Fifty years after Fidel Castro and his followers launched the Cuban revolution with an abortive attack on the dictator Batista’s Moncada barracks, Cuba’s critics are already writing its obituaries. Echoing President Bush’s dismissal of Cuban-style socialism as a “relic”, the Miami Herald pronounced the revolution “dead in the water” at the weekend. The Telegraph called the island “the lost cause that is Cuba”, while the Independent on Sunday thought the Cuban dream “as old and fatigued as Fidel himself” and a BBC reporter claimed that, by embracing tourism, “the revolution has simply replaced one elite with another”. Bush is, of course, only the latest of 10 successive US presidents who have openly sought to overthrow the Cuban government and Batista’s heirs in Florida have long plotted a triumphant return to reclaim their farms, factories and bordellos – closed or expropriated by Castro, Che Guevara and their supporters after they came to power in 1959. But international hostility towards the Cuban regime has increased sharply since April, when it launched its harshest crackdown on the US-backed opposition for decades, handing out long jail sentences to 75 activists for accepting money from a foreign power and executing three ferry hijackers.
The repression, which followed 18 months of heightened tension between the US and Cuba, shocked many supporters of Cuba around the world and left the Castro regime more isolated than it has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Egged on by Britain and the rightwing governments of Italy and Spain, the EU has now used the jailings to reverse its policy of constructive engagement and fall in behind the US neo-conservative line, imposing diplomatic sanctions, increasing support for the opposition and blocking a new trade agreement. But it’s not hard to discover the origins of this dangerous standoff, which follows a period in which Amnesty International had noted Cuba’s “more open and permissive approach” towards dissent. In the aftermath of September 11,  the Bush administration – whose election depended on the votes [sic]of hardline Cuban exiles in Florida – singled out Cuba for membership of a second-tier axis of evil. The Caribbean island, US under-secretary of state John Bolton insisted menacingly, was a safe haven for terrorists, was researching biological weapons and had dual-use technology it could pass to other “rogue states”. He was backed by Bush, who declared that the 40-year-old US trade embargo against Cuba would not be lifted until there were both multi-party elections and free market reforms, while Cuba was branded a threat to US security, overturning the Clinton administration’s assessment.
Into this growing confrontation stepped James Cason as the new chief US diplomat in Havana, with a brief to boost support for Cuba’s opposition groups. The US’s huge quasi-embassy mainly provided equipment and facilities, but millions of dollars of US government aid also appears to have been channelled to the dissidents through Miami-based exile groups [and USAID. that is, US tax dollars]. The final trigger for Castro’s clampdown was a string of US-indulged plane and ferry hijackings in April, against a background of US warnings about the threat to its security and Cuban fears of military intervention in the event of a mass exodus from Cuba – a scenario long favoured by Miami exiles.
Some have concluded that a paranoid Castro walked into a trap laid by Bush. After 44 years of economic siege, mercenary invasion, assassination attempts, terrorist attacks and biological warfare from their northern neighbour, it might be thought the Cuban leadership had some reason to feel paranoid. But perhaps significantly, the US has in the past few weeks adopted a more cooperative stance, returning 15 hijackers to Cuba and warning Cubans that they should only come to the US through “existing legal channels”, which allow around 20,000 visas a year [although they had not been GRANTING even a small percentage of those].
And however grim the Cuban crackdown, it beggars belief that the denunciations have been led by the US and its closest European allies in the “war on terror”. Not only has the US sentenced five Cubans to between 15 years and life for trying to track anti-Cuban, Miami-based terrorist groups and carried out over 70 executions of its own in the past year, but (along with Britain) supports other states, in the Middle East and Central Asia for example, which have thousands of political prisoners and carry out routine torture and executions. And, of course, the worst human rights abuses on the island of Cuba are not carried under Castro’s aegis at all, but in the Guantanamo base occupied against Cuba’s will, where the US has interned 600 prisoners without charge for 18 months, who it now plans to try in secret and possibly execute – without even the legal rights afforded to Cuba’s jailed oppositionists.
Which only goes to reinforce what has long been obvious: that US hostility to Cuba does not stem from the regime’s human rights failings, but its social and political successes and the challenge its unyielding independence offers to other US and western satellite states. Saddled with a siege economy and a wartime political culture for more than 40 years, Cuba has achieved first world health and education standards in a third world country, its infant mortality and literacy rates now rivalling or outstripping those of the US, its class sizes a third smaller than in Britain – while next door, in the US-backed “democracy” of Haiti, half the population is unable to read and infant mortality is over 10 times higher. Those, too, are human rights, recognised by the UN declaration and European convention. Despite the catastrophic withdrawal of Soviet support more than a decade ago and the social damage wrought by dollarisation and mass tourism, Cuba has developed biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries acknowledged by the US to be the most advanced in Latin America. Meanwhile, it has sent 50,000 doctors to work for free in 93 third world countries (currently there are 1,000 working in Venezuela’s slums) and given a free university education to 1,000 third world students a year. How much of that would survive a takeover by the Miami-backed opposition?
The historical importance of Cuba’s struggle for social justice and sovereignty and its creative social mobilisation will continue to echo beyond its time and place: from the self-sacrificing internationalism of Che to the crucial role played by Cuban troops in bringing an end to apartheid through the defeat of South Africa at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1988. But those relying on the death of Castro (the “biological solution”) to restore Cuba swiftly to its traditional proprietors may be disappointed, while the Iraq imbroglio may have checked the US neo-conservatives’ enthusiasm for military intervention against a far more popular regime in Cuba. That suggests Cuba will have to expect yet more destabilisation, further complicating the defence of the social and political gains of the revolution in the years to come. The greatest contribution those genuinely concerned about human rights and democracy in Cuba can make is to help get the US and its European friends off the Cubans’ backs.