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From The Socialist newspaper, 27 February 2008

Fidel Castro's resignation opens up new chapter

What are the prospects for Cuban revolution?

The formal resignation of Fidel Castro as president of Cuba opens up a new chapter in Cuba's history. Since Castro's original illness in 2006, there has been intense discussion about his role and the future of Cuba. His resignation signifies that he is unlikely to recover and that the Cuban government is seeking to prepare the Cuban population for his death, maybe soon.

PETER TAAFFE comments on this latest development and argues the need for workers' democracy in Cuba.

Despite any shortcomings and mistakes of Fidel Castro, he is recognised by the downtrodden masses worldwide as a monumental figure who tenaciously fought against their capitalist and imperialist oppressors. Millions of working-class people and the poor worldwide hope that the social gains of the revolution will endure.

Fidel Castro in his days as a guerrila

Fidel Castro in his days as a guerrila

Since the revolution in 1959, Cuba has faced a savage embargo imposed by US imperialism. There have been 600 assassination attempts against Castro. However, through its planned economy, Cuba has given a glimpse of the great possibilities for humankind if the straitjacket of landlordism and capitalism was eliminated. Heroic figures like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro exercise a profound influence upon many young people and workers throughout the world.

The reputation of Cuba on social issues, such as housing, education and particularly health, if anything has soared recently. In Michael Moore's incredible film Sicko, the contrast between the brutal, profit-driven health system in the US and the free care provided by Cuba is starkly emphasised.

Free treatment

Ordinary Americans who had lost their houses through illness and were denied affordable health care in the US, were given succour and treatment, free of charge, when Moore took them to Cuba. The achievements of Cuba are compared to the dismal record of landlordism and capitalism in the region, as well as in Africa and Asia.

In a revealing new book, Fidel Castro - My Life*, in which Castro collaborated with the writer Ignacio Ramonet, Castro sets out the impressive achievements of the revolution.

He comments: "We now have more than 70,000 doctors, plus another 25,000 young people studying medicine... Our neighbours to the north [United States] can only send helicopters, they can't send doctors, because they don't have enough to solve any of the world's problems. Europe, that 'champion of human rights', can't either; they don't have even 100 doctors to send to Africa, where there are 30 million or more people infected with AIDS".

Fidel Castro in Washington 1959

Fidel Castro in Washington 1959

Between 1959 and today, life expectancy in Cuba has risen by 19 years. Following the social counter-revolution in Russia, it fell for men to 56! Could there be a greater contrast between the claims of social revolution and the barbarism of capitalist counter-revolution? And this has been achieved in the teeth of a massive economic decline in Cuba in the early 1990s following the spiteful withdrawal of aid, particularly oil supplies, firstly by Russia's Yeltsin and continued by Putin, as Castro explains in his book.

While the historic achievements of free education and medical attention were preserved, nevertheless a brutal austerity programme was inflicted on the great mass of the population. The regime was forced to make concessions to the 'market', that is to capitalism. Through 'dollarisation', a parallel economy developed, which resulted in relative privileges for those involved in tourism, where they were paid in dollars, and sectors involving 'joint ventures'. Unfortunately, those who remain firm supporters of the planned economy, such as doctors, teachers, etc, continue to be paid in the Cuban peso and suffer accordingly.

Even the state monopoly of foreign trade, according to the well known left-wing author Richard Gott, was formally abolished in 1992. But essentially, Cuba remained a planned economy with foreign enterprises requiring authorisation from the ministry of trade to perform their operations.

Decentralisation took place, with hundreds of enterprises permitted to import and export on their own authority.

However, Fidel Castro declared that "nothing will be privatised in Cuba that is suitable for and therefore can be kept under ownership by the nation of the workers' collective".

Yet it is not true, as Fidel Castro has also argued in the past, as well as in this recent book, that bureaucracy and inequalities do not exist in Cuba. Castro is not, as his capitalist opponents have tried to picture, in the mould of Stalin. No state-sponsored cult of the personality exists, nor are there portraits, statues and images of Castro in Cuba while he remains alive.

Moreover, while he freely admits that he has made mistakes, and has zigzagged from one policy to another throughout the last 49 years - sometimes causing significant harm - this has not been comparable to the monstrous crimes of Stalinism: forced collectivisation, big purge trials, etc.

Missile crisis

Fidel Castro with Venezuela president Hugo Chavez and Bolivian president Evo Morales

Fidel Castro with Venezuela president Hugo Chavez and Bolivian president Evo Morales

This book also reveals that Castro could sometimes behave erratically. For instance, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, he incredibly proposed to Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev that a 'first strike' nuclear attack should be launched against the US by the Soviet Union.

Khrushchev replied to Castro: "You propose that we carry out a first strike against the enemy territory. This would not be a simple strike but the beginning of a thermonuclear war".

Castro sometimes attacks Stalin: "He was to blame, in my view, for the invasion of the USSR in 1941 by Hitler's powerful war machine, without the soviet forces ever hearing a call to arms... Everyone knows about his abuse of force, the repression, and his personal characteristics, the cult of personality".

Yet, at the same time, he claims that Stalin "also showed tremendous merit in industrialising the country, in moving the military industry to Siberia - those were decisive factors in the world's great fight against Nazism".

But Stalin was not the original author of the idea of the 'Five-Year Plan' and the accompanying idea of industrialisation. It was Trotsky and the Left Opposition who first formulated these ideas. Stalin borrowed them and applied them in a bureaucratic fashion at great, unnecessary costs to the Soviet Union and its people.

At the same time, Castro pointedly denies - quite wrongly as Celia Hart has indicated - that Che Guevara had 'Trotskyite sympathies'. Castro states: "I never heard him talk about Trotsky... He was a Leninist and, to a degree, he even recognised some merits in Stalin".

Che Guevara, it is true, was not a conscious Trotskyist. Yet in his last period in Cuba, he became a critic of bureaucratism and particularly in the so-called 'socialist' countries he had visited. Moreover, he had a book by Trotsky in his knapsack when he was killed in Bolivia in 1967.

In these comments, however, Castro reveals, at best, a one-sided understanding of Stalinism from a 'sociological' and political point of view. The blunder of forced collectivisation, the monstrous purge trials, the annihilation of the last remnants of the heroic Bolshevik party, were not just personal traits of Stalin alone or 'mistakes' but flowed from the character of the bureaucratic machine which he personified and represented.

Stalin presided over a bureaucratic political counter-revolution, as Trotsky brilliantly analysed, which feared the independent movement of the working class and the ideas of workers' democracy. Fidel Castro distances himself and Che Guevara from Trotsky and his criticisms of Stalinism, because his regime, in the final analysis, is also ruled by a bureaucratic elite unaccountable to the masses.

Cuba and its revolution had many different features to the Russian revolution, and Castro is not Stalin. However, despite the Cuban revolution's enormous popularity at the beginning, its weaknesses were evident in the absence of democratic control and management, and a clear class consciousness by the working class and the poor.

'Socialist awareness'

Castro himself says that, at the beginning, there was "not yet a socialist awareness". Throughout his book, moreover, there is no clear perception of the role of the working class - as explained by Marx - as the main agency of the socialist revolution, nor of its role in controlling, together with the peasant poor, the workers' state that is thrown up by the revolution.

He speaks about 1968 but is completely silent about the working class movement in France that year, the greatest general strike in history. He also shamefully passes over the massacres of students the same year in Mexico. At the time, because of diplomatic ties with Mexico - the only state in Latin America to recognise Cuba at that time - he did not say a word about the Mexican government's murderous actions.

Che Guevara, photo by Alberto Korda, March 5, 1960

Che Guevara, photo by Alberto Korda, March 5, 1960

The consequence of this approach is that the state presided over by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, in the first instance while enormously popular because of the carrying out of a revolution almost in the jaws of the US monster, was not controlled by workers' and peasants' councils, as was the case in Russia in 1917. This historically put its stamp on the Cuban state and the kind of society that subsequently emerged.

This is reflected in Castro's thinking about the character of the state he presided over. Under questioning from the author Volker Skierka, he bluntly stated: "I don't believe it is really necessary to have more than one party... How could our country have stood firm if it had been split up into ten pieces?... I think exploitation of one human by another must disappear before you can have real democracy".

However, without real workers' democracy the transition to socialism is impossible. The ending of the one-party monopoly, fair elections to genuine workers' councils, strict control over the incomes of elected officials and the right of recall over them, are minimum requirements for a democratic workers' state.

Without real control and management of the state and society, an inevitable bureaucratic machine will take hold, which ultimately threatens the very existence of the planned economy itself. This would be a real possibility even in a highly advanced, developed economy after a revolution, let alone one like Cuba which has a gross domestic product just 0.3% the size of the US.

It is true that in the early 1990s, faced with a deteriorating economic situation, an open discussion on the constitution ensued and constitutional amendments to the national assembly, including a form of direct elections, were proposed. However, this was still on the basis of only one candidate for each seat in parliament. It was a form of 'democracy', which allowed voters to select the candidate from a list but from just one party.

In the January 2008 elections, there were 614 candidates for 614 seats! At the same time, members of the central committee of the Communist Party, the Politburo, and the Council of State, were ultimately subject to the veto, if necessary, of Fidel Castro.

Ultimately power is wielded, in any state, by leaders and parties. But every leadership, every party, particularly in a healthy workers' state, needs strict control to be exercised by the masses from below.

In Cuba today, discontent is growing, particularly amongst the new generation; 73% of the population were born after the triumph of the revolution in 1959. The alienation of the new generation risks a 'revolution with no heirs'.

Replacement of Fidel Castro by his brother Raúl will not solve the underlying problems. Raúl is associated with the Cuban army, as defence minister. In the early 1990s, faced with austerity conditions, he sought to use the army in some 'free-market' experiments; officers were sent to learn hotel management techniques in Spain and accounting in Europe.

He has visited China on a number of occasions to study Beijing's economic policies. He has also slashed the size of the army, and has pushed innovations such as farmers' markets and self-employment for plumbers, hairdressers and other small-time entrepreneurs. It is through measures like this, that elements of capitalism have already been reintroduced into Cuba, while not yet being in a position to destroy the main features of the planned economy.

There are undoubtedly divisions within the bureaucratic elite that controls Cuba. There is a section that wishes to 'open up' to capitalism, in a 'democratic' form. Their difficulty is the brutal US Helms-Burton Act. Even those bureaucrats who wish to see the dismantling of the planned economy face the prospect of the Miami refugees under the benediction of US imperialism returning to Cuba: "to hold auctions for state enterprises, selling to the highest bidder" (Wall Street Journal).

Events, and particularly the US presidential elections, could have a profound effect on Cuba. Barack Obama has already indicated he will adopt a softer line to America's traditional foes: Cuba, Iran, etc. He or even Hillary Clinton - despite her recent bellicose statements towards the Cuban regime - could act to limit or completely dismantle the embargo.

Profitable bites

There is already considerable pressure from farmers, from the tourist trade, not to say McDonald's, for the barriers to come down so they can take big profitable bites out of Cuba. One hundred US Congress members have demanded that the embargo is lifted. It is this which is the greatest danger to the remaining elements of the planned economy in Cuba. Millions of US tourists flooding Cuba, with even a devalued dollar in their pockets, could strike a blow, perhaps a mortal one, at the remaining elements of the planned economy.

As Leon Trotsky commented, the real danger to an isolated workers' state lay not so much in a military invasion but 'cheap goods in the baggage train of imperialism'.

This 'invasion' of Cuba today would probably take the form of tourism, as well as capitalist investment, if the regime 'opened up' under Raúl or another leader in the future. This may remain an unlikely prospect as long as Fidel Castro lives. But a real danger of capitalist restoration nevertheless still exists.

Venezuelan oil is a vital lifeline at present for Cuba. But what if the price of oil collapses, as it could with the onset of the world economic recession? Venezuela would be profoundly affected and, consequently, Cuba as well.

Marxists, as Trotsky advocated, while critical, would seek a principled bloc with the wing of the Cuban leadership who will fight to maintain a planned economy, and seek to mobilise mass Cuban resistance to any threat to return to capitalism.

Given the advantages of the planned economy - and especially if these were spread through a democratic socialist confederation of Venezuela, Bolivia and, perhaps, Ecuador - capitalist counter-revolutionaries, wishing to return to the barbarism of the landlordism and capitalism that exists on the Latin American continent, would find little support.

Those like British MP George Galloway have a point when they argue that the capitalist embargo of Cuba is an important factor in the lack of democracy on the island. However, while the prohibition against right-wing capitalist parties wishing to return to capitalism can be a subject of debate, the question of workers' democracy should not. All those who support the planned economy - including Trotskyists and others - should be allowed to operate in Cuba.

This should be part of preserving and extending the planned economy. Without workers' democracy, Cuba could be thrown back decades and, with it, the expectations of the socialist revolution in Latin America and worldwide could suffer a severe blow.

The maintenance of this revolution should not be placed in the hands of one man, no matter how steadfast and courageous, or a group of men and women, but in an aroused, politically conscious Cuban working class linked to the masses in Latin America and elsewhere.

This cannot be achieved from above, as the mistakes of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela have shown. Steps should be undertaken now to organise a mass campaign in Cuba to prepare the ground for real workers' democracy. The worldwide crisis of globalised capitalism and the revolt against neo-liberalism in Latin America, strengthen the prospect of defending and developing the gains of the Cuban revolution. But no time must be lost in the fight for workers' democracy and socialism in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and elsewhere.

  • Fidel Castro - My Life by Fidel Castro, Ignacio Ramonet (Editor) and Andrew Hurley (Translator), Allen Lane, London, 2007 £25.00
  • A longer version of this article is available on

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    In The Socialist 27 February 2008:

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