Havana-Detroit: Two Faces of the Global Metropolis


Jonathan Scott


To speak of the relations between the Unites States and Cuba today requires no special effort on the part of the teacher. Cuba is in the news now more than ever, and the quantity of resource material on the subject is overwhelming. One could spend several months just reading Philip Foner's work on Cuba, A History of Cuba and Its Relations with the United States (International Publishers, 1962). And the Cuba solidarity networks in the US keep growing each and every year. Some of you are probably familiar with the most recent network, which is moving pianos to Cuba in the wake of reports that the Cuban symphony orchestra cannot play because of old and decaying equipment. Examples such as this one abound and they are truly admirable.

But what has never really been explored, even provisionally, are the relations between the City of Havana and the different metropolises of the United States. "Relations," not in the economic or political sense, since these are illegal under current US law, but ideologically, in the way that Americans have come to think about their own cities.

The relationship between Cuba and the United States is almost always cast in monolithic terms, as if the United States were some evenly developed advanced nation and Cuba a struggling and half-developed third world one. Cuba is indeed struggling, which the solidarity networks rightly attribute to the forty year-old Blockade. Yet my argument is that this binary opposition, advanced US capitalist society vs. stunted third world socialist society, leaves us very little to talk about finally, as teachers of social studies.

Simply "talking" about Cuba is hardly ever done. I recall going to a special screening in New York of Fidel's famous speech about the Special Period --provided by Elome Brath's excellent Pan-Africanist solidarity group in Harlem--in which all but a handful of those there at the beginning stayed for the entire speech, which was nearly four hours long. In fact it's fairly common to hear complaints from American leftists that Fidel's speeches are insufferably long and drawn-out, and that you should avoid them if you can. Often this advice is passed along as a kind of inside joke.

For my own part, I loved every minute of the speech, not so much because I'm interested in socialism in Cuba, but because here I was hearing for the first time a head of state explain in painstaking, everyday detail a specific class project to be undertaken by the government. No platitudes, no soundbites, no airy abstractions, no empty promises, no soothing cliches; instead historical data, figures and statistics, ratios, estimates, and rationales. True, the speech came in a top-down form; it was not a town hall meeting of the kind pushed by US elected officials as the "sine qua non" of democracy, where the appearance of democracy is supposed to be enough. Never mind that no project is ever laid-out in these meetings, or that all the talking stops once the town hall is emptied. But precisely for this reason--the top-down approach--could the listener take issue with parts of Fidel's speech, with the Cuban government's new plan for dealing with the end of Cuban-Soviet relations. It was a complete "argument" Fidel advanced and one that Cubans have never stopped talking about.

The phrase I thought of while listening to all four hours of Fidel's speech was "the love of reality." To appreciate Fidel's speech you had to have a love of reality.

The proposition I want to argue here is fairly straightforward. It's time to abandon the metaphorical view of Cuba, of Cuban socialism and the US Blockade against it as a metaphor for the state of the world today, as Cuba on one pole and the US on the other--as state capitalism vs. state socialism. A more productive view, I think, is on the symbolic level--the love of reality--and to get here it's first necessary to talk about cities--about the global metropolis.

In the past decade a great deal of excellent material on what's called the urban crisis has been published, and urban studies programs are now standard curricula in colleges and universities across the country. One typically finds courses on industrial relations, labor studies, public policy, urban planning and geography, class and race politics, social work and law, and sometimes courses on American literatures of Black Migration, as you have here at Wayne State. In the mass media, on the other hand, scenes of urban disaster are a dime a dozen. As evidenced by the glut of Hollywood films featuring US cities hit by aliens, comets, epidemic disease, or trampled by gigantic reptiles, armaggedon and the US metropolis go hand-in-hand in the popular imaginary. It is in the area of symbol-making, then, that American socialist teachers need to intervene, since the Fidel-style of talk about cities--the raw data, the empirical history, and so on--is in capable hands at our colleges and universities. I'll put forward three suggestions for carrying out this kind of intervention on behalf of arguably the most maligned and despised of all US cities--Detroit--using as a touchstone what I'm calling the Cuban mirror.

By 1959, the US had 1 billion dollars invested in Cuba and controlled 40% of the island's sugar production, 90% of electric utilities, and the majority of railroads. It also had substantial interests in mining, oil refineries, rubber by-products, livestock, cement, tourism, and a quarter of all bank deposits. 80% of Cuban imports came from the US. Cuba obtained 80% of its foreign earnings from exports.

As a monocultural producer and agro-export nation, Cuba remained constantly vulnerable to external shocks and natural disasters. Unemployment varied a great deal, but stayed around 20% on average. From sugar harvests that averaged 5.3 million tons during the 50s, the US would purchase 2.8 million at above-market prices. Local Cuban (criollo) industry was small and backwards, not very productive and concentrated mainly in manufacturing. In its search for stability, the economy of the nation's capital focused on the real-estate market, or else Cuban capital was invested overseas. Well-known multinationals found Havana to be a profitable market.

By the end of the 1950s, 53% of Cuba's industrial production had concentrated in Havana and employed a fifth of the economically active population that worked outside the sugar industry. At this time about 86% of the total value of Cuba was held by 36 corporations. And it was during the 50s that Havana, under US domination, became a city of clubs and casinos--of sun, sea, and sin, as the saying went. An extensive commercial sex industry was created that no global metropolis at the time could rival. During the 50s, Havana had more prostitutes (11,500) than miners (10,000). Taken in their entirety, Havana's red-light districts occupied about 50 hectares of the central city. Internationally famous Cuban artists such as Wilfredo Lam and Alejo Carpentier fled Havana mainly because of the rancidness of the environment. They returned when the red-light districts were destroyed as the first Revolutionary laws went into effect.

For our purposes here, I include this rough sketch of Havana in the 50s to better illustrate my first symbol-making proposition:

That, like in Detroit, industrialization in Havana did not lead to urbanization--urbanization defined in terms of social functions, public space, housing, healthcare, mass transportation, and education This is the first point to be stressed about Detroit as a global metropolis. Concepts like the post-industrial city fail because they assume that urbanization followed industrialization, and that urban crisis can be solved, therefore, by simply re-urbanizing the city on the ruins of industry. Empowerment zones, community-run parks and businesses, and urban renewal through the building of new convention centers, sports complexes and casinos are pushed as solutions to the post-industrial city as if an evenly developed urban core already exists, albeit a crumbling one. But what if the whole symbol of industry equals urbanity is, like the Cuban example shows, based on a capitalist fiction, not on empirical, social fact?

To demonstrate this, you have to go to the empirical history of Detroit, which is a large part of my research project on the Havana-Detroit relation. I'll just synthesize what I'm concentrating on so far--my particular emphases.

Monocultural Economics and the Concentration of Capital

Detroit became a center for capital not as an industrial metropolis but as a port for foreign trade, built around the timber industry. Detroit was the third largest exporter in the US during the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. The founder of the Detroit Auto Company and builder of the Penobscot Building, William Murphy, owned the largest redwood lumber company in the world, holding 1 million acres of timber. Just as Havana was a product of Cuba's monocultural sugar economy, so was Detroit a product of the midwest's own monoculture, lumber. Likewise, just as US corporations owned most of Cuba's electric utilities and railroads, and controlled the nation's big banks, Detroit's dependence on the lumber industry concentrated capital in railroads, banking, and small manufacturing. Russel Alger's pine timber company, for example--the largest in the world at the time--also controlled the Detroit, Bay City, and Alpena Railroad, the Penisular Car Company, as well as the Detroit National and State Saving Banks, and the Detroit Copper and Brass Rolling Mills. He was elected Governor of the State of Michigan in 1884, and in 1887 he secured the post of Secretary of War under President McKinley, where his companies profited substantially from the US take-over of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines from the Spanish in 1898.

This is one kind of empirical link between Havana and Detroit, where the uneven development of Havana not only mirrored the uneven development of Detroit, but was a structural component of it in the form of interlocking monocultural economies--sugar and lumber.

The White Race Monolith: Social Control

In the writing on Cuba in the US, one of the least studied subjects is race. US social scientists have focused almost of all their attention on foreign relations, economics, the law, and social structures in Cuba, leaving out (or on the margins) the central issue of race. One hypothesis is that this omission can be explained by the threat of a good example. The eradication of racial oppression in Cuba was achieved by a socialist government at the very same time that African American political parties such as the Black Panthers were being attacked by the US government. That African American civil rights workers and artists such as Robert Williams, Assata Shakur, and Nina Simone have made their homes in Cuba after being driven out of the US is a compelling case in point.

Behind all the obviousness, though, are a set of historical links that, like the links between sugar and timber, take us right back to the source--to the most basic contradictions of capitalist society. First, the sugar monoculture was built by Afro-Cuban bond laborers. To keep the system in place, an intermediate social control stratum had to be produced by the big landowners. A diversified small-holder economy would have meant an end to the sugar monoculture, and an end to the sugar monoculture meant an end to racial slavery. Not until the end of the nineteenth century was slavery abolished in Cuba, the last to go in the hemisphere, precisely because of the dominance of the sugar planters, whose most important slogan during the nineteenth century was "fear of the black," an explicit reference to the Haitian Revolution, which had abolished racial slavery through armed struggle against the French, the British, and the Spanish. If white Cubans wanted to avoid slaughter at the hands of the blacks, the ruling planter class told them over and over again, they would have to keep black Cubans in slavery.

In the rest of the Caribbean, the intermediate stratum was made up of mulattos. But in Cuba this stratum was filled mainly by the penisulares--poor and propertyless immigrants from Spain who were greater in number than the Afro-Cuban bond laborers. There was a surplus of landless European immigrants, with no where to go except with the Afro-Cuban bond laborers, so the ruling class promoted them to the "white race"--an anomalous place, since social mobility did not come with it. They became class collaborators instead of class-conscious workers. The Cuban independentistas, led by JosJ Marte, successfully defeated the Spanish in the War of Independence by making the interconnections between colonialism and racism explicit, arguing that the creole bourgeoisie would remain enslaved to Spanish colonialism just as long as they kept Afro-Cubans in chains. Thus, when the Revolutionary government implemented and began enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the 1960s to eradicate racial oppression, it was simply completing the task that Marte left unfinished when the independence movement was destroyed by the United States military and left in disarray with the passing of the Platt Amendment in 1903. In 1903, US landowners controlled 10% of the appropriated lands, but a proportion larger than that of land under cultivation and often the best sugar-cane lands and the best cattle ranches. The American Tobacco Company controlled 90% of all tobacco exports.

In 1928 Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen wrote an essay that showed the way Afro-Cubans were to deal with the situation. Sugar planters and mill owners paid a North American employee 48 times more than a Haitian, 11 times more than a Afro-Cuban, six times more than a poor white Cuban, and twice that of a Jamaican. The higher relative figure for the Jamaican worker was due to their specialized labor, though in absolute terms, for the same job they were paid less than an American or British employee. Afro-Cubans made up 22% of the laboring population, and poor white Cubans around 65%. The rest were largely from the Chinese immigration of the mid-19th century.

The parallel between the US is not far off, especially in states like Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, and Virginia, where the ratio between poor and propertyless European Americans and African American bond laborers continues to be roughly 70-30. And this ratio also rings a bell in the Detroit Metro area, where 70-30 is roughly the ratio between European Americans and African Americans. In terms of social studies projects on Metro Detroit, teachers could use this ratio to help students understand the most misunderstood of issues--race, class, and gender. For example, a city like Taylor is about 70-30. How is the poverty of European Americans in Taylor a product of white racial oppression in the Detroit area as a whole? Or the fact that the Detroit area has one of the largest disparities between rich and poor in the nation.

Warning of an inevitable "Harlem Solution" to the problem of social control in Cuba, Guillen spoke for all Afro-Cuban workers when he called for the building of a Cuban Communist Party that placed Black freedom struggle at the heart of all its activities. So inside Parliament, in unions and federations, in black aid societies, united front committees against racial discrimination, in education campaigns, in worker and communist press and radio did the Communist Party send its organizers and tacticians. In the 1940 Constituent Assembly and general elections, the Afro-Cuban electorate got Communist Party representatives elected in large numbers. In 1948 the Communist Party candidate for senator, Salvador Garcia Aguero, took 100,000 votes, the highest of any candidate in the elections. And many mayoralties were won the Party during this time. Guillen's call in 1928 was responded to rigorously and without hesitation. To be Black was a mark of honor, since the first Cuban rebels were Black. This is the second kind of socialist symbol-making, then: all class-conscious workers are Black workers.

This logic is supported by the evidence provided by Ted Allen in his two-volume study, The Invention of the White Race. If there were no white race, the foundation of all labor could be seen as African American, and all other laborers as peers of African Americans--as friends of the Blacks, as the Jacobins societies were known in Revolutionary France.

While in Cuba the Kuban Ku Klux Klan was being run out of town by white Cuban workers, in Detroit white American workers were getting the vote out for them. In 1933, the Ku Klux Klan's candidate for the mayor of Detroit fell short of victory by just 5,000 votes. In 1943, a white pogrom took the lives of 23 African Americans, and thousands more were injured. During this time, the strongest stand against white racism taken by organized labor was the UAW's refusal to sanction a white walkout at the Packard plant, led by white racists who objected to African American males and European American females working together on the line. The UAW ordered them back to work. But compared to the Cuban Communist Party's approach to overthrowing white racial oppression, organized labor in the US--in Detroit in particular--was weak and ineffectual. It was weak and ineffectual because it refused to see white racial oppression as the Achilles heel of the labor movement as a whole. The Cuban mirror helps show how this is so, and provides a good example to follow.

The Built Environment

Lastly, the way the Cuban Communist Party has come to deal with the built environment of Havana can teach us a lot about the situation in Detroit. I don't pretend that it has been all roses, either. Terrible misjudgements were made that are still being corrected in Cuba. To cite one: Instead of developing reliable and affordable rail transit, the Revolution allocated large sums to build new highways, enamored as many were at the time of the American automobile. An eight-lane highway in Havana was proposed and undertaken but never finished. Also, new big buildings and housing projects disrupted the layout of the city and interfered with social networks already in place. Yet lessons were learned, and now there are restoration projects underway that treat Havana's built environment with great care and precision. A good example--and one that is especially relevant for Detroit today--is the building of Olympic stadiums, pool, tennis courts and other sports facilities in 1991 for the Pan-American Games. These sports complexes were carefully integrated with the living quarters and services at the Villa Panamericana which was the last major housing complex built before the current crisis. In 1992, the city contained 1206 sport facilities with a seating capacity for 167,000 spectators.

The third symbol, then, is of the built environment. Detroit's Tiger Stadium is a good case in point. Ranked among the best ballparks to see a game every year--Street and Smith just ranked Tiger Stadium second behind Fenway Park, but ahead of the new stadiums such as Jacobs Field and Camden Yards. A worthwhile project for social science teachers would be work on Detroit's built environment--its living architectural legacies like Tiger Stadium and the possibilities for restoration projects like the ones completed and underway in Havana. To show that it can be done, and has been done, is what American students would benefit from seeing, since they have no examples. Lack of a good example is one of the reasons why Tiger Stadium is empty this season, despite a young and talented team, and why Casinos and a new stadium are rushed toward without a second-thought. To speak with Tigers fans at the Stadium about what can be done with the ballpark is always interesting to me. But what comes through almost always is a sense of despair and loss. Nothing can be done. And it's just as well because of all those goddamn obstructed view seats. You hear this--and it's interesting because the best seats in Tiger Stadium are in the upper deck, where many working-class folks still take their families. Thus, behind this sentiment is a working-class fatalism, since a new stadium with mostly lower deck boxes--the proposed new stadium will seat less than 40,000--will mean no more family outings to the stadium for working class folks. Although it seems too late in this game, the new stadiums and the casinos will fail, like they have elsewhere, and then the citizens of Detroit will be looking more eagerly than ever for real alternatives. The task, as I see it, is to begin work on these alternatives now.

I conclude with a quote from the executive director of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, Joann Watson:

"You meet very few whites in America who understand that the elimination of racism is in their own self-interests. I'm not talking about racial understanding and multicultural appreciation, but I'm talking about power. The real void is in white leaders committed to justice who are brave enough to become a lightening rod. We need some white MLK around who will stand up and say, I am not going to allow my community, my children, my city, to be dominated by this kind of narrow-minded oppression that does not serve any of us well... In Detroit we sit on the waterfront, and with the backdrop of organized labor being rooted here, and the natural combination of working-class people of all backgrounds, we have great potential, despite the steady diet of bad news that gets communicated in the media. We have more potential for lifting up the inherent greatness of American people here than in any other city...We've shown we can come together. We do that in times of crisis and in times of greatness. The community came together to celebrate Nelson Mandela. It took New York City three days to raise one million dollars to help Mandela. Detroit did it in one day. People who suffer the highest levels of unemployment and underemployment came together and gave him a welcome that was unprecedented, across all lines."

Partial Bibliography

Dumont, Rene. CUBA: SOCIALISM AND DEVELOPMENT. New York: Grove Press, 1970.

Ewen, Lynda Ann. CORPORATE POWER AND URBAN CRISIS IN DETROIT. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Foner, Philip. A HISTORY OF CUBA AND ITS RELATIONS WITH THE UNITED STATES. New York: International Publishers, 1962.

Hawkins, Ferry. THE BUILDINGS OF DETROIT: A HISTORY. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1980.

Mast, Robert. Ed. DETROIT LIVES. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Sarduy, Pedro Perez, and Jean Stubbs. AFROCUBA. Melbourne: Ocean Press, 1993.

Segre, Roberto, Mario Coyula, and Joseph L. Scarpaci. HAVANA: TWO FACES OF THE ANTILLEAN METROPOLIS. New York: Wiley, 1997.

Copyright June 20 1998 Jonathan Scott

Return to The Rouge Forum