The Living Eye and the Living Lie

October 10, 2016


Neither mockery nor tears but understanding” Benedict de Spinoza


Introduction: Lost and Found in Translation

In March of 2013 Roberto Zurbano, then Director of Publications for Casa de las Américas, published an op-ed piece in The New York Times. Both its content, but especially its title caused enormous controversy in Cuba with a flurry of responses and counter-responses. Zurbano was subsequently demoted from his position, but remained at Casa as a researcher. For my response to the incident please refer to AfroCuba Web (online site) and/or The Afro-Hispanic Review.(1) Below is my analysis of what I consider are some of the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of Cuban color-blind racism, motivated by the Zurbano case.


Anteo se fue a Rumbear con Orisha Oko

Cuba’s racial contract goes back to its creation as a colony and its definitions of patria andnación, which are not synonymous (Rojas, 17). Patria is often grounded in “the mystique of a particular landscape” (Schama in Rojas, 15), with an ethnic and religious identity that not always leads to the building of a state or nation, the latter being a much broader concept. In either case, patriotic or nationalist sentiment in the XIX century was defined by leaving out its black and brown populations as true citizens. Only with the advent of the Ten Years War (1868-78) does the idea of nation begin to take hold among the criollo elites, leading up the founding of the Republic. Despite their nationalist credentials (Varela, Luz, Saco and others), Cuban elites still upheld a kind of patrician morality as well as a belief in racial distinction. Black and mixed-raced Cubans were not fully a part of the nation. But they were cognizant of the island’s need to embrace modernity and in their view nación and patria were for whites. Nation and modernity were constructed on racial subordination in the words of one historian:  “Race and nation were born and raised together; they are the Siamese twins of modernity’ (Nicholson, 7).


El príncipe y sus enanos

Cuba has distinctive strands to its nationalisms, which in some cases retained the notion of patria within its discursive practices. Rojas talks about civic, ethnic, and cultural nationalism. The civic type would be represented by the likes of Fernando Ortiz and Ramiro Guerra and one could also identify liberal (Mañach, Ortiz), conservative (Lamar Schweyer) and Marxist (Roa, Marinello) nationalists. Ethnic nationalism could be based on ideas of hispanismo (Lamar Schweyer), mestizaje (Guillén) or racial pride (Betancourt), not to mention a transcultural nationalism (Ortiz). Cultural nationalism was defended by many, but perhaps acquired a unique expression in the Orígenes group led by Lezama (although it overlaps with hispanismo, was cosmopolitan in its aesthetics, and laced with a Catholicism at times expansive and inclusive, at others, insular and more conservative).

The complexities of Cuban nationalism, however, should not obscure the nature of the underlying racial contract, with its overt or tacit recognition of whiteness as the norm. (The exception to the nationalists mentioned in the previous paragraph would be Guillén and Betancourt.) Whether from a perspective of hispanismo, color-blindness, liberal-universalist notions of citizenship or a culturalist Catholicism, all of them either shun blackness or make it disappear into a wider notion of cubanía. Interestingly, the group that most attacked racism and discrimination in Republican Cuba were the Communists.

Cuba’s greatest blindness to racial disparities resides in one of its greatest strengths: José Martí. Martí is Cuba’s greatest ideologue for a race-blind society. All recite his “Ser cubano es más que ser blanco, más que ser negro, más que ser mulato” (“To be Cuban means more than being white, black or mulatto”) as a phrase that defines their cubanía. However, many overlook that Martí expressed that as an ideal for society, not a reality for the Cuba he was living in at the time. He was appealing to the nationalism of Cubans and trying to unite them in their cause for overthrowing the yoke of Spanish colonialism, not writing a sociological analysis of Cuban race relations.

However, since as Cubans we have made Martí our “imaginary monarch” (Rojas), we have lost some of our historical perspective when we deal with Martí. For many it seems enough to quote him and with that you can take a moral high ground without having to give much thought about the persistence of racism in Cuba (or among Cubans outside of the island). If we must quote Martí it must be as a starting point (at best), not as a conclusion. As Esteban Morales reminds us, more than the words of Martí, it seems that Saco’s thoughts about whitening hold more sway (Morales, 172-73) in the education and thought of Cubans.

Cuban revolutionary thought, and particularly post-1959, owes much to the Enlightenment tradition of universalist thought. In this regard, the Bolshevik Revolution both deepened and radicalized this thought, but by no means overturned its universalist aspirations. These aims were considered to be progressive, promote social egalitarianism (the creation of a new man), foster a transparent order of political institutions always open to the scrutiny of the citizen (and the state), all for the purpose of building a new order (socialism, and eventually communism). All these aims are at the core of the Cuban revolutionary experience and thought post-1959.

However, in certain respects, Cuban radical thought owes much to Rousseau and the need for the creation a civil religion and the notion of general will. Rousseau’s thought tried to reconcile self-love and freedom with collective responsibility, balancing individual passions and the general will, obedience and freedom, political autonomy with social equality. It is a tall order, one that has bedeviled political thought for centuries, and has not been satisfactorily resolved in any society to date.

Rousseau’s critique of our human alienation in society is unequivocal: “We no longer live in our own place, we live outside of it…Man is beginning to be at war with himself”. (in Wolin, Politics and Vision, 330). Sheldon Wolin sums up the material, political, psychological and spiritual dimensions of this dysfunction according to Rousseau:

Civilized man, in contrast, had fabricated endless complications to existence. He is cursed by the ability to imagine new needs, to extend without limit the horizon of his possibilities, to turn reason into cunning and place it at the service if desire… Existence is turned into a running sore of discontent. Now man must compete with others for the objects of desire; he must adopt stratagems of dissimulation, hypocrisy, and insincerity. ‘To be and to seem become two totally different things’.” (Wolin, 331)

Despite his critique of society, Rousseau does not argue for an uncritical and idealistic return to nature; on the contrary, he makes the case for a civil religion that creates a general will from the sovereignty of the people, that supersedes the individual passions and egotisms that can divide a society. Rousseau even sees this general will as an impersonal force, that of the law. It is not difficult to read into Rousseau’s idea of general will other impersonal forces that have been used to organize societies: history, necessity, laws of nature, the master race, World Spirit or society, allowing an unmediated access to reality that leads us to true freedom. (Wolin, 334)

Rousseau’s general will (volonté générale) is not only impersonal but universalistic. As Dick Howard points out: “Because the volonté générale is political, it leaves no place for particularity and has no room for difference.” (Howard, 252). Rousseau had a troubled relationship with Otherness, at both a moral and existential level he wanted it to disappear. (Starobinksi xxiii)

Because deceptive appearances so troubled him, Rousseau was obsessed by transparency, the ability to see (and see through) others: “If I could change my nature and become a living eye, I would do so willingly…while not concerned about being seen, I need to see [my fellow man].” (Ibid., xxi). The transparency was needed to avoid the “scandal of deceit”, the “appearances that condemn him.”

Rousseau’s idea of the general will is built on this notion of transparency, where the inner and outer aspects of a human being are in perfect harmony: “How sweet it would be to live among us, if the outward countenance were always the image of the heart’s dispositions.” (Ibid., 3). Some have referred to the emotional aspects of Rousseau’s thought and its relationship to politics as a “dictatorship of the heart” (Han, 82). These characteristics of Rousseau’s thought permeate Cuban political discourse from Varela and Martí, to Mañach and Marinello, and include Fidel’s celebrated speech “History Will Absolve Me.”

What do these notions of the “living eye”, deception and appearance, transparency, and the “dictatorship of the heart” have to do with revolutionary Cuba? Rousseau’s notion of the general will has deep resonances with the use of the word “pueblo” in revolutionary Cuba. Post-1959, it has taken on the meaning somewhat akin to Rousseau’s “general will”, where pueblo means campesinos, workers, students, professionals, scientists, artists, teachers and health workers. This pueblo only recently has started to recognize issues related to gender (outside the framework of the FMC), sexual preference, and race.

Rousseau’s transparency implies the absence of color, in the literal sense that something transparent can be purely traversed visually or otherwise, without opacity or obstruction. This transparency has its socialist-communist equivalent in that a classless society other isms (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.) cease to exist under a crystalline dome of equality. In this we must distinguish capitalist versus communist transparency. Byung-Chul Han focuses on the notion of transparency under cognitive capitalism, where information, commodity fetishism, and the circulation of capital form a coercive triangular relationship that is ultimately violent: “El imperativo de la transparencia hace sospechoso todo lo que no se somete a la visibilidad. En eso consiste su violencia.” (Han, 31) If Han’s definition holds true, both capitalist and communist submission to visibility are violent. This allows us to see racism, then, as a double instantiation of violence: one of visibility (whiteness as norm) and the other of invisibility (blackness as otherness).

As he discusses the body under the regime of capitalist transparency, Han says that the body is exposed, exploited and then consumed (Ibid., 30). Under communism we might argue that the body is exposed (as the true embodiment of work, socialist labor) and idealized (if not also exploited in the fulfillment of five-year plans), then dissolved into the collective glory of the masses. If the capitalist version represents commodity fetishism, the communist version represents the fetishism of the people (or of the party).

Han speaks to the leveling aspects of commodity production and argues that capitalism imposes a kind of brutal equivalence that abolishes singularity and uniqueness: “The transparent society is a hell of sameness (equality)” (“La sociedad de la transparencia es un infierno de lo igual”).  (Han, 12) Does the sameness of capitalism (the commodity) have an analogous sameness under communism? Is it the sameness of nationalism or that of classlessness? The sameness, predicated on the notion of visibility is one where difference is seen as outside the norm, refractory, and in the highly ideological climate of communism can be seen as a deviation, one that elicit all sorts of accusations (counter-revolutionary, unpatriotic, divisive, Trotskyite, Titoist, revisionist, rightist, infantile leftist, etc.)  Boris Groys argues that under communism deviation is not actually forbidden but instead unthinkable because in an utopian society “all members are equally enlightened.” (Groys, 77)  It is this unthinkability, so widespread and deep-rooted which contributes to color-blindness under socialism.

Rousseau’s transparency also applies to language. If the general will means a political discourse that does away with appearances and deception, then its locution must also be diaphanous, unambiguous. Rousseau was inimical to theater, describing it as artificial, as a place of “disfiguration, seduction, false appearances” (Han, 84) and chides it for its lack of transparency. Our notion of the “theatricality of politics” would be abhorrent to him, both a travesty of the general will, and an insult to moral rectitude. Here is where modern state socialism parts ways with Rousseau despite its aim of having its citizens be visible to the state and the party; its discourse and practices are theatrical to the core.


El Muñeco y sus Enanos

In state socialist societies high politics is reserved for the government and the party and it is precisely this abstention from politics by citizens that makes racism under socialism a difficult task to discuss. As Alana Lentin says, racism is an inherently political topic because it deals with the nature of power, both in its inclusions and exclusions. (Lentin, xiii) She also states that it is the “nation state that is the main political vehicle for racism”.  (Ibid.) Discussing issues of power in Cuba, racially inflected or otherwise is a perilous task, which is why in official discourse two different explanations on racism seem to circulate with more frequency. The first is seeing racism as an individual pathology, “arising from either delusions, akin to those associated with madness or ignorance”.  (Ibid., xi) This argument is also used in the US as well, and here we see the universalist aspects of liberalism and socialism coincide. This explanation tends to leave aside the historical context of slavery, exclusion, and oppression within societies that have racialized inequality.

The second is what Lentin calls “repackaging racism as discrimination”  (Ibid., 147), where racism is often compared to other types of discrimination (physical ability, gender, sexual preference). Again, this ignores its complex relationship to issues of nationalism, colonialism, slavery, and immigration and again, tends to equate racism with matters of prejudice. This repackaging as discrimination is succinctly stated by Fernando Rojas, Cuba’s Vice-Minister of Culture, in a film titled “Raza” (2008), directed by Eric Corvalán Pellé. When asked about racism in Cuba he says it does not exist, but that there is racial discrimination. Rojas, with the best of intentions, while trying to address the existence of racial disparities in contemporary Cuba, winds up evading that there are institutional and societal barriers to racial equality in Cuba. What Rojas’s statement reveals is that “unthinkable” aspect of deviation with regards to race, articulated by Groys. But equally, it reflects what Sawyer refers to as “inclusionary discrimination” (which he borrows from Brazilian scholar Edward Telles), in arguing that both racial mixture and exclusionary practices can coexist, even thrive. (Sawyer, 35)

The multicultural paradigms of the US or Europe are regarded rather suspiciously by Cuba, and to a degree, they coincide with right-wing critics who argue that multiculturalism weakens national unity and identity. Cuba is a country that is obsessed with national unity, a theme that goes back to the failures of the independence movement of the Ten Years War. Here the totalizing fantasies of the right and left might overlap and perhaps the words of Adorno might serve as a reminder:

“An emancipated society, on the other hand, would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences. Politics that are still seriously concerned with such a society ought not, therefore, propound the abstract equality of men even as an idea. Instead, they should point to the bad equality today, the identity of those with interests in films and weapons, and conceive the better state in which people could be different without fear” (Adorno, 103).

Adorno’s definition of emancipation echoes his dictum of “The whole is the false” (Ibid., 50) Socialist systems have traditionally been built on the notion of a “beautiful totality”, the realm of freedom beyond necessity. Yet, they have not been able to adequately resolve “the incompatibility of the human needs for freedom and for security, for individualism and for belonging”. (Ignatieff , as cited in Taguieff, 304) In Cuba, security and belonging have won the upper hand.

This view on difference and totality has relevance to socialist views on citizenship and its relationship to race, an area understudied on the scholarship of socialism.   In the case of Cuba since 1959 the definition of citizenship has narrowed, focusing on binaries like revolutionary vs. counter-revolutionary, patriots vs. vendepatrias, defenders of progressive change vs. reactionaries, those who have left vs. those who have remained. In discussing definitions of citizenship Roberto Alejandro reminds us that citizenship is an extremely complex set of languages, practices, politics, symbols, meanings, and identities.  

“Citizenship, then, should be viewed as a space of memories and struggles where collective identities are played out. It should also be viewed as a space where citizens can decode languages and practices. As a space of memories, citizenship requires symbols (like the Constitution, the flag); signs (like the tradition of rights); rites (like national celebrations); myths (like the invention of a “national unity”); and even instances of forgetfulness (who celebrated, for instance the centennial of the American Civil War?) This perspective allows us to see citizenship not as a juridical category or a collection of civic attitudes, but as a hermeneutic horizon, a practice, and even a textual reality…They share a historical context; that is, they share the boundaries within which meanings are challenged or accepted or enacted, and in which different cultures strive to define the identity of both groups and individuals.” (Alejandro, p. 37)

For Cuba, then, national unity need not imply uniformity, symbols need to transcend geographical borders, narratives have to include the victors and the vanquished, rites must include those who have been forgotten, myths must incorporate that rebellious mosaic of black and brown Cubans who have made the Cuban nation what it is.


(1) For more on the responses and commentary on Zurbano see AfroCuba Web (online). Also, a valuable resource is The Afro-Hispanic Review, Vol. 33, Number 1 (Spring 2014), Part I, which contains over two-hundred pages of analysis to the Caso Zurbano. Both AfroCuba Web and The Afro-Hispanic Review also contain the original piece written by Zurbano (in Spanish), plus an English translation of the original (i.e.-without changes made by the NYT).


Adorno, T.W. (1974/1951) Minima Moralia, Verso, London.

Alejandro, Roberto (1993) Hermeneutics, Citizenship and the Public Sphere, SUNY Press, Albany, NY.

Debray, Regis (1983/1981) Critique of Political Reason, Verso, NY, NY.

Groys, Boris (2009/2006) The Communist Postscript, Verso, NY, NY.

Han, Byun-Chul (2013/2012) La sociedad de la transparencia, Herder Editorial, Barcelona.

Howard, Dick (2010) The Primacy of the Political A History of Political Thought from the Greeks to the French & American Revolutions, Columbia UP, NY, NY.

Lentin, Alana (2008) Racism A Beginner’s Guide, Oneworld Publication, Oxford, UK.

Mills, Charles W. (1997) The Racial Contract, Cornell UP, Ithaca, NY.

Morales Domínguez, Esteban (2013/2006) Race in Cuba, Essays on the Revolution     and Racial Inequality, Monthly Review Press, NY.

Nicholson, Philip Yale (2001) Who Do We Think We Are? Race and Nation in the Modern World, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY.

Rojas, Rafael (2008) Motivos de Anteo: Patria y nación en la historia intelectual de Cuba, Ed. Colibrí, Madrid.

Sawyer, Mark Q. (2006) Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba, Cambridge UP.

Starobinksi, Jean (1988/1971) Jean-Jacques Rousseau Transparency and Obstruction, Chicago UP, Chicago, Il.

Taguieff, Pierre-André (2001/1987) The Force of Prejudice On Racism and its Doubles, Minnesota UP, Minneapolis, MN.

Zizek, Slavoj (2012) The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Verso, NY.

Wolin, Sheldon (2004/1960) Politics and Vision, Princeton UP, Princeton, NJ. 

About Author(s)

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Alan West-Durán
Alan West-Durán is Associate Professor in the Department of Modern Languages at the Northeastern University. He was born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico. He is a poet, translator, essayist, and critic. His interests and research are in Caribbean literature, Afro-Cuban culture (art, music, religions, and literature) and Latin American Film.