A Political Monolith

Samuel Farber, Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment

Haymarket Books, 386pp, £17.99, ISBN 9781608461394

reviewed by Mike Gonzalez

For an earlier generation Cuba came to represent the return of a dream. After a decade of Cold War and the catastrophic stand-off between the US and Russia, the Cuban revolution of 1959 announced to the world that the giant had feet of clay. The anti-imperialist sentiment spreading through Latin America had made itself felt in those times as Rockefeller and Nixon were greeted by violent demonstrations wherever they went in the region. Yet until that 1st of January it seemed that the US could impose its will on the nations in its backyard with impunity, installing its pernicious dictators and using its military and economic power to destroy every attempt to advance the cause of change, development or social justice. Guatemala in 1954 had shown that clearly, as the interests of the United Fruit Company were defended by force against the mild social reforms of the Arbenz government.

This was a new kind of revolution, led by young men (there were very few women involved) who seemed unimpressed by the military might and threatening postures of their powerful neighbour just 90 miles away across the Florida Straits. This was David and Goliath, an unequal battle in which it seemed the weak could emerge the victor. Very quickly, however, Cuba’s history of domination by the US and its virtual integration into the US economy as a supplier of sugar and a consumer of manufactured goods from the north exposed its weaknesses. The embargo imposed almost immediately by the US government, and sustained for the next 50 years with minor changes, was intended to destroy the new Cuba. Instead Fidel Castro turned to the Soviet Union which, for its own strategic reasons, elected to bankroll the island – not simply as an act of defiance but more significantly as a bridgehead from which to gain influence in the whole region.

In the October Missile Crisis of 1962 , Cuba was little more than a pawn in a great power game, for all Castro’s defiant rhetoric. The five years that followed were the Guevara years, the origin of Cuba’s image and reputation as a revolution of youthful guerrillas, spreading the revolutionary message across the world in defiance of American might and with an apparent independence from Soviet objectives and methods. These were the years of OLAS, the Organization of Latin American Solidarity, and OSPAAAL, the expression of a third world solidarity. Cuba’s reputation on the left derives from those years – and from its very survival in defiance of the vicious US embargo.

And yet, Cuba’s attendance on Soviet objectives across the world was the price of its survival. And the structures of power within Cuba, which have persisted to the present, contradict the hope placed in Cuba by a generation that saw there a new kind of revolution – popular, democratic and free of the bureaucratic methods that had taken the Soviet bloc so far from its original aspirations. In his newest study of Cuba, Samuel Farber has put those claims and hopes to the test of his painstaking and comprehensive analytical method, and set them against his extraordinary personal knowledge of the island. Cuba since the revolution of 1959 is a thoughtful and considered review of Cuba’s history. But more than that, it tests Cuba’s claim to be a model and an example for socialists. His conclusions will be unpopular among those many champions of Cuba who have chosen to avoid or deny the contradictions and problems of that society. But no-one will be able to deny the care and depth of his research.

For a socialist in the revolutionary tradition, there is a key criterion against which to test the reality of a society that claims that name. Marx was insistent that the end point for socialists must be ‘the self-emancipation of the labouring classes’. The emphasis here is on ‘self-emancipation’, because the new order is born in the course of the struggle against capitalism in which the working class gains confidence and experience of organization on which a new society will be founded. In his Theses on Feuerbach Marx defined the dual process of revolution as ‘the changing of self and the changing of circumstances’. And the essential condition for that to occur is the independent democratic organisation of the working class – where that is understood to include all those who sell their labour power. While socialists have endlessly debated about state ownership of the economy, the socialist character of a society is shaped by the democratic involvement of the majority of society in decision making.

Farber is relentless in his examination of the claim that Cuba is a socialist democracy. The state created by the Castro brothers after the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship did not emerge from mass participation in that event, nor did the power of their 26th July Movement stem from democratic legitimation from the grass roots. That is not to say that it did not enjoy the support of the majority of the population. It did. But that majority was not included in any decision-making process, nor was it given the opportunity to play a direct role in the construction of the new Cuba. That lack of involvement was in turn reflected in the nature of the new state – a command structure that mirrored the internal dominance of the military wing of the movement over its urban, mass-based alternative.

The unquestioned – and unquestionable – authority of Fidel Castro and to a lesser extent Raul has shaped Cuban policy almost entirely since 1959, and continues to do so as Cuba enters the second decade of the 21st century. Farber provides ample evidence for what he describes as ‘the creation of a political monolith’. The organisations of the new Cuba – trade unions, women’s groups, committees for the defence of the revolution (CDRs) among others – were created by decree and their leaders appointed from above. Dissent was remorselessly silenced on the grounds that it served the interests of imperialism. And there was and is of course ample evidence of US hostility to Cuba. But that cannot justify the silencing of argument, debate and controversy within the revolution, not simply for formal reasons but because the development and progress of the revolution itself required that exchange of ideas and experiences. And that free and democratic involvement in turn was the only means of controlling the actions of the state and those who dominated it. Revolution, after all, is not an event but a process in which the majority learn to become the governors of their own lives in practice. The reality of Cuba is that genuine involvement has been replaced by public spectacle – the mass rallies in Revolution Square where an incredibly patient crowd stands in the sun listening to seven-hour speeches. Compare this with the occupation of Tahrir Square, an authentic expression of a grass roots democracy, with all its contradictions, tensions and unresolved questions.

The absence of any media other than the impenetrable Granma and the two state television channels leaves gossip and ‘samizdat’ as the only means of uncensored communication – yet even these have been heavily controlled, the former through the ever vigilant CDRs, the latter through the machinery of cultural supervision whose criteria were set out explicitly at the Cultural Congress of 1971. If song provided one vehicle of reflection, that too was subjected to repression; even the troubadour of the revolution, Silvio Rodriguez, was dispatched for re-education in the 1960s.

Those who defend Cuba in the West argue that we should not impose our views of democracy on a different reality. Every nation has its history – that is true. But in order to legitimise a political system that cannot claim to be anything other than authoritarian when it has been ruled by one person for over fifty years (far more than Kim Il Sung), Cuba’s past has also been distorted. This highly urbanised society, with a history of trade union organisation and high educational levels relative to much of Latin America, has been redrawn as a peasant society – which would presumably justify the absence of democracy as the product of collective ignorance.

Measures taken to stamp out corruption, small scale sabotage, inefficiency and a lack of voluntary support over the years have largely failed. The discontent of ordinary people has been dealt with by denouncing them as tools of imperialism, drug addicts and criminals – in a word, ‘escoria’ or scum – and encouraging mob violence against them. This was the case during the Mariel exodus of 1981, for example. The high numbers of casualties resulting from Cuban involvement in Angola and Ethiopia provoked massive disillusionment, but it was never alluded to publicly. A huge and costly security apparatus reflected a rigid bureaucracy that offered no means of dialogue with the producers, the farmers, the workers, the local communities who could have fed back the result of their decisions and changed them. That is what democracy would have looked like.

Perhaps an authoritarian state was the price that had to be paid for economic advancement in difficult conditions and for the maintenance of decent living standards exemplified by Cuba’s health and education systems ? These were undeniably a major achievement. But both have now become generators of export income in the form of medical personnel, medicines and teachers – for example those recently exchanged with Venezuela for oil. And their quality has declined.

Fifty years on, Cuba continues to provoke fury among the North American right and its extreme Cuban-American partners in Miami and elsewhere. Clearly every socialist and democrat will defend Cuba against these external enemies and the grip they hold over many American liberals. But recent events have exposed the political and economic cost of the Fidelista model. Economically, the dependence on sugar imposed first by the US and later by the Soviets underlined the weakness of an economy based on a single export. Guevara’s argument that the most urgent and immediate task for the revolution was to diversify the economy and develop industry was ignored. Nearly five decades later, Cuba depends on tourism, nickel and medical exports. It could be argued that there was no choice given the US’s ferocious embargo. But that cannot explain the inefficiency and waste that characterised Cuban production.

Cuba under Raul has recently held its sixth Communist Party Congress in 52 years, and this after a nine-year delay. The Congress did not discuss politics but only economic measures, all of which amount to what Farber describes as ‘the Sino-Vietnamese model’ – meaning re-entry into the world market retaining the controls of a rigid state apparatus but ‘liberating’ economic activity to market forces. Many of the welfare reforms that were the reward for mass support over the years are now being abandoned. Half a million civil servants have been dismissed, performance pay introduced, and educational subsidies severely restricted. For socialists, China and Vietnam are as remote from the self-emancipation of the workers as one could imagine. And as in those examples, the capacity of workers to defend themselves has been systematically undermined. Yet they are already the victims of a society which has had inequalities for a long time, which are now growing more dramatic.
Mike Gonzalez is Emeritus Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow.