by Anindya Sen
Frontier | 05 January, 2017
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz passed away at the age of 90 on November 25, 2016 in Santiago de Cuba. The world has lost one of the rare breed of incorrigibly optimistic leader, who pursued a dream of not only changing the world for the better but also has live through it. For last six decades, Cuba and Castro were almost interchangeable words to the world. His death most certainly has created a void in his own country, but perhaps more so in the socialist camp. Even after fall of Berlin wall, he didn’t give up the spirit of socialist internationalism and had always been the spearhead in all the struggles waged against imperialism in any and all corner of the globe in his lifetime.
However, voids are never left voids; it is filled almost by law of nature. But in order to fill them the posterity must be appreciative of the legacy of leaders like Castro. The lessons of his struggles, both political and personal, the creative motif that made him walk on thorny road life-long must be understood in proper perspective. They are perhaps the only silver-linings in the narcissistic, self-centered and self-destructive life around us, bequeathed by capitalism.
For more reasons than one Cuba, Che and Fidel are more in acquaintance among the people in India and particularly the eastern part of the country. Che is remembered and will be remembered for any foreseeable future as a leader of the youth, as an emblem of revolutionary romanticism, an ultimate protagonist of freedom and fearlessness, a hero who embraced all the earthly odds for fighting for justice and human dignity with effortless ease. The imagery built around his personality will continue to inspire many hapless, many frustrated lot back into the optimism of life. We will see many more generations of youth sporting t-shirts and caps with Che emblem.
But how and how long will the world remember Castro after his death? The imagery Castro has is much less romantic than Che’s, much less colorful and flamboyant. Even after half a century old sustained resistance and successful defiance against the most powerful nation on the planet, Castro remains an epitome of humbleness. And perhaps this is not without reasons. In his life Fidel had remained a staunch opponent of any form of individual cult and hero-worship in his own country. He took this as a matter of socialist policy and hardly cared about whether he would be remembered ever after his death.
The working people of the world, however, can hardly afford to forget someone in their camp who till the other day was a living legend – the legend under whose versatile leadership Cuba was able to wade through numerous challenges, every time coming out with success. From the day, Castro led Cuban revolution, dethroning US crony Batista regime it had been a relentless struggle and he became a symbol of a living resistance against US domination all through last five decades. It is not surprising to see celebrations in US administration and their cronies while the world stands up in reverence and love to bid him final adieu. Now, the posterity must be able to allow him the much needed rest and tranquility, which they can only do through a proper understanding of his work and struggle, his thoughts and perceptions.
History and legacy has two distinct aspects. The history of guerrilla warfare led by Castro and his comrades began in 1953 and finally won on 31st December, 1958 will be was remembered as audacious and adventurous saga of struggle to have ever happened in history. True there had been earlier experiences in China, but that was led by a strong communist party, which in Cuban war was absent. True the world then had been experiencing a high-tide of communist beliefs and Castro and his comrades too did share that optimism. But Cuban revolution is certainly not all about that; it was also about what individual brilliance, self-belief can achieve when it is rooted in the deepest concern and feeling people and love for country and her tradition. Cuba and Fidel Castro will perhaps remain a fountain-head of inspiration for all struggles for equality, justice and dignity. Those who still cherish revolutionary optimism will certainly remember them for their revolutionary heroics.
But this is not where Castro’s contribution to humanity ends.
For many around us, Castro should be remembered as a leader who led Cuba towards building ‘socialism with a difference’ or ‘different socialism’. True enough that Cuba and Cuban socialism has been different on many counts. Latin American Marxism has always been a different experience with liberation-theologists and other schools of libertarian thought broadly inspired by Marxism. There Marxism has always been over-determined with elements of Boliverism to various degrees. Not so recent phenomenon in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are some similar examples.
However, difference in a sense is applicable for all revolutions and all revolutions in history are unique in their own ways. Also, if Russian model is to be taken as normative the Latin American experiences are vastly different and so is Chinese. With some risk of generalization, one can infer that various practices of socialism have been different from the earlier experiences and this happened in a dynamic process of learning and assimilation, which by default includes criticism and rejection. Hardly is there any element of surprise in it. Paradigmatic acceptance of possibilities of questioning, if not refutability, is what sets Marxism apart from all other ideologies.
So let us agree that Cuba’s socialism has been different and to have this difference in full view, we should concentrate on last 25 years of his struggle which still remains less known, yet most relevant for all socialists and communists to know.
Understanding this ‘difference’ in some details is doubly beneficial. It will be rewarding not only for the revolutionary romantics but for the masses of the people as well, who are really concerned about the future of human race and society under the juggernaut of all-consumptive Capitalist growth engine. It also promises some radical rethinking of Marxism in the domain of theory while at the same time opening up new vistas in socialist practice for us to step into.
Cuban socialism is known to the world for dogged defiance against US conspiracy and aggression. It is also revered for the internationalist spirit under Castro’s leadership when they extended help to the struggling forces the world over by imparting medical as well as military skill. Also it has earned awe-inspiring respect for exemplary development in the country’s health and education sector despite working under a resource poor condition. Communists and leftists of all hues have been happy with such examples being set at a sniffing distance of US.
Much less discussed about Cuba is her dependent economy, which despite having an internal socialist pattern could hardly boast of national self-reliance. Over-whelming support from the socialist block provided the much needed trade stability and commodity support enabling her to continue with human development work in the face of US embargo, but that support was not was not without its flip side. Over-whelming aid had also brought with them overarching influence, overt or covert, on Cuba’s internal policies. Cuban agriculture is a case in point. Tracking the history of Cuba’s agriculture back to 60 years, it will be evident that the export-led, mono-crop based, big farm dependent agricultural infra-structure, designed by the Spanish invaders, subsequently taken over by US, continued by and large unaltered even under socialist rule, some distributive land reform notwithstanding. Socialist politics must have helped Cuba achieve many milestones, such as poverty eradication, phenomenal development in health and education sectors resulting in a much qualified human resource in the country but failed to earn them the much needed food sufficiency and sustainable economy.
Simply put such over-arching outside influence had a deterring effect on setting Cuba’s own priorities in proper perspective. In a way, it worked to the detriment of Cuban agriculture to develop in congruence with her history and culture.
And as the resultant effect, Cuba remained dependent on external support even for basic food products and not only that, self-sufficiency of food remained a neglected agenda till early 1980s. It may be a bit insensitive to view Cuba as Soviet bloc’s pawn, but there can’t be any denying that food self-sufficiency and attendant questions relating to land (erosion) and environment (degradation) were never on the agenda of the leadership earlier.
It was only in early 1980s that these issues started bothering the national leadership and they first took a serious look at the emerging issues relating to environmental degradation and un-sustainability of the import dependant food sufficiency. Fortunately in search of alternative they didn’t have to look beyond Cuba and they found the alternative in the country’s existing small scale agricultural sector. Once identified, the Cuban government didn’t sit idle and immediately began the much needed switch to this new model of agriculture based on indigenous methods, of which the small farmers were the backbone. Under the state stewardship National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) was formed in 1982. It is this initiative that grew into a full-fledged National Food Program in late 1980s.
However, the real impetus for going all out with the switch was rather a negative development in international politics. Fall of Berlin wall and eventual dis-integration of the Socialist Bloc left Cuba in a precarious situation. Stripped of two key economic elements, viz. export market for sugar and fossil oil supply, Cuba was either to collapse or to resurge.
1990s onwards, Cuba treaded a very difficult path under the inspiring leadership of Castro, which is truly unparallel in history. After two and a half decades of politico-economic mobilization, Cuba has undergone a radical change, significance of which is no less than the 1958 revolution itself. The change-over was characterized by total overhaul of the rural economy in terms of de-mechanization, redistributive land reform, dismantling of the system dependent on high agricultural input, engaging the whole population, rural and urban alike in the process of change, falling back on to her own tradition and re-building it in completely different lines which is dependent on direct human labor-power and its creativity.
A detailed narrative of agricultural change in Cuba during the critical period is available in a book (Organic Revolution: Agricultural Transformation of Cuba since 1990s) by Bharat Mansata. The stupendous success story of urban firming has much talked about. Lesser discussed is the holistic nature of the changeover, which is not only characterized by their refusal to GM seeds but also by restoration of their ‘own seed cultivation’ system, increased bio-fertilizer production, enormously increased number draught animal (Oxen), increased milk production through indigenous cow farming, completely doing away with pesticides and chemical fertilizers in all forms of agricultural practice and many other things. And now their effort stands satisfyingly vindicated because they produce enough not only for consumption, but for export also. Presently they consume more (469 grams per day per head) than what FAO recommends (300 grams per day per head).
In the process, they have dismantled their sugarcane mono-crop system by nearly 70%, bringing back traditional cropping practices, not dependent on chemical fertilizer, pesticide and irrigation with the help of significant land re-distribution, shifting from energy intensive cropping to natural ones. All these create the basis of their long journey with a truly alternative political as well as economic anti-thesis of contemporary capitalism.
Also important to note, that they have significantly reduced their dependence on fossil fuel for energy during this period. Cuba has always been known for garnering alternative energy sources such as sugar-cane dependent bio-mass and other source, which still contributes about a quarter of their energy need, which however is yet to get any fresh lease.
There really had been a significant drop in energy use, which in Cuba is generated from imported petroleum. Support from Venezuelan comrade, Hugo Chavez had helped them replenish some oil deficit and Cuba is in the look out of self-sufficiency in this front also. Statistics shows Cuba’s daily use of crude oil not only remains among the lowest in Latin America, the curve shows a downward looking trend over last two and half decades, while countries like India and China have registered 3-4 fold increase. In terms of per capita use of petroleum, Cuba ranks among the low level users and lowest in Latin America.
A study conducted by James Baker III Institute of Public Policy (Rice University) tells us that:
“the most dramatic decline in energy use occurred in the transport sector where use declined from 313 TOE per thousand persons in 1989 to only 73 TOE in 1994. Consumption in the residential/commercial sector declined from 142 TOE to 87 TOE. Finally, consumption in the Industry/Other sector fell from 769 TOE per thousand persons in 1989 to 612 TOE in 1995.” Source: https://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/91568/SoligoJaffe_EnergyCuba.pdf?sequence=1)
Whether all this is done by default or design will be known in the days ahead. But reduction in use of petroleum as energy option has obvious environmental as well as economic benefits which, Cuba has already started reaping. More dependence on solar energy, which is being viewed as a very plausible option for Cuba will further help them depend less on petroleum option. Rationalization of energy expenditure had to be adopted duress, but there are reasons to believe that successes on other fronts will lead the Cubans towards comprehensive alternative thinking.
Many people, particularly those of agro-ecological school have welcomed this and other novelties adopted by Cuba in recent years and are encouraged by a live demonstration of what they had been preaching for decades now. Some of them are however skeptic about whether the process will be carried forward in future or with restoration of their own crude oil production and finding some export market for their agricultural commodities they will fall back to the old system. There is skepticism about Cuba’s comprehensive switch to a holistic agro-ecological systems approach too, as expressed by Fernando Funes-Monzote, one of the younger advocates of holistic agro-ecological agriculture.
However, despite uncertainties and skepticisms, what remains indisputable is that in last two and a half decades Cuba has ushered in a paradigm shift in the landscape of her political economy. Whatever has been already achieved in the first phase is stupendous and a roll-back would require a political topsy-turvy which seems improbable at this point.
Necessity is mother of all inventions and recent Cuban inventions/innovations are guided by necessity too. But necessity only leads to invention, when people have the grit, the courage to turn challenges into opportunities. We are fortunate that Cuba could do it for us, thanks to gritty Cubans and their political leadership, with Castro as the helm.
The struggle was difficult but they decided to turn the tide on their political enemies, albeit in a different way, by setting examples. During the course of this switch-over, they faced many challenges. Their much improved health system suffered temporarily as suffered general health of the people. But they recovered the same with exemplary promptness, thanks to their altered focus on traditional modes of life. Now Cuban economy is self reliant, sustainable and a true beckon light for those in search of alternative to Capitalism, which is wasteful, environment degrading, energy-inefficient, self-destructive in addition to being exploitative and oppressive. And this became a reality under a socialist government. Apparently an extremely decentralized system of production operating under socialist principles is a contradiction in itself in our normative understanding of Marxism. So how do we reconcile with this? Is this a deviation or digression from Marxism; incompleteness or backwardness to be overcome with economic progress; Revisionism or vulgar Marxism to be ruthlessly condemned?
This brings us to some very basic questions of theoretical Marxism, which we will try to touch upon, albeit briefly in the next section.
“Marxism is about equitable distribution of wealth, not of poverty” – exhorts some shades of Marxists I’ve come across. I’ve also come across Marxists deadly obsessed with large scale production, higher productivity etc. as conditions or revolution in the era of capitalism. It is really curious that a trash coinage ‘distribution of poverty’ by Churchill, evidently to malign socialism has become such a theoretical benchmark for Marxists! Unfortunately, commonsensical (non-sensical) Marxism had been ruling the leftist discourse for too long a nd perhaps many in the radical left camp are not free from such nonsensical understandings.
Analysis of such forces and the fall out of such perceptions in real life is beyond the scope of this discussion, but one theoretical caveat may be issued at this point.
Capitalism is a system of expanded reproduction, which implies that within capitalism itself quantum and meaning of ‘sufficient wealth’ will change from time to time. Expanded production, by default will have be dumping old production lines and systems to pave way for new, which is necessary for capitalist profit. And this change doesn’t have any correspondence with need of the people. Hence to justify this among the people, capitalism has built up its colossal ideological apparatus, through which it creates new perceptions, new needs and new perceptions about needs. That is how capitalism turns into a wasteful system, without any reference to peoples’ real needs.
And for those in Marxist/socialist camp choosing to wait for ‘sufficient wealth’ to come about, hardly ever finds appropriate situation for political intervention and remains idle for life. Most of the Euro-communists, Trotskyites and the likes of our very own CPI-CPM have fallen prey to such tropes and are facing extinction for obvious reasons.
Castro and Cuba had escaped such eventualities; they sprang the first surprise in the form of successful revolution in late 1950s, the second by sustaining their steadfast defiance of the US through last 5 decades and the third by radically transforming their production system to achieve food sufficiency and environment protection mandates. All these, products of intense activism in the face of immense oddities have taught the whole world few invaluable lessons about the theory and practice of socialism in real life. Among the three, the first and the last have got serious theoretical underpinnings as regards concepts of revolution and socialism.
In last two and a half decades, under socialist government, Cuban experience of organic revolution under is one great example of practice in the domain of political economy, where ‘moving forward’ in traditional-modernist sense is not the watch-word. In the words of Dr. Fernando Funes-Aguilar, who was the president of Cuban Organic Farming Association (Grupo de Agricultura Organica), “We thus began to revive the old traditions . . . of our parents, our grandparents. We started resorting to everything our ancestors had taught us, those same ancestors who never used any chemicals.”
It is really difficult to dismiss these phenomenal achievements as inconsequential and not relevant for socialist practice. It would instead be prudent to do some serious re-thinking of our own understanding of socialism. If previous Marxists have not been able to pay enough heed to concerns such as food sufficiency, environmental degradation and turn them into policy issues, it should not be considered as great achievements. Marxists can really ill-afford to ignore issues concerning the very existence of human race and dwell on class in isolation.
Cubans under Castro never shied away from what was the felt need of the people; faced with the uphill task of survival this readiness is what took them to tread an uncharted path and hats off that they had made full use of the available option. Rigidity or opportunism in theory and perception didn’t come in their way of moving towards what happens to be the only way forward for the very sustenance of human race. If environmental degradation, food security, re-vitalization of traditional practices and knowledge were needed, it couldn’t have been expected of the capitalists. It is for the socialists to do and thankfully, Cubans under Castro’s leadership had done this in fullest complicity with Marxist class paradigm.
In the face of imperialist challenge, Cuba has turned into a live theatre of the way forward for humanity and quite befittingly so, this happened under the stewardship of socialist regime. Perhaps, it was possible because the Cuban people were politically united and took the mission in political zeal under their revered leader Fidel Castro. It was possible because this was taken up as part of socialist goal, even though it doesn’t quite fit traditional Marxist framework.
In this sense Cuban Socialism is different, so very different and comrade Fidel Castro a true maverick! Demise of Castro, will definitely be bemoaned, but when we go into the latest spate of last 25 years of his multi-colored experiment, we have much to celebrate for. It is during this period he has treaded a true alternative pathway vis-a-vis capitalism, both in economics as well as in politics.
Viva-la-Cuba, viva-la-Fidel . . .