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Defending Socialism in Cuba

by Hannah Caller and Cat Wiener

from Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No.135, February/March 1997

At the end of December, Rock around the Blockade's work over the last year culminated in taking a brigade of 21 young people - the No Pasaran! brigade - to Cuba, taking with us equipment for a mobile disco requested by the Union of Young Communists (UJC) of Ciego de Avila.

Rock around the Blockade was set up in 1995 by the Revolutionary Communist Group to support the defence of socialism and linking work in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution with the goal of building a socialist movement here in Britain.

The special period: economic gains and risks

When the USSR and the socialist bloc collapsed between 1989 and 1991, Cuba lost over 80% of its trade. Between 1989 and 1994, GDP fell by 34%; between 1989 and 1992, imports fell by 75%. In the face of this economic crisis, the Cuban government decided that the gains of the Revolution would be defended at all costs. The economic changes of the last two years - the legalisation of the dollar economy, the growth of joint ventures with foreign capital, self-employment, the increase in tourism, for example - were introduced with
this goal in mind.

In sharp contrast to the cuts and ever-increasing attacks on the working class that are capitalism's response to its economic crisis, Cuba took a firm stand in the interests of its people. No hospitals or schools were closed or public services lost, even at the height of the Special Period, and pensions and benefits were maintained.

Today, in spite of continuing shortages, an increased public health budget means that by the end of 1997, the number of beds in hospitals and polyclinics will have increased by 4,400, and Cuba expects in 1997 to achieve a figure of one doctor per 178 inhabitants and one dentist for every 1,150. Infant mortality in 1996 fell to 7.9 per 1,000 live births from 9.4 in 1995. We visited a hospital, schools, a child care centre and old people's home: time and time again we were struck by the quality of care and the pride of those involved in the achievements of their Revolution.

1996 saw Cuba's GDP rise by 7.8%, well above the 5% forecast at the beginning of the year, and in spite of losses caused by Hurricane Lili. Sugar production increased, as did production of root vegetables, rice, tobacco, oil refining and nickel, with an increase by 50% of the net contributions from tourism - with a record million-plus visitors to Cuba this year - to the national economy. Foreign investment rose by 54%, in spite of the Helms-Burton Act meaning the withdrawal of some companies from, for example, investment in the sugar industry. Average salaries rose from 190 to 203 pesos per month, and the value of the peso in relation to the dollar has risen six-fold over the last two years. Meanwhile, food available on the farmers' markets (private markets which enable Cubans to supplement the state ration) increased and prices fell.

Nevertheless, severe hardships remain. Even with record increases in production in some sectors, the food supply is still nowhere near pre-1989 levels. Meat production is about half what it was before the Special Period, due mainly to shortages of animal feed; fewer than 1.2bn eggs were produced in 1996, compared to 2.7bn in 1989. The target of 400m litres of milk achieved in 1996 compares to one billion previously. To continue to ensure, for example, that every child under seven gets a litre of milk a day means a continuing need for hard currency to buy milk powder on the world market, and hence a continuing need to rely on and expand the economic reforms of the past two years.

As the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party itself has warned, these changes are not without political and social risks. The legalisation of dollars has undoubtedly meant the growth of inequality. Only about one in four Cubans has direct access to dollars - whether from family in the US, from work in joint enterprises or contact with tourists - and therefore access to a more privileged lifestyle. We noted a definite increase in the number of dollar shops in Ciego and although the peso shops are now better-stocked with goods than, say, a year ago, they remain extremely expensive for the average Cuban.

Prostitution and crime, associated with the growth in tourism, are on the increase. Financial self-management of enterprises, while increasing efficiency, can sap collective consciousness - as can self-employment. And, in spite of economic improvements, the continuing hardships can breed resentment and dissatisfaction. It is against this backdrop that the vanguard and mass organisations of the people we met in Cuba have to work to preserve the revolutionary commitment of the country.

Working with the people

We were privileged to meet with a wide range of organisations at a provincial and grassroots level and be able to frankly raise these concerns, in a comradely spirit. The trade union organisation, the CTC, explained to us how in joint ventures, Cuban labour laws apply. If capitalists reject them, there is no negotiation - they do not accept them into joint enterprises. Their work is being adapted to ensure that `jobs are protected and human resources well used'. No enterprise can be changed or job lost without union involvement, and re-employment is guaranteed by the union if there are job losses. Structures of local democracy like the grassroots CDRs attempt to ensure that grievances can be raised in a collective fashion and problems overcome through organisation.

Although the luxurious conditions that exist for tourists undoubtedly rankle with many Cubans, as a reporter for Granma International who accompanied us on our visit to a hotel (built in record time) accepted, the vast majority understand the necessity for the tourist industry and the hard currency it brings in. The construction workers involved in building the hotel were the first to stay in it - for a free holiday - and rooms are set aside for vanguardworkers and students. Tips at the hotel are collectivised, and a percentage donated to the local health institutions.

At the cooperative farm we visited, the workers not only meet their quota of production for the state, but raise revenue by exporting citrus fruit. Profits are not only shared among the workers but ploughed back into the community, into supporting the local school, for example. The leaders of the cooperative, previously small farmers, insisted that the agricultural reforms had made them more efficient, more productive and hence better able to support the revolution.

Working with the youth

The UJC, perhaps more than any other organisation, is at the forefront of defending the socialist nature of the Revolution. From its work with the tiniest children in the Jose Marti Pioneers right up to university level, the UJC organises resources, educates and unites the youth of Cuba. In Havana, we visited the UJC's Malecon projects, aimed at providing recreation for young people in a `healthy and collective way', as the UJC workers explained: an alternative to the culture of drugs, prostitution and crime which tourism in the capital city encourages. They also know if they do not organise the youth, the forces of reaction will: churches are already providing discos for young people, and luring them to their services with gifts of cooking oil and soap. It is for this reason that our donation of a mobile disco, small gesture though it seems, has a vital importance for the UJC of Ciego.

Over the last year, their membership has grown and their internal organisation improved - as shown by the prize they received as the best UJC of all the small provinces in Cuba. They see their work as both practical and ideological. They work to solve the problems that confront the country by mobilising young people into construction and agriculture, explain the need to increase production and efficiency in all sectors and organise facilities for the youth. However, the shortages of the Special Period in Cuba have meant a dearth of recreational facilities for young people.

Last year, Rock around the Blockade took a 30-strong brigade to Cuba and sound equipment that enabled the UJC to set up the Disco Amigos in the provincial capital of Ciego. That, they told us, encouraged young people to come to them. This year's donation will allow them to go out to the youth of Cuba, mobilising and uniting UJC members and non-members alike in the defence of socialism and the gains of the Revolution. One of the highlights of the inauguration of the disco for Elio Rodriguez, ideological secretary of the Ciego UJC, was the moment when ten thousand voices - members and non-members alike - cheered the UJC as the disco opened. The bus, which will carry the names of the UJC and the brigade, will give them an even higher profile.

It was important too, for the UJC, that we were able to tell the Cubans we met about conditions in Britain for the poor, for the working class. As important to us was the experience we were able to give young people from Britain of the possibilities that socialism creates for confronting those conditions and for creating a better society. The World Festival of Youth and Students, to be held in Cuba this summer will allow this relationship to flourish. It is by building a socialist movement in Britain that we will best defend socialism in Cuba. That must be our aim as we begin the work of building a delegation from Britain to attend the Festival.