By Sam McGill, First published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 226 April/May 2012
‘Cuba faces two options – economic collapse, or updating the economy, building the only possible socialism in Cuba’. Noel Carrillo, Department of International Relations of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba
Cuba has been subjected to a harsh economic and political blockade by the US for over 50 years. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Special Period in the 1990s, Cuba has been in a state of economic crisis. The country lost 35% of its GDP and 80% of its trade overnight. Yet the revolution’s commitment to meeting the needs of its people has never wavered: not a single hospital or old people’s home was closed and no one starved.
Twenty years later Cuba is still living under the legacy of the Special Period and is not immune to the effects of the global economic crisis, yet socialist planning means that the Cuban people do not live at the whim of the markets; policy and spending are based directly on people’s needs, and so the crisis does not lead to food riots and oppression. In February 2012, 13 brigadistas from Rock around the Blockade spent two weeks learning about the challenges and achievements of the revolution.
Updating the economy to preserve the revolution
Cuba has been going through a process of popular consultation led by the Communist Party, implementing new guidelines that have been discussed and proposed from all sections of society. In previous editions of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! we have covered the economic measures taken to improve efficiency in relation to housing, the transfer of one million unproductively-employed state sector workers and the legalisation of self employment.*
The challenge facing Cuba is how to increase productivity so as to raise salaries and work towards the removal of the dual currency. Cuba has two domestic currencies, the exclusively internal national peso, and the convertible peso, the CUC, which was introduced to allow Cuba to access hard currency. It is the CUC that is primarily used for joint enterprises and tourism. One CUC is equivalent to 24 national pesos. Basic necessities, including food, health care, housing, gas electricity and education are free or heavily subsidised. However, the CUC allows those who work in the tourist industry or receive remittances from abroad to have access to expensive material goods such as mobile phones and laptops. Those who receive their salaries in the national peso have much more limited access to such goods. Despite being essential for the economy, remittances and the tourist industry have also produced inequalities. For example, those who fled Cuba in 1959 were predominantly Hispanic Cubans who had benefited from the racist Batista regime. Wealthier émigrés send more remittances back to their families in Cuba, which has led to material divisions between white and black Cubans.
It is such contradictions that the guidelines have been attempting to address. It is only through increasing productivity and efficiency that Cuba will be able to raise salaries and remove the dual currency without causing inflation. Some of the policies are already having an effect; last year saw a 2.8% increase in production. However, it would take an increase of 40-50% in production to raise the value of the national peso against the CUC sufficiently to remove the dual currency. This demonstrates the dimension of the challenge currently facing Cuba. What has been clear throughout discussion of the guidelines is that socialist planning and popular participation are central. The economic updates are measured, plans are based on real working conditions and all are monitored and evaluated through democratic participation. The aim is to raise salaries by 10% across the board by 2015; in some sectors, such as health and education, salaries have already increased by significantly more than that.
The battle for food sovereignty
Two-thirds of workers unproductively employed within the state sector are expected to transfer into cooperative employment to help increase agricultural production. The intention is to work towards food sovereignty and reduce reliance on food imports. For example, coffee production has declined to such an extent that Cuba now has to import coffee. Although Cuba’s total import dependency is just 16% of food consumed and the island is largely self-sufficient in the production of fruit, vegetables and tubers, total food imports cost $1.6 billion in 2011 and food prices are rising globally, increasing the pressure to reduce imports. The universal provision of higher education has produced a highly educated and ambitious youth. As a consequence, migration from rural to urban areas has increased, and the children of farm workers no longer want to work the land. The economic necessity of increasing agricultural production is bound up with the political challenge of raising socialist consciousness about the need for agricultural production.
Cuba is focused on improving technology, agricultural science and the attractiveness of working the land. The government is promoting the creation of agricultural cooperatives and usufruct, short-term rent-free loans of idle land from the state, a process which began in earnest in 2008. At the end of December 2011 nearly 1.4 million hectares of idle land had been given out in usufruct. Of this 76.5% is now being used to produce food. Salaries and incentives for milk farmers have been raised substantially. Now there is a similar focus for farmers producing corn, pork and beans. But, crucially, the state has not raised food prices for the Cuban population.
Alongside the material incentive of increased salaries has been the promotion of non-material incentives. Manuel Montero, a representative of the Cuban Trade Union Confederation (CTC) told us about projects where workers receive social recognition for outstanding work. ‘They can be proposed by the union to be interviewed on TV or appear on adverts for public information; they can receive medals, speak at big celebrations and we also have a weekly newspaper where outstanding work is publicly recognised’. The role of voluntary work is also a focus. Noel Carrillo of the Central Committee stressed to us the need to transform hitherto tokenistic and inefficient voluntary work into productive voluntary labour.
These measures are already having an effect – in 2011 Cuba saw an 8% increase in food production. However, as Manuel Montero explained, Cuba needs a 40% increase to reach a sustainable position.
This process will not be without its contradictions. The brigade met with Jesus Garcia, of the Institute of Philosophy in Havana, a researcher in the role of social relations and property who took part in Rock around the Blockade’s 2008 Speaking Tour. Jesus Garcia explained that ‘socialism is the continued progress of the emancipation of individuals and as such there must be a permanent process going on, of resolving contradictions between alienation and emancipation’.
A variety of forms of property can co-exist – state property, co-operatives, private ownership and so on, but they need to be centrally managed to ensure they are developing in a socialist direction. As Jesus Garcia said: ‘In facing all these economic challenges, it is essential that Cuba maintains its idea of where north is.’ In his analysis, co-operatives allow an organisation of power closer to the desired political system, in which the workers are in political control of the means of production, yet he stressed that it is essential these new forms are not allowed to be isolated from the system, and the planning of the economy.
‘Under capitalism, co-operatives are only linked to the system through markets, whereas for them to function under socialism they must be integrated into the structures of the state. It is important to remember that the state form by itself does not reproduce socialism, and can produce an alienated worker in the same way as the private form. Yugoslavia gives us an example whereby the autonomy of enterprises caused the collapse of socialism. Autonomy created isolated cells within the system – this is not socialism. Political decisions need to be taken by the whole of society to guide economic development, and this cannot be possible with isolated units. It is because of this that the political process is so important, and it must not be a bureaucratic process.’
Orlando Borrego fought alongside Che Guevara and is now an adviser for the transport ministry. He also took part in the Rock around the Blockade speaking tour in 2008. Borrego explained: ‘It is unthinkable to introduce capitalism, even in small amounts because it would spread, or explode. We have to introduce measures with some capitalist components, but we must be very careful not to lose control of the process.’
The Communist Party – leading by example
In order to guide the current process and control the measures being introduced, the Communist Party of Cuba is critically analysing its role and political work. Noel Carrillo, an official of the Party’s Central Committee, emphasised that its role is not to administer the state; instead, the party needs to guide the administration in a political direction. ‘The people, the mass organisations, and the workplaces must take the initiative and come up with more proposals on how to solve problems, but to do this the party has to build political consciousness in the population.’ This process is the key task for the next five years. Carrillo explained that: ‘The focus must be to preserve the unity of the revolution; this reality includes tough issues which must be tackled, including racism, women’s oppression and corruption.’
Carrillo explained that remittances and inequalities in the economy have led to discrimination against black Cubans, despite the elimination of institutional racism. Women are still under-represented in some areas: for example 73% of Cubans with professional qualifications are women, and in the municipalities half the representatives are women, yet in the politburo there is only one woman. Carrillo emphasised that ‘The Party must actively promote the best cadres. We are against a system of quotas, as this again is discrimination – the opportunities must be equal but the people in the jobs must be the best and the party is determined to promote disadvantaged cadre to improve themselves.’ Reflecting this commitment, after the 2011 elections, women make up 42% of the Central Committee, three times the previous figure. Black and mixed race people (35% of the Cuban population) now make up 30% of the Committee.
The Communist Party has identified corruption as the biggest threat to the survival of the revolution. As Manuel Montero pointed out, ‘we know that we can withstand attacks from imperialism, but corruption can erode the revolution from within’. Three years ago the Ministry of Auditing and Control was created to actively root out corruption at every level. But the battle against corruption is not simply a legal or administrative one. Raul Castro, in his closing speech to the Communist Party conference in January 2012 stressed the need to fight corruption politically, starting in the ranks of the party. ‘On many occasions, those implicated in corruption cases were members of the Party, who clearly harboured double standards and used their status to secure positions in leadership bodies, flagrantly violating their responsibilities as Communists. The only sanction to be applied to those participating in acts of corruption is expulsion from the ranks of the Party, regardless of the administrative or penal sanctions imposed.’
The defence of the revolution depends on popular participation and deepening democracy. Only if the mass of the people are educated in the decision-making processes can they make the decisions: this is the essence of socialist construction. The popular consultation over the guidelines is only the beginning of this process.
Osmani Castro, a delegate to Havana city’s provincial assembly, explained how he had had several chances to discuss the guidelines, through the assemblies of popular power, his trade union branch of the CTC, his local CDR, Party meetings and more. Noel Carrillo emphasised the need to increase democracy and develop leadership in Cuba. ‘Deepening participatory democracy relies on the population developing critical politics, to analyse decisions and proposals’ He stated that to progress, Cuba needs to overcome what he called the siege mentality that has been a product of 53 years of resistance against imperialist attacks. The Cuban population needs to be encouraged to challenge decisions rather than censoring itself or relying on leaders to ‘provide the answers’.
Raul Castro underlined this commitment, stating ‘A revolution without errors has never existed and never will, because they are the result of the actions of imperfect human beings and peoples, faced moreover with new and colossal challenges. For that reason, I believe that we need not be ashamed of errors; it is more serious and shameful not to have the valour to delve more profoundly into them and analyse them in order to extract the lessons from each one and correct them in time.’
The Cubans are united behind their revolution and ready to take on the challenges. As Osmani Castro said, ‘We will defend and preserve the revolution – for us it is life or death. Most people born after the revolution don’t know capitalism – I know it. Illiteracy, suffering, unemployment, no medical attention. We know what we are defending. The revolution is not perfect, we have committed mistakes, but we’ve made mistakes trying our best’.