Cuba

Without Culture, Freedom Is Impossible

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In 2002, Cuba’s President Fidel Castro Ruz visited the country’s National Ballet School to inaugurate the 18th Havana International Ballet Festival. Founded in 1948 by the prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso (1920–2019), the school struggled financially until the Cuban Revolution decided that ballet – like other art forms – must be available to everyone and so must be socially financed. At the school in 2002, Castro remembered that the first festival, held in 1960, ‘asserted Cuba’s cultural vocation, identity, and nationality, even under the most adverse circumstances, when major dangers and threats loomed over the country’.

Ballet, like so many cultural forms, had been stolen from popular participation and enjoyment. The Cuban Revolution wanted to return this artistic practice to the people as part of its determination to advance human dignity. To build a revolution in a country assaulted by colonial barbarism, the new revolutionary process had to both establish the country’s sovereignty and build the dignity of each of its people. This dual task is the work of national liberation. ‘Without culture’, Castro said, ‘freedom is not possible’. 

In many languages, the word ‘culture’ has at least two meanings. In bourgeois society, culture has come to mean both refinement and the high arts. A property of the dominant classes, this culture is inherited through the transmission of manners and higher education. The second meaning of culture is the way of life, including beliefs and practices, of a people who are part of a community (from a tribe to a nation). The Cuban Revolution’s democratisation of ballet and classical music, for instance, was part of its attempt to socialise all forms of human life, from the economic to the cultural. Furthermore, the revolutionary processes attempted to protect the cultural heritage of the Cuban people from the pernicious influence of the culture of colonialism. To be precise, to ‘protect’ did not mean to reject the entirety of the coloniser’s culture, since that would enforce a parochial life on a people who must have access to all forms of culture. Cuba’s Revolution adopted baseball, for instance, despite its roots in the United States, the very country that has sought to suffocate Cuba for six decades.

A socialist approach to culture, therefore, requires four aspects: the democratisation of forms of high culture, the protection of the cultural heritage of formerly colonised peoples, the advancement of the basic elements of cultural literacy, and the domestication of cultural forms that come from the colonising power. 

In July 2022, I delivered a lecture at Cuba’s Casa de las Américas, a major institution in Havana’s cultural life and a heartbeat of cultural developments from Chile to Mexico, that centred on ten theses on Marxism and decolonisation. A few days later, Casa’s director, Abel Prieto, also a former minister of culture, convened a seminar there to discuss some of these themes, principally how Cuban society had to both defend itself from the onrush of imperialist cultural forms and from the pernicious inheritance of racism and patriarchy. This discussion provoked a series of reflections on the process of the National Programme Against Racism and Racial Discrimination announced by President Miguel Díaz-Canel in November 2019 and on the process that led to the 2022 Family Code referendum (which will come to a popular vote on 25 September) – two dynamics that have the capacity to transform Cuban society in an anti-colonial direction.

Dossier no. 56 (September 2022) from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Casa de las Américas, Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation, contains an expanded version of that lecture with a foreword by Abel Prieto. To give you a taste of it, here is thesis nine on the Battle of Emotions: 

Thesis Nine: The Battle of Emotions. Fidel Castro provoked a debate in the 1990s around the concept of the Battle of Ideas, the class struggle in thought against the banalities of neoliberal conceptions of human life. A key part of Fidel’s speeches from this period was not just what he said but how he said it, each word suffused with the great compassion of a man committed to the liberation of humanity from the tentacles of property, privilege, and power. In fact, the Battle of Ideas was not merely about the ideas themselves, but also about a ‘battle of emotions’, an attempt to shift the palate of emotions from a fixation on greed to considerations of empathy and hope.

One of the true challenges of our time is the bourgeoisie’s use of the culture industries and the institutions of education and faith to divert attention away from any substantial discussion about real problems – and about finding common solutions to social dilemmas – and towards an obsession with fantasy problems. In 1935, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called this the ‘swindle of fulfilment’, the seeding of a range of fantasies to mask their impossible realisation. The benefit of social production, Bloch wrote, ‘is reaped by the big capitalist upper stratum, which employs gothic dreams against proletarian realities’. The entertainment industry erodes proletarian culture with the acid of aspirations that cannot be fulfilled under the capitalist system. But these aspirations are enough to weaken any working-class project.

A degraded society under capitalism produces a social life that is suffused with atomisation and alienation, desolation and fear, anger and hate, resentment and failure. These are ugly emotions that are shaped and promoted by the culture industries (‘you can have it too!’), educational establishments (‘greed is the prime mover’), and neo-fascists (‘hate immigrants, sexual minorities, and anyone else who denies you your dreams’). The grip of these emotions on society is almost absolute, and the rise of neo-fascists is premised upon this fact. Meaning feels emptied, perhaps the result of a society of spectacles that has now run its course.

From a Marxist perspective, culture is not seen as an isolated and timeless aspect of human reality, nor are emotions seen as a world of their own or as being outside of the developments of history. Since human experiences are defined by the conditions of material life, ideas of fate will linger on as long as poverty is a feature of human life. If poverty is transcended, then fatalism will have a less secure ideological foundation, but it does not automatically get displaced. Cultures are contradictory, bringing together a range of elements in uneven ways out of the social fabric of an unequal society that oscillates between reproducing class hierarchy and resisting elements of social hierarchy. Dominant ideologies suffuse culture through the tentacles of ideological apparatuses like a tidal wave, overwhelming the actual experiences of the working class and the peasantry. It is, after all, through class struggle and through the new social formations created by socialist projects that new cultures will be created – not merely by wishful thinking.

It is important to recall that, in the early years of each of the revolutionary processes – from Russia in 1917 to Cuba in 1959 – cultural efflorescence was saturated with the emotions of joy and possibility, of intense creativity and experimentation. It is this sensibility that offers a window into something other than the ghoulish emotions of greed and hatred.

In the early years after 1959, Cuba convulsed with such surges of creativity and experimentation. Nicolás Guillén (1902–1969), a great revolutionary poet who had been imprisoned during Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, captured the harshness of life and the great desire for the revolutionary process to emancipate the Cuban people from the wretchedness of hunger and social hierarchies. His poem ‘Tengo’ (‘I Have’) from 1964 tells us that the new culture of the revolution was elemental – the feeling that one did not have to bow one’s shoulders before a superior, to say to workers in offices that they too are comrades and not ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, to walk as a Black man into a hotel without being told to stop at the door. His great anti-colonial poem alerts us to culture’s material foundations:

I have, let’s see,
I’ve learned to read,
to count.
I’ve learned to write,
and to think,
and to laugh.
I have, yes, I have
a place to work
and earn
what I have to eat.
I have, let’s see,
I have what I have to have.

At the close of his foreword to the dossier, Abel Prieto writes, ‘we must turn the meaning of anti-colonial into an instinct’. Reflect on that for a moment: anti-colonialism is not just the ending of formal colonial rule, but a deeper process, one that must become ingrained at the instinctual level so that we can build the capacity to solve our basic needs (such as transcending hunger and illiteracy, for instance) and build our alertness to the need for cultures that emancipate us and do not bind us to the flashy world of unaffordable commodities.

Source: The Tri Continental.Org

Revolution: First Steps, First Problems

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Today, August 13, the world is celebrating the birth annivessary of Fidel Castro who needs no introduction. Following experts adapted from his book My Life.

In January 1959 you and your followers didn’t institute a policy of revolutionary change overnight; you began a sort of transition phase, isn’t that right?

We had already put in place a government. I had said that I had no desire to be president – I wanted to show that I hadn’t been in the struggle out of personal interest. We looked for a candidate, and we chose a magistrate who’d been against Batista, who’d actually acquitted revolutionaries who came before him in an important trial.

Manuel Urrutia?

That’s right, Urrutia. He was highly respected. It’s a shame he didn’t have a bit less ambition and a bit more humility and common sense.

You didn’t want to be president at that moment?

No, I had no interest in being president. What I wanted to pursue was the Revolution, the army, the development of our heroic Rebel Army. I mean, an election might come along at some point and I might run, but I wasn’t really thinking about that at the time. I was interested in the laws that the Revolution would put in place, and in the application of the Moncada programme.

In other words, you waged that entire war with no personal desire to become president immediately afterwards?

I can assure you that that was the case, yes. Other factors may have come into play besides disinterestedness; there may have been a bit of pride, something

of that sort, but the fact is, I wasn’t interested. Remember, I’d been as good as dead for a long time. I was fighting to bring about a revolution, and titles weren’t important to me. The satisfaction of the struggle, pride in the struggle and its eventual success, victory, is a prize much greater than any government position, and when I said I wasn’t interested in being president, I did so after great deliberation. Our movement supported Urrutia for president, and we respected its decision. He and the 26th of July Movement, together, made the appointments to the cabinet, and there were those in the leadership cadre of the 26th of July Movement who were from the upper-middle class, even pretty right-wing, who’d joined us along the way, and others from the Left.

Some of them have written their memoirs, and many of them remained with the Revolution afterwards. They’ve had very interesting things to say, and they’ve been honest about what they thought, their discussions [perhaps ‘arguments’] with Che and Camilo.

Did Che mistrust some of those leaders?

Che was very suspicious and very mistrustful of some of them, because he’d seen some problems during the strike in April 1958 and he thought that some of the members of the 26th of July Movement whom he’d talked to in Villa Clara during the war were incorrigibly bourgeois. Che was very much in favour of agrarian reform, and some of the others kept talking about a very moderate reform, with indemnifications and compensations and that sort of thing.

Che, nevertheless, was in favour of unifying all the revolutionary forces. On the other side there was a lot of anti-Communism; it was strong and influential, and Che rejected it. Here in Cuba, during the McCarthy era, things were pretty venomous; there was prejudice everywhere, in all the media. And to add to the anti-Communism of quite a few people, with their bourgeois and petit-bourgeois background, there was also sectarianism among many Communists.

Of the ultra-left-wing sort?

No, the Communists, the people in the PSP [Popular Socialist Party].1 Because also, in a way, within the leadership sectarian methods and habits had evolved.

That party always maintained good relations with me, and later with the 26th of July Movement. It was in their bookstore on Calle Carlos III that I bought most of the classics of Marxist literature I read when I was a student.

When our movement, which had been born after the coup, was organized and launched its attack against the Moncada barracks complex in an attempt to bring down that spurious regime that was detested by the immense majority of the population, it did so in absolute secrecy, as an action of that sort can only be carried out. I’ve talked about this. In the subsequent repression, several Communist leaders, among them Lazaro Pena, were arrested by the repressive forces, which were looking for Bias Roca. Bias Roca, who happened to be in Santiago, had left the day before 26 July. In the same cell block where I was isolated in a cell with iron bars, I saw Lazaro Pena walking down the hallway with that noble, dignified expression on his face – he’d been unjustly accused of being an accomplice in the assault. Some leftists, outside the country, were talking about a putsch. I can’t blame them, because no one can know the private thoughts of those who carry out such actions, nobody is in a position to know that a new tactic had emerged, of the thousand and one kinds of fighting that can be used to change a society. When those of us in our group were out on the street again – we’d been released due to public pressure – we renewed our contacts with our former Communist companeros in the struggle for university autonomy. Flavio Bravo, former member of the directorate of the PSP youth, was my contact. In fact, the 26th of July Movement and the PSP were allies, and they had known about our plan to flee to Mexico, so the upper ranks of the Party directorate knew our plans and in principle were in agreement with them; certainly they wanted to maintain contact and continue to cooperate in the fight against tyranny.

The year 1956 passed. In Mexico we had serious problems, and many of us were even arrested. The situation in Cuba was still not critical. In the classic theses of the Communist movement, revolutionary action should always be preceded by great economic and financial crises. The conditions in that second half of 1956 didn’t seem to be terribly favourable for a revolution to break out. Flavio Bravo visited us in Mexico. He brought us the opinion of his party’s leadership and asked us to postpone our action. Flavio was like a brother. We may have given too much importance to our own vow that in 1956 we would either be free or be martyrs. But no one renounces what he believes in, and I believed in what we were doing.

We left [Mexico], we disembarked [in Cuba], and three days later we had that terrible setback in Alegria de Pio. I’ve already told you that story. A fierce wave of persecution was unleashed against the dispersed expeditionaries: many were murdered. The Communists denounced and condemned the murders. The tyranny, emboldened, sated its hatred by murdering a great many revolutionaries in December, among them several Communist union leaders.

All seemed lost. Theories emerged as to the objective and subjective factors that had come into play, the causes of the difficulties – a leftist magazine not connected with the 26th of July Movement published all this – as told by one of the companeros who’d come over on the Granma and was currently in prison. During those extremely difficult days, up in the Sierra Maestra several of us survivors continued to believe that even under these circumstances we had to fight for a victory. Certainly in the case of our country, subjective conditions played a considerable role.

There came a moment when the survivors of the Granma, with the support of the campesinos and the young reinforcements from Manzanillo, Bayamo, Santiago and other places, sent in by Frank Pais and Celia Sanchez Manduley, managed to reconstruct our detachment, which, now experienced and battle-hardened, though still small, barely 250 men, was able to extend its operations, with four columns, almost to Santiago de Cuba, and to invade the large strategic eastern region of the island.

The historical leader of the Popular Socialist Party, Bias Roca, was a man from a very humble background. He’d been born in Manzanillo and was self-taught, but he was a tireless advocate of spreading Marxist-Leninist ideas and developing the Communist Party in Cuba. Bias Roca had had to live outside Cuba for some time, for obvious reasons. During that time, Anibal Escalante, as secretary of the Party, assumed the main leadership position. By the time of the triumph of the Revolution, he had great authority, and he acted as the virtual president of the Party. He was capable, intelligent and a good organizer, but he had the deeply rooted sectarian habit of filtering and controlling everything in favour of his Party. Those were the old tactics, the old obsessions, of a stage in the history of Communism – a ghetto mentality born of the discrimination, exclusion and anti-Communist feelings that people were subjected to for so long.

During the early days of the Revolution, once the war was over, they even did this with the 26th of July Movement, despite our excellent relations. These were misguided, mistaken methods, though used by unquestionably honourable, self-sacrificing people who were true revolutionaries and true anti-imperialists.

Secrets behind Cuba’s healthcare – Cuban Ambassador to Sri Lanka

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Cuba-Sri Lanka relationship is a historic one. It has mutually benefited both nations in the last few decades. Sri Lanka is one of the first Asian countries to establish bilateral relations with Cuba. Our guest today is Juana Elena Ramos Rodriguez, Cuban Ambassador designated to Sri Lanka and Maldives. She sat with Nilantha Ilangamuwa former editor of Sri Lanka Guardian at her residence in Colombo to talk about the bilateral relationship between Sri Lanka and Cuba, the Cuban public health system and challenges in post-COVID-19 society.

The Ambassador highlights among the main achievements of health in Cuba, the low infant mortality rate (less than five per thousand live births); the elimination of 14 infectious diseases in the national territory; the high life expectancy that exists, and the elimination of vertical mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis, a result that places Cuba as the first country in the world to achieve this.

Also, the Ambassador emphasized that the unjust blockade imposed by the United States on our country is the only limitation to achieving even more effective results in the field of health. The blockade poses extraordinary pressure on Cuba to guarantee the material supplies and equipment that support the public health system and the specific conditions to face the COVID 19 pandemic.

During the interview, the solidarity and humanistic work of Cuban medicine is highlighted. From 1963 to the present, more than 400 thousand health professionals have been present in 164 countries on all continents. In addition, in Cuba, 35 thousand 613 health professionals from 138 countries have been trained free of charge. In this regard, it was highlighted that the positive balance for the lives of millions of people in tens of thousands of communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean of ELAM, is unquestionable.

Likewise, Cuba has made an outstanding contribution to the fight against COVID in various parts of the world. In recent weeks, our country has responded to requests for cooperation without stopping to evaluate political coincidences or economic advantages. So far, 34 brigades of health professionals have been assigned to join the national and local effort of 26 countries, adding to or reinforcing medical collaboration brigades in 60 nations, which have joined the effort to combat this disease where they already provided services.

In this regard, the Ambassador expresses her rejection of the United States attempts to link Cuba’s international cooperation in the field of health with human trafficking or the practice of slavery. These actions are intended to denigrate the meritorious work that hundreds of thousands of Cuban health professionals and technicians have voluntarily carried out and have carried out throughout history in various countries, particularly in the Third World.

The Ambassador states that such actions are an attack against a solidarity effort that has received the recognition of the international community and the specific praise of the highest executives of the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization.