Cuba under Castro: The beginning of building the New Man
In this series we will publish weekly cutouts from the book by Kristian Niemietz
¡Hasta Siempre, Comandante! In 1997, the French pop singer Nathalie Cardone recorded a cover version of the old Cuban revolutionary song Hasta Siempre, Comandante. The music video shows the singer, armed with a machine gun, leading a band of peasants, apparently to a rebellion. More and more people join in, and the band grows into a peasant army. The song became an overnight hit in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The iconography of the Cuban revolution has long been absorbed into mainstream fashion and pop culture. In this process, it has lost most of its connection with Cuba as an actual country, or with the Cuban system as an actual political and economic model. It has simply become a way of projecting a generic ‘rebel’ image of oneself. A quick search on Amazon UK has come up with a ‘Che Guevara Cuban Mens Revolutionist Hat’, a pack of ‘Che Organic Green Mate’, a ‘Metal Tin Sign Plaque Cafe Bar Wall Decor Art Poster Sheet – CHE GUEVARA 726’, an ‘Ernesto “Che” Guevara Revolution Mens/Womens Wallet’, Che Guevara lighters, Che Guevara birthday cards, a Che Guevara CUBA UNDER FIDEL CASTRO Cuba under Fidel Castro 117 ‘Unisex Long wood or acrylic beaded fashion bling, hiphop, gangster necklace’ (although this is a customisable product, where Che can also be swapped for Superman), a ‘Che Guevara Decal Vinyl Wall Sticker’, Che keyrings, a ‘Celebrity Star Hard Back iPhone Case – Che Guevara Pop Art’, a ‘Che Guevara Shoulder Bag made from recycled material’, a ‘Che Guevara Toiletry and Make Up Bag’, Che Guevara mousepads, Che Guevara cufflinks, Che Guevara mugs, and so on. This comes on top of a wide range of Che Guevara shirts, flags, posters and stickers.
Maybe it is because of this absorption into ‘rebel chic’ culture that Cuba has never become toxic in the West. In this respect, Cuba deviates from the three-stage pattern described in this book (honeymoon period, period of excuse-making and whataboutery, period of retroactive dismissal). Cuba is the only example of a socialist experiment for which many Western commentators have retained a soft spot to this day, although its honeymoon period ended ages ago.
Support for Cuba takes a peculiar form. Cuba-admirers usually focus on aspects of the system that are not specifically socialist. It has become a cliché to say that while Cubans are neither prosperous nor, in a Western sense, free, at least they have access to healthcare and education. But those are, of course, hardly hallmarks of socialism. The vast majority of countries in the top quartile of the Economic Freedom list also offer universal access to healthcare and education. Cuba still routinely receives praise from Western commentators, but more as an example of a comprehensive welfare state than as an example of socialism per se. Even the most uncritical supporters rarely defend Cuban socialism qua socialism. A good example is London’s former mayor Ken Livingstone, who, after Fidel Castro’s death, referred to Castro as ‘an absolute giant of the 20th century’ and to Cuba as ‘a beacon of light’. Livingstone recited all of the well-rehearsed pro-Cuba clichés, but even he made no reference to those features of the Cuban economy that make it specifically socialist. Even Livingstone did not, for example, praise Cuba’s state-run sugar plantations, or its system of food rationing.
Cuba-romanticism is not shared by all left-wing commentators. Some specifically dispute the country’s socialist credentials. Zoe Williams writes in The Guardian:
Castro was an authoritarian. […] Pluralism, democracy and universal rights are the foundations of progressive politics. One man […] does not get to govern by force and decree. One oppressed group […] is an oppression of everybody. One nation, even if it’s tiny […] is as great an insult to the principles of the left as one dictatorial superpower.
Owen Jones, after a long detour of whataboutery and Cuba-clichés, writes that ‘Cuba […] is a dictatorship. Socialism without democracy […] isn’t socialism’.
So, in short, left-wing critics of Cuba dispute that Cuba is (or was ever) socialist at all, while left-wing supporters of Cuba avoid talking about those features that make it socialist. This means that in terms of our three-stage pattern, Cuba is permanently stuck somewhere between stage two and stage three. But it was not always thus. In the 1960s, Cuba was a popular destination for political pilgrimages, just as the Soviet Union had been three decades earlier, and as China still was at around the same time. With some differences in emphasis, the accounts of Castro’s pilgrims are remarkably similar to those of Mao’s and Stalin’s pilgrims. The pilgrims saw Cuba as far more than a country that tried to expand access to healthcare and education. They saw it as a new model of socialism, an alternative to both Western capitalism and to the now discredited variants of socialism that were practised in the Warsaw Pact countries.Cuba’s revolution was homegrown. There was no involvement of either the Soviet Union, or of any other Warsaw Pact country. Cuba’s version of socialism was therefore untainted by associations with ‘unreal’ socialism. It contained the promise of a fresh start. This time would be different.
Different visitors admired different aspects of the Cuban system, but, again, a few common themes emerge. Various pilgrims were fascinated by the political rallies organised by the regime, which they interpreted as spontaneous outbreaks of genuine mass euphoria. In the pilgrims’ accounts, it was this euphoria from which the regime derived its legitimacy. This form of ‘street democracy’ was, in their view, far more authentic and lively than the stale, formalistic Western variants. A member of the Venceremos Brigade, a US-based Cuba-support organisation, reported:
Here people are high on their lives all the time. […] [T]hat much unadulterated emotional give is almost unbearable. I begin to really conceive of being part of a current, that in the process of a revolution you are both very important and very small; we’re talking about something bigger than all of us, and that is the transformation of an entire people, […] the beginning of building the new man.
Waldo Frank, an American historian and novelist, saw an ‘absolute frenzy of brotherhood and excitement’ everywhere and ‘young men and women sparkling with animal spirits’.
This led him to conclude that ‘a revolution such as Castro’s is nourished by the direct, almost physical embrace of leaders and people’. LeRoi Jones, an American writer, reported:
‘At each town, the chanting crowds. The unbelievable joy and excitement. The same idea, and people made beautiful because of it’.
Huey Newton, an American political activist and co-founder of the Black Panther party, believed that the revolution had made people more caring and compassionate:
‘[T]ruly everybody is an extended family and [has] concern for everybody else’s welfare […] They are interested in each other’s life in a brotherly way’.
Susan Sontag, an American writer and film-maker, wrote:
The Cubans know a lot about spontaneity, gaiety, sensuality, and freaking out. […] The increase in energy comes because they have found a new focus for it: the community. […] Perhaps the first thing a visitor to Cuba notices is the enormous energy level. It is still common, as it has been throughout the ten years of the revolution, for people to go without sleep – talking and working for several nights a week.
David Caute, a British novelist, playwright and journalist, described a political rally he attended as ‘a gigantic Socialism: demonstration of solidarity’: ‘the demonstrators are […] euphorically happy and proud as any festival’s children could be’.
Abbot Hoffman, an American writer and activist, describes a New Year’s Day parade: Fidel sits on the side of a tank rumbling into Havana […] Girls throw flowers at the tank and rush to tug playfully at his black beard. He laughs joyously […] Fidel lets the gun drop to the ground, slaps his thigh and stands erect […] [T]he crowd immediately is transformed. Similarly, state-organised ‘volunteering’ activities were also seen as spontaneous and self-organised expressions of popular enthusiasm.
Angela Davis, the director of the University of California’s Feminist Studies department, saw ‘young and old, proudly dressed in work clothes, singing as they made their way to the country […] On these faces reigned the serenity of meaningful work – the passion of commitment’.
Joseph A. Kahl, a professor of sociology at Cornell University, thought that: the young militants are convinced that they are building a superior society […] To talk with them was profoundly moving, especially in contrast to the disillusionment and cynicism of many of the best of young Americans. Cuban youth are not alienated, bitter, or ‘turned off’.
Many pilgrims did not really see the Cuban economy as ‘state planned’, but as run collectively by Cuba’s workers and peasants, and fuelled by the enthusiasm of the masses. Cuba, in this view, was not run by Fidel Castro and his entourage, but by ‘the people’, with Castro merely serving as their medium.
Julius Lester, an American writer and a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wrote: To become a public personality in a revolutionary society is to become so at one with the people that quite unconsciously they see you in them and you see yourself in them. The West says a ‘cult of personality’ exists in the figures of Mao and Fidel. That is not true. Revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary commitment have destroyed the ego in Mao and Fidel […] Mao is China. Fidel is Cuba. China is Mao. Cuba is Fidel.
Other pilgrims saw Castro as an almost superhuman leader figure. Norman Mailer, an American novelist, journalist, playwright, filmmaker and actor, wrote an open letter to him, which stated:
You were the first and greatest hero to appear in the world since the Second World War. […] [Y]ou give a bit of life to the best and most passionate men and women all over the earth, you are the answer to the argument […] that revolutions cannot last, that they turn corrupt or total.
Angela Davis wrote: Talking to almost any Cuban about Fidel, it soon became clear that they did not see him as anything more than extraordinarily intelligent, exceptionally committed and an extremely warm human being […] Fidel was their leader, but most important he was also their brother in the largest sense of the word.
In a joint publication, Leo Huberman, the chair of the Department of Social Science at Columbia University and co-editor of the Monthly Review, and Paul Sweezy, a Harvard economist, wrote:
First and foremost, Fidel is a passionate humanitarian […] he feels compassion for human suffering, hates injustice […] and is totally committed to building in Cuba a society in which the poor and the underprivileged shall be able to hold up their heads.
René Dumont, a French agronomist, sociologist and a politician, went on a guided tour with Castro himself, and reported:
He finds a bridge in bad shape and gives orders for it to be repaired immediately. Fifty miles further along, […] ‘See to it that a good asphalt road is built here.’ On another occasion […] ‘See to it that the area gets a little dam.’ At another place the crops appear neglected. ‘I want an agricultural school here’.
Frank Mankiewicz, a political adviser to Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern, as well as president of National Public Radio, wrote that Castro knew:
the annual construction rate of schools, housing, factories and hospitals. He knows the number built and being built, their scheduled dates for conclusion, and the building plans projected for the next five to ten years. He knows the number of students at each level of the educational process, is familiar with the curriculum […] He knows the monthly water temperatures at the fishing ports.
Elizabeth Sutherland, a journalist, critic and arts editor of The Nation, wrote that Castro ‘seems, first of all, utterly devoted to the welfare of his people – and his people are the poor, not the rich. When he speaks, it is as if his own dedication and energy were being directly transfused into his listeners with an almost physical force’.
Not all sympathisers were quite so starry-eyed. Some did recognise the authoritarian character of the system, but thought that the entitlement to free services more than outweighed any lack of ‘negative’ liberties. Joe Nicholson, author of the book Inside Cuba, argued that most of Latin America’s poor people would be vastly better off if they lived in Cuba. There, they:
wouldn’t be assured all of the civil liberties of a Jeffersonian democracy, but […] [f]or the poor of Latin America, Cuba offers dignity that is even beyond the grasp Socialism: of large segments of American citizens […] This dignity is composed of rights Cubans have gained under their Communist revolution: the right to a decent job […] to an equal – and adequate although not yet generous – share of rationed food and clothing, the right to inexpensive housing.
Castro-mania had one lasting PR problem that would not go away: the ongoing exodus of people from the People’s State. The first wave of emigration, which saw about a quarter of a million Cubans relocate to the US (Duany 2017), did not constitute a problem for Western Cuba-enthusiasts. Those were predominantly upper- and middle-class emigrants, so from a socialist perspective, they were not really part of The People. But in the second half of the 1960s, the social composition of the Cuban expat community in the US began to change radically, as blue-collar workers and agricultural workers began to arrive in large numbers. It was now no longer possible to claim that they were all just Batista-cronies or expropriated large-scale landowners. At the same time, Cuba developed closer ties with the Soviet Union, East Germany and other Warsaw Pact countries. When Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring, Castro stood firmly on Moscow’s side, describing the Czech protestors as ‘pro-Yankee agents and spies, the enemies of socialism, the agents of West Germany, […] fascist and reactionary rabble.’
Cuba was supposed to be different. But the distinction between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ kind of socialism became blurrier. The golden age of (presumed) innocence was coming to an end. Cuba entered stage two, the period of whataboutery, relativisation, faux counterfactuals, and a focus on the presumed motives of the regime’s critics. For example, Castro apologists have always benchmarked the Castro regime against the seven-year dictatorship that immediately preceded it, ignoring the much longer period of Cuban republicanism. As an extension of this, they have always implicitly linked Castro’s critics to the Batista regime, even decades after Batista’s death.
For example, in 1991, Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the opposition, said:
[U]ntil 1959 […] [Cuba] was a place whose culture and identity was denied by the worst form of market economy. […] The revolution of 1959 was an entirely popular affair. Castro didn’t do it on his own […] He did it with […] hundreds of thousands of people who were prepared to take part […] [T]he choice that now faces Cuba is to capitulate to the gangsters in Miami who want to take over and destroy the gains of the revolution, or to soldier on to build the best form of socialism that can be achieved in Cuba. Sections of the left attacking Cuba at the present time with all the problems it has got are, frankly, not very helpful at all.
It is not quite clear who ‘the gangsters in Miami’ are, but by that time there must have been a million-strong Cuban exile community in Florida. They cannot all have been henchmen of the former dictator who had been dead for nearly two decades by then. But this, as we have seen in earlier chapters, is the rhetoric which characterises stage two.
Why is Cuba different?
The enthusiasm for Cuba was greatest in the years immediately after the revolution, when Cuban socialism was seen as a novel and different model of socialism. That initial euphoria did not last long. But as mentioned, Cuba is the only example of a socialist country that never fully entered the not-real-socialism stage, the stage of retroactive disowning. Support for Cuba turned from euphoric to lukewarm, and it became more narrowly about healthcare and schooling rather than socialism per se. But the country remained permanently stuck somewhere in between stage two and stage three. We do not know exactly what explains the difference, but there are a number of (mutually reinforcing) plausible explanations. Firstly, and most obviously, the Cuban regime was never nearly as atrocious as the Stalinist and the Maoist regimes. The Cuban regime is dictatorial and oppressive, but it is not genocidal. The relevant section in The Black Book of Communism reads like a watered-down version of Stalinism or Maoism. There were summary executions, purges, extrajudicial arrests, an extensive secret police network Cuba under Fidel Castro 129 and all the rest of it, but the scale was much smaller, and the details less grim. As far as socialism goes, the Cuban regime is far from being the worst. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Cuba has (at least implicitly) always been benchmarked against less ambitious counterfactuals than other socialist systems. East Germany was far more economically and technologically advanced than Cuba, but East Germany was benchmarked against West Germany, and it paled in that comparison. Cuba, in contrast, is part of a world region where, for much of the twentieth century, poverty, underdevelopment, dictatorial rule and woeful human rights records were the norm, not the exception. This has changed in the meantime: most Latin American and Caribbean countries are now democratic middle-income countries, and many have made serious inroads in reducing poverty (see Our World in Data 2017). But Cuba is usually compared to the region’s poorest countries, not to its relative success stories such as Chile or Costa Rica.
Thirdly, the Cuban revolutionaries were able to pick a number of low-hanging fruits. By regional standards, Cuba was already relatively highly developed around the time of the revolution, and well ahead in terms of social indicators. Life expectancy at birth was eight years above the Latin American and Caribbean average, while infant mortality was only one third of the regional average (Tupy 2016). Cuba already had an adult literacy rate of about 80 per cent, one of the highest in the region (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2017). Such indicators were already improving before the revolution, and kept improving afterwards – but Western sympathisers were able to ascribe all post-revolution improvements to Castro’s government. Fourthly, the persistence of the US trade embargo against Cuba provided not just the Cuban government, but also its Western sympathisers, with a convenient excuse for the country’s economic underdevelopment. It contains a grain of truth. If tariffs and import quotas reduce prosperity – as virtually every economist would confirm they do – then logically, a wholesale embargo must do so. However, Cuba’s isolation is mainly self-imposed. In farleft circles, it remains fashionable to refer to the US embargo as the ‘Cuba blockade’, as if the US somehow prevented Cuba from trading with third countries. It is, of course, not a blockade. Cuba has always had the option of developing more extensive trade links with, for example, Canada, the EU, Mexico or Brazil, which is what other countries in the region have done. But the Cuban regime has chosen not to do so. Cuba does not trade very much with anyone (European Commission 2017). Nor is the US embargo an absolute embargo. In terms of imports of goods, the US is still Cuba’s seventh most important trading partner.
And yet: the excuses for the failures of socialism that are usually put forward during stage two do not have to be plausible. They just need to be widely believed. Taken together, these factors might explain why Cuba never quite completed the move from the second stage (excuse-making and whataboutery) to the third stage Cuba under Fidel Castro (retroactive disowning).
But today’s Cuba romantics have little in common with the Cuba pilgrims of the 1960s. The latter saw Cuba not just as a place that sought to expand access to healthcare and schooling. They saw it as a model of a new socialist society.
Dr Kristian Niemietz is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), and author of the books ‘Redefining the poverty debate’ and ‘A new understanding of poverty’. He holds a PhD in Political Economy from King’s College London, and an MSc in Economics from Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.
Special thanks to Kristian Niemietz for the permission!