A review of Steve Cushion, A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory (Monthly Review Press, 2016), £20.42
and Jane Franklin, Cuba and the US Empire: A Chronological History (Monthly Review Press, 2016), £18.87
The last year and a half have left no doubt that the history of the Cuban Revolution will need to be revisited and probably rewritten. From the moment that Raúl Castro and Barack Obama met, and the American president visited the island, everything changed. The process had begun earlier, of course, with unannounced meetings between representatives of US government and business and their Cuban counterparts. But despite some claims that the rapprochement was a “victory for Cuban statecraft”, it was clear that this was an ending as well as a new beginning. The Cuban Revolution was over, though the regime it had brought to power remained in place, astonishingly, 55 years later.
The Cuban state that emerged from the successful revolution that overthrew Fulgencio Batista’s regime in January 1959 enjoyed, quite rightly, the support of radicals and socialists around the world. It was still the Cold War era, dominated by the economic and military power of the United States. That tiny Cuba, whose fate had been determined throughout its history by its northern neighbour, should have exposed the vulnerability of the imperialist giant was especially inspiring. Two years later Fidel Castro’s declaration of the revolution’s socialist nature gave an impetus to anti-imperialist resistance across the world, and particularly in Latin America. These two factors in their turn explain the virulence of the right in the US and their relentless lobbying against the revolution ever since. The powerful Miami lobby, swollen by half a million Cubans fleeing the revolution, found support and approval in each of the presidencies that have accompanied the history of the revolution. And yet, from the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Cuba has survived every confident prediction of its imminent demise.
While Cuba had been a highly profitable colony for US capital, which dominated its sugar industry, it was small beer in the Latin American context. Its strategic location, however, as a gatekeeper to the Caribbean and to the southern continent as a whole, reinforced its significance for successive Washington regimes. It was the last Spanish colony in the Americas, but its war of independence in 1898, when a people’s army took on the colonial troops and won, was immediately appropriated by the US, renamed the Spanish-American War and attributed to the skill of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. The new republic’s constitution was then rewritten by its new masters with the introduction of the Platt Amendment, which gave the US control over key areas including customs and police. Segregation was introduced by the colonisers, who then crushed the 1912 rising of the Independent Party of Colour.1 By the 1920s it was US interests that dominated Cuba’s chief export, sugar, and the Mafia who controlled its hotels, its night life and its sex industry. The crash of 1929 exposed its vulnerability and inexorably led to economic collapse. The revolution of 1933, led by Havana’s transport workers, briefly generated soviets but was ultimately diverted by the revolt of the sergeants, led by Batista, who quickly transformed his controlling role into a dictatorship.
Against that historical background, it becomes clear why the 1959 revolution took on such a symbolic significance. After all, Cuba was the US’s safest ally in Latin America. But it was also perilously close to the Florida coast, so it was particularly ironic that this small island should expose the weakness of the imperial state. It lit a flame of hope for a Latin America baulking under the interests of empire—provoking the “great fear” that John Gerassi addressed in his influential book on the role of the US in Latin America.2 It is interesting to reflect on the first responses to the revolution, when figures like C Wright Mills called on the US government to negotiate with what they saw as a new nationalism. As was to be expected, Dwight D Eisenhower, then US president, responded instead with the imposition of an economic embargo that, given that the whole of Cuba’s sugar production went to the US, was intended to cripple the island in months.
But Cuba survived; the Soviet government took delivery of Cuban sugar and subsidised Cuba’s new regime. There was a price to pay, of course, and not just becoming a captive market for the far from satisfactory products of Eastern European industry. The missile crisis of 1962 was, for many of us, the threshold of nuclear Armageddon in a world dominated by the image of the mushroom cloud. Its resolution with a US-Soviet agreement after 13 tense days was bitterly resented by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who felt that Cuba was being used as a pawn in a great power game. For the rest of the 1960s Cuba seemed to be looking for alternative strategies, Third World anti-imperialist alliances summed up in the famous phrase from Guevara’s last printed article—“to create one, two, three many Vietnams”. The implication was a different kind of revolution, a liberation project not constrained by the limits of the Soviet economic and political model.
Cuba’s reputation and its symbolic stature derive from those times. It was radical, unrestrained by political realism and anti-Stalinist, at least by implication, in the refusal to be bound by objective conditions, a refusal personified by Che Guevara.
The alternative revolutionary strategy was exported to Latin America, supported and legitimised by the Cuban Revolution—or at least by a particular historical narrative. The movement led by Fidel was very far from being Marxist-Leninist, as he defined it after the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. His 26 July Movement (MR-26-7) was radical nationalist, as his famous speech from the dock in 1953 (“History will absolve me”) very clearly shows. In the accounts of the revolution written after 1959 the revolution is presented as the result of armed struggle against the Batista regime conducted by a small group of dedicated, professional revolutionaries. Its method is enshrined in Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare, a manual for the guerrilla fighter, and his subsequent Remniscences of the Guerrilla War. These were the texts that inspired a generation of young Latin American revolutionaries to abandon the development of mass working class organisations in favour of the armed “focos” or cells that were the basic organising units of guerrilla warfare. In fact the experience of those courageous groups of young revolutionaries was almost entirely tragic. Few survived the repression that their existence provoked. And the final victim was Guevara himself, whose death was the clearest manifestation of the inadequacy of the strategy.
Hidden from history: workers and the revolution
Steve Cushion’s painstaking and perceptive research into the pre-revolutionary workers’ movement in Cuba has recently been published by Monthly Review Press as A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory.3 He is right to describe it as a “hidden history”, in the sense that, in the debates and discussions about the Cuban Revolution, and the interpretations of its origins, this issue has been largely ignored in favour of an account that places the impulse to revolution exclusively with the 26 July Movement. What Cushion demonstrates, by contrast, is the ambivalence of the 26 July Movement towards the working class movement in the period prior to the revolution. In fact, the Cuban working class in the 1950s had the highest percentage of union membership in Latin America. The trade union bureaucracy was dominated by Eusebio Mujal, the incarnation of a corrupt anti-communist leadership dedicated to the containment of workers’ struggles. The result was the growth of a combative rank and file in key unions like the sugar workers in the early 1950s, and especially after the crisis in the sugar industry after 1953. With Mujal’s support, Batista attacked the strongest unions one by one—sugar, transport and banking in particular—after bitter strikes and confrontations, culminating in the strike of 500,000 sugar workers in late 1955.
The role of two organisations becomes important at this point. The Revolutionary Directorate (originally a student group), under José Antonio Echeverría, were active participants in the strike movements. Echeverría would eventually be killed in a failed attempt to assassinate Batista. Surviving members of the directorate, however, moved towards armed struggle with cells active in central Cuba during and after the revolution. The Communist Party, for its part, had a very questionable history, especially in collaborating with Batista during the Second World War; and it was, as Cushion details, conservative in its exclusive concern with concrete demands. Yet many of the rank and file leaders were Communists and, especially in the Guantánamo area, Trotskyists. What was emerging through the 1950s was a rank and file network, opposed to the bureaucracy and advocating a “combative workers’ movement” that combined sabotage and mass action. At the same time the 26 July Movement was beginning to draw workers towards it who had suffered defeat at the hands of the state, as well as sections of the most militant rank and file—especially in Santiago, where Frank País, a teachers’ leader, was working with the guerrillas.
Repression grew after the landing of the Granma, the motor vessel carrying the 82 guerrillas led by Fidel Castro, on 3 December 1956. Only 18 people survived the landing. Batista’s troops were expecting them. In the aftermath a number of MR-26-7 militants around the country were tortured and killed. The strikes continued in the following years, but were brutally put down. In that environment the 26 July Movement, offering armed confrontation with the state, began to attract some of the best workers’ leaders who employed their organisational methods. But Cushion several times makes a key point: “The MR-26-7 was a cross-class organisation whose founding leaders had little understanding of the day-to-day practicalities of organising in the workplace”.4 The Communist Party leadership, however, which had considerable experience in those practicalities, was wary of the growing MR-26-7, and often clashed with its most combative base.
The two general strikes prior to the revolution were defining. In August 1957 a general strike called in Santiago after the murder of the charismatic Frank País was highly successful, though mainly in the east of the island. País had argued fiercely within the movement for more active engagement with workers—but even he lacked understanding of the concrete demands around which they could be mobilised. The demands of the guerrillas were still general and exclusively political. This won them working class recruits, of course; but it did not actively strengthen the working class movement itself. The call for another general strike in April 1958 proved to be a failure, probably for the same reasons—though repression was also intensifying. In the aftermath of April the Communists and the guerrillas agreed to cooperate which, in Cushion’s view, “probably ensured a revolutionary victory”. And by January 1959 Batista had fled.
At the same time there was, I believe, a political cost. The armed struggle discourse prevailed and the leadership of the resistance to Batista shifted definitively to the mountains. While the “combative workers’ movement” actively supported the guerrillas, their role became secondary.
Among the first decisions of the new government was the removal of Mujal and his replacement by the long standing MR-26-7 workers’ leader David Salvador. But Salvador, like many in this “cross-class” movement, was bitterly hostile to the Communists and was soon replaced by Lázaro Peña, a leading Communist. Cushion’s account makes it forcefully clear that the most militant and most courageous rank and file activists in the workers’ movement were key to the weakening of the Batista regime. Yet that involvement has been underplayed in the subsequent histories of the revolution, in favour of the military victory. This is more than just an oversight that should now be adjusted. Its repercussions can be seen in the character of the new Cuban state, built around a command structure rather than in the encouragement of active grassroots involvement. Its longer-term consequences will take us back to Cuba in the present.
The special period and beyond
After 1970, and marked by Fidel’s speech to the Non-Aligned Conference in Algiers, Cuba fully entered the Soviet ambit, not just economically but also politically. The Guevara years faded into memory, and with them both the voluntarism and the guerrilla method associated with Che. The Cuban Communist Party was the sole and unchallenged authority, and Eastern Europe the source of all consumer goods and industrial products as well as virtually the sole market for what remained Cuba’s main export—sugar. Cuba’s contribution to the liberation struggles in southern Africa and more controversially its military support for the Ethiopian Derg were also expressions of its supporting role in Soviet foreign policy—though this is not to deny the courage of its fighters or the sacrifices many of them made.
In Latin America, Cuba retained its symbolic significance as an anti-imperialist icon. Yet Cuban realpolitik was moving away from confrontation—as Fidel’s praise for the Chilean Road to socialism in 1971, and his encouragement of a strategy of negotiation in Central America in the late 1970s, made very clear. And when the US invaded Grenada in 1983, citing the Cuban presence (the Cuban construction workers were building an extended airport runway commissioned by Maurice Bishop, Grenada’s radical leader), Cuba kept its distance.
But hard-won reputations sometimes survive beyond their moments of origin. Thus Cuba’s anti-imperialist credentials were sustained by the relentless campaign waged by the right wing Cuban lobby in Miami and its many friends in Washington. Certainly their votes were important, though the Nixon connections with the Cuban-American lobby, for example, went well beyond vote-catching! The unstinting hostility of successive US administrations to Castro’s Cuba ensured an uncritical response from its supporters abroad. The recently issued volume Cuba and the US Empire by Jane Franklin illustrates the problem.5 It is a strange work of history, a chronology from the early 20th century until the 1990s (the period after 1995 to the present merits only 20 pages—of 456). The succession of dates and names gives no sense of the forces and movements that have shaped history, beyond the US government and the CIA. Most importantly, there is very little to explain the shifts and changes within Cuba, let alone the character of the regime. Fidel’s state visits are carefully listed, but there is nothing on internal events. It is significant that one of the heroes of the Angolan war, Arnaldo Ochoa, later minister of the interior, was summarily executed in 1989, together with others—this is noted but not explained. The introduction of mixed enterprises in 1991 by new economics minister Carlos Lage appears out of the blue, as does the later authorisation of private enterprise. But they are simply noted. Dates and times can be useful, but in this case they are limited by the filter through which they are viewed—the Cuban state.
The problem is that the literature on Cuba from the left offers no explanation for the sudden emergence of the new Cuba with its doors opened wide to foreign capital. Nor can it shed any light on the absence of critical voices in this or previous moments of dramatic change. One exception to that, though this was not its original intention, is Antoni Kapcia’s 2014 Leadership in the Cuban Revolution.6 The title is especially revealing in a book whose final chapter is entitled “A revolutionary corporatism?” For socialists committed to participatory democracy—what Hal Draper called “socialism from below”—the question mark is all-important. And it begs a question. How did Cuba move, apparently effortlessly, from revolutionary icon to a new and promising market place in a neoliberal world?—because that is what it has become.
Behind the curtain
1991 was the beginning of what was called the “special period in time of peace”, when the full effects of the withdrawal of Soviet support and the fall of the Berlin Wall left an impoverished and denuded Cuba on the brink of collapse. The accounts of hardship at the time are legion—but they tell a contradictory story. On the one hand, the generation of the revolution accepted conditions of extreme hardship, the rationing, the lack of food—a mark of the level of commitment to the revolution. The younger generation, however, were less convinced. But the lack of anything more than minor acts of rebellion is testimony to the effectiveness of the Cuban regime. It survived with its structures of control intact. The command structure that Fidel had built from the beginning, and which remained under the control of a tiny group whose authority derived from the pre-revolutionary sierra, held out. As Kapcia put it, “however weak the Cuban state might have been in its institutional structure…it has always demonstrated a remarkable degree of effectiveness in its various mechanisms of defence”.7 He is, of course, describing the defence of the state, and mechanisms which included the Rapid Response Brigades that pursued dissent wherever it arose. So the regime held through the special period; but apart from the state itself, what was it defending?
To understand recent events, it is critical to recognise that what was being protected and defended was not an egalitarian state or a communism in which the majority of Cubans were the subjects of their own history. By the mid-1990s an important shift was taking place. The core leadership positions—political, economic and military—were now increasingly occupied by the military, placed and distributed by Fidel’s brother Raúl Castro. He had already brought in Japanese management consultants in the late 1980s and sent high ranking personnel to learn entrepreneurial skills in the next decade. In the face of the post-Stalinist crisis, new concessions to private enterprise allowed small businesses to be set up, in the tourist sector, for example. But the beneficiaries of these changes were in their majority state functionaries, who had already attained a degree of material and political privilege (the two largely went together) within the system through corruption and the traffic of influence. These were the sectors which were in a position to offer bed and breakfast, meals and services as the tourist industry was relaunched later in the 1990s—under the aegis of the armed forces. Fidel had acted on the increasingly obvious corruption within the state with the “rectification” campaign of 1986. But the campaign could do very little in the face of the “special period”. Although it would not become official for another decade, it was clear that by any criteria Cuba was no longer the socialist state it claimed to be—though its definition of socialism had always embraced authoritarian structures, the repression of dissent and the absence of formal democracy; party congress delegates and National Assembly candidates were nominated from above. The “negotiation” that Kapcia insists replaced the institutions of open grassroots democracy could hardly claim to be an adequate substitute for the self-emancipation of the working class.
The impact of the “special period”, furthermore, was not equally distributed. The remittances from family members in the US reached $2.5 billion by 2013. In real terms they sustained the economy from the late 1990s onwards. But the family members from which they came were the middle classes who left Cuba after the revolution. None of that money reached Alamar, the almost wholly black housing scheme on the outskirts of Havana. Nor did it alleviate the high unemployment levels among that section of the population. These were the marginals of Cuban society—living on the minimal rations and social welfare that held off starvation. But they were severely under-represented in the new private sector, let alone in the state or the government, whose upper echelons—including the party leadership—were overwhelmingly white and male.
When you spoke with anyone from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, the starting position in any conversation was to point to the high levels of educational achievement in Cuba and its health service. Until the special period they were extremely good, but from then on spending on those sectors began to decline. The graduates of the higher education system have found themselves locked in a society of few opportunities; some 40,000 Cuban doctors are outside the island now and many will never return. In fact the medical service itself, beyond basic health provision, has become a dollar earner, both by commercialising its facilities and marketing its most innovative pharmaceutical products like its anti-meningitis vaccine and its highly respected ophthalmology.
In fact the process that led towards the meeting between Raúl Castro and Obama began during this phase. The Law of Foreign Investment of 1995 permitted mixed enterprises with foreign capital. Only health, education and the press were closed to that investment. At the same time, a resolution of the National Assembly in 2001 made it absolutely clear that Cuba would remain a “one-party system”—a party which had sustained a high level of centralisation and control of every social space.
Effectively the model of the new Cuba was being shaped throughout those years under Raúl and with the collusion of a new “modernising” bureaucracy appointed by Fidel and later summarily dismissed by Raúl—men like economics minister Carlos Lage. That modernisation was explicitly an opening to the market. To put it in context, this was accompanied by a fall in social spending and a fall in the real value of wages to 27 percent of their 1989 value by 2008. Pensions for an ageing population fell from 100 percent in 1989 to 16 percent in 1993 returning to only 50 percent of the 1989 value in 2013. At the same time the retirement age was raised, the level of personal contribution raised and 500,000 state employees dismissed.
The new model, then, combined a one-party state with privatisation (“modernisation”) of the economy and a reduction in the welfare spending which had virtually defined Cuban socialism until the assumption of power by Raúl. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that Raúl removed Fidel in a power struggle. They had led the Cuban Revolution in combination for 55 years. Fidel was clearly both aware and approving of these changes. In any event, he was infirm and quickly moved sideways into a symbolic niche.
It might be argued that the revolution was beaten by the fall of Eastern Europe and the rise of neoliberalism. If that is the case, then it would be the responsibility of socialists to say that and to seek strategies in Cuba, as elsewhere, to allow the majority of working class people to develop methods to defend themselves against the effects of the crisis and to evolve a new strategy for socialism. For that to happen, knowledge of the history of the Cuban working class movement—the kind of research that Cushion has produced—would have been indispensable; but it was not available. Ironically, the questions about power, democracy and the anti-capitalist struggle that in the same period, from 2000 onwards, were being publicly posed by the new social movements in Latin America passed Cuba by. That could happen because travel beyond the island remained difficult for ordinary Cubans (in other words, those who were not bureaucrats) beyond a handful of musicians who were a new area of Cuban exports. Cuba remained sealed off from most political developments abroad by the non-availability of the internet and by strict censorship. The slight relaxation of the early 1990s was followed by a new wave of repression in the early 2000s. Dissidents—the few that there were—were represented as agents of US imperialism or the Miami Mafia. The serious critical writing of people like Haroldo Dilla, who was analysing the new emerging managerial class, was rapidly suppressed, just as the serious Marxist debates around the magazine Pensamiento Crítico in the early 1970s were shut down.
By the time Raúl Castro assumed full control he had put in place the economic instruments of the transition to the new Cuba. Under the control of his son in law, a military conglomerate called La Gaviota had taken control of much of Cuba’s industrial and tourist sector—sugar having declined to a shadow of its former self. The directors of these companies were interwoven with the upper echelons of the state and the military—ensuring that the coming move into the global market would benefit but not threaten the state bureaucracy or its political system.
The Venezuela factor
This reorganisation was in many ways made possible by the rise of Hugo Chávez to power in Venezuela in 1999. The guarantee of cheap oil almost certainly saved the Cuban economy, given that Cuba in the late 1990s had no reliable suppliers and insufficient foreign currency to pay for oil. Chávez’s commitment to Cuba, and to Fidel in particular, was unconditional and total. It was the policy of the Bolivarian Revolution to divert oil revenues towards social programmes—the first of which, Barrio Adentro, brought health provision to Venezuela’s poor barrios. Since most of the Venezuelan medical profession was hostile to Chávez, the gap was filled by Cuban doctors. Cuban personnel also filled posts in education, sport, some state departments and, critically, in the military—particularly in military intelligence. These services were all paid for—so that Cuba benefitted twice from Venezuelan oil. Cubans were also politically influential; the main political party in Venezuela, the United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV)—created by Chávez in 2006—was quite clearly modelled on the Cuban Communist Party, a party whose high levels of centralisation and command structures were in direct contradiction to the participatory democracy promised by Chávez’s “21st century socialism”. The only country permitted to own 100 percent of shares in a Cuban enterprise was Venezuela—and it is undoubtedly the case that many members of the new chavista bureaucracy have “invested” state funds there. This is an issue to be developed elsewhere.
In this context, the timing of the public acknowledgment of Cuba’s new relationship with Washington was significant. Chávez died, in Cuba, in March 2013. Three months later, the first formal meetings took place between Cuban and US officials. While nothing changed at the level of rhetoric, Cuban-Venezuelan relations deteriorated from then on. Venezuela’s oil shipments were reduced as the world price fell. But although Cuban influences remain significant within the Venezuelan state, relations between the two countries started to cool noticeably, just as they warmed between Havana and Washington.
The conditions for Cuba’s opening to the market, and particularly US capital, had already been laid down. The port of Mariel, from which yachts and makeshift rafts once took refugees across the Florida Straits, is now emblematic of this new engagement. Declared a Special Economic Zone, where normal labour and economic legislation are suspended for foreign investors, its port development is run by Odebrecht, the giant Brazilian engineering firm (now in some trouble as its director has been jailed for corruption) as well as Malaysian and other firms. An Israeli construction company will have a central role in the development of Havana’s Malecón esplanade and seawall (despite Israel’s 100 percent record of supporting US calls for a continuation of the Cuban embargo at the United Nations!). US wheat producers lobbied fiercely for the lifting of that embargo and have been exporting food to the island for some time. The Economist felt secure enough to mount an international seminar in New York in December 2015 on economic opportunities in Cuba. Visa, among others, have already declared their intention to move into the Cuban market.
Some conclusions and a glimpse of the future
The economic structures for a capitalist Cuba already exist, from the privatisation of small commerce to the control of state finance and investment in a “mixed” sector. It will be “mixed” in the sense that the state will remain a controlling actor in the development of a new Cuban capitalism. To ensure a smooth transition the shape of state power, the role of the party and the concentration of economic, political and military power in a small leadership group will continue just as it was throughout the revolutionary period. This group and its associates today comprise a clear bureaucratic class, a nomenklatura who will be the beneficiaries of the new economic environment. But there are others, the well-known and often dissolute children of the generals, as they are called, who will want power but may not inherit it.
At the grassroots level, ordinary Cubans will find the expectations that they have grown up with are not met. Social spending has been cut, as have pensions; higher education will no longer be free and universally available; and differentials within the health sector will strike at one of the most cherished achievements of the revolution. The position of Cuba’s black population is a time-bomb. The figures given in a wide-ranging 2008 report by Esteban Morales Domínguez on “The Challenge of the Racial Problem in Cuba”—a problem denied for decades—are fantastically telling (Morales has since been dismissed from his post). Of the 131 members of the leading state committees, 114 are white and five black; 34.2 percent of black people have jobs as opposed to 63.8 percent of whites; 73 percent of scientists and technicians are white; and there are few black faces in the burgeoning tourist industry. In a “free market” situation, where over half of the economy is already effectively privatised, the inequalities will grow and the shiny new products global capital will deliver will be inaccessible to a majority population already resentful of the “dollar shops” to which they cannot gain entry.
It is several years since Raúl warned in a BBC interview of what was to come when he explained that Cuba was not seeking equality but “equality of opportunity”. The meaning of this must be clear to all in a neoliberal world. The critical question politically, then, is how those left behind by these new “opportunities” can organise themselves independently, as workers, to fight discrimination, inequality and exploitation. Marxism and the history of working class struggle will be key tools in building that response. Sadly, Marxism has been devalued for many Cubans as an ideology of power—and the wide range of debates around Marxist ideas have not been available where often the best that could be obtained, at least until the slow opening of the internet, were dusty Soviet manuals. And as Steve Cushion’s careful research has shown, the history of the struggles of the Cuban working class will need to be rediscovered—to inspire a new generation and open the road to socialism again.
Mike Gonzalez is the author of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution (2004) and, with Marianella Yanes, The Last Drop: The Politics of Water (2015).
1 The Partido Independiente de Color was founded in 1908 by veterans of the War of Independence, in reaction to the new segregation imposed by the US-dominated government. Two years later the Liberal government banned parties based on race. The armed insurrection of 1912 was an attempt to gain recognition; 6,000 died in the repression that followed.
2 Gerassi, 1963.
3 Cushion, 2016.
4 Cushion, 2016, p145.
5 Franklin, 2016.
6 Kapcia, 2014.
7 Kapcia, 2014, p18.