Friday, August 15, 2014

From my archives: The New Cuba reviewed (1976)

Following up on my recent post of Theodore Draper's analysis of the broken, original promises of Fidel Castro, I thought it would be interesting to share a book review I wrote in 1976 of a book edited by Ronald Radosh that evidenced the disillusionment of some important New Leftists with Castro's Cuba. (I don't think the title was mine.)

Radosh has, of course, moved to the political right, but this collection was an important intellectual contribution at the time and, I think, the points I make in the review are still valid, albeit some aspects are historically limited. In retrospect, I think I should have discussed some of the other contributors so I have included the Kirkus Review at the bottom.

I've added a few links and notes which weren't in the original.

The New Cuba is out-of-print, but it should be available in college libraries and from used-book dealers.

"Stale Cigars, Bad Rum and Repression"
by Stuart Elliott
New America
October 1976
Yet another Communist paradise has disillusioned its erstwhile Western enthusiasts. Cuba, once the ideal to the New Left in America, Europe, and Latin America that the Soviet Union was to an earlier generation, has been criticized as a degenerating or flawed revolutionary state by such radical intellectuals as Rene Dumont, K.S. Karol, and David Caute.* The most recent echo of this disillusionment is a collection of essays edited by American New Left historian Ronald Radosh, The New Cuba: Paradoxes and Potentials.

Compared to the writings of Herbert Matthews, Frank Mankiewicz, and Senator George McGovern, The New Cuba is an expose. Matthews, for instance, criticizes the critics of the arrest and political confession of the Cuban poet Herbert[o] Padilla and denies that torture has ever been authorized in Cuba. Mankiewicz and his associate Kirby Jones conclude that "if one compares Cuba's lack of political freedom and social mobility to any other Latin American country, then to all but a handful of landed aristocrats it must seem a very desirable place indeed." George Me Govern has described Cuba as a nation "whose policies sometimes irritate us."

If Radosh and his colleagues are more critical than Matthews, Mankiewicz, and McGovern it is because they expected Cuba to create a "new man" and a "new society," not simply an egalitarian authoritarianism. Radosh, in particular, is critical of the failure of Castro to develop a socialist democracy, cultural and political repression in Cuba, and the price that Cuba has paid for the receipt of Soviet aid.

Although Radosh's analysis develops little new ground, his recapitulation of the work of Karol and Dumont may give wider circulation to their incisive views. Karol, in his important study Guerillas in Power, penetrated to the heart of the Cuban revolution when he accused the revolutionary elite, including the supposedly heterodox Che Guevera, of importing two myths from the Soviet Union: that the workers had no interest other "than the acceleration of production in accordance with the overall economic plan," and that the revolutionary leaders "know best how to interpret the thoughts and needs of the working class." Against the utopianism of the New Left, Dumont argued that the policy of moral incentives followed in the early years of the Cuban revolution! inevitably meant the militarization of work. After the failure of the ten-million ton sugar harvest in 1970, moral incentives have been replaced by material incentives. However, as Radosh points out, Dumont's expectation that the introduction of material incentives and market relations would mean a corollary, if 'partial, political liberalization has proved erroneous. Instead, the Cuban economy has been Sovietized.

Yet for all its comparative honesty, 'The New Cuba is ultimately disappointing. It provides no real insights into the potential development of Cuba. Rather than examining the contradictions in Cuba, we are presented with paradoxes. Both in his essays in this collection and in a recent review in Dissent# Radosh retains an optimistic outlook for the possibility of a more independent and democratic socialism in Cuba that finds little support in his analysis of Cuban society. Radosh even suggested in Dissent that the normalization of relations with the United States is the one factor that might lead away from the Stalinization of Cuba. However, in The New Cuba Radosh observed that rather than lead to political liberalization, detente with the United States might well result in increased ideological conformity.

Radosh and his associates have rejected the notion that to criticize the Cuban revolution is to serve the cause of reaction. But their opinions are biased and, ultimately, less than convincing, because they continue to see themselves as friends of the Cuban revolution and to define the present system as socialist. So while Radosh is willing to criticize Cuba's "socialism" as flawed, he refuses to describe it as a totalitarian state. 

The limited, and therefore apologetic, nature of Radosh's criticism is reflected in his criticism of political and cultural repression in Cuba. He condemns the imprisonment of Herbert Padilla and the suppression of the last quasi-independent journal in Cuba, but neglects to mention that there are 80,000 political prisoners in Cuba, held in barbarous conditions. Castro himself has admitted  to holding 20,000 political prisoners and details about conditions in the Cuban prison camps are readily available in the reports of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights. In its Fifth Report on the Status Human Rights in Cuba, the Commission reported that in the last five years violations of human rights" are far from decreasing, and arbitrary and excessively strict procedures continue, particularly in the treatment of political prisoners, with complete disregard for "the dignity of human beings."

Shocking Allegations

The allegations which have been filed against Cuba are among the most shocking instances of torture ever recorded. Yet by refusing to respond to the allegations as required by the regulations of the Organization of American States, Cuba has not only confirmed the accuracy of the charges, but has demonstrated its total disrespect for human rights. A chain of prison and labor camps crosses Cuba, and one camp, in Havana province, holds a capacity of 20,000. One camp for women originally named "America Libre" is now called "Nuevo Arnanecer" (New Dawn). Reading Radosh one would never know that this is part of the "new Cuba."

Nor do Radosh and the other critical sympathizers take a hard enough look at Cuba's economic and social performance outside the prisons. The Castro government's own statistics, for instance, show infant mortality increasing through the 1960s. Average per capita consumption of rice in 1968 was half the level of 1956. By the late 1960s the Cuban economy was faltering and political discontent was growing. The Cuban economy is relatively healthy today, but that is because of increased, Soviet aid and booming world sugar prices, which are higher, relative to their 1968 level, than petroleum prices.

In return for stepped-up economic aid, Castro was forced to grant the Soviets more direct influence in Cuban affairs. The Soviet Union has insisted on the "institutionalization of the revolution" to protect its economic, political, and ideological investment in Cuba. The first Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, held in December 1975, was symptomatic of the process of strengthening government and politics along Soviet lines and the widespread adoption of Soviet- style administrative and economic practices. Fidel's charismatic, personalist rule was limited by a party program that stressed the "leading role of the PCC.”

Another stage in the Sovietization of Cuba was the adoption of Cuba's first “socialist" constitution in February 1976. The constitution accords the PCC the status of "the leading force of the society and state" and bears a remarkable resemblance to the 1936 Soviet constitution.

The new "Organs of People Power" are an attempt to provide evidence of popular support . that is both more. stable and controllable than Castro's charisma. Matthews and Mankiewicz point to the experimental elections held in Mantanzas Province in 1974, soon to be duplicated throughout the island, as proof that the institutionalization of the revolution is leading to new forms of mass democracy, Although there were contested elections, the Commission to regulate the elections is headed by the veteran pro-Moscow Communist Blas Roca. The Castro regime and its Soviet masters have no intention of licensing the development of an opposition. The "new Cuba" resembles nothing so much as the old Soviet Union. When apologetic criticisms of the Castro regime are replaced by genuine solidarity with Cuban democrats, there may at last be a hope for a new Cuba.


* Rene Dumont, Cuba, Is It Socialist?
                           Cuba, Socialism and Development Grove Press, 1970
   K.S. Karol, Guerillas in Power
   David Caute, Cuba, Yes?

Both Dumont's Cuba, Is it Socialist? and Karol's book were listed among the Castro's five least favorite books by Atlantic magazine in 2005. Both remain essential works to understand Cuba.

Ronald Radosh "On the Cuban Revolution" (Review of Social Security in Latin America: Pressure Groups, Stratification and Inequality, by Carmelo Mesa-Lago, and Revolution in Cuba, by Herbert L. Matthews)Dissent, pp. 309-314 June 1976]

For comparison, here is the Kirkus Review

Eight essays by leftish Cuba-watchers, assembled by a history professor at Queensborough Community College, a libertarian anarchist and author of Prophets on the Right (p. 61). Radosh seems to be saying that Cuba has succumbed to Leninist authoritarianism but pop music is still played, so hope persists. Among the critics are Martin Duberman, identified by Radosh as a "homosexual author," who believes that Cuba has failed "in the area of psychosexual transformation." Rene Dumont, who was kicked out of his agricultural advisory post by the Cubans under suspicion of CIA activity, joins K. S. Karol, Jean-Paul Sartre, writer Jose Yglesias, and French economist Charles Bettelheim in attacking Castro as dictatorial. Latin American specialist James Petras and former National Security Advisor Maurice Halperin also fault Cuba for declining to decentralize and for jailing the poet Padilla in 1971. Radosh adds an indictment of Raul Castro for his attacks on "U.S. youth culture" and his demand for "ideological purity." The book does not aim at analysis of Cuban economic development or, except for the aspersions against Castro's ties to the USSR, place Cuba's development in the context of international politics. The book is far from a shrill blast--Frances FitzGerald, for example, presents an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand judgment. But it will provide low-keyed reinforcement of the suspicions of academics regarding "collectivism" and "centralization."


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