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FLASHBACK: The Responsibility of the Intellectuals: Cuba, the U.S. and Human Rights
April 18, 2003
by James Petras
Cuba 1959. In all of Cuba’s armed forces, women play an important role.
Isn’t it time that we, in the United States, with our illustrious and prestigious progressive intellectuals with all our majestic moral sensibilities recognize that there is a vital, heroic revolution struggling to defend itself against the U.S. juggernaut and that we modestly set aside our self-important declarations, support that revolution and join the one million Cubans celebrating May Day with their leader Fidel Castro?
Once again the intellectuals have entered into the center of a debate – this time over the issues of U.S. imperialism and human rights in Cuba.
“How important is the role of the intellectuals?”, I asked myself as we walked past the Puerto del Sol in Madrid on a sunny Saturday afternoon ( April 26, 2003 ) and heard the anti-Castro slogans of a few hundred protestors echoing through the near empty plaza. Despite a dozen articles and opinion columns by well known intellectuals in the leading Madrid newspapers, and hours of television and radio propaganda and endorsements by the major trade union bureaucrats and party bosses, only 700-800, mostly Cuban exiles turned up to attack Cuba. “Clearly,” I thought, “the anti-‘Cuban intellectuals have little or no power of convocation, at least in Spain.” But the political impotence of the anti-Castro writers does not mean that intellectuals in general do not play an important role; nor does the lack of a popular audience mean that they are without resources, especially if they do have the backing of the U.S. war and propaganda machine, amplifying and disseminating their word throughout the world. In order to come to reason about the debate raging between intellectuals on the issues of human rights in Cuba and U.S. imperialism it is important to step back and consider the role of the intellectuals, the context and major issues that frame the U.S.-Cuba conflict.
The Role of the Intellectuals
The role of the intellectuals is to clarify the major issues and define the major threats to peace, social justice, national independence and freedom in each historical period as well as to identify and support the principal defenders of the same principles. Intellectuals have a responsibility to distinguish between the defensive measures taken by countries and peoples under imperial attack and the offensive methods of imperial powers bent on conquest. It is the height of cant and hypocrisy to engage in moral equivalences between the violence and repression of imperial countries bent on conquest with that of Third World countries under military and terrorist attacks. Responsible intellectuals critically examine the political context and analyze the relationships between imperial power and their paid local functionaries who they describe as “dissidents” – they do not issue moral fiats according to their dim lights and their political imperatives. Committed intellectuals who claim to speak with moral authority, especially those who lay claim to being critics of imperialism, have a political responsibility to demystify power and state and media manipulation particularly in relation to imperial rhetoric of human rights violations by independent Third World states. We have in recent times seen too many self-styled “progressive” Western intellectuals supporting or silent on the U.S. destruction of Yugoslavia, the ethnic cleansing of over 250,000 Serbs, gypsies and others in Kosovo, buying into the U.S. propaganda of a “humanitarian intervention”.
All the U.S. intellectuals (Chomsky, Zinn, Wallerstein etc…) supported the U.S.-financed violent fundamentalist uprising in Afghanistan against the Soviet-backed secular government in Afghanistan – under the pretext that the Soviet Union “invaded” Afghanistan and the fundamentalist fanatics entering the country from all over the world were the “dissidents” defending “self-determination” – an admitted propaganda ploy successfully executed by the boastful former National Security Adviser, Zbig Bryzinski. Then and now prestigious intellectuals brandish their past credentials as “critics” of U.S. foreign policy to give credibility to their uninformed denunciation of alleged Cuban moral transgressions, equating Cuba’s arrest of paid functionaries of the U.S. State Department and the execution of three terrorist kidnapers with the genocidal war crimes of U.S. imperialism. The practitioners of moral equivalents apply a microscope to Cuba and a telescope to U.S. – which gives them a certain acceptability among the liberal sectors of the empire.
Moral Imperatives and Cuban Realities: Morality as Dishonesty Intellectuals are divided on the U.S.-Cuba conflict: Benedetti, Sastre, Petras, Sanchez-Vazquez and Pablo Gonzalez Casanova and scores of others defend Cuba; right-wing intellectuals including Vargas Llosa, Savater, and Carlos Fuentes have predictably issued their usual diatribes against Cuba; and a small army of otherwise progressive intellectuals – Chomsky, Galeano, Saramago, Sontag, Zinn and Wallerstein – have joined the chorus condemning Cuba, waving their past critical postures in an effort to distinguish themselves from the right-wing/State Department Cuban opponents. It is the latter “progressive” group which has caused the greatest harm among the burgeoning anti-imperialist movement and it is to them that these critical remarks are directed. Morality based on propaganda is a deadly mix – particularly when the moral judgments come from prestigious leftist intellectuals and the propaganda emanates from the far-right Bush administration.
Many of the “progressive” critics of Cuba acknowledge, in passing and in a general way, that the U.S. has been a hostile aggressor against Cuba, and they “generously” grant Cuba the right to self-determination – and then launch into a series of unsubstantiated charges and misrepresentations devoid of any special context that might serve to clarify the issues and provide a reasoned basis for …”moral imperatives”. It is best to begin with the most fundamental facts.
The left critics, based on U.S. State Department labeling, denounce the Cuban government’s repression of individuals, dissidents, including journalists, owners of private libraries and members of political parties engaged in non-violent political activity trying to exercise their democratic rights.
What the “progressives” fail to recognize or are unwilling to acknowledge is that those arrested were paid functionaries of the U.S. government. According to the Agency of International Development (AID), the principal U.S. federal agency implementing U.S. grants and loans in pursuit of U.S. foreign policy, under USAID’s Cuba Program ( resulting from the Helms-Burton Act of 1996) AID has channeled over $8.5 million dollars to Cuban opponents of the Castro regime since 1997 to publish, meet, propagandize in favor of the overthrow of the Cuban government in co-ordination with a variety of U.S. NGO’s, universities, foundations and other front groups. (Profile of the USAID Cuba Program – on the AID web site ). The U.S.AID program, unlike its usual practice, does not channel payments to the Cuban government but directly to its Cuban “dissident” clients. The criteria for funding are clearly stated – the recipients of payments and grants must have demonstrated a clear commitment to U.S. directed “regime change” toward “free markets” and “democracy” – no doubt similar to the U.S. colonial dictatorship in Iraq. The Helms-Burton legislation, the U.S.AID Cuba Program and their paid Cuban functionaries, like the U.S. progressive manifesto, “ condemn Cuba’s lack of freedom, jailing of innocent dissidents, and call for a democratic change of regime in Cuba”. Strange coincidences that require some analyses.
Cuban journalists who have received $280,000 from a Cuba Free Press -AID front- are not dissidents they are paid functionaries. Cuban “Human Rights” groups who receive $775,000 from CIA front “Freedom House” are not dissidents – particularly when their mission is to promote a “transition” (overthrow) of the Cuban regime. The list of grants and funding to Cuban “dissidents” (functionaries) by the U.S. government in pursuit of the U.S. policy is long and detailed and accessible to all the progressive moral critics. The point is that the jailed opponents of the Cuban government were paid functionaries of the U.S. government, paid to implement the goals of the Helms-Burton Act in accordance with the criteria of the U.S.AID and under the guidance and direction of the head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. Between September 2, 2002 and March 2003 James Cason, head of the US Interest Section, held dozens of meetings with his Cuban “dissidents” at his home and office, providing them with instructions and guidelines on what to write, how to recruit, while publicly haranging against the Cuban government in the most undiplomatic manner.
Washington’s Cuban functionaries were supplied with electronic and other communication equipment by USAID, books and other propaganda and money to fund pro-U.S. “trade unions” via the U.S. front, the “American Center for International Labor Solidarity”. These are not well-meaning “dissidents” unaware of their paymaster and their role as U.S. agents, since the USAID report states ( under the section entitled “The US Institutional Context”), “The Cuba Program is funded through Economic Support Fund, which is designed to support the economic and political foreign policy interests of the US by providing financial assistance to allies (sic) and countries in transition to democracy”. No country in the world tolerates or labels domestic citizens paid by and working for a foreign power to act for its imperial interests as “dissidents”. This is especially true of the U.S. where under Title 18 ,Section 951 of the U.S. Code , “anyone who agrees to operate within the United States subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official would be subjected to criminal prosecution and a 10 year prison sentence”. Unless , of course, they register as a paid foreign agent or are working for the Israeli government. The U.S. “progressive” intellectuals abdicate their responsibilities as analysts and critics and accept at face value the State Department characterization of the U.S. paid functionaries as dissidents striving for “freedom”. Some defenders of the U.S. agent-dissidents claim that the functionaries received “scandalously long sentences”.
Once again empirical myopia compounds mendacious moralizing. Cuba is on a war footing. The Bush government has declared that Cuba is on the list of military targets subject to mass destruction and war. And in case our moralistic intellectuals don’t know it : What Bush, Rumsfeld and the war-mongering Zionists in the Administration say — they do. The total lack of seriousness in Chomsky, Zinn, Sontag, Wallerstein’s moral dictates is that they fail to acknowledge the imminent and massive threat of a U.S. war with weapons of mass destruction, announced in advance. This is particularly onerous given the fact that many of Cuba’s detractors live in the U.S., read the U.S. press and are aware of how quickly militaristic pronouncements are followed by genocidal actions. But our moralists are not bothered by context, by U.S. threats to Cuba immediate or proximate, they are eager to ignore it all to demonstrate to the State Department that they not only oppose U.S. foreign policy but also condemn every independent country, system and leader who opposes the U.S. In other words, Mr. Ashcroft, when you crack down on the “apologists” for Cuban “terror”, remember that we are different, we too condemned Cuba, we too called for a change of regime. The critics of Cuba ignore the fact that the U.S. has a two-pronged military-political strategy to take over Cuba that is already operative. Washington provides asylum for terrorist air pirates, encouraging efforts to destabilize Cuba’s tourist-based economy; it works closely with the terrorist Cuban American Foundation engaging in attempts to assassinate Cuban leaders.
New U.S. military bases have been established in the Dominican Republic, Colombia, El Salvador and there is an expanding concentration camp in Guantanomo – all to facilitate an invasion. The U.S. embargo is in the process of being tightened with the support of the right-wing Berlusconi and Aznar regimes in Italy and Spain. The aggressive and openly political activity of James Cason of the Interest Section in line with his Cuban followers among the paid functionaries/ “dissidents” is part of the inside strategy designed to undermine Cuban loyalties to the regime and the revolution. The inter-connection between the two tactics and their strategic convergence is ignored by our prestigious intellectual critics who prefer the luxury of issuing moral imperatives about freedom everywhere for everyone, even when a psychotic Washington puts the knife to Cuba’s throat. No thanks, Chomsky, Sontag, Wallerstein – Cuba is justified in giving its attackers a kick in the balls and sending them to cut sugar cane to earn an honest living. The death penalty for three ferry boat terrorists is harsh treatment – but so was the threat to the lives of forty Cuban passengers who faced death at the hands of the hijackers. Again our moralists forgot to discuss the rash acts of air piracy and the plots of others uncovered in time. The moralists failed to understand why these terrorists desperadoes are seeking illegal means to leave Cuba. Bush’s Administration has practically eliminated the visa program for Cuban emigrants wishing to leave.
Visa grants have declined from 9000 for the first four months of 2002 to 700 in 2003. This is a clever tactic to encourage terrorist acts in Cuba and then denounce the harsh sentences, evoking the chorus of ‘yea’ sayers in the ‘Amen’ corner of the progressive U.S. and European intellectual establishment. Is it simply ignorance which informs these moral pronouncements against Cuba or is it something else besides – moral blackmail? , to force their Cuban counterparts to turn against their regime, their people or face the opprobrium of the prestigious intellectuals – to become further isolated and stigmatized as “apologists of Castro”. Explicit threats by Saramago to abandon his Cuban friends and embrace the cause of U.S. paid functionaries. Implicit threats of no longer visiting Cuba and to boycott conferences. Is it moral cowardice to pick up the cudgels for the empire and pick on Cuba when it faces the threat of mass destruction over the freedom of paid agents, subject to prosecution by any country in the world? What is eminently dishonest is to totally ignore the vast accomplishments of the revolution in employment, education, health, equality, and Cuba’s heroic and principled opposition to imperial wars – the only country to so declare – and its capacity to resist almost 50 years of invasions.
That counts for nothing for the U.S. intellectuals – that is scandalous!! That is a disgrace, a retreat in search of respectability after “daring” to oppose the U.S. war along with 30 million other people in the world. It is not time to “balance” things out – by condemning Cuba, by calling for a regime change, by supporting the cause of the “market oriented” Cuban functionary-dissidents. Let us remember the same progressive intellectuals supported “dissidents” in Eastern Europe and Soviet Union who were bankrolled by Soros and the U.S. State Department. The “dissidents” turned the country over to the Russian mafia, life expectancy declined five years ( over 10 million Russians died prematurely with the sacking of the national health system), while in Eastern Europe “dissidents” closed the shipyards of Gdansk , enrolled in NATO and provided mercenaries for the U.S. conquest of Iraq. And never among these current supporters of Cuban “dissidents” is there any critical reflection on the catastrophic outcomes resulting from their anti-communist diatribes and their manifestos in favor of the ‘dissidents’ who have become the soldiers of the U.S. Middle Eastern and Central European empire. Our U.S. moralists never, I repeat, never, ever reflected critically on their moral failures, past or present because, you see, they are for “freedom everywhere”, even when the “wrong” people get into power and the “other” empire takes over, and the millions die from curable diseases and white slavery rings expand. The reply is always the same: “That’s not what we wanted – we were for an independent, free and just society – it just happened that in calling for regime change, support for dissidents, we never suspected that the Empire would ‘take it all’, would become the only superpower, and engage in colonizing the world.”
The moral intellectuals must accept political responsibility for the consequences and not hide behind abstract moral platitudes, neither for their past complicity with empire building nor their present scandalous pronouncements against Cuba. They cannot claim they don’t know the repercussions of what they are saying and doing. They cannot pretend innocence after all they we have seen and read and heard about U.S. war plans against Cuba. The principal author and promoter of the anti-Cuban declaration in the United States (signed by Chomsky, Zinn and Wallerstein) was Joanne Landy, a self-declared “democratic socialist”, and lifelong advocate of the violent overthrow of the Cuban government – for the past 40 years. She is now a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), one of the major institutions advising the U.S. government on imperial policies for over a half century.
Landy supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and the Albanian terrorist group, the KLA – calling publicly for overt military support – responsible for the murder of 2000 Serbs and the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Serbs and others in Kosova. It is no surprise that the statement authored by this chameleon right-wing extremist contained no mention of Cuba’s social accomplishments and opposition to imperialism. For the record, it should be noted, that Landy was a visceral opponent of the Chinese, Vietnamese and other social revolutions in her climb to positions of influence in the CFR. For all their vaunted critical intellect, the “progressive” intellectuals overlooked the unsavory politics of the author who promoted the anti-Cuba diatribe.
The Role of the Intellectual Today
Many critics of Cuba speak of “principles” as if there were only one set of principles applicable to all situations independent of who is involved and what are the consequences. Asserting “principles” like “freedom” for those involved in plotting the overthrow of the Cuban government in complicity with the State Department would turn Cuba into another Chile – where Allende was overthrown by Pinochet – and lead to a reversal of the popular gains of the revolution. There are principles that are more basic than freedom for U.S. Cuban functionaries , that is , national security and popular sovereignty. There is, particularly among the U.S. progressive left, a certain attraction to Third World victims, those who suffer defeats ,and an aversion for successful revolutionaries. It seems that the U.S. progressive intellectuals always find an alibi to avoid a commitment to a revolution.
For some it is the old refrain “Stalinism” – if the state plays a major role in the economy; or it can be mass mobilizations – that they dub “plebicitary dictatorships”, or it can be security agencies which successfully prevent terrorist activity which they call a “repressive police state”. Living in the least politicized nation in the world with one of the most servile and corrupt trade union apparatus in the West, with virtually no practical political influence outside a few university towns, the practical intellectuals in the U.S. have no practical knowledge or experience of the everyday threats and violence which hangs over revolutionary governments and activists in Latin America. Their political conceptions, the yardsticks they pull out to condemn or approve of any political activity, exists nowhere except in their heads, in their congenial, progressive, university settings where they enjoy all the privileges of capitalist freedom and none of the risks which Third World revolutionaries have to defend themselves against.
A little modesty, dear prestigious, critical, freedom preaching intellectuals.
Look deep inside and ask yourself if you would like to be pirated by a Miami-based terrorist organization. Ask yourself if you would enjoy sitting in a café in a major tourist hotel in Havana when a deadly bomb goes off – greetings from the terrorists taking a beer with the President’s brother, Jeb. Think about living in a country which is on the top of the hit list of the most violent imperial regime since Nazi Germany – and then perhaps your moral sensibilities might awaken to the need to temper your condemnations of Cuban security policies and contextualize your moral fiats. I want to conclude by establishing my own “moral imperatives” – for the critical intellectuals.
The first duty of Euro-U.S. intellectuals is to oppose their own imperial rulers set on conquering the world. The second duty is to clarify the moral issues involved in the struggle between imperial militarists and popular/national resistance and reject the hypocritical posture that equates the mass terror of one with the justified if at times excessive security constraints of the other. To establish standards of political and personal integrity with regards to the facts and issues before making moral judgments. Resist the temptation to become a “moral hero of the empire” by refusing to support victorious popular struggles and revolutionary regimes which are not perfect which lack all the freedoms available to impotent intellectuals unable to threaten power and therefore tolerated to meet, discuss and criticize.
Refuse to set themselves as Judge, Prosecutor and Jury condemning progressives who have the courage to defend revolutionaries. The most appalling instance is Susan Sontag’s scurrilous attack on Colombian Nobel Prize winning novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who she accused of lacking integrity and being an apologist of Cuban terror (sic). Sontag made her blood libelous accusations in Bogata, Colombia. The Colombian death squads working with the regime and the military kill more trade unionists and journalists than any place in the world, and do so , for far less than being an “apologist” of the Castro regime. This is the same Sontag who was an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. imperial invasion and bombing of Yugoslavia, apologist for the fundamentalist Bosnian regime and who was a silent witness to the killing and ethnic cleansing of Serbs and others in Kosova. Moral integrity indeed! The precious sense of moral superiority found among New York intellectuals allow Sontag to finger Marquez for the death squads and feel that she has made a great moral statement. U.S.-European intellectuals should not confuse their own political futility and inconsequential position with that of their counterparts among committed Latin American intellectuals. There is a place for constructive dialogue and debate but never personal assaults that demean individuals facing daily threats to their lives.
It is easy for critical intellectuals to be a “friend of Cuba” in good times at celebrations and invited conferences in times of lesser threats. It is much harder to be a “friend of Cuba” when a totalitarian empire threatens the heroic island and puts heavy hands on its defenders. It is in times like this – of permanent wars, genocide and military aggression, when Cuba needs the solidarity of critical intellectuals, which they are receiving from all over Europe and particularly Latin America. Isn’t it time that we, in the United States, with our illustrious and prestigious progressive intellectuals with all our majestic moral sensibilities recognize that there is a vital, heroic revolution struggling to defend itself against the U.S. juggernaut and that we modestly set aside our self-important declarations, support that revolution and join the one million Cubans celebrating May Day with their leader Fidel Castro?
[James Petras has a long history of commitment to social justice, working in particular with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement for 11 years. In 1973-76 he was a member of the Bertrand Russell Tribunal on Repression in Latin America. He writes a monthly column for the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada, and previously, for the Spanish daily, El Mundo. He received his B.A. from Boston University and Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.]