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Cuban Solidarity and the Death of the Tyrant

How Fidel Castro’s libertarian exiles found unlikely allies through the Yiddish press

Paul Berman
November 30, 2016
Photo: Doug Collier/AFP/Getty Images
Cuban refugees including children sail on a raft in an attempt to reach the United States off the coast of Cuba 31 August 1994. The numbers of Cuban boat-people refugees increased in the summer of 1994 in spite of Bill Clinton's warning that Cubans are no longer welcome in the US.Photo: Doug Collier/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Doug Collier/AFP/Getty Images
Cuban refugees including children sail on a raft in an attempt to reach the United States off the coast of Cuba 31 August 1994. The numbers of Cuban boat-people refugees increased in the summer of 1994 in spite of Bill Clinton's warning that Cubans are no longer welcome in the US.Photo: Doug Collier/AFP/Getty Images

If ever there has been a demonized people during the last nearly 60 years, the exiled Cubans are that people, and now is the moment to acknowledge their plight. In the very first months after Fidel Castro came to power, which was the beginning of 1959, it became obvious, at least to some people, that his promises of a democratic revolution and capital-H humanism were deceptions, and Marxism-Leninism was going to be the genuine principle of his revolution—the Marxism-Leninism that was already the guiding philosophy of his brother Raúl and Che Guevara. And the persecutions began, not just of the bloody-handed opportunists around the old dictator, Fulgencio Batista. These were the persecutions that managed to drive out of Cuba a full 10 percent of the population. Is there anyone who doubts that, if only Cuba were not an island, far more than 10 percent would have fled? In 1980, Fidel whimsically decided to allow Cubans to flee the island without shooting at them, and still another 1 percent of the population preferred to risk their lives in rickety boats and miserable rafts than to remain one more day in the land of “Socialism or Death.” And that was before things went bad in Cuba—before the Soviet Union brought its munificent subsidies to an end. Fidel’s ability to attract Soviet support, followed by Hugo Chávez’s support, was his only authentic success.

It is true that, among the early waves of fleeing Cubans, some people were, in fact, the followers of Batista. My barber on the Upper West Side in Manhattan was one of those people—an emaciated and dark-complexioned old man who plied his trade in a miserable basement barbershop and must have lived in something very close to poverty. Was the barber a man of reactionary political opinions? Or merely someone who tried to get by? I have no idea. I do know that, during those early months of 1959, Fidel went about gradually and quietly installing in power the old Moscow-line Cuban Communists, whose party in those days was called the Popular Socialist Party, and who had their own history of aligning with Batista. Arguably the Communists had plausible reasons for their murky collaborations of the past, given the realities of Cuban politics. But the murky past should remind us that people do try to get by, and it is not always right to judge them severely and forever.

It is also true that, in Cuba, other people resisted the Batista dictatorship relentlessly and at every moment, and forever did their best to uphold a higher ideal for Cuban society, and had some achievements, too. I offer a factional example from the Cuban labor movement. The workers’ movement arose in Cuba in the later 19th century, and for many decades its dominant current looked to the labor unions of Spain for inspiration. The Cubans drew intellectual sustenance from the most influential of the Spanish labor doctrines, which was a revolutionary philosophy known as “libertarian,” also known as “anarchosyndicalist” or “revolutionary syndicalist,” though “libertarian” was the term of preference. The libertarians in Spain aspired to create a new society on a basis of cooperative socialism, which they pictured as egalitarian, participatory, tolerant, open to feminism, dedicated to individual freedom, and appreciative of small-holder property-ownership. Those were popular ideas. The libertarian union federation, the National Confederation of Labor (CNT), was one of the largest institutions in Spain, for a while. Over the course of the 1930s, however, the labor federation went down to catastrophic defeat, crushed partly by the Spanish Communists and by their Soviet allies during the civil war of those years, and annihilated definitively by the fascists once the war was over.

The labor-libertarian doctrine went out of fashion all over the world. Still, in Cuba, the old inspirations clung to life, at least in a modest degree. By 1959, the Cuban libertarians still counted for something in the transportation, electrical utility, construction, medical workers, and gastronomical (or restaurant and cafe) unions, and perhaps elsewhere, too. The gastronomical workers’ journal was their organ. They enjoyed a prestige for their historical contributions to the Cuban labor movement and a prestige for the firmness of their struggle against the Batista dictatorship. The revolution that finally overthrew Batista was their revolution, too.

Castro’s principles were not their own, however. His new government moved almost instantly to take over the old Cuban Confederation of Labor, the CTC, which was the libertarians’ center of influence. The government began to expel everyone from the CTC who declined to take orders from the universal new employer, which was the state. This meant the corrupt old Batista trade unionists, but it also meant the libertarians. In a matter of months, the government converted the labor federation into a kind of anti-union, designed to prevent workers from exercising any power on their own. Nearly a hundred years of Cuban trade unionism were brought to an end in this fashion. And the labor libertarians, whose doctrines were fatally naive in some regards, showed themselves to be exceptionally sophisticated in other regards, and they knew how to interpret those developments.

All over the world during the course of 1959 and for several years to come, well-meaning people continued to believe ingenuously in Castro’s democratic protestations and his claim not to be a Communist. But the Cuban libertarians, in their sophistication, knew the history of the Bolshevik Revolution—knew the story of how Lenin and the Communists emitted a fog of misleading slogans and meanwhile exterminated every current of the Russian left except the Communist current. They knew the history of the Spanish Civil War, in which the Communists tried to do the same. Their knowledge allowed them to see at a glance that, under Castro, the prisons of Cuba were going to swell to proportions far larger than in Batista’s day. They knew that Cuba itself was going to be a prison, along Soviet lines. They knew that Castro’s conversion of the old Cuban labor movement into a government transmission-belt was going to be permanent and that Cuba’s working class was going to lose whatever small degree of power it once could claim. They knew that, under a Communist dictatorship, their own fate was to be shot. And the libertarians right away launched a guerrilla insurgency, this time against the new dictatorship. Only, the nature of the dictatorship was not yet obvious to other people. The insurgency got nowhere. The insurgents were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, and shot. Their unions were taken over completely, their publications shut down. And the survivors escaped as best they could, some of them to Miami, others to Caracas and beyond, where they joined what was left of the ragtag libertarian diaspora from Spain.

Here was truly a friendless group of people. All over the world, conventional left-wingers denounced the enemies of Fidel Castro as wealthy and reactionary enemies of social justice, exactly in the way that Lenin’s fellow-travelers used to denounce the exiles from Russia after 1917. In reality, the labor libertarians of Cuba were stalwarts of the proletarian left in the most classic or perhaps antique of versions—the disciples of Bakunin and Kropotkin, and genuinely proletarian, too, unlike Castro, the aristocrat—yet they, too, came under the indiscriminate denunciation. They were slandered as wealthy agents of imperialism, puppets of the CIA, proponents of every possible reactionary idea. And who, anywhere in the universe, was their friend? Friends were hard to find. Still, in distant corners of the world, a handful of people did offer a friendship, and the story of those people and their solidarity ought to figure within the larger story of the Cuban resistance and exile. A strand of the story emerged in the Yiddish press, initially in Buenos Aires. A portion of the Argentinean left was following the Cuban events closely, not just by repeating the Castro propaganda. One of the Buenos Aires newspapers—it must have been Dos Fraye Vort—reported on the Cuban libertarians, and the reasons for their rebellion, and their defeat and persecution.

In New York, some people read the Argentinean Yiddish press. And the news began to spread. The Fraye Arbeter Shtime of New York became the friend of the Cuban trade unionists and libertarians, which meant that, in the United States, a progressive Jewish corner of the mainstream labor movement was on their side. Sam Dolgoff, the famous and polyglot Wobbly intellectual, Dos Fraye Vort’s reader on the Lower East Side, was the Cubans’ champion—which you can read about in Frank Fernández’s Cuban Anarchism: The History of a Movement and again in a brand new book by Dolgoff’s son, Anatole Dolgoff, Left of the Left, a moving memoir of his very noble father. Sam Dolgoff translated into English some of the early manifestos of the Cuban libertarians—furious and prescient documents of the Cuban revolution. From an angry libertarian manifesto in Havana in 1960: “There can be no freedom for the collectivity where the individual is the victim of oppression.”

Years ago, under Dolgoff’s influence, I used to glance at the Cuban libertarian magazine from Miami, Fernández’s Guángara Libertaria, which was a descendant-in-exile of the gastronomical workers’ journal. Some excellent writers contributed. I attended occasional solidarity meetings in New York for the oppressed Cubans. I even organized a reception to welcome to New York a distinguished Cuban dissident, Raúl Rivero, the poet and journalist—a man of the left, with more modern ideas—who had just then been released from a Cuban prison. And I learned something from those meetings. The only people who bothered to attend were Cubans, with a few exceptions, as if no one but a Cuban would dirty himself by taking up the Cuban cause. At some point during every one of those meetings, one or another elderly gentleman would stand up, creaky and upright, his bones clattering like sticks, and would explain that he had spent many years in the windowless cells of Castro’s prisons, and had undergone torture, and, even so, had remained faithful to his anti-dictatorial principles—had refused to buckle to the regime—and was refusing to buckle even now. The people in the rows of seats would nod their heads in awe—some of them likewise veterans of the prisons, frail and anguished-looking—and would whisper about dignity and courage. And when the speech-making or the poetry recital was over, everyone would stumble out to the street, painfully aware that, in the wide world, the victims of the dictatorship and the exiles and the unbreakable heroes have always been reviled as gusanos, or worms, and in many places are slandered even now as the enemies of progress.

Cubans danced in the streets in Miami on Saturday. Every single thing we know about Marxist-Leninist dictatorships all over the world should tell us that ordinary people in Cuba—surely a great majority of them—must likewise have been filled with emotion; maybe not with joy, but with a tingling expectation that someday soon the shadow over their country will begin to recede. But someday is not yet.


To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural writing in Tablet magazine, click here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

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