Venezuela and Cuba, 1960-2008

Now,
almost half a century later, in Venezuela's 5 million plus capital, I
watched the local residents cheering and waving flags, a scene that
looked almost identical to what I remembered in Havana when Fidel
Castro launched his marathon exercises in exciting rhetoric.

By Saul Landau - CounterPunch
Topics
Short URL

Watching
Hugo Chavez orate on Venezuelan television rings old memory bells.
"Socialism. Revolution, Patria." Words I heard in 1960-61 in Cuba.

Now,
almost half a century later, in Venezuela's 5 million plus capital, I
watched the local residents cheering and waving flags, a scene that
looked almost identical to what I remembered in Havana when Fidel
Castro launched his marathon exercises in exciting rhetoric.

Like
his Cuban mentor, Chavez offered examples of how "imperialism" -- his
word for the United States -- had violated sovereignty, by backing the
unsuccessful 2002 military coup against him and how Washington
interfered in the internal affairs of smaller countries.

What
a difference the decades make! In the early 1960s, the CIA (using Cuban
exiles) assassinated Cuban teachers and militia members, and sabotaged
Cuban installations. I remember hearing explosions, shots, and screams
from the street.

From
May through October 1960, I heard Fidel speak frequently to large
crowds. He had become what Lee Lockwood called "Cuba's living
newspaper." (Castro's Cuba, Cuba's Fidel, 1967)

Almost
fifty years later, Fidel's ideological son attempts to apply some of
his mentor's rhetoric towards similar goals: to build a socialist
society in a nation where oil has helped produce a capitalist mode of
thinking and doing (shopping), a large wealthy class and a much larger
mass of poor people.

Fidel
exported his mortal enemies to the United States. Or, Washington had a
policy of importing them. Out of Cuba, wealthy exiles could only mount
terrorist campaigns -- for almost 50 years -- but not block the
dramatic changes that allowed Cuban revolutionaries to transform their
island.

Chavez
doesn't have the option of exporting the wealthy oligarchs, the
business class below them and the professionals who adhere to
distinctly anti-socialist values. Nor will Washington return to its old
"import the anti-Castro Cubans" policy.

He
retains strong support among the poor and especially among the most
conscious sectors of Venezuela's organized working class. He also knows
that if he wins the February referendum he has the chance to remain as
President until 2021. As much as he admires Fidel, Chavez will not copy
the economic model of Cuba. Socialism in Venezuela will eschew Soviet
models for other -- as yet unknown -- economic arrangements.

As Chavez has observed, eighteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's economy staggers.

After
spending a week in Caracas, I walked the streets of Havana and saw
groups of young men drinking beer and singing along to reggaeton beats
on portable radios or Ipods with speakers.

"And
where do these lazy bums get the money to buy beer and acquire fancy
music boxes?" asks a middle aged woman in Marianao, one of Havana's
populous neighborhoods.

"I'll
tell you where," she answers her own question. "They steal." Then came
her anecdotes about how the criminals learn from some TV shows and put
woolen ski caps over their heads and faces to conceal their identities.
"One of these bums pointed a pistol at a neighbor and stole her
motorbike. He had cut slits out and she saw he had green eyes. But so
what? Thousands of Habaneros have green eyes."

I
heard her complaint echoed several times. "If we don't do something to
reform the labor system here," said a writer friend, "we're in deep
trouble. Raul [President Raul Castro] himself said so. We can't afford
to continue down this road. On top of the hurricane damage, we now face
rising crime and that is obviously linked to the refusal of some young
people to work at the jobs that exist."

He
referred to three powerful super storms this year that devastated Cuban
agriculture and destroyed hundred of thousands of homes. Nevertheless,
Cuba's tourist industry claimed that by year's end some 2.3 million
foreign visitors will have vacationed on the island, among them almost
700,000 Canadians. Tourism earned more than $2 billion.

Younger
Cubans I speak to express resentment "at how the old guys have risen
from the grave [he meant Machado Ventura and Ramiro Valdez, who have
rejoined the Politburo of Cuba's Communist Party]." The young man spoke
with passion. "I'm a committed socialist, but paternalism may kill our
revolution. Will those old fogies never quit?" Yes, I think, when will
the very aging leaders give the car keys to the middle aged kids?
People in the mid and late 70s who have wielded power for decades and
offer little originality do not exactly vibrate with inspiration at a
time demanding creative and revolutionary thinking.

Other
young people recount the achievements -- health, education, art, music,
sports, science, as well as real human rights. But none of these past
glories deals with an unjust and insufficient salary structure, with
mediocre but very obedient people heading agencies containing critical
and brilliant people.

Raul's
daughter, Mariela, has spoken publicly about the urgent need to reform
in several areas. Her courageous remarks about putting an end to
homophobia on the island carry a sub-textual message as well. It's time
to put an end to the decades of official censorship, not only in the
case of "dangerous" bloggers, but journalists who get chewed out by
some of the old guard for writing "sentences you should not have
written." Indeed, I dare not mention the writer's name for fear it will
cause more problems.

"We
have too much invested in our revolution," a writer for Juventud
Rebelde told me, "to allow the old guard to ruin everything by not
allowing discussion of issues everyone knows about [referring to the
irrationality of the economy and the refusal to cede power]. Cuba
stands for basic human rights even if the government refuses to grant
some of them. Our future must be one of enjoying. Our generation,
people between 30 and 60, knows that."

I
agreed. So many people have invested their hopes and dreams in the
Cuban revolution for five decades. Every time Cuba does something we
think contradicts its basic revolutionary principles, we wince. "Cuba
hurts," wrote Eduardo Galeano. Right now lots of Cubans are hurting
because of the condition of their daily lives. Hurricanes and a less
than perfectly functioning system don't amount to the old one two
punch. But they are worrisome, especially in the context of pressure in
today's world.

Cuba
offered a vision for the future despite the paternalism and other less
than democratic legacies it carried. It also stood for the embodiment
of human rights, again notwithstanding the absence of a free press and
a voice for the opposition in its electoral politics. Cubans had rights
to food, shelter, education, medical care, old age securities -- albeit
not the absence of fear on the part of those who made public their
criticisms of government policies. However, Cuba did not hunt down and
murder "subversives" as did a gang of states, in Latin America --
backed by Washington. Nor did it launch aggressive wars in Southeast
Asia and the Middle East as did the United States, which officially
celebrated, on December 10, the 60th anniversary of the UN's Universal
Declaration of Human Rights.

That
day should have been a day of mourning for 60 years of failure to
achieve the noble goals of the Human Rights declaration. Two wars rage
on in Iraq and Afghanistan, while increased global warming vitiates the
right to a safe environment. Almost 3 billion people suffer the very
deprivations that in 1948 were officially the targets of all the
world's governments. Some cause for celebration!

Human
rights in the United States have shrunk. In 1945, the U.S. prosecutor
at Nuremberg explained that waging aggressive war was permanently
outlawed. In 2003, George W. Bush waged aggressive war in Iraq. In the
post World War II era, torture became a crime against humanity. In the
21st Century, Bush reauthorized it. Waterboarding became associated
with U.S. jailors at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the U.S. naval base in
Guantanamo, Cuba. European allies cooperated with the United States in
secretly transporting people to torture centers in other places as well.

Meanwhile,
Chavez, attacked by Washington for being antidemocratic, has expanded
the breadth of human rights for Venezuelans. They now enjoy more
health-care, women have gained greater equality, more poor people have
learned to read and have access to potable water.

These
accomplishments coincide with the spirit of the 1948 UN Declaration on
Human Rights. It seems as if the U.S. government has forgotten the goal
and uses only the words as an instrument of policy to attack its
enemies while it violates the letter and spirit of the very human
rights laws U.S. lawyers helped to establish.

Saul Landau received the Bernardo O'Higgins award from the Republic of Chile for his work on human rights. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World (AK/CounterPunch Press).