My thoughts on Cuba

Owen Jones
Nov 29, 2016 · 5 min read

I wrote a few tweets about Cuba which have caused some anger, not least from certain revolutionary leftists in Spain (one of whom has called me a “spokesman for Soros’ bitch mother” — interesting). So I wanted to bore everyone to death a bit more by writing about my thoughts at length.

The Cuban Revolution overthrew a vicious US-backed mafia-infested dictatorship in 1959. When those on the right make an offensive comparison between Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet, they forget to mention that Pinochet overthrew a democratically elected government, not an oppressive dictatorship—all with the support of the US, whose Secretary of State Henry Kissinger infamously declared: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

That tended to be the fate of democratically elected left-leaning governments and movements in Cold War Latin America: they were overthrown in military coups, subjected to economic warfare, and attacked by vicious right-wing paramilitaries.

My parents brought in Chilean refugees when they lived in Sheffield in the 1970s. One was a woman whose husband had been murdered; she had been raped; and she ended up taking her own life by throwing herself off a Sheffield towerblock.

The right-wing regimes that took over Latin America in the midst of the Cold War were abominable. They instituted mass disappearances of the people they killed. They threw dissidents out of helicopters. They shoved electrodes up the genitalia of old women.

If you want to know why so many of the left in Latin America lost faith in a democratic route to power in this period, then this is why.

Cuba’s revolution did achieve many things that transformed people’s lives: a public healthcare system that is the envy of much of the world; a life expectancy you’d expect from a developed nation; a world-class education system that eradicated illiteracy; and so on. It did this despite the hostility of the world’s pre-eminent superpower, just off its coast, which used economic warfare in the form of a suffocating embargo, an invasion, subversion, and repeated assassination attempts to achieve its aims.

When much of the West was effectively complicit in Apartheid, Cuba stood in solidarity with the African National Congress — to the eternal gratitude of Nelson Mandela — and helped bring this despicable system down by defeating its forces in Angola in 1988.

But that so much of the left stops there is, in my view, troubling. While other left-wing movements since have won power democratically in Latin America, Cuba remains a dictatorship. It is a dictatorship. Socialism without democracy, as I wrote yesterday when I caused offence, isn’t socialism. It’s paternalism with prisons and persecution. Socialism means socialising wealth and power — but how can power be socialised if it’s concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable elite?

Socialism is about maximising human freedom. Human freedom is limited by many things, including by the economic system under which we live. It is limited by economic oppression. If you cannot afford to eat enough food, you are not free. If you are badly housed, you are not free. If you are at the whim of a despotic employer, you are not free. If you spend much of your life worrying about how you will afford to live comfortably, you are not free.

Freedom means other things, too. Many of the people uncritically praising Cuba’s regime are tweeting about it. Practically no-one in Cuba can read these tweets, because practically no-one has the internet at home. People are arrested and harassed — including Cuban leftists — for their opinions. In the first decades of Cuba’s revolution gay men were locked up in camps — yes, when homosexuality was banned in much of the Western world and Britain had recently sterilised war hero Alan Turing, but it still happened.

In practice, sympathisers of Cuba’s regime would never tolerate or endure the political conditions that exist there. They would quickly find them to be stifling and intolerable. Yes, even with the historic context I’ve detailed, is it really acceptable to expect others to endure conditions you wouldn’t yourself?

It is not naive to believe that Cuba could democratise and grant political freedoms currently denied as well as defending its public health care system and the gains of the revolution. It could be argued that this is the next stage of the revolution. Because, frankly, history tells us that Cuba’s system will, at some point, collapse, and it will be presented as another nail in the coffin of socialism when it does.

There are democratic radical leftists in Cuba, and they warn that “the biggest obstacle for democratic socialist activists may be reaching people who, disenchanted with the Stalinist experience, believe in purely market-based solutions.” They believe that, as happened in Nicaragua, Cuba will head towards the mass privatisation of state assets by elements of the regime. They want solidarity from the international left, and surely they deserve it.

Cuba’s revolution was born in a specific historical context, which was 1959. The only future for socialism — and the only possibility for socialism to win mass support — is through democracy. That doesn’t just mean standing in elections, although that’s a big part of it. It means organising a movement rooted in people’s communities and workplaces. It means arguing for a system that extends democracy to the workplace and the economy. That’s socialism: the democratisation of every aspect of society.

Championing Cuba in its current form will certainly resonate with a chunk of the radical left, but it just won’t with the mass of the population who will simply go — aha, that’s really the sort of system you would like to impose on us. Which it isn’t.

There are those who responded by demanding where was my scrutiny of my own government and the failures of British democracy? A bit bizarre, given I spend my entire career doing that. I wrote an entire book on how democracy is undermined by elites in Britain. I’ve written and campaigned extensively on the horrors of Western foreign policy: like backing the Saudi dictatorship as it murderously bombs Yemen, or the Iraq war, or the bombing of Syria, or the bombing of Libya, and so on. And yes, what of the shameless hypocrisy of condemning Jeremy Corbyn’s statement on Castro when the British government lowered the flag to half mast to mourn the death of their Saudi dictator ally? This is about being consistent.

“There is only one hope for mankind — and that is democratic Socialism,” said Nye Bevan. That’s my own firm belief: whether it be for the West or for Cuba. If you’re a socialist, you’re a universalist, not a relativist: you believe all people deserve the same economic and political rights. That can’t be achieved without democracy — not the limited democracy the West currently has, but a full democracy that we should aspire to. That means not lauding a regime which, despite its achievements, lacks the basic democratic rights that a truly socialist society must enjoy as a bare minimum. A socialist society is one free of fear: free of the fear of economic insecurity, free of the fear of a police officer knocking on the door in the middle of the night. That doesn’t exist yet, but one day it must.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store