Friday, November 18, 2011

Translation: Paternalism debate

Here Luis Sexto draws attention to the crucial distinction between striving for efficiency and undermining the core social justice achievements of the Cuban Revolution, and how bureaucratic and technocratic-minded administrators can lose sight of the human beings at the heart of the socialist project.

I've also translated, for illustrative purposes, three selected contributions to the debate that follows Sexto's commentary on the Juventud Rebelde website. In one of these contributions Sexto expands on his view that paternalism is a real and serious problem in revolutionary Cuba, in response to a reader who expresses a different viewpoint. This is an important debate among Cuban revolutionaries.

The good and the bad

By Luis Sexto, Juventud Rebelde, October 20, 2011

Translation: Marce Cameron

Let’s pick up from where we left off: without the political element some of the transformations in Cuban society could lose their revolutionary and socialist essence. And this failure is awaited, as is evident from a brief stroll through the corridors of the internet, by both certain impatient leftists – of a bookish and grumbling left – and the hostile right who believe in the “miracle” of seeing the continuity of the Revolution destroyed.

But why do I dare say that the political ingredient could be lacking in this critical hour for Cuba? The finger of suspicion need not be pointed, of course, at the content of what has been conceived, legislated and approved, including by a political congress – the Sixth – of the leading [Communist] Party. Rather, it must be directed for now at what is shaping up as one of the main anxieties, at least of he who writes these lines: the implementation of the renovation programme and its strategy. Because in my experience, approaches to reality that have been rejected still resist their disappearance from bureaucratic or technocratic positions. I said this in my October 7 column in the commentary titled “Ideas are ideas”. I’m taking up this topic again because a reader asked me to elaborate on these sociological references even though, as you know, what I focus on in these commentaries is journalistic reasoning.

Bureaucratic or technocratic ways of viewing things, I said a fortnight ago, have this in common: both sidestep the politics that must permeate, for the benefit of society, any law or resolution of the government or the Communist Party. This is as far as I could go, for reasons of space, in defining the terms the Friday before last. I’ll now add that those imbued with the bureaucratic approach tend to exercise their executive function as a mechanical act, rigid, unchallengeable and susceptible to being distorted to accommodate the personal interests of an individual or group. The technocratic vision, in turn, considers a problem solely in light of its technical or economic or, in the extreme, economistic aspects.

In short, as you can see, bureaucrats and technocrats have one thing in common: they forget that people exist. According to this logic they overlook the essential fact that for the citizens determines and regulates politics in our country. To be fair, some difficulties are inevitable or insurmountable in a given moment, while others leap like crickets due to mistakes or decisions bordering on the absurd.

So it worries me – and could my honest concern be important? – that, for example, the struggle against paternalism results in “collateral damage” to the justice upon which Cuban society is founded. Does anybody doubt that this is could happen? I don’t. What’s more, what I’ve written so far is to draw attention to the fact that according to my contacts and observations there are citizens who feel aggrieved by that tendency to sacrifice solutions that cannot be postponed in certain places. Would it occur to anyone to, let’s say, leave a community of more than six thousand people without an ambulance, 6km from the headquarters of the municipal government in a zone where transport is almost a wish, a “let’s hope it’ll be resolved soon”?

It seems to me that an inconsistency slips into the slogan I hear frequently on the radio, “Spend Less”. One asks: where would the country end up if this slogan were interpreted as subtract and only subtract? I’d say, in contrast, and without intending to adopt a magisterial posture, that “We must spend what is necessary and only what is necessary”. This is, as I understand it, the correct formulation of all efforts aimed at savings, which I perceive to be a directive in the current economic guidelines. Because saving does not consist in taking away and taking away, in cutting, along with the superfluous, the basic. These cutbacks, by sometimes being rigid and lacking in political consideration, generate a sequel of inertia, suspicion and discontent.

As a professional journalist I don’t like repeating slogans. Most slogans tend to empty themselves of content, and one day some will sound like a broken record. But I don’t hesitate now in coining a phrase with echoes of a just and enduring slogan of Fidel. You’ll discover its link to our revolutionary tradition when I conclude by saying: “Against paternalism, everything; against justice, nothing”*.

*An allusion to a phrase from Fidel Castro’s well-known 1961 “Words to the Intellectuals” address: “Within the Revolution everything; against the Revolution, nothing” – translator’s note.

Comment No. 9 by “Pepe” 

I think the tangled skein we’ve been weaving for the past 50 years won’t be unravelled in one blow. No matter how much will there is, this will be a titanic task. In the 1960s many small business owners suffered the consequences of the so-called “Revolutionary Offensive”. Now we want to go back to what existed before: thousands of small business proprietors, who in reality didn’t exploit anyone and were a source of employment and a means to satisfy the population’s needs. At the time there was the wholesale sector, from which these “exploiters” (today “self-employed”) could purchase the indispensable inputs that their businesses required. Today, in many cases they have to turn to the black market.

I also think this “paternalism” is a myth. The state as such doesn’t produce anything, it even costs money to sustain. The peope’s labour is the real producer. A great many of the “illegalities” that are seen everywhere today, and thanks to which a good part of our needs are largely satisfied, will disappear when the people can satisfy their needs with the earnings from their honest work. The state only administers, and when it doesn’t do its job well the distortions arise, such as the bureaucratism, voluntarism, authoritarianism that have done and continue doing so much harm to our country. I could give more examples but I think several editions of this paper would be needed.

Comment No. 12 by Luis Sexto 

Pepe: paternalism hasn’t been a myth. I wish it had been; if this were the case then perhaps we’d be talking about something else now. It has been paternalism to narrow the space for individuals; it has been paternalism for the state to have even taken the place of the family, that the good worker and the bad worker were paid the same, that the normal differences were not established between those who work more or know more, and those who are less talented or who exert themselves less. It has also been paternalism to have had, as I’ve seen, schools for a single student in isolated places. So that the child didn’t have to walk. All this, though it may have had good intentions, was negative in that many people became accustomed to the state solving all their problems. Consequently the state held all the economic levers in its hands. 

This, Pepe, is not a myth. Now we’re trying to change this situation; now the state aims to step back enough to allow people to do what it’s up to them to do, within a framework of social justice, which could be harmed by an incorrect application of the norms and laws of the updating [of Cuba’s socialist orientation – translator’s note]. Social justice must help citizens meet pressing needs such as health and education, including social welfare if one is helpless. I certainly view things differently to you. If the country is changing, I’m happy. What worries me is not so much how far the changes may take us today, but the harm they may do us, that they could prevent us advancing tomorrow a little further towards a society in which there is space for the individual to be able to honestly earn their wellbeing, having the means to do this in a society where property doesn't polarise people, where we don’t have the emergence of a few with great wealth and many with less. 

In truth I don’t advocate capitalism. Rather, I advocate a society that is more efficient, fair, inclusive, without prohibitions, only laws that would harmonise everyone’s interests and preserve the equality that the Revolution brought us, but not egalitarianism, which is the worst kind of inequality. Above all, a society without foreign interference dictating our will as a free nation. 

Comment No. 13 by Francisco Ruiz 

Full social justice is a very ancient social aspiration. The need for a social system with a constitution that upholds the striving for complete social justice is universal. Paternalism is a form of injustice. I agree that the nanny state is a myth. The state has a role even under socialism [i.e. the socialist-oriented society], but none of these functions make it paternalistic. To support people who are incapacitated and to redistribute wealth so that health and education are free and accessible to all is not paternalism. There are other things that have to do with the underdevelopment of the productive forces. To meet the pent-up needs of nearly all Cubans in the area of housing construction it would be much better to have large socialist enterprises for housing and all other kinds of building and construction work, rather than the almost medieval practice of families building their own homes. These enterprises don’t have to be “the state”. Paternalism would exist not because these enterprises build homes, but because people don’t pay a fair price for one of these homes.

But for all this to be set right, it seems to me, the first thing that must be fairly paid for is the workforce or the work involved in every productive activity. It’s the gap between wages and living expenses that gives rise to the problems we have. If this gap were closed then buying a house or a car would not be almost a dream. On the other hand, all over the world public transport is profitable but not in Cuba. This is something we have to change. If the price of a bus fare in a Cuban city doesn’t cover the costs of the trip, no state transport enterprise will ever be profitable. But this price (in many parts of the world it could be one to three dollars or more) cannot be paid by a population whose salaries are less than what people in other countries pay in taxes. This has to be changed. This is how we’d achieve the degree of justice embodied in [the socialist formula] “from each according to their ability, to each according to their work”. Luis, thank you for your commentaries which always provoke controversy. 

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