20 February 2012 **** Front Page

The Cuban revolution and its myths

By Hannu Reime

Samuel Farber, Cuba since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment. Haymarket Books 2011.

Older readers might recall newspaper photographs from Havana during the first days of the year 1959: crowds of people cheering smiling and easy going soldiers in ragged uniforms, waving back to the onlookers from the tops of their tanks. Almost all of the men among the soldiers seemed to have long hairs and beards, a fact everybody noticed, because beards were not in fashion during the 1950s. That's why the inhabitants of Havana gave them the nickname los barbudos, the bearded ones, a description which had a sympathetic and romantic echo. The rebel army, which had fought in Sierra Maestra, had made a revolution: they had kicked out the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Cubans waited for freedom, which, however, had different meanings for different people.

Who were those bearded rebels, who were admired, so it seemed, by all the Cubans? As their symbol, they carried the Cuban national flag and a red-and-black armband with M-26-7 printed on it in white: Movimiento 26 de Julio, the 26th of July Movement. The rebels were led by three young men: the Castro brothers Fidel and Raúl, Camilo Cienfuegos, and a medical doctor from Argentina called Ernesto Che Guevara. Cienfuegos was killed in an airplane crash some months later, and Guevara was captured and shot dead in a CIA supported operation in Bolivia in 1967. Highest power in Cuba since the Revolution has been held first by Fidel, and presently by his younger brother Raúl.

At the beginning of 1959, no one would have guessed that in little over two years, Cuba would be declared a “socialist” country, that some years after that, all power would be concentrated in the hands of a new Communist Party, and that in less than ten years, the whole Cuban economy, down to the smallest cafés and hairdressers, would be in the possession of the state. Cuba became a country which politically and socio-economically was a copy of the Soviet Union.

Critique from the left

Samuel Farber, professor-emeritus of Brooklyn College, New York, has in his new, extremely interesting book set out to answer various questions concerning the path of the Cuban revolution. Why did Cuba become Communist (1)? How did a political revolution against dictatorship turn into a social revolution? What kind of development has Cuba experienced during Castro's reign?

Samuel Farber, who was born into a Polish-Jewish immigrant family in Cuba, is one of the very few leftist critics of Fidel Castro. As a high school student, Farber was active in anti-Batista movements during the 1950s, and left for the United States to study before Castro's rise to power. He regards himself as a revolutionary and democratic socialist and criticizes Castro's dictatorship from a viewpoint which can be called classical Marxism that preceded Stalinism. Farber thinks that Fidel Castro is a well-meaning, paternalistic dictator, a left-wing caudillo. For Castro, it's important that workers and popular masses participate in politics as long as their participation is restricted to listening to marathon speeches by the leader, without any possibility for people to control those in power or to organize democratically and independently of the state.

When Samuel Farber criticizes the Castro régime, he denounces the US blockade against Cuba in the same breath. The blockade and the various forms of state terrorism from the North against Cuba are in Farber's view criminal. He thinks that the idea that the United States would like to overthrow Castro because of his dictatorship, is ridiculous in view of the nature of the tyrants that the US has supported in Latin America and elsewhere. The real reason for the blockade is Cuba's independence in the backyard of the United States, a challenge against the Northern giant.

Samuel Farber has earlier published two studies on the Cuban revolution and its background (2). His new book, which appeared at the end of last year, concentrates on the development of Cuba from the revolution up until the present. The book proceeds in chronological order but in each chapter takes up the specifics of one theme at a time. The major themes are economic development and standard of living, foreign politics, and the position of workers, African-Cubans, women, and sexual minorities after the revolution. The last chapters are devoted to dissidents and critics from right to left and to a short speculation on Cuba's future.

The choices of Cuba

In the first chapter of the book, Samuel Farber presents his interpretation of why and how Cuba became Communist. There have been two different views on the matter, and Farber tries to show that both of them are wrong. According to the right-wing view, Fidel Castro was a Communist for a long time before the victory of the revolution. He supposedly hid his real aims until he had consolidated his power, and then revealed his true nature and allied Cuba with the Soviet Union.

This contrasts with a left-liberal view according to which the United States drove Cuba into the arms of the Soviet Union. A friendlier attitude might have helped create a pluralistic democracy on the island. Cuba was, after all, a rather open and free society for more than a year after the overthrow of Batista.

Samuel Farber doesn't believe in either interpretation. There's no proof whatsoever about Fidel Castro's early Communism, and Castro himself probably didn't have any clear idea of what kind of society Cuba would be after the revolution.

As to the view that the United States with its hostile policy “forced” Cuba to turn Communist and ally itself with the Soviet Union, Farber thinks that there are two naïve background assumptions in such an interpretation. One of them is the belief that the United Stated would have made an exception, in the case of Cuba, to its extremely hostile attitude to all kinds of left-wing aspirations everywhere in Latin America, not to speak of on a Caribbean island next-door to the US itself. The other fallacy, according to Farber, is the view that Cuba's revolutionary leaders were only reacting towards what the big Northern neighbor did, that they themselves didn't have any ideas and socio-political aims of their own.

Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement was a colorful collection of people with all sorts of ideas, united only by hatred towards Batista's dictatorship. By and large, there were three major currents inside the movement. A liberal, basically right-wing current among the rebels wanted a return to constitutional democracy. These people were put aside during the first few months after the victory of the revolution.

Then there were left-wing, non-Communist nationalists inside M-26-7. They were also kicked out of positions of power very soon. And lastly, there were those who, while not formally Communists, had a positive view of Communism and the Soviet Union. The most important top leaders of this way of thinking were Raúl Castro and Che Guevara. The younger Castro had even been a member of the youth movement of PSP (Partido Socialista Popular), the old Cuban CP. Raúl Castro and Che had a great influence in drawing Fidel and the old Communists closer to each other.

Samuel Farber thinks that the most important decision-maker during the various phases of the Cuban Revolution has been nobody else but Fidel Castro himself. Farber cites Marx, who writes that people make their own history but they don't make it as they please; they make it under the constraints of a given situation. The Cuban society after a political revolution made it possible for a skilful politician like Fidel Castro to go further, to move from a political to a social revolution.

Castro, however, had no other “model” than the state collectivism of the USSR. Even as early as November 1959, he subjected the Cuban trade unions to state (that is, Fidel's) control. Very soon, Cuba was turned into the only Communist country outside of the Eurasian continent. Che Guevara, who was more honest than Castro, stated in an interview in the summer of 1963 that the choice for the Eastern bloc was a forced one for fifty percent and a free decision for another half.

Farber believes that Raúl Castro now strives towards a Sino-Vietnamese combination of a political dictatorship with a capitalist economy. It's possible that the army might rise above the party as a power centre. Even now, the armed forces control significant parts of the civilian economy, among them the extremely important tourist industry. Cuba is returning to some form of capitalism.


(1) In referring to Castro's Cuba and other Soviet-type societies, Farber writes ‘Communism' and ‘Communist' (with a capital C) as a technical term, distinct from the generic meaning of the word ‘communism'. The rationale behind this is to distinguish these systems from what was Marx and Engels's view of a communist society.

(2) Revolution & Reaction in Cuba 1933-1960: A Political Sociology from Machado to Castro. Wesleyan University Press 1976. A new printing by Center for Socialist History 2007.
The Origins of the Cuba Revolution Reconsidered. The University of North Carolina Press 2006.



Hannu Reime translated this article of his from the original Finnish version which was published in Kansan Uutiset/Viikkolehti on 17 February 2012.

Visit the archive: Hannu Reime, Latin America


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