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Cuba revisited

What are the prospects for the Cuba today? PETER TAAFFE reviews two recent books that provide illuminating insights into the history of Cuba and the current situation.

Cuba: A New History

By Richard Gott

Yale University Press, 2004, £18-99


The Real Fidel Castro

By Leycester Coltman

Yale University Press, 2005, £10-99


Cuba: Socialism and Democracy

By Peter Taaffe

CWI publications, 2000, £4-99


THE CUBAN REVOLUTION, which triumphed over the hated Batista regime 46 years ago in January 1959, has endured many predictions of its imminent demise. These two timely books go a long way to explain the durability of the revolution but, at the same time, the dangers which are still posed by the implacable hostility of US imperialism – underlined by the posture adopted by George Bush in his second term.

The achievements of the revolution, particularly in the field of health, housing and education, contrast favourably in the minds of the oppressed masses of the neo-colonial world (particularly in Latin America) with the dismal economic prospects open to them on the basis of rotted landlordism and capitalism. The havoc wreaked by the Asian tsunami could be compounded in the next period by an ‘economic tsunami’ much greater in its impact on the economies, and therefore on the lives of the masses, of the poorest areas of the world.

The two authors come from politically polar opposites. Richard Gott is a longstanding left-wing ‘Cuba watcher’, while Leycester Coltman was the British ambassador to Cuba. Coltman died shortly after he delivered the book to the publishers and did not have the opportunity to sufficiently annotate his manuscript. But it is no less valuable than Gott’s excellent summation of the history of Cuba and the revolution, and his penetrating analysis of the current situation there. Both are largely objective accounts, which have many common features. Gott provides valuable insights into historical events in Cuba, particularly the role of slavery, race and the black population, while Coltman highlights the political evolution of the dominant figures of the revolution.

For socialists the value of these books is that they underline the analysis which Marxism has made of the revolution and its progress. What is involved is not hair-splitting arguments over ‘phraseology’ but the very character of the Cuban revolution, the class forces involved, and whether the state which arose from this is a ‘model’ of the government socialists should be aiming for in the transition from capitalism to socialism. Many, not just non-Marxists but those who contest that they argue from a Marxist or even a Trotskyist standpoint, insist that Cuba from the outset has been ‘socialist’ and leave it at that. This is to accept that a social revolution – which undoubtedly took place in Cuba with the elimination of international and indigenous capitalism and landlordism – in itself, guarantees the socialist character and evolution of a regime. Yet the discrediting of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, with the bureaucratic elite that dominated these societies switching over to capitalism with as little difficulty as a man passing from a smoking to a non-smoking compartment on a train, indicates the weakness of such an approach. They were also described as socialist by their apologists.

Socialism and democracy

CUBA, AND CASTRO himself, cannot be simply bracketed with those vicious Stalinist regimes, or the grey bureaucrats who exercised brutal dictatorship over the masses. From its outset, as Gott comments, the Cuban revolution was "wildly popular". The Castro government is still probably supported by the majority of the Cuban people today. Moreover Castro, Che Guevara and the 26 July Movement contrast favourably with the Stalinist stooges imposed on most of Eastern Europe shortly after the establishment of ‘people’s democracies’ in the aftermath of World War II. Not just the revolution but its leaders were ‘home grown’, displaying great daring and initiative, qualities foreign to conservative officialdom, whether it presides over a Stalinist state or the labour movement in the more developed societies. Moreover, Castro and Guevara, despite their economic dependency on Stalinist Russia, were sometimes at variance with their paymasters, particularly in foreign policy. For instance, Gott shows how both Castro and Guevara sincerely invoked the idea of internationalism in defence of the revolution, particularly by trying to spread it to the Latin American mainland, albeit with wrong policies and methods which proved to be abortive and tragically led to Guevara’s death in Bolivia in 1967.

Castro, as Gott informs us, on occasions also defied the Russian bureaucracy. They were infuriated at Castro’s ‘improvisations’ in decisively intervening in Angola in support of the MPLA in 1976, for example. The defeat of South African apartheid forces at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, made possible by the intervention of Cuban forces, as Nelson Mandela subsequently commented, was "a decisive defeat of a racist army [and] was a victory for all Africa". It destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the ‘white oppressor’.

As important as this and other examples of the initiative and enterprise of the Cuban leader were, both of these books nevertheless show how the character of the struggle against Batista and the forces involved were decisive in the evolution of the revolution, its leading figures and its state, right from the outset. For instance, the exact character of Castro’s political views, before and during the struggle against Batista and subsequently, has been the source of contention and debate between the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and some uncritical adherents to the Cuban revolution, such as the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia.

Both of these authors show that Castro was not a conscious Marxist at this time. Coltman comments that in his famous speech after the failed attack on the Moncado barracks in 1953 – "History will absolve me" – in what was "to become the most sacred text of a Communist regime, there was no mention of Marx or Lenin, or even of the word socialism". Gott shows that while Jose Marti, an inspiration for the Cuban revolutionaries, was a heroic fighter for Cuba’s national liberation, he was hostile to the ideas of Karl Marx. Yet, "Cuba under Castro became a Communist country where nationalism was more significant than socialism, where the legend of Marti proved more influential than the philosophy of Marx".

Even shortly after the revolution in 1959, when visiting the US and speaking to students in Princeton, Castro attributed its success to the widespread hatred of Batista’s secret police, as well as to the fact that the rebels "had not preached class war". Defenders of Castro ascribe these statements to ‘adroit tactics’, calculated to fool Cuban public opinion, particularly the liberal bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, and imperialism. The same motives are ascribed to Castro’s invocation of Franklin D Roosevelt’s regime in the US in the 1930s as a ‘model’ for Cuba. Yet even if this was the case – which is highly dubious – it shows the lack of understanding of the Cuban revolutionaries of the methods and the social forces required to make a socialist revolution, which should be the most conscious act in human history.

The working class and poor peasants have to be prepared not just for the overthrow of capitalism but also for the kind of state and government which can open up a successful path for the transition to socialism. To achieve this requires a high level of understanding, particularly by the working class, of the tasks before and after the revolution. This cannot be done by hiding or downplaying socialism or a socialist programme. Not just in economically underdeveloped countries, like Cuba, but in the most developed economies as well – Europe, Britain, the US and Japan – the problem of bureaucratisation would appear after a revolution. This is indicated by the fact that everywhere today the problem of control from the top by undemocratic and conservative leaders is a cancer on the workers’ movement, including in the ‘advanced’ countries. The higher cultural level in these societies would allow, through mass participation, access to technology, etc, greater possibilities to check bureaucratism than in a culturally deprived society, like Cuba was in 1959. But clear methods to check bureaucratism would still be required; workers’ democracy would be necessary from the outset.

As the Russian revolution showed, this requires not just an economic and social overturn but political forms of organisation, mass workers’ democracy to check the growth of a bureaucratic elite, as part of this process. Moreover, it must be international or nothing, face overthrow or, as Russia showed, bureaucratic degeneration will follow. But, again as Russia indicated, only if the working class is clearly and visibly the organiser, manager and controller of its own state is it possible to evoke sympathy and conscious support amongst the working class of other countries.

Guerrillaism & the role of the working class

UNFORTUNATELY, THE CUBAN revolution was not consciously working class, either through the aims of the Cuban revolutionaries themselves or in the forces that controlled the state in its first period and subsequently. Gott produces some interesting material on the role allotted to the Cuban working class, the urban proletariat as opposed to the peasant mass, and particularly on plans for a ‘revolutionary general strike’. Gott informs us: "From the early days in the Sierra [mountains], whenever the manner of the eventual collapse of the Batista regime was under debate, the notion of a revolutionary general strike was high on the agenda". He makes clear, however, that this idea of a general strike and the role of the working class in general were considered auxiliary to the main focus of the guerrillas in the rural areas and mountains. After one initial failed general strike, it is true, the working class in Havana and other cities did then resort to another general strike, but this was when the fate of the Batista regime had been sealed; he was fleeing the country and the rural guerrillas were about to enter the towns. Moreover, then and subsequently, guerrilla war, a concentration amongst the rural peasant masses, became the guiding political philosophy of the leaders of the revolution, particularly Castro and Guevara.

The tragedy lay in the mistaken conclusions which they drew from their experience. The unique circumstances of the Cuban revolution were generalised and applied to entirely different situations. One of the reasons for this was the striking and seemingly successful methods employed by the guerrillas, which contrasted with the quiescence and failed popular front policies of the different Stalinist parties of Latin America. Guevara, in the first month after the success of the revolution, stated: "The example of our revolution for Latin America and the lessons it implies have destroyed all the café theories. We have shown that a small group of resolute men, supported by the people and not afraid to die if necessary, can take on a disciplined regular army and completely defeat it". Castro himself boldly declared that the Andes, which stretch virtually the length of Latin America, might be turned into the Sierra Maestra of the Latin American revolution. These theories were put to the test by Guevara in Congo and Bolivia, where they failed.

Had he lived, the heroic Che Guevara, who always strove to be objective and honest about difficulties as well as successes and opportunities, may have revised his views on the primacy of guerrilla struggle, particularly in a continent like Latin America where a majority of the population was urbanised. When he was murdered in cold blood by the executioners of the Bolivian regime, a copy of one of Leon Trotsky’s works was found in his knapsack.

The attempt to draw universal lessons from what was the unique experience of Cuba was to disorientate and compound the problems of the left internationally and, particularly, in Latin America. For those who successfully applied guerrillaist methods – the Cuban revolutionaries – this was perhaps understandable. But what is one to say of Trotskyists or alleged Trotskyists who uncritically urged them on? The CWI and its predecessors, while welcoming the Cuban revolution, pointed to the fundamental flaws of the state and the consequences which could flow from this. This has nothing in common with those, some of whom claim a Trotskyist banner, who attacked Castro and Guevara and their government in a most personalised and sectarian fashion in the first period.

We supported every step forward of the revolution which, under the whip of the opposition of Cuban and particularly US imperialism, was compelled step by step – as Gott once more graphically illustrates – to expropriate capitalism. The initial period of hesitation of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency in the US towards the revolution gave way to bitter hostility.

By the middle of 1959 – six months after the victory of the revolution – the US, through the CIA, was preparing for the overthrow of the Castro regime. As a result of one blow by reaction, which resulted in counter-blows by the revolution, Cuba was pushed to break with landlordism and capitalism. However, only on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, as Gott says, did Castro "announce the specifically ‘socialist’ character of the revolution for the first time".

No more than Castro himself did the Russian bureaucracy at its highest levels envisage how far he would go in breaking with capitalism and imperialism. The then Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, recorded in his memoirs: "When Fidel Castro led his revolution to victory, and entered Havana with his troops, we had no idea what political course his regime would follow". According to Coltman, none other than Che Guevara considered that Castro, during the guerrilla struggle in the Sierra, represented the ‘bourgeois left’. When the Batista government used correspondence of Raul Castro, in which he admired Stalin, to denounce the rebels as ‘Communists’, Castro yelled at his brother: "I hate Soviet imperialism as much as Yankie imperialism".

However, events were to push him into the arms of ‘Soviet imperialism’, ultimately shaping the character of the political regime he constructed. Forty percent of Cubans were illiterate at the time of the revolution and this was well-nigh eliminated within one year of a mass literacy campaign. The education system improved to such an extent that it was without parallel in Latin America, free to all. The same progress was made in health and housing. The egalitarian instincts of the revolution were also obvious as measures were taken to benefit the poor, while government ministers were expected to accept drastic reductions in their salaries.

At the same time, there was no direct control by the masses over the state that was being constructed. The government was immensely popular and the masses were ‘consulted’, but largely through mass rallies and plebiscitary methods. In gatherings of half-a-million to a million the masses were allowed to declare ‘Si’ or ‘No’, but not to rule through the kind of methods which Lenin and Trotsky sought to employ in the first period of the Russian revolution, 1917-23.

Partly as a result of this, Castro zigzagged from one mistaken expedient to another. These two books well document this process. The internationalist appeal, summed up in the brilliant Second Declaration of Havana, where Castro appealed to the peoples of Latin America to rise up in armed rebellion against their governments, was in response to US imperialism’s attempt to isolate Cuba. Castro recalled later, according to Coltman, that the Russian bureaucracy was irate: "You cannot imagine the tremendous reprimand we received from the Soviets. They were totally opposed to our support for the revolutionary movement".

Even these appeals, however, were withdrawn as Castro’s government became more and more dependent on the financial subsidies and military assistance provided by Russian Stalinism. The murder of Guevara in Bolivia in 1967 put an end to overt support for international revolution. In its place came the shocking support of Leonid Brezhnev’s tanks to suppress the ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Gott sums up the dilemma of Castro and of Castroism in general: "When the Cuban revolutionaries came to run the country they were at a loss. They were essentially pragmatic. First they tried one thing, then another; they imported foreign economists; they tried import substitution; they sought diversification; they nationalised everything in sight; they listened to the siren songs of those suggesting economic autarchy. Finally, they turned to the Soviet Union, the source of innumerable advisers, much fresh technology and seemingly limitless amounts of cash".

He who pays the piper calls the tune! Alexander Dubcek, the liberal Stalinist leader of Czechoslovakia in 1968, with his philosophy of ‘socialism with a human face’, in Castro’s eyes had ‘got it wrong’. Castro’s support for Stalinist counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia, however, came as a colossal blow to all those who had championed the Cuban revolution as the democratic socialist alternative to Stalinist ‘Communism’. Amongst them, comments Gott, were "Trotskyists, the supporters of the anti-Stalinist tradition of Communism", who suffered a significant ‘blow’. This refers, in the main, to those Trotskyists who were supporters of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), but not of the CWI, who have maintained a consistent approach of support for the planned economy but criticism of a regime not based on democratic workers’ control and management.

Foreign policy

THE AUTHORS DEAL fully with the different phases experienced by Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s. The disaster of nationalising even small shops and enterprises, the over reliance on sugar production, the fixing of arbitrary and unrealisable targets for sugar production, and many other blunders on the domestic scene, are covered in some detail.

There are also extremely important chapters on the foreign policy of the Cuban state, including the role that Castro played in restraining the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime in completing the revolution. He made his intentions clear immediately that the hated dictator, Anastasio Somoza, had been overthrown: "Things in Nicaragua are not going to be exactly the same, or anything like what they are in Cuba". He advised the Sandinistas – some of whom spent time in Havana and who he had supported financially and politically in exile – to seek a modus vivendi with the bourgeois opposition and the US. The ultimate consequence of this was the defeat of the Sandinistas, the unwinding of the gains of the revolution and, as a by-product, the isolation of Cuba.

Similar overturns were carried through in Grenada, as well as the defeat of Cuba’s supporters such as Michael Manley in Jamaica. Whereas in the early period of the revolution Castro had been motivated, in an albeit confused fashion, to spread the example of the Cuban revolution to Latin America, his main concern subsequently was to protect the interests of the Cuban state, even if this meant sidelining, or missing, revolutionary opportunities.

These setbacks were followed shortly by the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and Russia, which resulted in an economic catastrophe for Cuba. In 1989, 30 million tons of fuel were imported from the Soviet Union (at very favourable rates). A year later, the figure dropped to only 9.9 million tons. The downward trend continued and, in 1993, Cuba received just over a quarter of what it had done four years earlier. When it sought substitutes from the world market it paid a hugely increased price, payable only in US dollars. Cuba relied for 80% of its machinery on the Soviet Union, which in turn purchased 63% of Cuba’s sugar exports, 95% of its citrus fruit and 73% of its nickel.

Almost at a stroke, all of this was withdrawn as the spiteful former Russian Stalinist bureaucracy, now in the process of transferring to capitalism, inflicted colossal economic damage on Cuba. GDP declined by 2.9% in 1990, 10% in 1991, 11.6% in 1992, 14.9% in 1993. Malnutrition – unknown since the triumph of the revolution – became widespread. The historic achievement of free education and medical attention was preserved, but a brutal austerity programme was inflicted on the great mass of the population.

For the first time since the Bay of Pigs invasion, the threat of counter-revolution, the return of the ex-landlords and capitalists based in Miami, and US imperialist domination, loomed. Castro was compelled to turn towards tourism and, according to Gott, "the state monopoly over foreign trade was abolished in 1992, and the constitution was amended to permit the transfer of state property to joint ventures with foreign partners". This is somewhat of an overstatement. Even in 2004, according to the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, "import and export operations are carried out by Cuban enterprises and other duly authorised entities registered at the National Registry of Exporters and Importers attached to the Chamber of Commerce… These enterprises may request authorisation from the Ministry of Trade to perform their operations… Until the decade of the 1980s, foreign trade operations were performed only by some 30 state enterprises. At present, more Cuban entities participate in foreign trade activities, among them state enterprises and companies with a mixed character".

The Lex Institute comments "that foreign trade was decentralised as 350 enterprises were permitted to import and export on their own authority". This would appear to bear out Gott’s point, but Cuba still maintains significant non-tariff barriers and the government inspects and approves most imports. Customs officials also confiscate imports (especially scarce goods, such as electronics) for their own use, and such corruption enjoys official sanction. More to the point, "the state produces most economic output and employs most of the labour. According to the UN, the industrial sector in Cuba is dominated by large state enterprises. About 90% of productive institutions are managed directly by ministries, and the rest by the government". According to Economist Intelligence Unit reports, the state employs 75% of the labour force. Foreign investment is permitted on a case by case basis but "all investments go in and through the state, and licensing is required for all businesses. Cuba’s constitution outlaws all foreign ownership of property and real estate".

This demonstrates that, although severely weakened, the main elements of a planned economy and the state based upon this, a deformed workers’ state, still exist in Cuba. In the early 1990s, however, all the signs pointed to a massive implosion, with right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami salivating at the prospect of reclaiming land and buildings in a capitalist Cuba. George Bush Sr promised that he would lead them in a mass procession in Havana as Cuba returned to the capitalist fold.

The prospects today

THE HELMS-BURTON Act tightened the economic vice on Cuba. US citizens were banned from visiting the country. This helped to deepen opposition to the US within Cuba as Castro drew on the wellspring of Cuban nationalism, as well as the benefits and gains of the revolution. In 1991, when a group of Russian Stalinist hardliners overthrew Mikhail Gorbachev in a coup and promised a return to Stalinism – a planned economy but with a dictatorship exercised by a bureaucracy – Castro, like some Marxists in Britain, entertained illusions that this would be successful. But, given the discrediting of Stalinism and with it the disintegration of the planned economy, even if the coup leaders had held onto power, this would not have been guaranteed. The only alternative to a return to capitalism is workers’ democracy. Ultimately, this is also the choice before Cuba as well.

In 1994-95, Cuba had managed to halt the precipitate decline. Since then, it has been able to claw its way back economically but, by 2004, had reached the level it was in the 1990s. Castro had managed to defy, it seems, the direst predictions summed up in books with headlines such as ‘Castro’s Final Hour’. With the dollarisation of Cuba, authorised in August 1993, the dollar became Cuba’s principal currency for traded goods and services, as it had been during the first years of the 20th century. The Cuban peso remained in use for salary payments, for all purchases on rationing, and internal transactions of the government.

This was a severe blow to revolutionary pride and opened up divisions in Cuban society between those with access to dollars, in the tourist trade for instance, and supporters of the revolution, devoted civil servants, doctors, and government salaried officials. It has led to the growth of a privileged elite. At the same time, the change in the law granting small business activity has had a significant effect in creating a relatively prosperous petty bourgeoisie in the urban areas. Agricultural cooperatives replaced the old state farms which led to a diminution of the state agricultural sector from 75% of the agricultural economy to 30% by 1996. This has led to these cooperatives being granted the permanent right to use the land – although it is still technically in state hands – and, particularly, what they produce. They were given managerial autonomy, elected their own leadership, controlled their own bank accounts, and were able to link wages to productivity. Like many similar reforms introduced by Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union or China, this has led to a burgeoning capitalist sector.

But for the maintenance of the US embargo by Bill Clinton and now Bush, this would have gone a lot further. Castro tacked and weaved throughout the 1990s to maintain the main elements of his regime, a planned economy allegedly with ‘participatory democracy’. In reality, this ‘democracy’ amounted at most to consultation with the masses rather than placing control and management in their hands. At the same time, Castro has flirted with the church, with the visit of the Pope, and has latterly played more to deep-seated Cuban nationalism – including a certain romanticism of the influence of Spain, colonialism and Cuban culture, including from the era of slavery. Former gangster hotels welcome foreign tourists with photographs of the ‘good old days’ of rampant capitalism. As Gott points out, the country has embraced ‘heritage culture’ with all the enthusiasm of "the post-modernists in the West". He pointedly warns that, "this culture of selective nationalist nostalgia is surely helping to fuel the country’s ineluctable drive towards a capitalist future".

However, this is probably a little bit premature given the recent actions of the Cuban regime against the dollar, a certain recentralisation of the economy, and a determination to stand up against fresh threats by Bush, including military threats against Cuba since his re-election in November. In one sense, Bush is the greatest weapon in Castro’s armoury, with the attack on the dollar being linked to tightening US sanctions against Cuba.

At the same time, the Chinese regime has made a significant drive into Latin America with agreements with Brazil’s Lula government, and now with Cuba. The Cuban government has described this as a ‘strategic partnership’. A similar approach is being made by China towards Venezuela; both countries have agreed to collaborate in the opening up of new oilfields in Venezuela. This could give the Castro regime a further lease of life.

For all these reasons, Cuba will retain its importance in world politics, particularly as far as the countries of Latin America are concerned, but the country will also have a certain resonance in Africa and Asia, as it has done in the past.

On the threat of a return to capitalism, Gott states baldly: "The change has already taken place". For the reasons explained above, this appears to be an exaggeration at this stage. However, two choices lie before Cuba and its people; the same that have existed since the inception of the revolution. One is a return back to capitalism, with all the catastrophic consequences that would mean. That is not now just a theoretical idea. The reality of what it would mean for Cuba is encapsulated in the social disintegration which exists in the former Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe. Along the other road lies workers’ democracy, a regeneration of the Cuban revolution which, once more, can become a beacon, this time of socialism and workers’ democracy, for the oppressed masses everywhere.

To make this possible, Cuba must ‘open up’, not to capitalism but to real and genuine workers’ democracy. Already, voices have been raised in Cuba urging the re-examination of Trotsky’s role and his ideas of democratic and liberating socialism as opposed to bureaucratic Stalinism. Celia Hart, a daughter of one of the leaders of the Cuban revolution, has it seems come to Trotskyist conclusions and has urged those who stand for the revolution to do likewise. This would mean the ending of the one-party monopoly, fair elections to genuine workers’ councils with the right of all those – including the Trotskyists – to stand in elections, strict control over incomes, and with the right of recall over all elected officials. If such measures were introduced, this would mark a turning point not just for Cuba but for revolutionary struggle everywhere.

Also available from Socialist Books

The Second Declaration of Havana: Cuba’s 1962 Manifesto, £4-00

The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962: Selected Documents of the Kennedy Administration, £6-99

Socialists & the Venezuelan Revolution, by Tony Saunois, £2-00


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