Forward Ever, Backward Never: Remembering Maurice Bishop

Thirty years ago today, the leader of the Grenadian Revolution, Maurice Bishop, was gunned down by his own comrades, the result of a disastrous split within the governing New Jewel Movement.

There are many stones still to be unturned in connection with the revolution’s collapse and the anti-popular coup that paved the way for US invasion, but it’s clear that the movement fell victim to the sectarianism, dogmatism and individualism that emerge with frustrating frequency on the left. Combined with the systematic campaign of destabilisation and psychological warfare waged by the US, these factors led to the destruction of one of the most promising political processes of the latter part of the 20th century.

Maurice Bishop was a popular, creative and intelligent revolutionary, with an intuitive grasp of where the masses were at. The clear leader of the Grenadian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the corrupt and pro-imperialist administration of Eric Gairy, Bishop was a brilliant communicator, and his mutual empathy with the masses of the people was one of the major driving forces of the revolution – not unlike the relationship between Fidel and the Cuban people, or Chávez and Venezuelan people. In many ways, Bishop could be considered as the Hugo Chávez of his time. The Cuban government’s statement on the day after his death sums him up nicely:

“Bishop was one of the political leaders best liked and most respected by our people because of his talent, modesty, sincerity, revolutionary honesty and proven friendship with our country.”

muralIn addition to leading the fight for economic, political, social, racial, gender and cultural justice in Grenada; and in addition to working tirelessly to improve the lot of ordinary Grenadian people; Bishop was also a great friend to the socialist and anti-imperialist world. Fidel Castro saw him as a true brother and comrade, and Cuba embraced Grenada whole-heartedly, giving desperately-needed aid and expertise. Grenada built up close relations with (Sandinista) Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, East Germany, DPR Korea, Mozambique, Libya and Syria. Grenada also became a pole of attraction for black power activists from the US. Little wonder it was considered such a threat by the forces of imperialism. An example had to made of the first English-speaking country in the western hemisphere to walk the road of socialism.

Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes: “[Washington’s] rage reached paranoiac proportions when Grenada started close co-operation with Cuba and the USSR. Grenada’s action challenged the hegemony that Washington was expecting to extend throughout the Caribbean after the withdrawal of the British who had dominated it for two centuries.” (‘Grenada – Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath’)

The arrest and murder of Bishop and his close comrades by members of the Grenadian armed forces created a favourable context for the US to enact its invasion plans, which had been “nursed in secret at the State Department and the Pentagon for four and a half years” (O’Shaughnessy). The assassination was carried out by army officers acting under the instructions of the NJM faction centred around Bernard Coard. This group considered itself the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ trend to counter Bishop’s ‘petit bourgeois’ trend; however, its supposedly revolutionary actions were to set Grenada back by decades.

Fidel commented on this issue in some detail at the time:

“Today no one can yet say whether those who used the dagger of division and internal confrontation did so motu proprio or were inspired and egged on by imperialism. It is something that could have been done by the CIA – and, if somebody else was responsible, the CIA could not have done it any better. The fact is that allegedly revolutionary arguments were used, invoking the purest principles of Marxism-Leninism and charging Bishop with practising a personality-cult and drawing away from the Leninist norms and methods of leadership. In our view, nothing could be more absurd than to attribute such tendencies to Bishop. It was impossible to imagine anyone more noble, modest and unselfish. He could never have been guilty of being authoritarian; if he had any defect, it was his excessive tolerance and trust. In our view, Coard’s group objectively destroyed the Revolution and opened the door to imperialist aggression … Look at the history of the revolutionary movement, and you will find more than one connection between imperialism and those who take positions that appear to be on the extreme left.”

stampThe Cuban government’s statement of 20 October 1983 predicted: “Now imperialism will try to use this tragedy and the serious mistakes made by the Grenadian revolutionaries to sweep away the revolutionary process in Grenada and place the country under imperial and neocolonialist rule once again.”

A week later, this prediction was proven painfully correct, as Reagan sent tens of thousands of troops to ensure that the Grenadian Revolution was comprehensively wiped out.

There is much research still to be done on the Grenadian Revolution, and many lessons to be learned. Such lessons are all the more relevant in today’s context of several Latin American and Caribbean countries pursuing their own roads to socialism. The US and their allies would love to do to Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina what they did to Grenada. Destabilisation continues in a thousand different ways.

Meanwhile, the successes of Grenadian socialism – even if short-lived – continue to inspire progressive people around the world. The legacy of Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement must be kept alive.

What follows is a selection of interesting quotes from Bishop, sourced from:

  • “In Nobody’s Backyard” (a fantastic volume of Bishop’s speeches edited by Chris Searle and published by Zed Books, ISBN 0862322480)
  • Hugh O’Shaughnessy: “Grenada – Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath.” (Sphere Books, ISBN 0722165617)
  • This New Internationalist interview

On the danger of Grenada’s example

“We are obviously no threat to America. Nor is Cuba for that matter. I think Washington fears that we could set an example for the rest of the region if our Revolution succeeds. In the Caribbean region you’re talking about small countries with small populations and limited resources, countries that over the years have been classic examples of neo-capitalist depend­encies. Now you have these new governments like Nicaragua and Grenada that are attempting a different experiment. They are no longer looking at development as how many hotels you have on the beach but in terms of what benefits people get. How many have jobs? How many are being fed, housed, and clothed? How many of the children receive education? We certainly believe in Grenada that the people of the English-speaking Caribbean want to see an experiment like that succeed. They want to see what we are trying to build come about. America understands that and obviously if we are able to succeed where previous governments following different models failed, that would be very, very subversive.”

On revolutionary spirit and vigilance

“Revolutionaries do not have the right to be cowards. We have to stand up to fight for our country because, the country is ours. It does not belong to anybody else”

“When will imperialism learn? Yes, they can kill our bodies but they can never kill the spirit of a people fighting for their liberation, they can never kill the spirit of a people fighting for their country and fighting to push their country forward.”

“As we have said so often, imperialism never rests and so we must continue to be on our guard, continue to be vigilant, continue to expand and strengthen our revolutionary People’s Militia. We must keep our eyes open for new tricks, for new variations of the enemy’s plan, for new devious twists and turns on the propaganda, and on the economic and the military fronts.”

“We saw how the CIA actually succeeded in turning back the progress of the organised workers’ movement in Chile, by both open and covert activity, and we in the Caribbean must be particularly vigilant in recognising their position and subversion of the workers’ cause, for imperialism will never rest in its resolution to crush the onward march of the progress and emancipation of our struggling people”

On propaganda, education, cultural imperialism and decolonisation

“We hold the truth itself to be revolutionary and we shall stand firm by its side.”

“Backwardness in the field of information is a fundamental reason for the fact that the international exchange of information is only a one way process. Basically, a veritable flood of information flows from the major imperialist cities to all corners of the globe, whereas there is a mere trickle in the opposite direction.”

“It is imperative to eliminate psychological warfare and cultural neocolonialism from intercourse between states and peoples.”

“The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.”

On free speech, human rights and democracy

“There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.”

“We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanismsand institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to demo­cracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.”

“The right of freedom of expression can really only be relevant if people are not too hungry, or too tired to be able to express themselves. It can only be relevant if appropriate grassroots mechanisms rooted in the people exist, through which the people can effectively participate, can make decisions, can receive reports from the leaders and eventually be trained for ruling and controlling that particular society. This is what democracy is all about.”

“We don’t just speak about their kind of limited human rights but we talk about the human rights that the majority has never been able to enjoy, the human rights that they believe only the minority is entitled to: the human rights to a job, to decent housing, to a good meal when the day comes, to be able to form and to join a trade union, to be able to ensure that you can live a life of dignity and decency. All of these human rights have been the human rights for a small minority over the years in the Caribbean and the time has come for the majority of the people to begin to receive those human rights for the first time.”

“We have a very different conception of human rights than so-called Western demo­cracies. We see human rights much more in terms of economic rights: people having the right to jobs, housing, health and education. Civil and political human rights of course we have no quarrel with. We support them, but we take a different political and class position on these questions than Western clemocracies. When you raise the question of political prisoners people have to be very frank about this and admit a number of things. First, many Western democracies have thousands of political prisoners. Consider the UK in relation to Northern Ireland. In America Andy Young after all has said that blacks in American jails are political prisoners. I could not agree more with regard’ to the system that tries them and the racism that is endemic in it. Our position is that people who are threats to national security have to be kept away from society – both in their own interests, and more funda­mentally in the interests of the new society we are trying to build.”

On destabilisation

In Nobody's Backyard“Destabilisation is the name given to the most recently developed (or newest) method of controlling and exploiting the lives and resources of a country and its people by a bigger and more powerful country through bullying, intimidation and violence. In the old days, such countries – the colonialist and imperialist powers – sent in gunboats or marines to directly take over the country by sheer force. Later on mercenaries were often used in place of soldiers, navy and marines. Today, more and more the new weapon and the new menace is destabilization. This method was used against a number of Caribbean and Third World countries in the 1960s, and also against Jamaica and Guyana in the 1970s. Now, as we predicted, it has come to Grenada. Destabilisation takes many forms – there is propaganda destabilization, when the foreign media, and sometimes our own Caribbean press, prints lies and distortions against us; there is economic destabilization, when our trade and our industries are sabotaged and disrupted; and there is violent destabilization, criminal acts of death and destruction… As we show the world – clearly and unflinchingly – that we intend to remain free and independent; that we intend to consolidate and strengthen the principles and goals of our revolution; as we show this to the world, there will be attacks on us.”

“Destabilisation can work only when the people do not know that it is happening. It is a total failure when it is exposed and when the people see it for what it is. The people of Grenada must learn what this destabilization is, because then we cannot be fooled by it.”

“We think of the scientific way in which they have evolved a new concept which they have called destabilization: a concept aimed at creating political violence, economic sabotage; a concept which when it fails, eventually leads to terrorism. We think of the attempts to use local opportunists and counter revolutionaries—people who try to build a popular base, people who fail in building that popular base, and people who as a result of having failed to fool the masses then turn to the last weapon they have in desperation: the weapon of open, naked, brutal and vulgar terror—having given up all hope of winning the masses, these people now turn their revenge on the masses. They now seek to punish the masses, to murder them wholesale; to plant bombs in the midst of Rallies; to try to break the back of the popular support of the Revolution; because imperialism was frightened and terrified by the Grenadian masses on March 13, 1980 when 30,000 of our people gathered in one spot to celebrate one year of People’s Victory, People’s Progress, People’s Benefits. They were terrified by that, and as a result they now seek to intimidate, to brow beat, to frighten and terrorise the masses to get them to be afraid to assemble, to get them to be afraid to continue to build their own country in their own image and likeness.”

(NB. All of this extremely apt in the context of the current onslaught against Syria)

On independence

“Grenada is a sovereign and independent country, although a tiny speck on the world map, and we expect all countries to strictly respect our independence just as we will respect theirs. No country has the right to tell us what to do or how to run our country or who to be friendly with. We certainly would not attempt to tell any other country what to do. We are not in anybody’s backyard, and we are definitely not for sale. Anybody who thinks they can bully us or threaten us clearly has no understanding, idea, or clue as to what material we are made of. They clearly have no idea of the tremendous struggles which our people have fought over the past seven years. Though small and poor, we are proud and determined. We would sooner give up our lives before we compromise, sell out, or betray our sovereignty, our independence, our integrity, our manhood, and the right of our people to national self-determination and social progress.”

“We are a small country, we are a poor country, with a population of largely African descent, we are a part of the exploited Third World, and we definitely have a stake in seeking the creation of a new international economic order which would assist in ensuring economic justice for the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, and in ensuring that the resources of the sea are used for the benefit of all the people of the world and not for a tiny minority of profiteers. Our aim, therefore, is to join all organizations and work with all countries that will help us to become more independent and more in control of our own resources. In this regard, nobody who understands present-day realities can seriously challenge our right to develop working relations with a variety of countries.”

On Chile and the hypocrisy of imperialism

“Has Reagan ever been interested in elections and democracy? When did Reagan ever call on Haiti to hold elections? When did Reagan ever call on the butcher Pinochet in Chile or on South Korea to hold elections? Is he calling upon racist South Africa to hold elections? No! Even when Allende in Chile had in fact won power through elections what did the American President – Nixon at the time do? Nixon, Kissinger and Helms sat down the night after Allende won the elections in September 1970 and they worked out their plan of aggression and destabilisation against President Allende. Allende didn’t say no more elections. He didn’t arm working people to try to close down the reactionary paper El Mercurio as he should have done. Allende relied on the parliamentary form that they wanted him to rely on. But because he was a socialist and was independent and was bringing benefits and justice to his people, the American elite went out of their way to crush him ruthlessly. And the criminal they put into power has yet to be told by the so-called democratic United States to call an election.”

(NB. Eric Gairy, the Grenadian President overthrown by the NJM, was a strong supporter of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile)

On Cuba

Maurice Bishop and Fidel Castro“Your revolution, comrades, has also provided the region and the world with a living legend in your great and indomitable leader, Fidel Castro. Fidel has taught us not only how to fight, but also how to work, how to build socialism, and how to lead our country in a spirit of humility, sincerity, commitment and firm revolutionary leadership.” (before a crowd of 1.5 million people on May Day in Havana, 1980)

On the role of repression under socialism

“All revolutions involve temporary dislocations and, for a period, it is always necessary to restrain the abuses and excesses of a violent or disruptive minority in the interests of consolidating the revolution and bringing concrete benefits to the long-suffering and formerly oppressed majority.”

On the long path towards socialism

“It took several hundred years for feudalism to be finally wiped out and capitalism to emerge as the new dominant mode of production and it will take several hundred years for capitalism to be finally wiped out before socialism becomes the new dominant mode.”

Decriminalising Bashar – towards a more effective anti-war movement

On 10 April 1993, one of the greatest heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle, Chris Hani, was gunned down by a neo-fascist in an attempt to disrupt the seemingly inexorable process of bringing majority rule to South Africa. Although direct legal culpability for this tragic assassination belonged to only two men – a Polish immigrant by the name of Janusz Waluś and a senior Conservative Party MP named Clive Derby-Lewis – the crime formed part of a much wider onslaught against the ANC and its allies. This onslaught – paramilitary, political, legal, psychological, journalistic – was not primarily conducted by fringe lunatics such as Waluś and Derby-Lewis, but by the mainstream white political forces and their puppets within the black community (such as the Inkatha Freedom Party). The leaders of the ANC, and particularly the MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed liberation movement with which Chris Hani’s name will forever be associated) were subjected to a wide-ranging campaign of demonisation. This campaign created conditions such that political assassinations of anti-apartheid leaders became expected, almost inevitable. Of course, the more ‘dovish’ leaders of the main white party, the National Party, were quick to denounce Hani’s assassination; but the truth is that they were at least partly responsible for it.

Speaking at Hani’s funeral, Nelson Mandela spoke of this phenomenon: “To criminalise is to outlaw, and the hunting down of an outlaw is regarded as legitimate. That is why, although millions of people have been outraged at the murder of Chris Hani, few were really surprised. Those who have deliberately created this climate that legitimates political assassinations are as much responsible for the death of Chris Hani as the man who pulled the trigger.”

Turning to the current situation in Syria, we see a parallel between the “climate that legitimates political assassinations” in early-90s South Africa and a media climate that legitimates the “limited military strikes” being planned in Washington.

The Syrian state has been under direct attack by western imperialism for the last two and a half years (although the US and others have been “accelerating the work of reformers” for much longer than that). The forms of this attack are many: providing weapons and money to opposition groups trying to topple the government; implementing wide-ranging trade sanctions; providing practically unlimited space in the media for the opposition whilst effecting a near-total media blackout on pro-government sources; and relentlessly slandering the Syrian president and government. In short, the western media and governments have – consciously and deliberately – “created this climate that legitimates” a military regime change operation against Syria.

An anti-war movement that takes part in war propaganda

Building a phoney case for imperialist regime change is, of course, not unusual. What is really curious is that the leadership of the anti-war movement in the west – the people whose clear responsibility is to build the widest possible opposition to war on Syria – has been actively participating in the propaganda and demonisation campaign. Whilst opposing direct military strikes, they have nonetheless given consistent support to the regime change operation that such strikes are meant to consummate.

Wilfully ignoring the indications that the Syrian government is very popular, Tariq Ali – perhaps the most recognisable figure in the British anti-war movement – feels able to claim that “the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people want the Assad family out”. Indeed, he explicitly calls for foreign-assisted regime change, saying “non-violent pressure has to be kept up externally to tell Bashar he has to go.”

Rising star of the British left Owen Jones used his high-profile Independent column of 25 August this year (just as the war rhetoric from Cameron, Hollande and Kerry was reaching fever pitch) to voice his hatred of the “gang of thugs” and “glorified gangsters” that run Syria, before worrying that “an attack could invite retaliation from Iran and an escalation of Russian’s support for Assad’s thugs, helping to drag the region even further into disaster.” Jones evidently doesn’t know very much about Syria, but that doesn’t stop him from participating in the Ba’ath-bashing: last year, his response to a bomb attack in Damascus which killed several Syrian ministers was the gleeful “Adios, Assad (I hope)”.

According to Stop the War Coalition national officer John Rees, “no-one can minimise the barbarity of the Assad regime, nor want to defend it from the justified rage of its own people.” Any objectively progressive actions ever taken by the Syrian government (such as its support for Palestine and Hezbollah) are nothing more than “self-interested and calculated acts of state policy” – which claim is rather reminiscent of the Financial Times accusing Hugo Chávez of “demagogy” in pushing for land reform in Venezuela!

Rees is only too clear that the number one enemy for Syrians is the government, and that pro-west sectarian Saudi-funded rebels are a secondary enemy – a position virtually indistinguishable from the Israelis, who state: “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” Further, Rees believes that what is really needed is to “give the revolutionaries the chance to shake off their pro-western leaders and defeat Assad.” That’s presumably if they’re not too busy eating human hearts or murdering people on the basis of their religious beliefs.

These are not isolated examples. It is decidedly rare to find a British anti-war leader mentioning Bashar al-Assad and his government in anything but an intensely negative light. Bashar is “brutal”; he is a “dictator”; he should be indicted at the International Criminal Court. Frankly, this leader of independent, anti-imperialist Syria is subjected to far more severe abuse from the mainstream left than are the leaders of Britain, France and the US. In the imperialist heartlands of North America and Western Europe, the defence of Syria has been left to a small minority, although thankfully the (far more important) left movements in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and elsewhere have a much richer understanding of anti-imperialist solidarity.

At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious: if you’re trying to spread anti-war sentiment and build the most effective possible movement against military action, then taking part in the demonisation of the country under threat is probably not a very smart strategy.

This campaign of propaganda, lies and slander has been very effective in creating a public opinion that is ambivalent at best in relation to the attack that is under preparation. Whilst most people may be “against” bombing Syria in principle, to what extent are they passionate enough to actually do anything to prevent this criminal, murderous act from taking place? Two million people marched against war in Iraq (and given the right leadership, they would have been willing to do considerably more than just march); yet no demonstration against war on Syria has attracted more than a couple of thousand people. Would thousands of people be willing to participate in direct action? Would they be willing to conduct, say, a one-week general strike? Would workers follow the great example of the Rolls Royce workers in East Kilbride and actively disrupt imperialist support for regime change? Highly unlikely. And this is because all they have heard about Syria – from the radical left to the fundamentalist right to the Saudi-sponsored Muslim organisations – is that Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator whose overthrow is long overdue.

OK, but haven’t we just prevented a war?

In the light of the House of Commons exhibiting an unusual level of sense by voting against Cameron’s motion authorising use of force against Syria, some anti-war activists were quick to claim that the “sustained mass power of the anti-war movement” has “undoubtedly been a decisive factor.” Members of this movement should “recognise what we have achieved in recent weeks : we have stopped the US and Britain from waging a war that, if the British parliament had voted the other way, would already have taken place, with who knows what consequences.”

Now, optimism and jubilation have their place, but they shouldn’t be used to deflect valid criticism or avoid serious reflection. Anybody who has been involved in the anti-war movement in Britain over the past decade will have noticed the level of activity steadily dwindling. Just two years ago, we witnessed a vicious war fought by the western imperialist powers (with Britain one of the major instigators) in order to effect regime change in Libya. Over 50,000 died. Murderous racists were brought to power. A head of state was tortured and murdered , while imperialism celebrated. Decades of development – that had turned Libya from a colonial backwater into the country with the highest living standards in Africa – have been turned back. Stop the War Coalition weren’t able to mobilise more than a tiny protest against this war, and yet we are expected to believe that, two years later, Britain suddenly has a vibrant and brilliantly effective anti-war movement capable of preventing war on Syria? This is obviously not the case.

Regardless of how much attention the British public pays to the anti-war movement, the fact is that public opinion in the west is only a small factor in the much larger question of the balance of forces. Syria is different to Libya in that it has powerful allies and that it has never disarmed. Furthermore, it shares a border with Israel and is capable of doing some serious damage to imperialism’s most important ally in the Middle East. This makes military intervention a highly dangerous and unpredictable option from the point of view of the decision-makers in Washington, London and Paris.

The uprising was supposed to take care of this problem. A successful ‘Arab Spring’ revolution – armed, trained and funded by the west and its regional proxies in Saudi, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan – would have installed a compliant government and would have constituted an essential milestone in the imperialist-zionist regional strategy: the breakup of the resistance axis and the overthrow of all states unwilling to go along with imperialist diktat. This strategy – seemingly so difficult for western liberals and leftists to comprehend – is perfectly well understood by the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah: “What is happening in Syria is a confrontation between the resistance axis and the U.S./Israeli axis. They seek aggression against the resistance axis through Syria in order to destroy Syria’s capabilities and people, marginalize its role, weaken the resistance and relieve Israel.”

Beyond the Middle East, a successful ‘revolution’ in Syria would of course be a vital boost to the US-led global strategy: protecting US hegemony and containing the rise of China, Russia and the other major developing nations.

And yet, in spite of massive support given to the armed opposition; in spite of the relentless propaganda campaign against the Syrian government; in spite of Israeli bombing raids on Damascus; in spite of a brutal and tragic campaign of sectarian hatred being conducted by the rebels; in spite of the blanket support given to the rebels by the imperialists and zionists; the Syrian Arab Army is winning. The tide has clearly turned and the momentum is with the patriotic forces. Hezbollah have openly joined the fray. Russia has sent its warships to the region and has demonstrated some genuine creative brilliance in the diplomatic field in order to prevent western military strikes. Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela and others have been immovable in their demands for a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis.

Nobody in imperialist policy circles expected things to turn out like this. The ‘revolution’ was supposed to have succeeded long ago. As a result, the western ruling classes have moved from a firm, united policy (i.e. help the rebels to victory and then ‘assist the transition to democracy’) to chaos, confusion and division. There are hawkish elements that want to bomb their way to victory, and there are more cautious/realistic elements that realise this would be an incredibly dangerous course of action for the western powers and for Israel. Imperialism is faced with a very delicate, even impossible, balance: trying to preserve its increasingly fragile hegemony whilst actively attacking the global counter-hegemonic process. It is a case of “damned if they do and damned if they don’t”.

Such divisions within the ruling circles in the west are to be welcomed, but it would be an act of significant deception to claim victory for a western anti-war movement that has persistently refused to ally itself with global anti-imperialism.

Decriminalise and defend Syria

If we are going to build an anti-war movement capable of mobilising people in a serious way to actually counter imperialist war plans for Syria, we cannot continue with the hopeless “neither imperialism nor Assad” position, which is designed to avoid the obvious question: when imperialism is fighting against the Syrian state, which side should we be on?

A far more viable anti-war slogan is: Defend Syria from imperialist destabilisation, demonisation and war.

But can we really defend this brutal, oppressive, repressive regime? Wasn’t the much-missed Hugo Chavez just being a bit of a nutcase when he expressed his fondness for “brother President Bashar al-Assad” and worked to counter the offensive against Syria by shipping fuel to it?

As with so many things, we have to start with a total rejection of the mainstream media narrative. The country they paint as a brutally repressive police state, a prison of nations, a Cold War relic, is (or was, until the war started tearing it apart) a dignified, safe, secular, modern and moderately prosperous state, closely aligned with the socialist and non-aligned world (e.g. Venezuela, Cuba, DPR Korea), and one of the leading forces within the resistance axis – a bloc that the imperialists are absolutely desperate to break up.

In the words of its president, Syria is “an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” For over half a century, it has stubbornly refused to play by the rules of imperialism and neoliberalism. Stephen Gowans shows that, in spite of some limited market reforms of recent years, “the Ba’athist state has always exercised considerable influence over the Syrian economy, through ownership of enterprises, subsidies to privately-owned domestic firms, limits on foreign investment, and restrictions on imports. These are the necessary economic tools of a post-colonial state trying to wrest its economic life from the grips of former colonial powers and to chart a course of development free from the domination of foreign interests.”

The Syrian government maintains a commitment to a strong welfare state, for example ensuring universal access to healthcare (in which area its performance has been impressive) and providing free education at all levels. It has a long-established policy of secularism and multiculturalism, protecting and celebrating its religious and ethnic diversity and refusing to tolerate sectarian hatred.

Syria has done a great deal – perhaps more than any other country – to oppose Israel and support the Palestinians. It has long been the chief financial and practical supporter of the various Palestinian resistance organisations, as well as of Hezbollah. It has intervened militarily to prevent Israel’s expansion into Lebanon. It has provided a home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, who are treated far better than they are elsewhere in the Arab world. In spite of massive pressure to do so – and in spite of the obvious immediate benefits that it would reap in terms of security and peace – it has refused to go down the route of a bilateral peace treaty with Israel. Palestine is very much at the forefront of the Syrian national consciousness, as exemplified by the Syrians who went to the border with Israel on Nakba Day 2011 and were martyred there at the hands of the Israeli ‘Defence’ Forces.

True to its Pan-Arabist traditions, Syria has also provided a home to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in the aftermath of NATO’s 2003 attack.

Whatever mistakes and painful compromises Ba’athist Syria has made over the years should be viewed in terms of the very unstable and dangerous geopolitical and economic context within which it exists. For example:

  • It is in a permanent state of war with Israel, and has part of its territory occupied by the latter.

  • While it has stuck to the principles of Arab Nationalism and the defence of Palestinian rights, the other frontline Arab states – Egypt and Jordan, along with the reactionary Gulf monarchies – have capitulated.

  • It has suffered constant destabilisation by the western imperialist countries and their regional allies.

  • It shares a border with the heavily militarised pro-western regime in Turkey.

  • It shares a border with the chronically unstable Lebanon (historically a part of Syria that was carved out in the 1920s by the French colonialists in order to create a Christian-dominated enclave).

  • Its most important ally of the 70s and 80s – the Soviet Union – collapsed in 1991, leaving it in a highly precarious situation.

  • Its economic burdens have been added to by longstanding sanctions, significantly deepened in 2003 by George W Bush, specifically in response to Syria’s support for resistance movements in the region.

  • Its economic problems of recent years have also been exacerbated by the illegal imperialist war on Iraq, which created a refugee crisis of horrific proportions. Syria absorbed 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and has made significant sacrifices to help them. Given that “Syria has the highest level of civic and social rights for refugees in the region,” it’s not difficult to understand how its economic and social stability must have been affected.

  • In recent years, Syria has been suffering from a devastating drought “impacting more than 1.3 million people, killing up to 85 percent of livestock in some regions and forcing 160 villages to be abandoned due to crop failures”. The root of this problem is the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, as one-third of Israel’s water is supplied from Golan.

  • Given the number of different religious sects and ethnicities within Syria, it has never been difficult for the west and its regional proxies to stir up tensions and create unrest.

While there is clearly a need to enhance popular democracy and to clamp down on corruption and cronyism (in what country is this not the case?), this is well understood by the state. As Alistair Crooke writes: “There is this mass demand for reform. But paradoxically – and contrary to the ‘awakening’ narrative – most Syrians also believe that President Bashar al-Assad shares their conviction for reform.”

So there is every reason to defend Syria. Not because it is some sort of socialist utopia, but because it is an independent, anti-imperialist, anti-zionist state that tries to provide a good standard of living for its people and which aligns itself with the progressive and counterhegemonic forces in the region and worldwide.

Tasks for the anti-war movement

If the anti-war movement can agree on the need to actively defend Syria, then its tasks become relatively clear:

  1. Clearly explain to the public that this is not a revolution or a civil war, but an imperialist war of regime change where the fighting has been outsourced to sectarian religious terrorists. It is not part of a region-wide ‘Arab Spring’ process of “overthrowing reactionary regimes”; rather, it is part of a global process of destabilising, demonising, weakening and removing all states that refuse to play by the rules. It is this same process that brought about regime change in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Grenada, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Congo, Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Brazil and elsewhere. This process was described in a very clear, straightforward way by Maurice Bishop, leader of the socialist government in Grenada that was overthrown 30 years ago: “Destabilisation is the name given to the newest method of controlling and exploiting the lives and resources of a country and its people by a bigger and more powerful country through bullying, intimidation and violence… Destabilisation takes many forms: there is propaganda destabilisation, when the foreign media, and sometimes our own Caribbean press, prints lies and distortions against us; there is economic destabilisation, when our trade and our industries are sabotaged and disrupted; and there is violent destabilization, criminal acts of death and destruction… As long as we show the world, clearly and unflinchingly, that we intend to remain free and independent; that we intend to consolidate and strengthen the principles and goals of our revolution; as we show this to the world, there will be attacks on us.”

  2. Stop participating in the demonisation of the Syrian state. This demonisation – repeating the media’s lies against Syria, exaggerating the negative aspects of the Syrian state and downplaying all the positive things it has done – is totally demobilising. It is preventing the development of a meaningful, creative, courageous, audacious anti-war movement.

  3. Campaign for an end to trade sanctions on Syria.

  4. Campaign for an end to the arming and funding of rebel groups by the British, French and US governments and their stooges in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait.

  5. Send peace delegations to Syria to observe the situation first hand and report back. The recent delegation by Cynthia McKinney, Ramsey Clark, Dedon Kamathi and others is an excellent example that should be emulated.

  6. Campaign for wide-ranging industrial action in the case of military attack.

  7. Support all processes leading to a peaceful, negotiated resolution of the Syrian crisis, reflecting the will of the vast majority of the Syrian people.

The defence of Syria is, at this point in time, the frontline of the struggle worldwide against imperialist domination. It is Korea in 1950, Vietnam in 1965, Algeria in 1954, Zimbabwe in 1970, Cuba in 1961, Nicaragua in 1981, Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Palestine since 1948. It’s time for us to step up.

Further reading

Patrick Seale’s biography of Hafez al-Assad, ‘Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East’, provides an excellent overview of 20th century Syria and a very balanced, detailed depiction of the Ba’athist government.

The following articles are also particularly useful:

Alastair Crooke: Unfolding the Syrian Paradox

Asia Times: A mistaken case for Syrian regime change

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb: Assad Foreign Policy (I): A History of Consistence

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb: Assad Foreign Policy (II): Strategies of Confrontation

Monthly Review: Why Syria Matters: Interview with Aijaz Ahmad

Stephen Gowans: Syria, The View From The Other Side

Stephen Gowans: What the Syrian Constitution says about Assad and the Rebels

Up-to-date anti-imperialist analysis of the Syria crisis can generally be found at Workers World, Liberation, FightBack, Lalkar, Socialist Action, Global Research, Pan-African News Wire, Proletarian, What’s Left and ASG’s Counter-Hegemony Unit.

20 Reasons to Support Cuba

The 26th of July is celebrated in Cuba as the Day of National Rebellion, in honour of the attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1953. This attack, led by Fidel Castro, was the beginning of the revolutionary armed struggle against the Batista regime.

To help mark 60 years of the Cuban Revolution, I have put together a list of 20 reasons why all sensible, progressive people should support and defend Cuba.

1. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world

Cuba’s literacy rate of 99.8% is among the highest in the world – higher than that of both Britain and the US. The Cuban Revolution has placed a very strong emphasis on literacy, considering it an essential component of empowering the population. Just two years after the seizure of power in 1959, the Cuban government embarked upon one of the most ambitious and wide-ranging literacy campaigns in history, sending tens of thousands of students to the countryside to form literacy brigades. Within a year, the literacy rate was increased from 70% to 96%. Additionally, over the past 50 years, thousands of Cuban literacy teachers have volunteered in countries around the world including Haiti and remote indigenous communities in Australia.

2. Health-care is free, universal, and of high quality

It is a small, poor island that does not exploit other countries and which suffers from a suffocating economic blockade, yet Cuba “boasts better health indicators than its exponentially richer neighbour 90 miles across the Florida straits.” Life expectancy is an impressive 79. Infant mortality is 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared (better than the US figure of 6.0, and incomparably better than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is around 27 deaths per 1,000 live births). Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalence rate in the Americas. There is one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba – “one of the highest ratios in the world, compared with one for every 370 in England.” Healthcare is community-based, prevention-oriented, holistic, and free.

As Kofi Annan said: “Cuba demonstrates how much nations can do with the resources they have if they focus on the right priorities – health, education, and literacy.”

3. Education is free, universal, and of high quality

If you want to understand the true nature of a society, then a study of its education system is a good place to start. In Cuba, high quality education at every level is regarded as a human right, and has been the major priority of the government from 1959 onwards. The result is that a poor, underdeveloped country with widespread illiteracy and ignorance has become one of the most educated nations in the world. (Incidentally, you might think that a ‘dictatorship’ obsessed with preserving its grip on power – as the Cuban government is portrayed in the imperialist world – would worry about the consequences of creating generations of skilled critical thinkers!)

This article by Nina Lakhani in The Independent gives a useful overview:

“Education at every level is free, and standards are high… The primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and, naturally, revolutionary history. Children are expected to help each other so that no one in the class lags too far behind. And parents must work closely with teachers as part of every child’s education and social development… There is a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, many of which have as few as 20. Secondary schools are striving towards only 15 pupils per class – less than half the UK norm.

“School meals and uniforms are free… ‘Mobile teachers’ are deployed to homes if children are unable to come to school because of sickness or disability… Adult education at all levels, from Open University-type degrees to English- and French-language classes on TV, is free and popular.”

The quality of Cuba’s education is recognised at the top international levels; for example, Cuba is ranked at number 16 in UNESCO’s Education for All Development Index, higher than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean (and higher than the US, which is ranked at number 25).

4. The legacy of racism is being wiped out

Pre-revolutionary Cuba was, in effect, an apartheid society. There was widespread segregation and discrimination. Afro-Cubans were restricted to the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst education. They suffered from differential access to parks, restaurants and beaches.

The revolution quickly started attacking racism at its roots, vowing to “straighten out what history has twisted.” In March 1959, just a couple of months after the capture of power, Fidel discussed the complex problem of racism in several speeches at mass rallies.

“In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practise discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad … and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?”

The commitment to defeating racism has brought about tremendous gains in equality and racial integration. Isaac Saney writes: “It can be argued that Cuba has done more than any other country to dismantle institutionalised racism and generate racial harmony.”

Of course, deeply ingrained prejudices and inequalities cannot be eliminated overnight, and problems remain, especially as a result of the ‘special period’ in which Cuba has had to open itself up to tourism and some limited foreign investment. Racism thrives on inequality. However, Cuba remains a shining light in terms of its commitment to racial equality.

Assata Shakur, the famous exiled Black Panther who has lived in Cuba for several decades, puts it well:

“Revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice.”

Isaac Saney cites a very moving and revealing anecdote recounted by an elderly black man in Cuba:

“I was travelling on a very crowded bus. At a bus stop, where many people got off, a black man got a seat. A middle aged woman said in a very loud and irritated voice: ‘And it had to be a black who gets the seat.’ The response of the people on the bus was incredible. People began to criticize the woman, telling her that a revolution was fought to get rid of those stupid ideas; that the black man should be viewed as having the same rights as she had – including a seat on a crowded bus. The discussion and criticism became loud and animated. The bus driver was asked to stop the bus because the people engaging in the criticism had decided that the woman expressing racist attitudes must get off the bus. For the rest of my trip, the people apologized to the black comrade and talked about where such racist attitudes come from and what must be done to get rid of them.”

Who can imagine such a scene occurring on a bus in London, Paris or New York?

5. Women’s rights are promoted

Cuba has an excellent record in terms of building gender equality. Its commitment to a non-sexist society is reflected in the fact that 43% of parliament members are female (ranking fourth in the world after Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa). 64% of university places are occupied by women. “Cuban women comprise 66% of all technicians and professionals in the country’s middle and higher levels.” Women are given 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay, with extended leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old.

A recent report by the US-based Center for Democracy in the Americas (by no means a non-critical source) noted: “By several measures, Cuba has achieved a high standard of gender equality, despite the country’s reputation for machismo, a Latin American variant of sexism. Save the Children ranks Cuba first among developing countries for the wellbeing of mothers and children, the report points out. The World Economic Forum places Cuba 20th out of 153 countries in health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women – ahead of all countries in Latin America except Trinidad and Tobago.”

6. Community spirit still exists

Modern capitalism breaks down communities. Consumerism and individualism create isolation and depression. Poverty creates stress and family tension. Inequality leads to crime, which leads to a culture of fear – something that is completely inimical to the project developing a sense of community and togetherness. Anyone who has experienced life in a modern western city will understand this only too well.

Cuba provides a very different example. It is an exceptionally safe country, with very little in the way of violent crime. With a high level of participation in local administration, social stability, social welfare, low unemployment and a media that promotes unity rather than disunity, Cuba’s sense of community is something that visitors quickly notice.

Assata Shakur mentions this, and contrasts it with the US:

“My experience in the United States was living in a society that was very much at war with itself, that was very alienated. People felt not part of a community, but like isolated units that were afraid of interaction, of contact, that were lonely. People didn’t build that sense of community that I found is so rich here [in Cuba]. One of the things that I was able to take from this experience was just how lovely it is to live with a sense of community. To live where you can drop in the street and a million people will come and help you. That is to me a wealth that you can’t find, you can’t buy, you have to build. You have to build it within yourself to be capable of having that attitude about your neighbours, about how you want to live on this planet.”

7. There will be no capitulation to capitalism

The Cuban leadership have had any number of opportunities to sell out their people and to abandon the cause of socialism. If Fidel had been willing to convert himself into a fluffy social democrat, abandon militant internationalism, abandon the government’s commitment to equality and social justice, and accept the subjugation of Cuba’s economy to the IMF and World Bank, he would be portrayed throughout the western world as a brilliant and righteous man. Instead he has spent over half a century being portrayed as a ruthless, corrupt dictator.

Many expected that Cuba would give up the cause when its major supporters – the Soviet Union and the eastern European people’s democracies – did. It was an era when socialism seemed doomed; the “end of history.” And yet the Cubans never considered such an option. They could see the type of catastrophic consequences that capitalist restoration would bring: massive impoverishment and demobilisation of the masses; the collapse of the basic moral fabric of society; an explosion of crime, drugs, racial division, alienation, prostitution; along with, of course, the accumulation of obscene wealth in the hands of a few. In a thinly-disguised attack on Gorbachev’s policy of endless compromise with the west and his readiness to throw away any semblance of revolutionary leadership and vigilance, Fidel said in 1989:

“It’s impossible to carry out a revolution or conduct a rectification without a strong, disciplined and respected party. It’s not possible to carry out such a process by slandering socialism, destroying its values, discrediting the party, demoralising its vanguard, abandoning its leadership role, eliminating social discipline, and sowing chaos and anarchy everywhere. This may foster a counter-revolution – but not revolutionary change.”

The 2002 Constitution, approved by 98% of the electorate, states:

“Socialism, as well as the revolutionary political and social system established by this Constitution, has been forged during years of heroic resistance against aggression of every kind and economic war waged by the government of the most powerful imperialist state that has ever existed; it has demonstrated its ability to transform the nation and create an entirely new and just society, and is irrevocable: Cuba will never revert to capitalism.”

Over a million people – nearly a tenth of the country’s entire population – turn out to celebrate International Workers’ Day every May 1st. In spite of some limited market reforms that have been implemented in order to revitalised the economy, Cuba is still very much organised along socialist lines. The working class has a firm grip on political power. In an era such as ours, Cuba’s continuing commitment to socialism is very much something to celebrate.

8. Cuba is a functioning socialist democracy

Cuba is far more democratic than Britain or the US. The process of decision-making is far more open to grassroots participation, and is in no way connected with wealth. It is easy enough to see that one cannot expect to be successful in politics in the capitalist countries without a good deal of money behind you; political success is therefore predicated on the financial backing of the wealthy, who expect return on their investment. Political representation in Cuba is nothing like this. Representatives are elected by the people, and are expected to serve the people.

Despite popular belief, elections do take place in Cuba. They take place every five years and there have been turnouts of over 95% in every election since 1976… Anybody can be nominated to be a candidate for election. Neither money nor political parties or orators have a place in the nomination process. Instead, individuals directly nominate those who they think should be candidates. It is not a requirement that one be a member of the Communist party of Cuba to be elected to any position. The party does not propose, support nor elect candidates.” As a result, the Cuban Parliament has representatives from across society, including an exceptionally high proportion of women.

Beyond representative democracy, Cuba also has a meaningful direct democracy. The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) were formed in the early years in order to organise the population to defend the revolution. “Membership is voluntary and open to all residents over the age of 14 years. Nationally 88% of Cuban people are in the CDRs. They meet a minimum of once every three months to plan the running of the community; including the organisation of public health campaigns to promote good health and prevent disease; the upkeep of the area in terms of waste and recycling; the running of voluntary work brigades and providing the adequate support to members of the community who are in need of help (for example in the case of domestic disputes etc). The CDRs discuss nationwide issues and legislation and crucially, feed back their proposals to the National Assembly and other organs of popular democracy.”

Looking at the Cuban system of democracy, you begin to understand the painfully shallow nature of western-style parliamentarism, where ‘democracy’ means nothing more than “the oppressed [being] allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.”

9. Cuba is a key member of the progressive family of nations

Cuba continues to pursue policies of south-south cooperation and anti-imperialist unity. Its foreign policy has in no way been swayed by the never-ending propaganda and manipulation of the corporate press. It maintains excellent relations with Venezuela, China, DPR Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Brazil, South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Syria, Belarus, Iran, Russia, Ecuador, Laos, Algeria and other not-very-fashionable countries. Cuba was a founder member of ALBA and is very active in the recently-formed CELAC. It consistently uses its role at the UN to support the progressive nations and oppose imperialism, for example voting against resolutions seeking to demonise Syria and speaking out boldly against the despicable war on Libya.

10. Cuba is a friend to Africa

Africa is the continent that has suffered most and benefitted least as a result of the rise of capitalism. Its enormous contribution to world history has been all but forgotten, and much of the continent exists in a state of chronic underdevelopment, the result of half a millennium of slavery, colonialism and imperialism at the hands of a rising western Europe.

Cuba, recognising its own African roots (“the blood of Africa runs deep in our veins,” as Fidel famously said), has from very early on in its revolution supported and built close links with Africa. Its role in defending Angola and liberating Namibia and South Africa is one of the most inspiring examples of revolutionary international solidarity. Nelson Mandela put it well:

“The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”

Cuba has excellent, mutually supportive with many African states. One way it provides support is by offering thousands of fully subsidised places at its universities (for example, there are 1,200 South Africans currently studying medicine in Cuba). Cuba is very active in the fight against the scourge of AIDS internationally, for example having helped Zambia to start manufacturing its own antiretrovirals.

11. Cuba has achieved sustainable development

The World Wildlife Fund called Cuba “the only country in the world to have achieved sustainable development,” measured as a combination of human development index and environmental sustainability. Cuba is a world leader in the adoption of environmentally friendly technology. “Organic urban farms in Havana supply 100% of the city’s consumption needs in fruit and vegetables” – rather different to London, where we rely on a disgustingly exploitative and ecologically disastrous cash crop system.

Cubans understand that the protection of the earth’s resources is a global project. Fidel Castro has been very vocal at international bodies for over 20 years, particularly in drawing attention to the responsibilities of the imperialist countries, whose ruthless quest for profit has caused untold damage to the planet. “With only 20% of the world’s population, [the imperialist countries] consume two-thirds of all metals and three-fourths of the energy produced worldwide. They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air. They have weakened and perforated the ozone layer. They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.”

12. Poverty is becoming a thing of the past

Considering it is an third world nation with limited natural resources, suffering under economic blockade and coping with the loss of its major trading partners in the early 90s, Cuba’s achievements in wiping out poverty are spectacular.

A Cuba Solidarity Campaign fact sheet notes:

“Before 1959 only 35.2% of the Cuban population had running water and 63% had no WC facilities or latrines; 82.6% had no bathtub or shower and there were only 13 small reservoirs. Now 91% of the population receives sustainable access to improved drinking water. Sanitation has been a priority since the revolution and 98% of Cubans now have sustainable access to improved sanitation.

“Before 1959 just 7% of homes had electricity. Now 95.5% of Cubans have access to electricity. Solar panels and photovoltaic cells have been installed in schools and clinics in isolated areas.”

Income disparity is exceptionally low. No Cuban starves; no Cuban is homeless; no Cuban is deprived of education, healthcare or housing. There are very few countries in the world that show such unambiguous dedication to people’s basic human rights.

13. There is no homelessness in Cuba

A country that truly cared for its people would move heaven and earth to ensure that they all had somewhere to live. This is exactly what Cuba does. Rich countries like Britain and the US (which has over 600,000 homeless) could learn a thing or two.

14. Cuba makes an important contribution to science

At the time of the revolution, Cuba was stuck in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, without the knowledge, resources or political will to use science as a tool to improve the lives of its people. Now there are over 230 institutions devoted to scientific research and innovation. Cuba’s biotech industry is considered the best in the world among developing countries, and has generated important innovations in cancer research, AIDS research. Cuba created the world’s first vaccine against meningitis B. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Agre has stated that “what this small country has done in the progress of science and eradication of diseases is worthy of recognition,” adding that Cuban science’s greatest asset is its large pool of highly qualified, enthusiastic young scientists.

15. Free medical training is given to thousands of international students

Cuba provides full free medical training (including food and board) for hundreds of students from across the world, with a special emphasis on Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. With over 10,000 current students, la Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina may well be the largest medical school in the world. The quality of the training is world class: the school is fully accredited by the Medical Board of California, which has the strictest US standards. The only contractual obligation for students is that, having completed their training, they return to their communities and use their skills to serve the people. Another demonstration that socialism implies a level of humanity, compassion and altruism with which capitalism simply cannot compete.

16. Gender justice is being achieved

Cuba has, over the last 20 years, been making dramatic progress towards full equality for all, regardless of sexual preference. Cuban-American journalist David Duran writes: “Cuba is leading by example and positively affecting the lives of not only the LGBT people who reside there but others all over the world who see these massive changes taking place so quickly in a country where most would think the topic of homosexuality would be off-limits.”

The National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) campaigns for “the development of a culture of sexuality that is full, pleasurable and responsible, as well as to promote the full exercise of sexual rights.” This includes working to combat homophobia and to move on from the ‘machismo’ culture often associated with Latin America.

In a display of humility and honesty very rare for a politician, Fidel Castro in 2010 admitted responsibility for the mistreatment of homosexuals in Cuba in the early decades of the revolution.

17. Natural disasters are dealt with better than anywhere else

Like other countries in the region, Cuba is vulnerable to hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes. These natural disasters, if not properly prepared for, can cost thousands of lives. However, with its well-oiled Civil Defence System and highly mobilized population, “Cuba is one of the best-prepared countries in the world when it comes to preventing deaths and mitigating risks in case of disasters.” Although recent hurricanes have caused major disruption and economic damage, the numbers of dead and injured have been impressively low as a result of Cuba’s preparation and relief efforts. One need only compare this with the US government’s response to Hurricane Katrina (with its 1,833 fatalities) to see the difference in priorities between the two countries’ governments.

18. Cuba’s major export is doctors

Cuba’s ‘Operation Miracle’ has helped restore sight to millions of people across Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba also has a huge number of doctors working in other countries of the Global South, helping to spread Cuba’s hard-won expertise in the field of saving lives. “A third of Cuba’s 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers, are currently working in 77 poor countries.”

In response to the Haiti earthquake disaster of 2010, Cuba immediately (within hours) sent 1,500 medical personnel to help with the relief efforts. “They worked in 20 rehabilitation centres and 20 hospitals, ran 15 operating theatres and vaccinated 400,000 people. By March 2010 they had treated 227,143 patients in total (compared to 871 by the US).” Cuba has even offered to develop a complete programme for reconstructing Haiti’s healthcare system. Emily Kirk and John Kirk note: “Essentially, they are offering to rebuild the entire health care system. It will be supported by ALBA and Brazil, and run by Cubans and Cuban-trained medical staff. This is to include hospitals, polyclinics, and medical schools. In addition, the Cuban government has offered to increase the number of Haitian students attending medical school in Cuba. This offer of medical cooperation represents an enormous degree of support for Haiti.”

Cuba provides Venezuela with 31,000 Cuban doctors and dentists and provides training for 40,000 Venezuelan medical personnel (in exchange for which, Cuba receives 100,000 barrels of oil a day – a great example of two countries cooperating on the basis of their strengths).

19. Cuba loves sport

The Cuban Revolution has, from the beginning, recognised the value of sports in terms of promoting health, building community and developing national pride. Since 1959, Cuba has developed a wide-ranging sports infrastructure and has achieved massive levels of participation. In the 54 years since the revolution, the island has won 67 Olympic gold medals, compared with just four in the preceding 60 years. It consistently comes second (behind the US) in the Pan-American Games, punching well above its weight.

20. Cuba loves culture

Cuba places a strong emphasis on affording its citizens the facilities for cultural expression and enabling them to nurture their talents. Cuban children are guaranteed free access to artistic education, including musical instruments. There are more than 40 art schools, along with a system of neighbourhood cultural centres around the country for enabling art and music. The state level support, combined with a deep-rooted culture of music and dance, makes for a hugely vibrant and participatory culture. Music is everywhere in Cuba, and being a street musician is a state-licenced job. “If you stop to listen, you’re expected to pay, and musicians are around every corner.”

The full range of musical forms are supported and promoted, from classical music to Cuban folk music to hip-hop. The Ministry of Culture even has a division devoted to hip-hop, and Fidel has referred to rap as “the vanguard of the revolution.”

SUPPORT CUBA!

Cuba is under constant threat from US imperialism. Its development is made unnecessarily difficult by an unfair and illegal blockade. Yet it stands as one of the great beacons of socialism, and deserves the support of progressive people everywhere.

Some essential reading

  • Isaac Saney – Cuba: A Revolution in Motion
  • Richard Gott – Cuba: A New History
  • Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own
  • DL Raby – Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today
  • Theo MacDonald: The Education Revolution
  • Piero Gleijeses: Conflicting Missions
  • George Lambie: The Cuban Revolution in the 21st Century
  • Salim Lamrani: The Economic War Against Cuba

The C-word: comm**ism. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

Let’s talk about the C-word: Comm**ism. So much more shocking than the other C-word. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

You’d think it’d actually be pretty popular. I mean… it makes quite a lot of sense. What does it mean? It means a classless society, built on common ownership of the means of production, that by definition works to overcome the worst inheritance of human history: poverty, starvation, war, racism, sexism, national oppression, social alienation, inequality, exploitation. A collaborative, participatory society that seeks to elevate the oppressed to the highest levels of happiness, education and culture; that builds upon all advances in human understanding in order to create a qualitatively new way of being. This isn’t the place to dive into the theory, but let’s face it, it sounds great.

And yet, in the collective mind, ‘communism’ is a dirty word. When we think of communism, we don’t think of progress, literacy, economic uplift, culture, national reconciliation, peace, creativity, diversity. Rather we think of secret services, prisons, indoctrination, brainwashing, stale uniformity, dictatorship, militarism, bread queues, ration books. We think of the world described by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. We think pretty much exactly what senator Joseph McCarthy wanted us to think about communism: that it is the enemy of freedom.

This image is of course unfair, and represents a massive propaganda victory for the real enemy of peace and freedom: the imperialists. Ever since the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 – almost a century ago – the media and education systems in the ‘free world’ have made anti-communist propaganda one of their most central tasks. The wretched of the earth rising up and expropriating the oppressors? That’s the sort of contagious idea that has to be nipped in the bud. Hence the endless and intense slander campaign against any socialist country that ever existed, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, from Vietnam to Venezuela, from China to Albania, from People’s Korea to Yugoslavia. Any progress made by these countries is totally ignored; any problems and failures are magnified out of all proportion; issues are distorted and lies are spread.

Am I saying that these socialist countries, led by communist parties, were/are perfect models of this new type of society? Clearly not. There were, and are, massive problems in the building of socialism and laying the foundation for a future communism. However:

1) All of these problems are exaggerated by a well-funded western media and academia, and all too often the ‘statistics’ about socialist history are based on the claims of highly dubious McCarthyite ‘scholars’.

2) Issues regarding repression must be seen in the context of socialist states having to protect themselves within a hostile international atmosphere where the enemy spares no effort to destabilise and attack them (just look at the 600+ attempts by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro).

3) Building a new society and getting over the inheritance of feudalism and capitalism is never going to be easy.

4) Most accusations pointed at the socialist countries generally speaking apply in much greater measure to the capitalist countries. For example, no socialist country in history ever had anything like the incarceration rate of the modern day USA.

5) Whilst it’s popular to talk about the “crimes of communism”, what about the “crimes of capitalism”? Such as, for example:

  • The transatlantic slave trade
  • The genocide of the native populations of the Americas and Australia
  • The numerous famines in India and Ireland brought about by British colonial policy
  • Apartheid
  • The dispossession of the Palestinians
  • The killing of 10 million Congolese by Belgian colonialism
  • The 13 million that die every year due to malnutrition (wholly preventable but for capitalist greed)
  • The rape of Africa
  • The wanton destruction of Vietnam and Korea
  • The Opium Wars
  • The Nazi holocaust
  • Systemic racism
  • The cult of the individual and the breakdown of community
  • The destruction of cultures across the globe
  • The monopolisation of wealth by a small handful of implausibly rich people

It’s quite obvious to any thinking person that, even if we accept the extremely dodgy and dubious claims of CIA-payroll historians like Robert Conquest, the “crimes of capitalism” far outweigh any “crimes of communism”.

6) Meanwhile, in the face of great difficulties, socialist countries have achieved some pretty extraordinary things.

Let’s take China for example. Pre-revolution life expectancy was around 35; now it’s around 74. Literacy was under 20%; now it’s 93%. It has witnessed the most rapid poverty alleviation in history. Its people were looked down upon as the scum of the earth. As WEB DuBois said in a broadcast on Radio Peking:

“What people have been despised as you have? Who more than you have been rejected of men? Recall when lordly Britishers threw the rickshaw money on the ground to avoid touching a filthy hand. Forget not the time when in Shanghai no Chinese man dare set foot in a park which he paid for.”

And who doesn’t know that Cuba provides by far the highest standard of living for ordinary people anywhere in South America and the Caribbean; that it has a life expectancy of 79 and literacy rate of 99.8%, in spite of a cruel economic blockade; that it has done more to eradicate the scourge of racism than any other country in the western hemisphere?

And who doesn’t know that the Soviet Union brought about a profound improvement in the living standards of the vast majority of its people; that it defeated Nazi Germany and saved Europe; that it provided crucial support to the liberation movements in Africa, to Cuba, to Nicaragua, to Vietnam, to Korea; that it brought about a transformation of the republics of Central Asia, ground down for centuries by competing colonial interests? When we think of communism, why isn’t it all this that we think of?

Certainly, many individuals have suffered unfairly in socialist countries. But why is the blame always assigned to ‘communism’? If I want to see oppression and repression, I can take the briefest of walks down Tottenham High Street. If I want to see corruption, bureaucracy and the centralisation of power, I can observe the proceedings at Westminster. But these things don’t get attributed to ‘capitalism’. Most people who walk past dozens of homeless people each day don’t turn into zealous anti-capitalists (more’s the pity). Anti-communism is the dominant narrative, and so it’s easy to adapt to. Anti-capitalism is not at all the dominant narrative, and to adapt to it is to face isolation and abuse.

The question is: can the C-word be re-claimed, or has the propaganda war already been lost? Are sensible, progressive people so put off by any mention of communism that they immediately disregard anything associated with it? Do we need new terminology for the basic principles of equality, people’s power and social justice? I have come across quite a few very decent and principled people putting forward such an argument – that the C-word is beyond the pale. I’m not convinced. Imperialist cultural hegemony isn’t going to broken unless people who oppose it stand up confidently and loudly for what they believe in. Are we simply going to allow free reign to slander and disinformation? Should we leave prejudices intact? To use a parallel from the world of religion: could Muslims get rid of islamophobia by changing the name of their religion to, say, Democratic Mohammedanism?

Prejudices need to be attacked. Disinformation needs to be exposed. People’s psychological/ideological/cultural reliance on imperialism needs to be broken. That won’t happen if we keep playing by the enemy’s rules.

Like Malcolm said:

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Book review of “China’s Global Strategy – Towards a Multipolar World” by Jenny Clegg

Jenny Clegg’s book China’s Global Strategy, published by Pluto Press in 2009, is an extremely useful examination of China’s economic and political outlook. It focuses on the country’s overriding strategy of developing a ‘multipolar world’, where no one country dominates and where the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America – for centuries ground down by colonialism and neo-colonialism – have space to develop in peace.

China’s vision: survival and peaceful development in a hostile world

China’s strategy is derived from one simple overriding aim: the survival of People’s China. The need to maintain China’s sovereignty in the face of intense imperialist hostility gives rise to the main aspects of China’s economic and geopolitical strategy: integrating itself into the world economy; opposing US domination; promoting ‘balance’ – a larger (and increasing) number of influential powers; promoting South-South cooperation; utilising the rivalry between the different imperialist powers to push forward the development agenda; and promoting the general rise of the third world.

All these elements can be summed up as the drive towards a multipolar world; a world involving “a pattern of multiple centres of power, all with a certain capacity to influence world affairs, shaping a negotiated order“.

The theory of multipolarity is largely the product of the collapse of the USSR and the boost it gave to the hegemonic ambitions of the United States. Despite the long period of hostility between China and the USSR, the latter’s existence was a powerful force of balance in world politics. With the USSR gone, the US embarked with renewed energy on an orgy of neocolonial domination: extending the reach of NATO further and further eastwards; waging wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Libya in the pursuit of natural resources and geopolitical advantage; imposing structural adjustment programmes on dozens of third-world countries; and deepening its military dominance through ‘missile defence’ and the like.

Clegg notes that “China … was left more exposed to US hegemonism by the collapse of the USSR and the eastern European communist states. The West had attempted to isolate China, imposing sanctions following the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 …” (pp54-55)

Capitalising on advantages in technical innovation, especially in hi-tech weaponry, as well as its cultural influence, the United States was re-establishing its power superiority. By reviving both NATO and its military alliance with Japan, the United States was able to reincorporate Europe and Japan as junior partners and rein in their growing assertiveness, and to contain Russia as well as China, so weakening the multipolar trend …

For Chinese analysts [the war against Yugoslavia] marked a new phase of US neo-imperialist interventionism and expansionism – a bid to create a new empire – which presaged new rounds of aggression and which would be seriously damaging for the sovereignty and developmental interests of many countries. The United States was stepping up its global strategic deployment, preparing to ‘contain, besiege and even launch pre-emptive military strikes against any country which dares to defy its world hegemony’.” (p59; citation from Wang Jincun, ‘”Democracy” veils hegemony’)

Clegg cites [former Chinese President] Hu Jintao at a meeting of senior Communist Party leaders in 2003: “They [the US] have extended outposts and placed pressure points on us from the east, south and west. This makes a great change in our geopolitical environment.” (p34)

In this dangerous environment, faced with the unrelenting hostility of the world’s only remaining superpower, China developed the clever – albeit dangerous – strategy of integrating itself into the world economy and, in so doing, making itself indispensable to the US. It is clear that this policy has, so far, been successful in its main objective; although the US is desperate to slow China’s economic growth and restrict its political influence, it finds itself unable to launch the type of diplomatic (or indeed military) attack it would like to, for fear of Chinese economic retaliation.

As Clegg puts it: “China is using globalisation to make itself indispensable to the functioning of the world economy, promoting an interdependence which means it becomes increasingly difficult for the United States to impose a strategy of ‘isolation and encirclement’.

Indeed, Clegg suggests that, “at its core, China’s is a Leninist strategy whose cautious implementation is infused with the principles of protracted people’s war: not overstepping the material limitations, but within those limits ‘striving for victory’; being prepared to relinquish ground when necessary and not making the holding of any one position the main objective, focusing instead on weakening the opposing force; advancing in a roundabout way; using ‘tit for tat’ and ‘engaging in no battle you are not sure of winning’ in order to ‘subdue the hostile elements without fighting’.” (p223)

Manoeuvring towards multipolarity

Twenty-one years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conditions are certainly right for a multipolar world, and this is beginning to take shape.

That the various major countries no longer unquestioningly accept US dominance is demonstrated by the bitterness over the Iraq war, which was opposed by France, Germany, Russia and India. More recently, Russia and China have used their position on the UN Security Council to prevent a full-scale military assault on Syria. Meanwhile, a strong anti-imperialist trend has been emerging in Latin America, with Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua leading the move away from US dominance. Southern Africa – not so long ago dominated by vicious apartheid regimes in South Africa, South West Africa (Namibia) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and by Portuguese colonialism in Angola and Mozambique – is now largely composed of progressive states.

The major ‘non-aligned’ powers such as Brazil, Russia, South Africa, India and Iran are all forging closer relations with China and are starting to take a leading role in developing a new type of world – a ‘fair globalisation’, as the Chinese put it.

China has focused strongly on building international alliances at every level. It initiated the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which was constituted in 2001 in order to cooperate with regional allies on issues such as energy strategy, poverty alleviation and combating US-sponsored separatism. The SCO was built around the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, but includes a number of former Soviet republics in Central Asia as full members, while a number of key Asian powers, such as Iran, India and Pakistan, presently have observer status and may become full members in the future.

China is one of the driving forces behind BRICS – the international alliance of the five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. BRICS is firmly focused on promoting South-South cooperation, and the BRICS development bank (which could be launched within two years) will be provide crucial investment for development projects in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean.

China is also starting to lead east Asian economic cooperation, proposing and implementing the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA), under which the weaker east Asian economies are given priority access to China’s markets, while China also benefits from the technical and other advantages of the more developed economies of the region.

Far from cutting the ground beneath the export-oriented countries of East Asia, the development of manufacturing in China has been the engine of regional economic growth. After 2001, with the United States in recession and the Japanese economy still stagnating, China’s growth was key to reflating the regional economy still shaky after the 1997 crisis.” (p116)

Through its policies of regional security and economic cooperation, as well as its complex relationship with the various imperialist powers, China is frustrating US expansionism. “The US aim to encircle China though networking the hub-and-spokes pattern of its bilateral military alliances into an Asian NATO based on the conditions of its own absolute security, is therefore being thwarted as China, region by region, seeks to foster an alternative model of cooperative security.” (p121)

But hasn’t China capitulated to the US?

Clegg notes, and treats seriously, the left critique of China: that it is going down the path towards capitalism; that it is following the path of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.

She writes: “Across a wide spectrum of view among the western Left, China’s gradual path of economic reform since the later 1970s has been regarded as a ‘creeping privatisation’ undermining self-reliance bit by bit with foreign investment steadily encroaching on the country’s economic sovereignty. Its 2001 WTO accession is thus seen as the outcome of a gradual process of capitalist restoration – a final step in sweeping away the last obstacle in the way of China’s transition from socialism.

Clegg argues that, on the contrary, China’s “’embrace of globalisation’ is in fact a rather audacious move to strengthen its own national security … The goal is not to transform the entire system into a capitalist one but to improve and strengthen the socialist system and develop the Chinese economy as quickly as possible within the framework of socialism.” (p124)

This is the basis on which China joined the WTO – in order to able to “insert itself into the global production chains linking East Asia to the US and other markets, thus making itself indispensable as a production base for the world economy. This would make it far more difficult for the United States to impose a new Cold War isolation.

Further, China’s integration in the world economy has allowed it to be a part of “the unprecedented global technological revolution, offering a short cut for the country to accelerate its industrial transformation and upgrade its economic structure. By using new information technologies to propel industrialisation, incorporating IT into the restructuring of SOEs [state-owned enterprises], China would be able to make a leap in development, at the same time using new technologies to increase the state’s capacity to control the economy.” (pp128-9)

Clegg quotes Rong Ying’s explanation of the economic drivers behind China’s strategy: “Developing countries could make full use of international markets, technologies, capital and management experience of developed countries to cut the cost of learning and leap forward by transcending the limits of their domestic markets and primitive accumulation.” (p84; Rong Ying is a foreign affairs expert at the China Institute of International Studies)

In the author’s view, China is not abandoning Leninism by seeking to engage with the US; rather, it is following the creative and pragmatic spirit of Leninism, making difficult compromises in a novel and extremely tough situation. Moreover, in dealing with second-rate imperialist powers, such as France and Germany, for example, Chinese strategists have taken to heart Lenin’s advice to take “advantage of every, even the smallest, opportunity of gaining an … ally, even though this ally be temporary, vacillating, unreliable and conditional“. (Cited on p99)

Despite the apparent similarities between China’s ‘reform and opening up’ and the revisionist era in the Soviet Union, there are also some important differences.

First, of course, the prevailing economic and political circumstances: China in 1980 was significantly less developed than the USSR in 1960; the peasant population was (and is) still much larger than the working class; the average standard of living was far behind the major capitalist countries, as was the level of technical development.

Second, the imperialist countries had made huge advances in military technology, which China had to catch up with if it wanted security. Therefore, the Chinese invocation of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (the economic policy introduced in the Soviet Union in 1921 that introduced market elements in order to kick-start the economy after the war of intervention) has a lot more substance than Gorbachev’s.

Naturally, having seen what happened in the USSR, people get anxious when they see market reforms in China. However, if the “proof of the pudding is in the eating”, then it should be noted that, whereas the USSR stagnated through the 1980s, China has witnessed the most impressive programme of poverty alleviation in human history .

Whereas, in the last years of the USSR’s existence, the needs of its population were increasingly ignored, in China, the needs of the people are very much at the top of the agenda. Whereas, in the USSR, technical development fell way behind the imperialist countries in the 80s, in China, it is rising to the level of the imperialist countries. Indeed, the centre of gravity of the scientific world is slowly but surely shifting east. And China is playing a valuable role in sharing technology, for example by launching satellites for Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

Whereas, in the USSR, the ruling party (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) started to lose a lot of its prestige, the Chinese Communist Party remains extremely popular and is by far the largest political party in the world, with over 85 million members. And the Chinese leadership have clearly studied and understood the process of degeneration in the USSR. The new President, Xi Jinping, has talked about this issue a number of times, and warned that the party must remain firm in its principles and its working class orientation. A recent article quotes Xi telling party insiders that “China must still heed the ‘deeply profound’ lessons of the former Soviet Union, where political rot, ideological heresy and military disloyalty brought down the governing party. ‘Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered’, Mr Xi said. ‘Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone'”.

So perhaps what we are seeing is an extremely complex, creative, dialectical and dynamic approach to developing the aims of Chinese socialism and global development. After all, to refuse to accept any compromise; to demand revolutionary ‘purity’ at the expense of the practical needs of the revolution; would be utterly un-Marxist.

Is China the latest imperialist country?

Another accusation that is often levelled against China (usually by liberal apologists of imperialism) is that it has become an imperialist country; that its investment in dozens of third world countries amounts to a policy of ‘export of capital’; that it has established an exploitative relationship with those countries with which it trades.

To be honest, it’s difficult to take these claims seriously. By and large, they are the jealous cries of British, US, Japanese, French and German finance capitalists, who have got enormously rich out of the structural adjustment programmes imposed on so many third world countries in the 1990s and whose profits are now threatened by China’s emergence as an alternative source of development capital in Asia, Africa and South America.

Those countries of the Global South that are working hard to improve the lives of their populations are deeply appreciative of the support they get in this regard. Venezuela’s rise over the last 14 years would have been extremely difficult without Chinese support, and the much-missed Hugo Chávez was a great friend of China. Chinese investment is also very important to Cuba, South Africa, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Jamaica and elsewhere. An important recent example is the 40-billion-dollar deal whereby China will build in Nicaragua an alternative to the Panama Canal – “a step that looks set to have profound geopolitical ramifications“. As Clegg writes: “China’s large-scale investment and trade deals are starting to break the stranglehold of international capital over the developing world.” (p212)

Since joining the WTO, “China’s lower tariffs and rising imports have helped boost trade with other developing countries, many of which are experiencing significant trade balances in their favour for the first time in decades … Thanks to increased demand from China, the value of exports by all developing countries rose by 25 percent, bringing their share in world trade to 31 percent in 2004, the highest since 1950.

Since 2004, China has also taken major steps in its commitment to cooperation through large-scale investment in the developing world. From Latin America to Africa, countries are increasingly looking to China as a source of investment and a future business partner, as China seeks synergies in South-South cooperation…

By funding infrastructure projects in other developing countries China is helping to boost trade so that they can lift themselves out of poverty. In addition, China has reduced or cancelled debts owed by 44 developing countries and has provided assistance to more than 110 countries for 2,000 projects.” (p210)

Further: “Over 30 African countries have benefited from China’s debt cancellations to the tune of $1.3bn … Investment credit is to be doubled to $3bn by 2009 [it is now more than double this figure]. Chinese companies offer technical assistance and build highways and bridges, sports stadiums, schools and hospitals to ensure projects deliver clear benefits to locals, for example in helping to restore Angola’s war-ravaged infrastructure.” (p211)

China is intent on assisting its brothers and sisters in the third world, and it feels that, by improving south-south cooperation, by sharing its technical know-how, and by helping to raise developing countries out of poverty, it is moving towards its overall strategy of multipolarisation.

Clegg sums up China’s international policy as attempting to create “a new international order based on non-intervention and peaceful coexistence without arms races, in which all countries have an equal voice in shaping a more balanced globalisation geared to the human needs of peace, development and sustainability“. (p226)

A dangerous game

China has followed a path of rapid growth, which has led to phenomenal results in terms of improving the lives of ordinary people. In the last 30 years, the proportion of Chinese people living below the poverty line has fallen from 85% to under 16%. Life expectancy is 74 (a rise of 28 in the last half-century!). Literacy is an impressive 93%, which compares extremely well with the pre-revolution level of 20% (and, for example, with India’s 74%).

Nonetheless, the economic reforms have undoubtedly brought serious problems – in particular: unemployment (albeit a reasonably manageable 4%), a massive increase in wealth disparity, regional disparities, an unsustainable imbalance between town and country, reliance on exports, the growth of unregulated cheap labour, and an unstable ‘floating population’ of rural migrants.

These are, of course, problems that face many other countries as well, including the wealthy imperialist ones. The difference is that in China there are both the political will and the economic resources to seriously address these issues. Huge campaigns are under way to reduce unemployment, to reduce the gap between town and country, to modernise the rural areas, to create employment, to wipe out corruption, to empower the grassroots, to improve workplace democracy, to improve access to education, to improve rural healthcare, and so on. Such are the issues on which the government’s attention is firmly focused.

The problems in the rural healthcare and education systems have been placed centre stage in the government’s ‘people first’ agenda. In 2006, a rural cooperative medicare system was started in low-income areas, with farmers, central and local government all making equal contributions. According to government estimates, the new scheme already covers 83 percent of the rural population, and the aim is for complete coverage of the whole population by 2010 … To improve the situation in rural education, the government is abolishing fees for all 150 million rural students in primary and secondary education, while increasing support for teacher training.” (p155)

China is also strongly focused on empowering its trade unions to represent the interests of the working class in its bid for better pay and conditions. Unlike in Britain, corporate no-union policies are illegal, and union officials have the right to enter the premises of non-union enterprises in order to recruit.

Clegg notes that “the rabidly anti-union Wal-Mart was compelled by law to recognise a trade union for the first time anywhere in the world in one of its outlets in Fujian province in 2006“. (p162)

Conclusion

There are a variety of opinions with regard to the political and economic path that China is following. Only time will tell if the Chinese vision will lead to the long-term strengthening of socialism and a more equitable world. As things stand, this seems to be what is happening, and that is one of the reasons that the outlook for the world is much more favourable than it was at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Progressive people worldwide should take courage in China’s achievements, its people-centred policy, its continued support for the developing world, and its leadership role within the progressive family of nations. The destruction of People’s China would be a tragedy for the people of China and the developing world, and would be a disastrous setback for the international socialist and anti-imperialist movement. For that reason, China should be defended and supported.

China’s Global Strategy gives a thorough overview of the current political and economic thinking in China, and is the first book in the English language to perform this task in such a succinct way. While Clegg is essentially supportive of China’s policy, she certainly does not attempt to sweep its problems under the carpet, and, indeed, deals with those issues at some length. Although the book is written in a relatively academic style, it is nonetheless perfectly readable even for those with little knowledge of Chinese politics, and is an invaluable resource for those wanting to understand the most significant force for progress and peace in the world today.

Cuito Cuanavale 25 years on: celebrating revolutionary internationalism in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid

27 June, 2013

“The history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale” – Fidel Castro

Twenty-five years ago, on 27 June 1988, the army of apartheid South Africa was forced to start withdrawing from Angola after 13 years’ intervention in that country’s civil war. The South Africans had been outmanoeuvred and outgunned by the Angolan defence forces (FAPLA – the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola), in combination with thousands of Cuban soldiers, and units from both the MK (uMkhonto weSizwe – the armed wing of the ANC) and PLAN (People’s Liberation Army of Namibia – the armed wing of the South West African People’s Organisation). The four-month battle between the SADF and the Cuban-Angolan force at Cuito Cuanavale was, to use the words of Nelson Mandela, “the turning point for the liberation of Africa from the scourge of apartheid.”

Background

Cuba’s assistance to post-colonial Angola started in 1975, just a few days after the independence celebrations on 11 November (Angola won its independence from Portugal in the aftermath of the Portuguese Revolution of 1974). At the time, three different Angolan political-military movements were struggling for supremacy: the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) and the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola). The most radical, most popular and best organised of these groups was the MPLA, which had the support of most of the socialist countries. The FNLA was allied with the pro-imperialist Mobutu dictatorship in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and UNITA was collaborating with the US, white-supremacist South Africa and the representatives of the old colonial order. As Fidel Castro noted at the time: “The Soviet Union and all the countries of Eastern Europe support the MPLA; the revolutionary movements of Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau support the MPLA; the majority of the nonaligned nations support the MPLA. In Angola, the MPLA represents the progressive cause of the world.” (Speech given in Havana to the first contingent of military instructors leaving for Angola, 12 September 1975)

South Africa, faced with the prospect of pro-socialist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, independent states in Angola and Mozambique (plus a rising independence movement in its colony of South West Africa – now Namibia), decided to intervene militarily in Angola on the side of UNITA. The SADF entered Angola from Namibia on 14 October 1975, and the MPLA’s army, FAPLA, was in no position to stop its advance. It was, writes Piero Gleijeses, “a poor man’s war. South of Luanda there were only weak FAPLA units, badly armed and poorly trained. They were strong enough to defeat UNITA, but were no match for the South Africans” (‘Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976’).

South Africa’s invasion, along with the continued threat and provocations by Mobutu’s Zaire, caused Fidel Castro and the leading commanders in Cuba to understand that Angola needed urgent help. In mid-November 1975, several hundred Cuban soldiers boarded two planes for Angola. Over the course of the next 13 years, nearly 400,000 Cubans volunteered in Angola, mostly as soldiers but also as doctors, nurses, teachers and advisers.

With Cuban assistance (and with the help of Soviet advisers and weaponry), the Angolans drove the SADF troops back across the border, and for the next decade or so South Africa focused its efforts in Angola around destabilisation, providing significant financial and logistical support for UNITA, thereby extending a brutal civil war that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Angolan civilians.

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale

As long as Angola was embroiled in bitter civil war, it was not a major threat to apartheid control of South Africa or Namibia. But in mid-1987, FAPLA – with the help of Soviet and Cuban forces – launched a major offensive against UNITA. This offensive had the potential to finally bring an end to the civil war – an outcome that neither South Africa nor the US could accept. Therefore the SADF intervened again. “By early November”, writes Gleijeses, “the SADF had cornered elite Angolan units in Cuito Cuanavale and was poised to destroy them.”

Ronnie Kasrils notes that the situation “could not have been graver. Cuito could have been overrun then and there by the SADF, changing the strategic situation overnight. The interior of the country would have been opened up to domination by UNITA, with Angola being split in half. This was something Pretoria and [UNITA leader Jonas] Savimbi had been aiming at for years.”

The Cubans moved decisively in support of their African allies. Fidel decided that more Cuban troops must be sent immediately, boosting the total number in Angola to over 50,000.

Cuito Cuanavale was defended by 6,000 Cuban and Angolan troops, using sophisticated Soviet weaponry that had been rushed to the front. The SADF had been convinced that its 9,000 elite troops – in addition to several thousand UNITA fighters – would be able to conquer Cuito and thereby inflict a major defeat on MPLA, and indeed the progressive forces of the whole region. But Cuito held out over the course of four months, in what has been described as the biggest battle on African soil since World War II (Greg Mills and David Williams, Seven Battles that Shaped South Africa, 2006). Kasrils notes: “All the South African attempts to advance were pushed back. Their sophisticated long-range artillery kept bombing day and night. But it didn’t frighten the Angolan-Cuban forces and turned out to be ineffective.”

With the South African stranglehold at Cuito Cuanavale broken by the end of March 1988, the Cuban-Angolan forces launched a major offensive in the south-west of the country. This offensive is what Castro had intended from the start: to tie South Africa down with pitched battles at Cuito (several hundred kilometres from its nearest bases in occupied Namibia) and then launch a ferocious, dynamic attack to drive South Africa out of Angola once and for all, “like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right – strikes“. Castro noted: “While in Cuito Cuanavale the South African troops were bled, to the south-west 40,000 Cuban and 30,000 Angolan troops, supported by some 600 tanks, hundreds of pieces of artillery, a thousand anti-aircraft weapons and the daring MiG-23 units that secured air supremacy advanced towards the Namibian border, ready literally to sweep up the South African forces deployed along that main route.” (Cited in Vladimir Shubin ‘The Hot “Cold War”‘)

Kasrils writes: “The end for the SADF was signaled on June 27 1988. A squadron of MiGs bombed the Ruacana and Calueque installations, cutting the water supply to Ovamboland and its military bases and killing 11 young South African conscripts. A MiG-23 executed a neat victory roll over the Ruacana dam. The war was effectively over.”

The supposedly invincible South African Defence Force had been forced out of Angola. The apartheid regime was left with no choice but to sue for peace.

Turning point for southern Africa

Fidel stated that “the history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale”. Nelson Mandela is on record as saying that Cuito Cuanavale was “the turning point for the liberation of Africa from the scourge of apartheid”. What made a battle in the Angolan war the major turning point for the wider southern African region?

Isaac Saney explains in his excellent book ‘Cuba: A Revolution in Motion’: “The defeat shattered the confidence of the South African military, and with the approach of Cuban forces toward Namibia, Pretoria sought a means by which to extricate their troops ‘without humiliation and alive’. Thus, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale was instrumental in paving the path to negotiations. In December 1988, an agreement was reached between Cuba and Angola on one side and South Africa on the other, which provided for the gradual withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and the establishment of an independent Namibia”.

So, as part of the negotiation process resulting from the Cuban-Angolan victory, South Africa was forced to set a timetable for withdrawal from Namibia. Namibia became an independent state in March 1990. The victory in Angola also provided important impetus for the anti-apartheid forces within South Africa. In early 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 long years, the ANC and other liberation organisations were unbanned, and the negotiations towards a free South Africa were begun in earnest. UNITA suffered a series of major military reverses and Angola was able to start pursuing a course of peaceful progress. These were all extraordinary developments that nobody could have predicted a few years’ earlier.

“Cuito Cuanavale changed the military balance in Southern Africa on the side of liberation” (Kasrils).

Not a proxy cold war but an epic battle between the forces of imperialism and the forces of progress

It has been suggested by several western historians that the war in Angola was, at heart, an extension of the so-called Cold War between the two superpowers of the day (the USA and the USSR) with South Africa acting on behalf of the USA and Cuba acting on behalf of the USSR. Such an analysis is wholly refuted by the facts; its only purpose is to place a moral equivalency between imperialism and socialism.

For one thing, Cuba has tended to maintain a high degree of political independence in spite of close relations with the Soviet Union. In Angola, it is well documented that the Soviets were surprised by the sudden arrival – in both 1975 and 1987 – of large numbers of Cuban soldiers. Kasrils writes that the US security services were “surprised to discover that the Soviet Union’s so-called proxy had not even consulted Moscow over Havana’s massive intervention. They were even more taken aback when sophisticated Soviet military equipment was rushed to Angola to supply the Cuban reinforcements.”

Even the arch-reactionary Henry Kissinger, who was among the leading ‘hawks’ in relation to US Angola policy at the time, admitted: “At the time, we thought Castro was operating as a Soviet surrogate. We could not imagine that he would act so provocatively so far from home unless he was pressured by Moscow to repay the Soviet Union for its military and economic support. Evidence now available suggests that the opposite was the case.” (Cited in ‘Conflicting Missions’)

The Soviet Union did provide significant support for the MPLA, sending weapons, funding, training and military advisers to Angola (as documented in detail in Vladimir Shubin’s book ‘The Hot “Cold War”‘). Furthermore, they provided much of the weaponry and planes used by the Cubans. Was this done in the pursuit of cynical geostrategic interests, for the sake of ‘cold war’ one-upmanship? Such a suggestion represents a vicious attack on the history of socialist internationalism. Shubin, former head of the Africa Section of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s international department, writes:

“The Soviets did not assist liberation movements and African frontline states only because of the ‘Cold War’. To put it in the language of the day: such actions were regarded as part of the world ‘anti-imperialist struggle’, which was waged by the ‘socialist community’, ‘the national liberation movements’, and the ‘working class of the capitalist countries’… In reality the ‘Cold War’ was not part of our political vocabulary; in fact the term was used in a strictly negative sense. It was considered to be the creation of the ‘warmongers’ and ‘imperialist propaganda’. For us the global struggle was not a battle between the two ‘superpowers’ assisted by their ‘satellites’ and ‘proxies’, but a united fight of the world’s progressive forces against imperialism.”

One need only look at the succession of devastating, predatory wars of imperialist domination since the collapse of the Soviet Union – Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – to see that, in spite of a period of intense confusion and political degeneration, the USSR played a fundamentally positive role in opposing imperialism and standing with the oppressed nations.

The continuing relevance and necessity of revolutionary internationalism

Why is it important to remember Cuito Cuanavale? Because it represents a pinnacle of revolutionary internationalism, of solidarity between peoples struggling for freedom. As Nelson Mandela said, speaking at a huge rally in Havana in July 1991:

“The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”

Cuba’s actions in Angola were driven by a deep sense of social justice and revolutionary duty. One of the historical forces driving its actions was the depth of African roots in Cuban society. Fidel, speaking shortly after the departure of the first few hundred troops to Angola, explained: “African blood flows freely through our veins. Many of our ancestors came as slaves from Africa to this land. As slaves they struggled a great deal. They fought as members of the Liberating Army of Cuba. We’re brothers and sisters of the people of Africa and we’re ready to fight on their behalf!” This dynamic is reflected in the name that was given to the operation: ‘Carlota’ – in honour of the heroic Afro-Cuban female slave who led an uprising near Matanzas in 1843 and who, upon her capture, was drawn and quartered by Spanish colonial troops.

Raúl Castro pointed out that Cuba had itself benefitted massively from revolutionary international solidarity and thus felt morally compelled to extend the same type of solidarity to others. “We must not forget another deep motivation. Cuba itself had already lived through the beautiful experience of the solidarity of other peoples, especially the people of the Soviet Union, who extended a friendly hand at crucial moments for the survival of the Cuban Revolution. The solidarity, support, and fraternal collaboration that the consistent practice of internationalism brought us at decisive moments created a sincere feeling, a consciousness of our debt to other peoples who might find themselves in similar circumstances.” Fidel emphasises this point: “As we have said before, being internationalists is paying our debt to humanity. Those who are incapable of fighting for others will never be capable of fighting for themselves. And the heroism shown by our forces, by our people in other lands, faraway lands, must also serve to let the imperialists know what awaits them if one day they force us to fight on this land here.”

This type of solidarity, sacrifice, sense of duty and revolutionary morality is a model, a benchmark. This level of unity of the oppressed is exactly what we need in an era when imperialism – desperate to slow its historic decline and to cut down all potential challenges to its hegemony – is projecting its military power around the world, ably assisted by its media dominance.

Today, Syria is under attack from imperialism. Libya has been set back decades. The Democratic Republic of Congo has been put through a disastrous war, motivated by foreign greed for raw materials. Iraq is a shadow of its former self, as are the states of the old Yugoslavia. Iran is under permanent threat from the imperialists, as is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as is Zimbabwe, as are other countries.

The point is not that Cuba or any other country should send a massive military force to Syria, Iran or elsewhere (actually, a little-known episode of Cuban internationalism is that Cuba sent a thousand troops to assist Syria in the war against Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, 1973-74). Today’s global political and military context simply doesn’t support that type of action. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, Cuba could send troops far and wide with the confidence that the USSR was there to back it up. Today there is only one military superpower: the United States. China and other countries may be rising fast, but the US is still the largest military power by a massive margin (its per-capita military spending is 30 times that of China).

But there are other important ways of expressing international solidarity. Thankfully, the level of unity and confidence within the progressive family of nations seems to be rising again, after the years of confusion following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The simple fact that Britain, France and the US have not thus far been able to force direct military action against Syria is an indication of that change. Progressive regional and international blocs such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), CELAC (Economic Community of Latin America and the Caribbean), ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) and SADC (Southern African Development Community) offer a glimpse of a new future for unity and solidarity.

Until imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism have been finally eradicated from our planet; until there is no longer the oppression and domination of the ‘third world’ by a handful of rich countries; until a world order built on friendship, cooperation and equality has been established, the history of Cuba’s solidarity with Angola is a story that must continue to be told.

Cuba continues to uphold the banner of socialism

Another important reason to recall Cuba’s internationalist mission in southern Africa is to remind people that Cuba is one of the world’s shining lights of socialism, internationalism and progress. Although it has suffered immensely as a result of the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern European people’s democracies, and although it remains under permanent threat from imperialism, facing a cruel and illegal economic blockade, it continues to build a dignified, independent, socialist society. Operation Carlota has been one of its greatest contributions to the global freedom struggle.

At a ceremony for those Cubans (over 2,000) who lost their lives fighting for Angola’s freedom, Fidel spoke passionately in their honour:

“These men and women whom we are laying to rest today in the land of their birth gave their lives for the most treasured values of our history and our revolution. They died fighting against colonialism and neo-colonialism. They died fighting against racism and apartheid. They died fighting against the plunder and exploitation of the third world. They died fighting for the right of all peoples to ensure their wellbeing and development. They died fighting so there would be no hungry people or beggars, sick people without doctors, children without schools; human beings without work, shelter and food. They died so there would be no oppressors or oppressed, no exploiters or exploited. They died fighting for the dignity and freedom of all men and women. They died fighting for true peace and security of all nations. They died defending the ideals of [Cuban independence heroes] Céspedes and Máximo Gómez. They died defending the ideals of Martí and Maceo. They died defending the ideals and example of Marx, Engels and Lenin. They died defending the ideals and example that the October Revolution extended throughout the world. They died for socialism. They died for internationalism. They died for the proud, revolutionary homeland that Cuba is today. We will follow their example. Eternal glory to them.”

Cuba still lives by those same principles. Fidel’s mention of the October Revolution here – in a speech made in December 1989, in the context of the obvious decline of the Soviet Union – is clearly a way of declaring that Cuba would not be participating in Gorbachev’s attack on socialism and working class power; that Cuba would not follow the ‘trend’ of capitulation to capitalism. In the same speech, he says: “We have never aspired to receiving custody of the banners and the principles the revolutionary movement has defended throughout its heroic and inspiring history. However, if some day fate were to assign to us the role of being among the last defenders of socialism, in a world in which US imperialism has realised Hitler’s dreams of world domination, we would defend this bulwark to the last drop of our blood”.

Long live socialist Cuba! Victory to Africa in its continuing struggle for freedom! Towards ever greater unity and solidarity against imperialism!

Further study

ARTICLE: Ronnie Kasrils: Turning point at Cuito Cuanavale

ARTICLE: Piero Gleijeses: Cuito Cuanavale revisited

ARTICLE: Cuban Five member Fernando González: ‘Angola was milestone in my life

ARTICLE: Mandela thanks Cuba for its solidarity

BOOK: Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own. Pathfinder Press, 2013

BOOK: Piero Gleijeses – Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, Pretoria. Galago Publishing, 2003

BOOK: Vladimir Shubin – The Hot ‘Cold War’: The USSR in Southern Africa. Pluto Press, 2008

FILM: Sisters’ and Brothers’ Keeper (produced by Isaac Saney and Mark Rushton)