Slow death of Cuban 'socialism'

The capitalist road is the only one open to an isolated Cuba, writes James Turley

It is a little over 50 years since the overthrow of the Batista regime in Cuba, by a coalition of the Cuban ‘official communist’ movement and the populist guerrillas led by Fidel Castro.

Along with the Soviet Union, Maoist China and Vietnam at the high point of the war against America, Cuba is one of the only Stalinist countries to carry serious cachet among revolutionaries abroad. You are more likely to see Che Guevara plastered across a T-shirt than Erich Honecker.

At the end of the day, however, socialism in one country is socialism in one country - however long it takes, it will only end in tears. This week Raul Castro, leading the island state in his ageing brother’s stead, announced a million redundancies in the public sector. This is part of an overall drive to privatise the economy; at present, 85% of Cuba’s population works for the state, which had previously nationalised everything down to barbers shops and grocery stores. These workers are being urged to become private owners of their enterprises, either on an individual or co-operative basis. That’s not all - wages are now to be linked to productivity even in the state sector.

At present, wage differentials are very low - as, for that matter, are wages. That is compensated for with a food rationing system and, of course, their world famous health service, which indeed puts life expectancy in Cuba on a (slightly) better footing than in the United States - and a much better footing than many individual US states, to say nothing of comparable nations in the third world.

Such wholesale nationalisation of everything is not a benchmark of socialism, however. Socialism is enabled by the extension of democratic planning through the commanding heights of the economy, under a radically democratic political regime. Under those circumstances - so Marxists wager - the mom-and-pop petty bourgeois enterprise will simply be unable to compete, and will quietly be absorbed into the mainstream economy.

In Cuba, that simply hasn’t come to pass - nor should we have expected it to. Its principle international backer in the first decades of the revolution was, of course, the Soviet Union. Denied its geographically ‘natural’ trading partner in the USA, the USSR bought up Cuba’s sugar crop in bulk; this, and other subsidies, kept the Cuban economy afloat. After the fall of the Soviet Bloc in 1989-91, Cuba was plunged into crisis.

Since then, the response of the Cuban state has been to begin edging down the Chinese road - to a mixed economy of state-owned and privately-owned enterprises. The first form this took was the extension of the tourist industry, around which has grown almost an entire economy of its own. The convertible peso, a second currency, was created in order to allow tourists to pay their way without using US dollars.

The amount of money sloshing around in the tourist districts may not look enormous to western eyes - but a $5 tip is a quarter of a week’s wages in Cuba; on top of that, luxury goods are sold almost exclusively in the convertible currency, and wages paid, for the most part, in the non-convertible national peso. Understandably, there has followed general under-utilisation of skilled labour, as engineers and doctors get work as busboys and waiters to obtain riches beyond the purview of their professions.

The large scale privatisation, then, has a serious objective basis - it should not be viewed in standard left-Stalinist terms, as the subjective betrayals of a section of the Cuban leadership (as the Maoists put it, ‘capitalist roaders’). The economic difficulties facing Cuba are real, and need to be dealt with somehow. Pushing onwards to full socialism is impossible in an isolated country - the capitalist road is the only one open to Raul and Fidel under present circumstances.

Indeed, Cuba’s main diplomatic allies in the region are the left-led capitalist regimes of Venezuela and so forth. Hugo Chavez offers discounted oil; in return, Cuba offers medical aid and its own exports. Links with China are also deepening. In this context, it is only natural that the Soviet model of ossified state capitalism should fall by the wayside.

Just where that leaves Cuba in its standing among the international left as an iconic ‘socialist’ state is hard to judge at the moment. The Morning Star confined itself to a standard news agency report, declining to provide any editorial comment. As for the Revolutionary Communist Group, Britain’s foremost apologists for Castroite ‘socialism’ , it has far been equally silent on the issue - though, of course, it is early days yet, Raul’s announcement of the redundancies having come only recently. The Party for Socialism and Liberation - an American group with similar politics - is also quiet, though it did manage to criticise Fidel for his endorsement of moronic conspiracy theories surrounding the shadowy Bilderberg group.[1]

The International Marxist Tendency’s Jorge Martin has produced a substantial and not uninteresting document, with much nitty-gritty detail on Cuba’s economic woe (collapsing nickel prices, soaring food prices and the rest). It cannot last, of course - if, for their own reasons, the IMT are not in hock to Castro, they are certainly a little starry-eyed when it comes to Venezuela. The way out for Cuba, it seems, is through the Chavista movement - despite the latter’s own left-nationalist limitations, which no more exist for comrade Martin than the gulags existed for 1930s soviet loyalists.[2]

The symbolic power of the Cuban revolution has rested on two main bases. Firstly, there was a certain form of internationalism on the part of the Cuban ‘official communists’ - Che Guevara’s famous attempts to lead further guerrilla wars were ill-conceived at best, but embodied the spirit of revolutionary sacrifice for a generation of young militants - crowned, in the end, with a martyr’s halo in Bolivia. Later, Cuban intervention in the Angolan civil war delivered a serious body-blow to the tottering apartheid regime in South Africa.

Secondly, in stark contrast to the almost universally hated state machines in the East European Stalinist regimes, Cuba’s revolution maintains a significant degree of popularity. This has less to do with the state-run economy than the specific history of Cuba itself. When Castro’s victorious forces reached Havana, they were greeted by an enormous general strike. The previous regime, headed by Fulgencio Batista, was widely hated; under his rule and that of decades of predecessors, Cuba had ceded most of the gains of its wars of independence, becoming effectively a US semi-colony, and an off-shore casino-cum-brothel for American tourists.

After Castro took power, the US immediately feared for the spread of ‘Communism’ to its own doorstep. Between the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and the blockade, US intentions were perfectly clear to its own population. The continuing enforcement of the blockade leaves little room for doubt even now.

In short, in spite of running a bureaucratic regime comparable in structural terms with the German Democratic Republic, the Cuban ‘communists’ remain popular because they embody in a particular form a fierce nationalist suspicion of the US. Pro-US dissidents have never gotten any real traction in Cuba - certainly nothing like the mass support for Solidarnosc in Poland, for example. This popularity means that state repression - though real - has nothing like the level of barbarity perpetrated by the Stasi or the Khmer Rouge; there are simply not enough enemies to kill. On the flipside, carefully monitored forms of public participation in politics are unthreatening enough to be allowed.

How long will either of these bases last under new conditions? At this point, it is simply too early to tell. The extension of the private sector, though intended to solve problems to do with overwhelming state ownership, will certainly cause serious problems of its own. As wealth differentials open up, so will class struggles. Productivity will not necessarily improve - one only has to survey the wreckage of the former Soviet bloc to see the worst case scenario, although Cuba is still some years from such an outcome.

One thing is for sure - defending ‘socialist’ Cuba will become a demonstrably harder sell for the RCG, PSL and the like. These are groups - or descendants of groups - who were lured away from Trotskyism by the revolutionary excitement surrounding Cuba and national liberation movements. It does not come quite so naturally to them to defend every twist and turn of official policy, as the sleepy organs of the official communist parties did so dutifully. One awaits their impressions of Raul Castro’s proposals with bated breath.

As far as substantial revolutionary possibilities in Cuba go, it is clear that any successful revolution will be international, and must spread throughout the region and onwards to strategically important sections of the advanced capitalist world - especially Europe. This cannot be achieved by protracted guerrilla struggles. Che, Fidel and the rest only succeeded in Cuba thanks to the organised action of the Cuban working class in parallel with their struggle. As for the ‘Bolivarian socialism’ of Hugo Chavez, the warnings from history are ample. The most appropriate one here is Batista himself - who, like Chavez, began his political career as a left-leaning army officer, placing communists in his first cabinet.

We know how that turned out.


  1. www.pslweb.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=14431&newsiv_ctrl=1015
  2. www.marxist.com/where-is-cuba-going-capitalism-or-socialism.htm