The streets of Cuba have seen protests in recent weeks. Poverty and the impact of the Covid pandemic have prompted many to direct their anger towards the Cuban government.
Others have mobilised to defend it.
The history of Cuba provides us with vital lessons. It shows the vicious nature of US intervention—and how it can be beaten back.
Cuba is an inspiring example of how people can fight against imperialism and for national liberation. But it is not a model of socialism.
Spain was the first imperialist power to seize the land now known as Cuba in the late 1400s. The indigenous population, the Ciboney Taino, who lived there were displaced and enslaved by the colonisers.
The US and Spain battled over Cuba throughout the 1800s until 1898 when Spain was forced to give up the island.
Cuba declared independence in 1902, but it remained under the effective control of the US through the Platt Amendment.
One clause of this amendment gave the US the now notorious Guantanamo torture base on the island.
From then on the US had a big role in running Cuba. It would effectively choose its presidents and send troops to smash any resistance.
This led to a period of political instability. Taking advantage of the situation, military officer Fulgencio Batista took power and became the country’s president from 1940 to 1944.
Facing electoral defeat in 1952, Batista orchestrated a military coup and installed himself as a dictator, backed by the US.
Batista worked with the US, the mafia and sections of local capital to set up a corrupt regime that was playground for the rich and of horror for ordinary people.
By the end of the 1950s the city of Havana had 270 brothels.
Large sections of the working class, the peasantry and even some capitalists opposed Batista’s rule.
He wrecked ordinary people’s lives, but also held back the growth of a locally-owned business sector.
Without a social base, Batista relied on the police and the army to crush dissent. This alone was not enough to withstand the forces rallying against him.
In July 1953, a small group of revolutionaries came together from the more radical elements of the left wing populist Ortodoxo Party. Led by Fidel Castro they attacked the Moncada army barracks.
Castro was imprisoned for the attack, and later went to Mexico.
On his return to Cuba, he formed the 26th of July Movement alongside his brother Raul and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
Guevara and Castro were united in the belief armed guerilla struggle by revolutionaries could bring about social revolution. Workers’ and peasants struggle was seen as useful, but not central.
Several groups led armed struggle against Batista forces throughout the rest of the 1950s.
The armed struggle was undoubtedly heroic. Between 1957 and 1958, up to 2,000 resistance fighters in urban areas lost their lives.
The repression against the rebels served to turn even more of the population against the dictatorship and to identify with the resistance.
Batista’s support nosedived, with large sections of his army refusing to fight the rebels. By 1958 Batista’s state had collapsed.
On New Year’s Day 1959 Batista conceded his presidency and Castro declared the revolution victorious. Castro was made prime minister in February that year.
The revolution gave strength to millions battling imperialism across the world.
There was popular support for the rebels from the working class.
But workers’ participation was not seen as a mechanism for transforming Cuban society.
A general strike was attempted in 1958, but it failed. The following year, in a show of what workers’ struggle could achieve, carefully prepared strikes played a vital part in safeguarding the revolution.
The way the revolution was won set the groundwork for the kind of society that Cuba would become.
It was a society where a group at the top, decided what was best for the many. They wanted change for the masses, but they abandoned Marx’s idea that emancipation of the working class had to be the act of the working class.
In the early years following the revolution Castro and the newly formed Communist Party knew reforms must be made to satisfy the masses.
Real improvements were made to healthcare and education and large sections of industry were taken into state hands.
But these reforms didn’t just benefit workers, they were also made to push for quicker industrialisation to keep Cuba’s economy afloat.
The building up of Cuba’s economy was considered essential especially after the US began an embargo on exports from the country following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
This has had severe effects in a country heavily reliant on imports. Every socialist should demand that it goes.
For decades the US has terrorised Cuba, mounting invasions and sponsoring assassinations and terrorist attacks to destabilise the Cuban government.
One of the most notable attempts was the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
CIA backed right-wing rebels attempted an attack on the island.
After this, the Cuban government declared their revolution to be socialist. Cuba allied with Russia. By trading sugar for fuel, the country was able to keep its economy alive.
The Cuban government looked increasingly to Russia as an example of how society could be organised.
The model of state capitalism that existed in Eastern Europe and China meant the means to accumulate was placed in the hands of the state and its bureaucracy, not private capitalists.
This allowed these countries to continue to compete with rival countries on the global market.
It was this model that Cuba took up, not just as a way to emulate their allies but also as a reaction to a stagnated economy.
Socialism could not be built in one country in Russia. It certainly could not survive in a country as small as Cuba.
To survive the Cuban government set optimistic economic goals.
But to achieve those goals, workers were pushed hard. The constant pursuit of growth led to misery for the masses.
And like other state capitalist countries, Cuban society was marked by repression and the crushing of dissent.
Workers’ struggle was actively discouraged and land reforms were carried out without the input of peasants or farmworkers.
Trade unions came under state control.
And what were claimed to be elements of grassroots democracy became methods of transmitting orders from the top.
The aftermath of the revolution was no festival of the oppressed.
LGBT+ people suffered brutal persecution including incarceration and expulsions of tens of thousands of gay men and lesbians starting in 1980.
The collapse of the Soviet Union from 1988 to 1991, led to food shortages in Cuba.
Yet the regime survived and began to look for another way to sustain its economy. They found the solution in gradually opening up to private businesses.
By the start of the 2000s, there were 405 joint ventures and partnership agreements with big businesses on the island, most being in the tourism industry.
In 2011, economic reforms were made allowing businesses to operate without government administration.
And in February of this year, Cuba’s labour minister announced almost all the Cuban state would be opened up for business. This has not led to any improvement in the lives of ordinary people. But it has created new forms of class struggle.
At one moment it looked as if the US might shift its position.
And his successor Donald Trump imposed 240 measures to make the sanctions even tougher.
All of these measures are still in place under Joe Biden. And of course, the protests this month are a reaction to food shortages caused, in part, by US sanctions that intend to starve Cuba.
But they are also a product of living in a society that, despite calling itself Communist, exploits its workers and has allowed a ruling class to form while many live in poverty.
We are always for Cuba against US imperialism. But crucially we are also for workers’ self-activity, the right to protest and to organise, and the right to fight for genuine socialism against the government.
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