This article is long but, even so, it cannot cover all the issues. Its objective is to provide arguments for a response to the current crisis that rejects both the US blockade and the current bureaucratic system in Cuba—an alternative based on socialism from below.1
To understand the significance of the unprecedented protests in Cuba on 11 July 2021, we must look at the nature of the society created after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. This text looks briefly at the history of colonialism and US dominance before 1959, and then at how Cuba was integrated into the Soviet model following the revolution. The economic analysis is supplemented by an overview of the LGBT+ oppression, which, alongside other forms of oppression, has been an ongoing feature of the Cuban state. The island is analysed in the context of the capitalist system as a whole, first in the post-war boom, then through the long crisis, with the application of neoliberal “solutions” in one country and region after another.
Those who think Cuba is socialist or some sort of workers’ state have serious problems explaining the current political crisis and its roots in the much longer economic crisis. Conversely, if we see Cuba as a state capitalist society in a gradual transition to a mixture of state and private capitalism, and as a subordinate part of the world capitalist system, then we have a much better foundation both for the more detailed analysis that will be necessary and for responding to the political challenges that arise.
The article concludes with some of the dilemmas facing the small new independent left in Cuba, and the left internationally.
The 11 July protests
On Sunday 11 July, there were more or less spontaneous demonstrations in dozens of cities across Cuba. Thousands of people participated in the largest protests on the island in decades. There was a mixture of complaints and demands. Some of the slogans were those of the pro-US right, such as “Homeland and Life” (Patria y Vida), and many were simply insults directed at the Cuban president. In any case, as will be discussed below, not all the discontent can be attributed to “counter-revolutionary manoeuvres” and hashtags promoted by the right-wing opposition in Miami; the root cause was real social grievances. It is significant that the protests, at least in Havana, started in the poorest neighbourhoods, where people suffer most under the current multiple crisis.
The state responded along the same lines as other states around the world, with a mixture of repression and lies. The repression was carried out by the police, but also by government followers, armed with clubs, whom President Miguel Díaz-Canel had called out with the words: “The order to fight has been given—into the street, revolutionaries!”2 However, as the independent left -wing group Comunistas Cuba said in response: “Repressing violence…should not be a matter of preparing clubs and giving them to civilians who can act knowing they have the backing of the law, even if they exercise violence beyond all legality”.3
There were hundreds of arrests—according to some reports on social networks, more than 800 people have been arrested so far—and there are first-hand accounts of ill-treatment in police stations and prisons.4 As elsewhere, the state and the security forces allege that such accusations are false. Summary trials have already taken place, sometimes without legal defence. In one of them, a 17 year old young woman was sentenced to eight months in prison.5
The demonstrations were not massive compared to some other recent protests in Latin America. The repression was real but not at the same level as the murders of activists and demonstrators that occur in Colombia (and in Nicaragua, in case anyone forgets). So are they important? Some on the left who have insisted for decades on the global importance of Cuba now downplay these protests. In fact, the debates unleashed by 11 July confirm that the protests are very significant, and not only on the island. Their importance has to do, among other things, with how we understand socialism and the fight against imperialism today.
The truth is that the protests have created huge confusion. Right-wing forces normally denounce popular protests, speaking of vandalism and external agitators; they justify police brutality and demand heavy court sentences afterwards. However, on this occasion the right declared its support for the protests—despite the fact that some protesters were involved in violent incidents—and denounced both the police brutality and the hundreds of arbitrary arrests. On the other hand, the left tends to support protests, pointing out their social causes and denouncing state repression. Yet, in this case, many on the left attributed the protests to “external agitators”, denounced the “vandalism” of the protesters and justified the actions of the riot police, as well as those of the individuals who came out with clubs to attack the protests.
This paradox is explained, of course, by almost the only point on which the right and this part of the left agree: their shared definition of Cuba as socialist.
A understanding of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class, as a society that overcomes exploitation and oppression, leads to a different evaluation of the current system on the island. According to this vision, despite the specificities of each case, the popular struggles in Cuba have a lot in common with those in many other countries of the world.
Stop the blockade!
Before going any further, it is essential to insist that anyone who defends democracy, and even more so any socialist, must reject the blockade that the US has applied to the island since shortly after the revolution, along with its other aggressions. These include military attacks such as the failed invasion attempt at “Bay of Pigs” in 1961.
There are different calculations of the economic cost to Cuba of the blockade, but it is estimated in billions of dollars a year. The blockade leads to serious difficulties in obtaining imports and loans, obstacles in the way of Cuban exports, and many other problems. It represents a blatant attempt by the world’s leading power to impose its will on a smaller country. We must oppose this imperialist policy just as we oppose the more open wars waged by imperialist powers in the Middle East.
Under the Obama presidency, some aspects of the blockade were relaxed, in the US’s own economic interests.6 However, when Trump took office, he immediately intensified the blockade for ideological reasons. In this matter, as in so many others, Biden does not represent a real change. Rather, he has demonstrated his hypocrisy by expressing his concern for the Cuban people while he continues with the blockade, maintaining the sanctions imposed by Trump and even adding new measures.
That said, we cannot explain the protests, much less the entire crisis in Cuba, simply as a product of the US blockade.
Debates on the left
It is a cliché that the left has a great capacity to fragment on the basis of theoretical disputes (and that is in the best of cases—often they are merely tactical or even personal differences). Nevertheless, the reactions within the international left to the protests in Cuba confirm that some of the historical debates between groups that define themselves as Marxists do have significance in the real world. Depending on their attitudes to certain issues, different sectors of the left have taken positions ranging from unquestioning support for the Cuban government, through different degrees of support with criticism, to positions of backing at least elements of the protests.
There are two key, related debates. One is about whether socialism (or something like it) is possible in a single country, or whether—as I will maintain here and is generally argued in International Socialism—socialism can only be achieved internationally. The other key debate is between the different versions of “socialism from above”, on the one hand, and “socialism from below”, based on the self-emancipation of the working class, on the other.
As we will see, different positions on these issues are expressed in different attitudes towards the protests in Cuba and, more generally, before many of the challenges we face in the world today. However, to understand what we are talking about, we need to look briefly at some key points in the history of the island.
Cuba: from colony to state capitalism
Cuba was a Spanish colony for centuries. It achieved formal independence in 1902, but, in reality, it came under the influence of the US at that time. The “Platt Amendment” was an appendix to the Cuban Constitution approved by the US Congress in 1901 by which this new imperial power assumed for itself a series of prerogatives over the island. It remained in force until 1934. In 1903, the US imposed a “treaty” on Cuba by which Guantanamo Bay was ceded in perpetuity as a US military base.
For decades, Cuba was effectively a semi-colony of the US, with its economy dominated by US companies. There were some economic advances. According to the Cuban intellectual Julio César Guanche: “In 1958, the gross domestic product per inhabitant of Cuba ranked third in Latin America, surpassed only by Venezuela and Uruguay”.7 However, real social development was blocked by US imperialism and its local allies such as Fulgencio Batista, who controlled the island during different periods from the 1930s onwards. Batista usually wrestled control through coups, although in 1940 he was elected president with the backing of the Communist Party of the time.
In 1955, the 26 July Movement was formed. Led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, it carried out a guerrilla struggle against the Batista dictatorship, whose support was by then declining. There were also important struggles in the cities including some general strikes. However, after the collapse of Batista’s regime at the end of 1958, power did not rest with the working class but the guerrilla leadership of the 26 July Movement.
The guerrilla leaders did not have a socialist project of any kind in mind. Fidel Castro had explained his vision at length in 1953 in his speech to court, later published under the title “La Historia me absolverá” (“History will absolve me”). Here, Castro championed the Cuban Constitution of 1940, which was based on a liberal model, and declared that:
A revolutionary government backed by the people and with the respect of the nation, after cleansing the different institutions of all venal and corrupt officials, would proceed immediately to the country’s industrialisation, mobilising all inactive capital…and submitting this mammoth task to experts and men of absolute competence totally removed from all political machines for study, direction, planning and realisation.8
He offered a programme of social reforms and national development but one based on control from above and without breaking from capitalism. Castro spoke a great deal about the “homeland” and patriotism, and not at all about promoting any type of socialism or communism. He quoted the historic Cuban national independence leader, José Martí, not Marx or Lenin.
It was the US’s hostile reaction to their attempts to carry out a national development program after the revolution that pushed the new Cuban government in the direction of the Soviet Union. The US began to apply sanctions and carried out military attacks, including the attempted invasion at Playa Girón (the “Bay of Pigs”). Meanwhile, the Cuban government was working on establishing diplomatic and commercial relations with the Soviet bloc.
Nevertheless, this did not imply anything like workers’ power. Fidel Castro dedicated a speech on 13 June 1959 to denouncing strikes: “With strikes and work stoppages we reduce production, but really we do not have to waste that effort since a whole plan of regulation and improvement can be carried out by the Revolutionary Government.”9
Cuba’s increasing closeness to the so-called “workers’ states” of Eastern Europe did not clash with this vision; in those countries there was not the right to strike or workers’ power either. The October 1917 socialist revolution in Russia had already been completely defeated by the late 1920s. The counter-revolution led by Stalin was terrible, overwhelming and bloody, with the removal of what little workers’ power still remained; state expropriation of peasants’ lands; the elimination of women’s rights; a reinforced oppression of national and religious minorities (including the elimination of the rights that the Muslim population had won in 1917); and the physical liquidation of the historic Bolshevik leadership.
Castro declared only on 16 April 1961, during a homage to the victims of a US bombing, in a speech adorned with compliments for the Soviet Union, that the revolution two years earlier had actually been socialist.10
Despite these declarations from above, Cuba was not moving towards socialism or communism, but rather state capitalism, as Tony Cliff explained in his 1963 text, Deflected Permanent Revolution.11
During the 1960s, there continued to be social and economic experiments in Cuba, along with Che’s failed attempts to “export the revolution” through the guerrilla model. However, despite the real social advances that were made at this time, these experiments failed. The last straw was the unsuccessful attempt to obtain a sugar harvest (the “zafra”) of ten million tons in 1970. These setbacks drove the Cuban government to fully enter the Soviet bloc, becoming part of the “Council for Mutual Economic Assistance”, better known as the Comecon, in 1972. This brought some advantages. Calculations based on official statistics indicate that, at the beginning of the 1980s, the island was receiving a subsidy of between US$1.3 and 4 billion a year from the Soviet Union, more than 10 percent Cuba’s national income.12
Before the revolution, Cuba suffered from an excessive dependence on sugar production, and from an economy dominated by relations with the US: in 1958 around 70 percent of international trade was with that country. At its peak in 1985, other Comecon countries accounted for 83 percent of all Cuba’s international trade, an even higher degree of dependence. Cuba remained tied to sugar production. The industrialisation project that Castro had proposed in his “History will absolve me” speech was a long way away.
As had happened with Spanish colonialism, and then with US imperialism, the relationship with the Soviet Union brought about some material advances in Cuba but at an ever-increasing cost.
Global and local crisis
One of the typical errors when speaking of the Stalinist states is to try to analyse them in isolation from the rest of the world system. This is like looking inside a company such as General Motors, Microsoft or Amazon, discovering that there are forms of planning and no free market, and concluding that they are non-capitalist entities. The nature and operation of a company or a state cannot be understood outside of the global context of which it is a part.
The Soviet Union was the extreme case of the international trend towards state capitalism that grew following the 1929 Crash. In the US the New Deal, with a high degree of state intervention, was applied in the 1930s. In Nazi Germany, Benito Mussolini’s Italy and later Francisco Franco’s Spain, the state played a key role in the economy. The Second World War promoted the convergence—in different ways—between the state and capital in all the combatant states. This continued in the post-war period with nationalised industries, elements of state planning and some degree of welfare state in a range of very different countries. By this time, the world was living through the long boom, which in turn was made possible by the “permanent arms economy”. The imperialist competition between the US and the Soviet Union meant large amounts of value were diverted towards the production of weapons, slowing down the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.13
The crisis returns
However, in the end this mechanism reached its limits, and in the 1970s the world economy returned to crisis. In country after country, the ruling class ended up opting for the policies that we now call neoliberalism and globalisation: cuts in social spending, the privatisation of state-owned companies and the internationalisation of production.
Thus Margaret Thatcher “restored capitalism” in Britain from 1979, Ronald Reagan did so in the US after winning the presidency in 1980 and the “socialist” government of Felipe González did the same in the Spanish State from 1982 onwards, privatising industries that had been nationalised under the Franco regime. Of course, nobody called it a “restoration” of capitalism; it was recognised as a change in the form of this system. There was resistance, including heroic strikes such as that of the British miners in 1984-5, but, in general, the ruling class won.
Here an important factor was the response of the main parties of the left. One part of the left tried to cling to the old state model but could not explain why it had failed and really did not have much to offer. Another, larger part fully embraced neoliberal policies, accepting Thatcher’s affirmation that “There is no alternative”. In some countries there was a revolutionary left that insisted that what had failed was not any sort of socialism and that the revolutionary alternative to capitalism, based on socialism from below, was more relevant than ever, but this left was always very small, and when it managed to raise its voice, it was attacked by the other two sectors.
The economic crisis hit the “socialist” bloc in the 1980s. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika policies were an attempt to respond to this crisis. In Cuba, the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba was informed in 1986 of a series of economic failures, highlighting that between 1981-5 growth “was insufficient where we most required it, that is, in the export of goods and services and in import substitution”.14 Then, according to a Cuban economist:
In the five years 1986-90, the efficiency of the investment process diminished generally. Calculating the productive response to investment between the periods 1981-5 and 1986-90, there is a notable reverse from 53 Centavos of growth in production per Peso of investment in the first case, to two Centavos in the more recent period.15
In other words, before the final collapse of the Soviet bloc, before the “special period” of the 1990s, Cuba had already entered a crisis. As in each country, there were specific factors that must be taken into account, but the basic cause of Cuba’s economic problems was the world crisis, with the fall in the rate of profit, the congenital disease of capitalism.
Let us now turn to another aspect: the presence of the different forms of oppression on the island.
Tribunals for the oppressed
All the evidence—from personal accounts to the official figures available—confirms that the various forms of oppression never disappeared from Cuba after the revolution.
No one can deny the continued existence on the island of machismo and women’s oppression, racism and LGBT+ oppression. There has been some progress on these issues during recent decades—as in many other countries in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the measures adopted—for example, concerning institutional representation—have often been mainly symbolic, and have not affected the fundamental problem. This is as true in Cuba as elsewhere.
It is not possible here to analyse the whole question nor all forms of oppression, so I will only comment on the problem of LGBT+ oppression.
Following the revolution, homosexuality was associated with the decadence of the Batista years and Cuba’s role as a playground for American tourists. In 1961, the first massive raid on homosexuals took place, depicting them as a symbol of “bourgeois deviation” and counter-revolution.16
On 13 March 1963, Fidel Castro made a scandalous speech in which he referred to young men with “‘Elvis-Preslian’ attitudes…who have taken their debauchery to the extreme of wanting to go to public places to openly organise their feminoid events.” He added: “Our society cannot accommodate these degenerations [APPLAUSE]. Socialist society cannot allow such degeneration.” His analysis concluded with the comment that “this type of subproduct did not arise in rural areas”.17
This comment was converted into state policy in 1965, with the creation of the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP). These were agricultural forced labour camps, where the state locked up—often under harsh conditions—various categories of people who were thought to be opposed to the revolution including homosexuals. The UMAPs were closed in 1968, but repression continued in other forms.18 For example, the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the neighbourhood entities in charge of maintaining support for the government, included the surveillance of LGBT+ people in their mandate.
In 1980, with thousands of people demanding to leave Cuba, the government opened the port of Mariel, near Havana, allowing ships from Florida to come to pick up what came in the end to more than 100,000 people. The Cuban government declared that they had taken advantage of the exodus to clean out “scum”, “antisocial elements”, “criminals” and “lumpen” categories, in which they included LGBT+ people.
On 14 June 1980, Castro declared:
If we have a nationless person, someone weak who is occupying a job and wants to go to the Yankee “paradise”, well, let them go… One of those nationless individuals who, if they invade this country, will be the fifth column? Well, they won’t fight, they can’t even throw a stone… It’s better to have a man in that position”.19
It was already very clear who he meant by the word “weak”. Cuban authorities included the following in the official transcript of the 1963 speech mentioned above: “SHOUTS FROM THE PUBLIC: ‘The weak legs, Fidel!’, ‘The homosexuals!’.”
On the other hand, the appeal to “manhood” was frequent in these speeches, underlining the relationship between LGBT-phobia and machismo in general. The report by Verde, 2019, recounting the experience of two gay Cubans in the Mariel episode, is very eloquent. The Spanish version was titled: “The Cuban exodus was also a ‘homophobic purge’.”
“Sidatorios”: AIDS sanatorium
In the 1980s, with the arrival of HIV, the virus involved in AIDS, Cuba began to confine HIV-positive people in closed centres, the “Sidatorios” or AIDS sanatoriums. It was not an explicitly homophobic policy: many of the people initially affected were veterans of the wars in Africa.20 In principle, HIV has nothing to do with homosexuality, but, even so, almost 60 percent of all men identified as HIV-positive were gay. “Gay internees…were subject to discriminatory policies within the Havana sanatorium. They initially lived in segregated quarters and were subject to greater restrictions than other residents”.21
Given the “gay” label attributed to AIDS in much of the world, and the history of repression against LGBT+ people in Cuba, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that the government’s harsh response to people with HIV was related to this repression. (Let us recall that Jean Marie Le Pen of the fascist Front National was then advocating a similar policy in France.22) As with the UMAP, after a few years, the Cuban government changed this policy.
As has been commented, over the years, there has been progress. Even so, on 11 May 2019, an unofficial LGBT+ demonstration was broken up by the police.23 Here the official attitude towards LGBT+ people and organisations combines with a general hostility towards any independent movement. The spirit of this demonstration is expressed today through Plataforma 11M, an independent left-wing LGBT+ movement, which has recently carried out an impressive campaign, distributing stickers across the island demanding respect for LGBT+ people.24
On 10 May 2021, trans activist Mel Herrera denounced the transphobic harassment that she had suffered at the hands of the Havana police.25
To make things clear, it is not being suggested that Cuba is the worst country in the world in this or in any other respect. The argument is rather that something totally different—something much better—would be expected in a socialist country.
One response to this situation by some activists against oppression is to accept the definition of Cuba (and often Stalinist Russia, China and North Korea) as socialist, and then conclude that socialism does not end oppression. Therefore, they summise, another separate struggle is needed against “patriarchy” or other oppressive structures supposedly independent of capitalism. For their part, many uncritical defenders of “Cuban socialism” argue that “only 60 years have passed since the revolution—things do n0t change so quickly.” With this view, they ignore or cover up the massive advances that did occur on such issues in the first months, even weeks, after the Bolshevik revolution. It was the Stalinist counter-revolution of the late 1920s that reversed these advances and produced an amnesia that affected the left for half a century.
We must recover and strengthen the Marxist tradition of seeing revolution as the festival of the oppressed—of revolution as the self-emancipation of the working class and the overcoming of oppressions. The continued existence of sexism, racism and LGBT+ oppression in Cuba does not disprove that socialism can end these ills. It simply shows that Cuba has not broken with capitalism in this or other aspects.
Now we will return to economic questions. There is no room here for an explanation of everything that happened during the tough decades after the fall of the Soviet Union when much of the Cuban population suffered terribly and could not fulfil their most basic needs. We will only touch on some specific points and then discuss the current situation.
Foreign investment, austerity, “Reorganisation”
Over recent decades, foreign private capital has been increasingly present in Cuba. An early step towards foreign investment was Decree-Law Number 50, “On economic association between Cuban and foreign entities”, of 15 February 1982, but this was limited.
The Foreign Investment Law of 5 September 1995 sought to “expand and facilitate the process of participation of foreign investment in the national economy” with “new legislation that provides greater security and guarantee to foreign investors”. These guarantees included, for example, their right to take their profits “abroad, in freely convertible currency, without paying tax”. Regarding the areas open to business: “Foreign investments may be authorised in all sectors, with the exception of health and education services for the population and the armed forces, except in their commercial sector”.26
A new law of 29 March 2014 expanded the legislation “to provide greater incentives for investments and ensure that the attraction of foreign capital contributes effectively to the objectives of sustainable economic development and to the recovery of the national economy”.27
For those who had insisted that a state-owned and supposedly planned economy implied the existence of a “workers state”, this opening up to the world market and private capital should have implied a fundamental change or even the abandonment of socialism. However, did this supposed break occur only in 2014, when the economy just opened up a little more under Raúl Castro? Or did it occur in 1995, while Fidel Castro was still in command, when most of the measures of the current law were first introduced? Or with the first decree-law in 1982, at the height of Cuba’s integration within Comecon? It is not clear.
In reality, what is striking is that the entry of foreign capital in itself has had little effect on the majority of the Cuban population. Of course, for some people it will be an important change, for better or for worse. However, for the working class as a whole, the disappearance of the state monopoly is not a massive defeat, as would be implied by theories of the orthodox left. Nor is it a magical solution to their problems, as the defenders of the market would affirm. The real issue is something else: the deepening crisis.
Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva, a Cuban economist and researcher, writing a few weeks after the protests, explained that:
The production of pork went from 144,100 tons in 2016 to 93,400 in 2020, that of rice from 181,100 tons in 2016 to 111,300 in 2020, and that of bread also fell 10 percent in 2020 compared to 2016… Housing is one of the main social problems of Cuba, a country of 11.2 million inhabitants that has more than 3.8 million housing units, of which 39 percent are in a deteriorated or frankly bad condition. The housing deficit amounts to 929,695 units. In the country there are 854 buildings in a critical condition. Of these, about 696 are in Havana, with about 849,753 people affected.28
Here it is necessary to quote extensively the Cuban intellectual Ailynn Torres Santana, who wrote on 17 July 2021:
Seen from within, from below and looking into the eyes of those who demonstrated, the violence in the days of protests cannot be understood separately from that which strips them, every day, of their material conditions of existence…what matters, on the scale of life, is that those lives cannot be sustained… The systematic inefficiency of the Cuban government in the design and implementation of economic policies has been proven. The unprecedented slowdown of the reform in agriculture matters, while millions of pesos in resources are devoted to expanding the hotel infrastructure without economic sense… The proven reduction in social assistance in the last decade matters. The 30 year decline in the value of the real wage matters and is becoming more acute after the start of the “Task of Reorganisation”. The absence of labour rights in the private sector… matters… The lack of interest in workers’ democracy and the sense of the unions matters. The impossibility of creating associations with legal recognition and the slowness in passing a new association law that allows the formalisation of the dense fabric that Cuban civil society really has matters. The fact that…party congresses do not have as their central theme the discussion on poverty and inequality in Cuba matters.29
Thus, the protests came after a series of attacks on the living conditions of the Cuban working class.
On 11 July there were attacks on shops, especially the foreign currency shops that are now the only way of obtaining certain goods—for those who have access to foreign currency, which the poorest people and, disproportionately, black people, do not. These attacks and the subsequent looting, or requisitioning, occurred in many parts of Cuba, but more than half of all the attacks took place in just one of Cuba’s 15 provinces, Matanzas. As the intellectual Rafael Hernández commented, the only possible explanation of this is the fact that Matanzas is currently a disaster area for Covid-19.30 So again, what really drove the protests was need and desperation, not slogans or hashtags from Miami.
A September 2020 publication by the Ministry of Economy and Planning, Cuba and its Economic and Social Challenge, stated objectives such as to:
Extend payment for high performance to the business system… Continue to improve payment systems, promoting the piecework method, based on the organisation and regulation of work… Reduce the relative participation of the state in the financing of social security.31
Let us note in passing that Marx devoted an entire chapter of volume 1 of Capital to denouncing the abuses associated with piece rates, the most widespread form of payment in British factories in the 19th century. Tony Cliff wrote in the 1950s of how Stalinist Russia used piece rates to try to atomise the working class and increase exploitation.32
The “Task of Reorganisation” (Tarea Ordenamiento) mentioned above by Torres is a harsh economic readjustment package applied by the Cuban government on 1 January 2021. An editorial by Comunistas Cuba summarised it as:
An economic plan that had never been seen in the period from 1959 to the present. This government program…is based on four fundamental factors:
1. Drastic subsidy cuts;
2. Price rises;
3. Currency devaluation;
4. Strengthening and expansion of the private sector of the economy through direct support from the state.33
They gave examples of what this meant in real terms. For example, “In the soup kitchens for underprivileged families where each lunch before cost 2 pesos (about US$0.10), the price now rises to 26 pesos a day (approximately US$1.10).” Another step was a massive rise in the price of public transport, in most cases by five times.34 Due to the uproar they caused, some specific measures were modified, but in general the readjustments were maintained.
The Central Report to the 8th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, held in April 2021, gave clear indications of the vision of the leadership of the party:
We must erase the harmful notion, which emerged under the cover of paternalism and egalitarianism, that Cuba is the only country where you can live without working. The standard of living and consumption of Cubans must be determined by the legal income they receive and not by excessive subsidies and misplaced free provision.35
In other words, they reproduce basically the same clichés about “the poor who do not want to work and live on welfare” repeated by bosses all around the world. As Comunistas Cuba commented:
Can these measures, which attack the welfare of the working class, be considered socialist? No: this economic package does not correspond to socialism… The subsidies and gratuities that must disappear are not those of the large majority but the privileges of the bureaucracy and the military high command.36
Let’s close this section with the words of Adriana, a trans woman, during the 11 July demonstrations. After explaining that she was protesting against the transphobia that she suffered at the hands of the police, she added:
I came in comradeship with all the other people here. Because of the hunger and need. There is no medicine, there is no food. There’s no water. There is nothing. The houses in Havana are falling apart and they’re building hotels.37
It was commented above that the different analyses of Cuba, and before that of the Soviet Union, greatly influence how different sectors of the left respond to the current situation.
One sector gives uncritical support to the government, whatever it does. When it expropriated foreign companies and established a state-owned economy, the government was right—and it is also right when it opens the doors to private foreign capital, offering free trade zones, tax exemptions, and a cut price skilled work force. When they provided food at controlled prices; when they applied the “Task of Reorganisation” with the massive price hikes; and when they withdrew some measures in the face of protests…they were always right. The Cuban government is right when it represses LGBT+ people and also when it takes timid steps towards equality. Not only are they right—they are a model of socialism.
From this perspective, the 11 July protests are explained as a manoeuvre by the US and the right wing in Miami. All the voices of the working people who participated in the protests, those who live in the poorest neighbourhoods, are ignored. With this type of “left”, there is little to discuss.
Deformed workers state?
Other sectors of the left do have criticisms of the Cuban government, but still insist that Cuba is socialist or some kind of “workers’ state”. One formulation is to define Cuba as a “deformed workers’ state”. Under this label, any positive elements are a sign it is a “workers’ state” while the negative elements are because it is “deformed”. It is a flexible term but does little to explain the real dynamics on the island.
Given this theory’s flexibility—or rather arbitrariness—some of its supporters back the Cuban government completely (because it is a workers’ state), while others call for it to be overthrown (because it is deformed). In general, however, defenders of this perspective ask for reflection or suggest reforms, and they may even propose that steps be taken towards workers’ power. However, everything is usually presented as suggestions of actions to be taken by the current ruling class—while simultaneously denying that this is a ruling class.
Here we return to the fundamental issues mentioned above. Does it make sense to suggest that the basic nature of Cuban society is totally different from that of the rest of the world that has surrounded it over the six decades since the revolution, and with which—for better or for worse—the island is strongly interrelated? Does it make sense to describe as socialism—or a “workers state”, “deformed” or not—a society in which the working class does not have power, where it does not even have the right to organise independently?
If it is suggested that there is no ruling class in Cuba, we must ask: who decided on the “Task of Reorganisation” last January? Who agreed to devote the equivalent of more than a billion dollars to the construction (never completed) of a nuclear power plant in the 1980s? Who made the decision to prioritise—in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and travel bans—the construction of luxury hotels for foreign tourists instead of, for example, investing in food production (a widespread complaint at the 11 July protests)?
If Cuba is not capitalist, how do we explain the fact that it suffers from an economic crisis? In fact, how do we analyse the economy in general? What is its dynamic?
If Cuba is not capitalist, why is there racism, women’s oppression, LGBT+ oppression? The idea, supposedly from an orthodox left position, that Cuba is not capitalist, ends up feeding the visions hostile to Marxism that are fashionable within many movements against oppression. Such visions centre on personal identity and downplay class struggle, at most including “classism” in a list of “intersectional oppressions”.
It is widely recognised that China has for several decades been one of the main reference points of the Cuban leadership. Under “socialism with Chinese characteristics” the richest man in China, with a fortune of $35.8 billion, is a member of the Communist Party; one hundred MPs in the Chinese parliament, dominated by the Communist Party, are dollar billionaires.38 And yet there are still those who maintain that China is socialist, or at least “anti-imperialist” and not capitalist. Once you open the door to such ideas, it seems that there are no frontiers. The attempt to justify the Cuban government in all it says and does leads to the same kind of confusions.
More importantly, those sectors of the left who insist on the non-capitalist nature of Cuba have nothing to offer working people who are justifiably sick of the current system. When the right makes its false promises of improvements through the market and alliances with the US, that left will remain trapped in its Stalinist straitjacket, trying to protect the old system against the “restoration” of a capitalism that never disappeared.
It will make the same mistake made by various groups of the small independent left in Eastern Europe in 1989, focussing on the defence of “progressive aspects” of the Stalinist system. Other sectors of that small left made the “opposite” mistake of thinking that the market would solve their countries’ problems. The mistake made by both sides was to focus on the differences between market capitalism and state capitalism, choosing one or the other rather than fighting for something totally different.
In any case the recent measures by the Cuban government have not only devalued the Cuban peso; they have also devalued, once more, the concept of socialism.
Marxist analysis of Cuba
In contrast with all that, if we apply a Marxist analysis to Cuba, the mysteries stop being mysteries. Marxism has the tools to analyse economic crisis, growing inequality, austerity measures, the role of oppressions in allowing the super-exploitation of oppressed groups and as an ideological instrument to deceive the sectors not directly affected by that oppression, and the rest of the factors we have considered.
In other words, if you recognise that, despite the advances made with the revolution, Cuba never stopped being capitalist, it is much easier to understand what is happening.
There is a ruling class, which controls the means of production within a global system that limits its options, as occurs to some degree or another in any country or any company in the world. Oppressions exist for the same reason that they exist elsewhere. Crises arise due to the same causes as in other parts of the planet, and the ruling class responds by trying to increase the rate of exploitation of the working class, trying to obtain more work in exchange for less pay (counting both the direct salary and the indirect salary in the form of subsidies and services).
Of course, none of this takes away the fact that Cuba suffers greatly under imperialism, and that we must oppose and denounce this imperialism, as with any country that suffers it, regardless of the criticisms that we may have of the ruling class of that country.
In fact, the idea that socialism is possible in one country could imply that Cuba’s imperfections are actually just the fault of its leadership.39 However, if we recognise that it is impossible to establish socialism in one single country, then, though this does not mean excusing everything that the leaders have done, it does mean we understand that the solution is not for the leadership to adopt other policies that could resolve the problems, or to look for new, “more effective” leaders. The problem is not just about what happens on the island; genuine socialism will only be possible in Cuba through revolutionary change internationally.
From this point of view, the central point of the criticism of the Cuban model is not to complain that they have not achieved socialist perfection on one island. We know that this was always impossible. The criticism of the Cuban leadership, but even more so of the international left, is that the focus on defending and trying to copy the Cuban model has led huge sectors of the left—and many important struggles—into a dead end.
The vision of international socialism, of socialism from below, takes us in a totally different direction. Contrary to what the right—and part of the left—insist, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the current crisis in Cuba in no way represent a failure of socialism or communism. They are expressions of the same multifaceted global crisis that exists in the rest of the world.
According to this vision, socialism is not something that has been tried and failed in Cuba, but rather a possible way out—in fact, probably the only positive way out—of the current crisis on the island.
What is to be done?
In the face of the dual options of uncritical support for the current system, and support for US imperialism, the challenge in Cuba is to develop an alternative and internationalist vision based on socialism from below.
Nobody can dictate tactics from outside; in fact, even on the island itself there are no readymade solutions that simply need to be applied.
Here we can only restate the obvious and basic point, that it will be necessary to stand up to the abuses and attacks that working and poor people are suffering at the hands of the Cuban state and ruling class, without playing into the hypocrisy of the right and Western leaders, and this will not be easy.
In fact, elements of the same problem exist in many places. In Catalonia, we have had to fight the repression by the Spanish state against Catalan independence leaders, while at the same we have had to denounce the neoliberal policies and the police repression that these same leaders have applied against Catalan workers. The Spanish coalition government of Socialist Party and Podemos, as well as maintaining the repression against Catalonia is responsible for many other reactionary policies, but when the extreme right attacks its few progressive measures, the radical left must defend them. In a much more extreme case, the Palestinian people face Israeli occupation and attacks, but also to a corrupt and repressive Palestinian Authority. In such situations a one-dimensional position—based only on geopolitical concerns or else exclusively on local factors—is no use; we need a dialectical understanding.
One thing that can be learned from the experience of the revolutionary left in different countries and times is that the centre of our politics must be the interests of working people. In the long term, the only way to defend those interests is through working class self-organisation, alongside a constant fight against all those forms of oppression and discrimination that seek to divide the working class. If instead of that we centre the defence of a particular property form (state or private), or an abstract vision of “civil rights” and bourgeois democracy with no social content, we end up benefitting forces hostile to the working class.
A Marxist left in Cuba will have to carry out a Marxist analysis of their own country. Here, as I argued in a text that Comunistas Cuba was kind enough to publish, I think it will be essential to recognise that the bourgeoisie in Cuba is not limited to the bosses of small local companies or multinationals.40 Nonetheless, that analysis must be carried out there.
Apart from the analysis, at some point it will be necessary to consider the possibilities of putting these ideas into practice, and that will not be easy. That said, and contrary to what some people think, revolutionary activity almost never consists in organising an armed insurrection (I, at least, have been involved in revolutionary politics for about four decades and so far I have not planned or participated in one single insurrection). Day to day revolutionary politics is about talking, debating, trying to develop coherent analyses and pulling people together around these ideas, while also linking up with other working people in their daily problems and, when the occasion arises, in their struggles.
These struggles can include spontaneous and (necessarily) confused demonstrations. The “Yellow Vest” protests in France were very contradictory at the beginning, and the fascist National Front party tried to participate in and take advantage of them.41 Some sectors of the left called the protesters “lumpen”, cannon fodder for the extreme right, and other such things. Fortunately, other sectors of the radical left did actively participate in the movement and managed to marginalise, and generally exclude, the fascists. They did not do that by attempting to impose a written program on the movement as an ultimatum. They did it through direct participation, becoming part of the movement, and from there—from below—participating in the debates within the movement.
In the words of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto:
The communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties… They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement. The communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only… They point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.42
As has been said, how exactly this applies in today’s Cuba remains to be seen.
I only insist, once again, on the centrality of the self-organisation of working people; at one stage that of a small revolutionary minority, at another, maybe that of broader sectors. And this class-based self-organisation is the best defence against the different external and internal threats.
What do we do?
However, it is not up to the international left to set homework for the Cuban left but rather to do its own bit.
Indeed, the fact is that our task is not that different from that of the left in Cuba. As mentioned above when discussing the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, the left has an ongoing problem of either repeating old and tired clichés, or else being taken in by some new and superficial fashion. The challenge here, too, is to build a revolutionary socialist project that can defend—in today’s world—the principles of internationalism and solidarity, and in a way that connects with ordinary working people.
Regarding Cuba, let us repeat, as an internationalist left we must demand an end to the blockade and the other US aggressions. We must do this despite our criticisms of the Cuban government; criticisms that we must explain clearly when necessary. The existence of the blockade is not an excuse for turning our backs on Cuban workers and the poor, or oppressed people in Cuba, when they fight for their rights. Solidarity with the Cuban people should mean siding with Cuba in the face of the blockade but also siding with Cuban workers in the face of the riot police and the bosses who send them.
Work for the revolution
However, our main contribution to solidarity with working people in Cuba does not consist in what we say or do about the island. The best solidarity is always to build (or help prepare for) the revolution wherever we are. In more concrete and immediate terms, this means carrying out that activity of presenting alternatives and pulling people around them (this applies especially to small revolutionary groups) and where possible promoting self-organisation and real struggles.
The best way we can help is by showing in practice that socialism is not what has failed in Cuba (as always, of course, recognising the social progress achieved after 1959). We must show that socialism can represent and promote real democratic power from below.
Only by making clear the chasm that separates us from the prevailing system in Cuba do we have the possibility of offering a truly socialist alternative, whether inside or outside the island.
One last word
The way the world is going—with economic crisis, climate chaos, the pandemic and ongoing conflicts between imperialist powers that could lead to total war—we need an alternative more than ever. It is clearer than ever that for that alternative to mean anything, it must be international. No solution is possible just on one island; no solution is possible just for rich countries, however high the walls and fences they build on their frontiers. Global change is needed.
In this context, if initiatives arose within Cuba looking for a true alternative, a socialist vision based on the power of ordinary people, a socialism that seamlessly combined grassroots democracy, freedom, and social justice, then the effect on the entire region, even the entire world, could be electrifying.
We must show that there is an alternative to imperialism—whether the US version, the Chinese version, or the others—and also to the bureaucratic model which in the end reproduces the same abuses as market capitalism.
This is the challenge we have before us, in Cuba and the whole of Latin America, in Europe, in the United States, in all the continents of the world. Neither blockade nor bureaucracy. Socialism and freedom.
David Karvala is a leading member of Marx21, the Socialist Workers Party’s sister organisation in the Spanish state. He started writing on Cuba after participating in a solidarity brigade to the island in 1996.
2 cubadebate.cu, 2021.
3 Comunistas Cuba, 2021b.
4 La Joven Cuba, 2021.
5 BBC Mundo, 2021
6 Karvala, 2014.
7 Guanche, 2021
8 Castro, 1953.
9 Castro, 1959.
10 Castro, 1961.
11 Cliff, 1963.
12 Author’s calculations based on Comité Estatal de Estadísticas, 1986.
13 See Cliff, 1999. See also the recent reassessment of this theory in Choonara 2021.
14 Partido Comunista de Cuba, 1986, p31.
15 Carranza Valdés, 1992, p138.
16 Lumsden, 1996, p58.
17 Castro, 1963.
18 Lumsden, 1996, pp65-70.
19 Castro, 1980.
20 Waller et al, 1993.
21 Lumsden, 1996, p164.
22 Ina.fr, 1987.
23 González Vivero, 2019.
25 Herrera, 2021.
26 Republic of Cuba, 1995.
27 Republic of Cuba, 2014.
28 Everleny Pérez Villanueva, 2021.
29 Torres Santana, 2021.
31 Ministerio de Economía y Planificación, 2020.
32 Cliff, 1955, chapter 1, “The atomisation of the working class”.
33 Comunistas Cuba Editorial Board, 2021a.
34 Ministerio de Economía y Planificación, 2021.
36 Comunistas Cuba Editorial Board, 2021a.
37 Tremenda Nota, 2021.
38 Reuters, 2018; CNBC, 2017.
39 One of the contradictions of the orthodox view of Cuba is that it maintains that socialism is possible in one country, but then says that the evident problems and limitations of “Cuban socialism” are the fault of imperialism. This presents the existence and hostility of imperialism as though it were an unexpected surprise factor rather than one of the key reasons for insisting on the need to build socialism on an international basis.
40 Karvala, 2020.
41 Faure, 2018.
42 Marx and Engels, 1848.