The Debate Over the Recent Arrests and Sentences in Cuba

Zane Boyd

[from New Politics, vol. 9, no. 3 (new series),
whole no. 35, Summer 2003]

ZANE BOYD has been a lifelong Canadian socialist. He was raised in a Communist Party family, but subsequently, after spending a year in Moscow, became a dedicated anti-Stalinist. From age 15, he participated in the movement against the war in Vietnam. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he was actively involved in defending Soviet and East European political prisoners. He has supported and identified with the Cuban revolution since his early youth.


A REMARKABLE DEBATE HAS opened up in the international left around the arrests and harsh sentences meted out to more than 70 opponents of the Cuban government and its execution of three hijackers earlier this year. The debate is an important one, because what's at stake is not only how best to respond to the U.S.'s criminal policy toward Cuba but, more importantly, how best to defend the Cuban revolution itself.

While there have been numerous statements and counter-statements on this issue, I wish to focus on the contribution by veteran Marxist and Latin America scholar James Petras, "The Responsibility of the Intellectuals: Cuba, the U.S. and Human Rights," which he issued May 1, 2003.

While Petras acknowledges various right-wing intellectuals who have predictably condemned the Cuban government's actions, he makes it clear his primary target is "a small army of otherwise progressive intellectuals -- Chomsky, Sontag, Zinn and Wallerstein." It is this "progressive" group that he says "causes the greatest harm to the burgeoning anti-imperialist movement."

Intellectual Integrity

I WANT TO ANSWER WHAT I can only describe as slanders by Petras against these intellectuals. This is necessary since, after all, the very subject of Petras's piece is the responsibility of intellectuals.

Well, the first responsibility is to integrity, honesty and truth. What is particularly galling (as well as unhelpful for a healthy debate and exchange) is that, while waxing indignant over dishonesty, moral blackmail and "mendacious moralizing," Petras himself engages in a defamation of his intellectual targets.

For instance: ". . . prestigious intellectuals brandish their past credentials as ‘critics' of U.S. foreign policy to give credibility to their uninformed denunciation of alleged Cuban moral transgressions, equating Cuba's arrest of paid functionaries of the U.S. State Department and the execution of three terrorist kidnappers with the genocidal war crimes of U.S. imperialism. The practitioners of moral equivalents apply a microscope to Cuba and a telescope to U.S. crimes -- which gives them a certain acceptability among the liberal sectors of the empire."

What is this about "past" credentials? The international statement against the Cuban regime's crackdown signed by Chomsky, Wallerstein, Zinn and a host of other "otherwise progressive" intellectual authors contains fully four out of six paragraphs focused clearly on the past and the present crimes of the U.S. government. It is a demagogic smear to claim that these intellectuals make a moral equation between the recent actions of the Cuban government with the manifold crimes of U.S. imperialism.

The slander gets worse. Again: "But our moralists are not bothered by context, by U.S. threats to Cuba immediate or proximate, they are eager to ignore it all to demonstrate to the State Department that they not only oppose U.S. foreign policy but also condemn every independent country, system and leader who opposes the U.S. In other words, Mr. Ashcroft, when you crack down on the ‘apologists' for Cuban ‘terror', remember that we are different, we too condemned Cuba, we too called for a change of regime."

Incredible! The real reason these so-called progressive intellectuals have condemned the Cuban regime's crackdown is . . . to curry the favor of the U.S. State Department! Since when has Noam Chomsky ever curried the U.S. State Department's favor, or any other of these other individuals for that matter? It is to laugh! Or perhaps cry.

In the spirit of free debate and openness of ideas -- that which, incidentally, should also prevail in any country calling itself socialist -- Petras is of course fully entitled to criticize the response of various intellectuals to the recent Cuban events. However, he has no justification for maligning or impugning the motives of those he takes issue with based on fabrication, innuendo and hyperbole. This makes it difficult to take any argument he may have seriously and effectively discourages further debate.

A Shameful Lack of Context

ON A MORE CRITICAL MATTER, for someone who lectures about the importance of context, Petras himself displays a shameful lack of it in yet another noteworthy paragraph. "Let us remember," he writes, "the same intellectuals supported ‘dissidents' in Eastern Europe and Russia who were bankrolled by Soros and the U.S. State Department. The ‘dissidents' turned the country over to the Russian mafia, life expectancy declined five years (over 10 million Russians died prematurely with the sacking of the national health system), while in Eastern Europe ‘dissidents' closed the shipyards of Gdansk, enrolled in NATO and provided mercenaries for the U.S. conquest of Iraq. And never among these current supporters of Cuban ‘dissidents' is there any critical reflection on the catastrophic outcomes resulting from their anti-communist diatribes and their manifestos in favor of the ‘dissidents' who have become the soldiers of the U.S. Middle Eastern and Central European empire."

Context, indeed! So, it was Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron and their colleagues who single-handedly restored free market capitalism in Poland. The kindly declaration of martial law by that great friend of socialism, Wojciech Jaruzelski, and his Stalinist henchmen of course had nothing to do with Poland's subsequent fate. And it was the likes of Leonid Pliushch and Ivan Dziuba who brought Ukraine to its knees and not the years of Stalinist rot brought on by those Ukrainian socialist paragons, Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko, and their cronies.

The "critical reflection" that Petras so rightly demands on the recent history of the former "socialist" states of the USSR and Eastern Europe is not a matter of mere idle theoretical and historical interest to socialist Cuba. It is vital, given the urgency of the Cuba's own current crisis.

Unfortunately, Petras himself turns reality on its head on this subject. It wasn't dissidents who sold off the Soviet economy and took over along with the Russian mafia. Rather, it was those with the power to do so -- former state apparatchiks themselves, especially those within the managerial bureaucracy.

This was also largely the case on the political level. Boris Yeltsin and now Vladimir Putin were former Communist Party stalwarts, as was Byelorus's Alexander Lukachenko. In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, ex-Communist bosses morphed into "social democrats" or adopted some other new guise, and have moved in and out of political power over the past decade. It's hard to believe that Petras doesn't know all this already. Or, has the vehemence of his vitriol against his intellectual nemeses simply clouded his memory?

In any event, does Petras actually believe that none of this would have happened -- that there would have been no collapse of the Soviet and East European systems, no restoration of capitalism -- had the "dissidents" simply kept their mouths shut or perhaps been eliminated? Petras should instead be asking himself how it is that these former "socialist" governments collapsed with such overwhelming popular approval with nary a peep of protest or ounce of resistance from any of the working classes of these countries.

What we have here is conspiracy theory substituting for serious social analysis. There is nothing regarding the corruption, decadence and oppression of Stalinist rule. There is nothing on the role (or passive lack thereof) played by the Soviet and East European working class. There is nothing about the absence of socialist democracy. There is nothing even regarding the U.S. and NATO's bankrupting the Soviet economy through the four-decades-long arms and space race.

No, the entire socio-economic evolution of these countries over the past fifteen years is chalked up to the scheming of a ragtag bunch of dissidents fostered and funded by Western capitalists and the U.S. State Department -- and, of course, the perfidious support of our "otherwise progressive" Western intellectuals.

To put it bluntly, this is precisely the kind of hysterical response that infected millions of Communist Party members and their intellectual fellow travelers in the West when confronted with any opposition to or criticism of Soviet Stalinism in the 1930s.

Back then as well, any problems within the Soviet Union were blamed entirely on the threats and machinations of Western imperialism, fascism and various plotters -- including Trotskyists, anarchists and social democrats. Then as well, it was "you're with us or against us." Back then, too, anyone who criticized or denounced the Soviet regime was branded either a willing or pliant accomplice in the pay of (read: "apologist" or "paid functionary") the CIA and Hitler.

On a more contemporary note, Petras here (like so many "otherwise progressive" intellectuals on the left before him) again trots out the same old slander and misrepresentation of the historic Solidarnosc movement in Poland. In the early 1980s, "Solidarity" conducted perhaps the most militant and massive workers' uprising in modern times. These "dissidents" didn't "close" the Gdansk shipyards, they occupied them! And they also struck and occupied factories, mines, schools and offices throughout the entire country.

These "dissidents" in fact comprised virtually Poland's entire working class organized in regionally coordinated local workers' self-management bodies that had sprung up spontaneously during the strike wave in 1980. The 1981 draft program of Solidarnosc called for a national system of workers' self-management within the framework of a "socialized" (vs. merely "nationalized") economy. Meanwhile, Jaruzelski's bureaucrats and their Moscow mentors fought frantically to retain rigid, central command of a decaying and bureaucratically manipulated structure with an implacable hostility to any element of genuine workers' democracy. In fact, Jaruzelski declared martial law in December 1981 on the very eve of a planned national gathering of workers, self- management delegates -- what would in effect have amounted to a full-fledged dual power situation.

It appears that Petras finds more kinship with the Stalinist "defenders" of "actually existing socialism" than with the Polish working class and its intellectual defenders.

Just imagine for a moment if Solidarnosc had succeeded in establishing workers' power in Poland through a self- managed economy and democratic political system. What might Poland and possibly all of Europe for that matter have looked like today? Would the world have seen in Poland the real possibilities of socialism as opposed to the dead hand of bureaucratism? And would not the liberating promise of socialism have retained some cachet among the new generation of anti-globalization and anti- capitalist activists who instead have largely turned their backs on socialism?

Broadening the Context

THROUGHOUT HIS ARTICLE, Petras repeatedly sounds the alarm on the indirect and overt threats of a U.S. military intervention in Cuba, U.S. covert operations in funding and fomenting oppositional activity within the country, international U.S. imperialist aggression, Miami-based terrorism, and the like. In fact, Petras frames the dangers facing the Cuban revolution exclusively within this singular context.

Cuba and its problems are viewed entirely within the perspective of a hostile American regime bent on world domination. And it is this narrow alarmist framework that, in fact, defines his attitudes to all dissenters and critics of Cuban government policies, above all our "progressive" intellectuals.

Everything with Petras is U.S. vs. Cuba, state vs. state. There is nothing regarding Cuba's internal situation. Petras scarcely mentions the U.S. embargo and its effects. More significantly, he fails to address the question of how the base of Cuban society -- workers, students, intellectuals -- are expected to fulfill their essential function in defense of the revolution. Instead, they are relegated to a passive role, while the entire burden of the revolution seems to be shouldered by the Fidelista leadership.

Of course, the threat of U.S. intervention is real. It always has been. And admittedly there is a greater urgency under the current U.S. administration. And yes, the U.S. engages in covert and overt destabilizing operations in Cuba as well as many other countries. And yes, the Bush administration is bent on world domination. However, is this exactly news? Especially after 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq? And how does any of this justify the Cuban regime taking undemocratic actions against its critics and opponents, however serious the charges it may have against them?

It is ludicrous in any case for Petras to think that the intellectuals he denounces would not strongly oppose any imminent or actual U.S. invasion of Cuba, as they have on Iraq?

More importantly -- and this is something Petras never addresses -- the revolution is not just in danger from U.S. intervention, subversion and terrorism. There is also the dire internal crisis facing the country with its profound social consequences. The economic reforms introduced by the Cuban government over the past decade (many of them pro-market and even pro-capital, by the way) have spawned dangerous divisions among the Cuban population, virtual two-tiered health care, and serious unemployment. While some of these reforms may be necessary simply to keep the economy afloat, there is a very real danger that the revolution could eventually implode from within.

This is the actual context -- external threat and internal crisis -- in which the various problems facing the Cuban revolution must be considered, including that of organized opposition. In this context, internal dissatisfaction and criticism are inevitable. The challenge is, how best to harness the creative and critical energies of the Cuban people? How best to preserve, extend and in some cases restore the gains of the revolution?

Socialist Democracy is Key

TO BEGIN WITH, the larger strategic context must always be kept in mind: if it was impossible to achieve socialism in a single isolated country as it was in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s (what was realized was, in fact, a grotesque caricature of socialism), it is that much more impossible in tiny, even more impoverished and isolated Cuba. But, for this very reason, the revolution requires the institution of genuine, full-fledged socialist democracy. The National Assembly, the People's Councils, the official unions, and other popular bodies are not in themselves sufficient. They do allow for some participation by much of the population. But the Cuban Communist Party maintains a monopoly of power -- with dominant influence and control within these and other popular bodies.

In defense of the revolution itself, it is urgent that the Cuban government establish a system of real popular political and economic power (not mere participation), especially local and national structures of workers' self-management and control. At the same time, it is imperative that a plurality of workers' and other popularly based political parties be introduced, along with free elections within all bodies, the right to free assembly for all citizens, and freedom of the press. Let the Communist Party demonstrate the superiority of its vision, program and leadership within the full light and debate of public opinion -- public opinion that is fully engaged and active in actually running the country.

Think of the beacon and example such a system of democratic socialism would be to all of Latin America and the rest of the world, including the United States itself, with its pathetic, transparently sham bourgeois democracy. On the other hand, if the Cuban leadership continues to balk at such a prospect (perhaps on the grounds it would "destabilize" the country), then it will be responding all-too-typically like the bureaucrats Rosa Luxemburg warned us about.

All socialists, as well as others, should be reminded that the Bolshevik Party's monopoly of power during the nascent years of the Soviet Union was to be a temporary measure. It was imposed during the then-raging Civil War, initiated by the armed opposition to Soviet power of the Russian White armies and the invasion by 15 imperialist armies including those of the U.S. and Canada. In fact, before the Civil War began, the Bolsheviks reserved seats in the Congress of Soviets for the absent Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who had opposed the establishment of Soviet power and were at the time boycotting the Congress.


HINDSIGHT IS ALWAYS BEST SIGHT. However, the continued Soviet Communist Party monopoly on power through the 1920s and beyond, it must be said, was a disastrous policy and egregious error. Had the Soviet workers and peasants been able to enjoy real Soviet (viz., Council) democracy during that time and had there been a plurality of parties, freedom of assembly and of the press, they might have been able to prevent the consolidation of the heinous Stalinist regime, the resultant deaths and misery of millions, and the corruption and emasculation of communist parties throughout the world which under the Kremlin's direction, it should again be pointed out, thwarted several potential socialist revolutions.

Our challenge is to learn from history. The Cuban revolution has survived now for over forty years. It is high time to invigorate Cuba's political system. Socialism is incompatible with continued exclusive centralist rule by the Cuban Communist Party. The defense of the Cuban revolution requires the ongoing, active engagement of the entire Cuban population enjoying complete socialist democracy. Otherwise, the revolution itself ultimately cannot survive.


[colored bar]

Cuba Section

Contents of No. 35

New Politics home page