The scene is typical: the dog-end of a trade union branch meeting; members are tired after discussing complex pay and discipline issues; tired from listening to the hyper-activists glorying in the sound of their own voices; desperate to escape. Item 9 on the agenda of the hour-long meeting is expenses for a delegate to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign meeting. Exhausted hands fly up to approve the monies, without debate, voting as much for escape as for sanction.
Cuba has become a cause celebre amongst those who identify themselves as 'Old Labour'. Tommy Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist Party has dreams of an independent Scotland emulating Cuba; Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party adores Cuba and makes trade with it a centre-piece of their foreign policy; Guardianistas write endless letters in support of the country; no union conference is complete without a resolution or six in support of Cuba. (See Cuba Solidarity Campaign.)
This is as true for America as for the UK. Michael Albert of Z-Magazine had to give a rearguard defence of his criticisms of Cuba's decision to murder a number of hijackers (his critics themselves being activists and opponents of state-murder in the US); anarchist superstar Noam Chomsky warmly supports Cuba's defiance of the US, staying stoically silent on Cuba's internal regime, save that it is a matter for Cubans themselves.
In European literature, Utopia was always supposed to be an imaginary far-flung Island in uncharted seas like the Caribbean; now, it seems, it is a very real island in perfectly well-charted waters for a good majority of the left — even if those are waters that have been well sailed by the USSR and its sundry fellow travellers. This misty eyed respect for Cuba would not be so worrying were it confined to the dying ranks of Tankie Stalinists; however, its tendrils reach well beyond them. Like Chomsky, many take an anti-American reflex and root for the underdog versus the hyperpower: excusing the repressive parts of Castro's regime as mistakes, or excesses of siege warfare.
This is a siege that has been going on for a very long time. Castro's guerrillas emerged from the hills in 1959 to drive away the US-backed kleptocrat dictator Batista. What began as a simple nationalist movement was quickly driven into the "Communist" camp by the hostility of the American government. The new regime weathered numerous attempts to displace it, including Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion, and miscellaneous attempts by the CIA to assassinate Castro. Simultaneously, the former guerrillas declared for "Communism", and abandoned dreams of national autarky by becoming a sugar plantation for the USSR rather than the US. (See Socialist Standard, April 1984).
The US has never been able to forgive the expropriation of its millionaires by Castro's party, and has maintained its siege ever since. For its part, the Castro regime has proven remarkably resilient (to the point at which American planners are now taking the 'biological resolution', i.e. Castro's death from old age, as the most likely way for them to advance their cause). In that time, the regime has maintained a tight control over the economy. At times, this has meant a heavy bureaucratic hand, requiring strings of permits to produce, distribute and export or import goods.
None of this has abolished the commodity nature of production, nor the wages system. A fact starkly illustrated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of Cuba's export markets as well as the convenient supply of oil for industrial purposes. The economy underwent serious recession, from which it has yet to fully recover. Since then, the government has been trying to re-orientate the economy towards tourism to bring in essential foreign currency. This has led to a situation in which goods are produced solely to be consumed by tourists in their enclaves which are denied the Cuban workers.
The continued existence of the wages system has meant the need for measures to impose labour discipline. The Cuban state only recognises one trade union federation, Central de Trabajadores Cubanos (CTC). This consists of unions entirely dominated by the ruling Communist Party, wherein officers are vetted (not just by their present affiliations, but on a documentary of their entire lives going back to their school records) before they are allowed to take up posts. Whilst independent trade unions are not entirely illegal, their existence is subject to repressive controls and harassment, beginning with the Associations Act (Leyes de Asociaciones) and escalating to the generally repressive political order laws. (Source: ICFTU).
As Amnesty International notes, in the past few years, the numbers of long term political dissidents imprisoned has fallen; but this is counter-posed by an increase in short-run harassment techniques, like arrest without trial, breaking up of meetings, threats of eviction, etc. According to the ICFTU (an organisation which the British TUC is affiliated to) in the early months of this year over 78 union activists had been targeted by the Cuban state. One, for example, was arrested for attempting to resist a state organised eviction of a family.
Although Cuba nominally has 100 percent post-16 suffrage, this is restricted to candidates approved by the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution. Likewise, a plethora of laws make free criticism and electoral organisation impossible: Article 144(17) of the criminal code prohibits disrespect to authority; Articles 200-201 preventing the spread and cause of panic and disorder have been used to imprison people publicly voicing criticisms; Article 103 prohibits 'enemy propaganda' which is interpreted as anyone inciting criticism of the Cuban system and its international allies; Article 203 criminalises disrespect to the flag and symbols of the regime; Article 115 prevents the dissemination of 'false news against international peace'; and the piece de résistance is articles 72-74 which forbid anything 'dangerous', which can be anything the police and courts decide are so (Amnesty International).
This battery of laws amounts to an arsenal fit to stop any independent thought and organisation, and amounts to a capacity to arrest anyone the state doesn't like, any time they want. In a situation in which workers cannot hope to organise politically, it makes free association in trade unions impossible. All of this needs to be borne in mind when stories are repeated by supporters of Cuba (such as the Cuba Solidarity Campaign) about how workers have democracy and freedom to organise in Cuba; or of how workplace committees and trade unions decide industrial matters. Indeed, as the ICFTU points out, the requirements of the Labour Code demand that collective agreements be decided by both workers' meetings, and the employers, with the Communist Party being heavily involved on both sides of these negotiations. There is no legally-sanctioned right to strike.
Thus, although there are formal and nominal freedoms, much like in the USSR, in practice they are undermined by highly centralised capacity to crush dissent. In the absence of political and trade union freedoms, then, the working conditions of Cuban workers are hard. Their living standards drastically cut by the recent recessions, even if they "agreed" to this in mass meetings to save their jobs. International companies that invest in Cuba are compelled to hire their workers via agencies. These agencies pocket 95 percent of the dollar value of the wages. State officials maintain that this is to maintain Cuban equality, and not to direct the dollars into state hands. This despite the obvious stratification of Cuban society that has emerged.
The romantic supporters of Cuba put their concerns for "national rights" before class solidarity, in supporting the Cuban regime. They excuse its actions as a necessary defence against US aggression, and will it to survive against the greater power, even at the expense of its workers' lives and liberties. And they can point to its impressive record on health care, education and education (much better than in much of the rest of Latin America: including a healthy 76 year life expectancy).
Cuba does indeed show what could be possible, even with meagre resources to meet the needs of human beings, and how artificial the deprivation across much of the rest of the world is. But the difference in treatment stems largely from an autarkic nation's need to maintain a functioning workforce versus the surplus population of the mono-export countries of much of the rest of South America.
Socialists do not consider that the best way to assist the workers of Cuba is to support the régime that dragoons them in siege warfare with the US, but that the spread of the world socialist revolution is the only way to rescue them from the unpalatable set of choices facing them. To do that, we need to free socialism from the taint of the undemocratic methods applied in Cuba and stand clearly for the political freedoms of association and speech for the working class the world over, so as better to spread the ideas and consciousness required for the building of a truly stateless classless world co-operative commonwealth.