Cuba at a crossroads

Gains of the revolution of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro under threat

Tony Saunois, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

The Financial Times (FT) boasted in June: “There is a new entry among Cuba’s roll of important dates. Alongside Fidel Castro’s 26 July movement and the 1 January 1959 ‘triumph of the revolution’, there is now 17 December 2014.”

The FT is confusing revolution with counter revolution. 17 December 2014 was when US President Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro announced a series of historic agreements to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries.

They agreed a relaxation of travel restrictions and the first tentative steps signalling the easing of the trade embargo which has been imposed since the revolution in 1959. Since then the US has re-opened its embassy in Havana.

These developments represent a decisive shift in the policy of US imperialism towards Cuba. It also signifies a further step by the Cuban regime towards capitalist restoration.

Obama made these announcements, recognising that “You cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result”. He has now embraced the different approach taken by the European ruling classes, the Canadian and much of Latin American capitalism.


Since the Cuban revolution US imperialism has enacted a strict embargo and undertaken various attempts – including armed intervention in 1961 – to overthrow the Cuban regime and restore capitalism. Despite the crippling consequences of the embargo – estimated to have cost the Cuban economy US$1 trillion – this policy has failed. This was mainly due to the deep social roots of the revolution and support for it which has lasted for decades.

US imperialism is adopting a new policy of moving towards lifting the embargo. The threat of capitalist restoration to an isolated workers’ state can come not only from military intervention.

As Trotsky warned in relation to the former Soviet Union, it can come in the form of “cheap goods in the baggage train of imperialism”. The objective of US imperialism is the same but now they hope to reach it by a different route. They want to flood the Cuban economy with goods and investment with the aim of fully restoring capitalism and exploiting Cuba’s resources for themselves.

The devastating economic situation in Cuba means many Cubans are dependent on remittances they receive from families in the USA. An estimated 62% of Cuban households now receive support from abroad. According to some economic estimates, they sustain an incredible 90% of the retail market.

The dire economic situation in Cuba has been disastrous for the masses. The massive social gains conquered as a result of the revolution and overthrow of capitalism have been eroded, particularly since the collapse of the former USSR. Wages in Cuba today are estimated to be worth only 28% of what they were then.

Yet support for the revolution and opposition to capitalism meant that the Cuban regime, incredibly, was able to maintain the planned economy and bureaucratic regime throughout the 1990s and into the early part of the 21st century. Cuba defied the laws of political gravity, despite the tidal wave of free market capitalism which dominated the world economy.


The regime was also able to sustain itself politically using the US embargo which fuelled hostility to US imperialism. The arrival of Hugo Chavez to power in Venezuela also brought it breathing space through its supply of cheap petrol and oil.

The lack of genuine workers’ control and democracy further aggravated the economic and social crisis caused by the embargo and isolation.

The revolutionary convulsions which swept Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador at the beginning of the century offered the prospect of Cuba breaking out of its isolation. A genuine workers’ democracy would have seized this opportunity and taken the steps necessary to try and form a socialist federation of these countries.

This would have allowed economic co-operation and planning between them and could have begun to appeal to the working class of the whole of Latin America by offering an alternative to capitalism.

However, unfortunately, neither the Cuban regime nor the reformist leaderships of Chavez (Venezuela), Morales (Bolivia) and Correra (Ecuador) were prepared to do this.

The Cuban regime, on the other hand, has continued to introduce a series of incremental steps beginning the process of capitalist restoration.

Although the easing of travel restrictions will be welcomed, other measures represent a threat to the remaining gains conquered by the revolution. These were already being eroded and dismantled.

The government has established a target of removing over one million workers from the state sector and allowing the establishment of thousands of small and medium sized businesses; 500,000 licenses have already been issued to ‘cuentapropistas’.

A bridgehead for capitalist restoration has been developed in the tourist sector which has been the centre thus far of foreign investment from Europe, Canada, Brazil and more recently Chinese enterprises.

While the Cuban regime still uses some socialist rhetoric, reflecting the support which still exists for the revolution, especially amongst the older generation, it increasingly refers to Jose Marti, the leader of the independence movement against the Spanish colonisers.

Younger generation

The younger generation, desperate to enjoy new freedoms – use of the internet and international travel amongst others – have experienced not the gains but the regression of the revolution, economic and social crisis and the stifling dead hand of the bureaucracy.

The arrival of “cheap goods in the baggage train of imperialism” may hold an initial attraction until the reality of life in capitalist society becomes apparent.

These developments clearly represent an important move towards the re-introduction of capitalism.

The state still maintains powerful control and could choke off these steps at a certain stage and the decisive sectors of the economy have still not been privatised.

Even US capitalists, eager to take back what they lost in the revolution, are treading cautiously. As one investor was quoted as saying, “It makes sense. Start small, learn how the system works and then see how it goes”.

For socialists and the working class the moves towards capitalist restoration represent a backward step. They will signify the erosion of the gains of the Cuban revolution for the masses and also will be used by the ruling class, especially in Latin America, to try again to discredit the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism.

However, this will not have the same effect as the ideological offensive against the idea of socialism which was unleashed following the collapse of the former Stalinist regimes after 1989. The working class and the masses have experienced twenty five years of the ‘supremacy of the free market’ and is struggling against it. In Brazil, Argentina, Chile and other countries a new cycle of workers’ struggle has begun.

The lifting of the embargo would represent a defeat for the past policy of US imperialism and its attempt to overthrow the Cuban regime. But a state monopoly of foreign trade, controlled democratically by a genuine regime of workers’ democracy is essential to help prevent the increasing threat of capitalist restoration.

The transition to capitalism in Cuba will not be a straightforward, uninterrupted process. Sections of the regime do not seem to want to go in this direction. Significantly Mairela Castro, daughter of Raul, firmly stated as this deal was announced that: “The people of Cuba don’t want to return to capitalism”.


There are many obstacles still to be overcome before the lifting of the trade embargo. Not least opposition by far right Republicans in US congress over the question of US$7 billion claims for compensation by former owners of companies nationalised at the time of the revolution.

Countering, Fidel Castro on his 89th birthday in August raised the question of “numerous millions of dollars” being paid in damages to Cuba by the USA as compensation for the embargo.

Some resistance is likely as the reality of capitalist restoration becomes apparent. Sections of the population are already fearful of losing the gains of the revolution and of Cuba being turned into another Puerto Rico.

The need to build resistance to the developing pace of capitalist restoration, and struggle for genuine workers’ democracy and a nationalised planned economy in Cuba is more urgent that ever.

Such a movement could link together with the working class and youth throughout Latin America, who are increasingly moving into battle to defend their interests, and begin to offer a real socialist alternative to capitalism. A movement that has fully learnt the lessons of the Cuban revolution.

The Cuban revolution

Extracts from Cuba: analysis of the revolution, Peter Taaffe, 1978.

Cuba, before the revolution, was a paradise for the rich but a nightmare of poverty for the workers and peasants. Under the Batista dictatorship, tens of thousands had died at the hands of the military.

Proportionately fewer children went to school in the 1950s than in the 1920s, yet Havana in 1954 had more Cadillacs than any other city in the world! Land was concentrated in a few hands and the economy dominated by the giant American monopolies.

A heroic three-year guerrilla struggle, with the support of the peasantry, led by Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl and Che Guevara finally defeated Batista in 1959. This was greeted with a general strike when the guerrillas entered Havana.

Castro, faced with a life and death struggle against American imperialism, started speaking of the socialist revolution as the process developed. He relied on the peasants and the rural population, which shaped the character of the movement.

There was colossal pressure from an aroused peasantry and the working class. With the defeat of Batista, the peasants moved to occupy the land and the working class clamoured for wage increases.

US companies refused to refine Russian oil imported into Cuba and the US government stopped the import of Cuban sugar, aiming to bring the Castro regime to its knees. In response over the next few months, all Cuban and American big business was taken over.

By the end of 1960 capitalism had been eliminated in Cuba. US imperialism retaliated by declaring a complete trade embargo and preparing for a military intervention to crush the Cuban Revolution.

A workers’ state was established – but with power concentrated in the hands of a layer of privileged officials, rather than through workers’ and peasants’ councils.

Workers’ control

There was undoubtedly an element of workers’ control in the factories in the first period of the revolution and every neighbourhood and street had a ‘Committee for the Defence of the Revolution’.

An indication of the widespread support for the regime is demonstrated by the enormous crowds which gathered in Havana to listen to Castro’s speeches.

But at the same time the masses had no control or management of the state machine. This was concentrated in the hands of Castro and his supporters, the governing party and the army.

The enormous aid extended by the Soviet Union together with the advantages which flow from a planned economy meant a gigantic development of Cuban society. There were huge steps forward in areas such as life expectancy, health and education.

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