Chomsky in Cuba

Campaign News | Tuesday, 28 October 2003

Interview with Radio Havana

Interview with Professor Noam Chomsky, well-known US political analyst, by Bernie Dwyer for Radio Havana Cuba, 28th October 2003. Professor Chomsky was in Cuba to participate in the 3rd Latin American and Caribbean Social Sciences Conference (CLACSO) 27th-31 October 2003

[Bernie Dwyer]: It’s really a pleasure to welcome you to Cuba on your first visit here. Our telephone interview last August swept rapidly across the Internet which is indicative of the interest people have in what you have to say even after so many years of critical political commentary. What motivates you to continue keeping in touch with what is going on in the world and offer analysis, commentary and possible solutions to world problems?

[Noam Chomsky]: It seems to me the opposite question is the one that ought to be asked. There is a moral truism about this that is as elementary as anything can be: privilege confers responsibility and the people who are called intellectuals, for no particularly good reason, happen to be privileged.

We have education, training, resources, opportunities and in a country like the United States, virtually no repression, it’s an unusually free country by comparative standards, so we just have that much more responsibility than people who lack those opportunities, like most people in other countries including those under the boot of the United States, and most people in our own country. After that it’s just a matter of choice. Do you observe moral truisms or don’t you?

If you do, these are the kind of things that you naturally and automatically do and it doesn’t merit any credit or applause or anything else, it’s just being a human being and using the opportunities that you have.

[Bernie Dwyer]: The slogan from the World Social Forum which you attended at Porto Alegre in Brazil earlier this year was that a better world is possible. Is that part of what motivates you? Do you honestly think that a better world is possible?

[Noam Chomsky]: Possible, certainly. Attainable, that’s another question. And that goes back to the first question: if people are willing to undertake their responsibilities seriously, then a better world is very possible. Unfortunately, there is probably an almost inverse correlation between opportunity and dedication and commitment.

So rather typically, it’s the people that live under repression and deprivation and face serious penalties and lack privilege who are working hard to build a better world. Those who have the opportunity and every opportunity in front of them, every kind of privilege, quite typically throughout history tend to be subordinate to power.

Actually, it’s not a particular observation of mine. The founder and leading figure in modern international relations theory, Hans Morganthau - a much respected scholar - once harshly condemned what he called our conformist subservience to those in power. He was referring to the intellectual classes in the United States and the West generally. And it’s a comment that is reasonably accurate and goes back through recorded history: the respected intellectuals in virtually every society are those who are distinguished by their conformist subservience to those in power. Others who take elementary human responsibilities seriously tend to suffer overwhelmingly in one form of repression or another.

So if you were in Czechoslovakia under the Soviet Union, you might end up in jail. If you were in El Salvador in the same years, you would get your brains blown out. Well, those are just the different kinds of repression that appear in different kinds of societies. And in a country like the United States, or Western industrial societies, the punishment - such as it is - is marginalization or vitriolic attacks or something like that, but nothing that even merits comment when compared with most of the rest of the world.

And this is pretty close to a cultural universal. There are some exceptions but it’s commonly true.

In fact one of the reasons that we believe that a better world is possible is because we have a better world. The world is a lot better than it was not very long ago. Maybe not in every respect - there has been some reggression - but in many respects. We know how it got better. It didn’t get better by some gift from the gods or the powerful or some benevolent dictator, it got better because people struggled to make it better and typically, those who were suffering most.

[Bernie Dwyer]: So would you go along with the axiom that power corrupts? For instance, when one is listening to election campaigns or leaders of struggles, it’s very seldom that they maintain their altruistic attitude once they attain the power position.

[Noam Chomsky]: People who are really sincere about the belief that a better world is possible will refuse to take power. In fact, they will try to undermine institutions that even grant power. Maybe to some extent, certain kinds of authority are required to delegate responsibility and that sort of thing, but one who is really interested in a decent world would want to reduce that to the absolute minimum, in fact to constantly be challenging authoritarian relationships and institutions and require them to justify themselves. Sometimes they can be justified, but the burden of justification is always on authority and domination. It is never legitimate in itself. That’s true even if it’s a family or an international society.

So take Brazil today. It should be a lesson in humility to the industrial world. Elections were carried out in Brazil of the kind that are almost unimaginable in the United States and other industrial societies. Brazil, of course, has an extremely high concentration of capital and wealth - unusually so. It is a pretty brutal and repressive society. You have to be afraid of the police if you live in a favela or not even there. Nevertheless, under very harsh conditions, popular movements developed from poor people, landless workers and steel and peasant workers. The popular forces reached the point where they could actually challenge and even overcome a tremendously high concentration of capital and the media power of authority and repression and elect their own government.

You cannot imagine that happening in the United States. There is no candidate who can even participate unless he manages to gain a large component of concentrated wealth and power behind him. Otherwise he is not in the political system. Well, now we should be humiliated literally by the fact that under much harsher conditions, poor and repressed people can do what we are afraid to do and that runs throughout the industrial world.

There are many things happening like that around the world. That takes in the so-called anti-globalization movements around the world, (a very bad name: they are global justice movements), that want a different kind of international integration. People think about them as having started in Seattle, but that’s because when something happens in the North, you have to pay attention to it. You know, if a hundred thousand peasants are storming the Indian parliament: who cares about that?

At the Summit of the Americas, which attempted to ram through the Free Trade Area Agreement, there were big protests that were reported, but that’s because they were in Canada. If the same thing had happened in Argentina or somewhere, they probably wouldn’t have been reported.

It’s interesting that, in fact, when these events are reported, they are radically distorted. Just coming down here on the plane from the United States, I was reading the latest issue of one of the foreign policy journals and there was an article which opened by talking about the World Social Forum, which is extremely rare because it is almost never mentioned in the United States.

I happened to be in a very good position to see most of the hundred thousand marchers that were taking part. Anyway, this article opens by saying “The slogan of the World Social Forum was ‘A Better World is Possible’ but its slogan should have been: ‘Let’s go back to the Old World’ - a world of anti-Semitism, of Fascism, of Nazism and so on - and it says, the marchers, 20,000 of them (there were actually 100,000), were carrying swastikas and calling for killing the Jews and so on and so forth. Maybe if you look at a 100,000 people and you look hard, maybe you will find three people who are doing that.

But that’s the picture of the World Social Forum that you are allowed to present to a kind of liberal intellectual and well-educated audience in the United States. When it’s in Seattle, they show people breaking windows and all that, but when it’s in the North, you cannot ignore it. When it’s in the South you can lie about it as much as you like.

[Bernie Dwyer]: Do you see these popular movements taking the place of the organized Left political parties in the major task of building a new society as was mentioned several times during the conference, which commented that the Left is in disarray?

[Noam Chomsky]: Well, I have never really thought that the Left was much in “array” as far as political purposes were concerned. These are usually various power systems, maybe good things, maybe bad things. I don’t think that these new popular movements are taking the place of anything, they’re really new. There never was anything like the World Social Forum before.

The goal of the Left from its modern origins has been to create a real International. The Left has never been anti-globalization, that’s why every union is called an International. You want to have international solidarity and support and so on. It never succeeded. Now the Internationals were very limited in their outreach and they fell apart, actually under internal authoritarian reasons in each case.

Now this is different. This is really international and it has participation from a vast range of components from society: peasant, working people, environmentalists, intellectuals, poets, all sorts of people. How far this will go, who knows. There are a lot of disruptive forces inside and a lot of pressures outside, a lot of difficulties, maybe this one will fail, but even if it fails, it succeeds. It lays the basis for something that can come next. You don’t expect anything important to happen in a day - whether it’s the elimination of slavery or women’s rights or whatever it may be. These are things that take time.

One of the problems of organizing in the North, in the rich countries, is that people tend to think - even the activists - that instant gratification is required. You constantly hear: “Look I went to a demonstration and we didn’t stop the war so what’s the use of doing it again?” But people who live real lives know that that is not the way things work. If you want to achieve something, you build the basis for it.

If you want to achieve something like, say, an electoral victory that means something, you have to spend decades organizing the basis of the groups so all local communities can take part and so on and so forth. It’s a lot easier in countries where there are more opportunities and wealth and less repression. It’s still not going to happen in a few minutes, so the World Social Forum is not really replacing left parties. Its place is maybe establishing more authentic ones and I’m not even sure whether political parties are what we are looking for. Maybe what we are looking for are cooperatives and communities which interact and federate and just build a new society.

[Bernie Dwyer]: During these times of US domination of the world, what role do you see Cuba playing?

[Noam Chomsky]: Well, Cuba has become a symbol of courageous resistance to attack. Since1959 Cuba has been under attack from the hemispheric superpower. It has been invaded, subjected to more terror than maybe the rest of the world combined - certainly any other country that I can think of – and it’s under an economic stranglehold that has been ruled completely illegal by every relevant international body, It has been at the receiving end of terrorism, repression and denunciation, but it survives.

If you look back at the declassified record and the problems that Cuba was posing and therefore had to be overthrown, one intelligence analyst said that “the very existence of the Castro regime is successful defiance of US policies that go back a hundred and fifty years”. He’s not talking about the Russians. He is talking about the Monroe Doctrine, which says we are the masters of the hemisphere. It goes on to say that this really dangerous as it offers a model that others might want to follow. That’s what is called “communist aggression”. You have a model that somebody wants to follow. So you have to destroy the virus.

Kissinger, for example, during the other 9/11 - the one that happened in 1973 - was concerned that Allende, with his democratic victory and social programs would spread contagion not only in Latin America, but even in Italy where the United States at the very same time was carrying out large scale subversive operations to try to undermine Italian democracy and even supported fascist parties in Italy.

Yes, Cuba is the symbol of successful defiance that accounts for the venomous hostility. The very existence of the regime, independent of what it does, by not subordinating itself to power is just an unacceptable defiance for the rest of the world. It’s a symbol of what can be done without using harsh conditions. It’s once again a case of those under the most severe conditions are doing things that others can’t do.

So, for example, let’s take Cuba’s role in the liberation of Africa. It’s an astonishing achievement that has almost been totally suppressed. Now you can read about it in scholarship, but the contribution that Cuba made to the self-liberation of Africa is fantastic. And that was against the entire concentrated power of the world. All the imperialist powers were trying to block it. It finally worked and Cuba’s contribution was unique. That’s another reason why Cuba is hated. Just the plain fact that black soldiers from Cuba were able to beat back a South African invasion of Angola sent shock waves throughout the continent. The black movements were inspired by it. The white South Africans were psychologically crushed by the fact that South African forces could be defeated by a black army. The United States were infuriated. If you look at the next couple of years, the terrorist attacks on Cuba got much worse.

But yes, it’s a symbol of successful defiance. One can have arguments about what society is like and what it does, but that’s for Cubans to decide. But for the world its symbolic significance is not slight.

[Bernie Dwyer]: You are aware of the plight of the five Cuban political prisoners in the United States. You are also very aware of flagrant abuses, not only judicial but also of human and prisoner rights regarding the visits of two of the prisoners’ wives and the five year old child, Ivette. Why do you think that the EU, the UN, and the other international bodies that are supposed to be keeping an eye on democracy are allowing this very repressive attitude to continue?

[Noam Chomsky]: The reason is embarrassingly simple. You don’t challenge the chief Mafia Don. It’s dangerous. Everyone knows that. There’s no higher authority, there’s just the Mafia. If the Don is doing something you don’t like, you can only object quietly. That’s the main reason.

The secondary reason is that the European elite share the interests of American power. They may not like the US throwing its weight around that much - especially when it interferes with them - but fundamentally they don’t disagree. They want to support the same programs of economic integration, so-called neoliberal programs. They are not unhappy to see the US power in reserve to crush people who stand up and get in the way.

The thing with the Cuban Five is such a scandal, its hard to talk about it. Cuba was providing the FBI with information about the terrorist actions taking place in the United States, based in the United States - completely criminal. So instead of arresting the terrorists, they arrested the people that provided the information, which is so ridiculous I find it difficult to talk about it. They put them under very hard conditions and it’s not recorded. You can’t read about it. So one of the reasons it goes on is because nobody knows about it. There were a few brief mentions, but all it said was that these people were informing Cuba that an unarmed plane was going .to fly over Havana. That’s about the only story that was reported. The actual facts of the matter are not secret but no one knows.

Take the embargo, which has been challenged by everyone. The European Union did bring a challenge to it at the World Trade Organization and the US just told them to get lost. In fact, what the Clinton administration said was that Europe was challenging a policy, at that time, of thirty years. These were US policies aimed at overthrowing the government in Cuba without announcing that yes, “we are international criminals and you are interfering with us and therefore you have no right to say anything” and then the US just pulled out of the negotiations and what’s anybody going to do about that?

I mean, the US is a huge debtor. It owes an enormous debt to the world. What happens if it decides at some point that we are not going to repay the debt? It’s not like Argentina. The International Monetary Fund is not going to say anything. In fact, it’s a branch of the US Treasury Department and even if it did say anything, it would tell them to get lost too.

Look at the record and the serious issues in which the US is involved. Let’s take the Vietnam War. The world was overwhelmingly opposed to it. It almost never came up at the United Nations because one of the high officials that I have talked to understood that if they brought up the Vietnam War at the United Nations, the UN would simply be destroyed. During the bombing of Serbia, there was a brief moment - about five seconds - when it looked as though the International Tribunal might take a look at NATO crimes. During that moment, an American congressman was interviewed by the right-wing Canadian press, The National Post, and they asked him what would happen if the tribunal took this up and he said that we would take the United Nations buildings in New York apart brick by brick, throw them in the Atlantic Ocean - metaphorically speaking, of course.

If you take the record of vetoes: the US ran the United Nations in the early days, because of the distribution of power. By the 1960s it was beginning to reflect some sort of world opinion. Decolonization had taken place and there were a lot of participants. However, since the mid 1960s, the US is far in the lead on vetoing resolutions and Britain is second.

No one else is even close and this can’t be discussed. They haven’t discussed the fact that the UN is paralyzed by the US refusal to obey international positions. There was all this fuss in the last year about Iraq only partially fulfilling UN resolutions. Right, maybe they should fulfill them all. If Iraq had the veto they wouldn’t have had to fail to fulfill UN resolutions. I mean the veto is the strongest and most extreme method of violating UN resolutions. So if you want to be serious about even wanting to discuss the topic, you bring up the veto. I don’t know one article in the entire US press in terms of opinion that brought up the point.

These are not trivial resolutions. The US has vetoed resolutions calling on all states to observe international law. It vetoed the Security Council resolution affirming the World Court judgment which condemned the US for pronounced international terrorism. No one mentions this, nobody knows it, it’s not part of anyone’s consciousness. You go into the faculty club or the editorial offices and people will never have heard about it. That’s what it means to have extreme power and a very subservient intellectual class. Exactly as Morgenthau pointed out – it’s out of history, it didn’t happen.

A week or two ago a poll was taken in Baghdad by the right wing American Enterprise Institute which had Gallup Poll do the poll. It was reported in the mainstream press with the New York Times headline “People in Baghdad Glad to See Saddam Go”. Well, you didn’t need a poll to tell that, but if you read down the article to see the actual results at the bottom which, in answer to the question “Which Foreign Leader Do You Have the Most Favorable Impression Of?”. Jacques Chirac. What does that tell you? A couple of weeks later, the same reporter mentioned it with the comment “go figure” in that what kind of crazy people are these that after we go and liberate them and they say the most popular foreign figure is the one who was against the war? So they’re crazy Arabs – there can be no other possible interpretation like that they may be opposed to being invaded or some such thing.

Those things are there, in a sense - they’re not blacked out by the state censors but this just as well might have been censored unless you think for a few minutes to realize what it means. This happens all the time.

[Bernie Dwyer]: You had serious problems obtaining permission from the United States to come to Cuba to participate in this conference. Do you foresee any further problems upon your return?

[Noam Chomsky]: In a country like the United States people who have some degree of privilege - which is a lot of people in a country like the US, and I’m part of it - are free by comparative standards, from government repression. I was on Nixon’s enemies list, but nothing ever happened and I never expected anything to happen. Actually, I was up for a long jail sentence but that was because of openly organizing tax resistance and supporting other forms of resistance, and I was very public in this so I don’t call that repression.

But what intimidates people is not the police, but the defamation. Any serious departure from the conformist subservience to those in power is dealt with tantrums, lies, and endless vilification. Lies repeated long enough become truths and you become a holocaust denier and other things. It’s unpleasant but compared to what other people face around the world that kind of unpleasantness isn’t worth talking about.

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