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.

1 comment:

Arthur said...

Just re-read the article from June 13 on world socialist website covering the Havana conference. I know you have other commitments but ask that you give your take on the twist of the "historical" information that Van Auken presents. I get lost in the flow of "battles" of the movement and being the true heirs of Ttrotsky, a claim many make! I admit to reading a lot from the IMT and financially supporting the youth who work tirelessly in their Swedish section. I read from all the "pseudo-lefts" with great interest. Agreeing or disagreeing with their views. I would much rather be in a room "revolutionaries" from the various outfits than Hillary or Trump or Putin supporters. Sorry for the rant.