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Castro and the intellectuals

By Bill King
web posted May 19, 2003

From his very first days in power, Fidel Castro has had a straightforward approach towards intellectuals. He has showcased those who apologize for and applaud his regime, and has suppressed those who expose and condemn it. Given this, it is hardly surprising that those in the former category have largely hailed from outside Cuba, while those in the latter have most often come from inside the island itself.

In fact, the deeply anti-intellectual strain in Castro's revolution was evident as far back as the early 1960's. It was made explicit in that infamous and profoundly totalitarian slogan from those heady revolutionary days: "Inside the revolution, everything. Outside the revolution, nothing". The only ones to whom this wasn't evident were the pro-Castro intellectuals in the Americas and Europe -- who confused being intellectuals with being cheerleaders, and Castro's blessing to use more than one cheer with a genuine tolerance of dissent.

Over the last four decades, when reports of repression inside Cuba for those who dared disagree with Castro would finally penetrate through to Paris or Mexico City (or New York or Toronto for that matter), or when a particularly high-profile case would become too well-known to ignore, the pro-Castro intellectuals would go into a crisis and emerge with their numbers reduced.

The Cuban regime's most recent crackdown and executions have provoked yet another crisis among the pro-Castro intellectuals. Most notably, the repression has led to a breaking of ranks by a number of prominent and long time "friends" of the Cuban regime, including the prolific Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, Portuguese writer and Communist Party member Jose Saramago, and most recently, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende. While they are still supportive of Castro out of a long held anti-Americanism and an instinctive identification with the radical left, all three have issued statements to varying degrees critical of his regime in the wake of the crackdown.

Liberals: Don't hate the player, hate the game
Liberals: Don't hate the player, hate the game

This public questioning by the "critical supporters" has set off a maelstrom of debate about Castro's regime. Petitions either pro or con have come fast and furious. There hasn't been this much public critical discussion about Cuba among leftist intellectuals since Castro jailed the poet Heberto Padilla in the early 1970's. Not even the purge of the army's officer corps during the Ochoa affair in the late 1980's, complete with midnight executions, elicited this degree of commotion.

But if the type of repression that provoked this latest debate is not itself new, what is indeed new is Castro's attempt to stifle a discussion that is for the most part taking place outside of Cuba. There can be no more telling sign of the regime's increasing isolation than that, for the first time in the history of the Cuban revolution, Castro feels the need to try to silence criticism of his regime not just in Cuba but in other countries. And while he is unable to actually stop an open discussion about his regime outside the island, he is doing his very best to stifle it.

The first targets in Castro's new campaign have been Galeano and Saramago, in order to discourage further defections from the blindly pro-Castro camp. The first missive came in the form of an open letter that appeared above the names of two dozen state-approved Cuban academics and artists, including 82 year old ballerina Alicia Alonso. With a feigned concern at the unnamed intellectuals' "confusion", the letter admonishes "some close friends of Cuba" for making comments that are being used to "prepare the way for military aggression by the United States against Cuba".

The open letter was followed by a more direct and more general warning, delivered by Castro himself at this year's May Day festivities. In a short address, only 2 ½ hours long, his message to leftist intellectuals in Latin America and elsewhere was clear: those who voice any public criticisms of the his regime are helping "US Imperialism"—or in its latest and more outrageous Castroite appellation, "US Nazi-Fascism" -- to prepare its attack on the island. His regime is to be supported unconditionally, outside just as much as inside Cuba.

The threat of a US invasion is of course the same refrain that has been offered up as justification for the crackdown itself. Today few take Castro seriously in this attempt to justify the repression. But for the remaining pro-Castro intellectuals outside of Cuba, his arguments are still good currency. And so, from the fraudulent Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala to the ubiquitous Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina, together with Chomsky et al, they have recently signed a petition expressing their support for the Cuban regime. Addressed to the "Conscience of the World", it is a curious document devoted more to opposing the recent toppling of Saddam Hussein and to US "harassment" of the Cuban regime than to the issue of democratic rights inside Cuba.

There is no doubt that Castro's desperate attempt to stifle debate outside Cuba will prove fruitless. As his regime takes a harder line, criticism from intellectuals around the world will increase -- including from an increasing number of former supporters. Years from now, Castro's attempt to silence intellectuals outside Cuba will be seen as at best a bizarre by-product of the crackdown that marked the beginning of the end of his regime.

Bill King is a long time observer of the radical left around the world.

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