Sunshine Stalinism ends?

James Turley looks at the mixed response of the left and the prospect of a 'Cuban Deng'

No-one was shocked to hear that Fidel Castro, who stepped down as Cuban president after 49 years on February 19, was to be succeeded by his younger brother, Raúl.

Of course, Fidel is no young man (neither, for that matter, is the 76-year-old Raúl) and the only real surprise is that he did not continue until his death - his resignation marks the final disappearance of the ‘great leaders’ of third-worldist Marxism; his then-contemporaries, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong, both maintained executive office until their deaths. Indeed, the barely disguised enthusiasm in the western bourgeois press upon his recent hospitalisation, and on many previous occasions where Castro’s death was a however-distant possibility, testifies to the curious stamina of this type of dictator.

But the Cuban president wrote a letter to his “compatriots”, telling them “it would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer”, while pledging to continue to “fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas” (Granma February 19).

Precisely what battles he will have on his hands remains to be seen. What is clear at this point is that Raúl is very likely to introduce some measure of economic reforms. On a visit to Shanghai in 2005, he told an audience: “There are people who are worried about the Chinese model - I’m not; China today proves another world is possible” (Against the Current January 2007).

Raúl’s main support base is in the army, which is currently involved in massive and highly profitable ‘joint ownership’ enterprises - it has already engaged in lucrative transactions with international finance capital. It owns only 4% of Cuban land, but this is the productive and provided half the food for Havana in the late 1990s.

It was Raúl who directed the various liberalising methods that created the tourist industry, which is now hegemonic over the economic life of the country (in a return of sorts to the Batista days, when Havana functioned as a brothel for visiting Americans). The tourist sector’s expansion in the 1990s led to the introduction in 1994 of the convertible peso, a parallel currency which can be exchanged for the dollar (unlike the Cuban or national peso) and also for luxury items.

This produced a massive disparity between workers in tourist enterprises and those elsewhere, due to the receipt of tips that would necessarily be convertible. David Osler, in a recent blog on the subject, noted that “to get to be a bellboy - so I was told by a qualified architect currently working as a cinema usher - you need ‘connections’” (www.davidosler.com/2008/02/cuba_after_castro.html).

This bizarre scenario is probably not sustainable, and it would provide an ample excuse for Raúl Castro to ‘rationalise’ the economy.

The influence of China is one matter, but we cannot discuss the future of Cuba without mention of the influence of the rather closer United States of America. The US has been hostile to the Castro regime almost from the beginning. The infamous blockade has been in place since 1962. Millions of dollars have been sunk into Cuban ‘freedom’ organisations, and Washington will be watching developments closely, feeling for and exploiting opportunities.

This will no doubt involve the manipulation of the large and influential Cuban exile community, which is virulently rightwing. American third-campist Sam Farber reported in 2006 that “the Wall Street Journal had an article a couple of weeks ago (November 15 2006) on a number of Cuban exile economists working as functionaries for the International Monetary Fund, who were working on Cuba on their own time. One of them, Ernesto Hernández Catá, was quoted as saying he would be happy to work for a ‘Cuban Deng’, referring, of course, to Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist programme in China.” So far, the exiles have been used mostly as proxies for terrorist and military activity - firstly with the abortive Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, and then with a seemingly endless series of assassination attempts on Castro.

The Cuban revolution has been a matter of some controversy on the far left since its victory in 1959. As the 1960s drew on, Castro and his allies grew to be extremely influential among newly radicalised layers of students. Maoists were seduced despite Cuba’s alliance with the ‘social-imperialist’ USSR; Trotskyists were seduced, despite its status as a canonical ‘deformed workers’ state’. Not everybody was, though, and the ultra-Castroite American Party for Socialism and Liberation claims that defence of Cuban ‘socialism’ has emerged as a uniquely divisive “litmus test” for those on the left (Socialism and Liberation July 2006).

The opinion of the international left, then, ranges all the way from uncritical and enthusiastic celebration, through more cautious admiration, to virulent hostility. The Revolutionary Communist Group, through their Rock Around the Blockade front group, summed up the ultra-Castroite position neatly in a letter to the Weekly Worker last week: “Fidel, as a leader of the Cuban people and the Cuban Communist Party, is an inspiration to millions of poor and oppressed people around the world, including Britain. The achievements of the Cuban revolution mean that, despite the fact that Cuba is a small, ‘third world’ country, people there live longer than people in Manchester” (Letters, February 21). The hard anti-Castroite position is encapsulated in Alliance for Workers’ Liberty member Paul Hampton’s arguments with Bernard Regan (www.workersliberty.org/story/2008/02/19/cuba-socialist).

Why such a spectrum? On the one hand, this is all partly a matter of accident and context - as the likes of the AWL are keen to point out, there is no real structural difference between the Cuban regime and any other Soviet satellite, except that it is still there. The popularity is thus partly a matter of timing - just as radical movements were beginning to emerge from under the suffocating influence of official Stalinism, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, Ho Chi Minh fought back against the American juggernaut and Castro began to ‘build socialism’ on the doorstep of Florida. These three figures - along with Castro’s comrade, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara - became the pin-ups for a generation of leftists.

On the other hand, while the ostentatious displays of mobilisation in 60s China were largely forced and the Cultural Revolution was in fact a total disaster, and while the Viet Minh relied on largely passive support from the population, the Cuban revolution was and remains popular among Cubans. This, obviously, marks Cuba out even more sharply from the eastern bloc regimes, which were deeply hated by significant layers from the start. Ironically, were there to be free and fair elections tomorrow, the winning candidates could well be   some of the very people presently engaged in making sure that this never happens.

The nub of the matter is national self-determination. Ordinary Cubans may lament the tough restrictions on dissidence, the notorious toilet-paper shortages and the massive privileges enjoyed by bureaucrats (and tourism workers) - but they are thrown into support for the regime by the suspicion that the only other option is the dominance of US imperialism. ‘Self-determination’, however, in the absence of genuine democracy, is a dead letter. After all, there is no shortage of candidates for the position of “Cuban Deng”, and it will not be difficult for the CIA to fish one or two out of the fetid mire of the state machinery.

It is this basic truth which renders the euphoric apologetics of the RCG type essentially farcical. Only when the Cuban working class - unmentioned by the apologists, except as grateful and passive recipients of world-class healthcare - is in control of the whole machinery of the state, supplanting Raúl Castro and his military bureaucrats, will a lasting freedom from imperialist interference and capitalist exploitation be a reality. Genuine communists, in Cuba and elsewhere, must fight the paternalism of Stalinist bureaucrats and strive for the working class’s own self-liberation.