THE CUBAN Revolution was “one of the most important events in the history of twentieth-century Latin America,” writes Sam Farber in Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment. In the years since, Cuba has inspired generations of Latin American and international leftists. Cuba has defiantly withstood decades of a barbaric embargo from the United States, and it has survived twenty years after the collapse of its major benefactor, the Soviet Union.
But Cuba is looking less like itself these days. Survival has increasingly meant adopting neoliberal-style reforms to stave off crisis, and the Cuban state has increasingly opened the country up to private investment and ownership. As The Economist recently observed, “Under Raúl Castro, Cuba has begun the journey towards capitalism.” The Cuba of old is disappearing into history, as are the octogenarian Castro brothers themselves. A new Cuba will soon emerge under new leadership for the first time in over half a century.
Cuba Since the Revolution is a historical evaluation of the five decades since the Castro regime took power. Farber refuses to join the chorus of mainstream voices calling to replace Cuba’s economic and political system with one fully oriented on the market. He also resists apologizing for the Cuban political system. Instead Farber approaches this task with an unfailing commitment to socialism from below, of the self-emancipation of ordinary Cubans. He warns against simply drawing a balance sheet of Cuba’s postrevolutionary achievements and failings:
Justifying political support on the basis of the balance of “good” and “bad” things a regime does is fraught with peril…. After all, did not Mussolini, as George Bernard Shaw liked to point out, make the trains run on time?… [F]or Marx and Engels, the progressive actions taken by political leaders…were worthy of support only when they facilitated the growth of the working class and its ability to defend itself and increase its independent political and social power.
Farber makes an important distinction between broad popular mobilization and enthusiasm and popular democratic control. In its early years, the revolutionary government was wildly popular among working and poor Cubans. It had a number of radical achievements to its credit, namely reforms in land, health, education, and social security; it had also repelled attempts by the United States to meddle in its domestic affairs. But Castro’s strategy for power consolidation had for years been to commit to as few concrete plans as possible, while making sudden moves in unexpected directions. This may have thrown off his enemies. As Cuban policy zigzagged, it was impossible for the Cuban population to do anything but play a supporting role.
This tendency eventually developed into single-party rule. As the state gradually took ownership over larger parts of the economy, the most important political positions were reserved for a select group of Castro’s coterie. The government assumed total control of the political, economic, and social life of Cuba.
Without unions or popular organizations of any sort that could present meaningful challenges, state ownership of the economy was of limited benefit to ordinary Cubans. The majority of the population did not make important decisions; instead a small ruling clique made decisions on their behalf. This had enormous ramifications, not just in the individual lives of Cubans but on the island’s economy as well.
Lack of meaningful participation resulted in a heavily top-down “socialist” model, which Farber captures with the phrase “strong thumbs, no fingers.” Cuba excelled at accomplishing homogeneous, standardized tasks. National vaccination campaigns, or hurricane evacuations, for example, were executed exceedingly well. But more nimble tasks have routinely failed, such as adapting goods, services, and public transport to meet the shifting needs of Cuba’s population. One area where this is felt acutely is agriculture. With unpredictable climate and diverse local conditions, a one-size-fits-all approach is considerably less useful. As a result, Cuba has actually seen small private sector and co-operative farms that are more productive than its state sector.
Lack of popular democratic participation has also meant that in Cuba the revolution brought uneven progress to already oppressed populations. When it comes to racism against Black Cubans, for example, Farber notes that political expedience rather than political or moral convictions drove the Castro regime. After the revolution, Castro initially made statements that promised a serious challenge to racism—in education, in the workplace, and so on. But he was forced to take much of this back a few days later after a backlash from white sectors whose support he was eager to secure.
Since then, revolutionary rhetoric has often confused progress with official denial of racial discrimination. The Castro regime’s insistence has been that any evidence of racism on the island is a remnant of the old ways, which will eventually die out. “This type of explanation tends to emphasize the role of individual prejudice,” Farber explains, “and minimize the role of ongoing institutional racism on the island.”
With no way to effectively challenge—or even discuss—institutional racism in “color-blind” Cuba, the results have been predictable. Today, a disproportionate number of Black men are incarcerated. In fact, Cuba’s incarceration rate of 531 people per 100,000 is far above the world average of 145 per 100,000, and is just a few places behind the United States (756 per), which is at the top of the global list. Black Cubans are also at a much higher risk of being stopped by police for identity checks. A recurring theme in Cuban hip-hop, particularly from the poorer districts of East Havana, is complaints of police harassment and poverty.
Similar dynamics emerged regarding gender politics. The official line in Cuba attributed any traces of sexism or homophobia to relics of prerevolutionary machismo. But according to Farber, the Castro regime frequently used machismo as a political tool. The results are often horrifying, like during the 1970s, when gay men were routinely rounded up and sent to “reeducation” (read: concentration) camps. During the “special period” of the 1990s—after the Cuban economy collapsed following the Soviet Union’s dissolution—women saw their traditional double burden rise to a triple burden. They worked their normal jobs, took care of the children and the home, and “volunteered” for another job.
Ordinary Cubans have benefited from a number of policies put in place after the revolution, such as improved health care. But the measure of Cuba since the revolution should not be how frequently the interests of ordinary Cubans coincided with that of the Castro regime. Rather, it should be whether or not they have the opportunity to openly and meaningfully express concerns, redress grievances, and work together to make decisions over the path Cuba will follow. As Farber writes:
There is no school or university where workers and other exploited and oppressed people can go and learn to practice socialist democracy except the one wrought through their own efforts with the inevitable trials and errors. They are certainly not going to learn and develop “democratic traditions” from dictatorships that prevent them from carrying out that indispensible learning.
Cuba Since the Revolution arrives at an important time. As anticapitalist struggle threatens to explode across the globe, it’s critical to have a clear idea of what we are struggling to achieve and how we ought to get there. Whether the Cuban Revolution is one we should emulate tells us much about what sort of struggle we should prepare for. With this book, Farber has made an important contribution toward that end.
For those familiar with Cuba, Farber’s book will offer deep and contextualized historical information, as well as analysis of important recent events. It is also an in-depth case study, which enables revolutionary socialists to develop a method of assessing whether a political program or regime should be supported. As Farber puts it, “[Our] view of revolutionary democracy or socialism from below assumes that people have the capacity and potentially the will to govern themselves and need no saviors or caudillos to protect them from their own errors as they learn and find their way to govern.”