Cuba: Eyewitness says the embattled revolution needs global aid and socialist democracy to survive

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As I sped down the highway toward Havana in January for a three-week visit, my taxi driver swerved to avoid a lumbering old bus. Straining under its load and belching black smoke, the bus overflowed with passengers perched on the back bumper and hanging from the doors and windows.

My driver shook his head. “No oil for more buses,” he said.

In 1964, the U.S. responded to the Cuban revolution by slapping down a trade blockade. To supply itself with oil, food, industrial products, and consumer goods, Cuba turned to the Eastern bloc, selling its one major crop, sugar. But as the former USSR and East European countries began seeking re-integration into the world capitalist market, they drastically curtailed trade with Cuba, where terrible shortages and rationing of all food staples resulted.

Smelling blood, the U.S. strengthened the embargo by passing the Torricelli bill (the “Cuban Democracy Act” of 1992). The law, backed by Clinton, prohibits other nations’ ships from docking in U.S. ports after trading with Cuba and bars foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business with the island.

Washington has all along tried to subvert the Cuban revolution through military assaults, spying, and assassination, as well as economic pressure. In April, it returned to saber rattling.

The White House charged the entire Cuban government with being a “racketeering enterprise” engaged in drug smuggling. Clinton administration attorneys are readying indictments that would allow them, under U.S. racketeering law, to arrest Cuban officials and seize the country’s foreign assets.

Cubans are defiant. Alex, a college student, explained: “Fidel did not agree with Gorbachev’s perestroika. Cuba will not sell off our national wealth. We did not struggle for 30 years to provide for everyone in order to turn our backs on each other now. No matter what the U.S. tries, we will prevail!”

But many islanders, no less revolutionary, realize that Cuba’s life-and-death struggle can only be won by expanding democracy within the country and drawing material and political support from outside.

Cuba’s vast accomplishments under siege. Cubans have chalked up tremendous gains since Batista’s ouster and the economy’s nationalization, from the lowest infant mortality in Latin America to one of the highest literacy rates in the world. The island’s example continues to be infectious for not just the Third World, but advanced industrial nations as well. Visitors return home asking, “Why the hell don’t we do those things here?”

All Cuba’s advances are now in jeopardy.

Rita Maria Pereira, from the Federation of Cuban Women, told me how the Shortages affect women — who, despite great progress toward equality, are still the primary homemakers. To women falls the responsibility for dealing with crises such as the recent epidemic of blindness probably caused by a vitamin deficiency due to unavailability of certain foods; Pereira fears that these burdens will force women to pull back from politics just when their insights and leadership are crucial.

Similar problems arise in overcoming the remnants of race discrimination. Blacks are not yet proportionately represented as managers, for example, and sweeping factory shutdowns due to lack of parts and raw material makes this much harder to correct.

The U.S. is trying to use deprivation to provoke a rebellion from below, with some success. As Mario, a Havana worker, put it, “I used to be a socialist, but there is no food, so I’m no longer a socialist.”

Crisis creates opportunity. But many workers are responding to pressure from EI Norte by pushing for political and social changes that would resolve long-standing problems within the revolution itself — as well as help defeat the Yankee threat.

The Cuban state is clearly collective and progressive and must be defended unconditionally against capitalist bids to turn back the clock of history. But while it is based upon a socialized economy, it suffers from a lack of workers’ democracy — in other words, it is a bureaucratized workers state.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, Cuba does not depend primarily on the police to control the population: there is still mass support for the government and its leadership. But only one workers’ party, the ruling Communist Party, is permitted, and until recently, debate within the Party and criticism of the government were both discouraged. These prohibitions are self-destructive, because they prevent workers from calling attention to mistakes in government policy and fixing them.

If Cuba is to avoid the fate of the Soviet bloc countries, its workers must take the power into their own hands.

Grassroots initiative is growing. Discussions before the 1991 Fourth Party Congress exploded into organized mass debate. The give-and-take engendered calls to extend local control over official decisions, end taboos against homosexuality, allow direct nomination and election of authorities, and recognize how some government responses to the current crisis exacerbate inequality. (For example, exclusive shops where goods can be bought only with dollars now exist as a lure to the tourist trade.)

These demands produced results. At the party congress, new and younger party leaders were selected, party control over nomination of candidates for municipal elections was abolished, and the party promised to stop issuing paternalistic dictates to groups like the unions and Federation of Cuban Women.

For Cuba to survive, the process of proletarian democratization must go further. It must include direct workers’ control through workplace councils. These organizations are essential to developing policies and mechanisms to get agricultural and industrial production working efficiently, counter the rising power of the bureaucracy to dole out scarce goods, rein in the private-profiteering of the growing black market, and solve the dilemma posed by the U.S. embargo and loss of Cuba’s trade partners.

Internationalism is the key to freedom. Cuba is steeped in internationalist spirit. Many people I met proudly told me of Cubans traveling to assist liberation struggles from Nicaragua to Angola.

Unfortunately, Cuba’s dependence on Moscow trade stunted the full flowering of this internationalism.

The Cuban revolutionary experience proved the necessity of expropriating the bourgeoisie and moving toward complete nationalization as the only way to meet people’s needs and safeguard their initial gains, confirming Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. But Castro acquiesced to the Soviet Stalinist line and supported the Sandinistas’ adherence to a capitalist-dominated mixed economy in Nicaragua, ignoring the lessons of his own history. This was suicidal not only for tile Nicaraguan revolution, but for Cuba as well; in the end, Cuba can be secure only as part of a network of countries moving together toward socialism and sharing resources and defenses.

In the short run, the Cuban government needs to issue a call for a broad, powerful, and international aid mobilization to challenge the embargo.

This movement is already building, most notably through the “Friendshipments” organized by Pastors for Peace.

In March, the Customs department seized a boat in Miami belonging to Will Eickholt, a Dutch citizen living in the U.S. His crime? Delivery of powdered milk and spare boat engine parts to needy Cubans.

Washington is more determined than ever to kill the Cuban workers state because its continuing existence gives the lie to propaganda about the “death of communism.” Cuba remains a grand, tenacious socialist experiment that refuses to fail, despite a three-decades-long campaign to snuff it out.

The U.S. movement plays a unique role in fighting for Cuba, because we have the greatest ability to influence the ruling class bearing down hardest against Cuba — most decisively, by making our own revolution! We need to continue to send material help and build a groundswell of support for Cuba in unions and all the social-change arenas. And the left wing of the movement must caution against reliance on the Democrats, who have consistently advocated legislation and military operations that tighten the noose around Cuba’s neck.

Through organizing in defense of Cuba, we can explain how socialism is superior to capitalism in its ability to meet human needs and reverse the planet’s course toward self-obliteration. As long as the Cuban revolution survives, we can point to a place where the seeds of socialism have begun to grow, enabling us to envision the contours of a new society for all.

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