Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 8, 2017

The life of Fidel Castro: a Marxist appreciation one year after his passing

Filed under: cuba,North Star — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

by IKE NAHEM on DECEMBER 8, 2017

 

“Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn’t know where north or south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.

                                                        Fidel Castro

“[Humans] make [their] own history, but [they] do not make it out of the whole cloth; [they] do not make it out of conditions chosen by [themselves], but out of such as [they] find close at hand.”

                                                        Karl Marx

 

The Epoch of Fidel

Fidel Castro was one of the outstanding revolutionary leaders over the entire course of recorded world history. His astonishing and heroic life experiences are intertwined with the accomplishments, example, and practice of the Cuban Revolution that he was the central leader of.

The political and personal integrity of Fidel Castro stood rock-solid in the face of decades of tremendous, unremitting pressures directed by the US government to destroy the Cuban Revolution (and him personally through murder).

The skilled resistance Fidel personified at the head of the politically conscious, organized, and mobilized Cuban masses gave him the moral high ground over decades in the treacherous waters of world politics in the “Cold War” era and beyond.

As I wrote in my October 9, 2017, essay Our Che: 50 Years After His Execution:

…During the Fidel hate-fest produced by the US media oligopolies after his death, there were small demonstrations, in the hundreds at most, of “die-hard” longtime opponents of the Cuban Revolution – a clear minority today even among Cuban-Americans. The antecedents of these now fast-fading counter-revolutionary forces in 1962 filled the Orange Bowl football stadium in Miami to welcome the return to the United States of the captured mercenary invaders who were defeated at the so-called Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron in Cuba). That occurred after the Cuban revolutionary government exchanged them, well fed and in one piece – that is, never tortured – in exchange for medicines, after negotiations.

The relatively tiny and politically insignificant anti-Fidel protests in 2017 Miami were endlessly repeated in incessant, loop coverage by the cable oligopolies, in a crude manipulation aimed at creating the impression that Fidel was a hated ‘dictator.’ Meanwhile, in Cuba, millions upon millions of Cubans, across every generation, lined the cities and countryside throughout the nation to pay respect and love for ‘the undefeated’ Fidel to his final resting place in Santiago de Cuba.

The ashes of Fidel Castro on the way to Santiago de Cuba

Fidel and the enduring example of the Cuban Revolution consumed the US ruling class with an unrelenting scorn and hatred. They seethed at the sheer effrontery of the Cuban revolutionaries carrying out a socialist revolution in the interests of the working class, the peasantry, and the oppressed, that is, in the interests of the vast majority of the Cuban people.

This is the case, notwithstanding the mass migrations encouraged – and uniquely expedited legally to the United States – by Washington for decades. This reached 7-10% of the Cuban population, resulting in a kind of Cuban diaspora. This self-exiling was centered initially on the Batista-era police, army, and gangster personnel, followed by the Cuban ex-bourgeoisie and owners of expropriated latifundia, and, finally, as the political confrontation between revolutionary Cuba and the United States government intensely sharpened, quickly came to include broad layers (but by no means all) in the Cuban professional and middle classes, a relatively affluent small minority. For example, some 3,000 out of the 6,000 doctors in Cuba before the Revolution emigrated from Cuba to the United States in this period. Most Cuban workers and peasants rarely, if ever, saw a doctor their entire lives in “the good old days” when median life expectancy in Cuba was 52 (it’s now 78). For many years now, the island has produced some 10,000 Cuban doctors a year and, at the Latin American School of Medicine, the largest medical school in the world, has trained, free of charge, tens of thousands of doctors from all over the world who are now practicing in working-class and impoverished communities in their countries. Similar comparisons can be made for all other contemporary Cuban professions.

The special venom and hatred preserved for Fidel Castro by Washington and Wall Street, by all the representatives and spokespeople of world capitalism and imperialism, was, of course, a badge of honor for the Cuban revolutionary. Certainly, the once powerful virtual industry of anti-Castro misinformation and propaganda has been politically defeated worldwide. But it has resources and lingers on in the continued, weakened US anti-Cuba policy of economic war and political hostility, and in the renewed efforts by the Donald Trump White House to pressure and threaten socialist Cuba, following the establishment of formal Washington-Havana diplomatic relations in 2015.

Of course, genuine social and people’s revolutions, such as the Cuban Revolution, inevitably generate bitter hatreds and resentments from the overthrown and vanquished ruling classes. The special hatred of the overturned Cuban ruling classes, allied with Washington and defeated in the course of the Cuban Revolution, toward Fidel, the personification of their social and political vanquishers, is of a piece with how the representatives and beneficiaries of the Confederate slavocracy in their era – and their dwindling band of political heirs, to this day – felt about Abraham Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and others, not to speak of revolutionary abolitionists like John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Harriet Tubman.

Continue reading

November 27, 2016

Was there an alternative to Fidel Castro’s “Stalinism”?

Filed under: cuba — louisproyect @ 9:42 pm

Today I was shocked by the torrent of denunciations aimed at the Stalinist “dictator” Fidel Castro. No, I am not talking about CBS or CNN, where it might be expected. Rather it emanated from FB friends, most of whom supported Tony Cliff’s theory of State Capitalism but with some anarchists as well. I was also shocked by the vehemence that exceeded anything that Sam Farber or Mike Gonzalez wrote for the occasion even though they were as bad as I might have expected.

Although I had originally considered writing a longer piece on Castro’s passing, I decided instead to focus in on the question of Fidel Castro’s “Stalinism”. For people such as Farber and Gonzalez, the solution to Cuba’s difficulties would have been a “revolution from below”. Farber puts it this way:

It’s certainly not a socialist society because the working class and the rest of the population do not have democratic control over decision-making. It’s one variety of what and I and others call “bureaucratic collectivism.” Bureaucratic collectivist societies, where a ruling class controls property politically through its control of an undemocratic state rather than individually or privately, differ from each other, but share a basic character — just as capitalist countries vary among themselves: Sweden is not Japan is not the United States.

It might be pointed out that Farber is an old-line Shachtmanite rather than a State Capitalist like the ISO that he frequently writes for. The distinction between bureaucratic collectivism and State Capitalism is hardly worth going into here since we should all understand that from their respective standpoints, Cuba’s government is rotten to the core and needs to be overthrown by an aroused proletariat.

Apparently, these comrades had a different idea of the kind of change that Cuba needed in 1959. Instead of a guerrilla army working in tandem with middle-class elements in Havana, it needed a party like Lenin’s that would have taken power on the basis of worker’s committees even if none had germinated in the struggle against Batista.

Let’s imagine that such a possibility had existed and come to fruition on the basis of a leadership rooted in the working class that had aligned itself with Tony Cliff’s international movement or some reasonable facsimile. Like the sainted Bolsheviks, it would have collectivized the means of production and developed the economy with democratically decided plans hammered out by the workers themselves. It would have been the Paris Commune raised to the tenth power.

Even more in keeping with Cliff or Max Shachtman’s theories, there was complete workers democracy with a free press, the right to assemble and form parties that would contest for power in elections. But above all, the government had to conduct an assault on the American domination of the economy as JFK himself admitted:

At the beginning of 1959 United States companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands—almost all the cattle ranches—90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions—80 percent of the utilities—practically all the oil industry—and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports.

So, let’s not mince words on this. If someone as fearless as Sam Farber or Mike Gonzalez had been the Lenin of Cuba (I should mention that Farber believes that Lenin’s anti-democratic tendencies gave rise to Stalin), the first task would have been to seize American properties. Would Washington have been less determined to crush the government if it had been committed to democracy and “socialism from below”? I feel stupid even asking such a question.

You would also have to assume that the revolutionary socialist leadership of Cuba that passed Sam Farber or Mike Gonzalez’s litmus test would have been principled enough to denounce the USSR’s treatment of dissidents, its domination of the Ukrainians and other subject peoples, and its general betrayal of the original goals of the Russian Revolution.

So simultaneously you have Cuba nationalizing American corporations that had a stranglehold on the economy and issuing proclamations calling for the overthrow of the Soviet bureaucracy. Not only would you have Esso and ITT on your case; you’d have Khrushchev so pissed off that smoke would be coming out of his ears.

But none of this would matter because Cuba would prevail on the basis of its socialist principles. All of its enemies would melt away in its path. Workers would produce sugar and tobacco for the world market even if the USA imposed a blockade just as it did for the “Stalinist” Fidel Castro. Embargo? No problem. Just remind the capitalist marketplace that Cuba has a free press. That would assuage them, I’ll bet. The NY Times wouldn’t mind Esso being seized by communists as long as there was freedom of the press. Right.

Leaving such fantasies aside, imperialism would be just as committed to the destruction of a democratic socialist Cuba as it was to a Stalinist Cuba. How do I know? Because the USA was part of the 21-nation invasion of the USSR in 1919 that cost a million deaths and production to be reduced to 20 percent of its pre-Civil War level. In fact, Cuba suffered virtually the same economic losses even though the Bay of Pigs victory reduced the possibility of a major loss of life.

In a review of Salim Lamrani’s “The Economic War Against Cuba” on CounterPunch, Daniel Kovalik writes:

Lamrani concludes that the results of this relentless 50-year blockade have cost Cuba more than $751 billion, and has “affected all sectors of Cuban society and all categories of the population, especially the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, and women.   Over 70 percent of all Cubans have lived in a climate of permanent economic hostility.”

The USA understood that economic suffering would perhaps turn the people against the government just as Ronald Reagan hoped that the contra war would make the Nicaraguans “cry uncle”. Lamrani quotes Lester D. Mallory, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, who wrote on August 6, 1960:

The majority of the Cuban people support Castro.  There is no effective political opposition.  . . .  The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection and hardship.   . . .   every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba . . . a line of action which . . . makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.

But it wasn’t enough for Cuba to have to put up with this. Farber and Gonzalez insist that the government had to publicly differentiate itself from the Kremlin, taking every opportunity to denounce it for its bureaucratic crimes. So not only would Cuba have to suffer 751 billion dollars in economic losses for its democratic revolutionary socialist measures against Esso, ITT et al, it would not be able to rely on the Soviet bloc for assistance. Indeed, we could be guaranteed that Khrushchev would have been just as anxious as JFK to get rid of the troublemakers who we must assume would be providing material aid and advice to like-minded revolutionary movements in Latin America just as Lenin and Trotsky did in the 1920s.

As it happens, the Castro brothers and Che Guevara were never likely to confront the USSR because they, like most of the Latin American left in the 1950s, regarded the Soviets as defenders of socialism. Keep in mind that the USSR enjoyed enormous prestige in the 1950s for having been primarily responsible for defeating the Nazis and for its ability to recover so quickly from its wartime devastation without any outside help. Young men and women would naturally be inclined to look to the USSR for help rather to alienate its top leaders, especially someone like Nikita Khrushchev who had made a speech just three years before Castro took power that stated:

Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed these concepts or tried to prove his [own] viewpoint and the correctness of his [own] position was doomed to removal from the leadership collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. This was especially true during the period following the 17th Party Congress, when many prominent Party leaders and rank-and-file Party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of Communism, fell victim to Stalin’s despotism.

But the Cuban press under an anti-Stalinist editorial board like the ISO’s or New Politics would have not been satisfied with these words. It would have written scathing attacks on Khrushchev for crushing dissent in the USSR and serving the interests of a privileged bureaucracy no matter what he said.

I think by now you get the point. People like Farber and Gonzalez don’t really care about such matters since their role politically is to differentiate themselves from all the evil Stalinists of the 20th and 21st century who have betrayed the principles of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Thank god we have professors like them to stand up for True Socialism. Imagine the fat FBI file that Farber accumulated writing such courageous articles. It is a miracle that Brooklyn College did not try to fire him.

Does it matter that a government that took their advice seriously would be snuffed within a year of its taking power? Obviously not. They don’t really care about the difficulties of wielding power in a world controlled by immensely powerful capitalist states, including one that was only 90 miles from Cuba.

That they and their supporters would take the opportunity of Fidel Castro’s death to raise their litany of complaints about Stalinism while his body was still warm really fills me with disgust. I should probably expect this by now after seeing all the junk written about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution in their press for the past 25 years or so but I still can’t get over it.

May 25, 2016

Samuel Farber: avoid Che Guevara, he is not good for you

Filed under: cuba,Samuel Farber Cubanology — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 5.11.49 PM

Is there a more unctuous Pecksniff on the American left than Samuel Farber? I’d be hard-pressed to name one.

In an article for Jacobin, which is rapidly adopting many of the colors of the “socialism from below” part of the left that measures revolutions against its own lofty standards and invariably gives them a failing grade, Farber warns radical youth against Che Guevara like some parents warned against smoking marijuana in the early 60s—it was not good for you..

You can practically figure out what will be in Farber’s rancid article without going past the title:

Assessing Che
Che Guevara was an honest and committed revolutionary. But he never embraced socialism in its most democratic essence.

How generous of Farber to find Che “honest and committed”. But the poor thing never “embraced socialism” as presumably Farber did many years ago when he belonged to YPSL. Embracing socialism, as we all know, rather than Cuban petty-bourgeois authoritarianism is an acid test for the left. Very few souls have been pure enough to pass the test but Farber, Tim Wolforth, and James Robertson were among those who stood up for genuine Cuban socialism when a repressive, petite-bourgeois, anti-proletarian regime was making life hell for the workers.

The point of Farber’s article is to wake up the left to the fact that “Che Guevara’s politics had far more in common with the politics of the Castro brothers than many of his current admirers would care to admit.” Well, gee, I don’t know how to put this but most leftists who are ready to trash Fidel and Raul are just as ready to trash Che.

Farber’s case for seeing Che as an enemy of the vaunted “socialism from below” is consistent with his shabby record of either bending the truth or simply writing lies.

He starts off by saying that “he shared with them a revolutionary politics from above that allowed him to retain, along with the Castros, the political control and initiative on the island, based on a monolithic conception of a type of socialism immune to any democratic control and initiative from below.”

I always get a chuckle when I read Farber about the need for democratic control. This is a guy, after all, who viewed the Cuban CP as more in the socialist tradition than the July 26th movement, not being bothered apparently that the CP urged a vote for Batista in the 1930s. But the Stalinists can be forgiven because their party was the  “only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist” in contrast to the July 26th movement that was “antitheoretical” and “antiprogrammatic”:

Last but not least, the PSP [Popular Socialist Party, the pro-Kremlin official party] 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 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 to the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

–Samuel Farber, “The Cuban Communists in the Early Stages of the Cuban Revolution: Revolutionaries or Reformists?”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 1983

So that’s what “embracing socialism” means, voting for Batista and being “theoretical”. What a joke.

Moving right along, Farber contends that a sign of Che bureaucratic/centralist tendencies was his response to a difficult situation in the Congo. Che supposedly had a panacea: the creation of a “vanguard Communist Party that would singlehandedly lead a revolution” in the Congo even though he believed that it lacked “any of the necessary conditions for socialist revolution.” So what kind of asshole would be for the creation of a vanguard party in a country that could never have a revolution to begin with? Farber helps us out by linking to an excerpt from Che’s Congo Diary, which appeared in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/aug/12/cuba.artsandhumanities. I defy you to find a single word about building vanguard parties. In fact, the excerpt is mostly a cautionary note about expecting too much out of a badly divided country and insisting on the need for practical assistance such as doctors and technicians. Does Farber expect people reading his idiotic article not to bother to check his sources? Maybe Jacobin can hire a good fact-checker so that the unwary reader does not waste his time on such shoddy journalism.

Farber does credit Che with being a radical egalitarian unlike the Castro brothers. So what made him a good guy at least on this count? It can be explained by his “bohemian upbringing” in Argentina. I don’t have a clue what Farber is talking about here. Jon Lee Anderson’s fairly decent biography does not yield a portrait of a guy walking around in sandals reading Rimbaud. Instead Che is seen as a deeply idealistic student who chooses to become a doctor so he can help the poor. Maybe because Che and a friend went “on the road” in Latin America on a beat-up old motorcycle, this is supposed to evoke Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. But if you read “Motorcycle Diaries”, the thing that stands out is his outrage over the suffering of the poor, especially the Indians. Che Guevara was no “bohemian”. He was an embryonic revolutionary.

This alleged bohemianism apparently went hand in hand with asceticism, according to Farber (as if potheads in the early 60s weren’t fond of a pint of cherry vanilla ice cream when they were feeling kind of groovy.) So ascetic was Che that he believed that the Cubans could be “educated” to live without the boob tube according to Farber’s latest book “The Politics of Che Guevara”, which is now available from Haymarket. Since the Vietnamese were building socialism without TV’s, why couldn’t Cuba? After consulting this book on Google, I could find no reference to Che’s actual words, only Farber’s extrapolation thereof from what seems like an off-the-cuff observation. You would have to search in vain to find any extended analysis that Che made about consumer goods. His main emphasis was not on living like monks but in avoiding the competition and materialism that exists in bourgeois society. All you need to do is read “Socialism and Man in Cuba” to see that the question of consumer goods is not even posed. In fact, Farber seems to grasp this in referring to his “hyper-voluntarism that expressed itself both in politics and in economic policy through his stress on moral incentives and creating a ‘New Man’ who was totally dedicated to society and oblivious to his individual fulfillment.” For that matter, you can find the same sort of revolutionary zeal in the USSR in the early years (or the French revolution for that matter) not that this would make any difference to Farber who looks just as much askance at Bolshevik rule as he does the Cuban CP.

Farber ends his article with a bouquet of platitudes:

Socialism: because the true liberation of working people can only be attained when both the economy and the polity come under the control of the women and men who through their work make social existence possible. Democracy: because majority rule and respect for minority rights and civil liberties is the only way that working people can in fact, and not in theory alone, control their destiny. Revolution: because even the most welcome, authentic reforms cannot bring about true emancipation and liberation.

You can obviously say that the USSR also failed to achieve socialism. Indeed, the entire history of the revolutionary movement since the time of Karl Marx has been marked by failure. While everybody is for the economy and the polity coming “under the control of the women and men who through their work make social existence possible”, the challenge for the left is how to bring that about.

Cuba has failed to satisfy these benchmarks for a variety of reasons. To start with, an “open society” would have been exploited by its enemies to destroy the revolution in its infancy. How do I know that? Because I saw it happen in Nicaragua where the government following Cuban advice to avoid their own excesses gave the USA the opening it needed to pour millions of dollars into the counter-revolutionary press and parties. When Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in 1861, he was facing far less of a threat than Cuba did 100 years later. Does that matter to Farber? Certainly not. He has one yardstick for Cuba and another for the rest of the world.

The other problem is that the Castro brothers and Che Guevara were men of their times. In the late 50s when they went into the mountains to launch a guerrilla war in combination with the student and trade union movement in the cities, the USSR was at the height of its prestige globally. The Russians had defeated Hitler, were providing aid to nationalist movements around the world (even if often ineffectively), and were making great industrial and scientific progress. The Cubans were likely to be influenced by ideology that diffused outwards from the Kremlin, as was obvious with Fidel’s highly critical support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The kind of people who sounded like Sam Farber in Cuba were affiliated with J. Posadas’s Fourth International. Posadas had all of the same ideas as Sam Farber and Cubans were free to read them in the Posadista bookshop, which for some reason avoided being shut down by the dictatorship. Posadas advocated a working class revolution that most certainly conformed to Farber’s strict guidelines of “socialism from below”. He also had some other odd ideas that Farber probably would have had problems with, such as advocating a first strike nuclear attack by the USSR so that socialism could emerge out of the radioactive ashes.

Fortunately, the Castro brothers steered clear of the Posadas bookstore even if it meant disappointing Sam Farber.

 

May 4, 2016

Sin Alas

Filed under: cuba,Film — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Sin Alas (Without Wings) is a flawed film made in Cuba by a young American who has a real flair for cinema—for Cuban politics and history much less so. The film is based on a Jorge Luis Borges short story titled “The Zahir”, which is about how its narrator became obsessed with the zahir—an Argentine coin that he associates with the Arabic word meaning “visible” or “evident”. For the Arabic-speaking masses, it summoned up the power of certain objects to have “the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad.”

After reading “The Zahir” prior to writing this review, it dawned on me why I never felt motivated to read Borges. The story is a study in erudite obscurantism of the sort that can fuel a thousand literature dissertations and one screenplay that had trouble deciding whether to be consistent with Borge’s ultra-subjectivism or to tell a story about life in Cuba today with all its social contradictions. In trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, director Ben Chace ended up with an interesting failure. If his ambitions exceeded his talents, at least you can admire a film that took considerable risks on behalf of a decidedly uncommercial project. If nothing else, the film is a stunning look at Havana street-life today, something that is surely worth the $4.99 to see it on Amazon or ITunes where it premieres today.

The main character in Chace’s film is Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón), a seventy-year old who used to write dance reviews for Bohemia, a Cuban journal of the arts and culture. As the film begins, he sits on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building he took over from his father, an accountant with an American agribusiness who fled the island immediately after the revolution triumphed. Unlike his father, Luis stuck around since as he puts it, “I wanted to see where this thing was going”.

As he reads Granma, he discovers that a dancer named Isabela Munoz (Yulislievis Rodriguez) he had a brief affair with in 1967 has just died. After going to her funeral, he begins to become haunted by the strains of a tune that he remembered from the days he spent with her but cannot place. It becomes his zahir, so to speak.

To help him track down the composition, he recruits his oldest friend Ovilio (Mario Limonta), an accomplished guitar player who has the brilliant idea to walk around Havana asking oldsters like them if they can “name that tune” as they put it in a popular 1960s TV show. The chemistry between the two veteran Cuban actors and the obviously nonprofessionals they interact with on the streets is what makes the film so memorable and bordering on greatness.

What undercuts its success is Ben Chace’s sketchy understanding of Cuban history and politics since 1959. Although he is a minor character, Isabela’s husband—a top Cuban military officer—is rather cartoonish. At one point, Vargas tells Ovilio he was taking a big chance having an affair with his wife since such a big shot could have had him killed. This sounds much more like the sort of thing that might have happened when Batista was in power. If Chace had simply said that the man could have had him fired from Bohemia, it would have been much more plausible.

Another false note occurs when in the lobby following a performance by Isabela, her husband questions whether the ballet was “revolutionary” enough since it romanticized the sort of domestic strife that could be found in any Havana neighborhood. Vargas remonstrates with the officer, telling him that art has its own imperatives and must only be judged on its basis to stir the emotions. One wonders if Chace has any real familiarity with Cuban art and culture, which departed from socialist realist norms from its birth. Cuban ballet has never been under the thumb of bureaucrats, nor has any other art form.

To give Chace his due, he has Isabela arguing with Vargas over the possibilities of leaving Cuba where they could enjoy a life together. She says that she is too committed to the revolution which allowed a poor girl from the provinces to become a successful artist.

There are inklings that the director, who also wrote the script, was sensitive to the pressures on Cuba that might make such a rags to cultural riches impossible in the future. A minor subplot involves a married couple from Vargas’s building named Yuni and Katrina who have been forced to live with her mother due to insufficient funds. Yuni drives a pedicab and can hardly make ends meet, while Katrina works in a restaurant owned by one of Cuba’s emerging petty bourgeoisie. As he begins to put the make on her, Yuni makes plans to leave Cuba by boat. An entire film could have been made about Yuni and Katrina, one that would have been an important artistic intervention into the key question facing Cubans today—namely whether it will be possible any longer for someone like Isabela Munoz to make the transition from an impoverished countryside into the top ranks of Cuban dance.

In an interview with the Hollywood Times, Chace sounded really good on the responsibility of artists, particularly those from the USA, to tell the truth about Cuba. Even if he succeeded only partially, he deserves our respect.

That’s the strange thing, and no one gets it. No one knows what the hell’s going on down there. I wanted to just show what people were going through and hopefully show that there’s just a lot of culture and humanity and great stuff there that in a way is suffering because of our ignorance of the situation. You know if we knew how fucked up it was down there we’d try to do something to change it but no one understands that we’re just given propaganda on all sides. We’re given this very thin and shallow idea of what is going on in Cuba you know? It’s like some woman dancing, Fidel, and what else do we know about it? A couple old cars. No one really knows what the daily struggle down there is like for people and my film I think touches on it, I think I did an okay job with this one character, but it goes deeper than that. You kind of have to go, and even if you go you have to spend a lot of time to get to the truth of it because people won’t say things out loud, there’s so much implicit stuff and there’s so much that you can say out loud and stuff you just have to witness. To me, it’s a labyrinth that’s why when I was like Borges, I was like what can I do to describe this, I need like a labyrinth blueprint to like tape images to and collect this thing and hopefully it will come close to representing something about the reality of that place.

April 8, 2016

Havana Motor Club

Filed under: cuba,sports — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

“Havana Motor Club” is a vastly entertaining documentary about the underground drag racing scene in Cuba that is also about as informative a take on the social and economic reforms being pushed by Raul Castro as you can find anywhere. It opened at the Village East theater in NY today and is by far the best documentary I have seen thus far in 2016. (Also available on Amazon and ITunes.)

In 1959 the triumphant Cuban revolution declared that since automobile racing was decadent, it must be abolished along with prostitution, gambling and other vices associated with the Batista dictatorship. Even before the dictator was toppled, the rebels struck a blow against car racing by kidnapping and holding for ransom Juan Fangio, the Argentinian who was the greatest racer in the world and regarded by some as the greatest ever. When I was at Bard College, I was part of a circle that was heavily into racing and as such worshipped Juan Fangio. I remember the night in 1961 when we showed Juan Fangio racing films in the school gym where we burned Castrol motor oil, a British brand that was favored by professional racers. The distinctly pungent scent of the burning Castrol gave the film showing authenticity.

Fangio was in Cuba to compete in the 1958 Cuban Gran Prix. Because of the kidnapping, another driver substituted for him at the last minute. During the race a Cuban competitor skidded off the track and plowed into a crowd, killing 10 and injuring 40—an event that is seen in “Havana Motor Club”. So Fidel Castro had two reasons to ban auto racing. It was a plaything of the rich as well as dangerous. As for Fangio, he issued a statement after being released: “It was one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it.”

The film begins with a look at the racing scene in Cuba when director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt arrived with his crew. There were no Ferraris, but merely the antique cars that dot Havana’s streets today but with an important difference. The engines were souped up in order to compete in illegal drag races on the Cuban back roads. In a drag race, two cars compete against each other with the goal of reaching the finish line first. In the USA drag racing is a highly popular sport in which speeds of over 300 mph can be reached under 5 seconds routinely down a quarter-mile track. In Cuba, it is doubtful that the fastest cars can reach speeds of more than 140 mph. Despite that, watching Cubans race a ‘55 Chevy or a ‘62 Ford can provide ten times more excitement than an American drag race, especially when you understand the challenges that faced them.

Not only was the sport illegal, it was difficult to get parts such as a supercharger that is essential for racing. One of the drivers featured in the film has a friend in Miami who comes to Cuba frequently to help his Porsche compete. It is not explained how a Cuban could have gotten his hands on a Porsche but we can assume that his friend had something to do with it. The film focuses on the competition between the Porsche that is equipped with an oversized Chevy engine and a highly modified 1955 Chevy that belongs to a garage-owner nicknamed “El Tito” and is driven by his son.

The ingenuity some drivers show in procuring parts is awe-inspiring. When a boat that was being used to smuggle people into Florida breaks apart near the beach in Havana, a scuba diver goes beneath to salvage the engine that is then used to soup up a ’51 Ford, one called the “Black Widow”. It is not hard to imagine that once the barriers to such items are lifted, the Cuban economy has the possibility of soaring to new heights. Maybe those possibilities have finally persuaded Jose Madera, the owner of the Black Widow, to finally remain in Cuba after 5 unsuccessful attempts to reach Florida by raft.

One racer, who competes with a ’56 Ford, is a perfect symbol of the Cuban revolution today. He resents the government’s refusal to lift the ban on drag racing but appreciates the benefits that socialism has brought, including the free medical care that allowed him to receive treatment for cancer that not only left him alive but capable of doing what he loved most—racing.

In the course of the film, the government lifts the ban on drag racing as part of the reforms being spearheaded by Raul Castro. Just before a big race is scheduled, it is suspended because the barricades necessary for crowd control (they remember the 1958 disaster) are being used for the Pope’s visit. When racers become discouraged, one remains hopeful. He says that the government will see its way to seeing the benefits of a sporting event that can go against the grain of capitalism that he admits is calling the shots everywhere in the world today. Cuba will take an institution that serves capitalism and show how it can be transformed into benefiting the people.

The film concludes with an official race sanctioned by the government that pits the Porsche against El Tito’s Chevy. I won’t tell you which car wins.

Despite his name, director Bent-Jurgen Perlmutt is a Brooklynite who became interested in Cuba as a college student. He enrolled in a study program there in the spring of 2000 just before the Elian Gonzalez custody battle took place. His take on that confrontation will give you a good understanding of how he was able to see Cuba in such a balanced fashion:

This incident piqued my interest even more in this “axis-of-evil” nation and its contentious relationship with the United States. In order to learn more about Cuba/U.S. relations from a Cuban perspective, I started taking research trips to Cuba on my own. This led me to develop several different film projects over the years, all focusing on how Americans live and survive in a country that (since recently) has been officially off-limits to most of them. HAVANA MOTOR CLUB is the culmination of all my work in Cuba over the years, and I intend it to shed light on the conflicting sides of the changes happening in Cuba today.

With Havana in a kind of timewarp, its streets looking like the year 1958 preserved in amber, there are obvious reasons why many people would enjoy returning to a less complicated time. We learn that as part of the reforms, the Cuban drag racers are now permitted to take tourists around town for a fee. If that’s the kind of capitalism that is overtaking Cuba today, I for one would be amenable to it especially since I was just another 13-year-old in 1958 with a passion for the same kinds of cars.

On a Friday night in the late 1950s after the movie let out in South Fallsburgh in upstate NY, we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Rialto Theater and took in the same kind of illegal drag racing you see in “Havana Motor Club”. The cars would not exactly compete with each other since it was a two-lane road heading out of town but they would line up in front of the traffic light and rev their engines until the light turned green. Watching a ’57 Chevy or Ford tearing up the street was a way to get the testosterone flowing.

My car racing circle at Bard included a student named Paul Gommi who was the typical Bardian of that time, which is to say an atypical American youth. Paul used to compete in a drag races in a class that was designated for modified sports cars like MG’s or Triumphs, popular at the time for people on a budget. Reading the fine print in the regulations, Paul discovered that it would be possible for him to compete with a 1932 Ford Phaeton that he had equipped with a bored and stroked English Ford engine. Over the years he has developed versions of this combination that have earned him accolades. This is a recent example as featured in a Hot Rod Network magazine article:

His latest creation is this original American ’32 Ford DeLuxe V-8 Phaeton (only 974 produced). He set about improving its performance exactly like he would have in 1955, using all pre-’55 parts, materials, machinery, tools, and even methods.

According to Paul, “A hot rod is all about the engine. Modifying the engine is the greatest improvement you can make in performance.” He chose a ’37 Ford 221ci 21-stud Flathead engine. For performance, he took a ’49 S.Co.T. supercharger and adapted the 21 studder by designing and making all the pulleys, drive, and modifying the manifold with the help of his friend Tom Taros.

Paul was an art major whose 12 feet tall paintings of drag racers lined the walls of the dining commons in 1965, done to fulfill the Senior Project required of all Bardians for graduation. Paul told us that he was done with art at that point. It was ready to move on to full-time racing and car-building as a profession.

In 1989 Paul’s drag racing career came to an end as his car spun off the track and resulted in a serious accident that nearly cost his life.

All I can say is that when the film shows officials warning the crowds at Cuba’s first drag racing race to keep a safe distance from the track, they had ample reasons to stick to their guns. Unless the people stood back, the race would be suspended. They surely understood the dangers of a car hurdling toward a crowd at over 100 miles per hour can pose. The top man representing the Cuban government in this emerging new sport is 72 years old and had vivid memories of the 1958 bloodbath. Whatever flaws the Cuban government has, neglect of the safety and health of its citizens is not one of them.

June 30, 2015

Samuel Farber’s dodgy reference to Cuban per capita income under Batista

Filed under: cuba — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 11.15.35 AM

A study in mendacity

On June 10th an article titled “Cuba’s Challenge” by Samuel Farber appeared in Jacobin that was sufficiently wrongheaded to provoke me into writing a response. Not long after his book “Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959” was published by Haymarket in 2011 (the ISO publishing wing), I had plans to write a systematic critique but terminated the project after the first installment that dealt with his claim that the government had imposed a Stalinist straightjacket on culture.

Although I find Farber’s scholarship on Cuba always in need of a rebuttal, I had simply lost the motivation for the time being back in 2012 to answer him because of the Cuban government’s wretched support for the dictatorships in Libya and Syria. I was especially upset with articles that were appearing in Prensa Latina that were indistinguishable from the garbage on Global Research et al. I suppose that the naked brutality of the Baathist dictatorship plus Cuba’s rapprochement with the USA might have had the effect of toning down Cuban media. It is too bad that it had not followed an independent and radical editorial position from the start.

Turning to Farber’s article, it makes the case that despite the misery in the countryside, things were pretty good for the urban working class:

On the eve of the 1959 Revolution, Cuba had the fourth highest per capita income in Latin America, after Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina.

In terms of its material reality, the Cuba of the fifties was on the one hand characterized by uneven modernity, fairly advanced means of communication and transportation — especially the high circulation, by Latin American standards, of newspapers and magazines — and the rapid development of television and radio. On the other hand, there were abysmal living conditions in the Cuban countryside.

For those who follow Cubanology, Farber’s article will ring a bell. The notion of Castro’s guerrillas coming in and disrupting an economy that was doing pretty good is widespread. For example, Marianne Ward and John Devereux wrote this abstract for their article “The Road Not Taken: Pre-Revolutionary Cuban Living Standards in Comparative Perspective” that appeared in March 2012 The Journal of Economic History:

We examine Cuban GDP over time and across space. We find that Cuba was once a prosperous middle-income economy. On the eve of the revolution, incomes were 50 to 60 percent of European levels. They were among the highest in Latin America at about 30 percent of the United States. In relative terms, Cuba was richer earlier on. Income per capita during the 1920s was in striking distance of Western Europe and the Southern United States. After the revolution, Cuba slipped down the world income distribution. Current levels of income per capita appear below their pre-revolutionary peaks.

You can find the same sort of thing in Manuel Marquez-Sterling’s  “Cuba 1952-1959: The True Story of Castro’s Rise to Power”:

The image of a country sunk in abject poverty and illiteracy, its people exploited by raw and rapacious American capitalism, together with a bloodthirsty and reactionary tyrant who guaranteed the exploiters the permanency of the status quo is just a grotesque myth. In 1958 Cuba was a rapidly developing country with an enterprising progressive, and well-educated middle class. And no mean part of this development and progress had been achieved during Batista’s years from 1952 to 1959.

There’s not much to distinguish Farber from these accounts except for his customary invocations for the need for democratic socialism and all the rest. It is too bad that he does not understand that in order to build a democratic socialist society, there is a need for honesty and transparency including from intellectuals who are expected to be scrupulously devoted to the truth.

When Farber writes “On the eve of the 1959 Revolution, Cuba had the fourth highest per capita income in Latin America, after Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina”, he sweeps one important detail under the rug, namely the cost of living. It doesn’t matter if the working-class in Havana was earning nearly the equivalent of an Argentine worker if the cost of living was many times greater than it was in Buenos Aires. For someone writing about the Cuban standard of living in such a decontextualized manner this is worse than being sloppy. It is a violation of the kind of intellectual honesty we expect from someone representing himself as a socialist. It rather reeks of Time Magazine or the Miami Herald.

If you want to get the real story on the urban working class in Cuba during the 1950s, I recommend Louis A. Perez Jr.’s “Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution”, a welcome antidote to Samuel Farber’s dishonest, self-serving and ideologically toxic assault on the revolution in Cuba that has largely succeeded despite repeated attempts to strangle it.

From chapter 10 of Perez (The Eclipse of Old Cuba):

Despite this appearance of well-being, the Cuban middle class was in crisis. The decade of the 1950s was a period of mounting instability and growing uncertainty. Middle-class expectations that the return of Batista in 1952 would end political turmoil proved short-lived and illusory. By the mid-1950s, Cuba was again in the grip of political violence and personal insecurity. The malaise went deeper, however, than unsettled political conditions. To be sure, by prevailing measurements of economic development Cuba boasted of one of the highest standards of living in Latin America. In 1957, Cuba enjoyed among the highest per capita income in Latin America, ranked second at $374 after Venezuela ($857). Only Mexico and Brazil exceeded Cuba in the number of radios owned by individuals (1 for every 6.5 inhabitants). The island ranked first in television sets (1 per 25 inhabitants). Daily average food consumption was surpassed only by Argentina and Uruguay. Cuba was first in telephones (1 to 38), newspapers (1 copy per 8 inhabitants), private motor vehicles (1 to 40), and rail mileage per square mile (1 to 4). An estimated 58 percent of all housing units had electricity. By 1953, 76 percent of the population was literate, the fourth highest literacy rate in Latin America after Argentina (86 per-cent), Chile (79.5 percent), and Costa Rica (79.4 percent).

The apparent affluence enjoyed by Cuba, however, concealed tensions and frustrations that extended both vertically and horizontally through Cuban society. The fluctuations of the export economy continued to create conditions of apprehension that affected all classes. The deepening political crisis of the 1950s exacerbated this uncertainty and, together with an uncertain economy, contributed to eroding the security of middle-class Cubans. They found little cornfort in statistical tallies that touted their high level of material consumption and placed the island near the top of the scale of per capita income in Latin America. The social reality was quite different. Cuba was integrated directly into the larger U.S. economic system and the concomitant consumption patterns. While Cubans enjoyed a remarkably high per capita income in Latin American terms, they lived within a North American cost of living index. Cuba enjoyed a material culture underwritten principally by imports from the United States. While Cuban currency and wages remained comparatively stable through the 1950s, consumption of foreign imports, in the main North American products, increased dramatically from $515 million in 1950 to $649 million in 1956 to $777 million in 1958. Cubans paid North American prices at a time when the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar was declining and the U.S. consumer price index was rising. The United States, not Latin America, served as the frame of reference for Cubans. And against this measure, the Cuban per capita income of $374 paled against the U.S. per capita of $2,000, or even that of Mississippi, the poorest state, at $1,000. Life in Havana, further, was considerably more expensive than in any North American city. Havana ranked among the world’s most expensive cities—fourth after Caracas, Ankara, and Manila. In 1954, Havana had the largest number of Cadillacs per capita of any city in the world.

Cubans participated directly in and depended entirely on the North American economic system in very much the same fashion as U.S. citizens, but without access to U.S. social service programs and at employment and wage levels substantially lower than their North American counterparts. It was a disparity keenly felt in Cuba, a source of much frustration and anxiety. Middle-class Cubans in the 1950s perceived their standard of living in decline as they fell behind the income advances in the United States. These perceptions were not without substance, for even the much-acclaimed Cuban per capita income represented a standard of living in stagnation. Between 1952 and 1954, the decline in the international sugar market precipitated the first in a series of recessions in the Cuban economy during the decade. Per capita income declined by 18 percent, neutralizing the slow gains made during the postwar period. In 1958, the Cuban per capita income was at about the same level as it had been in 1947. Increasingly, middle-class Cubans were losing ground, losing the ability to sustain the consumption patterns to which they had become accustomed.

No amount of favorable comparisons with per capita income in Latin America could reduce Cuban resentment over their predicament. Economist Levi Marrero expressed dismay in 1954 that while Cuba’s per capita income was twice as high as Latin America, it was five times lower than U.S. levels, and he asked rhetorically: “Why this Cuban poverty?” Three years later, writer Antonio Llanes Montes expressed a similar complaint: “Although one hears daily of the prosperity that Cuba is now experiencing, the fact is that the workers and the middle class find it more difficult each day to subsist owing to the scarcity of articles of basic necessity?’

April 23, 2015

Que maravillosa!

Filed under: cuba,dance,music — louisproyect @ 12:24 am

December 19, 2014

A response to Owen Jones and James Bloodworth on Cuba

Filed under: anti-Communism,cuba,journalism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Owen Jones

James Bloodworth

Vexingly but not unexpectedly, Owen Jones and James Bloodworth used their Guardian and Independent columns as bully pulpits against the Cuban government. Despite their impeccable left-liberal credentials, their commentary left a bad taste in my mouth not unlike the one I experienced when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews weighed in: “I just don`t think they are going to change their stripes. I think they’re commies. I think they’re communists.” Commies. Nice.

I have more respect for Jones, who was on Marxmail briefly when he was 16 years old or so, a most precocious lad. Back then he repeated the talking points heard across the British left: “If the working class wield no political power, then who does? A privileged layer of officials, i.e. bureaucrats. It is they who legislate and enforce law, not the working class.” Nothing has changed in the 14 years when he wrote this except maybe a softening on bureaucracy, something understandable given his loyalty to the British Labour Party—a far cry from the heaven-storming sensibility of his adolescence.

Yesterday Owen Jones weighed in at the Guardian on the Cuban “dictatorship” that he hoped would disappear with the blockade. Like a comparison test for detergents, Brand X—Cuba—fails miserably next to those “progressive governments that promote social justice as well as democracy.” He adds: “They have lifted 56 million people out of poverty this millennium, and have done so without imposing a dictatorship.” (The 56 million figure was arrived at by the United Nations Development Programme and formed the basis of a BBC article Jones linked to.)

Apparently Peru was one of the countries Jones held up against Cuba since its poverty rate was reduced by 26.3 percent and had lots of freedom—hurrah, hurrah.

But I would urge some caution on taking the United Nations Development Programme report at face value, the source of the BBC article’s poverty reduction claims. If, as is likely, Peru’s National Statistics and Information Institute (INEI) is feeding data to the UN, the numbers are not to be trusted.

The INEI recently announced a sizeable 5.2 reduction in poverty in 2007. However, many have questioned the validity of these numbers, including Farid Matuk, an ex-president of INEI, who guesses that such numbers might be forged. They suggest a poverty reduction rate of 0.6 percent per each point of GDP growth, which is three times higher than the average of previous years. At this rate, Peru would eliminate poverty completely in about 10 years, which strains credulity.

I suppose that if having parliamentary democracy is ipso facto a sign that a nation is freer, then Peru—Brand A—is superior to Brand X. But if you are an Indian, Peru does not seem all that free. Between 2006 and 2011 after protests were mounted against mining on indigenous lands, the government declared martial law and gave the green light to the military to kill 200 activists.

For an incisive report on the reality behind Peruvian president Ollanta Humala’s faux populism, I recommend Deborah Poole and Gerardo Rénique’s NACLA report from May 2012:

Within weeks of Humala’s inauguration, major mobilizations were staged in the departments of Ancash, Apurímac, and Cajamarca—which are characterized by extreme poverty, long traditions of subaltern politics, and some of Peru’s largest mining projects. The protesters’ demands included an end to all mining in headwaters, a ban on the use of cyanide and mercury, a national ecological zoning code elaborated with citizen participation, and implementation of the national Law of Consultation. Led by Valdés, at the time minister of the interior, the Humala government moved quickly to repress the popular mobilizations. In November, during a strike in Apurímac, Valdés’s heavy-handed approach clashed with the more conciliatory politics of then prime minister Lerner and other left-wing cabinet members who favored negotiation and reform. It also, however, drove home the widening political and cultural divide pitting Humala’s right-wing functionaries against the popular organizations that had helped to bring his government to power.

I guess that if Humala came to power through multiparty elections, he had the right to “repress the popular mobilizations”. That’s how democracy works, right? In Brazil as well, right? Another Brand-A success story.

Let me repeat. Except for this sort of article and his membership in the Labour Party, I really respect Owen Jones especially when he backed out of a Stop the War Coalition’s meeting on Syria that was featuring Assad apologist Mother Agnes. James Bloodworth, on the other hand, is a sniveling little rat.

Bloodworth’s column opens with the obligatory “god that failed” confession that is so necessary for those pursuing a career as a lapdog for the ruling class:

One small claim to fame of mine is that I was present during Fidel Castro’s final public speech as Cuban President back in 2006. Stood at a lectern about 50 yards from me, El Maximo Lider harangued the relatively small crowd for over two hours, littering his speech with the usual denunciations of ‘Yankee imperialism’, ‘capitalist monopolies’ and – I particularly enjoyed this part – ‘Bush and Blair’.

For a young revolutionary tourist like myself the spectacle of the bearded ideologue in full flow was subversively exciting: I hated all of those things too, or at least I thought I did. Like so many who pretend to despise the boring machinations of liberal democracy I was passionately rooting for the romanticism of Che Guevara over the banal compromises of the capitalist system. And so beards, green fatigues and tropical exuberance were in and Starbucks and McDonalds were most definitely out.

Did you catch the business about getting over denunciations of ‘Bush and Blair’? Oh no, we can’t have such dogmatic notions cropping up in the writings of a 31-year old journalist angling to be the next Christopher Hitchens. How so yesterday, railing against Bush and Blair. Why the next thing you know, people will be playing Billy Bragg CD’s. So embarrassing.

But our latter-day Arthur Koestler came to see the light:

But in reality the ‘plucky Caribbean island’ was no tropical Shoreditch and what I witnessed was the stage-set Cuba rather than the grim and Spartan reality. I was a Useful Idiot, in other words; a person who would valorise the 95 per cent literacy rate on the island without telling you that it was the Cuban Government which decided what a person was allowed to read. Like many a pampered comrade, I rallied against the ‘superficiality’ of McDonald’s and Burger King while forgetting that plastic food is incomparably better than no food at all.

What is there to say in reply to a claim that fast food is better than “no food at all”. This is the sort of shit-flinging rhetoric you get on the Sean Hannity show and hardly worth bothering to answer.

Now it is true that Cuban media is state-owned. Presumably it would be better for Cuba to have the sort of free press we have in the USA where those with the money have the freedom to own one, to paraphrase AJ Liebling.

But it is not enough to be able to buy and sell a newspaper or television station. Bloodworth raises the bar even higher. If you buy a newspaper or TV station and then use it to editorialize on behalf of a government that was voted into power but that does not live up to your lily-white liberal standards, then watch out.

On February 19, 2014 Bloodworth repeated his god that failed shtick, this time about Venezuela:

There was a time when the so-called Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela appeared to hold great promise. I remember watching The Revolution Will Not Be Televised back in 2003 and being mesmerised by what I saw: here was a government spending the country’s oil wealth on social programmes for the poor and giving the rich a kicking in one of the most unequal societies in the Western Hemisphere.

But unlike 2003, Venezuelan television no longer plots against the government, a function of private enterprise apparently:  “In 2013 the last remaining independent television station in Venezuela was sold to an ally of the president.” Maybe there’s something I’m missing but isn’t that the way bourgeois democracy operates? Last week the New Republic editors and writers that Martin Peretz had hired resigned because they objected to the new owner’s intentions to make the magazine more like the Huffingto Post or the Daily Beast. And that’s not much different from when Peretz bought the magazine in 1974. He fired the liberal editor and a bunch of people then resigned.

That’s how capitalism operates as far as I know. Newspapers are profit-making enterprises. You buy one and then you have the right to order people to write things that reflect your POV. That’s how the Independent operates, doesn’t it? If Rupert Murdoch bought it tomorrow, heads like Patrick Cockburn would roll. I do suspect that James Bloodworth would still have a job. Murdoch would smile ever so benignly on such a bright young anti-Communist thing.

 

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.”

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