Obama’s and Cuba—A new chapter?

This article is a translation of "Obama en Cuba—een nieuw hoofdstuk?"

After November 2014, Barack Obama apparently gave up the idea of seeking to mollify the Republican Party henceforth controlling both houses of the US Congress. With little to lose any longer in his remaining two years in office, Obama has not only begun to work on the closure of the Guantánamo prison camp, one of his key original promises in the election of 2008. He also has ended the attempt to isolate the communist island state itself. In the annual vote in the UN General Assembly to end the US boycott of Cuba, only Israel and the tiny Pacific island state of Palau continued to side with the Americans. Thanks to the mediation of Pope Francis, an Argentinean himself, this charade can now in principle be terminated.

Whilst president John F. Kennedy, who originally imposed the blockade, was already assassinated in 1963, Fidel Castro survived a legendary series of attempts at his life orchestrated under nine subsequent US presidents, with Cuban exiles, the mafia and the CIA. And although he has meanwhile retired from active politics himself, his brother Raúl was able to speak to Obama as the still uncontested ruler of the island state. In a speech to the Cuban population he has sought to dampen all too naïve expectations that great changes are ahead.

From my own brief experience in Cuba in November 2012, which included a plenary address at a conference at the University of Havana and a tour of the western half of the island, I could easily see the difference with the Soviet bloc states of the past. Certainly I needed no reminding that Cuba too is necessarily a state socialism with a particular repressive aspect that should not be minimised. Socialism cannot exist next to capitalist imperialism without surrendering some of its key characteristics in the sphere of direct democracy to the need for vigilance, and those entrusted with its defence will always seek to perpetuate their power. But there is something authentic and vigorous about society in Cuba that is the legacy of a domestic revolution which only later turned to Soviet protection.

Cuban state socialism will continue to have to defend itself if it persists in a political economic order that is anathema to its merciless northern neighbour. It is the far lesser party in a highly unequal balance, up against a behemoth which has never once granted a single state the right to decide on its own fate if that implied taking its distance from US or Western oversight. The relentless probing of every nook and cranny on the island to find ways for stirring unrest, most recently the pitiful attempt by USAID to turn Cuba’s rap scene into a channel for dissent, also makes it clear that a multiparty system with professional politicians as we have it, instead of the graded neighbourhood and workplace representation of the one-party state, would only serve to facilitate US (and no doubt, EU) intervention.

This intervention promises to rely on the regime change techniques I discuss in chapter 5 of my Discipline of Western Supremacy (Pluto Press, 2014). The idea of deploying ‘swarming adolescents’ against unwanted governments was developed in the psychological warfare branch of the British military in the 1960s. Of course the ‘swarms’ must be there in the first place, but the eventual resignation of De Gaulle, destabilized by the May 68 youth movement, demonstrated the viability of the principle. In the United States, Harvard Gene Sharp launched the Albert Einstein Institute in 1983 and worked with US intelligence officers in various countries. Sharpe’s notion of ‘withdrawing consent’ through peaceful occupations of public spaces, with campsites and round-the-clock pop festivals, dovetailed with the ‘democracy promotion’ campaign for which the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was to provide the backup. As the Soviet bloc began to crumble, the unleashing of ‘swarming adolescents’ on reforming or newly constituted states to ensure their full conversion to the neoliberal model was tried out on various occasions. The USAID attempt to utilise the Cuban rap scene acquires its meaning in this context, but so do Obama’s specific references to ‘civil society’ in Cuba, and so on. There is not the slightest doubt that the Cuban state will face the democracy promotion machinery developed across the Florida straits once substantial discontent would manifest itself.

Where would such discontent come from? Here the resurgence of a Cuban bourgeoisie, notably those with assets such as homes from before the revolution they are allowed to rent out as casas, private bed-and-breakfasts, is relevant. These owners earn CUCs (the tourist currency intended to prevent tourists to profit from low peso prices) and so do many others, from impromptu service providers to prostitutes. The distorting effect of this two-currency system includes, as I discovered myself, taxis being driven by economists or agronomists who prefer CUCs to the peso income on which they would have to depend if employed by the state according to their qualifications. Plans to revoke the dual currency system are still being postponed. My hunch would be that if this is not dealt with equitably, in such a way that the supporters of the socialist system, such as the black Cubans who enjoy the relative (not absolute) absence of racism, no longer feel duped by it, discontent might arise at some point, with the children of the ascendant bourgeoisie a potential ‘swarm of adolescents’.

The other immediate danger to the Cuban system concerns its economy and more particularly, agriculture, where unique developments have been taking place. Here I base myself on Sylvia Kay’s ‘Alternatives to Agribusiness: Agro-ecology and the Peasant Principle’, a chapter in my forthcoming edited collection, Handbook of the International Political Economy of Production (Edward Elgar, for publication in January 2015). According to her analysis, small farmers in Cuba have been at the forefront of a transition from export-oriented, industrial agriculture towards agro-ecological farming. Their knowledge and use of organic fertilisers, biological forms of pest control, and animal traction made them remarkably adept at responding to the Cuban economic crisis that followed the collapse of the USSR. The movement of small farmers, MACAC, which comprised a nucleus of 200 families in 1999, by 2009 had grown to encompass 110 000 families—a third of the total peasant sector. Its success rests on the dissemination of good practice by farmers themselves, which makes costly overhead unnecessary. Cuba’s food sovereignty policy, forced on it after the Soviet demise, led to overcoming its food shortage by 1995, and from 1996 to 2005, Cuba recorded an annual growth in per capita food production of 4.2 percent compared to a regional average of 0 (zero) in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the best results coming from MACAC-type farms.

However, it is also obvious that Cuba has only achieved this by turning a very specific disadvantage (the collapse of the USSR combined with the continuing American embargo) into an advantage. The specific circumstances under which a promising new form of agriculture, socially and ecologically beneficial from the long-term perspective, could take root, will be suspended sooner or later. Also, the shift from the agricultural state sector to cooperatives and privately run farms may become imbricated with the resurgence of a Cuban (petty) bourgeoisie, whose offspring may one day come to confront the political status-quo in the island state.

The outcome is obviously uncertain, however much I hope that the Cuban experiment will be prolonged in the changing circumstances, helped by the creativity and democratic spirit that the Cubans have become renowned for. A spirit that over the years has sustained the solidarity with countries in need the world over, most recently through its dispatch of 300 medical personnel to Ebola-stricken West Africa.

To achieve a truly socialist society is inevitably beyond the reach of a single Caribbean island in a capitalist universe, but the world would be a much impoverished place without the Cuba as it exists today.

Kees van der Pijl

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