James Petras Goes Over the Top on Cuba and the Left

Joanne Landy

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

JOANNE LANDY is a member of the editorial board of New Politics and co-director of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy.


IN MARCH 2003 THE Campaign for Peace and Democracy issued a statement entitled Anti-War, Social Justice and Human Rights Advocates Oppose Repression in Cuba protesting "the arrests of scores of opponents of the Cuban government for their nonviolent political activities, and the shockingly long prison sentences -- some as high as 28 years -- imposed after unfair trials." It also opposed "the trial and execution of three alleged hijackers in a week's time, both for the lack of due process and because we oppose capital punishment on principle." Over one thousand people signed the statement, including a great many prominent U.S. progressives such as Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein, Katha Pollitt, Edward Said, Immanuel Wallerstein, Cornel West and Howard Zinn. The Campaign's statement with a longer list of the signers is reprinted in this issue of New Politics (see text), and is on the CPD website with the complete list of signers.

The statement was crystal clear in its opposition to U.S. policy against Cuba. It said, "As the Bush administration, further emboldened by its military victory in Iraq, threatens to wage ‘preemptive' wars around the globe we reaffirm our support for the right of self-determination in Cuba and our strong opposition to the U.S. policy of economic sanctions that has brought such suffering to the Cuban people." In addition, the statement denounced "the long, criminal record of U.S. interventions in Latin America. This record has included six decades of exploitation and imperial control of Cuba, followed by an attempted invasion and a campaign of international terrorism and economic warfare, that is by now well-documented."

The Campaign's statement was well received because it provided people in the progressive community with the opportunity to stand up for democracy and civil liberties in Cuba while at the same time sharply opposing U.S. attempts to dominate Cuba and the rest of the world. But it was precisely this independent, principled stance that enraged some other people, including James Petras.

On May 1, 2003 Petras released an article "The Responsibility of the Intellectuals: Cuba, the U.S. and Human Rights," which contained a furious attack on the individuals signing the CPD statement, singling out Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Immanuel Wallerstein. The article is filled with misstatements and apologetics for repression in Communist countries, many of which are addressed in this issue of New Politics by Zane Boyd (see Boyd article).

I wish to respond mainly to the part of Petras's attack that was directed at me and the Campaign for Peace and Democracy. He writes:

The principal author and promoter of the anti-Cuban declaration in the United States (signed by Chomsky, Zinn and Wallerstein) was Joanne Landy, a self-declared "democratic socialist," and lifelong advocate of the violent overthrow of the Cuban government -- for the past 40 years. She is now a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), one of the major institutions advising the U.S. government on imperial policies for over a half century.

Landy supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and the Albanian terrorist group, the KLA -- calling publicly for overt military support -- responsible for the murder of 2000 Serbs and the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Serbs and others in Kosova. It is no surprise that the statement authored by this chameleon right-wing extremist contained no mention of Cuba's social accomplishments and opposition to imperialism. For the record, it should be noted, that Landy was a visceral opponent of the Chinese, Vietnamese and other social revolutions in her climb to positions of influence in the CFR.

For all their vaunted critical intellect, the ‘progressive' intellectuals overlooked the unsavory politics of the author who promoted the anti-Cuba diatribe.

WHERE TO BEGIN? First of all, how does Petras know that I am the "principal author" of the statement? It was signed by three people -- Thomas Harrison, Jennifer Scarlott and myself -- and in fact it was a collective product. I point this out not to disclaim responsibility but to show that Petras's attack, beginning almost with the first word, is based on totally unfounded assertions and -- as I will indicate -- outright lies. Secondly, it's true that I call myself a democratic socialist, and I'm proud to do so -- though I would add that I am a left-wing, revolutionary democratic socialist.

Have I called for the violent overthrow of the Castro government? No, I haven't. In fact, I would hope for nonviolent change in Cuba brought about by a democratic movement. As in any country, however, if the government there violently resisted a majority movement for democratic change, that majority would have the right to defend itself, with force if necessary, and to take power through mass, democratic participatory institutions -- though the strategic and tactical questions of whether and how to exercise that right would have to be decided in light of the specific political circumstances. Of course, what Petras really objects to is not my alleged advocacy of violence but my opposition to the undemocratic Communist regime in Cuba.

Petras goes on to charge that I "supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan." In fact, I totally opposed it, from start to finish -- believing that the Taliban and U.S. imperialism were in a reactionary, symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationship -- and that a United States attack on Afghanistan would be just a way for the U.S. to promote its imperial goals. Of course, that's exactly what it was, opening the way for the later horrific U.S. war on Iraq.

Petras's next claim is that I supported the U.S. war on Yugoslavia. Totally untrue. Though I was against Milosevic's attempt to hold together Yugoslavia by force against the will of Croats, Bosnians, Kosovars, etc., I also vigorously opposed U.S. military intervention. (See my article on Kosova "Self-Determination, Not Intervention" in New Politics, Winter 2000.) I am proud of my role and that of the Campaign in defending Bosnia against truly genocidal Serbian aggression and protesting the cynical U.S.-supported arms embargo. As far as the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) is concerned, Petras conveniently omits any mention of Milosevic's ferocious repression of Kosova's right to self-determination, even to retain the autonomy it had won under Tito. Albanians in Kosova were subjected to systematic discrimination, mass firings from their jobs, vigilante violence, and a reign of police terror at the hands of Milosevic and his supporters.

In fact, the hysterical vendetta against the Kosovars was key to Milosevic's rise to power. The non-violent Albanian resistance led by Ibrahim Rugova was ruthlessly suppressed, which resulted in growing popular support for the KLA among Albanians. I supported the KLA (but not the U.S., which incidentally was for the most part quite apprehensive about them as a "destabilizing" force) in the belief that the thrust of their resistance was directed against Milosevic and the armed forces of the Yugoslavian state. I criticized the KLA to the extent that they carried out attacks against Serb civilians. It's possible that my judgment as to the dominant character of the KLA was incorrect, though I don't think so. But the moral right to criticize or oppose the KLA belongs only to those who denounced the original Serb suppression of Albanians in Kosova, and I would bet the family farm that this doesn't include James Petras.

Yes, I opposed the coming to power of Communists in Vietnam and China, in the conviction that old oppressors were being replaced with new ones. The Communist states of China and Vietnam were and are brutal one-party dictatorships, with no civil liberties or democratic rights for their people. They came into being in response to vicious, right-wing regimes supported by the U.S. and other Western powers, which is why I and my co-thinkers had a "Third Camp" position that saw hope in the development of democratic forces independent of both sides in the conflict between the Communist parties, on the one hand, and Western-supported dictators on the other. During the Vietnam war, for example, my colleagues and I called for immediate, unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam despite our hostility to the National Liberation Front (NLF) -- a fact not mentioned by Jim Petras, of course, even though he and I were both active in the movement in Berkeley in the 60s, and he is very familiar with what my position was.

And incidentally, to speak in this day and age of supporting the Communists in China as though that were some sort of touchstone of progressive politics is simply obscene. People with my politics knew all along that the Maoist regime was a totalitarian nightmare based on mass murder of historically unprecedented dimensions, and by now the whole world (with the possible exception of Petras) knows the truth about the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other horrors that the Chinese people had to endure for half a century.

Finally, Petras explains my position on China and Vietnam as integral to my "climb to positions of influence in the Council on Foreign Relations." This would be simply a hilarious invention if it were not such an outrageous lie -- and Petras must know that it's not true.

Here are the facts. In the early 1990s I was invited to join the Council on Foreign Relations on the initiative of Katrina vanden Heuvel (now editor of The Nation), herself a CFR member. At the time Cora Weiss, a major leader in the American peace movement, and Aryeh Neier, head of Human Rights Watch and anathema to the Reagan administration for his relentless work in exposing U.S. complicity in Latin American human rights violations, were also members of the Council. So I thought I would join, go down and make some trouble as a left wing voice. But in fact I felt so alienated at the three or four forums I went to that I didn't participate at all in the organization.

Far from "climbing to" or in any way attaining "a position of influence" in the Council, I haven't been a member for several years, and it would have been impossible to be a CFR member with less influence that I had while I was a member. I attended a handful of forums, was not a speaker at any of them, never communicated with CFR officials, and never wrote anything for them. Campaign for Peace and Democracy Co-Director Tom Harrison said at the time that I shouldn't join, and in retrospect I think he was right -- but one shouldn't make a mountain out of a molehill.

Apparently, Petras will go to any lengths to discredit a position with which he disagrees. Not only does he try to smear me and the Campaign, but he engages in character assassination against all leftist critics of repression in Cuba. In his article, Petras says that it is the "'progressive' group [among all the critics of the Cuban government's actions] which has caused the greatest harm among the burgeoning anti-imperialist movement." Accusing Chomsky, Zinn et al of having the most base and selfish motives for signing the statement, he actually suggests that these progressives are trying to gain favor with the Administration: ". . . . 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."


JAMES PETRAS IS SO UNSCRUPULOUS, and such an admirer of repressive Communist regimes, that one can only shudder to think what he would do to Chomsky, Zinn, Wallerstein or the three Campaign for Peace and Democracy co-directors if he and others like him held state power. Nor is Petras's fondness for repression limited to the Communist world: in defense of the Cuban crackdown, he even, broadmindedly, goes so far as to cite, without condemnation, one of the most anti-democratic laws in the United States. He writes, "No country in the world tolerates or labels domestic citizens paid by and working for a foreign power to act for its imperial interests as ‘dissidents.' This is especially true of the U.S. where under Title 18, Section 951 of the U.S. Code, ‘anyone who agrees to operate within the United States subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official would be subjected to criminal prosecution and a 10-year prison sentence.' Unless, of course, they register as a paid foreign agent or are working for the Israeli government."

Today, the United States looms over the world as an imperialist power armed with unprecedented force and resources. Yet, as the already shaky U.S. occupation of Iraq reveals, military strength and naked force aren't everything. As we work in this country and forge alliances with movements abroad to oppose U.S. domination of the world and the brutal capitalism it seeks to impose everywhere, we need to stand opposed to repression wherever it takes place, rather than engage in shameful apologetics in the mode of Petras and others of his sort. The Campaign for Peace and Democracy statement on Cuba and its outstanding list of progressive signers is an important expression of that independent, liberatory stand.


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