Will Cuba inevitably go the way of Russia and Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, with the return of a virulent capitalism? This question is prompted by the recent illness of Fidel Castro, reportedly suffering from intestinal problems, and his temporary handing over power to his brother Raúl Castro in August. Peter Taaffe analyses the situation.
US imperialism certainly expects regime change, not just in the government of Cuba but also in its social system. In July, a special report of the Bush governments Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba set aside $80 million (£43m) to achieve this objective. Ominously, unlike previous reports, parts of it were not published, “classified for security reasons”, with the clear implication of future US military intervention in Cuba. Castros illness led to delirious celebrations among sections of the 650,000 Cuban exiles, particularly the parasitic rich elite who salivate at the prospect of a return of their property, which they expect would quickly follow the death of Fidel Castro.
Conversely, millions of working-class people and the poor, particularly in the neo-colonial world and especially in Latin America, are hoping against hope that the predictions of the imminent collapse of Cuba will prove wrong. The Cuban revolution, right from its inception in January 1959, and through its planned economy, gave a glimpse of what was possible for humankind as a whole if the straitjacket of landlordism and capitalism was eliminated. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were then, and remain today, heroic figures for many workers and youth throughout the world.
If anything, Cubas reputation has been enhanced when set against the background of the brutal neo-liberal offensive of capitalism worldwide throughout the 1990s and the first part of this century. The achievements in health, housing and education are spectacular when compared to the dismal record of landlordism and capitalism in the neo-colonial world. Even while the bourgeoisie of the world and its hirelings seek to use the illness of Castro as an excuse to pillory Cuba and its revolution, other, more serious, journals of capitalism are compelled to recognise Cubas achievements.
For instance, El País, the Spanish journal, recently outlined Cubas impressive performance in key fields. There are 200,000 teachers in a population of 11.4 million. This means there is a teacher for every 57 people, one of the best ratios of teachers to pupils anywhere in the world, never mind the neo-colonial world. Moreover, following the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, Cuba sent 2,660 doctors and health technicians to help in the worst areas. In six months in Pakistan, they dealt with 1,700,000 patients 73% of those affected by illness and carried out 14,500 operations. In addition to this they offered 1,000 courses to young people from the worst-hit areas to study medicine in Cuba. Thirty-two temporary hospitals were left by the Cuban government to be used by the Pakistani people to combat serious illnesses. Naturally, this raised the profile of support for Cuba in Pakistan. In Indonesia, following the earthquake in May 2006, 135 Cuban health workers attended 100,000 patients. Two hospitals were built and left by the Cubans when the medical expedition left the country. Thirty-six thousand Cuban health professionals and technicians are working in 107 different third-world countries. In addition to this, Venezuela and Cuba have announced a project, operation milagro (operation miracle), to provide six million Latin Americans with free operations if they cannot afford them over the next ten years. Cuba has also offered 100,000 places in Cuban universities to train Latin American doctors free of charge.
The propertied classes worldwide fear that this example (the product of a planned economy, albeit one not managed or controlled by the working class but by a bureaucracy), will become even more attractive to the starving masses of poor in the event of an economic tailspin in world capitalism. Notwithstanding these achievements, however, the maintenance of a planned economy is, unfortunately, not at all guaranteed on the present basis, particularly in the event of Fidel Castros death. His towering figure, together with the image of the martyred hero of the revolution, Che Guevara, combined with the solid social achievements of the revolution, have warded off previous attempts at counter-revolution, even in the most difficult circumstances of the special period of the 1990s.
Hanging by a thread
Following the restoration of capitalism in Russia, the former Stalinist bureaucracy, which was then in the process of transferring to capitalism, inflicted colossal economic damage on Cuba. Castro commented about this period: “In no historical epoch did any country find itself in the situation in which ours found it, when the socialist camp collapsed and remained under the pitiless blockade of the USA. No-one imagined that something as sure and steady as the sun would one day disappear, as it happened with the situation of the Soviet Union”. (Fidel Castro: A Biography, Volker Skierka, p282) He went on to declare: “We will defend ourselves on our own, surrounded by an ocean of capitalism in this periodo especial”. (ibid, p283) An author recently commented: “Rationing of food was introduced but there was virtually no butter, with milk only for small children, old people and those in special need; the bread allowance was 250 grams a day. Soap, detergents, toilet paper and matches were not often seen”.
The economy declined by 2.9% in 1990, 10% in 1991, 11.6% in 1992, and 14.9% in 1993. Malnutrition, unknown since the triumph of the revolution, became widespread. The historic achievements of free education and medical attention were preserved, but a brutal austerity programme was inflicted on the great mass of the population. One of the most important economies was the slashing of energy consumption by 50%. As one commentator put it: “Cuban society almost literally stopped moving until the commandante [Castro] had the saving idea that the mass of the population should ride back to the future on horse-drawn carts and bicycles”. Making a virtue out of a necessity, Fidel Castro declared: “The special period also has its positive sides like the fact that we are now entering the age of the bicycle. In a sense, this too is a revolution”.
Undoubtedly, cycling was good for the average Cubans health, as was the absence of McDonalds and other US junk food, but this austerity programme in itself is not enough to satisfy the hunger of young people and workers for access to modern technology, modern goods, rising living standards, and freedom. Forced back on its own resources, Cuba was also able to tap into the ingenuity of the population with the spectacular development of bio-technology, for instance, which resulted in Cuba, in the early 1990s, becoming “the worlds largest exporter of such products, the demand being particularly high in the field of skin regeneration and immunisation against meningitis, hepatitis B and other diseases”. Opposed by the capitalist multinationals of the USA and Europe, Cuba was already making a profit by 1991 and aggressively competing as a supplier of low-priced products, especially to third-world countries. Nevertheless, this successful sector of Cuban production has only amounted, still, to a share of total exports of 3-5%.
The ability of Cuba to compete in the pharmaceutical market was linked undoubtedly to the maintenance of the splendid health sector, a direct product of the planned economy. It continued to employ 340,000 staff and 64,000 doctors throughout the years of the special period. Currently, there are 70,000 doctors, a ratio of one doctor per 193 inhabitants, compared to one per 313 in Germany. Castro was able to contrast the life expectancy in Cuba with that in the ex-Soviet Union, which fell drastically as a result of a return to capitalism: “Life expectancy in the part of the USSR which is Russia is now 56 years, 20 years less than in Cuba, 20 years!” Despite this, because of its isolation, Cuba still experiences severe shortages even in the field of medicine.
Moreover, unemployment, hitherto an unprecedented phenomenon, began to rise, with a minimum figure of 8% unemployed in a total labour force of 4 millions. A Spanish institute at the time estimated, “in May 1999 that nearly a third of all Cuban workers were either jobless or unemployed”. In 1999, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (CPAAL) estimated “that in 1999 the Cuban revolution reached the point at which it had been 40 years before, in 1959”. In the early 1990s, the revolution hung by a thread and, for the first time since the Bay of Pigs invasion, the threat of counter-revolution, the return of the ex-landlords and capitalists based in Miami, and US imperialist domination loomed.
Castro was consequently forced to make concessions to the market, that is, to capitalism. Through dollarisation, a parallel economy developed, which resulted in relative privileges for those involved in tourism, where they were paid in dollars, and in sectors involving joint ventures. Paradoxically, those who remained firm supporters of the planned economy, such as doctors, teachers, etc, continued to be paid in pesos and suffered accordingly. Richard Gott, a well-known left-wing author on Cuba, wrote that “the state monopoly over foreign trade was abolished in 1992, and the constitution was amended to permit the transfer of state property to joint ventures with foreign partners”. This implied that Cuba was on the way to the return of capitalism, if it had not already arrived at that point.
It is true that a legal amendment in 1995 to the Cuban constitution even introduced the provision whereby foreign capital could acquire 100% stakes in companies, although in practice this was rarely followed up. Castro himself declared: “There are no rigid prescriptions. We are ready to consider any kind of proposition”. However, despite all the difficulties, Cuba has essentially remained a planned economy. Import and export operations were carried out by Cuban enterprises and other duly authorised “entities registered at the National Registry of Importers and Exporters attached to the chambers of commerce”. (Official report of the Cuban Chamber of Commerce) Foreign enterprises required authorisation from the ministry of trade to perform their operations.
A certain decentralisation took place. An estimated 350 enterprises were permitted to import and export on their own authority. This undoubtedly was a gap through which foreign capital and its domestic Cuban supporters could find a basis. But Cuba still maintained significant non-tariff barriers and the government inspected and approved most imports. Castro made it clear in 2000 the limits of such concessions to capitalism. He remarked to the UNESCO director, Frederico Mayor Zaragoza: “As a general principle, nothing will be privatised in Cuba that is suitable for, and therefore can be kept under, ownership by the nation or a workers collective. Our ideology and our preference is that socialism should bear no resemblance to the egotism, the privileges and inequalities of capitalist society. In our country, nothing ends up as the property of a high-ranking official, and nothing is given away to accomplices or friends. Nothing that can be used efficiently, and with greater profit for our society, will end up in the hands of private individuals, either Cubans or foreigners”.
However, it is not true, as Fidel Castro argued, that inequalities did not exist in Cuba. The periodic denunciations and campaigns against corruption, pilfering and privilege, which Castro himself has conducted, are indications of the real situation. In fact, the dollarisation of the economy was a severe blow to revolutionary pride and opened up divisions in Cuban society, leading to a further growth of a privileged elite. A change in the law granted small business activity and had a significant effect in creating a relatively prosperous petty bourgeoisie in the urban areas. Like many similar reforms introduced by Stalinist regimes prior to their collapse in 1989 in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union or China, this led to a burgeoning capitalist sector. The austere period inevitably generated discontent and the lifting of the controls on the dollar was a response of the Cuban regime to the pressure of the population from inside the country.
But it was not sufficient, as shortages persisted. The simmering discontent with this resulted in a riot in central Havana of several thousand people in August 1994. Mostly young people moved through the city throwing stones at the windows of hotels. For the first time, anti-Castro slogans could be heard: “Weve had enough! We want freedom! Down with Fidel!” They were met by 300 policemen firing warning shots in the air and a major confrontation appeared to loom until “suddenly, the maximo leader himself [Castro] appeared on the scene with a large entourage and launched into a discussion with the young people. The crowd immediately calmed down, listened to him, and dispersed”. This is a striking example of the colossal authority which Castro and the revolution had then and still probably enjoys today. On this occasion, it was enough to prevent the protest spilling over to involve a wider movement. The discontent still existed but was forced once more underground.
Clampdown on corruption
Although the Cuban economy has recovered, partly as a result of economic assistance from Hugo Chávezs Venezuela, trade deals with China, etc, shortages, combined with corruption, still exist and were recognised clearly by Castro on the eve of his illness. Leaning on 30,000 young people, the trabajadores sociales (social workers), Castro launched a battle of ideas to maintain the present system in Cuba and, in particular, mobilisation of vigilantes against corruption. This force, sympathetic to Castro and the revolution, was similar to Mao Zedongs mobilisation of the Red Guards in the 1966 Cultural Revolution. Before his illness, flushed by the economic benefits flowing from tourism, as well as the benevolence of the Venezuelan regime, Castro was involved in the process of recentralisation and curtailing of the pro-capitalist concessions made in the 1990s. He was also conscious of the consequences for Cuba if he was no longer on the scene. In particular, he was concerned about the corruption which inevitably flowed from the two-tier economic system. He therefore was engaged in a Cuban version of Maos Cultural Revolution, although obviously not on the same scale nor with the same brutal hooligan methods.
Five of the 14 provinces have seen the top Communist Party officials replaced. So have the ministries of light industry, higher education, and audit and control. Some members of the 21-strong Politburo have been sacked abruptly for errors, which included abuse of authority and ostentation. In a speech to Havana University, Castro painted a picture of widespread graft throughout the state-controlled economy. He said that this was endangering the communist system: “We can destroy ourselves and it will be our own fault”. The student social workers, dressed in black or red t-shirts, were mobilised, for instance, in petrol stations to check on the sale of scarce petrol resources. This exercise revealed that, previously, about a half of all fuel sold was not accounted for.
But the question naturally arises: How is it, in a democratic socialist Cuba, where in theory power is vested in the masses and their organisations, such a scale of corruption can suddenly be revealed? Following from this, the new Cuban red guard has been mobilised on missions to audit state companies, where they discovered rampant pilfering. Sections of the armed forces have also been pressed into anti-graft duty. The army is now managing Havanas port, where it has been discovered entire containers went missing when civilians were in charge. Castro is obviously haunted by the example of the collapse of the Soviet Union and hopes to develop a system which can prevent Cuba from following a similar path.
However, the blunt instrument of students and shock brigades will not solve the problem. The issues of corruption, graft and bureaucratism are not questions of red tape or a few minor misdemeanours. The very character of Cuban society, where power is concentrated in the hands of the officialdom in the state, the army and the Cuban Communist Party, inevitably leads to abuse. In the early 1990s, faced with the catastrophic economic situation, the Cuban leadership, led by Fidel Castro, did open up a discussion on the constitution and constitutional amendments to the National Assembly, including a form of direct elections. However, this was still in the context of only one candidate for each seat in parliament. That candidate would be a party loyalist, who would have been gone over with a fine tooth comb. At best, it was a form of democracy, which allowed voters to select a candidate for a list but from just one party. At the same time, the members of the Central Committee, Politburo, and the Council of State, ultimately were subject to the will and veto, if necessary, of Fidel Castro.
This exercise did result in a cutting down of the bureaucracy for instance, party members were reduced by two thirds, the number of Central Committee secretaries halved from 19 to nine but this did not fundamentally solve the problem of power being concentrated in the hands of a bureaucratic elite, many of whom enjoyed a privileged existence in comparison to the mass of the population. Castro himself, despite the recent absurd claims of Forbes magazine that he was one of the richest men on the planet, is not personally corrupt, and does not lead an overtly privileged existence. But the problem is not just of one man or a small number of men and women, devoted to maintaining the planned economy, but the fact that real power is in the hands of a top-down elite. The great majority of the workers are elbowed aside, at best consulted, but without real power, control and management being vested in them.
Seventy years ago, in Revolution Betrayed, in relation to the Soviet Union, Leon Trotsky posed the question: “Will the bureaucrat devour the workers state, or will the working class clean up the bureaucrat? the workers fear lest, in throwing out the bureaucracy, they will open the way for a capitalist restoration”. (p215, Dover Publications) For big sections of the population, this probably sums up the mood in Cuba today. But the discontent is growing, particularly among the new generation; 73% of Cubas population were born after the triumph of the revolution in 1959. This alienation of the new generation may lead, as one commentator put it, in the long run to a “revolution with no heirs”. Castro does not appear to recognise the problem, nor is he or the group around him capable of implementing measures to guarantee the gains of the revolution. He has declared: “I dont believe it is really necessary to have more than one party How could our country have stood firm if had been split up into ten pieces?… I think that exploitation of one human by another must disappear before you can have real democracy”.
However, without real workers democracy the ending of the one-party monopoly, fair elections to genuine workers councils with the right of all those (including the Trotskyists) to stand in elections, strict control over incomes, and with the right of recall over all elected officials the Cuban revolution is in danger, especially if Fidel Castro is off the scene. Cuba is not a socialist state. Even a healthy workers state, with workers democracy, in one country or in a few countries, would be transitional between capitalism and the starting point for socialism.
Cuba is not a healthy workers state as understood by Lenin and Trotsky, and generally accepted by Marxists following them. Nor is it a workers state with bureaucratic deformations, as some have recently argued. Such a regime did exist in the first sage after the Russian revolution between 1917-23. The Bolsheviks, in the words of Lenin, because of the cultural backwardness of Russia, had been forced to take over “the old tsarist state machine with a thin veneer of socialism”. This problem could only be overcome on the world arena by the spreading of the Russian revolution. In the state which existed even after 1923, Trotsky and the Left Opposition fought for reforms, measures to cut down the bureaucratic deformations. However, the consolidation of the bureaucratic elite, personified by the rise of Stalin, posed the issue not of reform but of the Stalinist state and the bureaucracy being removed if Russia was to move towards socialism.
Cuba and its revolution had many different features than the Russian revolution, and Castro was not Stalin, as we have explained elsewhere (See Socialism Today No.89, and the book, Cuba: Socialism and Democracy). But the existence of a defined caste, a bureaucracy, with interests of its own, now counterposed to maintaining the Cuban revolution and its further advance, is confirmed by Castros alarm for the future and the measures he initiated against the bureaucracy before he fell ill.
Cuba is what Trotsky called a deformed workers state, a planned economy, but with power in the hands of a privileged caste of bureaucrats. Flowing from the characterisation of Cuba as merely a workers state with bureaucratic deformations, some argue that what is needed is reforms and not a political revolution. But historical experience has shown that a ruling, privileged layer of society, whether it be capitalists or a bureaucratic elite, is conscious of its power and will fight to retain it, sometimes using the most ruthless means.
The need for a political revolution in Russia, advanced by Trotsky, was a scientific description of what was required to free the planned economy from the grip of a wasteful, greedy bureaucracy. It was not a day-to-day action programme, with Trotskyists in Russia urged to go out onto the streets and proclaim political revolution. They argued for workers democracy.
The starting point for socialism would be a higher level of production and technique than the highest level reached by capitalism up to now. This means that the beginning of socialism would imply a higher level of technique and therefore of living standards than the US, which is only possible through a world plan of production controlled by the working class. However, with the absence of workers democracy, the transition towards socialism in one state or a number of states is impossible and might lead, as the example of the Soviet Union implies, not to socialism but to a degeneration and, ultimately, to a collapse back to capitalism. The real danger to an isolated workers state, as Trotsky commented, lies not so much in a military invasion but the “cheap goods in the baggage train of imperialism”. A huge influx of tourists, particularly millions from the US with dollars in their back pockets, would pose big problems for Cuba and strengthen the elements of capitalism that already exist.
Divisions in the regime
But for the stupidity of US imperialism, particularly in the 1990s under Clinton with the introduction of the Helms-Burton legislation, an isolated, besieged Cuba may not have even been able to hold out to enjoy the position it has today. This act ruled out that a future government in Cuba could endorse, by parliamentary means, the takeover of industry and property of the 1960s, as had been done by the capitalist government of Germany when it reunified. Germany ratified all expropriations of land by the state of over 100 acres in East Germany that the Soviet occupation authorities carried out after the second world war. If the Helms-Burton act was implemented to the letter, this would be ruled out by a future capitalist Cuba, which would mean “that Cubas future development, a return to the old property relations, would be as catastrophic as an obligation to pay compensation at todays values”. (Fidel Castro: A Biography, Volker Skierka, p313)
As another commentator has put it: “The Helms-Burton act is a blunt law for custodianship over a future Cuba: its aim is not democratisation of the political system and its institutions, but reappropriation of the island by its neighbour to the north. A return of large chunks of the Cuban economy to private US corporations would not only mean restoring the (scarcely desirable) conditions existing before the revolution. The people of the island would still bear the burden of interest, and interest on interest, for generations to come, while the real beneficiaries would include the offspring of those Mafiosi who came into their possessions through violence and repression, corruption, theft, tax evasion, and the filing of dubious ownership claims”. (ibid, p314) The Helms-Burton act also has the effect of reinforcing the rigidities of the Cuban system in the sense that even those bureaucrats who wished to see the dismantling of the planned economy “are shown only a deep precipice but no space in which to carry out a reform in dignity”.
And there are divisions within the bureaucratic elite of Cuba. There is a section which wishes to open up to capitalism, in a democratic form. There is undoubtedly another wing which will fight to maintain a planned economy. Marxists, as Trotsky advocated, would seek a principled bloc with this layer of the Cuban leadership and bureaucracy, and seek to mobilise mass Cuban resistance to any threat to return to capitalism. But by its very nature, this bloc would inevitably pose the issue of how to free Cuba from the dead hand of the bureaucratic officialdom as a means of safeguarding the revolution. Some Marxists have posed the question of abandoning the idea of the political revolution to remove the bureaucratic elite. In its place is advanced phrases about workers democracy. But this is sheer demagogy. The idea of a political revolution and workers democracy are the same. While Trotsky gave critical support to this or that measure with which the bureaucratic elite was prepared to defend the planned economy for its own ends, this did not mean the abandonment of the idea of the political revolution. He pointed out: “The revolution which the bureaucracy is preparing against itself will not be social, like the revolution of 1917. It is not a question this time of changing the economic foundations of society, of replacing certain forms of property with other forms. History has also known elsewhere not only social revolutions which substituted the bourgeois for the feudal regime, but also political revolutions which, without destroying the economic foundations of society, swept out an old ruling upper crust (1830 and 1848 in France, February 1917 in Russia, etc)”.
The replacement of a privileged caste which undoubtedly exists in Cuba by workers democracy does not necessarily have to be violent but will have to be deep going, giving real control and management to the masses in place of the top-down control exercised by the present Cuban leadership, even when this is implemented by charismatic leaders. Workers democracy in Cuba would hold out the hand of friendship to the Latin American masses. Almost immediately, a real democratic workers confederation could be formed between Cuba and Venezuela, especially if the revolution is completed in the latter, and the same with Bolivia. Along this road is the only hope for maintaining the gains of the Cuban revolution. Without a planned economy, Cuba will be thrown back for decades and the expectations of the socialist revolution in Latin America and worldwide will suffer a severe blow. The maintenance of this revolution should not be placed in the hands of one man, or in a group of men and women, but in an aroused, politically conscious, Cuban working class.