The formal resignation of Fidel Castro as President of Cuba opens up a new chapter in Cuba’s history. Since Castro’s original illness in 2006, there has been intense discussion about his role and the future of Cuba. His resignation signifies that he is unlikely to recover and that the Cuban government is seeking to prepare the Cuban population for his death.

Despite any shortcomings and mistakes by Castro, he is recognized by the downtrodden masses worldwide as a monumental figure who tenaciously fought against their capitalist and imperialist oppressors. Millions of working-class people and poor worldwide hope the social gains of the revolution will endure.

Since the revolution in 1959, Cuba has faced a savage embargo imposed by U.S. imperialism. There have been 600 assassination attempts against Castro. However, through its planned economy Cuba has given a glimpse of the great possibilities for humankind if the straitjacket of landlordism and capitalism is eliminated. Heroic figures like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro exercise a profound influence upon many young people and workers throughout the world.

If anything, the reputation of Cuba on social issues, such as housing, education, and particularly health, has soared recently. In Michael Moore’s incredible film Sicko, the contrast between the brutal, profit-driven health system in the U.S. and the free care provided by Cuba is starkly emphasized. The achievements of Cuba are compared to the dismal record of landlordism and capitalism in the region, as well as in Africa and Asia.

In a revealing new book, Fidel Castro – My Life, on which Castro collaborated with writer Ignacio Ramonet, Castro sets out the impressive achievements of the revolution.

Between 1959 and today, life expectancy in Cuba has risen by 19 years. Following the social counter-revolution in Russia, it fell for men to 56!

Could there be a greater contrast between the claims of social revolution and the barbarism of capitalist counter-revolution? And this has been achieved in the teeth of a massive economic decline in Cuba in the early 1990s following the spiteful withdrawal of aid, particularly oil supplies, from Russia, as Castro explains in his book.

While the historic achievements of free education and medical attention were preserved, nevertheless a brutal austerity program was inflicted on the great mass of the population. The regime was forced to make concessions to the capitalist “market.”

Through “dollarization,” a parallel economy developed, which resulted in relative privileges for those involved in tourism, where they were paid in dollars, and sectors involving “joint ventures.” Unfortunately, those who remain firm supporters of the planned economy, such as doctors, teachers, etc., continue to be paid in the Cuban peso and suffer accordingly.

Even the state monopoly on foreign trade, according to left-wing author Richard Gott, was formally abolished in 1992. But essentially, Cuba remained a planned economy with foreign enterprises requiring authorization from the ministry of trade to operate.

Decentralization took place, with hundreds of enterprises permitted to import and export on their own authority. However, Castro declared that “nothing will be privatized in Cuba that is suitable for, and therefore can be kept under, ownership by the nation of the workers’ collective.”

Yet it is not true, as Castro argues, that bureaucracy and inequalities do not exist in Cuba. However, Castro is not, as his capitalist opponents have tried to picture, in the mold of Stalin.

While he freely admits that he has made mistakes and has zigzagged from one policy to another throughout the last 49 years – sometimes causing significant harm – this has not been comparable to the monstrous crimes of Stalinism: forced collectivization, big purge trials, etc.

Missile Crisis
The book also reveals that Castro could sometimes behave erratically. For instance, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis he incredibly proposed to Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev that a “first strike” nuclear attack should be launched against the U.S. by the Soviet Union.

Khrushchev replied to Castro: “You propose that we carry out a first strike against the enemy territory. This would not be a simple strike but the beginning of a thermonuclear war.”

Castro sometimes attacks Stalin: “He was to blame, in my view, for the invasion of the USSR in 1941 by Hitler’s powerful war machine without the Soviet forces ever hearing a call to arms… Everyone knows about his abuse of force, the repression, and his personal characteristics, the cult of personality.”

Yet, at the same time, he claims that Stalin “also showed tremendous merit in industrializing the country, in moving the military industry to Siberia – those were decisive factors in the world’s great fight against Nazism.”

But Stalin was not the original author of the idea of the “Five-Year Plan” and the accompanying idea of industrialization. It was Trotsky and the Left Opposition who first formulated these ideas. Stalin borrowed them and applied them in a bureaucratic fashion at great, unnecessary costs to the Soviet Union and its people.

In his book, Castro pointedly denies – quite wrongly as Celia Hart has indicated – that Che Guevara had “Trotskyite sympathies.” Castro states: “I never heard him talk about Trotsky… He was a Leninist and, to a degree, he even recognized some merits in Stalin.”

Che, it is true, was not a conscious Trotskyist. Yet in his last period in Cuba, he became a critic of bureaucratism and particularly in the “socialist” countries he had visited. Moreover, he had a book by Trotsky in his knapsack when he was killed in Bolivia in 1967.

In these comments, however, Castro reveals, at best, a one-sided understanding of Stalinism from a “sociological” and political point of view. The blunder of forced collectivization, the monstrous purge trials, the annihilation of the last remnants of the heroic Bolshevik party were not just personal traits of Stalin alone or “mistakes,” but flowed from the character of the bureaucratic machine that he personified and represented.

Stalin presided over a bureaucratic political counter-revolution, as Trotsky brilliantly analyzed, that feared the independent movement of the working class and the ideas of workers’ democracy. Castro distances himself and Che from Trotsky and his criticisms of Stalinism, because his regime, in the final analysis, is also ruled by a bureaucratic elite unaccountable to the masses.

Cuba and its revolution had many features different from the Russian revolution, and Castro is not Stalin. However, despite the Cuban revolution’s enormous popularity at the beginning, its weaknesses were evident in the absence of democratic control and management and a clear class consciousness by the working class and the poor.

“Socialist Awareness”
Castro himself says that at the beginning there was “not yet a socialist awareness.” Throughout his book, moreover, there is no clear perception of the role of the working class – as explained by Marx – as the main agency of the socialist revolution, nor of its role in controlling, together with the peasant poor, the workers’ state that is thrown up by the revolution.

The consequence of this approach is that the state presided over by Castro and Che, while initially enormously popular because of the carrying out of a revolution in the jaws of the U.S. monster, was not controlled by workers’ and peasants’ councils as was the case in Russia in 1917. This historically put its stamp on the Cuban state and the kind of society that subsequently emerged.

However, without real workers’ democracy the transition to socialism is impossible. An end to the one-party monopoly, fair elections to genuine workers’ councils, strict control over the incomes of elected officials, and the right of recall over them are minimum requirements for a democratic workers’ state.

Without real control and management of the state and society, an inevitable bureaucratic machine will take hold, which ultimately threatens the very existence of the planned economy. This would be a real possibility even in a highly advanced, developed economy after a revolution, let alone one like Cuba that has a gross domestic product just 0.3% of that of the U.S.

It is true that in the early 1990s, faced with a deteriorating economic situation, an open discussion on the constitution ensued and constitutional amendments to the national assembly, including a form of direct elections, were proposed. However, this was still on the basis of only one candidate for each seat in parliament.

In the January 2008 elections, there were 614 candidates for 614 seats! At the same time, members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Politburo, and the Council of State, were ultimately subject to the veto, if necessary, of Castro.

Ultimately, power is wielded in any state by leaders and parties. But every leadership, every party, particularly in a healthy workers’ state, needs strict control to be exercised by the masses from below.

In Cuba today, discontent is growing, particularly amongst the new generation; 73% of the population were born after the triumph of the revolution in 1959. The alienation of the new generation risks a “revolution with no heirs.”

Replacement of Castro by his brother Raúl will not solve the underlying problems. Raúl is associated with the Cuban army, as defense minister. In the early 1990s, faced with austerity conditions, he sought to use the army in some “free-market” experiments.

He has visited China on a number of occasions to study Beijing’s economic policies. He has pushed innovations such as farmers’ markets and self-employment for plumbers, hairdressers, and other small-time entrepreneurs. Through measures like these, elements of capitalism have already been reintroduced into Cuba, though not yet far enough to destroy the main features of the planned economy.

There are undoubtedly divisions within the bureaucratic elite that controls Cuba. There is a section that wishes to “open up” to capitalism in a “democratic” form. Their difficulty is the brutal U.S. Helms-Burton Act. Even those bureaucrats who wish to see the dismantling of the planned economy face the prospect of the Miami refugees returning to Cuba “to hold auctions for state enterprises.” (Wall Street Journal)

Events, particularly the U.S. presidential election, could have a profound effect on Cuba. Barack Obama has already indicated he will adopt a softer line to America’s traditional foes: Cuba, Iran, etc. He or even Hillary Clinton – despite her recent bellicose statements towards the Cuban regime – could act to limit or completely dismantle the embargo.

Profitable Bites
There is already considerable pressure from farmers, from the tourist trade, not to say McDonald’s, for the barriers to come down so they can take big profitable bites out of Cuba. One hundred U.S. Congress members have demanded the embargo be lifted.

As Leon Trotsky commented, the real danger to an isolated workers’ state lay not so much in a military invasion but “cheap goods in the baggage train of imperialism.”

This “invasion” of Cuba today would probably take the form of tourism, as well as capitalist investment, if the regime “opened up” under Raúl or another leader in the future. This may remain an unlikely prospect as long as Fidel lives. But a real danger of capitalist restoration nevertheless still exists.

Venezuelan oil is a vital lifeline at present for Cuba. But what if the price of oil collapses, as it could with the onset of the world economic recession? Venezuela would be profoundly affected and, consequently, Cuba as well.

Marxists, as Trotsky advocated, while critical, would seek a principled bloc with the wing of the Cuban leadership who will fight to maintain a planned economy and seek to mobilize mass Cuban resistance to any threat of a return to capitalism.

Given the advantages of the planned economy – and especially if these were spread through a democratic socialist confederation of Venezuela, Bolivia and, perhaps, Ecuador – capitalist counter-revolutionaries, wishing to return to the barbarism of the landlordism and capitalism that exists on the Latin American continent, would find little support.

It is true that the vicious capitalist embargo of Cuba is an important factor in the lack of democracy on the island. However, while the prohibition against right-wing capitalist parties wishing to return to capitalism can be a subject of debate, the question of workers’ democracy should not. All those who support the planned economy – including Trotskyists and others – should be allowed to operate in Cuba.

This should be part of preserving and extending the planned economy. Without workers’ democracy, Cuba could be thrown back decades and, with it, the expectations of the socialist revolution in Latin America and worldwide could suffer a severe blow.

The maintenance of this revolution should not be placed in the hands of one man, no matter how steadfast and courageous, or a group of men and women, but in an aroused, politically conscious Cuban working class linked to the masses in Latin America and elsewhere.

This cannot be achieved from above, as the mistakes of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela have shown. Steps should be undertaken now to organize a mass campaign in Cuba to prepare the ground for real workers’ democracy. The worldwide crisis of globalized capitalism and the revolt against neo-liberalism in Latin America strengthens the prospect of defending and developing the gains of the Cuban revolution. But no time must be lost in the fight for workers’ democracy and socialism in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and elsewhere.

Fidel Castro – My Life by Fidel Castro, Ignacio Ramonet (Editor), and Andrew Hurley (Translator); Simon & Schuster, 2008, $40