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20 Years of Castro’s Revolution

These changes have reduced the autonomy of the courts, eliminated the possibility of constitutional restraint, and reduced procedural obstacles…. The government’s powers to punish have also increased. Individuals accused of political crimes stand stripped of rights before a powerful state with full governmental discretion in defining the crime.

The Ministry of the Interior, including regular and secret police, makes full use of this discretion. When these powers are added to the political, economic, and social powers discussed previously, it is clear that the powers of the revolutionary government are uncontestably vast by any previous Cuban standards.

The Cuban trade union is now merely an organ of the party. There are no rights of collective bargaining, no independent trade unions, no democracy within the union, work conditions and benefits are imposed by the government. In short, the workers have no voice, and are allowed less liberty and democracy than they had during the Batista years. Now the regime has also introduced a system of individual “workbooks” in which a worker’s absenteeism, laziness, or negative attitudes are permanently recorded—a sharp instrument for repression by the authorities, giving them absolute control over the workers’ lives.

During the first stage of the revolution, Castro frequently called for volunteers to help out agricultural workers—“columns” of city workers and students went to aid in planting and harvesting. After the repeated agricultural failures, popular enthusiasm for these campaigns cooled; the Revolutionary Central Committee needed to use tougher methods. Domínguez writes: “Policies of economic and political mobilization were gradually turned into policies of military mobilization for economic and political purposes.” Deprived of authentic union leaders who could defend their rights, many workers were forced to become “volunteers,” working under the army’s direction. The “vagrancy law” was also used to bring the workers under military control, causing increasingly angry reactions on the part of the workers. The apathy of the Cuban workers toward the government’s recruiting campaign to harvest the sugar crop of 1970 was a clear indication that the working class had lost patience with the government, and that a radical change in policy was necessary.

According to Domínguez,

The change in labor policies that began in the second half of 1970 was not spontaneous either. It was a reaction in part to the economic crisis and in part to the labor crisis. Cuban workers had had enough. Under the conditions of severe deprivation that had prevailed, by the Prime Minister’s count, for two years, and with the blocking of channels for grievances in unions and courts, the workers staged a “strike.”

Strikes have been illegal in Cuba since the early days of the revolution, so the leadership described the 1970 event as “large-scale absenteeism.” It was apparently uncoordinated, but it was large scale, and the leadership was plainly concerned. Prime Minister Castro noted that in August and September of 1970, 20 percent of the work force, around 400,000 workers, were absent on any given day.

In Oriente, in August of 1970, 52 percent of the agricultural workers were absent from work; by January 1971, with the sugar harvest already under way, absenteeism among agricultural workers in Oriente province was still at 23 percent.

After 1971 Castro abandoned military mobilization of workers along with the egalitarian revolutionary ethics he had promoted as part of his conception of the Cuban “new man,” uncorrupted by selfish or materialistic motives. He concentrated on improving the economy with the help of the old guard of Cuban communists and the Soviet Union. Television sets, refrigerators, and electric appliances were distributed through party channels to workers who performed well. Union officials, doctors, and technocrats were given special privileges to buy automobiles imported from Argentina.

The rationing system, which had once been an instrument for equality, now became a method to benefit the elite with the goods provided by new trading partners. Peace was achieved at the cost of social justice.

Domínguez’s documentation of current conditions shows an emerging class of the kind described by Djilas. An elite government clique has been installed, with legal authority and unchecked power, based on a strict internal hierarchy within which a number of the old habits and privileges of the bourgeoisie gradually have begun to flourish:

Restaurants for bureaucrats serve better and unrationed food. The privileged, even in the 1960s, were given preference in the purchase of cars. Vacation, resorts are more accessible to them; their housing is better, and they seem to be less affected by the housing shortage. They can go abroad, serve on diplomatic missions, be invited to diplomatic receptions.

A “pyramid” of power, copied from the USSR, clearly is discernible in Cuba today. Small factions clustering around Fidel in the Central Committee dominate the party and sometimes feud among themselves. Their absolute control of official elections on various rungs of the party is justified glowingly as “democratic centralism.” Domínguez notes:

Even though the legal authority to exercise absolute power has not been fully used, however, hierarchical decision making has left little autonomy for lower ranks when a mobilizational style [i.e., a style exerting a high pressure on people to participate] has been used to exercise power.

While careful and perceptive in his analysis of social and economic questions, Domínguez says too little about other important matters such as the conflicts between the revolution and the writers and artists and others who have tried to preserve their freedom in Cuban culture. He makes frequent references to Lourdes Casal’s work on the subject but none to the much fuller information in Carlos Alberto Montaner’s Secret Report on the Cuban Revolution.* Of the many other problems dealt with by Domínguez I would like to mention three: the racial problem the changes in the status of women and the family, and human rights.

Cuban blacks have certainly benefited from the revolution. From the beginning discrimination was barred; restrictions against blacks in private clubs and restaurants were prohibited; mixed marriage and policies of equal opportunity in work and education were promoted. Still, although race relations in Cuba are not so bitter as they have been in the United States, Domínguez suggests conflicts between the white and black communities remain potentially explosive.

The revolutionary government claims to have solved the race problem; it has therefore become subversive to speak or write about its existence. Black intellectuals who think that the revolutionary government still engages in race discrimination have gone into exile. Black-solidarity organizations have been banned. The intellectual, artistic, mutual-aid, and labor societies of and for blacks that existed in prerevolutionary Cuba have been forced to disband. Afro-Cuban writers, conscious of blackness as a distinctive characteristic of contemporary, not just historical, social life, have fallen into disfavor.

Few blacks or mulattoes have become high-ranking officials, as Domínguez’s analysis of black mobility makes clear:

Only 9 percent of the hundred members appointed to the Central Committee of the Communist party of Cuba in 1965 were black or mulatto. In 1945, 9.3 percent of the Senate and 9.4 percent of the House of Representatives were black. Then, as now, this is about one-third what would be expected from the number of blacks in the population; it suggests that the revolution has had little impact in increasing the black share of the elite. In the armed forces, scattered evidence suggests black overrepresentation at the troop level and underrepresentation at the officer level in the early 1970s.

This discrepancy may have resulted from amendments to the selective-service legislation in 1973, which had the effect of freezing social stratification and institutionalizing the prevalent pattern of inequality because those with less education (disproportionately black) are the ones most frequently drafted into the military, as opposed to the accepted forms of alternate service.

The impact of the revolution on family life and on the position of women is harder to assess. Vilma Espín, president of the Cuban Women’s Federation, defines her movement as feminine, not feminista. Women often run the “committees for the defense of the revolution”—the local organizations which both look after the daily lives of many Cubans and keep watch on them—as well as other mass organizations. Cuban women today have greater independence than most women in Latin America and the old “machista” attitudes have diminished.

The structure of the traditional family has been drastically altered. During the last twenty years the divorce rate has climbed from 8.3 percent to 38.1 percent. But few women hold jobs at the top. In 1977 there were no women in the Central Executive Committee of ministerial advisers. The government promoted the hiring of women mostly in the middle ranks of the provincial bureaucracy or as deputies in the National Assembly, but real power remains almost exclusively held by males.

Domínguez gives little information about human rights. We have no reliable figures on political prisoners. Castro acknowledges 3,000 and the exile groups claim 100,000; according to the most reliable estimates the number is roughly about 10,000. The figure of 4,000 or 5,000 used by Amnesty International in their 1976 report lists only prisoners the Cuban authorities admit were condemned to prison for political reasons. To this list one must add a sizable number of people who have been arrested under the vagrancy law or accused of homosexuality. In the mid 1960s tens of thousands of homosexuals were detained in work camps; more recently that number has sharply dropped.

From the work of Franqui and Domínguez the reader can now measure knowledgably the distance between the revolutionary aims of the combatants of the Sierra Maestra and the complex and contradictory reality that has emerged during the twenty years of Castro’s government. The revolution had spectacular successes, especially in the early years, in providing such basic necessities as housing and education and medical care to the poorest Cubans. The Cuban record here is much better than that of the other Latin American governments, including prosperous Venezuela. Nonetheless, Cuba’s debased political ideology, and its economic and geographical situation, have led to a paradoxical and tragic result.

The social and political situation of many Central American and Caribbean countries both before the revolution and today can be summed up in four points: they have been agriculturally dependent on one crop; crippled by caudillismo; by military government and dictatorship; and, finally, by economic and political dependency on the United States. As Franqui’s book shows, the Twenty-sixth of July Movement’s leaders wanted to break out of this trap. The Cuban revolutionaries sought to escape the sugar monoculture and fell back into it. They fought against the Batista dictatorship and ended by substituting for it first the charismatic caudillismo of Fidel and later a constitutional façade for single-party dictatorship. As the power behind the party, the military continues to be the fundamental institution of the island. And when Cuba broke the chains of its dependence on the United States, it did so only at the cost of falling immediately into the Soviet orbit.

translated by Barbara Probst Solomon

  1. *

    El caso Padilla: literatura y revolucíon en Cuba edited by Lourdes Casal (Ediciones Universal, Miami, 1971); Informe Secreto sobre la revolucíon cubano (Ediciones Sedmay, Madrid, 1976). Casal’s book contains documents by writers and intellectuals, most of them pertaining to the Padilla affair. Montaner’s narrative history of the Cuban revolution and its aftermath gives detailed accounts of Castro’s struggles with Cuban and foreign intellectuals.

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