“Imagine what Cuba could have done if there was no blockade”
By Robert Crooks
January 1 marked the 64th anniversary of Cuba’s national liberation. On New Year’s Day, 1959, the brutal US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country after several key military defeats at the hands of the 26 July Movement. Finally, Cuba would be ruled by the Cuban people.
On July 26, 1953, a young lawyer named Fidel Castro and his followers carried out a raid on the Moncada military barracks in the city of Santiago de Cuba with the intention of capturing weapons to overthrow the US-backed dictatorship. The raid was unsuccessful. Fifty-three of the 136 participants were executed; the rest were put on trial. For his part, Fidel was sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, popular protests forced his release after just twenty-two months.
Exiled to Mexico City, Fidel would join up with a small band of revolutionaries, including an Argentinian Marxist, Ernesto Guevara. The rebels would sail to Cuba in a shoddy yacht named Granma, landing on the shores of Playa Las Coloradas on December 2, 1956. Suffering heavy casualties in a surprise confrontation with Batista’s forces, the survivors would take cover in the Sierra Maestra mountain range, from where they would organize their guerilla war against the US puppet regime.
The attack on the Moncada Barracks is widely considered the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. But the struggle for Cuban independence goes back much further than 1953.
Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba in October 1492. In the ensuing centuries, Spanish colonialism would bring genocide and slavery to the island. The Indigenous Taino people were almost completely wiped out. Kidnapped Africans were forced to slave in gold and copper mines, and in sugarcane, tobacco and coffee fields. Revolts were commonplace. Spain’s colonial rule had a brutal and precarious history in Cuba.
In the nineteenth century, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes instigated the first Cuban War of Independence. Céspedes was typical of a new class of national bourgeoisie in Cuba. Born to Cuban and Spanish elites, he was educated in Europe before inheriting a sugar plantation in Oriente Province. On October 10, 1868 Céspedes freed his slaves and declared independence for Cuba. Cubans, Africans, Creoles and Chinese fought side-by-side against Spanish colonizers. Although this war did not free the island of colonialism, it planted the seed of what would become the heterogenous Cuban national identity.
José Martí, a champion of Cuban nationalism, was born in Havana to Spanish parents in 1853. At 16 years old, Martí was arrested for supporting Cuba’s independence and was exiled to Spain in 1871. Returning to Cuba in 1895, he sparked the second Cuban War of Independence. Martí was killed in battle that September, but the Cubans fought Spain to the brink of defeat before the United States seized the opportunity to expand its territory, intervening and starting the Spanish-American War. Spain and the US would sign the Treaty of Paris in 1898, transferring colonial rule to the burgeoning empire.
The imposition of US-styled democracy in Cuba during the first half of the twentieth century only masked de facto US control. Foreign investments carved up the country, building colonial infrastructure to transport the country’s resources to the ports. Social unrest continued to stew, as revolts by workers, peasants and Afro-Cubans broke out intermittently.
The 1933 Cuban Revolution established a provisional government led by Rámon Grau San Martín. The government significantly reduced rents, redistributed land to peasants, and implemented a minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, women’s suffrage and other progressive policies. To protect their economic interests on the island, the US government called upon an army sergeant named Fulgencia Batista to depose the government. A violent crackdown on revolutionary activities followed. Batista was elected to power in 1940 but lost to Grau in 1944. Carlos Manuel Prío Socarrás was elected in 1948, but incapable of bringing order, Batista overthrew him in a military coup and remained at the head of the neo-colonial regime until being overthrown by the 26 July Movement.
It was within this context that Fidel Castro led a group of 136 rebels to attack the Moncada Barracks. At his trial, Fidel delivered his famous speech, History Will Absolve Me, in which he defined the Cuban nation as consisting of all who suffered under Spanish colonialism and US imperialism: peasants, workers, students, civil servants, small business owners, young professionals and maltreated soldiers. As a category, the people “turn the wheel of history,” according to Fidel, by producing wealth through labour and struggling against exploitation. “He who lives as a parasite,” Fidel wrote in the second Declaration of Havana, “does not belong to the people.”
The Cuban revolution was, first and foremost, a democratic struggle. But seizing the state does not complete a revolution. Demanding everything promised by the revolution the day after it seizes power is ahistorical. It is the task of the revolutionary forces to transform the state from one designed to protect the interests of foreign capital into one that serves the people. This process must unite the people in a nation-building project that supersedes the narrow interests of competing segments.
Unlike a multi-party system, which offers a false choice between two or more parties representing the same capitalist class, democracy in Cuba builds consensus through popular consultations and elections that begin at the hyper-local level. Block by block in the cities, region by region in the rural areas, committees are formed, assemblies are held, and information is disseminated via radio, television and online; bulletins are posted to surfaces in areas with high pedestrian traffic; discussions are held in apartment blocks and in workplaces. Reactionary voices that promote counter-revolution, and espouse anti-LGBTQ, misogynist or racist views are suppressed for sowing division.
Before 1959, the majority of Cubans, especially those living in rural areas, had been intentionally stunted and were ill prepared to participate in the democratic process. The initial stages of the post-Batista revolution had to be directed towards meeting people’s basic needs.
One of the first initiatives of the revolutionary government was the Cuban Literacy Campaign. Close to half of rural workers were illiterate. Over three-quarters of rural youth did not attend school. By the end of 1961, illiteracy had been eradicated. Today, Cuba boasts one teacher for every nine students. Education, including post-secondary, is free. In comparison, Canada has one teacher for every fourteen students and post-secondary education has been thoroughly commodified.
Prior to the overthrow of Batista, many Cubans had never seen a doctor. Fourteen percent of the population suffered, or had suffered, from tuberculosis and 13 percent from typhus. Thirty-six percent of rural workers had parasites and another 31 percent had malaria.
On January 23, 1960, the Rural Health Service was established. By the following year, the government had completely nationalized healthcare. Cuba’s community-based approach prioritizes prevention over profit-making treatments. Today, Cuba employs one doctor for every 150 citizens. Canada has 2.7 doctors for every thousand. The average Cuban lives to be 80; the average person from the United States lives 78 years.
Cuba’s socialized pharmaceutical industry produces groundbreaking treatments for ailments such as lung cancer and diabetes, which the blockade denies to patients in capitalist countries.
The US blockade also forced Cuba to produce its own COVID-19 vaccine. They produced five of them, becoming one of the quickest and most fully immunized countries in the world. Whereas vaccine hesitancy is relatively widespread in capitalist countries, the Cuban people trust their health system because the profit motive has been subordinated to human need.
Cuba also ensures that its citizens are fed and housed. In 1962, the government created the ration system, guaranteeing staples such as rice, cooking oil, bread and sugar for each household or individual. Other food items can be purchased at fixed prices at state-run markets. Today, Cubans pay around 10 percent of their income on housing. There is no unhoused population in Cuba. These achievements should impress those of us in Canada where 5.8 million face food insecurity and approximately 2000 people die yearly from being unhoused.
The destitution in which many Cubans lived before 1959 was not a matter of mismanagement. In the 1950s, three-fifths of the value of Cuban exports were siphoned off to US corporations. Seventy-three percent of Cuba’s farmland was controlled by 9 percent of landowners.
Cuba’s First Agrarian Reform Law of May 1959 expropriated land from foreign investors and large landlords, and redistributed it to the people who worked it. The law also created a state agricultural sector to maintain control over a third of national farmland.
The government also expropriated 3 oil refineries, 126 sugar mills, 16 rice mills and, eventually, took possession of all land held by US corporations and individuals. A total of 4.4 million hectares and 6,000 properties were nationalized, recapturing the Cuban economy for the Cuban people.
This was too much for US oligarchs. A 1960 memo from the US Deputy Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs regretfully admitted that “the majority of Cubans support Castro” and so the US government should adopt a policy which inconspicuously “makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”
The following year, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the ongoing hybrid war against the Cuban people. The US blockade largely shuts Cuba out of international trade, resulting in shortages of medical supplies, energy and other basic necessities. Most Canadians know something about the 600 assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. Far fewer know about the CIA-supported terrorists who continue to operate openly in Miami from where they have planned attacks on Cuban infrastructure, downed airplanes and bombed hotels, killing hundreds of innocent people in the process.
Government officials in the United States call Cuba an undemocratic regime and sponsor of terrorism to justify their inhumane and illegal policies. But these propagandistic projections poorly mask the real intentions behind the US’s war on Cuba. The Foreign Extraterritorial Measures Act, better known as the Helms-Burton Act, states, with regards to “US claims to confiscated property in Cuba…the satisfactory resolution of such property claims by Cuba remains a condition for the resumption of economic and diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.” In other words, the United States will lift the blockade if Cuba submits to being recolonized.
When Fidel Castro stated, “history will absolve me,” it was not simply a nice phrase but a truth that is still materializing. Eleven years after Cuba’s second Agrarian Reform Law, in 1974, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order. This resolution declares:
“Full permanent sovereignty of every State over its natural resources and all economic activities. In order to safeguard these resources, each State is entitled to exercise effective control over them and their exploitation with means suitable to its own situation, including the right to nationalization or transfer of ownership to its nationals, this right being an expression of the full permanent sovereignty of the State. No State may be subjected to economic, political or any other type of coercion to prevent the free and full exercise of this inalienable right.”
In the wake of the historic 1955 Bandung Conference and a wave of national liberation movements across the Third World, the UN recognized the right of former colonies to self-determination. The US blockade exists in direct defiance of this resolution. The blockade is a reactionary imposition on the Cuban people, an attempt to roll back the progress achieved not only by the Cuban people, but by all anti-colonial and national liberation struggles across the globe.
Current US President Joe Biden can plausibly call Cuba a “failed state” because the country really does suffer under a suffocating economic blockade and from foreign funded saboteurs. This is the imperialist blueprint: strangle the economy and then loudly declare that socialism doesn’t work. Nonetheless, under immense imperialist pressure, Cuba’s revolution houses the people, feeds them, educates them and supports a healthcare system that puts capitalist countries to shame. At the October release of Cuba’s annual report on the effects of the blockade, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla asked us to “imagine what Cuba could have done if there was no blockade.” This is exactly what the United States and all its imperialist lackeys are so desperate to prevent.
Long live the Revolution! Long live Cuba!
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