I had promised some of you, that I would write an account of Daniel’s and my trip to Cuba. Wilma did not come along. Since America forbids its citizens to go to Cuba, she would have needed special permission. There are exceptions to the prohibition, such as academic exchanges, which applied to me. In fact many Americans do go to Cuba, either legally as parts of a group, or illegally despite the prohibition. Our son Daniel, who lives in Toronto and is a Canadian citizen, accompanied me - Canada has no such restrictions. We had a wonderful reception in Cuba, but then we had the privilege of being tourists. Tourism is today Cuba’s main industry. We lived in an old fashioned but very comfortable hotel, the historic Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, in the midst of historic Old Havana.
I would like to have talked with average Cubans in the countryside, but we were too busy to leave Havana. The closest we came to speaking with ordinary Cubans were cab drivers, especially one with whom we drove several times, who on the one hand believed strongly that the “Revolution” as they call it had achieved a great deal in terms of health, education, social equality, lack of crime - he considered Cuba today the safest country in the world - but also stressed that Cubans are afraid to express their criticisms in public because of the retribution which could follow, in other words positive social reforms at the expense of personal freedoms.
Three historians who had close contacts with Cuba had urged me to go to Cuba and had mediated my invitation from the Department of History at the University of Havana for a week as guest of the department. I had expected a situation under strict control as I had experienced it in the old GDR (Communist East Germany) where I had lectured frequently, but things turned out to be much more open. In East Germany my lectures were always restricted to a small circle of distinguished historians with no students except for occasional doctoral candidates, although I had always asked that I wanted to meet with students. This became possible only after 1985 in the last days of East Germany. I made a similar request in Havana; the request was granted. The organizers arranged for me to meet with three classes, a second year history class, a fourth year history class, and a class with graduate students. In addition there was an informal session with the Center for US Studies which cosponsored the invitation. They preferred that I lecture in Spanish, which I did. I can express myself freely in Spanish, but have problems understanding the spoken language; and there was always someone there to assist me when I did not understand. I sent them three Spanish texts on three very different topics, which they thought were very appropriate. One was from Wilma’s and my autobiography, which has been translated into Spanish, the chapter “Unequal but Separate” on the Little Rock crisis in the 1950’s and our involvement in the civil rights movement; the second my development as a historian in the context of the historiographical trends of the time; the third about Marxism and historiography.
The first class was to deal with civil rights. The day before Dan and I had a very frank discussion with a professor about racial equality in Cuba, where over half the population is of African or partially African descent. He obviously identified himself with the “Revolution”, felt that a great deal of progress had been made in the direction of racial equality, that in this way Cuba was ahead of the United States, but that there remaine definite inequalities in terms of social mobility. He pointed out that in his department of thirty professors there were only two of African descent. Thus a lot still had to be done and he saw the roots of this inequality not as you would expect of a good Marxist in economic but largely in cultural factors. The atmosphere in all three classes was jovial and open in a way which would not have been possible in the old East Germany; each time there were about thirty five attending. In my paper I spoke of the situation at the time of the US Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, declaring the doctrine of separate but equal unconstitutional. I talked then freely in Spanish, in part using statistics, to point out the great advances which had been made since then, but that the schools are almost as segregated today as they were in 1954. The first question which followed was surprising and did not relate directly to the topic, but revealed how the students felt. The question was how I felt about North Korea, a country with which Cuba has friendly relations. I answered that I see North Korea as an oppressive, essentially Stalinist regime with gulags; he replied that he fully agreed with me. The students applauded. I had circulated a page from my FBI file which indicated that the FBI began a file on me when as a teenager I became involved in civil rights. This led to the question how I was able to get at the file. I explained the Freedom of lnformation Act and discussed what freedom of information means .
Somewhat off the subject, I compared my visit to Santiago de Chile the previous month with my visit now to Havana and said that I saw something positive in the absence of international commercial chains, including fast food restaurants. One of the students replied that once in her life time she would like to eat at a McDonalds, and everyone laughed. The next class was less exciting because it dealt more narrowly with historiographical issues, specifically with the question of the objectivity of historical inquiry and the challenge ofpostmodernism. There was nevertheless a good discussion which prepared the way to the next session on Marxism and historiography. Several faculty members were well informed, but few of the students had heard of the linguistic turn or for that matter of postmodernism. One student, however, was able to talk about Hayden White’s relativistic theses in his Metahistory. But the most exciting session was the final one on Marxism and Historiography. I originally intended to discuss a project on which my Chinese-American friend Edward Wang and I are engaged, a volume with contributors from throughout the world on the question of the role of Marxist theory for historical writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century. I cited Eric Hobsbawm’s last book in which he, a life long Marxist, wrote that much of what Marx wrote was outdated and other parts were, to use his word, unacceptable.
In a short introductory paper I presented Marx’s basic ideas of economic determinism, class struggle, and stages of historical development and compared them with the remnant of Marxist ideas in historical writing today, particularly in the non-Western world and specifically Latin America. One of the professors spoke about the revisions which the Italian Marxist political activist and philosopher Antonio Gramsci had made of Marx’s theories, particularly class, which did not fit the actual realities of industrially less or unevenly developed countries. The question immediately was raised why there had never been a significant socialist movement in the United States or even, as in England, a labor party. According to Marx’s prediction it should have been exactly in highly developed industrial countries like the United States or England that a revolutionary proletariat would develop rather than in less developed countries like Russia and China- one could hardly speak of a significant proletariat in China. The class was to last ninety minutes; we were still discussing well after two hours. Students and faculty, including the chair of the department, asked how they could get my publications and I promised to send them online. I am confident that we shall remain in touch.
All of this is very encouraging for Cuba’s future. But there are also many disturbing signs. The strict control of information: There are no independent newspapers; all the newspapers I was able to buy, not only Granma, the Pravda of Cuba, were published by the party. Normal civilians have no access to Internet. They can receive only six TV stations; the only foreign one to which they have access is a Venezuelan one. And of course outspoken dissidents face incarceration under harsh conditions. We can only hope that there will be an opening which will grant greater freedom and democracy, and also create room for economic initiatives without abandoning the social reforms which distinguish Cuba today.
April 10, 2013
A P.S. to my account of Dan’s and my visit to Cuba last month, my impressions in retrospect, partly a reaction to yesterday’s article in the New York Times, “Trip to Cuba by Beyonce and Jay-Z investigated.”’ They were being investigated by the Treasury Department because they spent a weekend in Cuba to celebrate their wedding anniversary. The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet empire andits form of state socialism almost a quarter of a century ago, but somehow it does not appear to have ended for the United States and Cuba as regards Cuba. [According to news reports today, the Treasury Department has acknowledged that the couple’s trip to Cuba was authorized under a program “that encourages “meaningful contacts” with the Cuban people.”]
As one Cuban remarked to us: “Cuba and Israel have a lot in common. We are both small countries, surrounded by enemies intent on destroying us.” And on both sides there are bitter attempts to distort the achievements of the other, in Cuba as part of official policy, in the United States by the anti-Castro lobby in Miami. The U.S. is pictured in the official Cuban party press as the imperialist enemy committed to destroying the achievements of the “Revolution”; Florida Republican congressmen of Cuban origin seem to mirror the Cuban communist party as they call for destroying - I am quoting the NY Times article - “the machinery of oppression that brutally represses the Cuban people.” The Cubans we spoke to, including persons very much committed to what they see as the achievements of the “Revolution”, are aware of short comings; they praised he health system; but also saw the miserable state of hospitals; they felt rightly that there had been considerable advances towards overcoming racial inequality, but also like the professor we interviewed, who had a picture of Fidel and one of Bolivar in his office, recognized that there were still considerable social inequalities in regard to race.
The account which I sent you reflects the positive impressions we had about the openness of our discussions with the students and faculty. It is also clear where they stood, when they applauded what I said about North Korea not withstanding the friendly relations which Cuba still has with North Korea. But I also took notice of the fear which exists regarding dissident opinions, reflected very clearly in the comments the cab driver made to us who identified with the social reforms brought about by the “Revolution” but also stressed the fear Cubans have of differing with official policies. I had made it very clear in the discussions where I stood and tried to give a balanced picture of advances in the United States not only in civil rights but also civil liberties. I brought up the question of freedom of information in connection with the page from my FBI file which I circulated, both its extents and its limits, and the lack of it in Cuba. Comparing the racial situation in the United States on the eve of the US Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954 declaring the doctrine of separate but equal unconstitutional with both the great advances which have been made since then in the realm of civil rights and the continuing inequalities today with the schools almost as segregated as they were in 1954, I tried to give a balanced picture. I strongly feel that both the concerted efforts by voices in the United States to declare the achievements which have actually been made in health, education, housing, and crime prevention as total shams and the picture which the official Cuban media paint of American imperialism are gross distortions.
One thing of which I became increasingly aware after Dan and I left Cuba is how anachronistic the situation in Cuba is today. I already mentioned above that the Cold War which ended globally in 1989 is still very much alive between Cuba and the United States. But Cuban socialism is anachronistic too. Cuba has been largely cut off since its Revolution of 1959 from the globalization which since the 1990s has affected most of the world. I briefly touched on this when in my talk to the students I compared my impressions of two Latin American metropolis, Santiago de Chile, which I had visited the month before, and Havana. At every step I was aware how global interests, from Walmart to McDonald’s, had taken over Santiago de Chile and were totally absent in Havana. I saw some positive aspects in this regarding Havana which led one of the students to remark that she would sometime have the opportunity to eat at a McDonald’s. But Castro essentially took over the form of state socialism as it had existed in the Soviet bloc and had failed. Except for minor revisions in recent year this anachronistic model is still alive in Cuba today. Reading the Cuban press, you have the feeling that you are reading the Pravda or the Neues Deutschland of long ago. Castro’s socialism has not developed since 1959. It is badly outdated and in its present form doomed to fail. If socialism is to have any chance and not to succumb totally to global capitalism it has to move to greater openness and democracy on the political and economic level. Although I was encouraged by the openness of our discussions with Cubans, I am not very optimistic.
Best wishes, Georg