Thursday, November 25, 2010

What Country Are You From?

Fulgencio Batista, 1940
Recently, Terry Gross interviewed Carlos Eire, a Cuban exiled at the age of 12, now a professor of religious studies at Yale, about his new memoir, Learning to Die in Miami.
In 1962, 11-year-old Carlos Eire was one of thousands of children airlifted out of Cuba and sent to Florida to escape Fidel Castro's regime. His parents thought he would be back as soon as Castro was deposed.
But Eire never returned home. Shortly after he arrived in the United States, the Cuban missile crisis shut down Cuba's borders, and his parents were unable to leave the country. For the next several years, Eire would be shuffled between foster families around the country before joining his aunt and uncle in Chicago.
I'm always torn when thinking about the politics of Cuba.  On the one hand, of course, the Castro regime is terrible in its totalitarian communism, denial of rights, etc.  And Cuban exiles have an an understandable resentment at losing their way of life and family, their country.

But on the other hand pre-revolution Cuba was not a democratic paradise.  It was a post-colonial dictatorship with all the classic remnants of a history of social injustice: a large racial underclass, exploitation by foreign interests, mass poverty, a light-skinned, hegemonic plutocracy that held nearly all the wealth and propped up the corrupt regime.  The government was ruthless and not only controlled the media but punished dissent violently.  John F. Kennedy described Batista's Cuba thusly:
 Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years ... and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state - destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista - hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend - at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people, and we failed to press for free elections
The Marxist revolution, against all odds, succeeded in its fundamental goal: overthrowing the existing political and economic order and redistributing land and power into the hands of the underclass.

In his interview with Gross, Eire struck me as either being unaware of, or at least uninterested in this latter narrative of the revolution.  I can't possibly understand how painful his experience was; he never saw his father again.  But one wonders to what degree this pain exists unburdened by the idea that despite his personal sacrifice, the context of the situation was one in which there may have been no "good" options.  And that while his family may have born a larger portion of the suffering, this was in part because it had previously born a larger portion of the benefits of the previously existing power structure.

Apparently Eire, blond-haired and with a perfect American accent, came from considerable wealth.  At one point in the interview he describes the Cuban government coming to his home and inventorying their possessions, a process that took nearly three days, owing largely to the vastness of his father's art collection. The great pain in this - the loss of personal property - depends on an explicitly non-Marxist analysis of property.  While a certain human impulse of attachment to one's possessions is unavoidable, if one acknowledges that the attainment of possessions through unjust means weakens one's ownership of them, then this impulse is likewise weakened.  The singular goal of the revolution could be summed up as an effort to correct an inequitable distribution of power from the hands of a few to the many, from a minority who's position depended on the preservation of an historical order that oppressed a majority.

What does "power" mean?  We generally think of political power as having the ability to vote and express oneself.  Yet the ability to express oneself is dependent on many things, not the least of which are the rule of law, equitable education, proper health care, and civil rights.  I would also argue that democracy also depends on the distribution of economic power.  Not only because of increased access to actual levers of power, such as unions, trade groups, or other lobbying organizations that make up a form of social capital, but because of the increased human capital that economic success provides.

When an individual is successful economically, he or she not only has more options personally, but is able to grant others similar access to power.  Family and friends are able to leverage that power in myriad ways: through he education system, through neighborhoods and peer groups, business and co-worker networks.  These are all forms of social capital to others in the community, but they represent human capital in the individual.  By his attitudes and behaviors, he develops a mutually beneficial feedback loop of leveraged success that acts and is acted on in the community.

When an individual is not successful, the options likewise diminish.  The feedback-loop of social capital runs in the opposite direction.  Family and friends have diminished leverage, neighborhoods and peer groups suffer in quality.  The sum adds up to a total downward pressure in the community - increasing and retrenching poverty and lack of success.  Add into this picture cultural memes of race and class, and socioeconomic transcendence becomes quite difficult.

At the individual, experiential level, life-lenses across demographics become very different.  Levels of human capital  in areas such as intelligence, vocabulary, cognitive skills, behavioral and emotional wisdom depend in large part upon an investment of social capital.  Without levels sufficient to achieve proper perspective, the same opportunities will not appear to exist, whether or not they in fact do.  So for instance a low-cost, state-subsidized college, or small business loan can be made available, yet without sufficient social capital, individuals will lack the human capital to take advantage of the opportunity they provide.

At the state-level, this dilemma goes to the concept of democracy itself: without equitable distribution of social capital, there will be an inequitable distribution of human capital, and subsequent inequitable civic engagement among the populace.  The degree to which one can express oneself politically is thus tied directly to one's human capital, which is of course preceded by social capital, which is itself dependent on equitable distribution of economic power.

In this way the Cuban revolution was essentially democratic - it sought to extend economic and political freedom to the previously oppressed people of Cuba.  The great irony of course is that - for whatever reason, whether paranoia, dogma, hubris, etc. - the Castro regime never embraced democracy as a political system in the decades that followed.  Yet for Eire to speak in the way that he did, seemingly oblivious to the extent that his country was fundamentally a different one than the majority of his countrymen, reminds us of the subjectivity of each of our own life-lenses.

In many ways, we are each from different countries.  Owing to the strength of our political and economic system, our fortuitous place both in geography as well as history, in many ways - the ways that really matter - we are from the same country.  But many of us, because of socioeconomic disadvantage, live in different countries altogether.  While the same opportunities exist in theory - indeed in reality, because the means to see and take advantage of them is lacking, they might as well not exist at all.  They might as well be living in another country.

So the question we must ask ourselves is, "What country am I from?"

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