Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993
The Great Shrinking Stimulus
— The Editors
Single-Payer Health Care, A Matter of Survival
— Rick Wadsworth
A Physician Looks at the Health Care Struggle
— an interview with Susan Steigerwalt
Ramyah: Arabs in Isrrael Resist Bulldozers
— Maxine Kaufman Nunn
Review Essay: Cuba's Precarious Revolution
— Christopher Phelps
Why Somalia Is Starving
— Andy Pollack
Haiti, Clinton and the Movement
— an interview with Cecilia Green
Haiti: Living Under State Terror
— Ethan Casey
The Rebel Girl: Pro-Choice Vs. Terrorism
— Catherine Sameh
Random Shots: Words of Wisdom for 1993
— R.F. Kampfer
- Reflections on Socialism After the USSR
What Will Russia's Workers Do Next?
— Bertell Ollman
Women Under Post-Communism
— Nanette Funk
Hungary: The New Repression
— László Andor
Czechoslovakia: The Crisis of Imagination
— Peter Hudis
The Westerners' Imaginings
— Ellen Poteet
Religious Rebels Then and Now
— Paul Buhle
- In Memoram
Zolton Ferency, 1922-1993
— Regina McNulty
Che Guevara Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism
by Carlos Tablada
New York: Pathfinder, 1989, 286 pp., $11.95, paper.
Cuba: A Journey
by Jacobo Timerman
New York: Vintage, 1992, 130 pp., $9 paper.
Cuba: The Revolution in Peril
by Janette Habel
New York: Verso, 1991, 241 pp., $34.95 cloth.
IN THE 1960s, the Cuban revolution was a hemispheric inspiration, an example of the potential for socialist revolution in the Americas, a demonstration of the ability of a small and impoverished nation only ninety miles from the coast of Florida to survive sustained imperialist aggression and boycott. The 1965 invasion by the United States of the Dominican Republic, the 1967 defeat of Che Guevara in Bolivia and the 1973 military coup against Salvador Allende in Chile thwarted dreams of continental socialism.
Hopes were raised again in the early 1980s, when the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, the government of Maurice Bishop in Grenada, and the rising insurgency in El Salvador again frustrated imperialist hegemony in Latin America.
Today Cuba once more occupies a position of isolated vulnerability Military intervention in Grenada and Panama, the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas, and the complicated developments in El Salvador have blocked from power those Central American and Caribbean forces most likely to normalize relations with Cuba. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, for twenty years Cuba’s most important trading partner and ally, has disintegrated completely. The tightening of the U.S. embargo under Democratic initiative, with the blessing of Bill Clinton, indicates that an even more frigid wind now blows from Washington. Again the question arises: Will Cuba endure?
Given Cuba’s dire situation, the tendency is for the organized left, solidarity activists and radical scholars in the United States to instinctively dose ranks behind Fidel Castro by accepting the apparent choice between imperialist aggression on the one hand and the besieged Cuban ruler on the other. Whether by suppressing reservations or out of genuine conviction, many commentators focus exclusively upon the undeniable accomplishments of the Cuban revolution in health care, nutrition and education, and withhold criticism for fear of giving comfort to the revolution’s enemies.
An alternative route, one that lies between the Scylla of imperialism and the Charybdis of apology, is suggested by a careful reading of these three fresh examinations of socialism in Cuba. Not all of these authors endorse that third path, which is illuminated by the global reconsideration of socialism that has transpired among revolutionaries since the unraveling of the Eastern European states. They represent a range rather than a consensus: from Carlos Tablada, endorsed by Fidel Castro himself, to Jacobo Timerman, dismissive of any claim whatsoever of the Cuban state to progressive gain.
Each writer, however, reflects upon the theory and practice of Cuban Communism from a distinctively socialist perspective. Janette Habel, in particular, presents a compelling case for an unflinching socialist appraisal of the Cuban revolution. Criticism, she argues persuasively, represents not a betrayal of solidarity but rather the highest form internationalism, the best hope for a rejuvenated Cuban revolution.
The North American publication of Carlos Tablada’s Che Guevara: Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism brings welcome relief from the informal and official barriers to communication between Cuban and U.S. scholars. Tablada, a Cuban philosopher and economist, received a doctorate in economic sciences at the Latin American Institute of the Academy of Sciences in the Soviet Union in 1986. Published originally in Havana in 1987 as El pensamiento económico de Ernesto Che Guevara, Tablada’s study won a special prize from Casa de las Americas in Havana that same year, and on the twentieth anniversary of Guevara’s death in 1987 it was praised by Fidel Castro in a speech reproduced as a foreword to this edition. To evaluate Tablada’s work, therefore, means at least indirectly to judge the temper of contemporary Cuban intellectual and political life.
Che’s Economic Views
Tablada focuses on the economic issues which concerned Ernesto “Che” Guevara during his time as a minister in the Cuban government in the first years following the revolution, 1959-65. An Argentinean doctor, Guevara joined Fidel Castro on the yacht Granma in 1956, became a Rebel Army commander in 1957 and led revolutionary forces to victory in the battle of Santa Clara in 1958. As president of the National Bank and head of the Ministry of Industry during the early 1960s, he was occupied with strategic questions of another sorb how to build socialism in a small, mostly under-developed country. Though his thought on that question never ended, it tapered off in 1965 when he left Cuba to aid revolutionaries in the Congo and in Bolivia, where he met an untimely death in 1967.
A myth of the romantic has grown up around Guevara, who is often celebrated for his revolutionary and tactical brilliance and military prowess. This work of intellectual history reminds us that Che Guevara was also an austere, disciplined Marxist theoretician confronted with the difficult problem of how to foster both economic development and communist consciousness during the transition to socialism.
Tablada’s work is more dense and difficult than it needs to be. This is partially excused by the complexity of his dual aim: first, to recapitulate the critique made by Guevara of the use of market mechanisms such as private material incentives in the transition to socialism; secondly, to elucidate the economic path Guevara proposed to take, which was characterized by the use of careful planning, rigorous accounting and collective moral incentives to foster both economic productivity and socialist solidarity. Although Guevara devoted attention to these themes throughout the post-revolutionary period, they reached their fullest elaboration during the 1963-64 debate within Cuba and global Marxism over whether Cuba should adopt market mechanisms in order to achieve economic growth.
Guevara’s position, as Tablada illustrates, was not that material incentives should or could be discarded entirely. He insisted, however, that economic forms such as wages and prices associated with the “law of value—the Marxist term for the mechanism by which capitalism establishes economic equilibrium—should not serve as the guiding principle during the transition to communism. While he acknowledged that such forms would persist, he rejected the idea of their necessity or utility and called instead for planning to be the primary method of establishing equilibrium in the new society.
Planning would employ the instrument of money as a measure of value in accounting and as a medium of circulation, but toward the attainment of socially determined needs rather than individual profit Guevara proposed that rewards for surpassing norms and penalties for inferior performance, whenever possible, be accorded through moral inspiration and peer recognition rather than individual financial measures. Collective incentives might mean that entire workplaces would be awarded new lunchrooms or on-site childcare to acknowledge special achievement. Against claims that such a system was utopian, Guevara clarified, “We do not deny the objective need for material incentives” but “we are reluctant to use them as the main lever.” (193)
Such points might appear arcane and abstract, but they have a precise and pointed contemporary relevance. Long buried in dust on library shelves, the Cuban economic debate of the early 1960s took on a renewed meaning in the mid-1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev initiated perestroika in the Soviet Union. When Gorbachev presented his program of economic restructuring, emphasizing competitiveness of individual firms and free market reforms as a new and more efficient path to socialism, it was reminiscent of what Czechoslovakian and Polish economists in the 1960s had trumpeted as “financial self-management.”
Che Guevara’s humanist economic theory was tested against precisely such arguments. Capitalist methods of economic growth might bring temporary results, Guevara maintained, but private material incentives were inescapably degrading, alienating, exploitative and counterproductive. Socialism as envisioned by Che Guevara could not be built on the acquisitive model of the consumer society. Indeed, one might have prepared a formidable brief against perestroika using only Guevara’s entreaties on behalf of socialist emulation, comraderie, mass initiative and moral incentives.
That, in part, is why Fidel Castro takes a personal interest in Tablada’s archaeology. Holding firm to the model of the single-party state, Castro resurrected the memory of Guevara against the Soviet reforms of the mid-1980s. But this was a grim fate for Guevara’s ideas, for at the hands of Fidel Castro they now serve more to rationalize a regime of sacrifice and deprivation than to inspire collective exertion toward the realization of a new society of plenty.
Tablada adequately recapitulates the key elements of Guevara’s economic thought, but his study is compromised in several regards. His prose is heavy with the ponderous jargon of “Marxism-Leninism” in its most degenerate form; wooden terms such as “dictatorship of the proletariat,” “superstructural” and “dialectical” are employed excessively and imbued with semi-mystical powers. Tablada’s crudity is likely due to the combination of his Soviet training, the Brezhnev-era economic texts that filled Havana’s bookshops in the 1980s, and his desire to demonstrate Guevara’s debt to the tradition established by Marx and enhanced by Lenin. The latter desire presents difficulties, for Tablada wants to say both that Guevara was an original thinker on the transition period and that his central points were expressed by Marx and Lenin. One proposition must give way to the other. In this respect, Michael Lowy’s The Marxism of Che Guevara (New York: Monthly Review, 1973) remains a superior work of intellectual history, sensitive both to Guevara’s continuities with other currents of revolutionary socialism and to his distinctive contributions.
Similarly, Tablada wants to “make explicit the oneness of Che’s and Fidel’s thinking, the unity of their principles and objectives” (64). As a result, he commits a serious historical distortion. Although Tablada manages to summon requisite quotations from Fidel Castro to serve his purpose, he must overlook various turns taken by the Cuban leader over the years. Though Castro never directly entered the economic debate, Che Guevara’s exile in 1965 signaled his defeat on the question, a defeat sanctioned in policy by Castro. Guevara’s ideas clash with Castro’s approach of the mid-1970s, when emphasis on voluntary work was abandoned, and even today, when joint ventures with foreign capital in the tourist industry are a market gambit to stem the crisis.
Fidel Castro seeks to boost productivity by reviving Guevara’s heroic example, without adhering consistently to his economic thought For years, the writings of Che Guevara were scarce in Cuba; only recently has Castro revived his old comrade. Thus the pride of place held by Carlos Tablada as official chronicler. Ideas are recovered; history is not One would do better to consult Guevara’s writings directly, since a fairly comprehensive collection, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution (ed. David Deutschmann, Sydney: Pathfinder, 1987), is now available.
Most important, Tablada fails to examine his subject critically, implying that a resuscitation of Che Guevara’s thought is sufficient. The experience of the past few years should give us pause. If perestroika was not the road to a humanist socialism, neither may one expect socialism to be accomplished simply through budgetary planning and moral incentives. That the proposals Tablada makes for resolving Cuba’s current crisis are technocratic is a fault which traces to Guevara’s failings.
Although Guevara exhibited a leadership style antithetical to the nomenklatura of Eastern Europe, though his thought was professedly egalitarian, though his emphasis upon action and solidarity and consciousness supplies us with important moral resources for the reinvigoration of international socialism, it must be underscored that he did not recognize the need for democratic participation within socialism. His conception of the ‘vanguard” and administrative “controls” even reflected the authoritarian model of politics and economy that most workers of the world have come, rightfully, to distrust and discard. That the Marxism of Guevara was otherwise internationalist, revolutionary and humanist can no longer obscure or excuse such traits. Calls for planning, however inspired, do not suffice. Automatically the question arises: Who controls the plan?
From Ambivalence to Hyperbole
Cuba: A Journey, which might ten or twenty years ago have been dismissed as a Cold War polemic, cannot escape our attentions As a principled critic of human rights abuse throughout Latin America, Jacobo Timerman—the Jewish publisher whose powerful Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (New York- Vintage, 1982) recounted his two years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Argentinean military in the late 1970s—speaks with considerable authority. Originally, Timerman applauded the Cuban revolution as the island’s liberation from the burden of Madrid and then Washington. As a reporter in 1959, he accompanied Fidel Castro from his appearance before the National Press Club in Washington to enthusiastic mass meetings in New York and Buenos Aires. In 1961, he interviewed Che Guevara briefly in Buenos Aires.
A short time afterward—apparently around the time of the first overtures between the Soviet Union and Cuba—Timerman’s opinion of the revolution began to sour. He did not renounce it, but he adopted a new position of “affirmative ambivalence.” Insofar as the Cuban government displayed a socialist commitment to human welfare, he supported it, and he upheld its right to defend itself from U.S. aggression. But he became a critic of Castro’s regime for its abuses of human rights and restrictions upon civil liberties.
Cuba is the tale of Timerman’s further souring. In an evocative and introspective manner, Timerman recounts a journey he took to the island in the summer of 1987. It was his first trip to Cuba; Timerman had declined repeatedly prior official invitations on the principle that journalistic objectivity is incompatible with state sponsorship. In 1987, however, he decided to undertake an independent trip. Steering clear of government guides, declining to interview Fidel Castro, traveling well beyond the perimeters of Havana, Timerman set out to explore Cuban society at its roots.
The sight was not pretty. Viewed through Timerman’s eyes, Cuba is a nightmare presided over by the hovering presence of Fidel Castro, a megalomaniac who insists that all of his imperious titles follow his name in the press: First Secretary of the Committee of the Party, President of the State Council, President of the Council of Ministers. Timerman contends that the street designation “Fidel” is more caustic than affectionate, and he pokes fun at the obsequiousness of foreign Fidelistas (novelist Gabriel García Márquez is singled out for a particularly extensive ribbing).
Though frequently astute, Timerman’s reflections on Fidel Castro are also hyperbolic. He goes so far as to identify Castro with Joseph Stalin, as madmen who fantasize about omniscience and omnipotence. Given the pleasure he takes in declining offers to interview the Cuban leader, however, Timerman seems on thin ice when passing judgment on Fidel Castro’s sanity.
The mental capacities of Castro and Stalin, whether aberrant or sterling, have little bearing on the far more important question of the structural character of their states. There can be no doubt that the Cuban state fits the pattern of bureaucratic tyranny established under Stalin: an unelected, unaccountable, essentially dictatorial ruler, state control and regulation of radio, television, the press, indeed all aspects of intellectual and cultural life; the political monopoly of a single legal party; official hostility to open and democratic debate as “bourgeois liberalism”; and a consequently impoverished theory parading as “Marxism-Leninism.”
It is also true that Fidel Castro’s claim to internationalism and national liberation were tarnished by his apology for the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, and that in the mid-1970s he forged the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in the image of the degenerated parties of Eastern Europe. He has rubbed elbows with the most impervious Communist bureaucrats, including Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s, East Germany’s Eric Honeker in the mid-1980s and North Korea’s Kim II Sung recently.
However, the historical relationship between the USSR and Cuba should not lead to the personal equation of Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro. Unlike Stalin, Fidel Castro led a popular revolution to power. Unlike the monstrous regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot, repression in revolutionary Cuba has never reached the dimension of mass terror. If “Stalinism” is taken in its general sense, as a description of all bureaucratic collectivist regimes, then it applies to Cuba. The term has elasticity, but Timerman stretches it too far by mixing crude psychological analysis with legitimate criticism of Cuba’s state structures. His disregard for basic standards of historical analogy is laid bare in his conclusion, where he preposterously equates Fidel Castro with Adolph Hitler.
Timerman is wholly persuasive, however, when he turns an eye toward the depressing state of political rights inside Cuba. “If it is true that every Cuban knows how to read and write,” he writes poignantly, “it is likewise true that every Cuban has nothing to read and must be very cautious about what he writes” (30).
He summons multiple examples that establish without question a pattern of violations of intellectual and political rights inexcusable for any society aspiring to socialism. For Timerman, the solution is obvious: perestroika. Like many social democrats, Timerman was enamored with Gorbachev when he wrote his reflections in 1987-89. He fails analytically to distinguish between perestroika, the market-style restructuring of production, and glasnost, the openness in political and intellectual life also initiated under Gorbachev. While Timerman makes a compelling case for glasnost and democracy, he cannot answer the critique of market relations so powerfully advanced thirty years ago by Che Guevara.
One is tempted to say that Timerman makes a case for the market only by limiting his journey to one island. Can anyone seriously propose that an open market would improve Cuba’s ailing economy? The record of the market in Latin America is plunder. Imperialism’s record, moreover, hardly gives one faith that a “liberal” Cuban state would be more democratic. Privatization would likely result in the reconquest of Cuba by its exiled right-wing bourgeoisie in Miami, the only Cubans with enough money to buy property. At least Timerman does not, in the course of his headlong rush away from the primary meaning of socialism, workers’ power, go so far as to advocate imperialist intervention in Cuba. Rather, he recommends that this last dinosaur be permitted to die its own death: “Latin America—and, I suppose, the world as well—needs Castro’s experience to run its natural course.” (129)
A Balance Sheet
Janette Habel is also acutely aware that the Cuban revolution has progressed from “a stage of hopes to one of balance sheets,” as the French publisher Francois Maspero expresses it in his radiant introduction to Cuba: The Revolution in Peril. Habel was one of a handful of young French revolutionaries who traveled on a solidarity mission to Cuba at the early date of 1962, when to do so involved breaking a taboo.
Although she returned many times to Cuba in the intervening years, her approach contrasts to Timerman’s personal and impressionistic narrative. Habel’s Cuba is a carefully documented examination of all aspects of the revolution, based upon exhaustive reading and research. Without denying the importance of Fidel Castro, Habel avoids the habit of histories of modern Cuba to become portraits of Fidel Castro, whether hagiographic or demonic.
The virtue of Habel’s Cuba is that it examines Cuban society and history in its whole: economic, cultural, political, institutional. Not only does this afford a more complete view of the Cuban revolution after thirty years, but interestingly it affords a more accurate understanding of the rule of Fidel Castro.
Habel’s work contrasts with that of Timerman. Rather than view Cuba as a dinosaur left behind by history, which must adopt perestroika as the alternative to command collectivism, Habel views the process of change unleashed under Gorbachev as a largely retrograde development that is by no means an example for democratic socialism in Cuba. Since perestroika is thus the frame of her study, Habel’s Cuba—originally published in Paris in 1989 as Ruptures a Cuba—has been overtaken by the currents of history. Much of her painstaking scrutiny of trade patterns and agreements within Comecon, the Soviet trade bloc, has been rendered historical simply by virtue of the organization’s collapse.
On the whole, however, Habel’s analysis remains fresh. It transcends the conjunctural crisis that gave rise to it because Habel also discusses Cuba’s history and global position and provides a detailed analysis of the “process of rectification of the errors and negative tendencies in all spheres of society” undertaken by the PCC at the second session of its Third Congress in December 1986, a line of policy that continues to be pursued today.
The fundamental problem faced by revolutionary Cuba from the beginning was the nation’s dependency upon sugar as an export product, which left it vulnerable to global fluctuations in the price of sugar and reliant upon imports for goods that it could not produce itself. This problem has not been resolved after thirty years of revolutionary power. The primary fault for low sugar prices, Habel indicates, lies with the advanced capitalist countries, whose protectionist policies artificially reward their domestic sugar producers and promote the development of substitutes and synthetic sweeteners, especially corn syrup. Cuba’s developmental deformities are also due in good part to the U.S. blockade. For example, global nickel prices have risen, but Washington prohibits any product containing Cuban nickel from entering its market.
Cuba has nonetheless managed to achieve some industrialization. Agricultural mechanization has fed a spin-off industry in the production of cane-cutting and harvesting machinery, as well as bagasse, a fuel by-product of sugar cane. For the most part, however, Cuba is by no means self-sufficient It is deep in debt, lacking in hard foreign currency: in a pinch.
Cuba’s crisis has internal causes as well. After the departure of Che Guevara in 1965, the first effort of Fidel Castro to direct the Cuban economy was impulsive and voluntarist, reaching its height in his exhortations for a massive ten million ton sugar harvest in 1970. The failure to reach that extreme aim brought demoralization and increased absenteeism. Castro turned toward the Soviet Union for material assistance and an economic model.
In 1972, Cuba joined Comecon, and in 1975 the PCC held its First Congress, at which a first five-year plan was unveiled. The 1970s were characterized by planning rather than chaotic whims, but not planning of the type advocated by Che Guevara. Compulsory work was emphasized over volunteer projects, material incentives were employed, and managers were held responsible for the success of individual enterprises. The result was increased income inequality, sectoral tensions, corruption and privileges, bloated bureaucracy, cynicism and an emergent black market, effects that were transparent by the early 1980s. Some free market reforms, particularly in agriculture, were undertaken to stimulate production, but conditions only worsened.
The “process of rectification” announced in 1986 and the resurrection of Guevara in 1987 were not, therefore, exclusively responses to Gorbachev. The internal crises of Cuban society required a strategic shift. The call for “rectification” is directed against the rise of bureaucratic privilege, corruption and ineptitude within Cuba as well as against market reform initiatives in the USSR.
One might, as does Timerman, look upon “rectification” simply as a calculating maneuver to wring more output from Cuba’s tired masses. Habel, however, understands the process with considerably greater subtlety, aided by her interpretation of the internal dynamics of Cuban society.
Since the revolutionary triumph, she argues, the Cuban state has been shaped by a struggle between Fidel Castro and his followers on the one hand and, on the other, a heterogeneous bureaucratic apparatus with a backbone of Soviet loyalists. Fidel Castro, whose relationship with the Soviet Union was punctuated by stormy disagreements at either end of his long period of collaboration from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, has been able to preserve his rule through compromise with the managerial strata and by virtue of his special relationship with the masses. Therefore as he invokes his tremendous authority to call from above for rectification, he is attempting to neutralize the worst effects and tendencies of the mainly conservative apparatus while restricting the role of the people to mass mobilization.
Rather than a substantive departure from his past, therefore, the “rectification of errors” reflects Fidel Castro’s long history of paternalism and scorn for theory. His paternalism permits him to preside over the correction of errors blamed upon the intermediate layer of technocrats and bureaucrats. His ideological eclecticism permits him to see this approach as perfectly consistent with his past.
Habel does not see the rectification process as analogous to Mao’s “cultural revolution” since it has not involved calls for a complete eradication of the bureaucracy or popular retribution against corrupt officials. (Though she does relay the disturbing Ochoa affair, in which a high-ranking general and others were charged with drug-running and displayed in a show trial complete with confessions from the accused.) Rectification stems, rather, from divisions stemming from the unique hybrid of the Cuban revolution.
After the triumph, three different political tendencies had been permitted to continue organizing: the 26 of July Movement, the rebel army led by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro; the Partido Socialist Popular (PSP), latest numerically and linked politically to the Soviet Union; and the Revolutionary Directorate, weak and concentrated among students. Before 1965, the revolution permitted a limited pluralism. Three daily papers were published, for example, and fair play was given to all positions in the Sino-Soviet dispute then dividing global Communism. In 1965, the three original revolutionary currents formed the united PCC and the three papers fused into a single daily, Granma.
The new party, monolithic in form, was dominated at the top by the Fidelista group, which had the broadest mass base and could impose its leadership in repeated conflicts. Nonetheless, the PSP veterans had some independent leverage by virtue of their weight in party membership and privileged relationship with the USSR.
It is not just this dual character of the Cuban regime, Habel argues, that gives meaning to contemporary events. The behavior of Fidel Castro and his followers further derives from the original character of the 26 of July Movement as a tightly organized military group in the Sierra Maestra. The conception of vertical authority adopted under those special conditions shaped the approach of the Castro wing to power, and its habitual hierarchical sensibility was reinforced by the constant military threats to the security of the revolution.
This sociological thesis is so powerful that it almost renders comprehensible the spectacle of what Habel calls “charismatic authoritarianism”: a supreme leader serving as a mouthpiece for egalitarianism, appealing to the masses for the rectification of errors committed by a bureaucracy over whose growth he himself presided. The Cuban populace rarely directs its discontent against Fidel Castro, and rallies behind him when demonstrations are called against imperialism and in defense of the revolution. The depth of continuing support for the revolution may be gauged by considering that the regular armed forces (300,000 strong) now share responsibilities for defense of the island with the one and a half million volunteers in the civilian militias, which train regularly and are equipped with light arms.
No other Latin American regime has a national defense strategy based upon such massive popular mobilization. No major revolts have occurred, testifying to the regime’s hegemony, if nothing else. This condition may a1tei although Habel writes that for the most part the Cubans tend to blame deteriorating conditions on managers and the blockade rather than Castro.
Habel forecasts, however, that Cuba’s economic difficulties and deteriorating social conditions will prove intractable if “rectification” is not accompanied by much deeper, thoroughgoing reforms. More than half the population of Cuba is younger in age than the revolution. Young people appreciate the developed welfare state of Cuba, but also yearn for what is practically unattainable: the consumer society to the North. Furthermore, they are dissatisfied with the poor quality of information and restrictions on political speech. The process of rectification, writes Habel, in which “only the Commander-in-Chief asks the questions and gives the answers, and in which he alone can hold power and be the opposition, is not in the end compatible with the aspirations of the new generations” (3).
Dissatisfaction, Habel judges, does not extend far past the youth, especially students and intellectuals, but she predicts that it will spiral beyond those sectors if the rectification never amounts to more than a plan of austerity that does not challenge bureaucratic power. Already Cubans joke of sociolismo—the socialist old boy’s network They are critical not only of errors, “bureaucratism,” but of the bureaucracy itself. Fidel Castro cannot forever, given Cuba’s global predicament, walk the tightrope between masses and managers as ultimate critic and arbiter of the whole society. The weight of the bureaucracy and increasing skepticism of the masses make his mode of rule increasingly untenable, particularly since the state’s traditional capacity to satisfy and improve the living standards of the population is eroding quickly in the current crisis.
The Agent of Transformation?
Revolutionary renewal can only come through a massive democratic reconstruction that guarantees genuine workers’ participation, not simply mass mobilization, and permits the widest latitude for discussion and debate. Habel essentially proposes, “Perestroika, no; glasnost, yes!” Rather than the Chinese road, in which free markets were combined with an obstinately repressive regime, or the Russian, in which talk of socialism was in the end abandoned entirely, Habel recommends that Cuba integrate democracy and socialism.
The major weakness of Habel’s analysis is her failure to assess the avenues by which such a transformation might be brought about Can one possibly expect Castro, given his traditional assumption of authority, to initiate radical democracy? Who else in Cuba has the power to make such a change? Castro is not immortal, of course, and the inevitable crisis of succession may bring inadvertent change. With Raúl Castro in the wings, however, it appears likely that Cuba will join North Korea as a Communist dynasty.
Perhaps Habel believes that moral pressure from international radicals like herself, sympathetic to the Cuban revolution’s early aims of national independence and socialism, might together with internal initiatives from Cuba’s dissatisfied intelligentsia and youth bring about a new outlook in the Cuban leadership. But Habel appears despondent about the prospects for democracy in Cuba in her 1991 afterword to the English edition. And the recent strategy of encouraging joint ventures with foreign capital to build new hotels and promote tourism, though due primarily to debt and the blockade, throws cold water on the illusion that Castro intends to hold to Che Guevara’s call to eschew “capitalist methods.”
In any case, socialist criticism of the sort offered by Habel may no longer be slandered as “the work of the CIA,” “counter-revolutionary propaganda” or “bourgeois liberalism.” The era when such names impressed anyone has come to an end.
Habel notes in her conclusion that the damage caused by Castro’s accommodation with bureaucratic despotism in Eastern Europe was tremendous. The Cubans were left so unprepared for the collapse of the bureaucratic states that now their demoralization may prove as great as their past illusions. Meanwhile, the Cuban revolution was discredited in the eyes of Eastern European working people and intellectuals because Fidel Castro sanctioned such repressive actions as the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
For the U.S. left to repeat these errors today in the case of Cuba would be tragic. Solidarity with the Cuban working class requires vocal opposition to the trade and travel blockade and Washington’s enduring Cold War It also demands public criticism of a state which claims to speak for the working class but does not allow workers to voice ideas freely or organize their own affairs. Nothing less than socialism is at stake.
May-June 1993, ATC 44