In an interview with the Balkans Post, she said, “The assistance that China and Iran are giving to Venezuela, and the assistance Cuba has received for sixty years, including from U.S. citizens who have supported the Cuban Revolution since before it succeeded in 1959, is the point made above by Fidel: when revolutionary ideas are lived, even if by very few, they are an opportunity for others.”
Balkans Post: How has U.S. imperialism affected Latin American countries in recent years?
Susan Babbitt: There is an effect of U.S. imperialism that is not sufficiently noted. At one level, U.S. imperialism deprives Latin American peoples of the opportunity to govern themselves. Since the 1950s, the U.S. government has removed legitimate governments, as it has done around the world, including to allies like Australia, where the government of Gough Whitlam was removed by a CIA coup in November 1975 because Australia moved decisively against support for U.S. imperialism and toward the Non-Aligned Movement. This bit of history is conveniently forgotten as is most of the “war against democracy” that has been U.S. foreign policy since it became a superpower.
The deeper, more insidious level of U.S. imperialism was identified even earlier. It was clear to Simón Bolívar, early in the nineteenth century, after liberating the continent politically, that independence had not been achieved. The reason was that Latin American peoples had been persuaded by European and U.S. power that they and their cultures were inferior, humanly. Indeed, it was worse than that. Bolívar said Latin Americans were “‘even lower than servitude, lost or worse absent from the universe”. That is, they were, as Fidel Castro said later, “left-overs”, not part of humanity.
That meant that resistance to U.S. imperialism in Latin America had to be about how to think. And it has been. The worst consequence of continuing U.S. imperialism in Latin America is deep-seated ignorance in the North. We think there is only one way to live as human beings. We do not look South. We cannot look South. We cannot even see them as thinkers. And those in the South, even educated, have to be reminded of the great gift they have to give to the world: a history of wisdom providing an alternative to the pit of self-absorption called “freedom” in the U.S. and Europe because of philosophical liberalism.
The identity of Latin Americans as Americans had to be claimed in the struggle for independence from colonialism and imperialism. It had to be discovered. And it has to be discovered now today in the North. For two hundred years, in art and philosophy, remarkable traditions in Latin American independence movements have carved out an understanding of what it means to be human that values truth discovered through feeling. They are traditions that unite mind and body, faith and science, art and philosophy. They are traditions that realize much of what North American feminism and anti-racism strives for in Academia in the North: resistance to segmentation of scholarship into narrow disciplines that ultimately distort the struggle for social justice because new and emerging ideas – about what it means to be human -- cannot get a fair hearing.
BP: How do you view the Latin American people’s struggle for independence?
Susan Babbitt: Latin Americans struggle for independence has been, in its most interesting formulations, a struggle for human independence. It had to be this for the reasons given above, that is, because the category “human” did not include them. Simón Bolívar was a great lover of European enlightenment philosophers his entire life. He admired Locke, Rousseau, Montaigne. However, Bolívar considered them naïve about freedom. He knew that none of them, with the possible exception of Bentham, knew what it meant to be colonized. They did not know what it meant to be dehumanized, to be erased as human. Bolívar admired what those liberal philosophers said about human rights and equality, but he knew that it did not apply to Latin Americans because Latin Americans did not count as “human”.
This is the situation in the North for oppressed minorities, as we have seen and is being recognized in the U.S., Canada and Northern Europe. But they do not know that the oppression and hatred will not end until a way of thinking ends. And that way of thinking is built into daily lives of the middle class, and such lives are the goal of young people in the South. This is what needs to be changed to start moving out of the hatred the U.S. is showing to the world. In 1961, James Baldwin said “the only hope for this country [is] …. to undermine the standards by which the middle-class American lives.”
Baldwin knew those standards made him as a U.S. black man. He discovered it when jailed in Paris with North Africans. He found he was distinct, not for being black, but for being powerful. Despised in the U.S., he was nonetheless a product of U.S. power: a “bastard of the west.” It was what “history had made of him.” Baldwin is claimed by the identity politics of the U.S., but he did not agree with identity politics.
Baldwin said that it is human suffering that needs to be recognized and the U.S. vision of freedom and democracy, highly individualistic, self-absorbed, is a source of great human suffering, a source of anxiety, depression, addiction and ignorance. It is not freedom.
Simón Bolívar said “the U.S. sends us misery in the name of freedom”. Hugo Chávez often quoted him. Maduro represents that vision. The vision needs to be respected, for the sake of our human freedom in the North, freedom from hatred. U.S. power is making people into non-people, even those with power. Latin America’s struggle for independence, over hundreds of years, has not just been political.
It is for a vision of freedom and democracy that could be learned from now in these troubled, very confused times.
BP: Could you comment on the impact of the U.S.’s pressure on democracy, elections and freedom in Latin American countries?
Susan Babbitt: José Martí warned Latin Americans not to be “slaves of Liberty”. He was referring to the same naïve conception that bothered Bolívar. Leader of Cuba’s last independence war against Spain, Martí predicted political freedoms would not endure without a deeper kind of freedom, rooted in self-knowledge. He went so far as to proclaim, in his influential “Our America”, that the biggest hurdle was not, after all, U.S. aggression; rather, it was that Latin America “show herself as she is … rapidly overcoming the crushing weight of her past”.
He raised a question that would not occur to European philosophers: If one is lost or absent from the universe, how is one known? How does one know others? If one rules the world, one doesn’t ask how the world’s peoples are known. One assumes they are known or one doesn’t care, or need to.
Martí, as revolutionary, articulated for his region an ancient philosophical imperative: Know thyself. Unlike Europeans, enthralled by what Che Guevara called “the myth of the self-made man”, Bolívar, Martí and Guevara knew the dehumanizing “logic” of imperialism. They wanted human liberation and they did not take the “human” part of that concept for granted.
Martí noticed that someone who looks inside themselves for the grounds of personal freedom risks delusion. Such a person, believing the “myth of the self-made man”, is like “an oyster in its shell, seeing only the prison that traps him and believing, in the darkness, that it is the world”.
Martí and Máximo Gomez knew the stakes. Thus, the Montecristi Manifesto (1895) of the Cuban Revolutionary Party “declares [the Party’s] faith [that it can know] . . . the reality of the ideas that produce or extinguish deeds and the reality of the deeds that are born from ideas”. Not often do revolutionary leaders, heading into war, express concern for the foundations of knowledge. For Martí, though, the struggle for independence was not “between civilization or barbarity” (i.e. “developed” or “developing”). Rather, it targeted the “false erudition” persuading Latin Americans they know what these are after looking to Europe.
Cuba has quietly challenged European ideas for 200 years, especially the cherished liberal idea that we live best when we live “from the inside”, satisfying desires, following personal dreams. One reason the idea fails is that knowing one’s desires is not automatic. In these times we are living, Martí’s “revolution in thinking” is worth noting, in the North. We won’t realize democracy if, aiming for freedom, we are unwittingly seeing an oyster’s shell and believing in the darkness that it is the world.
BP: How has the U.S. sanctions impacted Venezuela?
Susan Babbitt: A point is missed by some trying to understand Venezuela. It was made by Fidel Castro in 2005 at a conference entitled “Latin America in the 21st century: Universality and Originality”. Revolutionary ideas, to be revolutionary, need not be accepted by all, or even most. But they must be lived by some.
Their examples generate questions that make moral imagination possible. It’s why Maduro matters. His tranquil resistance, if explained, makes imaginable what was not previously imaginable: other ways to think about freedom and how to be human.
BP: What’s the significance of Iran’s recent fuel shipments to Venezuela? Does this signify an end to U.S. bullying?
Susan Babbitt: U.S. bullying will not end until U.S. power ends. The assistance that China and Iran are giving to Venezuela, and the assistance Cuba has received for sixty years, including from U.S. citizens who have supported the Cuban Revolution since before it succeeded in 1959, is the point made above by Fidel: when revolutionary ideas are lived, even if by very few, they are an opportunity for others.
There will always be people who will know the human example for what it is, and will understand human freedom can be something other than greed and self-absorption. The point about the motivating power of truth, when lived, is made in Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. Resistance to Hitler was implausible in Nazi Germany and Otto and Anna, who resist, are unsuccessful. They are caught. They die.
Otto is told: “You must have known you had no chance! It’s a gnat against an elephant. I don’t understand it in a sensible man like you!” Otto’s answer: “No, and you will never understand it either. You see, it doesn’t matter if one man fights or ten thousand; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, then he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not”.
The important part of the exchange is the “No, and you will never understand it either.” It’s about acting for truth when results are uncertain, indeed, unlikely, but also, importantly, when that truth is humanness. The U.S. doesn’t understand this. They keep getting this wrong: the power of truth.
When Otto and Anna are tried, the Nazi judge “could see recognition in the faces of the spectators in the courtroom”. At all costs, he “wanted to strip the accused of that recognition”.
But he can’t do it. The judge cannot strip Otto and Anna of that recognition just as powerful imperialist liberal ideology hasn’t stripped Cuba and Venezuela of recognition. It’s a fact. Fallada’s book is about sowing seeds for a better Germany. Venezuela and Cuba, whatever the future, are sowing seeds for a better world. We in the North need to fight for those seeds, for our own freedom as human beings.
Susan Babbitt is the author of four books, most recently Humanism and Embodiment: From Cause and Effect to Secularism(Bloomsbury 2014) and José Martí, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Global Development Ethics: The Battle for Ideas(Palgrave Macmillan 2014). She is also co-editor (with Sue Campbell) of Racism and Philosophy(Cornell 1999). She contributes to the websites Counterpunch, Global Research, New York Journal of Books and The Saker.