Following the announcement by Fidel Castro on February 19 that he would not stand in the election by Cuba's National Assembly (AN) for the position of president, the Western media coverage has ranged from grudging acknowledgement of Cuba's social gains in the face of 50 years of US aggression, to outrageous claims of "dictatorship" and US government plans for a "transition" in Cuba.
The coverage has also been full of speculation that a new president
could open the path to restoration of capitalism in Cuba, usually
presented as "bringing democracy", via a series of "reforms".
On February 24, the newly elected 614-member AN voted to promote Raul
Castro to the position of Cuban president. Fidel, whose image as the
quintessential bearded guerrilla came to symbolise Cuba's revolution,
led the revolution since the overthrow of the brutal US-backed dictator
Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Fidel had been president of the Caribbean island since 1976. He
remains an elected member of the AN, and first secretary of the Cuban
Communist Party (CCP). Despite Cuba's long-standing policy of promoting
youthful leadership at different level of government, the Western media
have responded to the transition from Fidel as president, begun in 2006,
like vultures circling.
The media's flawed approach reduces the Cuban Revolution to a one-man
show, with the Cuban people passive spectators or long-suffering
victims. This ignores the actual history of the Cuban Revolution — made
and maintained despite bitter hostility from, and a crippling
46-year-long economic blockade imposed by, the world's most powerful
nation just 90 miles away.
Cuba estimates the blockade has cost it US$89 billion. The UN General
Assembly has voted every year for the last 15 years for the US to end
It also ignores the actual democratic processes taking place in Cuba,
and is a continuation of the propaganda war by the US and corporate
interests against the island.
The Cuban Revolution remains an inspiration to millions of people in
the Third World for its anti-imperialist struggle and social gains, both
of which it has sought to extend globally.
Cuba has sent tens of thousands of volunteer doctors to provide free
health care in dozens of countries — currently operating in 68 — while
offering free education in Cuba for thousands of students from poor
backgrounds globally, including from the US.
One of Cuba's most famous internationalist ventures was the role of
Cuban troops fighting in Angola during the 1970s and '80s against the
invading South African forces, which culminated in a historic defeat for
the Apartheid regime that was crucial to its demise.
Speaking in Havana in July 1991, the recently freed Nelson Mandela
called the Cuban-led victory for South African forces in Angola a
"milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African
He explained: "The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution
to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its
principled and selfless character. We in Africa are used to being
victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our
sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another
people rise to the defence of one of us.
"The defeat of the Apartheid army was an inspiration to the
struggling people in South Africa! Without the defeat … our
organisations would not have been unbanned! The defeat of the racist
army … has made it possible for me to be here today!"
In recent times, alongside Venezuela, Cuba has initiated "Mission
Miracle", a free program that has restored eyesight to more than a
million people from across the Americas, including the US.
Before the revolution, Cuba was the playground of the US rich,
renowned for its casinos, corruption, prostitution and poverty. Today,
Cuba boasts universal and free health and education systems, and has
Despite its gains, the impoverished island continues to face massive obstacles.
The collapse of its major trading partner, the Soviet Union, in the
early 1990s brought a severe economic crisis. The US responded by
tightening the blockade — heightening the Cuban people's hardship — and
increasing funding to counter-revolutionary forces.
The "Special Period", as this time of crisis was known, brought with
it the return of inequality and other social ills, such as prostitution,
eradicated by the revolution. Yet Cuba managed to resist the pressure
from the US and survive without surrendering some of its most important
The depths of that crisis are behind Cuba, with its economy growing 7.5% in 2007, well above the Latin American average.
One of the positive side effects of the Special Period was that, as
Cuba could no longer import chemical pesticides and fertilisers, it was
forced to develop an organic, environmentally sustainable agricultural
system, which now constitutes 95% of its output. Havana, Cuba's capital,
produces most of its food in farms and permaculture gardens located
within the city limits.
When the World Wildlife Fund released their 2007 Living Planet report, only one country — Cuba — met the requirements for sustainable development.
Cuban permaculturalist Roberto Perez, who features in the documentary The Power of Community: How Cuba survived Peak Oil
that focuses on Cuba's "green revolution" following the collapse of the
Soviet Union, will be touring Australia in March and April. He will be a
keynote speaker at Green Left Weekly's Climate Change — Social Change Conference in Sydney from April 11-13.
Cuba's achievements have only been possible because the revolution
has broken the hold of corporate interests over its economy and
political system, and created an economy planned according to the
principle of human need, not private profit.
The revolution has been deeply democratic from the outset, contrary
to the widely-accepted myth that the revolution was made by only a small
band of guerrillas. In fact, crucial to the overthrow of Batista's
dictatorship was an urban mass movement that organised workers,
students, professionals and the unemployed in towns and cities, and that
ensured the toppling of Batista with a general strike in the first week
At critical moments in the revolution — such as during the Special
Period — the Cuban people have engaged in vigorous public debate
unprecedented by Western standards.
Such a period of debate opened up again about a year ago, in order to
determine Cuba's future course and tackle some of the significant
problems facing the country that are causing widespread frustration.
More than 215,687 public meetings have been held across the country,
in workplaces, communities and universities, resulting in more than 1.3
million grassroots proposals being lodged in the lead-up to national
elections, that were held on January 20.
While Cuban democracy is far from perfect, which is not surprising
for such a besieged country, it is also far from the dictatorship the
media make it to be.
While the CCP remains the only legal party in Cuba, it is forbidden
from participating in elections. All elected representatives in Cuba —
including the president and ministers — can be recalled at any time by
their local electorates. Women now make up over 43% of the legislature,
an increase of 7%, and the proportion of those aged between 18 and 30
has increased from 23% to 36%.
In his closing speech to the AN on February 24, President Raul Castro
addressed Cuba's approach to expressions of dissent and disagreement:
"We do not deny [opponents of the government] right to expression,
provided they do it with respect for the law."
Raul argued: "We shall not avoid listening to everyone's honest
opinion, which is very useful and necessary simply because of the
sometimes ridiculous noise made every time a citizen of our country says
something that the very noise makers would pay no attention to if they
heard it anywhere else on the planet."
"The revolution is the work of free men and women and it has been permanently opened to debate", he said.
Some of the most strident criticism in recent times has come from Cuba's communist youth organisation, in particular its paper Juventud Rebelde, which has cited numerous examples of corruption, inefficiency and social conservatism that are holding the country back.
Raul argued that while Cuban democracy is "participatory as few
others are", it is not perfect, and emphasised the need for debate to
improve it, stating that the "best solutions can come from a profound
exchange of differing opinions, if such an exchange is guided by
sensible purposes and the views are uttered with responsibility".
He also announced the reorganisation of the state apparatus, with "a
lower number of institutions under the central administration of the
state and a better distribution of their functions".
Raul criticised "the tendency to apply the same recipe everywhere",
which led to distortions, and argued that in "many respects, local
initiative can be effective and viable".
"In summary, our government's work must be more efficient."
While there is a wide-ranging debate about the direction of the
revolution — including what type of market measures it may be necessary
to introduce to overcome some of the problems that inevitably affect an
isolated and impoverished island — those looking for signs of a
"transition" away from socialism are likely to be disappointed.
The reform process underway, which is stimulating a genuine debate
whose outcome is not predetermined, is designed to strengthen socialism
in Cuba, through greater democratic control and improved productivity.
In concluding his defence speech at the end of his trial by the
Batista regime following a failed 1953 uprising, Castro famously
declared: "Condemn me, it doesn't matter. History will absolve me." In
the face of continued US aggression, the Cuban Revolution is continuing
its struggle to prove those words true.
First published in Green Left Weekly, February 29, 2008.
Reprinted in Cuba in a Time of Transition, by John Riddell, Phil Cournoyer, Fidel Castro & Duroyan Fertl, South Branch Publications, 2008.