By Peter Bolton – Aug 13, 2021
In the month that has now passed since protests erupted across Cuba, much media commentary has focused on how President Biden would react. Earlier this year Biden’s press secretary had said that “a Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities.” However, the Biden administration is now clearly shifting policy, but not in the direction that Cubans in Cuba and US progressives had been hoping. On August 10, The New York Times published an article titled Biden Ramps Up Pressure on Cuba, Abandoning Obama’s Approach. The article states that, far from pivoting back to the Obama-era normalization process, “Mr. Biden is taking an even harder line on Cuba than his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, who tightened restrictions on travel and financial transactions.”
Throughout this time corporate media accounts have been loyally parroting Washington’s line that the protesters were primarily motivated by the “authoritarianism” of the Cuban “regime.” As was the case in the run up to the Iraq War, the purpose of these reports is to manufacture consent for Washington’s coercive foreign policy and obscure its self-serving and hypocritical agenda. As would be expected, these reports also ignore growing evidence suggesting that the protests were in part orchestrated by Washington as part of its ongoing plan to destabilize the country and, in turn, bring about regime change. In a competitive field, one essay in particular stands out for its shamelessly tendentious propagandizing. Published at the online journal The Conversation, the article is condescendingly titled 5 ways Americans often misunderstand Cuba, from Fidel Castro’s rise to the Cuban American vote.
In a bizarre inversion of reality, the article’s author, one Caroline McCulloch, claims that the US public has been fed not an overwhelmingly pro-Washington narrative for the last six decades, but rather a steady diet of pro-revolutionary, anti-imperialist talking points. Fortunately, McCulloch has been sent from the heavens to correct these delusions that supposedly possess the minds of the zombified, Che Guevara T-shirt-wearing masses of North America. McCulloch’s article purports to address “five common areas of confusion about Cuba, Cuban Americans and the U.S.-Cuba relationship.”
The first of the “myths” that she wishes to debunk is about Cuban Revolution itself. She states: “The revolution was a nationalist revolution for most Cubans… not a communist one. When Castro installed a socialist economy and a one-party political system, many fellow revolutionaries felt betrayed.” True enough, the disparate parts of the revolution were not consolidated into the Cuban Communist Party until 1965, a full six years after the multi-tendency 26th of July Movement toppled the US-backed Batista dictatorship. What McCulloch leaves out, however, is that Cuba immediately found itself under foreign attack from the Western Hemisphere’s hegemon, the US. In the final months of the Eisenhower administration, Washington imposed a trade embargo that since then has largely isolated Cuba from the global economy. In 1962, the Kennedy administration then launched the CIA-orchestrated Bay of Pigs invasion, which had a similar, if not worse, effect on the island than the 9/11 attacks had on the US.
In the midst of this dire situation, a dialectical relationship emerged in the aftermath of Batista’s toppling between the US and liberal bourgeois factions within Cuba on the one hand, and revolutionaries on the other. This relationship ultimately had the effect of pushing the revolution to the left out of necessity, rather than as a cynical attempt by communists to manipulate the post-Batista era to their liking. Before 1959, the majority of Cuba’s economy was controlled by US corporate interests. And Batista’s government was backed by the US because it obediently facilitated this process. The post-Batista government was initially dominated by liberal sectors of the Cuban bourgeoisie. But as their benefactors in corporate America began to pull out, they were increasingly eclipsed by more radical factions who wanted to move transition Cuba toward socialism. As the government began bringing the economy into public ownership, large sections of the bourgeoisie who had overseen US economic imperialism began to flee abroad. This sudden loss of technical expertise along with the embargo translated into a society that was increasingly both in crisis and under siege. This situation meant that revolutionary leaders needed to reorganize society along more collectivist lines in order to maintain national sovereignty and provide for the common good in the face of extreme US hostility.
The Cuban Communist Party, meanwhile, far from being some kind of crude Stalinist replica, became a big tent party that encompasses all of the socialist factions that were in opposition to the Batista dictatorship. It was, in fact, formed through a merger of two already-existing political parties, the 26th of July Movement and the Popular Socialist Party, along with a student movement called the Revolutionary Directory. McCulloch also claims that: “Cubans fought to form a government that would answer to the Cuban people, rather than foreign interests. They got Castro’s Soviet-backed regime.” This misrepresents the relationship that Cuba had with the USSR. The reality is that there were considerable tensions between the Cuban government and Soviet leaders and major figures of the Cuban revolution, including Che Guevara, were critical of the Soviet model of socialism. Moreover, the revolution’s turn to the east came only after its leadership was rebuffed and then openly threatened by Washington.
Point #2 in McCulloch’s article addresses purported myths about the embargo, which, of course, is more accurately described as an economic blockade because it can penalize third countries. Though she concedes that the blockade has caused significant damage to the economy, she nonetheless claims that: “The Cuban government blames the United States for poverty on the island, but many of Cuba’s economic problems are homegrown.” To support this claim, she blames “political repression and fiscal mismanagement,” without giving details as to what form this takes or how it might harm the economy, and government control over “who may obtain state-issued licenses to start their own businesses.” She also claims that economic problems can be attributed to the government “ban[ning] independent labor unions, which would protect workers from exploitation.” This is pretty bizarre given that people of her ideological orientation are forever telling us how harmful organized labor is to economic performance.
But what most discredits her claim that the blockade is not the primary reason Cuban people are struggling” is her failure to attach any kind of figures or quantitative analysis to her supporting arguments. The reason for this is very straightforward – doing so would reveal that the blockade is, in fact, the primary cause of suffering in Cuba. The United Nations estimated in June that the blockade has caused over $147.8 billion in damage to the island’s economy throughout its decades of existence. Does anybody seriously believe that any of the factors that McCulloch desperately tries to characterize as the major causes of suffering amount to anywhere near $147.8 billion of economic damage?
In myth #3 of her article, McCulloch turns to US interference in Cuba more broadly. Though she concedes that the US “upheld Cuban dictators – before Castro – and employed wide-ranging coercive sanctions against the country,” she nonetheless claims that this has nothing to do with the July 11 protests. Instead, she claims that ultimately “the Cuban government’s long record of human rights abuses and repression created the current political instability” that led to the protests, rather than US interference. But as James Peck documents in his book Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, human rights discourse has been hijacked by Washington to provide a false veneer of credibility to its regime change efforts towards foreign governments that are insufficiently obedient to US interests. The two hyperlinks McCulloch provides as sources for her claim about human rights abuses in Cuba are also instructive. One is Human Rights Watch, a Washington-based outfit notorious for its pro-US line in Latin America that even has former State Department officials on its board of directors. The other is the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), a supposedly independent local Cuban NGO that hasn’t been active since early 2019. Note that the very existence of CCDHRN undermines the claim that Cuba is an unusually repressive country since a dyed-in-the-wool dictatorship would surely not allow such an organization to operate in the first place.
McCulloch adds that “Cuba has a well-documented history of harassing, intimidating and imprisoning activists and dissidents.” What she leaves out is that many of these “dissidents” are on Washington’s payroll, including US media darling Yoani Sánchez. So, Cuba is actually more tolerant of dissent than is usually understood but draws the line at those who receive money from Washington. This can hardly be characterized as unreasonable given that the US criminalizes such behavior itself via the FARA Act. McCulloch adds: “Over 700 Cuban protesters have been detained or disappeared since July 11, according to the human rights organization Cubalex.” What she fails to mention is that some of those detained in Cuba were engaging in acts of violence. In any case, many have already been released.
Incidentally, the “human rights organization” that McCulloch cites, Cubalex, has received money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which was described by its own co-founder Allen Weinstein as existing to “do today what was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” According to the Cuba Money Project, during the Trump administration the NED channeled $149,945 to Cubalex in 2019 alone. A comparison with the treatment of protesters in Colombia, meanwhile, is instructive. Hundreds have gone missing while state security forces of Iván Duque’s government are believed to be responsible for scores of deaths. Of course, we won’t hear anything about that from the likes of Caroline McCulloch because Colombia is a staunch US ally that has even been dubbed “the Israel of Latin America.”
For myth #4, McCulloch turns her attention to the Cuban-American exile community in the US. She states: “The media often stereotypes Cuban Americans as overwhelmingly conservative. But they are a racially, economically and politically heterogeneous community.” Here she is perfectly correct. Some polls have even shown that a majority of Cuban-Americans would support a move by the US government to lift the blockade. But the media distortion is even worse than she makes out. Because in addition to being more diverse than is usually understood, in its totality the Cuban-American exile community is still not remotely representative of the views of Cubans generally when you include the Cubans who still live in Cuba. This is for the rather obvious reason that those who decided to leave are more likely to be critical of the government and Cuba’s political and economic systems.
The reality is that there is good reason to believe that amongst Cubans in Cuba support for the revolution is considerable. Shortly after the 1959 ousting of Batista, one authoritative public opinion poll found that 86% of the population supported the revolution. It’s possible that as the decades have passed this proportion has declined. But keep in mind that the revolution has nonetheless survived for over 60 years in spite of systematic immiseration caused by the blockade and continuous US attempts at regime change, including generous funding of internal “dissidents” who agitate against the government. Membership of the Cuban Communist Party numbers in the hundreds of thousands, while membership of Cuba’s National Revolutionary Militia numbers in the millions. This doesn’t seem like a “regime” that exists in spite of considerable opposition, but rather survives as a result of considerable support.
This support is likely predicated on the fact that many, if not most, people elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean region rightly envy the social protections and access to public services that Cubans have as a result of the revolution. And Cubans only need to look across the water to neighboring Haiti to see what happens to a country that dutifully follows Washington’s neoliberal economic model and the dictates of its preferred international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Even during the July 11 protests there were signs of support for the revolution. Corporate media accounts of the protests largely left out the fact that in addition to those who took the streets to oppose the government, counterprotests in support of the government took place that according to some reports were even larger in number than those in opposition to the government.
The fifth and final “myth” that McCulloch addresses is “Race and equality in Cuba.” She starts off by conceding that “Castro’s Communist revolution brought disadvantaged Cubans greater access to education and universal health care. Many poor Cubans became world-class doctors, scholars and scientists.” So far, so good. But she then goes on to state: “However, Cuba is not an egalitarian society. Its political leaders are overwhelmingly white and male, and the government does not treat all Cubans equally.” The quip that revolutionary leaders are mostly white and male is something of a cheap shot. Because the reality is that they have consistently made a priority of making Cuba more inclusive and have also instituted many pro-active measures to increase diversity, all the while maintaining a healthy self-criticism about this process. Keep in mind that the starting point for this process was a profoundly racist colonial social system that the revolutionary leaders inherited upon Batista’s toppling from power.
Furthermore, Cubans of color have consistently been one of the major pillars of support for the revolution. This is in large part because one of the first things the revolutionary leaders did in 1959 was to overturn racial discrimination in employment, schooling and the use of public facilities that had been legal during the Batista dictatorship. Fidel Castro said in March 1959 speech: “We are going to put an end to racial discrimination at work centers by waging a campaign… to end this hateful, repugnant system with a new slogan: work opportunities for every Cuban, without racial or sexual discrimination.” Note that he spoke these words in 1959, several years before Jim Crow was formally ended in the US.
The hyperlink that McCulloch uses to support her claim that “the government does not treat all Cubans equally,” meanwhile is a Washington Post article that makes much of anti-government rap groups. She later herself references this purportedly homegrown phenomenon, stating: “Black and brown Cuban artists are leading the current protests. The rap song “Patria y Vida” – which means “Homeland and Life,” a word play on the revolutionary slogan “Homeland or Death” – has become an anthem for Cuban government opposition.” But as Max Blumenthal has pointed out at The Grayzone, these groups are largely an artificial creation of Washington and its allies in the hardline Cuban-American exile community in order to ferment anti-government agitation. He states: “Over the past decade, the US government has spent millions of dollars to cultivate anti-government Cuban rappers, rock musicians, artists, and journalists in an explicit bid to weaponize “desocialized and marginalized youth.””
McCulloch adds that “Afro-Cubans, who comprise at least one-third of Cuba’s 11.3 million people, experience widespread discrimination. As a result, they have higher poverty rates, less access to stable currency and low rates of property ownership.” What she leaves out is that much of this stems not from socialism, but rather from the rather recent market reforms introduced during the presidency of Raul Castro. In a strange irony, the younger Castro did what the US has long been demanding of Cuba by “liberalizing” the economy and allowing greater private sector economic activity. Yet this had the effect of increasing class divisions within Cuban society, which partly manifests itself in terms of race. She also leaves out that racial injustice was much worse during the Batista dictatorship and is arguably worse in the US even to this day. Batista himself wasn’t even permitted to join certain social Cuban social clubs. The wealth gap between black and white people in the US, meanwhile, has been well documented.
All of the above leads to the inevitable question: Why would this person write such obviously misleading and easily debunkable nonsense? The answer can be best answered by Lenin’s famous quote: “When it is not immediately apparent which political or social groups, forces or alignments advocate certain proposals, measures, etc., one should always ask: Who stands to gain?” Naturally enough, McCulloch has impeccable pro-Washington credentials. Her editors at The Conversation were good enough to mention that she is fresh from an internship at the State Department, which has been at the forefront of regime change efforts against Cuba, but were also keen to stress that she is “not currently affiliated.”
They left out, however, that she is currently affiliated with Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. This pseudo-academic propaganda outfit has been funded by some of the most extreme sectors of the hardline Cuban-American exile lobby. The building that houses the institute even received a $5 million grant from Jorge Mas, the founder of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). CANF has been linked to violent exile extremists such as Luis Posada Carriles, who effectively admitted to bombing an airliner full of Cuban civilians, and also bombing a hotel in Cuba that led to the death of an Italian tourist, during interviews with journalist Ann Louise Bardach. Bardach along with fellow investigative journalist Larry Rohter reported that Posada himself said that the “hotel bombings and other operations had been supported by leaders of the Cuban American National Foundation.”
With the internet making finding such information so easy, one might wonder whether the article’s author and publisher take the public for a bunch of idiots. But the reality is that with pro-Washington and anti-revolution coverage being so predominant, they don’t have to. As political theorist Antonio Gramsci put it: “Ideas and opinions are not spontaneously born in each individual brain: they have had a center of formation, or irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion – a group of men, or a single individual even, which has developed them and presented them in the political form of current reality.”
Featured image: A group of Cuban-Americans chant pro Trump slogans as they demonstrate their support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)