Cuba Part II – The revolution is just a Che t-shirt away

(May 25th, 2018)

In episode #61 of this podcast, the editorial covered some of the current happenings in Cuba, like the change of power and the informal economy. In this editorial we aim to take another look at Cuba, like some brief anarchist history, and what freedom of expression looks like there through the music and bits of culture.

First, let’s dig into some Cuban anarchist history. Back in the days of Emma Goldman, around the late 1880s and 90s, the famous Cuban writer and revolutionary José Martí moved to New York City for a while and wrote about the NYC anarchists. Martí was not a big fan, but still wrote some intriguing commentary like how the anarchists would gather in the streets every Sunday morning to shoot their guns, while everyone else was at church. Moving along some years, we have Frank Fernández who wrote the authoritative book “Cuban Anarchism: The History of a Movement” detailing anarchism on the island. Then in 1959, as everyone knows - things change with the Cuban Revolution lead by Fidel Castro and sidekick Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was a Stalinist, executioner, and bureaucrat.

In “Saint Che: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Heroic Guerilla, Ernesto Che Guevara” by Larry Gambone they write that:

Saint “Che is implicated in the destruction of Cuban anarcho-syndicalism, (and Trotskyism as well). Cuba in the 1950’s was the scene of the last of the great Latin American syndicalist movements. Libertarians controlled many trade unions and were an important anti-Batista force. The anarchists had survived the Machado and Batista dictatorships but did not survive two years of Castroism. By 1962 the movement was down to 20 or 30 members, hundreds of others having fled into exile, imprisoned or executed. For anyone still harboring any illusions about Che’s alleged libertarianism, the following quote should put this to rest: “Individualism...must disappear in Cuba...[it] should be the proper utilization of the whole individual for the absolute benefit of the community.” Such an opinion on the individual was about as far removed from libertarianism as you could possibly get.”

2018 in Cuba looks a lot different than the 1960s in Cuba. Today, we have small steps being taken like the recent opening of an anarchist library and social space there, funded by libertarians and anarchists around the world. Overall though, the government continues to repress and punish dissent and public criticism on the island. The 2018 report by Human Rights Watch details some of the tactics employed by the government, including beatings, public shaming, travel restrictions, and termination of employment. The prisons are overcrowded and prisoners often work long days, including scores of political prisoners being held there. Those who criticize the government or engage in hunger strikes and other forms of protest often endure extended solitary confinement, beatings, restrictions on family visits, and have been denied medical care. In terms of work, Cuba continues to violate conventions established specifically regarding the freedom of association, collective bargaining, protection of wages, and prohibitions on forced labor. While the law technically allows the formation of independent unions, in practice Cuba only permits one confederation of state-controlled unions, the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba. One can only imagine what the future holds for this library and social space in Cuba, but is exciting to see.

Of note, the music scenes of hip-hop and punk rock music in Cuba are intriguing to look at when considering freedom of expression. Many of the popular artists push the boundaries of what can be said without getting yourself in trouble, although there are examples it happening. Porno para Ricardo was one such punk rock group that made the headlines for causing a stir. The group gets it’s name for the Cuban law outlawing pornography on the island and one famous connoisseur named Richard, who kept getting in trouble for having porn. Cuban hip hop also has a strong following and artists who have tested the prohibitions on free speech, directly talking about the difficult situation of living there. Over the years, especially more recently it seems that many of these artists have left the island.

Among, what some may call the Cuban counter-culture, you have one such group termed “los freakies” by the police and others. Think of it as the youth, the skater kids, punk rock, hip hop and those interested in alternative ideas. Back when I was on the island, one could visit the streets of 23 & G, also known as the Park of the Rock ‘n Rollers on the weekend nights and mingle with the large gathering of “los freakies” sprawled out down the street and eventually meeting the ocean at the Malecon, or walk-way along the ocean. Perhaps coming to anarchism in Cuba is much more rank and file, but the counter-cultures also seems very strong and full of energy. Like all things, it’s complex and not so easy to simply put into categories, as mentioned earlier, conversations at the Universities can be limited, but then again at the same time I knew an anarchist professor from Russia who would give talks to the students there. Maybe it’s a bit of who you are and how you say it.

Cuba is in a unique situation right now, hopefully these past two editorials have shone a little bit of light on a place often mysterious to anarchists in North America. Much more waits to be said, until then – cya later asere.

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