System or siege? Samuel Farber misses the main cause of Cuba's problems
Cuba since the revolution of 1959: a critical assessment
By Samuel Farber
Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2011
Review by Chris Slee
June 13, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Samuel Farber was born in Cuba, but moved to the United States in 1958. He is an emeritus professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, and has been involved in the socialist movement for over 50 years. He has written extensively on Cuba, from a point of view highly critical of the Cuban government. His views are promoted by sections of the US left, in particular the International Socialist Organization. While many of his criticisms have some validity, in my view he downplays the achievements of the Cuban revolution, and underestimates the impact of the US blockade in causing the problems and difficulties that Cuba faces.
Farber says the aim of his latest book is “to present an alternative view to two influential perspectives: first, the view of those opponents of the Cuban system who would replace it with the rule of the capitalist marketplace, whether in its neoliberal or social democratic versions, and a direct or indirect reassertion of US hegemony over the island; second, the arguments of those who apologise for the Cuban system, although sometimes under the cover of academic or journalistic detachment.”
He says: “Central to my perspective is a view of socialist democracy in which institutions based on majority rule control the principal sources of economic, social and political power at the local and national levels. To be a fully participatory democracy it must be based on the self-mobilisation and organisation of the people, and the rule of the majority has to be complemented by minority rights and civil liberties.”
He is easily able to document numerous departures from these principles during the 50 years of the Cuban revolution, particularly in relation to “minority rights and civil liberties”.
But the question is whether these are an inevitable feature of an inherently oppressive “system” that exists in Cuba, or whether they are a result of attempting to build socialism under very unfavourable circumstances.
Farber acknowledges that some degree of repression is inevitable in a country such as Cuba that is under attack by imperialism:
Unquestionably, the revolutionary government has the right to defend itself from violent aggression by forces organised by and serving US imperial interests. For example, when right before the April 1961 US-sponsored invasion the Cuban government detained tens of thousands of people suspected of potentially aiding the invaders, it could not have acted otherwise given the real threat it confronted from the United States.
But Farber argues that the Cuban government has been more repressive than was required by objective circumstances -- a phenomenon he calls “surplus repression”.
The problem, however, is that the government has used its legitimate self-defense needs as an ideological cover to justify a system that is intrinsically repressive regardless, as we have seen over more than five decades, of whether it is confronting violent opposition or peaceful dissent. No wonder then that the regime has often raised the specter of a US invasion to justify domestic repression. This was the case, for example, in March 2003, when for numerous reasons there was no possibility of Washington's carrying out that kind of aggression against Cuba. Nevertheless, it was necessary to evoke the possibility of a US invasion to justify the crackdown that resulted in the arrests of and long prison sentences given to seventy-five peaceful dissidents.
It should be noted that March 2003 was the month when the United States invaded Iraq. It is no doubt true that the US would have been unlikely to invade two countries in the same month, which would have strained its military capacities. But if the Iraq invasion had succeeded in imposing a stable pro-imperialist government, the US would have been tempted to repeat its success elsewhere.
Thus in my view the Cuban leadership had good grounds to be genuinely fearful of a US invasion -- not immediately, but in the near future. This helps to explain the arrest of pro-imperialist dissidents, who were seen as a threat to the national unity needed in the face of the imperialist threat.
I would agree with Farber that there has been a good deal of “surplus repression” in Cuba. But even repression that was not objectively necessary was often a product of the mindset created by real imperialist threats. Cuba has been living under siege for 50 years, and this creates a siege mentality.
In addition to the economic blockade there have been numerous terrorist attacks and the ongoing threat of invasion. Preparations for military aggression against Cuba began in 1959, within months of the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship.
The United States became openly hostile to the new Cuban government following the adoption of a radical agrarian reform law in May 1959.
At that point, the US government became openly critical and demanded prompt compensation for the US lands [i.e. lands in Cuba owned by US business interests] to be seized under the new law. The US government concluded, although it did not publicly state, that the Cuban government would not cede to US pressure and had to be replaced. Thus, it initially encouraged internal opposition to the regime, but by the end of 1959, it began to implement a program to get rid of the Castro government by force.
Miami became the operational centre for US military and terrorist activity against the Cuban government as early as May 1959, when the CIA established its first front organisation (the Double Check Corporation) in the city. However it was only in the fall of that year that a military strategy began to play a central role in US policy toward Cuba.
The Cuban leaders, noticing the growing US hostility, began to prepare for resistance to a possible US invasion -- for example, they began to create a popular militia.
In my view, the Cuban leadership’s awareness of the impending threat helps explain some of the actions taken, beginning in 1959, which Farber criticises as undemocratic.
Before dealing with a couple of the examples Farber cites, I will put them in context by discussing the nature of the revolution.
How the revolution was made
The Cuban revolution was not just a matter of a few hundred guerrilla fighters defeating the army of the Batista dictatorship in the mountains and then marching into the cities (as it is often portrayed).
The workers, peasants and students played an active role before, during and after the insurrection that destroyed the Batista dictatorship in January 1959. For example, Fidel Castro called a general strike which developed into a mass popular uprising during the first few days of January 1959. The subsequent transformation of property relations was the result of ongoing mass struggles by the workers and peasants.
Farber downplays the degree of resistance to the Batista dictatorship among the workers, saying:
As oppressed individuals, increasingly hostile to Batista, they were unable to consistently respond as a class, that is, through a trade union or any other form of class organisation. To have done so, they would have had to develop a clandestine union or shop-floor structure in opposition to both the dictatorship and its trade-union collaborators, a task in which they only attained a limited degree of success during the last two years of the Batista dictatorship.
In fact, the degree of success varied in different parts of Cuba. The July 26 Movement’s influence in the working class was stronger in Oriente province than in Havana. By mid-1957, according to US author Julia Sweig, “Local labour cells [in Oriente] had already carried out mini-shutdowns, and walkouts were operating under a real structure.”
The growing strength of the July 26 Movement and the establishment of collaboration with the Popular Socialist Party (the pro-Moscow communist party), which had previously been hostile to the July 26 Movement, culminated in the successful nationwide general strike of January 1959 (after two failed attempts).
Speaking of this strike, which began on January 2, Farber says:
The general strike that took place immediately after Batista fled the country in the early hours of January 1, 1959, was not a class but a national action called by Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement. Practically the whole population supported the strike, including the Cuban bourgeoisie and the middle classes, which were still enjoying their “honeymoon” with the revolutionary leaders. The January 1959 strike was the rebels’ insurance policy against any possible coup aimed at preventing them from achieving total victory. The strike became a national holiday when for a whole week tens of thousands of people lined up to greet Castro and the rebel army in their slow procession from the east of the island toward Havana.
This account ignores the role of the urban underground in preparing for the strike. It also ignores the role of the strike in helping to destroy the old state apparatus. When Batista fled Cuba on January 1, 1959, he handed over power to General Eulogio Cantillo. The United States hoped that it would be possible to maintain the old state apparatus under a new leadership. The general strike, combined with the guerrilla advance, prevented this from happening.
Following the insurrection, a period of intense class struggle ensued. Throughout 1959, the workers and peasants repeatedly mobilised to demand radical change. There were huge mass rallies and four more general strikes.
After the insurrection former judge Manuel Urrutia had become provisional president. He was basically conservative, though as a judge he had defied Batista by issuing a dissenting minority verdict in a trial of some July 26 Movement members.
Castro had appointed him as provisional president because of the popularity he had won through his defiance of Batista, but no doubt also hoping to reassure the Cuban capitalists and the US government.
However in July 1959, mass protests forced Urrutia's resignation, after he had been denounced by Castro. Farber criticises “Fidel Castro's manipulation of popular support” to bring about Urrutia's downfall. 
In my view, the mobilisation of the masses to force the resignation of a conservative president was justified. The deepening of the revolution -- exemplified by the radical new land reform law -- was necessarily accompanied by the removal of conservative figures from positions of power.
However, the absence of a structured process for the election of a new government was problematic. This was not remedied until the establishment of the People’s Power system of elections to local, regional and national assemblies in the early 1970s.
Farber also criticises the methods used in removing anti-communist union officials from their positions.
During the 1959-60 period, many union officials were removed from office after being accused of having collaborated with the Batista dictatorship. They were removed by what Farber describes as “carefully staged and controlled union meetings”. It seems clear that in many cases the accusations of collaboration with the Batista regime were false.
Why did this purge happen? In my view it was a response to the growing US threat, combined with the deepening divisions inside the July 26 Movement. Right-wing elements of the July 26 Movement, including some union officials, were making public statements about the threat of “communism” in Cuba. The left saw a danger of US intervention, backed by right-wing sections of Cuban society, including the right wing of the July 26 Movement. The purge was a pre-emptive strike against this danger. It was carried out hastily because of a sense of urgency, as a result of the growing counter-revolutionary threat.
It was certainly necessary to replace right-wing union officials with others who could be relied on to defend the revolution against imperialist attacks. But the often undemocratic way in which this was done damaged the union movement and caused problems later.
Right wing officials were replaced by people from the Popular Socialist Party and the left wing of the July 26 Movement. Under the new leadership the unions helped build the people’s militia, and participated in the nationalisation of industry.
The expropriation of capitalist property was not just a matter of the government passing a few laws. It involved the mobilisation of the masses.
Joaquin Bustelo (a US socialist from a Cuban exile family background) explains the role of the workers and peasants in carrying out the expropriation of capitalist property:
Who actually took over the land and drove out the landlord or his caretakers? The peasants themselves, organised and led by the agrarian reform delegates.
Who actually took over the more than 1,000 enterprises that were expropriated on one day in October of 1960? The National Revolutionary Militias. Years later in Miami (former) Cuban capitalists were still complaining about how fundamentally unfair it was to have your OWN workers show up with guns and a nationalization order from the state.
Without the active, conscious and direct participation of the workers and peasants themselves in the transformation, what happened in Cuba was not possible. Who was to run the factory, warehouse or other business the morning after the expropriation? Who could organise and reactivate production?
The idea that this was done by the cadre of a peasant-based rebel army of at most 1,000 is preposterous. Tens of thousands of armed, disciplined workers took part in the takeover of factories, plants and warehouses simultaneously in October of 1960 through THEIR militia units and hundreds of thousands of workers took part in reactivating the workplaces over the next several days through their unions. There was, physically, in Cuba, in October of 1960, no one else who could have done it.
Thus, the left-wing leadership which consolidated its control of the union movement in 1959-60, following the purge of right-wing officials, had some important achievements to its credit. However, it also made some mistakes.
The unions became almost entirely concerned with promoting production and national defence (both of which were certainly necessary in a country under siege). But they were insufficiently concerned with protecting the interests of workers against abuses by management, and they did not question mistaken decisions of the revolutionary government.
Unanimous votes and uncontested elections became the norm in the union movement. In part this may have been due to a desire of workers in a country under siege to present a united face to the world. But Stalinist concepts brought into the union movement (and Cuban society more broadly) by the Popular Socialist Party also played a role.
The lack of democracy and the overemphasis on production alienated workers from the unions (and paradoxically hurt production, with rising levels of absenteeism, and often a reduced level of enthusiasm among workers while at work).
Beginning in the early 1970s there was a renewed emphasis on union democracy. Contested elections became the norm, with voting by secret ballot, and workers could recall their representatives.
The role of unions in defending workers’ rights against abuses by management was again emphasised, as was their role in occupational health and safety.
The democratisation of the unions went hand in hand with the creation of the People’s Power system of government, in which elections are held for local, regional and national representative bodies.
Farber, however, does not believe that either the unions or the People’s Power system are genuinely democratic. He says:
This is a very peculiar type of “democracy” with only one legal party and devoid of politics. Candidates from the lowest to the highest levels cannot present and campaign for their political programs and points of view; they can only publicise brief biographies describing their revolutionary merits and experience.
It is true that the absence of opposition parties means that elections are not a focus for debate on the overall direction of the country. It is also true that the scope of political and ideological discussion in the Cuban media has usually been very limited.
In my view, the limits on public discussion are largely a response to the 50-year imperialist siege. There is a desire to present a united public face to the world, because it is feared that the imperialists would try to take advantage of any divisions.
Another factor limiting discussion in the media is the desire not to offend allies or potential allies. For example there was no discussion of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union while the latter still existed. Today there is a reluctance to criticise Third World governments that have friendly relations with Cuba, even if they oppress their own people.
The government believes that opposition parties could undermine the unity needed in the face of imperialist pressures (including military threats). This helps explain the repression of dissidents, such as the 75 arrested in March 2003.
These people received some funding from the US government. The amounts were small, but the Cuban government was no doubt concerned that it could grow. If the small right-wing dissident groups that currently exist were able to receive unlimited funding from imperialist governments and corporations, they might be able to create opposition parties and media.
These concerns are understandable, but whether severe penalties, such as those imposed on the 75 dissidents, are the best way to deal with the problem is debatable.
Discussion in Cuba
The absence of opposition parties does not mean there is no discussion in Cuba. Major new laws and policies under consideration by the government are discussed in workplaces and mass organisations, often resulting in revisions to the proposals. Of course, the government has the final say, but at least workers have some input into the law-making process, unlike in capitalist countries.
An example of such a discussion was that which occurred in 2010-2011. The government released draft guidelines on the proposed new economic and social policy in November 2010. The guidelines were discussed in workplaces, educational institutions and local communities throughout Cuba. According to Cuba’s President Raul Castro:
The discussions extended for three months, from December 1, 2010 to February 28 of this year , with the participation of 8,913,838 people in more than 163 thousand meetings held by the different organisations in which over three million people offered their contributions ...
In a truly extensive democratic exercise, the people freely stated their views, clarified their doubts, proposed amendments, expressed their dissatisfactions and discrepancies, and suggested that we work toward the solution of other problems not included in the document.
As a result of these discussions, two-thirds of the guidelines were modified in some way.
Farber dismisses these discussions:
These “discussions” have pretended to be democratic but take place within an organisational framework that denies and subverts the very essence of democracy. In the first place, the official party media have exclusive control of what and how to report on what transpires at discussion meetings in offices and factories... People participating in those discussions had no organisation of their own, nor were they allowed to communicate and organise on behalf of their grievances with people participating in discussions in other workplaces... [T]rained party cadres were going to be present at each discussion to “guide it” and transmit the party “orientations” that came from above. 
In reality, the party cadres did not just transmit “orientations” from “above”, but also transmitted the responses from “below” to the party and government leadership.
As Farber admits:
Still, these discussions did communicate to the party leadership much of the discontent and the complaints at the grass roots. These in turn resulted in mostly minor adjustments to the program that was eventually adopted at the congress, and the inclusion of several guidelines conveying some important promises to the Cuban people.
The current reforms
Farber views the changes as representing a “turn toward a Cuban variant of the Sino-Vietnamese model combining capitalism with a substantial state economic presence and political authoritarianism”.
Certainly there are similarities between some of the changes now being made in Cuba and some of the changes that have previously happened in China and Vietnam -- for example, the policies to encourage a greater role for small business.
But I think it would be wrong to assume that Cuba will simply follow the Chinese model. The massive privatisation of state-owned industry that occurred in China in the 1990s was preceded and accompanied by massive repression, of which the 1989 Beijing massacre was an example. Nothing similar has happened in Cuba.
Raul Castro has tried to reassure people worried about the direction Cuba is going:
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... The Revolution will not leave any Cuban helpless. The social welfare system is being reorganised to ensure a rational and deferential support to those who really need it...
The growth of the non-public sector of the economy, far from an alleged privatisation of social property as some theoreticians would have us believe, is to become an active element facilitating the construction of socialism in Cuba, since it will allow the State to focus on raising the efficiency of the basic means of production, which are the property of the entire people, while relieving itself from the management of activities that are not strategic for the country.
This ... will make it easier for the state to continue ensuring healthcare and education services free of charge and on equal footing to all of the people and their adequate protection through the social welfare system.
It is too soon to tell what the final outcome of the reforms will be. It depends not only on the intentions of the current Communist Party leadership, but also on the continuing debates and struggles within Cuba -- and on developments in the global class struggle, since Cuba is affected by the world economic, political and ideological environment.
The reforms are leading to the growth of the petty bourgeoisie (small business people). Some of them will no doubt aspire to expand their businesses and become big capitalists. They will start to demand the removal of restrictions that hinder them in reaching their goal.
Some intellectuals are also advocating this. Cuban economist Pavel Vidal says: “Liberalisation should not only focus on agriculture and micro-enterprises, but extend the opening to a non-state sector of a larger scale and foreign direct investment.”
Up to now the Cuban Communist Party leadership has rejected such proposals. In his speech to the Communist Party congress, Raul Castro said: “It is also worth explaining that some opinions were not included [in the revised version of the Economic and Social Policy] ... because they openly contradicted the essence of socialism, as for example 45 proposals advocating the concentration of property."
The growth of corruption also endangers the revolution. Cuban academic Esteban Morales wrote an article entitled Corruption: the True Counter-revolution? in which he warned:
Without a doubt, it is becoming evident that there are people in positions of government and state who are girding themselves financially for when the Revolution falls, and others may have everything almost ready to transfer state-owned assets to private hands, as happened in the old USSR.
Following publication of this article, Morales was expelled from the Communist Party , then reinstated . This seems to indicate an ongoing political struggle within the party.
It is almost certain that the party already contains a number of political currents that have not been allowed to openly express themselves. One current is certain to favor an opening to the capitalist market in its Sino-Vietnamese version. Another current ... resisted economic and political reforms for some time.
According to Farber, some members of the latter current are likely to continue to resist reform “from a statist neo-Stalinist perspective very hostile to any kind of democratic change”.
Farber thinks there may be a third current within the Communist Party that supports socialist democracy, but is sceptical that it is very strong. He says: “We cannot know whether major tendencies favoring socialist democracy are likely to come out of the party's ranks or, which is far more important, from popular protests that may erupt in the future.”
In my view this latter comment is misleading in that it neglects the role of objective conditions -- the blockade and imperialist threats -- in persuading most Communist Party members of the need for some limitations on the full implementation of socialist democracy.
Nevertheless, Farber’s account of the ideas of some Cuban leftists who are critical of aspects of Cuban society is interesting. They have put forward ideas such as workers’ management, workers’ cooperatives and greater freedom of discussion.
This review cannot deal with every topic covered in Farber’s book, which includes chapters on the economy, foreign policy, women and gays, and blacks. These highlight a wide range of problems, which are cited as evidence of the oppressive nature of the regime (though Farber does also acknowledge some achievements and some positive changes).
What sort of state is Cuba?
Farber characterises Cuba as a “new class system based on the property form of state collectivism... In this type of system, the state owns and controls the economy, and in turn the central political bureaucracy ‘owns’ the state.”
Undoubtedly there are strong bureaucratic tendencies in Cuba. But to view Cuba merely as a bureaucratic regime is one-sided. I would argue that despite all the problems, the revolution is not dead.
The Cuban government did not collapse when the Soviet Union collapsed, despite the intensified US blockade, the resulting deep economic crisis and the ideological disorientation among those who had looked to the Soviet Union as a socialist model.
Cuba survived without resorting to massive repression. Free health care and education continued. Despite the economic setbacks, and the resulting social problems, there were social advances in some areas (e.g. the rights of sex and gender diverse people).
The loss of imported fertilisers, pesticides, tractors, parts and petroleum initially caused severe decline in Cuban agriculture. But Cuba rapidly reoriented its agriculture, adopting organic measures on a wide scale, as well as distributing unused state owned land to individual farmers and encouraging urban agriculture.
Incidentally, Farber underestimates the success of the new agricultural policy. He says that “the country has had to import 84 percent of its basic foods, and even then it is incapable of satisfying existing needs”. However, according to Miguel Altieri and Fernando Funes-Monzote, the figure of 84 per cent refers only to “food that is distributed through regulated government channels by means of a ration card”. Today most food is not rationed. Total import dependency is only 16 per cent.
Cuba has continued sending thousands of doctors and teachers to other Third World countries, including countries as distant as East Timor -- a remarkable form of international solidarity.
The economic crisis in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union weakened the institutions of People’s Power to some extent. The economic crisis meant that there was a lack of resources to do many of the things that people wanted done -- building new houses, medical clinics, etc. This resulted in a degree of disillusionment. The difficulties of daily life took a toll on people's time and energy, and meant that many people lost interest in participating in collective discussions.
Despite this, there was a high level of participation in the recent discussions around the new economic and social policy.
In 1921 Lenin described the state which he led as a “workers state with bureaucratic distortions”. It was a state which had been created by the revolutionary struggles of the workers and peasants, but which had been distorted due to the economic backwardness of Russia, and due to the devastation caused by the civil war and foreign intervention.
I think a similar analysis applies to Cuba, where the workers and peasants made a revolution, but the state is distorted by the pressures of the US blockade. If the blockade was ended, the revolution would have a better chance of surviving and advancing. The US is maintaining the blockade to prevent this from happening.
In the long run the fate of the Cuban revolution depends on the spread of the revolution internationally.
[Chris Slee is a member of the Socialist Alliance (Australia) and author of Cuba: how the workers and peasants made the revolution, Resistance Books 2008.]
1. Farber, p. 3.
2. Farber, p. 4.
3. Farber, p. 19-20.
4. Farber, p. 7.
5. Farber, p. 20.
6. Farber, p. 106.
7. Farber, p. 244.
8. I discuss this in more detail in my pamphlet, Cuba: how the workers and peasants made the revolution, Resistance Books 2008; http://links.org.au/node/1451.
9. Farber, p. 133.
10. Sweig, Julia, Inside the Cuban Revolution, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2002, p.17.
11. Farber, p. 134.
12. Farber, p. 41.
13. Farber, p. 136.
14. Joaquin Bustelo: “Cuba and ‘actual organs of the working class in power’,
15. See Linda Fuller, Work and Democracy in Socialist Cuba, Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1992.
16. Farber, p. 29.
18. Speech opening the Cuban Communist Party congress. See: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/GreenLeft_discussion/message/74126.
19. Farber, p. 284.
20. Farber, p. 284.
21. Farber, p. 277.
22. See my pamphlet, Capitalism and workers’ struggle in China, Resistance Books 2010, http://links.org.au/node/2349 for more discussion of the link between repression and privatisation.
26. Originally published on the UNEAC (National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists) website. Translated version from Progreso Weekly, 21 April, 2010.
27. Farber, p. 90.
28. Farber, p. 346, note 65.
29. Farber, p. 266-67.
30. Farber, p. 267.
31. Farber, p. 154-56 and 255-264.
32. Farber, p. 18.
34. Miguel Altieri and Fernando Funes-Monzote, The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture, http://links.org.au/node/2704.
35. Farber, p. 59.
36. Altieri and Funes-Monzote, http://links.org.au/node/2704.
37. Lenin, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1973, vol. 32, p. 48.