Cuba Dares

Any visitor initially experiencing Cuba might easily deduce that growing pressures make the continuation of the revolution and social progress untenable.

The contradictions scream out. After rounding a corner leading from one drab Old Havana street with its decayed concrete and flaked walls, suddenly a gentrified square emerges with restored architecture, fresh paint and a United Colors of Benetton shop. Dollars rule, and tourism is not cheap. But the next street is back to peso-denominated urban grit. Then, not far away, a tacky shopping mall sells sweatshop products from Indonesia for dollars.

Lessons that a self-proclaimed socialist society might provide the South African left were reason enough for Trevor Ngwane, David Masondo and me to trek from Johannesburg earlier this month. We were also intrigued by a four-day conference on ‘The Work of Karl Marx and the Challenges of the 21st Century’, sponsored by the government’s Institute of Philosophy, an economists’ association and the trade union federation.

The most poignant moment may have been at the harbour, after the intellectual arguments faded into the night, when Ngwane pulled the trumpet he’d brought from Soweto–always a fixture at our demonstrations–and pointed it out towards the sea. Another horn sounded nearby, and Ngwane was quickly joined by a Cuban musician.

While language barriers made communication difficult, the trumpets told their stories. Ngwane’s salary as a township anti-privatisation organiser is measly, but enough to pay for the couple of beers that, purchased at a medium-range hotel nearby, would have consumed a third of his new friend’s monthly salary (US$9) as a music teacher.

Holding tight to a 44-year old revolution amidst capitalist merchant encirclement, and facing down the deprivation of minor luxuries are hard enough. Although the extent of basic-needs decommodification is inspiring, the last few months have added all manner of geopolitical problems, not least the ebb and flow of Washington’s intervention threat. The May 20 statement on Cuba by George W. Bush, who was joined at the White House by rightwing Miami-based exiles, was anticipated to ratchet up sanctions and travel restrictions.

It did not, for now at least. Whether because of Middle East distractions or opposition emerging from US businesses who are opening new trade routes, including a roaring $150 million in US food exports to Cuba, Bush held fire. (But for context, even loony-right Wall Street Journal editorialists have recently called for an end to the US economic blockade.)

Washington’s expulsion of 14 Cuban diplomats a few days earlier, threats to prosecute US citizens traveling to Cuba, and public association with the Miami thugs, together may have helped him save face on the right. But president Fidel Castro’s longevity and personal popularity will continue to present an infuriating target for the neoconservative clique in the Pentagon.

These quirks also help explain the appearance of at least four international internet sign-on statements over the past weeks. Two from the centre-left and autonomists/anarchists chide Castro; one originating in Mexico and another from the Marx conference commit to defending Cuba against imperialism.

So if not in practice, at least in theory, the ruthless critique of capitalism and search for routes to socialism were on the conference agenda. The most heated debates unfolded around the global situation and the state of the Cuban economy.

President Fidel Castro made three appearances. He defended–in several hour-long interventions–the crackdown on US-funded dissidents and execution of three hijackers, as well as cracking jokes about the ‘reptiles’ and ‘bandits’ populating Latin American politics.

But he also made a strong bid for an alliance with those global justice movements which, perhaps astutely, remain so wary of contemporary state politics. Terribly disappointed by the World Social Forum’s decision to move in 2004 from Porto Alegre to Mumbai, Castro asked an international WSF leader, ‘Is India about to be swallowed?!’ He had apparently harboured hope of welcoming tens of thousands of delegates to Havana next January, an idea which perhaps at some point the WSF will be sufficiently mature and self-confident to entertain.

Castro did, however, provide a vision–again, maybe merely a romantic hope–that one day radical Third World governments will be so strong, coherent and foresighted that they will seek real alliances with radical movements. His message: ‘These are FIGHTERS, and that’s what we must call them. They won at Seattle. At Quebec, they forced the FTAA into a fortified position. It was more than a demonstration, it was an insurgency.’

If Castro and Che Guevara holed up in the mountains perfecting their surgical foci theory of agrarian-based revolution, entirely different circumstances seemed to have inspired Castro during the conference: ‘The leaders of the world must now meet inside a bunker. They had to meet on a ship in Italy, and on a mountain in Canada. They needed police barriers in Davos, in peaceful Switzerland. The most important thing is that the fighters have created a real fear. The IMF and World Bank cannot meet properly.’

Even if the G8, WTO and IMF/Bank officials must gather in fortresses these days, the dominance of neoliberalism has made its mark even on Cuba. Castro was, indeed, humble and self-critical about the country’s economic failings and turned to ask a leading Havana economist, in a good-natured harangue that continued for hours: ‘So we poisoned socialism?’ It was more a statement than a question.

As another example, the South African bureaucrat in charge of water, Mike Muller, posted a comment to a progressive listserve last Saturday with this slippery argument: ‘You should know that Cuba has two concession contracts with Agbar–a subsidiary of Lyonnaise–one for approximately 50% of Havana. I believe it would be useful for critics of privatisation to consider the Cuban case and the background to their decision to choose this route in order to develop a better understanding of the challenges that face PUBLIC service providers in all countries.’

In the past, Muller’s boss, SA Communist Party national executive committee member and water minister Ronnie Kasrils, has also cited Havana as a justification for promoting ‘public-private partnerships’ at home.

What, then, is the ‘background’, and how does it compare to South Africa? Really, Pretoria officials dare not make these sorts of comparisons:

* Cuba has the commanding heights of their economy firmly under state control.

(In contrast, South Africa has been part-privatising our main state-owned assets ever since the dying days of apartheid: electricity this year, telecommunications in 1997 and via a NY Stock Market listing three months ago, the transport sector throughout, several long-term water concessions dating to the early 1990s, the main iron/steel firm in 1989; and the results have been uniformly disastrous in terms of job cuts and disconnections of service to low-income people.)

* Cuba has had a policy of egalitarianism, albeit under recent threat by dollarisation, but nevertheless based upon a grassroots-driven, revolutionary imposition of new social policies that, from the outset, eradicated the kind of inequality pervasive in the Third World.

(In contrast, since the ANC government took power in South Africa, black households have become much poorer–a 19% loss of income from 1995-2000–and white households 15% wealthier, according to even government statistics; which reflects an elite clique’s imposition of neoliberal macroeconomic and microdevelopment policies, including water until the 2000 cholera outbreak became a national scandal.)

* Cuba’s water-system regulations are extremely rigorous.

(In contrast, our SA regulations are so pathetic that the world’s biggest water firms have screwed up water provision in small towns–like Dolphin Coast, Nkonkobe and Nelspruit–which were meant to be model private participation pilot projects but which in reality failed miserably, leading in Nkonkobe to Suez being tossed out entirely, in Dolphin Coast to Saur insisting on a contract rewrite to assure higher profits, and in Nelspruit to Biwater potentially withdrawing in coming weeks because of such high levels of consumer dissatisfaction; all of this without any supportive pro-municipal interventions from Pretoria, especially Muller, the de facto national regulator.)

* Cuba’s state finances are desperate for a logical reason: the decades-old US embargo forced the economy into dependency upon the East Bloc, and when neoliberalism and changes in regimes there forced an end to trade and barter arrangements in 1991-93, Cuba suffered a 75% loss of export earnings.

(In contrast, after anti-apartheid sanctions were lifted in a newly-liberated SA, our economy ‘benefitted’ from a dramatic increase in export earnings, but at the same time, Pretoria’s proud record of financial liberalisation–specifically, the 1995 relaxation of most exchange controls and the 1998-99 permission granted for the biggest SA firms to relocate their financial hqs to London–led to massive capital flight, i.e., not economic bleeding caused by factors beyond control as in Cuba, but instead, ideologically-driven financial suicide.)

* Cuba’s water-system finances are also desperate, because cross-subsidisation from the big water users (e.g., cane fields and forestry) would really adversely affect their scarce inflows of hard currency, so the possibilities for harmonising the social aspects of the hydrological cycle are quite limited.

(In contrast, in SA, water apartheid remains as severe as any in the world, and Muller’s water department has not yet moved to discipline the hedonistic users of water–especially timber plantations, white farmers, corporate mines and white suburban households–with far higher water prices, that would then allow the state to cross-subsidise water for the masses; and moreover, Pretoria is happy to spend US$5 billion on offensive high-tech weaponry at a time cholera and diarrhoea run rampant due to lack of clean water.)

* Notwithstanding terrible poverty across the society in general due to the export collapse, Cuba’s own investment in water engineers and the health sector is the highest of any Third World country, and is reflected, for example, in an extremely low level of full-blown AIDS, especially related to water-borne diseases.

(In contrast, Pretoria’s reluctance to treat people who are HIV+ remains so durable that the most respected health researchers and doctors regularly refer to the health minister and president as ‘genocidal’; and meanwhile, many of our 600+ AIDS deaths each day occur because Muller’s dirty water causes opportunistic infections.)

* Cuba does not disconnect people from their water supplies.

(In contrast, even after millions of water disconnections and the worst recorded cholera epidemic in SA’s history, there are still municipal officials like the man in Durban who brags about disconnecting water supplies to 1,000 people in his jurisdiction every day, notwithstanding periodic cholera outbreaks and persistent diarrhoea problems in Durban’s black townships.)

That’s why, to Ngwane, Masondo and me, Cuba left such an excellent impression. Also, though he raves didactically for hours on end, Castro is a far superior radical nationalist leader than the mediocre, repressive crew at the helm of African states, and in his late 70′s still retains an extraordinary grasp of detail.

The conference was also inspiring. It included a revitalising exchange between several hundred Cuban marxists and more than 100 international scholars and activists mainly of the independent-left, such as Samir Amin, Fred Bienefeld, Liudmila Boulavka, Simon Clarke, Francois Houtart, Diane Flaherty, Barbara Foley, Marta Harnecker, David Kotz, Michael Lebowitz and Istvan Meszaros.

Controversies raged over the use of phrases such as Nazi-fascism (a Castro favourite) to describe the US Empire, and whether, as Amin suggested, it is feasible to posit ‘the construction of a large front, composed of all the forces that could be in opposition.’ That idea, Clarke replied, was a ‘fantasy,’ as genuine international anti-imperialism would arise only, following the classic maxim, after ‘each working class first settled accounts with their own (national) bourgeoisies.’

But none of the participants objected to a final ‘Communique of Solidarity’ that observed how Cuba’s ‘achievements and hopes for a better world are threatened by a power based in inequality, force and war… and we reaffirm our solidarity with the Cuban people and their revolution’.

(Patrick is at [email protected])

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