Samuel Farber discusses Cuba’s future – but ignores the blockade
[See also Chris Slee's free pamphlet Cuba -- How the workers and peasants made the revolution and "System or siege? Samuel Farber misses the main cause of Cuba's problems", Slee's review of Farber's book Cuba since the revolution of 1959: a critical assessment.]
By Chris Slee
January 21, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Samuel Farber has recently written an article on “The Future of the Cuban Revolution”. This article contains some useful information on “the emergence of new tendencies and debates” in Cuba. But Farber’s article is fundamentally flawed. It contains not a single word about the 55-year-long campaign by the United States government to overturn the Cuban revolution!
This campaign began after Cuba nationalised US-owned sugar plantations in 1959. It included an attempted invasion in April 1961, and numerous acts of terrorism by the Central Intelligence Agency, together with Cuban exiles armed, trained, financed and protected by the US government. One example was the bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976, killing 78 people.
But the central feature of the US campaign against Cuba has been an economic blockade. The US government not only blocks trade between Cuba and the United States, but also tries to stop other countries from trading with Cuba. Ships that have been to Cuba are banned from entering US ports. The US has imposed penalties on foreign companies and banks that have had dealings with the Cuban government.
As a result of the blockade there are shortages of many kinds of goods in Cuba. This includes not only consumer goods, but also some medical supplies.
Despite the blockade, the Cuban people have made big gains in some areas, such as health and education. However Cuba remains a poor country.
The former Soviet Union used to provide an alternative trading partner for Cuba, partially countering the effects of the US blockade. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba suffered a deep economic crisis. Shortages worsened and living standards declined.
This situation contributed to a rise in corruption, as many people were tempted to supplement their meagre legal incomes by illegal means. Also, the income gap between those receiving remittances from relatives abroad and those without such remittances increased, undermining the situation of relative economic equality that had existed in Cuba since the early years of the revolution.
Farber mentions these problems, but without mentioning the blockade as a contributing factor. He says:
Cuba’s ongoing process of moral decay and social breakdown, denounced even by Castro himself, is a reflection of a political and socioeconomic system to which many poor and working-class people – particularly the 40 percent of the population which does not receive remittances from abroad – see no alternative to emigration or law-breaking.
Farber fails to see that “moral decay and social breakdown” are a result of the pressures imposed on an isolated socialist state by a hostile capitalist environment. The US blockade, and the resulting damage to Cuba’s economy, are a major part of that.
Karl Marx recognised the link between economic underdevelopment, poverty and what Farber calls “moral decay”. Marx said:
A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.
Trotsky extended this analysis, arguing that a revolution isolated in a backward country was likely to result in bureaucratic degeneration and capitalist restoration.
This did not mean that Trotsky thought revolutionaries in an isolated workers’ state should just give up. On the contrary, he thought they should defend that state while doing whatever they could to encourage revolutions elsewhere.
However an isolated workers’ state cannot be a model of socialism. It is likely to be a “workers state with bureaucratic distortions”, to quote a phrase used by Lenin to describe the Soviet Union in 1921.
The only solution to this dilemma is the spread of revolution to other countries.
Cuba can’t make revolutions happen in other countries by an act of will. But Cuba has supported new revolutionary governments when they have arisen in Venezuela and Bolivia. For example, Cuba has sent thousands of doctors to these countries, as well as training doctors from these countries so they can continue to provide medical care after the Cuban doctors leave.
Cuba provides similar medical aid to many other countries around the world, including countries as far away as East Timor. This is described in the book Revolutionary Doctors, by Steve Brouwer.
Farber does not discuss Cuba’s international solidarity work at all, despite its importance for “the future of the Cuban revolution”. However the US government is extremely worried about the work of Cuban doctors – to such an extent that it offers them incentives to desert. In 2006 the US government instituted the Cuban Medical Personnel Parole Program. According to Brouwer:
The policy allowed Cuban doctors, nurses, administrators, lab technicians, sports trainers, and other people loosely associated with the humanitarian medical missions to visit the host country’s US embassy and apply for quick and easy entry into the United States.
The program has had limited success. The rate of desertion is only about 2 per cent. This shows that Farber’s picture of “moral decay” in Cuba is not the whole story. Many Cubans are still committed to the humanitarian goals of the revolution.
Why is the US so frightened of Cuban doctors? The answer is that, despite all Cuba’s problems and shortcomings, the US still fears Cuba’s example. Cuban doctors providing free health care to the poor, and training local doctors to continue their work, provide a vivid alternative to the neoliberal model.
US concerns about Cuba eightened after the election of the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela. Colonel Max Manwaring, of the US Army War College, warned that: “Chavez and Venezuela are developing the conceptual and physical capability to challenge the status quo in Latin America, and to generate a ‘super-insurgency’.”
While the phrase “super-insurgency” is rhetoric aimed at making the actions of the left governments in Latin America seem sinister, Manwaring’s concern about the challenge to the status quo is real.
The reason why the blockade of Cuba continues, 55 years after the revolution, is to keep Cuba poor, thereby reducing its attractiveness as an example of socialism, and reducing its ability to help other countries. Socialists in the United States should be campaigning against the blockade, but Farber says nothing about this.
Having explained what is missing from Farber’s article, I will briefly discuss his outline of the debates occurring in Cuba.
Farber says there is a debate within the Communist Party between those favouring “the Sino-Vietnamese model -- a state capitalism that retains a monopoly of political power through a single party, which controls the strategic sectors of the economy, such as banking, while sharing the rest with a private sector both foreign and domestic”, and “sectors of the bureaucracy afraid that the implementation of Chinese-style reforms could erode their power”.
I agree that there are sections of the bureaucracy that would like to enrich themselves through privatisation on the Chinese model, while other sectors think that maintenance of the status quo would be more beneficial to them. However I don’t think the debate around market reforms is purely a matter of a struggle among competing sectors of the bureaucracy.
In the period leading up to the adoption of the new economic policy in 2011 there were discussions in workplaces, educational institutions and localities throughout Cuba. There was a genuine discussion about how the need for efficiency and the need for social protection should be balanced in the difficult circumstances created by the blockade.
Raul Castro promised that:
In Cuba, under socialism, there will never be space for “shock therapies” that go against the neediest, who have traditionally been the staunchest supporters of the Revolution.
He argued that the reforms would “make it easier for the state to continue ensuring health care and education services free of charge and on equal footing to all of the people and their adequate protection through the social welfare system”.
Of course, we will have to see how well these promises are fulfilled in practice. But they do indicate that the needs of ordinary people, and not just rival groups of bureaucrats, are a factor in the decision-making process.
Farber gives an informative account of various groups or currents of thought participating in the discussion in Cuba, ranging from the Catholic Church to various leftists. The leftists include “a liberal Communist tendency critical of various aspects of Cuban society but loyal to the regime” and an “open left-wing critical current”.
Referring to a group called the Red Observatorio Critico (Critical Observatory Network), part of what he calls the “open left-wing critical current”, Farber notes that:
In spite of their efforts, Observatorio and other elements of the critical left have not yet been able to establish a deep relationship with any major social group, a difficulty shared also with right-wing dissidents. Official repression, the government’s stranglehold on the mass media, and highly limited internet access explain why few Cubans are exposed to the critical thinking anywhere on the political spectrum.
But in my view, the reluctance of Cubans to join a group openly critical of the government is not solely due to repression or censorship. Cuba has been a society under siege for 55 years. In this situation people who support the revolution are conscious of the need for unity. The desire to present a united public face to the world can lead to reluctance to openly criticise the government. In the case of officials controlling the media, it can be a reason -- or a pretext -- for restricting public debate.
In 1992 Cuban poet Cintio Vitier spoke of “the embattled trench into which our Revolution has been increasingly forced” and said:
A trench is not a parliament….in the face of the enemy, ideas have to become entrenched, united for a resistance without fissures.
The mentality created by living in a “trench”, or under a “siege”, is very problematic. Free discussion is necessary to solve, or at least ameliorate, Cuba’s many problems. But to completely abolish the “siege mentality” that restricts free discussion, it is necessary to abolish the siege, the US blockade)
This highlights the importance of campaigning against the blockade in the United States.
2. Cited by Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder Press, New York,1972, p. 56.
3. Lenin, Collected Works, Progress Press, Moscow, 1973, vol. 32, p. 48.
4. Steve Brouwer, Revolutionary Doctors, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2011.
5. Brouwer, pp. 169-170.
6. Brouwer, pp. 170-172.
7. Cited by Brouwer, p. 201.
8. Speech opening the Cuban Communist Party congress. See:
9. Cited by Brouwer, p. 196.