The Cuban Revolution: Lessons and Debates

We publish here a report given by our comrade Alejandro Bodart on the October 9, 2020 edition of International Panorama.

On January 1, 1959, the Cuban Revolution triumphed. Dictator Batista fled the island while guerrilla troops commanded by Fidel Castro entered Santiago, and those led by Che and Camilo Cienfuegos took Havana.

Cuba would become the first country in America to expropriate the bourgeoisie, and its rise inspired and radicalized an entire generation in Latin America and the world.

Cuba was practically a colony of the United States, ruled by Batista´s bloodthirsty and corrupt dictatorship.

The July 26th Movement that led the revolution was neither Marxist nor anti-capitalist, but nationalist and anti-dictatorial. Its program was limited to removing Batista, installing a bourgeois democratic regime and implementing a limited agrarian reform. It had the support of a sector of landowners that were at odds with Batista and sectors of Yankee imperialism that were excluded from the business on the island.

But the victory of the guerrilla provoked a leap in the rise of the mass movement.
It was already advancing among the peasantry, which together with the guerrillas had been implementing an agrarian reform in the territories it controlled. And after the fall of Batista, a wave of general strikes arose in the cities and lasted a great part of the year.

This pressure pushed the leadership to take measures that, without going beyond the limits of capitalism, increased its clashes with imperialism, especially the executions of the dictatorship’s repressors and the lowering of electricity and telephone rates, services which were managed by Yankee companies.

This would give rise to the process that Che defined as a “counter-punch revolution.”
The United States cut off imports of oil for refining in Cuba, so the new government began to import oil from the USSR. US oil companies refused to refine it, so the government ended up expropriating them. The telephone and electric companies ended up the same way after sabotaging public services. Then came the trade embargo and the liquidation of the Cuban sugar quota in the US market. The sugar companies were also expropriated and an agreement was signed with the USSR to buy Cuban sugar at a preferential price.

By the end of the first year of the revolution, the banks and hundreds of other companies had also been nationalized, the landowners had been expropriated and a profound agrarian reform had begun, and thousands of tenants had been given expropriated housing, among other measures.

The United States imposed what would be the longest and most brutal blockade in history, in an attempt to strangle the revolution. They didn’t succeed. Since they had no margin to invade with their own troops, they set up a mercenary invasion organized by the CIA, which was defeated at the Bay of Pigs, humiliating the biggest empire on the planet.

In 1961, Fidel declared the socialist character of the Cuban revolution. An unprecedented event had taken place. A non-Marxist leadership, of nationalist petty-bourgeois origin, with a program of democratic reforms, driven by the need to respond to the demands of the mobilized people and to confront the pressures of imperialism, liquidated the armed forces and other fundamental institutions of the bourgeois state and expropriated the bourgeoisie.

An enormous wave of revolutionary enthusiasm was unleashed in the Latin American and world vanguard, and profound debates were opened on the left. In the first place, because it took place independently of the Stalinist USSR, it quickly became an example to follow for large sectors of the vanguard that were disillusioned with Stalinism, which had crushed the Hungarian revolution just a few years earlier.

Unfortunately, many tried to mechanically transfer the Cuban model to very different realities. The Cuban leadership, and Che in particular, made the guerrilla tactic a permanent strategy, presenting it as the only possible way to the revolution.

Our current polemicized with the foquista strategy, which replaced the working masses with the guerrilla army as the subject of the revolution. We pointed out that we were not opposed to the guerrilla tactic, so long as it was supported by the mass movement. But that the strategy of the guerrilla foco was just the opposite, it was elitist and mistaken for the moment, when the mass movement in Latin America was entering a great urban working-class upswing.

Reality proved us right in the most tragic way.

Guerrilla attempts led entire layers of revolutionaries to delving into the armed struggle in countries where there were no conditions for it. They detached themselves from the working class and its real processes, with tragic consequences. Isolated from the mass movement, they were liquidated by repression in Argentina and other countries. Che Guevara himself was assassinated trying to bring this policy to Bolivia.

In Trotskyist movement, the Cuban revolution played a unifying role, bringing the main currents – Morenoism, Mandelism and the US SWP – together around support for the revolution. This would lead to the reunification of the Fourth International.

However, Mandelism then went on to characterize Castroism as revolutionary leadership, to support it without criticism, and to adopt its foquista strategy. This led it to support guerrilla groups of various countries against the Trotskyist parties. In Argentina, for example, they accepted the Santuchist rupture of the PRT as the official section of the fourth, above the party of our current oriented by Nahuel Moreno. Of course, Santucho and the PRT-ERP would end up abandoning the Fourth International soon after.

With the Nicaraguan revolution, Mandelism would go to the extreme of supporting Sandinismo while it was stopping the revolution and forming a government with the bourgeoisie, even supporting the expulsion of our comrades of the Simón Bolivar Brigade, provoking a new split of the International.

The SWP, which initially united with Morenoism against Mandel´s vanguardist, impressionist and claudicating turn, would turn around and become completely Castroist years later.

Other sectors of Trotskyism made the opposite mistake. Since the Castroite leadership was not working class and revolutionary, they denied the socialist character of the Cuban revolution, or even ignored the fact that it was a revolution.

Both opportunists and sectarians share a mistaken method. They equate the process with their leadership. For some, since the leadership is not revolutionary, there cannot be a revolution. For others, since there is a revolution, its leadership must be revolutionary. And reality is completely different.

The Cuban revolution confirmed the theory of permanent revolution in the positive. Cuba could not achieve the democratic conquests that the July 26th Movement proposed without confronting and defeating capitalist imperialism. Though it was not its initial intention, the Castro leadership had to expropriate the bourgeoisie and liquidate the bourgeois state in order to implement its program and survive.

At the same time, it would also confirm it in the negative. Without a revolutionary party and not advancing toward workers’ democracy and the extension of the revolution to Latin America and the world, it would inevitably end up retreating and bureaucratizing.

Our current delayed some months in identifying the Cuban leadership´s turn towards the revolution, but it quickly adjusted and adopted a policy that was based on defending the Cuban revolution and its conquests against imperialism, but without ceasing to criticize and mark the limitations of its leadership, fighting for socialism with democracy and the expansion of the revolution.

The contradiction between the Revolution and its leadership is reflected in the conquests that were achieved in Cuba, in those that were not achieved, and in those that were lost.

On an island of scarce resources, the population was guaranteed work, wages, food and housing; illiteracy was eradicated in record time; and systems of education, health, sports and culture of universal access and a quality recognized internationally by even its bitterest enemies were built.

But in order to consolidate these conquests and continue to advance, it was necessary to deepen the revolution. Instead, the Castro leadership subordinated the country to the Soviet Union and replicated its model of monolithic one-party regime headed by a privileged bureaucracy on the island.

Internationally, it became a satellite of Stalinist diplomacy and a local agent of its counter-revolutionary intervention. That is why Fidel condemned the Prague Spring and supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He traveled to Chile to support Salvador Allende and his peaceful path to socialism, clarifying that Chile should not make the revolution as Cuba had.

With the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, he called on the Sandinistas to not expropriate the bourgeoisie, saying that they should not make another Cuba, and he supported Ortega’s shameful policy of leaving the Salvadoran Revolution isolated, saying that they should not make another Nicaragua.

More recently, he played the same role before the Bolivarian Revolution and in support of the repressive regimes of Maduro and Ortega.

Che Guevara had disagreed with much of this orientation. He opposed the subordination of the Cuban revolution to the USSR. He defended underdeveloped countries against the trade policy of the Soviet Union, which he denounced as a bourgeois injustice.

He also opposed the Stalinist policy of peaceful coexistence with imperialism. Aware that Cuba’s fate was tied to the world revolution, he promoted a policy of trying to extend the revolution. He said that one, two, three Vietnams had to be created. This led him to leave Cuba, first to fight in Angola, and then to try to raise a guerrilla focus in Bolivia, where he was killed in October 1967.

Therefore, beyond our differences, we defend Che as a true revolutionary and a militant of the permanent revolution.

The fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s generated a brutal crisis in Cuba. Having lost its main trading partner, Cuba became even more isolated and vulnerable to the Yankee blockade. The Cuban people suffered the worst famine since the revolution, but resisted heroically.

The Castro bureaucracy, far from relying on those reserves for an anti-imperialist policy, began a process of capitalist restoration that has taken qualitative leaps in recent years. Today, a new revolution is needed in Cuba to defend the remaining conquests, recover those lost and seek real socialism.

The 1959 revolution is still a great inspiration for new layers of revolutionaries, and deservedly so.

Against the diverse reformist and possibilist currents of today, which overestimate the difficulties in achieving profound changes, it demonstrated that even under very precarious conditions, those of an island with very few resources, and under the most obstinate imperialist siege, which is only a few kilometers away from the island, the revolution can be made and it can triumph.

Today, when more and more peoples are rising up and showing that they are prepared to fight against their governments and regimes, with a decomposing capitalist system that can only offer barbarism as a perspective, the need for the revolution and socialism is more present than ever. The ISL is working tirelessly to build revolutionary parties in as many countries as possible and an international leadership to carry out this task. We do so with the conviction that a revolutionary victory anywhere will put socialism on the worldwide agenda.