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Cuba: Radical face of Stalinism

By John Lister

Written: 1983 / 84.
First Published: January 1985.
Source: Published by Left View Books for the Socialist Group.
Transcription / HTML Markup: Sean Robertson for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

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Cuba: Radical face of Stalinism

Part I: The Cuban Conundrum.

4. The Cuban Communist Party After 1959.

Politically bankrupt though it was, the PSP had two qualities on offer which Castro was able to use to advantage: it was in effect the only political party with any structure and political coherence on a national level; and it had a cadre with extensive experience in controlling the highly bureaucratised Cuban "trade unions". As the Fidelistas began to look at the problems of consolidating their newly-won power, they sought to utilise the PSP, though on their own terms.

Following the Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro announced on July 26 1961 the merger of three organisations – the July 26 Movement, the Revolutionary Directorate and the PSP. The new formation was called the Integrated Revolutionary Organisations (ORI). But the Stalinist notion of "integration" proved to be rather different from Fidel's.

Anibal Escalante, the leading PSPer put in charge of the ORI, held the view that his task was to "integrate" the Fidelistas into a Stalinist-run party. In each of the six provincial committees of the ORI and at lower levels too, Escalante appointed former PSP functionaries to leadership posts. And he called for the building of a party organisation (under his control) inside the armed forces. Escalante's objective was to keep the machinery of the new "party" firmly in Stalinist control: from this basis the party could retain control despite a National Directorate comprising thirteen July 26 nominees, 10 from the PSP and 2 from the DR. Personal ambition was probably one factor in Escalante's actions; probably Moscow's directives were another. In any event it is hard to teach a flea-ridden old Stalinist dog new tricks – particularly if you make him the ringmaster in the circus. A further aspect of the situation was the appalling weakness of the PSP's partners in the "integration" process, which made it hard for Escalante, even had he wished to do so, to choose equally or proportionally from any cadre of July 26 or DR members.

On March 26, 1962, Castro recognised what was afoot, publicly denounced Escalante's conduct and expelled him from the National Directorate. Fidel himself took over as First Secretary of the ORI at the head of a new governing Secretariat, which now incorporated only Blas Roca from the old PSP. Escalante was sent to Czechoslovakia for two years.

In February 1963, the ORI itself was dissolved and the United Party of the Socialist Revolution (PURS) erected in its place, with a Directorate containing the same leading members (with the exception of Escalante), but a Secretariat firmly in the hands of the Fidelistas. In this 1962-63 period the party expelled about half its membership in a succession of purges.

In 1964 the Stalinists suffered a further setback with the trial of their ace informer of 1957, "Marquitos" Rodriguez, who was sentenced to death (see above). This was accompanied by the arrest, and expulsion from the party of veteran PSP leader Joaquin Ordoqui for his role in concealing the affair. Ordoqui became the second old Stalinist to be ousted from the original ORI Directorate; he later died in jail.

In October 1965 came a further change-round, with the establishment of the Communist Party of Cuba, in which political power was concentrated entirely in the hands of the Fidelistas, though PSP old-timers secured two seats (Carlos Rafael Rodriguez and Blas Roca) on the six-man Secretariat, which was headed by a Castro loyalist. The new "party", which had emerged from a turbulent 4-year history, had undergone 2 changes of name, a major membership purge, and a succession of leadership manoeuvres since its origin in 1961. It was indeed a curious party: the membership held few if any democratic rights within it, and no Congress was to be convened until 1975 – ten years after the "Party" was launched! The very adoption of the title Communist Party of Cuba appears to have been more linked to Castro's jockeying for position in relation to the international Stalinist movement than to any political or organisational links to the old Communist Party. 80% of the new Central Committee were either former members of the July 26 Movement or other non PSPers. And even while adopting a formally orthodox "Communist" label, Castro was in fact embarking upon his biggest period of political challenge to the Moscow line.

But there was a real link between the new Castro party and the more conventional "Communist Parties" of Eastern Europe and the USSR. The Party apparatus was seen in each case as a mechanism of control and perpetuation of the existing leadership, and as a means to suppress rather than facilitate the independent organisation of the working class or democratic debate on policies amongst the party's "rank and file". Castro quite explicitly argued for an elitist approach even in his denunciation of Escalante:

"We have to be a workers' vanguard party. We have to govern in the name of the working class, and we are making the aims of the revolution come true, and we are governing the country in the name of the working class, of the labouring class."

Yet the workers, whose name was being invoked, had no control or voice in the decisions of the "party", and still less in the actions and policies of the government. This model of party and state is not Marxist, but an elitist, bureaucratic, Stalinist model. Castro may have been at loggerheads with the old PSP leaders over the day-to-day control of the levers of power in the new party (though the old PSP leaders for the most part joined with the Moscow bureaucrats in siding with Castro against Escalante); he may well have had a more populist and agitational means of securing support for his policies amongst sections of the working class; but on the general concepts of leadership he had more in common with Stalinism than with Marxism.

The evolution of the Cuban CP since 1965 has been towards the gradual consolidation of a bureaucratised structure in which the decisive power still rests with Fidel Castro and the men from the Sierra Maestra. There was a further purge in 1968 – once again involving Escalante, who had returned to Cuba and was plainly agitating around Moscow leaders' criticisms of Cuban domestic policies. Escalante and eight more members of what was termed a "micro-faction" were purged by Fidel and Raul Castro. Their criticisms had been wide-ranging. They claimed that there was insufficient party influence on policy (meaning that too much depended upon Castro's personal views); that there was too much emphasis on "moral" incentives, "voluntary" labour and similar devices to keep the economy moving; and that the goal of 10 million tons of sugar production was not practical. Many of these criticisms appear to have been well-founded, and Fidel was subsequently to adapt to many of them after he had purged Escalante – and in particular after the predicted failure of the "10 million tons" drive in 1970.

By the early 1970s as the regime pulled back from many of its more radical domestic and international policies, Castro began to relax the emphasis on moral incentives, and publicly acknowledged and defended the privileges that accrue to elite office-holders in the Party and state hierarchy. The elite, he began to argue, had a right to acquire first what all would eventually receive.

Castro's arguments, dressed up in a lot of apparently radical rhetoric, were contained in his November 1973 speech to the Thirteenth Congress of the CTC, where he insisted for the first time that:

"Logically, every worker's remuneration should be linked to the quality and quantity of the work he does. If he is in a responsible job, an important job, he should be paid more."

In the same speech, Fidel went on to propose increases in wages for the "personnel in charge of directing production". He specified "brigade leaders and foremen",

"whose wages must compare favourably with those of tractor drivers and operators of other equipment."

Fidel went on to set the CTC delegates' minds at rest: they too would be in line for suitable incentives:

"All these measures and their economic effects must be discussed with the labour leaders, so these agreements – which can be a tremendous tool in increasing economic efficiency – won't trigger a new inflationary process . . . "

And they would get their share of some newly imported cars, too:

"We're going to buy some cars to sell to technicians – we're not talking about a privilege (!) we're talking about selling cars to the technicians who need them in order to be more productive in their work. ( . . . )
( . . . ) You haven't said anything about this, but we're aware of the fact that the labour movement needs some cars. ( . . . ) We can't promise you immediate solutions, but we do assure you that in 1974 we're going to make an effort to provide the labour movement with a basic minimum of cars for its work."
(in Castro: Our Power is That of the Working People, pp. 154-183)

In 1972, Cuba joined COMECON and was granted a postponement of repayments on its debts to the USSR until 1986, along with a suspension of interest payments. In 1973 the Thirteenth Congress of the CTC adopted a range of proposals to placate working class dissatisfaction with the regime's economic policies, including a revision of pay scales, limits on hours of work, pay for overtime, and compensation for holidays worked in previous years. But few of these resolutions were implemented. Perhaps more effective in mollifying workers was a distribution of 100,000 TV sets to "vanguard" workers through labour assemblies and the recommendation of union and party organisers. Refrigerators and electrical appliances, too, were distributed in this way in 1973. Technicians and union bureaucrats were favoured with privileged access to new cars imported from Argentina. The egalitarianism of the early years and the 1964-67 campaign against "bureaucratism" (which had brought the lay-off of 31,500 functionaries) had been left far behind.

In 1975 came the First Congress of the Cuban CP. It was envisaged as part of an elaborate process of institutionalisation of the revolution and its state structure. The previous year, a pilot run of elections to municipal assemblies had been carried out in Matanzas province. The 1975 Congress was to set course for a new Constitution, incorporating municipal assemblies and an indirectly-elected National Assembly (a set up closely resembling the degenerate structures in the post-Stalin USSR). An experimental (and limited) decentralisation of governmental power from the 1975 Congress led to a proliferation of ministries and state committees.

A recruitment drive preceding the First Congress had more than doubled the CP's drooping membership from a tiny 100,000 in 1970 to 202,807 in 1975. A new leadership structure, including a new Political Bureau, Secretariat and Central Committee were unveiled to the membership. If anything, the hand of the Fidelistas was strengthened as against the Stalinist old guard on the leading bodies. Ten out of 13 Political Bureau members were Castro loyalists, six out of nine of the Secretariat, together with 60% of the Central Committee members not on the PB or Secretariat. On the 31-person Council of State, 21 were veterans of the July 26 Movement, only 8 from the PSP. And even those Stalinists who held on to prominent positions were not in general in decision-making posts. As an older, fading leadership force with no prospect of renewal of their cadre, their influence as a minority on these committees was plainly limited.

Why then did Castro embark upon the changes? It appears that there were both domestic and external pressures which made a strengthening of the "party" structure – under strict control of course – a desirable move for Fidel. On the external front, the Cuban economy was in further need of Soviet assistance – particularly in view of the rapidly rising military budget, and the strains which military spending brought to bear on the remainder of the system. Castro's reform of the party was warmly welcomed by the Soviet bureaucracy and specifically acclaimed by Brezhnev as evidence of the "growing maturity" of the Cuban revolution. They were followed up by substantial increases in Soviet aid.

At home, Castro's shifts of policy and enlargement of the formal leadership structure of the party and the state served to defuse potential opposition from influential sections of the bureaucracy in both the civilian and military apparatus, who might otherwise have caused divisive disputes. And by bringing forward no less than nine top-ranking Fidelista loyalists from the armed forces into the CP Secretariat and other key posts, Castro was able to give the appearance of broadening his base whilst blocking any prospect that potential critics or opponents might increase their influence.

The reaffirmation of the Castro brothers' authority was underlined in the run-up to the Congress by extensive personal appearances by the two men, particularly before the rank and file of the armed forces. And the decision was confirmed by a specific vote of the 1975 Congress to incorporate a ban on factions into the Party statutes.

So what was the Party's membership base in 1975? Fidel complained to the Congress that party representation was weak amongst workers in the sugar industry, basic industry, construction, transportation, education and agriculture. By deduction, it is obvious that the CP had strength only in the armed forces – under Raul's personal supervision – the Interior Ministry, and the state bureaucracy. 40% of all party members in 1975 held administrative and political positions.

Cuban figures* indicate 41.6% party membership amongst journalists in 1974; 50% membership in the Academy of Sciences; 60% of the staff at the Ministry of the Interior in 1973 were members (rising to 70% in 1976); and no less than 85% of armed forces officers were party members in 1973. 38.5% of maritime and port workers were CP members in 1971, but interestingly only 37.4% of the "Communist Construction Brigade" were in the CP in 1972 and only 18.2% of the Centennial Youth Column were in the CP or its youth organisation.

In general, percentages for party membership in less intensively cultivated sectors of employment tend to be substantially below 20%. And, given that total membership was only 202,000 in 1975, some sections of workers must have included a truly tiny representation of party members.

These differential figures indicate that the Cuban CP, like its sister parties in Eastern Europe, has concentrated its energies on controlling the mass media, the Interior Ministry and its apparatus, Science, transport and the military. Indeed the armed forces have been cultivated by Raul Castro as a bedrock of political support for the party leadership and its policies at home and abroad.

The outcome of this pattern of growth is that while the Party may have a majority of members who have a worker or peasant background (as indeed did Stalin's hardening bureaucracy in the Soviet Union), many of these would no longer be employed in proletarian or peasant occupations.

The Party's representation amongst women also remained small, hovering around the 13% level from 1963 to 1974, and climbing to 15% in 1975. In 1965 only 5% of the Central Committee were women: in 1975 the proportion went up to 5.3% (though nearly half of the alternate members were women). Only 6% of all Party officials were women in 1974.

Though there have been further recruitment drives (conducted under the watchful eye of local and higher party bodies) since 1975, the fact clearly and inescapably emerges from this analysis that the Cuban Communist Party never has been and is not now a mass, working class party.

It is not a Leninist, but a Stalinist party, in which the rights of the members are strictly circumscribed, and "democratic centralism" is implemented solely as a rigid mechanism for centralised control. "Democracy" is restricted to the right of individuals, under clearly defined conditions, to raise limited criticism – but in no way to organise or campaign for a package of alternative policies.

Though a system of "elections" exists both within the CCP and in the municipal and national Assembly structures, these elections specifically forbid the circulation of manifestos, and take place on the non-political basis of a biography of each candidate. In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that widespread "discussions" initiated on certain issues by the Castro leadership are invariably followed by near unanimous support (with incidental variations) for the government / party leadership's proposals. As a system for the mobilisation and control of the mass movement, the CCP, supplemented by auxiliary "mass" organisations, has proven remarkably effective. As a genuine party, offering any mechanism of accountability and control, or acting as a vanguard force to organise and lead the working class, it has never had any real substance.

By mid 1979, a growing economic crisis had begun to make itself felt in Cuba, and many of the more cosmetic measures of decentralisation adopted in 1975-6 were to be reversed early in 1980. Ministries and state committees were scrapped wholesale; ministers and even vice presidents were sacked, and others were replaced. The May 1979 Plenum of the Central Committee had blamed "indolence" and "irresponsible behaviour" on the part of Cuba's workers and managers for many of the country's economic problems. It called for a strengthening of the trade unions – whose task, it declared, was "to fight complacency and attempts to shrug off responsibility for shortcomings".

In July 1979, Fidel Castro, speaking to the National Assembly, strongly criticised the "deficiencies of our system", complaining that "discipline functioned better under capitalism". Later in 1979 Raul Castro joined the attack on "indiscipline, lack of control, irresponsibility, complacency, negligence and buddyism."

In a critique reminiscent of some of the ranting of top Soviet bureaucrats – (not least the late Leonid Brezhnev himself) Raul rounded on more junior elements in the bureaucracy:

"The main ones to blame for all these weaknesses and the lack of work discipline are not the workers but the managers and functionaries of enterprises who, we know, fiddle with the statistics, reporting land ready or planted when it's not, production that hasn't been done, using and abusing the perogatives that go with their post and the resources of their enterprises to solve problems of their own and their friends. They have no standing when it comes to being demanding of others . . .
The authority administrators have comes from a job well done, a life given over to work, a work style that is far removed from fraudulent buddyism and warping tolerance, and from living a modest life in keeping with their means . . . "

One does not have to read too much between the lines to recognise that a considerable degree of bureaucratism has already accumulated as a dead weight around the neck of the Cuban economy – or that Raul is intent upon evading responsibility for such parasitic outgrowths in a system which he, his brother and their co-thinkers have completely controlled since 1961. Indeed the answer of the Castro brothers to this crisis of the economy and burgeoning bureaucracy was – to recentralise control more tightly in the hands of an inner circle of about a dozen people. Fidel himself took on added responsibilities for several new, unconnected ministries. This is no answer to the problems: but it is the only answer we should expect from an elitist, bureaucratised Castro leadership.

In reality four key institutions govern Cuba. Two are CP committees – the Political Bureau and the Secretariat; in addition there is the Executive of the Council of Ministers, and the Council of State of the National Assembly. Only three men are members of all four – the two Castro brothers and PSP veteran Carlos Rafael Rodriguez. The Castros' hand was further strengthened by the governmental shakeup of January 1980. This inner group, plus the ten or a dozen people who are members of more than one of the top committees actually make all of the important decisions in Cuba.

The Party's Second Congress in December 1980 came after the new mass exodus of political dissidents to the USA the previous Spring, and a CP recruitment drive which had increased membership from 200,000 to 450,000 in five years. The proportion of women members had risen to nearly 19%, with women comprising 10-15% of the leadership bodies of the party.

Fidel Castro's report admitted that only two thirds of the target 6% annual economic growth rate had been achieved in the five year 1976-80 plan, while the 1981-85 plan envisaged still greater loans from and trade relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He forecast that "the people's standard of living will experience a sustained improvement, with emphasis on personal consumption, which will grow by more than 4% annually." In particular, efforts would be concentrated on improving supplies of food, clothing, telephones, television sets, cars and air conditioning units. But such concessions would go alongside a tightening up of internal security: Castro was sharply critical of a weakening of the efficiency of cadres and "bureaucratisation" in the Interior Ministry. There had been "deficiencies in the selection of personnel and a lack of decision and firmness in confrontations with anti-social elements", Castro declared. He was apparently referring to the outbreak of anti-government slogans and leaflets in 1979, after which Interior Minister Sergio del Valle Jiminez was replaced by July 26 hardliner General Ramiro Valdes Menendez.

Castro went on to underline the extent to which these problems of discipline and bureaucratism had overlapped into the economy as a whole:

"There were increasing signs that the spirit of austerity was flagging, that a softening up process was going on in which some people tended to let things slide, pursue privileges, make accommodations and take other attitudes, while work discipline dropped . . . "

In adopting the new five-year plan, the Second Congress further enlarged the Central Committee and the Political Bureau, while it drew even closer to the political ideology as well as the bankroll and military umbrella of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Drawing lessons from the Solidarnosc challenge to the Polish bureaucracy, changes in the Cuban Party leadership included the addition of leaders of the "mass organisations" as alternate members of the Political Bureau. Vilma Espin, leader of the FMC (and wife of Raul Castro); Roberto Veiga, head of the CTC; Ramirez Cruz, leader of the small farmers' organisation ANAP; Armando Acosta, chief of the CDRs, and Humbero Perez, Cuba's director of planning, were all incorporated into the Party's top leadership – along with six army leaders.

The adopted International Resolution proclaimed that:

"The basis of our Party's foreign policy is its historic, lasting alliance with the Soviet Union, based on our common ideology and goals."

As Granma proudly boasted, Castro's re-election to the position of First Secretary of the Cuban CP was greeted by such Stalinist die-hards as Leonid Brezhnev, Todor Zhivkov, Erich Honecker, Janas Kadar, Kim Il Sung and Le Duan, as well as Poland's Stanislaw Kania, who took time off om the struggle to contain the Solidarnosc movement to send a special message of congratulations to the Cuban leader.

The Cuban Party leadership and its press responded in kind with a succession of craven speeches and messages of greeting from various Cuban dignitaries to the assorted Stalinist leaderships of Eastern Europe and Mongolia during 1981. One particularly crass example was the front page April Granma headline "Great enthusiasm over re-election of Todor Zhivkov as top leader of Bulgarian Communist Party" (Granma Weekly Review, April 12 1981).

By 1980, therefore, the Cuba Communist Party had evolved from its early unstable form as a coalition of Fidelistas and Stalinists, even in the field of foreign policy, and had largely lost its characteristics as a distinct, occasionally rebellious current within the world Stalinist movement. It had consolidated a bureaucratic structure and fully assimilated the world view of the Kremlin bureaucrats, without whose material aid, technical and military backing the Cuban regime and economy, crisis-ridden in any event, would not have survived into the 1970s.

It had developed as a party with Stalinist politics, operating within a state structure modelled on the degenerated Soviet Union and the deformed "workers' states" of Eastern Europe, and fulfilling many of the same functions as the "Communist Parties" of East Germany, Bulgaria and Poland.

Though arising on a distinct, unique and peculiar basis, and though continuing to function with a broad base of popular support unmatched by any of the hated dictatorial regimes of Eastern Europe, the Cuban Party had shown itself from the outset to be Stalinised, bureaucratised, and an organised obstacle to the politics of revolutionary Marxism.

* Most figures taken from the breakdown by Jorge Dominguez.

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