An essay by Tshiamo Malatji (@tshiatji). Cuba is a complex issue. The solution starts with giving land to people.
You can download this essay here: (It is a small file – 372kbs.)
In the middle of Bloemfontein, South Africa is a proud statue of Fidel Castro at the entrance of a government building, also named after the Cuban revolutionary. In most of our memory, Castro is known for rising against and defeating U.S.-supported Fulgencio Batista, who was military dictator in Cuba from 1952 – 1959. For some, the narrative is that Castro immediately became an authoritarian communist with a lust for cultish glory and the defeat of foreign powers. Certainly, there is much to criticise with regard to Castro’s long authoritarian regime.
However, the early days of Castro’s regime were certainly not deserving of this character. It was in this time that global powers should have embraced the best of Castro’s economic alternatives and programmes for rural development. In fact, if they had, the ability for his regime to exert power for so long due to the threat of external imperial forces would have not existed. We could have seen a political discourse in Cuba that allowed a sensible transition from Castro.
At the time, as long as an imperial enemy remained, there was always a sense of fear that if power was relinquished, this would simply return the state of Cuba to a military dictatorship with foregin control. After all, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in 1961 and this created the conditions for a military dictatorship in Congo in 1965. This is not true today, but it was true then. If back then, socialism had been embraced by the world, we may be seeing a very different situation in Cuba today.
The focus squarely on Castro’s legacy is convenient for people who shy away from the United States’ imperial objectives in Latin America and the Caribbean. More to the point of this article, the United States’ present-day actions are disastrous for people in Cuba. Shifting the focus from Castro to the United States is important for figuring out what should be done to address the climate of uncertainty and looming crisis in Cuba today.
Certainly, neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden, present a policy of acknowledging the United States’ imperial history in Cuba, closing their detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, lifting trade embargo, or creating any of the concessions they were willing to offer South Africa’s apartheid regime. The rhetoric they use is that Cuba is a dictatorial regime and so must be crushed. They are correct that Cuba today is an authoritarian state, but the U.S. has a history of installing and/or supporting authoritarian states around the world. In many of those cases, authoritarianism was argued to be “necessarily evil” to contain communism and the liberation of indigenous peoples.
The U.S. cannot claim it shall never enter into an agreement with oppressive governments when it maintains positive relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East. It seems rather that the U.S. will consider their interests and then decide whether an oppressive government aligns with those interests. This is the kind of foreign policy Noam Chomsky has rallied against and Bernie Sanders offered an alternative to.
In fact, Chomsky points out that the entire world disagrees with the U.S. position on Cuba:
“Meanwhile, the sanctions have been very harsh sanctions against Cuba, right from the Eisenhower regime, picked up, extended by Kennedy, extended further under Clinton, who actually outflanked Bush from the right on extending the sanctions. The world has been totally opposed to this. The votes at the General Assembly—you can’t do it at the Security Council because the U.S. vetoes everything, but at the General Assembly, the votes are just overwhelming. I think the last one was 182 to two, you know, U.S. and Israel, and sometimes they pick up Papua or something like that. This has been going on year after year. The U.S. is utterly isolated, not just on this issue, many others.
However, given that this political regime in the United States will not be changing soon, many have taken to simply accepting U.S. foreign policy as fact. They have stopped criticising it altogether in fear of opposing power-holders within the U.S. After all, when Bernie Sanders complemented Cuba’s education system, the resulting backlash was enormous. Similarly, when Bernie Sanders criticised the U.S. foreign policy objectives, he was considered a sympathiser with “foreign enemies.” After all, the U.S. is in a constant state of war.
To those that have given in, it is helpful to unpack Western misconceptions about socialism and the role the West played in terrorising Cuba and solidifying the Castro regime, in the first place. It must be clear that the West is not a solution to issues in Cuba.
Margaret Thatcher’s famous tongue-in-cheek criticism of socialism is a good starting point for understanding the core problem. In a 1976 interview, Thatcher claims:
“Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite a characteristic of them. They then start to nationalise everything, and people just do not like more and more nationalisation, and they’re now trying to control everything by other means. They’re progressively reducing the choice available to ordinary people.”
Thatcher could do well to explain how it is that “other people” made their money in the first place. More than this, she would need to justify if the method they used to “earn” their wealth is legitimate. The history of imperialism suggests an immoral acquisition of wealth through conquest and exploitation. In Cuba, for instance, immense wealth was generated through documented criminal industry, as explained in this article:
“Havana was then what Las Vegas has become,” says Louis Perez, a Cuba historian. It attracted some of the same mafia kingpins, too, such as Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante, who were evading a national investigation into organized crime. In Cuba, they could continue their stock trade of gambling, drugs and prostitution, as long as they paid off government officials. The fees, however high, were a small price for an industry that raked in millions of dollars every month.”
Historical record reveals that wealth was illegitimately accumulated in Cuba and the Batista dictatorship benefited from this. The “other people” should not have had their money and they certainly were not going to give it back to the Cuban people. That is why nationalisation must occur. That is what angers imperial governments. As stated in this record:
“Since taking power in January 1959, Castro had infuriated the American government with his policies of nationalizing U.S. companies and investments in Cuba.”
Why were there U.S. companies and investments in Cuba? How did they get there? How were they running their businesses? What should be done about these companies? These are not questions that critics of nationalisation answer critically. What else was there to do but nationalise these industries?
Thatcher’s reasoning suggests that nationalisation only occurs because the government has run out of money and to limit people’s choices. However, nationalisation in Cuba occurred at the very beginning of Castro’s regime, not after “running out of money.” Moreover, there were certainly limited options during Batista’s rule. Research shows that ”Cuba had only 1 rural hospital.” However, Castro’s regime improved rural healthcare. “In 1960, the Rural Medical Service (RMS) was established, posting hundreds of newly graduated physician volunteers in remote areas over the next decade. By 1970, the number of rural hospitals had reached 53.”
So Thatcher’s critique is incorrect on all accounts here. Nationalisation certainly can have these consequences. But to claim this as certainty or even likely in Cuba’s case ignores historic fact — at least in the early days.
But Thatcher’s statement is still helpful for understanding the problems in Cuba today. The West genuinely believes that the money they earned illicitly is their money. They claim property over illegal earnings and even the legal, but exploitative, labour of workers. For the elite capitalists, money and property can belong to them and only them. They despise the idea that resources should be shared equally among all people. For them, this is considered a waste of these resources. The money “runs out” because it is used on the poorest of people and not for the wealthiest.
We still see this attitude today. In 2017 when American Airlines raised the wages of its staff, the response from a JPMorgan analyst was:
“We are troubled by AAL’s wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion to its labor groups. In addition to raising fixed costs, American’s agreement with its labor stakeholders establishes a worrying precedent, in our view, both for American and the industry.”
For this analyst, raising wages is a “wealth transfer” to be troubled by. This comes from the position that wealth does not belong to workers and giving them higher wages is a “cost” to the company. The exploitation of work is expected under capitalism. For the elite, wealth should concentrate among the few. These few are the “other people” that Thatcher does not name.
So when a government tries to establish a fair system of resource distribution, these “other people” retaliate. This record summarises the US response to nationalisation in Cuba:
“In January 1961, the Eisenhower administration severed all diplomatic relations with Cuba. In April 1961, just a short time after taking office, President John F. Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban exile force, armed and trained by the CIA, landed in Cuba.”
Eisenhower and Kennedy were motivated by retaliation for Cuba’s nationalisation programme. The United States believed they held ownership over Cuba. In fact, Castro accounts in a speech to the United Nations, the efforts of the United States to establish foreign control of Cuba, in the early 20th century:
“At the very moment that the people of Cuba, through their Constituent Assembly, were drafting the Constitution of the Republic, a new law was passed by the United States Congress, a law proposed by Senator Platt, bearing such unhappy memories for the Cubans. That law stated that the constitution of the Cuba must have an appendix under which the United States would be granted the right to intervene in Cuba’s political affairs and, furthermore, to lease certain parts of Cuba for naval bases or coal supply station.
In other words, under a law passed by the legislative body of a foreign country, Cuban’s Constitution had to contain an appendix with those provisions. Our legislators were clearly told that if they did not accept the amendment, the occupation forces would not be withdrawn. In other words, an agreement to grant another country the right to intervene and to lease naval bases was imposed by force upon my country by the legislative body of a foreign country.”
This incident occurred half a decade before the Cuban Revolution, but it was clear that from 1920 – 1950, the U.S. exerted enormous economic control in Cuba and in the 1950s, the U.S. supported the Batista dictatorship. This only emboldened Castro in Cuba. There was indeed an ever-present threat during the Cold War that the United States would intervene in Cuba and that their global policies to contain communism included an aim to topple liberation leaders around the world, especially their most contested war in Vietnam from 1955 – 1975.
At the same time, Cuba was engaged in the Namibian War of Independence to the benefit of Namibians and South Africans of colour. This is recognised by Castro’s statue in the centre of South Africa. Cuba’s involvement in Angola is oft overstated but for many Africans, there is a certain truth that Cuba supported their efforts of decolonisation and the liberation from apartheid or colonial powers. The United States and the United Kingdom, however, supported the apartheid regime. In 1987, Thatcher stated:
“A considerable number of the ANC leaders are Communists… When the ANC says that they will target British companies, this shows what a typical terrorist organisation it is. I fought terrorism all my life… I will have nothing to do with any organisation that practises violence.”
Notice that Thatcher’s concern is that the ANC will “target British companies.” On the comparison between losing British companies and supporting an apartheid regime actively killing and oppressing black people and recognised as a crime against humanity, Thatcher would rather support such a regime then lose businesses. These businesses were only in South Africa due to colonialism, in the first place. Not long before the start of apartheid, the British fought the Anglo-Boer war with the Afrikaners to determine which among these white people could colonise South Africa.
It’s concerning that the West is more interested in their profits than the lives of indigenous people. In any case, nationalising British companies is something that the ANC did not end up doing and did not even seem intent on doing. Ronald Reagan, however, had already listed the ANC as a terrorist organisation in 1988, and they remained so until 2008.
Clearly, for people in South Africa, the U.S. and the U.K. prolonged the apartheid regime and opposed its liberation, while Cuba actively fought with Africans for liberation. It is difficult, in that context, to ask that people in these areas focus squarely on Castro’s domestic policy when considering his legacy and to also ignore the imperial policy of Western powers which extended for the entire 20th century — and is still maintained today.
But since we have revealed those, we must now look toward Cuba’s domestic policies. We can be clear in our rejection of the West, but that does not necessarily mean we must accept the state Cuba is in today.
Indeed, Cuba is a dictatorship. An Amnesty International brief in 2018 lists some of Cuba’s oppressive policies:
“Cuba continues to use trumped-up charges for common-crimes and politically motivated dismissals from state employment as a way of silencing those perceived to be critical of the government. Of particular concern is Decree 349, a dystopic new law which stands to censor artists who will need prior authorization by the state to work or risk sanction.”
“Regrettably Cuba rejected multiple recommendations to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and to bring its criminal laws in line with international law.”
“Online censorship and restrictions on independent media continue to undermine Cuba’s advances in education. It is regrettable that Cuba rejected recommendations to remove restrictions on internet access5 and to promote pluralist media.”
Certainly, these are all tools of repression against political dissidence, freedom of speech, independent media, and an independent judiciary. Long gone are the early days of Cuban liberation.
Even Cuba’s healthcare system is declining. The primary cause of this is Cuba’s insistence on a two-tiered healthcare system, as stated in this article:
“Cuba’s health service is divided in two: one for Cubans and the other for foreigners, who receive better quality care, while the national population has to be satisfied with dilapidated facilities and a lack of medicines and specialists, who are sent abroad to make money for Cuba,” says Dr. Julio César Alfonzo, a Cuban exile in Miami and director of the NGO Solidaridad Sin Fronteras.”
“Between 2009 and 2014 there was a 62% fall in the number of family doctors, from 34,261 to 12,842, according to Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONEI).”
This article points out a lot more issues with Cuba’s present policies on doctor diplomacy. Cuba may be lowering standards to rush more export of doctors, they may be paying doctors abroad $1000 while doctors in Cuba earn $50, and the country has become too dependent on the income from its overseas health operations. “In 2014, Cuban authorities estimated overseas healthcare services would bring in $8.2 billion, putting it ahead of tourism.” That is about 10% of Cuba’s 2014 GDP ($80.66 billion).
That same tourism industry is under pressure, due to Trump’s efforts to limit travel to Cuba. An article states, “Recent figures from Cuba’s Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), confirm that the number of foreign visitors coming to the island dropped by 9.3%.”
Due to mass emigration, a flattened birth rate and an increased death rate (according to this article), Cuba’s population growth has also stunted. In fact, the country’s population is decreasing, as shown in the graph below.
Adding to all these troubles is the fact that only 5.7% of people in Cuba have daily and continuous access to water, there are food shortages, and they missed a $30 million reimbursement on debt to the Paris Club in 2019. The coronavirus has only worsened all of these domestic woes.
The legacy of Castro today is the opposite of the early days of the revolution. Castro is an oppressor and the people of Cuba are suffering.
At the same time, there is still a large concern that criticism of Cuba is in fact, criticism of socialism. Take for instance, the views of Trump advisor Mercedes Schlapp:
“My parents escaped and set up a new life in Miami, where I was born. They escaped the physical horrors of communism, but the scars remained. My father worked hard and built a successful business in Cuba, but Castro and his communist government took it away. My father refused to accept victimhood as his destiny and worked twice as hard in America to provide for me and our family.”
The odd irony for Schlapp is she works for an administration whose policies harm Cubans and are used to justify the dictatorship as a response to imperial powers, like Trump. Schlapp seems to be concerned with the fact that her father could not develop wealth in Cuba and will support the Trump regime, even if it means harming the common people in Cuba — all for the sake of capitalism. Schlapp is deeply anti-socialist, as evidenced in these remarks:
“Seeing what my father went through, where he lost everything he worked for in Cuba, where he literally was put in jail because of his political beliefs, shows the dangers of socialist governments, of communist governments,” she said, “where you’re dealing with the fact that they ration food and they take your guns.”
This is a concern for anyone truly interested in liberation for Cubans. Schlapp is under the impression that if Cuba were capitalist, food would not be rationed. However, poor capitalist nations around the world suffer from extreme hunger. If a nation is already wealthy, like the U.S., there might not be immense food rationing. But for poor nations, like Cuba, a capitalist society would definitely still have food rationing.
Cuba’s issues can be partially blamed on the dictatorship, but even without a communist dictatorship, Cuba would still be a poor nation. Capitalism has not made poor nations wealthy. In fact, without imperialism, it would not have made rich nations wealthy either. The U.S. and the U.K, as documented above, earned immense wealth by installing companies around the world. Cuba cannot do that. Ironically, Cuba’s policy of doctor-diplomacy is itself a very similar model. The government earns revenue by installing labourers in different parts of the world.
A capitalist Cuba would be readily exploited by large imperial superpowers with the same ferocity as African exploitation today. It’s important here to state that I am both against the current Cuban communist regime and an introduction of capitalism in Cuba.
I will concede, however, that there are some positive benefits to be gained from implementing capitalism anywhere. In fact, South Africa experimented with capitalist policies under the regime of Thabo Mbeki, who was the successor to Nelson Mandela in 1999 and remained president of the country until 2008. There were many fundamentally capitalist positions adopted by the government, including:
- a faster fiscal deficit reduction programme to contain debt service obligations, counter inflation and free resources for investment;
- an exchange rate policy to keep the real effective rate stable at a competitive level;
- consistent monetary policy to prevent a resurgence of inflation;
- a further step in the gradual relaxation of exchange controls;
- a reduction in tariffs to contain input prices and facilitate industrial restructuring, compensating partially for the exchange rate depreciation;
- tax incentives to stimulate new investment in competitive and labour absorbing projects;
- speeding up the restructuring of state assets to optimise investment resources
This open embrace of free trade, privatisation, low spending and corporate investment did come with some benefits. Despite an initial rise in unemployment to above 30% (still a national record today), unemployment did drop to below 22%.
As pictured below, these economic policies were at first devastating for employment but eventually led to the lowest unemployment rate in the past couple of decades.
At the same time, a research paper showed that some of the failures of South Africa’s economic policy was due to its history of apartheid which left weak institutions, inadequate spatial development, a vacuum for politcisation of state-owned resources, and low productivity and low efficiency in some industries.
The project of apartheid was, after all, to create a well-functioning country for white citizens and a wasteland for poor black South Africans. Implementing capitalism given this inequality would mostly benefit the well-developed white country while exploiting the poorly-developed black country. That’s the issue. Today, South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world, precisely because the wealthy continue to grow their wealth while the poor continue to suffer. Capitalism, wherever implemented creates the sense that life is massively improving for everyone, but reserves most of those benefits for an economic elite — the “other people.”
At the same time, the approach of the Mbeki government was much more akin to social democracy then it was to traditional capitalism. Mbeki is more comparable with Bernie Sanders and Scandinavian politics. As he recalls, his economic policy intended to address poverty and inequality. In 2004, he established the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) for the purposes of giving welfare to South Africa’s poorest citizens. Today, welfare payments are given monthly for child support, disability, old-age, aid, care-dependency, war veterans and foster children. These grants all-in-all reach 17 million South Africans, one-third of the population, which includes 12 million children, two-thirds of South Africa’s child population. But they aren’t enough to eradicate hunger and related issues South Africans experience.
The undeniable fact is that capitalism cannot eradicate hunger because people are too poor to afford food from capitalists. This is true in South Africa. This is true in Cuba. The people calling for a re-introduction of traditional capitalism in either of these two countries ignore this. They have forgotten that the “other people” don’t want the poor to eat.
But given a real dictatorship in Cuba, what must be done?
The problem with the Cuban approach to nationalisation is simply that the government did not give land to people, but kept it for itself. I can understand why they had to nationalise in the first place. They otherwise would not have gotten that land from the imperialists and capitalists. If the West continued to own it, the government would be unable to distribute it.
At the same time, the West was far more imperial in the 20th century then it is now. They invaded countries to control policies. Without fighting back or nationalising industry, the revolution could never have been won.
But now is a different time. The revolution must be completed. Productive resources should be given directly to the poorest of Cuban people — especially land. If Cubans own productive resources, they can use those assets to generate more resources, such as food. This is a truer socialism where people have full ownership of the commons. Capital would no longer belong to either a select minority or to the government — it would belong to people.
It’s important to also develop people’s capacities to benefit from these productive resources, else they will sell it. This is exactly what happens when someone receives a resource but is unable to extract value from it, and especially immediate value. They simply sell the resource for money. This also means the state should abolish private property ownership. This would make the selling of land impossible.
Instead, communities will have to form cooperatives to grow food on land and use whatever other productive assets to produce resources. Already the poorest of people labour tirelessly on land — now they would be the sole benefactors of that labour.
When this occurs, even if the communist government loses power, the capitalists would be unable to retain power for themselves because the productive resources would have value to people. People do not easily give off land. This is exactly why imperial powers opted for imperialism in the first place.
Cuba needs to transition from state communism to people’s socialism. In that sense, I mean people need to own the productive resources which they already labour. A similar movement for collective land ownership has sprung in South African and if developed could lead effectively to communal control of the commons.
Unlike South Africa, Cuba could do this right now. In fact, before fully embracing state communism, Cuba did attempt to implement people’s socialism, as opposed to their current regime. This was the initial plan for the revolution.
Che Guevara claimed in August 1961 that the Cuban Revolution intended to give land to people:
“It is necessary to explain what the Cuban revolution is, what this special event is that has made the blood of the world’s empires boil, and that has also made the blood of the dispossessed of the world, or of this part of the world at least, boil with hope. It is an agrarian, antifeudal and anti-imperialist revolution that under the imperatives of its internal evolution and of external aggressions became transformed into a socialist revolution, and that declares itself as such before all the Americas: a socialist revolution. A socialist revolution that took the land from those who had plenty and gave it to those who used to be hired to work that land, or distributed it in cooperatives among other groups of people who had no land on which to work, even as hired hands.
Earlier in the year, Guevara had already explained the need to break up land ownership and distribute it among people
“Despite their petty-bourgeois spirit, the peasants soon learned that they could not satisfy their desire to possess land without breaking up the large landholding system. Radical agrarian reform, the only type that could give land to the peasants, clashed directly with the interests of the imperialists, the large landholders and the sugar and cattle magnates. The bourgeoisie was afraid to clash with those interests but the proletariat was not. In this way the course of the revolution itself brought the workers and peasants together. The workers supported the demands of the peasants against the large landholders. The poor peasants, rewarded with ownership of land, loyally supported the revolutionary power and defended it against its imperialist and counterrevolutionary enemies.”
Guevara was in charge of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform and indeed in the early days of the Cuba Revolution, the emphasis was on Guevara’s ideologies. In October 1958, Cuba implemented a law allowing “tenant farmers, squatters, and sharecroppers the ownership of the land they worked” as long as it was less than 67 hectares.
If was in 1963 when the Cuban government committed to state communism as stated in this record:
“The Second Agrarian Reform Law, introduced in 1963, further decreased the allowable size of private farms by nationalizing all property holdings over 67 hectares, thus giving the state control of around two thirds of all national farmland. Over the decades that followed, the state gradually took ownership of more tracts of land, eventually coming to own 82% of active farmland by 1988.”
Guevara’s execution in 1967 was likely a key factor in allowing the abandonment of a peasant revolution and instead the pursuit of nationalising most land and industry. It was at this point that the Cuban Revolution started along its trend of becoming an oppressive dictatorship, which it remains today.
This also makes it clear that Cuba has, over the past decades, had every opportunity to complete its agrarian revolution and give land to people, but they won’t. The Cuban government is more concerned with maintaining an oppressive regime. That is where the criticism of Cuba is entirely accurate.
We may have to accept that Cuba will never give land to its people. In conceding that, we must stop supporting the regime. This leaves Cuba in a state of struggle between two powers: the current communist dictatorship or the imperial capitalists. One of these will win and neither of these two options are a good option for the Cuban people.
Of course the best solution for the Cuban people is simply to receive land, as Guevara envisioned. We should continue to pressure the Cuban government to do exactly this. But while pressuring them, we should continue to develop agrarian reform in our own countries such that the people where we are may also own the land that they work.
To be a socialist today is not about defending Cuba nor the legacy of Fidel Castro. It means fighting for workers to own land, whether in Cuba or our own countries. Most importantly, it provides a third option to the struggle between the autocrat and the imperialist. That option is the people.
It should also be clear that the West does not have the interest of the common Cuban people. More than this, the position of the West, especially the U.S. has not changed recently. Trump or Biden both represent a regime of domination over Cuba. If they were to be allowed power within Cuba, the system they set up would not liberate the common Cuban people. It would simply install operations of business for the profit of elite capitalists in the West. That has been the consistent position of the West.
So, “what must be done in Cuba?” Well, the answer is the same there as it anywhere else in the world. Cuba needs a people’s socialism. The people must share ownership of the land that they work.
Fidel Castro st. in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek.