Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Lorenzo Canizares

Commentary: Cuba: What Went Wrong?

First Published: Unity, Vol. 6, No. 2, February 11-24, 1983.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The Cuban revolution is now 24 years old. It has been the latest of many efforts launched by the Cuban people throughout their history to get rid of foreign domination and economic injustice. This revolution that began with so much hope has turned sour. The Cuba of today is definitely not what was envisioned by many Cuban revolutionaries in the 1950’s. Cuba has gone from a revolutionary socialist country in the 1960’s to become a pawn of the Soviet Union, aiding and justifying its imperialist penetration worldwide. What went wrong?

Struggle against U.S. imperialism

In 1952, a coup d’etat by former President and Army strongman Fulgencio Batista filled the Cuban people with a tremendous indignation and resentment due to the loss of their democratic rights.

However, for Cuba’s powerful northern neighbor, the United States, Batista’s coup was a good thing. It eliminated the possibilities of an elected nationalist progressive government that might annoy U.S. business interests. The U.S. imperialists gave considerable political and military backing to the Batista dictatorship.

In spite of all U.S. support, Cuba was boiling. Fidel Castro seized the time by leading the July 26th Movement to wage guerrilla warfare against the dictatorship. Led by Castro, Che Guevara and others, the Movement gained a vast amount of support, not only because of their courageous stand against Batista, but also because they espoused the political ideas that the majority of Cubans desired for their country. The July 26th Movement’s political positions during the struggle against Batista were genuine expressions of a national democratic movement. The rallying point of unity for the Cuban people was the restoration of the progressive 1940 constitution, which was the guiding political thought in the country until Batista’s coup abolished it.

1959 revolution

After the triumph of the struggle against the dictatorship in 1959, the Cuban people were looking forward to a future of peace and nation-building. The climate was set for political measures that were popular and necessary for Cuba’s own economic development. One of the most popular and necessary measures was agrarian reform. Conflicts developed immediately with the United States, which demanded immediate compensation for the land lost by its companies under the land reform.

Cuba responded by offering to compensate the U.S. companies according to the declared value of the land in their last tax returns. However, the U.S. was shocked by this action because what the companies reported in their tax returns was well below what they demanded for compensation. With no agreement between the two countries, the U.S. threatened to cut the quota of sugar normally purchased by the U.S.

Cuba was in a fix, with the possibility of having to pile three million tons of sugar in warehouses. The Soviet Union quickly entered the picture and promised to buy whatever sugar the United States did not buy. In exchange for the sugar bought by the Soviets, Cuba received oil at a preferential price. The Americans, who owned Cuba’s refineries, refused to touch Soviet crude oil and, as a result, Cuba nationalized U.S.-owned oil refineries. Soon after, the United States broke all diplomatic relations and imposed a blockade.

In spite of the blockade and all other attempts by the U.S. imperialists to thwart the Cuban revolution, the revolution persevered in its course. By 1962, the Cuban government openly declared itself socialist. Popular control of the economy had been achieved, with marked improvements in education, health care and employment. These beginning years were also marked by a flowering of revolutionary culture. Internationally, Cubans gave strong support not only to Latin American revolutionaries, but also to the struggles of the Vietnamese, African liberation movements and to revolutionary groups in the U.S. such as the Black Panthers.

Influence of revisionism

During these beginning years, as the ties grew with the Soviet Union, the influence of the PSP (Partido Socialista Popular) increased. This pro-Soviet organization had distinguished itself for its passivity throughout the struggle against Batista, in which 20,000 Cubans perished. In an August 11, 1958, editorial of its official newspaper, Hoy, less than six months before the downfall of the dictator, the PSP was criticizing the armed struggle as adventurist.

If that’s not enough of a betrayal to the revolutionary efforts, consider this. On March 13, 1957, students at the University of Havana attacked Batista’s Presidential Palace, but failed to overthrow him. The student leadership went into hiding. But a student member of the PSP, with full knowledge of the PSP leadership, went to the police and revealed the hiding place of the student leaders. Needless to say, the student leaders were then murdered by Batista’s police.

During the 1960’s, there were sharp conflicts between the leadership of the July 26th Movement and the former leaders of the pro-Moscow PSP. In 1968 Fidel Castro sharply attacked former PSP leader Anibal Escalante for forming a “microfaction” within the revolutionary leadership. But shortly thereafter, with the full backing of the U.S.S.R., the old PSP leadership was placed back into leading positions and its political influence became quite strong.

The former PSP leaders insisted that Cuba adopt a one-crop (sugar) economy, as favored by the U.S.S.R., rather than diversify agriculture. Ironically, this was the same policy that the revolutionary forces had attacked during the Batista dictatorship, for it forced the country to rely on one product and to depend on a foreign power to buy it. PSP leaders also advocated support for Soviet foreign policy, including support for the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, a position which Castro eventually endorsed. By the 1970’s, pressure from the U.S.S.R. and revisionists succeeded in consolidating a thoroughly pro-Soviet line within the Cuban leadership. Today the views of Fidel Castro are indistinguishable from those of the ex-PSP leaders.

Cuba today

Because of the worsening Cuban economic situation, in 1980 tens of thousands of Cubans fled their country, forced to accept an uncertain future in the U.S. But unlike the early 1960’s immigrants who were generally from wealthy backgrounds, the 1980 immigrants were mainly workers and peasants, with a significant number of Afro-Cubans. From my interviews with these refugees, from journalist and academic accounts, and from statements of the Cuban leaders themselves, it becomes clear that the Cuba of today is not a revolutionary country.

Refugees describe life in Cuba today as a total hassle. The workweek is about 60 hours. Transportation failures and overcrowding require an extra hour from normal riding time to get to your destination.

For many people, there is no refrigeration. So after the whole ordeal of the work and transportation troubles, they must wait in long lines to get food. This is a daily affair, since Cuba is a tropical country and non-refrigerated food spoils quickly.

There is a critical shortage of housing. Even divorced couples are forced to live together because alternate housing is unavailable. (Cuba has one of the highest divorce rates in the world.)

The gains in popular health care made during the 1960’s are going backward. Cuban refugees point out that private doctors are overscheduled, while the public clinics are empty. People fear improper medical care at the government clinics.

For many years, Cuban leaders have blamed the U.S. blockade for the economic problems. The blockade did have a serious impact, particularly in the early years. But as Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and chief of the armed forces, acknowledged in a recent speech to the Cuban armed forces, “It is about time that we stop blaming the blockade for our own inefficiency and incompetence.”

Professor Carmelo Mesa-Lago, director of the prestigious Cuban Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh, indicates, “The Cuban economy in the period of 1976-80 had done much worse than in the period of 1971-5.”

Even Fidel Castro admitted in a speech published in August 8,1982, Granma, the official Cuban newspaper, “It’s possible that in the near future, our overall economy will show little growth or no growth at all.”

In general, Cuban leaders no longer speak of improvements in the economy, but of the need for 20 more years of sacrifice!

One of the main reasons for Cuba’s dismal economic state is its increasing dependency on sugar for its export earnings.

As Fidel Castro said, “Under present world market conditions Cuba must deliver two-and-a-half times the amount of sugar it delivered in 1970 in order to acquire the same amount of products.” In spite of that, Cuba’s dependency on sugar has increased from 80% in pre-revolutionary days to 86.5% in the last few years. Reliance on one product has been under severe attack in Cuba since the days of Jose Marti, Cuba’s independence leader, who had said, “A people that puts its trust in a single product in order to subsist is committing suicide.”

Nature of Soviet “aid”

Pro-Soviet sympathizers make a big deal because the Soviet Union pays higher than the world market for the sugar it gets from Cuba. They forget to point out that before 1959, the U.S. did the same. Far from being disinterested “aid,” the subsidies work to make Cuba more dependent on the U.S.S.R.

The Soviet Union benefits economically from this subsidy. First the Soviets pay for Cuban sugar in rubles, a currency only good for transactions within COMECON (the Soviet bloc “Common Market”), from which Cuba is forced to buy many items at prices inflated far above the world market. Second, the cost of Russia’s domestic sugar production is very high. By purchasing cheaper Cuban sugar and reselling it to COMECON nations at Russian prices, the Soviets are compelling Cubans to subsidize Soviet inefficiency. Finally, Moscow profits from selling Cuban sugar at even higher prices to non-COMECON third world nations like Mali, South Yemen, Iraq, Sudan, Egypt and Iran.

Foreign policy

It is in the political realm that the Soviet Union profits the most in its relations with Cuba. The Soviet Union, by itself, possesses a doubtful reputation in the world. But Cuba still maintains a certain “shine.” Many people are not aware of the unequal relationship between the Soviet Union and Cuba, and see Cuba as a little third world country that dared to stand up and fight against a superpower.

In Africa, the Soviets were able to utilize Cuba’s reputation to have Cuban troops be “invited” into Angola in 1975, much the same way Russian troops were later “invited” into Afghanistan. Through Cuba, the Soviets were able to exploit to their own advantage the differences between the three liberation groups in Angola and use the Cubans to favor one against the other two and undermine the country’s transition toward national independence.

In Ethiopia, the Cubans have performed an amazing political flip-flop in order to serve the Soviet Union. In 1967, Cuba sent a guerrilla contingent to support the Eritreans, a people fighting for liberation from domination by Ethiopia. By 1978, Cuba dispatched troops into battle against the Eritrean liberation movement, “to protect Ethiopian territorial integrity from Eritrean separatists.” While the Mengistu dictatorship in Ethiopia was drawing international condemnation for its tyrannical suppression of internal dissent, Cuba praised it as a “genuinely progressive force,” and denounced Eritrean freedom fighters as “gangsters” and “servants of international reaction.” Cuba changed its stand solely because the U.S.S.R. is now backing the Ethiopian regime.

As a result of stationing tens of thousands of young Cuban men in Africa, the Cuban economy has suffered from manpower shortages. Soviet pilots now regularly fly military missions for the Cuban armed forces, because Cuban pilots are stationed in Africa.

The U.S.S.R. makes use of Cuba to back Soviet aggression and hegemonism around the world. For example, Cuba supports martial law in Poland. As chair of the non-aligned movement, Cuba continuously supported the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea and even failed to call a meeting of the movement to discuss the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The vast majority of non-aligned nations have severely condemned both invasions in the UN.

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To conclude, let me say that any attempt by the United States to militarily intervene in Cuba or back right-wing Cubans in order to return a U.S.-dominated dictatorship in Cuba should be strongly opposed.

But I also strongly oppose the Soviet government’s utilization of the Cuban people as cannon fodder for Soviet imperialist ambitions.

The quest of the Cuban people to see their country free of foreign domination and economic injustice is still to be fulfilled. I am sure that the Cuban people will follow the path opened by many past and present heroic fighters of a free, independent and socialist Cuba.

* * *

Lorenzo Canizares is a Cuban-born revolutionary activist now living in New York.