article I wrote about the Cuban protests on my blog when it was in the news
Cuba is one of the few remaining communist states. Most of these states collapsed either with the fall of the Soviet Union, or breakup of Yugoslavia. The strongest of the remaining is easily China, but unlike China Cuba is hanging on by a thread. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the Island nation has been sputtering along economically, trying it's hardest to hold itself together. For generations the left has idealized the Cuban regime just as steadily as the US and the right have demonized it.
For the left the nation is a shinning pillar of anti-imperialist resistance, for the right and US authorities it is a dismal example of communist totalitarianism. Are either of these positions justified? In the past week the most significant protests since the special period (the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse) have taken place, so the question of the nature of Cuba and it's current crises has again occupied the world-stage. So, is it communist totalitarianism to blame for Cuba's situation? Simply, no. Totalitarianism as a concept doesn't mean much in the first place. Even the most dictatorial regimes have bureaucratic procedures, the idea of any regime, especially one as rickety as Cuba, having total control over society, is just inane. It also simply isn't the case that Cuba's problems can be totally reduced to regime itself. America currently suffocates the country with an embargo that it implemented purely as retaliation for the regime aligning with the Soviet Union. While Obama normalized relations, Trump designated it a state sponsor of terrorism, and Biden, even according to the white house secretary, has no inclination to alter US pressure on Cuba despite running on it during his campaign. Such efforts would receive opposition in congress anyway.
So does the blame rest on US imperialism? Partly, but the idea that this explains even most of the problems is simply naïve. Cuba has it's own social structures and authorities which have an independent place in the world. All the US has done is put pressure, extremely destructive pressure, but it has never been successful in making Cuba into a crypto-colony like it was before the revolution, despite no lack of trying. Cuba is a sovereign nation, whereas Palestine for example essentially isn't and Afghanistan for another is still occupied by the US government. So what is the real issue at the base of all this?
Cuba as we know it today is the living record of a strategy pursued by the socialist movement of the 20th century in order to overthrow capitalism and change the world. This strategy consisted of taking state power and then using that state power to change society; two-steps. So in 1959 the 26th of July movement replaced the Batista regime which had been ousted by popular unrest. Soon after this happened the leadership drifted toward the Soviet Union and it's Marxist-Leninist ideology because relations between it and the country which backed the dictatorship that formerly controlled it naturally soured. In addition to the Embargo the United States also tried to overthrow the regime outright, planting rebels who were routed in the Bey of Pigs incident. Against US hostility Cuba took the other side in the Cold War and set about trying to change Cuban society in a socialist direction.
The problem was, however, that since the 1920s in the Soviet Union "socialism" in the language of communist states didn't mean what it meant before and during the Russian Revolution. Throughout the communist world all "socialism" really meant was a process of mercantile capital accumulation where the "socialist states" would give themselves whatever advantage they could on the world-market by only partly insulating themselves from it. The "socialist world" wasn't "socialist" at all, if what you mean by socialism is an alternative to capitalism. The socialist world was simply one political incarnation of the larger capitalist world. Cuba became no different. The regime's survival was tied to effective participation in the world-economy. What the regime did end up doing was carrying out land reform and constructing a social safety net that helped lift the former colony out of the dark ages, Cuban healthcare is still an achieving sector. However, this was the compromise the underwrote labor intensive capital accumulation.
At one point workers were simply ideologically extorted to increase the intensity of work and not paid a dime more for it, beside some social prestige. This kind of social compromise was actually the norm for the whole capitalist world from the end of World War until the 70s. The economic driver of the regime remained it's colonial sugar trade where sugar exports financed the national economy. This type of export of food/raw material is the typical pattern of trade for a country situated in the doldrums of the world-economy. This lead to an ill-advised campaign in the 70s to harvest 10 million tons of sugar which ultimately produced economic crises. Cuba, like the other COMCON members, was economically subordinate to the Soviet Union, and so became dependent on exporting to it at prices which the Soviets artificially inflated. When the Soviet Union collapsed Cuba's purchasing power declined by 70%. It has only been able to skate by through joint ventures with foreign capital as well as opening up a tourism industry.
The recent protests were produced by economic hardship resulting from covid wiping out the tourism industry. The regime has implemented austerity in order to cope with this by unifying it's US currency convertible peso with the regular peso and moving goods into stores that only accept foreign money, leaving those who have to work to buy foreign currency out in the cold and producing queues outside stores. Essentially the regime is sacrificing the well-being of it's people in order to gain desperately needed participation in the world-market. The sorry state of Cuba is typical for any country in the periphery of the capitalist world-economy. Governments and social norms are usually more repressive, economic well-being for the mass of people is usually depressed, and social destabilization is easy to come by. Being in the periphery means being at the bottom of the world-division of labor where all the extraction and exploitation that feeds the core takes place. So the issue here is not communist totalitarianism, or even primarily US imperialism, the issue is peripheral development in the capitalist world-economy.
So, what happened to socialism? Why did we get peripheral capitalism with a communist face instead? This is for the same reason that the rest of the socialist world failed to break from the capitalist world. The two-step strategy. It was assumed that the power of the state structures could allow communists to make accelerated progressive social change. In reality holding state power meant being subject to the world-economy and it's political hierarchy of nation-states, i.e., it meant submission to the status quo. The only option for movements with state power was to recast "socialism" as a synonym for development at their respective node within the capitalist world-system.
Ignoring this reality is the central tenant of the pseudo-analysts of both right and left. US officials and right wing Cuban Americans cast the issue as one of communist tyranny, not understanding the social basis of the Cuban regime in the capitalist world-system. This same lack of understanding leads leftists to simply assume that the protests are neo-Bey of Pigs with no evidence other than the supposition that any organic social unrest under a socialist government and victim of American imperialism must be impossible. The most important thing the left outside of Cuba can do is understand this reality; that Cuba's current situation is the result of the failure of the two-step strategy to bring anti-capitalist social change. Opposing the embargo would also be advisable.