Why the Cubans Acted Now

Against the Current, No. 105, July/August 2003

Joaquín Bustelo

SOME ON THE left have asked why the Cuban government acted as it did in the recent arrests and trials. The reason for taking these actions now is, quite clearly, I believe, because of the change in U.S. policy and the nature of the Bush regime.

Take Iraq, for example — which Bush just did, no matter what world public opinion had to say about it.

It is not that the Cuban leadership is insensitive to the need for a broad political movement in defense of Cuba, but that isn’t their only concern.

They wanted to communicate to Washington that Cuba will resist. I think that was the overriding goal. The timing was determined by Washington, which with the new head of the interests section launched a whole series of provocations. I think Bush & Co. wanted to goad Cuba into either throwing out U.S. diplomats, canceling the immigration accords, or both. But the Cubans hit back instead by going after those “dissidents” who had placed themselves under Washington’s tutelage and at its (paid, it should be noted) service.

They did it because of the character of the Bush Administration. It is relatively easy for this unelected, ultrarightist gang to talk itself into fantasies that U.S. invaders would be welcomed as liberators in Havana, that the Cuban masses are seething with the desire to overthrow the revolution, restore capitalism and so on.

The message of this “wave of repression” is to the American rulers: You’ve got nothing in Cuba.

No, these “dissidents,” in and of themselves, represented no independent threat to Cuba. But they allowed themselves to become an integral part of the U.S. war that threatens Cuba’s very existence.

You cannot separate these “dissidents,” operating as they were from the U.S. embassy, from the chief diplomat’s palatial home, paid for by money from the U.S. government, publishing on web sites paid for by U.S. government money, coordinated by U.S. government officials, from other aspects of the U.S. war against Cuba.

Certainly the United States does not. Support for the so-called dissidents, civil society, “democratic transition” and all that is central to the annexationist Helms-Burton law. The United States spends huge amounts of money on this, officially appropriated by Congress. The State Department and many other U.S. agencies have an intense focus on Cuba.

Whether or not this particular aspect of the American campaign against Cuba was effective in terms of creating an opposition within the island is beside the point. There can be no question but that the decades-long war has been effective, not in reversing the revolution but in doing tens of billions of dollars in damage to the Cuban economy and costing many lives.

Under this kind of attack, Cuba has a right to defend itself, including by jailing those who consciously chose to violate Cuban law by placing themselves at the service of an imperialist power that is the enemy, not just of Fidel or this government, but of the Cuban nation.

Further, although I have not seen this stated anywhere, I believe the Cuban leadership also wanted to limit Washington’s capacity to stage some sort of incident or provocation that could serve as a pretext for a military invasion, or other stepped-up attacks, by taking out of action those groups and individuals within Cuba that had been collaborating with the U.S. government and therefore could have been used to mount an incident.

What Cuba’s Laws Say

It is a crime in Cuba to collaborate with or support the hostile policy of the U.S. government against the island. There is no freedom in Cuba to support the blockade, or collaborate with American authorities in carrying it out, and the same is true of other aspects of the hostile U.S. policy.

Now, some of these people were involved in things which I believe all revolutionary socialists would agree are crimes for which people may be legitimately punished. Providing information to the U.S. authorities on the companies that are doing business with Cuba, so that they can be targeted for reprisals, and Cuba’s trade opportunities narrowed, falls into this category.

But we should be clear. This wasn’t the only form of support to the hostile U.S. policy which is illegal and which we must assume was punished.

This law also applies to pro-imperialist propaganda, etc., and it is undoubtedly a violation of formal democracy, freedom of the press, association and so on. There is no sense in denying it. We are not speaking of groups made up exclusively of “spies and saboteurs” as these terms are generally understood.

If American Imperialism were willing to restrict its struggle against the revolution to a purely ideological one, and lift the travel ban, lift the blockade, withdraw the imperialist garrison (on Guantanamo) which to this day remains illegally on Cuban soil, end the use of immigration as a weapon, etc. etc. etc., Cuban leaders have said that the revolution would restrict its defense also strictly to the ideological sphere, and re-examine these restrictions. But that is not the case.

The fact that these people wrote those things in the pay, essentially, of the U.S. government makes it easier to accept that just writing (lying) articles giving political support to the U.S. war against Cuba should be punished.

However, the essential political point is this: I believe under the circumstances that Cuba faces, it cannot be reasonably argued that the revolutionary government has no right to take measures that curtail certain formal democratic rights, when in practice the “freedom of speech,” “freedom of the press” and “freedom of association” that is being defended translates into the right to give support to and collaborate with American imperialism in trying to subjugate the Cuban nation once again.

This is because a much greater democratic principle is at stake. That is the right of the Cuban people to self-determination, and the right of the majority of the Cuban nation to have the kind of socio-economic regime they want. That is the right to control their own destiny. To have a country at all.

An American Precedent

That’s the right which is under attack from American imperialism, as it has been for more than four decades.

This is not an argument about how revolutionary or socialist Cuba is. I make this case on the basis of the “bourgeois-democratic” right of oppressed nations to self-determination.

The idea that restrictions on formal democracy can be justified on strictly democratic grounds may strike some socialists as outrageous. But it is the long-standing position of the Marxist movement, and I believe of the most consistent democrats.

Perhaps the clearest precedent and illustration comes from the U.S. civil war. Journalists, newspaper editors and politicians in the North were “free” to express support for the slaveowners’ rebellion only if they were willing to pay with “arbitrary” arrest and internment for the duration (if they were lucky, and if they were unlucky military courts-martial that could, and did, sentence people to death for expressing support to the rebels).

Lincoln suspended habeas corpus to make sure the detentions, trials and executions would stick. That was one of the reasons Marx praised him as “Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class,” upon his reelection.

And I do not know of any contemporary of Marx whom he described in the kinds of glowing terms that Marx used in the Address of the International to President Johnson upon Lincoln’s assassination: “he was . . . one of the rare men who succeed in becoming great, without ceasing to be good. Such, indeed, was the modesty of this great and good man, that the world only discovered him a hero after he had fallen a martyr.”

Yet Lincoln’s troops arrested tons of people in the North for crimes like “Publicly expressing . . . sympathies for those in arms against the Government of the United States, declaring disloyal sentiments and opinions, with the object and purpose of weakening the power of the Government in its effort to suppress the unlawful rebellion.”

One figure I’ve seen is 13,000. That’s copperhead Democrats in the North, including mayors, congressmen, politicians, editors, journalists and other prominent figures. It was aimed specifically at neutralizing, gagging the minority in the North that did not support the Republican war policy.

How can this be justified? Because much greater democratic principles were at stake, preservation of the Union and the elimination of slavery.

If Lincoln had a right to do that in the life and death struggle for the survival of the Union against the slaveowners’ rebellion, then Cuba has a right to do what it has done in the life-and-death struggle for the existence of the Cuban nation against American imperialism.

I agree with Marx on Lincoln. I’m a Lincolnista as well as a Fidelista.

Presenting the Facts

As to the formalities and legalities, which even in these cases are very important, Cuban authorities have said they have been scrupulous in following established law, due process and all the rest of it. Cuba’s foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque gave a very detailed presentation at a press conference going over all these things. I haven’t seen any challenge to those statements.

I’m quoting below a few excerpts from Perez Roque’s statements. The translation of the entire press conference, from which this is excerpted, can be found here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CubaNews/files/

“Lastly, with regard to this matter, I want to say that the prosecutors have used the following articles of Cuban legislation, of laws previously existing in Cuba. . . .

“They have applied Article 91 of the Cuban Penal Code, Law 62 of 1987, which came, in turn, from the Spanish Penal Code. This article has been a part of the Cuban penal law since Cuba was a colony of Spain, and it is almost exactly repeated in the U.S. Penal Code.

“It provides that: ‘Actions against the independence or territorial integrity of the State. He who executes an action in the interest of a foreign state with the purpose of harming the independence of the Cuban state or the integrity of its territory shall incur a sentence of 10 to 20 years of deprivation of liberty or death …’

“We consider, and the prosecutors consider, and the people of Cuba consider that someone who receives money from a foreign power, supports the blockade, helps to spread biased information to justify the blockade; commits actions in service of a foreign power; anyone who provides information to facilitate the application of the Helms-Burton Act is committing actions in the service of a foreign power, and therefore, our laws should serve us to defend ourselves from such conduct….

“Additionally, they have applied several articles of Law No. 88 on the Protection of National Independence and the Economy of Cuba, the Cuban antidote to the Helms-Burton Act. And Cuba was not the only state that proclaimed that it was a crime in its territory to collaborate with the Helms-Burton Act, or to obey it ….

“I have here the articles of Law No. 88 on the Protection of National Independence and the Economy:

“Article 5.1. ‘He who seeks out information to be used in the application of the Helms-Burton Act, the blockade and the economic war against our people, aimed at disrupting internal order, destabilizing the country and liquidating the socialist state and the independence of Cuba, shall incur a sanction of deprivation of liberty.’

“Article 6.1. ‘He who gathers, reproduces, disseminates subversive material from the government of the United States of America, its agencies, representative bodies, officials or any foreign entity to support the objectives of the Helms-Burton Act, the blockade and the war, shall incur . . .’

“It has been said that they are in jail because they had Mark Twain books in their homes, because they had The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or the Bible. These accusations offend us and insult the truth.

“Why would it not be a crime in Cuba to spread propaganda from the government of the United States, manuals for internal subversion, texts that speak in favor of maintaining the blockade against Cuba? Why should we not be able to defend ourselves from the longest blockade in history?

“Why? Our country has the right, by virtue of the Charter of the United Nations, to defend its right to self-determination, to choose its own system, and it has the authority for its laws to contemplate as crimes any conduct or actions conducive to an aggression against our country, that are financed from abroad, and are therefore a crime.

“Article 7. ‘He who, with the goal of achieving the objectives of the Helms-Burton Act’ — which, as we have seen, provides money for financing subversion — ‘supports the blockade and the economic war, collaborates by any means with foreign radio or television stations, newspapers, magazines or any other media …’

“And we are not referring here to foreign correspondents, the law is very clear about this, but we know that these are supposed journalists who are financed and who are told what they have to write, who demand of the European Union that Cuba not be accepted in the Cotonou Agreement, as if this were that important for Cuba, as if they could pressure Cuba, which has withstood more than 40 years
of blockade without bending down before this or that measure.

“These are the ones who have declared it, and written it; those who have asked for a condemnation of Cuba in the Commission on Human Rights, which is what is used to justify the blockade. These who have asked for the blockade to be maintained, because they say that ‘conditions are not yet ripe.’

“The same who, in addition, receive money to do this, and live well off of it  …

“So. The prosecutors have applied these articles of the Law on the Protection of National Independence and the Economy of Cuba, Law No. 88, and the Cuban Penal Code.”

Legitimate Defense of Sovereignty

I think the response should be to support Cuba’s right as a nation to defend itself against imperialist attack in general, and by curtailing the right of people in Cuba to act in concert with the aggressor in support of its campaigns against the Cuban nation in particular.

I do not think it can be seriously argued that Cuba is not under attack, and has been for four and a half decades. And the judgment of the Cuban leadership that today the country faces a greater danger than at any time since the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Missile Crisis is, I believe, entirely reasonable.

I believe Cuba is in extreme and immediate danger. And under these circumstances, the move by the Cuban authorities to eliminate the relative freedom of action that had been tolerated for groups that had been acting in concert with the United States and its diplomatic mission and/or intelligence services is entirely understandable.

Cuba felt it could no longer afford the luxury of that tolerance. It could not permit the United States to use these groups to stage a provocation that would serve as a pretext for a U.S. military attack or an invasion.

I do not believe that the analysis of the current danger Cuba faces is one that everyone must accept. But I do believe that socialists and anti-imperialists should adopt the position that, under the conditions of imperialist encirclement and attack that Cuba has been the victim of since 1959, and especially given the fascist-like militaristic aggressiveness of the Bush regime, Cuba has every right to prohibit collaboration with the U.S. authorities in support of the policies of American imperialism, and sanction those who violate those prohibitions.

This would not necessarily mean agreement that the Cuban authorities acted wisely in doing so in this instance, simply that it is within the sphere of the legitimate defense of self-determination to have done so.

ATC 105, July-August 2003