Cubans have been living under dictatorship in some form since 1952. They spent the 1950s living under the corrupt rule of Fulgencio Batista, an army colonel who overthrew the last elected Cuban leader, Carlos Prío Socarrás, in a coup d’état. Batista was himself overthrown seven years later, on 1 January 1959, by Fidel Castro’s guerrilla army.
Today Cubans live under the political system imposed by Castro 62 years ago, a tropical version of the state socialist model that prevailed in Eastern Europe until 1989. Roadside billboards still exhort Cubans to build socialism; however, the economy has been all-but bankrupt since the Soviet Union cut off aid shipments in the early 1990s.
I spent over a year in Cuba in my early twenties. During my stay on the island I got to see beyond the romantic iconography of “Fidel” and “Che” that are so often synonymous with Cuba. Some days it would be impossible to find soap or toilet paper in the state-run shops. I used to sneak into a hotel on the Malecon, Havana’s iconic seawall, to pilfer breakfast and take it home to the Cubans I was staying with. The Libreta de Abastecimiento (supplies booklet) that Cubans were given by the government hardly covered a week, let alone a month. Most of my young Cuban friends were plotting their escape from the island, usually via marriage with some love-struck European or Canadian tourist.
When I returned to England I noticed two things. One, invariably, was the sheer level of material comfort I could enjoy. No more blackouts or whittling away hours every day waiting in lines. No more toilets without a functioning flush. No more waiting outside the police station for friends who had committed the “crime” of fraternising with tourists.
I was also struck by the stubbornness with which many Western friends would cling on to their illusions about Cuba, even though few who actually lived on the island seemed to believe in socialism anymore. While my Cuban friends were plotting their escape from Castro’s dungeon, left-wing companions who lived thousands of miles away behaved as if Cuba remained a tropical paradise.
For those willing to admit that things might not be perfect on the island, the poverty and lack of democracy was usually blamed on Yankee imperialism. The same friends, who would raise hell when they heard about any injustice in the West, would “suddenly become wise historiosophists or cool rationalists when told about worse horrors of the new alternative society”, as Leszek Kołakowski once wrote in his famous letter to EP Thompson.
To be sure, occasionally some better-known admirer of the dictatorship was honest enough to admit that they themselves could never live under the Cuban system. The late Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, a personal friend of Castro’s, once told the New York Times that he would “miss too many things” were he to actually live in Cuba. “I couldn’t live with the lack of information. I am a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines from around the world,” García Márquez said. For the Cubans, however, these apparently were acceptable privations.
The Cuban government and its supporters have a reflex response to criticism, which is to blame the United States for the situation on the island. And it is true that the US has long exerted a malign influence over Cuba. It has invaded the island and tried to murder its leaders. Furthermore, it has attempted to subvert the Cuban economy for decades through its trade embargo.
The US has pursued this course not to promote democracy in Cuba. Rather, the US decided many decades ago that it was going to squeeze Cuba because the Cubans wanted to nationalise the big American corporations. To make the point in a slightly different way, the US maintains cordial relations with countries that have worse human rights records than Cuba – countries that, importantly, haven’t interfered with American business interests.
Yet the situation in Cuba – the poverty, the repression, the top-down, Leninist political structure – is as much a product of forces within Cuba as a consequence of United States policy. The Communist Party of Cuba has its own motivations; the United States didn’t “push Cuba into the arms of the Soviet Union”, as the popular liberal explanation goes for Cuba’s descent into tyranny. As Che Guevara told the French weekly L’Express in 1963: “Our commitment to the [Soviet model] was half the fruit of constraint and half the result of choice.”
The Soviet model of socialism still exists in Cuba. Elections are a sham. There are no independent trade unions. There is one official newspaper, Granma, and the Communist Party decides what gets published. Speak out against the government and you will lose your job and possibly end up in jail. Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) exist on every block to, as Fidel Castro once put it, “know who everyone is, what each person who lives on the block does, what relations he had with the tyranny, to what he is dedicated, whom he meets, and what activities he follows”.
Cuba’s state-run economic model does not work even if the US embargo (which does not stop Cuba from trading with the rest of the world) makes the situation worse. Day to day macroeconomic policy consists of centralised control of systematically induced shortages. It is no coincidence that Cuba is plagued by the same economic distortions that once beset Eastern Europe’s vanished communist dictatorships. Central planning always turns out like this, which is why countries such as China have long abandoned it.
Cuba may soon be approaching its own 1989 moment. Thousands of people marched in cities and towns across the island this week to protest against the conditions imposed on them by the dictatorship. Foreign coverage has reported protests over vaccines and blackouts; however, Cubans themselves could be heard demanding “freedom” in many of the videos that have emerged.
For those of us who closely follow events in Cuba, this has been a remarkable and unprecedented development. As Stephen Gibbs writes for the Times: “Millions of Cubans who have never seen any significant protest in their lifetimes saw one unrolling live before them. They now know what is possible.”
I have seen the slogan “Hands off Cuba” being used by sections of the Western left in response to this week’s protests. If such slogans are to mean anything, they should be directed at the decrepit dictatorship, which right now is the biggest fetter to Cuba’s future.
Cuba is a country of more than 11 million people who have waited 70 years for the right to interfere in their country’s internal affairs. It is a diverse and complex society; it is more than Fidel and Che. The left should stand with the protesters, even if it means letting go of comforting romantic illusions.