by Ned Sublette
[[Interview conducted on February 18, 2004 by Ned Sublette of Afro-Pop Worldwide]]
Ned Sublette: We're going to be talking today about a period that does not receive as much attention as perhaps it ought to when people look at Cuban history. There's a lot of material about 1959, and there's a lot of material about the Spanish-American war, but it seems to me like the '30s were less studied. Would you agree with that?
Nelson Valdés: Yes, that's certainly the case.
NS: And it seems to me like it's a very interesting and a key period to understand in Cuban history, if you want to understand what happened after that.
NV: For Cuba, anyway, the twentieth century in a sense begins in 1898, when the U.S. takes over the island, so the period from 1898 to 1933 is the most extraordinary period in the history of the island, in the sense of the most profound and dramatic and quite radical changes that took place at that moment.
NS: Could you explain what was this turmoil that shook Cuba in the early 30s? What happened?
NV: I think there are two different things to consider if we begin with the base point that by August and September 1933 a revolutionary upheaval brings to power a revolutionary government that will last one hundred days, from September 1933 to early January 1934. How did that come about? And I think there are two things to consider.
One is the precipitant, that which sort of sparks this major revolutionary insurrection, and that of course is related to the Depression, which began in 1929, and Cuba of course had a
huge unemployment by 1933, a regime that was led by what we now would call neoliberals, who had a policy basically of free trade, laissez-faire, the state does not intervene, sort of what like you had in the U.S. at the same time. And of course, whatever the upheaval was in the U.S., it was multiplied by a hundred in Cuba. So you had very high unemployment and all kinds of social dislocations going on because of the Depression. And there is a sergeants' revolt – the first in the history of Latin America - in which noncommissioned officers revolt against their officers and put a number of civilians in power. Now that is the event, but one has to actually be aware of what was happening in Cuba between 1898 and the time of the Depression. And first is, of course, a frustrated nationalism. The Cubans had been fighting for independence. Spanish colonial rule ended in 1898, but the U.S. then seized and took over the island, and remade Cuba, in a sense, by changing everything from the language that those in power used, to changing the legislation, the property relations, even the
very definition of what was beautiful and what was desirable in terms of clothing, and so forth. So you had a society that was going through major radical changes imposed from above by U.S. economic, political, and military power, and now there is an upheaval from below by 1933 reacting to the old institutions that the U.S. had created in the neo colony of Cuba at the time. So I think it's these two very long-term processes as well as the precipitant of the Depression and the Sergeants' Revolt that brings about that revolutionary government in 1933.
NS: Cuba was in a state of near civil war for quite some time prior to the Sergeants' Revolt, no?
NV: Yes, the U.S. had intervened on three different occasions in the island. In 1912 you had a very serious and bloody repression of the black population, and in fact it's called a race war, when the black population and mulattoes, who had not gained anything as a consequence of the neocolonial status that Cuba had achieved after 1898, created an independent Party of Color, as they called it, in which they were going to articulate the needs and demands of the black population. And it was repressed by military force, and
of course all the racist fears and so forth that had been in Cuba, because it was a plantation economy based on black slave labor until 1886, all those fears of course now were exploited in order to make sure that that population did not challenge the power structure.
And there had been numerous other revolts in which Liberals and Conservatives, in or out of power, tried to use the U.S., I may add, in order to preserve the control - or the control that they were allowed to have by the U.S. So you have a lot of social upheaval. The Spanish former ruling class that had been removed from power, many of those people remained. A black population, high unemployment, a situation in which something similar to the so-called enclosures in England, when the communal lands were taken by corporate foreign interest - all this created a lot of social disequilibrium within rural Cuba. And of course, rapid urbanization, this is happening as well, the emergence of labor unions, led either by Anarchists -- that's before the 1920s, and from the 1920s on, by the Cuban Communist Party, which was, I may add, by 1933, perhaps with the exception of the Mexican one, the most organized and well-developed, and quite a functional and effective political force in Cuba.
NS: Can you explain to me how the Cuban Communist Party got started? What its beginnings were? Was it formed at the behest of the Comintern like some of the other Latin American Communist parties?
NV: Well, the source, the roots, of the Cuban Communist Party, have to be traced first of all to the Europeans who had migrated to Cuba, particularly at the beginning of the 20th century. Although most of them were Anarchists, you have quite a few who were Marxists. Of course, you have to take into account as well, in terms of the radical milieu in Cuban politics, the Mexican Revolution in 1910-1911, so that by the time the Russian Revolution occurs in 1917, you do have in Cuba already that impact of the Mexican revolutionaries and what they have been doing in Mexico.
So the source for what will become the Cuban Communist Party is Cuban nationalism on the one hand, the labor movement on the other, particularly labor unions, the influence of the Mexican Revolution, and of course, by 1921, four years after the Russian Revolution began, the establishment of the Communist International, the Comintern, which indeed fostered the creation of Communist parties throughout Latin America. But the Communist Party as such, the first cells are established in 1923, the Party is formally created in 1925, with Eastern European leaders, with some black labor leaders, as well as Cuban intellectuals, particularly from the city of Havana. And yes, they were from the very beginning very much identified with the Comintern and with the so-called "21 conditions" to be a member of the Communist International. One of those conditions was of course to identify the Soviet Union as the home of the socialist revolution, since it had been the first country that was seized and taken over by the Communist Party.
NS: Now, it's my understanding that the Comintern was a creation of Lenin, and Stalin was much less interested in it, and by 1925 Stalin was already in power. How did the change in the Soviet attitude toward the move toward "Socialism in one country," as Stalin called it, affect the Cuban Communists?
NV: Well, oftentimes the history of the Communist International is divided into what is called the first, second, third and fourth periods. By the time that Stalin is in power and
controls the central committee of the Communist Party, Lenin is dead, Trotsky is going into exile, so we get between 1928 and 1937 what is referred to as the third period of the Communist International. Which is kind of interesting, because just as the Depression hit
in 1929, the Communist International took the position - and Stalin of course was in charge of this, just as the development of the building of socialism in one country - the crisis of
worldwide capitalism was such that it was considered - and keep in mind that at the time you do have the emergence of Fascist parties throughout Europe, precisely with the Depression as well - that the Communist International began to define the situation as one in which
one had to make a choice, either with Fascism or with Communism. So the third period essentially tended to portray the situation of politics in almost any country as being essentially the same, and that is: this is the moment for Communists to seize power, and to do so without any kind of coalition politics. So by '29 and '30, and certainly when the 1933 revolution occurred in Cuba, social democrats were seen by the Communist party worldwide, but in Cuba as well, as if they were social fascists. So the '33 revolution in
Cuba, from September to '34, is interesting in the sense that the civilians who will be in power will be in fact dealing with three enemies at the same time: (1) the U.S., (2) the new Cuban military that just seized authority and handed over power to the politicians but who will end up making an alliance with the U.S., and (thirdly) the Communist Party, which in fact is taking over at that time because of their strength in the labor movement,
and particularly in sugar mills, in the industrial sugar working class, they are taking over the sugar mills and creating soviets, so Cuba had soviets in 1933. And so this is a period during which the Communist Party certainly later on will define their own role as being somewhat sectarian, and it is from that moment, from 33 on, that you will see that the Communist Party of Cuba and the social democrats of Cuba, being the Auténticos, as they were called,
or later on the Ortodoxos, were very anti-Communist. And it goes back to that clash that they had during this period. Which is, in a sense, a reproduction of the very clash that was taking place, for example, in Germany about the same time, between the Communist Party that saw the German Social Democrats as Social Fascists.
NS: Now, as I understand it, bombs were going off pretty much every day in Havana, certainly in 1933 prior to the September Revolution. That it had become a very unsafe place, and even after the hundred day revolution, that there continued to be a great deal of civil turmoil until 1935.
NV: That's correct. Actually that turmoil in one way or the other continues until 1940 and even after 1940, although it will be often referred to as bonchismo - gangs of people who were at first involved in the 1933 revolution, and when they were overthrown, the military committed many atrocities, and nothing happened to those who committed
those atrocities within the military, so small groups of armed, highly politicized individuals came together to bring justice to those who had assassinated their comrades And in 1947, the city of Havana in a period of 12 months had four different chiefs of police, and three of them were killed.
NS: But that's a later period than what was happening between '33 and '35. When the hundred day revolution ends, Batista takes power through a series of puppet presidents, and pursues Antonio Guiteras, who had been in the revolutionary government, and ultimately kills him in 1935, and it seems to me that the death of Guiteras was the end of an era. Would you agree with that?
NV: Well, yes and no, because Guiteras's followers actually end up creating all these so-called "action groups". There is an Acción Revolucionaria Guiteras, and there is a TNT that continues, but it is true that you begin to see the consolidation of a new political regime in Cuba. It will now be the Cuban military that will intervene in politics to try to stabilize the system rather than having the U.S. military send in the Marines to do so, as they had done
before 1933. So certainly, although the '33 revolution comes to an end by January 34, and Batista seizes power and will rule through a series of puppets, you do have that type of violence continuing, but now it's under a new political game that is being created by Batista.
A very interesting new political game, I might add, in which we end up seeing that Batista himself, although persecuting Communists between 1934 and 1937, yet by the spring of 1937 the Communists and the Batista forces make a political coalition. Which brings us to the Comintern, which of course a month earlier will begin what is called the fourth period of the Comintern, which is that is necessary to create a popular front to fight Fascism, and that consequently alliances can be established with all those orces that are considered by the Communist Party democratic forces. So you will see from '37 on a participation of Batista and the Communists in coalition politics.
Interestingly, the social democrats – the Auténticos and later on the Ortodoxos - will denounce such coalitions, but certainly by 1937 we find such things as, for example, in April 1937, the Communist Party is attempting to mobilize the population against Batista, yet by May of '37 the situation has changed, and by June '37, Batista allows the
establishing of the Partido Unión Revolucionaria, which was a front for the Communist Party at that time. By May 1, 1938, the Cuban Communist Party's newspaper - by that time, the newspaper of the Partido Unión Revolucionaria became legal, the newspaper Hoy. By
September 1938, the party changed its name to the Communist Party of Cuba.
And by January '39 the Cuban Communist Party is having - the first in the history of Latin America - an open Communist Party congress, in which openly 23,000 members acknowledge that they were members of the Communist Party as such. And that is quite unique. In fact, the Cuban government at that time was the first to establish a coalition with the Communists and to run for office and actually to win power by October 10, 1940. In those elections Batista and the Communists came to power. The first Communist Party in Latin America to have two ministers in the cabinet was the Cuban Communist Party. The
Communists also had a very unique role to play in the constitutional convention of 1939, which created the 1940 constitution. Out of 41 elected members to the constitutional convention, six were members of the Cuban Communist Party - open members of the Cuban Communist Party. Which is why that Constitution had so many progressive features in it.
NS: And that constitution was part of, also, a changing sense of race relations in Cuba, no?
NV: Certainly. It proclaimed not only that all the races were equal, but also established legislation to the effect that if there was any kind of institutional discrimination, that steps
should be taken to put an end to it. Of course, that depended on who was in power. But this brings us to something else, which is, interestingly enough, by 1940, we have the situation in which the man who rules Cuba is a mulatto who has black as well as Chinese ancestry. And the second thing is that the Cuban Communist Party is also led at the time by a number of figures who also were black and mulatto. In fact, the Communist Party in Cuba at that time, it was reported, that at least 50% of its members were nonwhite.
NS: Not incidentally, of course, we were approaching the entry of the U.S. into World War II at this time, so we see Stalin becoming an ally of Roosevelt. So suddenly the United States'
reflexive anti-Communism was probably as moderated as it ever would be. In the U.S. and Britain they were talking about Stalin as "Uncle Joe."
NV: That's right, and moreover, by December 1939 after the Cuban Communist Party had been made legal, after Batista had announced his coalition with the Communist Party and running for office, Batista went to Washington, D.C., and the relations between Cuba and the U.S. at that time were quite friendly, interestingly enough. Even though there were some politicians that were denouncing the role of the Communists in Cuba and so forth, Washington DC at that time saw that kind of coalition as totally acceptable.
NS: Now what was Mil Diez?
NV: That was a radio station - a very unique radio station - established as well by the Cuban Communist Party. As part of this period - the early 1940s - we see this radio station, which was in Havana, but it could be heard outside the province of Havana. It was a radio station that will do such things as read articles and editorials from the Communist Party paper. It will introduce, interestingly enough, American jazz to a Cuban public. It will make
famous numerous people in the world of music, like César Portillo de la Luz, Omara Portuondo, and, incredibly enough, Celia Cruz became famous in Cuba because she used to sing in the Communist Party radio station.
NS: And not only those figures! Arsenio Rodríguez was on at five, and Arcaño came on at seven!
NV: Yes, what we now consider the heyday of Cuban music, Mil Diez was a very important institution. I may add, it also transmitted theater - that is, drama, not just the soaps, the novelas, which they also did - but also classics. Raquel Revuelta, a very famous actress in Cuba, became known through Mil Diez as well.
NS: You have another process beginning in 1937. It's about 1937 when things kind of get back to normal. The university has been closed for years, the university has been reopened. People go back to work to some degree. Music explodes. Recordings had not been made in Cuba in the early 30s. Recordings start to get made again in 1937. And you had the relaxation of the prohibitions against the drums. You have the comparsas in the street being re-authorized again. And you have this whole new level of visibility of black culture and black creativity in Cuba at this time.
NV: Yes, and Mil Diez is the main instrument by which the poetry of Nicolás Guillén became known to the average Cuban. And people like Guillén, and speakers like Juan Marinello, the
intellectual, and Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, and so forth, and consequently, the whole negritud movement that we see throughout the Caribbean in the 1920s and so
forth, well, now, that gets connected as well in Cuba. The black is beautiful, which is related to Motivos del Son in Guillén's poetry. You begin to see the establishment of institutions which will study those cultures from Africa, and the importance of the Bantus and the Yorubas, and other groups as well. So you have a revival, a renaissance, in Cuba, in which a number of political leaders have risen to positions of authority who are indeed coming from the black working class.
NS: So at this time you have a sort of alliance between very different political and social tendencies that during the period of World War II, effectively, have made a kind of domestic truce, and at this time culture flowers . . .
NS: How does this come unraveled?
NV: Well, let me just mention one last point, and that is: the kind of political party that Batista ends up creating and the kind of alliance that he makes with the Communist Party in order to have a social base is something that will be emulated by the other political parties. In other words, all the parties will end up having a labor section, and a peasant section, and a section for women, and a section for blacks - not in the sense that black will be separated, but rather a sort of affirmative action: we are going to recruit blacks for the political party that I belong to. That kind of thing begins during this period as well.
NS: How did it come apart? How did this alliance come undone?
NV: With the end of World War II, the alliance comes to an end.
NS: Simple as that?
NV: That's right. As soon. It's extraordinary. By 1945, the war comes to an end. By 1944, the Auténticos come to power.They initiate Red-baiting, getting the Communists out of the labor movement, the government seizing Mil Diez, the radio station, for example. So you begin to see a movement. The same thing is happening in the labor movement. The
Cuban Confederation of Labor will be "clean" of Communist influence, and
consequently the Auténticos will be taking it over. Once elections are held, Batista is no longer president. He goes to the U.S. for a time, and then World War II ends. From that point on, you begin to see the Red Scare in Cuba as well as in the U.S., and consequently the
removal of Communists from newspapers, from labor movements, not so much
NS: And what happens in Cuban culture during this second half of the 40s?
NV: Well, I think, in a sense, the culture - those institutions that have been created continue, but no longer are able to operate as they did so openly for political purposes. The people who were doing their singing, and their performance, in Mil Diez and so forth, that will continue. You will have Fernando Ortiz writing about the black experience and so forth. But it no longer will be doing anything, I would think, new in terms of opening - the period from '37 on is one in which there is a massive opening of Cuba to black experience, black culture. That continues, but is no longer opening new arenas, I think. It's just maintaining what had been achieved.
NS: There was something else, I think, that happened, at least in terms of music. During World War II it wasn't possible for Cubans to emigrate to the U.S. But with the end of World War II and with the increase in violence in the street in Cuba making it less desirable also, you start to see more talent leaving Cuba for the U.S.
NV: Yes, but there is something else as well. During World War II, in a sense, Cuban music takes off, and although there is the American influence, it is not overwhelming Cuba. After 1945, that upsurge of Cuban music now has to compete with what is coming from the north, and what you find consequently is that some people even are coming to the U.S. in the hope that that would be the way that they would be rediscovered in Cuba.
[This interview took place on 03/17/04 ]