‘Castro Was a Living Reminder of the Limits of American Power’–FAIR Media Watch interviews Louis Pérez about the influence of Fidel Castro

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Janine Jackson: Fidel Castro, who died November 25 at age 90, will be remembered as someone whose work changed, not just Cuba, but the wider world. With US media ringing with denunciation—with some left over to denunciate those who aren’t denunciating enough—there’s little oxygen left for discussion of that work, and what it meant and still means.

We’re joined now for some context on Castro and Cuba by Louis Pérez. He’s professor of history at the University of North Carolina and editor of Cuban Journal, and author of, among other titles, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution. He joins us now by phone from North Carolina. Welcome to CounterSpin, Louis Pérez.

Louis Perez: Good day.

JJ: To hear the TV talkers tell it, Fidel Castro was not just an evil monster, he was a sort of Svengali who somehow tricked millions of people into supporting his project. There’s a sense that the only reason not to despise him is delusion. And that seems to disavow any agency on the part of the Cuban people, among other things; they’re seen as engaging in some sort of idol worship. I have heard you say that Fidel resonates because the Cuban Revolution resonates. Can you give us some context for why that’s the case?

LP: The most extraordinary facet of the coverage of the last five, six days in this country has been the utter lack of self-reflection and ignorance of context, and I think you’ve used the word “context” already twice in your introductory comments. It is so easy and so facile to focus on one man—Americans love the Great Man thesis—one man to whom one can attribute everything that torments one. It is so easy to identify the outcomes in Cuba, the outcomes in Central America, the outcomes in Africa to one guy.

That liberates anybody from exploring context, from exploring process, from exploring history, from understanding how this phenomenon that Fidel Castro represents unfolds. And so what we have here is just a utterly one-dimensional assessment of the past and the present, and Fidel Castro was that evil person to whom one can attribute everything that one doesn’t like about the world.

JJ: When Cubans talk about it, of course, there’s a completely different approach to it, and a completely different kind of reckoning with it. But, as you say, US readers have gotten, first of all, very little information, period, but then also the information has been kind of cartoonish. So what can you tell—and also for younger folks who don’t know—what was the Cuban Revolution, what did it signify, what did it change?

LP: The Cuban Revolution comes out of a history, comes out of a struggle by a people that has its antecedents in the middle of the 19th century, and it represents successive generations of Cubans who aspire—however unlikely it would appear, coming from a little country, a small population—the Cuban historical purpose for 150 years has been given to the pursuit of self-determination and national sovereignty. If the Cuban Revolution is about anything, it’s about self-determination and national sovereignty. And so that’s an idea that goes back to the 1850s, and it’s articulated by Jose Martí in the 1880s and 1890s, and it continues to circulate, and it becomes a politics in Cuba with the inauguration of a republic in 1902.

So Fidel Castro comes out of that history. He is formed by that sensibility. And so what the Cuban Revolution represents in January 1959—and certainly this is a point that Fidel Castro makes—it is the culmination of a process. It is, finally, a people who have achieved self-determination and national sovereignty, and the obstacle in the 19th century was Spain, and the obstacle in the 20th century was the United States. So the Revolution comes with this purpose of affirming Cuba for Cubans, and finally the prospects of agency, of seizing hold of those forces that govern one’s life, and that means, inevitably, to reduce the presence and the influence of the United States in Cuba.

And that’s the one condition that since the 19th century the United States was not willing to acquiesce to Cuba. From Jefferson until George W. Bush and perhaps even Obama, the idea of Cuban national sovereignty and self-determination has been and it continues to be an anathema.

JJ: As in other places as well, but I think it’s such an important understanding of the relationship. Reuters in their write-up said that Castro “built a Communist state on the doorstep of the United States,” which I find funny, as though the proximity of this tiny island were an affront or a provocation to the United States.
It reminds me of the comic and activist Professor Irwin Corey, who was a big supporter of the Revolution. He told my colleague Steve Rendall that he had complained to Castro, “For 40 years, you’ve refused to remove your country from around our military base.”

LP: [laughs] It is, of course, the relationship with the world superpower, it is that sovereignty that drew the admiration of people, of oppressed people, the world over, that defiance. And how strange to present it still today as a threat to the United States.

LP: I think the word you use is correct, the affront. Fidel Castro was a breathing, living reminder of the limits of American power. How is it possible that the United States could not do something about this guy? And successive generations of American political leaders, 11 presidential administrations, more or less all take power saying they’re going to do something about Fidel Castro. The presidential terms come and go and he’s still there. And he survives the collapse of the Soviet Union. And the Cuban Revolution continues, admittedly limping, but still continues to survive.

So I think it’s that defiance that just galled Americans, the inability to will the world according to their wishes in a place that they had always willed the world. There’s something profoundly psychological. Fidel Castro becomes a highly personal issue to Americans, and the multiple attempts to assassinate — can’t make it any more personal than that.

JJ: What you’re talking about, the importance of sovereignty, that, as I understand it, became an overweening focus on sovereignty, and then the security state that is understandably lamented. Now, you see that as a kind of cautionary tale.

LP: That’s exactly how I see it. I see the Cuban developments. Does the system resort to repressive techniques? Absolutely. Has it spawned an elaborate surveillance and intelligence system? Absolutely. It has done all these things.

I think it’s important to bear in mind that this has a context. This was a state, a government, administration, rulers, who were confronted with the most powerful country in the world, that had as a single overriding determination, regime change.

And when the Cubans invoke national security, then all bets are off, as we are learning in this country. When one invokes national security, then civil liberties, constitutional freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of thought—that space begins to contract, get smaller and smaller.
And, again, when I said earlier the lack of self-reflection, I think anybody has to go to the Alien and Sedition Laws at the end of the 18th century, after the American Revolution, when the Americans felt threatened by the French, and they passed the sedition laws. And anybody who published or said anything against the United States government would be subject to imprisonment. And how about the Japanese-Americans who the United States, feeling threatened by Japan, rounded up, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans, and put them in camps.

So it’s that lack of context, it’s that lack of appreciation. It’s like people say, wow, the economy’s in shambles in Cuba. It is. But to what degree is the shambles of the Cuban economy the outcome of a punitive embargo that had as its direct purpose to make the Cuban economy one of shambles? So it is this loop of opinion that feeds on itself, and we just can’t seem to break or get out of it.

JJ: Well, let me just ask you, finally: We had started to see, it was being called a “thaw,” we saw some diplomatic relations being established earlier this year with Cuba. Now, you know, things are different. What do you imagine happening now, in terms of the relationship between the United States and Cuba, and what do you think would serve Cubans?

LP: If the new, incoming administration presumes to act on the utterances of this past weekend, then I think anybody, any persons of good will, any persons who derive comfort at the process of normalization of the last two years, cannot but despair and feel very anxious. The words of the president-elect, saying that he wants to withdraw the “concessions,” quote unquote, unless the Cubans, among other things, open up their economy for market reform, free political prisoners, hold elections, allow political parties—we are now going to be plunged back to the worst days of…I don’t even know what the comparison would be, the Reagan years, the George W. Bush years.

Because these are the demands that the Cubans have resisted for 55 years. Because this is, again, a throwback to the curtailment and the challenge to the Cuban insistence upon self-determination and national sovereignty. So if these folks who are coming in in January proceed to act on those politics, then we’re in for some very, very difficult times in US/Cuban relations.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Louis Pérez, professor of history at the University of North Carolina and author of, among other books, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution. Louis Pérez, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

LP: You’re very welcome.