The Cuban Revolution and the American Left

Ken Brociner

For countless leftists who came of age politically sometime between the late 1950s and the early 1990s, the Cuban Revolution represented a beacon of hope. Cuba symbolized so many inspirational qualities: a serious commitment to economic and social egalitarianism; a fierce opposition to the decadence and inequality of capitalism; and a principled, anti-imperialist solidarity with the Third World.

While for some on the left Hugo Chavez has become the new Fidel, most progressives have resisted being swept away by another romance with a flawed 'Third World' revolution.

But while the recent thaw in the U.S.-Cuba relationship has generated widespread support among progressives, there has been a noticeable lack of the kind of romanticism that characterized the way that so much of the left related to Cuba in the past.

The end of the left’s overall romance with Cuba can be traced to a number of things. For some, it came as early as 1959, with the public execution of dozens of alleged supporters of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s long-time dictator. For others it resulted from the failure of Fidel Castro to live up to his promises to hold democratic elections. Still others remained true believers until the 1971 show trial of the poet Hernán Padilla.

From the 1970s onward, a significant portion of the left still considered themselves to be supporters of the Cuban Revolution – but with evidence of governmental repression mounting each year, they mostly identified themselves as critical supporters.” 

When Cuba was still standing proud after the domino-like collapse of the entire Soviet bloc in the fall of 1989, many on the left once again rallied around Cuba, pointing out that unlike the governments of Eastern Europe, the Cuban government was the product of a popular revolution. However, since the early 90s, the steady stream of reports about growing social inequality, widespread corruption and the continuing repression of dissidents have, for the most part, killed off the remaining vestiges of the left’s romance with Cuba.

This widespread disillusionment with the Cuban Revolution signifies a maturing of the American Left. These days, very few of us seek political guidance from Third World revolutions – be it from Cuba, China, Vietnam, or Nicaragua (all of which were extremely popular on the left at one time or another during the 60s, 70s, and 80s).

While for some on the left Hugo Chavez has become the new Fidel, and Venezuela the new Cuba, most progressives have resisted the temptation of being swept away by yet another romance with a deeply flawed Third World revolution.

Perhaps what this tells us most of all is that the contemporary progressive movement is considerably less utopian and more pragmatic than the progressive movements of previous decades were.

Of course, this trend has both its strengths and weaknesses. Because of the compelling need to defeat conservative politicians, there has been a natural tendency to become so pragmatic in our pursuit of electoral victories that we sometimes lose sight of our long-term goals and visions. Nevertheless, the progressive movement’s overall embrace of political pragmatism has been, on balance, a major plus. 

This is not to say that the remarkable shift toward the left now taking place throughout Latin America isn’t highly encouraging. Clearly, it has the potential to be of world-historical importance.

But the difference between the glory days of the Cuban Revolution and today is that the overwhelming majority of progressives nowadays have their sights set on figuring out how to change the U.S. government and American society by pragmatically drawing on the best traditions of our nation’s past rather than by invoking the names of revolutionary heroes from the developing world. 

One good example of this is that despite the omnipresent and disgraceful manner in which the global advertising industry has tried to co-opt and exploit Che Guevera’s image, progressives rarely cite Che’s name in the alternative media. After ideologically shooting ourselves in the foot so often in the past, we have learned how critical it is to speak American.” FDR may not have been a revolutionary, but by repeatedly invoking his legacy, progressives are undoubtedly reaching more Americans than would be the case if we were still spouting the kind of rhetoric that was so prevalent in the past. 

Another lesson the American Left has learned is that the most effective way to help the people of the developing world achieve greater economic and social justice is for us to roll up our sleeves and tirelessly organize in the trenches of U.S. domestic politics. By electing more progressives to office, as well as by pushing the president and Congress leftward, we can help transform U.S. foreign policy into one that supports, rather than obstructs, positive changes around the world.

Being disillusioned with the long-term results of the Cuban Revolution shouldn’t prevent us from acknowledging the many real accomplishments that it has achieved – especially in the fields of health and education. But ironically, because the left’s long-standing romance with Cuba and other Third World revolutions is mostly a thing of the past, we have become much better equipped to continue the long journey to bring fundamental change to our own society.

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Ken Brociners essays and book reviews have appeared in Dissent, In These Times and Israel Horizons. He also has a biweekly column in the Somerville (Mass.) Journal.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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