The Truth About Cuban Socialism

Cuba is often painted as an authoritarian dictatorship whose people live in fear and poverty all their lives. As is usually the case, these statements are backed not by credible research, but by capitalist propaganda. In this article, I want to dispel some of these myths and argue that Cuba is a shining example of socialism that should be studied and defended.

The best place to begin, I think, is with Cuba prior to the revolution. When we place modern Cuba in this context, we will see very clearly the power of socialism to uplift the oppressed and exploited. Before 1959, the country was lead by the fascist dictator Batista, supported by the United States. Batista regularly assassinated labor activists and lived in a sprawling palace, while the majority of Cuban citizens were in deep poverty. Castro and other rebels looked upon these horrible conditions and decided to put an end to them. To quote Christopher Mercer in “The Cuban Revolution,”

“On the morning of July 26, 1953, Castro made his move. For a revolution to succeed, he needed weapons, and he selected the isolated Moncada barracks as his target. 138 men attacked the compound at dawn: it was hoped that the element of surprise would make up for the rebels’ lack of numbers and arms. The attack was a fiasco almost from the start and the rebels were routed after a firefight that lasted a few hours. Many were captured. Nineteen federal soldiers were killed, and the remaining ones took out their anger on captured rebels and most of them were shot. Fidel and Raul Castro escaped, but were captured later.

The Castros and surviving rebels were put on public trial. Fidel, a trained lawyer, turned the tables on the Batista dictatorship by making the trial about the power grab. Basically, his argument was that as a loyal Cuban, he had taken up arms against the dictatorship because it was his civic duty. He made long speeches and the government belatedly tried to shut him up by claiming he was too ill to attend his own trial. His most famous quote from the trial was “History will absolve me.” He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but had become a nationally recognized figure and a hero to many poor Cubans.

In May of 1955 the Batista government, bending to international pressure to reform, released many political prisoners, including those who had taken part in the Moncada assault. Fidel and Raul Castro went to Mexico to regroup and plan the next step in the revolution. There they met up with many disaffected Cuban exiles who joined the new “26th of July Movement,” named after the date of the Moncada assault. Among the new recruits were charismatic Cuban exile Camilo Cienfuegos and Argentine doctor Ernesto “Ché” Guevara. In November, 1956, 82 men crowded onto the tiny yacht Granma and set sail for Cuba and revolution.

Batista’s men had learned of the returning rebels and ambushed them: Fidel and Raul made it into the wooded central highlands with only a handful of survivors from Mexico; Cienfuegos and Guevara were among them. In the impenetrable highlands the rebels regrouped, attracting new members, collecting weapons and staging guerrilla attacks on military targets. Try as he might, Batista could not root them out. The leaders of the revolution permitted foreign journalists to visit and interviews with them were published around the world.

As the July 26th movement gained power in the mountains, other rebel groups took up the fight as well. In the cities, rebel groups loosely allied with Castro carried out hit-and-run attacks and nearly succeeded in assassinating Batista. Batista decided on a bold move: he sent a large portion of his army into the highlands in the summer of 1958 to try and flush out Castro once and for all. The move backfired: the nimble rebels carried out guerrilla attacks on the soldiers, many of whom switched sides or deserted. By the end of 1958 Castro was ready to deliver the knockout punch” [1].

Although the rebels were both outnumbered and outgunned, they managed to put up a fight and deal a death blow to fascism and imperialism. This is a testament not only to the power of Leninist organization, but also the popular character of the revolution. It would have been impossible to overthrow Batista if the Cuban people had not thrown their weight behind the rebels. The revolution was an expression of the popular will of the masses, it cannot be otherwise.

So, what is the state of Cuba now? First, it has established high-quality universal healthcare, even in the face of an economic blockade that cost the country well over one hundred billion dollars. Life expectancy is an impressive 79. Infant mortality is 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared (better than the US figure of 6.0, and incomparably better than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is around 27 deaths per 1,000 live births) [2]. Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalence rate in the Americas [3]. There is one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba, a higher ratio than even England [4].

These doctors often volunteer overseas in crisis situations, in places such as Venezuela and Ecuador [5]. The country offered to send personnel to aid the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, but they were declined [6]. Unlike the US ruling class, which would rather let innocent people die than accept help from leftist forces, Cuba understands that it is our duty as people to aid one another as best we can. There is none of the greed and selfishness that is found under capitalism. The medical internationalism of Cuba stems directly from the socialist belief that the global working class should be united in its struggle for a better world. Contrast this with the completely self-serving “internationalism” of the Clinton family or Bill Gates.  As historian Greg Grandin argued  in an article in The Nation, the impacts of Clinton’s policies in Latin America of ramping up free trade, border militarization, and the war on drugs have played a part in worsening insecurity and human rights conditions in several countries. “Beyond any one country or policy, these policies fed off of each other,” Grandin wrote, noting links between privatization, displacement, and violence [7]. These billionaires do not care about the welfare of the people. Any supposed philanthropy they engage in is meant only to extend their influence abroad. Only socialism, with its aforementioned emphasis on human needs over profit, can actually benefit the poor and exploited over the long term.

Cuba has relatedly made huge strides in medicine. Currently, their lung cancer vaccine Climax is in trials in Peru [8]. According to UNICEF, they have eliminated child malnutrition and tuberculosis, a feat not even the US can manage [9].

Similarly, Cuba has an incredible education system. An article by Nina Lakhani in the Independent gives a helpful overview. In it, she says,

“Education at every level is free, and standards are high… The primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and, naturally, revolutionary history. Children are expected to help each other so that no one in the class lags too far behind. And parents must work closely with teachers as part of every child’s education and social development… There is a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, many of which have as few as 20. Secondary schools are striving towards only 15 pupils per class – less than half the UK norm.

“School meals and uniforms are free… ‘Mobile teachers’ are deployed to homes if children are unable to come to school because of sickness or disability… Adult education at all levels, from Open University-type degrees to English- and French-language classes on TV, is free and popular” [10].

The quality of Cuba’s education is recognized at the top international levels. For example, Cuba is ranked at number sixteen in UNESCO’s Education For All Development Index, higher than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean (and higher than the US, which is ranked at number 25) [11]. It has the highest literacy rate in the world, at ninety-nine percent [12].

This is evidence of the power of socialism. Rather than putting the profits of a few above the needs of the majority, Cuba has used its resources to promote the health of the entire world. When the masses are in power, as is the case in Cuba, humanity is allowed to flourish. The socialist theory that the masses make history is what has led to the funding of cheap and high-quality education. Education in the capitalist United States, on the other hand, is but a means to create an obedient workforce. Education under socialism is about reaching the full potential of the people. This can be seen in Cuba.

Along these lines, Cuba’s education system is built on participatory mechanisms. These include, according to a World Bank report, “student assemblies, parents’ councils, “council addressing minors,” school councils, parents’ schools, and study homes” [13]. The whole community is invested in the welfare of the school and its students. Children clean the school, fix broken facilities, help fellow students with difficulties, discuss class and school problems, and work in the school garden. The director we interviewed considered the student work in the school garden more of a pedagogical than a productive activity and declared that the school invests more in this activity than it gains. Such work encourages a more active role for students inschoollife.16 In Cuba thesis called”pioneers protagonism” (protagonismo pionieristico) since students participate in school life through the Pioneers Association” [14].

The report goes on to talk about the linking of school and work.

The primary curriculum includes 480 hours of “labor education” over six years, out of a total of 5,680 hours. Here the Marxist principle of combining study and work is applied to school gardens (las huertas escolares). By participating in simple agricultural activities, students are expected to develop a positive attitude toward work along with attitudes of solidarity with workers. School gardens size range from one to more than 20 hectares. When schools do not have their own garden, students work in “collective gardens” in the provincial capitals. “Education and not production,” is the aim of this experience, we were told while visiting a few schools, thus disclaiming possibility of exploitation of child labor.

As part of labor education, all students take one year of drawing. The following year, there is a bit of wood carving, using the models designed in the first year. In the third year, the boys go to woodwork and the girls to sewing.”2 4 In secondary school (grades 7 to 9), labor education represent 280 hours of a total of 5,799 hours, a less significant share than in primary school but still equivalent to half the time devoted to History and a significant amount of time compared to that given to classic academic subjects [15].

This shows the power of Marxism in practice. Cuba is committed to remaking the whole of society. In order to do this, students must believe they can change the world. Engagement in labor is one way to engender this idea. Education in Cuba is founded on the flourishing of the human spirit, not profit and exploitation.

Further, the legacy of racism is being wiped out. Pre-revolutionary Cuba was, in effect, an apartheid society. There was widespread segregation and discrimination. Afro-Cubans were restricted to the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst education. They suffered from differential access to parks, restaurants and beaches. The revolution quickly started attacking racism at its roots, vowing to “straighten out what history has twisted” [16]. In March 1959, just a couple of months after the capture of power, Fidel discussed the complexity of racism in several speeches at mass rallies, saying, “In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practice discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad … and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?” [17].

The commitment to defeating racism has brought about tremendous gains in equality and racial integration. Isaac Saney writes, “It can be argued that Cuba has done more than any other country to dismantle institutionalized racism and generate racial harmony” [18].

Of course, deeply ingrained prejudices and inequalities cannot be eliminated overnight, and problems remain, especially as a result of the ‘special period’ in which Cuba has had to open itself up to tourism and some limited foreign investment. Racism thrives on inequality. However, Cuba remains a shining light in terms of its commitment to racial equality.

Assata Shakur, the famous exiled Black Panther who has lived in Cuba for several decades, puts it well when she says, “Revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice” [19].

Isaac Saney cites a very moving and revealing anecdote recounted by an elderly black man in Cuba. “I was traveling on a very crowded bus. At a bus stop, where many people got off, a black man got a seat. A middle aged woman said in a very loud and irritated voice: ‘And it had to be a black who gets the seat.’ The response of the people on the bus was incredible. People began to criticize the woman, telling her that a revolution was fought to get rid of those stupid ideas; that the black man should be viewed as having the same rights as she had – including a seat on a crowded bus. The discussion and criticism became loud and animated. The bus driver was asked to stop the bus because the people engaging in the criticism had decided that the woman expressing racist attitudes must get off the bus. For the rest of my trip, the people apologized to the black comrade and talked about where such racist attitudes come from and what must be done to get rid of them” [20]. Who can imagine such a scene occurring on a bus in London, Paris or New York?

Along the same lines, Cuba has an excellent record in terms of building gender equality. Its commitment to a non-sexist society is reflected in the fact that 43% of parliament members are female (ranking fourth in the world after Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa). 64% of university places are occupied by women. “Cuban women comprise 66% of all technicians and professionals in the country’s middle and higher levels,” according to an AAWU report [21]. Women are given 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay, with extended leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old [22].

A recent report by the US-based Center for Democracy in the Americas (by no means a non-critical source) noted that, “By several measures, Cuba has achieved a high standard of gender equality, despite the country’s reputation for machismo, a Latin American variant of sexism. Save the Children ranks Cuba first among developing countries for the wellbeing of mothers and children, the report points out. The World Economic Forum places Cuba 20th out of 153 countries in health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women – ahead of all countries in Latin America except Trinidad and Tobago” [23]. I doubt that anyone outside Cuba could make similar claims.

There is also a huge amount of community spirit. Modern capitalism breaks down communities. Consumerism and individualism create isolation and depression. Poverty creates stress and family tension. Inequality leads to crime, which leads to a culture of fear antagonistic to the project developing a sense of community and togetherness. Anyone who has experienced life in a modern western city will understand this only too well.

Cuba provides a very different example. It is an exceptionally safe country, with very little in the way of violent crime. With a high level of participation in local administration, social stability, social welfare, low unemployment and a media that promotes unity rather than disunity, Cuba’s sense of community is something that visitors quickly notice.

Assata Shakur mentions this, and contrasts it with the US:

“My experience in the United States was living in a society that was very much at war with itself, that was very alienated. People felt not part of a community, but like isolated units that were afraid of interaction, of contact, that were lonely. People didn’t build that sense of community that I found is so rich here [in Cuba]. One of the things that I was able to take from this experience was just how lovely it is to live with a sense of community. To live where you can drop in the street and a million people will come and help you. That is to me a wealth that you can’t find, you can’t buy, you have to build. You have to build it within yourself to be capable of having that attitude about your neighbors, about how you want to live on this planet” [24].

And as another Cuban commentator notes in an article for Monthly Review, in Cuba there are,”no street kids, no malnourished faces, and people walking the streets at night with almost no fear” [25]. This cannot be said of any other country in the region.

Although there is certainly poverty, the blame for this can be placed squarely on the blockade and the loss of trading partners like the Soviet Union, rather than on the defects of socialism. The Cuban blockade has cost the country one trillion dollars, according to a CBS report [26]. The UN has admitted that the embargo has interfered with the country’s ability to contribute to AIDS research and other humanitarian causes. What this means is that Cuba would doubtless have the ability to drastically eliminate poverty were it not for the blockade. It is important to note the difference between poverty in Cuba and poverty in the United States. In the US, the resources to alleviate poverty already exist. The only reason they have not been utilized in this way is because it would not be profitable for the capitalist class. In Cuba, however, the resources to alleviate poverty have been denied to the people. If they were put back in the rightful hands of the Cuban people, poverty would be massively reduced. In short, poverty in Cuba is not the result of socialism, but capitalism.

It is also important to note that poor individuals in Cuba have access to benefits that many poor people in other countries do not have, such as the aforementioned healthcare and education. Housing is also leaps ahead of other societies in Cuba. Although housing is not free in Cuba, the government does take steps to keep the cost of housing low. That leads to a high rate of homeownership—around 85%. By way of comparison, the Census Bureau says the rate of homeownership in the United States was 66.9% in 2010 [27]. This, again, can be attributed to socialism. Marxist theory holds that the State is always controlled by a particular class, and is used to protect the interests of that class. In Cuba, the state is controlled by the workers, who make up the vast majority of the population (as they do in any society). As such, the state has an incentive to guarantee basic necessities (like housing) to its people.

Worker’s rights in Cuba are leaps and bounds ahead of the United States. According to both the CIA World Factbook and the World Health Organization, unemployment is just under three percent, compared with five percent in the US. Workers have recently been granted a large degree of power within their workplaces, a feature characteristic of socialism, as well as having achieved sustainable development. In “Redefining Socialism in Cuba,” Gary Leech writes that, “In order to find alternatives to large-scale industrial farming and to stimulate production the government broke-up many large state-owned farms and turned them over to the farmers as smaller worker-owned cooperatives. The new cooperatives…increased production….” [28].

Even before this shift to more direct forms of workplace democracy, Cuban workers had a significant degree of autonomy in the state-owned workplaces. As far back as 1961, writes Helen Yaffe in her book Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, “the Production Assemblies involve[d] all the workers of the factory who meet democratically and put their viewpoints about the progress of industry and the plan. The Production Assembly represents a kind of legislative chamber….” [29]. Democratic institutions extended to the workplace. Workers were not subordinated to the will of the bosses, as is the case in capitalist nations like the United States. The transformation of the workplace into a people-centered institution rather than a profit-centered one is a tremendous step forward.

Trade unions took the form of democratic structures rather than bureaucratic ones, as they do in capitalist countries. According to the 1989 Cuba Annual Report, “the union’s role as a worker-run body that…seeks to protect worker’s needs continues to be stressed” [30].

The UK-based Cuba Solidarity Campaign notes that the central role that trade unions play in the country’s politics was unique for most of Latin American history in the 21st century. They write:

“Owing to the adoption of neo-liberal policies, with their emphasis on ‘flexibility’ and deregulation, the trend since the eighties in Latin America, in common with countries in other continents, has been to override workers’ rights. Union membership is discouraged or banned – violently in some countries, such as Colombia where 164 trade union activists were murdered between 2004 and 2006. (1) As a result, large sections of the work force, such as agricultural labourers and workers in the maquilas (export assembly factories), are non-unionised and habitually receive low pay for very long hours in poor and sometimes hazardous conditions with no job security or welfare rights.”

In contrast, the report notes that 98% of Cuba’s 4 million workers are members of trade unions. Women make up 43% of all trade union members, but – speaking to the country’s amazing progress in advancing the position of women – they “account for 58.9% and 53.6% of officials at regional and local levels respectively.” The report goes on to note that “trades unions make a major contribution to decision making in respect to the economic policy adopted by the Cuban government to counteract the effects of the US Blockade, in force since 1961,” and that their role has “increased substantially” since the counter-revolution in the USSR.

The real effects of the Cuban Workers Confederation (CTC) on socialist policy were boldly demonstrated during this so-called ‘special period’ in the 1990s, as the country was thrust into the turmoil of losing their largest trading partner. The report states:

“In preparation for the CTC Congress, held in 1996, over 2 million workers discussed measures to deal with the economic crisis and to evaluate government proposals to that end. These were presented for consideration, first to Congress and then to the National Assembly, the Cuban parliament. This period of consultation which extended across all trades and areas of the country took almost a year. More than 167,000 suggestions were made. (12) Among the measures proposed were laws on monetary policy, taxation, budgets and pricing policies.”

First, let’s take a moment to recognize the level of democratic participation that workers have in the drafting of major policy decisions at a time of overwhelming turmoil and economic crisis. This is significant, especially when we look at the relative lack of public participation at any level during the financial crisis of 2008 in the US. But did their participation have an effect? Let’s see what the report has to say on the matter:

“The National Assembly took these suggestions seriously, and many of them were incorporated into the legislation introduced subsequently. For example, in 1995, after submissions from the trades unions, the National Assembly voted to withdraw an early draft of the Foreign Investment Law that would have permitted workers to be hired directly by foreign enterprises. Instead, the decision was taken to oblige such enterprises to hire workers only through state agencies in order to safeguard their pay and working conditions. In 1996 the majority of workers rejected the proposal to tax salaries during this period of severe privation, although they did not discount the idea for the future once the economic situation had changed. As a result the National Assembly postponed the proposal. Similarly, as a result of country-wide discussions, a proposal that workers should contribute to the social security system was not implemented.”

Indeed, the report states that between “1995 and 2001 more than 150 agreements relating to around 100 subjects were adopted after consultation with workers.” It’s hard to imagine anything of the sort in a country like the US, and even less imaginable in a quasi-fascist, anti-worker puppet state like Colombia, where trade unionists are openly murdered by paramilitary death squads [31].

I would like to quote extensively from Linda Fuller’s Work and Democracy in Socialist Cuba to drive this point home. She writes,

The extent to which producers are involved in economic planning lies at the heart of the problem of the democratization of production. … After [1970], however, the situation changed. In notable contrast to the earlier period, workers throughout Cuba began to become involved in the formulation of annual technical-economic plans at their worksites. And, significantly, a survey of more than 300 Cuban workers and peasants revealed their view that the discussion of plans was by far the most important area of workers’ participation in production. (111)

[Before 1970,] workers wielded little influence in this important area of decision making during the revolution’s first decade. Beginning slowly after 1970, major changes began to occur making it imperative, if democratization were to expand, that producers have a voice in enterprise planning. (114) Planning was not fully regularized and solidified in Cuba, however, until the institution of the SDPE (El Sistema de Direccion y Planificacion de la Economia). … As a consequence, explained one worker:

If the figures are too unrealistic, too high, then the workers slough off because they know they can’t reach them anyway. But when workers have a say in deciding what the figures of the plan should be – and they, after all, have the most realistic notion of this – then you get plans that can be reaching and workers will work as hard as they can to fulfill the planning goals, because they know they have a chance to get some extra money. (115)

Regular and widespread workers’ participation in formulating enterprise plans began in mid-1974, before the SDPE was implemented, with the well-publicized discussion of the 1975 annual plan in the Aceros Unidos steel plant. Thereafter, the number of workers taking part in similar discussions increased: Sixty-five percent of all union members discussed the 1976 plan; the 1977 plan was discussed in 75 percent of all enterprises, and the 1980 plan, in more than 90 percent. … In that year, the 2d Party Congress declared that workers’ participation in drawing up plans was “a basic principle of socialist democracy,” a right formally specified by Article 16 of the Cuban Constitution and reiterated in a 1980 decree regulating state enterprises. Every worker I interviewed in 1982 and 1983 affirmed base-level input into planning, and it was reported that participation in discussions of the 1984 plan were the most extensive to date. (116)

The first plan discussion took place when the control figures (cifras de control) for the following year’s plans arrived at the worksite. In work center assemblies, produces analyzed the figures, usually by comparing them with analogous figures from past years, and either approved them or proposed modifications. Proposals originating in the assemblies, which in 1980 numbered about twenty-five thousand, were then discussed at the enterprise level. These discussions did not include all workers; only members of the management council, union bureau officers, and worker representatives elected in the earlier work center assemblies attended. More than 113,000 such representatives were chosen in 1980. (116-17) Workers had their second opportunity to discuss planning figures in work-center assemblies held, ideally, in the first quarter of each year, when the directive figures (cifras directivas) for the annual plan were announced. These figures were derived from the control figures, modified above the work center on the basis of workers’ and manager’ suggestions and shifts in such things as world market prices and interest rates. Workers’ contributions to planning in this second round of discussion concerned only implementation of the plan, not what the plan would consist of, as in the prior discussions of the control figures. Once again workers’ representatives met afterwards with buro officers to discuss implementation of the directive figures. (117)

According to both workers and planning personnel, health and safety standards, worker training, finances, and especially supply and budgeting of raw materials and other inputs were indicators that prompted the most intensive discussions at the base level. A JUCEPLAN official designated the first five indicators below as examples of ones analyzed in almost every Cuban worksite.

  • Volume of goods produces and services delivered
  • Productivity
  • Salary fund
  • Health and safety standards
  • Work norms
  • Quality of goods produces and services delivered
  • Maintenance of equipment and facilities
  • Raw material and energy consumption
  • Sales goals
  • Prices of inputs and outputs
  • Production costs
  • Size and distribution of labor force
  • Supply and budgeting of raw materials and other inputs
  • Training of work force
  • Discipline
  • New construction and investments
  • Finances (cost of producing goods and delivering services compared to income and net earnings or losses) (118)

The Cuban unions were central to workers’ participation in the planning process at both base and supraworksite levels in a number of ways. First, the process created opportunities for workers to expand their comprehension and production and economic matters, one of the aspects of democratization as empowerment discussed in Chapter 1. Yet this required of workers a certain level of general and technical knowledge, as well as an understanding of economic planning, if they were to avail themselves of these opportunities. The effort the union devoted to these educational tasks could be the subject of a study in itself. To name a few, union activities in this area included organizing seminars and courses for members on a variety of topics, preparing written materials, and regularly publishing educational pieces in Trabajadores. Furthermore, prior to worksite planning assemblies, unions offered training seminars to familiarize their leaders with the most successful methods of soliciting workers’ input. In my view, such union educational endeavors contributed to the significance of the work-center planning assemblies as yet another forum through which workers could become involved in decision making about production. (121-2)

Nonetheless, this chapter has brought to light a number of shortcomings with the procedures as they operated in the latter period. Some of these were well recognized in Cuba. Others, such as the difficult yet essential project of concomitantly democratizing planning at the supraworksite level, were not discussed at the time, at least not publicly.

Within limits, however, Cuban procedures allowed workers at the micro level to propose, and their unions to argue for, alternatives to the plan figures devised at the center. Observers have commented that, compared to those in other socialist countries, these planning procedures were more democratic. My own research in the German Democratic Republic supports this view. The worksite planning assemblies I learned about these sparked minimal interest among workers and little debate, covered a narrower range of topics, and had less of an impact on the final form of the work-center plan. The comparatively more activist role that the Cuban unions assumed in planning accounts, in part, for the difference. (123)

In 1965 the grievance commissions [for resolution of workplace disputes] were eliminated by a new law establishing work councils (consejos del trabajo), which have played a meaningful, though varying, role in resolving worker-manager disputes ever since. The most significant change was the discontinuation of administration and Ministry of Labor representation on worksite grievance bodies. Throughout the rest of the 1960s and 1970s, only workers would judge disciplinary cases and alleged violations of labor legislation at Cuban workplaces. Thus, in terms of their relative proportions, Cuban workers were in the optimal position in the consejo forums.

Under the 1965 law, five council members were elected at each worksite by secret ballot. In the following decade the number of councils increased, though the original number formed is unknown. In 1971 about sixty thousand workers served on more than eleven thousand work councils; by 1978, nearly eighty-eight thousand sat on almost eighteen thousand councils. The main qualification for council membership was a good work record. Council members were elected for three years; many were regularly elected to consecutive terms. (127)

Workers’ participation on the consejos represented an example of involvement in the implementation and evaluation, as opposed to the formulation, stages of decision making. The work councils were empowered to resolve conflicts between workers and administrators over regulations concerning both discipline and workers’ rights. (128)

This emerging worker democracy through cooperatives not only existed in agricultural production, it also occurred in the selling of products. A group of community members in Belén formed the Belén Agricultural Market as a cooperative to sell produce that they purchased from a farming cooperative situated on the outskirts of the city. Communities such as Belén now enjoy an abundance of inexpensive organic fruits, vegetables and meats [33].

According to Cuban permaculturist Roberto Pérez, Cuba established the foundation for a more ecologically sustainable society more than fifty years ago “when the revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of the country, especially the land and the minerals, this was the base for sustainability. You cannot think about sustainability if your resources are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability” [34].

Cuba has been on the front lines of the fight against climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. Marxism, which sees humans and nature as inextricably bound up with one another in a dialectical relationship, demands that this be the case. Cuba has risen to the challenge, showing that socialism is the only way out of the impending environmental disaster. According to an article from Reuters on the subject of organic beekeeping,

Bee keepers in the United States, Canada and other regions have long complained that pesticides are responsible for killing their bees and hurting the honey industry more broadly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a study in January indicating that a widely-used insecticide used on cotton plants and citrus groves can harm bee populations.

“I don’t think there are any doubts that populations of honey bees (in the United States and Europe) have declined… since the Second World War,” Norman Carreck, science director of the U.K.-based International Bee Research Association told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate change, fewer places for wild bees to nest, shifts in land use, diseases and pesticides are blamed for the decline, he said.

Because it is pesticide free, Cuba’s organic bee industry could act as protection from the problems hitting other honey exporters, said the FAO’s Friedrich, and could be a growing income stream for the island’s farmers.

“The overall use of pesticides is fairly controlled, he said. “Cuba has been immune to the bee die-offs (hitting other regions)” [35].

It is commonly claimed that Cuba is an authoritarian dictatorship under the iron rule of Castro. In fact, Cuba is far more democratic than Britain or the US. The process of decision-making is far more open to grassroots participation, and is in no way connected with wealth. One cannot expect to be successful in politics in the capitalist countries without a good deal of money behind them; political success is therefore determined largely by the whim of wealthy businessmen. Cuba, on the other hand, crafts policy based on the will of the masses.

Despite popular belief, elections do take place in Cuba, and are vastly more democratic than those in the United States. In the United States, elections are predicated on the financial backing of the wealthy, who expect return on their investment. Political representation in Cuba is nothing like this. Representatives are elected by the people, and are expected to serve the people [36].

The elections take place every five years and there have been turnouts of over 95% in every election since 1976. Anybody can be nominated to be a candidate for election. Neither money nor political parties or orators have a place in the nomination process. Instead, individuals directly nominate those who they think should be candidates. It is not a requirement that one be a member of the Communist party of Cuba to be elected to any position. The party does not propose, support, or elect candidates. As a result, the Cuban Parliament has representatives from across society, including an exceptionally high proportion of women [37].

Beyond representative democracy, Cuba also has a meaningful direct democracy. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) were formed in the early years in order to organize the population to defend the revolution. Membership is voluntary and open to all residents over the age of 14 years. Nationally 88% of Cuban people are in the CDRs. They meet a minimum of once every three months to plan the running of the community; including the organization of public health campaigns to promote good health and prevent disease; the upkeep of the area in terms of waste and recycling; the running of voluntary work brigades and providing the adequate support to members of the community who are in need of help (for example in the case of domestic disputes etc). The CDRs discuss nationwide issues and legislation and crucially, feed back their proposals to the National Assembly and other organs of popular democracy [38].

Looking at the Cuban system of democracy, you begin to understand the painfully shallow nature of western-style parliamentarism, where ‘democracy’ means nothing more than “the oppressed [being] allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament,” as Karl Marx put it [39].

Also contrary to popular belief, Cuban’s prisons are not barbaric institutions, and you don’t get thrown in them for insulting Che Guevara. Political prisoners are defined as those accused or convicted of crimes committed to achieve political objectives. In other words, they have broken the law. Such offenders are not “prisoners of conscience,” which are people engaged in non-violent activities that have been imprisoned solely for their political views. According to Amnesty International’s latest report, there are currently no prisoners of conscience in Cuba. The Ladies In White protests weekly in Havana in support of so-called political prisoners in Cuba. The US media highlighted the fact that the Ladies in White protesters were rounded up by police during a demonstration on the day Obama arrived in Havana. These arrests have been repeatedly pointed to by the media and pundits as a graphic example of how Cuba violates the human rights of peaceful political protesters. As such, it would appear that arrested members of the Ladies in White constitute prisoners of conscience. But these analysts have conspicuously ignored an important component of Amnesty International’s definition of “prisoner of conscience,” which states, “We also exclude those people who have conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own”  [40]. It is clear that Cuba does not imprison political dissidents, as is often claimed. Those who are in prison have attempted to overthrow the Cuban state. Any reasonable person would assert that they belong in jail.

Relatedly, Cuba has a very progressive prison system. As Soffiyah Elija, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, said in an interview with Guernica Magazine,

“Back in the late 1980s, I took a trip to Cuba with the National Lawyers Guild. I had never had an interest in going to Cuba. But on that first trip I had an opportunity to visit a men’s prison, and I was really struck by everything that was so very different from my experiences as a criminal defense lawyer in the United States visiting clients in prison.

When we drove up to the facility, I kept looking for what I was used to here: high stone walls, lots of barbed wire, guard towers, guards with assault weapons. And I didn’t see any of that. We pulled up to a building that looked similar to a large elementary school, and when we entered the building, there was no metal detector, which was something else I wasn’t used to. And no one was checking my bag to look for weapons or contraband, and there was no sign-in book; none of the things that I was used to experiencing when I entered a prison in the United States.

And then our guide announced that we would have, say, maybe two or three hours at the facility, and we could take a tour with him but we were not restricted to staying on the guided tour. So I wandered off with a couple of other people from the Guild, and we just went around the prison and sat in people’s rooms on their bunk beds and talked with them and literally went wherever we wanted, and that was totally different from any experience that I have had in the United States. Even as the executive director of the Correctional Association now, with legislative authority to monitor prison conditions and go inside the facilities in New York, we don’t take unguided tours of any facility. It’s very scripted where we go, and we are always accompanied by prison staff for the entire visit….You don’t have this demonization and stereotyping that we have here, where incarcerated people are so ostracized they’re like the untouchables” [41].

That last sentence is of particular interest to us. In capitalist societies, crime is seen as an  individual phenomenon. Theft, for example, is treated as though it has no systemic causes. People do not steal because they are poor, but because they are “morally deficient.” Thus, punishment is seen as more important than rehabilitation. That is why solitary confinement, exploitation, and abuse are so prevalent in American prisons: inmates are seen as less than human. Marxism, by contrast, is a materialist philosophy. It regards social phenomena such as crime as having causes external to the people who commit them. Crime is not caused by the moral character of perpetrators, but rather by the material conditions of society. As such, prisoners are regarded as victims of circumstances who should be aided rather than demons who ought to be shunned.

Cuba, as we have seen, is not a hellish nightmare. It is rather a socialist state that is thriving even as Western imperialism attempts to undermine it at every turn. It is the duty of every communist to uphold its achievements and defend it against attacks from the imperialist war machine.

  5. Foreign Affairs, July/August 2010. page 69
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Claudia Lightfoot Havana: A Cultural and Literary Comparison. 2006. p. 113
  16. Pedro Perez Sarduy AfroCuba. Center for Cuban Studies, 1993. p. 102.
  17. here
  18. Ibid.
  19. http://www.shunp
  22. Op. Cit.
  30. Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution. Palgrave MacMillan 2009. p. 146
  31.  Cuba Annual Report 1989. p. 200
  32. Op. Cit.
  33. Cuba Solidarity
  34. See Garry Leech, Op. Cit.
  36. Roman 2003, pp. 103–104.
  40. See Garry Leech, Op. Cit.

17 thoughts on “The Truth About Cuban Socialism

  1. Please refrain from fetishizing Global South and Third World nations. This is not solidarity and it does not help the cause.

      1. If a seventeen-year-old’s middle class, white, American poorly written fetishisations of Global South and Third World nations is the perspective you require for your “education” instead of actually speaking to or learning from comrades in the Global South or Third World nations that ALSO speak and write and educate in English, then you are missing the point entirely and also not helping the cause.

      2. Basically, Dan, what you are saying is that US readers require Americans to teach them about the Global South and Third World. Do you understand how racist this is?

  2. I would, if that’s what I were actually saying. If I didn’t actually also read sources from the actual global south, and wasn’t someone who tried to read sources from everywhere because I am still super uneducated about this and need everything I can get. Including from people who think it’s impossible to learn anything from the global south from an American without it being considered fetishization.

  3. And I’m not saying I listen uncritically to every single voice I hear. But I take most seriously the words of people who are clearly trying to educate, whether they are 17 year old middle-class Americans, or people living in the global south with deeper perspectives. Again, I still read critically. Your polemics rarely educate, because that’s not really your point anyway. It’s not what you’re aiming for. But you say educational things, that’s for sure.

  4. Be very critical of the source of this education. Misunderstanding and misrepresentation are very real. We need to decolonize education and the dissemination of it especially in regards to our cause. These takes on this blog are doing the opposite. Chris has put himself into the role of teacher when he should accept his position as a student and listen to voices from the Global South and Third World.

  5. Why can he not do both, and who’s to say he is not? Seems to me he is listening to those voices and trying to spread the message. You say the message is wrong, but your rebuttals here don’t consist of lessons, just criticism. You don’t really think all his sources come from places of privilege? Also, telling him to sit down and learn when you are willing to say things in the role of a polemicist (polemics are good, ok) but NOT a teacher, it’s disingenuous to tell someone else not to try to teach. You say “don’t teach”. What I’d like to see from any of the people I see saying that is “here is what you should teach.” If you are in fact doing that, apologies. In my limited interactions, it’s not what I’ve seen. And yet I still try to hear what you’re saying. This conversation seems different to me, because I am used to seeing more things like “I don’t care if you don’t know this stuff, it’s your job to learn it.” Fine. But then don’t blame me for not picking the teachers you like best. Be the teacher. Or point out the ones I should be listening to. Or right now. What misinformation about Cuba in this post are you talking about?

  6. And simply put, even the most factual of information when filtered through the mouth of colonialization and whiteness needs to be called into question. The arrangement, the context, the presentation are all poisoned.

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