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Thousands of international guests joined 300,000 Cubans in Havana December 2 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the birth of Cuba’s revolutionary army in struggle against the Batista dictatorship as well as Fidel Castro’s 80th birthday. Among them were three notable leaders from abroad: Bolivian president Evo Morales, Nicaraguan president-elect Daniel Ortega, and Haitian president René Preval — all recently elected against the will of U.S. imperialism.
Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, whose government is Cuba’s closest ally, stayed home to prepare for presidential elections the following day. When the results came in, he dedicated his victory to revolutionary Cuba and Fidel Castro.
The presidents’ tributes, in a time of rising popular struggles across Latin America, symbolized a turn in the road for Cuba: the embattled island no longer stands alone.
Speaking on December 2, Acting President Raúl Castro underlined his government’s continued intransigence. Despite Washington’s “brazen inference,” he said, “popular and revolutionary movements are getting stronger” across Latin America.
The U.S. attempt to “economically annex Latin America by way of the FTAA [Free Trade Agreement of the Americas] was thwarted,” Raúl said. Meanwhile, ALBA, the framework for fraternal economic collaboration backed by Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, “is taking its place . . . to benefit the dispossessed masses.” (For Raul’s speech, see Periódico Vanguardia. Regarding ALBA [the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas], see Socialist Voice #26.)
The ailing Fidel Castro sent greetings but did not attend the celebration. Still, the spirit of this event, and everything that has happened since Fidel withdrew from governmental posts, shows that the transition to a new leadership team has not weakened the revolution.
For 50 years, the Cuban revolution has seen its fate as tied to the world struggle against imperialism and for human solidarity. It has committed its slender resources to support these movements. Today, the gains of popular movements in Latin America are opening new prospects for Cuba. And tens of thousands of Cuban working people are taking part in humanitarian aid abroad, including in Venezuela, Bolivia, Haiti, East Timor, Pakistan, and Africa.
Meanwhile, as Raúl noted, the U.S.-led “so-called ‘crusade on terrorism’ is heading down the path to inevitable and humiliating defeat.”
In Latin America, according to Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s national assembly, “the current situation is better than that which the Bolsheviks encountered,” referring to the revolutionary crisis that swept Russia in 1917 (La Jornada 16 Nov 2006).
Conversely, Cuba has helped inspire and shape the Latin American upsurge.
Cuba’s achievements and creativity in health care, education, sports, cultural activities, and biotechnology — unique in the Third World — are widely acknowledged.
Less known is the success of the Cuban tourist industry in building the domestic economy by supplying two-thirds of visitors’ needs from within the island, compared to a norm of 10%-25% elsewhere in the Caribbean (Hal Klepak, Cuba’s Military, pp. 189-190).
Cuba has also created the world’s most successful model of non-intrusive humanitarian aid, which promotes rather than obstructs autonomous, endogenous development of Third World nations.
The Cubans have carried out major economic retrenchments, as in the sugar industry, by discussing through proposed adjustments with affected workers while guaranteeing them a continued livelihood and fully supported educational opportunities.
Cuba has been lauded by David Suzuki, among others, as the world leader in sustainable and ecologically sound food production, based on assuring to producers security of land tenure.
The World Wildlife Foundation, which compiles the world’s most authoritative comparison of national environmental conditions, has acknowledged, as Castro noted on December 2, that Cuba is “the only country on Earth to meet the minimum requirements for sustainable development” (see the WWF’s Living Planet Report).
Cuba’s progress in such fields has continued in the teeth of 15 years of bitter economic deprivation brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increasingly aggressive U.S. blockade — which placed the revolution’s survival in question.
Workers’ and Farmers’ Power
The Cuban revolution’s resilience rests on underlying strengths:
- It has won and maintained independence in an area that U.S. imperialism regarded and still regards as its exclusive subject domain.
- It has broken the economic grip of Cuban and foreign capitalists, so that priority could go to the people’s welfare, not private profit.
- It has built an army — backed by a massive people’s militia — that is loyal to Cuba’s working people and has a proud record of anti-imperialist combat abroad.
- It has engaged the working population in the exercise of political power, through a process that Alarcón calls “the parliamentarization of society.” (For a full discussion of Cuba’s political order, see Cuba: A Revolution in Motion, reviewed in Socialist Voice #15.)
- It has remained loyal to the revolution’s commitment to internationalism, to the world-wide struggle against imperialist domination and capitalist exploitation.
- Above all, for half a century it has maintained a state based on Cuba’s workers and farmers, one whose policies are shaped to defend their interests and to hold open the perspective of advancing toward socialism.
50 Years of Defiance
Despite this, many Marxists and radicals are sharply critical of Cuba. Their analysis focuses not on Cuba’s achievements, but on the features it shares with capitalist society (see Socialist Voice #99).
Many Marxists also fault Cuba for deviating from the blueprint of workers democracy said to have been realized in the Russian revolution, a standard to which — if truth be told — even the early Soviet republic did not measure up.
There is some validity to such criticisms. Cuba suffers from exploitation by capitalist investors and is under enormous pressure from world market forces. Characteristic capitalist evils such as social inequality and prejudice against Blacks or women, greatly reduced since the revolution, still survive in Cuba. They even regained some ground under the pressures of its economic crisis in the 1990s.
Moreover, the unrelenting U.S.-led campaign to forcibly overthrow Cuba’s government and social order distorts Cuba’s attempt to build a popular democracy, demanding of Cuba that it maintain a posture of full national unity in face of the external foe. The Cuban government justifiably believes the country would be imperiled if it gave free rein to “human rights organizations” or “NGOs” that are in fact inspired, sponsored, and financed by a U.S. government dedicated to subjugating the island.
But in the final analysis, the critics are missing the point. Cuba cannot achieve socialism within the confines of a small and underdeveloped island. It makes no sense to condemn Cuba for not achieving the impossible. What Cuba has done, with unparalleled success, is to end the political rule of the capitalist class, resist capitalist economic pressures, win as much ground as possible for socialist principles of human solidarity and production for human need rather than profit — and help open the door for other countries in the region to take the same path.
This has been acknowledged by Noam Chomsky, himself one of Cuba’s critics. “Cuba has become a symbol of courageous resistance to attack,” he says. Under the most severe conditions [Cubans] are doing things that others can’t do.” He cites “Cuba’s role in the liberation of Africa. It’s an astonishing achievement” (qtd. in Bernie Dwyer, “Cuba’s 50 Years of Defiance: An Interview with Noam Chomsky,” CounterPunch 3 Nov 2006).
This record is all the more astonishing given that despite errors, false starts, and setbacks, Cuba has persisted in defying imperialism and resisting capitalist pressure for 50 years.
No other revolution in world history has preserved its vitality and creativity over such a span of time. In this respect the Cuban achievement outshines that of the Bolsheviks, who were so quickly divided and undone by a counterrevolutionary bureaucracy.
The Special Period
Still, the last 15 years of hard times have left their mark on Cuba. In 1993, the low point of what the Cubans call their “Special Period in Time of Peace,” the island lost 30%-50% of its production and 80% of its ability to purchase needed inputs abroad (Klepak, Cuba’s Military, p. 48). Recovery was steady but painfully slow.
The worst is over now. The daily calorie intake of Cuban citizens, which fell dangerously low in the worst moments, has been restored; power blackouts are much less frequent; travel to work is easier. The economy as a whole is in full recovery. Moreover, the crisis was overcome largely through the Cuban people’s own ingenuity and initiative, and without impairing the country’s independence — good reason for pride.
But for Cuba to survive alone in the 1990s, without allies and despite the blockade, it had to grant significant concessions to capitalist investors from abroad and to small-scale entrepreneurs within Cuba. The gates were not opened wide — private capital and foreign trade remained subject to strict government control — but the result was a marked growth in social inequality, particularly between those who had access to dollars and those who did not.
Even in the worst days, Cuba was able to provide subsidized food and housing, free health care and education, to all citizens — a subsistence minimum. But beyond that, workers and their families had to rely on their own wits to get by.
The resulting pressures have been analyzed unsparingly by Cuban government leaders. In November 2005, Castro stated bluntly that “this country can self-destruct . . . and it would be our fault.” He stressed the problems of “thievery [of state property], diversion of materials, and money draining away towards the new rich.”
Francisco Soberón Valdés, head of Cuba’s national bank, explained the following month that for a worker today, “the money he earns . . . is not enough to buy products that are also necessary but are sold at market [i.e. unsubsidized] prices.”
During the same National Assembly discussion, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque described how these conditions undercut the socialist principle that “each receives according to their labour,” stimulating tendencies “to individualism, to saving your own skin.”
Under these conditions, said Pérez Roque, “to some degree, historical memory has been lost; a comparative understanding of what is happening in the world has been lost.” Some Cubans “have illusions about capitalism” — a comment that applies particularly to youth who know only the Special Period.
For Cuba there is no escape from the pressure of capitalist market forces.
Cuba needs its flourishing world of family-based enterprise — farmers, tradesmen, restaurant operators, and the like. Indeed the Cuban workers’ state provides uniquely favourable soil for such initiatives, free of exploitation by capitalist banks, franchisers, and suppliers.
Moreover, to speed its economic recovery, Cuba urgently needs investment capital. Its economic partnership with Venezuela provides an inspiring example of non-exploitative solidarity, but as things stand, most of the potential outside investment is capitalist in nature.
Capitalist investors in Cuba are locked into joint ventures that grant them little freedom of action. Even so, their activity encourages some local managers, technocrats, and Cubans with substantial savings to see their own and their country’s future in terms of capitalist, not socialist, development. To debate and counter this trend, the Cuban people will need to energetically utilize their popular organizations and democratic institutions.
Three Principles for Survival
In his December 2005 address, Pérez Roque proposed three principles to guide these struggles for the revolution’s survival:
- Leaders must continue to practice “an austere style of life.” Their families “must live in a manner no different from the people.”
- The people’s support must be maintained “on the basis not of material consumption but of ideas and convictions.”
- “Ultimately the decisive question is who receives the income. The majority, the people? Or the oligarchical minority, the transnationals, the pro-Yankees? Who owns the property: the people, the majority? Or the corrupt minority that serves the interests of the only policeman in the world who can guarantee their privileges in Cuba — Yankee imperialism?”
To this must be added Fidel’s promise a month earlier: “This nation will have every one of her citizens living fundamentally on their work and their pensions and retirement income,” without having to rely on sideline activities. This is a worthy goal, beyond what even wealthy Canada offers.
Meanwhile, Cuba must confront a U.S. government convinced that given Fidel’s illness, the time is ripe to unleash its plans for destabilization, regime change, and conquest.
Given the revolution’s evident strength, there are many calls in the U.S. for Washington to shift to a more flexible course. But in past decades, every such effort has shattered against the U.S. rulers’ united resolve to overthrow the Cuban government.
Washington has built a massive bureaucracy for this purpose. It has even named its Cuban proconsul-in-waiting: “transition coordinator” Caleb McCarry. A CIA “special advisor” on Cuba and Venezuela reports directly to the president — a distinction otherwise accorded only to Iran and North Korea. Five interagency groups coordinate the Cuban subversion campaign.
This formidable apparatus is now challenged to prove its worth by unleashing provocations against the Cuban government and people that can feed an orchestrated media outcry about “human rights.”
Cuba Stands Firm
In the face of these threats, Raúl Castro’s December 2 address celebrated the unity of the Cuban people, their Revolutionary Armed Forces, and the Cuban Communist Party. This unity, he said, is “our main strategic weapon, which has made it possible for this small island to resist and overcome so many aggressions from imperialism and its allies. This unity provides a basis for the internationalist work of the Cuban people and is the reason for the heroic deeds of its children in other countries around the world, following Marti’s maxim that ‘Homeland is Humanity.'”
The message from Havana is clear: Cuba stands firm!
Tens of millions of working people around the world find inspiration in this country that, despite all obstacles, has shown that “another world is possible.”
John Riddell is a co-editor of Socialist Voice. This article has also been accepted for publication in the January issue of Relay, magazine of Socialist Project in Toronto.