Cuba: Socialism and Democracy
by Peter Taaffe
One of the most bankrupt assertions of Lorimer and the DSP is the claim that we, and other socialists and Marxists, have no right to issue the slightest criticism of organisations and their leadership in Cuba or the neo-colonial areas of the world because we happen to live in the developed industrial countries. This is a complete rejection of real internationalism. The CWI has a presence in 34 different countries on every continent. Some of our organisations are sizeable parties with significant influence amongst workers, while others are relatively small groups. Does Lorimer’s embargo on commenting on and criticising workers’ struggles extend to all of these sections or is it just restricted to Marxists who live in the industrialised countries? The success or failure of the workers’ movement in any part of the world is vital to workers’ struggles elsewhere. It is not only the right but also the duty for genuine Marxists to discuss and criticise each other’s strategy and tactics employed in the struggle to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism.
This is how Trotsky approached the question in the 1930s. Prior to Hitler coming to power he pointed out that the key to the international situation was the struggle of the German workers, then it was France, and then it was, of course, the epic struggle of the Spanish workers culminating in the civil war. In the most friendly, comradely fashion, Trotsky and the International Left Opposition offered their views, unfortunately not accepted in most cases, as to how the revolution should be prosecuted to a successful conclusion. The defeat of the movements in Germany and Spain affected the world working class.
The Cuban workers have every right to criticise our struggles in Britain, including the strategy and tactics we employ. We would hope to learn from the criticism of workers and organisations in any part of the world in the battle that we are waging in Britain. Unfortunately, on the basis of Lorimer’s attack on us on Cuba, there is absolutely nothing to learn in the school of the DSP. Indeed, to follow their approach, their methods, their tactics and their policies would be disastrous.
Unlike the DSP, we have a record of leading successful mass struggles of the working class in Britain: in the Liverpool battle between 1983-87 and in the mighty anti-poll tax campaign. We might also add that we played a key role in the struggle against the fascist BNP in Britain and the closure of its headquarters in south London. This does not mean that we are automatically ‘right’ on all issues. Whether we are correct or not has to be established in discussion and debate. It is an indication of the puerile tail-endism of the DSP that this issue is even raised by them. They attempt to profit from the tremendous sympathy that exists for the Cuban Revolution and its achievements.
They do this by distorting the character of the Cuban regime, by excusing the mistaken policies of Castro and his government, and by glossing over and covering up for the real bureaucratic degeneration which has taken place in the Cuban state.
Nor do they deal anywhere with the damage that has been inflicted on Cuba by the bureaucratic bungling and the constant zigzags in policy, which have undermined the great advantages of the planned economy. Castro’s policies, the Cuban equivalent of the ‘war communism’ of the Bolsheviks, were carried not just for a few years but for a whole decade in Cuba. The utopianism of Castro involved the nationalisation of hot dog stands, of small businesses and an attempt to do away with ‘money’. We have commented on the deleterious effects of this on Cuba and will not repeat it here.
But the DSP have particularly objected to our analysis which compared Castro’s policies in this period, particularly in 1968, to what happened in China during the ‘Cultural Revolution’. The scale of disruption, bloodshed and convulsions was enormous in China. After all, the ‘Cultural Revolution’ affected one-quarter of humankind, and therefore was of colossal proportions. Similar methods in a nation of ten million would not have the same consequences. The regime of Mao was much more brutal than that of Castro for a number of reasons that we cannot go into here. But our analogy still retains its validity and is moreover underlined by Tad Szulc:
"Castro proclaimed a new radical revolution in Cuba, which in a sense was his equivalent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that was just then beginning to wind down. Although Cuba had no Red Guards and no blood was shed, Fidel moved to nationalise the entire retail trade sector still in private hands – businesses ranging from auto mechanics’ repair shops to small stores, cafés and sandwich and ice-cream street vendors – for reasons of ideology. Like Mao Zedong, Castro must have felt that revolutionary fervour was fading amongst his people, and that a powerful injection of radicalism was needed to make the juices flow again. He called his policy the Great Revolutionary Offensive, imposing revolutionary purity by eliminating the remnants of the ‘bourgeoisie’ he so despised, and mobilising Cuban manpower on a gigantic scale (voluntary extra work by everybody) for agricultural production, and especially the record sugar harvest he was planning for 1970." 143
Castro denounced an estimated 955 privately owned bars "making money right and left, consuming supplies" and linked the number of hot dog stands with the threat of counter-revolution. His battle cry was: "Are we going to construct socialism, or are we going to construct vending machines?" 144 He also commented to KS Karol in 1967 that it was "Absolutely necessary to de-mythicise money and not to rehabilitate it. In fact, we plan to abolish it totally." 145
Again, this sheer utopianism is brushed aside by the DSP in their eagerness to cling to the coat tails of Castro. In 1968 Castro had personally taken over the planning and execution of economic policies, shutting off all alternative ideas and naturally "brooked no arguments". Again Szulc declares:
"Fidel had become a total dogmatist, disregarding absolutely the experiences of other men and other societies, and also rejecting many Marxist views… As René Dumont, the French agricultural specialist who was the most perceptive foreign observer of the Cuban scene in the late 1960s, remarked later; ‘There was nothing to buy, for which reason there was no stimulus to work’…In Cuba, Castro seemed determined to prove that to go backward in Marxist economic history represented progress." 146
Without conscious democratic control by the working class, mass discussion, a testing and retesting of plans with the necessary corrections added, even the greatest geniuses in a planned economy will inevitably make the grossest blunders. And Castro was not a genius in the mould of Lenin or Trotsky, despite the arguments of the DSP. Why then, declares Lorimer, was the Cuban regime still popular with the majority of the population? He seems to forget that even the Stalinist regimes of the USSR and Eastern Europe enjoyed a measure of ‘popularity’ at one stage. The masses tolerated the bureaucracy in the teeth of imperialist threats, so long as the planned economy was maintained and took society forward.
For a period, the Stalinist regimes were still capable of playing a ‘relatively progressive’ role in developing industry and society. The rate of growth of the Russian economy, for instance, was way beyond that of capitalism as a whole in the 1950s, 1960s and at least part of the 1970s. In roughly the decade and a half leading to 1989 Stalinism became ‘an absolute fetter’ on the further progress of these societies. The huge military bureaucratic regime had swallowed up more and more of the surplus, was clogging up the pores of society and preventing it from going any further forward. The plan began to disintegrate, the economy and society began to regress. This laid the basis for the upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s in the USSR and Eastern Europe leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Gains can be preserved through Workers’ Democracy
Cuba also reached a turning point in the 1980s. For a quarter of a century before then Castro’s Cuba "was carried by the momentum of the revolution". In 1986 far ranging purges of the highest ranks of the Castro regime were carried out. He fired without explanation some of his oldest and closest associates and proclaimed a "strategic revolutionary offensive" to "capture the effervescent fervour". Political controls and repression against all forms of dissent were further strengthened, and Cuba went on a war footing as people’s militia units were trained and kept on the alert against an American invasion Castro insisted was imminent. Yet, the economy continued to stagnate with not enough sugar being produced to meet export commitments to the Soviet Union. There was even the appearance of unemployment, which was partially dissipated by the Cuban soldiers serving abroad and by hundreds of thousands fleeing into exile.
This situation was compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union that plunged Cuba into an acute economic crisis, enormously aggravated by the stepped-up attempts of US imperialism to isolate Cuba through its brutal arms embargo. Much to the annoyance of the inhabitants of the White House, Castro has almost survived nine US presidents, who have consistently underestimated the huge reservoirs of support that still remain for the revolution. Popular support, unlike in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, has sustained the Castro government in a period of extreme isolation.
Nevertheless, the Cuban regime and the Cuban economy has been driven back. Castro, obviously seeking to apply what he considers are the lessons of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, opened up the economy to foreign investment and even to foreign ownership of sections of the economy. Circulation of US dollars was legalised, which in the long run poses a huge threat to the planned economy. Prior to 1991, 85% of Cuban exports went to the USSR and Eastern Europe. This market was cut and exports plunged by 70%. This, in turn, resulted in a one-third drop in the Cuban economy in 1991.
The effects of this collapse have still not been made up by the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the new century. Although there has been a certain recovery in the economy huge lay-offs of workers have taken place. The regime has taken measures to ensure that healthcare and education have been defended. Nevertheless, this has not been enough to prevent the return of some of the worst aspects of life under capitalism. The majority of industry is still concentrated in the hands of the state, but capitalism seeks a comeback through the pores of the black economy. According to the Financial Times,
"The vast majority of Cuba’s 4.6 million workforce is employed by the state and still earn their basic salaries in pesos." 147
There is a parallel economy based upon the ‘greenback’, the US dollar. Many Cubans cannot manage on the average monthly wage, which the Cuban government says rose to 223 pesos in 1999. There is also discontent about poor housing and transport. The Cuban government claims that the economy is growing by 6.2% and is an indication of a recovery. In one sense this is an indication:
"That the Cuban economy has weathered the worst of the severe recession that followed the collapse of the former Soviet bloc".148
It is clear that while US imperialism maintains its blockade there is a division amongst the contending imperialist powers, who are jockeying for a favourable position in Cuba. They are preparing for the situation when they expect that there will be a liquidation of the planned economy. Canada is now Cuba’s leading trade and investment partner, followed by Spain. By 1996 there were an estimated 650 foreign companies with investments in Cuba. Other more powerful Latin American capitalist countries, such as Mexico and Brazil, have followed suit with a view to extending their economic and political influence in the region. This is done in order to gain advantages for themselves, but is also a means of pressurising the Cuban bureaucracy to take steps towards a restoration of capitalism and the winding-up of the planned economy.
With the model of what happened in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in mind, they hope that the Cuban bureaucracy, or at least decisive sections of it, could transform itself into a capitalist class, together with a section of the Cuban exile population in Florida. However, this perspective is complicated because of the situation in the US. The ultra-right wing Cuban exiles in Miami wish to ‘starve out’ the Castro regime and, if possible, overthrow his government by force of arms. The Republicans, also, are not in favour of any ‘compromise’ with the Castro regime – although it is doubtful whether they now wish to maintain the US embargo of Cuba because this is to the disadvantage of US imperialism. Wall Street, in the main, certainly wants to end the blockade. It sees foreign companies buying up Cuban assets and now clearly recognises that ‘engagement’ with Cuba is the best way to speed up the end of the planned economy and the demise of Castro. The decision of the Clinton administration to face down the Cuban exiles and reunite the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez with his father underlines the change in the attitude of the majority in the US and of the US ruling class towards Cuba. The whole episode represented a severe defeat for the Cuban exiles who hitherto have exercised an influence over both the Democrats and the Republicans out of proportion to their size or weight in the US population.
There is also a body of the exiles who would want to seek a compromise with Castro as a transition to the restoration of capitalism. But that section who are thirsting for revenge, look towards reclaiming their property in Cuba and instituting a bloody settling of accounts with Castro and his supporters. All of these factors, particularly the hatred of the role of US imperialism in Cuba and throughout Latin America, has ensured that the Cuban regime, and particularly Castro, has been able to retain support despite the enormous collapse in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the objective situation, if it continues for any length of time, will compel Cuba to implement more and more pro-capitalist pressures.
Castro, of course, presents this as a temporary policy and still proclaims his continued support for ‘socialism’. Nevertheless, his manoeuvring with the different imperialist powers and figures shows the character of the Cuban regime. He has defended ‘socialism’ but, at the same time, has feted and welcomed the hated pro-Thatcherite former Spanish finance minister, Solchaga, who visited Havana as an economics adviser. Castro shamefully even declared his desire to meet Thatcher in person and has already met the Pope as part of a clear overture to the Catholic Church. At the same time, as Tony Saunois has pointed out, Castro has remained silent about the uprisings of the indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico.149
Cuba faces a choice of two roads in the next period. The processes of capitalist restoration, could be accelerated, if anything, in the next period with the continuation of the present policies of the Castro government. This scenario could only be definitely averted through the establishment of a genuine regime of workers’ democracy, linked to the perspective of carrying the idea of the socialist revolution to Latin America and internationally. Notwithstanding the blandishments of the DSP, this would involve the establishment of genuine workers’ councils, locally and nationally, which would have control and management of the economy as a whole. All representatives and officials must be elected, subject to recall by those they represent and receive only the average wage of a skilled worker. In short, Cuba needs a regime of workers’ democracy.
The one-party regime should be scrapped.
As Tony Saunois points out:
"This is often justified because of the threat to the revolution from imperialism and the prospect of reactionary right-wing gangs from Miami being allowed to organise their forces. This threat is real but will not be averted by only allowing the party of the bureaucracy to organise itself. All parties which are opposed to imperialism and defend the idea of a socialist planned economy should be allowed to organise, conduct propaganda and stand candidates in elections." 150
Independent trade unions should be established separate from the state but in support of a planned economy and a democratic workers’ state. Ultimately, the threat of capitalist restoration and the defeat of the Cuban Revolution can only be avoided through the international victory of the socialist revolution and, as a first step, its victory in Latin America. For this it is necessary to win the support of the working class in Latin America to establish a socialist federation of the continent. We believe that this programme is the only way of carrying forward the great achievements of the Cuban revolution. Cuba needs genuine Marxism, the programme of workers’ democracy, in order to rekindle and regenerate all the best traditions that led to its victory more than four decades ago.
This cannot be provided by those like the DSP who have a one-sided view of the Cuban Revolution and the present situation in Cuba. The analysis, programme and perspectives of the Committee for a Workers’ International offers the best hope of preserving the gains of the Cuban Revolution as well as helping to prepare for a new phase of victorious struggle of the workers and peasants of Latin America.