Trotsky in Havana

Dimitri Prieto
Dimitri Prieto

Cuba’s annual Book Fair is an enthralling event for an increasing number of islanders. I say that because I often talk with people at the entrance to the fair. Despite the frequent criticism that it was not always possible to find what they were looking for, the fair continues to attract masses of people.

This year’s edition recently ended. Its first days in the capital city began in the San Carlos de la Cabaña fortress, famous for being the site of Havana’s still nightly 9:00 p.m. ceremonial cannon blasts, but also for its old moats and firing squad walls (a fact usually forgotten during the book fair festivities).

For several years now, the festival of reading also travels to the other provinces of the country.

This year’s Cuba International Book Fair at the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress
This year’s Cuba International Book Fair at the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress

This outreach allows more people to participate, but I believe that I would not be mistaken in saying that one of the main attractions -the multiple foreign stands- remain an exclusive feature for residents of the capital.

I bring up this point because, at least for me (though I suspect for many others also), most of the Cuban titles sold at the fair can generally be purchased through the existing network of national bookstores.

Clearly, this assumes a certain amount of individual effort, and keeps in mind that the sale of books in Cuba does not exist via the mail or over the internet. However, the books in the foreign stands are only available, in most cases, at the fair held in Havana.

Several stands succeed in attracting people with very special interests. Despite the controversial ideological diversity on the left that existed in Cuba when my parents were young, the production “explicit” of socio-political ideas was “put on the back burner” during the 1970s and most of the 80s. This was when the patrons of Soviet “Marxist-Leninist” thought imposed their varying degrees of de-Stalinization-“lite.”

Over that time -which some social scientists dub the “dark decade,” though it lasted more than 15 years- it was very “contentious” to refer to authors like Leon Trotsky, for example. Moreover, it appears to me, the background works of Lenin in the movement today known as the October Revolution have never been published in Cuba.

Therefore, one of the attractions of the book fair (although I recognize not for the “general public,” but yes for many youth between 16 and 76) has been the bookstands that offer social-political literature from the perspective of Trotskyism and the like.

Many people now know some of the exhibitors personally, and for them the fair is an opportunity to chat with their comrades and fellow socialists. A Trotskyite “underground” does not exist in Havana, because, according to my sources, there are no organized groups of such inclinations (which is “another story”), but persisting interests exists in learning of alternative ways to think about socialism and its 100-year-old history.

Just like the annual conference held in Havana on globalization and the problems of development -where Cuban economists can discuss in an atmosphere of plurality with their colleagues of other ideological tendencies- at the Book Fair it is possible to converse with representatives of different schools of thought.

Among the international entities represented, the first that should be mentioned is Pathfinder Press (US), which not only sells fine editions of Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, but also those of Che Guevara and Malcolm X, which assures the diversity of their public.

I myself have several books printed by its presses. Though I’m not a Trotskyite, I miss that facsimile edition that they sometimes bring of the “Bulletins of the Opposition,” a compilation of the newspaper published by Trotsky in exile, which circulated secretly in the USSR in the 1930s (and for which the penalty for possessing it was execution). I would love to read it, but on the occasions that the book was available, my finances weren’t.

It is representative that Pathfinder, in cooperation with a Cuban publisher, has published on the island a book of speeches by Malcolm X. Another publisher present is Spain’s Friedrich Engels Foundation (from another international Trotskyite tendency), which also sells the classics of that “outcast prophet” of the Russian Revolution.

They attract many interested readers and have co-published at least one title (not by Trotsky) with the Cuban Book Institute. Another publisher is “Ciencia, Cultura, Política,” of the Trotskyite-Posadist bent; that is to say, of a line founded by Argentina’s J. Posadas, the author of most of the titles present on their racks.

International Book Fair 2009 in Havana, Cuba
International Book Fair 2009 in Havana, Cuba

Unfortunately, most of the books sold are in hard currency, which is less accessible to the average Cuban. The good news is that on the last day of the fair, the Trotskyites sell their books in national currency (though not always at reduced prices). That was what allowed me this time to pick up the last copy of TheHistory of the Russian Revolution, the classic by Trotsky that served as a model for Afro-Caribbean theoretician C.L.R. James in writing his Black Jacobins, and which I will soon use in my research projects.

I heard a joke circulating among my Trotskyite friends. It goes, “What do two Trotskyites do on a deserted island? They found two Trotskyite parties!” I know that this thought tendency is not the one that prevails today among the global left.

I have read multiple critiques made against it, and I agree with most. Nonetheless, by my standards, books like The Revolution Betrayed, or the indispensable texts of Rosa Luxemburg, including her magnificent critique of incipient Soviet “red bureaucracy” and her compelling polemic against the death penalty, are classics of contemporary political thought.

I have had access to these thanks to the efforts of Trotskyites at the Book Fair. I should offer them additional gratitude: for teaching an increasing number of Cubans the enormous value of the diversity of thought and of plurality in social criticism.

A publisher friend commented to me once that he would be happy the day that the first book by Trotsky was published in Cuba. I told him that for me to feel happy, Trotsky alone would not be enough.

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