Pablo Velasco and Sacha Ismail review Cuba since the revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment, by Cuban-American socialist 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.
In 1959 there was an explosion of workers’ struggles and organising, but one the Castroites moved to bring under control: “Soon after, a huge wave of labour conflicts and strikes erupted throughout the country, expressing the pent-up economic and political frustrations of the Cuban working class during the Batista years, as well as the great expectations aroused by the revolution...
“Union halls throughout the island were occupied by revolutionary trade unionists of various stripes, with those associated with the 26th of July Movement most numerous and influential. These new leaders quickly proceeded to purge all the supporters of Eusebio Mujal... bureaucrats who had collaborated with the Batista dictatorship. A vigorous organising campaign was quickly launched that greatly enlarged the already sizable, although bureaucratic and corrupt, union movement. In the spring, every single local union in the country held elections, and these were followed by elections at the regional and national level. This turned out to be the most important exercise in autonomous grassroots democracy during the revolutionary period. The candidates associated with the 26th of July Movement emerged as the overwhelming winners, and the Communists (PSP) managed to obtain only some 10 percent”.
At the Tenth Congress of the Confederación de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC, Confederation of Cuban Workers) in November 1959, Castro intervened and a different leadership slate was approved. After the congress concluded, the Labour Ministry assisted by the Communist union leaders and their allies, began to purge a large number of trade union leaders who had resisted Communist influence, accusing them of being “Mujalistas”. There were no new elections, as this would have maintained union autonomy. About 50 percent of elected leaders, most of whom belonged to Castro’s movement, were removed; many were persecuted and jailed as well.
In August 1961, “the government approved new legislation that brought the nature and function of Cuban trade unions into alignment with those of the Soviet bloc”. At the Eleventh CTC Congress, which took place in November 1961, unanimity replaced controversy. With no contest allowed for the leading positions, all leaders were elected by acclamation. Old Stalinist leader Lázaro Peña regained the position of secretary general that he had last held in the forties under Batista. And: “in order to save production costs, the Eleventh Congress also agreed to give up gains that many unions had won before the revolution”.
The unions became state labour fronts. In 1961, Ernesto “Che” Guevara put forward the notion that “the Cuban workers have to get used to living in a collectivist regime and therefore cannot strike”.
New labour laws in 1964 were designed to strengthen labour discipline and increase productivity. The law “singled out for punishment not only those workers who committed economic crimes like fraud but also those who displayed signs of laziness, vagrancy, absenteeism, tardiness, foot-dragging, or lack of respect for superiors, and who damaged equipment”. Punishments ranged from wage cuts of various sizes to job transfers to sacking.
In 1969, the minister of labour announced that the government every Cuban workers would have to carry a “labour file”. A further resolution in October 1970 called for the placement of nonproductive workers in labour camps. This law also lengthened the incarceration period and even authorised the use of capital punishment for “economic sabotage”.
The atomisation and control of Cuban workers by the CTC “trade union” has not gone completely unchallenged. In 1983 there were reports of a Solidarnosc-type independent union being set up, but it was suppressed. A short-lived dissidence also took place in the early nineties among union activists in the port of Havana. But the policing role of the CTC remains today. For example, the official announcement of the half-million lay-offs from the state sector in August 2010 was made not by the government employers, but by the CTC “union”! Farber is right that only an independent workers’ movement can serve Cuban workers’ interests and lay the basis for real workers’ power.
Race in Cuba
Few scholars writing about Cuba believe that only 35% of contemporary Cuba is composed of blacks and mulattoes (mixed race people) as the official figures state; rather black Cubans are probably the majority.
Before the revolution, there was a network of self-organised black social clubs (sociedades de color) with branches all over the country. Members of the black Abakúa religious organisation were persecuted until the early nineties, with many of their members confined to military production camps. Meanwhile, black and mixed-race Cubans are under-represented in leading positions and over-represented among the poor and in prison. Black youth face harassment by the regime’s police.
Farber points out that spokespersons and apologists for the regime have historically claimed that the realities of racism in Cuba “are leftovers or remnants of the capitalist past”. This type of explanation tends to emphasise the role of individual prejudice and minimise the role of ongoing institutional discrimination on the island. An alternative approach starts by dealing with racism as a system of power and social-structural relations. One racially defined group — black Cubans — has been historically deprived of power and access to resources as the result of being the object of discriminatory conduct by primarily (but not only) the white ruling and upper-middle classes.
The regime carried out important reforms in race relations, such as the desegregation of beaches and provincial parks, and class-based reforms, for instance in education and health, that disproportionately benefited black Cubans.
But only a long-lasting vigorous campaign of affirmative action and authentic antiracism could have brought about a clear break with the past — a revolution, and not just a reform, of race relations. Institutional racism continued to exist in post-revolutionary Cuba and has significantly worsened since Cuba began to move towards capitalism in the 1990s.
Farber concludes that black Cubans need to develop their own political perspectives and organisations to respond to a worsening of conditions and growth of racial inequality. There are some causes for optimism. Some black professionals and intellectuals announced in 2009 that they would attempt to revive the Cofradia de la Negritud, loosely Brotherhood of Negritude, and they have made links with dissident leftist intellectual groupings.
Cuba’s Stalinist system brought about new systemic problems that especially affected women and helped perpetrate their oppression.
On coming to power the regime set up the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), disbanding and subsuming 920 pre-existing independent women’s organisations. The FMC “functioned first and foremost as an instrument for the mobilisation of Cuban women”. The FMC was not an independent women’s organisation and had little to do with women’s liberation or feminism.
Its leader Vilma Espin said at the 1974 FMC congress that the organisation was “feminine, not feminist”. Its magazine Mujeres includes many features on toys, knitting, and sewing, connected with traditional, patriarchal roles for women. The FMC has also taken reactionary and moralistic positions on prostitution.
The majority of Cuban women have ended up with a “double burden”: working many hours outside as well as inside their homes. For many years Cuban law denied the legal concept of “marital rape”. For the first few years after the revolution, the Cuban government strictly enforced the existing anti-abortion legislation, though this was later liberalised. Since 1979 abortion has been freely available up to 10 weeks, but later term abortion requires authorisation by a hospital director.
Challenges to the FMC have been smothered. The Association of Women Communicators (Magin) was set up to change women’s image in the media. It was not oppositional, but took some positions that differed from the FMC. The regime disbanded Magin and replaced it with a state-controlled organisation. As with black Cubans, Farber argues that Cuban women need their own independent self-organisation.
Cuban LGBT people have suffered greatly, particularly during the first 30 years of the revolutionary period. As early as 1962, the government conducted a massive raid on gay men as well as prostitutes.
In a March 1963 speech at the University of Havana attacking “children of the bourgeoisie” who imitated Elvis Presley and organised “effeminate” shows, Fidel Castro explained that it was not so easy to straighten out an adult homosexual, or as he put it, “a tree that had grown twisted.” In 1965, the Cuban state also established the Centre for Special Education for boys considered to be “effeminate” and those raised by single mothers who were considered “at risk” of becoming homosexuals.
The same year, Castro announced that homosexuals were to be banned from positions with a direct influence on young people, particularly in education. He held that “a homosexual could [never] embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary... A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant Communist should be”. Similar attitudes led Che Guevara to contemptuously refer to a prominent gay Cuban playwright as a maricón (faggot).
The University of Havana inaugurated a three-year-long campaign in the mid-sixties distributing homophobic literature. There were public trials of hundreds of students. Interestingly the “charge” of homosexuality was linked by the regime’s student supporters to Trotskyism.
In 1965 the government erected the UMAP camps, where for some three years gays, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Catholics, members of Abakúa and other black secret societies, and other “deviants”, were forced to provide cheap, regimented labour. In spring 1980 the Mariel exodus of many Cubans from the country was used by the government as another opportunity not only to ridicule and attack gays but also to force their departure from the country.
Mandatory screening for HIV infection began in 1986. HIV-positive people (902 cases in early 1993) were quarantined in sanatoriums and once they developed full-blown AIDS transferred to hospitals. The quarantine policy was used as a substitute for a serious educational program on AIDS. Since 1993 the Cuban government has been treating HIV-positive Cubans on an outpatient basis, although it continues to retain admission into sanatoriums as an option.
Despite a degree of liberalisation, lower-level government harassment of LGBT people continues. This includes the harassment of male transvestites who are arrested when they are found dressed in women’s clothes and the government’s attempt in 2009 to disrupt the Mr Gay Havana competition, a gay beauty pageant.
Farber dismisses “explanations” of Cuban government homophobia that attribute it to European or Soviet influences, pointing out that while homophobia is indeed a characteristic feature of most Stalinist regimes, the drive for it in Cuba came specifically from the Castroites, not the old Communist Party. His remedy, as with other oppressed people, is independent self-organisation.
Is the Cuban government internationalist?
Cuba may have opposed the imperialism of the United States and its allies, but “it has not followed that policy toward other imperialist aggressors. In fact, the Cuban government had taken the side of oppressor states on various occasions”.
Two stages of Cuban foreign policy can be discerned. The first stage (1959-68) included “open and aggressive support for guerrilla movements and harsh denunciation of the traditional Communist Parties”. This was “inter-nationalism”, not Marxist internationalism, since it primarily served the Cuban government’s relations with particular governments (or would-be governments) rather than workers’ movements in those countries. Cuba supported Algeria’s independence struggle, and stationed tanks in Syria for two years after Israel’s victory in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Cubans fought in the Congo, Guinea, Cape Verde, Nicaragua and Grenada, and Cuba also supported revolutionary outbreaks in a wide variety of Latin American countries.
The second stage brought Cuba more closely into line with Russian foreign policy. Thus Castro supported the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 and the Tiananmen Square massacre. In the initial months of Cuba’s longstanding intervention in Angola, the USSR supplied weapons for the Cuban troops; after that it also took over transportation of them.
Cuba’s indiscriminate alliance with African nationalism involved support for the bloody regimes of Idi Amin in Uganda and Nguema Macias in Equatorial Guinea. After the Stalinoid Mengistu regime came to power in Ethiopia, Castro dropped his support for Eritrean independence and condemned the Eritrean liberation movement as “secessionists”. The Cuban government trained and armed the Ethiopian forces and provided logistical support and supplies.
One of the most peculiar but little-known aspects of Cuba’s foreign policy relations is the lasting friendly relationship it established with Franco’s fascist regime in Spain.
Farber stresses that Cuba was more independent from the USSR than it had been from the US under Batista. But its support for opposition movements in other countries has been defined by what benefits it can obtain from relations with the government of that country. This is the foreign policy of a Stalinist bureaucracy, not working-class internationalism.
Where is Cuba going?
The Cuban Stalinist model was able to obtain and solidify massive working-class support in the early years of the revolution, when redistributive policies and social legislation improved working-class living standards.
For at least two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Cuban government maintained a commitment to the country’s welfare state throughout severe economic crises.
However, the country has still not become industrialised as the revolutionary leaders promised. The economic performance of the Castro regime has been mediocre, with a per capita annual growth rate of only 0.92 percent up to 2006 (two percent in the seventies and eighties). Cuba’s material achievements, taken as a whole, have been poor, particularly since the collapse of the Eastern bloc in the early nineties. In 1950, Cuba was tenth in per capita GDP among 47 countries of Latin America. By 2006, it was seventh from bottom.
The ration card has for years since the collapse of the USSR amounted to less than two weeks of people’s monthly needs. Many Cubans have been reduced to buceo (diving) or tanqueo (tanking) through rubbish to meet their basic needs.
There have been a number of steps in the direction of a Cuban version of the Sino-Vietnamese model (that is, political dictatorship combined with a state-directed capitalism). In particular the army-led joint ventures with foreign capital in tourism and nickel production stand out.
In 2010 the government took a further step in this direction. For some time Raúl Castro had been talking about how an estimated one million people, one-fifth of all jobs on the island, would need to be sacked from state employment. In September 2010 the “compromise” position of half a million layoffs was announced.
The Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, in 2011, consolidated Raúl Castro’s power. It decreed the legalisation of self-employment, greater enterprise autonomy, the abolition of basic subsidies and the running down of the welfare system. A new development is the creation of more than a hundred joint ventures with foreign capitalists abroad. These include medical industries in Asia, hydraulic projects in the Sahara, an ice-cream factory in Angola, and a five-star hotel in China. We may also see the constitution of a legal petty bourgeoisie on the island, able to become junior economic partners with the central bureaucracy while denied political power unless they assimilate into the ruling group.
The massive layoffs of 2010 were accompanied by a further withdrawal of subsidies to the population, including far less generous unemployment compensation for those who have lost their state jobs. Moreover, the items covered by the ration card continue to be reduced. Products including potatoes, peas, beans, coffee, gasoline, electricity, soap, toothpaste and detergents have been taken off the list completely or partially, with big increases in prices.
Dissidents, right and left
Farber has no truck with the right-wing Cuban exiles in the Cuban American National Foundation and its offshoots, who openly and explicitly want US intervention to enforce a neoliberal capitalist replacement for the current regime; and he is highly critical of more “moderate” dissidents, such as the Christian Liberation Movement (CLM) founded in 1988 by Oswaldo Payá.
He is understandably dismissive of the Generación Y blog associated with Yoani Sanchez, which advocates a "sui generis capitalism".
Farber points out that by the 1950s, no significant socialist or Marxist political tradition had survived on Cuba besides the old pro-Moscow Communists. However, some critical currents have emerged around the ruling party, through think tanks and journals. The book cites the Centre for the Study of the Americas and publications including Temas, La Gaceta de Cuba and Criterios, as well as the Havana Times website for which Farber himself now writes.
He cites the work of young revolutionary socialist scholars such as Hiram Hernandez Castro on Rosa Luxemburg and Ariel Dacal Díaz on Trotsky. At the 2010 May Day parade, groups of young critical intellectuals marched together with banners proclaiming “Down with Bureaucracy/Long Live the Workers/More Socialism” and “Socialism Is Democracy/ Dump the Bureaucracy”. However, such groups have suffered bans, pressure, exclusions, firings, and arrests.
In 2007, about 500 students at the University of Havana showed up to discuss what went wrong with the Russian revolution. There have been some acts of collective resistance in recent years, including protests by government workers and by various groups of students on immediate material issues.
Farber comments that “the development of a body of left critical opinion of a democratic bent inside Cuba is very recent; it is too early to tell whether it will grow into a significant force”. Nevertheless it is highly encouraging to read of these tentative efforts.
Since 1959 the Cuban people have faced US military assaults, assassination attempts and economic blockade.
Like the AWL, Farber opposes the blockade on principle — the principle of national self-determination. He also points out that its abolition “would completely undermine the Cuban government’s remaining justification of repression in the eyes of substantial numbers of Cubans who still support the government for nationalist and anti-imperialist reasons”.
At the same time “abolition of the repressive machinery of the one-party state in Cuba would radically destabilise the false American political justification for it and make the blockade of Cuba politically untenable”. For Farber, just as the US blockade is about US capitalist interests and not really about democracy in Cuba, so the Cuban government’s repression is general and systemic and not merely a justified response to specific threats to security.
In terms of assessing the Cuban regime, Farber dismisses the approach of assessing “progressiveness” by totting up gains and losses. He counterposes a Marxist, class-based approach, which puts the freedom of workers and other oppressed groups to organise independently at the centre of any political assessment.
This notion of workers’ democracy is also central to Farber’s alternative to both Cuba’s existing bureaucratic economy and any variant of market capitalist alternative. He argues that “advocating the democratic self-management of the Cuban economy, polity and society as a whole would be most effective for shaping a compelling resistance... Such a vision would suggest that resistance is not futile, since there is an alternative to both capitalism and the failed ‘communism’ of Cuban history”.
And means and ends are interlinked: “the establishment of democracy in the Cuban economy, polity and society at large will not be handed down as a gift by the people in power but will have to be obtained by struggles from below”.