Cuba is a ‘unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic’. That is what it says in the constitution, and that official designation needs to be taken seriously in any evaluation of Cuba’s place in the world, and where we place ourselves in relation to it. A victorious liberation struggle was led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara at the head of the July 26 Movement, J26M, named for the date of an unsuccessful attack on the Moncada Barracks in Oriente province in the east of the country in 1953. The J26M succeeded in chasing out military dictator Fulgencio Batista at the end of 1958.
1959 was the year everything changed, not only in Cuba, where a wave of land reforms, expropriation of land and takeover of large cattle estates went way beyond what many of the local and expatriate financial backers of J26M expected, but also in the wider world. The United States quickly reassessed the cautious support it had given Castro the previous year while it was trying to disentangle itself from Batista’s obviously corrupt and unsustainable regime, and the Soviet Union came into the frame as an alternative source of support, as supplier of petroleum that Cuba desperately depended on, and as customer for the sugar which made up over 80 percent of its export industry. Castro promised compensation to the US-based sugar companies, to be paid out of the revenues from sales to the US, a canny move that sent a clear message to Cuba’s old masters barely 100 miles to the north at its closest point, so close, so deadly. A deal was signed early in 1960 with the Soviet Union – sugar for oil – and through 1960 there was nationalisation of sugar mills and refineries, and of electric power and telephone companies. By the end of the following year, 1961, Castro declared himself to be a ‘Marxist-Leninist’.
While 1959 was the hinge-point for the transition, from the Cuban revolution being a national-democratic rebellion against US control and against its local puppet leaders, to being something more recognisably socialist, the following three years – 1960 to 1963 – were crucial in shaping Cuba as it is today. Banks, both US-owned and locally-owned were nationalised in 1960, as were all remaining US businesses shortly afterwards. Guevara, who had brokered the crucial sugar for oil deals, was now in charge of setting up new trade deals with China, and began steering the internal financial reorganisation of the country as President of the National Bank, while trying to manage Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union and China.
Cuba was caught politically between two versions of Stalinism, needing the two powers for economic survival and necessarily, inevitably perhaps, accommodating to the demands placed by each bureaucratic leadership, mainly with that in Moscow which, at one moment sought status from links with revolutionary anti-colonial movements and at the next sought to contain those movements in order to safeguard diplomatic relations with imperialism. Peking was a dangerous counterweight to that, dangerous to the revolutionary left, no more democratic, less powerful on the world stage but with more prestige in the so-called ‘third world’.
J26M was merged with the student Revolutionary Directorate and the Popular Socialist Party in 1961, and in 1963 the United Party of Socialist Revolution was formed, accompanied by a purge of nearly half the membership. These years, seeing attempted invasion by the United States at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, the missile crisis in October 1962 (a standoff in which the Cuban government had no say over what was being threatened and negotiated between the two superpowers), and the US blockade lasting to the present day, are when the shape of the one party, officially re-launched as the Cuban Communist Party in 1965, the one that now governs this island of little over 11 million people, was forged.
Today it is not sugar but tourism that is touted by the regime as a key economic driver; President Miguel Díaz-Caneldeclared in early 2019 that every tourist to Cuba is breaking the blockade, a blockade tightened by the Trump regime following 60 years of pressure, sabotage, terrorist attacks and assassination attempts designed to bring Cuba back into line as a client state of imperialism. More than half of Cuba’s food comes from imports, and now it must also import tourists. Guevara, murdered in Bolivia in 1967, and Castro, who died in 2016, might be gone, but the regime is still searching for new ways to circumvent the blockade as something that functions not only as a political-economic choke-hold on the Cuban people but also symbolically as an isolation device, threatening to enforce the impossible idea that only ‘socialism in one country’ can be, and must be, constructed here, an island of socialism in a sea of sharks and crooks intent on getting their property back, getting all property back into private hands.
Cuba is a case example of the way international context, the balance of forces in a world that is still capitalist, now more intensely and triumphantly hostile than ever to socialism after the transition to capitalism that took place in Russia and then China, enters into the political organisation and everyday institutions and the mindset of those who support and of those who oppose the regime in this enclosed trapped space. Every step forward, every step towards reform, and every attempt to adapt the country to the changing balance of forces is marked by the consequences of isolation. The consequences are practical, direct restrictions on what is available and how people can live and how they are materially divided from each other, and ideological, how the Cuban people, and we who would wish to build solidarity with what remains of what became a successful and enduring anti-capitalist revolt against the US in its backyard, make sense of this, how reality is filtered. What we see when we are there is filtered by the contradictory play of forces, and filtered for a visitor even before they arrive.
First filter, for visitors, comprises the competing images of Cuba as anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist icon and of it as state-managed top-down authoritarian regime. We know that, know that there are those competing images, but what is worst is the way this filter is reconfigured in the tourist guide-books, the most insidious of which at the moment is the CubaConga 2019 ‘underground guide’. This is an excellent place to begin, actually, for it neatly pits itself against the bland ‘introductions’ to Cuban reality that the most popular travel handbooks dish up, and it plays into the suspicion that these handbooks are playing safe. All information about Cuba, it warns, is ‘tainted’, and worse than that, ‘nothing is as it seems’. CubaConga 2019 plays on the motif of the video game – the reference in the title is to the 1980s arcade favourite Donkey Kong which spawned the Mario series – promising to raise the visitor up to level 5, warning them that they will never make the top level. This because under ‘tropical communism’, we are told, life is one big scam; every Cuban will be out to scam you, just as they scam the system and each other. No one in Cuba really works, nothing works, and you better get ready to be treated as what the Cubans called a ‘yuma’; a ‘yuma’ is a visitor, gringo or not, waiting to be squeezed of their money, and all the better if they can be shared, in which case they become what is known locally as a ‘punto’. In this way the visitor is launched into a paranoiac journey where they will distrust everything that is told them and everyone they meet. The CubaConga 2019 guide exemplifies the operations of ‘fake news’, feeding suspicion, with the message ‘nothing is what it seems’ seeming to undermine ideology while simultaneously reinstating it, discrediting each fact in the name of revealing the facts to be simply elements in the game.
Once we are in this paranoid universe, one that is antithetical to any solidarity that the visitor may feel for Cuba, every disconfirmation of the handy information this guide offers is further evidence that nothing is what it seems; the game has simply been quickly upgraded to fool the player. But I will tell you anyway that; when the CubaConga guide informs you that you can only buy roadmaps of Cuba in the departure lounge of Havana Airport, that is a funny fact, but incorrect; that none of the owners of the ‘Casas Particulares’ – licensed bed and breakfast home-stay accommodations – we stayed in were ‘elite’ members of the Cuban Communist Party intent on stopping you from talking to ordinary people, unless they were good liars; that you will not be made to pay extra car service costs by state rental firm Havanauto on your return to the airport, in fact our car, a bit ropy with a weird tiny battery, was fixed twice free, and then we were given a replacement car; that you will not be overcharged in hotels and restaurants, every bill was accurate, in some cases effectively rounded down. This even in taxis after we had been warned by locals that you should take care not to be squeezed, and taxis were organised for us – something CubaConga 2019 would tell you is the sure sign that you will be squeezed again – were in line with the agreed fare. In one ‘cafeteria’ near the north-west coast, the hot old woman owner showed us her medicines, complained about her health and climate change, but didn’t want to charge us for the coffees. Some people were reticent, more about that in a moment, but it was not at all a case of having to read between the lines, but being prepared to have open conversations when it was possible and listen to what people said.
Twenty years ago, my last visit to Cuba, was toward the end of the ‘Special Period’, an awfully difficult time in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when the sugar and oil agreements were ended, as was all other aid, aid that was necessary to counter the effects of the US-led blockade. The country was just beginning to pull itself out of economic hardship and, in some cases, hunger, hunger that was only alleviated by the ration system. Twenty years ago, yes, I got badly ill after eating in an illegal home restaurant while driving down the battered bicycle and donkey-strewn highway to Santa Clara and Trinidad de Cuba south-east of Havana, and I was hassled to give the guy who found accommodation with a freezing cold shower more money afterwards. But where have I not been treated as a money-tree and shaken down by poor people, something that is quite understandable. In some parts of the world a network of tourist police cracks down on this kind of thing, intensifying oppression and exploitation rather than addressing it. Is that what you want? This time out to the west of Havana, both in areas near the coast where there were few tourists and inland where there were many, we were given gifts of local food to see us on our way, we were not ‘squeezed’. What contradictions there were, were in the main more open and transparent than they are under full-blown neoliberal capitalism where the scam-element is woven into every promise and delivery of a good or a service.
The second practical-ideological filter on the visitor experience comes into play in the very real division between the two currencies (a division that is now being re-evaluated by the Cuban government). For visitors to the country there is the CUC, the Convertible Cuban Peso which is directly pegged to the US Dollar, one for one; and for the locals there is the Cuban Peso which currently runs at about 25 to a dollar. The CUCs have images of monuments on, and the Cuban Pesos have images of famous figures (the 1 with Jose Martí, the 3, rarer, sold on the Havana streets to tourists, with Che Guevara on it).
This currency division effectively divides the country into two layers. The first layer is the state-organised economy, the bedrock of the political-economic basis of the revolution that was laid down in 1959. It is at this level that the rationing system works. A small quota of milk, sugar, flour, coffee and other essentials are available at very low cost. This ration system continues today – in one simple ration centre, the guy sweeping the place up at the end of the day invited us in and showed us the table of goods and prices. Children and pensioners will get the basic goods free of charge. So, the actual cost of living in Cuba is about a third lower than in the UK, and rent is nearly 80% lower. The pay is low, and seems at first sight lower still when it is calculated in the Cuban Pesos in which it is paid, but then the cost of accommodation is incredibly low, and education and health are, of course, free. A basic level of housing, social and welfare support are thus provided, from which the remaining Cuban Pesos can be set aside for ‘luxuries’, but then again, this currency is actually useless for anything beyond housing, collective transport and the local restaurants. For that you need to have access to the CUCS.
It is those who have access to the CUCS who circulate in the second layer, the one in which tourists experience Cuba most of the time, and this monetary division often goes alongside geographical division. There are visitors who now travel outside Havana into the countryside, especially to holiday towns like Viñales to the west which are often packed with Western day-trippers spending CUCS, and some who hire cars, but this is still unusual, and several times we were asked, with some astonishment, why were not in Varadero, spending our time, and money, in one of the all-inclusive beach resorts. Life with the CUCS is effectively more like life under neoliberal capitalism, where there is precarious and sometimes lucrative employment; to rise from the world of the Cuban Peso into the world of the CUCS is to touch the tourist economy and to function as part of the service sector, from which come the images of ‘yumas’ and ‘puntos’; here, as under capitalism in any other part of the world, things and people are turned into commodities.
One taxi driver told us that he used to work as an engineer, and got 1000 Pesos a month, but then shifted over to tourist work because he got better paid, and he then had access to CUCS. Owners of Casas Particulares may not be CCP members, but they are lifted away from the rest of the population through their access to the CUC economy. These CUCS are valuable, for what they signify and for what they can actually buy. At La Roca restaurant in Havana – an old cheap state-run restaurant with an old slow jazz orchestra playing to a small audience of diners – we handed over a 50 CUC note, which was then passed up from the waitress to the cashier and then to manager. There was a tiny nick out of the corner of the note, and so it was returned to us, refused because, we were told, the overall manager, when they saw it, would refuse it.
At the currency exchange at Havana’s José Martí International Airport on my way out of the country the woman in front of me in the long queue to change CUC convertible currency back into Western currency again was a Cuban woman. She was not travelling, but had come in to the airport just to change money, from US Dollars into CUC. We waited for nearly an hour before it was her turn to go to the counter. She handed over five Dollars, one of which was refused because there was a little tear in the note, and came away from the counter with four CUC.
The third filter is an unavoidable one which separates out the life-world of the tourist from the world backstage. You see the signs for the operation of Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the network of CDRs that have formed the local backbone of the revolution since 1960, but you don’t, of course, see how these work. Glimpses of their representative and sometimes coercive function are but that, glimpses. There were advantages to hiring a car and driving the pot-holed country roads away from the main tourist centres, and there were many disadvantages to long journeys in battered cars on difficult terrain. Hitch-hikers were grateful for a lift. One woman we picked up near Bahia Honda way east of Havana was travelling, she said, to her church in the next village. Cuba now defines itself as a ‘secular’ state rather than as atheist, and though Jehovah’s Witnesses have had a hard time – banned from organising in 1974, and so about 3,000 left in 1980 from Mariel, a time when those who fled were referred to as ‘gusanos’ (worms) – there are still Roman Catholic churches and, increasingly, evangelical Pentecostal churches, for one of which our evangelical hitchhiker on this occasion was a worker. The Roman Catholic church claims that 60% of the population are of their flock, though actual attendance is actually between 1 and 2 percent. This woman said that in that part of the country things were pretty evenly split, among believers, between Roman Catholics and Pentecostals. We asked her what her work was, and she said she worked as a teacher. What did she teach? ‘The Creation!’
There is still Santeria, Afro-Cuban local religion from the old slave times, with competing stories about whether this was celebrated or dissuaded by the CDRs, probably both. And there were competing stories about Jews. We were told by one opposition activist, for example, that most of the Jews had left the country after the revolution, some to go to Israel, some to the United States, where there are now specific ethnic Cuban-Jewish communities. But we found an active synagogue in Havana, and we were told by a Lebanese family-background maintenance man in one Casa Particular on the edge of Havana that, no, there was an extant Jewish community, but they kept out of politics. This guy also told us that after the revolution he had to give over the top floor of his large house to homeless people, but he didn’t complain about this, accepted it as part of the process of fair redistribution of resources he was living through. We were told that there were some converts to Islam, and that there had been some fights between Sunni and Shia in the street recently. Among the opposition there is also some contempt for the progressive shift made by the Cuban government under the impact of HIV/AIDS to active support for LGBT rights (something that pits the government against the Catholic Church), and contempt for the quite good, not perfect, public policy and information campaigns against sexism and racism.
In Viñales on the main stretch there was a brightly painted Freemasons Hall, open, it said, on Saturday morning at 9am. This is a reminder that the freemasons were the guild organisations of the bourgeoisie, progressive at one point in our history as the bourgeoisie replaced feudal rulers, but reactionary now in the West where capitalism is entrenched and the freemasons remain dedicated to its existence. In Latin America, where the bourgeois independence struggles came later, the freemasons played a progressive role within living memory, and key figures like José Martí and Simon Bólívar were members. Remember that the Cuban revolution was a bourgeois-democratic revolution against US imperialism that then had to grow over into socialism in order to carry out the basic bourgeois-democratic tasks, it was an instance of ‘permanent revolution’.
There is some suspicion of the CCP, but not, as you might expect, a sense that membership is necessary to advance through a career or to get special privileges. In fact, despite Castro’s decision, after the death of Guevara in Bolivia – death which followed brave if mistaken attempts to extend the revolution through ‘foco’ guerrilla warfare – to put in place financial incentives, and despite the selective distribution of television sets and other electo-domestic goods to ‘vangard’ party members in the 1980s, there is still not a privileged class layer of the population in anything like the same way as exists outside the country (whether in the remaining Stalinist states or in the capitalist countries). We spoke to young lecturers in Havana University who shrugged their shoulders as they told us that while the average wage is around 1000 pesos a month for skilled workers, it is 600 pesos for academics; but why not pay those who have worse jobs more money? These young academics were rather distant from the regime, pointing out the private restaurants that were, they said, much better than the state ones. When we asked them if they were members of the CCP, they said that, no, the party was for old people, something quite evident in the televised reports of meetings on the television. But when we asked them if they thought they should join the CCP, they said, no, they had never felt it would be a disadvantage not to be a member, so no point joining. As for Marxism, if Marxism meant falling in line with the ‘Sino-Vietnamese’ model much vaunted by the regime at the moment, then, no, they were not Marxists, but if it meant that one could be critical while supportive, then that was another question. The big battle in the Department of Philosophy, they told me, was over changing the title of the degree, which was actually a general degree in philosophy, so that it would not be a degree in ‘Marxist-Leninist Philosophy’, a title that was a millstone around the neck of any young academic who then wanted to go and study elsewhere.
A sprightly woman in her seventies, not the owner of a Casa Particular, told me that she had been a student activist before the revolution, an exciting time, she said, with continuous perilous activity that she enjoyed very much. We asked her if she was a ‘communist’, and she said no, but then elaborated a detailed narrative for why this was so, one that was at one with the revolution she had lived through, not against it. Yes, she remembered that in the early years of the revolution, time when there were still armed counter-revolutionary groups engaging in sabotage, she had heard the noise of gunfire early in the morning in Havana as opponents were seized and shot. The death penalty was restored in Cuba under the new regime. This woman was not a member of the Cuban Communist Party, but the reason she would not call herself a communist was because this was surely, she said, a state of being to be aimed for, not one that we could or should imagine to be achieved now. I was reminded of Che Guevara’s rather moralistic injunctions to the Cuban people to work harder to build socialism as a function of aiming to build what he called the ‘New Man’, not to rely on material incentives. The office building Guevara oversaw the construction of did not, apparently, have elevators because, he argued, it was better that office workers get some exercise climbing the stairs.
There were, in the early years, immense political differences between the three different organisations that were brought together first into the Integrated Revolutionary Organisations, in 1961, then into the United Party of Socialist Revolution two years later and then into the Communist Party of Cuba, which was founded in 1965 and which had its first congress ten years after that. Castro and Guevara’s J26M had, of course, been forged primarily in the peasant struggle, and it needed to link with the student Revolutionary Directorate which was based mainly in the towns and in Havana, which was then and is still the largest city in the Caribbean. And J26M needed a disciplined organisational resource base that was to be found in the Popular Socialist Party which had been founded way back in 1925 as the local communist party, section of the Third International, and so tightly controlled by Moscow.
Here is the internal local root of the problem that Cuba has faced from the beginning, a root of the problem of Stalinist bureaucracy that was intertwined with the Soviet compact. It should never be forgotten that the Popular Socialist Party, PSP, actually supported Batista right until the last moment, opposed the Havana General Strike that was called to support the J26M guerrillas in the countryside, and tried to put the brakes on the nationalisations that turned Cuba into something like a workers state. There are three elements of this direct local influence of Stalinism on Cuba that gives to Cuba both a bureaucratic and a deserved ‘Radical Face of Stalinism’ and which Castro and Guevara, at times, fought.
The first is the political apparatus that J26M lacked, and which it needed in order to be able to govern the country. The twists and turns of the PSP as it followed one disastrous line given by Moscow to the next had the effect, as with other communist parties that were franchises of the Third International, of hardening the organisation, making its leadership all the more obedient while all the better placed to give orders, to enforce top-down administrative rule.
The second element of the direct local influence of Stalinism was the commitment of the PSP and then the continuing Stalinist apparatus inside the CCP from 1965 to a ‘stage’ notion of historical-political development in which the ‘national democratic’ stage must come first, and only then can the ‘socialist’ stage be advanced. In countries dependent on imperialism, as Cuba was dependent on the United States up until 1959, that meant that the Stalinists opposed the revolution growing over from carrying out basic bourgeois democratic tasks by engaging in socialist revolution. We are not there yet, but this revolutionary space is blocked, distorted, waiting its moment to flower again.
The third element is the classic distortion of Marxism expressed in Stalin’s notorious phrase ‘socialism in one country’. Here in Cuba it means not merely an attempt to cope with the brute reality of the situation, to make the best of the isolation the country suffered, and then to attempt to break out of that isolation (as Guevara tried to do in the Congo and then, fatefully in Bolivia), but to twist the narrative into celebration of this isolation. The celebration of socialism in one country not only leads to nationalist distortions, something that Cuba has bravely challenged – with an internationalism that is also, then, tangled in the manoeuvres of the Soviet bureaucracy, but an internationalist spirit nonetheless – but also to a concordat with other regimes around Latin America, and around the world that call themselves socialist but are not, or with others that would not even claim to be so.
Together these three elements have enabled hard-line pro-Soviet forces inside the regime to sometimes gain ascendency, and for Castro, after Guevara’s death, to wobble between critique and praise of his Soviet ally; this leading him, for example, to endorse the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – a turning point for Cuban foreign policy – and to condemn Solidarnosc in Poland in 1980.
The symbolic re-framing of Cuba as if it were merely another iteration of Soviet rule can be seen in documentary films such as the 1964 I Am Cuba, a film that is effectively unravelled in interviews and quasi-semiotic analysis by the 2004 Brazilian documentary The Siberian Mammoth. Inside Cuba, despite the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ tag-line in the constitution, there are busts aplenty not of Marx or Lenin, but of José Martí, a revolutionary democratic leader of the movement for independence from Spain who was killed by the Spanish in 1895. In a case of history repeating itself, this first time in Cuba as tragedy, we might say, the movement Martí led was actually ‘annexationist’ rather than ‘secessionist’; the aim was to break from Spain and attach to the United States; in this first round repeat performance during the Cuban revolution of 1959 we see the regime surviving by breaking from the United States and ending up in hock to the Soviet Union.
The isolation that has distorted, even, if some analysts are to be believed, ‘deformed’ this worker’s state from day one, is welcomed by those who would wish to crush the life out of anything remaining of the revolutionary hopes of late 1950s. Owners of the Casas Particulares said that business was bad with the tightening of the blockade by Trump, with a sharp decrease in numbers of visitors from the United States, and we could see that many of them were empty. But for those who are intent on bringing down the regime, an increase in hardship is the price worth paying, and would even be better because it would also result in more dissatisfaction with the government.
We had a long conversation with an opposition activist, the son of a friend who had left Cuba, who made it clear that for him the blockade and Trump’s recent pronouncements about human rights were good things, at last the opposition had an ally in the White House, in contrast to the tentative links that Obama had made with Havana. Trump tells the truth, we were told, and, when pushed, this guy said that although it would be bad, although it was not what he wanted, he would go so far as to support an invasion by the United States, because, he said, they, the regime, ‘they are killing us’. He was against the recent election of López Obrador because that would relax blockade pressure from Mexico, and against the recent pension and ration and minimum-wage increases because that would mean that the population would be more contented with the regime.
There was also delighted support by him for Jair Bolsonaro’s reference to the Cuban doctors as ‘slaves’. We knew that medical training is a big thing in Cuba, and not at all the elite specialised technocratic enterprise it has become in so many parts of the so-called developed world. A Mexican friend’s son training to be a doctor had elected to do his placement in Santa Clara, for example, and he described how the lack of up-to-date medical equipment – the lack a function of the blockade – actually meant that doctors were trained to feel and interpret the body. Their expertise really was hands-on, and the treatment was geared to the lives of the patients rather than to the needs of the large pharmaceutical companies. Medicine was geared to health rather than to profit. One of the hitch-hikers we picked up was travelling with her niece to the small town of La Palma to do shopping and, she said, to buy medicine. Her niece would, she said, be enrolling in medical school in Pinar del Rio, the nearest large city, and it didn’t seem a big deal. This woman was otherwise quite scornful about local provision of services, but medical training was taken for granted as something that was available to everyone. There has been a huge outflow of medical expertise and of development of medical training. 400,000 medical professionals working in 165 different countries since 1960, and, with 31,000 students from 103 different countries coming to Cuba to be trained in its Latin American School of Medicine since 1998. Life expectancy in Cuba is currently 79 years, high given the conditions it has been exposed to by its neighbour to the north for daring to defy it.
The doctors working abroad are ‘slaves’, according to Bolsonaro, because the Cuban government draws up the contract for them to work abroad, obtains 4,000 pesos a month, and then passes on only 1,000 of this to the doctor. But the contract is quite clear, and the doctor chooses to sign up, and the wage they send home is good payment. Our opposition activist would have none of this, pointing to the difficulty that the doctor then had in breaking from the contract, or returning home to be with their family in case of domestic crisis, illness or death. This is true, and there is a degree of bureaucratic control, and monitoring of the population that is uncomfortable. It is true but clear, unfortunate but understandable in a country still effectively on war footing against the United States.
When we asked our oppositional activist friend what he thought about Trump and Bolsonaro, he said he didn’t care; all he cared about was, in a mantra relayed through the Madrid-based online paper Diario de Cuba from the US state department, ‘freedom of association’, ‘freedom of movement’ and ‘representative democracy’. Yes to freedom of association – that is happening in effect with access, in 2019 to the internet an instant group social media messaging, and yes to freedom of movement, but ‘representative democracy’ where those with the most money have access to propaganda tools turns democracy into a market-place with a corrupt layer of ‘politicians’; then we will be in the world described by CubaConga2019. One owner of a Casa Particular complained that their kids were now spending their time playing games on the internet. What the guys who wrote CubaConga2019 are unable to reflect on is the fact that the metaphor of the Donkey Kong video game expresses perfectly the condition of life under capitalist fake democracy; everyone is encouraged to scam everyone else in the field of politics. For the oppositional activist, it was as if, in a message in reverse, we had the true meaning of what ‘socialism in on country’ means. This was ‘reaction to socialism’ in one country.
Here is a paradox. We were told that people cannot move freely around the country, and there is a particular problem for those who would want to relocate their families or find work outside their home town. Dervla Murphy’s typically idiosyncratic 2009 The Island That Dared: Journeys in Cuba, a book which was commended by the British Communist Party paper Morning Star in the UK (a reliable barometer of Stalinist solidarity sensibility), doesn’t pull its punches on the bureaucratic pettiness that can mark some encounters of ordinary people with the system of rules, rules which are sometimes inflexible and harsh, sometimes relaxed and humanised. For example, despite the oft-repeated claim that people outside the tourist convertible economy are wary of interacting with foreigners, we found ready takers for offers of rides in our car from village to village, and we heard from locals who complained bitterly about the state of the roads, and laughed contemptuously when we asked what local representative body they might talk to in order that things might be put right. When it came down to it, the complaint was about lack of resources, lack of goods, and lack of medicines. One woman asked us to let her out of the car just before we arrived at the town she was aiming for – there for her fortnightly shop – and was quite clear that this was because she needed to check into the police station to register her presence there for the day. She said she would rather walk along to the police station than have us drive her there, in case questions were asked. We dropped her and watched her as she popped in and out of the police station, and then carried on to do her shopping. Perhaps she also told the police about us, who knows.
An older woman, not a member of the CCP, described to us the ethical dilemma the blockade posed for her. She, not incidentally, was someone who tactfully talked about Cuban friends who had chosen to live abroad, neither referring to them as ‘gusanos’, as was once the way at the time of one of the many mass exoduses permitted if not encouraged by the Cuban state, nor referring to them as ‘mariposas’, the wonderful wealthy creatures who returned later. (8% of the population, of which many were middle class professionals in addition to the very wealthy and the crime gangs who ran the casinos and brothels, left in the years after the revolution.) There were, this woman said, medicines available for her outside Cuba, and so, because of the blockade, unobtainable. If she thought about this question as an ‘individual’ question – as one concerning only her own rights to the medicine – then she might feel sad and even bitter about it, but if she thought about this as a collective question which spoke of the plight of the Cuban people as a whole facing unfair sanctions for taking back their country under their own control, then, no, that was a different matter.
Human rights cannot be reduced to basic provision of food and education, as some more hard-faced Stalinist supporters of every twist and turn of the regime will make out, and revolutionary Marxists should insist that more opportunity for critical political critique is the pre-requisite for better social organisation, not a hindrance to it. However, it should be remembered that the political-economic basis for human rights is exactly what is being attacked by the imperialist powers circling Cuba. Trump and Bolsonaro do this in the name of ‘Human Rights’, and so we need to be clear where we stand on this. Those political-economic gains of the revolution need to be vigorously defended, gains which include, note, that infant mortality in Cuba is now lower than it is in the United States, that over half of Cuban MPs are women, the second highest proportion in the world, that forest cover in Cuba is now up to 30% compared with 11% before 1959, and that diseases have been eradicated in Cuba that have are beginning to reappear in other parts of the world afflicted by poverty and corruption.
It is astonishing that Cuba has survived so close to the United States, and so all the greater threat to the oppressed there who might dare to take back into their own hands the wealth they had created for the few. It has been under pressure of the blockade which denies the basic trade links that are the lifeblood of a globalised world, under pressure from the Soviet Union to imitate its own bureaucratic forms of rule, and then more isolated through the ‘Special Period’ and collapse of Soviet aid in the 1990s. It has come through all this to the current oil-dependent relationship with Venezuela, a capitalist country where the regime is clinging onto power and also faces invasion threats from the United States.
Solidarity with Cuba as a revolutionary break from imperialism would be easier for us, for revolutionary Marxists, if our own Trotskyist comrades had not taken such bizarre political positions during the crucial years at the beginning of the 1960s and if the Cuban leadership had not fallen in line with some of the worse Stalinist caricatures of Trotskyism. The Trotskyist POR(T) were followers of Juan Posadas, issuing ultimatums to the regime to move fast and then, incredibly, urging the Soviet Union to unleash a worker’s ‘Atomic War’ with a first strike on the United States. Guevara, for his part, first defended the ‘comrade Trotskyists’, but then defended the smashing of the printing plates for a copy of Trotsky’s 1936 very relevant classic The Revolution Betrayed. Guevara had a copy of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution in his knapsack when he was caught and killed. Against this background, it is all the more understandable, if regrettable, that Castro should denounce Trotskyism as counterrevolutionary, a line taken direct from the Stalinists. From these contradictory indications as to the political leanings of the Cuban leadership also flow some of the more ridiculous notions in the Trotskyist movement, that Castro is an ‘unconscious Trotskyist’ on the one hand, or that there could not have been a revolution because there was not revolutionary Trotskyist party leading it on the other. This double-failure, a political failure of analysis and leadership at crucial moments since 1959 has then led revolutionaries themselves to oscillate between starry-eyed enthusiasm for the regime and over-harsh condemnation which chimes with imperialist attempts to destroy what remains of this beacon of hope.
Earlier in 2019 there was a Trotsky conference in Havana – good – a positive event, but at the same time the organisers made clear that they wanted an ‘academic’ debate, and they did not want this to lead to the little sects arriving and trying to set up their own franchise groups on the island. External quarantine leads inevitably to internal quarantine. When I asked the young lecturers at Havana University, and they were interested in alternative approaches to Marxism, doing theses on the work of one-time Trotskyists Perry Anderson and Terry Eagleton, they said they had never heard of the Trotsky conference.
Of course the Cuban revolution faltered, it could not do otherwise, but in this very incomplete imperfect process there exist the grounds for hope that the revolution might be extended, as it must be in order for Cuba to survive. The blockade will either be lifted in such a way as to allow US-American capital to flow in and for property to be re-privatised, for the misery of life under capitalism to return, with massive wage and status differentials. Or the blockade will be broken through active solidarity with what is most alive in Cuba now. What is most alive in Cuba now is what resists the encroachment of imperialism in the country, for sure – that is where the debates about whether it is a ‘deformed worker’s state’ or ‘state capitalism’ come into play – but also what is most alive in Cuba is the inspiration it gives to revolutionaries outside. This was possible here, something was possible, and such a thing might be possible again somewhere else, in many places; international socialist solidarity and action for Cuba is crucial if the revolution is to become something real for us all.
Ian Parker, September 2019
First posted at Fourth International in Manchester Group
Photos: Ian Parker