[Marxism] The Cuban Revolution: Present and Future

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Wed Aug 25 19:18:40 MDT 2004


The message reposted here is an extended commentary by
Evergreen State University Professor Peter Bohmer. This report,
which synthesizes observations he made during extended visits to
Cuba in recent years. It's one of the most rounded and nuanced
overviews of the Cuban Revolution that I've seen in a very long
time. Please take the time to read it through and reflect on the
points he makes.


Walter Lippmann, Moderator, CubaNews
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CubaNews/
=========================================

From: Peter Bohmer <BohmerP at evergreen.edu> 
Date: Wed Aug 25, 2004 11:47am 
Subject: The Cuban Revolution: Present and Future  

The Cuban Revolution: Present and Future
by Pete Bohmer
August 23, 2004

Understanding Cuban society objectively is incredibly
difficult, given 45 years of unremitting US propaganda
against Fidel Castro, the Cuban government and Cuban
society. Even for those individuals critical of the U.S.
mainstream media, constantly hearing the Cuban government
called a dictatorship that has failed its people,
influences our perceptions. So do interviews or discussions
with Cubans who have immigrated to the United States, most
of whom are very critical of the Cuban system. I urge the
reader to be open to the following article which presents a
viewpoint at variance with the mainstream one of Cuba. This
positive, but not uncritical analysis of Cuba, is based on
in-depth study of Cuba for more than 35 years, two visits
to Cuba in the early 1990's, living there for four months
in 2001, and the recent trip I made with 23 students in
April and May, 2004.

To understand Cuban society, we have to place the political
economy of Cuba today, its successes and real problems, in
the context of the following:

1. 400 years of Spanish colonialism. This began with
genocidal attacks against the indigenous people of Cuba,
followed by an economy organized around sugar plantations,
where most of the labor force were enslaved and
super-exploited Africans. Slavery ended in 1886, but
extreme racism and economic segregation of blacks continued
until 1959.

2. U.S. domination and aggression. During the 1895-1898
Cuban war for independence, the U.S. intervened militarily,
claiming to support independence for Cuba, but then
dominated Cuba economically and politically until 1959. As
a condition for the U.S. ending its military occupation of
Cuba, Cuba had to sign the Platt Amendment, which was the
basis for establishing the U.S. base in Guantanamo, Cuba.
Today in Guantanamo, prisoners from around the world are
being held indefinitely with no rights and subject to
brutal treatment by the U.S. military. In addition, the
U.S. and Cuban elites dominated Cuba from 1902 to 1959,
with the U.S. sending troops and supporting Cuban
governments who were favorable to U.S. investors and
undermining those who weren't.

3. Cuba's alliances with the Soviet Union and the Eastern
bloc. In 1961, two years after the victory of the Cuban
revolution, Cuban President Fidel Castro declared the
country socialist and increasingly oriented its politics
and economy towards the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and
its allies paid a good price for sugar and sold Cuba oil at
reduced prices. They also extended many loans to Cuba.
Cuba's economy, including its technology and machinery,
consumption goods, imports and exports and methods of
economic planning became increasingly integrated with those
of the Soviet Union and its allies. This often meant
utilizing technology and using products that were below the
quality available in the West. Cuba diversified its economy
slowly, continuing to rely on sugar exports as its main
source of foreign exchange.

The Soviet system collapsed in 1989 and ever since, Cuba
has had a very difficult time maintaining socialist
principles while developing a different economic model from
the Soviet-inspired one. The transition to different
technologies has been difficult and costly. Cuba has
attempted to but has not been successful in developing an
economy that is both equal and also provides an increasing
standard of living for its people. The Cuban government has
called the period since 1989, the Special Period.

4. Global Capitalism. Cuba is part of a global economic
system that is increasingly unequal within and between
countries. For example, the price of Cuba's main export
good, sugar, sells for lower and lower prices relative to
the prices of Cuba imports, e.g., machines, and consumer
durables like refrigerators, on the world market.

5. The United States Blockade. During the period of Cuba's
alliance with the U.S.S.R., the U.S. claimed that hostility
towards Cuba was because Cuba was an extension of the
U.S.S.R in the Americas. However, notice that the U.S.
intervention has become even more aggressive since the
collapse of the U.S.S.R, which should lead us to question
the U.S. rationale in the past as well as the present. The
U.S. embargo, which the Cubans call a blockade, because it
limits Cuban trade with other countries besides the U.S.,
means that Cuba has had to pay a higher price for goods on
the world market that it imports such as medicines and
food, and has had to maintain a larger military budget than
it would otherwise. The blockade has also significantly
reduced Cuba's ability to export, which in turns means its
ability to import has also been reduced.

This is the context for understanding Cuba today. So when
U.S. leaders and academics say Cuba is a failed experiment,
economically and politically, they ignore this context. To
me, the five points I have outlined are the starting points
for understanding Cuba but not the end points. My position
is a critically supportive one that examines the Cuban
model and its decisions and policy. There are a few aspects
that I disagree with.

The Golden Period of the Cuban Revolution

>From the 1960's to the late 1980's, Cuba was one of the
most economically equal countries in the world. Almost all
production was owned and organized by the state. There was
free health care, equal access to free education, and full
employment. Hundreds of thousands of apartments were built
in Cuban cities--often in the form of huge apartment
complexes such as Alamar in Havana. In the countryside,
electrification, indoor plumbing, drinkable water and basic
housing was provided for almost all Cubans. Hunger and
absolute poverty were overcome.

Cuba was not a utopia during this period. There were
limited and insufficient consumer goods, slow economic
growth with a very slow rising of the standard of living;
and a paternalistic system where the government listened to
the people and management listened to worker complaints but
the decisions were made at the top. There were important
and major gains for women in accessing higher education and
entering and advancing in significant numbers in many
professions but little change in the sexual division of
labor at home, as women still did most of the housework.

There were striking changes towards achieving racial
equality as discrimination was outlawed, and the proportion
of black Cubans in secondary and higher education and in
higher status jobs began to approach their numbers in the
population although the top leadership in Cuban society was
still disproportionately white and male. The gains for
families who were poor before the 1959 Cuban revolution,
particularly in rural areas, was truly impressive--in
education, income, health, housing, and in being treated
with respect and dignity. Cuba had truly become a society
that was successful in changing for the better the lives of
those who had been historically at the bottom. This is an
accomplishment whose significance cannot be overstated. In
the early 1980's, in an article in the Wall Street Journal,
the author grudgingly admitted that the standard of living
for working people in Cuba was the highest in Latin
America, with the possible exception of Puerto Rico.

Cuba called itself socialist, meaning most production was
nationalized and state-owned, and production was not
organized for profit but rather was centrally planned to
meet the economic needs of the population. However, the
population had limited power in making major economic and
political decisions, e.g., on whether to develop nuclear
power.

The input of the population then and now comes mainly
through the mass organizations, such as the community-based
Committees to Defend the Revolution (CDR), the Federation
of Cuban Women (FMC), and the Cuban Federation of Workers
(CTC). It is through these mass organizations as well as
through the Communist Party, whose current membership
numbers over a million, and whose members are for the most
part respected by the Cuban people and closely linked to
the grass roots, that people can express their needs. In
other words, to look at this system as totally top down
where Fidel orders and the people follow misrepresents the
reality of a government quite connected to popular
sentiments. On the other hand, a viewpoint that claims that
the Cuban people and their elected representatives have the
power is also inaccurate.

The Special Period

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and various economic
and trade arrangements that Cuba had with the Soviet bloc,
Cuban production fell by more than one third from 1989 to
1993 and Cuban imports and exports were reduced by more
than two thirds. In the early 1990's, there was widespread
eye blindness and other health problems from an
insufficient diet and lack of vitamins. The survival of the
Cuba revolution was at stake. Cuba has survived with slow
but significant economic growth and a growing consumption
of necessities over the last 10 years. Nonetheless, most of
the population has a lower standard of living--around 25%
lower than they had in the mid 1980's. Most Cubans, unless
they have some way of earning or receiving dollars, live in
poverty although they are not hungry or homeless.

Most countries in the third world or global South have had
to structurally adjust their economies since the early
1980's because of balance of payments problems, meaning
they imported more than they exported, and thus, had to
make deals with foreign lenders such as the International
Monetary Fund in order to get loans to pay off the foreign
debt they were accumulating. The resulting structural
adjustment plans have increased economic inequality and
reduced social spending as countries have been forced to
reduce government spending and public employment and to
open their country up to foreign investors.

Cuba's structural adjustment since 1989 has been different,
although they too have a major foreign debt and have
struggled to reduce the imbalance between high imports and
low exports. To its credit, the Cuban state, has maintained
basic social services--free and available medical and
dental care, free education up to and including university
level, and food rations for the population at low and
affordable prices, although not the quantity or variety
that Cubans need and desire. Housing and utility bills are
affordable; although housing is often very crowded and most
people do not have phones. Infant mortality has continued
to fall and life expectancy has continued to lengthen.
Infant mortality, life expectancy and the health of the
population is the best in Latin America and is close to
that of the United States.

With the exception of agriculture, most production is still
organized by the Cuban state. Although there no longer is
full employment, jobs are easier to obtain and keep
compared to other countries in the Americas. Most young
people can find jobs although wages for most jobs are very
low. The unemployed as well as parents of children under a
year old receive 60 to 70% of the earnings of their last
employment, and parents are guaranteed their job back when
they return to work. Child care is available and
affordable.

Changes in the Cuban Economy

The major changes Cuba has made since 1989 have led to some
improvement in the standard of living but has created a new
set of social problems. The main changes are the following:

1. Legalization and widespread use of the dollar inside
Cuba. Since 1993, both the dollar and the Cuban peso are
used as money. Many goods in Cuba, mainly luxuries and
imports are priced in dollars or if in pesos, their prices
are very high for Cubans because they are converted from
dollars to pesos at the rate of 25 pesos to the dollar. For
example, chicken sells at about $1 U.S. or 25 pesos per
pound. Because of the high prices of these goods and
services in relation to salaries, this makes these goods
inaccessible to Cubans who don't receive dollars. The
average salary in Cuba is 250 pesos a month. This is worth
far more than ten dollars in terms of purchasing power
which is what 250 pesos can be converted into at the
exchange rate of about 25 pesos to the dollar. In
calculating the purchasing power of Cuban salaries, one
must consider that health and education are free; and that
prices are low, even in pesos, for food purchased on one's
ration card. For other goods and services, a peso is
roughly equal in value to a dollar, e.g., movies or bus
transportation. On the other hand, for many imports, e.g.,
a pair of jeans the price is $20 or 500 pesos, twice the
average monthly salary; and the price of cooking oil is $2
or 50 pesos for one liter (quart). Given the lack of goods
available at affordable prices, life is very difficult on a
peso salary.

Both the Cuban economy and Cuban families are dependent on
remittances, which is money sent by relatives to their
families in Cuba. This provides foreign exchange to the
Cuban government, as much of this money is spent on Cuban
goods and services, and the Cuban state and Cuban
enterprises then use these dollars they receive to buy
needed imports. It also provides purchasing power for the
40 to 50% of Cuban families who directly or indirectly
receive remittances. George W. Bush in an increased effort
to destroy the Cuban economy in order to cause an uprising,
announced on May 6, 2004, further restrictions on sending
remittances and gifts to Cuban relatives.

In addition, some Cubans in government enterprises earn
dollars. Since 1993, some highly skilled jobs considered
essential pay an incentive in dollars in addition to the
salary in pesos. A friend of ours who is an engineer gets
$11 a month in addition to his monthly salary of 350 pesos.

2. Tourism. About two million tourists now visit Cuba
annually, mainly from Western Europe, Canada, and Mexico.
The U.S. government not only is putting further
restrictions on U.S. tourism but is trying to limit tourism
to Cuba from other countries. Tourism is the main earner of
foreign exchange and Cuba is increasingly producing more of
what tourists consume. Two third of each tourist dollar is
now spent on Cuban-produced goods and services and thus
creates foreign exchange that can be used for imports for
the Cuban people.

Tourism is a mixed blessing. It creates foreign exchange
but it also increases desire by the Cuban population for a
first world standard of living. It reinforces sexism as
young Cuban women often sell themselves to foreigners.
Tourism also furthers racial inequality as black Cubans are
underrepresented in the tourist sector, both in Cuban-owned
enterprises and in mixed enterprises, meaning joint Cuban
and foreign ownership. The government and unions have
acknowledged this problem but it continues.

Much of the income generated from tourism does trickle down
to the general population as it ends up with the government
and in government banks. It is then used to purchase
necessary imports--medicines, buses, oil, machinery, even
agricultural products from the United States. On the other
hand, many Cubans working in the tourist sector get most of
their income in dollars, mainly from tips, which greatly
distort incentives in Cuba. Highly trained doctors,
engineers and foreign language specialists often do not use
their education and training but instead work as
waitresses, taxi drivers, hotel doormen, and as cleaning
staff because they can earn much more in the tourist
sector.

The tourist industry and the aforementioned remittances
also contribute to a growing inequality of income in Cuba,
between those who get dollars and those who don't. Cuba,
while far more equal than the rest of the Americas
including the United States is much less equal than it was
20 years ago and this is a source of discontent. Most
tourism is of the "beaches and sun" variety. Other forms of
tourism are less destructive of socialist values and are
being promoted: ecological tourism; cultural tourism
(tourists coming to learn about Cuba's history, culture and
revolution); medical tourism (visitors coming to Cuba for
medical care); and educational tourism, such as the
thousands of Venezuelan students studying in Cuba and
ourselves.

3. Foreign Investment. Cuba permits and encourages 50%
ownership by foreign companies in various industries, e.g.,
hotels, nickel mining, and biotechnology. This is an
attempt to bring in foreign capital and become more
integrated into the global economy and obtain up-to-date
technology to replace obsolete Soviet technology. The hope
is that this can be done without being dominated by and
becoming totally dependent on multinational corporations.
Most contracts include technology-sharing and teaching of
skills. Perhaps most important is ongoing off-shore oil
exploration. Cuba currently imports one half of its oil and
all of the oil used for transportation needs. Finding low
sulfur Cuban oil would substantially strengthen the Cuban
economy; it would make it easier for Cuba to import other
goods and reduce its continued imbalance in international
trade.

4. Agriculture. In agriculture, Cuba has moved away from
state farms and centrally planning agricultural production.
There has been a steady growth of private ownership of
farms, and of cooperative ownership of the land. Organic
farming techniques are increasingly used, and there has
been a large growth in urban gardens. Privately-run farmers
markets play an important role in supplying food. In them,
farmers sell produce, above what they are required to sell
to the state, at market prices. These reforms have
significantly increased agricultural production over the
last 12 years, particularly the organic production of
fruits and vegetables. Food consumption has increased
significantly although meat, except for pork is still
scarce and expensive. However, these reforms have also
created a group of high-income Cubans who sell produce at
the farmers markets at prices that are high for those
Cubans who do not have access to dollars.

5. New Industries. Cuba has an educated and skilled labor
force. There is significant research and development
resources invested in state industries such as medical
instruments, and developing and producing medicines for
AIDS, for curing cancer, hepatitis, malaria and other
diseases. This is part of what the Cubans call
biotechnology. There is a growth in the development and
production of computer software. Cuba hopes to sell these
products globally although exports in this sector are
growing much slower than the Cuban planners had projected.
The continuing hope is that this industry could be globally
competitive, pay a livable wage and bring in substantial
foreign exchange. Not surprisingly, the U.S. is trying to
prevent these sales by pressuring other nations not to buy
Cuban goods, but there is interest in developing and
marketing these products even by U.S. firms.

Overall Assessment

Cuban's survival in the face of the U.S. attempt to destroy
the Cuban revolution is a great achievement as is Cuba's
continuing to provide for the basic needs of its
population. For example, every single person in Cuba has
free dental and eye care. Every person in Cuba with AIDS
gets free, high-quality retroviral drugs.

Our responsibility as U.S. residents is to stop the
criminal embargo/blockade against Cuba that is being waged
by the U.S. government in our name. For 45 years, the
people in power in the United States have been unwilling to
accept a sovereign, independent Cuba. That is the main
reason behind the past and present immoral and illegal U.S.
actions against Cuba; we have the responsibility to change
U.S. policy. During our six weeks in Cuba, we were all
impressed by how well we were treated and received by the
Cuban people and government who consider the U.S. people,
but not the U.S. government as their friends. It is up to
us to make the difference between the people of the U.S.
and our government greater, to make our government's
aggression against Cuba so unpopular in the United States
that it is forced to accept Cuban sovereignty.

If the people in the United States are successful in
getting our government to end the blockade, U.S. tourism to
Cuba will grow exponentially. This will cause new problems
in Cuba such as a growing desire for a first world standard
of living, but it is up to Cubans who unanimously want the
blockade to end, to deal with this.

In so far, as we work to end the blockade, we have a right
to humbly criticize the Cuban system although the U.S.
government does not have that right given its past and
present policies. Cuba is as just as any country in the
world; it deserves critical support from the people of the
U.S. but there are real problems.

Cuba has not developed a workable strategy for
simultaneously achieving economic and social equality,
people's power and an improving quality of life. The main
efforts of the Cuban government have been to survive, to
maintain basic services and to increase economic
production. They have accomplished the first two of these
objectives but have not so far developed a strategy for
sustainable economic development. Economic growth is
necessary; otherwise increases in needed services such as
public transportation comes at the expense of other needed
goods and services. Possibly, increasing worker
participation and power in work places could lead to higher
productivity and production.

Income inequality is still worsening. Income equality could
be improved by increasing the types and quantity of goods
available at subsidized prices on the ration cards, and/or
moving to one currency and price system and raising wages
substantially for those getting paid in pesos. However,
unless production is increased substantially and higher
incomes are taxed more heavily than now, these reforms will
cause huge inflationary pressures as demand increases; and
increase balance of payments problems as imports increase.

Cuban society is not the dictatorship you hear about in the
media here; people do speak up and criticize, and there is
no torture or disappearance of dissidents. There is some
suppression of the organized opposition. This repression is
because of the fear and the reality of the U.S. commitment
to overthrow the Cuban revolution and return Cuba to a
neocolonial status. We need to understand the context for
Cuban government behavior without necessarily supporting
it. The U.S. government does support much of the opposition
in Cuba, for example, the 75 Cuban dissidents who were
arrested and imprisoned in 2003. If Cuba openly financed
opposition to capitalism in the U.S., or intervened in the
U.S. elections, think how people in the U.S. receiving
money from the Cuban government would be treated. Also, the
U.S. is a clear threat to Cuba; Cuba is not to the United
States, meaning that Cuban fears and actions are more
justifiable than the United States actions would be.

Nonetheless, there is only a limited role for worker
control in Cuban enterprises, and the state-owned media is
limited in its criticisms of the government. Because daily
life is difficult and time-consuming in Cuba, participation
and activism in public life have declined. Cynicism and
dissatisfaction have grown, particularly among the young.
The Special Period has been particularly hard for women as
it has meant that maintenance of the family and family
responsibilities take more time, e.g., the decline in
public transportation, and there is less income available.
The burden of this time and money squeeze has mainly fallen
on women so they have less time than before for
participation at the workplace, in the community and in the
women's federation.

However, the Cuban revolution, the concept of socialism and
Fidel Castro and the Communist Party are seen as legitimate
by the majority of the population, and the overwhelming
majority would fight in support of the revolution if the
U.S. invaded. During our trip, we heard from many different
Cubans that they and the revolution will persevere even
with the most recent May, 2004 tightening of the blockade.
This includes the reduced possibilities of U.S. travel to
Cuba for educational purposes as well as by Cuban
Americans, the increased funding by the U.S. government of
groups who are actively trying to overthrow the Cuban
government and of anti-Cuban propaganda, and other measures
aimed at isolating Cuba and hurting the Cuban economy by
reducing their access to foreign exchange.

The Future of Cuba

The Cuban government and many Cuban people fear a U.S.
invasion. I think it is possible although not likely. There
will, however be increased pressure and aggression against
Cuba if Bush is reelected. U.S. provocations such as flying
military planes with radio and TV transmitters, which Bush
announced on May 6, 2004, could lead to violations of Cuban
airspace and U.S. military attacks on Cuba if Cuba defends
itself against these violations. John Kerry's position on
Cuba is not as bad as the current administration's but he
does not accept Cuban self-determination and sovereignty as
the basis for U.S. foreign policy. Kerry has said, if
elected President, he would end the travel ban but he would
not end the embargo/blockade or establish normal diplomatic
relations with Cuba. If we are concerned about human rights
and the right of all nations to choose their own system, we
should do what we can to stop the U.S. from waging war
against Cuba, whether it is an invasion or the continuing
blockade.

In conclusion, the survival and maintenance of the Cuban
Revolution is incredibly important for the Cuban people and
globally. It is an alternative to neoliberalism and a
beacon of hope for oppressed people around the world. I am
often asked what will happen after Fidel Castro retires or
dies. I think there will be no big changes immediately in
Cuba nor will U.S. hostility end as it is aimed at the
Cuban system not just at Castro. My hope for the future of
Cuba is that as we work to reduce U.S. aggression, and as
Cuba gains more economic and political allies in the world
such as Venezuela, that Cuba will experiment with more
people's democratic power and build a socialism that is
participatory, egalitarian, and increasingly meets the
needs of its people.
 








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