In the aftermath of recent protests in Cuba and ongoing efforts by US elites to intervene on the island, Brian Kelly argues for a principled opposition to the threat of imperialist intervention and against the uncritical attitude adopted by much of the Left towards the Cuban bureaucracy.
The outbreak of street protests in cities across Cuba on the 11th of July has sparked confusion and intense debate on the global Left. Many across the world, who have rightly drawn inspiration from the island’s refusal to bow the knee in the face of relentless US aggression over more than sixty years, have adopted a completely defensive posture, regurgitating the cynical line being pushed by the ruling Cuban Communist Party (PCC).
Since the protests the government has attempted to reduce the events to an attempted ‘colour revolution’ hatched by US intelligence and its Miami foot-soldiers, and involving a handful of paid agents – alternately described as ‘mercenaries’, ‘vandals’, ‘delinquents’ – on the island itself. Meanwhile, much of the bourgeois media in the US and elsewhere has dutifully followed the script presented by well-heeled right-wing Cuban-Americans, who are eager to portray the upheaval as the beginnings of an uprising against ‘communism’ and for US-style ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’.
While, as I will argue, there are elements of ‘truth’ in both depictions, neither of the interpretations now circulating in the news and on social media can offer a credible analysis of the movement that has emerged over recent weeks, much less explain where the upheaval emanates from in Cuban society or what it might hold for the future.
For a global Left committed both to principled anti-imperialism and to an egalitarian vision of workers’ democracy as an essential element of the socialist emancipatory project – a democratic vision which has never been realized in post-1959 Cuba – an honest and comprehensive analysis of the dynamics at work in Cuban society today is sorely needed.
Any credible assessment must begin by acknowledging the historical significance of the July 11th demonstrations. The Cuban state, controlled by the PCC and led since 2019 by President Miguel Díaz-Canel, has devoted considerable effort to downplaying their importance and misrepresenting both their composition and motivations.
Part of the difficulty in getting an accurate picture lies in the state’s monopoly over communication, enforced since the protests with a clampdown on internet access. Even by the most cautious estimates, however, the protests represent the most significant non-state mobilisations in the post-revolutionary era, eclipsing the 1994 Maleconazo in Havana, which ended only after the personal intervention of Fidel Castro and triggered the Mariel exodus.
In this sense the July 11th protests are evidence of a genuine, deeply-rooted and maturing crisis of the Cuban state, and not merely a flash-in-the-pan conjured by shady elements attached to the US State Department.
The upheaval affected many major towns and cities across the island, involving several thousands of ordinary Cubans. Credible reports from Havana and its outskirts suggest that demonstrations there involved significant numbers from the poorest neighbourhoods, including substantial numbers of Afro-Cubans, and were made up overwhelmingly of young people.
Politically the mobilisations varied in their demands: although the facile slogans promoted by Miami-based social media [‘libertad’; ‘patria y vida’; ‘abajo comunismo’] seem to have dominated at the outset, the ranks of the protests were heterogeneous and – unremarkably – focused mainly on the most direct and tangible sources of current frustrations. Significantly, anger seems to have been directed mainly against the MLC (dollar) stores, at police headquarters and (in Havana) at tourist hotels.
Although the majority seem to have passed without serious confrontation, there was some violence (incited both by protestors and by state security and PCC cadre) and one fatality – a 36-year-old Afro-Cuban man from Arroyo Naranjo on the outskirts of Havana. Hundreds have been detained – many of them very young – and there are credible reports of beatings and serious mistreatment in custody.1
It is undeniably the case that the US government and the array of heavily-funded Cuban-American opposition groups that it sponsors in South Florida played a role, through social media, in encouraging the initial mobilisation through promotion of the hashtag #SOSCuba, making use of an army of ‘bots’ to convey an impression of imminent collapse, and reinforcing calls by right-wing politicians like Republican Marco Rubio for a ‘humanitarian corridor’, ostensibly to relieve the intense suffering facing ordinary Cubans. Rubio was in turn outflanked by the mayor of Miami, who called for air strikes.
These attempts to exploit the real frustrations of Cubans are consistent with the utterly cynical policy of the US over many years – from the debacle of its failed invasion at Playa Girón (the Bay of Pigs) in 1961 to the numerous, often farcical plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, well-documented attempts at biological warfare and sponsorship of open acts of deadly terrorism against Cuban officials and civilians. Though their involvement in stoking confrontation is undeniable, it is misleading to suggest – as the Cuban government has – that the protests can be reduced to a counterrevolutionary ‘soft coup’.2
The US Blockade: Punishment for Defying the Empire
In analysing events, the Left outside of Cuba needs to acknowledge, plainly and without equivocation, the active, ongoing hostile role of US imperialism in seeking to make Cuba pay the price for its defiance of the American empire over many years.
Just as in the past socialists have opposed US sanctions against Iraq, and do so today in the cases of Venezuela or Iran, this fundamental anti-imperialist principle does not rest on a political endorsement of whichever regime the great powers have in their crosshairs. Any honest reckoning would have to acknowledge that, far from being wielded in pursuit of ‘freedom’, the American blockade has been imposed unilaterally, in the face of global opposition, as a punitive measure aimed at sending a clear message to the Cuban people and to any others who would dare follow their lead that there is an exorbitant price to be paid for defying American power.
Moreover, this hostility is not part of some distant history: at this very moment, in the midst of a devastating global pandemic, the blockade means that despite some remarkable achievements from their own socialised health system, ordinary Cubans will literally die for lack of access to ventilators and even syringes – both blocked under terms of the US embargo. Spare us Biden’s crocodile tears, then.
What is needed is not a ‘humanitarian corridor’ overseen by the very perpetrators of the blockade, but an immediate and unconditional lifting of the criminal embargo, with reparations for the damage it has done over many years to the Cuban economy.3
Recent events have clearly exposed both the imperial continuity driving the Biden administration and the perils that – left unchecked – can only weaken a growing US Left that places its faith in the Democratic Party. Biden has, of course, shown no inclination to reverse the harsh additions to the blockade introduced under Trump and Pompeo, and his administration is stacked with hardliners who seem happy to double down on its cruel legacy.4
There are clear indications that, like others before him, Biden’s approach to Cuba is being driven not only by his long-standing commitment to empire, but by perverse electoral considerations. Fearful that the Democrats will shed votes in South Florida if they break with a policy that has never delivered anything but misery, the White House is taking its lead from the most fanatical far-right elements in the Florida emigre community.
The glaring inconsistency between Biden’s sanctioning of Cuban defence officials for their role in repression and his hearty endorsement of regimes that have committed far more serious human rights violations in Israel and Colombia exposes the base hypocrisy at work.5
Inside Cuba: Socialism without Democracy?
As it happens, however, the enemies of our class enemies are not necessarily our friends. The nature of the deep crisis that is unfolding in Cuba should compel the Left internationally to take a hard look at many of the assumptions that for too long have gone unquestioned about the nature of Cuban society under PCC rule. Some supporters of the Cuban government act as if the clock stopped in 1959, and we had no evidence over the years since to measure the record of those claiming to build socialism.
The reality is that after a brief period of relative openness following the Revolution’s triumph, Cuba – for many years under the unaccountable rule of a single leader, Fidel Castro, and subsequently by his political heirs – has reeled from one economic crisis to the next, with limited space for workers’ democracy – always at the whim of the PCC and narrowed, in recent years, to the point of non-existence.
Among its defenders internationally, the blockade is often deployed as a cover for all of the regime’s internal shortcomings, but among many Cubans fed up with endemic bureaucratic inefficiency, and with growing corruption and inequality, such claims are viewed with derision.6
While it is certainly the case that blockade and persistent external hostility have shaped the overarching context in which the Cuban economy has developed since 1959, the very economic problems that have plagued Cuba since the revolution’s triumph are rooted, also, in a system of bureaucratic rule that leaves little or no room for genuine democratic participation.7
The evidence for this is there in the very first major crisis, triggered by the spectacular failure in 1970 (despite massive sacrifices among ordinary Cubans) to fulfil Castro’s goal of securing a ten-million-ton sugar harvest. The debacle of La Zafra de los Diez Millones had long-lasting implications for the economy, and brought a definitive end to attempts to chart a course semi-independent of the USSR – including in Cuban foreign policy.
The campaign revealed also the limitations of democracy in Castro’s Cuba. The ‘popular organizations’ created in the Revolution’s early years played a key role in mobilising labour (and here the genuine enthusiasm of the post-revolutionary period was a major asset) but had no real say in setting targets or planning production – these were decided by the PCC leadership or, more often, by Fidel himself.
At various junctures (as in the ‘rectification campaign’ initiated by Castro in the late 1980s to forestall the kind of implosion then unfolding in the USSR) the state-dominated trade unions (CTC) have been deployed in internal fights within the ruling bureaucracy, but their key role has always lay in transmitting orders given from above and ensuring production targets are being met rather than in defending workers.
Abroad, Cuba managed to retain the image of an alternative path – ‘socialism and sun’ – but the harsh reality is that from the early 70s onward much of the stifling political culture of the Stalinist states in the ‘Soviet sphere’ in eastern Europe was imported wholesale, including their approach to matters of internal security.
A Many-Sided Crisis
The recent upheaval – exceptional in scale by Cuban standards but still modest in size, and without deep organisational roots – signals the growing maturation of a crisis rooted in prolonged economic freefall.
The evolution of the current crisis is best understood in two phases: the onset of long-term economic decline triggered by the collapse of the USSR and the withdrawal of Russian oil and energy subventions; and the harsh intensification of hardship evident over the past several years, aggravated by a sharp decline in access to Venezuelan oil, the ratcheting up of US sanctions under Trump, and the near-total reduction of tourism in the period since the onset of the Covid pandemic.
In both of these trends we see the same dynamics at work: an overarching context of economic crisis shaped by blockade, and within that the strategic miscalculations for which the ruling Party bears overwhelming responsibility. The PCC under Raúl Castro and now under Diáz-Canel has been moving in the direction of the Sino-Vietnamese model of ‘market reforms’ which, in Sam Farber’s words, ‘combine a high degree of political authoritarianism with concessions to private and especially foreign capital.’8
The turn to tourism as a critical source of foreign currency from the early 90s and the shifts brought on by the opening up to dollar remittances for Cubans with family outside the island gave rise to imbalances and growing inequalities. Significantly, the low proportion of black Cubans without family to support them in the diaspora, combined with evidence of racial discrimination in the tourist sector meant that Afro-Cubans were disproportionately represented among those ‘left behind’ by the new turn. This partly explains their prominence in the street mobilizations on July 11th.
The impact of added deprivation in the era of pandemic has dramatically intensified these disparities, and plunged many more Cubans into very dire circumstances. In explaining this new hardship we must recognise not only the external pressures but also the blundering of state bureaucrats and the skewed priorities pursued by those directing the economy.
The Cuban economist Pedro Monreal has demonstrated, shockingly, that over the whole period of two years in which the threat posed by the pandemic has been obvious, state planners poured an increasing proportion of state resources into the tourism sector while significantly reducing resources in health and education.9 Here is a dramatic example of the absence of democratic planning and its tangible impact on the daily lives of Cuban workers.
The remarkable achievements of the Cuban biotech sector in developing vaccines and the internationalist solidarity shown by Cuban health workers globally thus stand side-by-side with fairly low levels of vaccination across the island, and now with a surge that in places like Matanzas has led to a near-collapse of hospitals. There are indications, moreover, that a premature reopening to tourism may help to explain this surge.
The anger over the state’s response to Covid in Cuba is therefore qualitatively different to the right-wing demonstrations we have seen elsewhere: among Cubans who have grown up immensely proud of their health system, many blame the state for depriving hospitals and health workers of the resources needed to combat the virus.
All of this is taking place in a context in which the post-Castro leadership of the PCC faces a crisis of legitimacy, and which sees a growing gap between youth aspirations and a sclerotic Party bureaucracy seemingly incapable of delivering reform.
In light of this intense and many-sided hardship, and in the face of a government which does not seem capable either of charting a clear path out of crisis or of speaking honestly to the poorest sectors in Cuban society, it is no surprise that some of this anger found its way into the streets on the 11th of July. It is not only mistaken but dishonest to characterise this as a manifestation of ‘counterrevolution’.
The Right and the Emerging Left
The counterrevolutionary organisations based in Miami – who do not conceal their hopes for regime change – have angled in the aftermath of the July 11th protests to claim the emerging movement as their own, and to characterise it in traditional anti-communist terms. The shallowness of their grasp of events is on clear display in a recent debate on Al Jazeera, where Rosa Maria Paya of the Florida-based Cuba Decide struggled to justify support for the US blockade and dismissed claims that participation in the July 11th protests was driven by economic desperation
To date, however, too many on the global Left have parroted the PCC line, which itself accepts all the key claims of the Cuban-American Right. The problem here, as an important contribution from the island-based left-wing blog, Comunistas, points out, is that:
To reproduce the argument that the thousands of protesters on 11 July were counter-revolutionaries is to give the counter-revolution a victory that does not belong to it. To reproduce the argument that the 11 July demonstrations were prepared by the counter-revolution is to cede to the Right a capacity for organisation and mobilisation that it does not have.
Only from a critical, Marxist analysis can one understand what happened on 11 July. The uncritical position only isolates the government from society and strengthens counter-revolutionary political propaganda. It is urgent for the Cuban government to analyse what it has done wrong and to explain this publicly.
The masses are tired of hearing how everything is blamed on Yankee imperialism. The majority want to hear the government carrying out a profound self-criticism, recognising that 11 July is largely a product of its mistakes. Such a gesture would grant significant political legitimacy to the leadership — but the bureaucracy’s closed off arrogance impedes that.
Such an analysis, from left-wing Cubans keen to defend the real gains of the Revolution, offers a profound corrective to the simplistic analysis being peddled by the Cuban and American annexationist Right, and by an increasingly out-of-touch Cuban ruling elite governing in the name of communism. ‘To ignore the fact that those who joined the protests on 11 July came from the sector that was hardest hit economically,’ Comunistas warns, ‘is to head for something similar in a few months’.
A credible assessment of the present juncture in Cuban society has to acknowledge both the long-term sources of popular frustration, dating back to the major shifts undertaken after the collapse of the USSR – and the sharp intensification of the crisis in the context of pandemic and a government-led march toward increasing inequality.
For those keen to defend the tangible gains of the Cuban revolution – in health care and education, in upholding national sovereignty – it is critical to recognize that today these are under serious threat from both internal and external forces. Otherwise, as an editor at La Joven Cuba has warned, ‘the workers end up identifying socialism as an inefficient and repressive system, and then they end up as if to say “Look, don’t talk to me about socialism because I don’t want that”’.
In the unfolding Cuban crisis the Left internationally faces complex strategic challenges, and needs to plot a path that upholds both genuine and consistent anti-imperialism and the principles of international working-class solidarity. That means extending our hand to Cuba’s growing independent Left and to workers on the island who deserve our solidarity in seeking to build a dynamic socialist democracy.
For the emerging Cuban new Left, the new juncture poses real opportunities and challenges in equal measure. The events of July 11th demonstrate the possibilities for breaking out of the confines of sometimes highly problematic ‘dissident politics’, and also the need to build a movement that begins to relate to the mass of Cuban workers looking for something better.
This will demand drawing a clear line between the poisonous antics of the Cuban-American Right and a movement for workers’ self-emancipation rooted among those who have not bowed down before Washington.
- See ‘Abuse of Protestors in Cuba, in La Joven Cuba (19 July 2021): https://jovencuba.com/abusos-manifestantes/
- For a balanced summary of the forces involved, see “About the protests on July 11th,” in Comunistas (17 July 2021): https://www.comunistascuba.org/2021/07/acerca-de-las-protestas-en-cuba-del-11.html
- The Latin American regional body for the UN (ECLAC) recently estimated economic damage done through the US embargo at $130b. See https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-economy-un-idUSKBN1IA00T.
- See Danny Glover, ‘Biden’s Failure to end Trump’s War on Cuba is Threatening Lives,’ The Nation (29 June 2021): https://www.thenation.com/article/world/cuba-coronavirus-embargo/
- ‘US Sanctions Cuban Officials over Crackdown on Protests,’ CNBC: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/22/us-sanctions-cuban-defense-minister-special-forces-over-crackdown-on-protests.html
- Janette Habel offers an extended critique of corruption at the highest levels of the Party and state in Cuba: Revolution in Peril (Verso, 1991): 177-99.
- Glenda Boza Ibarra, ¿De qué no tiene la culpa el bloqueo? (2021). https://eltoque.com/de-que-no-tiene-la-culpa-el-bloqueo
- Samuel Farber, ‘Why Cubans Protested on July 11th,’ In These Times (27 July 2021): https://inthesetimes.com/article/cuban-revolution-protest-july-united-states?fbclid=IwAR3ITCOExNQJLb-Vo7huwk_PdrR8X_ThcDFp6E824Q_2z2Mo-m7I8TBIekc
- Monreal writes on social media that ‘a dynamic of investments ranging from a weight of investment in business and real estate services of 21,8 % and 2,2 % in health in 2014, to 50,3 % and to 0,3 % in 2021, would have were unlikely if the poor had real power in economic decisions.’ See https://www.facebook.com/pedro.monreal.14: (21 July 2021)