Cuba: the force of persuasion


I first visited Cuba in 1996. I’d read a lot about the Cuban Revolution, but seeing it first-hand made a deep and lasting impression on me. I wrote at the time: “You know when you greet a horse on a cold winter morning – you put your hand to its nose and you feel the warmth of its breath, powerful, reassuring and full of goodness. This is what it’s like for a revolutionary to visit Cuba in these difficult times for our movement.”

While it was directly experiencing the Cuban Revolution that cemented my revolutionary socialist convictions, had I not read up on the Revolution beforehand I probably would have come away cynical and disillusioned, basing my judgement on impressions detached from their context – as it was once believed that the Sun orbits the Earth, because it appears that way.

Fortunately, I understood that Cuba is a small Third World country struggling to overcome a legacy of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonial exploitation and I knew, of course, about the US economic blockade aimed at starving the Cuban people into submission. I was aware that Cuba had been hit by a deep economic crisis following the demise of the bureaucratic “socialist” regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – which had been Cuba’s main trading partners – at the beginning of the 1990s. So I had a fair idea of what to expect and what could not be appreciated from the surface. (To give a literal example, there are thousands of kilometres of air-raid shelters under Cuba’s cities and towns, invisible to the casual tourist. Even the airforce is underground).

Even with this understanding, it was still a shock to see just how difficult daily life had become for Cubans in the post-Soviet “Special Period”. The wages the government paid workers had become almost worthless as there was little to buy in the shops other than a few subsidised rationed goods. Necessities such as soap and cooking oil had become almost unobtainable luxuries, and what could not be bought in the state stores could only be acquired, for astronomical sums, on the black market. With the tourism-led recovery came the sad but inevitable return of prostitution. And so on.

Given all this, it seemed all the more extraordinary that the Revolution hadn’t collapsed, as the US government hoped it would, with social solidarity disintegrating into millions of individual battles for survival – and the US marines coming to the “rescue”. Yet despite the severe economic crisis, nobody was thrown out of their homes or jobs. Workers whose factories lay idle for lack of fuel or raw materials were sent home on 60% of their wages. Rationing at subsidised prices ensured that nobody starved. No schools or hospitals were closed. Key indices of social development such as infant mortality and life expectancy continued to improve during the Special Period. To ease the transportation crisis the government gave away millions of bicycles. Without fuel, spare parts or agricultural chemicals, Cuban farmers teamed up with scientists to make the switch to organic farming. All the while, Cuba did not abandon its generous international aid to other Third World countries.

Some leftists imagine that Cuba is a repressive tyranny, but it’s hard to sustain that view when Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces have never been used against its people. What kind of tyranny behaves like that? Yes, Cuba’s is an armed revolution, as all revolutions must be. But the Cuban Revolution is held together by the force of persuasion, not by the persuasion of force.

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