A Top Cuban Leader Thinks Out Loud
Veteran social activist Tom Hayden interviews Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon.
?Let?s try to imagine what Karl Marx would be doing today.?
It was Sunday, May 21st, and my host posing the question was Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly. It was Alarcon?s 69th birthday, and I was having difficulty understanding why he had pressed me to fly down for a visit. The purpose was nothing more than ?two old guys talking,? according to his daughter Maggie, a thirty-something single mom and formidable interpreter of Cuba to many North Americans.
Looking back today, I don?t know whether or not Alarcon already knew that his longtime comrade Fidel was diagnosed as needing serious surgery. The question would become a ?state secret,? at Castro?s wish. Alarcon is third in line to succeed Fidel after Raul Castro, although it is more likely Alarcon will blend into a collective transitional team.
The prospect of three days? conversation with Ricardo Alarcon reflecting on his long revolutionary experience was too important to put off, and our interviews may be of greater value during the current rampant and reckless speculation over Fidel?s status. Few individuals alive have the range of Alarcon?s experience, from being a Havana student leader during the Cuban Revolution to Cuba?s United Nations ambassador (1965-78 and 1990-92) to foreign minister (1992-93) and National Assembly president since 1993. And so we sat at a seaside restaurant on his birthday with daughter Maggie and his advisor, Miguel Alvarez. A Venezuelan cargo ship passed just offshore.
?I think Marx would be asking what are we doing about all the millions today who are protesting for peace and justice,? said Alarcon in answer to his question. In a recent essay on ?Marx After Marxism? he argued that Marxists should begin to see the world anew. Scoffing at neoconservatives who embrace the end of Marxism (and the end of history itself), Alarcon also emphasizes the need for ?self-critical reflection on our side as well.? In effect, he is proposing a return to the original spirit of Marx before the 20th-century revolutions in his name. That original Marx organized an early transnational labor movement, with the central demand the eight-hour day, and wrote more theoretical works on 19th-century capitalism. According to Alarcon, that earlier Marx never meant a science-based, inevitable march to socialism based on some objective truth revealed through communist parties. That Marx was a practical revolutionary who himself famously declared ?with all naturalness,? Alarcon points out, ?I am not a Marxist.?
For Alarcon and the Cubans, history always has been contingent, subject to human will and unexpected developments, rather than an unfolding of the inevitable. After Cuba?s decades of dependency on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which caused a degree of ?subordination? to Soviet interests and ?reinforced dogmatism,? Alarcon calls for active exploration of new trends in global capitalism and its oppositional movements. ?Old dogmatists are incapable of appreciating new possibilities in the revolutionary movement,? he says.
All the talk of the United States becoming a sole superpower ?falls to pieces with its bogging down in Iraq? and the derailment of its neo-liberal agenda for Latin America, Alarcon believes.
He identifies new obstacles facing capitalist growth. Every 25 years a population equivalent to the whole planet?s numbers in Marx?s time is born. Alarcon believes climate changes are irreversible, forests are being transformed into deserts, cities becoming uninhabitable and, as a result, an environmental challenge to capitalism has arisen which requires rethinking of Marxist political economy.
Alarcon revises the Marxist (and Leninist) conceptions of the 19th-century proletariat accordingly. Today there are growing numbers of those from different stations of life ?who do not conform, are unsatisfied and rebel.? ?For the first time, anti-capitalist malaise is manifested, simultaneously and everywhere, in advanced countries and those left behind, and is not limited to the proletariat and other exploited sectors.? And so ?a diverse group, multicolored, in which there is no shortage of contradictions and paradoxes, grows in front of the dominant system.?
?It is not yet the rainbow that announces the end of the storm,? Alarcon says, warning that the diverse movements lack a common theory, are marked by spontaneity more often than organization, and need to develop further without either sectarian factionalism or becoming carried away.
He pauses, points an index finger for emphasis, and tells me ?the most important task for the Latin American left? is to reelect President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. Having met with leftists highly critical of fiscal moderation in power, Alarcon says that ?notwithstanding his faults, if Lula is defeated, all of Latin America will be worse off.? This advice may not sit well with some radical advocates of Latin American revolution, but Alarcon takes a longer view. The recent nationalist electoral wave in Latin America — Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, Chile, and a near-success in Mexico — inevitably brings dilemmas of governance to the forefront. But for Alarcon and Cuba, the overall changes in Latin America further a benign result, the full integration of Cuba into Latin America after decades of Cold War antagonisms. The permanent embargo by the United States makes the Cubans especially wary of any reversals in the continental process, as the defeat of Lula in the Oct. 1 election would represent.
Alarcon is pragmatic. He believes in the Cuban philosophy that ?the duty of the revolutionary is to make the revolution,? that it must be a ?heroic creation.? But he is aware, perhaps painfully, that revolutions cannot be ?imprinted or copied? and that the ?mandates? of mass movements like those that have elected Lula must be respected. ?There is no alternative in Brazil. The guys who were mad at me for saying this went to meet with the landless movement representatives in Brazil, and they told them the same thing.?
Continuing at a dinner conversation, Alarcon opined that there should be ?many forms of socialism,? depending on the needs of different countries and movements. Even the social-democratic parties, the historical rivals of the European communist parties, have an important role to play today, he said. ?I hope they go through the same sort of introspection we have,? Alarcon said, referring to the tendency of the moderate socialist parties to cut social programs and ?tail? after U.S. military and economic policies. ?I would go further,? he said. ?I don?t believe that capitalism cannot be reformed. The Great Society in your country is an example.?Alarcon seems to be hinting at a role for revolutionaries in shaping a clear alternative to global neo-liberalism, one pushed in the streets by social movements and eventually resulting in a reform of capitalism like the New Deal on a global basis. Differing with some earlier views of Third World liberation, he sees a crucial role for activists and movements inside the North American colossus itself. Whereas earlier Marxists argued that unionized workers were a ?privileged aristocracy? benefiting from the exploitation of the Third World, he says, ?they are not any longer an aristocracy. If you go to North American workers and tell them they are an aristocracy, they will say you are crazy.? He points to the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, in which labor called for ?workers of the world to unite.? Marx, he says, would be ?very interested in North American workers losing jobs to India? and what that means for workers? movements.
His point is that ?the Third World [now] penetrates the First, as dramatically illustrated by the current immigration controversies, rooted as they are in the historic patterns of capitalism needing cheap labor and resources and impoverished workers needing jobs. The Empire harvests its own internal opposition from the May Day 2006 immigrant marches inside the U.S. to the growth of Islamic rage inside the ghettos of east London or housing projects on the edge of Paris.
?To free the immigrants from their exploitation becomes essential to the emancipation of the workers in the developed countries,? those who are undermined by cheap immigrant labor. ?One must help these two [groups of workers] to converge,? both to avoid an upsurge of racism and forge the basis of majority coalitions favoring reforms like a global living wage as the alternative to neo-liberalism?s notorious ?race to the bottom.?
What is interesting about these words of a top Cuban leader, spoken freely and without reserve, is how far they diverge from the stereotypes of Cuba as a gray, thought-controlled Marxist dictatorship. Cuba is not a free society by measurements like multiple parties, but Cuba?s people, from Alarcon to the neighborhoods, are more conversant about trends in the United States than Americans are about Cuba. The ever-tightening U.S. embargo has boomeranged into a dangerous narrowing of American thinking, demonstrated in recent weeks by one hallucination after another. For example, Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, was seen on television several weeks ago opining that Fidel was already dead. The streets of Miami filled with cheering Cuban exiles with no way to influence the island. According to the Los Angeles Times, the ?most obvious interest [in Castro?s passing] comes from the gambling and tourist industries,? which were run off the island in 1960 [July 6, 2006]. One Florida-based developer?s master plan envisions ?moving out all Cubans currently living in Havana? and replacing them with Miami exiles. The U.S. government is constantly updating its official ?transition plan? to restore both free markets and the Miami exiles, with the emphasis on ?disruption of an orderly succession strategy,? according to the Congressional Research Service [Aug. 23, 2005]. Eighty million U.S. dollars was recently budgeted to support Cuba?s opposition groups. ?There are no plans to reach out,? declared White House spokesman Tony Snow after Fidel was hospitalized [Miami Herald, Aug. 2, 2006].
The notion of opening a dialogue with an accomplished diplomat like Ricardo Alarcon is completely out of the question. The Helms-Burton Act forbids any negotiation or loosening of the embargo if Raul Castro remains in power after Fidel.
Voices of realism like the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, say ?there?s no transition, and it?s not your country? to prepare a transition for [Reuters, May 23, 2006]. ?It just drives the Bush people crazy,? says one former diplomat, referring to the fact that Cuba hasn?t collapsed in accord with neoconservative wishful thinking.
The fact is that Cubans will not rise up to welcome a mass influx of mostly white, revenge-oriented exiles from Miami backed by U.S. arms. The neocon analogy with the so-called ?captive nations? of Eastern Europe doesn?t fit. Despite all the Cuban people?s legitimate criticisms of their government, it remains their government and they will not trade it for a U.S.-installed one. However they complain, Cubans have become more socialist in everyday life than many of them realize, as seen in their common acts of solidarity, their response to the Elian Gonzales showdown, their educational achievements, their healthcare and their social safety nets. They hardly lack for world support and, in Venezuela, have found a solid source of oil and a continental opportunity for their legions of doctors and teachers. [?In the 60s, we only had a revolutionary ideology to export, but now we have valuable human capital,? one Cuban intellectual told me.]
A persistent interest of mine is why Cuba seems to be the only country in the world without street gangs. There certainly is a black market in contraband goods, but nothing like the pandilleras found everywhere else in the Americas. Part of the reason is an extraordinary network of 28,000 social workers who persistently act on the belief that ?some morality remains in everyone,? as opposed to the ?super-predator? theories popular among the neoconservatives.
It seems evident that the Cuban people want reform of their socialist state if and when Fidel passes on, and obviously not the ?regime change? anticipated by the Miami Cubans and their Washington, D.C., patrons. They want a peaceful process controlled by Cubans, not by foreign powers. Who wouldn?t? The question is whether the United States government has an interest in normalizing relations with a better, more democratic, more open but still socialist Cuba. Sadly, it is doubtful, because such a Cuba would be a triumphant example to Latin America and the world. And so the United States, along with Miami?s Cubans — the armed and aggressive state within a state on American soil — hold out against the 182 nations of the world who condemn the embargo at the United Nations. In fact, our government is holding out against the desires of many of its own capitalists who hunger to invest in Cuba; even The Wall Street Journal has editorialized for repeal of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act [WSJ, Aug. 2, 2006]. A walk through Old Havana reveals some 20 new hotels and 65 restaurants, none with American investors.
Meanwhile, Ricardo Alarcon waits. He has negotiated with the United States before, in secret, during the Clinton era. He managed the Elian Gonzales crisis with aplomb. He is overseeing the case of the Cuban Five — men imprisoned in the U.S. for surveilling Miami-based exiles trying to bomb and sabotage Cuba. Alarcon is an experienced man of this world, one who could facilitate a normalization deal with the United States if ever one was on offer.
Instead, he sits for hours with the likes of me discussing the state of the revolution which he helped start over 50 years ago. He takes care of an invalid wife. He plays with his grandchild, Ricardito. He goes to dinner with a never-ending stream of visitors. He patiently answers reporters. He runs the domestic affairs of the National Assembly. He flies to international conferences.
He even finds time to read ?The Port Huron Statement? line for line in English, with an updated foreword titled ?The Way We Were? (in Spanish, he says, ?como eramos?). He also reads a book of mine on religion and the environment, ?The Lost Gospel of the Earth.? He did so, apparently, to prepare himself for a documentary interview for Cuba?s historical archives. When the morning of the interview arrives, he is perfectly ready to ask questions comparing Vietnam with Iraq, Chicago 1968 versus Seattle 1999, or issues of environmental spirituality, without stumbling once in English. When the interview is complete, our several days together have ended as well. ?Sorry, but I have to go back to government business,? he apologizes, and with a hasta luego returns to his daily rounds. I miss him as he drives off. Maybe he knew of Fidel?s diagnosis that day, maybe not.
I flew back to Los Angeles that afternoon, carrying the strange feeling that America has embargoed itself from a Cuba that it refuses to recognize. In the weeks following Fidel?s surgery, according to friends who spent 10 days on the island, Cuba remains quiet, stable and alert. A transition definitely seems underway, but U.S. officials may be the last to know of it.
Tom Hayden is a member of The Nation?s editorial board and a visiting professor at the Claremont Colleges. He has visited Cuba three times, as well as many other Latin American countries. His recent books include ?The Port Huron Statement,? ?Conspiracy in the Streets,? ?Street Wars? and ?The Zapatista Reader.?