The New Left Project, a British left-wing organization questions the love affair British leftists have had with the repressive and dictatorial Castro regime in Cuba:
End of the Affair? The UK Left and Cuba
Amongst the pitfalls and pratfalls of modern political involvements, over-romanticizing Che Guevara and the regime in Cuba must surely count as a relatively minor indiscretion. But these days, it can appear more and more incongruous. There is no shortage of examples. Redoubtable Labour MP John McDonnell, normally so clear in demanding greater and deeper democracy, calls Cuba ‘a beacon to many socialists.’ After more than fifty years, it is only teething problems that have resulted in a ‘lack of thoroughgoing democracy based on fundamental civil rights’—an exceptionalism based on the premise that the revolution is still a ‘work in progress.’ Jeremy Corbyn MP is somewhat more balanced, but naturally concurs, arguing that the 1959 revolution was about the ’emancipation of people, rights for women, the end of racism and opportunities for all…’
Support for the decayed Castro administration also extends into the soft-left of the Labour Party. A commentator on Twitter recently referred to ‘awe-inspiring strides the nation has made in a short space of time… not perfect, but so much achieved.’ This comment follows a period of massive cutbacks in Cuba, with 20% of the working population recently axed from the state sector, combined with a rollback of Cuba’s social security. Those backers of the current government who are most familiar with the island are becoming more downbeat even as they attempt to remain sanguine. A recent article in Tribune by Hugh O’Shaughnessy reviews a growing obsession with ‘national’ heroes at the expense of Karl Marx, the accommodation with the Catholic Church, the desperate attempts to discover oil and the generous hospitality afforded to tourists in Cuba’s new ‘golf course’ path to socialist development. Food rationing and the realities of an economy based largely upon barter and the black market are not mentioned.
The basis for this veneration lies in the meta-narrative around Cuba that elements of the Left have developed over the years. It’s a heady tale, and one that until fairly recently I subscribed to myself. Arguably, it says more about UK leftist thought than it does about Cuba. Its roots probably extend back to the 1940s, with the onset of the Cold War. On the one side, opposition to Soviet Communism was perhaps the defining characteristic of the Labour Right. There were also groups of influential Trotskyist and independent left thinkers—some of whom, like George Orwell, had experienced Stalinism personally—who would become bitterly hostile as Stalinist regimes imposed themselves upon Eastern Europe. On the other side, various factions on the Left were anxious to define themselves in opposition to the Right, and with the Popular Front still a fresh memory, saw more positive aspects to the ‘anti-imperialist’ struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, regardless of Soviet backing. Whilst the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 played a huge role in reconfiguring European politics, no-one could seriously deny the terrible and corrupt nature of the Batista regime in Cuba, and subsequent generations were swayed by the glamour of Guevaran rebellion.
It was, by and large, left to hardcore Trotskyists to form a solid critique of the Cuban Revolution, evidenced at an early stage by increasingly strained relations between Castro and Marxist guerrillas. Seasoned observers noted the lack of working-class participation in the Revolution, with the strictly elitist organisation of the revolutionary army replicated in the victorious regime. It was primarily Trotskyist critics who pointed out that the flawed basis of the revolt, dependent upon bourgeois ‘agents of change,’ would critically affect the outcome of the revolution—a revolution that was, in fact, never explicitly socialist. From the outset workers were denied control over the Cuban government and economy, resulting in a system which increasingly aligned itself with the power structures of the USSR. As David Broder argues so eloquently, the people of Cuba were left in the hands of a totalitarian bureaucracy. As is the case in all such regimes, the association of this bureaucracy with the ‘Cuban nation,’ personified by Fidel Castro, was total. Any obstacles faced by this state were challenges to the Cuban nation itself, and it would therefore respond with whatever force necessary. In many ways, therefore, Cuba is an anti-socialist state—happy to use psychiatry to enforce its will, as evidenced by the use of Havana Psychiatric Hospital to detain dissident socialists; among them, Marxist historian Ariel Hidalgo.
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