Cuba: Police state or democracy?

By Marce Cameron

It’s not surprising that we tend to associate Cuba with the word “dictatorship” rather than, say, “democracy”. This is not because Cuba really is a dictatorship, but because most Australians form an opinion of socialist Cuba based on how Cuba is portrayed in the corporate media.

Media ownership in Australia is concentrated in the hands of a few billionaire families. According to capitalist ideology, media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer have earned their wealth through hard work, ingenuity and good fortune. But you can’t earn a billion dollars through hard work. The fortunes of the obscenely rich come from profits, and the source of capitalist profit is the exploitation of workers — in this case workers in the media and entertainment industries.

The media tycoons wield enormous political influence, the kind of influence that can bring down governments. The role of Venezuela’s corporate media in the short-lived CIA-backed military coup against the leftist government of Hugo Chavez on April 11, 2002, is a classic example. For all their pious chatter about defending democracy and opposing dictatorships, Venezuela’s corporate media revealed which side they’re really on, as retold in the 2002 documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Media corporations were not created to inform, enlighten and stimulate public debate in the interests of the majority of society. This is not their social function. Rather, they exist to maximise profits for their wealthy shareholders by selling advertising space to corporations. Their ideological function, no less important, is to sell the supposed virtues of capitalism to the masses. The more ignorant, stupefied and divided we are the better, from the capitalists’ point of view.

Before you dismiss this notion as a paranoid conspiracy theory, think about this: When was the last time you read a newspaper editorial or opinion piece condemning the evils of capitalism and urging readers to organise to overthrow the system? Given that the global capitalist system is dragging humanity towards a hellish future, would’t this be the socially responsible thing to do? No conspiracy is involved here, just the logic of corporate power. As Karl Marx wrote, the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class. There are only right-wing radio “shock-jocks” who rant about drunken Aborigines, undeserving refugees and “the global warming conspiracy”. There are no left-wing “shock-jocks”.

Corporate party line

The editorial staff of the corporate news media are selected not for their social conscience, but for their subservience to the corporate “party line”. They are rewarded for their loyalty with high salaries. Journalists, regardless of their personal opinion or their professional integrity, usually keep their jobs only if they toe the corporate party line. The corporate party line on Cuba is that socialism has failed, Cuba is a dictatorship and Che Guevara was a misguided romantic turned cold-blooded killer. The view of Cuba through the lenses of the corporate media is at best distorted, at worst a grotesque caricature of the real Cuba. Of course, the real Cuba is far from a paradise, but it’s light years from the tropical Stalinism that inhabits the popular imagination — a fictional Cuba created by decades of anti-communist propaganda.

Here’s a typical example: “Those caught speaking out against the ailing dictator [Fidel Castro] run the risk of death”. The author of these words is respected liberal journalist Paul McGeough, a staff writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age and winner of the prestigious 2003 Walkley Award for “journalistic leadership”. McGeough made this claim about Cuba in a February 19, 2005, article published in the Good Weekend, the magazine supplement of the SMH and The Age. McGeough, who had been covering the US-led occupation of Iraq for the Fairfax press, was sent to Havana to do a hatchet job on socialist Cuba. The timing was probably no coincidence. The Motorcycle Diaries, the Walter Salles film about Che Guevara’s famous road trip and political journey from bohemian medical student to communist revolutionary, had been released the year before.

Is there any truth to McGeough’s claim that Cubans who express opposition to the socialist government risk execution? None whatsoever: it is simply a lie. Presumably, McGeough just parroted what he’d been told by opponents of the Cuban government in Havana without bothering to check the facts. Expressing an opinion against the government is not a crime in revolutionary Cuba; there are no death squads carrying out extrajudicial killings of government opponents; and most of the so-called dissidents are actually paid agents of the US government, as documented in meticulous detail in The Dissidents by Cuban journalists Rosa Miriam and Luis Baez (Editora Politica, Havana, 2003).

Socialist democracy

Dictatorship is commonly understood to mean a form of government in which an individual wields absolute power, unrestrained by law. In Cuba, the head of state is elected by the national assembly — which also elects a council of state, the cabinet of Cuba’s revolutionary government. The Cuban head of state and government is the president of the council of state. The national assembly is the supreme body of state power in Cuba. Deputies to it are elected by direct popular vote in elections held every five years, where children guard the ballot boxes. Why, then, do the corporate media insist on branding Cuba a “dictatorship”?

If democracy means that the government is elected by the people, then Australia is a democracy and so is Cuba. But if democracy is understood to mean what the word meant — the rule of the common people rather than the rich — then socialist Cuba is far more democratic than capitalist Australia. In Australia, real political power is exercised by and in the interests of a tiny minority, the capitalist class. The super-rich families that make up this class rule directly though the corporations that own society’s economic resources and indirectly through a system of government that excludes the vast majority of people from participation in decision-making.

Australia’s capitalist economy could not function without the working class being systematically excluded from decisions about investment and production. These all-important decisions, such as whether or not to invest in renewable energy rather than the coal industry, are left to “the market”, i.e., the corporate rich. In Australia, “democracy” for the vast majority of people means ticking a ballot paper every few years to decide whether Labor or the Coalition will govern on behalf of the corporate rich. Australia’s “democracy” is really a dictatorship of the corporate rich.

There are no Cuban capitalists in Cuba today. In October 1960, Cuba’s revolutionary government organised the country’s workers to seize control of the property of the big landowners and capitalists. Cuba’s capitalist economy was replaced with a nationalised planned economy directed towards meeting the needs of the working people. This made it possible for Cuba’s working people to become, for the first time, the masters of their own country.

Cuba’s constitution

Cuba’s socialist constitution was approved by a referendum in 1976 in which 98% of citizens aged 16 years and over participated. 97.7% voted to approve the new constitution. Article 14 establishes that “Cuba is governed by the economic system based on all the people’s socialist ownership of the basic means of production and on the suppression of the exploitation of man by man [ie., capitalist economic relations]”.

Article 16 states : “The government organises, directs and controls the national economy, in accord with a plan that guarantees the country’s programmed development” and “... workers from all branches of the economy and other spheres of social life play an active part in drawing up and implementing the development programs”. In thousands of workplace assemblies across the island organised by the trade union movement, Cuba’s workers are now debating a draft law on social security that has been proposed by the government. The legislation, a response to Cuba’s ageing population, would gradually increase the age of retirement from 60 to 65 years for men and from 55 to 60 years for women, bringing Cuba into line with most developed capitalist countries.

Article 9 of Cuba’s socialist constitution states that the government “guarantees, as the people’s power at the service of the people, that (a) every man and woman who is able to work has the opportunity to get a job with which they can contribute to the purposes of society and to meeting their own needs; (b) every person who is incapacitated for work has the means for a decent way of life; (c) everyone who is sick has medical treatment; (d) every child has a school to attend, food and clothing; (e) every young person has the opportunity to study; and (f) everyone has access to study, culture and sports”, and the government “works to provide every family with comfortable housing”.

These and other social rights are enshrined in the constitution. As well as these social rights, Cuba’s constitution also upholds democratic rights such as religious freedom. Article 8 states that “the government recognises, respects and guarantees religious freedom. In the socialist Republic of Cuba, the religious institutions are separate from the government. The various beliefs and religions have equal consideration.”

In Cuba, where state power is based on the organisation of the working people to run society, the revolutionary armed forces have never been used to repress the common people, either in Cuba or elsewhere. If we had a real democracy like Cuba’s, Australia would never have joined in the US invasion of Iraq when a big majority of Australians opposed this war of conquest, and public opinion could not have been manipulated by the corporate media to sell the invasion with the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Contrast Australia’s role in the Vietnam War, in which young Australians were conscripted to kill and maim Vietnamese peasants and workers fighting to liberate their country from US domination, with revolutionary Cuba’s role in the liberation of southern Africa from colonialism and apartheid (for more on this see “Rwanda genocide: Made in Paris” in this issue of Direct Action).

In a November 2003 interview with Bernie Dwyer for Radio Havana Cuba, US academic Noam Chomsky praised Cuba’s internationalism. “Cuba’s role in the liberation of Africa [is] an astonishing achievement that has almost been totally suppressed. Now you can read about it in scholarship, but the contribution that Cuba made to the self-liberation of Africa is fantastic. And that was against the entire concentrated power of the world. All the imperialist powers were trying to block it. It finally worked and Cuba’s contribution was unique.”

Cuba is demonised in the corporate media because the capitalist elite fear that Cuba’s revolutionary example could spread, inspiring working people in other Latin American countries to carry out socialist revolutions that could link up with the Cuban revolution, as is happening now with Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialist revolution. That’s why the capitalist rulers in the US, and Australia, hate Cuba.