Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 2, 2014

A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to American Champion

Filed under: cuba,sports — louisproyect @ 3:31 pm

In January 2013 I reported on an encounter with Brin-Jonathan Butler, a young writer and boxing trainer (a throwback to Hemingway) whose Salon.com article on a Cuban boxer named Guillermo Rigondeux triggered a reflex action on my part to spring to the Cuban government’s defense largely on the basis of Salon’s heading: “I came to Havana to film a documentary about a local boxer — and found a country by turns beautiful and terrifying.” After sending off a rude email to Butler, I learned that his views on Cuba were far more nuanced that I had given him credit for. After two or three email volleys, we decided to get together and exchange ideas.

In the course of our conversation, I learned that he was working on a book about Guillermo Rigondeux, who had defected to the U.S. in the expectations that the streets would be lined with gold. The goal of the book was to show that neither Cuba nor the U.S. could fulfill the hopes of an athlete who was forced to operate in one of the most exploitative sectors of professional sports. By comparison, the NFL is a paragon of virtue compared to the multiple boxing associations that view its gladiators as commodities to be exploited mercilessly. I was reminded of this by a poignant interview on WFAN with John Florio, the author of a new biography of Michael Spinks and his brother Leon who never received a penny of the $3.75 million he was supposed to receive for his rematch with Mohammed Ali. For his efforts, Ali was rewarded with Parkinson’s disease even if his earnings allowed him to enjoy a comfortable life. For Leon Spinks, the life after boxing included a job at McDonald’s and early dementia.

Last week I got word from Brin-Jonathan that “A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to American Champion” had finally become available. The early reviews are quite stunning:

Butler’s prose is “eviscerating… elegant… amusing” with “a storyteller’s ability to put these humanizing details into a bigger picture… Remarkable.”—The Ring magazine

“This is something very special.”—Leon Gast, Oscar-winning director for When We Were Kings

“A subtle and powerful examination of Cuba, as seen through the eyes of its most celebrated boxers. Filled with memorable characters caught in the middle of an existential struggle.”—Steve Fainaru, Pulitzer Prize–winning coauthor of The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream

“[A Cuban Boxer’s Journey] is a nuanced, deep, compassionate study of a subject too often boiled into simplicities, too often seen in black and white, too often used to forward agendas—left and right—that too often ignore the crushing human costs. Brin-Jonathan Butler’s story does just that by traveling, interviewing, and critically eyeing Cuba’s boxers at home and in the States, methodically unpacking the loss-imbued choice they all face. It is an invaluable document.”—S. L. Price, author of Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports

There’s an excerpt of “A Cuban Boxer’s Journey” at http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/77478026/cuba-boxer-guillermo-rigondeaux-journey-defection-fidel-castro that will give you an idea of Butler’s viewpoint. I found this paragraph particularly revealing:

Only a few months before, I had heard that the new captain of the Cuban national team, since Savon had stepped down, two-time Olympic gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, had attempted to defect in Brazil with teammate Erislandy Lara and had been arrested. This amounted to the highest profile boxing defection in Cuban history, unavoidably symbolizing a massive turning point in not just Cuban sport, but Cuban society on the whole. Rigondeaux’s attempt at escape had become an international news item and a national soap opera regularly appearing on Cuban television. Castro himself had personally spoken out in the state newspaper calling Rigondeaux a traitor and “Judas” to his people. “They have reached a point of no return as members of a Cuban boxing team,” Castro wrote in Granma. “An athlete who abandons his team is like a soldier who abandons his fellow troops in the middle of combat.” Compounding the significance and ambiguity of Rigondeaux’s situation was boxing legend Teofilo Stevenson, probably the second most famous Cuban in the world for the fortune he turned down to leave, defending Rigondeaux. “They are not traitors,” Stevenson declared. “They slipped up. People will understand. They’ve repented. It is a victory that they have returned. Others did not.”

Brin-Jonathan Butler has published an EBook through Amazon.com that can be purchased for a mere $3.79. As you are probably aware, Amazon is locked in a battle with publishers, Hachette in particular, over the giant’s determination to low-ball them to the point of bankruptcy. As loath as I am to recommend purchasing anything from Amazon, I will continue to be a Prime account holder and to urge you to buy Butler’s book. If Guillermo Rigondeux would discover upon making it into the American Dream, it is much more of a nightmare. Someday the advanced technology of Amazon will be wedded to a society that produces for human needs rather than private profit. In that future world, people will be able to play baseball or box without worrying about where their next meal is coming from. Until then, we do what we do to survive—in essence the story Brin-Jonathan Butler has ably told.

May 3, 2014

Juan Formell, 71, Cuban Dance-Band Leader, Dies

Filed under: cuba,music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

NY Times, May 3 2014

Juan Formell, 71, Cuban Dance-Band Leader, Dies

Photo

Juan Formell accepting a lifetime achievement award in 2013. Credit Chris Pizzello/Associated Press
 Juan Formell, the Cuban composer, arranger and bass player who founded the group Los Van Van and made it into one of the world’s greatest dance bands, died on Thursday. He was 71 and lived in Havana.

Mr. Formell’s death was announced in the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, but no cause of death was given. A report on Cuban state television said that Mr. Formell had died “suddenly” but provided no further details.

“With his death, Cuba loses one of its greatest and most prolific sons,” the official Cuban Institute of Music said in a statement. “The loss of Formell is without a doubt a hard blow to Cuban culture.”

From the time he formed Los Van Van almost 45 years ago, Mr. Formell’s intention was to expand the foundation of Afro-Cuban music by selectively incorporating rhythms and harmonies from rock ’n’ roll and jazz, an approach that proved immediately popular with Cuban audiences.

He called the resulting mix of styles “songo” and organized Los Van Van in similar hybrid fashion. The band’s original lineup included the violins and flute typical of traditional charanga bands and was heavy on percussion, but also featured Mr. Formell on electric bass and other musicians on electric guitar, electric keyboards and trap drums.

Last year, the Latin Recording Academy in Miami awarded Mr. Formell, who was a major influence on salsa performers like Ruben Blades and Gilberto Santa Rosa, a lifetime achievement Grammy for “artistic excellence.” In its official obituary, Granma described Mr. Formell as “one of the most important figures in Cuban musical culture in the 20th and 21st centuries” and praised him for “his special way of making us think and dance.”

Juan Climaco Formell Cortina was born in Havana on Aug. 2, 1942, into a family of musicians. His father, Francisco, was a pianist and flutist, and Juan began working professionally at the age of 15, playing acoustic bass in several well-known orchestras.

After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Mr. Formell joined the band of the Revolutionary Police and also did radio and television work. By the late 1960s he had become musical director of Elio Revé’s orchestra, one of the most popular Cuban dance bands of its time.

He founded Los Van Van, whose name can be translated as the Go-Gos, late in 1969, taking much of the Revé group with him.

Throughout the 1970s, Mr. Formell honed his distinctive approach both in dazzling live performances and in a series of recordings that provided songs that have become standards of Cuban music, starting with the 1972 hit “Pero a Mi Manera.” By the 1980s, attentive to musical developments outside Cuba, he had also brought synthesizers and trombones into the band’s sound.

Los Van Van’s lyrics, some of which Mr. Formell had a hand in writing, were also innovative. Though careful to skirt overt political commentary, they cleverly commented on the way Cubans lived and the problems they faced, in slangy, salty, humorous language.

“I don’t like to get mixed up in anything political,” Mr. Formell explained in an interview last year. “I’d rather say it’s social, an example being songs like ‘Havana Can’t Take It Anymore’ and others. They’re stories that in the end have to be danceable and can’t be tedious, but of course the things that are happening in Cuba should be reflected in art.”

As Los Van Van’s records were gradually released in Latin America, Europe and Japan, the band’s reputation and audience outside Cuba grew, particularly in the mid-1980s with global hits like “La Sandunguera” and “Anda Ven y Muévete.” International tours helped burnish that image even further, with Mr. Formell leading exhilarating shows that typically lasted well into the night.

Because of political tensions, Mr. Formell and Los Van Van did not perform in the United States until 1997. A concert in Miami in 1999 was marred by protesters carrying placards calling the band members “agents of Castro,” but other American shows were widely praised, and in 1999 Los Van Van won a Grammy for “Llegó … Van Van.”

In recent years, Mr. Formell had largely ceded control of the orchestra’s live performances to his son Samuel. But he continued to supervise all aspects of its recordings, from song selection to arrangements, and at the time of his death was finishing a new CD, tentatively titled “La Fantasía,” due out this summer.

Survivors include his son Samuel and two daughters also involved with Los Van Van, Vanessa and Paloma. Further information on survivors was not immediately available. The Cuban news media said that Mr. Formell’s ashes would be on display to mourners at the National Theater in Havana and that a “Cantata for Formell” would be performed over the weekend.

“My life has been entirely dedicated to music,” Mr. Formell said in November when he accepted his lifetime achievement award at a ceremony in Las Vegas, “and only makes sense when people make it theirs and enjoy it.”

September 19, 2013

Cuban press spreads rightwing garbage

Filed under: cuba,Syria — louisproyect @ 12:36 am

Michael Maloof, the rightwing lunatic who Cuba takes seriously

9/19 Update:

But who is Maloof? According to a Mother Jones investigation, he’s a man with a dubious past who helped spread misinformation about Iraq in 2003, misinformation that ultimately helped make the case to go to war:

Maloof, a former aide to (Richard Perle) in the 1980s Pentagon, was twice stripped of his high-level security clearances‚ — once in late 2001 and, again,[in the spring of 2003], for various infractions. Maloof was also reportedly involved in a bizarre scheme to broker contacts between Iraqi officials and the Pentagon, channeled through Perle, in what one report called a “rogue [intelligence] operation” outside official CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency channels.

full: http://www.interpretermag.com/russian-media-conspiracy-theories-and-reading-comprehension-issues/

* * * *

A couple of days ago I returned a bunch of books on Cuba that I was going to use for a continuation of a rebuttal to Sam Farber’s new book. But I have grown so disgusted with Cuba’s continued support for Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine that I have lost motivation.

After I ejected Walter Lippmann, the moderator of the Cuba News mailing list on Yahoo, from Marxmail for refusing to engage with the list on other than his foreign minister without portfolio for Cuba basis, he continued on the Greenleft Yahoo mailing list without skipping a beat.

He just crossposted this:

Washington Was Aware Syrian Extremists Had Chemical Weapons

Washington, Sep 18 (Prensa Latina) The United States knew that Islamic extremists who are trying to overthrow the Syrian government possessed chemical weapons, Michael Maloof, a former Pentagon official, revealed today.

Maloof told the press that Al Qaeda and Al-Nusra – the armed branch of Al Qaeda in Syria – possess large amounts of sarin gas, a product that entered the country through Turkey and Iraq.

read full

It is a shame that Cuba lacks the honesty and the insight to identify the source of Maloof’s “revelation”. It comes from WND, that used to be called World Net Daily.

Maloof’s article can be read at http://www.wnd.com/2013/09/truth-leaking-out-nerve-gas-points-to-rebels/. It is basically a reprise of the Ray McGovern horseshit that Rush Limbaugh was touting to his mouth-breathing audience. Wnd.com is a hotbed of Obama birther and 911 truther conspiracy theories, as well as truly nasty rightwing propaganda.

How in fuck’s name does Cuba, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Maloof, and the newspaper launched by a crypto-fascist like Joseph Farah end up in bed together? Check the salon.com piece on WND at http://www.salon.com/2011/04/11/joseph_farah_wnd_misinformation/ to get a flavor of how scummy it is, filthier than the toilet in “Trainspotting”.

Here’s one of the more edifying items on Cuba that can be read on World News Daily. You can’t make this shit up:

http://www.wnd.com/2002/02/12859/

This weekend’s “Sunday Q&A” feature on WorldNetDaily takes a look at “The Secret Fidel Castro,” as talk-radio host Geoff Metcalf interviews author Servando Gonzalez.

“The Secret Fidel Castro: Deconstructing the Symbol” is neither a history of the Cuban revolution nor a biography of Castro. Rather, the book was written following what intelligence services call a CPP (Comprehensive Personality Profile), similar to the ones intelligence services keep on foreign leaders. It focuses on aspects of Castro’s actions and personality that have been either ignored, misunderstood or misrepresented.

From 1959 to 1963, Gonzales was a political officer in the Cuban army. He participated in the Bay of Pigs operations, the Cuban missile crisis, the anti-guerilla actions in the Escambray Mountains and other military operations.

Gonzalez addresses the issues of Castro’s charisma and staying power.

“I don’t think you can explain these strange uncanny abilities by charisma alone. It’s more than that. It is something that has no rational explanation. Hitler had the same faculties, as did Charlie Manson. … You cannot define what is their power. When he went to the Soviet Union – Castro does not speak Russian – the phenomenon was exactly the same. How can you explain that? I have no idea. But he has some power,” Gonzalez tells Metcalf.

April 26, 2013

Juan of the Dead

Filed under: comedy,cuba,Film — louisproyect @ 8:46 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition April 26-28, 2013

Cinema in the Service of Revolution

Confronting Polemics With Alfredo Guevara

by LOUIS PROYECT

This week Alfredo Guevara, the father of revolutionary Cuba’s film industry, died of a heart attack at the age of 87. The N.Y. Times obituary was refreshingly honest about the role he played:

A committed Fidelista, Mr. Guevara nevertheless insisted that art should not be subservient to politics.

“Propaganda may serve as art, and it should,” he was quoted as saying. “Art may serve as revolutionary propaganda, and it should. But art is not propaganda.”

Filmmakers credit Mr. Guevara with fending off censors and overseeing films that criticized Mr. Castro’s Cuba. He was at the center of fierce debates between artists and communist ideologues, clashing with Blas Roca, a powerful member of the Communist Party leadership, in the early 1960s in a public row over the role of culture in politics.

“He had to confront a lot of polemic,” Mr. Pineda Barnet said. “And if a polemic didn’t find him, he went looking for it.”

Despite such films as “Lucia”, “Memories of Underdevelopment”, and “Strawberry and Chocolate” that defied characterizations of Cuban cinema as propaganda machines, there is still a tendency to lump Castro’s Cuba with Stalin’s USSR, as if the typical Cuban movie was about a sugar mill meeting its quota. While one would naturally expect this from the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, it is disconcerting to see the same sort of reductionism at play in the writings of one Samuel Farber, a Cuban-American professor emeritus at Brooklyn College and a self-described socialist.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/26/confronting-polemics-with-alfredo-guevara/

January 22, 2013

Ernie Tate and Jess MacKenzie

Filed under: cuba,Ireland,socialism,workers — louisproyect @ 2:13 am

In January 2011, when I and my wife were on a month-long vacation in South Beach—a place that both of us love—we were pleasantly surprised to run into veteran socialists Ernie Tate and Jess MacKenzie who were staying only two doors away from us.

I did an interview with them that was supposed to be part of a longer video on “The Unrepentant Marxist Goes to South Beach” but for some reason I never pulled it altogether. I don’t tend to procrastinate but in this case things have slipped to the point where I decided to put up the interview with Ernie and Jess since it is just too good to get shelved any longer. After doing my interview with Beryl Rubens, a 90 year old CP’er who organized a trade union in my little village in the 1950s, I realized that there’s no greater calling than to get out the story of those who challenged the status quo in good times and bad.

Born in 1934, Ernie was a working-class Irish Protestant kid from Belfast who took a vacation in Paris in 1954 just after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. The powerful demonstrations celebrating the victory organized by the CP were such an inspiration to him that he decided on the spot to become a communist.

Jess joined the movement in 1964 and before long found herself on a trip to Cuba that would put her in touch with Robert Williams, the NAACP leader who had organized a militia to defend African-Americans against Klan terror. She found herself functioning as a courier between Williams and his comrades in the U.S.

They relate their experience in the movement and offer some thoughts on why they remain socialists to this day. A very inspiring story.

January 7, 2013

Split Decision

Filed under: cuba,Film,sports — louisproyect @ 5:08 pm

Generally I don’t expect the recipient of one of my nasty and unsolicited emails to respond but Brin-Jonathan Butler took the trouble to write me back after I accused him of being a “rightwing shit”. This was after I spotted a piece by him on Salon.com that described Cuba as “terrifying”. As it turns out, I did not even read the article but was reacting—violently—to the blurb that the editors tacked on to the article: “I came to Havana to film a documentary about a local boxer — and found a country by turns beautiful and terrifying.”

I suppose my only excuse was having fallen into a state of high dudgeon from reading a bunch of affidavits written by Cuba dissidents supposedly subjected to electroshock treatments in the 1980s. They had been collected in 1990 by a Freedom House researcher, who is now with the Defense Department in charge of “atrocity prevention”. Given the number of Pakistani children that have been killed by Predator Drones and the half-century long economic blockade punctuated by sabotage and invasion directed against Cuba, I was feeling more than a bit defensive when it came to attacks on the socialist island’s reputation from any quarter. Although I would readily admit that there have been human rights abuses in Cuba over the years, the affidavits did not pass the smell test.

After upbraiding Brin for ignoring the fact that a CIA-backed terrorist who had blown up a Cuban airliner had been freed from an American jail on a technicality, he wrote me back:

I cited the US courts for releasing and housing the man who blew up that airliner in my piece. Did you note that? And mocked the US for calling Cuba a “state sponsor of terror” despite their position regarding domestic terrorism against Cuba with that airline bomber.

After reading that, I said “oops” to myself and read Brin’s article, something I should have done from the outset. After reading it, I wrote him a note offering an apology—something that eventually led to breakfast with this altogether committed and serious student of Cuban society, and more particularly the role within it of Cuban boxers who have defected to the U.S.

Brin has written three articles for Salon.com, all of which are a cut above the usual fare and that share a focus on the sport of boxing. As a veteran of the “sweet science” who now trains mostly well-heeled clients to supplement the money he makes from writing, Brin writes from hard experience. In addition to an interview with Mike Tyson, his other two articles describe a documentary in progress titled “Split Decision”, a profile of Guillermo Rigondeaux who was one of Cuba’s best fighters before he defected in 2009.

The article that I had not bothered to read had this passage:

Along the Prado they used to sell slaves on the auction block, too. Before Fidel, when segregation was in full swing, the Cuban apartheid meant many clubs and parks still refused black Cubans entry. Famously even Batista, the president of the country before Fidel, was forbidden membership to a country club because he wasn’t white enough.

Maybe this was one of the reasons Guillermo Rigondeaux’s own father, living on a coffee plantation in the east, disowned his son after the first failed attempt at defection in 2007, blaming him for betraying a society that helped so many like their own family climb out of the vicious conditions that existed before the revolution. Or maybe Rigondeaux’s father was another brainwashed Fidelista oblivious to all the failed promises.

And while I know Cuba’s meaning is perpetually up for grabs, whose isn’t?

Now there’s a story really worth telling.

In the course of my conversation over breakfast with Brin, I learned that he had a very strong connection to Cuba through its boxers and that his interest in defectors (reflected deftly in “Split Decision”, the title of his film-in-progress) is very much engaged with perhaps the key question of our epoch, namely the difficulty of reconciling one’s personal and family obligations with broader social and political principles. If there is anything that involves “contradiction”, the nub of Marxist dialectics, it is the decision Cuban boxers must make when faced by the lure of big money in the U.S., even when it entails a break from everything held dear.

The website for “Split Decision” states:

The boxer’s struggle in Cuba is the Cuban struggle. All Cubans struggle from birth and they see the boxer’s struggle as a metaphor for their own.

Fidel Castro banned professional sports in Cuba in 1962. His decree created a difficult choice for boxers—stay in Cuba and fight for national glory or defect to a country where their talents could make them rich. In the 70s Teofilo Stevenson won three Olympic gold medals and turned down five million dollars to defect from Cuba and fight Muhammad Ali, asking those promoters who made the offer, “What’s a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”. In the 90s Felix Savon won another three Olympic gold medals and turned down tens of millions to travel to the US to fight Mike Tyson. What Fidel Castro was trying to use his boxers to prove was not just that his boxers were defeating Americans in the ring, but that Cuba and her system were defeating America itself, most noticeably in their sacrifice of financial reward for service to their country…

February 2009, Rigondeaux risks his life to defect with smugglers via Mexico City, into the waiting arms of Miami exiled-Cuban promoters. A legal battle between his Irish manager Gary Hyde and the Miami promoters begins for control of Rigondeaux’s career before it even has a chance to begin. Rigondeaux’s career stalls as the power struggle over his career persists. He is nearly 30 when the issues are resolved and he finally signs a contract with Bob Arum, the largest boxing promoter in the world.

Rigondeaux discovers that the biggest obstacle to his career’s success lies in the fact that the 95% non-black exiled-Cuban community in Florida offer no support of black Cuban fighters. As Bob Arum points out, “Cuban Olympic champions can’t sell out the front row of a dancehall in Miami.”

Shortly after signing his contract in April of 2010, Rigondeaux is nearly knocked out while sparring in Los Angeles with a very limited youthful amateur. He promptly severs ties with his trainer, Freddie Roach, and returns to Miami. From his corner, Roach chillingly points out, “Someone was exposed here today.” At the most important moment of his life, Rigondeaux stands on the brink of either a championship or total professional and personal collapse. After 6 successful fights, Bob Arum steps forward to offer a contract to Gary Hyde, dangling a title shot. If he wins, the American dream could still come true for Rigondeaux. If he loses, he could become just another defector from Cuba who’s lost everything in search of that dream. Like nearly all the defected Cuban fighters who came before him, the biggest opponent Rigondeaux faces is coping with American life. Every time he steps into battle in an American ring, Rigondeaux wears the flag of the nation he has left behind on his trunks. Just what Cuba he is fighting for remains a mystery.

As a long-time boxing fan and an observer of Cuban society going back to 1962, when most Bard College students including me wondered if we were about to be swallowed by a mushroom cloud, I must say that I am anticipating the completion of this documentary with bated breath. So much so that I am now putting my money where my mouth is and contributing $50 to the film’s completion at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/306344/contributions/new. I strongly urge all my readers to chip in there since I view this project as both a major contribution to educating people about Cuban reality as well as the sort of theme that young filmmakers should be dealing with.

For progress reports on the film, check the website and Brin’s twitter accounts: @BRINICIO and @_SPLITDECISION.

 

January 4, 2013

Samuel Farber versus the Cuban Revolution, part one

Filed under: cuba,Samuel Farber Cubanology — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

The Prophylaxis of Theory: a look at chapter one of Samuel Farber’s Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: a critical assessment

With the stated goal of proving that Cuba is “totalitarian”, Samuel Farber doggedly gathers evidence to prove his point. This methodology is par for the course in the academy, familiar to anybody who has written a dissertation to support some hypothesis or other. Ironically, it is the same approach found in the world of “Marxist-Leninist” sects determined to protect their theoretical purity against “alien class influences”. I would argue for a different approach, one that incorporates Lenin’s observation in his April 1917 Letter on Tactics that “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life” (the words uttered by Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust.)

Before addressing the question of whether it makes much sense to describe Cuba as “totalitarian”, I would like to take a close look at the provenance of the material cited by Farber in chapter one of Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: a Critical Assessment titled Toward ‘Monolithic Unity’—Building Cuban State Power from Above. One imagines that in his fervor to make the case against Fidel Castro, Farber sought out the most inflammatory documentation whether or not it passed the smell test. Quite frankly, the deeper I got into this material the more I felt compelled to go out and find some clothes pins to put on my nose, not an easy task given the prevalence of electric dryers.

Farber states that Cuba punished dissidents in the 1980s by putting them into a mental hospital and applying electroshock treatments. This represents an escalation beyond Soviet tactics, where dissidents like Pytor Grigorenko were only kept in custody in asylums.

The Amnesty International affidavits of Cuban dissidents are collected in a book titled The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba, written by Charles J. Brown and Armando M. Lago in 1990. As I read through this book over the past day, I found them remarkably similar to what mental patients undergo in season two of FX’s American Horror Story, subtitled The Asylum.

  • A dissident “lay awake, watching inmates pass the time by setting on fire the socks of their sleeping companions.” (p. 73) [One must assume that this meant something like a very advanced hotfoot.]
  • “…he was placed in a water tank and given electroshocks.” (p. 84)
  • “…the orderly Heriberto Mederos gave electroshocks to political dissidents strapped to a wet floor”. (p. 86)
  • “…his death was due to asphyxiation by hanging, his body then doused with gasoline and set on fire.” (p. 90)
  • “Blindfolded with a black hood over his head and bound by a rope tied tightly around his neck, he was beaten and kicked until he lost consciousness.” (p. 102)
  • “On one occasion, Montero told an interrogator that he ‘couldn’t take it anymore’. The interrogator responded by handing Montero a loaded gun with which to shoot himself.” (p. 114)

Now it is a bit puzzling that nothing like this turned up in Amnesty International’s original 1988 report found in Brown and Lago’s appendix. It concluded: “Amnesty International has no reason to believe that political prisoners are referred for psychiatric tests other than genuine forensic reasons.”

And then two years later Amnesty reversed itself and concluded that Cuban psychiatric hospitals were like the one depicted in American Horror Story, maybe even worse. I called Amnesty International yesterday to speak to someone familiar with both reports. Not surprisingly, my phone call was not returned. I was looking for an explanation of how such a 180-degree turn could have taken place but will likely never receive one.

If you do a search on Cuba, dissidents, and electroshock in in JSTOR, a database of scholarly articles, you find nothing except a review of the Brown-Lago book. In Lexis-Nexis, you will find absolutely nothing except a one-sentence reference in the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald, two Florida papers committed to the counter-revolutionary cause.

Could it be possible that Amnesty and Freedom House, Brown-Lago’s publisher, were serving American foreign policy goals by publishing these lurid and highly implausible affidavits? Charles J. Brown’s CV does raise some concerns. Here is how he is identified at Huffington Post, a “liberal” publication that has been hostile to both Cuba and Venezuela since its inception:

Charles J. Brown is editor and publisher of Undiplomatic, a blog dedicated to covering the intersection of diplomacy, global issues, U.S. politics, and pop culture. In the past, Charlie served as President and CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions; Deputy Executive Director for Action at Amnesty International USA [emphasis added]; Chief of Staff and Director of the Office of Strategic Planning and External Affairs in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the U.S. Department of State; and in a variety of roles at Freedom House. In 2004, Charlie served as co-director of the human rights, democracy, and development policy team for the Kerry-Edwards campaign and is currently an unpaid policy advisor on these issues to the Obama campaign. He is co-author of The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba (1991), and co-editor of Judges and Journalists in Transitional Democracies (1997).

At the time of the book’s publication, Brown was a project coordinator for Freedom House. Is it possible that he already had ties to Amnesty, where he now serves as “Deputy Executive Director for Action”, whatever the hell that is?

I should hasten to add that the Huffington Post did not mention Brown’s latest gig. According to Linkedin.com:

Charlie currently serves as a Senior Advisor in the Office of the Undersecretary for Policy in the U.S. Department of Defense, where he is responsible for implementing the DoD components of President Obama’s initiative to integrate atrocity prevention and response into U.S. policy. Previously he served as Senior Director for Rule of Law and International Humanitarian Policy, overseeing DoD policy development and implementation on a range of issues.

The fact that Brown can be a senior officer of AI while overseeing atrocity prevention for the Defense Department defies Jesus’s stricture about serving two masters at once but that does not seem to perturb a human rights organization that is now headed up by Suzanne Nossel, a former assistant to Richard Holbrooke in his capacity as UN Ambassador and Hillary Clinton’s Deputy Assistant for International Organization Affairs. All in the name of atrocity prevention, I suppose, the bailiwick of the U.S. State Department and Pentagon.

If I were Samuel Farber I would have looked for evidence of Cuban misuse of psychiatry from less politicized quarters but then again I am not he–thankfully.

Farber takes up the cause of Oscar Lewis, an American anthropologist who was accused by Castro of establishing ties with counterrevolutionaries on the island under a progressive façade. This comes under the rubric of “cultural repression” and is meant to indict the Cuban government in the same manner as the alleged electroshock torture of dissidents. Farber has a footnote intended to back up Lewis’s case, not surprisingly written by his wife Ruth who was part of his research team. Since I am somewhat skeptical of all anthropologists, including those invited to conduct studies in Cuba, I was eager to get the other side of the story.

You can get that in an August 4, 1977 article in the New York Review of Books (unfortunately behind a paywall) written by John Womack Jr. Titled An American in Cuba, it is a review of Four Men: Living the Revolution, an Oral History of Contemporary Cuba by Oscar and Ruth Lewis, and Susan M. Rigdon.

Despite his sympathy for the underprivileged, Lewis developed a theory on “the culture of poverty” that led Marxist anthropologists like Eleanor Leacock to expose his contradictions mercilessly. By proclaiming that poverty bred pathology and that pathology bred poverty, Lewis left the conclusion that “the lumpenproletariat had itself to blame, and was incorrigible.” After meeting personally with Fidel Castro in 1968, Lewis got carte blanche to do research in Cuba despite the misgivings of his North American peers. The book that came out of their research was, according to Womack, generally favorable toward the revolution. However, it was not without costs to the writers, who found themselves at odds with the government during a period of great turmoil. Womack writes:

As Lewis gained confidence in Project Cuba, he lost his main contact with Fidel—Dr. Vallejo died in August 1969. Without advice he trusted, Lewis pushed his luck. In October, and two or three times afterward, he used the Israeli diplomatic pouch for correspondence from the United States. And in March 1970, he began interviewing a mysterious Havana professional, who had been arrested during the Bay of Pigs attack and remained a staunch gusano since. Mr. X, as Mrs. Lewis calls him, had come to Lewis to tell his story, and turned out to be a relative of a prominent Cuban official, himself a friend of the State Security director. In his interviews Mr. X praised the United States, President Nixon, and the fight against communism in Vietnam, and complained about his own country. As if he thought it mattered to the project, he also gave Lewis some low-down on the love lives of his country’s leaders. As if he thought it mattered too, Lewis let him talk.

It was a singularly rotten time for an American social scientist in Cuba to play wild cards. In the spring of 1970, despite four years of vast economic efforts, the country had reached a crisis, and the political and intellectual climate had become grim. Most ominously, the great ten-million-ton sugar harvest was failing. Besides, much less embarrassing but still galling to the country’s leaders, two prestigious and supposedly friendly Europeans had just berated them for failings in democracy and for not having a revolution à la chinoise: René Dumont in Cuba Est-il socialiste? and K.S. Karol in Guérrilleros au pouvoir. Unknown to Lewis, in mid-April the government put him under close surveillance. The bugs of the X interviews would instantly suggest spooky questions: Why did Lewis listen to Mr. X unless he wanted to know who on the Central Committee slept with whom? Why did he want to know that? To report it to the CIA?

It was largely the Israeli diplomatic pouch and the interviews with Mr. X that led to the problems alluded to by Farber. Someone trying to present an honest balance sheet on Cuba might have taken the trouble to supply such background information but that risked reminding his readers that social reality is complex. In a perfect world, the Cuban leadership would have understood that Oscar Lewis’s motives were clean even if they raised suspicions. Also, in a perfect world, Samuel Farber might have taken the trouble to identify where those suspicions were coming from, all too understandable in a country that was living under siege.

As another example of Cuban totalitarianism, Farber points to the arrest of Huber Matos in 1959 for treason. Ultimately convicted, Matos was sentenced to 20 years. According to Farber, Matos was merely guilty of thought crimes, specifically being opposed to socialism or communism even though Fidel Castro had not yet made his convictions on the future direction of Cuba public. From Farber’s presentation of the events, one would conclude that Matos had something in common with Bukharin in the Moscow Trials.

While by no means endorsing the sentence handed down against Matos, we must entertain the possibility that there was more than thought involved. In an article titled Political Change in Cuba, 1959-1965 that appeared in Social Research, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer 1968), James O’Connor wrote:

Due mainly to a high degree of local autonomy in INRA, the implementation of the Reform Law was more thoroughgoing than the law itself. Thus more right-wing moderates were swept aside during the second half of 1959. The best known case was that of Huber Matos, Rebel Army officer and INRA chief in the cattle province of Camaguey. The decisive influence in the Matos affair was unquestionably his militant anti-Communism, especially significant at a time when Castro was seeking to replace those of his own constituency, both leaders and cadres, who had defected with PSP regulars, and when he was promoting non- Communist radicals to posts abandoned by the right-wing moderates. But this fact tends to obscure another of perhaps even more fundamental importance; namely, that Matos hesitated to carry out INRA’s orders in relation to the agrarian reform. “. . . In August, 1959,” one outsider has written, “the writer was informed in a conversation with an agronomist. . . working under the Point IV program of the U. S. government in Cuba, of the obvious disorganization of the agrarian reform program … in Camaguey. . . . Several months passed before anything happened; at the end of October, 1959, Huber Matos . . . was summarily removed by Fidel Castro, thrown into prison, and charged with blocking the agrarian reform,” having conspired with land-owners, according to the official version.

Revolutions, of course, are brutal businesses as anybody studying the French or Russian varieties can tell you. If Matos was guilty of sabotaging land reform in Camaguey, then there were grounds to charge him with a crime. Once again, my problem with Farber is less about him bringing up the case of Huber Matos, but leaving out the whole story.

Turning now to the question of how Cuba ended up as a “totalitarian” society, we learn from Farber that Fidel, Raul, and Che had it planned all along, echoing the hoary Cubanologist business of hidden agendas. It goes something like this. Fidel and company had plans all along to impose a Stalinist straightjacket on a freedom-loving people but kept it a secret until all their ducks were lined up in a row. Farber writes:

Contrary to beliefs that have long been held by many liberals and leftists in the United States and elsewhere, the revolutionary leadership did not establish a Soviet-type system on the island merely as a reaction to the powerful hostile pressures of US imperialism, much less internal class forces in Cuba. Undoubtedly, the revolutionary leaders acted under serious internal and external constraints. The strong opposition of the US Empire to anything that would disturb the economic, political, and foreign policy status quo in its “backyard” weighed heavily on the political calculus of the revolutionary leaders. But at least as important was that these leaders indeed had a political and ideological view of reality that shaped their perceptions of danger, the appropriate responses to it, and especially what they regarded as the desirable form of social and political organization. As Ernesto “Che” Guevara told the French weekly L’Express on July 25, 1963, “Our commitment to the eastern bloc was half the fruit of constraint and half the result of choice.”

With all due respect to Che Guevara (and a lot less so to Samuel Farber), “a political and ideological view of reality” had a lot less to do with the trajectory of the Cuban revolution than the relationship of class forces globally. But more importantly, the Cuban road to socialism was shaped very much by the country’s long history as a colony and the long-standing political crisis of both the parties of the right and the left. Farber would have preferred a lively political culture with a free press and multiparty elections (who wouldn’t?) but Cuba’s half-century of experience with a tainted “free” system led in a different direction. It is also important to keep in mind that an affinity for the Soviet Union was understandable given the prestige that the country enjoyed after the victory over fascism, the aid that was being given to the colonial revolution, and perhaps most importantly the perception that the worst days of Stalinism were in the past. So powerful was this perception that the Fourth International itself split over how to regard the Communist Parties, with Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel entertaining the possibility that they were capable of serving as imperfect revolutionary instruments. Standing against the turn toward the CP’s were the parties led by James P. Cannon and Gerry Healy. Cannon’s eventually figured out that the Cuban leadership was not “Stalinist” while Healy’s sect continued to agree with Samuel Farber’s analysis.

What Farber and the Spartacist League/Socialist Equality Party have in common is an idealist understanding of history. It goes something like this. Men and women develop ideas about what kind of society they want (and make sure to announce it to the world through proclamations meant to achieve posterity through the ages) and then assemble the cadre and mass following to implement those ideas. The obvious purpose of Farber’s writings is to inoculate the mass movement against pernicious “Stalinist” ideas that can subvert future revolutionary struggles.

For some on the left, the “prophylaxis of theory” is essential and serves as their reason for existing. When James P. Cannon smuggled an article by Leon Trotsky out of the USSR in a teddy bear, he was convinced that this was the necessary first step in creating a new revolutionary movement that could strike a lethal blow against both Stalinism and capitalism. As it turned out, Stalinism and capitalism have survived while his own party is moribund.

The “prophylaxis of theory” is most often tied to a particular papal figure on the left who like his Roman counterpart is best qualified to interpret the meaning of the holy writ (Marx and Engels) as the Pope arbitrates the New Testament.

For the ISO and the British SWP that figure is V.I. Lenin who was the USSR’s last best hope for carrying out “socialism from below”. Since V.I. Lenin died long before the Cuban Revolution, it is of course open season on the Fidelistas ideologically. Even though the Cuban Revolution has evolved along a path similar to the USSR’s experience with War Communism and the NEP, it does not get the benediction of Samuel Farber or the editorial boards of the state capitalist press.

There is a certain inconsistency at work here. It has always struck me as odd that the comrades allow themselves to publish every burp on Cuba that comes out of Farber’s mouth but never felt inspired to publish his views on Lenin and the Russian Revolution.

In 1996 Science and Society published a special issue on Lenin that included an article by Farber titled The Relevance of Lenin Today. In a nutshell, it encapsulates the Sovietology article of faith that Lenin led to Stalin, although he does not come out and state that explicitly. But anybody can figure out that this is implicit argument here:

Yet, here we find one of the more striking paradoxes in the Marxist tradition. While the struggle for democracy was central to Lenin’s politics, his conception of the nature of democracy was flawed even while he was in opposition, let alone when he was the head of the Soviet state. As I have argued at length elsewhere (Färber, 1990), there was a quasi-Jacobinism in Lenin’s politics that led him, for example, to give more importance to the politically more advanced elements organized in the party than to broader class institutions such as the soviets. Yet an elementary sense of proportion and perspective demands that we distinguish between Lenin’s flawed conception of democracy, which he mostly upheld until at least the Spring of 1918, and the clearly anti-democratic perspective that, with his associates, he began to adopt shortly before and especially during the course of the Civil War. These anti-democratic views and practices fully crystallized after the Civil War, in the period 1921-1923, even as Lenin reacted in genuine horror against the practical outcomes of those very views and actions. It was particularly during and after the Civil War that many undemocratic practices that may have indeed been justified as necessary came to be seen and defended by Lenin and other mainstream party leaders as intrinsically virtuous. The existence of this attitude is also demonstrated by the virtual absence of statements by Lenin attesting to the temporary or conjunctural nature of his repressive and anti-democratic measures, except in a few isolated instances, such as when the 1921 ban on party factions was originally declared to be temporary.

I should mention that Farber’s reference to “Lenin’s flawed conception of democracy” is another instance of idealism, seeking to explain the problems of Soviet statehood in the 1920s in terms of faulty thinking rather than the economic devastation and loss of cadre in a bloody civil war. If you discount such factors in the USSR, you are bound to discount them in Cuba, a country that faced sabotage and terror the minute the guerrillas marched into Havana.

I suspect that both the USSR under Lenin and Cuba under Castro get failing grades from the professor emeritus will matter little to those who remain committed to the state capitalist theoretical prophylaxis. But at least in one instance a leader of the British SWP had Farber nailed. John Rees, who has since gone his own way, wrote a book in 1997 titled In Defense of October that included an article by Farber along the lines of the S&S article cited above. As editor, Rees enjoyed the privilege of commenting on the various articles and made sure to inform Farber that his contribution reminded him of Robert Conquest.

In some ways, Farber is correct. Both the Russian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution were “from above”. Both used political and cultural repression against its enemies. And both certainly failed to measure up to the yardstick of socialism as defined in the Marxist classics. My guess is that no revolution ever will.

In 2007 reviews of a new book by Lesley Chamberlain titled Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia caught my eye. The amazon.com blurb sums it up pretty well:

In 1922, Lenin personally drew up a list of some 160 ‘undesirable’ intellectuals – mostly philosophers, academics, scientists and journalists – to be deported from the new Soviet State. ‘We’re going to cleanse Russia once and for all’ he wrote to Stalin, whose job it was to oversee the deportation. Two ships sailed from Petrograd that autumn, taking Old Russia’s eminent men and their families away to what would become permanent exile in Berlin, Prague and Paris. Lesley Chamberlain creates a rich portrait of this chilling historical moment, evoked with immediacy through the journals, letters, and memoirs of the exiles.

Now this was after the worst of the Civil War was over and before the NEP began to unwind. There is no evidence that Lenin acted in any way other than Fidel Castro acted when the Beatles were banned from Cuban radio. That, after all, is what happens in revolutions. They are subject to excess.

My advice to Samuel Farber and the comrades who take him seriously is to consider these lines of William Blake, one of Britain’s greatest revolutionary poets:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

December 12, 2012

Was Che Guevara a Stalinist?

Filed under: cuba,Latin America,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:33 pm

Spain Rodriguez and Che Guevara

Working my way at a leisurely pace through Sam Farber’s egregiously wrongheaded “Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959”, I came across this remarkable comparison between Joseph Stalin’s foreign policy and Che’s:

The second major source of Cuba’s foreign policy was the independent Communist perspective of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who according to his biographers was a self-described admirer of Stalin even after Khrushchev’s revelation of the Russian leader’s crimes in 1956. Guevara was an ally of the old Cuba Communists from 1957 to 1960, a decisive period during which the key divisions about the kind of society that would be built in Cuba were made. But after 1960, Guevara’s views and practices began to differ from those of the USSR and the old Cuban Communists on matters of domestic and foreign policy. The Soviet Union and the old Cuban Communists were supporting the “right-wing Popular Front approaches, which as I earlier indicated, were initially developed in the mid-thirties by the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties involving alliances with forces to their right including the “progressive bourgeoisie.” Guevara’s approach was more similar, although not identical, to the far more intransigent and aggressive policies that Stalin adopted during other periods.

I really don’t want to make this article any longer than it has to be so I will not take apart all the factual and analytical errors contained in this excerpt but limit myself to Farber’s observation about Guevara adopting a policy “more similar” to the “the far more intransigent and aggressive policies that Stalin adopted during other periods.” They say that very observant Muslims can be identified by the appearance of a bruise-like marking on their forehead developed through a lifetime of prayer. I sometimes worry that I will develop the same kind of mark through slapping my forehead from reading such Farber howlers. What in god’s name is this professor emeritus talking about? Stalin’s “aggressive” policies? If this is a reference to the “third period”, then aggressive is hardly the operative term. Instead, imbecilic ultraleftism might obtain. There was nothing “aggressive” about the policy of lumping together National Socialism and “social fascism” (in other words, the German Social Democracy).

An obvious obligation for a scholar writing about Che’s foreign policy would be to examine the Organization of Afro-Asian Solidarity, the Tricontinental, or Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS), three groups that reflected both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s foreign policy outlook. In a 1967 message to the Tricontinental, Guevara said the following:

America, a forgotten continent in the last liberation struggles, is now beginning to make itself heard through the Tricontinental and, in the voice of the vanguard of its peoples, the Cuban Revolution, will today have a task of much greater relevance: creating a Second or a Third Vietnam, or the Second and Third Vietnam of the world.

What in the world does this have to do with Joseph Stalin’s foreign policy (a wonkish term that I only use  to remain consistent with Farber’s Cubanology)? Most people at the time, including members of the Fourth International, recognized this call as a return to the proletarian internationalism of Leon Trotsky (as well as Marx, Engels, and Rosa Luxemburg) even if the practical application of it in Bolivia was poorly thought through.

If you go to the index of Farber’s book, you will find no reference to the Organization of Afro-Asian Solidarity, the Tricontinental, or Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS). As a rule of thumb, anything that inconveniences his ideological agenda gets swept under the rug. Furthermore, despite all his efforts to tarnish Che Guevara as a Stalinist, there is evidence that Farber found the Cuban Communist Party (called the Popular Socialist Party, the PSP) much more “Marxist” than the movement led by Castro and Guevara.

Ironically, although at the beginning of 1959 the PSP was neither popular nor prestigious and Fidel Castro and his Twenty-sixth-of-July movement were monopolizing mass support, the results of the revolutionary process would prove to be much closer to the PSP program than to any other Cuban political group or party.

Last but not least, the PSP was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program as the basis for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted with the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

“The Cuban Communists in the Early Stages of the Cuban Revolution: Revolutionaries or Reformists?”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1983), pp. 59-83

I want to call your attention to the use of the terms “program” and “ideology” in the excerpt above. They are a dead giveaway that the author is in the throes of what Marxists call idealism. This is not the idealism of boy scouts but of Plato. It is a philosophy that held sway until the mid-19th century when Marx appropriated materialism as a weapon in the class struggle. For Sam Farber the “positions” of the PSP matter much more than its role in the Cuban class struggle as a conservative enemy of the “putschism” of the young rebels. The irony in all this is that Farber got his political training in Max Shachtman’s YPSL, a group that when he joined in 1961 still had some Trotskyist blood flowing in its increasingly hardening arteries.

In September 2011 Jacobin Magazine published an article by James Bloodworth titled “The Cult of Che” that repeats the slander about Che’s Stalinism.

It was here [in Guatemala after Arbenz was overthrown] that Guevara, in his own words, became a communist, or more specifically, a believer in the quasi-religious doctrine of Stalinism: “At which moment I left the path of reason and took on something akin to faith I can’t tell you even approximately because the path was very long and with a lot of backward steps. ”Jorge Castañeda, in Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, describes how Che, writing to his aunt back in Argentina, had “sworn before a picture of our old, much lamented comrade Stalin that I will not rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated,” signing-off his letters as “Stalin II.”

I have a totally different interpretation of Che’s letter to his aunt. If you were a serious Stalinist in the 1950s, the last thing you would be talking about is seeing “capitalist octopuses annihilated.” The Communist Parties of Latin America were like those everywhere else in the world, committed to class-collaboration. In fact, it was a desire to see these octopuses (do you think that this was the inspiration for Matt Taibbi’s “vampire squid”?) annihilated that drew Che Guevara into the arms of the July 26th Movement despite its failure to adhere to the programmatic points of the PSP. (Now what was it that Karl Marx wrote in a letter to Bracke? Oh, I remember: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”)

Frankly, I would advise the Jacobin Magazine comrades to think twice about publishing articles by people who have given interviews to Norm Geras, the scabrous British professor emeritus and arch-Islamophobe—as James Bloodworth did in June 2012. I am generally not disposed to applying litmus tests, a hallmark of the Trotskyist movement, but if I were, high up on my list would be Norman Geras’s blog. Getting his approval is the kiss of death.

When asked by Geras what he was reading at the time, Bloodworth responded, “Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’m quite embarrassed that I haven’t read this already.” One suspects that if Bloodworth had been asked to name his favorite blog, he might have answered Pam Geller’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

Geras’s last question was: If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? Bloodworth replied: “Christopher Hitchens, Che Guevara, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” If I was sufficiently motivated to do a follow-up with Bloodworth, I might have asked if Che Guevara was going to be the main course or dessert.

As an antidote to these sorts of noxious efflorescence, I can’t recommend Spain Rodriquez’s “Che: a graphic biography” highly enough. Published by Verso in 2008 (edited by the good Paul Buhle), it was sitting on my shelf for the past four years as one in a collection of books I had promised to review.

Spain Rodriguez’s death last week was just the impetus I needed to read the book and pull together some thoughts. For those who knew as little about Spain as I did, there’s an obit by Paul Buhle that should make it obvious why he would have developed a working relationship with the artist:

The whole comix artistic crowd moved to San Francisco around 1970, joining Robert Crumb and a few others already there, part of the acid-rock, post–Summer of Love setting. Underground comix, replicating the old kids-comics format but now in black and white, grew up alongside the underground press, whose reprinting of comix created the market for the books. Crumb was the artist whose work sold the best, in the hundreds of thousands, but Spain was widely regarded as the most political. He was heavily influenced by the most bohemian of the EC comics world, wild man Wallace Wood, whose sci-fi adventures depicted civilizations recovering from atomic war and whose Mad Comics stories assaulted the 1950s commercialization of popular culture. Wood’s dames were also extremely sexy, too overtly sexy for the diluted satire of the later Mad Magazine.

Trashman: Agent of the Sixth International was Rodriguez’s signature saga in these early years, serialized in underground papers, comix anthologies, and eventually collected in comic book form as Subvert Comics. These revolutionaries took revenge on a truly evil American ruling class in assorted ways, many of them violent, but they also had fun and sex, and were subject to many self-satirizing gags, in the process. By the middle 1970s, his work had broadened into more social and historical themes, often with class, sex, and violence highlighting his points. Histories of revolutions and anti-fascist actions (and all their complexities) inspired some of his closest reading of real events, but he had no fixed point on the left-wing scale. He admired and drew about anti-Bolshevist anarchist leader Nestor Makhno also anti-Stalinist Spanish anarchist Durruti, but he also drew about Red Army members facing death fighting the Germans, and so on. (Several of these pieces are now reprinted in Anarchy Comics: The Complete Collection, an anthology from that 1980s series, just published by PM Press.)

I would argue that if Paul had an affinity for Spain, Spain obviously had one for Che who in many ways was the same kind of eclectic rebel. If Che signed a letter to his aunt “Stalin II”, this by no means precluded him carrying around Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” (a gift from Regis Debray) in his knapsack in the Bolivian countryside.

And quite frankly, there is a dotted line between Paul and me and through him, Spain and Che as well. Not long after I had decompressed from 11 years of membership in the Socialist Workers Party, I began to draw away from the sorts of “litmus tests” that people like Farber and Bloodworth were wont to impose. Some fifteen years ago or so I became good cyberfriends with Mark Jones, a Briton who was about as pro-Stalin as you can get. He was even brassy enough to defend Stalin’s purge of the Red Army officers’ corps, a position that by the 1960s was only popular among Hoxhaite circles. But it was our shared belief in the need to confront the environmental crisis that made us political allies. The other stuff was secondary.

Turning now to Spain’s book, the conclusion that you will be left with is that Che Guevara was a man of deep principle whose hatred of injustice guided his every step.

che_spain

This page from early in the book is drawn from “The Motorcycle Diary”. It gives you both a flavor of Spain’s amazing graphic capabilities as well as his insight into what made Che Guevara tick. In the top right Che says farewell to a miner and his wife who he met on his way through Chile. He says, “Even if communists are a danger to ‘decent life’ it seems like the natural longing for something better, a protest against persistent hunger.” That says it all, a protest against persistent hunger.

Despite all attempts to either demonize or sanctify Che Guevara, he was simply a product of his generation. Seeing the exploited and oppressed with his own eyes, either on his father’s plantation or “on the road” in Latin America served as a categorical imperative: you must help make the socialist revolution.

Che Guevara called himself “Stalin II” not because he had conducted a meticulous study of the writings of Leon Trotsky versus Joseph Stalin and decided that the ideas of the latter were more correct. The powerful historical momentum that begun just ten years earlier when the Red Army wiped fascism off the face of the earth was the decisive factor. So was the colonial revolution that was to turn the Congo, Algeria and Vietnam into a maelstrom. Che was not a “Stalinist”. He was simply a servant of history.

One of Karl Marx’s most frequently citations is from the 18th Brumaire:

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 encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

The problem with people like Farber and Bloodworth is that they are not interested in historical context. Everything takes place in a vacuum that has more in common with a graduate school political science seminar than the beating heart of the class struggle. Che Guevara arrived at his ideas in the same way that millions of young radicals did in the immediate post-WWII era. That period of history came to an end a long time ago. For the radicals of today we have the obligation to identify the progressive historical forces today that are gathering momentum today and help midwife them to victory. About the best thing you can say about Che is that he rose to the occasion. Let us not succumb to the easy temptation in a period of deep reaction to treat him as our enemy. While no revolutionary leader should be mythologized, the martyrdom of Che Guevara was something that should be respected by each and every one of us no matter our ideology.

The Associated Press Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Bolivian President Pays Tribute to Guevara
By CARLOS VALDEZ

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales celebrated the birthday of Che Guevara Wednesday, the first time a top Bolivian leader has paid tribute to the revolutionary who was executed in the Andean nation four decades ago.

Surrounded by Cuban and Venezuelan officials, Morales observed the 78th anniversary of Guevara’s birth, using the occasion to praise his close allies President Fidel Castro of Cuba and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Guevara, an Argentine, launched an armed revolt in 1966 to bring communism to Bolivia after helping lead the 1959 Cuban Revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista and thrust Castro into power.

He waged a guerrilla insurgency for 13 months in Bolivia but was captured and executed by the Bolivian army at age 39.

Morales flew in a helicopter loaned by Venezuela to the small town of La Higuera– the site of Guevara’s execution– 480 miles southeast of La Paz.

Local children and nearby residents blew out a birthday cake with 78 candles representing how old Guevara would be if were alive.

He said in a speech that a decade ago he had a dream that there would be other Cubas in Latin America.

“I wasn’t wrong,” he said. “Now we do have another commander, colleague Chavez.” He also praised Castro’s Cuba, and he said both leader have shown they unafraid of “the empire,” a reference to the United States.

Since taking office in January, Morales has forged close alliances with Cuba and Venezuela, which have flooded Bolivia –South America’s poorest country– with aid.

Morales thanked Venezuela and Cuba for their aid and said he would make Castro a cake for his next birthday made of coca — the leaf from which cocaine is derived.

The coca leaf has traditional and legal uses in Bolivia although the U.S. has long backed its eradication.

October 23, 2012

Fidel Castro is Dying by Fidel Castro

Filed under: cuba — louisproyect @ 10:58 pm

http://monthlyreview.org/castro/2012/10/22/fidel-castro-is-dying-by-fidel-castro/

November 3, 2010

AfroCubism

Filed under: Africa,cuba,music — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

http://www.villagevoice.com/2010-11-03/music/afrocubism-emerges-at-last/

AfroCubism Emerges at Last

A Mali-Cuba connection, 14 years in the making, is finally forged

By Tad Hendrickson

Most Buena Vista Social Club fans remember the group’s backstory: elite Cuban musicians coaxed out of retirement in 1996 for sessions designed to mingle them with their Malian counterparts, except the African stars made the mistake of trying to handle their visa applications by mail. They never made it, the Cubans soldiered on alone, and the rest, as they say, is eight-times-platinum history.Fourteen years later, producer Nick Gold has finally revisited his original concept. The resulting record, AfroCubism, features BVSC guitarist Eliades Ochoa (the cowboy hat-wearing singer of the hit “Chan Chan”) and his band, Grupo Patria, alongside ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate, guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, and a few other Malian ringers, including kora titan Toumani Diabaté. Throw around the phrase “Afro-Cuban,” and usually a blustery Latin-jazz vortex with Mario Bauza and Machito at its center comes to mind, but this is a different animal altogether: The big brass riffing and conga drums are supplanted by an earthier, string-based tradition, the similar-sounding guitar, ngoni, and kora shimmering together with the same subtlety that made BVSC so alluring, inviting Yoruban spirits to the campfire rather than trying to chase them away with the blast of a horn.

The album opens with the self-explanatory instrumental “Mali Cuba,” the bouncy melody complemented by brief, introductory solos by several players, the result a prologue of sorts leading straight to the heart of the matter: “Al Vaiven De Mi Carretta,” which translates to “The Swaying of My Cart.” This Cuban classic, written by Ñico Saquito, is here driven by Ochoa’s robust guitar and vocals, yet the Africans immediately line up behind him: Vocalist Kasse Mady Diabaté sings alternating verses as the strings add subtle accents to each lyrical line about the plight of poor farmers. Something magical happens on one of the last choruses, with keening African voices perfectly rising up together with the incantatory Cubans.

And then, the reverse happens: The Malian classic “Karamo” (or “The Hunter”) shifts the focus to a griot performing in an African town square, the music dense as Kasse Mady Diabaté’s voice and Toumani Diabaté’s kora fly above the percolating polyrhythms. The vocals are in Swahili, but they have a Spanish exclamatory element to them, and Kouyate and Tounkara handle their instruments in an almost Cuban-like style, tightening up their exploratory lines to something more forceful and tuning their instruments to a Western musical scale.

Both tunes are about as perfect a blend of AfroCubism‘s two dominant cultures as you’ll ever find; the rest of the album sustains that high. As it turns out, Mali was Cuban-music crazy from the ’50s to the ’70s, as friendly governments oversaw globe-trotting cultural exchanges. Mali’s music scene, the crown jewel of Africa, is consequently deeply indebted to Cuban music, with popular bands like Orchestra Baobab, the Star Band, Djelimady’s Rail Band, and others bringing Cuban flair both to the radio and the clubs. This 14-track tribute alternates between the two countries, never leaning too far in either direction as it shifts from Cuban treasures to traditional griot numbers to original unions of the two. “Fusion” can be a dirty word, but not here: At long last, Gold and his cohorts have achieved something that lives up to its original promise, a direct link between the Old World and the new.

The AfroCubism band plays Town Hall November 9

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