Many see Cuban society as a model for socialism. But a look at its history presents different conclusions, argues Mark GillespieWhen President Obama moved into the White House, he said “the US seeks a new beginning with Cuba”. Cuban president Raul Castro replied that Cuba was ready to talk about “everything”, including human rights, political prisoners and freedom of the press.
But for more than 50 years the US has imposed crippling economic sanctions on Cuba in an attempt to crush its near neighbour.
Until the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, Cuba survived the sanctions with the help of Russian aid. After the collapse the US tightened its sanctions further.
But in spite of a 35 per cent contraction in the economy, the regime survived—even maintaining many of its reforms introduced after Castro’s 1959 revolution such as its free universal health and education systems. With Russia gone, and Cuba defying the US, many on the left still think revolutionary hopes can be vested in Cuba.
More recently, with the rise of anti-capitalism and the radical Latin American regimes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Eva Morales in Bolivia, Cuba is being looked to as a model for 21st century socialism. But Cuba has never been a socialist society.
An olive green revolution
Castro himself did not start out as any kind of socialist. He was a member of the Ortodoxo party from Cuba’s populist nationalist tradition. “We are fighting to do away with dictatorship,” he said in 1958, and “have no plans for the expropriation or nationalisation of foreign investments here.” Even five months after the revolution he was insisting, “Our revolution is not red but olive green.”
Castro and other younger members of the Ortodoxo party were radicalised by the corrupt and brutal rule of the pro-US Batista regime. Batista allowed US mobsters to run the casinos and brothels in return for a slice of the action, while the country’s only significant export earner, sugar, was increasingly owned and controlled by US interests.
In 1953 Castro led a hopeless assault on the Moncada barracks in an attempt to seize arms and instigate an uprising. The rebellion was easily crushed and Castro was jailed and then exiled to Mexico.
In Mexico he meet Che Guevara and along with 80 others returned to instigate another rebellion. Again it was easily crushed, but Castro and Guevara escaped to the mountains where they regrouped and put together a small guerrilla band.
Meanwhile the Batista regime went into deep crisis. The US panicked and abandoned Batista. His poorly trained conscript troops refused to fight. Whole battalions surrendered to the guerrillas.
Batista fled Cuba on January 1, 1959. Castro arrived in Havana on January 8 with the only armed force in the country and with the overwhelming support of the masses. He used that support to consolidate his top down rule. The victory was more a matter of being in the right place at the right time than any vindication of the guerrilla strategy—as subsequent disastrous attempts to replicate the “Cuban model” of revolution elsewhere were to prove.
While workers supported the revolution and backed the fall of Batista with strikes and demonstrations, they were certainly not in control. There were no institutions of mass democracy, such as the soviets that workers organised during the 1917 Russian revolution.
Fidel Castro was against workers and peasants taking matters into their own hands.
He denounced a call for “spontaneous land seizures”, saying, “Any provocation to distributions of lands…is criminal.”
The new regime aspired to national economic development. They wanted to break Cuba from its “dependency” on the sugar crop, diversify the agricultural sector and build industry to be less reliant on imports from the US. Their initial economic reforms of cutting unemployment, raising wages and investing in health and education were meant to stimulate growth.
Union organistions independent of party (state) control were prohibited, and there is no right to strike. Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro (now Cuban president) wrote in 1971, that, “the principal tasks [in which the unions should be involved] are productivity and work discipline; more efficient utilisation of the workday…and most efficient and rational use of both material and human resources.”
Castro turns to Russia
By December 1961 Castro was claiming Cuba was socialist. What had changed?
As the new regime implemented its economic reforms they clashed with established economic interests including US property owners. The May 1959 Land Reform Act, for example, took land from US corporations as well as big Cuban land owners.
The US responded by withdrawing aid and funding saboteurs. When US multinationals refused to refine cheap oil Cuba imported from the USSR, the Cubans nationalised the refineries. The US cancelled Cuba’s sugar quota so the Cubans seized more US assets and so on.
The clash with the US pushed the Cuban regime to align itself with the USSR and adopt Russia’s monolithic one party, state capitalist model.
Cuba was transformed into a society where the state owned and organised production in all significant areas. Instead of decisions about investments and production being made by private capitalists, they were made by the Cuban state, heavily dependant on the whims of the USSR.
State-controlled economies are subject to the same pressures as market economies, and equally rely on the continued exploitation of the workforce.
Ordinary Cuban workers did not have any say in the important decisions that affected their lives—the targets for economic plans and the distribution of scarce consumer goods between the state and the rest of the population.
In fact, as was the case in the USSR, those in positions of power enjoyed much better living standards than ordinary Cubans.
Rene Dumont, who went to Cuba in the late 1960s enthusiastic about the revolution but came back very disappointed, described it this way: “There are the beautiful villas and the magnificent Veradero beach where officers and their families vacation free of charge. A new ruling caste is being established in Cuba. It is well disposed to the workers and the poor but in a paternalistic way. Solidly established in its privileges, suffering no privation, this new class does not really understand the people’s material difficulties.”
Alignment with the USSR put Cuba in a new state of dependency. The USSR bought Cuba’s sugar crop but paid for it primarily in non-convertible currency, forcing Cuba to purchase its more expensive imports from Eastern bloc countries. The USSR even dictated where Cuba could spend the aid money it sent.
The 1962 Cuban missile crisis revealed the extent to which Cuba had become a Russian pawn in the global rivalry between the USSR and the US. Khrushchev didn’t even bother to consult Castro when he backed down and removed the Russian missiles from Cuba.
By 1965 however, Che Guevara was openly critical of the USSR. He left Cuba in the vain hope of instigating revolutions in Congo and Bolivia.
But for Castro, talk of world revolution was much more rhetorical. He continued to look at forced industrialisation as a solution to Cuba’s backwardness.
Investment in the economy was pushed up to an incredibly high 30 per cent. To pay for this investment Castro aimed to export record amounts of sugar. Gone was the talk of diversification. The 1965 “five year plan” set a target of 10 million tons by 1970.
To achieve this aim the economy was even more centralised and put under state control. “All important posts are contracted to the army; all important enterprises are headed by a major, a captain or a first lieutenant,” wrote Rene Dumont.
Castro sacked his sugar minister for saying the targets couldn’t be reached; while new labour laws restricted worker’s rights. The new labour laws were necessary according to the Labour Minister, “to strengthen labour discipline and increase production…[as workers] tend to discuss and protest any measures coming from administration”. In 1969, passbooks were introduced which every worker had to carry with their work record inside.
The forced industrialisation was a complete failure. The 10 million tonne target was never reached but so many resources were used trying to achieve it that other sections of the economy went backwards and shortages developed.
Cuban troops were even used extensively in Africa to fight proxy wars backed by the USSR. In 1968, Castro publicly supported the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush a workers’ rebllion. They received immediate extra aid in return.
Cuba’s support for various national liberation struggles is held up by its supporters as an example of “socialist solidarity”. But in fact, Cuba’s foreign policy was always driven by its relationship with Russia. In the 1970s, for example, Cuba sent aid to support the Russian-backed Eritrean liberation movement fighting a legitimate war against Ethiopian occupation.
Then, when the pro-Russian Mengistu took power in Ethiopia, the USSR changed sides. Cuba followed, siding with the oppressors of the Eritreans. Castro was also quite willing to maintain friendly relations with Latin American dictators, such as Peru’s General Velasco in the 1970s, if it suited his diplomatic goals.
Cuba’s foreign policy today, while no longer tied to the USSR, is still driven by self-interest. Cuba gets much kudos by sending doctors to poor countries like East Timor, but this hides its more obvious commercial interests in the exchange of doctors for cheap Venezuelan oil.
Perceived Cuban interest outweighs human rights. Only last year Raul Castro met with Sri Lanka’s PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa—not long after his murderous assault on the Tamils—to thank him for supporting Cuba’s bid to be promoted onto the UN Human Rights Council.
The fall of the USSR
The collapse of the Eastern bloc in the early 1990s exposed Cuba’s dependency on the USSR and a deep crisis followed. The economy declined by 36 per cent. Cuba was forced to import bicycles and use horse-drawn carts. Malnutrition became widespread.
Right-wing commentators expecting an Eastern Europe style collapse did not take into account that Castro’s revolution was popular, unlike the majority of Eastern European regimes that were installed via Russian tanks. It had also introduced real reforms, giving the Cuban regime much more political legitimacy. The majority of Cuban people, too, correctly blame the US sanctions for their economic woes.
But the end of Russian subsidies pushed the Cuban regime towards free market capitalism and western investment. The state monopoly on foreign trade was abolished while foreign investors were allowed to buy into state property via joint ventures and given tax concessions. By 2001 there was $5.4 billion worth of foreign investment in Cuba. These investments tended to be concentrated in the tourism sector, but there was also investment in the nickel industry and infrastructure.
Opening up the economy has lead to a sharp rise in inequality. The ratio between the richest fifth and the poorest fifth of the population increased from 3.8 in 1989 to 13.5 in 1999. Those who worked in the booming tourist industry or had positions of power allowing them access to the special tourist currency were visibly much better off, and could spend in the special tourist shops. For a lot of poor Cuban women the only way to access this currency was via the thriving prostitution trade.
Since Fidel handed power to brother Raul in 2006, the push to privatisation has accelerated as the global financial crisis impacts on the Cuban economy.
Hundreds of state-run barbershops and beauty salons, first nationalised in 1969, have also been handed over to formers employees as the first move to privatisation.
In June 2010, the state shut down thousands of workers’ cafeterias, forcing employees to provide their own lunch. Now it is reported that Cuba is preparing to abolish ration books as the government moves to further cut costs, although the food available through the ration books was already declining—rations that used to last a month now barely cover a week.
Cuba and socialism
The Cuban regime looks to be in China-like transition from bureaucratic state capitalism to free market capitalism.
Socialists should defend Cuba against US imperialism and call for an end to the blockade, but Cuba is not a model that can take the mass movements in Latin America toward socialism.
For that, they will have to look beyond Cuban state capitalism to the far more powerful working class in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil that can establish democratic working class control over production—that hold the genuine hope for socialist revolution in the 21st century.