Five years ago, when I was in Cuba attending a student conference in Havana, a number of us took a day to make a solemn pilgrimage to Santa Clara to visit the mausoleum that houses the remains of Ernesto Che Guevara and his fellow internationalists.
Our little ad hoc group – a motley crew of Canadians, with a couple of adventurous Americans in tow – passed the hours riding back to the capital in heated discussion. We debated, flexing our incipient polemical skills over a range of topics, eventually settling on a long, circular discussion about the pros and cons of Marx’s odd formulation: the dictatorship of the proletariat.
“The dictatorship we suffer from here is the Empire in Washington.” Our driver, the unassuming man in late middle age who had been waiting for us and tending to us all day, had interjected a little perspective into our bull session, as the sun set and we approached the outskirts of Havana.
“The U.S. blockade has made our life here difficult. Things are not easy.”
Modestly, and through translation, he continued, fielding our questions about his life’s work. The Revolution had given him an education his peasant parents would never have imagined; he was proud to have served in Angola, a little known intervention in which Cuba aided the newly independent country to hold off the racist army of South Africa. Many, including Nelson Mandela, point to Cuba’s role there as a turning point in apartheid’s fall and in neighbouring Namibia’s independence struggle.
Despite all the scarcity and difficulties they have faced, the Cuban people have continued to demonstrate an unparalleled sense of solidarity. The island’s doctors at one time were more numerous throughout the continents of the South than all the World Heath Organization’s missions combined. This, of course, along with the remarkable fact of Cuba’s training for free doctors from throughout the Americas – they’ve even in recent years begun educating youth from disadvantaged groups in the U.S. – is largely unknown throughout the world.
We asked our driver if it was frustrating holding onto a socialist project, given that such a thing was largely perceived as an anachronism, at best an exotic, stubborn experiment doomed to soon fade into history.
“Everyone said Cuba would fall soon after the Soviet Union disintegrated. It’s been ten years. We are a patient people, we believe in the example we are upholding, and we know that new situations, new revolutions, will emerge.”
It was fifty-two years ago this week that the attack on the Moncada garrison sparked the fire of rebellion that still, in many ways, animates Latin American politics. On July 26 1953 Fidel Castro and a hastily-trained group attempted a pre-dawn storming of Santiago de Cuba’s military base. The operation, meant to initiate a nation-wide uprising against the U.S.-backed and recently re-installed dictator Fulgencio Batista, was thwarted quickly; dozens of the rebels were tortured and summarily executed.
The dictator’s victory proved pyrrhic, though, as the repression only galvanized the population’s hatred of the regime. The spirit of Moncada, and of the movement that took its name from the date of the attack, was one of total resistance and defiance. While the famous guerrillas of the Sierra dominate the historical lore, the urban leaders of the movement often carried out even more dangerous missions. Thousands were killed, but each grisly murder only further accelerated the demise of Batista. When the legendary Frank Pais was killed in 1957, 60 000 defied the authorities and marched through the streets of Santiago de Cuba.
Barely more than five years after the Moncada debacle Castro’s rebel army and the urban resistance had driven Batista into exile. Since the 1959 triumph and the sweeping social reforms that have marked Cuba’s transformation, the United States and its allies have spared no effort to topple the island’s revolutionary government.
From the Bay of Pigs, or Playa Giron as the Cubans call the victory, to the October missile crisis, to the countless assassination attempts, acts of sabotage and aggressions, every imaginable scheme has been resisted.
Cuba’s long embrace with the Soviet bear -- which brought preferential terms of trade and invaluable military support along with some bureaucratic and stultifying political and economic prescriptions – ended in the early 90s, ushering in the ‘Special Period’ of shortages and restructuring.
Through it all, Cuba has remained open to other peoples, as demonstrated by its concrete solidarity and its example that a world other than the capitalist one is indeed possible, if still a tenuous proposition in these years of strident neo-liberalism.
When they couldn’t crush the revolution outright, the United States government concluded that their strategic focus had to be on keeping the virus restricted to a lone Caribbean island. Grenada broke the blockade with four brief years (1979-1983) of popular revolutionary government, before Maurice Bishop was murdered, paving the way for Reagan and the Marines to invade and ‘restore order’. Nicaragua required more grisly and sustained intervention, much of it covert. The Central American revolutions were only turned back and defeated after a decade-long campaign of sheer terror by U.S.-proxy forces, with mass murder of civilian populations, mining of harbours and economic blackmail.
U.S. policy of isolating Cuba has failed
In 2002, among the first acts of the gang that overthrew Hugo Chavez for 48 hours was to cancel oil shipments to Cuba. Like that coup against the democratically elected regime in Caracas, the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba has now failed rather dramatically. Indeed, a panicked Otto Reich has declared Cuba and Venezuela the real “axis of evil,” and, apparently stuck on the adjective, lamented the continued influence of the “evil genius” Fidel Castro.
The Bolivarian Revolution, the “new situation” our driver had calmly anticipated, has certainly given a shot of oxygen to Cuba. Radical scholar and activist Isaac Saney, among others, has argued forcefully that the reciprocity of the relationship should not be discounted, tracing the critical role that thousands of Cuban medical personnel have played in the poorest neighbourhoods of Caracas, and emphasizing the political inspiration that Cuba’s revolution has provided. Chavez has, for many years, flaunted his close friendship with Castro, though he has only recently come out explicitly in favour of socialism.
Meanwhile, a number of centre-left governments have been elected across Latin America. The Cuba-Venezuela axis now acts as a poll of attraction for the poor and working people of the continent, shaming governments like Lula’s in Brazil that have held close to the dictates of international finance, and causing outright crises of legitimacy for some regimes -- like that of the departed Gutierrez in Ecuador -- that came to power on populist platforms.
So today Cuba has perhaps its most important Latin American ally in five decades of revolution. Venezuela provides much needed energy resources at fair or preferential prices, while the democratic and participatory 'proceso' that is the Bolivarian Revolution can provide revitalization to the whole process in Cuba as well.
Returning Cuba's international solidarity
Progressive-minded people in the North now have to hold up their end of the bargain. Efforts at solidarity with Cuba have been notoriously balkanised, with ideological and theoretical disagreements having too often held up or prevented important work. Even those who disagree strongly with Cuba’s political system, if they uphold the principle of self-determination, have a responsibility to oppose the U.S. and other governments’ efforts at economic and political warfare against the island’s people.
First and foremost, the demand must continue to be made for the U.S. to unconditionally lift the blockade. The repeated lop-sided votes in the United Nations show the truly shameless determination of the United States government to ignore the global community. Efforts at ‘breaking the blockade’, such as the annual Pastors for Peace caravans, are particularly important.
Secondly, the case of the Cuban 5 needs to be more widely understood. The history of U.S.-Cuba relations, perhaps better than anything else, illustrates the utter hypocrisy of the ‘war on terror’. Five Cubans have been jailed since 1998 in the U.S. on espionage and other charges; they were working covertly in Miami, but only to try and prevent acts of terror by far-right groups that have been openly operating in Little Havana for decades.
And of course the U.S. military has used the Guantanamo base on an illegally occupied piece of Cuban territory to carry out systematic torture of ‘enemy combatants’.
Finally, on the flip side of the vilification that appears regularly in the media, the Shangri-La glorification of Cuba should be avoided. The tendency towards this is limited, naturally, to a small segment of the political Left, but it tragically mirrors the ‘othering’ of Third World people that is symptomatic of the ugly western tourist. Here, the austerity that Cubans endure – very real, as in the current spate of rolling power blackouts -- is romanticized in the name of denouncing the ills of consumerist capitalism.
But this minor tendency smacks only of denial. It is much better to be honest. Life in Cuba is not easy, and in part because those of us in the North have not marshalled enough solidarity to overcome the U.S. blockade.
The Cubans have indeed been a patient people, and unfailingly generous in volunteering around the globe. As exciting new situations emerge in Venezuela and across Latin America, it is high time for those of us in the North of the Americas to show some of that Moncada spirit of resistance and determination.
Cuba’s international solidarity, after all, deserves to be repaid in full.