Debate: Cuba has a state bureaucratic *system* – a response to Chris Slee

This article is a reply to "System or siege? Samuel Farber misses the main cause of Cuba's problems", Chris Slee's review of Samuel Farber's Cuba Since The Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (Haymarket Books 2011).

[For more discussion on Cuba, click HERE.]

By Samuel Farber

June 26, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The driving idea behind Chris Slee’s critical review of my recent book, Cuba Since The Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (Haymarket Books 2011) is that the undemocratic practices of the Cuban revolutionary regime have been largely a response to the more than 50-year-old imperialist siege by the United States government and not a defining characteristic of the island’s political system.

Slee’s viewpoint has a long history among defenders of the Cuban government, particularly among liberals and the left in capitalist democracies. But the Cuban leadership did not adopt the USSR’s repressive model because Washington “forced” them to go in that direction. That presumes that the Cuban revolutionary leaders did not have a political ideology of their own. In fact, during 1959, the first year of the revolution, an ideological and political struggle took place within the revolutionary government among liberals like Roberto Agramonte and Elena Mederos; radical nationalist anti-imperialists like David Salvador, Carlos Franqui and Marcelo Fernández; and the pro-Communist wing headed by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Raúl Castro who were then allied with the PSP (Partido Socialista Popular) of the old Cuban Stalinists (this was before Guevara began to be critical of the Soviet bloc in late 1960). The growing and open hostility of the US contributed significantly to the victory, in that struggle, of the pro-Communist tendency, but that does not mean that it was Washington that determined the purposes and ideas of the revolutionary leadership.

These leaders had their own political vision of reality that determined what they considered the appropriate responses to the danger from the north, and especially to what they saw as the optimum form of social and political organisation of their country. While they acted under serious external and internal constraints, they were nevertheless autonomous agents pursuing independent ideological visions. These leaders made choices, including selecting the Soviet road for the Cuban Revolution. As Ernesto “Che” Guevara declared to the French weekly L’Express on July 25, 1963: “our commitment to the East European bloc was half the result of external pressures and half the result of our choice.”

It is quite clear that by the early to mid-sixties the Cuban leaders had succeeded in establishing a version of the system that ruled in the USSR with a one-party state bureaucracy controlling all of the social, political and economic life of the country without independent trade unions, the right to strike or civil and political liberties. In this type of system, the economic surplus is not extracted in the form of profits from individual enterprise, nor is it realised through the market. Instead, it is obtained as a surplus product of the nation as a whole. This surplus is appropriated directly, through the state’s control of the economy. This does not occur primarily through the higher salaries for the bureaucrats, which represent only a small part of the surplus product, as does the consumption of the ruling class in capitalist societies. The surplus product also covers accumulation and investment, defence spending, and all other state expenditures. Naturally, the Cuban system has its own distinctive characteristics as in the cases of China and Vietnam just as Japanese and Swedish capitalism differs from the United States, which does not deny the fact that they are all developed capitalist societies.

Perhaps the most important contribution that the Cuban regime has made to the history of the state bureaucratic systems in power has been its emphasis on the mobilisation and participation of the population, especially during the 47-year rule of Fidel Castro. Nevertheless, it is indispensable to distinguish between participation and democratic control. Every type of participation that lacks democratic control – which necessarily includes free debate and the freedom to organise independently from the ruling party – is inevitably a form of manipulation. If we take the famous slogan of the 1968 movement in France, “we participate, you participate, they profit” and exchange the word “profit” for “rule”, we would obtain the perfect slogan to describe Cuba since the establishment of “monolithic unity” many decades ago and recently reiterated by Raúl Castro.[1]

It is the failure to distinguish between popular participation and support, and the government’s manipulation of that support on one hand, and democratic control from below on the other hand that repeatedly leads Chris Slee to seriously misrepresent what happened in Cuba during the last 53 years. Fidel Castro historically availed himself of an overwhelming popular support and of his prestige to rally his supporters behind decisions he and his close associates had already made behind closed doors and which were sometimes totally unexpected. For example, in the months preceding the Agrarian Reform Law, just about every social and political sector of Cuban society was putting forward its own views on what this law should provide for. Even the sugar mill owners and landlords were proposing their own agrarian reform, which unsurprisingly did not attempt to reform anything, while sweetening their proposals with the donation to the government of tractors and other agricultural implements. But Fidel Castro did not give any indication of the kind of law he had in mind or how radical it would be until he suddenly announced it on May 17, 1959. While the law was certainly popular, without having established any popular decision-making mechanism, it was implemented, quite contrary to what Chris Slee suggests, not through peasant democratic control from below but by the joint efforts of the Rebel Army and government functionaries working for INRA (the Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria, National Institute of Agrarian Reform). Several months earlier, in February 1959, a revealing incident took place when the old Communists of the PSP -- who at this time were still pressuring Fidel Castro from the left -- encouraged a few instances of “spontaneous” land seizures. Seeking to forestall any challenge to his control, Castro announced in a televised interview on February 19, 1959, that any persons involved in seizing land without waiting for the Agrarian Reform Law would be deemed as engaging in criminal conduct and would lose their right to any benefits from the new law.[2] Three days later the Communists retreated and agreed “that it was necessary to put a stop to the anarchic seizures of land” while objecting that Law 87 that had put into effect Castro’s wishes was unnecessary and dangerous.[3]

One of the more striking examples of the manipulation of popular support by the revolutionary leadership was the forced resignation in 1959 of President Manuel Urrutia who had been appointed by Fidel Castro. Early on the morning of July 17, 1959, newspaper headlines announced Castro’s resignation as prime minister without giving the reasons for such a dramatic, unexpected decision. In the morning, students rallied at the University of Havana and then marched to the presidential palace demanding also that Castro withdraw his resignation. Throughout the rest of the day, the radio reported on the thousands of messages sent to Fidel Castro by unions and many other popular organisations demanding also that he withdraw his resignation. The overwhelming majority of these messages were very similar to those that were conveyed by the university students’ demonstration earlier in the day, and made no mention of President Urrutia. That evening, Fidel Castro went on national television, and to the surprise of the great majority of Cubans, unleashed a savage political and personal attack on President Urrutia that was nothing less than a character assassination from which the president was not allowed to publicly defend himself. The personal accusations were in reality a cover for Castro’s main charge: Urrutia had gone out of his way to attack communism on several occasions and particularly in a television interview that had aired some time before Castro’s speech.

The real motive for Castro’s “resignation” was revealed only after the Cuban people had been “warmed up” all day in support of the maximum leader. I should add that Urrutia was a superfluous and irrelevant figure who carried no weight. Castro used his removal to gradually legitimate the politics of the PSP and their allies in the wing of the government led by Raúl Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

It is also his confusing popular participation with control from below that leads Chris Slee to miss the main point of my analysis of what happened after the 10th trade union congress of November 1959, a crucial moment that defined the future of the trade union movement in the island. Fidel Castro successfully pressured the congress to select a leadership dominated by those aligned with the old Communists, something that was not warranted by the number of those delegates at the congress. After the congress concluded, the labour ministry, under Fidel Castro’s control, assisted by the Communist union leaders and the minority of 26th of July’s “unitarian” elements friendly to them, began to purge a very large number of elected trade union leaders who had resisted Communist Party control.

For Slee this resistance automatically meant that these trade unionists were right-wing anti-revolutionaries mistaking, or fudging in this fashion, the difference between anti-revolutionary trade unionists and those seeking to preserve union independence from the state. But the key point in my book that Slee ignores, is that the purge took place by means of purge commissions and carefully staged and controlled union meetings instead of new elections. Given Castro’s prestige and popularity, there is little doubt that any slate of candidates he supported would have won in open and free union elections. However, from the Cuban leader’s long-term perspective, those new elections would have allowed the unions to retain their autonomy, and that would have been a serious obstacle to the unions becoming instruments of the state as was the case in the USSR and Eastern Europe.

Slee suggests that in spite of the US threat Cuba has taken real steps towards democratising Cuban society. With respect to the vaunted democratisation of the state unions in the 1970s, Slee does not mention that this “democratisation” only applied to the election of low-level union leaders. It was clear that the government intended to use these low-level elections to allow the workers to “let off steam”. The newly elected local union leaders were excluded from setting policy; their role was to be faithful defenders of the policies of the national union and the country’s political leadership. Fidel Castro himself declared at the time that “the [elected official] will have the moral authority of this election, and when the Revolution establishes a line, he will go out to defend and fight for that line.”[4]

In 1973, Raúl Castro justified these sort of practices in clear substitutionist language: “It is necessary to keep in mind that the working class considered as a whole … cannot exercise its own dictatorship… Originating in bourgeois society, the working class is marked by flaws and vices from the past. The working class is heterogeneous in its consciousness and social behavior… Only through a political party that brings together its conscious minority can the working class … construct a socialist society.”[5] Raúl was not referring to a political party formed and controlled by the workers, but to the single, exclusive political party of his bureaucracy.

Similarly, even though taking note of my criticisms of the discussions preceding the sixth party congress in April 2011, Slee ignores how these kinds of “consultations” with atomised groups violate the very essence of what democracy, particularly socialist democracy, should be about. This “consultation” process, rather than having involved a democratic debate, was far more akin to a nationwide oral suggestion-and-complaint box. Workers put in their individual proposals at meetings and eventually the party authorities decided what to consider and accept and what to reject. The Communist Party of Cuba leaders responded to the thousands of opinions that the Cuban people submitted to them much like the owners and managers of a capitalist enterprise who implement those suggestions that they find most helpful to run their business and pacify the labour force. The discussion or “consultation” process was not even comparable to collective bargaining, let alone political and economic democracy. Revealingly, guideline 04 approved at the party congress provided that the structural and other changes proposed in the party program will be realised in “a programmatic fashion, with order and discipline, on the basis of the approved policy, informing the workers and listening to their opinions”.[6]

In other words, workers can opine, but the one-party state decides. Moreover, the decisions were not even made at the party congress itself. According to Raúl Castro, almost all the modifications to the original party guidelines were made prior to the congress, on March 19-March 20, 2011, at meetings of the political bureau of the party and the executive committee of the Council of Ministers. The secretariat of the central committee, the central cadre of the trade union confederation, other mass organisations and the Communist youth organisation also participated in these two-day gatherings.[7] All of these bodies are controlled by the political bureau of the Communist Party, and act as conveyor belts for the policies of the central party leadership.

Slee admits that there is repression in Cuba but insists that it is merely a product of the mindset created by the imperialist threat of the US. But a closer look into the matter reveals that this repression is an intrinsic political characteristic of the system of state bureaucracy: Cuba, like the USSR, Eastern Europe, China and Vietnam, has recurred to police and administrative measures, instead of political means, to deal with the peaceful expression of political differences and opposition. This started very early on, when the opposition press was confiscated in the spring of 1960; at the time, there was no serious internal threat to a regime that enjoyed overwhelming popular support in a country without any kind of armed conflict. This action was taken as a strategic step in the construction of a system of absolute control, not as a tactical conjunctural response to a real and present danger.

As I discuss in great detail in my book, censorship in the mass media has been applied to matters that don’t have any connection to US imperialist threats, like scandals involving corruption at the highest level of the government as in the recent case of Cubana de Aviación, the Cuban state airline. Another example is the total media blackout concerning the demonstration held by hundreds of university students in Santiago de Cuba in September of 2007, protesting poor living and educational conditions as well as lack of security for women students. The protest must have been quite serious, since the government found it necessary to hold a large official counter-demonstration in early October, reaffirming support for the regime.

It is also important to note that from early on repression was carried out against both the right and the left. Thus, in pursuit of what later would be called “monolithic unity”, in 1961, Lunes de Revolución, the weekly mass-circulation literary and political supplement of the government newspaper Revolución, which published the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and a wide variety of non-communist independent left-wing authors from all over the world, was closed. Later on, Castro’s government persecuted Cuban supporters of Black Power (Walterio Carbonell, Castro’s former ambassador to Tunis and the leadership of the Algerian FLN then living in that country), sectors of the PSP (Aníbal Escalante and his associates) and, of course, repressed gays including the young writer Reinaldo Arenas and the prominent playwright Virgilio Piñera.

In the case of the 75 dissidents sentenced to long prison terms in 2003, the government invoked the Law for the Protection of Cuban National Independence and the Economy approved in 1999. Among other things, this law made it a punishable crime to receive funds from hostile foreign forces, even if those funds are used to carry out entirely peaceful political activities or to write newspaper articles for hostile organs such as El Nuevo Herald in Miami. Some of the dissidents imprisoned in 2003 did receive material aid from the US government in the form of publishing resources and stipends. But even if every one of the 75 had done so, the fact that their activities were of a peaceful nature should have made this issue not a police and criminal matter but rather a political question appropriate for political debate before the whole of Cuba. People could then have drawn their own conclusions as to the political trustworthiness and credibility of the government and its opponents.

In any case, the small publications that the dissidents were producing with and without US assistance were no match for the Cuban state’s monopoly of publication and broadcast in the mass media. The Cuban government’s claim that the long prison sentences imposed on the 75 dissidents was justified by a military invasion that the US was preparing was a total fabrication. Washington had entertained such a plan only once during the missile crisis in the fall of 1962.[8] It is worth noting that not one of the many US government’s post-Cold War strategic scenarios that have been announced or leaked to the press has even mentioned Cuba, which for more than 20 years has been relegated to a minor concern of the US military and political authorities.

Chris Slee takes issue with my analysis that the Cuban government is embarking on the development of a Sino-Vietnamese model in Cuba, by which I mean the combination of political authoritarianism with an opening to capitalism, while the state retains a major role in the economy. My prediction is based primarily on an analysis of the Lineamientos approved at the sixth party congress in April, 2011, and economic changes that have been made before and since then. Most important in my view are the proposals approved at the congress that would go a long way to establish the enterprise autonomy of the managers (these proposals include enterprise bankruptcy and possible privatisation),[9] which as we know only too well can easily open the road to wide-scale nomenklatura privatisation. As I point out in my book, there is already a material base for such a development among the civilian and military managers and technicians that are involved in joint venture enterprises with foreign capital, particularly Spanish and Canadian. Especially important in this context are the very important armed forces business enterprises organised in the corporation called GAESA (Grupo de Administración Empresarial, S.A.) currently headed by army officer Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, a son in law of Raúl Castro who was elected to the central committee of the Communist Party at the April 2011 congress.

A final thought: Chris Slee implies that democracy is not possible under a “socialism” built in unfavourable circumstances. It is highly unlikely that a socialist revolution will take place under favourable circumstances, even in economically developed countries. Capitalists are not going to peacefully hand over their property without significant resistance, beginning with the sabotage of their factories and offices. But putting aside these general considerations, it is important to keep in mind that the “unfavourable circumstances” that undoubtedly existed in Cuba would not have in themselves brought about a new state bureaucratic system absent the specific political ideas and practices of the Castro brothers, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and their close associates.

[Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba and is the author of many books and articles dealing with that country. He has been involved in socialist politics for more than 50 years.]


[1]“Con unidad monolítica Cuba seguirá adelante, dijo Raúl Castro,” Diario Granma 13, no. 208 (26 julio 2009),

[2] Fidel Castro, Discursos para la historia, (La Habana: Imprenta Emilio Gall, 1959), 1:137.

[3] “Declaraciones del PSP: El PSP pide a los campesinos que impidan por si mismo las ocupaciones de tierras; Considera innecesaria y peligrosa la Ley 87,” Hoy, 22 febrero de 1959, 1.

[4] Fidel Castro, “Discurso en la concentración para celebrar el décimo aniversario de los CDR,” Granma Resumen Semanal, 4 octubre 1970, 4-5, cited in Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Cuba in the 1970s. Pragmatism and Instituionalization. Revised edition, Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1978, 85.

[5] Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro, Selecciones de discursos acerca del partido (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975), 59, cited in Marifeli Pérez-Stable, The Cuban Revolution. Origins, Course and Legacy, Second Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 128-129.

[6] VI Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba, Lineamientos de la política económica y social del partido y la revolución, página 11. Farber’s emphasis.

[7] Raúl Castro, “Informe central al VI Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba,” Juventud Rebelde, 16 abril 2011,, 3

[8] I am referring here to an invasion by US military forces, which is what the Cuban government charged in 2003. Of course, the US-sponsored an invasion staffed by right-wing Cubans in April 1961, and hundreds of other violent attacks, including numerous acts of terror and attempted assassinations against the island’s leadership, particularly Fidel Castro. Cuba has also suffered an oppressive US economic blockade that has lasted more than 50 years.

[9] Lineamientos de la política económica y social del partido y la revolución, Lineamiento 17, página 12.


Nice to see Farber engage with his critics on the Internet. This is something of a first. I see that he writes: "It is quite clear that by the early to mid-sixties the Cuban leaders had succeeded in establishing a version of the system that ruled in the USSR with a one-party state bureaucracy controlling all of the social, political and economic life of the country without independent trade unions, the right to strike or civil and political liberties."

We all know that the USSR used to confine dissidents in psychiatric hospitals, but did Cuba? Farber told an interviewer in New Politics (

NP: In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviets used psychiatric hospitals as a means of clamping down on dissent.

SF: There was that in Cuba, too, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s.

I have researched this question thoroughly and found no evidence of this. Maybe Farber can back up his claims with the facts.……

Farber and his British SWP co-thinker Mike Gonzalez seem to stoop to the lowest ploys in regurgitating the lies of the Miami mafia when they claim that Cuba's health and education systems have now become generators of export income in the form of medical personnel, medicines and teachers. As Louis Proyect has pointed out on Marxmail:

"Let me put it straight. Farber wrote, and Gonzalez agrees, that Cuba developed its medical aid program to make money. To say that they have stopped being a sign of socialist solidarity and instead 'generators of export income' really is outrageous. Cuba sends doctors to Venezuela for the same reason it sends them to Haiti or to Nicaragua in the 1980s, out of a need to demonstrate that Cuba has a different kind of foreign policy--not one based on exploitation but on internationalism. The only place you find articles arguing that the doctors and health care providers are sent abroad for profit-seeking opportunities are the Wall Street Journal (…) and the Miami Herald ( I can just see Sam Farber wallowing around in the Miami Herald and the WSJ looking for ammunition to use against the one country in the world that operates on the basis of human need rather than profit.


For the reality of Cuba's "export" of its wonderful, socialist health system see a number of articles at


I agree with Samuel Farber's pessimistic prognosis of the likely future for Cuba post-Fidel, either Yugoslav style market socialism if they are lucky or Chinese style capitalism with fascist characteristics if they are not. Clearly there is a significant stratum of Cuban 'Communists' who would like to revert to capitalism, 'those in power taking the capitalist road', as old Mao used to call them, along Chinese lines. These come from the 'military, industrial, academic complex',led by senior functionaries of the C.C.P.
What I find amiss is a lack of suggestions of what the left in Cuba should do.For example Farber has condemned the granting to private farmers of usufruct of idle state land. Now what problems is this intended to meet and if it is wrong what are the correct policies? Similarly the notoriously bad service that characterised shop workers in the Soviet Union and China and still does in Cuba. I reckon a lot of Cuban workers would be quite happy to see managers with greater powers if it enabled them to fire lazy workers in shops. This is a problem in Cuba. What is the solution? It is very easy to condemn 'state bureaucrats'. But what is to be put in their place? Trade unions? But these are bureaucracies too, and for the most part support capitalism, as the case of Eastern Europe shows. Democracy? Here I really begin to get angry with Farber. How can he say Cuba is undemocratic and talk about 'capitalist democracies'. The U.S. is an oligarchic despotism. I fear Farber has no theory of democracy. One has only to turn to his book 'Before Stalinism:The rise and fall of Soviet Democracy" to see this. Why does he apply different standards to Lenin and Trotsky than he does to Fidel? How was the Russian party different from the Cuban, except perhaps in the avoidance of mass terror by the Cubans? See Voline, 'The Unknown Revolution 1917-1921'. If Stalin was the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky helped to provide the shovels! The problem is that the leninist idea of the leading role of the party leads back to capitalism. This can only be prevented by democracy to be sure, but this cannot be secured by having multiple parties and "free' trade unions. They are part of the problem, not the solution. To demand "free elections" in Cuba is extemely reactionary; elections are not the mark of a democracy;selection by lot is.This will not appeal however to those who worship at the shrine of leninist idolatry.


Samuel Farber says: "The driving idea behind Chris Slee's critical review of my recent book Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: a Critical Assessment (Haymarket Books, 2011) is that the undemocratic pratices of the Cuban revolutionary regime have been largely a response to the over 50 year old imperialist siege....and not a defining characteristic of the island's political system....But the Cuban leadership did not adopt the USSR repressive model because Washington 'forced' them to go in that direction. That presumes that the Cuban revolutionary leaders did not have a political ideology of their own".
Response to Samuel Farber

The Cuban revolutionary leaders certainly had "a political ideology of their own". Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Che Guevara and some other July 26 Movement leaders were Marxists at the time of the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship in January 1959. [1]

Farber seems to think that any departure from socialist democracy in Cuba results from a decision by the leaders to imitate the Soviet Union, which in turn would reflect a distorted understanding of Marxism.

However, I think it would be a mistake to attribute the "undemocratic practices of the Cuban revolutionary regime" mainly to the "political ideology" of the revolutionary leaders. The actions of all political leaders are shaped by the environment in which they find themselves, as well as by their ideology.

Lenin's "workers state with bureaucratic distortions" in 1921 had departed a long way from the vision Lenin outlined in State and Revolution, due to the effects of civil war and foreign intervention, on top of Russia's pre-existing backwardness, and the isolation of the revolution.

Similarly, the revolutionary Cuban state has been deeply affected by the US economic blockade, terrorist attacks, the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and the ongoing fear of another invasion.

Farber says: "In fact, during 1959, the first year of the revolution, an ideological and political struggle took place within the revolutionary government among liberals like Roberto Agramonte and Elena Maderos; radical nationalist anti-imperialists like David Salvador, Carlos Franqui and Marcelo Fernandez; and the pro-Communist wing headed by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara and Raul Castro who were then allied with the PSP (Partido Socialista Popular) of the old Cuban Stalinists (this was before Guevara began to be critical of the Soviet block in late 1960). The growing and open hostility of the U.S. contributed significantly to the victory, in that struggle, of the pro-Communist tendency, but that does not mean that it was Washington that determined the purposes and ideas of the revolutionary leadership".

There was indeed a struggle within the revolutionary government in 1959. The struggle against the Batista dictatorship had involved people of diverse ideological views. Once Batista was gone, there were inevitably differences over what to do next.

Fidel Castro had set up the July 26 Movement as an organisation whose aim was to lead the anti-Batista struggle. It had a democratic program, which included not only the demand for political democracy, but also economic issues such as land reform. However it was not a Marxist organisation, even though some of its key leaders were Marxists.

During the anti-Batista struggle Fidel did not try to build a Marxist party (though some members of the July 26 Movement participated in Marxism classes run by Che Guevara and others).

The PSP (Popular Socialist Party) was formally a Marxist party, but had a bad reputation amongst radicals for a range of reasons, including its failure to seriously oppose the dictatorship following Batista's coup in 1952. The PSP had condemned the attack on the Moncada barracks led by Fidel Castro in 1953.

Nevertheless, Fidel was open to cooperation with the PSP, which had some support amongst a section of the working class, when it belatedly adopted a position of support for the anti-Batista struggle. Some other leaders of the July 26 Movement opposed any cooperation with the PSP.

In April 1958 the July 26 Movement called a general strike, which was unsuccessful. Reviewing the reasons for this failure, one of the lessons drawn by the J26M leadership was that it was a mistake to call the strike in the name of the J26M alone. [2] There was a need to collaborate with other organisations, including the PSP, in organising the next general strike. [3]

Nevertheless, some J26M leaders were still very hostile to the PSP and not enthusiastic about cooperation.

After Batista had been overthrown, Fidel, Raul, Che and others saw the PSP as an ally in deepening the revolution and defending it against imperialist attack.

But other sections of the J26M leadership remained hostile to the PSP. Probably there were a mixture of reasons for this: some may have had valid concerns about its Stalinist character, but others opposed it from the standpoint of cold war anti-communism.

Fidel and his closest comrades appealed for unity of the working class (including the PSP) in the face of the imperialist threat. They were very conscious of the history of US intervention in Latin America, including numerous invasions. Che had been in Guatemala in 1954, when a US-backed invasion force had overthrown the reforming Arbenz government. This experience had a deep impact on Che's political outlook.

Preparing to deter a US invasion, or defeat it if it occurred, was a central concern for the Cuban revolutionary leadership. This concern was not at all unrealistic - a US-backed invasion did in fact occur in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. It was defeated quickly because of the preparations which had been made for such a possibility.

We can assume that during 1959 Fidel and his comrades became very impatient with those who talked about the "threat of communism", when the threat from US imperialism was so great. We can speculate that, at a certain stage, they decided that such talk was hindering the task of uniting Cubans against the imperialist threat, and that such people should be removed from positions of influence, including official positions in the unions.

As I said in my book review, the often undemocratic way in which this was done was harmful. But in my opinion, the purpose of the purge was not to create a bureaucratic regime, but to ensure that unions played their part defending the country against the threat of invasion (e.g. helping to build the militia).

It is true that some of those who carried out the purge - including some PSP union officials - used this opportunity to advance their own careers by removing their rivals based on false accusations.

They were able to get away with this because of the sense of urgency which prevailed amongst the revolutionary leadership about the need to prepare for resistance to US aggression. The perceived need to act quickly to remove potentially unreliable elements from positions of influence was conducive to injustices.

Farber says: "Given Castro's prestige and popularity, there is little doubt that any slate of candidates he supported would have won in open and free union elections. However, from the Cuban leader's long-term perspective, those new elections would have allowed the unions to retain their autonomy, and that would have been a serious obstacle to the unions becoming instruments of the state as was the case in the USSR and Eastern Europe".

However, the election of a slate purely on the basis of Castro's endorsement would not have been very satisfactory either. If Farber is correct in saying that people would have voted for whoever Fidel endorsed, then the people who compiled the list of names for Fidel's slate would effectively be choosing the union leadership.

It would have been better if workers had been given more time to learn about the political shortcomings of some of their union officials through extensive discussion and further practical experience, before conducting new elections. However the sense of imminent threat meant that hasty and undemocratic methods were used.

Farber says: "Chris Slee implies that democracy is not possible under a 'socialism' built in unfavorable circumstances". This is not an accurate summary of my views. I think that socialists should aim for greatest degree of democracy that is possible in a given situation.

I don't think that the Cuban government has always done this. As I said in my review, I agree that there has been a good deal of "surplus repression" in Cuba. But I added that "even repression which was not objectively necessary was often a product of the mindset created by real imperialist threats".

It is our task to oppose these imperialist threats, and thereby create the best possible conditions for socialist democracy in Cuba.


1. Some people have disputed that Fidel was a Marxist at the time of the anti-Batista struggle. He didn't openly identify as a Marxist during that period. But he had studied the writings of Marx and Lenin extensively, especially during his time in prison. - see The Fertile Prison, by Mario Mencia, Ocean Press, 1993

2. See Che Guevara Reader, Ocean Press 1997, p. 46: Che says that the leaders of the J26M's underground work in the unions at that time, including most prominently David Salvador, were "opposed to any participation by the Popular Socialist Party in the organisation of the struggle", and had attempted to carry out "....a sectarian strike, in which the other revolutionary movements would be forced to follow our lead";

3. Che Guevara Reader, p. 47: "...the meeting raised the need for unity of all working class forces to prepare the next revolutionary general strike...."

Samuel Farber – false friend of the Cuban workers

The origins of the Cuban Revolution reconsidered
Samuel Farber, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2006, pp214, £12.95

This book is Samuel Farber’s pre-emptive strike at saying something new in anticipation of ‘transition’ following Fidel Castro’s death and the end of the Cuban Revolution. In fact, he fails to say anything novel, merely demonstrating his credentials as a ‘Cubanologist’ and rehashing the tired old lies of Cuba’s ‘socialist’ critics. Despite following scholarly norms, Farber has a clear political agenda – articulated in articles and interviews with the US ‘Trotskyist’ press. Characterising the Revolution as nationalist, Fidel as populist and dictatorial, and the Cuban masses as passive, scared and manipulated, Farber implies that the Revolution, which, according to him was never socialist, will die with Fidel.

Farber plays an indispensable role for the anti-Cuban western left, providing historical substance to justify their reactionary position on Cuba, and it is for this reason that his book merits attention in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! In Britain, the left is uniquely reactionary, parroting Farber’s lies and distortions (see below). Farber’s credentials seem to be authentic; he was born and grew up in Cuba and he calls himself a ‘socialist’ to distance himself from the unpalatable right-wing extremism of the Cuban exile community, whose views he actually shares. This leads to an awkward and untenable political position which rubbishes the Revolution whilst claiming to uphold the interests of Cuban workers. To sustain this paradox, ‘socialist critics’ substitute meaningless phrases for real analysis. Farber describes Cuba as ‘bureaucratic collectivism’, the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) uses ‘state capitalism’, whilst most Trotskyists say it is either a ‘deformed’ or ‘degenerated’ workers’ state. But these ‘socialist’ critics – false friends of the Cuban workers – are incapable of explaining the longevity and vitality of Cuban socialism.

Ignoring or dismissing the remarkable gains the Revolution brought rapidly to the Cuban people in education, healthcare, housing, sport, culture, science and economic and social justice, reversing years of racism, sexism and class oppression, the left exposes its class interests. Only the privileged could so grossly underestimate the achievement of universal social provision in a small undeveloped country, after 500 years of colonialism and imperialism, still largely isolated, blockaded and under attack by imperialism. Left critics are forced to attack the Cuban road to socialism because it exposes the bankruptcy of their own political strategies based on pro-capitalist trade unions and engagement with liberal parliamentarianism. They refuse to recognise other social forces as the agents of revolutionary social change, including workers outside trade unions, and they regularly denounce the violence of the oppressed.

In The origins of the Cuban Revolution reconsidered, Farber claims to challenge two existing interpretations of how the Cuban Revolution developed from ‘antidictatorial, multiclass political revolution to communism’ (p6): 1) that the US administration pushed the Revolution towards the Soviet bloc or, 2) that the adoption of communism was the inevitable response by conscious revolutionaries to objective conditions. Farber finds a third way: ‘I emphasize the agency of the revolutionary leaders’ (p169), who were ‘greatly influenced by their own political predispositions and ideological inclinations’ (p112). Farber’s real endeavour is to assert that Fidel Castro’s ‘predisposition’ was an obsession with power.

‘Cubanology’ – a special niche for ‘dissidents’
In western academic institutions, Cuba Studies is dominated by ‘Cubanology’ a politically motivated school of interpretation which plays a central role in the ideological battle mounted against Cuban socialism. Cubanology’s roots lie in Cuba’s April 1961 defeat of the US-government sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, which demonstrated that the Revolution was here to stay. In response, US government and corporate business interests set up study centres and sponsored research on Cuba, to better understand their enemy. In 1961 alone two academic investigations were commissioned by the Pentagon and similar studies organised by the Special Operations Research Office of the American University. By the mid-1960s, a centre for Cuban studies was effectively formed by the CIA. The Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, founded in 1964 under the National Defense Education Act, came to dominate Cuba Studies. Its objectives were to compile information for planning future actions against the Revolution and to depict the Revolution negatively for a global audience. This meant denying all positive achievements of the Revolution, deriding official Cuban sources of information and disseminating misinformation about life in Cuba.

The school labelled itself ‘Cubanology’ from April 1970, following a conference organised by the US Library of Congress which resolved to write more sophisticated and supposedly ‘impartial’ material on Cuba. Some academics promote strategies to destroy the Revolution by incorporating Cuba into the capitalist world market, while others advocate counter-revolution from within or outside the island. ‘Academic’ events anticipating ‘transition’ are given legitimacy by the participation of Cubanologists. A key sponsor of Cubanology is the extreme right-wing Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), whose Bureau of Conferences has included respected academics, such as Hugh Thomas and Irving Horowitz.

The key tenets of Cubanology are: the Revolution of 1959 presents a rupture in Cuban history; Fidel Castro is synonymous with the Revolution, personally dominating domestic developments and foreign policy; there is no democracy and civil society is repressed; Cuban economic growth since 1959 has been negligible; pre-1959 dependency on the US was replaced by dependency on the USSR.

Farber upholds these tenets, and having been raised in Cuba, he shares the privileged position of exiles, or ‘dissidents’, within Cubanology. Individuals who previously worked as officials or intellectuals within the revolutionary regime enjoy a special status in anti-communist US institutions if they renounce political commitment to the Cuban Revolution and sign up to undermine its moral or economic viability: ‘Overnight, they become independent intellectuals with the keys to credibility in their pocket.’ (Rafael Hernandez, Boundary 2, 29:3, 2002, p125) It is not clear when or why Farber left Cuba, but by the early 1960s, he was in the US and a member of the International Socialist Club, which advocated a third camp position – neither Washington nor Havana. Renowned for his hostility to the Revolution, he denied any post-1959 achievements of Cuban socialism. He has lectured at Brooklyn College since 1978, writing on Cuba and the USSR. Farber’s work is heavily dependent on ‘dissidents’, relying on the accounts of embittered individuals who had prominent roles in the 26th July Movement (M26J) led by Fidel Castro, but who rejected the Revolution’s alliance with communists and the adoption of a socialist path. For example, through these counter-revolutionaries he describes divisions between Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara, without independent or documentary evidence (pp60-1).

While the hearsay of ‘dissidents’ is accepted as fact, material produced within Cuba is dismissed as ‘ideological’ or ‘unreliable’, as if intellectuals on the island lack the capacity for reflective thought. They are portrayed as mere bureaucrats repeating official discourse. Cuban historian Rafael Hernandez complains this is based on the myth that in capitalist societies ‘intellectuals’ act as society’s critical conscience: ‘equidistant from all political positions, a vestal virgin of some sterilized objectivity’ (Boundary, p130-1). Of course, ‘objectivity’ is a myth in a world divided into oppressed and oppressor classes, and in Cuba, intellectuals, particularly historians, have always been central to social and political movements.

Samuel Farber – false friend of the Cuban workers
Farber’s lies are easily refuted by the most fleeting examination of Cuban history:

1) Lie One: The Revolution is synonymous with Fidel Castro: ‘Fidel Castro’s notion of stages was guided in part by his determination to keep as much personal political control as possible.’ (p66)

Bent on all-out war against both Fidel and history, Farber is forced to concoct a pseudo-analysis to explain Fidel’s undisputed leadership for half a century. Spitting out the words ‘populist’, ‘bonapartist’ and ‘caudillo’ on every page, his argument is circular and repeatedly trips him up. Farber’s Fidel is a ‘declassed’ (p138, p168) ‘bonapartist’ (p116) ‘caudillo’ (p49, p63, p67-8), both from and transcending the politically militant populist tradition (p41, p58), who managed class struggle from the top (p121), using ‘salami’ tactics to defeat his enemies (p124, p127), had affinity with the Soviets (p67) but led Cuba to ‘communism’ as a result of a conjunctural choice in order to maintain control (p63, p66, p68, p170). Sound ridiculous? It is.

Farber’s story is that during the revolutionary struggle, Castro kept his political programme deliberately vague (p111, p157, p168), whilst dividing and conquering opponents (p67) and moulding declassed individuals (p138): ‘into faithful followers of his caudillo leadership’ (p44). He was not fussy which political direction his radical revolution took as long as: ‘he would remain in control’ (p63). Farber strips Castro of all politics, principles, ideology and ethics, without even suggesting that he is motivated by the material benefits of power. Castro appears irrational. Cuban-American sociologist Nelson Valdes calls this the poverty of subjectivism, the idea that Castro’s charisma, ego or psychological state have been more important than, for example, the concrete impact of US aggression in determining developments in Cuba. Cubanologists never tell us how they are privy to Castro’s subjective urges and psychological drives. Refusing to recognise the revolutionary process, Farber censors a rich history of internal debate, conflict and consensus, insisting that Fidel is synonymous with the Revolution.

The dilemma which trips Farber up – how a multiclass struggle against dictatorship turns to socialism and class war – is easily understood in the context of a revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle. What Farber dismisses as ‘populism’ are the alliances which Lenin highlighted as characteristic of national liberation movements: between the working class, peasantry and progressive sections of the bourgeoisie. The Revolution began as a popular movement, but structural contradictions with imperialism and national oligarchies, along with a commitment to social justice, propelled it towards socialism.

Farber spits about Fidel’s ‘unquestionable tactical genius’ (p40) in reference to his calls for unity. For Fidel unity has always meant uniting behind a programme of social and economic justice. If the Revolution were to adhere to Castro’s statements in his History Will Absolve Me speech and the Moncada Programme of the M26J, it would have to confront US imperialism, and that meant confronting the dependent domestic capitalist class – the struggle inevitably took on an anti-capitalist character. As social scientist Ernesto Laclau argued in the 1970s, the highest form of populism is socialism. The strategy encouraged many members of the petit-bourgeoisie – in the biographical words of Angel Arcos, colleague of Che Guevara – to ‘commit class suicide’, sacrificing their material interests to throw in their lot with the workers’ revolution.

2) Lie Two: The Cuban Revolution is not a workers’ revolution. After January 1959, trade unions became: ‘mere policy tools in the hands of the Soviet Union and the Cuban communists.’ (p123)

In Trotskyist dogma, trade unions are a critical form of organisation for the politically advanced sections of the working class. The ‘original sin’ of the Cuban Revolution is that it was not led by the trade unions, and did not, therefore, constitute the self-emancipation of the working class. It could never be socialist. Farber censors and distorts history to justify his Trotskyist analysis.

Farber skips over the revolutionary upheaval of the late 1920s, when rural workers set up soviets in sugar mills across the country, and the Revolution of 1933 against the Machado dictatorship in which workers and students formed a radical new government. Robbing Cuban workers of their history of militancy, he avoids explaining how the trade unions had abated into ‘economism’ – prioritising individual interests over the class conscious struggle for socialism – and co-option, by the mid-1940s under the Autentico government. The repression and murder of communists and other radical trade union leaders and their replacement by pro-government puppets and gangsters is airily referred to as: ‘competition between Communist labor leaders, who had just been forcefully expelled from many of their union positions…and the Autentico labor factions who had just been installed in office by party members controlling the national government’ (p25).

New leaders co-opted the unions into the system; their workers’ benefited from improved salaries, conditions, and even state intervention, which entrenched economistic tendencies among unionised workers. Farber cites that 50% of Cuban workers were in trade unions in the 1950s (p22), but says: ‘the popular majorities did not necessarily possess such radical, let alone "socialist" political consciousness’ (p33) in January 1959. Farber refuses to explain this paradox, a significant unionised working class, which won concessions to improve sectoral conditions, but lacked a socialist consciousness. This process of co-option was part of broader phenomena of obscene and institutionalised use of graft, corruption and patronage in the 1940s-1950s, not mentioned until much later by Farber.

Eusebio Mujal, head of the Cuban Workers Confederation (CTC), responded to Batista’s coup in March 1952 with co-operation and complicity. Farber states that Batista created: ‘an attractive climate for investment through such means as suppressing the union movement’s autonomy, repressing strikes, and government giveaways’ (p32). Trotskyist dogma prevents Farber from acknowledging a differentiated working class or the possibility of revolutionary leadership outside the trade union movement, so he fails to understand the dialectic of the Cuban struggle. For example, while conceding that many of the participants in the Granma expedition, led by Fidel in 1956 ‘seem to have been workers by origin or occupation’, he denies them legitimacy be_cause: ‘very few had been active or even involved in trade union or working-class political organizations.’ (pp49-50). As if not participating in co-opted, economistic, corrupt trade unions prevented them from being representatives of the working class.

Unable to organise against the dictatorship through the official trade union apparatus, workers built up alternative labour organisations culminating in the launch in late 1958 of the National Workers Confederation, a class conscious, revolutionary trade union apparatus uniting the M26J, the Revolutionary Directorate (DR) and the Cuban Communist Party (PSP). This was in addition to their civil and armed mobilisation in the mountains and the cities. The general strike called by Fidel Castro on 3 and 4 January 1959 paralysed the country.

In January 1959, the old trade unions still had to be won over to a programme of revolutionary social change, in the interests of the whole working class, instead of just promoting sectoral interests from the margins. Fidel told the trade unions not to struggle for crumbs, but to take power. Following two decades of economism what would have been the political expression of trade union autonomy in the context of revolution, counter-revolution, class war and imperialist attack? In the initial post-1959 period, some trade unions failed to identify their class interests with the revolution. In 1963 Faure Chomón Mediavilla, leader of the DR, was responsible for reorganising the trade union movement. He explained the problem:

‘There was a negative tendency in trade unions led by old union leaders who, at the triumph of the Revolution, used the fact that this was a Revolution of the workers to obtain in a disorganised and even ruthless way, big salaries that did not correspond with the economy of the country. These economistic tendencies infiltrated the workers’ ranks so the Revolution was seen only in terms of how much they earn and how much more they want to earn, without analysing how the Revolution should be made and how much it costs; ruining consciousness by taking a syndicalist position as if the state were just a foolish big boss from whom they had to get the most out that they could.’ (Interview, February 2005)

The election of new trade union leaders was directed by the revolutionary government, in the context of forging a new state: dismantling old institutions, creating a new apparatus with new social relations, new alliances, new political priorities and new battles. Changes were discussed in Production Assemblies in every workplace, and workers’ activism in these developments was not limited to membership of trade unions. They also joined technical advisory committees, local militia, street committees, organisations of the masses, revolutionary organisations, the women’s federation and so on.

Today there are 19 major industrial trade unions in Cuba, two of them set up in the 1990s, alongside the Commissions for Labour Justice, where elected workers and administrators co-operate in resolving conflicts. In addition, the working class controls all the apparatus of the state and directs it in its class interest.

3) Lie Three: There is no democracy and no civil society in Cuba: ‘the Cuban masses have remained the objects rather than the subjects of history’ (p68).

Parliamentary liberalism has monopolised the term ‘democracy’ when referring to the form of political organisation preferred by advanced capitalist countries; power sharing between elites who serve the interests of capital accumulation. The Cuban Revolution has developed a different form of democracy, one that means direct participation by all citizens in policy formulation and equal access to social and economic welfare. Despite his socialist label, like all Cubanologists, Farber’s work is premised on the liberal bourgeois concept of democracy. Farber dismisses Cuban elections and the National Assembly of People’s Power as a ‘pseudo-parliament’, because ‘there is only one legal political party, the Cuban Communist Party, which is also an integral part of the state. It is a one party state.’ (New Politics, summer 2003).

In fact, the Communist Party does not stand in elections. It is the ideological motor of the Revolution and separate from government. In Cuba, all state power flows from workers’ councils of recallable delegates, called Assemblies of People’s Power. Every two and a half years Cubans elect delegates from neighbourhood wards of up to 1,500 people to Municipal Assemblies. These in turn elect delegates to 14 Provincial Assemblies, who elect to the National Assembly, the country’s highest authority. Voting turnout is between 95-98% of adults over 16 years old and ballot boxes are guarded by children from the Pioneers organisation. This Cuban ‘parliament’ has over 600 elected deputies, half of whom represent their local areas, the other half sectoral interests, such as the 19 industrial trade unions, students, women, small farmers, artists, religious and sexuality-based groups. Fidel Castro is subject to the electoral process. It would be undemocratic to demand that he be replaced against the will of the majority. Key tenets of participatory democracy, whose origins lie in the Paris Commune of 1871, are the right of recall and a workers’ salary, which prevents the emergence of a professional political class. These are embedded and implemented in the Cuban system, under which delegates report back to their electors every six months.

Farber struggles to account for the Cuban people’s enduring commitment to the Revolution and its leaders in the absence of multi-party liberalism. He concludes that 1959 was a revolution from above in which the population participated, but did not control or direct (p168). Whilst detailing: ‘the tripod on which Castro consolidated his power: popular support, manipulation of that support, and repression’ (p133), Farber censors the impact of sabotage, terrorism and the US blockade, and the benefits the Revolution has brought to the vast majority of Cubans. He insults the entire population, portraying a society which has no independent existence beyond the Party, the government and the alleged ‘elite’.

Farber predicts that following Fidel Castro’s death: ‘A capitalist transition is likely to be led, as in the Soviet Union and China, by Cuban Communists and would restore, although not necessarily in the same form, much of the power that the United States lost in Cuba almost fifty years ago’ (p172). Farber’s pretensions are that: ‘my book might be useful to people who will try to build a revolutionary and democratic alternative… [which]…would mean organizing people from below in Cuba’ (IV Online Magazine, February 2007).

In anticipating ‘transition’, Farber urges revolutionaries and democrats to organise outside the institutions of the Revolution, and that means against it. In his frustration, this Trojan horse of US imperialism is forced to admit that the only ‘dissidents’ in Cuba are pro-capitalist and pro-US. They are also mainly rich and white. The working class, and all those sections who suffered capitalist oppression before the Revolution, are shoulder to shoulder with Fidel and Raul, marching forward to socialism.

Helen Yaffe

Farber, Harman and the SWP

‘For 3rd camp tendencies such as the British SWP, the American ISO and the journal New Politics, Farber is an indispensable expert – especially necessary in light of their general lack of knowledge and first-hand experience with the island.’ (Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist,

Chris Harman, Central Committee member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) used the opportunity of reviewing Farber’s book to attack Cuban socialism (‘Cuba: Behind the myths’, International Socialism 111 Summer 2006). He celebrates Farber’s credentials as ‘a revolutionary socialist Cuban exile’, critical of Cuba and struggling against US capitalism, and repeats verbatim the same lies and distortions. Farber was a colleague of SWP founder Tony Cliff.

Harman favourably quotes Rene Dumont, a French agronomist who was in Cuba in August 1960. As private land and industry were beginning to be expropriated and nationalised, Dumont urged the Cuban government to adopt the ‘free’ market mechanisms – material incentives, profit and market pricing – to allocate production and consumption. Dumont promoted capitalism, just as the Revolution took its first steps towards socialisation. Despite his published criticisms and opposition to the newly established ‘peoples’ farms’, Dumont was invited back to Cuba for further investigations and to discuss his criticisms. Che Guevara, who battled against market socialism as the road to capitalist restoration, regarded Dumont as an enemy.

Harman also leans on Cubanologist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, director of the Centre for Latin American studies (see above) set up to oppose the Revolution. Harman and the SWP are located within the right-wing of Cubanology. Taking their lead from extremists in the Miami exile community, the SWP’s lies over the years have included:

• The working class played no role in the Revolution, has hardly benefited and is exploited by the Cuban government.
• Che Guevara knew nothing about Marxism and left Cuba because Fidel kicked him out.
• Cuba acted as a stooge of ‘Soviet imperialism’ in sending troops to Angola to fight apartheid South Africa’s occupation.
• Homosexuals and those with HIV/ AIDS are persecuted and/or imprisoned in Cuba.
• The army controls prostitution in Cuba.
• Cuba’s health and education achievements are merely the product of Soviet aid.

In July 2002, an SWP hack even recommended the website of terrorist Jorge Mas Canosa and the Cuban American National Foundation (see FRFI 168).

Progressive movements on the rise in Latin America benefit from the example and support of Cuban socialism. Cuba has sent 16,000 doctors and thousands of educators to the slums of Venezuela. Others are in Bolivia. 30,000 doctors are posted throughout the oppressed world. This inspiring example of proletarian internationalism is condemned by the SWP who fear that the Cuban Revolution will be used as a model. Turning reality upside down, Harman says: ‘There are attempts to use Cuban prestige to hold the mass movements in Venezuela back from moves against local capitalism and any serious breaks with the multinationals… Dressing up the commercial exchange of Cuban doctors for Venezuelan oil as an act of ‘socialist solidarity’ is then used to attempt to derail revolutionary possibilities’ (IS 111). Thanking Harman for his positive book review, Farber says: ‘I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiments expressed by Chris in his concluding remarks that "support for Cuba against US imperialism, its threats and its embargo must not turn into support for a Cuban model that offers nothing to the new revolutionary movements"’ (IS 112).

Farber, Harman and the SWP side with imperialism in opposing the growing revolutionary unity within Latin America, which gives the first hope in decades of defeating vicious neo-liberal policies.

Helen Yaffe