This article is published in the Routledge journal International Critical Thought, 2015 Vol. 5, No. 1, 23–41.
It is based on my experience of studying and collaborating on the development of the Communal Economic System in Venezuela.
On 21 and 22 January, Cuba and the US held direct talks about restoring diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961, exploring cooperation on various issues and reviewing existing migration accords. The meeting in Havana took place one month after the historic announcements made simultaneously on 17 December 2014 by Presidents Obama and Raul Castro about a thaw in US-Cuban relations. This included a prisoner swap which finally freed the remaining Cuban anti-terrorist agents imprisoned in the US, known as the Cuban Five. The announcements followed 18-months of secret talks facilitated by Canada and the Vatican. The tactical change by the US administration reflects the failure of its Cuba policy, and economic and (geo)strategic developments which put competitive pressure on US capitalists who do not benefit from the blockade.
The head of Cuba’s delegation, Josefina Vidal, gives a press conference following talks with US representatives in Havana in January 2015.
Historic announcements: 17 December 2014
Obama announced three broad policy changes: First, the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the re-establishment of a US embassy in Havana and a visit to Cuba of high-ranking officials to initiate talks about these issues and shared interests ‘on issues like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response’. He cited health collaboration in Africa, where Cuba has sent hundreds of medics to fight the spread of Ebola, as an example. He asserted that the US would raise its differences ‘on issues related to democracy and human rights in Cuba.’ Second, he indicated that the US would consider removing Cuba from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Third, ‘we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba’ - making it easier for people in the US to visit Cuba, authorising financial transactions and easing some trade restrictions.
‘These are the steps I can take as President to change this policy’, Obama stated. He cannot, however, unilaterally end the US blockade of Cuba which is ‘codified in legislation’. He made explicit, however, that he considered the US blockade to be a failed policy, and hopes the US Congress would ‘lift the embargo.’
It is important to be absolutely clear. Obama is not supporting Cuba’s right to self-determination; to develop its socialist system without interference and sabotage 90 miles from the US shore. He believes that a more effective strategy to destroy Cuban socialism is to distort, seduce and pervert it through, what he calls, ‘engagement’, by imposing the logic of the capitalist market, social relations and cultural values on Cuba.
‘[W]e will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests… these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach… through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values.’
Obama’s speech exposed the hypocrisy of US policy towards Cuba when he welcomed ‘Cuba’s decision to provide more internet access for its citizens’ just after having admitted that ‘our sanctions have denied Cubans access to technology’; a tacit admission that the US blockade is the principal reason for Cuban’s limited internet access.
Perhaps referring to the brutal chaos resulting from US and Nato interventions in North Africa and the Middle East, he said: ‘it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse… we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.’ Likely Obama believes that increasing US access to Cuban society will improve the effectiveness of ongoing covert operations aimed at generating an internal opposition – a tactic which has also failed.
Cuban President Raul Castro began his brief speech by making two political assertions: first, of his political continuity with Fidel Castro who, likewise, pursued efforts to ‘normalise’ relations with the US on the basis of sovereign equality. Second, to pre-empt critics claiming that rapprochement with the US would lead to the restoration of capitalism, he reiterated that ‘the task of updating our economic model [is] in order to build a prosperous and sustainable socialism’.He continued:
‘The economic, commercial, and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damages to our country, must cease…While acknowledging our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy, I reaffirm our willingness to dialogue on all these issues… The progress made in our [prisoner] exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.’
In a speech to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit on 28 January, Raul stressed issues on which Cuba would not compromise: ‘[the] normalisation of bilateral relations… will not be possible as long as the blockade exists, or as long as the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base is not returned, or radio and television broadcasts which violate international norms continue, or just compensation is not provided to our people for the human and economic damage they have suffered… If these problems are not resolved, this diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States makes no sense.’
On 16 January, new US rules did indeed come into effect enabling US citizens to visit Cuba without applying for licenses, although they still had to certify one of 12 ‘legitimate’ purposes for travel. Restrictions were eased on sending money to Cuba, and on spending money and using credit and debit cards in Cuba. The new rules facilitate US telecommunications, financial and agricultural companies to do business on the island.
The talks on 21 January constituted the annual review of existing Cuban-US migration accords. Despite talk of ‘normalising’ relations, the head of the US delegation confirmed that the Cuban Adjustment Act would remain in law. This encourages illegal emigration from Cuba by automatically granting US residency to any Cuban who enters the US, regardless of how they arrived. No comparable law exists for the population of any other country – so much for normalisation!
On 22 January the delegations discussed steps towards the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and reviewed the state of existing cooperation on air security, aviation and oil spills, and identified new potential areas: drug trafficking, terrorism and epidemics (starting with Ebola), seismic monitoring and protecting marine biology. The Cuban delegation proposed scientific collaboration on environmental protection, mitigating the effects of climate change and preventing natural disasters. The issue of human rights was also addressed although the discussion went beyond the US’s discredited neo-liberal script. The head of the Cuban delegation, Josefina Vidal expressed Cuba’s concerns about the guarantee and protection of human rights in the US, highlighting the continued illegal detentions and torture in the US base at Guantanamo, alarming police brutality and increasing racial discrimination. She also raised the issue of the racially-biased application of the death penalty, wage differentials which see women paid 25% less than men, the incidence of child labour and limits on trade union freedoms. The talks concluded on the need to continue talking.
A victory for Cuba
These developments represent a victory for the Cuban Revolution; a tribute to its tenacity, principles and resistance. Clearly, opening up to US capital and the ‘economic hitmen’ who fight its political battles, implies risks for Cuba that have to be managed. However, the revolutionary government understands those risks and is implementing measures to manage them. All proposals for foreign investments must be vetted by the central government. Foreign capital will be channelled to priority areas to develop Cuba’s productive infrastructure. Most foreign investments are carried out through joint ventures with the Cuban government, as Ivonne Vertiz Rolo, Vice Director the Ministry of Foreign Trade recently explained: ‘with the aim of guaranteeing the participation of our enterprises in projects of strategic interest, to effectively transfer new technologies, to raise the qualifications of the Cuban labour force and protect the environment’ (Granma, 11 December 2014). There are also legal limits on private accumulation and property ownership, while socialist state ownership predominates. Cuba is not the Wild West or the former Soviet Republics in the 1990s. It is not open to carpet baggers, oligarchs and exploiters. Only those who are ignorant of, or ignore, the devastating impact of the US blockade can argue that the opportunity to improve Cuba’s access to international markets, including in the US, should be shunned for some idealistic notion of soldiering on in isolation.
Any rapprochement with Cuba, whatever the motivation, faces ardent opposition from the right-wing Cuban exile community whose strategic handle on political and economic power has enabled it convert Cuba policy into a US domestic issue. Although the majority of Cuban-Americans support improved relations, there are politicians in the Senate and Congress who will attempt to block progress. The Obama administration has calculated that there is more to gain through ‘engaging’ Cuba than there is to lose in a conflict with a political elite that losing its leverage.
In autumn 2014, the New York Times published a series of editorials criticising US policy towards Cuba and arguing for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The editorials were clearly contrived to generate public support for Obama’s announcement. Policy changes introduced in Cuba since 2008 and as part of the 2011 ‘guidelines for updating the economic and social model’, especially those promoting private-farming, self-employment and small businesses, and permitting the free sale of property, have allowed US commentators to claim that Cuba is making the liberalising reforms stipulated as prerequisites for an improvement in relations. It is unlikely that the current political rapprochement would have been possible without these measures.
However, the US has also been forced into this concession by the rejection of its Cuba policy throughout Latin America, where even right-wing governments criticise US attempts to isolate Cuba. In the 1960s the US demanded that the rest of the continent break off diplomatic relations with Cuba. All except Mexico obeyed. But over the years every sovereign nation has restored relations with Cuba, leaving the US behind in a region of growing global significance that the US historically treated as its own backyard. Today, Cuba is central to the movement for regional political and economic integration; a regionalism which rejects US interference. Several countries had threatened to boycott the annual Summit of the Americas in Panama in April 2015 if the US continued to exclude Cuban participation. Obama was forced to back down: ‘This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas’, he said.
Despite the US’s unilateral, punitive legislation prohibiting third countries from trading with Cuba, the revolutionary government has been busy diversifying trade and securing investment partners. The pace of these collaborations is speeding up, especially with the new super-port and development zone being built in Mariel, with Brazil as a major partner. Benefiting from Cuba’s important geostrategic location, the port will accommodate the world’s largest container ships (see FRFI 238). Foreign investment is set to increase significantly since Cuba’s new foreign investments law was approved in 2014 (See FRFI 240).
In his annual speech on 14 January 2015, Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, enthused about the prospects of trade with Cuba, which he perceives as a new market of pent-up demand for consumer goods, such as computers, smartphones and cars. The Chamber of Commerce is a powerful lobby which spent $35 million on the mid-term elections in 2014, and Donohue travelled to Havana in summer 2014. ‘Somebody is going to sell’ to the Cubans, Donohue said, ‘and it’s not going to be all us.’ He pointed out that many countries were increasing trade with Cuba, including Russia and China. Indeed, the Presidents of both Russia and China also visited Cuba last summer on missions to increase trade and investment.
During Putin’s trip, $32bn of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt was written off, leaving just $3bn to be paid over ten years. Repayments will be spent by Cuba on projects jointly decided with the Russians. ‘We will provide support to our Cuban friends to overcome the illegal blockade of Cuba’, Putin said on 11 July. Russia is exploring for oil and gas in Cuban waters and assisting the Mariel port construction. Cuba will host navigation stations for Russia’s own satellite global positioning system, Glonass. Other economic, financial, military and intelligence projects between the two countries are underway.
Two weeks later, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his second visit to Cuba in less than four years. Cuba’s annual bilateral trade with China is worth almost $2 billion. President Xi signed 29 trade, debt, credit and other agreements. China will continue to restructure debt, estimated at $6 billion, import Cuban nickel, sugar and cigars, digitalise the television system, upgrade communications and cyber security and cooperate in the health, education and science sectors. China is providing a $120 million loan and assistance with the construction of another new port and industrial development zone in Cuba’s second city, Santiago de Cuba. President Xi thanked Cuba for advancing cooperation between China and Latin America and strengthening South-South cooperation.
Meanwhile, the European Union is Cuba’s biggest external investor and second most important trading partner, accounting for 20% of total Cuban trade. In October 2014, British Foreign Officer Minister, Hugo Swire was the first government Minister to visit Cuba in a decade. He was there to discuss trade and investments.
In early January, some 30 US agricultural and food companies announced that they would pressure Congress to end the blockade. Other companies have stated that they will initiate trade and investments with Cuba. Meanwhile the stalwarts of the Cuban exile-community have promised to block Congressional moves to end the blockade. Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart complained bitterly that ‘president Obama has given everything, all the concessions that that regime was asking for’ and ‘getting, frankly, very little’ in return. Well played Cuba!
*Dr Helen Yaffe, completed her doctorate in Cuban economic history at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Che Guevara: the economics of Revolution, first published by Palgrave MacMillan in English in 2009.
On the morning prior to his historic announcement about plans to restore diplomatic relations with the United States on 17 December, Raul Castro greeted Ramón Labañino, Gerardo Hernández and Antonio Guerrero, the three remaining members of the Cuban 5, back onto Cuban soil after 16 years of incarceration in the US. They were reunited with Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez who were released in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The return of the Cuban 5 is an historic victory for Cuba, particularly for anti-terrorist Gerardo Hernandez who was serving two life sentences plus 15 years. It also represents a defeat for the corrupt US justice system and for the right-wing Cuban exile community whose political leverage is weakening.
Their return was part of a prison swap in which Cuba also agreed to release 53 prisoners named by US authorities and a US spy, imprisoned for 16 years for providing information about the Cuban 5 and other Cuban intelligence operatives to US authorities. Raul Castro also announced the release on humanitarian grounds of US mercenary Alan Gross, detained in December 2009 for participating in a $500,000 USAID-funded programme of subversion. Noticeably absent on the prison swop list, despite being on the top ten of the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list, was black US revolutionary Assata Shakur, in exile in Cuba since 1986. The Cuban government has made it clear that she won’t be extradited.
The Cuban intelligence officers were arrested in Miami in 1998, convicted on trumped up charges and condemned to long prison sentences. They were in fact trying to prevent acts of terrorism against Cuba by infiltrating violent anti-Cuban groups in Miami. None of the charges against them involved violence, weapons or damage to property. Since 1959, nearly 3,500 Cubans have died and over 2,000 have been permanently injured as a result of terrorist attacks or aggression – mainly launched from Miami.
Evidence gathered by the Five about terrorist plots, including plans to bomb tourist planes travelling to and from Cuba, was passed by the Cuban government to the FBI and other US agencies. The US government’s response was to arrest the Cuban agents for spying. Meanwhile, infamous terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles, who boasted about organising the 1976 bombing of a Cubana airlines flight killing 73 civilians, live freely in Miami. So much for the ‘war on terrorism’!
The Cuban 5’s court case took place in Miami; a fair trial was impossible. Journalists on the pay of the US government whipped up public hostility to demand harsh sentences. They were convicted of false identification, conspiracy to commit espionage and, in Gerardo Hernández’s case, conspiracy to commit murder. They received sentences ranging from 15 years to double life. The Five received ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment, including long stretches in isolation and being denied access to lawyers or family-visits. This treatment is part of the political war against Cuban socialism.
The Cuban Five’s legal representatives had pointed out that given the political nature of the case, a political movement was needed to demand justice. Cuba had reiterated the demand for their freedom from every platform and in every scenario. Their call was increasingly taken up around the world and becoming a challenge for the US government. By negotiating their release the Cuban government has demonstrated its political strength.
In his live broadcast on 17 December Raul Castro announced, ‘As Fidel promised in June 2001, when he said, “They shall return!”, Gerardo, Ramon, and Antonio have arrived today to our homeland. The enormous joy of their families and of all our people, who have relentlessly fought for this goal, is shared by hundreds of solidarity committees and groups, governments, parliaments, organisations, institutions, and personalities, who for 16 years have made tireless efforts demanding their release. We convey our deepest gratitude and commitment to all of them.’ Adding to the personal and public joy was the news that Gerardo’s wife, Adriana, was heavily pregnant with Gerardo’s baby. How did this happen, everyone wanted to know. US authorities had denied Adriana a visa to visit her husband since his arrest. It soon transpired that this ‘remote control’ pregnancy, as Gerardo discretely referred to it, was part of the secret negotiations between Cuba and the US. Their daughter, Gema, was born on 6 January 2015.
Since their return, the Cuban five have made many public appearances, being swamped with admiration and gratitude by Cubans in the streets and neighbourhoods, talking about their ordeal on the daily televised round-table discussion, appearing in the Cuban National Assembly and joining musician Silvio Rodriguez on his concert tour of Cuban communities.
An edited version of this article is printed in the Feb/Mar 2015 issues of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!
*Dr Helen Yaffe, completed her doctorate in Cuban economic history at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Che Guevara: the economics of Revolution, first published by Palgrave MacMillan in English in 2009.
In Summer 2013 I wrote a review of an excellent book, One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution, by US writer Nancy Stout. Now she has written a review of my own book, Che Guevara: the economics of revolution, in an article which also reviews two other recent books about Che Guevara by female authors. The review article was published on Fordham University's staff publications website and subsequently posted on the Monthly Review website. The article is pasted below - my book is discussed in the second half...
Nancy Stout, author of several books about Cuba and Cubans...
Women Write About Che
Nancy Stout, Fordham University
Margaret Randall, Che on my mind (Duke University Press, 2013).
Lucia Alvarez de Toledo, The Story of Che Guevara (Harper Collins, 2011)
Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
In the last five years, three women have written biographies of Ernesto “Che” Guevara after five decades of his life story being solidly in the hands of men. The question is: do women write biography differently?
Lucia Alvarez de Toledo is the most explicit about the issue of being a woman biographer. She points out that The Story of Che Guevara (Harper Collins, 2011), has been written by a Latin American, a native of Buenos Aires and a woman. Whatever the advantages of those territorial factors, it seems clear that her account benefits as well from her talent for critical analysis and willingness to go over old territory to find facts anew. No less important is its vantage point: a woman’s point of view. Partly because Alvarez was her subject’s contemporary and compatriot, this biography provides interesting details of and insights into Che’s youth and the environment that shaped him, information either unknown to or ignored by earlier biographers. And then there is the female factor. She states in the biography’s introduction: “Finally, because I am a woman, I feel no need to compete with Che in the macho stakes or to cut him down to size. Many of the men who have written about him seem compelled to attack him, as if the mere fact that he once existed casts a doubt on their masculinity.”
In 1963, she had a job as a rookie journalist writing, producing, and presenting a weekly program on a nation public radio station about the life and music in Britain and the Commonwealth on Radio Municipal de Buenos Aires: “Because I had had an English education.” Directly following her show in the line-up was Jorge Luis Borges’s program. She was young, and soon left Argentina for Great Britain, returning in 1989, after twenty-five years abroad. It was then, with the cool distance of time, that she undertook to consider the life of Che.
By my calculation, Alvarez took twenty years to produce her book. Longtime literary agent Charlotte Sheedy notes, “In my experience, a biography requires at least eight to ten years.” The extra ten invested here have served us well. Alvarez seems to have interviewed a great number of Argentinians, including family, friends – to be precise: whole families of friends – and to have visited every site that played a part in Che’s life. Her version of the story starts traditionally, with the beginning of the subject’s life, but the writer began her own search with a trip to Bolivia, and to the village of La Higuera where Che was killed in 1967. Before making this journey, she went to a big bookstore in Buenos Aires run by Che’s youngest brother, Juan Martín Guevara. His shop is called Nuestra América, named for a famous essay by the nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionary José Martí. When Alvarez visits, it is 1989, and she sets the scene with a reminder to us, or perhaps tells us something we didn’t know. “A democratic government had been installed and Juan Martín had just been released from jail, where he had served eight years of a twelve-year sentence for revolutionary activities, and had contracted chronic viral hepatitis.” So, Alvarez tells us, this book is not entirely about Che. She opens a number of windows, so it’s possible to see what it was like to be Che’s parent, sibling, friend, or simply fellow Latin American. Do women see the story of a person, of a life, differently? Do they, as a matter of course, feel that it is important to chronicle members of the person’s family?
Alvarez’s story of Che’s life opens at a moment of vulnerability—he’s a child with asthma—and introduces him as the son born into a family similar to her own, living under the same social and cultural influences. “We were marked by the same background and political events: Peron and Eva; de facto pro-Nazi military presidents; an economy directed by the UK; an intellectual life heavily influenced by French thinkers, every since our founding fathers looked to the encylopaedists and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in drafting our constitution and laws; the allpervading right-wing Roman Catholic church; the Spanish republican exiles; the crude onslaught on our culture by the dominating economic power of the USA.” It isn’t the life of a hero that she narrates, but a broader history.
Celia de la Serna, Che’s mother, Alvarez tells us, was usually the first in the Guevaras’ social set to adopt a new idea, and had her hair cut short, like a boy’s, wore trousers in public, and had a personal bank account. Further, we learn, she was fluent in French, read French literature, and liked poetry. Alvarez (now in native porteña mode) depicts a thoroughly modern woman. As one biographer (Jon Lee Anderson) noted, Che’s birth came seven months after his parents were officially married, but Alvarez explains that this would hardly have been an issue. Socially, such arithmetic was not something these families, the Guevaras and the de la Sernas, worried about. Alvarez claims that Che’s mother, Celia, did not flout social conventions, she was unconcerned by them and simply had other priorities. Is Alvarez coming to the defense of another woman? Is she defending her social set? Or is she defending modernity itself? 1920s modernity, whether in Buenos Aires or Shanghai, required a little bit of anarchy, something akin to the ‘shock of the new.’ Alvarez tells a story about Che’s mother that has a distinctly woman’s touch. As Celia left church one day after attending mass, the priest accused her of indecent dress—she wasn’t, he observed, wearing stockings. She was, in fact—sheer nylons. She laughed at him and reached deep into the pockets of her skirt to yank on the tops, making the stockings shift a bit and so proving that her legs were covered. (Who, among us readers, does not stop to reflect upon what it must have been like to have a self-confident mother like that?) A little story, perhaps, but one that explains at lot about style, her comfort with confrontation, her joie de vie. It takes familiarity with sources to collect a story like this. Early biographers can be excused for not including, or overlooking, this sort of detail, so busy are they trying to put a whole life in place. It takes time.
Alvarez is particularly insightful in appraising the influence of Ana Lynch, Ernesto’s paternal grandmother. Born in San Francisco, she came to Argentina at age twelve, arriving with her parents. They’d returned from exile to reclaim their land in Portela, in the province of Buenos Aires. When she married Roberto Guevara, she took over the management of her own estate, which was within a much larger ranch, Estancia San Patricio, which belonged to her father. She
built a large house with eleven bedrooms, several baths, and a huge dining room, because “hospitality was paramount,” explains Alvarez. Ernesto and his family spent many of the summers from 1934 to 1940 in this place. Here, he seems to have forged his social identity. He couldn’t compete with the boys who played guitars (and got the girls), but he could excel on horseback. “When [his grandmother] had a full house, as many as fifteen or twenty riders could be seen galloping across her fields.” He would be among them, and the girls would invite him to dances; since he could not dance, they would invite him for the afternoon so they could teach him. He never learned to dance but he did find out that conversation and charm could win out. From his grandmother, Alvarez suggests, he inherited his love of the outdoors. She would take him—they would go together in the evenings—to inspect the fruit trees and the stables. At the end of her life, he stayed by her bedside, nursing her. In doing so, he resolved to become a doctor.
With Alvarez as guide, you’re never far from the situation of the time, the history of the era. She reminds us that Carlos Saavedra-Lamas, Argentina’s foreign minister, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935 for negotiating a peace treaty between Bolivia and Paraguay to end the 1932-35 Chaco War. Also, that the Spanish Civil War strongly informed Argentina’s cultural identities, as citizens might be pro Franco or against. Argentina gave asylum to adherents of both sides, and so sides were inevitably taken, lines drawn. Che’s uncle, Cayetano Cordoba-Iturburu, a communist, a poet, and a journalist, was sent to Spain for the evening paper, Critica, as a war correspondent. During the year he was away, his wife, Carmen de la Serna (Celia’s sister), and their children moved in with the Guevara family. Because Cayetano tucked his articles inside personal letters (to keep them out of the hands of Franco supporters who might intercept his newspaper’s mail), everyone in the Guevara household got news from the Spanish fronts before even Critica’s editor.
While the Guevaras were living in Alta Gracia, a well-known general from the Republican side took refuge in the town. He’d defeated Franco’s troops at the Battle of Guadalajara, blocking the generalissimo, for a time, from entering Madrid. Alvarez writes that Che, who was about eleven, and his brother, Roberto, followed the battles, pinned flags on a huge map to mark both Franco’s and the Republicans’ movements, and were well familiar with the name and story of this general. “General Jurado was a modest man, unlike the Argentine generals, who modeled themselves on their German counterparts. He never spoke of his own exploits but always praised his men and the officers under his command.” She says that Che was “riveted” by Jurado’s stories. Although Jon Lee Anderson (Che, Grove Press, 1997), is especially good at explaining this early association with a famous revolutionary general, therefore possible mentor, it was only when I read this version that I was able to see this boyhood experience as the source for Che’s hitherto inexplicable desire, and ability, to be a great tactician during the Cuban Revolution. His pleasure at commanding a platoon and delight in forsaking his role of doctor, which he did with impunity.
Futhermore, Che’s father was a founding member of a pro-Allied group. Argentina remained neutral during the Second World War, but was contradictorily both pro-German and dependent on British trade. Citizens were invited to monitor and report any activities by Axis powers, particularly anything that might lead to, or assist, a German invasion. His group discovered a Nazi spy network operating out of La Falda, only 80 kilometers from Alta Gracia. “A hotel with a powerful radio transmitter was in touch with Berlin every night.” His father’s group went to inspect, taking Che, then twelve, with them. When the group filed reports, they were ignored. By the age of fifteen, it would seem that Che was well on his way to attaining a sophisticated, global and political education.
In 1942, the Guevara family moved to Cordoba, where Che’s father partnered with an architect. Again, Alvarez gives us an unexpected, even disconcerting, detail. The family moved into a new house built on land prone to landslides. Large cracks soon developed in the outer walls and ceiling (apparently you could see the stars). Che’s father dealt with this by simply moving the children further into the building, away from those faulty outer walls. Although the house was located in a respectable residential area, Nueva Cordoba, a shantytown stood literally next door, and the homes next to the family’s lot were made of cardboard, discarded zinc and tin sheeting. In Cordoba, Che met Alberto Granado, from a humble background, but interested in biochemistry and determined, like Che, to make a career in medicine. Che and Granado eventually travelled together the famously documented motorcycle trip often cited as the catalyst of Che’s future life, his destiny to confront social injustice and the gap between rich and poor. Although his relationship with Granado and their trip was clearly important, it also seems likely that Che’s awakening might have started right here, with the cracks in his own house, and the slums next door that Alvarez describes so clearly – in tandem with his fortuitous friendship with a humble, intelligent and ambitious friend.
None of these books are particularly about the war. Margaret Randall writes: “A lifetime of reading, conversations, emotion, and firsthand experience has gone into this book.” She spent ten crucial years in Cuba, invited first in 1967 as a poet, and as the editor of a literary magazine. Then, in 1969, she arrived on the run, a young mother who had demonstrated against the Mexican Government’s participation in the massacre of students in the Plaza at Tlataloco. A week after Tlataloco, Randall tried to get into the athletes’ village to protest the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games just when the police were targeting protesters who might shine a bright light on Mexico’s repressive and sometimes violent government. It is easy to recall the explosive quality of those Games through one of the strongest photographs of the 20th century, taken on October 16, 1968, of two American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, their black-gloved fists raised as they accepted their medals. They were banished from the games immediately, and Margaret Randall, like many others around the world, stepped up her protests. “I’d participated in the movement through the pages of El Corno Emplumado” (the literary journal Randall edited), “and more directly: joining the information brigades, translating movement materials for dissemination in other countries, hiding and feeding the hunted, distributing flyers on city buses.”
Noticed for her efforts, by the summer of 1969, Randall and her family were forced into hiding. It began one day when a man claiming to be a representative of Mexico’s Social Security Administration, rang her doorbell and claimed that she was an illegal immigrant. Her partner, poet Robert Cohen, showed him her Mexican passport as proof of citizenship, and the man pulled a gun and took off with her document. Frightened of what might happen next, they began moving from house to house until they could get out of Mexico, and Cuba offered asylum. Without a passport, Randall stayed behind until she could find someone to give her a fake document while Robert left with the children, including their three-month old baby. Finally she managed to get a very unconvincing document. Her route was extremely roundabout, leading her to Prague, where, for nineteen days, she waited for a seat on a plane to Cuba but kept getting bumped from her place in the queue. She tells of her sadness to be separated from her baby, but also recalls how disconcerted she felt in her disguise, a chic and respectable get-away dress, of navy-blue and yellow knit, put on day after day, when embroidered Mexican indigenous blouses were her style, and more comfortable . She finally arrived in Havana and was reunited with her family. The Revolution (what Cubans call their government), put them up in the Hotel Capri until an apartment became available, but suggested that the baby remain in a state nursery until then. Logical, for Randall could see that her child was well cared for, she agreed, but it was also a heart- wrenching decision not to be able to take care of her own child. Of course an apartment didn’t materialize overnight, and their separation was prolonged. Thus began Randall’s residence in Cuba, the low-budget, high-expectation utopia, her feelings a mixture of gratitude and self-doubt, optimism and humiliation.
Randall stayed for ten years, and, over the subsequent four-and-a-half decades as a writer, has turned to her Cuban experience often. Recently, with this tangible memory to draw upon, she decided to consider the legacy of the international hero known as Che, assassinated on October 7th, 1967, just before her first trip to the island. The Cuba she knows has always been a country in mourning. Early in the book, Randall also reflects upon his death, reminding us that he was captured in a remote village in Bolivia, held in a school house and a young woman and teacher, probably better educated than anyone else in the town, tried to help. “The men were soldiers, firmly under the command of their superiors. Their meager paychecks demanded obedience to a chain of command.” So it was: “A woman alone brought the doomed man sustenance and a few friendly words.”
Randall’s account of Ernesto Che Guevara is deeply reflective. “My sources are mostly secondary, my intuitions those of a poet,” she says. Yes, but her first-hand experience is an enormously-important primary source, and what gives this slender, beautifully-written volume vitality and credibility. This writer experienced the pain and exhaustion of a revolutionary life and a woman’s life, trying to feed her family in a time of shortages, trying to find a job, hoping
to fit in. Surely, it must be something of a dilemma in the wake of a dead hero. She was only one step removed, remember, having arrived in Cuba one year after his death in Bolivia. In school, her older children were being taught to wish, or at least to say, that they could be like Che. Randall spends some time considering his severity, his high moral code, how it played out when set as an ideal, and what it had been like to live in the shadow of this great person. Randall’s conclusion, drawn from a decade of living in Havana, and being the witness to loss of esteem among her friends and children, is that he had set impossible standards. It had been impossible to live within a moral code as severe as Che’s. For the Cubans to have chosen him as their man to emulate, had been an mistake; it had been setting the bar too high. I, myself, could not measure up, she seems to be saying. Would a male biographer write that?
Randall gives clear, simple, often fresh, definitions. Che’s internationalism, to her, is simply his “purposeful crossing of borders and his claim that wherever hunger and want existed, he felt called upon to intervene.” This, she calls one of his most important legacies. Some form of internationalism is de rigor among youth today, and goes under the name of global exchange, catholic mission, and global outreach. “I hate nationalism… I am thrilled by the person able to breach fabricated frontiers and follow his or her heart in an effort to learn, teach, share, and alleviate suffering,” she writes, but regrets “his failure to take into account the racial and cultural contradictions inherent in his presence in Africa and in the Andean region he chose for his final theater of operations in Latin America. An insatiable need to carry the revolution to other lands clouded his vision.” But this book is not about the war or the Che we know as a hero. Even the best-considered studies of Che, she says, focus more on his guerrilla life and do not give weight to his thought. Randall, foremost a poet, doesn’t rail against, but quietly points out he was more a man of thought and not just a man of action, and this legacy is the greater of the two. “But Che was an original thinker, and one who contributed a great deal to our understanding of the problems inherent in trying to change society so that exploitation is a thing of the past and human beings may reach their full potential.” She turns to a passage from Che’s long letter, written in 1965, published under the title Socialism and Man in Cuba as an example:“I would like to explain the role personality plays, individual men and women who lead the masses that make history. This is only our experience, not a prescription for others. It is not a matter of how many pounds of meat one has to eat, or of how many times a year one can go to the beach, or how many pretty things from abroad one might be able to buy with today’s wages. It’s a matter of making the individual feel more complete, with much more inner wealth and much more responsibility.”
Randall sees in Che a man of tenderness, curiosity, and charts his evolution by studying his relationships. Che’s first wife, Hilda Gadea, is the one who provided him with a political education and introduced him to revolutionary circles. He had benefited from her, but didn’t love her. Then again, a true revolutionary has a different set of priorities. Randall uses the phrase “authentic revolutionaries,” who are warriors whose private life always comes in a distant second to revolution. She studies his relationship with Fidel (and finds it solid and compassionate); considers Benigno, Che’s apostle of revolutionary action, a soldier who accompanied him to Africa but, who, in the end, loses faith in the revolution, and certainly in Fidel. She ponders Benigno’s departure, his loss of faith, and although she, herself, feels that Fidel, at the end of his life has been nothing less than corrupt, by always looking the other way, she remembers the young Fidel with admiration.
However privileged, and despite his good looks, innate military skill, upper-class background, stable and loving parents, and good education, he never felt bound to uphold those traditions. Therein lay his power, she writes. “In the end he betrayed his class privilege as few other have.” She reminds us that at Che’s death, Fidel invoked his innovative spirit in a eulogy to the Cuban people, and called him ‘an artist.’
Randall has written over 100 books of poetry and prose. When I asked her to confirm this, she replied: yes, but some were quite small. Like Margaret Duras, she recycles some of her subjects, looking from a slightly different angle at Haydee Santamaria, Che, and feminism. It is her privilege to do so. Of course, like the food prepared by a grand cook, we do not mind that she follows the same recipe.
For absolute proof that Che was a man of thought, we can turn to Helen Yaffe’s study. London-based historian and graduate of the London School of Economics, Yaffe has given us a book like no other, the first of its kind describing Che the economist, Che the bank manager, the Che Guevara we didn’t know all that much about. Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), has two components: a study of the relevant documents created by Guevara in Cuba after the 26th of July Movement took power; and testimonials given by men and women who worked at Che’s side from 1959 to 1965. And that, of course, is what brings this academic and sometimes dense study to life, interspersed, as it is, with droll observations and ironic memories of Che from people who directly experienced his personality. “This history is almost as much about their own [lives] as it is Guevara’s,” she writes. It is a testament of his dynamism in the role of part philosopher, part math teacher during the years when the country was a fledgling revolutionary nation, wanting to do it alone and desperate to get it right. These co-workers often quote as well as describe Che, and so this book presents a fresh portrait of a young man who was often funny, sometimes sweet, clearly driven. That heroic Guevara, so easily conjured up in the mind’s eye from Korda’s famous photograph of a troubled rebel statesman, gives way to another image altogether: a fatigues-wearing Ben Bernacke, perhaps, or Gordon Brown reduced to hunting clothes. Yaffe’s Che played a bigger role in modern Cuban history than the other one, the warrior. He put together the Budgetary Finance System that is still relevant today and unique to socialism.
Yaffe is a good storyteller, and however dry or tough or simply curious portions of the subject might be (emulation, for instance), she finds a way to make her subject, and the situation in Cuba during those primary years of the Revolution, very real, when it fell to Che to figure out how to produce enough goods to keep Cuba going. To do that, he read, he studied, he thought, he cajoled, humored, scolded, wrote policy, and he prevailed. Under Guevara, work would become a social duty (as he tackled unemployment), and volunteering would become the norm (to increase productivity). He planned for a future modern economy. “Guevara set up nine research and development institutes which included ‘green medicine’, nickel production, oil exploration, sugar byproducts and the chemical industry.” Some, like green medicine, have come to fruition only now. Yaffe tells us, step by step, how he promoted education and training; established account, investment and supervision systems; saw all of Cuba as one big factory and demanded that all workers participate in management (and vice versa). She could have subtitled her book: “Winning the war was the easy part,” which is a quote by the man himself.
Yaffe based this book (initially, a doctoral thesis) on documents to which she was given access: manuals, annual reports, personnel assessments, management board reports, factory inspection reports, economic perspectives documents, and transcripts of the internal bimonthly meetings of Ministry of Industries led by Guevara. These, in addition to 60 personal interviews she conducted with nearly 50 of Guevara’s closest collaborators, have provided us with absolutely new (to readers outside Cuba) sources. Hers is a huge contribution to the world of scholarship.
How did she get access to all those records and make contact with all those people? Being from the UK and a student of Marxist economics helped, but she found encouragement and good records management in Cuba. “Since the 1970s the Cuban government has improved access to its society and archives for foreigners – eager to disseminate information about its economic and social welfare successes.” Having worked extensively in the archives of the Cuban Council of State’s Office of Historical Affairs, I, too, am a benefactor of this policy. While there are quite a lot of scholars and journalists who write extensively about Cuba, a good many seem to avoid consulting primary sources by carrying out research in Cuba. Some, in fact, avoid it like the plague, and receive rich contracts for their effort (or lack of it). What, you might ask, is that about? We should take our hats off to Yaffe for making a clarification. There are two camps, she writes – or, as in boxing, two corners: Cubanists versus Cubanologists. She admits that total objectivity is impossible, but “post-1959 literature on Cuba has been particularly subject to interpretation bias.” It is the freshness of the material (historical proximity of the Revolution), which, only now, fifty years later, is being sorted out; and the ideological confrontation between capitalism and socialism at play here. Of course, the fact that the U.S. plays host to the conflict should not be underestimated. Cubanologists came first. “By the mid-1960s, a centre for Cuban studies was effectively formed by the CIA. Its objectives were to compile information for planning future actions against the Revolution and to depict the Revolution negatively for a global audience. This meant denying all positive achievements of the Revolution, deriding official Cuban sources of information and disseminating misinformation about life in Cuba.” Then, the Pentagon, following the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, commissioned several academic investigations. Out of these grew academic schools of thought that preach a kind of gospel against the Revolution (Cubanology) which believes that history was interrupted in 1959, and once the Castro brothers leave this earth, the country will resume where it left off. She traces the term to a 1970 conference organized by the Library of Congress. Cubanologists believe that only Fidel, and now Raul, is the author of Cuba’s domestic and foreign policy, and other often-heard arguments, such as Cuba was dependent on the US from Teddy Roosevelt to 1959, replaced by a similar dependence on the USSR until 1990, followed by reliance on Venezuela in the 21st century. Yaffe, who has looked closely at Cuba’s economy, disagrees with this. She observes: “Sources from within Cuba are dismissed as ‘ideological’ or unreliable – as if scholars and workers on the island lack the capacity for reflective thought and were mere sloganeering bureaucrats, repeating official declarations. Dissidents, on the other hand, enjoy a special status in the western academic community, regardless of their previous ideological or institutional position. Once they renounce their political commitment to the Revolution and sign up to undermine its viability, then ‘Overnight, they become independent intellectuals with the keys to credibility in their pockets’, noted Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernández.” Yet, after 50 years, the Cubanologists have failed to explain why Cuba still exists, or how the country works, or even how it stays afloat. So the time has come for the advent of a new group of academics. “More sympathetic to the goals and achievements of the Revolution, ‘Cubanists’ from across the social sciences began to fill the void – writing about Cuba as a country, not a doctrine.”
Which brings us back to Che Guevara, and his stamp on the Cuban economic system – and its pertinence today in Cuba and around the world. There are emerging revolutionary states that need to build new societies, ones that are cooperative and attempt to create social equality; and here, Che’s contribution might become a place to begin, a template, history to ponder and follow. Since most young revolutionary countries don’t come with a booming economy, but are poor, impatient, newly-independent yet often angry, chances are they are not going to look to Wall Street. How Cuba – how Che – crafted his economic policy might be a light that will help them build an economy or provide a guide or a path to follow. After all, it was Fidel who claims that discovering Marx was like finding a map in the forest. Well, this book might be something similar.
Che wrote a Manual for Factory Administrators, which encourages workers to get involved in management and stipulates that factory administrators visit the factory floor; and top management, himself included, must visit factories on a regular, bi-weekly basis. “Factory visits provided an opportunity for thousands of workers to meet and talk directly to management personnel…” and an obviously immensely important occasion. In 1996, I visited the Antonio Cornejo Cigar Box Factory in Central Havana. In the lobby, placed in an alcove so that it looked a bit like a shrine, was a machine for producing cigar boxes that was once used for Che Guevara on one of those visits. The plaque stated that he had used the machine for four hours, and, from that day onward, it had been retired from use. It seems not to have mattered that the valuable piece of equipment had been taken out of production. Che had touched it. And like the iconic statue it had become, they had painted it silver.
Che aimed to give socialism a democratic, participatory character. There was a plan for workers to speak out but there was also the Plan of Demotion: “Directors had to spend one month a year working in a job at least one level, and preferably two, subordinate to their own,” Yaffe writes. “The plan applied to the minister (Guevara), six vice ministers,” and the list goes on. In addition, Guevara established a Department of Inventions and Innovations, and would personally interview the designers with the best solutions and send it on to be manufactured. The designer would be lauded – given ‘vanguard status and social applause’ for his no-pay, but highly-personal contribution to the country, and Yaffe traces the Cuban ability to create under pressure back to Che’s respect for the worker committed to improving production and overcoming shortages. It was from the Department of Inventions and Innovations that Tomás Gutierrez Alea created the great film, Death of Bureaucrat. There is plenty of new film material to be found in the pages of this book, equally comedic.
“In the 1950s, 95 per cent of capital goods in Cuba and 100 per cent of spare parts were imported from the US… Before the Revolution, Cuban or foreign managers in Cuba could telephone orders to the US for replacement parts or technical assistance which would arrive in Havana on a shuttle boat within two days. There was no culture of stockpiling for future security,” she writes, “so even once the blockade was anticipated, administrators did not build up reserves. They often waited until machinery parts were totally worn out before ordering mechanics to make replacements.” And from this was born the Committees for Spare Parts in 1960. The situation required nothing less than success. Workers rose to the occasion and kept the country in business, however Rube Goldberg the effect; and this realization of workers’ participation in devising ways to keep machinery in production is considered to be among Che’s greatest achievements. A culture rose out of this, and moved into all aspects of Cuban life. Today, the owner – who is probably also the driver – of one of those old, American cars used as a peso taxi, who picks up riders along a given route in Havana – perhaps starting in Playa, then along the length of 23rd Street through Vedado to Central Havana, along the Malecon, to end up at the Capitol Building in Old Havana – has no plans for retirement. He has never been just an owner, or driver or mechanic. He has had to be a machinist as well, re-creating bits and pieces of the car as the need arises. In that man and his car is a bit of Che.
Being a researcher in Cuba requires a certain amount of acquiescence to overall conditions, for it is a country that always seems to be in dire straits. Helen Yaffe arrived in the mid-90s, when the country was well into the Special Period, or what they call full austerity following the cessation of Russia’s foreign aid, a young girl traveling with her sister, fresh from a London that was perhaps at its most opulent since the Second World War. But she traded in a life of technical, architectural, and gastronomic comfort to become a researcher during those years in Cuba. I have met Yaffe and Randall — and they both know and have written about my work. No one who lives and works there gets off easily, so I doubt Alvarez found it a piece of cake, either. I worked in the libraries and archives of Havana in the Special Period, as well: no electricity, windows wide open to deal with the heat, data taken down on a laptop that soon ran out of battery, would then rapidly switch over to long hand and painfully-slow notes, written on paper that was always scarce, even hard to purchase in the diplomatic shops, and placed on a desk that, within minutes, was covered in dust once the windows were open. I was under the impression that things had been better in the 70s. But Randall lived there and describes another Havana. One day she was with Che’s sister, Celia Guevara, and they stopped in the Havana Libre Hotel to use the restroom. Che’s sister came out of a stall holding up a small square of newsprint, with a pained expression on her face. One of the squares, meant to be used as toilet paper, carried her brother’s face.
Cubanists wear the achievement of their research like a medal, survivors in this land of sacrifice. Hard work and sacrifice, in the revolutionary lexicon, are the keys to success. According to our man in Havana, Che Guevara, this is especially true if coupled with love. Yaffe went on to marry a Cuban, and have a baby who, somehow, even in chilly London, managed to teach himself to dance as soon as he could stand up. Viva Cuba!
On 17 December, the US and Cuban presidents announced the beginning of a new relationship between those countries, including the restoration of diplomatic relations, the easing of financial and travel restrictions imposed by the US and a prison swap which saw Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino - of the Cuban Five - released from US prisons and returned to Cuba. It was an historic and momentous announcement. In Britain, political commentator and author Owen Jones used the opportunity to assert that Cuba has a dictatorship in his comment piece published on The Guardian website. I submitted a response to The Guardian, but have so far received no reply. I am therefore publishing it below.
US and Cuban Presidents shake hands at Mandela's funeral in South Africa, December 2013
Responding to Owen Jones on Cuba
By referring to the US ‘embargo’ as an ‘excuse’ for dictatorship in Cuba (The US embargo is disappearing; so, too, must Cuba’s dictatorship), Owen Jones reveals his ignorance about US aggression against Cuba and his narrow conceptualisation of democracy.
For over 50 years the US blockade has attempted to strangle the Cuban economy. It is not an ‘embargo’, a legal barrier to impede trade; it is a ‘blockade’, an act of war against an entire country. It is a genocidal act as defined by the 1948 Geneva Convention of 1948 on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Moreover, it is just one element of US strategy to effect regime change. In addition to the terrorist activity, instigated by the CIA and zealously pursued by right-wing Cuban exile groups until today, are more subtle and insidious covert operations to generate an internal opposition. These days programmes are managed by private companies which bid for contracts from USAID. The annual budget, which is approved by the US Congress runs into millions of dollars. Recent investigations by AP exposed programmes to set up and use a twitter service (Zunzuneo) to instigate civil unrest, attempts to recruit foreign students in Cuba and to infiltrate Cuba’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. These programmes target civil society, exploiting every political and cultural opening on the island. The government is right to be wary. While aspects of Cuba’s financial and economic strangulation may be loosened, there is little sign that US interference will cease.
Secondly, Jones conflates liberal parliamentarianism, a party political system which historically developed alongside economic liberalism, with democracy. Given his own writing on The Establishment, he should be expected to differentiate between voting and democracy. Real democracy means active participation in shaping society and daily life. In Cuba this happens through regular elections and national policy debate. Cuba may be a one-party state but the Communist Party does not stand in elections. There are regular local, provincial and national elections in which candidates are first nominated and then voted by their peers, either through work-place or social and cultural organisations, or to represent their neighbourhood and region. They are not subject to a party whip and are directly answerable to their constituents. The right to recall exists and is practiced. There are no career politicians; representatives continue in their employment when not ‘doing politics’ and receive their existing salaries.
In terms of national policy debate, one recent example will suffice. The 2011 ‘guidelines for updating the Cuban economy’ were subject to four months of national consultation. Almost nine million people (out of a population of just over 11 million) participated in discussions on the draft guidelines. Subsequently 68% of the guidelines were modified according to their comments. Many of the measures announced since then reflect that consultation process.
It is easy, from a position of privilege, to declare that social and economic rights are not compensation for political rights. This view is not shared by impoverished people around the world, including the millions who have benefited from Cuba’s medical internationalism, who already see Cuba as the ‘beacon’ Jones imagines it could become. The dispute is whether Cuba needs liberal parliamentarianism for Cubans to achieve more freedom.
*Helen Yaffe is author of Che Guevara: the economics of revolution (2009, Palgrave Macmillan). Her doctoral research on Cuban economic history and Che Guevara's contribution to socialist political economy was undertaken at the London School of Economics.
And without that Gerardo Hernández would certainly never have felt the Cuban sun warm his skin again...
Here's a link for my review of Stephen Kimber's excellent book about the case of the Cuban Five which was published in Science & Society in October.
Below is an extract from an article I wrote in 2010 called 'New dog, old tricks Obama ratchets up attack on Cuba', which reports on the detention of Alan Gross. Although we knew that the US had escalated its covert operations in Cuba in an attempt to generate an internal opposition - we did not yet know about the programmes which have recently been revealed: the zunzuneo (twitter) programme, the recruiting of foreign students and the infiltration of the hip-hop movement... all of which failed.
"On 4 December 2009, entrepreneur and mercenary Alan Gross was arrested in Havana on a $500,000 mission to promote subversion in Cuba. He was contracted by the private US company Development Alternatives Inc., which in 2008 had won a $6 million contract with USAID to ‘advance democracy’ in Cuba. The Bush administration had secured a 500% increase in funding for such projects, providing a total budget of $45 million. With revelations about the inefficiency and corruption of the tiny opposition groups inside Cuba – ‘groups had come under fire for wasting the money on Godiva chocolates and cashmere sweaters’ (Washington Post, 21 May 2010) – USAID turned to professional contractors (posing as tourists) to take communications equipment, satellite phones and laptops with internet access into Cuba to promote subversion. Gross had previous contracts with USAID to provide satellite internet services to private organisations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At the time of Gross’s arrest in Havana, he had travelled to Cuba as a tourist five times in nine months. His target was Cuba’s tiny Jewish community of 1,500, which has good relations with the revolutionary government. The Washington Post noted that: ‘Most Jewish community centres already had desktop computers and email’. There simply is not enough opposition in Cuba for this money to be productive and counter-revolutionaries have no roots in ‘civil society’. ‘Dissent’ in its real sense, is not only legal, but often actively encouraged in Cuba through national debates, popular consultations and discussions in places of work, study or residence. However, it is illegal under Cuban law to give or receive goods under the US programmes designed to overturn the Revolution, or to bring satellite equipment into Cuba without a permit. Gross remains in prison."
The full article is available here: http://palgrave.typepad.com/yaffe/2010/06/new-dog-old-tricks-obama-ratchets-up-attack-on-cuba.html
This is an really useful and informative look at the Cuban economy focussing on its recovery and performance since the 1990s and providing a comparison with the ex-socialist bloc countries during the same period in which, unlike Cuba, they made a transition to capitalism...
"What is the verdict on Cuba’s economy, nearly a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet bloc? The story generally told is a simple one, with a clear message. It describes a cyclical alternation of government policy between moments of pragmatic capitulation to market forces, which account for any progress, and periods of ideological rigidity and re-assertion of state control, which account for all economic difficulties.  After the dissolution of the Comecon trading bloc, us Cuba watchers were confident that the state-socialist economy faced imminent collapse. ‘Cuba needs shock therapy—a speedy shift to free markets’, they declared. The restoration of capitalism on the island was ‘inevitable’; delay would not only hamper economic performance but would inflict grave human costs and discredit Cuba’s social achievements. Given his stubborn refusal to embark on a course of liberalization and privatization, Fidel Castro’s ‘final hour’ had at last arrived. 
The problem with this account is that reality has conspicuously failed to comply with its predictions. Although Cuba faced exceptionally severe conditions—it suffered the worst exogenous shock of any of the Soviet-bloc members and, thanks to the long-standing us trade embargo, has confronted a uniquely hostile international environment—its economy has performed in line with the other ex-Comecon countries, ranking thirteenth out of the 27 for which the World Bank has full data. As Figure 1 shows, its growth trajectory has followed the general trend for the ‘transition economies’: a deep recession in the early 1990s, followed by a recovery which took around a decade to restore real per capita national income to its 1990 level, rising roughly 40 per cent above it by 2013.  ..."
Click here for the rest of the article....
Enemigo by Raúl Capote, Editorial Jose Marti, 2011 (in Spanish). First published here:
Review by Raidel López
In Enemigo (Enemy), Cuban writer and university professor of history, Raúl Capote, reveals his life as a double agent; agent Pablo for the CIA, and agent Daniel for Cuban intelligence. This is not a work of fiction or a classic spy novel. It is the real experience narrated by the protagonist about plans by the CIA and its allies to destroy the Cuban Revolution. His story reveals one of the many facets of the US war against Cuba. For over half a century plans of espionage, sabotage, terrorist attacks, assassination, subversion, military, economic and political aggression, have been made and executed from the US. Most of these plans have failed, thanks to the work and sacrifice of men like Capote.
Capote does not consider himself to be anything but an ordinary Cuban. In the 1980s Capote was vice-director of the cultural association Hermanos Saiz, in Cienfuegos province. This organisation brings together artists, musicians, writers and others in the cultural field. Capote had published literature, which was known outside Cuba and was considered to be critical of Cuban society, even though it had been published by Cuban state publishers. This had caught the attention of the US Interests Section (USIS), a substitute for an embassy, in Havana. By the late 1980s, US officials had approached Capote offering him the chance to earn a lot of money by publishing ‘critical’ literature. Capote began working at the University Enrique José Barona in Havana as a history professor. CIA officials were interested in this work which allowed Capote to influence students. In the 1990s, USIS officials visited Capote with increasing frequency.
In May 2004, Capote was invited to dine at the home of Francisco Saen, a USIS official. The dinner was attended by diplomats and functionaries from several countries. There Capote met USIS officials Louis John Nigro Jr, Deputy Chief between June 2001 and June 2004, and Kelly Ann Keiderling, First Secretary of Press and Culture between July 2003 and June 2005. Keiderling befriended Capote and attempted to influence him and his family, inviting them to private dinners, giving them presents, promising them a prosperous future in the US, inculcating them with US ‘values’ and generally trying to influence their thinking. Keiderling was trying to recruit Capote to the CIA as part of a comprehensive plan to convert young Cuban intellectuals into enemies of the Revolution.
In 2005, the CIA concluded its studies and tests of Capote and he was officially recruited by Rene Greenwald, who used the pseudo name ‘El Gran Amigo’ (the great friend). Greenwald is a CIA veteran who participated in undercover actions against Cuba in the 1960s and worked in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, in dirty war operations to assist military dictatorships allied to the US government (p75). Meanwhile, Capote had signed up to work for Cuban intelligence, reflecting where his real loyalties lay. Capote recalls that the CIA tests never stopped, including putting him in threatening situations to see whether he would break. He never did.
Throughout 2004 and 2005, diplomats from other countries allied to the US also invited Capote behind closed doors at their residences and embassies. The first of these interviews took place in the British embassy in Havana in July 2004. Capote was ‘interrogated’ by Nigel Baker, Deputy Head of Mission (2003-2006) for four hours of probing questions about his life; more difficult questions than those faced in the USIS. Finally, Baker offered to help Capote but pointed out that such assistance would be limited because the British embassy maintains good relations with the Cuban government. A few days later, Capote returned to the embassy, this time to meet with William (Eddie) Edmundson, embassy staff and Director of the British Council in Cuba, to discuss how the British Council could assist Cuban writers with scholarships, courses and publications (p60). Obviously, writers in the revolutionary genre would not be included. Capote heard about another ‘dissident’, Hugo Arana receiving a box of ‘materials’ from Melanie Hopkins, then Second Secretary of the British embassy in Havana. The many invitations Capote received from diplomats from Britain, Chile, Austria, Germany, Poland, Chechoslovakia, came with offers of help and advice about how to achieve regime change based on the experiences of other countries.
One of the strategies promoted by the US Interest Section and its allies is the so-called colour revolutions, carried out with finance by Washington agencies and institutions, including the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict, Freedom House, USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute. This strategy involves promoting destabilisation through the mobilisation of youth on the streets and to provoke state repression. Its success has been seen in the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, among other countries. Its application is being pursued in Venezuela.
The USIS worked hard to promote this approach among Cuban youth. In 2006 they organised a documentary showing on this theme for the youth opposition in Cuba. Capote was invited to an event at the ‘Eagle Bar’, inside the USIS, along with the so-called independent journalists for a teleconference with a professor in Florida. During the debate with the professor, US functionaries laughed at the stupidity of the Cuban ‘journalists’ present and one of them declared ‘with enemies like this, Castro will be in power for a hundred years.’ After the conference every participant was given a digital recorder, a bag of books, notebooks, a manual with instructions on how to create a press agency, pens, pencils and a portable radio. Keiderling subsequently told Capote that none of them could be trusted and was extremely dismissive of the Cuban ‘dissidents’.
The mercenary character of these individuals led to fights between them over their share of USIS presents. During a US Independence Day celebration at the house of James Cason, Chief of USIS (2002–2005), ‘dissidents’ fought over portable radios. Keiderling told Capote that they sell the radios to ordinary Cubans for $10. Capote asked ‘if you know that why do you give them out?’ No-one responded (p45).
Capote’s work for the CIA
One of Capote’s first tasks as the CIA’s agent Pablo was to create a literary agency grouping together Cuban writers who were discontented or felt that their work was insufficiently promoted by Cuba’s cultural institutions. The idea was to promote counter-revolutionary ideas, offering them financial support. Capote was also instructed to create a foundation to be called Genesis, which, he was told, would function as an NGO in the education sector. Its role would be to create future politicians, leaders and above all ‘democratic citizens’. Capote was the key player in this task, as his work within the universities would facilitate the CIA penetration of this sector, university students, which was considered vital to their plans (p102).
The foundation’s profile would vary in the course of its work, but it would be ready to function at full capacity after the collapse of the socialist system, it was explained. It should be the future guarantor of democracy, a Think Tank of the new Cuban right-wing, able to train a leadership, prepare democratic citizens and create an ethic (axiology) to impede the return of socialist ideas in Cuba by educating the youth in ultraconservative, right-wing Catholic values. All the finances and resources necessary would be received via NGOs and CIA-front organisations including USAID and the Pan-American Development Foundation. Capote reveals that much of this money did not reach the Cubans identified, however, as those people linked to the CIA who travelled to Cuba as tourists, or students, bringing the resources and finance with them, used the money for holidaying in Cuba.
Capote was given sophisticated technology equipment for sending reports to the CIA and for connecting to the internet via satellite without detection, quickly and efficiently, including a Bgan 9201 (like that used by mercenary Alan Gross), and a laptop computer. Capote’s reports were to contain information and analysis about the situation in Cuba: the youth, students, the education system, intellectuals and artists. He was to gather statements of opinion, technical information on communications networks in Cuba, new technologies, self-employed workers – anything to that could facilitate covert operations by the US government.
A Cuban girl
Capote’s experience of working with the enemy and the insight this gave him into their attitudes, ethics, morals and intentions for Cuba, strengthened his commitment to his parallel work to defend the Cuban Revolution. This resolve was strengthened after a road trip he took with Greenwald. They were joined by Lesvia, a 14-year old Cuban girl from the countryside who was travelling to Trinidad and agreed to serve as their guide. When Greenwald spoke badly about the Revolution, she told him why she was a revolutionary and informed him about her schooling and future plans. When he spoke badly about Fidel, she replied: ‘Fidel is father to all Cubans, his death will be the greatest misfortune that could happen and I will not let anyone speak badly about him!’ Capote proudly thought to himself ‘these are the people I struggle for, it is worth sacrificing everything, even my life if necessary.’ When they arrived at their destination, Greenwald offered Lesvia money as payment. She rejected it ‘My parents taught me not to accept money from foreigners, and what’s more, one should not accept money that has not been the fruit of their labour.’
Secretly filmed footage in Raul Capote's house showing him with CIA agent Rene Greenwald
The popular uprising
On 31 July 2006, Cuban television announced that Comandante Fidel Castro was seriously ill and had delegated his responsibilities to Raul Castro and other comrades. Capote was immediately contacted by Rene Greenwald who wanted to know what was happening. The US had always believed that the Fidel’s demise could mean the end of the Revolution and speculated about a possible power struggle, dreaming of a military rebellion or minimally civil disobedience that would serve as a pretext for US intervention. The US was ready, Greenwald affirmed, to ‘help’ the Cuban people. But the days passed and nothing happened.
On 13 August 2006, Capote was summonsed to the USIS and instructed to write a proclamation in the name of the Cuban people asking the US government to militarily occupy the country. They would ensure it reached the main media outlets. ‘You will read the proclamation in front of the cameras of the news channels’, Drew Blackeney, the USIS’s spokesman, told him (p87). The CIA regarded Capote as their most skilled and staunch recruit inside Cuba. He was to ‘request US Army intervention, in the name of the Cuban people, to guarantee transition without chaos, because as you know, this is the only guarantee of a peaceful change. We have to avoid lawlessness, to avoid a crisis’ (p87). ‘What about the people in Miami?’ Capote asked. ‘Neither Miami or Havana, we are the only ones who can guarantee the necessary peace, stability and governability. But it has to come from the Cubans, it has to be a Cuban who asked for US help.’
Blackeney explained that ‘the first measure of our government will be to guard the coastlines, to avoid the [Cuban-American] exiles from leaving for the island and the second will be to locate and control the main exile leaders.’ Blackeney described their immediately future plans; three years of military occupation, and to designate and establish a provisional government, incorporating Cuban-Americans and the internal opposition. Washington would create a Commission to take charge of the restructuring of Cuba’s economy, redrafting the Constitution, creating new armed bodies, to put on trial the old members of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, the Ministry of the Interior, members of the Cuban Communist Party and revolutionary leaders and militants in general.
Blackeney said they had prepared a popular uprising in Central Havana by ‘someone who is prepared to sacrifice himself’. When Capote expressed his scepticism that the Cuban people would respond, Blackeney said: ‘We don’t need Central Havana to rise up, its enough to have a group who goes out to protest. They will have the main media outlets covering the news. Afterwards you make your statement to our government in the name of the Cubans’ (p88). The popular uprising never happened. The counter-revolutionary ‘hero’, Darsi Ferre chose an isolated spot at a time it was almost deserted, sheepishly shouted a slogan, threw a handful of leaflets and left. Two elderly Cubans on their way to buy a newspaper saw him and concluded he was crazy (p89). Capote makes clear that if the moment had come for him to read the proclamation in front of the international media, he would instead have shouted a revolutionary slogan. Following the detention of Alan Gross, the CIA’s contact with Capote via the use of messengers decreased and they instructed him to hide his HBgan securely or, if possible, get rid of it.
In 2010, Cuban state security asked Capote to publicly reveal his work and denounce the dirty war being waged against Cuba by imperialism. Capote made his denunciation in a video published on the website Razones de Cuba (Cuba’s Reasons) In Capote’s words: ‘We are witnessing the development of a cultural war waged by the Empire against Cuba to perpetuate their hegemonic designs. Young people are the main target of that battle and young Cubans, of course the number one interest. If we treat the grandchildren of the revolution trivially, there will be no more Revolution and this bulwark that Cuba represents today would cease to exist; if we make mistakes, if we are corrupted, if they steal our souls. To achieve this they spend millions, employing their best professionals, ideologues, psychologists, philosophers, specialists, hundreds of capable people… this is the war that does not need arms, rocket launchers or armoured vehicles…the central paradigm of this struggle was, and still is, a war for people’s minds. It is a battle to impose the values of capitalist, consumer society.’
US imperialism continues its actions against Cuba, using diverse mechanisms including the USAID, which Capote describes as the visible face of the CIA (p188). Cuba will continue to defend itself from these attacks with the commitment and sacrifice of people like Capote.
1. As Charge d'Affairs of the US embassy in Venezuela, Keiderling and two other US embassy officials, were expelled from the country by President Nicolas Maduro in October 2013 for conspiring with the right-wing opposition to sabotage the economy and power grid.
2. See ‘Tweets, terrorists and mercenaries: renewed attacks on Cuba’ about recent projects to promote counter-revolution by USAID and other organisations, in FRFI 239, June/July 2014.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014
In April and May 2014, news about two US-based attacks on Cuba hit international headlines, demonstrating that as the capitalist crisis intensifies, imperialist attempts to destabilise the popular and revolutionary government of socialist Cuba continue. Louise Gartrel reports.
On 3 April, following a thorough investigation, Associated Press (AP) exposed a US government-funded covert programme to develop a social media network in Cuba as a tool to promote an uprising against the government. The mobile phone network was called ‘Zunzuneo’, which is Cuban slang for the hummingbird’s ‘tweet’; hence this project was referred to as the Cuban ‘twitter’. Then on 7 May, the Cuban government announced that four Cuban exiles from Miami had been arrested on 26 April on entering the country with the intention of carrying out terrorist actions against military installations. As living conditions worsen for the majority in the capitalist countries, and as repression, racism and exploitation increases, Cuba represents a viable alternative which threatens the rotten neoliberal system. This has provided the impetus to ratchet up attacks on Cuba.
Would-be terrorists detained
The four Cuban exiles had visited Cuba several times since mid-2013 to study and carry out their plan to attack military installations in Cuba. The Cuban statement about the arrests said that the plot was masterminded by Miami Cuban exiles with a record of involvement in terrorism: Santiago Alvarez Fernandez Magrina, Osvaldo Mitat and Manuel Alzugaray. It pointed to their links to ex-CIA operative and confessed terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles, who was responsible for the 1976 airline bombing that killed all 73 people on a civilian flight to Cuba. Carriles was also involved in a series of hotel bombings in 1997 which killed Italian tourist Fabio di Celmo. Santiago Alvarez and Mitat pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 2006 and were sent to prison for 30 months and two years respectively after an informant tipped off the FBI about a large cache of weapons, including machine guns and a grenade launcher, in Alvarez’s possession. With pressure growing within the US and outside for steps to be taken towards ‘normalisation’ of relations with Cuba, it appears that sections of the powerful right-wing Miami exile community are getting increasingly desperate in their efforts to harm Cuba.
The arrest of the would-be terrorists coincided with the publication of the US government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, which once again shamefully included Cuba, despite stating clearly that Cuba provides no support for terrorism or terrorists (see: http://tinyurl.com/pgufd6p).
Between 2010 and 2012 almost 40,000 Cubans had signed up to Zunzuneo, completely unaware that it was a front for US agencies working to promote regime change. The AP documents exposed how the demographics of a large database of subscribers was gathered with the view to creating a political profile of potential dissidents. The Cuban mobile phone numbers had been leaked from Cubacel, Cuba’s state-run mobile phone company. Initially Zunzuneo sent out free text messages with news, sports and entertainment updates while it offered Cubans with free subscriptions one free text message to send out per day. The plan was that, having won a large and loyal subscriber base, more explicitly political material would be sent out, encouraging anti-government sentiment among young Cubans and instigating political protests, such as ‘flash mobs’.
The programme was masterminded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which receives funds allocated by the US Congress. Under the guise of ‘promoting democracy’, USAID has promoted destabilisation against governments around the world. In recent years, the use of technology, including social media, has become one of its most effective political tools to pursue US national interests, that is, imperialist interests. USAID receives a basic budget of $20m annually for operations against Cuba.
In 2008, USAID awarded a $6 million contract to Creative Associates, which managed the running of the programme. By hiring private contractors to run operations such as these, the US attempts to disguise direct links to the Obama administration. The project was run from third countries in an effort to obscure the programme’s association with Washington. The AP report confirms that ‘front’ companies, computer servers and bank accounts were set up in the UK, Ireland, Spain, the Cayman Islands and Costa Rica. USAID approached the Miami-based Cuban-American non-profit youth organisation Roots of Hope, which claims to promote ‘technological freedom’ in Cuba, to take over the running of the twitter programme by identifying sub-contractors and locating private investment. At least two of its board members became leading paid members in the Zunzuneo project. Private contractors are subject to fewer controls than official government agencies, which helps to keep the programme a secret.
Following AP’s exposé, US officials were quick to defend the Zunzuneo programme, insisting that it was not a covert operation but a ‘discreet form of humanitarian assistance’. Jay Carney, White House press secretary, claimed that ‘the money invested has been debated in Congress’, and that it was in accordance with US law. However, the claim that the US Congress was informed about the Zunzuneo programme has been denied. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee immediately ordered a review of USAID’s involvement with surveillance and infiltration worldwide. The AP has been asked to hand over its evidence.
Use of information technology
Since the Revolution of 1959, the US has used technology in its aggression against Cuba: from radio and TV, and more recently, the internet and now social media. These programmes operate alongside the US blockade, which was intended to starve Cubans into submission, and promote internal opposition against the Revolution. ‘Internet freedom’ is a pretext for destabilisation programmes. Private contractors have smuggled in cell-phones, hard-drives and computers which can operate outside of government control or monitoring. The idea is to create an apparatus to facilitate ‘dissidents’ to participate in subversion. The appalling hypocrisy of this approach is that while Cuba’s enemies point to limited internet use as evidence of the lack of ‘freedom’, they fail to mention that it is the US blockade itself that deliberately blocks Cuba’s internet access. Cuba is prohibited from accessing the fibre optic cables which encircle the island.
Since the early 2000s, USAID has used underdeveloped countries as a playground to develop its covert surveillance operations. The US State Department invested $2.8 million in developing an internet ‘mesh’ network in Sayada, a fishing town in Tunisia. The programme, called ‘Commotion’, which connects several Wi-Fi routers together, was set up to facilitate secure communication for dissidents. The deployment of this initiative provided a testing ground for technological software to spark dissent. ‘One target that is sure to start debate is Cuba; the United States Agency for International Development has pledged $4.3 million to create mesh networks there.’ (New York Times, 20 April 2014)
The role of mercenaries
The use of information technology in the war against socialism has been seen in the cultivation of ‘dissident’ bloggers such as Yoani Sanchez, who went from nonentity to international fame in 2008 when Time magazine inexplicitly listed her among the world’s 100 most influential people. While condemning the lack of internet access in Cuba, Sanchez manages to blog and tweet daily. Sanchez has claimed over 200,000 twitter followers, but 50,000 of those were found to be ghost or inactive accounts, and only 32 of them resided in Cuba. Her fictitious popularity is obviously assisted by outside specialists. Sanchez has won over $500,000 in international ‘prize’ money and recently enjoyed a celebrity tour around the world which was spoiled by protestors who exposed her links to the CIA and the dirty war against Cuban socialism (see: http://tinyurl.com/nuv2msq). In mid-May, Sanchez announced the launching of a new online publication called 14ymedio. The project is a direct provocation as it breaks Cuban laws. It is also clearly directed to an external audience (which holds the purse strings) and Sanchez has no following or support within Cuba. Her website was immediately hacked with slogans condemning her role as a puppet of US imperialism.
Sanchez is a high-profile mercenary, but covert mercenaries are also being used. One example is Alan Gross, a subcontractor hired by a company paid by USAID, who was arrested in Havana on 4 December 2009 and convicted of committing ‘acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state’. Gross had won a contract with the private US company Development Alternatives Inc, and was in Cuba on a USAID-funded mission to introduce undetectable satellite equipment to the tiny Jewish community in Cuba (see FRFI 215 and FRFI 220). Gross exploited the media interest surrounding the exposure of the Zunzuneo initiative by starting a hunger strike the day after the Zunzuneo revelations. He kept it up for eight days.
Cuban authorities were apparently prepared to release Gross in exchange for the reining-in of US-funded ‘regime change’ programmes, and if the Obama administration would enter into dialogue with the Cuban government. Although the US Senate and House Committees agreed and began changing their tactics, USAID and its contractors continued with their plots of sabotage, as shown by the Zunzuneo programme. Gross remains in prison on a 15-year sentence.
Another mercenary linked to Gross is Akram Elias, a businessman from Washington, with whom he met in Havana the day before his arrest. They discussed an arrangement which would allow Gross to store his illegal equipment in one of Cuba’s Masonic Lodges. Elias, a Freemason and mercenary who has contracts with various national security agencies, was working to foment opposition through Cuba’s Lodges under a USAID ‘democracy’ programme. Elias’ plan failed, however, as it transpired that the head of Cuba’s Freemasons, Jose Manuel Collera, was serving as an agent for the Cuban government.*
* For details about another recently-exposed Cuban intelligence agent, see our review of Raul Capote’s account of how he was cultivated by the CIA inside Cuba: http://tinyurl.com/nptcmvk