Below is my response to a May 5 commentary "Is Cuba heading towards the free market?" by Liz Walsh, a member of the Australian organisation Socialist Alternative. I wrote it for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal, an online publication based in Australia.
Socialist Alternative misunderstands Cuba, again
By Marce Cameron
Socialist Alternative, an Australian socialist organisation, denies that a genuinely popular revolution, let alone a socialist revolution, ever took place in the Cuban archipelago from 1959 onwards. It seems they believe in miracles: the Cuban state "is a product of a revolution carried out by a few hundred or, at best, a few thousand guerrillas". The decisive role of an extensive urban popular movement in the overthrow of the US-backed Batista dictatorship simply vanishes from this falsified account. "There was no 'forcible entrance of the masses onto the stage of history', to borrow Trotsky’s description of revolution." In other words the Cuban Revolution is a myth. It was just Fidel and a few hundred or a few thousand guerrillas. Indeed, "what is striking" — to Socialist Alternative — "about the Cuban Revolution is the general lack of self-activity in the revolution itself either by workers or peasants."
The million-strong demonstrations in support of the revolutionary government throughout the past five decades; the mass literacy campaign in which thousands of youths left the classrooms, lanterns and textbooks in hand, to eradicate illiteracy in 1961; the half a million Cubans who volunteered to serve in Cuba's internationalist mission in Angola and Namibia; the outpouring of solidarity after each hurricane that passes over the island; the neighbourhood committees that organise blood donations, guard duty, recycling, attention to the needs of vulnerable children, the elderly and the infirm; Cuba's untiring and selfless contribution to health care, education and sports programs in small, poor countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu that are all but invisible on the world stage — none of this registers with the comrades from Socialist Alternative. Or perhaps they are ignorant of these deeds.
The revolution, or the "revolution" as they see it, is not the work of millions of ordinary women and men who have given of themselves, sometimes even their own lives, to make Cuba what it is today. All this is the work of what Socialist Alternative describes as the "Cuban ruling class", and they're not talking about the octogenarian Cuban-American bourgeoisie in Miami. They're talking about a creature of their own imagination: a ruling bureaucracy in Cuba like that of the Soviet Union from Stalin to Gorbachev. Given their dogged blindness to the reality of a deeply popular revolutionary process in Cuba and their inability to perceive the crucial distinction between bureaucratism and a ruling bureaucracy, it's not surprising that Socialist Alternative are unable to grasp the class essence of the debates and changes underway on the island today.
Debate on the Guidelines
"The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) finally held its sixth national congress on the 16-19 April. This congress, the first since 1997, was convoked to allow the PCC leadership to obtain endorsement for a whole plethora of changes to Cuban economic policies. Unsurprisingly the conference endorsed the 311-point reform package unanimously". That the nearly 1,000 delegates to the PCC's Sixth Congress voted unanimously to approve the final draft of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution is not surprising, but Walsh doesn't explain why.
The Guidelines approved by the Congress were the culmination of a years-long process of public debate and consensus-building initiated by Raul Castro in July 2007, when he called for structural and conceptual changes to Cuba's model of socialist development and invited Cubans to debate the country's problems and propose solutions, repeatedly urging a free and frank debate without false unanimity. The draft Guidelines published in October 2010 were based on the mass consultation process carried out in late 2007. Between December and February the PCC leadership again called on Cubans, both party members and non-members, to debate the draft Guidelines in their work and study centres, neighbourhoods and in PCC base committees. Total attendance at the 163,079 grassroots debates was more than 8.9 million in a country of 11.2 million people. Two thirds of the original 291 guidelines were modified on the basis of the public debates, the December session of Cuba's National Assembly of People's Power, the provincial and municipal committees of the party and the deliberations of the five PCC Congress working commissions.
The unanimity of the final vote on the Guidelines at the Congress was not a reflection of unanimity; the delegates would not have agreed with every word of every Guideline, as seen in the televised debates during the Congress in which not all the votes on proposed amendments were unanimous. Rather, the unanimous vote was a reflection of delegate's confidence in the process of drafting, debating and amending the Guidelines. The only principled basis for a delegate to vote down the Guidelines would be if they disagreed with the overall direction of the changes proposed in the document. They would then have been obliged to propose an alternative set of guidelines for adoption by the Congress. Since no such alternative document emerged during the process of elaborating the Guidelines, it's not surprising that the final vote was unanimous. The delegates were not hand-picked by the PCC Central Committee. They were elected from the party base in the municipalities.
Walsh is silent on all this. She continues: "These changes to the economy, as always, are being driven from the top, in particular by Raul Castro." It's true that the national debate was initiated by Raul Castro and that the PCC leadership is driving these changes. So what? Isn't this what leadership is all about? Under the heading "No democracy in Cuba", Walsh dismisses the popular debates as nothing more than window-dressing.
"[S]ome defenders of the regime disagree and point to the fact that there has been widespread consultation of local party branches and neighbourhoods. But consultation is not the same as democratic control, far from it." Walsh fails to grasp the reality that Cuba is not, and could not possibly be, a fully communist society in which the distinction between a class-conscious vanguard of the working people and the mass of working people — from which flows the historical necessity for a vanguard party of the socialist revolution — has withered away. Without a Marxist-Leninist party at the head of the Cuban Revolution there would be no revolution and none of the impressive social achievements that even Walsh does not completely ignore in her commentary.
The important question is not whether 11 million Cubans were summoned to vote on each and every Guideline to satisfy Walsh's utopian (in Cuba's conditions) conception of a "real" socialist democracy. What's important is (a) whether or not the content of the Guidelines coincides with the class interests of the working people in the concrete conditions of Cuba today; and (b) whether or not the PCC leadership modified their proposal on the basis of the popular debates to improve this document in the class interests of the working people, that is, to what extent they were able to involve the masses in the process of elaborating this document. On both counts the facts speak for themselves. By the time the final draft of the Guidelines was voted on by the Congress delegates in April it was no longer just the PCC leadership's document, it was a document of Cuba's working people and their political vanguard organised in the PCC.
Walsh disagrees: "This consultation really only amounted to an exercise in testing the water to see if there was going to be substantial uproar. Indeed there was avalanche of criticisms at these meetings, helping to delay the implementation of some of the cuts." The fact that the Council of Minister's initial timeline for the first round of state-sector employment rationalisations was scrapped, a decision that reflected the concerns expressed by workers in the debates on the Guidelines, illustrates my point about the PCC leadership listening to the people. If the PCC leadership were as cynical as Wash suggests, why would they bother with a consultation process at all? Why bother "testing the water to see if there was going to be substantial uproar?" Why not do what capitalist governments routinely do, just ram through unpopular changes and confront the people with riot police on the streets? Walsh's cynical dismissal of the PCC leadership's efforts to strive for a genuine consensus on what must be done to renew Cuba's socialist project just doesn't add up.
"For all the consultation, there is no mechanism for these discussions to be binding in any way on any of the ruling state bodies". According to Socialist Alternative's utopian, anarchist pipe dream of how they imagine socialist democracy should function in a Third World country besieged by imperialism, Cuba's socialist state should dissolve itself into the grassroots debates. Not at some point in the distant future with communism on the horizon, but now. This is kindergarten Leninism, detached from the real challenges faced by Cuba's revolutionaries today — among them the PCC leadership — in striving to deepen Cuba's socialist democracy.
"What’s more there was no mechanism for individuals to put forward an alternative program to the regime’s, let alone organise a cohered political opposition to the reforms. The Communist Party after all is the only legal political party in Cuba. Organising any political current outside of and in opposition to the party is illegal." I can see where this is going. Socialist Alternative, who equate proletarian democracy with bourgeois democracy, would like Cuba's socialist state to lift the ban on opposition parties.
"While Cuba is no North Korea or Burma, any open political opposition to the regime is carefully monitored and frequently suppressed. The regime attempts to intimidate dissidents by threatening to sack them from state employment, by monitoring their homes day and night, or by organising “repudiation meetings”, where vigilantes are bussed in to surround dissidents’ homes to yell insults, throw objects etc. Or sometimes political opponents of the regime are imprisoned. Today, it is estimated that there are still over 200 political prisoners in Cuba’s jails, the great majority of these jailed for activities of an entirely peaceful political nature."
Walsh evidently doesn't keep up with developments in Cuba: as of May 5, when her commentary was published on the Socialist Alternative website, most of these so-called political prisoners had been released following discussions between Raul Castro and the head of the Catholic church in Cuba. More importantly, Walsh does not tell her readers about the crimes for which these "dissidents" were charged, convicted and imprisoned: accepting money or payment in kind for collaborating with US agents in Washington's efforts to organise a pro-capitalist opposition movement on the island as a step towards carrying out an Iraq-style "regime change". Whether or not such activities are peaceful, Cuba, like every state, has laws aimed at protecting its national sovereignty. Collaborating with a foreign power bent on imposing its economic and political system on Cuba is considered a serious crime. The truth is always concrete, said Lenin, but not for Walsh.
Neoliberalism or socialist renewal?
Turning to Walsh's analysis of the content of the Guidelines and changes in this direction that are already underway, she claims that these reforms involve "implementing a neoliberal program of rationalisation, slashing state jobs and winding back welfare programs to achieve what some of the regime’s supporters on the international left have called a more 'efficient socialism'. On top of these cutbacks, the Cuban state is trying to provide greater openings for small private business and foreign investment."
Presumably if Walsh and her Socialist Alternative colleagues were running a socialist state they would not aspire to a socialist-oriented economy hampered by chronically low labour productivity, endemic theft and petty corruption and a host of other serious problems, such as the persistence of a cumbersome and divisive dual-currency monetary system and universal subsidies other than free health care and education that reinforce, rather than reduce, social inequality by allowing households with higher incomes to purchase subsidised rationed goods. That's because such an economy cannot raise living standards, reduce social inequality and be the material basis for the building of socialism.
Cuba's economic problems — a consequence of the US blockade, two decades of the harsh-post-Soviet "Special Period" crisis and mistakes made over the past five decades — cannot be solved within the framework of the existing "model" of socialist development which is a patchwork of obsolescence, erroneous ideas and much else that is of enduring value. What is needed for Cuba to pull itself out of the Special Period and resume the building of socialism is nothing less than a new model of socialist development characterised by, among other things, a different balance of social, cooperative and small-scale private ownership and management of productive property and thus a greater role for the market within the framework of the planned economy; the decentralisation of economic management from the ministerial to the state enterprise and municipal levels to reduce the administrative apparatus to a minimum and allow greater scope for worker participation in decision-making; and a reassertion of the role of wages, rather than universal state subsides, as a means allocate access to goods and services — other than the right to free health care and education and subsidised sports and cultural activites enshrined in Cuba's socialist constitution — according to Marx's formula for the transition period: "to each according to their work".
According to Walsh, "the centrepiece of the current economic reforms is the slashing of state sector jobs. The figures are quite dramatic. Raul wants to slash around 1.3 million “excess” workers from the state’s payroll over the next five years. That’s 20 per cent of the workforce. In a speech that smacked of neoliberalism’s emphasis on “personal responsibility and hard work”, Raul Castro declared his determination to “erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working”. Indeed this speech sounded eerily similar to one [Australian Prime Minister] Julia Gillard recently delivered about the need for welfare recipients in Australia to learn “a new culture of work”.
The figures are indeed dramatic and there's no denying that this is a wrenching change in a country accustomed to the state providing all citizens with a job. But Walsh does not contextualise these figures. Firstly, all Cubans enjoy free health care and education, social security and subsidised access to sporting and cultural activities. Most households own their homes and rents are capped at 10% of household income. For the time being, some basic consumer goods are highly subsidised and distributed via egalitarian rationing. Secondly, as a consequence of the Special Period economic crisis, a substantial proportion of the state-sector workforce no longer depends on wages or salaries as their primary form of income but on remittances, tourism tips or supplementary black-market activities often linked to workplace theft and corruption. Thirdly, Cuba's licensed self-employed enjoy the same pensions and other benefits, such as paid maternity/paternity leave, as the rest of the workforce and tend to earn higher incomes.
Taken together, this means that losing one's job in Cuba cannot be compared to losing one's job in a capitalist country where the "free market" determines such things as access to housing, health care and education. As for Raul Castro's notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working, this is not quite true: it's only the working people, the vast majority of people in capitalist societies, who cannot live, or live decently, without working. In socialist-oriented Cuba, where the parasitic bourgeoisie has been expropriated, there are essentially two kinds of social parasites: corrupt functionaries and Cubans who are perfectly capable of working but who choose not to because they can live relatively comfortably on remittances or illicit incomes linked to theft from the socialist state.
The PCC leadership is leading the struggle against bureaucratism and corruption. The implementation of the economic reforms outlined in the Guidelines involves dismantling much of the bloated administrative apparatus of Cuba's socialist state, reducing this apparatus to a minimum and widening the scope for democratic accountability and decision-making by the producers. Internally, that part of the administrative apparatus that is resistant to change and unwilling to give up its administrative prerogatives and, in some cases, illicit privileges is the main obstacle to carrying through the necessary and urgent reforms. The real dynamic of the struggle in Cuba today is not the PCC against the working people, but the revolutionaries in the PCC together with the class-conscious majority of the working people against bureaucratism and other forms of social parasitism.
As for those Cubans who are of working age and are capable of working but choose not to, if Walsh wants to defend the "principle" that work is optional in the transitional society, she'd better explain why Marx was mistaken when he insisted, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, that other than universal rights such as (in Cuba's case) free health care and education, distribution must be based on the principle "to each according to their work". She doesn't even have to read Marx. Common sense tells us that it is both ethically unacceptable and economically unviable this side of communism — achievable only on a global scale and on the basis of profound changes in both the level of development of the productive forces and the social awareness of individuals — to allow some people to opt out of making a labour contribution to society if they are capable of doing so.
Walsh criticises the gradual elimination of the ration book without mentioning that those in genuine need of subsidies will continue to receive them. Given the social differentiation that has emerged during the Special Period, and the need to accept a degree of social inequality based on individuals' or work collectives' labour contribution to society, the social welfare emphasis must shift from universal subsidies to subsidies targeted to those in need of assistance. Walsh also glosses over Raul Castro's insistence, in the Main Report to the Sixth PCC Congress, that the rationing system would be eliminated gradually in step with economy recovery: "No member of the leadership of this country in their right mind would think of removing that system by decree, all at once, before creating the proper conditions to do so, which means undertaking other transformations of the economic model with a view to increasing labour efficiency and productivity in order to guarantee stable levels of production and supplies of basic goods and services accessible to all citizens but no longer subsidized."
According to Walsh, "those who enjoy positions of power within the state bureaucracy have always had access to consumer goods." It's not clear what she means by this. If she is implying that public officials in Cuba have privileged access to consumer goods on the basis of their legitimate employment, this is nonsense. Cuba is not like the Soviet Union from Stalin to Gorbachev where the nomenclatura enjoyed exorbitant salaries and perks such as fancy cars, country estates and a network of special stores with luxury goods. Of course, to carry out their jobs effectively some officials get driven around, travel overseas frequently and so on, and there may well be instances in which some such "privileges" are unjustified. If Walsh is talking about illicit privileges linked to corruption, it's true that corrupt officials enjoy privileged access to consumer goods that are out of reach of most Cubans thanks to their illict incomes. What is the attitude of the PCC leadership at the helm of Cuba's socialist state to such instances of corruption? As I pointed out earlier, the PCC leadership is waging a tenacious struggle against corruption and the Guidelines are an implicit declaration of war on what many Cubans call "the bureaucracy".
Walsh notes that "a key element of the economic reform program is the growth of the private sector in Cuba. The government hopes that some of the “excess” 1.3 million workers will be absorbed into this sector. Raul has already made available 250,000 new self-employment licences. The government is relaxing laws that forbid small businesses hiring and exploiting workers other than family members. In other words, the Cuban regime is trying to create a legal petty bourgeoisie for the first time since 1969, when it nationalised all small businesses."
There are two factual inaccuracies here. The nationalisation of small businesses occurred in March 1968, not 1969, and involved only non-agricultural small private businesses, not Cuba's peasant farms. She continues: "The government is also proposing to absorb 200,000 workers into the co-operative system. This will mostly mean that the government will hand over small state-run firms, like beauty parlours and barber shops, to the workers. By making them into co-ops, the state no longer has responsibility for their operation or for paying the workers’ salaries. They hope these workers will be driven by economic necessity to work harder and increase their own rate of exploitation. Many of these co-ops will fail or, to balance the books, they’ll be forced to reduce their own wages or eliminate jobs."
Most leftists would welcome the move to encourage the establishment of a non-agricultural cooperative sector in small-scale production and services. Yet Walsh tells us that the evil PCC leadership must be gloating at the prospect that "these workers will be driven by economic necessity to work harder and increase their own rate of exploitation". Cooperative members may well be obliged to work hard and produce quality goods or efficient services. That's life. But how the members of a cooperative, who decide collectively and on an equal basis how the earnings of their enterprise are allocated, can "increase their own rate of exploitation" Walsh doesn't tell us. For Marxists, exploitation is an unequal social relation in which one person or some people exploit others on the basis of their ownership of means of production. In a cooperatively owned or a state owned, cooperatively managed enterprise in a post-capitalist, socialist-oriented society, who is doing the exploiting?
Walsh concludes her commentary as follows: "Therefore, the current economic reforms being embarked on in Cuba do not represent a transition from socialism to capitalism. Cuba never ceased being a capitalist society. Rather, the Cuban ruling class is attempting to deal with their economic problems by modifying their state capitalist economy." There is only one true statement in this muddle of theoretical confusion, intellectual laziness, prejudice and ignorance: the current economic reforms being embarked on in Cuba do not represent a transition from Cuba's socialist-oriented society back to capitalism. At least we can agree with Walsh on something.