Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro; drawing by David Levine

The hardest thing about going to Cuba is not getting permission from suspicious officials in the State Department, or persuading the Cubans to give you a visa, or taking the round-about route to Havana via Mexico City, Madrid, or Prague—although all of these are bad enough, and would discourage any but the most determined traveler. These hurdles, however, are merely preparations. The hardest thing is to avoid being seduced by the Cubans.

Anyone can be trained to resist the blandishments of sunshine and palm trees, of art galleries that stay open until midnight, and even of teen-age traffic policewomen who wear their skirts short and hang their handbags on the traffic lights. You can resist being flattered when everyone calls you compañero as though you were just another comrade-in-arms, being uncritically impressed by the new housing projects and schools, and wondering why all countries don’t have free medical care, funerals, and local telephone calls.

You can approach the Cuban experiment critically, and cast a cold eye on the excesses of a revolution that has turned the country upside down and remade it in a new image. You should have grave reservations about the methods of a regime that still incarcerates thousands of political prisoners, that has made some grievous economic mistakes, that has neither a parliament, a free press, nor a constitution guaranteeing civil liberties, and that has become nearly as dependent on the Soviet Union as it once was on the United States. You can deplore the consumer shortages that force people to wait hours for a quart of milk, the propaganda machine that urges them to “volunteer” for hours of extra labor or weeks in the sugar fields, and the absence of any legal alternative to a government that rules by decree.

You can do all of this, and maybe even feel a bit self-righteous as you contemplate the shortcomings of the Castro regime. But if you stay on awhile, as I did last January when I went down to observe the international cultural congress on under-development and colonialism, you cannot help being impressed by the spirit that animates the Cuban revolution and by the people who are carrying it out. Even the most jaundiced Western journalists seem to fall under the spell, if only momentarily, and speak with grudging admiration of the ability of the Cubans to survive the US economic blockade and build a new society that has clearly brought enormous benefits to the majority of the population.

THE LONGER YOU STAY in Cuba the more you become aware that it is not simply a state like any other, nor even a communist bureaucracy similar to the ones of eastern Europe. Rather it is a continual “happening,” a vast and somewhat chaotic laboratory where nothing is taken for granted and experimentation is the order of the day. Everything is subject to analysis and modification: the concept of government, the structure of society, the sanctity of the family, the purpose of work, the justification of art, and even the nature of the human personality. At a time when communism has come to seem like merely another form of bureaucracy, somewhat more rigid and no less heartless than the more advanced varieties of capitalism, Cuba offers something unique. It offers the phenomenon of a revolution in progress.

This is why it seems natural to speak of the Cuban “experiment,” for it is a society in a perpetual state of fermentation. Today’s orthodoxy may well turn out to be tomorrow’s heresy, and none are more ready to admit it than the Fidelistas who run the country on what can only be described as a trial-and-error method. Shortly after ousting Batista they decided, for example, to cut their dependency on sugar by launching a huge industrialization program. This, however, proved to be an expensive failure, and the revolutionaries-turned-economists discovered the hard way that Cuba can produce sugar better than anything else. Today the emphasis is once again on cane as the money-maker which will pay for the modernization of the Cuban economy. This year’s crop will be under 6 million tons—far below the target figure—but the government is reaching for 10 million tons by 1970. If anything like this figure is reached, it would take the edge off the current economic hardship and consumer shortages.

As it is, these shortages are not the result of an economic breakdown, but rather of a deliberate policy to restrict consumption in favor of investment. Food is rationed because beef cattle and citrus fruit are exported to pay for industrial equipment. The government has been investing heavily in agriculture, livestock, dams, fertilizer, roads, and power plants. When these begin to pay off, as they are expected to do within a few years, the Cuban economy could take a dramatic leap forward. Then it could serve as a model to Latin Americans who despair of ever achieving serious reforms by grace of the oligarchies, or through the ballot box. It is the ambition of the Cubans to show that it is not only possible to have an anti-capitalist, anti-yanqui revolution, but that it can succeed on economic grounds. They just may be able to pull it off—partly as a result of Soviet economic assistance, which amounts to about $400 million a year including the sugar subsidy, and because of their own determination to become economically independent.


The Cubans have made a good many mistakes in the past, particularly in the early years of the revolution, when it was assumed that enthusiasm and a dedication to the common cause were sufficient to assure expert performance. That assumption was soon eroded when the economy ran into serious trouble in the early 1960s, and today the emphasis is on technicians rather than upon veterans who won their battle scars in the Sierra Maestra. In referring to the old days, which are still not so very far back, the Cubans tell a story about Che Guevara, who once held the post of minister of economics. When his inexperience became obvious, Fidel reproached his friend by saying: “Why did you raise your hand when I asked which of the comrades was an economist?” “Oh, I misunderstood,” Che replied. “I thought you asked who was a communist.”

Recently the joke has worn a bit thin, particularly since Che has now been deified as one of the martyrs of the Cuban revolution. His name is uttered with profound respect, and even with awe, for the myth of Che has already transfigured his earthly achievements. He has become an international culture hero, a symbol for a generation of young people who reject the bourgeois society of their elders, and despair of ever changing it by the conventional political process. Che is a made-to-order hero for intellectuals: a man of action who was also a superb political theorist, a brave guerrillero who penned an eloquent justification of the Cuban revolution, a romantic figure as agile with a rifle as he was with a pen. A man who made the CIA tremble. His tragic, futile death in the mountains of Bolivia has sanctified the legend, turning the revolutionary hero into the existential martyr.

CHE HAS BECOME more than simply one of the great heroes of the Cuban revolution. He is the symbol of the Fidelista program to bring about revolution in Latin America through guerrilla warfare. The fact that this program has not worked out very well in practice, that the guerrilleros are on the run in Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru, that the peasant insurrection in the Brazilian Northeast has fallen flat, and that Che’s Bolivian adventure was a fiasco—none of this seems to have diminished Fidel’s enthusiasm for world revolution. This has put him at odds with his Russian protectors, who favor working through the traditional communist parties of Latin America; it has also made it virtually impossible for Cuba to reach a modus vivendi with her neighbors.

The Cubans, however, argue that they can survive in a hostile world—just a few minutes flying time from the colossus that is their deadly enemy, and 5,000 miles from their protector—only by identifying their cause with that of revolutionaries everywhere. “Socialism in one country,” they say, is a prescription for encirclement and eventual eradication. Thus the clumsy efforts to stimulate guerrilla insurrection in Latin America, the perpetual “anti-imperialist” pronunciamentos issued from Havana, the formation of the Organization for Latin American Solidarity as a revolutionary rival to the US-sponsored Organization of American States, and the international conferences that are basically exercises in propaganda—such as the Tri-Continental in 1966, the OLAS meeting in 1967, and the Cultural Congress this past January. Thus, too, the inescapable presence of Che in the posters that line the streets of Havana, that decorate shop windows and billboards, that are blown up across the façade of giant buildings. Che proclaiming the continuous revolution and exhorting the Cubans to struggle and sacrifice: “patria o muerte,” “hasta la victoria siempre,” “creer uno, dos, tres Vietnam.”

The vocabulary of Cuba is revolution and its idiom is international. Everywhere there is an earnest, almost a desperate, attempt to reach beyond the narrow confines of this isolated island and find friends in the world outside. The countries that geography would normally decree to be Cuba’s friends—the United States, the islands of the Caribbean, the nations of South America—mostly fear her example and are hostile to her survival. They refuse to buy her products or to sell her their own, and nearly all, under pressure from Washington, have broken diplomatic relations with Havana. Only Mexico, as a gesture to her own revolutionary past, has resisted US pressure and maintains a tenuous air link with the island. Twice a week a propeller driven Cubana plane makes the round-trip from Havana to Mexico City, carrying journalists, diplomats, tourists and refugees along the only cord connecting Cuba to the rest of the western hemisphere.


As a result of this economic blockade imposed by the United States, Cuba has had to find new friends and trading partners. These are, of course, mostly in the communist countries of eastern Europe and, above all, the Soviet Union. They furnish the technical assistance needed to develop the Cuban economy, the oil to make it run, and the sugar subsidy that provides desperately needed foreign exchange. Without the Russians to help fill the gap left by the Americans, Cuba’s economy would long ago have collapsed, and the Fidelista experiment thereby strangled at birth. Although they have grave differences with their protectors, particularly over the strategy of revolution in Latin America, the Cubans are too dependent on the Russians to risk an open break. They bitterly resent Moscow’s efforts to normalize relations with the Latin American oligarchies, while the Russians criticize the Fidelista formula for instant revolution as sheer adventurism.

THE DISPUTE broke out into the open late last January when Castro jailed Anibal Escalante, one of the old-line leaders of the Cuban communist party, and some forty of his lieutenants for spreading “malicious lies” about the revolution and committing “treason.” They were, in other words, threatening the Castro leadership and they were summarily sentenced to prison after a secret trial. The Russians, who were accused of complicity with Escalante, remained calm throughout the affair, and the Soviet oil tankers continued to unload their precious black cargo from Baku. Cuba is to valuable to the Kremlin as a communist showcase to let the revolution collapse. Fidel knows this, just as he knows he can push the Russians only so far before they might feel obliged to put on the screws. He loudly proclaims Cuba’s independence, but he must pay at least formal allegiance to his alliance of convenience with Moscow.

The Cubans are far more dependent on the Soviets than they would like to be, and are now trying to break out of the confines of the communist economic bloc by increasing their trade with western Europe and Japan. This has been exceedingly difficult, because of US pressure on allied countries. We are, one might assume, trying to make Cuba totally dependent on the Communist nations so that we can justify our economic blockade. But the blockade, although it has caused considerable hardship and inconvenience, has not threatened the stability of the regime, and has proved to be an economic failure. Today the Cubans carry on nearly one-quarter of their foreign trade with non-communist countries—the leading partners being Spain, Canada, Britain and Japan.

Despite these efforts to break out of the US-imposed quarantine, Cuba remains very much a communist country in America’s anti-communist inland sea. It has the face of a misplanted, strangely exuberant, tropical “people’s democracy.” With its consumer shortages, its long lines at grocery stores and bakeries, its near-empty department stores, its paucity of private transportation, and its lack of neon glitter, it bears a superficial resemblance to some of the less oppressive communist states of eastern Europe. There is a restaurant called “The Volga” (but also a shop named “5th Avenue”), a “Vietnam Bookshop,” and a large office of the Czech air lines, which links Havana to Prague and the communist East.

Yet this is about as deep as the resemblance to eastern Europe goes, for what is most dramatically evident about the Cuban revolution is that it is deeply, ineradicably, defiantly Cuban. Beneath the surface conformity of a Marxist society caught in the struggle of economic development, there remain the peculiar passion, intensity, and torpor of the Caribbean. Cuba is a land deeply marked by Catholic pessimism and rural superstition, by an infatuation with the spoken word and a respect for the violent gesture. It is a society rooted in Spanish colonialism and transmuted by a profound African influence. Where else could a leader like Fidel talk for eight solid hours to adoring, attentive multitudes? Where else could one imagine a night club like the Tropicana—now proletarianized but just as flashy as in Batista days—so crowded that reservations are necessary weeks in advance? Cuba professes a unique kind of communism, a fusion of Spain and Africa that honors the theories of Marx and pays homage to the cult of machismo.

In the Vedado section of Havana, where the tourists used to come to gamble, and young Cubans now congregate at movies and discotheques, there is a futuristic-looking structure known as Coppelia. It is the pride of the Castro regime, and has small-scale offspring all over the island. Open all day and most of the night, it is continually crowded by people of every age and description who patiently wait in line for a chance to sit at one of the tables perched on a glassy cantilever or in an attractive garden. From a distance it looks like an exhibition hall, or perhaps an Italian railway station. But on closer inspection it turns out to be an ice-cream parlor, serving fifty-four varieties of what must be the most delicious ice cream in the western hemisphere.

Coppelia is hardly the most important accomplishment of the Castro government, but it is integral to an understanding of what the Cuban revolution is all about. More than the new hospitals, schools, and communal nurseries, more than the rural cooperatives and experimental farms, it symbolizes the spirit animating the revolution, and explains the continuing support it receives from the majority of Cubans. Coppelia is for the people. It has brought ice cream, once the exclusive prerogative of the rich, to the common man. In this sense, it reflects the democratization that is the greatest achievement of the Cuban revolution. Whatever happens after Castro, Cuba can probably never go back to being the class-ridden, exploited, seigneurial society that it was only a decade ago.

THE FEARS of some Americans about the dangers emanating from this communist state “only 90 miles from our shores,” seem rather ludicrous from Havana, where the American colossus—which sends its reconnaissance planes over Cuban skies, its warships outside Havana harbor, and has its own troops on Cuban soil at Guantanamo—sits only 90 miles off their shores. So long as Washington remains hostile, the Cubans have to look to Moscow for protection, for this is their only guarantee of survival. Even if they wanted to cut their ties with the Soviets and follow a path of social democracy, they could not be sure that the US would allow such a government to survive. The fate of Guatemala still stands as an object lesson for any Latin American radical. Not much has changed since then to undermine the belief that a real social revolution must either take the Cuban path (and be driven to seek Russian protection), or else face extinction by the United States. Thus the Cubans continue to prescribe revolution as the only solution for the ailments of Latin America, and they are encouraged in their assessment by the political failure of the Alliance for Progress, and by the toppling of civilian governments by military juntas in Latin societies where the oligarchies were threatened with serious reforms.

Is there any hope for a rapprochement with the United States? Many Cubans speak of it wistfully, as though the present enmity were some horrible family misunderstanding—which in a sense it is. A few years ago Fidel seemed receptive to improved relations with Washington and felt that, despite the Bay of Pigs, he could get through to Kennedy and work out some kind of modus vivendi. But then came the Johnson administration, the US-approved coup d’état in Brazil, the intervention at Santo Domingo, and the extension of the war to North Vietnam. So long as the war continues and the United States continues to devastate North Vietnam, a “fraternal ally” for which the Cubans feel great sympathy and admiration, there can be no common ground between Havana and Washington. Even without the war, it is dubious that Fidel, for the time being at least, would want to establish normal relations with the United States. This would make Cuba less useful to the Soviet Union, less certain of Russian protection and support, and deprived of a foreign enemy to justify the smothering of dissent at home.

There is a good deal of common griping in Cuba over consumer shortages, and a certain amount of “counter-revolutionary activity” that is not necessarily armed insurrection. There are secret police and jails containing some 10,000 political prisoners, maybe more. The government is ruthless with those it considers to be dangerous enemies, as the recent Escalante trial demonstrated. The party, under the control of Fidel and his lieutenants, dominates the state, and the state dispenses “revolutionary justice,” which often means secret trials and indefinite prison terms. Cuba is a oneparty, dictatorial state that tolerates a certain freedom of discussion, but which in no sense is a constitutional democracy. Nevertheless, it is possible to complain about the regime without being hauled off to jail. Some of the people I talked to in Havana told me of their grievances quite openly. It is also possible, for those who do not have needed skills, to leave the island, as some 4,000 do every month, for the nearby glitter of Miami. This emigration has taken the edge off much of the internal opposition, leaving those who either acquiesce in the new order, or who are active enthusiasts.

Much of this enthusiasm is merited, particularly in the fields of education, housing, and the arts. A crash program in education has eliminated illiteracy and doubled the number of students in school. Today there are 1.3 million children in grade school, 140,000 in secondary school, 40,000 students in the university. Many of these are children of peasants and workers who formerly had little access to a decent education. The quality of education is not often as high as it should be, and the emphasis is heavily on technical skills, so that there will be enough engineers, scientists, agronomists, and doctors to pursue rapid economic development. There is a good deal of political indoctrination in the schools, and it is extended even down to the becado system under which children spend five-and-a-half days a week at state boarding schools, seeing their parents on weekends. When fully operative within a few years, these schools will transform the primary responsibility for raising children from the family to the state.

The accomplishments of the revolution are visible and extensive. Visitors are taken to visit schools and hospitals, housing projects and model farms, libraries and experimental theaters. Many of these are impressive, such as the Mazzora mental home outside Havana, where patients are allowed to roam freely and to work on various jobs, or the futuristic Cubanacan art school on the site of a former country club. Even more impressive to the skeptical North American, because he is not prepared for it, is the vigor and inventiveness in the arts: the electronic music wafting through the galleries exhibiting the latest in op and pop paintings, the theaters where new Cuban dramas (such as The Night of the Assassins or Maria Antonia) are performed together with polished versions of foreign plays (Quien tiene miedo de Virginia Woolf? is the big hit of the current season), and public exhibits that subtly purvey propaganda as entertainment. Like the Russians shortly after their own revolution, the Cubans have turned posters into a form of art as well as a vehicle of exhortation. There are cleverly designed, colorful posters on every wall and along every roadside, carrying virtually every kind of message: from a plea to cut more sugar cane to one urging the artificial insemination of cows.

THE AIM OF FIDEL and his lieutenants is to mobilize the entire society into the task of economic development. The means, however, are not physical coercion so much as moral persuasion. Students, soldiers, workers, intellectuals, and housewives are exhorted to do hours of extra work in their spare time, and to volunteer for weeks in the sugar fields during the harvest. For many these hours of extra labor are not a punishment but a way of building the revolution, and they approach it with enthusiasm and even exhilaration. Those who refuse are not punished, but suffer a kind of social ostracism—as Americans might treat those who refused to help pile sandbags when a town is threatened by flood. The compulsion is moral, but it is incessant, and there are few who are able to resist it—even though they might like to. Everyone, for example, is virtually compelled to participate in the zafra, or sugar harvest—from cabinet officials to actors and dancers. “This,” a Cuban director said to me about his own imminent departure for the sugar fields, “is our theater of cruelty.”

The party plays a leading role in this “moral persuasion” of the Cuban population, just as it does in virtually every aspect of political life. Since Fidel took control of the party back from Escalante and the Stalinists in 1962, there has been some liberalization, but the regime can still be oppressive and puritanical. Until recently, for example, homosexuals were confined to forced labor camps. Currently there is a great dispute going on among writers over the party’s decision to do away with authors’ royalties. The theory is that this will eliminate the exploitation of culture, but in effect it could make writers dependent for their survival on the party bureaucrats who usually control the writers’ union—and the writers’ union in a communist society is the dispenser of most literary jobs. A debate is also raging over the future of the Cubanacan art school. Many, including the current minister of education, argue that this futuristic new structure should be closed down because it encourages the formation of a cultural elite—and this is clearly contrary to the objective of a classless society.

To Cubans these are not parochial questions, but involve the very meaning of the revolution. You cannot be in Cuba more than a few days without realizing that the revolution is a continuing phenomenon, even a way of life, and not simply a description of a historical event that overthrew the Batista regime. It is more than a panoply of heroes or a form of political rhetoric; it is a mystique that encompasses virtually every aspect of Cuban life. The revolution is a theory of man, a way of reforming society, and even of re-structuring human beings. The social program of the Castro government is a deliberate and carefully conceived attempt to achieve a new kind of society based upon its interpretations of Marxist humanism. The implementation may be harsh and the goal unattainable, but the theory, at least, is that, in Che’s words, “the ultimate and most important revolutionary aspiration (is) to see man freed from alienation.” Liberals would argue that in doing so the Cubans are enforcing a new kind of servitude, but the Fidelistas do not see it that way.

THE SYSTEM, as it is being evolved in Cuba today, rests upon the double base of material security and moral incentives, in contrast to capitalist (or even East European Communist) societies where the incentives are mostly material. The Cubans are reducing the possibility of material incentives by eliminating the number of things one can buy. Already a number of services are free, such as local telephone calls, medical care, meals on the job, education, day nurseries, wedding banquets, funerals and sports contests. Others are due to be added within a few years, such as rent, basic foods like milk and fruit, and public bicycles.

There are plans to do away eventually even with money, the very symbol of capitalism and the instrument of private property. The Cuban will presumably work extra hours not for material gain, but because it is his obligation to society. “If everyone has the need to consume, then everyone has the inescapable duty to work,” read the billboards of Cuba, quoting Fidel. The more the Cuban worker can obtain free, the less he will be driven by material incentives and the desire to amass possessions. “One of the fundamental aims of Marxism,” according to Che, “is to do away with personal gain as a psychological motivation.” The greater the stake that the workers have in the revolution, the more they will contribute to it.

It is a noble theory. Whether it will work in practice remains to be seen. The Cubans have made remarkable strides during the past nine years, and furnish one of the few examples in Latin American of a society that is actually achieving the social reforms that the others talk about in the meetings of the Alliance for Progress. That they are doing so despite the efforts of the United States to bring down the government is a tribute to the quality of Castro’s leadership and the fortitude of the Cuban people. One should never underestimate the agility of Fidel, who used the old-line Cuban Communists for the purpose of the revolution, and has refused to be used by them; who has maintained his independence of Moscow even while being dependent upon Russian aid and protection for survival. He is one of the great political figures of our time, and his misfortune is to have been born in Cuba, rather than in Brazil or Argentina, where he would have had the scope and the means to carry out his vision on a major scale, and without the continual fear of an American invasion.

CUBA, for the first time in her history as an independent nation, is trying to work out her destiny free from US control. The kind of society the Cubans are building is—like many others in Latin America—hardly a model of political democracy: there is no guaranteed freedom of speech or assembly, parliament doesn’t exist, individualism is a suspect word, and there is little chance of swimming against the tide. On the other hand, there is no unemployment in Cuba, or racial antagonism, or violence in the streets, or abject poverty alongside enormous wealth.

It is a society, perhaps one of the few in the world, where people give the impression of actually liking their government—or at least not looking upon it as an enemy. It is a perplexing society: exhilarating and repressive, experimental and puritanical, idealistic and expedient. It is a country, an experiment, a state of mind, quite unlike any other; a seductive place that is perhaps dangerous to take at face value, but impossible not to admire for the courage of its people and the daring of its vision.

This Issue

April 11, 1968