What Fidel Said, and Why It Matters for Earth Day

Much was made of Fidel Castro’s response to Obama’s Cuba visit, but its content was largely ignored. Castro said the world doesn’t possess the knowledge or the conscience to deal with current crises. He mentioned that Cuba possesses “spiritual wealth” gained through “education, science and culture”. His point has a history, and depends upon histories, some forgotten: The formation of conscience has to be brought about. And it is necessary for science.

This matters to upcoming Earth Day. Many philosophical traditions value the earth, not for moral reasons, but because engagement with the earth is how we know ourselves. But this needs to be understood. One possibility is that we can respect the earth without changing deep-seated values and beliefs informing our lives. And we don’t let others change them. We go to nature because we like it. It provides beauty and tranquility. We feel good. Paddling rivers, hiking trails, we feel free.

But some argue that we only know Earth as we let it transform us. This is hard, like a passage through dark waters. We don’t always know the end result. We become free because Earth, including its inhabitants, acts upon us, challenging desires, or making them dissolve. But for this we have to be suitably receptive, which requires work, and it is not the work of pursuing ends because we have them.

Some philosophers insist simplistic views of freedom undermine respect for nature. They undermine respect. In modernity, supposedly, we decide “from within”.[1] Yet Jean Paul Sartre, for one, said “force of circumstances” already imposes meaning upon us:[2] “Everything is outside, everything, including ourselves: outside, in the world, together with others. It is not in I don’t know what kind of retreat that we discover ourselves but on the highway, in the city, in the middle of a crowd”. [3]

As an existentialist, he promoted freedom. But he didn’t always hold that choosing without interference, within limits, is choosing freely. It can’t be if thinking depends, as he suggests, upon “the highway…the city… a crowd”. Flannery O’Connor, also existentialist, said “gestures of respect” convey contempt: “Contempt for the child, for the Negro, for the animal, for the white man, for the farmer, for the country, for the preacher, for the city, for the world, for reality itself”.[4]

This occurs when society itself conveys contempt. North American philosophers argue that general terms – “respect”, for instance – are social, acquiring content from patterns of social cooperation giving rise to expectations about roles, rights and responsibilities.[5] They mostly ignore the political consequences. Che Guevara didn’t. He concluded that the “myth of the self-made man”, foundation of liberal capitalism, involves a mistaken (unscientific) conception of how we think.

He pointed out that thinking is always constrained by “vestiges of the past”, constituting an “invisible cage”. [6] Sometimes, of course, “vestiges of the past” play a positive role. But when disrespect, for the environment and some peoples, is part of the social fabric, “gestures of respect”, however intended, are not respectful. They can’t be. They don’t properly recognize their object.

A Cuban friend told me that, growing up, she never expected to be educated. She saw white kids going to school but did not expect to do so herself. She was illiterate until her teens. It wasn’t that she didn’t respect herself enough to claim the future that could be hers. She had just never seen black rural girls thriving academically. She couldn’t have expectations for options she’d never heard of, or seen, for people like herself. Certain options were not imaginable.

Reason works this way. We see evidence for events we judge plausible, and what we expect to be plausible depends upon social practises. When I met this friend, she was a philosophy professor at the University of Havana. Cuba had used culture to challenge expectations, including about who counts as a person. As one of its first acts, the new government created a film and television industry, showing people their own history, creating new expectations about who “the people” are.

Guevara said freedom requires direction, a narrow dialectic. The seductive illusion of a “seemingly infinite horizon”[7] of choice ignores the dependence of choices, their very imagination, upon expectations, rooted in practises. Guevara also wrote about science. Individuals, he noted, have “dual existence”, as individuals and social members. Freedom involves a dialectical process because society must change, and individuals change. Science and technology are crucial.

Some think freedom involves determining my own destiny, whatever I consider it to be. It’s an easy idea if one happens to be rich and powerful. Acknowledging “the massive existence of the non-person”,[8] as Guevara did, means questions about freedom are not separable from questions about how to know, including questions about science: How can I be free, as a human being, realizing human potential, if I can’t know myself as a human being?

Guevara wrote that through a process of social transformation “individuals are acquiring ever more consciousness of the need for their incorporation into society and, at the same time, of their importance as the motor of that society”.[9] It is not a radical point. It acknowledges that how we think depends upon how we live, and how we live depends upon expectations, which are a matter of social institutions, which must be forged, at least when disrespect is latent.

It is about formation of conscience. Cuba succeeded in developing both conscience and science. It may be the only country on the planet that has had a selfless foreign policy, considered impossible. Cuban presence in Angola, according to historian Richard Gott, was “entirely without selfish motivation”.[10] Nelson Mandela asked, “What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?”

Cuba sent 300,000 volunteers between 1975 and 1991, more than 2,000 of whom died, to push back and eventually defeat apartheid South Africa. The US claimed Cuba was a Soviet proxy but according to US intelligence, Castro had “no intention of subordinating himself to Soviet discipline and direction.” Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote 25 years later that Castro was “probably the most genuinely revolutionary leader then in power”[11]

And Cuba’s medical expertise is well-known, around the world, where its doctors serve in impoverished areas, often never before attended to medically. [12] Still, some will think, “Cuba has human rights violations”. Here also is an issue about expectations. Human rights issues in my country are considered errors, to be addressed. The idea of error doesn’t apply to Cuba, unless of course for the entire system.

Logically, the idea of error implies an idea of getting it right: It doesn’t make sense to talk about something going wrong if there is no expectation of going right. For Cuba, there is no such expectation. So, any problem in Cuba becomes a reason to dismiss the entire history.

It’s an uninteresting approach. In Cuba, Obama mentioned the importance of history but in Panama, at the Summit of the Americas, he had said history should be buried. Maybe he learned from Cristina Fernández, Argentina’s then president, who chided him. Her point was not that history uncovers past grievances, still needing to be addressed, like Guantanamo Bay. Rather it was that history makes credible options otherwise unimagined, including options for freedom and moral conscience.

What she described as Cuba’s “morally unprecedented” resistance is among the “hidden histories” referred to in John Pilger’s War on democracy. They are events known to have occurred but forgotten. And if histories are forgotten, so are their implications. One is that Guevara was right about the formation of conscience. It has to be achieved, through transformation, not just of societies but of people. And it can be.

Notably, though, this reality is inconsistent with the “myth of the self-made man”. Gabriel García Márquez wrote that Castro “has the near mystical conviction that the greatest achievement of the human being is the proper formation of conscience”.[13] The word “mystical”, though, more suitably describes the popular conviction that freedom is an “infinite horizon” of choices and that science can resolve the world’s problems without considering the values it rests upon.

In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Few have heeded the call [to fight ebola], but one country responded in strength: Cuba.” Cuba sent more than 450 doctors and nurses, chosen from more than 15,000 volunteers, by far the largest medical mission sent by any country. Castro mentioned Cuba’s “spiritual wealth” in his response, and herein lies its substance: More than 15,000 medical volunteers identified their personal stake in the west African tragedy. It wasn’t a miracle. There is an explanation, worth pursuing, for the sake of the planet.


[1] E.g. Taylor, Charles, A secular age (Harvard University Press, 2007) 34-37

[2] Sartre, Jean Paul “The itinerary of a thought” New Left Review (1969, November– December), 1(58), cited in István Mészáros, The work of Sartre: The search for freedom and the challenge of history (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2012) 32

[3] “Itinerary of a thought” cited in Mészáros 2012, 98.

[4] Cited in Merton, Thomas, “Flannery O’Connor: A prose elegy” in Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1967) 38.

[5] Searle, John, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1995)

[6] Guevara, Che (1965), The Che Guevara reader: writings on politics and revolution (New York: Ocean Press, 2003) pp. 216, 222

[7] Che Guevara reader 215

[8] Frei Betto cited in Fidel and Religion (New York,

NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987)61

[9] Che Guevara reader 218

[10] Gott, Richard, Cuba: a new history (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2005) 250.

[11] Gleijeses, Piero, Visions of freedom: Havana. Washington, Pretoria and the struggle for southern Africa (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2013) 306, 373, 521, 525, 526

[12] Brouwer, Steven, “Cuba’s revolutionary doctors” Monthly Review (2009) 60(8), 28– 42; Revolutionary doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba are changing the world’s conception of health care (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2011).

[13] García Márquez, Gabriel, “A personal portrait of Fidel” in Fidel Castro Ruz, Fidel: My early years (Hoboken, NJ: Ocean Press, 1998) 24.

Susan Babbitt is author of Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014).