Cuban protests – what do they represent?

Protest in Havana, 12 July 2021 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On 11 July, Cuba was rocked by the largest protests to have taken place since the “Maleconazo” protests that erupted in 1994. The 1994 protests followed the collapse of the former USSR and the abrupt cutting off of aid to Cuba. It resulted in a staggering 30% decline in Cuban GDP and the introduction of what Fidel Castro dubbed at the time the “special period”.

The protests in July 2021 undoubtedly have been trumpeted by imperialism yet they may represent a decisive change in the situation in Cuba. They may have shocked some on the left who have looked towards Cuba as an alternative to capitalism and standing up against the might of US imperialism.

Many have looked to the impressive gains made in Cuba following the revolution in 1959/60 in health, education, literacy and other areas. The CWI has consistently defended the conquests made by the revolution. At the same time, we have criticized the bureaucratic top-down methods of rule, and the absence of genuine workers’ democracy and democratic workers’ control and management of the nationalized economy. Unfortunately, most of the gains of the revolution have been eroded over the last thirty years. It is, therefore, necessary for socialists to accurately assess what is unfolding in Cuba and draw crucial lessons from it.

The protests on 11 July come on the backs of a further dramatic economic crisis which has been accelerated and worsened by the pandemic and the embargo imposed by US imperialism. In 2020, the economy shrank by at least 11%. The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the economy, which was increasingly reliant on tourism.

Poverty dramatically increased, with hunger for the first time rearing its head since the revolution in 1959/60. The crisis is greatly compounded by the vindictive embargo imposed by US imperialism in 1960, which was intensified by Trump and now continued under Biden. This was worsened by the collapse in tourism due to the consequences of the pandemic.

The CWI and all socialists from the outset have fought against the embargo and demand that it is lifted. Power cuts, food shortages and a dramatic decline in living standards have taken place. Yet the crisis has also been exacerbated by the bureaucratic mismanagement of the economy, the lack of genuine democratic workers’ control and management, and wrong policies adopted historically by the regime.

How the situation develops in the coming and months is uncertain. Yet the Cuban regime led now by the President and First Secretary Miguel Díaz-Canel faces its greatest threat since the revolution.

The regime faces this crisis when, for the first time, there is not a Castro in the official leadership. The Castros, especially Fidel, and other leaders of the revolution, had an immense authority because of the revolution, which the current leadership lacks.

The initial reaction of the regime was to denounce the protestors as “criminals”, “delinquents” and “counter-revolutionaries”. This was subsequently modified to acknowledge real grievances exist. Significantly, Raul Castro was reported to have been included in a governmental meeting to discuss the situation.

The crucial questions now posed are what lies behind the current protests – are its participants merely reactionary counter-revolutionaries working together with the Miami Cuban exiles and US imperialism? What is the future for the Cuban regime and what attitude should socialists adopt towards these developments? These questions have provoked debate and discussion on the socialist left internationally. Some have simply dismissed the protests as counter-revolutionary and lent uncritical or virtually uncritical support to the regime.

The threat of counter-revolution

The threat of a full capitalist counter-revolution is now undoubtedly a serious threat. Should it occur it would be a blow for the international working class. The capitalist classes internationally would use it to step up its ideological offensive against the idea of socialism. Yet the question arises why is this threat posed? The answer to this lies in the bureaucratic methods, wrong policies and missed opportunities by the regime. This has left Cuba isolated yet enjoying the sympathy and support of many workers and youth around the world, who continue to see it as challenging capitalism, especially US imperialism.

The revolution in 1959/60 enjoyed mass support amongst the mass of the Cuban population. It swept away the hated Batista dictatorship, which was a puppet of US imperialism. Prior to the revolution, Cuba had become a playground for the rich and powerful in the US, in particular with its beaches, casinos and brothels.

Millions greeted the victory of Castro’s guerrilla forces, as they marched into Havana, being welcomed by a general strike. Castro’s original idea was not to break with capitalism but to establish a “modern” “progressive capitalism”. Che Guevara defended the idea of socialism from the beginning although he did not have a worked-out understanding of how it was to be achieved and which class would lead it.

However, US imperialism would not countenance tolerating Castro’s regime as it implemented reforms they opposed and struck blow after blow against it. The new regime responded by taking more and more radical measures. In a series of tit for tat measures, the economy was nationalized and capitalism was snuffed out, and Cuba declared itself “socialist”. This aroused massive enthusiasm, especially in the neo-colonial world. Yet the new regime in Cuba increasingly was drawn into the camp of the Stalinist bureaucracy ruling the then USSR, which agreed on a favourable trade arrangement with Havana. Through this, massive reforms were introduced by Castro’s regime. Despite the absence of genuine democratic workers’ control and management, the regime was immensely popular.

However, from the outset, it ruled not on the basis of a genuine system of workers’ democracy with democratic workers’ control and management. The mass organisations which were built, especially the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, CDRs, although initially enjoying a high level of participation from workers, and for a period enjoyed an authority, were in effect transmission belts for the government rather than independent democratic organs of workers’ power. This led to economic zig zigs and serious mistakes. Repressive measures were taken against those who criticized it, even from the left. Yet, for a lengthy period of time, the regime continued to enjoy massive social support. This was reflected in the ability of the regime to cling to power even following the collapse of the USSR thirty years ago and its devastating effects on the Cuban economy. Given the catastrophic economic collapse which has taken place, what is surprising is that big protests have not broken out earlier.

In 1994, Fidel Castro, on meeting the “Maleconazo” protestors, was able to use his authority to stabilise the situation, he and promised some reforms. Today the regime faces a changed situation and lacks the authority of Castro or other leaders.

The repressive and stifling bureaucratic methods have increasingly alienated more and more young people, who, unlike their elders, have not experienced the gains of the revolution. They have only endured decades of stumbling from one crisis to another. For an allegedly revolutionary socialist regime to lose the support of the youth is a dangerous and negative feature. In addition to the economic crisis, there is also a thirst for democratic openings and expression. This was reflected in protests by artists and musicians prior to the events on July 11. The demand for more democratic rights and expression is also a powerful factor undermining the regime.

Western imperialism is trying to court the support of the Cuban youth. George Bush has urged the use of technology that would allow the Cuban youth access to the internet.

Confronted with economic crisis and stagnation prior to the pandemic, and the loss of cheap oil which it secured when Chavez headed the Venezuelan regime, the Cuban government had already taken some further steps towards introducing pro-capitalist measures and allowing private ownership in sectors of the economy. The sectors of the economy allowed to be in private hands have increased from 127 to 2000. How far this has actually developed is questionable and the state probably retains control of the decisive sectors of the economy.

Yet these measures, alongside the introduction of the dual currency – the peso and the convertible peso CUC – nearly thirty years ago, have enormously increased inequality, with those in the tourist sector and others using the dollar. Now the government has eliminated the CUC and opened up stores that accept dollars using a bank card. This partial dollarization of the economy is being used as a further pro-capitalist step.

Apart from the dire economic situation, a further factor that has fueled the recent protests is the worsening health situation during the pandemic. Initially, the regime managed the situation relatively well and succeeded in mobilizing the renowned Cuban health system and its army of trained doctors and health practitioners. However, desperate to gain income from tourism, the government in November, last year, opened up and allowed foreign tourists in from the US, bringing with them the Delta variant of the virus. As a result, infections have rocketed. This is against the background that only around 15% of the population has been fully vaccinated with two doses.

The protests that broke out on July 11 seemed to have included an element of right-wing counter-revolutionaries, with some links to Cuban exiles in Miami. An intense social media campaign under the slogan #SOSCuba was started. These forces have adopted the slogan, “Patria y vida” – Homeland and Life – a distorted version of Castro’s slogan, “Patria o muerte” – Homeland or Death.

These elements were undoubtedly present in the protests. At the same time, others came onto the streets out of frustration, demanding vaccines, an end to the power cuts, an end to shortage and an end to dictatorship and more democracy.

At the same time, not reported in most of the western capitalist press, some pro-government supporters come to defend the Communist Party offices, in some areas, reflecting that the regime retains a layer of support.

Lessons from the collapse of Stalinist states

A confused and mixed political consciousness is likely to be present in all the demonstrations. Many protesting about the economic crisis and demanding more democracy will not be demanding a return to capitalism. However, without an organized revolutionary socialist alternative programme to combat imperialism and, at the same time, to establish a genuine system of workers’ democracy, a movement can morph into capitalist restoration, in one form or another. A similar process took place in the DDR (the former East Germany), and other Eastern European Stalinist states, and the USSR. The process of capitalist restoration in these countries did not begin with demonstrations demanding a return to capitalism. The protests were for democratic rights and an end to the shortages and economic stagnation and decline.

The absence of organisations of the working class with a programme to remove the bureaucracy and replace it with workers’ governments based on democratic workers’ control and management of the planned economy, and the attraction of the higher living standards in western Europe, resulted in the movements mutating into the process of capitalist restoration, which swathes of the former bureaucracy embraced.

A similar process may now develop in Cuba, especially with Biden in the White House as opposed to Trump. A layer could be drawn to the idea of removing the regime, opening up the economy, and ending the embargo, as a means of ending the devastating crisis which exists. Yet such a process would not result in the Cuban masses raising their standard of living. They would be plunged into destitution facing the masses in the rest of Latin America.

A complication in the process of capitalist restoration is the prospect of former landowners and capitalist Cubans in Miami returning to Cuba to reclaim what they or their families lost during the revolution. The most reactionary Cubans in Florida, the so-called ‘gusanos’ (worms), are demanding military intervention. The Mayors of Miami and of Miami-Dade County have invoked the “Monroe doctrine”, calling on Biden to intervene militarily. Although Biden is extremely unlikely to agree to their demands, it is a warning of how events could develop. Even if sections of the Cuban bureaucracy were prepared to support capitalist restoration, they would risk losing power and wealth to the exiles. Such a scenario raises the possibility of clashes and even elements of a civil war developing. In the DDR, the former Stalinist bureaucracy was simply swept away and German capitalism took over. In the other Eastern European states and USSR, the former Stalinist bureaucrats simply looted the state resources and many converted themselves into capitalist oligarchs.

Other sections of the capitalist classes internationally, such as the EU and Canada, have, in reality, opted for a “creeping” capitalist restoration in Cuba, which has been taking place.

The CWI is opposed to capitalist restoration in Cuba or any intervention by imperialism, which would represent a serious setback or defeat for the working class. But inscribing this on our programme is not enough.

Some on the left argue that the Cuban regime has had no alternative but to implement the policies that it has undertaken due to the US embargo and isolation of the regime. Any revolutionary socialist government can find itself isolated and compelled to take temporary emergency measures to safeguard its position. The Bolsheviks found themselves in this situation in Russia after 1917. They took emergency measures, including the New Economic Policy in 1921, an emergency package that allowed a temporary reintroduction of some capitalist economic methods, primarily in agricultural sectors. At the same time, the state monopoly of foreign trade was maintained.

The Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, saw this as a short-term retreat forced on them by the situation they were confronted with the isolation of the revolution, particularly after the defeat of the German revolution at that stage, and the impact of the civil war that had raged across the young Soviet Union. The NEP was a temporary necessary step to buy time by stabilising the economy and boosting food production and was not viewed as a lasting programme. This is not the approach of the Cuban regime, which regards the pro-capitalist measures they have introduced as the way forward, and fail to pose the issue of spreading the socialist revolution.

International role of Cuba

The wrong methods and programme of the Cuban regime historically have served to isolate the regime. On numerous occasions, it was possible for the socialist revolution to have been carried through in other countries in Latin and Central America. The Cuban revolution, at its height of popularity, did raise the idea of internationalism and international revolution. This was reflected in the ‘Second Declaration of Havana’ published in February 1962, which showed how far the revolutionary process was developing. Later, Cuban forces were deployed to Southern Africa to support the struggle against the South African apartheid regime’s interventions in the region. The sentiment of internationalism which developed at the height of the revolution has also been reflected in the deployment of Cuban doctors during the pandemic to other countries, as was also seen prior to the pandemic.

However, the internationalist sentiment was not linked to the idea of struggling for a socialist revolution by the working class. Che Guevara did look towards spreading the revolution. Unfortunately, he looked towards the idea of a guerilla army rather than the working class to carry through a socialist revolution. Castro and the regime, however, used the interventions as part of a strategy to gain a geopolitical advantage or spheres of influence, particularly for the bureaucracy in the USSR.

This allowed the Cuban regime to develop a strong following, particularly in the neo-colonial world. It took up the mantel of “anti-imperialism”, which won it some support. However, this was not part of a programme of class struggle to defeat imperialism or the reactionary bourgeois/feudal regimes that ruled in the neo-colonial countries. Under the banner of “anti-imperialism”, it has backed the Iranian, North Korean and other regimes. Following the massacre of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, in 2009, Cuba supported a resolution at the UN backing the bloody regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

When other revolutionary movements developed in the continent, the Cuban regime used its influence to encourage the leadership to try and apply the brake and pressured them not to overthrow capitalism and landlordism. Castro visited Allende in Santiago prior to the coup in Chile in 1973.  Before an audience of hundreds of thousands, Castro presented Allende with a machine gun. Yet, at the same time, Castro and his Chilean supporters advised Allende to slow the revolution down and not provoke right-wing reaction.

In 1979, in Nicaragua, when the Sandinistas took power and overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, once again the Cuban regime pressurized the Sandinistas to limit themselves to the “democratic revolution” and not break with capitalism.

More recently, with the revolutionary upheavals in Venezuela under Chavez, Bolivia under Morales, and Ecuador under Correa, had these regimes broken with capitalism and introduced democratic workers’ and peasants’ governments, based on a nationalized planned economy, it would have been possible to break the isolation and come together in a socialist federation of independent republics together with Cuba. This could have been a first step to electrifying the continent and winning support from the working class throughout Latin America and internationally. Tragically, this opportunity was also lost. Again it was the Cuban leaders who advised against going “too far” and of provoking a capitalist reaction.

The regional Bolivarian ALBA was little more than a trading block and was not comparable with a voluntary federation of socialist states. A socialist federation would take the initial steps towards integrating the economies and planning them to utilizes resources and plan production. This was not what ALBA represented.

Such a socialist federation would not have been able to resolve all of the economic and social problems and would still have confronted the colossus of US imperialism and its sanctions. However, it would have been in a much stronger position to do so and could have acted as a beacon to the working class in other countries, like Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

A new revolutionary wave is unfolding in Latin America. Yet with the election of the left President in Peru, Pedro Castillo, the Cuban regime issued statements saying the task was to end neo-liberalism and not a socialist transformation.

Programme for workers’ democracy and socialism

Socialists oppose the US embargo against Cuba and any attempts at imperialist intervention or capitalist restoration. At the same time, it is necessary to fight for the establishment of a real system of democratic workers’ control and management and for democratic rights. The capitalists and imperialism hypocritically talk of the need for “democracy” in Cuba. They mean by this, capitalist restoration, and the introduction of the corrupt “capitalist democracy”, which is controlled by the ruling class.

The CWI and socialists defend the conquering of democratic rights for the Cuban people but not as the capitalist class hypocritically advocate. The struggle for democratic rights for the working class, poor and youth in Cuba is crucial. The CWI supports committees in every workplace and community, elected with delegates subject to immediate recall. All officials also need to be elected and subject to immediate recall and receive not more than the average wage of skilled workers. A full debate to draw up an emergency economic plan to deal with the crisis needs to be elaborated by the working class and the mass of the population. There needs to be an end to the one-party system, with the right of all socialists and the people to organize political parties and groups, if they reject taking up arms to support US imperialism or capitalist restoration. Popular tribunals need to be established to open the cases of those political prisoners currently incarcerated by the regime.  Workers and youth should have the right to produce papers and magazines free from control by the state, along with free access to the internet. We support the right of workers to form independent trade unions, run democratically.

Such a programme, linked with an appeal to the working class of Latin America and the US for support and solidarity, and to join in a united struggle to establish a socialist federation of Latin America and the Americas, is the way forward to prevent capitalist restoration and counter-revolution.

Further reading:

Cuba: Socialism and Democracy

 

“Che guevara – symbol of struggle” by Tony Saunois