Fidel Castro’s death, while far from surprising given his advanced age and declining health, has renewed long-standing divisions – both among the U.S. ruling class and the left – on how to grapple with the defiant island nation. Castro symbolizes the Cuban Revolution more than even Che Guevara, a towering figure who oversaw Cuba’s rejection of U.S. domination and commitment to an alternative society… as well as an authoritarian, strong-man form of government common to both Latin America’s caudillo traditions and the Stalinists of Eastern Europe.
For the representatives of capital, reactions varying dramatically in appearance can be deceptive. The U.S. ruling class as a whole is committed to the strategic goal of restoring capitalism in Cuba. Differences are in tactics and rhetoric, given the Democratic Party’s shift since 2014 away from the fifty-year blockade meant to economically strangle the country. No major party politician favors abolishing the blockade or ceasing to sponsor internal opposition groups – ‘democracy promotion’ – but there are divergences over whether the carrot could be more effective than the stick.
For his part, President Obama gave condolences to the Castro family and offered a “hand of friendship” to the Cuban people, reminding them that they have a “partner” in the United States.1 The tone here is markedly different from it would have been even five years ago. Like ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ the U.S. wants a Cuba where capital can make massive profits from super-exploited labor. (Of course, with widespread market reforms Cuba would look much more like Vietnam than China, a small country with a subservient position in the world economic order.) Obama’s policy has been one of counterrevolution without regime change, with a flood of cheap goods and foreign investment aiming to do what the Bay of Pigs couldn’t.
The other party of capital, perhaps more short-sightedly, wasted no time in condemning the late president in language suggesting a return to the hard-line days of the Bush administration. While Republican Senator Marco Rubio, closely aligned with the right-wing Cuban emigre community in Miami, ridiculed Obama’s remarks as “pathetic,” President-elect Donald Trump condemned the “brutal dictator” and positioned himself to fight for “prosperity and liberty” on the “totalitarian island.”2 On Monday, Trump threatened to “terminate” the deal with Cuba. Given that the chosen venue for this significant foreign policy reversal was on Twitter, it remains to be seen whether this will actually come to pass. The Trump administration’s agenda will be in large part set by the ruling class via the Republican establishment3, and business interests tend to support normalization – but the influence of the ‘Miami lobby’ should not be underestimated.
Meanwhile, left-wing reactions have been almost equally as varied. We see, on the Trotskyist side, various reiterations of Cuba’s status as some kind of ‘deformed workers state’ or ‘state capitalist’ country from Socialist Alternative, the International Socialist Organization, et cetera. On the other end of the spectrum sits the Party for Socialism and Liberation, whose leadership has never met an anti-U.S. regime it couldn’t uncritically champion. In a statement4 penned by their presidential candidate Gloria LaRiva, the “Commandante en Jefe” is held up as “the ultimate revolutionary.” The Republic of Cuba, a poor country of 11 million people, is “socialist.”
Then there is the obituary5 from Peoples World, online publication of the moribund ‘official’ Communist Party USA. Written with dutiful subordination as though Brezhnev’s ghostly hand still guides editorial decisions, it retraces the Cuban revolution’s timeline through the lens of Fidel’s life, from the Granma expedition to the twists and turns after 1959. We are reminded of how Cuba became an “inspiration and mainstay to poor nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America, which were striving to break free from imperialism and colonialism” and of Cuba’s humanitarian foreign policy in sending thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers and engineers abroad.
All of this is true: Cuba’s planned economy does dedicate tremendous resources to social welfare, with education and healthcare systems far beyond capitalist countries at comparable levels of development. Cuba does inspire goodwill and support from across Latin America with its solidarity programs. And Fidel Castro is indeed a potent symbol of resistance. But organizations like the PSL and the Communist Party are not just recognizing this; they are holding up Cuba as an example of socialism in practice, even a model to be emulated.
People’s World goes so far as to claim Castro made contributions to “Marxist theory,” referring to his words on third world debt and “neocolonialism [as] the last phase of imperialism.” But in so far as we can credit the leaders of the Cuban Revolution with additions to Marxist theory, we can only point to the foco strategy and its focus on a small band of guerrilla fighters as revolutionary protagonists: a strategy which failed in every instance but one.6 Where it did succeed, the result was the familiar ‘socialism in one country’ seen elsewhere.
Of course, Cuba is not Poland or East Germany. The Cuban Revolution has always enjoyed legitimate popular support, that support being an important reason why Cuba didn’t go the way of the Eastern Bloc during the privations of the ‘Special Period’ (the other factor being U.S. hostility acting as an external threat.) But however much popular support exists for the Revolution, it is not the same as the working class governing society.
Although what particular forms workers’ rule takes can vary, far-reaching democratic control in both the state and the Communist Party is the only way the working class can rule. This isn’t to say that political democracy would somehow relieve the real pressures toward capitalist restoration, but its absence does mean that the gains of the Revolution are ultimately safeguarded by the Communist Party officialdom rather than the masses themselves – and history illustrates how a bureaucratic layer can turn on a dime and make themselves into capitalists.
The economic realities of being a small nation blocked from the world market mean that, sooner or later, something has to give. With Fidel gone, there is now one fewer obstacle standing in the way of a slow return to capitalism.
- And even here, pre-1959 Cuba was already a heavily proletarianized country with an active labor movement and a mass workers’ party (the Popular Socialist Party) – http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1133/an-icon-but-not-a-model/