Cuba – sailing beyond the empire

Image: Dimitri Dim, a street in Havana.


In the unfolding of the Cuban crisis and the 11J protests, the international left faces complex strategic challenges

In the aftermath of recent protests in Cuba and continued efforts by US elites to intervene on the island, Brian Kelly argues for principled opposition to the threat of imperialist intervention and against the uncritical attitude adopted by much of the left towards the Cuban bureaucracy.

The outbreak of street protests in cities across Cuba on July 11th generated confusion and intense debate on the global left. Around the world, many of those who were justifiably inspired by the island's refusal to bow to the relentless aggression of the United States for more than sixty years, adopted a totally defensive posture, reproducing the cynical line defended by the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).

Since the protests, the government has tried to reduce the events to an attempted "color revolution" hatched by the US intelligence service and its Miami foot soldiers and involving a handful of paid agents - alternately described as "mercenaries", "vandals". ”, “delinquents” – on the island itself. Meanwhile, much of the bourgeois media in the US and elsewhere has dutifully followed the script laid out by wealthy right-wing Cuban-Americans, who are eager to portray the uprising as the beginning of a revolt against “communism” and in favor of democracy. “freedom” and “democracy” of the American type.

Although, as I will argue, there are elements of “truth” in both representations, none of the interpretations that are now circulating in the press and on social media can offer a reliable analysis of the movement that has emerged in recent weeks, much less explain where the revolt in society springs from. Cuban society or what it holds for the future.

For a global left committed to anti-imperialism and an egalitarian vision of workers' democracy as an essential element of the socialist emancipatory project – a democratic vision that was never realized in post-1959 Cuba – an honest and comprehensive analysis of the dynamics at work in society Cuban today is sorely needed.

Any credible assessment must begin by acknowledging the historical significance of the July 11 demonstrations. The Cuban state, controlled by the PCC and led since 2019 by President Miguel Díaz-Canel, has gone to great lengths to minimize its importance and misrepresent its composition and motivations.

Part of the difficulty in obtaining an accurate picture resides in the state's monopoly on communication, imposed since the protests with the repression of access to the Internet. Even by the most cautious estimates, however, the protests represent the most significant non-state mobilizations in the post-revolutionary era, eclipsing the Maleconazo of 1994 in Havana, which ended only after the personal intervention of Fidel Castro and triggered the exodus from Mariel.

In that sense, the July 11 protests are evidence of a genuine, deeply rooted and maturing crisis of the Cuban state, not just a flash in the pan created by shadowy elements linked to the US State Department.

The uprising affected many of the island's major towns and cities, involving several thousand ordinary Cubans. Reliable reports from Havana and surrounding areas suggest that the demonstrations involved a significant number of the poorest neighborhoods, including a significant number of Afro-Cubans, and were mostly composed of young people.

Politically, the mobilizations varied in their demands: although the easy slogans promoted by Miami-based social media [“libertad”; “Patria y vida”; “Abajo communismo”] seems to have dominated from the beginning, the sectors participating in the protests were heterogeneous and – especially – focused mainly on the most direct and tangible sources of current frustrations. Significantly, the anger seems to have been directed primarily against MLC (dollar) stores, police headquarters and (in Havana) tourist hotels.

While most of the protests appear to have taken place without serious clashes, there has been some violence (incited by both protesters and state security forces and PCC militants) and one death – a 36-year-old Afro-Cuban man from Arroyo Naranjo, on the outskirts of Havana. Hundreds of people were arrested – many of them very young – and there are credible reports of beatings and serious mistreatment of detained demonstrators.[I]

It is undeniable that the US government and heavily funded and sponsored Cuban-American opposition groups in South Florida played a role, through social media, in encouraging the initial mobilization through the promotion of the hashtag #SOSCuba, making using an army of “bots” to convey an impression of imminent collapse, and reinforcing the calls of right-wing politicians like Republican Marco Rubio for a “humanitarian corridor”, supposedly to alleviate the intense suffering faced by ordinary Cubans. Rubio, in turn, was supported by the mayor of Miami, who advocated airstrikes.

These attempts to tap into the true frustrations of Cubans are consistent with utterly cynical US policy over many years – from the disaster of its failed invasion at Playa Girón (the Bay of Pigs) in 1961 to the numerous and many ludicrous plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, well-documented attempts at biological warfare, and sponsorship of overt acts of deadly terrorism against Cuban officials and civilians. While their involvement in fomenting confrontation is undeniable, it is misleading to suggest – as the Cuban government has done – that the protests can be reduced to a counterrevolutionary “soft coup”.[ii]

The US blockade: punishment for defying the empire

In analyzing events, the left outside Cuba needs to recognize, clearly and unequivocally, the active and continued hostile role of US imperialism in trying to make Cuba pay the price for its defiance of the US empire over many years.

Just as socialists have opposed US sanctions against Iraq in the past, and they do today in the cases of Venezuela or Iran, this fundamental anti-imperialist principle is not based on a political endorsement of any regime that the great powers have in their sights. . Any honest assessment would have to recognize that, far from being exercised in pursuit of "freedom", the US blockade was imposed unilaterally, in the face of global opposition, as a punitive measure designed to send a clear message to the Cuban people and to anyone else who dare to follow his lead, that there is an abusive price to be paid for challenging American power.

Furthermore, this hostility is not part of some distant history: right now, in the midst of a devastating global pandemic, the lockdown means that, despite some notable achievements of their own socialized healthcare system, ordinary Cubans will literally die for lack of access to respirators and even syringes – both blocked under the terms of the US embargo. May Biden spare us his crocodile tears, then.

What is needed is not a 'humanitarian corridor' overseen by the perpetrators of the blockade themselves, but an immediate and unconditional end to the criminal embargo, with reparation for the damage it has caused over many years to the Cuban economy.[iii]

Recent events have clearly exposed both the continuity of the imperialist policy pursued by the Biden administration and the dangers that – left unchecked – can only weaken a growing US left that puts its faith in the Democratic Party. Biden, of course, has shown no inclination to reverse the severe blockade enforcements that took place under Trump and Pompeo, and his administration is filled with hardline politicians who seem happy to double down on that cruel legacy.[iv]

There are clear indications that, like others before him, Biden's approach to Cuba is being driven not just by his longstanding commitment to empire, but perverse electoral considerations. Fearing that Democrats would lose votes in South Florida if they broke with a policy that never created anything but misery, the White House is taking the lead from the most fanatical far-right elements of Florida's émigré community.

The glaring inconsistency between Biden's sanctioning of Cuban defense officials for their role in repression and his vehement endorsement of regimes that have committed far more serious human rights violations in Israel and Colombia exposes basic hypocrisy at work.[v]

Inside Cuba: Socialism without Democracy?

It turns out, however, that the enemies of our class enemies are not necessarily our friends. The nature of the profound crisis unfolding in Cuba should compel the left internationally to seriously examine many of the assumptions that have long remained unquestioned about the nature of Cuban society under CCP rule. Some supporters of the Cuban government act as if the clock has stopped in 1959 and, over the years, we have had no evidence to assess the track record of those who claim to build socialism.

The reality is that after a brief period of relative openness following the triumph of the Revolution, Cuba – for many years under the inexplicable rule of a single leader, Fidel Castro, and later by his political heirs – staggered from one economic crisis to the next, with limited space for workers' democracy – always at the whim of the CCP, narrowing in recent years to the point of non-existence.

Among its international supporters, the blockade is often used as a cover for all the regime's internal shortcomings, but among many Cubans fed up with endemic bureaucratic inefficiency and growing corruption and inequality, such claims are met with derision.[vi]

While it is certainly true that the blockade and persistent foreign hostility have shaped the overarching context in which the Cuban economy has developed since 1959, the very economic problems that have plagued Cuba since the triumph of the revolution are rooted, too, in a system of bureaucratic government that leaves little or no room for genuine democratic participation.[vii]

The proof of this is in the first major crisis, triggered by the spectacular failure in 1970 (despite enormous sacrifices among ordinary Cubans) to meet Castro's goal of securing a sugar crop of ten million tons. the disaster of La Zafra de los Diez Millones it had lasting implications for the economy and definitively ended attempts to chart a semi-independent course for the USSR – including in Cuban foreign policy.

The campaign also revealed the limitations of democracy in Castro's Cuba. The “popular organizations” created in the early years of the Revolution played a key role in mobilizing the workforce (and here the genuine enthusiasm of the post-Revolutionary period was a great asset), but they had no real say in setting goals or in production planning – this was decided by the PCC leadership or, more often, by Fidel himself.

At various junctures (such as the “campaign for rectification” initiated by Castro in the late 1980s to avoid the kind of implosion then unfolding in the USSR), state-dominated unions (CTC) were deployed amid infighting within the governing bureaucracy, but its main role has always been to pass on orders from above and ensure that production targets are met, rather than to defend the workers.

Abroad, Cuba has managed to maintain the image of an alternative path – “socialism and sunshine” – but the harsh reality is that, from the early 70s onwards, much of the stifling political culture of the Stalinist states in the “Soviet sphere” of Europe Oriental was imported to the island wholesale, including its approach to internal security issues.

A multifaceted crisis

The recent turmoil – exceptional in scale by Cuban standards, but still modest in size and without deep organizational roots – signals the growing maturation of a protracted economic crisis.

The evolution of the current crisis is best understood in two phases: the onset of the long-term economic decline triggered by the collapse of the USSR and the withdrawal of Russian oil and energy subsidies; and the sharp escalation of the difficulties evident in recent years, compounded by a sharp decline in access to Venezuelan oil, increased US sanctions under Trump, and a near-total reduction in tourism in the period since the start of the Covid pandemic.

In both trends, we see the same dynamic at work: an overarching context of economic crisis shaped by the blockade and, within it, the strategic miscalculations for which the ruling Party bears overwhelming responsibility. The CCP under Raúl Castro and now under Diáz-Canel has moved in the direction of the Sino-Vietnamese model of “market reforms” which, in the words of Sam Farber, “combine a high degree of political authoritarianism with concessions to private capital and, especially , to the foreigner.”[viii]

The shift towards tourism as a critical source of currency from the early 90s onwards and the changes brought about by the opening of dollar remittances to Cubans with families outside the island gave rise to imbalances and growing inequalities. More significantly, the low proportion of black Cubans without diaspora relatives to support them, combined with evidence of racial discrimination in the tourist sector, meant that Afro-Cubans were disproportionately represented among those “left behind” by the new turn. This partly explains their prominence in the street demonstrations on 11 July.

The impact of additional deprivation in the pandemic era has dramatically intensified these disparities and plunged many more Cubans into dire circumstances. In explaining these new difficulties, we must recognize not only external pressures, but also the mistakes of state bureaucrats and the distorted priorities pursued by those who run the economy.

Cuban economist Pedro Monreal shockingly demonstrated that during the entire year and a half period in which the threat posed by the pandemic was obvious, state planners poured an increasing proportion of state resources into the tourism sector, significantly reducing resources in health and education.[ix] Here is a dramatic example of the absence of democratic planning and its tangible impact on the daily lives of Cuban workers.

The remarkable achievements of the Cuban biotechnology sector in vaccine development and the internationalist solidarity shown by Cuban health professionals around the world go hand in hand with very low levels of vaccination across the island, and now with an increase that in places like Matanzas resulted in a near-collapse of hospitals. There are indications, in fact, that a premature reopening to tourism can help explain this increase.

The anger caused by the state's response to Covid in Cuba is therefore qualitatively different from the right-wing demonstrations we've seen elsewhere: among Cubans who have grown immensely proud of their health care system, many blame the state for depriving hospitals and professionals of health of the resources needed to fight the virus.

All of this takes place in a context where the post-Castro leadership of the PCC is facing a crisis of legitimacy and which presents a growing gap between the aspirations of the youth and the sclerotic bureaucracy of a Party apparently incapable of carrying out reforms.

In the face of this intense and multifaceted adversity, and in the face of a government that does not seem capable of charting a clear path out of the crisis, nor of speaking frankly to the poorest sectors of Cuban society, it is not surprising that part of this anger has found its way way in the streets on the 11th of July. It is not only wrong, but also dishonest to characterize these reactions as a manifestation of “counter-revolution”.

Emerging right and left

Miami-based counterrevolutionary organizations – which make no secret of their hopes of regime change – have shifted after the July 11th protests to claim the emerging movement as their own and to characterize it in traditional anti-communist terms. The shallowness of their understanding of events is clear in a recent debate on Al Jazeera, where Rosa Maria Paya of Florida-based Cuba Decide fought to justify support for the US blockade and rejected claims that participation in the The July 11 protests were motivated by economic desperation.

Until now, however, many on the global left continue to echo the line of the PCC, which itself accepts all the fundamental claims of the Cuban-American right. As stated in an important contribution by the left-wing blog Communists, based on the island, the problem here is that:

“To reproduce the argument that the thousands of July 11 demonstrators are counterrevolutionaries is to give the counterrevolution a victory that does not belong to it. To reproduce the argument that the demonstrations of July 11 were prepared by the counter-revolution is to give the right a capacity for organization and mobilization that it does not have.

Only from a Marxist critical analysis can one understand what happened on July 11th. The uncritical position only isolates the government from society and strengthens counterrevolutionary political propaganda. It is urgent that the Cuban government analyze what it did wrong and explain it publicly.

The masses are tired of hearing that everything is the fault of Yankee imperialism. Most want to hear the government do some deep self-criticism, acknowledging that July 11th is largely a product of its mistakes. Such a gesture would grant significant political legitimacy to the leadership – but the bureaucracy's closed arrogance prevents this."

Such an analysis, by left-wing Cubans eager to defend the real gains of the Revolution, offers a profound corrective to the simplistic analysis being propagated by the Cuban and American annexationist right and by an increasingly distant Cuban elite ruling in the name of communism. “Ignore the fact that those who joined the protests of July 11 came from the most economically affected sector', warns the communists, 'is to contribute for something similar to happen again in a few months”.

A reliable assessment of the current state of Cuban society must recognize both the long-term sources of popular frustration, which can be traced back to the major changes that took place after the collapse of the USSR – and the sharp intensification of the crisis in the context of a pandemic and a government-led march. towards increasing inequality.

For those who wish to defend the tangible gains of the Cuban revolution – in health and education, in the defense of national sovereignty – it is essential to recognize that today they are seriously threatened by internal and external forces. Otherwise, as an editor of the La Joven Cuba, “workers end up identifying socialism as an inefficient and repressive system, and may react by saying: 'Look, don't talk to me about socialism because I don't want anything like that'”.

In the unfolding Cuban crisis, the international left faces complex strategic challenges and needs to chart a path that defends genuine and consistent anti-imperialism and the principles of international working class solidarity. That means extending our hand to Cuba's growing independent left and to workers on the island who deserve our solidarity in their quest to build a dynamic socialist democracy.

For the emerging Cuban new left, the new conjuncture presents real opportunities and challenges in equal measure. The events of July 11 demonstrate the possibilities of breaking the limits of the sometimes highly problematic “dissident politics”, and also the need to build a movement that begins to relate to the mass of Cuban workers in search of something better.

That will require drawing a clear line between the dirty tricks of the Cuban-American right and a movement for workers' self-emancipation rooted among those who have not bowed to Washington.

*Brian Kelly is a professor at Queen's University, Belfast, Ireland.

Translation: Sean Purdy.

Originally published on the portal rebel news.


[I] See “Abuse of Protestants in Cuba” at La Joven Cuba (July 19, 2021):

[ii] For a balanced summary of the forces involved, see “On the July 11 Protests” at communists (July 17, 2021):

[iii] The UN regional body for Latin America (ECLAC) recently estimated the economic damage caused by the US embargo at $130 billion. See

[iv] See Danny Glover, “Biden's Fail to end Trump's War on Cuba is Threatening Lives”, The Nation (June 29, 2021):

[v] “'US Sanctions Cuban Officials over Crackdown on Protests”, CNBC: - protests.html

[vi] Janette Habel offers an extensive critique of corruption at the highest levels of party and state in Cuba: Revolution in Peril (Verse, 1991): 177-99.

[vii] Glenda Boza Ibarra, What's wrong with the block? (2021).

[viii] Samuel Farber, “Why Cubans Protested on July 11”, In These Times (July 27, 2021): -m7I8TBIekc

[ix] Monreal writes on social media that “'an investment dynamics ranging from an investment weight in business and real estate services of 21,8% and 2,2% in health in 2014, to 50,3% and 0,3% in 2021, it would have been unlikely if the poor had real power in economic decisions.” (July 21, 2021).


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