Haroldo Dilla And The Cuban Revolution

by Louis Proyect

November 17, 2003


The September/October 2003 issue of Against the Current (a monthly journal affiliated with the socialist group Solidarity) includes an article by Haroldo Dilla Alfonso titled "Cuba: Opposition and Repression." Whatever the intentions of the editors, the article dovetails with an ideological campaign being waged by certain elements of the American left against the Cuban revolution. A number of the magazine's editors signed the anti-Cuba petition initiated by New Politics editor Joanne Landy, (1) although -- to its credit -- Solidarity as an organization did not. Dilla himself was another signer.

As one of the island's leading socialist intellectuals before going into exile in the Dominican Republic, Dilla has credentials that Miami-based counter-revolutionary exiles lack. According to an introductory note preceding the article, Dilla was expelled from the Cuban Communist Party in 1999 for his "theoretical work concerning socialism and democracy." Before responding to Dilla's points, it would be useful to review the circumstances that led to his estrangement from the revolution. Lacking documentation, it would be virtually impossible to pass judgment on his expulsion. We do have ample background, however, on the underlying tensions within Cuban society from that period and how they played out among the intelligentsia. Not surprisingly, they are quite similar to those that led to recent controversies surrounding the execution of three ferryboat hijackers and the jailing of US funded "dissidents."

In 1996 Cuba faced a series of provocations from Washington, D.C. at a time when it was still undergoing major economic duress. As has always been the case, the United States was carrying out a two-pronged strategy against Cuban socialism. On one hand, it encouraged the Miami counter-revolution to play the role of "hard cop" as it had for over 35 years. On the other, it was seeking ways to create a pole of opposition on the island using elements of "civil society" that were initially encouraged by the government itself. Some institutions were relatively innocuous or even beneficial -- especially those that expressed the particular needs of historically marginalized groups such as Afro-Cubans. Others were less benign. They tended to be Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) funded by and responsible to North American government agencies, universities and wealthy benefactors. As this drama unfolded, Dilla got caught in the middle.

In the March/April 1999 North American Congress on Latin America Report, Dilla wrote an article titled "The Virtues and Misfortunes of Civil Society," which posited good civil society institutions such as the Protestant church affiliated Martin Luther King Center in Havana. In order for Cuban socialism to survive, such community-development project would have to become hegemonic. They would have to supersede old-guard mass institutions disguising themselves as "socialist civil society" and used as "transmission belts" to issue bureaucratic marching orders to the masses from above. This included the Committees in Defense of the Cuban Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women and the Union of Cuban Workers.

In March of 1996, Raul Castro gave a report to the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party that went on the offensive against NGOs, (2) some of which he described as "Trojan horses." In a section of this report titled "Our concept of Civil Society is not the same as the one they refer to in the United States," he referred to an article by Gillian Gunn, a highly placed "Cubanologist" at the University of Georgetown, that illustrated the nature of the problem. (3) Titled "Cuba's NGOs: Government Puppets or Seeds of Civil Society?," Gunn's article is a highly sophisticated policy statement on behalf of NGOs in Cuba, even when they appear at first to bolster the Cuban government.

She observed, "The state's new support for NGOs is a matter of financial necessity. As subsidies from Moscow declined in 1990, the government sought alternative resources. Foreign NGOs' assistance was perceived as helping solve developmental problems in other countries where potential funders were uneasy about direct donations to governments accused of undemocratic practices." After reviewing the ups and downs of a number of NGOs, she advises her readers to be patient, despite the appearance that the government is using them to maintain power. Her article concludes, "Are Cuba's NGOs government puppets or seeds of civil society? The answer is ideologically and intellectually unsatisfying. They are both, though the latter characteristic is very gradually growing."

The Cuban leadership recognized this tendency as well. Raul Castro pointed out that several US academic centers had begun to meddle openly in Cuban politics with the "brazen support" of the US Interests Section in Havana. Evidently the Clinton administration was just as capable of interjecting itself into the island's politics as the Bush-Cason gang.

Raul Castro singled out an outfit called Pax World Service, which had sent out a questionnaire to Cuban NGOs asking for information on membership, their attitudes toward socialism, how it achieved legal status, etc. In exchange for this information, they would receive funding. He described the relationship as one of: "tell me your life story and I may send you some dollars. Just like that." As a major "social investing" firm managing investments worth more than $1 billion, Pax World was certainly in a position to dole out money by the bucketful.

In 1995 Dilla was a top official of the Center for the Study of the Americas, a Cuban think-tank that had close ties to American universities. While attending conferences outside of Cuba, three academics affiliated with the center had decided to defect. Meanwhile, others -- including Dilla -- had begun to stress the need for some combination of market reforms, a multiparty system and ideological diversity. In other words, they were calling for Cuban-style 'perestroika.' In a shake-up at the Center, Dilla and long-time director Armando Hart were removed. Despite claims by opponents of the Cuban revolution that this marked a kind of Stalinist reaction to new ideas, the Cubans named Abel Prieto as a replacement for Hart. Cuba specialist Carollee Bengelsdorf regarded Prieto as an advocate of "open debate" as was Hart in fact.

After Dilla was offered a teaching job in the Dominican Republic in 2000, he took the job and left the island for good. His articles and books continue to defend a generally leftwing and socialist perspective, stressing the need for civil society and a kind of socialist community organizing.

While US universities were exploring ways to seduce Cuban professors with the charms of civil society and a mixed economy, the Miami counter-revolution was adopting cruder tactics. Jose Basulto and his followers flew regularly over Cuban air space and dropped anti-Communist leaflets from small airplanes, despite strenuous objections from the Cuban government. With more than 30 pilots at his disposal and aircraft funded by Miami pop singer Gloria Estefan and American Airlines, Basulto had the wherewithal to stir up trouble. As a former CIA agent, he certainly knew how to get things done. In August 1962, the CIA sent Basulto into Cuba where he shot up a hotel, fired into a theater, and blasted a Havana residential section. Twenty people died as a consequence of his terrorism.

After reaching the limits of their patience, the Cubans sent MiG jet-fighters into the sky on February 24, 1996, where they blew two of Basulto's Cessna aircrafts into bits. Basulto himself managed to fly safely back to Miami. The same bodies that roared their disapproval over the execution of the ferryboat hijackers and the arrests of James Cason's accomplices condemned the Cuban shoot-down. The United Nations Security Council "strongly deplored" the shooting, while Clinton suspended charter flights to Cuba and promised more money for Radio Marti, a propaganda station with the same respect for Cuban autonomy as Basulto's pilots. To cap off the aggression, Clinton announced that he would support the Helms-Burton bill, which tightened trade sanctions on Cuba.

Now, turning to the opening sentences of Dilla's article, we are struck by its almost philosophical stance:

"The world is not a simple place. It cannot be explained in the sharply contrasting tones that provide such delight to simple thought. It has actually never been simple, but this truer now than ever. And there is no reason to believe that Cuba is an exception."

He then quotes statements by Eduardo Galeano on one hand and James Petras on the other to demonstrate the current rift between figures long associated with the Latin American left over alleged repression on the island. Dilla neglects to mention his own partisan role since that would undoubtedly undercut his Olympian pretensions.

After donning a garb of impartiality, Dilla then proceeds to disrobe in the course of his account of the ferryboat hijacking and its aftermath. A small group of "young people" had commandeered the boat but "no passengers had been hurt," a sort of episode that has about as much gravity as a fraternity prank. Meanwhile, a bloodthirsty Cuban government felt the need to subject the hijackers to a summary trial and execute them on April 10, 2003. Left out of this narrative is the background that led up to this wrenching conclusion. It is tantamount to describing the shoot-down of the Basulto planes as a lightning bolt out of the blue, as indeed it was portrayed in the bourgeois press at the time.

A speech by Fidel Castro on April 25, 2003 defended the action as something forced on the Cuban government. He pointed out that in January a cement boat was hijacked and taken to the United States. After the Cubans presented a diplomatic note requesting the return of the four hijackers, they were ignored. Only a month later a border patrol boat was hijacked as well. Again the criminals were not punished once they had reached the USA. It is a sign of how the world judges such crimes that not a single article on these hijackings can be found in Lexis-Nexis during this period. Such crimes are not newsworthy. It is only when Cuba defends itself after being driven to its limits that the world's press takes notice. By contrast, over 100 articles were devoted to the execution of the ferryboat hijackers.

Turning to the arrests of the Cuban "dissidents," Dilla at least parts company with his co-petitioners by acknowledging the right of the government to put agents in jail where they belong. He writes, "I have no doubt that the relations between part of the organized opposition and the US government are based on more than just emotions. And if that is so, the Cuban government has the right to repress them for their complicity with an enemy power, providing it offers basic legal guarantees." That being the case, he might want to remove his name from the Campaign for Peace and Democracy petition since an accompanying statement asserts the right of Cubans to "receive funding or other resources directly from the US government or from NGOs funded by Washington." Perhaps Dilla did not read this statement, or perhaps he was capable of delinking it from the petition, an act of cognitive dissonance that beggars description.

Dilla is harsh in his appraisal of Cuban political culture. It is "brittle" and unyielding. The party leadership refused to give up a "project of bureaucratic, state and centralized power that admits no competition." It cracked down on the "dissidents" because they threatened to galvanize a much larger discontented portion of the population that might amount to ten percent of the island, according to his interpretation of spoiled ballots in the last election. It is difficult to respond to these charges since they are so sweeping and based on circumstantial evidence. One fears that the Cuba of reality is competing with an ideal Cuba in Dilla's mind. In such circumstances, reality always comes in second.

Turning his attention to the long-standing problem of migration, Dilla is once again critical of the Cuban government, which is as arbitrary in its treatment of people fleeing poverty as it is toward people who remain behind and try to use civil society to press their demands. With over 700,000 visa applicants and a quota of only 20,000 per year, there will be many more people risking a raft ride than waiting on line for their ticket to Miami. This leads to Dilla to assert: "Executing hijackers and increasing security on Cuban ferries will not solve this problem."

Unfortunately, Dilla does not seem to recognize the problem. The goal was not to prevent people from risking their lives, but endangering the lives of others. When you combine the island's current economic plight with the proximity of a seeming paradise only 90 miles away, which seems to promise instant success as soon as you reach its shores, there will always be people willing to take the risk. No amount of "civil society" can compete with the allure of Miami shopping malls. All Cuba can ask for is the right of its citizens to take a ferryboat without having knives put to their throats.

For Dilla, the Cuban government's attitude toward migration is about as cynical as Washington's. If the U.S. keeps a lid on visas in order to encourage risky raft rides, the Cuban government operates in a Machiavellian fashion as well. For example, according to Dilla, it allowed island residents to flood toward Florida in 1994 in order to force the Clinton administration to sign a new emigration treaty. Placing the U.S. and Cuba on the same plane in this fashion is a breath-taking exercise in passing judgment. In 1994 Cuba was in the throes of the "special period" in which, for example, physicians were making $3.25 per month, about the price of two bottles of beer. It is practically a miracle that Cuba survived this crisis without dismantling the socialist foundations of the economy. What should have Cuba done to decrease these pressures? Given NGOs free rein? Perhaps the right mix of NGOs would have done the trick, especially those that thrived in Yugoslavia during the civil wars of the 1990s, but the Cubans had other ideas.

Dilla's article concludes with a prescription that would appeal both to his colleagues in academia as well as those Stalinophobe editors at Against the Current who signed Joanne Landy's petition. "The solution" is "democratic debate," as if the island's fate did not involve global considerations. This sharp contrast between "democrats" like Dilla and his allies and a bureaucratic elite that is hounding dissidents and putting obstacles in the way of would-be emigrants smacks of self-flattery. It assumes that a small clique has decided policy changes in Cuba at the top since 1959 and that all others are pushed to the margins. Once decisions have been made, they are transmitted to a passive population through "transmission belts" and enforced through the threat of arrest.

This portrait of Cuba does not quite square with the one familiar to viewers of "Strawberry and Chocolate" or those who have observed the audacious initiatives taken in organic farming in recent years. It is -- to put it succinctly -- a gross distortion of the island's reality, all the more regrettable given Dilla's obvious expertise.

The biggest flaw in Dilla's approach, which is shared by his co-thinkers at New Politics and Against the Current, is that it effectively sweeps Cuban statements and -- more importantly -- behavior toward capitalism on a world scale under the rug. A nation that is so willing to repress its own citizens and to cut cynical deals with Washington over emigration, while adapting to its place in the world capitalist system, is not likely to align itself with the Global Justice movement as Cuba has done. Of all the nations on the planet that have responded to the new anti-capitalist movement, few have stepped forward like Cuba.

In November 2001, some 400 delegates from over 30 nations attended a gathering opposed to Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). They represented regional NGOs, trade unions, farmers, women and intellectuals, students, religious and other social organizations, as well as parliamentary bodies. Large numbers of anti-globalization activists from the United States and Canada also participated. In other words, the same exact forces that Cuba is supposedly hostile to within its borders are exactly those who keep showing up on the island to map out strategies against global capitalism.

If Cuba was genuinely Stalinist, as the logic of Dilla's article points to, the last thing it would do is host such gatherings. Nor would it send physicians and teachers to Venezuela as a demonstration of solidarity with a revolutionary government. This is something that critics of Cuba cannot explain. Why would such hidebound and repressive bureaucrats keep finding ways to put obstacles in the path of imperialism? If anything is obvious about the trajectory of Soviet and Chinese Stalinism, it is that it was always finding ways to make itself politically acceptable in the name of "peaceful coexistence." If Cuba has been following the same path since 1959, it has been lost on its enemies in Washington.

Evidently, one signer of the Joanne Landy petition has begun to rethink his attitude toward the Cuban revolution. Fresh from his visit to the island, Noam Chomsky has saluted the audacious initiatives taken by the Cubans on behalf of human freedom. In an interview that can be read on the Counterpunch website, (4) he says:

"So, for example, let's take Cuba's role in the liberation of Africa. It's an astonishing achievement that has almost been totally suppressed. Now you can read about it in scholarship, but the contribution that Cuba made to the self-liberation of Africa is fantastic. And that was against the entire concentrated power of the world. All the imperialist powers were trying to block it. It finally worked and Cuba's contribution was unique. That's another reason why Cuba is hated. Just the plain fact that black soldiers from Cuba were able to beat back a South African invasion of Angola sent shock waves throughout the continent. The black movements were inspired by it. The white South Africans were psychologically crushed by the fact that South African forces could be defeated by a black army. The United States was infuriated. If you look at the next couple of years, the terrorist attacks on Cuba got much worse."

With such an unblemished record, leftists in the United States should be exploring ways to relieve the pressures on Cuba, which would go a long way to relieve the pressure on those dissidents whose cause they take up and those potentially seeking to migrate. Such practical assistance counts much more than verbal attacks in the left press that would presumably pressure the Cuban government to change its ways. Now more than ever -- in light of the warlike threats against Cuba following 9/11 -- solidarity should be our watchword.

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Notes & Resources

1.  Proyect, Louis; The Cuba Petitions, Swans, April 28, 2003.  (back)

2.  "General of the Army Raul Castro Ruz to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba," March 23, 1996. Online at http://www.marxmail.org/raul_castro.htm (last visited: 11/10/03).  (back)

3.  Gunn, Gillian; "Cuba's NGOs: Government Puppets or Seeds of Civil Society?" Cuba Briefing Paper Series: Number 7, Georgetown University Caribbean Project, February 1995. Online at: http://www.trinitydc.edu/academics/depts/Interdisc/International/caribbean%20briefings/Cubas_NGOs.pdf (last visited: 11/10/03).  (back)

4.  Dwyer, Bernie; "Cuba's 50 Years of Defiance: An Interview with Noam Chomsky," CounterPunch, November 3, 2003. Online at http://www.counterpunch.org/dwyer11032003.html (last visited: 11/10/03).  (back)

Cuba on Swans


Louis Proyect is a computer programmer at Columbia University and a long-time peace activist and socialist. He is also the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at www.marxmail.org. He writes a bi-monthly book review for Swans.

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Published November 17, 2003
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