First published in Al Mayadeen, May 29, 2017, and translated from the original Spanish.
In this interview, Iroel Sanchez Espinosa, Cuban journalist and author, discusses with Arnold August, Canadian-based author and journalist specializing in Cuba-U.S. relations, the current situation in Latin America and the Middle East, the political systems of Cuba and the United States and the impact on those regions with the arrival of a new administration in the United States.
Sanchez Espinosa: As an academic, you’ve spent more than two decades studying Latin America and its relations with the United States. What is your assessment of the current moment, with the end of the Obama administration and the ascent of Donald Trump to the White House?
August: Let us recall the Obama administration’s 2009 backing of the coup d’état in Honduras. And then, in 2011, during his second mandate, Obama traveled to Brazil, where he hypocritically embraced then President Dilma Rousseff, while only a few years later, his State Department, through its dog-whistle diplomacy, supported the coup against Rousseff. In Chile, during his same 2011 trip to South America, he refused to apologize for the U.S.-backed 1973 bloody coup, appealing for the need to forget the past, while during a press conference, he managed to sneak in an attack against Cuba for not being democratic and not holding “free and fair elections.”
In 2012, the Obama administration also presided over the coup against Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. A month after the passing of (President Hugo) Chavez, when Nicolas Maduro narrowly won the Venezuelan presidential election, internationally recognized as fair, in April 2013, the Obama administration supported opposition leader (Henrique) ’ refusal to recognize the election results. This resulted in U.S.-backed violence that same month led by Capriles and others, which has been rekindled once again in April and May 2017.
Obama set the game plan for the current violence. Furthermore, no previous U.S. president has carried out so much brazen interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela except Bush in 2002, with the failed coup attempt against Chavez. Obama broke the record, taking into account the above incursions, among all the presidents, with a special decree, calling Venezuela a threat to U.S. security and sanctioning the Venezuelan vice-president. During his entire mandate, Obama increased military bases and U.S. presence in allied countries such as Colombia and others.
Thus, Obama set the stage and handed the U.S. aggressive foreign policy toward Latin America to Trump on a silver platter. We must recall that Obama also allied with the Clintons to sabotage the Bernie Sanders campaign, which would very possibly have allowed the defeat of Trump and thus a more open-minded policy toward Latin America. Obama and Clinton would rather have a Trump than a Sanders. Trump is thus the continuation of U.S. imperialism in the region in the same manner as Reagan, the Bushes and Obama.
When Trump was in the Middle East last week, his crude attitude provoked some journalists to invoke the Ugly American prototype. But who is more dangerous for the peoples of the world – the cool, hipster, smiling Obama, who was wearing the halo of the Nobel Peace prize throughout his eight years of foreign adventures, or the openly Ugly American? Let us allow readers to reach their own conclusions as we take stock of Obama’s foreign policy legacy and Trump’s external policy as it unfolds.
Sanchez Espinosa: Since 2008, you’ve written systematically about Cuba’s treatment in the Western media. What have been the constants and the changes in press coverage of the island during this period?
August: The most consistent feature is the Western press continuously labeling Cuba a dictatorship, an authoritarian, oppressive, human rights violator lacking in free and fair elections and in freedom of speech and of the press. However, the bottom line is really the accusation that Cuba sticks to its “closed economy,” a euphemism for socialism. It is a leitmotif because, while the U.S. tolerates and even befriends countries that are in fact authoritarian and indeed brazenly lack all of the human rights listed above, these countries get a pass as long as they are capitalist-oriented and allow Western, and especially U.S., capitalism free rein.
Thus, the main Western target is Cuba’s socialist culture. The U.S. and its allies are waging a cultural war – culture in the large sense, including the artistic field, politics and ideology – against the Cuban socialist culture. This has been going on since 1959 but has increased substantially since the “thaw” between the two countries, as a negative spinoff of the very positive establishment of diplomatic relations between the neighbors. One must keep in mind at the very forefront of the evaluation that the U.S. has changed its tactics but not the goal of subverting the Cuban Revolution, and with it Cuba’s sovereignty and dignity. The very core of the change in tactics is sliding from aggression to seduction. This seduction is the cultural war, as it has never before been waged with such intensity, but also subtlety, to the extent that some Cubans do not even know (or want to recognize) that it is taking place.
At the vanguard of the Cuban resistance to this cultural war are Cultural Minister Abel Prieto, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and other government figures. However, this resistance is taken up on a regular basis by writers such as Luis Toledo Sande, Elier Ramirez Cañedo, Iroel Sanchez, Graciella Pogolloti, Enrique Ubieta, Esteban Morales, Jesus Arboleya, Ambrosio Formet, Javier Gomez Sanchez, Carlos Luque Zayas Balan, Dario Machado Rodriguez, Rafael Cruz Ramos, Fernando Martinez Heredia and others who are published in CubaDebate.
Readers outside of Cuba, especially in the West, may have never heard of them – and that is the problem. It is noteworthy that the U.S. media, in stepping up its cultural war, still employs only their hand-picked Cuban spokespersons both in the U.S. and on the island to represent Cuba. They are familiar faces on international U.S. TV screens and other media. Their narrative inevitably coincides with the U.S.-centric notion of politics and ideology and they promote each other while deriding or censoring the above-mentioned Cuban intellectuals. Not by coincidence, these self-proclaimed experts do not recognize that there is a Western cultural war against the Cuban socialist culture. They are ipso facto part of this aggression in the realm of ideas against their own people.
Sanchez Espinosa: You’ve published several books about the Cuban political system. How would you characterize it in terms of similarities and differences with those of its neighbors?
August: I do not think that one can characterize these as similarities or differences if you are referring to the U.S. as the closest neighbor to Cuba. The Cuban political system, as you know, is Cuban. It has its own history and tradition going back to the mid-19th century. It is above all progressive and based on revolution and the emancipation of the poor, on sovereignty, national dignity and the goal of achieving a just society. It is anti-racist and it pursues international solidarity, for example, by helping (and sacrificing lives in so doing) to help liberate South Africa from U.S.-backed apartheid or providing medical internationalism and support for the peoples of the world, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The U.S. system is from the U.S. It is based on the 18th-century uprising led mainly by slave-owners to establish U.S. exceptionalism. It is, to my knowledge, the only experience in world history whereby within the very bosom of the old British colonialism is an even more powerful colonialism. Eventually evolving into imperialism, it far outdid its parent in aggression, destruction and war. This inspiration itself goes back to the 17th-century pilgrims and puritans and their biblical notion of the chosen people destined to inspire the entire planet.
It must be stated clearly: the U.S. never had a revolution. It was a war of independence to build a new empire. Furthermore, the state was a slave state. Today, the current state is based on this vestige of slavery, while, of course, the most horrendous features of slavery and racial discrimination have been attenuated. They are hidden from the public until they are captured by smartphones while the state guns downs Black people and the media lynch the victims. Today, there can be no talk or action about the problem of racism in the U.S. without recognizing the state as a vestige of slavery.
In the same manner, the U.S. system violently evolved out of the genocide of the Native peoples, a historical fact that must be rectified. However, this is far from being the case, as the Indigenous nations and their territories are still in the crosshairs of the ruling circles, as the situation at Standing Rock showed.
Similarly, the U.S. system is based on the rule of the rich, who were the ones who fashioned the political system several centuries ago to rule over the vast majority. One cannot seriously consider the U.S. political system today without taking into account that the domestic and foreign-policy driven economies have merged into one with the political system in the service of U.S. imperialism. That is why during the “freest and fairest” elections in the world, one can discuss anything except the huge military expenditures driving the economy. At this time, when progressive people the world over are preparing to commemorate the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, it may also be the occasion to reaffirm the Leninist thesis of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. It is always amusing to hear U.S. mainstream liberal journalists talk about “capitalism.” Very convenient. However, did anyone ever hear them mention the term “imperialism”?
Thus, in my view, while it is obvious that one cannot contemplate similarities between the Cuban and U.S. political systems, one can also not talk about differences, as this would be a gross understatement. The two systems are diametrical, as symbolized by the iconic figure of Fidel Castro, on one the hand, and all the U.S. presidents together, from Washington to Trump, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, on the other.
Sanchez Espinosa: What do you think should be the role of solidarity movements as regards the Cuban Revolution?
August: I think there are several roles that can be played in the current situation. They are all of equal importance.
One task should be to provide space for and make public to the broadest sections of society the views of those Cuban revolutionary writers and intellectuals who are leading the resistance to the U.S.-led cultural war against Cuba. This is why in my latest book, "Cuba–U.S. Relations: Obama and Beyond," I include a full chapter containing the verbatim interviews with you and four other Cuba–U.S. relation specialists: Luis Toledo Sande, Esteban Morales, Jesus Arboleya Cervera and Elier Ramirez. This is a first in the English language. I consider you and other similar writers to be at the forefront of the life-and-death struggle to safeguard the Cuban socialist culture. If these views remain unfamiliar to non-Cubans, a key feature of current Cuban reality is ignored.
Opposition to the blockade is still the cornerstone of solidarity with the Cuban Revolution. This movement has to go beyond preaching to the choir and venture into the very halls of political power, such as lobbying on Capitol Hill, to further influence the growing movement there to lift the blockade. In the same manner, keynote speakers at events in the U.S. should continue to feature people such as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. I heard him speak at a March 2017 event in New York to foster Cuba–U.S. normalization, where he promoted this normalization. He had already visited Cuba and left again the very next day after his talk with a group of political and business people from Newark. This was indeed inspiring. In the context of opposing the blockade, one must not forget that the basic legal foundation of the blockade are the Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts, both of whose formal titles contain the term “democracy,” directed, of course, against Cuba.
Democracy promotion is “as American as apple pie.” Nothing more need be said. This has to be opposed. The return of Guantanamo Bay to Cuba is a question of honor, dignity and security for Cuba. We owe this to the Cuban people.
Sanchez Espinosa: You recently published several articles devoted to analyzing a putative Cuban “left” that is allegedly abetting foreign interference. What reactions did these pieces provoke, and what do you think motivated them?
August: The first one is titled, "The End of Ideology in Cuba?" In fact, it aims to counter the growing trend in Cuba among some individuals on the internet who, of course, call themselves “leftist” – can it be otherwise in Cuba? – to the effect that neither capitalism nor socialism holds an answer for Cuba. The solution is a sort of hybrid system. Likewise, those who stick to principle are labeled “extremists” and “ideologues,” as if the accusers’ views do not reflect an ideological bent.
It reminded me of my university days in the 1960s, when the U.S. sociologist Daniel Bell’s book, "End of Ideology," was promoted to counter our growing interest in revolutionary thinking at the time. I believe that you and others carried out similar work against this trend but termed it "Corrimiento al centro" ("Rushing to the Center"). I thought that this orientation rearing its head in Cuba was important as a key new ingredient in the U.S.-led cultural war against Cuban socialist culture. My article created quite a lot of interest inside and outside of Cuba. Thus, I delved into it further and showed in a second article how these “leftists” in fact have quite a lot in common with the open Cuban right-wing which even proposes annexation of Cuba to the U.S. in this article, "Cuban “Left” Opposition and Annexationists: Two Wings of the Same Eagle."
Now, in writing these articles, I concentrated on the ideological and political orientation and thus did not mention names, so as to focus on the content for educational purposes. The result was a wave of indignation on the internet by some “leftists” whose game had been exposed – and by a non-Cuban at that! To steer away from the content, they complained that I did not name names. What is a bit hilarious is that by coming out of the woodwork, they did not notice that they had named themselves, going as far as the open right-wing siding with their “leftist” counterparts. I did not have to name them and thus they made my articles that much more forceful. This resulted in a third article in which, again without naming names, I wrote, "Cuba’s 'Leftists' and Annexationists: Why I Do Not Name Them."
To my knowledge, they have not written anything since.
Sanchez Espinosa: What is your opinion of the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike “for peace and dignity,” which has been ignored by the mass media?
August: It is perhaps the most courageous activity going on in the world. However, it has been censored, as you say. It ended today, after a 40-day hunger strike, when the Israeli authorities were apparently forced to give in to the political prisoners’ demands. However, knowing Israel and the U.S., I am quite sure it is not over. You mentioned the role of the media. You will recall the Obama visit to Havana, as you, of course, were there, as was I. During the Raul Castro–Obama joint press conference, the White House plant at CNN was the first to ask a question on cue from Obama.
Directing his question to Raul Castro, the CNN reporter asked the Cuban head of state about the so-called political prisoners in Cuba. However, during the Trump visit to Israel last week, amid demonstrations by thousands of Palestinians in support of the political prisoners, not one word was mentioned on CNN about the political prisoners in Israel. This once again goes a long way in illustrating the arbitrary issue of freedom of the press and human rights.
However, what is most important is that the cause of the heroic Palestinian people is the hallmark for progress and peace in the world. No one on the planet can be indifferent to Palestine. If I had another life to live, I would devote it with others around the globe to free Palestine from the genocidal grip of Israel backed by the greatest military force in history, the U.S. The younger generation will surely take up this cause more than ever.
Iroel Sanchez Espinosa is the recipient of the prestigious Felix Elmuza Award for outstanding journalism from the Union of Cuban Journalists of which he is a member. He is the author of the book, "Sospechas y disidencias: Una mirada cubana en la red." He created and developed what is known as the Cuban version of Wikipedia, EcuRed and his blog, "La pupila insomne," is one of the most active in Cuba.
Arnold August, a Montreal-based author and journalist, is the author of "Democracy in Cuba and the 1997-98 Election," "Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion," and the just recently published, "Cuba–U.S. Relations: Obama and Beyond." As a journalist, August regularly contributes in English, Spanish and French to more than a dozen websites in the U.S., Canada, Latin America and Europe. Twitter: Arnold_August FaceBook: Arnold August.