by Christopher Gunderson
People can have legitimate grievances and nonetheless be acting in a manner that strengthens US imperialism. Indeed, this is exactly the strategy that US imperialism pursues against its adversaries. It uses every tool at its disposal to aggravate the contradictions and antagonisms that exist within those countries that have dared to defy its hegemony. It does this in the hope of politically destabilizing them in ways that can be further exploited to produce regimes more compliant with US imperialist objectives. It is a form of naive liberalism to ignore, dismiss, or minimize the direct role of US imperialism in fomenting protests like those that occurred last week in Cuba.
US intervention in Cuba takes a number of forms. These include direct political meddling — directing money and other resources to various dissidents to reward and encourage them — whether clandestinely through the CIA, openly through the National Endowment for Democracy, or through the wide array of “independent” but actually corporate-funded foundations supposedly devoted to the development of “civil society”. Another form of US meddling in violation of Cuban sovereignty is TV and Radio Marti which bombards the island with propaganda intended specifically to promote discontent and to undermine the government established by the revolution.
The biggest weapon the US uses against Cuba is, of course, the Embargo which, like sanctions regimes against other countries, is a form of economic warfare against the whole population intended precisely to promote discontent by making people’s lives harder. Most people in the US don’t understand that the Embargo doesn’t just prohibit us from engaging in trade with Cuba. It also imposes sanctions on foreign companies that do so, if they have some form of business with the US, which, given the global domination of US-based banks and their role in most international trade, means almost everybody.
Sanctions regimes like the Embargo on Cuba are much more sinister in their effects than most people in this country realize. We all live in a global economy in which we depend on international trade for various necessities and comforts. No country on the planet is self-sufficient in such things and this is especially true of smaller poorer countries.
Sanctions regimes can raise the prices or create episodic shortages of all sorts of things like toilet paper, or cooking oil, or medical supplies, or machine parts necessary to maintain and repair buses or electrical systems. COVID gave many people in the US a first taste of what it means to be unable to buy toilet paper or to wonder if there were going to be sufficient working ventilators or adequate supplies of N95 masks in our hospitals. Cuba has been dealing with that sort of stuff for 60 frickin’ years. Except the shortages there haven’t been the result of the disruptive effects of a pandemic, but rather of the deliberate policies of the US intended precisely to create those shortages and foment discontent with the revolutionary government.
For 60 years the US has played cat and mouse with Cuba’s access to every imaginable thing, forcing Cuba to expend enormous energy and resources trying to circumvent the Embargo, arranging to buy commodity X from country Y only to do it all over again with country Z when the US puts the screws to the companies based in country Y.
The past several years have been especially difficult for Cuba. Because of the Embargo and the associated restrictions on accessing international commercial credit, Cuba is always in need of foreign currency to finance the trade that is able to carry out. Two major sources of that currency since the fall of the Soviet Union have been tourism and remittances from Cubans overseas, especially in the US. When Trump came into office he didn’t just reverse the moves of the Obama administration to lift elements of the Embargo, he clamped down hard on the remittances. Then COVID hit and international tourism completely evaporated. Unsurprisingly, the living conditions of many Cubans have deteriorated.
While Cuba has done extraordinary things to build up a domestic pharmaceutical industry and make itself more self-sufficient in various food stuffs, the costs of both medicine and food have gone up while shortages of both have increased. Equally unsurprising, these harsher conditions have made some Cubans more receptive to the message that the chief source of their sufferings is not US imperialism, but rather the refusal of the revolutionary government to capitulate to the demands of imperialism. This is the message that animated the demonstrations last Sunday and Monday and it is a message that the Cuban government rightly set out to shut down.
No poor country on the planet can hope to pursue a genuinely independent course of economic development if it is not prepared to repress dissent fomented by US imperialism.
This fundamental fact produces a contradiction at the heart of every effort to carry out a revolutionary transformations in poor countries like Cuba. Because, of course, it is impossible to neatly distinguish between the normal forms of dissent that would presumably arise in any country even without US imperialism interfering in its affairs in the ways described above, and the forms that arise because of that interference.
Some US leftists — chiefly social democrats, Trotskyists, and anarchists, though by no means everybody who embraces those labels — are convinced that they could navigate this dilemma better than Cuba’s revolutionary government has, that based on their superior understanding or more sincere commitment, they would know how to strike only at the forms of dissent arising from imperialist interference (which they are generally convinced are secondary in character) without in any way restricting the democratic rights of anybody else, without making any serious mistakes. They are certain of this even though they can’t point to a single sustained example of the revolutionary transformation of any country on the planet besieged by imperialism along the political lines that they advocate.
These leftists insist that it is perfectly consistent to denounce the Embargo and to call themselves anti-imperialists while cheering on the recent protests in Cuba which they are certain represent an emancipatory alternative path forward for Cuba.
None of this is to deny that the Cuban Revolution hasn’t had serious contradictions or that in its course the Communist Party of Cuba hasn’t committed sometimes grievous errors or crimes. It would be naive in the extreme to expect otherwise. Revolutions are by their nature ventures into the unknown driven by a combination of vision and desperation. We who wish to see capitalism overthrown not just in the US but over the whole planet, need to study closely the Cuban and every other revolutionary experience in all of their messiness, and we should not flinch from identifying wrong turns when we see them or from struggling with each other over what the lessons of those are for our efforts.
But we must also be absolutely clear about what our responsibilities as revolutionaries living in the heart of the beast that is US imperialism really are and aren’t. Our single greatest responsibility as revolutionaries living in the US is to do everything in our power to constrain our own rulers from their efforts, often violent, to impose or maintain US control over the rest of the world. In order to do this we need to build the broadest, strongest and most unified mass anti-imperialist consciousness and movement that we can.
In a related manner, it is very much NOT our responsibility (nor can any of us claim on the basis of our own accomplishments to be qualified) to try to guide the revolutionary movement in Cuba, much less to cheerlead eruptions of protest, the actual sources of which we know very little concretely about.
Such cheerleading generally only creates confusion. It encourages people to accept at face value the reporting they are seeing in the corporate media. It encourages people in the US to assume that these events reflect the views of the Cuban people generally when in fact there is little evidence of that. And of course it reinforces the logic of the Embargo even if the people doing it turn around and insist they are against the Embargo. If the Embargo is recognized as encouraging the protests, but the protests are declared to be good or progressive, it only stands to reason that the Embargo is serving some useful purpose and at the very least should not be too vigorously opposed, when in fact ending the Embargo should be our chief objective.