AN AMERICAN IN CUBA

Sometimes it indeed feels like we are all Don Quixote, tilting at windmills that never seem to change. And yet, the Cuban revolution has, since 1959, offered a beacon into the darkness …. a hope (hoping against hope) that there can be a place where something of our ideals will not only survive but flourish.

Eight years ago, Monthly Review Press published Nancy Stout’s terrific biography of Cuban Revolutionary hero Celia Sánchez. (One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution, Monthly Review Press, 2013, introduction by Alice Walker). Reading about Celia Sánchez gave me the opportunity to revisit an essay I wrote 30 years ago about the Cuban revolution. With all the misrepresentations and lies by the U.S. government regarding Cuba, I thought it would be worth taking a look at what it feels like on the ground in Cuba, with the 1959 Cuban Revolution struggling to fend off the restoration of capitalism.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1992, I visited Cuba as part of a delegation to the Fourth Conference of Cuban and North Am­er­i­can Philosophers, organized by the U.S.-based Radical Phi­lo­sophy Association. The trip occurred during what Cu­bans call the “Special Period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s most important trade partner and benefactor.

I had occasion to travel quite a bit around Havana, and others in the delegation ventured all over the country. People living there were not shy about voicing their opinions about the many problems they faced, and appeared quite free to do so. Despite the tremendous hardships in Cuba, medical care, education and basic foods remain free of charge for all, transportation is very inexpensive, and health professionals volunteer to assist other countries (like Haiti) with no strings attached. When it comes to basic necessities it seems to me, having grown up working class and poor in Brooklyn, that despite all the difficulties Cuba has a much healthier approach towards providing for the needs of its citizens, and life “on the ground” in Cuba simply felt more joyous than the way it’s represented from afar. Indeed, it is much more difficult to be poor in New York than it is in Cuba.

When a family of Cuban “dis­sidents” were brought to Spain by the Spanish government a few years ago, they found themselves evicted from their home in Alicante by the police because they couldn’t afford to pay the 400 Euros per month rent, nor electricity or water. Now they say they want to go back to Cuba, where the revolution had abolished evictions as one of its first acts when it came to power in 1959! “If I had been told in Cuba what was going on in Spain, I would have stayed [in Cuba],” said Gilberto Martinez. “I am only asking to be sent back to Cuba.” There are a few hundred Cuban exiles in Spain in the same boat.

“If I had been told in Cuba what was going on in Spain, I would have stayed in Cuba

 A recent vote in the UN General Assembly had this to say about the U.S. embargo and blockade of Cuba, an island of 11 million people:

UN Votes to denounce the U.S. government’s blockade of Cuba, 2021.

In assessing Cuban socialism many leftists in the U.S. — to say nothing of the corporate media — simply miss the point. One should not evaluate a small country like Cuba and the things it must do to stay afloat in the same terms as much larger former socialist countries like the Soviet Union or East Germany, especially as the Dracula to the North probes for Cuba’s jugular. Unlike pre-unification Germany, where the authoritarian socialist bureaucracy in the East was im­posed from the outside, it is the ongoing involvement of the mass of Cuban people and not the structure of the government, which is the defining feature of the Cuban revolution.

Regardless of how one assesses Cuba, those of us living in the U.S. would better serve our movements here by paying more attention to the dynamic revolutionary culture, philosophy, morality and vision of the Cuban people. I hope that this personal account of my experiences in Cuba will contribute to restoring context and human scale to the current polemics.

Back to the Future

Old cars from 50s and 60s at Veradero beach.

HAVANA, CUBA, JUNE 1992 — HAVANA IS A CITY OF VINTAGE AMERICAN CARS from the 1940s and ’50s and single-geared Chinese bicycles from the ’90s. The old Spanish architecture, which predates the 1959 revolution by centur­ies, is stunning, although ev­ery­where in need of painting. (Due to the U.S. embargo, paint is scarce). Brilliant red-flowered flamboyante trees line the major avenues and parks — the breathtaking Cuban equivalent of New England’s maples in autumn.

My dorm room is in a beautiful house in the Miramar section. The June weather is sweltering. My roommates and I are tempted to use the air conditioners provided by the university, but we refrain. We appreciate the sacrifices the Cubans are making to meet the “bourgeois” needs of U.S. visi­tors, but we don’t want to compound their dire economic situation by squan­dering precious elec­tricity. The Cubans think we’re ungrateful and crazy; it’s super hot out, they’d die to have an air condi­tioner.

I am overwhelmed by the unanticipated generosity and gentleness in Havana. Humor pervades most interactions despite the shortages; there is a vibrancy that is tangible, sexual, a twinkling of the eyes that is hard to describe and even more difficult to get used to.

I walk and bike all over the city; contrary to stories we heard in Miami before boarding the plane — our group appears to have been targeted for propaganda purposes by right-wing Cuban exiles ̶— there are no commissars breathing down our necks or hiding under our beds. I talk with the several panhand­lers as well as the occasional prostitute, whose existence the Cuban government officially denies. Except for tourist hotels where Cuban citi­zens are no longer allowed — a double standard provoking dissension (denied by our translators, strangely) — Cubans and tourists alike are free to go anywhere and talk to whomever they please.

I stop everywhere to talk with people, take pictures, read, interview officials and environmental activists, hunt for hard-to-find avenues, gay venues, tea rooms and alternative medi­cine practitioners. Where are the billboards trying to sell me something? There are none. Where are the taxi-drivers yelling out to me? None. Everywhere the general absence of the interpersonal aggression and street violence we take for granted and rarely recognize in New York is, to this Brooklynite, wonderful, liberating … and disorienting.

Is this a giant robot from War of the Worlds dominating the Miramar section of Havana? Actually, the huge edifice complex is the former Soviet Embassy!

Cuban machismo is always evident, but it takes a different form than what I’m used to in the United States. It rarely translates into physical violence on the street. And yet, everything is relative, I suppose. Aurora Hidalgo, a young lawyer at the Ecology Ministry, tells me she now carries a knife because a woman who lives in her building was raped a year ago – the only rape in her neighborhood near downtown Havana in the last two years. Still, when we visit the art museum, which is free and virtually empty, the guards stalk us, preparing to leap to keep us from running up and drawing moustaches on the sculptures and paintings.

I find myself think­ing about the ways capitalism distorts us – not only “oth­ers,” but what it has done to me, twisted me. Now it has shaped my interactions, relationships, love life, expectations, desires and sense of self, without my even knowing it! Here, in Cuba, my cells are in revolt. My mitochondria are conjuring energies that are more fully me than I’ve ever before experienced. I am coming alive, and I never even knew I was dead.

Portrait of the Author in Havana, 1992

I didn’t expect Cuba to be so “personal” a revelation. Like most North American urbanites, I have taken for granted “who I am” all my adult life. Can my friends in New York appreciate this feeling, the way in which violence has so shaped our interactions, relationships and sense of self that we don’t even see it? If, as Ferlinghetti met­a­phored, there is a “Coney Island of the mind,” then there is also some­thing of a “Havana of the heart”. I don’t want to go back home.Three Marxist Musketeers: Bill Livant (RIP), Paule Ollman and Bertell Ollman, outside police headquarters in Miramar, after investigating police ticketing teenagers for biking the wrong way down the street. (1992)

Three Marxist Musketeers: Bill Livant (RIP), Paule Ollman and Bertell Ollman, outside police headquarters in Miramar, after investigating police ticketing teenagers for biking the wrong way down the street. (1992)

 

“Rectification” & Housing

What glorious (and funny!) sights I see biking through Havana! The ironies abound — the beautiful marble and granite pillars in front of haciendas, embassies and gov­ernment houses of Miramar are inlaid with gold. Imagine Beverly Hills – except that pinned on ropes from veranda to veranda are colorful towels, underwear and garments of the working class flapping indelicately like revolu­tionary banners, slapping the faces of these former dwel­lings of the elite. I think back to the clotheslines that were drawn on pulleys across the punchball alleyways growing up in Brighton Beach, where I lived til I was eight years old.

I join a group of teenagers who have fastened a makeshift backboard and basketball hoop to a tree in front of a marble pillar guarding one en­trance. I’m afraid I didn’t serve my country well in the game, being just a tad out of shape (ahem!), though fash­ionably dressed in my Malcolm X t-shirt and borrowed Brooklyn baseball cap. One player is bare­foot, but the others sport the latest sneakers — gifts, they tell me, from relatives in the U.S. whose sports teams they avidly follow.

Playing Basketball in Havana

In the early 1990s Cuba began a policy of “rectification,” based largely on a return to principles laid out by Che Guevara, the Argentinian medical doctor and revolutionary who was a commandante in the Cuban revolution and who in 1959 became the new government’s Minister of Finance. A recent regulation rekindles Che’s approach to financing working class projects: It allows renters to apply their monthly rent towards the purchase of their dwellings, interest-free. To avoid class stratification, the law prohibits a family from owning more than two houses; it also forbids subletting.

This measure is very popular throughout Cuba. Contrary to some of the “principles” of free-marketeers in the U.S., no one I speak to feels that the limits placed on private ownership and subletting is an unfair government infringement of their freedom. No one in Cuba complains about “centralized government control” when it is used to keep rents low. Unlike the U.S., where the “free market” means that most residents spend more than half their income on rent and food, in Cuba rent is limited by law to a maximum of ten percent of income, and food staples are guaranteed.

Nor have working class families in Cuba exhibited the slightest qualm over the government’s confiscation of hun­dreds of beautiful old Spanish houses in the Miramar section from the wealthy aristocrats and businessmen who fled Cuba following the 1959 revolution. Many of those houses have been turned over to working class people, who now lay claim to ownership.

For many Cubans in Havana, the revolution has meant decent homes for the first time in their lives. For those who never had homes before, this, then, is democracy. The former elite living in Miami and New Jersey are in for a rude awakening if they think they’ll be able to waltz in and reclaim the prop­erty they’d abandoned, and not meet mass armed opposition.

Wherever we go we find that Cubans, even those who have strong criticisms of the government, view it as their revo­lution. Despite hardships and severe shortages, and maybe be­cause they have found ways to overcome them, the Cuban peo­ple are very proud of what they have been able to ac­complish.

Traditional Botanical Med­i­cines & Alternative Energy

AT A WOMEN’S PRISON IN WESTERN HAVANA, most of the prisoners are guilty of having committed economic crimes: trading in the black market, pros­ti­tution, pickpocketing and burglaries that didn’t involve wea­pons. Some of the prisoners, though, tell me that they’d mur­dered their husbands, mostly in fits of jealousy over their in­fi­delity. These are termed “crimes of jealousy or passion.” I ask the prison director why these women should be imprisoned for such long sentences, what good does that do? Her answers make no sense to me; they probably don’t make sense to her, either.

The inmates show me how they make cough-sup­pressant syrups and other cold remedies from oregano. (The clinic doctor gives me a sample to take home.) For asthma, honey and propolis extracts are prepared. For sore throat, rose­mary leaves. For parasites, pumpkin seeds. Instead of destroying the revolutionary spirit, the U.S. blockade has unexpectedly forced Cubans to find alternative and much healthier methods of deal­ing with the hardships and shortages. All over the island, her­bal and botanical medicines made from in­digenous plants are being rediscovered, which of itself is spurring a form of nationalism: Our plants, our country. Herbal concoctions are dis­tributed free of charge to anyone in need.

Many of the herbs are collected and dried at a Solar Energy Institute, established in 1987 in San­tiago, in the southeastern corner of Cuba. As the U.S. embargo and the fall of the Soviet Union cut off Cuba’s oil imports, the devel­opment of solar energy resources is becoming increasingly important.i Alternative renewable energy sources are expected to meet a growing percentage of Cuba’s energy needs, and the government is putting a good deal of scarce funds into developing these resources. There are, in ad­dition to the institute in Santiago, five other research locales, employing approx­imately 200 workers. The new solar energy manufacturing industry promises to become the cutting edge in Cuba’s trade, especially for countries now dependent on expensive foreign oil.

Most farm machinery is driven by bio-gas derived from wastes of sugar and other vegetation. According to soft-spoken Dr. Luis Bérriz Pérez, the vice-president of the Solar Energy Institute, Cuba is attempting to apply new breakthroughs in solar and hydrogen technology to refrigeration, so that that process would no longer be based on compression of ozone-destroying fluorocarbons but on ad­sorption and absorption of gases generated from agricultural by-products and wastes.

Dr. Bérriz explains that while it has been possible to get these gases to freeze, alternative re­frigeration is still far too costly for mass application, and has to be installed piecemeal. For the time being, solar energy is used passively — in heating li­quids (for agriculture), in slow drying of organic herbs (for alternative medicines), and in the desalinization of water. Some recent achievements: bio-conversion is used in intensive production of micro algae, which are used as food for animals, mainly pigs and fish; thermal conversion is used principally in water heaters and solar dryers for botanicals.

Photovoltaic conversion of sunlight to electricity remains expensive and still beyond reach, so Cuba had begun building a nuclear power plant to meet energy needs.ii But Cuba was forced to sus­pend construction on the plant due to the embargo and lack of financing.iii As a long-time opponent of nuclear pow­er, I could not contain my glee that this plant’s construction had to be suspended. There are far too many dangers to health and en­vironment, let alone hidden financial costs, that come with nuclear power. But those of us who oppose nuclear power plants need to propose realistic alterna­tives for generating energy, especially for countries much poorer economically than the United States. I spend a good portion of my time in Cuba involved in discussions with Cuban researchers on how to do this.iv

Dr. Bérriz explains that the Cuban government is prioritizing solar energy to power rural day­care centers and clinics in areas far away from electric grid networks. He proudly explains that even expensive photovoltaic cells, obtained mostly from Spain, are being purchased for those poor rural areas first — a consequence of central and regional planning and allocation of scarce resources that, under other socio-economic systems based on profit and ruled by cost/benefit analyses, would never be allocated.

Oldsters queuing up for newspapers. There had been nobody on the street a minute earlier, yet, as if by magic, hundreds of people came out of nowhere to get the morning edition of Granma.

In a country where paper is hard to come by — ̶ shortages of toilet paper are due to lack of cardboard for manufacturing the tubes! — significant (but not yet sufficient) resources have also been allocated to publish literature such as Plantas Silvestres Co­mestibles, an easy-to-read catalogue of Cuba’s edible (and sometimes medicinal) plants, designed as a joint effort between the ministry of ecology and the military. Other books, such as Plantas Medicinales, Aromaticas o Venenosas de Cuba, include how to use the plants to treat specific ailments as well as recipes for making one’s own medications. These efforts, funded by the government, are seen as a way of decen­tralizing information. The government wants people to become knowledgable about which plants they can safely eat and how to prepare medicines from natural plants. Individual survival techniques are part of the emergency planning for U.S. invasion.

ONE MORNING I FIND MYSELF STANDING ON LINE in an obscure part of Havana. Out of nowhere, 100 people materialize as if by magic just as the daily newspapers arrive. Cuba is the most politically aware place I’ve ever been; people are hungry … for news. But the offi­cial government newspapers are forced to print far fewer copies than needed due to the paper shortage; people are asked to share their newspapers. I can’t help but compare that to New York where surburban rail­road commuters are directed to throw their papers away into locked, specially-marked containers un­der the guise that they will be “recycled,” but not “re-used”.

Aurora Hildalgo presents a paper at the Conference of Cuban and North American Philosophers, explaining that some of Cuba’s paper (cachaza) is made from byproducts of sugar cane left over from the production of molasses; this is also used for rope and “wood” for fuel (bagazo) — a kind of “recycling” that I’d always thought that word should institute in the U.S.

Through the practice of growing hemp much of Cuba’s newsprint needs — as well as clothing, oil and energy — could be eased, if not completely solved. Climate per­mitting — and I’m not sure how suitable Cuba’s climate or soil is for growing hemp — hemp is more efficient than cane; it generates much more fiber per acre while depleting the soil far less. Still, al­though not as efficient as hemp, the use of cane for various products and energy represents a victory for environmentalists, and Cuba’s scientists hold it up proudly as an example of Cuban re­sourcefulness in circum­venting the embargo. It also shows the benefits of a planned economy, when it is working well.

For Cuban scientists, my suggestions concerning hemp are anathema; official Cuban policy is “psychedelia-phobic” and they view hemp as equivalent to marijuana, even though the hemp plant contains very low levels of THC and so it is not psychoactive. I present these facts, but when I make a side-comment that Cuba’s entire money difficulties could be ameliorated by growing marijuana and selling it ab­road, everyone gasps. Mind-expanding drugs are treated as verböten by the government and consequently by the intelligentsia (at least in public), just as they are in the U.S. “Nobody uses marijuana in Cuba,” I’m told repeatedly. As a result of my gaffe, nobody wants to touch the main argument I am trying to make con­cerning hemp. I learn that I’d better stick to the main point I’m trying to make if I want to get anything done.

I don’t tell them that many people on the street offer to sell me pot … and at an excellent price!

Environment attorney Aurora Hidalgo with visiting luminaries

Aurora Hidalgo, on the other hand, represents a youthful if small ecology movement. She contrasts vibrantly to the other scientists at the conference. She is also hungry for information on alternative and holistic treatments for AIDS in the U.S., and we burn out our translator who is not successful in suppressing his skepticism while translating the sometimes complicated and controversial ideas and alternative health concepts Aurora and I are racing through. He’s clearly exhausted and grateful for the end of our 90-minute non-stop express train speed discussions.

Environmental Attorney Aurora Hidalgo Leon

Aurora arranges for me to deliver a talk in a few days on “A Call to Develop a Revolutionary Science.” In the meantime, she sets up a visit to the Alternative Medicine clinic at the Salvador Allende Hospital in southern Havana, where we visit a holistic doctor who has been making waves with his unusual treatments for “untreatable” patients.

Dr. Lino’s free, government-funded clinic for Alternative Medicine in Havana.

Thirty-year-old Dr. Lino Toma­sen Vera, the clinic’s director and sole practitioner, rides up on his bicycle at 7:30 in the morning to meet us at the entrance and opens his alternative health clinic. Dr. Lino once specialized in internal medicine. Since 1987, he has attended to 200,000 cases, he says. Forty or fifty people have already queued up by the time Dr. Lino arrives.

Dr. Lino and his patients permit Robert Gold and Gloria Pasin to videotape his unorthodox treatment, which consists of various combinations of chiropracty, acupressure, meditation, yoga, nutrition, Tai-chi, homeopathy and botanical medicine. The conditions of most of his patients, many of them children, have been deemed “hopeless” by the standard medical practitioners at the hospital, and so the hospital sends them to Dr. Lino. Orthodox doctors who work at the hospital confirm that Dr. Lino has an overall 85 percent improvement rate! These include many dramatic cures, especially with patients suffering from what had been diagnosed at the hospital as “terminal” cancers. He doesn’t “cure” those patients, but he improves their condition and extends their lives.

We watch Dr. Lino run his fingers quickly over a young boy’s body, manipulating acupressure points. “My boy has cer­ebral palsy,” the mother explains. He was diagnosed by the excellent hospital, which was unable to treat him effectively. “After seven visits to Dr. Lino, he is able to walk again,” she says.

Other parents have similar stories. Dr. Lino explains his work: “People need to want to get better, to believe in themselves. That is the first part of healing.” I find it remarkable that a doctor trained in western medicine would also practice tai-chi and yoga daily, and believe in a living spirit. “Do you believe in God,” I ask him during a short break between patients, “or maybe you think you are God?”

“I’ve transcended God,” Dr. Lino smiles impishly, enjoying our confusion in trying to figure out if we’d translated correctly and whether he’s for real.

Dr. Lino Tomasen Vera, Havana, 1992.

Dr. Lino says he learned a great deal from Asian healers who ended up in Cuba during the Vietnam war and who stayed on. “The Vietnamese, Koreans and the Chinese use different forms of acupuncture, mainly to treat addictions without pharmaceuticals,” he tells us. “There is a sort of competition between them.” Partly because sterile acupuncture need­les are not readily available, Dr. Lino, though skilled in acu­puncture, prefers acupressure, chiropracty and massage.

Dr. Lino treating young patient with acupressure.

The widespread practice of traditional healing methods elicits pride in Cuba’s rich heritage of using indigenous plants as botanical medicines, as well as midwifery, efforts in solar energy development and alternative agriculture, and the rediscovery of the joys of bicycling for transportation. Radical ecologists in Cuba are beginning to gain ground in their critique of western society, which includes Russian socialism as well as American capitalism ̶— both dependent, they say, on an industrial assembly-line model of production. After two years of uncertainty bordering on despair, there is a now in 1992 just beginning to emerge a sense of tough creativity, that, as several Cubans tell me, “whatever they throw at us, we’ll find an alternative, a revolutionary way out.”

Sciences & Development

Biotechnology is another matter. Cuba has allocated enormous resources to developing a top-flight hi-tech genetic-engineering complex with state of the art equipment, mostly from Japan. At the conference, scientists tout the economic virtues of biotechnology; they present it as a way for Cuba to meet its balance of payments debts while providing an alternative so that Latin America can avoid having to depend on expensive drugs from the U.S. and Europe.

In Cuba, there is strong governmental regulation of all industries, including biotechnology. As a result Cuba has a far better track record than the U.S. and other capitalist countries when it comes to safety and the precautionary principle. Bio­technology is being used in industrial production of medicines ̶ primarily in the development of alpha-Interferon and other treatments for diseases such as Hepatitis, which it sells very cheaply to other countries in Latin America. [By 2005 Cuba was using biotechnology in production of virus-free seedlings; still, no genetically engineered plant varieties had been allowed to be released – they remain “under study.” These safeguards, I fear, may be the first things sacrificed as Cuba strives to compete in the Latin American market with the U.S., European and Japanese pharmaceutical companies. – MC]

I mention these concerns to the scientists at the biotech research facility that our small group visits. The scientists trumpet the alleged benefits of genetic engi­neering; they seem blithely unaware of G.E.’s many serious dan­gers and of the raging debate over this whole topic in the U.S. and Europe. Nor do any of the scientists see biotechnology as contradictory to the efforts underway to “green” Cuba and promote botanical and herbal medicines and organic agriculture. When it comes to Big Science, Cuban intellectuals share the same dangerous assumptions as their counter­parts in biotech labs in the U.S. and Europe.

Cuban educator P.M. Pruna, of the Study Center for the History and Organization of Science, addresses this theme at the 1992 conference. He delivers a paper on the debate between philosophers and sociologists regarding science and its history and cautions against the compartmentalization of disciplines. “I would like to examine the present situation,” he says, “in the following terms: Is the study of science to be reduced to the sociological analysis of power groups within the scientific com­munity, disregarding the traditional ‘search for truth’ as a primary objective of science? Or will it be transformed into an analysis of the logical procedures used by science, also ignoring the ‘truth con­tents’ of science, instead of the concepts and ideas developed by scientists?”

Scientists, [Pruna continues], are normally working within a certain paradigm, they are rein­for­cing it. However, there are certain moments in which exceptional individuals call such para­digms into doubt and finally propose a new paradigm, which gradually gains consensus and the story starts all over again. This, of course, is an oversimplified version of what [Thomas] Kuhn actually said. Kuhn has been severely criticized for his conceptions that transition from one style of thought to a new one takes place through a sort of intuitive perception by a single scientist. This scientist seems to be the only channel connecting the old and the new paradigm. This, of course, was Kuhn’s way of escaping from the cumulative view of scientific develop­ment maintained by logical positivism.

Why all this talk on shifting paradigms and on Thomas Kuhn? With each presentation by the Cuban scientists I become more and more antsy. Dr. Pruna, like others before him, seems to be beating around the bush, making obligatory attacks on “safe” subjects. Is his critique of those critiquing Kuhn — which distort what Kuhn actually wrote, as Pruna undoubtedly knows — an oblique reference to what’s going on in Cuba? His talk reminds me of the debates in China during the cultural revolution in which criticisms of various factions in the government were couched in references to Confucius and Chinese history, with no direct mention of current con­cerns.

Sure enough, privately, some of the presenters confirm my suspicions: Unlike the working class people that I’d interviewed on the street, the intellectuals are afraid to directly challenge the approach set down by the University administration, which instructed them to use their presentations to serve the desperate economic situation no matter how much of a stretch it may be. Their talks were screened by the university officials (not by the government) ahead of time; the professors feel con­strained to tread and retread the same turf, over and over again, and it is only through the visitors’ presentations and challenges that real intellectual discussion takes place. Could Dr. Pruna’s long overview of the history of debate over shifting paradigms seems to be his way, convoluted for sure, of referencing — even critiquing – the current situation in Cuba while keeping favor with University officials?

The more interesting presentations, Pruna’s among them, are about more than they seem on their face. I find that I have to concentrate intensely to read between the lines, and I’m exhausted at the end of every presentation. Dr. Pruna gives me a boxed set of Fidel’s speeches on Science and Technology, which he says are far more intriguing than what many are presenting at the conference and would cause Fidel, if he were a professor, to be “in trouble” at the University. And so when he ventures into any criticism he does so very cautiously, taking pains to go over familiar ground in carefully setting up the philo­sophical problems he really wants to get at. For me, this sort of academic speech-making offers a roundabout and interminable tour through the obvious. And yet, Pruna’s talk is very important. Here, he continues his theme about “para­digm shifts”:

[Kuhn’s] conception of ‘normal science’ excluded all possibility of extracting elements of the new paradigm from the results obtained by scientists working under the old paradigm. If so-called ‘normal science’ is understood as a period when paradigms are being constantly mended by their supporters, one should also ask why this mending or reinforcement seems nec­essary. Surely these are periods of perhaps only mild criticism of established truths, but criti­cism none the less, not gullible complacency.

Where did these doubts and critical remarks stem from? They must have arisen from ob­servation and experiment, coupled with antithetical reasoning. The latter was quite common, one must say, even in medieval times, although authority then prevailed over opinions oppos­ing established truth. Methodical doubting was certainly not invented by Descartes.

One may concede, furthermore, that experiments as well as theories are under the influ­ence not only of previous scientific tradition and of prevailing views, but may also reflect mate­rial and spiritual peculiarities of a certain period.

It would be acceptable but not too imaginative to substitute the words “capitalism” for the old paradigm and “socialism” for the new. But that is not what Pruna is doing ̶– though he might fall back on that explanation if he were to come under attack in the University. His construct is more complex, with the “new” period of rectification in Cuba becoming the specific “new paradigm” within the labor pains of a socialism kicking to be born.

What emerges from such a reinterpretation of Kuhn’s model is an active scientific com­munity surrounded by a complex social and technological context, which includes also phi­lo­sophical and other theoretical outlooks. There is a dynamic interaction between scientific work as such and this context. Through analogical construction — or the building of metaphors, if you prefer — elements of this context may be introduced into scientific reasoning as new ways of reading ‘nature’s book.’

Meanwhile, the mending of prevailing scientific theories brings about certain changes in them. A theory may become noticeably overloaded with such reinforcements and may resemble a primitive gothic cathedral. A better architect will sense a better solution; he will look for better tools and materials and lighter designs. He will build a new cathedral. And all of us will go and pray in it. … The list of scientific discoveries and technological developments implying serious risks for humanity has regrettably grown in length and diversity during the 20th century, much more than in any other period of history. Nuclear disarmament, we must recall, is far from be­ing a world-wide reality. Research on biological or combined biological and chemical warfare may still be in the agenda of the armed forces of some countries. Many technologies give rise to high environmental risks, and some authors believe industrialization as such to be a generator of entropy within our planet. Hastily tested drugs, which are widely sold in different countries, are permanent health hazards. These are only some examples, but scientists are usually in­volved in all these proceedings, and seem to go through them with an untroubled conscience. …

The value of scientific research is tightly bound with the behavior of scientists, and this becomes quite evident when studying the history of science.

Whew! Dr. Pruna, being the very careful historian of science, never says what he thinks. In fact, Pruna is carefully critiquing in this convoluted way the submissive “behavior of scientists” — including himself! — and calls on us to judge “the value of [their] scien­tific research” by understanding the official pressures on their work and their willingness to succumb to it! I note that he does not leave out his own work from this critique, but calls on us to read between the lines — even as he strongly supports the government and initiatives of Fidel.

Dr. Pruna raises questions about the dangers of industrial tech­nologies from afar, but which apply to at least some Cuban “authors” as well. Pruna, and oth­ers, clearly feel — at least it’s clear to me, based on private discussions with them — that Cuba has in some ways bought into what I call the “Big Science paradigm,” and that challenges to both frameworks — (a) Technology itself, and, (b) the way in which that discussion is being conducted about tech­nology — must be allowed to be addressed freely if Cuba is going to sustain its revolution into the next century. His round-about historical discussion of science seems to be code, of sorts, for issuing such a call for free scientific discussion.

The Economic Crisis

At the zoo, the signs had always said, “Please don’t feed the animals.” As the economic crisis deepened, the signs were changed to “Please feed the animals,” since there wasn’t enough money for the zoo to feed them. Today the signs have been changed again. They now read: ‘Please don’t eat the animals. – Cuban joke, summer of 1992

The U.S. government’s illegal embargo and blockade would create serious problems in any country. But especially in a small, isolated and progressive one like Cuba, where health care is free and every effort is made to develop the finest in medical technology to attack diseases regardless of cost, the embargo of medicine to Cuba and technology from abroad has been devastating. Still, Cuba’s heart sur­gery techniques, its development of the drug PPG (which reportedly reduces cholesterol and plaque in blood vessels), its pioneering application of bio-engineering in production of drugs to fight AIDS and cancer (over which the only debate seems to be the one that I offered during my presentations at the conference and at visits to the laboratories themselves), and its state of the art health delivery systems, are far superior to others in Latin America and rival those in the U.S. Cuba’s Green medi­cine, solar energy and alternative agriculture proj­ects all receive government fun­ding and popular support.

Vermont professor Will Miller (RIP, Will) and James Mc­Cabe. With the Soviet Embassy mon­o­lith in the background, Will’s t-shirt reads, in Russian, “Capitalism Sucks”.

But, as one friend puts it, “Havana may be good for the heart but it is terrible for the stomach.” Since the virtual shutdown of Cuba’s trading partners three years ago and an intensification of the embargo by the U.S. government, there is a growing scarcity of food for Havana’s two million inhabitants. In a popular measure, the government has begun to distribute egg-laying chickens and occasional roosters to the urban population to compensate for the rationing of an ever-diminishing allotment of eggs. Every morning we’re awakened by the new urban roosters greeting the dawn.

Since the devolution of the so-called socialist bloc in Eastern Europe — which, combined with an intensification of the U.S. embargo, has led to a cut-off of some 85 percent of Cuba’s trade — Cuba has been in the throes of what is officially known as “a Special Period.” In 1991, the Soviet Union cut the price paid for Cuban sugar from 40 to 25 cents per pound, dramatically decreasing Cuba’s ability to import food and energy. The former Soviet Union reneged on promised goods as well. Imported rice, grains, milk, butter all are now endangered species; a shortage of items like caustic soda, necessary in the production of soap, has made soap hard to come by. (“That’s all right,” goes another Cuban joke, “there’s no water to wash with anyway.”) Soviet exports to Cuba dropped from $5.5 billion in 1989 to $1.7 billion in 1991. Oil imports have been cut in half, from almost 13 million tons in 1989 to under 7 million in 1991 and much less the past two years. In lieu of cash, Mexico had offered to provide oil in exchange for precious oil “paintings”, but the U.S. cracked the whip of the International Monetary Fund over Mexico’s back, as it did over similar offers from Venezuela.

Consequently, the entire country is suffering from a disastrous oil shortage. That means few cars are on the streets, transportation of food, necessary goods, ambulances and buses come at enormous social cost, electric power failures are common and most industries are being dramatically scaled down. As an interim measure: Cuba has imported one million bicycles from China.

Bicycling Towards Energy Independence

Bicycles are everywhere. Workers who never had access to bikes before are all-too-happy to ride them for three, four, five miles at a clip (especially since the alternative is the awful and now almost extinct buses; more on them in a minute).

In Miami, right-wing Cuban emigrés claimed that “That’s a lie. There are no bicycles in Cuba.” When I challenged one such liar by citing what I’d seen with my own eyes, he abruptly retreated to his just as onerous fallback position, without missing a beat: “Bicycles,” he said, “are a step backward for Cuba, a sign of socialism’s disintegration.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. What began as an emergency measure — calling on people to “sacrifice” travelling in automobiles by riding bicycles — is turning out to be a godsend. It has already reduced dependency on the multinational oil cartel, freeing the mind from the limited technological approach to what constitutes “the good life,” and improving the overall health of the population.v

Bicycling “is” perhaps a step backward — but taking a step back is not always a bad thing. It depends on the extent to which one’s notion of progress relies upon expanding dependence on petroleum-based mass-technology — a trap which apparently plagues avowed socialists as much as it does capitalists.

However one views it, the absolute swarm of bicycles each morning in Havana is as visually impressive as it is healthy. And for that, Cubans “thank” the U.S. embargo. Consequently, the air, which had been seriously polluted a few years ago, is now much cleaner than in most cities in the U.S., and people are in far better shape than before, despite the food shortages. Indeed, in a city where making a virtue of necessity has become something of a fine art, and where calls to “rectification” — to return to Che Guevara’s concepts of the creation of a new socialist human being — have sometimes been used rhe­torically to exhort people to greater sacrifice while desperately back-pedalling to repair the shortcomings of prior government decisions, the sort of virtues generated by bike riding have stirred sincere feelings of ecological and national pride in measures that had been originally seen as embarrassing necessities.

Obtaining hundreds of thousands of bicycles from China and making them affordable to everyone has turned out to have been one of the most popular of the recent measures enacted by the government in this special period. The extremely positive psychological and communally empowering effects of bicycling en masse are too often overlooked by dry economists (in Cuba as well as in the States) who remain caught up in the dominant dystopic vision of progress being tied to industrial development at any price. The government sells the bikes at low monthly rates; students and workers in certain professions get enormous discounts and buy them on the installment plan at no interest for just a few pesos a month. There are now separate “bicycle only” lanes on the main avenues, road signs warn drivers to be careful of bicyclists, and guards carefully number and keep an eye on newly installed indoor bicycle racks at Havana University.

Indeed, Havana is now perhaps the most bicycle-friendly city this side of Beijing. One afternoon, I note a large group of people gesturing to me from under canopies and trees. I don’t understand why they are doing this, and I continue pedaling up the hill, huffing a puffing as I near the top.

Suddenly, the heavens open up – where did this huge storm come from? The skies were clear just a few minutes earlier! I am soaked to the gills, shivering. Everyone under the trees finds this extremely amusing, and a group beckons me to join them beneath the marqué of a local movie theater. Currently playing: “El Terminator,” Schwartznegger’s pre-gubernatorial physique propped imperially against the entrance. A couple of people offer me cloths to dry my head and eyeglasses, laughing at me the whole time. I laugh along with them. And I spy Dr. Pruna standing next to his bike under an awn­ing a dozen yards away. I wave, he waves back, the rain stops as suddenly as it had begun and the streets again fill with commuters on their bicycles. An occasional bus huffs by, belching black smoke.

Photo by Cindy Arlinsky, Transportation Alternatives Havana street scene, Feb., 1992. Petroleum curtailments have forced a shift to human power, making cycling the means of transport for man Cubans. Ample cycle lanes, bike parking lots, car speed limits and “yield to cyclist” billboards have sprouted throughout Havana and other Cuban cities, and new factories are cranking out bikes.

No-Fare Zones

In Havana, those not on bicycle ride the old rickety Hungarian buses, which get four miles to the gallon and are falling apart. Although the fare is only ten cents, to say that the buses are “overcrowded” is like saying there is but a slight tear in the ozone layer. Adults as well as kids, doctors, professors, construction workers, orange juice squeezers, seamstresses, clerks and municipal officials race after the buses and jump onto whatever toehold they could find, arms wrapped around the window posts, clinging like ants to the sugar cube as it hurtles down the streets.

Most buses have three, sometimes four sets of exit doors through which the sea of humanity attempts to board. Often the drivers won’t even bring their buses to a halt in the general vi­cin­ity of the bus stop. People sprint after them as they slow down and leap, hoping to grab hold. (The best analogy I can think of would be diving headfirst off the stage in New York City at a punk rock concert, expecting all the screaming maniacs below will catch you.) Those able to enter through the bus’ back doors voluntarily pass their ten cents forward — sort of an honor system; no one even thinks of pocketing another’s money, even though everyone needs it.

I had a similar experience in Nicaragua during the optimistic height of the Sandinistas nine years before, and in Harlem when Nelson Mandela first visited the U.S. upon his release from South Africa’s dungeons after 28 years. There, I was at first astounded by and then swept up in the mass enthusiasm as the huge number of people on 125th Street emptied their pockets and passed tens of thousands of dollars over their heads to the stage, the entire crowd laughing, trusting, and cheering one another the whole time. What a transcendental “we’re all in this together” heady moment!

Revolutionary success can be measured not only in government policies but in creating conditions through which the morality and radical social consciousness of the community are able to emerge. (“When the prison gates are open / the real dragon will fly out.”vi)

But why were the buses in Cuba so awful? Was it only due to the U.S. embargo? In 1990, Fidel Castro blasted the shoddy Eastern European machinery, including the buses:

Let’s speak clearly once and for all … We Cubans don’t export garbage. But often what we get back in trade [from the East] is junk! No one else in the world buys Bulgarian forklifts. They are such garbage, only we bought them! How many hundreds, thousands of them stand idle today in our warehouses? The Hungarian buses … pollute the city with fumes and poison everyone around. Who knows how many people have died from the fumes of those buses just because they put in a defective fuel pump? On top of it all, those buses have a two-speed Czech transmission that alone wastes 30 percent of the fuel! Oh, how happy I am to speak with such openness! It’s been difficult to talk about these things in the past, but thanks to these new circumstances, [the “new cir­cum­stan­ces” being the collapse of the Eastern European socialist bloc. – MC] we have been relieved of our previous compromises.vii

Among other stop-gap measures taken to ease the transportation crisis, all government vehicles, which are demarcated by red license plates, are required to carry people wherever they are going along the way. It is not unusual to find 5 or 6 people surrounding a government Toyota and somehow squeezing into it.

As is the case in most countries in hard times, during the Special Period in Cuba, people are forced to make due with what they have. However, unlike other countries the Cuban people’s extremely high degree of social consciousness enables them to take a different approach to the problems their society is facing. To what degree will the various creative and environmentally friendly policies – which are, let’s face it, predominantly making a virtue out of necessity – carry over into the development of an environmental consciousness and continue after this special period ends? The situation is fraught with contradictions but at least for a moment Cuba offers a different vision of “Progress” and what might constitute “The Good Life” despite material privation, at least as judged from the top of the mountain of material (and environmentally destructive) stuff available in the United States.

Problems in Eden

But there “is” growing discontent, particularly over the favored treatment given to tourists, an “industry” the government is heavily promoting and which is rife with contradictions. Because of Cuba’s need to extract hard currency to pay for goods at world market prices, tourists are whisked to the front of long lines, shop in dollar-only stores, and stay in hotels that are off-limits to Cubans, who, until the law was changed in August, 1993, were not allowed to have dollars or engage in dollar exchanges. (Another major change, which went into effect in September 1993, allows people trained in around 100 occupations (like carpentry) to open up their own shops, so long as they don’t hire anyone else’s labor.)

“Socialism or Death? Viva Fidel” is a common sentiment on the fences of construction sites like this one around a hotel being built in Veradero, but the tour­ism policy raises many questions about what socialism actually is or should be about.

Prioritizing tourism has led to an increase in corruption among government officials who, until recently, had sole access to dollars. Unlike in the U.S., where most people shrug off the corruption as impossible to do anything about, in Cuba people take their democracy seriously. The corruption pisses them off. It has even touched off several demonstrations. Even the strongest proponents of the tourism industry view it as a necessary evil.

The tourism trade, combined with the tumbling economy, has also led to an upsurge in prostitution, requiring, in turn, an increase in police activities and claims of harrassment, often along racial lines. Though clearly not the official policy of the state, Black members of our delegation are harassed by police — until they prove they are U.S. citizens — in street sweeps of illegal sellers. Over and over again, we observe Black Cubans stopped by police and asked to show their ID cards, while whites are not, even when they are walking together.

Members of our delegation meet with the former U.S. political prisoner Assata Shakur, now living in exile in Cuba, in a sprawling afternon-long discussion on the world and our social and political movements. From left, front: Pat Pratali (Virginia) and Joy James (Am­herst, MA); back row: John Brentlinger (Amherst, MA. RIP, John), Assata Shakur, Ann Furguson (Am­herst, MA), Peter Bohmer (Evergreen College), Kim Holder (Monmouth College, NJ). Photo by Mitchel Cohen

One Afro-Cuban professor challenged the basically liberal statements of the non-Africans at the conference on the subject of racism. “The objective condition of Blacks in Cuba,” she said, “are still worse than those of European heritage, though not as bad as the situation before the revolution (and nowhere near as bad as the conditions in the United States). The Cuban progressive bourgeoisie “feared” the Blacks,” she continued. “Black Cuban heroes like Antonio Maceo, are portrayed as great military heroes, but their intellectual and political achieve­ments are intentionally overlooked.” Originally, the nationalist revolutionary movement left out the Black population; Batista tried to rally Cubans against the guerrillas by appealing to the population to resist what he termed the European neo-colonial­ists. But the revolution didn’t succeed in fully translating José Marti’s special attention to integration into society-wide anti-racist reforms.

It is important, however, to keep all this in perspective. At least in Cuba no one is homeless, despite an intense housing shortage. During the food shortages, food is rationed — including among government officials — so the hard times are shared equally. While middle class Americans look upon the lack of stores in Cuba with pity, in Cuba freedom, democracy, the good life is defined differently: there is, for instance, no advertising bombarding you wherever you turn, little waste production or packaging which end up polluting the earth and necessitating expensive disposal and sanitation mechanisms, and no compulsion to shop as a substitute for living! Cuban society calls into question what it means for a society to be “healthy”. While people in the U.S. certainly have access to a much wider range of goods than their Cuban counterparts, it is far harder to be poor in the U.S. than in Cuba, where all shortages of food, oil, clothing are shared equally, creating a sense of non-stratified community in the face of common hardship.

Cuba simply does not have the goods that are available in the U.S. (nor the commercialism, advertisements, packaging, or the waste). In comparing Cuba to a utopian ideal of socialism, which is one of the left’s favorite pastimes, its government falls short. Homophobia, for instance, remains rampant in Havana, and gays and lesbians, having been purged from the Cuban Communist Party in 1981 along with Christians, are ironically still banned from Party membership while Christians began being let back in two years ago. Still, for all the complaints I heard from gay people in Cuba, no one reported incidents of drunken (or sober) gay-bashing. And, unlike the situation in the new “democratic” Nicaragua, where individuals convicted under the new anti-gay law (a law opposed by the Sandinista bloc in the National Assembly) face years in jail; or in El Salvador, where government forces cut off the penises of male homosexuals and stuff them in their mouths, in Cuba there are no laws against homosexuality — although discrimination and harassment of gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals does exist. Compared to the nearby countries in Latin America, Cuba is an idyllic paradise where infant mortality has been greatly diminished, literacy is virtually universal, and health care is free and top quality. Over and over again I think of Phil Ochs’ words: “In such a time of ugliness the true protest is beauty.” [Note: I revisited Cuba in 2013 — 20 years later — and found a thriving and very visible gay culture. So something was done right! – MC]

Many socialists judge Cuba from afar through abstract categories and government decisions, instead of the way those decisions are reached, bubbling up through the self-activity of the people — a self-activity that is not only allowed but encouraged to blossom. For many in the U.S., when the Cuban reality doesn’t oblige their abstract categories, they slash away at what they call “Stalinism” there, transposing categories apropos to industrialized Eastern Europe to Cuba’s vastly different experience and history. And all I can answer is, I feel, yes, “freer” in many ways in Cuba than I do in the U.S.

Too many leftists in the U.S. fetishize the structures of so-called “democracy” and call on Cuba to increase the number of political parties there. But the Cubans have good arguments for not adorning themselves with the trappings of democracy U.S.-style. They are far more concerned with expanding working class democracy within existing parties and institutions.

Socialism is a process, not an end result. It involves self-determination, even when you may disagree with what people decide for themselves through those determinations. Regardless of people’s exasperation with their current situation, and frustrations with government policies, workers with whom I spoke certainly feel unconstrained enough to express their complaints openly — to me, to domestic media, and to Cuban officials to their face, who travel around the country attending village meetings. In Cuba, the revolutionary process is still going on. It takes new and unanticipated turns while having to shake off the stale and pestilential breath of capital, as it breathes down its neck from just 90 miles away. The revolution was nationalist and anti-imperialist as well as socialist. In Cuba, the people I spoke with feel that the revolution, for all its shortcomings, is their own.

The 1992 Radical Philosophy Association group meeting in Havana considers a number of contentious issues.

And in such areas as solar energy, green medicine, literacy and, yes!, armed self-determination, the Cuban people are, in spite of enormous hardships and sometimes frustrating policies, showing the way forward, the arenas in which socialism can really make a difference in people’s lives. The ever shifting conditions continuously offer new opportunities that remove socialism from the dusty museum of antiquity and re-energize what had become static; as anyone who has been to Cuba will say, despite many problems, the dynamic culture of the Cuban people and their refusal to buckle-under to the U.S. redefines our vision, in the U.S., of what socialism, and freedom, could really mean.

NOTES

1. Since this was written, Cuba had negotiated arrangements with Mexico and especially Venezuela, for oil, which was one of the reasons the U.S. government attempted to overthrow the Chavez government in Venezuela. With Chavez’s death Cuba has lost its closest ally.

2. A dramatic technological breakthrough in producing portable solar energy cells has been developed in Canada in 2005, and may prove to be just what Cuba has been looking for. We can expect the U.S. government to put added pressure on Canada to cease its trade with Cuba; but as many Canadian businesses are already invested in the island in other projects, this pressure may not be easy for the U.S. to accomplish.

3. In 2005, one of the transformers from the half-built Juragua nuclear power plant was removed to replace the failed transformer at the Guiteras thermo-electric plant. Could this be the end (hopefully) of Cuba’s nuclear experiment?

4. Nuclear engineers are now being retrained in alternative energy.

5. See Bill Livant, “Ride the Red Bicycle.”

6. This is a famous line from a poem by Ho Chi Minh, leader of the victorious resistance movement in Vietnam against U.S. imperialism.

7. Village Voice, May 1, 1990  

RIDE THE RED BICYCLE

by Bill Livant

This is the dawning of the bicycle era in Cuba. … Expanding the use of the bicycle is an indicator of cultural advancement and a gesture of respect towards nature. The bicycle will humanize our habits, make better use of our time and improve the quality of life in our country. Fidel Castro, quoted in the U.S. Bicycle Guide; March 1992.

Dawning of an era? Does Castro really mean that this little tool for getting around, which capitalist history put aside for the automobile, this little tool which kids put aside when they grow up, this little tool which Cuba has been forced by economic necessity to go back to … that this is a dawning part of Cuba’s future? That bicycles are for grownups too? Many of us from North America have been in educational struggles where reactionary forces always raise the slogan: “Back to the Basics!” For them the basics are finished, nailed down and locked up. So are the students.

Not for us. For us, the basics are always there but never finished. They are the objectively possible necessities which the philosopher Ernst Bloch called “Not Yet”; that which brings forward from the past a “living yesterday” into the future. The basics are always being rediscovered, re uncovered in the process of re inventing socialism (the title of this conference). Hence our slogan: Forward to the Basics!

I think this is the claim that Castro makes for the bicycle, that it is one of the basics; a living yesterday whose time has now come. It is not backward, behind the times, but ahead of them. And not only for our health, our use of time, and our respect for nature. Perhaps for our philosophy too.

2: There are some nice philosophical questions hidden in the bicycle. I want to raise a few of them here, using only facts we all can see. We shouldn’t be surprised that riding a bicycle can be philosophically interesting. Einstein seemed to think so.

It should be interesting especially to Marxists. For, what is the starting point of a Marxist philosophy? It is matter in motion. And what else is riding a bicycle if not matter in motion?

It’s a very interesting motion too. It is dialectical. On a bike, to be stable you have to move. If you don’t move, you are unbalanced, you fall off. The bicycle shows us that it is motion which is the necessary condition for stability. So let me ask a few questions in socialist bicycle philosophy.

Question #1 : What kind of matter is a bicycle good at moving? Answer: Me. You. A human body. The human body, as contrasted with all other kinds of physical material. Of course, a bicycle can move other materials, but it’s very limited. A human body is what a bicycle is best at moving.

And it is the whole human body that moves. Not parts. Not bits. The whole thing. This is good to remember, in the “Age of Information”. For it suggests to us that all concrete information is embodied. Some philosophers have suggested that so called “Artificial Intelligence” is no such thing, precisely because these artifacts do not have bodies. I agree; here I use the bicycle to make the same point.

Question #2: How does the bicycle move human bodies? Answer: By means of the bicycle, these bodies move themselves. The bicycle shows us that the powers of movement lie within the people; the people themselves are active. We are not simply material which can be moved. We are human agents. We do not need a Prime Mover, on heaven or earth, to move us. We can move ourselves. Question #3: How do we move ourselves in riding a bicycle? Answer: The function of our walking legs and our handling hands are combined. The bicycle is the only form of transportation in which this is so. (Skiing too, but not in Cuba!)

I need to say a word here about walking. Walking shares the same philosophical properties we have already seen: we are active human agents moving our whole bodies. Even the form of motion is the same: when we stand, we are unstable; only in walking is the body in equilibrium. This is why continued walking can be a pleasure but continued standing is always a pain. And as walkers we relate to other modes of transportation as the bicycle does.

Recall, walking marks us as human. The human is the unique animal who walks and handles together. Marxist thinking about the historical development of the human mind has paid attention to the powers of our arms and hands, to our manipulation of the world. Properly so. But it has paid little attention to the powers of our legs, our feet. Or to what it means for the hands and feet to work together.

Too bad. For Rousseau, walking was necessary for him to think at all: “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs …. There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place, I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going … [it] serves to free my spirit, to lend a greater boldness to my thinking, to throw me, so to speak, into the vastness of things, so that I can combine them, select them, and make them mine as I will, without fear or restraint.”

I think that riding the bicycle shows us a little philosophical model of the physical conditions for human thinking.

Question #4: How many people can a bicycle move? Answer: It’s best at moving a single individual. People on bicycles are not going to forget easily that they are individual persons. But the useful philosophical point is not to be found in the persons one by one. Rather, it lies in the relation between different forms of moving people. Let us follow one of these relations a bit.

Bicycles complement mass transit. People on bicycles connect well with busses and trains. Like walkers, they connect easily to mass transit vehicles if these vehicles simply attach bike racks. This is not an original suggestion. I’m sure some in Cuba have already suggested it.

This relation of the bicycle to mass transit has a particular philosophical importance. Just because the bicycle is such an individual vehicle, it highlights the relation of the single human to the totality of people; the relation of each person to all the people, the relation of the part to the whole.

This relation is not without contradictions. Cuba, in its present economic difficulties, resorted to bicycles partly as a substitute for mass transit. And that works, under most conditions, for distances of a few kilometers. But when we consider human transport as a whole, they are not substitutes, they are com­plements. Together, they are substitutes for the automobile.

No doubt this will increase the need to develop non petroleum bases of stored energy for mass transit. But these exist; in the water, the sun. And we all know that for the “dawning of a new era” in energy, the sun must rise.

3: In sum, riding a bicycle puts the self acting human body, the parts of that body, and the relation of each body to all, at the center of philosophy. And this gives us a standpoint from which to evaluate socialist technology. It must be “user friendly”; it must develop the potentials of human bodies. The user friendliness of the bicycle stands as a critique of capitalist technology, which cannot be user friendly. The requirements of capital accumulation always work to eliminate the user; to make the user disappear. Consequently, capitalism cannot give us, overall, a dialectical concept of technology, a concept of subject and object, for it always erases the human subject.

A socialist technology, in all its manifestations, is not something that leaves human bodies behind. It must always return to bodies. And that is why the bicycle is not just for kids; it’s not something we grow out of; it is something we grow in to. Good thing too.

This is the revolutionary meaning of the bicycle. It is a living yesterday turning into tomorrow. Cuba’s crisis is an opportunity for us all. Forward to the bicycle!

THE UNREPENTANT BATHER (90 MILES OUT)

My love swims alone
in an ocean of sharks
circling to starboard
circling to bow
waiting their moment
off guard, stroke falters
gnashing their teeth
flexing their jaws
wearing the defenses down

 

Swim for your life, sweetheart,
Swim for your life!
Don’t give up an inch,
Don’t fall for the trap!
The sharks are all circling
‘Round History’s bones
You swim there alone
Under attack

 

My love swims alone
paradoxically dreams
of lush old-growth forests
& crystalline streams
but industry dangles
“development’s” lures
gnashing their teeth
flexing their jaws
baiting the bloodlash
of “Progress”

 

Swim for your life, Cuba,
Swim for your life!
Don’t give up an inch,
Don’t fall for the trap!
The sharks are all circling
‘Round History’s bones
You swim there alone
Under attack
swim faster
keep swimming
keep swimming

 

Mitchel Cohen
from “The Permanent Carnival” selected poems

 

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