TP: 1st January 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. What would you consider to be the major successes and failures of the revolution over the past 50 years?
MG: To have survived 50 years of economic and political siege is the greatest achievement of the Cuban Revolution. Cuba’s health and education systems are widely praised. The Literacy Campaign of 1960 reduced illiteracy to virtually zero in little over a year. Basic health provision is good and universally available. Furthermore, Cuba’s survival has given hope to all those threatened by U.S. imperialism. However, its dependence on the Soviet bloc, undermined Cuba’s plan for autonomy. Nonetheless, Castro was always able to maintain room for manoeuvre in the relationship. In my view, the central problem of the Cuban revolution is its failure to have to developed a genuinely democratic grass roots political system, having instead concentrated political control in the hands of a small unaccountable minority.
In your latest book Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution’, you appear critical of some aspects of Che’s actions and beliefs. You also offer a critique of the course of socialism in Cuba since 1958. Could you please explain your criticisms a little?
For me, socialism means the ‘self-emancipation of the working class’. It is more than just an alternative economic model; rather it is a wholly new political culture in which the majority become the masters and mistresses of their own destiny. Every act and every decision taken should lead towards this objective. The Cuban revolution has survived and has made important advances despite economic siege and armed assault. Yet today, a majority of Cubans feel alienated from power, which continues to be administered by a tiny minority who are not accountable to anybody but themselves. The reality, in my view, is that the political strategy which successfully led to the overthrow of Batista was a command model: a form of socialism introduced from above, in which the fundamental question of democracy was never posed by Fidel Castro or Che Guevara.
What significance do the ideas of Che Guevara have for today’s politically polarised world?
The significance of Che Guevara for a modern world probably has less to do with his ideas than with his life, and his death. A generation of anti-capitalists that cannot remember him wears his image with pride because he has come to represent selfless commitment and unrelenting conviction. Yet, he was a political leader and thinker whose actions and decisions, both right and wrong,have much to teach future socialists and activists. Given his commitment to the creation of a new and different society, his role in developing a political strategy for Cuba and Latin America was also crucial. In my view, that strategy was flawed but, we have much to learn from engaging with his ideas and his critical role within the Cuban revolution.
Fidel Castro, both revered and reviled by many, led Cuba for half a century. How will his leadership of Cuba be remembered?
It should be said that while Raul has now taken his place, Fidel remains at the heart of Cuba’s political life. Few figures provoke as much loyalty or as much opprobrium as Fidel Castro. For the conservatives in the US and their anti-Castro Cuban allies, Fidel is a constant reminder that the giant has feet of clay, that the world’s most powerful nation was unable to destroy the Cuban revolution. For Latin Americans, Fidel is a figure of admiration for the same reason. He symbolizes the possibility of defying the imperial giant. Yet Fidel’s unchallenged leadership of Cuba, over nearly 50 years, has created a centralized and hierarchical system of power. The criticisms from the right have no credibility given the way in which U.S. democracy has been manipulated, most spectacularly by George W Bush. For those of us in the tradition of ‘socialism from below’, however, the absence of a genuine socialist democracy is a central concern.
Although Raul Castro has only been president of Cuba for a little over 5 months, he has initiated a series of major reforms such as allowing the sale of computers, DVDs and mobile phones. Is this the beginning of major changes for the people of Cuba or even a move to a more market orientated economy?
The reforms introduced by RaÃºl Castro may well prove to be short-lived, as his 26th July speech this year suggested. In any event, the reforms were in many cases simply a recognition of an existing reality – the existence within Cuba of two parallel economies. Anyone with access to dollars could buy consumer goods – witness the cars circulating in Havana’s streets. The growth of tourism since the early 1990s created a dollar economy, but for the majority of Cubans, who earn their wages in pesos, consumer goods were not available and little beyond the basic provisions of life was accessible. This led to a murmuring resentment. While mobiles and DVDs are now more widely available, only some Cubans can buy them. On the other hand, it is a sign of Cuba’s participation in an international market economy. RaÃºl is an enthusiast for China – the Chinese miracle has been achieved without political freedom and by intensifying exploitation. That is the law of survival in the world market. It is imperative that workers have the means to resist the imposition of those conditions, and that requires political freedom.
Do you believe the US stance towards Cuba will change depending on who becomes president later this year, or will the US administration continue pushing for regime change in Cuba?
It is astonishing that after 50 years Cuba remains under siege by the United States and that this policy has not been challenged by a single occupant of the White House. The Clinton administration made some small concessions on food and medicines but nevertheless reinforced the economic embargo. Obviously there has been some optimism at the prospect of an Obama presidency, but I would suggest we do not hold our breath. Just as he has reassured the Israeli lobby that he will continue the policies of previous regimes, so he has already visited the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami to reinforce his commitment to maintaining pressure on Cuba. It seems that despite the death of Mas Canosa, the intransigent anti-Castro lobbyist who was very close to all previous presidents, little will change in Washington.
What predictions can you make about Cuba’s future? How do you predict the country will develop over the next 50 years?
Predictions are a matter for fortune tellers and psychics, all the more so when looking 50 years into the future. It seems to me, however, that now – as ever – Cuba’s fate is interwoven with Latin America. The failure to achieve wider change after the 1959 revolution drove Cuba into the arms of the Soviets, with all the consequences flowing from that. What Venezuela, and in particular Bolivia, have placed on the historical agenda is a new concept of revolution based on mass movements and grass roots democracy. This has implications for Cuba too, if it is to become part of the Latin American revolution of the 21st century. For that to happen, a political debate has to begin within Cuba and a new political leadership emerge, one that is committed to a socialist transformation of a different kind – democratic, open and shaped from below. That movement will create its own priorities and will produce its own organs of a genuine popular power – which is why the future is so unpredictable.
Mike Gonzalez is Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow.
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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek