by Bob Buzzanco
A few days ago, the self-described socialist magazine New Politics put out an editorial, penned by Lois Weiner and Daniel Fischer, titled “NP on Cuba: Consistent Oppostion to US Imperialism and Support of Democratic Rights.” The image attached to the editorial was a Green and Red Podcast Facebook post that I had put up featuring an article by Greg Shupak titled “Solidarity With Cuba More Important Than Ever,” and I indelicately finished my post by writing “Viva Cuba and F**k You to New Politics and other jargon-laden ‘leftists’ who are on the wrong side of history.”
It wasn’t the first time either I or the Green and Red Podcast had specifically endorsed articles or essays in support of the Cuban people and the Cuban state amid a 60-year war of aggression coming from the United States and more specifically after a series of protests in Cuba on July 11th that many self-described leftists supported.
New Politics and writers associated with it like Samuel Farber (a Cuban-born socialist who’s made a career by attacking socialists and communists), Charlie Post, and Ashley Smith had been writing strong endorsements of the July 11th protests since they happened (and not responding to Green and Red’s critique of their pieces, choosing to ignore us rather than defend their position). This wasn’t surprising since New Politics has for 60 years considered itself a Third Camp publication, neither capitalist nor “authoritarian or totalitarian” Left. Their writers are experts at “equivalency.”
New Politics, in its articles and its response, took a “both sides” approach to the Cuba issue, rightly offering rhetorical condemnation of the U.S. embargo but strongly supporting the protests as an organic and legitimate expression of the democratic rights of the Cuba people to stand up to a dictatorial regime. This was not a position exclusive to the magazine as other people on the left and self-described anarchists on social media also weighed in on the side of the protests. What was striking about the New Politics editorial, however, was that it offered no specific reason to support the Cuban protests, but merely repeated and cited arguments and articles it’s been making since it began publication. It took several ideas that it has been cooking for decades, put them in the microwave for 3 minutes, and then served them disguised as a new gourmet meal.
My point, like many others on the Left (and I’d especially recommend a Manolo De Los Santos and Vijay Prashad article “If You Grew Up With the U.S. Blockade as a Cuban, You Might Understand the Recent Protests Differently”), was that no discussion of Cuba can take place without an overwhelming emphasis on the U.S. embargo and six-decade war of aggression, heightened by a new set of 200+ sanctions imposed by the Trump administration after the beginning of a thaw between Washington and Havana initiated by Barack Obama and Raul Castro, and that any protest inside Cuba, no matter the intention, was going to have U.S. and Miami fingerprints on it and serve the interests of the Miami mafia and the American “National Security” establishment.
Condemning the embargo while supporting the protests, I contended, was intellectually vacuous and politically reactionary and served no purpose but to strengthen the forces that would remove socialism from Cuba and turn it into its pre-1959 status as an economic outpost for American oligarchic interests. Nothing in Cuba takes place without some, substantial in fact, involvement from Miami, and it’s been that way since January 1st, 1959. In addition, these supporters of the protests neglected to consider just how much progress Cuba had made under socialism, with a gold-standard health and education system and support for liberation movements worldwide.
The best example of my argument came during an episode of Green and Red Podcast with my co-host and comrade Scott Parkin which we titled “What the Left Owes Cuba” and which, I strongly presume, no one at New Politics heard or watched (I also spoke on this at some length in an interview on “Flashpoints” with Dennis Bernstein). Perhaps if some of these “even-handed” leftists had listened to our argument, they’d have been able to offer some substance to their critique, rather than condemn it because it didn’t fit their ideological predispositions.
What Cuba has Done
I don’t see any point in repeating what we said on that podcast in detail here. If New Politics editors or anyone else on the Left wants to understand our support of Cuba, it can listen to our detailed explanation on the podcast. But there are a few things worth mentioning as a rejoinder to the shameful position that people who call themselves socialist but support the Miami-inspired attempt to overthrow socialism in Cuba have taken.
On the podcast Scott and I discussed with many specifics the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution. They are well-known and can be heard on that episode or easily researched on the internet. Just to name a few, Cuba now has a life expectancy exactly the same as the U.S (see World Bank data on Cuban Life Expectancy here ). Cuba’s health care system ranks 39th in the world, just two spots behind the U.S., yet its health care expenditures are 181st, while the U.S is 1st. The U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate than Cuba, and African Americans have an infant mortality rate three times higher. Cuba spends more on education than any country in the world, 13 percent of its budget.
Health care in Cuba is obviously socialized, so no one is denied medical treatment and no one goes bankrupt due to illness. More recently, Cuba has a COVID rate of about 250 deaths per million, which is about one-eighth of the American COVID death rate. It’s now vaccinating children as young as 2 against COVID and has developed vaccines for cancer and hepatitis. Its medical internationalism is well-known as Cuban doctors have saved lives across the globe (anecdotally, I was in Italy at the outbreak of COVID in early 2020 and while the European Union sat on its hands, Cuban doctors arrived in hard-hit Lombardy to help deal with the Coronavirus outbreak and the Cubans are appreciated and loved by a large segment of Italians).
Cuba, with all its problems, is a model for the less-developed world, with quality-of-life indicators superior to most American-supported countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and even some of the larger states like India or Russia. And I’d also suggest that the residents of a typical poor neighborhood in a larger American city (Detroit, New Orleans, D.C., Cleveland, and others) would gladly trade their standards of living and healthcare with Cubans without thinking twice about it. Yet Leftists in the U.S. rather than showing solidarity for Havana, are undermining it and ignoring so many of its accomplishments.
Cuba has also trained doctors in the U.S. and even sent a delegation to Chicago to help address the crisis in infant mortality there. Cuba also has been deemed to have the world’s best sustainable agricultural system (see “Cuba Ranks as World’s Most Sustainable Developed Country”). Most of this is already known or easy to learn, so I’ll just leave this topic here, but you can also check out “Cuba Has Trained 170 Doctors from the U.S. for Free” and Vijay Prashad, “Why Cuban Doctors Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.”
We also talked about the vital role Cuba has played in supporting liberation movements across the globe, especially in apartheid southern Africa, in Vietnam, in Palestine, and elsewhere. Again, these stories are well known and easily researched, and I’ve written a couple pieces on them—“Cuba, Race, and African Liberation,” and “Fidel Castro (1926-2016) and Global Solidarity.”
Oh, and they know how to rebuild from a hurricane too.
Is Cuba a Repressive State?
The key point in the New Politics and other Leftists support of the July 11th protests is that it was an organic and internal expression of displeasure with the regime. And on this point, there is no doubt that a number of Cubans surely had and continue to have grievances with the government in Havana. There is no place in the world that does not have people who are unhappy or angry. Cuba is a very poor country which has taken even more serious hits the past couple years, especially with the Trump sanctions and the huge loss of tourism money during COVID. Any state would have serious problems weathering such crises, yet the Cubans have been living under such duress for decades now and made impressive progress nonetheless.
Anecdotally, I spend a couple weeks in Cuba in 2017. I arrived the day after Trump reversed the Obama program for rapprochement and introduced new sanctions, and I heard a significant number of Cubans—drivers, vendors at the local market, people who stopped me to talk about baseball because I had a Yankees shirt on, and others—complain in strong terms about the situation there (and I make no claim to being an expert on Cuba after two weeks there, but I have studied Cuban-American relations throughout my academic career and have read extensively in the literature on Cuba and countless documents released by the NSC, CIA and other government agencies and have communicated with Cuban scholars and many Americans who’d been to the island with the Venceremos Brigade and other groups…..so I do know a little bit).
They told of not getting as much food as they had before, of paying high fees for licenses to drive or sell goods at the markets, of a small number of Cubans holding the majority of dollars, of neighbors snitching on them. Universally, they expressed their contempt for Trump but also spoke of wanting to visit New York, Miami, and even Houston. A few, while pointing out how safe Cuba was (a vital point that rarely gets mentioned in these condemnations from the Left), also used the term “security state” to describe the way the government ran the country. There are documented cases of opposition political leaders who have been harassed or detained or jailed. No one the Left really supports a system where people get in trouble for free expression, but political conditions in Cuba are not easily described and not always what they seem to be, especially when an immense embargo and Miami-sponsored terrorism is involved.
So, yes, of course, there are disaffected and angry Cubans, but the ease with which they complained also undermined the idea that Cuba is a totalitarian state where free speech is policed and forbidden. Especially when compared to other societies, like the U.S., say, Cubans experience political limits on par with most other places. I don’t know if there are Cubans who call the police on Black men who are bird-watching at local parks, but I do know that the Cuban authorities don’t kill people at anywhere near the rate that American cops do. Again, a few anecdotes which really were enlightening (and in the absence of official data, sometimes narrating experiences is useful). . . . .
When I arrived, I met up with an educator with whom I had an acquaintance in common. We walked to Old Havana and while on the way encountered large numbers of Cubans just living their lives. They were outside with their neighbors, drinking rum and listening to music. They were hawking cigars on the street. We walked past a busy park where younger men and women were showing off their cars (and Cuba’s restored cars are well-known and a sight to behold) and listening to music and dancing and drinking and he nudged me, smiled, and said “look at all that repression in Cuba.”
On the day I was leaving to go to the airport, the woman who was taking care of the apartment where I stayed (who came from a working class family with a daughter finishing medical school) was seeing us off when a fumigator sent by the city came to the door (yes, Havana sends out people to kill cockroaches) and she told him to come back because the guests were still there. My Spanish is really limited, but I could make out that he wanted to get the job done at that point but she admonished him to come back later, and he left.
But the incident that stood out the most, especially when compared the way police in the U.S. act, occurred one day as I walked along the Malecón. Two young men, probably late teenagers, were walking along with their shirts off. A cop, who was unarmed by the way, told them to put their shirts on, which of course was a ridiculous expression of power. But what shocked me was that the kids started mouthing off to the cop. I was frightened for them, assuming that the police would use coercion to force compliance. But they continued to argue back and forth for a minute and finally the cop made an expression with his hand as if he was writing, to imply that he’d issue a citation to the kids. So they finally began to walk away, but ever-so-slowly put their shirts on and looked back at the cops and made hand motions the whole time. It was the behavior of teenagers anywhere in the world, but it was also immediately clear to me that the precise same encounter in the U.S. between young Black kids and American cops would possibly, if not likely, end up with the young people arrested, pinned to the ground, or maybe even shot and killed.
The question of basic freedoms and liberties in a socialist state is not one that any Leftist should take lightly. Ideally, we’d all live in societies where we could express ourselves freely without any fear of penalty or retribution. Cuba has over the years taken a hard line against and even imprisoned some critics of the state. While I believe (see below) that these critics are wittingly or not working on behalf of the interests of the Miami mafia, it’s still unfortunate. But at the same time it’s important to understand that Cuba’s restrictions on civil liberties are, unfortunately, typical of any state in the world.
It’s also worth noting that on July 11th, amid the protests, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel went out into the streets of Havana and talked to some of the demonstrators, which is something Fidel Castro did countless times as well. Compare that to Donald Trump’s armed photo op at St. John’s last summer and the distinction could not be more obvious.
Moreover, when compared to repressive states in the so-called Third World, like Colombia or Guatemala or Haiti or El Salvador or Honduras or Brazil, Cuba genuinely stands out for the comparative freedom its citizens have–I always use the phrase “at ease” to describe the Cubans I met; they’re not constantly anxious or angry and living on Xanax or anti-depressants. But even here in the most wealthy state in the world, I as a professor in Texas have been told I am not allowed to even mention to my students that they should wear masks amid a massive deadly pandemic. And last summer we all saw how the forces of order attacked peaceful protestors, including medics and journalists and walls of moms, in the streets. So the idea that Cuba is somehow uniquely oppressive is simply wrong. We’re not talking about the Khmer Rouge here (and even the Miami mobsters, while generically condemning the government in Havana, don’t allege anything like you’d see in various U.S. client states), yet the people at New Politics and elsewhere offered little nuance in their condemnations.
Cuba’s not paradise, as we all know, but it’s hardly the repressive caricature that Miami or New Politics have put forth.
Who Benefits from Cuban Instability?
Obviously, Cuba’s main enemies are just north of the island. In the aftermath of the Revolution, Cuban oligarchs fled to the U.S., especially Miami, and basically set up a rump state there and began organizing and conducting terrorist activities against the government in Havana, the best-known of which was the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. In fact, in my research I’ve seen stories about various terror groups training in the Everglades and elsewhere that were so matter-of-fact that they read like an engagement announcement on the society page.
Despite that American-sponsored invasion and countless other attempts to subvert Cuba or assassinate Fidel Castro—well-documented in the Church Committee findings—socialism in Cuba survived, but at a huge price. The U.S. has placed the most brutal embargo in history on Cuba for six decades, causing perhaps $1 trillion in damages to the Cuban economy (U.S. estimates are much lower but still substantial), a massive price for a small island of about 11 million people.
It has prevented Third countries from selling goods to Cuba and prevented the Cubans from getting even medical equipment. It would take far too many pages to explain the damages done to the Cuban economy by the embargo but even the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has pointed out that it has been terribly destructive and needs to end. See its “Report of the UN Secretary-General: Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba (A/68/116).”
Indeed, on June 23d, 2021 the U.N. voted on a Cuban motion to end the blockade, and it was supported by 184 countries while two, the U.S. and Israel, voted no. It was the 29th year that the U.N. voted to end the embargo.
And it was the 29th time the U.S. ignored the U.N. Helen Yaffe, a well-known scholar and author of We Are Cuba, an incisive look at the way that Cubans have dealt not only with the embargo but also the end of Soviet support in the 1980s and 1990s, has shown how the Cubans have introduced select market reforms (which are obvious to anyone visiting the island), while it maintained important social programs, created a sustainable agricultural system, developed globally-recognized biotech industries, created an important energy sector, and kept its gold-standard health system. But, as Yaffe wrote, “Cuba’s critics blame the government for the daily hardships Cubans face, dismissing US sanctions as an excuse. This is like blaming a person for not swimming well when they are chained to the ground. The US blockade of Cuba is real. It is the longest and most extensive system of unilateral sanctions applied against any country in modern history. It affects every aspect of Cuban life.”
The American Left doesn’t have to like everything the Cuban government does; it doesn’t have to expect every “victim” to be upright and beyond reproach (what I call “the Rosa Parks Syndrome”). It’s simply facile to suggest that the Cuban government should be condemned for having an imperfect and at times illiberal political system when its internal conditions are so often conditioned by outside forces it cannot control, and when we tolerate far worse elsewhere, including inside the U.S. New Politics has expectations and set standards for Cuba that no state, especially a smaller and poorer country under siege, could meet, and yet it condemns it for containing forces that would overthrow its entire social system.
American politicians, especially Cuban-Americans, have also had a huge role in suppressing Cuban development and keeping Cubans impoverished. Senators from Florida and New Jersey, as well as many representatives from the southern Florida area, have led the long-term American effort to tighten the embargo against Cuba in the hopes of ousting the socialist government there. Various foundations, working closely with the U.S. government, have worked with anti-Castro groups that have used propaganda and terrorism (most notably the bombing of a civilian airliner which killed all 76 people on board masterminded by Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile working with U.S. government agents and later given refuge in Florida) against the people of Cuba. Their goal is simple: to overthrow the Cuban government and return to power the thugs and gangsters and U.S. corporate allies who ran the country during the Batista years, when Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth became bigger than U.S. Steel.
In the most recent protests the U.S. media and many of these leftist anti-Cuban writers have emphasized the role that “marginalized youth” as well as rappers, rock musicians, artists, and journalists have played in the street actions of July 11th, spouting the slogal “Patria y Vida,” or “country and life,” a contrast to the revolutionary slogan “Patria o Muerte,” homeland or death.
But those groups are not simply organic pockets of protest but bear the imprimatur of Miami. In a recent article in The Intercept by Max Blumenthal (if that troubles you, just imagine it was written by “Joe Smith” and appeared in The Nation because the information is spot on and vital, and the article was reprinted in MR Online) he detailed how groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID, working with Department of State officials and other right-wing Latin American groups (like those that have supported the claims of U.S. client Juan Guaido’ in Venezuela) have sponsored the “San Isidro Movement” and other protestors who claim to be merely Cubans disaffected with the government but are actually doing Miami’s dirty work. Indeed, the San Isidro group even received an award from the “Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation,” a Republican-affiliated think tank that includes Nazi soldiers in World War II on its list of the victims of communism.
Again, the role of Miami in undermining, subverting, and terrorizing the people of Cuba is well established and can easily be researched. That doesn’t mean that Cubans went out to protest with the intention of aiding Miami, but any disaffection in Cuba is generally engineered and absolutely and inevitably exploited by Calle 8.
What’s Your End Game?
Finally, I think the crucial question, perhaps the one that overwhelmingly matters the most, is “what are you trying to do with your criticism?” To the editors of New Politics and to other self-described radicals who attacked the Cuban response to the protests of July 11th and supported the people in the streets (and, by the way, it’s useful to note that the “massive” protests described by many of these critics involved perhaps 500-1000 people in about 8 cities) I would ask “what’s your end game?”
What will Left criticism of Cuba accomplish? How will it benefit the people in the streets of Cuba protesting? Where’s your solidarity?
Díaz-Canel isn’t going to read New Politics and say “well, the U.S. Left is critical of me……I better change course,” nor should he. The underdeveloped world will continue to remember the solidarity, the spirit of Tri-Continentalism, that Cuba has displayed over the past sixty years. Indeed, the day after the protests, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador did not support the demonstrators but instead said “the truth is that if one wanted to help Cuba, the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba as the majority of countries in the world are asking. . . . That would be a truly humanitarian gesture. No country in the world should be fenced in, blockaded.”
What will the so-called left attack on Cuba mean? People on the Left in the U.S. and Europe are pretty well established in their support or opposition to the Cuban government. The response to the July 11th protests fell along traditional lines, with many on the Left supporting the Cuban government while others, especially Trotskyists like you can find at New Politics and elsewhere, supporting the protests. The impact on the Left of these critics was negligible if there was any at all.
Ah, but what did it mean in Miami? New Politics and other Leftists who attacked the Cuban government due to the protests served Miami’s interests. Let’s not go overboard here and suggest that Miami needed help from insignificant Left publications, but the reality is that any time a U.S. “radical” criticizes Cuba or any other socialist or non-Capitalist country it serves the interests of the Empire. Miami Cubans can, and have, said that “even American radicals” know that Cuba’s government is a dictatorship. They can call for armed intervention against Havana and invoke Americans who have criticized the government. They can advocate for even more sanctions and an even harsher embargo because the U.S. media has featured alleged Leftists who have supported the protests.
The U.S. has no foreign power attacking its sovereignty or clamping it down with the biggest embargo in history or meddling with domestic groups to serve its own interests (indeed, look at how incensed and often irrational Americans became at the RUSSIA! story), so Americans have no sense of what it’s like to be under 24/7/365 siege. Under such conditions in Cuba, any demonstration is a gift to Miami and any support shown for those protestors is a blow to the Cubans. The events of July 11th, which were limited in scope and then enlarged by the U.S. media, have been already used by the Empire and its apologists against Havana and they will continue to be invoked to justify intervening against and eliminating socialism there.
The U.S. Left is not big enough or important enough to have a huge role in American policy toward Cuba—if it was, the embargo would be spoken of in the past tense—but it is adds another piece to the Miami attack on Cuba and when it serves the interest of empire, as Farber, Post, Smith and others have done, it will be used by the ruling class media.
And finally we should remind ourselves and our comrades on the Left, especially those who are so critical of socialist states, as Vijay Prashad did in a recent discussion over the work of David Harvey, that “you live on the other side of imperialism.” There are plenty of governments in the world that are both repressive and are victims of the U.S. empire. One need not support the regimes in Beijing or Damascus or anywhere else to oppose the empire, but in the case of Havana, defending the benefits of its revolution and its global solidarity isn’t a hard call. And in any event, no matter where, the U.S. Left must take an unconditional stand against the Empire. The Left needs to give anti-imperialism equal billing to class solidarity at home. They’re symbiotic and you can’t demand fundamental change inside the U.S. and simultaneously defend meddling in Cuba.
If I were to give the Left 100 reasons to support Cuba, numbers 1-100 would be simply “End the Embargo.” Publicly undermining Havana doesn’t help the Cuban people, as anyone on the Left who has called for an end to sanctions against Venezuela or Iran or other places in the U.S. crosshairs already knows. For sixty years, the U.S. goal has been to destroy the chance for socialism in Cuba to develop and mature, and it has failed for sixty years, but at a great cost to the Cuban people. The American aggression continues unabated and with the help of New Politics and others on the Left helping with the heavy lifting.
Inside the U.S., most people on the Left support African Americans who are on the receiving end of police violence and kept under siege by a racist state without reservations. Most people on the Left support a women’s right to an abortion without conditions. Most people on the Left support the right of working people (cops aren’t proles) to organize unions and strike without any hesitation. Most people on the Left unwaveringly support the right of Palestinians to self-determination regardless of the deeds of the P.A. It’s easy to claim neutrality, but at some point you have to declare whether you’re a union man or woman, or a thug for J.H Blair.
It’s one of the most fundamental questions the Left can ask and answer—which side are you on? New Politics, wittingly or not, has chose Miami.