Thursday, June 6, 2019

Conference on Trotsky: Interview Part II

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This is the second part of an interview I conducted with the organizer of the First Academic Conference on Trotsky in Cuba, Frank García Hernández.

Links to part I of my Interview and the Spanish language versions are below.

A.S.     What difficulties and obstacles did you run into in arranging for the Conference?

F.G.H.  The Germans say that the realization of every enterprise involves 80% planning and 20% execution. The difficulties, which were many, occurred mainly in that 80%. The planning was affected, to a large extent, by the prejudices that still exist in Cuba about Trotsky. This caused some decision-makers to have a certain negative predisposition and therefore at the beginning it was very difficult to organize. But then, little by little, the preparation began to move forward, much more so when the colleagues from the Institute of Philosophy endorsed the project. And the other big problem we faced was the economic issue that, in essence, was saved by the alliance made by the Cuban Institute of Cultural Research Juan Marinello and the Institute of Philosophy. Later, in practice, other problems arose, some unexpected, others anticipated. But that is normal.

A.S.   How would you judge the success or failure of the Conference.   (I thought it was a great success despite some problem we had like not enough time for all the participants.)

F.G.H.   We made a big mistake: underestimating the problems. Until the last moment, there were participants who changed the name of their presentation; hence, the first day we did not have a printed program. As a result of our over-confidence and also as a result of financial difficulties, the panels were over-subscribed. I tried to accept all the proposals that were sent. I did not want to put a brake on information coming to Cuba. I had already gone through the bad experience of having to reject a large number of applications from foreign countries: 192 requests from around the world. It was ether that audience or the Cuban public. It was either the audience of specialists or the public. We did not have room for both.   If we had better financing - which was not possible as we are going through a very serious economic crisis in Cuba today - then we would have held a four-day conference. There would have been time to open the exhibition of the photos of Leon Trotsky that were provided  courtesy of the Leon Trotsky Museum in Mexico. Had we the funding we could have accommodated an international academic audience of more than 200 or 300 people. In addition, for economic as well as technical reasons, simultaneous translation was impossible and the presentations took twice the time that had been planned. That diminished the quality of the presentations of course.  One consequence of the abbreviated presentation time was that some of the moderators, without asking me, decided to eliminate the question and answer sessions.

But in essence I think the event was a success. It laid down the seed for something that will be most appreciated by the Cuban people: the publication of the papers that were presented and the debates that they provoked. For the first time in Cuba, a Cuban publishing house will publish a book about Trotsky and the political, historical, social and cultural phenomena that were generated around this Bolshevik.

A.S.  How would you characterize the attitude of the Cuban government toward this Conference?
F.G.H.   The answer is the expected one. In Cuba it has never been said that Trotsky is not what the Soviet comrades said he was. Yet Fidel Castro, in his famous interview with Ignacio Ramonet in 2006, which in Cuba we know as One Hundred Hours with Fidel, said in a positive tone that, comparing Stalin with Trotsky, the latter without doubt, was the most intellectual of the two. Coming from the Commander-in-Chief this was a very important statement but at the same time it was largely unknown because it was another phrase in a book of 800 pages where other topics grabbed more attention from the Cuban public, for whom, moreover, Trotsky and Stalin represented problems from another time and another place.  I think it was one of the few times Fidel talked about it. Then, as discreet as were those words of the leader of the Cuban revolution on Trotsky, so was the attitude of the government towards the congress likewise discreet.

A.S.   Can you explain why there is a hunger for reading the works of Trotsky among the Cuban people?

F.G.H.   It is logical. Those works had been censored. They were never published in Cuba. That's enough. And if it is true that in reality there is nothing illegal about publishing Trotsky’s works, the simple fact that in the time of the USSR Trotsky was anathemized creates a myth around him: the myth of the forbidden. Later, Leonardo Padura published his exceptional novel about Trotsky called The Man Who Loved Dogs. Padura is well known in Cuba but everyone knows that he is not the favorite writer of the establishment.

At that time, the novel served to create certain expectations around the old Bolshevik. Many learned about the purges and persecutions led by Stalin thanks to that text, which was also published in a very limited  print run - not as a result of any action by the government - but because of restrictions established by Padura’s Spanish publisher. On the other hand I am sure that the publishers on the island were not very enthusiastic about this book. And among Cuban university students the revelation that there is a censored Marxist, or at least one who was ostracized, drew a lot of attention. That had previously happened with Gramsci, Foucault, Bourdieu and Rosa Luxemburg, authors who were never banned, but whose works disappeared from bookstores or, most of the time, were never published.

Panel with (left to right) Robert Brenner, Suzi Weissman, Paul LeBlanc, Eric Toussaint.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Conference on Trotsky: Interview Part I

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The following is the first part of an interview I conducted with the organizer of the First Academic Conference on Trotsky in Cuba,Frank García Hernández.

The Spanish version of this interview is available here:
Entrevista con Frank García Hernández: Parte I

Alex Steiner, New York, June 1, 2019

A.S.  I know you wrote your dissertation on the history of Trotskyism in Cuba. Can you tell me how you first became interested in this topic? 

F.G.H.   About 10 years ago I was reading a book about Antonio Guiteras that my grandfather gave me. At the end of the book there was a chronological table. Arriving at 1933 it recorded that on September 12 of that year the Bolshevik Leninist Party (PBL) had been founded. Pages later I read that Sandalio Junco, its founder, was murdered by Communist Party assassins on May 8, 1942. It was quite a surprise for me. Later I found another book but this time it was about some interviews that the intellectual and friend Julio César Guanche had with other Cuban intellectuals. The title was The Project and the Power. I recommend it. He asked, among many other things, about the PBL and another one of its founders: the Cuban surrealist and Trotskyist poet Juan Ramón Breá. None of the interviewees could say much about them. Then, in 2013, I read another book of the  collected memoirs of the Cuban intellectual Grazziella Pogolloti. In one of his chapters he mentioned the wife of Juan Ramón Breá: an English poet and Trotskyist of Australian parents who fought alongside Breá and Benjamin Peret in the Spanish Civil War. She had lived in Cuba until 1960 and had been well known in the most important literary circles of the country. But there was not much bibliography about her either. On or about 2014 my master's thesis was about the Movement of Rural Landless Workers of Brazil (MST), but curiosity made me change the subject. Today apparently there are new people interested in learning the history of Cuban Trotskyism, but until a few months ago there were only a few people. In Cuba, the main historian who studied the subject had died and left a work with important errors that everyone later repeated. I decided then to write the complete history of Cuban Trotskyism. Contrary to what some may believe, I had no problem with the academic authorities. On the contrary, I was encouraged to continue the investigation. My dissertation received the highest reviews. There was no problem. I presented it on April 26, 2018. On June 1 I was already broadcasting my decision to hold the 1st International Leon Trotsky Academic Event.

A.S. What made you decide to organize this conference?

F.G.H.   In November 2016 I taught a postgraduate course in Santa Clara about     the life and work of Leon Trotsky. The room was completely full. Thanks to Leonardo Padura's novel about Trotsky, The Man Who Loved Dogs, the interest was immense. I had photocopied a copy of The Revolution Betrayed and everyone asked for it. Many asked me about Trotsky's writings on art and literature. In Cuba, students do not like to read digitally. Although they are millennials, they prefer to make marks on paper books. They asked me so many questions that I could not answer them all. They were shocked to see the photo of Zinoviev beaten with the prisoner's poster. The farewell letter from Adolf Joffe impressed everyone. One of them wrote a poem to Joffe.  He later published, in a cultural magazine, a fragment, in January 2018, of the speech with which Trotsky founded the Red Army.

Months later I met Yunier Mena, the Cuban philology student who participated in the event. He is of peasant parents and lives in a peasant cooperative. We wrote a manifesto about poetry and communism called Communist Poets. I realized that there was a sector of youth, especially in Santa Clara with a big disposition towards a Marxism that they did not know. Again, The Revolution Betrayed caused a great impact. Among them was a young lady who would later become my wife. I realized then that it would be a great selfishness not to bring to Cuba a thought that had long since landed in our libraries.

A.S. Can you tell me something about the people and groups that helped you organize the Conference?

F.G.H.   In the beginning I started this adventure alone. Most thought I would get tired. When I explained my intention to organize the conference, they looked at me as if I were crazy. Today some tell me that it was really something others could have done, but at the beginning those others did not exist. Most did not believe that many foreign guests were coming. They thought it would two or three at most. No one ever believed that there would be 192 requests just from foreign delegates.  First, I asked for support from the Cuban Cultural Research Institute Juan Marinello, where I work. They were not very convinced, but they accepted. They suggested that I also make the same proposal to sponsor the conference to the Institute of Philosophy. They did have more interest. The project had much more to do with them. Afterwards my friend Javier Ortiz, another university student and artist, suggested the idea of ​​doing the event at Casa Benito Juárez. He made a strong presentation to the person who is now my friend, the Co-Director of the Juárez museum, Miguel Hernández. It is a beautiful and wide place. The other two institutions had much smaller spaces.

Misunderstandings did not come from any of the people of these institutions, rather they were from people who did not know the subject. For those who have no knowledge of Trotsky, the old Bolshevik is still the devil. Even more in Cuba. In addition, no State likes to introduce theories that may cause certain discomforts. Actually, knowledge of Trotsky would not do any harm to Cuba, rather, it would help us a lot. But prejudices without knowledge do much harm. Sometimes prejudices are similar to faith. Unquestionable

But the main help in the organization of the conference came from my partner Lisbeth Moya González. She had suffered an accident and her leg was in a cast. The plaster cast was removed just prior to the conference so that she could participate in the event. And my companion Yunier Mena Benavides. Thanks to him, countless tasks were solved. There was also the student Eduardo Expósito who worked in silence solving problems that nobody saw because they did not happen but they were potentially serious. He is a student of mechanics and is very close to the workers. He comes from a very proletarian neighborhood with big social problems. He is the proof that Marxism is not exclusive to the intellectual elite. There is also the designer of that beautiful poster that promoted the event, Yaimel López. He did not charge a penny to make the design and he is today one of the best and most highly valued Cuban designers. And to the Colombian and Cuban musicians who composed the farewell musical theme: the friends Santiago Barbosa and Luna Catalina Tinoco. In addition, credit is also due to the comrade and Basque nationalist, Guillén García, who so graciously offered his bar La Bombilla Verde and gave away a beer for each guest at the event. And my family. Although it seems a bit sentimental, my family provided great support, especially my mother and my grandmother. It is fair to recognize everyone. We should also mention Verde Gil and Ana Isabel, two compañeras who came at their own expense from Santa Clara. That's why they deserve honor. And they also did some homework at the event. And always, very important: to all the Cuban workers and the world that made the event possible. Without the working classes and their struggle today we would not be talking about revolution behind our desks.

A.S. Why did you insist that this was an academic conference and not a forum for political groups?

F.G.H.   I insisted on that because different Trotskyist political groups contacted me directly and, in a direct way, very respectful, they told me that we had to politicize the event. They maintained that an academic conference was not so important, that we had to refound the Fourth International in Cuba. I respected their considerations, but what would Cuba gain in bringing political groups that would try to explain to us the Cuban reality? The worst of the limitations that hamper those who are interested in Cuba, is that they cannot access the books, the research and the theory that we do in Cuba. Today we are in the midst of a very powerful debate within the Cuban left. We develop very good theory. But our books are not on Amazon. Of the debates that can be found in our blogs about and from Cuba, I want to mention Iroel Sánchez's Sleepless Pupil, Julio César Guanche's Thing. There is also La Tizza, La Joven Cuba and Trinchera, three very combative young groups, whose debates are invisible for the majority of foreigners. Foreigners moreover are prejudiced by the criticism of the extreme right, the criticism of the extreme left and the discourse of the left in solidarity with Cuba. I am not even counting the mainstream media that never tell the truth or say it half-heartedly, which is sometimes worse. Then it happens that sometimes from abroad, it is thought that in Cuba there is a Stalinist dictatorship or a communist paradise. I always say to the compañeros who visit Cuba: everything you know about Cuba is a lie, but at the same time everything you know about Cuba is true. I would love to speak with all the Trotskyist organizations in the world, I admire them: The International Group, the Fourth International, the American and British SWP, Allan Woods, the Turkish DIP, the Argentine FIT, the Brazilian PSTU, the American PSL, anyone. I am willing, I would like to give everyone a to-do list to make visible the Cuban reality. In fact, on May 9 and 10, I thought of giving a brief history course of the 60 years of the Cuban revolution. A course that I had prepared years ago. I can send the notes for this course to whoever is interested, but it would not be of the highest quality.   After two weeks of sleeping only three or sometimes two and a half hours a night, my body was exhausted.  I am willing to go anywhere without charging a penny for that course. Although I am not a Trotskyist, all the Trotskyists of the world, all the revolutionaries of the world, all those who fight against capitalism and for socialism are my comrades.

Frank opening the Conference. The Co-Director of the Juárez museum, Miguel Hernández, is on his left.