Socialism from Above: Assessing the Cuban Experience

Socialism from Above: Assessing the Cuban Experience

A nurse reads the constitution project during the constitutional discussion at the Nguyen Van Troi policlinic in Havana, August 13, 2018. (Photo by Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images.)

Any serious analysis of the Latin-American and global lefts in the last sixty years needs to include Cuba. The Cuban Revolution has left a deep impression on the region and across the world. Cuba, it has been said, spoke for Latin America, embodied the region’s Cold War, articulated twentieth-century Latin-American anti-imperialist socialism, and changed the order of things on the island and beyond.

To appreciate the impact of the Cuban socialist experience in the thinking of the region’s left, we need a historical analysis. The influence of the Cuban Revolution was very different from the 1960s to the 1980s, in the heat of guerrilla movements and Latin-American dictatorships, than it was in the 1990s, after the collapse of the communist bloc. It was different at the beginning of the 2000s, at the onset of Latin America’s “Pink Tide,” than it is today. Neither in Cuba nor in the region as a whole can the politics and ideas of the left be treated as monoliths.

Before 1959, Cuban socialism brought together diverse participants. It is impossible to understand the triumph of the revolution without considering these varied traditions. In the first half of the twentieth century, Cuba was home to non-Marxist reformism, various forms of revolutionary socialism (anarchist, Stalinist, Trotskyist, independent Marxist, populist), as well as proponents of state socialism. Their strategies and political agendas were distinct, but they shared a determination to promote national sovereignty, develop a critique of imperial relations between the United States and Cuba, and actively defend social justice.

After 1959, this diversity was gradually but totally shut out. The domain of the left was occupied exclusively by variants of Marxism, more or less critical. By 1971, critical Marxism was largely exhausted, and pro-Soviet Marxism-Leninism under the Communist Party of Cuba was dominant. Dedication to ideological uniformity became the rule. Any independent act could be regarded as dissidence or even treason.

For at least two decades now, however, the left in Cuba has been growing more diverse, even while the bastions of official power do not necessarily offer it openings, and even though the anti-government opposition politics associated with the U.S. government has not changed. The pluralism of the leftist political field in Cuba draws its power from a different base: Cuban civil society. Projects, collectives, and organizations have sprung up around a variety of issues: environmentalism, feminism, anti-racism, animal rights, artistic freedoms, and so on. These groups have pushed forward the democratization of public space, institutional policies that expand rights, and the legal-organizational capaci...

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