Cuba is often painted as an authoritarian dictatorship whose people live in fear and poverty all their lives. As is usually the case, these statements are backed not by credible research, but by capitalist propaganda. In this article, I want to dispel some of these myths and argue that Cuba is a shining example of socialism that should be studied and defended.
The best place to begin, I think, is with Cuba prior to the revolution. When we place modern Cuba in this context, we will see very clearly the power of socialism to uplift the oppressed and exploited. Before 1959, the country was lead by the fascist dictator Batista, supported by the United States. Batista regularly assassinated labor activists and lived in a sprawling palace, while the majority of Cuban citizens were in deep poverty. Castro and other rebels looked upon these horrible conditions and decided to put an end to them. To quote Christopher Mercer in “The Cuban Revolution,”
“On the morning of July 26, 1953, Castro made his move. For a revolution to succeed, he needed weapons, and he selected the isolated Moncada barracks as his target. 138 men attacked the compound at dawn: it was hoped that the element of surprise would make up for the rebels’ lack of numbers and arms. The attack was a fiasco almost from the start and the rebels were routed after a firefight that lasted a few hours. Many were captured. Nineteen federal soldiers were killed, and the remaining ones took out their anger on captured rebels and most of them were shot. Fidel and Raul Castro escaped, but were captured later.
The Castros and surviving rebels were put on public trial. Fidel, a trained lawyer, turned the tables on the Batista dictatorship by making the trial about the power grab. Basically, his argument was that as a loyal Cuban, he had taken up arms against the dictatorship because it was his civic duty. He made long speeches and the government belatedly tried to shut him up by claiming he was too ill to attend his own trial. His most famous quote from the trial was “History will absolve me.” He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but had become a nationally recognized figure and a hero to many poor Cubans.
In May of 1955 the Batista government, bending to international pressure to reform, released many political prisoners, including those who had taken part in the Moncada assault. Fidel and Raul Castro went to Mexico to regroup and plan the next step in the revolution. There they met up with many disaffected Cuban exiles who joined the new “26th of July Movement,” named after the date of the Moncada assault. Among the new recruits were charismatic Cuban exile Camilo Cienfuegos and Argentine doctor Ernesto “Ché” Guevara. In November, 1956, 82 men crowded onto the tiny yacht Granma and set sail for Cuba and revolution.
Batista’s men had learned of the returning rebels and ambushed them: Fidel and Raul made it into the wooded central highlands with only a handful of survivors from Mexico; Cienfuegos and Guevara were among them. In the impenetrable highlands the rebels regrouped, attracting new members, collecting weapons and staging guerrilla attacks on military targets. Try as he might, Batista could not root them out. The leaders of the revolution permitted foreign journalists to visit and interviews with them were published around the world.
As the July 26th movement gained power in the mountains, other rebel groups took up the fight as well. In the cities, rebel groups loosely allied with Castro carried out hit-and-run attacks and nearly succeeded in assassinating Batista. Batista decided on a bold move: he sent a large portion of his army into the highlands in the summer of 1958 to try and flush out Castro once and for all. The move backfired: the nimble rebels carried out guerrilla attacks on the soldiers, many of whom switched sides or deserted. By the end of 1958 Castro was ready to deliver the knockout punch” .
Although the rebels were both outnumbered and outgunned, they managed to put up a fight and deal a death blow to fascism and imperialism. This is a testament not only to the power of Leninist organization, but also the popular character of the revolution. It would have been impossible to overthrow Batista if the Cuban people had not thrown their weight behind the rebels. The revolution was an expression of the popular will of the masses, it cannot be otherwise.
So, what is the state of Cuba now? First, it has established high-quality universal healthcare, even in the face of an economic blockade that cost the country well over one hundred billion dollars. Life expectancy is an impressive 79. Infant mortality is 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared (better than the US figure of 6.0, and incomparably better than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is around 27 deaths per 1,000 live births) . Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalence rate in the Americas . There is one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba, a higher ratio than even England .
These doctors often volunteer overseas in crisis situations, in places such as Venezuela and Ecuador . The country offered to send personnel to aid the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, but they were declined . Unlike the US ruling class, which would rather let innocent people die than accept help from leftist forces, Cuba understands that it is our duty as people to aid one another as best we can. There is none of the greed and selfishness that is found under capitalism. The medical internationalism of Cuba stems directly from the socialist belief that the global working class should be united in its struggle for a better world. Contrast this with the completely self-serving “internationalism” of the Clinton family or Bill Gates. As historian Greg Grandin argued in an article in The Nation, the impacts of Clinton’s policies in Latin America of ramping up free trade, border militarization, and the war on drugs have played a part in worsening insecurity and human rights conditions in several countries. “Beyond any one country or policy, these policies fed off of each other,” Grandin wrote, noting links between privatization, displacement, and violence . These billionaires do not care about the welfare of the people. Any supposed philanthropy they engage in is meant only to extend their influence abroad. Only socialism, with its aforementioned emphasis on human needs over profit, can actually benefit the poor and exploited over the long term.
Cuba has relatedly made huge strides in medicine. Currently, their lung cancer vaccine Climax is in trials in Peru . According to UNICEF, they have eliminated child malnutrition and tuberculosis, a feat not even the US can manage .
Similarly, Cuba has an incredible education system. An article by Nina Lakhani in the Independent gives a helpful overview. In it, she says,
“Education at every level is free, and standards are high… The primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and, naturally, revolutionary history. Children are expected to help each other so that no one in the class lags too far behind. And parents must work closely with teachers as part of every child’s education and social development… There is a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, many of which have as few as 20. Secondary schools are striving towards only 15 pupils per class – less than half the UK norm.
“School meals and uniforms are free… ‘Mobile teachers’ are deployed to homes if children are unable to come to school because of sickness or disability… Adult education at all levels, from Open University-type degrees to English- and French-language classes on TV, is free and popular” .
The quality of Cuba’s education is recognized at the top international levels. For example, Cuba is ranked at number sixteen in UNESCO’s Education For All Development Index, higher than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean (and higher than the US, which is ranked at number 25) . It has the highest literacy rate in the world, at ninety-nine percent .
This is evidence of the power of socialism. Rather than putting the profits of a few above the needs of the majority, Cuba has used its resources to promote the health of the entire world. When the masses are in power, as is the case in Cuba, humanity is allowed to flourish. The socialist theory that the masses make history is what has led to the funding of cheap and high-quality education. Education in the capitalist United States, on the other hand, is but a means to create an obedient workforce. Education under socialism is about reaching the full potential of the people. This can be seen in Cuba.
Further, the legacy of racism is being wiped out. Pre-revolutionary Cuba was, in effect, an apartheid society. There was widespread segregation and discrimination. Afro-Cubans were restricted to the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst education. They suffered from differential access to parks, restaurants and beaches. The revolution quickly started attacking racism at its roots, vowing to “straighten out what history has twisted” . In March 1959, just a couple of months after the capture of power, Fidel discussed the complexity of racism in several speeches at mass rallies, saying, “In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practice discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad … and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?” .
The commitment to defeating racism has brought about tremendous gains in equality and racial integration. Isaac Saney writes, “It can be argued that Cuba has done more than any other country to dismantle institutionalized racism and generate racial harmony” .
Of course, deeply ingrained prejudices and inequalities cannot be eliminated overnight, and problems remain, especially as a result of the ‘special period’ in which Cuba has had to open itself up to tourism and some limited foreign investment. Racism thrives on inequality. However, Cuba remains a shining light in terms of its commitment to racial equality.
Assata Shakur, the famous exiled Black Panther who has lived in Cuba for several decades, puts it well when she says, “Revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice” .
Isaac Saney cites a very moving and revealing anecdote recounted by an elderly black man in Cuba. “I was traveling on a very crowded bus. At a bus stop, where many people got off, a black man got a seat. A middle aged woman said in a very loud and irritated voice: ‘And it had to be a black who gets the seat.’ The response of the people on the bus was incredible. People began to criticize the woman, telling her that a revolution was fought to get rid of those stupid ideas; that the black man should be viewed as having the same rights as she had – including a seat on a crowded bus. The discussion and criticism became loud and animated. The bus driver was asked to stop the bus because the people engaging in the criticism had decided that the woman expressing racist attitudes must get off the bus. For the rest of my trip, the people apologized to the black comrade and talked about where such racist attitudes come from and what must be done to get rid of them” . Who can imagine such a scene occurring on a bus in London, Paris or New York?
Along the same lines, Cuba has an excellent record in terms of building gender equality. Its commitment to a non-sexist society is reflected in the fact that 43% of parliament members are female (ranking fourth in the world after Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa). 64% of university places are occupied by women. “Cuban women comprise 66% of all technicians and professionals in the country’s middle and higher levels,” according to an AAWU report . Women are given 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay, with extended leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old .
A recent report by the US-based Center for Democracy in the Americas (by no means a non-critical source) noted that, “By several measures, Cuba has achieved a high standard of gender equality, despite the country’s reputation for machismo, a Latin American variant of sexism. Save the Children ranks Cuba first among developing countries for the wellbeing of mothers and children, the report points out. The World Economic Forum places Cuba 20th out of 153 countries in health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women – ahead of all countries in Latin America except Trinidad and Tobago” . I doubt that anyone outside Cuba could make similar claims.
There is also a huge amount of community spirit. Modern capitalism breaks down communities. Consumerism and individualism create isolation and depression. Poverty creates stress and family tension. Inequality leads to crime, which leads to a culture of fear antagonistic to the project developing a sense of community and togetherness. Anyone who has experienced life in a modern western city will understand this only too well.
Cuba provides a very different example. It is an exceptionally safe country, with very little in the way of violent crime. With a high level of participation in local administration, social stability, social welfare, low unemployment and a media that promotes unity rather than disunity, Cuba’s sense of community is something that visitors quickly notice.
Assata Shakur mentions this, and contrasts it with the US:
“My experience in the United States was living in a society that was very much at war with itself, that was very alienated. People felt not part of a community, but like isolated units that were afraid of interaction, of contact, that were lonely. People didn’t build that sense of community that I found is so rich here [in Cuba]. One of the things that I was able to take from this experience was just how lovely it is to live with a sense of community. To live where you can drop in the street and a million people will come and help you. That is to me a wealth that you can’t find, you can’t buy, you have to build. You have to build it within yourself to be capable of having that attitude about your neighbors, about how you want to live on this planet” .
And as another Cuban commentator notes in an article for Monthly Review, in Cuba there are,”no street kids, no malnourished faces, and people walking the streets at night with almost no fear” . This cannot be said of any other country in the region.
Although there is certainly poverty, the blame for this can be placed squarely on the blockade and the loss of trading partners like the Soviet Union, rather than on the defects of socialism. The Cuban blockade has cost the country one trillion dollars, according to a CBS report . The UN has admitted that the embargo has interfered with the country’s ability to contribute to AIDS research and other humanitarian causes. What this means is that Cuba would doubtless have the ability to drastically eliminate poverty were it not for the blockade. It is important to note the difference between poverty in Cuba and poverty in the United States. In the US, the resources to alleviate poverty already exist. The only reason they have not been utilized in this way is because it would not be profitable for the capitalist class. In Cuba, however, the resources to alleviate poverty have been denied to the people. If they were put back in the rightful hands of the Cuban people, poverty would be massively reduced. In short, poverty in Cuba is not the result of socialism, but capitalism.
It is also important to note that poor individuals in Cuba have access to benefits that many poor people in other countries do not have, such as the aforementioned healthcare and education. Housing is also leaps ahead of other societies in Cuba. Although housing is not free in Cuba, the government does take steps to keep the cost of housing low. That leads to a high rate of homeownership—around 85%. By way of comparison, the Census Bureau says the rate of homeownership in the United States was 66.9% in 2010 . This, again, can be attributed to socialism. Marxist theory holds that the State is always controlled by a particular class, and is used to protect the interests of that class. In Cuba, the state is controlled by the workers, who make up the vast majority of the population (as they do in any society). As such, the state has an incentive to guarantee basic necessities (like housing) to its people.
Worker’s rights in Cuba are leaps and bounds ahead of the United States. According to both the CIA World Factbook and the World Health Organization, unemployment is just under three percent, compared with five percent in the US. Workers have recently been granted a large degree of power within their workplaces, a feature characteristic of socialism, as well as having achieved sustainable development. In “Redefining Socialism in Cuba,” Gary Leech writes that, “In order to find alternatives to large-scale industrial farming and to stimulate production the government broke-up many large state-owned farms and turned them over to the farmers as smaller worker-owned cooperatives. The new cooperatives…increased production….” .
Even before this shift to more direct forms of workplace democracy, Cuban workers had a significant degree of autonomy in the state-owned workplaces. As far back as 1961, writes Helen Yaffe in her book Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, “the Production Assemblies involve[d] all the workers of the factory who meet democratically and put their viewpoints about the progress of industry and the plan. The Production Assembly represents a kind of legislative chamber….” . Democratic institutions extended to the workplace. Workers were not subordinated to the will of the bosses, as is the case in capitalist nations like the United States. The transformation of the workplace into a people-centered institution rather than a profit-centered one is a tremendous step forward.
Trade unions took the form of democratic structures rather than bureaucratic ones, as they do in capitalist countries. According to the 1989 Cuba Annual Report, “the union’s role as a worker-run body that…seeks to protect worker’s needs continues to be stressed” .
This emerging worker democracy through cooperatives not only existed in agricultural production, it also occurred in the selling of products. A group of community members in Belén formed the Belén Agricultural Market as a cooperative to sell produce that they purchased from a farming cooperative situated on the outskirts of the city. Communities such as Belén now enjoy an abundance of inexpensive organic fruits, vegetables and meats .
According to Cuban permaculturist Roberto Pérez, Cuba established the foundation for a more ecologically sustainable society more than fifty years ago “when the revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of the country, especially the land and the minerals, this was the base for sustainability. You cannot think about sustainability if your resources are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability” .
Cuba has been on the front lines of the fight against climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. Marxism, which sees humans and nature as inextricably bound up with one another in a dialectical relationship, demands that this be the case. Cuba has risen to the challenge, showing that socialism is the only way out of the impending environmental disaster. According to an article from Reuters on the subject of organic beekeeping,
Bee keepers in the United States, Canada and other regions have long complained that pesticides are responsible for killing their bees and hurting the honey industry more broadly.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a study in January indicating that a widely-used insecticide used on cotton plants and citrus groves can harm bee populations.
“I don’t think there are any doubts that populations of honey bees (in the United States and Europe) have declined… since the Second World War,” Norman Carreck, science director of the U.K.-based International Bee Research Association told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Climate change, fewer places for wild bees to nest, shifts in land use, diseases and pesticides are blamed for the decline, he said.
Because it is pesticide free, Cuba’s organic bee industry could act as protection from the problems hitting other honey exporters, said the FAO’s Friedrich, and could be a growing income stream for the island’s farmers.
“The overall use of pesticides is fairly controlled, he said. “Cuba has been immune to the bee die-offs (hitting other regions)” .
It is commonly claimed that Cuba is an authoritarian dictatorship under the iron rule of Castro. In fact, Cuba is far more democratic than Britain or the US. The process of decision-making is far more open to grassroots participation, and is in no way connected with wealth. One cannot expect to be successful in politics in the capitalist countries without a good deal of money behind them; political success is therefore determined largely by the whim of wealthy businessmen. Cuba, on the other hand, crafts policy based on the will of the masses.
Despite popular belief, elections do take place in Cuba, and are vastly more democratic than those in the United States. In the United States, elections are predicated on the financial backing of the wealthy, who expect return on their investment. Political representation in Cuba is nothing like this. Representatives are elected by the people, and are expected to serve the people .
The elections take place every five years and there have been turnouts of over 95% in every election since 1976. Anybody can be nominated to be a candidate for election. Neither money nor political parties or orators have a place in the nomination process. Instead, individuals directly nominate those who they think should be candidates. It is not a requirement that one be a member of the Communist party of Cuba to be elected to any position. The party does not propose, support, or elect candidates. As a result, the Cuban Parliament has representatives from across society, including an exceptionally high proportion of women .
Beyond representative democracy, Cuba also has a meaningful direct democracy. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) were formed in the early years in order to organize the population to defend the revolution. Membership is voluntary and open to all residents over the age of 14 years. Nationally 88% of Cuban people are in the CDRs. They meet a minimum of once every three months to plan the running of the community; including the organization of public health campaigns to promote good health and prevent disease; the upkeep of the area in terms of waste and recycling; the running of voluntary work brigades and providing the adequate support to members of the community who are in need of help (for example in the case of domestic disputes etc). The CDRs discuss nationwide issues and legislation and crucially, feed back their proposals to the National Assembly and other organs of popular democracy .
Looking at the Cuban system of democracy, you begin to understand the painfully shallow nature of western-style parliamentarism, where ‘democracy’ means nothing more than “the oppressed [being] allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament,” as Karl Marx put it .
Also contrary to popular belief, Cuban’s prisons are not barbaric institutions, and you don’t get thrown in them for insulting Che Guevara. Political prisoners are defined as those accused or convicted of crimes committed to achieve political objectives. In other words, they have broken the law. Such offenders are not “prisoners of conscience,” which are people engaged in non-violent activities that have been imprisoned solely for their political views. According to Amnesty International’s latest report, there are currently no prisoners of conscience in Cuba. The Ladies In White protests weekly in Havana in support of so-called political prisoners in Cuba. The US media highlighted the fact that the Ladies in White protesters were rounded up by police during a demonstration on the day Obama arrived in Havana. These arrests have been repeatedly pointed to by the media and pundits as a graphic example of how Cuba violates the human rights of peaceful political protesters. As such, it would appear that arrested members of the Ladies in White constitute prisoners of conscience. But these analysts have conspicuously ignored an important component of Amnesty International’s definition of “prisoner of conscience,” which states, “We also exclude those people who have conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own” . It is clear that Cuba does not imprison political dissidents, as is often claimed. Those who are in prison have attempted to overthrow the Cuban state. Any reasonable person would assert that they belong in jail.
Relatedly, Cuba has a very progressive prison system. As Soffiyah Elija, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, said in an interview with Guernica Magazine,
“Back in the late 1980s, I took a trip to Cuba with the National Lawyers Guild. I had never had an interest in going to Cuba. But on that first trip I had an opportunity to visit a men’s prison, and I was really struck by everything that was so very different from my experiences as a criminal defense lawyer in the United States visiting clients in prison.
When we drove up to the facility, I kept looking for what I was used to here: high stone walls, lots of barbed wire, guard towers, guards with assault weapons. And I didn’t see any of that. We pulled up to a building that looked similar to a large elementary school, and when we entered the building, there was no metal detector, which was something else I wasn’t used to. And no one was checking my bag to look for weapons or contraband, and there was no sign-in book; none of the things that I was used to experiencing when I entered a prison in the United States.
And then our guide announced that we would have, say, maybe two or three hours at the facility, and we could take a tour with him but we were not restricted to staying on the guided tour. So I wandered off with a couple of other people from the Guild, and we just went around the prison and sat in people’s rooms on their bunk beds and talked with them and literally went wherever we wanted, and that was totally different from any experience that I have had in the United States. Even as the executive director of the Correctional Association now, with legislative authority to monitor prison conditions and go inside the facilities in New York, we don’t take unguided tours of any facility. It’s very scripted where we go, and we are always accompanied by prison staff for the entire visit….You don’t have this demonization and stereotyping that we have here, where incarcerated people are so ostracized they’re like the untouchables” .
That last sentence is of particular interest to us. In capitalist societies, crime is seen as an individual phenomenon. Theft, for example, is treated as though it has no systemic causes. People do not steal because they are poor, but because they are “morally deficient.” Thus, punishment is seen as more important than rehabilitation. That is why solitary confinement, exploitation, and abuse are so prevalent in American prisons: inmates are seen as less than human. Marxism, by contrast, is a materialist philosophy. It regards social phenomena such as crime as having causes external to the people who commit them. Crime is not caused by the moral character of perpetrators, but rather by the material conditions of society. As such, prisoners are regarded as victims of circumstances who should be aided rather than demons who ought to be shunned.
Cuba, as we have seen, is not a hellish nightmare. It is rather a socialist state that is thriving even as Western imperialism attempts to undermine it at every turn. It is the duty of every communist to uphold its achievements and defend it against attacks from the imperialist war machine.
- Foreign Affairs, July/August 2010. page 69
- Claudia Lightfoot Havana: A Cultural and LIterary Comparison. 2006. p. 113
- Pedro Perez Sarduy AfroCuba. Center for Cuban Studies, 1993. p. 102.
- http://www.shunpiking.org/bhs2007/0402-BHS2-IS-readingcuba.htm Op. Cit.
- Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution. Palgrave MacMillan 2009. p. 146
- Cuba Annual Report 1989. p. 200
- http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/18/redefining-socialism-in-cuba/ Op. Cit.
- Roman 2003, pp. 103–104.
- See Garry Leech, Op. Cit.