“The super-powerful empire that stalks us and threatens us
[is] awaiting a natural and absolutely logical event: the death
of someone. They have honored me by thinking of me.”
Fidel Castro, November 17, 2005
Speaking on the sixtieth anniversary of his admission to the University of Havana, Cuba’s president responded to the imperialists’ “transition plans and military action plans” by challenging his compatriots to develop their own plans for the revolution’s future.
His speech has set off what Cuban Foreign Minister Filipe Perez Roque has called “an intense debate across the entire country,” in factories, work collectives, farmers cooperatives, streets, and neighborhoods.
Although he is now 79 years old, and has been the target of several CIA-organized assassination attempts, Fidel Castro shows no slackening in vigor. Reporters noted his firm stride in the January 24 demonstration of a million Havana residents against provocations by the U.S. diplomatic mission. And the U.S. imperialists’ conclusion that the Cuban revolution cannot be overthrown while Fidel is alive testifies to the failure of their campaign to isolate, starve, demoralize, and crush Cuba.
Fidel mocked the imperialists’ hopes of military conquest. “They can never destroy us,” he said. But, he warned, “this country can self-destruct â€¦ we can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault.”
Addressing the National Assembly on December 23, Perez Roque elaborated on the nature of the threat:
“We have achieved military invulnerability. We will achieve economic invulnerability â€¦ despite the ongoing blockade. We must also struggle â€¦ to preserve ideological and political invulnerability.”
This is not a problem so long as the generation who made the revolution is with us, he said. But the enemy bases its plans on “the idea that those who come after can be confused, defeated, divided, bought, or pushed around.”
‘A wonderful year’
The opening up of this discussion is the result not of Cuba’s weakness but its progress. The year 2005, which the Cubans named “Year of the Bolivarian Agreement for the Americas” (see Socialist Voice #26), was a “wonderful, victorious year,” according to Perez Roque.
The economy expanded by an impressive 11.8%, and 10% growth is expected this year. (Cuba’s measure of economic growth includes social services as well as commercial transactions.) Cuba significantly lessened its dependence on trade with imperialist states such as Canada; Venezuela and China are now Cuba’s leading trading partners.
Cuba’s renewed economic strength has allowed it to initiate a major investment program to strengthen its electricity supply, and new targeted measures to improve the lives of working people. Substantial salary and pension increases have been implemented, and 100,000 new homes will be built in 2006.
More crucially, Cuba’s isolation has eased. Popular movements allied to Cuba scored resounding electoral victories in Venezuela and Bolivia, while candidates identified with pro-U.S. policies lost presidential elections across Latin America. Cuba is taking its place as an influential participant in a continent-wide movement of peoples against imperialist oppression.
Cuba has also won increased moral authority as the world’s most effective and dedicated supplier of humanitarian aid. After the Pakistan earthquake disaster, for example, Cuba dispatched 2,200 medical staff to set up field hospitals and clinics. As of mid-December, 3,500 operations had been performed with sophisticated equipment in tents set up deep in the frozen Himalayas.
(Much less technical skill and human commitment was to be seen in the United Nations-led effort, which sent 350,000 non-winterized tents to a region locked in bitter cold, along with a much smaller number of winterized tents that lacked stoves.)
Cuba has become a major supplier of eye care to Third World countries: 170,000 Venezuelans have received eye operations in Cuba in the last year and a half.
More than 25,000 Cuban health professionals serve as volunteers in other countries, usually in poverty-stricken, rural, and remote areas, while 2,400 students from 115 other countries receive free medical education in Cuban universities.
These achievements testify to the moral strength and convictions of Cuban working people. Nonetheless, Castro’s November 17 speech focused on danger signs in Cuba’s moral commitment to socialist values – signs of “thievery [of state property], diversion of materials, and money draining away towards the new rich.”
A study revealed that in government gas stations, “there was as much gas being stolen as sold.” Fidel himself had seen a makeshift market where a construction crew, “both the foremen and many of the workers, had put up a market selling cement, steel rods, wood, paint, you name it-all kinds of construction materials.”
The problem is not new, Fidel said, but “the Special Period aggravated it, because in this period we saw the growth of much inequality, and certain people were able to accumulate a lot of money.” (The term “Special Period” refers to the years after the collapse of economic relations with the Soviet Union in 1991.)
“There are several dozens of thousands of parasites,” he said, “who earn 40 or 50 times the amount one of those [Cuban] doctors over there in the mountains of Guatemala … earns.”
Perez Roque, who at 39 has carried out almost all his political activity since the 1991 crisis, underlined the impact of the Special Period. Cuba’s gross internal product shrank by 35% and its imports by 85% in the space of four years, he said, while reductions in food supply temporarily cut Cubans’ average caloric intake from 3,000 to 2,000 calories a day.
“Facing up to those years was a feat whose story will be told and retold,” he said. Still, it was during those years that “the vices cited by Comrade Fidel became entrenched” including tendencies “to individualism, to saving your own skin.” Such evils “are not nourished in a society where each receives according to their labour.” But this principle that was undermined during the Special Period.
Social workers with attitude
On October 15, the government moved to end the gas diversion problem by assigning thousands of young people in blue T-shirts to assist in pumping gas at service stations across the country. The youth belong to Cuba’s corps of 28,000 social workers, recruited from among school dropouts and the young unemployed. After extensive education and preparation (7,000 are now in training), they work on projects that assist Cuba’s most vulnerable citizens.
Referring to the anti-corruption effort, Fidel commented, “We read every day in the opinion polls that people are asking about when the ‘kids’ are coming to the dollar stores, to the drugstores, or to all the other places.” Dollar and drug stores have a reputation as targets for theft. “Everyone is full of admiration for these ‘kids.'”
The crackdown on corruption has a social as well as an economic goal: to reduce the gap between privileged and unprivileged within Cuban society. Among the goals of social improvement cited by Castro: “We decided that every [sole-support mother] … ought to have the possibility to choose â€¦ whether to receive a salary so that she could look after her child, or the state would pay someone a salary to care for the child while she was at work.”
The same logic can be seen in Cuba’s approach to its chronic electricity shortage. In addition to modernizing its power grid and generating facilities, Cuba has launched a conservation campaign, naming this the “Year of the Energy Revolution.” In Fidel’s view, two-thirds of the energy now consumed can be saved.
The Cuban electricity program also aims to decrease social differentiation. Electricity prices have been raised, but the cost for small-scale users is less than a tenth the rate paid by high-level consumers – who are often among Cuba’s new rich. (The top rate in Cuba is still much less than Ontario workers will pay after the province’s coming rate hikes.) Meanwhile, the government is distributing fluorescent light bulbs and energy efficient cookers and refrigerators that will provide practical benefits to working people-particularly in lessening women’s domestic labour-while reducing energy consumption.
Recognizing that the increases would have an impact on many working-class families, the government accompanied them by substantial across-the-board wage increases. The minimum wage was doubled last year.
“This nation today, and in a very near future,” Fidel said, “will have every one of her citizens living fundamentally on their work and their pensions and retirement income,” without having to rely on sideline occupations, second jobs, or foreign remittances. This goal, undermined in Cuba during the Special Period, is achieved by very few workers in the Third World countries, and is far from guaranteed even in wealthy Canada.
Yet Cuba’s most authoritative leaders are careful not to nourish illusions that the revolution can be defended simply by increasing living standards. “Socialism disappeared in Eastern European countries that had a high level of life in material terms,” said Perez Roque. Nor did the overturn of the nationalized and centrally directed economy lead to material improvement. “Only this year has Hungary achieved the living standards that it enjoyed in 1972,” he said, despite billions of dollars in European Union assistance. We must add that the post-1990 record of economies in most of Eastern Europe and in Russia is even worse.
In his address to the National Assembly, Perez Roque proposed three principles to assure the revolution’s survival that have a focus entirely different from that on material goods:
1. “Those who lead must do so on the basis of their example, as has always been the case…. Authority comes from an austere style of life and from dedication to work. The people must know that those who lead receive no privileges except that of greater service and sacrifice, that their families live in a manner no different from the people, that their children receive the same education as the children of workers.”
2. “We must maintain the support of the immense majority of the people, as we do today, not on the basis of material consumption but on the basis of ideas and convictions. I told you how in the socialist countries the people were disarmed and did not go into the streets, did not struggle when their future was torn apart. But we saw how the poor people of Venezuela went into the streets to demand the return of Chavez in face of the oligarchical and military coup mounted by the Yankees. The [Cuban] Rebel Army possessed nothing. Its recruits were farmers and poor workers. Ideas and convictions are decisive, not the notion that people will support us more because they possess more.”
3. “Ultimately the decisive question is who receives the income. The majority, the people? Or the oligarchical minority, the transnationals, the pro-Yankees? Who owns the property: the people, the majority? Or the corrupt minority that serves the interests of the only policeman in the world who can guarantee these privileges in Cuba – Yankee imperialism?”
Fidel Castro’s November 17, 2005, speech at the University of Havana indicated that the principles outlined by Perez Roque are to be applied by wide-ranging economic reforms. The pattern established by the recent reorganization of electricity supply is be applied to the economy as a whole. “Subsidies and free services will be considered only in essentials,” Castro said. “Medical services will be free, so will education and the like. Housing will not be free. Maybe there will be some subsidy, but the rents â€¦ need to come close to the actual cost.”
The thinking behind this change was explained by Francisco Soberon Valdes, head of Cuba’s national bank, in a December speech to the National Assembly. “It is of utmost importance that the distribution of goods and services is clearly and directly linked â€¦ with the effort of each from the position they occupy in our economic structure,” Soberon said.
The Special Period, he said, “moved us away from this strategic objective.” The Special Period is the Cuban term for the economic crisis brought on in the early 1990s by the rupture of economic ties with the Soviet Union.
In capitalist society, talk of “effort” is used to justify paying corporate chieftains, who produce nothing, many, many times the salaries of manual or intellectual workers. Within the Cuban state economy, however, salary levels have always conformed closely to the goal, reaffirmed by Soberon, of assuring “as equal a distribution as possible.”
‘To each according to their work’
In Cuba, the prices of many basic necessities like housing have long been subsidized. These subsidies unduly benefit those Cubans who have an ample supply of money. This creates an unwarranted drain of economic resources into the hands of the privileged, including those with access to dollars from abroad. The end result is to reinforce trends towards greater inequality.
Meanwhile, the subsidies system assures working people of only a minimum subsistence. For a worker today, Soberon explains, “the money he earns â€¦ is not enough to buy products that are also necessary but that are sold at market prices.” The result is a decay of the work ethic. “The salary no longer truly motivates him.”
The worker is launched into “a struggle to obtain material goods, as much as possible, for him and his family regardless of his contribution to society.” This trend is “particularly damaging” when the person “has authority over important material wealth.”
Moreover, some are able to choose not to work “without affecting [their] standard of living,” a situation that is “simply catastrophic” for the economy and “morally unacceptable.”
Soberon advocates extending the solution applied in the electricity industry. “This formula gradually reduces the inequalities created or increased during the Special Period,” he said. The policy also is in keeping with “what Marx explained more than a century ago: each should use to the full his capacities and receive according to his work.”
Battle of ideas
The new policy outlined by Castro and Soberon aims to rein in the diversion of state resources to privileged layers and increase the overall efficiency of the economy, which will, in turn, promote greater productivity.
But the Cuban leaders do not project an increase in production as a solution in itself. Rather, their proposals aim to help Cuban working people through enhancing the real value of the salaries and pensions they receive from the state. Cuba’s electricity reforms, discussed in Socialist Voice #67, pursue other social goals as well, such as reducing inequality, easing the burden of household labour on women, and encouraging energy conservation.
Such measures are intended to strengthen the hand of Cuban workers and their state against the surrounding capitalist world and its presence within Cuba. As such, the measures are part of what Cuba’s Communists term their “battle of ideas”-an extended, concerted effort to demonstrate the superiority of a struggle for socialism over proposals for a retreat to a capitalist order.
The nature of the ideological challenge was spelled out in the address of Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque to the National Assembly on December 23. “To some degree, historical memory has been lost; a comparative understanding of what is happening in the world has been lost.” Some people in Cuba “have illusions about capitalism,” he said. They think that if the “Yankees” take over some day, “they’ll get the capitalism of an advanced European country,” when in reality “they’ll get Haiti or the Dominican Republic, a poor Third World Country converted into a U.S. neocolony.”
In his November 17 speech, Castro underlined the centrality of the Cuban revolutionaries’ effort to counter such illusions. Referring to Cuba’s imperialist enemies, he declared, “They can never destroy us.” But, “we can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault.”
He then asked, “What ideas and what level of consciousness can make the overturn of a revolutionary process impossible?”
The effort to use economic policy to promote socialist consciousness and strengthen the working class has a long history in the Cuban revolution. Perez Roque recalled Cuba’s campaign for “Rectification” in the 1980s, which included in its goals opening up scope for worker initiatives and volunteer projects in economic construction.
“Rectification was unfortunately cut short â€¦ when the Special Period began, and many of [its goals] could not be realized,” the Cuban foreign minister said. But “we are rescuing many of those plans today, with more experience and on a more solid and better foundation.”
While not using the term Rectification, Fidel recalled one of its themes on November 17, saying, “Some thought that socialism could be constructed with capitalist methods. That is one of the great historical errorsâ€¦. That was why I commented that one of our greatest mistakes at the beginning of, and often during, the Revolution was believing that someone knew how to build socialism.”
Che’s economic writings
The Cuban leaders’ recent statements echo themes going back to the revolution’s first years, in the 1960s, when Ernesto Che Guevara stressed the importance of “moral”-that is, political-incentives in economic construction, alongside the “material” incentives represented by piecework, bonus programs, and the like. Che also warned of the consequences of relying on capitalist methods of encouraging production in words that now seem prophetic of later Soviet collapse:
“The pipedream that socialism can be achieved with the help of the dull instruments left to us by capitalism (the commodity as the economic cell, profitability, individual material interest as a lever, etc.) can lead into a blind alleyâ€¦. Meanwhile, the economic foundation that has been laid has done its work of undermining the development of consciousness. To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man.” (Man and Socialism in Cuba)
It is noteworthy that a manuscript by Guevara that provides a critical assessment of the Soviet economic model has just been published for the first time by Ocean Press, in association with the Che Guevara Studies Center of Havana, Cuba. A collection of documents from Cuba’s debate on economic policy in 1963-64, in which Che was a central figure, has also just appeared. Both books are in Spanish and will be widely available in Cuba.
Lessons from the USSR
Guevara’s ideas link up with the interest among many Cubans today in the lessons of the Soviet experience. Fidel’s November 17 speech took up this topic with regard to the foreign policy of the Soviet state and Communist Party.
“A tremendous vice was created,” he told the University of Havana students, “the abuse of power, the cruelty, and in particular, the habit of one country imposing its authority, that of one hegemonic party, over all other countries and parties.”
These historical events “influenced the idea that for a communist the end justifies the means,” undercutting the importance of the ethical factor in the struggle for socialism.
“Today we can speak of this subject because we are entering a new phase.”
Fidel explained his view with reference to international policy of the Soviet Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. He condemned the 1939 alliance of the USSR with fascist Germany as “a very hard blow” that left communist parties “to politically bleed to death.” He also assailed the policy that led the Cuban Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s to ally with the dictator Fulgencio Batista: “The order came from Moscow: organize the anti-fascist front. It was a pact with the devil.”
Subordination of workers’ struggles to supposedly progressive capitalist politicians like Batista was a hallmark of the Soviet CP’s policy of “anti-fascist unity” in the mid-to-late 1930s.
Fidel contrasted to this record the Cuban Communists’ relations with Latin American revolutionary movements: “It has never even occurred to us to tell anybody what they should be doing.”
Cuba and the world struggle
Castro’s comments on the international dimension of the Soviet experience illustrates the central role that the Cuban leaders assign to Cuba’s intimate involvement in the experiences and liberation struggles of working people around the world. Cuba’s internationalism is rooted in the thought of the leader of its independence struggle, Jose Marti, who famously said, “Patria es humanidad”-humanity is our homeland.
The proportion of Cuba’s resources devoted to international humanitarian aid dwarfs that of far richer economies, such as Canada. To promote this effort, Cuba has built a medical system whose capacity is far greater than the country’s needs. Where mass movements have scored significant breakthroughs, as in Venezuela and Bolivia, Cuba has rushed to provide support.
Furthermore, Cuba’s medical solidarity is not restricted to Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuban medical teams, for example, played a significant role in helping the Pakistani people to cope with death, disease, and destruction provoked by last year’s earthquake.
When Cuban leaders discuss economizing resources, few put this commitment in question.
Based as it is on respect for the recipient countries’ independence, integrity, and right to autonomous development, Cuba’s foreign aid program is a welcome contrast to those of imperialist powers. It serves as a material demonstration of the superiorities of Cuba’s social system and wins massive sympathy for the island in its struggle against the U.S. blockade.
And the greater margin of flexibility enjoyed by the Cuban economy today is in large measure due to gains in the struggle against imperialist domination in Latin America and parts of the Middle East, and due also to China’s growing world role.
Cubans seek to exchange ideas with anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist thinkers of many viewpoints from all over the world. Hardly a month goes by without a significant international conference in Havana. Cubans are traveling abroad in ever increasing numbers, one recent example being the huge Cuban delegation to the World Social Forum in Caracas.
Cuba’s revolutionary leaders have understood from the beginning that the long-term survival of the revolution depends on the success of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles in other lands. That is why the advances of the revolution in Venezuela and the victory of the indigenous majority in Bolivia have had such an exhilarating impact on Cuba. Cuba’s destiny is intimately linked to the outcome of struggles across Latin America and on other continents. And, it should be stressed, advances in Cuba will favor struggles in Venezuela, Bolivia, and beyond.
Cubans act on this understanding, and we must do the same. Cuba’s capacity to survive and freely build its future depends in no small measure on what we can do internationally to build solidarity with this heroic, embattled people.
Fidel Castro, Address to University of Havana (English translation): http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/2005/ing/f171105i.html
Francisco Soberon Valdes, Address to the Cuban National Assembly (English translation): http://www.walterlippmann.com/docs367.html
Felipe Perez Roque, Address to the National Assembly
Che Guevara, “Man and Socialism in Cuba”