Cuba: reforms strengthen revolution

As all Cuban schoolchildren know, July 26 is the anniversary of the 1953 attack on the Moncada military garrison in Santiago de Cuba that launched the Cuban Revolution. The young rebels, led Fidel Castro, had hoped to seize the garrison, liberate its weapons and call upon the Cuban people to rise up against the US-backed Batista dictatorship. While it failed to achieve its military objective, it succeeded in rousing the revolutionary spirit of the Cuban people. The youth who sacrificed themselves, and those who survived the dictatorship’s murderous retribution, became heroes from one end of the Caribbean island to the other. The survivors of the Moncada assault went on to lead the popular revolution that toppled the Batista dictatorship on New Year’s Day, 1959. At first, Washington’s corporate rulers were not overly worried that their thug had been overthrown. They thought the Cuba’s new leaders could be bribed and bullied into becoming a loyal servants of US imperialism. They were wrong, and by the time they realised their mistake, it was too late.

As it became clear that the revolutionary government would not take orders from Washington, the US corporate elite began their decades-long crusade to isolate and crush the Cuban Revolution. The wholesale nationalisation of big capitalist property in industry and agriculture by the revolutionary government in late 1960 threatened US corporate interests in Cuba; but what was feared above all was revolutionary Cuba’s example of successful defiance. The aim of the economic blockade imposed on Cuba by the US in 1962 was revealed in a now-declassified US State Department document dated April 6, 1960: “Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba ... to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of [the revolutionary] government.”But every blow directed against the revolution by US imperialism only hardened the resolve of Cuba’s working people to resist. The revolution, beginning with the tasks of national independence and agrarian reform, grew into an ever-more conscious struggle for socialism. Through the course of this struggle, millions of Cuban workers and peasants came to understand that to achieve national sovereignty and social justice on their island, they would have to tear up capitalism by its roots and build a radically new society based on common ownership of productive wealth.

Under the guidance of the revolution’s leaders and in the crucible of the struggle, they came to understand that the Cuban Revolution could not endure as a fortress — but only as a base from which to lead a wider struggle to change the world. International solidarity of the selfless, unconditional variety, and on a massive scale, was both a duty and a necessity. Only by seeking to inspire others to take “the Cuban road” could the revolution prevail in the face of imperialist encirclement; only though such solidarity could revolutionary consciousness be kept alive at home.

Also critical to maintaining revolutionary consciousness in Cuba would be transmitting the historical memory of the revolution to new generations of Cubans, especially those that have no memory of living under capitalist rule. Every year since 1959, Cuba has celebrated the July 26 anniversary with a national holiday. This year, the central province of Villa Clara and its capital, Santa Clara, have been chosen to host the main July 26 event. It will most likely feature a keynote address to the nation by Cuban President Raul Castro, one of the veterans of the Moncada assault.

On July 26 three years ago, Raul called for “structural and conceptual” changes, of the need to “change concepts and methods which were appropriate at one point but have been surpassed by life itself.” Here, Raul echoed Fidel’s warning in November 2005 that the revolution, while militarily impregnable due to millions of Cubans willingness to take up arms against a US invasion, could nevertheless destroy itself through its own errors and weaknesses. Since July 26, 2007, the first after Fidel retired from the presidency due to a grave illness (from which he has now recovered), revolutionary Cuba has been changing — slowly but surely. As respected Cuban journalist Luis Sexto observed in July 2008: “Cuban society, rigid for many years, shakes off the starch that immobilised it to change what is obsolete ... without compromising the solidity of the Revolution’s power.”

Sources of obsolescence

What is the source of the obsolescence that Sexto refers to? What are the concepts and methods that must be changed, as Raul suggested in 2007, if the Cuban Revolution is to endure in the post-Fidel era that is fast approaching as the Moncada generation, now in their late seventies or early eighties, prepare to hand over the reigns of the revolution to a younger generation of revolutionary leaders?

The need for a radical renovation of Cuba’s socialist project is a consequence, first of all, of the accumulation of acute contradictions, tensions and inertia that are the legacy of two decades of the harsh post-Soviet “Special Period” crisis. When the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main ally and trading partner, collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s, Cuba was plunged into a deep economic crisis from which it has yet to fully recover, despite the solidarity of revolutionary Venezuela. While policies of egalitarian paternalism — many goods and services being free or highly subsidised while the average salary is equivalent to about US$20 a month — have cushioned all Cubans from the worst effects of this crisis, the worker state’s generosity has weakened the material incentive to work, and hence labour productivity. This, in turn, has delayed Cuba’s definitive exit from this crisis period, despite the gradual economic recovery that has been underway since the late 1990s.

With free health care and education and subsidised food, housing, utilities, and public transport, a minority of Cubans with incomes not related to work — such as remittances from relatives living overseas and the widespread petty theft from the socialist state that has flourished in conditions of generalised scarcity — choose not to work because they can live comfortably at the expense of those who do. In effect, universal state subsidies — once a symbol of the Cuban Revolution’s commitment to social equality — now mean that Cuba’s working people are subsidising what Fidel called the “new rich”. In November 2005, Fidel called for the dismantling of such subsidies (with the exception of those guaranteed in Cuba’s socialist constitution, such as universal free education and health care) in the name of social justice, and the recovery of the role of wages as a means to allocate access to goods and services.

Another source of obsolete concepts, methods, structures and mentalities is the enduring legacy of Cuba’s close relationship with the bureaucratically-ruled Soviet Union during the 1970s and ‘80s. While Soviet military and economic assistance was an indispensable lifeline for the Cuban Revolution besieged by US imperialism, the revolution suffered a creeping “Sovietisation” that was felt in every sphere of national life. While Cuba’s revolutionary continuity and vitality always had the upper hand, the process of de-linking Cuban socialism from the doomed Soviet “model”, launched at the Third Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in 1986, was interrupted by the demise of the USSR itself and the onset of the Special Period. It is as if the Soviet Union, long since dead, has continued to cast a belated shadow over the Cuban Revolution.


Finally, there are errors and obsolete policies that predate the period of greatest Soviet influence. For example, in 1968 the revolutionary government carried out the wholesale nationalisation of Cuba’s urban small businesses, right down to street-corner ice-cream carts. Whatever the reasons for doing so at the time, the PCC leadership have hinted that the party’s Sixth Congress, long overdue and for which a date is yet to be announced, may open the door to cooperative or private forms of ownership of small productive and service entities that decades of experience has shown cannot be run efficiently and with a high quality of service by the socialist state.

In the public debate now underway in Cuba’s revolutionary mass media about the future of socialism in Cuba, and the changes that are needed, those who support such a limited opening to small-scale cooperative and private business initiative have pointed out that neither Karl Marx nor Vladimir Lenin advocated socialist state ownership of all productive property during the transition to socialism, but only of large-scale enterprises in which labour is already objectively socialised. Not only would a cautious and limited opening to urban cooperatives and small private businesses improve the quality of services and reign in petty corruption and the black market, they argue, it would relieve the state of the burden of managing these entities. In short, it would be a necessary tactical retreat in order to advance.

On June 3, Reuters reported comments made by Venezuela’s revolutionary socialist president, Hugo Chavez, about a conversation he had had with Raul Castro. Castro had confided to him — as a warning not to do the same thing in Venezuela — that Cuba had “committed many errors” in the building of socialism. Chavez quoted Castro as saying: “Here we nationalised even the funeral home, the barber shop, the sale of ice cream. That doesn’t have any reason to belong to the state.” In what appears to be a trial run of what may be more substantial reforms in this direction, the foreign press has reported that small hairdressing and beautician salons in Cuba are now being leased to their workers. Rather than being paid a salary by the state, the workers pay rent on the premises, set their own prices and are responsible for purchasing their own supplies and maintaining the premises.

If these reforms improve the quality of services, relieve the socialist state of an unnecessary burden and motivate people to work more efficiently, this will only make Cuba’s socialist revolution even more attractive as an alternative to capitalism — among Cubans living on the island, and among working people everywhere. This, in turn, will politically strengthen the Cuban Revolution and lessen the danger that, as Fidel warned in 2005, it could succumb to inertia in the face of errors and weaknesses. Those of us abroad in the Cuba solidarity movement should seek to understand the debates and changes underway in Cuba today and place our trust and confidence in Cuba’s revolutionary leadership, which has demonstrated the capacity to lead this revolution through every critical juncture.

[Marce Cameron is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, president of the Sydney University Cuba-Venezuela Solidarity Club and a member of Australia-Cuba Friendship Society.]