The Young and the Communist
A few weeks ago I was walking through the main square of Nottingham when a small group of young activists drew my attention. They had a stall with pamphlets, Cuban and Venezuelan flags and were speaking out against capitalism. I was intrigued so I went to check them out. They told me they were part of an organisation (Rock around the Blockade) that supports socialism in Cuba and Venezuela and campaigns against the US blockade and imperialism.
While myself am quite Marxist in thinking, I did agree with them on American imperialism and economic sanctions issues but disagreed on their portrayal of Venezuela and Cuba as ideal examples the ‘UK should follow.’ They reminded me of myself, when I was younger and reading about the utopia socialism and capitalism could lead to. However, When I told them that Venezuela and Cuba fail to provide for universal human rights, and are failed communist states, the young activists got very defensive.
A heated discussion about Cuba’s Communism
One of them was so vehemently convinced that Cuba was a perfect example of democracy that he started spitting out ‘facts’ about how many elections the Cubans have had and the importance of the new referendum that gave a voice to all people. ‘If that’s not democracy, what is it?’ I was aggressively told.
First of all, I asked the young man, ‘Have you ever been to Cuba ?’ ‘No’ he told me but ‘a good friend of mine that I trust 100% went and told me how free Cuban people are. Plus, there’s s YouTube video of eyewitnesses reports you can watch and see for yourself’ (which I did when I got back home)
‘My advice to you is go there and see for yourself.’ I replied. ‘But independently. If you go on an organised tour, you will only see what the organisers want to show you.’ I continued.
‘My friends went there, and I can assure you they saw no lack of freedom’ he continued and then added some more ‘statistics’ on the people’s content with socialism. ‘Where do you get your statistics from?’ I asked. ‘From independent organisations’ he replied. ‘Which ones?’ I continued. ‘I don’t know’ he admitted but ‘I trust them.’
‘As I said before, go to Havana yourself, and strike random conversations with locals on the street, and you’ll see what will happen.’ ‘What?’he answered already irritated. ‘You’ll see how the police will take these locals away, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.’
He started laughing in disbelief. At this point I got a bit irritated and replied a bit harshly: ‘See, that’s exactly my point, you’re laughing because you find it inconceivable. You come from a privileged society and take your rights for granted. The very right you have of shouting out loud whatever crosses your mind in this square does not exist in Cuba. If you do it you will get arrested.’
He got very angry and replied ‘I know I’m privileged and don’t take it for granted.!!’There are people arrested all the time in Market Square!’ he replied huffing and puffing.
‘But not for the same reason! You go there and you will see for yourself’ I repeated.
At that point as he was already extremely irritated he said there was no point continuing the conversation and walked away.
The realities of Cuba’s Communism
I was a bit disappointed he didn’t allow me to further explain these things to him. If someone had told me 2 years ago that locals would get taken away by the police on the street in Havana I would not have believed it either. ‘When Cuba is making efforts to improve tourism, why would they do that?’. I would have posed the exact same question and scepticism just as the young activist did.
But the complexity is far greater than this. If Cubans do not have a license that allows to engage in tourism activities, they are not allowed to interact with tourist. It’s happened to me on 3 occasions, when locals I was speaking to got taken away by the police for the simple act of speaking to me. That is not the freedom we are used to in the West.
Me getting a bit harsh on him did not help either, I guess. Deep down I really wanted him to be right so when I got back home I watched the YouTube video he had mentioned.
Sadly, it was exactly what I had assumed in the first place. Interviews mostly taken from state officials or state affiliated organisations. All of these interviews portrayed the perfect state with absolutely no criticism of the system.
There is even one journalist that mentions the freedom of speech Cuba has and gives as example the online publication CubaDebate.cu , where people have the right to comment whatever crosses their mind. I’ve had a look and he’s right. People say whatever they want, except anything against the party, which is taken down. (As all comments are moderated – censored in other words)
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a Cuban NGO not recognised by the state recorded over 5000 arbitrary detentions in 2017 for example. Some concrete examples : DR Eduardo Gardet Concepcion, who criticised Fidel Castro in public got a 3 year sentence in prison; Yulier Perez , a graffiti artist was harassed and eventually detained for expressing himself through his art. Danilo Machado was imprisoned in a maximum security prison for writing ‘Se fue’ (he’s gone) on a wall when Castro died. Again, this is not what we consider Freedom in the west.
I’ve had a look at the new constitution as well and I agree. Some things are getting better and improved (potential legalisation of same sex marriage, commitment to environmental protection, further provisions for people with disabilities, ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its first two Optional Protocols) but they are nowhere close to western standards democracy, freedom of speech and human rights. Yes Cuba has a great culture and great happy people because they learned how to make most of their situation and make compromises regarding certain freedoms.
For example Article 95.h protects artistic expression, but only when it conforms with “socialist values”. On the one hand, the text proposes the “democratisation of cyberspace”, but on the other it condemns the use of the internet for “subversion” (Article 16.l). Human rights guarantees are restricted to what is already established under Cuban laws, many of which are contrary to international law and international human rights provisions.
Most independent human rights organisations continued to be denied access to the country and to its prisons. Cuba is under scrutiny for human rights abuses by several human rights organisations amongst which most notably Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN. Cuba remains the only country in the Americas region to deny access to Amnesty International.
A true exercise in democracy and human rights would be for the state to genuinely allow people a choice of the form of government. However, Cuba remains a one party led state that will silence and suppress any opposition.
Many of these young activists praised Cuba’s healthcare system, which is free for all. While it’s true in some particular cases, overall the Cuban health system has failed to provide equally all people with access to the same facilities. Only a number of hospitals to which only the privileged have access actually have decent conditions. The rest lack many medical facilities, lack sanitary conditions and necessary medicine. I have a Cuban friend in Nottingham who always sends her mom aspirin, because there’s always a shortage of medicines in her area. The below video gives you a glimpse into the failures of the Cuban health system.
Drawing a Communist Parallel
As I come from an ex-communist country, I understand both sides, especially as I sympathise with Marxist thought. However, I’ve seen what communism did to my native country, Romania, and how long it took to recover. Communism simply did not work on any level. On a moral level, communism should promote equality amongst all workers. Workers would only receive the necessary amount from the shared wages and any surplus would be equally distributed. This did not work on any level, as obviously, everybody has a different concept of what ‘necessary needs’ are. So, the people in power kept all the wealth, similarly to the bourgeoisie in capitalism, while depriving the working class of the same opportunity. In order to protect their privilege, the higher up functions repressed any movement of disobedience. On the other hand, the workers that could not access the surplus, resorted to other means of making money, capitalistic means, by operating on the black market. In essence, that meant stealing from the government and selling on for profit.
Needless to say, it was not long until people realised communism as a system did not work and they brutally ended it in 1989. However, the same corrupt structures stayed in place for at least another 15 years and have only started to crumble a decade ago. Those very structures left a long lasting impact on people’s mentality which I witnessed growing up. People still stocking up water or tinned food ‘just in case’ there will be a shortage like it used to be during Communist times; people being wary of speaking in public or over the phone against the current government out of fear of being persecuted by the police or secret services who used to tap phones and monitor any anti-governmental movements; people being scared of peacefully protesting due to fears of them losing their lives as in the case of the post communist peaceful protests of 1990 and 1991 when over 40 peaceful protesters, mostly students, were killed and several hundred injured. Or even the most recent protests in August 2018 when the government suppressed a peaceful protest with water cannons, tear gas and police brutality. These are the structures that never really dissipated and still plague the Romanian society almost 30 years after the fall of communism.
Why Cuba is a Failed Communist State
When I went to Cuba, I could see many similarities to the Romanian case. Just as Romania, Cuba is another example of failed communism. Its economy has creative massive voids which in turn have created massive discrepancies and gaps between social classes where only the privileged few can have a decent livelihood. It’s also made its citizens dependent on the black market (a capitalist construct) to obtain necessary goods. It’s definitely made improvements here and there but I think it’s a long way from achieving Marx’s utopia. I’ve previously written about Cuba’s Street Economics but you can also watch the video below, which exemplifies how people get around communism’s harsh conditions employing capitalism to aid them.
I love Cuba, its culture and its people’s resilience to make the most of their situation. And I think we have a lot to learn from its situation. However, I can’t say the same about its government. On the other hand, we also have a lot to learn about why communism would not work in our western democratic societies.
In case you do get involved with such organisations, please do your research before choosing to support them and ask yourselves if you could live in the regimes that are portrayed so perfectly by them. The best way is going there and seeing the reality by yourself. But don’t go on guided tours, organised by institutions. Go independently, and do independent research in the communities. And then the harsh reality of what Cuban socialism really means will hit you.
Cuba Debate Online Journal :
Human Rights Watch:
UN Report of the Independent Expert on human rights: