“Artistic Freedom,” Censorship, Counter-Revolution, and Cuba

A Shameful Petition Circulates as Biden’s Blockade Falters (Part 1)

If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.

— Malcolm X (December 13, 1964 at the Audubon Ballroom, New York City)

A Shameful Petition

A shameful “petition” has been issued, under the auspices of PEN-International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).  See here.

The document purports to be a defense of beleaguered Cuban artists and creative performers against a government that “fears and condemns” artists. Under the cover of lies and half-truths trumpeting supposed “repression” and “censorship” in socialist and revolutionary Cuba, the campaign effort — with such well-endowed and well-established sponsors — has managed to gather some 300 prominent artists and performers, including some outstanding figures such as Isabel Allende, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Meryl Streep. All the more pity!

The “petition” is shameful because it consciously omits any reference to the US government’s economic war of asphyxiation against the Cuban state and government. Because it consciously ignores the longstanding subversive programs sponsored by the US government that includes extensive efforts to recruit agents and operatives on the ground, including a tiny layer of creative artists willing to play their supine, illegal part in the ongoing US economic and political war to bring down the Cuban Revolution…constant for over six decades now. Denouncing the unchanged US policy of counter-revolution and “regime change” in Cuba — with its ongoing ugly, brutal, and bloody history — is the only acceptable framework to have any serious, honest, and objective assessment of how the Cuban government and society defends itself from that war.

From Trump to Biden

Failure to denounce the blockade, strips the “petition” of any moral high ground or credibility. The “petition” is, in fact, part and parcel of the bipartisan Washington campaign to defeat and destroy the still-resonant example of the Cuban Revolution. The “petition” has nothing to do with “artistic expression,” civil liberties, censorship, or political space in Cuba. It is, in fact, US sanctions and hostility that restricts people-to-people exchanges that could bring to US cities and communities the beauty, creativity, variety, and freedom of the entire Cuban musical, dance, painting, graphic arts, film scenes. And to see with one’s own eyes the cultural explosion that was unleashed and has been sustained in Cuba since the triumph of the Revolution, despite US aggression.

Havana Festival in New York City

Danza Contemporanea de Cuba at Joyce Theater in Manhattan

Creole Choir of Cuba at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011

Washington’s extraterritorial embargo, the blockade, was steadily escalated under the Donald Trump White House from 2016-2020 and deepened still further under the Joseph Biden Administration. All in defiance of repeated overwhelming votes in the United Nations General Assembly against the blockade, which underline how politically isolated and hated US anti-Cuba policy is.

Underlining its cruelty, this escalation was implemented during the world COVID-19 pandemic! While Cuba has done outstanding work in developing its own highly efficacious vaccines alongside its amazing medical solidarity and internationalism, Washington’s economic war and anti-Cuba political bellicosity has not abated!

The crisis-ridden US Empire is defying the world, the Americas, and even US majority public opinion as it continues its economic and political war against Cuba! And the specter of US military aggression is always lurking. Indeed from contingency plans to create the conditions for action is the very purpose of the “regime-change” subversive projects hatched in the bowels of US government agencies.

The counter-revolutionary networks that Washington openly budgets for subversion with tens of millions of direct cash payments (plus untold many millions more in covert funding) became activated following the generally spontaneous neighborhood street actions on July 11 that involved hundreds, maybe even many hundreds. These protests took place in cities and neighborhoods particularly hard hit, under the generally very difficult conditions of shortages and other great daily stresses from the US economic blockade — on top of sharp covid spikes and lockdowns — by electricity blackouts in the intense summer heat. Under these immediate conditions (that the Cuban government immediately and effectively addressed on the ground), these counter-revolutionary networks coordinated with their US government masters to create the kind of chaos and breakdown, through illegal acts of violence, of public order that would be a pretext to call for direct US military intervention (at least in the fantasies of Washington spooks, handlers, and policymakers.). In the days following the July 11 events, some US politicians like the Mayor of Miami, openly called for direct US military intervention, which was also advocated in the pro-intervention signs and slogans in the sizable demonstrations of Cuban-Americans in Miami and Washington, DC (where thousands were bused in) in that period.

The Human Rights Industry

Over many years, organizations based in the dominant capitalist powers in the US, UK, and EU, and purporting to be based on an independent, “apolitical” defense of “human rights” — as they define it — have more and more constituted themselves as brands and virtual industry, funded decisively by large donors, and which increasingly sees its business model as conforming to the “human rights” priorities of Washington, the UK, and EU governments.

This does not mean that these outfits don’t often supply accurate facts, publicize just causes or individuals, or that they always lie, or that they, or the US State Department, if it suits them, cannot from time-to-time even issue formal statements criticizing close US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and Israel.

But for Human Rights Watch in particular, anyone who follows their Latin American orientations and utterances can have no doubt that for HRW it’s real emotional and political investment and political focus has been Cuba and the anti-imperialist governments of Venezuela and Bolivia and other governments in the Americas that encroach on the unfettered prerogatives of domestic and foreign capital, and that are in conflict with Washington. With these human rights brands, at best, we see a narrow definition of human rights in terms of civil liberties and various forms of parliamentary elections (dominated by capital and unelected national and international ruling class bodies), drenched in unacceptable double-standards, and which does not include, or render secondary, the social rights of humans, including land reform, universal medical care and education, and elevating the conditions and status of women.

You will never see HRW praise the massive conquests of revolutionary and socialist Cuba in wiping out illiteracy, for its state-of-the-world health care system and medical internationalism, its blows against racism and in the elevation of women’s emancipation, not to speak of its decisive military intervention in southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s that defended Angolan independence, secured Namibia independence, and expedited the defeat of apartheid South Africa.

The PEN-HRW petition consciously omits any mention, let alone even lip-service opposition, to the criminal and hated US economic war. At least Amnesty International, an elder states-person and innovator within what I call “The Human Rights Industry” — and more honest and objective historically in my opinion – and which occasionally has strongly criticized actions of the Cuban government and called for the release of those they have called “political prisoners” in the past, has also sincerely, with some vigor, condemned the US economic war and sanctions. They also recognized the flaws in Washington’s unjust frame-up and incarceration of the Cuban Five revolutionaries on a covert mission fighting US-based terrorist provocations and assaults against the island and the passage of the blockading Torricelli and Helms-Burton legislation in the 1990s during a severe economic contraction following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The Cuban Five heroes were brutalized, framed-up, and railroaded into prison.

Empty Platitudes

The “petition” exudes empty platitudes about “art” (“Art is powerful. Regardless of discipline, art allows us to reveal truths about our society and ourselves, promote dialogue, express our cultural identity, and bear witness to inhumanity. Artists can rally our communities and serve as a beacon of light amid darkness. It is because of the power of art that many governments, including the Cuban government, fear and condemn artists.”) But art, per se, has no position as “art” on the burning social and political questions of the day, class and national liberation struggles

I would further state that the “category” of “artist” or “intellectual”, per se, does not stand above the burning historical and political issues and controversies of the day, which polarize society as a whole, including artists and intellectuals who take various contentious positions (or no position at all). Naturally these social and political issues and controversies often inspire and inform their artistic creations, for better or for worse.

Individual artists also engage in politics and class struggles, wars for liberation and wars for oppression – on all sides. To say the “Cuban government” “fears and condemns” artists is a gratuitous slander against the Cuban socialist revolution that unleashed tremendous artistic creativity in music, film, dance, painting, and every other field that is in great demand in the world and in the US also. The social and cultural dynamics of the Cuban Revolution that was wiping out illiteracy, smashing Jim Crow-Cuban style segregation, throwing out the US Mafia, and elevating the status of women made this possible. And was ruthlessly and bloodily opposed by the US government in real time then…and now.

This 2-part essay aims to reject and refute this well-endowed anti-Cuba campaign which conforms to, and tail-ends politically, the ongoing bipartisan “regime change” efforts of the US government to destroy the Cuban Revolution and its example. For some time now, these same themes of “artistic freedom” and “censorship” have animated stepped-up US government and big-business media and social media anti-Cuba efforts. Let no one be so naïve as to think that the organizers behind the PEN-HRW “petition” do not have threads tying them to current and former US policymakers in the decades-long US economic and political war against Cuba.

US Subversion Thwarted

But the problem for the partisans of US anti-Cuba policy is that the Cuban Revolution still, maybe more than ever in the pandemic era, resonates strongly among the oppressed and exploited overwhelming majority of humanity, including artists and intellectuals who place themselves on the side of the oppressed and working people, as opposed to the artists and intellectuals signing this shameful petition who choose to cowardly echo the campaigns of the US government and its paid clients and agents on the ground in Cuba.

These counter-revolutionary layers in Cuba are a small minority who have no social or political base on the island. Their base is in Washington, DC and a layer in the highly polarized Cuban-American community. They have been politically routed in Cuba, not by “repression” but by the counter-mobilizations of the Cuban working class and people in the streets as well as the by the measures taken by the Cuban government to address genuine grievances under the impact of US asphyxiation policies. These counter-mobilizations registered that the vast majority of Cubans defend the Cuban Revolution and understand that the US blockade is the main problem and obstacle to Cuban prosperity and economic development, whatever their critical and contentious views on the economic crisis, government bureaucracy, boosting food production, housing availability, currency reform, the Family Code, same-sex marriage, domestic violence, “race” and racism, as well as universal pride at the amazing accomplishments of Cuban science and medicine in producing 5 vaccines to fight COVID-19 and fully vaccinating over 85% of the Cuban population.

These tightened extraterritorial policies and sanctions under Trump and Biden consciously aimed at creating great economic stresses and shortages at the same time Cuba faced a spike up in covid infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in Summer 2021. Since then Cuba had an incredible turnaround and stands out internationally for its results in combating COVID-19 with its domestically designed and produced vaccines and sharply reduced numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths. (As this is being written, Cuba is on full alert for the full impact of the omicron variant which is leading to sharp rises in infections to approaching 3,000 a day, but so far no spike in hospitalizations and death.

It is absurd to suggest that in conditions of siege by the US capitalist superpower (a state with a military budget of $786 billion and a history of using sanctions, violence, assassination, terrorism, and biological warfare against Cuba, an island of 11.3 million), the revolutionary socialist Cuban government and the Cuban people as a whole is somehow morally obligated to promote the work of artists who are politically aligning themselves with the US government at the very time that government is waging an economic war of asphyxiation against Cuba, under the conditions of a world pandemic!) and against, by any objective standard, the large majority of the Cuban population.

It is not only stunning, not only outrageous, but, in my humble opinion, it is downright obscene for any self-respecting artist to align themself with a statement that does not even mention US asphyxiation policies while blasting the actions of the Cuban state and government in defending national sovereignty from easily documented ongoing US subversive efforts. That doesn’t even mention the conditions of economic scarcity, shortages, and stresses from the conditions of the US extraterritorial embargo and sanctions. This obliterates any moral high ground in addressing any valid questions of democratic and political space in general in Cuba and within the rich, flourishing, and multi-dimensional Cuban creative arts scene – music, dance, film, graphic design, fine arts, painting, theater, poetry, literature – in particular.

Despite the continuity of policy between Trump and Biden, bipartisan Washington has repeatedly failed to politically destabilize the Cuban workers state there are going to be unintended political consequences for US anti-Cuba policy, especially across the Americas, in Mexico and Central America, in the Caribbean, and on the South American continent.

Among these unintended consequences is the actual strengthening of the revolutionary government of President Miguel Diaz-Canel and the mass organizations (the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution; the Confederation of Cuban Workers; the Federation of Cuban Women, as well as mass organizations of family farmers, students, and all organized layers and sectors of the Cuban people as a whole) that are the grass roots and mobilized and organized mass base of Cuba’s participatory socialist democracy. What is consolidating today in Cuba is an upsurge of patriotic unity against US aggression. This provides time and space for revolutionary Cuba to resist and advance going into 2022.

As far as the Biden Administration, bipartisan Washington with its agencies, spooks, and their academic and big-business media/social media echo chambers, will just have to come to grips with the dashing of their hopes and illusions in 2021 from the July 11 events through the debacle of November 15 inside Cuba.

This includes, of course, the pro-blockade, pro-US intervention component of the Cuban-American community that wants to think that they are in the driver’s seat. Other voices in the community, inspired by the Bridges of Loves/Puentes de Amor Caravans Against the Blockade, are emerging as voice of Cuban families.

The highly orchestrated July 11 protests in Cuba led to a willful misreading of what the events actually represented on-the-ground in Cuba. This directly led to the debacle of November 15 when the planned activation of Washington’s various networks of agents, clients, and supplicants self-aborted. Instead, what was brought out was mass counter-mobilizations among Cuban working people. These showed what the actual relationship of forces inside Cuba is, despite the stresses and hardships from the US economic and political war.

Ike Nahem is a retired Amtrak Locomotive Engineer and Teamsters Union member. A longtime anti-imperialist, socialist, and Cuba solidarity activist and leader, Ike is a founder and organizer for the New York-New Jersey Cuba Si Coalition, a member of the US National Network on Cuba, and a central organizer of the forthcoming March 18-20 International US-Cuba Normalization Conference in New York City. He is the author of many published, widely circulated essays online including The Life of Fidel Castro: A Marxist Appreciation and To the Memory of Malcolm X: Tribute to a Revolutionary. Contact Ike at ikenahem@gmail.com. Read other articles by Ike.