Cuban leaders have begun a reform process – combining certain ministries, opening up more farming possibilities and decentralizing certain functions. They have not given clear signals as to what model will emerge. The government appears determined to following the familiar path of pragmatic and cautious approaches to problems that have arisen over five decades, especially those aggravated because of the 1991 Soviet collapse. As the October 2009 Communist Party Congress grows nearer, the results of discussions throughout the country, the Party may add new wrinkles in Cuba’s half century quest to build a just system. Do not expect Cuba to abandon meaningful socialism.
Beginning with their 1959 revolutionary triumph, Cuban leaders have weaved a unique approach to social change. Western media has ignored that Cuba’s government has operated through consensus. Indeed, western reporters refer to Castro’s dictatorship as if such a concept was axiomatic.
Rather, under Fidel – a master of consensus politics – a collective leadership had to remove the old order and replace it with a just society, a Herculean task that one man could not do alone. To make their own system, Cubans faced the wrath of their former elites and the fury of a northern neighbor. Fifty years later, the US officials still froth at the mouth at Cuba’s audacious disobedience, Raul Castro and partners; including significant numbers of younger people, address a new formidable adventure: building sensible socialism on one island.
Raul acknowledged this on July 26, as he commemorated past successes and referred to needs for more reforms. Perpetual US aggression placed Cuba into a national security mentality, but Cuban leaders can blame US hostility for only some of their problems. Moncada, Sierra and Underground veterans can indeed boast of accomplishing their historic goals.
In 1959, after waging numerous wars and uprisings since the 1860s, Cubans won independence. Cuba then defended its revolution against US belligerence while simultaneously establishing an egalitarian system based on rights –to eat, have housing, medical care, education, etc… As gravy over their meat of success, Cubans danced – and still do — on the world stage: liberators of parts of Africa, slayers of the Monroe Doctrine, purveyors of emergency medical teams providing vital services to Pakistanis, Hondurans and others who suffered from natural disasters. Cuban eye specialists have saved the vision of countless third world people. Cuban artists, athletes and scientists have etched their names on the honor roles of talent throughout the world. And Fidel ranks as one of the 20th Century’s great leaders. When he would enter international public spaces, even some of his ideological opponents applauded – because of the respect he gained by courageously challenging US dictates.
The US media does not report on Cuba. It provides silly coverage of peripheral issues such as posing the Cuba issue as Fidel v. Raul. The story typifies rumor-based US journalism on Cuba. Ironically, the “superior” US press dismisses Cuban media as non-objective.
In a July 31, 2008 NY Times story, reporter Marc Lacey assumed the posture of cosmic knowledge. Lacy sneers at Fidel for having “left the country in economic disarray.” Funny, when did the NY Times refer to US economic disarray as millions suffer pains of unemployment, or devastating sub-prime mortgage madness; 50 million Americans lack access to health care or safety nets! Nor does one find references to “disarray” in rare stories about Honduras, sub Saharan Africa and other third world nations where majorities lack food, education and health care.
Instead of expressing amazement over Cuba’s role in shaping history, and affording millions of its citizens a chance to participate in events, despite their daily hardships, Lacey focuses on “the odd dynamic” between Raul and Fidel. Ahem! The two brothers have been partners in key decision since they attacked Moncada in July 1953. Moreover, in 2005, Fidel reminded the Party to change all that needed change.
The Party has not changed enough, however, to satisfy disaffected Cubans, those unimpressed by past accomplishments. “What do past glories have with to do with the uncertainty of daily life?” they ask. Possessing quality education, high skill levels and good health, they feel they deserve good jobs. Indeed, their entire school experience from day care through doctorates has taught them self esteem and stimulated them to expect the best. But quality jobs are scarce on the island – and in most third world countries. Several Cubans in their 20s and 30s offered glazed looks to references of the revolution’s accomplishments and replied: “I don’t see much future for myself here.” Yes, a qualified Engineer can feel frustrated making pizzas eight hours a day. Frustration can also lead some to become oblivious to the outside conditions that affect their lives. Cuba exists within the larger globalized corporate economy, possesses limited resources, and remains victim of a seemingly eternal US super embargo.
So thousands leave. The US government, bound by Treaty to authorize 20,000 residence visas annually, delivers many fewer. Yet, neither Clinton nor Bush Administration tried to get it repealed. Thus smugglers — not from the island — drool over their profits (about $15,000 per person) and some Cubans die at sea. These human trafickers took some 6000 to Mexico between October 2007 and April 2008. 3,000 more landed in South Florida between last October 2007 and July 2008. The Coast Guard intercepted 1700 others before they reached the US. Such migration occurs because of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, allowing Cubans – and no one else — to enter the United States. This law undercuts the formal visa process, in which consular officials vet the applicants. Yet, neither Clinton nor Bush Administration tried to get it repealed. Thus smugglers drool over their profits and some Cubans die at sea.
After Washington imposed an embargo 1962, Cuban issued libretas, ration books in an attempt to assure equality of distribution and a safety net, similar to British policy during World War II. During the “Special Period,” the State lacked sufficient goods to meet its obligations and the US tightened the embargo to further squeeze Cuba’s economy. People began hustling to obtain food. To do so, they broke the law by buying and selling illegally and stealing from the state. Such a situation logically dampened morale.
Cuba’s problems go beyond sagging commitment. This year, the government announced a dramatic shortage of teachers – 8,000 officially partly due to insufficient salary incentives. Fidel, writing from his convalescence, appealed to Cubans to understand such news in a proper context. “We don’t become discouraged by the news of enemies, who twist the meaning of our words and present our self-criticism as tragedies,” he wrote in Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper. Compare Cuba’s education to systems in the United States “and other rich countries,” he urged readers. “They have, yes, many more automobiles, use more gasoline, consume many more drugs, buy more costume jewelry and benefit from the looting of our people, as they have for centuries.”
Teacher shortages paled in comparison, however, to the performance of Cuban agriculture. Last year the government had to import more than 70% of the food offered through the libreta. Cuba now “exports” highly educated graduates, a judicious means to offer educational and technical assistance to needy countries and at times generate income as well.
Over the past two years, Cuba has begun to restructure its energy sector, refurbishing its electrical grid and introducing energy saving programs from light bulb replacement to obtain efficiency to producing solar energy and increasing public awareness on the issue. Imaginative urban agriculture and organic farming experiments have spread in an attempt to become more self sufficient. Changes in land usage also respond to discouraging levels of food production. The shift includes offering existing and perspective farmers clear material incentives, while eliminating cumbersome bureaucratic procedures.
Labor productivity, which should rank high given Cuba’s levels of education and skill, had sunk to disappointing levels. Inside the Cuban labor movement, healthy dialogue has begun to bring unions more into coincidence with current grievances. This process began earlier when Fidel, in 1987, referred to the prevailing “chapuceria” in the work place, sloppy and unfinished work, which sapped economic and moral strength.
Fidel taught Cubans to understand their entitlements, which meant they had the right to expect the state to meet these rights. Younger generations, however, don’t seem to recognize the State’s severe material limitations, nor are they impressed by Cuba’s egalitarian distribution of its less than sufficient wealth. They complain because the government doesn’t meet their childhood expectations. Cuban television rebroadcasts shows like Desperate Housewives, so Cubans see Americans with plasma TVs; not daily scenes of road rage and Americans going postal. TV and visiting Americans throw extravagant consumerism in the face of some Cubans,
Raul has talked about educating people to Cuba’s real possibilities and about decentralizing to increase efficiency and accountability. Raul – meaning the majority inside the Party apparatus — also called for diverse opinions inside the Party to address what many perceived as a paucity of dialogue. Communist Party leaders understand the need to build a sensible socialism.
The United States remains a constant security threat, which places limits on their imaginations. Indeed, Bush’s aggressive, impulsive shadow will loom until January 2009. Cuban leaders will move slowly, prudently and with grassroots participation. They don’t want to provide any excuse for a Bush “surprise.”
Nelson P. Valdés is a Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico.