Neither kings nor bureaucrats
US author and political broadcaster Suzi Weissman reports on the miraculous organisation of a conference on Leon Trotsky, which took place in Havana
From May 6-8 2019, an historic conference - or ‘International Academic Meeting’ - took place in Havana, Cuba: ‘Leon Trotsky: life and contemporaneity - a critical approach’.
The event was historic, and would have been unimaginable until very recently. Trotsky was persona non grata in Cuba, considered a renegade, counterrevolutionary and traitor - just as he was throughout the rest of the Soviet bloc. And it was in Cuba that Trotsky’s assassin, Ramón Mercader, was given refuge after his release from a Mexican prison in 1960. Trotsky’s name, life and writings were virtually scrubbed from standard histories of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union in Cuba, and when interest in his ideas percolated from below, he was denounced from above. There had been active Trotskyist parties and Trotskyist militants in Cuba from the 1930s through the 1960s, but by the mid-60s they had been expelled from the party, repressed and, for the most part, imprisoned. The son of a leading Trotskyist, who had been active in the Cuban Communist Party, was a participant in the Trotsky conference.
Yet interest in Trotsky has survived in Cuba right up to the present, and is an important element of the politico-intellectual background to the conference. As late as the 1960s, some of Trotsky’s works were being published, but then largely disappeared. In 2009, Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba’s greatest contemporary writers, published his monumental novel based on Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico City in 1940, El hombre que amaba los perros (The man who loved dogs, published in English in 2014) to wide international acclaim - although the print run in Cuba itself was so small that it was literally unavailable after its initial launch. Nonetheless, this book raised the level of curiosity in Cuba about Leon Trotsky, according to the conference organiser, Frank García Hernández, a 36-year-old graduate student in philosophy, who is writing his dissertation on Trotsky. García Hernández is from Santa Clara, where he says there are students trying to read Trotsky, in collaboration with others in Havana.
So what do we make of the fact that this conference took place in Havana? One conjecture could be that it represents an opening, or the possibility of a political opening. Raúl Castro, long-time member of Cuban Communist Party, stepped down as president in April 2018, but will remain first secretary of the party until 2021. The new Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel - a former minister of education who is largely unknown outside the island - is called a “cautious reformist”.
As the first secretary of the provincial Communist Party in Villa Clara province in the 1990s, he was recognised for his long hair, bicycle-riding, and walking around in Bermuda shorts. He was a strong advocate for LGBT rights at a time when homosexuality was frowned upon or downright illegal. Raúl Castro, on the other hand, was notably more tied to Communist Party politics than even his brother, Fidel. Did the end of Raúl’s rule and the accession of Díaz-Canel have anything to do with the microscopic, and still somewhat mysterious, political opening that enabled a conference on Trotsky to take place in Cuba? There is no direct evidence to that effect and, unless and until there is, that remains no more than speculation.
The conference did have the blessing of Cuba’s prized writer, Leonardo Padura Fuentes, though he was not in attendance, and this may have provided the minimal amount of political leverage that allowed it to happen. But the fact remains that the Cuban government has given ample evidence that, for it, Trotsky and his ideas are still dangerous - any slight opening is contradictory, pushed and pulled by bureaucrats acting on traditional (anti-Trotsky) reflexes, seemingly without any coordinated policy.
A special feature of the conference was to be the screening of part of the forthcoming documentary film by Lindy Laub, Trotsky: the most dangerous man in the world. When we (I am the co-producer of the film) first told Frank we would like to show an excerpt at the conference, he was jubilant - he wanted the film to have its premiere in Cuba, imagining a huge and enthusiastic audience. We settled on showing a 21-minute trailer and a 24-minute segment of Trotsky in exile in Prinkipo, Turkey, from 1929-33 - that included his fight to get German social democrats and communists to unite against Hitler, his speech in Copenhagen and the suicide of his daughter, Zina, in Berlin.
Frank was in high gear trying to secure a venue - only to find nearly every screen in Havana closed to him and this film. Finding a public place to show it proved to be an impossible hurdle. No one wanted to take responsibility for allowing a portion of an unfinished, sympathetic documentary about Trotsky to be screened in their theatres. Finally, when it seemed the segment would not be projected at the conference, Frank got permission to screen it in a small theatre in the Centro Cultural Cinematográfico (ICAIC). Publicity for the showing was confined to a small announcement and word of mouth at the conference. But every seat was filled, and people stood and sat on the floor on every available inch of space - the audience was electric with excitement.
García Hernández and his partner, Lisbeth Moya González, a young journalist, had pulled off a miracle. That the conference did actually happen is certainly historic.
In addition to the institutional resources they received from ICICJM, García Hernández had support from the Institute of Philosophy, Casa Benito Juárez - the venue for the debates - and the Trotsky Museum in Mexico City. Organisational help came from a dedicated group of co-thinkers: Ana Isa, Verde Gil and Yunier Mena Benavides, all from Santa Clara.
They succeeded in getting homestays for the many international visitors, providing lunch for all the participants for three days, but they were unable to have the conference programme printed in time. So there was no programme for the first day, although photocopies were distributed on the second day.
The hall was lined with beautiful posters and pictures, thanks to Gabriela Pérez Noriega, director of the Museo Trotsky in Mexico City. Pérez Noriega had also brought along 100 Trotsky T-shirts, 150 Trotsky pens, and most importantly, 50 books the Trotsky Museum was donating for distribution at the conference. They were all confiscated by customs agents at the airport, who claimed they could not allow them in because they were “merchandise” for private sale. On May 16, a week after the conference ended, Frank posted a picture of himself wearing a Trotsky T-shirt with the caption, “The T-shirts arrived, now - a tremendous victory!”
Nearly 200 people from all over the world asked to participate in the conference, but Frank had to winnow down the number to 80. However, even with 80 it was nearly impossible to find a venue to accommodate them. In the end there were perhaps 100 in attendance, including up to 40 Cubans, and a sizeable contingent of Latin Americans. Many were young, while others had been around a long time. Participants came from Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, India, Iran, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, UK, US, and Venezuela.
We were told we each had 15-20 minutes to present our papers in panels that featured four-six speakers, but that time was whittled down because of translation difficulties. García Hernández had envisioned simultaneous translations in small groups on the floor, but he ended up without the resources to pay for equipment or translators, so one heroic volunteer translated every paper, line by line or paragraph by paragraph, from the stage. The substitution of consecutive for simultaneous translation effectively cut the time available for each paper in half, forcing draconian reductions in what could be included. But the quality of those papers was still generally excellent, and the range was broad.
The opening panel was made up of Eric Toussaint from Belgium on ‘Lenin and Trotsky confronting the bureaucracy and Stalin’; Paul LeBlanc on ‘Trotsky against Stalin’; Robert Brenner on ‘Trotsky, the Left Opposition and the peasantry’; and myself on ‘The Left Opposition divided - the Serge-Trotsky disputes’. There were numerous other panels on various aspects of Trotsky’s life, politics and legacy, including in Cuba.
Participants came from across the spectrum of Trotskyist politics - from so-called ‘orthoTrots’, to ‘state caps’, to bureaucratic collectivists. These represented the leading interpretation of the ‘Russian question’, from Ernest Mandel to Nahuel Moreno, to Gerry Healy and Hillel Ticktin. Some sessions descended into hostile sectariana (I walked out of these), but for the most part the tone was one of enthusiasm and respect. The final session was devoted to the history of Cuban Trotskyism, and some of the presenters had real ties to the early Trotskyists.
For many reasons the Cuban participation was lower than hoped for - there was almost no publicity, and little room in the venue in Old Havana. That was unfortunate, since Trotsky is little known in Cuba. As Frank García Hernández emphasised,
We were missing Trotsky. We lacked Trotsky to understand what happened in the Soviet Union, because none of the referents of Marxism, like Che Guevara or Fidel Castro, could, for different reasons, give a systemic explanation of what happened. Trotsky had the courage to have done so since 1936, having developed a sociological analysis that we never knew, and, for us Cubans, one in which we are very interested.
For García Hernández and the organisers, the conference was an historic marker and a major breakthrough, and they are unquestionably correct in this assessment. Despite the strong and enduring hostility to Trotsky on the part of the regime, the organisers carried off an outstanding conference, which introduced Trotsky in a wide-ranging manner. It was truly a coup, and only made possible by virtue of the considerable courage of Frank García Hernández.
The Institute of Philosophy has promised to publish the papers of the event, and the Cuban Institute of Cultural Research Juan Marinello seems willing to collaborate in this publication. If this is done, it will be the first time that a book dedicated to Trotsky and the socio-political-cultural phenomena that have been generated around him will appear in Cuba since the 1960s.
Cuba is a tropical paradise of immense beauty, with pristine beaches and merciful breezes from the Caribbean sea.
Havana features grand old colonial buildings in varying stages of deterioration and renewal. The architecture is elegant, wide streets are lined with houses of one to three stories, with high ceilings and large rooms in areas like Vedado and Miramar. The old hotels - including the famous Nacional, the Ambos Mundos (where Ernest Hemingway’s room is preserved as a tourist attraction) and the completely redone Habana Libre (the old Havana Hilton) - remain as icons of a pre-revolutionary Cuba, where the mafia and others from Miami gambled, dined and danced.
Old Havana, closed to cars, still features music in the streets, and Cubans of all walks of life stroll leisurely through it - or stop to dance. One sign of Cuba in the ‘special period’ - after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsidy - are the many beggars (mostly pensioners) in the heart of Old Havana. We saw no sign of homelessness, especially of the sort that is so widespread in US cities. Cuba is vibrant, colourful and sunny - and I noticed a sense of dignity that is often hard to detect these days on the streets of Los Angeles.
Cubans still have free education and free healthcare, and they are guaranteed housing, food and jobs. Life may seem easy-going to our eyes, but, in fact, Cubans are for the most part poor and struggling. Shortages are constant, electricity and/or water could go off for an hour or more at a time.
The woman who worked in the house where we stayed described life as “overwhelming”. She was scrambling to support her family and had suffered a huge setback when her wallet was pilfered from her purse on a standing-room-only bus. Others we spoke to were more relaxed and seemed to be better off. Skin colour seemed to be a factor in poverty.
Air conditioning is much more evident in public places and even in May - Cuba’s low season because of the heat - there were tourists in abundance. We saw, in particular, numerous wealthy Russians - in some cases Russian military and/or intelligence officials, whose rank prevented their travelling elsewhere. One Russian told us he managed to live in Cuba in the winter, when Russia was too cold, and in Russia in the summer, when Cuba was too hot.
Taxis are ubiquitous. Colourful, mostly American cars from the 40s and 50s fill the streets, thanks to the magic of Cuban mechanics, who find or improvise spare parts. We rode in Chevys, Plymouths, Oldsmobiles and Fords, all painted in bright colours, some fitted with air conditioning or Hyundai engines inside the original shell. One particularly proud owner of a British 1960 Hillman showed us the car’s engine - still the original, running after hundreds of thousands of miles. For many drivers, the car was the investment of their lives and they are expensive to maintain. But providing a taxi service earned them more than working in the state sector.
Cuban life appears like a throwback. There is no intrusive commercial advertising anywhere, and only a minimum of revolutionary posters and slogans, some in fading paint. Television stations featured children’s programming, discussion panels on art and culture, and sports. There was soccer from around the world, and even the US basketball playoffs - although appearing days after the fact. News came from TeleSur, sponsored by the Venezuelan government and, while we were there, it focused exclusively on the unfolding, disastrous coup attempt in Venezuela. The film channel was a delight, featuring only art films - with no commercial breaks.
Cuban taxi-drivers were keen to talk about Donald Trump - they hated him and loved Barack Obama. When we turned to talk about Cuba itself, we got a version of national pride and nothing about the internal situation, either political or economic.
Cuba is one of the least connected countries on the planet. The Cuban state had restricted access to the internet, just as it still restricts travel. But in the last five-six years the state has relaxed restrictions, and more hot spots are appearing. Sporadic connection is possible. More and more people have cellphones and one can buy cards for internet connection (to use in the zones where there is such connection). We stayed in Vedado - a largely upscale district, with many beautiful, if sometimes decrepit, houses - that is only partly online. There was no access in our neighbourhood, though our house was on a main street.
Cuba has a two-tier economy with two currencies: one for ordinary Cubans (the Cuban peso) and the other - Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC) for tourists and the private sector. Euros, Canadian dollars, Mexican pesos, and plastic from European banks can be used, but Visas and Mastercards from US banks are not accepted anywhere. It is possible to exchange US dollars, but there is a pricy exchange fee, so one dollar is 0.87 CUC. The peso is worth about one 25th of a CUC.
For Cubans working in the traditional sector of the state economy, wages are very low, public transportation is rickety and scarcities abound. Many Cubans rent out parts of their homes to foreigners, allowing them the chance to earn extra money in CUCs - and giving visitors a glimpse of Cuban life. Neighbours drop in, life is very social, people sit around and talk for hours.
Cubans, like citizens of the former Soviet Union, manage to get round shortages and other difficulties with ingenuity. We talked to waiters in the private restaurants, many of whom were highly educated and multilingual. In the restaurant we frequented the biggest complaint was about the almost 16-hour shifts (8.30am to midnight), but for only two-three days a week. Given that the restaurant is open seven days a week, I could not get an answer as to why they had to work so long (and then endure another hour on the bus to and from work) rather than having more eight-hour shifts. One waiter was an engineer, who told us that one had to work for two years to pay back the cost of higher education - the salary for an engineer in the state sector was $18 per month. He made much more in the private sector, but lamented the fact he could not work in his profession and survive economically. We heard similar stories from taxi drivers.
We travelled to the Playa de Santa Maria, just 25 minutes from Havana - a gorgeous beach that was the popular equivalent to Varadero, with its luxury hotels and foreign tourists. The hotel we stayed at in Santa Maria appeared ‘Soviet’ to my eyes: sprawling, poorly designed and badly built. A Spanish company had bought it and began to renovate and refurbish it - but then bowed out when Trump was elected. So some rooms were newly painted and refurbished, while others remained in their neglected, old shabby state. We had an old-style room - dreary, dimly lit, with a loud, inefficient window air conditioner. Included in the price were three meals, buffet style, of ample, but mostly mediocre to terrible, food. Still, it was on the beautiful beach - the favourite place for Cubans from Havana to go on vacation before the two-tier economy made life more difficult.
And, all too soon, our interlude in Cuba was over. Conference participants left in high spirits, fully recognising the historic nature of the event that had just taken place, hoping that it was but the beginning of more such international gatherings.
At the end of the conference Frank García Hernández spoke emotionally of what it took to get it off the ground, despite the thousand obstacles the bureaucracy put in the way - he thanked the Institute of Philosophy for its invaluable support. He finished by declaring: “Neither kings nor bureaucrats, nor bosses - towards communism!”
The participants then enthusiastically sang ‘The Internationale’ - simultaneously in many languages. Paul Le Blanc noted that he saw younger comrades who did not join in, thinking it was a weird relic from another time, But the older participants loved it l
Suzi Weissman is professor of politics at Saint Mary’s College of California and is on the editorial boards of Critique and Against the Current. She is the author of Victor Serge: a political biography, among other works, and is co-producing the documentary film Leon Trotsky: the most dangerous man in the world.