Cuba: Challenges for an Anniversary

by Armando Chaguaceda Noriega

versión español

This January marks the half-century anniversary of Cuba’s historic revolutionary triumph of 1959: an arena for discovered passions, ideological myths and social conquests. Cuba will celebrate while confronting contrasting realities. The island is the only country in Latin America to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development goals; infant mortality is the lowest in the hemisphere (seven for every 1,000 live births), the average life expectancy is seventy-eight, 99 percent of children attend school, half of the population between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are enrolled in higher education, and there is universal health and social welfare coverage. Levels of inequality are limited and the most vulnerable regions and families are supported through state control of basic natural and economic resources, which facilitate relatively autochthonous development policies. National psychology and popular culture promote values such as equity, solidarity, dignity and the entrepreneurial spirit, which are largely supported by the policies of the Revolution.

Nevertheless, the island also faces enormous challenges: for the past thirty years the country has not been able to guarantee the long-term replacement of the population, and since 2006, the Cuban population is decreasing[1. Due to unclear reasons, some data indicate that the first half of 2008 had moderate population growth, a phenomenon that should be closely monitored.] as well as aging due to the combined effects of low birth rates (resulting from high levels of education), good medical coverage, the burden of economic difficulties and outmigration, primarily of young professionals. Urban poverty is at 20 percent and underconsumption is extensive; an informal economy is thriving along with disrespect for legalities seen as illegitimate by a citizenship lacking a culture of law. The desire to institutionalize processes comes up against the past practice of broad executive discretion and the (con)fusion between the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), the State and the Government; the centralized and verticalized culture of political management offers little stimulus for the effective development of popular local powers and has restricted ministerial functions. At the same time that the government of the United States is perceived as an historic threat to national independence, gringo society appeals to large numbers of people as a desirable life horizon.

From August 2006 to February 2008 the leadership turnover was undertaken without difficulty. Command functions were distributed and President Raúl Castro promoted the strengthening of institutionality directed by the Party. The changes are particularly important for the 70 percent of Cuba’s eleven million people who were born after 1959, especially the three million inhabitants under 20 years old, for whom the material crisis and its impact on morale constitutes “their life and view of socialism.” This period culminated in a series of critical decisions: settlement of the investments in the “Battle of Ideas,”[2. A series of social plans and investments of variable impact inspired by Fidel Castro and managed by teams brought together specifically to implement them, these initiatives sought to address issues accumulated in the critical years of the 1990s: youth unemployment, lack of education and health personnel, high technology medical services, renovation of cultural centers, and large editions of books, among others. Functioning parallel to and intertwoven with traditional public services, the projects have deployed significant resources from the national budget since their introduction in 2000.] payment of public debts to private farmers and increases of up to 250 percent in the bulk prices paid by the State for the milk and meat they produce, and some loosening of customs policies to allow individual imports of electronics. Additionally, there was the announcement of a longed-for salary reform that would eliminate caps on accrued income, stimulating individual effort.

In this period, some industrial investments (petrochemical) were made, aqueducts and roads were repaired, crucial hydraulic works were undertaken in the eastern provinces that had been affected by drought. In addition, regional production and sale of vegetables and milk were promoted, there was noticeable improvement in public transportation in the capital and some recovery in the health sector, food and trade. Nevertheless, ration card provisions (valid for fifteen days[3. Based on data from Havana, since the rest of the provinces, especially the rural zones, receive even fewer products. Furthermore, throughout the country there are products (cleaning supplies, oils, meat, dairy, vegetables, etc.) that must be purchased in regular establishments at market price.] of staples) continued to be restricted, real personal income remained stagnant (families currently spend almost 80 percent of their income on food), while the modest increase in salaries at the end of 2005 was offset by an increase in electricity rates for energy conservation.

Although some popular demands (elimination of restrictions on international travel, more space for individual initiative, etc.) have not yet been touched, the solvent sectors of society have seen prohibitions lifted on access to hotels, cellular phone service and the sale of some consumer goods. From various perspectives, these “openings” have been frequently assessed within a polar framework (choice between individual liberty with emphasis on formal law versus defense of social equity anchored in the effective capacity for consumption), revealing the need for a framework for creating and exercising rights with citizenship participation and accountability of discretionary actions by bureaucrats. Perfecting socialism democratically, as well as defense of popular interests in the face of a potential capitalist restoration (managed by segments of the techno-bureaucracy) require social accountability and “civil society—state” interfaces in which the former is not merely the transmission belt for the decisions of the latter.

In the international dimension, the necessary and promising orientation toward Latin America has been strengthened with the continued condemnation of the Yankee blockade, Cuba’s joining the Rio Group, and the backing of the Brazilian government (with increased trade, credit and investments) symbolically sanctioned with an invitation from Lula to Raúl to visit Brazil. Normalization of immigration with Mexico and improved relations with Argentina and Colombia indicate a positive direction. Nevertheless, the Cuba – Latin American rapprochement faces several obstacles. Allies’ internal difficulties (conflict over autonomies in Bolivia, electoral dispute in Nicaragua, opposition strength in Venezuela), pressures from the current world economic crisis, and the fact that the new “progressive” governments in the region use a different language than official Cuban political discourse and culture are some of the obstacles.

Fortunately, there is consensus among the leadership on the pressing need to improve the economy and increase food production.[4. In a PCC meeting in Matanzas on June 17, 2008, vice president Esteban Lazo called for working “with discipline” and “greater efficiency” to increase food production and decrease imports as a “fundamental strategy of the country and the greatest contribution that the Party can make today to save socialism.” At the end of July 2008, in the PCC Provincial Assembly in Santiago de Cuba, the first vice president José Ramón Machado Ventura mentioned “the low productivity of the labor force, lack of urgency, absenteeism and chaos in more than a few enterprises,” even more than limited resources, as factors responsible for “insufficient production levels” in the province’s agricultural sector.] These and other measures for popular welfare, such as housing construction and pension increases (although constrained by the accumulated demands and the demographic factors mentioned), and elimination of absurd prohibitions, may improve the environment for governability and reduce social pressure. But they are insufficient for reconstructing the state monopoly in allocating resources, values and social mobility of past decades, while the generalized illicit practices linked to economies of survival undermine morale and the material base of power.

The current moment is without a doubt a space for challenges and opportunities, naturally, influenced by contingencies. As an esteemed Cuban political scientist observes, “In the bureaucracy one can find people who are more or less inclined to change, but within the bureaucracy in positions of power there is a recalcitrant sector that does not want to cede a bit of power, decentralize, or give people greater participation in decisionmaking.”[5. “En juego, un nuevo modelo del socialism en Cuba,” interview with Rafael Hernández by Gerardo Arreola, La Jornada, November 29.] Obviously, with an historic leadership in decline new mechanisms for political mobilization and participation are needed; they will have to establish new “rules of the game” to achieve consensus and manage internal conflicts. The question becomes whether strategies anchored in conservative views of the “historic values of the Revolution” will be radicalized, whether Chinese or Vietnamese style economic reforms will be undertaken, and whether Cuban socialism will be reinvented in a participatory manner.

The most subversive, difficult and urgent challenge is guaranteeing the sustained continuity of the great promises of the Revolution (national sovereignty, autochthonous development, social justice), infusing them with increased popular engagement in politics and recognition of plurality. This implies, as Rafael Hernandez, director of the prestigious journal Temas, correctly states “approaching basic problems, such as expanding the forms of ownership of the means of productions to include social and private ownership, strengthening what is today a lack of citizen participation in the decisions of the government and control of public policies, and rearticulating the political consensus around a new model of socialism,” and above all accepting that “…. In socialism, dialogue between the leadership and public opinion, and the changes that dialogue evinces, should be part of normal politics, not a campaign or a slogan for periods of crisis. Renewal of the socialist project depends largely on that capacity of the leadership to interact with an educated people, thanks to the revolution, and on that same capacity will it be judged.”[6. Rafael Hernández, “El reto, nuevo modelo.” Processos No. 1638, February 24, 2008, Mexico. This author essentially agrees with Carlos Alzugaray, “Una aproximación desde la Isla, El ser y el devenir político de Cuba en los albores del siglo XXI,” in “Cuba el cambio al debate.” Encuentro, 2008; and “Cuba en su laberinto,” interview of Aurelio Alonso, La Ventana, Casa de las Américas web journal, November 15, 2008. Some of the points are suggestive in “Sobre la transición socialista en Cuba: un simposio,” Temas, no 50 – 51, April – September 2007.]

Preserving the gains of the Revolution, especially the idea of effective universal social rights assimilated as state responsibility, together with the aspiration for increased political participation by popular subjects, are conditions for launching a socialist democracy. In Cuba, this requires overcoming the associative fragmentation generated from the state apparatus, the promotion of autonomous spaces for popular organization, the reactivation and return to significance of mass organizations (reorienting their social mission), promotion of labor democracy, decentralization and participatory management at the local level, and a real democratization of political institutions and organizations able to put a brake on bureaucratic strengthening.[7. Julio César Guanche, “La autogestión del futuro,” (unpublished) presentation in Belén do Pará, Brazil, summer 2008. Also, Haroldo Dilla, “La dirección y los limites de los cambios,” Nueva Sociedad, no 216, July-August 2008 and Armando Chaguaceda, “La ley el desorden: lecturas desde la suciedad sic incivil,” Alma Máter, October 2008, Havana.] In the final analysis, Cuban socialism, having conquered the challenge of survival, has before it the enormous responsibility of renewal as the hope of ordinary people both on and beyond the heroic Caribbean island.


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