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Chennai Host 3rd Asia Pacific Regional Cuba Solidarity Conference

From Chennai with Love

by VIJAY PRASHAD

Chennai is, as a new book puts it, "an unhurried city." Each morning, most of its English-reading public, opens its copy of the city’s premier paper, The Hindu. (The paper is misnamed ­ it holds no water for any religious community, indeed it is the most consistently secular paper in the country). The newspaper has greatly changed over the decades. Many years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru described it as "the paper of the bourgeois, comfortably settled in life. Not for it the shady side of existence, the rough and tumble and conflict of public life." Then in the 1980s, The Hindu went after corruption in an arms deal ­ this one involved bribes paid by the Swedish heavy gun manufacturer, Bofors, to various politicians associated with the Congress Party (the case goes on, with the spotlight on the middle-men, including an Italian businessman and two Indian brothers who are close to the Blair clique). The editor at that time was N. Ram, who took the paper out of its historic generosity to the powerful into new territory. After a hiatus, Ram has returned to the editorship, and The Hindu is now known for its consistently left-liberal positions (its proximity to the space held by the Guardian is reflected in its frequent use of the English paper’s opinion pieces and by a recent tour of India by the Guardian’s editor and public editor ­ The Hindu, which hosted the duo, has now appointed a public editor of its own).

On January 20, 2006, The Hindu’s editorial welcomed "the advancement of the Left in Latin American politics." While generally left-liberal, the editorials in The Hindu are nonetheless studiously constrained in their tone. Not this one: its language bristled, "The Left in the region is evolving new economic methods and works within democratic frameworks. Progressives in different countries are now trying to bring themselves into closer alignment, drawing inspiration from the iconic leadership of Cuba’s President Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez." The Hindu is not alone in its enthusiasm toward the developments in Latin America, although it might be more articulate in its analysis. When Chavez visited India last year, the paper’s editorial page explored his significance, "The countries of South America have borne the brunt of neo-liberal globalization with the 1990s now widely acknowledged, even by the authors of the Washington Consensus, as a lost decade in terms of growth and development. Like other left-oriented regional leaders who have been voted into power ­ in Brazil, Chile, Argentina and now Uruguay, Mr. Chavez is the product of a continent’s desire to make up for lost time" (March 11, 2005).

It was, therefore, fitting for The Hindu’s city, Chennai, to play host to the Third Asia Pacific Regional Cuba Solidarity Conference. The day The Hindu offered its editorial on Chile’s election, delegates from sixteen Asian countries gathered in a hotel beside a famous marriage hall to deliberate on the continent’s work on behalf of Cuba and against imperialism. The Solidarity Conference has its origins in the Special Period, 1990-2000, the period of crisis in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Indian Communist movement mobilized to collect 10,000 tons of wheat (and later detergent). The Congress-led government matched the amount and the shipment went from the Haldia port in Bengal to Cuba. When Castro received the shipment, he announced, "This is 10,000 tons of solidarity." The energy and enthusiasm that collected this shipment went into the organization of the First Asia Pacific Regional Cuba Solidarity Conference (Calcutta, 1995) and then a Second (Hanoi, 1997).

1995 and 1997 is not the same as 2005. Cuba’s economy now registers a growth rate of about 11%, and its regime persists with all manner of innovations in health care, agriculture and what not to strengthen its commitment to socialism. The senior Cuban delegate at the conference was Sergio Corrieri Hernandez, a member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. Some may remember Sergio Corrieri from his masterful role as the lead in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), where he played the desolate bourgeois who, despite his sympathies to radicalism, has a hard time finding himself in the Revolution. Corrieri had no such trouble. He continued to act, but also worked for almost two decades in El Teatro Escambray, a rural theatre ensemble. Now, as the president of the Institute of Friendship with Cuba, he travels around the world. In his address, he listed all the things the Cubans have achieved, and what they are able to share (including the 2345 health workers at work in the earthquake ravaged areas of Pakistan). "We believe in solidarity and practice it to the best of our ability, sharing what we have, not giving away that which exceeds our needs. Cuba does not export arms, war or death; Cuba exports health, education, and life."

Solidarity with Cuba has, from the first, an anti-imperialist cast. It was not simply the collapse of the USSR that damaged Cuba’s potential, but also the intensification of the blockade of the island by the United States (whose legislature passed two suffocating laws, the Torricelli Act, 1992, and the Helms-Burton Act, 1996 ­ both to pressure third party states not to break the decades old US embargo of Cuba). In May 2005, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, led by Colin Powell, released a report entitled Hastening Cuba’s Transition. After Iraq, Iran and then Cuba? Or is this an election ploy for the Florida vote? In the context of this escalated assault on the island by US imperialism, The Hindu’s Ram, who chaired the Conference, announced that Cuba survives despite the "virtually unprecedented hostility" of the United States "and the despicable lies" told about the island by the US government (and its pliant media). This was hardly a surprise in a country with an acute suspicion of imperialist motives, even as the dominant classes are quite eager for some kind of rapprochement between India and the US (while this Conference met in Chennai, Indian and US officials met in Delhi to iron out their differences toward a nuclear accord).

What surprised me, however, was that the editor of the leading daily in the city was followed by a string of politicians from an array of parties who joined in his analysis. From the Communist parties to the Dravidian parties and outward to the Congress Party, everyone delivered their fealty to the Cuban Revolution and against US imperialism. G. K. Vasan, the head of the Congress Party in the state, deliberated on the "deep roots" between Cuba and India, and ended with the modified call, "A better world is possible, a better India is possible." A few days later, however, the Congress’ Plenary in Hyderabad announced that it would "aggressively confront and fight the Left parties." (In 2004, the Left and the Congress defeated the right-wing combine led by the intransigent Bharatiya Janata Party, which has since been in ideological and organizational disarray. Knowing the Congress leadership’s tendency toward neo-liberalism and its pro-US positions, the Left decided to support the government from outside. The tactic worked, in that the BJP has been marginalized and the Left has become the principle opposition to the Congress government. It now falls to the Congress, in its hubris, to believe that it must ignore the programmatic right wing and concentrate on the Left, whose initial decision to support the government from outside is again validated).

Chennai’s link with Cuba is not new. On June 12, 1960, C. M. Annadurai, a legendary leader of the Dravidian movement, wrote to his cadres of America’s atom bomb and its ability to "destroy the whole world." Meanwhile, Cuba has none of these arms, and yet because of the wide support to the Revolution, "if America attacks not even a nail will remain in the US after the attack." It is this tradition that provoked the Dravidian movement’s M. Karunanidhi to write an ode to Castro, which he read out at the Solidarity Conference’s last day. Cuba is a honeycomb, Tamil Nadu’s senior mass leader exclaimed, for "whenever America touches it in an unguarded moment, the people of Cuba, like honey bees, will sting." This was all good rhetoric, even as it typically came without a program of action toward solidarity. (Contrast this political situation with that of the US, where even within the Left there is an allergic reaction against Cuba, and a hasty attempt to appear "reasonable" by making all sorts of anti-Cuban gestures. The record on this is nicely laid out by the Harvard scientist Richard Levins in "Progressive Cuba Bashing," Socialism and Democracy, vol. 19, no. 1, March 2005).

The Communists did the analytical and political heavy lifting at the Conference. Sitaram Yechury, a Politburo member of the CPM and a member of Parliament, laid out the reasons for the US hostility to Cuba. The unsustainable rent economy centered in the imperialist core leads to an increase in the use of military force, whose targets have been those who refused US hegemony (not simply the "axis of evil," but also Cuba, Venezuela, and elsewhere). This is the context of the intensified embargo, and so "an expression of solidarity with Cuba is simultaneously a statement against US imperialism." Cuba’s resistance has given a fillip to progressive movements in Latin America, such that it is impossible to see the rise of the Left in the region without an acknowledgement of Cuba. "Solidarity is not only from a humanitarian point of view," said Yechury, "but the important aspect is the political one." Cuba’s reliance inspires. (Although few regard it as a "model." Indeed, Corrieri indicated, "Led by Fidel, a massive project of research is underway, into our society, our difficulties and mistakes; it is being undertaken in workplaces and seats of learning, and aims at improving society.")

The people at the conference came from a wide swath of society, although most had ties with the communist parties, the trade unions, the women’s organizations and other such social formations. At the final meeting, they heard from CPM’s General Secretary Prakash Karat who announced that the protests against Bush’s visit to India in March would ring with the cry, "Hands off Cuba." During his current tour of India, Tariq Ali told a meeting in Kolkata about the need for the creation of an Asian Anti-Imperialist Forum (Ali’s book, Bush in Babylon, is now out India from Leftword Books). The Cuba Solidarity platform is a substantial basis for such a Forum. The problem is not the creation of a Forum itself, but of the need to take the message of anti-imperialism deeper into Asian societies. That is the challenge, how to penetrate social formations plunged into the inequality of neo-liberalism and into the maw of cruel cultural ideologies.

[In the Spring of 2006, Leftword Books will publish a Dispatches from Latin America: A NACLA Reader, co-edited by Teo Ballvé and VIJAY PRASHAD. A US edition will come out subsequently]

VIJAY PRASHAD teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press). His essay, "Capitalism’s Warehouses", appears in CounterPunch’s new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference. His most recent article is a review of Kathy Kelly’s book in the December issue of Monthly Review. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu