End of the Affair? The UK Left and Cuba

by Carl Rowlands

Amongst the pitfalls and pratfalls of modern political involvements, over-romanticizing Che Guevara and the regime in Cuba must surely count as a relatively minor indiscretion. But these days, it can appear more and more incongruous. There is no shortage of examples. Redoubtable Labour MP John McDonnell, normally so clear in demanding greater and deeper democracy, calls Cuba 'a beacon to many socialists.' After more than fifty years, it is only teething problems that have resulted in a 'lack of thoroughgoing democracy based on fundamental civil rights'—an exceptionalism based on the premise that the revolution is still a 'work in progress.' Jeremy Corbyn MP is somewhat more balanced, but naturally concurs, arguing that the 1959 revolution was about the 'emancipation of people, rights for women, the end of racism and opportunities for all…

Support for the decayed Castro administration also extends into the soft-left of the Labour Party. A commentator on Twitter recently referred to 'awe-inspiring strides the nation has made in a short space of time… not perfect, but so much achieved.' This comment follows a period of massive cutbacks in Cuba, with 20% of the working population recently axed from the state sector, combined with a rollback of Cuba’s social security. Those backers of the current government who are most familiar with the island are becoming more downbeat even as they attempt to remain sanguine. A recent article in Tribune by Hugh O'Shaughnessy reviews a growing obsession with 'national' heroes at the expense of Karl Marx, the accommodation with the Catholic Church, the desperate attempts to discover oil and the generous hospitality afforded to tourists in Cuba’s new ‘golf course’ path to socialist development. Food rationing and the realities of an economy based largely upon barter and the black market are not mentioned. 

The basis for this veneration lies in the meta-narrative around Cuba that elements of the Left have developed over the years. It's a heady tale, and one that until fairly recently I subscribed to myself. Arguably, it says more about UK leftist thought than it does about Cuba. Its roots probably extend back to the 1940s, with the onset of the Cold War. On the one side, opposition to Soviet Communism was perhaps the defining characteristic of the Labour Right. There were also groups of influential Trotskyist and independent left thinkers—some of whom, like George Orwell, had experienced Stalinism personally—who would become bitterly hostile as Stalinist regimes imposed themselves upon Eastern Europe. On the other side, various factions on the Left were anxious to define themselves in opposition to the Right, and with the Popular Front still a fresh memory, saw more positive aspects to the ‘anti-imperialist’ struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, regardless of Soviet backing. Whilst the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 played a huge role in reconfiguring European politics, no-one could seriously deny the terrible and corrupt nature of the Batista regime in Cuba, and subsequent generations were swayed by the glamour of Guevaran rebellion. 

It was, by and large, left to hardcore Trotskyists to form a solid critique of the Cuban Revolution, evidenced at an early stage by increasingly strained relations between Castro and Marxist guerrillas. Seasoned observers noted the lack of working-class participation in the Revolution, with the strictly elitist organisation of the revolutionary army replicated in the victorious regime. It was primarily Trotskyist critics who pointed out that the flawed basis of the revolt, dependent upon bourgeois 'agents of change,' would critically affect the outcome of the revolution—a revolution that was, in fact, never explicitly socialist. From the outset workers were denied control over the Cuban government and economy, resulting in a system which increasingly aligned itself with the power structures of the USSR. As David Broder argues so eloquently, the people of Cuba were left in the hands of a totalitarian bureaucracy. As is the case in all such regimes, the association of this bureaucracy with the 'Cuban nation,' personified by Fidel Castro, was total. Any obstacles faced by this state were challenges to the Cuban nation itself, and it would therefore respond with whatever force necessary. In many ways, therefore, Cuba is an anti-socialist state—happy to use psychiatry to enforce its will, as evidenced by the use of Havana Psychiatric Hospital to detain dissident socialists; among them, Marxist historian Ariel Hidalgo. 

Leftist support for Cuba is surely based upon geopolitical macro-interpretation, with the U.S. justifiably cast in the role of antagonistic bully since the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962; a failed attack which brought the darker, autocratic elements of the Revolution to the fore. With Fidel Castro cast in the role of an 'indomitable Gaul,' to borrow from Goscinny’s Asterix, it is not hard to see Cuba's appeal as a nation which challenges hegemonic norms, despite invasion and blockade. For many years a lone example of a nationalist state within close proximity to a superpower, Cuba has borne the brunt of successive U.S. interventions, involving invasion, terrorism, assassination and brutal economic warfare. 

The U.S. has not, however, behaved as a monolithic entity. The narrow and elitist nature of the Revolution, and its subsequent political descent into Soviet-style totalitarianism, quickly gave rise to waves of virulently anti-Castro émigrés, some of whom were initial supporters of the Revolution, who have continued to fight a civil war by proxy upon their arrival in the United States. With organised and monied interests successfully exerting hard-line pressure on U.S. policy, the State Department was pushed into overtly aiming for regime change, and to be seen doing so—somewhat different to its usual, more sly and opportunistic approach to Latin America. Cuba’s role in U.S. politics has been to embody the Red Menace on America’s doorstep, whilst Cuban expatriates remain one of the few ethnically diverse constituencies potentially receptive to the Republican Party.  Such underlying domestic political considerations were to transparently influence Cuba's inclusion in John Bolton’s list of states existing ‘beyond the Axis of Evil.’ 

In fighting a continuation of the civil war, scant consideration has been given to those left behind in Cuba, attempting to scrape an existence on an island where imports have always been vital to a supply of raw materials. In these circumstances, it may be that Cuba’s social achievements are even more fantastic than they have been given credit for. Defenders of the Cuban regime often point to Haiti as a contrast. Cuba has achieved a 97% literacy rate. Haiti’s literacy rate is 53%. Life expectancy in Cuba is 78.3 years, better than the U.S. and many countries in the EU, whilst Haiti’s life expectancy is only 60.3 years. It should be remembered that at the time of the Revolution Cuba was relatively advanced compared to its neighbours; yet against such a bleak economic backdrop, there is no doubt that Cuba has made formidable progress in some fields. 

This progress is not negated by the political regime in Cuba, but neither is the widespread use of oppression and lack of basic freedoms compensated by a great health system. By treating the two as a ‘trade-off,’ commentators implicitly argue that inhabitants of the Caribbean region cannot have their cake and eat it: combining democracy with efficient healthcare is considered over-ambitious. According to such reasoning, human rights abuses in Cuba are best resolved through gentle reasoning and considered, non-patronising dialogue at some unspecified future point; meanwhile, human rights abuses in Bahrain are best resolved through sanctions, ostracism and stormy diplomacy. Such gaps in reasoning become an inexcusable defence of a state where 'dangerousness' and 'insubordination' are considered grounds for pre-emptive arrest and detention. 

One fact remains undeniable: Cuba is a one-party state, which denies freedom of association and organisation. This is especially evident when considering the role played by Cuba’s state-sponsored trades unions. The change from Fidel to Raul Castro demonstrates that Cuba is in no way a republic. With the effects of the U.S. blockade and the collapse of its Soviet sponsors, it could perhaps be best described as a Protectorate. Subtle shifts in interpretation would render the Cuban regime little more than a dictatorship with a social welfare system. Recent shifts to a market economy should be a wake-up call to those harbouring illusions about the viable development of a socialist project in Cuba, and those who see basic freedoms as an optional extra in the course of building a socialist country. 

Despite its achievements, there is no model to find in Cuba that could be applied or adapted to a Western European mixed economy. As the Communist Party has shrunken and disappeared, and Labour has become increasingly colourless, perhaps Cuba’s role in UK politics has been instead to offer suburban British left-wingers escapism, a sovereign state with which we can identify sentimentally as underdogs. There are hard moral questions for those indulging in support for Cuban socialism. Could soft-left members of the Labour Party really envisage living in a place where dissent and debate is so curtailed, where everyday life and actions are warped by self-censorship and fear? Can they really not empathise with the thousands of Cuban people who have fled to the U.S., where a constitution, originally influenced by Thomas Paine, still theoretically protects the rights of individuals? On this level, support for Cuba’s regime, as it is today, becomes not just naive, but ethically questionable—defensible only through a haze of relativistic sophistry. 

Perhaps most importantly, things have moved on, regardless of the U.S. fixation with Castro. Factory occupations in Argentina have led to direct ownership of many workplaces, while successive leftist governments in Brazil have grappled with instigating a welfare state, with some success, against the constraints of a capitalist economy conditioned by decades of neoliberalism. Across Latin America, the last twenty years has seen a massive shift towards autonomy, indigenous rights and regional co-operation, a populism which sometimes has a distinctly socialist character. These developments appear to show the world that there is not just 'one way', the 'Castro way', for Latin countries to become socialist—something argued by those marginalised Trotskyists, way back in the 1940s and 1950s.   

The irony here is that in many ways John McDonnell may also be right: despite the oppression and economic misery, Cuba retains huge appeal for popular movements in Latin America as a beacon for social justice. For the single-party Cuban regime, the longer-term threat from its friends in the region may ultimately outweigh the threat from its enemies. Such an outcome—normalization and development of indigenous democracy within the context of the ALBA regional bloc—would perhaps be the happiest possible ending to the Castro era.

Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest.

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First published: 17 December, 2012

Category: Foreign policy, International, Labour movement

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10 Comments on "End of the Affair? The UK Left and Cuba"

By Julian Ammirante PhD, on 17 December 2012 - 17:05 |

More autonomist naive and ahistorical polemic. This piece is naive. Without Cuba’s inspiration and support at crucial moments, Chávez might well have failed. Without Cuba, then, no Venezuela; and without Venezuela, no Bolivia, no Ecuador, and no Paraguay, and no revival (however imperfect) of Sandinista Nicaragua.

The following excerpt is taken from Diana Raby’s Why Cuba Still Matters 2009, Volume 60, Issue 08 (January)

“Cuba’s success in surviving the extraordinary rigors of the worst years of the “Special Period” in the mid-1990s cannot possibly be explained in any other way than by the continued vitality of the revolution. The scarcity and hardship was such that any other government would have collapsed in a matter of months. No one who visited Cuba in those years could fail to be impressed by the stoicism and commitment of the Cuban people when power supplies only functioned for a few hours a day, food rotted in the fields for lack of transportation to market, workers spent six hours a day getting to and from workplaces on foot only to find that nothing could be done for want of fuel, and the shelves of the stores were literally bare. This took place in a country that was deluged with images of U.S. consumer society and counter-revolutionary propaganda, and where everyone knew that the Berlin Wall had fallen and that the socialist countries of Eastern Europe had collapsed like ninepins. Yet in Cuba there was only one serious protest, in August 1994, and although some took to rafts to cross the Florida Straits in desperation, the majority remained faithful to the revolution.”

By zen, on 17 December 2012 - 18:56 |

Using the category ‘totalitarianism’ uncritically, the use of invented caricatures (‘soft-left’?), tendentious ‘surely you must condemn’ rhetorical questions, little historiographical support, capped off with this:

“Can they really not empathise with the thousands of Cuban people who have fled to the U.S., where a constitution, originally influenced by Thomas Paine, still theoretically protects the rights of individuals? “

Perhaps Hitchens didn’t die after all.

By Chris, on 17 December 2012 - 23:56 |

I don’t really see what’s so bad about Communism.

By Carl R, on 18 December 2012 - 09:14 |

@zen, in terms of hypothetical questions, I think these are fair enough, as the Cuban situation is uniquely paradoxical. As geo-politics, the assertion of Cuban nationalism is deeply sympathetic to many of us, reinforced by the role that Cuban doctors and aid workers play throughout Latin America, and Cuba’s place as an inspiration to those looking for alternatives (but not, usually, a model). The inverse of this, is that the social and political relationships within Cuba itself revolve around a militarist regime.

I wrote this article as an attempt to remind people of this paradox - that there is an increasingly obvious mismatch between Cuba’s increasingly benign continental influence, and the ongoing concentration of political power, and use of oppression domestically. I love Cuba, but I hate the repression - and I wouldn’t see the people of Cuba as being pawns in some anti-US chess game. Cuba is, for me, *classically* totalitarian, whereby a perceived offense to the Castros is an offence to the Revolution is an offence to the Cuban Nation. And I don’t see your counterargument to this?

As I see it, tension is being played out domestically in the economic sphere right now. Just in the last few days, the government has announced provisions for worker co-operatives. There are questions here - because the whole future of Cuba is now open to question. How do these co-operatives exactly relate to the hierarchy of the state apparatus? How does this potential devolution of economic power relate to the existing monopoly of political power? There’s reasons for optimism here - but the only sure thing is that the basis for the Castro regime is being re-engineered and change is here. The time for foreign commentators to simply praise the Cuban regime has passed, when they themselves dismiss the previous economic paradigm!

Raul Castro has openly talked of emulating the Chinese model, but this doesn’t appear to be either desirable or possible to many of the Cubans who are now participating in some of the debates. With the return of foreign investment in property, ultimately, the future of Cuba may be determined by *which* of the exiles return to play a role in the island, and their relationships with the existing power/opposition networks.

And I’m not apologising for the fact that the US, with its multiple deficiencies, still represents a polar opposite to Cuba - geo-politically it is often an agent of destruction and injustice, in keeping with its ultra-capitalist economic platform. Despite this, internally it remains a country with radical and diverse political possibilities, and ways of expressing these openly, with open challenges to the authority and legitimacy of the security services. Hence the example of Ariel Hidalgo, a Marxist who also now lives in Florida. As the US itself becomes increasingly Hispanic, the influence of a successful and democratic socialist administration in Cuba would have a direct influence on the mainland US… For Henry Kissinger, who always saw Allende as more of a threat than Castro, it would be his worse nightmare.

@Julian I don’t think demanding human rights is naive, ever. I think you underestimate the people of Venezuela etc. as they have their own examples of radical leadership to draw upon… not to mention the precedent of socialism in Brazil in the 1960s and Chile in the 1970s. We cannot assume that these revivals depended upon Cuba. We can say that Cuba helped, but we can’t say how much.

I have a big problem with the Raby quote…

‘in Cuba there was only one serious protest, in August 1994, and although some took to rafts to cross the Florida Straits in desperation, the majority remained faithful to the revolution.”

...of course ‘the majority remained faithful’ - when dissidents or independent thinkers remain threatened with pre-emptive arrest, and a regime exists which is capable of manipulating versions of the truth, it proves absolutely nothing, and the unrest in the early 2000s stands testament to simmering discontent among the people. Raby also provides a classic example of equating Cuba with the regime itself, something to which the terrible policies of the US towards Cuba have directly contributed. I am sure that continuation of this imposed dichotomy is absolutely against the current interests of the Cuban people, based upon reading the thoughts of many young Cubans with both sympathies and ambivalence towards the Revolution.

By Julian Ammirante PhD, on 18 December 2012 - 16:45 |

Since anecdotal evidence seems to become the norm, let me say this to you. I have been there twice just this last year travelling from Havana and Santiago and I am inclined to believe your experience is wishful thinking.  What saved Cuban socialism was a degree of popular participation rarely found elsewhere.  Your “blog” substitutes rhetoric with fact.  As Raby is quick to point out,  “bourgeois elites manipulate liberal polyarchy to prevent any serious challenge to the capitalist system, it is arguable that electorates in Western countries have less influence than Cubans on policy decisions in crucial areas such as finance, defense, and foreign policy”.  This I have seen to be fact.  As one of my closet friends – Juan Manuel -  said to me, In Cuba he is a surgical nurse, his daughters are in medical school and his son will most likely be a dentist. Sure, he was busking at resorts to make extra money but if he was in Miami or if Cuba became Russia as he said, he would most likely have to become a thief.  Stop imposing your liberal “will” on them. I’m sure they have a better understanding of human right than you do.

By Carl R, on 18 December 2012 - 21:54 |

@Julian I am not imposing anything, but I cannot support any system which denies the right to freely organise and which censors free speech. If it’s not good enough for me, it’s not good for anybody else. I’m not sure that we disagree as much you seem to think - the future of the Revolution should be entirely in the hands of the Cuban people, and I hope that a vibrant and positive form of socialism is the outcome, as a result of letting people self-organise and decide for themselves. The instances of repression which I refer to in this blog are just a few examples from over the last 50 years - I see you make no attempt to engage with these examples, or the constitution which puts the Politburo as the de facto executive.

By Julian Ammirante PhD, on 18 December 2012 - 23:36 |

I don’t have any problem with this type of socialism in era of American Empire that’s what you are not prepared to accept.  What you are proposing is a type of anarcho-liberalism. This will never work in a condition of American Imperialism.  The aim must be to decentralize only up to a point where control is not lost, and centralize only up to a point where initiative is not killed.  To overlook that this dynamic is what has been driving Cuba socialism/communism alive is to be disingenuous at the very least.

By Julian Ammirante PhD, on 19 December 2012 - 00:54 |

Apologies for the typos.

By Chris2, on 20 December 2012 - 02:56 |

“Can they really not empathise with the thousands of Cuban people who have fled to the U.S., where a constitution, originally influenced by Thomas Paine, still theoretically protects the rights of individuals? “
   Read it again.  This, Tom Paine indeed!,  is mental idleness.

As to this assertion: “Despite its achievements, there is no model to found (find) in Cuba that could be applied or adapted to a Western European mixed economy.” You are quite wrong. The NHS, for example, would benefit immediately by swapping its current importation of US healthcare models for the Cuban example.
More generally, Cuba’s refusal to submit to “Tom Paine’s Empire” has forced it to develop ways of getting out of the international division of labour and relying on its own resources.  As an alternative to eating the shit prescribed by Finance-hunger, inequality and warmongering- Cuban autarky is increasingly appealing. 

By Carl R, on 20 December 2012 - 12:38 |

@Chris2 thanks for finding the proofing area, but once again, you seem to be taking an entirely relativist perspective to the basic right to organise and assemble - and you’re relaxed about this, I expect, because you’ve not had this hugely constrained in the past.

Additionally, if I attended a protest against cuts next weekend in London, and found myself kettled and arrested, this would/should make me no more likely to support a regime where pre-emptive arrest is used *all the time* to prevent assembly. Why would it?

The quote about the ‘Cuban model’ in any case refers to the Cuban economy. And no-one is defending the communist model for the Cuban economy any more. Not the Castros, not the economists, nobody. So what are you defending exactly from my mistaken attack @Chris2? The regime itself?

In terms of warmongering… Cuba has demilitarised to a certain degree, but you don’t see many pictures of its leaders wearing civilian dress. You should be careful who you entrust to be your autocratic khaki-clad leader, as they might enjoy it all a bit too much.

I believe I know the US enough not to underestimate the fact that in many ways it is genuinely more progressive than the UK, despite the fact that much of the radicalism is often obscured, or concentrated in particular clusters.

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