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Amílcar Cabral’s life, legacy and reluctant nationalism – an interview with António Tomás

D 11 mai 2023     H 15:30     A ROAPE     C 0 messages

Last month, ROAPE re-posted a collection of essays from 1993 to mark the 50th anniversary of Amílcar Cabral’s murder in 1973. Continuing our tribute, Chinedu Chukwudinma interviews António Tomás, who wrote Cabral’s biography in the 21st century. Tomás speaks about Cabral’s political development as well as his abilities as a teacher, revolutionary diplomat and leader. But he also discusses his insecurities, shortcomings and the myths surrounding national liberation in Guinea-Bissau.

What motivated you to write a biography of Amílcar Cabral in the 21st century ?

When I wrote the first version of the biography on Cabral, I was in Portugal, and I wrote the book in Portuguese. The introduction is different from the one in English. I don’t see Amílcar Cabral : the life of a reluctant nationalist (2020) as a translation. I prefer to say that it is the English version of the book that was written in Portuguese. When I started working on this book project in the early 2000s nobody, at least from my generation, was talking about Cabral in Portugal.

But Cabral, his generation and all the people fighting for the independence and liberation of Africa were students in Lisbon. Most of them lived in Lisbon. Cabral was married to a Portuguese. So he was pretty much part of the debate about blackness in Europe, and blackness in Portugal as a student. When I started writing about Cabral in Portuguese (O Fazedor de Utopias – Uma Biografia de Amílcar Cabral (2007) I was just trying to understand, as a black man, how to think through and engage with Cabral and his struggle in the context of race, not so much that of independence, which is the kind of stuff I became interested in after I went to the United States and did my PhD at Columbia University. I was trying to understand, the place of race and blackness in Lisbon in the context of black Portuguese or African immigrants.

Many years after, I changed a few things in the English version of the book. The initial debate on race and racism is less there. But what is interesting now is that the Portuguese version is sold out in Portugal. It has been sold out for many years. I’m now preparing a new edition where I bring back the debate on race because we have a lot of developments : A right-wing party in Portugal and an emerging and very strong black movement, formed mostly by people who want to bring debates on racism and the legacies of colonialism to the national agenda. It is a good moment to get back to these original questions that drove me to the quest of Cabral’s legacy.

In what ways do you think Amílcar Cabral’s life and work have relevance to the young people developing their racial and political consciousness in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protest ?

He’s a very important figure, either you like him, or you don’t like him. If you compare him with Walter Rodney, they both moved back to Africa and they were involved with questions of societal transformation, and racism. It was not just about critiquing imperialism and critiquing colonialism. Particularly for Cabral, it was about how to create new societies, and how to go about creating societies that go beyond the ways in which these countries came into being through colonialism. It is important to appropriate these figures and to bring them into discussions about what is going on now with issues such as Black Lives Matter, structural violence and racism.

But it is important to put these thinkers in their very particular context and to do the sort of exercise that David Scott did with Conscripts of Modernity when he says we have to find not the answer, but the question that they asked in relation to their context. But it’s very important to engage with these figures and to learn, but also to understand that they were fighting in different times using different resources like Cabral using armed struggle and so on.

One thing I like about your book is your refusal to tell Cabral’s story in retrospect as if everything he did since a child was destined to turn him into a revolutionary leader. Can you tell me a bit about who was Cabral ? How did he become politicised and politically active ?

I’m from Angola and I grew up in Angola during Communism. People of my generation (I was born before 1975, the year of independence) grew up with all these traditions of big men, like Agostinho Neto, Brezhnev, Tito, and Che Guevara. Even today the toponomy of the city (Luanda) reflects that, with streets named after Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral. The biographies of these figures have been recorded in a very problematic way. They are talked about as if their lives were linear. They don’t have challenges, they don’t have doubts, and they know from the outset what they are going to do. They have a destiny and they fulfil it. But what you see in my book on Cabral, is that life is not like this. Leaders like Cabral had to make really hard choices. Most of the time they were thrown into situations that were not of their choosing. It’s the conflation of circumstances that brings them to this these moments when they have to make hard choices.

Cabral was born in 1924 in Guinea-Bissau to Cape Verdean parents and moved back with his family to Cape Verde in 1932 and then to Lisbon, in 1945. Cabral was not the most politicized of his generation of African-born students in Lisbon. Agostinho Neto, who later became the first President of Angola, was by far more politicized than Cabral. He was already in prison by the Portuguese secret police even before Cabral knew anything about what he would do as a nationalist. Cabral was just trying to do the best he could in the circumstances that he found himself. He had his radical friends ; he was trying to help his friends. By the time his friends were being harassed and arrested by the police, he was the only one that had a formal job working as an agronomist for the colonial state. So, he could travel in the Portuguese empire ; go to Angola and Guinea-Bissau, link people, and distribute money and letters. But it reached a situation where he could no longer do that. So, he had to take a stand. And that was in 1959 or 1960 in London when he wrote these very famous documents, Facts against Colonialism, which is how he introduces himself as a nationalist.

What is interesting is that because he was not as politicized and devoted to politics as many others in his generation, like Mário Pinto de Andrade or even Agostinho Neto, he had time to draw from other resources, such as his training as a scientist and his writings. All of these allowed him to do the kind of stuff that nobody had done in any other place fighting Portuguese colonialism, such as creating the liberated zones during the anticolonial war in Guinea-Bissau and promoting an approach to gender equality throughout the struggle. Because he pushed back the moment to become a full-fledged nationalist, he had time to bring much more to the fight.

My descriptions of what Cabral was doing in 1959 convey the sense of hope that Africa’s time had arrived. It was the time for Africans to show the world what they could do. It was the time for Africans to build societies that could deal with and go beyond all the structures that colonialism and imperialism imposed upon them. And then there was the 1960s–a wonderful decade in Africa. Of course, things get worse in the 1970s and particularly the 1980s with the IMF and structural adjustment. but it is a very important time in Africa and I think we should revisit that formative moment and perhaps try to re-capture a little bit of the optimism of the 1960s.

Your book points out the discrepancies between the myths and the actual reality of the national liberation struggle. I remember when I was learning about Guinea-Bissau’s struggle at university, I enjoyed reading Lars Rudebeck who paints a very idealistic picture of the struggle, and Basil Davidson as well. What are the discrepancies that we should know about ?

This is a very important question. Reading authors, such as Lars Rudebeck and Basil Davidson and getting to know how the struggles in Africa were understood in the context of global struggles for freedom. But this comes with a problem. These liberals and progressive writers were so involved with the struggle, particularly Basil Davidson, that they lost objectivity. For them, these struggles for liberation in Africa were seen as part of ideological struggles going on in Europe. For them, it was sort of mandatory to make the case that everything was going well and that the national liberation movement would prevail. About the critical decisions that had to be made, you won’t find much in their writings. But the struggle is a very tough business. Whenever violence needs to be used to liberate a country, there will be people dying. In the case of struggle in Guinea, which you don’t see in the writings by these authors, that war was conducted in the context of historical rivalries between Cape-Verdeans and Guineans within the national movement, the PAIGC (Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde). So, the questions were then : who was fighting and who was leading ?

Cabral’s decision to start the war was a very heavy one to take. First Cabral did not have any military training. If he could, he certainly would have pursued the liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde in a non-violent way. He resisted pressure to start it in 1961 when the anticolonial war was starting in Angola. It was only when his men were caught smuggling military equipment by the authorities in Guinea-Conakry and his companion was imprisoned by Sekou Touré in 1962 that he had no other choice than to show the uses of the smuggled guns. If he had not shown Sekou Touré that the weapons and military equipment were to fight the Portuguese, Touré would certainly have thought that it was a way to feed one of the groups against him.

To come back to your question, I think the ways in which liberal and progressive writers were engaging with the struggle have also contributed to obscuring our knowledge of the killing of Cabral. A lot of people who were writing about Cabral were people that were invested in Cabral’s theory and practice, Cabral’s ideology. So, they were not paying much attention, or they were not interested in understanding the killing of Cabral in relation to the contradictions that the national liberation movement had brought to the fore. The idea that António de Spinóla, the Portuguese governor in Guinea-Bissau, had ordered the killing, or that the PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado) had plotted it, was a good explanation. However, I also think that this explanation prevented a lot of these scholars from really engaging with the contradictions of colonialism and the contradictions of post-colonialism. And this is part of what I tried to do in my understanding of Cabral.

There is a contradiction between those petty-bourgeois Cape Verdeans, some of which lead the PAIGC, and the Guinean masses who are much poorer comparatively. How does this contradiction play out throughout the liberation struggle and at independence ?

Cabral tried to think through this issue with what he proposed as the class suicide of the petty bourgeoisie. He knew that there was a contradiction, and he knew it was very difficult for people to overcome these contradictions. Cabral proposed that the petty bourgeoisie had to transcend who they were. They had to put aside all the privileges and they do embrace the masses. But how do you do this in practice ? when you have very deep structures that put people against others, in terms of language, in terms of culture, in terms of the mechanisms that the Portuguese created to differentiate people,­ such as the native laws. These laws fostered the overwhelming distinction between natives and civilized. The central idea behind this legislation is that a group of people were given privileges because they were able to assimilate a way of life that the Portuguese deemed civilized : they could eat with utensils, they could speak Portuguese and dress like Europeans. Those who could not demonstrate these abilities were placed under the statute of native.

It was for Cabral a difficult task to bring these groups together. Guineans would resent Cape Verdeans because they considered them agents of colonialism. Many Cape Verdeans would not be comfortable around Guineans because of their different languages, customs and traditions. For Cabral, it was how to dilute these cultural differences. And then there was the Portuguese colonial power finding ways to exacerbate these differences to create even more problems in the national liberation movement. If the suicide of the petty bourgeoisie was something difficult to consider during the struggle, it was even harder after independence when the postcolonial states became machines for accumulation. So, you start to have a sort of differentiation between the haves and the have-nots.

I called the Portuguese version of this book O Fazedor de Utopias ‘The Maker of Utopias’ because of the odds of making the national liberation movement a functional and operational machine. It was hard to bring different people together. Reality is too complex for that. People are too complex for that. Humans are for the most part comfortable with what they have. This is one thing. But the other thing is that we must give credit to those who think that transcending difference is possible. It is difficult, of course, but it is worth dreaming about and aiming for. We still need to believe that a world without racism and discrimination is possible.

Can you talk about Cabral’s political identity ? You called him in the English version of your book a reluctant nationalist. What does that actually mean ?

Cabral was reluctant on many issues, and he hesitated on a lot of issues. The Cubans wanted Cabral to finish the anticolonial war by invading Bissau. He had numbers. But to do that, you would have to bring more people, more violence, more killing and more blood. So, he was hesitant. In terms of the ‘reluctance’ of his nationalism, there are two reasons to consider. When he started to get involved with political activism, the notion of nationalism, for black Portuguese, was not there. Cabral was married to a Portuguese, Maria Helena, in their correspondence that was recently published there is something to allow us to understand Cabral as the product of a different identity. He is a black Portuguese. He was Cape Verdean, which was a culture, not a nationality. The whole idea of non-longer being a subject of the Portuguese Empire could give you a nationality that was not Portuguese was not conceivable as a second-class citizen Portuguese because, in 1951-52, Portugal changed the Constitution to get rid of the notion of the colony and replace it by an older one, overseas provinces. So, there was the idea that Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde were provinces of Portugal. Those born in these territories were Portuguese, but they were not like white Portuguese, they were second-class Portuguese. If you read Cabral in Portuguese, what he wrote at that time, he considers himself black Portuguese and there is an important tradition of black Portuguese since the 1920s. So, this is the first idea behind Cabral being a reluctant nationalist.

The second idea is that when Cabral has the chance to put forward a notion of nationalism, he did not have any. He was not talking about a nation. He didn’t believe in nations. He believed that he could create a by-nationality bringing Cape Verdeans and Guineans together because he thought that Cape Verdeans originated from Guinea–their ancestors had been brought to the island of Cape Verde during the Slave Trade. Unless you can convince me otherwise, the kind of nationalism that Cabral was proposing, is not in any form a traditional nationalism that Benedict Anderson would write about in Imagined Communities, around the culture and language.

What place does Pan-Africanism have in Cabral’s mind ?

He was highly influenced by this movement. And if you are black Portuguese you knew what went on in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. All these wonderful poets, such as Langston Hughes, were part of the conversations that African students were having alongside Jazz music. Because Cabral could speak French, he could read what was coming from Paris with the Négritude. In the w thinking and writing of black students in Lisbon from Africa, there are all these influences. You see the influence of Aimé Césaire, you see the influence of Du Bois, of Garvey’s going back to Africa.

But what is interesting about Cabral and many of these authors, Du Bois, Nkrumah and Senghor is that they are on both sides. Because they were the ones writing about ‘imagine what an independent Africa would be like !’. Then they were on the other side as leaders trying to come to terms with the formation of these new countries and new nationalities. It was a very difficult position to be in. Guinea-Bissau only became independent in 1973. Cabral was certainly thinking about how to avoid dictatorship and one-party rule because he was watching what was going on in Africa, with the spread of coup-d’états and political violence at the time.

What was the influence of Marxism on Cabral ?

The Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) was very strong in Portugal and it was a great part of the resistance to Estado Novo, the fascist regime in Portugal. PCP the most organized illegal opposition to Estado Novo was the Portuguese Communist Party. So, it was just natural that, everyone that was against the Estado Novo would gravitate around the PCP. Cabral and many other students were seduced by Communism and Marxism. In almost everything, Cabral has written you see the mark of this intellectual tradition, with a lot of contradictions as well. The Communist Party were against Estado Novo but they didn’t side with the independence of African countries. It took a long time for communists in Portugal to have a clear position about independence in Africa.

To what extent were Cabral and his guerrilla army influenced by the Soviet Union, China and Cuba ?

The Soviet Union with Lenin had the struggle against imperialism as central in their policies. Lenin and Mao have written about imperialism, Fidel Castro was interested in the liberation of Latin America from the yoke of imperialism. It was clear, they would support any national liberation movement fighting against any form of colonialism and imperialism in Africa. What Cabral did, in coming to terms with his insurgent strategies was to use all these experiences. The influences are clear for instance in the kind of support he received throughout the war. In the early stage of the war because of the geographical conditions of Guinea, based for the most part on rice production, the nature of mobilization was based on China’s Maoism. But towards the end of the insurgency, in the late 1960s, the whole organization leans more towards the Soviet-Cuban model, in which you have the separations between the structures of the whole organization and the cadres. So, the cadres, those doing political work, were above the military elements in the PAIGC. This structure was also handy for Cabral. He was not a soldier. Throughout the war and until his death in 1973, he was always trying to find ways to subsume the power of the military under the power of civilians.

Reading your book and thinking of Cabral’s actions and internationalism, he gives the impression of being more of a revolutionary diplomat than a soldier. Someone who is able to manage complex relationships with leaders of other nations. How accurate is that depiction ?

The most interesting trait of Cabral’s personality was his penchant for diplomacy. Because it was a very crazy world. With the Cold War, it was very easy for many leaders just to take sides. But Cabral didn’t take sides. He tried to use his diplomatic skills to bring everyone together or to bring everyone behind his movement. He had very good relations with the left Portuguese people fighting against Estado Novo. He had very good relations even with the Vatican. During this in the 60s and so on, he had very good relations with northern Europe, countries like Sweden and Norway. He received humanitarian support from the religious denominations around the world. He got a lot of support from associations and groups in France as well. Towards the end of his life, he was trying to get the hardest group to convince to support his struggle against colonialism : the Americans. He made a few trips to the United States. He spoke at the Congress. It is always fascinating to see how Cabral dealt with diplomacy in the Cold War. One day he was giving a speech at the anniversary of Lenin at a congress in the Soviet Union and a few days later, he was talking at the Congress in the US. There are not many revolutionary leaders that have done that. Diplomacy was very important as a tool to get things done. It was the strongest side of Cabral. And even bringing together Cape Verdeans and Guineans was also part of his diplomatic effort to work through differences.

What I liked about Cabral from reading your work was his quality as a teacher. Especially in how he trains the PAIGC recruits and spends a lot of time helping them understand, the society they are trying to change. What can you say about that ability of Cabral ?

Through the years, there is a lot of effort and a lot of people trying to see Cabral as the Theoretician of the revolution. But Cabral was not like that. He was an organiser, but he was particularly, as you say, a teacher. He was very, very good at explaining, very complex ideas, scientific ideas, to people that didn’t have any sort of education. A s great part of what has Cabral written, that we now read as theoretical contributions are in fact teachings. Almost everything is Cabral talking to his soldiers, his companions. He’s someone who had been to Portugal and had the opportunity to learn. And trying to explain all these very complex ideas to people that hadn’t been exposed to anything. Besides his diplomatic abilities, the teaching and the sharing of knowledge was the strongest part of Cabral.

I wonder what you think can be generalisable from Cabral’s writings and speeches for today.

That is a good question, it is such a different time. That is the difficulty. It is easier to read Fanon and to engage with Fanon because there’s all the psychoanalytical side and he was a brilliant writer. He was part of a very profound philosophical school, and if you read Fanon, you’ll find all the resonances to everything that was going on in French literature and French philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism. You find none of this in Cabral. Unlike Fanon, Cabral was not a speculative writer. He was really trying to write about the day-to-day in Guinea at that time. In that regard, it’s very hard to find things in Cabral that you can easily use and easily apply to the struggles that we have today. Even in terms of the post-independent state, how to think of it, and how to understand it, you will not find in a lot of instances in which Cabral would talk about how he imagined Independence. He talked about unity he wanted to create a country bringing together Cape Verdean and Guinea. But the whole stuff about how that would function is not to be found in Cabral’s writings.

A huge part of his personality was his ability to learn from the mistakes of others. He started the war in Guinea and didn’t want to replicate the same kind of mistakes of other movements and national liberation struggles. That gave him a lot of space to do stuff to push forward something very original. But this raises questions : What kind of post-colonial leader would Cabral have been ? what would Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde be with Cabral as a leader ? We will never have answers to these questions.

António Tomás is the author of Amílcar Cabral : the life of a reluctant nationalist (available here) He teaches at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University. He has worked as a journalist in Angola and Portugal and has written on issues related to Lusophone Africa.

Featured Photograph : Amílcar Cabral giving a speech (9 June 2007).

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