Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Translation: An old debt (Terrero/Bohemia)

Here, Cuban economic commentator Ariel Terrero argues that Cuba's inflated state-sector payrolls are an old problem that demands an urgent solution.

An old debt

By Ariel Terrero

Bohemia, September 20, 2010

Translation: Marce Cameron

It's not the first time that Cuban society proposes to pull itself out of the quicksand. On numerous occasions, speeches, studies and agendas have warned of its grave economic and political implications. But opposition to excessive personnel is usually confined to words rather than deeds, even though this is one of the most serious problems that has held back the economy for decades.

In the late 1980s, the process of Rectification of errors and negative tendencies was aimed at inflated payrolls and other related problems such as undue earnings and corrosive practices of workplace indiscipline.

It was probably the most concerted attack on this economic cancer. But it was an abortive operation. The grave [economic] crisis at the beginning of the 1990s led to the Special Period, which imposed another priority on the country: resistance.

Despite the vigorous criticisms made in the public assemblies in [the Rectification] process, I wonder if the country was ready in the 1980s to break with the dogmas of state paternalism and social egalitarianism, which had made employment the almost exclusive responsibility of the state and not, what's more, the duty of the individual worker. Perhaps not. Change is traumatic. It transcends the mere organisation of work and current estimates of a million excess state-sector payrolls; it also concerns everyone's habits, conceptions and attitudes to work, along with incomes, standards of living, economic structures and also with ways of conceiving of socialism, often ill-founded or at least outdated.

We confront this challenge once more today. With fewer alternatives.

The Cuban economy will never take off, with firmness and stability, while it is held back by labour distortions and the dead weight of billions of [regular Cuban] pesos expended annually on salaries in return for a meagre social contribution. The inflated payrolls generate an unfavourable relationship between productivity and salaries and become, as one of the more obvious consequences, a barrier to increasing the low wages of workers. Like the riddle of the chicken and the egg, low salaries for low labour productivity ... or low labour productivity for low salaries.

But excess personnel are just the tip of the iceberg of another evil, more acute and deplorable: underemployment, in some enterprises and budgeted entities more than others, of the most precious resource that Cuba possesses today: the human capital tenaciously forged in more than half a century of Revolution.

Despite the magnitude of the adjustment of employment policies and the consequent proposal to relocate, in a first phase, some half a million state-sector workers [to other state jobs and the expanding small-scale private and cooperative sector], there exists a national consensus on the need for change. The state cannot continue to bear alone, at the cost of deteriorating economic efficiency, our ambition of full employment and the financing of every little productive and service entity. The economy, weakened by a tense combination of internal and external factors, does not support this.

The transformation of the labour scenario goes hand in hand a series of economic reforms that transcend employment policies and imply a structural reformulation, defined as the updating of the Cuban economic model. Some changes were initiated in recent years — new forms of incentive payments in [state] enterprises and the leasing of state-owned farmland in usufruct, to cite two examples — while others are underway or will be implemented in order to create non-state employment alternatives: the expansion of self-employment, the renting of premises and equipment, the creation of non-agricultural cooperatives, adjustments to taxation policies.

And these are, I dare say, just a glimpse of all the changes that will be introduced in the Cuban economy, gradually but without vacillations, in the immediate future. The banking system, for example, needs modifications to facilitate the survival of the new options for private employment which will be massively expanded. And the state sector, in turn, needs profound adjustments to guarantee that elusive efficiency it has strived for since the 1960s. This is the way to ensure that we repay an old debt, to banish once and for all the evil of inflated payrolls and to restore work and wages to their pride of place, and that the socialist state enterprise continues to be the main pillar — deservedly this time — of the Cuban economy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Translation: Cubasolar president on debate

Cubasolar is a Cuban non-government organisation that promotes renewable energy and energy efficiency. The group publishes a colour magazine Energia y Tú (Energy and You, see <www.cubasolar.cu>) that is widely available in Cuba. Below is an interview with Cubasolar president Luis Berriz by cubasolidaridad.org on ecological themes in the debate on the Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines. The interview was published by the Basque website cubainformacion.tv.

Interview with Cubasolar president on Draft Guidelines debate

cubasolidaridad.org, March 10, 2011

Translation: Marce Cameron

Cubasolidaridad.org (CS): In the most general sense, in the debates that have been held we don't glimpse a concrete model of development but what would seem to be objectives that are mostly juxtaposed, without a clear integration or harmonisation. For example, [the Guidelines] talk about continuing with the socialist planning model without a corresponding evaluation of how it has functioned, that it must be modified but not the strategy of modification. What energy planning model will be implemented?

Luis Berriz (LB): Paco, before answering your question, let me tell you that what has been published is the Draft Guidelines and not the Guidelines. This draft is published as a basic document to begin the discussion with all of the people. I'll also tell you that this Draft has been discussed in hundreds of thousands of meetings in every workplace and even in every neighbourhood, where everyone has participated with all of their opinions. I can inform you that up to February 7 there have been 127,113 meetings with the participation of 7 million citizens, who made more that 2,346,000 interventions which comprise 619,387 proposals for deletions, additions, modifications, doubts and concerns about the content of the Draft Guidelines. You know that Cuba has 11 million people and a quarter of these are children, in other words, everyone has participated in the discussions. Now we'll see what happens to the Guidelines after the [Communist Party] Congress [in April].

Now I'll answer your question. The energy policy we aim to implement is that which leads to energy independence, that is, a policy based on the natural resources of Cuba, principally the sources of renewable energy, and premised on savings and energy efficiency.

CS: Also in the general sense, there is no mention of an environmental strategy, either in terms of conservation or the sustainable exploitation of natural resources. Why does this not appear in a development program such as this?

LB: This is something that has been widely discussed by the people and no doubt the Guidelines will be modified to reflect this.

CS: Concretely, it seems to us to be hardly a sustainable model in environmental and energy terms —the proposal for the tourism sector, with the priority given to the construction of marinas, golf courses, a model we're all too familiar with in Spain that's an ecological disaster, with its use of water, destruction of the coastline ... how can these proposals be made sustainable?

LB: I can't talk about Spain, but what we're talking about in Cuba is developing sane tourism, nature tourism and mainly the kind that involves contact with the Cuban people so they understand the reality of Cuba. As you know, Cuba does not promote sex or gambling tourism but prohibits them. Unfortunately, foreign tourism always has negative consequences in Cuba, where we face an undeclared war with imperialism and enemy agents can come here in the name of tourism to finance the counterrevolution.

CS: In terms of energy, sectors such as the co-generation of energy by the sugar industry through the use of bagasse [sugar cane stalks after sugar extraction] and sugar cane agricultural and forestry residues, and creating the conditions to co-generate energy in the inactive period in both refining and distillation, are prioritised. Given this, it seems to us that the decline in cane production makes such an alternative proposal possible. Does this not open the door to the production of biofuels such as ethanol via distillation?

LB: Paco, our country has produced ethanol for centuries as a by-product of sugar cane. It has been produced for medical and industrial uses and also, primarily, for our fine Cuban rum which I'm sure you've tried. Also, we're not against biofuels. What we're against is using products such as corn and soya for the production of fuels to satisfy the powerful [consumers in developed countries] when there are so many hungry people in this world. We're in favour of the production of biofuels in order to guarantee food production. Biofuels must be produced at a local level and for local use, and solely to achieve energy independence and sustainable development.

CS: Regarding renewable energy sources, "those that have the greatest economic impact in the short term" are prioritised. Is this not a contradiction, given that it may be better to prioritise those with a greater impact in the medium or long term?

LB: I don't know if this may be a contradiction in Spain, Europe or the US, but in country like Cuba that has been blockaded [by US trade sanctions] for more than 50 years and after the collapse of the socialist camp, when at one time we were absolutely alone, we're obliged to think about doing things that have short term economic benefits while also thinking about the medium and long term.

CS: Among the renewable energy sources there does not appear to be sufficient emphasis on the use of biomass, other than mentioning the sugar industry. Are there proposals for this?

LB: Yes, there are such proposals.

CS: Finally, is there a plan to quantify these Guidelines with indicators to ensure their implementation and objectives?

LB: Sorry, I don't understand your question. All I can tell you is that these proposed Guidelines aim to ensure the updating of the Cuban socialist system based on Marxism-Leninism. We have committed errors and all Cubans are aware that we have to change, but always for the better, that is, to strengthen our social system: Marxist-Leninist socialism.

You know us very well. If anyone believes in miracles — regardless of their beliefs, whether they be Christian, Islamic or something else — they'd realise that our Revolution is a miracle, because it has been able to overcome the cruel imperialist blockade for more than 50 years and help save thousands of lives in other countries of this world with its solidarity.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Translation: Bohemia panel on economy (Part 2)

Here is the second instalment of my translation of Bohemia magazine's round-table discussion on work in Cuba and the "updating" of Cuba's socialist-oriented economic model. It's difficult to sustain the argument that Cuba lacks a critical press in light of such candid discussions of Cuba's problems and how to address them.

Bohemia panel on Cuban economy (Part 2)

By Delia Reyes and Vladia Rubio

Bohemia, October 13, 2010

Translation: Marce Cameron

(Part 1 is here)

Pablo Rodriguez: It's as if there's a confrontation of two cultures: that of work, which deteriorates due to the conditions that have been imposed on us; and that of [illicit incomes to supplement low wages], which permeates the social body. I'm talking about practices that we live with every day and that can be summed up in one word: stealing. This corrupts to the degree to which such individuals become models of success.

If someone has to work 16 hours for a pound of chicken, to give an example, for this person work loses value. I've often insisted that the world of prices is giving a daily speech that demoralises work. That imaginary we're constructing where illicit incomes to supplement low wages is seen as something natural.         

Luis L. Palenzuela: We cannot view legality as isolated from this reality. The system we have of receiving complaints, claims and denunciations and the studies that we do on legality and the state may contribute, within the framework of the proposed changes, to trying to resolve these problems.         

Together with the organs of control, the Attorney General's office can ensure that any measure that is adopted complies with the law. We're not one of the entities that enforces legality but one that's tasked with the establishment of legality, which must be closely linked to the economic and social development of the country.   

The population must be the protagonist of legality. Regulations and norms must be implemented for the purposes of appropriately prosecuting the new economic strategies. This whole theme must be linked to institutionalism. But is formal state employment the only kind of legal work? Or are there also other kinds of legal work that the state creates and develops?       

After the Constitution, the Labour Code is the basic legislation relating to work and dates back to 1984. At the time it was considered advanced, and there were assurances that it would be revised, updated. No doubt that this is being worked on now, since it requires updating.       

Jose Ramon Fabelo: Work must be valued in the Cuban conscience. Daily life has been imposing a different meaning to that conveyed in speeches, thus producing a rupture in the subjectivity that can give rise to people saying one thing and doing another.

There's a tendency to morally legitimise what is illegal, and therefore the violators of legality begin to be approved of and even worshipped in certain sectors: the cult of the supposed struggler. [The Spanish verb luchar, to struggle, has taken on a new meaning in Cuba during the post-Soviet Special Period, referring not only to collective political struggle but also to the individual struggle to make ends meet through illicit activities linked to the black market — translator's note]. This also alerts us to the existence of alienated labour within socialism [i.e. the socialist-oriented society]: I perceive it as so alien that I steal from my workplace, which is to say that I don't feel any sense of ownership over my work or its results.           

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.    

So we have a contrast: love of work as induced consciousness or as the demand of life itself. 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 to its rightful place the value of work. Educational, pedagogical, political, juridical work is very important in the here and now.                  

Jose Luis Nicolau: We're talking about a work [ethic] which is the starting point for the proposed transformations that is in very bad shape, and this cannot be reversed by one measure or ten. There are those who complain about control, but if this variable is not projected in all these modifications, this could entrench the problem even more. Real endogenous control [i.e. by work collectives] is nonexistent, it's seen as an external factor.          

In this process of readjustments, integrality from the political point of view, democracy as [exercised in] daily life, from the ascendency of certain real values that become acculturated, is very important. But this is not achieved overnight, the mentality [i.e. people's attitude to work] has developed over a long time in a direction other than the desired one.          

And the principal challenge for Cuban society — as least from the point of view of labour — is to achieve, once and for all, work as culture.       

Healing the wounds of work

Although the participants in the Bohemia round-table discussion stressed unambiguously the cracks in the work ethic and its causes, delving into  the intricacies of the economy and of the Cuban subjectivity, all agree that despite the complex challenges, the situation is reversible.  

Pablo Rodríguez: We're rethinking the centralised and administrative model with which we're managing the economy. Until now, we haven't given the productive subject [i.e. the worker or work collective] the possibility to be responsible for itself, and there's only one way to solve this: allow the people to participate, give them responsibilities, this is what must be done.      

Neither can we solve this problem with a development schema in which the productive work of some sectors resolves the lack of productivity of others, subsidising inefficiency, which is what has been happening, and in this [downward] spiral, work is ever more wounded.  

Yes, there's a way out: put work on an altar, give it the place it deserves, allow the worker to participate. Also, we've conceived of work above all as a professional occupation. The trades have been lost. The value of manual labour has been lost.   

I agree with what Fidel has always reiterated: in socialism nobody is surplus. But we can have surplus workers if we continue implementing everything in a standardised way, ticking off in the economic sphere, above all in relation to work, general patterns of behaviour.       

The state can become a manager of [productive] property, and the processes of appropriation can be multiple, just as the forms of production are diverse, giving greater space to the horizontal links which are going to be established [in the productive chain].    

Luis L. Palenzuela: With regard to the modifications to be made to the Cuban economy, we cannot forget that, in any case, we must comply with what is established in our Constitution. The changes that are carried out must be linked to this law of laws, [approved by referendum in] 1976 and reformed in 1992.

We must cultivate values such as work [ethics] within the principles of legality, but this has to be elaborated with objectivity, so that there are no great contradictions with reality. We're working now on the modifications to our legislation. In relation to work, we must bring it into line with the updating of our economic model. And I agree that this must be done with a great deal of popular participation.
Rigoberto Pupo: There is advocacy for the urgent necessity of shifting to a communicative paradigm in which we're all truly active subjects. We must develop this cultural sense of education, where the world of work is not separated from that of school and life, remembering that inculcation does not instil attitudes. For a value to germinate it must insert itself into the culture.  

Rafael Alhama: It's a big challenge. But while there's a real urgency, we must guard against simplistic solutions that run counter to integral ones, to systematic approaches; and we shouldn't reject critical historical analyses which tell us how to avoid old errors.         

To modify or establish new forms of conduct rooted in social and working life is extremely difficult. So we need a conceptualisation to give a strong impetus to the updating of the model, which cannot be alienated from the general conception of [productive] property, with all the social, political, economic and cultural relations this implies.     

Real socialisation of management implies a profound change to state property, with forms of self-management and a multiplicity of variants such as self-employment, cooperatives, leasing [of state property] ... The most important thing is to achieve the necessary coordination, confluence and complementarity. Integration is the watchword.   

Juan Carlos Campos: To revalue work, the first thing we have to do is work; if this is limited by constraints, sometimes of a juridical nature, by economic or other conjunctures, then work itself is not going to be revalued because it's constrained by the circumstances. The measures being taken are necessary, but based on a strengthening of our socialist economy.   

Jose Ramon Fabelo: We have to better harmonise the relationship between the institutional world and that of daily realities. It cannot happen, for example, that the law prohibits me from doing what I must do to exist [i.e. earn a living].        

Socialism is characterised by far more democracy than that claimed by any other type of system. And in the updating of our [socialist model] there needs to be more emphasis on communication with the social bases [of Cuba's socialist project].

To decide, one has to understand. All of us must be subjects of the Revolution, protagonists of the changes in order to be able to defend them.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Translation: Bohemia panel on economy (Part 1)

Bohemia, a weekly current affairs magazine, was founded in Cuba in 1908. Today it is a respected and well-read publication carrying in-depth analysis and commentaries. Below is the first of a two-part translation of a round-table discussion among academic experts convened by the magazine on work in Cuban society. In-depth discussions such as these in Cuba's revolutionary press have informed the grassroots debates, now concluded, in Cuban workplaces and neighbourhoods on the Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines. The pictures and captions accompanying the online version of the Spanish original can be viewed by clicking the blue title above.

Bohemia panel on Cuban economy (Part 1)

By Delia Reyes and Vladia Rubio

Bohemia, October 13, 2010

Translation: Marce Cameron

Structural changes in the economic model aim to revalue the role of work in Cuba, say experts in the round-table discussion convened by Bohemia. The decentralisation of administrative decisions and individual responsibility and participation will be promoted, they agree. Work must be converted into a primary necessity through effective motivations and, together with the educative role of the family, the culture of [illicit incomes to supplement low wages] must be erased. The formation of work values must find support in real life and its examples.    
The adjustment of labour policy and its effects on the workplace — with more than half a million state-sector workers to be relocated [i.e. made redundant] — are only the tip of the iceberg of a more imperative necessity: to restructure the Cuban economic model and through this reassert the role of work.   
This urgency was underscored by nine prestigious academics brought together by Bohemia to participate in a round-table discussion to get to the bottom of work in Cuba: Drs Rigoberto Pupo, vice-president of the Cuban Society for Philosophical Research; Roberto Fabelo from the Philosophy Institute; Julio Cerezal Mezquita from the Central Institute of Pedagogical Sciences; masters degree holders Pablo Rodriguez from the Institute of Anthropology and Maria Josefa Luis from the Centre for Youth Studies; Juan Carlos Campos from the Centre for Psychological and Sociological Investigations; Luis L. Palenzuela from the office of the Attorney General of the Republic; researcher Rafael Alhama from the Institute of Labour Research; and Jose Lis Nicolau from the office of the Auditor General.      
From different disciplines and analytical perspectives, the specialists go into the causes of a certain devaluing of work in the Cuban economic model, as well as considerations as to how this situation can be reversed.

Rigoberto Pupo: The essence of humanity is expressed in labour; when this doesn't occur, whether due to paternalism or lack of incentives, it sickens society. If "from each according to their ability, to each according to their work" is not complied with — as Marx demonstrated in the Critique of the Gotha Programme — and if the criterion for distribution is homogeneity, then those who work more receive the same as those who contribute little.    

Jose Ramon Fabelo Corzo: Work is an organic and universal necessity, through which human beings produce and reproduce the material conditions of their own life; it is not exclusive to any particular social regime.

In the case of Cuba, when the Revolution triumphed it wasn't possible to begin distributing according to work, because had we followed the recommendation of the Marxist classics to the letter then, the Revolution would probably not have lasted the first year. The inherited deficit in terms of health, education and social welfare demanded a state that, with a certain degree of paternalism, was obliged to find resources. This opened the door to a tendency towards the state monopoly of [productive] property in order to be able to distribute equitably what little there was.    

This involved dangers, among them egalitarianism. As everybody received the same, this created a disincentive to work, to contribute individually. Social wellbeing, largely subsidised by the state, was severed from productive activity; at the same time, the idea that everything would be OK whether we worked hard or not so hard was encouraged. With the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the onset of the so-called Special Period, a paternalistic state emerged once again, doing everything it could to protect the people [from the worst effects of the economic crisis]. But these measures amplified the distortions between work and the satisfaction of needs.  

Today, in the present conditions, the degree of non-correspondence between work and social distribution must be reversed with absolute urgency.

Rafael Alhama: Fidel said an incisive phrase in 1997: "No revolution can substitute for work". But the fact is there were misrepresentations and distortions regarding work. Distribution was prioritised above accumulation and consumption. The latter were, and still are, the prerogative of the state institutions.     

We have to stitch together a study of what transpired: in the 1960s, the cost of living index and the  purchasing power of money were factors that permitted a dynamic. The 600,000 unemployed people which were then assimilated into the workforce left their mark on employment policies, which have been prioritised since then. Back then there was no real basis on which to consolidate a vision of economic and organisational rationality.

In the 1970s, after the approval of the [policy promoting the] scientific organisation of work, improvisation trumped forecasting. In the following decade, in the industrial sector alone, some 11 billion pesos at 1980s prices were invested. This is a huge amount for this economy, and it was coupled with the assimilation of more than 1.1 million new workers resulting from baby boom of the 1960s.

This was a propitious conjuncture in which to strive for the rational deployment of the workforce, but it was not taken advantage of. In that decade there was irrationality in the use of resources, disorganisation and underemployment became more acute. This situation was criticised by Fidel himself who described our economy at the time as "an old horse full of sores".

I'm going to give an example of the gravity of the situation regarding payrolls: in one of the last entities that I visited, a third of the operators supported two thirds of the other occupational categories — technicians, administrators, directors, service workers. One third and two thirds.

Pablo Rodriguez: Even when concrete conditions create the premises for the institution of a certain social relation, the historical subjects have responsibilities [i.e. people have to act on these premises]. I wouldn't go so far as to talk about paternalism in these first years of the Revolution; these were times in which a popular subject, profoundly empowered, participated and struggled to shape its destiny and became the master of its own history. 

The people continued being poor, but the psychological notion of poverty had been broken.
Later on, this popular subject was gradually displaced, and its place began to be occupied by bureaucratic structures, with decisions that were ever-more technocratic. This is one aspect of the construction of the paternalistic state and of the always-adolescent child, incapable of making decisions. In socialism, the popular subject and its capacity to find solutions to its problems cannot be forgotten.

Our society has achieved something that gives us tremendous strength: social property in the means of production. This is an historical advance that we must not renounce. Now, the problem is to abandon the state-centric, administrative model, and see all the potentialities within social property to free up the productive forces and break schemas.  

Juan Carlos Campos: In Cuban society the idea that only state employment is legitimate predominates, and this has not been the case for many years. Employment is gainful labour, and it may be formal, informal, legal or illegal.

In the 1990s, flowing from both the [post-Soviet economic] crisis and the measures adopted [to confront this crisis], a greater heterogeneity of society, the economy and of work emerged. Especially with regard to employment. Self-employment appeared. It was then that we began to talk about multiple economic spaces in Cuba. The state sector suffered, there were entire branches that were decapitalised. The budgeted sector was essentially not revived, and it absorbed a very large number of workers.

As it is currently structured, the Cuban economy cannot provide productive employment to the more than five million people that comprise the economically active population. But the socialist state remains committed to protecting people [from large-scale unemployment].   

Maria Josefa Luis: Work continues to be a necessity for Cubans; we should ask ourselves how a group of questions related to the functioning of society have negatively influenced the conceptions related to work. Perhaps the formation of new generations in this sense has been idealised a little.

How might young people have been influenced by arriving at a boarding school in the countryside [where studies were combined with manual agricultural labour] where the disorganisation is terrible, and they're not going to produce but waste their time? If in practice they don't receive appropriate attention before entering the workforce, if they see that they're not making the most of the workday, this is going to leave an impression on them. And when they're given a training placement after graduation, on many occasions they're not sent to where they should be, or they spend part of the eight hours of the workday doing nothing at all. That is to say, in these cases the youth enter the world of work with distorted conceptions.

Studies show that it's the family that has the greatest influence on the formation of the work ethic in the new generations. And there are youth who demonstrate how, with the survival strategies elaborated in the household — I don't know if they are legitimate, but some are illegal — they resolve material necessities, and at the same time they see no close relationship between work effort and the ability to satisfy their necessities.          

So, today there are certain cracks in the edifice of the conceptions that our social project promotes in relation to work, this being understood to mean not only the satisfaction of material necessities but also as a moral duty and an element of personal realisation.

Julio Cerezal: The investigations carried out by our institute (of Pedagogical Sciences) point to the existence of aspirations among our youth that are not realised through socially useful productive work.  

Currently there is an effort being made in education to inculcate a producer consciousness, but this cannot be learned in the same way as maths or physics. People are educated in society and in this socialisation process does not only take place in the classroom. The examples of life and of work must be the principal educational reference points; however, in practice this has not always been the case.     

(Translation to be continued)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Translation: When — Ariel Terrero/Bohemia

Ariel Terrero is one of Cuba's most prominent economic commentators. He has a regular column in Cuba's Bohemia current affairs magazine and a spot on Cuban TV. In this commentary he takes up the concern expressed by many Cubans about the proposal to gradually eliminate the ration book system, through which all Cuban households receive a monthly quota of highly subsidised basic goods in special stores. The ration book system subsidises everybody equally, including those with higher incomes and those who receive substantial remittances from relatives living outside Cuba. 

With the income stratification that has opened up during the past two decades of the post-Soviet Special Period — and that will be consolidated as revolutionary Cuba moves away from a paralysing egalitarian paternalism by reasserting the link between income and the individual's or work collective's labour contribution to society — the ration book no longer serves social justice, but reinforces social inequality by draining state coffers of money that could be targeted to those who really need subsidies.  


By Ariel Terrero

Bohemia, January 24, 2011

Translation: Marce Cameron

Rarely has a programmatic document advanced so many proposals in so few words. Although it is reiterated in the debate that this or that sector or activity deserves explicit mention, the Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution propose measures and challenges for the Cuban nation that are numerous, coherent and precise, worthy of a book of Asiatic aphorisms or a military manual. But this document inevitably gives rise to more questions than answers.          

How to achieve this or that? How long will it take? What will be the consequences? When will this or that decision be taken? When will the sun rise [i.e. when will these reforms bear fruit]? When? The popular debates express, in particular, the uncertainty regarding timeframes.

The Draft Guidelines define principally strategies: what to do. The timeframes and tactics to advance in the directions that will be given final approval by the Communist Party Congress [in April] will be elaborated later on, at every bend in the road, by the economic protagonists. This is how it will be done.  

It's more difficult to anticipate timeframes. The introduction to the document proposes the 2011-15 five-year period for the resolution of severe problems — from the utilisation of [idle] agricultural lands and excessive [state-sector] payrolls and low labour productivity, for example, to the recovery of the role of wages. It also identifies a short timeframe for the achieving financial equilibrium and "resolving those problems with greatest immediate impact on economic efficiency", and a longer timeframe for solutions to achieve sustainable [economic] development.    

In other cases, the Guidelines are necessarily more cautious: in the next five years only "carrying out studies" or advancing towards the elimination of monetary duality are promised.

The questions raised in the debates [convened in workplaces and neighbourhoods throughout Cuba] often express anxiety multiplied by negative two: they want to see, feel and consider the results of measures that have been initiated or announced in agriculture or in relation to wages, for example, and are apprehensive regarding other, more gradual changes.  

After half a century under the empire of the ration-book store and rationing, many compatriot's  hackles go up when they read in Guideline No. 162: "Implement the gradual elimination of the ration book, as a normative and egalitarian form of distribution at subsidised prices..."

The doubts, and above all the difficulties of imagining a future without the ration book, act as ballast against public support for its elimination, despite it symbolising shortages and feeding the black market. How will consumption be affected by the withdrawal of rationing? When will it be phased out [completely]? Repeatedly in the debates there are appeals for a gradual phasing out, very gradual.

Personally, I'd be happy if it disappeared tomorrow, as I think that the burial of the ration book could only be a sign of economic health, advance and the existence of conditions that we need urgently: a solid expansion in food production and supply and a generalised increase in wages — in step with a parallel growth in productivity — so that we Cubans can cover the cost of the basic basket of consumer goods without the help of state subsidies.

The Cuban system of rationing and food subsidies protects equally — another example of paralysing egalitarianism — the family who needs it and citizens with higher incomes; those that work and those that don't [i.e. who are capable of working but choose not to]. A revolution should subsidise people rather than products. This would allow the state to target more effectively the onerous expenditure that is currently dedicated to the network of rationed goods stores.

Today, the government recovers only one eighth of the 26 billion pesos [about US$1.1 billion] of total spending this implies. This means that, without subsidies, an adult consumer in the capital would have to pay some 140 pesos for their monthly quota [of subsidised rationed goods], instead of the around 17 pesos they have to spend today.    

When we consider that 140 pesos is about a third of the average salary in Cuba and the current quota is insufficient to cover nutritional needs, it's impossible to even contemplate the elimination of the ration book this year. Change towards a distribution [of basic goods] without subsidies must go hand in hand with a recovery of the national economy and transformations in other areas — labour policy, for example — that would stimulate wage increases. And all of this will, undoubtedly, take some time, however much some would wish, and others fear, the contrary. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Translation: Expanded meeting of Council of Ministers

Here is an abridged translation of an important report in Granma on an expanded meeting of Cuba's Council of Ministers. I've translated only the first part, which reports on the decision to adjust the timeline of the rationalisation of state-sector payrolls. In October, Cuba's trade union confederation, the CTC, announced that in a first wave of rationalisations of the state-sector workforce, some half a million workers would be made redundant in the first few months of this year — signalling an end to Cuba's policy of using state-sector payrolls to guarantee everyone a job at the cost of chronically low labour productivity and, during the past two decades of the post-Soviet Special Period, average wages and salaries that don't cover all basic necessities.

Workers deemed surplus to needs are offered up to three jobs in priority sectors where there have been persistent labour shortages, such as agriculture, construction, teaching and policing. Those who reject such job offers are paid 60% of their wages for up to six months and are expected to find work in the expanding non-state sectors of the economy: self-employment, cooperatives and small businesses. The success of this rationalisation process depends on two things: economically, on the expanding small-scale private and cooperative sector being able to quickly absorb most of these surplus state-sector workers to avoid large-scale unemployment; politically, the process must be carried out with maximum transparency and fairness and, it goes without saying, the understanding and consent of the majority of Cuban workers.

In earlier translations of commentaries published in the Cuban press, such as those of Luis Sexto in Juventud Rebelde, concerns have been raised about the "bureaucratic distortion" of this process and of workplace redundancy commissions being inadequately prepared. It must be done, but it must be done properly. It's also likely that the process of establishing urban cooperatives and small businesses and expanding the scope of self-employment is proceeding too slowly to absorb such large numbers of workers in such a short time-frame. The necessary organisational and legal frameworks to facilitate the expansion of the small-scale private and cooperative sectors are still being established. As far as I'm aware, regulations governing the establishment of urban cooperatives have yet to be published, and Cuba's state banks don't yet offer loans to set up urban cooperatives and small businesses. Many of the licences for self-employment and small businesses granted in recent months involve the legalisation of black-market operations, which will now be taxed and regulated. 

The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) leadership's social base is the class-conscious vanguard of Cuba's working people organised in the Communist Party, a party of some 800,000 members with firm roots in the working class. The party leadership is extremely sensitive to this social base. It cannot impose its will on the majority of Cuban workers; it must persuade them of the necessity for unpopular measures — such as the workplace rationalisations and the gradual elimination of the ration card — in order to save the Revolution.

Expanded meeting of Council of Ministers

By Leticia Martinez Hernandez and Yaima Puig Meneses

Granma, March 1, 2011

General Raul Castro presided over the expanded meeting of the Council of Ministers on Friday, where he said that all the opinions gathered up to now — fruit of the debate on the Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and the Revolution — will be analysed, independently of the numbers of people who have expressed them.

His comments followed the presentation of a preliminary report by Marino Murillo Jorge, vice-president of the Council of Ministers, on the discussions of the Guidelines. Granma has been authorised to publish in advance that as of February 7, 127,113 meetings had taken place with the participation of more than 7 million citizens, who made more than 2,346,000 interventions that resulted in 619,387 proposals for deletions, additions and modifications and expressions of doubt and concerns regarding the content of the Draft Guidelines. At the conclusion of this process the people will be provided with detailed information about its results which, in the opinion of Raul, constitute a formidable instrument for the work of the [Communist] Party and government leadership at the national, provincial and municipal levels.

The president of the Councils of State and of Ministers [Raul Castro] added that that updating of our [socialist-oriented economic] model is not a task of one day and not even one year, and that given its complexity it will take at least five years to carry through its implementation.

He affirmed that in this strategic activity there is no room for haste and improvisation, stressing that the greatest threat to the Revolution lies in the errors that we may commit. Given this, we have to work without rush but without rest, and promote order and discipline in everything we do, without losing sight of the importance of ensuring the meticulous preparation of all the cadres and specialists charged with the implementation of the changes we are going to introduce.

By way of example, Raul said that the process of rationalising state-sector payrolls is not an end in itself, but a means towards the recovery of efficiency and discipline in the work collectives, based on the principle of suitability and entitlement.

He said a task of this magnitude that affects, in one way or another, all citizens cannot be bound by inflexible timelines and that its rate of progress will depend on our capacity to create the organisational and legal conditions to guarantee its success, systematically controlling its development in such a way that the necessary corrections can be introduced opportunely and so that the existing deficiencies in state agencies can be rectified.

Taking into account the delay in the initiation of this process [of workplace rationalisations], he proposed that the timeline for its execution be adjusted, while reiterating the will of the Cuban state to leave nobody uncared for.            

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Translation: To open up is ... to open up

From today I hope to resume my more or less daily translations. Below is Luis Sexto's latest commentary. It conveys the impression of a revolutionary process grappling with the dead weight of administrative inertia, the socialist state paternalism that Cubans have become accustomed to over the decades and the understandable fear of change that accompanies individuals and societies alike at critical junctures. 

To open up is to open up

By Luis Sexto

Juventud Rebelde, February 24, 2011

Translation: Marce Cameron

We really are living in a time of crucial rectifications. Inasmuch as we strive to sincerely maintain the fidelity of the essential ideas and ends of the Cuban Revolution, nobody lies nor plays with the confidence or the hopes of our compatriots. Myself included, although no decisions depend on me because I write, and I write with the intention of diffusing the certainty that in Cuba today, thought and action strive to transcend the precarious without renouncing the values of social justice and independence.

Readers of this column will know that I've mentioned social justice and independence on other occasions. And I must confess that I'll continue doing so, because without either one of these there would be no Revolution, nor socialist aspirations. Thus, I can say that we're grappling with a period in which to stop doing what has been projected, or to distort some proposals, can imply throwing into the gutter much or all of what Cubans of several generations have created from [the attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba led by Fidel Castro in] 1953 to today.     

Of course, I dislike hackneyed phrases, recycled ideas. I don't like posing as a guardian of doctrine, but neither do I wish to feign ignorance or be a "rebel without a cause", or sit before the candle to hear the crack of the flame without trying to put it out. So I have to say that some of the questions most often directed to the journalist that I am, are these: What will become of us? Perhaps everything will be OK? And I understand: it's not possible to pass from a situation in which to receive [from society] means receiving even that which is not deserved [a reference to socialist state paternalism], towards a situation in which much of what an individual receives will be, basically, the fruit of one's labour in a society in which state-sector employment is readjusted to rationalise spending and income, salaries and productivity, merit and efficiency. As a consequence, the notion that absences to deal with personal matters is justified will have to disappear from the workplace, along with leaving work in the middle of the day to buy such and such that is now on sale, or the absent administrator, or the budget is overrun but we continue [spending]... OK, we know about all this.

But at times these questions asked by those who seem to be in touch with the people denote a valid confusion. Because they read newspapers, or laws are approved that liberate [economic] options [such as the expansion of self-employment], and suddenly here, in this little locality, in that village or municipality, practice reveals the contrary: he "cannot", "we're not interested in this", "there's no solution", "shut up, we don't speak about this", "bring in this form, though the law does not require it". This method  of leadership and administration continues to reign in one or two villages in the country. It's logical, then, that some citizen, particularly in the interior of the country, asks: What are we doing? Either we open up in order to close down, or we close down to ... continue being closed.        

As a journalist, I should neither downplay nor exaggerate what I see and hear. I say this because of all that I've seen in a recent visit to the provinces. In certain places there's a still a contradiction between the course the country has declared and actions that, instead of furthering this course, paralyse or muddle it. The mentality of rigid control continues encysting — to enclose in a cyst is also a method of control — that is now intensified. Control that fails to distinguish, as a poet would say, between the voice and the echo, between an honourable citizen and a rogue, between a solution and a danger.     

Now, above all, we must understand the value of semantics. To control is not the same thing as to obstruct; to obey a law is not the same as to comply with it [to the letter], nor is complying with it the same as distorting it.               

Today, semantics is, above all, part of the grammar of politics. Thus control, in the sense that Cuba reclaims, means carrying out procedures without obstructing them, without confusing the citizenry, and without discouraging work. To open up is to open up. And if there must be a goalkeeper, s/he must know, above all from a revolutionary sensitivity, that while the path [of reform] will be regulated, he who gets in the way through blundering or bad faith will immediately be labelled, in the present circumstances, a "problem". One more problem.