthrowing the Cuban government.  Today we don’t know how far this government will go with respect to normalizing relations with Cuba.  What we do know is that the Cuban five are now at home.  They are at home because of the efforts of the Cuban people as well as their friends around the world.

I believe there have been about five events during my life that have had a positive effect on people all over the world. 

1)   The Cuban Revolution.

2)   The dismantling of the system of Jim Crow segregation.  This allowed Black people gain many citizenship rights in this country.

3)   The military defeat of the United States in Vietnam.  This ended the holocaust of millions of human beings in that part of the world.

4)   The defeat of South Africa in Angola and the subsequent election of Nelson Mandela to the Presidency of South Africa.

5)   The freeing of the Cuban Five that may lead to some normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

We can see that all these advances came about because of the mass actions of working people and farmers in the world.  All these advances won international support.  When we look at all the horrendous problems of the world, these events and a continued struggle give us reason to be optimistic about the future of this planet.          

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Half Has Never Been Told – Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

By Edward E. Baptist
Published by Basic Books
A Member if the Perseus Books Group

A review

The educational system in the United States exposes students to a history that has little resemblance to the actual events that transpired in our past.  The history taught in the schools of this country gives a picture of a nation that has had its troubles, but has triumphed in spite of those obstacles.

Gordon S. Wood a Brown University professor gave this basic view in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Radicalism of the American Revolution.  “But there is no denying the wonder of it (the American Revolution) and the real earthly benefits it brought to the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people.”

There are other authors who have given us a different view of the past.  Some of these include James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, and my favorite is a book edited by George Novack, America’s Revolutionary Heritage.

Edward Baptist gives us a new and fresh view of the roots of how the economy of the United States transformed the world in his book, Half Has Never Been Told – Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  In his book, Baptist looked at the theories of Thomas Malthus who argued that with the growth of the population, humanity would eventually run out of food.

Clearly Malthus wasn’t concerned with the gross inequality of his day.  However, Malthus felt that based on the productive forces of that time, humanity wouldn’t have enough food to feed everyone. 

Baptist gives the evidence of how all this changed with the industrial revolution.  The beginnings of this industrialization took place with the transformation of cotton fiber into cloth.  All of this depended on the slave labor of the United States.

In order to fully appreciate Baptist’s argument we need to look at the terminology he used to support the theme of his book.  The following are some of the words and phrases Baptist used:

Coffle – a line of slaves who were chained together at the neck with the arms chained behind their backs.  These salves, chained together in coffles, sometimes walked for hundreds of miles so slave owners might turn a profit.

Enslaved migrants - Slaves who might have been separated from their families to travel via ship or coffle to work in the areas of Mississippi and Louisiana primarily for the cultivation and picking of cotton.

Torture – The routine method used to coerce slaves to become more productive.

Calibrated torture – The amount of pain or torture inflicted on slaves by slave owners and their hirelings to coerce slaves to increase their productivity.

Slave labor camps - Historians have called these plantations.  These were the places where slaves toiled and were tortured when they failed to meet the expectations of slave owners.

Hardware Store – The place where slave owners purchased instruments of torture.

Whipping machine – This is Baptist’s term to identify the routine torture slaves endured to meet the expectations of slave owners.

Baptist included several tables and drawings to illustrate various points he attempted to make.  In one of these tables he showed how the amount of cotton slaves produced increased dramatically until the Civil War.  Most of this cotton was shipped to the British port of Liverpool and then transported to Manchester.  This table showed how the amount of cotton that was spun and then woven also increased dramatically during those years. 

However, while the supply of cotton and cloth increased, the price of raw cotton decreased.  While cotton prices decreased, there was a sharp increase in the price of the finished cloth.  This trend is typical to the capitalist system.  As technology makes it easier to produce commodities, the prices of finished commodities continue to increase.    

This reality put a tremendous amount of pressure on slave owners to increase the productivity of slaves.  All slaves were routinely tortured in various ways.  In order to adapt to this system, slaves needed to continuously work from sun up to sun down at a seemingly inhuman pace.

Baptist wrote about how slaves needed to use both hands simultaneously in order to meet these increasing quotas.  He argued that this is not natural, and the slave needed to loose him or herself in this work to be effective.  To even stand erect while toiling under the hot sun might provoke a beating.

Coercion of labor today

While I was reading this passage in Baptist’s book, I thought about my own experience of working in an auto-parts manufacturing facility during the 1990’s.  I remember attending a meeting where a corporate officer demanded that we increase production or the company would close the plant down.

I remember working faster than I thought possible in order to meet these new requirements.  At times I worked alongside robots where I worked so fast that I had the feeling of flying.  While we met the company demands of increasing productivity and improving quality, the corporation closed the plant anyway.  About 2,500 workers who produced an enormous amount of wealth for various corporations were thrown out into the street like used garbage.

I raise this experience to demonstrate that there is a certain similarity of thinking by the owners of wealth towards the chattel slaves of the past and workers today.     

The economics of slavery

Like any commodity, cotton produced under slave labor conditions, had its periods of boom and bust.  Initially slave owners transported their human property to the Mississippi Delta, where the climate was ideal for cotton cultivation.  As cotton production increased, prices declined and slave owners weren’t able to meet their expenses.

Initially bankers sold bonds to rescue the slave owners.  This meant that slaves would be confiscated and sold in the event of bankruptcy.  Breaking up slave families was never a concern of those who viewed them as property. 

Slave owners got around their financial problems with the GTT. This meant “Go To Texas.”  After Texas became independent of Mexico, slave owners transported slaves to Texas in order to avoid confiscation.

After Texas became a state, slave owners attempted other measures to avoid bankruptcy.  They pressured the government to open up more lands for slavery. 

As early as 1830 the United States government passed the Indian Removal Act.  This act, in effect, stole millions of acres of land from its original inhabitants.  In the trail of tears the Cherokee (Tsalagi) nation was forced to march about 1,200 miles to their new homes in an alien land known as Oklahoma.  About 5,000 Cherokee died in this forced relocation.  The motivation behind the Indian Removal Act was to open up a vast area for slave labor.   

Slave owners also made a habit of defaulting on their loans.  This might be of interest to university students who have been saddled with astronomical loans to pay for their education.  While the United States government allowed slave owners to default on their loans, this same government will not allow college graduates to default on their loans by declaring bankruptcy.

Slave labor and the world

We might also think about how the production of cotton by slave labor influenced the world.  On the one hand, this labor was the very foundation of the industrialization of the world.  This was the beginning of the revolutions in communication, transportation, housing, food production, education, and medical care.

On the other hand, this labor gave an immense amount of power to the British ruling powers.  At this time Britain was the world’s super-power. 

Friedrich Engels lived in Manchester at the time when workers spun and wove cotton fiber produced by slaves in the factories of that city.  He wrote about what he saw in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England.  While workers in Britain were technically free at that time, they needed to spend every waking hour toiling for their employers.  Engels documented the miserable conditions British workers faced in order to produce obscene profits for their employers.

The British ruling powers also forced the Chinese to import opium during the Opium Wars.  Because opium purchases and this war bankrupted the Chinese, millions starved to death while the British profited.  The people of Ireland, India, and Brazil had similar experiences where millions starved to death while the British profited from investments in those countries.               

Conflicting ideas about what it meant to be a human being

Under these conditions the rape of slave women was routine.  Rape is not an attempt at sexual gratification, but an expression of power by a demented man.  However, Baptist argues that during the era of slavery slave owners felt that raping slaves was an expression of manhood. 

Rape wasn’t just an expression of power by a slave owner over a slave.  It was an expression of power over citizens who did not own slaves.  Rape was also an expression of power over the slave owner’s wife who clearly did not want her husband to be raping women.

We can also say that inflicting torture on slaves was also seen as an expression of manhood.  As Baptist has shown, this was a routine part of what it meant to produce cotton for the market.

On the other hand, the slave had a different idea of what it meant to be a human being.  Today, many people might think that slaves should have been more determined in their efforts to free themselves from this bondage.

Baptist gives the evidence showing how it was nearly impossible to launch a slave rebellion.  Baptist showed how the Haitian slave revolution did succeed.  However, hundreds of thousands of Haitian slaves lost their lives in their attempt to be free.  The slave owners of this country took steps to make sure that a Haitian style revolution would never happen.

Only a tiny percentage of slaves managed to escape these conditions.  Understanding this reality, slave owners would not tolerate even a slight expression of defiance.  One challenge to their authority would only lead to many, many others.

Today, there is a common conception that to be a righteous human being entails a struggle against oppression.  This idea is contained in the Declaration of Independence.  This document is a list of grievances the colonists of the thirteen colonies had against the British royalty.  It argued that people not only have a right but “a duty” to fight against tyranny.  While these are nice words, Baptist shows us that a successful fight against the clear tyranny of slavery in this country was nearly impossible until the Civil War.      

So, understanding that revolt and escape were not real possibilities, slaves needed to find ways of enduring the seemingly unendurable.   They did this with thousands of acts of solidarity.  They understood that the only way for people to endure these conditions was to watch out for one another.  Clearly this didn’t always happen, but these acts of solidarity made it possible to endure.

Baptist pointed to a slave who lost his family when they were sold at auction.  This slave took care of a child who lost his parents at this same auction.  Another slave lost her family in an auction and had understandable feelings of despair.  With the supportive acts of other slaves and her belief in religion, she was able to overcome her despair and found the strength to survive. 

We can also look at escaped slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman who energized the abolitionist movement.  Baptist argues that all progressive social movements have their roots with those slaves who waged an uncompromising struggle to end the system of chattel slavery in this country.

Even the music we listen to today has its roots in the system of slavery.  Before reading this book, I was of the opinion that much of the music we hear had its roots in European and African musical styles.  Baptist argues that this is an inadequate explanation.  We also need to look at the fact that the experience of slavery also influenced the music slaves performed.  This experience gave us the foundation for the musical styles of the Blues, Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, as well as Rap.

So, here Baptist shows us two views of what it means to be a human being.  One view is a criminal attitude advocating for the worst kind of anti-social behavior, all for the sake of money.  The other view is about seeing one’s self as a part of a community and understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all.

We might also consider that ex-slaves finally were allowed to become soldiers in the Union Army.  This took place when many union soldiers were demoralized due to the immense damage caused by the war.  The 250,000 African American soldiers were necessary to the union effort to win the war.  This was one of the main reasons why President Lincoln signed his Emancipation Proclamation.

Slave labor and capitalist productivity

One of the ideas that I learned from Baptist’s book was that slave labor in the cultivation of cotton was actually more productive than the productivity of freed slaves.  Baptist argues that the main reason for this difference was the fact that slave owners were able to coerce slaves with torture. 

In Frederick Douglass’ autobiography he gave a different view with respect to labor productivity in the ship building industry at that time.  Douglass reported that three workers in a northern ship building port could do the work of about twelve slaves in Baltimore performing the same job.

I think we can recognize the reality of both these arguments.  When machinery is introduced to the workplace, skilled workers are a necessity.  While workers have an incentive to develop skills, the main priority of slaves is to be free.  This, I believe, explains why there were very few scientific advancements during the 600 years of the Roman Empire that also relied on slave labor.

Reparations for slavery

Reading Baptist’s book, I thought about the question: When will Black people be compensated for the immense price their ancestors paid?  As Baptist has shown, the labor of slaves was an essential ingredient to transform the world.  Yet the government in this country has never seriously considered this issue.  I believe we also need to ask the question: Why?

While the institution of chattel slavery has been, for the most part eliminated in this country, the primary goal of the government continues to be support for those who control the flow of money.  While one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat, the government has dumped literally trillions of dollars on some of the most affluent people in the world.  They have called this scheme quantitative easing.

My opinion is that Black people want what we all want.  We want to be free.  This means free from hunger, as well as free from poverty.  As Aretha Franklyn and Otis Redding said in their song, they want respect.  As Etta James said in one of her songs, people also want security.  I don’t believe these are unreasonable requests.  Reading Edward Baptist’s book we can understand that Black people have clearly earned these things a long time ago.

Until we have a government that recognizes this basic reality, my opinion is that none of us has any right to say that we are free.