Fidel Castro's legacy and Cuba's future

Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba and has written extensively on that country. His newest book, The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice, is available from Haymarket Books. ISR editor Paul D’Amato interviewed him in early December 2016.

Did the US embargo against Cuba that began in 1960, and continues to this day, drive Cuba into the arms of the Soviet Union, as many liberals contend, or was it part of the original plan of the Cuban revolutionaries to move in that direction? 

Liberals and many radicals, such as Robert Scheer and Maurice Zeitlin in their 1963 book Cuba: Tragedy in Our Hemisphere, thought that Fidel Castro’s adoption of Communism with a capital “C” was a mere reaction to the foreign policies of the United States. That seemed to assume that the minds of the revolutionary leaders were blank slates without any politics and ideology prior to the victory of the revolution on January 1, 1959. 

Che Guevara was far closer to the truth when in a 1963 interview with the French weekly L’Express, he affirmed that Cuba’s adoption of Communism was half the result of constraint, meaning from US imperialism, and half the result of choice, meaning the politics and ideology of the revolution’s leaders. 

During the Cold War, the US contended that Castro and Cuba were fomenting revolution around Latin America and the rest of the world. Was that true?

Yes, it is true that Cuban revolutionary leaders were fomenting revolution, primarily in Latin America, through their organization and support of guerrilla warfare. But they were not doing so in Mexico, where guerrilla groups developed at various points in states such as Guerrero. Nor did the Cuban government support in any meaningful way the struggle against the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain, one of the main enemies of all wings of the Cuban left in the 1940s and 1950s. The reason Mexico and Spain were excluded was because in the1960s Mexico was the only country in the western hemisphere that maintained diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. In the case of Spain, after an initial rough patch Franco established a friendly political and economic relationship with the island’s leaders. The Cuban government, as a general rule, did not encourage opposition movements or guerrilla movements against governments that maintained friendly relations with them. This is still the case. In the Middle East today, for example, the Cuban government supports the bloody Syrian dictatorship of Assad and the official Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority. 

I think it’s also important, returning to the issue of guerrilla warfare, to keep in mind two additional factors. Namely, that under the pressure of the Soviet Union, Cuba reduced—not completely eliminated‚ but reduced—support to the guerrilla movements in Latin America, because the Soviet Union pressured them. It was violating the spheres of interest that they had developed with the United States, whereby the Soviet Union would not interfere in the western hemisphere and the United States would not militarily interfere in Hungary, Poland, and the East European countries under the control of the Soviet Union. 

It is also important to keep in mind that revolutionary movements led by Latin American guerrilla armies did not generally encourage the self-organization of the peasants they recruited into guerrilla armies. These were military outfits with a completely top-down structure, not only in military but also in political terms. Had they been successful, there is good reason to think that the states they founded would have been structurally and politically similar to the Cuban state.

What explains the fact that Castro sent Che and Cuban troops to Africa?

This is a complicated story, but I think it can be understood. The Cuban government had a relatively limited involvement in Africa in the early 1960s before the USSR greatly increased the pressure on the Cuban government to reduce its Latin-American presence, in the mid- and late-1960s. In 1967, for example, the Soviet Union sharply reduced oil shipments to Cuba. That was a massive way of creating pressure. Guevara had been in the Congo in 1964, and the Cuban government provided substantial support to the regime of Ben Bella in Algeria when it entered into a war with Morocco. 

So it is not true to say that Cuba had not made its presence known in Africa before. What is true, and this is evidently very different, is that Cuba intervened in Africa in a very massive way after the Soviet Union put the heat on Cuba to reduce guerrilla warfare in Latin America, because their mutual strategic interests were much more compatible in Africa than they were in Latin America, although there were still tactical differences that developed between the Soviet Union and Cuba in the African continent.

But the Cuba intervention in Angola involved tens of thousands of troops in conventional warfare. We’re not talking here about guerrilla warfare, but about tanks, airplanes, infantry, and mortars. Cuba also sent—and this is something the apologists for the Cuban government do not want to talk about—17,000 troops to support Ethiopia in the Ogaden against Somalia. This certainly was not a war for self-determination; nor was it a war of necessity for Cuba. It was a war of choice; a war they chose to conduct primarily because of the fact that the Ethiopian government took the side of the Soviets in the Cold War. 

Cuba also supported Ethiopia indirectly in its struggle against the Eritrean independence movement. At the time, Fidel Castro argued that the Eritrean struggle for independence was the same as the struggle of the South against the North in the US Civil War, an absurd comparison because Eritrea was a different nation from Ethiopia, and that was not the case in the American South. Of course, there was also the major issue of slavery in that part of the US.

There are many uncritical supporters of the Castro government who may concede that the Cuban government under Castro, and to this day, has been repressive, but that Cuba’s stand against US imperialism and its internal reforms carried out after 1959, such as health care and increased literacy, outweigh any repression. How would you respond to that outlook?

At the heart of the question you are raising is the notion of a trade-off, or exchange: given the good the government does, you have to put up with the government’s repression. I for one am not, in principle and as an abstract proposition, against the idea of trade-offs. My objection is to a very specific situation and the trade-off that is proposed. The principled socialist position, as I understand it, is that there are certain things that cannot be traded off. I would say that as a minimum, before we can consider any trade-offs, we have to expect that the government we are politically supporting allows for the independent organization of the working class and other groups and classes that are allied with the working class, and that allows them to defend their interests and to agitate on behalf of their interests; and, last but not least, the ability to communicate their activities and views to the population at large. This assumes that we’re not talking about one-party state monolithic mass media, as in Cuba, where no expression of open political criticism or opposition is allowed. 

That, I would say, is the minimum. It is not just a position that socialists should adopt, but also principled small “d” democrats, who should also expect as a minimum the independent organization of people and their ability to communicate their view through a mass media that is not monolithic. That issue is for us, as I see it, very relevant not only in terms of whether or not we politically support self-proclaimed socialist governments, but also non-socialist progressive governments. 

The issue would come up, for example, in Venezuela; that is, those movements and governments that at one point or another we may have regarded as progressive. One practical way to translate the position I am suggesting is this: put yourself in the position of a comrade in a country in which we are considering politically supporting the leadership. Our position, it seems to me, should be one that can also be adopted by our comrade within that country without committing political suicide. In other words, could we ask the comrade in Cuba, or in Venezuela, or anywhere else for that matter, to openly support a government that would put them in jail? 

That, by the way, is what happened to a small group of Cuban Trotskyists in the 1960s. They were put in prison for publishing their paper‚ and they spent several years in prison. Eventually, the government said, “OK, we know that you are not pro-Miami counterrevolutionaries. We’re going to let you go free, provided that you do not organize for your views.” And that was the key. They were released when they agreed not to set up a table somewhere in Havana to sell their literature or try to propagate their views through meetings. 

This point doesn’t just apply to people who accept our particular views; we should favor all the people being able to organize independently and communicate their views in a peaceful manner. That is, as a minimum‚ I’m not saying that there aren’t other issues to be concerned about‚ but a trade-off that would give up on those minimal conditions would not be acceptable.

It seems like it shouldn’t be difficult to draw a distinction between opposing any attempt by the United States to impose itself on other countries, like Cuba, and our attitude politically to the particular type of regime or government that the United States is trying to impose itself on.

I completely agree. When it comes to the issue of opposing imperialist aggression, that’s  totally different than politically supporting the leadership of the opposing country victimized by imperialism. After all, the Left internationally, socialists, and other people who were not socialists supported Haile Selassie against the Italian Invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s. There couldn’t have been a more reactionary system than Haile Selassie’s, and yet that was not the pertinent issue there. The pertinent issue was the self-determination of the Ethiopian people against Italian imperialism. On that there can be absolutely no question or doubt.

In your recent political biography of Che Guevara, you contrast the political and strategic stances of Guevara and Raúl Castro to those of Fidel Castro. What were they, and what was the root of those differences?

On January 1, 1959—that’s the date in which Batista was overthrown and the revolutionaries came to power—Raúl Castro and Che Guevara had different politics than Fidel Castro. Raúl had been a member of the youth wing of the Cuban Communist Party‚ the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP)‚ which was the pro-Moscow party in Cuba. He had a Communist political past. In spite of the fact that he had strategic and tactical differences with the PSP—for example, his support for the insurrectionary struggle, which the Communist Party didn’t approve of until much later—he continued to be pro-Soviet in his political views. 

Something similar was the case with Che Guevara. Guevara was an admirer of Joseph Stalin. When the Cuban revolution came to power in January 1959, he was very pro-Soviet. It was later, after 1961—and by the way, by 1961 all the basic changes in Cuba had already been made—that Guevara became increasingly critical of the Soviet Union, including beginning to be critical of Stalin himself. 

That was not the case for Fidel Castro. Fidel, in the years leading up to the seizure of power and some time after‚ was a radical nationalist and a secret anti-imperialist. What do I mean by a secret anti-imperialist? Until January 1, 1959, anti-imperialism was not part of the movement‚ and I want to emphasize that. The Cuban revolution before Batista’s overthrow was not an anti-imperialist revolution. Castro and others were of course critical of United States policy in Cuba; but being critical of US policy in Cuba doesn’t make you an anti-imperialist. Only the Communist Party was at that time anti-imperialist. 

After the revolution, there was a process of radicalization, which became more pronounced, with the tremendously hostile reaction of the United States to the agrarian reform law of May 1959. Fidel Castro’s private anti-imperialism that had begun to become public immediately after the victory of January 1, 1959, became more pronounced, and gradually came closer to the more radical line advocated by the alliance of the old Cuban pro-Moscow Communists of Raúl Castro and Che Guevara.

While Castro was not a particularly great strategist, he was a brilliant tactician. What I mean by that is he was usually able to see what was going on‚ and to figure out how the wind was blowing. You could say it was a historical coincidence that at that particular time the USSR was at the peak of its power. Sputnik, the first satellite, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. Pro-Soviet parties were winning elections, for example, in Kerala, India, at that time. The rate of economic growth of the Soviet Union‚ though it’s hard to believe in light of how the USSR failed to develop subsequently, was actually higher than in the United States then. That led Nikita Khrushchev, then leader of the Soviet Union, to say to the United States, “We will bury you.” He didn’t mean it in military terms; he meant in economic terms. Of course, later we learned how the economic crisis developed in the Soviet Union, but that’s a different story. 

At this point a pact with the Soviet Union was attractive to Fidel Castro, and by late 1959 he had begun to develop a pact‚ and was swayed in that direction. Not, I believe, on a principled basis, but certainly, approaching the Soviet Union was compatible with his top-down perspective. You can see in his speeches and political conduct at the time, and see that whether or not he was procapitalist or Communist, he always had a “from the top” perspective of how to control a revolutionary movement. There was already an element of elective affinity between his politics and those of the Soviet Union. Had Fidel Castro chosen another course—which, in my opinion, was not a matter of fate—Raúl Castro would have gone into opposition against Fidel. Soviet archives have revealed that Raúl in early 1959 briefly considered breaking with Fidel and going into opposition. And Che Guevara would almost certainly have left Cuba.

I’ve been rereading the biography of Castro published in 1986 by Tad Szulc, Fidel: A Critical Portrait, and the 1971 book Is Cuba Socialist by the French agronomist Rene Dumont. What comes out clearly in both is that Castro to a large degree could do whatever he wanted in Cuba whenever he felt like it.

As Marxists, we always have a well-founded reason to be leery of individualistic explanations of historical development, and with good reason. However, there are certain social situations (as with Louis Bonaparte in France in the mid-nineteenth century, which Marx so brilliantly analyzed)‚ which allow for such an individual power. Analogous conditions existed in the island—I discussed them in my first book on Cuba—that facilitated this kind of individual power. That’s exactly what was happening in Cuba before the victory of the revolution—the weakness of political parties; the existence of a mercenary army that had weak or non-existent organic connections with the Cuban upper classes; and other factors that facilitated, then and later, that kind of individual power. 

If, as you argue, Cuba is not a socialist country, are there nevertheless elements of what the revolution accomplished that are worthy of support?

Definitely. Here we’re talking about the very comprehensive welfare state that was developed in Cuba, particularly in the areas of education and health care from 1960 to 1990—a thirty-year period. We are close to being as many years from the end of that period until today; that is, in 2020 it will be thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A very comprehensive welfare state was developed that obviously, any socialist, any human being, any progressive person would favor. There’s no question that those were positive achievements. The problem is that the system was very heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries. The moment the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, there was a very big deterioration in the Cuban welfare system. 

People who support the Cuban government write about the island as if it was the same before 1990 as it was after 1990. That’s a very critical dividing point insofar as the Cuban welfare state is concerned. I’ll give you an example: At the beginning of the current school year, 350 schools were closed in Cuba because they were a threat to health and safety. There’s a tremendous deterioration in the system, combined with the fact that the Cuban economy does not have sufficient capital savings to renew its physical plant‚ whether in the social welfare or the productive spheres‚ to maintain that system in the way it was working before 1990. The system has deteriorated quite significantly, and that raises the question of the material base that must exist to maintain such a progressive system. 

The problem with the Cuban economy is that there is tremendous waste and inefficiency, where the attitude of workers is the same as in Eastern Europe before the fall of Communism: They pay us little and we produce little; or, they pay us nothing and we produce nothing. There’s no feedback in a system that lacks any kind of independent unions or worker’s control; there is no autonomous feedback that would motivate workers to work efficiently. There is an unverified claim that Fidel Castro once said‚  “We’re good at fighting but we’re not good at producing.” That is true. 

Not only is Cuba an economy of great waste and inefficiency, but also one where the unchecked power of Fidel Castro has produced, over and over again, economic disaster. In 1970, there was the absolutely insane notion of producing ten million tons of sugar. They not only failed to produce that amount, but in attempting it disrupted the transportation system; in fact, whole other areas of the Cuban economy were highly disrupted by this hare-brained scheme. Shortly before Castro had to leave politics in 2006 because of poor health, the so-called battle of ideas had involved a lot of economic plans that produced very incoherent economic interventions and poor results, with the great deal of the micromanagement that Fidel Castro was so fond of. 

Raúl, by the way, is very different in that regard. He is for delegating and holding lower bureaucrats responsible; he has a very different approach to economic issues than his brother Fidel. Here are some examples of Fidel’s schemes: The Havana belt plan to grow small crops in the late 1960s that collapsed. There was the infamous attempt to develop the F-1 hybrid cow—against the advice of British experts he brought to Cuba—that failed to increase production despite the investment of major resources. These schemes were a serious flaw, and particularly characteristic of Fidel’s reign. 

When we talk about inefficiency and waste, we’re so used to the capitalists talking about inefficiency and waste that we think it’s only a capitalist problem. In a country that no longer has private capitalists, however, it’s a problem directly affecting the working class and other laboring classes, because you are wasting people’s labor; people are working hard, and because of these hare-brained schemes, their work is being wasted. That is a precious asset that the regime essentially doesn’t care about.

It’s also true that there has been a criminal economic blockade of Cuba by the United States, and that of course has played an important role. I would, however, point out that the impact of the blockade was much greater at the beginning, when the whole economy was based on machinery from the United States, and it was impossible to get spare parts and new machinery to replace the old ones. So clearly, it had a much greater impact in the early 1960s than in the later years, when the economy had been reoriented to machinery produced in East Germany, the Soviet Union, and places. 

The impact of the blockade is important to this very day, but it is also important to understand that the US was the only capitalist country to engage in the blockade. Canada, Spain, and the European Union continued to be involved in trade with Cuba. 

In fact, a very revealing situation occurred in the 1970s when the price of sugar went sky high, to seventy cents a pound at one point. It hasn’t happened before or since. Under this circumstance, where Cuba had real assets because of the high price of sugar, its pattern of trade changed dramatically. Practically half of its trade was with Canada and Western Europe rather than the Soviet bloc. 

In other words, when Cuba had something to offer from its own economy, it was much less dependent on the Soviet Union economically as it had been before, and was after. The Western European countries, the so-called Paris club, extended considerable credits to the Cuban government. It’s telling that in 1986, four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba cancelled its interest payments to the Paris Club because they could not afford to repay them. This debt was just settled very recently in negotiations with the European Union. 

It’s important to keep that in mind when talking about the blockade, and to support the complete elimination of the blockade. Obama tried to limit its effects, but the blockade continues. There cannot be US investment in Cuba. Agricultural exports from the US to Cuba were allowed by special exception in 2001; but they have to be paid for in cash. Obama might have softened the blockade somewhat, but the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 prohibits a lot of things that Obama, even if he wanted to, could not get around. For example, the Starwood chain of hotels, which includes the Sheraton chain is in Cuba, but  it’s owned by the Cuban state. Under the current legislation, Hilton or any other chain could not invest money to build a hotel. So there are clearly limits, just not with the same impact as the earlier period. In my judgment, the impact of the blockade is not of the same importance as the internal problems of the Cuban economy itself. But there is no question that the criminal blockade that the US imposed in the early 1960s must be abolished. It would undoubtedly improve economic conditions in Cuba.

In Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution she talks about worker-owned cooperatives, and points out that since they operate in a capitalist market, whatever their intentions, they must operate in ways that are dictated by the pressures of the market. And when I think of Cuba, it’s not just a question of the impact of the embargo, but the impact of the world economy on Cuba‚ a small island economy dependent on the world around it‚ which exert pressure with or without the embargo.

Absolutely. Cuba is a particularly open economy. If you look at Cuba, look at nickel. Nickel is doing badly now because of the collapse of commodity prices, but Cuba is a major producer of nickel; it is produced by the Cuban state in association with a Canadian corporation. Biotechnology is also important‚ and it can only succeed with the expert and international licensing of pharmaceutical products. Sugar has declined dramatically, so it really doesn’t count for much; but tourism, which is very important to the economy, is completely dependent on the outside world.

You’ve noted that in the last decade, under the leadership of Raúl Castro, Cuba is moving in the direction of what’s been called “market Stalinism,” or the Chinese-Vietnamese model‚ that is, a one-party state but with allowances for much greater leeway in developing private capitalism and opening up to the world market. What did Fidel Castro think about this trajectory?

Definitely they are moving in that direction, but in a contradictory fashion; I mean allowing some things but attempting to curtail them at the same time. That reflects pressures in the Cuban bureaucracy not wanting to sacrifice their jobs and their positions in the economy if it opens up. Raúl Castro is trying to balance between those pressures. So for example, there are only somewhat over 200 occupations where the Cuban government has allowed people in the urban areas to be self-employed. The presence of private enterprises in Cuba is evident but limited to tiny enterprises like restaurants, taxis, renting apartments to tourists, computer repair services, and that kind of thing. It’s really relatively marginal to the economy, but half a million people are employed that way, out of a labor force of five million. So it’s significant—not predominant, but significant. Counting the countryside and the urban areas, about 25-30 percent of the labor force is now self-employed; but state employment still accounts for two-thirds or 70 percent of employment. 

What Fidel Castro was willing to allow was much less than what Raúl Castro has allowed by way of reforms imitating China and Vietnam. Raúl has given a lot more room for reforms to develop than had been the case under Fidel. Fidel allowed some of it, but nothing compared to what happened later. For example, under Raúl, houses can be bought and sold. People are still not allowed to have more than one house in the city and one at the beach. Foreigners are generally not allowed to buy houses or apartments in Cuba, but relatives from Miami can bring money and find family members whose names they can use to buy a house; so there are a lot of ways of getting around the legal limitations still in force. But a lot more of this has happened under Raúl than under Fidel. 

Did Fidel approve of these changes? He probably disapproved, or was not very hot about it. There must have been either and implicit or and explicit agreement between Fidel and Raúl, where Fidel would not give opinions about domestic issues. After Fidel got sick in 2006, he published several dozen reflections in the Communist Party press, and not once did he discuss issues of the domestic economy or domestic policy. All of his columns were about foreign policy or general issues like the environment, and by the way, also some conspiratorial views and speculations about world politics. But what is remarkable is that not one column of his was about the domestic economy or politics. That makes me suspect that though he wasn’t very enthusiastic about the economic reforms, his agreement with his brother, implicitly or explicitly, was that he would not interfere with his brother.

It would seem to me that there’s the question of a controlled opening from above along the lines of a Chinese model, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for workers and people at the bottom of society, and raises the question as to what degree any sort of opening can create a space from below to move in a different direction.

I wrote a recent article for Jacobin about the “possible socialisms” in Cuba, but there is one huge obstacle. Of course, there are many obstacles‚ for example government repression. But a big one is the question of massive emigration from the island. The fact of the matter is that young people, particularly, in Cuba are dissatisfied. They are not thinking of big political change; they’re thinking about how the hell to get out of there. 

In recent years there has been a massive exodus that is going to accelerate in light of the possibility that Trump, for his own reasons, may repeal the Cuba Adjustment Act that grants Cubans much greater rights than other Latin Americans once they touch American soil. In anticipation of that there might be a big exodus. There was already a big surge after Obama resumed relations, which led people to think that the Cuban Adjustment Act is going to change, so let’s get out of here now. Since people could not come directly to the US, there were lots of people moving through Latin America on their way to the American border. Most people now enter through Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, and not through the Gulf of Mexico to reach Florida, which is a very dangerous journey. Moreover, if the US Coast Guard captures a Cuban on the high seas that person will be returned to the island, as has already happened in thousands of cases. 

It’s common to view Cuba as still being involved in a “revolution” as if it were an ongoing process that continues to this day. What do you make of that idea?

Regardless of what you call the Cuban system, the revolution did confiscate almost all private capital, big and small, as well as domestic and foreign productive property. So, at one point, in the mid-to-late 1980s, Cuba had a larger proportion of the economy nationalized than the Soviet Union itself. It was almost an entirely ( 90 percent range) nationalized economy. 

Keep in mind that this state of affairs was brought about in a country that was relatively advanced in Latin American terms. That is, in 1959 Cuba was number four in economic development, measured not just by gross domestic product, but also by other criteria: electrification, literacy, and in many others areas. Cuba was usually ranked number four behind Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela. In a country like that, to bring about a state of affairs where the whole economy was nationalized—there was a social revolution in Cuba. Not your social revolution or mine, but there was a social revolution in which the ruling classes were exiled—a good part of the middle classes as well—and they established a new social system‚ call it what you will. 

So, there was a social revolution on behalf of what became a new bureaucratic ruling class that ran the economy through the Communist Party and the so-called mass organizations that functioned as transmission belts for the new ruling Communist Party. And that revolution, although very decayed, as I indicated above, is still quite different from the private capitalist model that exists in Latin American countries, including the so-called center-left countries, and even Venezuela itself, which is the most left-wing of the center-left countries. 

Now, as long as that continues to exist, then that social revolution is still in power. What will happen in the future? It is possible that the next generation will take the final steps and go on toward becoming fully capitalist, particularly in the Russian way. We have talked about the Sino-Vietnamese model, but there is a reason why in Cuba they might go in the direction of the Russian model—the existence of a cosmetic democracy. In Russia there are elections, but they are not meaningful. The reason Cuba may have to do that is to provide a cover for the US Congress to get rid of Helms-Burton and abolish the blockade. Once they get to a full Chinese-Vietnamese road or a Russian road, and they dismantle state control of the economy, then the revolution that happened in the 1960s will no longer exist. Until then the revolution is still in power in Cuba.

The 1976 constitution created formal mechanisms of voting, like “people’s power,” the assemblies, and the mass organizations. Che and others, in response to the argument that Cuba wasn’t democratic claimed that through his mass rallies Fidel established a direct rapport with the masses, and that this, along with the assemblies and the mass organizations, is superior to “western democracy.” The counter argument is that these organizations act as “transmission belts” of directives from above, rather than organs of control by the masses. What do you make of that?

I think quite honestly that it is farcical. The reason I use such a harsh word, is that when you have a mass rally where people applaud and say “right on,” that’s not what democracy is about. It’s not even plebiscitary democracy. We are very critical, at least socialists of our kind, of plebiscites. In a plebiscite, you submit a position to the population to say “yes” or “no.” But even then there are elections; and even then there is a real debate about what to vote for—for example, in the case of Brexit. That was a plebescite, and it was a huge fight, including within the left in Great Britain, about whether or not you should support it. In Cuba, there is not even that. I think that plebiscites are a very defective form of democracy, but be that as it may, there are not even plebiscites in Cuba. The masses cannot even propose amendments to what Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership propose. To call that democracy is a farce. 

The same argument has been made in terms of “popular power” in Cuba. Popular power are local assemblies where, in effect, you cannot vote for people on the basis of policies. At the lowest level there is more than one candidate, but the candidates cannot say, for example, “I want you to elect me because I think we should change the traffic patterns in this town because we have tremendous pollution.” You know, it doesn’t even have to be a revolutionary issue, but a substantive question. All they are allowed to do is present their biographies, and their revolutionary merit: “My name is Liborio Garcia, and I fought in the Sierra Maestra, and then I was sent to Angola. I was injured in Angola, and since then I’ve been in the local leadership of the Communist Party.” And that’s all a candidate can do. That candidate cannot even say, “Elect me, because unlike my opponent I believe this is the way to go in this town with the water problems, or whatever problems we have.” To claim that this process is democratic, I think is quite farcical. 

And of course, the press in Cuba is a completly monolithic apparatus that follows the party’s ideological department. This is not a secret; it’s not an accusation of conspiracy. They would be the first to admit: the ideological department of the Cuban Communist Party gives so-called orientations to the press about what they should and should not publish, and that’s why on controversial matters they don’t immediately transmit the news, because they have to decide how they are going to approach it.

And then there’s the question of repression of dissent. For example, the visual artist Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto, has been jailed for writing “Se Fue” (He’s Gone), referring to Castro, on the wall of the old Havana Hilton.

I get a lot of messages on Facebook; it’s not an easy task for people in Cuba to get on Facebook but some people are able to. From these postings I found, for example, that there was a firing of a university professor, Julio Antonio Fernández Estrada, from the law school in Havana. He was a critic of the system, and they just fired him. They also fired an economist, Omar Everleny Perez. He is a guy who is very much for a kind of capitalist development in Cuba; he spoke too much so they fired him from his position in the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

There is a certain degree of unrest‚ I don’t want to exaggerate it, but I’m paying attention to it‚ in the Union of Journalists in Cuba (UPEC). There have been several examples of people who, in order to survive, write for outside outlets; not necessarily for opposition outlets, but just to earn hard currency to be able to survive in Cuba. They have been punished because they are not supposed to write for outside outlets. So there is a certain degree of unrest among journalists in Cuba. Whether anything will come out of it, I don’t know. It’s something I’ve been paying attention to.

What was Fidel Castro’s attitude to the Obama administration’s 2014 opening to Cuba?

He was at least skeptical, or maybe even opposed to the whole thing. It was very strange. It took a while before he wrote something about it in the Cuban Communist Party press. He issued a declaration that the president of the republic—he didn’t say Raúl Castro—had the legal and constitutional power to sign the agreement with Obama, and reminded Cuba that the US was not to be trusted. That sort of declaration, to me, sounds like a bucket of cold water. But that’s what he said. It was a short declaration, but that was the essence of what he said in his declaration. It was not a real endorsement.

Why do you think Obama opened things up, and what do you think the future of this agreement is and where it might be heading given the election of Donald Trump?

It was clear for quite some time before Obama did what he did in 2014, that the ruling class in the United States was not at all interested in the blockade of Cuba and even opposed it. It was quite some time ago that the US Chamber of Commerce—not exactly a liberal organization—had come out quite openly for full trade and economic relations with Cuba. The head of the Chamber visited Cuba several times. The business press, including the Wall Street Journal—and you couldn’t be more right wing than the editorial page of that paper—were for resuming economic relations with Cuba. It’s interesting because their argument for doing that, while full of wish fulfillment, had an element of truth to it. They said: when we embrace Cuba with investment, then things will change. Of course, there was a certain automatic thinking involved, but there was an element of truth to their strategy. That is, instead of trying to ruin Cuba economically, we should embrace it and fill it with investment, and then we’ll see how that moves things in Cuba. Obama was reflecting that. The billionaire Penny Pritzker, for example, was in Cuba both before and after she became secretary of commerce for Obama. There was clearly a changing mood.

Also, and this is important for the future, there are a series of states in this country who have benefited from trade with Cuba—Alabama, for example. The port of Mobile, Alabama, is very important in the export of agricultural commodities to Cuba. You can find any number of right-wing Republican politicians in Alabama, and in the Midwest, and the Mountain states who want more trade. Jeff Flake, the GOP Senator from Arizona, who is no friend of Trump, has been at the head of efforts to restore economic relations with Cuba for many years. There is a significant element inside the Republican Party that is for resumption of relations with Cuba. 

How things will fair under Trump is tricky. Trump himself, in 1998, and once again on a couple of occasions after that, sent emissaries to Cuba to explore investment opportunities. However, during the campaign he was awful. He made some very extreme right wing pronouncements to people while campaigning in Florida. He has appointed a number of Cuban Americans to the transition team, but one in particular‚ Mauricio Claver-Carone‚ was a major lobbyist opposing Obama’s policy toward Cuba. He’s been appointed to the transition team for the US treasury department that handles a lot of economic policy through the office of Foreign Assets Control‚ OFAC. This appointment is very, very ominous. 

The question is how far Trump will want to roll back relations with Cuba. Nobody knows. I sort of doubt—hopefully its an intelligent guess—that he will break all diplomatic relations with Cuba. But he may very well cancel Obama’s executive order that allows airlines to travel to Cuba. Jet Blue is already doing that; American Airlines is doing that. Delta and United are about to start commercial flights to Cuba. On the other hand, those airlines are going to fight any efforts to curtail flights because they’ve already sunk money into it.

How would you evaluate Castro’s career and place in history?

Let’s go back‚ given our common tradition‚ to the late British Marxist Tony Cliff’s theory of deflected permanent revolution, an important article he wrote in 1963. What Cliff wrote in that article was about a series of factors: First, the absence of a successful workers’ revolution, or its inability to survive successfully in Russia; second, the bankruptcy of social democracy; and third are the specific characteristics of third world countries, such as the weakness of the working class. Given these conditions, the permanent revolution Trotsky had talked about, that is, the bourgeois revolution (or against dictatorship in the case of Cuba) leading in a socialist direction under the leadership of the working class, failed to take place. Things went in a very different direction.

So far, so good. We can go a little farther, perhaps, than Cliff went and say that these revolutions created a model‚ a social, economic, and political model‚ that was attractive to the most radical wing of the third-world liberation movements after World War II through the 1970s. I say the most radical, because the majority of them, like Nasser in Egypt, Ben Bella in Algeria, Nkrumah in Ghana, Sukarno in Indonesia, adopted mixed systems of state intervention and capitalism. But some did go further‚ for example in Vietnam and China. 

But there was a model of a state bureaucratic economy as a means to achieve economic development that was different from both socialism and from private capitalism. It was attractive for many years. Whether or not they delivered economic development, it still remains a model. It must be said, by the way, for a wide variety of reasons that I cannot possibly go into here, that this model was also attractive in varying degrees to the Left in the developed countries. One piece of evidence for that is, in the reactions to the death of Fidel Castro in the left-wing press in the United States, most have gone on record on this—and it is not a pretty picture—but we have to acknowledge that there is even at this late point a lot of sympathy for Fidel Castro in the US left.

Again, that model attracted support. In the last analysis the question is how much is going to be left after this generation of Cuban leaders is gone. Raúl Castro is eighty-five-years old. Historically speaking, not much may be left of that model. If not much is left of that, then historically—and that’s the question that has been posed—what was the point of this state-bureaucratic system from above? That is, what legacy did it leave? 

What do you mean when you described the reaction of the US left press to Fidel’s death as “not a pretty picture”?

I’ve been dismayed because I’ve been looking at the articles that appeared all the way from left of center magazines like the Nation to more radical outfits—with the exception of places like Jacobin, where Mike Gonzalez wrote a pretty good piece—but the majority were pieces that to one degree or another were positive about Fidel Castro. Not to the same degree. Clearly, what Greg Grandin wrote for the Nation, for example, was definitely less enthusiastic than what Monthly Review published. They are planning to have Fidel Castro’s picture on the cover. As a sideline: on my Facebook friends list‚ and of course many of those people are not friends, you know‚ yesterday I ran into four or five of them who had pictures of Fidel Castro instead of their picture on their home page. It’s remarkable.

I think there’s a great deal of confusion—to come back to the beginning of our discussion—in assessing Fidel Castro in the same way you would assess any leader of a national liberation movement and that he should be praised for standing up to imperialism; but then on that basis, downplaying or ignoring the fact that he ruled as a dictator for almost half a century, and then passed his rule to his brother in dynastic fashion. That seems to get lost. It’s almost as though he’s Jose Marti who got shot off a horse in 1895, and we can simply admire what a great revolutionary he was, without taking the rest into account.

What is striking to me is that practically nobody in their assessments of Fidel Castro talked about democracy, and the one-party state and its consequences. Perhaps it’s the notion that while we would not put up with Castro’s system if it were tried here in the US, it’s okay if it’s established in a third world country. That is, in my view, a politically and morally bankrupt position.

Like the article on Fidel by Van Gosse, which says: “Yes, he was a tyrant, a dictator. But he got things done and he stood up to the US, so that’s OK.”

If anyone were to propose that we try that kind of system here, they would reject it.

You’re a long-time proponent of what the late socialist Hal Draper called “socialism from below.” How would you evaluate the Cuban Revolution in that light?

I would not characterize Castro as a socialist from below. As Miguel Angel Gonzales pointed out in a very good recent article in Socialist Worker, he is the classic example of a socialist from above.

How do I evaluate the Cuban Revolution in that light? At this stage of the degeneration of the Cuban Revolution, the only gain that is still solid in Cuba is national sovereignty. What I mean by that is that Cuba is still a far more sovereign country than it was back in 1958. That is perhaps the most solid gain of the Cuban Revolution considering, as I mentioned before, that the gains in education, health, and so on are in crisis; they are declining and face lots of problems; not necessarily because of the subjective will of the leaders, but primarily because the objective conditions don’t allow maintaining them the way they were. 

The possible turn of the second generation of leaders to a full Chinese or Russian model, or a Russian-style turn toward pseudo-democracy in order to abolish the blockade‚ or what Trump may do, all have unknown effects. All of that combined make the prospects for Cuban sovereignty uncertain.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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