Cuba Controversy


controversy has arisen on the left in the U.S., and perhaps more
widely as well, about recent events in Cuba. The Cuban government
has enacted repressive legal measures against opponents. The U.S.
government, having provoked the situation over decades and more
immediately as well, will very likely use the events to justify
further machinations against the Cuban people. 

leftists say that given this manipulative and dangerous reality
one can only support the Cuban decisions or, at most, be silent
about them.  

leftists have openly criticized the decisions, though this has taken
the form of two different petitions (one that I signed because I
felt it placed the criticisms of Cuba in the proper context, criticizing
also U.S. imperialism, and the other that I did not sign, feeling
that it offered inadequate context and balance). In my view of the
recent events, to have better health care, housing, and education
than any other country suffering even a fraction of the denial of
economic and political access imposed by the U.S. on Cuba does not
justify dictatorship in Cuba. For any state to execute people is
bad enough. For a state to catch, try, sentence, and execute people
in a week is beyond legal, moral, or social comprehension. To fear
external intervention by the U.S.—that has been intervening
for decades and now threatens, or appears to threaten to do much
more—is prudent. But to react to this danger by cracking down
on internal dissent and violating even minimal norms of jurisprudence
is not justified. It actually fuels the logic of intervention, providing
grist for interventionist rationales.  

the U.S. role in Cuba should be trivially easy for people of good
will. The hypocrisy and cynicism of U.S. policy is brutally evident
in the historical record. Activist opposition to any variant of
U.S. intervention in Cuba should be forefront. Thankfully, there
is little or no left controversy about this. An issue that gets
considerably less attention, however, and about which controversy
now rages, is understanding more about Cuba and about the efficacy
of leftists criticizing the Cuban government’s choices and
Cuba’s institutional structures. 

a 1962 speech, “The Duty of the Revolutionary,” Fidel
Castro said, “The summary of the nightmare which torments America
from one end to the other is that on this continent…about four
persons per minute die of hunger, of curable illness, or premature
old age. Fifty-five hundred per day, two million per year, ten million
each five years. These deaths could easily be avoided, but nevertheless
they take place. Two-thirds of the Latin American population lives
briefly and lives under constant threat of death. A holocaust of
lives, which in 15 years has caused twice the number of deaths as
World War I. Meanwhile, from Latin America a continuous torrent
of money flows to the United States: some $4,000 a minute, $5 million
a day, $2 billion a year, $10 billion every five years. For each
thousand dollars that leaves us there remains one corpse. A thousand
dollars per corpse: That is the price of what is called imperialism.
A thousand dollars per death … four deaths every minute.” 

the four decades since Castro’s assessment, for most of Latin
America except Cuba, the above statistics have improved little,
or even worsened. In the 1980s, for example, income in Latin America,
excluding Cuba, declined by 8 percent, according to the Inter-American
Development Bank. Castro’s injunction in the same 1962 speech
is as apropos today as it was then: “The duty of every revolutionary
is to make the revolution. It is known that the revolution will
triumph in America and throughout the world, but it is not for revolutionaries
to sit in the doorways of their houses waiting for the corpse of
imperialism to pass by. The role of Job doesn’t suit a revolutionary.
Each year that the liberation of America is speeded up will mean
the lives of millions of children saved, millions of intelligences
saved for culture, an infinite quantity of pain spared the people.”

has changed, as well, regarding who and what is the principle enemy
of the people of Latin America or regarding the magnitude of the
crimes that need rectification. And therefore little has changed
regarding the urgency of transcending imperial and neo-colonial

what about “liberation?” Have the positive goals that
a revolution against capitalism, sexism, and racism should strive
for changed? What does Cuba’s experience teach us in these
respects? Despite decades of CIA-supported terror and U.S.-imposed
economic boycott, Cuba exceeds most of its Latin American neighbors
in intellectual, cultural, health, educational, and political accomplishments.
This deserves praise and support. 

the same time, no matter how you look at it, one-person-rule through
a bureaucratic hierarchical party is dictatorship, even when, as
in Cuba, the leader is in many respects benevolent. Castro is the
hub; the Cuban Communist Party radiates the spokes. Parallel grassroots
institutions, including what is called Poder Popular, represent
a participatory political trend that has, however, failed to transcend
party manipulation. To inaugurate the 1970s, Castro proclaimed:
“The formulas of revolutionary process can never be administrative
formulas…. Sending a man down from the top to solve a problem
involving 15 or 20 thousand people is not the same thing as the
problems of these 15 or 20 thousand people—problems having
to do with their community—being solved by virtue of the decisions
of the people, of the community, who are close to the source of
the problems…. We must do away with all administrative methods
and use mass methods everywhere.”  

had the Leninist, hierarchical Party and also the popular democratic
Poder Popular. But, Castro’s words notwithstanding, the former
consistently dominated the latter. Oversimplifying a complex and
variegated political history, it follows that three main impediments
continue to obstruct Castro’s stated hope to substitute political
participation for political administration: 

  • The Cuban Communist
    Party monopolizes all legitimate means of wielding political power
    and thereby ensures that there is only one Cuban political line,
    that of the Party and its leadership. The first problem is political

  • The omnipresence
    of Fidel Castro leaves little room for any popular vehicles to
    attain true decentralized grassroots power. The second problem
    is Fidelismo. 

  • The willingness
    of the U.S. to manipulate political differences to destroy Third
    World revolutions provokes and is used to justify regimentation.
    The third problem facing Cuba is the not-so-benevolent U.S. 

Cuba faces the problem of succession, as the U.S. boycott and aggression
diminish the life options of Cubans, and as the corruption of the
Cuban political bureaucracy increasingly alienates the Cuban populace,
two political paths are possible. 

can return to its early aspirations and move from Leninism and dictatorship
to participatory democracy premised on mass participation. 

instead, Cuba can defend authoritarianism and preserve elite privileges
under the guise of defending the revolution. In the political realm,
in practice, it follows that choices moving toward greater regimentation
are choices for a repressive path and not a liberatory one. 

the Cuban government decides to utilize the death penalty, to speed
prosecutions, and to engage in other repressive acts ostensibly
to protect its survival—but having the opposite implication,
at least regarding opinions abroad—it is bad enough. But when
the Cuban government speaks as though doing these things is some
kind of positive and worthy pursuit, it communicates that regimentation
and centralization are seen as virtues and not as deviations from
preferred aspirations. 

about the economy? For all its worthy accomplishments, the Cuban
economy is far from liberated. Planners, state bureaucrats, local
managers, and technocrats monopolize decisions while workers carry
out orders. In the resulting economy, a ruling coordinator class
plans the efforts of workers and appropriates inflated pay, perks,
and status. Cuba’s coordinator economy has given the Cuban
people pride in national accomplishments and major material gains
in health care, housing, literacy, security, and overall standards
of living. But however admirable these achievements are when compared
to conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador, Watts, and the South Bronx,
this does not justify applying the label “liberated.”
For that, there would have to be no ruling class, and workers would
have to collectively administer their own efforts.

as with politics, Cuban economic history has not followed a simple
trajectory. The coordinator model has been dominant, but there has
always been an alternative spirit manifested, sometimes in hope,
sometimes in actual experiments, but regrettably never leading to
liberated economic relations. In 1962 and 1963, impressed with what
they saw when visiting the Soviet Union, and seeing no other options,
Cuba installed economic forms mimicking the traditional Soviet model.
By 1964, disenchantment set in and a great debate ensued. In a letter
written from Africa in 1965, summarizing the spirit of the recommendations
he championed in that debate, Che Guevara wrote: “The new society
in process of formation has to compete very hard with the past.
This makes itself felt not only in the individual consciousness,
weighted down by the residues of an education and an upbringing
systematically oriented toward the isolation of the individual,
but also by the very nature of this transition period, with the
persistence of commodity relations. The commodity is the economic
cell of capitalist society: as long as it exists its effects will
make themselves felt in the organization of production and therefore
in consciousness.” In the debate, Che disdained the use of
“profitability,” “material interest,” and a
“commodity mentality,” arguing instead for emphasizing
morality, collectivity, solidarity, and the criterion of use value
in meeting human needs. He did not, however, champion or even raise
the issue of direct control by workers over their own workplaces
or over economic decision-making in general. 

adopted a similarly humane but incomplete stance saying: “We
will never create a socialist consciousness… with a ‘dollar
sign’ in the minds and hearts of our men and women… those
who wish to solve problems by appealing to personal selfishness,
by appealing to individualistic effort, forgetful of society, are
acting in a reactionary manner, conspiring, although inspired by
the best intentions in the world, against the possibilities of creating
a truly socialist spirit.” Castro acknowledged that his desires
to equalize incomes and forgo competition and individual incentives
would be incomprehensible to some. He knew that to “learned,”
“experienced” economists “this would seem to go against
the laws of economics.” “To these economists an assertion
of this type sounds like heresy, and they say that the revolution
is headed for defeat. But it so happens that in this field there
are two special branches. One is the branch of the ‘pure’
economist. But there is another science, a deeper science which
is truly revolutionary science. It is the science of … confidence
in human beings. If we agreed that people are incorrigible, that
people are incapable of learning; if we agreed that people are incapable
of developing their conscience—then we would have to say that
the ‘brainy’ economists were right, that the Revolution
would be headed for defeat and that it would be fighting the laws
of economics…”  

the years the economic debate in Cuba has vacillated between two
poles: competition versus solidarity, profit-maximizing versus meeting
human needs, markets versus central planning, and individual incentives
and inequality versus collective incentives and equality, with many
swings back and forth. Consider the following comments from Castro
when the left pole was in ascendancy: “A financier, a pure
economist, a metaphysician of revolutions would have said, ‘Careful,
rents shouldn’t be lowered one cent. Think of it from a financial
standpoint, from an economic standpoint, think of the pesos involved!’
Such persons have ‘dollar signs’ in their heads and they
want the people, also, to have ‘dollar signs’ in their
hearts and heads! Such people would not have made even one revolutionary
law. In the name of those principles they would have continued to
charge the farmers interest on loans; they would have charged for
medical and hospital care; they would have charged school fees;
they would have charged for the boarding schools that are completely
free, all in the name of a metaphysical approach to life. They would
never have had the people’s enthusiasm, the masses’ enthusiasm
which is the prime factor, the basic factor, for a people to advance,
for a people to build, for a people to be able to develop. And that
enthusiasm on the part of the people that support for the revolution
is something that can be measured in terms incomparably superior
to the adding and subtracting of the metaphysicians.” 

The problem
has been that the left pole, which has argued for egalitarianism,
solidarity, meeting needs, and collective incentives, has also wrongly
argued for extreme central planning rather than decentralized, participatory
planning with direct workplace democracy. The difficulty here is
not only that something valuable wasn’t included on the left
side of the debate, but that the positive goals the left championed—solidarity,
equity, collectivity—were subverted by coordinator decision-making
and central planning, plus absence of free speech, etc. When the
left policy pole gained ascendancy, the continuing lack of real
institutional participation and power on the part of workers meant
that their enthusiasm and talent were not unleashed in the hoped
for manner. Thus, after a few years of left influence over economic
policy, the economy would eventually falter, and the turn back to
the right—always urged by the Soviet advisers, empowered by
virtue of Cuba’s dependence on Russian aid—would be legitimated. 

the face of the fall of the Soviet model, Cuba has not jumped on
the free-market bandwagon preferring any alternative to resurgent
commodity economics and a sellout to the West. But, as the years
push on, what can they do instead? One depressing and the most likely
possibility is that they will stay the current course, as they have
over the past decade, defending coordinatorism while trying to rectify
its worst abuses. 

the grassroots movement Solidarity began to succeed in Poland, it
had the option of retaining its working-class composition and its
emphasis on elevating workers to decision-making power via new economic
institutions or of jettisoning all that in favor of elevating intellectuals
and adopting markets, competition, and profit-seeking despite their
obvious inadequacies. The liberating choice lost because the young
movement put no structural, institutional supports in place. When
Jesse Jackson galvanized new energies across the United States,
he and the Rainbow Coalition had the opportunity to develop lasting
grassroots organization and democratic movement, or to subordinate
everything to narrow electoral priorities. The liberating choice
lost because the young movement put no structural, institutional
supports in place.  Later, when Ralph Nader ran a powerful
and popular presidential campaign, again there was the possibility
to solidify the gains, create perhaps a shadow government or some
massive continuing democratic and participatory institutional opposition,
but the liberating choice was again lost. 

recent unprecedented international upsurge of anti-globalization
and anti-war activism around the world has created a potential for
establishing new levels of lasting organizational presence. We have
to see what the results will be, whether new structures will solidify
the gains or not.  

Cuba can either persist with its siege mentality and defend not
only its virtuous accomplishments, but also bureaucracy, dictatorship,
central planning, and workplace hierarchy, or it can develop participatory
democracy and truly liberated economics consistent with revolutionary
Cuba’s past aspirations. With their Eastern bloc bridges burned,
facing continued and perhaps even escalated U.S. opposition, we
can only hope that Cuba will once again opt for “a revolution
within the revolution,” and there is no compromise in saying

will see the situation differently. But those who think that having
the audacity to criticize dictatorship, the death penalty, and violations
of political liberty more broadly is somehow casting aside radical
commitment and aligning with imperialism, ought to think twice.

Albert is co-founder of South End Press and Z Magazine. He currently
staffs ZNet and is the author, most recently, of

Parecon: Life
After Capitalism