When one rereads the debate about what Marxism should be taught in Cuban universities in those remote 1960s, one gets the impression that its contenders are not quite dead and buried. Not only because some are alive, but because their positions are replicated as if the debate on political ideas in Cuba today had something of déjà vu.
The editors of the magazine Teoría y Práctica, and of the Schools of Revolutionary Instruction (EIR), which at that time were opposed to the teaching of Marxism with a historical approach, as well as the editorial line of Pensamiento crítico (PC) and some expressions of cultural policy — such as that represented by the ICAIC film exhibition —, had very marked distinctive signs. They argued that people were not prepared to understand the Marxist theory as a cumulative process, in its differences and even contradictions, but rather as a set of established truths and regularities; that they were not capable of reading diverse interpretations of Marxism, because that confused them; and that they could not critically assimilate the antiheroes of a certain narrative of combat and of the evil life of capitalism exposed in movies, because it would not respect the heroes and some younger ones could start imitating the criminals.
To put it in the terms of a prominent pedagogue and teachers’ union leader in Las Villas, with whom I had the privilege of befriending, it is not a good idea for people to try coffee in its pure state, but rather it should be watered down a bit, in what he called cafuá, although without decaffeinating it to the point of making it cafunga. This is what had to be done with the philosophy of Marx and his descendants.
The young Marxists of the Department of Philosophy and PC rebelled against this vision. Anyone who wants to know more about the debates of that time can consult them in a volume compiled by Graziella Pogolotti, and in numerous publications of recent years on the Marxism of the 1960s, as well as a more recent series written by protagonists of those battles of ideas.
Almost none of those who defended the original coffee of Marx went anywhere, so they had enough time to see how that theory of everything contained in the philosophical manuals fell into disrepute, once things took another turn in the second half of the 1980s, and especially as of the 1990s. I appear to be seeing the faces of Fernando Martínez and Juan Valdés Paz when, 20 years later, they told me about the praise they got from the defenders of Soviet Marxism-Leninism, veterans and also younger ones, as if that past had sunk in the mist of yesterday, until it was erased. I reminded them, paraphrasing Marx, that history repeats itself: first as “Seven Against Thebes,” then as Harry Potter. And we laughed a lot, as usual.
When I began to go to the United States and to stand in front of a classroom of Harvard and Columbia students, participate in events where officials of some past or present administration could attend, chat at lunch with colonels and ambassadors on “sabbatical,” and to work for months as a Guest Scholar at institutes dependent on Congressional funding, I understood two basic things about the intellectual debate in the field of politics.
The first lesson was that to explain and substantiate the raison d’être of Cuban politics, I had to use arguments and evidence that could not be refuted as if they were my ideological loyalties. They knew them, although they could not use them as arguments in the debate. They could even suspect that I was a “Castro” agent (they didn’t tell me, but they could believe it). For my part, I knew that, if I could convey a rational explanation of the Cuban political process, acceptable in the sense of being intelligible to the prevailing theories and intellectual culture in the United States, even if they did not share it, I would have brought off coup or something like that. That coup, of course, was not to make them change their way of thinking, but just to place the U.S. conflict with Cuba as part of a political, social and cultural process that they did not know. Because the truth is that they did not know it.
I had as students children of the former Cuban upper class, or who worked for the Cuban American National Foundation, who, when they verified that my courses were not revolutionary instruction, sat in my classroom to learn Cuban history. Thirty years later, they still invite me to breakfast every time I visit, and they still call me “my professor.” It does not occur to me to think that I changed their ideology. But they learned a lot about history and politics that they didn’t know about the Teller Amendment, the Guantánamo naval base, the NYT coverage of the war for independence, and why there were nuclear missiles in 1962 in Cuba. And they liked that. And me too, especially when I shared it with them.
The second lesson was that it was impossible to divide and separate the logic of Cuban policy towards the outside and the inside, since the rational source (not only ideological) of that policy was (and is) the same: the process we call the Revolution. Every time foreign policy contradicted (or seemed to contradict) domestic policy, it appeared inconsistent. And that inconsistency is a weakness, in any system and circumstance, politically speaking. Therefore, I could not speak of the process as equal to itself, immutable, but rather the opposite, explain it based on each historical circumstance. Otherwise, Fidel Castro, Che, Raúl, seemed like briefcases of timeless dogmas, and not political strategists.
To study Cuba in such a way that its domestic problems and logics inseparable from its foreign policy can be understood, it was essential, I thought, to investigate it, and analyze it with the head, not play it by ear. It may be that for some diplomat or editorialist it is enough to quote speeches and official documents, by Fidel Castro or Raúl Roa, international pacts and treaties, or by José Martí himself. For a professor or researcher not so.
When Cuba’s foreign policy, and towards the United States, in particular, is explained based on a homogeneous body called “ideology of the Cuban Revolution,” it is limited to understanding those foreign relations as a projection of a certain ideology. In this approach, the binding topic between foreign and domestic policy is limited to the economic effect of the blockade. In general, those who explain it this way do not tend to derive all the consequences that the dominant weight of defense and security have for the political system as a whole, and also, about the ideological discourse. The question is how, starting from this adversity, it is done to fight for rights and turn them into real practices, democracy and participation of the people. So that those rights and those practices become true in politics every day. Logically, this problematic story is not told on a banner, nor are quotes from books or testimonies enough to construct it. From no book, from no one.
I recounted here my little personal experience with the Americans, because I know it firsthand, but it is clear that relations with them are at the core of Cuban political culture, in its nervous system. For bad and for good. It is not uncommon that, in addition to the sciences of baseball and hurricanes, most Cubans master relations with Americans as their thesis topic at the university of life. And just like the other early sciences, this one offers the perfect space to ground almost all our political debates, beyond the pre-established formulas of ideology, law, conspiracy theory, and other surrogate orders.
That geopolitical conditioning would require us to start by dealing with ourselves. For example, our sectoral tendency to compartmentalize practices and knowledge. Thus, let us say, reinforcing the distance between media such as the press, on the one hand, and literature and art, on the other; between social and natural sciences; and converting the casemates of ideological and political struggle that Gramsci spoke of into heavy apparatus with little capacity for maneuver. This compartmentalization has prevailed over the “thousand flowers” that should emulate each other, and instead, it has reflected the centralizing tendency, also in terms of knowledge, according to the principle of “each sheep with its partner,” as Noah was instructed by Jehovah when he ordered him to build the Ark.
As if those glasses that separate real life into “sectors” were not enough, truths have been coined that have a common course, and are repeated. For example, when one agrees to debate in one same forum with those of another political or ideological sign, one is “legitimizing” them. Or that presenting a battle is only recommended when “the correlation of forces” favors it. I’ve always wondered what all those rules have to do with the real debate of ideas out there.
For example, if one were invited to speak to an audience half of which are ex-Cuban owners who were nationalized in 1960 (including some who pretend they want to talk) and the other half are anti-communist liberals? Should we avoid it because the correlation “does not favor us”? Is it the wrong place?
Due to this long past, a lot of water has run under the bridge, so that, some of these questions have already been answered with facts, bringing about a fundamental change in Cuba’s relations with the world and with itself. Cooperation, cultural, academic, scientific exchanges, as well as tourism, migration, and other forms of entry-and-exit, expanded and created new links with the outside/inside world, which started erasing the differences between inside and outside. They were already fading, when the internet arrived, to finish erasing them.
So if someone were to consider today that one thing is the dialoguing logic with which the Cuban government deals with that of the United States in a negotiating process, and another is that which governs the debate of ideas “within” Cuba, it would reveal that they do not understand any of the two.
First, because Cuban-U.S. relations today are made up of a multiplicity of non-state channels, which take place on the margins of inter-government channels and are carried out by non-official actors. There is probably nothing more important as a factor of change than this people-to-people contact. And the Cuban government, according to how it behaves, knows it.
Second, because the debate on ideas in the Cuban public sphere, what people read, the movies they watch, with whom they talk, the physical and virtual spaces where they exchange; it is not subject to what is registered, printed and published; to what is broadcast on TV and put on in theaters; to the people in their neighborhood. Because the “floating population,” the places one come across, with whom one coincides in a public place, or even in institutional spaces, are others. The fact that some of these media and institutions continue to behave as if nothing had changed does not mean that they cannot notice this differentiation and the bandwidth to which they belong.
Contrasting that past, I confess that the debates between the EIR professors and the editors of Teoría y práctica, on the one hand, and those of the Department of Philosophy and Critical Thinking, on the other, had a substantial intellectual rigor, a style and a tone that I don’t always find in some current debates. I wonder what a research thesis dedicated to comparing the problems and sources of those debates at the dawn of the Revolution and those of today would find. Just to be aware of how much water has run under these bridges — and how much has been carried away.
In any case, those debates of that time, although presented in the form of university subjects, such as philosophy, history, social theory, literature, economics, art, law, had eminently political meaning in the Cuba of that time. If the intersecting currents gave each other labels, such as “orthodox” and “liberals,” “heretics” and “dogmatists,” or “Marxist-Leninists” and “revisionists,” and in the heat of controversy and the enthusiasm of age they came to detest each other, the quarrels did not imply accusations of disloyalty or betrayal of the principles of revolutionary socialism.
There are probably many logical differences in such remote historical circumstances. I wonder what the X-ray of the ideological debate in today’s Cuba would show. Is it really déjà vu? Or unlike the 1960s, is there only one left? Is it possible to define the range of that Cuban left today? Is it worth it? Why?