Neighbourhood Activism

Dirk Kruijt, Cuba and Revolutionary Latin America: An Oral History

Zed Books, 304pp, £19.99, ISBN 9781783608027

reviewed by Mike Gonzalez

Dirk Kruijt’s Cuba and Revolutionary Latin America is an early contribution to what will certainly be a bumper crop of books revisiting the Cuban experience after Fidel’s death and the rapprochement between Obama and Raul Castro. Donald Trump’s policy on Cuba (as on most issues) is unclear, but from occasional Twitter comments, it appears he is likely to roll back US policy on Cuba to some degree – though, as a faithful servant of big capital, now busy opening business opportunities on the island, it seems unlikely that he will return to the pre-2014 conditions. Kruijt’s book is based on 70 interviews with leading members of the Cuban government, participants in the 1959 revolution, as well as Latin Americans who at one time or another had dealings with the Cuban government – or to be more precise with Manuel Piñeiro, head of the Latin American department for 32 years and ‘the eyes and ears of Fidel.’

Kruijt is well informed and has had privileged access to some internal debates – that much is obvious. But there is a problem. Oral history developed as ‘history from below’, giving voice to the working class, the oppressed and all those unrepresented in official histories. Huw Beynon’s Working for Ford (1973) and Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain (1979) were just two excellent early examples of the emergence of the alternative narrative of those who until then had remained ‘invisible and voiceless’. The result was a dialectical history in which the multiple views of different actors provided a complex view of how historical processes work.

Kruijt’s book does not fit that criterion. The interviews simply illustrate and confirm what is essentially the Cuban state’s view of its own history. There are no interviews with ordinary Cubans, certainly no conversations with critics or dissidents. The author offers mild critical comments here and there, but they are not explored or developed. One interviewee, for example, is quoted without comment as saying Fidel was ‘a Messiah’ who ‘knew everything’. The execution of the military hero Arnaldo Ochoa, one of Fidel’s closest comrades, in 1989 is simply noted.

But far more interesting than the account of Cuba’s post-1959 history are the relationships with Latin America that Kruijt explores, again entirely from the perspective of Piñeiro and his colleagues. The realities of Cuba’s relationships with the left in Latin America are much more problematic than the writer suggests. Between 1959 and 1967, ‘Cuba’s leadership had its own likes and dislikes and it operated as an influential actor in the political left of the Third World. It could also privilege some movements and be restrictive with respect to some others.’ This is an extraordinary observation. The reality is that Cuba used its political authority, having made a revolution, to impose a guerrilla strategy on the rest of the continent, with disastrous results, as the author acknowledges. There were combative movements and mobilisations across the region throughout the 1960s which emerged in the specific conditions of other countries – indigenous peasant movements in Peru and Ecuador for example (as Kruijt briefly recognizes), mass trade union mobilisations in Colombia, but which were ‘disliked’ by Cuba and thus ignored. Che’s actions in Bolivia were a case in point. His guerrilla actions took no account of the trade union struggles in Bolivia’s mines, as his own Bolivian Diary acknowledges. After his death, Cuba cooled towards armed movements. Kruijt describes the next period as ‘Cuba’s mature years’. What exactly does that mean – that the earlier period was just youthful error?

The survey of Cuban relations with Latin America confirm the conclusion that Fidel’s real political authority was always at the service of Cuba’s survival. Realpolitik prevailed. And this book provides ample evidence of that, or it would do if the author had drawn analytical conclusions. Relations with Allende in Chile reflected a change in Cuba’s orientation after the disastrous 1970 sugar harvest and its definitive move into the Soviet ambit. Fidel did not slavishly follow the Soviets, but he followed them nonetheless. Cuba’s role in Central America was to support the various peace initiatives that undermined the resistance movements at critical times. And the Cuban involvement in Venezuela, which is barely discussed here, has been to use Chavez’s admiration for the revolution to win major influence over whole areas of the state – in intelligence, education, government administration, commerce and the political leadership for example. The results have benefitted Cuba but have done very little to assist the Venezuelan revolution, beyond the rhetoric of solidarity. Since 2014 the Cuban government has increasingly distanced itself, in real terms, from a Venezuela locked in a deepening crisis. It is true that Cuban doctors, teachers and sports personnel have played an important role in Venezuela – it is also true that their very real personal sacrifice earned significant funds for the Cuban state at the expense of its young and dedicated professionals. In the Venezuelan case where those funds came from, where they went, and whether they benefitted the population of either country is not known.

Perhaps the most important question is the political one. What did the Cuban revolution teach the revolutionary left in Latin America? What was the model it offered the left? The significance of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 is undeniable; it exposed the United States’s weaknesses, and persuaded a generation of revolutionaries that the giant had feet of clay, that the revolution was possible. It survived the sustained assaults of Washington – and kept afloat, with the help of eastern Europe. The symbolism of Che and Fidel have provided iconic banners for two generations of socialists.

But the urgent question for the current generation is what kind of socialism it represented. Kruijt sees no problem in a regime claiming to be socialist whose leaders remain in power for 20, 30 or 40 years without any semblance of election or genuine grassroots democracy. The mass movements he discusses, like the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) and the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), were created from above not below, and run in the same way. The FMC was led by Raul Castro’s wife, Vilma Espin, from its creation in 1961 until her death in 2007. There was some movement over time in the state and its institutions – but leaders appeared and disappeared by executive decision.

Today Cuba is essentially run by the military who dominate government and the economy under the benevolent hand of the President, and lifelong Minister of Defence, Raul Castro. The examples are legion. The 21st-century Latin American mass movements have carried Che’s image aloft on demonstrations – but they also carry banners demanding democratic control of their societies, the accountability of leaders, the discussion of social and economic priorities at the grass roots, for example. Che is a symbol and an inspiration – but as Samuel Farber says in a recent biography, Che did not believe in socialist democracy. Like Fidel and most of the people interviewed here he was trained in a political tradition that gave total authority to a self-appointed leadership of those Kruijt describes as having a ‘moral calling’. The socialist tradition, by contrast, rests on Marx’s concept of the ‘self-emancipation of the working class’ as the prelude to a transformation which will make the majority the governors of their own destiny. Neither in theory nor in practice did the Cuban revolution understand socialism that way. Neither Fidel nor Che came from a military background – but the political structures they created were command models, rather than a dialogue of base and leadership. It is significant that one of the few analysts to have discussed Cuba in these terms, Samuel Farber, does not appear in the lengthy bibliography. And nor does Steve Cushion’s painstaking exploration of the working class roots of the Cuban revolution.

This is not simply an academic debate. The movement throughout the Americas is in the throes of a profound and painful examination of its own history from which a new strategy for social transformation should emerge. Part of that discussion will examine the US role in the region and its systematic attack on Cuba; but beyond that there has to be an honest appraisal of the left’s experience, its successes and its failures, its myths and its realities.