Noam Chomsky on the Cuban Five: “A High Mountain to Climb”
Professor Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (MIT) Boston, talks by telephone from his office at the MIT to Bernie Dwyer for Radio Havana Cuba on 11th September 2009.
Bernie Dwyer interviewed Professor Chomsky for Radio Havana Cuba on the eve of the 11th anniversary of the arbitrary arrest and detention in Miami of Cubans Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Gerardo Hernandez, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez, who after a legally flawed trial in Miami District Court, are incarcerated in US prisons for infiltrating anti-Cuba Miami based groups of terrorists with the aim of defending Cuba against US based terrorism. As Professor Chomsky says in this interview “They weren’t criminals. They were heroes”. He points out “that the only way to remedy the injustice is to withdraw the charges completely”.
Bernie Dwyer (RHC)-: The five Cubans arrested and held in Miami in 1998 are now entering their 12th year of incarceration. You have often commented on the United States government’s hostile policy towards Cuba. Would you see the Cuban Five as victims of that hostile policy towards Cuba rather than criminals who have committed crimes that deserve to be harshly punished?
Noam Chomsky: They weren’t criminals. They were heroes. I mean they were exposing to the US government crimes that are being committed on US soil; crimes the US government is tolerating and theoretically should be punishing itself. The government should have welcomed that, fine, we can put an end to the crimes. The five Cubans took a risk in doing that and that was a heroic act and instead of being honored for it they are being severely punished for it.
And that’s why global opinion is so appalled by this travesty.
RHC: Three of the Cuban Five are back in Miami District Court on the 13th October for re-sentencing. Would you see this as an opportunity for the US judicial system to right some of the wrongs perpetrated against them?
Noam Chomsky: It’s certainly an opportunity but the proper way to remedy the injustice is not just to improve their prison conditions and allow visits and reduce the sentence but it’s to withdraw the charges completely since they are completely illegitimate. Unfortunately I don’t anticipate that. The courts rarely go against state policy to that extent. In fact I doubt very much if the courts are even aware of the background. Remember there is an atmosphere of dense, intense propaganda on this.
RHC: So you would feel that independence of the judges is not holding forth here or do you think that the judges were punishing these men as part of US policy?
Noam Chomsky: I don’t have any personal knowledge of the judges in the case but my guess would be that they must know about the illegal irregularities and the sometimes absurdities but they probably accept the general government line on this. Most educated people do. It’s a very indoctrinated society. And it’s not surprising, as they don’t hear anything else.
RHC: The US Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, acting on behalf of the US National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, filed a lawsuit on September 9, 2009 against the US Broadcasting Board of Directors (BBG) because it has "unlawfully failed to disclose specific U.S. government-paid contracts with journalists" who published materials that were negative to Cuba and prejudicial to the case of the Cuban Five. How does this reflect on the BBG and journalists and media who publish the material?
Noam Chomsky: As far as the propaganda arm of the government is concerned, one doesn’t expect propaganda agencies to do anything else but to produce propaganda by whatever means they can get away with. But it reflects very badly on the journalists and the journals that permitted this. I think the case may go forward for that reason. It’s a revelation of practices that the journals would like to prevent people from knowing about because it undermines their own credibility.
RHC: Is it not fair comment to say although the BBG is the propaganda arm of the US government, it is outside their brief to pay people to write incendiary material during a trial where the US government is prosecuting?
Noam Chomsky: It’s the wrong thing to do. It may be even criminal but it doesn’t mean that I didn’t expect it. That’s the way states behave.
RHC: You would expect that to happen?
Noam Chomsky: Unfortunately
RHC: If the US public were more engaged in the case of the Cuban Five, do you think they could effect some change in their status as prisoners serving long sentences in US gaols or even bring about their release?
Noam Chomsky: They could but that is more generally true about relations with Cuba. Polls have now been taken I think for about thirty years on whether the United States should normalise relations with Cuba, and it’s fairly steady. Roughly two thirds favour normalization, which is pretty remarkable since they never hear any positive comment on Cuba. Everything you hear is bitter condemnation. But nevertheless, the majority of the population thinks we should normalize relations. If there were any meaningful discussion and interchange allowed, it would almost surely be considerably higher than that. But it has no effect on policy, including Obama. It’s a very interesting case.
There are many cases where public opinion and policy diverge very sharply but the standard situation is that policy corresponds to the interests and concerns of the business world. But not in this case; in this case too, quite substantial components of the corporate sector favour improvements or normalisation of relations; pharmaceutical corporations, agribusiness, energy corporations and so on who are usually quite influential in determining policy. But this is one of those cases. There are interesting ones where state policy, not only diverges from public opinion, which is normal, but also diverges from the interests of the business world which is far from normal. So something separate is involved.
There are other cases like this. And I think what is involved is a sort of principle of international relations that is not recognised by the profession and is not studied very much, but I think it is significant. We might call it the mafia principle. If, say some small store keeper doesn’t pay protection money, the god-father doesn’t just send goons out to collect the money, they make an example of the person. They kill him, beat him up, and destroy his store or something. They make an example of him.
Now you can’t accept disobedience, not even from the smallest guy not because the god-father needs the money, maybe it’s an insignificant amount of money but it’s because if disobedience succeeds, it can spread. It can have a demonstration effect. If one small store keeper disobeys and gets away with it, another one might. And then the whole system of control unravels. But it’s often based on fear rather than real exercise of power. So that’s a significant principle. It’s standard in criminal enterprises like say the mafia.
But it also enters into state behaviour. The problem of Cuba for the United States as is explicit in the internal documents is disobedience. Go back to declassified internal documents of the Kennedy, Johnson and the liberal periods, the documents refer to “Cuba’s successful defiance of US Policies” tracing back then 150 years, leading to the Monroe doctrine. So it’s nothing to do with the Russia but that Cuba is disobeying a principle that says the United States must dominate the hemisphere.
Of course in the1820s, it couldn’t dominate the hemisphere but in later years it became capable of doing so and disobedience is not accepted, it’s dangerous for them on the principles of the mafia. If one country disobeys and gets away with it, the others will get the same idea and pretty much the system unravels. And you find that steadily in the internal secret documentary record. For example in the case of the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, the national Security Council, while supporting taking the measures to overthrow the government, explained that the problem is not just limited to Chile. As they put it, if we can’t control Latin America, how are we going to control the rest of the world?
So this is our backyard and if we cannot keep it in order, other people are not going to be properly afraid of us so we won’t be able to control them. Going back to Cuba again, when John F Kennedy came into office, unlike Eisenhower, he was going to pay attention to Latin America. So he had a Latin American Study Group headed by Arthur Schlesinger, well-known liberal historian, and they came back with recommendations which were given to them by Schlesinger who wrote that the problem with Castro, he says is the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own hands instead of listening to us and obeying us and if that succeeds, it could be a spreading danger in other places of Latin America where people face pretty much the same problems as in pre-Castro Cuba. And then the system will unravel.
And you find this in case after case. I won’t run through examples but the mafia principle is often there. It makes sense and it makes policies very resistant to change because there is a state interest which has to do with long term problems of domination and control and it tends to be resistant to public opinion which is normal but also to business opinion which is less normal. There are other current cases.
Take US policy towards Iran. Most of the world, a large majority thinks that Iran should have the same right to enrich uranium as any other signer of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The majority of Americans agree. That’s certainly not government policy. In fact it’s not even on the agenda for government policy. A large majority of Americans think that there should be a nuclear weapons free zone in the region including Israel, Iran and any American forces deployed there; that’s over 80% but that’s not even imaginable.
Furthermore a strong majority is opposed to threats against Iran quite contrary to policy.
As in the Cuba case, larges sections of business agree. The energy corporations, who are usually quite influential in policy formation, particularly in the Middle East, many of them would appreciate normalization of relations. Iran has unexploited reserves of oil and gas, very substantial ones, and they would like to be in on the profit-taking from them but they are blocked by the state policy. So we again have a situation in which public opinion, crucial sectors of the business world and others, are in favour of moving towards some sort of normalization of relations and negotiations and settlement on the basis of Iran having the same rights as other signers of the Non Proliferation Treaty but the state won’t accept it. And again I think it traces back to successful defiance. In 1979 Iranians overthrew the tyrant who the US had imposed twenty five earlier in a military coup and they had remained independent and that’s dangerous on the mafia principle.
The fanatic hostility to Hugo Chavez is another case. You can think what you like about Chavez, like him, dislike him, whatever it may be, but the demonization goes vastly beyond any rational assessment of the policies he’s carrying out. And the demonization began when he showed he was going to be independent. In the early days of his presidency he was treated like a bad boy who we just couldn’t get civilized but when it became clear he was going to pursue his own policies, the demonization took off. It’s more of that ¨taking matters into your own hands¨, which could have appeal elsewhere and could cost the system of control to erode.
And I think the case of the Cuban Five falls into that category unfortunately. So, yes to get back to your question, public opinion can make a difference but it’s a high mountain to climb in this case.
This interview was first broadcast by Radio Havana Cuba on the 12th September 2009