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.


Anonymous said...

Although short in length, this interview seems sufficient for me to realize how devoted he has been to making the conference take place. On the one hand, it is so marvelous. On the other hand, I feel a bit envious. The conference like this will be held in my country as well. I extend my thanks to Alex Steiner for sharing his valuable experience in Cuba.

Arthur said...

Thank you so much for publishing this interview. Very, very interesting. Great insight from a knowledgeable scholar who. obviously sees the short comings of the world's Trotskyist organizations.