Saturday, January 28, 2012

Comment: Cuba — towards a new socialist model

Regular readers of my blog deserve an explanation for my not having posted anything since January 18. I had to move house. I'm closer to the ocean now; from my new kitchen window I can see container ships creeping to and from the freight terminal at Sydney's Botany Bay.

A reminder of the intricately interconnected global economy that could be the basis for a planetary socialist society... if we put an end to capitalism before the ecological crisis overwhelms us.

Perhaps the 200 million Chinese industrial, construction and mining workers — concentrated in a few giant metropolises and resembling more the Russian industrial proletariat of the early 20th century than the privileged, sedated "labour aristocracy" of developed capitalist societies — will decide the fate of humanity? If that sleeping giant awakens...

Meanwhile, I hope to return to posting regular translations soon. 

Here is a commentary I wrote for Australia's Green Left Weekly, the second in a series of articles on the debates and changes in Cuba. A slightly edited version has been published on the Green Left website here.

Cuba: towards a new socialist model

By Marce Cameron

As reported in GLW #905, the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), held in April, “endorsed for the first time a fundamental change in the political and economic model”, according to respected Cuban political scientist and Temas magazine editor Rafael Hernandez.

This does not mean the abandonment of Cuba’s socialist project, but the renewal of this project after two decades of the post-Soviet “Special Period”, a deep structural crisis of Cuba’s post-capitalist, centrally-planned economy and an ideological and ethical crisis of the nation’s socialist vocation.

The changes underway in Cuba point to a socialist-oriented society purged of excessive idealism, elements of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism”, the crisis-driven improvisation of the Special Period and the pernicious habits engendered by the survival imperative amid this systemic crisis.

Contrary to the notion that political processes are either “top down” (as in the Greek austerity measures) or “bottom up” (as in the Arab Spring), Cuba’s socialist renewal unites revolutionary leaders and masses in a common struggle to “change everything that must be changed”.

This common struggle is the fruit of a democratic national debate of unprecedented candour, depth and detail on the draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines

The final version of the Guidelines, adopted by the Sixth Congress and subsequently by Cuba’s national assembly, bears the imprint of this consultative process.

Special Period

In the late 1980s, Cubans enjoyed the highest living standards in Latin America thanks in part to Soviet fair trade. Then the USSR and its satellite states – and the dogmatic certainties of Soviet “Marxism-Leninism” – abruptly crumbled.

A bitter truth was revealed: Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” was a brittle caricature of the real thing. As the Berlin Wall fell and Czechs, Poles and Romanians smashed statues of Marx and Lenin in public squares, Cuban leader Fidel Castro invoked the heroism of the young Soviet republic under Lenin’s leadership.

The Fourth PCC Congress, held in 1991, resolved to continue the “Rectification” process launched at the Third Congress in 1986. At the heart of Cuba’s “recification of errors and negative tendencies” was the abandonment of elements of the Soviet “model” that had been uncritically assimilated.

But the search for a new Cuban model of socialist development, free from both idealistic errors and the malign influence of Soviet Stalinism, was overtaken by the need to survive. The collapse of Cuba’s foreign trade with the Soviet bloc meant industrial paralysis, severe shortages and long queues.

Cuba’s communist leaders were preoccupied with ensuring that what little there was was shared as equitably as possible; that no schools or hospitals closed; that idled workers were not left destitute.

In a word, that social solidarity prevailed over selfishness. 

They had to ensure, for example, that every Cuban child continued to receive a litre of highly subsidised milk each day. Cuba had bartered its lobster for the powdered milk of East German cows. 

With East Germany absorbed into the capitalist West and the simultaneous tightening of the US economic blockade, milk had to be bought at market prices from as far away as New Zealand.

The concessions to the market made during the 1990s to stimulate economic recovery, from the opening to foreign tourism to turning huge state farms into cooperatives under state tutelage, were essentially emergency measures rather than the building blocks of a new socialist model.

During the Special Period the building of socialism had to be put on hold. The Cuban Revolution had to strive to preserve its core social achievements, above all free and universally accessible health care and education at all levels, and adjust to the new world in which US imperialism had emerged as the hegemonic superpower.

Cuba’s revolutionaries would have to come to terms not only with the Soviet debacle and its political lessons for Cuba, but with the Revolution’s own errors, some of which date back to the 1960s. 

The spectacular rise of capitalism “with Chinese characteristics”, and Vietnam’s tightrope walk between socialist commitment and capitalist restoration, would also have to be studied critically.

Finally, no overhaul of Cuba’s socialist model – a configuration of concepts, structures, methods and mentalities that seeks to embody the nation’s socialist objective – could proceed without striving for political consensus, first among the PCC leadership and then among its broad social base, the big majority of Cuba’s working people.

All this has taken two decades.


Contrary to the nonsense peddled by the corporate media, revolutionary Cuba is not a police state; its repressive forces have never been used against the people. It is the force of persuasion, rather than the persuasion of force, that is the outstanding feature of Cuban politics since 1959. 

This is in stark contrast to both Stalinist totalitarianism and capitalist “democracy”.

Unlike capitalist politicians, who may resort to state violence to persuade citizens to accept “what’s good for the country”, Cuba’s communist leaders have to explain and convince. This is why Fidel used to give such long speeches, interrupting baseball telecasts and soap-operas for hours on end. As Havana University’s Jesus Arboleya has observed, Fidel has been the Revolution’s sternest loyal critic.

Striving for consensus, while acknowledging that differences of opinion are healthy and inevitable, will become even more important in the approaching post-Fidel era, when Fidel’s generation of revolutionary leaders – with their unique personal authority forged in heroic deeds in the Sierra Maestra mountains and in the prisons of the Batista dictatorship – are no longer around.

Cuba today is not the same as in 1989. The market concessions have succeeded in stimulating a partial economic recovery amid a growing social differentiation based on access to convertible currency.

A substantial minority of Cubans can live relatively comfortably thanks to remittances, theft from the socialist state and other black market activities and employment in sectors linked to tourism and foreign investment. With state salaries insufficient to cover all basic living costs, most Cubans have had no choice but to turn to the black market to make ends meet.

When workers are obliged to steal from their workplaces in order to live with dignity, they tend to turn a blind eye to corrupt administrators. How to instill a sense of individual and collective responsibility for socially-owned productive property when it has come to be viewed by many workers and administrators as a source of illicit personal enrichment?


This touches on an old problem that predates the Special Period. Hyper-centralised management of Cuba’s centrally-planned economy reduces the scope for worker participation, while excessive egalitarianism in the sphere of wages tends to breed contempt for social property: less politically conscious and committed workers may think, “Why bother working hard when I’ll get paid the same low wages?”

This is one example of the convergence of elements of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” with excessive revolutionary idealism.

Others are Cuba’s wholesale e
xpropriation of urban small businesses in 1968, a policy that is now being reversed, and the all-pervasive nature of the socialist state, which is now retreating to its appropriate functions and dimensions in a society that envisages its eventual “withering away”, as Karl Marx put it. 

“For the worker to feel like the owner of the means of production, we cannot rely solely on theoretical explanations – we have been doing that for about 48 years – nor on the fact that their opinion is taken into consideration in the workplace meetings. 

"It is very important that their income corresponds to their personal contribution and to the work centre’s fulfilment of the social objective for which it was constituted”, Cuban president Raul Castro told the National Assembly in July 2008.

In a panel discussion on work in Cuba published by Cuba’s Bohemia magazine on October 13, 2010, Cuban researcher Jose Ramon Fabelo asked:

“If I'm not able to decide what is produced, nor to
what end, nor participate in management, in planning, and much of the time what I earn is not related to what I do, what sense of ownership am I going to have, am I going to extract this out of pure ideology? Sometimes yes, but not in the majority of cases... 

“We've often debated between these two extremes, between moral or material incentives, consciousness or money. I consider this contraposition to be very anti-dialectical. 

"We need to harmonise the two, and I would caution: today we cannot go to the extreme of hoping that economic mechanisms by themselves will stimulate and restore the value of work to its rightful place. Educational, pedagogical, political and juridical work is very important in the here and now.”

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