Monday, February 27, 2012

Comment: Cuba debates its socialist future

This is the third instalment of a series of articles written for Australia's Green Left Weekly on the debates and changes in Cuba. Parts 1 and 2 are here and here

Here is a link to the official English translation of Raul Castro's closing speech to the PCC National Conference in January. 

Cuba debates its socialist future

Green Left Weekly #912, February 26, 2012

By Marce Cameron

Two decades after the demise of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” and the onset of its “Special Period” crisis, Cuba is immersed in an ongoing debate on the future of its socialist project.

When Raul Castro became interim president in August 2006, he called for free and frank debate and launched a series of nationwide consultations in the lead-up to the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in April last year.

Intersecting with these organised debates is a wider discussion in Cuba’s revolutionary press, academic journals and other institutional spaces.

Numerous mass consultations involving millions of citizens in local workplace and neighbourhood meetings have been held in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

What is different about this debate is its depth, scope and detail ― and the candour with which different viewpoints are expressed in a climate of growing respect for differences.

In other words, Cuba’s culture of debate is maturing.

Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernandez said in November 2007: “When we talk about debate or criticism we often talk about censorship, restrictions, control, but we never talk about our own lack of a ‘debate culture’. We must foster a culture of debate from the start, because our society doesn’t have it.

“We often call a debate ‘good’ when the participants say the same as we think. That’s not debate; debate is disagreement. And it’s very important that in a debate we express divergent positions in a spirit of dialogue, of mutual respect.

“I think [Cuban] politics is going through this stage right now.”

Debate culture

Cuba has been undergoing a deeply popular socialist transition for five decades. Why is it only now developing a culture of public debate?

One reason is US imperialism’s relentless siege. It has not only been subjected to an economic blockade since 1960, but illegal radio and TV broadcasts, sponsorship of subversion and terrorist acts, an immigration policy aimed at depriving Cuba of skilled workers and a propaganda crusade aimed at demonising Cuba as a “communist dictatorship”.

This state of siege has fostered a siege mentality in Cuba. Many people have viewed public criticism and debate as unwittingly aiding the enemy. Others have used the blockade as an excuse to evade responsibility for their own mistakes and wrongdoings.

Another reason is that during the 1970s and '80s, Cuba assimilated elements of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism”, above all, hyper-centralised decision-making by a vast administrative apparatus that micro-managed almost the entire economy.

Such top-down tendencies were reinforced by idealistic errors, acknowledged as such today by the PCC leadership, which entrenched the negative phenomenon of state paternalism.

Paternalism has two faces: citizens looking to the socialist state to do everything for them, such as fixing a broken window in the home, and provide for all their needs regardless of their labour contribution to society; and officials treating citizens like children who cannot think or decide things for themselves and who do not need to be informed.

This stifles individual and collective initiative that could contribute to Cuba’s socialist project. It also robs people of their sense of social responsibility. It has weakened mechanisms of accountability and sapped the vitality of Cuba’s institutions of socialist democracy.

Revolutionary Cuba has never lacked opportunities to participate in popular mobilisations and in carrying out the tasks of the Revolution. What is has lacked is enough opportunities for involvement in deciding what those tasks will be.

Cuba has developed its own unique institutions of socialist democracy. Cuba's system of popular self-government is based in local communities, where neighbours gather to nominate candidates for election to the municipal assemblies. Delegates must report to their constituents and can be recalled by them at any time. The PCC is banned from backing candidates and all citizens have the right to be nominated.

Despite this, there remains a disconnect between Cuba’s highly educated and politically sophisticated populace, a product of the Revolution itself, and the lack of real participation in decision-making at all levels.

This is felt most keenly by the younger generation who are most susceptible to disaffection and emigration.

The charismatic leadership style and immense personal authority of Fidel Castro ― an indispensable asset to the Revolution in past decades ― tended to overshadow its institutions and institutional forms of consensus-building.

New democratic mechanisms and practices will have to be developed now that Fidel is no longer at the helm.

Currents of opinion

What currents of opinion have emerged in the national debate initiated by Raul Castro?

Since this is a debate about how to save Cuba’s socialist project, not how to end it, the views of those who long for capitalist restoration ― because they have material interests or illusions in it ― lie outside this debate.

Besieged by US imperialism, Cuba does not allow political parties other than the PCC or factions within this party.

Raul Castro told the PCC National Conference in January: “To renounce the principle of a one-party system would be the equivalent of legalising a party, or parties, of imperialism on our soil.”

The debate has unfolded in this context. Whatever differences there may be among the PCC leadership, they have presented a united front to the rest of the party and to the nation around the key principles and strategic objectives of the renewal process.

Within the revolutionary camp, two poles can be identified: a renovationist current and those who defend the status quo in words or deeds.

The renovationist current views Cuba’s socialist development model as having exhausted its ability to move society forward, necessitating an urgent and integral transformation of this model to avoid stagnation and retreat.

It insists on the need for public criticism and debate and a dialectical, rather than dogmatic, conception of the socialist-oriented society in Cuba’s conditions.

This current is led by Raul Castro and other PCC leaders. It is concentrated among the revolutionary vanguard organised in the PCC, among intellectuals and artists and youth who identify with the Revolution.

It does not embrace all PCC members, some of whom are opportunists masquerading as revolutionaries. On the other hand, many revolutionaries are not members of the PCC yet are part of the renovationist current.

Within the renovationist current, there is a spectrum of opinion on the key issues in the debate and on how the changes should be implemented.

There can be little doubt about the outcome of the debates held in the lead-up to the Sixth PCC Congress: a solid majority of Cuban society supports the basic principles and objectives of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines adopted unanimously by the 1000 Congress delegates elected by the party's grassroots.

Leftist critics of the Guidelines worry that too much is being conceded to the market. Some propose a far more sweeping “cooperativisation” of the state enterprise sector than that contemplated in the Guidelines.

They propose radical democratic measures reminiscent of those advocated by the leftist opposition to Lenin and Trotsky’s New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

To the right, some economic specialists argue that medium-sized private enterprises should be permitted alongside self-employment and small-scale private and cooperative management of social property. The Guidelines rule out privatisation and the concentration of productive property ownership in private hands.


At the other pole are those who are wary of debate and fearful of change, among them many sincere and humble revolutionaries. This conservative current has generational and institutional contours.

It is concentrated among older Cubans and those who zealously guard their administrative prerogatives, and in some cases illicit privileges, from criticism and initiative “from below”.

In a December 2011 interview with Edmundo Garcia, Rafael Hernandez distinguished between “constructive” and “frankly negative” opposition to change.

Constructive opposition is expressed by those unable to directly benefit from the openings to self-employment, small businesses and cooperatives and the projected overhaul of the state enterprise sector. It is also expressed by some of the 20% of the population that, according to some Cuban studies, live below the poverty line.

Among them are retirees dependent on their small state pensions.

These sectors “face these changes with a considerable degree of uncertainty” and “don’t necessarily view the reform process with the expectations, desires and enthusiasm of others”.

There is another kind of resistance that “government leaders have explicitly called the bureaucracy”, Hernandez said. It “doesn't oppose through speeches, it doesn’t oppose the reforms with a document”, but “in its slowness to implement the measures already adopted”.

He said: “It’s very logical that the old mindset, which sees the emergence of capitalism in every expression of the market and in every segment of small-scale private property, should exist, because for a long time... socialism was defined in absolute terms as state-centric socialism.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Translation: Cuba's new housing subsidies

This detailed report in Juventud Rebelde announces a new housing subsidy scheme for low-income households. It also stresses the underlying principles: a move away from universal subsidies of products and services to targeted subsidies of people in genuine need of assistance; and the rights enshrined in Cuba's socialist constitution, in particular, "ARTICLE 9. The state... (c) works towards ensuring that no family is left without a comfortable place to live."

It should be noted that the Constitution also enshrines the right to free heath care and education at all levels, as well as other social rights that are left to the whims of the market in capitalist societies, such as the right to employment and access to sports and cultural activities.

Here is my translation of the Guidelines on housing and some introductory comments that may be helpful background reading.

Neither state charity nor a gift, but the fulfilment of a constitutional obligation

The decision of the government to grant subsidies to low-income persons and households is a policy that promotes equality of opportunities in Cuba. It aims to ensure that nobody is left destitute and that the socialist state upholds organised social solidarity.

By Ricardo Ronquillo Bello, Mayte María Jiménez, Margarita Barrios, Alina Perera and Ana María Domínguez Cruz

Juventud Rebelde, January 7, 2012

Translation: Marce Cameron

With the approval of the subsidy for low-income persons and households, a measure adopted by the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers in December and which will be enacted on January 15, Cuba took the first step towards eliminating subsidies for products and instituting subsidies for those people who really need them.

The essence of this decision is that nobody should be left destitute, affirmed Raquel Rodríguez Gato, head of Working Group 6 of the Permanent Commission for the Implementation and Elaboration of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution.

The decision is in line with Guideline 173, which aims to eliminate undue gratuities and excessive subsidies, based on the principle of compensating those who need it and no longer subsidising products as a rule.

It is also in keeping with Guideline 299, according to which “construction materials for the purposes of preservation, repair and construction of housing will be sold at non-subsidised prices. In cases where it is required, people will be partially or fully subsidised within the planned limits”.

These concepts were explained in a press conference at the head office of the Construction Ministry by representatives of the aforementioned Commission and of the ministries of Finances and Prices, Labour and Social Security, Domestic Trade, the Cuban Central Bank and the National Housing Institute.

Raquel Rodríguez emphasised that it is another way of seeking solutions to the housing problems in the country, while clarifying that it will not resolve all such situations.

This measure is one of a series of actions such as the free[1] sale of construction materials without subsidies, the implementation of a policy for bank credits for the purchase of construction materials and labour and price reductions for more than 122 construction material products. It is now possible for those low-income families who are most in need to organise their own housing repairs or construction, she said.

Miguel Limia David, a member of Working Group 6 of the Permanent Commission, said that the housing subsidy is not a charitable gesture but another means for the socialist state to offer support for the most vulnerable citizens.

The subsidy is not a credit, he stressed, and as such it does not have to be repaid. However, it does imply an elevated sense of responsibility, both on the part of the state and the beneficiaries, that is, those who are going to carry out the work that is to be subsidised.

The press conference turned into an in-depth and clarifying dialogue with the journalists about the implications of this government decision.

Miguel Lozano, Prensa Latina: "Are there reference points in the international context for what Cuba is putting into practice?"

Miguel Limia David: “Yes, there are points of reference but they’re not as comprehensive as what we’re doing, because this is a policy that is social, horizontal, universal, but which is implemented in a democratic way at the local level.

“Perhaps what is specific in our case is that it has to do with the socialist nature of our state, of the social objective of our economic policies. It shows that our state – as part of the process of improving its work as a result of the implementation of the Guidelines approved by the Sixth Communist Party Congress – is not abandoning its constitutional obligations, but looking for for a more efficient and sustainable way of guaranteeing these citizens rights.

“This is a social policy that is not implemented from the top down: the decisions are taken at the local level by the democratic governing bodies, which are the ones that decide on where it will be targeted. It’s a policy that addresses social problems, but democratically through the People’s Power local governments. That is, they identify the problem and make a decision in a transparent, accountable manner. The People’s Power municipal assembly is the body that ratifies the decision, that exercises oversight. It is also obliged to regularly inform people about the process.

“As such, it is a policy that tends to promote equality of opportunities in Cuba, to not leave anyone without support. That is, to uphold organised social solidarity through the socialist state. It’s not state charity nor a gift but the fulfilment of a constitutional obligation, but with an emphasis on individual initiative.

“On this last point there are also international experiences, but of essentially capitalist countries where the individual is left to fend for themselves. In our case the citizen is not left to fend for themselves, they are supported, though in a context in which they take their own initiative to manage credit and, together with their family, improve their housing situation without waiting for someone else to come along and do it for them.

“Such a policy breaks with the notion that you sit around waiting for someone else to come along and resolve your problems.”

Raquel Rodríguez Gato: “This new measure – aimed at assisting low-income people and households, on the basis that nobody will be left destitute – contributes, among others, to going some way to solving the housing problems in the country, in other words the problems of construction, repair and maintenance, which doesn’t mean that the state won’t continue building homes.

“The state continues, fundamentally, with the necessary work of constructing new housing in the country. The current measure is being taken in this context.”

Fidel Rendón, National Information Agency: "Are we prepared for a possible 'avalanche' of people who consider that they have the right and the need for this type of assistance?"

Loida Obregón González, head of Economics at the National Housing Institute: “Currently, the offices of the Institute are processing all of the requests that people submit. Those that have been affected by climatic phenomena have been attended to now by the Institute; there are already many applications that have been taken up by the municipal investment entities.

“We’ve had no option but to establish priorities because there are many in need of assistance. And while the Institute must process all applications, it does not have the authority to approve any of them: every application is passed on to the Municipal Administrative Council. All the requests submitted by the population will be processed.”

Vivian Bustamante, Bohemia magazine: "According to the Official Gazette, people can only make one application for the subsidy. What happens to those who want to partially build or renovate their home, that is, little by little?"

Loida Obregón González: "That’s right, you can only apply for the subsidy once. It can be up to 80,000 pesos[2] and include the purchase of the necessary materials and the hiring of the workforce.

“Subsidies can also be granted for smaller works of up to 5,000 pesos, or up to 10,000 if they are more complex, without having to apply for a building permit. The financing of such grants is based on the tax collected on the sale of construction materials in the various provinces, and is granted for the construction, repair or maintenance of up to 25 square metres, that is, for the basic housing unit comprising a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen."

Miguel Limia David: “The subsidy has nothing to do with bank credits, so it doesn’t have to be repaid. So every application will be evaluated in a comprehensive manner in relation to the socio-economic situation of the family, its incomes, expenses and employment, among other factors; and in accordance with the priorities we’ve established, financing for the works will be granted. This must be audited, supervised and properly administered by the beneficiary.

Ricardo Ronquillo, deputy director, Juventud Rebelde: "How can it be ensured that the decision to grant subsidies does not lead to favouritism in some cases?"

Raquel Rodríguez: “Favouritism cannot occur because there will be a commission charged with supervision and investigation of both the granting and the use of subsidies as part of the auditing carried out by the Municipal Administration Council, which will be given new powers. It will be tasked with evaluating the real needs of people, their economic situation, approval or rejection of the subsidy application and checking up on how the subsidy is spent.

“The Municipal Administration Council must report twice a year to the Municipal Assembly of People’s Power regarding compliance with the process.”

Margarita Barrios, Juventud Rebelde: "In terms of the current prices for construction materials, wouldn’t it be better to sell them at closer to their cost of production to make them affordable for more people?"

Bárbara Acosta Machín, deputy minister, Domestic Trade: “The current prices of the materials on sale in the stores are based on production costs. These prices are the same for all buyers (free sales, bank credits and subsidies). To the extent that production by local industry increases, there will be greater supply and costs will come down, as will retail prices.”

Alberto Loreydi, Radio Rebelde: "It has been explained that the priority cases for the granting of subsidies will be those whose housing was affected by natural disasters and those who are most needy. In terms of the latter, who are we talking about?"

Yusimí Campos Suárez, director of Social Security, Ministry of Labour and Social Security: “This refers to someone who requires the assistance of the state in order to carry out this type of work due to physical incapacitation, old age or something else that prevents them from working.

“The granting of the subsidy has an order of priority, which includes families affected by natural disasters such as cyclones, flooding and fire, among others; families who have suffered the partial or total loss of their homes; and critical social cases, such as the incapacitated and all those individuals who have complicated socio-economic circumstances.”

She explained that the commission that has been set up, together with the municipal branch of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, will assess each family that applies – their financial situation, incomes, as well as their social circumstances – so that they have a comprehensive sense of the realities of life of every household that applies for the subsidy.

“To these we must also add those who suffer illnesses and those who are aging, factors which prevent them from being able to cover their living costs and maintain their home in a habitable condition.

“In this regard, priority will be given to the 3,214 total collapses and the 10,179 partial collapses of homes as a consequence of meteorological phenomena in provinces such as Pinar del Rio, Artemisa, Camaguey and Holguin, according to National Housing Institute statistics.”

Although the experts and functionaries stressed that nobody who needed such assistance would be left helpless, they insisted on the need for every citizen to be conscientious and responsible in applying for the subsidy, since only those who really need it should apply.

The money must be used for the purpose specified in the contract and the beneficiary must be an active participant in the solution of their housing problems.

Adalberto Carbonell, director-general of Budget at the Ministry of Finances and Prices, explained that the subsidy is funded from 40% of the proceeds from the sale of construction materials in the provinces.

“The Provincial Administration Councils are now being empowered to distribute to the Municipal Administration Councils the funds transferred to the provinces by the Ministry of Finances and Prices according to the needs of each municipality, independently of the proceeds from the sale of construction materials.”

Carbonell added that the subsidy includes 40% of 2011 sales and those over the course of this year.

Melbys Nicola, Opciones magazine: "When does the subsidy expire? Can someone else be appointed to receive the subsidy on behalf of the applicant? If transport of construction materials is required, is this cost included in the subsidy?"

Raquel Rodríguez: “Once granted the subsidy does not expire. It must be remembered that the recipient signs a contract in which it is specified how, when and where this subsidy will be spent."

She also explained that in those cases where the applicant is unable to do it, they can name a representative to utilise the subsidy.

“Up to 30% of the subsidy that is granted may be used to cover labour costs and the transportation of materials. This labour must be be legal, that is, it must be carried out by registered self-employed workers.

José Hernández, Tribuna de La Habana: What happens to people who need subsidies and have outstanding bank debts?

Raquel Rodríguez Gato: “In each case there will be files kept by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security and the National Housing Institute, which will have to be forwarded to the municipal government so it can assess each situation.

“The municipal office of Labour and Social Security assesses the household, the problems they have, if they have such debts, and on the basis of this analysis they make a recommendation as to whether or not a subsidy should be granted. The analysis includes the possible reasons for the household having debts. It may be precisely because they need the subsidy. So an assessment will be carried out and a decision is then made by the Municipal Administration Council, which later on, every six months, reports back to the Municipal Assembly and also to the Provincial Assembly.”

In response to the concerns of the journalists present at the press conference regarding the procedures for applying for this monetary benefit, Miguel Limia David confirmed that the country has no precedents for such a process.

He emphasised that a lot of work was done to try to minimise the number of administrative procedures required of beneficiaries, and these were reduced to six.

They make an application and then sign a contract, he explained. They take this to the bank and open an account for the subsidy. They order the materials in the store and request a document that lists the prices of these materials; they then go to the bank and ask for a cheque. The materials are held for them for only five business days during which time the banking process is completed. If they’re not able to pick up the materials within five business days they have to begin the purchasing procedure again.

At the bank they receive two cheques, he said, one to pay for the materials and another to cover labour costs, which must be carried out by a team of licensed self-employed workers.

The process must be transparent and feasible, he stressed, and will be adjusted in response to difficulties that may arise when the subsidy becomes available from January 15.

Translator's footnotes:

[1] In unrestricted quantities at non-subsidised prices

[2] Regular (i.e. non-convertible) Cuban pesos. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Translation: Are things changing in Cuba?

As promised, here is another of Luis Sexto's recent commentaries, characteristically rich in imagery and metaphor. He draws attention to the fact that the renewal process must be gradual and iterative, adjusting itself as it proceeds, and that what has been initiated or accomplished so far is only the beginning. 

A start must be made somewhere, such as in the leasing of agricultural lands to those who are willing to farm it and the conversion of state-run barber salons into small private businesses or cooperatives in the name of efficiency, quality of service and the empowerment of the producers. Yet these measures create an uneasy and unsatisfactory coexistence of elements of the old Cuban socialist-oriented economic model and the new one that is emerging, necessitating further measures and adjustments. 

Thus Cuba's socialist renewal recalls a passage from The Communist Manifesto in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels describe, with prophetic vision, the broad sweep of the socialist revolution:
The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.  
Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of [capitalist] property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production.
This is what happened in Cuba during the early 1960s. Today, a somewhat analogous process is taking place. Cuba's revolutionary government is making inroads — democratic rather than despotic, since the bourgeoisie has long been vanquished as a class — into the old model of socialist development "by means of measures ... which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitat[ing] further inroads" into the existing configuration of concepts, structures, methods and mentalities in order to, as Fidel put it, "change everything that must be changed".

Are things changing?

By Luis Sexto, 
Juventud Rebelde, December 31, 2011 

Translation: Marce Cameron

A common tendency among us Cubans has been to act, or demand action, with the speed of a 100m sprinter. We’re an impatient archipelago these days. It seems that it doesn’t please us when things change with the slow constancy of water dripping onto stone. We prefer the rapidity with which some change from their work clothes into their going-out costume.

To the question of whether things are changing in Cuba, it may be that the negative or doubtful opinion has an appreciable number of adherents. Since transformation or renewal are terms that have in common gradualness and the rejection of eruption, perhaps nothing of importance has been renewed in Cuba to date because “something big” hasn’t happened. And what is this big thing that some say hasn’t occurred? What is this benchmark in whose absence nothing of importance has been decided and legislated in Cuba entailing steps towards improving our society, so that it becomes more inclusive, more open, with more space for the productive forces to develop? Perhaps someone is waiting for an act that would suddenly usher in a new watchword, the “every man to himself” of capitalism in a poor country. Is this the way to breathe life into hope?

The “big thing” that some ask for can, if it is untimely, be like an explosion or an implosion. I don’t think I’m exaggerating. I must caution, if my opinion is worthy of consideration, that to change or renovate an organism in our circumstances means a process that excludes demolition. That is, nothing can be modified by bringing it down all at once. If this were to happen then the change wouldn’t be within the same skeleton but in a new one, and then we wouldn’t be the same.

We must be wary, then, of the inspirations, of the swishes of the magic wand or the solutions of Aladdin, and especially the proposals of those who think more about their own interests, their illusions or their loss of status. Given what sears and contaminates the waters in which Cuba navigates today, let’s take out a compass that would explain our reality and guide us in doing what the times allow. Two or three questions, or many more – I leave it to those who need convincing to decide – would serve to orient us: who are we? Where do we want to go? What do we need? When will we arrive? And above all, let’s ask ourselves what kind of a world our country finds itself in and how much Cuba may be harmed by the global capitalist economic crisis and its natural counterpart — the onslaught of the Western powers, led by the US, whose geopolitics is founded on a bellicose and belligerent institution, mention of which resembles the explosion of a muffled bomb: the United Nations.

Today, as I see it, Cuba is not the feeble little boat to which José Antonio Ramos[1] alluded
 decades ago; it is no longer that small vessel about to run aground against the cliffs of Florida, as Jorge Mañach[2] also alluded to in a moment of clarity. As  see it, there is a genuine willingness to change, to find that point of equilibrium that leaves behind harmful or sterile practices, retarding or irrational practices whose transcendence will allow us to pass from an economy of subsistence to one of growth that would include development within a state of equality and justice as the guarantee of freedom, in a socialism that will have to set out to discover itself in strict accordance with reality. Because the search for a balanced society is found through an equilibrium of actions; theory for its own sake can lead to the same thing that the country has decided to transform. Thus this equilibrium will not be a position, but a struggle against falling into one extreme or another. Extremes are implacable. From extreme positions we can stigmatise ourselves, even corrupt the project of updating Cuban society. 

I’m not naive, nor gullible; these are the seemingly benign insults with which some people sometimes try to invalidate opinions opposed to their own. And despite the most important decree laws that increase democratic space (yes, democratic because they go hand in hand with other citizens rights) – such as the right to sell one’s car or home, and others such as the extension of self-employment, agricultural producers being able to sell directly to tourism establishments, bank credits to producers for investments and to citizens to build their homes – in my opinion, without deluding myself too much, one can foresee a period of contradictions and paradoxes. Because if we’re talking about a process, about gradualness in applying the strategy approved by the Sixth Communist Party Congress, which was based on more than 700,000 suggestions by the citizenry; if we’re talking about a process, then what has been legislated so far is only a minimal part of the programme. So naturally, we still suffer contradictions.

One example suffices. Someone who is very intelligent commented to me that now the barbers, being self-employed, charge ten pesos for a haircut. Before, their prices were set at 80 centavos. Almost all of the customers gave more, but they couldn't charge more, at least not according to strict compliance with the legally established prices. Yes, it’s a paradox. A typical barber earns enough in four days to cover taxes, rental of the premises and the cost of inputs. How much more does he make than the minimum wage for workers? It’s a paradox, they told me. I agreed, and there are many more such examples. Because for incomes to be fair we’ll have to adjust wages, increase productivity, discard one of our two currencies, reorganise state enterprises, really pay according to results... all in all, we’ll have to suffer more or less contradictions – that are incomprehensible at first glance – until such time as the system is established and consolidated. Or do we want to move into the house with only the foundations laid?

Let’s suppose, what’s more, that along the way, modifications and adjustments will necessarily arise with the aim of adapting its evolution according to the criterion of practice. Flexibility becomes the baton of this orchestra so that its instruments sound harmonious. A baton that does not hesitate to allow the screech of a note that tries to show off its orthodoxy. And before hearing such a subtle sound, to cite an example, Decree Law 259 will have to allow agricultural leaseholders to settle and build a home on the land they work
, because who is going to feel encouraged when their crops are two, three or more kilometres from home?[3]              

We’ll see the central government tackle distortions. It’s of no minor importance the fact that many of those who implement the update on the ground and at the intermediate level do not understand, do not interpret it aptly, or that the mentality of some resists abandoning their permissiveness and introducing a demanding order in which accountability and honesty will not be more sequins in a theatrical performance.

Are things changing in Cuba? If I were to doubt this, it would be due to my pessimism, my short-sightedness or interests that are incompatible with the dominant interests[4], and in order to understand and support the most creative tendencies, those most committed to change, I myself would have to change. But as I see it, with the experience of more than 40 years accompanying the hard-fought, irregular, audacious history of the Cuban Revolution, it seems Cuba is not the same as yesterday while, in essence, it continues to be the same. This paradox is not difficult to interpret. Every time, I am surprised by what appears in the Official Gazette[5] of the republic; I may be especially surprised by laws that have still not appeared, nor been drafted, and which, surely, we’ll have to draft. And I realise that hope is built with small big things. Day by day. 

Translator's footnotes:

[1] Presumably a reference to the Cuban playwright (1885-1946) whose theatrical works took up social and political themes, including the threat of US intervention in Cuba.

[2] Cuban writer and attorney (1898-1961) who studied the life and work of Cuban independence hero Jose Martí. Readers unfamiliar with Caribbean geography may miss the irony in the reference to “Florida’s cliffs”. Florida does not have cliffs but swamps and low-lying quays; its “cliffs” are the treacherous politics against which Cuba could run aground.

[3] A 2008 law that allows individuals, agricultural cooperatives and state farms to lease rent-free from the state, on a medium or long-term basis, farmland that is not in use, an arrangement known as usufruct. (The collapse of the sugar industry during the Special Period has left much of Cuba’s prime agricultural land overrun with maribu, a woody weed that has proved extremely difficult to eradicate. The good news is that Scottish scientists have recently discovered that maribu can be turned into high-quality activated charcoal for specialist applications from water purification to electricity storage.) 

[4] In Cuba, the dominant class interests are those of the working people whose political vanguard holds state power.  

[5] The official publication in which new laws and modifications to existing laws first appear.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Translation: The hypothetical country

The first National Conference of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) has concluded. The final version of the resolution on the PCC's work, adopted by conference delegates, has been published in Spanish on the PCC website.

There are amendments to most of the draft paragraphs and five new paragraphs have been added. I've translated the draft document and will now compare the draft with the final version word for word. When I've finished I'll post a translation of the final document to this blog. Meanwhile I'll continue to post other translations now that I've settled into my new home.

I'll start by translating a few excellent commentaries by Luis Sexto that have appeared in Juventud Rebelde in recent weeks (Sexto also wrote a commentary on the PCC Conference for the Progreso Weekly website for a mainly Cuban-American audience. You can read it here). Below, Sexto takes issue with leftist critics of the PCC leadership's political line.

Some Cuban revolutionaries both within and outside the PCC think the PCC leadership is conceding too much to market mechanisms when it should be looking to radical alternatives to hyper-centralised, top-down economic management, such as a far more sweeping "cooperativisation" of the state enterprise sector than that foreshadowed in the Guidelines adopted by the Sixth PCC Congress (though it should be noted that the Guidelines, sensibly, leave much room for interpretation — and experimentation — in this regard).

The mood of the majority of Cuban revolutionaries seems to be much closer, as far as can be judged from Australia, to Sexto's opinions here than, for example, those of Pedro Campos, a Havana-based former member of the PCC who left the party on his own initiative. After decades of idealistic experimentation, many are wary of placing hopes on somewhat speculative, if not utopian, visions of the transitional society in Cuba's conditions. "Principled pragmatism" is probably the best way of describing the centre of gravity of revolutionary opinion in Cuba today.

Yet the Guidelines cannot be implemented without a big dose of experimentation. Unlike in the 1970s, when Cuba turned to the Soviet bloc for assistance, there are no manuals to turn to. Cuba has only its own experiences and what can be gleaned from others without falling into the error of mechanical copying. Within this necessary experimentation there will be room, though not as much as some would like, for local initiatives that combine dreams with practicalities in an alchemy of socialist construction out of which a chemistry may emerge.

The hypothetical country

By Luis Sexto, Juventud Rebelde, January 12, 2012

Translation: Marce Cameron

On the first of January[1] some friends and I raised our glasses and one of them, stepping forward, proposed a toast to the country we’d like Cuba to be. Another, however, outstretched his arm as if to restrain the collective gesture and issued a correction: “Let’s toast the country we need.” We obliged. It was a most apt suggestion. Because “the country that we want” is as numerous and contradictory as the desire that it expresses. As diverse as the ideas and the proposals of each and every one of us.

This is readily apparent. As one can read on certain web pages, Cuba has taken refuge in the land of the hypothetical, of conflicting hypotheses. That’s to say – and here I’m just repeating what nearly all of us are aware of – some wish Cuba to be ruled by capitalism and others imagine it as in the lullabies of petty-bourgeois nationalism. On the other hand, an extreme left – an extreme that implicitly defines itself as intransigent and discontented – wants Cuba to be a laboratory of a socialism as theoretical and it is hectic, ignoring the material and political conditions in which Cuba strives for the updating of its economy and society and disregarding, above all, the fact that this “deep socialism”, “ultra-socialism”, has never been put into practice, or at least it does not seem to have survived the experiment.

In contrast, “the country that we need” is a category that, despite its imprecision, corresponds more unanimously to the objective urgencies, to the general internal deficiencies and the global geopolitical situation. Let’s ask ourselves if it’s not pertinent, then, to promote a social order that, as well as sustaining the basic principles of social justice and independence, sets out, at the cost of risks and audacity, to provide the means and the spaces for society as a whole to overcome its economic urgencies.

Without any pretense to being an expert in complexities, I suggested some months back that our society, faced with the wear and tear of the Special Period and the survival of methods that had proved ineffective or erroneous even before this period, needed a “period of transition” towards socialism[2]. A socialism that, what’s more, nobody has managed to define nor definitively achieve in practice. Because of this, it will have to continually adjust itself to the demands of reality. Or does anyone think it possible to perpetuate the model, the interpretation of socialism that fell apart with the collapse of the Soviet Union? Let’s take into account that Cuba is not only surrounded by water along its coastline, it is also encircled by the hostility of voracious powers for which war is second nature.

This is a necessary period of transition during which, without renouncing social justice and independence – for me, two non-negotiable conquests – the country can develop its productive forces, even adopting market mechanisms while being conscious of their limits. This shocks both bureaucratic ideology and that of leftist intransigence. And, in parallel, the decentralisation of society, in such a way that the state continues to be the guarantor of an equilibrium between individual and collective interests.

The above is understood. I acknowledge that each has their own point of view and expresses it. I don’t think it wise, however, to disregard truths that have been verified theoretically and practically. Poverty, shortages, deficiencies, immobility, improvisation and voluntarism are not the premises upon which to construct socialism at one blow. Pure socialism, adhering to the most revolutionary ideals without developing the productive forces, without economic growth? We’d have to speak about the ideas and affirmations of Marx, who refrained from subscribing to extremes and the absolute.

The country that we need, then, is the country that we need in order to – without falling into a vicious cycle – resolve necessities and ingrain in every citizen the idea that socialism does not mean giving away everything, nor equalising everything. It is a permanent and gradual conquest from “the realm of necessity[3]” towards the “realm of freedom”. And for this, every one of us will have to have the space to contribute to the satisfaction of our own needs and, in a solidaristic and creative conjunction, collaborate to resolve those of others. Perhaps in this way we might be able to move toward what amounts to a superior society, and achieve the economic legitimacy that would make it easier to keep in check those who want the country to fragment into classes, divided between a few rich people and those who are left with nothing. 

Footnotes to the translation

[1] New Year’s Day in the Christian calendar, but also the anniversary of dictator Fulgencio Batista’s flight from Cuba in 1959 as the people rose up in revolution.

[2] In Cuba, “socialism” refers not to a fully communist society but to either the post-capitalist, socialist-oriented society in general (such as Cuba today) or a relatively developed and consolidated form of such a transitional society. It seems Sexto is using the word in the latter sense. Such a society has been anticipated by Marxist theory but, as Sexto points out, has yet to be achieved in practice. Cuba is still a long way from socialism in this sense.

[3] This is an allusion to a passage in Marx’s Capital (Vol. 3, Ch. 48) in which he contrasts the “realm of necessity” of class society with the “realm of freedom” he envisaged in a fully communist society: “[T]he realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.”