Cuba 50 years later – where is the revolution going? Part One

In this first part of his article Jorge Martin looks at how the Cuban revolution, starting out as a bourgeois democratic revolution, was forced to move against capitalism in order to achieve its aims, a brilliant confirmation of Trotsky’s theory of the Permanent Revolution. He also looks at the contradictory tendencies within Cuba in the early years after the revolution.

On December 31, 1958, the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista met with a small number of his friends to celebrate New Year’s Eve at the Columbia military camp. There they acted out a pre-rehearsed play in which general Eulogio Cantillo, speaking in the name of the Armed Forces, asked Batista to resign “in order to re-establish the peace that the country so badly needs”. The dictator then appointed Cantillo as supreme chief of the armed forces and fled to the Dominican Republic. The Batista regime, already on its deathbed, was attempting to change face in order to keep Cuba safe for the US and its local lackeys. But it was already too late.

Dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1952
Dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1952

The July 26 Movement (M-26J) was on the verge of taking power, after having waged a three year guerrilla war against Batista, starting on December 2nd, 1956, with the landing at Las Coloradas beach in the Cuban East.

The manoeuvre by the henchmen of the dictatorship and imperialism was clear: to allow Batista to leave the country safely and install a military junta led by Cantillo; to appear to introduce change, so that nothing would really change. Above all, US imperialism wanted to defend its interests on the island and that required a change of personnel. The M-26J replied with a call for a general strike. The message by Fidel Castro, broadcast by Radio Rebelde (Rebel Radio), in the early hours of January 1, 1959, was sharp and clear:

“Revolution yes, military coup no! To steal the victory from the people will only make the war longer! (…) The people and particularly the workers of the Republic must remain alert and follow Radio Rebelde, and urgently prepare in all workplaces for the general strike, which will begin as soon as the order is given, if necessary, to counter any attempt at a counter-revolutionary coup”.

The call for a revolutionary general strike was broadcast a few minutes later. In Havana, the masses went out on the streets to celebrate the flight of the hated dictator and, together with the revolutionaries who had mutinied in the Castillo del Principe jail, took over key points in the city, official buildings, police stations, etc. The forces of guerrilla commanders Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were still at some distance from the capital, in Las Villas, but the apparatus of the dictatorship was collapsing like a house of cards, with its henchmen fleeing as fast as they could.

Fidel Castro in his days as a guerrilla
Fidel Castro in his days as a guerrilla

By the end of the day Fidel Castro addressed the crowds in Santiago de Cuba, after the surrender of the troops stationed in the city, and a new government was sworn in, presided by Manuel Urrutia. On January 2, Che and Cienfuegos made a triumphal entry in Havana and the Cantillo military junta fell. The general strike lasted from January 1 until the 4, guaranteeing the revolutionary victory and the final collapse of the rotten apparatus of the Batista dictatorship.

On January 8, Fidel Castro reached the capital and the new government of Urrutia took power, with José Miró Cardona as prime minister. The revolution had won. In less than three years capitalism would be abolished on the small Caribbean island.

Fifty years after those events, the bourgeois machinery of historical revisionism is working at full speed to minimise the importance of the Cuban revolution and its conquests. The capitalist media in Latin America, Spain and beyond has been publishing articles written by Cuban counter-revolutionaries, preferably those who in the first instance had some links with the revolution but who abandoned it once it was pushed inexorably to break with capitalism. For instance, in Chile, El Mercurio has published an interview with Hubert Matos1.

The main argument of this campaign is not that in Cuba in 1959 there was no need for a revolution; that would be too crass. The more subtle argument is that the revolution was kidnapped by communism and authoritarianism and that these have shown, fifty years later, to be unable to develop to country. In Argentina, La Nación’s headline is “A dream of freedom which ended up in a nightmare of oppression”2. The hired pens of the ruling class add their own false claims that in 1958 Cuba was already a developed country, thus minimizing the later advances made possible by the revolution.

These kinds of arguments have been repeated over and over again. We can take as an example the article written by Andrés Oppenheimer in the Spanish El País on January 2, with the title “Half a century later, Cuba does not have much to show”3. This “prestigious” journalist who is the Latin American expert at the Miami Herald makes up a series of “facts” and “statistics” to prove not that the Cuban revolution was not justified, but that “it was not worth it”. “Other Latin American countries, like Costa Rica and Chile, achieved more than Cuba without sacrificing basic freedoms and at a much lesser cost in terms of human suffering”. What a scandal! Since when did Chile not sacrifice “basic freedoms” and had a “low cost in terms of human suffering”! Ask the tens of thousands who were tortured or killed by the Pinochet dictatorship. Mr Oppenheimer, who knows these facts very well since he is a Latin America “specialist”, complains about the high human cost of the revolution (which he estimates as the exile of 10% of the population), but does not tell us anything about nice, democratic countries like Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and many others, where millions have had to emigrate leaving behind their families, risking their lives to cross borders and finally suffering the most brutal capitalist exploitation, institutional racism, police brutality, etc. In the case of Ecuador, Mr. Oppenheimer should know that a quarter of the total population has had to emigrate. Let us then talk about these human costs!

However, real facts and figures do not lie and on the 50th anniversary of the revolution we need to remind ourselves again of what these facts and figures are. Life expectancy at the time of birth in Cuba today (according to the figures of the 2005 Human Development Report of the UN) is 77.7 years (62 in 1959), almost the same as in the US (77.9), much higher than neighbouring Haiti (a free capitalist country, Mr. Oppenheimer) where it is only 59.5 years, and substantially higher than Brazil (71.7). The adult literacy rate in Cuba is 99.8%, while in Brazil it is barely 88.6%, and it is also higher than in Oppenheimer’s favourite countries of Chile (95.7%) and Costa Rica (94.9%). In reality, according to the same United Nations report, Cuba has the fourth highest Human Development Index in Latin America (above Costa Rica!). If we look at the figures for infant mortality (in deaths per every 1,000 born alive), according to the 2008 CIA World Factbook (that cannot be suspected of espousing communist propaganda), the situation in Cuba (5.93 today against 78.8 in 19594), is much better than even in the US (6.3), Chile (7.9), Costa Rica (9.01, Mr. Oppenheimer), and than in Brazil (26.67), not to speak of Haiti, where the rate is 62.33 deaths per 1,000 live births. These figures should not surprise us since, according to the most recent World Bank figures (another source free of any communist influence), Cuba is the second highest country in the world for the number of doctors per 1,000 inhabitants (5.91), while the US has only 2.3, Brazil 2.06, Chile 1.09, Costa Rica 1.32, and Haiti barely 0.25.

But, if we were to accept the argument that the revolution was “not worth it”, what is the Cuba that Mr Oppenheimer defends? In 1958 Batista’s Cuba was the brothel of the US. A quarter of the population was illiterate and the percentage of children in school was lower than in the 1920s. In 1954, only 15% of houses in the cities and 1% of those in the countryside had a bathroom. At the same time, in Havana there were more Cadillacs than any other city in the world. Less than 30,000 landowners controlled 70% of all arable land, while 78.5% of landowners occupied only 15% of the total5. Around 20% of the active population was condemned to chronic unemployment, while another 20% of agricultural labourers worked 4 months a year in the zafra (sugar cane crop) and starved in miserable conditions for the rest of the year.

Cuba’s dependency on US imperialism was absolute. “Cuba bought in the US not only cars and machines, chemical products, paper and clothes, but also rice and beans, garlic and onions, fat, meat and cotton. Ice creams were brought from Miami, bread from Atlanta and even luxury meals from Paris”, explained Eduardo Galeano in his classic The Open Veins of Latin America. “Thirteen US-owned ingenios (sugar mills) controlled more than 47% of the total crop (…). The wealth under the ground – nickel, iron, copper, manganese, chrome, tungsten - was part of the US’s strategic reserves, whose companies exploited these minerals according to the varied needs of the army of the industry of the North. In 1958 there were in Cuba more registered prostitutes than mineworkers”6.

Despite the lies of Mr. Oppenheimer and co., had it not been for the revolution and the abolition of the private profit motive, Cuba would be today a poor and backward country in which the majority of the population would be living in poverty, facing unemployment, illiteracy and dieing of curable diseases, like the people of neighbouring Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

This is why revolutionary Marxists celebrate the Cuban revolution and unconditionally defend its conquests.

The character of the revolution

The revolution that won 50 years ago in Cuba had an advanced democratic programme, of national liberation and agrarian reform, with a strong social content, but which did not raise the issue of the abolition of capitalism in order to carry out these tasks. Anyone who reads the speeches of the leaders of the revolution in those initial months of euphoria, the decrees they emitted, the measures that were taken, can easily realise that socialism was not on the agenda, even though it is also true that there were some in the revolutionary leadership who already then considered themselves socialists or communists.

The composition of the first government after the fall of Batista illustrates this graphically. President Urrutia, a judge with no revolutionary background, was politically a conservative and an open anti-communist. Prime Minister Miró Cardona, a lawyer, was a conservative bourgeois with no revolutionary past record. There were also bourgeois conservatives with no revolutionary track records such as the Minister of Finance, López Fresquet, and the Minister of State, Agramonte.

In his memoirs “Cuban Revolutionary Government. First Steps”, the then Minister of the Presidency at that time, Luís M. Buch, describes the situation clearly:

“With these characteristics, there is no doubt that in the US and amongst the big economic groups there was a climate of relative confidence, and that the comrades who had proclaimed the need for a deep revolution had certain reservations, some of which would persist for months or years amongst some of us”7.

However, in reality, it was not possible to implement such an advanced national democratic programme without clashing head on with the interests of the US, which controlled the country’s economy, and with those of that tightly knit alliance of landlords and bourgeois, that was imperialism’s local lackeys. The development of the Cuban revolution between 1959 and 1962 is a brilliant confirmation of the theory of the permanent revolution that Trotsky had formulated on the basis of the experience of the Russian Revolution.

In that work, which remains very relevant to this day, Trotsky explains how in the epoch of imperialist domination the weak capitalist class in backward capitalist countries is unable to solve the problems of the national democratic revolution (agrarian reform and liberation from imperialism).

“With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.”8

The attempt to do precisely the opposite, to carry out the agrarian reform and to achieve national sovereignty, on the basis of an alliance with the “progressive” (anti-Batista) bourgeoisie and without breaking with capitalism, proved to be completely impossible. Gradually, as the revolution took practical measures, particularly in relation to the agrarian reform, the bourgeois elements started to break away and joined the counter-revolutionary camp. Already on February 16, 1959, Fidel replaced Miró Cardona as prime minister. But it was the passing of the first Agrarian Reform Law, in May of that year, that precipitated the open break with the more bourgeois elements. On June 11, four ministers were replaced (including the Agriculture Minister who had opposed the Agrarian Reform Law). On July 18 president Urrutia resigned. In October of that year, already in a climate of counter-revolutionary provocations and armed attacks, commander Hubert Matos, in charge of Camagüey, betrayed the revolution.

As the bourgeois elements were breaking away, support for the revolution amongst the masses of workers and peasants increased and became even stronger. The implementation of the agrarian reform, the lowering of rents, the lowering of electricity and telephone tariffs, were tangible conquests that the people were prepared to defend and fight for. In March, on the initiative of the Workers’ Circle in San Antonio de los Baños, the first armed militias of workers, students, peasants, professionals and housewives, were formed, which later on spread throughout the country.

In a succession of strikes and counter-strikes, provocations by the Cuban capitalists and mainly by US imperialism, to which the revolutionary government responded sharply, the revolution acquired an increasingly radical character. During 1960 the nationalization of foreign companies and foreign banks was decreed, so that by the time when Fidel declared the socialist character of the revolution, on March 16, 1961, on the eve of the attempted invasion at Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs), capitalism had been, to all effects, snuffed out in Cuba.

Map of Cuba, showing the location of the Bay of Pigs
Map of Cuba, showing the location of the Bay of Pigs

Those events, and the breathtaking speed of the Cuban revolution in those first years contain an important lesson. The fundamental problems which affect the masses of workers and peasants in backward capitalists countries cannot be resolved, nor genuine liberation from the yoke of imperialism be achieved, without breaking with the regime of capitalist private property. Only the expropriation of the interests and properties of the imperialists, the landlords and the local capitalist class can guarantee the conditions in which to start to solve the pending national democratic tasks.

The first decade, debates and conflicts

The Cuban revolution took place at the peak of the Cold War. By breaking with capitalism, the Cuban leadership was inexorably propelled in the direction of the USSR, but this process was not free of conflicts and difficulties. The USSR in 1959 was far from being the revolutionary country that Lenin and Trotsky had led between 1917 and 1924. The usurpation of power by the Stalinist bureaucracy had profoundly changed the character of the regime. An authoritarian dictatorship had replaced the soviet democracy of the early years. Even though the state property of the means of production and the planning of the economy remained, and had allowed the USSR to make enormous leaps forward, the bureaucracy had adopted a profoundly conservative and counter-revolutionary outlook. The foreign policy of the Stalinist bureaucracy was based on so-called “peaceful coexistence” in opposition to the revolutionary internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky’s Soviet Russia.

In Cuba, Stalinism had already had a disastrous impact on the policies of the Cuban Communist Party (later on to be renamed Peoples’ Socialist Party), to the point that the party participated in the Batista government of 1940-44 having two ministers. For many Cuban revolutionaries in 1959, the PSP was not considered a genuinely revolutionary organisation. The leaders of the PSP found themselves on many occasions to the right of Fidel when he was carrying out the nationalisations in 1959-61. Despite that, the powerful attraction of the USSR for a small nation which had just freed itself from the yoke of a major imperialist power only 90 miles away from its shores, was very strong. But we should not forget that the leaders of the Cuban revolution did not emerge from Stalinism, but had their own basis of support. They had carried out their own revolution and did not depend completely on the USSR. During the first years of the revolution, the relationship with the USSR was full of contradictions and conflicts, including purges against the Stalinists within the unified revolutionary organisations, like the two purges against Escalante in 1962 and 1967-689.

Ernesto Che Guevara
Ernesto Che Guevara

It was perhaps Che Guevara who most acutely expressed these contradictions. To him, the idea of “peaceful coexistence” was - and rightly so - a counter-revolutionary idea. Clearly, Fidel and Che, thought of the Cuban revolution as part of the Latin American revolution and, more widely, as part of the struggle of the colonial peoples against imperialism. This conception clashed head on with the foreign policy of the Soviet bureaucracy and led to a conflict in many Communist parties on the continent. The mistake of Che was to try to take the methods of the guerrilla foco, which had been successful in Cuba because of a particular set of circumstances, and try to generalise them as valid to all countries and all circumstances.

Rejection of Stalinism was very strong among a generation of revolutionaries who had come to Marxism through their own experience in the Cuban revolution. The team of the Philosophy Department at Havana University, for instance, rejected the Soviet manuals of “Marxism-Leninism” and worked out their own curriculum, based on the study of the original texts of Marx, Engels, Lenin and the classical philosophers, to study Marxism. The same group of revolutionaries (most of them very young) started the publication of the Pensamiento Crítico (Critical Thought) magazine, where they debated openly and in a critical manner different versions of Marxism, trying to break with the ossified, distorted and anti-Marxist version they were getting from the Soviet Union. In the field of arts, culture and cinema there were sharp public polemics against the attempt of the Stalinists to impose “Soviet realism” and censorship of anything that deviated from it. Che Guevara defended the planning of the economy and the need to industrialise the country against the Stalinists who argued for the use of market mechanisms and material incentives in the running of the economy.

However, this period came to an end at the beginning of the 1970s. The failure in 1967 of the attempt by Che to spread the revolution to the continent marked the isolation of the Cuban revolution. The failure of the 10 million tonne sugar cane crop of 1970, which led to the dislocation of the country’s economy, marked the complete economic dependence of Cuba on the USSR, which was sealed with the entry into the CAME (Economic Mutual Aid Council) in 1972.

This dependence of the Cuban revolution on the Stalinist USSR had important negative consequences in all fields: the discussion of ideas was curtailed (both the Philosophy Department and Pensamiento Critico were closed down), in the field of arts and culture there was repression and censorship (the dreadful Quinquenio Gris, Five Grey Years), in foreign policy, in economic policy, etc.

Part Two >>

1 El Mercurio, December 28, 2008. Hubert Matos was one of the first to conspire against the revolution from within, a general Baduel of the Cuban revolution.

4 Even though the most recent data, just published, shows infant mortality to be only 4.7 per every 1,000 born alive, the lowest in history.

5 Quoted in “La Revolución Cubana. Pasado Presente y Futuro. Fundación Federico Engels, Madrid 2004. 

6 Eduardo Galeano. Las venas abiertas de América Latina. SXXI Editores. México 1971

7 Luís M. Buch. Gobierno Revolucionario. Primeros Pasos. Ciencias Sociales, La Habana 2004. P.196

8 Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, Basic Postulates

9 Among other things, the Escalante Micro-fraction accused Che Guevara of attacking the Soviet Union and having adopted “Trotskyist” positions and opposed Fidel’s criticism of the policy of the Soviet Union in Latin America, including support for Chile and Brazil.