Cuba after Fidel: Can the revolution endure?

By Marce Cameron

Fidel Castro is no longer Cuba’s head of state. Is this a critical moment in the life of the Cuban Revolution as it approaches its 50th anniversary in January 2009, or merely a symbolic changing of the guard?

The revolution’s more deluded enemies and detractors had long predicted that without Fidel at the helm the Cuban people would lose their fear of the “Castro dictatorship” and take to the streets to demand US-style “freedom” and “democracy”.

They were disappointed. When Fidel fell gravely ill in August 2006 and abruptly disappeared from public view, there were no riots, no demonstrations, no civil unrest of any kind -- only a sombre mood as Cubans went about their daily lives.

Making a virtue of necessity, Fidel kept the entire world in suspense month after month. When would he make a public reappearance? What would he say next? Was he dead or alive? This bought time for the Cuban leadership to adjust, for Cubans gradually to come to terms with Fidel’s absence, and it kept the enemy guessing. It was vintage Fidel.

No political crisis

There has been no political crisis in Cuba, but an orderly transition to a post-Fidel government. Many outside Cuba were surprised by this turn of events, but those who were expecting a political upheaval failed to grasp two basic realities.

Firstly, the Cuban Revolution was able to endure the harshest years of the post-Soviet “special period” crisis because socialism is the preferred option of the overwhelming majority of Cubans. Most Cubans understand what capitalist restoration would mean: the millionaire and billionaire former owners of Cuba’s farms, factories and mansions returning to evict Cuba’s working people from “their” properties. Cuba’s world-class free health care and education would be privatised, and Haliburton would get the contract to build a McDonalds in every neighbourhood. Cuba would not be another Switzerland, but another Nicaragua or Iraq.

Whatever criticisms Cubans may have of the revolution’s errors and deficiencies, and however much they may complain about the hardships of daily life, few would be willing to hand over the country to Yankee imperialism, with or without Fidel at the helm.

As Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) member and writer Celia Hart told Argentina’s El Militante in July 2007: “Our revolutionary armed forces are better prepared than ever before, and even the children know what to do. Think of an Iraq multiplied by a million and an unbeatable unity of convictions. It’s a price the US can’t possibly afford to pay.”

Secondly, while Cuba is an armed revolution, a people in arms, the socialist option is sustained through the force of persuasion, not the persuasion of force.

Widespread dissatisfaction, especially among the younger generation, has not translated into significant support for the counter-revolutionary option because Cubans are, on the whole, highly educated, politically aware and well informed — and everybody knows that the revolutionary majority would put up a hell of a fight if a real counter-revolutionary movement were ever to emerge.

The counter-revolutionary option has almost zero moral legitimacy. This, and not some hideously efficient repressive apparatus, is the reason that the counter-revolutionary “democratic opposition” in Cuba is not a genuine popular movement but a creature of the US State Department, which hands out US taxpayers’ money to tiny grouplets that masquerade before the international media as persecuted “journalists”, “poets”, etc.
Many commentators have speculated that perhaps Raul will take Cuba down the “Chinese road” toward the wholesale restoration of capitalism under “communist” leadership.

To lend support to such reactionary dreaming, it is said that it was Raul who convinced Fidel to open up the agricultural free markets in 1994; that Raul was a proponent of an enterprise efficiency program that was road-tested in state firms run by the Cuban armed forces; and that Raul has commented favourably on some aspects of the Chinese “model”. QED: Raul wants to restore capitalism in Cuba!

Whatever political differences there may be between Fidel and Raul, they are tactical and stylistic, not strategic or programmatic. There is no indication that Raul intends to turn traitor to the cause to which he, like Fidel, has dedicated his entire adult life. More importantly, Cuba has a collective leadership, and strategic decisions are taken in consultation with the PCC and the country’s working people and their mass organisations.

Special Period

During the early 1990s, when many were predicting the imminent collapse of Cuban socialism, Fidel was an omnipresent candle in the dark. He was always on the move, from one end of the island to the other, inspiring, persuading, explaining, criticising and exhorting his people again and again to do the seemingly impossible. Without Fidel’s immense personal authority and his unique ability to move hearts and minds and to forge unity of purpose, the revolution might not have endured.

The same cannot be said today. While Fidel is irreplaceable, he is no longer indispensable. The most difficult years of the special period have been left behind, and Cuba is gradually emerging from this crisis period. The entire electricity generation and distribution system has been overhauled and decentralised in an “energy revolution” that includes the distribution of energy-efficient light globes and appliances to millions of households. The public transportation crisis is easing, with thousands of new Chinese buses and locomotives replacing the infamous “camels”, articulated trucks modified as people-carriers. Some 110,000 housing units were constructed in 2006, a step towards the half a million new homes needed to eliminate overcrowding.

As it emerges from the Special Period, Cuba is grappling with the period’s legacy — a ramshackle patchwork of collapsing infrastructure, economic distortions, social tensions and a population weary from the daily struggle to make ends meet with state wages, salaries and pensions still insufficient to cover all basic necessities. Less tangible but no less real is the spiritual trauma of having lived through a prolonged siege.

Yet Cuba also builds on the many hard-won achievements of the Special Period, among them the world’s first large-scale transition to low-input sustainable agriculture and a country that has learned to do so much with so little.

The young generation that grew up in the shadows of the Special Period is more inclined to cynicism and disaffection than any previous generation born and educated within the revolution.

In 2000, Fidel launched the Battle of Ideas, a multifaceted social, ideological and cultural counter-offensive aimed at re-engaging the country’s youth. The Battle of Ideas grew to encompass more than 170 educational, cultural and social programs, among them the proliferation of higher education campuses and youth computer clubs in the municipalities and 15 new arts colleges from which thousands of young instructors have graduated to teach music, dance and the fine arts in schools and communities. Cuba’s communists have placed education and culture at the heart of Cuba’s resistance.

Another initiative is the graduation of tens of thousands of young revolutionary social workers, mostly young women from disadvantaged backgrounds, who go into poorer communities and seek out disaffected youth. Their approach is not to preach Marxist doctrine or revolutionary slogans but to befriend young people, win their trust and help them find a rewarding life-project that coincides with the larger collective project of the revolution.

The battle for the hearts and minds of Cuba’s youth is the revolution’s greatest challenge, and the Cuban leadership understand that this battle cannot be won solely on the terrain of ideology. The chasm between the communist dream and the Cuban reality must be narrowed with a sustained economic revitalisation, and consequent rise in living standards, that closes the income inequality divide that opened up during the Special Period; this will be done by reasserting the principle that those who contribute more to society should receive more from society.


Cuba today is on the cusp of far-reaching changes, some of which are already under way. At the initiative of the PCC leadership, these changes will be introduced gradually, in step with Cuba’s economic revival and in consultation with the country’s working people and with their active participation.

The basic thrust of the changes was foreshadowed in Fidel’s landmark speech at Havana University on November 17, 2005. In this speech, which was really a call to arms, Fidel posed the question: “Is it that revolutions are doomed to fall apart, or that people cause revolutions to fall apart? ... This country can self-destruct, this revolution can destroy itself, but they can never destroy us. We can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault.”

In step with Cuba’s economic recovery, workers’ incomes would rise at the expense of the “new rich”, while state subsidies — which allow the “new rich” to pay next to nothing for food, housing, utilities and transportation — would be gradually eliminated, leading to the disappearance of the ration card with which Cubans purchase a quota of basic goods at heavily subsidised prices (health care and education would remain free).

Brigades of youth social workers would be deployed to break up entrenched networks of theft and corruption that flourished during the Special Period; Fidel revealed that half the revenue from fuel sales was being lost to corruption.

“Everyone who works for the country and the revolution will receive more”, he said. “The abuses will end. Many of the inequalities will disappear, as will the conditions that allowed them to exist. When there is no one left who needs to be subsidised, we will have advanced considerably in our march towards a society of justice and dignity. That is what true and irreversible socialism demands.”

While many outside Cuba interpreted Fidel’s candid admission of the revolution’s vulnerability and his acknowledgement of its deficiencies as a sign of weakness, the opposite is true. The Cuban leadership is encouraging public debate on how to move forward and raising popular expectations that things will improve precisely because the revolution can now begin to confront these difficulties from a position of relative strength, thanks to the strong recovery of the Cuban economy in recent years.

Since becoming acting president in August 2006, Raul Castro has repeatedly urged more public debate on how to tackle the most urgent problems, and has stressed the need for “structural” changes. During September and October, more than 5 million Cubans participated in 216,000 grassroots meetings to discuss and debate how to move forward. It is a debate of unprecedented depth and scope.
Raul reported to the National Assembly on December 28 that the “principal and decisive aim of this great effort has been to find, with the conscious and active participation of the overwhelming majority of Cubans, the best solutions within the reach of the country’s economic possibilities, given that, as I said recently, nobody here is a magician or can pull resources out of a hat.”

Raul’s call for more public criticism and debate has been taken up by the media, and is also reflected in the intellectual and cultural spheres. The Union of Young Communists daily, Juventud Rebelde, leads the way with the kind of provocative and critical revolutionary journalism that has been all too rare in the past. Controversial topics that were confined to PCC think-tanks and academic journals 10 years ago, such as the cultural censorship of the 1970s and the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union, are finding their way into the mainstream of public debate.

Where will all this discussion and debate lead? What kinds of “structural” changes are likely to be adopted? Under consideration are the lifting of unnecessary prohibitions and regulations; how to stimulate food production; the elimination of the divisive dual currency system; the creation of “social” property (i.e. cooperatives) in the services sector; more foreign investment in strategic sectors; and how workers can be made to feel that socialist property really does belong to them collectively rather than to that seemingly remote entity, the socialist state.

Some of the more far-reaching changes will probably be debated in the lead-up to the PCC congress, likely to be held in late 2008 or 2009. The task before this sixth congress will be nothing less than the rejuvenation and re-legitimation of Cuba’s socialist project in the post-Fidel era, in a much more favourable international context than at the time of the last congress, held in October 1997. Today, Cuba has new allies with the opening of the Venezuelan socialist revolution and the new rise of the left in Latin America.

Cuba and Venezuela

Cuba’s Marxist leadership has always acted on the understanding that socialism cannot be built in one country, much less a small Caribbean island subjected to a ruthless economic blockade by the imperialist monster to the north. From this understanding flows Cuba’s legendary internationalism.

Between 1975 and 1990 Cuba sent 50,000 volunteers and its best weaponry to aid the national liberation movements of southern Africa. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the victory of Cuban and Angolan forces in the battle of Cuito Cuarnavale in southern Angola — this was the culmination of Cuba’s decisive contribution to the defeat of South Africa’s imperialist invasion of Angola and occupation of Namibia — a defeat that led to the freeing of Nelson Mandela, the downfall of apartheid and the independence of Namibia.

Today, the fate of the Cuban Revolution is intimately tied to the further advance of Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialist revolution, which has given besieged Cuba some much-needed moral and material reinforcement. When Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez visited Cuba in December to open the Cienfuegos oil refinery — mothballed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and completed with the assistance of Venezuela — he told Cubans that deep down Venezuela and Cuba are “really one country”, and proposed a socialist federation.

The benefit to Cuba of the integration of the two countries’ economies can hardly be exaggerated. What is not so widely appreciated is how the flowering of the Venezuelan socialist revolution intersects with the critical debate underway in Cuba about how the Cuban Revolution can draw on its extraordinary resilience and vitality to reinvent itself, once again, at yet another critical juncture in its turbulent half-century. Celia Hart explains: “[T]he basic counterweight to a Chinese version of my revolution is the existence of Venezuela’s revolutionary process, which is increasingly moving to the radical left and thus tugging at the Cuban process... Our links with the young Bolivarian revolution broadens our horizons and forces us to improve ourselves more and more.”

[Abridged from the first issue of Revolucion 21, journal of the Australian Centre for Latin American Studies and Solidarity . Marce Cameron is a member of the national executive of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]