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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 29May 1992

Why the Cuban professors were dismissed

Howard Frederick, a US professor dismissed for political reasons, recently wrote an article comparing his case with that of a number of university professors in Cuba who were sacked. The following article, taken from the Pegasus computer network, is a response to Howard Frederick.

Of course, there is a difference. Howard, I suppose, was struggling for progressive social change: against the war in Vietnam, perhaps, or against racism, sexism, militarism, maybe even capitalism and imperialism. Howard was one of thousands of people in the US, millions in the world, fighting for social justice, for the very things that the Cuban people gained through their revolution. And that the Cuban people, in the vast majority, are determined to preserve, despite the backsliding by some who feel that they personally would benefit more, have an easier life, under the old system. Those who want to live as they imagine people live in Miami – or California.

I mention this because the people who were expelled from the University for the most part fall into this latter category. And because Americans and many liberal or progressive-minded people throughout the world sometimes react to categories of behaviour rather than content. What I mean is, progressive people (and I include myself) tend to automatically side with the oppressed (which is good) and also tend to think that anyone who is jailed, imprisoned, fired, etc. is the victim of injustice, and therefore to be sympathised with and supported – which is sometimes wrong.

People who do not share our ideals and values have learned to use our rhetoric, symbols, banners, slogans and forms of organisation. This includes the religious right, the CIA, the Republican Party and many others. And we are surprisingly gullible and vulnerable to this type of attack.

For instance – and this is a slight digression, but relevant – when right-wing “free trade unions” attack, as “unfree”, trade unions in a socialist or independently developing third world country, we should look first at what the “made-in-America free trade unions” actually represent, and what the “unfree” ones have gained for the working people of their country.

Workers' rights

Under the “government controlled” trade unions in Cuba, workers have achieved unparalleled rights: equal access to jobs and union membership for all workers, the right not to be fired without just cause, equal pay for equal work, pensions, one month paid vacation per year plus paid holidays, four months paid maternity leave and one year in which the working mother can have one day off a month for pediatric visits, or take unpaid leave with guaranteed job replacement at the end of that time, an appeals procedure that gives all benefit of the doubt to the worker, income maintenance during lay-offs (and/or retraining and placement at other jobs), not to mention that every Cuban, employed or not, has cradle-to-grave health benefits the best unionised American worker can’t even dream of.

Yet where do we ever see these rights spelled out in articles mentioning the AFL-CIO’s “free Cuba Committee”, which is currently planning an “investigative trip” to Cuba to support what it calls a “free (non-government) trade union” (which will probably be denied access, and will then use that denial to further its claim that Cuba is a repressive society)?

Back to the dismissal of professors at the polytechnic institute. I could have gone to official sources in the government and at the university, and written an article about this, but I decided on another, less formal, approach.

I knew this was going on because my neighbor, Blanca, is a 30-year-old professor at that school. She and I exercise and go swimming together in the mornings and we talk about events going on in the country.

Her family has mixed emotions about everything that is happening. Her mother comes from the old Very Rich, but decided to stay; supported the Revolutionary process, but never leaves the house, listens to Radio Marti, and is appalled by much of what is going on. Blanca’s sister and brother rarely discuss politics – her brother is a medical researcher, sister an accountant in a hospital; she is the most political in the family. Not stridently so, nor without criticisms, but solidly aware of and supportive of the revolutionary process in all its complexity.

Struggle

As such, she understands that there is a struggle going on inside the country and in the minds of its citizens. It is hard for people on one island not to get discouraged when it seems like capitalism has won out over socialism all over the world and they are among the last hold-outs for a more just social system that seems doomed to oblivion, despite its innate fairness.

Let’s look at Howard Frederick’s article, then get Blanca’s comments. The “professional dissidents” like Elizardo Sanchez have reported that:

  • “about 20 university professors and researchers have been expelled over the past few weeks.”
  • “Fifteen of the dismissed academics signed a university professors’ declaration towards the end of 1991, calling on the government to respect human rights and the autonomy of the universities, as well as urging democratic reforms.”
  • the dismissal notice stated as a reason that each professor has “lost the essential qualifications to exercise their profession at this center”.
  • the note added that the dismissals “had been requested by the Council of Professors ... with the support of the University Students Federation and the Institute itself.”

I would suggest that this last paragraph – almost overlooked in passing – is the most crucial in understanding and evaluating this occurrence. But let's look at the points one by one.

  1. Have university professors, researchers and instructors been fired? Yes.
  2. What was the “declaration for human rights and democratic reform” signed by the professors? In what context did it occur? Was it an attempt to improve the revolutionary process in Cuba, in the interest of the collective good, or an attempt by a small elite to regain the class privileges that once belonged to people of their category?

Organising

Blanca told me at the time the declaration was issued that it gives the impression that the professors were fired just for making political statements. She said the people involved did not limit themselves to statements – that they were organising. They had formed a group called Organizacion Civica Universitaria whose basic program was to institute a passive resistance to all revolutionary activities; not to take part in voluntary work, especially field work; not to pay dues to the union or the MTT (militia), not to stand guard at work, etc. That is, to separate themselves completely from the entire revolutionary process that all other citizens take part in.

This was their form of showing their opposition to the revolutionary government, using all means short of violence.

After forming this organisation, they began recruiting students, using their influence and popularity among the students to win them to their side. They also say they sent a letter much earlier to Fidel demanding freedom of “political prisoners”, “democratic reforms”, “university autonomy” (that universities not be directed by the government), more economic freedom (less centralisation) to allow for more private enterprise, and respect for “human rights”.

The group sought international support by handing out their statements to foreign press based in Havana.

Blanca says their activities came to light first because some of the students who believe in the revolution raised it in the FEU (University Students Federation) of the campus. There were some professors who knew about their activities but hadn’t reported them, she says.

Privileges

Trying to understand the process that had occurred. I asked Blanca to what extent these professors had legitimate complaints that a revolutionary person could agree with or to what extent they were trying to defend or regain certain class privileges that had once pertained to members of their profession and were objecting to dirtying their hands with field work, guard duty, etc.

To put it in context she explained that within the university there were certain power struggles going on. The Electrical Engineering Faculty has some of the most intelligent professors, who sometimes have the bad habit of considering themselves superior to those of other faculties and looking down on them. But the seat of power in the university happens to reside primarily in the Mechanical Engineering Faculty, because the Rector and Vice-Rector come from that sector. She said traditionally the most energetic, hardest working and most committed to the revolution come from that faculty, and as a result the political and administrative leadership of the school tends also to come from that department.

When the students raised the complaint in a FEU meeting, the FEU reported it to the University administration which organised a commission to investigate their charges. Every department head was given a written notice that this investigation was taking place, and requesting the names of the professors who belonged to the dissident organisation.

Discussions

After the dissident committee voluntarily declared the names of those who had signed their statement, an investigating committee held discussions with each of them, and then held small departmental meetings to determine what the rest of the professors in the various departments felt about all this. They then invited student representatives to attend a public meeting to discuss the matter.

The overwhelming opinion of the students and other professors was that they didn’t want this type of counter-revolutionary professor to be teaching classes there and using the classrooms and hallways of the school to foment their kind of opposition to the revolutionary process.

The meetings took place during December 1991 and continue through until today. There were no “acts of repudiation” or other physical or verbal attacks against these faculty members, she said, but after the initial meetings, a number of the group were given dismissal notices.

Others continued working until last week, when the final departmental meetings were held and reached the same conclusions that these people had in fact “lost the essential qualifications to exercise their profession at this center” – the essential qualification being to educate the students within the framework of a revolutionary ideology, or at least not in opposition to it.

As long as they were limiting their teaching inside and outside the classroom to electrical engineering, said Blanca, their private political opinions were their own business. Once they started using their lecterns to preach against the revolution and to organise opposition to it, it was unreasonable to expect the Revolutionary Government or the administration of a university whose existence is a result of that revolution, to continue paying their salaries. Or, more importantly, to expect the majority of students, who benefit from and feel committed to this revolutionary process, to want them to continue as their teachers.

Student action

It is worth noting that, as Blanca pointed out, it was the students who raised the complaints and demanded their dismissal. Many of their co-professors, while disagreeing with them, were content to ignore their actions.

I asked Blanca – who, as I said, does not hesitate to raise and voice criticisms of things she sees as wrong or badly done – if among the complaints or demands of this group were items that could be considered justified if they had been raised in a different way. “As far as I could see, from what I heard and read of their demands, they were all basically counter-revolutionary. I really didn’t see any that the rest of us would ascribe to.”

In the same center, Blanca said, for instance, in classes that she teaches, and in the student meetings, students have raised complaints about inefficiency, bureaucracy, things badly done – but they are looking for improvements within the revolutionary system, she says, not seeking to replace it with a different system. They accept the revolutionary principles, and demand that people and institutions improve their performance within these principles.

“And that is the difference between the rest of us – revolutionary students and professors – and the group that was expelled. Because they criticise the revolution but they don’t try to improve it, they fight against it,” she said. “The students want to improve, perfect the revolution, the construction of socialism – throw out what doesn’t work but replace it without something else that does work to build a better socialist revolution, not throw out the ideal of a socialist revolution.”

Because there is a formal structure and procedure involved in dismissing professors, as with any other workers, there are a number of those professors who are still working because they haven’t had formal hearings yet.

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