Richard Gott is better qualified than most to write this history of Cuba – he was, after all, an enthusiastic Guevarist in the 1960s and his writings on the guerrilla organisations remain informative and important. His new history of Cuba is thorough and well researched.
It begins with the discovery and conquest of the islands by Columbus, the slowly rising numbers of black slaves brought to cut the sugar cane, the expansion of sugar in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the consequent explosion of the slave trade – there were 860,000 African slaves in Cuba, he tells us, by the mid-1860s. And it was those same slaves who, after the eventual abolition of slavery in 1867, formed the armies of Cuban independence in 1868. But they would have to wait another 30 years for that independence and it would be a brief and bitter victory.
By a strange twist, the second Cuban war of independence initiated by Jose Marti in 1895 morphed into a Spanish-American war in which the US claimed the final victory and asserted direct control over the island from 1899 until 1959. In January of that year the Batista dictatorship was overthrown and the guerrilla armies led by Cienfuegos, Castro and Che Guevara entered Havana. Gott tells the story of that guerrilla campaign in great detail – but there is a curious omission. For within Fidel Castro’s 26th July Movement there was a tension which explained much of what happened later. It arose around whether the movement should be led by the urban sections or the mountain fighters under Castro’s command. In 1958 leadership shifted definitively towards the mountains and to Castro himself. And the prevailing model of organisation among the guerrillas was a military one – a structure of command. That model was then transferred into the construction of the new Cuban state.
Gott tells the revolution’s story in an honest and even-handed way: the deepening hostility of the US, the turn to the Soviets as a decision based on economic survival, the missile crisis of 1962, the brief attempt to adopt Guevara’s strategy for international guerrilla warfare, and the eventual acceptance of a long term dependency on the Russians. ‘By 1968 [Gott says] Castro’s regime was intellectually bankrupt.’
Yet it survived, despite chaotic economic organisation, and while through the 1970s and 1980s Cuba faithfully reflected the interests of Soviet foreign policy, Gott argues that Castro had his own reasons for sending up to 300,000 Cubans to Africa.
What emerges in this account is that every change of direction, every political shift – like the sudden campaigns for mass involvement in the early 1970s and the ‘rectification’ period after 1986 – came from Castro and his circle. Throughout most of its 45 years of existence the Cuban Revolution has been shaped by Fidel’s pragmatism, a pragmatism that applied as much to his pursuit of Cuba’s economic survival as to assuring his own survival in power. The other face of that has been ruthlessness. Castro had no compunction in executing his old friend Arnaldo Ochoa for alleged drug smuggling in 1989 – it seems very clear from Gott’s full and well informed account that Ochoa was challenging Castro’s hold on power. And when other challenges have been mounted over the years, the Cuban state has responded swiftly and remorselessly. In the last decade or so this last remnant of the Communist bloc has moved quickly to squash dissent or discussion of any kind. And the ever present and unstinting hostility of the US has provided the necessary external enemy.
What are noticeable by their absence in this account are any organisations of grassroots democracy, the indispensable mark of any society that wishes to claim the right to call itself socialist. What is absent is any sign of a relaxation in the command model that has shaped Cuba since it made its revolution.
Today, when sugar has been replaced by tourism, Cuba is visibly a country of rich and poor, of those with access to consumer goods and those with none. The relaxation that every visitor to Cuba remarks upon is only apparent: beneath are constant vigilance and an ever-present control. Gott asks, in his epilogue, whether the anticipated chaos following Castro’s death will happen. His feeling is that the transition to a market society is already under way and a new ruling group is already in place under Castro’s wing. But that transition has not been accompanied by any increase in democracy or freedom of organisation. Gott suggests that Castro abandoned the slogans of communism over a decade ago, and took up instead the slogans of the anti-capitalist movement. But democracy, openness and control of power are the central theme of debates within that movement – and until that exists in Cuba, that better world the movement seeks will not arise there.
Cuba: A New History
Yale University Press £18.99
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