“Nobody can deny that we made an army and that from the beginning we have inculcated gentlemanly and humane principles to that army. … The armed institutions should offer services in peace, services to the people, services of a technical order. What we will not have is soldiers useless in barracks, nor with a “machete plan” and a weapon striking fear in everyone; what we must make is true soldiers who are an example, and who can offer all type of services to the country.”
—Fidel Castro, Jan. 9, 1959,
TV program “Before the Press,” Havana
I was in Havana on a main street in 1993, during the depths of Cuba’s Special Period. The country was undergoing enormous economic difficulties due to the collapse of the Soviet Union—Cuba’s main trading partner—and the U.S. blockade. I noticed a few police officers at the door of a bus that was stopped. There was loud conversation inside the bus among the passengers because the driver had refused to continue along his route.
The rule of no more than 45 passengers was breeched when too many people had boarded. The driver would not continue driving until some people got off the bus. At that time, buses were extremely scarce due to lack of spare parts, tires and so on. Great care had to be taken of those buses that did function, including limiting the number of passengers on some buses.
The driver was trying to take care of the bus. And the passengers just wanted to get home after work. No one was about to sacrifice his or her ride home.
The police had come upon the situation and two of them were leaning into the doorway as they talked with the bus driver to resolve the standoff.
The most striking aspect of this incident was three young men, curious about the happenings, standing at the bus door, listening to the police and driver. They were right behind and next to the police, their hands on the police’s shoulders as they leaned on them to get a better view of the incident. If the police had not been in uniform, you would have thought they were friends huddled together.
This small everyday encounter spoke to the relationship in socialist Cuba between the police and the people, of the mutual trust and respect and the lack of fear.
Capitalist versus socialist state
Anybody in the United States knows that such an interaction would be impossible in our “democratic America.”
In the United States, when police confront someone, especially Black or Latino youth, the cops warn bystanders and witnesses to stand far back or face arrest, brandishing their nightsticks or guns to make the point. Sometimes there is no warning.
Whether it is equipping police forces with combat gear to wage war on protesters, or gunning down youth with impunity, or financing town budgets through fines, filling the prisons to record levels, torturous punishment and isolation or the NSA’s surveillance of every person’s communications, the U.S. capitalist state has reached an unprecedented magnitude of repression.
The U.S. capitalist state apparatus protects a tiny minority of capitalists, bankers, landlords and the government in an inherently antagonistic relationship with the overwhelming majority, the working class and oppressed.
Socialism is the first system where the class that takes power is not a minority exploitative class, but instead represents the vast majority, the producers, the working class and peasantry. And yet, class antagonisms do not simply end with the overturning of capitalism.
For Cuba—as in all previous and still-existing socialist countries—a state is essential to defend the people and the socialist gains. The armed forces, police, militias, courts and laws exist to protect the people against common crimes, to defend the Revolution against a return to capitalism and against U.S. imperialist aggression.
Batista’s rule and overthrow
Fulgencio Batista was instrumental to U.S. domination in Cuba. He was Washington’s man, first quelling the 1933 revolutionary struggle against dictator Gerardo Machado, then serving as president from 1940 to 1944 and ruling behind the scenes under other presidents.
On March 10, 1952, when it was clear his new presidential bid would be defeated, Batista launched a military coup, abolishing Congress and the Constitution and declaring martial law.
From then until Jan. 1, 1959, Batista’s state machinery waged brutal attacks on the population through political persecution and massacres of students, workers and peasants opposed to his reign. More than 20,000 Cubans were killed at the hands of Batista’s regime.
In the revolutionary war that began with the assault on the Moncada army barracks on July 26, 1953, the Rebel Army fighters were inculcated with a strict adherence of humane treatment toward enemy soldiers and the civilian population. When Batista’s soldiers were captured, they were disarmed and released to return home.
With the revolutionary triumph on Jan. 1, 1959, the old army and police forces disappeared in the sweeping victory led by Fidel Castro.
The Rebel Army became the embryo of the new state and was instrumental in carrying out the early revolutionary measures of land reform and other economic decrees.
The challenge of underdevelopment
What was the economic situation for Cuba’s workers and peasants before the revolutionary triumph?
On Oct. 16, 1953, as Fidel Castro’s trial concluded—for leading the heroic Moncada uprising—he gave a famous four-hour speech known as “History Will Absolve Me.” He denounced the poverty and atrocious conditions that the people were forced to endure:
Eighty-five percent of the small farmers in Cuba pay rent and live under constant threat of being evicted from the land they till. More than half of our most productive land is in the hands of foreigners. In Oriente, the largest province, the lands of the United Fruit Company and the West Indian Company link the northern and southern coasts. There are 200,000 peasant families who do not have a single acre of land to till to provide food for their starving children…
Just as serious or even worse is the housing problem. There are 200,000 huts and hovels in Cuba; 400,000 families in the countryside and in the cities live cramped in huts and tenements without even the minimum sanitary requirements; 2.2 million of our urban population pay rents which absorb between one-fifth and one-third of their incomes; and 2.8 million of our rural and suburban population lack electricity. We have the same situation here: if the State proposes the lowering of rents, landlords threaten to freeze all construction; if the State does not interfere, construction goes on so long as landlords get high rents. …
Only death can liberate one from so much misery. In this respect, however, the State is most helpful—in providing early death for the people. Ninety percent of the children in the countryside are consumed by parasites which filter through their bare feet from the ground they walk on. … And when the head of a family works only four months a year, with what can he purchase clothing and medicine for his children? They will grow up with rickets, with not a single good tooth in their mouths by the time they reach thirty; they will have heard 10 million speeches and will finally die of misery and deception.
The socialist state and revolutionary measures
The seemingly intractable poverty and suffering of the Cuban masses—amidst a sea of obscene wealth and sumptuous lifestyle of the capitalist class—was swiftly and decisively tackled.
Unprecedented economic decrees were publicly issued. One could wonder, how could such profoundly radical measures be enforced?
Simple. A new, truly revolutionary leadership had taken state power and began enacting a series of radical measures to benefit the working class and poor peasants. The enforcement of these measures was by the mass mobilization of the people, backed by the Rebel Army, which soon transformed into new institutions, like the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA) and the National Institute of Housing and Savings (INVA).
By March 1959, utilities and housing rents were reduced by half, and evictions banned. Under the Urban Reform Law of 1960, half of the tenants soon became homeowners, and landlordism was eliminated.2 Those persons with minimal rental property for personal income were given a pension. No one could own more than one primary home and a vacation home.
The great Agrarian Reform Law was signed on May 17, 1959. With land holdings limited to 1,000 acres, U.S. multinational capital in Cuba was dealt a mortal blow, and massive U.S. and Cuban-owned sugar plantations and cattle ranches were confiscated. Before the law, 15 sugar companies alone owned over 4 million acres.
A second land reform, in October 1963, further limited private ownership to 165 acres. By 1963, roughly 15 million acres were expropriated, a sweeping change in the balance of class forces across the island.
The masses were the critical force in backing every revolutionary advance, with rallies of 1 million people or more to support the expropriations, especially in the face of dramatic U.S. economic aggression. The population of Cuba at the time was about 5 million. In turn, each new counter-measure by the revolutionary leadership bolstered the people’s defiance of U.S. imperialism.
Almost all of Cuba’s sugar had traditionally been sold to the United States for decades. In August 1960, U.S. Congress canceled the yearly quota of sugar purchases from Cuba.
In response, on Aug. 6, 1960, all U.S. sugar mills, oil refineries, the telephone and electricity companies were nationalized. On Sept. 17, the U.S. banks were taken over. By Oct. 24, all U.S. property was confiscated.
Defeating U.S. imperialism
Within weeks of the triumph, U.S. imperialism had already decided to use military means to destroy the Revolution. The 1961 CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion was premised on the myth that the Cuban people would welcome the invaders as liberators and rise up against the revolutionary government. Within 72 hours, the mercenaries were routed, making this a resounding defeat for U.S. imperialism, April 19, 1961.
Meanwhile, the social progress advanced in leaps and bounds. Cuba became a “territory free of illiteracy” thanks to a nationwide campaign involving more than 100,000 young volunteers.
In February 1962, a trade and travel ban was signed into law by President John Kennedy, one of many U.S. laws that make up the U.S. blockade.
The proxy war was followed by Operation Mongoose, a U.S. plan for sabotage, assassinations, terrorist attacks and other measures aimed at overthrowing the Revolution. It was to culminate in a direct U.S. military intervention. This was prevented by the Soviet Union’s sending of medium-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads to help deter the U.S. aggression and counterbalance the Jupiter MRBMs the U.S. had previously placed in Turkey and Italy, targeting the Soviet Union. This led to what is known in the United States as the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
Miami became a base of operations for Batista’s exiles and other opponents of Cuba’s revolution. Some 4,000 of the most violent elements—many of them former police and military officers from the Batista era—who left the island in the early 1960s were recruited by the CIA as shock troops.
Armed assaults soon began against the Cuban people, bombs placed in public places, assassinations of young literacy teachers and peasants, economic sabotage and biological warfare. Cuba’s casualties from U.S.-backed terrorism are considerable, with 3,478 people killed and 2,099 permanently wounded.
To further protect the people from counterrevolutionary violence, a people’s organization was needed: the Committees in Defense of the Revolution.
The CDRs were launched on Sept. 28, 1960, and organized block-by-block, with the residents 14 years and older joining to protect the neighborhood from sabotage and crime. There are presently 8.5 million members out of Cuba’s 11.2 million people. The CDRs also coordinate volunteer work and blood drives, helping the Civil Defense in hurricane evacuation, and participating in national days of defense preparedness, among other areas of work.
Cuba: A workers’ democracy
The economic measures gave immediate benefit to the vast majority of Cubans. This factor, along with the constant political engagement of the leaders with the masses, helped solidify the radical and then socialist character of the Revolution. For the first time in Cuba’s history, democracy was truly exercised, even before a formal government and electoral process had been realized.
With Fidel Castro’s declaration of the Revolution’s socialist character on April 16, 1961—just hours before the Bay of Pigs invasion—the process of developing a formal government structure, elections and the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), would soon begin and reach completion in 1965.
Cuba’s ongoing revolutionary process and government are underpinned by a set of institutions that clearly provide participatory mechanisms and a level of engagement that continuously legitimizes the broad socialist path of the country. First, there is the formal process of elections. Every two and a half years, elections are held for the country’s 168 municipal assemblies and every five years for the National Assembly of People’s Power and assemblies for the 15 provinces and special municipality of the Isle of Youth. All elected officials are subject to recall.
The National Assembly delegates elect the assembly president and vice-president as well as the 31 members of the Council of State. In between the National Assembly sessions, the Council of State assumes day-to-day responsibility granted it by the Assembly. The Council’s president is the head of state and government.
Elections in Cuba are by secret ballot, and candidates are nominated in neighborhood meetings directly as individuals, not as members of a political party. Everyone over the age of 16 is eligible to vote. The votes are counted in public, and a winning candidate must receive 50 percent plus one vote in order to win. If that percentage is not achieved, there is a second round. Cuba enjoys a high rate of voter participation, reaching 88 percent in the 2015 municipal elections.
The elections are completely free of campaign spending; no money is spent by the candidate. Instead, a one-page biography of each nominee is posted publicly about their record of service to the community. Nor do the elected delegates receive pay for their positions: Being a delegate is a volunteer service to represent one’s district.
Unlike capitalist countries, there are no lobbyists filling the halls of Cuba’s parliament, bribing legislators or writing the laws themselves, limiting unions’ right to organize workers, or giving special tax breaks to giant pharmaceutical corporations, military contractors and so on.
Cuba’s superstructure—the state apparatus, government, education system, elections, mass organizations—is based on the social and economic system of socialism.
With free, quality health care guaranteed as a universal right, everything derived from it—the training of 75,000 medical doctors, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, the remarkably low infant-mortality rate of 4.2 per 1,000, and more—is based on the socialist incentive of providing health care to the people, not profits for stock investors. This example alone proves the superiority of socialism, and is all the more laudable given the U.S. blockade that has caused so much damage to Cuba’s economy.
In addition to the CDRs, there are mass organizations like the Workers Central Union (CTC), the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Union of Communist Youth (UJC), the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), the José Martí Pioneers Organization (OPJM) and more.
The CTC labor federation is composed of 20 national unions, the newest one representing the new non-state workers. Although labor unions in capitalist countries seek obligatory membership of workers in a union-covered workplace due to the overwhelming corporate hostility to unions, in Cuba union membership is completely voluntary.
Union membership among the Cuban workforce is extremely high, more than 95 percent, although there is certainly change in the percentage, since more than 500,000 people are no longer state-employed and their incorporation into other unions is an ongoing process.
The CTC’s primary role is to defend and represent the worker in the event of any injustice or arbitrariness. It also works with relevant institutions in the implementation of the nation’s economic plans and facilitates input from the workers into the plans. The CTC has direct input into any legislation dealing with employment.
As representative of the workers in a society where the government is not antagonistic toward the workers, but rather, is a government of workers’ power, the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers and the CTC consult collaboratively to resolve problems for the betterment of the population.
In critical moments of the last 25 years, major economic changes have been proposed that included a strategic shift toward foreign investment, tourism development and work reorganization. To explain the processes, receive input, make adjustments and seek consensus, all of Cuban society is brought into direct debate and discussion in the workplace and throughout broader society.
In 1993, the National Assembly deliberations were suspended and “Workers’ Parliaments” were convened among the 3 million-strong workforce. Out of the 80,000 meetings, the workers formed the principal source of the debate on what would become the strategy to carry the whole people through the most difficult economic time in the Revolution’s history: The Special Period in Time of Peace.
From 1989 to 1993, due to the collapse of the socialist bloc, the country’s production dropped 34.5 percent and imports fell by more than 75 percent.6 The national consensus and united resistance of the Cuban people through the extremely difficult years of the 1990s finally led to a recovery beginning in 1996.
Despite nearly unanimous predictions that Cuba could not survive the disappearance of the Soviet Union, it held on and has become an instrumental partner in the growing alliances among Latin American and Caribbean countries, an inspiration to millions worldwide.
The years 2008 and 2009 brought worldwide economic crises that have also deeply affected Cuba. The rise in the cost of food imports, along with a fall in revenue from exports such as nickel and sugar, and the need to grow Cuba’s internal economy with more efficiency, productivity and self-sufficiency, required a deepening of the economic strategy that the government first embarked on in 1993.
The crisis was exacerbated by a series of highly destructive hurricanes that hit the island in 2008.
Once again, the people were fully involved in discussions at the workplace level, in what became the “Guidelines for the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and the Revolution,” after tens of thousands of interventions. Much of the document—68 percent—was revised through popular consultation before its approval.
Afterwards, an updated Labor Code, outlining the rights and responsibilities of workers and administrators, was proposed, debated and modified between July and October 2013, in 69,056 popular assemblies involving 2.8 million workers.8 The code was approved by the National Assembly on Dec. 20, 2013.
The Cuban state operates in a way that seeks to build broad consensus under the leadership of the Communist Party. Hence the revolutionary government has been able to maintain, through constant communication and input, both direct and indirect, a close relationship with the broad masses of people, who clearly back the socialist direction of the country.
In spite of the many challenges and difficulties that Cuba and its people have faced over the years, Cuba’s socialist revolution has enabled the Cuban people to create a remarkable society where health care, housing, employment, education, culture and social peace are rights enjoyed by all.