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.

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