Defending Cuba and Revolutionary Democracy:
Approaching a Deepening Debate

by Paul Le Blanc

It is difficult to convey to those who were not alive and politically conscious in 1959 how profoundly we were all affected by that crazy, heroic, joyous reality of the Cuban Revolution — scruffy, dedicated, young guerrilla fighters with a buoyant sense of humor surging into their country’s cities, their numbers swelled by exultant crowds, as the army and police and torturers and hangers-on of the vicious pro-U.S. dictator Fulgencio Batista melted away. Led by the rich and the gangsters, those who hated the Revolution streamed to Miami. The suits of the “respectable” politicians were briefly on the scene, then were crowded out by the military fatigues of the guerrilla fighters who were not willing to compromise away the struggle for social and economic justice for the oppressed and exploited classes that they had initiated in the mountains. Leading the revolution onto an increasingly radical course was a bearded and eloquent militant (amazing to us coming out of the clean-shaven conformist 1950s of the United States) named Fidel Castro, who in the inevitable collision with U.S. imperialism refused to back down and led enthusiastic masses of the Cuban people into a successful confrontation with U.S. power and became a powerful symbol of anti-imperialism and successful liberation struggle.

(Useful accounts can be found in: Robert Taber, M-26 — The Biography of a Revolution (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1961); Herbert L. Matthews, Revolution in Cuba [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975]; Marta Harnecker, Fidel Castro’s Political Strategy: From Moncada to Victory [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1987]; K.S. Karol, Guerrillas in Power: The Course of the Cuban Revolution [New York: Hill and Wang, 1970]; Philip Brenner, William LeoGrande, Donna Rich and Daniel Siegel, eds., The Cuba Reader: The Making of a Revolutionary Society [New York: Grove Press, 1989].)

Of course, from the very beginning there were also troubling realities. There was a verticalist leadership style and the absence of formal democratic structures. There was an alignment (in order to ensure survival, to be sure) with the Stalinist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, first and foremost the USSR, which affected the political life of this revolutionary island in negative ways even as it provided a military shield and economic lifeline that helped make possible remarkable gains for the Cuban people. There were fluctuations in bureaucracy and the battle against it, in human rights and the curtailment of them, in cultural freedom and the restriction of it, in lower-level democratic structures and the limitations of them. With the failure of the promising revolutions that had welled up in Central America and the Caribbean in the 1970s and 1980s, with the decline and collapse of the Communist bloc, with the growing incursions of “globalization” and the new and increasingly aggressive triumphalism of U.S. power, what remains of revolutionary Cuba is in danger of being eroded, strangled, swept away. Some of the early and persistent problems remain and sometimes seem to affect the government’s policies and decisions. This is grabbed and magnified by its enemies.

It is not clear what can best be done to defend Cuba from imperialism. There are protests against and challenges to the U.S. economic blockade and there is the promotion of visits and cultural exchanges. There are enormous quantities of material circulated in the virtual reality of cyberspace, and relatively small protests and forums in the actual reality. Of course, there are articles that can be written, statements that can be made, and petitions that can be signed — but what should the articles and statements and petitions say? How can we make a difference?

Given this reality, it is not surprising that there has been an amazing flare-up of incredibly sharp disagreements around Cuba in relatively small political milieux with which I identify, which include the Fourth International, the U.S. socialist group Solidarity, and the U.S. magazine Labor Standard. Critics of the Cuban regime are angrily confronted, and often those criticizing these anti-critics seem just as angry, with some things being said on both sides that should not be said. I have been concerned that this flare-up may weaken an already-weak revolutionary left. Of course, to the extent that there is political clarity (which sometimes can only come through the frank expression of differences), we will be strengthened.

On the other hand, sometimes when we are weak, we are inclined to engage in fierce polemical slugfests to demonstrate how we are so much superior to those we are hammering. It is so much easier and more satisfying to do that than to try to do something real to advance the class struggle. It can help us forget about our devastating weakness in the face of imperialism — but it can also divert our attention from the difficult work of organizing real struggles through which our weakness will be replaced by growing strength. This is a danger, and yet when such a dispute as this erupts, it is necessary to engage. But I would encourage my divided comrades to advance the debate in a manner that will help to strengthen, not splinter, our forces.

I approach the debate from a particular political standpoint. I consider myself to be a revolutionary Marxist and a partisan of the Fourth International. I identify as a Leninist, as a Trotskyist, and in particular with the tradition of American Trotskyism associated with such people as James P. Cannon, George Breitman, Joseph Hansen, and Frank Lovell. There are some people who don’t like to hear that, who are greatly annoyed that I would say things like that, etc. — but it can’t be helped. I make no demands that others accept this framework, but it happens to be my political framework and contextualizes much of what follows.

Criticisms of Cuba and of the Fourth International

The statement of the executive committee of the Fourth International, if I read it correctly, makes three fundamental points: (1) it is necessary to defend the Cuba from U.S. imperialism; (2) Cuba represents a revolutionary regime associated with positive policies — but also one with serious limitations in regard to democracy which undermines it in the face of imperialism; and (3) recent examples of such limitations include (a) execution of three people who hijacked a ferryboat, and (b) the recent trial and jailing of Cuban dissidents.

Opposition to capital punishment and defense of civil liberties are positions traditionally held by the socialist movement. Some comrades have argued that this does not apply here — that the Cuban regime has the right to execute those who utilized violence against Cuban citizens (especially given the rising threat of U.S. aggression), and that the jailed dissidents were shown, at a fair trial, to have had contact and connections with the United States government, which is dedicated to destabilizing and overturning revolutionary Cuba.

Some Marxist texts have been utilized to lambaste the Fourth International leadership for being un-Marxist: an anti-anarchist polemic by Frederick Engels that supported (after the fact) utilizing authoritarian measures to defend the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871, and the defense of dictatorial measures by Lenin and Trotsky during the brutalizing Russian Civil War of 1918–1921. Of course, the Paris Commune was drowned in blood after three months, and revolutionary Russia — at the time of the Lenin/Trotsky writings — had existed for no more three years. While there may be some similarities between these situations and the current situation of Cuba, there are also dramatic differences. For example, the Cuban regime is more than forty years old. It is certainly fighting for its life — but in a qualitatively different manner than the Paris Commune of 1871 or Bolshevik Russia of 1920.

In reflecting on whether I agree with the two criticized actions of the Cuban government, I find that I do not. I am not inclined to “lecture” the Cuban government on this, but neither am I inclined to avoid forming (or expressing) an opinion. I find I have an opinion, even if this opinion will cause some to consider me to be a bad person or a bad revolutionary or — simply — someone who has come to a wrong conclusion. We can discuss our differences as revolutionary comrades, and learn from those differences.

I oppose capital punishment, including when used against those who take up the gun against their governments. I remember that capital punishment was not used against Fidel Castro by the Batista dictatorship when he was on trial for leading the armed assault on the Moncada barracks. (Batista was certainly murderous enough, but fortunately was limited by the fact that the death penalty did not exist in Cuba during the 1950s.) Nor do I believe that these executions were necessary to preserve revolutionary Cuba today.

I oppose arresting dissidents unless they are carrying out violent activity. If a dissident organization is accepting material support from and meeting with representatives of a government hostile to the Cuban economic and political system, I am not persuaded that this represents sufficient grounds for their imprisonment. In the United States the Communist Party received material aid from and consulted with representatives of the USSR. I don’t believe that represented sufficient grounds for the imprisonment of U.S. Communists. Nor do I believe these arrests were necessary to preserve revolutionary Cuba. As in the case of the executions, this actually gave propaganda openings to its enemies. Nor do I think left-wing critics should be expected to bite their tongues or should be attacked as “imperialists” (or as giving aid to imperialism) if they express their views.

Some participants in the debates disagree with what I say here. Others may agree — but are opposed to publicly expressing such opinions because they will give aid and comfort to Cuba’s enemies, particularly to anti-Castro elements in Miami and Washington, DC, that are even more murderous than Batista. There are also questions regarding how best to defend revolutionary Cuba (including who is actually doing work, or failing to do work, for an effective defense). These are all important questions to discuss and debate, which is what we are doing now.

But for some who are engaged in these debates there are even more fundamental differences — whether one can actually speak of a “revolutionary Cuba,” whether the Castro regime should be defended in any way at all, what is the nature of Cuban society, what are the achievements and/or failures of the Cuban revolution, etc. These are questions that will be discussed inside of Solidarity in the coming period — but it will be important for all revolutionary socialists, regardless of their particular organization, to give attention to clarifying these issues.

What follows in this contribution is in some ways preliminary to a critical analysis of present-day Cuban realities. There will be an examination of some relevant ideas of Cannon, Lovell, Breitman and Hansen, which for me help to frame a useful approach. This will be followed by the identification problems of democracy in Cuba — up to the early 1990s — by a number of informed analysts sympathetic to revolutionary Cuba.

Workers’ Democracy and Revolutionary Socialism

Central to my approach is something that was articulated by James P. Cannon in 1957, in the wake of the Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s crimes and of the 1956 worker-student uprising in Hungary that was drowned in blood by Soviet tanks. (See James P. Cannon, “Socialism and Democracy,” Speeches for Socialism [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971], pp. 345–361.) Cannon was the “grand old man of American Trotskyism,” and as a leader of the Socialist Workers Party he emphasized certain points which — when I read them in the 1960s — were absorbed deep into my being as a young “new left” activist:

We cannot build a strong socialist movement in this country until we overcome this confusion in the minds of the American workers about the real meaning of socialism…

There is no doubt that this drumfire of bourgeois propaganda, supplemented by the universal revulsion against Stalinism, has profoundly affected the sentiments of the American working class, including the bulk of its most progressive and militant and potentially revolutionary sectors…

To the extent that the Stalinist dictatorship in Russia has been identified with the name of socialism,…the American workers have been prejudiced against socialism…

This barrier to the expansion and development of the American socialist movement will not be overcome, and even a regroupment of the woefully limited forces of those who at present consider themselves socialists will yield but little fruit, unless and until we find a way to break down this misunderstanding and prejudice against socialism, and convince at least the more advanced American workers that we socialists are the most aggressive and consistent advocates of democracy in all fields and that, in fact, we are completely devoted to the idea that socialism cannot be realized otherwise than by democracy.

He focused attention, at the very same time, on the class struggle in the United States. “In practice, the American labor bureaucrats, who piously demand democracy in the one-party totalitarian domain of Stalinism, come as close as they can to maintaining a one-party rule in their own domain….They are essentially of the same breed, a privileged caste dominated above all by motives of self-benefit and self-preservation at the expense of the workers and against the workers.” He emphasized: “The privileged bureaucratic caste everywhere is the most formidable obstacle to democracy and socialism.” In the USSR it was necessary to “struggle to restore the genuine workers’ democracy established by the revolution of 1917,” and in the United States “the struggle for workers’ democracy is preeminently a struggle of the rank and file to gain democratic control of their own organizations.” He concluded: “So the fight for workers’ democracy is inseparable from the fight for socialism, and is the condition for its victory. Workers’ democracy is the only road to socialism, here in the United States and everywhere else, all the way from Moscow to Los Angeles, and from here to Budapest.”

Several years later, in evaluating his experience as a founder and leader of the American Communist Party, Cannon made another key point that has influenced my thinking ever since I read it:

The degeneration of the Communist Party began when it abandoned the perspective of revolution in this country, and converted itself into a pressure group and cheering squad for the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia — which it mistakenly took to be the custodian of a revolution “in another country.” …

What happened to the Communist Party would happen without fail to any other party, including our own, if it should abandon its struggle for a social revolution in this country, as the realistic perspective of our epoch, and degrade itself to the role of sympathizer of revolutions in other countries.

I firmly believe that American revolutionists should indeed sympathize with revolutions in other lands, and try to help them in every way they can. But the best way to do that is to build a party with a confident perspective of a revolution in this country.

Without that perspective, a Communist or Socialist party belies its name. It ceases to be a help and becomes a hindrance to the revolutionary workers’ cause in its own country. And its sympathy for other revolutions isn’t worth much either. [James P, Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, Report of a Participant (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1961), pp . 37–38.]

A few years after Cannon’s 1974 death, a new and inexperienced ex-student leadership of the SWP threw the organization into a “turn to the working class” and found — as Frank Lovell (part of the dwindling working-class layer from the 1930s) would later recount — that the experience “was nothing like what it imagined it [would] be.” Lovell added: “There was an increasingly extreme stress on ‘proletarianizing’ the party, and yet the pace and quality of life of SWP members became increasingly alien to most members of the working class.” The result mirrored Cannon’s warning: “The disappointment of the SWP leadership with what it discovered after its turn to the working class conditioned its euphoric embrace in 1979 of the unexpected revolutionary events in Iran and in Nicaragua and Grenada.” From here it was a short step to the next stage:

Despite superficial educationals on the fundamentals of Marxism and the treachery of Stalinism, the pervasive influence of Stalinist conceptions in the larger radical milieu conditioned the party membership to ignore the fact that Castro and other “revolutionists of action” shared many of these Stalinist-inspired misconceptions and to accept the sweeping characterization of them as modern-day Bolsheviks, continuators of Leninism, an harbingers of the new Marxist international…. The discovery that Cuba is a “socialist society” appeared in the pages of the Militant. It became the inspirational model for “worker-Bolsheviks” in the U.S. [Frank Lovell, “The Meaning of the Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party,” in Sarah Lovell, ed. The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party, 1979–1983 (New York: Fourth Internationalist Tendency, 1992), pp. 33, 35.]

 Lovell was not the only Trotskyist to resist this development. One of the key oppositionists, advancing a perceptive critique of the new SWP leaders’ increasingly uncritical approach toward revolutionary Cuba, was George Breitman.

A Basic Analytical Approach to Cuba

I first became an oppositionist in the Socialist Workers Party (leading to my eventual expulsion) when I identified in 1979 with a position put forward by Breitman in an internal discussion article entitled “Castroism: Revolutionary or Centrist?” (which can be found in Sarah Lovell, ed. The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party, pp. 44–49). Breitman’s basic approach toward Cuba consisted of several key points:

·          Defend Cuba against imperialism;

·          Classify Cuba as a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations;

·          Favor the reform of the Cuban workers’ state, instead of political revolution;

·          Understand that Castroism, as a political tendency, veers between revolutionary Marxism and counterrevolutionary Stalinism;

·          Educate ourselves about actual developments in Cuba.

In expressing his differences with the majority leadership of the Socialist Workers Party in 1979 (just before its switch from Trotskyism to it’s own stilted variety of Castroism), Breitman made a number of important comments that I think are still relevant:

Castroism, we agree, is not a “hardened” bureaucratic caste of the type that rules in the USSR and can be removed only through a political revolution. But Castroism does rest on a privileged bureaucratic stratum that maintains a monopoly of political power in Cuba. Is this stratum more privileged than it was ten or twenty year ago? Is it bigger or smaller than it was then? These are the kinds of questions we should be examining ….

Twenty years ago the Castroists were against soviets and workers’ democracy; today they are still against them. Can we conclude then that nothing has changed? No, because in the last five years the Castroists have introduced new institutions, assemblies, constitution, etc., whose main purpose is to prevent the introduction of workers’ democracy. So something definitely has changed….

The majority report should be commended for criticizing certain political defects and errors of Castroism (for the first time in years), but its analysis would be improved if it would stop trying to convince us at every possible opportunity, appropriate or not, that Castroism is and always has been revolutionary. These explanations sometimes take us to the border of apologetics….

When the Castroists do something progressive or revolutionary, let’s be the first to point it out. When they do something nonrevolutionary or antirevolutionary, let’s point that out too. And at all times let’s educate ourselves and others to understand that Castroism is capable of both….

This approach became increasingly incompatible with the course being steered by the new SWP leadership. But Breitman’s resistance to that was grounded in certain fundamental conceptions that he shared with another veteran Trotskyist who had over the years helped shape the SWP’s understanding and analysis of Cuban realities, Joseph Hansen.

Analyzing Cuban Complexities

In May 1978, not long before his death at the beginning of 1979, Hansen offered a balance-sheet on the Cuban revolution. It is worth considering key aspects of the analysis he laid out twenty-five years ago. (In the posthumously published volume, Joseph Hansen, Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution, The Trotskyist View [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1979], pp. 5–17.) The positive aspects of Cuban reality that reflected the existence of a “revolutionary regime,” in Hansen’s opinion, demonstrated “what can be done under a planned economy to improve the standard of living of the poor.” He elaborated:

The achievements made possible by toppling capitalism are impressive. The list includes the elimination of unemployment, once the scourge of the Cuban working class; the banning of racism; the promulgation of equal rights for women; the setting up of child-care centers on a national scale; the construction of a free educational system that provides not only books but food and clothing to students; the establishment of a model social-security system, including health care; the slashing of rents and initiation of an ambitious program to end the acute shortage of housing, inherited from the past; and an agrarian reform that was decisive in establishing the firm worker-peasant alliance on which the first workers’ state in the Western Hemisphere depends.

But Hansen also felt compelled to examine less positive developments, “particularly in the last decade” (i.e., 1968–1978), although he indicated that problems had existed in the earlier decade as well. “The Cuban revolution faced extreme difficulties from the beginning,” he wrote. “Inadequacies of leadership counted among them, the prime one being … reliance on guerrilla war to extend the revolution. Another was the failure to proceed immediately to establishment of forms of proletarian democracy.” Not content to leave his critique at the level of perfunctory one-liners, he spent some time laying out the specifics of this last point.

Hansen stressed that “the main source of difficulties was American imperialism. The mightiest military power on earth, located only ninety miles away, decided to strangle the Cuban revolution.” There were two aspects to the Cuban revolutionaries’ response to this. (1) “In defense of the revolution, the Castro team placed Cuba under wartime regulations.” (2) “Without help from the Soviet Union, the Cuban revolution would certainly have been smashed by either Eisenhower or Kennedy. The Cubans were completely correct in seeking that aid.” But “while they were able to get the required material aid in time to save the revolution, the cost was heavy in terms of their political independence.” Hansen’s examination of some of the negative results is worth quoting at length:

Both the American campaign to crush the revolution and the strings attached to Soviet aid must be taken into consideration in dealing with the problem of bureaucratism in Cuba. By isolating and further impoverishing the country, the blockade helped increase the social importance of the layers charged with defense. … One of the consequences was an army now recognized as one of the best in Latin America. Another consequence, however, was the introduction of ranks, a sign of bureaucratization. The Kremlin’s influence was shown in the growth of bureaucratic tendencies under the auspices of figures who were prominent in the Stalinist apparatus in Batista’s time. These case-hardened bureaucrats were met head-on by Castro. A more difficult problem is the example set by the Soviet ruling caste, which liquidated the proletarian democracy fostered under Lenin and Trotsky.…

It would be untrue to say that the battle against bureaucratism has been won in Cuba. The indications are that this insidious social disease has gained, as the introduction of ranks in the armed forces would indicate. Similar signs include the continuation of the ban on formation of tendencies and factions in the Communist Party and the jailing of the independent-minded poet Herberto Padilla on March 20, 1971; the brush-off given to protests against the jailing by leftist intellectuals like Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Mario Vargas Llosa; the show trial of Padilla, which included a Moscow style “ confession” by the poet; and the accompanying clampdown in the cultural field, where the Cubans had previously shown their intent to make the revolution a “school of unfettered thought” in opposition to bureaucratic practices. Another bad indication has been the pillorying of homosexuals.

Hansen stressed that “the headway made by bureaucratism has not reached such a degree that one must conclude that a hardened bureaucratic caste has been formed, exercises dictatorial power, and cannot be dislodged save through a political revolution.” Instead, Hansen advanced three basic points:

1.       For defense of the Cuban revolution against all its enemies. As a party within the United States, the SWP considers it to be its special duty to foster the strongest possible political opposition to the main enemy of the revolution, American imperialism. This defense is unconditional — it does not hinge on the attitudes or policies of the Cuban government.

2.       For the development of proletarian forms of democracy in Cuba. The purpose of this is to bring the masses into the decision-making process in the most effective way, thereby strengthening the struggle against bureaucratism. The initiation of workers’ councils would add fresh power to the Cuban revolution as living proof that socialism does not entail totalitarianism but on the contrary signifies the extension of democracy to the oppressed in a way that will lead eventually to the withering away of the state.

3.       For the formation of a Leninist-type party that guarantees internal democracy, that is, the right of critical opinion to be heard. The power of a party that safeguards the right to form tendencies or factions was demonstrated by the Bolsheviks. A replica shaped in accordance with Cuban peculiarities could do much to induce the formation of similar parties in the rest of the world. This would greatly facilitate resolving the crisis in leadership faced by the proletariat internationally, thereby assuring a new series of revolutionary victories.

Problems of Democracy Over the Decades

Ten years after the revolutionary victory, two of its staunchest supporters — Monthly Review editors Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy — attempted a critical-minded Marxist evaluation of Cuban realities. The points they made captured the contradictory developments that were still identified a decade later by Breitman and Hansen:

It would be a mistake to assume that material gains were the only factor shaping the people’s response to the revolutionary government. There was the exhilaration which came from overthrowing the domination of foreign and domestic bosses, the national pride in standing up to the United States, the gratification stemming from the fact that little Cuba had suddenly become the object of worldwide interest and attention. All these factors interacted with the upsurge of mass living standards to create a quantity and quality of popular support for the revolutionary government, which has few if any historical parallels.

The revolutionary leadership might have seen in this situation an opportunity to attempt the difficult feat of bringing the people more directly into the governing process, forging institutions of popular participation and control and encouraging the masses to use them, to assume increasing responsibility, to share in the making of the great decisions which shape their lives. In practice, however, the relationship between government and people continued to be a paternalistic one, with Fidel Castro increasingly playing the crucial role of interpreting the people’s needs and wants, translating them into government policy, and continuously explaining what had to be done, and what obstacles remained to be overcome. [Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, Socialism in Cuba (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 204.]

And more than a decade after the Hansen and Breitman analyses, Janette Habel commented:

In his relations with the masses, Castro displays a didactic charisma and sees the education of the masses like a teacher who exercises his authority and spreads the good word. In the early years of the revolution this style of leadership was accepted by the semi-literate masses who received their political education at huge meetings in Revolution Square. But today this “government by the word” is increasingly unable to offset the sluggishness of a stratified apparatus; it irritates the intellectuals and leaves many sectors of the population indifferent. [Janette Habel, Cuba: The Revolution in Peril (London: Verso, 1991), 93.]

Fidel has described his constant personal interventions to battle against such “sluggishness” and problems, explaining (in 1985) that he and his staff of “twenty compañeros…constantly travel, visiting factories, hospitals, schools, coordinating, helping everybody, and they are not inspectors but people who go around assessing the situation and coordinating one organ with another.” A sympathetic but critical analyst, Frank Fitzgerald, has commented: “The attempt to coordinate everybody from the pinnacle in an ad hoc way is a bureaucratic centralist mode of operation par excellence.” He cites the reflections of a former manager regarding Castro’s interventions:

After he visits a production unit, conditions and results improve for a while. He puts his finger on the sore spot. It is Fidel’s command, and the party cell means nothing, the organizational structure means nothing. Whatever Fidel says must be done.…Within a week of his visit to the Antillana steel mill, 1,200 bicycles and twenty buses were allocated to the plant. Who could do this but Fidel?…Fidel erodes all economic plans, he destroys them. He flouts any plan in order to resolve a given problem in the place he is visiting. The problem is fixed in a few days but it will crop up again within three or for months.

Fitzgerald notes that this “bureaucratic centralism” is not limited to Fidel’s excursions. “It was also evident throughout the Cuban economy, especially in the relationship between the higher state organs, most particularly the ministries, and the enterprises subordinated to them.” [Frank T. Fitzgerald, The Cuban Revolution in Crisis: From Managing Socialism to Managing Survival (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994), 127–128.]

In 1969, Huberman and Sweezy had defined bureaucratic rule as “the monopolization of power by officials appointed by and answerable to those above them in the chain of command,” asserting:

In this sense Cuba’s governing system is clearly one of bureaucratic rule. Power is concentrated in the Communist Party, within the Party in the Central Committee, and within the Central Committee in the Maximum Leader. The structure was built from the top down: first came the leader, then the Central Committee, then the regional and local organizers, and finally the membership. Cubans sometimes argue that the method of selecting the members gives the system a democratic character. In effect, assemblies of workers in factories, offices, and farms select the hardest working, politically purest, and best behaved of their number for membership in the enterprise’s Party branch. This, it is argued, ensures that the Party directly represents the people and wields power in their behalf. Actually, it doesn’t work out that way. Candidates for membership proposed by the worker assemblies can be vetoed by higher Party authorities who retain all levers of power in their hands. Under these circumstances, what the worker assemblies choose is not who shall represent them but who shall join the governing apparatus and become the bearers of its policies and directives in the local situation. There is much to be said for this system: it ensures a Party membership which is young and able, close to the workers and respected by them. But what cannot be said for it is that it constitutes an alternative to bureaucratic rule. [Huberman and Sweezy, 219–220.]

More than twenty years later, summarizing the assessment of a number of left-wing scholars sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution, James Harris noted “the verticalism, bureaucratism, and vanguardism that characterize Cuba’s single-party-dominated political system pose serious problems to the democratization of the country’s centralized state apparatus and the efficient performance of its centrally planned economy.” In Harris’s opinion, “the development of effective forms of democratic organization and participation have been blocked by over three decades of reliance on a top-down approach to decision-making and personnel selection, the substitution of bureaucratic methods and procedures in place of democratic processes, and the continued use of authoritarian capitalist forms of organization in state enterprises.” Commenting on popular campaigns initiated by the Castro leadership against corruption and bureaucracy, James Petras and Morris Morley wrote: “Mass popular mobilization to attack middle levels of power became the basis for re-legitimizing the leadership. This policy weakened the intermediary sectors, strengthened the political elite, and defused popular discontent.”  [James L. Harris, “Introduction,” and James F. Petras and Morris H. Morley, “Cuban Socialism: Rectification and the New Model of Accumulation,” in Sandor Halebsky and John M Kirk, et al, eds., Cuba in Transition: Crisis and Transformation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992), 13–14, 17.]

In the same period, pro-regime academics from Cuba were offering a different perspective. Julio Carranza Valdes explained that “there have, of course, been restrictions of certain democratic liberties arising from the logic of a process that affected powerful interests in a country that had been dominated by the United States. To have made room, in the first years after the revolution, for interests that were in Miami and meant very little to the people would have reduced the rhythm of the revolution.” He acknowledged that “although the institutional apparatus that ought to guarantee broad popular participation has been created and is functioning, it is far from operating as it should.” At the same time, he insisted, “calls for the creation of other institutions or parties are heard only in Miami or in tiny, marginal sectors of Cuban society.” In the words of Georgina Suárez Hernández, “people not fully familiar with the Cuban experience often argue that democracy is impossible with a single party, but this argument hinges upon the presumed paradigms of a multiparty system. The existence of a single party in Cuba has juridical and political justification, and it is based on the particular historical trajectory of its struggle for independence.” She asserted: “The unity factor, which has deep roots in Marti and Lenin, is identified with Cuban society’s new goals and values and, above all, with its plural subject — an enriched synthesis of individuals who have come together consciously and freely to pool their talents and energies, adopting as their own the highest project for social well-being, socialism.” Of Cubans who see things differently, she comments: “The isolated groups that in Cuba demand the right to function as a political opposition have their social base in the United States….This opposition is synonymous with counter-revolution, and it has always been and will remain pro-imperialist and anti-patriotic.” [Julio Carranza Valdes, “Reform and the Future of Cuban Socialism,” and Georgina Suárez Hernández, “Political Leadership in Cuba,” in Centro de Estudios Sobre America, ed., The Cuban Revolution into the 1990s (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992), 15, 54, 55, 56.]

But surely Comrade Suárez over-generalizes. One is reminded of the young revolutionary militant who complained to Ernesto Cardenal: “If you criticize anything anywhere, it is taken very badly: you’re a destructive critic.” He added: “Suddenly Fidel comes along and sees these defects and criticizes them, and everyone admits that they were bad, and they praise Fidel who corrected them. But they give no credit to the fellow who said the same thing beforehand, that one was a destructive critic.” He concluded: “Why is Fidel the only one who can criticize? Shouldn’t every critic be another Fidel? Get ahead of Fidel so that Fidel won’t have to be always coming along to correct everything?…It seems to me that there’s a great deal of thought control.” [Ernesto Cardenal, In Cuba (New York: New Directions, 1974), p. 50.]

In an important study The Cuban Revolution in Crisis, Frank Fitzgerald commented that “after 1970 the leadership indicated its genuine desire to move in a democratic centralist direction — although without giving up ultimate control through the system of interlocking positions in the Communist Party and other organizations. But in the immediate situation, when problems emerged, the leadership often responded, out of habit, in a bureaucratic centralist way.” In addition to bureaucratic habits “of revolutionary leaders and old cadres,” there were “elitist pretensions of new professionals” and — perhaps most serious — “the general absence among workers of a developed sense of their collective rights and collective responsibilities” (pp. 143–144, 145). At the same time, Fitzgerald perceived significant reforms and the development of new institutions that seemed to address some of the long-standing problems. This brought him to a mixed conclusion:

Cuba’s political system is neither a bourgeois democracy systematically subject to the undemocratic sway of unequally distributed economic resources nor an ideal socialist democracy with unimpeded public rights and empowerment. Political restrictions remain in revolutionary Cuba, which, while intended to shield against the machinations of the United States and of other counterrevolutionary enemies, sometimes stifle loyal critics. Overemphasizing such restrictions, however, would obscure the central thrust of recent political reforms in Cuba. Overall, these reforms have further opened the channels for democratic participation and debate within the revolution [p. 193].

One task of our developing collective discussion will be to clarify what these democratic political reforms consist of, what they have accomplished, and to what extent they have (or have not) overcome longstanding patterns identified by so many sympathetic but shrewd observers, and to what extent the Cuban people have gained control over the decisions that affect their lives.

One of the most central democratic reforms was the creation in the 1970s of Organs of Popular Power, a hierarchy of elected councils or assemblies on the municipal, provincial, and national level. This was first examined in a substantial and very sympathetic way by Marta.Harnecker in her widely-read study Cuba: Dictatorship or Democracy? (Lawrence Hill, 1979 — 5th edition, revised and expanded). A preliminary look at more recent literature indicates several key facts. The nomination process is relatively open, but candidates are not permitted to present any kind of political platform or to campaign around any ideas (or to campaign at all — this would be grounds for immediate disqualification). Nonetheless, in 1989 about 70 percent of the deputies of the National Assembly (elected for five-year terms) were members of the Cuban Communist Party or the Union of Young Communists. At least in the late 1980s, the National Assembly was meeting for two-day sessions twice a year. It elects the 31-person Council of State (headed by Fidel) which runs the government on a day-to-day basis, and which – one would guess — must frame the various proposals that the National Assembly votes on during its twice-yearly two-day sessions, regarding a national budget to adopt, legislation to adopt, and appointments of heads to governmental ministries and of justices to the Supreme Court. The regional assemblies allocate the budget received from the national to the municipalities, oversee projects and activities having to do with such things as housing and hospitals, and oversee economic activity in the province’s agricultural and industrial sectors. According to Sheryl Lutjens, the main duty of the municipal assembly “is to represent the interests of the constituents. Community suggestions, demands, and complaints — planteamientos — are crucial in the representative process.” The issues taken up include: garbage collection, water supply, ice cream flavors, different prices of hair cuts, communal services (street repair, construction, sidewalks), commercial dining services, maintenance of grocery stores, milk distribution, electrification, the quality of bread. [Wilber A. Chaffee, Jr., “Poder Popular and the Buro Político: Political Control in Cuba,” in Wilber A. Chaffee, Jr., and Gary Prevost, eds., Cuba, A Different America (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1989), pp. 22–23; Sheryl L. Lutjens, “Democracy and Socialist Cuba,” in Halebsky and Kirk, et al, eds., Cuba in Transition, pp. 63–65.]

There is a need, in our discussions of Cuban political realities today, to give attention to economic developments that help to shape those realities. University of Havana economist Pedro Monreal has recently noted that while “a sector of the Cuban population has not abandoned the dream of building a better world, inspired by socialist ideals, knowing that they will have to find the resources, the incentives, and the legitimacy for that dream,” the fact remains that “since the early 1990s Cubans have been entangled in arguments regarding the viability of socialism in a small island amidst a vast sea of globalization, a process made particularly difficult by the open hostility of the most powerful nation on earth towards the island.” Cuban sociologist Marta Nuñez Sarmiento, observes that “the process of women’s incorporation and retention in Cuba did not stop during the crisis years of the [1990s], nor did all the changes in gender ideology that women’s employment has promoted during the last forty years come to an end.” On the other hand, some of the gains made in overcoming racism have been eroded by the economic crisis. “Not only has racial inequality increased along with other forms of social inequality, but racist ideologies and prejudices seem to be operating with greater freedom than before the crisis started,” notes Alejandro de la Fuente. “Declining government control over the economy and lack of government action to enforce color-blind hiring and promotion practices have opened new spaces — and expanded old ones — for racist ideas to result in discriminatory practices.” There is a concern that crosses the color line: “Older Cubans, regardless of race, are more concerned about a political change that might destroy what is left of the safety net created by the government to protect the elderly.” [Pedro Monreal, “Cuba: The Challenges of Being Global and Socialist…at the Same Time,” Socialism and Democracy (special issue on “Cuba in the 1990s: Economy, Politics, and Society”), Spring-Summer, 2001, 7; Marta Nuñez Sarmiento, “Cuban Strategies for Women’s Employment in the 1990s,” in ibid., 41; Alejandro de la Fuente, “Recreating Racism: Race and Discrimination in Cuba’s ‘Special Period,’” in ibid., 98–90.]

To what extent, as push comes to shove, will Cubans across generational lines struggle to preserve policies (identified as “socialist”) that guarantee such a safety net for all Cubans? To what extent will the economic isolation of Cuba eat away at the possibility of such a safety net? This safety net — social and economic policies designed to preserve the basic well-being and dignity of all people in Cuba — has to be seen as an essential element of any genuine democracy. So has the equitable inclusion of all people in the country’s political, social, and economic life. Just as in real-life struggles, so in a serious political analysis, we must give attention to the interpenetration of race, class and gender, their connections to the interplay of political structures and economic dynamics, and be alert to how professed ideologies can both reflect and mask real human relations. Human reality is always contradictory and fluid, containing multiple possibilities. Things are often more complex than we assume or want them to be. Yet the temptation to approach the Cuban reality in an overly simple manner — either with uncritical embrace or hyper-critical recoil — will blind us to aspects of the reality that we may need to see.


Nothing that has been written above resolves anything. Factual summaries and theoretical points written ten, twenty or thirty years ago do not answer essential questions about Cuba today, nor do snippets from a few more recent articles.

George Breitman’s summary of his position ends with the injunction that we must educate ourselves about actual developments taking place more recently than a decade ago in Cuba. This is a responsibility that we must carry out in our upcoming discussions and debates on Cuba. At the same time, efforts to educate one’s self can result in simply an impressionistic patchwork if one doesn’t have some way to structure the accumulating information. The basic methodological approach summarized in this contribution will influence my own efforts to comprehend Cuban realities, particularly in the discussion that is opening up in Solidarity.

I don’t think we can legitimately ask people or organizations that have criticisms of policies or problems in Cuba to shut up. We have a responsibility to “say what is.” But we can legitimately ask people or organizations claiming to be revolutionary (and even many who make no such claim) to participate in efforts to defend Cuba from imperialism.

It is to be hoped that comrades with divergent analyses of the nature of the Cuban regime and Cuban society can join together in developing increasingly creative and effective ways to help defend the people of Cuba from the threats and assaults of the imperialist Goliath. It is to be hoped that these comrades will also join together in learning from what is best in the Cuban revolutionary experience as well as in learning from its limitations and mistakes. The main point of such education is not to extol or criticize other people’s revolutions, but rather to help us as we work to advance the global revolutionary struggle, particularly in our own country.

June 1, 2003