Cuba: strengthening socialism not consumerism

Recent measures introduced in Cuba have led to wishful thinking among Cuba’s enemies in the corporate media, who have seized on them as evidence of a return to capitalism. In reality they are the result of a profound process of self-criticism and debate within socialism.

On 24 February, following his election as President of the Council of State in the National Assembly of People’s Power, Raul Castro said that ‘the people’s mandate to this legislature is very clear: to continue strengthening the Revolution at a historical juncture which demands from us to be dialectic and creative’. He called for less centralisation and bureaucracy, giving the example of better milk production and distribution as testimony to local decision-making and arguing that this approach could work in other areas of the economy: ‘a more compact and operational structure is required, with a lower number of institutions under the central administration of the State and a better distribution of their functions’. There is, of course, no suggestion of a ‘Chinese-style’ market economy, so destructive to socialism: ‘Good planning is most important for we cannot spend more than we have.’

Increasing food production
Increasing food production in Cuba has been identified as a primary task and, given rising global prices, the adverse effect of climate change and US aggression, an issue of maximum national security. As an example of the difficulties faced, the Cuban media recently reported that in one municipality, San Jose, only a little over half the arable land is farmed effectively, with 3,000 out of 52,200 hectares completely idle.

On 12 May the National Assembly appointed 30 of its members to a working commission on food and agriculture. It will address structural problems in Cuba’s agricultural system that prevent full use of the land and efficient distribution of produce. It will oversee local offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, which are being opened in each of Cuba’s 169 municipalities. These Municipal Agricultural Delegations will have authority to make decisions addressing concrete problems in their local area. Part of their task will be to eliminate corruption and train more agricultural workers. At the same time the government has raised the price it pays farmers for meat and milk as a way of increasing production.

Mobile phones, computers and DVD players
In December Raul spoke about an excess of ‘prohibitions’ in Cuba, arguing that it was no longer necessary to keep some of the restrictions on consumer goods that were brought in during the harshest years of the Special Period. In the 24 February session of the National Assembly he reiterated that some of the limits ‘had the purpose of preventing the emergence of new inequalities at a time of general shortages, even when that meant relinquishing certain incomes.’

In April, following analysis of more than 1.3 million specific proposals made during the national consultation, new services were announced making mobile phones, computers and DVD players more readily available, and making it easier for Cubans to rent cars and use tourist hotels. All of these restrictions were introduced during the special period as circulars to prevent a growth in inequality. They were not laws, so it was straightforward to reverse them. The developments in telecommunications are particularly important and priority is being given to the areas where there are the fewest phones. Ramón Linares Torres, First Deputy Minister of Informatics and Communications (MIC) noted that: ‘for the Revolution, it was always a priority to advance communications in the rural areas. At the beginning of 1959 there were only 170,000 telephone lines and 73% of them were located in the capital and other major cities. Telephone density was 2.6 per 100 inhabitants, a rate that has been quintupled, but is still low.’

The reaction
The response of the Bush administration in the US has been to allow US citizens to send mobile phones to Cuba, in the vain hope that this will weaken the Revolution. Journalists in Europe and the US are jumping over themselves to portray the recent developments as a sign of weakness and stagnation of Cuban socialism. The Guardian’s Rory Carroll, in an article on 7 April entitled ‘To save communism, Raul experiments with consumerism’, says that the ‘reforms’ would not have been ‘imaginable’ under Fidel, signalling ‘tolerance for displays of wealth and, by extension, displays of inequality.’ His article opened with a banal description of one Cuban family, dripping with gold jewellery and ‘counting out the money with a certain panache’, which rushed to consumer heaven to buy a pressure cooker and a washing machine - as if such luxuries had been prohibited from Cubans before Raul was elected President of the Council of State.

On the contrary, in 2005 the Cuban government distributed free pressure cookers and rice cookers to every family home in Cuba. Cubans were able to replace their old refrigerators and televisions with new energy efficient substitutes provided at a subsidised cost, to be paid back in small instalments over many years.

Pablo Valiente, writing for the Cuban Union of Young Communists’ Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) newspaper about the new mobile phone services on 21 April, commented on the storm being whipped up by capitalist media about the so-called ‘reforms’:

‘The old, small and smug Europe appears as the leader, with its exultant levels of life unapproachable for the rest of the planet, unaware of the reality that surrounds it. Not even the Americans, as free as they say they are, can exhibit such an encouraging performance... Almost none of those mathematicians, so skilful at comparing Cubans’ wages but never their real income, mention the fact that the prices charged by ETECSA [the Cuban phone company] are among the lowest in the world... Nor does anyone say a word about how, for connection reasons, the Caribbean – where Cuba is located – is, along with the Pacific islands, the area with the world’s most expensive rates for phone services.’

The real background to these reforms is far more interesting than the mainstream media would have us know. Firstly, since Cuba’s Energy Revolution in 2006, which involved the successful upgrade of Cuba’s electricity grid, Cuba now has the capacity to provide the power needed to run high-end electrical equipment on a mass scale. Secondly, selling computers and DVDs at high prices to domestic consumers with significant financial resources will mop up excess liquidity, which will in turn stem inflationary pressures, particularly on food prices. It will also provide the socialist state, which has a monopoly on imports, with additional revenue for its investment and welfare programmes.

Bourgeois journalists and middle class ‘socialists’ will continue to write about ‘stagnation’ or predict the downfall of Cuba’s revolutionary system in the faint hope that it might one day happen. Meanwhile the Cuban people are building socialism.

Louis Brehony, Sam Vincent, Helen Yaffe
FRFI 203 June / July 2008


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