By Dan Davison
In recent weeks, large-scale protests have erupted on the streets of Cuba. Their main (and, in my view, ill-advised) slogan is “Patria y vida”, meaning “Homeland and life”. The catalyst of these demonstrations is the Cuban government’s handling of the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Working-class Cubans face high inflation and major shortages in food, medicine, and power supplies. Longer-term causes of the unrest include the crisis of legitimacy the Castroist regime has increasingly faced since Fidel Castro’s death in 2016.
The response of much of the international left has been to exclusively or near-exclusively blame these material hardships on the USA’s 60-year embargo on Cuba, as well as more recent US sanctions. For instance, a statement from the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) of UK Labour MPs correctly opposes foreign intervention and calls on President Biden to suspend US sanctions, but causally attributes the “real suffering [of] the Cuban people” only to the US blockade, the Trump Administration’s wave of sanctions, and the pandemic. It does not engage with any of the protesters’ political demands against state repression and in effect washes the Cuban government’s hands of all responsibility for the crisis.
Certainly, Cuba’s history with the US is highly relevant. The US dominated Cuba before the Cuban Revolution of 1953-59 and then attempted to reassert its de facto control over the island by financing and directing a landing force of Cuban exiles in the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion. Respecting consistent democracy has to include support for Cuban freedom from such imperialist predation. As such, the left and the labour movement should strongly push back against calls for the US or other powers to step in.
At the same time, respecting consistent democracy requires one to support the Cubans’ own demands for democratic rights. Although much of the left sees Cuba as either socialist or in transition to socialism, the truth is that Cuba is a class society where a privileged bureaucracy exploits and represses the working class it claims to represent. Workers in Cuba have even fewer political freedoms than they have in bourgeois-liberal democracies. They have no free elections and are not allowed to form independent trade unions.
To dismiss this lack of political freedoms by pointing to Cuba’s nationalised property and successes in social programmes is to forget that the socialist cause is (or at least is supposed to be) about extending democracy. Simply put, without democratic freedoms, there can be no socialism. It also ignores how the regime has arrested such dissident left-wingers as the Cuban Marxist scholar and activist Frank García Hernández and clamped down on demonstrations for LGBT rights and against racism. Consistent socialists would condemn such repressive acts when capitalist states commit them and that should not change simply because the Cuban state drapes itself in red.
A socialist response to the crisis in Cuba should include, among other things, a sliding scale of wages, independent trade unions, and concrete measures for democracy and against corruption. To be sure, many of the protesters will favour a more “free market” solution. This is unsurprising given how much the decades of “actually existing socialism” have discredited socialism in people’s eyes. Nevertheless, the political duty of the international left is to support Cuban workers against both foreign imperialism and their domestic regime and to help the left-wing currents within the protests win out against the right-wing currents.