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Why Cuba Still Matters

Diana Raby is senior fellow at the Research Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool (UK) and is also professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto. She has written extensively on Latin America and is also active in solidarity movements such as the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the Venezuela Information Centre (UK). Her latest book, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today (London: Pluto Press, 2006), argues for the crucial importance of Venezuela, along with Cuba and the ALBA countries, in the renewal of the international left in this century.

In the early 1990s there was near unanimity in the media, in Western political circles, and even among academics that the collapse of the Cuban revolution was imminent. Even today, many observers regard it as only a matter of time for Cuba to undergo a transition to democracy (understood as a narrowly defined polyarchy) and a “market economy.”

But the fact that Cuban socialism has survived the extraordinary rigors of the “Special Period” and is still functioning nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall should give pause for thought. Even the prolonged incapacity of Fidel Castro and his subsequent resignation as president has not led to chaos or upheaval, as many predicted. Why then has Cuba survived, and what does it mean for socialist and progressive politics today?

The simple answer is that, for all its problems and deficiencies, the revolutionary order is still viable. Many Cubans still believe in socialist principles; they naturally grumble about shortages and restrictions, but have few illusions about the alternative on offer across the Florida Straits.

But why is this so? What makes Cuba different from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? To understand this it is necessary to go back to the origins of the revolution and the remarkable transformation that occurred from 1959 to 1963. Before the revolution, Cuba was a U.S. protectorate, a vast sugar plantation where venal “democratic” governments alternated with brutal dictatorships. The idea of a socialist revolution here—or anywhere else in the U.S. “backyard” of the Caribbean and Central America—was unthinkable. So on January 1, 1959, when the dictator Batista fled and the bearded guerrillas entered Havana and Santiago, almost no one anticipated the scope and depth of the changes that were to follow.

The Cuban transition to socialism was one of the most rapid and thorough anywhere in the world: the first and second Agrarian Reform Laws, the nationalization of virtually all large industries and services, the extraordinary literacy campaign and the establishment of free public education at all levels, free universal health care, and the organization of a popular militia and disciplined mass organizations from neighborhood level upwards, all in the space of four years or so.

Yet in the first six months of 1959 all the rhetoric was about democracy and humanism; socialism was scarcely even mentioned until mid-1960, and was not officially adopted as the goal until April 1961, two years and four months after the initial victory (during the Bay of Pigs invasion). The 26th of July Movement (M-26-7) which had led the armed struggle and seized power was a broad and heterogeneous movement that had serious differences with what was then Cuba’s Communist party, the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP). The revolution was immensely popular, but many observers expected (or feared) that it would eventually suffer the same fate as Guatemala five years earlier, where the popular Arbenz government was overthrown by a CIA-sponsored coup.

The tremendous euphoria generated by the revolution in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America, and its initial ideological flexibility, are fundamental for understanding its significance. Taking place in a region and at a time when U.S. hegemony was undisputed, where the great Mexican revolution had been neutralized and progressive movements like those of Sandino in Nicaragua, Grau San Martín in Cuba in 1933, Gaitán in Colombia, and Arbenz in Guatemala had been crushed by overt or covert U.S. intervention, the Cuban triumph had an immediate symbolic impact. On his first trip abroad after victory, to Venezuela in late January 1959, Fidel Castro was received by delirious crowds. In February the then Chilean Senator Salvador Allende declared that “The Cuban revolution does not belong only to you…we are dealing with the most significant movement ever to have occurred in the Americas,”1 and shortly afterwards Gloria Gaitán, daughter of the assassinated Colombian popular leader, proclaimed that the Cuban experience was “the beginning of the great liberation of Nuestra América [Our America].”2 Former president of Mexico, Lázaro Cárdenas, author of the 1938 oil nationalization in that country, also gave enthusiastic support to Cuba.

The most obvious distinctive feature of the Cuban revolution—and the essential reason for its ability to avoid the fate of Guatemala, defeating the counter-revolutionary Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961—was the unprecedented military victory of the guerrillas of the Rebel Army over the forces of the dictator Batista. It was also this which would make it possible for Marxists subsequently to present the process as a textbook case of the Leninist thesis of armed workers’ revolution. But the force that seized power was not a Communist or Marxist party, it was a broad democratic movement with an eclectic ideology derived from Cuban and Latin American popular revolutionary traditions and vague notions of social justice and national liberation. The old Communists of the PSP, which did have some roots in the labor movement and among intellectuals but had been compromised by its earlier support for Batista, had initially condemned Fidel Castro and the guerrillas as “petty-bourgeois adventurers” and only started supporting the movement on the eve of victory, late in 1958.

This made it all the more surprising to many observers when the revolutionary leadership, represented above all by Fidel Castro, pushed ahead regardless of all obstacles in the initial three years from early 1959 to 1962, sweeping aside the wealthy Cuban elite and landlord class and defying Washington to expropriate sugar estates and ranches, nationalize industries, purge the state apparatus of Batista supporters, sign trade agreements with the Soviet bloc, and then declare themselves socialist. Was this premeditated sleight-of-hand by a covert Communist leadership, as alleged by many right-wing commentators in the United States? Or was it the indignant reaction of popular nationalists when faced with clumsy and uncomprehending U.S. hostility, as claimed by liberals?

The truth is more complex and more interesting. Having failed to achieve independence in the early nineteenth century along with most of Spain’s American colonies, Cuba later developed a powerful liberation movement with a pronounced popular and radical character. The mambíses, as the popular guerrillas in the thirty-year insurgency against Spanish rule (1868–98) were known, stressed social and racial equality and acquired a precocious anti-imperialist as well as anticolonial consciousness. This was succinctly expressed by the great man of letters and liberation fighter José Martí when he declared in his last letter in 1895: “Everything I have done unto now and all that I shall do hereafter has as its objective to prevent, through the independence of Cuba, the United States of America from falling with added weight on Our America.”3

This anti-imperialist spirit was expressed again in the struggle against the dictator Gerardo Machado (1925–33) and the abortive 1933 revolution, which was in many ways a precursor of 1959. Brutal repression combined with a desperate economic situation caused by the world depression led to a popular upheaval in which workers seized sugar mills and raised the red flag, students occupied the presidential palace, and the lower ranks of the army mutinied and overthrew the officer corps. A provisional government under a popular medical professor, Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín, decreed many progressive measures including an agrarian reform, intervention (government control) of the U.S.-owned Cuban Electric Company, a minimum wage, the eight-hour day, and female suffrage. But this revolutionary government had no organized political backing, and it soon became clear that the leader of the rebellious troops, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista, was an opportunist who was willing to work with the U.S. Embassy.

Under the new administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Washington had just proclaimed the Good Neighbor Policy and was reluctant to send in the marines. But with U.S. warships just off the coast, pressure was exerted on Havana and it came as little surprise when in January 1934 Grau San Martín was overthrown by Batista who now became the power behind the throne. The next twenty-five years would see a merry-go-round of weak puppet presidents, corrupt elected governments, and open dictatorship by Batista, with growing frustration and dis-enchantment among the majority of Cubans, whether workers, peasants, or middle-class. It was in particular the failure of Grau and his associates in the Partido Auténtico (the Authentic Party of the Cuban Revolution) which paved the way for Batista’s 1952–58 dictatorship and the real revolution which followed.

Although the young revolutionaries who coalesced around the activist lawyer Fidel Castro Ruz in the early 1950s had some familiarity with socialist ideas, their intellectual and political background was quite varied and eclectic. Fidel himself was a member of the Partido Ortodoxo which had broken away from the Auténticosa few years earlier in protest of their corruption and abandonment of the principles of 1933. The Ortodoxoleader Eduardo Chibás was a wealthy maverick who had been a student leader in 1933 and gained a mass following from 1949 to 1951 with passionate rhetoric against corruption in his weekly radio broadcasts. With his slogan “Vergüenza contra dinero” (“Honor against money”), Chibás revived the moral idealism which had been a keynote of Cuban radicalism ever since Martí. Chibás shot himself during his radio program in August 1951. There were mass demonstrations of mourning at his funeral, and his populist appeal was the inspiration of the ortodoxos, many of whom would join the M-26-7 a few years later.

Another key figure in the ideological origins of the new revolutionary movement was Antonio Guiteras, a young man who while still a graduate student at the University of Havana had become minister of the interior in Grau San Martín’s short-lived government. It was Guiteras who had been the driving force behind the radical measures decreed in those heady months of 1933, and when Grau was overthrown Guiteras went underground and formed his own insurgent movement, Jóven Cuba(Young Cuba), with an explicitly socialist program. As a popular figure and a socialist activist independent of the Communist Party, Guiteras was clearly a threat and it is not surprising that he was killed in 1935.

Guiteras was a representative of the autonomous Latin American Marxist tradition associated with the Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui, and this would be an important influence on several prominent members of the M-26-7 such as Armando Hart. It was also the main ideological influence on the young Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara who would meet Fidel Castro and his comrades in Mexico in 1955 and become a central figure in the revolution.

But in many ways the fundamental inspiration of the M-26-7 insurgents was the Cuban popular revolutionary tradition of the mambíses, of José Martí and Antonio Maceo, the mulatto general of the liberation forces in the wars against Spanish rule; an ideology of radical egalitarianism, anti-imperialism, and agrarian self-sufficiency. It had much in common with broader Latin American traditions going back to Simón Bolívar with his ideal of continental unity and his distrust of gringo expansionism.

This is not to say that the Cuban revolutionaries of the 1950s were anticommunist or unaffected by European and international Marxist and socialist theories. But most of them were independent from the international Communist movement and also from other organized international tendencies such as the Trotskyists. This independence, and the ideological and tactical flexibility which went with it, was crucial to their success.

By drawing on national popular traditions combined with the sense of frustration and indignation against corruption, repression, and U.S. domination, the revolutionaries were able to achieve not only military victory but also mass popular support and enthusiasm. In January 1959 there was enormous euphoria combined with a sense that anything was possible, and this was expressed in the declarations of the leadership: “The revolution cannot be made in a day, but rest assured that we will carry out the revolution. Rest assured that for the first time the Republic will be completely free and the people will have what they deserve” (Fidel Castro, January 3);4 “the Revolution is as Cuban as the palm trees” and “many people have not yet realized the scope of the change which has occurred in our country” (Fidel, February 24);5 “On the First of January 1959 we had done no more than conclude the war of independence; the Revolution of Martí begins now” (Raúl Castro, March 13).6

In other words, without any reference to Marx, socialism, or class struggle, there was an unequivocal commitment to radical change and to serving the popular interest. Explicit ideological references were to the national revolutionary heritage: defending the agrarian reform in June 1959, Fidel declared that “what we are doing, you gentlemen who defend powerful interests, what we are doing is to fulfill the declarations and the doctrine of our Apostle [Martí], who said that the fatherland belonged to all and was for the good of all”7 and in July 1959 he quoted Antonio Maceo: “The Revolution will continue as long as there remains an injustice which has not been remedied.”8

That these declarations were not mere rhetoric swiftly became clear as decisive action was taken in all areas of policy, and these actions served to increase the overwhelming popular support for the revolutionary leadership. With such massive support and with a monopoly of armed force, the new authorities in Havana enjoyed unprecedented freedom of action; internal opposition was virtually paralyzed and no political party or organization was able to contest the prestige of Fidel and the M-26-7 which had become in effect the national liberation movement of the Cuban people.

In these circumstances an a priori socialist program would only have been a hindrance: the strength of the revolution derived from its consensual and inclusive character. When socialism was declared, it was more a reflection of the new reality, an unexpected state of affairs which had come about as a result of a dialectical process. The strength of the popular demand for self-determination and social justice combined with the monopolistic structure of the Cuban plantation economy and the direct and inevitable confrontation with U.S. imperialism made a socialist solution the only viable way forward from early 1960 onwards if the revolution were not to collapse through division and incoherence. In terms of political economy, a good analysis of this dynamic is to be found in James O’Connor’s 1970 study, The Origins of Socialism in Cuba.9

The validity of this analysis was confirmed by interviews I conducted in Cuba in the 1990s. Several former members of the M-26-7, when questioned on the evolution of their ideology during the armed struggle and in the first two to three years after the victory of January 1, 1959, declared that their original outlook was democratic, anti-imperialist, and favorable to social justice, but not socialist and certainly not Communist or Marxist-Leninist. It was only at a certain point in the revolutionary transformation, which most of them identify as around mid- to late 1960 or 1961, that they came to the realization that what they were creating in Cuba was a form of socialism; and Fidel’s famous declaration to this effect during the Bay of Pigs invasion simply confirmed this in their minds: “Pues sí: ¡somos socialistas!” (“Well yes: we are socialist!”)

This is to my mind more than just a peculiarity of the Cuban process: it confirms the implications of Gramsci’s argument that for proletarian ideology—Marxist theory—to triumph, it must win the battle for hegemony and become “common sense.” Or to put it another way, the abstractions of Marxist theory must gel with the popular democratic traditions of a specific country before they can become hegemonic. This is perhaps the crucial error of most Communist (and also Trotskyist) parties: the idea that by preaching abstract Marxist-Leninist doctrine they can build an effective mass revolutionary movement.

The revolutionary euphoria of 1959–61 in Cuba had much in common with the broad-based democratic grassroots ideology of the antiglobalization and anticapitalist movements of recent times. The rejection of established parties and dogmas, the belief in direct action, the quest for new and original solutions: these were the characteristics of the creative ferment which swept Cuba in the early years of the revolution. True, from 1962 onwards this originality began to be compromised by the adoption of Soviet models as a result of the alliance necessitated by the Cold War context of the time, but despite this Cuba maintained important aspects of its autonomy and creativity. The “Cuban heresy” of the quest for the “New Man” and the emphasis on moral incentives was an example of this, as was the continued Cuban support for armed revolution in Latin America and Africa (in contradiction to the Soviet aim of “peaceful coexistence”).

After 1970 the apparent failure of the idealistic development strategy associated with “moral incentives” and the defeat of insurgent movements in many countries obliged Cuba to adopt a more orthodox Soviet-style policy. For some fifteen years this appeared to yield results, with high rates of GDP growth and economic stability. But by the mid-eighties it was clear that Cuba’s indebtedness to both the Soviet Union and the capitalist countries was becoming a problem, as was the combination of rigid bureaucratic centralism and material incentives under the Sistema de Dirección y Planificación de la Economía(Economic Management and Planning System).10

It was this which led to the launching of the “Rectification Campaign” in 1986 and to Fidel’s rejection of the Soviet policies of glasnost and perestroika. Seen by many as “Stalinist” or “conservative,” this rejection of Gorbachev’s policies was in fact anything but: it reflected the Cuban leader’s prescient understanding that this type of top-down liberalization would necessarily lead in a capitalist direction. It also reflected the belief that in Cuba, where—unlike the Soviet Union—grassroots participation and revolutionary idealism had not yet been totally crushed by decades of authoritarianism and sometimes brutal repression, socialism could be reinvigorated by a combination of visionary leadership and popular mobilization.

Cuba’s success in surviving the extraordinary rigors of the worst years of the “Special Period” in the mid-1990s cannot possibly be explained in any other way than by the continued vitality of the revolution. The scarcity and hardship was such that any other government would have collapsed in a matter of months. No one who visited Cuba in those years could fail to be impressed by the stoicism and commitment of the Cuban people when power supplies only functioned for a few hours a day, food rotted in the fields for lack of transportation to market, workers spent six hours a day getting to and from workplaces on foot only to find that nothing could be done for want of fuel, and the shelves of the stores were literally bare. This took place in a country that was  deluged with images of U.S. consumer society and counter-revolutionary propaganda, and where everyone knew that the Berlin Wall had fallen and that the socialist countries of Eastern Europe had collapsed like ninepins. Yet in Cuba there was only one serious protest, in August 1994, and although some took to rafts to cross the Florida Straits in desperation, the majority remained faithful to the revolution.

A crucial factor in Cuba’s survival was the commitment and example of the leadership, especially Fidel. But another essential point was that the socialist orientation of policy was never abandoned: unlike Sandinista Nicaragua, which under severe pressure in the late eighties adopted IMF recommendations, liberating prices of basic commodities, and marketizing social services, Cuba maintained free universal health care and education and subsidized rates for housing and utilities. It also intensified—rather than abandoning—democratic consultation with the mass of the population regarding the measures to be taken. Just when former Communist leaders were falling over each other to embrace capitalism and Western governments were telling their populations there was no alternative to neoliberalism, the Cuban leaders embarked on an extensive process of consultation involving some 80,000 “workers’ parliaments” throughout the country in order to discuss the measures needed to resolve the economic crisis.

Despite the conventional notion of Cuba as a dictatorship (albeit, for those on the left, a benevolent one), the Cubans have always maintained that they have their own form of socialist democracy. After what happened in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, skepticism about this is understandable. But one of the great errors of progressive thought in recent decades has been the unquestioning acceptance of liberal polyarchy as the only valid form of democracy; rejection of Stalinist authoritarianism should not mean abandoning the Marxist critique of bourgeois liberalism.

Democracy in the true sense—rule by the people—necessarily begins in local communities, with people in neighborhoods and workplaces running their own affairs. In this respect Cuba has a vigorous system of local democracy. The direct nomination of candidates in community meetings and their election as municipal delegates of popular power in multi-candidate, secret-ballot elections, plus their obligation to report back in person every six months in not just one but several local meetings (with a real possibility of recall), guarantees a degree of local participation and control which compares favorably with many countries that have impeccable democratic credentials.11

It is true that at a higher level there are limitations, with provincial and national delegates being presented on lists with only one candidate for each post, so that the electorate’s only option is to accept or reject each candidate. Policy debates involve extensive popular input through such instruments as workers’ parliaments and consultations by commissions of the National Assembly, but such debates clearly operate within centrally designed parameters. Ultimately, it is undeniable that so long as the United States is actively committed to the overthrow of the revolution, the full and free expression of socialist democracy will be impossible in Cuba; but given the way in which bourgeois elites manipulate liberal polyarchy to prevent any serious challenge to the capitalist system, it is arguable that electorates in Western countries have less influence than Cubans on policy decisions in crucial areas such as finance, defense, and foreign policy.

But to argue the relevance of Cuba in today’s world it is clearly not sufficient just to defend the country’s socialist system against its critics. In the twenty-first century, does the island have anything to offer which is not just a holdover from the past?

The answer is that there are at least two areas in which Cuba has made vital contributions to the emergence of a new socialist or anticapitalist alternative. One is in environmental issues: initially as a matter of necessity, but now also as a matter of policy, it has undertaken a fundamental switch toward organic agriculture and the adoption of ecologically sustainable practices throughout the economy. For several years now it has pioneered the development of urban agriculture, with small plots on any available land being turned over to organopónicos, projects devoted to the intensive cultivation of a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, mostly by organic methods. As a result of this the city of Havana now produces 60 percent of its fruit and vegetables within city limits,12 and the scheme is now being adopted in Venezuela and other countries. The “Energy Revolution” has decentralized power generation so that electricity is less dependent on big power plants and more on small local generators which are more efficient and less vulnerable in emergencies. Incandescent light bulbs have been replaced throughout the country and there is large-scale investment in solar and wind power.13 Cuban officials now state categorically that both capitalist and traditional socialist models of energy-intensive development are unsustainable.

The second vital contribution to the emergence of a new alternative lies in Cuba’s support for Venezuela, Bolivia, and other Latin American countries now engaged in the struggle to create a new social and economic model. Commentators frequently focus on Venezuela’s aid to Cuba in the form of cheap petroleum, but the importance of Cuban assistance to the Bolivarian revolution should not be underestimated. Without the assistance of thousands of Cubans, Chávez would have found it almost impossible to implement the remarkable Barrio Adentro health mission or the Robinson literacy mission. Similarly, Evo Morales would have been unable to implement such programs in Bolivia, at least in the short run—and given the critical political situation in both countries, the short run was and is crucial.

But also in broader political terms, without Cuba, Chávez (and hence, at one remove, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay) would have had much greater difficulty in gaining credibility for projects of popular political empowerment implemented through the appropriation and transformation of the state. The political disorientation of the global left was such that only a totally unexpected movement like that of Chávez could offer a way forward; and without Cuba’s inspiration and support at crucial moments, Chávez might well have failed. Without Cuba, then, no Venezuela; and without Venezuela, no Bolivia, no Ecuador, and no Paraguay, and no revival (however imperfect) of Sandinista Nicaragua.

It is not, of course, that nothing would have occurred in these countries; but it is all too likely that without the Venezuelan example and without Cuba’s inspiration and practical assistance, the powerful popular movements that exist would have been unable to devise an adequate strategy to attain power and to use it effectively to reverse neoliberal policies. This does not mean that Venezuela or the other countries are simply copying Cuba. They are very clear that they are pursuing independent paths, borrowing from and supporting each other and Cuba, but without making the old mistake of trying to impose a uniform “orthodox” template.

Furthermore, the Cubans have been explicit in saying that they do not regard their own socialism as a blueprint to be copied. What Cuba provided was a living example, a demonstration that contrary to the conventional wisdom of the “New World Order,” the state is not powerless and that it is possible to build and maintain a noncapitalist alternative. What was not possible was to reproduce the Cuban strategy of armed revolution, and this was the great contribution of Chávez and the Venezuelans: to devise a new strategy which was neither purely military nor purely electoral, but a combination of popular mobilization, elections, and military support.

As the new project of “twenty-first century socialism” and the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) develops, Cuba also ties in with the cultural and ideological inspiration of the Latin American popular anti-imperialist tradition. As we have seen, the original Cuban ideology derived at least as much from Martí and the mambíses as from international socialist theory, and in this respect it gels perfectly with Chávez’s “Bolivarianism.” It can be argued that, while the Soviet tie was necessary at the time for the revolution’s survival in the Cold War context, it did lead to undesirable distortions in Cuban socialism, and that today Cuba, freed from the Soviet straitjacket and assisted by its Latin neighbors, is rediscovering its originality.

In this context the current Cuban reforms should not be seen as leading in a capitalist direction (at least not necessarily), but as adapting to the more flexible and dynamic project of “twenty-first century socialism” which will eventually find similar (but not identical) expression in Venezuela, Bolivia, and other countries. It will be based on a recognition that socialism can never be perfect, nor completely stable and secure, in an imperialist world, and that its survival and renewal will always depend on popular support and participation.14 The role of the state will still be important but it will allow much greater scope for local and grassroots initiative, and indeed, for what previously might have been condemned as capitalist material incentives. But this is based on a recognition that egalitarianism cannot be imposed by decree, and that the best guarantee against a return to capitalism lies in a vigorous culture of collective participation rather than in bureaucratic controls. Where the central state is and will remain crucial is in providing a coherent overall direction, minimizing the encroachment of global capital, and ensuring diplomatic, political, and military defense against imperialism.

Of course, over the years Cuba has made mistakes, and not all of them are attributable to Soviet influence. The initial economic strategy of crash industrialization soon proved impractical and was replaced by the reliance on large-scale sugar exports as a source of accumulation for more gradual diversification. Then in 1970 voluntarism led to near-disaster in the failed goal of the ten million ton sugar harvest. The 1968 “Great Revolutionary Offensive” led to the precipitous nationalization of small business, with grave consequences for the availability of consumer goods and services. There were also serious errors in cultural policy which have been extensively criticized. But what saved Cuban socialism was a degree of popular participation rarely found elsewhere, and the continued responsiveness of the leadership to popular concerns and needs. Despite serious and often justified grievances, the majority of the Cuban people have continued to feel that this is their revolution and not just a paternalist project of a remote party/state apparatus, and the result is that today the country continues to exhibit both objective and subjective aspects of an anticapitalist alternative.

The Western media have been eager to interpret recent reforms in agriculture, in wage and incentive scales, and in the availability of consumer electronics as evidence that Cuba is embarking on a capitalist transition.15 But there is no indication that large-scale private employment of labor or a private capital market with a stock exchange and similar capitalist institutions are being contemplated. The government has reiterated its commitment to free universal education and health care and other social services. Cuba has recently signed important new agreements with several countries, notably Brazil and the European Union, which improve its capacity to resist the U.S. blockade without abandoning its socialist priorities.

Finally, the extraordinary generosity and commitment of thousands of Cuban internationalists providing medical and other services in conditions few others would accept is living testimony to the reality of the country’s socialist project. The veteran British journalist Hugh O’Shaughnessy recently offered a moving account of the Cuban missions in Bolivia. He quoted María de los Ángeles, a Cuban doctor working as Director of the Ophthalmological Hospital in El Alto, Bolivia, at nearly 4,000 metres altitude and in harsh conditions: “I think there is always an element of love involved,” she said: “Before I left Cuba for Guatemala and Bolivia, I didn’t know what real poverty was like.”16 While Cuba continues to practice solidarity like this, its relevance to the global anticapitalist movement can scarcely be questioned. But also, this presence in the ALBA countries is further evidence that Cuba cannot be separated from the inspiring new developments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and elsewhere: Latin America today demonstrates that another world really is possible, and Cuba is central to the creation of that world.


  1. Revolución (Havana), February 28, 1959. This and all other translations from Cuban periodicals are mine.
  2. Revolución, April 24, 1959.
  3. José Martí, Inside the Monster, Philip S. Foner, ed. (New York: Monthly Review, 1975), 3.
  4. Revolución, January 4, 1959.
  5. Revolución, February 25, 1959.
  6. Revolución, March 14, 1959.
  7. Revolución, June 8, 1959.
  8. La Calle (Havana), August 1, 1959.
  9. See James O’Connor, The Origins of Socialism in Cuba (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970).
  10. One of the best discussions of this is to be found in Ken Cole, Cuba (London: Pinter, 1998), chapter 3.
  11. On this issue, see Arnold August, Democracy in Cuba and the 199798 Elections (Havana: Editorial José Martí, 1999), and Peter Roman, People’s Power (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).
  12. Simon Butler, “Cuba carries out new land reform,” Green Left Online, August 16, 2008,
  13. “Cuban agriculture” (interview with Roberto Pèrez), Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (UK), no. 205 (October/November 2008): 10.
  14. See Michael A. Lebowitz, Build It Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006), and D. L. Raby, Democracy and Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2006), especially chapter 3.
  15. See for example “Cuban workers to get bonuses for extra effort,” The Guardian (UK), June 13, 2008, and “Cuba’s wage changes have nothing to do with a return to capitalism,” Helen Yaffe, The Guardian, June 20, 2008.
  16. Hugh O’Shaughnessy, Misiones cubanas en Bolivia, 4 de abril de 2008,
2009, Volume 60, Issue 08 (January)
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