Cuba, Hip Hop and American Imperialism

When Charles Post and other independent Marxists teamed up with ex-ISOers to launch Spectre Journal, it struck me as a welcome left alternative to Jacobin. Although I am a subscriber and have urged others to subscribe, I am deeply troubled by a recent article by Sam Farber that exploits the San Isidro controversy as part of his decades-long crusade against the Cuban government.

On November 9, 2020, Cuban rapper Denis Solis was arrested for “contempt” in the San Isidro neighborhood where artists and musicians had begun using social media to protest attacks on their right to free expression. The New York Times article on the arrest links to a Facebook video made by Solis while a cop was in his apartment. Lacking subtitles, it is not easy to make sense of the confrontation. I can assure you that Solis calls the cop a maricon, the Spanish equivalent of “faggot”. I also invite you to pay special attention to what Solis says at 3:10 into the video, namely his support for Donald Trump. Even the Times found this impossible to ignore:

In a country hammered by U.S. sanctions, the politics of some in the group have raised eyebrows. Mr. Solís is a die-hard Trump supporter: In the video he posted of his arrest, he screamed: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.”

Each time Cuba is denounced as an enemy of human rights, Farber joins Human Rights Watch, the liberal media, and the Cuban counter-revolutionary movement in Miami in singling out Cuba as the most undemocratic country in the Western Hemisphere. In the Spectre article titled “The Criminalization of Opposition Politics in Cuba: AGAINST THE SOVIET MODEL” (hysterical upper case in the original), Farber argues that even Fulgencio Batista was more democratic than the current government. He made sure that political prisoners had an autonomy that common criminals did not. So did the Czar.

Additionally, Faber says Batista respected the right to political asylum, writing that “Batista’s dictatorship, for example, respected the political asylum that hundreds of Cubans opposed to the dictatorship claimed, in order to save their lives, by taking refuge in many of the Latin American embassies in Havana.” In the next sentence, he admits that Batista did once order his goons to raid the Haitian Embassy on October 29, 1956 to kill all his political opponents who had taken refuge there. But as Joe E. Brown said in the closing moments of “Some Like it Hot,” nobody’s perfect.

Unlike others like Marco Rubio who have taken up the cause of the San Isidro Movement, Farber strikes the self-flattering pose of a “socialism from below” advocate who only seeks to see a total transformation of Cuban society in keeping with Marxist ideals. I use the word ideals advisedly since there is something Platonic about the underlying philosophy of “socialism from below”, an ideology that is rooted in Max Shachtman and Tony Cliff’s insistence that a system is either/or. Either a socialist paradise or a bureaucratic collectivist/state capitalist nightmare. When Leon Trotsky wrote “The Revolution Betrayed,” he was careful to distance himself from facile answers to the question of whether the USSR was socialist or not. He wrote:

To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible. A more complete definition will of necessity be complicated and ponderous.

Missing entirely from Farber’s article is consideration of the military and economic conditions that have forced Cuba to maintain what is admittedly a garrison state. Ever since 1960, Cuba has suffered from both economic embargo and open warfare. In probably the most egregious violation of the country’s sovereignty, a former CIA agent named Luis Posada Carriles planted a bomb on a Cuban airliner that resulted in the death of all 73 people on board. In 2005, Posada was picked up in Texas for being in the USA illegally. Lacking extradition rights, Cuba relied on Venezuela to have him brought to justice there, especially since Posada was a naturalized Venezuelan citizen. Ultimately, a US immigration judge ruled that Posada could not be deported because he faced the threat of torture in Venezuela.

When al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked three American airlines in 2001, the CIA moved heaven and earth to make sure justice was served, even if justice meant torture, extraordinary rendition, and invasions that cost the lives of millions of innocent people. However, if you judge Cuba and the USA side-by-side, doesn’t the USA come out ahead since it keeps criminal and political prisoners apart just like Batista? If that is a litmus test to see how close a country comes to a “socialism from below” advocate’s ideal, maybe it is time to stop thinking in Platonic terms.

Given the implacable hostility of the USA toward Cuba and its ability to punish the country at will for its postcapitalist system, it has to be judged not by eternal principles about democratic rights but on the basis of the existing class relations. Given its proximity to the USA and its reliance on uncertain allies in Russia and China, Cuba has the most open and democratic norms given the perils it faces. In 2016, these perils mounted after Donald J. Trump became president.

As an avowed enemy of everything that Obama stood for, Trump sought to replace the thaw between Cuba and the USA with a new deep freeze. In April 2019, Trump allowed U.S. citizens to sue for properties that were confiscated by Fidel Castro in 1959, which are now valued at $8 billion. Furthermore, Cuba has become collateral damage as a result of Trump’s economic pressure on Venezuela. Sanctions against Venezuelan oil sales globally have meant fewer subsidies to Cuba. Finally, in a crushing blow delivered in the final days of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Pompeo has placed Cuba on its list of terrorist nations, a move that has even less factual support than Trump’s claim that the election was rigged.

As a result of Pompeo’s action, travel from the U.S. to Cuba will be barred. Also barred is the sending of remittances to Cuba from relatives in the United States, an important source of income for the impoverished island. Since tourism has been badly hurt because of the pandemic, Cuba’s pain is deeper than at any time in recent years. On September 20, 2020, the NY Times reported on the gravity of the situation:

It was a lucky day for the unemployed tourism guide in Havana.

The line to get into the government-run supermarket, which can mean a wait of eight or 10 hours, was short, just two hours long. And better yet, the guide, Rainer Companioni Sánchez, scored toothpaste — a rare find — and splurged $3 on canned meat.

“It’s the first time we have seen toothpaste in a long time,” he said, sharing the victory with his girlfriend. “The meat in that can is very, very expensive, but we each bought one simply because sometimes in an emergency there is no meat anywhere.”

For many Cubans, the availability of health care, free education and other social benefits do not compensate for the daily misery of life under a de facto siege. Why wouldn’t many Cubans blame socialism for their suffering? It might even be possible that if Cuba adopted democratic norms, including multi-party elections, the people would vote for any party promising to abolish socialism and return to the glory days of the Batista epoch when the money flowed—at least in Havana.

Nicaragua tried to placate the USA by permitting free and fair elections in the late 1980s but to no avail. Reagan was determined to get rid of the Sandinistas through a combination of contra terror and huge payoffs to the domestic opposition. After years of war and economic deprivation, the people cried uncle and the socialist experiment ended. While Daniel Ortega returned to power later on, his government had little to do with the one that inspired millions in the 1980s, including many Americans like me.

While Cuba advised Nicaragua to avoid the type of garrison state that it created in the early 60s, one suspects that Reagan’s triumph made Cuba wary of the kind of freedom that existed in Nicaragua in the 1980s. That freedom meant La Prensa and rightwing politicians feeding at the trough of the NED. With a Trojan Horse of counter-revolutionaries both armed and unarmed, it was impossible for the FSLN to stay the course.

For the low-down on how American money flows through the network of groups like the San Isidro Movement, I strongly recommend Tracey Eaton’s Cuba Money Project blog (http://cubamoneyproject.com/). Like Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” Eaton, the former Havana bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, became good at following the money. In a December 9, 2020 post titled “The democracy business in Cuba is bustling,” Eaton lists groups that have benefited from $67 million in USAID funding. He surmises that the San Isidro Movement has probably gotten its hands on some of it despite the difficulty of tracing money, a task as difficult as tracing the billions that end up in offshore tax shelters in the islands near Cuba.

He also lists 40 organizations that have received funding from the NED, including a whole slew that have “freedom” in their name. If you go to the NED’s page on Cuba, you can see a list of all the groups that it has funded, including one that is described as “Empowering Cuban Hip-Hop Artists as Leaders in Society.” More than a million dollars have been shelled out to groups just like the San Isidro Movement. Is it any surprise that when times are so desperate in Cuba that a hip-hop artist like Denis Solis, whose ideas were echoed in the Capitol building invasion, would want to hook up with the NED?

Since hip-hop is notoriously anti-authoritarian, it would be an ideal candidate for USAID or NED funding. In 2014, word got out about the American effort to recruit a hip-hop group willing to sell out its country’s independence for cold cash. Given gangsta rap’s lust for money, it not surprising that some Cuban artists would be open to such a sordid arrangement as The Guardian reported:

At first, the hip-hop operation was run in Cuba by Serbian contractor Rajko Bozic. His project was inspired by the protest concerts of the student movement that helped undermine former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Contractors would recruit scores of Cuban musicians for projects disguised as cultural initiatives but really aimed at boosting their visibility and stoking a movement of fans to challenge the government.

Bozic focused much of his efforts on Los Aldeanos, a hip-hop group frustrated by official pressure and widely respected by Cuban youth for its hard-hitting lyrics.

“People marching blind, you have no credibility,” the group rapped in Long Live Free Cuba!. ‘’Go and tell the captain this ship’s sinking rapidly.”

Creative used a Panama front company and a bank in Lichtenstein to hide the money trail from Cuba, where thousands of dollars went to fund a TV programne starring Los Aldeanos. It was distributed on DVDs to circumvent Cuba’s censors.

This is par for the course when you have a country like the USA that occupied Cuba three times between 1898 and 1922, and still has the audacity to retain its base on Guantanamo Bay. The USA came to the brink of nuclear holocaust in 1962 because it would not permit Cuba to defend itself against another invasion. For the better part of 60 years, it has carried out espionage in Cuba, starved the country economically, forced its propaganda on the nation by  bombarding it with leaflets, attempted 638 assassinations on Fidel Castro, and—worst of all—prevented Americans from visiting an island carrying out a socialist experiment. With the growing disgust with American capitalism, it is no wonder that Cuba represents the threat of an alternative. One can only be disappointed by the Spectre Journal’s failure to see the big picture.

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