Avi Chomsky and Gregory Wilpert, The Real News Network
A TRNN interview with Aviva Chomsky on the occasion of Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday that discusses his impact on Cuba and the global revolutionary movement.
GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. Im Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.
On August 13 Fidel Castro celebrated his 90th birthday in Havana, Cuba with an enormous party and cultural festivities. Although Castro resigned from Cubas presidency almost 10 years ago, he continues to be both revered and demonized around the world. Local media all carried an article that Castro had written for his birthday in which he reviewed his life experience and thanked his people for their best wishes. At the end of the article, he spoke highly of the wisdom of the Chinese and Russian people and criticized the US government for the crimes it had committed. So joining us to discuss Castros legacy is Aviva Chomsky. Aviva is a professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies program at Salem State University. An author of many books including A History of the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban Reader, and her latest book is titled Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal.
Thanks for being on the Real News Aviva.
Thanks a lot for inviting me to speak with you.
So Cubans and supporters of the Cuban Revolution around the world celebrated Castros birthday last weekend. And you are a historian of Cuba and have written quite a lot about the country. I was thinking maybe you could tell us briefly as to what would you say is Castros legacy for Cuba, for the country?
Well the Cuban Revolution brought about enormous profound and long lasting changes in Cuban society. Historians love to study revolutions and I would say the Cuban Revolution is one of a handful of extremely profound revolutions that changed the direction of the country in so many ways. So Fidel Castros legacy is everywhere in Cuba in the fact that he not only led the Cuban Revolution, and here Im talking about the revolutionary process that starts after January 1st, 1959. Not the war that brought the July 26th coalition to power, but the revolutionary process what really transformed Cuban society from the bottom up.
Given the context of Latin America which is one of the most unequal regions of the world and where the colonial patterns of poverty and inequality have just persisted through the 21st century so strongly everywhere. Cubas really the one country thats overturned those patterns through the Cuban Revolution and through the legislations and policies that were put into place after January 1st, 1959 that really took from the rich and gave to the poor and transformed the socioeconomic structures of the country and made it to something very very different from anything weve seen before or since in Latin America.
I mean of course one of the issues that marked the Cuban Revolution and the history of Cuba was also its confrontation with the US.
What role would you say our what was the importance of that especially in Castros role in that confrontation?
Well the United States has made it clear since perhaps the 1700s I guess we could say. Or certainly since it became a country or perhaps the British colonists even before it was a country. That they had a certain vision for how the American continent should be organized and it should be run by property holding white men and that people that didnt belong to those classes had no claims to rights or humanity anywhere in the continent.
So the political and economic project of the British colonies, of the American US nation state after its founded in 1776 are based on the accumulation of resources for the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many. And the few also happen to be racially identified as white and the many are racially identified as people of color.
So the confrontation between the United States and Cuba didnt begin in 1959. The confrontation between the peoples of color of the continent began maybe in 1620. But in 1959 the United States reacted very poorly to the challenge of a group of people who they considered were supposed to be subordinated actually standing up for themselves. Standing up to US foreign investors. Standing up to US corporate interests.
And the United States if you look back the documentation at the time of the US reaction to the Cuban Revolution, they make it really clear that the threat posed by the Cuban [inaud]. That they said straight out that the Cuban Revolution seems to have its project to privilege the interests of the Cuban people over the interests of US foreign investors. And if we allow this to continue in Cuba, other Latin American countries are going to seek to do the same thing.
And very quickly, by about the middle of 1959, the United States had decided, the US government had decided that they were not going to allow the Cuban Revolution to continue. Because of the threat that other Latin American countries might want to do the same thing. So not only the threat to US sugar planters, and electric companies, and other US investors in Cuba directly. But the threat to the US project for economic development of the continent based on foreign private initiatives and for the profits of Foreign Private Initiative.
Surely, that confrontation and then the role that Castro played in this played a role also in regard is held by at least many on the left and on Latin America as a whole. But beyond that what kind of an impact do you think that Castro and the Cuban Revolution had on Latin America in general?
Well the Cuban Revolution, it depends who you ask in Latin America, what kind of reaction they would have to it. Certainly Latin American elites were extraordinarily threatened by the Cuban Revolution because they bought into the project of economic development promoted by the US government. But for the poor of Latin America who are the majority, I think the Cuban Revolution symbolized the potential for revolutionary change in their own countries and their own lives.
So the A Cuban colleague of mine was giving a talk at one point and I was translating for him and he was challenged by somebody who in the audience that said Fidel Castros a dictator. And his response was that Fidel Castro is a symbol. And I really think that that crystalizes the meaning of Fidel Castro in much of Latin America. That hes a symbol for being able to stand up to the United States. For being able to stand up to Imperialism. For being able to stand up to powerful economic interests. And for creating a new world. A different kind of society where the interests of the poor and the interests of the nation states of Latin America to determine their own futures.
So I think its a combination of the symbolism of what that kind of social change could me and the symbolism of what that kind of standing up to imperialism could mean. And if you look at the history of Latin America, every single country of Latin America has been subject to US imperialism in one way or another. So the fact that Cuba not only stood up to US imperialism but succeeded in overturning US imperialism and maintaining that for so many decades is symbolically really important. Now of course the Cuban Revolution isnt the only time that Latin Americans have stood up to US imperial interests. You can look at Nicaraguan Revolution for example. But the Nicaraguan revolution was in turn overthrown again by US imperialism and the Cuban Revolution survived into the 21st century.
Of course Castro himself and the Cuban Revolution are also not only symbols I guess for Latin America but also for movements around the world. I mean shortly after the Cuban Revolution, Castro actively toured third world countries. Particularly countries that had recently gained independence from colonialism and he supported independence movements around in various ways, sending Che Guevara to support the good struggle in the Congo, for example. In a way it seems that he was the precursor to a lot of this kind of third world independence. Well not necessarily a precursor, a leader of that which Chavez, Hugo Chavez also picked up, the importance of the global south to come together? Which Hugo Chavez also picked up the importance of the global south to come together. What do you think he ultimately hoped to achieve with this? Trying to bring together all of this independent movements around the world?
Well, Fidel Castro played a very important role in the nonaligned movement. In the whole Cold War world order for creating a sort of a third path. Thats what I mean by bringing up the nonaligned movement. That is that the Cold War was not just a struggle between the US and the USSR.
But it was a struggle between the third world and the imperial world. And thats what I think is the position of the nonaligned movement, that theyre not dont want to be subject to the first world or the Soviet Bloc. An independent route for the third world. And its independence for the third world meant anti-imperialism. It meant self-determination.
So I would emphasize not only Cubas military aid to Africa in terms of African struggles not only for independence but also against apartheid in South Africa and in many ways it was the United States and South Africa supporting the colonial rule in Africa and the black majority with the help of Cuba. But not only in terms of military support and ideological support but also whats sometimes overlooked is the great degree of material aid. Human and material aid that Cuba supplied to peoples struggling for liberation in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Whether its in the form of doctors, medical aid. Cuba has maintained consistently maintained a medical aid program larger than any other country in the world. Whether its in terms of sending teachers, advisors. Thats Cubas international aid presence to third world countries. Either through military means or processes of revolution and social change has also been really significant.
Well of course one of those things is one of the reasons why Nelson Mandela when he was released, the first country that he visited was Cuba, to I guess thank Cuba for its role in the changes in South Africa. But lets turn to some of the more controversial aspects of Castro. One of the things his critics always bring up is the issue of human rights in Cuba. Of course when they talk about human rights theyre only referring to political human rights, not social human rights. So in a nutshell, how would you characterize Castros role in guaranteeing or failing to guarantee those types of human rights, political and social in Cuba?
Well first of all I would just point out that the issue of human rights is an issue not only in Cuba but everywhere in Latin America. And that its true that there have been violations, well we can talk about on several different levels about whats going on in Cuba. But its true that there have been violations of individual, civil, and political rights in Cuba. But if you compare those to the kinds of violations of individual, civil, and human rights elsewhere in Latin America, you see an exponential difference.
That is, in Cuba there are no death squads. In Cuba there are no gulags. In Cuba, there are no massacres of civilians. As we have seen there are no torture chambers. Theres nothing on the level of whats happened in Mexico, of whats happened in Central America, whats happened in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay. Theres no disappeared in Cuba.
So were talking about human rights violations of a very different level from what weve seen happening virtually everywhere else in Latin American during the late 20th century and including the 21st century. Theres no massive displacements of populations in Cuba as there are in Columbia. Theres no assassinations of human rights leaders as are happening today in Columbia. So we just have to keep a little bit of perspective on this question of human rights.
Then the second thing I would bring up responding to the way you framed the question, social rights as well as political rights. Social and economic rights. That is, I would say Cuba is probably the country that has done the most to recognize the social and economic rights of the population. That is, to guarantee people access to housing. To guarantee people access to food. To guarantee people access to education. To guarantee people access to healthcare. All of those are very important social and economic rights that are not guaranteed really anywhere else in the world to the degree that they are guaranteed in Cuba.
However, I would also say, lets just talk about the issue of political rights. And I want to even divide those up into two. When the United States talks about political rights they often talk about the right to have a political system exactly like the one that exists in the United States. Its true that Cubans do not have a political system exactly like the one that exists in the United States. However, the vast majority of Cubans do not want a political system exactly like that that exists in the United States. In fact, the vast majority of people in the world dont want a political system exactly like that of the United States.
So its kind of an imperial arrogance that makes the United States criticize countries for having political systems that may function perfectly well and guarantee routes for citizen participation and politics in ways that are different from the US. And thats what exists in Cuba.
But finally, there are also violations of freedom of speech, of freedom of association. There have been purges of people. There are people that have people who have trouble getting work. There are people who have trouble getting work in their chosen field in Cuba. There certainly have been violations of political rights that we may value very strongly and that I think Cubans value very strongly too and are highly critical when those rights have been violated in Cuba.
Okay. Well we've run out of time but thanks so much Aviva for joining us for this conversation on Cuba and on the legacy of Fidel Castro on his 90th birthday. Thanks for being on the program Aviva.
Thanks a lot for having me on.
And thank you for watching the Real News Network.