Cuba debates the future of socialism

By Marce Cameron

In workplace and neighbourhood assemblies across Cuba and in the base committees of the Communist Party (PCC), millions of Cubans are responding to the call by President Raul Castro for a nationwide debate on the future of the country’s socialist revolution. As of October 16, one-third of the Caribbean island’s 11 million people had participated in these discussions in September and October, the IPS newsagency reported. Intersecting with these organised debates, an informal debate has been gathering momentum in bars, cafes, email lists, academic circles and on the street.

At least 5 million Cubans participated in an earlier round of grassroots debates held in late 2007, in which they “were encouraged to express [themselves] on any subject of interest”, Raul Castro told Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power on August 1. In November 2007 a summary of the more than 1.3 million concrete proposals, about half of which were considered critical of current policies, was analysed by the PCC leadership. The outcome of this debate, Castro assured Cubans in his August 1 address, “was not thrown into a bottomless pit”. The results of this first round of meetings were “very useful for the subsequent work of the country’s leadership”, said Castro.

Between these two rounds of organised debate, Cuba has been battered by three ferocious hurricanes in late 2008 that damaged or destroyed half a million homes, levelled schools, hospitals and other social infrastructure and devastated agriculture — causing damage’s estimated at US$10 billion, about a fifth of Cuba’s GDP. Then, with the recovery effort in full swing, Cuba was hit hard by the global recession. Export earnings fell sharply, tourism revenues declined and the government has had no choice but to rein in expenditure in all but essential services and put hurricane recovery and development programs on hold.

Special Period

This is the most difficult economic conjuncture the Cuban Revolution has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s major trading partner, plunged the island into the profound economic crisis, known as the “Special Period”, at the beginning of the 1990s — a crisis period from which the country has yet to fully emerge, even with the solidarity of oil-rich, revolutionary Venezuela. The economic situation has made long-overdue “structural” changes foreshadowed by Raul Castro all the more urgent, yet it has also delayed their timely implementation. This has left Cuba’s post-Soviet centrally planned economy trapped in a vicious cycle: wages and salaries are still insufficient to cover all basic needs and to act as a stimulus to productivity, and increasing worker’s incomes depends on achieving higher levels of productivity and efficiency.

This structural dysfunction has undermined one of the economic and ethical pillars of Cuba’s socialist revolution — that having expropriated the properties of the capitalist exploiters in the early 1960s, in revolutionary Cuba those who contribute more to society through their work should receive more from society in the form of goods and services. A significant minority of Cubans can live comfortably without having to work because they receive money from relatives living abroad in rich countries like the US, or because they steal state property from factories, warehouses and stores to sell on the lucrative black market.

Cuban journalist Luis Sexto, winner of the 2009 Jose Marti national journalism award and a regular columnist for the Union of Young Communists daily Juventud Rebelde, captured the mood of the besieged island in a September 16 commentary titled “Cuba, the reasons for patience”, published by the Havana-based pro-revolution Progreso Weekly website: “Today, after almost 20 years of the so-called Special Period, with its aftermath of insufficiencies, deficiencies, shortages, equivocation, mistakes, the absence of a clear program ... The material accomplishments have deteriorated ... [and] many Cubans today suffer a disconnect between what should have been and what is. They suffer and even doubt.” Yet “they feel (rather than see) that the Revolution has been a creative enterprise and that, despite its turbulence and failings, its human and fair nucleus still harbors an opportunity for material and ethical improvement”, while “other people suffer but don’t doubt”.

Cuba’s revolutionaries, Sexto added, look forward to “a national, revolutionary policy that will cure the rigid slogans and arthritic mentality of our concepts by giving them flexibility and realism. Depending on the experience, change is the equivalent of survival; resistance goes through readaptation. Resisting also presupposes depositing our hopes in the bank of patience”.

Amid hurricanes and global economic turmoil, the country’s revolutionary socialist leadership has had to devote its main energies to crisis management. The PCC’s 6th congress, which was to be held in October 2009, has been postponed and a new date has yet to be announced. The decision to delay the PCC congress does not signal an unwillingness on the part of the Cuban leadership to lead a process of revitalisation and rejuvenation of the Cuban Revolution. As Sexto wrote on August 5 for Progreso Weekly, the PCC congress “has been postponed until the Party and the government define the strategy of a very near future that will be different from the present because ... the historic leaders of the Revolution and socialism will no longer be around”, a strategy “to perpetuate the Revolution outside the orbit of capitalism. The postponement, then, should generate confidence and certainty, rather than anxiety.”

US economic blockade

US sanctions, which forbid US trade and investment with Cuba and which seek to discourage third countries from trading with Cuba, remain firmly in place despite growing pressure on the Obama administration to lift bans on travel and trade with Cuba. On October 28, the UN General Assembly voted for the 18th consecutive year in favour of a Cuban resolution demanding that the US lift the economic blockade, imposed in 1962. The vote was 187 in favour, three against (Israel, Palau and the US) and two — Micronesia and Marshall Islands — abstaining.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told the assembly that the blockade is “an absurd policy that causes shortages and suffering” and is a “massive, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights.” In its submission to the UN, Havana pointed out that nothing fundamental had changed since the Obama administration took office in January, and that its “extremely conservative” calculation of the direct economic cost of the blockade is US$96 million during the past year alone.

Despite the difficult economic conjuncture, Cuba’s revolutionary government has begun to introduce significant and potentially far-reaching reforms which can no longer be postponed — such as the lifting of the ban on people holding multiple jobs, removing the cap on wage and salary bonuses for those who work harder and better and encouraging individuals, cooperatives and state enterprises to farm idle state land — and which anticipate further changes to come. As Sexto commented on July 15, “Cuban society, rigid for many years, shakes off the starch that immobilized it ... Cuba continues to move, albeit slowly ... [to] change what is obsolete, without compromising the solidity of the Revolution’s power. The recent Decree-Law No. 268, about holding multiple jobs, is, in my opinion, a fundamental measure, along with the decree about the leasing of land in usufruct …

“For the first time, the principle that work is the true source of wealth and well-being begins to formalize in a social and legal body, with no limitations other than those that tend to preserve legality, escorted by reason. Maybe I exaggerate, or maybe I am – just this once – too optimistic, but a scent of renewed hope wafts in the rather thick air of Cuba; not the hope that certain dissatisfied souls seek abroad ... but the hope that begins to grow as a premise to transcend insufficiency and solidify the scent of justice the Revolution brought us.”