They only care about themselves, their own agendas, to the point that they can justify positions that can’t be ethically justified.
By Hilda Landrove (El Estornudo)
HAVANA TIMES – “We need Cuba to survive.” This is rarely said so explicity, although it encapsulates the logic that has ended up turning Cuba into the international Left’s favorite theme park. The phrase comes from an interview with Manolo de los Santos, the codirector of People’s Forum, in Alma Mater magazine. Here, he explains:
“I believe that I was drawn to Cuba, not so much out of solidarity, but because I belong to a generation of young people who, in the US and other parts of the world, were becoming more involved in important political struggles in our own countries, with great social significance […]. It was a world where there were less and less references or alternatives and Cuba stopped being an emotional matter, a poster of solidarity, and it began to also allow us to contemplate or imagine a future with another kind of society. Not only as an example or model, but as a benchmark of the chance of a socialist project everywhere else in the world.”
This segment – which holds a logic that is repeated again and again with slight modifications – is normally read as acceptance for Cuba, as recognition of its value beyond the reality of its existence, to the point that it takes on an abstract form, becoming a symbol.
Exploitation of this formula makes something crystal clear; a fundamental flaw. The symbolic dimension ends up being used as an excuse for all of its shortcomings in reality. The symbol doesn’t overstep material reality in the sense that it contains and expands it; rather it eliminates it from the equation. Cuba’s symbolic value only works in the absence of real Cuba: denying it.
It’s also clear who the people saying they need Cuba to survive are. It isn’t Cubans living on the island, or even those living in the diaspora; this “we” are fighters, politicians and social activists linked to Leftist causes who see Cuba not for what it really is, but as the image of an otherness brimming with antiicapitalist fantasy. An illusion that scandously demands not to be compared to reality, because it could fall apart.
A few months ago, when the Black Lives Matter leadership signed a letter of support for the Cuban Government without considering the existence of Black victims of this regime – even when the Cuban population taking to the streets on July 11, 2021 were mostly black, poor, subjects of asymmetries marked by a racism that shares common features with the racism BLM knows firsthand -, I had a conversation with a US intellectual, who tried to convince me, over several days, and inviting me to read many articles, that Black Lives Matter had legitimate reasons for aligning themselves with the Cuban Government and not its victims.
He wasn’t trying to reach an ethical opinion of the situation. If only it were a matter of weighing up ethics, because the practical reasons – or any other kind of reason – don’t exempt it from ethical responsibility. My conversation partner restricted himself to saying these reasons were enough to endorse a declaration that eliminated real people from the scene, many of whom were black and victims of state repression in Cuba.
There was a lot of history behind these reasons, which BLM admitted were foundational: for example, many Black Panther members had sought refuge in Cuba and had restarted their lives there again, under the Cuban Government’s protection. They had a debt of gratitude – directly or indirectly – because of the support they’d received during a tough time. Some of the articles I read about this explained the challenge it meant for them to be received in a country where there was not only a different understanding of the issue of race – while in Cuba they were implementing a model of mestizaje (mixing), in the US, they were openly segregationist -, announcing that the issue of race had been resolved once and for all.
You can understand their gratitude, of course. It’s the same thing that stops children of those exiled by Latin American governments from criticizing the Cuban Government, because they were able to rebuild their lives after escaping the horrors in their own countries. The same way that it’s stopped Cuban emigres, the other way around, who have rebuilt their lives in the US and feel like they can’t criticize the country that took them in.
The former will probably say that the latter’s gratitude isn’t as understandable, because it takes an ultraconservative position a lot of the time. However, the same thing could be said for those who, in the name of gratitude, ignore complaints and the reasons that Cuban citizens are raising their voices louder. People, who supporting an ideal that no longer exists outside of propaganda pamphlets, and forsake listening to victims’ voices.
I have to admit that it wasn’t during this conversation that I recognized the problem at the heart of the issue because it really isn’t as explicit as this phrase: “We need Cuba to survive.” But it’s the same thing. The only reason BLM entered the equation somehow was because of Cubans themselves.
These are just examples of an attitude that persists, steadfast, even after something like July 11th. An attitude that denies Cubans themselves as subordinates of a totalitarian, dictatorial and repressive government. In line with this thinking, the Cuban Government is conveniently placed inside the old geopolitical board game of the Cold War. It’s an attitude that is hard to shake because it is repeated thanks to a circular logic where the “other”, isn’t recognized as an individual but in the way it is reprocessed at the service of fixed and outdated positions.
BLM’s support for a government that has sustained and made structural conditions of racial inequality worse, and have repressed the Afro-descendant population when they have chosen public protest as a course of action, is reactionary in political terms. Just like it is that a series of US left-wing intellectuals have spoken out against “the US blockade” without making any effort whatsoever to navigate the totalitarian equation that puts the Cuban people and Cuban Government together as one, the country with the current political regime, and the one-party State with so-called “participatory democracy”.
The heart of the problem here is the inevitable self-centredness making them support everything, blinded by their anti-imperialism, that proclaims itself to be against the Imperialism they criticize: in the US, as if there weren’t any other empires (for example, Russian, that has been steaming ahead with its invasion of Ukraine in recent months), or as if standing up to US Imperialism (or saying they are against it) is enough to excuse any political regime of the crimes it commits. There is a way of interacting with “otherness” that is also quite noticeable, even though it tries to move the opposite way, because of a strong imperial and colonial bias.
The intellectuals I’m talking about don’t only not think about the real subjects whom they extract symbolic capital from for themselves, but actively contribute to silencing their voices and complaints because they are essentially less important, a lot less important. They only care about themselves, their own agendas, to the point that they can justify positions that can’t be ethically justified.
There are two ways to interact with otherness. One of them is based on empathy and total recognition of the other person’s life, and by recognizing them with the dignity they deserve as is their right. You will never put yourself by the side of those who cause them hardship and pain. The other way is what makes it possible for anti-imperialism to support imperialisms; the kind that subjugates other people’s lives to their own objectives of reality.
In this second way of interaction, the “other” ends up being a necessary idealized image to guide certain agendas and therefore doesn’t need to be compared to reality. They also project their own desires on this “other”. Cuba can just as well be an eco-friendly paradise or a country leading the way in the fight against COVID-19, or a beacon of light for all anti-capitalist struggles. It doesn’t matter what it is. The real Cuba no longer matters and has become not only a symbol disconnected from its base, but into an empty screen that can be filled with anything the projectionist wants to put up on it. It doesn’t matter if Cubans are hungry, rebelling, whether they shout out to the winds that they aren’t this image; there will always be these “anti-imperialists” ready to repeat what they need to for their own struggle.
Cuba is for a certain Left what the indigneous people were to certain anthropologists and followers of new-era esotericism. Ideal images that serve to show, in comparison, the putrefaction of the world they themselves – militants of this Left, anthropologists, esotericism followers – live in. In this perspective, the “other” can’t be anything – even without really being this – but irrepressible anti-imperialists that have bet on the utopia of social justice, or nature-lovers who are always in balance with their surroundings. They might even get depressed or get a shock when reality doesn’t line up with the idealized version they have in their heads. It must really be a horrible experience to bump into this reality when you spend your life trying to discover El Dorado in every bend supposedly outside the system/world and its western impositions.
Support for authoritarian governments is always nourished by this kind of idealization. Let’s think about China and how it became an example of how exactly socialism provided the best model to fight the pandemic in the early months of the pandemic; which was unsustainable when faced with statistics from countries with different political systems who were just as successful, such as their neighbor Taiwan.
Criticism of this anti-imperialism focusing only on US imperialism, that ends up refuting complaints against authoritarian governments, comes from many different countries. They build up in such a way that we are able to see that it isn’t the concrete dilemma of a particular crisis that is being expressed in this critique, but the attitude that permeates these intellectuals’ stance.
For example, a group of Ukrainian economists recently wrote an open letter to Noam Chomsky (“and other intellecturals sharing similar ideas”, it added in the title), where they listed a series of “lies” in their argument about the Russian invasion of Ukraine; including the denial of Ukraine’s sovereignty and treating it as a US pawn in a geopolitical game of chess; lies that lead to support for an invasion by a power with imperial objectives over a sovereign country.
The Lausan Collective, born in 2019 with the objective of contributing a decolonial left-wing outlook on the Hong Kong protests, points out some of the internal logic of this kind of intellectual, mostly from the US. By pointing out how the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) refused to sign a statement that condemned the dismantlement of the only independent union from the Hong Kong Government, Lausan reads the reasons brandished by the DSA as an event that sought to not criticize the Chinese Government.
The reasons correspond to a new distorted left-wing morality that argues that “we need to prioritize the fight against the bourgeoisie at home (that is to say in the US) and we don’t have the right to condemn foreign governments outside the “imperial nucleus” and the “belly of the beast.” As the DSA’s refusal to condemn the dismantling of an independent union shows, what is being presented as “non-intervention” in foreign government’s affairs, ends up really being support for an authoritarian government.
Conversations about sovereignty, nationalism and anti-imperialism thus serve as support for authoritarianism. Support for authoritarian governments led Santiago Alba Rico to say in 2016, that Aleppo had become the grave of the Left, this Left that still celebrates Bashar al-Assad while he committed horrible crimes against the Syrian people.
Recognizing this criticism from different realities, that share the identification of the Left’s means that, even when it calls itself anti-imperialist, it works in practice as support for global authoritarianism, can allow us to move ahead with what the Lausan Collective calls “creating non-orthodox connections.”
If oppression is globalized, if authoritarianism extends to stateless places, resistance to these people won’t be able to be contained within State borders. Solidarity won’t be stopped by demands stemming from the rhetoric of sovereignty and anti-imperialism. It’s the only way to stand up to authoritarianism and dictatorships effectively, mobilizing worldwide, like they are. It is also the only way to stop someone else from speaking in our name, holding up illusions at the expense of our misery and silence.