Bohemia documents the 1970 sugar harvest. Photo courtesy of Marial Iglesias Utset
The Paradoxes of a Revolution in Progress
In January 1959, the rebels who expelled the dictator Fulgencio Batista came down from the Cuban mountains with their long flowing hair, ample beards and necklaces hung with religious motifs. The image of those who liberated the island by themselves—with an unconventional ideology not found in the dominant doctrines—became an integral part of “The Sixties.”
Some understood the Cuban revolution as a subversive attempt to recruit the peasant base in order to achieve the social integration of the Rebel Army, instrument of its victory. In reality, the 1959 revolution had little to do with traditional peasant revolutions such as Viet Nam’s. However, there is one profound sense of commonality: the revolution put the spotlight on all the inhabitants of the planet and revealed their multiple dimensions.
The Cuban revolution is an example of what French philosopher Edgar Morin called “the possibility of a post-bourgeois civilization,” after observing the significance of the various resistances to the war in Vietnam, the condemnation of the French atrocities in Algiers, the massacre of Tlatelolco in Mexico, the Soviet invasion of Prague, the counterculture, sexual liberation, the criticism of consumerism and the affirmation of human rights.
Some Real Scissors
In Havana, a decade after the victory, Cuban revolutionaries had already organized the dismantling of imperialist domination, followed by the redistribution of land and housing, universal education and social justice. At the same time, the once long-haired revolutionaries organized expeditions to the ice cream parlor Coppelia (a meeting place for Havana’s urban youth), equipped with scissors to cut hippie hair and to tear tight clinging pants and other “deviations from revolutionary morals.” Furthermore, revolutionaries were sending homosexuals and others who did not accept official morals to labor camps with the idea of turning them into “men,” that is to say, “revolutionaries.” As strange as it seems, it is true: this all had the same objective as a whole: to achieve the possibility of a life with freedom and dignity.
In Soviet Russia of the 1920s, Leon Trotsky used the expression “crisis of the scissors” to explain the economic ruin of the time. In this imaginary scissors, one blade represented industry and the other agriculture. The crisis consisted of the separation, the growing distance between the two. In Cuba, the very real image of people wielding scissors to enforce their faith serves to demonstrate how a revolutionary process can both head up a continental rebellion against oligarchies and forbid its citizens to listen to the Beatles, considering the musical group an expression of “bourgeois decadence.” One blade of the scissors is not only distant from the other but actually opposed to it.
The Cuban decade of the 60s is fraught with dichotomies of this type that result from the coexistence of opposing ideologies within the revolution itself, which may mix, merge, confuse direction, and produce contradictory syntheses.
Between the end of 1967 and January of 1968, the Cuban tribunals concluded a trial involving so-called political crimes. The principal defendant was Aníbal Escalante Dellundé, leader of the old Communist party, the Partido Socialista Popular—which had been integrated in 1962 into a single revolutionary organization, together with the July 26 Revolutionary Movement and the March 13 Revolutionary Directorate. Escalante’s crime in 1968 was his effort to create a political tendency that opposed the course of the Cuban revolution and wished to situate the Island as a satellite of the Soviet Union, incarnation of the land of the socialist ideal, according to Escalante.
At the same time, in October 1968, a jury convoked by the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) awarded prizes to two books: Fuera del juego, by Heberto Padilla, and Los siete contra Tebas, by Antón Arrufat. The polemic set off at the time by the “anti-revolutionary character” of these books seemed to favor those Cubans who favored Soviet-style socialism.
The polemic ended three years later with the now famous “Caso Padilla.” A good part of the international intellectual elite saw the spectre of Stalinism in Cuba in the 1971 Padilla case, but very few observed the relationship between the criticism of Padilla’s book and the accusation against Escalante, both in 1968, as the sharpest expression of the tension already existing since 1961 of two possible ways of developing the Revolution and the form in which the tension would be resolved in the future.
Padilla had written poems about the life in the “real socialist” bloc,” describing how it was “practically prohibited to talk about guerrillas” and how some experienced a stifling combination of privilege and silence: “this peace is an immorality.” Seen from the perspective of 40 years later, the opposition to Padilla’s book can be better explained because of its anti-Soviet content, while the accusation against Escalante is not so much a power struggle—Escalante and his group were a mere 37 individuals with little real importance in Cuban political life—as an act against the Soviet Union to prevent its control over the direction of the Cuban process.
Padilla would become a cause célèbre because his discourse was backed by the West and by socialist left throughout the world, while Escalante’s viewpoint seemed to have the backing of the Soviet Union, which for much of the world was a stinking giant with clay feet. However, both events are a continuum of the politics that, in the 60s, considered the pax soviética in regards to Viet Nam, Latin America and the Third World as immoral and attempted to construct an independent path toward freedom and justice, refusing to be part of anyone’s “camp.”
Yet the particular “crisis of the scissors” in Cuba is not just about different political and personal options existing within the process.
Strictly speaking, national liberation did not include the possibility of long hair, tight pants and criticism of consumerism. The global content of the movement of 1968 constituted an attack on both capitalism and “real socialism,” but it carried differences arising from inequalities between development and underdevelopment. In France, the 1968 movement grew out of the new composition of the working class and the emergence of a broad youth-student sector, voicing the necessity to attack abundance and consumerism and thus to break the dynamic of the “one-sided man” shackled by efficiency, so he could regain time to enjoy life and recover the lost ideal of living in a community.
These necessities did not connect with the needs of the Third World, as evidenced in the writings of Ho Chi Minh, Glauber Rocha, Camilo Torres, Amílcar Cabral, Salvador Allende and Ahmed Sékou Touré. They discuss the same themes: colonialism, dependence, structural deformation of the economy, looting of natural resources, the precarious conditions of the working class, secular poverty and the dismantling of the peasant class, the absence of educational possibilities and the misery of hunger and sickness.
Cuban politics in the 60s were an attempt to give birth to “someone” who would be recognized as an equal, something that was impossible with the Soviet Union and its satellites.
When Ernesto Guevara, Che, called for the creation of “one, two, three, many Vietnams” in his message to the first Tricontinental Conference in Havana in 1966, he brought this idea to world attention. Some have attributed Guevara’s call to his “adventurerism,” accusations similar to those that the officialdom of the “real socialist” bloc directed against the Cuban-Argentine guerrilla: adventurer, Trotskyite, petit bourgeiois and anarchist, all at the same time, as if this were possible. Framing his action in this manner, another interpretation is avoided: if the Soviet Union conceived of politics as the negotiation of geopolitical interests between the great powers, Guevara proposed the politics of small countries’ relying on themselves and each other to overcome the problems created by the oppression of colonialism, the constant underdevelopment and imperialist domination.
Guevara’s guerrilla experience in Bolivia, as previously in the Congo, was not as absurd as it has been presented: a magic formula through which some twenty men in the jungle are capable of digging a tunnel one night to take over state power and to occupy the presidential seat at dawn.
Organizations such as the Casa de las Américas, the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL), and the Latin American Solidarity Organization (OLAS) were seen as representing, with great conflicts, the “two currents of world revolution,” as Moroccan revolutionary leader El Mehdi Ben Barka observed: the “socialist,” personified by the Soviet Union, and that of “national liberation,” parallel to that current and spearheaded by the Third World. These organizations found their true inspiration in the latter: political struggle—through parties, guerrillas, movements or whatever the context showed was the most efficient way from a revolutionary perspective— to achieve the expression of the voices of the “wretched of the earth” of three continents.
Unlike A Pseudo-Revolutionary Church
In the closing ceremony of the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1968, Fidel Castro declared: “(Marxism needs) to behave like a revolutionary force and not like a pseudo-revolutionary church.” Declarations like these led the Soviets to accuse Castro, alongside Guevara, of being a “heretic” and a “dangerous adventure-seeker.”
But the Cuban revolutionaries were not motivated by the purity of Marxism and even less by the dark interests of Moscow. Their politics were, in effect, Marxist, but distinct from Soviet Marxism, which served to legitimate the reality of political oppression in the name of the “consecration of freedom.” This Marxism justified its opposition to armed struggle and any other expression of political struggle that could affect the delicate balance between the superpowers and their attempt to divide up the world between themselves. At the same time, Third World “heresy” looked back to the republican socialism of the French revolutionaries in 1793, who demanded freedom for both the bourgeoisie and the workers as well as for the slaves in the colonies, under the generic terms “of man and of the citizen.”
The Force And Fragility of Utopias
In 1967, the official Granma newspaper declared in an editorial, “One can move towards communism and never arrive.” Fighting for justice, one can cause new injustices. One can seek liberty and commit many errors in the process. The same person can be willing to die for the liberation of a country and at the same time can delegitimize other human beings in hundreds of ways —because they are black, because they are gay, because they are lesbian, because they are poor, because they are “ignorant.”
A just act—not ten just acts nor a million just acts—does not justify a single injustice.
The scissors that cut the hair of those youths in Coppelia took away from them an attribute of their difference, but it also cut, above all, the possibility of living in dignity and freedom. With that, the history lived in Cuba has inherited revolutionary warnings for the present— to better understand the price, the difficulties, the regressions and the developments of freedom as a concrete ideal. To understand the force and fragility of utopias. The precariousness of faith, when no debate surrounds it, and its sterile arrogance. The insatiable nature of freedom: when one has experienced it, one demands more and more freedom. The slow decadence of revolutions if they do not combat the habit of obedience and dependence. Unlike what happened with the scissors, the promise of socialism means that national, social and personal liberty is part of the only freedom.
Julio César Guanche (Havana, 1974) is an essayist and professor. He is author of several books on Cuban history and politics, the most recent of which is En el borde de todo. El hoy y el mañana de la revolución en Cuba (Ocean Sur, 2007).