Live commentary on BBC World News as Obama steps out onto Cuban soil with his family on Sunday 20 March 2016.
Live commentary on BBC World News as Obama steps out onto Cuban soil with his family on Sunday 20 March 2016.
My piece in memory of Cuban commandante Jorge Risquet has been published on Counterpunch, 2 October 2015. Just waiting for them to correct the spelling of my name!
On Monday 28 September, Commandante Jorge Risquet died in Havana aged 85. Risquet participated in the revolutionary war and was a protagonist in Cuba’s military missions in Africa. He led Cuba’s intervention in the French Congo in 1965 and to Angola between 1975 and 1979 where Cuban troops fought alongside Angolans to defeat the invading army of apartheid South Africa. In 1988 he headed Cuba’s team of negotiators following South Africa’s surrender. In response to South African machinations at the negotiating table Risquet stated: ‘South Africa must face the fact that it will not obtain at the negotiating table what it could not achieve on the battlefield.’ In the words of Piero Gleijeses, an authority on revolutionary Cuba’s role in Africa, with the exception of Fidel and Raul Castro, and Che Guevara, ‘no Cuban has played a more prominent role in African affairs than Jorge Risquet Valdés, a man of intelligence, wit, and unswerving commitment to the Cuban Revolution.’
Jorge Risquet. Photo by Helen Yalle.
Ten years ago, I met with the veteran socialist and commandante to interview him for my doctoral thesis. My discussion with Risquet did not, however, focus on Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces or his role in Africa. I was in Cuba working with archives and conducting interviews to investigate the economic ideas of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in the Cuban Revolution. Risquet’s name had been added to my interview ‘wish list’ after consulting declassified documents from the British embassy in Havana dated 1967 and 1968 detailing the ‘top personalities in Cuba’. Listed as the new Minister of Labour, Risquet was described as: ‘A bearded, youngish man, who appears to be steadily rising in favour.’ I met Risquet in his office where he sat in the middle of a large, tidy desk. His distinctive black bushy beard had thinned and turned white. For several hours Risquet patiently answered my questions, showed me old newspaper clippings and journal articles and told me the stories behind the black and white photos hanging on the wall. He gave me a signed a copy of his book, El Segundo Frente del Che en el Congo (Che’s Second Front in the Congo) (2000).
The making of a revolutionary
Risquet was born in 1930. Gleijeses described him as ‘the descendant of an African slave, her white master, a Chinese indentured servant, and a Spanish immigrant.’ His early childhood were years of economic depression, revolutionary upheaval, democratic opening and then violent reaction as Batista took control of Cuba with US support in 1934. Risquet’s parents were cigar makers who belonged to a politically progressive worker collective with communist sympathies. ‘My parents were semi-literate’, he told me. ‘My father had completed 4th grade and my mother knew how to read but not write.’ In 1943, aged 13, Risquet joined the Revolution Cuban Youth (Juventud Revolucionaria Cubana), youth wing of the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP), later renamed Socialist Youth. Within two years he was elected onto the executive committee. In 1953, ‘Risquet was the first Cuban to meet Angola’s first president Agostinho Neto in 1953, in Bucharest, Romania, at the Fourth World Festival of Youth and Students’. The following year, as a representative of Cuba and Latin America on the organising committee of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, aged 24 years, he travelled to Guatemala where he met Ernesto Guevara (not yet ‘Che’) who had befriended the exiled Cuban revolutionary, Ñico Lopez. Che was two years his senior.
Following Batista’s coup, Risquet joined the urban underground resistance in Havana. It was a perilous existence. After being captured, tortured and incarcerated, he made it to the Sierra Cristal in Oriente Province, where Raul Castro had opened up the Second Front. There he directed political education for the troops. On 1 January 1959, he entered Santiago de Cuba with Raul and Fidel Castro’s Rebel Army columns.
Risquet at 15.
Political and military roles in the Revolution
Risquet became head of the Culture Department of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) in Oriente province, in charge of political instruction. He carried out numerous political roles between 1959 and 61 as well as serving as head of army operations. He recalled: ‘During those first years my work involved guiding the political tasks of the revolution. I went on to occupy more military roles too.’ Risquet joined the political leadership in Oriente province of the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations [ORI] formed by merging the three insurrectionary organisations which had participated in Batista’s overthrow.’ As a veteran of the PSP, Risquet’s role was particularly important in opposing the sectarianism (mainly from PSP stalwarts) which threatened unity between those groups. The ORI became the United Party of the Socialist Revolution [PURS] in 1962 and Risquet was deputy leader in Oriente. When PURS became the Cuban Communist Party in 1965 Risquet was named among its 100-strong Central Committee. Between 1973 and 1990, he served on the Cuban Communist Party’s Secretariat and its Politburo from 1980 to 1991. He was also a long-standing member of Cuba’s National Assembly of Peoples’ Power.
In the economic sphere
It was in his capacity as a political leader in Oriente Province in 1961 that Che Guevara, then Minister of Industries, asked Risquet to support his plans for the sugar industry, which was under Che’s jurisdiction. ‘At Che’s request, I concentrated on the sugar harvest, an activity which involves thousands of people’. Having joined Cuban macheteros (cane cutters) for voluntary labour, Che was determined to wipe out what he called ‘slave labour’ in the fields. He immediately set up the Commission for the Mechanisation of the Sugar Harvest. In the meantime, however, emphasis was placed on increasing and improving the harvest. Sugar exports were to create the capital necessary for investments in diversifying the economy and establishing socialist state provision. Risquet helped to create a movement of emulation in the sugar harvest. He recalled:
‘We created the Millionaires Movement in which a machetero had to cut a million arrobas, each arroba has 11.5 kilogrammes. In the first year we had 11 brigades with 48 men in each, then it became a national movement… the sugar cane workers are poor, but we called them millionaires. Organised into brigades, their work became collective for the first time … this task of organising emulation was very arduous. But Che praised this movement a lot.’
Che also enrolled Risquet’s support in introducing the first rudimentary machines into the sugar cane harvest. This required abating the fears of the cane cutters who had historically resisted attempts to introduce machinery for fear of losing employment.
Returning to military action in the Congo
On 26th July 1965, during the Moncada Day celebrations in Las Villas, Fidel revealed to Risquet that Che had left Cuba at the head of a secret military mission in the former Belgian Congo (DRC). Meanwhile, as a consequence of previous discussions with Che, the president of the neighbouring French Congo, Alphonse Massamba-Débat, had requested military assistance from Cuba to defend that country’s recent independence. The following month, Risquet sailed to the French Congo with 260 Cuban soldiers on a legal mission of military assistance. The Cubans began training fighters from the MPLA, Angola independence fighters, initiating the political and military cooperation which would culminate in Cuba sending tens of thousands of troops to fight the South African occupation of Angola and ultimately end the occupation of Namibia.
Risquet at a meeting with Fidel Castro.
Back to the economy
One day after returning from the Congo to Cuba in January 1967, Risquet was named Minister of Labour. ‘I was not expecting that’, he told me, having little knowledge about the laws, policies and institutions linked to the post. However, the task was principally a political one, involving coordination with workers and trade unions. ‘The Minister of Labour is responsible for distributing salaries and it was my task to apply the salary scale that Che had devised’; an integral part of his Budgetary Finance System of economic management. A principal objective was to reduce the 25,000 different salary grades in pre-revolutionary Cuba into eight basic categories. ‘As Minister, I spent several years applying that salary scale and doing so was hard work.’ Workers received an overpayment for exceeding the ‘norm’, but the bonus was split between the worker and the state. ‘I remember in one meeting with the Dockers’ Union the workers told me that they felt a lot of respect for Che, but that they did not understand the scale.’ According to Risquet the new arrangement was never implemented among dockworkers. In Risquet’s view this became a brake on productivity, because workers stopped trying to exceed the norm. However, he concluded that the new system ‘did work in organising the salaries’.
I concluded by asking Risquet what was Che’s most important contribution to the Cuban Revolution. He said:
‘Che was one of the most admired and outstanding men of the Cuban Revolution, an example of solidarity, originality, simplicity, naturalness. He had a profound hatred for imperialism…a great willingness to volunteer [and] was a master of revolutionary war. He had great faith in human beings, in ideas and examples. Cuban soldiers who passed through Africa had his name on their lips… He was very stoic and self-critical, with absolute sincerity.’
In many ways, the same could be said for Risquet; a revolutionary socialist and anti-imperialist who dedicated his life to fight for the poor and oppressed in Cuba and in Africa. His legacy lives on as part of a proud chapter of Cuban internationalism.
 Piero Gleijeses, (2006), Risquet, Jorge. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History.
 My research was adapted for publication as Che Guevara: the economics of revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
 British Embassy in Havana, Top Personalities in Cuba, Havana, 20 September 1967, National Archives document FCO 7/529 211465.
 Gleijeses, (2006).
 This and all following Risquet quotes are taken from my interview in Havana, 8 February 2005.
Helen Yaffe is an Economic History Fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Between 2011 and 2014, she was a Research Associate at Leicester University on a project investigating the history of the anti-apartheid movement in Britain.
This interview was broadcast by Namibian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday 14 April. It follows a meeting between US President Obama and Cuban President Castro at the Summit of the Americas on 11 April. The interview had to be edited down in order to fit the programme, particularly in the first part (and consequently it's a bit jumpy!).
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!