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International Socialist Review Issue 36, July–August 2004

45 years after the Cuban Revolution

Castro’s Cuba in Perspective

SAM FARBER was born and raised in Cuba. He is the author of numerous works on Cuba, and is currently writing a book on the origins of the Cuban Revolution to be published by the University of North Carolina Press. He is also a member of the editorial board of the socialist journal Against the Current. He was interviewed by the ISR’s ANTHONY ARNOVE and AHMED SHAWKI. This web version is a longer, more complete version of the interview than what appears in the print edition of the ISR.

Can you say something about the developing dollar-based economy in Cuba?

Farber: There was always, to one degree or another, a dollar underground economy in Cuba. And it was seriously illegal. If you were a significant trafficker in dollars, you could get into heavy trouble. This changed in 1993, as the economic crisis that originated in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet bloc led to a critical situation in the country, with a dramatic drop in economic activity and even the outbreak of illnesses due to serious malnutrition. At that point, the government decided to liberalize the economy. One of the aspects of this liberalization was the legalization of the holding of dollars. This led to the government setting up exchange booths all over Cuba at which the government would pay the going rate of exchange, thereby liquidating the black market. Since it is now legal to hold dollars and the government will pay the going rate, you don’t have speculators out on the streets, as you used to see in Eastern European countries before the fall of Communism.

This change, in turn, stimulated Cubans abroad to send greater amounts of money to their relatives in Cuba. This was anticipated by the government’s strategy. But at the same time, on the downside, it helped to sharpen inequalities in Cuba. And inequalities sharpened along very peculiar lines. Working-class people in the interior of the country, and especially Blacks, are less likely to have relatives abroad. But if you are a working-class person who is able to provide certain kind of services, such as plumbing, carpentry, fixing automobiles, or driving a taxi, then you may be able to earn dollars in return for your services. By the same token, professional people, whether doctors, researchers in the humanities and social sciences, or school teachers and professors, by definition work for the state, are paid in pesos, and have no access to dollars. So a Havana taxi driver will make a lot more money than a medical doctor. Unless that doctor has relatives in South Florida, she will live poorly.

So there are many discontented people in Cuba spread across the class and racial spectrum, although again if you are a sugar worker, and particularly, if you are Black, you are likely to be doing worse than a white professional who is more likely to have relatives abroad.

And in the tourism industry, how does it work? Are people paid in pesos or dollars, and who pays them?

Joint ventures have developed in Cuba, and joint ventures means roughly the Cuban state and foreign investors go 50-50. The law also allows for other forms of foreign investment, but there are few examples of those. By far, the typical form of investment in Cuba is 50-50. An important part of the joint ventures, like those operating in tourism, is that the government maintains the monopoly of employment, with unions totally controlled by the state. That is, if you are, for example, the Tryp company, a Catalonian tourist enterprise that administers the Habana Libre Hotel (originally built as the Havana Hilton in the late 1950s with capital provided by the restaurant workers’ retirement funds), you have a contract with the Cuban government to administer that hotel. Tryp has to hire its Cuban workers through the government. Tryp pays the government for those workers in hard currency–dollars, pounds sterling, or what have you–and then the government pays the workers in pesos. The government has liberalized a little bit, allowing people in some hard-currency-earning industries to be paid a certain proportion of their salaries in those currencies. But the bulk of the payment, if not the entire payment, is in pesos.

However, many of the workers in tourism have direct contact with foreigners, and of course get tips. Essentially the government doesn’t try to control that. It would be very stupid if it did. So that is one source of the entry of foreign currency into the Cuban economy. And there are people in Havana that rent out rooms to tourists. These are better off people who have the kinds of houses that are suitable for those purposes. A growing number of these activities are illegal. As the government increasingly harasses people renting homes, tiny restaurants called paladares (taste buds), and other petty enterprises with taxes and enormously detailed regulations, these people stop registering with the government and go clandestine. These petty enterprises find it easier and cheaper to bribe government inspectors than to comply with government rules and taxes. In any case, this is another source of entry for foreign currency. Nobody knows for sure, but the estimates are that anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the Cuban population has access to foreign currency. And again, very disproportionately white people are more likely to receive it than Black people, people in the big cities more likely than people in the countryside, and so on.

That raises a question about the division between city and country, and the restrictions on mobility in terms of people finding employment.

The government is still by far the principal employer in Cuba, although there is now a private employment sector that was virtually non-existent until the early 1990s and is regulated in a different way. Nonetheless, the great majority of the people still find employment through the government, and this of course constitutes a powerful tool of social and political control. There is also government control of the movement of people into Havana. That has been going on for several years on the grounds that the Havana metropolitan area (approximately 2 million out of the 11 million Cubans) is overstretched in terms of space, water, electricity, transportation, and other elements of the urban infrastructure. This situation of decay is real and is not invented by the government. However, this measure demonstrates the enormous power of a government that can establish, and on the whole make it stick, formal population control into Havana. You cannot just pick up and move into Havana unless you can show the government that you have a job, and a certain number of square meters of space that somebody is providing you for your housing.

To what extent, however, the law is observed, to what extent it gets bypassed–that’s another question, because for many years before and I suspect since the establishment of controls into Havana, there is a population of a lot of internal immigrants. Interestingly, they use the term "Palestinian"–Palestinos–for this migrant population. By the way, Palestino has some overlap with race because the Palestinos tend to come mostly from Oriente, the easternmost province of Cuba, which is also the province with the highest proportion of Black people. And the migration tends to be from Oriente to the West, and more likely than not–although not completely–to be Black people.

It’s been over 45 years since the Cuban revolution. How would you characterize the main periods and themes of the era from the revolution to the imposition of the embargo?

The periodization, of course, can go by very different criteria. And, of course, the revolutionary struggle against Batista was very brief. And this is the remarkable thing about the Cuban revolution. Fidel Castro landed in early December,1956 with his 82 people in the boat Granma–meaning grandmother–an American boat. Not much progress was made for the first six months or so. Then, after May 1957, the rebels began to make progress in the Sierra Maestra mountains. An important step in the evolution of the struggle was the failure of the general strike in April 1958. At that point, a sharp turn was made to subordinate the urban and working-class struggle to the guerrilla struggle in the hills. Ché Guevara had a lot to do with that turn. This is an aspect of Ché Guevara’s trajectory that has been, in my opinion, underestimated. And there are political issues of interest that could be explored regarding Ché. For example, his having been an uncritical supporter of the USSR at least through the crucially important first two years of the Cuban revolution, and then his turn against the USSR, but not on issues related to the questions of democracy and workers’ control.

Within a very short period of time, after the failure of the April 1958 strike, there was a turning point in the summer of that year, when Batista’s army organized a major offensive to defeat the rebels in the hills of eastern Cuba. The offensive failed, and it was downhill for the Batista regime after that. Batista fled on December 31, 1958, and the U.S. tried to organize a military coup, but the existing political relation of forces made that impossible. So the rebels came to power on January 1, 1959. Castro put a civilian government–more liberal than radical in composition–in office for a short period of time. This government never really had power; contrary to what some people claim, there was never dual power in Cuba. That’s a bad joke. That is just some Trotskyists trying to impose mechanically the model of the Russian Revolution in Cuba, which doesn’t fit at all.

So Castro always had the power. He chose to step back for tactical reasons. It didn’t last long. He became prime minister in February 1959. And in May 1959 the government took a very major step, the approval of the Agrarian Reform Law. That was a very important point in terms of internal dynamics and the hostile position of the upper class and some middle-class elements in Cuba, and their corresponding liberal elements in the revolutionary government, almost all of which were out of office by the end of 1959. The agrarian reform also marked a major turning point in terms of U.S. attitudes to the Cuban government. From January to May 1959–I am writing a book and have a chapter dealing with this–the attitude of the U.S. government could be described as "worried vigilance," putting pressure on the Cuban government. After May 1959, it became open hostility, deciding that the Cuban government was not reformable and had to be replaced, although not yet by violent means. By the fall of 1959, the U.S. had begun to prepare for the armed overthrow of the Cuban government. The American empire simply could not tolerate an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist government, least of all in the Western hemisphere, the U.S.’s "backyard." Of course, the ruling circles in the U.S. hypocritically spoke about the violation of civil liberties and democracy in Cuba, but that was ideological window dressing for the benefit of liberal opinion in the U.S., not their real concern, which was the "loss" of Cuba. How dare they challenge us, and right on our doorstep?

So there was a period of rapid radicalization, but under the influence of the "old" pro-Moscow Communist Party and, even more important, the influence of non-party Communists such as Ché Guevara and Raúl Castro. Soon, the prevailing model of what the "good society" should look like was that of the USSR and Eastern Europe, notwithstanding all the mostly stylistic innovations that the Cuban revolution introduced. When I talk about the Soviet model, I am referring to the one-party state reigning over an almost totally nationalized economy, state-controlled unions, secret police, and so on. Make no mistake, however, this was a government that had widespread popular support; but decisions were always made from the top. It was always top down. That, again, doesn’t mean it was unpopular.

Many people confuse popular support with democracy. One thing is when the mass of the people support something, as distinct from when they support something that they also control, when they are making their own history. People in Cuba were not running institutions, taking initiatives, and so on. The system was very much of a caudillo-led system, where the leader knows best. Fidel Castro claims to be an expert in practically everything, whether it’s cattle and agricultural science, sports, or biotechnology and military strategy and tactics. In this system, "democracy" meant people applauding and cheering in the plaza at gigantic demonstrations. I think that is farcical to call that democracy in the absence of discussion, the right to independent organization, the threat of prison if you politically and ideologically stepped far out of line, and with a press totally controlled by the ruling party.

The radicalization toward an Eastern European model of socialism advanced quite rapidly. And by the summer of 1960, U.S.-owned industry had been nationalized. These U.S. investments were worth from $800 million to $1 billion in 1960 prices. Before the end of the year, most Cuban-owned industry had been nationalized, as well. In other words, by the end of 1960, two years after victory, the economy was essentially in the hands of the Cuban state. So, we are talking about a very rapid process.

The U.S. blockade of the Cuban economy actually began with the first measures against the importation of Cuban sugar in the summer of 1960. Diplomatic relations were severed in January 1961, a few days before John F. Kennedy took office. The U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion happened shortly after that in April of 1961. Kennedy could have stopped the invasion, but chose not to. In fact, during the presidential campaign in the fall of 1960, Kennedy was even more insistent in overthrowing Castro’s government than Nixon himself. All the current wishful thinking by Oliver Stone and others about Kennedy changing U.S. policy toward Cuba hides the reality that Kennedy as well as Nixon, Democrats as well as Republicans, all supported the same ugly imperialist policies toward Cuba. Even the great liberal hero Adlai Stevenson defended U.S. policy toward Cuba as Kennedy’s ambassador to the United Nations.

After the failed April 1961 invasion, you had the missile crisis of October 1962. In terms of the Cuban economy, there was the "revolutionary offensive" in 1968, when even the tiniest businesses were nationalized. I mean we are now talking about the nationalization of the small shops at the bus stops in the corners, what people in Cuba, the rest of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and New York City call bodegas. So by the late 1960s, we had an almost completely nationalized economy.

In terms of what is called the institutionalization of the revolution–the first Communist Party Congress and the adoption of a constitution did not happen until the mid-1970s. The Communist Party was not actually formed until the mid-1960s, after the major social and economic changes had already taken place. The period of the 1970s is probably when the greatest prosperity existed during the revolutionary period. I don’t think there is a causal relation here. It was just a coincidence that the price of sugar, given conditions in the world economy, was at an all time high. It rose to more than 60 cents a pound, whereas it is currently around eight cents a pound. And so the "fat cows," a term used in Cuba for good economic times, were in the 1970s.

By 1979, a bad year, economic problems began to surface. It is important to underline this, since serious economic problems began to appear before the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Thus, for example, Cuba stopped payment of its foreign debt in 1986, and has had to borrow money since then at exorbitant credit rates to finance the sugar crop and other activities. The 1970s and early 1980s were the time when Cuba adopted the Soviet methods of economic planning, after the earlier, highly centralized, "moral incentives," and Guevaraist methods had failed to achieve their grandiose ambitions and, in any case, were anathema to the Soviet planners.

By 1986, the Soviet model had also run into serious problems, so Fidel Castro got rid of it and tried to implement his neo-Guevaraist "rectification campaign," but that did not last very long, because, of course, there was the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the USSR, and the beginning of what the Cuban government called "the special period in times of peace," which is really the 1990s. I suppose we are still in the "special period in times of peace."

Many supporters of the revolution would point to the gains on education and health care as reasons to support the Cuban government. Critics point to the fact that before Batista’s downfall Cuba was already in advance of other Latin American countries in these fields. How would you describe the gains that were made in Cuba in those two fields, relative to the rest of Latin America?

Let me preface this by saying that, since the 1990s, those systems are in great crisis. With full respect to the facts, if that crisis had occurred in some other Latin American country, it would probably be worse than it is in Cuba today. The fact that it is a bureaucratic centralized system has made it possible for some minimal level of coverage to be maintained in spite of the severity of the crisis. I was in Cuba in January 2000. I visited the public high school I attended before the revolution, and it was a mess. When I visited in December 1979, the school was in much better shape–it had even been freshly painted. But by the year 2000, it was in terrible physical shape. In the hospitals, there are serious shortages of medicine, and the patients have to bring their own bedding. Here it is not primarily a question of assigning blame, but of being objective. If we are going to talk about blame, you could attribute part of it to the criminal U.S. blockade and another part to the waste and inefficiency inherent in a centralized and dictatorial bureaucratic system.

It is certainly true that the point of departure in Cuba was much, much higher than it was in other less developed countries. Take literacy, for example. Cuba was in the 70 percent range of people who could read and write before the revolution. However, and this is important, there was a big difference between the country and the city. This is common in less developed countries, but it took a particularly sharp form in Cuba. If you look at the last pre-revolutionary 1953 census, the population was 57 to 43 per cent in terms of an urban to rural ratio. So we are not talking about pre-revolutionary Russia or China, nothing like that. It is true that the criteria for urban was a little too liberal, any town with more than 2,000 people. Even so, about a third of the population was in Havana and other big cities. So we are still talking about a very large urban population, unlike China or even Russia, which was about 20 percent urban on the eve of the 1917 revolutions.

So when you look at the 70 percent literacy rate, it hides the fact that illiteracy was massive in the countryside and much smaller in urban areas. So when the revolution occurred, illiteracy was overwhelmingly a rural problem. And, in fact, the literacy campaign for the most part consisted of urban volunteers going to the countryside. You didn’t hear very much about urban volunteers going to the slums of Havana to teach literacy, although there were illiterate people in the slums, as well. The image of the early years of the revolution was of people going to the countryside to teach the peasants to read and write, because illiteracy was a major problem there.

So you have this phenomenon of uneven development that Leon Trotsky discussed so brilliantly in his History of the Russian Revolution. It was extremely severe in Cuba. You look at the media. Cuba was among the first countries in the Western Hemisphere to introduce television on a massive scale. When I hear Gil Scott Heron sing about how "the revolution will not be televised," well, the Cuban revolution was televised. And it wasn’t televised just to a middle-class audience. It was televised to the population at large, particularly in the cities.

Similarly, with health care, the doctors and medical facilities were heavily concentrated in Havana and the other big cities. So a lot of the revolution in health care had to do with extending health care facilities to the countryside, making Cuba a more integrated society, diminishing the gap between country and town, as well as addressing class inequalities in access. But there was a very big gap between the country and the city–and there still is–in Cuba. Of course, the distribution of the population has changed, since we are now talking about an even larger urban population, more than 70 percent of the total population.

In terms of comparison with other Latin American countries, Carmelo Mesa-Lago, the most important Cuban economist in exile, recently wrote a book comparing Cuba, Costa Rica, and Chile. He shows that Chile and Costa Rica are very similar to Cuba in levels of literacy, enrollment in higher education, infant mortality, and life expectancy, although Cuba does better in terms of equality of income and wealth. Of course, the question is, what kind of societies are Chile and Costa Rica? For example, they don’t have a similar racial composition to Cuba’s. So there is more than meets the eye here. What is striking about Cuba is that it extended literacy in the countryside over a much shorter period of time–there was massive campaigning on this. And similarly with health care. But a lot of it has come under tremendous stress in the 1990s–tremendous stress. And health care in particular has suffered even more than education, because it’s much more capital-intensive.

Among the supporters of the revolution are people who claim that the improvements in health and education are indicators of a move toward a more equal society–a socialist society perhaps.

Clearly the changes I just described have to be welcomed. It would be ludicrous to deny this simply because I am an opponent of the party and government now in power in Cuba. By the way, we are not talking about the revolution as an abstraction, but about a man who has been in power for well over 45 years. I fail to see what is democratic, collectivist, or socialist about that. Because, you know, there is another cop out. The regime and its supporters, particularly abroad, talk about a revolution, but the revolution is an abstract entity at this point. Instead, we are talking about a tiny group of people who are making all the important decisions in Cuba. I am an opponent of those people, not of the revolution as an abstract and general proposition. But I think it is important to be objective and fair, particularly when there are distortions and outright falsehoods for the purpose of justifying the economic blockade and other U.S. policies, you know, which obviously have to be combated. And it seems to me that in other societies, a crisis similar to the one that Cuba is going through would have even worse effects, if for no other reason than the existence of a bureaucratic, central authority that distributes resources with a modicum of effectiveness, even after discounting the enormous waste and inefficiency that goes along with bureaucracy.

Now, there is a big problem with comparing inequality in the capitalist countries with the kind of societies that the Communist states represent. As long as we use a class analysis for those societies I don’t care if you call them state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist; that is a third-rate issue to me. As long as we understand that the people in power create new ruling classes, the remainder of the argument is of distinctively much less importance. (In fact, in terms of predictive quality of what happened in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, I think that neither the state capitalist nor bureaucratic collectivist theory were anywhere near what happened.) But if you happen to think Cuba is some kind of progressive society, and there is no class in power, then we have an argument. We will have an even greater argument if you approach the Cuban rulers in an apologetic, uncritical manner regardless of whether or not you think there is a ruling class there.

But the problem with comparing inequality in the capitalist countries and in the Communist states is that inequality in this kind of society is not only expressed through amount of income and wealth, but through access–your right of access. The mass of the population doesn’t have access to certain critical goods that are distributed in an administrative, political, and extra-economic fashion. The ability to travel, for example, is not at all equally available to most Cubans. And before the dollar economy developed in the 1990s, to get certain goods, it was a question of political access to those goods. Now the dollar economy introduces a new dimension of inequality in Cuba, while at the same time reducing the political monopoly of the regime over access to many goods. So it is in fact a very mixed picture.

Are there specialized stores for party officials, as there were in Eastern Europe and Russia?

Definitely, and also specialized clinics for the political elite. Also, practically all the foreign investment in Cuba is in the form of joint ventures. And that means that there are people on the Cuban side who are joint executives with the foreign investors. Most important in this regard is the army, which is involved in substantial joint ventures in the tourist sector.

A very important development just took place recently, which, to me, is a bellwether of future developments. The Cuban Minister of Tourism, who was a civilian, was recently replaced by the army officer who was at the head of Gaviota. So the man who headed the Army tourist enterprise now runs the whole tourist section of the economy. The same thing happened a few years ago in the sugar industry when a general was appointed to run that important sector of the economy.

There are other semi-private, semi-public enterprises that are managed on the Cuban side by a number of managers who, in my view, will play a critical role in any future transition in Cuba. There’s Cubacel, Etecsa, Cubalse, and many others. There are a whole bunch of acronyms that are the names of the joint enterprises. One of the biggest citrus plantations in the world is located in central Cuba and is owned by a Cuban-Israeli joint venture, the same company that also owns the Miramar Trade Center in Havana, the biggest office complex in the island. This is paradoxical since Israel has had no diplomatic relations with Cuba since the 1970s and is one of the two or three countries still supporting the U.S. at the annual United Nations vote condemning the blockade of Cuba. I think that Fidel Castro, in order to survive, has created a Pandora’s Box, since the Cuban executives supposedly working for the Cuban state are meanwhile creating links with big international capital. And some American businesses would definitely like to go in. That brings up another issue about the massive export of agricultural and processed food to Cuba in the last three years or so. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars during the last three years, particularly of Midwestern origin and shipped through the Port of New Orleans. So, again, the joint venture sector is already creating a group of people who will be major players once Fidel Castro passes from the scene. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro does not allow these people, nor anybody else for that matter, to openly push for their own views and perspectives. In other words, differences are being suppressed, but that doesn’t mean they are being eliminated. I don’t believe that Raúl Castro will be in a position to have his older brother’s power, influence, and prestige to stop interest groups from organizing themselves politically. Besides, there are reasons to believe that Raúl Castro himself is strongly oriented to what could be called the Chinese model–that is, political repression combined with a greater opening to capitalist enterprise.

Can you say something about political rights in Cuba?

If you stand up for your independent ideas, you are going to get into trouble in Cuba. I personally know people who were sent in academic exchange programs abroad and got into trouble when they returned to Cuba for things they said in public that were not in keeping with the party line. And these people were in no sense opponents of the regime, just independent-minded people. So it is a politically oppressive regime. If you are not a political person and just keep your head low in order to survive from one day to the next, then it is unlikely that you will have any serious trouble in Cuba. But a politically conscious but independent thinker–I am not even talking about being an oppositionist–will sooner or later get into trouble in Cuba, unless of course they accept the limitations imposed by the regime.

What does "trouble" mean?

Trouble can mean a whole range of things, ranging from a prohibition of traveling abroad–typically a five-year prohibition imposed by the party, not judicial authorities–to being demoted and losing your job, or at the very least not being able to be promoted because of holding the "wrong" political attitudes, which until 1991 also included engaging in religious activities. Keep in mind the very serious consequence of being fired by the state, the country’s main employer, and practically the only employer until a little over a decade ago. If you become an active opponent or dissident, then you run a number of other risks, including of course imprisonment. A few years ago, the government also used to organize actos de repudio–repudiation acts–where people would "spontaneously" gather and throw stones at the homes of dissidents. If you look at political groups in Cuba, there is also a very long history of government suppression of those groups. I wrote an article for Against the Current in 1983 in which I listed some of the groups that had been suppressed throughout the years. This ranged from Black Power supporters to pro-Soviet, pro-Moscow Communists. The tiny group of Cuban Trotskyists (Posadistas) were in prison for several years after their literature and printing press were seized by the government. They were eventually released on condition that they cease independent political activity. This is a telling example. They were told something like, "We know you are not counterrevolutionaries, but we cannot permit you to operate independently. So we’ll let you out if you promise to restrict your activities to the existing official organizations approved by the state." They had no choice but to fulfill their part of the bargain, and they have been left alone since then. But they cannot organize independently. That is the issue, which is of course far more important when it comes to the ability of workers, women, Blacks, gays, and others to create their own organizations.

What has bothered me for many decades is that progressive people abroad who would never tolerate such prohibitions in their own societies are quite willing to look the other way–if not applaud–when it comes to Cuba. I find that attitude to be either cynical or morally and politically cowardly and irresponsible.

Could you discuss the status of Blacks, women, and gays in Cuba?

Let’s take the issue of race first. Since the 1990s, Black Cubans have had particular problems because they tend to be, of course, much poorer, and are less likely to have access to dollars. So Blacks as a group have suffered more in the period since the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The Cuban government’s policy can be defined, in U.S. terms, as color blindness, real color blindness and not fake color blindness. They don’t have a policy of affirmative action. Blacks have benefited from the color blind policy to the extent that segregation in certain types of employment and access to beaches and other private and public facilities were eliminated in the first years of the revolution. Since Blacks have been a disproportionately large part of the Cuban poor, they have benefited from measures of benefit to poor people, particularly in terms of health, access to higher education, and so on. As a result, there are, proportionately speaking, many more Blacks in positions of influence and power that there were before the revolution.

At the same time, however, the absence of an affirmative action policy since the very beginning of the revolution has had a very significant and negative effect. The highest levels of government are still predominantly white, well above the white percentage of the population at large. A recent article by Henley C. Adams in the Latin American Research Review (February 2004) painstakingly documents the relatively small proportion of Blacks in the Political Bureau and Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, as well as in the Council of Ministers and among top officers of the Armed Forces. I keep an eye for the photographs that appear in Granma and when they report on Cuban scientific congresses, and I see relatively few Black faces. Yet when I see the pictures of baseball players and boxers, they are practically all Black. Yet other sports such as swimming are heavily white. So it begins to feel somewhat like the U.S.

Is this racism, as many supporters of the Cuban regime maintain, a merely attitudinal and educational problem? No, it is much more than that, since it is rooted in the unequal and inferior position that Blacks still occupy in Cuban society.

The issue of gay oppression is an area where there has been some improvement in the last several years, because of the liberalization–not political, but cultural liberalization–that has taken place in Cuba. And there are some interesting magazines that come out of Cuba–La Gaceta de Cuba published by UNEAC, the writer’s and artist’s union, and Temas, published by a research center. Unfortunately, these are magazines only for an elite readership of intellectuals, social scientists, and artists, but they have published articles and even covers that convey gay themes in a sympathetic and favorable light.

There has also been some relaxation on the treatment of people with AIDS. As you know, the Cuban government had previously established the compulsory quarantining of AIDS patients.

Does that mean that Cuban gays as a whole can come out of the closet and function freely? No. Again, the most important issue is that neither gays, nor Blacks, nor women, and certainly not workers, can organize independently from the official state organizations.


I just read a couple of days ago that Raúl Castro’s daughter had proposed an amendment to the Cuban Constitution granting equal rights to gays. Don’t hold your breath, but we will see.

There is unfortunately much less to report on the issue of women. The official Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) headed by Vilma Espín–Raúl Castro’s former wife–continues to monopolize the organization of women. As a result, Cuban women have unfortunately fallen far behind the organizational and political development of the women’s movement in Latin America and practically everywhere else in the world.

To what extent was the Cuban economy dependent upon a subsidy from the USSR? And what happened with the cost of that subsidy?

In my New Politics interview on Cuba (Summer 2003), I pointed out that the world market is not a natural phenomenon, but rather it is a social arrangement based on objective realities–the law of value and all its implications. It is a very powerful and crushing arrangement, but still a social arrangement for which there is a potential alternative social arrangement–that is, a democratically planned international socialism. So when we talk about subsidies, we are speaking in terms of the really existing world market. By the criteria of the world market, obviously there was a massive subsidy by the USSR to the Cuban economy. And there are two issues here. One is the issue of equity–what people should be paid for agricultural processed products such as sugar, and there is the issue of the world market, which is not about equity and morality.

By the criteria of the world market, the Cuban economy was heavily subsidized. In the years preceding the collapse of the Soviet bloc, this often took the form of the USSR exchanging oil for Cuban sugar. This oil was more than Cuba could use, and was resold for hard currency in the international market. In other words, this was an indirect subsidy through the exchange of oil for sugar, with Cuba reselling the surplus oil to other customers. Going back to the 1960s, there were several ways in which the USSR subsidized the Cuban economy, although it must be noted that the USSR and the Eastern European satellites also unloaded a lot of pretty worthless stuff on Cuba, as well.

But you understand the problem with using this vocabulary. Because in what context are we talking about subsidy? We are obviously talking in the obvious context of the unplanned capitalist chaos of the world economy. And, of course, once that "subsidy" disappeared, then there was a massive economic crisis in Cuba, with a descent of the GDP by more than 35 percent in a very short period of time. The Cuban economy hit bottom in the years 1992 to 1994. When I was in Cuba in January 2000, one of the striking and somewhat unexpected things I encountered was that everybody, regardless of their attitude to the Cuban government, spoke about the period from 1992 to 1994 as a traumatic period for them, with incredible hardship. That’s when things really hit bottom and people sometimes had nothing to eat for dinner. People told me awful stories. One friend told me that there were times when all he had for dinner was a piece of coleslaw. And there were illnesses, even an epidemic, resulting from malnutrition.

The Cuban economy emerged somewhat from that, but there has certainly been no breakthrough since then in terms of economic performance. I communicate with people in Cuba and it is still a big thing to get enough food–not like 1992 to 1994–but it is still a major investment of time and resources to stay adequately fed. And particularly for people I know who live outside of Havana, there are constant blackouts. There are also frequent water shortages. It is a very difficult life. And one thing that I’m particularly impressed by, and is very relevant to the issue of transition, is the tremendous frustrations, especially of young people, who see no change happening. And they see–I am quoting them–"my life is being wasted away because I see no prospect for change in the future. And I don’t want to continue living like this forever"– continued shortages, hardships, blackouts, deterioration of housing, and tremendous efforts to feed yourself adequately, shortages of water, repeatedly going to the hospital to get promised medical supplies, and so on. So for young people, the crisis has had a particular impact that could demagogically be used in the future in all sorts of terribly manipulative ways. I’m generally concerned about that as one particularly important aspect of the future transition after Fidel Castro dies. I frankly have a pessimistic outlook.

Are you pessimistic because you don’t see any possibility for a left-wing or working-class alternative to Castro’s regime?

The center of gravity of the political spectrum among the dissidents in Cuba is very much right of center, although it must be emphasized that they are a small and marginal group. This is no different from the USSR and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There are a couple of small, social democratic groups. And there are individuals here and there who are independent leftists and literally a handful of Trotskyists. But the shift is going to be in a pro-market direction. By the way, the main pro-market push is not going to come from the dissidents who have been unjustly sent to prison, but from the still invisible Boris Yeltsins and Vladimir Putins inside the Cuban government. And of course, the obviously pessimistic scenario I see is that the powerful sections of the army that are involved in the joint ventures with foreign capital will come to terms with at least sections of Cuban capitalism in Miami. We have certain precedents such as Nicaragua. If in Nicaragua, President Chamorro and the other pro-capitalist elements had to come to terms with the Sandinista army headed by Humberto Ortega, that will be the case even more so in Cuba, since the Cuban army is a far more developed and powerful an institution than the Sandinista army ever was.

So there will likely be some kind of deal between at least some of the important Cuban capitalists in Miami and the armed forces in Cuba. And the form is going to take is that the people in the armed forces in Cuba are going to say to them: "You are welcome to come to Cuba and make every dollar you can, but we run the show." And I think that a good chunk of the Cuban-American capitalists in Miami, who have no roots in Cuba, since many of them were born in the United States, are going to go for it.

Of course, I don’t know when exactly that will happen. And I sure hope something better happens in Cuba.

Why won’t Miami dominate Havana when Castro is gone?

In order for the Miami Cubans to take over Cuba, there would have to be a U.S. invasion of the island, which would necessarily have to involve hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. The only time that a U.S. invasion of Cuba was ever seriously considered was during the missile crisis of October 1962. It is important to point out that at the time the Pentagon prepared an estimate for the White House indicating that there would be 18,484 U.S. casualties (killed, missing, and wounded), 4,462 of which would come the first day of the invasion. Of course, current technological and political conditions would probably alter that estimate, but it does give you a ballpark idea of what might be involved. I don’t rule out such a possibility, but I think it is unlikely unless a major civil war and chaos were to break out in Cuba, and the U.S. government felt that there might be a major refugee crisis unless they intervened militarily in the island.

What many in the U.S. left fail to understand is that ever since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cuba’s importance has dramatically declined in the eyes of Washington. What keeps the issue alive is the electoral weight of the evenly divided state of Florida. As far as the U.S. ruling class is concerned they would end the blockade tomorrow and rush to invest in the island before the Europeans and Canadians had left nothing to invest in.

What do you make of Bush’s recent measures to restrict travel to the island by Cuban-Americans and the inflow of dollars? Is this just politicking for right-wing Cuban votes in Florida, or is there something more to it? What do you make of Castro’s response?

First of all, the recent measures adopted by the Bush administration are outrageous and must be unconditionally denounced. The fact that they were primarily, although not exclusively, motivated by electoral considerations do not make these measures any less an example of imperialist arrogance. I have been arguing for some time that the issue of remittances and visits to Cuba is where the Bush administration would hit Cuba and not the supposed invasion that many supporters of Castro abroad have been raising as a way of politically blackmailing and silencing critics of the Cuban government. Along the same lines, Castro is entirely correct in denouncing these measures but is using the threat of a supposed invasion to justify repression at home. The fact that an invasion is not in the cards doesn’t mean that the U.S. left should be complacent. We must be vigilant and quick to protest the continuing efforts by this and other administrations to violate Cuba’s right to national self-determination.

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