Cuba on My Mind

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Socialism without freedom is not worthy of the name.

My e-mail has been full to overflowing recently as the grandees of the international and Latin American intelligentsia lined up to defend Cuba. Some weeks ago, the Cuban government tried and summarily executed three hijackers who had seized a Cuban ferry. In the same period, 70 people were arrested and tried for opposition to the Cuban state and sentenced to jail terms of up to 20 years.

The astonishing thing is that people on the international left have rushed to justify the actions of the Cuban state. Many of them have a long record of opposing imperialism, of exposing and protesting at the US's 43-year siege of Cuba. In recent times these same voices have been raised against the abuse of power in Argentina, Chile or Uruguay and have been the first to demand fair trials, external inspection of prisons and police and the establishment of democracy.

Why then do these same people now accept without question an argument that under certain circumstances all of these rights and democratic instruments should be suspended?

The tone is always moralistic and outraged. The argument is always comparative. How can you compare a few excesses by a Cuban government under siege with the appalling crimes of US imperialism? How can you criticise Castro's regime when his enemies are all financed by the CIA and backed by the Pentagon? It is a crude and simple formula - the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It is also a dangerous and simplistic argument. More importantly it is an evasion of responsibility.

Years ago I debated the question at an early Marxism conference with a comrade from 'New Left Review'. His central argument was that what determined whether or not a society was socialist was the public ownership of the economy. The government could be a military dictatorship, he suggested, so long as there was no private property and the government declared itself to be socialist! I replied that socialism was about freedom, about the emancipation of the working class from the tyranny of capital and the pursuit of profit. That liberation was worthless unless it was the act of workers themselves. Have we in Britain not yet understood how wide the gulf is between those who claim to act on behalf of the majority and the real interests of the working people?

For 43 years Cuba has been under siege from the US - that is undeniable. Equally, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 brought important educational and health advances to the Cuban population. Yet free healthcare and higher education were available throughout the old Communist states of Eastern Europe - yet no one today would claim that they were free societies where workers could control their own lives. They were dictatorships maintained in the name of socialism to the benefit of tiny bureaucratic minorities and at the expense of the overwhelming majority of people.

So it was with Cuba. We may argue about whether Cuba was an advocate of spreading revolution in the 1960s. After that, Cuba functioned as a loyal ally and instrument of a Soviet Union that repeatedly sacrificed the interests of the oppressed to its international interests. Within Cuba, dissidents were suppressed, gays were persecuted, and workers were allowed no independent voice.

Nobody for a moment imagines that the US's opposition to Cuba had anything to do with workers' power. Its continuing assault on Cuba is based on its pursuit of hegemony and control over Latin America. But for socialists, these were not the only options available. Our responsibility was not to adjust our vision of socialism to the short-term expediencies of the Cuban state. The questions we had to ask were much simpler. How can we create a real grassroots democracy? How can we build the confidence of workers to defend their interests independently of government diktat? What should we say when those who rule the society are not open to recall or criticism and grow rich while the bulk of people remain in poverty?

The answer is not different in Britain or the US from the reply we would give in Cuba. We must work to build the organisations of workers, carve a space for independent action, demand the accountability of those who claim to represent us and build real solidarity with those who, like ourselves, are fighting for the self emancipation of workers. Instead we are asked to choose the lesser of two evils. Is Cuba better than the United States; are smaller injustices better than big ones; is capital punishment wrong in the US yet right in the camp of its declared enemy? Dictatorship, oppression, state violence, summary justice and the denial of freedom can never be defended. We have ample lessons from the past of how such justifications become, in an instant, collusion with the worst of crimes.

We can and must denounce Bush and Blair's murderous assault on freedom in Iraq. We have an equal responsibility to expose it in Cuba. We can and must fight imperialism. But if we are to win the wider movement, we must be the unconditional, principled, consistent champions of freedom - not the cheerleaders for a lesser evil.