Trotsky conference in Cuba: An interview with the organizer

July 2019 trotsky_1938

Leon Trotsky with his wife Natalia Sedova Trotsky in Mexico in 1938.

By ROB LYONS

From the 6th to the 8th of May, the first International Academic Conference examining the life and ideas of the great Ukrainian revolutionary and leader of the Russian revolution Lev Davidovitch Bronstein, now universally known as Leon Trotsky, was held in Havana, Cuba. The Conference was organized by the Juan Marinelo Cultural Center in conjunction with the Cuban Institute of Philosophy, and was hosted by the Casa Benito Juarez in Old Havana.

Sponsoring organizations included the Trotsky House and Museum in Mexico City, the Editions Carlos Marx, of Mexico, and the Center for the Study and Investigation of the thoughts of Leon Trotsky, Mexico City and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

What was surprising about the site of the conference was the hitherto blatant animosity of sections of the the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party towards Trotskyism and the Cuban Trotskyists. The opening statements of the conference organizers included an apology to the Cuban Trotskyists unjustifiable jailed by the government in the late 1960’s.

The changing attitudes towards Trotsky and his ideas are expressed most clearly in the personal testimony of the political evolution of the sparkplug behind the conference, Frank Garcia Fernandez (FG) a teacher and graduate student in sociology, whose doctoral thesis is on Trotskyism in Cuba.

The interview was conducted by Rob Lyons (RL) Socialist Action’s international solidarity coordinator, based in Costa Rica, and an attendee at the conference.

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RL: Let me say first of all that the Conference has caused much commentary in sections of the revolutionary left, especially in the Americas, given the Cuban government’s antipathy towards Trotsky and Trotskyism. What motivated you and your co-organizers to swim against this stream? A related question is, of course, in your opinion is there a greater openness to discuss the ideas of Trotsky among the Cuban political vanguard and the Party membership?

FG: First of all, thank you very much for interviewing me and I send a revolutionary greeting to all the comrades who are reading this article.

When I first read Trotsky’s name I was 10 years old. It was in a book—not published in Cuba—about flags and shields of the world. I liked them a lot as a child and even today I collect flags. Each country represented brought a brief historical review. The Soviet Union, at the time of publication of the book, still existed, and in its chapter read: Lenin and Trotsky led the October Revolution.

From a young age my uncle had trained me in Marxism; all my family is revolutionary: former members of the July 26 Movement; but the communist was him: a brave militant of the old PSP[1] whom I respected and admired a lot. As you will understand, he had no fondness for Trotsky. Since I was a child I had read a lot of Soviet children’s literature about the October Revolution and, of course, there was no mention of Trotsky, I asked my uncle who that man mentioned in the book’s flags was. A traitor, he told me. And I did not question it: my uncle had been tortured almost to death in 1958 by the Batista police for the simple fact of spreading communist literature.

After that I continued to admire Stalin: he had defeated fascism and, although in Cuba there was not a good deal of talk about him, neither did he speak badly. However, one could read Soviet literature with titles such as The Bolshevik Party Struggle Against Trotskyism. My admiration for Stalin – deepened by my uncle who only criticized him for the cult of personality – mixed with my rejection of Gorbachev and his clique who, in addition to destroying the Soviet Union directed criticism against Stalin, made him identify Trotskyism with the perestroika and, my reaction was that I felt Stalinist. So I continued until my arrival at the University of Havana. There I became friends with Latin American students who were members of the youths of their respective communist parties, who also did not have good judgment about Trotsky, although many did not admire Stalin either. Subsequently, thanks to a Colombian friend – Álvaro Jácome Boada – I discovered the figure of the revolutionary priest Camilo Torres, and later Paulo Freire and Popular Education.

Already in my personal bookstore I had a book by Trotsky: The Revolution Betrayed. This was thanks to the fact that in February of 1998 I met those who are now my friends: the members of the American SWP that came and go, all the febreros, to participate with the Pathfinder publishing house in the International Book Fair of Havana. As in 1998 I was a Stalinist—I had a picture of Stalin in my room—I did not read The Betrayed Revolution until 2012, when I had theoretically completely dismantled Stalinism. The Pathfinder followed me giving away books by Trotsky and James P. Cannon—In defense of Marxism, History of American Trotskyism, etc.—and my interest in Trotsky grew.

By that time, I read a book by the Cuban historian Ana Cairo, which mentioned that on Sept. 12, 1933, a party whose name was the Bolshevik Leninist Party (PBL) and that was Trotskyist had been founded in Cuba. In another book, this time by Cuban researcher Julio César Guanche, he was still talking about Juan Ramón Breá and Sandalio Junco, both founders of the PBL. Both Cairo and Guanche insisted that almost nothing was known about this part of the story and they called for continuing the research that Rafael Soler had begun in 1997 on the PBL. I entered the Juan Marinello Cuban Cultural Research Institute in October of 2012 and began a long investigation on this subject that I have not finished yet.

In November 2016 I decided to teach a postgraduate course on the life and work of Leon Trotsky at the Central University of Las Villas, in Santa Clara. Although I was born and live in Havana, I have very good relations with that city. The course was received with an excellent reception especially by the university students. I had realized that Trotsky was a very necessary and absent piece of Marxism in Cuba and it was an idea that I confirmed while teaching those classes.

So I suggested the idea to my colleague and friend Fernando Martínez Heredia[2] to call from the Cuban Institute of Cultural Research Juan Marinello to an international event about the forgotten Bolshevik, but he suggested that to do it in November of 2017: He wanted to take advantage of the centenary date of the October Revolution. Unfortunately for all, Martínez Heredia passed away in June of 2017. I continued with my research for the master’s thesis that dealt with the history of Cuban Trotskyism. When I finished the master’s degree, in April 2018, and after taking a short break, I decided to prepare this event that just concluded on May 8, 2019, just as a tribute to the centenary of the Communist International, the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and the memory of Antonio Guiteras[3] and Sandalio Junco, both murdered that same May 8 but in different years.

As you see, this event is fruit, I believe, more than a historical circumstance, it is the product of a personal theoretical-ideological evolution. It is true that in the 80s of the last century this event would have been impossible in Cuba, it is true that Cuban intellectuals such as Martínez Heredia, Desiderio Navarro, Jorge Fornet, opened a path towards critical Marxism through the Marxist critique that at some point it had closed. It is also true that thanks to Commander Fidel Cuban society has a broad knowledge of Marxism, a strong cultural preparation that makes Trotsky not fall into a vacuum now, and it is true that for all this there is in Cuba a positive predisposition towards all heretical Marxism, critical and unorthodox, but I also believe that, without a sense of protagonism, the event arose from a very personal motivation and I know that it took many people by surprise who would never have expected this to happen.

But it is also my opinion that after the event itself, even more with the publication of the book that will collect the memories, we will see a before and after between the Cuban university researchers and students: the image of Trotsky will be desacralized and demystified. The idea of ​​bringing Trotsky to Cuba and the studies that exist around him will have been achieved. Mainly thanks to the Cuban working class, who is the one I first thanked when the event was inaugurated, because it was the workers who made this socialist revolution. Among them, that old PSP member who was my uncle.

RL: For me, the highlight of the conference was the sheer breadth of the topics that made it to the agenda, and the overall quality of the research behind them, in most cases. Unfortunately, because the agenda was so crowded, the conference participants were limited in their ability to discuss these ideas and new research in detail. Could you explain some of the obstacles that were presented in organizing the conference, as well as what institutional and political support you received? I know that it was a monumental task to achieve this successful event.

FG: For the event to have been better it must have had four days. The tables would have had extensive debates, which is, along with the translations and the time that was lost due to the translations, the main weak point of the event. But those of us who live in Cuba know that the economic crisis we are facing today, largely because of the imperialist blockade, did not allow us to hold an event that lasted four days. I did not even suggest it to the officials who worked with me, Rodrigo Espina, Elena Socarras, Georgina Alfonso, Miguel Hernandez, Wilder Pérez Varona, Yohanka León: thank you very much.

Three days were a feat. That was the main reason, the economic one, for which the Juan Marinello Institute had to seek support at the Institute of Philosophy and the Institute of Philosophy was the main organizing institution because in fact the subject had much more to do with its lines of research than with the Marinello’s Institute. Finally, the event came out winning. Along with Casa Benito Juárez were three Cuban institutions that were initially involved, then four, if we count the Young Filmmakers Exhibition, the institution that generously provided the room where the documentary about Trotsky The World’s Most Dangerous Man was screened. If it had not been for these good wills, we would not have had an event.

And it is true that there were misunderstandings. The main one was the negative predisposition of certain officials towards Trotsky. And it is that when the Soviet Union fell in Cuba we all knew that Stalin was the abominable character that we know today, but nobody here took away the stigma of a traitor that existed on Trotsky. If we add to this that some Trotskyist groups have been extremely critical of the Revolution, I say that often caused by a mixture of dogmatism and lack of knowledge about the Cuban reality, if we add the first and second factor, we will see that the reaction of some people was normal. And it is feared by some people that some of those groups that I mentioned came to try to create Trotskyist political organizations in Cuba. Something that has no chance because nobody in Cuba is interested in doing it. But the event, due to its strict academic factor and because those who came showed great respect for the country where they were, prevented certain unfounded suspicions from happening.

RL: At one of the pre-conference meetings where we discussed the organizing of the future conferences like this, I argued that it was the power of the Cuban revolution which was able to act as the magnetism, as Celia Hart once said, that was able to gather such a fractious group of strong willed individuals in one room. I think it is a testament to the power of the ideals of the revolution, upheld like people like yourselves and your partners, that can motivate more such gatherings. What are your plans and ideas for future academic gatherings of this type? Do you think there can be momentum built by those interested militants and academics, outside and inside Cuba, to hold a similar conference? How can our readers help in meeting the challenges of a second event?

FG: On Wednesday, May 1, in Department 301 Aguiar Street, in Old Havana, where the Brazilian researchers invited to the Daniel Perseguim event, his partner Karina Quintanilha Ferreira and Edson Oliveira, were staying five days before the start of the event, the first coordination meeting was held for the preparation of the 2nd Leon Trotski International Academic Event. The following Sunday, May 5, the birthday of Karl Marx, we had the second meeting and it happened in El Vedado, in the department of the American researcher Alex Steiner. This was an idea that emerged, at the same time and separately, from the Brazilians researchers Daniel Perseguim -as already mentioned-, Morgana Romao and Marcio Lueira. Apparently, according to my friend Daniel Perseguim, who seems to be at the head of a valuable group of Brazilian academics who promote the idea, as he has informed me, the event should be in October 2020 in Sao Paulo. The first steps are being taken to obtain the necessary financing. This time, although there will be no magnetism that generates Cuba and its revolution, this time it seems that there will be no problem in having a greater number of public and exhibitors who want to participate. This is perhaps one of the greatest ideas that could have emerged at the event. I never thought it was something that was going to happen. When he told me for the first time, I thought it was a good wish, but nothing more. Then he set the date and time. It was the complete afternoon of Workers’ Day, something very symbolic, where they were—in addition to those I have already mentioned—Bryan Palmer, Paul Le Blanc, Clara Figueiredo—all these guests at the event—the Brazilian architect and photographer Gabriel Kogan and the Cubans students Lisbeth Moya González and Eduardo Expósito. In Cuba I was forced to establish a quota: 40 Cubans and 40 foreigners. We could not receive more despite having registered 192 requests only as public. I tried to prioritize those who brought research: that was the reason why there were tables of 4 or 5 exhibitors: the idea was that knowledge would reach the Cuban public. The room, who were present could testify, was only for 80 capacities.

Now the best way they can help the second edition is done is to achieve funds that certain institutions grant for events like these and as soon as the official announcement is launched, everyone could help us a lot in the dissemination. For that, for the information, the mail encuentrotrotsky@gmail.com is available and also I offer mine frankcuba1959@gmail.com In August of the 2020, taking advantage of the commemorations that will be made in the Trotsky House Museum in Mexico, we will have a coordinating meeting to international level. Before, they will be done via Skype or Hangout.

RL: North American imperialism has increased its pressure on Cuba, and has become more bellicose in its claim to rule over its “patio”, another revival of the Monroe Doctrine. Since the revolution and the establishment of the Fair Play for Cuba Committees, Trotskyists have played a major role in building solidarity with the revolution and have consistently been in the forefront of its defense. I think the pronouncements of a long list of the conference participants testify to that fact. Do you see a political role for future conferences in helping to re-ignite the solidarity movement? What modalities between the complexity of organizing this conference, the need for solidarity and the political dynamics at play within Cuba need to be analyzed and reinforced, in your opinion?

FG: The last day of the event in the afternoon, when everything seemed to end, the Canadian comrade Rob Lyon raised his left fist and began to sing ‘La Internacional’. For a moment it seemed that no one would follow the idea, but immediately Juan León Ferrara, the last Cuban Trotskyist, continued it and then we all followed. In the lively room, the International was heard singing in Iranian, Indian, Turkish, German, English, Spanish, Russian, French, Portuguese: we lived for a few minutes the feelings that a member of the COMINTERN could feel. That was the best example that the best solidarity networks can come out of that event. It is beautiful to see how, above theoretical and political differences, this can happen. As long as violence does not mediate between differences, we will all win. It is pure dialectic.

From there, a support network has to emerge for young Cubans who are interested in Marxism and, although they have a good bibliography in Cuba, they want and need more. We Cubans do not need to have Trotskyist parties in our country, we do not need anything at all. Trotsky was an excellent theorist and an excellent revolutionary, but no bigger than Gramsci could be in theory or Fidel leading a revolution. He, like the ones I just mentioned, are part of the system of ideas we have called: Marxism. And that we do need, more and more new Marxist theory.

I was ashamed because I did not know who Helmut Dahmer was, Robert Brenner, I did not know about September Group, John Elster, Erik Olin Wright, Gerard Allan Cohen. Now, thanks to the arrival of Brenner, and although I could not sit down with him to speak for a moment, only words crossed in the corridors, and it hurt me very much how the presence of that great intellectual was wasted – as happened with Helmut Dahmer-, Now, thanks to Brenner, we have discovered titles such as Mercaderes and Revolucion, An Introduction to Marx, Classes, The Theory of Karl Marx’s History: A Defense. They were books that we did not even know existed, we had barely heard of analytical Marxism.

Thanks to the event we have re-established contacts with the necessary Eric Toussaint and Michael Löwy, we are building links with Tariq Ali, we are trying to contact Slavoj Zizek; Thanks to the event Alex Callinicos, that great absent theoretician in Cuba, Callinicos has contacted us personally, thanks to researcher Héctor Puente Sierra, invited to the event.

The event managed to awaken among the Cuban students present a great interest for Trotsky and the new Marxist theory. In Havana there is the student of journalism Lisbeth Moya González, in Santa Clara, with a much more favorable situation to spread the work of Trotsky, are the compañeras Verde Gil and Ana Isabel, besides the excellent young comrade, student of philology, Yunier Mena Benavides who was an excellent speaker. They want new books. I ask that you look them up on Facebook and send them literature that is not in digital format. They have created a study group called the Cuban Communist Forum. It is not a political group: it is a circle of study on Marxist theory, because they want to read theoreticians like Daniel Bensaïd, Pierre Broué, Nikos Poulantzas and all the others that I mentioned. Marx and Lenin are not enough, much less with Hegel and Feuerbach. That is the main call I make for the solidarity network to be established: send books.

RL : I know from the reaction of the participants that, with the exception of some of the technical problems, that the conference was a success from an academic and, quite frankly, a political viewpoint. Now that the stress and excitement has worn off a little bit, what is your analysis? Did you and your co-organizers achieve what you had hoped for? What message would you like to send regarding some of the post-conference commentaries and questions?

FG: I think so, that to a large extent we achieved what was thought. But the Cuban public failed, it was a disclosure error, a lack of time to advertise correctly.. I am consoled that at least the students who were present were activated with the spark of the event. Now in Santa Clara, they ask me every week to take copies of The Revolution Betrayed. We still have some copies of the ones brought by the comrades of Karl Marx Socialist Studies Center.

It was also achieved that we bring many books to academic institutions as is a very valuable text by Trotsky named Latin American Writings published by the Center for Studies, Research and Publications Leon Trotsky, or Trotsky in the mirror of history, perhaps the best knower of the old Bolshevik in Latin America, Gabriel García. And the idea of ​​the 2nd was born. International Academic Event Leon Trotsky, something unexpected. So far I have only received congratulations, but I know there were many mistakes, many incoordination’s: those who suffered them I apologize. Hopefully the next one will be better. I hope those who came have understood Cuba. Always remember that the best way to help is to protect ourselves from all incomprehension. Silvio Rodríguez already said in a beautiful song: “A friend is the one who protects you.”

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[1] PSP (Popular Socialist Party): acronym adopted by the communist party founded in 1925 ascribed to the Communist International. Not to be confused with the current Communist Party of Cuba founded in 1965 as a result of the merger of the July 26 Movement, the March 13 Revolutionary Directorate and the aforementioned Popular Socialist Party.

[2] Cuban intellectual He founded and directed the journal Critical Thinking of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Havana during the decade of the sixties. From there he spread the theory of a revolutionary Marxism opposed to Soviet manuals. In this magazine he published, among others, Michael Löwy and Ernest Mandel. It gave direct support to the national liberation movements of Latin America. In the decade of the nineties he founded the Antonio Gramsci Chair. From 2011 until his death in June 2017, he directed the Juan Marinello Cuban Cultural Research Institute.

[3] Historical Cuban revolutionary socialist leader of the decade of the thirties of the last century. He fought against the dictatorship of General Machado, overthrowing him and forming part of the government that would be established in September 1933. He served as prime minister, being the president the reformist Ramón Grau San Martín. Overthrown by the head of the army in a coup d’etat, he passed to the political opposition returning to the armed route. He fell in combat, accompanied by the Venezuelan internationalist fighter Carlos Aponte in 1938, on May 8.