Why Cuba Is Different?

— David Finkel

FIRST, WE HAVE to address the United States’ stance toward Cuba for what it is since 1960: four and a half decades of state terrorism against a country and its people. Anyone who supports the right of self-determination is obliged to oppose and fight all forms of U.S. government intervention against Cuba, as if there were no issue of political repression inside Cuba.

Second, as socialists we do have to address the Cuban reality. Before I discuss the question “Is Cuba Different?,” I have to pose a question that is not so much about Cuba as about ourselves.

We have a considerable body both of theory and historical experience regarding the trajectory and ultimate fate of single-party states, not only of Stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe but also what used to be called “Arab socialism,” “African socialism” and others, which all proclaimed that the unity of the people was expressed through the party: They decay, they become cynical and corrupt, finally they collapse or explode.

My question for us on the radical left, then, is this: Given all our experience, from Eastern Europe to the catastrophes of Baathist Iraq and what Zimbabwe has become, what makes us think that the Communist party-state in Cuba will succeed unlike all the rest?

Nationalism

A big part of the answer, I think, lies in where Cuba’s situation really is different from Eastern Europe: namely, that nationalism cuts the other way. When Stalinism expanded following World War II into the devastated states of Central and Eastern Europe, a totalitarian bureaucratic system and “command economy” was imposed by the historic oppressor of those nations, Russia — so that national grievances coincided with the growth of social discontent.

In Cuba from 1961 on — when the economy and, at the same time, the labor movement were statified from above — the Soviet Union gave Cuba some protection for its independence from its historic colonial oppressor, the Colossus of the North.

Hence the popular base for the regime in Cuba rested not only on social achievements in health care, education and reducing the rural-urban gap, but also on national pride and patriotism. Not to say that’s a bad thing — it’s a complex and mixed bag as all nationalism is, including the most progressive — it’s just a fact to recognize, which mediates social grievances.

In this respect Cuba somewhat resembles Vietnam, where the Communist Party unified the country after decades of war against French colonialism and U.S. imperialism. Having said that, we need to know what Vietnam is today.

The Vietnamese CP is still in power, and still — like the Cuban CP — upholds one-party rule as a matter of “socialist” principle. But in the world economic system, Vietnam today is where Nike contractors go when workers in Indonesia get too well-organized — that is, a place with cheap labor and no workers’ rights.

That is roughly where Cuba is headed in today’s world economy as it really is. The Cuban economy is partially dollarized, to the disadvantage of Afro-Cubans who have fewer access to dollars from relatives abroad. In tourism, industry and agriculture there is all kinds of foreign investment — Canadian, European, Japanese, Israeli — and a growing number of 50-50 joint ventures between the government and overseas investors.

The point again is not to condemn this “capitalist restoration” as a great betrayal. In one or another form it is inevitable in the absence of a socialist revolution in Brazil or Argentina, which is not imminent.

You don’t have to be specialist or expert on Cuba (I’m certainly not) to realize that the struggle inside the Cuban CP is how to handle this process — whether to manage it through state regulation, or to accelerate and profit from it, or whether to resist it through some neo-Guevarist ideological campaign.

Whatever their differences, all the currents in the party evidently agree that any strategic decision-making must be made by the party, and only the party — and that the role of Fidel Castro as a symbol of national and party solidarity is absolutely critical.

But since Fidel is now 74 or 75, and actuarially speaking his active political life is not likely to exceed another ten years, you can’t build a perspective on his holding conflicting forces together forever.

The bureaucratic system in Cuba is, indeed, slowly crumbling. From a socialist perspective the central question should be how the Cuban working class will be able to defend itself in an increasingly segmented semi-capitalist economy — and I have no expectation that the statified unions, or the army, or the party will do so.

This points to the importance of developing independent unions and social movements, which as we know from history, and from all our Marxist heroes from Rosa Luxemburg onward, demands a democratic political culture. This is incompatible, obviously, with imposing 25-year prison sentences on political dissidents for non-violent expression of views the regime can’t tolerate.

Conclusion

I am glad that Cuba has survived the U.S. onslaught, and I am especially glad that it has been there as a refuge for revolutionary exiles like Assata Shakur who would face death or lifetime incarceration in the hellholes of the U.S. prison system.

To be honest, I am also glad that great Cuban baseball players like Orlando Hernandez and José Contreras were able to get out of Cuba when they had no future there — even if they wind up pitching for the New York Yankees — and also that fantastic musicians like Paquito d’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval were able to leave when the culture ministry said they played too much jazz and insufficiently “authentic” Cuban music.

The people of Cuba should be free to live their lives and run their country without U.S. terrorism or interference from Washington. The Cuba 5 should be free. The nonviolent political dissidents in Cuban prisons should be free too. That sums up what I have to say.

ATC 112, September-October 2004