As someone who cut their political milk teeth defending the Cuban Revolution in “the belly of the beast” as Jose Marti so aptly described the United States, I have maintained something of a soft spot for this tiny island which showed so much defiance in the face of the colossus to the north. For activists in the US, Castro’s Cuba was our North of Ireland. It was in your backyard, it was unavoidable and your opinion towards it said a lot about where you were politically.
I had the great fortune to travel to Cuba in 1995 twice and to spend my 18th birthday there, despite facing arrest and/or imprisonment by the US government upon my return for doing so. I say great fortune because I was touched by the spirit of the Cuban people, their generosity, their love of all night parties and the elderly people’s love of the revolution. I stayed with Cuban families; one in Havana whose brother was killed in the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron) and photograph was lovingly framed in their tiny hallway. Maria swelled with pride as she told me of the bravery of her brother and I had to agree that he died in the most heroic of circumstances – defending Cuba from US invasion.
I had gone as a part of a work brigade and then a youth conference. During the first visit I saw rural Cuba. We drove for hours on a bus before reaching Ciego de Avila where we worked cutting dead leaves off of banana trees. I was amazed at the speed with which the Cuban workers went through the various rows whilst the Yanks lagged far behind. They had teased us in the morning about our “pretty clothes” – which were the work clothes most of us had brought, theirs being torn and stained with the sappy juice of day after day in the field. I immensely enjoyed watching an impromptu baseball game being played with such joy and passion without any proper equipment and the game coming into its own in a random patch of land in the Cuban countryside.
In Havana I visited a sugar cane factory and drank fresh “guarapa” from reused plastic cups, visited a hospital which had a metal shop inside to make new spare parts, and sat at meetings of local women’s councils. For the youth conference (a precursor to the world social forums) we heard a number of government officials talk about the revolution and the “special period” (it was long enough after the collapse of the Soviet Union to start to feel the bite of the loss of trade) and I heard Fidel himself, twice. Never before or since have I heard such a charismatic speaker, and whatever one thinks of him or his government, it was immediately clear to me why this man had been in power for so many years and why he was much loved by broad sections of the Cuban people, and so loathed by others. I was so wrapped up in his speech that I thought only an hour had passed when in fact he had been speaking for three hours – such was the eloquence of his oratory.
Needless to say all of this was incredibly inspiring. But having come from an organisation which maintained a very uncritical stance towards the Cuban government, it was difficult to comprehend the realities on the streets which showed a more complex side of Cuba.
In the countryside two men spoke in hushed tones as one passed another a pamphlet – with Jesus on the cover. Men would often whistle and cat call to women on the streets which was shrugged off by the women as “Machismo” (ie that was just the way Latin men were) or an outright denial by the women’s council leaders that there was any problem with women’s equality in Cuba at all, despite admittedly great strides having been made. Evidence of the black market was everywhere and while the pride and love of the revolution (which is akin to a respect of the NHS in this country) kept some in the older generation from buying goods on the black market, many in the younger generation didn’t have a problem with this, and I didn’t blame them.
In addition, young people everywhere were questioning the revolution – something I considered to be a healthy activity, but something for those who lived through Batista (the dictator before Fidel) found threatening. The paternal overtones of “Fidel the father” were evident everywhere, but particularly in the question of press access. The organisation I was with claimed it would be impossible for Cuba to have a free press because this would inevitably be used to undermine “the revolution”. I was always uncomfortable with this argument because while I saw its logic on one level, I didn’t understand why information, even false information, should be withheld. Surely the Cuban people, who had made “the revolution” in the first place, were more than capable of making up their own minds whether or not what they read was true.
This I believe was the fundamental problem; the idea that “the revolution” trumps everything else, including a free press, democracy, the right to protest and the right to dissent. Over the years “the revolution” and “Fidel” grew to become synonymous to the point where you had, in effect, socialism in one man; where the man represented “the revolution”. The Cuban people threw off the chains of Batista precisely because they wanted freedom from tyranny, the right to live in peace and the ability to not be controlled by others and I believe this did sincerely include Fidel, Che, Camillo and the other leaders of the July 26th movement.
However in Fidel and the development of Cuba, you see the destructive influence of Stalinism in its full glory, and this for me is where Trotsky comes in. It was clear from Trotsky’s views that “socialism in one country” could not exist. The only way for a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat to survive in anything akin to its revolutionary form was for the extension of the revolution to other countries. Now some try and claim that this was Che’s aim and I suppose in a round about way it was. However, the way the Cuban revolution came about was more a particular circumstance than the rule – and the attempt to apply the Cuban model of “revolution from below” to other Latin American countries from the outside, and with very little organic support internally, was as doomed to failure as the attempts by the Soviet Union to invade and forcibly change property relations from above. Cuba thus not only developed an internally bureaucratic structure within its government (at the peak of which repression of dissent and jailing of LGBT activists was at an all time high), but also a heavy reliance on the Soviet Union complete with its bureaucratic structures and dominance in certain international spheres of power.
The fact remains that Cuba and Fidel’s reign specifically, whether we fully appreciate it or not, is a reflection of the left internationally, where we’re at and how we’ve failed. The weakness of the left is reflected in the arguments which we will now see posited by both sides – Fidel the great leader and Fidel the tyrant. The reality is that the theory of revolution is not fully developed at this point. We still fail to understand what the best way is for a social revolution to come about to maintain the aspirations of the people in the long term. We still fail to have an adequate understanding of the effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union and having tried the methods of a revolutionary vanguard party, guerilla warfare, and military coups as means for securing the power of the oppressed, we still haven’t cracked it.
The Cuban people didn’t, Fidel didn’t, but they certainly had the courage to give it a go and for this and the lessons they taught us, we should at the very least be appreciative. But the question remains as to how we best go about creating enduring social change and ridding the planet of destructive capitalism and neo-liberalism while maintaining local democracy, freedom and workers control within a society. Perhaps greater men and women than the Cubans would’ve solved this problem by now, but given their bravery since the revolution in 1959 if we searched the world over, I doubt we could find them.