Cuba in Revolution: A History since the Fifties

December 4, 2008

The forthcoming 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution will be marked by an avalanche of commentary. Some, especially in Latin America and Africa, will be characterised by admiration and gratitude for the Revolution's defiant egalitarianism, and for its internationalism, these days mainly in its celebrated medical brigades, but previously, and triumphantly in Southern Africa, in its military commitments.

Much commentary elsewhere, however, will be characterised by puzzlement: at why the Cuban "satellite" did not collapse with the USSR; and at why, having supposedly survived that collapse thanks to the iron will of the dictatorial caudillo Fidel Castro, it has not gone into terminal crisis since his illness and retirement? Antoni Kapcia's new historical essay is the perfect antidote to such a puzzle.

The book's fundamental premise is that it is futile to attempt to make sense of Cuba through the all-too-convenient but distorting prism of Cold War concepts. While it may have adopted, or rather, as Kapcia points out, adapted Soviet-bloc economic and political models during the 1970s, Cuba's socialism was not proclaimed under the barrels of Red Army tanks. Cuba's revolution was its own, driven by a radical nationalism incorporating measures of land and social reform. It was implementing the latter measures that quickly brought the young rebels into direct conflict with US landowners and businesses. In the US "dirty war" that followed, Cuba's revolutionaries turned for help to the USSR, and turned towards socialism. The Cold War doubtless added urgency, but the fundamental source of US hostility - Cuba's defiance of its continental supremacy in its own backyard - is demonstrated by the fact that, having won the Cold War, far from seeking a new relationship, the US Government has intensified its economic blockade (routinely condemned by the British and almost every other government on the planet), continued to protect anti-Cuba terrorists based in the US, poisoned the institutions of human rights diplomacy with transparent hypocrisy over Cuba, and funded ever more elaborate plans for "Cuba transition".

The resulting mixture of anti-imperialist national pride and stubborn siege mentality is one key component of the revolutionary version of an ideology of cubania - Cubanness - analysed in a central chapter of this book. Ideology is one of the factors analysed in what is a thematic rather than a narrative history. Other thematic chapters deal with the popular benefits of the Revolution; the ebb and flow of mass political participation; the significance of Cuba's external links; the management of dissent; and the emergency measures of the 1990s, legacies of which - economic dislocation and social inequality - remain serious problems. The principal aim of these thematic essays is to account for how - with on the author's reckoning a fifth to a third of Cubans being active supporters of the Revolution and a similar proportion who would welcome its collapse - the loyalty of the rest of the population has ensured the system's survival.

Rejection of Cold War perspectives and acknowledgement of majority popular support, however, do not mean that this is an uncritical account. On the contrary, throughout the book Kapcia confronts the contradictions, failures and unpalatable aspects of half a century of revolutionary experiment, as well as signalling the achievements and triumphs. The great strength of this book is that it helps the reader to see beyond the simplistic accounts of such aspects, and to understand the wider contexts that explain the Revolution's survival. The insight and detail offered here reflect a work that is the product of a sustained scholarly investigation of Cuba. Now professor of Latin American history at the University of Nottingham, Kapcia has been studying Cuba, from outside and from within, for four of the Revolution's five decades of fluctuating fortunes.

In a scene-setting chapter on the trajectory of the Revolution, Kapcia rejects the conventional academic periodisations of Cuban development since 1959 in favour of analysing how revolutionary Cuba navigated key crises in its history. Here he points to the way Cuba's leaders have launched extensive debates (rather than backstairs purges), usually conducted in public and at innumerable meetings, to secure support for strategic responses. This process, involving tens of thousands of meetings, was unleashed again last year by Raul Castro, to mobilise popular engagement in economic reforms to raise Cuban productivity and salaries, and again this year on proposals to raise the age of retirement.

While Raul's approach may lean more towards orderly and institutionalised politics than towards the politics of mass mobilisation associated with Fidel (an epilogue assesses Fidel's legacy), it is consistent with an important conclusion of this book. Kapcia argues that, for all the chaotic and individualistic outcomes of the economic crises of the 1990s, in the 21st century Cuba, buoyed by the emergence of political allies in so many of Latin America's presidential palaces, maintained majority support for the Revolution by returning to the collectivism and mass politics that made its early years so fascinating to observers.

Among the approaching anniversary literature, students of Cuba are unlikely to find a more thoughtful or well-informed analysis of half a century of revolutionary change than Kapcia provides in this book.

Cuba in Revolution: A History since the Fifties

By Antoni Kapcia

Reaktion Books

208pp, £15.95

ISBN 9781861894021

Published 20 October 2008

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