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Fair Play! Building solidarity with revolutionary Cuba (1960-1970)

October 7, 2016

cuba-flagThe triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 gave rise to widespread solidarity work in the U.S. and Canada, organized through Fair Play for Cuba committees. Two participants in this experience report here on its scope and lessons.  

John Riddell and Suzanne Weiss gave the following joint talk on the work of Fair Play for Cuba on July 31, 2016, at a conference of Ideas Left Outside at Elbow Lake, Ontario. For other writings on Fair Play for Cuba, see below.

John Riddell: On September 2, 1960, one million Cubans gathered in Havana in a General Assembly of the Cuban people to hear and approve Cuba’s reply to U.S. attacks on its sovereignty. This statement, known as the First Declaration of Havana, pledged Cuba to nothing less than a hemispheric struggle for freedom from U.S. domination.

The assembly affirmed that the real obstacle to freedom and democracy in the Americas was “the exploitation of one person by another and of the underdeveloped countries by imperialist finance capital.” Cuba would not fail Latin American peoples who “take up the arms of liberty.”

First Declaration of Havana

First Declaration of Havana

Cuba’s defiance shook the world and deeply affected North America. Here, the capitalist media assailed the rebel island as a “Communist tyranny.” But for North Americans on the left, the news from Cuba aroused hope and inspiration. Many went to Cuba during those stirring days, and one of them is here to tell the story.

Witness to a revolution

Suzanne Weiss: In July 1960 I was a U.S. delegate to the first Latin American Congress of Youth in Havana, Cuba. I joined a million people in the Sierra Maestra mountains to celebrate the revolution’s triumph.

U.S.-Cuban relations were at a breaking point. Washington had cancelled its imports of Cuban sugar, and Cuban workers were taking over management of U.S.-owned oil refineries.

It was a long, dusty journey by train and truck. Members of the youth militia collected donations of food and arranged travel. The train stopped at several stations where we were greeted by brass bands and masses of cheering Cubans. They chanted, sang, and applauded: “Cuba Sí, Yanqui No!” they shouted, “Venceremos! (We will win!). Realizing that we were North Americans, they reached out to shake our hands and assure us that “Yanqui No!” referred to the U.S. government, not us.

At the celebration, our delegation from the U.S. Young Socialists sat up on the stage. We watched as the militia marched by, armed women and men defending their revolution. They were followed by thousands of peasants waving their newly acquired land titles.

When Fidel arrived, he was greeted by chants referring to U.S. cancellation of sugar imports, “Sin cuota, pero sin amo!” (No quota but no master) and “Cuba Sí! Yanqui No!” What a spectacular event – to be forever savoured!

Back in Havana, Che Guevara addressed the first session of the Youth congress. Cuba had beaten back the U.S.-led counterrevolution, he said, by “arming the people, disbanding the old army, and pushing an uncompromising agrarian reform.”

A wide range of political tendencies took part, including both official pro-Moscow Communist parties and anti-Stalinist Marxists like my own group – the first time such an inclusive gathering had ever been held. The conference viewed the Cuban revolution as only the first phase in the anti-imperialist uprising of all Latin American nations.

One evening I went to a pub to taste Cuban beer. “We’re celebrating,” my drinking buddies told me. “A compañero got refused a haircut in our barrio today because he is black. Well, he put a stop to that quick enough! He called in a cop who shut down the shop on the spot. Abolishing discrimination is the law here.”

Robert F. Williams

Robert F. Williams

What a contrast to the U.S., where those protesting segregation were beaten, jailed, or murdered. One victim of such treatment, the Black leader Robert Williams, had been on our train to the Sierra Maestra. He was a hero in Cuba; “Robert Williams Clubs” had sprung up in Havana.

Fidel Castro, addressing the Youth Congress on August 6, announced the nationalization of most U.S. holdings in Cuba. The unions declared a “National Jubilation Week,” marked by many workers’ celebrations. I saw more than a thousand telephone workers, riding their company trucks and banging their tools. Those on foot carried funeral wreaths and two mock coffins to a funeral for Mr. and Mrs. Monopoly.

Everyone knew this meant a showdown with Washington. A few days after I left for New York, Fidel did likewise, in order to state Cuba’s case to the UN.

Cuba’s appeal to North Americans

John: It was an epic struggle of David against Goliath, and many cheered Cuba’s bold defiance of the arrogant superpower. Washington’s attacks on Cuba were simply unfair, based on lies and misuse of force. By backing Cuba we broke free of the Cold War straitjacket: the issue was not Communism but elementary justice.

Cuba’s attempt to break free  of colonialism and racism won wide support among Black people and, in Canada, among  Québécois. Cuba’s leaders achieved historic social reforms in months by unleashing the creative power of the working population. A memoir by Barry Sheppard recalls that the island “brimmed with spontaneity, honesty, enthusiasm, and a willingness to think new thoughts and defy the powers that be.”

Another account by Felipe Cournoyer, who accompanied me in Cuba in 1963, says that for socialists in Canada the revolution there “brought fresh rains after a long drought.” The revolution carried “no Stalinist baggage; no skeletons in the closets” and “made an open declaration of socialist aims of revolution.”

Beginnings of solidarity

theresa-2Suzanne: In September 1960, when Castro arrived in New York, the fine hotels of Manhattan refused to host him. It was Harlem, the Black ghetto of New York, that housed Fidel and his delegation. Each night crowds of up to ten thousand Spanish-speaking and Black people gathered before the Hotel Theresa to cheer them. (In photo, from left: Gen. Juan Almeida; Krishna Menon, Ambassador of India to United Nations; Fidel Castro; Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, outside the Hotel Theresa.)

The Cuban’s stay at the Theresa had been arranged by the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, launched that year “to disseminate truth, combat untruth, publish factual information which the U.S. mass media suppress, which the American public has a right to know.” Among the initial organizers were a number of prominent Black intellectuals.

I joined Fair Play for Cuba that September. By October, it had 7,000 members in 27 local chapters and 40 student groups on college campuses from New York to California.

The famous author C. Wright Mills explained what Cuba wanted: “Hands off Cuba! That, in three words, is what we want from you. Get your government to leave us alone.” His book was a best seller across the country.

Through Fair Play, a new-found unity for the defense of Cuba developed including the pro-Moscow Communist Party, the anti-Stalinist Socialist Workers Party, and many others.

John: Building Fair Play in Canada

Across the border In Canada, Fair Play for Cuba arose about a year later than in the U.S. Initially patterned on U.S. Fair Play, it evolved differently, lasted longer, and was ultimately more influential.

Vernel Olson

Vernel Olson

The story began in late 1960 when Vernel Olson, a well-known Toronto labour and socialist activist, drove with his wife Anne to the Toronto docks where a Cuban sugar freighter was moored. Anne scampered up a ladder, but Verne was a paraplegic, so the Cuban seamen lowered a rope sling to lift him and his crutches onto the deck. It was a happy and instructive encounter.

A few weeks later, the Olsons headed to Cuba as probably the only Canadians on a tour organized by U.S. Fair Play. On their return, they recruited a wide range of left-leaning figures to sponsor a Fair Play for Cuba Committee in Canada. It was launched at a meeting of 400 in Toronto, where 250 memberships were sold. Verne then embarked on a speaking tour, and committees were consolidated in all western provinces as well as two in Montreal, one functioning in English and one in French.

When the U.S. imposed its blockade on Cuba, Canada maintained diplomatic and trade relations with the island. The anti-Cuba hysteria was less severe here. Nonetheless, Canada’s political police tried to disrupt the Fair Play committee. They induced two prominent professors to demand that the committee exclude “communists.” When the committee voted this down, they left, but most members held firm.

The committees across Canada were made up mostly of left-wing members of trade unions and the CCF, predecessor of the NDP, alongside nationally aware Québécois. The committee was supported by the main CCF publication, the weekly Commonwealth, as well as by a trade union paper in B.C. Fair Play chapters organized on several universities.

The committee’s main effort was printing and circulating literature: speeches by Che and Fidel and documents of the revolution, periodic newsletters, and reports of Fair Play members who visited Cuba – often by invitation by the Cuban tourist agency. On one occasion Fair Play sent 45 students on a Cuban-sponsored tour and published their reports in a thick brochure. Despite the unavailability of any distribution network, some pamphlets sold thousands of copies.

Many pamphlets were mailed to U.S. purchasers, breaking through the embargo. Fair Play also mailed a large weekly bundle of Cuba’s international weekly Granma to U.S. subscribers.

Fair Play worked closely with Cuban diplomatic missions in Canada, supplying most of the English-language literature distributed at the Ottawa embassy. Ambassador Amerigo Cruz was a featured speaker at the annual Fair Play banquets in Toronto and Vancouver, which drew about 200 participants each.

Witch-hunt in the U.S.

Suzanne: South of the border, it was not so easy for us. In 1961, I was among 800 participants who packed a Los Angeles Fair Play rally, featuring Robert Williams. Right-wing extremists were present in number and rushed the stage. We were well prepared. Our defense guard swung into action with baseball bats and drove the attackers from the hall. Outside, shots were fired, but the meeting went ahead in good order.

fpcc-logoIn April that year a U.S.-organized army invaded Cuba. Fair Play groups across the country held protests supporting Cuba. The Cuban army and militia quickly defeated and captured the U.S. mercenaries, but right-wingers in the U.S. and the FBI stepped up attacks on Fair Play.

In Los Angeles, I was among a number of Fair Play supporters who got hostile visits from the FBI. I slammed the door on the agent’s shoe, sending him off in full retreat. Store front windows were smashed, and there were bomb threats. The government framed Robert Williams and drove him from the country.

Then came the Kennedy assassination in 1963. The supposed shooter had previously made contact with Fair Play for Cuba. The press had a field day.  U.S. Fair Play could not continue; and solidarity with Cuba was expressed in other forms.

Robert Williams, on the run, crossed into Canada and took refuge with Verne and Anne Olson while seeking asylum in Cuba. Despite an intense hunt, RCMP officers could not find him, and he soon made his escape to Cuba. He broadcast on Radio Havana and sent his newsletter, The Crusader, to Fair Play Canada for mailing to his U.S. supporters.

The Cuban-Soviet alliance

John: Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union complicated matters for the revolution and for Fair Play as well. Both the Cuban and Soviet governments gained from their relationship. Aid from the Soviet Union and its allies was unquestionably vital in enabling Cuba to beat off U.S. aggression. For the Soviet rulers, the relationship with Cuba enhanced their reputation with the Soviet population, among whom Cuba was popular.

Suzanne: Even so, Moscow and Havana pulled in different directions:

  • * Havana’s goal was international revolution; Moscow’s aim was peaceful coexistence with capitalism.
  • * For Havana, the struggle in the Americas was socialism; for Moscow, a democratized capitalist order.
  • * Havana favoured, where possible, popular insurrection; Moscow, the parliamentary road.
  • * Internally, Havana sought to rely on popular initiative; Moscow, on bureaucratic control.
  • * Havana’s political culture had emerged from Latin American liberation struggles; Moscow’s had been shaped the frame-up purge trials and the gulag.

Cuba handled these complications with grace, and most Fair Play members supported Cuba’s course. But there were two other factors that complicated the Fair Play-Cuban collaboration.

Complexities of a relationship

John: First of all, tensions between Moscow and Havana found expression within Cuba, where this contributed to a crisis in 1962. I looked into this when I went to Cuba the next year on behalf of Fair Play.

The biggest political news there was the building of a revolutionary party – a lengthy process that had suffered a setback.

Leadership of the initial party structure, called ORI, fell into the hands of a clique associated with the former Moscow-aligned party in Cuba. The ORI was chosen from the top down. Personal connections and favoritism governed the admission of members, and many rank and file revolutionary fighters were passed by.

So ORI was dissolved and replaced by a new structure. Every candidate for membership had to win the endorsement of the workers in his office or shop to win admission. More than half the ORI members were rejected.

This story was laid out in a speech by Fidel that Fair Play circulated (“The Revolution Must Be a School of Unfettered Thought.” Rank-and-file selection of party members was an innovation for Marxism. It worked well on the whole, but some cliquism persisted.

Second, in Fair Play too, there was also a complication. Many of its members belonged to the League for Socialist Action (LSA). Fair Play was independent and LSA members had no special rights or influence. But the LSA was Trotskyist, that is, it stood in the tradition of revolutionaries who resisted the rise of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union. The presence of Trotskyists aroused suspicion not only among the political police but also among activists with a Stalinist training.

Stalinism branded Trotskyists as fascists, to be ostracized, beaten up, jailed, or executed according to circumstances. Activists with this outlook in Canada, whether oriented to Moscow or Beijing, regarded Fair Play as Trotskyist-influenced and therefore withdrew from it and set up their own groups.

The LSA was affiliated to Trotskyist groups around the world who were consistent supporters of the Cuban revolution and were active in Cuba solidarity. But a great many other Trotskyist groups were hostile to the revolutionary government. While small, they were shrill. Unfortunately, the Trotskyist group in Cuba was of this character, and in 1966 it was sharply criticized by Fidel.

Members of Fair Play endured repeated frustrations in collaboration with the Cuban tourist agency, and friends in Cuba told us that this was related in part to the problem of pro-Moscow cliquism of which I spoke.

Principles of solidarity work

Suzanne: For Fair Play, the first principle of solidarity work was to support the revolution as a whole and collaborate loyally with its institutions. Fair Play steered clear of being partisans of this or that current within the revolution. When we perceived problems, we sought to engage with them by picking up on statements of revolutionary leaders themselves.

Members of Fair Play expressed many different views on Cuba, but they did this on their own, not on behalf of Fair Play. The LSA and its U.S. co-thinkers sometimes expressed concerns, but with restraint. After all, we were students of the Cuban revolutionaries, not their schoolmasters.

The best way to engage with the internal problems of the revolution was to publicize statements on these issues expressed in Cuba itself, from inside the revolutionary process. That approach enabled us to highlight the ideas of those who best expressed the revolution’s road forward. And in the Cuban case that meant above all circulating the statements of Fidel Castro himself.

We in Fair Play were strong supporters of  the alliance of Cuban and Soviet peoples and did what we could to defend this relationship. That involved mainly opposing the U.S.-led anti-communist crusade. And since Fair Play was also an acknowledged ally of Cuba, we took care to avoid any statements that could be twisted by factionalists to imply hostility to the Soviet Union and its role in Cuba.

John: In one instance, in 1966, Fair Play deviated from these policies and became enmeshed in a public dispute with the Cuban tourist agency. This was an error, and it resulted in a setback for Fair Play. Nonetheless, relations with Cuban institutions were maintained and collaboration continued.

Fair Play also took many initiatives that drew in forces who did not necessarily support the Cuban revolution, as for example in responding to the U.S. attacks on Cuba, opposing the blockade, and in the Cuba student tour.

At the beginning of the 1970s, changing circumstances forced the Fair Play committee in Canada to close down. Cuba solidarity has continued in other ways, and supporters of Cuba now work in harmony.

Now to sum up. All these stirring events now lie a half-century in the past. Yet the Cuban revolution is still with us. It is the most resilient revolution the world has ever seen. Other such movements exhausted their progressive energy in a decade or two; the impetus of Cuba’s revolution, by contrast, continues even now, generating creative and progressive innovations in each succeeding decade. This is a unique development in world history, which has deep meaning for our century.

A review of Cuban solidarity in North America helps us understand the inspiring Cuban experience and its impact abroad.

Other discussions of Fair Play for Cuba:

In Canada:

  • For further information on FPCC in Canada, see Socialist History Project.
  • Felipe Stuart Courneyeur, Cuban palm trees under Vancouver’s Lions Gate, A memoir of the 1960s Fair Play for Cuba Committees in Western Canada, on johnriddell.wordpress.com, 2014.
  • Ernest Tate, Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, vol. 1, London: Resistance Books, 2014.
  • Cynthia Wright, “Between Nation and Empire: The Fair Play for Cuba Committees and the Making of Canada-Cuba Solidarity in the Early 1960s,” in Robert A Wright and Lana Wylie, Our place in the sun: Canada and Cuba in the Castro era, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

In the U.S.

  • Van Gosse, Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold war America and the Making of the New Left, London: Verso, 1993.
  • Barry Sheppard, The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, A Political Memoir, vol. 1, Chippendale, Australia: Resistance Books , 2005.
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