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International Socialist Review Issue 30, July–August 2003

Cuba, Democracy and the Bush Doctrine

by Héctor Reyes

SINCE ITS 1959 revolution, Cuba has stubbornly maintained its political independence from the U.S.–setting a bad example that Washington has since sought to correct by attempting to isolate Cuba both politically and economically. The U.S. imposed an economic embargo on Cuba that has remained in place since 1961. The Clinton administration even put a new twist on the embargo, signing the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, a law that not only forbids American companies from doing business in or trading with Cuba, but also seeks to penalize foreign companies that trade with Cuba. Yet, as we shall see, there have also been economic interests in the U.S. pressuring for increasing U.S. economic penetration of Cuba in the same period.

The Cuban economy went into a major crisis in the 1990s, when it lost its sources of financial and technical assistance, as well as its major trade partners from Eastern Europe and the former USSR. The crisis was so severe that many cases of disease related to malnutrition were reported. Public transportation was scaled down because buses could not be repaired and fuel was scarce. Fidel Castro’s regime responded to the crisis by elaborating a strategy designed to keep the key parts of the economy running–at the expense of the others–and pursuing foreign investment in new industries and new trade partners. This was known as the Special Period. In Miami, the organizations of right-wing Cuban exiles were ecstatic–and so were sectors of the U.S. ruling class–believing that it was only a matter of time before the Castro regime would collapse. The Helms-Burton Act was thought of as a small push that would help tumble the house of cards.

Yet the regime was able to weather the worst of the crisis, and succeeded in attracting European, Canadian and Mexican capital–substantially but not exclusively focused on the tourism industry. The development of a modern tourism industry led to the expansion of trade in products and services with these partners. American capital watched from the sidelines as a new game was being organized without its participation. Fearing being left too far behind, some of these people began exerting pressure behind the scenes to bring about some degree of liberalization in Washington’s policies toward Cuba. A slow and modest process of liberalization began to take place under the Clinton administration. A relaxation of the policies–or at least their interpretation–regarding cash remittances and travel of Cuban-Americans to the island was allowed. Although the travel by Americans not of Cuban origin was still banned, the number of permitted cultural exchanges increased. And although the rhetoric–and sometimes the threats–against the travel of individuals to the island was maintained, the truth was that increasing numbers of Americans of all political persuasions found their way to Havana.

Corporations, former State Department officials and academics banded together into the Cuba Policy Foundation (CPF) to lobby to end the embargo. Businesses found enough supporters in Congress–both Democrat and Republican–to argue for further liberalization. Supposedly banned products such as Coca Cola and Nike found their way into Cuba through circuitous routes. Even after George W. Bush took office, the lobbying and the relaxations continued. Last year, former Illinois governor George Ryan led a trade delegation to Havana. Many prominent agribusiness and food corporations, as well as medium-sized Midwest businesses, participated in a major trade exposition. Last year Cuba bought $150 million worth of food from the U.S.1 Newspapers in San Juan, Puerto Rico–where the Cuban exile community has economic clout–speculated about the detrimental effects on the Puerto Rican tourism industry when, not if, the Cuban embargo was lifted.

The viability of these trends became uncertain after the U.S. and Cuban governments clashed over the regime’s crackdown on dissidents and the execution of three hijackers in April. Anyone who has followed how the Bush administration used the September 11 attacks to justify a new aggressive phase of U.S. imperialism all over the world can appreciate the contradictions between the relaxations in policy described above and the implications of the so-called Bush Doctrine (formally titled The National Security Strategy of the United States of America) regarding Cuba.

The Bush Doctrine and Cuba

The history of U.S. imperialism did not begin with the Bush administration, as some liberals would have us believe. However, the political, military and economic goals explicitly expressed in the Bush Doctrine represent a qualitative shift in the aggressiveness of U.S. imperialism and its unabashedly open proclamation to seek world domination. Two of the pillars of this doctrine–preemptive wars and regime change–have serious implications when posed in the Cuban context. After all, for the U.S. rulers, any Third World country that is not under the U.S.’s thumb is a "rogue" nation. And Cuba’s independence from Washington has been a thorn in its side for 44 years–making it a perfect fit for the rogue nation label and one of the unnamed countries in the nexus of the so-called axis of evil.

The current clash between Havana and Washington allowed the Bush administration to rearrange its Cuba policy to be more in sync with the Bush Doctrine by creating "precisely the kind of chill that is descending on U.S.-Cuba relations," as the Chicago Tribune mildly described it.2 Bush’s deputies have been hard at work for some time now trying to engineer this crisis. Last summer they unsuccessfully tried several times to make the case in Congress and through conservative think tanks that Cuba was involved in developing bioweapons. While addressing the Heritage Foundation (Washington, D.C., May 6, 2002) on the subject "Beyond the Axis of Evil: Additional Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction," this is part of what John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and one of the now infamous "neocons," had to say:

In addition to Libya and Syria, there is a threat coming from another BWC [Biological Weapons Convention] signatory, and one that lies just 90 miles from the U.S. mainland–namely, Cuba. We know that Cuba is collaborating with other state sponsors of terror. For four decades Cuba has maintained a well-developed and sophisticated biomedical industry, supported until 1990 by the Soviet Union. This industry is one of the most advanced in Latin America, and leads in the production of pharmaceuticals and vaccines that are sold worldwide. Analysts and Cuban defectors have long cast suspicion on the activities conducted in these biomedical facilities. Here is what we now know: The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states. We are concerned that such technology could support BW programs in those states. We call on Cuba to cease all BW-applicable cooperation with rogue states and to fully comply with all of its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention.

If the U.S. were able to build enough of a case that Cuba is supplying international terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, then it could proceed with an openly confrontational campaign that conceivably could lead all the way to military intervention. Of course, as the situation in Iraq shows, the U.S. is not averse to manufacturing evidence where none exists. The problem for the Bush chickenhawks is that almost no one else is buying it, not even in Latin America, where those in power fear that the return of intervention and destabilization tactics by Washington would eventually swallow their regimes into the resulting whirlwind. "[F]or the first time in 23 years, the Organization of American States attempted to debate human rights in Cuba, but in the end couldn’t agree on whether it had the authority," reported the Miami Herald.3 This is why the governor of Florida, Dubya’s brother, Jeb Bush, expressed frustration at Washington’s would-be partners in crime for not going along with the project: "We should explain to our brothers from Latin America and other places that a regime that totally lacks respect for human rights can’t be kept in place."4

The truth is that Washington has been providing funding and logistical support to groups of dissidents inside Cuba for years. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided millions of dollars already for these purposes. About eight months ago, the U.S. installed a new head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, James Cason. It is Cason who engineered the most recent crisis by frequently meeting with Cuban dissidents, providing them with funding, and distributing their writings. According to anonymous Chicago Tribune sources with connections to Latin America policy makers in the White House, the Bush administration was happy with the results of Cason’s meetings, and while "[t]hey didn’t intend for so many people to be sacrificed…"[they] were prepared for some arrests."5 It makes one wonder whether some of these dissidents had an attack of lucidity and realized how cynically the U.S. was willing to use them as sacrificial lambs, they would have been so willing to become pawns in its imperialist chess game.

Cuba responded by quickly prosecuting and sentencing 75 of the dissidents to prison sentences ranging from seven to 28 years, essentially convicting them of treason for conspiring with agents of the U.S. government to undermine the Cuban government. In a simultaneous but separate action, the government convicted and executed three men that had hijacked a ferry and held 40 hostages in a desperate attempt to defect to the U.S. This is a significantly different matter from the dissidents’ case, although it is not entirely disconnected from the political climate that led to the crackdown on the dissidents. For the architects that engineered the current crisis also had a hand in exacerbating the Cuban migration situation that has fueled the most desperate attempts by people wanting to leave Cuba for the U.S. After the last Cuban mass migration crisis during the Clinton administration, an agreement had been reached between both governments for the allocation of a minimum of 20,000 visas per year for Cuban immigrants into the U.S. This year, with more than half of the fiscal year over, only 2,200 visas had been granted.6

Is Cuba in the crosshairs?

Castro has asserted that the U.S. is considering an attack on Cuba in line with its policy of regime change. Certainly, one cannot accuse his regime of being paranoid. Regime change has been a fantasy of every U.S. administration since Castro took power. Its history of attempts to topple the regime has been well documented. Just two years ago, during a joint U.S.-Cuba conference in Havana commemorating the 40th anniversary of the failed U.S.-sponsored 1961 invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained Cuban exiles–the infamous Bay of Pigs incident–declassified CIA documents were revealed detailing how low the U.S. was willing to stoop in order to crush the Cuban Revolution. Thomas S. Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive, made public the efforts of the then-director of the CIA to convince the British government to stop selling arms to Cuba in order to force it to seek weapons from the Soviet Union. This way the U.S. could accuse Cuba of falling into the Soviet orbit, which would then justify military intervention. The U.S. then spent the next two and a half decades denouncing Cuba’s alliance with the USSR. U.S.-USSR tensions led the world to the brink of nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. threatened Russia with nuclear war if it refused to withdraw Russian nuclear missiles from Cuban soil. Throughout that period, the CIA tried to assassinate Castro countless times and used various means to sabotage the Cuban economy–including spraying microorganisms to destroy Cuban crops. (Who are the true bioweapons experts?)

Even though the Bush administration has definitely decided to take a more aggressive posture toward Cuba–and certainly it would be a mistake to completely rule out eventual military action–the likelihood that Bush, Rumsfeld and company are currently contemplating a regime change by force in Cuba is low. Even the exiled Cuban community in Florida is divided about such a prospect. And this is a community whose politics have been traditionally dominated by right-wing organizations that have stridently called for a U.S. invasion of the island for years. However, growing fractures in the politics of this community have become more evident since the Elián González fiasco–in which the most virulently right-wing sector of the community tried unsuccessfully to keep the boy (who survived his mother drowning while trying to reach Florida) from being returned to his father in Cuba during the Clinton administration. A very important factor is that after 44 years, a significant fraction of the Cuban exiles residing in Florida do not belong to the wealthy or prestigious circle of Cubans who left the island in the aftermath of the 1959 revolution. Many of them lived in Cuba and suffered through the effects of the embargo, and many of their family members still do. Before the current crisis broke out, even the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF)–the most powerful right-wing organization of Cuban exiles–was planning an April meeting between a cross-section of the exile leaders and representatives of the Cuban government.7

Today, Cuban-Americans send cash remittances back to their relatives in Cuba at the rate of $1 billion per year, and many visit their relatives frequently, with three dozen charter flights leaving Florida for Havana every week. Most Cuban-Americans reject any U.S. action that would jeopardize this interaction. So when Bush talked about punishing the Cuban government for the crackdown, he did not have much room to maneuver in terms of economic sanctions. Besides, despite the resignation of some prominent figures from the anti-embargo CPF, the lobbying for the relaxation of the embargo and other restrictions continued in Congress. Thus, on May 19, the day before Bush announced tougher measures against Cuba, $4 million in new American farm sales to Cuba were announced by U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa). And the week before, a bipartisan coalition of House representatives and senators announced that they would move to vote on completely lifting all travel restrictions to Cuba.8 In the end, the toughest measure so far undertaken by Bush has been to expel 14 Cuban diplomats, accusing them of spying. But this has been interpreted as a face-saving measure, to the disappointment of the Cuban right-wing.

When the U.S. government, and particularly the Bush administration, is intent on embarking on an interventionist campaign (e.g., the war drive against Iraq), its rhetoric and actions clearly indicate such a direction. The fact that Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld has downplayed the Cuba issue speaks volumes about U.S. intentions, given that he represents the most belligerent faction in the Bush administration:

We care about the people of Cuba, who are repressed in a dictatorship, whose people are imprisoned and killed and denied rights to speak their minds. And that’s sad. It’s unfortunate. But the American people for the most part are people who want to go about their business. And we recognize we can’t try to make everyone in the world be like we are.9

A significant component of the issue is the fact that overt military intervention by the U.S. in Cuba needs to take into consideration Cuban nationalism. If the Iraqi Shias–who had suffered abuse and wholesale massacres at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime for decades–were willing to take up arms and fight the invading U.S. military to keep it from taking over their country, it would be folly for the U.S. military and political apparatus to ignore the resistance of the Cuban population to any military attack. Setting aside the nonsense of making a direct comparison between Hussein and Castro, if there is anything that the bulk of the Cuban population is aware of, it is the more than a century of U.S. direct domination and/or siege of the island. Such a development would have major repercussions in the rest of Latin America, precisely at a moment in which U.S. policies toward the region have met with stiff resistance by mass movements that have sprung up all around the region over the past decade.

The Bush administration would like to "normalize" relations with Cuba on its own terms. Given all the contradictions described above, it still is in the process of figuring out what a more aggressive stance means in the spirit of the Bush Doctrine. For the moment, it seems intent on increasing economic and political pressure by means of a corset that nonetheless has plenty of play in it.

The right to self-determination

The latest spat between Cuba and the U.S. was accompanied by a debate within left and liberal circles about the appropriateness of Cuba’s actions against dissidents and refugees. Internationally renowned writers and intellectuals, some very well respected inside the global justice movement, offered harsh criticism of Cuba. "This is the end of the road. From now on Cuba will go on its own way, while I stay here," announced Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago. "It is very bad news–and very sad–for those of us who admired the valor of this tiny country, so capable of greatness, but who also believe that freedom and justice go together or not at all," wrote Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano in The Progressive, in an article titled "Cuba Hurts."

Several open letters began to circulate internationally, expressing contrasting perspectives regarding support or criticism of the Cuban government. One, spearheaded by Leo Casey of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), while sharply critical of Cuba’s attacks on basic freedoms, virtually ignored the long history of U.S. intervention and intimidation. For this reason, many prominent left-wing intellectuals refused to endorse it. A second letter was initiated by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy. It tried to achieve a balance between its criticism of Cuba–declaring that "the imprisonment of people for attempting to exercise their rights of free expression is outrageous and unacceptable"–and warning against the more dangerous actions of the U.S. It makes a great effort to emphasize opposition to the Bush administration’s war in Iraq and other imperialist policies, and flatly rejects any U.S. effort to undermine Cuba’s self-determination. This letter has been endorsed by many prominent and admired leftist intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Cornel West. Traditional supporters of Cuba have responded vigorously, emphasizing that the Cuban Revolution has been under attack by the U.S. for 44 years, that it cannot afford to have internal divisions used by the U.S. to regain control over the island–particularly in Bush’s new era of "preemptive wars"–and that any criticism of Cuba plays into the U.S. hands.

The question here is whether one can defend the right of Cuba–or any other country, regardless of its government–to self-determination, and still be critical of it. The issue seems to be complicated in the minds of many by the judgment they make about the nature of the Cuban regime–whether it is a beacon of hope, a courageous example or a rigid, undemocratic state. Black actor and activist Danny Glover shed some light on this issue in response to inquiries by Chicago Tribune editorial board member Clarence Page. Glover has been under attack by the right wing in the U.S. for opposing the war on Iraq, and more recently for signing on to yet another open letter that was published on May 1 in Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper–this one also signed by a collection of internationally respected writers and intellectuals, many of them from Latin America. This letter–titled "To the Conscience of the World"–is a morally charged, politically modest condemnation of the violation of the right to self-determination of Iraq by the U.S., and a warning against any attempt by the U.S. to do the same with Cuba. In an article otherwise critical of Glover’s position, Page wrote that "[Glover] defended the letter as a call for ‘Cuba’s right to self-determination,’ not as an endorsement of Castro’s human rights policies."10

This is the crux of the question. Defending a country’s right to self-determination does not imply a political endorsement of its government. The government in question may be "more progressive" or may be more right-wing. It doesn’t matter. The U.S. does not have the right to meddle in, destabilize, or invade any country of the world, no matter what fanciful or grotesque excuses it uses to justify it. Manuel Noriega was a thug, but the U.S. did not have the right to invade Panama in 1989 in what ended up being the most expensive and bloody "drug bust" in history. Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator, but all the millions who opposed the war were right in rejecting the notion that somehow Hussein’s despotism justified the U.S slaughter and the current occupation.

Unfortunately, the statement of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (CPD), while abstractly defending the right to dissent in Cuba, ignores the way that the U.S. engineered the current crisis. Given the endless history of U.S. intervention in Cuba, and all the efforts of the Bush administration to instigate the latest crisis, of those who sincerely believe and defend the right of small/weaker nations to their self-determination, how many believe that the U.S. funding and managing of the imprisoned dissidents was honestly intended to create true democracy and justice in Cuba? For this is the key issue. You cannot claim to be fighting for democracy while giving away one of the most fundamental democratic rights, the right to self-determination. It is hard to imagine that these dissidents did not know whom they were dealing with and what was at stake. Even one of the best-known dissidents, poet Raúl Rivero–who claims to have had scarce contact with U.S. diplomats–has acknowledged willingly contributing reports to Radio Martí.11 Radio Martí is a Miami-based, U.S.-funded radio station run by Cuban exiles that is so discredited that even Philip Peters, a State Department official in the Reagan and Bush, Sr. administrations, recommended that "[i]t should be moved back to Washington, placed under Voice of America control and expected to meet high standards of quality journalism and commentary."12

The CPD’s statement also ignores the fact that when you live in the belly of the beast you have to start from the recognition that there is no symmetry between the evils of U.S. imperialism and those posed by any Third World regimes. Particularly in the current climate of aggressive and unabashed imperialist expansion by Bush and Co., whatever one’s political position on Cuba may be, a statement of condemnation, however "balanced," just serves at this moment as a "left" cover for the U.S. to crank up its pressure on the island. It is one thing to have an analysis that is critical of the regime, but a different one to issue signed public statements of criticism in the midst of the post—September 11 Bush Doctrine. That places one, willy-nilly, in the service of those working to increase U.S. influence in Cuba. That is why Glover is right. Would it have been right before the invasion of Iraq to issue a statement condemning Saddam’s horrific treatment of political prisoners, or to focus on statements condemning a U.S. invasion? But it was also on this count that the CPD erred, by issuing an analogous statement both condemning Hussein and opposing a U.S. invasion before the war–in practice making the two of them equal political problems. It is not a situation that calls for "balance" when you live in belly of beast.

This is part of a fifteen-year trend among left and liberal intellectuals in the U.S. in which the practice of taking a principled and firm stand against U.S. imperialism has been eroded and replaced by "pragmatism" and capitulations to it. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the U.S. as the only superpower, increasing numbers of intellectuals fell into the trap of supporting U.S. military interventions. Camouflaged as "humanitarian" military operations under the Clinton administration, plenty of them supported at one time or another actions such as the invasion of Haiti, which disarmed peasants and other oppositionists of the military regime, the murderous intervention in Somalia, the bombing of Bosnia–which led to the largest ethnic cleansing episode of that war–and the bombing of Belgrade–in which scores of innocent civilians were slaughtered. This is why, when Bush inaugurated the first leg of his "war on terrorism" on Afghanistan, a poor country devastated by 20 years of war, many of these intellectuals supported it in the name of "self-defense" and "justice." Principled anti-imperialism has been replaced by abstract exhortations in support of "democracy" and "freedom"–a demagogic realm in which the U.S. ruling class and its media servants have unparalleled supremacy. This is a political straightjacket in which any criticism of the U.S. has to be counterbalanced by criticism of the "other side"–regardless of how this "one for you, one for me" approach undermines any determined struggle against the international abuses inflicted by the U.S.

Cuba: pregnant with contradictions

When we unconditionally support the right of Cuba to resist U.S. domination, that does not mean that we must offer political support to Castro’s regime. If it is a mistake to refuse to support the right to self-determination unless the oppressed nation meets some standard of purity, it is equally a mistake to refuse to critically assess the class nature, and the political orientation, of the Cuban regime. Many traditional supporters of Cuba argue that any criticism of the government whatsoever undermines the firm opposition that is required against U.S. imperialism. At best, advice is offered on how Castro’s government can operate more effectively to neutralize its critics. Some have argued that the executions of the hijackers could have been turned into life sentences or that the sentences of the dissidents could be shortened. Yet all of these supporters fail to look at the nature of the regime, and therefore try to sweep under the carpet–as if they could be ignored–the glaring contradictions that have always existed in Cuban society since the revolution, which have been profoundly exacerbated in the 12 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In an essay in which he defends Cuba’s right to self-determination, the sociologist James Petras argues that Cuba’s courageous and successful resistance against imperialism, despite its imperfections, places it in a moral plane beyond criticism:

What is eminently dishonest is to totally ignore the vast accomplishments of the revolution in employment, education, health, equality and Cuba’s heroic and principled opposition to imperial wars–the only country to so declare–and its capacity to resist almost 50 years of invasions…Isn’t it time that we, in the United States, with our illustrious and prestigious progressive intellectuals with all our majestic moral sensibilities recognize that there is a vital, heroic revolution struggling to defend itself against the U.S. juggernaut and that we modestly set aside our self-important declarations, support that revolution and join the one million Cubans celebrating May Day with their leader Fidel Castro?13

Following this logic, support for self-determination must also mean a political endorsement of the Cuban regime.

Readers of the International Socialist Review may be aware of our longstanding critique of the Cuban regime. We believe that the Cuban Revolution was a genuine upheaval against U.S. imperialism. But we also believe that a successful national liberation revolution in Cuba, or elsewhere, is not the equivalent of a socialist revolution. For a socialist revolution means that the workers themselves take power, and workers have never been in power in Cuba. The local councils, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, transmit government policy and sometimes act as the regimes eyes and ears, but they are not democratic instruments for setting or influencing state policy. We understand Cuba as a state capitalist society (with increasing elements of private capital, too)_in which a tiny group of people in the state bureaucracy run the whole country as if it were one huge enterprise.14

This is not a petty argument about semantics or political purism, for if the working class does not exercise power, then someone else does. Only a relatively small group of people around Castro, organized inside the Communist Party (CP), have the power to make the most important decisions in Cuban society. Arguments about the improvement in Cuba’s education and health care systems after the revolution demonstrate that, indeed, when state resources are invested in people, their lives are improved. But that doesn’t make Cuba a socialist society any more than it makes France"–or other European welfare states–into workers’ states. In none of these countries does the working class control what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed. But this is what a workers’ democracy should do. In Cuba, the CP bureaucracy has a monopoly over these decisions, and it is its prerogative to reallocate resources according to its priorities. Even in the heyday of USSR support, Cuba’s capacity to meet the needs of its population was insufficient–but the crisis of the 1990s produced a high degree of social stratification.

To pretend that a country with the limited resources of Cuba could build "socialism in one island," that it could achieve economic independence if the U.S. embargo and similar imperialist harassment were curtailed, ignores that Cuba has always depended on the international capitalist market (for example, in sugar), and that its current opening to foreign capital only immerses it deeper into that market at the expense of its working class. Rather than the destruction of the international capitalist system, its strategy is the attainment of a favorable economic niche within the international market. The global justice movement has successfully exposed over the past few years who pays the price when these are the priorities.

In Cuba, those with access to U.S. dollars have a better life. The proliferation of mixed enterprises and of totally foreign-owned companies has provided an exclusive avenue of social advancement for the bureaucrats and their relatives. Prostitution and overt racism have made a comeback, particularly in the areas where tourism is a major business.15 Perfeccionamiento is the term that has been coined by the bureaucracy to insert modern business practices into the Cuban economy.16 State subsidies of enterprises are mostly gone. Managers have acquired complete flexibility to hire and fire at will. Pay is linked to production. Prizes are awarded to "promote business efficiency and competition." Business administration is the most popular subject in universities. A peek at the intellectual production of the Cuban think tank "Cuba Siglo XXI" will reveal an impressive collection of essays and articles aimed at the improvement of management efficiency or the justification of the embrace of capitalist practices as a "tactical maneuver to advance socialism" (see http://""cubasigloXXI). Following the Chinese example, Cuba’s military "runs a tourism company, dollar stores, and a construction company, and was the pioneer in implementing market-oriented management techniques."17

Cuban unions, far from being an instrument for the defense of the most basic interests of the workers, have always been vehicles for the implementation of the priorities of management–something that any worker tired of the partnership and quality team schemes of the AFL-CIO can relate to. But even this fake kind of union is not allowed in the mixed and foreign-owned enterprises. It is politically dishonest to disregard the fact that foreign capitalists invest their money in Cuba because they expect to extract a good profit out of the exploitation of Cuban workers. With the growing social polarization, no real unions and no political vehicles to express people’s dissatisfaction, something has to give. Like the exploited in other parts of the world, those rejecting this growing inequality seek a political outlet, and a historical unwillingness by large segments of the international left to acknowledge that this leaves only one road open to those who want to resist: straight into the arms of the right-wing in Miami and their U.S. handlers.

The profound economic and social changes in Cuba over the past decade have had corresponding political effects. "This is why the capacity of the Communist Party to produce ideology and control the political sphere has been eroding," writes economist Gerardo González Nuñez.18 According to Nuñez, political disagreements with the course of the Cuban economy express themselves in three major tendencies: (1) those who want to increase the role of the market while preserving gains such as free healthcare and education–and who are fearful of the havoc that the hardliners in Miami could bring if allowed to stake a hold in the island; (2) those who want a complete immersion into market capitalism, regardless of the consequences–a tendency in which younger Cubans predominate; and (3) those who want the state to keep a tight control over the economy–a sector composed primarily of people who lived under the Batista regime prior to the revolution.

The disagreement with the regime’s policies takes a variety of forms. Some of it is inside the official government channels. The bulk of it is unorganized and kept to the level of personal conversations. And a small sector has decided to become part of those who openly describe themselves as dissidents.19 A sizable portion of these people have decided to seek the explicit support of the U.S. government and of the conservative organizations of Cuban exiles that populate Florida. This is not mere Cuban propaganda. The U.S. government acknowledges that it subsidizes some of these individuals, citing the financial hardship of its protégés due to the Cuban government’s refusal to provide work for them. The willingness of the government to allow some leeway to this sector goes back to the second half of the 1990s, and correlates with the efforts of the government to strengthen the tourism industry. However, the dissatisfaction with the state of society has always found its largest expression through emigration.

As people grow progressively desperate about their personal situation, they have taken increasingly desperate measures. Perhaps, the most tragic is the fate of those who perish at sea trying to reach the coast of Florida, some floating on top of the inflated tubes of truck tires–the so called balseros. This is what sets apart the case of the three executed hijackers from that of the imprisoned dissidents. It is a glaring example of the wide gap between the Cuban regime and the people it purports to represent. Socialists defend the right of ordinary people to move freely, regardless of national borders. It would be a scandal in the left if Vicente Fox began to execute Mexicans who illegally cross the border into the U.S. in order to avoid a mass migration crisis, yet this is what Castro has claimed as a rationale for the three executions. James Petras’ language in justifying the executions might as well have come from George Bush’s mouth:

The death penalty for three ferry boat terrorists is harsh treatment–but so was the threat to the lives of forty Cuban passengers who faced death at the hands of the hijackers. Again our moralists forgot to discuss the rash acts of air piracy and the plots of others uncovered in time. The moralists failed to understand why these terrorist desperadoes are seeking illegal means to leave Cuba.20

But what compels the Castro regime to use these methods in opposing the designs of U.S. imperialism is the hard fact that it is a government not run by its people, not controlled by its workers. This is also why Castro chose to crush the band of dissidents, while their stage manager, James Cason, sips piña coladas in the comfort of his diplomatic residence in Havana.

Cuba is a class society in which class inequality is growing much like in the rest of Latin America–even if some of those who correctly defend its right to self-determination prefer to bury their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge it. Revolutionary socialists are not in the business of advising Castro how to rule more or less effectively. This is what the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin referred to when he wrote about "the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist coloring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries."21 We believe that it is up to the Cuban working class to wrestle power away from the bureaucratic ruling class that runs its country. But this is a fight that is doubly stacked against it because it not only needs to fight against its local rulers but it also needs to guard its back against any attempts by Uncle Sam to dig in its dirty paws. Cuba’s workers will need our support when they move to challenge their rulers, and also when the U.S. threatens to use whatever means to regain control over them. If Cuban workers are to stand up to their regime and to imperialism, we need to build an anti-imperialist movement in the U.S. for them to ally with–one that takes a stand against U.S. designs on Cuba without identifying with the Cuban regime.

Héctor Reyes, a member of the International Socialist Organization in Chicago, and is a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review


1 Paul Richter, "Anti-Castro policy can cut both ways," Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2003.

2 Howard Witt, "U.S. weighs new sanctions on Cuba," Chicago Tribune, April 29. 2003.

3 Marika Lynch, "D.C. foes of Cuba embargo quit group," Miami Herald, April 24, 2003. See also the reports on the failure of Secretary of State Colin Powell to pressure the OAS at its June summit to condemn Cuba, for example, Patrick Michael Rucker, "Throughout the Americas, U.S. increasingly isolated over Cuba," Christian Science Monitor, June 12, 2003.

4 "Pide Jeb Bush presionar a la comunidad mundial para derrocar a Fidel Castro," La Jornada (Mexico), April 12, 2003.

5 Witt, "U.S. weighs new sanctions."

6 Alfonso Chardy, "Cubans receiving fewer visas," Miami Herald, April 24, 2003.

7 Andrea Elliott and Elaine De Valle, "Cuban exiles shifting hard-line position," Miami Herald, February 12, 2003.

8 Tim Johnson, "Lawmakers seek eased Cuba travel rules," Miami Herald, May 15, 2003.

9 "Meet the Press," NBC News, April 13, 2003.

10 Clarence Page, "Resist Fidel Castro’s taunts by encouraging free speech," Chicago Tribune, May 18, 2003.

11 Gary Marx, "Ex-revolutionary’s jailing vexes even Cuba loyalists," Chicago Tribune, May 18, 2003.

12 Philip Peters, "What to do about Cuba?" Miami Herald, May 19, 2003.

13 James Petras, "The responsibility of the intellectuals: Cuba, the U.S. _and human rights," May 1, 2003, available online at

14 For a more thorough explanation of this analysis see Héctor Reyes, "Cuba: The Crisis of State Capitalism," International Socialist Review 11, Spring 2000, p. 47.

15 Ron Howell, "Tourism reviving racism in Cuba," Chicago Tribune, May 18, 2001.

16 Laurie Goering, "Cuban businesses in the midst of revolution," Chicago Tribune, August 13, 2001.

17 Vanessa Bauza, "As Castro ages, brother Raul’s profile rises," Chicago Tribune, July 4, 2001.

18 Gerardo González Nuñez, "¿Se encuentra Cuba en transición? Premisas y condicionantes de la encrucijada actual," in Gerardo González Nuñez and Emilio Pantojas García, eds., El Caribe en la era de la globalización (Hato Rey, Puerto Rico: Centro de Investigaciones Sociales: Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas Editores, 2002).

19 The Varela Project is perhaps the most ambitious of the efforts undertaken by the dissidents. It is an initiative to bring about a combination of democratic changes and recognition of private capitalist enterprises through a referendum based on the current Cuban constitution. About 11,000 signatures were collected and delivered to the Asamblea Nacional. It would be a mistake to assume that everyone who has signed the Varela petition or who describes himself/herself as a dissident is willing to ally with right-wing exiles or the U.S. government. The Varela project was spearheaded by Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, who has been received coldly by hardliners in the Miami exile community who accuse him of being a collaborator of the Cuban government. He was even allowed by the Cuban government to visit Florida in January. The Varela petition can be examined at

20 Petras, "The responsibility of the intellectuals."

21 V. I. Lenin, "Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions" for the Second Congress of the Communist International, June 5, 1920, available online at"05.htm.

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