The most significant economic reforms to date are taking place in agriculture, the Achilles heel of Cuba's post-capitalist economy. A key initiative of the government led by Raul Castro is the leasing of idle state farmland to individuals, peasant cooperatives and state farms in an effort to boost production, reduce costly food imports (US$1.6 billion in 2011) and lower prices. More than 100,000 people have benefited from these land grants.
Damage to crops from the ferocious 2008 hurricanes, the global economic crisis, administrative red tape and delays in the commercialisation of farm supplies and equipment — together with losses in the distribution chain from farm to market — saw an overall decline in agricultural output in 2010, but this year may see a turnaround as new farms become established and teething problems are ironed out.
The "return to the countryside" has spawned a new social movement in which peasants are sharing their knowledge with those who have opted to try their hand at farming. The rural revival is being complemented by the establishment or expansion of "green belts" around provincial cities and towns, with an emphasis on ecological sustainability and energy efficiency. Cuba's communist youth organisation, the UJC, is encouraging young Cubans to join in this effort. Thousands have responded with enthusiasm.
Not everyone agrees that expanding the scope of peasant agriculture and cooperatives — which may hire wage labour to assist with planting, harvests and the like — can make a positive contribution to Cuba's socialist development in the new economic "model" that is emerging. Here Ricardo Ronquillo Bello, a regular columnist for Juventud Rebelde, takes up the debate in favour of cooperatives. He notes that Vladimir Lenin was an enthusiastic supporter of cooperatives if, as in revolutionary Cuba, state power is in the hands of the working people. Those who are interested may like to read what Lenin had to say here.
The question of the century
By Ricardo Ronquillo Bello
Juventud Rebelde, November 20, 2010
Translation: Marce Cameron
Translation: Marce Cameron
The question leaps out like the rabbits of the magic hats. It is asked by both the international conservative media and our friends on the left alike. It is also established in more than a few internal cliques [an apparent reference to isolated leftist critics of the Communist Party leadership]. It inflames any detail, however insignificant it may appear. Every movement of the island's socioeconomic sleeves causes the nervous creatures to jump: where is Cuba headed? Does it update towards a more complete, rational and full socialism, or does it intend to move towards capitalism?
In recent weeks I had a sensitive and enriching exchange with a scholarly jurist of our economy, with the intention of writing a column in this space under the heading "To return to the countryside". His concerns express the clarifying weight that the confrontation of ideas must have — no matter how profound the sensitivities or differences may be, as Raul [Castro] has stressed — in the democratic and socialist conception of the future of our country, for which he invites us to debate the Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the 6th [Communist] Party Congress.
The professor was concerned about the content of my suggested theme "to return to the countryside", and the importance I gave to Decree Law 259 [granting idle state farmland rent-free on a long term basis to individuals, peasant cooperatives and state farms]. It is no small thing, in his opinion, that it tends to promote smallholdings, individual work.
The way he sees it, agriculture, like the rest of human activity, does not prosper nor consolidate the economy of a country, let alone socialism, through individual work. "This is only a circumstantial and transitory palliative and may generate values, vices and other ills of a society in transition towards capitalism, never towards socialism, however much one persists in apologetics ... it should be stressed that the new national rural "businessmen", and who knows if soon we'll add urban citizens with the opening to self-employment, are now permitted to hire labour, in a limited way, which amounts to the exploitation of man by man.
To this analyst — and surely no few of us share this view — socialism is built with free and responsible socialised labour and cooperatives can make a decisive contribution, though this is not the kind of cooperative we have in Cuba today. If this idea were not met with prejudice, or the suspicion that a traditional peasant sector shouldn't exist in the country, including opposition to its promotion in the decisions aimed at revitalising the economy, there would be no need to challenge his views.
His assessment ignores the fact that the Revolution is now correcting some of its idealistic and voluntaristic errors, which were recognised transparently by Fidel in his dialogue with [Spanish-French journalist] Ignacio Ramonet [in Ramonet's book Cien horas con Fidel, published as My Life - Fidel Castro in English].
Apprehension should not be stoked against this [peasant] sector in a country where the individual campesinos use 68% of their lands efficiently, while state farms use 29%, the Basic Units of Cooperative Production [i.e. peasant cooperatives] 48% and the agricultural production cooperatives [another form of peasant collaboration] 58%. Especially in the circumstances of an economy that must exist in conditions of few resources.
With the barbudos [bearded ones, a term of endearment for the historic leadership of the Revolution] — a significant number of which were campesinos —, their struggle and their victory, the yearning for the land in the Cuban archipelago achieved its just revolutionary dimension, which is in no way in contraposition to broader and more comprehensive forms of social property such as cooperatives in the countryside and other [i.e. urban] sectors, including the proposals in the [draft] economic Guidelines for the 6th Party Congress.
In these guidelines is the proposal to adapt the current legislation in correspondence to the transformations in the productive base, as well as weaning the various forms of cooperatives off the tutelage of state enterprises, and introducing in a gradual way integral service cooperatives in agro-industrial activity at a local level.
The guidelines reaffirm the Leninist, socialist trajectory of the updating [of Cuba's economic model], which includes the encouragement of cooperatives beyond the agricultural sector, and demonstrates a willingness to free them up from the absurd tutelage and the ropes that bind them. Lenin, it has been underlined often in recent times, pointed out that the regime of cultured cooperativists is socialism.
The same thinker leads us to recall that Fidel, in his hundred hours of dialogue with Ramonet, argued that in socialism [i.e. the socialist-oriented society] multiple economic [i.e. property] forms can and must coexist, along with different ways of redistributing personal incomes to guarantee the ethical, moral, ideological and socioeconomic development of the socialist society.
So to return to the countryside, to establish cooperatives, to socialise — none of these should make the rabbit jump out of the hat.