When Fidel Castro died in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn, the then Leader of the Labour Party, praised the communist revolutionary who ruled Cuba for almost 50 years as a “huge figure in our lives”. Corbyn spoke of his “heroism” and the nation’s ‘impressive’ health and education services.
It’s not unusual to see politicians in liberal Western nations present Cuba as an example of how ‘democratic socialism’ can work. Bernie Sanders also gushed about Castro’s education and literacy programmes during the 2020 presidential election campaign.
But both Corbyn and Sanders wilfully ignored the appalling human rights atrocities committed by Castro’s communist state. Between 1959-1970, historian Hugh Thomas estimated that perhaps 5,000 political prisoners had been executed by firing squads. Testimonies by Cuban prisoners in 1986 exposed the Cuban communist regime for practicing torture and biological experiments on inmates in ‘hard labour camps’. All these egregious acts of human right abuses escaped the minds of Castro apologists when they delivered his eulogy that year.
Of course, proponents of the politics of Corbyn and Sanders will assert there are differences between the communism of Castro and their own socialism. But for those trained in the study of political theory, socialism was, according to classical Marxism, a stage on the way to communism – a society in which the state owns the means of production. This is what we see in all self-professed communist countries.
But given that another revolution is brewing in the streets of Havana, could the fallacy of successful Cuban communism, held in high esteem by those who’ve never experienced it, be finally coming to an end?
Dozens of people have been arrested in Cuba after thousands joined the biggest rallies for decades against the government’s mismanagement of the Covid crisis and the nation’s rapidly deteriorating economy. Protesters can be heard calling: “We have no fear” and “Down with the dictatorship”.
This is not out-of-the-blue: the Cuban people have a long list of grievances following 62 years of communist rule. But inhabitants have been worn down by months of shortages, power cuts, inflation, and surging Coronavirus cases. Medicine has run out – despite that “world class healthcare service.”
President Biden has rightly come forward to show US support for the activists, welcoming their efforts to force regime change.
It remains to be seen whether these revolts will gather pace and deliver regime change. But the Cuban government will not relinquish control without a fight: the state-owned telecommunications company has removed social media sites from their servers and is cutting off the internet to stem the tide of growing support for the pro-democracy demonstrations.
The protests should not be seen as an immediate reaction to the pandemic. It is an outburst against chronic systematic oppression from a regime that has subjected its citizens to poor living conditions in the name of an ideology.
The fallacy that communism has been good for Cuban’s has begun to unravel. This is evidently clear based on data from the Human development index, which uses life expectancy, education, and per capita income indicators to rank countries. Cuba, a nation of 11 million, ranks twelve places lower than the neighbouring island of the Bahamas and eleven places below Barbados, each with a population under half a million. From being ranked fifth in the hemisphere in per capita income, third in life expectancy, second in per capita ownership of automobiles and telephones before the revolution, Cuba has suffered a miserable decline.
Discontent with the regime has been expressed before. In 1990, following the collapse of the USSR, riots erupted in the major cities over food shortages. Cuba relied heavily on Russian food imports to feed its people, but after the collapse of the USSR, the average Cuban saw their daily intake of calories fall from 2,600 calories a day in the 1980s, to between 1,000 and 1,500 by 1993.
The communist regime had itself admitted that a fully state-run economy cannot provide its citizens with the resources and prosperity they need without market forces and private initiative. Much like Lenin’s New Economic Policy, Cuba gradually reformed to reduce state interference in sectors of the economy in what became to be known as the “New Cuban Economy”. But allowing taxi drivers and shop keepers to work outside the control of the state was not enough. The state’s control of everything from food rations, prices and freedom of expression been a catastrophic failure.
As the people of Cuba undertake a struggle against an authoritarian regime, apologists for Castro’s communist revolution and admirers of Cuba’s healthcare and education should take time to reflect. No matter whether you believe in socialism or encourage the workers of the world to unite, it is hard to deny that on the ground in Cuba, the communist experiment has failed, and people want their freedom back.