This is an exclusive extract from Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt’s book To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture, on the role of popular culture within the Cuban Revolution.
In November 1966, Che Guevara had surreptitiously left Cuba for Bolivia, to open up a new front in the Bolivarian e ort to establish a federation of independent Latin American republics. Less than a year later, on 9 October 1967, having been betrayed by a deserter and captured after a prolonged battle, Che was assassinated by young officers of the Bolivian Army, acting under instructions from the national government and Washington. Nine days later, in the midst of uncertain about the circumstances surrounding the execution, Fidel hosted a rally to honour Che’s memory in Havana’s Revolutionary Square, describing him an ‘artist of revolutionary war’. In considering the poignancy of Che’s death, Fidel surmised that ‘the artist may die – especially when he is an artist in a field as dangerous as revolutionary struggle – but what will surely never die is the art to which he dedicated his life, the art to which he dedicated his intelligence’. In the process, the leader of the Cuban Revolution made a commitment to ensuring that Che’s message would continue to be heard and acted upon across the continent.
The week after Fidel delivered his memorial speech, the Minister of Education, José Llanusa, was called upon to give the opening address at a seminar which had been organised to discuss a putative international cultural congress. In welcoming around a thousand Cuban intellectuals to a seaside resort in the west of Havana, the affable Llanusa expressed his great regret that the seminar precluded the mass participation of the Cuban people, in part because of the great sadness that abounded in the wake of Che’s death.
In the immediate aftermath of revolutionary victory, a new beginning for world culture had been anticipated, with Cuba as its vanguard:
‘We want to hear […] a Chinese Communist Party member discussing with a North American Republican Party member the meanings of freedom! Let a Polish economist discuss with a Cuban economist the problems of the collectivization of land. Let a Mexican oil expert discuss the issues of nationalization of oil resources with a Venezuelan expert, employed by Standard Oil of New Jersey. Let a British Labour Party man discuss with a Yugoslav politician – whatever they want to discuss. And put it all on tape. Print it in the newspapers of Cuba. Make books out of it. Make Cuban intellectual life a truly international, truly free forum, for the entire range of world opinion, study, art, judgment, feeling.’
More specifically, the idea of an international cultural congress can be traced to the Tricontinental Conference, which had been hosted in Havana from 3 to 14 January 1966 with the aim of building links between Africa, Asia and Latin America. At this landmark conference – to which Che sent a letter of support, calling for ‘two, three, many Vietnams’ – intellectuals conducted a survey which highlighted the
An introduction to Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s book A Narco History.
‘To our fallen comrades, who were not buried, but seeded, to make freedom flourish’, reads the poignant inscription on the entryway of the teacher training school in Ayotzinapa. The kidnapping and disappearance of the 43 student-teachers has become a cause célèbre like few others in Mexico’s recent history, sparking horror and mass protests across the world.
Yet the disappearances of the Ayotzinapa students is just one of a litany of egregious abuses in Mexico’s human rights catastrophe of recent years. According to figures from Amnesty International, 60,000 people were killed between 2006 and 2012, while 26,500 have ‘disappeared’ since 2007. So what made ordinary Mexicans finally declare ¡Ya basta!? ‘In part it was precisely because of the long train of abuses that had preceded it – the patently metastasizing cancers of corruption and criminality – of which people had finally had enough’, argue Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace in A Narco History.
Sprawling in narrative scope but succinct in its explanation, the book offers a torrid reminder of the pervasive violence which clamps Mexico in a vice. Boullosa and Wallace sketch the historical contours of the social, political and ideological transformations against which the Ayotzinapa atrocity occurred. Opting for chronological narrative rather than academic analysis, Boullosa and Wallace write in prose which is concise, informal and occasionally sardonic in tone. In broad, linear strokes they detail how a century’s worth of US cross-border intrigues have fuelled narco-activity under the pretence of curbing it.
But though the ‘drug war’ is named as Mexican, the authors remind us that it is sustained at its core by US foreign policy operating in tandem with Mexican elites. Resistance against this power nexus of politics, government, security services and drug cartels ends in abrupt retribution for those who try.
While Mexican history has long been tainted by state repression, going back to the Revolution (1910-1920) and beyond, it is in the neoliberal (‘counter-revolution’) era that violence and criminality have become institutionalised on an unprecedented scale. The contentious North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is identified by Boullosa and Wallace as a crucial juncture in the historical trajectory establishing Mexico’s economic inter-dependence on the US, as well as sharpening socio-economic inequalities at home. It represents the apogee of an economic arc dominated by a neoliberal ideology which privileges the few at the expense of the many. In 1987 there was one Mexican on the Forbes billionaire list; by 1994 there were 24. NAFTA also nullified the agrarian reforms that constituted a major legacy of the Revolution, a hard-fought victory by the (original) Zapatistas in the revolutionary period.
From 2008, the War of Drugs in Mexico, waged by the US and Mexican elites, intensified. In graphic language we are told ‘the lines between combatants and civilians blurred, disappeared. At times it seemed a war of all against all. It also grew steadily more monstrous. The mound of corpses and body parts rose to epochal proportions. The roughly seventy thousand who died – more
Alborada presents an exclusive extract from Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s new book A Narco History.
The administration of Carlos Salinas (1988–1994), building upon the neoliberal policies introduced by de la Madrid, now put into effect a rolling counter-Revolution. In this round it was the larger public enterprises that were sold off at bargain basement prices: among the eighty or so he privatized were the telecommunications company, the two airlines, the national steel company, the fertilizer and sugar companies, the railways, and the commercial banks that had been nationalized in 1982. The process created a new class of Mexican tycoons. In 1987 there was one Mexican on the Forbes billionaire list. When Salinas left office in 1994 there were twenty-four.
Labor, conversely, was battered. When public enterprises were privatized their collective agreements were scrapped, benefits were removed, and “‘flexible” work rules were imposed. Salinas also distanced the party from its long-affiliated labor unions, and ordered a series of attacks on more militant entities. At the same time, state subsidies that had kept the price of basic foodstuffs low were suddenly removed. The price of milk, tortillas, petrol, electricity, and public transport shot up at the same time wages were being slashed. The provision of basic social services, long a feature of post-Revolutionary governments, was similarly cut so that fewer people had access to free health care and education.
The neoliberal offensive was particularly devastating to farm labor, partly as a consequence of the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Salinas negotiated with George H. W. Bush (1989–1992) and which went into effect under Bill Clinton (1993–2000). A principal U.S. condition for entering the agreement was that Mexico undo the agrarian reforms embedded in Article 27 of the Constitution, a principal legacy of the Revolution. Communal (ejido) land could now be divided and converted into private property. Price regulation of staple crops was scrapped. Tariffs and quotas on agricultural imports were removed. Subsidies that had supported small-scale farmers were deleted. All this enabled U.S. agribusiness (which, having zero qualms about ideological inconsistency, remained heavily subsidized) to export corn and other grains below cost. Rural Mexican farmers could not compete. This did not escape the attention of the farmers themselves, especially the Indians in Chiapas who, fearing the loss of their communal lands, formed a Zapatista Army of National Liberation. On January 1, 1994, the day NAFTA came into force, they declared war on the Mexican state.
The results of establishing a putatively equal trade between grossly unequal partners was that U.S. agribusiness pushed thousands of Mexican farmers out of their own markets. The price of corn dropped by around 50 percent following the NAFTA agreement, and the number of farmers living in poverty rose by a third. In the six years following the introduction of NAFTA, two million farmers abandoned their land. They flocked from country shacks to the burgeoning barrios of Mexico City; to the spreading slums of Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez to work in assembly plants on the border;
An introduction to Matt Kennard’s new book The Racket: A Rogue Report versus the Masters of the Universe.
Investigative journalist Matt Kennard’s book The Racket is an exposé of the murky collusions between global high-finance and the militarised US state in the post-World War II era. Kennard traces the expansion of US corporate power across the globe, using case studies from Palestine, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere to illustrate the pernicious and far-reaching impact of Washington DC’s ‘imperial mindset’. A former Financial Times journalist, Kennard identifies the US government as the primary actor in enforcing what he terms ‘the racket’, the system whereby capitalist elites are buttressed through the violent suppression of labour unions, social movements and political groups in selected US satellite states.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the US’ so-called ‘backyard’ of Latin America. Kennard explores in eminently readable prose the self-evident brutality and futility of the professed ‘War on Drugs’ in Honduras, links between US multinationals, Colombian paramilitaries and right-wing governments, and the dynamic resistance presented by anti-imperialists such as the Bolivian President Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo party.
Contextualising the ascent of this racketeering, Kennard details how a worldwide recession in the early 1980s, along with the rise of neoliberal privatisation, caused the forced indebtedness of developing countries via the International Monetary Fund’s ‘structural adjustment programmes’. In order to repay debts, developing countries were forced to privatise and open their economies up to transnational corporations. The extractive industries – ‘a particularly vicious arm of the global racket’ – boomed as a result. In his former role at the Financial Times, Kennard had prolonged access to the individuals heading these multi-billion dollar mining industries. Their power is colossal. The annual turnover of mining companies often exceeds that of the countries within which they operate and from which they extract valuable resources.
In the extract below, Kennard presents Bolivia as a locus of change in the way that developing countries manage their natural resources. Known for its robust rejection of western imperialism, Bolivia has been a tenacious thorn in the side of the US government’s plans for the region. Struggling for autonomy against the global capitalist forces seeking to consolidate its economic dependency, Bolivia has taken control of its lucrative lithium mines and resisted the encroachment of multinational extractive corporations to stand at the helm of recent anti-imperial resistance in Latin America.
A programme of continuing resource extraction nevertheless raises uncomfortable questions over sustainability and environmental degradation. The balancing of economic development of the resource-rich global south, in countries such as Bolivia, with the protection of the planet remains one of the greatest challenges we face. An exploration of debates around this is something that remains beyond the scope of Kennard’s fascinating book, which focuses instead on expertly and accessibly outlining forces of reaction and resistance in the world today.
Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, is at the forefront of a change in the attitude among developing-world leaders toward foreign – or, more specifically,
The prologue of Jack Colhoun’s book Gangsterismo: The United States, Cuba and the Mafia, 1933 to 1966.
August 1960, Miami: a telltale bargain was struck between exiled Cuban politician Manuel Antonio Varona and organized crime leader Meyer Lansky. Lansky, the impresario of the Mafia gambling colony in Cuba since the 1930s, had owned Havana’s Hotel Riviera and the Montmartre nightclub and their fabulous casinos.
In Cuba, Lansky was known as the “Little Man” for his five-foot-four-inch stature, but his cold, hard eyes and intense demeanor were physical expressions of a man used to wielding power and getting his way. His dream of turning Havana into a tropical paradise for North American tourists had come true. Havana had a reputation for the best gambling and wildest nightlife in the Western Hemisphere in the 1950s. And since Lansky shared the Mafia’s profits with General Fulgencio Batista and senior Cuban army and police officers, that gambling paradise became the cornerstone of a full-fledged Cuban gangster state.
But when Fidel Castro’s bearded revolutionaries drove Batista from power on New Year’s Day 1959, Castro condemned the Mafia’s gambling colony for corrupting Cuban values, and shut it down. The Cuban revolution brought down the curtain on the era of gangsterismo in Cuba.
In the meeting in Miami, Lansky offered Varona several million dollars to form a Cuban government-in-exile to replace Castro’s revolutionary regime. Lansky also promised to arrange a public relations campaign in the United States to polish Varona’s political image. In return, Varona, a stout man with heavy dark-framed eyeglasses, endorsed the Mafia’s single-minded objective: to reopen its casinos, hotels, and nightclubs in a post-Castro Cuba.
Several months before the Miami meeting, Varona, a leading member of the reformist Partido Revolucionario Cubano-Auténtico (Cuban Revolutionary Party-Authentic), had publicly broken with Castro. Ever since, he had been shuttling between cities in the Americas to confer with other anti-Castro Cubans in a bid for leadership of the Cuban counterrevolution.
Varona had been both prime minister and Senate president under Auténtico President Carlos Prío Socarrás. For their part, Prío and his brother Paco were closely connected to Lansky and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. In March 1952, Batista seized power in a coup d’etat (strike against the state), and Prío fled, leaving Varona to assume leadership of the Auténtico Party.
But the Auténticos’ reputation as a reform party had been badly tarnished by the ties of its leaders to the Mafia gamblers. Varona himself had been connected with smuggling and kidnapping, and he kept pistoleros (political gunmen) on his payroll. A CIA memorandum reported, “[H]e maintained action groups at his service to force political decisions both in his [Camaguey] province and in Las Villas province where he was once provincial leader of the Auténtico Party.” Varona had good reason to accept Lansky’s offer. And so, in a remarkable act of political surrealism, the American Mafia, notorious for gangland murders and corruption of politicians, cleaned up the image of its Cuban partners in crime.
They hired the public relations firm of Edward K. Moss in Washington, D.C. Moss was a good
Chapter one of David Raby’s book Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today.
The Disinherited Left: From Dogmatic Orthodoxy to Romantic Anti-capitalism
*To view the book’s table of contents click here.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left has been in crisis. The orthodox Communist model was discredited even among its traditional supporters, and as the Eastern European countries were seduced one after another by the siren song of capitalist consumerism, it soon became clear that Western Social Democracy had also lost its way. The ideological victory of supply-side economics and monetarism paved the way for what we now know as neo-liberalism, and with Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’ leading the way, Social Democratic parties ceased to defend even a minimal degree of public ownership and became advocates of ‘Thatcherism lite’: the supremacy of the market with only a limited social safety net to protect the most vulnerable. Neo-liberal globalisation appeared to make the viability of any kind of socialism problematic: could any state, even the most powerful, resist or control market forces? With some transnational corporations being bigger than the GDPs of all but the largest countries, it was said that the state could no longer even regulate the economy, let alone control it.
In these conditions even traditional left-wing critics of Stalinism like the Trotskyists failed to benefit politically from the implosion of ‘really existing socialism’, and the neo-liberal consensus seemed to rule the roost in both East and West. The electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua early in 1990 seemed to confirm that even Latin America, with its vigorous independent revolutionary tradition, was not immune to the debacle of socialist values. Although Communist regimes survived in China and Vietnam, they appeared to be adopting capitalist market mechanisms with indecent haste, while the other case of East Asian socialism, North Korea, seemed to be locked in a Stalinist time-warp. It was in this context that Francis Fukuyama could write about ‘The End of History’ (Fukuyama 1992), presenting liberal capitalism as the final and universal goal of humanity, and in Latin America Jorge Castañeda could produce Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War (Castañeda 1994), which amounted to a repudiation of that continent’s revolutionary heritage in the name of Blairite Social Democracy (and perhaps not surprisingly, Castañeda later became a minister in the government of right-wing Mexican President Vicente Fox).
Of course, the triumphalism of the neo-liberal advocates of the ‘New World Order’ was soon tempered by the rise of vigorous mass movements in opposition to the negative impact of market reforms. In Latin America the ink was scarcely dry on Castañeda’s book when in January 1994 the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas showed that the region’s revolutionary heritage was not dead and that popular opposition to the neo-liberal consensus could take militant forms. In Europe and North America the anti-globalisation movement revealed the hostility of a significant minority to the new orthodoxy and their allegiance to collective, egalitarian and anti-capitalist values. The rise of