Cuba: What Fell? What's Going Up?
José Martí fell one hundred years ago. Cuba, with its many and quite radical changes, is now learning to be more like its nationalist hero. Some would say Cuba has given up, sold out to capitalism, but it's not true. While today's changes are redefining the Cuban project, they go to the core of Martí's dream: full national independence and maximum social justice.
María López Vigil
I returned home after a year, with all the expectations of so many people who are looking toward this island today. How much my country has changed. Only hours after landing in Havana, people were already telling me the joke now making the rounds:
Fidel sends for Pepito and says to him, "Pepito, I know you're very well informed and I want you to tell me the truth, the honest truth..."
-"Listen, Pepito," Fidel says, stroking his beard seriously, "do you think this will all fall?"
-Pepito lowers his eyes and remains silent.
-"Come on, Pepito, I told you to tell me the truth! Do you think this will all fall?"
-"Well, Comandante, the truth...," Pepito hesitates, then blurts out, "the truth is that it already fell! Right now we're just doing the paperwork."
Many Changes, Many ChallengesThe revolution is still here, on its feet. But, in fact, Pepito is very well informed. Many things considered essential aspects of the socialist model built over the last 30 years have already "fallen": egalitarianism, full employment, the subsidy policies, the gigantic and technified state agriculture, in fact state agriculture itself. Another thing that has fallen is the security Cuba felt being supported by the seemingly unshakable walls of socialism.
Compelled to adapt to the collapse of those walls and to its own slips and slides, Cuba is now fully immersed in the "paperwork" of changing its entire economy. First there is the whole gamut of financial adjustment measures: subsidy cuts, a tax system for the first time ever, reduction of the fiscal deficit, free circulation of the dollar and other currencies, suspension of giveaways, etc. Then there are the three transcendental structural change measures: massive cooperativization of state agriculture, authorization for self employment and the entire economy's opening to foreign investment. Still more changes are on their way: salary reforms, labor reforms, business reforms, property laws...
The "paperwork" to concretize and give form to all of these changes and put them into operation is immense and intense, and is absorbing the whole country. The situation is both more complicated and more interesting since Cuba wants to make all of these changes while preserving the two essential elements of its socialist model radical nationalism and the greatest possible quotas of social justice which by no means should "fall."
Contrary to the picture painted in hostile propaganda, Cuba is changing, and is changing profoundly. Also contrary to that picture, all these changes are taking place within a general consensus and notable governability. While the propaganda speaks of the Cuban state as a lumbering dinosaur or of its people as a cauldron about to explode, reality shows increasingly flexible and calm movements.
However, everything that has "fallen" and is now being rebuilt with economic changes is a challenge to Cuba's political system and revolutionary ideology, molded over 30 years. I went to Cuba to understand this better.
From Security to InsecurityWhen the Cold War world "fell," Cuba's own world fell in. Cuba had gambled too heavily on the bipolar world.
Once the United States had formalized its enmity, the old international order allowed the Cuban revolution to play a very risky but successful political game. As a fully Third World country under the nose of the First World's main imperial power, Cuba received enough of the Second World's surplus to guarantee its transformation, its social development, its economic takeoff and its future. Also its sovereignty. The Cuban nation achieved its greatest victory in this gamble: it kicked the United States out of its domestic political arena, where it had been a protagonist, and converted it into an external danger, which it continues to be to this day.
With his uncommon political genius, Fidel Castro combined a skillful domestic political leadership and international protagonism that led the USSR to make massive capital and technological investments in tiny Cuba for 30 years. With that backing and the Cubans' own intelligence, Cuba was transformed.
This was no small achievement. The economic takeoff and development that all Latin American countries talk about today is nothing more than an ephemeral promise by candidates during electoral campaigns. No other Latin American country has as much foundation for economic and social development as Cuba.
A Brilliant Political MoveThe island began filling up with factories, highways, schools, hospitals, sports centers, dams and universities. Agriculture was transformed and electricity was brought to 95% of Cubans. Rural work was humanized with machinery. Life expectancy went from 58 to 76 years. Massive education and health improved daily, accompanied by state of the art discoveries in medicine and biotechnology. The entire country rural and urban developed. The minds of Cubans also developed. And the wealth that was produced was redistributed among all. Many things were still lacking and many mistakes were made, but there were also many advances.
Cuba even had enough resources to show us how beautiful the face of solidarity is. Cuba didn't compete, it shared. Thousands and thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers spread over the map of the Third World. Thousands and thousands of young men and women from all over the Third World studied for free in Cuba. And the blood spilled by thousands of Cuban soldiers contributed to the liberation of Namibia, Angola and South Africa.
Gambling on the USSR at the Cold War's gaming table was a brilliant political move; such a small country could never have accumulated so much infrastructure and human capital otherwise. Such close economic ties with the USSR, however, allowed Cuba neither harmonic nor autonomous development, and at a certain point those ties went beyond the limits of prudence. Most serious of all was that Cuba's moves depended on Fidel Castro's indisputable abilities in a very special political situation.
No one ever doubted the solidity of the other player the USSR as a political, economic and military ally. But then, in 1980, as Raúl Castro revealed in a recent interview in a Mexican newspaper, the Soviet Union secretly communicated to Cuba that it would not get involved in the case of a US Cuban confrontation. Fidel and Raúl decided to keep the secret "under lock and key" and transform the entire Cuban military doctrine; rather than powerful military technology or a huge and well equipped army, the combative resistance of organized Cubans, in what even today is called the peoples' war, would be the primary element to dissuade the US from attacking.
It Didn't Start with Torricelli or HelmsIf the USSR "cracked" as a military ally, it still appeared immovable as an economic and political one. By 1985, however, the postulates of Gorbachev's perestroika sent a transcendental message to Cuba: if the Soviet economy was moving toward the parameters of profitability, efficiency and competitiveness in the world market, it would have to cut both its domestic subsidies and its international economic cooperation. But the Cuban revolution was in the midst of its own rectification process, one that promoted economic productivity through ideological slogans, In short, the Cuban boat was on a heading opposite to the one indicated by the Soviet ally's compass. "The rectification process based on ideology, without taking economic laws into account," says a sizable group of Cuban economists, "did not alter the inefficiency and stole five years from Cuba that could have been spent accommodating to the new economic realities."
The game had been going on for so long that the revolutionary leadership made the mistake of confusing it with reality. When the Berlin wall fell, the chips were raked in at the gaming table; it was time for a responsible recount.
With the Second World disintegrated, Cuba returned to reality. It remains a Third World country, even though it obtained First World features such as its health system and its biotechnology research centers. The reality Cuba returned to was, above all, still a threatening one. The world had changed, but the map had not; Cuba is still 90 miles from the United States and is all alone against it. Havana is seconds away from 600 of the most sophisticated military planes on the planet.
The most relevant aspect of US policy against Cuba is not the embargo, the blockade, Torricelli's law or Helms' mania. It is a documented history of 150 years in which a great empire has tried, every way possible, to annex a small island. Cuba is more exposed to the North's pretensions in the "new" international order than ever before, especially after the "challenge" to imperialism that 36 years of national dignity presupposes.
Today, Cuba's foreign security has "fallen." Cuba has gone from the warm protection of the bipolar world during the Cold War to the inclemency of a unipolar world, in which it can no longer play its old game at all but the United States can play its even more forcefully. This is the most critical element in Cuba's new situation, the one conditioning all the changes.
From Isolation to OpeningThe disappearance of the USSR was such an unexpected and transcendental trauma for Cuba that it took almost three years for the revolutionary leadership to react adequately. Everything that was going to happen the end of that world and that game had already happened by 1980, but Cuba seemed to be interpreting events as a simple supply crisis. It responded with emergency measures, patches. The economy was falling apart, yet a "special period" was declared and people were encouraged to "resist." Fidel Castro has said of that period, "We were like a person smashed over the head with a pole, too stunned to move."
Perhaps that "period" and that "stunning" lasted too long due to Cuba's self sufficient system, which did not know how to consult society as a whole about solutions or listen to the demands and suggestions for change that people already had. "Everything we've done since the end of 1993," a Cuban economist told me with conviction, "could have been done in 1990, preventing demoralization and demobilization, including the raft people!" The first profound change in agriculture did not take place until September 1993, in response to a crisis that demanded more than patchwork. The financial adjustment measures were initiated at the beginning of 1994.
Some economists criticize the delay as "dramatic," and note an excessive sluggishness and lack of continuity in the measures currently being put in place. But even these economists do not hesitate to state that there have been enough signs since the end of 1994 to know that the economic strategy of the new Cuba is in place at last, and no retreats are foreseen. There will be no more patches, but rather a whole new outfit.
The strategy has not been announced, however, and perhaps never will be. Its features will show up in each of the measures and reforms as they are implemented. "The political decision to develop a total economic strategy implies a clear comprehension of the magnitude of the crisis," say the same economists. "What has been done so far indicates that Cuba wants to confront the crisis from a nationalist and populist perspective."
People are more optimistic and more relaxed in today's Cuba. They are breathing easier and smiling more. You can see it in their faces. A year ago the complaint was palpable; "They tell us the tunnel is long and then they turn off the lights!" Today, everyone knows and can feel the changes; the tunnel is getting shorter and there will be light at the end.
They Even Know it at the PentagonOne of the basic structural changes Cuba has initiated is to open up to foreign investment. It started timidly and in a limited form in 1992, but today all branches of the economy are open to foreign investment.
After nearly exclusive commercial and economic ties with the geographically and culturally distant socialist camp, Cuba is once again successively linking itself to nearby Third World countries the Caribbean, all of Latin America and the capitalist North Canada, Europe. Also to Asia and Africa. The only exception is the United States which, buried in what can rightfully be called a Jurassic ideology, doesn't want to negotiate with Cuba and doesn't want anyone else to either.
The end of the socialist camp meant the loss of a market for Cuba's exports, as well as one where it could get the technology and raw materials needed to sustain its extensive infrastructure. Above all, it meant a dramatic shortage of the most strategic raw material: petroleum. These scarcities very quickly affected the entire economy and all Cubans. Where some market or raw materials or usable technology remained, capital was lacking. Cuban currency, locked out of the international financial system, had no value to buy what Cuba needed. And, after the crisis hit, Cuba needed everything.
Foreign investment is filling many of the gaps left by the fall of European socialism. International capital is helping Cuba open factories closed for lack of parts or petroleum: today the Moa nickel complex, tomorrow the Juraguá nuclear plant. With international capital a number of new hotels are being built, biogenetic research is being initiated or reactivated, Cuban tobacco or rum exports are guaranteed, and undersea oil exploration is getting underway. There are many approaches to foreign investment. The counterpart or partner the Cuban state studies each case individually, although at times the excessive centralization frustrates investors and investments.
Cuba could not climb out of the hole of its particular crisis, or continue developing once it gets out, without associating itself with international capital. There were initial hesitations; foreign investment was first allowed only in tourism. The 1982 foreign investment law is now obsolete, and a new, more flexible one is being drafted. The blockade has not prevented all investment from getting to Cuba, despite its intent.
Even with Cuba's zigzags, it had become clear to all, even the Pentagon, by the beginning of 1995 that Cuba has not only resisted no one can explain how but has gotten past its first phenomenal pitfall. They know the country has discovered and learned how to manage the mechanisms that allow it to link its economy into the world economy. Cuba now has new economic underpinnings, and there has been recovery in many areas though not yet in sugar.
Canada and Australia are investing in mining, Mexico in telephones, Spain in tobacco, France and Canada in petroleum exploration, Israel and Mexico in textiles, Chile and Israel in citrus, Spain and other European countries in tourism, and the British are interested in sugar. Other important investments are pending from Holland and Italy and smaller, closer countries such as Brazil and Columbia. According to the most recent official data, 36 countries currently have investments in 176 mixed ventures with the Cuban state, and 300 more projects are being negotiated. At the end of 1994, foreign capital investments reached over $1.5 billion, an amount still insufficient, however, to raise up all that has fallen.
One Huge Maquila?The propaganda that tries to assert that Cuba is isolated rings hollow; Cuba never had more economic and political relations than today. Is demanding an end to the blockade thus an empty demand? Hardly, since the blockade is still damaging Cuba. At this stage, the blockade is particularly aimed at slowing down and complicating the changes promoted by the revolution, and making them more costly. The goal is to wear the country and the Cubans down, bringing on "desperation" so Cuba will "fall" on the side of US interests. Thus, when Cuba makes its changes too slowly, when it is not bold enough, it could be playing into the US strategy.
"Is Cuba becoming a big 'maquila'?" I asked a Cuban analyst who has traveled throughout Latin America, "a foreign investment paradise with huge earnings at the cost of unemployment and low salaries in Cuba?"
"No," he responds. "This is not a maquila model, it's simply an export model. One characteristic of Cuban industrialization, given the earlier giantism and the distance from the USSR, is that it is capable of producing a complete product. Cuba is not 'maquilizing.' What's happening is that mixed international state capital is taking up more of the economic space."
There is no lack of international capital to reactivate the economy's traditional areas: nickel, sugar, tobacco. But the new mixed economic model, based on exports, has already revealed one of its challenges: will there be enough foreign capital interested in investing in light Cuban industry such as shoes, clothing, soap, pasta production for Cuban consumption and the like, all of which are now at a standstill?
And if that capital exists, part of what is produced in those reactivated industries will have to be exported (where?) so that some (how much?) of the hard currency earned allows the factory to continue functioning until some day (when?) it can produce enough to both export and allow Cubans (all of them?) to again consume that product.
In the new Cuban mixed economy there will always be two sides: one, international capital, and the other, a nationalist state that associates with it in search of surplus to guarantee the "revolutionary conquests" to all Cubans.
Relegated Cubans? In this alliance with large capital, how much economic space can and should the state control in its attempt to give all 11.5 million Cubans high quality health care, education and social security? That is one of the driving questions in today's Cuba.
In the streets, the confusions and questions are different. In the desire of official discourse to attract investment, it criticizes capitalism but blesses capitalists who invest in Cuba, whatever their history. This applause for investors coexists with a hermetic seal on information about potential foreign investments. Hardly anyone knows anything about most of them until the agreements are signed. The entire process goes on within the super centralized upper echelons. "We're at war, the blockade's on top of us," is the justification. The need for some measure of social control is not even considered. There's a lack of transparency. It's not needed so much to know if someone is stealing that's not the problem in Cuba but to debate how priorities are established. Isn't socialism the socializing of decisions? I've been told how the highest revolutionary leadership "steamrollered" a National Assembly representative who suggested a process to control foreign investments through the instruments of grassroots power.
"They're selling the country to foreigners," say some Cubans with alarm, echoing Miami radios. The facts get magnified because of both the official applause and the official silences. "It would appear that it's now a sin to be Cuban, while any foreigner who comes to invest capital is called a friend. We have no room in the house, yet our doors are being opened to foreigners who are more reactionary in their own country than the worst of the Cubans," states a working document of the Cuban Catholic Church.
The opening to international capital and the tourist boom are not without perplexities and scandals. Many Cubans feel relegated. Fermín, a disenchanted and furious mechanic, tells me how badly he was treated in a hotel and in one of the dollar stores. "There are authorities who make one feel like a piece of s... just for being Cuban." He's not the only one who feels that way.
Others are concerned about the new investment law. Its preparation has been excessively compartmentalized; nobody knows anything about what this law, which will affect so many, will be like. One question is whether or not Cubans who have capital will be able to invest in Cuba. The political cost of forbidding them could be very high.
Yes, this new opening is causing many perplexities. The closed, over protected economy, in which Cuba was on the defensive, has fallen to pieces. What unpredictable socialism will emerge from this strange new offensive to attract capital and capitalists?
From Equality to EquityDespite shortages and imperfections, Cuba was the most egalitarian society on the planet until the USSR disintegrated. The egalitarian design of the revolution rapidly lightened the yoke that weighed heavily upon the majority of Cubans who, because they were poor, or peasants, or black, mulatto or women, were excluded from basic schooling and health, from books, electricity, water, vaccinations, university, theatres, sports, vacations and social security. From so many things. From participation in a national project.
That equality from birth to death cemented the revolution's political consensus, indispensable to confronting the US aggression. Many Cubans, for many years, translated socialism as egalitarianism. But that same egalitarianism deprived the economy of one of its fundamentals: an incentive system. Excess egalitarianism leads to immense injustice, and is an economic disincentive from start to finish. Why work if, at the end, I lose nothing and have the same as someone who works? In times of crisis, egalitarianism is a still greater disincentive to work. It even stimulates the black market, protecting those who, through tricks, deceit and cunning, fit the term "cubaneo."
Egalitarianism has fallen in Cuba's increasingly dual economy. On one side is the hard currency economy ostentatiously illustrated by the tourist enclaves, particularly the beach resort of Varadero. On the other is the ever weakening peso economy. All privileges available today are accumulated in the mixed currency economy. These privileges are minimal compared to the large gaps between the few rich and the many poor in any other society, but are severe given the prolongation of the "special period." Just having a dollar will buy you a lovely loaf of bread and "free" you from the tiny bun alloted per person by the ration card. As one white haired old man observed to me, "Even with the special period and all, what no one understands is why, after 35 years of revolution, they haven't even been able to resolve the bread problem." With more and more shortages, the ration card still functions in the state economy and continues to guarantee low prices for rice, beans, sugar, pork lard, a few ounces of protein and milk for the smallest children.
The increase in tourism began to bring dollars to Cuba. Still more dollars came hidden in the pockets of Cubans who traveled to visit relatives on the island. The dollar began to circulate, but illegally. In July 1993 the Cuban government made it legal for Cubans to have dollars. Networks of hundreds of "dollar" stores cropped up around the island to sell scarce items that could not be made available to the whole population. They were sold to Cubans with access to hard currency. It was the most practical way to bring the dollars into the weakened state economy.
"But they waited until more than $1 billion was circulating illegally in Cuba and more than half of the country's merchandise was circulating in the black market where one could buy anything from a bar of soap to a house before they legalized the dollar," complained a friend. Financial adjustments were introduced at the beginning of 1994 to reduce the excess circulation of pesos.
With Dollars You Can "Escape"All of these measures have been effective. At the beginning of 1994, the black market exchange rate was 120 pesos to a dollar; in less than six months, it dropped to 35 40 to 1. In Cuba it is legal to change dollars to pesos, but not the reverse. Given the distorted financial situation, open currency exchange is not advised. Only when a minimum production threshold is guaranteed will the national currency be freely convertible and once again have the full sovereignty it has lost in today's dual economy.
Legalizing the dollar allowed the open, and growing, entry into Cuba of family remittances from the United States. More than a million Cubans live in the United States 700,000 in Miami and although some "have drunk Forgetfulness Cola," many have not. It was conservatively estimated that some $250 million would be sent the first year, a figure that would likely rise. But one year after the experience began, in the midst of the raft crisis, President Clinton prohibited the sending of remittances to Cuba. Although he did not say so, it was evidently to "block" the recovery of the Cuban peso. Some dollars continue arriving by very creative means, but not in the same quantity.
Today, those who have dollars live better than those who don't. Many professionals and technicians have begun working in the mixed economy sector to "escape." The state itself sends professionals to work in the tourist sector. Although no studies have been done, some economists calculate that 40% of Havana residents have regular, even if only minimal, access to dollars through the formal and informal networks created by the dualized economy. In the country's interior the percentage would be less.
Are Values being Lost?With the inequalities created by legal currencies, the state is seeking to maintain other essential equalities. If, for example, bath soap (imported or national) is sold to some Cubans in dollars, that hard currency can guarantee a daily liter of milk to all children under 7 years old through the ration card at only 25 cents (peso), which is almost nothing.
Many do not understand this "above board" state tactic, which creates some equality at the cost of other inequalities. What many see today is that it is not like before, that the "playing field is not at the same level for everyone." And in Cuba's political culture, nothing is as irritating as inequalities.
Legalizing the now omnipresent foreign currencies created some inequalities, because egalitarianism was slashed with one stroke. But Cuba's new mixed economy made that slash irreversible. Has the revolution thus lost consensus? The earlier situation, with its extensive black market, had already created many "clandestine" inequalities, though everyone knew it. The stagnation of that unresolved situation also eroded consensus. The relief brought to many Cubans by legalizing the dollar justifies the measure. The values sown in Cuba over 30 years soften in thousands of ways the hard edged individualism sown and harvested by capitalism in other latitudes. "You know," a 32 year old engineer selling artisanry for dollars told me, "I suffer because I can't help my neighbor; I don't have enough. I'm horrified by what he's going through. I refuse to conform; what we cannot lose are our values."
But it's a critical time, and those values could be lost, because they need to be sown and re-sown and permanently tended. Equality has "fallen" to smithereens. Everyone in Cuba is talking about it, no matter the topic of conversation. Equality was presented as a value for many years, but now it's not. The goal is equity, and the value is solidarity. When equality fell, the media and official discourse failed to reflect this. They also failed to make a permanent, intelligent, attractive call to solidarity among Cubans, between those who have and can do more and those who have less. Nothing is as urgent as cultivating this value.
From a Subsidy Model to an Incentive ModelThe surplus produced by the Cuban economy was way too little too finance the big investment projects in agriculture, industry and infrastructure. It was even less able to raise up the massive and sophisticated system of health and education created by the revolution from primary schools in the farthest corner of the countryside to special schools for other abled and universities in all the provinces, from health centers at the top of a distant hill to dozens of hospitals equipped with the most modern medical equipment. The surplus for all of this came from the Soviets, and the model was always deficient. There was always a need for more and more subsidies. The national budget was designed each year not by adjusting demands to financial reality, but by adjusting financial numbers to demands. There was always more spending than income.
The Cuban revolution fulfilled its ambitions and dreams through subsidies, and also covered its waste through them. Above all, it covered the economy's growing inefficiency and lack of profitability. Everything continued to be subsidized even in the first years of the crisis, which did in fact create a surplus of worthless currency. With the large demand built over years and minimum supply, the currency lost its value. Salaries made no sense and labor indiscipline, low or nil productivity and inefficiency historical characteristics reached new highs.
Worker Parliaments: An InnovationSince the start of 1994, Cuba has initiated a series of broad financial adjustment measures to reduce the currency in circulation (12 billion pesos in mid 1994) and recover its value, an indispensable step to stimulate labor, production and productivity, in turn the only way to resolve the crisis. Cuba has received no international credit to carry out this adjustment, which makes the process more difficult and complex.
The financial adjustment seeks to balance the budget. To clarify: it seeks for the first time to design a real budget. As do all adjustments, the Cuban one has two hands; it collects taxes with one and cuts subsidies with the other.
The adjustment measures were preceded by Workers' Parliaments 80,000 meetings involving 3,000,000 workers held throughout 1993 94 in all of the country's work centers. Union and party leaders explained the characteristics of the Cuban crisis and the measures to confront it, including the most difficult: the adjustment (taxes, subsidy cuts, cutbacks on giveaways, etc.). Time was also dedicated to evaluating labor efficiency and discipline in each workplace. Workers were free to offer suggestions and express their opinions.
Although carefully guided "from above," the Parliaments fulfilled their "economic literacy" mission. There was communication, understanding, debate. The Parliaments have now become a permanent consulting mechanism. In these neoliberal times, when economic adjustment measures are masked and imposed on our countries, the Cuban revolution insisted that the adjustments are not a technical problem of technocrats, but a political problem of the people. The revolution addressed the crisis politically through this instrument, seeking consensus and participation. It's innovating. No Latin American government that has launched economic adjustments and all of them have has dared do anything like this. The May 1994 measure to confiscate goods accumulated by the "macetas" came out of the Workers' Parliaments. Macetas are individuals who accumulated a disproportionate amount of houses, vehicles, jewelry and other products, as well as both hard currency and Cuban pesos, through the uncontrolled black market. Three months after the confiscation decree, files had been opened on 377 macetas who had excessive material goods, though not in the spectacular quantities initially predicted.
Learning to Pay TaxesCubans have no experience with the civic obligation to pay taxes. For 30 years, stamps and some customs charges were the state's only fiscal income. There has been no tax education. There are now some taxes: water and light are charged according to consumption; one pays more for the pleasure of smoking or drinking; licenses for private businesses must be purchased, there are airport taxes; land, sea and air transport is now more expensive, etc. The Tax Law regulating the package has been approved since August 1994, but is not yet being applied in full. There are expectations of capital gains taxes which will tax the earnings of both a capitalist industry and a self employed worker. The Workers' Parliaments registered very strong resistance against taxing salaries. "Are they going to take away the little bit that I have?!"
Subsidies have also been cut, and will have to be cut even more, or preserved only for those who need them most: large or low income families. Payment is already required for childrens' lunches in schools and daycare centers, foreign language studies, cultural and sports events and vitamins to prevent optic neuritis. The charge is little more than symbolic, not enough to cover the real cost, and health and education are still heavily subsidized.
Making a Bigger PieWhen "preserving the conquests of socialism," of "the revolution" is discussed in Cuba, what is being talked about is health, education, social security, protection of children and the elderly. "We have not conquered all with justice, but we must save the justice we have conquered," said Fidel Castro in his critical speech to the Federation of Cuban Women in March 1995.
State spending in the three "conquest" areas, despite their evident deficiencies due to the crisis, currently consumes 40% of the budget. The Cuban government has reiterated that these three areas will stay under state control and the revolution "will not leave one Cuban unprotected." Although the unjust egalitarianism has begun to disappear in these areas even unnecessary cosmetic surgery was free! the great challenge of social equity is reserved to them.
That challenge faces contradictions, some of them structural. The elderly, whose life expectancy was greatly lengthened thanks to the revolution, is one. The Cuban population pyramid resembles that of a developed country. There are a lot of retired people men retire at 60, women at 55 and many of them live off their pensions. Today, every working Cuban sustains the social services of three other Cubans, children or elderly. By the year 2000, this number will have risen to four. The demographic tendency is a drop in the number of children and an increase in the number of retired people; in 25 years they will be almost 30% of the population. The social security budget line will have to increase. And the health system will have to incorporate geriatric advances.
This is one of many contradictions and challenges that Cuba faces today. If the health, education and social security systems, so massive and of such high quality, should not be allowed to deteriorate, but should grow and continue to be available to all, how large a piece of the pie which is never guaranteed by taxes should the state reserve in the new mixed model to fulfill this revolutionary commitment?
"We are now overshadowed by the crisis," commented one intellectual, an expert in crossing Havana on bicycle. "But when we settle the accounts, the problem will be how to cut up the pie. Right now we're trying to recover the plate, the stove, some baking powder. But when we make the pie that lets the people survive, we'll face the central problem of the political economy: how can we make the pie bigger in today's Cuba?"
Will Cuba Be Able to Achieve It?The pie can no longer be made bigger through other countries' surplus nor through subsidies. The Cuban pie will never again grow that way. It will only grow with production. The challenge of equity is thus closely tied to the greatest domestic challenge facing Cuba's economy today: to create an adequate stimulus to promote work within the new reality but with the just ambition for justice.
For more than 30 years subsidies were a disincentive to work. The "moral" incentive recognition of heroism, appeals to one's conscience has been shown, in Cuba and in Patagonia, unable to make everyone, not just a few heroes, economically efficient. And a model of purely positive incentives with no sanctions, punishment, firings or coercion, goes against the human condition.
Equal opportunity can be guaranteed for all only if everyone is stimulated to work to the maximum, if everyone internalizes the conviction that the first moral commitment is to work. This form of thinking about incentives necessarily implies salary quotas and consumption differentiation, a certain inequality in lifestyles. It assumes what socialism proposes to each according to his/her work.
Cuba is working towards that goal. In today's cynical world, which speaks of the "success" of capitalism even while three quarters of humanity is excluded from its riches, Cuba is willing to demonstrate that no economic law separates efficiency from social equity, that economic and social development can and should go hand in hand. Cuba wants to be efficient and it does not want to exclude anybody. Only by organizing what it never had a stimulus model linked to its new economic reality can it demonstrate that it's possible.
"Can Cuba do it?" I somewhat skeptically asked a lucid social scientist as we drank a typical Cuban café con leche. "Isn't it already too late?"
"I think, and this is not based on any religious faith," he responds optimistically, "that yes, we can achieve it. We've lost a lot of time; we have to reform many things and are late on all fronts. But there's an old refrain that says, 'Better late than never.' We have the will and the ability and at the end of the road we'll have a prosperous economy with quotas of social equity unknown in the Third World." The entire Third World will win if Cuba achieves this.
From State Planning to Self ManagementAlthough it takes longer to make plans in Cuba than to undo them or substantially reform them, the state centrally planned the Cuban economy in the sense that it established priorities and administered and distributed all resources. And when one branch of the economy did not turn a profit, the state always subsidized it. Year after year.
The state invested more in agriculture, and also subsidized it more, because it was the most inefficient and unprofitable branch of the Cuban economy. More investment, more inefficiency. More and better resources, more inefficiency. Paradoxically, this inefficient state agriculture showed positive results: enormous achievements in production.
The agricultural project was ambitious. The revolution transformed agriculture: it multiplied the area under cultivation, created extensive agriculture, promoted all kinds of mechanization, used all sorts of technology to increase yields, and developed new productive areas such as citrus, poultry and genetic cattle production. More and more of many things were continually produced. Significant volumes were also produced, but the problem appeared when it came to translating agricultural activity into numbers, into financial terms. More was produced, but never in proportion to what was invested. No one, however, ever said anything; it was not discussed.
The revolution transformed not only the countryside, but also the peasants who live there. Heavy machinery replaced machetes in sugar cane harvesting; electricity was distributed to the farthest corners; peasants learned to read and write. Soon, the peasants' children wanted to study at the university level. With this ambitious policy, the revolution overturned the island's demographic trends; today 74% of the population lives in urban areas, and only 26% in rural areas.
Transcendental transformations took place in sugar production sugar cane was and still is the base of the Cuban economy and represents some 70% of exports. With the new technologies, productivity grew by 40%. Historic yields were produced. Due to the preferential prices the USSR paid for Cuban sugar cane, average harvests of 8 million tons were more like 16 million tons. Within the socialist bloc's economic division of labor, Cuba specialized in sugar cane. The USSR financed technological advances in its sugar industry and bought its entire harvest in exchange for all the petroleum Cuba needed (13 million tons in 1989, although, with more rational use, 10 million tons would have allowed the country to operate at full capacity).
Even with proven unprofitability, Cuban state agriculture can be presented with justly earned pride because of its yields, its ambitious design and its immense capital accumulation. And the revolution indeed presented it that way. According to some, it was "the apple of Fidel's eye."
Return to the CountrysideThe collapse of European socialism brought down the Cuban state agricultural project. The most serious, and still unresolved, aspect is that sugar cane production has dropped 45%. All other production also dropped; there's less of everything. How can infinite extensions of sugar cane be guaranteed without herbicides? Where do parts for the Russian tractors come from? What fertilizer can be used on large tracts of land? And if the fermented leavings were processed for East Germans to feed their cattle in exchange for powdered milk for Cuban children, what now?
"What now?" can be asked about everything. All of agriculture is in crisis. And other questions follow, because not only technology was lacking, but also workers. If the cane combines don't move for lack of petroleum, how many machete wielders will be needed to cut and store the cane, and where are they? Bull oxen began to be castrated by the tens of thousands to replace the tractors. But an ox can't plow such wide ranging areas.
Large scale, high tech practices conspired against agricultural recovery. The humanization of work, which attracted so many agricultural workers to the city, also conspired against it. So did the bureaucratic and centralized model of administration on the huge state farms. And so did the lack of labor discipline fomented by an economy without incentive mechanisms. Yet reality showed that Cuba, in spite of the revolution, was always an agricultural country, destined to live for many years off what the land produces. What it had achieved in 30 years was to organize, modernize and technify its agriculture, creating new agroindustrial branches. But only that far.
Cuba now needed to go back to the countryside and make it produce. The crisis in all of agriculture for the same thing was happening in livestock was soon felt in Cubans' diet, for a confusing web of reasons. Cheese, yogurt and butter, for example, disappeared from most tables since all dairy production went to meet the nutritional needs of the very young and very old. That, in turn, was because no more powdered milk was coming from East Germany which had ceased to exist. By 1993, Cubans were neither malnourished, like so many Latin Americans, nor suffering starvation, like so many Africans. But most of them were visibly thinner. They still ate three times a day, but qualitatively and quantitatively less.
The Third Agrarian ReformIn October 1993, the solution appeared and it surprised everyone. Virtually all state run agriculture would be cooperativized. Of all the economic changes that have been made, this was the only one announced in accord with the political bureau of the Communist Party. It was a sign of the commitment to a change that breaks the deeply rooted conception that socialism is equivalent to a state structure.
The state agricultural enterprises are being dissolved and their land is being given in usufruct to the farmworkers who, organized in cooperatives, will begin to work it. The workers administer, manage and organize production. They own the production, selling a quota to the state and the rest on the open market. No one expected anything like this. Without a doubt, it is the most structural and thoroughgoing, the most daring and revolutionary, of all the changes that have been made so far. It is a test of how far the revolution is willing to go to make changes. Many, in fact, have dubbed it "the third agrarian reform."
The land that remains idle after the land worker ratio is hammered out for each cooperative will be given out as larger individual farms to private producers who request it. This attractive modality is luring many urban families back to the countryside. In March 1995, the government calculated that 8,000 farms had already been given out, attracting some 40,000 people back into the rural sector.
The process is still incomplete, though already very advanced and, like all changes in Cuba, is rigorously organized. At the end of it, 52% of the agricultural land, including land used for sugar cane cultivation, will be in the hands of some 400,000 former rural state workers. They will work in a cooperative mode in some 4,000 Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC). Another 20 25% of the land will be in the hands of individual producers: the peasant owners who have always been around and the new farmers created by this new government measure.
Although the state land is provided to the cooperatives and the new owners in "undefined usufruct" and not as legal ownership, it is such a large scale process that it seems impossible to consider it a reversible experiment. In cattle ranching, a similar measure has been proposed: divide up the state cattle herds in a cooperative form.
The state retains land and production in specific farms and experimental units. It also keeps the land that the army has been working for several years through the so called Youth Army of Labor (EJT). Some 50,000 young military officers are working on more than 150 state farms, which provide almost all the food for the armed forces and some for the general population as well. They are efficient businesses, in which the key to economic success is military discipline.
Back to the Free MarketIf the principle regulating a total opening to foreign capital is that no factory shut down operations, the one in agriculture is that no land be fallow all land should be producing, for export, and also for food in country. The nutritional crisis is so acute for the Cuban population that Raúl Castro has said, "The key economic, political, ideological and military task that we [the military] have ahead is food production." It has also been stated this way: "To defend the revolution, beans are as important today as cannons."
To promote food production, and as a complementary measure to de statize the agricultural sector, 200 free agricultural markets have begun functioning in Cuba since October. They are an updated version of the controversial peasant market, permitted then closed down on a number of occasions by the country's top decision makers, who attacked them as promoting capitalist accumulation.
In the new markets, peasants and small producers, the UBPC, the CPA (cooperatives that were created in the 1970s) and the EJT enterprises sell their surplus at prices dictated by the market, after first providing the state the quotas needed to cover food needs for the country's schools, hospital and other key centers.
Although still small and barely emerging from their initial experiences, these markets have significantly responded to the food shortage. One can eat there, and also feast with one's eyes. Havanans are now again seeing tropical fruits they haven't seen in years, and are again serving root vegetables like cassava and sweet potatoes with their meals. Supply is still low, and demand is through the roof, but a few pesos always seem turn up from somewhere and, on a special day, one manages to buy a leg of pork, the crown jewel on the Cuban dining table. This could all be done before, but not always prices were astronomical, and it was illegal. Today prices are just very high, and it's legal.
It's One Thing to Paint the Bird...The Cuban revolution had demonized the market and tried valiantly to eradicate monetarist mercantile relations with doctrinaire purism. It was a unique proposal within the thinking of real socialism, since Marxism had long debated how much market, but never proposed wholly abolishing it. Today, reality has shattered this age old senseless policy of the Cuban leadership.
The diversity of enterprises, and the diverse interests of investors and a whole range of producers now makes it impossible to centrally plan and manage the entire Cuban economy. The market and its laws will also manage it. This reduces the role of economic plans and the Cuban bureaucracy. At the same time, it increases the control role that society can and should play to defend the interests of all against exclusively individual interests.
Cuban society must learn to manage itself. The first step has been taken in the countryside; self managed production will dominate the agricultural sector. But creating a cooperative is not the same as making sure that this group of producers until yesterday state workers actually functions as a cooperative. It is even harder when these cooperatives have been created from on high and don't respond to the demands made and fought for from below. "It's one thing to paint the bird," goes a Cuban saying, "and another that it shit." The UBPC have been painted. Now, they'll have to learn to surmount all the resistance from the agricultural bureaucrats, after so many years of top down authoritarianism. They will also have to surmount all their own inexperience as new cooperative members in terms of work styles and habits and lack of consciousness.
It will be years before we see the "bird" in flight. If this experience works, Cuba's old socialist pillars will have fallen but the country will be well on the way to building a more participatory socialism.
From Technology to EcologyCuban agriculture was not profitable in commercial terms, due to the large scale model laid out as a goal and reached, the massive technology it was able to import with Soviet surplus, and the massive mechanization, but it did have spectacular production volumes.
The best example of this is in rice production, the historic base of Cubans' nutrition. With sophisticated mechanization from planting by airplane to harvesting with complex machinery Cuba set historic records; it met 50% of its national rice demand. This production, one of the most technified, is now the one most vulnerable to the economic crisis. Cuba can only produce 10% of the rice it needs today. The rest comes from Korea or China, or in solidarity shipments from the government of Vietnam as thanks for the tons of solidarity that Cuba offered during that country's war against the United States.
All of Cuban agriculture has "fallen"; it suffers a severe technological regression that will be very difficult to resolve. One attempt at a solution has been cooperativization. Will environmentalists lay out another? Although important measures have always been taken in favor of nature in Cuba massive reforestation, a hard fought battle against salinization of the country's soils, conservation of indigenous species, cattle grazing with the Voisin method Cuba has only now begun to deal with organic agriculture, and by force.
The technological regression forces Cuban farmers to discover organic fertilizers and pesticides or rediscover them, in the case of the older ones. Today worms are being raised, and bacteria are being industrially produced to replace chemical fertilizers. The neem tree whose fruit and leaves can be used against all kinds of blights, including human problems like scabies is being planted everywhere. Less damaging plows are being developed; solutions involving solar or wind energy are being explored; much is being learned about biogas and the ox is once again becoming a mode of transportation, as is the bicycle in the urban areas. Also returning to use, in an ever more scientific manner, is a huge range of indigenous medicinal plants. The armed forces are the pioneers in doing experiments on and using this "green medicine." At the head of all ecological searches are community and Christian groups, with assistance from nongovernmental organizations.
A Unique Experience in the WorldOf all the transitions being made by Cuba today, this one of technology, of the environment is the most unconscious one and is the one that Cubans know least about. All they can see and lament is the roll back they have suffered; they can't yet assess the path they have already set out upon.
So far, there is still no generalized environmental consciousness in Cuba. For most people, environmental concerns don't go beyond "don't mistreat animals", "plant trees" or "save the crocodiles of the Ciénaga de Zapata."
Nonetheless, the transformation of much of Cuban agriculture into small scale production units, the need to consolidate a population out in the countryside that replaces machines or chemicals with intensive family labor, and the long term shortage of imported inputs of all types are giving Cuba a big push in the ecological direction. This new situation is so significant that eminent US agroecologist Peter Rosset came to Cuba, looked around and was so enthused that he concluded, "Cuba is the country with the most experience in converting a modern agricultural system into organic agriculture. It is carrying out the broadest experience of sustainable agriculture in the whole world." This experience has triggered growing interest among scholars and ecologists all over the world.
In its search for survival, Cuba may well find the secrets to life. And, challenged by the shortage of technological resources, it may discover an abundance of nature's resources. Perhaps it will learn as Teresa de Avila said to "make a virtue out of necessity". The treasure will be found at the other end of the rainbow, Meanwhile, whether through conscious decisions or forced by reality, it is on the way to becoming the "greenest" of countries.
From Full Employment to Self EmploymentNot one factory shut down; not one plot of land unworked. The other principle in the current barometer of changes is: not one Cuban unemployed. But there are beginning to be many, many unemployed. The full employment policy is also "falling."
One consequence of any adjustment policy is always unemployment. Profitability demands a payroll review, and inevitable cutbacks. Cost rationalizing and the demand for greater productivity will always result in the unemployment of a certain number of workers. So will subsidy cuts. Since Cuba is doing all these things, urban unemployment is growing. There is a huge labor demand in the countryside, but few people are willing to make the move. And tourism one of the fastest growing and most attractive options in the country today can't absorb everybody. The country's key hotels do not have inflated payrolls precisely because the administrators almost always foreigners demand efficiency.
Whenever a factory shuts down and people must be laid off or when payrolls have to be reduced, the state pays a percentage of the normal salaries to those who end up unemployed, at least for several months, until the person finds a new way to make a living. The state also tries to relocate workers, or offer them the opportunity of some sort of retraining course so they can move into a new field. But all of these humane solutions significantly up social costs and thus have high economic consequences. Moreover, since the Cuban currency has lost so much value, these patches don't resolve much.
There are no statistics on unemployment in Cuba today that include those who lost their jobs as well as young people who reach working age and can't find employment. According to some observers, the figure could be as high as 10% of the economically active population. Whatever the exact number, the clear tendency is for it to rise. This situation is at the root of the third major structural change on the island: authorization for people to become self employed. Along with the massive cooperativization of state agriculture and the opening of the whole economy to foreign investment, this measure will change Cuba's economic profile. All three measures also influence the new political and ideological profiles in Cuban society.
An Aberrant DecisionIn a decision that many economists both inside and outside of Cuba characterized as "aberrant," the so called revolutionary offensive of 1968 eliminated all small individual and family businesses from a tiny street vendor of fried foods or ices to a neighborhood barbershop. Everything was nationalized, under the vision that small business was, like any private property, both perverse and a breeding ground for counterrevolutionary activity. Hairdressers, manicurists, carpenters, plumbers, painters, cane liquor vendors, stylists, hardware dealers, electricians and more were all turned into state workers and integrated into municipal service companies. Cuba was left without street vendors and without the familiar ongoing chorus as they hawked their wares.
In addition to unnecessarily swelling state costs, this decision led to incredible inefficiency in each and every one of the newly state run services. At the same time, it gave new life to the black market. A burst pipe in a house could be repaired at a very low cost by state employed plumbers, but they were slow getting there if they get there at all or the work was poorly done due to lack of incentives or proper materials. People thus turned to their neighbor plumber to do the repairs, at any price. Many times, this neighbor also worked in the state run service sector. So, during the day s/he was an inefficient state worker, only to turn into an efficient clandestine worker after hours, charging high prices and using materials stolen from the state company. This scenario was repeated in almost every company. The crisis, with its attendant scarcity of parts, excess of circulating currency and increasing deterioration of the entire state infrastructure, made the situation even more acute.
Cuban society has been demanding a change in the service sector for many years now, especially in 1990, that stellar moment of the revolution when hundreds of thousands of Cubans and not only party members openly debated the call to the IV Party Congress and made important suggestions for change.
Reality finally did what public opinion had been unable to do. The growing unemployment, the many unused skills and salaries weakened by a virtually useless currency were stronger than doctrinaire "purity."
The self employed sector was officially authorized in September 1994. The first 40,000 have grown today to 180,000, and perhaps some 100,000 more have only to legalize their situation. (Cuba's economically active population is estimated at 3.6 million people).
Informal workers on the streets?There were initial hesitations, restrictions regarding the type of work permitted, and many ambiguities and incoherences such as not selling parts or raw materials to these workers and craft people. There was also an unwillingness to admit the failure and historic inefficiency of the state services. Nonetheless, the experience is finally being consolidated, always within a rigorous systems of granting and renewing licenses.
Are Cuban self employed workers the equivalent of Latin America's "informal sector"? Not really, since the distance between the two groups is immense. In general, the Latin American informal economic sector has been excluded from almost all opportunities and today's system also excludes them from work and a secure income. "Informal sector" Cuban workers who sell hand-carved wood crafts, tortoise shell earrings or aluminum recipients, those who sell shoes or used books in the street craft fairs, were trained to serve society and today society is trying to incorporate their skills into a collective solution to the crisis. Many of these people are engineers or economists who, given the total distortion of the currency, can live better selling three guiros [a musical instrument fashioned from a gourd] a month in dollars than their colleagues who are still receiving shrinking state salaries. "I don't want to live off this," said an English professor who was carving pirate faces on dried coconut shells. "I want to live off my profession I hope to do some graduate work and do what I like to do: teach English." In any case, it's better working at something you don't like than not working at all.
Self employment also has another dimension. Cuba created many professionals and technical experts that the country can no longer absorb. "We lack everything; our only surplus is skilled people," many Cubans are saying today. The state "exports" some of these people. They used to travel altruistically, in "missionary" type work. Doctors, nurses, sports trainers, art instructors, agronomists and many technical experts served free in a range of Third World countries, including Nicaragua. Today the Cuban state makes agreements with other states, and Cuba "exports" these professionals. The ones who leave come out ahead, Cuba comes out ahead and so does the other country.
Although this is all part of an attempt to block a potential brain drain, the formula of the agreements isn't the only way to do it. Individual initiatives are also possible. But deeply rooted ideological prejudices that color migration laws and regulations still impede Cuba's ability to take full advantage of the human capital of its workers who want to work abroad. There are far more prohibitions than permits. And more suspicion than trust. And, loyal to its overriding principle, Cuba's own migration bureaucracy has invented an obstacle to every potential solution.
Despite the boom in self employed workers, 90% of state services still operate in state hands. But a situation is beginning to be seen wherein the already legalized self employed workers are competing ever more effectively with the state in every area. They produce higher quality, more varied goods and services, and sell them more cheaply than the state does. Among services, taxi driving is one of the best jobs. The most inexpensive state restaurant in Havana today offers a plate of typical food for US$8. But in the still unauthorized paladares ("palates") rooms in private homes adapted to a mini restaurant the same dish costs US$2.
Might not there be a clue in what took place in agriculture, with the cooperatives' self management formula, that could also be applied to services, to small family businesses? The question is still open, and it has great ideological and political importance. "Particularly," a sociologist told me, "because to speak of self management in Cuba was, until very recently, essentially to have an opposition agenda. This meant that Cuba never trained intellectuals who could deal with self management. They simply don't exist, though many are now taking up the issue again. Nor is there a population in the countryside or the cities trained in the cooperative model. It's important for Cuban society to understand that self management can be a socialist formula."
The country has begun to go down this road in agriculture. If it also begins in services, the change will be even more profound. "Generalizing a self management model," the sociologist sums up, "would be a revolution within the revolution."
From a Child Society to an Adult societyCuba is not yet out of its crisis; it appears to have just touched bottom. But from now on, little by little, recovery will come, and it is sure to be slow and arduous.
The revolutionary leadership has decided to make all the changes necessary to pull the country out of this crisis. And the process of these changes is now unstoppable, there's no turning back. Although they say it isn't so, the kinds of changes set in motion say something else.
While the economic changes are adjusting inserting recovering developing the economy, they are also changing Cuban society and Cubans, their way of looking at the world, and also their consciousness. Will the political system change? The economic rules of the game are changing. Will the political rules change as well?
The Cuban political system is centered on a single, vanguard party. According to the model's own definitions, representative democracy is exercised by society through the state bodies of Popular Power the National Assembly and provincial and municipal assemblies. Participatory democracy is exercised by society through its mass organizations of women, students, workers, neighbors, etc. The party is the motor force of the entire system, of society it's the vanguard and is supposed to represent all society to the state, presenting it its demands and challenging it for inefficiency, detours and errors.
In practice, things never functioned this way. The Cuban model was conceived of and gelled as a party state model. The party administers the state through its officials, and Cuban civil society the mass organizations participates by carrying out the tasks given them by the party state. The model is markedly paternalistic and society has largely been a child kept by its parents even over these years that it has grown and matured. The state gave society everything it had, including its forms of participation. Society gave itself very little. All Cubans, from age 1, when they begin day care, to age 25, when they start working, have received an infinite number of state benefits and taken part in an infinite number of social, cultural, educational, agricultural and military tasks, but have made very few decisions.
This model, though imperfect, has functioned up to now with a very high level of social consensus. The unique, undisputable and charismatic leadership of Fidel Castro the head of state, party and the armed forces contributed greatly to creating and consolidating this consensus.
There was consensus because the state administered everything, gave a lot and gave it out equitably. There was also consensus because it's easy to understand the need for unity expressed in the single party in the face of such an enormously powerful and permanently aggressive enemy. And there was also consensus because the party in fact acted like a vanguard the motor force powering the country's transformation.
From Father State to Grandfather StateToday everything has changed. The Cuban state has less and less to give away. And when it makes decisions, it must pay the political costs. The crisis has forced it to introduce mechanisms that cause inequality, and to redistribute economic power that it had previously monopolized. On the new stage, the state continues to recite its monologue, but a host of new actors has joined it, each with its own role, and with interests that are partially in contradiction with those of the others. The party, playing the main character, is not sure of its lines, when to speak, what to say, how to say it. The system cannot be assuming that the script won't have to be rewritten somewhat.
Nothing is the same, and never will be again. Father state wants to retain its control, but this time as grandfather state it no longer provides everything for its children; it has nothing to offer but advice. It has accumulated experience and attempts to discern the route, managing only the steering wheel. But young people never accept advice from their grandparents. Pedro Luis Ferrer put it this way: "Grandfather built this house/with enormous sacrifice/and although we all live here/you need to get permission/just to move a blade of grass./If grandfather doesn't agree,/nobody changes the building."
Half of all Cubans are under 30 years old and want more space for participation, decision making, power. They also want the right to be mistaken. "And you never make mistakes? Look at what the country is leaving in our hands!" complained a 25 year old architect to her Communist father. Those younger than she understand neither their parents nor their grandparents. The crisis in this age bracket translates into political apathy. "They aren't involved in anything," a concerned mother confesses.
A Revealing SurveyCuba is a different country, but the political system is the same. Nevertheless, in spite of the old contradictions and all the new ones as well, the peculiar Cuban system maintains a great degree of consensus. The devastating economic crisis has no equivalent in the political arena.
In November 1994, when the structural changes were barely getting underway and the country was exhausted after three years of hardship caused by the "special period" the CID Gallup firm did an opinion poll, widely considered to be the first independent and scientific survey carried out in Cuba during all the years of the revolution. Exclusive rights to the survey were purchased by Miami's El Nuevo Herald, which published them in December. The results are very significant: 88% of those surveyed said they were "proud of being Cuban"; 58% said that the "revolution's successes outstrip its failures"; 69% identified themselves as "revolutionary" (though only 21% specifically characterized themselves as "Communist" or "socialist"; 24% said "they were not integrated into the revolution"; and 76% said they were "satisfied with their personal life." Only 3% said that "political problems" were the key problems facing the country.
All this points to a broad social consensus which today, six months later, may well have grown. The economic changes being carried out by the Cuban government are widely applauded. Many were long time demands of the Cubans themselves: the free agricultural market, permits for self owned businesses. Others, such as foreign investment, are viewed with some ambivalence, although most people recognize the need for them (61%, according to the survey, are "very much in agreement") and know that the benefits are more jobs and hard currency for all Cubans. There is broad understanding of the adjustment measures.
Cubans inside the country are not living these changes as a "return to capitalism" or "the end of the revolution," as some from outside would simplistically paint it. Nor do they see it as a rupture of their personal links with the revolutionary project, which they identify mainly as a nationalistic project working towards social justice. The changes underway in Cuba today even feed the optimism of the most radical revolutionaries, who are hopeful that, because these changes signal a complete and coherent economic strategy, they will be able to really deploy the revolution's potential, so rooted in national and grassroots elements. Cuba is not the USSR, so huge and crossed by different nations. It is not Hungary with its bourgeois nationalism. Cuba is Cuba. And Cubans want changes to improve, not to lose what they recognize has already improved.
Bureaucrats and state functionaries, naturally, fear the changes to the degree that they mean losses in security, control and power. The goal is to cut the state apparatus by half. At the base, the shoemaker who today makes shoes and sells them on the open market still belongs to the militia "because we have to defend ourselves from the Yankees" and understands that "we must collaborate in paying our taxes so the children can still be provided with everything." At the base, the changes are seen as a step in comprehension that the revolution has finally taken: "They finally understood and are giving us a place." Soon the interests of some will begin to contradict those of others and the shoemaker and those from the UBPC and the rest will begin to ask themselves: "How am I to negotiate my place in the state, who represents me?" Little by little, society will discover as it has already begun to do that the forms of participation it has known and used up to now no longer fit well, like a little girl's dress on an adolescent.
The Temptation of the Chinese ModelNone of this is to say, as some simplistic analyses coming out of the US hold, that the demand for pluralism in terms of political parties is just around the corner. Nobody in Cuba is talking about that. And as long as the US does not back down from its attempt to be an internal actor in Cuban policy making, either directly or through certain Cuba exiles in Miami, the single party system in Cuba is amply justified.
But there is a demand in Cuba today for pluri participation in the social arena, among organizations and among revolutionaries.
In the face of this, the temptation within view is the "Chinese model" maximum economic liberalization, while conserving a highly centralized and extremely closed political system to which the new economic subjects being created must subordinate themselves. But China was an empire, it's an economic and demographic power, a mosaic of regions and cultures superimposed by a vague consensus of nationhood. Perhaps China had no other choice but to turn to this model at a particular historical time so as not to lose the many things it had already achieved. But in Cuba, a country so small and manageable, where nationalism is such a real mortar and where consensus is so important to maintaining independence from the US empire, the Chinese model would be suicide. Has not the time come for Cubans to fashion a Cuban model, with their own style, goals, values and beliefs?
Cuban society is for the most part prepared for much more than just receiving, carrying out tasks and resisting. It is prepared to propose, to take part in decision making, oversight and evaluation in short, for all those steps of a conscious decision making process that are the essence of socialism and democracy.
"The state is less and less the revolution. And we see how the party is less and less the state," a Communist activist from Marianao told me, then threw out a series of challenging questions, "Who will guarantee the revolution now? Who will guarantee the defense of national and social interests in the face of an avalanche of individual interests, including those of international capitalism? The state by itself? The state functionaries? The party officials? Isn't this a task that corresponds to all of us, to a society that is for the most part revolutionary, a society that needs more power, more autonomy, more self management capacity?"
There is a wealth of accumulated political experience in Cuban society that the system has been unable to tap. Cuban society has more proposals than the system can assimilate. Although there are signs of openings in the mass organizations, they don't seem big enough. Because society, even adult society, is arriving at this crucial moment tired and wary, moving by inertia and routine. Many more clear and daring signs are still needed.
The space for debate is still very regimented. The media despite appreciable but minimal changes have been unable to connect the real country to the official country. People state their opinions on street corners or in packed busses, in their homes and workplaces, but have a deep seated inhibition to declare themselves where the opinion could have more political impact. There is much accumulated silence. More than censorship which persists in the media and in society the most significant element today is self censorship, an attitude that has been with Cuban society for a long time now. In this time of changes, and thus of initiatives and creativity, it could be more damaging if not entirely paralyzing than ever.
And the Vanguard?There have been some changes in the political system, including in the Constitution. For instance, the party is redefined as the party of "the nation" and no longer of "the proletariat" and there is now an opening to religious believers. More power has been given to the provincial and local organs of Popular Power. There is greater representativity through direct and secret elections and other reforms of the electoral mechanisms. The National Assembly today is playing a role that it historically never played even though the Constitution recognizes it as the "supreme power" of the state.
There is a relative campaign to renew the leaders of organizations, as well as to seek out more young people, women and blacks (half the population is under 30, is female and is black or mulatto), sectors up to now very under represented in leadership posts, particularly the higher one goes up the pyramid of power.
The Cuban Communist Party is growing. In 1994, 40,000 people joined, a 5% increase after taking into account those who left. Today the party has 700,000 members. "Is it still the vanguard?" I asked an old party member. "The party retains it power, its prestige, its authority and the party members continue to be exemplary," he answered. "But it should not be understood as an elite party, in the sense that it is the party mystique that attracts people. No, today it is Cuban society that has this mystique. It attracts itself. And there are many exemplary people, people who are very revolutionary yet aren't interested in being part of the party. Perhaps it was different at the beginning of the revolution. Today, development has taken place and society is more than the party. I would say that the challenge to the party, to those of us who are members, is to be able to undertake an ongoing communication with society, to be the most open, the most efficient and the boldest of all."
The Cuban political model has a democratizing potential that has not been sufficiently deployed. The political challenge can be resolved with a single party, but one that is more democratic in its internal functioning, with more internal debate, one more of activists than functionaries, who are more distant from the state and no longer administer it, one that immerses itself in society like yeast in dough, representing it, stimulating debate, demanding ever greater quotas of autonomy and self management.
A political agenda along these lines is implicit in many Cubans, though few dare to make it explicit. There are also no channels for doing so. The economic urgencies of the day absorb most people's energies, and Fidel Castro's powerful leadership too greatly conditions the political system and all of its institutions.
After Fidel?Another joke is also making the rounds in Cuba. Fidel goes to Heaven and, from the moment he enters the gates, starts asking St. Peter for a personal interview with God. St. Peter puts him off and puts him off, but Fidel insists and insists. Fidel finally gets his interview. "Okay Fidel, but only half an hour, don't go one minute over that." Fidel accepts and goes into the meeting.
After 55 minutes have passed, Peter is desperate and angry. He flings open the door. "Damn, Lord, what's going on???" "My friend," God says to Peter, "just give us a few more minutes. Fidel's got me convinced that we need a revolution here, but I still don't get why he's proposing that I be Vice President."
Fidel's leadership is too overwhelming, too strong, too clever. The underlying transition that the Cuban revolution has pending is the one from Fidelismo to post Fidelismo. Cuban revolutionaries both those firmly located in Fidelismo and those already thinking in post Fidelismo terms agree on many things. One of them is that the only person who can handle this very transition successfully and with unity is Fidel Castro himself. This is the historic responsibility facing Fidel today: preparing for the post Fidel stage and making sure that Cuba gets to that stage of the revolution within his lifetime, and while he is still in complete control of his faculties. There is also widespread agreement that the post Fidel stage will not mean chaos for Cuba.
In the Cuban revolution, political vision always counted for more than economic calculations. Economic problems were always resolved by political means. The world reality bumped Cuba off the wide road of its far reaching, often unrealistic goals and pushed it onto a narrow path of humility, where what is feasible and possible sets the agenda. But it was not pushed there necessarily to lose. On this narrow path, Cuba is discovering its errors and also its potential. Cuba is not disabled, it's quite well equipped. Revolutions never take place in vain.
What does socialism mean?Yes, Pepito, a lot of things have "fallen". Like little Alice, Cuba fell down a hole and into another country the "wonders" of an economy based on monetarist mercantilist relations, an unknown country where everything has to be learned, even the language. Cuba will have to learn to be "socialist" in this new country.
Today, the whole island is a training school. People must learn how to work differently. They must learn to negotiate according to the demands of efficiency placed on them by large scale capital. And they must learn not to be deceived or corrupted by that capital. They must learn to be profitable so as to earn more and must learn how to earn more so as to be more equitable. They must learn how to establish relations with the whole world from the basis of a nationalist and popular state, while that state must learn to be controlled by a nationalist and popular society. They will have to learn how to resolve the equation of maximum efficiency and maximum equity. They must also learn to defend their own cultural identity, to create and recreate it, amid the cultural homogenization of Madonna and hamburgers.
All of this demands a profound change of mentality at all levels, from the top leaders to the smallest producers. They must learn to live in the midst of this capitalist world, conserving their own voice and their own project. And they must quickly redefine what this very Cuban project is that they continue to call "socialism". Redefine it because in Cuba, and in the whole world, that word evokes concrete references that no longer exist, either in the rest of the world or in Cuba itself.
In leaving voluntarism behind and learning humility, one notes an immense, ideological gap today in Cuba, and among Cubans. The ideological transition is being put off even more than the political one. It's easier to take economic measures or make political corrections than sow ideological values. Ideology has yet to realize what has already happened with the death of "God" (the USSR) and the fall of its "church" (the Soviet Communist Party), and what is yet to come. There's a lot of disorientation. "Everything they said was bad," a young photographer repeated over and over in a conversation, "they're now telling me is good."
The confusion is great. Now more than ever, one feels the weight of the strategic error of Cuba's revolutionary leadership which, full of prejudice, is not linked to any organic intellectual grouping able to "think of Cuba in its totality" as did Martí or to truly promote debate in society.
It is said in the official media that now is not the time to get bogged down ideologically redefining socialism and the Cuban model because other needs are more pressing. But at this time of so much accumulated maturity in society and of such challenges, redefining this with all Cubans could be mobilizing in both political and economic terms. The official line describes and evokes the "glorious" past, but has been unable to redefine the Cuban model, particularly for the new generations. The official discourse is impoverished, paternalistic and increasingly "grandfatherly."
Returning to MartíCintio Vitier, a 74 year old visionary, poet and writer, has proposed that, in the midst of this ideological void, Cubans take up José Martí's words and example. For Vitier, Cuban education has neglected Martí and must now go back and really study him. To do so, he has proposed the creation of a new voluntary field of study with specific methodology and content from primary school up through the university. He has prepared texts, which are now being printed. And it is not just Cintio Vitier. Many Cubans believe that nobody can fulfill better the wide space of the current ideological void, with more patriotism, humanism, unity, ethics, originality, beauty and a clear analysis of imperialism, than José Martí, father of the Cuban nation and its revolution. But the void is immense and, although Martí is key, some believe that he "cannot respond to the current problems facing Cuba." Still others say that it is also important to rediscover Latin American revolutionary thought and rescue the Marxist classics.
Cuba has left one form of socialism behind. Key elements of it have "fallen." Today, Cuba is living with neither socialism or capitalism; it's merely surviving. The ideological challenge is open. In my search to approximate what could be a nationalist definition of socialism, a Cuban socialism, I decided to ask a political science professor who has spent years thinking about these kinds of things how he would explain this today.
"Well, one definition could be something along these lines: we understand socialism as a more or less prolonged stage of our history in which Cuban society will try to consolidate its independence by promoting a radical nationalism. It will try to assure its economic and social development with an economic policy that promotes equal opportunities and equity; it will try to rescue and affirm its cultural identity with its own ideas and proposals in the face of the influence of the world centers, and will also try to develop democracy. These will be our four very specific goals, from which we will begin to concretize and redefine our socialism. And it's all there in Martí."
Nationalism and IntelligenceThe legacy bequeathed to Cubans by the revolutionary stage that ended along with the Soviet Union is rich with elements for sparking and achieving the proper ideological transition. Without delegitimizing the history that brought the country to where it is today, Cubans are better equipped than others not to get lost in the change. There is 100 times more radical nationalism today than there was at the beginning of the revolution. The crisis has eroded it to a certain degree ("we can't do it alone, we're too small"), but has also strengthened it ("they should leave us alone, then they'll see what Cuba can do").
National pride, national dignity, radical nationalism and permanent nationalism which is what explains Cuba is today fixed in the minds of a well prepared, massively educated population, many with professional degrees. Cuba literally has hundreds of thousands of developed brains to help think of creative solutions.
Only those who do not think thinking is always painful could dare to state that the model being imposed in the world today is the only one possible, humanity's inevitable destiny.
Cuba wants to think something else. And in thinking, it wants to serve the rest of humanity. "To think is to serve," said Martí. The alliance between human capital and the capital of nationalism notable legacies of the revolution more than the humility of the moment guarantee Cuba the transition towards another, more democratic and efficient socialism, one that will make Cubans happier.
Is Cuba up to this overwhelming challenge to showing the world that a country can be very efficient economically yet still not exclude anyone from the opportunities for life, happiness and social equity? The challenge is out of proportion, but so is everything else in Cuba. The sense of a total lack of proportion is rooted in Cuban culture. A disproportionately small and radical country, it exaggerates everything. The Cuban revolution has already played a tremendous political role for such a small, fragile, vulnerable island. This enthusiasm for immoderation that is at the root of Cuban culture could help Cuba today in its attempt to rise to another challenge. The "wretched of the earth" are putting their chips on Cuba's game and Cuba's number. But we don't want a martyred Cuba, a Cuba resisting until death. We want Cuba alive, demonstrating its capacity. "Martí, that mystery that accompanies us," to use a phrase of Lezama Lima, is accompanying Cuba at this crucial hour.