The Cuban revolution is, to sections of the western left, rather like a framed photograph of a bilious and dyspeptic uncle which sits gathering dust on the mantelpiece. It represents ‘family’ only because the things you believe about it are abstract projections which exist at a great distance from yourself. You defend every disgrace out of some misguided sense of loyalty, yet are reluctant to get up too close, afraid of the horrors you may witness.
I first went to Cuba in 2006 as a naive young sympathiser with Fidel Castro’s olive-green revolution. I wasn’t so much a communist as someone who had absorbed the largely favourable view of Castro and his revolution that bleeds into left-wing politics from the ever-present communists. Castro had stuck it to the Yankees, after all, while creating a system of education and healthcare that were the envy of the world. Every one of the Castro government’s crimes: every crackdown on workers and trade unionists, every independent newspaper that was forcibly shut down, every peaceful political dissident rotting away in some filthy Cuban jail – all were rationalised away with reference to those three impressive achievements.
Over the years these pillars of the revolution have been marshalled to justify every crime, even among those in the West who otherwise see themselves as liberal and democratic.
My own disillusionment with the Cuban Revolution was quite rapid. My ideas about Cuba were vague and thus swept away by the grim and spartan reality I saw on stepping out of the cocoon of a Virgin Atlantic 747. The Cuba I encountered – and where I would go on to spend almost a year of my life – was not so much a socialist paradise as a poverty-stricken military garrison built around tired slogans which no one – least of all the communists themselves – actually believed. Perhaps the most bracing tragedy was that, rather than creating a “new man” as Che Guevara had envisioned in the 1960s, Cuban socialism had normalised an ultra-mercenary outlook among many Cubans, especially the young. Generalised and extreme want (apart, of course, from the upper echelons of the Central Committee, where privileges were maintained) meant that “All the old crap was revived”, as Karl Marx had put it in The German Ideology. Pilfering from the state, prostituting yourself or fooling tourists into sham marriages were the only ways for many Cubans to keep their heads above water.
"Cubans have a great deal more to fear than McDonalds or Starbucks"
“I’ve got to leave this fucking place,” my Cuban friend Alexander (himself a male prostitute at the service of older Canadian and European women) told me on the day the Havana police had arrested him and arbitrarily cut off his Rastafarian dreadlocks for the umpteenth time.
Such petty humiliations were (and remain) a part of everyday life for most Cubans. More recently another friend (himself a committed socialist) was fired from his job at the University of Havana for writing a blog post that was vaguely critical of the government. Laws against “social dangerousness” – the idea that you might at some future date commit a crime – give the police license to lock up anyone they take a visceral disliking to. In the 1960s this involved the violent persecution of homosexuals, religious believers and even those who wore symbols of western ‘decadence’ such as blue jeans. Today it involves sending mobs out to vandalise the property of dissidents while the state blacklists them from work.
It is worth remembering of course that the economic blockade of Cuba was not imposed by the United States due to violations of human rights by the government of Fidel Castro. Rather, it was enacted as punishment for Cuba nationalising its sugar industry. Nor did Fidel Castro’s government imprison trade unionists or shut down all forms of independent media because of the looming threat of Yankee imperialism. As Che Guevara told the French newspaper L’Express in 1963, “Our commitment to the eastern bloc was half the fruit of constraint and half the result of choice.” For Fidel Castro, who had never shown any significant inclination towards communism in his youth, the Soviet one-party structure was the perfect fit for his own caudillismo. It allowed the Comandante to sit atop a pyramid-like structure and crush all oppositional focal points, whether cultural or economic. There was to be one newspaper, one Jefe and one point of view. All opinions contradicting the chief were suspect and therefore counterrevolutionary.
"Utopian ideology has the power to convince a person that a goldfish is a racehorse"
That so many westerners were suckered by the romanticism of Fidel and Che is testament to the potential hold of utopian ideology, which at times has the power to convince a person that a goldfish is a racehorse. Everyone can accept that the persecution of other people is wrong, unless they can erect some sort of ideological scaffolding to say that it is OK. The pseudo-scientific racial theorists of the Victorian period reassured those rampaging through Africa and Asia that it was acceptable to plunder – so long as those receiving the bayonet through the chest were something less than human. In a similar fashion, Stalinists in and outside Cuba had their own ideological justifications for the crimes committed in the name of La Revolución Cubana, a sort of extreme utilitarianism encapsulated by Che Guevara’s admonition that the persecution of one’s political opponents represented “justice in the name of future justice”.
Therefore the hair-splitting Marxist dialectician who sees Cuba as a “bulwark” against American capitalism, or the young western Socialist intoxicated by the romantic penumbra surrounding the bearded guerrilla fighters, is closer to the high Tory imperialist of the nineteenth century than they imagine. In both cases foreigners exist to be experimented upon or sent over the top of the trenches to take a bullet from the opposing side. Like the beleaguered wife who cowers underneath the drunken blows of that tyrannical uncle who grins stupidly from the mantelpiece, the tab for familial indulgence is always picked up by somebody else.
With Fidel’s demise, all the old debates about Cuba are about to start up again. It therefore seems worthwhile to point out that Cubans have – and always have had – a great deal more to fear than McDonalds or Starbucks popping up in Havana. The best retort to this cloistered and myopic mentality – a mentality which views that country as a fly-blown museum attraction there for the enjoyment of wealthy westerners – came from the brilliant Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who angrily dismissed such posturing by telling fat-bellied western Socialists that “plastic food is better than no food at all”.
Now that the tyrant is gone, let us put the revolutionary tracts to one side and wish for something equally straightforward for ordinary Cubans: that they can put more food in their stomachs, read independent newspapers that report the truth, and have some say over the direction of their country.