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Shiny Happy Socialist People: A Defence of Revolutionary Cuba

Stuart Watkin

IMAGINE A place where the same government has been in power forty-two years. Imagine a place where the same man has headed that government for forty-two years. Imagine it still being popular after all those years. Imagine Cuba.

Now, the more stringent comrades amongst us would say that some of the above was proof of the non-socialist character of the Cuban state. They would argue that there are no elections, thus denying the working class the chance to decide its own destiny. They would also claim that there is political repression, that trade unionists are harassed and their independent unions suppressed, that journalists are imprisoned and tortured, that gays undergo continuing persecution because of their sexuality, and that blacks are still denied access to the rungs of power. But the detractors who recite this litany of crimes always ignore the main point. The Cuban government is still popular, amongst the people that really matter – the people of Cuba.

And not just amongst the people of Cuba. Proof of the enduring popularity of the Cuban revolution internationally was provided in the form of over four thousand delegates from more than 120 countries who came to Havana on 10-14 November 2000 for the Second World Congress of Friendship and Solidarity. I was part of the 120-strong British delegation, which was in reality the English/Welsh section, as Scotland sent a separate delegation through the Scottish Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

Now, I can hear the sceptics among you muttering under your breath that you "didn't know the Communist Party of Britain had 120 members". Well, yes, the CPB, which effectively controls the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, did have the largest contingent on the delegation. But there were also members of other political groups – the New Communist Party and the Communist League, for example – as well as many trade unionists, while the Scottish delegation included the Labour MP/MSP John McAllion. All of which shows the broad base of support for the Cuban revolution that exists within the British labour movement. (There is, incidentally, no truth to the rumour that the Workers and Farmers, as we all so affectionately know the Communist League, tried to take to Havana a goat and a bag of turnip seeds as fraternal gifts.)

But it is necessary address the criticisms of the Cuban political system by the wish-leftists of our movement, outlined above. Let's take a broad view of Cuba. Who wants to see the current system collapse? Who wants to see it continue? What are the possible alternatives if Castro were to be overthrown?

The US, unsurprisingly enough, isn't too keen on what's been going on in its backyard for the last forty-two years and would like to see a return to the good old days when Havana was the Las Vegas of the Caribbean. A time when prostitution and gambling provided the rich of the United States with a fun weekend on a quaint little island. These wealthy Americans treated Cuba as a playground, somewhere for them to enjoy themselves, away from the stresses of everyday life. And the Cuban people were only there to serve and pleasure them.

As it exists today, Cuba is an embarrassment to the powers that be in the US. It stands as an example to others that it is possible for a small country to defy the might of the world's major capitalist power. The fact that this country is a socialist society, a part of the "Communist system" that US ideologists declare has been consigned to the historical dustbin, adds insult to injury. According to the logic of the US ruling class, Cuba shouldn't exist at all – yet it does. This is all straightforward. Nasty imperialist Yankees being nasty and imperialist. Everybody on the left agrees on this. After that, though, it gets a bit more complicated.

The nasty Yankee imperialists are not the only ones who want to see the system of government and its leadership in Cuba overthrown. They are joined in this desire by some of Britain's most ardent revolutionaries. From the Socialist Workers Party right through to the Socialist Party (formerly Militant) via the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, most of the far left in Britain ain't that keen on Cuban-style socialism. Their criticisms focus on what they assert is the absence of democracy in Cuba.

Democracy is, of course, a fine thing. Here in Britain we are privileged to be allowed to cast our ballots once every five years in a general election to decide the future of our country. We vote for people up on high, unrecallable, distant and dissociated from the electors who placed them there. In what is in practice a two-party system, we face the alternative of a Tory or a right wing Labour government. We can choose between Ann Widdecombe and Jack Straw. Oh, of course there are also council elections where we get to vote on which political party will be the most efficient at cutting jobs and services. And over it all squats the "free" press, most of it owned by millionaires, the role of which is to misinform and manipulate the electorate in order to preserve the status quo.

This is the reality of British democracy, that most venerated of systems. Unaccountable parties offering different shades of the same bourgeois politics supported by a media that is independent in name only.

Among the defenders of that type of "democracy", Cuba is widely perceived as being in effect a dictatorship headed by Fidel Castro. The truth, however, is very different. On 15 February 1976 a referendum was held in Cuba to vote on a constitution. This was following a nationwide discussion and debate in which over six million Cubans in 168,000 assemblies took part. By a vote of 5,473,534 to 54,070 the new constitution was approved. There followed later that year a full round of elections.

People's Power, as the Cubans call it, is based on the following system. Neighbourhood districts elect a delegate from candidates nominated by the people living in those districts. By Cuban law there have to be at least two candidates for election. These delegates, who are instantly recallable and accountable to the people with whom they live and work, form the Municipal Assemblies. These then elect delegates to Provincial Assemblies, which elect the representatives to the National Assembly, the Cuban parliament.

At a rally on May Day 1960, Castro said of democracy in pre-revolutionary Cuba: "They invented for you a democracy that meant that you, you who were the majority, did not count for anything. And thus, despite your tremendous force, despite your sacrifices, despite your work for others in our national life, despite the fact that you were the majority, you neither governed nor counted for anything. You were not taken into account."

Castro also spoke of democracy after the revolution: "This is democracy, where you, worker, are guaranteed the right to work, so that you cannot be thrown out on the streets to go hungry. Democracy is this, where you, students, have the opportunity to win a university degree if you are intelligent, even though you may not be rich. Democracy is this, where you, whether you are the child of a worker, the child of a farmer, or the child of any other humble family, have a teacher to educate you and a school where you can be taught. Democracy is this, where you, old person, have sustenance guaranteed after you can no longer depend on your effort."

That, to me, is a far better definition of democracy than any I have ever encountered in Britain in practice or in theory. This is reflected in the enthusiastic participation of the Cuban people in elections. In February 1993, 99.57% of eligible voters in Cuba voted. In 1995, 97.1% went to the polls. In January 1998, more than 98% voted. In Britain, by contrast, the latest opinion polls estimate that just over 60% of the public will vote in the next general election.

Cuba is attacked for repressing its political opponents. Now stop me if I'm wrong, but I thought that the US was its main political opponent. Seeing as we're on the subject of the Yanks, lets look at a few definitions of theirs on freedom. The US Supreme Court has made decisions stating that "your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose" and "freedom of speech does not give you the right to yell `fire' in a crowded theatre". So it is generally taken as given that society can limit individual rights when those rights conflict with the rights of others or of society as a whole.

In Cuba, the overriding democratic right is the right of the country to defend itself against the US's unending campaign to crush its independence. This inevitably places certain constraints on individual freedom. As Castro said recently: "While the blockade exists, to accuse us of a lack of freedom is like hanging a man and then accusing him of not breathing."

The vast majority of the Cuban people have struggled endlessly to achieve and maintain what they have. True, they don't have the western home comforts we are used to. They don't have microwaves, DVDs, and cable TV – but is that how we wish to judge the quality of life? They do have food, housing, clothing, health care, education, jobs and culture. These are the "social and economic rights" contained within articles 22-26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Why should the Cubans throw all this away for a few selfish individuals who believe that freedom is the freedom to make money, the freedom of the United States to impose their will on an autonomous country?

Hard as it may be for sections of the left to acknowledge it, the result of a fall of Castro's regime, which is the desire of so many wild-eyed leftists, would be the rape of the Cuba by the US. Thousands would be killed. Millions more would be persecuted, and the rights and liberties they have enjoyed over forty years would be destroyed, to be replaced with the right to be poor, unemployed and (for some) the right to buy a Big Mac and fries. That is the reality, no matter what the Committee for a Workers' International or the League for a Revolutionary Communist International or the Scottish Football League for that matter may say.

Criticisms are made of Cuba in respect to its treatment of journalists. In the left weekly Tribune (11 November 2000) journalist Joan Smith reported: "Fidel Castro's government is abusing human rights, clamping down on free speech and jailing journalists." Serious accusations, indeed. Ms Smith refers to a "recent report on the press in Cuba" for her information. She then states that journalists have been imprisoned because they published work "abroad". Well, "abroad" is a big place, isn't it? Why doesn't Ms Smith come out and say what she means, that they published work in the US?

So, journalists have been put in prison in Cuba for writing stories, published in the US (which last time I looked was blockading Cuba), in which they attacked Cuba, denigrated its achievements and spread misinformation. Robert Ménard, general secretary of the French NGO, Reporters Sans Frontières, said in 1997 that his organisation was paying $50 per month to journalists in Cuba to write stories. The head of the Americas section of RSF, Jacques Perrot, was questioned how this work was used. "They phone their stories to somebody in Miami and that person puts them on the internet", was his reply. "Free" speech, eh? What Ms Smith doesn't explain is that it has been paid for with American dollars.

It is further alleged that trade unions in Cuba are not independent. Yet a British trade union delegation to Cuba in 1994 reported: "at the end of our stay, we were quite clear that our sister unions in Cuba are not arms of the state and that no one is forced to join them. Those who do not want to join can stay outside." The delegation also met representatives of an "independent" union. They concluded that it "cannot be regarded as a trade union. The representatives we met are a self-styled `executive committee'. They have not been elected by anybody, and they do not appear to represent workers.... We do not consider them to be part of an independent trade union movement in Cuba and they should not be regarded as such."

Of course you can always ignore this evidence, that and the fact that national trade unions such as ASLEF, AUT, BFAWU, BECTU, CWU, CYMU, EIS, FBU, GPMU, MSF, MU, NAPO, NATFHE, NUBD, NUM, NUT, RMT, SOR, TGWU, UNIFI, UNISON and USDAW are all affiliated to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, as are branches of the AEEU, GMB, NASUWT and NUJ. Of course, all these trade unions could be wrong about Cuba and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty could be right, but somehow I doubt it.

Hopefully, all of the above will go some way to alleviate doubts any comrades have about Cuba. Now I will turn briefly to my experiences of the World Solidarity Conference in Havana and my impressions of the country and its people.

I won't go on at great length about the famed friendliness of the Cuban people. Coming to Havana from living in a city like London is certainly a breath of fresh air. In London the "rat race" is well and truly alive, people are obsessed with their own selves and a significant section of the population seems to spend all their lives in pursuit of mammon. Step into the sunlight of Havana and you truly have entered a different world. Cuban people are very laid back, they take the world as they find it. There are none of the stresses that we have foisted upon us by western consumerism.

For those who say that Cuba is a dictatorship, let me give this example. I was approached by Cuban people in the street who criticised the government, bemoaned shortages and then tried to sell me twenty cigars and a bottle of rum. I believe the fact that people can and do openly criticise the state on the streets of Havana is proof that Cuba is not the repressive regime that some would claim. You can't have it both ways. Either Cuba is a dictatorship, in which case the people would be subservient, afraid and unable to voice their concerns freely – or people are free to articulate their concerns about the state, in which case Cuba is not a dictatorship.

As to the conference itself, it was inspiring to see four thousand people gather together, many from Latin America where liberation struggles are real and ongoing. Particular highlights were the greeting from the Venezuelan delegates bringing fraternal greetings from president Hugo Chavez, and the speaker from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) reporting on their struggle against Plan Colombia and their fight for liberation.

On the Friday of the conference the Cubans announced a change in the agenda. The next day there was to be a rally outside the US Interests Section. Despite being up till five in the morning discussing the class character of the Bulgarian state with comrades from the CPB, I still managed to attend the rally two hours later. In the sweltering heat, vultures began to gather directly above my head. Luckily, though, I had my FARC baseball cap to protect me against any aerial attack.

The scenes at that rally will be one of my lasting memories. After the speeches, the music began. The experience of being amongst ten thousand people singing and dancing along to "Guantanamera" and "The Ballad of Che Guevara" was awe-inspiring. Plus, the knowledge that it was getting right up the Americans' noses inside the US Interests Section was a good bonus.

My most special memory of the conference was our visit to the local Committee to Defend the Revolution (CDR). We were split into smaller groups and five of us headed off to CDR No.5. I went expecting to find something along the lines of a British left wing political meeting, i.e. interminable speeches from bearded, middle-aged men. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

We were greeted by the children who presented us with bouquets of flowers and little hand-made dolls. Afterwards, we were greeted by the local CDR official, and the Cubans played their national anthem followed by a recital from one of the girls. However, our typical British reserve, which involved sitting down whilst others danced, wasn't good enough for the Cubans. There swiftly followed a crash course in salsa dancing with the emphasis on the crash rather than the dancing. This was greeted by great amusement by several older women whom I challenged to do better. Which, of course, they promptly did. Proof that the Cuban medical system looks after its pensioners! For me to be take into their homes and given their hospitality was the greatest honour of my life and a memory I shall cherish to my dying day. Which might not be that far off, the way I felt after trying to dance.

I would like to conclude this article by paying tribute to the Cuban people for their resistance of the great American beast for over forty years and to those who took us into their homes and who we took into our hearts, especially my dance partner who I promised I'll return and see soon. Sooner rather than later.