January 16, 2009

Fifty and Counting by Hobart A. Spalding

Fifty and Counting
Hobart A. Spalding

Hobart Spalding is Professor Emeritus of Latin American and Caribbean history at the City
University of New York. He has written or edited a half dozen books and more than 100 articles.
His most recent work about Cuba appears in Science and Society (72 [4], 2008) and in a special
issue of Socialism and Democracy scheduled for 2009.

In spring 1959 I walked across the bridge to Soldier’s Field in Cambridge along with several classmates at Harvard to hear Fidel Castro speak. Two years before I had visited Cuba as a preppy tourist curious about what I had read in Herbert Matthews’s columns in the New York Times about this romantic rebel and felt sure that Batista was a bad guy. My feeble attempts to contact
revolutionary people had failed dismally, but Fidel’s speech captured the justpre-1960s rebel inside of me. I have been a fan of the revolution ever since and have visited Cuba three times.

Cuba, like Vietnam, became a symbol of resistance against the Evil Empire (a.k.a. the U.S.A.) for the whole world. Ninety miles from Florida and representing everything that capitalism is not, it has shone like a beacon in the dark night. But, more important, it has become a laboratory for Third World attempts to break imperialist chains, and in that lessons abound. A huge divide exists among progressive people. There are those who have visited Cuba and who have lived in the Third World and those who have not. I often find that the “leftie” critics of Cuba (Maoies and Trotties) have never been there, and so they quote their favorite theorists and cite statistics without any experience at the grassroots level—big mistake. There is no way that one can really judge the Cuban Revolution without having been on the ground floor. Is Cuba a socialist society?No! Does it have an egalitarian framework? Yes! Unless you have walked among the people and talked to them one to one, there is no way to get a real feeling for what has taken place. Compare their way of living with that of the barriadas, quilombos, and villas miserias and then judge.

In comparison with people in the United States, even the less wealthy ones, Cubans have less buying power, less choice, and fewer of the basic necessities, but the average Cuban has better medical care and better access to education. No one in Cuba starves. Compare this with the food riots in a dozen countries across the globe, many of which are “economic miracles” according to capitalist pundits. Cubans also have a pride in their own society that others do not. They are very aware of both its accomplishments and its failures. In the United States most people think that they are to blame for not making it.

I think that the most important lessons that Cuba can teach us are these:  First, socialism in one country cannot exist. As long as imperialism stretches its tentacles around islands of progress, it will strangle efforts toward truly free societies. This argues that change must be global. Second, it is important to pass along the values to each generation. Unfortunately, at this time it seems that the U.S. media are gaining influence among Cuban youth. How much longer the old revolutionary ideals can stay the norm is a key question.

The Internet is real, and its lessons are no less false than those of other media but attract the young nevertheless. This is the challenge at the cultural level that the leadership faces. It is sometimes discouraging to hear about corruption, favoritism, and materialism among the leaders and bureaucrats inside Cuba, but that is one reality. At the same time, it is a very positive experience to go to a meeting of Poder Popular or some other grassroots group and feel the excitement and energy there. Which one will prevail in the end? Time will tell, but if one believes in equality one can only think that the human side, not the materialist one, will triumph.

January 2009 132-133
DOI: 10.1177/0094582X08329179
© 2009 Latin American Perspectives

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