Friday, December 30, 2016

The defeat of Aleppo – Some harsh lessons for the international left

Aleppo destruction


Aided by the bombs of the Russian air force and the bullets of foreign militias organized by Iran, Syria’s president Bashar Al-Assad has finally managed to destroy the eastern sector of the country’s largest city Aleppo, the major remaining pocket of popular resistance to his regime.

In the following article Santiago Alba Rico, a Spanish-born philosopher and writer based in Tunisia, analyzes what the defeat in Syria means for democratic and progressive opinion everywhere, and in particular the far-reaching implications of the failure of much of the international left to identify with and mobilize in support of the people of Syria in their powerful rebellion against oppression and repression. This failure, he argues, was a critical factor that facilitated the efforts of Assad and his reactionary international allies to drown the revolt in a river of blood.

Alba Rico’s harsh assessment of “the left” in this article may seem caricatural to some readers; not everyone on the left is an apologist for Assad or Putin. However, the indifference of many, or their unwillingness to confront the important issues posed by the war, which I think are accurately described by Alba Rico, has given free rein to those who choose to see the conflict in Syria as little more than a rerun of a Cold War scenario of imperialism versus a Third World government.

Santiago Alba Rico is well-known in the European left for his perceptive analyses of the popular rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa during the last six years collectively identified as the “Arab Spring.”

His article was first published in the Spanish online newspaper Público and has since been widely reproduced elsewhere. My translation from the Spanish. And a special thanks to Art Young, a long-time comrade in Toronto who is active in Palestine solidarity, for his helpful collaboration with me in working through these issues ourselves.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

Aleppo, the tomb of the left

by Santiago Alba Rico

To kill on a large scale, as we know, it is necessary to lie as well as to insult and deprecate the victims. That is what the United States did in Iraq and what Israel has always done in Palestine. In 2003 the entire left shared this accusation along with ordinary decent people, and together with them the left vented its anger, and expressed its sympathy, after the bombing of Baghdad or Gaza. But it seems that whatever shocks and enrages us when it is the USA or Israel that are the tormentors has become routine in the mindset of the left when it comes to Syria. We have accepted large-scale lying that allows the Assad regime and its occupying allies — Russia, Iran and Hezbollah — to carry out large-scale slaughter, and in doing so not only have we abandoned and deprecated the victims but we have also separated ourselves from ordinary decent people. A major part of the global left has effectively placed itself on the margin of ethics, alongside the dictators and the many imperialisms that are vanquishing the region. In a Europe where neofascism — and Islamist terrorism — are increasing rapidly, this new error, along with so many others, can cost us very dearly.

Much lying had to be done to make it possible for Assad to kill on a large scale. It meant denying that the Syrian regime was a dictatorship and even stating that it is anti-imperialist, socialist and humanist. It meant denying that there had been a very transversal, non-sectarian democratic revolution in which millions of Syrians — many of them on the left, not affiliated with any leadership or party — were participating; a sort of giant 15M[1] crystallized in Councils and Local Coordinating Committees. It meant denying the brutal repression of the demonstrations, the arrests, the torture, the disappearances. It meant denying the legitimacy of the Free Syrian Army. It meant denying the bombing with barrels of dynamite and the use of chemical weapons by the regime. It meant denying or justifying the massive bombing by Putin’s Russia. It meant denying the tolerance of all of them — Assad, Russia, Iran, USA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey — toward the growth of ISIS. It meant denying the Iranian occupation of Syria. It meant denying the existence of Russian imperialism and that country’s excellent relations with Israel. It meant denying the erratic indifference of the United States, which intervened only to simultaneously give a free hand to Syria and Saudi Arabia. It meant denying the arms embargo that left the rebellion in the hands of the more radical sectors, as counter-revolutionary as the regime itself. It meant denying the existence of simultaneous demonstrations against Assad and against ISIS or other jihadist militias in towns and cities that had been besieged and destroyed. It meant denying the absence of ISIS in Aleppo, from which it had been expelled by the FSA in 2014. It meant denying the suffering and terror of the people of Aleppo who ­were under siege. But worse, it meant denying the heroism, the sacrifice, the determination to fight of thousands of young Syrians who are like us and want what we do. And worst of all, it meant deprecating them, slandering them, insulting them, making them terrorists, mercenaries or enemies of “freedom.”

Never has the left, faced with a people’s revolution, behaved so ignobly. Not only has it failed to solidarize with that revolution or, once it was defeated, honour its heroes and lament the outcome, but instead it has spat in its face and celebrated its death and its defeat. Consistent with this typically imperialist (or Stalinist) denialism, it has taken its place alongside the European far right. Furthermore, it has repressed the mobilizations in our cities. And to cap it all it has criminalized the sensible left which, along with ordinary decent people has denounced the crimes of Assad and his allies while similarly denouncing the crimes of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States or — to be sure — the intolerable fascism, fully equivalent to that of the regime, of ISIS or the Al-Nusra Front.

As the communist Yassin Al Haj Saleh, for 16 years a prisoner in the regime’s dungeons and one of the greatest living intellectuals, says, Syria reveals the state of the old left and registers its death. When a global democratic revolution exploded six years ago, with the “Arab world” as its epicenter, the left was not prepared either to champion it or to make the most of it, let alone understand it. Today, when the victorious counter-revolutions extend the resuscitated “Arab dictatorships” to the USA and Europe, the left has remained irrelevant as resistance and alternative. Troubled or discomfited, all of the actors have abandoned or fought against the Syrian democratic forces and all — governments, fascist organizations and communist parties — have ended up coinciding in the narrative of the “lesser evil” that condemns Syria to eternal dictatorship, the region to sectarian violence, and Europe to endless terrorism.

This theory of the “lesser evil” (a lesser evil to the murder of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, who have been bombed, tortured, or disappeared!) has been the historical template of that regional “stability,” oppressive and deadly for the peoples, that during the second half of the 20th century justified the West’s support to all the dictatorships in the area. After an abortive revolution, this model of the previous century now returns with redoubled ferocity, coupled with and lubricated by a sector of the left that applauds and cheers Bashar Al Assad’s “great victory”; a model that pertains so much to the last century that it can be said that some are celebrating this “great victory” as if, 25 years later and thanks to Putin, the USSR had finally won the Cold War. One thing is certain: what has also been lost this time, in Syria and Europe, and in Russia and Latin America, are democracy and justice, the only possible solutions to the authoritarianisms, imperialisms and fascisms — whether jihadist or half-European — triplet siblings that are gaining territory without resistance, that identify with each other and, accordingly, can only be defeated if they are fought simultaneously.

How are we to define these “Arab revolutions” that are now definitively dying in Aleppo with the complicity of jihadism and the complacency of the broad international alliance of right and left thrown against Syria? These revolutions were above all a revolt against the yoke of the geopolitics that had frozen, as if in amber, the inequalities and resistances in the area for at least 70 years. In a world of unequal power relationships between nation-states, geopolitics always limits any emancipatory politics of the left. That is to say, geopolitics is not of the left. If we have to take it into account in order to make minimal progress in a realistic way against the imperialist powers and in favour of sovereignty, we cannot go so far as to contradict the elemental principles associated with the universal character of any ethic of liberation: that which was once called “internationalism,” the instinct that must be recovered in a non-identitarian and democratic version.

The so-called “Arab world” (which is also Kurd, Imazighen, Berber, Toubou, etc.) is the most painful example of an entire region that is a hostage of its own oil wealth, sacrificed to the common interest of competing powers and subpowers — so-called “stability.” When the peoples of the area rebelled in 2011 in opposition to this monstrous “equilibrium,” without seeking permission from anyone, and on the margin of all inter-national interests, geopolitics ensnared them, as in a straitjacket, and the left, alongside their enemies, hastened to tie the sleeves and tighten the steel buttons.

In a context in which US hegemony is weakening, in which other powers, imperialist as well, are freeing themselves from its hegemony in order to impose their own agendas, and in which the campism of the second half of the 20th century is replaced by a hornet’s nest of counterposed reactionary interests very similar to that of the First World War — and because this time there is not a single anticapitalist or emancipatory force or project — the left, understanding nothing about the “new world disorder” or its reactionary configuration, has hastened to deliver the Syrian people, bound hand and foot, to a murderous dictator, Putin’s Russia, the ayatollahs’ Iran, and along the way the Islamic State and the Sunni theocracies of the Gulf. In other words, to what Pablo Bustinduy[2] has called “the geopolitics of disaster.” Now it is not done in the name of the “lesser evil” (Franco and Pinochet a lesser evil?). Troubled and overwhelmed by these popular intifadas that it did not understand (save for a handful of “Trotskyists” who were “Trotskyists” only because they did understand and support them), the global left reacted from the beginning in the same way as the governments and the far right, supporting the dictators. For the imperialists this has never posed any problem (“our sons of bitches”[3]) but it should have meant something to people who claim to be “on the left” but who have ended up renouncing any attempt to understand the world in tune with its ethical and political principles. Abandoning our own people on the ground, they supported the executioners and allowed them to kill on a large scale. To do this, as we said, they had to take leave of the truth and submit to the same culturalist, racist and Islamophobic clichés of the worst European rightists.

Relying on an outdated geopolitical way of thinking that blocks any grappling with the “new world disorder,” the left has effectively abandoned its ethical principles in exchange for nothing; or, more precisely, in order to promote the return in an expanded and worsened version of the dictatorships, imperialisms and jihadisms. This great geostrategic success has been achieved at the cost of accepting a three-fold contradiction that is incompatible with the universality of the ethic of liberation and is brutally Western and Orientalist.

To accept this geostrategic yoke — otherwise illusory and unfounded — presupposes, firstly, declaring shamelessly that inhabitants of Madrid are entitled to fight an insufficiently democratic monarchy and a corrupt bipartisan system and to desire, without risking their lives, more democracy and more social justice for their country, while Syrians must on the other hand support a dictatorship that jails, tortures and assassinates them and renounce any glimmer of democracy and social justice.

To accept this false geostrategic yoke presupposes, secondly, saying as well that the imprisonment of Andrés Bódalo[4] in Spain is much more serious than that of Yassin Al Haj Saleh or Salama Keile or Samira Khalil, all of them communists, in Syria; or that the arrest of some puppeteers or the prosecution of a city councillor in Madrid is much more serious than the siege through hunger and bombing of an entire country.

To accept this false geostrategic yoke presupposes, finally, claiming in a perfectly ordinary way the right of Spanish (or Latin American) people to decide whether and when and how the “Arabs” can rebel against their dictators. The Syrians, it seems, must do what they are told from afar by a left that has exposed itself as impotent, useless and blind in its own countries. It also means experiencing as a threat, not as a hope, the democratic will and social struggles of other peoples: those fighting in more difficult conditions for the same things as we do become not comrades but enemies, not valiant partners with whom we must express our solidarity but “terrorist” criminals, the term that we have rightly denounced or downplayed when it is used by our judges or our “imperialist” governments.

In short, a large part of the Arab, European and Latin American left has sacrificed internationalism to a geostrategic order in which the peoples and their democratic struggles no longer have any friends and in which this left, irrelevant and in retreat now throughout the world, has let the regimes against which the “Arabs” rose up in 2011 advance without resistance. We have understood nothing, we have done nothing to help, we have handed over to the enemy all our weapons, including conscience. After Syria democracy is retreating everywhere. Aleppo is indeed the tomb of the Syrians’ dreams of freedom, but it is also the tomb of the global left. Just when we need it most.

[1] The anti-austerity movement in Spain began with massive demonstrations and occupations on May 15, 2011, now known colloquially as 15M, inspired in part by the social uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt at that time.

[2] Pablo Bustinduy is a Podemos member of Madrid’s City Council and works with the party’s delegation in the European Parliament.

[3] Franklin Roosevelt is reported to have referred to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza as “a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

[4] Andrés Bódalo is a well-known trade unionist and former Podemos candidate in Jaén, Andalusia, who was convicted of an “offence to authority” and sentenced to three years and six months imprisonment for allegedly assaulting a Social Democratic City Council member who had pushed his way through a mass workers’ demonstration outside the City Hall. Many observers say Bódalo was actually attempting to maintain order among the demonstrators.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Fidel Castro, 1926-2016

Of all the tributes to Fidel Castro and assessments of the Cuban leader’s contribution to the world socialist movement, this one by Argentine political economist Claudio Katz seems to me particularly outstanding. It was published first on his web site. My translation and notes.

– Richard Fidler

Our Fidel

by Claudio Katz

With Fidel’s death Latin America’s principal revolutionary figure of the last century has left us. Amidst our great sorrow at his passing it is difficult to assess his stature. But while emotion clouds any evaluation, the Comandante’s influence[1] can be appreciated with greater clarity now that he has left.

The media simply emphasize that importance in a descriptive sense. They describe how he was present in the major events of the last 50 years. And his worst enemies in the empire confirm that overwhelming historical influence. They celebrate his death in order to forget that he lasted in office throughout the mandates of ten U.S. presidents and survived countless assassination attempts by the CIA.

Cuba is the obsession of the Pentagon and the frustration of the State Department. No other country of that size has inflicted so many defeats on the empire. After 53 years David forced Goliath to re-establish diplomatic relations.[2]

Fidel arouses admiration that borders on devotion. The praises stem from his capacity to make possible what was highly improbable. But this fascination is frequently divorced from the content of his achievement.

Many idolize Fidel but from the standpoint of capitalism. They extol the Caribbean leader while promoting variants of the system of exploitation that the Comandante fought throughout his life. In reality, they praise the creator of alien universes while rejecting any such journey by themselves.

For the Left, Fidel always had another meaning. He was the principal designer of a revolutionary socialist project of Latin American emancipation. He put into practice the objective inaugurated by Lenin in 1917 and therefore occupied in Latin America a place equivalent to that of the promotor of the soviets.

But unlike his precursor, Fidel led for decades the process he initiated in 1960. He can be assessed as much for his triumph as for his management.

From a longer-lasting perspective, Castro’s achievement is comparable with the campaigns undertaken by Bolívar and San Martín. He led regional actions attempting to link a second independence for Latin America with the international advance of socialism.

Fidel tackled these tasks of Cyclopean proportions while maintaining a very close relationship with his followers. He addressed his messages to millions of sympathizers who cheered him on various continents. He achieved a rational and passionate connection with the multitudes who heard him speak in countless meetings.

The man and the epic

The Cuban leader always acted with audacity. He radicalized his project under the pressure of the empire and adopted a socialist assignment that smashed all the dogmas of the epoch. He demonstrated that it was possible to initiate an anticapitalist process 90 miles from Miami, and with the OLAS[3] he restored the objective of the region’s anti-imperialist unity.

These three facets — the revolutionary, the socialist and the Latin American emancipator — Fidel shared with Che. The same meeting of minds that brought them together in the landing of the Granma[4] was verified in the strategy of armed actions against the dictatorships and reactionary governments. They maintained political agreements that disprove everything written about the animosity between Castro and Guevara.

The Comandante restored socialist internationalism after decades of mere statements (or clear betrayals) by the Kremlin bureaucracy. He extended this to Africa with the sending of fighters who played a central role in the defeat of apartheid.

These actions replaced the old connection of slavery between Africa and Latin America with a new relationship of solidarity against the common enemies. This attitude elicited enormous affection for Cuba in the Afro-American communities, corroborated in the impressive visits Fidel made to Harlem and his encounters with Mohammed Ali, Malcolm X or Harry Belafonte.

But Fidel’s historic stature emerged with greater clarity after the implosion of the USSR. He achieved anew what appeared impossible by sustaining Cuba’s survival amidst unprecedented adversity. He led in the harshest sacrifices of the special period and sustained a collective resistance forged after three decades of revolution.

That battle of convictions was probably more extraordinary than many military actions. Fidel achieved what very few leaders have achieved in similar circumstances.

That victory served as an example for the radical processes that sprouted in the new millennium. When neoliberalism touched off popular rebellions in South America, Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales had a political reference that was absent in other parts of the world. Fidel maintained the socialist ideal as a compass, to be recreated on other foundations.

In Latin America’s new stage, the Comandante encouraged campaigns against the external debt and Free Trade treaties, and with ALBA[5] promoted agencies adapted to the post-dictatorship context in Latin America.

In this context the longing for the “new man” reappeared in the missions of the Cuban doctors. These healthcare contingents demonstrated how the life of the defenseless cast aside by capitalism could be protected.

Fidel combined his aptitude as a speaker (e.g. the “history will absolve me” type of discourse) with military genius (the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola) and geopolitical intelligence (for acting in the international order).

He developed this remarkable profile while maintaining an extremely modest life style. His private life is almost unknown because of the strict separation he established between his privacy and his public exposure.

Over several decades he was involved in all the details of Cuban reality. His tireless activity was popularized with a saying that alluded to this ubiquity (y en eso llegó Fidel – “and therein came Fidel”).

He probably decided to organize his own retirement in order to counteract that overwhelming effect. Beginning in 2006 he placed himself in the background and concentrated his entire activity on the battle of ideas. He deployed a prolific critical analysis of environmental depredation and the poverty generated by capitalism.

Castro’s surprising trajectory confirms many conclusions of Marxist theoreticians on the role of the individual in history. A society’s direction is never dictated by the exceptional conduct of the great leaders. That evolution is mainly determined by the objective conditions prevailing in each epoch.

But in the decisive events that define that course, certain individuals play an irreplaceable role. Fidel confirmed that principle.

It is important to remember that protagonism when confronted with the naive myth that attributes the achievements of the Cuban process to the “pressure of the masses.” This formula assumes that the extraordinary direction taken by the country was due to radical demands from below that the leaders had to support.

In fact it was the opposite that occurred. A consistent leadership convinced the majority through the exemplary nature of their conduct. Fidel led the leaders who were in charge of this epic achievement.

Unresolved dilemmas

Cuba has carried out not the revolution it wanted but the one it could make. There is therefore still a significant distance between ambition and attainment. The major cause of this disparity is glaringly obvious: no titan can fully build socialism in a small plot of land under the relentless harassment of the planet’s major power. The surprising thing is the degree to which Cuba was able to advance albeit faced by such a rival.

This small country has won enormous triumphs that reinforced national self-esteem and the authority of the Comandante. From the Bay of Pigs to the return of the child Elián and the liberation of the five captives in the United States, Cuba won major victories under Fidel’s leadership.

But none of those milestones managed to remove the blockade, to close Guantánamo, or to neutralize the terrorist groups trained by the CIA. Faced with the economic harassment, the family blackmail, the temptation of U.S. citizenship or the mirage of opulent consumerism conveyed by Miami, the tenacity of the Cubans seems miraculous.

This heroism has coexisted with the particular problems the revolution has confronted for a long time now. These difficulties must be assessed in comparison with what has been achieved, bearing in mind the objective limitations affecting the island.

The economy is a central area among those problems. Cuba has shown how a non-capitalist way of thinking can help to avoid hunger, generalized delinquency and school abandonment. In a country with resources closer to Haiti’s than Argentina’s advances have been achieved in infant nutrition, mortality rates or healthcare that surprise everyone.

But the mistaken imitation of the Russian model of complete nationalization produced ineffective results that severely hampered agro-industrial productivity. This mistaken course reflected the difficulty in reconciling continental revolutionary strategies with market-oriented policies. The idealism required by the first objective collided with the egoism of commercial life.

After the special period the country has survived with tourism, agreements with foreign companies and a dual currency market that has segmented the population between those who receive remittances and those who don’t. The society has changed with this emerging social stratification and the subsequent expansion of market activity in order to save foreign exchange and revive agriculture.

Fidel was personally the motive force behind this difficult turn, well aware of the suicide that a return to the shortages of the nineties would entail. Many analysts thought that a return to capitalism had begun, forgetting that the capitalist system presupposes private ownership of the major companies and banks. The reforms have so far opened up more favourable opportunities for the cooperatives, small property and undertakings without allowing the formation of a new ruling class.

The present model seeks to recover high growth rates while simultaneously limiting social inequality. It therefore preserves the economic pre-eminence of the state sector combined with public health and education systems.

Although the changes are proceeding slowly within a context of increasing relief, the three long-term alternatives — capitalist restoration, the Chinese model, or socialist renewal — remain open.

The primacy of one of those models will no longer be the work of Fidel, who rejected the first option, was assessing the second, and favoured the third. His legacy is to continue the egalitarian project within the narrow margins that currently exist in which to implement it.

It is not easy to disentangle this course when the weight of the market, foreign investment, tourism and remittances is increasing. But the suppression of those supports of the economy would lead to the end of the revolution through simple asphyxiation. The balance sought by the reforms is an indispensable foundation for any future transformation.

Significant challenges

The bourgeois establishment has always contrasted the “dictatorship” of the island with the marvels of western democracy. The presidents of the U.S. plutocracy, with great hypocrisy, typically object to the island’s single party system as if the commonality shared by Republicans and Democrats allowed more diversity.

In addition, they avoid mentioning how the electoral colleges violate majority suffrage, and the low level of electoral participation in their country compared with the high participation of the Cubans.

Even greater duplicity is exhibited by the rightists in Latin America. While endorsing the institutional coups d’états in Honduras, Paraguay or Brazil, they wax indignant over the absence of republican formalities in Cuba.

The critics on the left point in a different direction. They question the restrictions on individual freedoms that have given rise to numerous injustices in Cuba.

But if we assess the five decades that have gone by, what is notable is the almost bloodless nature of all the radical transformations effected. It is enough to compare the small number of human losses with the record in other revolutionary processes. The high level of political participation explains this achievement.

Cuba has never suffered the tragedy of the Gulags and therefore avoided the collapse experienced by the USSR. Its political model is very controversial, but to this point no theoretician of direct, soviet or participative democracy has indicated how to govern under the empire’s harassment without resorting to defensive measures that restrict citizens’ rights.
The revolution itself has tried different mechanisms to correct the errors that this situation generates.

Many analysts think the bureaucracy is the main cause of the country’s misfortunes, or the great beneficiary of the malformations in the political regime. There is no doubt about its responsibility in many mishaps. But since this stratum will exist as long as the state endures, not much is to be gained from blaming it for all the ills.

To be sure, the bureaucracy greatly increases the inequality and inefficiency. Egalitarianism helps to counteract the first but does not correct the second. A growing democratization provides a counterweight to these misfortunes but produces no miracles. In those intricate fields of state functioning Fidel’s calls to assume responsibility were always more useful than waiting for magic laboratory recipes.

Foreign policy is another focus for harsh questioning of Castroism. The mass media presented Fidel as a mere pawn of the Soviet Union, not recognizing the difference that separates a revolutionary from any servile ruler. They did not imagine any conduct for Cuba other than that practiced by the puppets of the empire.

Some left critics did not understand Fidel’s strategy either. The Cuban leader based himself on alliances with the USSR in order to drive forward a global revolutionary process that his partner rejected.

The tension between the two parties was confirmed on countless occasions: the October missile crisis, the Vietnam war, the uprisings in Africa or Latin America. There were concessions and sometimes errors by the Comandante, such as his approval of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. That occupation buried the socialist renewal that the Prague Spring had promised.

But throughout the period of greatest revolutionary ferment in Latin America, Fidel opted for a balance between diplomatic compromises and continued support of the rebel movements. He sought to overcome Cuba’s isolation, maintaining support for the struggles of the oppressed. Castro had to combine the new exigencies of foreign policy with his ideals as a revolutionary.

The right continued to criticize him for his support to popular uprisings, and some currents on the left objected to his indulgent attitude toward governments of the ruling classes.

Much of Fidel’s advice was certainly problematic, but responsibility for the decisions remained in the hands of those who received these suggestions. The Comandante always conveyed the validity of the decision as he saw it in the processes of each country and his approach was marked by defiance of the authorities of the left of his time.

Nor should we forget how Castro dismissed the recommendations of the Communist party[6] in the Sierra Maestra and the opinions of the Kremlin in regard to the Latin American insurgency. The Cuban leader taught us through his own practice how a revolutionary acts.

The best tribute

Fidel has died in a very difficult year. Figures as detestable as Macri, Temer[7] or Trump have come to government. Their ideologists are back to proclaiming the end of the egalitarian projects, forgetting how many times they have pronounced this same sentence. Fidel would have said that we must accordingly understand what is happening in order to overcome despondency.

Many editorial writers state that Castro did not understand the present period of consumption, individualism and pragmatism. But in any case he grasped the crisis of capitalism that determines such conduct. That central fact is invisible to Fidel’s challengers.

His most vulgar enemies in Miami celebrated his passing with music, confirming the worthless value they assign to human life. But the festivities were meagre consolation for conspirators who have failed to build the least base of support within the island.

Since Fidel retired a decade ago, the repeated speculation over Cuba’s future has drawn less attention. However, it is of great interest to find out what Trump will do. We do not know yet whether the brutal statements he made about Castro’s death are part of his uncontrolled verbal diarrhea or are a foretaste of greater aggression.

Whatever the case, Latin America must prepare to resist a president-elect who has promised to expel millions of undocumented residents. A new anti-imperialist battle is approaching, and it requires fighting against scepticism and resignation.

Some people say that Fidel embodied the ideals of an older segment of the population removed from the expectations of the youth. They do not take into account how capitalism is striking at the new generation, pushing it to recreate the resistance. The development of that action will tend to update the socialist project of Latin American emancipation.

Fidel struggled for the revolutionary transformations that this society needs. It is now up to us to continue his work.

December 2, 2016

Claudio Katz is a researcher with the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, and a member of the Left Economists (EDI).

[1] Fidel Castro is often referred to as Comandante, or Commander, in the Latin American left, in reference to his informal title as “Commander in Chief of the Cuban Revolution,” a legacy of the guerrilla struggle of the 1950s.

[2] See “Release of Cuban Five Opens New Chapter in Cuba-US Relations.”

[3] Latin American Organization of Solidarity.

[4] The name of the boat in which the initial cadres of the anti-Batista guerrilla force travelled from Mexico to Cuba in 1956.

[5] Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America.

[6] Then known in Cuba as the Partido Socialista Popular.

[7] Mauricio Macri, the right-wing President of Argentina, and Michel Temer, the acting President of Brazil installed in a parliamentary coup against the elected President Dilma Rousseff.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Cuba is poor, but who is to blame – Castro or 50 years of US blockade?

By Helen Yaffe, London School of Economics and Political Science

[For an interview with Helen Yaffe, “Fidel Castro’s Death and the Cuban Revolution,” see]

Alongside his depiction as a “brutal dictator”, negative reflections on Fidel Castro since his death on November 25 have focused on his “mismanagement” of the Cuban economy and the consequent “extremes of poverty” suffered by ordinary Cubans.

This caricature is problematic – not only because it ignores the devastating economic impact of the United States embargo over 55 years, but also because it is premised on neoclassical economic assumptions. This means that by stressing economic policy over economic restraints, critics can shift responsibility for Cuba’s alleged poverty on to Castro without implicating successive US administrations that have imposed the suffocating embargo.

This approach also ignores key questions about Cuba after the revolution. Where can medium and low-income countries get the capital to invest in infrastructure and welfare provision? How can foreign capital be obtained under conditions which do not obstruct such development, and how can a late-developing country such as Cuba use international trade to produce a surplus in a global economy which – many claim – tends to “unequal terms of trade”?

It was the search for solutions to the challenge of development that led Cuba’s revolutionary government to adopt a socialist system. They adopted a centrally planned economy in which state ownership predominated because they perceived this system as offering the best answer to those historical challenges.

But the commitment to operate within a socialist framework implied additional restraints and complications, particularly in the context of a bipolar world. My book, Che Guevara: the economics of revolution, examines the contradictions and challenges faced by the nascent revolutionary government from the perspective of Guevara’s role as president of the National Bank and minister of industries.

Literature on Cuba is dominated by “Cubanology”, an academic school central to the political and ideological opposition to Cuban socialism. Its emergence and links to the US government are well documented. Its arguments are that the revolution changed everything in Cuba – and Fidel (and then Raul) Castro have personally dominated domestic and foreign policy since, denying Cuban democracy and repressing civil society. Thanks to their mismanagement of the economy, growth since 1959 has been negligible. They simply replaced dependency on the US with dependency on the USSR until its collapse in 1990.

These ideas have also shaped political and media discourse on Cuba. But the problem with this analysis is that it obstructs our ability to see clearly what goes on in Cuba or explain the revolution’s endurance and Cuban society’s vitality.

What did Castro inherit?

Arguments about the success or failure of the post-1959 economy often hang on the state of the Cuban economy in the 1950s. The post-1959 government inherited a sugar-dominated economy with the deep socio-economic and racial scars of slavery. Cubanologist Jaime Suchlicki argues that Batista’s Cuba was “well into what Walter Rostow has characterised as the take-off stage”, while Fred Judson points to structural weaknesses in the Cuban economy: “Long-term crises characterised the economy, which had a surface and transient prosperity.” So while one side insists that the revolution interrupted healthy capitalist growth, the other believes it was a precondition to resolving the contradictions obstructing development by ending Cuba’s subjugation to the needs of US capitalism.

Following the revolution, Castro set out to bring social welfare and land reform to the Cuban people and to confiscate the ill-gotten gains of the Cuban elite. But when the defeated Fulgencio Batista and his associates fled Cuba, they stole millions of pesos from the National Bank and the Treasury. The country was decapitalised, severely limiting the capacity for public spending and private investments. Wealthy Cubans were leaving the island, taking their deposits and taxes with them. How was the new government going to carry out the ambitious socio-economic reforms without financial resources?

We have to consider these real circumstances at every juncture. For example, when the US embargo was first implemented, 95% of Cuba’s capital goods and 100% of its spare parts were imported from the US – and the US was overwhelmingly the main recipient of Cuban exports. When the Soviet bloc disintegrated, Cuba lost 85% of its trade and investment, leading GDP to plummet 35%. These events produced serious economic constraints on Cuba’s room for manoeuvre.

Putting a price on poverty

Moving on, we should also ask: how are we to measure Cuba’s poverty? Is it GDP per capita? Is it money-income per day? Should we apply the yardsticks of capitalist economics, focusing on growth and productivity statistics to measure “success” or “failure”, while paying little attention to social and political priorities?

Ration cards symbolise poverty and shortages in Cuba. EPA/Alejandro Ernesto

Even factoring in its low GDP per capita, the Human Development Index (HDI) lists Cuba in the “high human development” category; it excels not just in health and education, but also in women’s participation and political inclusion. Cuba has eliminated child malnutrition. No children sleep on the streets. In fact, there is no homelessness. Even during the hungry years of economic crisis of the 1990s, Cubans did not starve. Cuba stuck with the planned economy and it enabled them to ration their scarce resources.

Yes, salaries are extremely low (as both Fidel and Raul have lamented) – but Cubans’ salaries do not determine their standard of living. About 85% of Cubans own their own homes and rent cannot exceed 4% of a tenant’s income. The state provides a (very) basic food basket while utility bills, transport and medicine costs are kept low. The opera, cinema, ballet and so on are cheap for all. High-quality education and healthcare are free. They are part of the material wealth of Cuba and should not be dismissed – as if individual consumption of consumer goods were the only measure of economic success.

Operation miracle

The specific and real challenges Cuban development has faced has generated unique contradictions. In a planned economy, with an extremely tight budget, they have had to prioritise: the infrastructure is crumbling and yet they have first-world human development indicators. Infant mortality rates reveal a lot about the standard of living, being influenced by multiple socioeconomic and medical factors. Cuba’s infant mortality rate is 4.5 per 1,000 live births, which sits it among first-world countries – and above the US on the CIA’s own ranking.

It is not just Cubans who have benefited from these investments. Tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, educators and other development aid workers have served around the world. At present some 37,000 Cuban doctors and nurses work in 77 countries. They generate foreign exchange of some US$8 billion a year – Cuba’s biggest export.

In addition, Cuba provides both free medical treatment and free medical training to thousands of foreigners every year. As a direct initiative of Fidel, in 1999, the Latin American School of Medicine was inaugurated in Havana to provide foreign students from poor countries with six years of training and accommodation completely free. In 2004, Cuba teamed up with Venezuela to provide free eye surgery to people in three dozen countries under Operation Miracle. In the first ten years more than 3m people had their sight restored.

Prohibiting even trade in medicines, the US embargo led Castro to prioritise investments in medical sciences. Cuba now owns around 900 patents and markets pharmaceutical products and vaccines in 40 countries, generating yearly revenues of US$300m, with the potential for massive expansion. The sector produces more than 70% of the medicines consumed by its 11m people. The entire industry is state owned, research programmes respond to the needs of the population, and all surpluses are reinvested into the sector. Without state planning and investment it is unlikely that this could have been achieved in a poor country.

Cuban researchers developed the first synthetic vaccine against a bacteria that causes pneumonia and meningitis. EPA/Alejandro Ernesto

In the mid-1980s Cuba developed the world’s first Meningitis B vaccine. Today, it leads in oncology drugs. In 2012 Cuba patented the first therapeutic cancer vaccine. The US embargo forces Cuba to source medicines, medical devices and radiology products outside the United States, incurring additional transportation costs.

Sharing economy

Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, told me in 2009:

A great example provided by Cuba is that in its poverty it has known how to share, with all its international programmes. Cuba is the country with the greatest cooperation in relation to its gross domestic product and it is an example for all of us. This doesn’t mean that Cuba doesn’t have big problems, but it is also certain that it is impossible to judge the success or failure of the Cuban model without considering the US blockade, a blockade that has lasted for 50 years. Ecuador wouldn’t survive for five months with that blockade.

Let’s consider the embargo: the Cuban government estimates that it has cost the island US$753.69 billion. Their annual report to the United Nations provides a detailed account of that calculation. That’s a lot for a country whose average GDP between 1970 and 2014 has been calculated at US$31.7 billion.

Yes, Castro presided over mistakes and errors in Cuba’s planned economy. Yes, there is bureaucracy, low productivity, liquidity crisis, debt and numerous other problems – but where aren’t there? Castro pointed to these weaknesses in his own speeches to the Cuban people. But President Correa is right – to objectively judge Castro’s legacy, Cuban development and contemporary reforms today, we cannot pretend that the US blockade – which remains today despite rapprochement – has not shaped the Cuban economy.

Castro almost saw out 11 US presidents since 1959, but he never lived to see the end of the US embargo. New challenges face Cuba, with economic reforms underway and the restoration of relations with the United States. Next week, I will begin new research in Cuba to assess the revolution’s resilience in this post-Castro, Donald Trump era.

Helen Yaffe, LSE Fellow, Economic History, London School of Economics and Political Science

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.