Peeling the Onion

Antoni Kapcia, Leadership in the Cuban Revolution: The Unseen Story

Zed Books, 256pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781780325255

reviewed by Mike Gonzalez

Antoni Kapcia’s most recent book on Cuba (he has published several, principally on culture) could hardly have been better timed. Leadership in the Cuban Revolution presents its main argument in an odd cover design in which Fidel Castro’s face is blocked out by a large pink circle. In fact the book appeared just a few months before Raúl, Fidel’s brother and leader of Cuba since Fidel’s retirement in 2006, announced on December 17 a historic agreement with the US to end its 55-year blockade of the island. Although it had been slightly mitigated more recently, with a resumption of food exports and an easing of restrictions on remittances from Cubans abroad, the embargo has remained brutally effective since it was first imposed in 1960. The agreement included a release of prisoners, in particular the five Cuban intelligence officers arrested in Miami in 2000, and two US citizens arrested in Cuba, one of them at least a government agent. But the core of the agreement was to end the embargo and throw open the Cuban economy to US investors and enterprises.

The reaction outside Cuba was dramatic. The Miami anti-Castro lobby predictably denounced the deal and President Obama’s decision to sign it. Among the friends of Cuba outside the island, there has been a flurry of attempts to present the decision as consistent with the building of socialism, or indeed as a kind of Cuban victory. In Latin America, where the political repercussions will be considerable, there was basically a kind of stunned silence. And in Venezuela, which has been such a crucial ally for Cuba and which under Chavez was an unconditional admirer and supporter of Fidel Castro, the impact has been much greater than the government is willing to admit. Because at its heart, Raul Castro’s decision has a great deal to do with Venezuela, whose deepening economic crisis certainly influenced his decision. In many ways Venezuela has kept Cuba afloat for years, providing cheap oil (a critical component of Cuba’s post-Soviet survival), buying many of its services from Cuba – particularly health, educational expertise and military intelligence – as well as providing other, less well-defined, financial services and investments. But it is the political damage that is most significant. Cuba’s direct political influence, with the exception of Venezuela, had waned over the last two decades – it had little to offer the new movements or the progressive governments of the ‘pink tide’. Yet Cuba, and Fidel in particular, continued to have an enormous symbolic significance as an anti-imperialist icon. How, then, could Cuba now reach such a quick and comprehensive agreement with US capitalism and still claim socialist credentials? Certainly for an increasingly embattled and fractured Venezuelan state, this must have felt like betrayal, despite the many official denials.

Against this background, Professor Kapcia’s book would seem to provide a useful tool with which to make sense of these events, though neither he nor anyone else could have predicted them. Indeed the negotiations, which had been going on for a year and a half, were a very closely guarded secret, and came as a surprise to most, even to the government of Venezuela, its closest ally.

What the book cover tells us is that the purpose of this study is to challenge what its author calls the ‘Fidelista’ explanation of Cuba’s 1959 revolution and its subsequent history. It is true, and Kapcia’s exhaustive knowledge of writings on Cuba provides the evidence, that there is a heavy emphasis in most Cuban scholarship on the personality of Fidel. Kapcia’s argument is that the Cuban state is more complex than simply a pyramid with Fidel sitting inscrutably at its apex. Instead he uses the metaphor of the onion, the core of which is the central power but the outer layers of which form the institutions of the state.

I’m not very sure the metaphor works. The book itself provides all the evidence that this is a state whose leadership has an unchallengeable authority, although it must, of course, constantly activate that authority through a range of social organisations. Kapcia provides a very detailed and well-informed history of the revolution from its original basis in the 1953 Moncada assault. He finds the origins of the 1959 revolution in the actions of several key organisations whose alliances both before and after the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship shaped the leadership of the new Cuba. It would seem that the purpose here was to demonstrate, implicitly, that the revolution could survive even without the overpowering, but by now largely silent, presence of its original leader, answering the characteristic denunciations from the anti-Castro lobby. It must be fairly obvious that to acknowledge the absolutely central and authoritative role of Fidel throughout these years is not to say he operated alone. Others participated in the running of the state at every level; but the ultimate authority rested for several decades with Fidel.

Kapcia’s argument is that leadership in the Cuban state rests with the members of the original guerrilla army which fought in the Sierra; this group, he says, ‘has remained largely unchanged, affected only by death and retirement.’ Around that inner core is a second group made up of the urban wing of Fidel’s 26th of July Movement and its original political allies in the Communist Party (PSP) and the Revolutionary Directorate (DR). As Kapcia’s account shows in considerable detail, these allies move in and out of the intimate circles of power according to a shifting internal balance of interests. But the core has remained unassailable over five decades. And that was the result of a brief struggle for power in the early months of the revolution, from which Fidel emerged the incontestable winner. Around that core are the mass organisations, which, as Kapcia puts it , are ‘offered consultation but not debate’ before the irregular and widely spaced party congresses which make the actual decisions.

The author does acknowledge occasional errors on Fidel’s part, though largely minimising them. But none of this, it seems to me, answers the charge that Cuba is a highly centralised and profoundly controlled political system, whose systems of vigilance, intelligence and social control have in Kapcia’s words ‘been highly effective’. It’s worth asking, though, effective to what ends? Certainly not in terms of producing a wider and more open internal democracy. Kapcia’s careful account of the individual trajectories of some key figures outside the ‘inner core’, traces their rise and fall, but it is very clear that their careers were subject to private decisions by the leadership which were never explained – much less determined – by any process of public accountability. The most notorious case was the summary execution of Arnaldo Ochoa, a ‘hero of the revolution’, that was decided and carried out in a matter of days with no explanation (Kapcia offers one, at this late stage, but with little objective evidence); equally sudden were the political disappearances of Roberto Robaina, Carlos Lage and Felipe Perez Roque , all of whom occupied positions of central influence in the 2000s. In none of these cases is there any indication of how or why these decisions were reached, beyond unverifiable rumours. The only possible conclusion is that they were taken by a tiny inner core in which Fidel was certainly a critical influence. All the key moments of the revolution – the first use of the term ‘socialism’ in relation to the revolution (which Kapcia rather plays down), the decision to launch the ‘Great Sugar Harvest’ in 1969-70, the expulsions of the Marielitos in 1981, the Rectification campaign in 1986, and the response to the catastrophic ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’ after the collapse of eastern Europe, were all clearly Fidel’s decisions. Of course he had a group of advisers and trusted collaborators around him, but there is not a shred of evidence that his authority was challenged by anyone, even when those decisions proved to be unwise.

While Kapcia insists on the key role of organisations like the trade unions and the CDRs (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution), there is no sense that do or can act independently of that unchanging core leadership. And while there have been recent manifestations of some minor openings to debate and discussion (the bloggers, for example, who are by and large allowed to continue), criticism, even in the cultural field, is controlled and constrained even now. If there is no space for independent grass roots organisation, and no means to challenge or replace the state’s leading figures from below, then it is a socialism without democracy. For 50 years, that lack of openness and accountability has found its justification in the punishing US embargo, which has allowed any dissent to be characterised as imperialist intervention and created a kind of permanent state of emergency. From now on, that argument will cease to apply, of course. And that will certainly represent a problem for the model that Raúl has implemented since taking over power from Fidel.

So what light does this book shed on recent events? It traces Raúl’s growing influence, while always playing second fiddle to Fidel; his power base is and clearly always has been the army – the FAR, the largest armed forces in Latin America as a proportion of the population – and the militias which are under military command. As an early member of the Communist Party, his economic views have always been orthodox and pragmatic; it was clear from the 1980s that his methods were managerial, and as soon as he assumed power, he initiated a shake-up throughout the state, announced that one million workers would be made redundant from the public sector, and most significantly denounced ‘shallow egalitarianism’ – a very strange position for a leader of socialist Cuba to take. But, as we now know for certain, although it was obvious as soon as he assumed the leading role, Cuba’s relationship with the global market – and more specifically with China – has been deepening ever since the 1990s and particularly in the last decade. China was in some ways a model, having essentially created a state capitalist economy under the kind of strict political control by the communist party that also existed, though of course on a smaller scale, in Cuba. And just as occurred in China, many of the individuals who will now most clearly benefit from relations with the capitalist market, are influential figures within the state, and particularly within the army. Raul is 83, but the person most frequently mentioned as his successor is his son, also a general, Alejandro.

In fact, relations between the US and Cuba have been developing for several years, with important sectors of US capital, like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, advocating a lifting of the blockade for clear commercial reasons. Agricultural and processed goods are already traded with Cuba, and conditions for Cubans in the US to travel to the island and send back money have been significantly eased. But the reality is that Cuba’s economy remains on the edge of crisis with just over 1% growth, and a chronic lack of the most basic goods for the majority of the population. Wages in the public sector are still only at 27% of their 1989 level.

Some might say that there is an element of victory here. Cuba has negotiated its way into the market, rather than being driven into it. That much is true. For the majority of Cubans this will bring improvements in their material lives: they will have access to the world of new technology, and Pepsi Cola among others is waiting at the door to bring them the benefits of the market. But they cannot expect much in the way of democratisation. The ‘inner circle’ will remain in place, still controlling key sectors like the banking sector and professional employment. Cubans will have to confront their exploitation from the twin enemies of a state capitalist regime and the new private employers. Many of the social benefits they had enjoyed will now be privatised; free higher education was an early casualty of Raúl’s economic reforms, for example. And they will have to organise to defend their living standards with patience and resolve. The Chinese experience shows how and why that will happen. And hopefully from those struggles there will emerge a genuine popular democracy, rather than an onion with a concealed but unchanging ‘inner core’.