Cuba: Socialism and Democracy
by Peter Taaffe
Power in the Hands of a Bureaucratic Elite
The elimination of landlordism and capitalism in Cuba in 1960 sent shock waves throughout North and South America. Determined to snuff out the revolution at the earliest opportunity US imperialism financed and armed the invasion force which landed in Cuba at Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) in April 1961.
The invaders masqueraded as the ‘saviours’ of the Cuban Revolution. The fact that 1,500 men of the invasion force had once owned between them a million acres of land, 10,000 houses, 70 factories, five mines, two banks and ten sugar mills was, of course, purely coincidental!
But the mass basis of the revolution ensured the defeat of this and other counter-revolutionary attempts of the CIA-backed émigrés. Without doubt the Castro regime enjoyed enormous popular support.
The masses were armed in the 200,000 strong workers’ and peasants’ militia. The conservative historian of the Cuban Revolution, Hugh Thomas, recorded the comments of a fifteen-year old armed schoolboy in 1961:
"We Cubans are an army people." [Thomas, p1321]
There was undoubtedly an element of workers’ control in the factories in the first period of the revolution and every neighbourhood and street had a ‘Committee for the Defence of the Revolution’.
An indication of the widespread support for the regime is demonstrated by the enormous crowds which gathered in Havana to listen to Castro’s speeches. At the meeting where Castro delivered what came to be known as the ‘Second Declaration of Havana’, one million – out of a total of six million – gathered in Plaza de la Revolución on 4 February, 1962!
But at the same time the masses had no control or management of the state machine. KS Karol, in his book Guerrillas in Power – which is mostly sympathetic to Castro and the Cuban Revolution – comments on his visit to Cuba in 1961:
"These enthusiastic people [the working class and the poor peasants] would have had to talk about their ‘soviets’ or about their ‘socialist plans’ (for the revolution to be comparable to Russia or the Spanish Civil War). Now I had tried in vain, in the provinces as well as in Havana, to find signs of any great enthusiasm for either among the rank and file. There was an impressive amount of support for the revolution but the absence of political initiative even among the militia and the rather primitive level of socialism was rather surprising". [Karol, pp39-40]
The plebiscitary nature of the state – which is a feature of Bonapartism – was shown in the mass meetings addressed by Castro. The workers were called upon to say "Sí" or "No", but not to discuss or decide on issues.
But without the conscious control and management by the masses themselves, the development of a new elite is inevitable. Even in Russia with brilliant leaders like Lenin and Trotsky and the conscious participation of the working class in the running of society, bureaucratic degeneration was inevitable so long as the revolution was isolated in a backward country.
The Bolsheviks envisaged that the Russian Revolution would provoke the revolution in Europe, which would then come to the assistance of Russia with economic aid, technicians etc. The beginning of socialism and with it the dissolution of the state machine is only possible on the basis of a level of production higher than the highest level of production reached by capitalism, ie higher than capitalist America.
A Socialist United States of Europe leading to a Socialist World Federation would undoubtedly have enabled this to be realised. But the isolation of the revolution to a single country – and a backward country at that – led to the bureaucratic degeneration of Russia personified by the rise of Stalin. The masses were elbowed aside by the bureaucratic elite from any real say in the running of the country.
But in Cuba, right from the outset, management and control was concentrated in the hands of Castro and his supporters, the officialdom in the state machine, the governing party and the army, etc.
The character of the regime was demonstrated by the contrasting attitude adopted by the Russian bureaucracy towards the Cuban Revolution on the one hand and the Hungarian Revolution on the other. The existence of Soviets in Hungary in 1956, with power in the hands of the masses, was a mortal threat to the bureaucratic upstarts. If it was allowed to succeed similar uprisings – political revolutions – would have swept through Eastern Europe and Russia itself. The bureaucracy could not compromise with the Hungarian Revolution. The ‘liberal’ Khrushchev determined to drown the revolution in blood.
Towards the Castro regime, however, the Russian bureaucracy extended the hand of friendship. Indeed, without massive Russian aid – in excess of $1 million a day – the Cuban Revolution would have collapsed. Forty per cent of Cuba’s foreign trade is with Russia. Ninety-five per cent of its oil comes from the same source while the Russian bureaucracy is to pay 30 cents a pound for Cuban sugar – compared to 14 cents a pound when the agreement was signed in 1975 – under the agreement which is to last until 1980. Moreover, the enormous estimated debt of between $3 billion and $4 billion owed to Russia was deferred under the same scheme.
"He who pays the piper calls the tune". During one quarrel with the Cuban regime a Russian embassy official is reputed to have arrogantly declared: "We have only to say that repairs are being held up in Baku for three weeks and that’s that"!
Differences there have undoubtedly been between Castro and the Russian bureaucracy – involving also its acolytes in the ‘Communist’ Parties of Latin America – but the Cuban Revolution posed no real threat to the privileged elite in Russia. On the contrary, the establishment of a regime basically similar to its own on the doorstep of American imperialism served to strengthen the power and the prestige of the Russian bureaucracy.
Yet the enormous aid extended together with the advantages which flow from a planned economy has meant a gigantic development of Cuban society – particularly when compared to the unemployment, the starvation, and the misery which stalks the Latin American continent. In practically every field the living standards of the Cuban masses have outdistanced those of their Latin American counterparts. Thus, by 1975, the infant mortality rate – 27.4 per thousand – was the lowest in the whole of Latin America.
The life expectancy in Cuba is now 69.2 years compared to 45.3 years in Bolivia, 58.5 in Colombia, 59.7 in Brazil and 60.6 in Chile. Before 1959, half the children of primary school age had no education at all.
Today, all receive some education and there are now almost two million primary school pupils compared to less than 720,000 before 1959, and 79,000 primary school teachers now compared to 17,000 then. Day nurseries are available to all children from the 45th day. Even historian Hugh Thomas conceded:
"Few die of malnutrition and, in the country, particularly in Oriente province, the very poor peasants must be fed better than before the revolution… unemployment has undoubtedly fallen despite the new use in the economy of many once housebound women." [Thomas, p1425]
Contrast this to Argentina where it is estimated that living standards have dropped by 50 per cent since the army took power!
Moreover, from an unlikely source, Mr Pat Holt, the Secretary to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in June 1974, came confirmation of the remarkable development of Cuba since the revolution: "The island in 1973 has the highest per capita income in Latin America ($1,578) with the exception of Venezuela." And Venezuela is only ahead of Cuba because of its rich oil resources.
On the other hand, Cuba remains a predominantly agricultural country with sugar still the main product. In 1974, 85 per cent of foreign exchange earnings came from sugar. But at the same time there has been a development of industry. Thus, between 1959 and 1965, industrial production increased by 50 per cent. In 1975, the economy increased by something like 9 per cent. Nickel has now surpassed tobacco as the country’s second most valuable export after sugar. Steel production is planned to increase in the next period to about one million tons. As striking as these achievements are, they are as nothing compared to what could have been achieved on the basis of workers’ democracy.
Mismanagement, tremendous waste and zigzags in economic policy are inevitable without the planning, checking, control and initiative which is only possible through workers’ democracy. This is as necessary to a planned economy as is oxygen to a body. Without it the pores clog up and virtual seizure of the organism is inevitable at a certain stage.
This is now the situation in Russia and Eastern Europe where the bureaucratic caste of Brezhnev and Co are now an absolute fetter on the further development of society. In an undeveloped country like Cuba the bureaucracy can still play a relatively progressive role in developing industry – by borrowing the technique of the advanced countries and seeking to catch up with them – but at the cost of colossal overheads. Mismanagement and waste has been evident from the first days of the Cuban Revolution.
Thus, in 1963, in the first flush of enthusiasm Castro accepted Khrushchev’s offer of 1,000 tractors to mechanise the sugar harvest. But only after they had arrived in Cuba was it discovered that they were unsuitable for cutting sugar cane which requires special machines! At the same time Che Guevara – in a secret speech which was for the "private use of political and economic leaders" [Karol, Guerrillas in Power] – castigated managers for poor quality of goods.
He pointed out that:
"There is at present a shortage of toothpaste… Only when the reserves began to run out and no raw materials were coming in, did those responsible become galvanised into action… undeterred the comrades succeeded in making a toothpaste pleasing to the eye and as clean and white as any, but which hardens after a while… in a few months’ time people are going to object because we are selling them stones in tubes"!
From the top
Guevara and Castro bemoaned the symptoms but were unable either to diagnose the disease or prescribe the cure. Arbitrary decision and low quality goods which accompany them are inevitable in a regime where the ‘decision makers’ are not subject to mass criticism, election and recall. So also are the crises and the zigzags in economic policy, which have characterised the Castro regime from the beginning.
Thus, in 1961, Guevara predicted that Cuba would be an industrialised country within 12 months! Given the weaknesses of the Cuban economy such a perspective was utterly utopian – even with the enormous assistance of the Russian bureaucracy. Shortly afterwards this gave way to a concentration on agriculture and particularly on sugar. But the targets on sugar production were decided by the tops and handed down to the masses.
The real possibilities in a planned economy can only be decided on the basis of thoroughgoing discussion among the masses who can add the necessary correctives, additions, etc. Without this discussion and a reliance on mass initiative to implement the plans, blunders and mistakes are inevitable.
This has proved to be the case in Cuba in relation to the sugar industry. Thus, Castro declared that Cuba would produce 10 million tons of sugar by 1970. Yet, even given the vagaries of the weather – where agriculture is concerned – it was subsequently demonstrated that such a target would only have been possible on the basis of the mechanisation and development of industry. Only this would allow the harmonious development of industry and agriculture together. Leon Trotsky showed in his criticisms of Stalin’s blunder on agriculture that a correct correlation between industry and agriculture is impossible on the basis of a regime of bureaucratic absolutism.
Without committing the same crimes as Stalin, Castro nevertheless attempted to substitute the massive use of voluntary and sometimes forced labour for Cuba’s lack of the industrial and technical means of realising the targets which had been set. Thus, in the drive for the 10 million tons of sugar, over 400,000 Cubans were mobilised in the harvest of 1970. Industrial workers, housewives and the youth were mobilised to bring in the harvest at the cost of an enormous disruption and dislocation of industry. Yet only 8.5 million tons of sugar was produced. In 1975, only 5.4 million tons were harvested and even by 1980 it is now planned to produce 8.7 million tons; a clear demonstration of the sheer impracticability on the basis of the present regime of the earlier targets.
Preceding this, the regime launched the ‘Great Revolutionary Offensive’ – a Cuban version of the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Denunciations of ‘bureaucracy’ and the virtual militarisation of labour, was combined with the proclamations about ‘moving towards Communism’ and a campaign to eliminate small businesses. In 1968, something like 58,000 small businesses – including shops, stalls and even 9,179 craftsmen working on their own – were nationalised!
The government then claimed that Cuba was now the "socialist country with the largest nationalised sector". But to eliminate every small business without first of all creating the conditions whereby the state trusts are in a position to supply the goods – particularly the consumer goods – and services provided by these firms added enormously to the general scarcity of certain goods which in turn led to growing discontent. The purpose of the campaign was also to cut down the privileges of the bureaucracy to accumulate the necessary resources for industrialisation and the mechanisation of agriculture and in a forced march to reach the targets, which had been arbitrarily decided by the government.
Similar boasts in relation to living standards were also made by Castro. Thus, in 1960, he predicted that Cuba would enjoy a living standard comparable to Sweden by 1965. The next year severe rationing of food and clothes was introduced! Rationing continued right up to the 1970s and has only been eased or ended in some consumer goods in the last few years.