By Andrew Martin
Amid a debilitating pandemic, the 8th Party Congress of the Cuban Communist Party took place in Havana, Cuba’s capital, ending on 19 April. The combination of the loss of tourism and the tightening of the U.S. embargo have plunged the country into an economic crisis. The Cuban Communist Party is a mass organisation with over 700,000 members helping to guide the Cuban Revolution.
The congress was a historic occasion for Cuba, not least because of the challenges the small island nation faces. Raul Castro has stepped down as First Secretary General of the Cuban Communist Party. Miguel-Diaz Canel, the current president of Cuba, will now fill Castro’s position. Castro announced he “fulfilled his mission and is confident in the future of the fatherland.”
The Cuban Communist Party, which plays a key role in directing the government, holds congresses every six years. The closing day of the congress took place sixty years after the Bay of Pigs invasion at Playa Giron. Initially devised by Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, the CIA launched the attack under the J.F Kennedy Democrat administration in 1961. The objective of the attack was to remove Fidel Castro’s government from power and install a regime that would do Washington’s bidding.
The CIA orchestrated a full-scale invasion with 1400 U.S. trained Cubans who had fled when Fidel Castro’s rebel army took control of Havana in 1959. Five infantry battalions launched the attack travelling from Guatemala and Nicaragua on 17 April 1961. Several U.S. fighter-bombers knocked out half of Castro’s air defences at three bases.
The attacks also included bombing raids that left 3478 civilians dead and over 2,000 injured. The government was already fighting a counter-insurgency in the Escambray region backed and funded by the CIA. Cuba’s revolutionary army was already battle-hardened.
The government was forced into the offensive when Shell and U.S. owned oil refineries Esso, and Standard Oil refused to process Soviet oil. Castro expropriated the oil refineries and put them under state control. The U.S. retaliated by cancelling imports of Cuban sugar. In turn, the government nationalised most commercial assets owned by U.S. corporations, including sugar mills and banks.
The new revolutionary government legalised the Communist Party, which had played a key role in mobilising the working class and maintaining an underground movement in Havana. Deep into the cold war, the hawks in Washington spiralled into a state of paranoia. In 1960 Eisenhower was already devising ways to remove Castro and turn back the tide of revolution. He had already approved a budget of $13 million to train paramilitary personnel and use several B26 bombers equipped with rockets, bombs and machine guns.
Cuba was a key issue in the 1960 U.S. elections, with candidates from both the Democrats and the Republicans vowing to “get tough with the communists”. The Kennedy campaign had outdone Nixon’s in its virulence towards communism, openly calling for the overthrow of Castro.
In contrast to the CIA backed invasion, the Cuban armed forces did not have the latest weaponry or much of it. They relied on a handful of WW11 era equipment such as Soviet T-34 tanks, British fighter aircraft such as the Hawker Sea Fury and American training aircraft fitted with machine guns. The Cuban revolutionary armed forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias FAR) had not had the time or resources to build an advanced and fully operational air force. Yet, the young pilots that they had were very effective in using what was available to them.
Fidel Castro was the commander in chief of the armed forces and led the resistance. His brother, Raul, also played a key role, assuming command of forces in the east in Santiago de Cuba.
Che Guevara, commanding forces in the West, insisted that the people must be armed: “all of the Cuban people must become a guerrilla army; each and every Cuban must learn to handle and if necessary use firearms in defence of the nation”. The CIA had false confidence in the capabilities of the invasion force.
They suffered heavy casualties and used up their ammunition without making much headway. Fire from FAR tanks, including one driven by Fidel Castro, finally forced the withdrawal. Neither were they able to reach the air-drops, forcing them into retreat. Complicating matters were threats of nuclear retribution if the U.S. took Cuba from Nikita Krushchev.
“Patria O Muerte!”
The Cuban people overwhelmingly backed the revolution, repelling the invasion, which, as well as being a military failure, failed in its objective to spark unrest and topple the Castro government. The CIA backed invaders killed many civilians in bombing raids before the invasion. However, this did not deter the Cuban people from defending the revolution.
Hundreds of thousands of workers rallied in Havana on 16 April to support the defence of the Cuban revolution. All the mass organisations were in attendance, the Committees in Defence of the Revolution (CDR) and the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) being the most prominent. This was an armed assembly of workers with fists and AK-47’s held high.
The revolution had been fought on the principle of Fidel’s declaration “Patria o Muerte” – fatherland or death, and the working class were not going to back down. Castro knew the invasion was coming. Many of the mercenaries, full of too much bravado, had loose lips, and their plans were laid bare. Although Cuba’s revolution was young, its intelligence service uncovered some of the plans for invasion.
It was at this historical juncture that Fidel Castro declared the revolution to be socialist:
“What the imperialists cannot forgive is that we are here. What the imperialists cannot forgive is the dignity, the firmness, the courage, the ideological integrity, the spirit of sacrifice, and the revolutionary spirit of the Cuban people.
This is what they cannot forgive: the fact that we are here right under their very noses. And that we have carried out a socialist revolution right under the nose of the United States!
And we are defending this socialist revolution with these guns! We are defending this socialist revolution with the same courage that our anti-aircraft artillerymen showed yesterday in riddling the attacking planes with bullets!
We are not defending this revolution with mercenaries; we are defending this revolution with the men and women of our nation….Compañero workers and peasants: This is a socialist and democratic revolution of the humble, by the humble, and for the humble. And for this revolution of the humble, by the humble, and for the humble, we are ready to give our lives.”
The class divisions of the combatants were obvious; of those the FAR captured, 100 were plantation owners, 67 landlords of apartment houses, 35 factory owners, 112 businessmen, 179 lived off unearned income, and 194 were ex-soldiers of Batista.
The invaders began to surrender after less than 24 hours. Over 1200 were captured within three days. It was the first time the FAR rebel army police and militia fought together. Despite limited resources and a lower level of technological advancement, their coordination and solidarity outmatched the fighting capabilities of the CIA backed stooges. Kennedy had made a gross miscalculation.
However, the wounds of war stung deep, sharpening a rift between the U.S. and Cuba that has never healed. The U.S. has been hostile to Cuba’s revolutionary government since its inception. The revolution seized many U.S. commercial assets in the most ambitious nationalisation project in all Latin American history. Law 890 passed in October 1960 nationalised through compulsory expropriation all industrial and commercial companies.
In conjunction with mass mobilisations of Cuba’s working class, Castro’s guerilla insurgency removed Fulgencio Batista from power. Batista’s regime was corrupt, brutal and had forged powerful ties with the Mafia (which the CIA also had ties with), the Catholic church and the U.S. Batista’s rule was very beneficial for U.S. business interests. American corporations and a tiny handful of individuals owned half of Cuba’s sugar plantations and the majority of its cattle ranches, mines and utilities.
The U.S. has never forgiven Cuba for the ousting of Batista. In one fell swoop, it lost a stranglehold over the Cuban economy. So maligned were they that they tried 638 times to assassinate Fidel Castro – clearly a world record for assassination attempts. Of course, they did not just focus on Fidel. The Castro brothers have both been leading figures throughout the last sixty years of the Cuban revolution. Fidel’s brother Raul has also survived assassination attempts. According to recently released declassified documents, the first known plot was in 1960.
The CIA offered $10,000 to a pilot to arrange an accident in a flight from Prague to Havana. Whether because of a lack of nerves or simply missing the opportunity, the pilot did not go through with the “accident”.
Withstanding U.S. Aggression
Developing strong ties to the Soviet Union, Cuba was able to withstand U.S. aggression and sell commodities such as sugar and nickel on favourable terms. The relationship was also a formidable deterrent against the U.S. launching a full-scale war throughout the cold-war. Cuba benefited from the USSR’s technical help and arms supplies. Until its disintegration, it was a crucial lifeline to the revolution.
Fidel stood down as president of Cuba in 2008, with Raul taking his place. Just as Fidel had done, Raul remained committed to the socialist ideals of the Cuban revolution, focussing on its economic recovery. Raul invited U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba in 2015, the first U.S. president to visit the island since 1928. Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba. Cuban Americans could also send more remittances.
The tourism sector immediately benefited, bringing in much-needed reserves of foreign exchange and investment. These changes, though widely beneficial, introduced contradictions and new levels of inequality. Those with access to U.S. dollars benefited from Cuba’s various state subsidies while also accessing many imported goods.
Cuba has recently implemented a series of economic reforms towards a mix of state and privately run enterprises. It has eliminated its dual currency, the convertible peso. Of 5000 state-run stores, 72 now trade exclusively in U.S. dollars. Many of the small urban organic farms on the outskirts of Havana are privately run collectives. It’s hoped these reforms will help to open Cuba up to much needed foreign investment. The government will now allow 2000 different forms of private economic activity.
The changes of leadership in Cuba represent a generational shift and renewal of the leadership of the Cuban revolution. Some trends of the party leadership are contradictory, but on the whole, are a positive development. The composition of Cuba’s ruling institutions is becoming more diverse and representative of its population.
In 2018, 42% of the positions of the Council of State were renewed. Women’s representation increased to 48%, and people of colour now represent over 45% of the leadership. The average age of the Council of State is 54 years old, and 77% were born after the triumph of the Cuban revolution. However, the average age of party membership is increasing with 43% over the age of 55, reflecting Cuba’s aging population. At the same time, there has been a steady increase in the number of Young Communist League members.
This shift comes at a critical time for Cuba as it’s facing a brutal drive from Washington to create a terminal crisis within the country. The pandemic has hit Cuba hard, and it is experiencing a surge of infections. The government did not seek strict compliance with its lockdown measures.
The average number of new cases in Cuba is 1100 a day. Cuba’s long-standing commitment to public health has meant the mortality rate has remained low. No medical professionals or children have died of the disease. However, there is no doubt the pandemic has put a financial strain on the island. Cuba has now launched phase three of its trial of a vaccine against covid-19, Soberana-2. Much hope is placed in the vaccine.
After the national vaccination program is complete, Cuba hopes to export it to the developing world. Cuba has the advantage of developing a highly sophisticated biotech sector and hopes to produce 10 million doses of the vaccine a month. So far, the clinical trials have proven to be successful.
The spread of covid-19 has shrunk Cuba’s economy by 11%. There are widespread shortages of essential items and medicine. A series of sanctions imposed by the previous Trump administration is crippling the island. The U.S. does not even allow charter flights to Cuba.
The sanctions imposed by Trump cut off foreign remittances worth $3.5 billion a year and educational travel worth $500 million a year. The pandemic has hammered Cuba’s tourism industry, which has suffered a 75% decline – a loss of $2.5 billion. There is an extreme lack of liquidity, and the economy continues to contract, bringing the country to the point of crisis.
Cuba also holds a large amount of foreign debt. Under the Obama administration, Cuba made agreements with creditors holding debts from as far back as the 1970s. But it is now unable to pay them.
According to recent government statistics, Cuba holds $17.8 billion in foreign debt. No foreign investor wants to trade these in debts that are only worth 10 cents to the dollar. A group of investors known as the London Club holding $1.4 billion of Cuba’s foreign debt have brought their claims to court. For as long as Cuba remains isolated, sanctioned and held as a pariah, it will struggle to resolve its liquidity crisis.
Venezuela, a source of solidarity for Cuba, also faces an array of sanctions and has many of its foreign assets such as reserves of gold frozen. The decline in oil production in Venezuela means it is no longer a source of cheap oil. As Cuba imports most of the food it consumes, it now also faces shortages of food staples.
Facing Multiple Crises
Throughout its long and rich history, since colonialism, Cuba has faced many crises. Perhaps the most difficult was the “special period in a time of peace” brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since the Second World War, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the most significant development in world politics. Globally, it demoralised large sections of the international worker’s movement, which continues to be splintered by ideological divisions and confusion.
The collapse of the ruling communist parties in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has strengthened the stranglehold of U.S. imperialism over the globe. Yet Cuba has prevailed. All the resources that the U.S. threw at Cuba to prove that Cuba was a “failure” confirmed the opposite – it was, after all, not destined to follow the path of Eastern Europe. That is not to say Cuba didn’t suffer. The special period was particularly painful, putting Cuba into a permanent state of emergency.
Every choice the government made involved high costs and many gains are vulnerable to being reversed. Cuba faced a long and slow economic recovery. There were reductions in rations and shortages of fuel. Cuba no longer had a ready supply of raw materials, machinery or spare parts and could no longer obtain many vital consumer goods, medicine or fertilisers.
The contributions of exports to GDP fell from 26% to 7% between 1990 and 2001. Investment fell from 23.3% to 4.8% of GDP from 1990 to 1993. Between 1990 and 1993, Cuba lost 85% of its trading partners, and its GDP fell by 35%. The purchasing power of the Cuban peso collapsed from a black market rate of 7 to one U.S. dollar to a low of around 120 pesos to the dollar in 1994. A black market or informal economy began to grow, playing a much more prominent role in the economy.
Yet as Cubans watched statues of Lenin and Marx topple throughout Eastern Europe, they remained firm in supporting their revolution. The special period radically transformed Cuba. It necessitated the introduction of organic agriculture and urban farming, reduced automobile use, and led to an overhaul of industry, health, and diet throughout the country. How did Cuba do this?
In most capitalist countries, crises mean mass lay-offs and major economic reforms such as privatisation and increased taxes. Usually, these reforms are presented as a bitter pill in the shape of a package of measures delivered before congress and parliament. Ordinary people are divorced from the proceedings, forced to accept the “shock therapy”. Cuba is different.
During the special period, the government held mass assemblies to decide what economic measures would have to be adopted. This helped to shape the government’s policies. The government held what is known as Workers Parliaments, sponsored by the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (Cuban Workers’ Confederation – CTC).
These were held between January and March in 1994 in 80000 workplaces with 3 million workers (85% of the workforce) invited to attend. The parliament’s proposed solutions to both individual workplaces and the wider economy. Finally, a National Assembly met in May, followed by a regular session in August. These assemblies received input from municipal and provincial delegates with summaries of workers suggestions.
Cuban people, throughout the revolution, have been able to participate in decision making in production assemblies at the workplace level. The Workers Parliaments were a development of this process of open participation to help form national policy.
The parliaments exposed some of the shortcomings that the Cuban economy suffered. The extent of shortages became clear. So too did the unnecessary bureaucratisation of so many processes. Some workers expressed scepticism at the time, but 80% of workers said the parliaments had aroused enthusiasm by the end of the process.
Each parliament, facilitated by a director, sought proposals to stimulate work discipline and morale, improve industrial output, quality and reduce costs. The process also looked at increasing workers participation and focused on national issues such as what subsidies were essential to maintain. It became clear that Cuban workplaces faced many problems and possessed grievances that needed to be raised. As well as the problem of absenteeism, many workers demanded more respect.
There are many voices on the historical record printed in Cuba’s national newspaper Granma that are evidence of a far-reaching attempt to activate the Cuban people to confront the economic crisis it was facing. The government did not shy away from debate and worked closely with the CTC. One deputy noted: “For the first time we must face as a parliament, a collection of actions and measures that have a certain degree of unpopularity but are necessary and vital for our processes”.
In the Partagas Cigar factory in Havana, a worker asked of his delegates of the CTC: “I want to know why, given all the hard currency we earn for the country, we’re driven to work on a flatbed truck while others ride on buses!” Meanwhile, workers at a textile factory in Bauta complained of electricity blackouts, a lack of raw materials and called for price controls on goods sold by street vendors – particularly of fresh fruit and vegetables.
At a factory in Santa Clara, workers demanded decentralisation and said they were underemployed due to a lack of demand for their products. Most workers expressed similar frustrations; broken machinery, lack of tools, low salaries and lengthy commutes due to petrol rationing. Yet, the process was more than just a vent of frustrations; workers took responsibility for their situation. The majority of workers recognised that offering a plethora of free goods was no longer desirable.
Workers stated many rations, such as cigarettes and rum, should be removed and sold at higher prices. They asked for bank interest to increase so they could earn more savings. Many goods from warehouses were being stolen and sold on the black market – workers demanded harsher penalties for racketeers and corruption, expressing despair that the solidarity of the revolution was being undermined.
For many years workers had felt the information or statistics from government ministries were inaccurate. But what is most revealing about this process is that far from being a totalitarian state, the Cuban government had initiated an unprecedented democratic process that is simply unheard of in advanced capitalist countries, especially in times of crisis. It also revealed that Cuba had a valuable resource in its people, who could think critically, express their needs, demand changes and inform the government of what direction it should take.
After the Workers Parliaments, the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers issued proposals to implement many economic reforms. In contrast to other third world countries facing an economic crisis, Cuba remained committed to protecting the welfare of its citizens as one of the deputies of the parliaments noted:
“Even today, in the depths of the crisis of the special period, when in the third world budgets destined for basic social areas are being cut and cut, when we face so many material fluctuations, the Cuban state preserves, without modification, its social policy, maintaining unaltered the principles of universality and provision without charge of basic services such as education and health, as was the overwhelming majority view of the workers parliaments and the consensus of the National Assembly.”
Ultimately Cuba has survived because of the solidarity engendered by its socialist revolution. Its people have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to resist and persevere under the most difficult of circumstances. Cuba’s mass organisations continue to inform the progress of the Cuban revolution. The eighth Cuban Communist Party Congress affirmed the need to revitalise participation in all its institutions to prepare for a “reordering process”.
Cuba’s democratic processes will again be tested when the U.S. wishes to punish the Cuban people most severely. If history teaches us anything from the past, solidarity will prevail.