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A critical assessment of the Cuban revolution underlines that it was never socialist, but fails to put the Cuban experience fully into the context of US imperialism, argues Jacqueline Mulhallen

Samuel Farber, Cuba since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (Haymarket 2011), ix, 369pp.

Samuel Farber’s Cuba since the Revolution of 1959 sets out to show that Cuba is not, and never has been, a socialist country. According to Farber, there are ‘two ‘influential perspectives’. One ‘apologise[s] for the Cuban system’, the other ‘would replace it with the market-place’ (p.3). He wishes to put another view. His definition of ‘a fully participatory democracy’ is one ‘based on the self-mobilization and organization of the people [with] the rule of the majority . . . complemented by minority rights and civil liberties (p.4). He has plenty of evidence that Cuba falls short of this, which would be very useful in arguing with the first group he criticises. Farber is perhaps less useful in providing arguments against the second perspective.

It is clear that Farber has followed events in Cuba closely. He has an excellent knowledge of his subject, a wealth of research and writes in a clear, readable style, explaining specialist terms, although, unfortunately, the book does not have a list of abbreviations which I would have found helpful.

Farber presents a wealth of evidence to undermine any idealised view of Cuban society. A particularly fascinating example is Farber’s chapter on black Cubans which includes a history of their situation under slavery and during the period of the Spanish-American war. Batista, the dictator overthrown by the 1959 revolution, was of mixed black, Indian and white extraction, and there was a certain amount of racial tolerance and a strong cultural tradition. Unfortunately, after the 1959 revolution, the black cultural, recreational and social organisations were abolished (p.172) in the belief that the desegregation of public places and integration of schools would be sufficient to deal with racism (p.169). Although the revolution had a lot of black support, and Cuban intervention in Africa has had ‘a tremendous psychological impact’, black Cubans are still poorer, more likely to be in menial jobs (and prison), and to suffer from the Cuban version of ‘asbos’: ‘social dangerousness’ (p.174). In 1994, black and mixed race Cubans rioted in Havana. Raúl Castro had had to express his shame that there were so few blacks and women in prominent positions (p.182).

Women played an important part in the revolution as fighters, nurses and message carriers, but there is still great sexism. They are under-represented in the workforce and when they do work they also do most of the housework (p.201). Housing and food shortages impact particularly on women and there are insufficient nursery places. Abortion was made illegal after the revolution, though this was changed in 1965 (p.209), while just after the revolution there was a huge baby boom.  Contraceptives are still difficult to get, but women can lose their jobs for having a child outside marriage. Domestic violence is high, and marital rape is not a crime. Gays suffered tremendously after the revolution. They were sent to labour camps, and boys considered ‘effeminate’ were separated from others at school. Although there is still homophobia, this hardline attitude has softened sufficiently to celebrate World Day against Homophobia in 2010 and 2011 (p.214).

There are still plenty of political prisoners and a high proportion of prisoners in general. Cuba retains the death penalty (p.38). Three young black men who hi-jacked a ferry to leave the island, although they harmed nobody, were executed in 2003 (p.45). Dissidents are also incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals as in the Soviet Union (p. 36). There is censorship and shortly after the revolution, Castro suppressed opposition parties and newspapers, and replaced the trade unions with state trade unions (pp.12-13). There are restrictions on travel (p.44).

Farber acknowledges the argument of apologists for the system that the Cuban revolution could not attain perfection given the circumstances of US aggression in particular. However, he argues that it is not perfection which he is expecting. ‘Any authentic revolutionary democratic movement in Cuba would have, if victorious, encountered great obstacles and difficulties which would have likely resulted in a flawed and problematic society’ (p.6). The crux of the problem I have with this book is that Farber ignores the implications of this statement.

I do not support the Cuban state as socialist and I do not suggest that the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro was a genuine socialist revolution. Castro and his guerrilla army were working in an underdeveloped, agricultural and poverty-stricken island with only a small working class. The revolution was not working class, although there is evidence that the working class did support it before and after it had taken place. Farber admits that there was great popular support for the regime in its early years because of the health, education and housing reforms which it created (p.27). However, had the revolution been a model of socialist organisation, unless it had been supported by revolutions in other countries, it would have still encountered what Farber describes as the ‘great obstacles and difficulties’ (p.6) which Castro faced.

Without an extension of that revolution, economic pressure would have led to the adoption of either the US ‘free market’ form of capitalism or the USSR state capitalist form. This is an issue which Farber does not discuss at all, nor does he discuss the experience of those who have attempted to set up socialist states in the same region of the world, regarded by the USA as ‘their backyard’. Cuba did not suffer the same fate as Chile or Nicaragua, and the part Castro’s leadership played in preventing that should be considered. The US backed an invasion of Cuba in 1961 and has been responsible for, or turned a blind eye to, atrocities such as bombing a Cuban passenger plane (p.1).

Furthermore, once Cuba had decided on the state capitalist road it was not surprising that their foreign policy followed the USSR lead. In a chapter which discusses this, Farber points out that Cuba had a certain amount of independence in making contact with Franco’s Spain, for example. Perhaps the Soviet leaders allowed Cuba a bit of leeway but it is unlikely that the island would have received the protection of a strong alliance and financial aid if it had ignored requests for armed intervention when the USSR felt it necessary.

Farber ‘questions the notion that the establishment of Cuban communism was merely a reaction to US hostility’ (p.7). He says that ‘for two years he [Castro] never presented, even to his most loyal followers, any specific program indicating where he intended to go politically but would present sudden decisions at mammoth demonstrations as accomplished facts’ (my italics, p.39). The suggestion seems to be that Castro was always a covert Stalinist and that he kept this from close colleagues such as his brother, Raúl, and Che Guevara. This argument seems unconvincing, particularly as other commentators have suggested that political discussions and disagreements took place among them before the revolution and that Castro was not in agreement with socialist arguments.[1] Farber’s statement is only supported by a 1963 remark of Che’s that the system was ‘half the fruit of constraint and half the result of choice’ (p.19). To be half-constrained is not to have much choice, anyway.

The redistribution of land, the health care programme, the education reforms and other welfare projects are what Farber suggests claimed the loyalty of the Cubans, even of the middle class (p.39). The health system itself was a massive achievement. However, it is now suffering from poorly maintained, dirty hospitals and a shortage of doctors since the Cuban trained doctors are in demand overseas (pp.74-5). Housing is ‘almost free’ though it appears it is now in short supply and the housing stock has deteriorated (p.57).

Farber criticises the regime for prioritising the military industrial complex over consumer goods, as was the case in the USSR, and for making mistakes such as relying on sugar production. He blames this for the crisis of the mid-90s, but even if the economy had been more efficient, Cuba would have been affected by international events. Cuba imports 84% of its food. Farber states that the economic system is a failure as it causes inefficiency and corruption. Equipment is wasted because of missing a vital part, or there is nowhere to store it. Businesses open late and are overstaffed, so their low paid workers are not ‘motivated’ and chat instead of working (p.53).

These criticisms sound very familiar to anyone who has argued against the privatisation of the welfare state in Britain over the past 30 years. The result of that privatisation has been greater waste, more corruption and inefficiency. Workers have not only had to work harder, they have not received higher wages and they have lost their pensions and other benefits. It seems that this is either already or might be about to happen in Cuba. Farber gives details of economic changes announced at the 2011 Party Congress (pp.279-82). Given the implications of this, it would have been interesting to hear the views of working people and it is a pity that the book lacks interviews with them, although Farber cites some leftwing dissidents who have organised protests (pp.260-61).

Farber supports change from below, but he gives no sign of any and believes that the system, in closing down possibilities for working people to organise through unions and other similar associations, has prevented working people from doing so. State capitalist systems did not prevent the people of Eastern Europe from dismantling the Berlin wall and getting rid of their oppressors, nor, in particular, the workers in Poland building Solidarność. Incidentally, I was told by Solidarność members that the very overstaffing and lack of work which Farber criticises allowed them plenty of time for organising meetings! However, the over-riding impression from the book is that the world crisis in capitalism is causing Cuban workers great hardship and the loss of the welfare benefits which had created their earlier support for the regime. It could well be that this may generate the discontent which overthrows the regime. Yet the outcome, as in 1959, will depend upon the role of imperialism, and the ability of an effective international movement to mobilise against it.


[1] J.L. Anderson, Che Guevara (London: Bantam Books, 1997), pp. 176-177; Mike Gonzalez, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution (London:  Bookmarks, 2004) pp. 51-52.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi teaches at SOAS, University of London, and has been active in UCU and the student movement of 2010. She is a contributor to The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, and a member of the Counterfire editorial board.

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