Monday, March 26, 2012

Translation: Constitutional changes needed

Here, a Granma reader argues that Cuba's socialist Constitution needs to be amended in line with the transformation of Cuba's socialist-oriented economic model, in particular the legalisation of small private businesses. I commented on the need for such constitutional amendments in a May 2011 post. You can read an English translation of the Cuban Constitution here.  

The author says that legalising small private businesses is not a step towards socialism, but a necessary retreat in order to advance. The reference to Lenin recalls Lenin and Trotsky's New Economic Policy in Soviet Russia in the early 1920s, an experience that the architects of Cuba's new socialist economic model have no doubt studied in depth.

Much confusion has resulted from the word "socialism" being used interchangeably, in Cuba and elsewhere, to mean two very different things: a society in which the state, money and social classes have withered away — the communist society envisioned by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, conceivable only on a world scale — and a post-capitalist, communist-oriented society such as Cuba that is confined by international isolation to the beginnings of the transition from capitalism to communism. 

An example of such ambiguity can be seen in the letter below, in which the author states that "the employment of wage labour by individuals" contradicts "to some degree the socialist character of the socio-economic system." 

What is meant by the word "socialist" here?

If "socialist" is synonymous with communist society, then wage labour would indeed contradict the character of this mode of production. In such a society the distinction between labour and leisure would have been transcended, the compulsion to work giving way to free creative practice. The generalisation of automated production would make possible the satisfaction of the rational needs (which are not the same as the consumerist cravings stimulated by capitalism) of all members of society. There would be no need to ration access to goods and services via wages.

Cuba is light years from this lofty objective.

If by "socialist" is meant a communist-oriented society at the beginnings of the transitional epoch, such as Cuba today, then (as I argued in my previous post) the only absolute requirement with respect to property forms is that the "commanding heights" of the economy  large-scale industry in which labour is objectively socialised  are social property. Self-employment, small private businesses and cooperatives whose market relations are subordinated to central planning by the socialist state are in no way incompatible with such a society.

The Co
nstitution and the updating of socialism 

By J. C. Mora Reyes, Granma letter, March 23, 2012

Translation: Marce Cameron

I’m one of the many who are grateful for this space for opinion and public debate, proof positive that all viewpoints are valued. Grateful that it exists and that diverse opinions can be expressed honestly, without any taboo topics, sparking the interest of the citizens regarding matters that concern everyone and that serve to spur participation as both a necessity and a right.

In this spirit I’d like to express an opinion on a question that is, in my view, of fundamental importance.

While modifications to the Constitution of the Republic are a recourse that should not be used excessively, there is no reason to not make such changes if they are necessary and feasible.

I offer by way of example certain measures, above all those related to the employment of wage labour by individuals, that contradict to some degree the socialist character of the socio-economic system. The Constitution prohibits, explicitly and categorically, exploitation (Articles 14 and 21, Paragraph 2), and for good reason. The inclusion of such a prohibition in the Constitution is not an error committed in the past, but an authentic expression of the new society to which we aspire but which lies beyond the realms of possibility in this historical moment – though other laws uphold indispensable worker’s rights, such as the minimum wage and retirement pensions on the basis of employer contributions.

It’s pointless, and doomed to failure from the outset, to try to argue that exploitation and socialism can be reconciled. The people’s intelligence, education and capacity for critical thought would not allow it. On the contrary, it will be readily understood if it is explained with complete honesty – proof of the respect that is always appreciated – that to legalise this kind of work, which is contrary to how we have conceived of it up to now, far from being an advance, as some claim, implies, as Lenin would say, a retreat to new positions from which to wage the revolutionary struggle, positions that are advantageous tactically and strategically in terms of the Revolution’s objectives.

The Constitution will have to be amended to address crucial questions such as those mentioned above, but in such a way as to leave room for retreat without abandoning the path of building socialism. Which, by the way, goes beyond simple declarations: we can declare ourselves to be loyally carrying on with socialist construction while making mistakes that lead to its demise, above all if we lack clarity on the scope of such fundamental issues which oblige us to seek solutions to economic problems today.

If we want to strengthen the institutionalism that is indispensable for the improvement and updating [of the socialist economic model], this must be done on the basis of the legality that flows from the Constitution. In other words, nothing must be done if the letter of the Constitution does not permit it, lest we undermine it or weaken its regulatory role in the legal, economic, political and social spheres, with the serious consequences this implies. We must be flexible in the search for the forms, ways, methods and procedures to implement what emanates from the Constitution, always within the limits it establishes.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Comment: Cuba's alternative to privatisation

Here is the fourth of a series of articles written for Australia's Green Left Weekly on the debates and changes in Cuba. Parts 1, 2 and 3 are herehere and here.

Cuba’s alternative to privatisation

Green Left Weekly #914, March 11, 2012

By Marce Cameron

Cuban President Raul Castro has urged the Caribbean nation's citizens to contribute to a free and frank debate on the future of Cuba’s socialist project.

For the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), the aim of this debate is twofold: to strive for consensus on a new Cuban model of socialist development and to empower Cuba’s working people to implement what has been decided.

In other words, to advance a socialist renewal process in the face of entrenched opposition from within the administrative apparatus.

It is first and foremost a debate about the economy. A draft policy document, the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines, was submitted to a national debate for three months before to its adoption by the Sixth PCC Congress in April last year.

The core principles and objectives of the draft were conserved, but the final version of the Guidelines was substantially modified on the basis of this public debate.

The PCC said total attendance at the 163,000 local debates held in workplaces, study centres and neighbourhoods was about 8.9 million, with many people attending more than one.

More than three million interventions were noted and grouped into 781,000 opinions, about half of which were reflected in the final document. A summary detailing each modification and its motivation, and the number of interventions in favour, was published after the congress.

The Guidelines is not a theoretical document. The government commission responsible for overseeing its implementation has been charged with drafting, as Castro put it, “the integral theoretical conceptualisation of the Cuban socialist economy”.

Rather, the Guidelines is a set of principles and objectives that point to a new Cuban socialist-oriented economic model.

Yet implicit in them is a reconception of the socialist-oriented society in Cuba’s conditions.

Transitional society

The ultimate objective of the socialist revolution is a global classless society in which technology enables minimal human labour to produce goods and services, allowing these to be freely distributed to satisfy people’s rational needs.

Socially owned, this system of production would free everyone from the compulsion to work for others. It would allow a flowering of the human personality that is stunted by capitalist exploitation and alienation, both of which are embodied in the capitalist market.

What blocks this transition is not a lack of technology, but private ownership of most productive wealth and the class rule of the corporate rich over society.

The transition from capitalism to socialism is marked by tension between planning and the market. Democratic planning to meet social needs first becomes increasingly dominant, then ultimately the sole determinant of economic activity.

Without revolutions in advanced industrialised societies, socialist revolutions in industrially underdeveloped countries such as Cuba — inheriting economies stunted by centuries of 
colonial and neocolonial plunder — are confined to the beginnings of the socialist transition.

This implies a mixed economy with various forms of ownership and management. The only absolute requirement is that the “commanding heights” of the economy are owned by the socialist state — described by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto as “the proletariat organised as the ruling class”.

A caveat must be added in light of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism”: socialist state ownership has no automatic bias towards socialism. There must also be socialist democracy.

Nowhere did Marx, Engels or Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin argue that self-employment and small-scale private and cooperative enterprise are incompatible with progress towards socialism.

For Lenin, in his 1923 article “On Cooperation”, assuming socialist state ownership of large industry, the socialist-oriented society is “the system of civilised cooperativists”.

The notion that building socialism requires state ownership and management of almost the entire economy was born of Stalinist totalitarianism. Far from beginning to wither away as anticipated by Marx, the Soviet state from Stalin to Gorbachev assumed monstrous proportions.

Revolutionary offensive

In March 1968, Cuba’s socialist state expropriated nearly all urban small businesses in an episode known as the “Revolutionary Offensive”.

This was justified at the time by the need to combat hoarding and speculation by petty proprietors. The US economic blockade, the emigration of skilled workers and revolutionary inexperience had led to shortages of consumer goods.

It was also aimed at depriving US-sponsored counter-revolutionaries of points of support among urban small traders and business people.

Yet it was also seen as a step towards a classless society. As it turned out, it was a premature step and therefore counterproductive.

A great deal of planning goes on in big capitalist enterprises. The socialisation of the labour process embodied in large-scale industry is the basis for social ownership and democratic planning in the socialist-oriented society.

Yet even in developed capitalist societies there are economic sectors in which labour is not socialised on a scale that would allow for rational planning.

Rather than seeking to “outgrow” the market in step with the objective socialisation of labour arising from economic development, Cuba’s Revolutionary Offensive abolished the market at a stroke.

In recent years this has been the subject of much public debate in Cuba.

Since early 2008, the PCC daily Granma has opened its pages to criticisms, proposals and debate contributions from readers. There is an ongoing debate on state ownership and management of small productive and service entities, such as cafes and bicycle repair workshops.


As one reader argued in a December 9, 2009 Granma letter: “Following their nationalisation by the Cuban state in 1968, small businesses and retail firms were converted, little by little, into a source of illicit profit, the robbery of the state, inefficiency and maltreatment ...

“Arguably socialism, by definition, necessitates social ownership of the fundamental means of production, and this is not at odds with personal, family or cooperative property in some means of production or services.

“The state must free itself from the yoke of these entities which, far from being social property, have become a means for the enrichment of a minority that exploits [the majority] to the detriment of the satisfaction of the needs of the client, that is, the people.”

In other words, these entities have undergone de-facto privatisation at the hands of corrupt administrators who pay no taxes on their illicit earnings.

The opposing view is that expanding the scope of cooperatives and other small-scale private enterprise is unnecessary and unwise. The solutions proposed lie on the subjective plane — replacing corrupt administrators with honest ones, for example.

Such solutions don’t address the material roots of the problem: the inability of the socialist state to centrally manage such entities with quality and efficiency, and average state wages that don’t cover all basic living expenses in Cuba’s post-Soviet Special Period.

Widespread petty theft from the socialist state is an inevitable consequence of the latter.

The Guidelines rule out privatisation and the concentration of productive property ownership in the hands of a new Cuban capitalist class.

At the same time, they give the green light to an expanded small-scale private and cooperative sector that is projected to embrace almost half the workforce by 2015.

How can these two objectives be reconciled?

Avoiding privatisation

The idea is to lease small productive and service entities, from bakeries to beauticians, to self-employed individuals, small private businesses and cooperatives. Social ownership of these premises, which belong to the municipal People’s Power governments, 
would be retained.

These governments and the socialist state will regulate leased entities to ensure that they fulfill certain social objectives.

Responsibility for running these enterprises, however, passes from the state to their workers, who operate them in a competitive environment where prices are set by the market rather than central planning.

In agriculture, the government is promoting a large-scale “return to the land”, leasing farmland rent-free on a long-term basis — an arrangement known as usufruct — to individual farmers, cooperatives and state farms.

This puts farmers, rather than Havana-based administrators, in the driver’s seat while avoiding a concentration of land ownership.

Castro summed up Cuba’s alternative to privatisation in the Main Report to the Sixth PCC Congress: 

“The growth of the non-public sector of the economy, far from an alleged privatisation of social property as some theoreticians would have us believe, is to become an active element facilitating the construction of socialism in Cuba.

“It will allow the state to focus on raising the efficiency of the basic means of production, which are the property of the entire people, while relieving itself of those managerial activities that are not strategic for the country.”

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Translation: Privileges to those who deserve them

A Cuban youth committed to the Revolution speaks his mind in this Granma letter to the editor. 

The emigration of disenchanted Cuban youth to countries such as the US, Spain (where youth unemployment hovers around 50%), Mexico and Ecuador seems to be one of the few remaining taboo topics in the Cuban press. 

Many seek higher salaries that would allow them to better support family in Cuba or abroad; some just want to experience more of the world than their Caribbean island and escape its economic hardships; others chase the "American Dream". Not all those who emigrate find what they're looking for, though some do. 

The exodus of highly educated youth is not only demoralising, it also has serious economic consequences despite the flow of remittances back to Cuba. Some of Cuba's best young minds in the technical sense are serving capitalist corporations in other countries rather than Cuba's socialist revolution.

The US government's infamous Cuban Adjustment Act aims to deprive Cuba of skilled workers by encouraging risky and illegal crossings of the Florida Straights in small craft, creating the propaganda spectacle of Cubans "fleeing the communist dictatorship". Any Cuban citizen who reaches the US coastline can stay and apply for US citizenship after a year.

Haitians and other Caribbean nationals who land on US shores without authorisation are sent back to where they came from.

A key objective of the "updating" of Cuba's socialist-oriented
 economic model, though not one that is explicitly stated in the Guidelines, is to make employment for skilled workers more rewarding in every sense, above all in terms of remuneration, so that, for example, a surgeon does not have to drive a taxi on the weekend to make ends meet. 

The dedication of such workers in the face of the hardships and privations of the Special Period is what has kept the Revolution afloat in the chilly waters of neoliberal globalisation. Behind the impressive statistics on health care and education are millions of committed human beings imbued with revolutionary spirit.

A substantial minority of Cubans think and act very differently, however, as illustrated in the candid vignette below. 
The struggle to renew Cuba's socialist project is the struggle of the former to prevail over the latter in the spheres of economics, ethics and ideology. The economy of the socialist-oriented Cuba that is emerging must "privilege those who really deserve it". 

Privileges to those who deserve them

Letter to the editor, Granma, March 2, 2012

Translation: Marce Cameron

I’m one of the many youths who is concerned about the future of their country. I feel proud of its gains and advances in various sectors
, thanks to the socialism we’ve defended for 50 years. I consider it to be the most just country and socialism to be the most viable option for saving humanity.

But I’m also the first to acknowledge the mistakes we’ve make in its construction and improvement. With constructive criticism I open the door to the empty minds of those who care only about the good life and who salivate at the American Dream.

I once read a commentary by Commander in Chief Fidel Castro that contained a phrase which made an impression on me. From that time on I’ve carried it with me wherever I may go as a devastating weapon, firing it at point blank range at whoever dares to make a superficial criticism: “Anyone who wants more than what is indispensable in order to live is worth less as a human being.” Most people are speechless at such a magisterial phrase; life shows that this is how it is.

Recently I graduated from law school, and ever since I was a student I’ve read and analysed the letters pages of this newspaper, created so that the people could raise their problems and propose solutions. I’d like to take up an issue, one of many that concerns me and makes me feel uncomfortable: the wholesome recreation of young people, whether students or not, for an affordable and fair price.

For some years there was a scheme organised by the Union of Young Communists in which entry was granted to discos, cabaret tables, swimming pools and camping cabins at a price that, while it was out of reach of most parents, did make them more willing to fork out for it. They could give a treat to their son or daughter, but they’d have to earn it by getting good grades; this is something any honourable family educated by the Revolution should do without hesitation. However, it’s true that it didn’t work well, and neither should granting subsidies be a function of the organisation.

Today, these kinds of activities are organised in some educational institutions, but it’s still insufficient, given that it doesn’t meet the needs of all youth who need this type of entertainment. In addition, while the entry price may be affordable, the prices of drinks and food are unchanged. If you go to a disco, the entry price ranges from 2, 3, 5, 10 and up to 20 Cuban convertible pesos. What son or daughter of a worker or farmer with an average income, what intellectual or official in the armed forces or the police, could pay such a sum of money? The same is true of the products sold in these places.

I’m aware that the world finds itself in a deep economic-financial crisis and that our country is not unaffected by this, so we have to eliminate excessive wastage, superfluous spending and gratuities, among other problems that were addressed in the Sixth Communist Party Congress, but this doesn’t justify these unaffordable prices. Why the difference in prices between the products sold in the chain of convertible currency stores and those in the recreational venues previously referred to? Why double or triple the prices in convertible pesos if wages are static and most of the people who frequent them are young students? Are they higher quality products? We all know this isn’t the case, they say it’s because of the venue and what it offers. It seems to me this justification is for the rich in capitalist societies, and not for a young person of modest means born in a socialist Revolution who burns the midnight oil studying in order to be able to contribute to their country in the future, or he or she who makes sacrifices by working in any state sector that contributes to economic development and they just want to go out with their friends or their girlfriend or boyfriend.

I think that if one of these venues attracted 50, 100 or more people at an entry price of 2 convertible pesos and with reasonable prices for additional purchases, it would be able to cover its costs and contribute to tax revenues.

Despite the high prices y
ou see many youth frequenting the best places and consuming large quantities of the aforementioned products as if they were sold in regular Cuban pesos. There’s no doubt that the great majority of them neither study nor work, they live off the black market which does so much harm to those who really strive to take the country forward. Those who sell their bodies or do all kinds of denigrating acts also abound, as do the kids of the new rich, and I ask myself: is it for them that these recreational venues exist? If so, it’s not in keeping with the truly revolutionary youth in which our top leaders have placed their trust. 

It’s hardly gratifying to arrive at work or school exhausted and see how in the corner of any square you meet a childhood playmate who spends the day lazing about, drinking beer, driving around and of course, entering and leaving nightclubs in the fanciest clothes and believing themselves to be the master of the universe. If you ask them what’s happening in Cuba or in the world, they tell you they couldn’t care less what’s going on, that they just want to leave the country, and other things I’m not going to repeat given their obscene and offensive content.

These and other related issues have been the subject of debate on various occasions by university students, revolutionaries, humble people, those willing to give their lives for the country and in honour of those youths that died throughout our history for the cause that the new generations enjoy today. Despite this, we lack things needed by young people that up to know only exist in dreams given the economic situation. If we oriented the social pyramid the way it should be we’d rescue ethical values and incentivise the importance of study and work, but for this we have to begin privileging those who really deserve it.

J. Martos Yapur

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Translation: Our kind of dissent

Imperialism's propaganda war against Cuba shapes our perceptions in subtle ways.

Tiny grouplets of Cuban citizens who receive funding from US subversion programmes aimed at regime change are labelled "dissidents" by the corporate media. They're paid to saturate the blogosphere with diatribes against Cuba's social order, which happens to be different from the one that dominates the planet.   

What does Yoani Sanchez, the narcissistic child of US neocolonial aspirations, dissent from? The decaying global capitalism that has given rise to the Arab Spring, the indignados and the Occupy movement? The US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?   

Could it be that the millions of Cubans who sustain an epic resistance on their besieged archipelago are the real dissidents?

Here, Juventud Rebelde deputy editor Ricardo Ronquillo Bello touches on several important themes. The internet poses an additional challenge to Cuba's revolutionary media alongside those arising from efforts to overhaul Cuba's socialist-oriented development model.

Our kind of dissent 

By Ricardo Ronquillo Bello, Juventud Rebelde, March 3, 2012

Translation: Marce Cameron

There’s an alluring connection between an editorial in our daily – published on March 13, 1999 – and the 120 year anniversary of the Newspaper of the Homeland that we’ll celebrate on March 14 and the Cuban Revolutionary Party[1] that gave rise to it.

“This paper was and will be a dissident one”, was the heading under which Juventud Rebelde announced its resumption as a daily paper. “We have a moral and patriotic obligation to dissent from those who are ashamed of their past[2], from those who sell themselves for 30 greenbacks, from those who adopt the uncomfortable position of kneeling so they can be blessed by the wind from the north[3]; we dissent from those who don’t believe in dreams, from the docile and the corrupt”, we said back then. “We return in rebellion against the physical and mental idlers, the sloths and the inept, the pessimists and the defeated.”

In that editorial it was also stated that we return to a daily schedule not as an independent newspaper, but one with a great dependence on our history, on our people, on our most genuine and valid traditions, on our Revolution.

The editorial did no more than reaffirm for the readers, during the times in which we overcame the greatest moral blow dealt to socialism, what had been the dilemma of the Cuban press journalists.

We came from a journalistic and revolutionary tradition nurtured by the deepest vocation to serve, passed on from the founders of the nation, among others Father Felix Varella who, when addressing the purpose of and progress towards independence, pointed out that he renounced the pleasure of being applauded for the satisfaction of being useful to the homeland. For Jose Marti, the press should be the guard-dog of the house of the homeland: “It must disobey the appetites of personal welfare and attend impartially to the public good.”

This legacy should also serve those accustomed to the apologetic justifications, the silences and the distortions that were never lacking along the complex path of socialist construction, and as a pillar for the kind of press demanded by almost all the social, political and economic actors in the country, including generations of journalists.

It's not viable to continue encouraging forms of journalism based on reaffirmation that were entrenched in no few of our journalistic spaces, while turning to others to defend the best revolutionary ideas. We need to pass from forms of institutional dependence to independence, or self-regulation, as advocated by those who teach journalism.

Journalistic practices based on reaffirmation and marked institutional dependence often ignore the descent into errors, making the reversal of their consequences more complex and costly.

No few evils that hold back our society persist due to the distortion of the checks and balances functions of the media, together with those of other structures of democratic debate. Voluntarism, combined with apologetics and the absence of institutional self-regulation, ended up being a deplorable trinity.

It’s not coincidental that the press, which had arrived at the most recent congress of the Cuban Journalists Union with updated orientations for its work from the Political Bureau of the Communist Party, is faced with a necessary transformation, as stressed in the debates at the National Conference of the Party and in those we’ve been having in the journalists union branches.

The establishment of clear institutional spaces for the press is unavoidable to block the path of interference and interventions that alter its content and functions, above all in the Cuba that reassesses its structures and in which the Party and the institutions adjust their links and connections with society.

This is happening as the Revolution updates it economic model as the first step towards gradual modifications. Here, the responsibility falls on us to contribute to the necessary political consensus and awaken the professional vigilance needed to avoid distortions of their scope and motivations – as we’re already doing, not without difficulties and misunderstandings.

We cannot ignore the fact that the Revolution is about to enter its most difficult trial by fire: the disappearance of its generation of historical leaders. Meanwhile we are gradually, though inexorably, losing the Cuban media’s monopoly of influence as a result of the rise of the internet.

In this readjustment the Cuban press must clear the way for the promotion of civic debate and revolutionary counterattack. It doesn’t matter who barks, Sancho[4]: conviction in the face of distortion should be our watchword.

Translator's footnotes:

[1] The pro-independence and social justice party founded by, among others, independence leader Jose Marti. 

[2] Presumably a reference to revolutionaries who lost heart when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cuban Revolution entered its post-Soviet “Special Period” crisis. 

[3] The US coastline lies 150km north of Cuba. 

[4] From a well-known passage in Miguel Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote: “The dogs are barking, Sancho, it’s a sign that we’re moving”.