Cuba now has a new president. He is 57-year old Miguel Diaz-Canel, who takes over from Raul Castro, while Castro remains the General Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. This is a significant development, marking a gradual transition of power, from the “historic generation” that waged the Cuban revolution.
It also presents yet another opportunity for revolutionary socialists to reflect on the experience of Cuba, with perspectives on where the island country has come from, over the last seven decades, and the direction it is likely to go soon. Such analysis would be invaluable for theoretically and politically arming today’s generation of socialist workers and youth.
The Cuban revolution was one of the most inspiring political developments in the 20th century, particularly for change-seeking elements in the Third World. For decades before 1 January 1959, the country was a playground for rich Americans, including the mafia. The government of Fulgencio Batista was more concerned with keeping the American government and bosses happy than making life better for poor Cubans, 20,000 of which it murdered in seven years.
Led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto Ché Guevera, the 26th of July Movement and its Rebel Army catalysed a mood of ungovernability of the country, which made Batista the dictator flee from Havana. Indeed, few persons put the situation in Cuba before the revolution in as graphic terms as John F. Kennedy, a former president of the United States, when he said:
“I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime.”
But this did not stop Kennedy from ordering the invasion of Cuba through the Bay of Pigs barely two years after the triumph of the revolutionary guerrillas. The invasion was repulsed, raising the stature of Cuba as a David to the United States’ status of an imperialist Goliath.
And despite the most long lasting and comprehensive economic blockade against any country in history, which USA instituted against the Cuban people, social services such as health and education became universally accessible under Castroism. Today, the country has one of the best healthcare systems in the world; a fact reluctantly accepted by some of its arch-enemies.
The projection of Castroism abroad also included some of the most palpable expressions of solidarity last century. Tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers fought side by side with African guerrillas in the national liberation movements that overthrew Portuguese colonialism in Angola and Mozambique. Cuban doctors and other health workers have also been deployed to several Third World countries at different times to help build these, including Nigeria.
With these background, the sort of passion for Cuba which radical and revolutionary workers and youths feel is understandable. It is however the more reason why, as socialists, we should better understand what exactly Cuba has been, and thus the nature of its transition.
There are two important pillars for a scientific framing of the Cuban revolution. First, socialism is the self-emancipation of the working-class, in overthrowing the yoke of the bosses’ rule as well as in building a new society. Second, the socialist revolution can only be an international revolution.
The 26th July Movement was an organisation of middle-class professionals, even though with the best intentions. And the Rebel Army which was its arrow-head sank its anchor of arms within the peasantry, so to speak, and not the working-class which played at best a secondary role in the radical-nationalist movement of July 26.
Subsequent to the triumph of the Castroist revolution, real power continued to reside in the hands of a class of bureaucrats, party men and women from the districts to the national level, who actually ran the economy on the basis of the state as the sole personification of capital. Formal structures of people’s power did not translate into democracy from below.
And while a strong sense of internationalism was intertwined with fierce patriotism, the success of a popular revolution in Cuba did not go apace with consummation of revolution across the world. This partly sealed the fate of the country as a part of the Stalinist USSR empire.
The collapse of the USSR bloc in the early 1990s posed severe crisis for Cuba, which had relied greatly on this bloc for trade and aid. It entered a “special period in time of peace”. This was marked by rationing, cuts in public spending and a gradual introduction of market capitalism into the commandist state capitalist system that had been in place for almost half a century.
The older generation which witnessed the revolution were more tolerant of the hardships they had to face despite sharp falls in wages and pensions. But this was not the case with the youth who could not understand why they had to go through such deprivations and came to identify this with what socialism is meant to be.
But the authoritarian Cuban state held together a semblance of order. The coming to power of Hugo Chavez in oil-rich Venezuela in 2002 gave the Cuban state a reprieve from imminent economic catastrophe. His death five years back, at a time that oil prices had crashed, led to renewed crisis for the Cuban economy.
Increasing market reforms (which the main beneficiaries of are leading members of the party apparatus at different levels) on one hand and on the other hand, rapprochement with the United States particularly under Barrack Obama were desperate measures that the Cuban state was forced to take to stay afloat economically, after that.
It is within this context that the transition in Cuba can be best understood, as well as the partnerships with governments like Kenya for the recruitment of Cuban doctors who will take as much as ten times what local doctors earn, all in a bid for the East African state to repress local health professionals demanding better working conditions. This is, in a sense, an unfortunate reversal of the history of solidarity of Cuba with Africa.
Miguel Diaz-Canel, the new president has promised to uphold Cuba as a supposedly socialist, while moving on with the market reforms. This to him, as he made clear last year when he was Vice-President under Raul Castro, means that the Cuban state will continue to suppress dissenting voices.
Indeed, Cuba is neither socialist, nor can it afford to allow the growth of an opposition (which also would most likely express market capitalist ideologies due to years of a monolithic rule that had stifled the possible growth of alternative socialist ideas).
But the question which the coming years will provide an answer to is: can the Cuban bureaucratic class manage its transition to becoming a fully bourgeois class controlling what continues to largely be a state capitalist economy, as was done in China?
Or will the limited forces of liberal capitalism get stronger and more confident to be able to force a sideways step into full market capitalism, supposedly in the name of the people as we saw in Russia almost thirty years ago?
However way things turn out, while we continue to be inspired by the charismatic and self-sacrificing struggle of the 1950s revolutionaries in Cuban, as socialists, we must draw important lessons. No matter how genuine our cause is, we must not only say, as Che Guevara said that: “liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves”.
We must walk that talk in every sense of the word, including instituting democracy from below as the heart and soul of socialist transformation and fighting to win socialism across the length and breadth of the world, for capitalism to become history.
by Baba AYE