On 27 April, 217 Cuban health workers arrived in South Africa to assist in the fight against Covid-19. After a period in quarantine the members of this ‘Medical Brigade’ will fan-out across the country. Cuba’s achievements in public health are a historic legacy of its 1959 revolution and break with capitalism. Free education allows the training of doctors, nurses and other health workers on an impressive scale. This has enabled Cuba – a small island country – to play a role in health on the world stage over decades. Especially in Southern Africa, Cuba’s role in the liberation struggles of Angola and Namibia added a sense of historic solidarity to the arrival of the Brigade. Sending, organising and arming tens-of-thousands of “internationalist volunteers” Cuban forces were pivotal in inflicting a defeat on the hated apartheid regime.
The arrival of the Medical Brigade was used as an occasion for hypocritical posturing by ANC ministers. Standing on the tarmac at OR Tambo the Cubans were required to endure speech after speech. Behind them stood the SAA jet which had brought them into the country symbolising the hypocrisy dripping from every word. Whilst praising “socialist” Cuba these same ANC ministers were fresh from overseeing the collapse of state-owned SAA, its likely privatisation, and the loss of more than 4,000 jobs. Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and SA Communist Party Secretary-General, must take the prize for hypocrisy however. In an interview with SABC he held up the Medical Brigade as an example of what could “be achieved under socialism”. Yet this “communist” has served in the ANC’s Cabinet, presiding over neo-liberal attacks and anti-working class policies, for more than ten years!
Across the left there has been a stampede to praise “socialist” Cuba. But there has been little said of any substance. However the history of Cuba since 1959 is full of lessons for workers and young people, especially in the neo-colonial world. Its achievements, but also its shortcomings, and the mistakes of its leaders, are rich in lessons for the struggle for socialism. Below we republish a 2008 article by Tony Saunois, CWI Secretary, looking at the legacy of the Cuban Revolution and its leader Fidel Castro.
The publication of My life – Fidel Castro, (in English in 2007) was extremely timely, as Castro was to resign as president only a few months later. Based on over 100 hours of interviews, the answers given by Castro to the French writer and editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, and founder of ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens), Ignacio Ramonet, are very revealing and illuminating about the Cuban revolution and world events since 1959. They also reveal much about the political outlook and method of Fidel Castro.
Castro justifiably argues the impressive social gains conquered in medicine, health and education as a result of the revolution in 1959-60. “The life expectancy of Cuban citizens is now almost eighteen years longer than in 1959, when the Revolution came to power. “Cuba has an infant mortality rate under 6 per 1,000 live births in their first year of life, behind Canada by a slight margin. It will take us half the time it took Sweden and Japan to raise life expectancy from seventy to eighty years of age – today we are at 77.5”.
At the time of the revolution, Castro points out, life expectancy was 60! This was after 50% of doctors fled abroad following the revolution. For every doctor who remained at the time today there are 15!
Free education is open to all who are not employed in a job and over 90,000 students are currently studying medicine, nursing or other aspects of health related studies. All this, despite an economic embargo imposed by US imperialism since 1960 and a severe economic decline which followed the collapse of the former Soviet Union, in 1992, and consequential loss of economic subsidies.
These and other impressive achievements mentioned by Castro give a small glimpse of what would be possible with a socialist planned economy that was democratically controlled and managed by the working class. Another indication of this was reflected in some aspects of Cuba’s foreign policy. Apart from mobilizing over 30,000 doctors to work in over 40 countries one of the most impressive achievements was the sending of tens of thousands of “internationalist volunteers”, from 1975 onwards, to Angola and Namibia. In Angola, the 36,000 troops were able to do combat with the South African apartheid army and, for the first time, inflict a military defeat on it. Cuban forces were crucial in freeing Namibia from South African rule. Over 15 years, more than “300,000 internationalist combatants fulfilled their mission in Angola”. These struggles were to play an important role in the eventual collapse of the apartheid regime. Cuba was, as Castro argues, “The only non-African country that fought and spilled its blood for Africa and against the odious apartheid regime”.
Hostility of US imperialism
From the very beginning, the Cuban revolution aroused the wrath of US imperialism which has sought to overthrow it on numerous occasions. Today, following Castro’s resignation, US imperialism and its representatives are eagerly hoping for the demise of the Cuban regime and collapse of the planned economy, which they will attempt to use to try and discredit ‘socialism’.
The ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco in 1962 is the most well-known intervention by US imperialism against the revolution which followed Castro’s decreeing the ‘revolution’s socialist’ characteristic.
Castro lists a series of other attacks attempted by US backed exiles, the US security services and other reactionary counter revolutionaries. “In 1971, under Nixon, swine fever was introduced into Cuba in a container, according to a CIA source”. In 1981, type II dengue virus was unleashed and resulted in 158 deaths, 101 of them children. According to Castro, “In 1984 a leader of Omega 7 terrorist organization, based in Florida, admitted they had introduced that deadly virus into Cuba with the intention of causing the greatest number of victims possible”. Then there have been more than 600 plans to assassinate Castro’s.
The social gains of the revolution and brutal hostility by US imperialism revealed in this book, illustrate why Cuba is viewed with such sympathy by many workers and young people internationally, especially in Latin America. The same is true as regards Venezuela, although possibly to a lesser extent because of the failure of the revolution to advance and overthrow capitalism. Both Cuba and Venezuela are perceived as the only regimes prepared to resist the onslaught of neo-liberal capitalism during the 1990/2000s. Cuba won widespread sympathy as the only regime on the left that is prepared to stand up to the colossus of what Castro (and Hugo Chavez) justifiably refers to as the “empire” – US imperialism.
The Collapse of the USSR
Castro’s response to a series of questions, especially regarding the 1990’s and the collapse of the former Soviet Union, reveal a very well-read individual, who attentively followed the world situation. It shows Castro, following the disastrous experiences of capitalist restoration in the former Soviet Union, is opposed to the same path being followed in Cuba. The fact that Cuba was able to survive without completely breaking up the planned economy and restoring capitalism is a measure of the social roots the revolution had established. It has more recently been assisted in this by the aid it has received from Venezuelan oil. The Cuba regime was also able to maintain more support when faced with the aggressive policy adopted towards it by US imperialism.
Revealingly, Castro exposes the role played by Felipe González, (the former leader of the Spanish Socialist Party – PSOE) in persuading former Soviet leader Gorbachev to support a policy of capitalist restoration. This was carried through when the ruling bureaucracy, as a whole, went over to capitalism. González, along with others, like Manual Fraga (a former Minister in Franco’s fascist regime and President of Galicia) attempted to persuade Castro to adopt the same road in the 1990’s. “Fraga is one of those people, along with González and others …who were part of the group that was so insistent about giving me economic advice when the USSR collapsed. He took me to a very elegant restaurant one night – and he tried to give me formulas too. ‘The formula for Cuba is the formula in Nicaragua’, he said – that’s verbatim…”
Castro rejected this advice. He said the proposed formula “…has led Nicaragua into a bottomless abyss of corruption, theft, negligence…terrible…..they wanted me to follow the Russian formula, the one that Felipe and his elite advisers urged Gorbachev to follow…and there’s nothing left. All those men whose advice was to follow the tenets of neo-liberalism to the death – privatization, strict compliance to the IMF rules – have driven many countries and their inhabitants into the abyss”.
Yet, why did Castro not oppose similar advice to Tomás Borge and other Sandinista leaders in Nicaragua in the 1980’s prior to their defeat?
Collapse of ‘Globalisation’ and the Role of the Working Class
Isolated, and facing a tidal wave of neo-liberal policies internationally in the 1990’s, Castro reveals his approach in that period. In essence, Castro adopted a policy of buying time. This was linked with a perspective of waiting for ‘globalisation to collapse’. This, Castro anticipated, “would lead to a situation more critical than 1929.” Modern capitalism, he argues, has become so monopolized that, “There is no capitalism today, there is no competition. Today, what we have is monopolies in all the great sectors”.
A mere 500 global corporations control 80% of the world’s economy. Looking at the crisis unfolding in recent years, Castro concludes: “It’s no longer just a crisis in south East Asia, as it was in 1977, it’s a worldwide crisis, plus the war in Iraq, plus the consequences of huge debt, plus the growing waste and consequent cost of energy … plus the deficit on the part of the main economic and military power on the planet.” A system which Castro concludes is resulting in, “The world is being driven into a dead-end street”.
Yet, what is the social class that is capable of fighting this system and building a genuine democratic socialist alternative? In this book, Castro also reveals his lack of understanding of how and what class will be able to defeat capitalism and build a democratic socialist alternative. This leads him to adopting contradictory ideas and methods. Throughout the entire book there is no reference at all to the working class and its central role in the socialist revolution. Even when referring to the great general strike of ten million workers in France in 1968, Castro only mentions, in passing, that De Gaulle had gone to Germany to get the support of troops stationed there “to put down any attempt at popular rebellion.”
The absence of any reference to the working class is revealing about Castro’s attitude towards the Cuban revolution and, in general, to the character of the socialist revolution. For Castro, the working class does not play the central role. As Castro states, referring to the Cuban revolution, “But, for us, guerrilla warfare was the detonator of another process whose objective was the revolutionary taking over of power. And with a culminating point: a revolutionary general strike and general uprising of the populace”.
In other words, a guerrilla struggle which was then supported by the mass of the population where the working class played an auxiliary role rather than the leading role. As the CWI explained in other articles and documents, because of a series of historical and subjective factors, the guerrilla struggle successfully unfolded in Cuba and only as the guerrilla army entered the cities did the urban masses come onto the streets.
In Castro’s My Life, there is some discrepancy between how Castro and the July 23 Movement viewed the revolution, as it began. Castro gives the impression that he had a clearly formulated ‘socialist’ objective from the beginning. However, as explained in other articles and documents of the Militant/CWI, at the time, and subsequently, we did not believe this was not the case. The leaders of the movement, in reality, had the objective of overthrowing Batista and the establishing a “modern democratic Cuba.” Che Guevara adopted a different attitude to the other leaders of the movement. As a consequence of the embargo of US imperialism and the pressure from the masses, the leaders were rapidly pushed in a more radical direction, which eventually snuffed out capitalism.
While the processes in the Cuban revolution did not prevent the smashing of the old Batista regime, it did shape the nature of the state which replaced it. Although the working class supported the revolution, they were not consciously leading it, as the working class did in the Russian Revolution in 1917.
The Cuban Regime
In Cuba, capitalism was overthrown following a series of tit-for-tat reprisals between the new Cuban government and US imperialism. While this represented a big step forward, it did not result in the establishment of a genuine workers’ and peasants’ democracy, such as was seen in Russia, in 1917, but brought about a bureaucratic regime, (with some elements of workers’ control at the beginning which have now largely been eroded), which managed a nationalized planned economy.
The real character of the state is perhaps inadvertently revealed by Ignacio Ramonet in his introduction to My Life, when he notes: “While he [Fidel Castro] is there [he] is but one voice. He makes all the decisions, big and small. Although he consults the political authorities in charge of the Party and the government very respectfully, very ‘professionally’ during the decision making process, it is Fidel who finally decides”.
Castro also reveals how aspects of the state function during critical periods. He reveals that when faced with a decision to execute the army chief, Arnoldo Ochoa, for alleged drug trafficking, it was “a unanimous decision by the council of State, which has 31 members. Over time, the Council of State has become a judge and the most important thing is that you have to struggle to ensure that every decision is made with a consensus of members”.
The fact that this decision was taken without dissent says a lot about the character of this body and the influence of Castro, given the extremely controversial nature of the Arnoldo Ochoa case.
Castro also defends the idea of a one party state: “How could our country have stood firm if it had been split up into ten pieces?”
He also then proceeds to confuse this question by attacking the corruption and manipulation of the media in the capitalist west as being not real democracy. Yet this is an entirely different question to the right of workers, youth and intellectuals to form their own political parties, including Trotskyist parties, and to contest elections in a workers and peasants’ democracy.
A genuine regime of workers’ democracy would ensure the democratic election of all officials subject to recall, that state and party officials received no more than the average wage of skilled worker, and full freedom of expression of views and criticism. Such a regime, especially after nearly fifty years in power, should have nothing to fear from workers’, youth and intellectuals establishing their own political parties and organizations that defend the planned economy or agree not to take up arms or resort to violence in opposition to it.
This does not mean to say that Castro’s Cuba has taken on the same grotesque features of Stalin’s Russia, with mass purge trials, an unchecked cult of the personality around Stalin etc. There are still no portraits and streets named after Castro. There is no evidence of torture being used by the state. However, this does not mean that bureaucracy and that an element of corruption and privileges do not exist. This has recently been shown in the admission of Cuban government that 15% of the population own 90% of the pesos held in bank accounts.
Cuba in Isolation
The problem that has faced Castro during the 1990’s, following the collapse of the former USSR, has been one of isolation, combined with the limitations imposed by the existence of a bureaucracy and the absence of a real workers’ democracy. Measures, such as a partial opening up of the economy and partial dollarisation, were introduced by the regime to try and buy time. These bought their own increased contradictions, especially the partial dollarisation, which vastly increased differentials between those with access to the US dollar and those without, and created a growth of the black market and corruption.
The issue of Cuba’s isolation is linked to the defeat of the revolutionary movements which swept Latin America in the 1970/80’s. Castro draws no rounded-out conclusions regarding the reasons for these defeats. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua failed to defeat the Contras, he argues, because of compulsory military service. Castro says: “Nicaragua won its victory twelve years after Che’s death in Bolivia. That means the objective conditions in many countries in the rest of Latin America were better than those in Cuba”. But the central question is why then did the Sandinista’s then lose again to the counter revolution? On this issue Castro offers no real explanation. He does not comment upon the failure of the Sandinistas to overthrow capitalism. They held back from taking decisive measure to overthrown the system, especially in 1984, largely because of the pressure of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow, which opposed this being done. Cuba, and Castro, backed up Moscow’s pressure and, at one stage, embargoed Russian MIG fighter planes in Havana which were destined for Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.
Commenting on the defeat of Allende, in 1973, the former president of Chile, Castro correctly denounces the role of US imperialism, but he draws no conclusion about the mistakes of the leaders of the Socialist and Communist Parties in Chile, which acted as a break on the revolution. Yet these defeats, and others, were crucial in Latin America during this period, and re-enforced Cuba’s isolation and dependency on the Soviet bureaucracy, at the time. Moreover, in a sense, Castro went on to repeat many of the mistakes made by the leaders of these movements in the advice he has recently given to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Castro recounts that at the time of the thwarted right-wing coup in Venezuela, in 2002, he urged Chávez not to resign. He urged Chávez to “get in touch with some officer with some real authority among the ranks of the coup members, assure them of his willingness to leave the country but not resign.”
Former president Allende, Castro argues, had no choice but to lay down his life during the right-wing coup in 1973 in Chile, claiming that Allende did not have the “support of a single soldier”. This was not true. Large sections of the army and navy in Chile supported the revolutionary process. It is estimated that Allende had the support of up to 30% of the military, at the time of the coup. The tragedy was that Allende failed to arm and mobilize the working class.
In My Life, Castro states that he advised Chavez, during the 2002 right-wing coup attempt in Venezuela, that “trying to meet with the people in order to trigger national resistance…had virtually no possibility of success under those circumstances.”! Yet ‘national resistance’ erupted spontaneously from below and Chávez was returned to power by the masses. This advice is yet another example of Castro not seeing the masses and the working class as the leading force of a revolution but as an auxiliary to either guerrilla organizations or sections of the military.
While coming into collision with the Stalinist Soviet bureaucracy, which Castro criticises, on occasions sharply, he did not provide an alternative to it. This again flows from Castro’s lack of understanding of and confidence in the working class. As a result, Castro’s criticisms ultimately led to acquiescence to the Stalinists. Castro also remained silent, on occasions, during major struggles between the state and workers and youth several countries.
Concerning Czechoslovakia’s ‘Prague Spring’, in 1968, while initially supporting some of the demands for greater democracy, freedom of expression, Castro concluded: “But from fair slogans there had been a move towards an openly reactionary policy. And we – bitterly, sadly – had to approve that military intervention”. Yet, in 1968, support for capitalist restoration was not the dominant idea in the former Czechoslovakia. The consciousness of the masses, in the main, at that time, was for “democratization of socialism” not capitalism.
Undoubtedly motivated by diplomatic and trading interests, the Cuban regime was silent when hundreds of students were massacred by the Mexican government in 1968. Castro says nothing of these events in his book.
By raising the spectre of capitalist restoration in Czechoslovakia, at that time, Castro is confusing processes which emerged during the 1990s and not the 1960s and echoes the justification for the intervention given by the Russian Stalinists in 1968. Castro is clearly against a capitalist restoration in Cuba, especially having seen the consequences of it in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. He probably correctly concludes that former Soviet leader Gorbachev, whom Castro describes, at one point, as a “true revolutionary socialist”, ended up as a central figure in the process of capitalist restoration, although this was not Gorbachev’s original intention. As Castro puts it: “But he [Gorbachev] couldn’t manage to find solutions to the big problems his country had.”
Boris Yeltsin, who was also central to the process of capitalist restoration, is described by Castro as an “outstanding Party Secretary in Moscow, with lots of good ideas”.
Castro identifies some of the crucial problems facing the former Soviet Union; waste, corruption, mismanagement and its failure to develop and to apply the use of modern computers. Yet, he also fails to offer a clear solution to the bureaucratic rule and waste, which lay in the need to remove the Stalinist bureaucracy and to establish a genuine system of workers’ democracy. Without this, none of the huge problems he identifies could be resolved.
However, many of these features exist in Cuba, as well. In My Life, Castro also reveals some of the conflicts that took place between the Soviet bureaucracy and the Cuban regime. When asked if the Cubans were consulted about the final withdrawal of Soviet troops, from Cuba, in September 1991, Castro responds: “Consult. They never consult. By that time they were falling apart. Everything they took without consultation.”
Castro also reveals, in letters published in English, for the first time, the erratic attitude that his regime sometimes adopted. This is especially shown in the book’s chapter dealing with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. As the crisis intensified, Castro shows that he urged the USSR not to leave itself open to a “first strike” nuclear attack and should launch a nuclear attack first in the event of direct offensive action against Cuba by the USA.
“It is my position that once the aggression has occurred, the aggressors must not be given the privilege to decide when nuclear arms will be used…from the moment imperialism unleashed an attack against Cuba, and in Cuba, and therefore against the forces of the USSR stationed here…a response be given the aggressors against Cuba and the USSR in the form of an annihilating attack.”
Krushchev and the Soviet bureaucracy did not accept this proposal.
Today, Castro contradicts his earlier stance and comments, when he is asked if Cuba wants to manufacture a nuclear bomb: “You’ll ruin yourself – a nuclear weapon is a good way to commit suicide at a certain point.”
Stalin and Trotsky
Significantly, Castro is openly critical of Stalin and concludes, “The more intellectual of the two was, without a doubt, Trotsky.” However, this is not to say that Castro supported the ideas and methods explained in Trotsky’s writings. Castro quite wrongly dismisses any suggestion that Che Guevara was beginning to look for an alternative and had begun to read Trotsky’s works or was in any way affected by his ideas. In doing so, Castro brushes aside the evidence to the contrary, as featured by Celia Hart, Jon Lee Anderson and the Mexican writer, Paco Ignacio Taibo.
A striking feature of My Life is Castro’s attitude to world leaders and the pro-capitalist leaders of the former mass workers’ parties. For Marxists, opposing the system these leaders defend is not a personal question. Yet Castro goes out of his way to heap praise on some of these leaders, despite peppering it with critical references to what these leaders did. Former US President Jimmy Carter is described as a “man of integrity”. Charles De Gaulle is accredited with saving France “its traditions, its national pride, the French defiance.” A Minister in Franco’s fascist government in Spain, is, in Castro’s opinion, “an intelligent, shrewd Galician”. President Lula, in Brazil, is praised as “a tenacious and fraternal fighter for the rights of labour and the Left, and a friend of our people.” And Castro views “the reforms that Lula is implementing very positively”. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of Lula’s “reforms” have been neo-liberal attacks on the rights of the working class.
Concerning the future of Cuba, Castro is adamant that the revolution will be maintained, with no threat of capitalist restoration. However, despite the strong legacy that remains and support for the gains of the revolution, the threat of restoration is growing. Since the publication of My Life, Castro has resigned as leader. Raul, his brother, and other powerful sections of the Cuban bureaucracy, are intent on moving towards opening up the market economy in Cuba. If Castro sees this threat, he evidently was not prepared to play the role of Gorbachev or Yeltsin in assisting this process.
The publication of My Life provides an illuminating insight into Fidel Castro; his role and methods. Above all, it is necessary to learn from the experiences Castro recounts. It shows the vital necessity to develop genuine workers’ democracy and socialism.