Whilst US imperialism was horrified by the events that were taking place in Havana the bureaucratic dictatorship which ruled in Moscow in the name of “socialism” initially observed events from a distance. The leaders in the Kremlin were, if anything, taken by surprise at the turn events had taken. It is certainly false to assert, as some apologists for the Moscow regime have, that the Cuban Revolution was conducted with the support of the USSR from the very beginning and that Castro was collaborating with them.
There had been some limited contact between individual members of the July 26th Movement and Soviet officials in Mexico prior to the Granma expedition. Apart from Raúl Castro’s membership of the Young Communists, Che had also had discussions with a Soviet official.
At most, the contact that had taken place was of a fact-finding character. Che, during the time he was in Mexico, saw the Soviet Union as the manifestation of “socialism”. Moreover, as with many in the colonial and semi-colonial world, the USSR was viewed as an attractive counterweight to imperialism – in Latin America especially US imperialism.
In a letter to ‘Daniel’ written in 1958, Che had explained that he “…belonged to those that believe that the solution to the world’s problems lies behind the so-called iron curtain…” Later, as Che was to see Russia at first hand the more critical and hostile he became in his attitude towards the privileged bureaucracy which ruled there in the name of “socialism” – without losing his hatred of capitalism and imperialism.
If there was a conspiracy involving Castro and the bureaucracy in the Kremlin to take over Cuba then the leaders of the Soviet Union knew nothing about it. As news of the turbulent events in Havana reached Moscow during January 1959, a meeting of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) leaders was taking place. Anderson details in his Che Guevara biography events as they were recalled to him by Giorgi Kornienko, a senior official working in the CPSU Department of Information. “Khruschchev asked, ‘What kind of guys are these? Who are they?’ But nobody knew the answer to his question…In reality we didn’t know who these guys in Havana were.”
However, once confronted with the social revolution, the Moscow bureaucracy was prepared to step in and use the opportunity that had presented itself. By embracing the Cuban regime under Castro, Khrushchev was able to assert the bureaucracy’s international influence and prestige.
This was seen during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when fearing plans for a US intervention, the Cubans appealed for military aid. The Soviet bureaucracy agreed and dispatched weapons capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This was done primarily to boost the prestige of the bureaucracy internationally by being seen to “stand up to” the USA. It was done partly as a tit-for-tat measure against action taken by the USA earlier. By installing nuclear weapons in Cuba Krushchev argued: ” We can give them back the same medicine they gave us in Turkey (the USA had installed nuclear missiles aimed at the USSR)…It’s just to frighten them a bit…They should be made to feel the same way we do…They have to swallow the pill like we swallowed the Turkish one.”
As well as using the situation in Cuba to boost its international prestige, the Russian bureaucracy would also use its influence and economic muscle to control the Cuban leaders who were regarded as wild cards. The bureaucracy that ruled the USSR in 1960 was confident and assertive on the world arena in marked contrast to the demoralized clique who enacted the restoration of capitalism during 1989/92.
Revolutionary Cuba established extremely favorable trading arrangements with the USSR and Eastern Europe. 85% of Cuban trade was conducted behind the ‘iron curtain’ as Cuban sugar was purchased at three and even four times the price on the world market. 95% of Cuba’s oil was from the USSR. Indeed Russian economic aid amounted in excess of US$ one million per day. Without such support the Cuban economy and the revolution would have collapsed. As the old saying goes, “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. With such dependency the Kremlin had the Castro regime firmly in grasp.
Investment in industry was undertaken and technicians were sent to Havana. Based upon the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a planned economy with the economic support from the USSR, the life of the Cuban masses was transformed. The gains made as a consequence of the revolution contrasted with the ‘free market’ sea of misery in which the rest of the population on the continent was left to drown.
Within two years illiteracy was abolished. Prior to 1959 50% of children of primary school age received no education at all; after the revolution it was available to all. Teachers and students were sent to organize classes in the factories and on the farms. When everybody in the workplace could read and write a red flag was flown at the entrance. Health care was developed and made freely available to everybody. Eventually it would rank amongst the best in the world. Work, food and housing were available for all. Infant mortality was reduced to 10.6 per thousand and life expectancy increased to 74 years by the late 1970s. These age expectancy levels compared favorably to the major imperialist countries. It compared at the time to 45 years in Bolivia, about 60 in Brazil and 58 in Colombia.
Castro’s government was the first on the continent to openly proclaim its allegiance to “socialism”. Earlier inclusion of the socialist or communist parties in government in Latin America had been through coalition with a variety of capitalist parties. Any adherence to building socialism rapidly faded and was dropped. Not until Allende’s election in Chile in 1970 was another Latin American government to proclaim its intent on building socialism.
Moreover, the victory in Cuba was apparently achieved by revolution. The effect throughout the continent was electric. Workers, peasants and youth throughout Latin America began to look to Cuba as an example, which they aspired to emulate. Cuba was now a beacon to the exploited masses of Latin America. The enthusiasm the events in Havana had generated further south was only mirrored by the horror with which they were greeted by the capitalist rulers north of the Rio Grande.
From what José Martí described as “inside the monster” of US imperialism plans were laid to overthrow Castro’s “Communist threat”. In April 1961 planes from the US bombed the city of Santiago de Cuba. It was in response to this attack that Castro proclaimed the “socialist character” of the revolution. This attack was a prelude to an invasion in the same month at Playa Girín (Bay of Pigs) by US organized mercenary forces. The assault collapsed into a farce as the US pulled back from an all-out attack on Cuban soil and was repelled by armed militias.
Each attempted assault by US imperialism merely served to strengthen support for the revolution and Castro’s regime. Che, with justification, sent a written message to President Kennedy after the invasion at Playa Girín: “Thank you for Playa Girín. Before the invasion, the revolution was shaky. Now, it is stronger than ever.”
The failure of this invasion was then followed by a campaign to isolate Cuba internationally. The expulsion of Cuba from the Organization of American States (OAS) was carried out on 31 January 1962. This was followed by a total US trade embargo that still exists today.
On 4 February Castro hit back in a lengthy speech, ‘The Second Declaration of Havana’. It was delivered to an audience of one million – one in seven of the entire population. It was an outstanding summary of the history of Latin America, denouncing capitalism and imperialism and calling for revolution and socialism throughout the continent.
Castro was more than justified in proclaiming “Cuba, the Latin American nation which has made landowners of more than 100,000 small farmers, ensured employment all the year on state farms and co-operatives to all agricultural workers, transformed forts into schools, given 70,000 scholarships to university, secondary and technological students, created lecture halls for the entire child population, totally liquidating illiteracy, quadrupling medical services, nationalizing foreign interests, suppressing the abusive system which turned housing into a means of exploiting people, virtually eliminating unemployment, suppressing discrimination due to race or sex, ridding itself of gambling vice and administrative corruption, armed the people..is expelled from the Organization of American States by governments which have not achieved for their people one of these objectives.”
Referring to the wrath aroused amongst the defenders of capitalism the declaration argued: “What explains it is fear. Not fear of the Cuban revolution but fear of the Latin American revolution…fear that the workers, peasants, students, intellectuals and progressive sectors of the middle strata will by revolutionary means take power in the oppressed and hungry countries exploited by the Yankee monopolies and reactionary oligarchies of America, fear that the plundered people of the continent will seize arms from their oppressors and, like Cuba, declare themselves free people of America.”
The achievements of the Cuban revolution together with such declarations ensured that it won massive support at home and abroad. However, despite the popularity of the new regime and the tremendous gains made by the revolution, it did not result in the establishment of a genuine system of workers’ democracy.
A New Cuba But Run By Whom?
After the Russian Revolution in 1917 a system of workers’ democracy was established through the election of Soviets (Councils). These comprised delegates elected from the factories, workplaces and military units. Similar forms of organization have been established by the working class in other revolutions, including during the Paris Commune which was established in 1871. After the Russian revolution the local soviets would elect regional and national councils from which the government was formed.
All those delegates elected could be replaced by those who elected them at any time. Government officials were paid no more than the average wage of skilled workers. Lenin argued the maximum differential in wages and salaries should be four to one. Through this system of workers’ democracy the working class with the support of the poor peasants and other exploited layers, exercised democratic control and management over the running and planning of society.
As a result the Russian Revolution had a massive impact internationally. It was as John Reed entitled his vibrant account of the revolution Ten Days that Shook the World. Workers world wide not only supported the revolution but they fought to emulate a similar system of workers’ democracy in their own countries. It had an even bigger and more practical impact internationally than the sympathy that was aroused by the Cuban revolution.
The system of workers’ democracy that was established during the Russian Revolution was built on the basis of the working class-consciously taking over the running of society. With the proletariat at the head of the revolutionary process a workers’ state was established which reflected the class character of the revolution. It was this that had such an impact on workers throughout the world.
The working class eventually lost political power to a bureaucratic elite because of the failure of the international revolution and the military intervention by 21 armies of imperialism, which strengthened counter revolutionary forces in Russia. The civil war that raged between 1918 and 1921 resulted in a horrific economic and social catastrophe. Because of the starvation that developed in rural areas even cannibalism took place. These events and the failure of the victory of the revolution internationally eventually exhausted the working class, especially the most politically active and experienced workers. A privileged and bureaucratic caste emerged which took political power. A repressive bureaucratic regime ruled in the name of “socialism” until 1989/91.
In Cuba the new regime that came to power in 1959 was tremendously popular and enjoyed massive support amongst the population. But the character of the state that was established reflected the predominately rural and peasant basis of the revolution. As a result a workers’ democracy similar to that that took power in Russia in 1917 was not established.
Despite its support and popularity the Cuban regime was from the beginning not a workers’ democracy but what the CWI would characterize as a deformed workers’ state. That is to say a state where capitalism and landlordism were overthrown and replaced with a state owned planned economy but run and controlled by a bureaucratic caste. There was no system of soviets or workers’ councils through which the proletariat could govern society.
The government would rule mainly through the Communist Party and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), which the new regime formed in September 1960. These were not elected bodies based upon the workplaces through which the working class could initiate proposals or revise and amend those coming from regional and national level. This is essential to allow a centrally planned economy to develop most effectively and exercise a check over bureaucratic tendencies.
Every street had a CDR that anyone could initially join and they consequently boasted 3 million members. These acted as a transmission belt for the decisions of the government, which were communicated to them mainly through members of the Communist Party. They functioned as the mechanism through which the party leadership conducted local plebiscites to endorse its decisions. There was no effective channel through which the workers and the population could debate and change the decisions taken above.
This method of rule was frequently used by Castro. Mass rallies were called and proposals presented to those in attendance who were asked to endorse them “si ” or “no”. There was no debate or discussion or check and control.
In the fervor of the early day of the revolution through the CDRs an element of control was exercised largely on day-to-day issues. However, they have never functioned as a mechanism through which the democratic planning and control of the economy and society as a whole could be carried out by the working class.
Although they were popular in the early period of the revolution amongst many workers they increasingly played the role of informing on the activities of the local population.
The trade unions, through the CTC, rapidly became little more than the supervisory agency for the relevant government ministry.
There also existed nearly 300 municipal councils but they have little power. Candidates all had to fulfill the criteria laid down by the Party that also appointed the presidents.
The Cuban Communist Party is the main instrument through which the bureaucracy conducts its rule. The party itself is run on the basis of appointments made at each level from the top down. It was formally established in 1965 on a controlled basis following a purge that had taken place in the ORI (Integrated Revolutionary Organizations) of all PSP members who had participated in the rigged elections Batista called in 1958.
With 70,000 members in 1969 it was proportionally the smallest per head of population of the “communist parties” of the so-called “communist” countries. Its members were hand picked by commissions, which were appointed by the Central Committee and factions were outlawed. These commissions selected “exemplary” workers and especially technicians from the workplaces. Despite being formed in 1965 the Communist Party only held its first congress in 1975 – a decade later. Other political parties were banned.
In Russia even during the conditions of civil war the Bolshevik party held a congress every year. Under Lenin and Trotsky factions within the party were banned (Lenin wanted this as a temporary measure) when the revolution was threatened by the civil war and imperialist intervention from 21 countries. Other parties were only banned when they resorted to taking up arms against the revolution and collaborated with imperialist intervention.
A central planning mechanism was established firstly through INRA and then JUCEPLAN, which were an imitation of the bureaucratic planning mechanisms that existed in the USSR. Che played a leading role in both and was head of the nationalized Cuban National Bank.
“Advisers” from behind the “iron curtain” arrived and increasingly influenced the centralized planning mechanism. By 1961 more than 100 Eastern European “advisers” were in Havana. The masses were not in control of the central or local planning of the economy. The bureaucratic control of the economy resulted in a series of economic “zigzags” and unrealizable targets being set as the regime attempted to overcome shortages and problems. In 1960 Castro promised living standards equal to Sweden would be achieved by 1965. In 1961 Che Guevara declared Cuba would become an industrialized country within 12 months. The same year food rationing was introduced which was continued right up until the 1970s!
The excessive targets and zigzags were pronounced in the important agricultural sector as well as in industry. In countries like Cuba a harmonious development of agriculture and industry is essential. A high degree of industrial development and mechanization is necessary in order to boost agricultural production to the maximum. This requires a finely tuned correlation being established between industry and agriculture. It is not possible to achieve this without a system of workers’ democracy and where a bureaucracy ruling society from the top. Leon Trotsky argued this case in his criticism of Stalin’s agricultural policies in the 1930s.
Castro declared in the late 1960s that Cuban sugar production would reach 10 million tons by 1970. This would only have been possible with the development of industry and mechanization of agriculture. Only 8 million tons were harvested in 1970 and 5.4 million in 1975. In a desperate race to meet the 1970 target 400,000 Cubans were mobilized from the cities to reap the harvest. This policy of the mass mobilization of voluntary labor (at times forced labor) was an attempt to provide a substitute for the lack of mechanization. In turn it resulted in a dislocation of production in the cities and added to the problems that existed in industry.
Che and Castro attempted to resolve some of the economic difficulties that arose because of the bureaucracy. They bemoaned the symptoms but could not find a cure. Even in 1963 Che was having to deal with problems which were arising because of the system of bureaucratic rule. He delivered a secret speech which was “for the private use of political and economic leaders” in which he castigated managers for the poor quality of goods. However, to cure the decease of bureaucracy a system of workers’ democracy, which permitted criticism of decision makers and discussion and changes of plans was necessary. This was absent in Cuba.
In a small country like Cuba, the difficulties which would even be encountered by a regime of workers’ democracy would demand the victory of the socialist revolution internationally – especially throughout Latin America in order to obtain the necessary resources and technique through the integration and planning of the economies throughout the continent. That is why the struggle for a Socialist Federation of Latin America is of such crucial importance for the working class and exploited peoples of the continent.
Che supported and fought for the victory of such an international revolution. Unfortunately the ideas he advocated to achieve it did not correspond to the conditions that existed in other more urbanized countries of Latin America.
The bureaucratic influence from the USSR worsened the situation. At central level it attempted to impose its own budgeting system. This ludicrous policy meant that each industry financially operated separately irrespective of the national accounts. One industry could not therefore offer subsidies to another even when this was globally economically desirable. Che resisted attempts to impose this in Cuba. Other aspects of Russian “aid” were almost comical if not tragic. Houses designed for the sub-zero conditions in Serbia were built in sun soaked Cuba! 1,000 Russian tractors were sent in 1963 to harvest sugar cane. Once unloaded it was discovered they could not be used for the task as special machinery was required.
Wage differentials existed from the outset of the new regime. K S Carol remarks in his book, Guerrillas in Power that by 1963 he had encountered an engineer in one factory who received 17 times the wage of a worker. It was a long way from Lenin’s proposed maximum differential of 4 to 1.
The Cuban bureaucracy took privileges for itself although because of the backwardness of Cuba these appeared less than those taken by the bureaucrats in the Kremlin. However, they are no less significant in social measurements. In 1975 the Communist Party congress voted to allow Cubans to buy cars. Until then this had been the preserve of party and state officials. During the food rationing of 1961 government officials were given higher rations than workers and peasants. At the same time better quality and more expensive restaurants like ‘Torre’ and the ‘1830’ were frequented by party and government officials. For workers they remained inaccessible.
Not for Che
Some of these privileges were literally taken from what the rich had left behind as they fled Cuba. Che was not to be a party to such activities and was repelled by them. He grew increasingly irritated by the bureaucratic features that were emerging in the new Cuba.
Orlando Borrego worked with Che in JUCEPLAN and recalls one incident. Having “intervened” in a sugar mill he had taken a brand new Jaguar car, which the former owner had left behind and drove around in it for a week. Che spotted him in it and ran to him yelling: “You’re a pimp. It is a pimp’s car. Not one representative of the people should be driving it, get rid of it. You have two hours.” Borrego recalls “Che was super strict…like Jesus Christ”.
He rejected privileges for himself and lived a frugal lifestyle. As head of the National Bank he refused the higher salary to which he was entitled and insisted on living on the minimal wage paid to a “comandante”. When food rationing was introduced in 1961 he was appalled to find out by accident that his ration was higher than that being given to the mass of the population and immediately cut his accordingly.
He even refused to use government petrol allocated for official duties to take his wife to hospital and wanted his father and family to pay their own airfare from Argentina when they visited him in Cuba.
His commitment to the revolution and his life style earned him a special place in the hearts of the Cuban and Latin American masses.
Increasingly, Che reacted with hostility to what he saw in the Soviet Union. On one visit, invited to dinner in the apartment of a government official, he ate his meal on the finest imported French porcelain. During the dinner he turned to his host and sarcastically quipped: “So, the proletariat here eats off French porcelain, eh?”
Back in Cuba he grew frustrated by the quality of the industrial supplies sent from Moscow, which he denounced as “horse shit”. On one occasion, when suffering from a particularly bad attack of asthma, he was visited by his friend, Padilla, who, having just returned from the USSR, was denouncing what he had seen. Che interrupted him: “I must tell you I don’t need to listen to what you have to say because I already know all of that is a pigsty, I saw it myself.”
Although repelled by what he saw in the USSR and frustrated by the emerging bureaucratic methods and mistakes in Cuba, Che had no clear alternative. His central weakness, the lack of an understanding of the role of the working class in the revolution and in consciously planning and running society, now prevented him from developing a viable alternative policy.
To this must be added his lack of any worked out explanation about the Stalinist states in the USSR and Eastern Europe. From a Marxist point of view, both of these deficiencies in his ideas would conspire against him.
He correctly looked to extend the revolution beyond Cuba’s borders but failed to grasp how this could be done.
All he could offer was an appeal to repeat the revolution, and its methods of ‘guerrillaism’. Because of the authority of the Cuban revolution this had a big impact on layers of youth and intellectuals throughout Latin America and Europe. However, despite sympathizing with the Cuban Revolution and Che, this method of struggle was not viewed as viable to the powerful working class, which was growing up in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and other countries. Che failed to turn to this powerful and potentially revolutionary class and offer it an alternative revolutionary socialist program to the policies of class collaboration, reformism and Popular Frontism, which were on offer from the socialist and communist parties in the region.
Che’s ideas on internationalism had mass support in Cuba and the new regime was prepared to echo them as a counter-weight to the vicious blockade by imperialism. Under Che’s influence the regime supported and initiated guerrilla organizations in numerous countries.
This was tolerated for a brief time by the bureaucracy in the USSR despite causing it some problems in its dealings with local communist parties that rejected these methods. Conflicts and disagreements also took place between Havana and Moscow. From the Kremlin’s point of view it was a price worth paying as the economic aid Moscow was giving to Cuba strengthened its international prestige especially in the colonial and semi-colonial countries.
Although the support of the Castro regime to numerous guerrilla forces in Latin America was a source of irritation to the Moscow bureaucracy, it was not threatened by it. However, they could tolerate it for a period of time and even use it to their own advantage against US imperialism. The different attitude shown by Khrushchev towards the events in Hungary in 1956 and those which developed in Cuba illustrated the nature of the regime in Havana.
In the Hungarian uprising in 1956 workers’ councils were formed. Power was in the hands of the working class and the masses, which posed a mortal threat to the bureaucracy. A victorious revolution in Hungary would threaten to spread in a series of uprisings to Eastern Europe and the USSR. The bureaucracy would not compromise with this threat. Khrushchev drowned the Hungarian revolution in blood.
However, to Havana he extended the hand of friendship in the form of trade agreements and aid because the nature of the Castro regime did not threaten the rule of the bureaucrats in the Kremlin.
International policy reflects domestic policy. By 1968, after Che’s death, Havana attempted to soften its relations with US imperialism and its cohorts in Latin America. This reflected the bureaucracy’s consolidation of power and a temporary easing of the trade boycott by the USA. Cuban support to revolutionary movements internationally lessened. The interests of the national regime had a higher priority than the international revolutionary movement.
The Mexican government was the only capitalist state to keep diplomatic relations with Havana. It acted as a messenger service between Havana and Washington as it does today. In Mexico October 1968 the military massacred up to 1,000 students. Not a word of protest emanated from the Cuban Communist Party or the government.
Moreover, there was a marked contradiction in the policy Cuba adopted towards the guerrilla movements and the struggles of the working class. As workers’ movements erupted during the stormy decade of the 1960s Castro and the Cuban regime were notably silent.
When European capitalism was shaken by the general strike of 10 million workers in France during May 1968 there was silence from Havana. In the same year Castro supported the military intervention of the Russian bureaucracy into Czechoslovakia.