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Rewriting Cuba

BOOK REVIEW: Cuba: The Revolution in Peril - by Janette Habel


By J. Leisler


In the year 1959, a tiny island with 10 million inhabitants burned its way into the consciousness of the world. The planet has not been quite the same since. Not only did the Cuban revolution upset the apple cart by eventually establishing the first, and so far the on1y, workers’ state in the Western hemisphere, but it forever transformed tens of millions of people’s concept of what is truly possible.



The reactions to this event were as varied as the vested interests and backgrounds of those who were politically active at the time. For the American bourgeoisie, this was their worst nightmare. “Ninety miles from our shore!” went the refrain. For the Soviet bureaucracy, this was an unexpected event with which they were initially unconnected, one that bore watching for dangers and opportunities. For the Cuban people, it was a time of celebration and hope that their long nightmare of humiliation and oppression was over.


For a group of ostensible Trotskyists, it was a much needed resting place for their hopes and dreams. This group was the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec), the international umbrella organization that sheltered the U.S.-based Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the European followers of Ernest Mandel and Michel Pablo.


Since the inception of the Trotskyist movement it had been necessary to fight a war on two fronts. On the one hand, there was the struggle against the old and resilient enemy, capitalism; on the other, a difficult rearguard action against the Soviet bureaucracy led by Joseph Stalin and his successors. The Trotskyists regarded the latter as a necessary battle to bring the 1917 Russian Revolution back on track, believing that the bureaucracy would completely smother the revolution and thus create the conditions for capitalist restoration. How right they were (in this respect at least)! The founders of the SWP had, in their youth, built their hopes and dreams upon the USSR.


After a brief flirtation with Yugoslavia’s Tito regime in the late 1940s, under the social pressure of the bleak McCarthy years of the 1950s the SWP began to long for something fresh and new. The Cuban revolution seemed made to order. Here was a real revolution! Seemingly untainted by Stalinism, without a Soviet franchise operation to lead it, the July 26 Movement, after initial hesitancy, overturned the entire neocolonial society of the island nation. And so, in the eyes of USec, this was a healthy (as opposed to degenerated) workers’ state, unlike the Soviet Union. Fidel Castro soon became for them, against his will, an “unconscious Trotskyist.” In the

1980s, the SWP was to ditch Trotskyism and quit USec, but keep and intensify its Fidelism to the point of absurdity.


As for USec itself, they continued in their uncritical view of Cuba without going to the embarrassing extremes of the SWP. There has hardly been a word of criticism for Fidel and the Cuban revolution from this quarter—until now.




It is this book, Cuba: The Revolution in Peril that breaks this silence. On the cover is a photo of a beleaguered Ernesto “Che” Guevara, rubbing his eyes. The preface was written by François Maspero, a leading member of USec. He begins with a discussion of caudillismo, a personalist form of dictatorship common in Latin American-history. Power is seized by armed force and comes to be embodied in one man who claims to represent the interests of the nation as a whole. It is a theme that will be repeated.


He goes on to describe this work as a book of “fidelity to a past, to a memory, and to a political project.” It is this fidelity that is simultaneously the book’s greatest strength and that is simultaneously the book’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. While many of the author’s criticisms of Cuba are sharp and insightful, there is a hesitancy about reaching the logical conclusions. There is a clear sense of loyalty to what the Cuban revolution represents, but only a vague sense of what it might take to salvage it.


It is clear that the author, Janette Habel, has a strong command of the facts. The book is well researched and, for anyone interested in the current situation in Cuba, it is well worth perusing. It is a highly detailed account, lucidly written, and it provides an excellent overview of the current crisis. Although the postscript is dated November 20, 1990, it is not difficult to get an idea of the present situation of Cuba by extending the conditions described into the post-Soviet era.


During the late 1960s, Cuba opted for a development strategy based on agricultural exports, chiefly sugar. Certainly, the fact that sugar was the chief export of Cuba since the time of Spanish colonial rule made this decision that much easier. Blazing a new economic trail is more difficult than quickening the pace on the road already taken. Nonetheless, economic dependence on sugar has played no small role in the domination of Cuba (since its independence from Spain in 1898) by the United States. Che Guevara had hoped to reduce the share of Cuba’s exports taken up by sugar from 80 percent to 60 percent. Why, then, did the Cuban leadership take this tack?




The U.S. economic embargo on Cuban products obviously made trade far more difficult, the U.S. having been formerly the main destination for Cuban goods. The Soviet Union was willing to purchase the bulk of Cuban sugar at a guaranteed price. World demand for sugar was on the rise, so more sugar available for sale meant more hard currency, which in turn meant more money to buy western technology. In addition, barter arrangements with Eastern Europe assured Cuba of a stable source of vital supplies. It was hoped that the modernization of the sugar industry would increase production and further accelerate the process of industrialization. These, plus technical considerations, were the main reasons for this policy.


A popular conception of Soviet subsidization of Cuban sugar is to regard Cuba as simply a welfare client of the USSR. There is some truth to this, but it is also true that those who dole out welfare rarely have their clients’ best interests at heart. Soviet and Eastern Bloc purchases of Cuban sugar (accounting for between 65 and 80 percent of Cuban sugar exported) have protected Cuba from the vagaries of the world market. Cuba has benefitted from the re-export of Soviet oil on the world market. Industrial production has increased, mostly for the home market. Cuba is one of the world’s leading producers of sugar cane harvesting and cutting machinery.


But this economic road has also proven to be strewn with potholes. Until 1976, the Soviet import price for sugar had been less than the price Cuba would have received had the U.S. market been available to it. Cuba has also been shortchanged in this manner where its chief mineral export, nickel, is concerned. In addition, Soviet sugar purchases have been tied to Cuban oil purchases.


When the world oil price fell in 1986, Cuba continued to purchase Soviet oil at the old rate. Neither is the Soviet technology that was imported an unmixed blessing, as much of it is of lower value than comparable western equipment and may be unsalable on the world market. Upon joining COMECON in 1972, Cuba agreed to repay debts to the USSR and Eastern Europe. As of 1986, the debt was to be repaid interest free over 25 years, and could be paid in kind. Fidel Castro, in 1987, estimated this debt to be $10 billion.


If relations with the Soviet Union and its allies were contradictory, relations with the industrial capitalist states were almost wholly negative. The United States, Western Europe, and Japan protect native sugar beet producers with low import quotas and price subsidies to farmers. The European Economic Community is a major exporter of sugar. The development of artificial sweeteners has reduced world demand for sugar. While world market sales of sugar account for between 20 and 35 percent of Cuban sugar exports by volume, they account for only 4.5 to 27.5 percent in total value. In 1985, Cuba’s debt to the West was $3 billion and climbing. As of 1984, the bulk of export earnings went to service interest payments on this debt.




When the price of sugar rises, Third World sugar producers have tended to respond by flooding the market, causing a precipitous drop in prices. In addition, since 1975, the value of sugar as compared to oil has been falling. All of this leaves Cuba in a Catch-22 economic situation—industrialization requires western technology imports, which in turn require foreign exchange and consequently an increase in exports, while the price of manufactured products surges ahead of the price of agricultural commodities.


During the 1960s, the leadership of the Cuban deformed workers’ state debated two major options for overcoming this classic Third World economic predicament. The first, favored by Che Guevara, who was Minister of Industry before 1966, called for centralized planning of all major industries (he opposed nationalizing small shops) with strict accounting of production costs. Nationalized industry would be funded through the state budget. Wages would be based partly on an assessment of qualifications and partly on productivity. Moral incentives would be stressed over material ones, but bonuses would not be neglected. The second stressed the law of value, material over moral incentives, and touted managerial autonomy of enterprises over state planning.


Guevara lost the economic debate. In 1967, while Che was in Bolivia organizing his ill-fated attempt at continent-wide revolution (a kind of guerillaist socialist internationalism), the Castro leadership took neither of the above paths, but opted for a curious blend of both and neither. Central planning was dismantled, replaced with “special plans” promulgated from on high. Virtually all private business, even small shops and street vendors, were nationalized. Overtime pay and bonuses were done away with, work standards ignored. Residential rent was abolished, as were fees for telephone calls and other services. This was the period of the “revolutionary offensive.” It ended in 1970, with the failure of the special plan to produce 10 million tons of sugar. 


This last special plan wreaked havoc with Cuba’s agriculture. Prices of produce were cut, and farmers had to grow cane with state subsidies. Later, rents on private land used to grow cane were cut in an attempt to force independent farmers to give up their land and work directly for the state. This caused shortages of produce and generated a black market. Protests occurred, and the leadership backtracked. In the mid-1970s, state produce prices rosé and the squeeze on farmers was halted. Efforts were made to promote producer co-ops.


The year 1972, when Cuba joined COMECON, was a major turning point in Cuba history. Soviet assistance and planning were copied. The Central Planning Board (JUCEPLAN) was introduced, ending the special plans. In 1975, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) held its first congress. Along with the first five-year plan, the Economic Management and Planning System (SDPE) was instituted. This closely resembled the economic ideas of Che Guevara’s opponents during the 1960s. Profitability of enterprises was emphasized and plant managers were given broad autonomy over wages, work standards, and use of resources. Over a ten-year period, house and apartment ownership were encouraged, and free farmers’ markets were opened in 1980.




The results of this program were mixed and generally disappointing. Bonuses often had little to do with the amount of extra effort exerted. Staff shortages appeared in many enterprises. Staff surpluses occurred frequently as well. Productivity increases were far short of expectations. Home ownership, allowed in order to encourage people to build on their own initiative, led to widespread theft of construction materials, illegal use of equipment, corruption, and workplace absenteeism. Subsequent wage reforms in 1980 more than doubled the salaries of top managers, while leaving the salaries of workers, except skilled technicians, substantially unchanged. Some private farmers were able to earn as much as 50,000 pesos a year, while the salaries of state farm workers were little over 1200 pesos a year. The free farmers’ markets were closed down in 1986.


The most destructive result of all was the rising social inequality. Managerial salaries were twice that of laborers, and middle-level state bureaucrats earned one and two-thirds to almost 3 times an average wage, substantial perks such as access to rationed goods, preferential housing, use of state autos, etc. not included. This may seem as nothing compared with American corporate CEOs earning million dollar salaries (perks also not included) that are a hundred times what they pay the workers, whom they are laying off by the thousands, regardless of company profits. But we are not discussing capitalism. This was a collectivized economy allegedly heading towards communism. People therefore expected some progress towards social equality, even slow progress. These circumstances acted as a drag on morale, making mass mobilizations that much more difficult.


Salaries are only the top of the iceberg. Cuban managers have substantial power over the means of production they are paid to administer, while workers have lost most of the limited control they gained as a result of the revolution. In addition, the attention paid to profitability has led to a disintegration of the social services the people have come to expect. Investment in social services has dropped from 29.3 percent of all investment in 1962 to just 15.6 percent in 1981. In ten years, the number of managers and administrative employees doubled, although even this increase couldn’t absorb the number of highly trained cadre turned out by Cuba’s educational system. The shortage of rural labor, partially the result of abysmally low salaries in this sector, only increases Cuba’s economic and social malaise. School truancy and desertion are rising, as are juvenile delinquency, prostitution, and trafficking in foreign currency, especially near tourist areas (which are being expanded in order to bring in foreign exchange).


At the close of the second session of the Third Congress of the PCC in December 1986, Castro announced the “process of  rectification of errors and negative tendencies in all spheres of society.” The market reforms carried out under the SDPE were severely criticized, bureaucratic privileges were decried. Attempts were made to promote voluntary labor and revive the “microbrigades,’ and inculcate a sense of patriotic duty. Che Guevara, virtually unmentioned since 1970, was revived as a national icon, with Castro praising his “economic thought.” Ms. Habel is at least as skeptical of the efficacy of “rectification” as the youth of Cuba appear to be.


These matters are all skillfully covered, in more than adequate detail, in the first three chapters in the book. These are the best chapters of the book. In subsequent chapters, the effect of the USec view of Cuba becomes apparent. While Ms. Habel’s command of the material and her presentation do not disintegrate, it is here that interpretations of political reality run astray. Her recommendations for the future reflect this.




Ms. Habel quite accurately describes political democracy as “a major absentee.” The work councils (consejos de trabajo) bear little resemblance to functioning workers’ councils. They have no authority outside of the workplace. Their members, elected by secret ballot, are charged primarily with resolving matters of work discipline, although they have some responsibility over wages, conditions, and transfers. By 1980 these councils had lost most of their limited power to the enterprise managers. The Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC) has some moderating influence over the arbitraryactions of management, and participation in the unions had increased in the 1970s. Workplace assemblies do discuss the central plan, and their input is considered. But there is no formal discussion of alternate proposals and no method by which actual decisions can be made by these assemblies, merely a passing upward of suggestions.


Entirely separate from the workplace structures are the organs of people’s power (OPPs). They are responsible for local investment programs and achieving centrally assigned objectives. These are directly elected at the local and provincial level. The local assemblies then elect delegates to the National Assembly of People’s Power. The deputies’ task is to explain policy and report to the electors.


Workers’ democracy is thus cut off at the knees. Under the rubric of “people’s power,” a truncated form of bourgeois democracy is offered. Actual policy is carried out by a “central group” of vice-presidents, ministers, Central Committee secretaries, department heads, and provincial OPP presidents. There is no formal means of control of these personnel or their decisions.


It is on this question of workers’ democracy that Ms. Habel’s narrative begins to reflect the traditional USec view of Cuba as a healthy workers’ state. Ms. Habel pins her hopes on a combination of “rectification,” a Cuban glasnost without perestroika, and a vague program of democratization. She seems to believe that it is possible for the leadership to mobilize the masses against the bureaucracy and newly arisen capitalist elements through “rectification” and use this as a basis for a strategic alliance between the leadership and the masses. She is correct in stating that the social weight of the bureaucracy will cause “rectification” from the top to fail. But she only dimly realizes just how cynical this “rectification” truly is. While harsh austerity measures are being implemented, bureaucratic privileges and excesses are being criticized, and some officials have been fired, no democratic advances have been made. While Castro and the clique around him may feel the need to ride roughshod over the bureaucracy from time to time, the bureaucracy is the horse upon which they must ride.


Because Castro and his immediate circle arose not from a Stalinist party but from the nationalist July 26 Movement, USec has lean unable to see Castroism as a variant of Stalinism. Ms. Habel is only able to concede bureaucratization and Stalinization from about 1972 onwards, blaming this chiefly on the USSR. But that only is when it became cast in stone.


The July 26 Movement was a peasant-based guerilla movement whose aims were overthrow of the Batista regime, agrarian reform, and national independence. Because agrarian reform ran into fierce resistance from U.S. economic interests and because U.S. control of the economy ran counter to true national independence, the victorious revolutionaries were forced to overturn the old property forms entirely. U.S.-owned industry and much of the property of the Cuban bourgeoisie were confiscated. The bulwarks of the former capitalist regime, the army and the police, were dismantled and replaced with a new revolutionary army and popular militia.


The expropriations required mass mobilizations. The peasants were organized into democratically run cooperatives. Workers took direct action in seizing factories and took the first steps toward democratic control of industry. Popular armed militias were formed. These were major gains, and it serves to explain why, even with increasing commandism and repression, mass organizations were able to exert their influence well into the 1970s.




But the guerillaist, elitist nature of the leadership would soon serve as a brake on progress. In 1960, the elected Fidelista leadership of the unions were arbitrarily replaced by cadre of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), a Moscow franchise, that toed the government’s line. The autonomy of individual unions was curtailed by placing them under central leadership. Workers’ control of industry was actively opposed by the government, which gave trade unions the task of increasing production. Peasant cooperatives were transformed into state farms operated by the central government. A single party structure was created back in the early 1960s with the formation of the Integrated Revolutionary Organization (ORI) later renamed the PCC. This merged the July 26 Movement, the PSP and the Revolutionary Directorate into one organization, with the former PSP apparatus playing a major role. The publications of Trotskyist and other nonconforming groups were suppressed, as was the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party (POR). Did all this go on without Stalinism or bureaucracy?


It is also difficult to understand how the level of repression in Cuba can be associated with anything but Stalinism. And yet Ms. Habel tells us that “while political repression in Cuba has nothing at all to do with Stalinist repression, it undoubtedly exists.” Not only do we have the above-mentioned acts, but also the stultification of cultural life through ideological interference by the state. Not mentioned at all is the serious repression of gays, which began in the 1960s and featured internment in labor camps. Another example of this repression is the Ochoa trial.


During the summer of 1989, an extraordinary trial was held. General Arnaldo Ochoa, a hero of the Angolan war, and more than a dozen codefendants, mostly officials of the military and police apparatus, were tried and convicted of trafficking in narcotics. Although Ms Habel admits that the defense did nothing more than bring forth admissions of guilt from its clients, she seems convinced of their guilt. No convincing evidence is provided. The only definitive statement in the chapter on the trial was that the defendants, due to past service, deserved better than a summary proceeding, and that the executions of Ochoa and three others were “not justified.”


By contrast, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) of the SWP saw Cuba, between 1959 and 1960, as a society which was run by people who commanded a monopoly of force, but were not committed to either collective or private property. The bourgeoisie had been thoroughly routed, but the new state had not yet been consolidated. By 1961, Castro et al had expropriated the U.S. and Cuban bourgeoisie and had built a new state, with a new army and popular militia. However, because any organs of workers’ democracy that did exist were far too weak to contend for control of the state, the bureaucracy was able to dominate the working class and peasantry politically. This bureaucracy crystallized around Castro, Guevara, and the other leaders of the Sierra Maestra guerrillas. Cuba had therefore become a deformed workers’ state which required a struggle by the proletariat, led by a Trotskyist party, for direct political power, i.e., a political revolution. The Bolshevik Tendency is the heir of the RT, via the Spartacist League, and adheres to this position.


The political positions of USec with regard to Cuba are not entirely wrong. They at least still claim to see the need, as we do, to defend the Cuban revolution and its social gains unconditionally whenever and wherever the American behemoth threatens. But just as earlier blind loyalty convinced no one and was therefore a poor defense, the inability to make a clean break with Cuban Stalinism, which if taken seriously would have to involve a profound break with the whole tailist methodology and their whole history, makes it impossible to defend the revolution without giving undeserved political support to the bureaucracy.


The Cuban ship of state is sinking. The bureaucracy is incapable of defending the revolution. It is imperative that, along with the defense against imperialism, we propose the only possible way out of the impasse, regardless of how “practical” or popular it appears in the short term.


What is most disturbing about this book is the tentativeness with which Ms. Habel proposes solutions to the frightening dilemma of the Cuban revolution. The closest she comes to a concrete proposal is to call for “workers’ decision-making power and self-government.” Good, as far as it goes, but what does this consist of, and how is this to be put in place?


For our tendency, workers’ democracy means that all administrative officials are chosen by and responsible to representative institutions whose delegates are democratically elected by and recallable by the workers themselves. There are many possible variations on this theme, such as the Soviets of the 1917 Russian Revolution or the Workers’ Councils of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. These institutions are based upon, but by no means restricted to, workplace assemblies.


It should also be understood that workers’ democracy is never a gift. Whether or not there is a Cuban glasnost, the Castroite clique that heads the bureaucracy will neither simply hand over the reigns of power to the workers, nor build their democratic institutions for them. This can only be carried out through a workers’ political revolution that overturns the bureaucracy while maintaining collectivized property and the planned economy. As the PCC is a creature of the bureaucracy, it cannot be the mechanism through which this is to be done. Only a new communist party, a Trotskyist party, can lead this phase of the revolution. Why? Because a Trotskyist party is the only kind of organization that has precisely this perspective.


Ms. Habel has nonetheless made a valuable contribution to the existing literature on Cuba. Despite the muddling on the questions of workers’ democracy and Stalinism, her analyses are often sharp and illuminating. Too bad she isn’t in our camp.