Cuba: A New History

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Richard Gott

Long-time Latin America correspondent for the British newspaper the Guardian, Richard Gott, first visited Cuba in 1963, where Cuba: A New History first began to take shape. By 1999 he was in Venezuela to write what is still the best introduction to Hugo Chávez’s “Bolívarian revolution,” In the Shadow of the Liberator [Verso, 2001]. In the intervening years he traveled ceaselessly throughout the Americas, studying the region’s guerilla movements and revolutions. In December, 2004 Gott participated in an intellectual conference organized by the Venezuelan government, where he spoke to

As Gott notes, it is exceedingly difficult to compare the Cuban revolution and the social and political transformation that Venezuela is currently experiencing under Hugo Chávez. Nonetheless, it is a comparison that is quite common, and one made by both Left and Right. The conservative weekly the Economist recently argued that Venezuela is becoming “a second Cuba,” while Chávez himself often situates the Venezuelan ‘proceso’ in a historical context in which Cuba is the regional protagonist. Though the two ‘revolutions’ are undeniably distinct, as are Gott’s books dealing with them, the reader is inevitably drawn to the specific areas in which they appear to coincide. In the back of the reader’s mind is also this implicit parallel linking the two: Gott’s own decision to make each the subject of his journalistic and historical focus. Certainly the two represent central poles of Latin America’s experience with revolution.

One because it defined and inspired the region’s most sustained revolutionary period in the 20th century, and the other because it has in many ways been passed a torch that most other countries in the region have shunned, just as its flame appears to be burning brighter. In the words of British historian E. H. Carr, “History is movement; and movement implies comparison.”

Why has this book, Cuba: A New History, come out now-as you are writing the second edition of your last book In the Shadow of the Liberator, which was about Chávez and Venezuela? Do you see a reflection of some elements of the early Cuban revolution in the Venezuelan?I think that is probably what is behind it all. Curiously enough I was commissioned to write a history of Cuba. I hadn’t thought of doing it myself.

But, I thought, since I’ve followed the Cuban revolution over the decades and since I’ve been rather revived by the excitement of what’s going on in Venezuela, I did think that it would be quite interesting to look back at the Cuban revolution. And also, I had been excited by Chávez’s invocation of the 19th century and I thought it would be really interesting for myself to learn about 500 years of Cuban history that had led up to this extraordinary revolution and so I felt almost privileged that I had this opportunity to look back over 500 years and see what had happened.

It has been fascinating to be allowed to write what is inevitably a bit of a revisionist history because at the end of the 20th beginning of the 21st century, things strike you about the history of Cuba that wouldn’t have struck people writing 50 years ago. Of which the argument about the indigenous people, the argument about the blacks, the argument about the nature of white settler society and its peculiar form of racism are some examples. This peculiar form of racism, in my view, makes Cuba quite similar to Algeria or South Africa, where white settlers came quite late and changed the nature of the country and introduced a terrible racism which lies beneath the surface of Cuban society and many other societies in this region.

It is extraordinary when one realizes the longevity of Cuban history. You have this struggle between the United States and Cuba, for example, where Cuba is a far older country, a far older civilization than the US, and Americans are always amazed to find out that there was a university in Cuba before there was one in the United States. So this book has been a very exciting and very useful thing for me to do.

What is the relationship between the Cuban and Venezuelan experiences?

The two revolutions were really quite different, that is to say the Cubans began with a bang and marched into Havana after a successful war and within a few months they had passed a land-reform law which they’d promised to do, and seized the electric companies.

They ‘intervened’ them, in order to lower the price for the population, a straight-forward populist revolutionary measure. And then, immediately, because of the peculiar nature of the Cuban economy, so dominated by United States companies including the American ownership of land, they were immediately in a major conflict with the United States, almost from the word go. We now know that the Americans decided they had to liquidate the Cuban revolution within six months of Castro arriving in Havana.

The Venezuelan situation is rather different. It didn’t start with a bang at all it started with an election of a completely unknown figure, unknown at least outside of Venezuela, with a reformist program to have a constitution, though obviously there were a lot of ideas in the background. But it wasn’t seen at the time as a major revolutionary or leftist advance because Chávez was such an unknown figure. Whereas Castro never made any doubts about what he wanted to do: there was going to be a land reform, he was going to restore the constitution of 1940, so people had a fairly clear idea of who and what Castro was, whereas Venezuela was much more uncertain.

Also, in a way there were no direct problems between Venezuela and the United States; the new Venezuelan government wasn’t threatening the US oil industry or American oil companies, there was a threat to the amour propre [1] of the US, because obviously Chávez did have an anti-imperialist rhetoric from the beginning, but there wasn’t any particular reason why Venezuela and the US should go in different directions.

The Cuban revolution was radicalized, at least in part, by reaction of the United States during the first few years after the July 26th Movement came to power. In Venezuela, a similar phenomenon appears to be occurring with Chávez getting pushed farther to left each time the opposition tries to get rid of him, whether via the 2002 coup-attempt, or the 2002-03 oil industry shut-down. Are the two experiences the product of entirely particular historical experiences, or is there a parallel in the way Castro and Chávez have reacted to US pressure?

In a way, the international situation is so different, because the Soviet union doesn’t exist, the tradition of state capitalism of the communist era is thoroughly discredited, and apart from wanting to recover Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. [PDVSA-Venezuela’s state oil company] and not wanting it to be privatized, Chavez’s project was not in any way a traditional socialist project. In traditional Marxist terms Chávez is being hostile to transnational companies, but extremely friendly towards the national bourgeoisie.

He wants to see Venezuelan small or medium business, he wants them to do well, he wants Venezuelan capital to invest in Venezuela and not pour the money outside, so he’s in that sense a traditional nationalist politician of a kind that we haven’t really seen here for a very long time.

I do think that the Cuban situation was very specific and peculiar because of the strange relationship that they had with the US over the previous fifty years. And everything sort of ratcheted up month after month in the most extraordinary way, sort of like tit for tat. There was an initial decision to allow the Soviet Union to buy Cuban sugar in exchange for oil. When the Soviet oil arrived, the American refineries refused to refine it. So Castro seized the refineries, and then the Americans-tit for tat-decided to cut the sugar quota and then the Cubans did a fresh deal with the Soviet Union to get in more sugar there, it was an endless round, and when the Americans cut the sugar quota more Castro said ‘for every time you cut the sugar quota, we will take over another sugar mill.’ So it really was a sort of battle, but it was a long-established battle that the Cubans and the Americans had been having since the 19th century.

Whereas there is nothing like that here at all. What I think is interesting here is that something like the land reform, which you would have thought in Venezuela wouldn’t be that controversial, because, first of all, you have this land reform under Betancourt in the 1960s, so they’d be sort of familiar with those sorts of ideas. Secondly, land owners are not really a significant part of the Venezuelan elite; in so far as they are, it’s because they also own factories and have relationships with multi-national companies, but as land owners they are not and have never been politically important, nor indeed is the land or the cattle industry hugely significant in the Venezuelan economy as a whole.

In a way, what made the Cuban land reform so dramatic was that they resurrected an old Cuban demand from the 1930s, that Cuban land should only be owned by Cubans. Quite apart from nationalizing large estates, it meant that Americans could no longer own Cuban plantations and Cuban land.

In Venezuela, one has to, I think, realize the land reform law of 2001 was an ideological challenge, and recognized as such by the opposition, and was seized upon as an emblematic indication of the socialistic nature of the Chávez project, which bore absolutely no relationship to reality of any kind.

Given the current political context, which is very different to that of the 1960s, and the added context of oil-cooperation with US, do you see the “Bolívarian revolution” becoming significantly more radical? And if it does, what key changes would need to happen to make the jump from reform to revolution?

I’m absolutely sure that the Chávez revolution will radicalize, but as for what form that radicalization is going to take, it is still as yet uncertain. What I think will happen is what I call a ‘cultural revolution’ involving major, major reforms of the state bureaucracy, which is currently the most significant problem. All these inherited ministries have to be reformed, stripped down, closed down, started again, which is exactly what happened in the Cuban revolution; for the first months or year, they worked through the old system until they realized that they were entirely filled with either Batista supporters or people who had no desire to move in a radical direction, so they had to be cleaned out and reformed.

Not to mention the Armed Forces in Cuba, which had to be completely purged of the Batista elements and reoriented in a socialistic direction, which was specifically done via re-education campaigns organized by Raúl Castro and Ché Guevara.

Something like that will have to happen in Venezuela with the civil bureaucracy. One of the things that I think is really interesting is that these ‘misiones’ that Chávez has established are essentially reeducating a whole generation of young people who are mostly not from the middle class and they’re not tainted by this terrible legacy of the Acción Democrática/Copei [2] years, and within two to three years he will have at his disposal a lot of very keen young people who will be anxious to have proper jobs and help run the country. When these young people come off the assembly-line, as it were, he will actually have people with whom he can do things.

The tragedy here, unlike Cuba, is that virtually the entire middle-class has been hostile to Chávez so you don’t have the sort of educated kados [3] that was at the disposal of the Cuban revolution in the first instance. Because the July 26th movement actually embraced a good deal of the Cuban middle-class, and though a lot of them subsequently left for Miami, many of them stayed so they did have at their disposal a way of running the country. There’s a wonderful story about Guevara saying: ‘we nationalized 250 factories yesterday.

Where are we going to find the people to become the national-directors?’ which was the problem, they had to find them. So that was sort of dramatic, revolutionary, exciting. So far, nothing like that has happened in Venezuela, and it is not yet clear to me what the plan is, and maybe there isn’t a plan. Perhaps we’ve reached the end of Chávez’s first ideas of what should happen in Venezuela, and it will depend on the pueblo and what people demand to see how things pan out.

The main barrier to bureaucratic reform in Venezuela is the lack of alternative employment. Laid-off civil servants would be hard-pressed to find other jobs. How did the Cubans address this problem?

Largely through reeducation. They did, as I said, get rid of the worst of the old regime, and reformed the next lot, and really worked at them, in ideological classes, what the West would call ‘brainwashing.’ If you take the case of PDVSA, they sacked half the workforce—effectively the entire middle management-18,000 people. That’s a hell of a lot, and many of those people to this day remain without jobs, but at the same time, one of the things that they have been doing inside PDVSA has been a sort of reeducation campaign about what should be the nature and role of a national oil industry.

It’s been a struggle because it’s not even clear that even the left-wing within PDVSA has the real political desire, which is now made manifest, that the Ministry of Energy should actually be in charge of the oil company, and that the money from the oil company, instead of being invested outside the country, should be invested inside the country, and that a very large percentage of the money should go to educating the next generation and providing a complete change in the nature of the educated class in Venezuela.

As a journalist and a historian, how did you approach these two topics, considering that the book on Chávez is more of a journalistic, personal account, and the one on Cuba is much more academic?

What intrigues me about both Cuba and Venezuela is the way in which both Chávez and Castro have used a version of history to justify the way they’re governing the country, completely different from previous governments. Although the indigenous element is a bit adjacent to all that since the Cubans haven’t really taken it aboard, though I think they might. But they did shortly after the revolution begin to take aboard the problems of the African population. Until relatively recently, Cuban history was essentially a white history.

That is beginning to change, both led by research outside Cuba by American blacks and now gradually by the Cubans themselves, but in a way the Cubans themselves mostly concentrate on the white-led rebellions of the nineteenth-century, although they do emphasize the fact that the troops were black and that there were one or two black leaders.

Now Chávez has done the same, by saying ‘let’s just concentrate on the really good guys.’ You have an entirely different version/vision of what post-independence Latin America ought to look like; you have Ezequiel Zamora who is really hostile to the land owners, Simón Rodriguez who is really hostile to the racist views of the settlers, and Simón Bolívar who has this wonderful continental vision of changing America. So I think their use of history has been exemplary. Outside of Latin America, the Left has paid relatively little attention to Venezuela, compared to the attention lavished on revolutions in Cuba, Chile, or Nicaragua. Why do you think that is?

One difference between the Cuban revolution and what we could call the “Bolívarian revolution” is that the Cuban revolution took place in a very particular moment in world history. It actually coincided with the decolonization of the European empires so that Cuba was seen at the time very much as one more element of the collapse of the old system just at the moment when the French and the British were withdrawing from Africa, and there suddenly occurred this great revolution in Cuba which was seen as the beginning of a new decolonization of Latin America, which everyone perceived as being within the informal empire of the United States. So Cuba had this real significant global role which went far beyond the confines of Latin America because it was recognized as being part of the same pattern. And the Cubans, to their credit, recognized this and made a big effort in the first year or so to see themselves as part of the revolutionary Third World that was emerging.

Now with Chávez things are really really different because people outside Venezuela and Latin America are really disillusioned with the very idea of left wing revolution, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of an alternative power to the United States has left people, it think, completely and absolutely demobilized, so the emergence of what I perceive to be as a new and exciting development for Latin America has taken a very long time for anyone to wake up and say “my goodness this is really interesting,” because this is something which reflects the struggles of yesteryear.

Many people simply are not interested in those sorts of struggles anymore because they feel like the world has moved on, and the United States has in its cultural and political program a real hegemony over the subsequent generation. Most social democrats in Europe are absolutely not interested in revolutionary experiences in some obscure part of the Third World. I think it’s just taken a very long time for people to wake up to the fact that something really interesting is happening.

Of course one of the things that makes Venezuela so special is that it is potentially extremely rich and has all this oil. If you take somewhere like Grenada, or Nicaragua, these countries were completely delightful, but they weren’t going to be anywhere they weren’t going to be the future of the world; they had no resources, they were completely, as it were, irrelevant to the great ‘onward march of history.’ Whereas Venezuela, which has played a rather minor role in world history, is suddenly a rather improbable figure in the vanguard of what is now possible.

[1] French, meaning ‘self-love’

[2] Acción Democrática and Copei traded power for the forty years prior to Chávez’ election in 1998. They have been widely criticized as corrupt, inefficient, and for governing for the benefit of Venezuela’s oil-elite

[3] Greek, meaning ‘Jar’