Cuba seeks revolutionary renewal: Part one: Celebrating a ‘wonderful, triumphant year’
“The super-powerful empire that stalks us and threatens us [is] awaiting a natural and absolutely logical event: the death of someone. They have honored me by thinking of me.” — Fidel Castro, November 17 2005
Speaking on the sixtieth anniversary of his admission to the University of Havana, Cuba’s president responded to the imperialists’ “transition plans and military action plans” by challenging his compatriots to develop their own plans for the revolution’s future.
His speech has set off what Cuban Foreign Minister Filipe Perez Roque has called “an intense debate across the entire country,” in factories, work collectives, farmers cooperatives, streets, and neighborhoods.
Although he is now 79 years old, and has been the target of several CIA-organized assassination attempts, Fidel Castro shows no slackening in vigor. Reporters noted his firm stride in the January 24 demonstration of a million Havana residents against provocations by the U.S. diplomatic mission. And the U.S. imperialists’ conclusion that the Cuban revolution cannot be overthrown while Fidel is alive testifies to the failure of their campaign to isolate, starve, demoralize, and crush Cuba.
Fidel mocked the imperialists’ hopes of military conquest. “They can never destroy us,” he said. But, he warned, “this country can self-destruct … we can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault.”
Addressing the National Assembly on December 23, Perez Roque elaborated on the nature of the threat:
“We have achieved military invulnerability. We will achieve economic invulnerability … despite the ongoing blockade. We must also struggle … to preserve ideological and political invulnerability.”
This is not a problem so long as the generation who made the revolution is with us, he said. But the enemy bases its plans on “the idea that those who come after can be confused, defeated, divided, bought, or pushed around.”
‘A wonderful year’
The opening up of this discussion is the result not of Cuba’s weakness but its progress. The year 2005, which the Cubans named “Year of the Bolivarian Agreement for the Americas” (see Socialist Voice #26), was a “wonderful, victorious year,” according to Perez Roque.
The economy expanded by an impressive 11.8%, and 10% growth is expected this year. (Cuba’s measure of economic growth includes social services as well as commercial transactions.) Cuba significantly lessened its dependence on trade with imperialist states such as Canada; Venezuela and China are now Cuba’s leading trading partners.
Cuba’s renewed economic strength has allowed it to initiate a major investment program to strengthen its electricity supply, and new targeted measures to improve the lives of working people. Substantial salary and pension increases have been implemented, and 100,000 new homes will be built in 2006.
More crucially, Cuba’s isolation has eased. Popular movements allied to Cuba scored resounding electoral victories in Venezuela and Bolivia, while candidates identified with pro-U.S. policies lost presidential elections across Latin America. Cuba is taking its place as an influential participant in a continent-wide movement of peoples against imperialist oppression.
Cuba has also won increased moral authority as the world’s most effective and dedicated supplier of humanitarian aid. After the Pakistan earthquake disaster, for example, Cuba dispatched 2,200 medical staff to set up field hospitals and clinics. As of mid-December, 3,500 operations had been performed with sophisticated equipment in tents set up deep in the frozen Himalayas.
(Much less technical skill and human commitment was to be seen in the United Nations-led effort, which sent 350,000 non-winterized tents to a region locked in bitter cold, along with a much smaller number of winterized tents that lacked stoves.)
Cuba has become a major supplier of eye care to Third World countries: 170,000 Venezuelans have received eye operations in Cuba in the last year and a half.
More than 25,000 Cuban health professionals serve as volunteers in other countries, usually in poverty-stricken, rural, and remote areas, while 2,400 students from 115 other countries receive free medical education in Cuban universities.
These achievements testify to the moral strength and convictions of Cuban working people. Nonetheless, Castro’s November 17 speech focused on danger signs in Cuba’s moral commitment to socialist values — signs of “thievery [of state property], diversion of materials, and money draining away towards the new rich.”
A study revealed that in government gas stations, “there was as much gas being stolen as sold.” Fidel himself had seen a makeshift market where a construction crew, “both the foremen and many of the workers, had put up a market selling cement, steel rods, wood, paint, you name it—all kinds of construction materials.”
The problem is not new, Fidel said, but “the Special Period aggravated it, because in this period we saw the growth of much inequality, and certain people were able to accumulate a lot of money.” (The term “Special Period” refers to the years after the collapse of economic relations with the Soviet Union in 1991.)
“There are several dozens of thousands of parasites,” he said, “who earn 40 or 50 times the amount one of those [Cuban] doctors over there in the mountains of Guatemala … earns.”
Perez Roque, who at 39 has carried out almost all his political activity since the 1991 crisis, underlined the impact of the Special Period. Cuba’s gross internal product shrank by 35% and its imports by 85% in the space of four years, he said, while reductions in food supply temporarily cut Cubans’ average caloric intake from 3,000 to 2,000 calories a day.
“Facing up to those years was a feat whose story will be told and retold,” he said. Still, it was during those years that “the vices cited by Comrade Fidel became entrenched” including tendencies “to individualism, to saving your own skin.” Such evils “are not nourished in a society where each receives according to their labour.” But this principle that was undermined during the Special Period.
Social workers with attitude
On October 15, the government moved to end the gas diversion problem by assigning thousands of young people in blue T-shirts to substitute for gas attendants at service stations across the country, who were sent home on leave. The youth belong to Cuba’s corps of 28,000 social workers, recruited from among school dropouts and the young unemployed. After extensive education and preparation (7,000 are now in training), they work on projects that assist Cuba’s most vulnerable citizens.
Referring to the anti-corruption effort, Fidel commented, “We read every day in the opinion polls that people are asking about when the ‘kids’ are coming to the dollar stores, to the drugstores, or to all the other places.” Dollar and drug stores have a reputation as targets for theft. “Everyone is full of admiration for these ‘kids.’”
The crackdown on corruption has a social as well as an economic goal: to reduce the gap between privileged and unprivileged within Cuban society. Among the goals of social improvement cited by Castro: “We decided that every [sole-support mother] … ought to have the possibility to choose … whether to receive a salary so that she could look after her child, or the state would pay someone a salary to care for the child while she was at work.”
The same logic can be seen in Cuba’s approach to its chronic electricity shortage. In addition to modernizing its power grid and generating facilities, Cuba has launched a conservation campaign, naming this the “Year of the Energy Revolution.” In Fidel’s view, two-thirds of the energy now consumed can be saved.
The Cuban electricity program also aims to decrease social differentiation. Electricity prices have been raised, but the cost for small-scale users is less than a tenth the rate paid by high-level consumers — who are often among Cuba’s new rich. (The top rate in Cuba is still much less than Ontario workers will pay after the province’s coming rate hikes.) Meanwhile, the government is distributing fluorescent light bulbs and energy efficient cookers and refrigerators that will provide practical benefits to working people—particularly in lessening women’s domestic labour—while reducing energy consumption.
Recognizing that the increases would have an impact on many working-class families, the government accompanied them by substantial across-the-board wage increases. The minimum wage was doubled last year.
“This nation today, and in a very near future,” Fidel said, “will have every one of her citizens living fundamentally on their work and their pensions and retirement income,” without having to rely on sideline occupations, second jobs, or foreign remittances. This goal, undermined in Cuba during the Special Period, is achieved by very few workers in the Third World countries, and is far from guaranteed even in wealthy Canada.
Yet Cuba’s most authoritative leaders are careful not to nourish illusions that the revolution can be defended simply by increasing living standards. “Socialism disappeared in Eastern European countries that had a high level of life in material terms,” said Perez Roque. Nor did the overturn of the nationalized and centrally directed economy lead to material improvement. “Only this year has Hungary achieved the living standards that it enjoyed in 1972,” he said, despite billions of dollars in European Union assistance. We must add that the post-1990 record of economies in most of Eastern Europe and in Russia is even worse.
In his address to the National Assembly, Perez Roque proposed three principles to assure the revolution’s survival that have a focus entirely different from that on material goods:
1.“Those who lead must do so on the basis of their example, as has always been the case…. Authority comes from an austere style of life and from dedication to work. The people must know that those who lead receive no privileges except that of greater service and sacrifice, that their families live in a manner no different from the people, that their children receive the same education as the children of workers.”
2.“We must maintain the support of the immense majority of the people, as we do today, not on the basis of material consumption but on the basis of ideas and convictions. I told you how in the socialist countries the people were disarmed and did not go into the streets, did not struggle when their future was torn apart. But we saw how the poor people of Venezuela went into the streets to demand the return of Chavez in face of the oligarchical and military coup mounted by the Yankees. The [Cuban] Rebel Army possessed nothing. Its recruits were farmers and poor workers. Ideas and convictions are decisive, not the notion that people will support us more because they possess more.”
3.“Ultimately the decisive question is who receives the income. The majority, the people? Or the oligarchical minority, the transnationals, the pro-Yankees? Who owns the property: the people, the majority? Or the corrupt minority that serves the interests of the only policeman in the world who can guarantee these privileges in Cuba — Yankee imperialism?”
Part Two of this article will take up further aspects of Castro’s November 17 speech and discuss the economic measures now in preparation to strengthen the revolution.