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The Cuban Revolution: 50 Years On

Saul Landau
Date Published: 
October 01, 2008

When events occur that awaken the imagination of the curious and well-intentioned, they become historical milestones. The Cuban revolution did for radical youth of the 1950s what the Bolsheviks did for their ancestors. You could play a role in history and see the results. And they looked very good-in the early stages.

in russia, the more cautious Mensheviks and the more radical Bolsheviks agreed that it was absurd to think of building socialism in one country. In 1917, attempts to duplicate the overthrow of capitalism failed in Europe and socialism ended up developing in the largest land mass in the world. The Soviet Union endured as a painfully inefficient state-directed economy and repressive society for some 70 years before it imploded.

In 1959, Cuban leaders echoed similar sentiments. A revolution on one island? Like their older Bolshy cousins, the guerrillas of the mountains and the underground had their actions rooted in a larger revolutionary context, one supplied by Símon Bolívar, Bernardo O'Higgins, and the other Latin American liberators. Cuba began to "export" revolution, at least ideas, to Caribbean islands and into South and Central American countries as well.

By 1960, given the predictable response of Washington to any sort of disobedience to its rule, Cuba had taken its first steps to partnership with the no longer revolutionary Soviet Union. In doing so, its revolution got caught in the seamy fabric of the Cold War. Fidel Castro learned of their "junior" status during the 1962 Missile Crisis when Soviet Premier Khrushchev neglected to inform Cuba's leader of his decision to withdraw the missiles. But what other major power would write a comprehensive insurance policy for the revolutionary island?


Little choice

By the early 1970s, after failing to achieve a 10 million ton sugar harvest to gain extra foreign currency, Cuba had little choice but to blend its economy into the larger Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, the economic union of those states aligned with the Soviet Union. It adopted Soviet models in return for guaranteed aid and advantageous trade and, as a result, Cuba prospered in the 1970s. Its graduates returned from the Soviet Union with advanced degrees, its population became literate, skilled, healthy, and its soldiers showed in Africa how a small island nation could play a strategic role in helping maintain the fragile independence of Angola.

In 1975, by driving back both South African forces invading Angola from the south and CIA-backed troops coming from the east, Cuba helped keep the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola - Party of Labour in power. Twelve years later, Cuban troops helped liberate Namibia and South Africa by routing the apartheid army in the battles of Cuito Cuanavale-a history barely recognized even among scholars in the United States.

In the 1970s, Vietnam and Laos won their independence. In Africa, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau joined Angola in freeing themselves from Portuguese rule. And in Latin America and the Carribean, Nicaragua and then tiny island of Granada joined the revolutionary wave.

But by the early 1980s the Soviet empire began its steep decline towards oblivion, dragging with it many of these revolutionary movements. The Sandinistas could not contain the US-backed contra forces and Granada's revolution decomposed in its own inner circles. And by the mid-1980s, the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions had already begun to morph into capitalist economies run by communist parties claiming adherence to socialism.

Cuban socialism, however, refused to compromise its basic principles of not allowing capitalist institutions. Now, after almost 50 years, having survived the unflagging hostility of the world's most dangerous and most capitalist neighbor and Soviet collapse, Cuba's basic model continues. Indeed, it underwent a smooth transition in February 2008, when its National Assembly chose Raúl Castro as the new president to replace a convalescing Fidel.


Special period

In the ""special period"" that followed the Soviet demise, Cubans had to violate basic ethical tenets in order to survive. By 1991, the state could no longer guarantee an adequate diet for all citizens, nor maintain other subsidies as Cuban foreign trade plunged by 70 percent and standards of living fell coincidentally. Buying and selling illegally to get certain goods became daily behavior patterns, hardly a stimulant for maintaining high socialist morale. Cuba legalized the dollar and adopted foreign tourism as its dubious money earner. As it did so, a gang of violent exiles attacked tourist sites and, in one of the hotel bombings, killed an Italian tourist-businessman.

Since the US government did nothing to stop these Florida-based terror attacks, Cuba sent agents to Miami disguised as defectors to discover the attack plans of anti-revolutionary groups like Brothers to the Rescue and Alpha 66. When Cuba passed to the FBI material gathered by its infiltrators, the Bureau busted five of the agents and none of the perpetrators. The men were convicted and sentenced to long terms. They currently sit in federal penitentiaries across the United States.

When I ask even veteran lefties about the Cuban Five I get responses like ""I think I heard their album"" or ""were they some basketball team?"" This is unfortunate because the five men represent a long line of those who acted from an understanding of their roles in the long human historical drama of the Cuban revolution.


Willingly imported

Many ask, how did Fidel remain in power for nearly half a century? For one thing, the United States willingly imported his opposition and continues to do so. As sociologist Nelson Valdes presciently points out, current US policy directs its officials to cultivate dissidents in Cuba for the purpose of destabilizing the regime, and later grants these supposed troublemakers visas to come permanently to the United States to join the exiles' ranks.

Washington shares with the violent exiles a common obsession focused on one person-which makes it difficult to think clearly. Note how the language promoting anti-Cuba laws has centered on "punishing Castro." US behavior has not developed intelligently because facts rarely enter policy discussions. Over the last eight years, its has been scream at the top of your lungs and carry no stick policies-like limiting travel to Cuba for Cuban Americans-that make little sense except for the small hard line Cuban exile gang in south Florida.

Aging Cuban revolutionaries, no matter how frustrated by the changes of daily life, can boast about accomplishing their goals. Cuba won independence after numerous wars and uprisings since the 1860s and defended its revolution over 50 years against constant US aggression. It established a system of social justice and rights-the right to eat, have housing, medical care, education, etc-as a kind of ""gravy over the meat of success." Cubans danced-and still mambo-on the world stage as liberators of parts of Africa, slayers of the Monroe Doctrine, purveyors of emergency medical teams that saved Pakistanis, Hondurans, and many others from the aftereffects of natural disaster. Cuban doctors rescued the vision of countless people, and Cuban artists, athletes and scientists have etched their names on the honor roles of talent throughout the world.


Sagging morale

Those who do not land good jobs, despite possessing good education, high skill levels, and good health, feel they deserve more. Over the last decade, I've met dozens of Cuban youths who shrug and claim: ""I don't see much future for myself here."" This represents among a certain sector of the population a sign of sagging morale. Cuba also faces a dramatic shortage of teachers, an agricultural system that forced the government to import more than 70 percent of its food to meet its ration commitments last year, and a wage structure that doesn't always reflect productivity or fairness.

To offer younger generations that sense of optimism that frames the future as a bright opportunity rather than dark uncertainty, Raúl Castro initiated a reform process, including democratizing the Communist Party itself. In 1994, he said, ""in the most critical moment of the Special Period, considerable adjustments were made leading to the reduction and merging of institutions as well as to the redistribution of the tasks previously entrusted to some of them. However, these changes were undertaken with the rush imposed by the necessity to quickly adapt to a radically different, very hostile and extremely dangerous scenario.""

On July 11, and again on July 26 Raúl promised to address the multiple issues that have gone unattended on the island. Cubans have lived through mighty drama in 50 years, much of it imposed by a vengeful neighbor. In the midst of attack and embargo, its government initiated and maintained inspiring programs that many countries in the Global South applaud.


Raúl will need to mobilize younger Cubans in the task of discussing and solving Cuba's pressing problems. All signs show he intends to do just that. The oil revenues that will derive from the recently discovered reserves off Cuba's coast will help him provide for some of the material needs. But he will also need help from around the world to stem the imperial urge to punish the disobedient.

Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. His films on Castro are available on DVD and more information can be on his website.