Castro leads his victorious troops (photo: History Archive/Rex/Shutterstock)
Pablo Velasco and Sacha Ismail examine Castro’s legacy in an article written in early 2012, largely informed by Cuba Since The revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment, by Sam Farber.
The 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro and his 26 July Movement to power was a bourgeois revolution which smashed Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, but replaced it with their own Bonapartist regime.
Half driven by US hostility and half by choice, this government opted to become a Stalinist state in 1961, adopting the model of the USSR and similar states.
Farber calls this a “bureaucratic system of state collectivism”, in which society’s economic surplus “is not extracted in the form of profits from individual enterprise, nor is it realised through the market. Instead, it is obtained as a surplus product of the nation as a whole. The surplus is appropriated directly, through the state’s control of the economy”. Cuban workers and peasants received their means of subsistence in the form of largely non-monetary rations — low cost or free food, housing, education, health and other welfare facilities. However the surplus product pumped out of the direct producers is controlled and allocated by the ruling bureaucracy — “without any institutional constraints by unions or any other independent popular organisations”.
Cuba’s achievements and failures “resemble those of the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam before these countries took the capitalist road”. Part of this was Cuba’s receipt of “massive Soviet aid from the early sixties to the end of the eighties… even the most conservative estimates would place it well above Cuba’s calculated losses from US economic aggression during that period”. Between 1960 and 1990, Cuba received about 65 billion dollars of Soviet aid on very favourable terms.
The “systematic repressive nature of the Soviet-type regimes made it politically difficult to build enduring oppositions within those societies”. In Cuba there was “certainly no lack of physical brutality… particularly during the first twenty years of their rule. There were thousands of executions, and there was large-scale imprisonment, throughout the revolutionary period, of tens of thousands of people under typically very poor living conditions and physical mistreatment.”
Who rules Cuba?
The state bureaucracy that developed out of the revolution is still in power.
The state owns the means of production and the bureaucracy “owns” and controls the state. The “one-party state” is in fact a no-party state, since the bureaucracy rules directly through the myriad of state and state-sponsored “mass” organisations.
The bureaucracy has privileged access to consumer goods through special stores, separate hospitals, recreational villas, and trips abroad. The armed forces and security services have their own medical facilities. Since the two-tier economy of hard currency and pesos was legally established in 1993, more conventional inequality has been unleashed.
The political ideal of the Cuban elite has been summed up by current head of state Raúl Castro as “monolithic unity” (2009). Although there is enforced mass participation in Cuba’s polity, there is a complete absence of democratic control. Cuba has had a variety of ruling institutions, but none function democratically. The Communist Party was formed in 1965 and has only had six congresses in over 50 years. The Popular Power assemblies were not established until 1976 and allow only vetted candidates to stand on their biography, with those “elected” able only to rubber stamp decisions taken elsewhere by the bureaucrats.
Cuba does not have the kind of impersonal rule of law and citizens’ rights against the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the state which exist in some bourgeois societies. This is evident in the crimes of “social dangerousness”, and “antisocial behaviour”, and the use of imprisonment, electric shock treatment and psychiatric institutions for opponents. Fidel Castro has admitted that there have been 15-20,000 political prisoners in Cuba and Cuba currently has 531 prisoners per 100,000 people, the fifth highest rate worldwide.
What about the workers?
The idea that Cuba is ruled by its workers is laughable. In 1959, the Cuban working class “was not socialist in any meaningful sense of the term, nor did it lend its own distinctive character to the Cuban revolution”. Fidel Castro himself has admitted as much on numerous occasions.
The working class was certainly not passive during Batista’s dictatorship. Despite the shackles of the state and business-gangster trade unionism, sugar workers, rail workers and bank workers fought militant reformist struggles around pay and conditions. The 26 July Movement had its own trade unionists who did organise successful strikes on a number of occasions after the rebel leadership landed in Cuba in 1956. But the general strike they called in April 1958 was a failure and workers’ action only an adjunct to the main, guerrilla warfare strategy for taking power. Read the rest of this entry »
A great day for the long-suffering people of Cuba and a move that may eventually bring about some degree of democracy in the anti-working class Stalinist dictatorship of that benighted island. Obama has shown some real leadership:
Snowden: no Daniel Ellsberg
Opinion differs, even on the left (and I use the term in its broadest sense), as to the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations. Francis Sedgemore reckons it’s a pretty big deal whereas Workers Liberty seems somewhat more sanguine.
But what most of us could agree on, at least until now, was that Snowden seemed to be a well-intentioned and quite brave individual, entirely worthy of our support.
But his decision to flee rather than face the consequences of his actions, has inevitably diminished his credibility. And worse, his apparent willingness to seek refuge in some of the most repressive states in the world, can only make things worse. The hand of the tyrant-lover and arch-hypocrite Assange is obviously behind this, manipulating a second vulnerable, idealistic young man (poor Bradley Manning being the first).
Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon papers, has been unstinting in his support for Snowden, but the truth is that there’s a fundamental difference between the two: Ellsberg faced up to the consequences of his actions and stood before his accusers. Come to that, so has Bradley Manning. Snowden has slunk away (and yes, I know it’s easy for me to sound off from the safety of my comfy little home, but the point stands nonetheless).
“It’s a tragedy that Snowden’s made this mistake because what he had to reveal about the US security state was very troubling. But while the message remains important, the messenger has been exposed as unworthy of it. Snowden’s totalitarian tour is an embarrassment to his cause.”
I attended the AWL’s Ideas for Freedom event in London last weekend. It was, as usual, very enjoyable and educative. Particularly heartening was the number of new, young comrades present. I attended a very civilised, good humoured debate between AWL-founder Sean Matgamna and former leadership member of IS, John Palmer, on the IS’s position on British troops in Ireland in 1969. While these two old adversaries were mulling over old times and old differences, shouting, heckling, cheering and booing could be heard eminating from a nearby room. It turned out that this was a super-heated deabate on Cuba, between the AWL’s Paul Hampton and the RCG’s Helen Yaffe (accompanied by quite a few vociforous Cuba Solidarity Campaign supporters, so she wasn’t outnumbered). I gather both speakers gave as good as they got and it all nearly spiralled out of control, but stopped short (just) of blows.
Paul Hampton says:
I hope comrades enjoyed my debate with the RCG on Saturday (I did!)
My review of Helen Yaffe’s book is at
Reader Luke has emailed in an exchange between himself and the Unrepentant Marxist Louis Proyect. It was triggered by this long, meandering post about Proyect’s old college. The passage Luke took exception to was this:
[Bard College President] Botstein would seem to share [George] Soros’s missionary complex vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. With money siphoned from developing economies like Thailand’s, Soros has been able to foot the bill for Bard College’s colonizing effort in St. Petersburg, namely Smolny College, which sits next door to the organizing center of the October 1917 revolution–thus bringing the counter-revolution full cycle. Claude Allegre, the former French education minister, expressed misgivings about efforts such as Smolny College: ‘That our students go and study in the United States and Britain is entirely desirable, but that the Americans install their universities throughout the world, all on the same model and with the same courses, is a catastrophe.’ Well, what can one say–that’s just the voice of Old Europe once again. For the New Europe of Donald Rumsfeld, handouts from people like George Soros are eagerly accepted, especially since college professors in the liberated Russia republic average about $65 per month.
This is possibly the silliest thing I have read on a blog since I stopped reading Lenin’s Tomb. Do you know anything about education in Russia? I’m an American student who is studying there this academic year, and can assure you that most Russians are very unhappy with the quality of their higher education, and the very wealthy attempt to send their children abroad to get education in the west. Labeling a liberal arts education the acme of counterrevolution is not only ridiculous but also completely hypocritical for you as a Bard graduate. Calling the creation of a liberal arts college in a country with a notoriously corrupt and inaccessible education system ‘colonial’ is extraordinarily ignorant. I assume you read Russian, since you appear to be able to recognize colonialism in the education system, and would tell me why other Russian professors became so interested in the college’s model?
Luke, I don’t regard a liberal arts education as ‘the acme of counterrevolution’ but I certainly regard George Soros’s philanthropic efforts as counterrevolutionary. Eastern Europe and even gas-rich Russia is economically devastated today largely because of the efforts of the CIA, Soros’s millions and the connivance of the intelligentsia and apparatchiks who calculated that they might be better off under capitalism. If that description offends you, then I invite you to stop reading this blog, just as you stopped reading the blog of my comrade Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb.
Luke gets the discussion back on track: ‘so are you saying now that you don’t regard Smolny as a ‘colonizing effort’? I’m talking specifically about Smolny, not Soros.’
This is where Proyect gets really silly:
Luke, what you should do is look at the political science course directory at Smolny and you will Soros-type preoccupations that would not be found in a normal college such as:
–Closed Institutions: Questions of Human Rights
–Human Rights as Political Theory: Its Emergence, Development, and Current State
–History of Human Rights Activism
–Human Rights Monitoring
–Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia: Scenarios of Post-Soviet Development
Half the courses are taught by Dmitry Dubrovsky, a ‘Human Rights’ activist associated with the ‘color revolution’ type movements that Soros supports. This is a highly politicized department that clearly seeks to influence the intelligentsia in the former Soviet Union along the lines of the Open Society. No other country in the world would have the audacity to open up a college in the US to promote ‘anti-American’ ideology. Could you imagine if the Cuban government funded a new college in the U.S. that had a political science department with courses like ‘On the need for economic justice in America’. It would be shut down immediately. Of course, Soros got away with this crap (until recently) because the Russian government saw the world the way that he did. Putin obviously is too much of a nationalist to put up with the Soros NGO’s but will likely tolerate the Smolny College for the time being.
The comparison with the metaphorical Cuba-US college is laughable given that US academics and students are often extremely critical of American governments. Back to Luke:
I think it’s great that the college offers classes on human rights, and I don’t regard that as colonialism, any more than Cuba’s creation of such a college course would be. The full description of the Human Rights Minor is here, along with actual descriptions of all the courses, which do not look that suspicious, and without actually sitting in a class, I withhold judgment. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Smolny and nothing about ideologically driven courses, if any other Russian speaker can show me where anything that indicates it’s all a stooge system for Soros go ahead. If human rights is an ‘anti-Russian’ ideology, I don’t know what to say, and dismissing these classes as ‘crap’ is an insult.
All Louis can say to that is ‘Luke, apparently you haven’t studied George Soros’s role in Eastern Europe very carefully with respect to ‘human rights’ but I would invite you to read what I wrote here: (Proyect link). Luke presses on:
As I said before, there is nothing in the course descriptions or offerings in the human rights minor that indicate that there is a bias in these specific courses or meddling by Soros. Until you have sat in on one of the classes that is being taught, neither you nor I can pass judgment on what is being taught in the classes.
‘Of course, Soros got away with this crap (until recently) because the Russian government saw the world the way that he did. Putin obviously is too much of a nationalist to put up with the Soros NGO’s but will likely tolerate the Smolny College for the time being.’
That’s funny, because according to here there are discussion going on between the program and the Russian ministry of education about the human rights program, and the Ministry is interested in expanding it to be included at other schools. Could you explain why the Russian government would want to have this spread if it is all just a Soros plot?
Several hours later, Luke adds: ‘You could always just admit that you made a mistake by writing about an educational system and course offerings that you misjudged.’
I am sorry, Luke. I really can’t take you seriously. You don’t show the slightest familiarity with George Soros’s NGO’s, especially their role in Georgia, Yugoslavia, Ukraine and other countries where they push for free market ‘solutions’ that have left people in dire poverty. I asked you to read what I wrote about Soros’s role in Hungary and you evaded me completely, only to pollute this blog with thousands of Russian words that nobody but a Russian or somebody who reads the language can understand. I have no idea whether you are some fan of the capitalist system irked by my taking exception to that system, or a confused left-liberal who really doesn’t understand what Soros means by ‘human rights’, a term that you have an uncritical understanding of. The one thing I got out of Bard College in the early 60s was an ability to think critically. Too bad that young Bardians today, and yourself apparently, have not been trained in that fashion.
I think this is a fascinating look at the problems with doctrinaire anti-imperialism, as well as the position that human rights is a purely Western idea forced upon the baffled natives of ex-slave empires and glorious socialist states.
Luke adds in his email to me:
I just would like to note that I don’t care for Soros or his politics, this is about Louis’s smearing of an educational institution and the human rights activists who have worked and trained there, and those who see it as a model for future human rights education in Russia.
I have just one more thing I’d like to say about Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Del Toro. I don’t mean this maliciously, as I think that the experience would be very good for the emotional, intellectual and artistic growth of these two men. I wish that Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Del Toro could live in Cuba, not as the pampered VIPs that they are when they visit today, but as Cubans do, with no United States Constitutional rights, with ration cards entitling them to tiny portions of provisions that the stores don’t even stock anyway, with chivatos surveilling them constantly. How long would it be before Mr. Soderbergh started sizing up inner tubes, speculating on the durability and buoyancy of them, asking himself, could I make the crossing on that? How long before Mr. Del Toro started gazing soulfully at divorced or widowed tourist women, hoping to seduce and marry one of them and get out? Only then could they see why this insipid, frivolous and pretentious movie they have made is nothing less than an insult to millions of people, who really do live like that, and who’ve lived like that their entire lives.
Maybe then, they could put their considerable talents into making a Cuba movie worth watching. The world so needs to take off those dumb Che t-shirts, and grow up. We face serious problems, and totalitarianism isn’t a solution to any of them, even when it’s dressed up in a beret and given a wispy beard, flowing locks and a surly stare, and looks really, really cool.
Also, check out this blog by a true Cuban revolutionary.
So, Gordon Brown and the New Labour machine have managed to win the vote on detention without charge for 42 days, by just 315 votes to 306. In effect, that means that this fundamental attack on habeas corpus went through on the back of the nine Democratic Unionist votes, following an alleged £200 million sweetener for Stormont, to offset the effects of water charges in Northern Ireland.
The support of the DUP (plus Anne Widdecombe and some UKIP nonentity) is not that surprising, though even New Labour might be expected to feel just a little embarrassed about relying on their support. But what about the capitulation of those heroic tribunes of the ‘left’, the Jons Cruddas and Trickett – and what will their Compass fan club have to say about it?
Even more extraordinary (if true) are the rumours that at least a few Cuba-supporting Labout MP’s were bought off with promises that Brown will push for a relaxation of the EU’s trade restrictions on Cuba. Talk about “for export-only” leftism! I know that the Cuba Solidarity Campaign is a single-issue movement and I have no reason to believe that it in any way approved of what these (so far unnamed) MPs are alleged to have done: but even so, if the rumours prove to be true, Cuba Solidarity really ought to make it clear that it didn’t ask for and doesn’t want that sort of support.
N.B: Here are all the Labour rebels.
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.