Cuba after Castro

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Originally posted on Tuesday 19 February, 2008 / REVISED
Editor’s Note: We hold reservations about David Osler’s judgment—a self-defined Marxist—on the current Cuban situation but believe this kind of critique—even if we eventually classify it as typical of a Cold War social democrat—contains enough truth as to justify concern for the direction of the Cuban process. Revolutionary Cuba’s achievements are now legendary and indisputable, but its deformations, as a result of internal ineptitude (far more than run-of-the-mill corruption) and the malicious effects of the longstanding strangulation of her economy by the United States, not to mention the constant threat of military attack and invasion,  cannot be easily denied. Sadly, it’s clear that Fidel should have prepared more intelligently for the inevitable transition to a new regime after his departure, or delegated power much earlier. With events unfolding rapidly as we write we can only hope that revolutionary Cuba will survive the transition and that its brave population will finally receive the fruits of their struggle.

[print_link] BY DAVID OSLER STAY IN ONE OF THE FIVE STAR HOTELS, and Cuba is a fabulous place for a holiday. Sit down by that swimming pool and bask in the Caribbean sunshine, light up a cigar from beyond the wilder shores of Freudian symbolism and knock back cocktails blended from the finest rum on earth. And if it’s nightlife you want, there’s hot jazz and salsa clubs that stay open until four am. That’s on the weeknights.  Convertible pesos only, of course.
As in America, many youngsters aspire to escape poverty via fame in sports. Pugilism is well supported by the state.
But for most ordinary Cubans, life is pretty damn grim. I saw that for myself two years ago, when I spent four weeks in an ordinary home in Havana while studying Spanish. Even such basic foodstuffs as rice are rationed. Water supplies are sporadic, and power cuts regular occurrences. The housing stock is badly run down. Many everyday items are simply unobtainable. Yes, of course the US blockade and the economic effects of the collapse of the USSR are part – although by no means all – of the explanation. But there is no getting away from the conclusion that Cuban society is deeply polarised.
Beyond a layer of older people who lived through the revolution in the late fifties, there are few strong supporters of the government. The younger a person is – and the darker the colour of their skin – the more likely they are to be hostile. Many of those at the sharp end of the multiple hardships would rather be living in Miami, and don’t think twice about saying that to a foreign journalist. The thing is, Cuba is the last remaining country with even a semi-credible claim to be somehow ‘socialist’.
Few nowadays regard China as anything other than an extended neoliberal sweatshop with the chutzpah still to fly the red flag, or see North Korea as more than a famine-ridden hellhole suffering under a particularly ghastly hereditary quasi-monarchy. Accordingly, many lefties in the developed world maintain a soft spot for the homeland of Fidel Castro. The Cuban system wasn’t imposed by the Red Army, they point out; it emerged instead from a genuine revolutionary process that grew over from nationalism to what it is today. And Che did try to export revolution rather than build socialism in one country. Welcome to Sunshine Stalinism.
But nevertheless, socialists have a duty not to duck some elementary truths. Cuba is a one party state. There are no independent trade unions, and the government maintains the strictest imaginable censorship over the media. There are no gulags as such, but plenty of political prisoners. Party cadre are privileged, if to an extent limited in comparison to other historical examples. In plain English, Cuba is a dictatorship. A dictatorship lite, perhaps, but a dictatorship nevertheless. Of course there are counter-arguments aplenty. Important as democracy is, it is not the sole criteria on which to judge a country.
Turkey holds regular elections, but still brutally represses the Kurdish population. In multi-party India – the self-styled ‘largest democracy in the world’ – hundreds of millions starve. Cuba, on the other hand, provides universal education and the highest standards of health care in the third world. It’s the only poor country I have ever seen that isn’t scarred by shanty towns. Even those locals that grumble most don’t dispute that.
Havana might not by Heaven, but it sure ain’t Haiti either. It’s just that – not unreasonably – the population wants a system that provides them with toilet paper. Oh, and some fresh fish once in a while would be good.
Many are openly envious of a layer in Cuban society that certainly isn’t hard up. Entry to Havana’s premier salsa spot costs more than a month’s white collar wages. Yet most of the several hundred strong crowd are young Cubans. Some of them simply have jobs – formal or informal – in the tourist sector. Some of the women are not prostitutes, you understand; they just put out for foreign men who can show a girl a good time. Even bellboys can earn more than university professors, so long as they pick up tips en convertibles. And to get to be a bellboy – so I was told by a qualified architect currently working as a cinema usher – you need ‘connections‘.
But most of the obviously well-off benefit from remittances from abroad. Havana is not immune from globalisation. Starbucks and McDonalds are unable to set up shop, thanks to the US embargo. But Benetton and some Spanish hotel chains are already running local operations. Perhaps the clearest reason for socialists not to go starry-eyed over the place is the massive social weight of the Cuban armed forces, so typical for Latin America. That was probably the real significance of the decision of Fidel Castro (pictured) to hand over de facto power to kid brother Raul in 2006, confirmed by his resignation today. Power lies with the guys that dress up in olive green.
For the democratic left, then, the conclusions are clear. We should oppose the US blockade on basic democratic grounds. Ironically from Washington’s viewpoint, it could actually be holding back the development of an indigenous Cuban democratic opposition. But at the same time, we need to stress that a democratic opening is essential if Cuba is to avoid the build up of discontent on the scale of 1980s Eastern Europe, and the eventual introduction of a particularly savage brand of neoliberal capitalism.
I’d hate to go back in a few years and find that heart-stoppingly beautiful Old Havana had reverted to its former role as one big extended casino-cum-whorehouse theme park for gringos. NOTE: This is a slightly edited version of a piece that originally appeared on this blog in September 2006.

David Osler (born 1960) is a British author, journalist and blogger. He is a journalist on Lloyd’s List.

In 2002, he wrote Labour Party Plc: New Labour as a Party of Business.

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