The Activist — Volume 11, Number 3, February 2001
By Dick Nichols
[The general line of this report was adopted by the 19th DSP Congress held in Sydney, January 3-7, 2001.]
Comrades, on October 10 1868 the Cuban landowner Manuel de Cespedes released his slaves from bondage and enrolled them as the initial recruits in the army that fought Cuba's First Liberation War against the Spanish colonial power. Custom dates Cuba's revolutionary tradition, a tradition that is still alive and well today, from that moment.
However, as Comrade Cueto noted in his greetings to our Congress, Cespedes's attempt to achieve Cuba's national independence failed after 10 years of fighting, due to divisions within the patriotic forces
When we look at the root cause of these divisions we can see what is specific about Cuba's revolutionary tradition. We can also grasp why today, 143 years later, Cuba still plays such a disproportionately important role in world politics and why understanding and defending the Cuban revolution is so important
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Latin America's libertadores, Bolivar, Sucre, Artigas, O'Higgins and others, had been able to win the struggle against Spain without their national liberation struggle overturning the class structure of Spain's Latin American colonies, which were dominated by large landowners and colonial administrative elites. While inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, while the poor farmers and slaves rallied to the side of the patriots, and while the vision of a Bolivar embraced social justice, the end of slavery and the unity of all the peoples of the continent — in short, while the wars had a class content — Latin America's patriots could take advantage of the fact that Spain, pinned down in fighting the Peninsula War against Napoleon, simply could not send major or reinforcements to defend its Latin American possessions. Had this been the case then the libertadores would have been faced with having to at least promise more radical social transformation — even the end of slavery — to mobilise the support base and military forces needed to defeat the Spanish crown
By the time of Cespedes matters were different. Not only was Spain determined to hang onto "the most faithful island" — as Cuba was called — but not all of the indigenous landowning class were inclined to follow Cespedes' example and liberate the chief source of their wealth — the country's hundreds of thousands of slaves upon whose super-exploitation and unspeakable misery their ease and elegant Havana houses depended. This made many half — hearted opponents of Spain and inclined to compromise when the going got tough
Thus, even as early as 1878, when the shameful Pact of Zanjon was signed and the mulatto general Antoneo Maceo issued his rejectionist Protest of Baraguá it had become clear that Cuba's struggle for national liberation stood no chance unless two preconditions were fulfilled — the organised mobilisation of all patriotic forces, especially the most oppressed and humble, and the unity of these forces in one organisation. It was to be the imperishable achievement of Jose Martí that he was able, through the construction of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, and in alliance with the Liberation Army of Maximo Gomez and Maceo, to create the weapons for the national liberation struggle that had victory stolen from it at the last moment by the Washington imperialists. The strength of that party and army lay in the support it received from the most oppressed sectors of Cuban society within and without the island — like the sugar cane workers and the emigrant tobacco workers of Tampa. Even though the Spanish military governor Valeriano Weyler corralled the population into concentration camps and 22 per cent of Cubans died in the Second Liberation War the drive to national sovereignty could only be stopped by US intervention
Why could Washington intervene so easily to practice its "ripe fruit" policy? Because neither the politics of the isolationist Congress minority nor principled support for the national rights of Spain's last colonies — practised by people like William James — corresponded to the political needs of rising US capitalism. Like its European and Japanese rivals, it had no choice but to play the imperialist game. Nor could the underdeveloped and ideologically backward US workers movement, already divided between a conservative and racist craft wing and a smaller socialist wing, worry the US rulers, despite the principled stance of a Eugene V. Debs.
It was also due to the underdeveloped state of the Cuban workers movement itself. Washington could install its puppets and manipulate Cuban politics because a movement did not yet exist that could draw the organised working class, the rural proletariat, the poor and landless peasantry and all oppressed and progressive elements of the population behind a programme that expressed their aspirations for true national sovereignty and social justice
This program was to emerge through the struggle against the dictator Gerardo Machado, overthrown by the Revolution of 1933 and was partially enshrined in the Constitution of 1940, only to be violated in practice by various pseudo-democratic governments and then buried once and for all by 1952 coup of the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Those aspirations were next to find their classic expression in Fidel Castro's trial speech after the July 26 attack on the Moncada Barracks — History Will Absolve Me.
Finally came the triumph of 1959. The Revolution moved to implement its programme of democratic measures, beginning with a rather moderate land reform. But even this was too much for the Cuban elite and its Washington backers: every revolutionary measure provoked counter — revolutionary retaliation. The Revolution thus had no choice but to counterattack in turn by making increasingly "despotic inroads into the prerogatives of capital" as Marx and Engels once put it, typified by the nationalisation of the US-owned oil refineries. The struggle for national sovereignty and democratic rights and elementary measures of social justice could not be completed without the Revolution's passing over into a socialist phase, formalised by Fidel's famous declaration at the time of the victory at Playa Giron.
Moreover, once popular power was consolidated in Cuba it inevitably provoked a violent defensive reaction by imperialism on a hemispheric level. The Cuban infection was to be quarantined by the appropriate combination of measly carrot and vicious stick, beginning with the Alliance for Progress and involving the blockade, assassination attempts and the whole panoply of imperialist aggression and crime.
Thus the Cuban revolution exemplifies in a very vivid way two laws of history in the imperialist epoch: the struggle for democracy and national independence and sovereignty for countries oppressed by imperialism inevitably turns, sooner or later, into a struggle for socialism. And that struggle inevitably becomes a conflict with an international dimension.
It fell to little Cuba to exemplify this law because of the historical lateness of its national independence struggle, the ambitions of US imperialism in Cuba, and the closeness of what Martí called "the monster". This could only be answered by consistently mobilising the Cuban people in the most radical forms of struggle and calling as well on the solidarity of the Revolution's friends, whether these were other victims of imperialism), left and progressive parties, Cuban exiles, socialist states or just other peoples with a feeling for ordinary justice
That conflict between the Cuban revolution and imperialism has been going on for 42 years now, and it will continue because, irrespective of moments of temporary truce, the revolution embodies human values and forms of economic, social and political organisation that are antithetical and anathema to those of capitalism in general and US capitalism in particular
Today, ten years after the collapse of the Soviet camp, the survival and strengthening of the Cuban revolution is a question of transcendental importance for revolutionaries everywhere. The struggle to survive and grow requires the revolution to reach out for new allies and, in particular, to link up with all expressions of opposition to neoliberal globalisation. Everything that restrains the fist of an imperialism that is as intent as ever on destroying the Revolution is to be valued and strengthened. As Che Guevara said, internationalism is not just a duty, it's an endogenous necessity for socialism.
This brings the question of why we need to take a party position on Cuba and why we have articulated this in the Draft Theses that the National Committee is submitting to the vote of this Congress.
First of all because Cuba is under the most refined and multifaceted siege in its history — economic, political and ideological. Secondly, because Cuba is a vital detachment in the new movement against neoliberal globalisation, against which it has launched a range of anti — imperialist initiatives. Thirdly, because a people's state, a post — capitalist state, that has lasted for 42 years under conditions of siege and then double siege is full of lessons for revolutionaries about how workers and the popular masses in general can hold onto state power. And fourthly, because Cuba is being increasingly adopted by the sectarian left as the whipping boy of sectarians, and we have to know Cuba in order to defend her and reduce the influence of nonsense and distortion about Cuba to a minimum
-In all this the Cuban Revolution and its leadership have accumulated an unmatchable store of experiences, thinking and creativity, a store which it behoves all revolutionaries to study as they learn to think and act in their own national realities
The struggle for democracy and human rights
Studying Cuba means first of all understanding the objective constraints within which the Cuban Revolution has to work, to grasp the mountain of difficulties that beset Cuban revolutionaries as they seek to defend and strengthen the social base of the Revolution at home and build broader and stronger alliances abroad. These are the survival and development conditions of the Cuban revolution in today's world — marked by US imperialist domination and the universal recipes of neoliberalism.
Every policy needs a justification, and today Washington's policy for exterminating the Cuban Revolution cannot be expressed in the cheerily aggressive chauvinism of Teddy Roosevelt and "manifest destiny". Today, policy has to be justified in terms of the violation by the "Castro dictatorship" of fundamental human and democratic rights. The world must be made to believe that the Revolution is fundamentally illegitimate and that counterrevolution is the only way to restore government of the people, by the people and for the people on the island. This explains why the US and those doing its bidding, like the Czech Republic, put so much effort into winning votes against Cuba on U. N. committees, as happened in April last year in Geneva. The more that "world opinion" believes that Cuba is a violator of human and democratic rights, the more the ground is prepared for changing the imperialist policy mix to more overt forms of aggression, economic and even military.
Section 1 of the theses, especially paragraph 15 and 16, depicts the terms of this struggle over human rights. We can expect to hear much more aggressive noise about Cuba and human rights in coming years. This is not only because Bush is in the White House with a very reactionary team. It's also because Washington will call on its allies in the anti — Cuba crusade to turn up the heat. The resolution on terrorism presented without warning by Spain at the 10th Iberoamerican Summit, and the response of the Cuban delegation (which we published in The Activist No. 20) is a sign of things to come. Tarring Cuba with the ETA brush is a smart move for Spanish PM Jose María Aznar and he has been supported in this by Cuban right — wing expatriate participation in the vast protest rallies against ETA's criminal and counterproductive bombing campaign
We can also expect to see countries that might even have voted with Cuba on human rights in the past and continue to vote against the blockade each year in the General Assembly, swing behind the US in votes over the island's human right's record. Countries who are desperate for economic aid and debt forgiveness are natural candidates. This was certainly the case with El Salvador, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Argentina's sudden preoccupation with the Cuban human rights' situation is not entirely unconnected with a recent immense bailout package to help the country's staggering economy
As human rights in Cuba becomes an increasingly hot potato comrades in the unions and student politics will increasingly find themselves being told by Labor right-wingers that Amnesty International has adopted a number of Cuban prisoners of conscience and that Cuba is retentionist as regards the death penalty. As CISLAC's work expands we may even find that government matching funding is not available for Cuba because of Cuba's refusal to abide by "internationally recognised standards of human rights". This battle is presently being conducted in the European Union, where a right — wing commissioner in charge of NGO funding is vigorously pushing the barrow of human rights conditionality.
What are we then to say? While our defence of Cuba does not oblige us to stand by each and every decision of the Cuban courts nor each and every piece of Cuban legislation, it's important to stress that the cases usually cited typically involve people whose goal is not reform, amendment or improvement of the Cuban system through the channels available to all citizens, but its overthrow. We may or may not agree that imprisoning such people is the best way to handle them in the given instance, and in principle, of course, it would be preferable if repression was not necessary. However, we don't question the right, indeed we understand and support the need, for the Revolution to defend itself by whatever means are necessary. That is, we accept the fundamental legitimacy of the Revolution as an expression of the majority sentiment of the Cuban people and of the institutions that it has created.
The fundamental reason for this stance is there in Thesis 20. Cuba, like the early Soviet Union before the Stalinist degeneration, is basically a healthy revolutionary organism, and the revolution's institutions are not there to defend a bureaucratic elite that has usurped power from the mass of working people. That's absolutely basic. It's also why there's so little in the way of a "dissident movement" in the country. It's not, as the right wing opposition claims, because they've all been stuck in goal or sent into exile. It's because they don't strike a chord with the vast mass of the Cuban population.
It's interesting in this light to compare the 1994 events on the Malecón with the Tien An Minh revolt. The 1994 outburst was occasioned by the appalling difficulties of the Special Period at its worst moments, with people just wanting to get out. Tien An Mirth, as we know, was a movement for democratic change in which demands against bureaucratic privilege and arbitrariness featured prominently.
It's surely significant that when Cuba has done the "right thing" by Amnesty and other international human rights groups and released people adopted as prisoners of conscience, this has in no way caused any change in the fundamental hostility of imperialism. Indeed, a key policy goal behind the economic blockade is to force the Cuban government to maintain a more punitive regime than would be necessary if the struggle for existence were less difficult and temptations to, for example, thieve state property and flog it in the dollar economy were a lot less.
Compare US policy towards China. Despite a lot of tut-tutting and despite a chauvinist — reactionary campaign to have China excluded from the World Trade Organisation, Washington imposes no human rights conditionality whatsoever on Beijing. Indeed, China could blacken its human rights record tenfold without incurring anything more than words from the US
The same considerations hold as regards multiparty elections — the other eternal figleaf for Washington's policy. The argument runs: If Castro is so confident that he has majority support, why not prove it once and for all by allowing a multi — party contest? Why not allow an independent media? Surely, he's got nothing to lose from confirming the revolution has majority support?
Remember the 1986 Nicaraguan elections, which the Sandinistas won? Immediately upon their victory Washington (and some of its friends in Europe) discovered that the process had been flawed — despite all comments by international observers to the contrary — and set about intensifying its support to the contras. By the time the next elections came around an exhausted population had been made to understand by parties flush with dollars and U. S electoral experts, that a vote for Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega would mean even more war and suffering. A vote for Violeta Chamorro would, of course, mean peace and prosperity. A desperate people voted for what it hoped was a lesser evil. Moreover, if Ortega had still emerged victorious continuing war and suffering is what Nicaragua would have got
As the anti-Cuba campaign spreads even to these distant shores we will need to make use of the powerful arguments in support of the Cuban cause, explaining the simple truth that there's more human rights and democracy under Cuba's single party system than under the two-party farce of western money politics. Here it's always a case of plus ça change, plus la même chose (the more things change the more they stay the same), while a multi-party system of the type being pushed for Cuba by the USA would mean a catastrophic decline in human and democratic rights that capitalist restoration would bring
Even on the grounds on which Amnesty International and the US Human Rights Watch operate — that of "universally recognised human rights conventions" operating irrespective of the intensity of conflict conditions — Cuba's alleged crimes are puny compared to those of its main accuser, the super-powerful, super-secure United States. To get an idea, compare the reports on the two countries in the latest 2001 Amnesty International annual report:
Political prisoners? Tell that to Leonard Peltier and the Puerto Rican patriots who have been in goal for decades.
Death sentences? A few in Cuba last year, but take a look at the new president's record as the governing ghoul of the Lone Star state.
Prison population as a percentage of total population? No contest, with three million in US goals operating as slave labour.
Catch-all charges that can be used in a wide variety of situations (like the Cuban charge of "dangerousness" — peligrosidad?) Check the range of powers available to police in even the most civilised bourgeois nation.
Conditions in many Cuban gaols? Not the most pleasant in some cases, but take a look at what the law- abiding mass of Cuban citizens has put up with heroically during the Special Period and ask yourself where the country's super-scarce resources are most needed.
As Cuba becomes more of an issue here it may very well be that we will have to gear up on the detail of specific cases. We may find ourselves assaulted with causes celebres like the famous case of the "poet in a wheelchair" Armando Valladares, who, on being released from Cuban gaols and landing on foreign soil miraculously arose and walked. Or of those artists and intellectuals who complained that their "artistic freedom" was under assault in Cuba, when this turned out to be due to their obligation to earn their keep by playing at social and community events, while the alternative of "freedom" was actually a fat cheque being waved by some US promoter
If we do find ourselves wondering if in some particular case that the Cuban justice system might have made an error, the last thing on our minds will be to join any generalised clamour about human rights violations in the country. Our approach will be, first, to ascertain the facts and then, if we still think the issue serious enough, to take it up privately with the Cuban comrades. We are not, from our big safe island in the South Seas, going to jump into public lecturing of Cuba about human and democratic rights, although we will, of course, keep abreast of the very lively Cuban debate on this issue.
Thesis 16 treats Cuba's refusal to countenance competitive elections between parties. The essential issue here is what it was for the Bolsheviks and what it would be for any revolutionary government. If parties were to show by their actions that they do not represent counterrevolution, openly or surreptitiously, then there's no substantive reason why they shouldn't be allowed and good reasons why they should — in terms of developing a culture of debate and discussion about the options for advancing socialist construction and the self — government of the people.
But this state of affairs is light years away from Cuba's condition as a blockaded island which has only been able to achieve what it has by preserving unity within a single party, whether it was Martí's PRC or today's PCC. The words of Carlos Aldana quoted in Thesis 16 put the issue in a nutshell: "A party represents an option for power. In our country, there is only one option bidding for power against the revolution, and that's the counter — revolution. A multi-party system means legalising what the US hasn't been able to achieve with blood and fire; it means creating a party of capitalism, representing US interests in Cuba ... If, one day, the objective circumstances change, and a multi — party system no longer necessarily means the appearance of a counter — revolutionary party, then we could take up the conversation again."
We need to make much more widely known, within the party and the left as a whole, the Cuban comrades own position on these issues, as expressed in the central document of the Fifth PCC Congress, "The Party of Unity, Democracy and Human Rights that We Defend". Unfortunately it was impossible to uncover, neither here nor in Havana, any English translation of this useful document (nor of the Economic Resolution of the Fifth Congress), which the National Committee report had promised to include in The Activist. I would strongly suggest that if we cannot uncover an English translation somewhere, that we add it to ours, or CISLAC's, to do list. It is another valuable weapon, along with our book Cuba as Alternative in the fight against ignorance, prejudice and malevolent distortion of the Cuban reality.
A key aspect of our solidarity task is to patiently explain and inform people as to what Cuba has been able to achieve in the area of popular, participatory democracy. Theses 43 to 53 summarise the essence of the development of this situation, but they are only — like the Theses as a whole — an abbreviated expression of issues. To be able to grasp how matters work, and what the debates are in Cuba on this issue, it's important for comrades to read at least three books in English (besides Cuba as Alternative, of course). These are Peter Roman's People's Power: Cuba's Experience with Representative Government, which comrades Karl and Rachel have reviewed for a forthcoming Green Left Weekly, Arnold August's Democracy in Cuba and the 1997 — 98 Elections as well as Marta Harnecker's classic Cuba: Dictatorship or Democracy.
In addition our future dossier on Cuba will contain a range of material translated from Cuban sociologists and political scientists covering the debate on how the Cuban institutional system can be further improved.
In the light of all these considerations, we should boldly take up the defence of Cuba on the very grounds on which imperialism has chosen to attack the country, not the least of all because there are clear signs that Washington's forward positions are increasingly exposed. The Elian González case was a clear turning point: there the combination of mobilised national willpower, international solidarity and appeal to the decent instincts of the mass of people pulled off a major win which revealed the Miami mafia for the maniac thugs they are. Since then we have seen Cuba's offer to send Pioneers to oversee the recount in that banana republic election vote in Florida as well as the offer to send doctors to the poorest, blackest, counties of the Deep South and to train poor US medical students at the Latin American Medical School
Most revealing of all, however, has been the tightening of travel restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba, smuggled in as part of the recent legislation that pretended to exempt food and medicines from Washington's blockade. The fact that the Yankee politicians have had to promote this tightening as an easing, and that they are beginning to worry about their subjects getting exposed to the Cuban reality — that they are uneasy, for example about such dialogues as Fidel's recent discussion with 700 students from the University of Pittsburgh — carries a loud and clear message. The Berlin Wall has gone but Washington feels it has to heighten its own wall to keep the its subjects from experiencing something of the truth about a poor, struggling Caribbean island to which an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Americans travelled in 1999, up from only 40,000 the year before. What's there to be afraid of?
What's more, they know they have to try and fool public sentiment, which can't see why if the US trades with "communist" North Korea and supports "communist" China's entry into the World Trade Organisation, it shouldn't do the same with Cuba. All this should give us heart in our continuing solidarity work. In particular, it should embolden us to think of a more aggressive campaign against the blockade and of finding the ways to put pressure on Labor, Green and Democrat politicians on the issue
The struggle for economic recovery
However, the fundamental, underlying, battleground between Cuba and Washington is not about human rights and democracy: it's about how Washington can strangle Cuba's economic recovery, and this for the very simple reason that the more difficult the economic situation of Cubans, the more receptive people will be to the enemy propaganda and promises — if only in desperation. The greater will be the chance of creating movements of revolt, such as the 1994 incidents on the Malecon, and the greater the likelihood of success of the range of US tactics of subversion.
On the other hand, if the present phase of economic recovery can translate into sustained higher growth rates based increasingly on a modernised state sector, greater income and jobs, especially for young people, then the Revolution's "battle of ideas" — its ongoing war against the values and crimes of capitalism and for a socialist culture — will receive important material backing. The feeling of siege will lift more and a more pluralistic social and cultural atmosphere will become thinkable.
The latest Independent Task Force Report "US — Cuban Relations in the 21st Century", produced by the semi-official Council on Foreign Relations, which was recently the subject of a roundtable discussion on Cuban television, does not "join the protracted public debate" over the blockade, effectively supporting its maintenance. It also states that "no serious observer believes that the closed economic model represented by Cuba will survive."
In the span of US and Cuban — American strategic opinion about "what to do" about Castro, this report generally puts its money on carrot rather than stick. The shared assumption of the authors is that "the primary and overriding objective of the US — containing the spread of Cuban communism in this hemisphere — has been achieved. We believe that whatever shape it may take, Castro — style communism will not long survive the post — Castro era in Cuba. Indeed, we believe that many Cubans, including many who may old official positions, understand that a transition to a democratic and free — market Cuba is inevitable ... we therefore continue to believe the United States can discuss policy towards Cuba with confidence and from a position of strength."
Given this assumption the recommendations flow directly enough: proposals for making family reunion and migration easier; increasing the free flow of ideas through such measures as issuing a general license to all Americans wishing to travel to Cuba; encouraging the possibility that the Cuban armed forces will allow a democratic transition; getting around the Helms Burton Act by negotiating for former owners of Cuban property to have access to joint ventures (not necessarily in their old assets); promoting the creation of independent unions, especially in the dollarised, joint — venture dominated economy, and lots more.
But the blockade remains, even for these doves, confident exponents of the superiority and natural attractiveness of the American way of life to the island's people
But what if, just what if, this assumption is false? For example, what if those Costa Rican polls, which regularly show majority support for the Revolution, are true, despite the difficulties everyone faces? This worm of doubt lies behind the plethora of minority dissenting and additional views at the end of the Task Force Report.
Open license for US tourism? That would "overwhelmingly benefit the Cuban government at the expense of the Cuban people" because the government pockets 95 cents of every dollar spent in hotels, says Susan Kaufman Purcell
Increased military-to-military contacts? Not for Peter Rodman, former presidential adviser on international affairs: "This [military-to-military contacts] is based on a misreading of the experience in Central Europe, where the agents of change were not officials but opponents of the regime Protestant clergy in East Germany, Solidarity and the Church in Poland, and dissident intellectuals in Czechoslovakia. Purging the Party hacks from their institutions (academia, Judiciary, professions, the military) has been the key to their progress. Expanding exchange with the Cuban military is particularly inappropriate. It is impossible for US to be sending signals for change of the regime while consorting with the security organs that maintain it. Ostracism will have better pedagogical value than seminars at Harvard."
On attempts to resolve expropriated property claims via negotiating joint venture status? "I am concerned that the recommendation comes closer to legitimising extortion than ratifying the rights of property claimants", says former senate committee staffer Daniel Fisk.
Rodman summarises the doubts: "The Task Force's new report is more the product of impatience than of analysis. Two years ago, it produced a first report which went further than I thought made sense. Since then, nothing significant has happened except that the Elian Gonzalez case has led (perhaps misled) some to conclude that the domestic political clout of the anti — Castro Cuban Americans has been broken. Those who are eager to restore ties with Cuba undoubtedly sensed an opportunity."
But the Castro regime remains as it was two years ago — a petty fascist dictatorship. This is not a regime in its Gorbachev or Khatemi phase but in its Stalinist period. Any ideas that the measures in this report will foster political change are an illusion."
As for Marc A. Thiessen, press spokesperson for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "Sadly, the Task Force expanded too much effort on proposals aimed at convincing the Cuban establishment of the merits of Western democracy, capitalism and culture. Instead, we should be developing proposals for ways in which the US can do in Cuba what it did in Central Europe — support those who are working to promote democracy and create a free society within the decaying shell of Castro's totalitarian system." Translation: Don't have silly illusions: step up the subversion.
As for Jay Mazur, chair of the international relations committee of the AFL-CIO — he just worries that The Task Force might end up looking like a bunch of mugs: "In promoting conditions for a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba, we must also have realistic expectations and measurements for progress towards the legal recognition of independent labour unions, the release of political prisoners, the legalisation of opposition political parties and the holding of free and fair elections ... If these steps were not to materialise within a reasonable period of time, reasonable people might well conclude that the basic assumption of the Task Force's approach was wrong."
So what chance do the Task Force's policy recommendations have of success? How confident can we be of the Revolution's powers of economic resistance? Here I comment on theses 29 to 33, which cover the key economic constraints and challenges facing the Revolution in a very condensed way.
A good way to grasp the essential dynamic at work here is to start in the sphere of circulation — with money. The traveller arriving in Cuba has to orient herself or himself to operating in three different currencies, and the interrelationship between these currencies encapsulates the basic barriers, the fundamental challenges, that the economy has to overcome.
The first currency is US dollars. These circulate freely, and over 60 per cent of Cubans have access to them, through special pay arrangements (incentive pay is done in dollars, through remittances received from overseas or, if they are self — employed, through their participation in private or parallel dollar markets).
The second is the standard Cuban peso. This is the domestic currency and its exchange rate to the dollar, presently standing at around 20 — 21 to 1, is set in the informal foreign exchange market, where, for example, pesos have to be bought to purchase state — provided food supplies, electricity, transport, and pay taxes etc). At the same time people whose income is in pesos have to get hold of dollars in order to do their shopping in the foreign exchange (basically dollar) shops. There they can increase their consumption beyond the minimum covered by the ration book (libreta) and the shops operating in pesos.
The informal rate of exchange is nothing more or less than the equilibrium exchange rate set in this market, although it is, of course, influenced by the buying and selling operations of the Cuban central bank and the money supply. It is this rate that seems to establish that the average income of a Cuban worker is only around 220 pesos (= $11) a month. (I refer comrades to Activist No. 14, "Real Living Standards in Cuba", for a full treatment of this issue. We have included this demystifying piece in Cuba as Alternative.)
The third currency is the convertible peso, a hexagonal rather than round set of coins with a value equal to the U. S dollar. The convertible peso embodies the official exchange rate between the peso and the dollar, which the traveller won't experience in the course of buying and selling within Cuba. It does, however, have a decisive impact on the formation of domestic prices, incomes and finances.
This is because the official exchange rate, a historic rate going back to the days of Cuba as part of COMECON is used to convert costs and income in dollars for firms and state instrumentalities. For example, a Cuban enterprise operating in national currency which has to spend money on, say, imported petrol, counts the dollar expenditure on this input at the rate of one to one. Twenty thousand dollars spent on imported energy is included in the firm balance sheet as equal to 20,000 pesos, not 400,000 pesos (which would be the sum at the informal market rate). Clearly, with Cuba's enterprises now increasingly moving towards self — financing, such an arrangement stimulates the overuse of imported inputs, because these are undervalued in national terms.
Matters are symmetrically opposite with exports. The exporting firms get one peso for every dollar of export income, with the result that its income in national terms is undervalued. Firms in this condition often have to receive state subsidies to cover losses.
But why not just eliminate this official exchange rate and move to a single rate set in the free foreign exchange market? The answer is that such a change wouldn't just restructure prices across the board, it would also restructure, (i.e. reduce) real incomes. Cuban economists have calculated, for example, that if the official rate were changed to two pesos to one dollar, the price of imported energy would double, increasing the price of all products that make up the basic consumption bundle by about 40 per cent. Maintaining real living standards would require money wages to increase by the same amount, further impacting on the costs of firms who would already be paying twice as much for their imported inputs. Of course, under neoclassical economic theory and IMF — World Bank structural adjustment packages there would be none, or little, increase in wages in such a case — increased efficiency would get purchased at the cost of the living standards of the mass of working people.
Moreover, under the self — financing arrangements introduced with the 1994 Economic Reform, it rapidly became clear that up to 60 per cent of state enterprises were making a loss. Since most of these are dependent on energy imports and do not export their final product, any rapid shift to change the official exchange rate would increase the global volume of losses, putting even more pressure on the state budget for subsidies.
On the other hand, matters can't just be left as they are. The existence of two exchange rates means that there is no solid accounting baseline for the economy — — one that accurately compares the productivity of labour in the advanced capitalist world (enshrined in US dollars) against the productivity of Cuban labour. A Cuban firm that is paying for its energy at 30 pesos a barrel is accounting for energy at $1.50 a barrel in real terms. With such arrangement it's impossible to establish which factories and industries are viable and which not. Moreover, in such an environment planning via economic regulation is compromised by the need to make hundreds of ad hoc arrangements in order to bail out firms and enterprises that are loss — making under this system, but could well be viable under a single exchange rate regime.
The only practical approach is one of microdevaluations of the official exchange rate in step with the increase in the rate of productivity of Cuban labour. In this way a five per cent increase, say, in the in the cost of imported inputs resulting from a change in the official exchange rate would be compensated by a five per cent increase in the productivity of labour. As productivity increases, the official exchange rate can be brought closer to the real rate. Clearly, given the present gap between the two rates, this is a long — term prospect and Cubans will have to live with "money duality" and all the problems it generates for a long time to come
So the real question behind the monetary conundrums is: how to increase the productivity of Cuban labour?
We need to hold this question in mind as we look at the next issue — the effects of an unofficial/real exchange rate of 20 to 1. Here, contrary to what happens with the official exchange rate, the unofficial rate undervalues the purchasing power of the national currency. As matters stand the exchange rate is abnormally high, because an important amount of consumer goods are unavailable either through the rationing system or through the free markets operating in the national currency. This shortage of supply provokes a greater demand for dollars than would otherwise be the case, as the desired goods can only be got in the dollar shops. Clearly the only way to change this situation is for there to be an increase of supply of consumer goods into shops operating in pesos, reducing the demand for dollars and appreciating the exchange rate. However, the cost of such an operation would be borne by those firms who are presently supplying dollar shops, yielding them a lower income
Here we touch upon an issue that is being much debated among Cuban economists. Is it better to sacrifice some state income by increasing supply to the shops operating in pesos in order to lower the exchange rate against the dollar, or is it more important to restrain the state budget deficit, which has been brought under control by heroic efforts over the past seven years, by making the most of every opportunity to acquire income for state coffers?
This is not a debate about simple trade-offs in the present tense. For example, a key issue is the effect of an increase in real income on people's willingness to work harder, i.e. on labour productivity. The material incentive effect of a reduction in the market exchange rate could lead to greater production, and greater treasury income in the medium term, potentially compensating for shorter-term losses
Here we also meet the central question of the impact of economic reforms and measures on social consciousness. When the holding of dollars was legalised back in 1994 because this was unavoidable (an estimated half of all economic activity was taking place on a largely dollarised black market) and the value of the peso vis-à-vis the dollar was established on the free foreign exchange market, there was a an almost overnight change in the distribution of wealth and income in Cuban society. Highly skilled surgeons who might have been receiving 600 pesos a month suddenly became impoverished compared to small farmers supplying the parallel markets with, say, garlic, who would make that amount of money in half a day.
The Cubans have a phrase for this cataclysmic effect — the "inverted social pyramid", and it's had a profound impact on a society which used to have an income span of, at maximum 4.5 to 1 and within which the greatest span for 90 per cent of salaries was 2.5 to 1. Suddenly, the road to wealth was to get into self — employment or where the money is, particularly in the tourist industry around Havana.
In the mid 1990s this provoked huge internal migration from the eastern province of Oriente of people looking for a higher income in the major centres. Not infrequently the visitor who speaks a bit of Spanish is surprised to find him or herself alongside a taxi driver who wants to have a conversation about Lenin's Materialism and Empiriocriticism because his day job is lecturer in philosophy. It also meant that, according to the central bank, that in 1998, over 80 per cent of all savings were concentrated in 13 per cent of bank accounts — passive money but potentially convertible to capital if the rules of economic functioning were ever to change.
Clearly, the longer such a state of affairs exists the harder the battle to maintain socialist consciouness and commitment must be. That's why the struggle to eliminate the root causes of the twin exchange rate regime, the struggle for efficiency and labour productivity in a modernised state sector is critical to the long — run health of the Revolution. The more labour productivity and efficiency can be raised and the gains from the resulting growth distributed in the combination that squares the circle of increasing investment and income while restraining income inequality, the more solid the economic foundations of the values of the Revolution will be. The less glaring will be the contradiction between its values and aspirations and the reality of the daily struggle to make do.
The stress in the Theses comes down on the difficulty of this task, not because we're being pessimists, but because we have to have a realistic assessment of the abiding constraints to growth, and awareness, too, that socialist development can't just be any old growth. Growth principally powered by the private sector and tourism which leaves the state and cooperative sector lagging behind can only increase pressure for further concessions to the capitalist market, with all the nefarious effects that can bring.
This sober assessment coincides with the cautious optimism of recent statements and interviews with Cuba's two main economics ministers, Carlos Lage and Jose Luis Rodriguez, an extensive interview with whom I had hoped to translate in time for The Activist. According to Rodriguez the bulk of Cuba's gains from growth has had to be devoted to the investment fund, and it's easy to see why — the volume of new investment achieved in 1997 — the last year for which I have figures — was less than half that achieved in 1989.
This means that even the 7.5 per cent growth registered in the first half of 2000 and the 5.5 per cent rate achieved over 2000 cannot immediately translate into generalised increases in real income and consumption, even though there has been some increase in consumption and the availability of goods as well as wage increases for sectors in most need, like secondary school teachers.
In the interview Rodriguez outlines the gains of the past few years (like the end of blackouts), but dwells on the following constraints:
The ongoing vulnerability to energy prices, despite the new arrangement with Venezuela and the rapidly growing contribution from Cuba's own oilfields. The most recent decision, made at the time of Putin's visit, namely to abandon the nuclear power programme, can only add to this pressure.
The continuing battle for an accurate and reliable system of accounting and auditing, essential if the real position of enterprises and the real contribution of individual workers and teams is to be measured truthfully. According to Rodriguez: "Today about 20 — odd firms have been authorised to apply enterprise improvement, and this out of the 3000 that operate in the country, which indicates that the process has been very rigorous. That's because what we are about is a benchmarking process that establishes what we demand of an efficient socialist firm."
Then there is the ongoing pressure of failing terms of trade. Physical volumes of Cuban exports continue to expand but Cuba is just one more player in world markets many of which suffer from excess capacity, such that the terms of trade moved against the country by 16 per cent in 1999 alone, more than devouring the considerable efficiency gains being registered in some export sectors. This produces a chronic trade deficit, which has to be balanced by loans at commercial rates, the inflow of remittances and investments from capitalist joint venturers. This is a vulnerable pressure point for the whole Cuban economy which Washington is doing everything it can do squeeze via the Helms — Burton Act and other threats of commercial retaliation against countries and firms that "traffic" with Cuba. Despite some renegotiation of debt with Japan, this situation remains difficult. In the words of Rodriguez: "The external financial imbalance continues to be a fundamental obstacle to more rapid economic advance."
Rodriguez's summary judgement is that despite gains on many fronts it is still premature to say that Cuba has come to the end of the terrible tunnel of the Special Period. The differentiations and inequalities that the Special Period and the Economic Reform inevitably brought have meant that some people and industries are already doing much better than they were in 1989. For others, such as the sugar cane industry, there's still a very long way to go. "There's a series of things that are improving but his does not mean that we have reached the level of satisfaction of all the needs to which our society aspires. However, without doubt the country is moving forward and showing on that our optimism is justified, and that perspectives are splendid, thanks to the strength, unity and spirit of sacrifice of our people", the minister concludes.
Strengthening the Revolution socially and politically
So economic growth based on a shift to an intensive model of growth is an indispensable precondition for the survival and strengthening of the Cuban Revolution. But is it sufficient? Does it automatically guarantee an ongoing transition to socialism? Of course not. China's high growth rates based on exploding marketisation, privatisation, stock exchanges, Free Trade Zones offering Chinese labour for multinational exploitation at bargain basement rates and the multiplication of millionaires is leading headlong towards capitalism, no matter that you call the process "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics".
What, then, are the sufficient conditions for ensuring that generalised use of money and commodity relations in a planned economy, enforced "relinking with the capitalist world" won't just lead straight back to capitalist restoration? Are the Cuban comrades on the right track? This is the issue that underlies the entire Section III of the Draft Theses entitled "Revolutionary Politics in a Period of Siege" It begins in Theses 35 and 36 with a very condensed sketch of the social impact of the Special Period and the Economic Reform. Of course, a lot more could be said here about the erosion of gains long considered definitively won. The piece published in The Activist No. 20 entitled "Cuba Begins to Answer its Race Question" gives a glimpse of the impact of marketisation on black and mulatto Cubans, an impact that recent Cuban investigations have charted in detail. The news is not good, as the proportion of blacks and mulattoes employed in the tourist sector falls well below their weight in the population as a whole. Similar studies of the impact of the Special Period on women and young people have thrown up evidence of parallel negative trends.
However, the main point to register is that the Cuban comrades understand perfectly well and stress that "relinking" with capitalism demands of the Revolution a multiform counteroffensive. This necessarily includes purely economic measures, like a steeply graduated income tax, but more importantly an offensive around the values of the revolution and continuing effort to involve the people in the revolution's struggles of survival and reconstruction.
Yet that entity called "the people" is always evolving and methods and techniques of mobilisation and organisation which may have been appropriate with a less educated generation run the risk of not meeting the needs of the new generation. In this sense the battle for the revolution is always the battle for the hearts and minds of young people — a battle that was comprehensively lost in Eastern Europe, where consumerism seized the majority while the minority dreamed of impossible utopias that were "neither communist nor capitalist".
The same trends are to be found among the young people of Cuba today, especially in Havana. From the totally disaffected jinetero who believes everything he hears on Radio Martí and can't wait to get across to Florida and start buying Nike gear to the young intellectuals who believe that Cuba went astray when it tried to marry Martí's thought with that of the "foreigners" Marx, Engels and Lenin, the hearts and minds of Cuba's youth are a battleground on which the Revolution must prevail if it is to survive. Winning the great battle of ideas proposed by Fidel actually starts at home with the country's youth.
But how specifically can it prevail'? Cuba's young generation is the most educated and questioning in the history of the Revolution, the least inclined to be convinced by sloganeering and the most inclined to alienation when their needs are unsatisfied. Yet the Revolution has some enormous assets with which to confront that challenge.
The most important is the PCC and the UJC. The fact that these organisations are a selection of the most dedicated and self-sacrificing members of Cuban society, whose membership is controlled and vetted by workplaces and other constituencies and where the only privilege of membership is to work harder, be paid less, and always lead by example. This gives the UJC and the PCC enormous moral authority, even with sections of the population who don't like this or that aspect of government policy or "aren't political". This came out clearly in the role played by the UJC FEU and FEEM in mobilising young people for the return of' Elian Gonzalez.
The second condition is to counteract consumerism according to the principle of collective sharing — like the collective community centres of activity, enjoyment, education and culture. The Internet centres we saw in comrade Sarah and Marcel's slides at the beginning of the Congress are the latest good example of this.
Thirdly, as the Cubans stress, people can't be won or rewon to the values of socialism by being kept in a glass case: socialist conviction and consciousness can only come through exposure to capitalist germs and developing the necessary antibodies. As thesis 39 notes this means that the Revolution must always move between two imperatives — that of maintaining unity in action against the imperialist threat and with a wary eye on its increasing attempts at internal subversion, and that of allowing the flourishing of the debate and expression of differences through which alone the best decisions can be made at the lowest cost — the very modus vivendi of socialist democracy and people's self — government.
I could find no better overall expression of these imperatives than the following passage form the essay of Luis Suarez Salazar, "The 21st Century: Some Challenges for the Cuban Revolution", printed in The Activist No. 93. (If comrades have read none of the Cuba material 1 urge them to at least read this essay.) Suarez summarise the core challenge:
"To re — establish the foundations of a [native] and viable socialist plan ... continues to be a precondition for self — sustained, sustainable, and independent development of the country. It implies, among other things, the maintenance of unity (without sterile unanimity) of the Cuban popular masses and political vanguard; sustaining and deepening the popular character of the state; perfecting the norms of internal functioning and the work of the Cuban Communist Party and of the Union of Young Communists
"It also implies completing the construction and consolidation of the popular, democratic, representative and participatory institutions created by the revolution, broadening the political and legal consciousness of the citizenry, as well as improving the legal code, legislative system, electoral system, and administration of justice. All of this is linked directly or indirectly to the promotion and increasing satisfaction of all human rights.
"The aforesaid also involves maintaining and rethinking the social gains of the revolution, recognising the growing heterogeneity of the Cuban masses and creating new institutional and organisational forms to express this plurality and to realise the rights of citizens to organise autonomously towards diverse social ends without affecting indispensable national unity. It implies perfecting the efforts and representation of the social, mass, and professional organisations and making progress in the administrative decentralisation of the country and in the movement of authority and resources to the municipalities and regions. Finally it means increasing total quantity and quality of information flowing from the citizens to their representatives and vice versa.
"All of this will contribute to a constant broadening of participation by the citizenry in the identification, evaluation, decision — making, and solution of all the issues that concern and affect them, including the ever more complex processes of the economy and foreign policy. Under the difficult conditions that lie ahead, what Vladimir llich Lenin outlined is more and more true, in the sense that it is the masses that determine the authority of the state. That authority is stronger "when the masses know everything, can judge everything, and do everything consciously".
What we have here is a wide — ranging, vitally important debate and, indeed, struggle that will not go away. A fascinating debate and a fascinating field of social initiatives Cuba as "social laboratory". as someone has termed it. This is a debate from which we can and will learn, as it flows through the pages of Cuba's newly enriched Marxism in social science and politics, and a lot of it will be included in our next Cuba book.
Cuba and the DSP
Comrades, Australians and Cubans have one distinct national trait in common — the tendency when everything is dissolving in chaos to crack jokes in very bad taste. But the experience of reacquainting ourselves with Cuba's revolutionary practice and of meeting and discussing with comrades from the Cuban Communist Party convinces us that we have, despite our very different political, social and cultural backgrounds, a lot more in common:
We both oppose neoliberal globalisation, imperialism's latest form, with a vengeance. We both understand that, as Che said, internationalism is not just a duty. but an endogenous necessity for socialism;
We both know that without a fighting vanguard, steeled in struggle and implanted in the masses that victory in the anti — capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle is impossible. In a phrase, we are both Marxists and Leninists;
We both understand that the construction of socialism is the work of free men and women, and that without mass participation, involvement and direction of the process of socialist construction, advance is impossible;
We have both come to the realisation that, in the words Julio Garcia Luis former secretary of the Cuban Union of Journalists, that no force, not even Cuba "should seek to set itself up as a model or 'centre' of the world revolution", but that the revolutionary socialist movement will be reconstructed through international collaboration between parties implanted in and winning authority in, their national political reality. We look forward to deepening that collaboration and friendship.
We have our differences, but these are small compared to our agreement on fundamentals. What's more we don't know what many of these differences are really worth until we get down to ongoing discussions and collaboration.
In adopting the draft theses we will be saying as a party that we identify with Cuba and its vanguard, not, of course, as a model for Australia, but, in the words of Thesis 62, "a priceless example, of how a revolutionary people and its leadership have been able to confront life — and — death challenges when under siege from an aggressive imperialism intent on their destruction." We will be saying that we will do whatever we can to get Cuba's reality known and to build solidarity by whatever means necessary. We will continue to study Cuba, not in the spirit of becoming Cuba know-alls, but so as to learn from the immense store of the PCC's revolutionary creativity. In short, we will be making Cuba a priceless part of what inspires us in our struggle for a socialist Australia.