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Cuba - before and after the revolution
PETER TAAFFE reviews The Mafia in Havana by Enriqe Cerules, which details the gangster capitalism of the era of the dictator Fulgencio Batista before the 1959 revolution, and Fidel Castro by Volker Skierka, an analysis of the revolution itself and the future for the regime.
The speculation over Cuba's future following the recent illness of Fidel Castro makes these two compelling books very topical. One deals with gangster-ridden Cuba before the revolution of 1959 but is a warning as to what may return if, after Castro, the gains of the revolution are rolled back. Skierka's book is a penetrating analysis of the revolution, of the role of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, with its later chapters particularly relevant as to the future of Cuba.
It is well known that Cuba, particularly the capital Havana, had been virtually franchised out to the US Mafia prior to 1959. Gangsters such as Meyer Lansky and the 'capo of capos', the founder of the US Mafia, Lucky Luciano, ruled. But very few have detailed the incredible extent to which the grip of the Mafia ruled Cuba, with the benediction of the very summits of US imperialism and the protection of the Cuban dictator Batista.
So powerful was the influence of Meyer Lansky that on one occasion, when he was going into a Havana hotel to meet another Mafia boss, "he crossed with Santiaguito Rey Pernas, then minister of the interior. Lansky did not even stop. He continued advancing, without greeting the minister, leaving Santiaguito with his hand extended"! [Cirules, p114] Another key Mafia figure, Amleto, even occupied a "Liberal Party seat in the house of representatives" under Batista [p115].
Even the 'Democratic' US President Franklin Roosevelt, when he intervened in the 1944 Cuban elections, did not go through the accepted agencies of the US, the ambassadors, etc, but "entrusted the matter to the 'financier' Meyer Lansky, because the Mafia's relationship with Batista was so close" [p25]. In 1952, according to the documents produced by the author, Roosevelt's son arrived days before Batista's coup, "interested in buying the second largest radio station in the country... It is known that he had several private meetings with Batista." [p87]
The author provides astonishing and fascinating detail, revealing the web of control of the country linking the Mafia to the government of the US and its secret service agencies, then under the domination of the infamous Dulles brothers: "US dominance of Cuba was absolute by 1950-52 and the craftsmen of the coup d'tat of March 10, 1952, belonged to the same forces that had fashioned the imperialist domination: the alliance of US financial-Mafia-intelligence groups." [p75]
The country was a "giant corporation" under the control of these foreign imperialist interests. Massive gambling casinos, the base for the import into the US of drugs like heroin and cocaine, alongside of a minimum of 100,000 prostitutes, were the consequences of this. But it was the Cuban masses who picked up the bill: poverty, endemic unemployment, starvation wages and a ruthless dictatorship that did not hesitate to eliminate workers' leaders and even capitalist politicians who stood against Batista.
If you thought that the Cuban scenes in Mario Puzo's film, The Godfather Part 2, were fiction, forget it. Cirules recounts the famous scene where Mafiosi representatives sat with representatives of the financial groups at the same table as Batista: "A famous golden telephone is presented to General Batista by an ITT representative, and passed slowly around the table, much to the envy and admiration of everyone present... Amazingly, it was a true story."
Little wonder that this gangster state, decorated by Mafia-financed entertainers like Frank Sinatra and George Raft (who managed a hotel in Havana), would fight tenaciously to preserve this. As the revolution inexorably marched on, under Castro and Guevara, in 1957 and 1958 the Mafia became so desperate, they even ludicrously proposed the Australian-born film star Errol Flynn as a rallying figure against Castro. Mafia bosses, most notably Meyer Lansky, lost a colossal $100 million in hotels, clubs, casinos, brothels and other such establishments - a good tenth of the value of US assets taken over by Fidel Castro and the Cuban state after 1959.
But this is not just a historical question. Cuba could face the grotesque possibility that if the gains of the revolution were ended, particularly the planned economy, "the real beneficiaries would include the offspring of those Mafiosi who came into their possessions through violence and repression, corruption, theft, tax evasion, and the filing of dubious ownership claims". This is the conclusion of Volker Skierka [p314] in his book, Fidel Castro.
Skierka makes a powerful case that it was the Mafia, the CIA and the frenzied Cuban exiles who were behind the assassination of US President John Kennedy because he was considering lifting the embargo on Cuba in exchange for Castro's withdrawal of support for guerrilla operations in Latin America!
What is in store for the Cuban people is not a question of 'theory'. We have the living example of the return of the capitalist system in Russia and Eastern Europe, a brutal form of 'gangster capitalism' with Mafia gangs that make Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano look like down-at-heel pickpockets. Skierka's book gives a balanced account of the achievements of the Cuban revolution - particularly in health, education, third world aid, etc. - but points up the colossal difficulties of maintaining the present system against the background of what Fidel Castro himself called an "ocean of capitalism".
We have quoted extensively from Skierka in an analytical article in the current issue of Socialism Today and space does not allow us to give much detail from this important work. But Skierka and authors like John Lee Anderson, enormously sympathetic to Cuba, recognise the achievements of Cuba, particularly in the 1990s, but warn about the country's future. It was able to hold out against the pressures of world capitalism, but big dangers now loom. Skierka's account in particular shows conclusively that the main elements of a planned economy remain in Cuba but real power is exercised by a bureaucratic layer in the state, in the Communist Party and in society in general.
The dollarisation of the economy in the 1990s created a 'two-tier' society, with those in the private sector benefiting through the payments in dollars, while doctors and teachers - some of the firmest supporters of the revolution and the present regime - are being paid in pesos and have therefore suffered economically. This has inevitably generated graft and corruption, which Fidel Castro, by recently mobilising a section of young people, has attempted to combat.
The question is posed: how could this corruption, which Castro himself has revealed is on a large scale, develop where in theory, power is invested in the hands of the masses? Skierka's book and a recent article by Anderson show that effective power is wielded by the top and the centre around the figure of Fidel Castro himself. Anderson commented: "Most [Cubans] don't believe that the anti-corruption campaign would work because the many ruses that Cubans have devised for their survival were too deeply embedded."
The only way of guaranteeing the gains of the Cuban revolution is through the programme of workers' democracy. Skierka, in a very important part of his book, deals with the relationship between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara just before the latter left Cuba for the Congo in 1965. Guevara had upset the Russian bureaucracy in a speech in Algiers. According to Skierka - who has had access to hitherto secret files from the former Stalinist regime in East Germany - Castro was "especially upset that Guevara should have raised such serious points in a faraway place like Algiers. Ral [Castro] suspected Guevara of Trotskyism, because of his attachment to the concept of world revolution". [Skierka, p171.]
Guevara had a copy of one of Trotsky's books in his knapsack when he was brutally murdered in Bolivia in 1967. Trotsky's ideas are now circulating in Cuba. It is in the ideas of Trotsky on the need for a programme of workers' democracy to replace bureaucratic control that the salvation of the Cuban revolution lies. A democratic and socialist Cuba would electrify the Latin American continent and the working class and poor peasants everywhere.
These two books are essential reading to understand Cuba in the past but also the different possibilities opening up for the Cuban masses in the next period. It is our fervent hope, alongside working-class people everywhere, that the gains of the Cuban revolution will be preserved on the road of workers' democracy.
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