Looking Back and Forward at Cuba
— Frank Thompson
Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959:
A Critical Assessment
by Samuel Farber
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011, 291 pages + notes & index, $24 paperback.
SAMUEL FARBER’S BOOK Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment takes its place among definitive works on Cuba alongside Hugh Thomas’s monumental 1971 Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (1971), which (in 1700+ pages!) surveyed the island from its prehistory until the early period of The Triumph of The Revolution.
Farber was born and raised in Havana and participated in the Cuban high school movement against the Batista dictatorship. With his family he emigrated in 1958 to the United States, where he participated first as a student then as a political and labor activist.
Farber is now professor emeritus of political science at Brooklyn College CUNY. His two previous books on Cuba prepared some of the ground for this one (Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933-1960 [Wesleyan University Press, 1976] and The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered [University of North Carolina Press, 2006]).
Farber’s broader political perspective is persuasively conveyed in two other books, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (Verso, 1990) and Social Decay and Transformation: A View from the Left (Lexington Books, 2000).
Farber’s deeply researched and thoughtful book expands on several central themes. One is that the course of post-revolutionary Cuba and its regime was not a simplistic response to U.S. imperial hostility, but a reflection of both the conscious politics of the leadership and the global context it confronted. Another is that the collapse of Soviet Communism and the internal decay of the Cuban system have led the ruling Communist Party to an economic “reform” perspective without any meaningful democracy — only superficially parallel to those of China and Vietnam, with no legal opening for private capitalist enterprise and only a very limited expansion of private agriculture.
A third, perhaps, is the author’s hope that critical discussion of the Cuban reality may modestly contribute to an independent left perspective that is struggling against painful odds to emerge on the island itself.
The first chapter, “Toward ‘Monolithic Unity’ — Building Cuban State Power from Above,” sets the stage. Although the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship was accomplished by an enormously popular movement, at its core was a tightly organized military organization, which through many twists and turns remains today the decisive power in Cuba.
As both an anti-imperialist and a proponent of socialist democracy, Farber writes of systemic “surplus repression” from the early years of the regime, meaning a level of political and cultural repression far beyond the needs of defending the revolution. In Cuba as in the other Soviet-type one-party states, the use of “administrative and police methods” against dissident opinion “is built into the very fabric of these societies precisely because they apply to peaceful political disagreements methods that from a democratic point of view can be considered legitimate only as a response to violent subversion.” (19)
The statification of the press and the trade unions was engineered prior to the regime’s “socialist” self-declaration of April 1961.
Chapter Two extensively takes up the question of the performance of the Cuban economy and the consequences for the standard of living of those living on La Isla. The question is complex both theoretically and empirically, and Farber takes into account an enormous and varied literature.
Stated simply, the conclusion is that even given astonishing although uneven achievements in the provision of health care and education (both now deteriorating), the fall of living standards since the mid-1980s, preceding the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union, has only been partially and haltingly reversed.
Briefly in this chapter and more extensively in the book’s closing Epilogue, Farber considers changes in the Cuban economy since Raul Castro’s succession to power in 2006, following his older brother Fidel Castro’s debilitating illness.
The long-delayed Sixth Communist Party Congress in 2011 endorsed plans for far-reaching changes, most strikingly a massive shrinkage of the long-dominant state sector and a corresponding expansion of the non-state sector of small businesses (in tightly restricted sectors) and perhaps cooperative enterprises. Thus far such changes have not taken place on the schedule originally announced.
Realities of the Cuban System
In Chapter Three Farber is concerned with “Cuba’s Foreign Policy — between Revolution and Reasons of State” since 1959, usefully introducing the subject in the broad historical context of the paths of the foreign policy followed by governments coming to power in other revolutionary transformations, notably France from 1789 and Russia from 1917.
The Cuban story is convoluted and Farber summarizes it well. While Cuba’s role in the Angolan conflict contributed to the defeat of imperialism and South African apartheid, its intervention in the Horn of Africa supported a brutal Ethiopian military dictatorship (tactically aligned with the Soviet Union in that period) against the national liberation struggle in Eritrea.
In any case, Cuba’s failed efforts to “export revolution” into Latin America, especially in the 1960s, and its African involvements of the ‘70s and ‘80s effectively ended with fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic crisis in Cuba. Cuba’s shifting foreign relations with Mexico and Europe (especially Spain) are also well summarized.
Of course the overriding foreign policy problem has been the relationship with the United States. The 50(!) years of U.S. attempts to blockade and strangle the Cuban economy have been both a blatant violation of the elementary right of Cuba to self-determination, and perversely a tool that enables the Castro regime to disguise its own failures and violations of democracy and human rights, “the regime’s argument that monolithic unity is necessary as a defense against foreign aggression.” (129)
The topic of the fourth chapter, “Cuban Workers after the 1959 Revolution — Ruling Class or Exploited Class?” must be central for a socialist analysis. Arguing from within the Marxist tradition, Farber answers persuasively that the answer is definitely not the former. There is no right of independent working-class organization — quite the contrary, from very early on the regime claimed a monopoly on all labor organization, especially the unions, which were purged and placed under thorough state and ultimately Communist Party control.
Farber goes further, presenting a nuanced examination of the concrete development of Cuba’s governing institutions, their twists and turns of policy and “material” versus “moral” incentives as attempts to deal with stagnant labor and agricultural productivity, noting that “(a)t no point have Cuban workers and peasants had any say in the government adoption of labor policies.” (153)
The chapter concludes with a description of some left and Marxist Cuban dissident proposals for workers’ control, unlikely as these may be in the current context, and a brief speculation about what kind of authentic trade union movement might arise in the course of Cuba’s current wrenching economic transition. (154-7)
Chapters Five and Six take up, respectively, race and gender questions. Both review the history of how these questions have been dealt with since 1959 (and before). In this short review I cannot do justice to Farber’s treatment of them except to say they may be both factually and theoretically eye-opening even for readers who know Cuba fairly well.
What these issues have in common is that since 1959 (and for the most part thoughout Cuban history) organizations seeking substantial independence from control from above — since 1959, by the successive institutions that became the Communist Party and by the state — have been suppressed or coopted, with only the partial exception of the Catholic Church.
The suppression of certain blatant racist practices of pre-revolutionary times understandably boosted the Cuban revolution’s prestige within the international left, and particularly among African American revolutionaries with whom Cuba declared solidarity. Probing more deeply, as some critics have done and as Sam Farber does here, reveals more abiding problems of racial economic and particularly housing inequalities, and severe black underrepresentation in high-level leading political bodies.
Such deep-seated issues of de facto institutional racism, Farber argues, can’t really be effectively addressed without the right of oppressed people to self-organization – something that the Cuban regime unalterably opposes as superfluous and divisive, given that racism has been officially abolished! The suppression of independent organization extended to the severe persecution of Afro-Cuban religious cults, largely because these were social forms that the state couldn’t control — although fortunately the level of religious repression has been greatly relaxed in recent years.
Similarly, the chapter “Gender Politics and the Cuban Revolution” explores in rich depth both the real advances for women in access to work and education, and the shortcomings and contradictions in the process. Working class women in particular, organized from above, have not been given voice to express the problems they’ve encountered in the economy and in the complex arena of sexual freedom.
This chapter also discusses the frankly scandalous record of the Cuban state in regard to homosexuality and the recent welcome, if ambiguous relaxation of this repressive policy.
The seventh chapter is a comprehensive survey of Cuban individuals and groups, “from Right to Left,” off and on the island, who have with some impact dissented from and criticized the evolving ideologies, institutions, and policies of the Cuban revolution (and in some cases, on the Miami exile Cuban right wing, violently attacked vulnerable individuals and groups).
Looking toward the possible future significance of these currents, Farber distinguishes and analyzes in turn “moderate dissents,” the role of the Catholic Church, the “hard right,” the “neo-moderate opposition” stance of some former hard-rightists, and shadings of left-critical oppositionists to whom he certainly feels most sympathetic politically.
In the conclusion titled “Cuba Might Not Be a Socialist Democracy, But…” Farber sums up his analysis, organizing the chapter around the questions “Has Cuba been modernized?” and “Is Cuba progressive?”
His answer is basically yes, in many ways, and no in many others, but insists that trying to find a net balance with “an arithmetic addition and subtraction is the wrong approach.”
Rather, there’s a lesson about Cuba and, let’s hope, 21st century revolution:
“Broadening the analysis of Marx and Engels, we can argue that there is one particular loss that cannot be compensated by any gain when it comes to deciding whether a regime should be politically supported. This is the loss of class, group (whether defined by race, gender, or sexual orientation), and individual political autonomy and independence — and specifically, the loss of freedom to organize independently to defend class, group and other democratic interests.” (276)
Some of the analysis of the Cuban economy is briefly summarized in my “The Economy after a Half-Century,” Against the Current, July-August 2009, 18-19. A much more extensive version, prepared at the invitation of the “critical Marxist” journal Herramienta (Buenos Aires), was, without explanation, not published but is available from the author. (An Argentine Marxist economist friend told me the submission was regarded as too critical.)
May/June 2012, ATC 158