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Week Ten (A): A Decade of Revolution in Cuba

For this week’s blog post, I am choosing to focus on Che Guevara’s letter to the magazine Marcha – I think that it is very important (and interesting) to closely analyse the works of enduring figures that have had far-reaching and deeply profound impacts on the course of history.

An essential foundation of any revolution is a collective consciousness – Guevara discusses the construction of a revolutionary national consciousness, and where the individual stands in this new system. Upon my first read of the letter, I thought to myself that Guevara has a dangerous way of speaking – he talks of ‘original sin’ and emphatically suggests that the current generation, tainted as they are from their upbringing and socialisation in a system past, must ensure that their own generation and future generations are not perverted by these old institutions.

Retrospectively, the idea of propaganda is seen as negative, and perhaps this is why I read this argument of his with such caution. In a modern world that champions democracy and freedom, history tends to look unfavourably upon instances of indoctrination, as it seriously inhibits the individual’s ability to think independently and voice their own opinions and interests. However, that is why it is so useful to have primary sources such as these, where Guevara discusses indoctrination unabashedly in such detail. At the moment of writing, propaganda and indoctrination are not manipulative tools to steer a populace towards an agenda, they are a necessity to purge a populace of the exact underpinnings of a system that was overturned because it was undesirable. Guevara’s letter almost reads as a ‘how-to’ guide for other revolutionaries to utilise in understanding the necessary coordination process of revolution and conversion to communism.

The letter also contemplates the delicate balance between socialist and capitalist, and authoritarian and democratic. In his mind, socialism is good because of the collective goods and freedom from inequality that it offers (debatable whether this is a fact). However, he seems to understand that authoritarianism may be characterised as an evil due to the restriction on personal and economic freedoms. He seems to attempt to reconcile this by suggesting that “we socialists are more free because we are more fulfilled; we are more fulfilled because we are more free,” and that “the individual … has greater inner wealth and many more responsibilities.” However, I think that here there exists a fundamental error, especially when Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is considered. It is not possible to skip lower levels of needs and supplant esteem and self-actualisation in their place – it would render the whole process unsustainable. If lower, more basic needs are not met, it is not possible for the individual to remain complacent.

The final thought I had when completing this week’s readings was the state of revolution, and how this is retrospectively analysed by historians and political scientists. Guevara notes that “what is hard to understand for anyone who has not lived the revolutionary experience is that close dialectical unity which exists between the individual and the mass, in which both are interrelated, and the mass, as a whole composed of individuals, is in turn interrelated with the leaders”. I do believe that attempting to understand the masses was a way in which communist governments attempt to remain legitimate (whether genuinely or not is another question), however, in a revolutionary movement there does exist a connection between a leader and the masses that is unlike any relation that we in the Western world would ever have been privy to, especially where there is “the struggle for liberation against an external oppressor.” This kind of legitimacy, as Dawson notes, is perhaps why the people may be so forgiving towards the blunders of their leaders, even when these blunders cause great suffering for the people.

Guevara has an intense fixation on revolution in this letter, and in particular, the essence of a revolutionary spirit. Perhaps one of the reasons that some insist that the revolution in Cuba is still ongoing is because they understand that inspiring revolutionary spirit in a populace becomes dangerous once the government grows complacent and is no longer ‘revolutionary’.  In class, we discussed what was entailed by the term ‘revolution’ – and a resounding idea was that revolution indicates something novel – whether this be a process or a quick turn.

“Socialism is young and makes mistakes.” This is such a foreign concept to someone from and socialised in a Western country – we have established institutions, standard operating procedures, stability. It is easy to retrospectively look upon periods of revolution with disdain for the decisions made in them, but can we, in a ‘stable’ society, even fathom the social, political, and economic turbulence of such biblical proportions? Retrospectively studying revolution suddenly becomes an incredibly complicated task.


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Week Four: Independence Narratives, Past and Present

Another course I am currently undertaking relates to the concept of nationalism (in the context of modern Asia), and suggests that nationalism is only a recent trend born from decolonisation movements. Previously, I had only really associated decolonisation with that of South-East Asia and Africa in the mid-20th Century, which makes the context of Bolívar’s piece particularly interesting. What struck me most in his letter was his reference to Montesquieu writings that “it is harder… to release a nation from servitude than to enslave a free nation.” Retrospectively,  it is easy to say he was erroneous in this claim (given the history of decolonisation), however, in the context of 1815 Latin America, precedent was not in favour of liberation or independence.

After having completed the relevant readings for this week, I was particularly intrigued by the construction of identity in various independence narratives, especially with regard to the ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Of course, independence movements require mobilisation, which in turn itself requires a process of increasing consciousness and catalysing action. In nationalism, the way in which this  tends to be done is by strengthening the collective understanding of ‘us’ as well as ‘them’. In Bolívar’s letter, it is clear that ‘us’ refers to the aggrieved people of Latin America, having shared history and trauma. However, our perceptions of ourselves are also strengthened by our understandings of who we are not – the ‘other’ (in this case, “that unnatural stepmother – Spain”.

Again, in Martí’s ‘Our America‘, he draws the distinction between ‘us’; the inhabitants of the New World, and ‘them’; the inhabitants of the Old World (including the often-forgotten Indians that Bolívar himself made no allusion to) by alienating the Europeans, with their “puny arms, with bracelets and painted nails, the arms of Madrid or of Paris,” as well as the Americans who have enjoyed “four centuries of free practice”. His piece is very much a call to arms, and whilst at times frustrating to read, his voice is at others very beautiful, emotive, and provokes action. He makes an argument for a sort of ‘Latinisation’ of the elites and ruling officials in Latin America, and mythologises the shared history of Latin America (“A priest, a few lieutenants, and a woman built a republic in Mexico upon the shoulders of the Indians.”)

Following the sweep of decolonisation and after having thrown off their imperial chains, Latin America and the Global South have faced the new ‘threat’ of neoliberalism (at least according to Chávez). Neoliberalism of course refers to the international order wherein the cooperation and interdependence of states is desirable for net gain in an anarchic world system, and champions Capitalism and free-trade agreements in order for development to be realised. Whilst having its benefits, a significant downfall of neoliberalism is its western-centric nature as it suggests that the only viable system of state economics going forward is Capitalism, especially after Fukuyama’s suggestion that the “end of History” was heralded by the ‘triumph’ of Capitalism over Communism. By inciting the images of shared Latin American heroes such as Bolívar, as well as other leaders representing unity in the Global South such as Tito and Nasser, Chávez rejects this idea and instead urges other developing states of the G-15 to similarly turn from neoliberalism and Capitalism due to their shared history of exploitation (“The history of our countries tell us…”).


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