There can be no dispute that Fidel Castro’s coming to power in Cuba in 1959 was a progressive revolution – heroically led by Castro and his allies. It replaced a barbaric regime under Batista in which the island economy served the US business elite and mafia. The 26th July movement, led by Castro and Che Guevara, swept to power on a wave of popular support.
Neither can there be any dispute that there have been immense achievements in terms of healthcare, poverty reduction and education. As a poor country, Cuba now has levels of healthcare that rival some of the wealthiest countries in the world and exports its doctors across Latin America and other parts of the developing world – with over 20,000 Cuban doctors working abroad – demonstrating the internationalism of the revolution.
These achievements have been made in the most arduous circumstances – with the US embargo, invasions, acts of sabotage, assassination attempts and threats that have kept the country in a state of permanent siege.
This has almost inevitably meant a more tightly controlled society – but unlike Stalin’s Russia there have never been any Cuban gulags. The one camp in Cuba that holds political prisoners without charge or hope of a fair trial is in Guantanamo Bay – an illegally occupied part of Cuba, in which the US still holds hundreds. It is an irony that some may criticise Castro, yet forget that many countries the UK government cosies up to – from the US and Israel to Saudi Arabia and China – commit grotesque human rights abuses with barely a peep from the Government or media.
Some argue that the revolution has not yet gone far enough in terms of a thoroughgoing democracy based upon fundamental civil rights, but this revolution is a work in progress. The transfer of wealth and power from a corrupt elite to a situation in which every Cuban has the right to free healthcare and education, to secure housing, to subsidised food and travel is a massive advance in social rights. Unlike many Latin American countries, abortion in Cuba is free on demand, and maternity leave is one year on full pay.
Cuba’s achievements have also been phenomenal in democratising access to sport and the arts – the reason Cuba excels in these fields is because everyone is encouraged to develop their talents all regardless of wealth.
People rightly ask could the Cuban revolution have gone further? Of course, and undoubtedly will in a new climate in Latin America where popularly elected leaders such as Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia have bolstered the regional forces in support of socialism.
With the potential of change in Washington too, there is an opportunity for the US to reject its outdated Cold War policy towards Cuba. There is a role for the UK and European partners to mediate a new relationship between the US, Cuba and Europe.
This must not be done in a patronising way but recognising that when it comes to creating a more equal, a more environmentally sustainable, and a more engaged society, we can learn a lot from Cuba and Castro’s achievements.
Cuba serves as a beacon to many socialists because it shows in the most difficult circumstances – isolated, bullied and victimised – what can be done in a society where people’s living standards are put above the rights of a few to be filthy rich. Next time you hear a UK politician tell you that free prescriptions, free care for the elderly, free university education is all unaffordable – ask them how a poor tiny island nation can manage it, yet the fifth richest country in the world can’t.
John McDonnell MP is Chair of the Labour Representation Committee (www.l-r-c.org.uk) and author of Another World is Possible – a manifesto for 21st century socialism