“Cuba is a project of liberation for all the condemned of the world.” Interview with historian Ernesto Limia Díaz

18.02.24 – Cuba – Geraldina ColottiPressenza – International Press Agency

On the occasion of his arrival in Italy for the translation of his book De Patria y cultura en Tiempo de Revolución, a text that deals with the ideological war of the United States against his country (PGreco edition, reviewed by us in the January issue of the Italian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique), we interviewed the historian, Ernesto Limia Díaz.

How does your personal history fit into the history of Cuba?

My name is Ernesto Limia Díaz, because Díaz is my mother’s surname, and it is only fair to emphasize that we were born of women. I am the son of two communists who named me after Che, because I was born in October 1968, a year after his death, and I grew up in love with the revolution and with Fidel, where every child thought he would grow up to be like Che. I was born in Bayamo, a city full of living history, which I felt as a child and to which I had a great desire to contribute ideas. By the age of 13, I was “too political” even for my mother, a staunch communist. While many of my friends read Jules Verne, I spent hours reading García Márquez or Hemingway. At the end of the day, I would lock myself in the bathroom and continue reading by the light of a yellow light bulb. From then on, I felt a commitment to the poor of the planet. My father, who was a political figure in the government, advised me to choose my friends outside the narrow circle of activists. And so I walked with the children of the poorest, with the blacks, with the children of single mothers, with, the humblest people. They called me Robin Hood because I wasn’t afraid to stand up for children who were bigger than me, against others who were even bigger. I believe that many things go together in being a revolutionary, that revolution is also a work of love, a set of feelings, of great human sensitivity. Today I am a 55-year-old man, I only missed five or six years of the siege that the Cuban Revolution suffered and of its resistance. When I see an act of injustice committed against a woman, a black person, or a child, I feel great indignation. Praise from an academic or an intellectual makes me feel embarrassed and almost angry because I think that being intelligent or knowing how to speak are not particular virtues, whereas being supportive and empathetic are. You are not a good revolutionary if you do not feel the pain of others as your own if you do not dedicate your life to changing the fate of the damned of the earth. So, when praise comes from the poorest, yes, I am moved to tears.

How did you come to love history as the history of class struggle?

I have to say that I didn’t think of history as a class struggle in the strict sense, because revolutionary history in Cuba begins with independence. A process in which people from different classes came together. The revolutionary vanguard that began to build the Cuban nation was made up of wealthy people who knew how to study and bring together the material conditions and cultural values to lead the independence struggle and its ideals. In this sense, if history is seen as the history of class struggle, it is not the history of Cuba. The history of Cuba is the history of a landowner like Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, father of the fatherland, like Perucho Figueredo or Francisco Vicente Aguilera, who was the richest man in the Oriente and died in the greatest poverty for defending the ideal of Cuban independence, and this revolutionary vanguard, for reasons we have no time to explain, came from Bayamo. From my land came the poets, the revolutionary intellectuals, and the landowners who built 10 October 1868, the founding date of Cuban independence. Many of us were born listening to this story passed down from generation to generation. Bayamo was the first armed capital of free Cuba, the territory liberated by the Mambises, as it was called. And it was in Bayamo that the patriots decided to burn the city when the Spanish recaptured it, so as not to hand it over to the enemy. And these symbolic values have remained in the heart of every man and woman from Bayamo. It was in this context that my love of history was born, in my family and at school. I began to think about using history as a tool to build a struggle in the cultural battle when I was 14 years old and went to study in another eastern city, Holguín, the land of Fidel and Raúl. My mother told me that in the house of the father of the Fatherland, Manuel de Céspedes, Eusebio Leal was giving a talk about him. A Havana historian, one of the greatest Cuban revolutionary intellectuals of all time, who died two years ago. He also had a weekly program called Andar La Habana, in which he presented every corner of the city’s history by commenting on its architecture.

He was a snake charmer extraordinaire, a man much loved by Fidel and Raúl and by all Cubans, who turned out en masse for his wake. At the time, he did not have the fame he would have after rebuilding the crumbling old Havana, apparently with Fidel’s support. However, when I went to listen to him, I felt lifted out of my seat and catapulted into another dimension within the first ten minutes. I listened for an hour. Then I ran home and told my mother: ‘If I ever get to talk about history, I want to do it like this man. And then, you see how things go, in 2008, while I was in the army, I heard Obama, now president, talk about Cuba in a different way than when he was a senator, and he had opposed the blockade, considering it a mistake. Once elected, however, he lifted it and raised the issue of Cuban nationalization of US companies. At the time, I had no dreams of becoming a historian, nor had I ever written an article. But I had an impulse to write a book called From Thomas Jefferson to John Kennedy, to show Cubans why the revolution had to nationalize US companies. So, I went to Dr Eduardo Torres Cuevas, president of the Academy of History and the José Martí Society, one of Cuba’s most eminent historians, and asked him to explain to me how to write a history book. He explained it to me and gave me some ideas. I wrote a 40-page book and went back to him, who threw it at me and asked me if I wanted to publish it. I left in shame. With all due modesty, I consider honesty and self-criticism to be my two main qualities, ever since I was a child. That embarrassment was the trigger for me to start working seriously. From there, the project of writing the history of Cuba in four volumes took shape. The first, Cuba entre tres imperios: Perla, Llave y Antemural, is now in its second edition. It tells the story of Cuba from Columbus to the British conquest of Havana in 1762. When I finished it, I took it to the publishing house in town to have it published, and the director, who is like a second mother to me, told me: ‘You are like a son to me, and before you publish it, I want Eusebio Leal to see it. It wasn’t usual, but Silvana is terrible and she made that condition. So, I took it to Eusebio’s secretary. After 14 days I had given up hope, but then I got a call to go to Eusebio’s office. After almost thirty years since I had first heard him, I met him face to face. It was 2011. I remember the praise of this great man, as one remembers the love of one’s life. He told me: ‘This is a book that every university student should have. And he had it published the following year. Bear in mind that the price was set in cuc, the currency used in tourism, and that 100 copies were usually given away. Eight hundred copies of the book were given away.

For a student of José Martí, considered the world’s first anti-imperialist, what does Lenin mean today, 100 years after his death? What has his understanding of history meant to you?

I read Lenin when I was a student at the military academy. Like many students, we learned about him from textbooks, but not from his original works. However, I always took my studies very seriously and liked to go to the source. Then, for the exam on scientific communism, which was on “Extremism, a childhood disease of communism”, a book that was not in the bookshop, I went to Havana because I was told it was in the library there; and I began to study it, being fascinated by it. My parents are staunch Leninists. I had read two biographies of Lenin and was more interested in his escape from Siberia than his return to Russia. At the age of 28, while practicing karate, I broke my femur and was bedridden for three months. I read the six volumes of Lenin’s Selected Works that we had at home. I had studied some of the classics of Marx and Engels – not Capital, which even Fidel abandoned after the first volume – but studying Lenin was something else. Lenin put the practice of revolution into theory. He showed how it could be achieved in the semi-feudal conditions of Russia at that time. He left us a set of theoretical-practical tools that have stood the test of time and that every revolutionary must have as a guide in political life, asking the first essential question: What to do, because it is a question of understanding how. Lenin made a revolution where Marx thought there were no conditions, and he did what no one had done before: he gave power to women. What followed was simply a deformation of his thought and work. Anyone who does not follow the path of Lenin, one of the most important symbols of world history, is not a true revolutionary. Fidel spoke passionately about Martí and Lenin, saying that he had studied Marx.

“Of Homeland and Culture in Times of Revolution” describes and analyses the onslaught of the Cuban Revolution as a paradigm that transcends the island’s history. Is that so?

The Yankees have tried everything with Cuba over two centuries; they have experimented with the neo-colonialist model with Cuba. The first thing they did when it was a colony was to take economic power. Cuba was subject to Yankee capital even when it was a Spanish colony in the 19th century. Then the cultural colonization began, parallel to that of Puerto Rico, which they had already annexed. They could not do it with Cuba, but they never gave up on imposing an economic and political hegemony and colonizing it culturally. And after the triumph of the revolution, imperialism used every means to overthrow it. The United States is not only the enemy of the socialist revolution but also of the Cuban nation. The methods with which they tried to impose their hegemony were later extended to Latin America and also to Europe if we consider the Marshall Plan. So, Patria, Cultura y Revolución is not just about Cuban history but has two elements: a truly historical one and a political one, which is very topical. I conceived it based on several articles, amid the cultural debate about a group of intellectuals who were politically trained by the ideological laboratories of the United States to create a counter-revolutionary opposition in Cuba, which they failed to do: because there is no nationalist opposition project in Cuba. The platform of the opposition is annexationist and therefore has no popular appeal. Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that there are some intellectuals, even legitimate ones, who have been educated in Cuban universities, but always thanks to US funding of 20 million dollars a year, people who take their orders from the subversion laboratories. The cultural debate that emerges from the book has to do with how society, the economy, politics, and culture are interpreted. It is a vision that may also be of interest to the European reader, because in the neo-liberal system, in which the communications revolution has made the earth appear square, to the point that if Galileo woke up now, he would die of a heart attack, the same message reaches everywhere: from Italy to France, from China to Africa and Latin America. The same message and the same speaker, with the same formula and the same conditioning: to create a manipulable idiot who does not think, whose historical memory is destroyed to destroy his critical thinking. A human being who is almost instinctively an animal, who thinks about eating and consuming, and who does so based on a predetermined idea. The book will be an “Our American” vision of the cultural challenges of the contemporary world, which can also be a stimulus for the revolutionary left in other countries. A stimulus to renew its commitment to the poor of the world, to take up the challenges necessary for their emancipation. A look that, without claiming to be exhaustive, points to a path, one of the options available.

Cuba, which despite numerous attacks continues to send the world a message of peace with social justice, what can it say in the face of imperialist war, cognitive war, and another paradigm of oppression, that of the Palestinian people?

The message is the same as that of Marx, Lenin, Martí, Che, Fidel, Ho Chi Minh, Mella, Bolívar, Chávez or Martin Luther King: these are times of struggle. If you study world history, you will see that the colonial powers are the same ones that are at war today with Palestine, Russia, Syria… They are the same powers: the United States, England, Germany, Holland… The same powers and interests of 500 years ago, adapted to today’s conditions. Contrary to what one might think, the cultural and political heritage that the Left has today would enable it to win much more easily than what happened to our ancestors but with two assumptions. The first is to coordinate ourselves, to build a unity that is by no means spontaneous, and which we Cubans, since the War of Independence, have summed up in one phrase: the homeland before us. But just as Martí said that the homeland is humanity, when we speak of a great homeland, we must refer to the universal homeland, which requires us to put aside individual interests, idiosyncrasies, whims, dogmas, and divisions. The second element is the study of history, not as an archaeological find, but as a platform for the future. Read, study, and discuss, but always with the interests of the homeland – humanity – at the forefront, and with the compass of all those greats I mentioned earlier who organized the damned of the earth.

The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon, a Martinican who wrote it in what was then French Algeria, was one of the first books by a non-Cuban thinker to be published here at the Casa de las Americas, at Fidel’s request, and I recommend it to all revolutionaries. A reference book. Martí, in the 19th century, spoke of the poor of the earth. This is the compass. These are not abstract ideas, but the indication to put the human being, as a social being, first. The ideas are built for the most marginalized human beings. There can be no revolutionary struggle today if women are not the priority in our hearts because they are the most oppressed in history. There can be no revolution if Africa and Palestine are not at the center of our hearts, if the condemned of the earth are not at the center of our hearts if all the ideas and all the theories do not serve to move this world forward for the poor of the earth, for the condemned of the earth.

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