Bertram on Cuba

by Reihan

Chris Bertram writes,

And, of course, Castro ran a dictatorship that has, since 1959, committed its fair share of crimes, repressions, denials of democratic rights etc. Still, I’m reminded of A.J.P. Taylor writing somewhere or other (reference please, dear readers?) that what the capitalists and their lackeys really really hated about Soviet Russia was not its tyrannical nature but the fact that there was a whole chunk of the earth’s surface where they were no longer able to operate. Ditto Cuba, for a much smaller chunk. So let’s hear it for universal literacy and decent standards of health care. Let’s hear it for the Cubans who help defeat the South Africans and their allies in Angola and thereby prepared the end of apartheid. Let’s hear it for the middle-aged Cuban construction workers who held off the US forces for a while on Grenada. Let’s hear it for Elian Gonzalez. Let’s hear it for 49 years of defiance in the face of the US blockade. Hasta la victoria siempre!

But the perhaps too obvious point is that there is a tight interrelationship between the criminalization of capitalism, and by extension of capitalists and their lackeys, and the crimes and repressions Bertram rightly abhors. To be as polemical and tendentious as possible, consider the fate of the Ugandan Asians, expelled from their country on grounds of being a race of lackey capitalists, not to mention all the other Mercurian minorities that have suffered mightily on the same spurious grounds. As a cosmopolitan of the left informed by the Marxist tradition (and Rousseau!), Bertram would never endorse such policies. They are barbaric, and I imagine he associates them with right-fascism rather than left-Bolshevism. The trouble for this view is the historical record, in particular in Africa and the Soviet bloc.

As far as I know, and I know very little, there are no Castroite pogroms against Cuba's Chinese and Lebanese minorities. The persecution of homosexuals, which merits nary a word in Bertram's brief account of the glories of the Cuban Revolution, was less about the insidious influence of markets and more about machismo and nationalism and an ignorance and hysteria surrounding the body that is the inevitable result of a closed society. It's true that Castro's Cuba isn't exactly a "republic of fear." I wouldn't be surprised if many Cubans embraced many aspects of Castro's defiant nationalism. But is this defiant nationalism a product of "solidarity forever," a spontaneous fellow feeling fueled by democratic centralism and robust egalitarianism? Or is it the product of a sustained propaganda campaign aimed at eliminating subversion that threatens the elite that profits most from state capitalism?

And remember, the Cuban state has embraced state capitalism since the Soviet collapse: extracting wealth from a small group of privileged foreigners, carefully isolated from Cubans who are not servants or sex workers. The hard currency has to come from somewhere, after all.

I have to say, there are brief moments when I am impressed by Cuba's achievements, like the so-called organic food revolution that replaced the calories lost after Soviet aid ended. That's pretty neat. I too would enjoy conducting mad experiments on a nation of over 10 millions. The thing is, I couldn't stomach all the killing it required, and I couldn't stomach the idea of preventing people from trading and collaborating with other people, including capitalist lackeys, through force.

Hasta la victoria siempre! indeed.

This is, I'll admit, low-hanging fruit. Bertram took a contrarian and quirky stand, which is admirable, and I suppose I shouldn't pile on. But there is, I hope, a small lesson in this rant, namely that our own sanctions policy is also intellectually and morally bankrupt. We're hardly innocents. Robert Kagan's A Twilight Struggle serves as a smart and useful defense of the American role in Nicaragua and by extension the region, but I have to say, reading Greg Grandin's The Last Colonial Massacre was an eye-opener. See this excellent Corey Robin review. There is a reason "Yanqui imperialism" is despised in much of Latin America, and it's not all xenophobia and bluster.