Why the left shouldn’t defend Cuba

 Peter Bolton

Heroes of the Left? Image © a-birdie

Since the 1959 communist revolution in Cuba, several left-wing commentators have spoken favorably about the Castro regime. In the world of entertainment, for instance, Oliver Stone, Sean Penn and Michael Moore have all made gestures of praise toward the island’s political leadership. Moore’s 2007 film Sicko showered praise onto the Cuban healthcare system while both Penn and Stone have commended the Castro regime and visited the island to meet with Communist Party officials, in Stone’s case to research for a documentary film.

Details of Cuba’s authoritarianism have come back into the public consciousness recently following news reports about the decision by Raul Castro to liberalize the island’s property laws. The move might be taken by some to be evidence of the regime’s reform-minded tendencies but though the policy changes are to be welcomed, reading the details about the plight of the Cuban people shows how misguided it is to defend Cuba as a bastion and exemplar of left-wing ideas.


The Observer, for instance, published an article earlier this month which details the draconian regulations that governed (and in some cases will still govern) housing policy on the island. The article perfectly illustrates the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Cuban regime and the resultant suffering that is imposed upon the Cuban people. Before these housing reforms, for instance, Cuban residents were prohibited from buying or selling any property. The only way to move house was to swap with another person under the bizarre and often corrupt permuta system. Worst still, under the old guidelines people who emigrated from the island forfeited the right to their property; those who did leave had their house and other assets seized by the state.

Details like this are always left unsaid by the likes of Moore, Stone and Penn. They instead concentrate their analysis on isolated areas of Cuban society and governance. Certainly they are correct that the Castro regime has done a degree of good for the island. For instance, free publicly provided healthcare and education have been cornerstones of the Cuban Communist Party’s series of domestic reforms and all leftists should applaud these achievements. Some of the positive results from these reforms include a national literacy rate of 99.8% and a low infant mortality rate (similar to that of developed nations Canada and New Zealand). The Castro regime’s investment in higher education and medical training in particular has led to significant societal gains. Cuba has a high proportion of doctors per capita and as Noam Chomsky, citing an AP report, noted in his book ‘The Passion for Free Markets: Exporting American values through the new World Trade Organization’: “’Cuba has sent 51,820 doctors, dentists, nurses and other medical doctors’ to ‘the poorest Third World nations,’ providing ‘medical aid totally free of charge’ in most cases.” Also, environmental reforms have led to Cuba having a very low ecological footprint. The 2006 ‘Living Planet Report’ published by the World Wildlife Fund, compared and analyzed development and ecological data and concluded that with a 1.8 hectares per capita ecological footprint and high Human Development Index of 0.8 (out of a 0 to 1 scale) Cuba was the only country in the world to meet the report’s definition of sustainable development.

But however commendable these gains might be, Cuba has failed on so many more important fronts that the aforementioned achievements seem almost trivial in comparison. For instance, The Observer article notes that wages for the vast majority of Cubans are around $20 per month; a pittance even once living standard differences are taken into account. Most salaries are paid by the state and employment outside state controlled industries is uncommon. What is even more troubling about Cuba is its human rights abuses and suppression of basic freedoms. Human Rights Watch has described the regime as “an undemocratic government that represses nearly all forms of political dissent” and said that Cubans are “systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.”

In 2008 it was reported by several organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch to have the second highest amount of imprisoned journalists (behind the People’s Republic of China). In the same year, Cuba was ranked as having the fifth lowest Press Freedom Index in the world by Reporters Without Borders. In the most recent study by RWB last year, it climbed only one place to have the sixth lowest in the world despite Raul Castro’s alleged “reforms” in this area. According to RWB the government “owns and controls all media outlets and restricts Internet access” and that “the Cuban constitution grants the Communist Party the right to control the press.” The branch of government that controls the press is the Communist Party’s Department of Revolutionary Orientation which, again according to RWB, “develops and coordinates propaganda strategies.”

Freedom of movement both on and off the island is also heavily restricted. A report by Human Rights Watch states that:

The Cuban government forbids the country’s citizens from leaving or returning to Cuba without first obtaining official permission, which is often denied. Unauthorized travel can result in criminal prosecution. The government also frequently bars citizens engaged in authorized travel from taking their children with them overseas, essentially holding the children hostage to guarantee the parents’ return. Given the widespread fear of forced family separation, these travel restrictions provide the Cuban government with a powerful tool for punishing defectors and silencing critics.

Even the island’s prized free education system has become politicized and a means for indoctrination. A study by the U.N. Economic and Social Council called ‘Report on the situation of human rights in Cuba’ states that:

…control is applied in the day-to-day life of every citizen – in the workplace, at educational institutions and even at the neighbourhood level. Education itself also has an ideological orientation… article 39 stipulates that the State bases its educational and cultural policy on Marxist ideology, and promotes patriotic education and communist training of the new generations.

The island’s healthcare system also has a number of institutionalized human rights abuses. For instance, the system lacks many of the protections and ethical guidelines that are uncontroversial in developed western nations. For instance, a journal article published in Cuban Affairs states that:

There is no right to privacy in the physician-patient relationship in Cuba, no patients’ right of informed consent, no right to refuse treatment, and no right to protest or sue for malpractice. As a result, medical care in Cuba has the potential to be intensely dehumanizing… these values (privacy, autonomy and individualism) form the cornerstone of medical ethics as understood in most Western health systems… the health care system in Cuba is often quite paternalistic and authoritarian, and politics intrude into medical practice in a number of subtle and overt ways.

The author of the paper, medical anthropologist Katherine Hirschfeld, expanded on her assessment of the Cuban healthcare system in her 2009 book Health, Politics, and Revolution in Cuba Since 1898.

The regime’s treatment of minorities is also not exactly in the spirit of left-liberalism. Homosexuals, for instance, have been aggressively persecuted in Cuba. Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who is himself gay, a left-winger and a former Labour Party candidate, wrote in The Guardian:

When Cuba adopted Soviet-style communism it also adopted Soviet-style prejudice. “Maricones” (faggots) were routinely denounced as “sexual deviants” and “agents of imperialism”. Laughable allegations of homosexuality were used in an attempt to discredit “corrupting” western influences such as pop music, with the communists circulating the rumour that the Beatles were gay.

Lee Lockwood in his book Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel wrote that Castro had once stated that “homosexuals should not be allowed in positions where they are able to exert influence upon young people.” Similarly, in his book Machos, Maricones and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality, Ian Lumsden describes how Castro wished to “cleanse” the island’s art scene of homosexuals. Though there have been reports of reforms in this area, as recently as 2008 police banned a gay rights march and arrested its organizers. Racism is also said to be an institutionalized factor of the communist regime. Jorge Luis García Perez Antúnez, a black Cuban political activist who was imprisoned as a political dissident, said of the Cuban government:

The authorities in my country have never tolerated that a black person oppose the regime. During the trial, the color of my skin aggravated the situation. Later when I was mistreated in prison by guards, they always referred to me as being black.

Antúnez’s story is far from unique in Cuba. Many people have been imprisoned for being critical of the communist party or expressing political beliefs deemed dangerous by the regime. Oscar Elias Biscet, a Cuban doctor and human rights campaigner, was sentenced to 25 years in 2003 during a crackdown on opponents to the regime. He was recently released after serving seven years only after lobbying and negotiations with the regime from the Cuban Catholic church. The Communist leadership had banned other political parties until very recently and authorities have been unusually brutal in suppressing non-Communist political organizing even for a totalitarian country. The leader of a center-left democratic socialist party, Jorge Valles, spent over twenty years in a Cuban prison for expressing political views that were not favorable of the regime and for political organizing outside of the Communist Party monopoly. Upon his release he wrote a book about his experience Twenty Days and Forty Days: Life In a Cuban Prison.

It’s hard to imagine a governing record that could be more diametrically opposed to the principles and values of left-liberalism. People who are tempted to romanticize communist Cuba must ask themselves what the point is of having free healthcare, free education and a healthy environment if people aren’t living in a free society in which they can fully enjoy these benefits. Those who think that there is a choice that must be made between the two are wrong both morally and factually: the choice between freedom and social democratic reforms is a false dichotomy. The aforementioned policies have been implemented elsewhere with equal or greater success without the violent revolution, authoritarian governance, suppression of human rights, totalitarianism and destruction of freedoms that has occurred in Cuba. The Nordic countries, for instance, have through democratic means built a strong welfare state, progressive labour law and free universal healthcare and education which has produced a healthy, happy, highly unionized society while maintaining the freedoms of a liberal democracy. For these reasons Nordic countries have consistently ranked well in measures of societal health. Norway, for instance, has achieved the highest Human Development Index (an annual measure calculated by the U.N. Development Program) nine times, the most of any country. In the 2010 Democracy Index which measures the state of democracy in 167 countries, four of the five Nordic nations held the top four places with the fifth, Finland, close behind in 7th place. Cuba, on the other hand, ranked in the bottom fifty of the nations included in the study with a pitiful score of 3.52 (on a 0 to 10 scale) and amongst the nations considered “authoritarian regimes.” Similarly, Cuba’s fellow Latin American nation Costa Rica has instituted a wide range of environmental reforms which led to it being ranked as the greenest nation in the world. But in stark contrast to Cuba, it has remained a liberal democratic country with a strong record for human rights and individual freedoms.

Far from being an archetype for left-wing public policy ideas, communist Cuba is a testimony to the failed and unworkable ideology of the far-left. Complete state power is a goal that the left should neither aspire to nor defend since it has not led to societal well-being or comprehensive civil liberties. Furthermore, Cuba is not even a good example of the socialist ideal. If we are to measure a society’s socialism based on the extent that working people are in control of their lives, Cuba would rank at or close to the bottom compared to other countries. Even neoliberal bastions like the U.S. and U.K. are more socialist on this criteria of measurement. The fall of the Castro regime in Cuba, far from being a defeat for the left, would be the opposite: a hope that one more country can begin the path to embracing both a free society and social democratic ideas. If we are to defend genuine, democratic Cuban leftism, Jorge Valles would be a far better person to reference and aspire to rather than the cult-like totalitarian regime that was forced upon the Cuban people at gun point in 1959.


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