Cuba occupies a special — and increasingly vexed — place in the hopes and imagination of the global Left and social movements. When it was clear that the regimes of the USSR could never regain the support of its people, the Cuban revolution retained mass support; while China passed through the agony of the cultural revolution into the restoration of capitalism, Cuba steadily implemented a social welfare system that has transformed the life possibilities of its people in the areas of health, education, literacy and the like. There were elements of a Leninist puritanism in some of its earlier policies — the persecution of homosexuals, most notably — but these have long since been corrected. In the Cold War, the Cuban brigades provided vital force to hasten the defeat of colonialism and apartheid in Africa. More recently they have been followed by brigades of doctors and health-care workers who have fomented a quiet revolution in health care in the global South.
Yet dissatisfaction inside and outside the island is growing. It is no longer enough to point to states of a similar history — Haiti and the Dominican Republic — and how they have fared under capitalism. The violence and corruption of Jamaica, and the increasing class divisions within Mexico start to count for less in a globalised culture — one with which Cuba comes into increasing contact as its relaince on tourism grows. The country’s generalised absence of a consumer economy is presented as poverty and stagnation, even as the the particular poverty and stagnation — absolute, rather than relative, starvation rather than privation — of whole classes and peoples within Latin America is taken as a sign of free-market vigour. Cuba is in a bind; further political liberalisation would open the floodgates for an immense propaganda campaign by both the US government and Miami-based Cuban exiles, not a few of the latter enriched by laundered drug money. transition to a mixed economy within a socialist political framework is fraught with difficulty; and the attempt to create a new political culture based on socialist values is rendered contradictory when the tourism industry is invited back in under official imprimatur. Throwing out the casinos and luxury hotels was part of the revolution’s initial appeal. Now the earnings of waiters outstrip those of teachers, corroding the reality of a non-market value system.
Given these conditions, and the political pressure of a US regime willing to undertake neoliberal military crusades, the Castro regime has launched a new crackdown on the limited dissent hitherto tolerated, particularly those associated with the ‘varela’ project. Some of these dissidents could be accused of anything ranging from naivete to something worse, given that they conducted meetings hosted by the US diplomatic representative on the island. Nevertheless, the response of the regime has been draconian and utterly unconscionable, with life sentences handed out. Defenders of the Castro regime may justifiably point out that these actions have received considerably more publicity than the continued legal harassment — including the current detention without trial — of a number of pro-Castro Cuban citizens within the US and the hypocrisy of the government that runs Guantanamo Bay denouncing the political use of prison. But the secret trials of the dissidents and the faux judicial manner in which they have been handed out indicate that this is more than a tactical response to a military-political emergency — it is an attempt to return dissent to the status of ‘crime’. It cannot be left uncommented upon, or consented to by silence, by sympathisers with the Cuban revolution across the world. The challenge is to simultaneously defend the type of freedom that the revolution has made possible — a decent life for generations of Cubans who would otherwise have been prey to hunger, illiteracy and curable disease. This has become especially difficult when the rewards of globalisation set new and ever more expensive standards of what constitutes the ‘good life’, while the new global poor are rendered as surplus, invisible populations.