Cuba's socialist renewal: forging a culture of debate

As reported in the November issue of Direct Action (“Cuba debates the future of socialism”), millions of Cubans have been participating in grassroots debates in neighbourhoods, workplaces and Cuban Communist Party (PCC) base committees since September. An earlier round of discussions in late 2007 involved more than five million people, almost half the population, and produced more than 3 million concrete proposals, all of which were recorded and analysed by the PCC leadership.

These discussions are part of a process of critical reflection and debate aimed at achieving consensus on what must be done to revitalise Cuba’s socialist project. The process was initiated by President Raul Castro, who called for “structural and conceptual changes” in his first major speech as acting President in July 2007. It will culminate in the PCC’s Sixth Congress, likely to be held in late 2010. The congress will be charged with putting the finishing touches on a line of march that will have been developed and enriched during the course of the debates.

Capitalist societies and their ruling classes have no need for such debates, but they not new in revolutionary Cuba. Rafael Hernandez, editor of Temas magazine, a respected pro-eevolution Cuban journal of critical analysis and debate, recalls “a very important process of public discussion” that took place between 1986 and 1990, “which in my judgment is the most profound and democratic critical debate ever staged in Cuba, and it culminated with the call to the Fourth Congress [of the PCC in 1991].” Could the present debate amount to little more than the PCC leadership taking the pulse of public opinion and allowing people to air their grievances without acting on them, as some have suggested?

“That cannot happen”, said Hernandez in an interview with Havana’s Radio Progreso website in November 2007. “[We have] a truly educated population, people who think with their own heads ... The fact that the leadership of the revolution summons us to a discussion of the nation’s problems and asks us to express ourselves openly is a measure of the willingness for change that exists in the country. I don’t think that the leadership of the revolution can call [us] to a discussion of a number of problems and then do nothing.” Progreso editor Manuel Alberto Ramy commented on September 27, 2007, that “these debates and publications [such as Temas] help create a climate that will facilitate the creation of measures that will come in stages”.

Cuba has been changing, slowly but surely. As Cuban journalist Luis Sexto observed on Radio Progreso on July 15, “Cuban society, rigid for many years, shakes off the starch that immobilised it ... [to] change what is obsolete”. Changing what is obsolete involves more than just tinkering around the edges, since what is obsolete is much of what could be called “the Cuban model of socialism”. The “model” referred to here is not a blueprint for socialism – Cuba has long since abandoned such a dogmatic approach – but concepts, policies, methods and mentalities.

Some aspects of the Cuban “model” have become obsolete simply because Cuba has changed and the world has changed; others were probably always obsolete but only in hindsight. The core political and ethical principles that have sustained the revolution are still valid: without them the revolution would cease to exist. “The system’s principles must be defended”, said Hernandez”, “but the model itself must be transformed.” Ramy added: “It is not a question of dismantling the system but of rebuilding it with the effective participation of all citizens, through the established institutions.”

The “Rectification” process launched in the mid-1980s began the task of disentangling Cuban socialism from the doomed “Soviet model”, but it was interrupted by the demise of Cuba’s Cold War ally, the Soviet Union, and the onset of the deep economic crisis, known as the Special Period, at the beginning of the 1990s – a crisis period from which the Cuban Revolution has yet to fully emerge.

Two decades on and the bitter lessons of the Soviet debacle are clearer, while on the other side of the Caribbean the flowering of oil-rich Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, the first new socialist revolution of the post-Soviet era, gives fresh impetus to Cuba’s socialist renovation.

New generation

The debate takes place as the Cuban Revolution gradually enters the post-Fidel Castro era. Having recovered from life-threatening intestinal surgery, the retired Cuban president is reportedly in good health and mentally alert, enjoying his semi-retirement surrounded by his grandchildren. In his “Reflections of Comrade Fidel” in the PCC’s Granma newspaper, he comments on global affairs and meditates on the crisis facing humanity. He is consulted on key decisions, but the day-to-day leadership of the revolution is now in the hands of a capable team headed by President Raul Castro.

Since Fidel fell gravely ill in August 2006, Cubans have gradually become accustomed to his public absence. While there has never been a personality cult in Cuba, Fidel’s influence among many of his followers transcends politics. For as long as Fidel was at the helm of the revolutionary government his immense personal authority tended to overshadow the role of institutions, for better or for worse but mostly for the better.

When Fidel’s friend, Colombian author and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was asked why the Cuban Revolution had not fallen like the USSR, he replied: “Fidel is at the same time the head of government and the leader of the opposition.” That is, Fidel was always the revolution’s sternest loyal critic. Havana University historian Jesus Arboleya has aptly observed: “It is logical to assume that Fidel Castro’s legacy will have a tremendous influence in the future of Cuba ... if [his enemies] have been unable to defeat the mortal human being, I can’t figure out how they will face the perfected myth of his memory. In this sense, Fidel will continue to be one of the pillars of the Cuban Revolution.”

The next PCC congress will be the last presided over by the historicos, the generation of revolutionary leaders who led the Cuban workers and peasants to victory in 1959. Not only is a generational leadership transition inevitable, but the “political future of a socialist Cuba will not be a future of charismatic men and women. The historic conditions that forged unique, original figures filled with historic credit no longer exist. It will be a future of institutions, primarily the Communist Party, which will have to exercise its power with an open and democratic spirit”, as Luis Sexto wrote on August 5. According to Hernandez, the Cuban Revolution “must go forward and leave more and more room for the new generations. Those new generations are demanding capability, power, a degree of decision over their own ideas, their own problems and criteria about the meaning of a socialist society. And I think that the socialism of the future is the socialism of the young.”

Culture of debate

This implies an evolution towards a more institutionalised participatory political culture with more public criticism and debate within the revolution. Cuba’s revolutionaries – long caught between the shifting sands of official censorship, fear of reprisals “from above” and self-censorship born of the state of siege that revolutionary Cuba has had to ensure for 50 years – must lose the fear of speaking their minds. The torrent of opinions, proposals, grievances and exposures unleashed by Raul Castro’s call to debate must continue if Cuba’s working people are to be roused to carry through a radical renovation of their society.

In an interview with the the Havana-based Cubarte website in November 2007, Eliades Acosta, then head of the PCC’s department of culture, stressed the need to foster tolerance of criticism and a culture of debate. He stressed that unity of action, the revolution’s basic weapon in confronting US imperialism, must not be confused with unanimity of opinion. “There’s the abuse of institutional practices to limit criticism” Acosta observed. “We must abandon the practice of shushing down the problems, which does not help the revolution but instead protects posts or positions or postures that are harmful to the ethical climate of society.

“Raul [Castro] himself, who heads the party and the state, with all the moral authority he enjoys, told the people that this is the time to ‘remove our shirts’ and discuss our problems. The [PCC] Political Bureau issued a document that supports criticism in the media. But what did we find? There is reluctance, inertia, there are people who are not prepared because they find it difficult to break the psychological barrier. But when we read the press, and we read the non-institutional press, and the e-mails (which are here to stay), we see that the people are participating. We see a very healthy activation of the civic spirit of Cubans.”

Acosta concluded: “We aspire to a society that talks out loud about its problems, without fear, where the media reflect life without triumphalism, where the errors are aired publicly in a search for solutions, where people can express themselves honestly, where the economy works, where the services work, where Cubans do not feel they are second-class citizens in their own country due to some measures that were indispensable in the past but that are obsolete and unsustainable today. We want a society with plenty of information, varied information ...[so that] we can communicate with the world in a natural manner and can defend the essence of our identity and the accomplishments of the revolution”.

This vision is shared by the PCC leadership, but many sincere revolutionaries are not used to debate and fear change. “The resistance to new ideas, criticism and changes is something that I find in my neighbourhood”, says Hernandez. “I don’t have to go to any government office to meet with resistance ... It’s not a mentality that’s exclusively installed in the heads of some bureaucrats but in the heads of many citizens I know ... In our civic culture, there are elements that resist change and refuse to accept specific criticism or reject the convenience of discussing specific problems in public.

“When we talk about debate or criticism, we often talk about censorship, restrictions, control, but we never talk about our own lack of a ‘debate culture’. We must foster a culture of debate from the start, because our society doesn’t have it. We often call a debate ‘good’ when the participants say the same as we think. That’s not debate; debate is discrepancy. And it is very important that in a debate we express divergent positions in a spirit of dialogue, of mutual respect. And I think that [Cuban] politics is going through that stage right now.”

Administrative inertia

When Acosta talks about institutional practices that seek to limit criticism to protect posts or positions, he is alluding to the problem of bureaucratism. For Marxists, a bureaucrat is not just anyone with a desk job who administers. A bureaucrat is a materially privileged administrator. Cuba, unlike the USSR, is not ruled by a bureaucracy – a privileged caste of officials.

There are no legally sanctioned privileges for officials in Cuba such as existed in the Soviet Union, where the bureaucrats had access to goods and services not available to the rest of the population. The moral authority of Cuba’s revolutionary leaders is based on their exemplary modesty and commitment to the revolutionary cause. The more responsibility a post entails, the less individual privilege-taking (corruption) is tolerated and the more one is expected to set an example of personal sacrifice. But using one’s position for personal gain is widespread in the lower levels of Cuba’s public administration.

During the Special Period, wages and pensions have been insufficient to cover all basic needs, compelling most Cubans to turn to the black market to make ends meet. For some, this has become a way of life; for most it’s just a way of getting by. The Spanish verb resolver (to resolve) has taken on a new meaning in Cuba. In a climate of generalised petty theft a gap has opened up between legality and reality. Though it pains them, even committed revolutionaries sometimes find themselves having to break the law in order to live with dignity, an ethical dilemma Cubans call “double morality”.

Corrupt officials who amass small fortunes by stealing from the socialist state become de facto bureaucrats, with a material interest in suppressing the rising tide of public criticism and debate. Such individuals exist, and have always existed, in revolutionary Cuba. Networks of petty theft became entrenched during the Special Period in what Fidel called “the general state of disorder” in his landmark November 17, 2005, speech at Havana University. He revealed that up to half the revenue from fuel sales was being lost to corruption and that thousands of young social workers had been mobilised to temporarily staff the petrol stations to put an end to such racketeering.

Yet instances of officials using their positions for personal gain do not tell the whole story. Even in the absence of substantial material privileges, legally sanctioned or not, people in positions of authority may zealously guard their prerogatives, resist change and display all the hallmarks of the bureaucratic mentality, as satirised in the classic 1966 Cuban black comedy Death of a Bureaucrat. Potentially far-reaching reforms initiated by Raul Castro’s government have been held up by administrative resistance or inertia. In May the Cuban current affairs magazine Bohemia reported that only 25% of Cuba’s state-owned enterprises had implemented a new payments scheme that ties incomes to production and lifts the cap on bonus payments, more than a year after the government had decreed its generalisation.

The new payments scheme aims to boost productivity and workers’ incomes by putting more money in the pockets of workers who work more productively. “Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income”, Raul Castro stressed in a speech to Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power on July 11, 2008. “Equality is not the same as egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is in itself a form of exploitation; exploitation of the good workers by those who are less productive and lazy.”

He had commented earlier in the same speech: “For the worker to feel like the owner of the means of production we cannot rely solely on theoretical explanations — we have been doing that for about 48 years — nor on the fact that his opinion is taken into consideration in the labour meetings. It is very important that his income corresponds to his personal contribution and the fulfilment by the work centre of the social object for which it was constituted.” While the new system is complex, deputy labour minister Carlos Mateu told Bohemia that “the majority of [state-owned] companies can adjust their system immediately ... by simply taking the decision to go along with what’s been established.”

While many of the changes under Raul Castro’s presidency flow from government decrees, others, such as the trend towards more public criticism and debate, result from a groundswell “from below” meeting with support “from above” to overcome bureaucratic opposition or inertia. Such is the case with the groundswell of public outcry and subsequent debate on the “grey years” of official censorship in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s sparked by the surprise TV appearance, in January 2007, of some of the most notorious state censors of this period. Abel Prieto, Cuba’s highly respected culture minister, intervened in the debate to reassure Cubans there was not the slightest chance such censorship would ever be imposed again.

Spaces for public debate and criticism within the revolution have been opening up both in the official press and in new and specialist publications. Granma and Juventud Rebelde, the two daily newspapers, have opened up their pages to critical comments from readers on everything from local grievances to the subtleties of Cuba’s pervasive paternalistic practices and habits. The revamped Spanish-language webpages of these and other Cuban publications now allow the discussion to carry over into cyberspace, with readers posting comments and debating each other and columnists such as Luis Sexto in Juventud Rebelde.

La Calle del Medio is a new monthly, 16-page colour magazine “of opinion and debate”. It carries critical commentaries on many controversial and formerly taboo topics such as students cheating in exams, and long and thoughtful letters from readers. Reading these often heart-felt and sophisticated letters one is reminded of Fidel’s dictum that “the revolution is the child of culture and ideas”. The capacity for critical thinking of the average Cuban citizen — the fruit of the revolution’s efforts over several generations to forge a new human being capable of contributing to the building of a socialist society — shines through and illuminates the difficult path ahead.