#15 - Cuba on the brink - radical nationalism is no defence against imperialism

Mar 1994


For nearly thirty-five years, Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba was celebrated or castigated, depending on who was speaking, for being a bulwark of "communism" erected 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Today, having lost its Eastern European trading partners, Castro is desperately trying to break the stranglehold imposed on Cuba by the US trade embargo - in vain so far - and the Cuban economy is falling to pieces.

Yet pro-imperialist Western observers claim to be baffled that Castro should still "stick it out". Why is it, say these hypocrites, that tiny Cuba still stands out when even the mighty USSR has now collapsed, while giant China is enjoying a honeymoon with Western capital which has already lasted for over a decade ? Why is it they add, that Castro still holds on to the past when so many ex-"communist" Eastern European politicians are now busy promoting the virtues of capitalism? And, as if this could be an explanation, they have now produced a new label, promoting Castro to the rank of "hardline communist" - as if it was Castro who was in control of the situation and not the USA!

From the other end of the spectrum, some people seem to believe that Cuba is somehow resisting the general trend set in motion by the downfall of the Eastern European block. They see this as evidence of Castro's particular, although so far unnoticed qualities as a "communist" leader. This assessment usually goes together with a rather idyllic view of the social situation in Cuba, referred to as "communist" or "socialist" and often, although not always, with a certain amount of nostalgia for the past Stalinist regimes.

In both cases, however, this labelling can only be deceptive. Just as it was deceptive, back in 1960, when Castro established trade relations with the USSR and nationalised US investments in Cuba, to see this sudden move as evidence of a conversion to "communism" - when in fact Castro was forced into this move by the USA's trade and diplomatic boycott against Cuba. Castro's turn was a matter of opportunity, not of ideology, nor was it the result of the conscious intervention of the poor Cuban masses moving to expropriate the capitalist exploiters and to take over the running of society. As such it could not change anything fundamental in the social setup of Cuba, and it did not.

The regime set up in January 1959 by Castro's "barbudos", the "bearded men" as they were called, after overthrowing the hated dictatorship of Batista, had nothing to do with communism, but it turned out to be unusual. Not because it came to power outside democratic procedures, nor even because it was popular, at least in its early years, among the poor masses of Cuba. Such features were by no means unusual in Central America and the Caribbean where even dictators occasionaly came to power riding a wave of popularity due to universal hatred for their predecessors. Castro's regime was unusual in other ways. Unlike so many others in the region, it did not return to enforcing the rule of the big landowners. Nor did it choose to toe the line laid down by American imperialism, like so many so-called "anti-imperialist" leaders had done in Central American countries once they were in power.

These unusual features turned Castro into a symbol: that of the struggle of a regime which survived against all odds despite the open and sometimes even aggressive hostility of American imperialism and the on-going conspiracies of Cuban emigré landowners operating from Miami, Florida. "The enemies of my enemies must be my friends", some would say. Thus Castro came to be seen as a friend among Central American and Caribbean workers and labourers who were slaving away under the yoke of feudal landlords or American companies. And still recently, in Haiti, thousands of angry demonstrators were heard chanting in the country's capital: "Fidel give us weapons! ".

The mere fact that Cuba's regime appeared to stand up against US imperialism in a region where every development was tightly controlled by the USA, was enough to create a current of sympathy and enthusiasm around what came to be known as Castroism. However this enthusiasm proved to be based on illusions. While the regime had proved loyal to the poor masses by not selling out to the dictate of American imperialism, its social outlook was that of the frustrated Cuban middle class which had been deprived for so long of any say or prospect in society by dictatorial regimes and imperialist exploitation of the country. Castro's late turn toward using socialist phraseology was a matter of expediency and necessity, not the expression of his intention to bring about any fundamental change in the organisation of society.

Today as Cuba's regime seems to be crumbling in turn, it is not, therefore, yet another collapse of "communism", nor even of a distorted image of communism which is taking place. But it may well be the collapse of longstanding and widespread illusions.

In the USA's backyard

Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, nearly 750 miles long, and only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. More importantly, it is part of a region which for about a century has been the private backyard of the US bourgeoisie. By 1858, Cuba, although a Spanish possession since the end of the 15th century, was already considered, in the words of a then American senator, "naturally to belong to the American continent ". By then the USA was already Cuba's most important trading partner. And it was not long before the American bourgeoisie sought to transform its economic domination into a political one. This was achieved through a war against Spain which was fought simultaneously in the Pacific and the Caribbean. The result was a swift victory on all fronts for the USA which took over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines outright.

In the case of Cuba, the settlement was only different on paper. Ironically, the pretext for the USA's war against Spain had been to help a Cuban nationalist uprising against Spanish domination launched three years earlier. So Cuba was made "independent". But the Cuban insurgents were disarmed by American troops who settled on the island for four more years. When Cuba's Constituent Assembly met for the first time, they found out just what their "independence" really meant. By the Platt Amendment the new regime had to agree in advance to allow US military intervention supposedly "for the preservation of Cuban independence ". The US authorities were to oversee the country's tax administration and an American military base was to be set up at Guantanamo which the USA retains to this day. To all intents and purposes Cuba became an American protectorate.

Not that Cuba was unique in that respect. The USA's victory against Spain marked the beginning of a long series of American military adventures and interventions across the region. These were often disguised behind some liberal pretext, such as helping out local nationalist forces. But at the end of the day they always resulted in entrenching American imperialist interests in these countries.

Thus in 1902 the US navy intervened in Panama, then part of Colombia, to back a nationalist uprising. The real motive behind this intervention was in fact Columbia's refusal to abandon sovereignty over the zone chosen for digging the future Panama Canal. Not surprisingly the new "independent" Republic of Panama immediately signed a treaty granting the USA indefinite control over the Canal zone. Two years later in 1904, the US navy threatened the Dominican Republic and imposed an agreement which gave the USA full control over Dominican customs with 55% of all proceeds to be given to the Republic's foreign creditors - mostly American banks of course. This agreement was to last till 1940. Again, in 1906, US Marines were sent into Cuba where they stayed for three years, this time to protect the Cuban ruler against popular discontent.

American military intervention went on and on, year after year. 1908: Panama; 1909: Nicaragua; 1910: Honduras; 1912: Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras; 1914: Haiti, Mexico; 1916: Dominican Republic, Mexico; 1917: Cuba; 1918: Panama; 1919: Honduras; etc.. Some countries experienced long periods of US military occupation as a result: Nicaragua for 20 years until 1933, Haiti for 19 years until 1934, the Dominican Republic for eight years until 1924 and Cuba for six more years until 1923.

Everywhere American companies took over the running of the railways, post office, electricity, etc.. as well of course as the local mineral resources and, often, a large part of the richest land. Among these companies, one stood out - United Fruit, known as "el pulpo" throughout Central America, the octopus. Originally a banana trading company, United Fruit spread its empire across Central America, in particular through building railway lines and port facilities for its trade. It grew to the point of owning most of the economy in Guatemala, Honduras and Costa-Rica. In these countries the real government was to be found in the local headquarters of the company, not in government's buildings - hence their nickname of "banana republics".

Cuba was an integral part of this regional shift. Its economy was soon under the control of American companies - United Fruit in agriculture, Bethlehem Steel and Rockefeller in iron ore, manganese and nickel mines. Cuban politicians had to toe the American line or forget about making a career and the US navy stationed in Guantanamo was there if need be to ensure that they did.

In 1933 General "The Butcher" Machado was overthrown after a popular revolt in Havana. It was the height of the Depression and Machado's successor attempted various New Deal-style reforms on Cuba's ailing economy. The US corporate giants immediately reacted and President Roosevelt, champion of the New Deal in the USA, obliged by cutting off credit. Within months another US-backed coup had taken place. The new dictator, Batista, a sergeant stenographer, was to keep his grasp on power, one way or another, for the next quarter of a century.

By the mid-50s, the number of architect-designed villas in the classy residential area of Miramar or the gleaming new skyscrapers near the exclusive Varadero beach could give the impression that the Cuban economy was picking up. But that was mere window dressing, as misleading as the statistics which showed in 1953 that Cuba's per capita GNP was well ahead of Italy's and almost double that of Japan! For behind the ostentatious wealth hid poverty, corruption and above all the huge profits taken away by American companies.

It was precisely the existence of tremendous wealth and poverty side by side which gave Cuba its great "charm" in the eyes of rich American tourists who poured across from the mainland for a "hot" time. In Havana anything could be bought. It was a cornucopia of sex, drugs and pornography. There the gringos, as they were known, could enjoy illicit pleasures denied them in puritannical America. As Graham Greene described in "Our Man in Havana", it was like living "in a factory that turned out human beauty on a conveyor belt ". But away from the bright lights, the brothels and swish hotels there was the destitution and human degradation of the poor masses.

Cuba's proletarian traditions

The idea that Cuba's main political tradition is rooted among the peasantry is widespread but nonetheless wrong. The first Cuban trade-union goes back to 1868 among tobacco workers. And from the regional workers' congress held in La Havana in 1892, there was always a lively working-class movement on the island. Until the early 20s it was dominated by anarcho-syndicalist ideas originating from Spain. Then the impact of the Russian revolution led to the setting up of the first communist organisation in 1925, which was soon to develop into the largest political party in Cuba and one of the largest in the whole of Latin America.

In addition to rail, tobacco, sugar and other farm workers, young artists and intellectuals were attracted into the ranks of the Cuban Communist Party. Its first secretary-general, Vilaboa, was a house painter then working in the presidential palace! In the rapidly deteriorating economic climate of the Depression, the CP soon gained control of the banned Cuban National Confederation of Workers. In 1930, the CP initiated a general strike against the Machado dictatorship. It was a political strike in which the working class succeeded in pulling other layers of the population into a fight against the regime. Two years later, again, a general strike flared up. Only this time the determination of the working class was stronger and Machado was forced to flee. This outcome could have resulted in the working class, then at the height of its mobilisation, seizing power. However, before the dictator's downfall, the CP leadership had cobbled up a deal with Machado and advised workers to go back to work. Although their call was unsucessful, their refusal to take the struggle through to accomplish its full potential effectively disarmed the working class and opened the way for bourgeois rivals of Machado to step in his shoes.

Despite the betrayal of their leadership, CP activists fully participated in the rising tide of social revolt which erupted after Machado's departure. The National Confederation of Workers launched a wave of strikes and occupations, including in 36 sugar mills. However this spring of the Cuban proletariat was cut short not only by General Batista's coup, in 1935, but also by the "popular front" turn initiated in Moscow. This instructed Communist Parties across the world to play by bourgeois democratic rules and seek alliances with bourgeois forces with the aim of pushing into power governments sympathetic to the USSR.

In the case of Cuba, the CP leadership spurned the bourgeois democratic parties that had united to form the Cuban Revolutionary Party for the purpose of overthrowing Batista. Instead they used their considerable weight in the unions to prop up Batista's regime in return for legal recognition and control over the newly formed Cuban Workers Federation! They justified this by saying that Batista was no longer "the centre of reaction". Their support was crucial in contributing to his victory in the 1940 presidential election and the debt was duly repaid when they received two posts in Batista's cabinet.

By 1942 Russia and the USA had both entered the war against Germany. The CP supported anything which appeared to assist the war effort even if this meant selling the entire sugar crop to the USA for rock bottom prices and agreeing to more US military bases on the island. The party even dropped its "communist" label, renaming themselves the Popular Socialist Party (PSP). The political gains from such manoeuvres came to a halt after Batista lost the presidential election in 1944. Even so, the PSP retained influence through the prominent position its members held within the trade union bureaucracy and through the presence of their activists on the ground amongst various layers of workers, sugar workers in particular.

In 1952, after Batista chose to stage another coup rather than suffer a further electoral humiliation, the PSP was banned along with other organisations, although unlike others it was not persecuted. While the PSP favoured a broad "struggle of the masses" against Batista, in practical terms they did nothing to promote a class struggle. This was not due to the weakness and lack of tradition of the working class but rather to the CP leadership's desire for participation in the state and its institutions as in 1940 - a desire deeply entrenched by nearly two decades of a reformist line pushed by the USSR.

As a result it was hardly surprising that talk of "direct action" to overthrow the dictator among students in La Havana University was sharply criticised in the communist daily, Hoy , as "petit bourgeois adventurism", if not "terrorism". But it was eventually the abandonment by the renamed CP's own leadership of working class interests, that allowed the so-called petty bourgeois adventurers rather than a proletarian organisation to win the struggle which was soon to be fought out against the regime.

Castro's beginnings - a botched up insurrection

When Batista had found out that he was trailing in the polls for the presidential election in 1952, he simply took over the armed forces and staged another coup. As a result the congressional elections were also cancelled. One of the congressional candidates, a young lawyer named Fidel Castro, subsequently challenged the legality of his actions in the courts. When his objections were rejected, he set about collecting a force which could overthrow the corrupt regime.

Given the barriers to middle-class careers along normal channels imposed by the corruption and dictatorial nature of the regime, it was not difficult to find 200 men (and 2 women) prepared to take such risks. Nor, given the recent history of this trigger-happy island was it so exceptional for middle-class youngsters to resort to armed struggle. This did not make them into revolutionaries as far as society was concerned. In demanding an end to corruption, constitutional safeguards and, hence, scope for them to pursue professional careers, they only aimed at getting what any middle-class American, for example, could take for granted.

Having spent a year training on campus and later in the countryside, Castro and his band headed for Fort Moncada, the second largest military barracks in Cuba. His plan was to launch a surprise dawn raid on the barracks. They would capture heavy weapons and then head for neighbouring Santiago de Cuba where they would seize the radio station. Castro would then make a speech and the whole population would rise up against the despised dictator. Given the balance of forces - modern machine guns against, at best, ancient hunting rifles, the plan was foolhardy if not bordering on lunacy.

On Sunday, 26 July 1953 the attack was launched. Losing the element of surprise almost immediately, the attackers had to retreat rapidly. Some were killed in the bungled attack; many more were tortured and killed in the hunting down of the attackers which followed as Batista used the opportunity to make an example by his brutal crackdown.

Castro and the other survivors were subsequently tried and imprisoned for long gaol sentences. However although Castro was out of sight behind bars, the July 26 Movement had established an image of radicalism. Castro never reproached himself for the death of over a hundred of his comrades. Instead they became a propaganda weapon, to be used as evidence of the criminality of the regime. Less than two years later Batista, who had won an election in the meantime, felt strong enough to declare an amnesty for all political prisoners. Castro and his friends were released.

Once out of jail Castro advertised his intention to be active in the legal Ortodoxo party, from whose ranks many of the July 26 supporters originated. His target, he said, was Batista, not the system, and he avoided criticising the army. He was soon banned from broadcasting and writing articles. Having been barred from using legal avenues, Castro turned again to insurgency and headed into exile, to Mexico - to prepare for another "lucha armada".

Castro's second attempt at an insurrection in December 1956 was, on the face of it, almost as catastrophic as the attack on the Moncada. Although the group of 82 which set out from Mexico had better arms - purchased with money sent from Cuba or from Cuban exiles living in America - few of these weapons actually reached Cuba. The yacht they made the journey in from Mexico was unseaworthy. When they finally reached the coast of Cuba, the vessel went aground in a mangrove swamp and they had to abandon ship. They missed their rendez-vous with the groups which had been organising inside the country and were quickly spotted by Batista's agents and attacked by the army. Out of the 82 only 22 survived. Ten were imprisoned and only 12 including Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevara escaped to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.

For months Castro's little band hardly grew. But although it was insignificant militarily, he enjoyed a real propaganda coup by getting an American journalist, Herbert Matthews, to visit the Sierra Maestra. A series of flattering articles complete with photos were published in the New York Times showing him alive and well at a time when Batista was claiming he was dead! One way out of his military weakness was to unite with other groups. His "Appeal to the People of Cuba " calling for violent action throughout the island had this in mind. But, at this stage, the July 26 Movement was not the only guerilla group and it was probably the smallest among them. Castro's offer was ignored. Each group went on doing its own thing, with usually the same catatrophic results.

The "Rebel Army" as an embryonic state

In the end growing support for the July 26 Movement in the urban areas enabled Castro's band to resume activity. Money was collected and weapons bought, while a trickle of recruits volunteered to fight alongside Castro and Guevara.

By May 1957, Castro had his first military success against a small army outpost. But this was overshadowed by the growing activity of all urban groups, including those of the July 26 Movement. For instance, in March 1957 the Revolutionary Student Directorate led by its president Echeverria attacked the presidential palace and almost succeeded in assassinating Batista. Echeverria himself was killed in the shoot-out but his group remained strongly organised in La Havana. In September came another spectacular development with the mutiny of the navy officers stationed in the port of Cienfuegos. They were joined by 150 urban supporters of the July 26 Movement. The rebellion was crushed but it ended the myth of the unbending loyalty of the army toward Batista.

The successes of the urban groups effectively put in question the whole orientation of the 26 July Movement which had been so far focused, under Castro's guidance, on the setting up of a guerilla movement in the countryside. Castro's leadership of the Movement was by no means consolidated. He had prestigious rivals among the Movement's urban leaders, like Frank Pais who had been the Movement's main organiser right from the beginning in Santiago. As it happened, Batista's police suppressed this potential rival by shooting him in July 1957. But the response to this murder - a general strike lasting nearly a week - underlined once again the potential strength of the urban population in the fight against Batista and therefore the potential weight of the Movement's urban wing.

Whether to concentrate on developing the guerilla or on building in the cities, was not just a matter of rivalry for the leadership of the Movement. In Castro's view, in any case, it involved a decisive political choice - that of leaving the poor masses outside of the revolutionary process.

Contrary to urban strikes and demonstrations, the guerilla only required passive support from a section of the peasant population, since the guerilla was supposed to act on its behalf. For, like most radical petty bourgeois leaders, Castro himself was always suspicious of mobilising the masses. When he did resort to such a move, it was always in the most controlled fashion, leaving as little initiative as possible to the masses themselves. Moreover Castro was always mindful of the social layers he was trying to win to his side by reassuring them in particular - the Cuban professionals and businessmen, and above all the army officer caste, most of whom were likely to be frightened away by any form of popular mobilisation. To reassure these layers, the disciplined character of the guerilla was duly publicised and reinforced with a political programme, the Sierra Maestra Manifesto. This was issued with a leading Ortodoxo politician and Cuba's most distinguished economist as co-signatories. It was a liberal programme calling for the creation of a civic revolutionary front to end "the regime of force", to hold elections and restore democracy. It envisaged modest land reforms with compensation for landlords. It was also intended to reassure the military chiefs that they did not have to take sides in the contest between Castro and Batista. Provided they stayed in barracks, they would retain their commands.

Given the right circumstances and astute propaganda, even a small guerilla could establish a political profile for the Movement out of proportion with the actual numbers involved. Not so much by causing real damage to the regime or to the army - the guerilla was much too weak to do this - than by maintaining a visible presence over a small but not insignificant area and developing a political image among the population. Thus Castro was careful to treat army prisoners well, releasing the wounded after they had recovered and making it easy for defecters to join his band. Likewise with the peasants. Often treated brutally by Batista's Rural Guard, they were surprised that Castro's men paid for the food they requisitioned and did not terrorise their villages. As a result they came to show them some sympathy, tipping them off about visits from the military. In this way, the guerilla could become a permanent factor in the countryside.

Last but not least the guerilla could provide the embryo of the future regime, thus avoiding the possible risk of a power vacuum when the dictatorship collapsed. By the end of 1957, with his guerilla reaching just under 300, Castro was able to win his first visible "battle" against an army unit of similar size sent against him in the Sierra. What was more important, however, was the fact that what he now called rather grandiosely the "Rebel Army " controlled an area of about 2,000 square miles in the Sierra, large enough for it to play a new role. As Che Guevara explained later on, "in such rural areas the future state machinery begins to acquire its shape; already the guerilla acquires a new organisation, new structures... in short all the features of a miniature government ". And indeed at this stage the guerilla became more and more involved in "running" the so-called "liberated territories" - which involved in particular enforcing some form of law and order, organising courts for criminals and jails, etc.. - while it was less and less concerned with the actual fight against the regime. In so doing Castro was effectively training his future top civil servants, as it were, and his future collaborators in government. This training never left any space for the democratic involvement of, let alone control by the population - a clear indication of the sort of regime Castro had in mind.

The seizure of power

By early 1958, Batista's regime was a shambles. Bombings and shootings against officials of the regime were daily events. Its weakness was so obvious that in advance of the presidential election planned for 1 June, Batista announced that he would not stand. Instead, he would support one of his collaborators while appointing himself head of the army.

By then all the radical organisations opposed to Batista were involved in some form of armed activity and most had their own guerillas, although in this sphere of course, Castro's Movement had the advantage of seniority. By February, even the PSP, the renamed Communist Party, had opted for setting up a military organisation.

In March, Castro felt the time was ripe to strike a new blow at the regime. A manifesto was issued calling the population to stop paying taxes to Batista's regime and to prepare for a general strike. This was planned to take place on 9 April. But as the general strike had been scheduled to back a series of military attacks it was decided to keep the date secret and to wait until 11am on the chosen day to announce it on Radio Rebelde. Besides, due to the virulent anti-communism of the Movement's leadership, it was decided not to involve the PSP and therefore the unions as well. Not surprisingly, given that everybody was already at work when the strike call was issued, the response was poor among the working class while it was slightly better among shopkeepers and small businesses. The attacks took place but with much less impact than expected. However there were many casualties as the police started to shoot on sight in the streets.

The messy way this was prepared was not really surprising. The July 26 Movement was obviously keener to seek the support of the middle class than that of the proletariat as was shown, for instance, by the people they had chosen to constitute the leadership of the strike in La Havana: beside two representatives of the Movement, there was an engineer, a clergyman, a journalist and a doctor. However Castro did manage to turn a political disaster for the opposition against Batista into an organisational victory for himself. Laying the blame for the failure on the urban organisers of the Movement he won his appointment as general secretary and officer in command for all its armed groups, including those in the cities.

It was the failure of the general strike that prompted Batista to organise a major offensive against Castro in the Sierra mountains. Dubbed the "extermination campaign", 12,000 troops well armed by the Americans should have proved overwhelming against two hundred armed guerillas. But on 29 June, after weeks of strenuous attempts at avoiding direct confrontation, Castro had a stroke of luck in surrounding and destroying a one thousand strong army unit. This stopped the army's advance. Demoralisation started to spread in the army. Castro's radio messages to the soldiers which attacked the corruption of the army top leadership while repeating "we are at war against tyranny, not against the armed forces " struck a chord among the soldiers. By mid-August Batista was forced to order the army back to its barracks for fear of massive desertion or, worse, rebellion.

In the meantime Castro had managed another political success with an agreement signed in Caracas between the various opposition groups which recognised him as chief in command of the revolutionary forces. Athough most of the groups concerned on the ground were not even consulted, this agreement went a long way in helping Castro to unite the various existing guerilla groups under his control.

The disintegration of Batista's offensive signalled the beginning of the regime's death agony. The various guerillas were now spreading across the country. The army, despite being under constant attack, was too demoralised to retaliate. Batista's only reliable support was the air force which he used extensively but to no avail. The collapse of the dictatorship was looming. In the Sierra Maestra and in the Oriente province the guerilla was already busy implementing a limited land reform, distributing the land owned by the dignitaries of the regime among the landless peasants. The whole economy was in chaos. Now the capitalists themselves wanted Batista to go so that business could restart. Top businessmen and high-ranking officers in the army were making contacts with Castro to make a show of goodwill and test his intentions.

Finally, overnight, the regime collapsed. On 31 December Batista gave a final party in a military camp before escaping to the Dominican Republic with forty of his loyal supporters and $400 million in cash. Formally he was leaving the presidency to the president of the Supreme Court and the leadership of the army to general Cantillo. But there was no way for the appointed successors to restore any kind of authority or resist the uprising. And they did not even try.

The next day saw an explosion of enthusiasm throughout the country. In Havana rioting broke out. Anything which reminded people of the dictatorship and its corruption was either ransacked or destroyed - the casinos, the headquarters of Shell, the phone boxes and meters. A race against time started between the armed groups of the 26 July Movement, the Revolutionary Directorate and the PSP, to take over control of the town's strategic places. Meanwhile Castro was entering the country's second town, Santiago, where the army had joined the uprising as one man. From there judge Urrutia, a liberal, was appointed president while Castro called a general strike across the country to back the progress of the revolutionary forces, now counting nearly a thousand fighters. But strict instructions were issued at the same time to the 26 July Movement that they should immediately take over municipal functions, at gunpoint if necessary, and keep the strike under strict control. The urban proletariat was not to be allowed any initiative of its own.

The following day Castro's troops entered Havana followed by Castro himself on 8 January. By that time all civil and military authorities had been reappointed or confirmed in their positions across the country. But the general strike was still on and everyone had some sort of weapon in his hands. This was addressed by Castro in his first speech on television: "All weapons must return to the barracks where they will available if and when enemies of the people need to be dealt with. But in the meantime private weapons will not be allowed (...) Starting from today the revolutionary festivities are over; tomorrow will be a working day like any others ". Castro was thus making clear that the poor masses would not be allowed to have their say in shaping the new regime, let alone in reshaping the Cuban society.

So far the USA had been remarkably cautious. Initially they had made plans to help set up a military junta to replace Batista. But given the unreliabily of the army these had been dropped. Military intervention was also considered. But with so many people out in the streets, many of them armed, and so intent on settling accounts with the defunct regime, this option was shelved as too dangerous. The USA's worst fear was a social disintegration which could lead to radicalisation spreading like brushfire throughout the region, including to the USA itself. Understanding their concern which he also shared, Castro sought to reassure them while at the same time satisfying the basic demands of the population for change. His initial moves were designed to show his moderation and responsibility in order to placate the bourgeoisie, Cuban as well as American. Thus he prevented the Revolutionary Directorate from stockpiling weapons and even reopened the gambling casinos for American tourists. As to the state institutions, they were more or less left intact with only the top jobs being assigned to members of the former opposition against Batista or to liberal personalities. Even the vast majority of the police and army ranks remained untouched under the new regime. At the same time a series of popular measures were passed, such as reductions in phone charges and rents, the trial and execution of former Batista collaborators and the promise of land reform to come (even though the peasants were told to be patient).

In April 1959 Castro, who was by then prime minister, headed for Washington and New York together with his minister of the economy and the president of the National Bank. There he met representatives of the US government. They were polite but not exactly welcoming, there were no big offers of money and criticism was made of the trials of Batista supporters which invariably ended with them being found guilty and executed. On US television Castro asserted that he was "not a Communist". Then breaking an undertaking he had made publicly to spend May 1 with the Cuban working class, he journeyed to Argentina to take part in a session of the US-dominated Inter-American Economic and Social Council.

When Castro finally returned to Cuba on the 9 May he immediately continued the theme of his US trip: "the rights of man were the rights of the Cuban revolution " he told journalists. He distanced himself from comparisons with communism by using conventional anti-communist cliches: "not only do we offer people food but we also offer them freedoms ". Finally he promised an end to the trials which had aroused so much criticism in the USA.

Castro consolidates his power

Even after Castro's triumphant return to Havana and his nomination in February as prime minister, he still had one major potential rival to deal with, the PSP. Having joined, as late as February 1958, the drive toward armed rebellion, it was not until late July with Batista's "extermination" campaign seriously back-firing, that a member of the PSP's central committee made the journey out to meet Castro in the Sierra mountains.

After the fall of Batista, the PSP proposed "democratic elections", electoral "unity" between the PSP and the 26 July Movement, a modest land reform and the replacement of Batista's army by the Rebel Forces. While Castro had always distanced himself from the PSP in the days of the guerilla campaigns, when the balance of forces was in the PSP's favour, now the situation was reversed. Not only was Castro in a much stronger position now but he probably had even more prestige among workers and more supporters among union activists than the PSP had. What Castro did not have, however, was an organisation comparable to that of the PSP, capable of organising workers on a significant scale and, if necessary, of controlling the working class. Given the relationship of forces, it was conceivable to conclude an alliance in which the PSP would end up as a junior partner, if not as a hostage, while using its ability to control the working class for the benefit of the regime.

For the Cuban proletariat still represented a real potential problem for Castro. Making limited concessions to the peasantry allowing them small landholdings which they could try to develop in association with their families presented no difficulty as it cost nothing. If they succeeded, they would become petty proprietors and beholden to Castro. If they ultimately failed, their anger would only materialise after Castro's regime had become stabilised. On the other hand significant concessions to agricultural and urban workers would have had quite different implications. It would have encouraged the blossoming of working class organisations, a resumption of the class struggle and the emergence of economic demands which Cuba's poor economy would have been unable to meet without taking the necessary resources from the middle classes who made up the social basis of the regime. Besides significant concessions to the working class would inevitably have upset Castro's attempt at gaining acceptance from the USA.

In March the anniversary of Echeverria's unsuccesful assault on the presidential palace was celebrated. The PSP were allowed to participate "in unity" alongside the Revolutionary Directorate and the July 26 Movement. The PSP newspaper found some of Castro's speeches so favourable that they reproduced them in full. Not that Castro intended to make things easy for the PSP as long as they retained a shred of independence. At the conference of the sugar workers, the biggest union in Cuba, the PSP were excluded from position-holding in the elections largely as a result of Castro's intervention. It was to be part of a pattern. In order to keep their support, he made soothing references to the PSP. But in order to keep the PSP leaders subservient, Castro lashed out unexpectedly from time to time. It was the sort of cat and mouse game that Castro was to prove very good at playing.

In the following months Castro took further steps to undermine potential opposition from his erstwhile comrades in arms. For instance in the October elections where the July 26 Movement was well represented, he used his personal weight to have students elect a "unity", namely a PSP, president. Potential opposition from Rebel Forces was removed by appointing his politically loyal brother, Raul, to the ministry of Armed Forces. This led to the subsequent resignation of Hubert Matos as commander-in-chief. Thus Castro eliminated a number of potential rivals from the ranks of his own supporters.

So by the end of 1959 Castro had consolidated his own personal power. The PSP was brought into the regime's political fold but denied power. The old strongholds of the 26 July Movement and the Rebel Army had been depoliticised and reduced to being cheerleaders for Castro and to providing administrative staff for the state.

The showdown with the USA

So far the US government had treated the new regime with ostentatious contempt, waiting to see what would come out once the dust had settled. And what came out was the land reform already promised by Castro which was enacted on 17 May 1959.

There was nothing very radical in this measure. For Castro, it was simply a means to stabilise the social situation in the countryside by providing the poorest layers of the peasantry with something to make a living on. At the same time he saw it as the only way to increase agricultural production while consolidating the new regime.

In itself the reform was nothing but the implementation of measures which were already part of the 1940 constitution - namely that no farm should have more than 1000 acres, except rice and sugar plantations which were allowed a maximum of 3,300 acres. And even then, Castro's reform included all sorts of exceptions whereby the government could allow much bigger estates to remain intact provided their production was large enough. Finally, where land was confiscated, the landowners would be compensated over a twenty years period with 4.5% interest.

In reality most of the land targetted was uncultivated, often belonging to absentee landlords, Cuban or foreign, or to American companies. The redistribution was to be done in one of three ways: through the allocation of 50-acre plots to landless peasants; through the setting up of co-operatives in which those who volunteered would own the land collectively; or through the setting up of state farms. The distribution itself would be organised by the authorities and there was no question of the peasants organising themselves democratically in order to decide how best to implement the reform.

Once again there was nothing exceptional about this reform. It was actually similar to some encouraged by the USA themselves in various countries, including in Japan after 1945. Yet, as a way of showing who was the master, and probably also under pressure from the sugar companies, the American government demanded that compensation should be higher and that a significant part of it should be paid immediately - a demand that amounted to imposing a postponement of the reform given the fact that the Cuban Treasury had been left virtually bankrupt by Batista's departure. But this open pressure, not to say threat from the USA failed to stop Castro. The army began to expropriate large landowners including some American companies.

In the meantime, American pressures had another indirect effect. Liberal politicians who had participated in the new regime's institutions started having cold feet and there was a wave of resignations. Likewise Cuban capitalists who had not objected to Castro's policies so far, reacted to the change of tone by the USA, more in fact than to the land reform itself. Probably a number of them gambled that this would lead at some point to an American intervention overthrowing Castro's regime and that it was probably wiser to be seen siding with the future victor. In any case, wealthy Cubans and expatriate Americans living in Cuba started leaving the country, many of them to settle in Florida.

Faced with Castro's refusal to concede on the land reform, the US government stepped up its pressures, threatening this time to reduce the amount of sugar they were buying from Cuba every year. They knew this threat to be a deadly blow for the Cuban economy, all the more so as, so far, all attempts made by the new regime to find new customers had failed. What the American leaders did not expect was that Castro would turn to the only potential customer he had chosen not to canvass so far, precisely to avoid upsetting Cuba's relations with the USA - the USSR.

In early 1960, a trade agreement was signed with the USSR whereby the Soviet economy would absorb half a million tons of sugar in 1960 and a million tons every year thereafter. In addition Cuba would export other products like fibres and fruits. In return the USSR were granting Cuba a £100 million loan repayable in twelve years, regular supplies of oil and, possibly, some degree of technological assistance. There were no political strings attached. It was a straightforward commercial arrangement which was beneficial to the USSR because, with the exception of the comparatively modest loan, it was a barter deal which did not require the USSR to spend any of its precious foreign currency.

Yet this provided the US government with another pretext to step up its political and economic pressure on Cuba. In March that year, president Eisenhower agreed to the CIA's recommendation to provide Cuban emigrés with arms and military training. The crunch came the following month when the first consignment of Soviet oil arrived in Cuba. The US oil majors which owned most of Cuba's refineries announced that they would not take Soviet oil. Castro responded by nationalising the refineries. The USA retaliated by cutting the USA's quota of Cuban sugar by 700,000 tonnes a year. Castro responded with further nationalisations: on 6 July part of American assets in the telephone, electricity and sugar industries were nationalised. At the same time, the land reform, which had been slowed down during the previous months, was accelerated, leading to more protest by American companies whose land was expropriated. Finally on 13 October 1960, the US government declared an embargo on virtually all American exports to Cuba. Again Castro responded by nationalising more companies, both American and companies owned by Cuban capitalists who had fled abroad. And as more Cuban capitalists were leaving the country, the nationalised sector grew to include most of the major industrial, commercial and financial companies.

The cost of isolation

The US embargo shifted Cuba's dependence on the USA to a dependence on the Soviet block. However, the scale of support that was necessary for Cuba just to survive was daunting. And while Castro had so far been reluctant to make any political concessions to the USSR, the USA's embargo left him no other choice. Ironically it was therefore the policy of the US government which pushed Castro into switching to a "socialist" language.

In the meantime, the preparations for a US-backed invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles were going ahead. This was launched on 17 April and had been preceded two days earlier by limited bombings over Cuba's military airfields intended to destroy her air force. In fact Castro still had eight planes which succeeded in destroying most of the invading fleet though not before 1350 Cuban exiles had landed at the Bay of Pigs.

Cut off from any reinforcements these nonetheless put up a stout resistance and held out long enough for Castro to appear on the scene to deliver a world-wide publicised coup de grace. At the same time he cautioned his air force commander not to attack the US destroyers which were sailing inside Cuban territorial waters in a vain attempt to evacuate survivors. He did not want to give the USA the excuse for a fullscale military invasion. In case the invasion had succeeded Castro also had 35,000 suspected anti-Castroites, including the Auxiliary Bishop of La Havana, rounded up and interned. For Castro it was complete victory, for the Americans unqualified humiliation.

Cuba's political life was also changed by its new isolation. Existing organisations such as the PSP, the remnants of the 26 July Movement and the Revolutionary Directorate were merged into a single political party which eventually took the name of Communist Party of Cuba in 1965 - with Castro and his supporters still strictly in control. However, beyond the terminology, these developments had nothing to do with Cuba's tighter links with the USSR, nor with copying Eastern Europe political structures for ideological reasons, as has been alleged so often in the Western media. Rather it was the political reflection of what Cuba really was despite the revolution and despite its escaping from direct exploitation by imperialism (but not from indirect exploitation through the pressures exercised by the world market): it remained a poor country, with no economic autonomy whatsoever, limited natural resources and hardly any technological capacity.

Just like in any Third World country the alternative in Cuba was between a democratic regime which would have concentrated on satisfying the basic needs of the population by renouncing the expenses linked to developing even a minimal industrial structure; or a dictatorial regime geared to screw out of the overwhelming majority of the population the surplus value needed to maintain artificially an unviable and still embryonic modern industrial economy for the benefit of a small layer of privileged. This is the dilemma faced by any Third World country, whatever the language their leaders use. And when, as is usually the case and was the case in Cuba, these leaders have their basis among the middle class, the social interests they represent invariably lead them to choose the same undemocratic option.

Although it must be said, to Castro's credit, that inequalities and privileges in Cuba were certainly less scandalous than in many other Third World countries, including those considered as half-way removed from the Third World like Argentina. The proletarian masses of Cuban probably had a better life or at least their poverty was made more acceptable by the way society was organised. This difference was partly due to the fact that most of the well-off middle-class had fled from the country anyway, and therefore was no longer there to plunder its resources; and it was also partly due to the rationalisation resulting from the concentration of the limited resources of the economy in the hands of the state.

Cuba on the brink

The collapse of the USSR and the end of its trade with the Soviet bock has more or less brought Cuba back to square one, if not worse. Today, more than ever before, Cuba is an economy under siege. On the eve of the November 1992 presidential election the US Congress passed the Torricelli Act or so-called Cuban Democracy Act that tightened the US embargo. The act forbids foreign-based US subsidiaries from trading with Cuba. It also bars ships that trade with Cuba from entering US ports for 6 months. US citizens who travel to Cuba without State Department permission can be fined up to $250,000 or sent to prison for 10 years. Since Cuba poses no military or economic threat to US capital, the only reason can be a desire to bring down Castro for daring to defy America nearly 35 years ago.

Since Clinton became president there has been no softening of attitudes. In fact pressure has been brought on foreign companies to cease trading with Cuba. For instance Tate & Lyle has stopped buying Cuban sugar. Firms like Siemen's and Toshiba have cancelled sales of medical equipment for fear of US reprisals against their business in the USA. Oil-exporting countries are put under pressure not to sell to an oil-dependent Cuba already deprived of cheap Russian oil.

The result has been a drastic worsening of living standards for most people in Cuba. Whereas in 1989 Cuba imported 13m tons of oil, by 1992 it was reduced to 6m. And whereas one ton of sugar bought six tons of Russian oil, today it only buys 1.3 tons of oil priced in dollars. Without oil, power stations cannot produce electricity. Havana only gets electricity and water supplies part of the day, when at all. Over half of the industrial infrastructure remains idle, public transport has been reduced by 70%. Tractors are being replaced with oxen, buses with bicycles and the harvest of sugar cane is increasingly carried out by hand.

The standard of living of the population has been cut drastically. It is now getting closer to that of neighbouring Dominican Republican and Haiti. According to the weekly Tribuna , the monthly food ration per head in March 1994 was: half-a-pound of cooking oil; six pounds of rice; two pounds of fish; three pounds of sugar and milk powder - and that is only provided there is enough for everybody. No wonder diseases which had disappeared several decades ago are re-emerging again.

The regime's "socialist" phraseology may remain, but more and more concessions to the market economy have emerged. This has resulted in the setting up of companies owned by private Cuban shareholders and, since July 1993, the emergence of a legal dollar market parallel to the official currency. As with the Red Army in China, the Cuban army appears to be involved in business ventures in order to boost its declining income. Foreign capital is now allowed to invest freely, to benefit from the country's relatively well-educated and extremely low-paid workforce. There is even talk of a Cuban stock exchange. With such excellent weather all the year round, tourism for dollar-paying foreigners has become big business again and as under Batista, there are once again hotels and beaches reserved exclusively for foreigners, and a growing sex industry. And yet none of these concessions seems to prevent the aspiring middle-class, professionals and other highly skilled-workers, from trying to flee the country - like Castro's own 37-old daughter!

Just as in 1959, however, the key to Cuba's future is not in Castro's hands. The choices that were his in 1959 are still the same today. If imperialism was prepared to resume normal trade relations with Cuba, Castro would have no qualms in inviting capitalism to pump out profits from the labour of the Cuban proletariat. Whether that will happen is another matter. All the more so as Castro's many rivals among the Cuban emigrés, whose only dream is to topple his regime, may eventually provide a better alternative from the point of view of the American bourgeoisie. But one way or the other, it is still the Cuban poor who will foot the bill, either for Cuba's isolation or for its full reintegration into the imperialist fold.

Communism and nationalism, poles apart

Castro had the merit of being loyal, in his own way, to Cuba's poor classes. What he promised, he delivered, despite the enormous pressures exercised on him by imperialism, despite the exodus of a whole layer of the population, with their skills and their wealth. Even if it resulted in further empoverishment for Cuban society, Castro's choice of not bowing to imperialist pressure deserves respect.

What Castro never did was to pretend that he would export his revolution to the rest of the Caribbean or Central America, let alone to the USA. He did voice his support, in 1967, for the setting up of guerillas in Latin America, but more as a means to criticise the Latin American Communist Parties at a time when there was some tension in his relations with the USSR. But he never helped in any way the existing guerillas, and anyway his token support for them stopped as soon as his relations with the USSR improved again. On the other hand Castro had no qualms about maintaining friendly relationships with dictators who were prepared to recognise his regime: for instance with Mexico, at the time when its army was slaughtering the Mexican youth during the Three-Culture Square massacre in 1968.

Castro was never an internationalist. He did not claim to speak in the name of the Cuban proletariat, let alone of the world proletariat. If he came to call himself a "communist", it was only because there was nothing contradictory between the stalinist ideology of socialism in one country and Castro's own nationalist aims and that he could easily carry out his policies behind the convenient disguise of that sort of "communism". It would be pointless to criticise Castro for being true to his word, in short for being what he was. What we can say, however, is that Castro was never in the camp of the world proletariat, the only communist camp.

It can be argued that the Russian revolutionaries of 1917 also failed in so far as the society which developed out of their revolution has nothing to do with communism. But there is a major difference between the Bolsheviks in 1917 and Castro's companions in 1959. Castro's companions claimed to be Cuban, nationalists, anti-communists. Their aim was to put a more human face on capitalist exploitation. But they did not want to change the basis of the Cuban society, let alone of the world society. If they ended up nationalising the economy, it was not as a result of a choice but under the pressure of events.

By contrast, the Russian Bolsheviks were not Russian nationalists. The aim of their fight was not Russia alone. On the contrary, they knew that Russia was backward and ignorant, that this backwardness would be a liability. They never thought they would remain in power for more than a few months unless the revolution spread to the rest of Europe, particularly to Germany, then the most industrialised country in the world. Their first statement following the revolution was an appeal addressed to the world proletariat. Their belief was that "proletarians have no fatherland ", their slogan was "Proletarians of the world, unite ". And these words together with their example, triggered the most powerful revolutionary wave in the world this century.

This is where the difference lies between nationalist movements, even when they are radical and enjoy the support of the poor masses, and proletarian revolutions. On the one hand liberal or nationalist policies are limited by the narrow framework of bourgeois ideology, on the other hand the ideology of proletarian revolutionaries is wide open to a world outlook and to the idea of social transformations.

A proletarian revolution in Cuba, in 1959, would not have fuelled more hostility than Castro did among the world's privileged classes nor resulted in more dangers for the Cuban population. If the USA did not intervene in Cuba, it was not because they knew that Castro was on the capitalist side, but rather because the adventure of the Bay of Pigs proved that Castro would not let down the Cuban population if he was confronted with a US intervention, and that as a result the US army would have to wage a fully-fledged war against ten million or so Cubans.

A proletarian revolution in Cuba would have addressed itself to the Latin American proletariat and to the American Black proletariat, north and south. Knowing what we know - i.e. the explosive Black movement that developed a few years later in the USA - it is not difficult to see how much a proletarian revolution in 1959 could have changed the subsequent events in America as a whole and in the rest of the world. Even a small proletariat like Cuba's may turn out to be the starting point of a huge revolution for, while the proletarian revolution has to start somewhere, it can only live by expanding across the world.