Obama in Cuba: Washington Retreats and Repositions

By Ike Nahem

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President Barack Obama’s historic March 20-22 visit to Havana, Cuba represented the culmination of a significant shift – and political retreat on the part of Washington – in US policy toward the revolutionary socialist Cuban government implemented since Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on December 17, 2014 the process that has led to the restoration of diplomatic relations and limited possibilities in economic and commercial exchange. This was an historic advance and a victory for the Cuban government and Revolution. The longest unchanged policy in US state-diplomatic history has finally changed.

Under the direction of the Obama White House and State Department – led by Hillary Clinton in Obama’s first term and then John Kerry in his second – this shift unfolded over several years as the unsustainability of the longstanding US anti-Cuba policy became clear to the point that a consensus for such a shift among US policymakers and in the broader US ruling class was apparent. Of course, these elite forces for some time have lagged behind surveyed US public opinion on ending US economic and travel sanctions and political hostility towards Cuba. These events register a further blow to a policy that goes back to Presidents Dwight Eisenhower (1952-1960) and John Kennedy (1961-1963), Republican and Democratic respectively, after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959. Certainly, with the fact of the restoration of diplomatic relations, a new reality – more difficult to reverse whoever next occupies the White House in 2017 – is setting in.

Diplomatic Relations and Real Normalization

Today Washington and Havana have established diplomatic relations. The remaining Cuban Five imprisoned intelligence operatives and revolutionaries were released and are now free in Cuba. They continue to travel around the globe telling their eventful and heroic life stories. In April 2014 Cuba was removed from the US State Department’s arbitrary (and in the case of Cuba, nonsensical) list of nations “sponsoring terrorism.” Embassies were established in Washington and Havana.

[Footnote 1: The Cuban Five were monitoring the activities of Cuban-American counter-revolutionary organizations with clear histories of anti-Cuban terrorist violence. Antonio Guerrero, Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez, Gerardo Hernandez, and Rene Gonzalez were arrested and framed up in 1998 under the auspices of the William Clinton White House and Department of Justice in a notoriously biased and unfair trial in Miami, Florida. They were sentenced to ridiculously long prison sentences in a case that drew worldwide outrage and produced considerable world and US pressure on successive US Administrations in Washington. The case of the Cuban Five, and the release of three remaining Cuban Five prisoners, was a decisive factor in allowing the establishment of diplomatic relations to proceed.]

Nevertheless a real normalization of US-Cuban relations can only correlate with the full lifting of the US economic, financial, and commercial embargo against the Caribbean island in US law. Cuba also wants the return of Guantanamo Bay, illegally occupied with the bullying imposition by the United States Congress of the notorious Platt Amendment in 1901. Another precondition for the full normalization of relations would be the unwinding and cessation of a myriad of US overt and covert programs, funded by Congress in the amount of hundreds of millions of dollars, aimed at creating the conditions to overturn the Cuban government and finally eliminate the Cuban Revolution. Obama has continued these programs, funded by the Congress, but several have been embarrassingly exposed and revealed as completely ineffective and corrupt, in US, Cuban, and world media. One exposed example was the so-called Zun Zuneo project, a secretive Twitter scheme funded with resources from Washington’s ongoing “regime change” subversive program directed at Cuba continually for half-a-century. In this case, exposed by the associated Press, the funding and direction was from the State Department’s Agency for International Development.

“Summit” Diplomacy in Obama’s First Term

Washington went through a series of politically bruising Pan-American “Summits” under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) during the first term of Barack Obama Administration and the end of Hillary Clinton’s single term as US Secretary of State. These Summits laid bare Washington’s total political isolation from every OAS member on the “Cuba Question.” Cuba had already established diplomatic, normal, and often warm relations with the entirety of the Hemisphere. The US government had dominated and set the agenda for the OAS since its formation in 1948 at the onset of the post-World War II “Cold War.” It was at the behest of Washington that Cuba was expelled from the OAS in January 1962, two years after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. That decision was reversed by the OAS member states at a June 2009 Summit at San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a decision the newly in-power Obama White House was unable to prevent. OAS members had made it clear that any future OAS Summits would not take place without Cuban governmental representation.

Political pressure on Obama, and the US government, to end sanctions and political hostility against Cuba picked up some momentum in his second term from 2012-2013 on, after the three OAS-linked Hemispheric “Summits” had failed rather humiliatingly to win any real support for US anti-Cuba sanctions.

Clearly US policy, in the eyes of the Obama White House and State Department under Hillary Clinton and then John Kerry had to retreat on Cuba policy because the policy was no longer politically sustainable, especially in the Americas but worldwide. It was starting to carry a mounting political and even economic and financial price. US anti-Cuba policy across the Americas, and in Canada to the North, was viewed with contempt and derision, even among those liberal and conservative bourgeois political forces that were opponents of Cuban socialism.

Economic Pressure and Openings

Obama brought with him to Havana some forty members of Congress and a dozen business executives from US companies and entities, including CEOs from Airbnb, Paypal, and the Marriot and Starwood hotel giants, that are probing possibilities for profitable commercial exchanges with Cuba. Of course the still-in-place US sanctions make it difficult for US capital and capitalists to do business directly with the Cuban government and state which is not a capitalist government or a capitalist state.

Opposition to the Obama-led shift in US policy has long deteriorated politically in bourgeois public opinion. Nevertheless, bellicose – and absurdly hypocritical – anti-Cuba rhetoric around “human rights” and “democracy” remain prevalent in the commercial media oligopolies and their pundits and columnists. This line has dominated the coverage in the dominant media outlets and newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, as well as broadcast and cable TV coverage. The New York Times, which strongly promoted the retreat and shift led by Obama and Kerry in a series of well-noted 2014 editorials, nevertheless called Cuba a “Communist police state” in one editorial.

Hillary Clinton’s “Evolution” on US-Cuban Relations

The retreat taking place under Obama today has no serious opposition – aside from regular digs at Cuba and whining about the lack of Cuban concessions to the US – in the US ruling class. It is a retreat that has been in the making for many years and has developed with many contradictions since Obama’s 2008 election campaign when he defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination and went on to defeat the Republican nominee John McCain in the November 2008 Presidential elections.

After finishing her one term as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, preparing for her subsequent presidential run, penned a book, Hard Choices, about her time at “Foggy Bottom” (the State Department metonym). In the chapter called “Latin America: Democrats and Demagogues,” Clinton dispenses the usual “anti-Castro” boilerplate and political hostility. Nevertheless Clinton revealed fairly candidly the utter dead end and isolation of US anti-Cuba policy in the Hemisphere. She concludes, “Near the end of my tenure, I recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo. It wasn’t achieving its goals, and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America. After twenty years of observing and dealing with the U.S.-Cuba relationship, I thought we should shift the onus onto the Castros to explain why they remained undemocratic and abusive.” (This latter sentence expressed the standard Washington propaganda assertion that ongoing US policies of trying by any means possible, including attempts at economic asphyxiation and paramilitary violence, were an “excuse” by the “Castros” for the economic and other problems and challenges Cuba continues to face. This is a particularly specious line of argument.

Obama’s first term and Clinton’s tenure and was a very challenging time for Washington and the US ruling class in Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Washington had lost considerable ground politically in the two terms of George W. Bush. During the 2008 campaign Obama and Clinton competed with each other over who could be more bellicose in their “anti-Castro” rhetoric. Such boilerplate sustains and propels – much less and less so these days – a number of bourgeois US politicians. At the same time Obama assumed office in 2009 after a period under George W. Bush where US relations with Cuba were politically hostile and even confrontational. Under the George W. Bush White House and State Department “Cuba policy” was even directed by bureaucrats such as the notorious Reagan-era hands Otto Reich and Elliot Abrams. During this period the US-backed military coup against the popular, elected government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Reich was tangled up in the coup planning and plans. That coup was beaten back in a mass uprising in Caracas but Reich’s fingerprints were left all over the place.

This was a period where a number of explicitly anti-imperialist governments, identified furthermore with radical social reform at home, were elected to office and governmental power in the Hemisphere. This was under the backdrop of years of mass struggles and mobilizations of workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, women, and youth against the “neoliberal” austerity policies – the so-called “Washington Consensus” – of conservative and liberal governments aligned with the United States government and Washington-based institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. This process was most identified with the government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and later Evo Morales in Bolivia. These governments had particularly warm relations with Cuba. The large-scale efforts of Cuban Medical Missions and assistance, and the great work they accomplished in numerous Latin American and Caribbean nations, gave the Cuban government a great moral and political authority across the Hemisphere.

Towards the end of Bush II’s second term Washington began to pull back as Reich was replaced, but anti-Cuba sanctions were tightened up. Obama had campaigned – and this was opposed by Hillary Clinton’s campaign – in favor of allowing essentially unfettered, legal travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans. He also made a point of saying he would talk to US “enemies” and adversaries such as Cuba and Iran “without preconditions.” While the formulation remained innocuous enough, it was not welcomed by Clinton.

In his first term Obama actually carried out through Executive Order the policy change on Cuban-American travel. What followed was an explosion of family reunification and general travel by Cuban-Americans. This had the political effect of deepening further the political isolation of the tradition counter-revolutionary exile leadership, essentially the ex-bourgeoisie and ruling class of Cuba, that with US government backing and significant subsidies that enriched a handful and privileges in a thoroughly corrupt system, became ensconced in Miami and southern Florida after the Revolution. Obama was savvy enough as a rising Democratic Party leader looking to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential election, to read the shifts in Cuban-American public opinion and the steady disintegration of the political domination and control of traditional rightist counter-revolutionary exile forces over the larger population and recent immigration from Cuba that picked up steam and numbers throughout the 1990s under the harsh economic realities and conditions of the “Special Period” in Cuba.

It was an important change, especially for Cuban-Americans, but, of course, it did nothing for other US citizens and legal residents wanting to visit Cuba.

Hillary Clinton came around to advocating the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba as it became clear to her that the ongoing policy course was unsustainable politically across the Americas and worldwide. US anti-Cuba policy was extracting a cumulative political price. Clinton’s assessment and “advice” to Obama was also certainly influenced by the fairly humiliating near-total isolation of the US government in the UN General Assembly where every year votes were taken in favor of the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial, and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” Even though coverage of the yearly UN votes were consciously minimized in giant US commercial media, the cumulative political toll on US policy was real and keenly felt in the corridors of the White House, State Department and broader bourgeois political circles in the US.

(Footnote 2: For the first several years of the annual General Assembly vote in the early 1990s, the tabulation saw large majorities backing Cuba, but with many abstentions from Washington’s allies, including subservient governments in Latin America and the so-called Third World. In recent years nearly all abstentions became “Yes” in support of Cuba, leaving only Israel and the US itself in the “No” column. For the last vote in October 2015, the remaining “drama” was whether the last three abstentions from 2014 – the Pacific Island states of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau – would come around. And they did, all three having established diplomatic relations with Cuba earlier this year. It should be pointed out that Israel’s vote seems mainly a formal nod to its US ally insofar as Israel has significant two-way economic, trade, and commercial relations with Cuba and there is fully legal travel from each country to the other. This includes important Israeli-based capital investment in numerous Cuban projects and industries including irrigation technology, office towers, and agricultural production. As I wrote in an analysis of the 2013 UN vote (“Isolation: Another Vote on Washington’s Anti-Cuba Policy at the United Nations” http://july26coalition.org/wordpress/isolation-another-vote-on-washingtons-anti-cuba-policy-at-the-united-nations/): “Washington’s formal political isolation over its anti-Cuba policy can hardly be more complete. Is it possible to imagine any significant political issue in world politics uniting so many disparate entities often in significant conflict with each other — from the semi-feudal ultra-reactionary “Sunni” Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the “Shi’ite” Islamic Republic of Iran, from India to Pakistan and Syria to Turkey; “North” Korea and “South” Korea; Russia and Georgia, and so on across the spectrum from the most industrialized capitalist ex-colonial powers in Europe and Japan to their most “underdeveloped” ex-subjects in the so-called Third World?)

Consequences of the Cuban Revolution

Washington was dead-set against the radical social measures undertaken by the new post-Batista Cuban government from the outset, measures which came up against and affected materially the utter US domination of Cuba’s finances, industry, agriculture, and political life since the beginning of the 20th Century. After the 1898 Spanish-American War Cuba became a de facto “protectorate” of the United States. Until the very end, Washington had propped up and sustained the brutal and corrupt-to-the core military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, although some contacts were made with Fidel Castro’s “rebel army” as the Batista regime’s position began deteriorating.

[Footnote 3: Fidel Castro had organized an armed revolt at the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. This was after Batista, Chief of the Cuban Armed Forces, led a military coup in 1952 against a government elected under the 1940 Cuban Constitution. Castro’s revolt was defeated on the ground but his July 26 Movement exploded into a mass popular organization and movement. A mass campaign forced the release of Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and other surviving Moncadistas from incarceration in a political amnesty. Under death threats and repression, the freed Cuban revolutionaries, including Fidel and Raul, gathered in Mexico City, and, joined by the Argentine recruit Ernesto Che Guevara, organized themselves into an armed force of eighty-two men. With huge difficulties, the revolutionaries landed by boat on the southern coast of the island. Most of the young fighters were wiped out in the initial days by Batista’s forces. The subsequent revolutionary guerrilla war in the Cuban countryside, combined with an intense urban revolutionary underground struggle, mounted from 1956 until the fleeing of Batista and the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959.]

Through eight subsequent White House Administrations from the mid-1960s – Lyndon Johnson (1963-1968), Richard Nixon (1969-1974), Gerald Ford (1974-1976), Jimmy Carter (1976-1980), Ronald Reagan (1980-1988), George H. W. Bush (1989-1992), Bill Clinton (1992-2000), George W. Bush (2000-2008) – through December 2014 in Barack Obama’s second term, there was a continuity of fully bipartisan, near-unanimous White House and Congressional hostility to the Cuban Revolution and to any diplomatic and normalization of relations between Washington and Havana. This political hostility was completely echoed in big-business media outlets as the Cuban Revolution unfolded and began to implement the radical economic, social, and political measures that were in the direct interests of the vast majority of Cubans. Diplomatic Relations with Cuba had been unilaterally broken off by Washington in January, 1961 in the last weeks in formal office of the Eisenhower Administration. Under the Carter Administration relations were “upgraded” to the establishment of “Interests Sections” in Washington and Havana in 1977.

[Footnote 4: Prior to the actual establishment of diplomatic relations under President Barack Obama the most serious motion in that direction came under the Carter Administration.]

The Leadership of Fidel Castro

Commitment to overturning the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro in Cuba was never a source of serious division between the Democratic and Republican parties in Washington for over five decades. The Fidel Castro government was caricatured and slurred as a personal dictatorship in Cold War propaganda, as well as a puppet and client of the Soviet Union. There was, in fact, (now known from then-secret government documents released under the Freedom of Information Act), major US government operations, with significant assigned personnel and large budgets, employed to disseminate disinformation and misinformation, that is false information with the deliberate intention to deceive, about the actual reality and facts of the Cuban Revolution and its leadership. One particularly notorious example of such CIA “psychological operations” was the worldwide effort to plant false stories about a supposed falling out and political rupture between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, with Che being imprisoned or even executed in Cuba. This was during a period in 1965-66 where Che, with the full moral and political support of Fidel and the central Cuban communist leadership, had disappeared from public view and was preparing and organizing revolutionary armed struggles in first the Congo, and then Bolivia. These mendacious exertions by US intelligence agencies over the years were, of course, accompanied and complemented by more direct, material attempts – hundreds of times in documented fact – to assassinate Fidel Castro and other popular leaders of the Revolution and the Cuban government and other repeated acts of terrorism and economic sabotage.

The reality was that Fidel Castro was never any kind of personal dictator with the inclination, desire, or power to rule arbitrarily. From the outset of his political prominence, that is, from the planning and organization of the failed attempt to seize the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953, aiming to spark and organize a national uprising against Batista through the victory over Batista’s army and neo-colonial state, a remarkable generation and team of revolutionary fighters and leaders came together with Fidel Castro, and under his political leadership. It is undoubtedly one of Fidel Castro’s greatest strengths as a revolutionary and a leader, that he was able to forge an outstanding, inclusive, and collaborative team of revolutionary fighters, men and women, not only during the revolutionary struggle for power but in the decades that followed, with all the enormous challenges and threats from a resentful imperial ex-overlord ninety miles away during the Cold War, navigating the treacherous waters of that tumultuous era in world politics. Revolutionary fighters such as Juan Almeida, Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Ernesto Che Guevara, Armando Hart, Frank Pais, Celia Sanchez, Haydee Santamaria, and countless others who were the remarkable individual products of the struggle for the Cuban Revolution and its defense.

Under the leadership of this popular revolutionary team, with the indefatigable Fidel as the central spokesperson and holding great political authority, Cuba forged an infant revolutionary government stamped by the interests, social dominance, and political authority of workers and farmers. This translated socially and politically to concrete measures and progressive policies backed by mass mobilizations and assemblies of Cuban working peopleand a clear, large majority of the Cuban population. These policies included: radical land reform; massive youth-led drives that succeeded in eradicating illiteracy; the legal obliteration of race discrimination and historic advances for Afro-Cubans; the self-organization of Cuban women into the Federation of Cuban Women and the tremendous advances in policies and practice promoting women’s rights and equality; the massive expansion of trade unions and workers control and management of industry; and the establishment of free, high-quality health care and education for all Cubans. All of this was in the interests of and with the participation of the large majority of Cuban society. A small but significant minority of Cubans, based primarily in the capitalist and middle classes, opposed or were indifferent to the Revolution; many – not all – full of resentment and bitterness at the loss of the good old days” of their island paradise. Counter-revolutionary organizations grew up that became aligned to the US government and under its political direction. Like all great revolutionary transformations and overturns in history, the Cuban Revolution became marked by profound social and class – and thereby political – polarization.

From the Bay of Pigs to the October 1962 Missile Crisis

Precisely while this great and progressive social revolution was unfolding, in a society that greatly needed it, bipartisan US governments in Washington, with a servile “anti-Castro” corporate media echoing and egging it on, was carrying out economic, financial, political, and paramilitary aggression against Cuba. This culminated in a large-scale mercenary invasion of some 1500 counter-revolutionary Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs – Playa Giron to the Cubans –
that quickly was exposed as a made-in-Washington operation from top to bottom, in terms of financing, arming, training, propaganda, housing, execution, and back-up.

[Footnote 5: The CIA plan was that the invading force would secure and hold enough territory so that the mighty US power could credibly and directly intervene militarily to overturn and smash the new, revolutionary government. Unfortunately for the also-new John Kennedy Administration, carrying out the Eisenhower White House-CIA plan, the military routing of the Cuban exile force on the ground at the Bay of Pigs made it impossible for the planned-for established “beachhead” position of the invaders to be secured at all. Washington had been repeatedly and publicly denying any US intervention at all in a conscious public deception. The result was a debacle before the eyes of the world for the Kennedy White House and CIA which had “operational responsibility.” The quick and transparent exposure of the US intervention by the Cuban authorities to the entire world and at the United Nations, made it politically impossible for the US government to carry out the direct military intervention with US forces or even a direct military rescue of the 1511 “Brigade 2506” force. Nearly 1200 of the mercenary invaders were captured. They were eventually exchanged for $53 million worth of food, medicine, and medical equipment.The force organized by Kennedy’s CIA included 194 ex-military personnel from Batista’s army; 100 owners of large landed estates; 24 other large property owners; 67 building landlords; 112 large merchants; 35 industrial capitalists; and 179 idle rich.]

Nevertheless, despite the unavoidable, uncomfortable public retreat and humiliation, there was immediate escalation of secret planning and preparation for a direct US invasion –sin mercenerios – as soon as possible by the Kennedy Administration. While this invasion planning proceeded without delay, President Kennedy put Attorney General Robert Kennedy in direct supervision and immediately implemented Operation Mongoose and its operations of assassination, economic sabotage, bombings and terrorism which targeted civilians, and so on. This was the context in which Fidel Castro’s government agreed to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s proposal, presented by Soviet leaders as a deterrence to US invasion plans, by placing ICBM nuclear missiles as close to US territory as US nuclear weapons were to Soviet territory in places like Turkey. Fidel Castro has spoken at length about these questions and the reluctance that the Cuban government had in accepting the Soviet proposal and accompanying pressure to place nuclear weapons on Cuban territory. (see my essay “The Legacy of the Missile Crisis, 50 Years After,” (at http://july26coalition.org/wordpress/ballad-of-a-never-ending-policy). It was essentially an offer the Cuban leadership felt they could not refuse.

Preventing “Another Cuba” in the “Cold War” Years

Cuba did become allied to the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact states during the “Cold War” decades. This was probably decisive in preventing Cuba, and the revolutionary Cuban government, from being overwhelmed by the economic and military power of the United States in the first years of the Revolution. The fate and survival of the Cuban Revolution – at the Bay of Pigs and during the “Cuban Missile Crisis – became a major “flashpoint” of that “Cold War” period. At that time in the Caribbean, Central America, and up-and-down the South American Continent, Washington was unquestionably the dominant economic, military, and political power.

From its origins the Cuban Revolution and its leadership found a great resonance worldwide, and especially across Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Both big-business parties in the US were determined to use the apparatus of US power in the Hemisphere to prevent the emulation of the Cuban Revolution and its extension in a period of intensifying national liberation and class struggles in the Americas. This included inside the United States with the rising Black liberation struggle and the growing mass movement against US aggression in Vietnam and Indochina. There was a growing layer, particularly among African-Americans, Latinos, and student youth that was attracted and sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution.

Washington’s policy was to overturn the revolutionary Cuban government and stamp it out as a dangerous, but short-lived, revolutionary meteor that would crash back down to earth. Washington failed to defeat the Cuban Revolution and smash the Cuban government and popular power. Nevertheless US imperialism did manage, at a huge cost to the working people and democratic rights in the Hemisphere, to defeat revolutionary struggles and popular upsurges in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s, and again in Central America in the 1980s.

It was the liberal Democratic Administration of Lyndon Johnson, continuing the policy of his assassinated predecessor, that orchestrated and provided key material and political support to the 1964 military coup in Brazil that deposed the reformist government of Joao Goulart in Brazil. The brutal military regime lasted until 1985. Among the greatest of Goulart’s sins in the eyes of Washington was his government’s refusal to break diplomatic relations with Cuba. The Johnson Administration invaded the Dominican Republic with nearly 25,000 troops in 1965 to “restore stability” after a military coup against the elected, progressive government of Juan Bosch, and to prevent an unfolding revolutionary dynamic there. Johnson demagogically presented the gross violation of Dominican sovereignty as the need to prevent “another Cuba.” Additionally, the Johnson White House, as it was escalating the US war against Vietnam, also oversaw the defeat of continental guerrillas, under the leadership of Ernesto Che Guevara, that were battling US-backed military and oligarchic regimes across the Americas from bases in Bolivia. The Johnson “National Security team” expedited the murder by summary execution of Che – captured in combat and unarmed – by US-backed Bolivian military forces in October 1967. The subsequent Republican White House of Richard Nixon, at the same time it was exerting itself to prevent a political-military collapse and defeat in Vietnam and Indochina, closely collaborated with the Chilean military and bourgeoisie to overthrow the elected government of Salvador Allende, (elected President in September 1970) in Chile in September, 1973.

(Footnote 6: In 1971 Salvador Allende had been elected President of Chile with a plurality of the vote, 36.6 per cent against two divided liberal and conservative bourgeois parties. Allende was a leader of the Chilean Socialist Party (SP), a mass working class party. The SP-led government and coalition, Unidad Popular, included the Chilean Communist Party, another large working-class party, and liberal middle-class parties and groups. Allende’s government coalition increased its vote to some 44 per cent in the 1973 parliamentary elections. The Allende governmental coalition faced tremendous pressures, and US-engaged destabilization projects and plots, under the Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger White House and State Department. Allende’s government re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1971 and quickly developed warm relations with the revolutionary Cuban government.]

A wave of brutal, bloody US-backed military regimes ruled across the South American continent during this period. Washington’s vicious policies were largely motivated by a hatred and fear of the consequences and potential extension of the Cuban Revolution. That is, its appeal to the oppressed and exploited peoples of the Hemisphere to rise up and conquer their national and social liberation. During these dark days of brutal rule by the US-backed militaries and oligarchies it was, in fact, the Cuban “dictatorship” that aided in every way it could – in a non-sectarian manner – the progressive and revolutionary forces defending democratic freedoms, political space, trade union legality, farmers rights, and so on. Is it any wonder that Washington’s shameless lectures to Cuba on “human rights” and “democracy” are met with such derision and contempt across the Americas and been unable to gain significant political traction in this Hemisphere.

Washington was backing, arming, and sustaining brutal military regimes that trampled on workers and peasants and upheld the interests and social status of ultra-rich landowners and capitalists and a tiny, parasitic, and oligarchic minority. The internationalist and revolutionary behavior and history of the Cuban communist leadership in that period gained it very significant international solidarity in return, especially across the Americas, including inside the United States.

Washington was a central part of the establishment of and gave political support to the military coups and regimes in Uruguay (June 1973), Chile (September 1973), Argentina (March 1976) . These regimes plus Brazil joined together with existing rightist dictatorship in Bolivia and Paraguay to organize the so-called “Operation Condor, backed by Washington. Condor unleashed a decade of terror against left-wing, labor, peasant, and popular democratic forces and organizations until it was no longer sustainable by the 1980s and collapse. This was, at the same time, a period when a revolutionary upsurge swept Central America with the triumph of the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979 and growing revolutionary armed struggles against brutal oligarchic tyrannies in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Dog Days of the “Special Period

During the dog days of the so-called “Special Period,” starting in the early 1990s, Cuba’s economy reeled in a downward spiral following the collapse of its commercial, industrial, and trade relations with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact-allied Eastern European governments. Trade with the “Soviet bloc” accounted for a lopsided 85% of Cuban trade internationally. This evaporated practically overnight and led to a rapid unraveling of the entire Cuban industrial and agricultural productivity and output and a 35% plummeting in the Cuban economy. The “Special Period” and its hard legacy is still very real to Cuban working people and the entire Cuban nation today. Recovering from that economic calamity has been an heroic, difficult undertaking for the Cuban people and government. It has been marked by modest, steady, step-by-step advances that have accumulated. Of course, it was in this period while Cuba reeled from the “Special Period” that Washington stepped up its anti-Cuba legislation – the notorious embargo-tightening Torricelli and Helms-Burton bipartisan legislation – still codified in US law – was signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton (and supported by Hillary Clinton). It was in this period that champagne was on-the-ready in Miami and Washington as the collapse and demise of the “Castro” regime and Revolution was seen as a sure bet, practically pre-ordained.

US Imperialism and Cuban “Democracy”

Above all else the Cuban Revolution was a genuine grass-roots based among ordinary working people and youth. It was a genuine people’s revolution, wildly popular initially across all social classes and strata, but particularly so among workers, peasants, and youth. To this day the Cuban Revolution remains marked by high levels of popular participation and grass-roots decision making. Through mass assemblies trade union bodies and workers assemblies debate and shape actual economic policy questions and contentions. Cuba has its own electoral system and mechanisms with an elected legislative body, the National Assembly.

Cuba’s detractors point to the electoral system in Cuba as representing “one-party rule.” It is certainly true that Cuba’s elections and decision-making processes are in no way a version of “multi-party” parliamentary “democracy” in a capitalist state. Cuba is not a country where the interests of private capital are paramount or dominant and where bourgeois political forces and large mounds of capital form or back political parties in their industrial, financial, and commercial interests. Cuba is a state where the rule of a capitalist class was overturned in the early 1960s; Cuba is a workers state where the working class is the dominant social and political power.

As Fidel Castro once said, speaking four decades into Cuba’s resistance to US aggression, and referencing the development of Cuba’s political structures and limitations on political space in the face of that aggression, “You [that is, the US government] strangle us for forty years, and then criticize the way we breathe.” This is not only a witty metaphor, but is also a very profound one. Insofar as intense counter-revolutionary political violence and economic sabotage , directed by the US government, and operated directly out of US-controlled or tolerated facilities, inside and outside of US territory, was dished out to Cuba for decades (with thousands of Cuban lives lost) it would have been irresponsible for the revolutionary Cuban government to tolerate political space inside Cuba to the very forces that Washington, and its allies among the exiled ex-bourgeoisie and out-of-power ruling class, hoped to link up with inside Cuba while unending counter-revolutionary violence and sabotage were unremitting. The Fidel Castro-led government – which was a broad team of revolutionaries and by no means subject to diktats from any one leader, no matter how authoritative – was no more or less magnanimous towards these counter-revolutionary elements and their sponsors and sustainers in Washington than the government of Abraham Lincoln was to agents of the Confederacy government of slave-owners during the US Civil War, which had become by 1864 a revolutionary war to eradicate slavery through a reconstituted United States.

Elections in Cuba

Cuba has local, regional, and national, general elections by secret ballot, in a system where it is required that at least two people, and up to eight, be on the ballot. Candidates are nominated by delineated community and neighborhood constituency meetings. Nominations are public and elections are by secret ballot. Local elections produce municipal delegates or city council representatives. General elections choose provincial assembly representatives and members of the National Assembly of People’s Power, the national parliamentary body. (For a very good and informative piece on Cuba’s electoral system see “Cuban Politics and Democracy” from the Cuban Support Group of Ireland http://www.cubasupport.com/latest/?page_id=29)

Of course Cuba’s electoral system, and its practice and historical experience in mass participation in political struggles and popular decision making, is far different in form and content than in the capitalist “representative democracies.” Whether in crisis-ridden, socially polarized advanced capitalist states or even more impoverished, crisis ridden, and dependent “Third World” capitalist “democracies,” electoral systems dominated by big business and finance with all the corruption and money-driven, intrigue, hyped-up drama, manipulative polling and surveys, horse-trading, and behind-the-scenes chicanery. All of these are amplified in the current world framework of seemingly permanent economic crisis and stagnation-depression, the disruption of the devastating austerity of “neoliberal globalization,” and permanent volatility in world capitalist equity, currency, and commodities markets. Parliamentary democratic forms in advanced capitalist states can vary widely and have been greatly restricted or even abrogated under intensifying social and economic pressures and polarizations in rightist or military coups when they become a threat to the stability of capitalist power and rule. Latin America’s history in this regard is particularly profound.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that Cuba began to institutionalize its electoral system and procedures. The forms and practice that emerged were far from any carbon copy of the system and procedures in the bureaucratized Soviet Union and Eastern European governments. (See Marta Harnecker’s 1979 book, Cuba: Dictatorship or Democracy?) Although “Western,” and especially US media, attempt to paint post-Revolution and contemporary Cuba as some kind of Kafkaesque “tropical Stalinism” (in the sophistic phrase of a Washington Post editorial), the fact is that the chief characteristics of Cuban socialism since the Revolution in terms of mass political participation, cultural freedom, agricultural and industrial policies (e.g. there never were in Cuba any forced collectivization policies on the land), not to speak of giant advances in women’s rights and against race discrimination since the Revolution has been to advance not restrict or repress the freedoms of and for the masses of Cubans. Cuban institutions were always largely distinct from the forms and structures of the Soviet-bloc states that Cuba was allied with for its national security. That is completely the case today.

You can agree or disagree, find admirable or limited, uneven and contradictory, with the Cuban electoral system as it is currently constituted. But what it is, and how its procedures have developed all fundamentally flow out of the incessant and unremitting aggression – in many forms, not all of them violent, but some of them egregiously so – from the United States government based on a policy, that is, a political commitment, to overturn the revolutionary Cuban government by any means possible. To the degree Washington is able to materially end the full legacy and impact of decades of anti-Cuba policies and move toward real normalization, it is only to that degree that the Cuban revolutionary process will continue to institutionalize democratic rights and civil liberties inside and within the socialist revolution.

Mass Participation

In the earliest years of the Cuban Revolution political reality was marked by the mass mobilizations of Cuban workers, peasants, youth, women, intellectuals around campaigns to eliminate illiteracy and to transform Cuban medicine and medical system to ensure the free right of every Cuban or individual residing in Cuba to have access to medical care and treatment. The overwhelming majority of Cubans were enthusiastically involved in the defense of the Revolution that was under attack through military service and armed civilian militias.

Mass organizations in Cuba such as the neighborhood –based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) are caricatured in the US corporate media as “Big Brother”-style state institutions repressing independent Cuban political activity. In truth, the CDRs became a great grass-roots form of democratic participation and mobilization of a people’s revolution under siege, an institution on the front-lines of defending the sovereignty of the Cuban masses. The CDRs, the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC), the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), and other mass organizations of family farmers, students and youth, and others are the organizational expression of mass participation and in decision-making on every level of Cuban society. The CDRs in particular were crucial to the mass self-defense and self-organization of the Cuban people as a whole to counter decade after decade of US-backed assaults and terrorism against Cuba. This US-based aggression that has been barely reported in US commercial media, but since the triumph of the Revolution it has cost Cuba thousands of civilian lives and many tens of billions of dollars in in economic and financial costs to the Cuban workers state.

One of the few significant deficiencies – a blot even, for a period of time in the first decade or so of the Revolution – was a practice and policies that promoted, or at least did not counter, a stigma against gay and lesbian Cubans. There was repression and detention for some and intimidation for many. Nevertheless this was overcome, and even turned into its opposite, in a relatively short time, to the point where there are few, if any, places today in the Caribbean and Latin America where gays and lesbians have more political and cultural space and more legal protections today than in Cuba. Transgender and transsexual procedures are included among Cuba’s free medical procedures available to all Cubans.

Unwinding US Subversion

The only possible basis for there to be more political space and less repressive measures (not unjustified) against US clients or those Cubans citizens with pro-capitalist and anti-socialist and anti-revolutionary views, and for further legal and practical measures to that effect, would be for Washington to cease its ongoing and real-time programs and policies aimed at undermining, subverting, instigating, and provoking, in short aiming to create conditions inside Cuba for the overthrow of the revolutionary Cuban government.

To the degree that this policy commitment is itself overturned in legislation and practice (and this will require, the repeal of Torricelli and Helms-Burton legislation and a slew of other anti-Cuba measures codified in US law) then the so-called “dissidents” will be able to further increase the political space they have. It would be absurd to expect – and it will never happen – that the Cuban government will turn a blind eye while Washington funds subversive projects involving its client groups and individuals in Cuba. The fact is that Cuban political reality, and the successful pushing back of Washington’s attempts at asphyxiation, over the past few years has shown more clearly the near-complete lack of independent political weight in Cuban society of the Washington-nurtured “opposition,” that is, their political irrelevance. In general the Washington “dissidents” are a small, even tiny, minority in Cuba that prefers support and sustenance from their US benefactors to any participation in existing Cuban mass organizations and political structures. Their support base is in Washington, not Cuba. None of this means, however, that contentious and wide-ranging debates are not taking place across the full spectrum of political engaged and mobilized Cuban society, including in the trade unions and mass organizations.

It will undoubtedly be a difficult undertaking for Washington to unwind and consign to the history books the programs and large number of personnel, both in the US and its agents and clients in Cuba, that have toiled unsuccessfully at the chore of overthrowing the Cuban Revolution. Doing so would be a big challenge to the United States government. So far there are no signs of any preparation to even consider doing so. The March 20, 2016 New York Times points out that Obama has “made no pledges to end United States democracy programs in Cuba that aim to undercut the communist government there.” These so-called “democracy programs” are a fake and a fraud. They are continually exposed as crude and corrupt (funds meant for US clients in Cuba regularly end up in the pockets of private families). These attempts to forge an artificial “opposition” inside Cuba are blatant interventions against Cuban sovereignty. But ending these “regime change” policies is precisely what is needed, alongside codifying in law the end of US economic sanctions and their extraterritoriality, and returning Guantanamo Bay to a sovereign Cuba to fully normalize US-Cuban relations.

Unfortunately for Washington the Cuban workers state has shown over more than five decades that it will not only defend itself – to the respect and even esteem of world public opinion – but that it knows how to defend itself on every front, political and military. And for the Cuban revolutionaries, the most important front has always been political.

Ike Nahem
New York City
May 15, 2016

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About July 26th Coalition

What became the July 26 Coalition began when supporters of the Cuban Revolution in New York and New Jersey joined together in 2003 to organize a major, united event to mark and celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953.
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