[News] Redefining Socialism in Cuba

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Sep 18 12:05:40 EDT 2015


September 18, 2015


  Redefining Socialism in Cuba
  <http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/18/redefining-socialism-in-cuba/>

by Garry Leech <http://www.counterpunch.org/author/garry-leech/>

*http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/18/redefining-socialism-in-cuba/*

US Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Havana this past August 
for the flag-raising ceremony at the re-established US Embassy in Cuba. 
While this event was viewed as a landmark occasion by many in the United 
States, including the mainstream media, it was just the latest in a 
never-ending stream of landmarks for Cuba. From the victory of the 
socialist revolution in 1959 to emerging ties with the Soviet Union and 
the Socialist bloc during the 1960s to political and economic reforms in 
the mid-1970s to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and resulting 
“Special Period” during the 1990s to the far-reaching economic reforms 
of recent years. In other words, socialism in Cuba is not stagnant; nor 
is it reliant on US policy. To the contrary, Cuba’s socialism has 
constantly evolved as it has responded to both domestic and 
international conditions, and this constant redefining of the model 
continues today.

The recent changes in Cuba’s socialist model are perhaps most evident in 
the country’s capital city of Havana. While being a major draw for 
foreign tourists, Havana is also home to 2.2 million Cubans. Tourist 
Havana is evident in the newly-renovated buildings in various 
neighborhoods of the old colonial section of the city. These buildings 
host boutique hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. These neighborhoods 
have their own tourist currency (the convertible peso, CUC) and are 
filled with English-speaking Cubans. This is the side of Havana, indeed 
of Cuba, that most foreigners have experienced since the country opened 
up to tourism during the 1990s to obtain the hard currency required to 
import necessities it cannot produce itself. But there is another side 
to the city that constitutes a very different world, and it is the world 
in which most Cubans live.

Not far from the touristy parts of Old Havana is a neighborhood known as 
Belén. Its older buildings are not renovated and its streets are rarely 
traversed by foreigners. The convertible peso, or CUC, is largely 
useless here because everything is purchased using the national peso. In 
short, Belén is a typical urban neighborhood where Cubans go about their 
daily activities. What quickly becomes apparent in Belén though, are the 
social and economic changes that have occurred in Cuba’s socialist model 
over the past 20 years. At the root of these changes is a shift from 
state socialism to a more participatory model.

In the 1980s, Cuba more closely reflected the state socialist model that 
ultimately failed in the Soviet Union. As one resident of Belén stated: 
“We were so dependent on the state to do everything for us that we’d 
call the government if we needed a light bulb changed.” But with the 
collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the socialist 
trading bloc, Cuba had to become more creative if it was to survive both 
literally and figuratively as an island of socialism in an ocean of 
capitalism. And it was the creative survival strategies that emerged 
during the 1990s that have helped to redefine socialism in Cuba today.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, in conjunction with a corresponding 
tightening of the five-decades-long US blockade, meant that Cuba could 
no longer import sufficient food or oil. The country responded to the 
shortage of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers by becoming the 
world’s leader in organic agriculture. It responded to the shortage of 
fuel by becoming a leader in urban agriculture to diminish the need to 
transport food great distances to markets. As a result, more than 80 
percent of the country’s agricultural production is now organic.

This shift is evident in communities such as Belén, which contains four 
farmers’ markets within six blocks that are open 12 hours a day, seven 
days a week. One of the markets sells produce grown on urban plots while 
the other three offer fruits, vegetables and meats cultivated on farms 
located on the outskirts of the city. The markets are also cooperatives, 
highlighting another shift in Cuba’s socialism. In order to find 
alternatives to large-scale industrial farming and to stimulate 
production the government broke-up many large state-owned farms and 
turned them over to the farmers as smaller worker-owned cooperatives. 
The new cooperatives not only increased production, they also 
constituted a shift away from state socialism by empowering workers who 
previously had little or no voice in the running of their workplaces.

This emerging worker democracy through cooperatives not only existed in 
agricultural production, it also occurred in the selling of products. A 
group of community members in Belén formed the Belén Agricultural Market 
as a cooperative to sell produce that they purchased from a farming 
cooperative situated on the outskirts of the city. Communities such as 
Belén now enjoy an abundance of inexpensive organic fruits, vegetables 
and meats that were harvested only hours earlier.

According to Cuban permaculturalist Roberto Pérez, Cuba established the 
foundation for a more ecologically sustainable society more than fifty 
years ago “when the revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of 
the country, especially the land and the minerals, this was the base for 
sustainability. You cannot think about sustainability if your resources 
are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without 
knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability.”

The shift to a more ecologically sustainable agricultural production has 
resulted in healthy organic food being the most convenient and 
inexpensive food available to Cubans. Because of the US blockade, 
processed foods are more expensive and not readily available. This 
reality stands in stark contrast to that in wealthy capitalist nations 
such as the United States and
Leech_Capitalism_Cover-191x300 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1780321996/counterpunchmaga>Canada 
where heavily-subsidized agri-businesses flood the market with cheap, 
unhealthy processed foods while organic alternatives are expensive and 
more difficult to obtain. The consequence in the United States is high 
levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Cuba’s 2011 economic reforms expanded the cooperative sector to include 
a variety of business sectors including transportation. The reforms have 
also allowed people to establish small privately-owned businesses beyond 
allowing families to establish restaurants and rent out rooms in their 
homes. As a result, a walk along the ten blocks of Sun Street (/Calle 
Sol/) in Belén reveals a mixture of state-owned businesses, cooperatives 
and small private enterprises. The bakery, two egg shops, two bars, a 
restaurant, two gyms and a convenience store are owned by the state. As 
previously noted, the farmers’ markets are cooperatives, while private 
enterprises operating out of peoples’ homes consist of several repair 
shops, an ice cream vendor, two pizza parlors, two small household goods 
vendors and three coffee shops.

When the Cuban government announced in 2010 that it was going to lay off 
more than half a million public sector workers, the US mainstream media 
proclaimed the failure of socialism and a shift towards capitalism. The 
Cuban government’s reduction in the public sector workforce was viewed 
in the same light as the austerity measures implemented by capitalist 
nations throughout the global South under neoliberalism. But such 
analysis highlighted a fundamental misunderstanding of Cuban socialism 
that is common in the Western mainstream media.

Unlike in capitalist nations, Cuba has not simply laid off thousands of 
public sector workers and left them to fend for themselves as unemployed 
desperately seeking private sector jobs. The layoffs are a multi-year 
process and, due to the 2011 economic reforms, many workers will 
continue to perform the same job. For instance, in many sectors, such as 
stores, bars, restaurants and transportation, workers have been offered 
the opportunity to establish cooperatives and to take over their 
existing places of business.

In one such case, five workers in a state-owned restaurant formed a 
cooperative and now lease the property from the state and run the 
business as their own. So while they are part of the downsizing of the 
public sector because they no longer work for the state, they continue 
to do the same job as previously. In the eyes of many, such a transition 
actually constitutes a strengthening of socialism rather than a shift 
towards capitalism because it is empowering workers who now have a 
meaningful voice in their workplace—something they didn’t have under 
state socialism and would not have under corporate capitalism.

The establishment of small private enterprises constitutes a redefining 
of Cuban socialism because it liberates workers from the hierarchical 
structures of state socialism by allowing them to become their own 
bosses. Further evidence that allowing small businesses and cooperatives 
to emerge does not necessarily represent a shift to capitalism is the 
fact that it remains illegal to establish a corporation. Because an 
individual is only permitted to own one place of business, corporate 
chains that monopolize production and markets cannot be established so 
the overwhelming majority of businesses remain locally-owned and rooted 
in the community.

What Cuba is attempting to avoid are the gross inequalities that 
inevitably result from monopoly corporate capitalism where workers have 
no meaningful voice in their daily work lives. So while many mainstream 
analysts in the United States view the shift to small private businesses 
as a move towards capitalism, such a view ignores the reality that small 
privately-owned businesses are not unique to capitalism, they existed in 
societies long before capitalist model came into existence.

Other aspects of Cuba’s economic reality have also been seriously 
distorted by the US mainstream media. One such example is the reporting 
on the salaries earned by Cubans. It is often stated that the average 
state salary earned by a Cuban worker is $25 a month. While this is 
true, it is often stated out of context, thereby leaving the reader to 
believe that most Cubans must exist in dire poverty since they earn only 
a dollar a day. In actuality, less than 40 percent of Cubans exist 
solely on a state salary. The majority are earning beyond that as state 
employees earning tips in the tourist economy, private entrepreneurs, 
members of cooperatives, or recipients of remittances—or a combination 
of these.

It is true, however, that for those Cubans who do have to exist on the 
state salary that life is indeed difficult. They earn just enough to 
cover their basic needs but can afford little else. So how can a Cuban 
meet his or her basic needs on only $25 a month? What most US media 
references to the average state salary fail to mention are the extensive 
state subsidies enjoyed by Cubans. All education and healthcare are 
provided free of charge as is after-school care. More than 80 percent of 
Cubans own their homes outright, therefore they pay no rent, mortgage or 
property tax. Electricity is heavily subsidized to the degree that most 
Cuban homes pay about $1 a month.

Cubans also receive food ration coupons that provide them with meat, 
eggs, bread, rice, beans, cooking oil, soap and feminine hygiene 
products among other essentials. The ration supplies approximately 30 
percent of a person’s monthly food needs, while another third is met 
through free lunches provided in workplaces and schools. Therefore, most 
Cubans only have to pay out of pocket for about one-third of their 
monthly food needs. And because of state subsidies, the prices of many 
essentials are extremely low. For example, eggs cost 4¢ each while a 
large loaf of bread is 20¢. Tomatoes sell for 40¢ lb, potatoes for 4¢ lb 
and large avocados are 20¢ each. Meanwhile, ice cream cones are 12¢ each 
and a bottle of beer in a state-owned bar costs 40¢. As for 
transportation, an individual can go anywhere in Havana on a municipal 
bus for 4¢. Consequently, a Cuban earning the average state salary can 
meet his or her basic needs.

For the more than 60 percent of Cubans who live on more than the average 
state salary, they can also afford a certain amount of luxuries. This 
portion of the population can be seen spending convertible pesos in the 
more expensive tourist restaurants, hotels and stores as well as 
utilizing the new public Wi-Fi hotspots that have been established 
throughout the island. And while the dual economies that are largely 
differentiated by the tourist convertible peso and the domestic national 
peso have resulted in greater inequality in Cuba, the country still 
remains the most equal in Latin America by far.

For years the US media has also suggested that Cuba’s government was 
restricting Internet access on the island as a means of controlling the 
population. In reality, the inability of the country to develop the 
necessary infrastructure for widespread Internet usage is a result of 
the US blockade. The obvious hi-speed connection point for Cuba is to 
run a fibre optic cable the 90 miles from Florida to the island, but the 
US economic blockade has prevented this from happening.

After a failed attempt to run a fibre optic cable one thousand miles 
along the bottom of the Caribbean Sea from Venezuela to Cuba, a second 
attempt proved successful in 2013. This established hi-speed Internet in 
Havana and subsequently led to the creation of public Wi-Fi hotspots in 
parks and plazas throughout the country. It also led the government to 
slash the cost of access from $4.50 an hour to $2.00. While this still 
places the Internet beyond the financial means of those existing on 
state salaries, it has dramatically improved access for the rest of the 
population. This new reality is evident in the almost permanent presence 
of people in parks and plazas armed with their iPhones, tablets and laptops.

Cuba’s socialist reforms have been implemented without any serious 
disruptions to the provision of free healthcare and education to the 
entire population. Cuba has one doctor for approximately every one 
hundred families, resulting in a ratio of physicians per 1,000 people 
that is twice as high as in the United States. As a result, in Havana, 
there is a family doctor for every two blocks and each neighborhood has 
a polyclinic that assures access to specialists and dentists as well as 
providing 24-hour urgent care, while hospitals handle serious illnesses 
and emergencies. This is the reality in Belén, which has a 24-hour 
polyclinic on Sun Street and a hospital less than a mile away.

Because of its emphasis on healthcare and human well-being, Cuba has a 
life expectancy equal to the United States and infant and child 
mortality rates—deaths of children under one and under five years of age 
respectively—that are both superior to its northern neighbor. When 
Cuba’s health indicators are compared to capitalist nations in Latin 
America, the differences are astounding. Cuba’s infant mortality rate of 
5.6 per 1,000 births compares to 19.0 in Mexico, 24.2 in Colombia and 
14.4 in relatively wealthy Argentina. A similar discrepancy exists 
between socialist Cuba and its capitalist Latin American neighbors with 
regard to child mortality rates.

The result of Cuba’s socialist model is a highly educated and healthy 
population. Additionly, homelessness, malnutrition and violent 
crime—social maladies that are rampant in capitalist Latin American 
nations—are conspicuous by their absence in Cuban society. Cuba’s lack 
of violent crime is particularly noteworthy given that five of the top 
ten cities with the highest homicide rates in the world are located in 
Latin America. Because violent crime is almost unheard of in Cuba, Elias 
Carranza, a senior UN official for the Prevention of Crime and the 
Treatment of Offenders Institute, declared Cuba the safest country in 
the region.

But despite all the benefits that Cubans enjoy from the socialist system 
some naturally still harbor frustrations. The most common complaints are 
low salaries and over-crowded housing. The country’s youth also yearn 
for greater access to the Internet. Consequently, some Cubans see a 
shift towards capitalism as a possible solution to these problems and 
for achieving a more luxurious lifestyle.

Younger generations in particular, those too young to recall life prior 
to 1959 and who take many of the revolution’s social achievements for 
granted because they have existed since they were born, are inundated 
with capitalist propaganda in the form of Hollywood movies and TV shows 
as well as on the Internet. They are being seduced by the capitalist 
consumer dream—and this, perhaps more than anything else, poses the 
greatest threat to Cuba’s socialist model.

This is not surprising given that it is the luxurious lifestyles of the 
upper-middle and upper classes in the United States that dominate in 
movies and on TV as well as the Internet. And, in conjunction with the 
seemingly endless flow of relatively rich foreign tourists that visit 
Cuba from wealthy capitalist nations, some Cubans link capitalism with 
material wealth. But only 20 percent of the world’s population live in 
the manner of people in the capitalist nations of North America and 
Europe; the majority of those living under capitalism in the global 
South endure poverty and misery. This inequality is inevitable under 
capitalism because the Earth cannot sustain 7 billion people living in 
the manner that North Americans live. Therefore, the imperialist powers 
are required to consume a disproportionate percentage of the planet’s 
resources to maintain their standards of living and they do so by using 
the resources of the poor.

Geographically, the closest capitalist country to Cuba is not the United 
States, it is Haiti. And the poverty that is widespread in Haiti is far 
more reflective of the reality of most people in the world who live 
under capitalism than the standard of living of North Americans. But the 
plight of Haitians is rarely seen in Hollywood movies and on TV shows. 
It is rarely front and center on the Internet. It remains the hidden 
face of global capitalism.

Given that Haiti is a capitalist nation, it is clear that capitalism in 
and of itself does not guarantee a relatively luxurious standard of 
living for all people, or even a majority—or Haitians would live like 
most North Americans. It is the combination of capitalism and 
imperialism that has created wealth in rich nations and poverty in poor 
nations. Rich nations such as the United States, Canada and Western 
European countries are imperialist powers because they wield a hugely 
disproportionate amount of influence over neo-colonial institutions such 
as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World 
Bank in addition the coercive capacities of their own foreign policies.

But Cuba is not an imperialist nation. Therefore, a dismantling of 
socialism and a shift to capitalism would not allow Cubans to live as 
most North Americans do. Capitalism in Cuba would more closely reflect 
the capitalist reality of Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala and many other 
Latin American nations struggling with poverty, inequality and violence. 
Capitalism would generate wealth for perhaps 20 percent of the 
population while half of Cubans would likely endure poverty. In fact, 
not only would half the population still not have access to luxuries 
under capitalism, but they would also likely lose the social benefits 
they currently enjoy under socialism in the form of healthcare, 
education, food, housing and a crime-free neighborhoods.

Ultimately, Cuba’s socialism seeks to achieve a higher level of human 
development than the materialistic dream achievable to only a minority 
under capitalism. Most Cubans recognize the Revolution’s social 
achievements and, as a result, would like to preserve the socialist 
model, albeit with a few more material comforts. But as long as the 
world remains dominated by capitalism there will be limits to the degree 
of material comfort that Cubans can obtain.

On the other hand, if a significant socialist bloc were to emerge then a 
more equitable distribution of the planet’s resources might indeed be 
possible, which would not only improve the standard of living of many 
Cubans but also of those impoverished billions throughout the global 
South existing under capitalism.

For more than fifty years Cuba has redefined socialism again and again 
in its constant quest to achieve ever higher levels of human 
development. The economic reforms of recent years that are so evident in 
neighborhoods such as Belén are not the first such transformations—and 
they won’t be the last. Ultimately, anyone seeking to achieve a more 
sustainable and just world could do a lot worse than look towards Cuba 
for inspiration.

*/Garry Leech/*/is an independent journalist and// author of numerous 
books including Capitalism: A Structural Genocide 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1780321996/counterpunchmaga> (Zed Books, 
2012); Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/080706145X/counterpunchmaga> (Beacon 
Press, 2009); and Crude Interventions: The United States Oil and the New 
World Disorder 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1842776290/counterpunchmaga> (Zed Books, 
2006). ). He is also a lecturer in the Department of Political Science 
at Cape Breton University in Canada./

-- 
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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