Socialism or Suntan, Part 2

Is it a harmless political party, or is it a cult?

Read Part 1

If you really want to ponder the strange and wonderful world of Florida politics, forget the ongoing Gore-Bush drama. Look instead to Cuba. As a reminder that not everyone has given up on Boris-and-Natasha cold war games, this past week saw the opening of the trial of five alleged Cuban spies. Meanwhile four of Miami's most notoriously violent Cuban exiles surfaced in Panama City, arrested as suspects in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. It was straight out of a vintage Mission Impossible episode: fake passports, a suitcase full of cash, eighteen pounds of plastic explosives, and allegations of aid from the Cuban American National Foundation.

Even little Elian grabbed a headline cameo in the form of a reverse repatriation. Key Largo's Arletis Blanco left behind an aggrieved ex-husband as she grabbed their five-year-old son, jumped in a speedboat, and landed in Pinar del Río. Depending on which version of her story she chose to tell, Blanco was fleeing either charges of embezzling $150,000 from her employer or death threats from gun-running exiles tied to Alpha 66. (Even Granmaseemed a tad skeptical of the latter tale.)

Miami's Socialist Workers Party bookstore offers up fiery words and fruit slices; (above) SWP presidential candidate James Harris
Steve Satterwhite
Miami's Socialist Workers Party bookstore offers up fiery words and fruit slices; (above) SWP presidential candidate James Harris

The end result of all this drama? Some reporters seem determined to find a Cuban connection to each and every local event. Witness the press focus on the November 22 demonstration inside the Miami-Dade Elections Department, a fracas that both Al Gore and Joe Lieberman publicly cited as an act of physical intimidation against the county's canvassing board. Photos of the yelling, glass-banging protesters would seem to implicate out-of-town Republicans (the beefy frames and severe haircuts were a dead giveaway), yet many reporters went sniffing after Cuban-exile suspects: The New York Timespuzzled over a cheerleading Radio Mambí newscaster at county hall, and a Washington Postscribe declared in Salon.com that Cuban-American activists had craftily thrown the election to Bush as revenge for losing Elian (a theory echoed by Castro, who was thoughtful enough to suggest sending observers to Florida).

What has emerged is a portrait of shared delusions. One side of the Florida Straits sees el exilio's hand pulling all the strings; the other is still looking under its bed for communists.

Fringe players in the exile community certainly are willing to hold up their end of the equation. Just flip on Spanish-language talk radio, or page through some of the wackier periodiquitos, such as Grita, which labels President Clinton an "extreme left-winger" and promises an exposé of "los Marxistas de Brickell."

But where are Miami's homegrown Fidelistas? Will thereal "extreme left-wingers" please stand up?


A mid-September meeting of Miami's chapter of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) emits a vibe closer to a potluck dinner than that of a collective seeking to, in their words, "overthrow the criminal capitalist system" and "emulate the Cuban revolution." Twenty people are gathered inside the SWP's Pathfinder bookstore on NE Second Avenue just north of the Design District. They're a mix of Anglos and Latinos, mostly in their thirties and forties, sitting on folding chairs, passing around fruit slices, cookies, and Pepsi.

Only one figure seems to fit the stereotypical image of a guerrilla ready for action: a wild-eyed man in his early twenties with a shock of black hair and two days' worth of stubble, clad in army-surplus shorts and a faded T-shirt with the Sandinista acronym FSLN emblazoned across his chest. He quickly slugs down a few Dixie cups of wine and begins scribbling furiously in a notebook. Perhaps thisis the party's modern-day Che Guevara, mapping out plans for a base camp in the Everglades and midnight raids into Kendall.

No such luck. It soon becomes clear that no one has any idea who this would-be comandanteis, and his presence is beginning to unsettle several SWP members. The store's shelves may be filled with titles such as Pathfinder Was Born with the October Revolution and From Moncada to Victory: Fidel Castro's Political Strategy, but that doesn't mean the party is entertaining notions of armed struggle any time soon. This evening's guest of honor, SWP presidential candidate James Harris, harbors few illusions of an upset come November; his campaign is strictly for propaganda purposes.

Harris's speech also is free of any fist-shaking oratory, establishing a persona akin to that of a middle-age math teacher laying out an algebra theorem. There's talk of capitalism's coming collapse, organizing the workers, a few asides to Malcolm X's take on elections, but little real Sturm und Drang. After a half-hour, with Harris still droning on, it's a bit hard to imagine that this pleasant fellow has devoted his life to building "a revolutionary party of the type Lenin and the Bolsheviks constructed."

What's most striking about the SWP, however, isn't its slavish worship of the Cuban revolution, but rather its explicit rejection of immediately waging guerrilla war, the very tenet of Che and Fidel that appealed to so many young radicals as the anti-Vietnam War movement heated up. In The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd Gitlin recalls the excitement with which French writer Régis Debray's Revolution in the Revolution, an interpretation of Guevara, hit the scene in the summer of 1967.

"The idea was that political and military leadership should fuse to form a foco,a rural guerrilla unit," Gitlin wrote. "Debray was not talking about the flatlands of Berkeley but about the high plateau of Bolivia (not that his confident advice proved so apt there either). But during this overheated summer, a critical mass of New Leftists toyed with his detailed prescriptions as if they were metaphors for their own future.... It was more important for intellectuals to acquire the right guerrilla boots than to debate the right books. At a moment when conventional channels seemed blocked, there was intense concentration on the power of the will."

Gitlin himself, then a leader of Students for a Democratic Society (and blithely unaware of Cuba's imprisoned poets and forced-labor camps for gays), captured the moment in a March 1968 Liberationessay: "Now we dig Cuba.... We preserve our quick optimism with fantasies of an assault on ourbarracks, a landing in ouryacht, a fight in ourmountains."

James Harris is jovially dismissive of such interpretations of Che. "Those people thought they were going to reinvent the wheel," he scoffs to Kulchur after his speech. He has much the same take on figures such as Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun, who attempted to launch urban guerrilla campaigns in New York City during the Seventies and early Eighties respectively, and who now live in Havana as exiles. "I'm not going to badmouth them," Harris says with a raised eyebrow, "but they're in Cuba now." He laughs. "I'm still here."

Miami's progress toward the revolution is measured by the SWP in painfully minute increments: a new subscription sold to the party's newspaper, the Militant; several copies of the party's manifesto, Capitalism's World Disorder, placed in a Borders outlet; a speech delivered to a handful of students at Florida International University. The party plods on in the same tortoiselike fashion it has since its founding in 1938 by a splinter group of Communist Party members. More than six decades on, it's easy to see the organization as an esoteric debating club with little impact on or threat to society-at-large.

That also was the opinion of a federal judge who, in 1986, awarded the SWP $264,000 as damages in a lawsuit the party brought against the Federal Bureau of Investigation for harassment and violation of its civil rights. The FBI readily admitted that since 1958, it had paid out $1.7 million to 1300 different informants (including 300 party members) and had broken into the SWP's headquarters more than 90 times. But the FBI's lawyers argued the bureau had a right to "keep itself informed on the activities" of the SWP since it advocated revolution. Judge Thomas P. Griesa said nonsense, that since 1958 there was "no indication that any informant ever observed any violation of federal law or gave information leading to a single arrest." In other words despite all the radical talk, the SWP isn't just law abiding; it's absolutely harmless.


"It was the biggest education of my life," explains Rebecca of a 1993 college semester spent in Central America. After several months working in Costa Rica, she traveled to El Salvador. "You see that the U.S. gave billions of dollars to El Salvador to fight this civil war, and what that money was actually used for you can see quite clearly: people being disappeared." Rebecca, now 27 years old, credits that experience and a subsequent trip to Cuba as the catalyst for her joining the Socialist Workers Party, which transferred her this past September from a Philadelphia chapter to Miami. Between her day job in a Hialeah factory (she's asked that her last name not be used for fear of being fired) and her party duties, she hasn't had much time to explore Miami.

On a recent Sunday afternoon she takes Kulchur to one of the few places she has discovered, a cozy downtown Honduran café. As a jukebox blares merengue, Rebecca sits with a knife and fork poised over a plate of moros y cristianos. At the moment, though, she's far too impassioned to actually take a bite.

"When we look at how we're going to change society, you can't be romantic," she says. "You have to look at the facts, where revolutions have been made, and learn from it -- so we can do it here." Accordingly Rebecca and the SWP have little time for either Ralph Nader's electoral strategy or the civil disobedience that shut down Seattle last year and reappeared at World Trade Organization meetings in Washington, D.C., and Prague. "There's no point in getting intentionally arrested. It doesn't advance anything."

Instead the SWP sends its devotees into industrial jobs to transform them into "worker-Bolsheviks" and prepare for the coming struggle, which Rebecca insists definitely is on the horizon. Trying to pin down the specifics of the socialist paradise the SWP envisions, however, is trickier. Will we still have Napster?Will Adam Sandler be allowed to make more movies?

"I don't have a blueprint," Rebecca replies with a hint of frustration at Kulchur's lack of understanding, "but just imagine what it would be like, what we could accomplish if workers had all the country's resources at their disposal." Kulchur pushes on, noting that the party has been predicting both capitalism's demise and the coming revolution since 1938. After 62 years isn't it possible that the SWP may be, ahem, wrong?

"A revolution is inevitable," Rebecca answers matter-of-factly. "Capitalism cannot survive. It constantly has to expand to find new markets. It has to. Those are the laws of history."

Kulchur cites the burgeoning new markets in the (supposedly) communist Far East -- Starbucks has just opened in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City now has Internet cafés -- but Rebecca has a stock response to that too. "Eventually those markets will be full. The U.S. cannot expand forever. And when it tries, more wars will come out of it.... The alternative is fascism."

The discussion begins to take on the flavor of a theological debate: If a person devoutly believes, no amount of rational discourse is going to convince them otherwise. And so much of the SWP's activity appears inwardly focused; few members seem to have any meaningful social contacts outside the party. Which raises a nagging question: Is the Socialist Workers Party a cult?

Certainly, as cults go, it's relatively benign. Unlike the Krishnas you get to keep your hair, and unlike the Moonies there aren't any mass marriages. Still, in a 1986 interview, former SWP leader Peter Camejo (the party's 1976 presidential candidate, now pro-Nader and a broker with a "socially responsible" California investment firm) likened his more than two decades in the group to time spent in a religious sect. He was expelled from the party in 1980 after attempting to steer it in a less dogmatic direction. "I totally believed that the SWP had all the answers to all questions," he said. "I was a cultist of the SWP."

Kulchur puts the question to Rebecca pointblank: Is the SWP a cult?

"That's ridiculous!" she exclaims with a cross look. "No one's forced to do anything. We're politically convinced. I'mpolitically convinced that I want to do this." Visibly annoyed now, she leans back in her chair and gazes down at her food, perhaps contemplating a dash for the door.

Kulchur's tribal radar is pinging, which suggests a different tack. You're Jewish, aren't you?

A bit surprised, Rebecca answers yes.

I know Jewish moms. Doesn't your mother ever call you up and say, "Enough with all this socialist meshugaas! Find a nice Jewish doctor, settle down, make me some grandchildren!"

Rebecca smiles and chooses her words carefully: "My mother respects me as an adult who can make her own decisions." A conspiratorial grin appears on her face and she adds, "She knows that I do what I want to do."

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