Protesters in Cuba. Photo: Perlavision Cienfuegos/CC

Protesters in Cuba. Photo: Perlavision Cienfuegos/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

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

On 11 July, Cuba was rocked by the largest protests to have taken place since the 1994 ‘Maleconazo’ protests. The 1994 protests followed the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the abrupt cut-off of Soviet aid. It resulted in a staggering 30% decline in Cuba’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP, ie total output) and the introduction of what president Fidel Castro dubbed at the time the “special period”.

The July 2021 protests have been undoubtedly magnified by imperialism for political gain, yet they may represent a decisive change in the situation in Cuba.

They may also have shocked some on the left who look towards Cuba as an alternative to capitalism and standing up against the might of US imperialism.

Many have been impressed by the gains made in Cuba in health, education, literacy and other areas following the 1959-60 revolution. The CWI has consistently defended these conquests. At the same time, we have criticised the bureaucratic top-down methods of rule, and the absence of genuine workers’ democracy and democratic workers’ control and management of the nationalised economy.

Unfortunately, most of the gains of the revolution have been eroded over the last 30 years. It is therefore necessary for socialists to accurately assess what is unfolding in Cuba and draw from it crucial lessons.

The 11 July protests come on the back of a further dramatic economic crisis, which has been accelerated and worsened by the pandemic, and the sanctions imposed by US imperialism. The vindictive embargo, imposed by US imperialism in 1960, was intensified by Trump and has continued under Biden.

From the outset the CWI has fought against the embargo and demanded that it be lifted.

In 2020, the economy shrank by at least 11%. The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the economy, which is increasingly reliant on tourism. Poverty has dramatically increased, with hunger rearing its head for the first time since the revolution.

But the crisis has also been exacerbated by the bureaucratic mismanagement of the economy, the lack of genuine democratic workers’ control and management, and the mistaken policies adopted historically by the regime.

How the situation will develop in the coming months is uncertain. Nonetheless, the Cuban regime, led now by the President and Communist Party First Secretary Miguel Díaz-Canel, faces its greatest threat since the revolution. For the first time there is not a Castro in the official leadership. The Castros, especially Fidel, and other communist leaders, had an immense authority because of the material gains of the 1959-60 revolution. This is lacking in the current political leadership.

The initial reaction of the regime was to denounce the protesters as “criminals”, “delinquents” and “counterrevolutionaries”. This was subsequently modified to acknowledge that real grievances exist.

The crucial question now posed is: What lies behind the current protests? Are its participants merely reactionary counterrevolutionaries working together with the Miami Cuban exiles and US imperialism? Also, what is the future for the Cuban regime? And what attitude should socialists adopt towards these developments?

These questions have provoked debate and discussion on the socialist left internationally. Some have simply dismissed the protests as counterrevolutionary and lent uncritical, or virtually uncritical, support to the regime.

The threat of a full capitalist counterrevolution is now undoubtedly a serious threat. Should it occur, it would be a blow for the international working class. The capitalist classes internationally would use it to step up their ideological offensive against the idea of socialism.

Yet the question arises as to why this threat is posed. The answer lies in the bureaucratic methods, false policies, and missed opportunities by the regime which have left Cuba isolated, despite enjoying the sympathy and support of many workers and youth around the world.

Cuban revolution

The Cuban revolution enjoyed mass support among the overwhelming majority of the Cuban population. It swept away the hated Batista dictatorship, which was a puppet of US imperialism. Prior to the revolution Cuba had become a playground for the rich and powerful in the US in particular, with its beaches, casinos and brothels.

Millions greeted the victory of Castro’s guerrilla forces as they marched into Havana with a general strike. However, Castro’s original idea was not to break with capitalism but to establish a ‘modern’, ‘progressive’ capitalism.

Fellow revolutionary Che Guevara, however, defended the idea of socialism from the beginning, although he did not have a worked-out understanding of how it was to be achieved and which social class would lead it.

US imperialism would not countenance Castro’s regime when it implemented reforms it opposed. In retaliation, imperialism struck blow after blow against the regime.

The new regime responded in turn by taking more and more radical measures. In a series of tit-for-tat strikes, the economy was nationalised and capitalism was snuffed out. Cuba declared itself ‘socialist’. This aroused massive international enthusiasm, especially in the neocolonial world.

The new regime in Cuba was increasingly drawn into the camp of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union which agreed a favourable trade arrangement. Through this, massive reforms were introduced by the Castro regime. And despite the absence of genuine democratic workers’ control and management, the regime was immensely popular.

The mass organisations which were built, especially the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), although initially enjoying a high level of participation from workers, and some authority, were in effect transmission belts for the government, rather than independent democratic organs of workers’ power.

This led to economic zigzags and serious mistakes. Repressive measures were taken against those who criticised the new authority, even from the left. Yet, for a lengthy period of time, the regime continued to enjoy massive social support.

This was reflected in the ability of the regime to cling on to power even following the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago and its devastating effects on the Cuban economy. Given the catastrophic economic collapse which has taken place, it is surprising that big protests have not broken out earlier.

In 1994, Fidel Castro, going to meet the protesters, was able to use his authority to stabilise the situation and promise some reforms. Today, the regime faces a changed situation and lacks the authority of Castro.

The repressive and stifling bureaucratic methods have increasingly alienated more and more young people who, unlike their elders, have not experienced the gains of the revolution. They have only endured decades of stumbling from one crisis to another.

For an allegedly revolutionary socialist regime, to lose the support of the youth is a dangerous and negative feature.

In addition to the economic crisis, there is also a thirst for democratic openings and expression. This was reflected in protests by artists and musicians prior to the events on 11 July. The demand for more democratic rights and expression is also a powerful factor undermining the regime.

Confronted with economic crisis and stagnation prior to the pandemic, and the loss of cheap oil which it secured when Hugo Chávez headed the Venezuelan regime, the Cuban government had already taken some further steps towards introducing pro-capitalist measures and allowing private ownership in sectors of the economy.

The sectors allowed to be in private hands, have increased from 127 to 2,000. But how far this has actually developed is questionable, and the state probably retains control of the decisive sectors of the economy.


Yet these measures, alongside the introduction of the dual currency nearly 30 years ago – the peso and the convertible peso (CUC) – have enormously increased inequality, with those in the tourist sector and others using the dollar.

Now, the government has eliminated the CUC and opened up stores that accept dollars using a bank card. This partial dollarisation of the economy is being used as a further pro-capitalist step.

Apart from the dire economic situation, a further factor that has fuelled the recent protests is the worsening health situation during the pandemic. Initially, the regime managed the situation relatively well, and succeeded in mobilising the renowned Cuban health system with its army of trained doctors and health practitioners.

However, desperate to gain income from tourism, the government in July last year opened up Cuba and allowed foreign tourists in. As a result, Covid infections have rocketed. This is against the background of only around 15% of the population being fully vaccinated.

The protests that broke out on 11 July seemed to have included an element of right-wing counterrevolutionaries with some links to Cuban exiles in Miami, with an intense social media campaign under the slogan #SOSCuba.

At the same time, others came out of frustration; demanding vaccines, an end to the power cuts, an end, shortages, and an end to the dictatorship and more democracy.

At the same time, not reported in most of the western capitalist press, some pro-government supporters mobilised to defend the Communist Party offices in some areas, reflecting that the regime retains a layer of support.

A confused and mixed political consciousness is likely to be present in all the demonstrations. Many protesting about the economic crisis and demanding more democracy will not be demanding a return to capitalism.

However, without an organised revolutionary socialist alternative programme to combat imperialism and, at the same time, establish a genuine system of workers’ democracy, a movement can morph into capitalist restoration in one form or another.

Collapse of Stalinism

A similar process took place in the GDR (the former East Germany), other Eastern European Stalinist states, and the USSR. The process of capitalist restoration did not begin with demonstrations demanding a return to capitalism. They were for democratic rights and an end to the shortages, economic stagnation and decline.

However, in the absence of working class organisations with a programme to remove the political bureaucracy and replace it with workers’ governments – based on democratic workers’ control and management of the planned economy – the attraction of the higher living standards in western Europe resulted in the movements mutating into the process of capitalist restoration, which swathes of the former bureaucracy embraced.

A similar process may now develop in Cuba, especially with Biden in the White House as opposed to Trump. A layer could be drawn to the idea of removing the regime, opening up the economy and ending the embargo as a means of ending the devastating crisis which exists.

Such a process would not result in the Cuban masses seeing their standard of living rise. Rather, they would be plunged into the destitution facing the masses in the rest of Latin America.

The CWI is opposed to capitalist restoration in Cuba or any intervention by imperialism. However, this is not enough to halt the threat of capitalist restoration which would represent a setback or defeat for the working class.

Some on the left argue that the Cuban regime has had no alternative but to implement the policies that it has done due to the US embargo and isolation of the regime.

Any revolutionary socialist government can find itself isolated and compelled to take temporary emergency measures to safeguard its position. The Bolsheviks found themselves in this situation after the 1917 socialist revolution. They were compelled to take emergency measures, including the New Economic Policy in 1921, which allowed a temporary reintroduction of some capitalist market mechanisms.

The Bolsheviks under Lenin saw this as a temporary retreat, forced on them by the situation they confronted – of isolation of the revolution and civil war. It was to buy time and not viewed as a lasting programme. Only through this would it be possible to begin to develop the international revolution and build real socialism.

This is not the approach of the Cuban regime, which regards its pro-capitalist measures as the way forward and fails to pose the issue of spreading the socialist revolution.

The wrong methods and programme of the Cuban regime historically have served to isolate the regime. On numerous occasions it would have been possible for a socialist revolution to have been carried through in other countries in Latin and Central America.

The Cuban revolution at its height did raise the ideas of internationalism and international revolution. This was reflected in the ‘Second Declaration of Havana’ published in February 1962, which showed how far the revolutionary process was developing.

Later, Cuban forces were deployed to Africa to support the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The sentiment of internationalism which developed at the height of the revolution has also been reflected in the deployment of Cuban doctors to other countries prior to and during the Covid pandemic.

However, the ‘internationalist’ sentiment was not linked to the idea of struggling for socialist revolution by the working class.

Che Guevara did look towards spreading the revolution. Unfortunately, he looked towards the idea of a guerrilla army rather than the working class to carry through a socialist revolution.

Castro and the regime, however, used Cuba’s interventions as part of an strategy to gain a geopolitical advantage or sphere of influence, particularly for the bureaucracy in the USSR.

This allowed the Cuban regime to develop a strong following, particularly in the neocolonial world. It took up the mantle of ‘anti-imperialism’ which won it some support. However, this was not part of a programme of class struggle to defeat imperialism or the reactionary bourgeois/feudal regimes which ruled in the neocolonial countries.

Under the banner of ‘anti-imperialism’, it has backed the Iranian, North Korean and other regimes. Following the massacre of the Tamil peoples in Sri Lanka in 2009, Cuba supported a resolution at the United Nations backing the bloody regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

When other revolutionary movements developed in the South American continent, the Cuban regime used its influence to encourage the leadership, to try and apply the brake and pressured them not to overthrow capitalism and landlordism.

In Chile, Castro visited left president Salvador Allende in Santiago prior to the US-backed coup in 1973. Before an audience of hundreds of thousands he presented him with a machine gun. Yet, at the same time, he and his Chilean supporters advised Allende to slow the revolution down and not provoke reaction.

In 1979, in Nicaragua, when the Sandinistas took power and overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, again the Cuban regime pressured the Sandinistas to limit themselves to the ‘democratic revolution’ and not break with capitalism.

More recently, with the revolutionary upheavals in Venezuela under Chávez, in Bolivia under Morales, and in Ecuador under Correa, had these regimes broken with capitalism and introduced democratic workers’ and peasants’ governments based on a nationalised planned economy, it would have been possible to break the isolation and unite in a socialist federation of independent republics together with Cuba.

This could have been a first step to electrifying the continent and winning support from the working class throughout Latin America and internationally. Tragically, this opportunity was also lost. Again, it was the Cuban officials who advised against going ‘too far’ and provoking reaction.

A socialist federation would not have been able to resolve all of the economic and social problems, and would still have had to confront the colossus of US imperialism and its sanctions. However, it would have been in a much stronger position to do so, and could have acted as a beacon to the working class in other countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and indeed in the US itself.

A new revolutionary wave is unfolding in Latin America. An aspect of this is the recent election of a left president in Peru, Pedro Castillo. Yet the Cuban regime issued statements saying the task was to end neoliberalism and did not call for a socialist transformation.

The CWI defends the conquering of democratic rights for the Cuban people, but not as the capitalist class hypocritically advocates. The struggle for democratic rights by the working class, poor and youth in Cuba is crucial.

The CWI supports committees in every workplace and community, elected with delegates subject to immediate recall. All officials need to be elected and subject to recall, and receive no more than the average wage of a skilled worker.

A full debate to draw up an emergency economic plan to deal with the crisis needs to be elaborated by the working class and the mass of the population. There needs to be an end to the one-party political system with the right of all socialists and the people to organise political parties and groups if they reject taking up arms to support US imperialism or capitalist restoration.

Popular tribunals need to be established to open the cases of those political prisoners currently incarcerated by the regime. Workers and youth should have the right to produce papers and magazines free from control by the state, along with free access to the internet. And for the right of workers to form independent trade unions, run democratically.

Such a programme should be linked with an appeal to the working class of Latin America and the US for support and solidarity, and to join in a united struggle to establish a socialist federation of Latin America and the Americas. This is the way forward to prevent capitalist restoration and counterrevolution.

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