Cuba seeks revolutionary renewal, part two: Economic reforms fuel Cuba’s battle of ideas
By Phil Cournoyer and John Riddell. In a November 17, 2005, speech at the University of Havana, Cuban President Fidel Castro outlined measures to counter corruption and theft that are bleeding the Cuban peoples’ resources into the hands of a layer of new rich.
Castro also indicated that the economic principles underlying the recent reorganization of electricity supply will be applied to the economy as a whole. The government has raised electricity rates while simultaneously raising salaries to compensate. “Subsidies and free services will be considered only in essentials,” he said. “Medical services will be free, so will education and the like. Housing will not be free. Maybe there will be some subsidy, but the rents … need to come close to the actual cost.”
The thinking behind this change was explained by Francisco Soberon Valdes, head of Cuba’s national bank, in a December speech to the National Assembly. “It is of utmost importance that the distribution of goods and services is clearly and directly linked … with the effort of each from the position they occupy in our economic structure,” Soberon said.
The Special Period, he said, “moved us away from this strategic objective.” The Special Period is the Cuban term for the economic crisis brought on in the early 1990s by the rupture of economic ties with the Soviet Union.
In capitalist society, talk of “effort” is used to justify paying corporate chieftains, who produce nothing, many, many times the salaries of manual or intellectual workers. Within the Cuban state economy, however, salary levels have always conformed closely to the goal, reaffirmed by Soberon, of assuring “as equal a distribution as possible.”
‘To each according to their work’
In Cuba, the prices of many basic necessities like housing have long been subsidized. These subsidies unduly benefit those Cubans who have an ample supply of money. This creates an unwarranted drain of economic resources into the hands of the privileged, including those with access to dollars from abroad. The end result is to reinforce trends towards greater inequality.
Meanwhile, the subsidies system assures working people of only a minimum subsistence. For a worker today, Soberon explains, “the money he earns … is not enough to buy products that are also necessary but that are sold at market prices.” The result is a decay of the work ethic.
“The salary no longer truly motivates him.”
The worker is launched into “a struggle to obtain material goods, as much as possible, for him and his family regardless of his contribution to society.” This trend is “particularly damaging” when the person “has authority over important material wealth.”
Moreover, some are able to choose not to work “without affecting [their] standard of living,” a situation that is “simply catastrophic” for the economy and “morally unacceptable.”
Soberon advocates extending the solution applied in the electricity industry. “This formula gradually reduces the inequalities created or increased during the Special Period,” he said. The policy also is in keeping with “what Marx explained more than a century ago: each should use to the full his capacities and receive according to his work.”
Battle of ideas
The new policy outlined by Castro and Soberon aims to rein in the diversion of state resources to privileged layers and increase the overall efficiency of the economy, which will, in turn, promote greater productivity.
But the Cuban leaders do not project an increase in production as a solution in itself. Rather, their proposals aim to help Cuban working people through enhancing the real value of the salaries and pensions they receive from the state. Cuba’s electricity reforms, discussed in Socialist Voice #67, pursue other social goals as well, such as reducing inequality, easing the burden of household labour on women, and encouraging energy conservation.
Such measures are intended to strengthen the hand of Cuban workers and their state against the surrounding capitalist world and its presence within Cuba. As such, the measures are part of what Cuba’s Communists term their “battle of ideas”—an extended, concerted effort to demonstrate the superiority of a struggle for socialism over proposals for a retreat to a capitalist order.
The nature of the ideological challenge was spelled out in the address of Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque to the National Assembly on December 23. “To some degree, historical memory has been lost; a comparative understanding of what is happening in the world has been lost.” Some people in Cuba “have illusions about capitalism,” he said. They think that if the “Yankees” take over some day, “they’ll get the capitalism of an advanced European country,” when in reality “they’ll get Haiti or the Dominican Republic, a poor Third World Country converted into a U.S. neocolony.”
In his November 17 speech, Castro underlined the centrality of the Cuban revolutionaries’ effort to counter such illusions. Referring to Cuba’s imperialist enemies, he declared, “They can never destroy us.” But, “we can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault.”
He then asked, “What ideas and what level of consciousness can make the overturn of a revolutionary process impossible?”
The effort to use economic policy to promote socialist consciousness and strengthen the working class has a long history in the Cuban revolution. Perez Roque recalled Cuba’s campaign for “Rectification” in the 1980s, which included in its goals opening up scope for worker initiatives and volunteer projects in economic construction.
“Rectification was unfortunately cut short … when the Special Period began, and many of [its goals] could not be realized,” the Cuban foreign minister said. But “we are rescuing many of those plans today, with more experience and on a more solid and better foundation.”
While not using the term Rectification, Fidel recalled one of its themes on November 17, saying, “Some thought that socialism could be constructed with capitalist methods. That is one of the great historical errors…. That was why I commented that one of our greatest mistakes at the beginning of, and often during, the Revolution was believing that someone knew how to build socialism.”
Che’s economic writings
The Cuban leaders’ recent statements echo themes going back to the revolution’s first years, in the 1960s, when Ernesto Che Guevara stressed the importance of “moral”—that is, political—incentives in economic construction, alongside the “material” incentives represented by piecework, bonus programs, and the like. Che also warned of the consequences of relying on capitalist methods of encouraging production in words that now seem prophetic of later Soviet collapse:
“The pipedream that socialism can be achieved with the help of the dull instruments left to us by capitalism (the commodity as the economic cell, profitability, individual material interest as a lever, etc.) can lead into a blind alley…. Meanwhile, the economic foundation that has been laid has done its work of undermining the development of consciousness. To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man.” (Man and Socialism in Cuba)
It is noteworthy that a manuscript by Guevara that provides a critical assessment of the Soviet economic model has just been published for the first time by Ocean Press, in association with the Che Guevara Studies Center of Havana, Cuba. A collection of documents from Cuba’s debate on economic policy in 1963-64, in which Che was a central figure, has also just appeared. Both books are in Spanish and will be widely available in Cuba.
Lessons from the USSR
Guevara’s ideas link up with the interest among many Cubans today in the lessons of the Soviet experience. Fidel’s November 17 speech took up this topic with regard to the foreign policy of the Soviet state and Communist Party.
“A tremendous vice was created,” he told the University of Havana students, “the abuse of power, the cruelty, and in particular, the habit of one country imposing its authority, that of one hegemonic party, over all other countries and parties.”
These historical events “influenced the idea that for a communist the end justifies the means,” undercutting the importance of the ethical factor in the struggle for socialism.
“Today we can speak of this subject because we are entering a new phase.”
Fidel explained his view with reference to international policy of the Soviet Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. He condemned the 1939 alliance of the USSR with fascist Germany as “a very hard blow” that left communist parties “to politically bleed to death.” He also assailed the policy that led the Cuban Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s to ally with the dictator Fulgencio Batista: “The order came from Moscow: organize the anti-fascist front. It was a pact with the devil.”
Subordination of workers’ struggles to supposedly progressive capitalist politicians like Batista was a hallmark of the Soviet CP’s policy of “anti-fascist unity” in the mid-to-late 1930s.
Fidel contrasted to this record the Cuban Communists’ relations with Latin American revolutionary movements: “It has never even occurred to us to tell anybody what they should be doing.”
Cuba and the world struggle
Castro’s comments on the international dimension of the Soviet experience illustrates the central role that the Cuban leaders assign to Cuba’s intimate involvement in the experiences and liberation struggles of working people around the world. Cuba’s internationalism is rooted in the thought of the leader of its independence struggle, Jose Marti, who famously said, “Patria es humanidad”—humanity is our homeland.
The proportion of Cuba’s resources devoted to international humanitarian aid dwarfs that of far richer economies, such as Canada. To promote this effort, Cuba has built a medical system whose capacity is far greater than the country’s needs. Where mass movements have scored significant breakthroughs, as in Venezuela and Bolivia, Cuba has rushed to provide support.
Furthermore, Cuba’s medical solidarity is not restricted to Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuban medical teams, for example, played a significant role in helping the Pakistani people to cope with death, disease, and destruction provoked by last year’s earthquake.
When Cuban leaders discuss economizing resources, few put this commitment in question.
Based as it is on respect for the recipient countries’ independence, integrity, and right to autonomous development, Cuba’s foreign aid program is a welcome contrast to those of imperialist powers. It serves as a material demonstration of the superiorities of Cuba’s social system and wins massive sympathy for the island in its struggle against the U.S. blockade.
And the greater margin of flexibility enjoyed by the Cuban economy today is in large measure due to gains in the struggle against imperialist domination in Latin America and parts of the Middle East, and due also to China’s growing world role.
Cubans seek to exchange ideas with anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist thinkers of many viewpoints from all over the world. Hardly a month goes by without a significant international conference in Havana. Cubans are traveling abroad in ever increasing numbers, one recent example being the huge Cuban delegation to the World Social Forum in Caracas.
Cuba’s revolutionary leaders have understood from the beginning that the long-term survival of the revolution depends on the success of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles in other lands. That is why the advances of the revolution in Venezuela and the victory of the indigenous majority in Bolivia have had such an exhilarating impact on Cuba. Cuba’s destiny is intimately linked to the outcome of struggles across Latin America and on other continents. And, it should be stressed, advances in Cuba will favor struggles in Venezuela, Bolivia, and beyond.
Cubans act on this understanding, and we must do the same. Cuba’s capacity to survive and freely build its future depends in no small measure on what we can do internationally to build solidarity with this heroic, embattled people.
Fidel Castro, Address to University of Havana (English translation)
Francisco Soberon Valdes, Address to the Cuban National Assembly (English translation)
Felipe Perez Roque, Address to the National Assembly
Che Guevara, “Man and Socialism in Cuba”2