On January 1, 2009, the small island nation of Cuba celebrated the 50th anniversary of a revolution that overthrew a brutal dictatorship and set Cuba on its long and often complicated road towards socialism.
Worldwide, the media reports combined standard distortions and lies
on the question of democracy on the island with a focus on the
revolution's most obvious symbols: its historical leader Fidel Castro,
and the iconic guerrilla army that marched into Havana in the first week
of 1959 with Castro and Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto "Che"
Guevara at its head.
At best, this view presents only a partial picture of the Cuban
Revolution. It overlooks the hundreds of thousands in the urban
underground movement who opposed the murderous US-backed dictator
Fulgencio Batista who was brought down by the revolution — fighting
street-battles, conducting industrial sabotage, and organising general
strikes, such as the strike on January 2, 1959, that brought the regime
to its knees.
The same view of Cuba also ignores the struggle of workers and other
popular sectors that, after Batista fled, transformed the
anti-dictatorship struggle into a revolution that overthrew an entire
political class — whose corruption and autocracy threatened to betray
the Cuban people's aspirations for democracy and social justice. A
socialist revolution was begun on the doorstep of the greatest
capitalist power on earth.
The survival of the Cuban Revolution for half a century in the face
of endless aggression from the most powerful nation on Earth only 90
miles away is an outstanding feat in itself, but the reality of the
Cuban Revolution and its achievements deserves much deeper, and fairer,
treatment that it gets in the Western media.
During the first half of the 20th century, Cuba was little more than a
floating casino, run by the mafia, large landowners and a series of
The economy was underdeveloped, heavily dependent on sugar exports to
the US. More than a quarter of Cuba's productive land was owned by US
When Fidel Castro, a young lawyer, defended a failed insurrection
against the brutal Batista regime in 1953 with the words "history will
absolve me", he struck a chord not simply for a population that wanted
democracy, but one suffering more than 30% unemployment; where 75% of
land was held by a small group of landowners; racism and prostitution
were rife; and where US capital controlled business and government while
working people lived without access to healthcare or education.
After Batista's overthrow, the revolutionary government began a
process of land redistribution and social reform that brought it into
direct conflict with US corporate interests.
The US cut off trade relations with Cuba, to which Cuba retaliated
with a series of nationalisations of US companies — featuring worker
occupation of factories and mass rallies in favour of increasingly
radical, pro-poor measures.
The US helped organise an invasion attempt spearheaded by Cuban
counter-revolutionaries at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and has continued to
fund and organise attempts to overthrow the revolution ever since.
Tactics used by the US have included using tactics as varied as
bacteriological warfare (introducing hemorrhagic dengue and swine
fevers), sabotage, bombings and assassination attempts on officials.
Castro has survived more than 600 CIA-organised assassination attempts.
More than 3478 Cuban people have been killed by the actions of the US
and the Cuban-American terrorist groups based there, while five Cubans
investigating the activities of these organisations have been imprisoned
for more than ten years in US prisons.
Most damaging of all, however, has been the 46-year economic blockade
by the US, which has cost Cuba more than US$92 billion. On October 29,
the United Nations voted for the 17th consecutive year to demand the US
lift its economic blockade of Cuba. A record 185 nations voted for the
resolution, while only the US, Israel and the tiny Pacific island of
Palau voted against.
Threat of a good example
Despite this constant aggression, Cuba has continued to set an
example to the world of what can be achieved if an economy is organised
according to people's needs rather than corporate profits.
One of the first tasks of the revolution was to eradicate illiteracy,
achieved within a year with the aid of hundreds of thousands of
volunteers. Quality, free education is now universally available to all
Cubans, and thousands of Cuban teachers are volunteering in dozens of
countries around the world.
The story is similar for health care. Before the revolution, the life
expectancy of Cubans was only 58 years, the country's 6300 doctors
demanded exorbitant fees that placed treatment beyond the reach of most
and there was only one hospital in rural Cuba.
Today, world-class healthcare is universally free in Cuba and in
2008, Cuban life expectancy was 78 years — more comparable to developed
countries than Cuba's poor neighbours.
In 2008, infant mortality in Cuba reached a new low of 4.7 per
thousand births, well below the US rate of 6.4 per thousand, and the
world average of 52.
Cuba has more than 70,000 doctors — the most per capita in the world —
and tens of thousands of these are volunteering in more than different
80 countries, including Venezuela, Bolivia, the Solomon Islands and in
East Timor, where there are currently over 300 Cuban doctors.
Meanwhile thousands of foreign students — including from the US —
study medicine for free in Cuban universities. In collaboration with
revolutionary Venezuela, Cuba has now restored the eyesight of more than
1 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean as part of
At the heart of Cuba's revolution has been a selfless
internationalism and support for national liberation movements around
the globe, which has often set them at odds with the Soviet Union — upon
whom Cuba relied for decades for most of its resources and trade in the
context of the US blockade.
The most famous face of Cuban internationalism was Che Guevara. In
his now famous speech to the Tricontinental conference in 1967, Che
called for the creation of "Two, three, many Vietnams".
This was more than mere rhetoric — Guevara volunteered to attempt to
spread the revolution to the Congo in Africa, and then Bolivia in Latin
America, where he eventually met his death.
Less well known are the Cuban engineers who assisted the Vietnamese freedom fighters in their struggle against the US.
In Africa, Cuban troops were also invited to assist in the
independence struggles in Guinea-Bissau and in Angola, where Cuban
troops inflicted the first major defeat on South Africa's white colonial
forces, and hastened apartheid's end.
Speaking in Havana in 1991, Nelson Mandela — just released from
prison — called the Cuban-led victory over South African forces in
Angola a "milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African
Cuba's internationalism continues today in the provision of doctors,
teachers, engineers and agronomists to over 90 countries around the
world, particularly in the emerging Latin American revolutions in
Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Despite the almost fervent need in the Western media to describe Cuba
as a "dictatorship", the Cuban Revolution has made unparalleled strides
in guaranteeing the democratic and human rights of its citizens.
In fact, Cuban democracy, while far from perfect — hardly surprising
for a country under constant siege — is in many ways superior to the
countries that criticise it.
While the Communist Party of Cuba remains the only legal party in
Cuba, it is forbidden from participating in elections. Members of Cuba's
government — from local council to the National Assembly — are elected
from local constituencies to whom they remain answerable. Anyone,
including the president or ministers, can be recalled from office at any
time by their electorate.
Since the last election — held in early 2008 — women now make up over
43% of the National Assembly, an increase of 7%, and the proportion of
representatives aged between 18 and 30 has increased from 23% to 36%.
In fact, some of the revolution's greatest gains have been in the
areas of women's rights, racism and, in more recent times, gay rights.
In pre-revolutionary Cuba, institutionalised racism against the
majority afro-Cuban population was rife. Land redistribution and rent
reductions in the '60s, free education and a government campaign have
helped eradicate much of the racist oppression faced before the
Before the revolution, homosexuality was illegal in Cuba and police
persecution continued well after 1959, despite changes in the laws.
However, from 1986, a Cuban government campaign against homophobia
saw a massive change in attitudes, and the National Assembly is
currently considering legislation to allow same-sex unions in Cuba.
Enormous gains have been also achieved for women. Abortion is
completely legal and free. Around two-thirds of Cuba's professional and
technical workers and university graduates are now women, as are over
70% of its doctors.
While Cuba still struggles to leave behind the macho culture it has
inherited, and there are areas that call for improvement, the gains
compared to neighbouring Latin American nations are notable.
The Special Period
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba suffered a severe
economic crisis, with over half of its food supplies, and 86% of its
raw materials, drying up almost overnight.
While Cuba's GDP dropped by 33% between 1990 and 1993, the US
tightened the economic blockade and increased funding to
The "Special Period", as this crisis became known, saw the return of
inequality and other social problems. Despite the massive shortages,
however, Cuba resisted US pressure, and maintained the most important
Not one school or hospital was closed, and unemployed workers were maintained on 60% of full-time wages.
One unintended benefit of the Special Period was the shortage of
chemical pesticides and fertilisers, which led Cuba to develop the
organic, environmentally sustainable agricultural practices which now
account for over 90% of Cuba's food output.
Cuban cities now produce most of their food in urban farms and permaculture gardens located within the city limits.
Land reforms last year increased agricultural allotment sizes, in
order to encourage greater food production. Cuba still depends upon
imports for 60-80% of its food.
However, despite the burgeoning urban agricultural sector,
productivity is problematically low, with about half of all arable land
Cuba has also led the way in the use of solar panels and other
renewable energy sources, and a 2007 report by the Worldwide Fund for
Nature counted Cuba as the only nation in the world that met its
criteria for sustainable development.
With the growth of revolutionary allies in Venezuela and elsewhere,
the Cuban economy has bounced back recently, although it slowed in 2008
to 4.3%, affected by high food prices and a sharp drop in the price of
its main export, nickel.
Three enormous hurricanes battered Cuba during 2008, causing over $9
billion dollars of damage — equivalent to 20% of GDP — and widespread
food shortages, from which Cuba is still recovering. The US blockade
continues to impede such efforts.
Pressure is growing on the US to lift the blockade. In July last
year, the European Union lifted its political sanctions on Cuba, and —
for the first time ever — a majority of Cuban-Americans oppose the
blockade. A recent poll by Florida International University found that
55% of Cuban-Americans are now against the blockade.
While some argue that that Cuba will take a "Chinese road" towards
capitalist restoration now that Fidel Castro has retired, the
wide-ranging debate in Cuba about the direction of the revolution —
including reducing bureaucracy, the use of market mechanisms and wage
incentives — is aimed at improving, not abandoning, socialism.
In fact, Cuba's achievements have only been possible because the
revolution broke the hold of US corporate interests over Cuba, and
created instead a planned, worker-run economy that places human need
ahead of profit.
In a world where "free market" capitalism has once again gone
haywire, and threatens to destroy the entire planet, the example of the
Cuban Revolution stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration to millions
of people worldwide that a better world really is possible.
First published in Green Left Weekly, January 17, 2009