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New Left Review 110, March-April 2018


Fernando Martínez Heredia’s death last July in Havana robbed his country and the wider world of a thinker who sought to develop a distinctively Cuban Marxism in the face of formidable obstacles. Born to a mixed-race, working-class family, he joined the 26 July Movement in his teens and took part in the final battles that overthrew Batista when he was still under twenty. After the victory of the revolution, he became a central figure in the philosophy department of the University of Havana, and the leading young intellectual of his generation. Fernando’s courage and loyalty were equalled only by his modesty and discretion, and his wide-ranging curiosity as a thinker. His respect for the USSR, whose assistance enabled Cuba to defy Washington, did not lead to any embrace of Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism, which he regarded as a dogmatic monstrosity, responsible for the hardening of bureaucratic forms wherever its impact was felt. He believed that Cuba could find its own way to Marxism, drawing inspiration both from figures of the national past like José Martí and Julio Antonio Mella, and from the full resources of an international revolutionary culture. In 1967 he was the main architect of the theoretical journal, Pensamiento Crítico, which became the most important Marxist review of its time in Latin America, as a recent retrospect from the Southern Cone has observed. Four years later, amidst the hardening of Cuba’s ideological climate as it drew closer to Moscow in the face of regional isolation, publication of the journal was suspended and the philosophy department in Havana shut down. Denied the possibility of continuing intellectual work for years, Fernando was subsequently assigned minor jobs in research bodies and a post in the Cuban mission of support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Finally, after the fall of the Soviet Union, he was made director of the Juan Marinello Institute, where he published several books that had long been waiting in manuscript, and sought to show that socialism retained its vital relevance for Cuba after the collapse of the USSR. El Tiempo de los Hornos (1997) called for a return to the internationalist spirit of Che Guevara, chiming with the new radical movements soon to emerge in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Among his last initiatives was the organization of a conference in Havana on the legacy of Eric Hobsbawm. In the difficult conditions of the new century, Fernando provided shelter and encouragement to mavericks and left-wing dissidents, keeping open a discussion that Cuba will need more than ever as it confronts renewed US sanctions, climate chaos and a lurch to the right in Latin America. To the end, he embodied the highest ideals of 1959, paying the price of fidelity to them with an uncomplaining strength and grace.

fernando martínez heredia


Interview by Emir Sader

Could you tell us about your family background?

I was born in the village of Yaguajay, in the old province of Las Villas, on the northern coast of Cuba, 300 kilometres east of the capital. [1] This is an edited translation of an interview published in Crítica y Emancipación, no. 9, 2013; footnotes are by nlr. My family had come up in the world. My father had to go begging in the streets as a child and never went to school. My mother only completed the first year of primary school, then became a worker in the tobacco industry. My father was searching for a place in society throughout his life. He started as a cobbler’s apprentice, became a tailor, then he owned a shoe-shop and achieved some financial comfort by late middle age. My mother worked until she had her third child, when he was able to set her up at home. There were six children, but only four of us reached adulthood, which was normal at the time; one baby fell victim to diarrhoea and a four-year-old boy died of typhoid. I was the fifth. I was born in 1939, when my father was already fifty years old. From the two sides of our family, my brothers and I were the first to complete primary school. I did my baccalaureate in Santa Clara, the provincial capital, a hundred kilometres from my village. My mother would settle for nothing less than professional status for us, and my father supported her in this.

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Fernando Martínez Heredia, ‘Thinking for Ourselves’, NLR 110: £3

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