Picking up from where Che left off

We publish an article from Morning Star by Ron Ridenour, in which he examines the kind of books being published in today's Cuba and comments on the changing intellectual climate in which the ideas of Trotsky are more and more discussed.

The stout, broadly smiling chief editor ushered me into his small office. From the wall, the face of forbidden fruit - stern theoretician, military leader and organiser of the Red Army, "sorcerer" Leon Trotsky - stared defiantly down at me.

Editorial de Ciencias Sociales is one of Cuba's main book publishers. It has recently published a volume of the 1905 Russian revolution in which Trotsky's role is objectively portrayed.

As book publishing and all media and cultural production, is overseen by the Communist Party, is it possible that Cuba is going mad?

Was the editor a treacherous Trot?

No, he asserted, neither he nor the party are going Trotskyist or mad.

This book presents real debate which the provocative intellectual wanted to highlight.

Intellectuals now have more leeway than ever before in terms of research. Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, for instance, publishes several books each year discussing controversial ideas and analysis within leftist thought and practice.

Cuba sin Dogma ni Abandonos (Cuba without dogma or abandonment), for example, which was published last year, is a collection of 10 essays by Cuban professors on the transition to socialism. They reject specific models for constructing socialism-communism and tackle controversial Marxist themes - theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, rethinking the transition to a socialist economy, participatory democracy and they objectively describe Stalin, Trotsky and various left tendencies.

Another book from last year, Rusia del Socialismo Real al Capitalismo Real (Russia from real socialism to real capitalism) provides a thoughtful academic analysis of Russian development.

The authors view the Soviet process primarily as chronic "political suicide," which negatively influenced Cuba's own development but did not smother it.

Stalin and Stalinism are attacked for their brutality and for stifling critical thought, while Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci and other Western Marxists are no longer dismissed as heretics.

In many respects, the current rethinking of Marxism and "real socialism" picks up from where Che Guevera left off in his early critique of Soviet economy and politics.

In fact, this same publisher made the first publication of Che's critical notes of the Soviet economic model, in which he predicted its demise if the government did not change its bureaucratic, undemocratic and ineffective production and political methods.

Celia Hart, the physicist daughter of two of Cuba's top leaders - Haydee Santamaria, one of the first two women guerillas in the July 26 movement, and Armando Hart, former minister of education and culture - is a prolific writer, who views Trotsky as having played a positive role in the revolutionary process.

Hart sees threads from Trotsky through much of the thinking of Che and Fidel. She believes that Cuba is living up to Trotsky's concept of permanent revolution.

Fidel and other party leaders and intellectuals speak of the need to discard the stifling models for socialism that the Soviet Union imposed upon its allies. A breath of fresh air is blowing throughout society since the first years of rugged adjustment to the fall of European state socialism.

Casa de las Americas, the cultural institution which Santamaria founded, sponsors seminars on Latin American culture and philosophical matters. Last January saw one on scientific socialism and utopia. Authors from several South American countries and Cuba discussed the need for Marxists and revolutionary socialists to dream and to place the subjective - the utopian - into the process of scientific socialism.

An Ecuadorian intellectual maintained that utopian ideas can be based upon reality, that multidimensional approaches are necessary to building socialism materially and that there are no "laws of history" - only processes.

And in February, dreamers and realists converged at the gigantic annual book fair in Havana, with scores of seminars being held throughout the week. Dreamers were well received by large audiences for their visions of a future in which sensitive caring for one another would be the modus operandi.

Twenty-seven Cuban publishers presented 520 new titles - all sold cheaply in the national peso currency. Cuba has 188 book publishers in all, which printed 5.7 million copies of 520 new books and re-editions last year.

Some 700,000 books were sold at the fair. This is a leap forward from the early to mid-1990s, when book publishing was cut back to 10 per cent of its previous production.
Venezuela was the fair's "guest of honour." Publishers brought five million copies of 1,200 titles. Half-a-million visitors had a chance to browse through Venezuela's and other foreign publishers' stalls, in addition to national publishing compartments.

Celia Hart's book Apuntes Revolutionaries: Cuba, Venezuela y el Socialismo Internacional (Revolutionary notes) was to be found at the Spanish Foundacion Federico Engels location.

This collection of essays and articles, many of which were first published at www.rebelion.org, concentrates on the need for an ever-changing revolution in order to succeed in shaping socialism and improving the lives of all citizens.

She sees hope in Cuba's future not only because of its internal growth but also because of the radical changes currently occurring regionally, especially in Venezuela and Bolivia.

While there were positive educational and entertaining books for all ages, cultural imperialism was allowed to creep in through some foreign publishers. A Mexican one, for instance, sold plastic Barbie dolls.

I asked a family why they had bought one - and in precious convertible currency.

"She is elegant, a good doll. Our children watch her on television and they wanted one," the mother replied.

As the book fair travelled to 35 cities across the entire nation, many Cuban films were screened - a contrast to US glorifications of violence and consumism, which are shown on Cuban television and cinemas.

Cannes winner Viva Cuba vividly presents daily problems and conflicts between parents who support the revolution and those who wish to migrate to Miami.

Those who express dissatisfaction, who contend that "everything is illegal," are not condemned as evil. Even critique of some rituals performed by the Young Pioneers, an objection to indoctrination, are shown.

The internationally renowned director-writer Humberto Salas's latest film Barrio Cubano also portrays these themes, as well as theft and corruption. I was not the only one in the cinema shedding tears at the conclusion.

Cuba and the world have listened to the joyous music of Buena Vista Social Club and tens of millions have seen the film of these now famous musicians, such as Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez and Eliades Ochoa, whom Ry Cooder brought to us.

I dare say that this warm film has done more to promote Cuba - and, subtly, its fair social system - as a good place in this brutal world than any other single product or event. Yet, when I asked Cuban musicians and others what they thought of it, they showed blank faces. No-one had seen it!

"We don't know why it wasn't shown here, but the media did write that the film existed and was well-received worldwide," was the reply I received from all but one person, a sociologist.

He told me that a group of 20 sociologists had "found" a video copy and viewed it as part of a sociological study. Asked if they would recommend that the state show it, he declared: "It is racist."

He recalled the scene where two black musicians are walking the streets of New York, admiring the city. His interpretation of this was that the film-maker wished to show "two monkeys coming out of the jungle and admiring "civilisation." I could only hope that this warped thinking was not behind the decision to not show the film.

Another example of unmentioned censorship is the Oliver Stone's documentary on Fidel Castro - Comandante. No-one I spoke with had even heard of the film. Its existence had not been made public.

My speculation as to why is that Castro does not wish to reveal his private life, a bit of which comes forth in the film, and that he might think that showing the film would be seen as presenting himself as a cult figure - something he and the state are careful to avoid.

Only dead heroes' images are widely portrayed before the population - an admirable aspect in promoting a popular, permanent revolution.

• Ron Ridenour is the author of Cuba at the Crossroads and Backfire: The CIA's Biggest Burn (Editorial Jose Marti, 1991) two other books and many articles about Cuba.