Cuba Sí?

In a 1962 speech titled "The Duty of the Revolutionary." Fidel Castro said,

The summary of the nightmare which torments America from one end to the other is that on this continent … about four persons per minute die of hunger, of curable illness, or premature old age. Fifty-five hundred per day, two million per year, ten million each five years. These deaths could easily be avoided, but nevertheless they take place. Two-thirds of the Latin American population lives briefly and lives under constant threat of death. A holocaust of lives, which in 15 years has caused twice the number of deaths as World War I. Meanwhile, from Latin America a continuous torrent of money flows to the United States: some $4,000 a minute, $5 million a day, $2 billion a year, $10 billion every five years. For each thousand dollars that leaves us there remains one corpse. A thousand dollars per corpse: That is the price of what is called imperialism. A thousand dollars per death … four deaths every minute.

In the nearly three decades since Castro’s assessment, for all of Latin America except Cuba, the above statistics have improved little, or worsened. In the 1980s, income in Latin America, excluding Cuba, declined by 8 percent, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Castro’s injunction in the same speech is therefore as apropos today as then:

The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution. It is known that the revolution will triumph in America and throughout the world, but it is not for revolutionaries to sit in the doorways of their houses waiting for the corpse of imperialism to pass by. The role of Job doesn’t suit a revolutionary. Each year that the liberation of America is speeded up will mean the lives of millions of children saved, millions of intelligences saved for culture, an infinite quantity of pain spared the people.

Little has changed regarding who and what is the principle enemy or the magnitude of the crimes that need rectification. And therefore little has changed regarding the urgency of transcending imperial and neo-colonial domination.

But what about "liberation?" Have the positive goals a revolution should strive for changed? What does Cuba‘s experience teach us in these respects?

Despite decades of CIA terror and economic boycott, Cuba greatly exceeds its Latin American neighbors in intellectual, cultural, health, educational, and political accomplishments. But where is Cuba headed now that Soviet-bloc support is in doubt? What will happen to their polity and economy now that the Leninist political model and central-planning economic model are being abandoned elsewhere?

No matter how you look at it, one-person-rule through a bureaucratic hierarchical party is dictatorship, even when, as in Cuba, the leader is benevolent. Castro is the hub; the Cuban Communist Party radiates the spokes. Parallel grassroots institutions including poder popular represent a participatory trend that has as yet failed to transcend Party manipulation.

To inaugurate the 1970s, Castro proclaimed:

The formulas of revolutionary process can never be administrative formulas…. Sending a man down from the top to solve a problem involving 15 or 20 thousand people is not the same thing as the problems of these 15 or 20 thousand people—problems having to do with their community—being solved by virtue of the decisions of the people, of the community, who are close to the source of the problems…. We must do away with all administrative methods and use mass methods everywhere.

Cuba has the Leninist, hierarchical Party and the popular democratic poder popular. But, Castro’s words notwithstanding, the former has consistently dominated the latter. Oversimplifying a complex and variegated political history, it follows that three main impediments have obstructed Castro’s hope to substitute political participation for political administration:

(1 ) The Cuban Communist Party monopolizes all legitimate means of wielding political power and thereby ensures that there is only one Cuban political line, that of the Party and its leadership. The first problem is political Leninism.

(2) The omnipresence of Fidel Castro leaves little room for any popular vehicles to attain true decentralized grassroots power. The second problem is Fidelismo.

(3) The willingness of the U.S. to manipulate political differences to destroy Third World revolutions (as amply demonstrated by the recent Nicaraguan elections) justifies regimentation. The third problem facing Cuba is the not-so-benevolent Uncle Sam.

As Cuba loses its fealty to the East, as Castro faces the problem of succession, and as the corruption of the political bureaucracy increasingly alienates the Cuban populace, two possible political paths are emerging. Cuba can return to its early aspirations and exceed glasnost by moving from Leninism and dictatorship to participatory democracy premised on mass participation, or, instead, Cuba can defend authoritarianism and preserve elite privileges under the guise of "Defending the Revolution."

For all its accomplishments, the Cuban economy is far from "liberated." Planners, state bureaucrats, local managers, and technocrats monopolize decisions while workers carry out orders. In the resulting economy, a ruling coordinator class plans the efforts of workers and appropriates inflated pay, perks, and status.

Cuba‘s coordinator economy has given the Cuban people pride in national accomplishments, and major material gains in health care, housing, literacy, security, and overall standards of living. For these reasons the Cuban revolution is deservedly popular. But however admirable these achievements are when compared to conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador, or even Watts or the South Bronx, this does not justify applying the label "liberated" or "socialist." For that, there would have to be no ruling class, and workers would have to collectively administer their own efforts, with solidarity and equity.

However, as with politics, Cuban economic history has not followed a simple trajectory. The coordinator model has been dominant, but there has always been an alternative spirit manifested, sometimes in hope, sometimes in actual experiments, but regrettably never leading to liberated economic relations.

In 1962 and 1963, impressed with what they saw when visiting the Soviet Union, and seeing no other options, Cuba installed economic forms mimicking the traditional Soviet model. By 1964, disenchantment set in and a great debate ensued. In a letter written from Africa in 1965, summarizing the spirit of the recommendations he championed in that debate, Che Guevara wrote:

The new society in process of formation has to compete very hard with the past. This makes itself felt not only in the individual consciousness, weighted down by the residues of an education and an upbringing systematically oriented toward the isolation of the individual, but also by the very nature of this transition period, with the persistence of commodity relations. The commodity is the economic cell of capitalist society: as long as it exists its effects will make themselves felt in the organization of production and therefore in consciousness.

In the debate, Che disdained the use of "profitability," "material interest," and a "commodity mentality," arguing instead for emphasizing morality, collectivity, solidarity, and the criterion of use value in meeting human needs. He did not, however, champion nor even raise the issue of direct control by workers over their own workplaces or over economic decision-making in general.

Castro adopted a similarly humane but incomplete stance saying that:

We will never create a socialist consciousness … with a `dollar sign’ in the minds and hearts of our men and women … those who wish to solve problems by appealing to personal selfishness, by appealing to individualistic effort, forgetful of society, are acting in a reactionary manner, conspiring, although inspired by the best intentions in the world, against the possibilities of creating a truly socialist spirit.

Castro acknowledged that his desires to equalize incomes and forgo competition and individual incentives would be incomprehensible to some. He knew that to "learned," "experienced" economists "this would seem to go against the laws of economics."

To these economists an assertion of this type sounds like heresy, and they say that the revolution is headed for defeat. But it so happens that in this field there are two special branches. One is the branch of the `pure’ economist. But there is another science, a deeper science which is truly revolutionary science. It is the science of … confidence in human beings. If we agreed that people are incorrigible, that people are incapable of learning; if we agreed that people are incapable of developing their conscience—then we would have to say that the `brainy’ economists were right, that the Revolution would be headed for defeat and that it would be fighting the laws of economics…

Over the years the economic debate in Cuba has vacillated between two poles: competition versus solidarity, profit-maximizing versus meeting human needs, markets versus central planning, and individual incentives and inequality versus collective incentives and equality, with many swings back and forth over the years. Consider the following comments from Castro when the left pole was in ascendancy:

A financier, a pure economist, a metaphysician of revolutions would have said, `Careful, rents shouldn’t be lowered one cent. Think of it from a financial standpoint, from an economic standpoint, think of the pesos involved!’ Such persons have `dollar signs’ in their heads and they want the people, also, to have `dollar signs’ in their hearts and heads! Such people would not have made even one revolutionary law. In the name of those principles they would have continued to charge the farmers interest on loans; they would have charged for medical and hospital care; they would have charged school fees; they would have charged for the boarding schools that are completely free, all in the name of a metaphysical approach to life. They would never have had the people’s enthusiasm, the masses’ enthusiasm which is the prime factor, the basic factor, for a people to advance, for a people to build, for a people to be able to develop. And that enthusiasm on the part of the people, that support for the revolution is something that can be measured in terms incomparably superior to the adding and subtracting of the metaphysicians.

The problem has been that the left pole, which has argued for egalitarianism, solidarity, meeting needs, and collective incentives, has also argued for extreme central planning rather than decentralized, participatory planning with direct workplace democracy. And the difficulty here is not only that something valuable wasn’t included on the left side of the debate, but that the positive goals the left championed—solidarity, equity, collectivity—were subverted by coordinator decision-making and central planning. When the left pole gained ascendancy the continuing lack of real participation and power on the part of workers meant that their enthusiasm and talent were not unleashed in the hoped for manner. Thus, after a few years of left influence over economic policy, the economy would eventually falter, and the turn back to the right—always urged by the Soviet advisers empowered by virtue of Cuba‘s dependence on Russian aid—would be legitimated.

In the face of perestroika, Cuba will not happily jump on the free-market bandwagon. They will prefer any alternative to resurgent commodity economics and a sellout to the West. But, what can they do instead?

One depressing and the most likely possibility is that they will stay the current course, defending coordinatorism while trying to rectify its worst abuses, all in the name of "defending the revolution." This option has three major problems. First, in the long run, it would not permit workers and consumers to collectively manage their own affairs. It would instead perpetuate coordinator rule no matter how successful the battle to limit coordinators’ appropriation of material privileges. Second, in the short and medium term it would do little to elicit increased productivity and allegiance from the Cuban populace in an effort to ward off the hardships that further economic isolation will impose. And third, again in the short and medium term, it would do little to gain grassroots international support, which is the only possibility to mitigate reductions in Soviet bloc aid. The virtue, from the perspective of Cuba‘s elites, is that the approach would continue to defend elite privileges and would not risk introducing short-run turmoil.

The other option is for Cuba to take the current opportunity to return to the ideals of Che Guevara and an earlier Fidel Castro, coupled with new awareness of the importance of economic participation. This would mean installing a new economic system emphasizing workplace democracy, consumer councils, an end to the division between mental and manual labor, and a decentralized planning procedure in which consumer and worker councils participate directly in formulating, revising, and deciding their own activities. The problem with this option is that it risks introducing disruption and would further alienate both the Eastern and Western blocs, and, from the perspective of Cuban elites, it would certainly challenge, and eventually eliminate their privileges. On the other hand, besides being the only road to real socialism, the left approach has the virtue of elevating Cuba back into the role of the leading experiment in liberation, thereby eliciting greater allegiance, energy, and spirit at home, and substantial internationalist and leftist grassroots support throughout the world.

Every so often movements and countries face critical choices with world historic impact. When Solidarity began to succeed in Poland, it had the option of retaining its working-class composition and its emphasis on elevating workers to decision-making power via new economic institutions, or of jettisoning all that in favor of elevating intellectuals and adopting markets, competition, and profit-seeking despite their obvious inadequacies. So far, the liberating choice is in retreat.

When Jesse Jackson galvanized new energies across the United States, he and the Rainbow Coalition had the opportunity to develop lasting grassroots organizations and democratic movements, or to subordinate everything to narrow electoral priorities. So far, the liberating choice is in retreat.

Now Cuba can either adopt a siege mentality and defend bureaucracy, dictatorship, central planning, and workplace hierarchy, all originally copied from allies now abandoning them, or can develop participatory democracy and truly socialist economics consistent with revolutionary Cuba‘s past aspirations. With their Eastern bloc bridges largely burnt, we can only hope that Cuba will once again opt for "a revolution within the revolution."

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