Life and Times – Romance and Reality
I have a friend who rarely misses the opportunity to tell those around him that he would like to bring his children up in ‘a socialist country’. He makes it clear that the country he has in mind is Cuba. And he’s not alone in regarding Cuba as ‘socialist’. We see this in some of the people who apply online to join the Socialist Party and fill in our short questionnaire. The idea of the questionnaire isn’t to catch people out but rather to make sure they understand and are in agreement with what the Party stands for. So to the question ‘Has socialism been established in any part of the world?’, most applicants answer ‘no’. These already know enough about the organisation to understand that we see socialism as a world society without money and wages, without buying and selling and based on economic equality and free access for all to all goods and services. But a few answer in the affirmative and then give examples – perhaps Norway or Sweden (the Scandinavian so-called ‘social-democratic’ countries), or Venezuela (especially under Chavez), or one-party states like China, Vietnam and, most often, Cuba, the country that my aforementioned friend holds in the highest possible esteem and, more generally, seems to be an endless source of fascination for what might be called the ‘left-wing mind’. Why should this be?
When Fidel Castro led an armed uprising in 1958 against the repressive US-backed dictatorial regime of Fulgensio Batista and then gained the support and backing of the Soviet Union, it was hailed by many in the West as a successful ‘socialist’ revolution. But it soon became clear that, rhetoric aside, what had happened was that one dictator had been replaced by another, the only difference being that the new one was supported and sustained by the Soviet Union rather than the US. Not that this prevented the romance that attached itself to Cuba throughout the left-wing world from continuing. That romance has, it’s true, become somewhat tarnished since the death of Castro and the accession to power initially of his brother Raul, but for many the country still somehow remains a living example of socialism in action.
In reality, of course, the widespread poverty for the majority alongside massive privilege for a tiny ruling clique that existed both before Castro and under him still exists, as does a one-party state, suppression of independent thought and harsh punishment for dissent, including the death sentence. As recently as 2021 Human Rights Watch ranked Cuba as 19th out of all nations by the number of imprisoned journalists and the 2020 World Press Freedom Index placed it 171st out of 180.
Elections without choice
As for elections, despite being an authoritarian one-party state, Cuba does hold them, the most recent one being in March this year. But these are elections only in a manner of speaking, more of a ritual than a genuine vehicle for the democratic choosing of representatives. Though the regime tries to present itself as a superior form of democracy, with people summoned to vote to appoint members of the ‘National Assembly of People’s Power’, those people do not choose who those members shall be but are simply asked to ratify those selected to stand by the single legally authorised party, the Communist Party. So the country and its people are in effect simply going through empty motions, a process referred to by one commentator as ‘elections without choices’.
Despite this, Cuba continues to call itself a ‘socialist’ country, But what it means by this is adherence to a largely state-controlled economy with most of the means of production owned and run by the government and most of the workforce employed by the state. This is not of course socialism in our terms but just another form of capitalism – state capitalism – even if it is, unfortunately as I see it, what many people, including both my friend who would like to live in Cuba and some of those who fill in our joining questionnaire, mean when they talk about ‘socialism’. And what’s certain is that, whatever they choose to call it, it’s a million miles away from the cooperative stateless society of free access and democratic organisation that we call socialism.
So, given what’s known about Cuba and the way people live there, why does my friend like the idea that it would be good for his children to be brought up there? And why do some applicants for membership of the Socialist Party see Cuba as some form of socialism in action? The only answer I can think of is that myths die hard. Long after irrefutable evidence shows a political system not to be what it purports to be or what people thought it was, some of those people still find it too hard to look that evidence in the face. Instead they just carry on believing what they’ve always believed. In the case of Cuba, as in other cases, romance trumps reality.