By Josh Bergeron, Chicago
July 27, 2021
The Open Letter Left
Noam Chomsky, Gilbert Achcar, Paul Le Blanc, Suzi Weissman, Tithi Bhattacharya, Charlie Post, Robert Brenner, Gayatri Spivak, Alex Callinicos, Ashley Smith, Eric Toussaint, Marc Cooper, Etienne Balibar. These are a handful of the over 500 signatories on an open letter directed to the blockaded Cuban government on July 12th demanding “respect for the democratic rights of all Cuban people” and the release of “dissident Marxist” Frank García Hernández and his comrades from jail after the protests of July 11th.
These signatories are high-profile academic socialists in the US and Europe, featured prominently in the publication catalogue of Verso and Haymarket Books, or on the editorial boards of online journals like New Politics, Tempest, Spectre, Socialist Worker, and other ex-ISO-now-DSA, SEP, or UK SWP related outlets. Their work also frequently appears in more mainstream left outlets, such as Jacobin and the Nation. Their opinions on the left reach a wide audience and, in some cases, carry significant weight. Their petition circulation effort drew major support on social media in the days after the initial protests in Cuba, helping to stitch together a left-reinforcement to the edifice of the mainstream press, which described the event as an uprising by “political dissidents” against an “oppressive bureaucratic regime” in the pursuit of democracy and freedom of expression.
The definition of “freedom” pursued and the political orientation of the protesters in question differed between the tales spun by the New York Times and those of the Socialist Worker, but the story was the same: Repressive government arbitrarily detains political dissidents.
And while these signatories differ among themselves over their characterization of the Cuban government and its revolutionary tradition—ranging from the view that Cuba is “state capitalist” that harbors no revolutionary potential to the view that the once-revolutionary state has become an intransigent bureaucracy that is still preferable to the neoliberal model—all seem to find common ground with co-signer Gilbert Achcar’s warning about “the anti-imperialism of fools.” Achcar condemns those who oppose US imperialism no matter its target, because he believes this misses the “nuanced” view that US imperialism might be instrumentalized by popular movements in the pursuit of their own liberation.
Our “knee-jerk” rejection of the notion that any positive could ever come from the machinations of empire, in Achcar’s formulation, puts us in the camp of “defending murderous regimes.” Ostensibly, sharing co-signature real estate with the likes of Achcar would suggest that the other petitioners agree with him that anti-imperialism is not always a principled position and the events in Cuba are an example of a situation in which they do not want to end up on the side of “fools.” So without further investigation, they and 500 others signed an open letter condemning the Cuban government for its “repression and arbitrary detentions” of “critical communists.“
AN ALTERNATE VIEW FROM THE GROUND
On July 17th, a different narrative emerged from the mouths of Frank García Hernández’s Cuban colleagues themselves. The Comunistas collective Editorial Board, of which Frank is a founder, published an account of events that was much more balanced and far less negative in its appraisal of the Cuban government and its response to the protests than the narrative that was promoted by the petition’s signatories. Rather than a repressive response to an organic anti-state uprising, they portray the events of July 11th as unprecedented protests with a variety of origins and compositions, some legitimate and others manufactured.
In their account, the protests were composed of three flanks: a small group of US-funded counter-revolutionaries with massive reach and influence, a small group of anti-state intellectuals with legitimate grievances that were co-opted by the reactionaries, and a much larger group of “non-political” demonstrators demanding an end to austerity and shortages—a crisis which the Comunistas Editorial Board attributes, with some reservations, almost entirely to the exacerbating US blockade and global pandemic. In short, the most explicitly anti-government slogans and orientations were crafted and carried by the US-funded counter-revolutionaries, whereas the majority of the demonstrators lacked a cohesive political consciousness and simply wanted a reprieve from their very real material hardships. As the editorial board asserts, “The protests did not represent a majority. Most of the Cuban population continues to support the government.”
Notably, this closely mirrors the public address of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who stated, “The protests involve many revolutionary citizens who want an explanation for the current situation in the country, but are also contaminated by groups of opportunists who take advantage of the current crisis to undermine order and generate chaos.” And while Díaz-Canel expressed full faith in the Cuban people to engage in productive dialogue to resolve the present crises, his calls for revolutionaries to take to the streets to defend the nation against opportunistic attacks and US-financed subversion campaigns was met with scorn from the self-described “anti-campist” or “third campist” Western left.
For these Western left critics of the Cuban state, Díaz-Canel’s calls for popular defense of national sovereignty represented a cynical demand by the Cuban state for its supporters to engage in vigilante violence against dissidents like García Hernández. The fact that García Hernández’s comrades—who engage in frequent criticism of the Cuban government themselves—did not subscribe to this narrative of events nevertheless did not discourage the petitioners from propagating the perspective that Frank’s arrest was the smoking gun evidence of Cuba’s authoritarian round up of “critical communists.”
ARBITRARY DETENTION OR SAFEGUARDING THE REVOLUTION?
No such round-up took place. The arrests that did occur followed outbreaks of violence and vandalism after mostly peaceful and unharassed protests in a number of cities, which the Comunistas collective describes as: “Violent groups carried out acts of vandalism, attacking communist militants and government supporters with sticks and stones.” The Cuban police and defenders of the revolution engaged in kind. In other words, according to this collective of Cuban critics of the state, the violence that resulted in scattered arrests were largely carried out by counter-revolutionary forces against government supporters and other communist partisans. This is a far cry from the narratives emerging out of the US corporate media and academic left circles, which characterized the violence as a one-sided repressive crackdown by an intransigent bureaucratic “regime” and its paid supporters against dissidents striving for freedom and plenty.
Nevertheless, Frank García Hernández and some others were arrested—the catalyst for the petition. Frank’s comrades at the Comunistas collective address this too. It turns out, Frank was not arrested for being a “dissident” participant in the protests. In fact, Frank is a member of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) who merely watched but did not partake in the protests, and was arrested by “confusion” as he put it. Frank and another intellectual named in the petition, LGBTQ activist Maykel González Vivero, who did participate in the protests, were picked up after a nearby act of counter-revolutionary violence resulted in injuries and vandalism late in the night. By Frank’s own admission, they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The next day they easily proved their innocence and were released without incident. According to his colleagues at Comunistas collective, “During his little more than 24 hours of detention, Frank affirms that he did not receive physical abuse, nor any type of torture.” No other person associated with the publication was arrested or targeted.
But here a key detail emerges. Frank’s release actually preceded the publication of the open letter demanding his release by his “comrades” in the US and Europe. And while Comunistas collective maintained their own criticisms of the Cuban government, their characterization of the genesis of the protests, the response of the government to the protests, and the appraisal of the revolutionary process in general, differ significantly from the ostensibly “progressive” critics of the Cuban government in the US and Europe who organized the petition to release their friend who had in fact already been released. Again, these significant discrepancies have not been addressed by any of the prominent signatories and circulators of the petition.
In fact, on July 17th, the day that the Comunistas blog collective published their retrospective of the protests and arrests, some of the US-based petition endorsers republished the original petition in Tempest Magazine without mention of any of the above critical divergences from on-the-ground reports. Further, the editorial board of Tempest broadened the appeal to a call for the release of “all detainees in Cuba.” Even the Comunistas collective demanded only the release of the detainees “as long as they have not committed actions that have threatened the lives of other people.”
In the week that followed the July 11th protests, the Open Letter Left were confronted with an excess of evidence and investigative research documenting the existence of US CIA front subversion projects, tens of millions of dollars funnelled into counter-revolutionary activities, coup-propagating social media bot farms, and other examples of hybrid warfare that served as the backdrop of the unrest. And yet, they maintained their political line that all arrests were arbitrary and illegitimate. One signatory even asserted that the duty of the left in the West is to support all such protests, “whatever people’s politics involved in these struggles– against whatever states and ruling classes, even those who falsely claim the mantle of ‘socialism.’” This is, of course, a tacit endorsement of the reactionary tail that wags the dog of these astroturfed “color revolutions,” disguised as they are as organic movements of workers and oppressed peoples.
WHITHER OPPOSITION TO EMPIRE
Taken in isolation, a charitable reading could view signing such an open letter as a political slip-up brewed in the fog of war that is a developing foreign event. But for many of the most prominent left signatories, this was the only public statement or call to action made regarding the unprecedented events in Cuba. Too few matched their outrage of the arrests with equal outrage over the ongoing illegal blockade of the island by the US, and even fewer (close to none) circulated open letters or petitions calling for anti-imperialist solidarity with Cuban sovereignty against the now well-documented imperial provocations that played an important role in the outbreak and international media coverage of the protests in Cuba. Even after statements of support for the gains of the Cuban revolution came from all corners of the world, demanding an end to the illegal blockade and hybrid warfare, the signatories spared little attention for the very real threat of escalating imperialist intervention.
When the mayor of Miami called on the US government to bomb Havana, none of the open letter endorsers change their tune. None came to the defence of Black Lives Matter after the organization’s condemnation of the US blockade brought them heavy backlash.
At most, as in the petition itself, the blockade and imperial provocations were mentioned as an almost unrelated preamble to the real point, despite their absolute centrality. No open letter was signed and circulated by this group of Western academic leftists demanding an end to the blockade after the 29th consecutive UN General Assembly majority vote to end the economic siege in June, and neither was there an effort on their part to circulate the campaign to send millions of much-needed syringes to the island to help put Cuban-made COVID vaccines into Cuban arms. When President Joe Biden announced that he would not change course on Cuba and called the nation a “failed state” without reference to the blockade, they issued no scathing open letter. They did not collectively come to the defence of a patriotic Cuban woman who was censored on Twitter after she demanded that the UN Human Rights Council stop using her image as the symbol for the anti-government protesters, when in reality she was in the streets of Cuba defending her revolution. Similarly, many signatories silence on the ongoing violent US-backed state repression of a months-long popular uprising in Colombia, or the years-long popular uprising in Haiti, grew more pronounced with the circulation of this petition. Their priorities were laid bare.
When confronted on social media, those that disagreed were accused of supporting “repression” and “ignoring voices on the ground.” No intellectually honest reference was made to the voices on the ground of the 100,000 Cubans who took to the streets of Havana in defence of their revolution. No mea culpas were issued after even Reuters was forced to admit that the media had fallen for lies and manipulations about the protests and the repression that ostensibly followed. Their perception of events, one must assume, remains the same as it was on July 12th. Their own political orthodoxy, it seems, left little room for “dissident Marxists” engaging them in criticism among comrades.
On July 22nd, US President Joe Biden announced a new round of sanctions on Cuba, which he promised were “just the beginning.” The Biden administration’s intransigence—and its cynical hypocrisy in denouncing “mass detentions and sham trials” in Cuba that presumably does not describe the US-run torture camp known as Guantanamo Bay—saw a rapidly organized response in the pages of the New York Times on July 23rd. In a full-page advert, the People’s Forum, Code Pink, the Answer Coalition, and over 400 “former heads of state, politicians, intellectuals, scientists, members of the clergy, artists, musicians and activists from across the globe,” issued an open letter to the US government demanding the end to its economic warfare against the Cuban people. Here is an example of the kind of public statement with prominent endorsers that places the responsibility for human rights abuses at the feet of US imperialism, and that expresses solidarity with the working and oppressed people of the globe who resist empire. A rare few signatories of the July 12th petition directed against the Cuban government did sign the “Let Cuba Live” letter in the NYT, including Noam Chomsky. One can only wonder what the political priorities are of those who condemn the imperialism of their own government only after first making demands and criticisms upon the targets of that imperialism.
BEWARE THE “ANTI-ANTI-IMPERIALIST LEFT”
No matter the developments of the last two weeks, the July 12th petition denouncing the Cuban government has not been renounced by any of its signatories. File this away as one more example of Western academic socialists and progressives being captured by the ideological manipulations of US State Department propaganda and their own internalized colonial chauvinism toward revolutionary projects in the Global South. Other targets of these petitions and open letters in recent years and months have been Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Notably, all are targets of ongoing and well-documented subversion operations, economic sanctions, and electoral interference by the United States, something that is rarely remarked upon by the signatories.
The outraged open letter from prominent leftist intellectuals making demands upon anti-imperialist nations and other targets of Western imperialism is one of the most insidious and effective propaganda efforts by non-state actors in the imperial core, as it serves to confuse and disorient the broader left within the belly of the beast, weakening our capacity to collectively undermine and resist the US empire, thus relegating the burden of the struggle against imperialism to the revolutionary peoples of the Global South alone. This is a dereliction of our revolutionary duties.
As progressives and revolutionaries living within the empire, we must express an unqualified and unwavering solidarity with Cuba and all targets of US imperialism, and we must organize to put an end to US aggression, political interference, and economic strangulation so that Cuba and all working and oppressed peoples of the world can breathe.