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The following article is a first draft of a more extensive paper to be given at our Latin America school, to be held in Wicklow at the end of the month (Web editor)

The long goodbye - Following Castro’s illness, where now for the Cuban revolution?

John McAnulty

4 September 2006

The illness and the transfer of power from Fidel to Raoul Castro clearly marks the end of an era in the Cuban revolution despite signs of recovery in the Cuban president’s health.  Fidel Castro has been the leader of the Cuban state since the revolution of 1959.  His leadership has survived invasion, assassination attempts, blockade and the fall of the USSR.  Enormous contradictions have built up beneath the surface and there is no doubt but that new dangers face the Cuban revolution and a new necessity to defend the gains of the revolution.

But what does defence of the revolution require?  Is it simply cheering on Fidel and any successor he might appoint?  Or should we not make it our duty to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the revolution so that we can clearly apprehend the dangers ahead?

The strengths of the revolution are undoubted.  For 50 years this David of the Caribbean has defied the giant US Goliath. A constant, decades long, economic blockade has failed to break the revolution.  The ‘Bay of pigs’ US invasion failed ingloriously.  Attempts by the CIA and the extreme right to assassinate Cuban leaders have failed again and again. By its very existence Cuba demonstrates to workers in Latin America, and across the world, that independence is possible and that the lives of working people do not have to be at the mercy of the world’s superpower. The US claim that a constant flow of migrants from Cuba prove that the system is an unpopular dictatorship ruled solely by force. Strangely, the massive influx of Mexican migrants tells the same people nothing about the capitalist system in Mexico. 

The truth is that the failure of US policy rests on mass working class support for the Cuban revolution and that support rests in turn on the achievements of that revolution – health care, education and public services that, in a third world country, outperform the high-tech systems of its infinitely more wealthy neighbour.  Cuban doctors and teachers have brought aid to many countries in Africa and the Americas. Such is the popular base of the revolution that it has succeeded in surviving the loss of political support and economic subsidies when the USSR collapsed. Working class support is given an extra edge by the presence in Miami of the alternative – a mixture of the Mafia and semi-fascist elements, anxious to restore Cuba to the corruption of the Batista era, when the Mafia ruled the roost.

Yet the revolution has many weaknesses. Cuba is a one-party state. Other political organisations are banned, even working class ones.  A recent limited liberalisation actually benefited pro-capitalist movements rather than working-class opponents.  The opposition, including working class militants, has been treated with quite savage repression and imprisonment.  There is also repression of Gays and literary and cultural elements of society are carefully policed.

The revolution has been unable to meet the economic needs of its people.  Extreme poverty is the main force driving people to attempt the dangerous sea journey to the US.  All revolutions face danger when they become isolated and the US blockade explains much of the economic underdevelopment of Cuba.  It does not explain all. The Castro regime responded to early US aggression by allying with the USSR.  As a result it remained reliant on its sugar crop, bought by the USSR at subsidised prices, on the import of soviet technology, and on cheap oil supplied at below market price by the soviet bloc.   There was no harnessing of local invention which led even capitalist economies such as Brazil to build an industry converting sugar to alcohol on a large scale and then to ‘gasohol’ for transport or the development of bio-oils to replace expensive mineral oils.

The Cuban revolution survived the fall of the USSR, but the economic devices it employed were those of other, capitalist, third world countries.  It massively expanded tourism and did deals on the export of raw materials with European and other powers such as China willing to ignore the US blockade.  Anyone in the Cuban’s situation would have had to take some steps in this direction, but on their own they led to an absolute decline in the standard of living of the mass of the population and the creation of a two tier economy, the peso economy for the bulk of the population and the dollar economy for foreign tourists, industrialists and the members of the bureaucracy.

All the signs are that the Cuban bureaucracy is a stalinist bureaucracy with some Caribbean flair.  The evidence from the former USSR, Eastern Europe and China is that this bureaucracy balances between the working class and capitalism but has no stable long-term life of its own and will eventually fall to one side or the other.  In the current world situation the most likely outcome is that the Cuban bureaucracy will be absorbed into the capitalist class and that the capitalist mode of production will again dominate in Cuba.

Marxists have always experienced difficulty in coming to grips with the Cuban revolution. The Castroite rebellion was a small nationalist guerrilla army numbered in the hundreds and it lost nearly every battle it fought against a Cuban army that was vastly superior numerically.  However it faced a decomposing and corrupt Baptista regime, widely hated and about to collapse.  The stalinist Cuban Communist party had already betrayed the revolutionary impulse of the workers and, in the absence of a revolutionary socialist leadership, the Fidelistas were in the position of being the last man standing.  In the event the tiny Castroite forces needed the coup de grâce of a general strike to take power.

In the initial stages of the Cuban revolution the working class played a decisive role but not a leadership role.  This contradiction was to define the future direction of the revolution.

But how did the Cuban revolution, in the absence of working class leadership, abolish capitalist property relations?  How was Fidel the nationalist leader transformed into the leader of the Cuban Communist party?

Marxists understand this through the theory of permanent revolution, first advanced by Leon Trotsky. In early capitalist revolutions the capitalist class needed to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution – to remove the power of the monarchy, build parliament, establish legal forms and rights.  They needed a state that would serve as an incubator for capitalist power and would co-opt workers and peasants whose support the capitalists needed.  In later eras capitalism in the form of imperialism, was already globally dominant. New capitalist forces had to ally themselves with already existing capital.  The needs of local populations had to be subordinate to imperialism, so the new capitalist states, even where they had some of the forms of bourgeois democracy, were unable to deliver the reality.  In addition the working class, once organised as a class, would no longer follow meekly behind the capitalists.  The logic of events would push the workers themselves to complete the tasks of building a democracy and also push them beyond the democratic stage and towards socialism.

But the theory of Permanent revolution is not some sort of automatic leg up for socialism. It is simply a possibility – one that can only be actualised if the working class can organise independently and take the leadership of the revolution. Castro’s evolution, a revolutionary nationalist in power with the support of the working class, illustrates this perfectly.  Early steps towards democracy were opposed by US capital, attempts to restrict the political power of capital led to economic punishments.  These in turn led Castro to seize US resources and nationalise them and to further call on the workers for support.  A struggle was unleashed which ended with Cuba blockaded by the US and capitalist property relations no longer operational within the island. However, in the absence of independent organisation by the workers, the outcome was not socialism, but a bureaucratised state modelled on its soviet sponsor.

The Cuban leadership were not able to explain the evolution of their revolution in terms of the activity of the working class.  The most popular explanation of events was developed by Ernesto (Che) Guevara and was called the Foco theory.  This suggested that the Cuban revolution could be recreated by small bands of guerrillas moving quickly in open countryside. They would create free areas where the workers and peasants could organise without state repression and act as a spark, providing an example that would quickly be followed in other areas, gradually sapping state power and developing into a social revolution.  In practice the theory was an absolute failure, leaving out of the equation the role of the Cuban working class in the Cuban revolution and also ignoring class struggle in the countries where it was applied, eventually leading to Guevara’s isolation and death at the hands of the CIA in Bolivia.

Despite its weaknesses the theory was widely popular, providing a theoretical underpinning for a whole series of guerrilla movements in Latin America and around the world.  It was a very popular theory among Irish republicans, chiming with the historic tendency towards ‘physical force’ parties where people united around a tactic of armed action rather than around a political programme.

The actual development of the Cuban revolution is explained by another Marxist theory.  What exists if capitalist property relations are abolished but the working class does not control society? The answer is that a bureaucratic caste of party officials, trade union officers and factory managers rule – what Trotskyists call a deformed workers state.  Such a caste is unstable, as in Russia and China, they must either be supplanted by the workers in a political revolution or they will eventually fall to the right – either displaced by the capitalists or becoming capitalist themselves. The dollar economy and the very favourable terms granted to foreign firms operating in Cuba create the conditions for such a transformation to take place.

Such bureaucratic tendencies will always be present as long as there is a struggle for resources.  Overcoming them depends not only on the self-activity of workers, but on an internationalist perspective that broadens the economic base and links with other struggles. 

In one sense the Cuban bureaucracy have done this.  They have provided doctors, educators and other resources to Latin American and African countries struggling against imperialism.  But they have always done so using the methods of stalinism – supporting uncritically left nationalist regimes and making connections with the elite rather than directly with the workers.

In recent times the situations has been more favourable for Cuba.  A leftward sentiment has allowed the Cubans to form alliances with sympathetic countries such as Venezuela. What is clear is that the new circumstances fall well short of the self-organisation and self-activity of the working class.  An open democracy in Cuba that openly fostered such autonomy, creativity and revolutionary zeal would be a giant step forward.


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