By James Bloodworth
I was encouraged this week to hear the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn reiterate his party's support for more trade union rights in this country. "If you want to improve pay, the most effective way is through strong and independent trade unions," Corbyn told a packed House of Commons.
To those on the government benches, trade unions are very often a spectre summoning images of incorrigible militants in donkey jackets stood atop filthy, overturned milk crates haranguing rough-looking crowds. For the millions of people who work at the bottom end of the British economy, however, stronger trade unions could tilt the balance back toward workers, after decades in which bosses have enjoyed relatively free reign.
So it was disappointing to see shadow chancellor John McDonnell attend and give a speech to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC) later on during the same day. The CSC itself ostensibly campaigns against the unjust American embargo of Cuba, but in practice uncritically parrots the Cuban government's line on just about everything. Browsing the CSC's webpage, you will find very little – if any – criticism of the Cuban dictatorship (I couldn't find any).
This sort of thing ought to stand out for its obvious double standard. If, as democratic socialists, we are in favour of strong, independent trade unions for the British people, then we ought to support the same principle with respect to the Cubans. It is no good, surely,to stand for democratic rights at home yet to set oneself against them abroad?
Cuba is nominally 'left', and therefore all the usual fashionable clauses and principles and high-flown denunciations of this or that injustice are replaced by deathly silence. It is as if they do not really count if they are perpetrated by 'our' side.
There are no independent trade unions in Cuba and Cuban citizen are often fired from their employment simply for declaring themselves to be against the government. As the International Trade Union Confederation has phrased it, "The trade union movement is controlled by the Cuban state, and the leaders of the single union CTC are not elected by the workers but appointed by the state and the Communist Party of Cuba". Put another way, the largest employer in Cuba controls the only recognised trade union, an arrangement resembling that of the phony corporate trade unions found in capitalist countries.
Nor is there any formal democracy in Cuba, however willing some outsiders are to kid to themselves to the contrary. Potential candidates for the Cuban National Assembly – the pseudo-parliament which rubber-stamps legislation – are vetted stringently by the Communist Party. If they oppose government policy they are excluded from the electoral slate at a local level. The compliant Assembly this produces simply waves through the proposals put forward by the ruling party. Only one person has ever voted 'no' to a government proposal, and that was Raul Castro's own daughter. Similarly, there is no independent judiciary and the party restricts the movement of its citizens (until recently in was nearly impossible for Cuban citizens to travel overseas at all, even if they had the money to do so).
If any of these somewhat inconvenient objections are pointed out, an accusation of 'imperialism' or chauvinism is usually flung at you. The United States has after all imposed a cruel economic embargo on Cuba for over half a century. It has also launched invasions and attempts at sabotage. Indeed, it was McDonnell's comments on the embargo that were picked up by sections of the British media today, with the shadow chancellor promising that if Labour came to power it would "break the blockade". The CSC itself campaigns against the "illegal 50-year-old blockade of Cuba…and to defend the Cuban people's right to be free from foreign intervention".
— CubaSolidarity (@CubaSolidarity) June 21, 2017
Here at least, there is not a great deal to object to. It is no business of the United States how the Cuban people choose to run their society or their economy. But it isn't only the US government that is stopping the Cuban people from having a say in the internal affairs of their country. Indeed, it is the Cuban Communist Party – rather than an American president – which prevents Cubans from speaking freely, from printing their own newspapers, from organising independently at work or from forming political grouping of their own choosing. Cuban society gives the impression of being 'united' only in the sense that a spring gives the impression of being compact when it is coiled – i.e. because a great force is bearing down on it from above.
As well as being politically worthless – is there any point at all to the idea of socialism if as a system it is not more democratic than capitalism? – the obvious double standard on the part of the Labour leadership recalls the words of the late Columbian novelist Gabriel García. Asked about Cuban communism, Garcia Márquez once told The New York Times that, while he admired the system and was a personal friend of the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, he personally could never live under it. "I would miss too many things. I couldn't live with the lack of information. I am a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines from around the world."
It was for other people to suffer the privations of the system if it kept one's own ideological house of cards intact. You embraced the kitsch – the Che t-shirts, the 'solidarity' luncheons, the booming speeches in dusty halls pledging the commitment of the 'rank and file' to the cause – all so that someone else was denied the right to speak freely and organise against their own government. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
James Bloodworth is the author of The Myth of Meritocracy and a columnist for IB Times UK. His next book is out with Atlantic books early 2018.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.