Fidel Castro’s Death Leaves the Path of History Unchanged

Those dancing in the streets in Miami and those mourning around the world agree on at least one thing on the death of Fidel Castro Ruz. Their common ground is the great lie that Cuba was “socialist”. For the supporters of capitalism, socialism is Stalinism with its lack of freedom and its gulags. For the blindly pro-Castro camp improving education and health care wipes out the memory of all those judicially murdered, and the even greater number locked up, for resisting a regime which was based on mass surveillance and the ubiquitous secret police, the G2. To combat the great lie of Cuba’s supposed socialism, we are publishing here three articles which we produced in 1984 and 1999 commemorating the various anniversaries of Castro’s January 1959 victory. In some respects some of the facts are dated (Castro has, for example, since apologised to all the gays the regime locked up – we don’t know whether this was any kind of consolation for the victims especially since the macho, anti-gay culture still exists in today’s Communist Party of Cuba) but the essential argument about the nature of the Cuban economy and state has not.

The British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in uncharacteristically diplomatic mode, described Castro as an "historic if controversial figure" whose death "marks the end of an era for Cuba and the start of a new one for Cuba's people".

In fact that era started some time back with the collapse of the USSR and the withdrawal of its subsidies. Castro handed over power to his brother Raul a decade ago. In capitalist terms the outstanding achievement of the Castro regime is that it has warded off the hostility of the most powerful state in history only 90 miles from its shores for almost 6 decades. But this does not make it different from any other capitalist entity. Indeed the US embargo on Cuba and its attempt to foist this embargo on the world has only polished the “anti-imperialist” credentials of the regime in the eyes of the left-wing of capitalism. This was what Obama came to realise but which a Republican regime financed by Cuban exiles is unlikely to pursue with much energy.

As it is the regime in Havana has only been able to survive the last quarter of a century through its trade deals with China and Venezuela. Private enterprise has been encouraged (but like everywhere else since 2008 new start-ups are rare), and without Chinese patronage (which was initially attracted by Cuba’s small nickel output and is today its overwhelmingly its new “godfather”) the regime would have collapsed, in one way or another, long ago. The sad thing today is not the death of one 90 year old individual but the continuing lie which continues to equate his Stalinist model of state capitalism with socialism. We offer these articles which have been long out of print as an antidote.


27 November 2016

1. Castro’s Cuba: Forty Years of State Capitalism

From Revolutionary Perspectives 13 (Series 3 Winter 1999)

On January 1, 1959 the guerrillas of Fidel Castro’s 26 July Movement entered Havana, capital of Cuba. The day before the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled into exile. Until then Havana had been, under Batista, an American playground where the Mafia controlled much of economic life as well as all the main trade unions. The Union of Gastronomic Workers, for example, actually built and owned the Havana Hilton (today called the Hotel Havana Libre). Gambling and prostitution were the main money earners for those with access to US tourists. One of today's ironies is that the prostitutes have returned (it is calculated that there are now l0,000 prostitutes in Cuba) with the mass tourism Castro has had to fall back on since the USSR collapsed. With the loss of its multi-million dollar a day subsidy and in the face of a continuing US blockade foreign tourism is about all that keeps Cuba going. "Going'' might be an exaggeration as nearly every economic and social indicator is in reverse. Even the much-vaunted health system is (like healthcare in the rest of the world) in deep crisis. Castro has manoeuvred astutely to court European governments (especially Spain) and has even managed to become a source of friction between Europe and a USA which passed the Helms-Burton Act designed to penalise any European firm which broke the US blockade. Castro has been so desperate to find new allies that he even had the Pope in Cuba in 1998 (despite the secret and public role the Catholic Church carried out for the CIA in destroying Castro’s old Stalinist allies in Eastern Europe).

Castro has also benefited from sentimental support from those who see Cuba as either a “socialist experiment” or mounting a plucky resistance to the tyranny of the United States. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revolution we devoted two small articles in our paper, Workers Voice, to show that not only was Cuba not socialist it was also not even "anti-imperialist''. Over the years several comrades have asked for reprints of them and so we have printed them again without alteration.

Indeed there is nothing to alter. Today, of course the situation is different since Cuba is no longer a client of either the USA or the USSR but it is still very much a pawn of imperialism. At the moment it has no godfather (which means Cuban youth are no longer dying in Grenada, Angola or Guinea-Bissau as they did in the seventies) but that does not mean Castro is still not trying to find one. What we can say is that the whole history of Cuba demonstrates the impossibility of any state achieving real independence in the epoch of imperialism. No state has tried harder than Cuba to achieve this and whilst it could be argued that Cuba is currently not dominated by any great power this is obviously not a permanent condition.

At the same time Cuba is not “socialist'” in any sense of the word. Holding hard currency has been legal in Cuba since 1993 which means that those Cubans who get it are in a different class from everyone else. Cubans who do get hold of hard currency have generally done so via some form of illegal activity.

Meanwhile rations have been cut further for ordinary Cubans though that does not affect the not-so-new class of “comandantes” (which include Castro and his brother Raul) who don't have to live off the ration card (tarjeta) but instead have a comparatively luxurious life. All the laws against not working hard (or face gaol) are still in force and new ones against “labour indiscipline” have been added (to attract British, French and Spanish firms to invest in Cuba). Its wage labour is even doubly exploited since foreign firms purchase Cuban labour from the state (including doctors) and the state then only passes a proportion of the wages on to the workers who are taken on. Socialism will abolish wage labour, will be run by workers councils which have sovereign authority (Castro's so-called Committees for the Defence of the Revolution are simply means for the state to control every street and every block) and, of course, such a socialism can only be built on an international scale.

Socially too the regime is noted for its homophobia and as elsewhere blacks are noticeable by their absence from the higher ranks of the state. Cuba, like every other state in the world is capitalist. Today it is still nationalism which is the real ideology on which the current Cuban ruling class rely. They will have to be overthrown just like the ruling class in any other state.

2. Cuba is Capitalist

From Workers Voice, paper of the Communist Workers’ Organisation (January 1984)

For Marx communism or socialism (he used the words interchangeably) could only come about in a society of abundance, of material wealth. In it goods would be distributed on the principle of “from each according to their ability; to each according to their need”. On the other hand the chief way in which capitalism can be recognised is in the use of wage labour. For Marx "wage labour pre-supposes capitalism''. All the so-called socialist societies of today, from the USSR and Eastern Europe through to China, Albania and Vietnam keep this central feature of capitalism.

In every society which pays wages the workers produce surplus value. In other words they are denied the full product of their labour. These societies, no less than the West, are thus exploiting societies – in short, capitalist societies. It's true that the state rather than an individual is the boss but this in no way changes their capitalist nature. As Engels wrote a century ago,

… the transformation ... into state ownership does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces … The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine … i.e. workers remain wage Iabourers … The capitalist relation is not done away with.

Anti-Duhring, pp 329-30

Many will therefore agree with us that the USSR, China, et al. are state capitalist but when faced with its tropical version in Cuba they begin to show doubts. They argue that its “different” that it has features of “real'” socialism or that it has to be defended because its “progressive”. Such fantasies of the left can easily be dispelled by looking at the facts.

Class in Cuba

Let’s begin by looking at the conditions of the workers. It’s true that Castro ended the unemployment rate of 25-30% which was common in the 1950s but this has only been achieved through huge Russian subsidies which hide massive unemployment. Workers on state farms work 5 hours and get paid for 8, whilst seasonal workers get paid a full year for 6 months work. This doesn't really matter since there isn't much to buy. Castro also introduced a social security law in 1962 but by 1969 only 6% of Cuban workers had fully qualified for all pension and social security benefits because this depended on a good work record. This was further tightened up in August 1969 by Law No. 225 which established work control cards for all workers. They record each worker's background, political activity and productivity. Without it you cannot work or receive a wage. In addition it is a crime not to work (under the 1971 “Ley contra la vagancia” or “Law Against Idleness'”) whilst increasingly labour is being militarised. Thus the tendency is to increase rather than decrease exploitation.

As a preparation for this, school children are also militarised. They are sent to “schools in the countryside” which are subject to military discipline. The motto of the Ministry of Education is “Study, Work, Rifle'” and the aim of its schools is to teach the virtue of productive work and of dying for the “socialist fatherland” in Soviet proxy wars in Africa. (There are 5,000 Cubans in Angola alone).

But even militarisation has not succeeded in lifting productivity and 20% of Cuban workers are now on piecework whilst 50% have to achieve a production quota before getting paid.

At the same time a new ruling class has emerged. Judges, technicians and ministers get ten times the workers' wage and don't have to depend on their ration card like the rest of the population. They also have access to the fleet of 1,500 Alfa Romeos Castro bought for the use of the elite. As one Castro sympathiser has noted, this has led to

A problem whose existence has only recently been acknowledged (which) is the high degree of social tension between the labour force and the state bureaucracy.

Cuba in Revolution, Valdes and Bonachea p. 378

This is an understatement since workers who go on strike are arrested in their hundreds, whilst some leaders of striking canecutters have been sentenced to death for “sabotage”.

Propaganda against the People

Yet to read books written by Castro’s supporters in the West one would think Cuba was the ideal democracy in which “the people” really take part. This is totally untrue.

In fact Cuba is nearer to the fascist political model than any other. Castro is referred to as the great leader who makes six big speeches every year excusing failures (like Grenada), or setting targets for mobilisation. The much-talked about "People's Power'' is in fact nothing but an attempt to mobilise more Cubans behind the targets Castro sets and to give life to dead bodies like the state unions. All the real decisions aren't taken by the Cuban Communist Party (set up in its modern form in 1965) but by Castro and his immediate cronies Castro owes more to Napoleon than Marx in that he relies on nationalism and plebiscites to win over the masses (97% voted for the 1976 “socialist” constitution – Hitler got similar majorities when he made himself Führer of Germany).

Cuba shows clearly that socialism is not something that can be imposed by this or that dictator or group of dictators. Despite its romantic image, political mobilisation has been very much on the totalitarian model, with children drafted into the "Camilitos'' (a militaristic Boy Scout movement like the Hitler Youth or Stalin's Komsomol). Even in its famous campaign to wipe out illiteracy in 1961 the Cuban state did not have educational but political goals. Like Stalin in the 1930s, Castro realised that the state's political aims would reach more people if they could read. Books used were more like political than teaching manuals, including such definitions as "economic blockade – a state of siege imposed by imperialism (which) we have conquered thanks to the countries which trade with us.” Not bad for beginners! At the end of the campaign all Cubans had to write a letter to Castro, thus getting them to recognise the new state structure and their “great leader”.


To those who still want to believe that there is a “socialist paradise” on earth the facts we have outlined here will seem unpleasant. No doubt some will take comfort in the view that we “must have got them from the CIA” (In fact many are taken from the speeches of leading representatives of the Cuban state). They confirm what genuine Marxists who have not sold their critical capacities to imperialism have always known. Socialism cannot be built in one country alone (as was proved first in Russia in the 1920's). And socialism cannot be imposed on the working class by a small elite trying to make capitalism work more efficiently. The tasks of the Cuban working class remain the same as before. They are the same as for workers everywhere. Only the international workers' revolution will open up the conditions for the realisation of socialism world-wide. Only then will the dictatorship of Castro give way to the dictatorship of the armed workers' councils.

3. Cuba: Pawn of Imperialism

From Workers Voice, paper of the Communist Workers’ Organisation (January 1984)

Cuba in the twentieth century is a perfect example of how imperialism causes the stagnation of the economies of industrially less developed countries. It is also a perfect example of how “national liberation” from imperialism is impossible today.

All that these weaker economies can do is change from one imperialist master to another (from the USA to the USSR or vice versa).

In fact in the last 100 years Cuba has been a colony of three empires, since it was only in 1902 that it became “independent” from Spain. This independence was, however, more formal than real since Cuba had won its “independence” as a result of the Treaty of Paris which ended the Spanish-American War of 1898-9. No Cuban was present at the peace conference.

Under the Heel of the USA

Until 1902 Cuba was occupied by US troops who left when the Cuban government agreed to include the following clause in “independent” Cuba's Constitution

the US reserves and retains the right of intervention for the preservation of Cuban independence and the maintenance of stable government…

In other words, modern imperialism had arrived in Cuba. Although no longer occupied by foreign troops Cuba was a colony of the USA in all but name. Before 1933 the US Army was to enter Cuba on at least 3 occasions. The US soon began to feel the economic benefits of “our Cuban colony”. In 1903 Cuba was also forced to sign a trade treaty which worked entirely to the benefit of the US. Cuba was allowed to sell sugar (which then, as now, provided over 80% of its earnings) at 20% below the US sugar tariff whilst the USA was allowed to sell to Cuba a whole range of goods at similar reduced tariffs. The effect of this treaty was to force Cuban capital into total dependence on the world price of a single crop whilst cheap US imports prevented the growth of local industry. It wasn't long before Cuba began to pay the penalty for this. By 1910 the cheaper Cuban sugar had pushed all other sugar (which had to pay the full US tariff) off the US market. For Cuban sugar this meant that further increased production only lowered its world price (since the extra would be sold on the world market), ensuring that the sugar industry would never greatly improve its investment returns. Only the extra demand for sugar from the Allies during World War One (1914-18) prevented a crisis breaking out immediately. When the war ended the demand for sugar collapsed and so did sugar prices. So too did any hopes of an independent Cuban capitalism. By September 1921 78% of the Cuban sugar industry and the banks which had supplied them were in the hands of US banks and corporations But instead of cutting sugar production in order to raise sugar prices (the obvious course from the point of view of Cuban capital), these US monopolies increased it.

This lowered the world price of raw sugar (thus hitting Cuban producers) but these banks and sugar companies also invested in refined sugar and so cheap raw sugar was in their interest, even if it did make Cuba poorer. Cheap raw sugar helped to increase profits for refined sugar investors. This is a perfect example of how capitalist imperialism works all over the world, where raw materials are bought below value and then sold back to the supplier as finished goods with grossly inflated prices. Cuba provides another example. Before 1959 there was no canning plant on the island so fresh tomatoes and fruit sold by Cuba to the US often returned there in tins at inflated prices.

The 1933 Revolution

These policies of US imperialism led to the rise of Cuban nationalism and to state intervention in the economy. In 1926 the dictator Machado introduced an Act to limit the production of sugar. Whilst this pleased the local Cuban capitalists (since it raised sugar prices and thus their profits) it threw many Cuban sugar workers out of work. And when the US raised the tariff on Cuban sugar in 1929 sales to the US fell and led to even more unemployment and starvation. In 1933 the result was a popular insurrection, led by sugar workers, which overthrew Machado. A mass strike throughout the whole island led to workers seizing 36 sugar mills and even establishing a “soviet” at the Senado mill. However, lacking the leadership of a revolutionary party, the workers fell under the leadership of the Stalinist Popular Socialist Party (PSP) which contented itself with calling for an 8 hour day and legal unions. The Cuban workers missed their chance to seize state power but the insurrection itself highlights how workers' interests in the 20th Century are NEVER the same as their bosses, even if they have the same nationality. As the working class had exhausted itself in the earlier struggle the army, under Batista, was able to seize power and workers were driven into the mills and fields at the point of the bayonet.

Batista didn't rely on the stick alone. He recognised the leadership of the PSP over the unions as the best way to prevent the class struggle from getting out of control. At the height of the Stalin-Roosevelt alliance Batista even included, with the apparent blessing of his masters in Washington, two leading members of the PSP in his government.

Cuba before Castro

After 1933 government intervention in the sugar industry also increased to keep farmers, businessmen, and the sugar millworkers happy. In 1950 the World Bank described what was happening in the Cuban sugar industry as,

… perhaps one of the most elaborate patterns of government control ever imposed on an industry short of actual nationalisation.

Nationalisation didn't happen because the sugar owners still dominated the state, and in any case the Cuban ruling class didn't want to annoy the USA. However, profits were no longer what they were for the US monopolies and because of increased government control they cut their investment in the sugar industry by half and sold half their mills to Cubans. According to Cuba's nationalist leaders, this transfer of ownership should have stopped much of the profits produced by Cuban workers from going out of the country. This should have ended the 30 years of economic stagnation and led to industrial diversification. But it didn't. The Cuban ruling class did get more profits, but not enough to make it worthwhile investing in new productive industry. They could not compete with the prices of US goods. Further, the US wouldn't allow Cuba to run up a national debt – an essential part of all industrial revolutions under capitalism. In the 1950's all US loans were repaid within 30 days. So instead the local capitalists used 60% of their new income to buy houses in West Havana and Miami. Cuba became a playground for US millionaires and the Mafia set up gambling dens and brothels all over Havana.

The rampant corruption of Cuban politics and the wealth and luxury of Havana contrasted markedly with the life of the vast numbers of rural unemployed in the sugar industry. They only worked when the sugar harvest (zafra) was on. The rest of the year was called the “dead time” and for many this was literally true.

How Castro changed Cuba's Master

Castro's take-over ended all this. In 1959 Castro didn't claim to be a socialist. In fact, rather the opposite. The Progamme Manifesto of the 26th July Movement and Castro's speech at his Moncada trial [in 1953 when Batista defeated his first attempt insurrection] are specifically anti-socialist and anti-working class. He said the Cuban worker,

… should not be alien to the Fatherland’s sorrows and should abandon his class isolation and negative passivity …

He went on to say Cuba's ideology “will not be something imported from other places'“ and set out his creed as “democracy, nationalism and social justice”. By “democracy” he meant that of the USA (he quoted US Presidents Lincoln and Jefferson with approval) while his nationalism included a “doctrine of constructive friendship with the USA since “it is improper in America to use the word “imperialism”. On a trip to the USA in May, 1959 he said:

I have clearly and definitely stated that we are not communists …The gates are open for private investment that contributes to the development of Cuba.

Castro was, and is, a nationalist, in essence a typical South American demagogue. How then did he decide to call himself a “Marxist-Leninist” on December 2, 1961?

The answer is very simple. Castro's main aim as a nationalist was to industrialise Cuba. But Cuba's nationalist claims had already gone as far as they could without directly attacking the aims of US imperialism. Thus a minor land reform in May 1959 (which was less radical than the one General Macarthur had introduced in Japan after the Second World War) led to protests and threats by the USA. This was followed by Eisenhower's cuts in the Cuban sugar quota. Previously the threat of such a cut would have been enough for a Cuban government to back down. On television Castro pleaded with Eisenhower that he only wanted a “change of proportion” in relations with the US. Eisenhower refused to listen and US propaganda portrayed Castro as a “communist”.

Castro still wavered, but in February 1960 the USSR offered to take Cuba's unsold sugar for five years (at a relatively high price). Castro saw his chance. With Russian aid he thought Cuba could abandon its dependence on sugar production and industrialise. In a last desperate attempt to stop Castro taking Cuba into the arms of Russia, Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs invasion (which had been planned by the CIA during Eisenhower's Presidency) in April 1961. This ended in humiliation for the US and provoked a Cuban nationalist reaction which made Castro more secure than ever. However Castro wanted greater military security and so he now declared himself a “Marxist-Leninist” (i.e. a Stalinist). In mid-1962 he persuaded the USSR to send missiles to the now “socialist” Cuba. The withdrawal of these missiles in face of a US threat to start a nuclear war was a setback for Castro. More significantly he began to realise that Cuba had not after all, escaped the clutches of imperialism. He had simply changed one imperialist master for another. In the deal patched up by Kennedy and Khruschev after the 1962 missile crisis, Khruschev, without consulting Castro, allowed the US to enter Cuba to make sure the missile sites had been dismantled. Castro was furious and publicly denounced the USSR. He even thought of turning to China for “disinterested” aid. His economic advisers pointed out that China itself had enormous economic problems in its attempt to balance between the imperialist camps.

Russian Imperialism

So Castro found himself Russian “aid” but like American “aid” it came with strings. A 2.5% interest rate was soon added to the USSR’s original interest-free loans. These state capitalist terms may sound more generous but it must be remembered that in every agreement signed by Cuba with the USSR 80% of the “aid” money had to be spent on Russian machines and goods. These were sold to Cuba at between 11% and 53% more than their Western equivalents. But it was through sugar that Cuba once again experienced the bitter taste of imperialism. The USSR doesn't really need sugar since it produces enough sugar beet. But it resells Cuban sugar at a higher price to its East European satellites and thus, like the USA, profits by unequal trade. Castro had hoped to end dependence on sugar by industrialising but Russian advisers encouraged him to develop the industry. They were encouraging him to develop Cuba's dependence on the USSR. In 1964 Castro adopted his Perspective Sugar Plan which aimed to produce a record 10 million tons of sugar by 1970. It had to succeed because the Eastern bloc countries were going to “buy” 8.2 million tons. If Castro was to win any room for manoeuvre he had to get as much convertible (i e. Western) currency as possible by selling Cuba's full international quota of l.5 million tons on the free market. This was why he needed 10 million tons in 1970. The Plan failed and only about 8.5 million tons were produced. It was an economic disaster from which Cuba has never recovered. The effort ruined fields and mills for years after and since then the harvest has always been below 6 million ton. It left Cuba totally dependent on the USSR, owing it 10 million tons of sugar as well as over 6 billion dollars. It is calculated that it costs the USSR $3 million a day to support Cuba.

This shows that imperialism doesn't always operate with shopkeepers' logic. In Cuba the USSR gets returns on its investment in political and military benefits. Castro has become increasingly the faithful “revolutionary” mouthpiece of the Kremlin. In the early Sixties Castro tried to follow an independent foreign policy by promoting “armed struggle” in South America against Moscow's wishes. This collapsed in Bolivia in 1967 when Che Guevara was murdered (after being abandoned by members of the pro-Moscow Bolivian Communist Party). In 1968 we find Castro defending the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and in 1973 he made himself particularly useful in denouncing China at the Conference of Non-aligned Countries in Algeria. In 1975 his dependence on the USSR was revealed in fawning terms at the only Congress of the Cuban Communist Party,

… no true revolutionary, in any part of the world, will ever regret that the USSR is powerful, because if that power did not exist . . . the people who fought for liberation would have no place from which to receive decisive help . . . (they would have been turned into colonies once more).

But as we have shown, Castro's Cuba is still a colony. All that has changed is the imperialist master, however much he chooses to disguise state capitalism as “socialism”.

Today the Cuban workers are literally paying back the “decisive help” the USSR has given Castro with their own blood. It is for the interests of Russian imperialism that Cubans died in Grenada and continue to die in countries throughout Africa.

Sunday, November 27, 2016