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On Sovereignties and Solidarities

The United States must abandon Cold War-era foreign policies and accept that Cuba is a sovereign nation free to define its political future— even if that means continuing socialism.

slogan painted on wall in Cuba
“More united and combative, defending socialism,” reads a wall in Havana, Cuba, painted with the logo of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. ,Marcel601/Flickr

In 1959, the Cuban Revolution set in motion a series of radical reforms that completely upended the island’s economy and politics and reverberated around the globe. Cuba’s nationalization of land, agriculture, and U.S.-owned companies one year later stoked unbridled U.S. antagonism that by 1962 resulted in the U.S. imposition of an embargo on the Cuban economy.

Sixty years later, despite periodic attempts at rapprochement between the two governments, the embargo remains in place and it is clear that U.S. policy toward Cuba has failed. Despite causing an inordinate amount of suffering and poverty on the island, the embargo did not interrupt Fidel Castro’s rule at any point. It has not provoked the internal destabilization and modification of the political system that the U.S. government had hoped for. And it has failed to inhibit the continuation of socialist policies on the island. As this suggests, U.S. policy toward Cuba is critically misguided.

To improve relations with Cuba, U.S. politicians must first develop a foreign policy guided by tenets of respect, cooperation, and mutual assistance. This would invariably mean rolling back resurgent political extremism, reminiscent of the Cold War era, recently pursued by the U.S. administration, including the tightening of the embargo in concession to the Florida lobby—a right-wing voting bloc of hardliners who hold disproportionate influence over political matters on Cuba. In many ways, people in Cuba have benefitted from the country’s expansion of social and cultural rights and have worked in support of the revolutionary agenda. This support for socialism in Cuba is also key to the failure of U.S. regime change policy. If they wish to mend relations, U.S. politicians must recognize this reality and accept the history that Cubans have chosen for themselves.

A Long Tradition of Socialism

For six decades, successive U.S. administrations have sought to “liberate” Cuba from Communism—a goal implicitly premised on the idea that Cuba’s left-wing regimes have been forcefully imposed on the island by Fidel Castro, a coterie of loyalists, and their Soviet allies. The continued failure of the United States’ “liberation” program, however, raises serious questions about the fundamental assumptions guiding U.S. foreign policy toward the island.

From the U.S. intervention into Cuba’s War for Independence against Spain in 1898—which essentially turned the island into a U.S. protectorate for 30 years—until the 1959 revolution, U.S. engagement with Cuba primarily focused on safeguarding the region for capitalist investment. In protecting its financial interests in Cuba, the U.S. also made sustained efforts to contain the spread of progressive and anti-racist legislation emerging from decades of anti-colonial struggle.

Socialism in Cuba dates back to the late-19th century and developed alongside its quest for national sovereignty. By the time Fidel Castro announced in April 1961 that the island would pursue an explicitly socialist model, Cubans had already spent decades debating how to implement radical, anarchist, and socialist practices.

A number of Cuba’s most recognized intellectuals had long expressed admiration for socialist ideals. Diego Vicente Tejera, an influential poet, thinker, and politician, founded the island’s first socialist party in 1899. Martín Morúa Delgado, who became one of Cuba’s most prominent liberal leaders after the Republic’s founding in 1902, wrote positively about socialism and its reformist variants. And though José Martí, Cuba’s most famous intellectual, was not explicitly socialist, he regularly conveyed admiration for the U.S. socialist economist Henry George, who notably advocated high taxation and the socialization of land. Cuba’s intellectuals and Independence leaders were not afraid of socialist ideas, and differences notwithstanding, their platforms almost all contained elements of socialist thought.

A dynamic socialist culture also emerged among Cubans who migrated to the United States even before the turn of the century. The movement of Cuban tobacco workers from Havana to southern Florida resulted in intellectual, financial, and cultural flows that helped the ideas of “revolutionary socialist” labor organizations in Cuba, like Alianza Obrera, become major currents within the Cuban labor movement in Florida.

The infusion of socialist tendencies across Cuban politics pushed the struggle for Cuban independence from Spain further left and made concrete political gains. Cuba’s 1901 Constitution—a product of extensive dialogue waged during the Wars for Liberation—was imbued with progressive demands. It enshrined, for example, one of Latin America’s first universal male suffrage laws, critically granting voting rights to African and formerly enslaved men. With the approval in 1901 of the Platt Amendment, an extension of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine that allowed the U.S. to intervene in Cuba whenever it saw fit, the U.S. government tried unabashedly to contain the tendencies toward what Cubans saw as social progress coming out of Cuba’s Independence Movement.

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Socialist ideas gained greater traction in Cuba after the 1933 revolution, which overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Gerardo Machado. In the post-revolutionary period, different varieties of socialist thought competed with tenets of social liberalism and nationalism for support among the Cuban electorate. During the Cuban Republic (1902-1958), three major political parties emerged from the nationalist, democratic, and socialist intersections of political praxis: the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (Auténtico) and the Partido del Pueblo Cubano (Ortodoxo), which both represented Cuban-style social democracy; and the Soviet-inspired Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC) founded in 1925. A fourth group that consisted of left-wing democratic socialists developed outside the framework of official party politics. The liberal Auténticos governed for several years on a strong mandate to redistribute wealth and grant social rights. In years when the Communist Party was legally allowed to operate (1938-1953), it held seats in Congress, participated in the 1940 convention to write a new Constitution, and successfully canalized growing worker discontent with the state of economic, social and political affairs in Cuba. As the most important mass party in Cuban politics, the Ortodoxo party’s liberal and nationalist platform was, as with the Auténticos, imbued with social justice language that emphasized wealth redistribution. Across rural Cuba, the spread of socialist ideas became apparent in the 1930s, when workers seized dozens of sugar mills from their owners and replaced them with worker controlled governing councils, known as soviets. Meanwhile, in the mountainous regions of eastern Cuba, peasants and small farmers, many of them Afro-Cuban and communists, rose up in arms against state-backed guardsmen who attempted to evict them from their land. In this struggle, a rural communist movement developed organically, rooted in the resistance to land dispossession and racial discrimination. Although not all of these groups self-identified as socialist or communist, opponents attempting to curb the growth of radical movements in the countryside categorized them as such. As the above examples suggest, several distinctly Cuban forms of socialism had developed across the island well before the 1959 revolution.

In the 1950s, Rafael García Bárcena, the founder of the then-influential Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario, one of the first organizations to emerge in opposition to dictator Fulgencio Batista, promoted a platform that fused democratic socialism with nationalism. Blending self-determination, economic nationalization, and egalitarianism, this merging of principles gained traction. Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement embraced it; for Castro and his followers, nationalism provided a powerful identity while socialism offered a path to justice. Moreover, for many poor, non-white, and disenfranchised Cubans, the revolutionary framework, which attacked imperialism and defended economic independence, was extraordinarily powerful.

Today, many critiques made within Cuba about the island’s political system do not point to an insoluble problem with socialism, but focus instead on some of the ways that it has been implemented. In other words, a great many Cubans do not, as mainstream U.S. narratives insist, overwhelmingly oppose socialism. Indeed, a profound egalitarian culture is deeply rooted across much of Cuban society. As María, a small business owner from Havana, pointed out to Cuban researchers Diosnara Ortega and Ailynn Torres in 2014, the levels of equality reached during her youth in the 1970s and 1980s kept people content: “We would go out to party every weekend, wearing clothes made from the four meters of cloth that we were given, we all looked the same, but we were happy.”

Yet, critics of Cuba’s political system are quick to dismiss people who defend it as naïfs who fail to understand that socialism simply does not work. Their portrayals of Cuban people as hopelessly oppressed, however, refuse to accept that many ordinary Cubans actively wish to build a well-functioning socialist system premised on equality and egalitarianism. In fact, there is good reason to believe that Cubans will continue to rally around socialism. In April 2019, after months of lively public debate, more than 6.8 million people—87 percent of the Cuban electorate—voted to approve Cuba’s new Constitution, reaffirming its socialist principles and demonstrating that a substantial sector of the population continues to support Cuba’s political process. Even former Cuban judge Edel González Jiménez, who recently spoke to the New York Times about problems with Cuba’s judicial system, points out that judicial reform does not imply scrapping socialism. Indeed, even as a critic living abroad, he remains a member of the Communist Party and a believer in the Cuban system.

This is not to argue, of course, that Cuban socialism is without problems. In Cuba, spaces for dissent are small, and successful criticism is conducted discreetly rather than directly; there are limits to the type of political activities that citizens can undertake; and substantial problems affect daily life—low salaries, crumbling infrastructure, lack of available transport, and an aging population, to name just a few. But by comparison, the democratization of socialism has been no more problematic than attempts at the social, ecological, economic, cultural, and political democratization of capitalism.

Cubans recognize the problems with their system and are working to solve them. Grassroots activism to redress the racial and gender inequalities that Black Cubans and women still suffer have created some of the most dynamic spaces of citizen engagement. At the same time, the government is taking steps to address structural racial discrimination, inequality, and gender violence.

In the space that Cuba occupies in the U.S. imagination, it is nearly impossible to picture Cubans endorsing socialism. For decades, U.S. critics have presumed Cubans to be blind followers, forced into feigning support for a regime that does little but abuse them. Needless to say, this analysis is not only erroneous; many Cubans view it as an insulting embodiment of the imperialist and capitalist logic at the very root of U.S. regime change policy.

El Bloqueo Interno and the “Embargo” Trap

The U.S. embargo on Cuba—derisively called “the blockade” on the island—and U.S. support for subversion are persistent and concrete problems. The United Nations estimates that the embargo has cost Cuba a total of $130 billion over the last 60 years. But beyond the economic damage, both the embargo and covert forms of U.S. intervention distort necessary internal processes of economic liberalization and democratization.

The Cuban government recently acknowledged the existence of what Cubans colloquially refer to as “el bloqueo interno”—namely the inefficient and bureaucratic state management of the economy, which exacerbates the effects of the embargo. The admission that internally produced economic isolation is real and should be addressed marks an important step in the democratization of the economy. Unfortunately, it comes amid renewed strident economic hostility from the United States. Since the reimposition of sanctions against Cuba in 2017 and the 2019 activation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Law, which enables lawsuits against companies profiting from property that was expropriated after the revolution, the Cuban government has tightened rather than loosened economic restrictions.

A similar dynamic occurs with other facets of Cuban politics. The U.S. embargo purports to defend “human rights” in Cuba, but in practice it does the exact opposite. Often, as U.S. policy has hardened against Cuba, government officials have answered by toughening their response to dissent. Considering the long legacy of U.S. intervention in Latin America, Cuba cannot be expected to ignore what it reads as “external aggression.” Yet, the more aggressive U.S. foreign policy has been, the more opportunity it has given the Cuban government to excuse itself by equating legitimate internal critique with foreign subversion, thus silencing important political debate. One example is the Cuban government’s tendency to look outwards rather than inwards, as with its characterization of all allegations of human rights violations as part of a U.S. destabilization campaign. Far from “liberating” the island, U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba has fostered a climate that has made it nearly impossible for Cubans to dispute their matters internally, even subverting crucial processes of debate on the island.

As the historian Louis Pérez, Jr. has pointed out, it is not especially surprising that Cuban officials have become obsessed with “internal security.” For six decades, U.S. officials have employed a diversity of covert and overt operations to foment regime change in Cuba: economic and agricultural sabotage, sanctions, the threat of invasion, and myriad harebrained schemes to assassinate Cuba’s leaders. Since the 1990s, the U.S. government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into “democracy promotion” programs that fund anti-regime dissidents and civil society organizations.

In 2009, for example, after looking into the organizations funding a group of Latin American students providing HIV prevention workshops in Cuba, government officials uncovered a clandestine United States Agency for International Development (USAID) program designed to “identify potential social-change actors.” Two years later, Cuban officials discovered that USAID had been infiltrating and enlisting hip-hop groups as agents of its “pro-democracy” regime change efforts. Like countless previous attempts to topple Cuba’s government, the plan failed, but not before critically compromising the legitimate—and entirely organic—critiques that these and other hip-hop artists had levied against social and institutional racism prior to USAID’s arrival. USAID’s actions resulted in the closure of important spaces for social critique and coopted music that provided an outlet to frustrations with extant and growing racial disparity on the island. Most recently, in 2014, the government exposed Project ZunZuneo, a covert USAID social media platform that the United States hoped would provoke mass protest and destabilize the government.

Rather than achieving regime change, U.S. intervention in Cuban politics so far has resulted in the inhibition of social progress and the discrediting of legitimate critique—critically delaying whatever social change Cubans may themselves desire.

If anything, it is telling that Cuba debated and ratified its most liberal constitution during the Good Neighbor era (1933-1940s), when the United States abandoned “gunboat diplomacy” in favor of a policy of respect and cooperation. Put another way, it was only in a climate relatively free from U.S. hostility that Cubans felt the liberty to pursue progressive change. A similar opening occurred beginning in December 2014, when President Barack Obama moved to reestablish full diplomatic relations with Cuba and loosen restrictions on travel and trade. As the U.S. grip slackened, the Cuban government initiated dialogue with the Catholic Church and returned some of its properties; private business flows were allowed to expand; more spaces for debate began to appear; and alternative media outlets—while not always authorized—were tolerated and allowed to operate.

When the Platt Amendment was scrapped in 1934, the United States promised to withdraw from Cuba. Eighty-six years later, however, it clearly intends to remain an internal actor of Cuban politics, financing the opposition and intervening in Cuban affairs. Uncaring, or perhaps unaware, that it is inconsistent for the United States to defend political rights for Cubans by asserting its own right to intervene in Cuban politics, U.S. policy repeats the same arguments colonial Britain made to leaders of the American Revolution: that intervention is necessary and “for the good of Cuba.”

Yet Cubans remain deeply committed to national sovereignty. Perhaps one reason that Cuban socialism persists today is that it has been the only form of government to have successfully defended that sovereignty.

A Counterhegemonic Foreign Policy

Since the 1960s, Cuba has stood as a tangible reminder of the limits of U.S. power. As relations with the U.S. soured and Cuba became politically and economically isolated from the rest of the world, the island turned toward alternative sources of support. In the process, it established a distinctively Cuban form of foreign policy designed to challenge the U.S.-led capitalist world order. Based on notions of solidarity across borders, three tactics guided Cuba’s counterhegemonic foreign policy: the promotion of socialism abroad, support for left-wing revolutions, and the creation of internationalist missions to combat the effects of poverty.

In destroying the bases of oligarchic capitalism at home, Cuba pushed an alternative vision of economics organized around the promotion of human wellbeing rather than the interests of capital. Its foreign policy took these concepts abroad. Cuba helped establish the notion of Latin America as one historic entity with a conscience of its own; it decolonized the imagination of the region as a derivative of the West; it trampled on the Monroe Doctrine; it facilitated connections between Asia and Africa, effectively linking the Third World and making it possible to challenge imperial balances of power on a global scale; and it changed the future of Africa by helping win three wars against colonial forces and contributing to the defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

Cuba also challenged U.S. models of “development.” While U.S. development programs were premised on making the world safe for capitalist expansion and containing the rise of communism, Cuba’s model was based on mutual cooperation. Perhaps its most effective development project abroad was its medical internationalism. Starting in 1963—the same year it was expelled from the Organization of American States—Cuba began dispatching legions of doctors abroad to provide medical care to underserved populations. That year, the island sent 55 health professionals to Algeria to replace the French doctors fleeing the country after it declared independence. Cuban doctors also served in Guinea-Bissau and Angola during their anti-colonial wars. This medical internationalism continues: In 2018, Cuba had 50,000 health technicians working in 67 countries, making Cuban doctors the country’s largest and most important export.

The Cuban government’s domestic programs further served as models for Latin American development. Starting in 1959, Cuba enacted a series of redistributive policies and social welfare programs that targeted illiteracy and lack of education, land, housing, and access to health care. This model proved successful in eradicating illiteracy and raising the living standards of many poor Cubans, and it eventually inspired imitators. Cuba supported such efforts in concrete ways. For instance, in the wake of the failed 2002 coup against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan government, encouraged by Fidel Castro, embarked on a development program directly modeled on Cuba’s. Chávez established the Misiones Bolivarianas, which followed Cuba’s example of expanding health care, literacy, education, housing, and food availability; he also created Barrio Adentro, which sent Cuban doctors to Venezuela’s most remote enclaves and urban slums. Indeed, as elite Venezuelan doctors left the country for more lucrative horizons, Cuban physicians replaced them.

The election of progressive and leftist governments across Latin America in the early 2000s reinvigorated Cuba’s professed mandate of cross-border solidarity. As Latin America’s Pink Tide gained strength, new opportunities for intra-continental collaboration emerged. First, in 2005, Cuba joined Venezuela, Argentina, and Uruguay, in establishing TeleSur, a regional left-wing television news channel designed to challenge Western information hegemony. Second, in the aftermath of U.S. support for the 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, the Cuban government helped form the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a regional organization that isolated the U.S. and Canada in a concerted effort to reduce their outsized influence on hemispheric politics and economics.

Cuban foreign policy has long provided a model of international relations that stands in stark contrast to U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, the return of right-wing governments throughout Latin America has resulted in the erosion of some recent gains in hemispheric solidarity. In the last year, Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia have ended their agreements with Cuban medical missions, leaving countless citizens without critical access to health care. Nevertheless, Cuba maintains a commitment to a medical internationalism that encourages it to act in the interests of poor people around the world, offering a counterpoint to the policies promoted by its capitalist neighbor to the north.

Future U.S. Foreign Policy toward Cuba

Any future U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba should be premised on the understanding that attempts to “liberate” Cuba are illegitimate and undemocratic. Cuba admittedly has a difficult task ahead: It must update its economic and political systems in ways that respond to novel social realities. The ability to take on these tasks without the looming threat of U.S. intervention is crucial. The United States needs to accept Cuba as a sovereign nation; Cubans should be left alone to choose whatever political system they desire—even if that means continuing on a socialist path. In fact, taking into account the recent resurgence of democratic socialism in the United States, U.S. politicians might consider looking to Cuba for inspiration to envision what a solidarity-led political system might look like in the United States.

The ideology and experience of Cuban socialism have led Cubans to expect universal guaranteed access to a wide range of social rights—health, education, infrastructure, abortion, and more—that they believe should not be subject to market forces. It is strange to think, as many U.S. politicians and Cuban exiles apparently do, that Cubans would be willing to abandon these guaranteed social rights in favor of the U.S. model.

Beyond ending the embargo and sanctions against the Cuban economy, perhaps the most helpful action U.S. politicians could take would be to work on developing a stronger politics and culture of solidarity within U.S. borders. Having freed itself from the need to liberate others, the United States may then find it feasible to approach Cuban politics from a position of genuine selflessness.

Julio César Guanche Zaldívar is a lawyer, historian, and social scientist affiliated with the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). He was professor at the University of Havana for more than a decade and has served as visiting professor at Harvard and Northwestern Universities. Author of numerous books and articles, he was a visiting scholar in 2019 at the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History in Frankfurt, Germany.

Sara Kozameh is a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at New York University. Her dissertation is titled, Harvest of Revolution: Agrarian Reform and the Making of Revolutionary Cuba, 1958-1970.