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Vol. 74/No. 15      April 19, 2010

Affirmative action
needed to unite toilers
‘We have to straighten out what history
has twisted’ —Fidel Castro, 1986
The following is the 13th in a series of excerpts the Militant is running from Pathfinder Press’s latest book, Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We encourage our readers to study and discuss the book. This excerpt is from a presentation Barnes gave at a March 1987 public meeting in Atlanta, which is printed in the book under the title “Malcolm X: Revolutionary Leader of the Working Class.” The footnote used here is printed in the book earlier in the chapter. Fidel Castro’s 1986 speech that Barnes refers to is printed in issue six of New International under the title “Renewal or Death.” New International is a magazine of Marxist politics and theory, distributed by Pathfinder. Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

The volunteer mission in Angola* is having a political impact inside Cuba, as well. That could be seen last year at the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, where Fidel Castro—in his speech to delegates introducing the newly elected Central Committee—explained that the party had underestimated the legacy of anti-black racism in Cuba, and then outlined further political steps to advance the fight to get rid of the vestiges of racial prejudice and inequality.

Fidel pointed out that blacks in Cuba—those who had been “taken from Africa and enslaved to perform work whites didn’t dare do in this torrid, tropical climate”—had supported the revolution, overwhelmingly. The abolition of slavery in Cuba in the latter half of the nineteenth century had been completely intertwined with the struggle against Spanish colonial rule, with blacks serving at all levels in the Cuban Liberation Army (right up to General Antonio Maceo). Nonetheless, under the nominally independent, U.S.-dominated “pseudo republic,” as it was popularly known in Cuba, blacks had continued to be targets of discrimination, and sometimes outright terror, “because of the color of their skin.”

In stark contrast, the new revolutionary government, starting in January 1959, actively combated racist discrimination. It did so not only through decrees and legislation, but above all through speedy and vigorous enforcement by militias in any store, on any beach, at any social event, at any job interview, or anywhere else blacks or mestizos were denied equal treatment or access. Any and all distinctions based on race were “erased in our constitution and rightly so,” Fidel said.

That the government and party in Cuba sought to be colorblind in how they functioned, however, was not enough by itself to overcome the historic legacy of chattel slavery and racist discrimination, Fidel said. That’s what experience over more than a quarter century in revolutionary Cuba had shown. “We can’t leave it to chance to correct historical injustices,” Fidel told the congress delegates. “To really establish total equality takes more than simply declaring it in law. It has to be promoted in the mass organizations, in the youth organization, in the party… . [W]e can’t leave the promotion of women, blacks, and mestizos to chance. It has to be the work of the party; we have to straighten out what history has twisted.”

And world capitalism, for centuries, has twisted everything in its path, including racial differences.

The revolutionary government and party had never asked anyone about their race “and rightly so,” Fidel said. And he pointed to several prominent party leaders who, despite outward appearances, had a black or Chinese grandparent. “Why go around asking such questions? In the past it was to discriminate, today it’s for the opposite reason—so we ask.”

“At issue here is simply the color of skin,” Fidel said. In Cuba, he added, “we are all the product of a mixture of races.” Ask the imperialists “if this mixture has been easy to dissolve, divide, or crush. They haven’t been able to do it.” And for exactly that reason, Fidel said, the new Central Committee elected by the congress included—in addition to more workers, “and not just workers who have become leaders but workers from the factory floor”—“a strong injection of women, a strong injection of blacks and of mestizos.”

This political advance for the revolution in Cuba is a byproduct, at least in part, of the impact of the internationalist operation in Angola. It’s an affirmation of what Malcolm was fighting for, and of his confidence in the Cuban Revolution and its leadership. And it’s a verification—for communist workers in the United States and other imperialist countries—of our strategic commitment to affirmative action not as a question of moral witness or sacrifice, but in order to unite the working class as a whole to fight more effectively against our common exploiters and oppressors, the capitalist class.

* In late 1987, just a few months after this speech was given, what turned out to be the final major battle of the more-than-decade-long war began taking shape in southern Angola, around the hamlet of Cuito Cuanavale. By the end of March 1988, the combined force of Angolan troops, Cuban volunteers, and fighters from the South-West African People’s Organisation of Namibia (SWAPO) had decisively defeated the South African invaders.

Under the impact of the victory at Cuito Cuanavale, the white supremacist regime withdrew its forces from Angola and entered talks with the Cuban and Angolan governments that ended with Pretoria having to recognize the independence of its colony, Namibia. Between the initial battles in late 1975 and the departure of the final Cuban troops in May 1991, 375,000 internationalist volunteers had served in Angola and 2,000 had been killed.

By early 1990, less than two years after Cuito Cuanavale, rising struggles by working people in South Africa forced Pretoria to lift the ban on the African National Congress and release ANC leader Nelson Mandela after almost twenty-eight years of imprisonment. The apartheid regime crumbled in face of rising mass protests over the next few years, and in 1994 Mandela was elected president in the first elections ever conducted there on the basis of universal suffrage.

In July 1991 Mandela visited Cuba and spoke along with Fidel Castro to tens of thousands of Cubans and international guests. “The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character,” Mandela said. “… Cuito Cuanavale was a milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African liberation! Cuito Cuanavale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid!” Mandela’s speech can be found in How Far We Slaves Have Come! South Africa and Cuba in Today’s World (Pathfinder, 1991), pp. 17-28 [2006 printing]; and is excerpted in Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution (Pathfinder, 2005), pp. 179-82.
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