By Héctor Puente Sierra
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Debating critical Marxism in Cuba today

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In May over 100 people attended an international conference in Cuba discussing the ideas of Leon Trotsky, with the aim of shaking up state–sanctioned “Marxism”. Héctor Puente Sierra reports.
Issue 447

Resistance to imperialism runs through the history of this small Caribbean island. A Spanish colony for nearly four centuries, Cuba was the last Latin American country to win independence, in 1898 — only to become a United States protectorate immediately after. The US held Cuban development back, channelling away the profits of the economy’s chief export, sugar.

In 1933 a vibrant workers’ movement overthrew the US puppet regime and workers’ councils briefly ran society. However, power eventually fell into the hands of the army and what followed was a 25-year rule by Fulgencio Batista, who again opened Cuba up to looting by American companies and the American mafia.

The co-option of the trade union and Communist Party leaderships by Batista meant resistance to his regime in the 50s took on a very different form from the events in the 30s. When in 1959 Batista’s state collapsed, it wasn’t workers and the landless peasants who conquered power — but an armed group of radical nationalists from a discontented middle class background, led by Fidel Castro.

US hostility to the national independence programme envisaged by Castro drove the further radicalisation of his government. But in order to survive the US-imposed economic embargo that still persists today, Castro looked to the Soviet Union for assistance. The dream of independence came undone once again as Cuban interests became subordinated to the geopolitical needs of the USSR for the next three decades.

Castro had now declared the revolution to be “Marxist-Leninist”. But his socialism was one where a tiny and privileged bureaucracy at the helm of the state allocated the economy’s priorities, priorities that were set by the pressures of a hostile global capitalism.

After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the USSR in 1989-1991, many predicted that Cuba would follow suit. But extreme hardship during the 90s never erased the collective memory of what US imperialism meant. The victory of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1999 and the later radicalisation of his government gave new breathing space to the Cuban regime.

The Cuban ruling bureaucracy adapted to the new context of multinational capitalism by opening to the market, encouraging privatisation and mixed enterprises with foreign capital at the same time as lowering social spending — the celebrated health and education programmes.

This process culminated in the talks between Fidel’s brother and successor Raúl Castro and Barack Obama in 2016, which offered the first real opportunity to end the embargo that has caused so much suffering.

The “modernising” bureaucracy now wants to complete the move away from an anachronistic Cold War state capitalism towards a model inspired by China, where market liberalisation coexists with authoritarian political control by a one-party state. Likewise, most of big business in the US and elsewhere have long seen the embargo as counterproductive and want to exploit the possibilities offered by the new Cuba.

In their way stands Donald Trump, who has resumed the siege of the Cuban economy and ruled out further talks.

Cuban resilience in the face of US imperialism should be celebrated. But socialists must also provide an honest account of Cuba and recognise that the building of a society based on meeting human and environmental needs, free of oppression and exploitation, is still an unfulfilled task.

In this context, the first Leon Trotsky International conference in Havana in May 2019 was an event of historic importance. The brave organisers deserve the recognition of the entire socialist movement. It is with this new generation, and with the Cuban and world working class, that the possibility for real socialism lies.

Héctor is a socialist based in London. He presented a paper on Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism at the Trotsky international conference in Havana last month

Héctor attended the Leon Trotsky international conference in Havana. He spoke to organiser Frank García Hernández about its significance.

What is the political significance of this conference, in Cuba in 2019?

The event is not the direct consequence of present circumstances. Between 2012 and 2016, there was a period of opening with more tolerance to criticism of the history of Cuba and the current reality.

However, the victory of Donald Trump in 2016 and the abrupt end to the talks with the US saw the gradual return of limits to criticism — and hence, the absence of figures like Leon Trotsky.

In December 2016 I organised a post-graduate course about Trotsky in Las Villas Central University in the city of Santa Clara, which had an important impact on the students who took it. It led them to read The Revolution Betrayed and even to one of them publishing, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, a fragment of the speech Trotsky gave when founding the Red Army.

In Santa Clara, an interest in Trotsky developed among members of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC). This doesn’t mean they identified as Trotskyists, but they began to see Trotsky as a fundamental part of the Marxist theoretical body.

Unawareness of Trotsky means a poor understanding of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Analysts who seek to identify the seeds of the collapse with Stalin lack the ideological tools to articulate this.

Not only is Trotsky missing, but also a long list of theoreticians who have benefitted from reading his works — for example, the New Left Review doesn’t reach Cuba. Alex Callinicos, Cornelius Castoriadis, Ernest Mandel, Nicos Poulantzas, Slavoj Zizek, Tariq Ali and Eric Touissaint, Marxists who have sought to develop Marxism to make sense of the late 20th century and 21st, are largely unknown.

This became acutely clear for me during the process of organising the conference. When some of the speakers at the conference were announced — Paul Le Blanc, Robert Brenner, Suzi Weissman, Eric Touissaint — I could see in the reactions of people abroad that these were all important thinkers, while I was completely ignorant of their theoretical work.

You have explained how from 2016 on, the space for criticism begins to narrow. What has been the attitude of the Cuban institutions towards the event?

Generally, passive. It was thanks to academic and cultural associations that the event took place — the Mexican Casa Benito Juarez hosted the conference, the Institute of Philosophy organised it and it was supported by the cultural research group Juan Marinello and the Trotsky Museum in Mexico City. Resources and funding were minimum and the event was not advertised.

What’s the attitude of the Cuban youth to Marxism?

We’re living in a period in which the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) is overseeing the re-emergence of a bourgeois class. This is still very controlled — its means of production are mostly limited to services: restaurants, house renting, taxis, links to hotels, cooperatives. But, at least in Havana, they have a greater impact on the way people live — higher consumption and rejection of concepts like Marxism. This was visible in the 2012-2016 period when the critique of Stalinism slipped over into a critique of Marxism.

The emergence of the new bourgeoisie requires new theorists. You need to go beyond Marx and Lenin — but also beyond Trotsky, who doesn’t have all the answers for the 21st century.

The conference is a contribution to the development of this critical thought.

The young people who attended our conference could see that there were many organisations represented, but it was possible to conduct debates in a respectful way. This made them see that the Trotskyist left are not zealous sects that destroy themselves in endless factionalism — but that they are contributors to our understanding of the world.

Thanks to the event, young Cubans have come to know Trotsky and Victor Serge, but also Tony Cliff, Alex Callinicos, Daniel Bensaid or Michael Lowy, who can help them fill gaps in their theoretical understanding.

You characterise the revolution that took place in Cuba 60 years ago as a social revolution that led to the overthrow of capitalism, an analysis not shared by this publication. However, you are critical of the current course of the country. Where is the CCP taking Cuba?

I am critical of the way private property has been assimilated in our society.

Of course, we want to see a world without property as we want to see one without kings and states. But in the global context, private property in Cuba can be necessary because the state has more important matters to deal with than the sale of pizzas and sweets.

My criticism is not the existence of private property but the lack of control over it — through price controls, limits to wealth accumulation. This is leading to increasing inequality.

The ideological impact of this new class can be seen in that more and more Cubans see these successful capitalists as hard-working people who have striven to be where they are and deserve admiration, and the state begins to be seen as an obstacle to individual success.

What’s your assessment of the conference?

The most important shortcoming of the conference is the limited attendance of Cuban students and general Cuban public. Because of this, the event did not have the immediate impact it could have had.

But you could see that it did have a radical impact on the small number of students who attended. This is a generation that has grown up with Fidel being very old and has not lived through the history of the late 20th century.

As a result of the conference, a book will be published bringing together the papers presented, and this will enrich the access students and researchers have not only to Trotsky but to a series of authors who deal with subjects unknown to them.

It was also a success in that it brought together Trotskyists from different organisations and tendencies to debate. We received 192 requests to attend and 51 papers from abroad. This has led to discussions about repeating the event in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Mexico City in coming years.

And the fact that 30 academics attended means we have made important contacts. We are now connected with people across the world, and we make an appeal to them to send us their publications, magazines and books.

It shouldn’t be assumed that the lack of reading materials is simply caused by lack of interest in Trotsky on the part of Cuban publishers — the US embargo is a reality. We can view Amazon online, but we can’t carry out an online purchase. Even if we could, our wages can’t afford it. If, out of solidarity, people send good Marxist literature to Cuba, the impact will be huge — Trotsky, Serge and the great Marxists of the 20th and 21st centuries.

If you’d like to donate books contact Héctor Puente Sierra: [email protected]

Ana, Lisbeth, Yunier and Verde are Cuban students who attended the Leon Trotsky international conference in Havana last month. They spoke to Héctor about what Trotskyism means to them.

What makes a young Cuban Communist attend a conference about Leon Trotsky?

Verde: It was an excellent opportunity to learn more about Trotsky, who is never mentioned in academia. His life, his theory of the permanent revolution, his works on art and culture, his critique of the Soviet bureaucracy. While I don’t consider myself a Trotskyist, I was curious to see how Communism is understood by other traditions, and what people are doing in other places to pursue a socialist transformation.

In Cuba, political education has plummeted to unimaginable depths, there is a lot of demagogy. Young people interested in politics are left on their own if they want to understand their reality, the world around them… You have to look for new spaces. Academia is dogmatic and uncritical — you have to struggle against inertia, distrust the media, be in touch with people involved in politics everywhere else.

Are there spaces for debate and for the political development of young people? Can the Union of Communist Youth (UJC) be a vehicle for critical thought?

Yunier: In general, discussions in the UJC are not deep and are framed by official policies. The views of young people are rarely taken into account. The top-down structure in the end always exerts itself.

Lisbeth: There are structures created by the government for debate in communities, universities, cultural groups, even magazines beyond the institutional sphere. But there is a visible lack of engagement when it comes to participating in political debates, created by apathy and fear of the consequences of airing one’s opinions. Most young Cubans don’t follow politics, they are alienated, de-ideologised.

Ana: When Marx’s ideas are discussed, this is within the parameters established by manuals. Today young Cubans are focused on deepening the principles that inspired the revolution. We can’t speak yet of a change in how Marxism is understood — even though our generation is accused of revisionism, there remains much to change.

Private wealth and property are more established in Cuba today. What direction is the CCP taking the country?

Lisbeth: Cuba is following the path taken by China and Vietnam. In Havana, a capitalism is growing that those of us who come from other cities find very violent. The right to private property should never have been recognised in the new constitution ratified this year. It already existed in practice — but now it is enshrined in law.

Verde: Cuba is undoubtedly changing. Under the economic, financial, commercial embargo, Cuba has had to adapt and rectify things in order to survive. Sometimes wrong decisions have been made. I feel like more and more people in my country are moving away from the socialist ideals and channelling their aspirations through the new capitalism.

What can Trotsky and Trotskyism offer to young people like you?

Verde: Trotskyism can be a useful reference to improve the transformation of this country. Above all, his contribution to the struggle against the bureaucracy.

Lisbeth: Trotsky gives us a perspective that we lacked. In reality, the different “heretic” Marxisms have a great appeal among young people. Trotsky has a strong and flexible theory that we need, we need him along the other great Marxists to have not just an explanation of what is happening, but also a way forward.

Yunier: The existing policy, which should be radically anticapitalist, updated, democratic, has been usurped by the bureaucracy, and the socialism lost — and Trotsky is crucial because he warned about this. We need a socialism where social property of the means of production is under control of the producers.

Héctor spoke to Juan de León Ferrera Ramírez about his life as a dissident Marxist in Cuba and the Trotskyist movement before, during and after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.

Juan de León, you’re also known as “the last Trotskyist”. When did you become a Trotskyist?

It ran through my family. My dad was a leading Trotskyist in Cuba, and my mum was involved too.

My dad’s activity started in Santiago de Cuba, where he sold newspapers and organised the journalists’ union. There he met the Trotskyists and was won over to their views. Then he started work in the naval base in Guantánamo. My parents took part in all the struggles of the time — including the strike that brought down the Machado government in 1933. The strike was organised by Trotskyist activists working with the nationalist leader Antonio Guiteras — the Communist Party told workers to stay home.

Out of that period, the Trotskyist opposition broke with the Communists and created the Partido Bolchevique Leninista (Bolshevik Leninist Party). This later became the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Revolutionary Workers Party), more or less at the time when the Trotskyist leader Sandalio Junco was murdered by Stalinists. Such has always been the Stalinist policy. Trotsky called Stalin the gravedigger of the revolution. Stopping the world revolution — that’s what the Communist Parties have done.

What can you say about the repression of the Trotskyists under Machado and later under Batista? What was the role of the Communists?

Machado repressed the Communist grassroots who took part in strikes, but not their leaders. These later changed the party’s name to Partido Socialista Popular (Socialist People’s Party) to please the regime. Under Batista, while the Trotskyists never stopped fighting, the Stalinists sustained his rule and had two representatives in his government.

When the revolution overthrew Batista in 1959, what was the situation of the Trotskyist movement? What role did the working class play before and during the revolution?

When Fidel returned to Cuba in 1956 and started waging the guerrilla war, we supported him and got involved in the armed struggle.

But if it wasn’t for the radical mood within the working class, the revolution would not have succeeded. It was this mood that encouraged Fidel, after the failed attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953, to continue the fight. When in 1958 Castro’s 26 July Movement called a general strike, this was partly organised by Trotskyist militants on the ground (whereas the Communists once again asked workers to go to work). Trotskyists were strong and influential in many sectors — like the Guantánamo railway workers.

After Batista fled the country, when the right was organising a counterrevolution, again Fidel called a general strike — the whole of Cuba ground to a standstill, and the counterrevolution was defeated.

Workers were responsible for the triumph of the revolution.

What about your relationship with Ernesto Ché Guevara?

After the revolution, there were big discussions about the path to socialism. Ché submitted a document calling for the creation of councils of technical advisors — we submitted one advocating workers’ and peasants’ councils. We started clashing with Ché.

One day I bumped into him and he asked me why we bang on so much about the bureaucracy. He didn’t understand what we meant by it. He wasn’t a Stalinist, but he was very influenced by it. We used to discuss with him about it during the sugar harvests and give him our newspaper.

How did the Cuban process continue in those years and what did the Trotskysts do?

In the 1960s, we argued for the transition to socialism, workers’ militias, the independence of the unions from the state, nationalisation of the big companies to put them under workers’ control, revocable elections. The Stalinists, increasingly influential, attacked us and called us provocateurs.

One day, the front page of the Communist Party’s newspaper said that we Trotskyists were agents of imperialism because we proposed nationalisation.

But then, when the capitalists and American imperialism tried to start a counterrevolution, Fidel had no choice but to nationalise all their property. Within six months, he shut our printing press down — and we couldn’t publish in the new companies under state control.

Ché came and said that the government hadn’t given the order to close our press, that it had been a bureaucrat’s mistake — he was lying, of course, but it shows he had sympathy for us.

Anyhow, he didn’t call the shots, the party did, and Fidel above all. And by then, Fidel was embedded in the bureaucracy and close to the Soviet Union — a relationship that culminated in Castro agreeing to give asylum to [murderer of Leon Trotsky] Ramón Mercader, who lived the last years of his life in Cuba. We always said that the bureaucracy was an obstacle for the Cuban revolution — one of the most important obstacles any revolutionary process can face.

From then on Trotskyists could no longer maintain independent activity — and Castro’s influence in Latin America meant in places like Guatemala Trotskyists were also expelled from the guerrilla movements.

We had to accept that they had the force and that we couldn’t have publications or organisation, but we maintained our Trotskyist orientation and continued meeting informally.

Then in 1973 they put us all in jail and this finally smashed us. They accused us of counterrevolutionary activity, for criticising Fidel, for saying that the USSR was a rancid bureaucracy where the working class had no power. They asked for sentences of nine years for me, 14 for my dad, similar sentences for other comrades. The leading comrades, including my dad, were very old by then, and they took everything away from them.

How was your time in prison?

In prison, we did some important work. We were in jail with all those who hated the revolution. When they asked us why we had been sent there, and we said “for being Communists”, this caused surprise but also it immediately made us some enemies. Soon we found out some were planning to kill us. We spoke to the prison manager, and because we called ourselves Communists, he thought we were counter-intelligence infiltrating on behalf of the government to spy on the other prisoners! He stopped the attempt on our lives and from that moment on he effectively put us in charge.

We used this position to win material advantages for the prisoners, more leisure time, and so on, and this earned us their respect. But also we set up Marxist study groups for the prisoners. At night, voluntary attendance. We started with the Communist Manifesto, then Lenin’s State and Revolution. The first night, the room was packed.

In this way, we did something that all the army’s rehabilitation programmes never achieved.

How did you feel when you learnt the International Trotsky conference was going to take place in Havana?

My dad died in 1976 — he told me, “I am sure our ideas will triumph and that the bureaucracy will give in.” They’re finally giving in.

This is as a result of two things: first, the critical internal situation of Cuba; second, developments abroad. Since Vietnam, US imperialism has suffered defeat after defeat. They haven’t managed to stop what has happened in Venezuela, in Bolivia. This shows their weakness. The flipside is that those leading Venezuela have not deepened the socialist process.

But global capitalism has not recovered from the crisis in 2008, the crisis is intensifying. Look at Algeria, look at the gilets jaunes in France. People in Cuba today can see this. They watch TV and use the Internet.

The key to the future of Cuba is workers’ power — and the bureaucracy can’t deliver this. The bureaucracy can give in to pressure from the Cuban masses and events abroad, but it’s never going to reform itself and give power to the working masses. Trotskyism can give the Cuban working class and the youth a perspective to make this a reality.

But we can’t agitate — you can speak about “the political powers”, “freedoms”, but for tactical reasons you can’t name anyone. This means we depend on events abroad, on the development of revolution in Latin American countries and beyond.

I disagree with those who say that the collapse of the USSR was a defeat for the world working class. If it wasn’t for the fall of the Soviet bureaucracy, we would not have many of the struggles of today. And it awakened in other places the struggle against Stalinism — what Trotsky called the obstacle to the development of socialism.

For these reasons, when people tell me I am “the last Trotskyist”, I laugh and tell them they are wrong — I am the first Trotskyist.


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