Monday, July 19, 2010

Piero Gleijeses, "The Cuban Drumbeat"

Let's just get it out the way now: Piero Gleijeses's The Cuban Drumbeat (Seagull, 2009) is one of best political pamphlets I've read in several years. It's the second installment in Seagull's "What was Communism?" series, but this concise volume puts the question in the present, if not the future tense.* Gleijeses shows that, far from being exhausted, the internationalism and anti-colonialism of Cuba's foreign policy has succeeded in transforming the relationships between formerly colonized and underdeveloped regions and the imperial powers that seek to exploit them.

The extent of Cuba's internationalism has not always been recognized, nor even understood. Even if the US government, according to internal documents, had recognized from the beginning the reason for the popular support for Fidel Castro's leadership, it has nevertheless spent decades propagating outright misinformation. Lost in this state-media echo chamber are the accomplishments of  Cuban socialism both domestically and internationally. For a balanced account of the successes and failures of Castro's domestic policy, see Richard Gott's Cuba: A New History (Yale, 2004); The Cuban Drumbeat recounts the history of Cuba's internationalism.

As both the United States and Castro recognized, the "power of Cuba is the power of its revolutionary ideas [and] the power of its example" (Castro quoted on p. 11). In the 1960s, the determination of the United States to stifle this power led to the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the embargo, and continuous attempts at subverting the socialist government; the determination of Cuba led to small scale assistance to revolutionaries in Latin America and Africa, the most notable of them led by, and led to the death of, Che Guevara. It is worth noting that Gleijeses tactfully avoids that retrospective and romantic distinction between Che, the permanent revolutionary and the statist-bureaucratic Castro brothers (Recall here Fanon's comment from 1961 in Wretched of the Earth: "Castro attending the UN in military uniform does not scandalize the underdeveloped countries. What Castro is demonstrating is how aware he is of the continuing regime of [imperialist] violence. What is surprising is that he did not enter the UN with his submachine gun").

The living tradition of tradition of Cuba's anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism might have its roots in Latin America, but it first came to fruition in Africa in the 1970s. To understand Cuba's support of African revolutionaries, it is important to look beyond the interests of the Cold War superpowers. Gleijeses argues that Castro saw, from very early on, that revolutionary action also required an attentiveness to the relationships between what we now call the Global North and Global South. Cuba's fate in the post-Soviet era has largely rested on the kinds of alliances and internationalism that it established in the 1970s in Africa. Gleijeses writes:
Cuban leaders were convinced that their country had a special empathy for and a special role to play in the Third World beyond the confines of Latin America. The Soviets and their East European allies were white and, by Third World standards, rich; the Chinese exhibited the hubris of a great and rising power, and were unable to adapt to African and Latin American culture. By contrast, Cuba was non-white, poor, threatened by a powerful enemy and culturally both Latin American and African. It was, therefore, a unique hybrid: a Socialist country with a Third World sensibility. This mattered, in a world that was dominated, as Castro rightly understood, by the 'conflict between privileged and underprivileged, humanity against imperialism' and where the major fault line was not between socialist and capitalist states but between developed and underdeveloped countries (18).
While today we can recognize how these ideas, from a humanitarian side, have shaped the relationships between Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia (see, on this score, of course, Tariq Ali's Pirates of the Caribbean),  in the 1970s and 1980s the most stunning examples of Cuban internationalism were its military interventions in Angola, which took place within a complex set of relationships between three rival independence parties in Angola, Namibia (a former German colony then under the mandate of South Africa), the United States, and South Africa.

After the collapse of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, a power-sharing agreement was arranged between the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), for joint rule of Angola until November 1975. However, the arrangement was short-lived; civil war broke out in spring 1975 between the Soviet-backed MPLA and the UNITA-FNLA, the latter which had the covert backing of South Africa  (who felt that an MPLA victory would endanger its control over Namibia) and the United States (this probably goes without saying, but the US interpreted the conflict only through the lens of the Cold War). Despite the these powerful allies, UNITA and FNLA could not defeat the MPLA, so in October, at the quiet urging of the United States, South Africa invaded Angola. While Cuba had been giving  small-scale medical and tactical assistance to the MPLA, in November 1975, Castro sent thousands of troops to combat the invasion. This "unprecedented" military action took both Washington and Moscow by surprise, and it proved decisive. Within a few months the MPLA-Cuban force had turned back South African aggression, and on 27 March 1976, South Africa withdrew, defeated, from Angola.

The victory of the MPLA-Cuban alliance was, Gleijeses notes, a turning point in the fight against  Pretoria's  domination of southern Africa. He argues that neither realpolitik nor "narrow interests" can explain Cuba's motivation; rather "Castro sent troops because of his commitment to what he called 'the most beautiful cause,' the struggle against apartheid" (30).

But this would not be the end of the struggle. Because Angola gave support to the the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), who were fighting for Namibia's independence, in 1981, again with the support of the United States, South Africa invaded Angola again. And yet again Cuba's military prowess proved crucial. In September 1987 the South African Defense Force (SADF) launched a major offensive in Southeastern Angola, cornering the Angola Army in Cuito Cuanavale. Despite the sense of inevitability that South African and Western Diplomats claimed for the fall of Cuito Cuanavale (62), Cuban forces beat back the SADF, and then marched southwest toward the Namibian border, forcing South Africa out of Angola, then to the negotiating table, and finally out of Namibia. Gleijeses writes that:
As a child, in Italy, I heard my father talk about the hope he and his friends felt in December 1941 as they had listened to the radio reports of the German troops leaving the city of Rostov on the Don. It was the first time in two years of war that the German superman had been forced to retreat. I remembered his words--and the profound sense of relief they conveyed--as I read the South African and Namibian press from these months in early 1988. For the blacks of Namibia and of South Africa, the advance of the Cuban columns towards the border, pushing back the troops of apartheid, was a clarion call of hope (64).
In recounting the victory of social solidarity over the powers of colonialism and imperialism, The Cuban Drumbeat captures a rare moment of hope in the long struggle against oppression.

Notice the date, however; soon after the victory in Angola the Soviet bloc would collapse, jeopardizing Cuba's economy and infrastructure; while Havana often acted internationally without consulting Moscow, it still remained dependent on Soviet economic assistance. Nevertheless, just at that time a new kind of revolutionary movement was beginning to gain strength across Latin America. Cuba has, since the 'fall of communism', depended on relationships build through the humanitarian side of its internationalism, for decades training doctors and funding education for African, Asian, and Latin American students. Its kind of internationalism still represents, in the era, we might say, of the Bolivarian Revolution, a direct challenge to the hegemony of the neoliberal world. The question is whether this revolution can create a lasting international infrastructure that can create a more egalitarian future.

* I criticized this choice of tense in the title of the series in my review of Tariq Ali's The Idea of Communism.

No comments: