Cuban Revolution and Anarchism
Having been predominant in Cuba's labor movement, Anarchists participated in the 1953-1959 Cuban Revolution before Stalinists such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara turned it into a state-capitalist dictatorship. Finding their press censored and their organizations repressed, Anarchists broke with the new Communist regime while harboring a mixed assessment of the revolution's results. On one hand, Anarchists found much to criticize as the new Communist republic flirted with nuclear warfare and sent dissidents, homosexuals, and AIDS victims to concentration camps. On the other hand, Anarchists opposed the United States' embargo on Cuba and generally felt there were some major successes in Cuba's efforts to seize partial self-reliance. Without high levels of material wealth, Cuba has built an impressive universal health care system. After the Soviet Union's 1989 collapse, Cuba lost its shipments of Soviet oil and rapidly transitioned toward local, decentralized, and sustainable agriculture.
Before the Revolution
As the Castroite periodical Cuba Socialista admitted, "During the whole epoch (from the 1890s until after the Russian Revolution) it was the anarcho-syndicalists who led the class struggles in Cuba, and the anarchist ideological influence that prevailed." Anarchist-leading groups in this period included the Círculo de Trabajadores, the Sociedad General de Trabajadores, and the Federación Obrera de la Habana. Anarchists were among the few who openly protested the 1901 Platt Amendment that invited the United States to militarily intervene at basically any time.
When the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista took dictatorial power in a 1952 coup, he faced opposition from the Left including the moderate Auténticos and the more radical Ortodoxos. Fidel Castro and his followers splintered from the Ortodoxos and launched a disastrous attack on Cuba's second-largest army base on 26 July 1953. Even though half of Castro's followers died during the battle, the attack attained symbolic significance and became the namesake of Castro's subsequent 26th of July Movement (M-26-7). In 1955, Batista granted Castro amnesty in an attempt to win over moderates. Castro headed to Mexico where he met Che Guevara, an Argentinian-born doctor and Communist bohemian who was travelling through Latin America. Castro and Guevara raised funds and organized military trainings in preparation for another attack on Batista's regime.
While Castro and Guevara organized tiny guerrilla bands known as foco in Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountain range, they probably would have been quickly wiped out had it not been for masses of revolutionary Cubans organizing in the cities and capturing the state's attention. "During 1957 and the first months of 1958, the cities continued to be the main theater of the war between Batista and the opposition," Thomas Wright assesses and he adds that without urban workers' and students' "repeated demonstrations, strikes, assassination attempts, acts of sabotage, and uprisings [...] Batista almost certainly would not have neglected Castro, allowing his forces to grow and strengthen themselves." The Anarchist writer Sam Dolgoff quotes K.S. Karol to the same effect: "[T]he urban front was by far the most important and the 'guerilleros'...played a subordinate part. It was the cities which supplied the 'guerilleros' with arms, money, information and provisions." Even within the 2th of July Movement, "Castro did not control the rank and file membership" according to Dolgoff.
Within the urban insurrections, Anarchist militants organized in the Movimiento Libertario Cuba and they "elaborated a program of self-managed agrarian reform, total municipal autonomy, and industrialization through workers' associations." The Libertarian Association of Cuba (ALC) had active chapters in Havana, Pinar del Rio, San Cristobal, Artemisea, Ciego de Avila, and Manzanillo, and they had followers scattered elsewhere as well. They took a leading role in organizing proletarians and peasants into unions and producing radical newspapers and radio programs. In Pinar de Rio, for example, ALC members "influenced and participated in the leadership of the following unions: tobacco workers, food workers, electricians, construction workers, carpenters, transport workers, bank employees, and medical workers. The magazines of the tobacco, bank workers, and electricans unions were edited by libertarians."
Colin Ward reports the revolution temporarily created an anarchistic situation:
In Havana, when the general strike brought down the Batista regime and before Castro's army entered the city, a despatch from Robert Lyon, Executive Secretary of the New England office of the American Friends Service Committee reported that 'There are no police anywhere in the country, but the crime rate is lower than it has been in years, and the BBC's correspondent reported that 'The city for days had been without police of any sort, an experience delightful to everyone. Motorists - and considering that they were Cubans this was miraculous - behaved in an orderly manner. Industrial workers, with points to make, demonstrated in small groups, dispersed and went home; bars closed when the customers had had enough and no one seemed more than normally merry. Havana, heaving up after years under a vicious and corrupt police control, smiled in the hot sunshine.'
As the government spent its energies trying to suppress the Cuban masses, Castro had "the great advantage of being virtually neglected" according to Wright. During this time, the guerrilla forces trained and grew. The focos were by necessity somewhat decentralized, but they were neither democratic nor egalitarian. They were trained by Che Guevara, whose manual on Guerrilla Warfare insisted that "revolutionary democracy had never been applied in the running of armies anywhere in the world, and that any attempt to implement it had ended in disaster." The manual also proposed keeping women in “domestic tasks” such as cooking and delivering messages. Guevara held the view that guerrilla warfare was the right method basically anywhere and any time, and this view ignored the critical importance of the urban mass revolts. When Guevara later tried to implement his guerrilla methods in the Congo, this time without popular support, the results were disastrous.
On 1 January 1959, Castro's guerrillas captured Santa Clara, Cuba's fourth largest city. Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, and guerrillas triumphantly marched to Havana, the capital, and took state power. The new regime systematically violated civil liberties, following Guevara's hyper-collectivist insistence that "one has to constantly think on behalf of masses and not on behalf of individuals." While many of the 1960s' radicals and youth spoke out against being mere "cogs in the machine," Guevara to the contrary asserted that the individual "becomes happy to feel himself a cog in the wheel, a cog that has its own characteristics and is necessary though not indispensable." In his time in the mountains Guevara had executed many guerrillas that he deemed "Informers, insubordinates, malingerers and deserters." After taking state power, Guevara continued to support the death penalty, and the regime's firing squad shot more than 550 people to death in just the first four months of 1959.
State Capitalist Dictatorship
Castro's government was neither democratic nor socialist, as some of Castro's supporters admitted in their moments of criticism. The regime's supporter Herbert Matthews wrote that the new government was not a democracy but rather an "autocracy" under Castro's control. René Dumont, another pro-Castro author, admitted that Cuban workers "used to have a capitalist boss, and now they have another boss...the State." With the state largely controlling the economy, Cuba fit a definition of state capitalism offered by An Anarchist FAQ: "the state replaces the capitalist class totally via nationalisation of the means of production. In such a regime, the state would own, manage and accumulate capital rather than individual capitalists."
As a top-ranking minister, Guevara set up Cuba's first forced labor camp and he described its prisoners as "people who have committed crimes against revolutionary morals." Going forward, the government would send dissidents, homosexuals, and AIDS victims to these concentration camps. The government quickly cracked down on the Anarchists, ordering their publications to close and throwing their ranks into prisons. Some of the government's Anarchist political prisoners were Plácido Mendez, Antonio Degas, Alberto Miguel Linsuain, Sondalio Torres, José Acena, and Alberto Garcia.
The Cuban government was close to the Soviet Union and shared its Marxist-Leninist ideology. In 1960, Guevara visited the Soviet Union and laid flowers on Stalin's grave. This ideology reached nearly apocalyptic proportions when Cuban authorities invited the Soviet Union to use Cuba as a base for a nuclear standoff with the United States. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a nuclear war very nearly developed between the two dominant world powers when the USSR stationed missiles in Cuba with the Castro regime's strong support. To Guevara's disappointment, the Soviets ended the standoff by removing the missiles. The following passage by Larry Gambone summarizes Guevara's nihilist, apocalypic attitude:
After the Russians withdrew their rockets, ending the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Che “fumed over the Soviet betrayal,” and told the Daily Worker (London) reporter “if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have fired them off.” The reporter “thought he was crackers from the way he went on about the missiles.” (p. 545) In 1965 he demanded a revolutionary and apocalyptic world war, even if it unleashed the atomic bomb. “Thousands of people will die everywhere...But that should not worry us...” (emphasis added). Out of this mass destruction the new socialist order was supposed to arise.
Cuba is constantly condemned by human rights organizations for its repression against dissidents. Human Rights Watch reported in 2017, "The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and punish public criticism. It now relies less than in past years on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, but short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others have increased dramatically in recent years. Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public shaming, and termination of employment."
In 2018, Cuban authorities detained alleged Earth Liberation Front militant Joseph Dibee and sent him to the United States to be jailed and prosecuted for alleged acts of ecologically-motivated sabotage including the permanent destruction of a horse slaughtering facility.
Despite the authoritarian, Stalinist excesses, the Cuban Revolution arguably marked a small rupture in world capitalist hegemony and improved the well-being of most residents and of the environment. In 2012, the Happy Planet Index, based on measures of health, happiness, and environmental sustainability, ranked Cuba the 12th highest in the world. By comparison, the United States was ranked 104th.
Anarchists tend to praise Cuba's successes while simultaneously condemning its abuses and atrocities. Peter Gelderloos writes, "[I]n terms of structural depravity and state repression, Castro’s Cuba, the product of a violent revolution, is arguably less violent than Batista’s Cuba. However, there are already enough apologists for Castro as to disincline me from expending my energies in such a manner." Andrew R Smolski, Alexander Reid Ross, and Javier Sethness Castro speculate that Cuba has "a certain exilic-incorporative relationship to the world-system" with "definitive mutual aid interactions among the population" while "there still exist class differentiations and a non-democratic political structure."
Cuba's socialized health care system functions smoothly considering the society's limited resources and the devastating effects of the United States' decades-long embargo. The World Health Organization in 2000 ranked Cuba's health care system as the 39th best in the world. Cuba was only two spots below the United States, even though Cuba is a third-world country and the United States is the most powerful country in the world. Noam Chomsky also reports that "a detailed study by the American Association for World Health concluded that the embargo had severe health effects, and only Cuba’s remarkable health care system had prevented a 'humanitarian catastrophe'; this has received virtually no mention in the US."
After the Soviet Union's 1989 collapse, Cuba rapidly shifted toward decentralized local agriculture, as Gelderloos summarizes:
In Cuba, centralized industrial agriculture collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, which had been Cuba’s main supplier of petroleum and machinery. The subsequent tightening of the US embargo only exacerbated the situation. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds. Quickly, much of the country shifted to small-scale intensive urban agriculture. As of 2005, half of the fresh produce consumed by the 2 million residents of Havana was produced by about 22,000 urban gardeners within the city itself.
The government owns 80 percent of arable rural land, and it leases about half this land to farmers on ten-year terms. There are widespread experiments with organic farming methods that get the most food out of small areas of farmland while preserving the health of the soils. Bill Weinberg describes an organic farm he visited called Finca Agro-Ecológica El Paraíso—Paradise Agro-Ecological Farm:
[The farm's owner Wilfredo García Correa] showed me the operations in lumbricultura—vermiculture, breaking down organic waste into humus with earthworms. Fat rabbits munched leaves in suspended cages, their droppings collected below to fertilize the beds that grow more greens for both rabbit and human consumption. Eventually the rabbits themselves are also eaten. "It's a completely closed system," García said.
Nearby, he reached into a honeycomb with his knife to scrape out a taste for me—produced by a local variety of bee, the melipona, that does not sting.
He indicated the pest-control methods perfected through years of experimentation. Different colored flowers are planted to attract insects, then coated with grease to trap them, or treated with tabacina—water infused with tobacco, fatal to the pests but harmless to the plants. Rotation and intercropping helps maintain soil fertility.
Bikes and bike-pulled taxi carriages, are ubiquitously used instead of cars. Urban, organic gardens produce much local food for city dwellers. Fruit and vegetable stands are found every few blocks in Central Havana. As Cuba began taking oil shipments from Venezuela and as U.S. President Obama restored diplomacy in 2015, Cuba's increasing integration into the global market has left uncertain the future of its low-carbon initiatives.
- Sam Dolgoff, The Cuban Revolution: a critical perspective (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1976), 37.
- Ángel J. Cappelletti, Anarchism in Latin America, trans. Gabriel Palmer-Fernández (Oakland: AK Press, 2017), 275-290.
- Thomas Wright, Latin America in the Era of the Cuban Revolution, Revised Edition (Westport: Praeger, 2001), 6-8. Jorge Castañeda, Che Guevara, Compañero, trans. Maria Castañeda (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 84, 96.
- Wright, Latin America, 10, 16-17.
- Dolgoff, The Cuban Revolution, 73.
- Dolgoff, The Cuban Revolution, 74.
- Cappelletti, Anarchism in Latin America, 290.
- Dolgoff, The Cuban Revolution, 55-56.
- Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action
- Robert Lyon in Peace News, 20 February 1959
- Alan Burgess in the Radio Times, 13 February 1959.
- Wright, Latin America, 10.
- Samuel Farber, The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), 35-40.
- Wright, Latin America, 15-16.
- Farber, The Politics of Che, 18.
- Larry Gambone, Saint Che: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Heroic Guerilla, Ernesto Che Guevara (Red Lion Press, Montreal, 1997), https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/larry-gambone-saint-che-the-truth-behind-the-legend-of-the-heroic-guerilla-ernesto-che-guevara.
- Dolgoff, The Cuban Revolution, 10, 14.
- An Anarchist FAQ, "H.3.13 Why is state socialism just state capitalism?," http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secH3.html#sech313.
- Castañeda, Che Guevara, 178.
- 122, 131-133.
- Wayne Price, "The Authoritarian Vision of Che Guevara," Anarkismo, 28 November 2016, https://www.anarkismo.net/article/29795.
- Gambone, Saint Che.
- Human Rights Watch, "World Report 2017: Cuba," https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2017/country-chapters/cuba.
- Crimethinc, "We Do Not Forget: Support Joseph Dibee, Environmentalist Accused of Sabotage," 20 August 2018, https://crimethinc.com/2018/08/20/we-dont-forget-support-joseph-dibee-environmentalist-accused-of-sabotage.
- Happy Planet Index 2012, https://b.3cdn.net/nefoundation/d8879619b64bae461f_opm6ixqee.pdf.
- Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State, 2007, Anarchist Library, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/peter-gelderloos-how-nonviolence-protects-the-state.
- Andrew R Smolski, Alexander Reid Ross, and Javier Sethness Castro, "Lessons from exits foreclosed: An exilic interpretation of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, 1910–1924," Capital & Class, 2018, 9. DOI: 10.1177/0309816818759229.
- "MEASURING OVERALL HEALTH SYSTEM PERFORMANCE FOR 191 COUNTRIES," 2000, http://www.who.int/healthinfo/paper30.pdf.
- Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival (Metropolitan Books, 2003), https://chomsky.info/hegemony02/.
- Peter Gelderloos, Anarchy Works.
- Bill Weinberg, "Cuba Verde Revisited," Countervortex, 2017, https://countervortex.org/node/15664.