Read Time: 10min
My time in Havana, Cuba has given me much fuel for further consideration on poverty, on politics, on conviction, on human nature, and on finance. My cursory study of Cuban communism taught me that the system so valiantly fought for by the well-known revolutionaries evidently did not bring freedom and prosperity to the Cuban people. In fact, pity filters my perception of each Cuban citizen. And yet, the romantic image of the revolutionaries still lingers. The conviction, sophistication of ideas, and courage displayed by José Martí in the early independence from Spain, and by Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, among others, in the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship, all are worthy of admiration.
For me, it is upon the second study of communism, specifically of the Cuban revolution in 1959, in my current frame of mind do I find the significant flaws in the ideology – elements of which are counterproductive to the advancement of humanity. With a more exacting political viewpoint, I am finally able to parse out the admirable from the deplorable. The iconography sheds its allure. The complexity of the characters involved can be seen for what they are – neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but simply men following what they thought was right.
To begin with the positives, a number of laudable traits mark the characters of our idolized subjects, such as: anti-imperialist sentiments, compassion and empathy towards the poor, intelligence and a high degree of sophisticated ideas, conviction and willpower to bring those ideas into reality, and a political sense of identity and empowerment.
The first respectable trait is the reaction against imperialism. It is a well-deserved topic to study the immense negative impact of imperialism in the world. Few people today would approve of the imperialist world takeover waged in the late 1700s. The effects were profound and lasting. The hegemony subjugated entire peoples, stripped natural resources, and forever changed political landscapes. Gandhi’s struggle is a case in point.
The imperialist powers, e.g. the English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese, trampled across the world believing it their birthright to own everything they could grasp, believing their God-given superiority over other races.
Obviously, the identity-driven motives of this motto reveal ignorance, not wisdom. It is with proud and ambitious pomp that globalization spread, not with mutual respect and camaraderie. Globalization may be an inevitability – the current growth of transportation and communication technology points toward this trend.
However, because imperialism was methodically implemented by egomaniacal hierarchies of the wealthy West, it has left behind a bitter taste. Of course, the wise choice of naturally allowing global interactions to occur freely requires Herculean levels of patience, while history shows the rush of profit seekers.
Personally, I happen to have been born in a victorious nation which has reaped all the benefits of imperialism, with a few of the detriments. It is with perseverance and a drive towards the truth that clears the mental fog fabricated by our biased history books here. On the opposite side of the scale, therefore, the deficits discarded by the imperialists are the daily bread of the “Third World”.
The victims, weary of their subsistence, are right in their desperation and anger. The research into, identification of, and the pointed anger towards imperialism is an arc of personal discovery that demands unequivocal respect for those willing to tread its course. This was and remains the source of my admiration for Fidel and Che.
The second step of realization is to involve the heart and compassion for all those who have been thrown to the wayside – the servants, farmers, and laborers. They work their bones down, sacrifice their freedom, dull their minds, and limit their leisure for the sake of the imperialist agendas. Generations upon generations have lived through the sunrises and sunsets of their earthly existence under the subservience to this invisible economic hand. This picture is painted so grimly as to warrant fervent emotion. The loving compassion for these people and the desire for a positive change to their condition is, above all, the noble stance. Acknowledging the overall lack of empathy in politics, I admire the Cuban patriots’ tacit response to the suffering of others.
The third positive in the silver lining of Cuban communism is the sophistication of ideas, though many ideological tracks were previously laid by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, among many other economic theorists. Still, Fidel Castro’s adaptation of such ideas to the unique Cuban situation is an impressive human achievement.
Brought up in a relatively upper-class family, Fidel had an uncanny magnetism and resiliency during his studies at law school and his political student gatherings at the university. Clearly intelligent, he coalesced his political ideology into a view relevant enough to garner support in challenging the administration of the day. With a flood of revolutionary thought leaders before him, he was able to ride the wave of political unrest, which ultimately positioned himself as a leader on the global stage.
Stemming closely from the sheer potency of his ideas, Fidel implemented a tremendous force of will not only developing his well-crafted ideology but also leveraging his education at law school in fighting for his ideas. Regardless of his possibly questionable psychological state at the time, his gravitas as a socialist leader is contrasted by the fact that he advocated such ideas against his own bourgeois family. In his personal life, he walked among the wealthiest social circles of Cuba while gaining recognition as a socialist leader resisting the very system in which he was privileged to live. This must have caused a great deal of turmoil in his life, but his conviction nevertheless continued to grow.
Owing to his qualities of leadership and relevant power of his ideas, he maneuvered the ranks of revolutionary groups. Increasingly anxious, he coordinated the failed attack on July 26th, 1953 and eventually orchestrated the successful revolution of 1959. A requisite for being a revolutionary was the personal belief in the motto, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” Each man figured himself destined for the cause. Revolution on their watch became the only path towards a life of any significant value. “¡Patria o Muerte!”, the common slogan, gave few options.
This summarizes, in this short study, the commendable traits of the main actors in the Cuban revolution. These traits were highlighted in communist propaganda under Castro’s regime. Images and quotations of Guevara, Cienfuegos, and Martí decorate innumerable murals and memorabilia across the island. Without much thought, it is very easy to idolize these figures. Without an honest, objective analysis of socialist theory and a detailed account of Castro’s regime, the propaganda produces a feeling of pride and patriotism. Despite the squalor experienced by most Cubans, the older generation still hopes the social benefits promised them will come to fruition.
My previous enchantments with the players of the Cuban revolution and with socialist ideas, in general, are primarily personal. However, being a product of conditions similar to many in the American millennial generation, I think it a fair assumption that my experience may relate to that of others.
In my early 20s, I lived, studied, worked and traveled in several countries in Latin America with a copy of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries in hand. In many ways, I related very deeply to his travels and sentiments. I identified with his intellect, sense of adventure, and call for social justice. I emulated his example in many ways and sought for ways in which I could use my chosen profession, engineering, in a similar fashion that Che used his medical profession.
I knew he was a controversial figure, but for me at the time, his passion for justice against the exploitation of the worldwide working class far overshadowed my understanding then of his extreme socialist philosophy. To my current view, his values are antithetical to a holistic life, personally and collectively.
I was forced to parse the romantic from reality upon setting foot in Havana in January 2019. Personally witnessing the tragedy of Castro’s communism, I was confronted with the ideas of my yesteryears. I came face-to-face with the intrinsic moral conflict in communism and the impossibly lofty ideas of Marxism. In my own view, the idea of socialism (even democratic socialism) as a viable system, quickly falls apart in witnessing how the lived reality of negatives far outweigh the positives.
First, the apparently justified anti-imperialism is rendered philosophically rotten by an intense, nationalistic pride. As a campaign tool, national pride is a low-hanging fruit leveraged to capture the support of the masses. Pride is an easily stirred emotion. However, I cannot shake the utter irony of being proud of a fact that is completely outside of one’s own choice or control. Randomness of birthplace is nothing to boast of.
[Sidenote: In the Cuban situation, the Cuban people are largely immigrants to the island. The Spanish had relatively recently colonized Cuba in the early 1500s, displacing the indigenous Taino people, who in turn displaced the even more ancient indigenous Guanajatabey people before them.]
On the whole, nationalism seems to be completely contrary to Marx’s true socialist ideas, ideas which propound the abolition of the nation-state. Castro mingling these opposing forces delegitimizes the combination in and of itself. This flaw in his political theory reveals a glimpse of a man with his eye on obtaining power. A large number of political historians acknowledge this fact, revoking the label “Communism” to describe Castro’s regime and instead coining the term “Castro-ism”. Nothing good can come of one man’s rise to power.
The second negative effect of communism I witnessed is the obvious one: poverty. In stark contrast to the compassion presumably felt by Che and Fidel for the working class, the reality of the situation is poverty for all, not liberty. From the Marxist point of view, abolishing the exploitation of workers and advocating the collective production of goods and services creates abundance. Marx thought that socialism provides enough material wealth for each individual to meet their basic needs and rise up through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, to eventually reach self-actualization.
It is a beautiful image, an alluring one that captures the heart of many young people today. However, there is an intrinsic flaw. In a factory situation for example, if an efficient, innovative and hard-working man is paid an equal salary as the man who performs the minimum allowable production, then after some time, the lack of incentives for the hard-working man will become unbearable. Why expend so many calories for the equal pay of working less? It’s a race to the bottom. Eventually, the entire factory operates at a sluggish pace, and many other factories too, until the entire GDP of the country is lowered. Lower wages, less commerce, less innovation, fewer consumer goods, lower living standards, and fewer opportunities are the result. This is hardly the environment for a thriving human being.
In Havana, this is painfully obvious. Generally, those aged 45 to 65 seem to show a lack of industriousness compared to the Cuban youth (known for their propensity to hustle and desire to bootstrap their way to success not afforded to their older counterparts). The older generation’s lives have been marred by apathy. They can be seen alone or in small groups on street corners or stoops, perhaps playing checkers or chess, perhaps drinking cheap rum, waiting for the day to pass. It is not fundamental laziness that derailed this generation; it is unfulfilled promises of a government having de-incentivized a creative, innovative, or otherwise pursuit-filled life.
The millennial Cuban generation is different. They realize that if they work hard, productively and creatively, they can make more money per month than their parents ever did. This is an encouraging sign for Cuba’s future and is a result of recent changes – encouraging small businesses, opening up cellular data plans to the populace. These are capitalistic movements and mentalities, which drive prosperity.
The third negative trait, only revealed by later research, is Castro’s faulty ideology. Castro’s communism is not a pristine rendition of Marx’s ideal perfectly adapted to the Cuban situation. In fact, Castro himself repeatedly denied he was a Communist to the press until some years after the revolution. What exactly did he stand for? It seemed to be a moving target.
At the beginning of becoming a public figure, he was simply against the Batista regime. Later Che Guevara greatly influenced his ideas while in Mexico, before the revolution in 1959. After his small group of revolutionaries marched into Havana as the victors, he eliminated many other revolutionary groups attempting the same objective. Executing many former government officials and the leaders of other groups was his way of finalizing his status.
Only after all of this did the USSR offer to purchase sugarcane at a disproportionally low rate. This legitimized Cuban communism, at least in label. It seems the success of Fidel was not a result of his exemplary political model and superior campaign platform. Instead, his power was founded on antagonism, good timing, maneuvering the political climate, leadership in battle, and brutally murdering the opposition. This paints a very different picture of Fidel, the intellectual giant of a lawyer, and Che, the handsome revolutionary doctor, from what the propaganda portrays.
Ultimately, history is written by the victors. Whether you read an account of the same event from the perspective of the USA, the Cuban nationalists, the Batista opponents, firsthand accounts, or the revolutionary propaganda, you can never really trust the information. Furthermore, in the complexity of ideology, it may take several passes, as in my case, to grasp the full implications of the Cuban revolution.
Propaganda has done well to idolize Che as the reformer of the people – and to a large extent, this is how he thought of himself in his writings. But let us take lived reality as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Regardless of the potency of an idea, we must inquire honestly if the idea works in the real world. Regardless of the apparent benevolence and idyllic promises of socialism, we must reflect on the failed attempts to enact such ideas in history.
With the rise of socialist ideals in the United States, especially in my own millennial generation, I find it crucial to bring the ideas to their logical conclusion in advance, and lay plain the flaws in existing socialist societies. Universal healthcare, universal basic income, heavy taxes, and various other socialist proposals all feel like the right thing to do. In the face of extreme wealth disparity and an elite class hoarding more and more money, socialism seems like the ideal solution to runaway capitalism. In the sincere and benevolent intentions of young socialists in America, I have no doubt. But once enacted, history shows that socialism quickly erodes to dictatorships, poverty and even atrocity.
I invite the well-meaning socialist today to abandon hope that a Marxist utopia can exist and instead set their sights on how to adjust the current financial system. There are obvious problems with the current system, a system which bears little semblance to true free-market capitalism. Capitalism, in its purest sense, encourages free-market commerce, mutually beneficial business, and private charitable organizations.
Similarly to what is already happening with the advent of the Internet, people from all of the world are inclusive, less rigid in their thinking, and more open in their commerce. With increased global interactions comes the growth of international trade, ideas, and culture. In my view, the trend is toward a global community of human beings who leverage a profiting business for the social good. Yes, re-rearranging must be done, but the future of humanity is not calling for more government control, but less.
[I willfully admit the chance that the history described herein is inaccurate. Without expending further time in laborious study, these statements merely reflect the current state of my understanding from the resources I gathered up to this point and my own observations.]
Photo by @travelersmind