In the tropics, the day fades quickly and there is hardly any time for imaginative games among the lights and shadows of twilight. When a few years ago I set foot on Cuban soil for the first time, it was already dark in Havana. The few lights of the public lighting, between revolutionary posters and brand-new private business signs, brought to mind the first years of Perestroika, and the doubts, illusions and contradictions that we lived in the then Soviet Union.
Even knowing that the Cuban system withstood several tests of the same that came to overthrow European socialisms, and knowing several critical analyzes made from Cuba on the causes of the fall of the USSR—I think many more than within the former Soviet Union itself , and some undoubtedly much more serious—I never stopped thinking about the risks, temptations, traps and hopes that are found, coexist and confront each other on an island that continues to throw into the world infinite questions and that, being a main knot of the struggles, dreams and nightmares of recent history, refuses to be a caricature of the last century.
This conversation with Julio César Guanche—a Cuban lawyer, historian and analyst—comes after an agreement between friends from Russia, Ukraine and Chile. For a long time, we have been talking informally about Cuba with the directors of three independent left-wing media—the Ukrainian magazine Liva (banned in their country), the Russian magazine Skepsis and the international news agency Pressenza—and we decided to pass our questions on to someone of Cuba with whom we could agree on the concern and especially sensitivity.
We thank Julio César Guanche for this conversation, because in addition to the trust he generates in us, we believe that he is one of the best connoisseurs of these issues. With this interview that we will divide into two parts, we hope to open a space for exchange and reflection, which will be our humble contribution to solidarity with the beloved Cuban people.
We understand that the period of greatest development of the Cuban process was framed by the relations with its main political ally, the USSR. But we also understand that there has always been, at least in culture, an important degree of autonomy with respect to the Soviet model….
The Soviet influence in Cuba is not reducible to socialist realism. Cinema, literature, concert music, ballet, artistic education, translation work, coming from the USSR, were used by Cuban culture. Without taking into account this positive influence, the explanation of the Cuban culture of the 1960s loses its depth.
Crossovers and influences are always complex processes. Works of socialist realism (The Volokolamsk Road, A Real Man) influenced a current of Cuban narrative, known as “of violence” (Jesús Díaz, Norberto Fuentes, Eduardo Heras), which in turn did not respond to socialist realism. The debate on the architecture of the National School of Art, or controversies around films such as Una pelea cubana contra los demonios and Un día de noviembre, are not reduced to positions “for or against” socialist realism, as various referents intervened in them.
In the 1960s, the Cuban artistic avant-garde, in plastic arts, concert music, theater, dance, literature, photography, showed great critical capacity. In a great many of the cases, it was not expressed as a questioning of revolutionary politics, but rather was based on it, while being critical. Compared to the socialist art of other geographies, it had institutional backing as well as space for experimentation and for dialogue with the best of Western art.
On the other hand, socialist realism did not exist in Cuba as an official aesthetic doctrine, as a mandatory reference for everything. Of course, it permeated and did a lot of damage. Institutions such as the Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, the Casa de las Américas, the National Ballet of Cuba or the Casa del Caribe in Santiago de Cuba, were bulwarks against socialist realism, but the level and scope it reached and how it marked the future of Cuban culture, its modes of expression, the lives of the creators and the formation of the public cannot be underestimated.
And does socialist realism have any influence today?
Strong contents of the culture of socialist realism exist in the country, visible in anti-intellectualist discourses—consolidated by Stalinism, but with broader sources and previous to it in Cuba—, in the pedagogical vocation that some demand of art, in the difficult place that the circulation of criticism proper of intellectual discourses has, or in the marked separation that exists between university, general education, intellectual world and circuits of access to the public.
However, it’s been a long time since avant-garde cultural expressions, whether they have institutional support or lack thereof, have shown a strong critical charge regarding the problems of Cuban society and its institutions, and they have nothing to do with the dogmas of socialist realism.
On this horizon, the “recoveries” of previously marginalized intellectuals, which have taken place from the 1990s onwards, have multiplied. In contrast, even the intellectuals who produced the most sophisticated notions of socialist realism, such as Mirta Aguirre, have been forgotten.
Attempts to “rehabilitate” officials committed to the politics of socialist realism, such as Luis Pavón Tamayo and Armando Quesada, provoked a huge wave of repudiation in 2007. The ideologues of what was called the “gray five-year period”—a concept that qualifies as the worst period of Soviet influence in Cuba (1971-1976) 1—contribute nothing to the Cuban present. Their followers are careful to quote them.
On the other hand, there are visions that reduce culture to artists and writers, that treat the “literate city” as the privileged seat of critical consciousness about society, or defend “essences” of nationality that must be protected by the “creators.” They are simplified visions, with little social understanding of how culture is produced, and that don’t know how part of Cuban intellectual discourses are not connected with social agendas of peremptory importance, or how, in contrast, critical discourses remake the bases of what we will understand by Cuban culture.
Is this Soviet influence still seen in the political debates of the left in Cuba?
“Marxism-Leninism”—the Stalinist formula of Marxism—has long been repudiated by many. Critical Marxism; contemporary currents of critical thought that are nourished by Marxism but aren’t limited to it; feminisms, anti-racism and environmentalism, the decolonial approach, left-wing republicanism, among others, are referents of the Cuban debate on democracy within the Cuban left. The identity of these lefts is not reduced to their position with respect to the State, since they also have differences among themselves. For its part, the Cuban State doesn’t recognize or dialogue with a great deal of them.
There are orthodox attempts, official or para-official, to disqualify areas of these lefts, but they swim against the current: they have few and coarse referents to sustain themselves and they are forced to go through a huge amount of “theoretical” vicissitudes, of which the old recourse, of Stalinist descent, of “condemning” as “enemies,” with a vocation to “restore capitalism” is not alien, to a large number of actors who follow such critical references on socialism and democracy.
What do you think was the influence of Stalinism on the Cuban revolutionary leadership?
Your question refers, I understand, to people within the leadership. I have to ignore here contexts and discussions that structurally framed the positions of that leadership vis-à-vis the USSR, such as the discussions around Tito’s Yugoslavia, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Sino-Soviet conflict or the geopolitics of the Cold War. I also need, for space, to ignore the theoretical discussion on what to understand by Stalinism. For this reason, I respond with a perhaps broad focus on what I consider that presence and influence on the Cuban leadership.
If we are dealing with people, this is a description of some of those positions. Blas Roca led the first Communist Party of Cuba for decades (for three decades called the Popular Socialist Party—PSP) and later he was a senior leader of the Communist Party of Cuba (current) and presided over the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP).
Before 1959, Roca’s party lavished statements in favor of Stalinism. Raúl Roa García, a non-party socialist before 1959, was very critical of the “little red father.” Later, he was a brilliant Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Revolution and later vice president of the ANPP, right next to Roca.
By the 1960s, the term “Stalinism” was not very common in official Cuban discourse, but there was a strong discussion between “pro-Soviets” and critics of “real socialism.” In other words, it meant taking sides with the Stalinist legacy. Among senior leaders, or intellectuals representative of the revolutionary process, such as Carlos Rafael Rodríguez and Juan Marinello, there was open support for the USSR, as well as a high level of political and intellectual analysis.
At the same time, other leaders of the process, such as Armando Hart, Alfredo Guevara or Ricardo Alarcón, were never characterized for praising Stalinism. In some cases, they were even public critics, as is the case of Alfredo Guevara.
Within what has been the highest revolutionary leadership, there are differences.
In 1957, Ernesto Che Guevara held a polemic—a demonstration of the ideological diversity of the Cuban insurrectional movement—with the also revolutionary René Ramos Latour in which the latter placed Che “behind the iron curtain,” that is, ascribed to the world of what would later be called “real socialism.”
In the early 1960s, Che Guevara defended before K.S. Karol the need for the use of Soviet manuals. However, he would soon distance himself from the politics and ideology of the USSR. Che was one of the few socialist leaders who in the second half of the 20th century mentioned Trotsky and Stalin together, to defend the need to study them both.
The figure of Fidel Castro surely requires more space in this description you are making….
Fidel Castro, before 1959, because of his militancy, first, in the Cuban People’s Party (Ortodoxo Party), which had a left wing, with some Marxists, but was generally quite critical of the USSR; for his broad spectrum readings; and for his statements throughout the revolutionary struggle of the 1950s, he was a democratic nationalist. At that time, this meant having commitments to socialism and democracy, which collided with the political imagination of the USSR.
Throughout the 1960s, this position was specified in notions such as “revolution without ideology,” “revolution green like the palm trees,” or in slogans of the type we want “freedom with bread and bread without terror.” Fidel Castro’s support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968) was conditional; it was not an uncritical surrender to the USSR: he demanded that that power defend other socialist projects at war with the United States, such as Vietnam and Cuba, and described that invasion as being contrary to international law.
The “Padilla case” (1971) put the concept of “Stalinism” in the foreground for Cuba.2 The famous first letter from foreign intellectuals critical of this case was positioned against what they understood as acts typical of Stalinism in Cuba.
The entry of Cuba to the CAME and the closer relations with the USSR brought other contents. From then on, Fidel Castro would celebrate more openly the experience of “real socialism,” but not of Stalinism, which, moreover, did not happen that way in the USSR after 1956, either because of “de-Stalinization,” or for the survival of “Stalinism without Stalin.”
The “Diccionario de pensamientos de Fidel Castro” (Dictionary of Fidel Castro’s thoughts; 2008), doesn’t mention the term Stalinism as part of his thought. In the last years of his public life, Fidel Castro commented to Ignacio Ramonet (2006): “The phenomenon of Stalinism did not occur here; a phenomenon of this nature of abuse of power, of authority, of cult of personality, of statues, etc. was never known in our country.” In a reflection on Lula da Silva, Fidel critically listed deeds committed by Stalin.
And Raúl Castro? And the current younger leadership?
Raúl Castro’s thought has been much less studied than that of Fidel and Che. It doesn’t contain criticism of Stalinism or the USSR. Usually, ties to the PSP and continued acceptance and support of that country’s policy are recognized. Nikolai Leonov wrote a biography (2015) about his friend Raúl—they have been friends since 1953—in which Leonov doesn’t question several of the assumptions of Stalinism for relations with Latin America at that stage. Brian Latell (2005) has assured that Khrushchev believed “Raúl had been his man in Havana,” while Hal Klepak (2012) assures that Raúl “follows the Cuban tradition, more closely based on the thought of José Martí than that of Marx, Lenin, or Stalin.”
The current generations that have succeeded the “historical leadership” of the Revolution, such as President Miguel M. Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, don’t have Stalinism, nor reflection on it, within their vocabulary. A new chapter in the interpretation of Cuba’s historical relations with the USSR is about to be reworked, now through the prism of relations with Russia. A metaphor for this can be found in the Russian support for the reconstruction of the dome of the National Capitol.
What would be a minimum balance of relations between the USSR and Cuba?
Discussions about how to deal with the Soviet experience and Stalinism are known as milestones in Cuban Marxist thought after 1959. For example, the debates of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Havana against the use of Soviet manuals, or the exchanges of Alfredo Guevara with Blas Roca on socialist realism, both in the 1960s.
Other types of thinking of that time, such as the approaches of Lunes de Revolución, and books such as Los Siervos, by Virgilio Piñera, or Fuera del Juego, by Heberto Padilla, were clearly anti-Stalinist. Later, Stalinism had an influence in Cuba, but a balance would also recognize the resistance against it and the weight of the Cuban cultural tradition, and of its makers, in this resistance.
The relations with the USSR yielded important advantages: crucial support to the national economy, decisive contribution to the construction of the first welfare state in Latin America (as documented by Hans-Jürgen Burchardt)—for access to social rights, cultural and services infrastructure, etc.,—and the underpinning, even with contradictions—of the Cuban revolutionary foreign policy.
It also brought great problems: following a criterion of directed economy, without democratic planning or control by workers over the production process, with high levels of inefficiency and waste of resources, and the bureaucratization of economic processes.
From the political point of view, it underpinned the notion of “State of all the people,” a term that was not assumed in Cuba, but its content was: limitation of popular control and the possibilities of contesting state decisions, the synonymy between State and Revolution, the translation of notions such as “internal enemy” (for example, “counterrevolutionaries”), the disavowal of criticism and political self-organization and the criminalization of all opposition, together with the celebration of the single party as exclusive possibility of socialism.
The formula “Marxism-Leninism” —like that, with a hyphen—was taken out of the constitutional text in 2019. The 1976 Constitution had used it as a state ideology, but it had also incorporated features of the “People’s Power” system that were alien to the Soviet experience. What was done in 2019 with this concept of Stalinist origin is a good path, but it is symptomatic of the long march that the culture of Soviet socialism has experienced in Cuba and of the course its refutations have followed.
(To be continue…)
1 The expression “Gray Five-Year Period” refers to a disastrous serious period of censorship in Cuban culture, marked by a dogmatic and repressive vision, which marginalized many writers and artists from public spaces. It was largely rectified with the creation of the Ministry of Culture and the appointment of Armando Hart as minister. To read more about this concept, this text by Ambrosio Fornet is useful. (Note by Oleg Yasinsky)
2 Poet Herberto Padilla was arrested on March 20, 1971 after his recital of critical poems at the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. He was imprisoned for 38 days. He was released, renouncing under pressure his previous ideas. Then he left the country. His imprisonment meant the first great conflict of the Cuban government with well-known intellectuals of the world left, sympathizers of the revolution who came out in defense of Padilla. Among them, signatories of the mentioned first letter, Julio Cortázar, Simone de Beavoir, Carlos Fuentes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Juan Rulfo and others. (Note by Oleg Yasinsky)