Many people admire Cuba for its achievements in health care, education and sport, but argue it should be more democratic and adopt liberal political reforms. With all the excitement generated by new popular and revolutionary processes in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador and the creative ferment of Latin American social movements, Cuba is dismissed as old hat, no longer relevant, or even (heaven forfend!) Stalinist.
But Cuba was never really Stalinist, even if the Cold War climate caused it to adopt inappropriate aspects of the Soviet model. It was an extraordinary and original revolution which took everyone by surprise in 1959 and the 1960s, inspiring the left throughout the world and igniting an unprecedented wave of revolutionary struggles across the region. Its inspiration was profoundly Cuban and Latin American: in Fidel's words it was 'as Cuban as the palm trees,' deriving its ideas from José Martí, 'our Apostle, who said that the fatherland belonged to all and was for the good of all,' and from the Afro-Cuban Mambí freedom fighters of the 19th century wars against Spanish colonialism.
It was not the old Communist Party (the Partido Socialista Popular, PSP) which made the Cuban revolution, but the 26 July Movement (M-26-7), a broad, democratic and flexible popular movement dedicated to social justice and anti-imperialism. The PSP jumped on the bandwagon at the last minute when it was clear that the insurgency was going to win. It provided trained and dedicated cadres who helped to make possible implementation of the revolution's ambitious social and economic programmes, but it never really ran the show. This was made clear in the Escalante affair early in 1962, when Fidel denounced the opportunism of the old PSP leader Hernán Escalante who was trying to put old party hacks in key positions and exclude genuine revolutionaries. Escalante was packed off to a diplomatic exile in Prague and from then on, despite inevitable Soviet influence, ultimate decision-making power remained in the hands of the brilliant, unorthodox and creative guerrilla fighters of the Sierra Maestra.
Traditions of revolutionary struggle
Fidel, Che, Raúl, Camilo Cienfuegos, Celia Sánchez, Juan Almeida and their companions were successful because they sprang from the popular culture of Cuba and the unbroken tradition of revolutionary struggle since the mambises: they were the true organic intellectuals of the Cuban popular movement. And they also - especially, but not only, Che Guevara - represented the Latin American spirit of rebellion, unity and collective struggle going back to Simón Bolívar. 'Above all we feel the interests of our Fatherland and of Nuestra América [Our America], which is also a Patria Grande [a Greater Fatherland],' declared Fidel only three weeks after victory.
This feeling was shared by other Latin Americans: in February 1959 the then Chilean Senator Salvador Allende declared that 'the Cuban revolution does not belong only to you...we are dealing with the most significant movement ever to have occurred in the Americas.' Two months later Gloria Gaitán, daughter of the assassinated Colombian popular leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, proclaimed that the Cuban experience was 'the beginning of the great liberation of Nuestra América.'
Popular political empowerment
The ideology of the revolution was one of popular empowerment, unity, collective liberation and distrust of political parties, and conventional politicians of all stripes; remarkably similar to the spirit which animates today's Latin American transformations and the anti-globalisation movements around the world. It followed no dogmatic formula, indeed, socialism was not even mentioned in the early discourse of the leadership. It was not until April 1961, two years and four months after the initial victory and during the counter-revolutionary Bay of Pigs invasion, that Fidel declared that it was a socialist revolution. For sure, as US hostility intensified and the need for Soviet support became critical, he proclaimed himself to be a Marxist-Leninist, thereby signalling a cold-war alignment with Moscow; but Cuba never entirely lost its originality, and since 1989 it has gradually returned to its Latin and Caribbean roots while striving to preserve its remarkable socialist achievements.
Cuba's relevance today consists not only of the admirable example of its achievements in health, education and social welfare, but also its direct practical assistance to other countries embarking on processes of radical transformation. Without the assistance of thousands of Cubans Chávez would have found it almost impossible to implement the remarkable Barrio Adentro health mission or the Robinson literacy mission. Similarly Evo Morales would have been unable to implement such programmes in Bolivia, at least in the short run - and given the critical political situation in both countries, the short run was and is crucial.
But also, in broader political terms, without Cuba Chávez (and hence, at one remove, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador) would have had much greater difficulty in gaining credibility for projects of popular political empowerment implemented through the appropriation and transformation of the state. The political disorientation of the global left was such that only a totally unexpected movement like that of Chávez could offer a way forward and without Cuba's inspiration and support at crucial moments, Chávez might well have failed. Without Cuba, then, no Venezuela and without Venezuela, no Bolivia, no Ecuador, and no rebirth of Sandinista Nicaragua.
This does not mean that Venezuela, or the other countries, are copying Cuba. They are very clear that they are pursuing independent paths, borrowing from and supporting each other and Cuba, but without making the old mistake of trying to impose a uniform orthodox template. In any case the Cubans have been explicit in saying that they do not regard their own socialism as a blueprint to be copied.
Does Cuba need to democratise?
Unlike in Eastern Europe, in Cuba socialism is home-grown and not imposed by the Red Army; and by comparison with Russia or China, Cuba had the virtue of being a much smaller and culturally homogeneous society (even making allowances for the heritage of slavery), making it possible to unite ninety percent of the population in a liberation movement against Yanqui imperialism and a small Miami-oriented oligarchy. The strategic and tactical genius of Fidel Castro, a quite remarkable charismatic leader who came to incarnate the sentiments of the Cuban people, opened the way to a revolutionary project of unprecedented clarity and generosity.
Many Western socialists and progressive activists argue that Cuba needs to democratise, but they fail to appreciate both the realities of the US blockade and the characteristics of Cuba's own socialist democracy. Unlike in the Soviet Union or China, in Cuba local delegates of popular power are elected in multi-candidate polls in which the Communist Party is legally prohibited from intervening, and have to report back every six months to open meetings of their electors who have the power of recall. Municipal assemblies and People's Councils function as real instances of direct democracy in which local people intervene actively in running their own affairs. Certainly at national level there are limitations on freedom of organisation and expression, but here too major issues are often put to the people for debate in workers' parliaments' and other discussion forums. It is this which gives the Cuban system legitimacy, and those who deny this will never understand why after 50 years the revolution is still an ongoing reality.
Yes, there will be and need to be reforms in Cuba, but not the liberal capitalist reforms advocated by Western governments and media. With all its defects, Cuba - along with Venezuela and other countries of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) - is living proof that another world really is possible.
Dr Diana Raby, author of Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today. Click here to read the book's first chapter