Saturday, December 10, 2016

Fidel in Moscow, 1964

Excerpted from “Cuba: A Diary of the Revolution:  Conversations with Fidel, Raul, Che and Celia Sanchez”, by Deena Stryker

January 24, 1964 
About a hundred people gathered on wooden chairs in the TV studio to hear Fidel report on his trip to the Soviet Union. At the door, ministers in their best olive garb greeted each other, chatting animatedly in small groups. Fidel stopped for several minutes to talk with President Dorticos as people stood to greet him, then he walked between the two rows of chairs as they applauded, arriving on the podium like a horse uncertain of whether he wanted to run.
A few minutes later, an aide went through the public asking if anyone could lend Fidel some paper. A young American woman married to an Italian technician offered her pad. Seated at the table in the middle of the podium, Fidel began to write diligently, indifferent to the fact that thousands of listeners had been watching Russian shorts for half an hour, waiting for him to come on the air. The movie theaters and clubs were closed, thus every Cuban could and was expected to be at the appointment with the “Lider Massimo.” Fidel wrote for about five minutes, while the ministers took their seats in the front row. Che wore his usual blue beret with the lone commanders’ star, instead of two on the lapels. There was also an Eric Von Stroheim look-alike. I asked my neighbors who he was. It was General Bray, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and was an expert in guerrilla warfare. Fidel hired him in Mexico to train his troops for the 1956 invasion. Now, still dressed in olive green, he was retired from the Revolutionary Army.
As soon as Fidel began to speak, it became clear that he wasn’t his usual self. His face was shiny, and he often shook his head as if to dispel some discomfort. Either he hadn’t digested his dinner, or ten days of Russian food had got to him. He seemed desperate to be free of the camera. Halfway through the report he quoted a figure, then hesitated, obviously not knowing whether it was right, looking to one of the commanders seated among the public for confirmation. He spoke the same way as when he was huddled in the corner of a sofa, talking to one or two people. He would hesitate, look for the right words, doodle on the tablet, check to make sure he was following the plan. He’d stop in the middle of a sentence, letting it trail off, then land on the key word. There was no need for more except for the syntax. He’d scratch his head, taking the speaker as witness. Finally, during the last half hour, he seemed to revive, deciding he could speak a little longer. He’d already explained in detail the long-term sugar treaty with the Soviet Union and what it would mean for the Cuban economy. He didn’t say much about the Russian welcome, just a few short phrases, head down, in a soft voice. It might have looked as though he was trying to gloss over it, but perhaps some things are so obvious that to dwell upon them would betray their essence.
He began to talk about Panama, and obviously enjoyed making fun of the Americans. He said the situation was so clear that you could see right through American imperialism. You didn’t have to raise your voice; this was a dual you could fight from an armchair. The adversary was a mere skeleton. He said the Americans were trying to blame the Cubans for the events in Panama, but no one would believe that the Revolution, a child of five, could do more harm to a country like Panama, than the sixty year old grandaddy of American Imperialism. He said the counter-revolution was anachronistic, like a bathing suit from the 1880s.
“I remember yesterday, in the Tupolev, flying about fifty miles from the American coast. It was a clear morning, you could see Miami very well, and we were at the windows. Coming from a cold climate, so different from ours, we were eager to arrive in Cuba, to see the green, feel the sun and the warmth, and I was thinking about the people who had renounced all this and were condemned to live in an eternal winter, that of nature and of morality, because that place is a moral North Pole. I thought about them and about this whole business, and I thought: ‘You’re so wrong! But good luck in your misfortune.’” Then, adding: “That’s all I have to tell you,” and he rose and stepped down from the podium like a student who's been to the blackboard.
January 25 

I had dinner with Vallejo, who told me his version of the trip to Russia. It seems they played a lot, like kids on vacation, horsing around and competing with Nikita to see who was a better shot. “What vigor for a seventy-year old!” The Cubans were thrilled to discover the snow; they picnicked in the woods, with big fires. During Fidel’s first trip to Moscow, Nikita had pressed him to come in winter, and every so often, he would say to Vallejo: “What do you think? Should we go? It’ll be cold, won’t it? What do you say, shall we go?” And finally, they had enjoyed the cold, and Nikita had spent all his time with them. Last year, Fidel had said to me: “You’ll see what a fun guy Nikita is!” - as if he and I were common friends, bound to meet up some day. On the way back in the Tupolev, one of the commanders came out of the pilot’s cabin wearing a life jacket and yelling: “We’re going down!” There was a scramble to locate the life jackets under the seats.

The Big Eight

If you trace the figure eight you see that it goes first one way then the other, to ultimately return to its point of departure.  This seems to be what is happening to world politics as 2016 comes to a close.
Similarly to what happened a hundred years ago, socialism is unable to stand up to the world’s 1%.  In the 1930’s, the German 99% become so frustrated that it backed a populist who brought on World War II.  
At that time, Europe’s Jews were blamed for the misery of the working class. Today, Europe’s populists are trying to save their Christian communities from an overwhelming Muslim influence, while in the United States, they are accused of stoking hatred of Blacks and Latinos. Although outwardly, the two Atlantic communities appear very different, they are both facing the fact that Caucasians are an ever smaller minority on the world stage.
Today’s European populists are not carbon copies of Hitler and Mussolini, and whether or not they would turn out to be as disastrous, if they were elected remains to be seen. As for the US, during the past century, it has been in the world drivers’ seat. Now, a hundred years after entering World War I to make the world safe for ‘democracy’, it has gone from defeating fascism to combatting a broad swathe of ‘others’. 
During that time, similar to what happened after the first world war, the European left has been too weak and divided to gain lasting benefits for the working class. From the nineteen-sixties to roughly the year 2000, the European Union was a worker’s paradise, compared to conditions in the US. To remedy this dangerous state of affairs, Wall Street power was brought to bear on Europe’s leaders, who caved to neo-liberalism. 
Outgoing French President Francois Hollande is the poster child of this phenomenon: a dyed-in-the-wool socialist whose entire career was spent in the upper echelons of the party, he was no match for the European World Bank and the IMF. Since the left represents a significant share of France’s electorate, Hollande’s heinous support for US-led destruction of secular Syria, coming after his predecessor, Sarkozy’s Libyan initiative, was one of the last straws for his voters.
History never repeats itself exactly, and unlike the modern left, the twenty-first century right is different in significant ways from the traditional right which, in Europe, tacitly supported Hitler.  The Manifesto of the New European Right, drafted in the late nineties primarily by the French philosopher Alain de Benoist, is unknown in the US, whose Alt Right reflects a laborious recovery from a polity based on slavery, but very familiar to Vladimir Putin, which is one of the reasons why one European right-wing leader after another has recently come out in favor of better relations with Russia: aside from emphatically supporting traditional families the new right sees the neo-liberal cultural model as a major threat.
Religion has always featured prominently on the European right: Catholic France has long referred to itself as ‘the elder daughter of the Church’, while Germany, as well as most of the countries to its east, has been peacefully divided among Protestants and Catholics. In the me-era, however, Europeans deserted their churches, leaving religion as a hollowed out rear guard that merely refuses to bless modernity, as epitomized in same-sex marriage.
Concomitantly, as part of the neo-liberal onslaught, the European bureaucracy in Brussels, determined to regulate every aspect of daily life (and not just food labels), has moved ever further from the people who live those daily lives. Europeans currently have a lot of resentment — more, I believe, than do Americans — so that when France’s Marine Le Pen, or Viktor Orban in Hungary denounce the increasing numbers of refugees from the Muslim world, people listen, because that presence is in addition to a myriad of other problems that start with 10% unemployment for workers, and continues with increasing red-tape for small businesses, which Brussels appears unable - or unwilling — to remedy.
Italy, which has had 70 Prime Ministers since World War II has just rejected the parliamentary reform package proposed by its young and dynamic Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi in an attempt to achieve some measure of stability. It would have cut the upper house of parliament by two-thirds, with 95 members elected by Italy’s regional councils and five designated by the President. Although Renzi entertains excellent relations with Vladimir Putin, his voters decided the proposal to replace Italy’s free-for-all with a more authoritarian regime, would put too much power in his hands.
In a double-header Sunday, when Austrians went to the polls, the question qA whether the populist candidate tipped to win was a member of the New European Right, or a follower of the Neo-Nazi far right that has buttressed the coup government in neighboring Ukraine since 2014. Ultimately, the vote went to the Green candidate, but that only throws the question to France, which will elect a new president next May, with Marine Le Pen a serious contender.
What Le Pen, Orban and Farage are saying is that they would be better able to deal with their respective country’s problems without Brussels regulations and refugee quotas that do not take into account either each country’s ability to produce or to swap centuries of Christianity for multiculturalism, in which immigrants practicing an entirely different religion are expected to adopt the host country’s customs. The hopelessness of this enterprise is confirmed by the fact that historically, it has indeed been the other way around.  What is uncertain is how far they agree with New Right’s take on equality, that seeks to avoid strife:
The French New Right upholds the cause of peoples, because the right to difference is a principle which has significance only in terms of its generality. One is only justified in defending one’s difference from others if one is also able to defend the difference of others. This means, then, that the right to difference cannot be used to exclude others who are different. The French New Right upholds equally ethnic groups, languages, and regional cultures under the threat of extinction, as well as native religions. The French New Right supports peoples struggling against Western imperialism. 
As for the United States, economic priorities made us a nation with built-in inequality four centuries ago, and the Ku Klux Klan that supplies much of the Alt Right’s credo couldn’t be farther from Europe’s New Right philosophers. 
When Barack Obama was first elected, Europe was a relatively predictable place that tacitly recognized the US as the world hegemon. This year, Great Britain voted to leave the European Union, against the American president’s publicly stated wishes that confirm its role as the US Trojan Horse in Brussels. All but thumbing his nose at the lame duck president, Nigel Farage, the colorful leader of the UK Independence Party, (UKIP) made a victory tour that started with Donald Trump. 
The President-elect knows nothing about the European New Right, but he shares the Russian President’s worldview that cooperation is better than confrontation. Soon he will discover that Vladimir Putin’s domestic policies correspond to those of his religious voters: defense of the family, religion and tradition, which are also shared by Hoffer, Le Pen and the rest of the world’s right. Alas, it is unlikely that he could impose a New Right philosophy on the ‘Alt’, which stood for ‘old’ as in ‘staid’ before it became ‘alternative’ and ugly.



Europe’s Coming of Age

Yesterday the New York Times published a front page article on growing European opposition to the US hegemony that Washington thought was forever.  It has apparently taken the daily of record several months to realize that there is more to the growing new right movement than France’s Marine LePen or Germany’s Frauke Petry of ‘Alternative for Germany (AFD). In typical US media fashion, it says nothing about the philosophical underpinnings of the European New Right, leaving Americans to assume it is a carbon copy — or the inspiration for — the American Alt Right.  To appreciate the extent of the Times’ misleading, see my then read on.

As someone who lived in both Eastern and Western Europe for half a lifetime, I’d long ago given up hope that Europe would ever grow up. In a book published in the nineteen eighties, I urged France to take the lead in weaning Europe away from the US and its Cold War that, had it turned hot, would have been fought on European soil. Francois Mitterand, President at the time, didn’t even want to see Germany reunited, much less welcome the countries of Eastern Europe into the EU (at that time still the European Economic Community). It pains me to say that regarding these countries that had never managed to be part of the ‘West’, Mitterand was right - although for the wrong reasons. Since becoming part of the EU, Eastern Europe has led the rejection of Muslim immigrants, partly, perhaps, because it had been occupied by the Ottoman Turks for several centuries — proud to have been a bulwark between Islam and Western Europe.

The situation to which the Times article merely alludes, is now is the following: Hungary, a country whose origins hark back to vaguely defined areas of Asia, has led the erection of new walls against Muslims, initiating the turn of the entire ‘continent’ (actually the Eurasian peninsula), toward Russia, which under Vladimir Putin, is inventing a new type of nationalism that is more left than right. (  

A few months ago, after the US had twisted the EU’s arm to enact sanctions against Russia for ‘annexing Crimea’ and ‘invading Ukraine’, its monolithic adherence to ‘Atlanticism’ began to crack for the first time since World War II. French and Italian parliamentary delegations actually dared to visit Crimea, ascertaining that reattachment to Russia was indeed the will of the overwhelming majority, as expressed in a hastily organized referendum; but at the time, Europe’s ingrained obedience still dictated official policies, however much the sanctions hurt.

As Russia showed that it was a force to be reckoned with in Syria - and an ally that could be trusted by its legally elected president, Bashar al Assad, some rumblings could be heard off-the European stage: Europe should have its own army, and not be dependent on NATO (even as its military was obediently getting into formation for the drive up to Russia’s western borders). Finally, as 2016 draws to a close, the President of the European Commission, the highest body in the complicated EU edifice, Jean-Claude Junker (a former head of the tiny country of Luxembourg, where both French and German are spoken) has dared to say that Europe cannot survive without a strong relationship with Russia. As if on cue, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, has been making ever louder objections to Washington’s heavy handed policies in Europe, proclaiming loudly that the EU is no longer dependent on American foreign policy and should defend its own interests, moving ahead with its own army.  (BTW, the Times article neglects to link President-elect Trump’s attitude toward NATO to the movement developing in Europe.)

Interestingly, Junker’s latest words about Russia, claiming that it is not a ‘regional power’
as President Obama has called it condescendingly, contradict Vladimir Putin’s calls for a ‘multi-polar world whose poles would be the US, Russia, China and India, ending US hegemony. In today’s world, fraught with the danger of the second cold war turning hot, labels are no minor detail. In my 1989 book Une autre Europe, un autre Monde , which only a small academic house would publish, I pointed out, as the US was installing Pershing missiles in West Germany against the wishes of the European peace movement, that any war with the then Soviet Union would be fought on European — not American — soil. 

Twenty-five years later, although Europe is whole, that war could happen: not because Soviet tanks threaten to come rumbling across the European central plain, but because the US has positioned thousands of soldiers, tanks, and the latest smart weapons, precisely among Eastern European countries that have repeatedly served as the invasion corridor to Russia. NATO encourages the three tiny Baltic nations — about whom I will write in an upcoming post - to clamor relentlessly that they are in danger of being taken over again by their immense neighbor, while Russia, in reality, is busy strengthening its relations across the Eurasian ‘continent of giants’.  My book made the point that Europe had nothing to fear from the Soviet Union because it too, was among those several giants that constitute Eurasia, rather than the potential victim of one of them.

It has taken three decades for the Europeans to realize that their partnership with a giant across the ocean makes no sense, and start thinking about their role among equals. (A quick look at book titles about Russia and its president on shows that most of the titles appear to be pro-Russian, while such books are almost non-existent in the US. Nor are any of President Putin’s speeches published by US media.  ]

His end of year address to the Russian Federal Assembly can be found here in English: