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The contradictions of the Cuban revolution are evident taking together three new books, each sympathetic to the revolution, on different aspects of Cuban history and society

Salim Lamrani, The Economic War Against Cuba: A Historical and Legal Perspective on the U.S. Blockade, prologue Wayne S. Smith, foreword Paul Estrade  (Monthly Review Press 2013), 142pp.

If there were any question that the decades-old system of American sanctions against Cuba was unjustifiable and deeply immoral, this statement of a US official in 1960 should dispel it:

‘The majority of Cubans support Castro … every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba … a line of action which … makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow the government’ (Lamrani, p.73).

The use of sanctions as a weapon against the civilian population is revealed particularly clearly here. Cuba has been a target of American imperialism even before the latter’s intervention in the Second Cuban War of Independence in 1898, which brought the island fully within the US sphere of domination. The severity of the present blockade makes certain accomplishments of the Cuban state, such as its medical programmes, highly impressive. Nonetheless, sanctions have also done enormous damage to Cuban society; Lamrani quotes an estimate that the economic siege has cost Cuba $751 billion in the more than five decades since its beginning.

The extremity of the US’ reaction to Cuba’s 1959 revolution, against the corrupt and vicious Batista dictatorship, can be seen as bafflingly irrational. However this would be to leave out of the reckoning the structures of imperialism, which the US is necessarily determined to defend at all costs. Whatever the initial character of the Cuban revolution, the new government was certainly concerned to enact reforms to promote national development within the limits of capitalism. Soon it was clear that these reforms would not be possible except in acting against the interests of US multinationals in Cuba (Lamrani, p.18). To effect any change at all, the new government was driven into outright opposition to the United States, even while the island depended on the latter for 65% of its exports and 73% of its imports. A State Department official noted that the halting of sugar imports from Cuba would ‘entail general unemployment. Many persons will be without work and go hungry’ (Lamrani, p.19).

One remarkable aspect of the sanctions imposed on Cuba was how rapidly they acquired an international dimension. Naturally, the Organisation of American States soon fell into line with US demands, but, more ambitiously, in 1966 Congress passed a law ‘which prohibited the exportation of U.S. food products to countries which maintained trade relations with Cuba’ (p.28). The latter measure would certainly intimidate poorer countries, but the net was wider than this; in 1968, Italy was informed that any Italian products containing Cuban nickel were to be blocked from entering the United States (Lamrani, p.28). The extra-territorial reach of American sanctions has been reinforced ever since. The collapse of the Soviet Union offered the US another opportunity to strangle the Cuban state once and for all, and so 1992 saw the introduction of the Torricelli Act. This act, amongst other provisions, forbade foreign-based subsidiaries of US corporations from trading with Cuba, and blocked ships that had visited Cuba from the US for 180 days. This ‘was contrary to international law’ and ‘constitutes an illegitimate intrusion into the internal affairs of other sovereign nations’ as Lamrani, with cool precision, puts it (p.32).

As awful as this act was, the Helms-Burton Act, under Clinton, was ‘widely considered a legal aberration because of its retroactive and extraterritorial reach’, in its attempt to prevent other states from trading with Cuba. Part of the act did have to be removed due to European threats to bring the matter before the World Trade Organisation. Yet the section at issue, Title III, while not being applied to European countries, was imposed by the Clinton administration on less powerful states, a notable victim being a Jamaican hotel company (Lamrani, pp.33-6). In this dance of international trade laws, the hierarchical international structure of imperialism is revealed quite starkly, although Lamrani does no more than give the facts needed for his purpose. Nonetheless, the international reach of American multi-national corporations does illuminate some of the structure of American imperialism.

Lamrani’s book on this economic war is very clear, focused and succinct, while being informative and well-referenced. As an introduction to the issue it is highly recommended. It is remarkable that the sanctions regime has not crushed the Cuban state, particularly during the ‘special period’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is all the more remarkable that under this pressure Cuba has been able to construct a widely-admired medical system, amongst other things. And yet, as another new book on Cuba makes clear, the island’s society does suffer from some very severe internal problems.

Estaban Morales Domínguez, Race in Cuba: Essays on the Revolution and Racial Inequality, ed. and trans. Gary Prevost and August Nimtz (Monthly Review Press 2013), 244pp.

One of the first reforms introduced by the 1959 revolution was the abolition of all segregation by race in Cuba, but while this was important, the pressure to defend the revolution, against criticism and pressure from outside, has made it difficult to raise issues of racial inequality. Indeed, in 1962 the Second Declaration of Havana declared that the problem of race in Cuba had been solved (Morales, p.21). As the collection of articles in Estaban Morales Domínguez, Race in Cuba, shows, this was far from being the case. Even worse: ‘According to the prevailing view after 1962, in the midst of the political confrontation of those years, anyone who critically analyzed racism was playing into the hands of those who wanted to socially divide Cubans’ (Morales, p.22). The implication here is that raising the question of racial inequalities in Cuba was to undermine the national resistance to US aggression.

The situation has relaxed sufficiently for Morales to produce a range of essays addressed to various audiences which are certainly critical of the stance taken by the Cuban state in 1962, which was ‘an error of idealism and wishful thinking’ (Morales, p.22). Thus despite the abolition of segregation, ‘it was overlooked that many of the poor were black, which represents an additional disadvantage even within present-day Cuban society’, where, Morales admits, ‘white Hispanicism’ remains dominant, despite children from all backgrounds having ‘the same opportunities’ (Morales, p.23). Equal opportunity, in the basic legal sense, is hardly adequate to removing structural racism from a society, as is clear enough in the British or US experience, so it is somewhat remarkable that Morales has to argue the case in the Cuban context.

That the Cuban state’s response to a history of enormous racial inequality was inadequate is something of an understatement. Shockingly, on the pretext that they were no longer necessary, the societies organised by black and mestizo people as defences against racism were suppressed, while the equivalent white societies of ‘Galicians’ and ‘Asturians’ were allowed to persist (p.148). This fact alone calls into question Morales’ often repeated assertion that racism was swept out of the state itself, and only persists due to its deep impregnation in other social institutions such as ‘the family, the individual consciousness of many people, the so-called emergent economy, and some exclusionary groupings’ (Morales, p.220, footnote 5). The claim that ‘bourgeois ideology is so strong that it has made many of us believe that all of those residues of racism and discrimination are the most natural things in the world’, (Morales, p.101), does have a certain general truth. Yet, in the Cuban context, it really does beg the question of the role of the state in all this.

The argument that racism resides residually in the interstices of the social base while being absent from the state has difficult implications. To start with, it artificially separates the state from the rest of society. If ‘being white is already a university course’ (Morales, p.116), how can structural racism be absent from the Cuban state, within which black and mestizo Cubans are drastically underrepresented? The artificial reification of the state, conceived as separate from society, has a contradictory effect. On the one hand the argument is that the state, voluntaristically, can hold itself immune from underlying social structures, and has the independent capacity to act progressively upon that society. This is the state as socially powerful. On the other hand, the state is weak and unable significantly to influence that underlying society in which ‘bourgeois ideology’ remains strong enough to maintain a pervasive racism, despite the egalitarian programmes and ideology of the overlying state. This is an untenable paradox, unless it is accepted that the state plays a powerful role in structuring society, and is not innocent of the continuing racial structure of Cuban society.

It is not particularly convincing to tidy away the state’s role in the perpetuation of racism as an ‘idealist’ error, and perhaps Morales does not entirely wish to do so. Nonetheless, an important additional move is to insist on a certain level of separation of the issues of class and race, as ‘the absence of class differences is not enough to abolish [racial differences]’ (Morales, p.40). Moreover, Morales claims that there ‘is no better example in this hemisphere than Cuba to prove that the end of capitalism by no means entails the end of racism’ (Morales, p.166). The state’s role is negative; it allows the racial inequality of Cuba’s past to persist through inaction. Thus he comments that, from 1959, all the poor were treated the same, regardless of their racial background, an approach which meant that historical racial disadvantage remained entrenched (Morales, p.167).

Morales certainly insists that race and racism are socially and historically constructed, but there is no clear elaboration of the connection with class. Ultimately, racism is seen as reproduced independently: ‘Racism also becomes an instrument of power, by which some men keep others in a continuous situation of social disadvantage. In turn, racial prejudices belong with social prejudices as racist expressions within the individual consciousness, the family, and social groups that are preserved and transmitted by means of discriminatory ideas.’ Thus racism is maintained ‘even if it does not exist in an institutionalised way’ (Morales, pp.49-50). Morales does go on here to note some very pointed ways in which the neoliberal international context reinforces racial inequality. In particular, the value of remittances from abroad is structured unequally by race due to the generational differences in the background of Cubans going abroad. This is a reminder of how difficult it is to escape from the international structures of capitalism. In the end, however, Morales sees racial discrimination as separate from and additional to questions of class, despite the historical origins of racial inequality (compare Morales, p.35 and p.196).

The international neoliberal context is tremendously important to any country’s internal structures, but the persistence of racial inequality in Cuba cannot be down purely to impositions from outside, whether ideological or economic. In the end, the issue of race points to the fact that Cuba remains a class society, because race and class are not merely overlapping phenomena, but, in the context of the Americas in particular, the one is constitutive of the other. Both are social, historical constructions, created in the context of early colonialism, where the severe shortage of sufficiently subordinated labour was overcome through slavery. This necessitated the creation of racism to enforce a racially hierarchical class structure. The interlinked race and class structure developed in significantly different ways in different parts of the Americas, as some of Morales observations attest (see Morales, pp.54-5). Nonetheless, the two structures of inequality are deeply dependent upon one another, and evidence of the persistence of one should be taken as clear evidence of the presence of the other.

The Cuban revolution is noted by many as having improved the standard of living of its people, an advance in which black Cubans have certainly shared. As a result, together with its abolition of outright segregation, its support of anti-colonial national liberation movements, and its own defiance of US aggression, the Cuban revolution has garnered considerable support and sympathy from African nationalists, black Americans, and many others (see August Nimtz’s preface, pp.8-9). To understand Cuba as a class society is neither to dismiss the revolution’s important place in the history of anti-colonial struggles, nor to deny the continuing importance of support for Cuba against American imperialism and its vicious sanctions. It is however to recognise that the Cuban revolution was not a socialist one, and the present state-capitalist regime, whatever its achievements, is not a model for working-class revolution or a working-class state.

Nancy Stout, One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution, foreword, Alice Walker (Monthly Review Press 2013), 472pp.

That the Cuban revolution was not a proletarian revolution is one impression that could be garnered, although not, it seems likely, by the author’s intention, from Nancy Stout’s eminently readable biography of one of the leaders of the Cuban revolution, Celia Sánchez. One Day in December provides a fascinating account of the revolution from the point of view of a close confidant of Castro, who herself was a key leader of the underground networks that did so much to make a relatively marginal rural insurgency into a revolutionary force capable of undermining and destroying the Batista regime. As an account of how this was done, in almost day-to-day logistical terms, from communications to the gathering of support, this is remarkably entertaining as well as informative. In fact the dramatic story Stout has to tell, which is well-paced and written engagingly, makes for a book which could appeal very widely.

This is a biography of one individual rather than an analysis of the Cuban revolution, yet for all that it is an oddly apolitical account in many respects. Celia Sánchez herself was influenced by the Cuban left-nationalist tradition of José Martí, but Stout does not ever elaborate on what her ‘Martiáno upbringing’ meant in terms of her political understanding (p.344 or p.436 for example). Indeed, late on, she reports that, while Sánchez had been elected on to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, nonetheless ‘the most frequent reply when I asked people about it was that she was not political; her real power was her ability to help people’ (p.391). This reply begs many questions, and is not particularly convincing given everything else relayed here, so it is a pity that this evasion was not pursued somewhat further.

Celia Sánchez’s political motivations appear to have been strictly nationalist to begin with, and were clearly shared by a great social range of opinion, well beyond the poorer Cubans. The corruption and brutality of the Batista regime had alienated most who were not directly tied to the regime and its sponsor’s interests. Support for the July 26th Movement came from many quarters, in the countryside from landowners, farmers and ranchers, for example (Stout, p.135 and p.197). There is no question many poorer rural people were involved, but from Stout’s narrative, the momentum appears to have come from disenchanted members of the property-owning middle class, rather than from peasants, labourers or workers. There are notices of support from officers, one of whose wives was part of the underground revolutionary organisation (Stout, p.188), as well as from business owners and other sections of the Cuban middle classes (Stout, p.96 and p.292).

It never settles an issue to discover that leaders of revolutions come from propertied backgrounds rather than from poorer ones. A peasant rebellion or a working-class revolution can, and always does, press individuals from the ruling classes into leadership roles. Those individuals can be sincere proponents of the interests of exploited classes, so it proves nothing to note that Castro was the son of a prosperous farmer. What matters is the structure of a movement, and from where the social force that drives a rebellion or revolution comes. Again, it proves nothing about the character of the Cuban revolution that Celia Sánchez was the daughter of a rural doctor.

What is revealing, however, is the way in which this steely, determined woman was able to use her rural patrician status to organise clandestine revolutionary organisation, and use her social role as the doctor’s daughter as a cover for her activities (pp.45-6 and pp.60-70). It is her social authority in her rural locality which acts as a base for organisation (see pp.259-60 for example). This does indicate that, to some degree at least, the Cuban revolution had a middle-class character. Working-class mobilisation is noted, but so is the defection of ‘even very bourgeois institutions’ from the Batista regime (p.205).

The Cuban revolution was led by sincere, even heroic, people as Stout’s book shows, and there is much to admire in their daring stand against US imperialism. Nonetheless, if a socialist revolution is the action of the working class, then Cuba’s revolution was not primarily a proletarian one. There is some ambiguity here. The Cuban revolution was a nationalist revolt against a narrow, comprador bourgeoisie, linked too firmly to American imperialism to be able to act in any reasonable national interest. Nonetheless, this context itself lent the revolution an anti-capitalist logic. Hence Celia Sánchez herself began to advocate ‘threats’, or ‘terrorism’ as Stout paraphrases it, against ‘big capital’ interests, to force them to fund the revolution (Stout, p.234). A rebellion against the domination of US imperialism is necessarily a revolt against big capital. Yet, in the end, this is not the same thing as a social revolution against capital as such. One strong indication that Cuba’s class system was not overthrown is the continuing racial inequality demonstrated by Morales.

The Cuban revolution remains an important example of a revolution against a form of neo-colonial domination, which occurred at the same time as the wave of national liberation struggles against European colonialism. Cuban solidarity with such struggles has given the state considerable credit, even despite the observed racial imbalance in the Cuban revolutionary leadership (Morales, p.9). Thus while the Cuban state can be recognised as state capitalist, the country’s right to autonomy, and freedom from aggression from what is still the leading imperial power in the world, needs to be defended, and its courageous resistance to domination recognised.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).


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