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Sweezy, Baran, Castro, and Huberman

From left to right: Paul Sweezy, Paul Baran, Fidel Castro, and Leo Huberman (1960).

Manolo De Los Santos is co-executive director of the People’s Forum and researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He coedited, most recently, Viviremos: Venezuela vs. Hybrid War (LeftWord, 2020). Vijay Prashad is the executive director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author of Washington Bullets: A History of the CIA, Coups, Assassinations (Monthly Review Press, 2020).

Revolution senses the historical moment; it changes everything that must be changed.

Fidel Castro, May 1, 2000

The U.S. government—whether run by Republicans or Democrats—is obsessed with Cuba. Cuba is a small island, ninety miles off the shore of Florida, that is home to eleven million people. In 1959, the Cuban Revolution brushed aside the tentacles of U.S. interference, ranging from U.S. government domination of Havana’s sovereignty to the grip on Cuba’s public services by private U.S. corporations to the terrible impact of the U.S. mafia on Cuban social life. From 1959 to 1962, the new Cuban government and society struggled to establish a foundation for the country to be sovereign. Before Cuba could even begin to breathe, the U.S. government tried to strangle this young revolution with a blockade that has now lasted into its sixth decade. Not a day has gone by that the United States has not tried to overturn the Cuban Revolution, through the assassination of its leaders, invasions by proxy forces, preventing it from normal commercial and diplomatic relations, and encouraging social distress in the island to become a counterrevolutionary force. There were 637 recorded attempts by the United States to assassinate Fidel Castro alone. That is the level of the obsession.

The third world debt crisis, which took Mexico into bankruptcy in 1981, ballooned into an endless crisis for the finances of hundreds of countries in the world. The crisis emerged mainly after the U.S. Federal Reserve lifted interest rates dramatically in 1979 (the Volcker Shock), impacting the finances of states around the world due to the automatic revision of borrowing rates through the London Inter-Bank Offer Rate. Fidel Castro went to international meeting after international meeting to try and build a campaign against the debt burden. He gave an impassioned speech at the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Delhi in 1983 and hosted a conference against debt in Havana in 1985. To no avail. Not one of the other third world countries—including bankrupt Mexico—was willing to stand with Cuba against the debt crisis.

Alongside the third world debt crisis, the leadership of the USSR—led by Mikhail Gorbachev—revealed serious economic problems inside the Soviet Union. By 1986, Gorbachev and his team introduced the twin concepts of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction) as part of a new approach to the Communist Party of the USSR, the central state apparatus, and the Soviet economy. Soviet economic relations with its allies—including Cuba—deteriorated in this period, as the Soviet economy threatened by the renewed Cold War aggression of the Ronald Reagan era diverted a large part of its social surplus toward military expenditure.

Since 1959, the Cuban Revolution has faced an attack from the United States and its allies, in echoes of the vindictive harshness the Haitian Revolution (1804) faced from the French and the United States. A blockade was set in motion by 1960. With each decade, that blockade has been tightened. Coupled with the rock-hard inheritance from the long period of enslavement and colonialism, it provides the necessary context to understand the constraints faced by the Cuban Revolution.

In the context of the decades-long blockade, the third world debt crisis, and the retrenchment of the Soviet Union, Cuba was forced to undertake a serious reform agenda (although it never altered its commitment to education and health spending). At the third congress of the Cuban Communist Party in 1986, the delegates adopted the economic management and planning system, which included wage reform, the introduction of the market system into agriculture, liberalization of sectors of production, and sale of public enterprises. The 1986 reforms had an emergency character to them since productivity had declined in Cuba and diversification had not been easily possible given the lower than anticipated 1970 sugar harvest. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Cuba had to enter a Special Period. While it is often said that it ended in the 2000s, it is more accurate to say that the Special Period remains in place. Relief from the worst of the Special Period came after the start of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela (1999), but the hybrid war against Venezuela has prevented it from offering sufficient solidarity with the eleven million Cubans.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, any expectation of a new attitude from Washington DC dissolved rapidly as lawmakers passed a raft of hideous legislation to tighten the noose around Cuba. Two laws set in place the new approach: the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 (Torricelli Act) and the Cuban Liberty and Democracy Solidarity Act of 1996 (Helms-Burton Act). The architecture of the U.S. blockade against Cuba was strengthened, and even when there were windows opened—mostly to benefit the U.S. farm lobby and certain U.S. corporations in search of markets—these were slammed shut when an acrid wind blew in from Miami’s Cuban exiles to the lawmakers at Capitol Hill. U.S. president Barack Obama tried to bring some balance to the table, opening a conversation about normalization with the Cuban government in 2009 and then visiting Cuba in 2016. Transportation networks began to be established and foreign businesses began to operate in Cuba, representing windows opening against the blockade.

When U.S. president Donald Trump took office, he immediately slammed the windows shut and pledged to overthrow the Cuban Revolution, in addition to his pledge to overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and the Nicaraguan Revolution. The “troika of tyranny,” the Trump administration said, would be undone by a “maximum pressure” campaign led by the United States. U.S. president Joe Biden does not use the same kind of testosterone-laden language as Trump, but his administration’s use of “human rights” rhetoric to drive the same policy does not fool anybody. It was in the context of this long blockade and the “maximum pressure” of recent years that the U.S. government, congressional forces from the right-wing Cuban exile community, and the right-wing Cuban exiles themselves came together to attempt a “color revolution” in Cuba on July 11, 2021 (J11), and on November 15, 2021 (N15). Neither J11 nor N15 succeeded. The Cuban people rallied to their revolutionary process.

The entire atmosphere around J11 and N15 filtered through two main concepts: economic distress and human rights, including freedom of expression. If you have a conversation with a Cuban national—including government officials—each person will raise the question of economic distress. This is not a fact that is in dispute. In fact, each year since 1992, a majority of UN member states vote in the UN General Assembly to condemn the illegal U.S. blockade of the island. In 2021, for the twenty-ninth consecutive year (barring 2020, when the vote could not be held due to the pandemic), the UN General Assembly voted against the blockade. During the vote, Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla spoke about “an economic war of extraterritorial scope against a small country already affected in the recent period by the economic crisis derived from the pandemic.” In 2020 alone, he noted that the Cuban economy lost $9.1 billion, an enormous sum for a small island. At current prices, he said, “the accumulated damages over six decades amount to over $147.8 billion, and against the price of gold, it amounts to over $1.3 trillion.” “Like the virus,” Rodríguez Parrilla said, “the blockade asphyxiates and kills.”

The economic distress is real, and its principal author is the Washington-imposed blockade and its impact on the sovereignty of Cuba’s economy. In April 2020, seven UN special rapporteurs wrote an open letter to the U.S. government about the blockade. “In the pandemic emergency,” they wrote, “the lack of will of the U.S. government to suspend sanctions may lead to a higher risk of such suffering in Cuba and other countries targeted by its sanctions.” The special rapporteurs noted the “risks to the right to life, health, and other critical rights of the most vulnerable sections of the Cuban population.”

On the question of human rights, it is important to point out that, despite the economic distress, the Cuban government continues to use the country’s social wealth for its educational and health systems, building up the capacity of the population to live enriched cultural lives. Cuban life is enhanced by a range of mass organizations: from the Communist Party of Cuba (with a membership over 700,000) to the network of the Committees in Defense of the Revolution that help provide relief to local problems, to the trade unions and women’s organizations, to artistic platforms. Disregard by the United States of the plea from the UN special rapporteurs shows that it is the U.S. government—and not the Cuban Revolution—that is willing to use the well-being of the Cuban people as a bargaining chip for its narrow political ends. In other words, it is Washington that is violating the human rights of the Cuban people with its illegal blockade.

Part of the enriched public sphere in Cuba is the level of debate about the crises that strike the country, from the impact of the blockade itself to the hurricanes that tear through the island each year. This special issue contains key voices from within the Cuban Revolution (from the president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, to young journalists and intellectuals such as Rita Karo and the team around La Tizza Collective). They are voices that try to come to terms with the complexities imposed on Cuba by the blockade and by shortcomings of the Cuban state as it seeks to manage these complexities. The key point here is that these are voices from “within” the revolution, the concept of “within” being essential to our epistemology. On June 30, 1961, Castro held a meeting with leading intellectuals in the Biblioteca Nacional. He told them: “Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing” (Dentro de la Revolución, todo; contra la Revolución, nada). What does it mean to be “within” a revolution? It means to accept its principal objectives of protecting the sovereignty of the people and advancing the socialist revolution. Within those objectives, everything. For this special issue, we have assembled a group of intellectuals and political leaders who will look closely at the overarching dynamics of the Cuban Revolution, hemmed in by the overall global capitalist rise and by the U.S. imperialist blockade.

Debate has been essential to the Cuban Revolution. Just in terms of economic policy, there have been a range of proposals that run from the auto-financing system to the dual currency system, and there have been shifts in the policy orientation based on wide consultation with political forces from trade unions to peasant organizations, from neighborhood committees to party cells. For this issue, we wanted to capture that same kind of vibrant debate, which is why the contribution by Rita Karo is key, since it creates space for a range of young Cuban intellectuals—within the revolution—to offer their very critical voices about this or that aspect of policy. This is also why it was so important to have former Cuban ambassador to Venezuela, Germán Sánchez Otero, write about the debates inside and around the Eighth Party Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba. Each of the contributors to this issue understands the suffocating role played by the United States, but each of them recognizes that Cuba’s state and society must also introspect and find better and sharper ways to build the revolutionary process despite the blockade. “We must return to the future,” write La Tizza Collective, which is a clever way of saying that a revolutionary process must be rooted in its past and yet must always find creative ways to advance the cause of humanity.

Most of the essays in this special issue were provoked by the renewed assault on Cuba by Washington DC and right-wing Cuban exiles. But the authors of these essays—all in Cuba—could not merely point fingers off the coast of their island and be complacent about their own destiny. These are voices in the best tradition of the Cuban Revolution, steeped in forms of Marxism, eager to incorporate their realistic assessment of their own limitations, feverish with belief in the possibility inherent in their revolutionary process. This volume is put together by us not in homage to a Cuban Revolution of the past, but to the Cuban Revolution that looks toward the future.

2022, Volume 73, Number 08 (January 2022)
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