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The Cuban Experiment

Mike McGuire
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    As the debates have raged through the global justice movement over whether or not to fight for state power, much focus has been given to movements in Argentina and Venezuela

In spite of its relative historic novelty and its position 90 miles off the US coast, many of us Seattle generation have ignored the island’s experience. Perhaps it’s because the inspirational victory of the rebel army was long before the lives of many of the young activists of today and Fidel’s luster has been tarnished by a 46-year presidency. Perhaps it is because of the dominance of the state in the revolutionary process and the complicated relationship it has with civil society. Still, Cuba demonstrates the dilemmas and hopes of revolution.

Revolutionary history

Throughout the history of Cuba’s revolutionary “experiment” (as it is so often referred to in Cuba) there has been a major focus on developing the preconditions for popular participation. The story of the Cuban workers that had already reached adulthood before 1959 tells of how great a transition it was. Many of that generation tell of life transformation. The testimony of an aging rural cooperativist tells the story well: “What do I think of the Cuban revolution? My father died when I was a child. I was taken out of school, put to work to support my family and spent the rest of my youth in the sugar cane fields, illiterate and working for foreigners. The revolution put me back in school where I learned to read and write, the land I worked was nationalized. My children were educated and all now work in the sugar industry as engineers and technicians. They have tried to retire me three times from the cane fields, but I refuse to stop working because now I work for my country. I will die with a rifle in my hand before a Yankee rules these lands again.”

This perspective is not unusual for people of that generation. In 1961, there were 271,000 people, mostly youth, that responded to Fidel Castro’s call for a massive literacy campaign and covered the island teaching. By the end of the year, Cuba’s illiteracy rate had gone from 23.6% to 3.9%. People that participated in this massive project still boast of their accomplishment. The legacy of this is an extremely well educated society and a dogged commitment to education – to the point that there are schools in the mountains of Cuba today that serve only one student and are powered by solar panels.

Under attack

The United States has gone after Cuba ever since their assertion of independence and autonomous development. The first of many assassination attempts by the US against Fidel came just one month after the victory, on February 2nd. The first of many US air attacks on Cuba came in October of 1959, when the US bombed Cuban sugar mills. The US would go on to sponsor an invasion (the Bay of Pigs), engage in biological warfare (attacking Cuban agriculture), condone (if not participate in) terrorist attacks, use its influence to politically isolate Cuba in Latin America, and try and strangle Cuba through an economic blockade. These actions have been consistent over the years, implicating both Democrat and Republican administrations.

The survival of the Cuban revolution has often been precarious. In the early sixties Cuba lost most of its engineers and technicians to exile, then lost its access to machinery and repair parts when the US imposed its economic blockade. The Soviet Union, a counter-power in the world, stepped forward with technicians, training, favorable loans, and trade. The importance of this for the stabilization of the revolution is undeniable, as is the effect of the Soviet political model on the Cuban government.

When the socialist bloc of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost 85% of its foreign trade (81% of exports and 88% of imports). Russian oil imports, the source for 95% of Cuba’s oil before 1989, dropped from 13 to 2 million tons in the course of three years and GDP fell 40%. The 1997 report on the Cuban economy by the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean said that the crisis was “more severe than that brought about by the Great Depression.” The average diet dropped from 3,000 calories a day to 1,900. There was an epidemic of eye problems related to malnutrition. Power blackouts were the norm, sometimes reaching 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The reality of having the most powerful country in the world as its number one enemy has defined many of the decisions of the revolution. The Cuban government has never been able to drop their defensive and pragmatic postures. They have also been quite studious of US tactics in other interventions. In Guatemala, Chile, Haiti, and Venezuela, the coups were preceded by aggressive informational warfare meant to build a sense of defeatism and undermine whatever social consensus existed. This reality informed Fidel’s famous 1961 statement “Inside of the revolution everything. Outside of the revolution nothing.” Cuba is constantly on guard for counter-revolutionary activity and that sends shock waves throughout society. But the cause for their vigilance is very real: the US allocates tens of millions of dollars annually to support, and in many cases found, opposition groups within Cuba.

Cultural vanguards

Not surprisingly, the search for enemies within closes off political and cultural space. Counter-revolutionary activity is criminal in Cuba. Crimes against national security include dissemination of enemy literature. In 1999, Cuba expanded the number of capital crimes with the main argument being that they needed capital punishment to effectively fight US aggression – even though the crimes now included drug trafficking, armed robbery and aggravated rape.

The open definition of counter-revolutionary activity has been problematic over the years. Homosexuality has been seen as counter-revolutionary. Until 1999, prostitution was not itself criminal but would instead be treated as counter-revolutionary activity. The now broadly accepted and well regarded “nueva trova” movement was initially approached with great skepticism, as is Cuban hip-hop today.

Cuban cultural producers have often led the way in openly debating the flaws of the revolution. Looking at the question of culture in the revolution is quite interesting. A guiding principal has been José Marti’s “To be cultured is to be free”. This line of thought underpins Cuba’s remarkable educational system, which nurtures students into creative paths. It is thus paradoxical that cultural producers are subject to so much suspicion.

Nueva Trova artist Silvio Rodriguez now is a member of Cuba’s parliament and performs at state rallies, but in 1976 when he was a skinny hippy folk singer he had a much more contentious relationship to the state. When he sung of “your old government of failures and flowers” and wished to never again see the person of “precise words and perfect smiles” many in Cuba thought that he was condemning Fidel Castro. Subsequently rumors would circulate of his imprisonment.

The younger generation of the nueva trova has maintained the tradition’s edge, questioning the emergent inequalities of Cuba’s dual economy and ideological staleness. Frank Delgado’s song Si el Che viviera (If Che Were Alive) asks pointedly “If Che were alive would he be an ornament without talent? A repressor of feeling? A brush that by living from its past immobilizes ideas? ... Would he be orthodox? A dinosaur? Would he be Saint Ernesto of the Left?” Part of Che’s legacy is wondering how he would have fit into the current Cuban government.

Hip-hop movement

The hip-hop movement reveals some other interesting aspects of Cuban politics and culture. The movement emerged in the context of, and in many ways spawned, a much greater focus on race in Cuba. The Cuban revolution saw itself as being blind to race, having eliminated segregation and all legal obstacles to the advancement of Cuba’s large black and mulatto population. The strains of the economic crisis of the 1990’s showed, however, that all was not well. The black population was hit especially hard. The foreign firms that were investing in tourism hired a mostly white work force. Remittances flowed to Cuba from the mostly white first generation of Cuban exiles to their mostly white families in Cuba.

The race question was especially exacerbated by tourism. Tourists had special access to hotels, supermarkets, restaurants, and beaches. Tourists were identified by their whiteness, Cubans by their blackness. The black population’s access to the flood of tourist money was largely on the streets, where cigars, prostitutes, rum, and taxis were aggressively sold to any passing tourist. The heavy police presence that existed in Havana’s most popular tourist areas would act as a filter to stop, ID, and question most any black person accompanying a white tourist. The almost constant harassment was deeply felt by Cuba’s black community.

Hip-hop became an avenue of expression for the black community and was used to decry police harassment and the inequalities of the tourist industry. At the same time, Cuba’s opposition within the US was trying to magnify racial inequalities within Cuba as a signal of the failure of the revolution. Not surprisingly, official Cuban culture saw hip-hop as a threat and a celebration of counter-revolutionary ethics and tendencies. But after Harry Belafonte explained the significance of the hip hop scene to Fidel Castro and Minister of Culture Abel Prieto in 2000, Castro referred to hip hop as the “vanguard of the revolution.” Since then, the Ministry of Culture opened the Agencia Cubana de Rap (Cuban Rap Agency) with a music studio and magazine dedicated to hip hop, and now the Cuban Union de Jovenes Communistas (Union of Young Communists) helps organize the annual hip-hop festival.

Still experimenting

For activists struggling for anti-authoritarian organizing in the US, Cuba provides a living example of the choices that a revolutionary society has to make when under constant attack from outside. Many of us will disagree with the early decision to centralize authority, but the revolution is not dead and is still experimenting. Currently the social science community of Cuba is engaged in a project of local development that empowers the community actor to make decisions about resource allocation and production. The project is organized through popular education programs and horizontal models – yes, they are using that very word – as a form of social organization.

The United States is challenged in Latin America right now as more left populists are elected and the most radical of them, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is emboldened by the Cuban project. Cuba maintains its importance in the region as an alternative model to the “Washington Consensus.” US hostility to Cuba has increased under George W. Bush and his cabal of Cuban expatriates. As they prepare their response to their loss of influence in the region we can expect Cuba to be near the center of their attention.


Mike McGuire is a Baltimore based construction worker and activist. He has co organized an annual conference of US and Cuban Philosophers and Social Scientists for the last decade.