T.K. Hernández interview author Arnold August about his recent book 'Cuba-US Relations: Obama and Beyond'
Arnold August, a Canadian writer and journalist, is the author of three books on Cuban politics. Over the last year, he has been on an international book tour which took him throughout Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, as well as Cuba to promote his latest work.
He has spent a good portion of his time in Cuba researching his books. In March of this year, August was banned from entering the United States on account of his support for Venezuela.
Cuba-U.S. Relations: Obama and Beyond is the third book in August’s long career, which has involved frequent travel to Cuba over the past twenty years for conducting his research. In recognition of his unending efforts to publicize the realities of Cuba, Arnold August was awarded the Medal of Friendship by the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con Los Pueblos (ICAP) on July 4th 2017.
At the inaugural Canadian book launch in Ottawa on September 27, 2017 Giuvel Orozco, Counsellor and Second Head of the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba in Ottawa, thanked August for more than two decades of work on behalf of the Cuban Revolution, emphasizing the author’s generous gesture of donating the profits from the Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal book launches to the victims of Hurricane Irma in Cuba. (Source: http://misiones.minrex.gob.cu/)
Did you find this book tour worth it in terms of spreading the message that there is a difference in perspective in terms of Obama politics and the worldview of those politics vis-à-vis US policy toward Cuba?
To answer your question, one has to speak about three book tours: the first tour presented the original English-language version in North America, composed of Canada and the US; the second was the UK tour, which included England, Scotland and Wales; and the third was for the Cuban Spanish-language edition, with the first leg of the tour in Havana and Matanzas. The latter was different not only because of the language but, as you yourself know very well, it is an entirely different milieu compared with the North.
The book tour in North America was worth the effort because I was able to oppose the Trump offensive against Cuba. However, at the same time, I was able to engage the audiences on the overall long-term policy of the US toward Cuba, that is, regime change, irrespective of which of the two main parties holds political power. No one had to be convinced about the nature of the Trump Cuba policy. However, it is even more dangerous than it may seem, as it was pointed out, since it is linked to the more openly offensive US policy toward Venezuela.
In the UK, the situation is different. As the organizers warned me beforehand, many people were left with the notion that the Obama policy ended the blockade, and that US and Cuba had reached a “normal” relationship. It was as if some notions were frozen in time and that Trump was not able to undo any of the minor positive Obama changes. Thus, there was a need for a lot of discussion and debate with the audiences, which, of course, did take place. In any case, the issue could not be totally clarified at the book presentation itself, but only by the reading of the book, which deals with both the Obama and Trump policies.
As far as the first leg of the Cuba tour in Havana and Matanzas, most of the book events took place in universities. Believe it or not, Trump was a non-issue! What fascinated the youth most was my analysis of Obama and the false option of the American two-party system and its capacity to bring about any meaningful change in US policy toward Cuba and Latin America. The problem of a certain amount of naivety within the Cuban political culture regarding US foreign policy was clearly a source of frustration, but it was also fascinating to hear a different point of view. Just about every participant bought a copy of the book and they surely would not have been disappointed – the publication deals extensively with the illusions created about US cultural aggression against Cuba, especially as fostered by the Obama Administration, and which has had a long-lasting effect on Cuba, right up to today, even while Trump is the face of US.
You have published two other works on Cuban government and politics, which would certainly make you an expert on the subject. Additionally, your contact with Cuban politicians, for instance, surpasses that of any other journalist outside of Cuba. For journalists who come from the “Northern” countries, what sort of advice would you give them when they set out to research the Cuban government and, for example, economic policies? What kind of advice would you give them to present a more “balanced perspective in their writing”?
My first advice may seem obvious, but it has to be said: one must be completely fluent in Spanish. It is quite amazing to discover the number of so-called experts on Cuba who are not fluent in the Spanish language or who do not even speak it. Imagine writing extensive books and articles on Canada without knowing the language!
Second, the researcher must read as much as possible, virtually on a daily basis, original material coming out of Cuba, irrespective of the political orientation. I even go so far as to read the online comments to articles, as they provide amazing insight into the thinking of the people at the grassroots level.
Finally, spending time in Cuba, speaking and engaging with Cubans from all walks of life, is essential, over and above any professional contacts or research.
Was your publisher supportive of you with both the book tour and promotion of your book?
Without the full support of the Canadian publisher Fernwood Publishing for the English version of the book tours, the process would not have been possible. I am not talking just about logistics, distribution, sales and publicity, but about the political support for this book. My books are controversial, yet the publisher fully supported both the actual drafting of the text and its distribution.
One anecdote comes to mind. During the Halifax book event, the publisher, Errol Sharpe, introduced the author and the publication. Among other things, he said that the author is a publisher’s dream come true. Why is that? Most writers, he explained, are content with having written the book and having it published yet, contrary to this author, they do not help to publicize and sell it. I took this as a strong vote of confidence in my work against the handful of academics who claim that I “self-promote,” which is, in reality, a pretext for actively censoring the book. One would have to ask them, why try to undermine the distribution? But it seems that the problem is that the content of the text completely threatens their overly flattering attitude toward the Obama Cuba policy. The book also exposes how, in prettifying that policy, they overlook the Obama hostile Venezuela policy which paved the way for the Trump variety. Some academic careers and pro-status quo publishing are based on these distortions which favour the establishment.
The Cuban Spanish edition also featured the full support of its publisher, Editorial Oriente, right from the beginning, despite the content being controversial in Cuba. They did an excellent translation and, with my input and their suggestions, we collectively updated and improved the book.
However, that was only the beginning! Despite the difficult transportation and logistics situation in Cuba, which you are aware of, the Cuban book institute and publisher coordinated the sale of the book in seven events in a very short period of time, to the extent that the books were sold out. According to the distribution team, this was the first time such a tour for one single author was carried out. Now we are preparing in the same way for the second leg of the Cuban book tour to take place in the fall of 2019.
What are the main lessons you learned from the first Cuban book tour?
I have to start by saying that it was one of the most wonderful experiences in my life as an author and journalist. There were so many highlights but here are two I would like to mention:
The first relates to the contact I had with the Cuban Revolutionary youth, which served to recharge my batteries. As mentioned above, most of the events took place in the universities. At the heart of the question and answer period and the debates was the US-led cultural war against Cuban socialist culture, which is also a distinguishing feature of the book itself. These events are difficult to describe, so you will have to wait until I can give you a DVD that we produced of this tour – you will see what I mean. For others, it will be available on YouTube.
The second was my satisfaction throughout the tour that my book was welcome in Cuba. From the moment the book was made public in the summer of 2017, a handful of academics attempted to discredit the publication and the author. The accusation was floated of “interference” in the internal affairs of Cuba because of my analysis of the US-led cultural war in Cuba. Aside from being a diversion to hide their position of not only being soft on this nefarious type of aggression, but actually being a part of it, the bottom line is that no one in the Cuba audiences complained about “interference.” On the contrary, they invited me back.
So, you can see that book tours – such as in my case, writing and talking about controversial but necessary issues – are not a bed of roses. However, I prefer to write what I think based on my detailed analysis accumulated over decades even if it goes against the tide. Or rather, if the work does indeed go against the tide, all the better, as it means that one is touching on issues that have to be dealt with.
I learned that in March 2019 that you have been barred from entering the US for what appears to be for life. How does this affect your plans for the conference visits that had already been planned, or that would have been organized for the future? On a personal note, will you miss the
It is too early to say that I am “barred for life.” I am working with Quebec’s top human rights/constitutional lawyers on my issue seeing that it is obviously a case of human rights violations. I will be happy to keep you posted.
Nonetheless, as you hint, I did have to cancel my conference scheduled for the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) scheduled for May in Boston only two months after being barred. This was a set back for the pro-Cuban Revolution presence in that Conference.
Because of the Trump policies, the vast majority of Cuban academics were not allowed to travel to Boston. Some of them were counting on me as a Canadian, supposedly free to travel to the US, and others to defend the Cuban gains and oppose the disinformation campaigns so common in these encounters. Speaking on my own behalf and not the Cuban Section of LASA (of which I am a member) it was thus very frustrating to discover from afar that the main presentation on Cuba in Boston was based on the usual disinformation about “one party system”, “authoritarianism” etc. My book tour for US cities that were being planned also had to be canceled.
Yes, I will miss the U.S. because I have so much respect for the many contacts and friends in the academic and journalistic fields with which I love to exchange directly in the U.S. I relish discussion and debate with Americans.
However, until further notice, the communication in the U.S. is carried out only by social media, the publication of my articles and my regular newsletters.
Arnold, I'm very grateful for the chance to speak with you about your book and tour. I wish you further success with the book and look forward to your next work.