End of the Affair? The UK Left and Cuba

by Carl Rowlands

With massive shifts towards autonomy, indigenous rights and regional co-operation in Latin America over the past two decades, why do some on the British Left still have time for Castro's Cuba?

First published: 17 December, 2012 | Category: Foreign policy, International, Labour movement

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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