Nothing if Not Critical

Samuel Farber, Cuba since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011, 369 pp., $24.00


The political science literature on the Cuban Revolution suffered for decades from mostly two extremes: romantic apologia from the left and hysterical denunciation from the right. Among the handful of scholars who offered an alternative to these trends, the books and articles of Samuel Farber stand out from the rest. In 1976 his Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933-1960, provided an in-depth context for a narrative where the pursuit of freedom and social justice was stopped by a combination of a corrupt ruling class, the interests of the United States, and frustrated political movements. This work was followed by The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered in 2006, where he probed and dismantled the myths of the revolution's roots. His recent Cuba since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment is not only the continuation of his two previous books, but I would dare say it is the culmination of a lifetime of work that is lucid, clear, and critical.

Born and raised in the Havana suburb of Mariano, Farber left Cuba for the United States in 1958 during the last months of the Batista regime. He had been active in the Cuban high school student movement through the Directorio Estudiantil against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship. This bit of biography is important; Farber's roots are in the Cuban democratic left and this informs his perspective as a scholar.

The book is divided into an introduction, seven chapters, a conclusion, and an epilogue that discusses the changes after the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in 2011. Before the introduction the reader encounters a chronology of significant events in the island's history, from the year of the failed 1933 revolution through November 2010. This chronology sheds light on undeniable facts, from the constant intrusion of U.S. interests in the nation's politics with its sabotage of a progressive agenda, to the elimination of the anti-Stalinist left after the triumph of the 1959 revolution, and to the repeated failures of the strategies of centralization by the Castro government. The contents of the book build, chapter by chapter, a systematic critique of the entire revolutionary project from the perspective of a democratic Marxism grounded in the pre- Stalinist tradition.

In chapter 1 the author discusses the construction of the power of the Cuban state from above, that is by Fidel Castro and his allies. Farber's statement in the chapter's second paragraph frames the context clearly:


"The eventual establishment of a Soviet-type regime in Cuba, the only one in the Western Hemisphere, cannot be explained in terms of generalizations about underdevelopment, dictatorship, and imperialism, which are common to the whole of Latin America. The single most important factor that explains the uniqueness of Cuba's development was the political leadership of Fidel Castro, which made a difference in the triumph against Batista and in determining the course taken by the Cuban Revolution after it came to power. In turn, Castro's role was made possible by the particular socioeconomic and political context of Cuba in the late fifties" (p. 10).


Both the paternalistic figure of the caudillo and the sociopolitical reality that made him possible are at the roots of the creation of the state after 1959. Essential in this is what the author defines as the "geopolitical fatalism" of traditional Cuban politicians who believed that nothing significant could be done in the island without the approval of the United States; Castro's simultaneous dismantling and use of this fatalism allowed him to create a sense of both empowerment and resentment, which facilitated his agenda from the earliest days of 1959.

Castro quickly became an untouchable figure who could not be critiqued, acquiring an aura of "Fidel knows best," which has continued even after he stepped down from power a few years ago. Farber focuses on Castro's use of the word "unity" as a euphemism for power that is monolithic and autocratic—an affinity for the Stalinist one-party state—and he connects this to the academics and intellectuals that in their sympathy for the regime argue that the Cuban Revolution could not have been democratic. Farber responds that this argument stands outside the lived historical process based on predictions that are not warranted by a fluid situation. He adds: "Even if we assumed that for a number of 'objective' reasons, a socialist democracy was indeed not possible in Cuba and that the system established by Fidel Castro was 'inevitable,' that would not mean that such a system is worthy of support and apology" (p. 34). After a 40 page analysis of the development and constant shifts of the Cuban state as centralized and executing power from above, the author bluntly concludes that workers and the whole lot of oppressed and exploited people will only learn the practice of socialist democracy through their own efforts, trials and errors. Democratic traditions cannot be taught by one-party, patriarchal dictatorships.

Chapter 2 examines the country's economic development since 1959, laying out its failed central planning, corrosive corruption at the top of the administrative chain, and tentative reforms since the assumption of the presidency by Raúl Castro. Again, the lack of open discussion and democratic discourse poisons the critical examination of the economy, leaving it to repeat phases of centralization, followed by brief outbursts of reforms (not to be confused with neoliberal, market driven versions) that are never fully carried out. Chapter 3 presents the revolution's foreign policy as developing from three sources: traditional USSR Stalinist politics with its opportunistic adaptability; Ernesto "Che" Guevara's independent and intransigent Communist perspective; and a Cuban non-Marxist but militantly leftwing position of Latin American solidarity. From these sources the revolution's foreign policy went through two stages, with Fidel Castro picking and choosing from all three sources as it was politically expedient. In the early 1960s Cuba could be very "Latinamericanist" in supporting guerilla warfare and its opposition to both rightwing dictators and pro-U.S. liberals in the Western Hemisphere, while in the 1970s and early 1980s it shifted to an alliance with African nationalism, supporting the MPLA in Angola, but also the bloody regimes of Amin in Uganda and Macias in Equatorial Guinea. The uneven engagement/support of the Havana regime for the guerilla movements in Central America is analyzed in detail, pointing to the Cuban government's policies as ultimately being guided by their own reasons of state rather than an authentic belief in the need for revolutions grounded in their own national reality.

Chapter 4 examines the place and role of workers within the new Marxist-Leninist state. For Farber the lack of workers' organizations that are autonomous from the state is very problematic; instead of a ruling class that governs from below, following a model of Council Communism, the workers are ruled from above by the single party that imposes labor policies, processes, and goals. The working class continues to be exploited by the state and will be exploited in the future, particularly in a period of transition towards an economic system that follows the Sino-Vietnamese model. Real empowerment of the working class will depend on the establishment of a free, independent, and politically conscious trade union movement, which "could attempt to make its biggest inroads in the 'winning' sectors of the economy, which will likely have a fairly concentrated labor force that should not be too difficult to organize barring substantial state and capitalist repression" (p. 157).

Chapters 5 and 6 deal respectively with racism against Black Cubans and gender inequality. As in previous chapters, the author gives a historical overview of the issue before 1959, and then proceeds to contextualize the current situation. In the early years of the revolution racism was "reformed" by the new government, but not eliminated. It continued to exist institutionally and even regressed during the Special Period in the 1990s. Black intellectuals who requested an openness and discussion of the issue, such as the late Walterio Carbonell, were called seditious and sent to prison. In recent years, the Cuban hip-hop movement has taken hold in a significant subset of black Cuban youth, becoming a vehicle of protest against the racism that remains. Farber concludes "Cuban blacks would need to develop their own political perspectives and organizations to respond to such a worsening of conditions and growth of racial inequality" (p. 183).

The chapter on gender inequality deals with both women and homosexuals. At the root of this inequality, Farber makes clear, is the traditional machismo inherited from Spain and reinforced by sexist patterns from certain cultural traditions brought by the African slaves. Add to this the authority of a single political party and the effects are poisonous. Women's rights have made substantial gains through both education and the work place, yet for the author the fact that Cuban women and their issues are organized from the top by the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas, which functions under the authority of the Communist Party, is a detriment to autonomy and democratic practices. Regarding homosexuals, the author states that they were consistently persecuted by the revolutionary regime from 1962 until the 1990s, when the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (under the leadership of Mariela Castro Espín) began advocating for the rights of gay and transgender Cubans. This advocacy was opposed by sectors within the Communist party and the Catholic Church. Farber acknowledges that there have been substantive changes in Cuban gender policies since the 1990s, and as in previous chapters he calls for the creation of independent organizations for both women and homosexuals, which independently of the single party system can pursue greater equality through more democratic movements.

Chapter 7 discusses dissidents and critics of the revolution across a range of political positions. What is most refreshing in this chapter is the objective and levelheaded approach used by the author. Farber finds that the most effective critics are now the moderate Christian democrats and social democrats in the island; they are non-violent, favor the creation of a civil and democratic space, and reject the U.S. economic embargo. Significant mention is made of Yoani Sánchez and her Generación Y blog. While acknowledging her as the writer of "fresh and well-written columns" that comment on the everyday life difficulties of Cubans, Farber rightly sees her as more concerned at times with economic improvements (capitalist reforms) than with equality, thereby abandoning  the most important aspect of the unfulfilled project of the Revolution . Outside of Cuba, the author finds valid the dissidence of groups such as the magazine Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana (ceased publication in 2008) and its continuing website cubaencuentro, with its liberal to social-democratic orientation, and even its conservative offshoot Diario de Cuba. Unlike earlier dissidence in the exile, these groups reject violent action, favor dismantling the U.S. imposed embargo, and support a conversation between Cubans in the island and the exile, as long as it is done outside of any governmental sponsorship.

In the book's Conclusion, Farber writes that under the criteria of national sovereignty, economic growth, standard of living, and political democracy and freedom, Cuba's record of achievement is at best mixed, while not denying its important achievements in the fields of education, health, and culture when compared to other Latin American nations. However, "if socialism assumes an authentic democratic rule of the great popular majorities, then Cuba does not in any way qualify as a socialist society" (p. 268). The Epilogue's brief analysis of the Sixth Party Congress (which was 9 years overdue) points to Raúl Castro's embrace of the Sino-Vietnamese model of combining capitalism, substantial state economy, and political authoritarianism. This "cocktail" Farber argues, will prove deadly, bringing forth the ruthlessness of the market, the stagnation of the state and the blunt force of authoritarianism. In his final words the author is both lucid and hopeful: "In any case, the establishment of democracy in the Cuban economy, polity, and society at large will not be handed down as a gift by the people in power but will have to be obtained by struggles from below" (p. 291).

Since its publication in 2011 Farber's book has managed to irritate both the sentimental apologists of neo-Stalinism everywhere and the sectarian right-wingers of the exile—proof of the force and clarity of its argument. The historic rigor of this work and its critical Marxist perspective are models to be emulated. I believe this book is destined to become a classic.  

Alejandro Anreus is professor of art history and Latin American/Latino Studies at William Paterson University.

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