By Alex Callinicos
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Cuban lessons for Latin America’s left

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Issue 2678
Figures including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara lead a march in Havana a year after the Cuban revolution
Figures including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara lead a march in Havana a year after the Cuban revolution

Latin America has returned to the headlines with the explosive revolts in Chile and Ecuador. They show how neoliberalism continues to evoke massive popular resistance.

This was one of the themes of the International Socialism journal’s conference on Latin America last Saturday. It also explored how earlier revolts gave rise to the “Pink Tide”— left wing governments that took office right across the continent.

But the Pink Tide has been receding. In Brazil, where the Labour-type Workers Party had held office since 2002, a constitutional coup removed president Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Her predecessor, Inacio Lula da Silva, was jailed and then far right demagogue Jair Bolsonaro was elected.

Speakers traced the roots of this reversal. Andy Brown argued that none of the left governments sought a real break with capitalism, making them vulnerable to the right playing on mass disillusionment.

Exploring a world in rebellion
Exploring a world in rebellion
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Claudia Feres Faria suggested Bolsonaro’s assault on democracy was an attempt to remove the barriers to a new “uncontrolled predatory capitalism”. But as Mario Nain pointed out, the most powerful model for the left in Latin America is provided by the Cuban Revolution of 1958-9. So we were very lucky to have Frank Garcia Hernandez speaking at the conference.

Frank is a Cuban sociologist and historian who earlier this year organised a historic conference on Leon Trotsky in the island’s capital Havana.

Because of the close links between the Cuban regime and Stalinist Russia, Trotsky hasn’t had much of a look-in in Cuba. But Frank is pioneering a reassessment of Marxism in Cuba.

Frank talked about the changes that have been taking place in Cuba as a result of the efforts to open up the economy. When Barack Obama was US president, he pursued a policy of reconciliation with Cuba. The island had been subjected to a US economic blockade since the very early years of the revolution.

Frank argued that the economic opening is allowing a new bourgeoisie to develop—not just economically, but culturally and ideologically. As a result, Cuba is witnessing the re-emergence of class struggle in new forms. Ironically, Donald Trump, by re-imposing the blockade, is slowing the process down.

I spoke with Frank. I stressed the sheer heroism of Fidel Castro and his comrades in the 26 July Movement (M-26-7) in waging an armed struggle against the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencia Batista. I also talked about the new research in Steve Cushion’s Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution.

This shows that organised workers played an important role, above all in the general strike called by Castro on 1 January 1959. This ensured the triumph of the revolution.

Latin America and the rise of the right
Latin America and the rise of the right
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But I argued that Cushion’s findings didn’t invalidate the arguments made by Tony Cliff, founder of what is now the Socialist Workers Party. He argued the Cuban revolution was a case of what he called “deflected permanent revolution”.

Trotsky first formulated the theory of permanent revolution. He saw that capitalism is a global system that imposes itself on every country. And because of this even struggles for basic democratic rights tend to develop in a socialist direction when under working class leadership.

Cliff asked, “What happens when the working class doesn’t lead the struggle?” Then a radical nationalist section of the middle class can win power and break with imperialism—but not with capitalism.

This is what happened in Cuba. Workers supported the revolution, but it was the revolutionary nationalists of the M-26-7 who took power in 1959.

They later fused with the Stalinist Communist Party. The revolution’s most heroic figure, Che Guevara, as minister of industry in the early 1960s started to construct a centralised state capitalist economy.

If this argument is correct, the Cuban Revolution is definitely an inspiration, but it can’t be a model. I don’t think Frank agreed. But the issues we were discussing are important for a Latin American left struggling with great hopes and fears.

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