On 1 January 2020 we celebrated the sixty-first anniversary of the triumph of the first socialist revolution in the Western Hemisphere. Sixty-one years after that historic event Cubans, and the friends of Cuba in the world, recognise the greatness of that event, which made the peoples of the world fix their eyes on that small Caribbean island that was beginning to weave its heroic epic of justice and dignity for its people.
The Cubans of my generation received the revolutionary triumph of January as the best gift of the “Three Wise Men,” as described by the award-winning Cuban writer Senel Paz, recalling those festivities in which all the Cuban children of that time, immersed in our childhood dreams, wrote long letters to the Three Wise Men on 6 January, asking them to bring us the most diverse toys. These letters were placed in our shoes, and we went to bed early, not forgetting to put out dry grass for the loaded and hungry camels carrying the Magic across the land.
When we woke up the following day, the luckiest of us, from the long list we had made, found that there were only one of these little Magic gifts. Others—the poorest—had none, even though they had behaved well.
It was one of the first lessons of inequality that pre-revolutionary capitalist society gave to those of us who began to live: the humble could not have Magic, nor could they have dreams.
In 1981 Fidel Castro said: “I think that if we had liquidated Batista in 1953, imperialism would have crushed us, because between 1953 and 1959 there was a very important change in the correlation of forces in the world. And the Soviet state was relatively weak at the time. And it must be seen that we were decisively helped by the Soviet state, which in 1953 would not have been able to do so . . .”
Later he added: “We were doing our show little by little. All these aggressions accelerated the revolutionary process. Were they the cause? No, it would be a mistake. I do not pretend that aggression is the cause of socialism in Cuba. This is false. In Cuba we were going to build socialism as orderly as possible, within a reasonable period of time, with the least amount of trauma and problems; but the aggression of imperialism accelerated the revolutionary process.”
The hegemonic, aggressive and intolerant policy of the United States helped to forge in the people an anti-imperialist consciousness that did not exist. It helped to speed up and refine the process; in spite of the imperialists, it was a forge of revolutionary consciousness and patriotism.
The triumph of January 1959 began the end of the neo-colonial domination of the United States in Cuba. There were many imperial challenges, but the men and women at the head of the Revolution, united closely with the people, were determined to face them.
On 8 January, Fidel predicted: “Let us not deceive ourselves by believing that everything will be easy in the future; perhaps it will be more difficult. Imperialism was not prepared to allow a social revolution in Cuba. Imperial control was of such magnitude that any measure of popular profit would clash with its interests and those of the Creole oligarchy. With the signing of the Agrarian Reform Act of 17 May 1959 the United States immediately regarded the Cuban problem as a matter of national security and the overthrow of revolutionary power as a vital element of its foreign policy.”
This policy of aggression has not changed. After a brief détente during the last two years of the presidency of Barack Obama, diplomatic relations broken since 3 January 1961 were restored. In addition, twenty-two agreements of mutual interest were signed, and there was an increase in the number of visitors from the United States, to more than 600,000 per year, following the relaxing of the requirements for visiting Cuba (known as “people-to-people exchange”).
With the arrival of Donald Trump in 2016 there was a resounding change in that policy. The aggressive language of the Cold War was resumed, the possibilities of travel to Cuba for American citizens were reduced, and the consulate at the US embassy in Havana was closed. Cubans were forced to travel to third countries to obtain a visa for travel to the United States, and the blockade was tightened with the activation of Title 3 of the Helms-Burton Act, allowing the establishment of claims against Cuba and against foreign companies in Cuba in the American courts for “trafficking” nationalised American property during the period of the Revolution.
The Trump government has instigated 187 measures against Cuba, including the attempt to cut the supply of oil to the country and threatening and fining shipping companies transporting oil. As a result, Cuba has had to operate on half the fuel needed, with the consequent effect on the daily life and the economic development of the country.
Challenges and threats
In Cuba there is no longer the effervescence that accompanies the victory of revolutionary processes. Even the viability of socialism, as an economic and social model, is in doubt, thanks to the failure of “real socialism” in the Soviet Union and the rest of the European socialist camp, which has generated apathy in certain sections or doctrinal differences within the revolutionary ranks themselves.
There is a period of uncertainty, expressed in the problems of governance that appear throughout the world, regardless of the political basis of governments; and although this does not happen in Cuba with the same intensity, the Cuban people are not exempt from these influences.
The political landscape has also changed. Cubans are no longer ignorant, nor are they a protected people whose goals were summed up in access to work, education, public health and social assistance but in continuing to make progress by assuming these achievements as conquered rights that they aspire to preserve but insufficient for the aspirations of many people today. Under these conditions, political goals become less urgent, and it is more difficult to reach consensus.
There are no simplistic responses to these concerns; old dogmas and worn-out slogans have to be replaced with a more sophisticated approach.
It is not surprising that young people especially, with life expectations supported by their own human development generated by the Revolution, relate their existential motivations more to individual self-improvement than to collective projects that, though perceived as just, do not meet all their aspirations. This apparent contradiction between the individual and the collective, largely resolved by the Revolution in its beginnings, appears today as a “crisis of human development achieved” and is expressed in the reality that Cuba produces human capital that the national labour sector cannot fully absorb, and explains the increase in emigration and the distortions of the domestic labour sector.
Such contradictions have only one definitive solution: in economic development; so the purpose of consolidating a “prosperous and sustainable” socialism is indispensable for articulating the political consensus. And this must be done in the difficult conditions imposed by the country’s insertion into the capitalist world market.
The development of any economy is not enough. It is more than demonstrated that economic growth alone does not generate the general well-being, much less the social and political stability, of countries but needs to equip it with a collective sense that will guide its progress towards the common good and thus confront the irrationality of consumerism. This is the function of politics and ideological work but also of economic logic itself.
In the singular possibility of consciously articulating popular democracy towards these objectives, with a full sense of personal freedom associated with respect and care for others, lies the fundamental difference between socialism and capitalism in the present circumstances; and in this lies the main strength of Cuba.
Older party militants note with concern that a not inconsiderable number of young people are not interested in being a member of the Communist Party of Cuba. This trend will have to be reversed in the short term, as there is a risk that the party will become a party of old people, without generational replacement.
The corruption that affects many sectors of our daily life is a phenomenon that concerns the citizenry and the leadership of the country. The Communist Party organisations are working hard to eradicate it or at least reduce it to manageable levels.
Personally, I think this is a more dangerous threat than US aggression, and that it can destroy the Cuban revolutionary process. The experience of the fall of the USSR is something that alerts us.
In 2005 Fidel Castro asked an audience in Havana University: “Do you believe the Cuban Revolution can be destroyed?” The auditorium answered with a resounding No! He corrected them by responding: “Yes, by the same people who made it: ourselves.”
We are not naïve; we are aware of the many threats that are hanging over Cuba, from inside and outside. Unity will be the key to victorious emergence. This unity has led us from victory to victory, from the defeat of the invasion of Playa Girón to the internationalist missions in Africa.
Sixty-one years after the triumph of the Revolution, the figure of Fidel is huge, and the heroism of the Cuban people reminds us of those Spartan warriors whose motto was “With the shield or on the shield.” This has been and will always be the case, with the shield defending the Revolution and, if it is necessary, to fall fighting on the shield. That spirit must be brought to the present and future generations of Cubans, immersed in the stubbornness of resistance and the hope that a better world is possible.
■ Javier Domínguez, a former combatant of the Cuban internationalist mission to Angola, worked for the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), generating international solidarity. He visited Ireland twice in the mid-1990s, working with the Cuba Support Group. He lives in Havana.