The Cuba Petitions

by Louis Proyect

April 28, 2003

Sharing very little in common ideologically, a number of individuals have recently signed petitions attacking the Cuban government for what they regard as cruel and excessive measures against a hijacking and the USA-funded political opposition on the island.

The first petition, offered in the name of the "democratic left," appears on The Nation Magazine website (www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030512&s=cuba) along with an invitation to add one's name by contacting leocasey@aol.com. Leo Casey's well-documented red baiting activities on the Internet might not be familiar to many Nation Magazine readers. As a United Federation of Teachers functionary, Casey seems to be aspiring to Albert Shanker's sordid mantle. For instance, in an exchange on the asdnet mailing list, Casey provided a shocking analogy for Paul Robeson's refusal to answer the question of whether he had been in the Communist Party.

"I believe, that it is morally unacceptable for a person to present himself as a public figure, ready to lead others in political contexts, without an honest accounting of his/her own views. And this moral injunction applies to . . .Trent Lott (who hid his role in Mississippi White Citizens Council) as much as it applies to Paul Robeson (who refused to account for what his affiliation with a Stalinist Communist Party)."

In the same sense that Lillian Hellman once referred to anti-antifascism, the petition includes a number of personalities who emerged as anti-antiwar spokesmen in the build-up to the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Included among them are Michael Bérubé, who derided "U.S. leftists schooled in the lessons of Cambodia, Libya, and the School of the Americas" for believing that "all U.S. bombing actions are suspect: they are announced by cadaverous white guys with bad hair." (www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no10/berube.html) One supposes that frequent television appearances by Donald Rumsfeld might have done something to encourage such a perception.

Another signatory is Ellen Willis, a media professor at NYU, whose essay in the recently published "Implicating Empire" presents a rather novel interpretation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least in leftist circles:

"In any case, the war between Israel and the Arab and Islamic worlds has never been only about conflicting claims to a piece of land, the homelessness of the Palestinians, or the occupation of the West Bank; if it were, it would have been settled long ago. Rather, Islamist passion for Israel's obliteration has at its core revulsion at the perceived contamination of the holy land by an infidel nation; worse, a modern democracy; even worse, one populated by that quintessentially alien, bloodsucking tribe of rootless cosmopolitans, the Jews."

If the first petition was top-heavy with liberals (Bérubé, Kathe Pollitt, Marc Cooper, Todd Gitlin) and social democrats like Willis and CUNY professors Stanley Aronowitz and Bogdan Denitch, petition number two (www.cpdweb.org), which was initiated by Campaign For Peace and Democracy (CPD), tries to stake out a position a few degrees to the left. Led by Joanne Landy, a member of the editorial board of the "3rd camp" journal New Politics, the CPD enjoyed a rather high profile in the waning days of the USSR publicizing and defending various dissidents.

In a New Politics symposium on globalization, Landy wrote, "The global resistance emerging against the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization both in the Third World and in wealthier countries shows that this conservative message is rapidly losing its power." (www.wpunj.edu/icip/newpol/issue29/landy29.htm)

Despite this verbiage, Landy had no problem becoming a member of the Council of Foreign Relations in the early 1990s. The CFR, which publishes Foreign Affairs, can best be described as a high-level imperialist think-tank that innovated various policies such as "containment." Written by George Kennan using the pen name of "X" in the July 1947 Foreign Affairs, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" laid out a "containment" policy that would provide the ideological substratum for the Cold War.

In a phone conversation with Landy, she tried to explain her motivation to me. Her friend Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation Magazine, persuaded her to join since it might be a good idea for some leftists to try to stir things up there. Putting the most positive spin on this initiative, it might be described at best as a misguided version of "boring away from within." Seen less generously, it might be viewed as rank opportunism. One wonders what other outfits Landy and vanden Heuvel might have been tempted to join on this basis. The Trilateral Commission? The Brookings Institution?

In contrast to petition number one, Landy's petition has a more radical profile, including Z Magazine contributors Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Stephen Shalom and Howard Zinn. Oddly enough, there is no link to the petition on ZNet despite the presence there of an earlier CPD petition asserting opposition to both Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush. An e-mail from Z Magazine co-editor Tim Allen might explain this. Allen informed me that not only was he unaware that Albert and company had signed the petition, but that he would oppose putting it on ZNet. His reason: "[W]hen it comes to capital punishment, imprisonment for political reasons, and other shitty behaviours the U.S. far outweighs Cuba, and this is why we at ZNet have not published anything on the matter."

For those who have been observing The Nation Magazine's steady evolution to the right, the embrace of Leo Casey's Cuba petition might not come as a big surprise. After the attacks on the Free Pacifica campaign and repeated efforts to isolate the radical wing of the antiwar movement, particularly that led by Ramsey Clark's ANSWER coalition, the magazine has lost whatever attraction it had for many grass roots activists long ago.

For some, including the good folks at Counterpunch, this has been explained in terms of personalities. Hitchens's attacks on the left, when he was still at The Nation, might have been explained as a function of too much alcohol, while Eric Alterman and Marc Cooper were dismissed as toadies or creeps. While all of this certainly has more than a grain of truth, the real explanation is more profound. In a very real sense, The Nation Magazine is simply returning to its roots.

A thorough investigation of The Nation Magazine's history would reveal that its radicalism was of a highly ephemeral nature. For most of its history, the magazine has proffered what can only be described as an establishment perspective.

During The Nation Magazine's first 35 years or so, the editorial outlook can best be described as a free-market 19th century liberalism hostile to socialism or any other fundamental challenges to the status quo. It celebrated the end of Reconstruction, opposed the trade union movement and regarded woman's suffrage as a joke. In the words of the magazine, the speeches of people like feminist Victoria Woodhull were "shrill, incoherent, shallow and irrelevant" and warned that the eight-hour day would "diminish production."

Even after the magazine took a sharp turn to the left, it never was able to empathize with various national liberation struggles. For the editors, the most important criterion was whether they challenged to the enlightened self-interest of the USA and not whether they corresponded to the material interests of people suffering from colonialism.

On June 25, 1955, Sam Jaffe, their "roving correspondent" in Southeast Asia, filed a report on "Dilemma in Saigon: Which Way Democracy" that is filled with the kinds of self-flattering illusions satirized in Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" as well as fulsome praise for the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem:

"In Saigon there is one man with a solution. But he admits it must be put into effect quickly or all will be lost. I am not permitted to give his name, but he is an American official who works around the clock attempting to whip the Diem government into shape. He has a deep belief in America and its great past, which, he reminds you, was the result of its success in throwing off colonial rule. He also has a deep belief in the Asians. He feels strongly that our Asian foreign policy should not be to support any one group or government but the will of the Asian peoples."

On January 5, 1957 the magazine warned Nasser:

"If Colonel Nasser pushes his luck too hard, too fast and too far, he will forfeit the gains the Egyptians have registered to date. Much depends, however, on the guidance and tact which the world-community can bring to bear on Cairo through the U.N. and its agencies and officials. The Egyptians are negotiating a treacherous waterway, with dangerous shoals and currents, which leads from a freedom without power to a position of responsibility based on power and achievement. Having intervened in Egypt's behalf, the world community has a special obligation to prevent the Nasser regime from succumbing to vagrant daydreams of dominion or empire."

With the steady pressure being applied on the left, it can be guaranteed that The Nation Magazine will return to these earlier traditions and serve as a willing instrument of US foreign policy.

If we should not expect much from American liberalism, should our expectations of the Z Magazine figures be higher? After all, Noam Chomsky practically defines radical, uncompromising opposition to US foreign policy.

Unfortunately, their willingness to go on record against the Cuban revolution reveals the Achilles Heel of this current. Despite an obvious hatred for capitalism, Albert, Chomsky and company have never come to grips with what it really means to create an alternative system.

The only alternative exists in their mind as a pure ideal. Mixing together bits and strands of anarchism with their own home-grown latter-day utopian socialism, the writers and scholars groups around Z Magazine are ill-equipped to understand the compromises forced on a society that has broken free from the world capitalist system.

For Michael Albert, whose ideas are laid out at www.parecon.org/writings/albertold14.htm, Cuba is simply the latest version of what he calls a "coordinator economy." While not as bad as El Salvador or Guatemala, the country does not deserve the label "liberated" or "socialist." He describes what amounts to a regimented work camp: "Planners, state bureaucrats, local managers, and technocrats monopolize decisions while workers carry out orders. In the resulting economy, a ruling coordinator class plans the efforts of workers and appropriates inflated pay, perks, and status."

Missing from Albert's prose is any engagement with Cuban reality, which is cloaked in layers upon layers of abstraction such as those above. In the ninety articles by Michael Albert on ZNet, there is not a single one based on an eyewitness encounter with Cuba. This society, with all of its complexities, with its refusal to kneel down before US imperialism, is reduced to formulae about "planners" and "technocrats."

You of course do not have to visit Cuba in order to perceive some of this reality. One can read the kind of report that appeared in Edward Boorstein's "The Economic Transformation of Cuba," in which we discover the ways in which ordinary workers, including blacks -- the most oppressed -- asserted themselves:

By October 1960 most of this administrative and technical personnel had left Cuba. The Americans and some of the Cubans were withdrawn by the home companies of the plants for which they worked, or left of their own accord: they found themselves unable to understand the struggle with the United States, unwilling to accept the new way of life that was opening up before them.

The Revolutionary Government had to keep the factories and mines going only with a minute proportion of the usual trained and experienced personnel. A few examples can perhaps best give an idea of what happened.

Five of us from the Ministry of Foreign Commerce, on a business visit, were being taken through the Moa nickel plant. In the electric power station -- itself a large plant -- which served the rest of the complex, our guide was an enthusiastic youngster of about 22. He did an excellent job as guide, but his modesty as well as his age deceived us and only toward the end of our tour did we realize that he was not some sort of apprentice engineer or assistant -- he was in charge of the plant. I noticed that he spoke English well and asked him if he had lived in the States. "Sure," he answered, "I studied engineering at Tulane." As soon as he finished, he had come back to work for the Revolution and had been placed in charge of the power plant.

In another part of the complex, the head of one of the key departments was a black Cuban who had about four years of elementary school education. He had been an observant worker and when the engineer of his department left he knew what to do -- although he didn't really know why, or how his department related to the others in the plant. Now to learn why, he was plugging away at his minimo tecnico manual -- one of the little mimeographed booklets which had been distributed throughout industry to improve people's knowledge of their jobs...

When you walked through a Cuban factory, you didn't need to be told that it was under new management -- you could see and feel it everywhere. In the Pheldrake plant for producing wire and cable, formerly owned by Dutch and American interests, the whole office of administration was filled by men in shirt-sleeves who were unmistakably workers; the engineers had gone and the workers had taken over. On the main floor, a group of them were struggling -- using baling wire techniques -- to repair one of the extrusion machines so that the wire required by the Cuban telephone industry could be kept coming. In a large tobacco factory, the administrator was black; in the metal-working plant formerly owned by the American Car and Foundry Company, the head of a department turning out chicken incubators was black. Black people had not held such positions before the Revolution.

As Karl Marx once said, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past." Despite decades of embargo, the collapse of the USSR and the resultant economic hardships, invasion and threats of invasion, assassination attempts, biological warfare, US-funded opposition movements, hostile radio and TV broadcasts from the mainland and a legion of other daunting challenges to the revolution, it persists. While liberals and utopian socialists like Michael Albert are certainly entitled to their own ideals, the Cuban people will continue in their own stubborn way to define a new, egalitarian society based on the material they have to work with.

Cuba on Swans


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Louis Proyect is a computer programmer at Columbia University and a long-time peace activist and socialist. He is also the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at www.marxmail.org. He writes a bi-monthly book review for Swans.

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Published April 28, 2003
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