The following is a report-back from Cadre Journal contributors who were part of a recent brigade trip to Cuba.
Setbacks and Contradictions
We visited Cuba at an extremely difficult moment for its economy and society. The combined impacts of the pandemic, the additional measures taken by Trump to strengthen the blockade, and the re-addition of the country to the U.S. “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list, have caused a wave of youth emigration, fuel shortages, and other material scarcities that are affecting every part of Cuban society. Of course, from the empire’s point of view, this all means the strategy is working: Cuba today faces economic challenges not seen since the Special Period in the 1990s, challenges which make it harder and harder to maintain popular support for the Revolution.
The scarcities on the island are apparent everywhere. The fuel crisis had become so acute just before our visit that plans for the annual May Day parade in Havana had to be scaled back, in favor of smaller local rallies that would not require the same amount of mass transport. Medical students and doctors spoke to us about the shortages of medicines and equipment. The electrical grid, already suffering from the fuel shortages, is hampered by frequent failures of old equipment and an inability to acquire new parts. Similarly with heavy equipment - in our visit to Contingente Blas Roca, a brigade of construction workers, we saw dozens of heavy construction vehicles parked and idle, awaiting repair. Water and plumbing systems are degraded by broken pumps and a lack of meters. In nearly every production process we heard about, “Frankenstein” solutions to everyday problems are commonplace - a car motor being used to drive a production line, a broken magnetic sensor replaced with a simpler mechanical one. Cuba has made many recent efforts to digitize its society and improve production processes through technology, but difficulties importing and updating software abound.
Despite these challenges, at every turn there are immense efforts and heroism ongoing to change the material situation. New, domestic production of essential goods is attempted - PVC piping for plumbing and water systems, blood bags for hospitals. The blockade, the “bloodless” form of warfare being waged on Cuba, is fought in the everyday life of students, workers, professionals, bureaucrats. Conscious, revolutionary activity and unconsciousness, survival activity blend together, in different proportions for each person, and get people through the daily roadblocks. If the U.S. strategy is to kill the Cuban Revolution with a thousand cuts, it is each band-aid solution and each duct-taped repair that keep the revolution alive.
Accompanying these economic challenges are several social problems which are not unique to Cuba, but still worth examining. The tourism sector, turned to as a source of foreign currency and much-needed investment, becomes a source of inequality, and partially recreates the same dynamics that exist elsewhere, the use of the Global South countries as playgrounds for Westerners. The Cuban government recognizes this and tries to maintain control of the industry - many hotels are constructed as joint enterprises, with direct revenue sharing between the government and foreign investors. Development for tourism is confined to certain areas and does not seem to gentrify cities as a whole. But even with those caveats, the industry stands as a reminder of the difficult choices made in the name of revolutionary survival. One Cuban we spoke to expressed his hope that the role of the industry would be reduced if other parts of the Cuban economy are able to flourish once again.
Racism is still a major problem and was discussed frankly at many points during the trip. During our first event of the trip, a discussion hosted at Casa Yoruba in the center of Havana, one speaker emphasized that moments of economic crisis have the effect of increasing racism - during the Special Period, the introduction of capitalist enterprises in more parts of the economy strengthened racial inequalities and prejudices that were never fully eradicated in Cuban society but that the revolutionary government had taken many steps to address. The discourse and conversation about race is very different from here in the U.S., which is natural due to the divergent economic and political histories of the two countries, but there are Afro-Cuban cultural organizations, political organizations, and other groups dedicated to continuing anti-racist work in every part of Cuban society. Both within and without the party and government, the anti-racist struggle continues. The fundamental discontinuity of the revolution with prior governments (the basic requirement of revolution) does not mean there was a fundamental or complete discontinuity with Cuba’s history; hundreds of years of slavery, segregation, and discrimination cannot be swept away or “neutralized” by decree.
For exactly that reason, the Cuban Revolution’s approach to addressing these and other social problems, or reactionary attitudes in general, is instructive. First, there is a strong capacity for self-criticism and institutional change within the Party and government itself. Recent steps to codify and extend the rights of LGBTQ Cubans are an example of this. The new Family Code, which became law last year, is a major milestone in granting full rights and privileges to LGBTQ Cubans, children, and other groups. It could have been passed in the National Assembly without the need for a referendum: but the organizers rightly recognized that simply passing a law does not change peoples’ attitudes, and that organizing a referendum not as a “democratic checkbox” but as a political campaign of intense dialogue, political education, and mass participation was equally as important as putting the law to paper. The referendum faced counter-organizing by some religious groups, but the power of the party and other mass organizations in mobilizing support and taking conversations about the Family Code into every workplace, every school, and every neighborhood won out.
Cuba and the International Situation
U.S. Imperialism and the Blockade
As a group of activists visiting from the U.S. it was no surprise to hear many speakers’ focus on the U.S. relationship with Cuba and the possibilities for change. While other Western imperialist powers have hardly been friends of the Cuban Revolution, it is the U.S. that has taken the most aggressive approach to defeating the revolution: the blockade, the sanctions, the State Sponsors of Terrorism designation, the multi-million-dollar funding for counterrevolutionary organizations and movements within Cuba, the illegal presence of the Guantánamo Bay prison/torture camp on Cuban soil, the “Havana Syndrome” campaign, the more favorable immigration policy offered to Cubans, and the ever-present background threat of armed intervention exert a constant, heavy, and constrictive pressure on the choices available to the revolution.
There are two parallel tracks on which the Cuban government works. The first is the campaign to lift the blockade and normalize relations with the U.S. While expressing their willingness for this to take place, many we spoke to understand that if the U.S. were to do this, it would be favor of a softer regime-change playbook that uses the opening-up of relations between the countries as a way to influence Cuban society in a more insidious way. No doubt this was the intention behind the tentative steps towards normalization taken during Obama’s second term. But it is not clear that we will see a repeat of this strategy in the near future: Biden has relaxed none of the new Trump sanctions, and it is unclear what would convince him to do so, because those changes are yielding results. As one speaker said, every morning in the U.S., hundreds of people wake up and dedicate their days to making life more miserable for the Cuban people. For them, the economic crisis Cuba is currently dealing with is everything they could hope for. And despite the need to maintain some kind of hope and resolution to fight the blockade, we have to ask ourselves as activists - how exactly do we convince the worst people on the planet (those at the highest level of the U.S. empire), who represent the richest people on the planet and control the biggest weapons on the planet, to stop a strategy that is finally bearing fruit for them? That’s not to imply that a change in policy is impossible - but we cannot think in terms of “moral appeals” to the decision-makers of U.S. imperialism, and instead have to think strategically and ask under what conditions these people would change their policy. Would a renewal of Pink Tide governments or a resurgence of Latin American anti-imperialist sentiment encourage the U.S. to relax the blockade as a way of improving its image in the region? Even less radical leaders like Mexico’s AMLO have spoken up repeatedly against the blockade, but it would take a much more coordinated and material turn away from the U.S. before these symbolic statements add up to a larger political pressure. Are there any domestic political conditions that could force a change? The chastened, thoroughly reformist left-wing of the Democratic Party is both unwilling and unable to effectively challenge the Biden administration on this issue, or practically any other issue of imperialism. And even if their feeble lobbying were to win results, any progress would be reversed with the arrival of the next Republican administration (very likely in next year’s election). The ever-stronger current of anti-communism in U.S. imperial and domestic politics, fueled in large part by the bipartisan, anti-China war drive, makes relaxing measures on Cuba even more politically toxic. In short, can we even imagine a significant change in relations occurring without the general destruction of U.S. imperialism and the “rules-based international order” it enforces?
And so on the other track, the Cuban government recognizes that the blockade could be in place for not just another 5 or 10 years, but even another 60 years. It is the possibility that almost all of their practical energy and planning must focus on, because it is the reality they have faced for decades and it is the reality they must confront in order to survive one day, one year, one decade longer.
The Cuban revolutionary experiment was able to survive its first decades not only due to its internal strength but also because of the international situation. The Cold War was an era of multipolarity. To say that is not to imply that the two poles were evenly matched: looking back we can see that the U.S. almost always had the upper hand militarily, financially, economically, and in many other respects. But the Soviet Union’s (limited) ability to maintain its sphere of influence, make geopolitical interventions, and put the U.S. on the defensive in some areas, created the space and conditions for revolutionary movements to grow and take power. With regards to the current international situation, we still have a long way to go before we reach even that Cold War-era “weak multipolarity” again. For example, China and Russia have good diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, but their financial institutions are oftentimes just as unwilling to deal with Cuba, for fear of massive fines and sanctions from the U.S. The direct trade relationship Cuba was able to negotiate with the Soviet Union, and the scale of investment that brought to Cuba, cannot be seen in the trade relations Cuba has with any country currently. Cuba needs investment: it needs more apartment buildings, it needs more buses and trains and electrical substations and heavy equipment and everything else. The fact that Cuba is often blocked from trading with even friendly, ally countries illustrates how much needs to change before any alternate pole to U.S imperialism is independent or powerful enough to open up breathing room for the Cuban Revolution (or other progressive experiments).
Of course, while the Cubans realize the vastly different international situation, and the limitations of the current “anti-systemic” forces, they are supportive of even the first tentative efforts towards multipolarity. This year they are chairing the G77+China, a group of Global South countries at the U.N., and we heard words of hope about the BRICS alliance. To paraphrase one speaker, Cuba is in favor of any effort to articulate the international community in a way that challenges the current, unfair international order. The U.N. itself is recognized as part of that unfair order: the fact that only the 5-member Security Council has the power to enforce anything, from sanctions to war, while the rest of the U.N. is largely limited to pleasant-sounding words, is a testament to this unfairness.
The Global South
One of the highlights of the trip was being at several events with delegations from all over the world. The first of these, a meeting at the Contingente Blas Roca workers’ center, featured union leaders and activists from Panama to Paraguay. In the short remarks given by the delegations, the common thread of U.S. imperialism was emphasized — in its cruel and unrelenting blockade on Cuba but also its imposition of underdevelopment and suffering on the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. The same sentiments were heard in a larger conference of anti-imperialist activists and organizers. In a small breakout session, someone from the struggle in Western Sahara spoke of the Cuban Revolution as an enduring symbol of anti-colonialism; a man from Barbados spoke on the need for Western reparations to Caribbean nations and the role of Cuba as an example for the region. It is clear that Cuba is still a model, a source of inspiration, for the most progressive forces in the Global South. The guarantees to healthcare, education, safety, and basic needs present in Cuba are still out of reach for billions of people in the colonized and formerly colonized world. And the Cuban Revolution, its victory and survival, is still an enduring example of a people who have stood up and made their own history.
Cuba and Revolutionary Survival
Generations of Leadership and Youth Support
The original leaders of the Cuban Revolution - the veterans of the Rebel Army - are no longer the main force in national leadership. With that generational shift comes new challenges in politicizing new layers of cadre, and keeping the trust of everyday Cubans in the revolutionary process. In addition to the economic crisis, there are several subjective factors challenging the Revolution as it attempts to pass itself into new hands. One is the dominance of social media, and its effects on young peoples’ ideas about the world. The largest social networks are dominated by a materialist culture that flaunts opulence, wealth and individual success as the most important things to strive for. Cuba, which now has a relatively high rate of internet connectivity and mobile phone use, is not isolated from this culture, and as a small Global South country can have only little impact on this culture shaped by U.S. tech companies and Western cultural hegemony. There are steps to create alternative online spaces and communities, but these will not be able to “mute out” dominant sources of information and ideology, so the more important tool in fighting on this plane is engaging youth in real-life projects of leadership and “protagonism”. The other subjective challenge with younger generations is that they never experienced life before the Revolution: their experience of socialism, in their formative years, may be one of stagnation and crisis. Meanwhile, the images of the material abundance and opulence of the United States (the “ultimate” capitalist country in many people’s minds) flood the internet. That world appears to many youth as both physically and culturally “within reach” - it’s a dark coincidence that Miami, the closest big U.S. city to Cuba, is also a top destination and point of encounter for the upper classes of Latin America.
But as Miguel Diaz-Canel pointed out in remarks at the conference we attended, the capitalism of pre-revolutionary Cuba was not the capitalism of the United States - echoing a more Third Worldist perspective, he characterized it as a “dependent” capitalism. When compared to its capitalist “peer” states (e.g. many similar sized countries in the Caribbean and Central America), all stricken by colonialism and imperialism in various ways, Cuba’s model of socialist development looks much more attractive. Thus, the two elements needed for winning youth support of the revolution are deep participation and political education.
Mass Participation, Leadership, and Protagonism
The need for everyday participation in the institutions and campaigns of the Revolution is not limited to the youth. Everywhere, the survival of the revolution depends on a progressive deepening of the control ordinary Cubans feel over that revolution. In this struggle there are the existing mass organizations (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, Union of Communist Youth, etc), the unions, and new crops of voluntary organizations that are independent from the party but not antagonistic towards socialism. Some of the groups that have long been organizing around LGBTQ rights are an example of this last group, although their organizing was later welcomed by the party and taken up as an issue for policy change.
The unions and workplace organizations are a key institution because they are the backbone of Cuba’s ability to deal with the everyday problems of production and distribution. This critical role in the country’s survival is reflected by the constant visits of Diaz-Canel and other top government leaders to workplaces around the country. These workers’ organizations are strengthened not just by the leadership they are entrusted with (the head of the Electrical Workers’ union gives the daily radio updates on the power situation, for example), but by their ability to create fulfilling social spaces as well. The Blas Roca Contingente center, mentioned earlier, is a good example of this: the workers grow their own food on surrounding farmland, maintain a small zoo on the grounds, and generally use the center as a social space for themselves and their families. These are the institutions that will need to be strengthened and grown even further to come out of the current crisis.
The Communist Party of Cuba sits at the center of this network of unions and mass organizations. There are around 700,000 party members currently, a huge number for a country of 11 million. Each workplace selects party members from among its ranks. Democratic centralism, the guiding organizational principle of the party, was explained simply by one speaker and is not too different from the standard conception: there is maximal freedom of debate, and maximal input from everyone possible. Once that debate concludes and a decision is reached, there is unity in carrying out that decision. Its ideology today is a combination of Marxism-Leninism with Jose Marti and Fidel Castro’s thought. Marti’s emphasis on sovereignty and independence provide an obvious parallel to the Bolivarian ideology that influenced Chavez and countless other leaders of the Latin American left in recent decades. And Castro’s accumulated writings and speeches serve to apply both Marti-ism and Marxism-Leninism to the modern, post-revolutionary situation of the country.
Cuba and its Future
The relationship of Cuban youth to the revolution is probably the single most important factor in determining Cuba’s future, and how it exits the current crisis. Youth emigration was a problem that came up many times during the trip, as it acts as a barometer for many crucial problems the revolutionary process is facing. The government attitude towards emigration has changed, as they recognize the new wave of economic migration should be treated differently than previous waves. Many of those leaving are, of course, against the revolution and against the government - but many others dream of returning one day, and the Cuban government wants to bring them back too. The urgent problems facing Cuba today are both economic problems and problems of subjectivity: how to surmount the latest challenges of U.S. economic warfare and again create opportunities for highly-trained specialists to practice their trade on the island, how to engage young people and pass the torch of revolutionary leadership, how to create a sense of dynamism and a faith in the future of Cuban socialism. Everyone we heard from was preoccupied with these questions, including the sections of the youth who are staunchly pro-Revolution. There will always be those who leave and those who stay, but these are those who stay and fight. They stay and fight because they believe that, to paraphrase a recent electoral slogan, better is always possible.
Cuba’s revolution has stood for 64 years. In its early decades, it materially supported rebellions and freedom struggles from Latin America to Africa. Many failed; some succeeded. But in some ways, Cuba still stands alone. From the Malecón, Havana’s boardwalk, the blue horizon of the sea stretches endlessly. The view is beautiful but imbued with a quiet hostility - after all, the closest land over that horizon is more likely to send warships than anything else. 90 miles from the most violent country in the world, Cuba waits for us, waits for the world, to turn that sea friendly. Its people and its revolution, in the meantime, “begin again from the beginning”. Winning and losing, passing through moments of crisis and those of joy, making wrong turns and reverses and compromises, experimenting and creating and moving forward. Above all, surviving.
By Cadre Contributors