Strategic Dialogue on Cuba

In their contributions to the Foreign Policy In Focus strategic dialogue on Cuba, Samuel Farber discusses the problematic economic reforms and nonexistent political reforms in Life After Fidel while Saul Landau looks at the fragile achievements of the Cuban revolution and the hostile U.S. policy toward the island in Cuba: The Struggle Continues. Here, they respond to each other.

Saul Landau

I agree with Samuel Farber that the left should rid itself of illusions about that nature of the Cuban regime. Cuba does not serve as a model for other third world countries. But neither does China or Vietnam – unless savage capitalism run by Communist parties is somehow preferable to the state socialist system in Cuba. Farber does not offer other models because there are none.

I feel frustrated when I read essays that use the speculative sport of Cubanology as if some mysterious crystal ball clearly shows the correct path for Cuba’s healthy future. In this game, people like Vice President Machado Ventura acquire “hard liner,” labels, meaning that they are “dedicated to preserving the ideological purity of the system.” I think of Machado Ventura as a practical man, who would chuckle if he heard himself referred to as an ideological purist. Others like Vice President Carlos Lage is “reputed to be a moderate.” If Fidel or Raul offered these labels I would accept them. From those who have never met or interviewed these Cuban leaders, such descriptions seem almost funny, or gossipy, the kind of thing former CIA analyst Brian Latell offers to his commercial clients. Latell, who for decades was the CIA’s man on Cuba, never went to the island or met any of its leaders.

I have met many of these leaders over the decades and still have no idea what “hard” or “soft” means in practical terms in 2008. Nor can I discern the meaning of ideological purity on an island whose economy and social structure have seriously decayed for 17 years. Similarly, the Talibanes label Farber gives to some of the younger leaders doesn’t help describe the nature of the current debate.

Cuban history, according to Celia Sanchez in a 1957 letter to her father, called for a caudillo to liberate the island. “Fidel,” she wrote, “is our caudillo.” Cubans like most other people cannot erase their history, the centuries of formal Spanish rule and 60 years of informal U.S. domination, the legacies of bureaucracy, hierarchy, racism, and corruption. The revolution has taught egalitarianism, social consciousness, and the best of socialist values. Once out of school, however, Cubans find such values difficult to practice in an economy of shortages and scarcity – the description that fits most third world countries.

If one measures success by comparing goals to achievements, the Cuban revolution, which began in the 1860s, succeeded in creating sovereignty, independence, and a healthy and educated population. It converted Cubans and Cuba from a hapless colonial experience into one where Cubans have become actors on the world stage. Countless poor people in several countries owe their eyesight and other health improvements to Cuban doctors. How ironic that Havaneros complain about the shortage of doctors because so many have gone abroad to tend to other people. Even with the “shortage” Cuba’s doctor-patient ratio is close to that of Beverly Hills.

Cuban painters have exhibitions in Paris, New Delhi, and New York. Their athletes win a disproportionate (to the size of the population) number of Olympic medals. But they do not practice Trotskyist-style democracy – and never will.

I ask myself: what would I have done had I been a member of Cuba’s governing elite when faced with five decades of real U.S. threat while attempting to build a model society steeped in equality and justice?

Democracy and military force, openness and state security police do not produce harmony. Cuban leaders opted to protect the revolution, and that decision became the defining guidelines for Cuban socialism. Cuban socialism became a system based on orders from above, participation from below – but little choice. Such a system worked with the Soviet model and with certain strands of Cuban culture and history.

The collapse of the Soviet system forced the Cuban state to break its social contract with the people. Its leaders opted for political control, eschewing economic models that purported to deal with “transition.”

Social inequality emerged more dramatically than ever, thanks to Cuba’s economic desperation. But Washington could not successfully punish the disobedient upstart. Cuba survived – but not as viable social order.

I can say from my own conversations with some of Cuba’s leaders that there is a lively debate about where to go, which models or parts of them, to follow.

China and Vietnam have converted decades of struggle and bloodshed into a thriving capitalism wrapped in communist ribbons. All of Cuba’s leaders see clearly the pitfalls of such a path. And they do not see enough accumulated wealth on their island to begin to forge a European-style social democratic model.

Over the past months, Cubans have been discussing these themes formally and informally. While the U.S. media write of the cell phone fad and the availability of appliances, few journalists have underscored the key facts. Cuban leaders continue to invest in infrastructure, refurbishing the badly damaged electrical generating capacity. They have bought thousands of new busses. And to counteract the failure of Cuban agriculture, the government had to import 84% of the island’s food.

While building a new model amid constant harassment from the United States – even if the “invasion threat” was overblown – Cuban leaders made mistakes. Two million people live in Havana, for example. Most do not produce anything – other than services for tourists – that yields foreign exchange, but all consume, although not as much as they would like. Walk the streets of Havana during work day hours and see thousands of people hanging out, catching the rays. Official unemployment (2%) is a joke. Cubans are horribly underemployed, one of the gaping holes in its economic system – especially in urban areas. How did this happen after Fidel literally starved Havana of investment for the first 10 years of the revolution? When people become educated, they don’t want to work the land.

What can a non-Cuban do in the way of action or suggestion in a situation where socialism on one island – albeit state socialism – remains threatened by powerful U.S. forces? Work to get the U.S. embargo lifted, says Farber. I agree. But such a solution would also leave Cuba naked. Try to calculate the impact of a million US “tourists,” some with fat wallets, looking to invest in anything that looks lucrative or sexy. All that money circulating without control by state authorities would transform the island rapidly into…well, we will eventually see.

Samuel Farber

“Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back in again. I would have you make up your minds there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.” Eugene Victor Debs, 1905.

I agree with Saul Landau that holding high the values and practices of sharing and equality are critical to any socialist society worthy of the name. But holding high the values and practices of democracy and civil liberties are no less important to a socialist society. Landau seems to minimize the importance of these, and mentions them almost as if these were an “extra” feature instead of being a fundamental cornerstone of socialism.

Cuba’s one-party state is, by its very nature, antithetical to socialist democracy. Its constitution enshrines the political monopoly of the Cuban Communist Party and criminalizes other competing parties. The constitution also enshrines the ruling party’s monopoly over Cuba’s mass organizations, such as the state’s trade unions and women’s organizations, which are to act as its transmission belts. This outlaws all independent organization of unions, women, blacks, gays, and other groups.

Landau may cite Fidel Castro’s slogan that “inside the revolution everything; outside the revolution; nothing.” But in light of Cuba’s political system, this slogan is disingenuous and misleading since it is up to the top leadership to decide what and who qualifies as being “inside the revolution.” It should be noted that when the slogan was originally coined back in 1961, it was accompanied by repressive measures directed not against counterrevolutionaries but against other leftists. That is when those new cultural policies were used to shut down Lunes de Revolución, the weekly mass circulation literary and political supplement of the government newspaper Revolución, which published a wide variety of non-Communist independent left-wing authors from all over the world. The documentary titled PM, depicting the apolitical pleasure- loving night life of poor people in Havana and directed by Saba Cabrera Infante, the brother of Guillermo, the editor of Lunes, was also suppressed.

The very real economic harm inflicted by the U.S. imperialist blockade has obfuscated the other major source of economic problems in Cuba: the inefficiency and waste inherent in the bureaucratic administration of the economy. The old maxim attributed to Soviet and East European workers that “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work” fully applies to Cuba. There is a very visible lack of care, attention, and maintenance of every kind of public sector property. While economic hardship and the U.S. blockade may explain the lack of building materials necessary to carry out certain kinds of maintenance and upkeep, it does not explain the absence of the simple, labor-intensive activities that have no significant capital components such as cleaning, sweeping, and just run-of-the-mill neatness. The fundamental problem in Cuba is the lack of initiative, motivation, and both managerial and labor discipline. Over the centuries, capitalism developed methods to make workers perform at a certain level of competence prodded by sticks (produce or you will get fired) and carrots (the promise, if not the reality, of higher wages and promotions).

On the whole, Cuba and the other Soviet-type systems have not been able to develop a parallel type system of motivation that could at least match the effectiveness of capitalist methods. Workers in this equally, if not more, bureaucratic and hierarchical system do not grasp any better than in capitalism what the whole process of production is for or about. One of the “sticks” available to the single government employer was removed by the policy of overall security of employment (except for those who get in political trouble with the authorities). The built-in, systematic scarcity of consumer goods characteristic of what the Hungarian economist Janos Kornai called “shortage economies” has taken care of removing a good part of the carrots.

Since the early years of the revolution, the Cuban regime has oscillated between so-called “moral” and “material” incentives to address the lack of motivation among Cuban workers and peasants. But it never even considered the “political incentives” of opening the economy, polity, and society to democratic control, including the control of the workplace by working people. It never considered the possibility that by participating and controlling their own productive lives, people could become interested and responsible for what they do for a living day in and day out; that only thus would people get to care and give a damn. Workers’ democracy is not only a good in itself – people controlling their own lives – it can be a truly productive, economic force.

Instead, the bureaucracy on the island, since its early institution in the 1960s, has inevitably led to systematic misinformation such as inflated production figures because nobody wants to take responsibility for the failure to meet production targets. This in turn has led to poor planning based on imagined inputs. The lack of an open press and mass communications has facilitated cover-ups, corruption, and inefficiency. These problems, common to all Soviet-type bureaucratic systems, were exacerbated in Cuba due to the arbitrary interventions in economic affairs by the commander-in-chief.

Although Fidel Castro is undoubtedly a very intelligent and talented man, he is not an expert on everything under the sun. The overall balance of his personal interventions in economic affairs has been quite negative, like his economically disastrous campaign for a 10-million-ton sugar crop in 1970; the predictable failure of the F1 hybrid cows, a new breed of cattle, against the advice of British experts he brought to Cuba; the economic “gigantism” of such projects as the unnecessarily wide and wasteful eight-lane highway traversing a good part of Cuba; and more recently in the economic disruptions and improvisations that were part of his “Battle of Ideas.” Fidel Castro’s strong tendency to micro-manage also silenced and paralyzed the initiatives of responsible and capable people who were simply afraid to contradict him. All in all, Castro created a perfectly avoidable economic chaos. This kind of chaos cannot be confused with the creative chaos that can result from enthusiastic mass participation and is more than compensated by people’s involvement and excitement with what they do. Avoidable waste is a crime against the time, effort, and sacrifice of working people.

Citing Eduardo Galeano, Landau points out that the development of democracy in Cuba has been blocked by the actions of U.S. imperialism against Cuba. There is no doubt that U.S. aggression was and has been decisive in creating a siege climate on the island, which has facilitated the growth of undemocratic practices and ideas. However, this view unwittingly deprives the revolutionary leaders, such as the Castro brothers and Che Guevara, of any ideological and political agency and responsibility. As I show in my The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), prior to the revolutionary victory these leaders did have clear ideological and political tendencies, if not fully formed ideas, about what they would do once they came to power. These tendencies were incompatible with a view of socialism that placed the ideas and practices of workers and peasants’ democracy and self-management as a top priority.

The existing political structure is based on popular support, although it has greatly declined since the early 1990s. But it depends on the manipulation of that support as well as on censorship and repression. There are 200-300 political prisoners in Cuba today; the great majority of these have been jailed for activities of an entirely peaceful political nature. As recently as April 21, 10 women belonging to the organization “Women in White” were roughed up and arrested when they were peacefully demonstrating in support of their imprisoned relatives. The government claims that these women, along with other dissenters, are influenced and financed by U.S. imperialism. Even so, the peaceful political nature of these dissidents’ activities turns this into a political, not a police matter. It should be openly debated with the opposition in front of the Cuban people, who should be the ultimate judge of who is right and wrong in these questions.

Saul Landau says that when the Cuban artists and intellectuals declared they would not tolerate censorship, the leadership agreed with them. But nothing has been done to alter the institutional arrangements that maintain Cuban censorship, particularly those in the mass media organs under the control of the ICRT (Cuban Institute of Radio and Television). Thus, for example, the official Cuban press, radio, and television have been silent about the major protest at the University of Oriente in September 2007 and its aftermath. This is consistent with the long censorship record of the Cuban mass media, including the days-long delay in broadcasting the news of such major events as the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, the Cuban radio stations’ decades-long ban of the music of Celia Cruz, and the extremely limited and distorted coverage of the Cuban intellectuals’ protest at the beginning of 2007.

Sometimes this censorship has been quite crude. One example is the deliberate failure to translate into Spanish Noam Chomsky’s critique of the human rights situation in Cuba in an appearance on Cuban television during a visit to the island a few years ago. Another example is the reporting on Javier Bardem’s recent visit to the country by the newspaper Juventud Rebelde, where a very detailed biography of the Spanish actor omitted mention of his first Oscar nomination for playing the role of the Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls. Censorship reflects the state’s lack of trust in what people may think and do when privy to unfiltered information.

The same lack of trust underlies the regime’s approach to democratic rights. While it is true, as Landau indicates, that Cuba recently signed the UN covenants on human rights and labor, there is no evidence to suggest that the Cuban government intends to amend the constitution and laws of the country to comply with these new international commitments. This may happen only to the extent that the open protests from below that began in 2007 grow in strength and intensity and become national in scope. In the last analysis, it is only through the efforts of independent popular organizations that the majority of the people can defend themselves against the privileges and abuses that erode their civil rights and liberties. The same applies to maintaining the equality and sharing that are indispensable to socialism.

However, the issue is not about equally sharing poverty but sharing in an improved standard of living for all. Landau seems worried about whether Cubans will “succumb to the shiny lure of mass consumerism.” Besides being premature, such a judgment lacks any sense of proportion and is thus insensitive to the huge differences between Cubans on the island and the far wealthier North American consumers. “Consuming” for the majority of Cubans on the island is not primarily about the purchase of sophisticated electronic goods but the daily struggles of trying to obtain scarce construction materials to fix either their leaking or collapsing roofs, eating adequately without having to spend endless hours and scarce hard currency securing food, and acquiring the expensive and sometimes hard-to-get soap and other toiletries that are so essential to human self-respect and dignity in a modern society.

A socialism without democracy and civil liberties, where equality is limited to sharing poverty, is little different from a beehive with a Queen Bee in command. In such a society individualism would surely be eliminated, except for the Queen Bee’s, but so would political pluralism and individuality, which is not the same thing as individualism.

Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba. His most recent book is The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (University of North Carolina Press). Saul Landau, an internationally-known scholar, author, commentator, and filmmaker on foreign and domestic policy issues, has been a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies since 1972. He has written 13 books, thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and reviews, and made more than 40 films and TV programs on social, political, economic and historical issues. He is professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona University. Both are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus