In what has become an annual slander, the May 5 issue of Forbes magazine named Cuban president Fidel Castro as one of the “world’s richest people” among “royals and rulers.” The magazine—known for years by its moniker as “the capitalist tool”—claimed that Castro was worth $900 million.
The report makes no claim to truth, describing its claims as estimates that are “more art than science.” It comes up with the number by taking a percentage of what it estimates as the value of the state sector of the Cuban economy. It equates Castro with the world’s big capitalists, who have huge personal fortunes at their disposal to spend as they wish and hand down to their families.
Any serious observer of the Cuban economy and state knows that assumption is a lie. Castro himself denounced the report as “rubbish,” and offered to resign as president immediately the moment a shred of proof could be produced of his own personal fortune.
The Forbes article is calculated, cynical propaganda aimed at the working class. The U.S. imperialist class of corporate owners and bankers has every interest in trying to draw a line between poor and working people and Cuba’s revolutionary socialist leadership.
By portraying Castro as a rich and powerful dictator—with none-too-subtle hints of corruption—the campaign is aimed at eroding Cuba’s substantial stature in the eyes of millions of workers across the world.
Forbes magazine’s slanders against Fidel Castro are the utmost in cynicism. It has no argument with billionaires. While it portrays him as wealthy, the ruling-class magazine hates Castro precisely because he is a leader of the working class. It knows the class lines, and it knows which side Castro is on.
The slanders come as the U.S. government has stepped up its campaign against the Cuban revolution. The 2004 “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba” articulates a comprehensive plan by the Bush administration to overthrow the Cuban government. It includes plans to turn over state-owned property to private ownership, mainly to the mafia-like Cuban exile business elite in Miami.
Given the slander campaign amid escalating U.S. war threats, millions of progressive and socialist activists around the world have rallied to defend the Cuban revolution against U.S. imperialism.
Hundreds of millions of people in Latin America and around the world see Cuba as a living symbol of resistance to imperialism. At virtually every international gathering he attends, Fidel Castro is the leader most acclaimed by both delegates and the population in general.
Yet even some groups that claim to be socialist are intensely hostile to the Cuban Revolution.
Is the Cuban revolution socialist?
The International Socialist Organization distributes their newspaper on college campuses throughout the country. While posturing as anti-imperialists, they argue that the Cuban revolution was not a socialist revolution.
According to the ISO, Cuba, like the former Soviet Union, has nothing to do with socialism. “They are state capitalist regimes,” writes the ISO’s newspaper Socialist Worker.
The ISO position boils down to this: Whatever merits the 1959 Cuban revolution may have had, and whatever gains have been made since, the Cuban people remain exploited by a ruling class opposed to the interests of the working class. While activists should oppose U.S. intervention in Cuba, the group argues, they should oppose Cuba’s leadership. “It’s up to Cuban workers to wrestle power away from the Castro clique,” writes Héctor Reyes in the May 23, 2003 issue of the Socialist Worker.
Was the Cuban revolution a socialist revolution—that is, a revolution that brought the working class to state power? What is the role of the Cuban Communist Party and President Fidel Castro? Do they deserve the support of the progressive and working-class movement in the United States—not just against imperialist intervention but also against internal efforts to overthrow the government?
Answering these questions is a test of the fitness of an organization to lead a revolutionary struggle in the United States.
A workers’ state is born
Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement marched into the Cuban cities of Santiago, Santa Clara and Havana in the days before and after dictator Batista’s flight from power on Jan. 1, 1959. It was the culmination of an armed guerrilla struggle based in the countryside and mountains that began on July 26, 1953, with an attack on the Moncada barracks.
Cuba under the notoriously corrupt Batista dictatorship was a client state of U.S. imperialism, as it had been since U.S. troops invaded the island in 1898. The Cuban ruling class was made up of big landowners and factory owners with extensive ties to the United States. U.S. direct investment in Cuba in 1958 was the second largest in Latin America. Two-thirds of the country’s foreign trade was with the United States.
Breaking free of this economic stranglehold was a primary factor fueling the revolutionary movement. The July 26th Movement’s program of political and economic independence resonated with wide layers of the Cuban population, including sectors of property owners and the middle class.
At the same time, the extreme polarization of wealth in the hands of the corrupt Cuban ruling class in Havana generated severe conditions of poverty and unemployment for the country’s working classes, especially the peasants. Thirty percent of Cuba’s workers were unemployed or underemployed in 1958, and the rate was rising.
The July 26th Movement’s programmatic demands for work as a social right and for “a more just and dynamic conception of property (especially land)” appealed directly to the country’s working classes. It accounts for the wide support that the small guerrilla units received throughout the Cuban countryside, and the hero’s welcome they received when they entered the cities in 1959.
It is a common problem for most of the countries facing imperialism. The problems of national liberation and the social problems were intimately intertwined. Solving those tasks was the major test of the Cuban revolution’s leadership.
The ISO claims that the July 26th Movement was a small guerrilla force with no mass organization. “Though supported by most Cubans, the revolution didn’t involve the masses of Cuban workers and the poor in their own liberation,” writes the ISO’s Bridget Broderick. (Socialist Worker, May 24, 2002) “The vast majority looked on as Castro and Che Guevara led a small guerrilla army to victory against Batista’s corrupt regime.”
In fact, the July 26th Movement had a considerable urban underground component. There was support and participation from the masses, such as the selling of bonds to finance the guerrilla fighters. An estimated 20,000 Cubans were killed in the course of the revolution, most by Batista’s secret police.
As John Vail described in his book, “Fidel Castro,” the guerrillas’ conduct among the peasants earned their fierce loyalty.
“The guerrillas had a dramatic impact on the lives of the campesinos. They pressured sugar mill owners to increase wages; those who refused would be given 24 hours in which they could either reconsider or watch their mills burn to the ground. The rebels began to reeducate illiterate campesinos, and their hospital treated not only their own wounded, but peasant families as well.”
The dynamics of revolution
A major task for any revolutionary group is the seizure of power. The July 26th Movement, based on a keen sense of the balance of class forces and appropriate tactics, did just that on Jan. 1, 1959.
The bedrock foundation of any state is its army. In late December 1959, the old Cuban army disintegrated and disappeared in the face of revolutionary upheaval. It was replaced by a new state power, based on the victorious Rebel Army, under the leadership of the July 26th Movement.
What kind of government would the movement create? The first years of the revolution would be a training process for millions of Cubans who enthusiastically welcomed the overthrow of Batista. Which class forces could fulfill the twin demands of national liberation and social equality?
From the first day, the revolutionary leadership relied on the working class in the cities and the peasants in the countryside to defend the revolution and carry it forward—despite the fact that pro-capitalist elements held important posts in the coalition government immediately following the revolution.
This single fact—along with later monumental social gains and public declarations that the revolution was socialist—established the Cuban revolution as a socialist, working-class revolution.
The first acts of the revolutionary government were explicitly oriented toward the working classes. “In January 1959, electric power rates for rural areas were cut in half,” described Edward Boorstein in his 1968 book “Economic Transformation of Cuba.” “In February, mortgage rates were reduced. In March, rents on housing and telephone rates were lowered. The same month saw the creation of a National Institute of Savings and Housing to build urban housing.”
In May 1959, the new government instituted its first land reform. Large land holdings and untilled land were turned over to peasants and peasant collectives. Successive land reforms through 1960 and 1961 expropriated big landlords and foreign-owned lands entirely.
None of these actions could be handed to the workers “from above.” Each one was fiercely resisted by the Cuban elite; each one had to be defended.
Workers and peasants make their own history
Involving the masses as active participants in the revolutionary process took a number of forms. The first tasks of the revolution—the dismantling of the Batista repressive regime—involved mass trials for notoriously brutal police and military officers.
Thousands of Cuban poor and working people participated in meting out revolutionary justice against these criminals. This fulfilled the task of uprooting the old ruling class’ organs of repression, while at the same time giving the workers a sense of their own power.
On Sept. 28, 1960, the revolutionary government announced the creation of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution—neighborhood-based groups across the country set up to protect and extend the gains of the revolution. The CDRs—together with other new mass organizations like the Federation of Cuban Women—involved the masses of Cuban workers and peasants in the revolutionary process.
Over the first years of the revolution, the revolution completely expropriated the capitalist class—including U.S. corporations and land. Private ownership of factories and land was diminished to become almost a negligible factor in the economy, with the state and cooperatives assuming responsibility for the economy.
This historic gain for Cuba’s working class—the elimination of the boss class—was accomplished in heated battles. Defending this gain meant facing off against U.S. imperialism, including the U.S.-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Only the massive participation of Cuban workers and peasants could guarantee victory.
Support from the socialist camp
A decisive factor in helping the Cuban people break from the world capitalist economy was the solidarity and assistance of the Soviet Union. When the United States—formerly Cuba’s largest trading partner—implemented a complete economic blockade of Cuba, increased Soviet trade and assistance was vital. Soviet military support played an important role in preventing an all-out U.S. military intervention.
Economic cooperation with the Soviet Union and the socialist camp allowed the Cuban government to take steps to decisively break with world capitalism. The state assumed a monopoly on foreign trade, preventing individual enterprises from developing links to the profit-driven capitalist world. Economic planning was instituted throughout the 1960s, allowing production for the benefit of the Cuban people instead of for the profits of a few.
Maintaining the level of economic planning and distribution requires an extensive administrative apparatus, especially when the technical level of the society is low by world standards.
Such a bureaucracy exists in every country of the world. It presents the dangers of careerism and privilege, which are the norm in capitalist society but contradict the goals of social equality.
They are dangers that the Cuban government has faced frankly and openly. Periodic “rectification” campaigns have aimed at curtailing bureaucratic privilege.
But it would be a fundamental error to equate the problems of bureaucracy with the reality of class rule, as under capitalism.
Cuban government officials do not own property for personal gain. They are not free to sell state property or bequeath it to their families. Any privilege that they might enjoy is subject to their administrative functions. If they lose their positions due to incompetence or abuse of authority, their rights and benefits remain no more and no less than any other Cuban worker.
The Cuban government enjoys wide popular support in large part because of the genuine leadership provided by that the Cuban Communist Party. Far from being an exploiting ruling class, its leadership is based on deep connections with the Cuban working class.
The role of revolutionary leadership
In the nearly 50 years since 1959, the Cuban revolution has matured tremendously. The challenges of developing and enhancing economic planning, the deepening of the social gains like universal literacy and health care and the adaptation to the world realities following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp—surmounting any one of these tasks would in itself be remarkable.
The key factor that has allowed the Cuban revolution to weather all challenges has been the revolutionary leadership of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party.
The Cuban Communist Party of today was forged out of a number of political tendencies and groups in the revolutionary struggles of socialist construction in the 1960s. It exists as a vehicle for Cuba’s workers to advance the socialist revolution and to defend against counterrevolution.
Every class has political leadership. Under U.S. capitalism, the owning class of billionaires and bankers recruits and trains their own political leadership from elite universities and social networks. It also aims to provide leadership for the working class with institutions like the Democratic Party, churches and the mass media.
The Cuban Communist Party provides Cuban workers a leadership that is fundamentally opposed to capitalism and imperialism. The particular role of Fidel Castro as a living expression of socialist solidarity and anti-imperialism has guided and profoundly shaped the party’s practice.
But the success and effectiveness of the Communist Party’s leadership has been deep, organic connections to the class it leads. Communist Party members are nominated by Cuban workers on the basis of their self-sacrificing personal qualities. Party members work closely with mass workers’ organizations like the Cuban Workers Federation and the Federation of Cuban Women.
In an organization like the Cuban Communist Party with almost 1 million members, there are bound to be deep discussions and divergent viewpoints. And anyone who has visited Cuba knows that these discussions—in the party and in the mass organizations—are serious and deliberative.
Workers routinely debate conditions and plans in their workplaces. Proposals are freely and openly debated and discussed.
The fact that these discussions take place within the umbrella of the Cuban Communist Party is a testament to the party’s maturity.
The ISO claims that Cuba—indeed, every other country where there has been a victorious socialist revolution—is a “state capitalist” society.
According to this theory of “capitalism without capitalists,” the state replaces the capitalist class as the economic exploiters of the workers. The ISO points to Cuba’s participation in the world market, limited as it is, as well as attempts to raise workers’ productivity, as evidence of capitalist economic norms.
Capitalism is the economic system where the means of production—factories, mines and other wealth-generating property—are privately owned. Production is oriented toward private profit.
Because of fierce competition for increased profits, crises of overproduction—when more goods are produced than can be sold for a profit—are inherent in the system, with periodic and recurring recessions and depressions.
Yet the ISO theorists can never point to any of these most basic features of capitalism in Cuba. Where is the class that owns the surplus value created by Cuban workers? To claim that government officials or Communist Party members form this class, then it is the poorest capitalist class on earth by any measure, slanders by Forbes magazine notwithstanding.
Cuba has faced severe economic challenges, especially in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union—which was a period of capitalist growth in the world economy. The world capitalist crises of the 1970s coincided with a period of economic growth in Cuba. And only the most dishonest critic of the Cuban revolution could claim that the economic difficulties were a result of capitalist overproduction.
“Only a small clique around Castro has the power to decide the most important decisions about Cuban society,” ISO writer Héctor Reyes elaborates in the May 16, 2003 issue of the Socialist Worker. “It’s up to Cuban workers to wrestle power away from the Castro clique.”
The ISO said the same thing about the Soviet Union. At the moment of Boris Yeltsin’s seizure of power in Russia in 1991, an event that was simultaneously championed by U.S. imperialism and every other anti-worker capitalist government in the world, the ISO, too, joyously joined the celebration of the fall the Soviet government.
Today, capitalism has been restored in the former Soviet Union. Conditions for the working class in the former Soviet republics have deteriorated on a scale unseen in world history. Male life expectancy dropped by six years in just the years from 1989 to 1994. Poverty and unemployment are rampant.
Is that the fate that the ISO holds out for Cuban workers?
Defending the Cuban revolution
All the gains of the Cuban revolution—its independence from U.S. imperialism as well as the social gains like literacy, full employment and health care—are guaranteed by the strength of the Cuban working class. This strength is not an abstract slogan. It is organized under the political leadership of the Cuban Communist Party.
That’s why U.S. activists—especially socialists who aspire to build a society in the interests of the working class—need to stand behind the Cuban revolution and its leadership. This is especially true when the U.S. government is daily promoting counterrevolution in Cuba under the guise of “democracy.”
The same cannot be said for groups like the ISO, who proclaim themselves socialist but refuse to stand with any of the parties and governments that have tried to build societies free of capitalist rule. Their leftist-sounding criticisms are actually a cover for capitulation and cowardice in the face of anti-communist propaganda.
Surrendering to anti-communism is a convenient way of staying on the good side of the milieu of middle-class liberals and social democrats in academia and the trade union bureaucracy. But it is a form of opportunism that is incompatible with building genuine class consciousness among the working class. Genuine revolutionaries have to stand strong against anti-communist attacks against Cuba.
U.S. workers in the course of fierce class battles will measure political organizations by the militant defense of gains already won. Defense of Cuba and the other socialist countries is a litmus test for that defense.