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