DSA in Cuba: Refining Our International Strategy

Date: 2024-03-22T15:38:45+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Sid C. of Marxist Unity Group responds to Reform and Revolution’s Maria Franzblau’s “Cuba: Between Imperialism and Socialism” with both a defense and critique of her engagement there.

Over three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Western Left’s continued debate over engaging with actually-existing socialism around the world has only grown more complicated.  While the American neoliberal hegemony continues its victory lap around the globe, the government and people of Cuba have fought to preserve the hard-won fruits of revolution in a new century. This very reality is itself commendable—in the face of an ongoing blockade that has wrought untold suffering on the island, leftists around the globe continue to devote serious study to the successes of the political project and those whose lives it has improved. 

As the present-day economic crisis in Cuba deepens (the government recently made a demand for food aid from the UN), it is critical for western leftists to continue to identify U.S. empire as the primary driver of hardship on the island and affirm our support for the ongoing project of revolution, even as we analyze its triumphs and struggles. After the July 2021 protests, in which Cubans took to the streets to rally against causes ranging from the American blockade to the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, neoliberals from Miami to Washington have attempted to capitalize on the crisis to push for right-wing regime change. As such, when we seek to understand present crises on the island, we must continue to remember that the Cuban Revolution remains popular, and that its possible defeat at the hands of capitalist forces would be an unspeakable tragedy leading to deep human suffering.

Recently, comrade Maria Franzblau of the Reform and Revolution caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America penned a remarkable article on her trip to the island with DSA’s International Committee (IC). Within, she recounts her experiences meeting with “autonomous” leftists in Cuba who seek to critique the Cuban state for recent embraces of neoliberalism and privatization, as well as the suppression of free speech. Her actions, which were permitted but not wholly endorsed by the organizers of the diplomatic visit, were recounted at length and with clarity in the above text. Though Franzblau ascertained her (and her interlocutors’) continued support for the Revolutionary project, the article sparked intense vitriol across segments of the U.S. Left. Commentators wantonly accused her of infidelity to the Revolutionary project and worse, all while refusing to engage with many of the thorny questions that she seeks to address.

I want to respond to this article by affirming these main points:

  • The U.S. blockade of Cuba must be brought to a swift end, and that the said blockade is the primary source of the hardship experienced by ordinary Cubans in the present day. 
  • It is important to remember that regardless of our opinions on the nature of the present-day Cuban government, conversations about how the U.S. Left engages with both the “institutional” and “autonomous” Left in Cuba must be held in the open, and given the light and air that they require.
  • I think it is incumbent on DSA to seriously consider what it means to visit Cuba and engage with those on the Left who may exist politically outside the structure of the state. As we will see, I am doubtful that Comrade Maria’s interlocutors’ “critique” of neoliberalization in Cuba genuinely meets the bar for labeling someone a left-dissident voice. Future DSA delegations should label them accordingly.
  • The grotesque fed-jacketing of our comrade must cease forthwith. Though I question whether or not these actions should be built into our political program as we continue to visit Cuba, Maria’s actions were wholly justified and furthered DSA’s ongoing discussions about actually-existing socialism.

Generally speaking, I did not agree with the core principles of the comrade’s article. I take the position that the role of the International Committee’s delegation is a diplomatic one that seeks chiefly to collaborate with our institutional allies that form the Cuban state. Nevertheless, DSA is a multi-tendency organization whose members have a wide range of views on Cuba and how we should engage with the Cuban Left, both inside and outside the structures of its ruling Communist Party. As such, when a comrade successfully organizes DSA members to go off the beaten path and engage with autonomous leftist organizers (with no apparent damage to the Revolution or to DSA), we should at the very least keep an open mind and trust that we will have an opportunity to expand our knowledge about socialist theory and practice outside of our home country.

DSA’s International Committee, which organized this trip, has long been a site of open debate over how we engage with left formations around the world, with members both inside and outside the committee reflecting on its role within our organization. As comrades debate the efficacy of organized trips to actually-existing socialist states, ensuring that tactical diversity is reflected in our organization’s political thought is key to preserving productive debate. And there is important debate to be had: as left-wing Cubans challenge neoliberalism and privatization within the national economy, we need to come to some conclusions on how (or even if) the U.S. Left is to fold these critiques into our ongoing support for the Cuban Revolutionary project. As comrade Franzblau suggested in her own writing, this is the beginning of a conversation, rather than the end of it.

Answering this question requires a close reading of comrade Franzblau’s article. Though her account is but one of a nearly infinite universe of stories that could be told about the autonomous Cuban Left, her insight reveals both the strengths of her approach and the limits of engaging with extra-state actors. Chiefly, I am skeptical of whether Maykel Vivero, a writer for queer magazine Tremenda Nota, and the La Tizza Collective, Franzblau’s main interlocutors, represent a sufficient “break” from the establishment to genuinely provide outsiders with insight into Cuban politics that cannot be otherwise gained from a reasoned Marxist critique of present developments. 

In both of her engagements with extra-party formations on the Cuban Left, comrade Franzblau is clear in her assertion that both Vivero and La Tizza, a collective of leftist thinkers and writers, are supportive of the revolutionary project. Both Vivero’s publication and the collective provide space for Cuban Leftists to comment on issues important to the revolutionary project, as well autonomy for their writers to both endorse and critique the actions of the government.

Tremenda Nota, whose Twitter (inactive since mid-2023) can be found here, is invested in providing on-the-ground community journalism about queer activists and causes within Cuba. In Vivero’s conversations with comrade Franzblau, he recounted the various ways in which CENESEX, Cuba’s state-sanctioned LGBTQ advocacy group, has either aided or hindered the political advancement of the nation’s queer communities. La Tizza, whose commentary ranges from interpretations of Gramsci to analyses of contemporary Cuba, likewise provides opportunities for thinkers to assess the ongoing need for political strategy in the face of encroaching neoliberalism. Both offered significant and specific insights about the ways in which their government has failed the people of Cuba, and why various citizens have spoken out—whether in support of autonomous queer formations or in the form of general unrest in 2021.

These critiques are important, and Franzblau’s work (organizing, translating, and contributing to the conversation) is nothing short of commendable. Nonetheless, it is difficult for me as an outside reader to characterize these critiques as genuine dissent, rather than mere dissatisfaction with the vicissitudes of governance in the face of extreme scarcity of resources and the fragility of gains already won. Certainly, no government is beneath critique, but if the International Committee is to shape its future endeavors around meetings of this type, we need an overarching strategy that goes beyond the fact that these meetings merely have the capacity to expand our body of knowledge about Cuba. We should engage with groups like La Tizza because they are doing excellent work on the island. This, however, is not a strategy in and of itself.

As such, I think a broader goal of this type of engagement needs to be articulated. After all, there are some clear limits on which types of dissident voices DSA is capable of meeting. We will not engage with the Right, obviously, but we also cannot engage with leftists who are political prisoners of the state, either. Though prisoners were invoked in meetings with Party officials (who dismissed their 2021 arrests as merely for property destruction), DSA was, for obvious reasons, not able to arrange any meetings with them or engage concretely with the jailed “dissident” Cuban Left. Certainly, these individuals, and perhaps groups, might be able to offer different insights into their resistance against austerity and repression than those outside the reach of the long arm of the law.

 Some cynical responses suggested, uncharitably in my view, that the continued existence of groups like Vivero’s Tremenda Nota and La Tizza was emblematic of the robustness of Cuban democracy. While there is plenty of truth in this idea, I find this to be a very low bar for defining a political system in which competing left-wing ideas have the light and air to breathe. Assessing the triumphs and flaws of Cuba’s innovative democracy will require deeper investigation both here and on the island, especially if the crises of neoliberalism and privatization worsen.

But as engaging with political prisoners is not possible (or, in my view, even necessary), I question the extent of the usefulness of formal engagement with the dissatisfied autonomous Left for future delegations. After all, though comrade Franzblau’s descriptions of her interlocutors’ ideas were remarkable and have expanded our understanding of the Cuban Left, it remains unclear about what they actually do insofar as they marshal resistance to state power and put their dissatisfaction into action. Though I am interested in the aborted Pride rally sponsored by Vivero and his comrades in the run-up to the Family Code referendum, I felt like the comrade’s article required a more in-depth assessment of these groups’ works and actions. To an outside reader like myself, those that comrade Franzblau describes are painted as noble revolutionaries with some serious problems with the present-day realities of the Cuban state. Their problems, however, have largely been set aside in service of maintaining the Revolution’s political project.

La Tizza’s response to the July 2021 protests is emblematic of this issue, and I think captures the difficulty of ascertaining the form and function of Cuba’s Left opposition. On July 15, 2021, the collective published “We Must Return to the Future,” an article which has since been translated into English, describing the origins of the protests and what they represent. Building a holistic interpretation of that political moment is difficult: La Tizza recognizes that the multifarious nature of the protests (and the myriad beliefs motivating individual protestors) render them difficult to assess in their entirety. Even so, its writers note specifically that the conflict at hand was not between the protestors and the state, per se, but between the part of society that had grown weary and cynical towards socialism and the part that refused to renounce the victories of the Revolutionary project, maintaining that support in spite of the short-term failures of the government. As such, La Tizza condemned the protestors for their lack of political program, and (less charitably) their seduction by capitalist material values. The collective concludes the article by reminding readers that we all must “return to Fidel,” and the belief that the ongoing project of the Revolution is to continue to build (and imagine!) a brighter tomorrow than today.

Such restrained critique! But certainly not unexpected. The members of the collective, like ourselves, are steeling themselves for new challenges to the Revolution’s present and future. As economic hardship in Cuba continues, it is clear that we will see more evolution in how leftists express dissent with the policies of the state. If this article is any indication, however, it appears that the autonomous left will have many political, rhetorical, and organizational hurdles to clear if its members seek to organize and agitate against creeping neoliberalism and wanton state repression. Given these challenges, I fail to see why DSA should treat engagement with autonomous groups with any level of urgency in the present moment. We should engage with organizations like Tremenda Nota and La Tizza not because they will offer us some particular intellectual insight that no other source can, but merely because they are comrades with political ideas as diverse as anyone else whose company we share.

In her article, comrade Franzblau correctly expressed frustration that the state representatives offered no clear political paths or ideas for U.S. socialists to resist the embargo. Unfortunately, however, it does not seem clear that any of these other interlocutors offered anything, either. In fact, their conscious choice to begin with praise for the Revolution (and the comrade’s choice to print it) makes me skeptical that these individuals offer any medicine significantly different from the state’s. At best, they remind us that there are specific ways we can moderate our effusive praise of the achievements of the Revolution—something that most of us were doing already when pressed on the issue by other socialists.

While it is clear that the International Committee is in a state of soul-searching right now, I do not think the recommendation that delegations attempt to hear from “a diverse array of socialist perspectives” (that is to say, perspectives both inside and outside formal party structure) is remotely actionable or even favorable. DSA should not be expected to climb over every rock and rill to find a bevy of dissatisfied bloggers that have specific frustrations with the actions of the Cuban state. Certainly, they might be able to teach us something about our world and our struggle, but it seems clear from my reading of comrade Franzblau’s visit that this was not accomplished to any serious degree by her semi-clandestine activities. It is better, in my view, for the International Committee to continue its work in determining and publicizing how its engagements with the state itself can help our actions here in the United States. If such tactics have been ineffective, as comrade Franzblau argues, I suggest that we should take an opportunity to refine and debate them, rather than abandon them in favor of a less-clear, heterodox strategy.

Clearly, engaging with independent working-class organizations (whether they are at home or abroad) needs to be a greater part of the work of DSA. The comrade’s article does indeed raise this important question: if our diplomatic project is to be a democratic one, we need to treat the perspectives of the individuals and groups that form Cuba’s democracy with seriousness and respect. Autonomous groups and independent working-class organizations will always be important under any political system, but only insofar as they are capable of articulating goals and taking action. DSA is not a debating society whose goal is to weigh the opinions of the government and autonomous leftists against each other and thennod sagely as we come to a dialectical synthesis. 

Learning about the issues people have with the state is a noble pursuit. As long as they remain mute about tactics and actions, however, I struggle to find a reason to institutionalize meetings like these. This is not to dismiss the dangerous work of dissent, but rather recognize that it is acceptable to admit that our ability to engage in genuinely political ways is limited. If the autonomous left evolves into an organized left that seeks to mobilize popular support for specific economic and political changes, DSA can adjust its mode of engagement. Until that time, I think limiting these engagements to informal meetings is perfectly reasonable.

There are two technical points that remain on this subject. If we are to believe, as comrade Franzblau does, that autonomous left-wing organizing in Cuba is a dangerous venture, public debate about engagement with certain groups may put them at risk for state repression. While I am certain that she has done her due diligence in maintaining the safety of those with whom she spoke, we cannot guarantee that future public debate in DSA over engagement with independent leftists will continue to preserve it. Regardless of our perceptions of censorship in Cuba, we must remain open about legitimate fears that our interlocutors may develop if conversations with autonomous groups continue. 

Further, institutionalizing these types of conversations will create new hurdles that will be difficult to overcome, and may indeed serve to jeopardize our relationship with the Party itself. As these conversations must occur democratically and in the open, we will need to proceed strategically and tread carefully. We must remember, through all of this, that the Cuban Revolution has produced and maintained a mass Communist Party that has remained strong in the face of imperialism and neoliberalism for over sixty years. Abandoning our relationship with it would be disastrous, especially as our ties grow stronger and the global political situation more dire.

Relatedly, our public debates over interacting with autonomous organizations will inevitably influence our relationship with them, as well. Should the issues highlighted by these groups worsen, new political formations will inevitably arise. Most of them, to be sure, will be reactionary and bankrolled by western capitalists. Many, however, will remain ardent supporters of the revolutionary project as they push more concretely for specific changes. If these dissenters move from the sphere of autonomous publications to grassroots, independent, working-class organizations mobilizing for specific changes, DSA will need to have a serious conversation about how (or if) we choose to engage with them, especially given that the democratic nature of our organization would essentially require public debate over their ideals and tactics. If the publication of Maykel Vivero’s and La Tizza’s comments, for example, became a concrete policy of DSA’s international work, it may influence what they are able to say to us openly, whether in formal summits or at parties. Certainly, this can be accounted for, but we should not take the critiques of autonomous leftists as inherently more valid than the statements of the mass Party. This, I think, is a knee-jerk reaction informed by our sense of powerlessness in the West. 

So, quo vadis? If DSA seeks to build a more holistic conception of Cuban political culture, it should continue to build rapport with the rank and file of the Communist Party, even as we strengthen diplomatic connections with governmental institutions. I am impressed by comrade Danny Valdez’s Cuba Diaries, in which he closely describes the role and function of the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, the sole labor union on the island. He notes that it often takes on a “role typical of HR departments in the U.S.,” a description which both connotes its coziness to the state and its interest in understanding and resolving the grievances of individual workers. Finding ways for DSA to see how the CTC and other organizations operate on a day-to-day basis would provide a deeper view into the operations of the bureaucracy and insight into Cuba’s socialism of everyday life.

Such ventures will require (and have already required) extensive consideration, tact, and more than a fair deal of proficiency in Spanish. But they will be key to understanding how socialists build power, not just in already-existing socialist states, but in any place where workers have organized to make specific demands for a better life. As the impacts of the U.S. blockade worsen, we will continue to take inspiration and knowledge from the rank-and-file of those most violently impacted by it. Future delegations should hone in on ways to foster serious engagement with the Party’s rank and file.

I would be remiss to omit a condemnation of two of the main negative responses to comrade Franzblau’s article. I will address them in order of ludicrousness.

The first is the widespread fed-jacketing of our comrade from various sources, both inside and outside of DSA. Almost immediately after the publication of the original article, people called for comrade Franzblau’s imprisonment and accused her of being an agent of the State Department, CIA, or any number of alphabet agencies seeking to undermine the Revolution. Such responses, I think, are understandable as we engage with difficult subjects like dissent and dissatisfaction in actually-existing socialist states. Already, I have disagreed with comrade Franzblau’s tactics here, and do not believe that they should be adopted by DSA. I have spent this article questioning them on tactical grounds, articulating how they may undermine DSA’s credibility at home and abroad should they be expanded, but this is by no means grounds to accuse a comrade of being an agent of U.S. empire, and accusations such as these should never be leveled without cause or evidence. 

As someone who is far less critical of the Cuban state than comrade Franzblau is, these heinous accusations pose an incredible danger to our organization. Over the previous few weeks, these types of accusations have grown more frequent, especially when debating the 2024 presidential election; taking a clear stand against fed-jacketing in a moment of crisis should be widely agreed-upon. Advancing member democracy in DSA requires us to continue to debate publicly and in good faith, especially on subjects as difficult and contentious as our international work. We only grow in spaces where we disagree, and tactics that shut down debate will never be acceptable.

More coherently, comrade Steven Rizzo responded to comrade Franzblau in the days after the publication of her article, arguing against using Western epistemologies to critique the Cuban government. While I am sympathetic to his observations that terms such as “repressive state bureaucracy” were used somewhat uncritically in comrade Franzblau’s article, I think comrade Rizzo’s response leans too-heavily on a defense of using standpoint epistemology to stifle serious discussions about Cuba. Though it can be said that DSA’s theoretical training is lacking in thought from Latin American scholars, I do not necessarily think “having read the correct books” is an effective barometer of one’s readiness to participate in this type of discussion.

More directly, comrade Rizzo has incorrectly applied the thought of Quijano and Mariateguí in his response to the article, by suggesting that comrade Franzblau was only applying Western frameworks in her assessment of the Cuban project, and as a Westerner, cannot critique the Cuban state. This, I believe, is folly: the global nature of neoliberalism and empire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has largely proven the visibility of capital as it seeks to transform and destroy human bodies and minds in the West and around the world. Last I checked, Cubans and USian Marxists (especially the Black and Brown people of both nations) are fighting the same Uncle Sam. Certainly, we all experience this violence on different orders of magnitude. But that does not mean we cannot appreciate the differences between how state and non-state actors in Cuba have sought to respond to it. Franzblau (who herself is of Latin American descent) has sought out this knowledge through a number of sources, and has applied it seriously and earnestly. Though more critical studies of Latin American resistance to neocolonialism and the thinkers it has produced is warranted, we should not dismiss our comrades’ work on these grounds alone.

To conclude, it is clear that more serious debate about the role of the International Committee in building delegations to actually-existing socialist states is needed. Comrade Franzblau has taken the brave step of ensuring these debates happen in the open and has done so with seriousness and clarity. As long as the concept of governance exists, there will be people who will be dissatisfied with the workings of any state. How they channel that dissatisfaction, however, is the locus at which politics and history itself occur. This, I believe, must be the core of our work. The Cuban Revolution remains one of the most triumphant events in the history of all humanity—and the maintenance of many of its victories in the present day, perhaps even more so. As we seek to learn from the people of Cuba, we must focus on strategy—both as we resist the United States’ imperial blockade, and as we understand the Cuban Left’s frustration with their state. But until we can understand how that frustration is (or wishes to be) acted out, learning from the autonomous left will provide us little to work with.

Long Live the Revolution!

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