Cuba & South Africa

Joel Kovel



The linkage between Castro’s Cuba and Mandela’s South Africa runs deep. Cuban slave society was less efficient in demolishing ties to Africa than its North American counterpart, allowing Cuba to retain a strong sense of their parent culture. Accordingly, revolutionary Cuba has held, amidst its many allegiances, to a special affiliation with the African homeland. It was in this spirit that Castro intervened in the Angolan wars of the 1970s—against the wishes of the Soviets, who considered the action adventuristic. The bold gamble pitted Cuba directly against the armies of apartheid South Africa, who were intervening on the other side, and indirectly against the United States in its strategy of counterrevolution on the African continent.

The result was a stunning triumph. Cuba’s victory in the battle of Cuito Cuanevale in 1987 profoundly demoralized the racist state and played a decisive role in the decision to liquidate apartheid. Few in the U.S. realize this, and most of those few are black, hence Fidel’s extraordinary reception in Harlem in 1995 when he traveled to New York for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UN. The Abyssinian Baptist Church was transformed that evening into an island of enthusiasm in a sea of ignorance and antipathy. In South Africa, however, no one is oblivious to the meaning of Cuba; and of all the delegates to Nelson Mandela’s joyous inauguration in 1994, Fidel received the greatest welcome, much to the discomfort of Al Gore, who headed the U.S. contingent and more or less stood in the corner gnashing his teeth as the two great revolutionaries came together. Today, three years after the birth of the new South Africa, the Cubans are sending doctors to the new democracy to work in underserved rural regions. Yet even as this destitute nation clinging to a dissolving socialism aids Africa’s superpower, considerable numbers of well-heeled Britons are migrating to Cape Town in search of la dolce vita. Why this should be is a subject for some reflection and not a little sadness.

In February, the opportunity arose to visit both Cuba and South Africa. I was in Havana for an international conference on the environment— a remarkable occurrence—and immediately afterward made my way to Cape Town where I was to help in the development of an exchange program between my school, Bard College, and the University of the Western Cape. I had been in both places before—most recently in Cuba in 1994, and in South Africa in 1989, as the anti-apartheid struggle was gathering for the final assault. No place could have been more thrilling, and awful, than South Africa in that period: thrilling, because great masses of humanity had been set irrevocably in motion to bring down one of the most detestable regimes in modern history; and awful, because the regime still had teeth to murder and torture even if it could no longer effectively rule. The mingled elation, revulsion, and dread was unforgettable.

Cuba in 1994 had, as it has since 1959, a similar spirit, compounded of struggle, sacrifice, and risk taken against a cruel adversary, and manifested as legendary generosity, fierce pride, and organic collectivity. The sense of awfulness was there, too, distilled into an omnipresent hunger, and even a kind of national emaciation, as if the society had been in a concentration camp—which, in a way, it was, thanks to Uncle Sam’s murderous and implacable blockade.

Three years later, the blockade grinds on, reinforced by the Helms-Burton bill. But Cubans are once more well-fed, though still quite poor and wanting in many amenities. Two major successes—one dubious and the other extraordinarily hopeful—account for their renewed well-being. The dubious achievement is the growth of tourism. Glitzy hotels spring up along the coast to suck pesatas, Deutschmarks, Lira, and Canadian dollars into the country—along, necessarily, with bourgeois commodities and values. You can now buy Yves St. Laurent ties and Swatch watches in the boutiques that have cropped up here and there like so many cancer cells metastasizing into socialist austerity. A billboard for toothpaste was spotted on the road alongside the noble and stern images of Che; and the taxi radio blares hypno-rock music, the voice chanting, "whatever turns you on . . . whatever, whatever," and "I will, I will," to induce a proper frame of mind for the consumerism knocking at the door. Some enterprises have gone further yet: in the gleaming hotel next to the conference center, the gift shop no longer carries revolutionary post cards and other tsatzkas of Cuban socialism. The theme is now folklorico; thus revolutionary Cuba is rendered into another instance of the exotic South for jaded travelers on the road from Frankfurt or Seoul.

So it goes. But not entirely so. There is an intact core to Cuba, built up over two generations of what has arguably been, for all its flaws, the most fully realized proletarian socialism the world has ever seen. This does not yield so easily, nor does it stand still. The conference I attended was testimony to this, and to the other major success that has liberated Cuba from the bondage of hunger.

The collapse of the USSR sent Cuba’s economy into free fall. No sector was more disastrously affected than agriculture, already gravely compromised by decades of single-crop industrial farming under Soviet aegis. The near starvation could not be blamed simply on the blockade; it also stemmed from a rigid agricultural system that even in good years had been unable to feed the Cuban people. This system is no more. In a creative adaptation of world-historical proportions, Cuba has been able to transform its food production along organic lines. This has engaged not only the full repertoire of organic techniques (including oxen in place of tractors), but also a major research effort drawing on traditional wisdom as well as current science, and, necessarily, a social transformation in the countryside, where in the last 5 years 2,800 co-operatives employing 270,000 people have sprung up. Even the city of Havana blooms with scores of urban gardens and small farms and is on the road to actually feeding itself. Organic agriculture on this scale becomes more than a way of providing superior food; more even than a way of restoring the soil and avoiding pollution by pesticides. It provides as well the foundation for autonomous as against dependent third world development, and it instills cooperation and creativity in a necessarily democratic framework. Compare this with the social relations of tourism, with its parasitic leisure, its degradation of the local to a commodity, and its latent authoritarianism, for where tourism grows, so must the police.

Cuba today is a country of wide-open struggle, its future still actively contested. Three tendencies are now afoot. The traditional party bureaucracy comprises one model, offering a recycled Stalinism, while technocratic capitalist-roaders form the second, and the socialist-ecological- communitarians the third. The danger is that the first and second tendency may come together, as they have in China, with deadly effect. Meanwhile, the success of the organic agriculture program is the strongest card in the hands of this third force, just as the incipient integration of Cuba into global commodity circuits constitutes its greatest danger. The big question is, what happens as prosperity passes a certain point? How many are harboring the expectation that once credit and oil flow again, the island should return to less labor-intensive and more immediately productive—though ultimately ecocidal—ways? Clearly the outcome of this struggle will be affected by the response and solidarity of the international community to the drama now unfolding. Just as clearly, the stakes are not confined to the island of Cuba.


Seven thousand miles away, another kind of struggle unfolds, in a society much wealthier than Cuba, and one no longer a pariah. Here, however, South Africa’s quest for integration looks very much like a curse. Why should this richly-endowed and advanced country, with world-class universities, great urban centers, and immense mineral resources, need to import Cuban doctors? Cape Town, after all, was the site of the first heart transplant. Isn’t that "developed" enough? Why can’t they supply their own physicians for their rural poor?

There are two parts to the answer, both harsh. First, the gap between rich and poor in South Africa is perhaps the worst such chasm in the world. Second, South Africa is being subjected to a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) in which the government of the African National Congress, heroic victors of the democratic revolution, is desperately trying to make the country attractive to transnational capital. An incident from the evening news in Cape Town may convey the flavor. There, in African garb, was the national icon, Nelson Mandela, resplendent and radiant as ever; and next to him, his distinguished guest, the prime minister of Singapore, dour and puritanical in his gray suit. Yes, said the somber PM of the squeaky-clean entrepot of authoritarian capitalism, Singapore genuinely likes South Africa. Singapore will even trade with South Africa. Someday, sooner or later, Singapore may even decide to invest in South Africa. Not a word about the terms of this future, but no one doubts what they would be: curb the working class and its powerful national union federation, COSATU. Bring them under control, provide us with cheap and docile labor, and we will consider investing in you. Until then, there’s always Bangladesh. Thus the terms of the SAP are applied here as in El Salvador and Haiti: privatize (during my visit, plans were unveiled for selling off the national telecommunications system), deregulate, and cut back the state sector and its services. So health-care is being ravaged, driving doctors out of public service, indeed out of the country, and creating the need for the generosity of Cuba.

At the same time, major cuts have been announced in the education budget. The result—does this begin to sound familiar?—has been to drive up student fees and effectively exclude poorer students, a result only disturbing to the soft-hearted, as there is no foreseeable employment of the kind that requires education for maybe 40 percent of the population. Protests have been breaking out on a number of campuses, though not, significantly, at the University of the Western Cape. This is surprising, since UWC was by consensus the most militant campus of the late apartheid period. When I lectured there in 1989, the authorities were given to the permanent emplacement of tanks before the school gates, and a weekly workshop on Marxism drew as many as 400-500 participants. Today the tanks and the workshops are both gone, and the students walk about docilely and as if in a daze, and wait for their next get-drunk party.

The explanation involves that most cursed disease of modern society, the disease that the heroic rebellion was supposed to have cured: racism. UWC was originally a "colored" campus, that is, assigned to those of mixed descent and intermediate hue in the great racial fantasy game. During the 1980s many blacks (who comprise about three-fourths of the total population of the whole of South Africa, but not of the Western Cape), came aboard. Because everyone was engaged in the common struggle, internal racism was suppressed. Now there is no clear enemy to struggle against, the campus is 60 percent black and 40 percent colored, and for practical purposes has split in two, with predictable effects on militancy.

Whites meanwhile withdraw to the beautiful inner city, send their children to elite schools, live in high security residences, fret, not unrealistically, about crime, and brood over the great mass of black people who live outside the gates of their city. The colored population of Cape Town traditionally has mistrusted the ANC, and, rather than vote for blacks, have made the province of the Western Cape the sole bastion in South Africa of the justly hated National Party which led the apartheid regime.

It is the ANC, however, which gives the most pain by retreating from its own emancipatory promise. This is not to dispute that there are any number of individuals in the government who toil to extract from the current situation the best possible terms for the future of the country. The problem is that the direction chosen by the leadership, namely, submission to transnational capital, has as much chance of alleviating the horrendous poverty in which half the population lives as the sun does of setting in the east. People feel this viscerally, but they cannot say it outright, because the leadership still enjoys so much legitimacy, and because capital has today its aura of godlike inevitability—and so South Africa lives uneasily from its mythology, rudderless and unsure. A thought occurs, which cannot be broadcast in South Africa: maybe the country has to wait until Nelson Mandela steps down before it can begin a real debate about its future. He is too great a man, and too beloved, for an honest appraisal to occur today.

At dinner with some leftist friends (white, needless to add), I shared these concerns and was met with the commonplaces one hears everywhere: nothing else can be done, the capitalist system is the only one, South Africa has no choice but to knuckle under in order to get investments, and the best that can be hoped for is to become a more benign African equivalent—a "lion," perhaps—of one of the "Asian Tigers." South Africa can aspire then to become like Malaysia, the best of the bunch yet still a repressive country that harshly suppresses unions and fills no sails with inspiration. It is doubly painful to hear these plaintive hopes, because they are not only unworthy but unrealistic as well. None of the Asian Tigers had to contend with the cruel legacy of race and class foisted on South Africa by colonialism and apartheid, and the terrible, palpable gulf between people that results.

The sad fact is that South Africa, three years after the revolution, is full of places one is warned against visiting. The commuter train is declared off limits, as are whole townships on the vast and sandy flats that spread away to the North and East, squatter camps where the dispossessed still come drifting in from as far away as Nigeria. The police advise those driving late at night not to stop at red lights lest they get car-jacked. Johannesburg is far worse, I was told, but Cape Town is bad enough, reproducing a kind of apartheid through alienation and fear in the midst of beauty and promise.


It’s not like this in Cuba, I remind myself. Cuba: the last outpost of socialism, and for all its distortions, the least racist society on earth. Yes, I know one can’t sustain a claim like that at all levels (the Cuban leadership, for example, is very much skewed toward light-skin); but if you spend time in Cuba and walk the streets, and observe the face to face interactions of everyday life, and see black, brown, yellow and white people all together, and sense their openness to outsiders, then you will experience what I mean.

But then look again. Here, too, there have been sightings of the New World Order. Reports leak in of street crime, while prostitution is an unmistakable fact of Cuba’s new/old life. If the technocrats and the international bourgeoisie get their way—and the rest of us remain passive—Cuba will get its very own Structural Adjustment Program, too. It is cowardly and wrong to insist that these things have to be.

The Cuban experiment in organic agriculture shows what can be done when human ingenuity is applied, free of capitalist strictures, in a desperate situation. Is this too much to ask of South Africa? Is it too much to ask of us? Please, do not be too hasty with your answer.