Monday, July 18, 2011

Translation: Alfredo Guevara & students 2

Debate Forum dialogue with Alfredo Guevara in the Faculty of Chemistry, Havana University

Part  2 (Part 1 is here

Cubadebate website, June 22, 2011

Translation: Marce Cameron

Student: Professor, I’m a fifth-year computer science student but I’ve come along to this discussion [organised by the Faculty of Chemistry]. I’ve always wanted to meet you and hear what you have to say. Now, I’m not sure about something you said. I’ve written down my question so I don’t make an ass of myself, which I’ll now read out: Professor, I’d like to know, given what our president Raul Castro has said, and what you have said about the need to graduate ever more technicians, and the policies of countries such as Canada and Germany that now offer many jobs to our young graduates, or rather they steal our brains so that we can go there and make a lot of money and so on, yet nobody has come up with any proposals or ideas for how to prevent such things, which are despicable but real, from happening. Thank you very much.

Alfredo Guevara: My goodness, that’s a difficult one isn’t it. Because when you graduate – you’re a student aren’t you? – when you graduate and they offer you a marvellous salary of 400 or 500 [Cuban regular pesos per month] and ten days into the month you’ve spent your salary and you haven’t covered half the cost of living for the whole month, and along comes a man from Canada who knocks at your door and offers you a salary of two thousand Canadian dollars, it’s hard not to think about it. The only solution is to solve the problems of this country and of daily life. When 500 pesos doesn’t get you anywhere…

I can tell you that I have other sources of income due to my being an author and because my works are published outside Cuba, but my case is exceptional, or different, and I earn 700 pesos a month. Because of my age, I’m 85, and my ideas about health, I’m not a vegetarian but I know it’s healthy to base one’s diet on vegetables. In less than ten days, in a week I can spend my 700 pesos in the agricultural market. Sure, I have family members with incomes … I receive income from outside the country, but this is only a limited percentage of the population. It’s calculated that 51% of the population, of families, receive some income from outside the country [mostly in the form of remittances – translator's note].


It’s not only the fault of the Canadians, they are partly responsible, and let’s not put the blame solely on the political weakness of the one who leaves. Let’s accept that the responsibility is one third the Canadians, one third the one who leaves and one third our own, and the Cuban state, Cuban society, must resolve the problem, the problems must be resolved urgently. And I, at this age, feel responsible for everything that has happened in Cuba, both good and bad, and I say to myself: all of my hopes lie in the de-statisation and de-bureaucratisation of Cuban society, leading to a society in which people’s creativity is unbound and is taken seriously.

There is an experience – excuse me for commenting on this, but I take an interest in everything – there is a tremendous experience that we’re not copying 100%, through there are many aspects that have already been tested. Vietnam did this and took off. That’s to say, Vietnam has 80-something million people and in Vietnam, it could be said, they broke the barriers that we’re trying to break, and this resulted in an explosion of internal capital, that is, not foreign investment capital but internal capital. We need foreign investment as well, just as they do, but the initial impetus caused an explosion of national wealth.

The first speeches of Raul [Castro as acting president in 2006-7] were framed by what even the inhabitants of Havana, the city folk, knew something about, namely that the countryside was overrun with marabú [a weedy tropical thorn scrub that is the Cuban farmer’s nightmare and has become a metaphor for neglect and decay in recent years – translator’s note] and that the farmlands were abandoned, that the land wasn’t producing, and this was opened up [i.e. the government began leasing idle state-owned farmland to producers] … there, we’re moving forward without yet producing what we need to, but in the countryside this is happening, the de-statisation revolution is proceeding very slowly. I think we must transform society, if we don’t then we’ll inevitably be prey to the theft of brains.


Participant: I’m a professor in the Faculty of Chemistry, and my question has to do with how to create a new kind of socialism, because as you said we’ve been improvising for the last 50 years, and we do see the deficiencies, that there are many problems. So we’d like to ask you in particular, because we know that you’re a visionary, that you have ideas, that you don’t fear these kinds of questions. I especially would like to ask you how you would see true socialism being constructed because, in particular, I note that the way in which the worker is employed in this system, alienated in their labour, is almost the same as that in a capitalist system. In a capitalist system you have a capitalist who appropriates the labour of the worker and gives the worker a salary; here the state does the same, the state appropriates the labour of the worker and gives them a salary. Consequently, I don’t see great differences and for me, to build socialism would be to give, or to get closer to, the earnings from work going to the worker. In other words, can you tell us a little about your idea of how to go about this, because I don’t know, it seems … it seems as if this is something we need to think about in planning a better system.  

Alfredo Guevara: I think that if we were in a society that had already been de-statised and de-bureaucratised then the state, that is, if the state were dismantled – I’m a partisan of the state, but not of this state that we have – I think that the state is an integrating institution in this period [of socialist construction] …well, I really don’t like submitting myself to those I’ve had to debate on occasion, but OK, in this period of transition, to what I don’t know because the truth is I don’t really know what communism is. And because of this I laugh at the great theoreticians of the Cuban transition because it’s the transition of folly, it’s the transition of absurdity towards a socialist society. I do see socialism, I understand it, I believe that socialism is possible. Someone will have to explain communism to me, but explain… OK, it doesn't matter, I’ll die before then, I’ll leave communism to you who come after me, but socialism, maybe.

So, what you say is valid, or I consider it to be valid for the situation we have, because who confiscates the work of the worker? The bureaucracy and absurdity, and worse still they don’t make good use of it but squander it through inefficiency, but in all fairness the state, if it were the state that it could be, doesn't exploit the worker, it’s not exploitation, it takes part of the earnings to redistribute in the form of social services, if the social services are maintained and if they’re  how to say it?  made more efficient. In any case, the social services that we do have depend to a large extent on taxes, if you want to call them taxes, now we’re going to call “taxes” what the self-employed have to pay, but in any case we’re talking about a social contribution that is later redistributed. 

I think your concern is just and the way you have described it is fair, in so far as it is squandered, because while everything is administered by an absurd and inefficient bureaucracy then it’s valid what you say, but I don’t think we can change quickly by really immersing ourselves in this [renewal] project. So this idea needs to be changed.

This project, initiated by the current top leadership and materialised as a program in Raul’s interventions – I appreciate Raul’s speeches more and I think they’re clearer than the [Economic and Social Policy] Guidelines, especially the speech marking July 26, wasn’t it? in the National Assembly. I believe that if we really implement all this then we’ll have ourselves another kind of state, that is, the de-bureucratisation and the de-statisation will allow the state to concern itself with regulating – the state apparatus that must result from elections and People’s Power – what it needs to in order to serve as a mediator through the apparatus of formal justice founded on laws, rather than through the will of individuals, and will be reduced.

I don’t think we’re talking about hatred of the state in this period of our history, it’s about giving it the form that it really needs, not this where the state is everything, the corner store is the state, this shop that steals a little of the product from you then they sell it to you on the black market; the baker who steals the flour and then the bread is no good, etc. etc. This is the state, so it should not be the state, it should be private, they should be private and nothing more … when it is privately administered you can be sure that nobody will steal a sack of flour because they’d be robbing themselves. So this is what we’re talking about, destroying this huge apparatus which has seized society, the problem is that it has seized society.

Participant: Good afternoon, my name is Michel, I’m also a professor in the Faculty of Chemistry. My question is about something that has been happening and something that the leadership of the country has thought about, or that is the slogan of the day, which is that the future will belong to the youth which are going to lead the country, which is logical, however at present there is still a big generational gap between the current leaders who, in my opinion are almost all over 50 years old, and the youth who will lead our country in the future. How much longer are we going to say that the leadership of the country is going to be in the hands of the youth, if the youth still don’t hold the reins of leadership and there is still no sign of a youth leader capable of leading this multitude of youth. Unfortunately, those that have arisen in recent years have become corrupted in one way or another, so I ask: how much confidence can the leadership of the country have in the youth if in one way or another they become corrupt? [...]

Secondly, I’d like to emphasise what you said regarding People’s Power. At present People’s Power needs more power while being less popular...

Alfredo Guevara: Both, it needs both...

Michel: Yes, but more power in this sense, as I see in the creation of the new province of Artemisa, for example, where I observe that not even three months have passed and the self-employed do as they please, and neither People’s Power nor the [Communist] Party take action in the interests of the people. So to what extent is People’s Power popular, we have the Party to represent the people, what does it do for the people and does it act in their interests?

Alfredo Guevara: On the last point you made, I don’t know anything about the new provinces. I do know that there are abuses all over the country, and when there has always been so much abuse and arbitrariness then it’s going to continue for a bit longer and we’ll have to put up with it. In any case, I think that none of the things that may be happening should lead us to condemn self-employment. OK, the word “self-employment” is a little strange, it doesn’t convey much sympathy. In Spain they’re called – and I really like this word – autonomous, and it’s true that they’re autonomous, that is, they work for themselves but they also run risks themselves, and this has to be respected, and I think it’s useful, in defending this sector, to recall - as I’ve done on other occasions but I haven’t used this argument for a while - that in the works of Karl Marx, not those that appear later in Volume II of Capital based on his notes which were written and revised by Marx himself; in his studies of the pre-capitalist modes of production the artisan appears, and the artisan is nothing more than pre-capitalist, because the artisans aren’t the only ones who make little rag dolls are they? A good baker is an artisan, a good pastry chef is an artisans, the competitive difference between two artisans is of this nature.

In the same neighbourhood or in the same block, or two blocks, is the quality [product or service] and, what’s more, the approval of the customer who prefers this flavour of a chef in a little restaurant in one block to that of another, or the specialty of the other. All these are artisans. And not only did Marx recognise that this was a pre-capitalist form of production, it’s not capitalist, capitalism comes into being with mass production and therefore commodity fetishism where commodities are overvalued, from which arises the drive to production for its own sake, which is productive, but it’s forgotten that the labour of the producer is stolen and that work is alienated. Because of this I say that we’re unchaining creativity, because a chef who works better than the other chef three blocks away will win customers through competition, s/he is a creator. OK, a good painter is also a creator, but a chef is a creator; the cabinetmaker who works the wood better than the other is a creator, etc. 

This is a principle of Marxism, what was the negation of Marxism was to persecute individual creativity, so that the chef was considered almost a delinquent; and the painter, who probably earned much more, is not a delinquent. No, no, no, we must think more and put things in their proper place.      

You speak of generations, well look, I’m of the first generation, you’re looking at the devil (Laughter). But I think it’s been good – I could be wrong but I’m going to tell you what I think – I think it’s been good, fortunate for the history of Cuba, that the remainders – we’re the remainders, the survivors of the first generation and I take on the responsibilities I do because I have no official post now, nor do I want one – it’s fortunate that the survivors of the first generation are the ones who are proposing this transformation of society.

I believe it’s been good, there are some negatives, but it’s been good to have this group of old people – you’ve been very generous in saying they’re in their 60s, we’re all older than 70 and some of us are more than 80 – have taken this initiative. It would be terrible if this generation hadn’t done so, it would be terrible for us, for history. But I think the time has come again – I said that an opportunity would be lost – the time has come and it’s up to you... after the [6th Communist] Party Congress that will be held in 15 or 20 days, and the Conference, which is when? In October, isn’t it? You don’t remember? [The PCC Conference is now scheduled for late January, 2012 – translator’s note]. These gatherings will begin to make changes in this direction. I believe it’s essential, it would be crazy to not do so, because we’re going to die... we’re going to start dropping off like ... I don’t know, I don’t want to make ugly comparisons, but we’re going to die off steadily in the coming years. Can someone who is more than 80 keep on living for much longer? Ten years more in some cases, or five years for some of our generation, this is not talked about publicly because ... we’re already out of print mentally (Laughter).

So I don’t know, I began by telling you that you’re looking at the devil because imagine, I’m in between, but I think the time has come and that the time comes unavoidably, unavoidably, dictated by biology.

Participant: Good afternoon, my name is Jorge Gonzalez Arocha, I’m a Professor with the Faculty of Philosophy, History and Sociology. I’ve heard you speak in other meetings, in other spaces, in which you've referred to the general concept of freedom, specifically to a French thinker, Jean Paul Sartre, the theme of freedom in Sartre’s thought. For us here in the Faculty, French existentialism, the theme of freedom, is a fascinating one, above all in the times we’re living in, no? To study this thought and to try to uncover within French existentialist thought and OK, in general, all this cultural context of the 1960s, to fathom clues to help us understand the present reality.

Listening to you speak today reminded me of what you said in the Great Hall [of Havana University], I think it was in 2005, in a forum for the centenary of the birth of Sartre, in which you referred to an interview of Sartre during the French May [i.e. the pre-revolutionary crisis of May-June 1968 in France – translator’s note], in which he outlines his definition of intellectual freedom, or rather, the scope of freedom for the intellectual, but the intellectual as a subject who is pulled in two directions, towards commitment on the one hand and criticism on the other, in other words one cannot see this person as being absolutely committed to a system, or to a collection of social or political norms and rules, or only as someone who is hypercritical of their reality.

My question relates precisely to this, to criticism and commitment, but above all the question of criticism in Cuba today from the point of view of the youth among us, especially, taking into account the changes – pardon me, I don’t like calling them changes, I prefer to speak of movement because to talk about change implies a level of consciousness at the level of civil society that it seems to me is still absent in Cuba at present, rather it seems to me that there are movements in the economy and timid ones politically.

With this in mind, I’d like to hear you view on the degree to which, in Cuba today, the youth can exercise a right to criticism, also taking into consideration that we confront a bureaucracy, as has been said here; we have a system that rewards ... this is a little harsh, but OK ... the dumbing-down of the youth, the dumbing-down of society, that sponsors banality, I don’t think I need to mention here the soap operas, you already spoke about them in the lecture, I don’t know, in relation to art, everything. That is, there are several conditions which in some way are influencing the lack of criticism but, at the same time, the criticism that exists is not heard, so I’d like hear your opinion on this, on the topic of criticism and the youth, and what we the youth can do to break this cycle of contradictions in which we’re immersed.

[Translation to be continued]

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