Aviva Chomsky: Cuban Protestors Are Not Calling for the Overthrow of the Government or Foreign Intervention
By Ana Alakija
Earlier this year, Cuba was featured in international headlines as an archetypal of a nation moving quickly against the emerging threat of COVID-19. Cuba was one of the first Latin American countries in developing and manufacturing its homegrown vaccine against the coronavirus and adopting effective treatment for victims. Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was one of the those who tested positive in January when he was in Cuba while recording the documentary directed by Oliver Stone. Although he had not been hospitalized, he was a witness to the excellent treatment against COVID-19 provided by the country.
Since then, the situation has become uncertain. Between May and July, the number of people infected by the virus reached an alarming rate (see JHU CSSE COVID-19 data) and vaccines are no longer available. This month, the island erupted in a wave of economic and health-related protests. Besides the raw materials vital for vaccine production, the nation needs other components to combat COVID-19. Yet the US economic blockade of Cuba has made it difficult to acquire these and many other vital goods.
In this featured interview with journalist Ana Alakija, Aviva Chomsky, Professor of History, coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University, Massachusetts, and expert in Cuban studies, clarifies that interpreting the protests in Cuba as a demand for the regime change and foreign intervention is a mistake. More accurately, people are complaining about the lack of vaccine, electricity, and food. For Professor Chomsky, the Biden government should end the campaign to overthrow Cuba’s political regime and stop sabotaging this country which has faced imperialism stemming from the American giant for six decades.
Another misconception brought to light by Professor Chomsky has to do with the image the mainstream media perpetrate of Cuba as a communist country with a closed economy. “Cuba today has a mixed economy, like many other countries, where public and private ownership and enterprise coexist.”
An active in Latin American solidarity and immigrants’ rights issues for over thirty years, Aviva Chomsky stops her busy summer agenda for this assignment. In this interview, she talks about the recent street protests in Cuba not seen in the six decades that followed the 1959 revolution. She seeks to clarify aspects of these latest events and deconstruct the demonized image of Cuba created by mass media, an image that contributes to the isolation of the Caribbean island. “When President Biden was campaigning, he promised to return to the Obama-era policies –– extremely popular in Cuba –– of political recognition and acceptance of Cuba’s right to determine its own future”, she says. “But since taking office, Biden has instead continued the Trump-era reversal of all of Obama’s political openings.” That is the point, according to professor Chomsky.
Professor Chomsky still discusses the role of race, gender, and class in Cuba, and generations of Cubans that have migrated to the US. She offers ideas about Latin American liberation movements in the late 20th century and their influence on 21st century socialist movements, which give “new insights into the neoliberal global economy that emerged in the 1990s and the global environmental crisis.” These include buen vivir or sumak kawsay, perspectives that “look at the indigenous and peasant movements of Latin America as proponents of a different kind of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism based on food sovereignty and environmental and climate justice.”
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Ana Alakija– You visited Cuba for the first time in the 1990s. When you came back to the U.S. you wrote A History of the Cuban Revolution which is (Blackwell 2015 ), which is considered one of the most concise socio-historical textbook accounts of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 among U.S. academics. What is happening currently in Cuba can be interpreted as evidence that Cubans have changed their minds and no longer believe in the communal system? What has REALLY changed in the 60 years since the Revolution blasted in that nation?
Aviva Chomsky – I visited Cuba for the first time in 1995, in the depth of what is known as the Special Period. The collapse of the USSR and the Socialist Bloc at the beginning of the 1990s caused a huge economic crisis in Cuba. Already shut out of US markets, Cuba lost its main source of aid and trade. Its whole economy was geared towards supplying sugar to the Socialist bloc for a “fair price” and receiving in return processed food, manufactured goods, and petroleum. The loss of this relationship sent the economy into a tailspin. Desperate for foreign exchange, Cuba began making painful economic reforms: inviting in tourism and foreign investment, allowing people to purchase imported goods with US dollars, allowing self-employment, small businesses, and private enterprise. While Cuba has kept some sectors socialized, like health care and education, meaning that they are free and accessible to everyone, much of the economy has been privatized, which brings all of the problems of capitalism with it, like inequality, and lack of access. Under capitalism the rich consume a lot and the poor do without. That’s one of the problems that the Revolution sought to transform. But the global economy and the United States have made that very difficult. Today Cuba has a mixed economy, like many other countries, where public and private ownership and enterprise coexist.
Ana Alakija– What is the root of the problem? There is a theory, which Professor Noam Chomsky refers to as “The Reactionary International.” This strategy, organized by Trump-McConnell Republicans, holds that Washington must exercise geopolitical control Cuba, Colombia, the Middle East, and other key areas of the world, through American security organisms and this would be the responsibility of any American president. Do you see a connection between Cuban protests and what is happening in other Latin American countries, for instance, the recent assassination of the president of Haiti involving foreign participation, the slow demolishing of democracy in Brazil, or the crisis in Venezuela? Would these events be encouraged by this US Intelligentsia nucleus through external intervention policies?
Aviva Chomsky – I guess what I see in common in the protests in Cuba and in other places like Colombia is that the combination of Covid-19 and the economic collapse that’s accompanied it has exacerbated the problem of survival in poor countries. Poor people in poor countries lived close to the edge of survival even before Covid, but Covid and economic collapse have pushed them over the edge. In terms of US policy, the United States has made it clear since late 1959 that its goal is to make the Cuban Revolution fail. They’ve tried through invasion, through economic sabotage, through embargo and blockade, through assassination attempts, and through funding and manipulating internal opposition. The United States is outraged when we think other countries are trying to interfere with our domestic politics—but we openly interfere in the domestic politics of other countries, including trying to bring down their governments as we have been doing for the past 60 years in Cuba.
Ana Alakija– Why do Cubans in the U.S. (such as Miami and Washington) support widespread these anti-communist government protests in Cuba? As opposed to Brazilian protests in the U.S., for example, where they are fighting against an ultra-conservative fascist government and in favor of restoring a mixed capitalist-socialist democracy in Brazil…
Aviva Chomsky – Cubans in the US are a diverse bunch, and they don’t all support the far right. I should clarify that the protests in Cuba are not exactly “anti-communist government protests” and are not necessarily aimed at overthrowing the government. The people in the streets were protesting lack of food, lack of electricity, and lack of vaccines. Some also called for more political openness. I didn’t hear anyone in Cuba calling for an overthrow of the government or for foreign intervention. I’m guessing that both you and I have participated in protests here in the United States. Participating in a protest doesn’t necessarily mean you want to overthrow the government—it means you want the government to make specific changes. There definitely exists a well-organized and well-funded far right Cuban political class, mostly but not exclusively in Miami, that is dedicated to overthrowing Cuba’s government. They are very vocal, control a big electorate, and have a strong voice in Congress and play a big role in Florida’s politics—and Florida is a swing state. When President Biden was campaigning, he promised to return to the Obama-era policies of political recognition and acceptance of Cuba’s right to determine its own future. Obama’s policies were extremely popular in Cuba. But since taking office, Biden has instead continued the Trump-era reversal of all of Obama’s political openings. The Miami Cuban lobby—which as I said, does not represent all Cubans in the US or even all Cubans in Miami—takes a far-right political stance. It’s led by Cuba’s former ruling elite who fled after the revolution, and continue to pretend they can restore the Cuba of pre-1959.
Ana Alakija– For how long do you think the Cuban regime will be able to survive the U.S. blockade? In light of the theory of Heine and Nietzsche on the “historic recurrence”, among other theories, do you believe that these protests can change the political roadmap of Cuban history? I mean: shifting from the current closed left-wing government toward a radical-backward far-right-wing regime similar to that of Fulgencio Batista in earlier times? This has occurred in other Latin American countries such as Brazil, which have seen their democracies dismantled and even in the U.S., a mass of voters didn’t vote in the presidential elections and Trump was elected president.
Aviva Chomsky – It’s very hard to predict the future. But the Cuban Revolution has survived the blockade for many decades, and I think it’s clear that the blockade has failed to make the Revolution collapse. It has definitely contributed to making daily life much more difficult for ordinary Cubans, and it should be ended. Cuba has changed a LOT over the 60 years of the Revolution. Right now the changes are going in the direction of reducing the state sector of the economy and increasing the private sector. This has been the direction since the early 1990s—that is, the past 30 years.
But, I’m a historian so I’m better at analyzing the past than I am at predicting the future!
Ana Alakija– Is there light at the end of the tunnel? How can the international community collaborate with Cuba in the search for a solution? What is most crucial at the moment in terms of help?
Aviva Chomsky – The international community overwhelmingly condemns the US embargo/blockade—every year it is resoundingly denounced at the United Nations, most recently with only one country joining the US in opposing the resolution condemning the blockade. But given the economic power of the United States in the world, it’s very difficult for other countries to actually challenge it in practice, because they don’t want to face the punishments the US imposes on those that break it. As you mentioned Cuba has developed its own vaccines, but they’ve been unable to obtain everything they need (like syringes) to actually carry out rapid mass vaccination. It is just grotesque to see rich countries boasting about ending Covid restrictions (“freedom day!”) while poor countries are undergoing the worst of the pandemic because the rich countries are hoarding vaccines and equipment. So I’d say Covid aid—and not just for Cuba, for the entire Third World—should be an absolute top priority.
Ana Alakija– Should Cuba have been included in the Biden administration’s vaccine distribution scheme for nearly 100 lower-income countries around the world?
Aviva Chomsky – Biden’s vaccine distribution proposals are too little, too late. The United States has been hoarding vaccines for months while the virus is spiralling out of control in the world’s poor countries. Cuba does not need vaccines; it has already developed its own vaccines. The first thing Cuba needs is an end to the blockade and the unending hostility and attempts to undermine its government on the part of the United States. Cuba has the capacity to produce vaccines, but US sanctions have blocked their access to syringes and other material needs for delivering vaccines and combating the virus. Instead of pretending to “help” Cuba, the Biden administration should just stop its campaign to destroy and undermine it.
Ana Alakija– Brazil may have its democracy restored in the next presidential elections, as did Peru recently. Chile is on the way to becoming an independent government through elections as well. What is the difference between social and revolutionary movements today as opposed to the past? Do you think that current literary and intellectual movements including dependency theory, liberation theology, magical realism, and testimonial literature can influence and even change the face of Latin America for a better future toward democracy?
Aviva Chomsky – Dependency theory, liberation theology, and testimonial literature as intellectual movements were clearly tied to Latin America’s late twentieth century liberation movements, like those in Central America and Chile in the 1970s and 80s. They have not disappeared, and certainly dependency theory has had a big influence on Latin America’s 21st century socialist movements. But they have evolved and been joined by new understandings of the neoliberal global economy that emerged in the 1990s, and the global environmental crisis. 21st century socialism is also strongly influenced by newer intellectual movements like buen vivir or sumak kawsay that look to Latin America’s indigenous and peasant movements as proponents of a different kind of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism that’s based on food sovereignty and environmental and climate justice.
Ana Alakija– How have race, gender, age, and ethnicity shaped current Latin American development regarding its history of colonialism and slavery? Would the new generation in Cuba and in the US lose commitment to the ideals of the 1959 revolution?
Aviva Chomsky -So we are actually talking about several generations of Cubans in the US at this point. Those that came in the 1960s, those that came in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and now 2020s. And then the children and grandchildren of these earlier generations. Over time Cuban immigrants have become more representative of Cuba’s population racially and socioeconomically, as compared to the very early migrants who were overwhelmingly white political and economic elites. Later generations also had the experience of living within the Cuban Revolution, and while they might be critical of many things that happened in Cuba, they had a much more realistic and nuanced view of events there. The generation that grew up during the economic crisis of the 1990s never experienced the heady days of revolutionary transformations of the 1960s nor the relative prosperity and stability of the 1970s; for them, the revolution simply meant economic scarcity. By the 2000s migrants had experienced both the crisis/scarcity and the growing inequality as tourism, foreign investment, and remittances started to create a new privileged class.
Race and class really overlapped in Cuba due to its history of colonialism and slavery. In 1959 Black Cubans were disproportionately poor and marginalized, and tended to benefit greatly from the revolution’s policies of desegregation and redistribution. Pre-revolutionary racial inequalities stubbornly reappeared during the reforms of the 1990s. Black Cubans were less likely to have relatives in Miami who had been there long enough to become economically successful and send remittances, and they were less able to gain beneficial access to the new foreign investment/tourism economy, and more likely to be exploited by it. The economic crisis also reversed many of the gains that women had made during the early decades when the revolution made significant changes in favor of gender equality.
Ana Alakija– Besides the several books you’ve written, you gifted Latin American readers with The Cuba Reader (Duke University Press, 2015) along with Barry Carr and Pamela Maria Smorkaloff as editors. When will Brazilians have access to this literature of more than seven hundred pages written for those who want to explore the history, culture, and the politics of this small island? The history of bravura and solidarity that you describe clearly seduced the minds of the younger generation of the 1960s and 1970s elsewhere.
Aviva Chomsky – A History of the Cuban Revolution was translated into Portuguese and published in Brazil. I don’t think that there are any plans to translate The Cuba Reader. I wish!
Ana Alakija is a columnist for CamaraEmPauta (US-Brazil)
This interview was originally published in CamaraEmPauta on July 21st 2021