- Created: Thursday, 23 April 2009 14:15
All of us, from the leaders to the rank-and-file workers, are duty-bound to accurately identify and analyse every problem in depth… in order to combat the problem with the most convenient methods…’
Raul Castro, 26 July 2007
A profound process of popular consultation is underway in Cuba. Demonstrating the real meaning of democracy, the Cuban government has created forums for everyone in the country to contribute to a great debate about Cuba’s socio-economic problems and to suggest concrete solutions. This process was initiated in a speech by acting President Raul Castro on 26 July 2007, the 54th anniversary of the attack on Moncada Barracks. It marked exactly one year since Fidel Castro last appeared in public. Helen Yaffe reports.
Since Fidel’s illness, commentators outside Cuba have been searching for signs of change in Cuba’s revolutionary government. Cuba’s enemies eagerly anticipated an Eastern European style ‘transition’ with Fidel’s exit; the end of socialism and opening up to neo-liberalism. But there has been no power vacuum and no counter-revolutionary movement rising up to reject everything he stood for. Fidel has stood back and recuperated as the Cuban government has consolidated the socialist revolution in the process of transition to a generation of younger leaders. Cuba’s enemies feel frustrated – transition has taken place, but not in the direction they wanted. Such frustration obstructs their ability to analyse or understand new developments.
Bourgeois journalists celebrated Raul’s speech as representing a new turning towards the US administration, implying susceptibility to capitalist openings. This was disingenuous. Raul, as head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), first reported on the military exercise Operation Caguairán: ‘attaining levels of combat readiness superior to those of any other period’, involving special defence training for a million Cubans. He then reasserted that Cuba would only enter talks with a post-Bush US administration: ‘on equal footing’; if not, Cuba would: ‘continue confronting their policy of hostility…’ Too excited about Raul’s supposed nod towards US imperialism, commentators missed the important part: the promotion of a deeply democratic and socialist concept of people’s power.
Raul expanded on themes raised by Fidel in 2005 – securing the future of the Revolution, the problem of productivity, corruption, parasites and new rich (see FRFI 189). However, in deepening the analysis in a concrete way, he initiated a new stage in the ideological battle to improve Cuban socialism. The important points he raised include:
1) Low salaries and high food prices: ‘wages today are clearly insufficient to satisfy all needs and have thus ceased to play a role in ensuring the socialist principle that each should contribute according to their capacity and receive according to their work.’
2) Prices cannot go down until production and productivity go up: ‘any increase in wages or decrease in prices, to be real, can only stem from greater and more efficient production and services offered, which will increase the country’s incomes… To have more, we have to begin by producing more, with a sense of rationality and efficiency.’
3) The need to reduce imports. The import prices of oil, milk and frozen chicken have increased between 200 and 300% in four years, sapping Cuban hard currency reserves. Meanwhile, the cost to Cuban consumers, highly subsidised by the state, has barely changed: ‘I am talking of products that I think can be grown here’, he said, complaining about the abundance of marabú, a thorny bush invading productive land left fallow throughout the island.
4) The drive to rationalise production. Instead of transporting milk miles to a pasteurisation plant, it will be distributed direct to communities around the agricultural producer. ‘this valuable food product [milk] travelled hundreds of miles before reaching a consumer who, quite often, lived a few hundred metres away from the livestock farm.’ This also reduces product losses and fuel expenses.
5) The problem of the US blockade. ‘Some…do not perceive the real danger or the undeniable fact that the blockade has a direct influence both on the major economic decisions and on each Cuban’s most basic needs.’
6) The need for foreign investment: ‘that can provide us with capital, technology or markets…upon well-defined legal bases which preserve the role of the state and the predominance of socialist property.’
In 1996, one of the worst years of the Special Period, Raul made an influential speech calling for a political battle to secure the Revolution against the individualistic tendencies encouraged by economic reforms introducing some elements of the free market. He set out the need to ‘examine the political and social situation in the country in order to derive from this analysis the ideological work our [Communist] Party has to carry out during these times of the special period.’ (12 March 1996) The speech sparked discussions among all Cubans. The impact of his speech on 26 July 2007 was the same. Underlying Raul’s speech is the concept of Cubans as citizens, not consumers, with responsibility to society: ‘We need to bring everyone into the daily battle against the very errors which aggravate objective difficulties from external causes…’ Once again he outlined the leading role of the Communist Party (CCP) in addressing and solving the national problems.
In August, after discussions with the CCP provincial leaders, a process of popular consultation was initiated to give Cubans a forum to thrash out socio-economic problems. Meetings were organised in every CCP branch, work place, trade union, street committee, women’s federation and in the Union of Young Communists. Raul called on the population to speak with frankness and realism. People have committed whole-heartedly to the debate, not just complaining, but suggesting improvements. Every intervention has been anonymously recorded and collected in central offices to be analysed, to provide a comprehensive assessment of the state of the country and the consciousness of its people.
This process demonstrates the Cuban government and CCP’s trust in the population – Fidel’s concept that the genius is in the people. The results will provide a unique insight into the state of production, trade unions and grassroots organisations. The risk lies in raising expectations which cannot be met. But the consultation is genuinely expected to generate many concrete solutions, although Raul warned that some problems reflect realities of the international economy and no government policies or resolutions can solve them. Some of the complaints reflect a search for individualistic solutions to material scarcity – proposals which would improve conditions for individuals but risk increasing private property relations and capitalist mechanisms. For example, opposition to rules that individuals can only sell their cars or houses to the state at low prices and obstacles to individuals or families starting their own farms on fallow land, or limiting the productive capacity of family or cooperative farms. The desire to remove state control is the outcome of the state’s inefficiency in resolving production and distribution problems. Clearly, however, to concede these demands is to open the gate to capitalist property relations.
Structural and conceptual changes for improving socialism
Raul was clear that ‘structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced’ and apart from rationalising milk production, he gave two examples. One was in the relationship of the state to farmers and the other related to foreign investment. Commentators outside Cuba have jumped on these as evidence of economic ‘liberalisation’ – the adoption of capitalist mechanisms to determine production and distribution. In reality, Raul talked of the need to improve the efficiency of the state’s payment to farmers for agricultural produce, not a transference of state land to private production. When he talked of securing more foreign investment it reflected a trend which has seen the Cubans cut the number of smaller foreign investors in Cuba, so mixed-enterprises have decreased by 41% from 2002 to 2006, whilst consolidating large investments in major infrastructural and development projects in strategic sectors like mining and energy. Much of this involves setting up joint ventures with state companies from fraternal countries, Venezuela and China. The result is to limit the sphere of operation of capitalist mechanisms, introduced via foreign capital, diminishing their impact on the Cuban consumer, whilst simultaneously strengthening the state’s economic resources based on high value-generating activities, for example nickel and oil production. This closing of opportunities for private foreign capital, as well as the blockade, explains why the Economist Intelligence Unit placed Cuba 81 out of 82 worst countries for business!
Those jumping to promote ‘liberalisation’ include ‘intellectuals’ and ‘economists’ in Cuba, such as Pedro Monreal and Aurelio Alonso. In an interview given during the consultation process, Aurelio Alonso, deputy director of the magazine Casa de las Americas promoted private agricultural production: ‘The family should not invest all its productive effort for the benefit of the state. In the end, we should be less fearful of letting people make money.’ In an interview on 25 September, Pedro Monreal from Cuba’s Centre for Research into the International Economy went further, arguing that credit institutions should be created to provide $20,000 capital to individual Cuban entrepreneurs to establish private businesses. He asks: ‘Does the state necessarily have to occupy itself with panel beating cars, or shoe repairs, or make electronic utensils or repairs of – I don’t know – blenders, or producing food. Not necessarily, this could be organised by cooperative or private national enterprises.’ Monreal proposes: ‘to organise structural reform of agriculture in terms of transferring state land to private or cooperative land … [and to] leave the market to reign…’ His models are China and Vietnam.
Clearly, the question of land ownership lies at the heart of the ideological debate about the future of the Cuban economy. But Alonso, Monreal and their trend are disingenuous to suggest that increased privatisation of land will automatically increase productivity and efficiency without undermining socialism. Since the measures introduced in 1993, in the first years of the Special Period, the state has directly controlled little agricultural production, yet the private or cooperative farms have not solved the problem of low productivity.
What is the influence of such pro-capitalist ‘intellectuals’ in policy-formulation in revolutionary Cuba? Asked by his interviewer whether economists would determine the new structures, Monreal admits: ‘I don’t think so…’ He distinguishes between the academic economists, like himself, and those working on the state plan and within the ministries, lamenting that in Cuba: ‘economic measures are never a question for technical professionals… they are decisions which basically correspond with political questions.’
Once again, Cuba’s leaders have taken the political questions to the entire Cuban population. The national debate coincided with the commemoration for the 40th anniversary of Ernesto Che Guevara’s execution in Bolivia. Ministries, institutions, workplaces, trade unions, study centres, grass roots and cultural organisations throughout Cuba organised events to pay tribute to Guevara. Many of these events emphasised Guevara’s opposition to adopting capitalist mechanisms to resolve problems within the socialist economy. They recalled his prediction that ‘liberalisation’, or market socialism, which Monreal and Alonso promote, would lead to the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet bloc.
Other processes underway also reinforce the Cuban left. On 13 October, Chavez was in Cuba to sign 14 new collaborative projects between Cuba and Venezuela in the areas of construction, energy, tourism, petrochemicals, fishing, telecommunications and nickel. This raises the number of joint projects between the countries to 352, across 28 sectors of economic and social development. Raul said: ‘the search for a just and sustainable development and true integration – which cannot be the blind child of the market – marks the principles of collaboration between both countries and their economic links.’ This significantly expands the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a project of humanitarian, economic and social cooperation between Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, in exchanges which are not determined by market forces and the operation of the law of value.
Cuba is at an important juncture, preparing for structural and economic changes. The Cuban masses are pivotal to these developments. In the words of Raul on 26 July: ‘We must also work with a critical and creative spirit, avoiding stagnation and schematics. We must never fall prey to the idea that what we do is perfect but rather examine it again. The one thing a Cuban revolutionary will never question is our unwavering decision to build socialism.’
FRFI 200 December 2007 / January 2008