My wife and I recently returned from a five-day excursion to Havana, Cuba. It was an organized music trip (she’s a musician), so I was careful to be on my best behavior lest she return home without me. (This was less of an assumption on my part and more of a declaration on her part.) Thus, I left my mischievous political urges in New York and soaked in the rhythms of the city unfettered by the usual voices in my head and simply went on vacation. It was glorious.
First, the climate. Not being in peak physical condition, I immediately resigned myself to sweating for five days straight. That aside, we spent our time immersed in the Cuban music scene that permeates every corner of the culture. We listened to local jazz legends and students at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), Cuban pop artists in nightclubs and Afro-Cuban bands that lit up the night. Perhaps the best evening was a performance by Interactivo, a prominent jazz band that was scheduled to play on the deck of a restaurant overlooking Havana Harbor. Instead, we were driven indoors by a torrential downpour that swept in as the set was about to begin. Undaunted, the band members, led by the sublimely talented Roberto Carcasses, huddled around a piano inside the restaurant and jammed acoustically. The percussionists beat out impossible rhythms on the piano top and furniture while the audience crammed in on top of diners unfazed by the soggy turn of events. The musicianship in Havana is not to be believed.
As great as it is to participate in guided musical events, there’s no substitute for experiencing a community with your own eyes and senses. So, we periodically broke from the itinerary to avail ourselves of some local cuisine and lose ourselves in the crowd. (My Spanish is sufficient enough to get around, which is a good thing, because English is hard to come by. Thank you, Mrs. Schoman.) Nearly everyone was game to talk about politics, culture, music, Fidel, you name it. We left each excursion with only positive feelings toward some of the kindest, most genuine people we’ve ever encountered.
Beyond the warmth of the people, I left Cuba generally confused. It’s normal to view other cultures through an ethnocentric lens, no matter how open-minded the traveler. But this place is different. The best advice I can offer to anyone thinking of visiting the island is to block your preconceived ideas and digest your surroundings as objectively as possible. Otherwise, it’s maddening—complete arrested development in some ways and fantastically advanced in others.
This is a country struggling against itself and its past in a way I haven’t experienced. Having traveled to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, I thought perhaps I would have some mental basis of comparison, but there was none.
It has taken time to disassemble the pieces of the trip and put them back together. It’s almost as though we were being taunted to return, as the first message my wife and I retrieved from a fellow traveler was news of the Trump administration’s intention to roll back Obama’s “thawing” policy toward Cuba. We literally read that news on our ride back to New York from the airport.
My vacation mindset was over the instant we returned. The combination of an obsessive personality and the reality that Cuba’s near-emergence from the grips of U.S sanctions would once again be delayed triggered a sense of urgency to consume as much information about this bizarre island as possible. I dove into speeches by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, consumed documentaries, and read anything I could get my hands on.
Back in NYC at the Left Forum, one of the Haymarket Books reps turned me onto Samuel Farber’s “Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959.” I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s as though he wrote it in answer to every question swirling about in my head. Farber explores the fallout (and it is a fallout) of the Cuban economy and society under Castro’s rule. He puts forth a studious narrative from a trained Marxist perspective that will ruffle the feathers of liberal apologists and cutthroat neoliberals alike.
Those looking to Cuba as a source of inspiration for a socialist revolution in the United States will come face-to-face with the harsh reality of a failed state run by a brutal autocrat whose biggest initiatives failed spectacularly. Those seeking comfort in this as proof that socialism is a fraud will be disappointed to learn that the most positive aspects of Cuban society that have endured are socialist programs that can be traced to the early days of the Batista regime.
If there’s strength to be drawn from a socialist perspective, it’s that certain programs thrived in spite of Castro’s leadership, not because of it.
The early days of the 1959 Revolution offer great insight into Castro as a leader. The difference between Fidel Castro’s populist rhetoric broadcast on Guevara’s pirate radio channel to the Cuban people is stark in comparison to his conciliatory interviews with American journalists who painted him as a hero of democracy. Once in power, he betrayed those close to him, played on the emotions of the people, and cozied up to economic suitors that filled immediate needs. Castro’s policies changed almost daily in the early days of his regime. It’s clear, in retrospect, that he was never a man of great ideology. Nor was he a particularly gifted fighter or strategist. He was an opportunist of the highest order and an almost unrivaled propagandist.
Still, the revolution belonged to the Castro brothers and no one else. Raul Castro was a loyal and capable Communist who ruled ruthlessly from the shadows. Fidel was a master prevaricator who found good fortune in even the worst setbacks. From escaping death when his first band of guerilla fighters were mostly massacred, to being pardoned by the very man he sought to overthrow, to the now-infamous trip on the “Granma” and the (virtually) bloodless coup that put him into power, Fidel personally dodged every bullet. The Cuban people and some of his closest allies didn’t fare as well under Fidel’s Faustian bargain.
Guevara was an uncompromising intellectual and idealist who captured the zeitgeist of the uprising. He would grow apart from Castro after a few years and return to his revolutionary roots in South America, and enter martyrdom, cementing his now-mythical status. Camilo Cienfuegos was a hero of the Revolution who believed democracy, not Communism, was the path to Cuba’s economic and political freedom; his genuine popularity throughout Cuba likely brought about his demise. He disappeared in a plane crash after being sent reluctantly to arrest his comrade in arms and personal friend, Huber Matos.
Cienfuegos would take his place in Cuban lore as the champion of a people who were told their hero was assassinated by the CIA. It was a convenient invention of the Castro brothers that has been largely debunked over time. The more likely scenario is that Cienfuegos—his likeness adorns the side of several edifices on the island and students are referred to as “Camelitos”—was a loose end tied up by a fanatical dictator. As for Matos, he would spend 20 years as a political prisoner under Castro for questioning the direction of the revolution.
Considering Fidel was a failure in nearly every respect leading up to the 1959 Revolution, it’s astounding how quickly he was able to consolidate his power. This was his gift. What’s frustrating about attempts by the political left in America to portray Cuba as a champion of socialism and egalitarianism is they ignore his utter ruthlessness. Throughout the 1970s it’s estimated the regime imprisoned some 20,000 political dissidents. Until the last few years, the island itself was a virtual prison for homosexual and transgender people. His economic policies and insistence upon a return to a sugar-based agrarian economy were largely shams that shackled Cuba to its Soviet masters, which sentenced the island economy to certain death when the Iron Curtain fell. On the island it’s referred to as the “Special Period.” Or as one of our more outspoken guides said plainly, “The ’90s were tough because we literally lost our Sugar Daddy.”
Time and again, Fidel’s economic instincts proved disastrous, while core social programs, such as universal health care, quality education and welfare, endured. One can only imagine how the country might have flourished if the socialist policies were housed within a more open society and less bureaucratic government.
The one thing we had trouble reconciling as Americans was the lack of personal freedom. Repressive economic and regressive social policies aside, the restriction on travel and personal liberties is jarring. This was a palpable source of agitation among the younger people we met. The population is entirely literate, a remarkable achievement that serves both as a bright spot and inflection point when married with the slow, steady increase in access to social media. The younger generation is highly educated and aware that a world outside of Cuba awaits and it’s only a matter of time before the island’s forced seclusion faces an inevitable reckoning.
I’m aware this sentiment also smacks of ethnocentrism as though access to the United States is all that matters in terms of personal liberty and the freedom to travel. In fact, Cuba has been a tourist destination for decades, attracting a large number of Canadian, European and Asian visitors. But the proximity of the U.S. and Cuba and the latter’s inability to access goods, services and vital imports make for an unnecessarily strained and unnatural existence. As one cab driver put it to us, “We’re natural brothers.” Unfortunately for everyone involved, a bitter divorce between our parents long ago has had serious intended and unintended consequences.
Despite the clear, self-imposed disadvantages that have plagued Castro’s Cuba, one can’t help but marvel at the fortitude of its people. There is an almost universal sense of pride in its revolutionary history and a belief that while the island’s infrastructure is a mess, it’s their mess. They successfully defied the most powerful nation in history for more than 50 years and retained a collective sense of purpose and autonomy. Given the chance to take its place on the international stage and participate in the world’s economy unfettered by U.S. trade restrictions, it’s entirely possible to imagine Cuba emerging as a powerhouse in the hemisphere. As a practical matter, when compared to the fate of Puerto Rico today, I like their chances. Raul Castro is no fool. While he’s complicit, and at times, wholly responsible for several historical atrocities, he is also uniquely positioned to guide Cuba through this transition and provide a framework for more open and inclusive leadership after he is gone.
The “Never Cuba under a Castro” mantra of the conservative Cuban-American voting block in the always-important election state of Florida is one that clearly resonates with the Republican Party. It was hardly a surprise when President Trump announced only a few months into his administration that opening Cuba would have to wait. Although, my wife made an astute observation that he yet again blew some political capital early in the game and that it might have been better spent closer to mid-term elections.
Nevertheless, in the brief moment the door between our nations opened a crack, a flood of hope, optimism and cash flooded in. The genie is officially out of the bottle and the most interesting days are ahead. The young, vibrant, intelligent and wide-eyed youth we encountered will most assuredly make it so.
And so I’m left contemplating the disastrous authoritarian regime currently in charge of the United States. The real surprise of last year’s election wasn’t that the country decided to elect a crass misogynist with no grasp of history, but that an independent democratic-socialist almost upended the democratic establishment.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont succeeded in resurrecting progressive language that was considered long dead. He spoke in heretic terms about equality, welfare, health care as a right, gender equality and (gasp) a political revolution. He once again normalized ideas and policies that haven’t been explored since President Johnson’s “Great Society,” save for a brief couple of years under President Jimmy Carter.
Trump channeled the same outrage among the working class in America as Sanders. As it turns out, the political winds were at his back, though no one seemed to know how to track them during the storm. (Present company included.) Gerrymandering, frustratingly slow economic growth, democratic elitism and an opponent in Hillary Clinton—a candidate who engendered an unreasonable level of acrimony—contributed to a populist backlash against the Obama years. Thus far, the Trump administration has been laughably inept, and the Republicans in Congress have shown their true colors as mean spirited, power-hungry servants to their corporate overlords, to borrow a term from Chris Hedges. Like Fidel Castro, Trump is demonstrably devoid of ideology but a master of propaganda. One can only imagine @realFidelCastro on Twitter.
Democrats and progressives along the liberal spectrum are left in a dystopian stupor, unsure of what exactly happens next. There is tremendous consternation among the political elites in the Democratic Party who bristle at having to borrow moves from the Sanders’ playbook, considering they are funded by the same corporations that subsidize the GOP. The perspective of those in the Sanders camp is equally dubious. Their feelings of betrayal over the DNC’s actions in the primary and sheer repulsion to anything Trump has led to an abundance of soul searching.
The antidote to Donald Trump and the GOP’s neoliberal policies quite literally destroying the middle class in this country, impoverishing entire nations, and destroying the Earth, may not come in the form of a socialist revolution anytime soon. We might have to travel further into the abyss before this occurs. In fact, it may not come in time to save humanity at all. But if it is to come, Farber offers insight into how it might happen. Unfortunately, his clinical observations make for bitter pills to swallow. I defer entirely to him in this matter and offer him the last words:
“Others on the left seem to share an unacknowledged assumption that the successful socialist revolution that brings about the final collapse of capitalism can happen only once, a sort of revolutionary socialist equivalent of Francis Fukuyama and his view of the end of history. The historical record of the twentieth century makes this an unwarranted supposition. V.I. Lenin and the political tradition that followed in his footsteps made the valid claim that the political consciousness of the working class is uneven, that is, that some sectors of the working class are more politically active and revolutionary than others.
“This is also true for the political consciousness of the peasantry and other oppressed classes and groups. This unevenness is not likely to disappear immediately after capitalism has been overthrown by a successful socialist revolution… The ruling classes of the most economically advanced countries with the strongest democratic traditions are not likely to peacefully agree to give up their economic and social power. They will sabotage and even destroy their productive property before handing it over. A socialist revolution is therefore more likely than not to inherit a society that has experienced a lot of destruction, making it very difficult for the new government to maintain, let alone improve, existing living standards at least for a number of years. If so, the possibility of a popularly supported capitalist restoration, even if temporary, may be rooted not only in counterrevolutionary conspiracies and actions but also in the material reality of postrevolutionary objective circumstances.
“It follows then that there may be the need to undergo a series of socialist revolutions before a new socialist political system and mode of production become stabilized and long lasting. In any case, there can be no advanced historical guarantees of socialist perpetuity except the perennial struggle of actual people to continue making socialism a historical reality.”
— Samuel Farber, “Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment”