Cuba: ‘our goal was to maintain socialism’

[Speech delivered at a Cuba Vive! brigade report-back meeting in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne on 20/05/15. The accompanying Prezi to this speech is available here. Slide numbers refer to Prezi. Certain sections of the speech have been elaborated upon here.]

[Slide 1] The offices of Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper of Cuban youth, are small & hot. Departments are divided by thin inside walls, with windows that rattle if a door is closed too quickly. The workers sit & type on old, clunky computers. Every1 sweats.

[Slide 2] I tell you this, because this is where I met a man named Yuri. He gave us a tour around the office. After he had taken us through a smokey break room & talked to us about the development of the internet in Cuba, we arrived at his office. We stood around his desk.

Some facts about Yuri:

  • By his own estimate, Yuri works upto 18 hours a day.
  • In 2 years of work, he has taken 1 holiday. It lasted a week.
  • Yuri is paid 22 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) a month.

‘This is not normal in Cuba,’ he told us. ‘Not many people work this much; my job is very demanding.’

I need to be very clear on this: no1 is forcing Yuri to work this much. What he said is statistically true – most Cubans work 8 hour shifts. The degree to which Yuri exerts himself is voluntary. We asked him why he does this:

‘We are the visible face of Cuba […] You do feel part of a revolutionary movement.’

[Slide 3] Socialism requires an inordinate, gargantuan effort on the part of the human being. It is not automatic & it must be fought for. Human beings like Yuri are heroes of the Cuban Revolution. They are, perhaps, the 1st glimpse of what Che Guevara called the ‘new man and woman’. This is integral to Socialist development, as Guevara reminds us: ‘To build communism it is necessary, simultanaeous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman.’ (Che Guevara, Socialism and man in Cuba (1965).)

I highlight this because 1 cannot speak of economics without discussing the concrete. Statistics are meaningless without their equivalent in the real & actual world. This is part of what Jesus Garcia means when he discusses GDP in this way. (See Prezi: ‘Socialism is not only GDP, it is a sense of human life. It is not change for change’s sake.’)

[Slide 4] The Cuba Vive! brigade was in Havana at an important period of Cuban Socialism’s development, both ideologically & economically. My comrade Nica has covered the conjecture that Cuba finds itself at in relation to its democratic system & participative organs. There is another aspect: Cuba is updating its Socialist economic system.

[Slides 5-10] On 26 April, we met with Noel Carillo, a officer for the international relations department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC). Carillo is a very direct man. He outlines things very concisely. In his words, ‘We are at a very complex moment of our history […] The conditions today will not allow us to continue in the way that we have been.’ In order to develop to a sufficient degree by 2020, Cuba needs to grow 7% of GDP per annum. Carillo, leaning across the meeting room table, outlined how difficult this is. ‘We have to build without exploiting any third world country. Or ourselves. It takes time,’ he told us.

It is very important to view this in context. Characteristically, Carillo was very direct about this. He was entirely correct when he told us that ‘Cuba is a very specific country, with concrete conditions.’ Historically speaking, this means that we must take account of the Special Period. This refers to the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. I don’t have much time to explain this, but consider it this way. Before the USSR collapsed, it was Cuba’s principle economic partner. Imports from the then Soviet states amounted to 40% of Cuba’s GDP. They accounted for 90% of oil, 50% of the island’s food supply & essential inputs for agriculture & manufacturing (Figures from Emily Morris, ‘Unexpected Cuba‘, New Left Review (88, July-August 2014), para. 12.). Over 3 years, Cuba lost 34.7% of its GDP (Figure from a meeting with Hugo Ponce, a professor of economics at the University of Havana.). Due to the US blockade, its potential trading partners were now extremely limited. To put this in context, Britain lost 5% of GDP to the 2008 crash, signalling an era of austerity, cuts to public services & so on. Despite this, Cuba survived the Special Period without closing a single hospital or school.

The Special Period in Cuba.
The Special Period in Cuba. Photograph by Ernesto Bazan.

More recently, Cuba has been growing, even despite the world economic crisis. However, Cuba is not immune to shocks in the world economy. As you can see, the crash of 2008 & subsequent crisis has slowed Cuba’s economic growth. Between 2008 & 2014, Cuba has achieved a total growth of 10.8%, with an average yearly growth of around 1.8%. To grow 7% per annum is, therefore, an enormous task.

[Slide 11] Before I go any further, I want to spend a minute or 2 on the makeup – the constituion – of the Cuban economy. 1stly, it is impossible to talk about Cuba without acknowledging its colonial past. Cuba was a colony of Spain. Following the War of Independence, it became a neo-colony of the United States. Both periods led Cuba through a process of systematic underdevelopment. For example, the US geared Cuba’s economy toward sugar production, the produce of which it ruthlessly expropriated (See Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, (Palgrave Scholar, 2009).). The Cuban Revolution came to power in 1959 in an underdeveloped country. Comparisons between Cuba & Britain, in an economic sense, are meaningless. If 1 were to compare Cuba to anywhere, it would be to a country with a similar economic history – Haiti, for example.

Then, there is the US blockade. Implemented in 1960, the blocakde has cost Cuba $1.1tr (‘Cuba calculates cost of 54yr US embargo at $1.1tn‘, Russia Today (10 September, 2014).).

This sytematic underdevelopment, alongside the blockade, has shaped Cuba’s economy. When we met with Hugo Pons – a professor of economics at the University of Havana – he affirmed this. The basis of Cuba’s economy is found in the export of goods – tobacco, sugar, nickel, coffee – & in tourism. This gives rise to a considerable amount of problems. Some examples:

  • Cuba’s agricultural production is fundamentally unbalanced, a result of its need to meet export demands. Carillo told us that Cuba is still spending around $259m per annum on food imports. I would go so far to say that this is immediately visible in Havana. Every single shop I went to stocked Nestle ice-cream or Fanta from Mexico.
  • As an economy reliant upon exports, Cuba is vulnerable to price fluctuations in the global market. For example, Cuba must sell its nickel at market rate. This means that when nickel prices dropped in April this year, the amount of USD received by Cuba also dropped (‘LME OFFICIALS: Nickel prices drop on renewed selling pressure‘, Megabulletin (7 April, 2015).). 14.3% of Cuba’s exports are made up by nickel (Observatory of Economic Complexity, Cuba.).
  • Following the PCC pledge to develop tourism in 1991, the influx of USD from tourism, alongside remittances led to an increasing trade of USD on the black market. Eventually, this led to the introduction of the CUC, valued at the same level as the USD, in 1993. This currency is intendeed for tourists & cannot be sold in exchange for any other currency once it has been purchased. This is quite an effective & innovative way to stop Capital flight. (See my previous post, on US-Cuban Relations: Bell, ‘Cuba: A New Stage in the Struggle‘, Notebook (25 March, 2015).) However, 1 CUC is worth 24 Cuban National Pesos (CUP) – the currency which most Cubans are paid in. This is an obvious contradiction. A Cuban could easily gather enough CUC from begging at unwitting tourists to ensure that they need never work again. Even at a conservative guess, say a beggar makes 4 CUC in a day. 4 x 24 = 96. 96 CUP is more than 1/4 of Carrillo’s monthly wage. I can assure you that this isn’t a fantasy either. In the 2 weeks I was in Cuba, I was approached by beggars at least once every time I went to a tourist area. 1 sticks out in my memory, in Old Havana. The afternoon sun sloped down over the back of colonial architecture, jumped over an old cathedral. A man with fingernails a large as the Cuban cockroach approached me, rubbed his fingers together & asked ‘Una peso?‘ I said no, I’m a Communist. He walked away without a further complaint. A Cuban worker laughed at him & pretended to kick him in the arse.

Hopefully, this gives a picture of Cuba’s economy in general & in abstract.

[Slide 12] To return to the challenge that Cuba faces, the challenge of growing 7% every year. Cuba, as an economy reliant upon exports & tourism, needs to develop its productivity. I think Garcia highlighted this exceptionally well when we asked him what would happen if the US blockade was lifted tomorrow. 1st, he smirked. Then, he said that if ‘we don’t have goods to export, we can’t do anything with the lifting of the blockade. If we don’t have money to buy, we can’t do anything if the blockade is lifted.’ Cuba needs to increase its productivity; it needs to sell more, it needs to reduce its imports & it needs to develop the infrastructure to do this.

The question, now, becomes how? The Cuban state is not a rich state. Furthermore, it has fundamental priorities. Carillo told us that 62% of the state budget is spent on social investment – healthcare, education etc. This is not going to change. This leaves a gap in the economy, something Pons referred to as ‘a contradiction between social policy and the economic structures underpinning these policies.’

I’m going to cover 3 ways in which Cuba is attempting to bridge this gap.

Lenin Monument. Havana, Cuba.

[Slide 13] The 1st is using Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). This was something that was reiterated to us numerous times:

  • Pons told us that ‘the country needs investment.’
  • Carillo told us that ‘we need foreign investors’ & that Cuba needs $8bn in FDI per year to acheive the necessary growth.

[Slide 14] This wonderful mural from Havana illustrates something important: the Cubans are completely aware of the dangers involved in FDI. There is the obvious risk of reintroducing Capitalist relations to Cuba or allowing beast-like Imperialist creatures, like that depicted, to gain a foothold on Cuban ground. As Pons told us, ‘We cannot open the country to Imperialism.’

However, the Cubans are also aware of specific dangers. For example, in relation to the development of the internet & communication infrastructure in Cuba, Carillo highlighted the potential ideological dangers: ‘Companies are taking an interest in investing in Cuba for communication because they think this is a way to inject counter-revolutionary ideas to the people.’ This ideological battle is difficult because it cannot be mediated by a mere understanding of statistics. Again, Carillo was blunt & direct: ‘We are not working with material tools, we are working with ideology.’ This understanding conforms to the understanding put forward by Garcia when he said that ‘to changes socio-economic relations, this has an ideological output.’

Another factor in this equation ties in to the drive to raise wages. The Cuban government has been raising wags in key areas of production, as a material incentive, with an intent to increase wages across all professions. As FDI is targetted to develop key areas of the economy, the 2 often go hand in hand. So far, the starategy has been effective: the mean salary of Cubans was 471 CUP in 2013; in 2014, it had risen to 584. However, this carries risks. Garcia told us that,

‘[emulation] is important. Socialist emulation is a central concept in the role of trade unions in the development of a new kind of worker. The role of trade unions is not just to work to increase production, to produce more – their role is to produce a new worker and produce more, for society-, if we produce more at any social cost, then we could lose socialism […] Socialism is not about reproducing people simply to produce higher salaries and more things.’

[Slide 15] Whilst these risks certainly exist, Cuba has been open to FDI since 1995. The new FDI law, implemented in 2014, is merely an attempt to make investment in Cuba more attractive. It stipulates:

  • Tax of investors profits have been lowered, from 30% to 15%.
  • Investors are exempt from paying these taxes for 8 years.
  • 100% foreign owned companies can operate in certain areas of Cuba. (Daniel Trotta, ‘Cuba approves law aimed at attracting foreign investment‘, Reuters (29 March, 2014).)

Cuba still retains the majority of its rights. Carillo told us that there is a process by which the Cuban state assesses proposed investments, commenting that ‘sometimes, you have to consider investment.’ The Cuban state can cancel a contract. Generally, Cuba retains 51% ownerships of any joint venture.

[Slide 16] The musty smell of sweet tobacco stung at my nostrils. Machinery, operating at full capacity, sent shockwaves of sound throughout the warehouse. We were in a tobacco factory, in what the Cubans called a ‘mechanised twisting shop’. Machines from the Phillipines, glass cubes with wires & coveyor belts on display, constructed cigars automatically – 100% Cuban tobacco, 100m units per year. Outside, thunder-clouds gathered in the midday heat.

The factory is 50% owned by a foreign company, an ironically named British company: Imperial Tobacco. This was a stipulation of the initial contract. We asked the workers if this influenced how they work, or how they make decisions. The response was a resounding no:

‘This is an enterprise in Cuba, run by Cubans. We are the one’s who have to decide what to do.’

The consciousness of the workers was startling, not only in this respect. 75% of the workers are women & 80% are Cuban youth, younger than 35. They give voluntary labour, once every 2 weeks. They work for 10-12 hours a day, with a 15 minute lunch break. When we asked them why they do this, 1 woman answered that ‘today, the youth has a very important responsibility because we are the future. The young people defend the Revolution and are very involved in this process.’

The workers organise voluntary blood donations, collect toy donations for disabled children & children in hospital. This is Socialist emulation.

[Slide 17] I’ve been talking for quite a long time now, so I’m only going to talk about the remaining changes in brief. The 2nd method by which the Cuban state is attempting to increase productivity, is by introducing non-agricultural cooperatives. Cooperatives have existed for a long time in Cuba in agricultural pursuits; it is now possible to organise them in non-agricultural areas. When we met with Pons, he told us that there were around 1,000 proposals to create non-agricultural cooperatives, following their introduction. Most of these were in the tourist sector.

It is very important to note that cooperatives are not a model of economic organisation inherently closer to Socialist development. Cooperatives exist under Capitalism. Garcia explained this to us:

‘Cooperatives are not more socialist than state property. If we do not have a real socialist state we will not reproduce socialism. We must consider the role of the state as an institution and the role of the state as popular power.’

As cooperatives are organised outside of state control, this has introduced some contradictions. For example, in regard to wages. Carillo told us that it is possible for a worker in a cooperative to earn 7000 CUP per month – 10x the wage of a worker in the state sector. It’s important to point out here that the Cuban state does tax these workers, at high rate. This money is taken from these workers with higher wages & used to increase the wages of state employed nurses, doctors & so on. Even so, the contradiction remains.

[Slide 18] Finally, Cuba has introduced ‘self-employment’. Bear in mind that it was necessary for the Cuban state to introduce ‘self-employment’. The activities it now contains already existed in Cuba. Legalising them allows the Cuban state to tax these activities, to redirect profits to the state sector & to legislate about how these activities are carried out. However, both Garcia & Pons gave us their positions on it:

Garcia said: ‘In Cuba we have introduced cooperatives and private enterprise – but we don’t even call it what it is: private enterprise. Instead we call it ‘self-employment’! What kind of ‘self-employment’ is it when you may be hiring 40 other people? Those individuals are ruling 40 people.’

Pons said: ‘Self-employment is private enterprise.’

Although this, certainly, present a potential for those organised in ‘self-employment’ to develop interests against the majority of Cuban Socialist society, it is important to understand this in context. ‘Self-employment’ describes a small percentage of the population at present. Equally, it has existed in Cuba in the past; when it became a problem it was rolled back. Cuban Socialism is a dynamic process, not a static 1. Already, there is a new entreprenuerial law in discussion – the content of which has not been annouced.

I think it is also important to make a distinction between “private” in the sense meant by Garcia & Pons in relation to Cuba & “private” in a Capitalist sense. Although the dangers are clear, there is a difference. Neither of the men we met stated this explicitly: it should be obvious. They are Marxists.

In the 1st volume of Capital, Marx writes about primary accumulation. Cuba is not a Capitalist country, so any private accumulation can be considered in the same way. Marx writes:

‘In themselves, money and commodities are no more capital than the means of production and subsitence are. They need to be transformed into capital. But this transformation can itself only take place under certain circumstances, which meet together at this point: the confrontation of, and the contact between, two very different kinds of commodity owners; on the one hand, the owners of money, means of production, means of subsistence, who are eager to valorise the sum of values they have appropriated by buying the labour-power of others; on the other hand, free workers, the sellers of their own labour-power, and therefore the sellers of labour […] With the polarisatrion of the commodity-market into these two classes, the fundamental conditions of capitalist production are present.’ (Karl Marx, ‘So-Called Primitive Accumulation’, Captial, Vol. I, tr. by Ben Fowkes (Penguin Classics, 1990), p.874.)

These conditions do not exist today in Cuba. No examination of Cuban society – no matter how badly written, no matter how divorced from reality, no matter how distorted – could come to the conclusion that they do. The danger presented by these forms of economic organisation does exist, that is true. It does not, however, represent a “return to Capitalism”.

Me, at the 2015 May Day celebrations in Havana.
Me, at the 2015 May Day celebrations in Havana.

[Slide 19] Tonight’s meeting has been explicitly framed around the concept of democracy. 1 comparison I will draw between Cuba & Britain is the fundamentally democratic content of Cuban Socialism. In Britain, economic decisions are made out of our hands. They are made by individual Capitalists or bureaucrats with interests opposed to ours. In Cuba, this is very different. All of the measures I have discussed were part of the PCC’s economic guidelines, formed at the Party’s 6th Congress. Some statistics can say a lot here:

  • Almost 9m people (out of a population of just over 11m) participated in discussions on the draft guidelines.
  • 68% of the guidelines were modified according to their comments. (Yaffe, ‘Responding to Owen Jones on Cuba‘ (19 December, 2014).).

[Slide 20] Some concluding points.

You may or may not have noticed the title that I have given this presentation. The portion in speech marks is a quotation from Jesus Garcia. It is taken from a meeting that he had with some Polish counter-revolutionaries 2 years ago. Referencing the end of Socialism in Poland, 1 of these men said, ‘My advice is that you need to know where it is you want to go. We knew this – we wanted to go to capitalism.’ Garcia responded with what is now my title: ‘our goal was to maintain socialism.’ This is an important point: the direction of Cuba society is toward Socialism.

I said at the beginning of my speech that Socialism requires an inordinate effort on the part of the human being. This is most certainly true: the problems that Cuba faces are not small. They cannot be solved easily. Problems can spring from the most unexpected of places. For example, Pons described to us 1 of the problems in working toward monetary unification. Cubans who have left the island for the allure of Miami’s streets have often taken large amounts of CUC with them. At present, this is not a problem: the currency is worhtless outside of Cuba. However, if the currency was unified, this currency would necessarily undergo a period of exchange. The CUC held by Cuban reactionaries living in Miami would be exchanged for dollars, placing a massive dent in Cuba’s USD funds. Who could have seen this when the solution to Capital flight was thought of? No1.

However, Cuba & the Cubans that live within it are facing these problems head on, pragmatically & with the spirit of the Revolution. I think that it is a testament to the level of political development in Cuba that Pons, Carillo & Garcia all argued that the deeply participative, protagonistic democracy in Cuba is today not participative enough. Carillo argued that Cuban consciousness has developed to a point where it requires a more participative framework. Cuba is ready.

From the factories to the communities, the efforts of Cubans to build Socialism is nothing short of heroic. Humanity is becoming heroic in Cuba.

The question is why? The struggle for Cuban Socialism means more than statistics. In Havana, I saw doctors living & working in their local communities. At any time in the night, they can be called. They will run through through the smoggish heat of a Cuban night if they need to. I met old women, doing yoga in the park, who sang about the beauty of their country spontanaeously. I met children that could not understand what the concept of bullying meant. There’s a video of it. Cuban Socialism is not just about GDP. The sense that I got of Cuban life meant far more than that. In Cuba, human beings live in a new way. They are heroic because they struggle; they struggle because they live in a dignified way.

If you will permit me 1 final anecdote.

The midday sun beat down on La Rosita farm. It was hot & my legs felt like jelly. The workers keep turning the soil, raising animals, scraping chicken shit from steel cages. This was our last day in Cuba.

The workers know that they could get a higher wage at a cooperative. The farm is owned by the Union of Young Communists (UJC). It is integral to their working involving Cuban youth in agriculture. The workers choose to stay.

The comrade that I had been working with, feeding rabbits & checking their hutches for dead newborns, let us finish before the rest of the brigade. I lit a cigarette & walked around the farm. After passing 2 bulls tied together for pulling carts & looking at some enormous pigs, I walked to the edge of the farm. I looked out over a field.

Small bulbs hung from short green stalks: tomatoes in the birth-pangs of their growth. Most will go to the UJC, for them to distribute as they see fit. If there is a surplus after the harvest, some of the fruits will find their way to nearby schools or hospitals. The soil was once hard. In a not so distant past, it could only grow sugar.

Cuba’s resistance threatens the very existence of Imperialism. It is not the threat of arms, but that a real alternative to misery, deprivation, mental & physical agony exists. There is a world worth fighting for. I have seen it.

The palm trees swayed in a light breeze.

'Eternal glory to the heroes of the new homeland.'
‘Eternal glory to the heroes of the new homeland.’

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