Cuba Libre?

Issue: 136

Dave Sewell

Sam Farber, Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (Haymarket, 2011), $24

Discussions around Cuba have an unfortunate tendency to generate more heat than light, particularly on the left. Sam Farber’s new book, in the same spirit as Jeffery Webber’s recent works on Bolivia, provides much-needed clarity.

Farber starts from the simple premise that it is both possible and necessary to oppose US imperialism and the imposition of neoliberalism in the island without buying into the Castro brothers’ mythology. And he backs this up with a wealth of detailed information about the state of the island over the past five decades.

Many persistent myths are put to rest in these pages. Cuba’s “anti-imperialist” foreign policy is dissected and found wanting, not least for its alliance with General Franco’s Spain. Workers and peasants
remain disenfranchised-and inequality and underdevelopment remain rife.

Even Cuba’s celebrated health and education systems aren’t all they are cracked up to be. The university system has been thrown into chaos by Castro’s policies. And while Cuban doctors provide the backbone of the island’s diplomacy, they haven’t been able to stop patients freezing to death in substandard hospital buildings.

Perhaps the gravest failings of the Cuban revolution are its inability to challenge oppression. The pre-revolutionary consensus of denying the very existence of racism on the island has been upheld, and anti-racist organisation suppressed as much as possible.

The role of women has been transformed, with far more women being integrated into the workforce than was previously the case. This has, of course, been the case in many other countries with no pretensions of Communism-and it has coexisted perfectly well with old-style sexism, placing a double burden on Cuban women. Farber can even point to government officials who refuse to recognise the concept of marital rape, and state schools where girls are expected to wash the boys’ clothes or risk being denounced as lesbians. And the Castro regime’s persecution of gay men has been particularly extreme, from raids and show trials in the 1960s to what were effectively mass expulsions in 1980.

Farber puts this in the context of a society that was never transformed from the bottom up-that was only ever converted to “Communism” by decree from on high, with all its reactionary prejudices left intact. It has been left to Castro to pander to these prejudices at best, and at worst to mobilise them in search of
a scapegoat.

Such a society is, of course, not without its discontents, especially as the seemingly terminal decline of Castro’s economic model sets in. One chapter takes us on a tour of the various dissident movements. Farber doesn’t sow any illusions-from tame internal critics of the Communist Party to fellow travellers of the Catholic church or the vicious Miami right wing, the opposition is considered warts and all-but he shows that there is, at the least, a debate under way about what a post-Castro Cuba could look like.

Raul Castro clearly has a vision of his own. The policies declared at the sixth congress of the Cuban Communist Party last year point ineluctably towards the Chinese model of state capitalism. The imminence of such far-reaching reforms, and the eagerness of US imperialism to shape such a transition lend urgency to the discussion of the reality of Cuba’s situation.

In his predictions for this “transition to capitalism”, it’s frustrating that Farber refuses to recognise Cuba as already being state capitalist, as having never really left capitalism behind. He may show no mercy to the Cuban regime-or to those leftists abroad who would rather give it a free ride than shatter their own illusions-but nor does he ever stop referring to the country as Communist. But this doesn’t stop him from recognising the potential for class conflict which the Cuban situation presents. Farber concludes that “resistance is not futile, since there is an alternative to both capitalism and the failed ‘Communism’ of Cuban history” and that this “will not be handed down as a gift by the people in power but will have to be obtained by struggles from below”.

With this vivid portrait of the real Cuba, Farber has done a valuable service to all those who would seek to understand and to support these struggles.