Cuba's contradictions

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Last month a national congress in Cuba agreed to reforms aimed at opening the country up to market forces. Mike Gonzalez examines Cuba's contradictions

In April 2011 the Cuban Communist Party met in national congress. This was its first congress since 1997, and the first that would not be presided over by Fidel Castro - who used to be its general secretary as well as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. Four years ago Fidel passed the baton to his brother Raul, five years younger than him and minister of defence since the revolution of 1959.

For every socialist the dynastic transfer of power from brother to brother, and their continued absolute domination of the revolution over 50 years on, must be a matter of concern. There have been a number of younger leaders who have emerged and been briefly seen as successors to the historic leadership - Roberto Robaina in the foreign ministry, Carlos Lago as economic supremo, to name just two - but they have disappeared just as quickly as they emerged at the whim of the leadership. There have never been any genuinely democratic elections outside the largely ceremonial votes within the party organisations to permit new leaderships to emerge or even to test the authenticity of popular support for the regime. Fidel Castro, of course, has an unequalled status as the symbol of historic anti-imperialism in Latin America - and his personal popularity is high. But the reverence with which he is treated (and it is limited to him) and the ritual denunciations of imperialism cannot be a substitute for a genuine process of public political debate and discussion, authentic elections or the presentation of genuine alternative political perspectives which would be central to socialism based on the self-emancipation of Cubans.

Last month's congress had 1,000 delegates present. Their election, however, was conducted within the party organs on the basis of lists of approved candidates. During a visit in December of 2010 Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was presented with a large bound volume containing the resolutions and decisions of the 2011 Congress, before the process of internal discussion had even been completed.

According to Raul, in a key speech at the end of last year, the Congress would be devoted to "perfecting the Cuban economic model...in the light of the urgent necessity of introducing strategic changes in the functioning of the economy with the aim of making socialism in Cuba both sustainable and irreversible". The measures to achieve this, many of which are already in the process of implementation, include opening the economy to foreign capital, the elimination of 500,000 jobs in the state sector and the ending of subsidies for basic necessities (the "libreta de abastecimientos") on which the majority of the Cuban people depend to supplement their wages - which are an average of $20 a month.

The newly unemployed state employees will, it is projected, move into the private sector, which will be further expanded. Independent economic activity will be allowed and more heavily taxed, and private property in land will be permitted on a larger scale, with some state properties sold to private individuals. 295,000 people already work in the private sector. This number will certainly increase. One estimate suggests that it already represents a sixth of the economy.

Struggle

For ordinary Cubans life is a constant struggle. The people paid in pesos - all those not working in the tourist sector, in a word - have to battle to keep their heads above water. According to novelist Leopoldo Padura Fuentes, the result is generalised theft and corruption. Agricultural policy has been inefficient and mismanaged, with the result that the bulk of Cuba's food is imported. The sugar industry, on which Cuba has historically depended, is in virtual collapse as prices fall and the soil becomes increasingly contaminated. As most Cubans face daily difficulties, the privileged minority within the state - the senior bureaucrats and diplomats in particular who are the beneficiaries of widespread corruption, those who receive money transfers from the US and the people working in the tourist sector, indulge in "shopping" (the English word is always used) in the dollar shops and shopping malls.

At the end of his 2011 speech Raul offered a brutal alternative: "Either we rectify or we go under." In 2005 Fidel had warned that unless severe measures were taken, corruption would destroy the revolution from within. In 1986, launching the Rectification Campaign, he had said much the same thing. The reality is that corruption is the inevitable result of the control of the Cuban state by a political bureaucracy which has not changed at its heart since the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 - in reality an anti-colonial, rather than a socialist, revolution in which Cuba's workers were larely onlookers, however sympathetic. Ordinary Cubans today speak endlessly and angrily about the visible and growing gulf - economic, social and political - between this privileged layer and the majority, whose daily life is a struggle.

It was always argued that despite the enormous difficulties Cuba has faced since 1959 - difficulties resulting from and constantly intensified by a relentless campaign by Washington to destroy the revolution - there were important social compensations that improved the living standards of every Cuban, in particular access to education and the health service. One of the measures announced by Raul is the removal of subsidies and grants for workers to enable them to go into higher education. They will still be able to go, but they will have to finance themselves.

Unhealthy exports

Much has been made of the presence of Cuban medical personnel in other countries. Venezuela's Barrio Adentro programme, for example, is staffed by 20,000 Cuban medical personnel and a new generation of Venezuelan doctors is being trained in Cuba. Sadly, this is not a simple case of international solidarity. The expertise of Cuban health and education professionals is an important export for Cuba. In the case of Venezuela it is exchanged for oil, which probably saved the Cuban economy at a critical moment at the end of the 20th century. The result is deterioration in the Cuban health service and a serious shortage of teachers. Those who have not gone abroad (where they are paid in dollars) have moved into the tourist sector where they can earn dollars as taxi drivers, tour guides or sex workers.

The current crisis in the Cuban economy can be traced back to the early 1990s, with the sudden ending of the Soviet subsidies that had effectively sustained the economy for 30 years. By the end of the decade there was growth based on a rapidly expanding tourist industry. But this growth was fragile because it did not reflect any deep transformation of the economy. The criminal embargo, sustained by successive US governments, is still in place, though with some attenuation, under the Obama administration. This, combined with the world recession, devastating hurricanes and the collapse in sugar and nickel prices, is intensifying the crisis. In addition, tourism declined severely in 2008-9. Though numbers have risen since then, earnings have increased less rapidly.

The result of all this is what Samuel Farber calls "social deterioration" - the low living standards of most Cubans contrast sharply with the life of a minority whose Mercedeses cruise up and down Havana's Malecon, while most people queue for long periods waiting for the suffocating transport that will eventually take them home.

There have been a series of recent protests in the foreign companies, for example, demanding that their wages be paid in dollars not pesos, so that they can share some of the benefits so obviously enjoyed by the people running the state and the economy. This deepening alienation is the theme of much recent Cuban literature, such as the work of Pedro Juan Gutierrez, who wrote the Dirty Havana Trilogy, and in the songs of Pedro Luis Ferrer, like "Como Vivire" (How can I live?). It is becoming more visible in the form of protests and demonstrations of a kind never seen until the last two or three years, in the surge in enthusiasm for hip hop, and in a number of demonstrations in universities across the island.

"Safeguarding socialism"

Raul spoke about safeguarding socialism. But as the late Celia Hart (daughter of two of the founders of the 26 July Movement which led the 1959 Revolution) says, with her characteristic fearlessness and clarity, "Socialism is not distinguished from previous systems only by the fairer distribution of wealth. New relations of production should be emerging together with a new consciousness in which the workers recognise themselves as actors, controllers and owners of material production."

The reality is that Cuba does not fit either criterion. The distribution of wealth is manifestly and increasingly unfair, and there is no semblance of the kind of direct democracy under the control of the working class to which she refers. In a series of articles published at the end of 2010, Guillermo Almeyra points out that the large volume of resolutions to the congress barely mentions trade unions or the organs of popular power. On the contrary, party and state will now be formally fused so that even the acknowledgement of a realm of politics distinct from the state apparatus implicit in the separation of party and government will now be lost - even if this fusion is simply a formalisation of an already existing reality. If there are no other political organisations outside the Communist Party (and none are permitted) where can a meaningful popular power be exercised, critical debate develop and challenges to power be articulated?

Where is this process taking Cuba? In what sense can Raul talk about "making socialism in Cuba both sustainable and irreversible"? It is perfectly clear that this congress has been called to validate a very different strategy. The economy is being liberalised and slowly but perceptibly finding its place in a global economy. It is wonderfully ironic, for example, that pressure to lift elements of the sanctions that have besieged Cuba for 50 years has come from the food producers of the American Midwest, anxious to gain access to the lucrative and growing market for their imports in Cuba. As the new measures are implemented around 20 percent of the Cuban population will find themselves in the private sector.

Corruption

For the present they will be required to sell their goods through the state, which will only serve to reinforce the bureaucracy and provide more opportunities for corruption. But in reality these new private entrepreneurs will almost certainly be, as they have been throughout the last 15 or 20 years, the very same bureaucrats or their families and friends. That was the case, for example, with the "paladares", the private eating places which began to appear as the tourist industry grew. In the longer term it will certainly widen the gulf between the economically privileged class and a majority of the population experiencing increasing difficulty maintaining a decent life as subsidies are removed, unemployment begins to appear and state services deteriorate - as they already have in the health and housing sectors.

It seems clear that Raul's favoured option, and presumably what he means by the "socialist model", is the Chinese option - economic liberalisation with iron political control. These conditions favour the capitalists, private or state, at the expense of the workers in whose name the changes are being made.

This argument is not abstract or academic. It concerns the political strategies available to a working class which is being asked to pay for the economic survival of Cuba. How can the working class organise its own interests and respond to the harsh measures imposed by the Cuban state? There are obviously two elements to this. On the one hand, socialists must expose and denounce the imperialist blockade that has caused such damage to Cuba over time.

It is true that there is some trade in food and that Cubans living outside the island are allowed to send funds to their families. Internal migration has been slightly eased, and while travel abroad is now easier it is still extremely expensive to leave the island by the official route - it costs $1,000 and still brings with it social opprobrium and the likelihood of sanctions and blacklisting while you are waiting to leave. It is beyond doubt that the obsession of every US administration, including Obama's, with Castro's Cuba has had profound and far-reaching effects. On the other hand we have to ensure that the discourse of anti-imperialism does not veil another profound contradiction. In the name of solidarity any criticism of the Cuban regime or the failures of the revolution has been instantly described as counter revolutionary or bringing comfort to the lunatics of the Miami anti-Castro lobby.

Emancipation

But if socialism is the "self-emancipation of the working class", the increasing marginalisation of the working class from power, the absence of any organs of independent class organisation, and the existence of a ruling class that has kept itself in power for over five decades - and is now enacting this new raft of measures - make nonsense of the claim that Cuba's process is socialist.

Those who carry the flame of socialism are those who are resisting, protesting at social inequality, exposing the repression of any critical voices which has intensified under Raul. Fidel has in some senses distanced himself from his brother's regime, yet his considerable authority is dedicated to sustaining and defending it at every turn.

The reaction of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega to the Libyan events has perplexed and concerned socialists and activists around the world. It is true of course that the resistance in Libya, like the nascent resistance in Cuba, is politically unclear, diverse and sometimes contradictory. In both cases, the difficulty of raising political criticism, and the impossibility of organising an independent political response over nearly two generations are sufficient explanation for the absence of clarity and knowledge of the revolutionary socialist tradition. Yet the "school of revolution" is the fertile soil in which such movements will grow. Fidel's ambivalence about Gaddafi reflects a reluctance to abandon an anti-imperialist perspective which has held the Cuban people in a close embrace with the regime ever since the revolution of 1959.

The Cuban Revolution can develop to the extent that the idea of people's power that the Cuban state has claimed for so long as its own is now reclaimed by a working class that is rediscovering its collective strength, just as people have across the Middle East and North Africa, and identify the enemy of its interests in capitalism itself. As Celia Hart put it, "In Cuba what hunger, threats, the blockade, Torricelli and Helms Burton, the US Navy, and nuclear missiles could not destroy might now be in danger of being destroyed by our own inconsistency. For the first time the actions of human beings can overcome the market. That is the essence of socialism, to refuse to be the prisoners of the market and instead to place it directly under our (collective) control."