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On the Occasion of the Death of Fidel Castro at Ninety: The Cuban Revolution in Historical and Sociological Perspective

Updated on December 14, 2016

Despite the long, convoluted title of this essay, my purpose is very simple. The long-time leader of the island nation of Cuba, Fidel Castro, has recently died. There is a lot of commentary flying around, which, frankly, reveals a lack of understanding about what the Cuban Revolution he spearheaded, was all about. It is this misunderstanding that has, in my opinion, generally and unfairly warped the perception of his legacy.

The confusion is understandable. It is very hard to nail down what exactly the Cuban rebels were rebelling against. On the surface, there does not seem to have been any clear antagonist, that should have been on the receiving end of the rebels's wrath. As there does not, on the surface, seem to have been a clear antagonist, outsiders are generally unaware of what the "beef" was of the Cuban rebels.

What are unclear about what they were fighting for, against, and whom they were fighting against.

To set this up I am going to introduce a term that I made up: Zone of Industrial Extraordinary Rendition.

You may recognize the two words extraordinary rendition. I deliberately borrowed the term from the War on Terror launched by President George W. Bush, shortly after September 11, 2001. Recall that we began to hear Vice President Richard Cheney talking about how the U.S. would have to operate in the "dark side," to defeat the Islamic terrorists. Recall that we began to hear terms like: "water boarding," "enhanced interrogation techniques," and "extraordinary rendition."

Later we were given to understand that extraordinary rendition was a CIA program. They sent terrorism suspects to other countries---like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt---to apply supposedly cooperation-inspiring torture techniques to them that were politically inconvenient to exercise in the United States.

That's the basic idea: you do things "over there" that you cannot quite get away with domestically---if you are one of the rich and powerful Western democratic nations.

Now, we are applying the political and geo-strategic concept of extraordinary rendition to economics, to global capitalism.

To be clear, I am not talking about "globalization." I am not talking about the "offshoring of production," with the usual bargain-hunting for the lowest cost and most malleable labor sources around the world, that firms engage in.

U.S. firms infamously offshored production starting in the 1970s. They offshored production to Mexico and China, for example. Labor is much cheaper and more malleable in those countries; governments eager for foreign direct investment help to keep labor, shall we say, under control.

I do not consider Mexico and China zones of industrial extraordinary rendition. Mexico and China are organized, sovereign societies where a rule of law prevails. Therefore, there is, at least, some nominal, theoretical limit to what you can do to workers.

Places in the world that I term "zones of industrial extraordinary rendition," are virtually law-free zones. As a consequence, there is virtually no limit to the exploitability of the workforce.

Let me emphasize, it may be the case that so-called "sweatshop"-type conditions prevail in Mexico and China. That, again, is not what I am talking about. When I refer to a zone of industrial extraordinary rendition, I am referring to conditions that are, believe it or not, an order of magnitude worse than that.

What I want to do is give an example of a place I consider to be a zone of industrial extraordinary rendition: the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

Political analyst and author Thomas Frank discussed the situation in CNMI, in his book The Wrecking Crew (2008).

To start with, we're talking about Saipan, "the largest island in the American territory known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or CNMI. Located on the far side of the Pacific Ocean, the CNMI is the most distant part of the United States. It is much closer to Japan (1,300 miles) than to San Francisco (5,600 miles)" (1).

Now, it is significant, in support of my thesis, that the CNMI has been "[v]ariously hailed as 'a perfect petri dish of capitalism' (Tom DeLay), a 'laboratory of liberty'(Washington Times), a demonstration that 'pro-business policies are pro-people policies' (Amy Ridenour), or as a place to seek 'answers for the rest of the American family,' as Congressman Brian Bilbray put it (2).

The "CNMI economy," wrote Thomas Frank, "is the product of a unique economic deal the islands struck with the world; a deal in which wages can be kept extremely low, workers have no citizenship rights, and virtually the entire power of the state stands behind employers as they extract profit from the toil of others. For most of the workers who came to the islands over the last few decades, this arrangement meant indentured servitude; for a few, it was tantamount to slavery. For Tom DeLay, the situation was so gratifying that he promised persoanally to block all efforts to divert Saipan from its chosen course. 'Stand firm,' he once told a gathering of the island's overlords. 'Resist evil. Remember that all truth and blessings emanate from our Creator'" (3).

Please stay with me and follow closely, because I want you to clearly understand something. What I will go on to describe---from Thomas Frank's work---is not what we, in the advanced capitalist world, would call capitalism, per se, or accept as an economic order.

  • What I will go on to describe is not capitalism, per se, or what we, in the advanced capitalist world, would call capitalism, or accept as an economic order for ourselves, certainly not under the name of capitalism.
  • What I will go on to describe is not even what we would call "neoliberal"-style capitalism (4).
  • In both above instances, what happens takes place within organized, sovereign societies where a rule of law of some kind prevails (5).
  • A "Zone of Industrial Extraordinary Rendition" only functions in a virtually law-free zone, as we will see; that is the central component because it means maximum protection for business and capital and virtually no protection for labor.
  • What I am trying to say is that in a law-free zone of "Industrial Extraordinary Rendition" there is almost no limit to the harm you can do to workers.
  • You do not move your factory to a Zone of Industrial Extraordinary Rendition (ZIER) to get cheaper, more malleable labor; what you do is sell off your production facilities---thus freeing yourself of the bother of managing labor---to people who will become your suppliers (6).

Let us skip over some details, right to "the 1978 covenant that made the islands an American commonwealth," which "allocated a number of state powers to the CNMI itself" (7).

We are back talking about the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).


Red flag coming up! Remember that "law-free zone" thing I've been talking about?

"In order to jump-start their economy," our guide, Thomas Frank wrote, "the islanders were exempted from American quotas, tariffs, and minimum-wage laws" (8).

Pay attention to this part:

"They also received control over immigration because they feared, in the words of the American diplomat who negotiated the covenant, 'that U.S. immigration laws would permit an influx of aliens that would dilute the indigenous population' (9).

Here comes the switch, however:

"Within twenty year they had imported so many outsiders to work in factories and construction that they, the 'indigenous population,' were a minority in their own country. From 1980 to 1997, when the Clinton administration issued a report on labor conditions on the islands, the population of the CNMI had increased by 250 percent, with aliens filling fully 90 percent of the private-sector jobs" (10).

Remember this: In the history of the United States of America, the influx of multitudes of laborers from poorer countries, where workers are paid much, much, much less, and were used to taking much, much, much more crap on the job, has always, always, always been used to depress both wages and working conditions. So, of course, the CNMI "imported so many outsiders to work in factories and construction that they, the indigenous population, were a minority in their own country."

Unrestricted immigration of this kind also acts as a weapon of class warfare of bosses against workers; because the issue is not the foreign workers, it is their use as a way to harshen working conditions and lower the pay of all workers.

Stay with me.

The following items are a summary of "the legal situation into which the island had maneuvered itself by the mid-eighties": Immigration was, in effect, unlimited; Immigrants were to be 'guest workers,' bound by contract to a particular employer; they could not become citizens or vote or even change jobs without the say-so of island labor authorities; Guest-worker contracts ran for one year and were renewable at the discretion of the employer; guest workers could also be deported instantly by their employer for the slightest offense; The minimum wage, which most of these guest workers received, was much lower than in America; with a little ingenuity wages could be driven far lower still; Enforcement of basic labor laws was extremely lax, and workers could even be confined to their "barracks" if the employer so desired; On the other hand, there were "virtually no restrictions on investment and capital flow"; Taxes on capital were much lower than elsewhere in the United States; Business owners were free to open and close, build and raze as they saw fit; Anything manufactured on the islands could be tagged "Made in U.S.A." and exported to the American domestic market---the richest in the world---without quotas or tariffs; Manufacturers and their property were protected by the laws and the armed forces of the United States (11).

Again, remember that "law-free zone" thing I keep harping about!

Our guide Thomas Frank: "Put such a list before the world, as Saipan did, and any qualified MBA would instantly recognize it for what it was: a plan for a labor gulag; an island maquiladora" (12).

Understand, this is the situation that the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 sought to avert: the formation of the island into a labor gulag!

The Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 was not a revolt against "capitalism," per se.

The Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 was not even a revolt against "neoliberal" capitalism.

The Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 was not a revolt against "globalization."

The Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 was a revolt against the country being turned into a labor gulag in the fashion of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

Let's keep going!

Once again, our guide Thomas Frank:

"The international garment industry was the first to buy what Saipan was selling. John Bowe, a journalist who has observed the islands' system firsthand, recounts how CNMI representatives in the eighties laid their wares before global 'loophole shoppers' and quickly struck deals with manufacturers in Hong Kong and Korea. Within a few years there were thirty-six garment factories in operation in Saipan, running on the labor of workers imported from Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and above all, Communist China (13).

"What happened next on Saipan is a well-known media story. The garment manufacturers recruited their guest workers---most of whom forked over a hefty fee, usually borrowed, in exchange fro the opportunity to work in 'America' ---and transported them to Saipan, where they lived in barracks specially built for the purpose. They worked unusually long shifts in unpleasant conditions, sometimes up to twelve hours a day, with extra pay for overtime an iffy proposition. And that was the whole of the workers' experience, by and large: factory and barracks, little more. In many cases they were prohibited from leaving the company compound, and some of them were required to sign contracts agreeing not to join unions, talk to American officials, or even go on dates before they were permitted to work in the 'laboratory of liberty'" (14).

Seeing all of this, "native-born islanders" naturally "learned to stay away from the private sector, with its sub-lousy wages and abusive conditions. They tended either to work for the local government, where the wage scales were closer to American standards, or not to work at all" (15).

Think about that for a minute: From the outside looking in, from a certain ideological perspective, the tendency would be to think of the islanders who chose to work for the government, over the private sector, as, at best, people with socialistic or communistic tendencies, if they were not outright "card-carrying" socialists and communists; and the tendency would be to think of those islanders who chose not to work at all as "lazy." But the simple truth is that most native-born islanders were just not interested in working in a nineteenth-century-style labor gulag.


Our guide, Thomas Frank, tells us that a "typhoon of Japanese tourism swept over the CNMI in the late eighties, and the construction and hospitality industries became major employers of imported labor. Casinos and luxury hotels made their inevitable appearance, along with the golf courses that would later make such a romantic backdrop for the visits of Saipan's conservative admirers" (16).

From this naturally flows the "sex industry" which "is another central element of the CNMI setup" (17).

"It arose, predictably enough," wrote Thomas Frank, "from the other two mainstays of Saipan's economy: the garment mills and the tourist trade. One part of the island was swarming with young, desperate, and sometimes even hungry female garment workers; the other part was filled with rich men on a spree. The most elementary economic forces dictated what came next, as a lush jungle of brothels and massage parlors and karaoke joints came to flourish on Saipan" --- resulting in an "open sexual buffet for otherwise undesirable American men, a geriatric surf city with two girls for every geezer" (18).


The above is how the situation had been shaping up in Cuba during the 1950s, under Castro's predecessor, General Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar, as Pimp-in-Chief.

Therefore, once again, the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 sought to stop Cuba from becoming a labor gulag and a whorehouse for "otherwise undesirable" and predatory foreign investors.

Now, I do not say this. Authors T.J. English and Enrique Cirules said this. Mind you, they do not use my terminology or interpretations. But I see their work as justifying my terminology and interpretations; in other words, they provide the proof but do not draw the conclusions I have drawn from it.

With that said, let me go ahead and recommend two books you might turn to for further reading, about the attempt to turn Cuba into a labor gulag and a hedonistic pleasure palace for "otherwise undesirable" foreign investors:

English, T.J. Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba-- And Then Lost It to the Revolution.

Cirules, Enrique. The Mafia in Havana: A Caribbean Mob Story.

I want to just offer two or three more quotes from the text, because our guide, Mr. Thomas Frank, said it so much better than I ever could.

"[W]hat intrigues us about this story," Mr. Frank wrote, "is how, with no evident expertise in nineteenth-century history, the leaders of the Saipan garment industry proceeded to reconstruct the 'satanic mills' of a century before in astonishing detail: the indebted workers, the company stores, the tricks used to extract unpaid hours, the exits that one researcher found to be nailed shut. A nice touch, that last. Very Triangle Shirtwaist. Very realistic (19).

"This wasn't the work of some robber-baron reenactment club, however. It was simply the market doing what the market will always do, should it somehow get loose from the political cage. The animal is predictable. It will bid wages down and push profits up by any means it is permitted to use. Freed from the restraints built up over the years by unions and government, for example, every factory manager on earth will quickly discover that he can save a few pennies by, say, never having the toilets cleaned" (20).

By the way, what is the relationship between a "Zone of Industrial Extraordinary Rendition" and democracy?

One more quote. Our guide, Thomas Frank, tells us what it is:

"What went one in the CNMI could not have happened without the active involvement of the state. Yes, this was a free-market paradise, as the libertarians assured the world on dozens of occasions, but a free-market system never simply means do what thou wilt. To begin with, the state is required, at the most basic level, to maintain order in an unpleasant system where the impulse to down tools and say take this job and shove it must run strong indeed. Contracts---sacred contracts---must be enforced. Someone has to run down and beat the garment workers who need beating. Even more important, the state must ensure that workers are imported as industry sees fit. Were the immigration process regulated according to any other criterion, the CNMI's manufacturers might quickly find themselves in some kind of bidding war for labor that would cause wages to rise all on their own, minimum wage laws notwithstanding (21).

"The state must also maintain the pseudodemocracy that makes all of this possible, with some inhabitants possessing only minimal civil rights while others, receive benefits, sit on juries, and serve in the legislature. Last, the state is required, in this imperfect, bureaucrat-ridden world of ours, to mollify the external powers-that-be---the fretful investors; the liberal fact-finders; the anxious home governments of guest workers; our own federal government, sporadically wondering what the hell is going on---and to convince them that everything is being taken care of" (22).


I am wrapping this up because I don't want to subject the readers to too much suffering. But I must confess to a feeling of inadequacy and disappointment in myself. You see, I do not feel like I have presented my thesis forcefully enough or effectively enough. I cannot look back on what I have written and tell myself contentedly: Yes, now they understand! I'm sure of it!

I cannot say that. I can only stress---and I cannot stress this strongly enough---that it is crucial to be absolutely, positively, and unequivocally clear about exactly what the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959, was revolting against and what it was not rebelling against.

As I have said before:

  • The Cuban Revolution was not a revolt against rule by any particular overlord country, per se---and the term per se must be stressed.
  • The Cuban Revolution was not a revolt against "capitalism," and yes the quotation marks around the word capitalism must be stressed.
  • The Cuban Revolution was not even a revolt against the so-called "neoliberal" version of capitalism.
  • The Cuban Revolution was not a revolt against "globalization" or "modernity."

What was the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 rebelling against?

That is why I coined the term "Zone of Industrial Extraordinary Rendition" and discussed the situation in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI); and this is also why I took pains to distinguish the situation we find in the CNMI from all too familiar "sweatshop" situations of the global capitalist economy.

A Zone of Industrial Extraordinary Rendition is something different and apart. It is a true dark site, or dark enclave, of global capitalism. A Zone of Industrial Extraordinary Rendition is a virtually law-free zone, with almost no theoretical limit to how badly workers can be exploited.

A Zone of Industrial Extraordinary Rendition is what Thomas Frank told us it is: a "labor gulag" and a "open sexual buffet for otherwise undesirable" foreign investors.

In fact, let me offer just one more quote, so that you can get a real feel for the soul-sapping sleaziness of the situation.

It seems that there is an anthropologist who has studied the situation and how the men...

"park outside the garment factories at shift changes waiting for girlfriends, they meet girls in clubs; men 50 and up walk around with women in their early 20s, old men marry teenagers---all these things exist everywhere in the world, but here they are common. Men sleep with a series of women who would not give them a second glance in any other society; men and women marry who have no language in common... Marriages end very easily, when the wife ages and the husband finds a younger contract-worker wife" (23).


So, as clearly as I can state it: The Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 sought to prevent the transformation of the country into a literal labor gulag dungeon (zone of industrial extraordinary rendition) and "open sexual buffet for otherwise undesirable" foreign investors, an entire nation as pleasure-palace/whorehouse, with General Batista as Pimp-in-Chief.

It is hard to look at this situation and even formulate the right question to ask about it, much less attempt to answer it.

Do we say: Why did the United States want to create labor gulags in Cuba (failed attempt) and the CNMI?

Are our ruling class outright Nazis, who consciously insist upon the suffering of others?

Is the United States the only advanced Western capitalist country that sets up "zones of industrial extraordinary rendition"?


Should we say: Why does global capitalism continue to require such zones of industrial extraordinary rendition?---Does global capitalism "continue" to "require" such zones of industrial extraordinary rendition?

Surely, if global capitalism did not require zones of industrial extraordinary rendition, global capitalism would not create and maintain zones of industrial extraordinary rendition?

Perhaps would should say: What is the relationship of zones of industrial extraordinary rendition (or "labor gulags" and "open sexual buffets for otherwise undesirable" foreign investors, with the corrupt head of state acting as "Pimp-in-Chief," like Cuba under General Batista in the 1950s) and the viability of capitalism?

In other words: Do zones of industrial extraordinary rendition fulfill some need that the system of global capitalism has?

Or, is it just as simple as Thomas Frank put it, "the market doing what the market will always do, should it somehow get loose the political cage. The animal is predictable. It will bid wages down and push profits up by any means it is permitted to use. Freed from the restraints built up over the years by unions and government, for example, every factory manager on earth will quickly discover that he can save a few pennies by, say, never having the toilets cleaned" (24).

At the end of the day, are zones of industrial extraordinary rendition nothing more than enclaves of a kind of diplomatic sanctuary for capital? If so, what does this say about the nature of social relations, among the various actors, in a normally functioning market-based, capitalist system?

Thank you for reading!

References and Notes

1. Frank, Thomas. The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt And Company), 2008. 209

2. ibid, 210

3. ibid

4. What is "neoliberalism"?

That's a hard question to answer, because there are many ways to define the term. We can start with the late-1970s---the beginning of the "neoliberal era" is usually roughly dated to that time.

In a way, neoliberalism is a form of capitalism that grew up as an ideological rebuke to Franklin Roosevelt, New Deal/Truman's "Fair Deal"/Johnson's Great Society form of government activist, heavily market-regulating, liberal capitalism.

As an ideological rebuke, neoliberalism's critique of New Deal liberalism was that it did not give enough room for individual entrepreneurial initiative and dynamism; and gave too much for overbearing, nanny-state, creativity-sapping regulation and bureaucratic hyper-monitoring of the operations of business, which is only here to help, after all---you know, all business wants to do is create jobs for us, and all that; and government is getting in the way of the democracy of the market.

This, in short, is the neoliberal critique of New Deal liberalism.

Neoliberalism is anti-regulation (except for those regulations that business likes because they limit competition). Neoliberalism is almost fully anti-tax. Neoliberalism is the revival of capitalism, as concerned with profit, more than ever.

Neoliberalism is anti-union; it is the post-New Deal revival of capitalism as demanding "labor flexibility," more than ever.

Neoliberalism is pro-Wall Street, the post-New Deal revival of capitalism as concerned with stock price, more than ever.

Neoliberalism is pro-privatization of government assets and functions; neoliberalism, then, is the post-New Deal revival of capitalism as the "no government is good government" school of ideology, more than ever.

And so on and so forth.

5. The creation of a "zone of industrial extraordinary rendition" is not the same thing as a imperial neoliberal imposition.

What I mean by that is exemplified by the case of Chile in 1973. This is an example of an "imperial neoliberal imposition." September 11, 1973---yes, their 9/11, as Chileans call it: The U.S. CIA was the driving force behind a coup that deposed the democratically elected President, Salvadore Allende, because he was preparing to "nationalize" U.S.-owned industrial assets, thereby making them Chilean entities controlled by the central government of Chile.

President Allende was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet. His military dictatorship presided over the transition of the economy from a kind of socialistic approach of his predecessor, Allende, to a neoliberal economy.

Even when this happened, Chile never became what I would call a "virtually law-free zone." What I call a zone of industrial extraordinary rendition is much, much worse than an "imperial neoliberal imposition."

What I mean to say is that, even under General Pinochet, rationality was never completely abandoned. For example, as I said before, "neoliberalism" is privatization-crazy, right? The Pinochet administration did its share of privatization; however, it never did privatize the state copper-mining company, Codelco.

6. see Klein, Naomi. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Random House of Canada & Picador, 1999

7. Frank, T. The Wrecking Crew. 213

8. ibid

9. ibid

10. ibid

11. ibid, 213-214

12. ibid, 214

13. ibid, 215

14. ibid, 215-216

15. ibid, 217

16. ibid, 216

17. ibid, 218

18. ibid

19. ibid, 219

20. ibid, 219-220

21. ibid, 220-221

22. ibid, 221

23. ibid, 218

24. ibid, 219-220


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