Thursday, May 3, 2018

2905. Review Essay: Revolution, Workers, and Everyday Life in Cuba

By Kamran Nayeri, Review of Radical Political Economics, June 2006
May Day celebration in Havana, 2010. Photo: Gettyimages
Workers in Cuba: Unions & Labor Relations by Debra Evenson; Detroit, MI: NLG/Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, 2002, ii + 92 pp. + appendices, $10.00.

Inside the Revolution: Everyday Life in Socialist Cuba Mona Rosendahl; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998, x + 197 pp., $16.95.

Cuba: A Revolution in Motion.  Isaac Saney; Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood, 2004, viii + 240 pp., $25.00. 

In the opening decade of the twenty-first millennium, the Cuban revolution continues to be a source of inspiration for a new generation in Latin America and elsewhere in the world. Yet there is still considerable debate about its sources, strategy, and accomplishments. The three books under review offer different perspectives on socialist development in Cuba. I review each book based on its own merit and method. I also examine each book’s contribution to a better understanding of the formation and development of working-class power. This is justified on the basis of the Marxian theory and the founding program of the Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC), both of which view the working class as the agency for the socialist transformation of society. (endnote 1)

1. An Empiricist Perspective
In Cuba: A Revolution in Motion, Isaac Saney postulates that the Cuban revolution offers a largely successful alternative paradigm based on “utilizing the country’s resources and wealth for the public good” (p. 2). It is no secret to the reader that the paradigm Saney refers to is socialism. However, the book does not include any explicit theory of socialist development. Instead, Saney documents Cuba’s progress in a number of areas to conclude that these would not have been possible without a popular, revolutionary leadership and mass participation. In this, Saney adds to a useful literature that documents and analyzes aspects of Cuba’s social progress.

The book is essentially a survey and synthesis of existing literature. Four topics—governance, inequality and racism, crime and criminal justice, and U.S.-Cuba relations constitute the core chapters of the book. These are situated between a well-written historical overview, with a discussion of the post-1990 crisis and the Cuban response, and a closing chapter in the form of commentaries. These include brief discussions of foreign investment, environmental policy, internationalism, and an ambivalent allusion to a notion of “socialism on one island.” The quality of these and the four main chapters is uneven.

The chapter on governance offers some factual information and a fair assessment of right-wing critiques of the revolution. But this is also its weakness, as it remains essentially defensive in character; it does not examine the forms of governance or address the question of how these relate to a strategy of socialist development. Saney’s treatment of race and inequality is interesting because it is more focused and penetrating. Although the first three decades of the revolution overcame much of the legacy of institutional racism through political, social, and economic progress, the economic crisis of the 1990s and the ensuing monetary and market reforms undermined the position of Afro-Cubans and rejuvenated racist prejudice on the island. The chapter on the criminal justice system provides a historical survey and a discussion of some recent issues, including the death penalty and the 1999 modifications to the penal code. In the next chapter, Saney offers a succinct history of U.S. imperialist policies toward Cuba since the eighteenth century to debunk the commonly held view that the 1959 revolution is the cause of U.S. hostility.

In general, Saney succeeds in providing a compelling argument when he examines a particular issue carefully (such as his discussion of racism). He does not do as well when he uncritically quotes sympathetic authors to convey a message he feels comfortable with. A case in point is his two-page section on the PCC in the chapter on governance, which is an inadequate and confusing collage of quotations. Saney skirts questions raised by various quotations. For example, he quotes without comment from an unpublished paper by Olga Fernández: the PCC channels “a plurality of points of view, interests and needs of the classes, groups, and social sectors in a determined, historical context on the basis of national independence, growing social emancipation and the dignity of the individual” (64). But this complicated statement invites further questions. Does it imply that the PCC is a multiclass party? If so, how does this square with the founding programmatic document of the PCC (the 1976 Programmatic Platform of the Communist Party of Cuba) that defines it as the party of the working class? On the other hand, if the PCC is indeed a working-class party, what does it mean to say that it “channels” other class interests? Should not these “other class interests” be aired by other political parties? Similarly, Saney offers without comment a quote from Fidel Castro that seems to imply that the Soviet Union’s demise was due to a multiparty system; in reality, Castro’s views on the collapse of the Soviet Union are more sophisticated, while other Cubans relate it to the rise of the Stalinist monolithic political structure. Finally, could one discuss governance in Cuba without a serious discussion of the PCC?

Saney also tends to make categorical statements. For example, he concludes his discussion of U.S.-Cuba relations with this statement: “Cuba cannot afford to have—and does not have—illusions about the United States” (p. 175, emphasis added). While many Cubans understand the imperialist nature of the United States by experience and by study, there are also many others who have illusions about the United States.

While Saney’s book is often compelling and useful as an introductory text for students of the Cuban revolution and solidarity activists, it fails to synthesize various analyses and descriptions of the economy, society, and politics into a unified theoretical framework that could contribute to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the Cuban revolution than what is already provided in the sources that he uses.

2. An Ethnographic Perspective
Saney uses the term “Revolution” (with a capital “R”) without defining it. The term evokes a number of meanings in Cuba, including the socialist ideology, the PCC’s interpretation of it, and how it is interpreted by working people. Mona Rosendahl’s ethnographic study Inside the Cuban Revolution: Everyday Life in Revolutionary Cuba centers on this set of questions. It is a study of the “process of creating, recreating, denouncing, strengthening and enforcing” the socialist ideology (p. 5). An anthropologist with an interest in working-class ideology, Rosendahl lived in a small town in rural southwestern Cuba (which she names Palmera) during 1988-1990. Her book reports on and analyzes this experience. To Rosendahl, the term “ideology” means a “set of ideas that deals with society and social relations and that tells people what is good, and what is possible” (p. 3). She examines this on three levels. First, she explores the official ideology that constitutes the “systematic body of values, norms and beliefs” originating in “Marxism-Leninism and presented to the people as universally valid . . . but is not always in accordance to the reality” (p. 3). Second, she explores everyday life, based on “collective memories, history, and personal experiences” that shape ideas and provide a view of the society. Finally, she examines “how socialism in Palmera is blended with, coexists with, and overlaps with other conceptions” (p. 4).

Together, the introduction and chapter 1 provide a discussion of theory and methodology as well as the actual experience of fieldwork. (endnote 2) Chapter 2 provides a discussion of reciprocity. As a cultural activity, it helps to foster communal bonding. As an economic activity, it provides a way to cope with scarcities. Chapter 3 offers a fascinating discussion of gender issues and machismo in Cuba. Rosendahl reports on many achievements of Cuban women outside the household. However, traditional machismo culture continues to dominate gender relations in the household. 

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the PCC and Cuban socialism. Rosendahl provides important information about how the PCC functions on the local level and how ordinary Cubans relate to it, including ways of dissemination and reception of the socialist ideology.

Unfortunately, Rosendahl’s treatment suffers from important defects. Her writing on the PCC and Cuban socialist thought is often murky. Her background knowledge of “Marxism-Leninism” seems to come from Soviet manuals as opposed to the writings of Marx or Lenin. Her discussion of the Leninist party (pp. 82–83) is confused, and her claim that the concept of democratic centralism is inherently problematic is not supported by arguments. She speaks against the one-party system in Cuba but does not address the PCC’s argument in favor of it. She claims that “all societal activities rest on the Comite
Central of the National Party” (p. 81). But this is contradicted by her own account of how ordinary people revise the official ideology in everyday life. Ultimately, Rosendahl displays a preference for bourgeois liberal views, sometimes so much so that she sees no cause for backing her criticism with adequate reasoning. Even her rendering of ethnographic observations becomes highly subjective.(endnote 3)

Chapter 6 offers a good discussion of mass organizations and mobilizations, including the asamblea municipal (municipal assembly). (endnote 4) Chapter 6 also refers to the problem of political alienation in the form of indifference and withdrawal, as well as with internationalism. These are obviously of paramount importance and in need of further study. Chapter 7 offers an overall summary. There is an epilogue reporting on changes in Palmera after the onset of the economic crisis, which is known in Cuba as the Special Period. 

Rosendahl’s approach offers helpful insights into the everyday life of working people in Cuba, including how the PCC, Poder Popular, and mass organizations function on the local level. However, her account suffers from three important weaknesses. Because her knowledge of what she calls “Marxism” or “Marxism-Leninism” seems to be based on Soviet manuals or similar secondary sources, what she takes to be theories of Marx or Lenin are often Stalinist renditions of them.(endnote 5)  Her discussion of Cuban revolutionaries is also based on secondary literature, which she seems to scrutinize inadequately.6 Her knowledge of Cuban labor and socialist history is inadequate; for example, she does not distinguish between the present-day PCC and the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP). Finally, Rosendahl sometimes makes generalizations that are not backed by her direct observations or analysis of specific circumstances or by the literature. Strictly speaking, one cannot generalize from one ethnographic account alone; to do so requires additional ethnographic studies or other research such as surveys.

3. A Trade Union Perspective
While both Saney and Rosendahl allude to Cuban workers as the agency for social change, they marginally deal with them as a class. (endnote 7) Debra Evenson’s Workers in Cuba: Unions & Labor Relations provides a well-researched and highly informative report on the current state of Cuban trade unions and labor relations. Researched in Cuba between May 2000 and May 2001, it relies on interviews with labor leaders and rank-and-file activists and observations from union meetings and site visits. She combines these with information and insight from books and articles on Cuban labor relations, legal texts, trade union reports and resolutions, government decrees and regulations, and press reports to discern and discuss the contours of labor relations. While Evenson’s expertise and focus is labor law, she succeeds in placing legal relations in their economic and sociopolitical context to reveal both the limits of labor law and prospects for its progressive change. The strength of Evenson’s study lies in its detailed examination of six areas of labor relations in Cuba: (1)  employment and hiring policies, (2) salary and other remuneration, (3) collective bargaining, (4) grievance procedures, (5) social security and benefits, and (6) foreign investment. Each of these topics is presented in a chapter that offers relevant legal, factual, and historical information to the reader and examines challenges and opportunities posed for Cuban workers and their unions today.

Table 1. Cuban National Trade Unions and Their Membership, 2001
Name Membership Percentage
National Union of Agricultural and Forest Workers 387,762, 12.8%
National Union of Chemical, Mining and Energy Workers 103,852, 3.4%
National Union of Civilian Workers of the Armed Forces 103,268, 3.4%
National Union of Commercial, Gastronomical and Service Workers 282,161,  9.3%
National Union of Communications Workers 39,144, 1.3%
National Union of Construction Workers 212,429, 7.0%
National Union of Cultural Workers 67,648, 2.2%
National Union of Education and Sports Workers 386,609, 12.8%
National Union of Food Workers 109,779, 3.6%
National Union of Health Workers 321,313, 10.6%
National Union of Hotel and Tourism Workers 84,919, 2.8%
National Union of Light Industry Workers 90,702, 3.0%
National Union of Merchant Marine, Port and Fishing Workers 59,876, 2.0%
National Union of Metal and Electronic Workers 70,819, 2.3%
National Union of Public Administration Workers 166,158, 5.5%
National Union of Science Workers 13,476, 0.4%
National Union of Sugar Workers 345,355, 11.4%
National Union of Tobacco Workers 68,462, 2.3%
National Union of Transportation Workers 112,011, 3.7%

Total   3,025,743  100%

Source: Evenson (2002, Appendix D) and Martínez Puentes (2003: 183).
Note: Some workers in agriculture, members of agricultural cooperatives, military personnel of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, workers in personal or family enterprises, apprentices, and prisoners are not members of these national trade unions.

It is useful to read these chapters in terms of what they tell us about the labor process and outcome measures. Cuban workers enjoy an appealing array of rights and remunerations including the eight-hour day, thirty vacation days per year, social security benefits, free healthcare on and off the job, generous maternity leave, and established base salaries. Together with free education, affordable housing, food, culture, and sports, these provide a material basis conducive to the development of working people’s potential.

Equally important is an array of institutional and organizational arrangements that facilitate workers’ participation in the labor process and enterprise management. Some 97 percent of the labor force is organized in nineteen national trade unions that make up the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) (see Table 1). Membership is voluntary, and trade unions and the CTC are financed by membership dues paid directly by workers to the local and discuss the contours of labor relations.  Collective bargaining, codified in the 1940 constitution, required a strong labor movement that emerged only after the 1959 revolution. Because the state has taken up the responsibility for a whole host of social and economic benefits, collective bargaining focuses on much narrower but important issues from the perspective of workers’ management. These include the right to obtain information about the enterprise (financial reports, work plans, health and safety inspections, and grievance hearings), participation in managerial decision making (e.g., to have representatives at weekly planning meetings of the management council), and education to gain important technical knowledge for the operation of the enterprise (e.g., training and skill upgrading and managerial skills such as cost analysis, general accounting, quality control, and efficiency techniques). The collective agreement also covers procedures and decisions for hiring and promotions (i.e., Commission 18 or the Committee of Experts), probation periods, work performance evaluation, and so on. The Base Organ of Labor Justice deals with grievances, disciplinary measures, and denial of rights. All these committees are made up of one representative of the workers elected by the general assembly, one from the union, and one from management; so the preponderance of workers is assured.

In two introductory chapters, Evenson provides context for the topics noted above. The first outlines the restructuring of enterprises after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, with a focus on the Decentralized Management System and joint ventures. The second chapter offers a brief discussion of trade unions, emphasizing the CTC, Cuba’s trade union confederation. The structure, focus, and tone of Evenson’s report make it highly useful for dissemination and discussion inside the U.S. labor movement, where there is a clear need to confront the AFL-CIO official policy of support for Washington’s effort to overthrow the Cuban revolution.(endnote 8) However, the report is also an important contribution to the relatively small literature on the history of the Cuban labor movement since the 1959 revolution and its place in the ongoing process of socialist development. As such, one would have liked to see it written from the perspective of workers’ management in the process of transition to socialism (Nayeri 2005).

4. Workers’ Power and the Problem of Socialist Development Strategy 
To make sense of socialist development in Cuba since 1959, it is necessary to take into account a number of international and domestic factors. Chief among the international factors are the imperialist counterrevolutionary campaign spearheaded by the United States, the contradictory relations with the Soviet Union, and the tempo of the world revolutionary movements, especially in Latin America. The U.S.-organized blockade of Cuba has openly aimed at overturning the Cuban revolution. Thus, its impact is not merely economic but especially political. The blockade is often seen as an affront to Cuba’s sovereignty, but it is no less a frontal attack on the power of the Cuban workers. Revolutionary upsurges, particularly in Latin America, have given the Cuban revolution much-needed breathing space. And their defeat, as in Granada and Nicaragua in the 1980s, has contributed to Cuba’s isolation. More important, revolutionary upsurge enhances revolutionary optimism of Cuban working people. The impact of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was contradictory. They provided the young revolutionary government much-needed economic and military aid in the face of Washington’s blockade and military campaign. At the same time, their political influence in Cuba deterred and, after the adoption of the Soviet model in the 1970s, undermined the strategy to build an independent working-class movement for socialism. 

Combined with Cuba’s internal class structure and dynamics, these factors have fostered a peculiar line of socialist development. I would argue that understanding the formation and development of the working class, the PCC, and the state is central for an appreciation of the problems of transition to socialism in Cuba (Nayeri 2006). The formation of the PCC in 1965 was the outcome of a process of convergence that began in 1958, a process that was recognized and led by Fidel Castro and merged two political tendencies. The older tendency was represented by the leadership and cadre of the pro-Moscow PSP. The newer political tendency has been called Fidelistas or “young communists” (as opposed to “old communists”). They were far less theoretically and ideologically homogeneous. But Fidelistas relied more on the Cuban and Latin American revolutionary heritage than on the then-dominant Moscow (or Beijing) teachings. 

From the Marxian perspective, the most important feature of the failed Soviet bloc experience was its exclusion of a strategy to develop a self-organized and self-active working class as the agency to effect the socialist transition. To the contrary, the Stalinist regime assumed power and consolidated itself through methodic suppression of all independent working-class and socialist initiatives. These policies were retained even after the de-Stalinization campaign of the late 1950s. Accordingly, the Soviet development trajectory (model) reflected desires and possibilities of an entrenched bureaucratic caste that dominated the party and the state and used administrative measures and material incentives. A similar bureaucratic approach was employed by the Kremlin in its relations to pro-Moscow communist parties that were expected to follow its dictates. 

Since 1930, the PSP and its predecessors followed the Kremlin’s dictates faithfully. Accordingly, they sought alliances with various bourgeois parties. For instance, in 1939, the Cuban Communists supported Fulgencio Batista’s campaign for the presidency. Batista rewarded them with legal status and two cabinet-level posts (Cantón Navarro 2000: 126, 130, 132; Tennant 2000: 144; Gott 2004: 158–59). Such class collaborationist policies undermined the independence and a class struggle perspective in the Cuban labor movement. They also weakened the Communists in the face of capitalist attacks. In the 1944 presidential campaign, the Communists supported Batista’s candidate against Grau San Martín. After San Martín won the election, they changed course, trying to win his favor. However, by 1947, the Cold War had begun and President Grau San Martín purged the Communists from the trade union federation. Eusebio Mujel Barniol,9 who was on the Comisión Obrera Nacional (National Labor Commission), led the charge. Mujel ruled the CTC until 1959, a period that was characterized by business unionism, corporatism, corruption, and bureaucratization (Fuller 1993: 169). Thus, Cuban workers and their mass organization did not play a leading role in the struggle against Batista’s dictatorship. Even after the 1959 revolution, the newly elected trade union leadership still followed Mujalismo by opposing the anticapitalist dynamics of the revolution and declaring its support for private property.

Reformism of the PSP and the trade union movement explains why the revolutionary struggle against Batista’s dictatorship was not led by the Communists or from the midst of the labor movement. The task of organizing the revolutionary struggle against Batista’s dictatorship fell primarily to the July 26 movement that Castro led and relied, to a large degree, on the peasantry. The PSP and the organized labor movement joined the struggle against Batista in 1958.

Faced with the mass mobilization of peasants and workers demanding inroads into private property, the leadership forged by Castro decided to deepen the national democratic revolution of 1959 in an anticapitalist direction. Soon after taking power, Castro and his close associates decided that a socialist leadership was necessary to defend and deepen the revolution. Thus, they undertook negotiation to unite all socialist-minded leaders and cadre into one organization. Founded in 1965, the PCC was the result of this effort.

Thus, the novelty of the Cuban revolution lies in the historic break with the legacy of reformism of the PSP and pro-Moscow Communist parties in Latin America. It lies in an alternative vision, theory, and policies that were outlined in Ernesto Che Guevara’s writings (Deutchmann 1987; Tablada 1989, 1991; Löwy 2003; Silverman 1973) and in Castro’s speeches (see, for example, Kenner and Petras 1969) in the 1960s. The Guevara-Castro tendency combined the revolutionary legacy of Cuba and Latin America with a revolutionary interpretation of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. It included an emphasis on praxis10 where human agency is both subject and object of socialist transformation, and the development of socialism is closely tied to the development of socialist consciousness. Thus, they emphasized the primacy of the transformation of relations of production in contrast to the dominant view that emphasized state-directed economic development using market categories and capitalist methods. Their vision of socialist society is not simply a society of abundance but, more important, one that would be different from the capitalist consumer society and would be built on the basis of solidarity and internationalism. Being based on praxis, this vision is deeply democratic; it sees the growth of bureaucracy as a danger as serious as imperialism (see, for example, PCC 1967). However, this vision has not been elaborated fully and systematically and lacks a corresponding economic policy where the market and state mediations gradually give room to socialist planning.

It should be clear why this historical context is important to the central concern of the books under discussion. While Saney describes many facets of the revolutionary process, he fails to provide a coherent picture of the “revolution in motion.” The development of the leadership of the Cuban revolution is a central part of this story. For this, Saney would have needed to confront the political impact of the Soviet bloc and its demise on the Cuban revolution, which he completely avoids.11 For this, he would need to assess socialist visions of Castro and Guevara. He does not consider Castro’s political legacy and does not even mention Guevara’s.

Similarly, an understanding of the complex history of the PCC is important for Rosendahl’s study of socialist ideology in Cuba. Her detailed empirical account of the ideology of the party leaders, members, political activists, and regular citizens is important for an understanding of the complexities of Cuban society and the road that needs to be traveled to socialism. However, the picture she provides remains murky and inaccurate because of a lack of understanding of the history and politics of the international socialist movement, in particular, the degeneration of the Russian revolution, and the particular features of the Cuban labor and socialist history before and after 1959.

Finally, Evenson’s study of labor law, trade union structure and function, and to a lesser extent, actual labor processes offers important details about the extent to which trade unions operate democratically on the enterprise, industry, and national levels. Thus, Evenson underscores the general progressive direction of Cuba’s trade union movement. In this, Evenson’s work complements Linda Fuller’s (1993) study of workplace democracy in Cuba that documents the process of development of workplace democracy and rank and file activism in the 1970s and 1980s. Evenson testifies to the continued development of rank-and-file involvement and local initiative in the 1990s, which has been reported by others who have studied Cuban workplaces and labor processes (e.g., Malapanis and Ruby 1994a, 1994b, 1994c; Nayeri 2001; Silberman, Koppel, and Waters 2004a, 2004b). Yet Evenson does not offer any assessment of whether and how this generally progressive movement has been consciously led toward workers’ management of Cuba’s economy and society. Do the CTC, the PCC leaderships, and the Cuban state strive for a strategy that enables Cuban workers to directly run the economy and society instead of relying on the party apparatus, state bureaucracy, or the market? The answer to this key question would bring us back to the problem of the formation and development of class, party, and the state in the transition to socialism in Cuba.

Kamran Nayeri Academic Planning and Budget University of California Office of the President 1111 Franklin St., 11th floor, Oakland, CA 94607–5200 E-mail:

1. I use the terms “socialism” and “communism” or “socialist” and “communist” interchangeably except when used as names. For example, I refer to the Cuban revolutionaries as socialists but to their party as the Communist Party.
2. Notably, Rosendahl recounts difficulties of doing ethnographic research by a European in Cuba. She reports how her participants were somewhat reserved in their conversations, but confirms that over time they “seldom showed any fear of expressing their often very critical opinions” (p. 26). Another impediment was her own prejudices: “I could not help carrying with me expectations of repression, restrictions, secret police, control and censorship . . . but the society was much more open than I expected” (p. 26).
3. For example, she writes, “A salient feature of the Cuban socialist ideology is that the leadership is expected to be active, which is also a male ideal” (p. 88). If this is a feminist critique of the Cuban revolution, it remains unstated.
4. Readers with an interest in detailed information about asamblea municipal and Poder Popular (People’s Power) could consult Roman (1999) and August (1999).
5. See, for example, pages 3, 14, 82, 119.
6. See, for example, page 37.
7. Rosendahl actually provides important examples of the everyday life of Cuban workers in a small town/rural setting, which is useful for a comprehensive view of the Cuban working class. But with the exception of a couple of stories involving agricultural or household work, her account does not provide information on Cuban workplaces or on workers as a class participating in decisions affecting the economy and society. Saney allocates a little more than three pages to a discussion of the Cuban trade unions and two pages to a report on Parlamentos Obreros (Workers’ Parliaments).
8. I am not aware of any systematic attempt to circulate Evenson’s report in the U.S. labor movement. The Institute of Employment Rights has published and circulated an abridged version in the British trade union movement (Evenson 2003).
9. Mujel was recruited as a student to the original Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC) in Guantánamo in 1932. He soon broke with PCC and eventually became an anti-communist (Tennant 2000, p. 63).
10. As Fidel Castro said, “Many times practice comes first and then theory. Our people too are an example of that. Many, the immense majority of those who today proudly call themselves Marxists-Leninists, arrived at Marxism-Leninism by way of the revolutionary struggle” (cited in Kenner and Petras 1969, p. xiii). 
11. Saney does provide a number of statements from Castro and others about relations with the Soviet Union. But these appear to provide contradictory assessments of the relationship and appear in the context of other issues. Typically, Saney does not try to provide the reader with a possible explanation for these differing assessments.

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