This insider account of the Cuban movement is online at Cuban Anarchism book
In Africa, where Ché Guevara T-shirts are ubiquitous among the youth, the reputation of the remote Caribbean island nation of Cuba retains much élan among the older generations too, because of its political solidarity with the Algerian liberation war that ended in 1962, its military support for the MPLA’s fight against the South African apartheid-era military incursion into Angola in 1978, and its deployment of Cuban doctors to various rural parts of the continent today.
Now the rapprochement between Obama’s America and Castro’s Cuba is fraught with misgiving and misinformation: Americans are deeply conflicted not just by big-kid-on-the-block Latin American foreign policy that hasn't evolved much from the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, plus a steady diet of decades of red scare propaganda post 1962, but by nostalgia for the sun-drenched machismo of Hemmingway's Cuba of the 1930s to the 1950s, of high-balling it with showgirls at the roulette tables in beachfront hotels, and puffing on stogies allegedly rolled on the bronzed thighs of virgins.
In the Left's imagination Cuba still has that pizzazz, communism with a groovy tropical beat, so much friendlier and cooler than anything that Stalin or Mao could concoct, the edge taken off the Big Brother quality of the ubiquitous giant portraits of Guevara by the rum-and-cola drink called Cuba Libre, by the balmy climate, the pretty chicas in simple cotton frocks, and by the sublime syncopation of The Buena Vista Social Club's retro collaboration with Ry Cooder.
So the Left's nostalgic myth of Cuba is not all that different from the Right's; the difference being that the Right's memories are stuck in the 1950s, like a scratched bossa nova recording, whereas the Left celebrates a Cuba that is stuck in a revolutionary mausoleum where it is perpetually 1962. In order to achieve this strangely mutually-reinforcing fantasy, of course, the Right has to ignore that their favourite hotels were mobbed-up (the Hotel Riviera was owned by Meyer Lansky, and bloody Al Capone cavorted at the Hotel Nacional), while the Left has to ignore the sinister Brigada Especial – the Castro brothers’ own Tonton Macoute – prowling the blacked out streets at night (Havana has been load-shed for decades) in their civvies sniffing around for tiny infractions against The Revolution.
For while the Barbudos, the Bearded Ones, of Castro’s motley 26th of July Movement (M26J) did not attempt to turn the clock back to Year Zero as the sociopathic Pol Pot had in Cambodia, they certainly anticipated Francis Fukuyama's famous declaration of the "end of history" by three decades when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon, almost pushing the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to midnight. From then until 1989, the US blockade and Cuba's salient frontline status in the geopolitics of the Western Hemisphere's Cold War maintained the islands in a surreal state of entropy which is only now starting to alter.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The distortions of Cuban history well before the Castroite putsch, by otherwise reputable mainstream historians defy belief. For example, anarchists dominated Cuban organised labour from their founding of its first modern trade unions in 1883, breaking down gender barriers, training freed black slaves alongside white workers, and becoming a leading guerrilla force in the Cuban Liberation War of 1895-1898, until in 1925, the movement founded the 200,000-strong Cuban National Labour Confederation (CNOC).
And yet no less a historian than Hugh Thomas, in his encyclopaedic 1,151-page work, Cuba, or the Pursuit of Freedom, in a single paragraph describing the formation of the CNOC, uses what is by his own admission was the dominant force in the Cuban labour movement over a period of 55 years as a mere backdrop to describe the formation in the same year of the tiny Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) which mustered only 100 members.
Those of you who know me as a historian of the anarchist movement will be rolling your eyes by now – but hear me out, for in Cuba, understanding the central role of the anarcho-syndicalist labour movement in the 20th Century is unavoidable, especially regarding the exceptionally different ways in which the anarchists and the communists related to successive dictators: Machado, Batista, Castro.
Let’s start with Gerardo Machado, who ruled over 1925-1933: strongly backed by the United States, he unleashed a reign of terror against organised labour: leading anarchists including the CNOC’s secretary-general were assassinated, others driven into exile, hundreds of Spanish anarchists were deported, the anarchist press was closed, and the anarchist trade unions were forced underground. A state-controlled United National Federation of Labour was established, to which all organised workers were compelled to belong. Undergound, the Communists used the opportunity to entrench themselves in the CNOC apparatus, leading some anarchists to form a rival underground General Confederation of Labour (CGT) in 1931.
From 1930 to 1933, the anarchists and the CGT played a leading role in a wave of disorders and strikes against Machado; elements of the CNOC participated. As a last ditch move to stay in power, Machado formed an alliance with the PCC and the sections of the CNOC under its control, but this failed to avert his downfall. On 12 August 1933, Machado was brought down by a general strike initiated and maintained by anarchist transport workers and finally by the masses of people. Nonetheless, Machado was succeeded by a 21-day American-backed regime, which was in turn overthrown after by a junta led by an army sergeant, Fulgencio Batista.
Although Batista repealed the constitutional clause allowing the United States to intervene in Cuba (a remnant of the US occupation of 1899-1902), he was a stern authoritarian and in 1938, he ordered another state-run union federation founded, the Cuban Labour Confederation (CTC). While the anarchist CGT remained underground, the communist PCC repeated the performance of 1933 – the pact with Machado – with a pact with Batista in 1940: in exchange for open support of the Batista regime, the PCC was given control of the state-run CTC.
So the weird fact is that in Batista’s first period of dictatorship, he not only had communists running the official trade unions, but even had communists in his cabinet. It was only when he was defeated at the polls in 1944 (going into exile and plotting his 1952 return to power) that the arrangement unraveled because the USA, getting increasingly nervous of rising Soviet power, ordered the Cuban president to ditch the communists. However, the unintended consequence of the vacuum created by this action was to allow anarchist labour organisers to take over leadership of the official CTC – just as they still ran the underground CGT.
So after World War II, anarchists dominated the Cuban transport, hospitality and factory workers in the cities, the port-workers in Havana and Santiago, fishermen around the coast, sugar and tobacco plantation workers in Pinar de Rio and Matanzas provinces, university students and journalists, and nickel and iron ore miners in Oriente province, while their political organisation, the Libertarian Association of Cuba (ALC), had branches in each of the six provinces.
It was in Oriente province that a young Fidel Castro, the son of a labour broker, first came to the approving attention of the Santiago newspapers for beating striking black Haitian cane-cutters with the flat of his machete. Journalist Patrick Symmes’ book The Boys from Dolores: Fidel Castro and his Generation – from Revolution to Exile, shows that the young Castro was a huge fan of Mussolini (and of the usual Latino strongman cult in general), enthralling his mates by imitating Il Duce’s speeches from a school balcony. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Castro, who had often fallen asleep reading Mein Kampf, according to classmate José Antonio Cubeñas, walked out onto the balcony proclaiming it “our first victory” (though Cubeñas stated that Castro was never an ideological fascist and definitely not an anti-Semite).
Now this could all be put down to youthful dilettantism, if it were not that the adult Castro continued to refine and deepen his right-wing politics, joining the Orthodox Party, the name of which is a dead giveaway to its sober bourgeois pretensions. As is known, Castro later served time for his brave 1953 assault on the Moncada Barracks as a leader of the M26J, then a heterogenous anti-Batista resistance organisation that included anarchists in its ranks, as its black-and-red colours testify.
In the final phase of the revolution against Batista's second dictatorship – conducted by many forces other than the Castroites, including the anarchists and the equally forgotten Catholic conservative Student Revolutionary Directorate (DRE) – the head of the joint chiefs of staff, General Eulogio Cantillo (to whom the fleeing Batista had secretly handed power in 1959) defected with the army to the tiny 800-strong Castroite insurgency. As a result, Castro inherited control of the 20,000-strong Cuban armed forces by default and almost peacefully. With the army under his tacit control, his final triumphant 1959 “March on Havana” was as incident-free and as stage-managed as the 1922 “March on Rome” organised by his hero Mussolini had been.
And once in power, in typical Latino strongman style, Castro used the military to crush all dissent – including other anti-Batista organisations like the ALC, CGT and DRE – militarised and impoverished Cuban society (with Ché Guevara briefly acting as a judge, ordering the execution of about 50 men, then serving as president of the national bank and seizing the savings of the common people), destroyed the 80-year old free labour movement which had survived the liberation war and two periods of dictatorship by corporatising the unions along Fascist lines, and building a strongman personality cult around himself after, it was rumoured, he eliminated his charismatic rival within the movement, Camilo Cienfuegos, in a mysterious plane-crash.
Anarchist-sympathetic, Camilo Ciefuegos may have been assassinated on Fidel Castro's orders.
Tellingly, Symmes records that an old school-friend of Castro's, Luis “Lundy” Aguilar, on visiting Castro at his penthouse suite in the requisitioned Havana Hilton in the early days after Castro came to power, was shown the leader's bedroom: “Lundy spied the books on Castro’s night table: a volume on Marx that looked, from its smooth spine, like it had never been opened, and a well-thumbed copy of the speeches of Perón.” It was only three years after the Revolution, when the American blockade forced Cuba to turn to the Soviet Union to buy its sugar crop (the rider in the agreement being that Cuba align ideologically with the Soviets and vindicate the Batista-tainted PCC), that Castro famously declared he had “always been” a communist. Yet from 1967, Cuba’s biggest trading partner was not, in fact, the USSR, but Francoist Spain.
Still it comes as a shock to those who look at the surface not the substance of politics that Cuba's self-proclaimed “Maximum Leader” was a lifelong friend of Nazi-friendly Juan Perón whose “Third Way” right-populist regime welcomed Nazis and other fascists fleeing the gallows in post-war Europe. Castro declared three days of national mourning on Perón’s death a year after he regained the Argentine presidency in 1973 after a long period in the political wilderness since being ousted in 1955.
The man who was primarily responsible for the convergence between Castro and Perón was John William Cooke, the leading ideologue of left-Perónism. Persecuted by Perón’s successors, Cooke fled to Cuba in 1959, remaining there until October 1963 where, according to a biography, “he became enthusiastic about the Revolution, carried out various tasks in support of the regime, established a friendship with Ernesto Guevara and began the long task of rapprochement between Perónism and Castroism... He maintained an intense correspondence with Perón, only interrupted in 1966, and tried to convince him to declare his support for Cuba and to change his address in Madrid for Havana.”
From at least 1961, Guevara was in contact with Perón’s right-hand man, Angel Borlenghi, who served eight years as Argentine Interior Minister: in his best-selling memoir about his friendship with Guevara, My Friend Ché (1968), the Argentine Radical Party politician Ricardo Rojo wrote: “Ché told Borlenghi that there’s no question about it that Perón was the most advanced embodiment of political and economic reform in Argentina... and under Ché’s guidance a rapport was established between the Cuban Revolution and the Perónist movement... Ché has in his possession a letter from Perón expressing admiration for Castro and the Cuban Revolution and Ché had raised the question of inviting Perón to settle in Havana…”
Yet Castro’s friendship with the ultra-right is not restricted to Perón. According to Giles Tremlett’s book Ghosts of Spain, Castro remained close friends until the latter’s death in 2012 with Manuel Fraga Iribarne, Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s longest-serving interior minister (meaning he was responsible for overseeing the executions of perhaps 200,000 perceived enemies of the regime in the wake of the fascist regime’s reconquista of the peninsula in 1939, equivalent to the number of German Jews liquidated under Hitler).
And it doesn’t end there: astoundingly, Fraga Iribarne’s bodyguard, until forced to resign in 1982 amid a public outcry, was none other than Rodolfo Almirón Sena, the former leader of the Argentine Anti-communist Alliance, the so-called “Triple-A” death-squad, that had blooded itself in the Dirty War, being held responsible for the murders of about 1,500 people, including left-Perónists. Sena died in prison in 2009, facing trial for crimes against humanity.
So in his intimate political compass, Castro stands revealed as not only a rather conventional Latin American military strongman, but also a distinctly fascist-oriented populist. But, you will no doubt splutter, what about the Cuban Communist Party? Surely it is they that run the Cuban state? The weird thing is that the Party ceased to exist in its own right in 1961, being absorbed into Castro’s mixed-bag Integrated Revolutionary Organisations (ORI) front in exactly the same way that Franco had deliberately blunted the edge of the radical fascists by incorporating the Falangists into his umbrella “FET de las JONS”.
The Cuban communists were notorious on the islands not only for having run the compliant “yellow” unions under Machado, but for having repeated the act, to their substantial benefit, with the hated Batista. So the Party was not only a potential challenger to Castro’s power, but a political polecat and so a liability: although the Soviets insisted it be rehabilitated, it had to have its influence diluted in a broader formation; the current so-called "Cuban Communist Party", established in 1975, is simply the corporatist mélange of the ORI renamed.
As an actual communist, however, Guevara made use of his elite access to a passport to get the hell out of Havana, finding his own denouement in the backwoods of Bolivia in 1967. The “communism” of the Castroite regime was a serious, if opportunistic geopolitical orientation in the Soviet era; but since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it has become merely an antiquated habit, much despised by the majority of the down-at-heel people of Cuba who drift like falling cards through their 1960s museum-piece of a country while the original, genuine embalmed communist, the Red King Raúl Castro, issues fantastical fiats.
This surreality is the real Cuba with which a psycho Hillary Clinton or a boorish Donald Trump will now have to negotiate. I agree it would be an outrage should McDonalds one day attempt to erect its ugly yellow arches against the Havana skyline, but nostalgia, real or imagined, is not at issue here: Cuba has had a parallel dollar economy since the latter days of Fidel, so it is clear that even Raúl cannot or will not stop capitalist creep; so the real issue is what political and societal change will come in on that tide? The Americans and tourism investors can in future restore the decrepit architecture of old Cuba to their hearts’ content, or pump in seed funding for thousands of new Cuban software entrepreneurs – but the real restorative work, the rescue of the independent spirit of the Cuban people from half a century of abuse, neglect and police-state micromanaging, and the rebuilding of their free unions and other anti-oligarchic organisations (which already exist in embryo), will be the real task of anyone interested in genuine popular democracy on the islands.
And we already know who these people are: In 1997, a Swedish Central Workers Organisation (SAC) delegation to Cuba discovered there was an active indigenous anarcho-syndicalist underground; by the 2000s, the historic Cuban Libertarian Movement (MLC) in exile in Mexico, Venezuela and France was rebuilding itself and established the Aid Group for the Libertarians and Independent Syndicalists in Cuba (GALSIC), which, as Fidel Castro's health failed, began to publish the bulletin Cuba Libertaria (Libertarian Cuba) from 2004; and finally, in 2015, the Anarchist Federation of Central America and the Caribbean (FACC), was founded, embracing organisations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the USA, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and the Dutch Antilles island of Bonaire. Time will tell whether such liberation politics will gain prevail in Cuba’s sultry climes.