A Socialist Survival Tactic: Cuba’s Worker Parliaments

Photograph Source: Keith Ruffles – CC BY 3.0

Defending itself from the extremely hostile bully to the north is old hat and a constant activity for Cuba. This was especially so, after the collapse of the USSR and European socialism roughly 35 years ago nearly crushed Cuba, which immediately lost its chief trading partners, while the U.S. blockade strangled it. Forced to turn inward, Cuba strove to improve its productivity and workforce, without damaging the twin foundations of the revolution, education and health care. That it did so, that this small, besieged nation turned a dangerous even deadly situation around, happened thanks to the efforts of committed revolutionaries like Pedro Ross, who helped found the workers’ parliaments – specifically to save the revolution at this lethal juncture. It worked. Now Ross has written a book about it.

His recently published How the Workers’ Parliaments Saved the Cuban Revolution details the at first frantic, but soon thereafter steady, methodical and committed continuation of efforts to prevent the Cuban economy from capsizing. Cuba had managed to do this before. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, 70 percent of Havana’s trade was with the U.S. That vanished overnight. With the post-revolution blockade, Cuba needed new trading partners; the country found them in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc. But when socialism in those nations collapsed, Cuba’s “gross domestic product fell by nearly 35 percent,” Ross writes. “Cuba lost more than 70 percent of its foreign markets. The oil supply fell from 13 million tons to 5.8 million. In 1990, 3 billion rubles in products were no longer received.” To make matters worse, the U.S. intensified the blockade. Because, of course.

To cope with this catastrophe, Cuba created workers’ parliaments. These came in response to what Cubans call the “Special Period,” i.e. the time immediately after socialism’s demise, and in these parliaments “more than three million workers, men and women…engaged in intense and ultimately fruitful debates about how the country should respond to the challenges of the Special Period.” With over 80,000 such parliaments, problems from the black market to absenteeism, to new taxes to distributing agricultural and livestock products, to fees for identity cards to increasing revenue from rum and cigar sales, to crime and much more were thrashed out; “for forty-five days, Cuba became a vast school of economics and politics,” focusing on economic efficiency and reorganization of domestic finances. The workers’ parliaments reported back to Castro, who had lots of input.

A founding principle of these confabs was that the workers are owners. “Therefore, solutions should be based on labor consensus,” Ross writes. This was, after all, a government, one of whose first acts on coming to power in 1959 was to give all tenants ownership of their residences. “Landowning was eliminated and the means of production were substantially nationalized.” If you ever wonder at the Exceptional Empire’s implacable hatred of Cuba, just recall facts like that.

Workers participating in these parliaments labored to protect what Ross calls the two pillars of the revolution, education and health care. The eye-popping success of Castro’s literacy program is world-famous. When the revolution succeeded, much of the population was illiterate; the rural illiteracy rate stood at 41.7 percent. That’s a lot of people who couldn’t read. But within three years, the literacy rate soared and 96 percent of Cubans were reading. Also globally renowned are Cuba’s medical achievements, as this poor, sanctioned, island country has, over decades, sent tens of thousands of physicians and nurses to other needy countries across the globe. According to Don Fitz, in his book Cuban Health Care, “Since 1961, over 124,000 health professionals [from Cuba] have worked in over 154 countries. By 2009, in addition to 11 million people in their own country, Cuban doctors were providing medical care for 70 million people.” Cuba “spends only four per cent per person of U.S. health costs,” but has the same average life expectancy, and lower infant mortality. That this country created a system of socialized medicine that surpasses the chaotic capitalist for-profit one is an achievement for which First World elites will never forgive it.

Cuba “eliminated polio in 1962,” Fitz writes – remember, the revolution only came to power in 1959! – “malaria in 1967, neonatal tetanus in 1972, diphtheria in 1979, congenital rubella syndrome in 1989, post-mumps meningitis in 1989, measles in 1993, rubella in 1995, and tuberculosis meningitis in 1997.” This just goes to show what humanity can do when freed from the shackles and destitution imposed by billionaires. Fitz also noted that Cuba had only 200 AIDS patients, when New York City had 43,000. Clearly Cuba’s socialized medicine proclaimed loud and clear that this is the way to go for public health, but the U.S. never wanted to listen, as became unavoidably, glaringly obvious during the covid pandemic. That’s when the defects of our lousy health system were on display for all the world to see. The U.S. boasted more covid corpses than any other nation, but even this dismal fact failed to ignite proposals for altering U.S. medical care. And barring the total dissolution of corporate for-profit health care and the miracle that would be required to cause that, we who live in the heart of the empire are doomed to go broke in large numbers paying for essential medicine.

Back to the workers’ parliaments; they succeeded. By 1994, the Cuban economy started to recover, due to multiple changes and innovations. “Soil cement and other traditional techniques were introduced to build homes with less cement and fuel consumption. Natural and traditional medicines were promoted…The development of urban agriculture included the creation of gardens in workplaces, hospitals, schools, neighborhoods and the cultivation of medicinal plants.” Emphasizing the shift in political focus during these parliaments, Raul Castro noted: “Yesterday we said that beans were worth as much as guns; today we say that beans are worth more than guns.”

Over 400,000 union leaders attended the preparations for these workers’ parliaments. Once underway, Ross cites “the altruistic response of Cuban workers to the delicate and complex problem of staff reorganization and relocation.” Cuban socialists did not want to fire people, and they explicitly renounced neoliberal solutions, so they got creative when it came to overstaffing and worker redundancies.

By March 1994, over three million employees had discussed workplace problems in these parliaments, so it’s not surprising they found numerous solutions – 261,859 proposals were hashed out. But “Fidel told us not to think that good will was sufficient to solve all our problems,” though that did not mean abandoning communist principles. For instance, regarding charging fees for ambulance services, workers dug in their heels: Such fees, they argued, conflicted “with the principles of the Revolution.” Contrast that to the U.S., where one of the big-ticket medical items contributing to bankrupting patients is thousands of dollars in ambulance fees.

According to Ross, “Fidel made it clear that our main priority was to preserve workers’ salaries.” Again, what a contrast to Cuba’s bossy northern neighbor, where the main priority is enriching oligarchs and using a class of corporate warlords to extract profits from the Global South! For such North American elites, workers’ salaries are but a very faint, distant after-thought, and that thought usually is how, most effectively, to keep them as low as possible. But in Cuba they were the first thought – and still are. The workers’ parliaments resoundingly demonstrated that. They were just one of the many novel ways the revolution demonstrated that its fundamental humanism could overcome even the direst circumstances, without resorting to capitalism’s callous and inhuman fixes.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.