What does Cuba mean?

In 1959, there was a change in government on a small island in the Carribean. This island had, at the time, a population of about 7 million. Its economy was based primarily on the export of sugar, although it also had gambling and tourism, including a great deal of sex tourism, from the United States, and some nickel mines. It was perhaps relatively wealthy as Carribean islands go, but on the whole it was small and insignificant. It had theoretically gained its independence from Spain a mere 61 years earlier, but in fact it had been ruled from Washington all that time.

There were numerous violent changes of government in the Carribean in the 1950s and 1960s. The leaders included Elian Wessin, Francisco Caamaño, Paul Magliore, Oswaldo López Arellano, Omar Torrijos Herrera, and Gustavo Rojas. Fifty years later, almost no one outside of the countries involved knows any of these names. None of these changes in government could possibly be ranked as a major event in the history of the world, the anti-colonial struggle, the Americas, or even the Carribean. None except that one in 1959.

This one particular change in government had very far-reaching results. In Africa, troops from this particular Carribean island were the main force which defeated the South African armed forces in Angola, securing South African withdrawal from Angola and the independence of Namibia, and creating a great deal of pressure towards multi-race elections in South Africa itself. Veterans of this one particular Carribean scrap would fight alongside Laurent Kabila, the man who would eventually oust Joseph Mobutu from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and at least threaten to free the Congo from U.S. imperialism before the CIA murdered him. One of then is now a national hero in Bolivia for his contribution to the anti-colonial struggle there.

The new leader of Cuba in the wake of this little scrap has been awarded the highest medal which the government of Ghana gives out for his contributions to the cause of African freedom. Others from this island have received similarly high awards in Ethiopia.

Today, portraits of leaders from this one little island can be found on the signs carried by protesters as far away as Russia.

As I write this in 2010, there is a strong anti-colonial current in Latin America. Leaders such as Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, and Hugo Chavez have provided the most serious challenge to U.S. domination of Latin America since the Monroe Doctrine was invented. All of these leaders are personal friends of this one particular man in this one particular little island who led this one particular change in government.

But from 1959 on, all the previous challenges to U.S. domination – in Cuba, in Nicaragua, in El Salvador – all had inspiration and various forms of material help from this one tiny little island.

Of course, the United States has pushed back, and it has pushed back hard. It has blockaded the island, invaded the island, used biological warfare against the island, funded bombing campaigns against the island, and, naturally, made literally dozens of attempts to kill the new leader of this island. And yet somehow they have failed to oust this one tiny little government.

The Cuban Revolution was, indeed, the single most important event in the history of Latin America in the 20th Century. There is no other event during that century which is even close.

What are we to make of it? What happened in Cuba in 1959? How could events on such an insignificant little island possibly be so important?

The Cubans will tell you that the difference between what happened in Cuba in 1959 and the other little changes of government in Latin America and the Carribean during that same time was that in Cuba there was a change in the class in power. That is, in most of the world, those who own the industry run the government, and those who work for a living have no meaningful say in how their country is run. In Cuba, the Cubans will tell you, the workers took over. Cuba in 1959 was the first socialist revolution in the history of the Americas. It was important because it was inspirational to the working classes of the entire world. It was strong because it had its base not among the divided, self-seeking owners of industry but among the broad masses of united workers.

And, indeed, what other explanation can there be for what has happened here?

It has been said by some that Cuba was simply a Soviet colony. But how could a tiny little island accomplish so much while under foreign domination? And if, indeed, the particular pattern of Cuban life was a result of the Soviets forcibly imposing themselves on Cuba, why did the Cubans not throw out this system once the Soviet Union disappeared? How, once the Soviet Union disappeared, did its former puppet government in Cuba survive, despite the enormous pressure from the United States?

And how did Cuba become a Soviet colony to begin with? The Soviets did not invade Cuba. they did not provide weapons or funding or any support of any kind to the revolutionaries of 1958. Are we to believe that the army risking their lives to fight Batista and his American masters during this time was volunteering to be exploited by a country none of them had ever visited and few of them had ever had any meaningful contact with?

Besides, countries take colonies to exploit them, to make money off of them. To be a colony is a costly business: To own a colony a rewarding one. Why is it then that when the Soviet Union disappeared, the Cuban economy was badly damaged? Liberated from Soviet exploitation, shouldn’t it have blossomed like never before?

Who runs the show in Cuba, if not the workers? Not the old capitalists: They and their children and grandchildren are here in the United States now as they have been for fifty years, doing everything in their power to convince the United States to invade Cuba and restore their old possessions — and their old slaves — to them.

And not the Castro brothers. Of course, they have been the heads of government now for many years, but as impressive as Fidel is as a personal figure, to think that he could impose his rule on an unwilling population of eleven million people is childish. Individuals do not make history. Individuals do not rule countries except with the consent of a class, an economic class, within that country, whose interests they are serving.

It is sometimes said that in the Soviet Union, there was at one time socialism, at one time a workers state without exploitation, but that over time a class of bureaucrats or administrators carved out their own personal fiefdoms and became in effect a new type of capitalist. But the revolutionary leaders in Cuba have not been replaced by self-seeking bureaucrats. Indeed, the highest posts in the country are still held by the very people who installed socialism to begin with.

There is no solution to this, no way to explain the amazing accomplishments of this tiny island and its brave people, other than by the explanation the Cubans themselves will give: The significance of the Cuban Revolution is that it is the first socialist revolution in the history of the Americas.

Any attempt to refute this quickly dissolves into absurdity. Any attempt to ignore it, to ignore the Cuban Revolution, results in schizophrenia, in a view of Latin America completely divorced from the reality of Latin American political life.


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Fern said,

    This piece highlights the way that all who value independence and a just society should feel about Cuba. Good stuff!

  2. 2

    comradezero said,

    This is a very well-argued article. I especially liked the discussion Cuba’s independent role in relation to so-called Soviet social imperialism. These are points that need to be revisited by revolutionaries today.

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