Socialist ViewPoint and analysis for working people

May/June 2005 • Vol 4, No. 5 •

Introduction to Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution1

By Joseph Hansen

Because of its rising prominence in African political affairs, Cuba is again very much in the news. Not since the downfall of Batista and the overturn of capitalist property relations in Cuba has there been such controversy over the actions of the Castro regime.

The most ominous reaction to Cuba’s role in providing material aid to Angola, and later to Ethiopia, has come from the White House. Before he lost office, President Ford branded the Castro government as an “international outlaw.” Carter promised to take a different course, and for a time he intimated that a dialogue might be opened with the Cubans, This proved to be little more than a demagogic interlude in the general policy followed by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. Carter now insists that Castro withdraw Cuban forces from Angola and Ethiopia or suffer the consequences. The State Department has increased pressures on the diplomatic level, and threats have been made to resort to military measures.

Washington’s reaction emanates from fear that the Cuban presence in Africa means further weakening of the imperialist grip in that area, strengthening of Soviet influence, and fresh encouragement to revolutionary forces capable of moving in the direction of socialism.

The resumption of the imperialist campaign against the Cuban revolution is of top concern to everyone opposed to war and in favor of the right of self-determination. It means rallying in a vigorous way on an international scale in defense of the Cuban revolution against the renewed threat of American imperialism to crush it.

One of the byproducts of Cuba’s fresh leap into world prominence has been a renewal of interest in the nature of the Cuban revolution, in the political character of its leadership, and in the relationship between Moscow and Havana. Questions such as the following are being discussed: Does the presence of Cuban advisers and troops in Angola, Ethiopia, and elsewhere in Africa prove—as Washington’s propaganda machine alleges—that Castro is serving as a puppet of Moscow? Or is the Cuban government seeking to advance a policy of its own that happens, for the time being, to be congruent with Moscow’s aims? What does Havana’s rising influence in African affairs show about the present status of the Cuban revolution? Has a parasitic caste become entrenched in Cuba? Has the revolution degenerated to such a point that it must now be said that a Stalinist regime has usurped power? With the wisdom of hindsight must it now be acknowledged that the Cuban revolution was Stalinist-led from the beginning? Or do the new developments speak otherwise, indicating continuation of a policy to extend the revolution internationally, thus cutting across the Stalinist policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the imperialist powers and their capitalist system?

Questions running along these lines are not new. They were raised and debated during the first years of the Cuban revolution. The initiatives taken by the Cubans on the African continent place them on the agenda for rediscussion.

It takes something more than careful study of the current developments to find correct answers to these questions, particularly in view of the absence of information on some essential points such as the calculations of Havana on the one hand and Moscow on the other. At present these can only be surmised or deduced.

An obvious requisite is accurate knowledge of the background. Articles featuring “in depth” analysis of Cuba’s rising role in Africa are strikingly inadequate if they fail to refer to the patterns followed by the Cuban leaders in carrying through the revolutionary struggle in Cuba.

For dialectical materialists it is imperative to go back to the origin of the Cuban revolution. There is no other way to establish the continuity (or discontinuity) of the processes that have, among other results, now received spectacular expression in Africa. Moreover, there is no other way to determine the meaning of the Cuban revolution as it has evolved. Here it is not necessary to begin from zero—the problem presented to Marxist theory by the uniqueness of the events was solved at the time. The conclusions reached then have proved of immense service in analyzing subsequent developments.

One of the purposes of this compilation is to present those theoretical conclusions. They are included in documents that were part of a free internal discussion held in the Socialist Workers Party in 1960-61 while the party at the same time carried out energetic defense work in support of the Cuban revolution and against the American imperialist effort to smash it.

Other documents in the book include polemics against protagonists of State Department positions, exposures of Cuban Stalinist hacks who sought to besmirch the record of the Trotskyists, and articles representative of hundreds by many different writers that were published in the Militant and other Trotskyist journals in defense of the Cuban revolution when it was the target of the heaviest blows. These documents indicate where the Trotskyists stood on other fronts as they sought, through use of the dialectical method, to ascertain the place of the Cuban revolution in the chain of socialist revolutions that began in Russia in 1917.

At present Washington is pushing the line that Cuba has become completely dependent on the Soviet Union, abjectly obeys orders from the Kremlin, and has sent its troops to Africa to serve as surrogates for Soviet troops. These allegations conform to the pattern of the State Department’s well-aged propaganda picturing the Soviet Union as an aggressive power intent on conquering the world. The truth is that the main objective of foreign policy as pursued by the Soviet ruling caste is maintenance of the status quo; that is, “peaceful coexistence” with the imperialist powers and the capitalist system.

If it were true that Brezhnev had shifted from this policy to one of extending Soviet power and influence through the use of armed force, the turn would represent a new element of transcendent importance in world affairs. A reassessment of the nature of the Soviet government would be called for, along with a possible redetermination of the revolutionary Marxist attitude toward the ruling caste. The analysis might place the Cubans in a favorable light as the spearhead chosen to open the offensive decided on by Brezhnev.

However, the State Department is not acting on the assumption that Brezhnev has adopted a class-struggle policy.

The State Department distinguishes Castro from Brezhnev. Friendly relations are maintained with the Russian leader even while new weapons of the most fiendish kind are developed by the Pentagon for use in a projected war against the Soviet Union. Castro, on the other hand, is kept at the top of the State Department’s list of enemies, and the CIA has attempted on a number of occasions to apply the order issued against him, “Terminate with extreme prejudice.”

Washington’s attitude is hardly surprising—it is simply an imperialistic reaction to the efforts made by the Cuban leadership to defend their revolution by extending it.

The course of the Cubans can be conveniently divided into three phases:

1. In the great wave of enthusiasm over the Cuban revolution following its victory, many attempts were made in Latin America to emulate the July 26 Movement. These attempts were supported by Havana both politically and materially. Extension of the Cuban revolution appeared to hinge on extension of the methods used by the July 26 Movement—mainly the initiation and pursuit of guerrilla warfare. This period reached its high point at the OLAS conference held in Havana in August 1967. There Castro subjected the reformist Latin American Communist parties to scorching criticism for their sabotage of guerrilla war. At that moment, Che Guevara was in Bolivia conducting the experiment that was to end in his death.

Ill-conceived though it was, Guevara’s attempt to set off a revolution in Bolivia testified to the international outlook of the Castro team. One of Guevara’s aims was to create a new front that would help the Vietnamese in their struggle against the American invasion in Indochina.

It is worth recalling that on March 10, 1965, Castro publicly offered to send arms and men to aid the Vietnamese. On March 16, in a widely publicized speech appealing to Peking and Moscow to close ranks against the common foe, Castro said: “…we think Vietnam should be given all the necessary aid…we are in favor of aid in arms and men…we are for the socialist camp risking everything required for Vietnam.”

Cuba’s offer to send “arms and men” was turned down by the National Liberation Front. As it was, Cuba was the first workers’ state to make this kind of public offer. The initiative may have been decisive in compelling Moscow and Peking to follow with similar statements.

2. The crushing of Guevara’s ambitious project capped a series of defeats for the groups that took the road of guerrilla war. Castro now made a turn. Since this occurred only months after the OLAS conference in 1967, and since no critical appraisal of the previous course was presented publicly, a good deal of confusion was created among supporters of the Cuban revolution. While still giving some aid—principally training— to the protagonists of guerrilla war in Latin America, the Cubans ceased fostering it as the royal road to success.

The economic situation in Cuba also worried them; the American blockade was inducing strains. The Cuban leaders stepped up the goals on the economic front, hoping by extraordinary exertion to overcome the effects of the American stranglehold. Unrealistic goals, notably in the 1970 campaign to produce ten million tons of sugar, resulted in dislocations of economic planning and exhaustion among the workers.

In view of such consequences, the Cuban leaders had to reassess priorities and set more modest goals. The pause for reflection over the meaning of the failures of guerrilla war and consideration of possible alternatives lasted until 1975.

Washington evidently interpreted the downturn in guerrilla war in Latin America as evidence of the domestication of the Cuban revolution; and the State Department—whose blockade had failed to isolate Cuba—began probing ways to bring Castro under the general framework of “peaceful coexistence.”

3. The breakup of the Portuguese empire, with climactic liberation struggles in the colonies and the toppling of the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship in Lisbon, presented new openings for the Cubans. They had already established ties with various guerrilla forces in Africa, Guevara himself having participated in this work. In Angola, the Cubans granted aid—most noticeably in the form of combat troops—to counter the imperialist efforts of Washington and Pretoria to block the liberation struggle. Cuban belief in the preeminent role of armed force in and of itself—a belief that discounts the power of a correct political program—is being tested in an even clearer way than in Latin America.

A new aspect of this involvement is its legality. The Cubans were invited by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which received international recognition as the legitimate government of Angola, to send material aid, including troops, to boost the country’s defense against the efforts of South Africa and the United States to reimpose imperialist rule. In responding to the appeal, the Cubans acted in accordance with international law. The pattern was repeated in the case of Ethiopia. Today Cuban consultants and advisers are to be found in a number of countries in Africa.

• • •

Moscow has supplied material aid, armaments in the first place, to both Angola and Ethiopia.This represents nothing new. Similar aid has been extended by the Kremlin in the past to other African countries and to countries elsewhere in the world—Cuba itself is an outstanding example. The Soviet ruling caste is compelled to do this, in part to meet Peking’s challenge, in part to give some substance to its pretense of standing for socialism, and mostly to gain leadership of forces heading in an anticapitalist direction, the better to use them in bartering with the American imperialists. Moscow’s objectives fall within the general context of the detente. All that is sought is more elbowroom for maneuver.

• • •

The American Trotskyists have criticized Havana’s foreign policy on several counts:

1. The extrapolation on a continental scale of the efficacy of guerrilla war seemed to us to be based on a misjudgment of both the Cuban experience and the possibilities for its repetition. The key to the toppling of Batista was the rise in the class struggle in Cuba. The rise was not “sparked” by the guerrilla actions; on the contrary, the rise made it possible in this instance to win even through guerrilla actions.

American imperialism and its satellite forces in Latin America, learning from what happened in Cuba, resorted to more repressive regimes to suffocate the class struggle; hence the installation of military dictatorships that in their first actions sought to stamp out all organizations of the working class. As the masses fell back in face of the murderous onslaught, it became increasingly difficult for guerrilla movements to gain headway. The problem of linking up with the masses could not be solved by them.

The general conclusion to be drawn from this turn of events is that more effective means than a guerrilla band is required to lead the struggle for socialism. What is required is a mass working-class party of the Leninist type.

2. Guided by their desire to construct a common front against American imperialism, the Cubans failed to distinguish the components of this front according to program. Thus supporters of the capitalist system were hailed, provided that they were “progressive,” i.e., denounced imperialism or spoke well of the Cuban revolution. Confusion was thus sown among supporters of the Cuban revolution, with the consequence that many of them were diverted down false trails.

A case in point was the support given the Chilean regime headed by Salvador Allende. Although Castro may have sensed a coming showdown in Chile when he was there on tour—his parting gift to Allende was a submachine gun—the support he offered the regime appeared to be support for its adherence to capitalism. Allende’s failure to act against the plotters in the military forces cost him his life. More important, the seizure of power by Pinochet dealt a cruel blow to the cause of socialiam in Latin America, and a deadly enemy was added to the roster of regimes hostile to the Cuban revolution.

3. Similar criticisms can be made of Cuban policy in Africa today. The programs of the Neto regime in Angola and the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia have not been presented for what they are—commitments to maintain capitalist relations in those countries.

The Cubans seem to be primarily interested in bolstering the anti-imperialist aspects of the upheavals in these areas. But to overlook the struggle for socialist goals can only prove counterproductive. And it is dangerous to believe that an anti-imperialist struggle automatically reinforces the struggle for socialism. Such a view can lead to defeats for socialism, as was shown in Chile. In both Angola and Ethiopia we have already seen repressive measures taken against revolutionary socialists.

In the case of Eritrea, the Cuban government at first supported the national liberation struggle there. As the Dergue organized expeditionary forces with the objective of smashing the rebellion by military means, the Cubans appeared to be having difficulty deciding what to do—participate, stand aside, or withdraw? Havana’s hesitancy demonstrated how dangerous an inconsistent anti-imperialist line can be.

What does Cuba’s new role in African affairs tell us about the nature of the Cuban revolution and its leadership? Let us recall that when Havana responded to the MPLA’s plea for aid, the shipment of troops received wide acclaim in the left. It was argued that the support granted by Havana not only proved how internationally minded the Castro regime was, it proved the progressiveness of the Neto government.

However, this argumentation was shelved when the Mengistu regime appealed for similar aid and the Cubans responded favorably. Castro plummeted in leftist opinion. According to this view, Castro’s granting aid to Ethiopia was a sure sign of the degeneration of the Cuban revolution.

It is unfortunate that these analysts lacked the capacity to maintain both arguments simultaneously. Had they insisted that their deductions held with equal force in both cases, they would have provided us with an educational demonstration of the traps awaiting those who believe Havana’s relations with the Angolan and Ethiopian regimes offer fresh evidence concerning the nature of the Castro regime and the status of the Cuban revolution.

The same goes for the contention that the Cuban role in Africa amounts to providing surrogate troops for the Kremlin. It might be argued that the State Department’s propaganda on this point does not necessarily mean that it is untrue. We can agree with that. However, this does not alter the questions that arise if we take a close look at the propaganda rather than simply brushing it aside.

Why did the Kremlin select the Cubans for this role and not the Latvians, the Poles, or the Czechs? Was it because Cuba is the farthest from the scene and the transport problems from there are the greatest? Did the Cuban record in guerrilla war tip the scales? Did Moscow calculate that the White House would react most angrily to the choice of Cuba, thereby assuring a rise in tensions between Havana and Washington? Or did the Kremlin have more devious reasons for wanting to incite the Americans?

The answers to such questions and to others of similar nature point to the conclusion that the Castro regime exercised a certain initiative in bringing Cuban influence to bear in the struggle against imperialism on the African continent.

As for the argument that Havana’s rising prominence in Africa indicates the crystallization of a hardened bureaucratic caste in Cuba, the available evidence would seem to indicate the contrary. Hardened bureaucratic castes, such as the ones in the Soviet Union and China, characteristically display conservatism, even counterrevolutionary outlook, particularly in foreign policy; hence their pursuit of “peaceful coexistence,” of “detente,” of deals with the imperialist powers at the expense of the masses. But in Africa, Cuban activities have greatly increased instability at the expense of the imperialist powers. Castro has followed a course that closed off rather than invited a deal with American imperialism. This fact alone speaks decisively against the contention that the events in Africa offer proof that a hardened bureaucratic caste has taken over in Cuba.

The Cuban course in Africa requires no essential alterations in the Marxist analysis of the lines of action adopted by the Castro team after they had consolidated the victory of the revolution.

• • •

Cuba’s influence in African affairs appears completely out of proportion to the size of this small Caribbean country. How is this anomaly to be explained? The answer is obvious—it lies in the power of the Cuban revolution.

The record is there for all to see: First, in the contrast between the Cuba that was, under the American puppet Batista, and the Cuba that is, under a revolutionary regime. Second, in the contrast between today’s Cuba and the rest of Latin America. Cuba demonstrates what can be done under a planned economy to improve the standard of living of the poor. Countries like Chile are hangmen’s showcases.

The achievements made possible by toppling capitalism are impressive. The list includes the elimination of unemployment, once the scourge of the Cuban working class; the banning of racism; the promulgation of equal rights for women; the setting up of child-care centers on a national scale; the construction of a free educational system that provides not only books but food, and clothing to students; the establishment of a model social-security system, including health care; the slashing of rents and initiation of an ambitious program to end the acute shortage of housing, inherited from the past; and an agrarian reform that was decisive in establishing the firm worker-peasant alliance on which the first workers’ state in the Western Hemisphere depends.

The government’s concern for the needs of youth should be added to the list. In the first period following the victory, when one of the most pressing needs was reliable personnel, teen-agers were given responsible posts throughout the island. The perspectives for young people in Cuba today include broad educational and job opportunities on a scale that cannot be matched in any capitalist country.

It is the example of Cuba, the example of achievements made possible by the revolution, that accounts for Havana’s standing among the peoples of the colonial and semicolonial countries and thereby its political weight internationally.

An accounting of developments within Cuba, particularly in the last decade, is of course required in any balance sheet of the revolution as a whole. Such a balance sheet is not included in the documents in this book, which center on defense of the revolution in the early years and on analysis of the particular pattern that made possible a socialist victory without the presence of a Leninist party. Nonetheless, a few points should be taken up.

The Cuban revolution faced extreme difficulties from the beginning. Inadequacies of leadership counted among them, the prime one being, as I have indicated, reliance on guerrilla war to extend the revolution. Another was the failure to proceed immediately to establishment of forms of proletarian democracy.

However, the main source of the difficulties was American imperialism. The mightiest military power on earth, located only ninety miles away, decided to strangle the Cuban revolution. Castro was marked for assassination. Farm animals were inoculated with contagious diseases. Saboteurs set bombs. The blowing up of a merchant ship in Havana harbor and arson that succeeded in burning down one of Havana’s biggest department stores were two of the more spectacular incidents. Forays of this kind were topped by the armed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Worst of all was the blockade, which completely disrupted Cuba’s traditional pattern of trade with the United States and greatly reduced the possibilities of free trade with other countries. Tiny Cuba, dependent on imported oil as its source of energy, was truly an isolated fortress under heavy siege. In defense of the revolution, the Castro team placed Cuba under wartime regulations.

Wall Street and its political agents in Washington bear full responsibility for blocking the Cuban revolution from developing freely. This should never be forgotten in criticizing the weaknesses and mistakes of the Castro regime.

The Kremlin must be held responsible for another source of difficulties. Without help from the Soviet Union, the Cuban revolution would certainly have been smashed by either Eisenhower or Kennedy. The Cubans were completely correct in seeking that aid. It was due them in accordance with the program of world revolution supported by the Soviet government when it was headed by Lenin and Trotsky.

Stalin’s heirs felt obliged to respond to the Cuban plea, but instead of providing aid free of charge, as was their duty, they demanded that a price be paid—principally on the political level. In short, to get the required aid the Cubans had to let the red glow of the Cuban revolution shine on Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

From many things that have appeared in the record—a good example is Castro’s criticisms of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he reluctantly supported—it is clear that the price demanded by the Kremlin for Soviet aid rankled with the Cubans. They had to forego speaking out freely. While they were able to get the required material aid in time to save the revolution, the cost was heavy in terms of their political independence.

Both the American campaign to crush the revolution and the strings attached to Soviet aid must be taken into consideration in dealing with the problem of bureaucratism in Cuba. By isolating and further impoverishing the country, the blockade helped increase the social importance of the layers charged with the defense. In the distribution of scarce supplies top priority had to be given the armed forces. One of the consequences was an army now recognized as the best in Latin America. Another consequence, however, was the introduction of ranks, a sign of bureaucratization, The Kremlin’s influence was shown in the growth of bureaucratic tendencies under the auspices of figures who were prominent in the Stalinist apparatus in Batista’s time. These case-hardened bureaucrats were met head-on by Castro. A more difficult problem is the example set by the Soviet ruling caste, which liquidated the proletarian democracy fostered under Lenin and Trotsky. No model of proletarian democracy exists in the world today to counter the totalitarian forms of rule upheld by the Kremlin.

It would be untrue to say that the battle against bureaucratism has been won in Cuba. The indications are that this insidious social disease has gained, as the introduction of ranks in the armed forces would indicate. Similar signs include the continuation of the ban on formation of tendencies and factions in the Communist Party and the jailing of the independent-minded poet Heberto Padilla on March 20, 1971; the brush-off given to protests against the jailing by leftist intellectuals like Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Octavio Paz, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Mario Vargas Llosa; the show trial of Padilla, which included a Moscow style “confession” by the poet; and the accompanying clampdown in the cultural field, where the Cubans had previously shown their intent to make the revolution a “school of unfettered thought” in opposition to bureaucratic practices, Another bad indication has been the pillorying of homosexuals.

However, the headway made by bureaucratism has not reached such a degree that one must conclude that a hardened bureaucratic caste has been formed, exercises dictatorial power, and cannot be dislodged save through a political revolution. No qualitative point of change has yet been adduced to substantiate this hypothesis.

• • •

The stand taken by the Socialist Workers Party towards the Cuban revolution flows from its initial analysis of that event. It can be summarized in three points:

1. For defense of the Cuban revolution against all its enemies. As a party within the United States, the SWP considers it to be its special duty to foster the strongest possible political opposition to the main enemy of the revolution, American imperialism. This defense is unconditional—it does not hinge on the attitudes or policies of the Cuban government.

2. For the development of proletarian forms of democracy in Cuba. The purpose of this is to bring the masses into the decision-making process in the most effective way, thereby strengthening the struggle against bureaucratism. The initiation of workers’ councils would add fresh power to the Cuban revolution as living proof that socialism does not entail totalitarianism but on the contrary signifies the extension of democracy to the oppressed in a way that will lead eventually to the withering away of the state.

3. For the formation of a Leninist-type party that guarantees internal democracy, that is, the right of critical opinion to be heard. The power of a party that safeguards the right to form tendencies or factions was demonstrated by the Bolsheviks. A replica shaped in accordance with Cuban particularities could do much to induce the formation of similar parties in the rest of the world. This would greatly facilitate resolving the crisis in leadership faced by the proletariat internationally, thereby assuring a new series of revolutionary victories.

May 1, 1978

1 Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution, by Joseph Hansen, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1978.

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