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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  April 2008

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE April 2008

Subject:

Part One: An American in Cuba (by Mitchel Cohen)

From:

Mitchel Cohen <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 6 Apr 2008 13:06:16 -0400

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AN AMERICAN IN CUBA

by Mitchel Cohen

Liberal newspapers and journals as much as overt 
right-wing ones have long been fond of 
de­nouncing the Cuban government as an 
authoritarian "regime" that oppresses its people 
in the name of socialism. They characterize those 
who support the Cuban revolution as "Stalinists." 
A number of U.S. leftists have bought into these 
arguments and accept the prevailing demonization of the Cuban government.

On the other hand, many on the Left in the U.S. 
take the opposite path, allowing little debate 
over the nature of the revolution in Cuba. 
(Please note -- "Liberal" and "Left" are not the 
same, or even part of the same continuum, despite 
the congruence imposed by the corporate me­dia.) 
Those leftists who criticize Cuba's policies are 
condemned as "tools of U.S. imperialism"; those 
who find a silver-lining in the U.S. government's 
trade embargo ­ among them socialists, 
anarchists, even some marxists ­ are considered 
"enemies of this hemisphere's only socialist 
revolution." These are the flames to which 
leftists gravi­tate like moths. Both poles are dangerously flawed.

In the summer of 1992 I visited Cuba as part of a 
delegation to the Fourth Conference of Cuban and 
North American Philosophers, organized by the 
U.S.-based Radical Philosophy Association. I had 
occasion to travel quite a bit around Havana, and 
others in the delegation ventured all over the 
country. There are many problems in Cuba ­ and 
the people living there are the first to complain 
about them and feel free enough to do so. Despite 
tremendous hardships caused or exacerbated by the 
U.S. embargo, life “on the ground” in Cuba simply 
felt more joyous than the way it’s represented from afar.

In assessing Cuban socialism most leftists in the 
U.S. ­ to say nothing of the corporate media ­ 
simply miss the point. I found that proposals I 
and others made for "Green" forms of 
"development" were welcomed by most Cuban 
agencies, some quite independent from the 
national government; they are eager for skilled 
international input. What many in the U.S. fail 
to understand is that unlike the situation in 
pre-unification Germany where the authoritarian 
bureaucracy in the East was im­posed from the 
outside, it is the involvement of the mass of 
Cuban people and not the structure of the Cuban 
government that is the defining feature of the revolution there.

Regardless of how one assesses Cuba, those of us 
living in the U.S. would better serve our 
movements here by paying more attention to the 
dynamic revolutionary culture, philosophy, 
morality and vision of the Cuban people. I hope 
that this account of my experiences in Cuba will 
contribute to restoring context and a human scale to the current polemics.


Back to the Future

HAVANA, CUBA, June 1992 ­ HAVANA IS A CITY OF 
VINTAGE AMERICAN CARS from the 1940s and '50s and 
single-geared Chinese bicycles from the '90s. The 
old Spanish architecture, which predates the 1959 
revolution by centuries, is stunning, although 
everywhere in need of painting (due to the U.S. 
embargo, paint is scarce). Brilliant red-flowered 
flamboyante trees line the major avenues and 
parks ­ the breathtaking Cuban equivalent of New England's maples in autumn.

My dorm room is in a beautiful house in the 
Miramar section. The June weather is sweltering. 
My roommates and I are tempted to use the air- 
conditioners provided by the university, but we 
refrain. We appreciate the sacrifices they are 
making to meet the "bourgeois" needs of U.S. 
visi­tors, but our awareness of their dire 
economic situation keeps us from using up their 
precious elec­tricity. The Cubans think we're 
crazy, ungrateful, it's super hot out, they'd die to have an air condi­tioner.

I am overwhelmed by the unanticipated generosity 
and gentleness in Havana, especially among the 
panhand­lers and occasional prostitutes I 
encounter. Humor pervades all interaction; there 
is a vibrancy that is tangible, sexual, a 
twinkling of the eyes that is hard to describe 
and even more difficult to get used to.

I walk and bike all over the city; contrary to 
stories we heard in Miami, there are no 
commissars breathing down my neck or looking over 
my shoulder. Except for tourist hotels, where 
Cuban citi­zens are no longer allowed ­ a double 
standard provoking serious dissension, to which 
our translators are in denial ­ Cubans and 
tourists alike are free to go anywhere and talk to whomever they please.

I stop everywhere to talk with people, take 
pictures, read, interview officials and 
environmental activists, hunt for hard-to-find 
avenues, gay venues, tea rooms and alternative 
medicine practitioners. Where are the billboards 
trying to sell me something? Where are the 
taxi-drivers yelling out to me? Everywhere the 
general absence of interpersonal street violence 
and aggression is, to this New York­er, wonderful ... and disorienting.

Cuban machismo is always evident, but it takes a 
different form than what I am used to in the 
United States. For instance, it rarely translates 
into physical violence on the street. And yet, 
everything is relative, I suppose. Aurora 
Hidalgo, a young lawyer at the Ecology Ministry, 
told me she now carries a knife “because a woman 
who lives in my building was raped a year ago” -- 
the only rape in her whole neighborhood near 
downtown Havana, in the last two years. Still, 
when we visit the art museum, which is free and 
virtually empty, the guards stand two-feet behind 
us as though we're going to run up and draw 
mustaches on the sculptures and paintings.

I find myself thinking about the ways capitalism 
distorts us – not only “others,” but what it has 
done to me, twisted me, shaped my interactions, 
relationships, love life, expectations, desires 
and sense of self, without my even knowing it. 
Here, in Cuba, my cells are in revolt. My 
mitochondria are conjuring energies that are more 
fully me than I’ve ever before experienced. I am 
coming alive, and I never even knew I was dead.

I didn’t expect Cuba to be so “personal” a 
revelation. Like most North American urbanites, I 
have taken for granted “who I am” all my adult 
life. Can my friends in New York appreciate this 
feeling, the way in which violence has so shaped 
our interactions, relationships and sense of self 
that we don't even see it? If, as Ferlinghetti 
metaphored, there is a "Coney Island of the 
mind," then there is also some­thing of a Havana 
of the spirit. For now, I don't want to go back home.

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