China has become a huge neoliberal sweatshop with the unbelievable impertinence still to fly the red flag. North Korea is little more than a famine-ridden hellhole suffering under a particularly oppressive hereditary quasi-monarchy. But many want to believe that there an island nation in the Caribbean that can meaningfully call itself socialist without obvious breach of the Trade Descriptions Act.
For comrades such as Diana Raby, Cuba is ‘living proof that another world really is possible’. The key point in her argument seems to be that the Cuban system – unlike its analogues in eastern Europe – wasn’t imposed by the Red Army. It emerged instead from a indigenous revolutionary process that grew over from nationalism into what she calls ‘socialist democracy’.
Cuba is a dictatorship
We’ll come to the issue of the dynamics of the Cuban revolution later. But at this point, it is crucial to be clear about one thing; Cuba is not a socialist democracy. Indeed, it is not a democracy of any sort. The country is a one-party state. There are no independent trade unions, and the regime maintains the strictest imaginable censorship over the media. There are no gulags as such, but plenty of political prisoners.
In plain English, Cuba is a dictatorship. It would be unforgivable to utilise the slogans of Seattle here; Cuba is anything but a foretaste of the kind of world for which the anti-globalisation movement stands. Yet Diana contends that Cuba was ‘never really Stalinist’. What are we supposed to gather from the word ‘really’ here? If Cuba genuinely was not Stalinist, it has to be said that its impression was right up to Rory Bremner standard on this score.
Diana rightly maintains that the driving force in 1959 and afterwards was Castro’s 26 July Movement, rather than the Moscow-aligned Partido Socialista Popular (PSP). But that is to miss the point. The defining characteristic of Stalinism is not alignment to Moscow, but the capture of state power by a new potential ruling class that proceeds to operate on the basis of a collectivised economy.
Stalin positively didn’t want Tito to take over Yugoslavia, and dithered in his support for Mao until the Chinese revolution was a fait accompli. Diana would presumably see both Yugoslavia and China as examples of what she calls ‘original revolutions’, but that does not mean that the resultant states were not Stalinist in the sense Marxist theory uses the term.
The ouster of Batista paved the way not for workers’ control or some form of socialism from below, but initially the exercise of government by the middle-class based Castroites in league with elements of the army. The PSP was subsequently incorporated into the hegemonic bloc. The presidency in Cuba thus became a family business, the private property of Fidel to hand over to his younger brother at a suitable juncture. Not coincidentally, Raul was previously head of Cuba’s military. Ultimately, power resides – as in many other countries in Latin America – with the men in the olive green fatigues.
What is Raul going to do now he is in the top job? Well, Cuba currently faces economic sclerosis, despite the virtues some would see in its brand of central planning. The new president – according to many commentators, anyway – is looking at China as a role model for his nation’s future. If such speculation is correct, it is difficult to guess what will be left for starry-eyed Cuba-watchers to cheerlead in five or ten years’ time.
Polarising of Cuban society
Yes, of course the US embargo and the impact of the collapse of the USSR are part – although by no means all – of the explanation for the predicament in which the country now finds itself. But there is no getting away from the conclusion that Cuban society is rapidly polarising, and on class lines at that. Beyond party cadre and those in high-ranking state jobs, the government enjoys few strong supporters. The younger a person is – and the darker the colour of his or her skin – the more likely they are to openly admit they would rather be living in Miami.
Meanwhile, another layer in Cuban society 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. Many of the conspicuously well-off benefit from remittances from abroad. Others 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 with enough hard currency to show a girl a good time. Even bellboys 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’.
Of course there are counter-arguments, and Diana rehashes most of them. 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 be heaven
Havana might not be 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.
For the democratic left, then, the conclusions are clear. We should oppose the US embargo on straightforward democratic grounds. But at the same time, we need to stress that a democratic opening is essential if Cuba is to avoid upheaval on the scale of 1989 in the Soviet satellite states. If the revolution does not go forward, it will go backwards. 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.
David Osler is a journalist and author. See his blog here www.davidosler.com
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’