Still the blockade against Cuba

Image: Stout Films Havana


Reply to the article by Joana Salem de Vasconcelos

Joana Salém de Vasconcelos, whom we define as an important researcher on the agrarian question in Latin America, gave us the honor of responding to our criticism of her article (cf. Sobre Cuba e a dialectic of the revolution, published in the earth is round).[I] Professor Marisa de Oliveira also provided us with an elegant and respectful critical comment.[ii].

We will make brief observations about Marisa de Oliveira's criticism. Its most interesting aspect is undoubtedly the understanding that the debate between us and Salem stems from the same point: the defense of the revolution and the understanding of internal force as the cause of the extension of that Revolution until today. However, we would like to point out that our disagreement with Salem is profound, and is not just a question of more or less emphasis on the blockade as an element of the Cuban crisis – as Marisa de Oliveira rightly points out “what we put after the but is what truly matters”

Before leaving for Salem's article, we would like to comment that we agree with the last point of Marisa de Oliveira's criticism. In fact, if our defense is that of Cuba as a critical zone, it makes no sense to compare the Cuban crisis with the revolts in Chile and Colombia – which can be considered as regions of great tension, but tensions quite different from those generated by imperialism. on the Caribbean island.

Now let's pay more attention to the text by Joana Salem Vasconcelos because it was her article that originated the debate. With that, we sacrifice answers that could open another very fruitful discussion with the excellent article by Marisa de Oliveira.

Differently from the way that Joana Salem Vasconcelos chose, we will focus only on her written arguments and issue general opinions on the broader topic of popular revolts.

Our first observation is that the author reformulated her central argument based on our comments. To make the change possible, her reply was based on the hypothesis that we could not understand what she wrote. Although it apparently incorporated the centrality that we gave to the economic blockade, it maintained its original positions, which denied that same centrality.

In its first text, the “US blockade” is defined as “an important part of this crisis”. The use of the preposition with the demonstrative pronoun singles out the role of the blockade, which is then presented on the same level as the pandemic, tourism, shortages of currency and products, the abrupt end of the CUC, inflationary pressure from the parallel market, imbalance between need and income etc. We think differently: all the elements presented in that sentence derive from the first term.

The explanation that Salem provides is not that the blockade is structural, a term that she claims in her reply, but that was not used in the first article. In fact, she defines it as “a monster that has been mysteriously defeated for 60 years because of this internal agency”. This expression is revealing because it reduces the phenomenon to an internal agency.

For us, it is impossible to ignore the role of the Soviet Union until its dissolution, because after that Cuba had to go through a special period dictated not only by the end of “fair trade” with the socialist bloc, but also by the resurgence of anti-Cuban measures in the US: laws Helms-Burton and Torricelli, as well as recent measures by Trump among many terrorist actions.

Salem is on a political horizon different from ours and mobilizes arguments suited to that horizon. In our case, the determinations of blocked socialism are enforced through internal causes, but continue to have an unavoidable weight for any “agency”. It is no coincidence that the protests of the 1990s took place in the context of the tightening of the US blockade and the fall of the Soviet Union; Nor is it mainly due to the “anger” that the demonstrations erupted after Trump's very tough measures that increased the embargo on Cuba. In both cases, there were government decisions that aggravated the situation, but they were taken because of the blockade.

Those who give primacy to the agency believe that the solution is the deepening of democracy and popular power; we seek to place the admirable political will of the Cuban population in the structures in which it operates.

It is not a question of ignoring the internal Cuban agency and its importance for the longevity of the Revolution, but of understanding that each and every agency is conditioned by the blockade from start to finish. Salém writes in his reply that by considering the embargo as an “absolute one-dimensional factor”, we would be avoiding “debating the challenges of real Cuban socialism, dependent and peripheral”, but at no time do we defend the blockade as the only factor in the Cuban crisis, but as its structural framework, which imposes limits; we maintain that the complexity of the issues of Cuban socialism must be understood in its context: a brutal 60-year blockade.

The author says that we defend the “unidimensionality of historical explanations”. But for us it is not a matter of who knows or does not know a correct method. We do not accuse Joana Salem Vasconcelos of not understanding any method, we just disagree with her opinion regarding the blockade. It is her political position that is wrong and we say this not because we are unable to understand her arguments or lack theoretical competence.

As we have already said, it is necessary to understand Cuba as a critical zone, and it is not useful to analyze it by isolating internal factors from external ones, for the simple reason that they do not operate separately. Once again, it is not as if we are defending the unidimensionality of historical explanations, after all, we do not deny the importance of the fall in tourism, the shortage of products, etc., as elements of the crisis, but rather that these components only have the weight they have in reality Cuba – and in some cases, such as scarcity, they only exist – because it is crossed by a criminal blockade. This is precisely what it means to consider the blockade as a structural feature of the crisis. And it is within this context that we judge the protest.

The core of the author's criticism concerns the noun “povo” and the adjective “popular”. Both have a clear positive connotation in the history of the left. Fascism can be “popular” depending on the meaning of the word, but we will not give it any positive connotations. Ultimately, it is a political choice to say that the counterrevolution is popular or not.

As in the French or Russian Revolution, the popular was the active part of the concrete people who engaged in the struggle, even if there were conservative individuals from “the people”. Our insistence is on social classes and not individuals. As for saying that we defend a homogeneous people and that we carry “a dangerous germ of authoritarianism” in our “reasoning”, we can only regret the language that Salem borrows from Pathology.

In this regard, the author quotes Diaz-Canel about “revolutionary people who can be confused”. We didn't expect him to say the opposite in a situation where he intends to divide his opponents and remove their legitimacy, bringing the “revolutionaries” to his side.

Among the fascist masses there were “revolutionary people” who could be “confused”. And there was an objective basis for “popular anger” in 1933. In June 2013 in Brazil, after the media control of the demonstrations, sectors of the left continued to defend participation in acts in which there might be “revolutionary people” who could “be confused” ; later, they supported the Lava Jato operation and its “popular” character. Those who resembled imperialist interests were considered defenders of a conspiracy theory.

At the end of our article we quote the Cuban foreign minister who treats the economic dispute as a war. This is a theme absent from our debate. Cuba is a country in a hot zone. In a war there can be many sides: interests of the governments of each country, different positions of the allies of the same bloc, social classes, etc. However, in a battle, in the exact theater of operations, there are only two sides. The military moment is inseparable from the political one.

This explains the positions of left sectors that supported protests against progressive, nationalist or even conservative governments that were in confrontation with the US, to the point of considering an alliance of NATO and the “people” against the Libyan government years ago. Protesting against a government at war serves to weaken it. The uprisings in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Solidarity Union and the 1989 transformations received the hopeful applause of many left-wing intellectuals, but the mere presence of Trotskyists in the Prague theater did not prevent it from being a headquarters for the retreat rather than the advance of the socialism. And yet they were "popular" revolts for the entire Western press.

We continue to defend “Cuba as a critical zone, of constant tension between extremely unequal forces economically and militarily”. And in a war situation, we continue to say that dialogue on the part of the government with those who organized the protests (with whom would that be?) does not seem like a good idea. It has nothing to do with an alleged “dangerous germ of authoritarianism” in our reasoning, but rather with our perception of the seriousness of the embargo situation and the counterrevolutionary attacks that Cuba faces and that has been strengthened in recent years, and the strategy of support international that we defend from that.

For Salem, “Alice and Lincoln disregard the date of my article by pointing out that I did not pay attention to massive government calls. (…) This point of criticism hurt chronology and incurred the capital sin of historians: anachronism”[iii]. Obviously, we didn't require her to know what happened next; we use what happened to strengthen our argument. But we are left with a doubt: if this led her to explain to us that it is something anachronistic, is it because the pro-government demonstrations changed her opinion? Otherwise, there is no reason to denounce the “sin” of anachronism, except to question our academic competence or our faith in Lucien Febvre.

If we accepted this condemnation, we would not be able to comment on the decision of anyone else in history, after all, Napoleon did not know that he would lose his Grande Armée in the Russian campaign of 1812, even the Communists did not know that Hitler would assume power. However, German Communists were later criticized for underestimating the Nazi danger. Anachronism is not a mere chronological error, but the operation of attributing to individuals values, ideas, concepts, forms of consciousness and language of another. Still, historians know that a certain degree of anachronism is inevitable because we don't study the past directly.

Based on this, how should we consider our interlocutor's information that the Chinese government showed solidarity with Cuba due to the events of July 2021 if the cited source is from 2014? We could treat it as an anachronism, but it would be something very sophisticated in this case. Joana Salem simply did not read the source she used.

After saying that a certain “premise is consensual in the entire universe of critical thought, including my research and publications”, the author adds that her works “were clearly disregarded by the authors for such a conclusion”.

We were baffled by this phrase. We do not ignore the author's production, however we could not read all the works of all the writers with whom we dialogued. To start our criticism we would have to be like Funes, the memorioso (by Borges) and remember the content of each book, each chapter, each sentence, each line that the author wrote before; evoke the contexts, the interlocutors, the theoretical orientations of each one, the consulted and not consulted documentation, the interpretations of the documents… Our objective was more modest: to comment only on the article that she wrote and we make this very clear in our text.

The tone of Salem's article is professorial and is based on the discourse of competence. For her, we do not have problematic or debatable arguments, but a simplistic, Stalinist, anachronistic reading, with a serious error, with a lack of reading (which she “generously” points out to us), misunderstanding, authoritarian germs, etc. Those are the terms she uses.

We mobilize arguments around your text and not your intellectual capacity. The esteem remains. The political debate continues at other times and places.

*Alice Rossi is a graduate student in history at USP.

*Lincoln Secco is a professor of contemporary history at USP.

Originally published on Maria Antonia Newsletter, year II no 25.


[I] For more information on the content of the controversy, we suggest reading the interview by Luiz Bernardo Pericás about the protests, the impact of the US blockade and the economic situation in Cuba: /luiz-bernardo-pericas-white-house-dreams-that-cuba-returns-to-be-an-appendix-of-the-us/.


[iii]In the article we write: “if the protests against the government, which had a maximum of 20.000 participants, are qualified as “popular”, the demonstration in favor of the government, which in Havana alone had about 100.000 people, should also be recognized as such ”.

See this link for all articles