By Paul Hampton
Paul Hampton assesses Fidel Castro’s legacy — the nature of the 1959 revolution and the social and political changes Cuba is now experiencing.
The overthrow of Batista in the last days of 1958 was a popular revolution that socialists and radicals everywhere supported. Batista had made Cuba a vassal of the US and held down the Cuban working class with repression and a compliant union bureaucracy.
The opposition to Batista included Castro’s July 26 Movement (M26J), which had fought a guerrilla struggle for two years, the old bourgeois autentico and ortodoxo parties, the students of the Revolutionary Directorate and, more half-heartedly, the Cuban Communist Party (PSP). Even the National Association of Cuban Industrialists (ANIC) welcomed the new government.
Most of these forces were bourgeois nationalists. The Stalinist PSP had joined Batista’s government in the 1940s and opposed the M26J in 1958 until its victory looked likely. The main difference between the M26J and the others was that Fidel Castro headed a rebel army, he had force on his side and he monopolised the army when his group took power . The M26J was in fact heterogeneous. It contained non-PSP Stalinists such as Raúl Castro and Che Guevara as well as nationalists in the tradition of José Martí and Antonio Guiteras. Fidel Castro balanced between the different factions.
The broad coalition that overthrew Batista was for the restoration of the 1940 Constitution; it was for a bourgeois-democratic republic. Fidel Castro explicitly repudiated nationalisation and simply called for non-interference in Cuba by the United States.
In no sense was the M26J a mass organisation or a socialist party. There were 82 fighters on the ‘Granma’ when Castro landed in Cuba in December 1956. Around 300 fought at the major battle of Santa Clara and only a few thousand fought overall. The M26J was a mixture of middle class leaders like Castro, some workers and youth, but mostly déclassé elements.
At Santa Clara in the last days of 1958, only a handful of guerrillas and 300 soldiers died. Batista fled. There was no battle for the capital, Havana. There were no soviets (workers’ councils), few factory committees or occupations. There were no organs of dual power. Workers were largely passive. The general strike in the first week of January 1959 was effectively a public holiday. Batista’s rule had already collapsed. No one in 1959, not even Guevara, said the revolution was socialist, nor was it led by conscious working class socialists, whatever Fidel Castro’s later protestations.
To argue that the revolution was socialist in hindsight is to reach the absurd conclusion that a socialist revolution can be made without the active agency of the working class or without a conscious Marxist party.
Despite its leadership, the revolution unleashed huge pent up energy within a working class that had been stifled under the union bureaucracy of Eusebio Mujal.
In The Cuban Revolution (1999), Marifeli Pérez-Stable describes “a torrent of demands for better wages and improved working conditions” (in 1959). “Workers demanded 20 per cent across-the-board increases, an immediate re-negotiation of labour contracts, and the reinstatement of workers fired for political reasons. In Santiago, workers called for the equalisation of wages with Havana, and soon labour assemblies in the provinces seconded the call. The National Federation of Sugar Workers (FNTA) called upon haciendados to pay workers the diferencial of 1958 and for ‘superproducción’ — up to 50 million pesos in wages lost due to mechanisation and innovations after 1953. The FNTA also demanded the institution of four work shifts in the mills to alleviate unemployment. Numerous union assemblies demanded vacation payments that management had illegally retained. Strikes were relatively common, and strike threats even more common.”
But the only example of workers’ control was on the railways, after managers abandoned their posts when Batista fled. Pro-M26J workers set up Workers’ Administrative Councils, running the railway for several weeks. But rail management was soon handed over to new managers.
Employers tried to resist the renewal of working class militancy. “Some union leaders and militant workers were fired; management sometimes refused to meet union representatives.”
There was a brief flowering of union democracy. In the first weeks M26J supporters took control of all 33 national trade unions and the CTC trade union confederation, (often called CTC-R to signify its support for the revolution). On 1-2 January 1959 M26J militants seized union headquarters. From April until June, elections were held in local unions with M26J members winning most without much opposition. In national union conferences held between June and September 1959, the M26J had most of the delegates. For example in the FNTA sugar workers’ federation, out of 900 delegates less than 30 were Communists.
But according to Pérez-Stable, “the Labour Ministry expected full cooperation between workers and employers and often mediated conflicts to pre-empt strikes and lock-outs. In early 1959, the ministry conducted more than 5,000 mediations, supported wage increases on a case-by-case basis rather than across the board as the unions demanded, and proclaimed ‘equidistance’ between the interests of labour and of capital.”
In a speech (10 February 1959) to Shell oil workers who had threatened to strike over wage increases and other demands, Castro argued that strikes were not appropriate under the revolution and appealed for the identity of workers’ interests with those of the government. Castro said: “Strikes are formidable weapons, but we cannot use them now.” On 21 May on television Castro denounced “demagogic” union leaders “who were making demands designed to sabotage the revolution”. In August 1959 a six-month no-strike pledge was invoked. In mid-September 1959, Castro said “demands for salary increases were no longer legitimate: the national economy, unemployment, and the welfare of the poor were more important”.
At the 10th Congress of the CTC in 1959, the labour movement was neutered. Castro personally intervened in the congress to enforce a new union leadership including the PSP, despite the Stalinists woeful record against Batista and their limited support in the unions.
In his recent book The origins of the Cuban revolution reconsidered (2006), Sam Farber wrote: “At this congress, the Cuban leader virtually imposed a leadership with a much greater Communist representation than was warranted by the 10 per cent of delegates who were members of the party. After the congress concluded, the Labour Ministry, which was of course under Castro’s control, launched a purge of large numbers of trade union leaders who had resisted Communist influence… About 50 per cent of the labour leaders, most of whom belonged to the July 26 Movement and had been freely elected in the April and May 1959 local and national union elections, were removed, while veteran PSP cadres and their union collaborators took over.” *
Between late 1959 and early 1961 the Castro regime overturned capitalism in Cuba and replaced it with a new form of class society, where the new bureaucratic ruling class and the bureaucratic state exploited workers and peasants by fusing political and economic power, giving them totalitarian control over all aspects of social life.
A repressive state apparatus was created — the constitution of the armed forces (FAR) and the secret police (G-2), and with a system of labour camps (e.g. Guanacahabibes), incarceration, house arrest, surveillance, public repudiation, forced exile, limiting mobility, physical force, sackings and the infiltration of opposition groups.
From the middle of 1959 government moderates were forced out, symbolised by the arrest and detention of anti-communists such as Huber Matos and the mysterious disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos.
A number of newspapers were requisitioned while the government subsidised the M26J paper Revolución. The great cultural magazine Bohemia, edited by Miguel Angel Quevedo, which had a solid history of opposition to Batista, was shut down by Quevedo in July 1960. He complained that, “it is not necessary to subject our people to the oppression and vassalage of Russia”.
The US government effectively decided to oppose the regime after the agrarian law of May 1959. From March 1960 they began sponsoring covert operations, terror attacks, assassinations. The US announced full economic embargo of Cuba in October 1960 and severed diplomatic relations in January 1961. In April 1961 Washington backed the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The Cuban government responded by introducing central planning to replace the market. Large cattle ranches were seized in December 1959 and US-owned sugar plantations taken over in April 1960. US firms, sugar mills, refineries, electric power, telephone and banks were nationalised between July and September 1960, followed by the confiscation of 382 large and medium-sized Cuban private enterprises, including ports, railways and cinemas. By 1968 even 58,000 small businesses like barbers, electricians and small shops were taken over.
Although the state owned the means of production, it was the bureaucracy that owned the state. Castro’s group fused with the Cuban Stalinists to form the Integrated Revolutionary Organisations (ORI) in 1961, the United Revolutionary Socialist Party (PURS) in 1963 and finally the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in 1965.
The Communist Party is not a political party in the conventional sense at all. It fights no elections and has no internal democratic structures. But over five decades its membership mushroomed — from 45,000 in 1965 to more than half a million by 1985. In 1997 it had 780,000 members, around 7% of the population. The PCC embodies a bureaucratic class.
That class has many privileges, such as foreign travel, access to dollars and dollar shops, cars, housing and consumer goods. It suffers from the inbuilt corruption of “sociolismo” -associatism i.e. preferential treatment for friends.
And the Communist Party acts as a transmission belt for the ruling class. Although workers make nominations for membership, they are vetted by the Secretariat. The “party” is a means by which the elite renovates itself and reaches into the wider population.
From April 1959 Cuba started receiving help from the USSR in setting up its secret police. In September 1959 the USSR voted secretly to send Warsaw Pact weapons to Cuba. Following the visit of Soviet premier Mikoyan in February 1960, formal diplomatic relations were established in May 1960.
In July 1960 the USSR bought the sugar the US had just refused to buy, beginning Cuba’s sugar dependency on the USSR. The USSR began a substantial programme of military assistance shortly after Raúl Castro’s visit in 1960, including the dispatch of nuclear missiles in 1962.
In 1972 Cuba joined Comecon and set up joint committees for planning with the USSR. The USSR bought Cuban sugar for petroleum, with the added bonus of a surplus of petroleum. By the 1980s Cuba made more in foreign exchange from selling surplus Russian oil than it did from selling its own sugar. By the mid-1980s this was worth $1.5 billion a year. Cuba received massive quantities of economic aid. In 1989 the economist Nikolai Shemliov revealed that the USSR spent between $6-8 billion a year on aid to Cuba.
Following the 10th congress of the CTC, the purges of trade unions began in earnest, with Stalinist cadres from the PSP taking over with Castro’s backing. According to Robert Alexander, by mid-1960 around 1,400 general secretaries from 2,490 unions were removed – and half of the leaderships of the national federations. (A history of organised labor in Cuba, 2002)
According to Pérez-Stable, rank and file workers in construction, restaurants, tobacco, transportation, and utilities resisted the curtailment of union autonomy and their “economistic” demands. “Utility workers were especially reluctant to forgo their privileges and briefly confronted the revolutionary government”.
However the Castroites and their allies prevailed. They created a command economy with a form of exploitation similar to the Stalinist states in Russia and China, where workers were provided directly with their means of subsistence and their surplus product siphoned off directly by the state. Although the regime provided workers with low cost housing, high quality health care, education and other social services, it suppressed all vestiges of independent workers’ organisation.
By 1961 the role of unions was to acquaint workers with the point of view of the state, discipline workers for production, increase productivity and arbitrate between workers and managers. And any attempts to organise workers as an independent political force were snuffed out (see below).
Under Law 678 (December 1959) collective bargaining was suspended for 120 days, and in fact it never resumed. By the end of 1960 the right to strike, enshrined in law since 1934 and included in early legislation, was dropped from the Law of Labour and Social Security Procedures (No.938). Che Guevara asserted unequivocally: “Cuban workers will have to get used to living in a collectivistic regime and therefore cannot strike.”
Law No.924 (January 1961) proclaimed that “all counter-revolutionary activity will be considered cause for separation or dismissal from the job”. The Law of Labour Organisation in 1961 (No.962) imposed the rule of one union per enterprise, one per sector and one national federation.
At the 11th Congress in November 1961, the CTC changed its name to Cuban Workers’ Central (rather than Confederation of Cuban Workers). this was symbolic. It was no longer a trade union movement defending workers but a central arm of state. PSP member Lázaro Peña became the new CTC general secretary — the role he had previously filled under Batista.
The new CTC accepted government proposals to give up Christmas and sick leave bonuses and to work 48 hours a week instead of 44. Carlos Rafael Rodríguez summed up the new role succinctly in 1969: “The unions are transmission belts for Party Directives to the workers.”
Local unions did not hold elections again until 1970, and the unions shrivelled. Attempts to breathe some life back into them in the 1970s came from the top down — but the role of unions remained the same.
Raúl Castro summed this up in 1974: “One of the principal functions of trade unions under socialism is to serve as vehicles for orientation, directives and goals which the revolutionary power must convey to the working masses… The party is the vanguard. Trade unions are the most powerful link between the party and the working masses.”
After the first congress of the PCC in 1975, the statutes of the CTC were altered to add a preamble that it would “openly and consciously” accept the direction of the party.
The result of this subordination was the vigorous exploitation of Cuban workers by the new Leviathan state. Law No.32 granted managers full authority to enforce labour discipline and gave the power to sanction and dismiss workers.
Labour discipline extended to the imposition of the “employment file”, a record of workers jobs, conduct etc — a permanent police file that accompanied workers. There was no workers’ control of production, no election or recall of managers. PSP hack Carlos Rafael Rodríguez was brutally honest: “Collective management is destructive. Administrators should have, have and will have the last word.”
Even a sympathetic observer like Maurice Zeitlin admitted that workers exercised no power in the workplace. “Despite apparently ample participation of the workers in discussions and decisions concerning the implementation of the objectives of the national economic plan set for their plan, the workers have no role... in determining the plan itself.”
The government set wages and norms. This meant longer working hours including “voluntary work” e.g. Red Sundays, microbrigades, construction contingents and “Socialist emulation” — Stakhanovism on the Stalinist model. For example in 1987 400,000 pledged to give at least 40 hours extra.
Some on the left argue that Cuba under Castro has been some kind of workers’ state, maybe a bit bureaucratic, “deformed”, but basically still ruled by workers. If so, workers only wield power vicariously. There are no structures by which workers can organise, never mind organise to rule. Workers are atomised, oppressed and exploited by Castro’s coterie.
In 1989-90 the Stalinist states of the Eastern bloc collapsed, followed swiftly by the Soviet Union. The impact was felt immediately and acutely in Cuba, given its economic dependence on the Comecon bloc. By 1993, GDP had fallen by 35%, imports had been reduced by 78%, the fiscal deficit reached a third of GDP and fuel consumption was cut in half.
The situation was exacerbated by the intensified US embargo, notably by the Torricelli Act (1992) and the Helms-Burton law (1996), which aimed at finally bringing down the regime. Bush’s administration has further extended these measures, introducing restrictions on travel (once every two years) and on currency transactions, by setting up a Cuban Sanctions Task Force and producing the so-called “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba Report”. The government estimates the embargo has cost Cuba $70 billion.
The regime declared “a special period in peacetime” in response. It introduced measures that did not fundamentally change the Stalinist character of the Cuban social formation, but did set in train an evolution towards capitalist relations of production.
Castro’s regime did not go neo-liberal in the 1990s in the sense of straightforward privatisation, but they did open up the economy to market imperatives and to multinational capital. Against the odds the Cuban regime survived the collapse of the USSR. Today the World Bank and the Economist praise the “Cuban economic miracle”.
Central planning based on five-year plans was abandoned. The central planning board JUCEPLAN was broken down into a Ministry of Economy and Planning and a Ministry of Finance and Prices, and decentralised planning — known as autogestión (self-management) was introduced. The National Bank became Banco Central de Cuba and Free Economic Zones established around ports.
The regime allowed more SAs (semi-autonomous state agencies), some of which had been set up in the 1970s and 1980s, to operate more independently. These included Cubanacan (tourism/hotels), Contex (fashion), Artex (art, music, dance), Cubalse (shopping centres, supermarkets, laundry, cafes, vets, Fiat and Peugeot cars, photo-printing and Rapidito fast food) and CIMEX (Havantur, duty free trading ports).
The government legalised currency transactions in dollars and set up agricultural cooperatives (UBPCs). In 1992, 83% arable land was state owned; by 1995 this was down to 27%.
To tackle unemployment, a new system of self-employment (cuentapropismo) was legalised. By 1996 the number of legal small businesses had quadrupled and scores more unregistered businesses flourished. This development was truncated by heavy taxation and restrictions e.g. restaurants could only employ family labour and accommodate 12 seats.
More significantly, the 1995 foreign investment law (Law No.77) allowed for 100% foreign ownership (previously only 49% joint ventures were permitted). Between 1995 and 2000 $4 billion was invested in 400 joint ventures involving multinational corporations from 40 countries. There are now around 800 foreign, private firms operating in Cuba. For example Spanish capitalists have invested heavily in tourism. The Italian STET company has invested in the telephone system ETECSA. The Canadian Sheritt corporation is part of the Moa Nickel company, now Cuba’s main exporter.
The biggest citrus plantation in the world is in central Cuba, a joint venture between Israeli capital and the government. Brazilian tobacco firm Souza Cruz, part of BAT, is involved in the tobacco joint venture Brascuba. French capital is involved in the oil industry (Total-Elf) and with the alcoholic drinks brand Havana Club International (Pernod Ricard). British firm Trafigura has invested in gas technology and the Japanese corporation Hitachi is in Cuba.
The influx of foreign capital has helped stabilise the Cuban economy. However there are very few fully foreign-owned subsidiaries and the private sector in Cuba consists mainly of coops and self-employed, not wage workers employed by private companies.
Tourism is now Cuba’s largest industry, bringing in around $2 billion in revenue every year. It involves 90,000 directly employed workers and another 300,000 indirectly in related industries.
This economic transformation has been overseen and controlled by the Cuban armed forces. In 1989 Raúl Castro added the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) to his longstanding control over the Defence Ministry (MINFAR). Since then over 300 of Cuba’s largest enterprises have been developed with strong associations with the military. They account for almost 90% of Cuba’s exports and one fifth of state workers.
GAESA (Enterprise Management Group) is the holding company for the military’s economic interests, and includes hotels, Aerogaviota, (a domestic airline using refurbished Soviet military aircraft flown by air force pilots), tourism, free economic zones, dollar stores and GeoCuba (cartography and exploration).
The armed forces also run the Union of Military Industry (UIM), which has 230 factories and companies. It produces guns, tanks, ammunition and military clothing for the army and for some civilian products. High rank officers or retired military personnel also head up the ministries of tourism, construction and sugar (in the latter case, shutting 70 mills in 2002).
The armed forces have a lever into many other state enterprises through the sistema de perfeccionamiento empresarial (SPE). The SPE is run by a former military colonel and has over 500 state-run organisations working under market imperatives, managerial improvement and “incentive” schemes.
The praetorian enterprises are breeding grounds for corruption and enrichment. The military effectively control production in Cuba and is responsible for reinserting the country into global capitalism. It is developing a military form of state capitalism within the old Stalinist sheath.
A “technocratic-entrepreneurial bloc” has emerged. The new class includes those working within the ambit of foreign investment, directors of state enterprises and those who have accumulated large sums of money and property through dollars and/or the black market. It is a proto-bourgeoisie working towards a transition to capitalism.
The four and a half million strong Cuban working class has taken the brunt of the economic crisis. Although health service and education provision has been maintained, the general standard of living has deteriorated rapidly.
There has been a cut in rations. In 1989, this consisted of 2,800 calories a day. By 1993 it was down to 1,800 calories a day, below the recommended daily intake to meet nutritional needs. Rationing in 1991-92 amounted to a small chicken, two pieces of fish, two bags of sugar and one large bag of rice per month.
The regime imposed a wage freeze, imposed special taxes on goods such as alcohol and tobacco and fees for services like bus fares went up. Unemployment rocketed. The government continues to regulate pay band ranges with the upper limit fixed for most state enterprises. Workers still have an employment file.
Because wages and rations don’t cover basic necessities workers have to use the black market and do jobs on the side to make ends meet. The exception is in SPE organisations, where workers’ wages are linked to productivity, but managers have power to hire and fire. And “vanguard” workers get incentives such as colour TVs, washing machines, fridges and fans.
There has been a marked growth in inequality, with small restaurant owners, tourist taxi drivers and prostitutes earning more in a week than a doctor does in a month. In 1995, the average wage was around $6 a month. But a bartender in a tourist hotel could make $93 in tips alone, prostitutes nearly $400 and restaurants $5,000 a month.
Apologists for Castro argue that since 1992, the CTC has behaved more like a real union. Until 1992, the CTC was recognised in the constitution as the representative of Cuban workers, but this clause was removed. However the role and function of the CTC is still defined and circumscribed by the Communist Party (PCC).
The CTC’s statutes state that: “The CTC and its unions openly and consciously recognise the authority of the Communist Party as the vanguard and ultimate organisation of the working class, accepting and adhering to its policies.”
The CTC does hold elections and in 1993 “workers’ parliaments” took place, which argued for the government to impose a tax freeze. It also requested that the government require foreign investors to contract workers through state-owned employment service. But this was hardly a victory for workers. It allows the regime to decide who can and cannot work for the foreign firm. The regime charges a very high fee to the employer, but only passes tiny fraction of it to the worker. The government says the revenue is used to fund health and education. But it is just as likely to be used to pay for the army and state security — or put towards a foreign debt of more than $10 billion.
The CTC leaders are Stalinist bureaucrats with no real connection to the working class. For example Pedro Ross Leal, CTC secretary general from 1989 until earlier this year was a PCC apparatchik and member of the Politburo before he got the job. Before the revolution, he was a member of PSP youth and from 1959-75 he was a manager in the agriculture and sugar sectors. In fact he had no trade union experience before being given the CTC leadership.
Alongside the economic changes has been a limited political shake up, a loosening of some of the governing structures, while the party/state remained the hegemonic force. The Castro leadership wanted to find political channels for the social pressures generated by the crisis, without losing control of the system.
The 1976 Constitution was modified in 1992 and direct elections to the National Assembly allowed for the first time. Much is made by apologists about the high turnout in elections and large votes in favour of candidates. Cuba they say is even more democratic than bourgeois states...
But the Popular Power system, with national, provincial and municipal assemblies was not created until 1976. So for the first 17 years of Castro’s rule there were no democratic structures! From 1976 until 1992 the system was very limited. Originally direct elections only took place at municipal level, with candidates vetted by neighbourhood committees dominated by the PCC and other mass organisations.
Municipal assemblies could only discuss local matters. Its members would elect provincial representatives and National Assembly members. But these regional and national bodies met for only a few days a year. The National Assembly meetings were described as “events of tedious concordance”, with unanimity on proposals put forward by the government.
Voters had the choice of either withholding their vote for a particular candidate, submitting a blank vote or abstaining from voting altogether. Not surprisingly, in 1990 one-third of ballots were blank or defaced in the first round and 20% in the second, despite government pressure.
Since 1992, the National Assembly has been directly elected but little, fundamentally, has changed. It is a “democratising” initiative that originates from the top, is top-down and has absolutely no effect on those at the top. It does not introduce political differences into the Cuban electoral system. As Fidel Castro put it in October 1992: “We will never make the mistake of accepting multiple parties”.
Candidates are still vetted — by “commissions of candidates” led by the CTC (i.e. PCC). Each candidate still needs 50% to get elected, and that favours the existing majority. Candidates stand on their biography, not on their politics, and this is the only information given to voters. No campaigning or debate is allowed, nor can candidates present different programmes expressing differences with the government.
Similarly new sub-municipal structures — the popular councils (consejos populares) — were created to mobilise local resources. These structures are about implementing plans and proposals handed down from the top, not changing the parameters of politics. It is reminiscent of the slogan from France in 1968: “I participate, you participate — they control”.
Nor does the revised Constitution allow for independent worker organising. Article 5 states: “The Communist Party of Cuba… is the highest leading force of society and of the state, which organises and guides the common effort toward the goals of the construction of socialism and the progress toward a communist society.”
Article 62 states that none of the freedoms can be exercised “contrary to the existence and objectives of the socialist state, or contrary to the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism” i.e. of Stalinism.
Other articles create various crimes that cut against freedom of association, free speech and organisation. For example Articles 208 and 209 the crime of “illicit association”; Article 103 the crime of “enemy propaganda”; and Article 115, the crime of “dissemination of false information against international peace” or putting in danger the prestige or credit of the Cuban state. Article 144 makes it a crime to “disrespect” government officials, punishable by one to three years in prison if directed at the head of state or other senior officials.
Castroite apologists have a misconception about democracy. They rightly point out that it is possible to have a democracy that lacks substance, even though it has all the formal trappings e.g. Mexico, the US. But they are wrong to assume that it is possible to have a substantial democracy without the forms of democracy.
They maintain that even though the Cuban people do not enjoy any genuine democratic forms and structures in the political system — miraculously, through the benevolence of its leadership, Cubans enjoy a superior form of democracy than the rest of world!
Human rights reports also highlight the absence of freedom in Cuba. For instance, the level of surveillance and infiltration by state security of opposition groups, the use of Rapid Action Brigades and “acts of repudiation” to intimidate opponents, as well as the use of arrest and imprisonment to break up opposition movements. Amnesty International says there are currently 70 political prisoners in Cuban prisons. Most of them have been there since the last big crackdown in 2003.
Most have been accused of collaborating with US diplomats to undermine the state, and/or receiving American government funds. But as the Campaign for Peace and Democracy explained at the time, “one reason dissidents turn to the US for help is that Cubans are not consistently allowed access to the tools necessary to disseminate their views to the public: computers, copying machines, printers, etc. Obviously they would not be as likely to accept US aid, and the political influence that generally accompanies it, if Cuban citizens, whatever their views, were free to acquire these items themselves…”
The limits of Castro’s commitment to human rights were well summed up when the US began using the Guantánamo Bay naval base for indefinite detention. After being informed in advance of the plans, the Cuban government issued a favourable statement, followed by a comment from Raúl Castro that should any Al Qaeda prisoners escape into Cuba, they would be returned to the base.
Any potential sources of organised political process are stifled. Open expressions of opposition are extremely difficult given the level of totalitarian control. As one Cuban put it to an LSE researcher recently, “Every Cuban carries a policeman inside their heads”. However opposition and dissent still take place. Some take the form of passive resistance, such as making jokes (chistes) about the regime and unorthodox dress and style by “freaks” (frikis).
At the height of the economic crisis there were attacks on trucks in Guanabacoa, on trains carrying food and on food stores. There were protests at generators during blackouts and non-payment of dues to the CTC. In the Havana suburb of Alamar people threw bottles from their flats into the street and pot banging became common. More significantly, a group of workers threatened to go on strike during the building of Villa Panamericana for the Panamerican Games in 1991.
In July 1993 rioting took place in Cojimar, a suburb of Havana and a few months later in other places. Three thousand people demonstrated for eight hours on the Malecon waterfront in Havana on 5 August 1994.
It is difficult to assess more organised forms of opposition. For example, the ICFTU international union federation says there have been a number of attempts to organise independent unions. Its reports list organisations such as the Unión Sindical Cristiana (Union of Christian Trade Unions, USC), the Centro Nacional de Capacitación Sindical y Laboral (National Labour and Trade Union Training Centre, CNCSL), the Consejo Unitario de Trabajadores Cubano (United Workers' Council of Cuba, CUTC), the Confederación de Trabajadores Democráticos de Cuba (Confederation of Democratic Workers of Cuba, CTDC) and the Committee of the Confederación Obrera Nacional Independiente de Cuba (Independent National Labour Confederation of Cuba, CONIC).
The Castro regime says these organisations are not genuine unions with a real base in workplaces. The ICFTU says that’s because workers are sacked for workplace organising. The political character of these organisations varies from christian democrat to social democratic. Some favour the introduction of capitalism in Cuba. Many undoubtedly received funds from the US, from the government and from NGOs.
None of this is particularly surprising. Similar things were said about emerging organisations in Eastern Europe before and after the fall of the Berlin wall. In no way could it justify the repression meted out by the government.
There are some socialists (even some individual Trotskyists) in Cuba and in exile, but the forces of the third camp are small and marginal in Cuba.
The emergence of such a current depends heavily on the clarity and solidarity of its supporters outside Cuba. If we want Cuban youth to identify with socialism, we need to be clear that neither Washington nor Miami or Castroism are the answer.
Our socialism is a movement “from below” attempting to establish the democratic rule of the workers and the majority of the population, not simply anti-capitalism or capitalism with a star-spangled banner.
We continue to oppose the US embargo and other acts of aggression because we are for self-determination in Cuba as we are everywhere else. We oppose the embargo because of its humanitarian effects and also because it gives the Castro party/state legitimacy, unifying Cubans behind the regime. We have no truck with the Miami reactionaries or the US-bankrolled opposition, who sometimes use the guise of trade unions to advance their cause.
But we also oppose and criticise the Cuban government. The Castro regime should hold real elections, free workers to form independent unions, to publish a workers’ press and to organise.
We want to make solidarity with democrats and socialists opposing the regime — especially those trying to build a genuinely independent and politically conscious trade union movement. The priority is to build a socialist current in the tradition of Julio Antonio Mella, of the workers’ struggles in 1933, when soviets were built in the sugar mills and of those who fought Batista and Castro in the name of working class self-liberation.
This current will be based on a working class that has grown and been educated under Castro. The new trade unionism will need to concentrate its efforts on the tourist sector, the joint ventures and the modern enterprises that are more and more geared towards the world economy. Here lies the hope for working class socialism in Cuba.
The suppression of the left
Gary Tennant has written a comprehensive history of Cuban Trotskyism in Revolutionary History magazine (1980). Although there was no organised Trotskyist group in Cuba at the time of the revolution, there had been an influential organisation in the 1930s. There were a number of ex-Trotskyists such as Pablo Diaz and Antonio Torres in the M26J.
A Trotskyist group the POR(T) was founded in February 1960 with 40 members. It was aligned with Juan Posadas, the Pablo-Mandel group’s affiliate in Latin America who was in the process of establishing his own international. Posadas went on to advocate nuclear weapons for “degenerated workers’ states” (meaning the Stalinist states), the so-called “workers’ bomb thesis”.
The POR(T) published the paper Voz Proletaria as well as pamphlets and books. Some members worked in Guevara’s ministry, others in the “mass organisations”. It was one of the first groups to characterise Cuba as a workers’ state (in early 1961).
The POR(T) was first repressed during the Bay of Pigs invasion April 1961, when its paper was seized. Its members suffered harassment, victimisation and arrest in 1962. In 1963 its printing press was confiscated, its members sacked from their jobs, and some were arrested. In 1965 its leaders were told by G2 to cease activities or face long term imprisonment. They duly complied.
A similar fate engulfed the anarchists. A number of anarchists fought in the M26J and took part in the unions in 1959. According to Sam Dolgoff (The Cuban revolution: a critical perspective), the Libertarian Federation of Cuba (ALC) published the El Liberatoro newspaper whilst anarchists who led the Food and Restaurant Workers’ Union published the sumptuously titled Solidaridad Gastronomica. The anarchists were critical of Castro from the beginning, pointing to the danger of a new ruling class and challenging the takeover of unions.
Dolgoff says there were only 20-30 libertarians left in Cuba by mid-1960. Nevertheless they were denounced by PSP. The state publishing house refused to publish the anarchists’ reply and their papers ceased publication in March 1961. A number of anarchists died in prison, despite their record in the overthrow of Batista.
The suppression of independent workers’ organisations did not end in the 1960s. According to Amnesty International reports, in 1983 five workers were sentenced to death — later commuted to 30 years in prison — for attempting to create an independent Solidarnosc-type trade union. Even their lawyers got long prison terms. In 1989 another worker, Isidoro Padron, was shot for the “crime” of trying to found an independent union.
For many years, the discussion in Cuba was about “the transition from capitalism to socialism”. Today, the reality is about the transition from Stalinism to capitalism, and what forms that will take. The process is bound up with the succession to Fidel Castro.
Formally, the succession process is straightforward. Under the constitution, upon the death or incapacity of the president, power passes to the first vice-president, who is Raúl Castro.
Proof that Raúl Castro is almost certain to take over from his brother is also given by his control over the main organisations in the country. He is head of the armed forces (FAR) and of the internal security services under the Ministry of the Interior. He is also the second secretary of the Communist Party.
More than that, Raúl Castro’s supporters, known as raulistas are in charge of these institutions as well as the major levers of the economy. In June this year, the Communist Party secretariat was reconstituted, with prominent raulistas installed on it.
Where is Cuba going? Where will Raúl Castro lead it? Most likely in the same direction established in the 1990s, towards a military state capitalism on the Chinese model. The connection with China is no coincidence. Since the Cuban regime backed the Chinese government’s massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 (see Fidel Castro’s comments blaming counter-revolutionary elements in The Guardian 6 June 1989), détente with China has become full-scale support.
China sent boatloads of rice and bicycles to Cuba at the height of the crisis in the early 1990s. China is one of Cuba’s top three trading partners. There is substantial collaboration between the Cuban armed forces and the Chinese army (PLA) – for example in the building of hotels.
In fact, when Raúl Castro visited China in April of 2005, at a time of growing Chinese investments in Cuba, particularly in the nickel industry, he told his Chinese hosts that “it was truly encouraging everything that you have done here…there are some people around who are preoccupied by China’s development; however, we feel happy and reassured, because you have confirmed something that we say over there, and that is that a better world is possible.”
According to Sam Farber (The Cuban army and the “Chinese road”, 2006), there is also some evidence to suggest that Raúl Castro and the Cuban military have tried to build bridges with the United States, possibly in preparation for a transition in Cuba.
He argues that the more pragmatic right-wing circles, such as the former CIA functionary in charge of Cuban affairs Brian Latell, have developed a more realistic and not entirely hostile view of Raúl Castro as the kind of successor the U.S. could possibly deal with.”
The transition to a form of state-sponsored form of capitalism in Cuba will be led by the army, joint venture technocrats, and other elements currently in the ruling apparatus. But if the regime is evolving on the “Chinese road” towards a Cuban market economy with “Cuban characteristics”, it also faces obstacles.
The Castroites fear a collapse like the Soviet Union and they fear a Tiananmen type incident, where they army represses the people. They will face an emerging right wing neo-liberal opposition, composed of the Christian Democrats in exile and the Catholic church in Cuba, and no doubt backed by the US.
They also fear the emergence of a genuine left. We have to help Cuban socialists prepare this socialist alternative.