[News] A Cosmovisión of Solidarity: Anticolonial Worldmaking in Havana, Palestine and the Politics of Possibility

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sat Jul 24 13:39:00 EDT 2021

Cosmovisión of Solidarity: Anticolonial Worldmaking in Havana, Palestine
and the Politics of Possibility
*Sorcha Thomson*

*Borderline inaugurates the first essay in its **Worldmaking*
forum on the politics of anti-colonial solidarity across and beyond the
Middle East.*

[image: A color poster showing two faces; one with a beard and wearing the
traditional hat of Cuba and holding the Cuban flag, and the other is masked
with a Kufiya and holding the Palestinian flag. Courtesy the Digital
Archive of the Palestinian Museum.]

A color poster showing two faces; one with a beard and wearing the
traditional hat of Cuba and holding the Cuban flag, and the other is masked
with a Kufiya and holding the Palestinian flag. Courtesy the Digital
Archive of the Palestinian

In June 1961, as part of the campaign against illiteracy during Cuba’s
‘Year of Education,’ a delegation of young people and student leaders from
43 countries arrived in Havana to build a school for the children of Cuba.
The Cuban Federation of University Students (FEU) received representatives
from student unions across the Arab world – from Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria,
Tunisia, and Morocco – alongside their comrades from Africa, Asia, Latin
America, and Europe. The brochure marking the event
<https://search.iisg.amsterdam/Record/ARCH00655/ArchiveContentList>, titled
‘Cement, Water, Sand, and Unity,’ articulated the students’ reactions to
the transformations occurring on the revolutionary island: “The whole of
Cuba is a beehive, where changes have been made in two years of Revolution
which seem unbelievable to anyone who has not been able to see them

Two years earlier, on 1 January 1959, the triumph of the Cuban revolution
shook the world and ignited the revolutionary transformations of an era –
making possible what before had seemed impossible: the defeat of
imperialism through popular struggle. In the following decade, Havana would
become a hub and a school for tricontinental revolutionaries from Africa,
Asia, and Latin America – a place where colonialism’s ‘rule of difference’
was contested through new ways of doing and imagining solidarity across
continents. Cuba’s transnational role in this period has been understood in
relation to the diplomatic dynamics of the Cold War, with its support for
national liberation struggles viewed as defined – and limited – by Soviet
foreign policy. Yet, Cuba acted as a key pillar in the transnational
networks of thought and action that connected the revolutionary movements
of the era – as a model and an actor in an anti-colonial struggle. The
island became a hub for the traveling revolutionaries of that time period,
who came together at landmark meetings and moments to develop relations of
collaboration, mutual support, and friendship, in their efforts to build a
world beyond imperial division.

In this way, Havana emerged as a global city of anticolonial worldmaking.
An integral part of its worldmaking extended to the liberation movements
and the revolutionaries of the Arab world and, in particular, the
Palestinians at a time when, in the words of Karma Nabulsi
<http://learnpalestine.politics.ox.ac.uk/about> and Abdel Razzaq Takriti,
the Cuban revolution was to Latin America what the Palestinian revolution
was to the Arab world. These iconic movements of the 1960s and 1970s, each
holding a special place in the anticolonial imaginary of the global Left,
developed strong mutual relations of support and revolutionary exchange.
Located within the revolutionary entanglements of Cuba and Palestine are
forms of solidarity – in student, cultural, and women’s forums and
international organizations – that created lasting institutional and
affective ties. These forms of solidarity reveal the transformative
practices of a Havana-based anticolonial worldmaking, characterized by
building solidarity across boundaries and a shared belief – in a historical
moment of hope – in the possibility of a future beyond imperial domination.

*Cuban Internationalism: A Tricontinental Infrastructure*

>From the outset, the Cuban revolution set about building the institutional
framework for developing its diplomatic and cultural relations with the
tricontinental world. The publishing house-cum-cultural institution Casa de
las Américas <http://www.casadelasamericas.org/casa.php> was established in
April 1961 with the aim to disseminate Cuban culture, literature, and ideas
to audiences across Latin America, the Caribbean, and the rest of the
world. The Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP)
<http://www.icap.cu/>, founded in December 1960, had the explicit purpose
of facilitating and organizing reciprocal links of solidarity with the
different regions of the world. Alongside the other instruments of
organization developed on the island in the early years of the revolution,
these institutions set the foundations for a structured model of
international solidarity with broad popular participation.

Havana confirmed its place in the heart of the Third World imaginary when
it hosted the January 1966 Tricontinental conference. Hailed as the largest
of anti-imperialist leaders the world has ever seen, more than 500
representatives from national liberation movements, guerrilla groups, and
independent governments of 82 countries, including a PLO delegation,
gathered to discuss anti-­imperialist strategy, resulting in the founding
of the Afro-Asian-Latin-American Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation
(OSPAAAL). The meeting announced itself as the coming together of two
historic currents of world revolution – that which started with the 1917
Russian Revolution and the parallel current of the revolution for
anti-colonial national liberation. The USA State Department, deeply
concerned <http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/tricontinental.htm> by this
coming together, denounced the meeting as the “biggest threat that
international communism had ever posed to the free people of the world.”

This landmark event celebrated Cuba’s role as an icon of revolutionary
victory while recognizing the challenges that lay ahead for the global
anti-colonial struggle. Che Guevara’s *Message to the Tricontinental*
<https://www.marxists.org/archive/guevara/1967/04/16.htm> – delivered to
the conference hall in his absence as he led another insurgency in Bolivia
– outlined the nature of the solidarity to be forged between the gathered
revolutionaries: “It is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of
aggression, but of sharing his fate; one must accompany him to his death or
to victory.” He asks his audience “what role shall we, the exploited people
of the world, play?” to which he responds with the famous call – “create
one, two, many Vietnams.” If Guevara set out the tricontinental vision of
solidarity as a coordinated action, Amilcar Cabral’s contribution to the
addressed the need for a theoretical underpinning to this action: in
particular, how to connect national liberation struggles against
colonialism with a Marxist theory of revolution. He emphasized the need for
the forum to elaborate an ideological coherence to the global anti-colonial
movement, whilst recognizing that “national liberation and social
revolution are not exportable commodities: they are… determined by the
historical reality of each people.” Whilst this ideological coherence may
have remained elusive to the broad movement, the search for a unified
strategy fostered creative and transformative exchanges between those who
came to Cuba and sought to build solidarity in their common struggles.

*The Way of the Third World *

Two years after the Tricontinental meeting, in January 1968, over 400
intellectuals from 70 countries arrived for the Cultural Congress at the
Hotel Havana Libre, with the stated aim to advance “the development of the
revolutionary ideology of the national liberation movements of the Third
Taking place before a growing polarization in the global Left’s support for
Cuba triggered by events later that year, the gathering marked a high point
of the tricontinental spirit. The congress, in its deliberations over the
role of the intellectual in the anti-colonial movement, aimed not just at
expanding the scope of intellectual production, but also at
re-conceptualizing the intellectual as one that combined thought and action
in worldmaking, in opposition to the character of the academic or
professional specialist produced by the capitalist West and detached from
the popular struggle. This was an intellectual activity derived from a
belief in the possibility of changing the material world in which they
lived, inspired in many ways by the Cubans who themselves represented a
revolutionary culture of hope.

For the writer C.L.R. James,
presence at the congress was his first visit to the island, the gathering
marked the end of one era and the opening of another, adding the Cuban
leader to the list of those responsible for paving an alternative path:
“The world ushered in by Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther no longer
exists. Lenin, Gandhi, Nehru, Mao Tse-tung, Nkrumah, and Fidel Castro have
shattered its foundations.” Aimé Césaire,
<https://philpapers.org/rec/FROTOT-3> the Martinique anticolonialist,
declared to the meeting “Cuba has invented a new way that will be the way
of the Third World… you start from zero and you create.” He elaborated on
the special quality of the revolutionary in this context – as one
dialectically driven to act from the perspective of the future, engendering
a dynamic that advances reality, in such a way that “they appear to belong
to a world that does not yet exist.” From this perspective, he explained,
even the perceived ‘failures’ of leaders like Guevara – who had by then
been assassinated in Bolivia – act as a major catalyst for revolutionary
transformation, in so far as their actions make manifest in the present the
ideas of the future.

The gathering’s attendees – poets, doctors, lawyers, militants, scientists,
actors – mirrored this conception of the worldmaking intellectual. Present
amongst them were numerous speakers from the Arab world
<https://catalogue.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/records/CCH>, including
Gisele Halimi, the Tunisian lawyer famous for defending members of the
Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), who presented a paper on how
to build cultures of emancipation against imperialism, and Dr. Galal A.
Amin, the Egyptian economist who spoke on the role of the university in
relation to revolution. From the outset, the Cuban revolution’s
internationalist imagination had extended to the liberation movements of
the Arab world, with assistance to the Algerian revolution
<https://www.jstor.org/stable/157991?seq=1> – in the form of arms and
doctors – one of the first acts of Castro’s foreign policy, motivated by
the ‘spontaneous brotherhood’ that existed between their struggles. The
1967 June war – understood as a setback for the Third World project as a
whole <https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/1911/81430?show=full> – had
focused Arab and international revolutionary attention on anti-imperialism
in the Middle East, with Fatah emerging in the aftermath of the Arab
armies’ defeat as the new front of the struggle. Fatah, who had already
produced pamphlets studying the Cuban revolutionary experience, sent its
representatives to the Cultural Congress
<https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00263201003590300> to
highlight their integral role in the Third World struggle. Discussion at
the congress focused on the Zionist occupation of Palestine and the role of
the tricontinental movement in advancing Palestinian national liberation.
The collective voice of the meeting called for the integration of
Palestinian liberation into the revolutionary ideology of Third Worldism.

Support for the Palestinian struggle would feature increasingly in Cuban
internationalism: in the cultural and intellectual production of OSPAAAL
in the activities of Cuba in international diplomatic forums
<https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17541328.2017.1389556>, and
in the invitation of delegations to the island. Following Cuba’s break of
official ties with Israel in 1973, in 1974, Yasser Arafat made his first
visit to the island, and the permanent Palestinian diplomatic office was
established in Havana. The same year, the Second Congress of Cuban Women
turned its focus to the international struggle, receiving delegations of
activists from a number of national women’s unions, political movements,
and the International Democratic Federation of Women (WIDF). May Sayegh,
head of the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPS), traveled to the
island to take part in the meeting. She participated in a press conference,
told the audience the history of the Palestinian struggle, and made the
call for renewed and increased solidarity with the liberation of her
people. Sayegh formed a close friendship with Vilma Espín, the leader of
the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), and the two worked together
to transform the international institutions charged with advancing the
position of the women of the world. Their aim to get more women from
Africa, Asia, and Latin America elected to leadership positions within the
WIDF, so they could shape the agenda not just participate in it, was
successful, with Sayegh herself later elected as Vice President of the
organization. In their collective efforts to transform, rather than simply
join, the political institutions of the era, the women successfully
promoted the interests of the national liberation movements and struggles
of the Third World on the international stage.

*Ruptures and Traditions of Revolutionary Transformation*

If the high point of tricontinentalism can be located in the late 1960s to
the mid-1970s, in the years that followed the international infrastructures
and networks of diplomatic and financial support that held together the
global anti-colonial movement came under increasing pressure. Institutions
such as the WIDF became defunct by the mid-1980s
with funding and participation significantly reduced. In the historiography
of anticolonialism, the worldmaking potential of international solidarity
is generally recognized to have collapsed, as the pitfalls of postcolonial
independence and a global counter-revolution shattered and reshaped
political frameworks and hierarchies of global interaction. Within the
global Left, a sense of defeat and pessimism grew to characterize the
networks of optimistic collaboration that had structured the high point of
anti-colonial solidarity.

For Cuba too, international disillusion with their revolutionary model
increased and reached a culmination following Cuban support for the Soviet
invasion of Afghanistan. When Castro was elected head of the Non-Aligned
Movement in 1979, following a long-run campaign for leadership, the
organization of the states previously loosely allied around an opposition
to imperial intervention and domination was polarized to the point of
paralysis. However, despite the closure of institutions – such as OSPAAAL
in 2019
<https://nacla.org/news/2020/01/16/hasta-siempre-ospaaal-havana-cuba> – and
the collapse of official networks, the Cuban model of revolutionary
transformation through education has continued to present an alternative to
the futures of imperial despair heralded by the collapse of a coherent
Third Worldism.

As with the understanding of the intellectual at the 1968 Cultural
Congress, Cuban internationalism extended a conception of education
premised not only on the accumulation of knowledge but also on the
application of that knowledge to advancing revolutionary society. This
vision took form in the extension of invitations through scholarships to
students from across the tricontinental world to study on the island,
beginning in the 1960s. The philosophy behind the granting of these
scholarships and the reception of students was that they use the training
they received on the island by contributing to the revolutionary
development of their home countries.

 In her book, *Crusades of Love*
Regla Fernández González, Chief of the Political Department of OSPAAAL in
the 1970s, wrote about the students – from Yemen, Oman, Western Sahara,
Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine – who came to Cuba to learn, and who made
deep impressions on the Cuban people and their history. She describes the
Arab students as having arrived with a deep “revolutionary consciousness”
and committed themselves to political organizing on the island alongside
their studies. She tells the story of Issam, the son of the leader of one
of the left Palestinian organizations, who came to Cuba and immediately
upon arrival took up responsibilities in the Cuban and Palestinian student
unions on the island, the FEU, and the GUPS. He was eager to make the cause
of his people known and would speak in meetings, conferences, and
conversations about the history of his occupied homeland.  Issam met, fell
in love, and eventually married a fellow medical student from Cuba, Rosa.
He is one of the many Palestinian students who forged strong links with the
Cuban people and culture, building friendships, marriages and families that
would either return to the Middle East or stay in Cuba to practice
medicine, representing the tradition of educational and social exchange
that connected the revolutionary struggles.

[image: Pamphlet from the 1961 international student camp in Havana and
part of Cuba’s campaign against illiteracy during the ‘Year of Education’.]

Pamphlet from the 1961 international student camp in Havana and part of
Cuba’s campaign against illiteracy during the ‘Year of Education’.

*Afterlives and Futures of Anticolonial Worldmaking*

To this day, Palestinian students who have received their medical training
in Cuba continue to return to the Middle East to practice their profession.
These students are represented in the League of Graduates from Cuba in
Lebanon, the Jose Marti
Solidarity Organisation, and the League of Graduates from the Latin
American Medical School (ELAM) in Jordan, Palestine, and Syria. Dr.
Mohammed Abu Srour, a current DFLP representative in Cuba and graduate of
the Havana University of Medical Science, set up a free medical clinic in
his home of Aida camp in Bethlehem. He describes this as a way of
“practicing the Cuban tradition of medicine – of serving the people without
seeking profit, as a way to pay back the historic solidarity of Fidel.”
Other Palestinians who graduated from Cuba have been instrumental in
organizing transnational solidarity campaigns, for example, the successful
campaign for the release of the Cuban Miami Five, unjustly incarcerated in
US prisons in 1998. This tradition of educational exchange continues in
Cuba today, most visibly in the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM),
which offers thousands of scholarships each year to students from Africa,
Asia, Latin America – and left political organizations in the USA – to
study and practice medicine. The afterlives of the 1960s recognition that
popular education was necessary for the advancement of the anti-colonial
struggle, and the commitment to making this necessity practical,
demonstrates the forward-looking model of worldmaking located in Cuba’s
revolutionary internationalism.

Tracing the encounters of traveling revolutionaries in Havana during the
1960s and 1970s reveals a worldmaking moment that connected the Cuban
revolution to anti-colonial struggles across the world in a period of
global transformation, characterised by a shared determination and hope to
transform categories of thought and action. Reading national revolutionary
movements as part of this global history offers a transnational model of
solidarity with creative collaborations and interventions, whether in the
dominant concepts of intellectual production, the structures, and agendas
of international organizations, or in visions of education and health.
Beyond acting as an example of the possibility of success in challenging
imperialist domination, Cuba’s reception of tricontinental revolutionaries
transformed its capital into a global city of solidarity. For the
Palestinians, it was a place where connections were built, connections that
would support the ascent of the movement on the global stage, and outlast
the high era of tricontinentalism, in an enduring model of reciprocal
solidarity between anti-imperial struggles.

These historic practices of optimistic anticolonial solidarity may appear
alien to a contemporary world not imagined or accounted for by the
revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s, a world characterised by political
languages and frameworks that have undoubtedly changed. But the traces of
an earlier worldmaking remain in the institutional memories and
intergenerational revivals of revolutionary forms and horizons. Researching
this history, retrieving its traditions, and tracing its afterlives – of
collaboration, friendship, and mutual exchange – offers lessons for the
meaning of worldmaking today, as a collective practice of transformative
solidarity, grounded in a shared belief in the possibility of alternative

*Sorcha Thomson is a Ph.D. Fellow at Roskilde University in the
project **Entangled
Histories of Palestine and the Global New Left*
Her research examines Palestinian solidarity entanglements with the global
New Left in the 1960-the 80s, through the cases of Cuba and the UK. She
holds an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of
Oxford (2018).*

*-Prepared with the editorial assistance of Nishat Akhtar *
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