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Posted May 27, 2003 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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BY PATRICK BOND | teacher Wits University, Johannesburg | Green Left Weekly

HAVANA — Visitors experiencing Cuba for the first time cannot help but remark upon how the economic and political pressures being imposed on the country seem untenable. What would be possible in a just world, given Cuban society’s exceptional talents, and what Cubans can actually achieve in their current struggle for existence, both sovereign and individual, represent a tragic disjuncture.

The contradictions scream out. After rounding a corner from one drab Old Havana street, with its decayed concrete and flaked walls, suddenly a gentrified square emerges with restored architecture, fresh paint and a United Colors of Benetton shop, where US dollars rule. But the next street is back to peso-denominated urban grit. Then, not far away, a tacky shopping mall sells sweatshop products from Indonesia for US dollars.

Lessons that a self-proclaimed socialist society might provide the South African left were reason enough for Trevor Ngwane, David Masondo and I to make the trek from Johannesburg earlier this month. We were also intrigued by a four-day conference on “Karl Marx and the Challenges of the 21st Century”, sponsored by the government’s Institute of Philosophy, an economics association and the country’s trade union federation, held May 5-10.

Perhaps the most poignant personal moment was at the Havana harbour, after the intellectual arguments faded into the night, when Ngwane played the trumpet he’d brought from Soweto out towards the sea. Another horn sounded nearby, and Ngwane was quickly joined by a Cuban musician. While communication wasn’t easy, the trumpets echoed around. Ngwane’s salary as a township anti-privatisation organiser is measly, but enough to pay for the couple of beers that, purchased at a medium-range hotel nearby, would have consumed a third of his new friend’s monthly salary (US$9) as a music teacher.

The May 20 statement on Cuba by US President George Bush, who was joined at the White House by bellicose, right-wing Miami-based emigres, was anticipated to ratchet up sanctions and travel restrictions. It did not, at least for now.

Whether because of distractions in the Middle East or due to opposition from US businesses who are opening new trade routes, including a roaring $150 million in US food exports to Cuba, Bush held back. (Even the far-right Wall Street Journal has recently called for an end to the US economic embargo.)

Washington’s expulsion of 14 Cuban diplomats on May 12, threats to prosecute US citizens travelling to Cuba and Bush’s public dalliance with the Miami thugs may have helped him save face on the right. But Cuban President Fidel Castro’s longevity and personal popularity will continue to present an inviting target for the neoconservative clique in the Pentagon.

For many friends of Cuba, uppermost is the hope that, 44 years after Fulgencio Batista’s US-backed dictatorship was overthrown by the Cuban people, Cuba can continue to be the world’s most durable inspiration for Third World revolution. At a minimum, there remains the belief that Latin America’s only serious welfare state will emerge stronger from its current troubles thanks to the revolution’s resilience.

The fact that so much leftist sentiment across the world, including among millions of black South Africans, has been bound up in these hopes helps explain the appearance of at least four international sign-on statements around Cuba over the past month. Two from the centre-left and anarchists chide Castro; one originating in Mexico and another from the Marx conference commit signatories to defending Cuba against imperialism.

The ruthless critique of capitalism and search for routes to socialism were on the May 5-10 conference agenda. The most heated debates unfolded around the global situation and the state of Cuban socialism. President Castro made three appearances, defending in several hour-long interventions the crackdown on US-funded “dissidents” and execution of three hijackers, as well as cracking jokes about the “reptiles” and “bandits” populating Latin American politics.

But he also made a strong bid for an alliance with the global justice movements which, perhaps justifiably, remain so wary of contemporary state politics. Terribly disappointed by the World Social Forum’s decision to move from Porto Alegre to Mumbai in 2004, Castro asked an international WSF leader, “Is India about to be swallowed [by US imperialism]?”. He had harboured his own special hope of welcoming tens of thousands of WSF delegates to Havana, an idea which at some point the WSF will be sufficiently mature and self-confident to entertain.

Castro did, however, provide a vision that one day radical Third World governments will be sufficiently coherent and foresighted enough to seek real alliances with social justice movements: “These are fighters, and that’s what we must call them. They won at Seattle. At Quebec, they forced the G8 into a fortified position. It was more than a demonstration, it was an insurgency… The leaders of the world must now meet inside a bunker. They had to meet on a ship in Italy and on a mountain in Canada. They needed police barriers in Davos, in peaceful Switzerland. The most important thing is that the fighters have created a real fear. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank cannot meet properly.”

That may be true, but Washington’s neoliberals have made their mark even on Cuba. Castro was, indeed, humble and self-critical about the country’s economic failings and turned to ask a leading Havana economist, in a good-natured harangue that continued for hours: “So we poisoned socialism?” It was more a statement than a question.

One antidote, perhaps, was the revitalising exchange between several hundred Cuban Marxists and more than 100 international scholars and activists, such as Samir Amin, Fred Bienefeld, Liudmila Boulavka, Simon Clarke, Francois Houtart, Diane Flaherty, Barbara Foley, Marta Harnecker, David Kotz, Michael Lebowitz and Istvan Meszaros.

Controversies raged over the use of phrases such as “Nazi-fascism” (a Castro favourite) to describe the US empire, and whether, as Amin suggested, “the construction of a large front, composed of all the forces that could be in opposition”, is feasible.

But none of the participants objected to a final “Communique of Solidarity” that observed how Cuba’s “achievements and hopes for a better world are threatened by a power based in inequality, force and war… We reaffirm our solidarity with the Cuban people and their revolution”.

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