Cuba's Stalinist System.

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Is Cuba socialist?

Paul Hampton of Workers' Liberty spoke in debate with Bernard Regan, a leading member of the Socialist Teachers' Alliance, at a London Workers' Liberty meeting on 3 February 1999.
Paul Hampton argued that Cuba displays the essential characteristics of Stalinism

Forty years ago, on New Year's Day 1959, the Cuban revolution triumphed, when guerrillas led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara drove out the hated dictator Batista after two years of struggle.

Cuba had been a semi colony of American imperialism for the first half of this century, a site for the production of sugar for the American market and a Mafia-run tourist destination 90 miles from Florida. Batista was a despot who ruled with the aid of a mercenary army, a corrupt civil service and a labour movement tied hand and foot to the state machine. Bourgeois democracy had been severely limited when it had existed at all in the forties. After 1952 it was non-existent.

Batista was overthrown in January 1959 by the July 26th movement, led by Fidel Castro, who has ruled the island ever since. In 1961 Castro declared himself a communist, and Cuba is one of the last remaining states in the world with that affiliation. I want to challenge that description. Although Cuba had a revolution in 1958-59, it was nothing to do with socialism, and Cuba is no kind of workers' state. I want to explain what happened in Cuba, especially in the early sixties, and to argue that Cuba is a variant of Stalinism and the Castro government is a mortal enemy of working-class socialism. I will try to pull to pieces the arguments made by Castro and his supporters that Cuba is socialist, and then give my view about Cuba today and where it is heading.

There are four main arguments that Cuba is some kind of socialism: all of them are without foundation. The first argument is that Cuba is socialist because the revolution was led by people who now call themselves Communists. Yet you only have to look at the July 26th movement before 1959 to see that is wrong. Their programme was for the restoration of the 1940 Constitution, in other words for a bourgeois-democratic republic. They said in their manifesto that nationalisation was a "cumbersome instrument" and that Cuba would be "a loyal ally" of their Northern neighbour. Castro himself said in an interview in 1970 that, "In 1959 there was no class consciousness, only class instinct, which is not the same thing", and referred to the revolution in the early months of 1959 as neither capitalist nor socialist but "olive green". The Castroites labelled the Communist Party "totalitarian". They were certainly no mass party. There were 81 fighters on the Granma; only 300 at the battle of Santa Clara; and around 1500 overall. In terms of composition, the July 26th movement was a mixture of middle class leaders like Castro, some workers and youth, but mostly "class" elements. In no sense, by its programme, size or composition was it a mass socialist party.

Some commentators have said that the socialist element was provided by the involvement of the Communist Party, which by the fifties was called the Popular Socialist Party, the PSP. Although they had been in the previous period the largest and most influential Communist Party in Latin America, they were also the most cravenly opportunist, and the most Stalinist, following every twist and turn in Russian foreign policy and adapting to their Cuban milieu. They were sectarian in opposing the general strike in 1933 which brought down the dictator Machado. Later their popular front strategy led them to gain two ministers under Batista after forming an alliance with him after 1938. They spoke of having a "positive attitude towards the progressive endeavours" of Batista in his first period in power. Even into the fifties, though the CP had been repressed by their former ally, they referred to the July 26th movement as "putschists and sterile". Although they came to some understanding with Castro from 1957 and sent cadres to fight with the guerrillas, they were still formally calling for a bourgeois government to replace Batista into the middle of 1958, only months before Castro took power. This was hardly the programme or actions of a revolutionary socialist party that sought to lead the working class to power.

Finally, look at the manner of the seizure of power. After a two year guerrilla campaign, in the major battle of the war at Santa Clara in the last days of 1958, only 6 guerrillas and 300 soldiers died. Batista himself fled. There was not even a battle for the capital, Havana. There were no Soviets, few factory committees or occupations. The last general strike in April 1958 was a failure, and there were no organs of dual power. The workers were largely passive. The general strike in the first week of January 1959 was a public holiday. Batista's rule had already collapsed. No one in 1959, not even Castro or Guevara, said the revolution was socialist, and the revolution was not led by conscious socialists, whatever Fidel's later protestations. The 26th July movement stood for mild reforms, which could not be achieved because of Batista's dictatorship and the domination of American imperialism, hence the necessity of guerrilla war. The new government in 1959 was a petty bourgeois government, but one which ruled a country with a peculiar class structure and American hegemony. It was not socialist. To argue it was socialist in hindsight is to reach the absurd conclusion that a socialist revolution can be made without the active agency of the working class or without a conscious Marxist party.

The second argument goes as follows: Cuba is socialist because capitalism was abolished in Cuba by the end of 1960. Well, I agree that capitalism was abolished by end of 1960 - but what replaced it ? It was in fact replaced by Stalinism. This process went through two stages. Firstly from January to November 1959, when Castro and his coterie took over the government from the bourgeois figure-heads, meeting secretly at Tarara or in Cojimar to plan their strategy. Castro's group decisively broke with the bourgeois elements within the July 26th coalition by the end of 1959. Fidel became Prime Minister, Raul Castro the Minister of Defence, and Che President of the National Bank. The G-2 security service was established. Batista's army had been smashed. The new army was led by the ex-guerrillas, and trained in "Marxism". The student and trade union movements were taken over and purged of other oppositional forces.

The second stage, from November 1959 to November 1960, was the Stalinisation of Cuba. Castro consummated an alliance with the PSP which eventually led by 1965 to the Cuban Communist Party being the only legal party on the island, and an international alliance with the USSR, beginning in February 1960 and finally settled by the Bay of Pigs (April 1961) and the missile crisis (October 1962). This would eventually mean total integration into the Soviet empire, joint planning with the USSR, membership of COMECON, 85% trade with this bloc, and $10 billion aid.

Stalinism in Cuba mirrored Stalinism elsewhere: expropriation of the bourgeoisie, nationalisation of Cuban and foreign businesses by November 1960, nationalisation of 80% of land and bureaucratic planning through JECEPLAN, together with the shattering of the working class movement and democratic freedoms. The trade union movement declined from 50% density in 1960 to 10% by 1970, to a state, as one bureaucrat put it, of "harmonious counterpart to management". An indicator is the Cuban legal code, which allows for no freedom of speech, assembly or organisation, in which mere disrespect towards the Maximo Jefe can earn years in prison. In fact even the lowest estimate of the number of political prisoners during the seventies and eighties - 5,000 - is the same ratio as Chile under Pinochet.

Stalinism meant above all the development of a ruling bureaucracy. The bureaucrats might have looked somewhat Spartan in their battle fatigues, but they were still privileged in areas such as housing, foreign trips, imported cars, dollar shops and above all in power.

Why did Cuba go Stalinist? It was not an automatic process. It was partly because of pressure from US imperialism, and partly choice by the Castroite leaders. As Che Guevara put it in 1963. "Our commitment to the eastern bloc was half the fruit of constraint and half the result of choice." Cuba was and is ruled just like the old USSR. It has the same class structure.

The third argument says that Cuba is socialist because of the gains of the revolution for workers and peasants. It is true that in the first year of the revolution the poorest 25% were made better off by cuts in rent and land re-distribution. I'm sure Bernard will wax lyrical about high rates of growth, lower ratios of doctors to patients, high life expectancy, low infant mortality and improved education and literacy. However, these facts have to be set against three other considerations.

Firstly Cuba was already relatively developed before 1959, probably third in Latin America. Secondly, Cuba compares well but not is not markedly better than examples of capitalist countries on a similar level, like Taiwan and Costa Rica. Thirdly, since the withdrawal of the Russian subsidy there has been a terrible decline in living standards.

Cuba's annual growth figure of 4% over the first thirty years, even if it is credible, which I doubt, does not reveal the whole picture. Cuba fell from third place in Latin America to fifteenth for GDP per capita between 1952 and 1981, and the growth figures that were achieved did not arise from increases in productivity. The economy shrank from the mid-1980's and plummeted 35% between 1989-93, back to 1970's levels. GDP per head is now lower than Jamaica. From 1963 Cuba became a sugar monoculture within the Soviet empire. But the real crisis in Cuban agriculture is shown by the fact that half the food for Havana (three million people) is currently produced by the army, which owns just 4% of the land.

Crucially I would argue the working class lost out in the first decade of Castro's rule and since, through a longer working day, loss of bonuses and sickness benefits, by the abolition of special pay for Sundays and holidays (where a Christmas bonus could be up to one month's pay), voluntary work in the canefields and "voluntary" collections for causes, through an inadequate supply of consumer goods and a lack of quality housing and transport facilities. Even in the much hallowed areas of health and education, not everything is as obvious as the statistics suggest. Cuba already had one of the highest ratios of doctors to patients before the revolution and the rise in life expectancy (approximately 15 years) is comparable with Panama and Costa Rica. In education, the quality of buildings, textbooks and other resources is not impressive and in 1980 the government themselves found that one third of secondary schools practised some sort of academic fraud or cheating.

The 1990s have been utterly wretched for workers. Rationing means that a few pounds of rice and black beans, with oil, soap and meat when available, have to last about two weeks. A basic wage of 200 pesos per month (9) for manual workers and 450 pesos (13) for engineers is never enough. Income inequality has massively increased, especially in the dollar industries such as tourism. You have the absurdity of trained doctors and other skilled workers eking out a living as porters and taxi drivers. At most you could have said Cuba was parallel to capitalism up to 1990, but overall it was not better in welfare terms. And it certainly is not now.

The final argument is that Cuba is socialist because it is ruled by the "direct democracy" of so called "mass organisations". On paper the Cuban Communist Party is a mass organisation, with 700,000 members, and 600,000 in the Young Communists (UJC). But even sympathisers recognise that it is not mainly composed of workers from the factories and the fields, but of plant managers and bureaucrats. It is not a party in the real sense. Its top leaders are not subject to any kind of re-election or recall by the ranks. It does not compete with any other parties. They are illegal in Cuba. Who joins the CP depends on the party's Secretariat, which is itself subject to the Politburo who are elected by and accountable to no one. If you read the official propaganda, it says that the unified Cuban nation needs only one party to maintain its cohesion.

The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the CDRs , and the women's movement, the FMC, help manage the economy and administer the system, having received their orders from above. The CDRs manage the rationing process, and to get a new apartment, a different job, electrical goods, even a role on game shows, depends on your connection to these organisations. And what use is the FMC when the Cuban Family Code defines a woman's place as in the home and women cannot do jobs like house painters, divers or grave diggers?

The trade unions of the CTC are state-run. No others are allowed. It is impossible to organise legally within or outside of these bodies against the line of the Communist Party. Caucuses like the Socialist Teachers' Alliance, which Bernard help to found in Britain in the National Union of Teachers, are impossible. The irony is that trade unionists with a record like Bernard's in Cuba would either be in prison, in exile or dead. Dissidents of any kind are subject to arrest, detention, exile or public acts of "repudiation". The most famous and significant case was in 1983, when some workers who tried to set up a Solidarnosc style trade union, copying what they had heard about in Poland, were rounded up and at one stage faced the death penalty.

Finally, look at the National Assemblies of Popular Power. They were only established in 1976, which makes you wonder about the first fifteen years. At the lowest (municipal) level, anyone in theory can stand, but no one is allowed to put forward any policies or discuss national or provincial matters. They can only put up their biographical details. The higher assemblies consist of candidates chosen by an election commission (made up of Communist Party, UJC and CDR members) who have the power to dismiss municipal leaders but are only accountable to the higher committees. The assemblies hardly meet and their agenda is set for them. Real power lies in the Council of State and the Executive Committee, and all of these people are Politburo members or from the Communist Party. Although it seems like participation, none of this is democracy, even bourgeois democracy. In reality it is a world away from workers' democracy, and the experience of Paris in 1871 or Russia in 1917. None of these bodies function like Soviets or workers councils, where representatives are elected by and accountable to those below them, on pain of recall and if necessary being replaced.

Far from holding the levers of power, Cuban workers do not even have the space to organise even minimal resistance legally, and certainly not to control the surplus which is extracted from their daily labour. The Popular Power assemblies, the unions, the CDRs and the Communist Party are organs of control and oppression of Castro's ruling class over the workers and peasants. Their role is the implementation of decisions handed down from above, and convincing other Cubans to obey orders.

What is our analysis of Cuba under Castro ? This should be clear from my critique of the arguments that Cuba is some kind of socialism. Castro is a Bonaparte figure who used his party-army to smash the old state and create his own forms of rule. These were exceptional due to the peculiar class structure of Cuba and the type of state which thrived under Batista. Cuba is identical to the old Stalinist system in Russia. What was Stalinism in Russia ? A one party state in which the capitalist class has been expropriated and the surplus product was extracted by the extra-economic coercion of a ruling bureaucracy. It simultaneously smashed the working class movement and bourgeois social relations, at least for a period.

The 1959 revolution was a blow against US imperialism. We would have supported the revolution against Batista in 1959, despite the leadership of the July 26th movement. This was the formal stance of most sections of the Trotskyist movement. But ours was the socialist alternative in 1959 - workers' liberty. The possibilities of working class socialism in Cuba were shown by the revolution in 1933, when the working class overthrew Machado and Soviets of workers councils appeared around the sugar mills. Our alternative was no utopia in the history of class struggle in Cuba.

Where is Cuba going? Some sections of the bureaucracy want capitalism by the Chinese route. Tourism is their perestroika and glasnost. Look at the business conferences and magazines which advertise Cuba as a well educated workforce without the trade union obstructiveness found elsewhere in the Caribbean. The Cuban government is not our government. Down with Castro! What do we say about the blockade? We are clearly against it because of the national right to self determination. We know what US business wants to do and we don't support imperialism. We defend Cuba but we don't forget that "my enemy's enemy is not necessarily my friend". Are we for elections in Cuba? Yes. We want democratic freedom for the working class. Are we for capitalism in Cuba? No. There are not only two camps but also a Third Camp. Look at Russia now. Capitalism has no answers for the Cuban working class.

What about socialism? For us this can only mean the self-emancipation of the working class. The alternative is the absurd conclusion that socialism can be made without the working class and without a Marxist leadership. Cuba is heading for capitalism. We fight for real socialism, for workers' power. Neither Castro nor Clinton! For the Third Camp of the working class!

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