First published in English in Socialist Voice, February 22, 2007
Quebec’s ‘Américanité’ Does Not Stop at the United States
The following article by Pierre Dubuc appears in the February 2007 issue (No. 256) of l’aut’journal, a monthly newspaper of the Quebec left (circulation 30,000). Dubuc is the paper’s editor and a central leader of SPQ-Libre (Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec libre), a left-wing ginger group in the Parti Québécois. SPQ-Libre seeks to reverse the PQ’s neoliberal direction and win PQ support for workers and their unions.
Dubuc mentions another component of the Quebec sovereigntist movement, the newly formed Québec solidaire party, which is seeking to build a broad pluralist left alternative to the PQ around anti-neoliberal, feminist, and ecological concepts. While SPQ-Libre has about 500 members, Québec solidaire’s membership is about 10 times larger, and growing rapidly. (See Socialist Voice #103)
As Dubuc’s article indicates, however, the debate over these issues and questions of strategy continues within the Quebec left and pro-independence movement. And a central question that is only beginning to be addressed today — amidst the new rise in antiwar feeling — is how to link the Québécois fight against imperialism and national oppression with similar movements around the world.
In our opinion, Dubuc’s article is an important contribution to that discussion. It places the fight for Quebec independence squarely in the context of the developing hemispheric movement of opposition to North American imperialist domination. And it correctly identifies the ongoing progressive role of the Cuban revolution and the Castro leadership in that process.
The term Américanité, as it is employed by Dubuc, refers to a concept that is becoming more current in Quebec as it continues to develop and define an identity that is both French in its cultural, linguistic and historical heritage and “American,” that is, a distinct nation that, while today a part of the Canadian state, is increasingly conscious of its hemispheric vocation. – The Editors
By Pierre Dubuc
Fidel Castro’s triumphal entry into Havana on January 8, 1959 is one of the memorable events of the 20th century. The shock wave swept through Latin America and its reverberations also reached Quebec.Three years later, when the Lesage government announced its intention to nationalize the electricity companies, the shadow of Cuba and its expropriation of U.S. companies such as United Fruit loomed in the background. The North American Anglo-Saxon press charged that the Minister of Natural Resources, René Lévesque, was the Castro of the North.
But the Cuban Revolution served above all as an inspiration to the Quebec independentist movement, along with the decolonization movement in Africa and the civil rights movement of American Blacks. Revolutionary-minded youth could not help but be passionate about all the mythology surrounding these 12 men hiding in the Sierra Maestra after surviving their landing from the Granma in 1956, organizing a victorious uprising thirteen [three] years later.
The development of guerrillas in Latin America, with Cuba’s encouragement, and above all Che Guevara’s guerilla struggle in Bolivia, was then perceived as a new revolutionary model, an alternative to the reformist, fossilized Communist Parties that no longer dared to challenge the Monroe doctrine and accepted Latin America as the private preserve of the United States.
The revolutionary élan often took the form of adventurism and Quebec was not to be outdone, with the creation of the Front de libération du Québec. Inspired by the urban guerilla of the American Black Panthers and especially the Uruguayan Tupamaros, the FLQ carried out some political kidnappings in October 1970.
While Cuba agreed to serve as a land of exile for the FLQers responsible for the kidnapping of James Richard Cross, that could not be construed as an expression of support for the cause of Quebec independence. Rather, it was a service rendered to a friendly country, Canada!
As Realpolitik would have it, Havana found an ally in the government of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who used Cuba to demonstrate his desire to loosen the grip of the United States. In 1976, Trudeau made one of the first State visits to Cuba by a Western leader since the imposition of the U.S. embargo. He brought millions of dollars in Canadian aid and loans. In his speech, Trudeau declared “Long live Commander in Chief Fidel Castro. Long live Cuban-Canadian friendship.”
No matter how much Fidel Castro would proclaim his intention at that time to build socialism, voluntarism quickly showed its limits. If, soon after the October Revolution, Lenin, seeing that the revolutionary fervour was not spreading to Germany and the other European countries as he had hoped, could develop the theory of building socialism in a single country, it was because the USSR extended over a sixth of the globe and was crammed with all the natural resources needed for the development of modern industry.*
This was far from the case in Cuba, a country of sugar monoculture deprived of oil. And the Communist International had concluded in the Thirties that it was impossible to erect a socialist economic base in the Caribbean and West Indies countries without the creation of a socialist federation of these countries.
It is a miracle that Cuba has managed to hold out for more than 40 years, despite the U.S. embargo and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Or rather, it is the genius of Fidel Castro who was able to maneuver on this agitated sea, even if it meant allowing when necessary the controlled development of a market economy and promoting the expansion of tourism with all that that entails.
In these extremely difficult conditions, Cuba has wagered and won in the effort to feed, educate and care for its population. Illiteracy has been vanquished, infant mortality reduced to a rate of 0.9%. Life expectancy (73) is higher than that in some parts of Montréal. The health system is one of the best in the world and about 20,000 doctors have been sent by Cuba to 60 Third World countries. Fidel Castro was the first head of state to be given the Health for All medal by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Cuba can today look forward to a better economic future by virtue of its alliance with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela and the emergence of left-wing governments in Latin America — a situation on an altogether different scale from the time of the guerrillas. Curiously, these developments seem to arouse little interest in Quebec, at a time when the sovereigntist movement should be looking for support for international recognition of a sovereign Quebec. And this, moreover, in a political context in Canada that is otherwise relatively favourable for the sovereigntists. For in contrast to the Trudeau period, there is little chance that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be toasting the health of the Cuban revolution.
To explain this lack of interest, it is necessary to go back to the late 1970s, when the revolutionary left in Quebec was eroded by the Maoist movement. In practice, it left the strictly political terrain that had been held by the RIN and the FLQ, with leaders like Pierre Bourgault and Pierre Vallières and an often brilliant use of the mass media (as by the FLQ cells during the October Crisis).
On the pretext that it is “the masses who make history,” the militants entered the factories, their principal activity a pathetic tail-ending of the working class in its spontaneous economic struggles.
Politically, the Maoists aligned themselves on Mao’s “theory of the three worlds.” A theory that replaced the classic alliance of the working class with the oppressed peoples in opposition to imperialism by an alliance of the Third World countries with the countries of the second world — including Canada — against the first world, the USSR and the United States. The alliance of third and second worlds soon encompassed half the first world, that is the United States, as became manifest with Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 where he sealed his alliance with Mao.
According to this theory, Canada was a country in the “revolutionary” camp, and the Quebec question became a very “secondary” contradiction. This led the Maoist movement to support the camp of the No — in the disguised form of abstention — during the 1980 referendum.
The Maoist movement was so hegemonic within the Quebec left that the creation in 1966 of the Tricontinental, Cuba’s initiative to counter Maoism in the Third World, had virtually no echo in Quebec.
It may seem strange and completely useless to evoke these events today, in a context that seems far removed from that time. But in many respects the global justice [altermondialiste] movement, which incorporates the Quebec left of today, is the heir — purged of revolutionary phraseology, of course — of the Maoist and Tricontinental left.
However, because these movements evaporated without any real critique of their practices and theories, their weaknesses and errors persist. With Québec solidaire and the SPQ-Libre, the left is re-entering the political arena, but has not yet mastered the political and media game of its ancestors of the 1960s.
More important still, its political strategy is still confused. However, the emergence of left-wing governments in Latin America and Canada’s economic, political and military alignment with the United States ordain support for the independence of Quebec and the development of close relations with the progressive Latin American governments.
But the altermondialist left of Maoist origin still hesitates in its support for the sovereigntist project, a project with an extraordinary potential for social change that this left has failed to adequately assess. And the sovereigntist left is still in the tow of Jacques Parizeau’s Great Game of 1995, which essentially counted on diplomatic recognition by France and certain countries of La Francophonie to force the hand of the United States.
In recent years, Quebec has rediscovered its Americanité. Politically, this has served above all to legitimate the free-trade agreements with the United States. It would be appropriate today to expand its resonance to the political Great Game under way in Latin America.
Quebec would then renew with the political thought of Louis-Joseph Papineau. At the end of his life, the Patriote leader foresaw the metamorphosis of Québécois nationality in a continental identity, drawing on a liberatory “Colombian nationality” that would result from the confederation of the States of the three Americas. In this, Papineau was approaching the inter-Americanité of Simón Bolívar and even heralding the idea, once independence was acquired, of a union of the peoples of the Americas respectful of the sovereignty of each.
As a small nation, Quebec cannot emancipate itself without becoming a part of the great world liberatory movements. That was what Papineau and the Patriotes understood, inspired as they were by the American Revolution and the revolutionary movement that was sweeping Europe and Latin America.
This was understood by the independentists of the 1960s and even by René Lévesque, with the nationalization of electric power at the cost of being treated as the Castro of the North. We are not there yet. The leadership of the Parti Québécois, at the most recent meeting of the party’s national council, opposed the nationalization of wind power out of fear that Quebec would be characterized as the Venezuela of the North!
The independentist left of Quebec should use the occasion of Fidel Castro’s departure to reassess its political strategy. That would be the highest tribute it could give to the greatest symbol of the emancipation of the peoples in the Americas since Simón Bolívar for Latin America and Louis-Joseph Papineau for Quebec.
[Translated by Richard Fidler]
* The idea that the Soviet Union could build a socialist society solely by its own efforts was developed by Stalin, not Lenin. The collapse of the Soviet Union a decade and a half ago was the ultimate refutation of this mistaken concept, which in fact reflected the ideology of the counter-revolutionary bureaucratic caste that arose in the 1920s and after Lenin’s death usurped the leadership of the state apparatus and ruling party. Lenin, on the other hand, was an internationalist who, in common with the pre-Stalinist Communist International, linked the prospects for survival and development of the revolution to the success of anti-imperialist and anticapitalist revolutionary movements throughout the world. Similarly, Cuba’s internationalism has been key to the survival and ongoing vitality of its revolution. — Socialist Voice