Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

August 13, 2012

The Chilean Building

Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 8:04 pm

Macarena Aguiló is not only the director of “The Chilean Building” that opens today at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem. She is also one of the subjects, namely the children of MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria) guerrillas who were left behind by their parents when they returned to Chile to conduct a futile armed resistance to the Pinochet dictatorship.

The children became part of an experiment called “Project Home” that included 60 at its peak. First in France and then in Cuba, they were raised in a communal environment by MIR sympathizers who while having no ability to determine events in Chile could control the way that children were raised in “the Chilean building”. This meant no television. It also meant conducting mock guerrilla training in Cuba with young boys and girls in fatigues and berets firing what looks like real machine guns.

Just as “red diaper babies” of CP parents in the U.S. looked forward to their summers at places like Camp Wochica, where they could both play softball and enjoy Paul Robeson performances, “Project Home” was a “liberated zone” with kids and adults treating each other as equals, staying up to 11pm and generally having free rein. But as much as they bonded with their new quasi-parents, they never lost touch with the real ones who were fighting in Chile. They received communications from them frequently but on a basis that had more to do with a Tom Clancy novel than letters from mom and dad to their kids at Camp Beaver Dam. The letters were written in microfilm and the names of both the children and the parents changed with every new communication. It is little wonder that they began to suffer alienation from each other.

Macarena Aguiló is a constant presence throughout the film but is not Michael Moore-styled intrusive. Mostly she is there to have a conversation with those who went through the “Project Home” experience, including the children like herself, her lefty foster parents, and finally and most movingly her own mother.

One of the most revealing moments in the film involves a MIR veteran describing his movement’s realization in the late 70s that armed struggle was futile. Eventually most became reabsorbed into bourgeois society or part of the parliamentary left that eventually assumed power after the end of the dictatorship. If this was a painful process, it must have been doubly and triply painful to realize as well that the ties with their children who were returning to Chile could not be reestablished.

In many ways the encounters between the young adults being reunited with their parents was as awkward as those involving children being adopted as babies finally meeting their real parents, a drama given new heights in Mike Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies”. The principals in Macarena Aguiló’s very fine documentary are wrestling with problems that overlap the political and the personal and as such would have a lot to say to my readers.

The film will be especially interesting to people my age who a MIR member described himself as belonging to the “generation of 1968”. American Trotskyists, unlike the MIR, were generally dissuaded from having children and when they did often decided to relegate them to their own version of “Project Home”. In one instance that I vividly recall since it involved a personal relationship, my girlfriend in Houston had decided to leave her infant daughter with her mother since the child stood in the way of her activism. At least once a week she would show me baby pictures and come close to crying over not being with her child.

What we did have in common with the MIR was a belief that the “bourgeois family” was as much a part of the rotten capitalist system as Wall Street banks or the Pentagon. Unlike us, the MIR was in a position to create an alternative that embodied their communal values but was only partially successful to say the least.

“The Chilean Building” is a gripping drama that like so much of the time today surpasses narrative films both in its believability as well as its intensity. I would also strongly urge my readers to make a point of seeing it for no other reason that is an excuse to see a new and revitalized Harlem. The theater is at 343 Lenox Avenue/Malcolm X Boulevard between 127th and 128th Streets, just a stone’s throw away from a Senegalese/Continental fusion restaurant called Les Ambassades Bar & Restaurant that I spent a pleasant evening at just before retiring from Columbia University. Just across the street are Sylvia’s and the Red Rooster, two landmark Harlem restaurants also worth your time if you make reservations in advance.

March 12, 2012

Finding fault with Hugo Chavez

Filed under: Latin America — louisproyect @ 4:20 pm

For the better part of a decade segments of the far left have found fault with governments in Latin America that carry out significant reforms but have failed to abolish capitalism. To some extent, the criticisms have been fueled by the obvious contradictions between the socialist rhetoric of someone like a Hugo Chavez and the socio-economic reality. One cannot escape the feeling that there is a certain recycling of the Bolshevik versus Menshevik/SR narrative in all this despite the fact that the Bolsheviks were a material reality on the ground in Russia in 1917 while the left critics of today have little to offer other than their words.

While it is hard to refute arguments that Venezuela or Bolivia continues to be based on capitalist property relations and that their leftwing governments frequently offer concessions to the native bourgeoisie at the expense of the working class and its allies, perhaps another yardstick is more useful in assessing them. If we bracket out the “21st century socialism” type rhetoric and simply judge their achievements against other governments in Latin America over the past half-century, their grades improve.

When I was first coming around the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I asked an SWP member for some reading recommendations. To his credit, he did not suggest James P. Cannon but had me look at John Gerassi’s “The Great Fear in Latin America”, selections of which can be read here including chapter 17 titled “A Digression: United States — Latin American Inter-History”. There Gerassi writes:

Never has any freely elected candidate from Right, Center, or Left who showed himself the least bit independent of our policies been able to last out his whole term. Always the forces that threw him out have been trained and equipped by and sometimes in the United States. The only exceptions have arisen when popular revolutions had previously destroyed these forces. Thus, the Latin American patriot, the Nationalist, the genuine reformer has had to buck us as well as local oligarchs. Today, if we are to understand him, we must not only accept this fact; we must also realize that to him all our aid, our treaties, our loans, and our military missions are evil.

The Latin American Nationalist has had too many examples of United States intervention in his continent during the last few years to let him forget the long list of our interventions in the past. Memories are short only when suffering is short. Latin Americans’ memories are long because they are still suffering. And any policy that we may adopt, if it is aimed at reconquering Latin America as our friend, must be careful never to forget that such a long list exists. It goes back very far. Let us glance at it rapidly, starting only from the last century, in fact, from 1823 when the Monroe Doctrine was conceived.

If this is the context for evaluating progress in Latin America, the past decade looks pretty good, especially when compared to what is happening in places like Greece and Spain today; but if your yardstick is a socialist ideal, then perhaps not so much.

All this comes to mind when you look at a guest post on the popular Lenin’s Tomb blog by Callum McCormick titled Threshold of the Bolivarian revolution. While McCormick is more charitable toward his subjects than others I have seen in the Trotskyist press, he leaves you with the distinct feeling that Hugo Chavez is a disappointment:

For those who support Chavez and the project of ‘21st century socialism’, the election is something of a crossroads. The long time activist and former member of the Chavez government, Roland Denis, recently said that the project for building an alternative to capitalism had ‘collapsed’. The problem for Chavez is the same one confronting all the governments of the ‘pink tide’ in Latin America. Their elections expressed and promoted a desire for radical social change among the despised masses of Latin America. Their actions in government have often given concrete form to these desires and just as often thwarted them.

The story is an old one. Propelled into government across the continent as part of a deep and general revolt against the IMF imposed ‘structural adjustment’ programs of the 80’s and 90’s, the ‘new left’ is faced with the dilemma of knowing that an alternative is needed but not quite being sure what it is. Socialism is, not the first time, proclaimed everywhere and created nowhere.

Now of course the British SWP has no problem with “the dilemma of knowing that an alternative is needed but not quite being sure what it is.” They would be the first to tell you that Venezuela needs a movement to the left of Chavez that can, as McCormick puts it, “build up the pressure for a fundamental and irreversible transformation of Venezuelan society.” In other words, it needs a Bolshevik type party to supersede the Menshevik figure in power. Just ask Chris Harman:

In the great revolutionary movements of the 20th century, permanent revolution meant workers throwing up their own democratic institutions from below, workers’ councils, and then drawing behind them the rest of the exploited and the oppressed.

The workers, bound together in the workplaces by a common battle against exploitation, found it easier to develop an organic unity in struggle than did the peasants or the urban poor.

Disillusion with the parliamentarians means there is a great deal of talk about “popular power” as an alternative in Venezuela.

But for the first three tendencies it simply means councils elected to mediate between the government and the mass of people.

For the revolution to become truly permanent workers would have to go much further than this. They need to establish their own democratic organs so as to take control of the government, to replace the existing corrupt state structure and to reorganise industry so as to end the poverty and huge inequalities that still characterise Venezuela today.

If you stop and think about it, this is a formula based on what happened in Russia in 1917, something that all Marxists would obviously support. If the choice is between a Chavez presidency that marks time with its bureaucratic and rightwing elements and workers “bound together in the workplaces by a common battle against exploitation”, how can you pick choice A from the menu when there is choice B? Especially when choice B comes with a complementary bottle of wine?

Missing entirely from Harman’s analogy with 1917 is an understanding of how the Bolsheviks became a party with the political and moral authority to supersede Kerensky. Why have groups that emerged out of the Trotskyist movement, including Tony Cliff’s, never achieved the mass influence that would make such a scenario more than an idle fantasy? In politics there are sins of commission and sins of omission. If Hugo Chavez is guilty of the sins of commission, including a failure to nationalize the commanding heights of industry and institute a planned economy, then what about the aspiring vanguard parties of Latin America that come out of the Trotskyist movement? What responsibility do they have for the “betrayals” from the “fake left”? About 10 years ago I visited a friend in Washington whose wife worked at the Smithsonian Library. We visited the place and browsed around the reference library, where my friend spotted what he described as one of his favorite books: Robert Alexander’s Trotskyism in Latin America.

If you thumb through its pages, you will find a Sargasso Sea of tiny groups that never achieved anything like the popularity of Hugo Chavez’s. They are frequently the products of splits, having names like Workers Militant Party (Revolutionary) to distinguish itself from the sell-outs of the Workers Militant Party. My friend had an entirely different take on all this than I did. He saw their failure as a product of Stalinist hegemony mixed with capitalist repression. I, on the other hand, saw their own sectarianism as the main cause even if the other factors were real enough in themselves.

There was an alternative to this. The Cuban revolution was led by a true vanguard. The July 26th Movement was led by young revolutionaries who came to Marxism on their own terms rather than being “trained” by the traditional far left parties. By abandoning the “programmatic” boilerplate that was associated with such groups and that revolved around a correct interpretation of the Russian revolution, the July 26th Movement removed artificial barriers that would have impeded its growth. Furthermore, the “program” of the movement was embodied in speeches like “History Will Absolve Me” that spoke to the deeply felt needs of the Cuban people in language drawn from the Cuban experience, including Jose Marti’s writings, rather than Russia 1917.

For obvious reasons Cuba no longer provides a pole of attraction in the same way it used to for revolutionary fighters. The aging of the revolution and the loss of support from the Soviet Union have made Castro’s affinity for the new Latin American left understandable. If it is no longer possible for a new July 26th Movement to triumph, then isn’t the next best thing to have a left reformist government in power? After all, Che Guevara risked his life fighting to defend Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Doesn’t Hugo Chavez compare favorably with Arbenz?

In some ways the Latin American left lags behind developments in the rest of the world, particularly the Arab Spring. This would explain Hugo Chavez’s unforgivable support for Qaddafi and now al-Assad. The premises of 21st century socialism seem geared in many ways to a pre-2008 period in which the long slow development of workers power in bourgeois society—analogous in many ways to the development of capitalist property relations within feudalism—was appropriate for the time. After all, the capitalist economy was expanding throughout the world, including important countries in Latin America like Brazil and oil-rich Venezuela.

We are in a different period now. I don’t think it is necessary to abandon the term 21st century socialism since it embodies important ideas, including the need for a democratic movement and popular power (in many respects, this is nothing but a return to classical Marxism.)

But the economic crisis forces us to look at a new set of circumstances, one in which movements for social change can lag behind the social relations that are being shaped by swift-moving currents. Everywhere in the world the left is being challenged by attacks on working people such as the kind that have not been seen since the 1930s. Despite the ability of Latin American left governments to remain somewhat isolated from these attacks (a function to some extent of their role in a rapidly expanding mineral and agricultural export market), they too will eventually face the same sorts of contradictions. Indeed, Callum McCormick states that “a defeat would for Chavez would be a setback for the left and perhaps ignite a ‘carnival of reaction’ across the continent.”

While I would not question the need for criticisms of Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales (I would have found it impossible not to point out the glaring contradictions between the ideals of 21st century socialism and Qaddafi’s police state), my suggestion to the far left comrades who were trained in the Trotskyist movement is to begin thinking about how they can become part of a process that does not serve the same kind of role in left politics that Roger Ebert plays in movies. There is always room for a good critic but given the urgency of our times we don’t so much need journalism on Chavez’s flaws but concrete proposals on how to move the left forward and more importantly actions that can serve as an inspiration and a model for our movement globally.

September 14, 2011

Granito

Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Opening at the IFC Center in NY Today, Pamela Yates’s “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” is an ambivalent but powerful documentary by the same woman who directed “When the Mountains Tremble” in 1982. That film about Guatemala’s guerrilla struggle that featured Rigoberta Menchú’s testimony is essential viewing for those wanting to understand the Central American revolutions of the 1980s, especially when it is watched in tandem with Susan Meiselas’s “Pictures from a Revolution”. (“When the Mountains Tremble” can be seen on Youtube just below, while Meiselas’s film is available on Netflix, including a streaming version.)

While not a “repentant” work, there is a general sense of dismay in Yates’s latest film that can be attributed to the terrible genocidal toll taken on the Guatemalan people in the 1980s and the ability of the top military brass to remain off the hook until now, General Rios Montt in particular.

The documentary is focused on the struggle of the survivors of the massacres to get justice, particularly from the Spanish judiciary that has played a role in indicting Chile’s Pinochet. Much of the film is set in a courtroom where testimony is presented against the murderers in uniform who dare not leave Guatemala for fear of being arrested like Pinochet.

Pamela Yates becomes a key witness to the prosecution, at least through the medium of her film and her outtakes that include damning admissions from different military men, including Rios Montt who tells the young film-maker in 1982 that he “controls everything”, in clear contradiction to the defense subsequently mounted that out-of-control troops—a la Lieutenant Calley—were responsible.

As anybody familiar with Guatemala’s recent history can tell you, the same problems that provoked an armed struggle still exist. Landlords still own nearly all the land and the government is ill-disposed to challenging them. Even with the election of “reformist” politicians, the tight control over the army and police is wielded by the rich who would likely resort to genocide if their rule was threatened.

While the film is not agitprop (how could it be under the circumstances?), it is essential viewing for those trying to make sense of what happened in the 1980s when President Reagan gave military and political support to the worst gang of murderers seen in a generation. It is difficult to watch the grinning General Rios Montt without shouting out in anger against the movie screen. The only consolation is knowing that film-makers of conscience like Pamela Yates and the Mayan people of Guatemala will not rest until he receives justice.

February 10, 2011

Carancho

Filed under: crime,Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

Over the years, automobile crashes have become apt symbols in a group of movies attempting to make big statements about society. Perhaps the most profound was Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” that featured a long tracking shot of a traffic jam on a French country road that culminated in a shocking car wreck with mangled bodies strewn across the road. That pivotal scene was an introduction to the remainder of the film that depicted a France descending into barbarism.

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s Paul Haggis’s “Crash”, a movie that preaches “understanding” as a way for the races to reconcile. Orchestrated over a series of fender benders, the film exhibits Hollywood liberalism at its most meretricious. Apparently, Haggis just resigned from Scientology after 35 years in protest over the cult’s opposition to gay marriage. Now that would be a plot for a movie I’d much prefer to see.

The most recent entrant into the field is Carancho, an Argentine film directed by Pablo Trapero that opens at the Angelica Film Center in NY tomorrow. I have seen Trapero’s Crane World, a powerful neorealist study of a crane operator, as well as El Bonaerense, a documentary-like feature about police corruption in Buenos Aires. Crane World is available from Netflix and I recommend it highly.

Carancho is the Spanish word for vulture and refers to the main character, an ambulance-chasing lawyer who preys on the families of the dead and those injured in car crashes. While Trapero is aspiring for social commentary in the same way as Godard and Haggis, he is also insistent on the more mundane aspects of a problem which is decimating Argentina. The film opens with words to this effect on the screen (these were taken from the press notes):

In Argentina, more than eight thousand people die every year in road accidents at a daily average of twenty-two. More than a hundred and twenty thousand are injured. Only the last decade has seen one hundred thousand deaths. The millions of pesos that every victim represents in medical and legal expenses produces an enormous market, supported by the compensations of insurance companies and the weakness of the law. Behind every tragedy, there is an industry.

We first meet the lawyer Sosa at a funeral where he is being punched and kicked by a couple of burly surviving relatives for representing himself as a friend of the deceased and a fan of the same soccer team the dead man followed religiously. Suspecting rightly that he was a shyster, the relatives ask him to name the team. After Sosa answers incorrectly, they pummel him. Lying on the ground, he keeps naming other teams—incorrectly—and receives fresh blows for his efforts.

His shady business brings him into contact eventually with a young female doctor named Luján who works the night shift in an ambulance. Without wasting any time, the two end up as passionate lovers even though she understands that he is a carancho. Her own social isolation working at nights might have something to do with this, but Sosa has a real charisma despite his tawdry background. On their first date, he bets her that if two cars go through a red light at the nearby intersection, she will have to let him kiss her. She ups the ante to four. After 6 cars ignore the red light, they kiss. In the very next scene, they are undressing each other in Luján’s bedroom.

Sosa is played by Ricardo Darín, one of Argentina’s most respected actors. He plays Sosa as a kind of tarnished Bogart-like figure. Darín was Marcos, the senior partner of younger con man in “Nine Queens”, a similar role. Middle-aged and a bit overweight, Sosa has an insouciant charm that Luján finds irresistible. She is played by Martina Gusman who has starred in other Trapero movies, including El Bonaerense, and co-founded a film production company with him in 2002. She is excellent.

In the press notes, interviewer Michael Guillén asks Trapero for his thoughts on a comment by Eduardo Galeano:

Galeano argues that there is nothing accidental about car wrecks; that, in fact, from the moment cars were manufactured and set loose on the roadways car wrecks were inevitable. He said a better word to describe a car wreck would be “a consequence”, rather than “an accident”.

If Trapero is intent on describing the consequences of the automobile on Argentine society, he seeks to it not as a documentary film-maker would. Instead, his approach is that of the film noir director for whom the crashes—always occurring at night—serve as a kind of deux ex machina that drives the plot forward, with ever-increasingly ghastly results. When Trapero decides to break with the gangsters who employ him, they threaten both his life and Luján’s. In the stunning climax, the conflict between man and man, and man and machine is resolved in chilling fashion.

June 27, 2010

The New York Times assaults Oliver Stone and the truth

Filed under: Film,Latin America,media — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Larry Rohter

In yesterday’s NY Times, there was a most curious article in the arts section, usually devoted to the latest buzz about Tom Cruise or a Picasso exhibition. Larry Rohter, the toad who usually covers Latin American news from the perspective of Fulgencio Batista, weighed in on Oliver Stone’s “South of the Border”. Needless to day, the emphasis was on defending the agenda of the State Department rather than camera angles.

Rohter begins by trying to undermine the credibility of the movie by pointing out factual errors. We learn, for example:

As “South of the Border” portrays it, Mr. Chávez’s main opponent in his initial run for president in 1998 was “a 6-foot-1-inch blond former Miss Universe” named Irene Sáez, and thus “the contest becomes known as the Beauty and the Beast” election.

But Mr. Chávez’s main opponent then was not Ms. Sáez, who finished third, with less than 3 percent of the vote. It was Henrique Salas Romer, a bland former state governor who won 40 percent of the vote.

This is the same ploy that has been used against Paul Buhle and Howard Zinn over the years. Pinheaded liberal professors go over their books with a microscope looking for factual errors when it is really the politics they are after.

Once you get past the Miss Universe slip-up, the rest of Rohter’s article is the same old crap about Hugo Chavez the evil tyrant. To buttress his case, he calls attention to José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, being expelled from the country “in violation of Venezuelan law, after Human Rights Watch issued a critical report in 2008.” HRW is supposedly to be trusted because “has issued tough reports on both” Colombia and Venezuela. Of course, it is necessary to write that Colombia violates human rights, a rather unremarkable observation, if you want to get the upper hand in trashing Venezuela and Cuba. HRW is quite skilled at this game. The problem, however, is that there really is no comparison between the two countries and it is disingenuous to make an amalgam of the two. In Colombia, there are death squads roaming the country that assassinate trade unionists and peasant leaders. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez pushes for an end to term limits. Bad Colombia. Bad Venezuela. And, bad, bad NYT and HRW for linking the two countries.

Moving on from HRW, Rohter dredges up the 2002 coup that Oliver Stone gets all wrong, relying on the narrative put forward in the excellent “The revolution will not be televised” that can now be seen online, thank goodness.

What he neglects to mention, however, is how the NY Times became part of the well-orchestrated campaign to rob Venezuelans of their democratic rights. On April 13, 2002, immediately after Hugo Chávez was overthrown, the paper editorialized:

With yesterday’s resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chávez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona.

But a powerful mass movement forced the reactionaries, so beloved of the New York Times, to restore Hugo Chavez to power. Three days later the NYT ate crow:

In his three years in office, Mr. Chávez has been such a divisive and demagogic leader that his forced departure last week drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer.

Of course, these filthy propagandists would have never eaten their words had the coup been successful.

Rohter tries to make his case by “revealing” that Chavez supporters have personal and financial ties that compromise them:

Instead Mr. Stone relies heavily on the account of Gregory Wilpert, who witnessed some of the exchange of gunfire and is described as an American academic. But Mr. Wilpert is also the husband of Mr. Chávez’s consul-general in New York, Carol Delgado, and a longtime editor and president of the board of a Web site, Venezuelanalysis.com, set up with donations from the Venezuelan government, affiliations that Mr. Stone does not disclose.

Anybody who has paid the slightest attention to the revolving door policy of the NY Times that allows their top functionaries to take seats in Republican and Democratic administrations alike can only laugh at Rohter’s smear. In fact, if he were not so dangerous, the best response to his garbage would be a belly laugh. But dangerous he is.

Rohter has been a hard-core counter-revolutionary going back 30 years. In 1980 he wrote an article for Newsweek warning about Grenada introducing “an ominous note of instability into the politics of the eastern Caribbean.” Later that year writing for the same magazine, he honed in on Nicaragua: “Nicaragua’s ambivalent revolution, after two years of internal struggle, slid further toward Marxism last week when a mob attacked the house of opposition leader Alfonso Robelo Callejas and the junta shut down the on-again, off-again opposition newspaper La Prensa. The Reagan Administration has almost abandoned its last faint hopes that Nicaragua’s Sandinistas could be persuaded to follow a pluralist path–and the hard-line U.S. policy toward Central America has turned even harder.”

It was this kind of yellow journalism that apparently recommended him to the NY Times, where he has been functioning effectively as an unpaid (or paid?) agent of the CIA since 1985.

Oliver Stone had it right. There is a media war on Venezuela and Larry Rohter is a first class sniper. The newspaper of record won’t be happy until Venezuela gets the same treatment that Chile got under Pinochet. For all of its fretting over democracy in Venezuela, this is the same newspaper that stated that there was “absolutely no evidence whatsoever of American complicity in the coup” against Allende. An editorial argued that “Dr. Allende’s experiment failed because his Popular Unity coalition, dominated by Socialists and Communists, persisted with an effort to fasten on Chile a drastic socialist system.”

Someday an enterprising documentary filmmaker will get the goods on the newspaper of record itself going back to its gushing profile of Generalissimo Francisco Franco on August 9th, 1936:

Short, black-haired, somewhat round-faced and forceful, General Franco showed no signs of fatigue as be outlined with an occasional easy smile the aims of the Rebel movement, hitherto somewhat obscure. He was working in a tiny room in a palatial Seville home, dressed in a plain tan army uniform with a soft shirt. His aides, wearing every costume from swank uniforms and red staff caps to blue denim, were busy in the magnificent rooms outside.

The Rebel chief insists that every organized force of government has deserted the Madrid leaders and that they should surrender to avoid further bloody civil war. He is willing to promise them safe passage out of Spain and insists the Rebel aims are “to restore peace justice and democracy with favor to no one class.”

“We propose.” he declared, “to see that long-needed social reforms are pushed forward in Spain. As far as the church is concerned, we intend to allow complete freedom of worship, but under no conditions will we permit the church to play a part in politics.

“The trouble with the present Constitution, drafted after King Alfonso left, is that it is more of a dream of what might be than a practical instrument of government. The proof is it has been suspended much of the time since it was drafted, with 30,000 political prisoners jailed and a class war that was a result of its one-sidedness.

“We started the revolt only after it had become self-evident that the government was playing into the hands of the Communists and extreme Socialists and that there was no justice for others. We wanted to halt the daily murder toll and the social disintegration of Spain.”

UPDATE

Another rebuttal to Larry Rohter

UPDATE 2

Oliver Stone responds to Larry Rohter

June 22, 2010

South of the Border

Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

With a screenplay co-written by Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot, Oliver Stone’s South of the Border promised to be a good movie. I am pleased to announce that it is much better than I expected and a must-see for people knowledgeable about the Latin American left as well as those who only get their information from CNN. Indeed, part of the pleasure of watching the movie is seeing the talking heads at Fox and CNN get exposed as the lying idiots that they are. The movie opens with three dorks from Fox discussing Hugo Chavez’s “drug problem”, which is described as starting his mornings with cocoa. You can’t make this shit up.

The movie consists of footage from television and old newsreels, largely intended to demonstrate the willingness of the media to serve State Department ambitions, as well as interviews with key Latin American leaders. It dawned on me during Oliver Stone’s sit-down with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa that I have never seen him interviewed on American television, nor were Argentina’s Kirchners, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, or Cuba’s Raul Castro ever given a moment on “Sixty Minutes” or any other news show. By allowing them to speak for themselves, Stone breaks a news embargo that is almost as vicious as that Cuba faces on the economic front.

About half the movie is devoted to Venezuela and provides a bird’s eye view of the roots and dynamic of the Bolivarian revolution. Hugo Chavez serves as a guide to these events in some very moving as well as comical moments. He recounts being on an island surrounded by his captors just after the 2002 coup, when a bishop arrives to demand that a letter of resignation be signed. By this point, Chavez has learned that the coup has failed and informs the bishop of that fact who thereupon decides to fly back to Caracas with Chavez on a military helicopter, all the while stating his happiness with the turn of events. In this anecdote, the Latin American church is exposed for its opportunist role but without the usual anti-clerical rhetoric. Chavez is too smart for that.

All in all, the time spent with Chavez is pure entertainment. He is the most unlikely president in all of Latin American history. He grew up in a mud shack and has an obvious affinity with the slum dwellers that are the base of his presidency. He appears to genuinely enjoy coming in contact with the people who are genuinely determining the country’s future, unlike the typical politician who sees them as potential votes and nothing else.

After Venezuela, Stone’s next stop is Bolivia where he meets with Evo Morales who gives him some coca (not cocoa!) to help him fight off nausea and fatigue brought on by the high altitudes.

Perhaps the most interesting moments, at least for me, are those spent with the Kirchners of Argentina. Néstor Carlos Kirchner was president from 2003 to 2007 and has been succeeded by his wife Cristina. They are witty and urbane like most Argentinians I have known throughout my life, plus they provide some insights into the thinking of the more progressive wing of Peronism, a current that has obviously influenced Hugo Chavez. At one point, Cristina Kirchner sends an aide into a nearby room to bring back a photo that she is proud of. After a moment or two, before the aide has returned, she turns to Oliver Stone and asks “what makes men so slow?” Priceless.

It turns out that the photo was Hugo Chavez, Néstor Carlos Kirchner, Lula and Fidel Castro in a group portrait. It is a sign of the times that the heads of Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil are proud to be photographed with American imperialism’s most hated enemy. What the movie reflects more than anything else is the tidal wave that is sweeping Latin America. While it might not result in the immediate overthrow of capitalism in the countries that are part of this change, it does make it a lot easier for country following that path to resist American domination. Arguably, if the Sandinista revolution had triumphed today rather than in 1979, when Reaganism was triumphant, it might have had a chance for survival. For this reason alone, it is a mistake to sneer at the Latin American left for not living up to Bolshevik norms.

Just a word or two about the technical details of how this film was made, a subject becoming more interesting to me as I entertain notions of doing my own documentary some day. The legendary Albert Maysles served as a cameraman. Now 84, Maysles is best known for movies about popular culture (Gimme Shelter) and eccentrics (Grey Gardens). Considering his advanced age, my first impulse was to wonder why he would endure the hardship of filming on location in a place like Bolivia with its high altitude. And then I remembered what a 92 year old Harry Magdoff told Michael Lebowitz: “If I was only in my 80s again, I’d be down in Venezuela.”

Stone used a bare-bones film crew that shot with two Sony Z-7U HD cameras, costing less than $6000 each. In keeping with the relaxed and DIY character of South of the Border, which often feels like a home movie, there is no attempt made to hide the cameras or the mikes. Despite the film’s modest means, it is more successful than any of Oliver Stone’s recent movies. Good work all round for Tariq Ali, Mark Weisbrot and Oliver Stone.

South of the Border opens nationwide on June 25th. Schedule information is here.

June 15, 2010

Argentina soccer players support the candidacy of the Grandmothers of May Square for the Nobel prize

Filed under: Latin America — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

From an Argentine socialist:

Dear friends, I am attaching a picture of the Arg World Cup Team holding a banner in support of the candidacy of the Grandmothers of May Square for the Nobel prize. I am sending it for good reason.

It seems to have been censored on every mainstream media outlet, including Internet concerns they control, because the main owner of the main private media group in Argentina, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, has a couple of stolen children. After a most protracted justice process, they are at last to undergo a confrontation of their DNA with data in the world famous National Genetic Data Bank of Argentina.

The CEO of the group has been reported as boasting long ago that he had obtained the kids for Mrs. Herrera de Noble.

In the midst of a war against the great media, the results of this comprobation are unfathomable.

And it is the Grandmothers who are behind the whole thing.

Please circulate as widely as you can.

October 16, 2009

Latin Music addendum

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 12:35 am

Desi Arnaz, husband to and co-star with Lucille Ball of the I Love Lucy Show in the 1950s when Latin Music was first taking off, performs “Babalu Aiye”, a Yoruban hymn to the Orisha god of death and healing. When I was a kid, we used to love to sing “Babalu”, the Afro-Cuban Santeria chant that slaves brought over from the Yoruba kingdom.

October 14, 2009

PBS Latin music documentary

Filed under: Latin America,music — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Departing from its usual stodgy, white bread fare, PBS has scheduled a two-part series on Latin Music. The first part aired last Monday night and can be viewed on their website as well, a benefit for those who are outside of the USA.

Part one focused on Afro-Cuban music and particularly the Fania Records phenomenon. When I was collecting vinyl records, I bought at least 50 Fania Records starting from the mid 70s until the label began to peter out after its sale in 1979. Fania was the place to go if you wanted to hear artists like Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, and Larry Harlow—all of whom are interviewed for this superb documentary. Now in their 50s and 60s, they reflect back on the golden age of Salsa, a term that was practically synonymous with the Fania label. The best way to think of Salsa is Afro-Cuban musician adapted to the streets of New York City. It is still played but without the passion and creativity of the 1970s. Like the jazz of that period, it was an art form that reached maturity and now exists only as a pale shadow of its golden age. And just as the Blue Note label epitomized classic modern jazz, so did the Fania label epitomize Salsa.

Part one puts Salsa into historical context, showing the importance of a Cuban musician like Israel “Cachao” Lopez who along with his brother Orestes López practically invented the Mambo in the 1940s. Cachao died in 2008 at the age of 90 but I had the great fortune to see him in concert. This is from my review:

While I’m sure just about everybody is aware of the phenomenon of Afro-Cuban music, or the derivative “salsa”, some words are in order about the origins of this music. Afro-Cuban music is distinguished by a rhythm known as “clave”, the Spanish word for key. This is a one-two-THREE, one-two beat that underlies all the various forms, from Mambo to Rumba to Charanga (what evolved into the 1950s dance craze, the cha-cha.) The music is characterized by improvisations on a repeated theme that grow in intensity. Imagine Ravel’s Bolero with a driving bongo beat and passionate lead singer and you get the idea.

The music is a marriage of African percussion and Spanish dance music that originated on the island of Cuba in the 1920s. A typical Afro-Cuban conjuto (band) consisted of African percussion instruments–bongo, timbale, conga–and some combination of brass, piano and strings. A key component was a coro (chorus) or lead singer who sang in a nasal, high-pitched style that evoked the folk singers of the countryside. Some musicologists speculate that this singing style was derived from the slaves’ attempt to vocally imitate the sounds of the guitar that they heard being played inside the plantation.

Two of the great pioneers of the style were the blind guitar player Arsenio Rodriguez and bandleader Benny More. Rodriguez adopted the polite danzon style of the predominantly white middle-class Cuban society and adapted it for performance in working-class African dance-halls in the 1930s. His driving guitar and the tight percussion ensembles that accompanied him captured the imagination of Cuban society. More’s band adapted the swing style of contemporaries like Count Basie and he performed before huge audiences in Havana throughout the 1940s and 50s. His music in turn influenced American Jazz, especially Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban Jazz orchestras of the 1940s and 50s. Gillespie hired the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo and the arranger Machito to help him incorporate the distinctive style.

Cachao…was born in 1918. He plays bass and was a member of the Havana Symphony orchestra for 30 years. He invented the Mambo in the 1940s. He arrived in the United States in 1963 and has never performed in Cuba since the revolution. Along with the singer Celia Cruz, Cachao is a symbol of the generation of Afro-Cuban musicians who felt more comfortable as expatriates. Cruz is an outspoken enemy of the Cuban revolution, while Cachao keeps his beliefs to himself for the most part.

Watching this show put me in a nostalgic mood, reminding me of my encounters with Latin music for over 50 years. Back in the mid 1950s, my Boy Scout troupe took Latin dancing lessons. We learned the mambo and the cha-cha-cha, which the documentary describes as a simplified Mambo. This was around the time of the Honeymooner’s episode when Jackie Gleason as the bus driver Ralph Kramden takes lessons as well. One of the most popular musicians of the time was Perez Prado, whose “Patricia”, a typical cha-cha-cha, was a huge hit.

In Kramden’s Brooklyn and the Catskill Mountains, where I grew up, Latin music was extremely popular with Jews. Larry Harlow muses that for some reason Jews took to Chinese food and Latin music. In the Borscht Belt hotels of my youth, you could always hear Tito Puente and other stars performing before adoring fans. Harlow was born as Lawrence Ira Kahn in Brooklyn in 1939. On his way to his classical piano lessons in East Harlem as a young boy, he was mesmerized by the sounds of Afro-Cuban music and resolved to become a Latin musician himself. Other Latin musicians referred to him as el Judio Maravilloso. Here’s the young Larry Harlow performing a classic Cuban tune “La Cartera”:

In 1966 I lived on the second floor of a tenement in Hoboken, New Jersey while going to graduate school. My apartment was above Felix’s restaurant, a lunch counter that catered to Latino longshoremen. This was long before Hoboken was transformed into a yuppie, hedge-fund manager playground. Sometimes I felt like I lived in Felix’s restaurant since the smell of bacon frying in the morning pervaded my apartment, as did the sounds of the juke box which blasted Latin music all day long. Although it is difficult to remember what they were playing, my guess is that it was what they call jibaro music, the sounds of the Puerto Rican countryside. As a Nuyorican, Willie Colon went back to the island frequently in order to learn how to play the music of his gente. The fruits of this labor was “There Goes the Neighborhood” (Se Chavó El Vecindario), an album featuring Hector Lavoe as lead singer and traditional Puerto Rican trombonist Mon Rivera.

A year later a friend who lived in the same tenement, who was always on the lookout for the latest thing happening in music, suggested we take in a concert featuring Eddie Palmieri who I knew nothing about. Palmieri did not record for Fania, but his albums were among the best-selling of that period. He is still going strong at the age of 73. Palmieri is an incredible song writer and pianist strongly influenced by Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner. And like Willie Colon and Ruben Blades, his music has always been socially aware without being didactic. Here he is in a 2008 performance of “Palo pa’ Rumba”. This is among the greatest music of the past half-century:

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