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

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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.

Submitted by J Lowrie (not verified) on Tue, 07/03/2012 - 08:08