Where is Cuban socialism headed?

The Sixth Cuban Communist Party (PCC) Congress will be held in the second half of April. The congress will have two agenda items: the economy and the election of a new Central Committee and other leadership bodies. Other decisions will be deferred to a conference later in the year. The Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines, a 32-page document detailing the PCC leadership’s proposal for “updating” Cuba’s post-capitalist economic model, was published in November.

Many of the revolution’s supporters feel uneasy about the changes. This is understandable because, both within and outside Cuba, there are misconceptions about what socialism is. There is widespread ignorance of the basic economic laws governing the transition from capitalism to socialism. Raul Castro referred to this in his December 2010 address to Cuba’s National Assembly when he spoke about transforming “erroneous and unsustainable concepts about socialism, that have been deeply rooted in broad sectors of the population over the years, as a result of the excessively paternalistic, idealistic and egalitarian approach instituted by the revolution in the interests of social justice”.

To this must be added ignorance of the consequences of not applying the cardinal principle of the transition period — “to each according to their work” — with sufficient rigour, especially during the Special Period.

There is also misunderstanding of what is and is not happening. We may hear that the ration book is being gradually eliminated, but we may not have heard that those in genuine need of subsidies will continue to receive them. Finally, imperialism tries to take advantage of the changes to sow doubt and confusion within and outside Cuba.

Model and principles

Cuba is immersed in critical reflection and debate on the future of its socialist project. At the same time, the Communist Party leadership has initiated far-reaching changes to Cuba’s socialist model. The nature of these changes is captured eloquently by respected Cuban journalist Luis Sexto: “Cuba, rigid for many years, shakes off the starch that immobilised it to change what is obsolete without compromising the solidity of the Revolution’s power”. The power that Sexto refers to is state power in the hands of the working people.

The revolution is a project of liberation that strives to realise certain ethical and political principles and objectives, including international solidarity, national sovereignty, social justice and equality, participatory democracy and the ethic of “being” as opposed to the ethic of “having”.

These principles have taken deep root, and their validity is not questioned by Cuba’s revolutionaries. “The system’s principles must be defended”, says Rafael Hernandez, editor of Temas magazine, “but the model itself must be transformed”. A radical renovation of the revolution’s concepts, structures, methods and mentalities is needed because much of this model is obsolete, and obsolescence carries the danger of stagnation and retreat.

The demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main ally and trading partner, plunged the revolution into a deep and prolonged economic crisis, from which it is yet to emerge fully. That Special Period brings to mind long queues for rationed products, bicycles replacing buses and oxen replacing tractors — as the revolution drew on its wellspring of political consciousness and social solidarity to sustain its core achievements.

Today, President Raul Castro insists that socialism “means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income. 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.”

This implies the elimination of most state subsidies — other than universal social rights such as free health care and education enshrined in Cuba’s constitution — and the recovery of the role of wages as a means to allocate goods and services according to labour contribution. As Marx and Engels explained, only in a fully communist society — conceivable only after capitalist rule has been overthrown on a world scale — could distribution conform to the communist principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.

Crucial difference

As Cuban diplomat and historian Carlos Alzugaray Treto points out in an essay in the October-December 2009 edition of Temas, many leftists outside Cuba do not recognise that the PCC is essentially different from the parties of bureaucrats that ruled the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: “The honesty, sensitivity and the spirit of sacrifice championed by Che Guevara have been, in general, paradigms of Cuban communist conduct and not the privileges and perks of the nomenclatura, as happened under actually existing [Soviet bureaucratic] socialism”.

This difference explains why Cuba has not succumbed to bureaucratic degeneration and capitalist restoration. Every revolutionary party in power attracts opportunists as well as revolutionaries, and there are always problems of bureaucratism, which is a hang-over from capitalism. How rigorously the party and the working people can weed out “rotten apples” depends, in the final analysis, on the relationship of forces between the old capitalist order and the emerging socialist order. In the late 1920s in the Soviet Union, weakened by foreign invasion and civil war, international isolation and the inexperience of the revolutionary leaders in dealing with the bureaucracy in a socialist state, the Stalinist bureaucracy overwhelmed the revolutionaries. In Cuba since 1959, the revolutionaries have always had the upper hand.

During the Special Period, generalised scarcity and legal incomes insufficient to cover basic necessities gave rise to generalised petty corruption, not only among administrators but among the general population. This contributed to instances of more serious corruption among public officials, creating a social base for pro-capitalist ideas and influences.

Yet the PCC has preserved its character as a selective organisation of the most class-conscious and revolutionary workers. Any pro-capitalist elements are up against a formidable obstacle: a mass revolutionary party led by the historic leaders of the 1959 revolution, with 800,000 members, firm roots in the working class, a heroic tradition of international solidarity and five decades of hard-won experience.

The coming congress will be the last presided over by Fidel’s generation. The revolution looks to new generations to continue the struggle. Many would agree with Rafael Hernandez: the revolution “must go forward and leave more and more room for the new generations. Those new generations are demanding capability, a degree of decision over their own ideas, their own problems and criteria about the meaning of a socialist society.”

Millions of Cubans are participating in grassroots  debates on the Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines. Raul Castro has repeatedly urged a free and frank debate on the future of socialism in Cuba, without false unanimity or the suppression of differences.

Two poles

The PCC leadership recognises the need for far-reaching changes in the direction of more public debate, more socialist democracy via decentralised planning and an opening to small-scale cooperative and private enterprises to boost the efficiency of the economy — while maintaining the dominance of socialist enterprises and of social planning over the market.

At the other pole are those who fear such changes, either because they have erroneous or obsolete ideas about socialist-oriented society or because they defend administrative prerogatives and, in some cases, illicit privileges. Some would like Cuba to adopt Chinese-style pro-capitalist policies. They will be disappointed by draft Guideline No. 3, which states: “In the new forms of non-state management [of social property], the concentration of ownership in legal or natural entities shall not be permitted” and by a payroll tax that will limit the size of private businesses to 10-15 workers.

Despite the urgency of the changes needed, Cuba’s socialist renewal will take time. Unlike neoliberal politicians in capitalist countries, the PCC leadership cannot impose its will on its social base, the class-conscious vanguard of workers and farmers. It has to win their support and carry out the reform with the greatest possible transparency, democracy and social justice.

The fate of the revolution is for Cubans, and nobody else, to decide. We aren’t going to lecture the Cubans about what they should or shouldn’t do. We may only offer an opinion in the spirit of respectful dialogue from the trench of solidarity. This is the spirit in which we should seek to understand and engage with the debate taking place in Cuba about how, in Fidel’s words, to “change everything that must be changed”.

[Abridged from a talk to a Direct Action forum in Sydney on March 5.]