Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Translation: Viability of socialism debate

Here is a further contribution to the debate on the viability of socialism. It follows from the previous post. Omar Alvarez Dueñas is a professor at Sagua la Grande University, Villa Clara Province, Cuba.

On the “unviability of socialism” debate

By Omar Alvarez Dueñas

Temas magazine, October 20, 2011

Translation: Marce Cameron

I’ve read with great interest the debate in 
Temas No. 65 on the Special Period and the resulting controversy between Professor Carmelo Mesa-Lago – I’ve read other recent works of his – and the economist Jose Luis Rodriguez, economy minister during those years. I’d like to offer my modest opinion on this debate. 

One issue in the debate concerns central planning, decentralisation versus centralisation, and the market. In an economy such as Cuba’s, with a history of dependence on Spain as a colony, on the US as a neo-colony and attachment to the USSR and the socialist camp (for better or worse) during the first 30 years of the Revolution – and consequently a distorted, underdeveloped and technologically backward economy with an economic and social legacy in 1959 as described by Fidel Castro in History Will Absolve Me, and known by everybody – how could this problem be resolved? Who in the recent history of humanity has done it without planning? 

Much criticism has been levelled at the leadership and the socialist economy of the Revolution based on planning. Little has been said about the great merit of having lifted millions of Cubans out of poverty and achieving the social indicators of Cuba today, thanks to central planning, despite the mistakes that have been made. 

Thus for a poor, backward and blockaded country such as Cuba, centralised planning of its principal economic resources and activities is vital for survival as a nation and for advancing along the path of development. So I agree with the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines approved by the Sixth Communist Party (PCC) Congress that reaffirm the necessity for planning in economic management. 

Now, another controversial issue is how much planning and how much market. It’s clear that in the present historical circumstances monetary-mercantile relations, and hence the market, have an important role to play in the country’s economic development. I concur with the necessity for us to utilise the market in our socialism whenever it acts as a stimulus to the development of the productive forces, to productivity and work efficiency, but it must be strictly regulated given its inherent dangers which can harm the Revolution itself. 

In terms of centralisation and decentralisation, the key thing is to achieve the right balance. In the present historical conditions there are important economic policy decisions that should be centralised, and the [national] Economic Plan must be the axis around which all the economic forms [i.e. the state sector, joint ventures, cooperatives, small businesses, self-employment – translator’s note] are brought together. The real and difficult task for those that lead the country is to achieve a harmonious relationship between the plan and the market, between centralisation and decentralisation, in such a way that they complement each other for the development of the country. 

I think that the participation of the regions, especially the municipalities, in economic management must be strengthened to stimulate the economy. This is where the economic actors live, where the economy of the country is materialised, and during these years their hands have been tied in many respects, awaiting decisions “from above” to improve the living standards of their inhabitants. The updating of the model must keep this premise in mind if the desire is to successfully guide the Revolution through the new era it is now entering. 

Another issue in the debate is what type of socialism. Professor Mesa-Lago begins with the following proposition: “History has demonstrated the unviability of the socialism of the URSS and the Eastern European countries until the end of the 1980s”. What Professor Mesa-Lago forgets is also forgotten by others both within and outside Cuba: this socialism become the second biggest economic power in the world, defeated fascist aggression, and played a decisive role in the world revolutionary movement in Asia, Africa and even Latin America. 

Many criticisms of this socialism can be made from the economic, political and social point of view, but what we cannot forget is that what failed was not socialism as a system, but the people who built it, who distanced themselves more and more from the foundational ideals of socialism and were unable to reorient socialist construction through the criticism of errors, something that was perfectly possible. This would have had better results than the restoration of savage capitalism, which has resulted in the former USSR and the Eastern European countries being worse off than they were in the socialist era. Of course, the socialism that failed in the former USSR and Eastern Europe is not the socialism that we aspire to in Cuba. 

Professor Mesa-Lago continues: “I consider this socialism to be economically viable”, referring to that of China and Vietnam. The suspiciousness of the words “economically viable” may be missed if one reads this phrase in isolation, given that he goes on to say: “though I personally would like them to include more democratic methods and greater respect for human, civil and political rights”. Does this mean that in terms of political, civil and human rights the socialisms of China and Vietnam are not viable? Doesn’t a society have to be viable in all respects? What would Professor Mesa-Lago consider viable about the capitalism of the so-called Third World and that of the poorest countries in the world? 

The Chinese and Vietnamese experiences are worth taking into account and we should apply what is applicable. Important studies have been carried out in Cuba in this regard but the economic, social and political conditions in these countries are completely different to Cuba’s. Moreover, in our revolutionary history we have already copied too much of the European experiences and it didn’t do us any good. Let’s take foreign experiences into account, but without copying. 

I agree with Jose Luis Rodriguez when he says: “Socialism aims for a political transformation that allows people to achieve a more rounded development in which social justice and solidarity are inherent features of the society that is aspired to.” I emphasise here that socialism is a new society that often advances by trial and error, and with backward steps, from capitalist society in crisis – I hope this is clear to everybody – but not defeated, with great economic, political and military strength and with the mass media in its hands. It benefits from the effects of globalisation, conspiring against the consolidation of the new social regime. Let’s not forget that the same thing happened with nascent capitalism, with significant reversals and monarchical restorations until the new, revolutionary regime imposed itself on the then outmoded feudalism. 

Florida, the Bahamas and Cuba
I share Jose Luis Rodriguez’s vision of society above and I am convinced of the necessity to update the Cuban economic model in order to preserve and improve our socialism, but every change that is made that gives more scope to the market and private economic activity comes at a price and involves political and social risks. It’s the task of researchers to delve into their causes and consequences and to contribute to solutions, and the country must come up with strategies to deal with or minimise them in keeping with the society that we aspire to. 

It is evident Cuban society is undergoing a polarisation, which began in the 1990s. A petty bourgeoisie is emerging that always expressed itself ideologically, but is now being strengthened economically as a result of the changes that are underway. There are self-employed activities that generate considerable incomes, such as food services, the leasing of rooms and homes, and transport – now facilitated by the easing of restrictions on the buying and selling of motor vehicles and homes. There is also a small sector of professionals working for foreign firms, joint ventures or in areas with significant “leakage” [of convertible currency to workers, e.g. via tips for services] – as in tourism – who join this nascent petty bourgeoisie.

The present stage of our socialism is not altogether incompatible with this social sector, as long as the vital interests of the nation prevail over those of individuals. The same is true of the well-off peasants, who are necessary because of their efficiency. Above all, the country needs efficiency, productivity and production today, and these sectors can contribute to the country’s economic development. So we need to change our mindset and accept that the Cuba of the near future will not be the same as the Cuba we built for more than 50 years, but nor can we lose sight of the ultimate objective: the construction of socialism as the only way to live in a better world.

The challenges faced by socialist Cuba in the short term are associated with the increase in poverty[1], marginalisation and crime, administrative corruption[2] as a consequence of the role of monetary-mercantile relations and the impact of the economic crisis itself. Moreover, individual and social values are evolving towards a greater emphasis on the material and money, which necessitates a stepping up of educational efforts regarding all the social factors in order to consolidate those that are an integral part of the socialist society.

Finally, I consider viable the socialism that Cuba aspires to build. In my opinion the options for Cuba to survive as a nation and achieve the much-desired development lie within socialism, but a socialism stripped of dogmas, flexible and non-voluntarist in its economic management, one that places human beings and their integral development front and centre, one that adapts to the historical conditions in each moment, where the economic, the political and the social are in balance. 

Footnotes to the Spanish text:

[1] Cuban researchers accept that poverty and [economic] vulnerability intensified at the beginning of the 1990s as a consequence of the tightening of the US blockade of Cuba, the political and economic changes that occurred in the former USSR and Eastern Europe and the crisis of the Cuban economic model itself. For example, Lia Añe suggests: “Poverty in the capital [Havana] is characterised by insufficient monetary incomes, that limit the consumption of food and other essential goods and services. Poverty is also revealed in lack of housing [leading to overcrowding rather than homelessness in socialist Cuba – translator’s note] or the deterioration of housing or its facilities and of public transport. It is estimated conservatively that 20% of the population live in poverty” (Lia Añe Aguiloche, “Contribución a los estudios de pobreza en Cuba. Una caracterización de la capital”, see <>).

[2] Ramón de la Cruz Ochoa recognises the following regarding corruption: “We Cuban revolutionaries know that it is a grave reality that confronts our country, that it's a widespread phenomenon in our society and is not only a problem of corrupt managers and functionaries”. See “Acotaciones al texto del Dr. Fernando Barral sobre la corrupción en Cuba”, Catalejo section, Temas, May 20, 2010 [see my translation of de la Cruz Ochoa’s commentary here – translator’s note].

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