Cuba: towards a new society

By Marce Cameron, in Havana

Many had hoped former Cuban president Fidel Castro would make a surprise public appearance at the January 1 late afternoon event in Santiago de Cuba to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. But as expected, it was Fidel’s brother, Revolutionary Armed Forces minister and current Cuban President Raul Castro, who gave the keynote speech. The commemorative event was held in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where the revolutionary struggle was launched with the July 26, 1953 attempt to sieze the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes military garrisons.

On January 1, 1959, US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba amid the joyous pandemonium of a victorious people’s revolution. According to US journalist Lee Lockwood, “it was one of those rare moments in history when cynics became romantics and romantics became fanatics”. A week later, 32-year-old Fidel Castro entered Havana at the head of the Rebel Army victory convoy, which was greeted by huge crowds of cheering supporters.

Here in the Cuban capital the 50th anniversary celebrations were modest, in keeping with the national focus on the intense effort underway in the provinces to recover from hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma. These hurricanes had damaged or destroyed nearly half a million homes, devastated agriculture and wreaked destruction in late 2008 estimated at some US$10 billion, equivalent to a fifth of Cuba’s GDP. As midnight approached, people gathered to watch the fireworks display from the city’s Malecon seawall promenade. In Old Havana, a crumbling architectual gem gradually being restored to its former Spanish colonial era splendour, children and dogs played in the narrow streets decked with small Cuban flags and rainbow bunting.

“An individual does not make history”, Raul Castro pointed out in his nationally televised January 1 speech, “but there are people who are able to decisively influence the course of history. Fidel is one of them. Nobody doubts this, not even his bitterest enemies.” Today the Cuban Revolution is stronger than ever, Raul assured its supporters, but this does not mean that the struggle will be easier in the years ahead. “We should also keep in mind what Fidel told us all, but especially the youth, at the University of Havana on November 17, 2005: ‘This country could destroy itself, this Revolution could destroy itself, but they [the US imperialist rulers] cannot destroy it. We could destroy it ourselves, and it would be our own fault,’ he argued.”

Stronger than ever

In the three years since Fidel warned of these dangers, Cuba’s revolutionaries have been working hard to safeguard the future of their socialist revolution. As the 50th anniversary dawned, socialist Cuba could celebrate a remarkable achievement — infant mortality was down to just 4.7 per thousand live births at the close of 2008; the lowest rate in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba’s infant morality rate is not only lower than the First World country that blockades it (the US has an infant morality rate of 6.7, and rising) but also of Canada (5.1), a First World country that has an extensive public healthcare system.

A labour of love, the Cuban Revolution never stands still. Eight years after my last visit to the island, many changes for the better are apparent as Cuba gradually leaves behind the most difficult years of the profound economic crisis known as the “Special Period”, caused by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trade partner, at the beginning of the 1990s. While not spectacular, these improvements are solid and methodical. Rivers of bicycles have disappeared from the streets while the infamous “camels”, articulated trucks modified as people-carriers, have been banished to the countryside. In the capital, shiny new Chinese and Russian buses service busy routes every eight to 12 minutes.

Electricity blackouts have been all but eliminated and new, energy-efficient appliances have been distributed to every home as part of the “energy revolution” begun in 2006. Even after last year’s devastating hurricanes, there is plenty of food in the local markets and nobody is going hungry. Urban agriculture was the first to bounce back, while volunteer brigades of young communists have pitched in to help the recovery in the countryside. With half the country’s arable land idle and choked with weeds, the government is encouraging farmers to grow crops and raise livestock on idle state lands in an effort to boost food production.

In Los Palacios, a rural township in the western Pinar del Rio province which was one of the five municipalities worst affected by the recent hurricanes, international aid has speeded up the repair of homes. At the entrance to the township, a village of some 40 petrocasas is being constructed with Venezuela’s help. Made of concrete sandwiched between panels of PVC plastic with steel pillars at the corners, these comfortable two-bedroom houses, which have withstood the ultimate test of hurricanes with minimal damage, will be given to residents whose homes were destroyed by the recent storms.

In a joint venture with Cuba, Venezuela’s state-owned PDVSA oil company is building a vast petrochemical complex near Cienfuegos in the centre of the island. Soon, with Venezuela’s help, Cuba will have the capacity to produce tens of thousands of petrocasa modules annually. This will help alleviate the country’s severe housing shortage.

In Havana there are fewer police on the streets reflecting a decline in social tensions, and there are fewer prostitutes and others making a living on the black market. Tens of thousands of idle and disaffected youth have been incorporated into work or study, thanks to the patient efforts of some 40,000 young revolutionary social workers. Launched eight years ago as part of the Cuban Revolution’s “battle of ideas”, these brigades of young “doctors of the soul” work with vulnerable children, the elderly living alone and disaffected young people who are neither studying nor working, usually because they’re making money from black market activities. These youths are under no legal obligation to talk to the social workers, who seek to befriend them and win their trust.

Western leftists who worry that the Cuban press isn’t critical enough of the revolution’s shortcomings need only take a look at current editions of Cuba’s two national dailies, Granma and Juventud Rebelde. Readers have been encouraged to write in with their complaints, criticisms and suggestions, while the opinion pages carry biting commentary on controversial topics such as what to do about those who are perfectly capable of working but refuse to, because they get money from relatives in the US or from “befriending” Western tourists. The public naming and shaming of state officials who fail to deliver has contributed to a higher quality of service.

As well as the revolution’s enduring achievements and the sense that the country is moving forward slowly but surely, there’s also the feeling that Cuba is no longer so alone in the world, with the Bolivarian socialist revolution unfolding in Venezuela and the new rise of the radical left in Latin America. This was demonstrated concretely in the outpouring of solidarity which Cuba received in the wake of the 2008 hurricanes. In December, Cuba was accepted as a member of the Rio Group of Latin American nations. The US wasn’t invited to the meeting in Brazil, something unthinkable a decade ago.

To each according to their work

In his November 17, 2005 speech referred to by Raul, Fidel not only warned that the revolution could succumb to its own errors and shortcomings. He also spoke about what must be done, and what was already being done, to ensure the Cuban Revolution’s survival. “We are moving towards full changes in our society. We have to change again, because we have gone through some very difficult times, and these inequalities and injustices have arisen, and we are going to change this situation.” There were, according to Fidel, “several dozens of thousands of parasites who produce nothing”.

Cuban central bank president Francisco Soberon explained to the country’s National Assembly in December 2005: “Paradoxically, the present system of highly subsidised distribution aimed at guaranteeing the basic needs of those who live from their salary ... also benefits a rather large number of persons who receive incomes in foreign currency or higher salaries in national currency to such an extent that they can cover the subsidized products and services for a year for a fraction of their incomes.” This situation is not only economically untenable, “it is ethically and morally unacceptable that someone of working age can live comfortably without the need to work”.

Referring to the rationing system through which all Cubans receive a quota of basic goods at highly subsidised prices regardless of their contribution to the economy, Fidel suggested that “the ration book must disappear. Those who work and produce will receive more, and they will be able to buy more. Those who worked for decades [i.e., pensioners] will receive more and will have more. The country will have much more, but it will never be a consumer society. It will be a society of knowledge, of culture, of the most extraordinary human development imaginable, development in art, culture, science ... with a breadth of liberty that no one will be able to dismantle.”

In a speech to the National Assembly on December 27, Raul stressed the need to eliminate excessive state subsidies and gratuities, “to apply the socialist principle of everyone receiving according to their work”. Such subsidies must be “gradually removed as we advance in the process of giving the salary its real worth”. Only healthcare, education, sports and culture should remain free of charge. “To put it simply, people must feel the need to work in order to cover their basic needs, regardless of the conscience of every honest citizen about this primary duty. Let’s not fool ourselves. If there is no pressure, if people do not need to work in order to cover their necessities, and if we continue to give things for free here and there, we’ll shout ourselves hoarse calling on people to work.”

The Cuban Revolution is not only working to create the conditions for the elimination of the rationing system and for higher incomes tied to labour collectives and the individual worker’s social contribution. It is also working towards the elimination of the divisive dual currency system, another legacy of the Special Period, in which a new convertible peso (CUC, with an exchange rate of $1.12) circulates alongside the old Cuban peso, worth 24 convertible pesos. By rewarding those who contribute more to society rather than subsidising those who do not, Cuba’s norms of distribution should reinforce, rather than undermine, efforts to forge a socialist work ethic, without which the building of socialism is unthinkable.

But how to do away with the present system of rationing and across-the-board state subsidies without money becoming the main motivation for people to work — the dangers of which Che Guevara warned of in the early 1960s? How to reinforce the role of leadership by example and voluntary work? These and other “structural and conceptual transformations”, as Raul referred to them in his December 27 National Assembly address, will be debated in the lead-up to the Cuban Communist Party’s Sixth Congress this coming October.

[Marce Cameron is a member of the national executive of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and an activist in the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (Sydney).]