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Journal of the 16th Year
Eleanor J. Bader
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Placing current criticisms in context
A controversy has arisen on the left in the U.S., and perhaps more widely as well, about recent events in Cuba. The Cuban government has enacted repressive legal measures against opponents. The U.S. government, having provoked the situation over decades and more immediately as well, will very likely use the events to justify further machinations against the Cuban people.
Some leftists say that given this manipulative and dangerous reality one can only support the Cuban decisions or, at most, be silent about them.
Other leftists have openly criticized the decisions, though this has taken the form of two different petitions (one that I signed because I felt it placed the criticisms of Cuba in the proper context, criticizing also U.S. imperialism, and the other that I did not sign, feeling that it offered inadequate context and balance). In my view of the recent events, to have better health care, housing, and education than any other country suffering even a fraction of the denial of economic and political access imposed by the U.S. on Cuba does not justify dictatorship in Cuba. For any state to execute people is bad enough. For a state to catch, try, sentence, and execute people in a week is beyond legal, moral, or social comprehension. To fear external intervention by the U.S.—that has been intervening for decades and now threatens, or appears to threaten to do much more—is prudent. But to react to this danger by cracking down on internal dissent and violating even minimal norms of jurisprudence is not justified. It actually fuels the logic of intervention, providing grist for interventionist rationales.
Understanding the U.S. role in Cuba should be trivially easy for people of good will. The hypocrisy and cynicism of U.S. policy is brutally evident in the historical record. Activist opposition to any variant of U.S. intervention in Cuba should be forefront. Thankfully, there is little or no left controversy about this. An issue that gets considerably less attention, however, and about which controversy now rages, is understanding more about Cuba and about the efficacy of leftists criticizing the Cuban government’s choices and Cuba’s institutional structures.
In a 1962 speech, “The Duty of the Revolutionary,” Fidel Castro said, “The summary of the nightmare which torments America from one end to the other is that on this continent...about four persons per minute die of hunger, of curable illness, or premature old age. Fifty-five hundred per day, two million per year, ten million each five years. These deaths could easily be avoided, but nevertheless they take place. Two-thirds of the Latin American population lives briefly and lives under constant threat of death. A holocaust of lives, which in 15 years has caused twice the number of deaths as World War I. Meanwhile, from Latin America a continuous torrent of money flows to the United States: some $4,000 a minute, $5 million a day, $2 billion a year, $10 billion every five years. For each thousand dollars that leaves us there remains one corpse. A thousand dollars per corpse: That is the price of what is called imperialism. A thousand dollars per death ... four deaths every minute.”
In the four decades since Castro’s assessment, for most of Latin America except Cuba, the above statistics have improved little, or even worsened. In the 1980s, for example, income in Latin America, excluding Cuba, declined by 8 percent, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Castro’s injunction in the same 1962 speech is as apropos today as it was then: “The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution. It is known that the revolution will triumph in America and throughout the world, but it is not for revolutionaries to sit in the doorways of their houses waiting for the corpse of imperialism to pass by. The role of Job doesn’t suit a revolutionary. Each year that the liberation of America is speeded up will mean the lives of millions of children saved, millions of intelligences saved for culture, an infinite quantity of pain spared the people.” Little has changed, as well, regarding who and what is the principle enemy of the people of Latin America or regarding the magnitude of the crimes that need rectification. And therefore little has changed regarding the urgency of transcending imperial and neo-colonial domination.
But what about “liberation?” Have the positive goals that a revolution against capitalism, sexism, and racism should strive for changed? What does Cuba’s experience teach us in these respects? Despite decades of CIA-supported terror and U.S.-imposed economic boycott, Cuba exceeds most of its Latin American neighbors in intellectual, cultural, health, educational, and political accomplishments. This deserves praise and support.
At the same time, no matter how you look at it, one-person-rule through a bureaucratic hierarchical party is dictatorship, even when, as in Cuba, the leader is in many respects benevolent. Castro is the hub; the Cuban Communist Party radiates the spokes. Parallel grassroots institutions, including what is called Poder Popular, represent a participatory political trend that has, however, failed to transcend party manipulation. To inaugurate the 1970s, Castro proclaimed: “The formulas of revolutionary process can never be administrative formulas.... Sending a man down from the top to solve a problem involving 15 or 20 thousand people is not the same thing as the problems of these 15 or 20 thousand people—problems having to do with their community—being solved by virtue of the decisions of the people, of the community, who are close to the source of the problems.... We must do away with all administrative methods and use mass methods everywhere.”
Cuba had the Leninist, hierarchical Party and also the popular democratic Poder Popular. But, Castro’s words notwithstanding, the former consistently dominated the latter. Oversimplifying a complex and variegated political history, it follows that three main impediments continue to obstruct Castro’s stated hope to substitute political participation for political administration:
- The Cuban Communist Party monopolizes all legitimate means of wielding political power and thereby ensures that there is only one Cuban political line, that of the Party and its leadership. The first problem is political Leninism.
- The omnipresence of Fidel Castro leaves little room for any popular vehicles to attain true decentralized grassroots power. The second problem is Fidelismo.
- The willingness of the U.S. to manipulate political differences to destroy Third World revolutions provokes and is used to justify regimentation. The third problem facing Cuba is the not-so-benevolent U.S.
As Cuba faces the problem of succession, as the U.S. boycott and aggression diminish the life options of Cubans, and as the corruption of the Cuban political bureaucracy increasingly alienates the Cuban populace, two political paths are possible.
Cuba can return to its early aspirations and move from Leninism and dictatorship to participatory democracy premised on mass participation.
Or, instead, Cuba can defend authoritarianism and preserve elite privileges under the guise of defending the revolution. In the political realm, in practice, it follows that choices moving toward greater regimentation are choices for a repressive path and not a liberatory one.
When the Cuban government decides to utilize the death penalty, to speed prosecutions, and to engage in other repressive acts ostensibly to protect its survival—but having the opposite implication, at least regarding opinions abroad—it is bad enough. But when the Cuban government speaks as though doing these things is some kind of positive and worthy pursuit, it communicates that regimentation and centralization are seen as virtues and not as deviations from preferred aspirations.
What about the economy? For all its worthy accomplishments, the Cuban economy is far from liberated. Planners, state bureaucrats, local managers, and technocrats monopolize decisions while workers carry out orders. In the resulting economy, a ruling coordinator class plans the efforts of workers and appropriates inflated pay, perks, and status. Cuba’s coordinator economy has given the Cuban people pride in national accomplishments and major material gains in health care, housing, literacy, security, and overall standards of living. But however admirable these achievements are when compared to conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador, Watts, and the South Bronx, this does not justify applying the label “liberated.” For that, there would have to be no ruling class, and workers would have to collectively administer their own efforts. However, as with politics, Cuban economic history has not followed a simple trajectory. The coordinator model has been dominant, but there has always been an alternative spirit manifested, sometimes in hope, sometimes in actual experiments, but regrettably never leading to liberated economic relations. In 1962 and 1963, impressed with what they saw when visiting the Soviet Union, and seeing no other options, Cuba installed economic forms mimicking the traditional Soviet model. By 1964, disenchantment set in and a great debate ensued. In a letter written from Africa in 1965, summarizing the spirit of the recommendations he championed in that debate, Che Guevara wrote: “The new society in process of formation has to compete very hard with the past. This makes itself felt not only in the individual consciousness, weighted down by the residues of an education and an upbringing systematically oriented toward the isolation of the individual, but also by the very nature of this transition period, with the persistence of commodity relations. The commodity is the economic cell of capitalist society: as long as it exists its effects will make themselves felt in the organization of production and therefore in consciousness.” In the debate, Che disdained the use of “profitability,” “material interest,” and a “commodity mentality,” arguing instead for emphasizing morality, collectivity, solidarity, and the criterion of use value in meeting human needs. He did not, however, champion or even raise the issue of direct control by workers over their own workplaces or over economic decision-making in general.
Castro adopted a similarly humane but incomplete stance saying: “We will never create a socialist consciousness... with a ‘dollar sign’ in the minds and hearts of our men and women... those who wish to solve problems by appealing to personal selfishness, by appealing to individualistic effort, forgetful of society, are acting in a reactionary manner, conspiring, although inspired by the best intentions in the world, against the possibilities of creating a truly socialist spirit.” Castro acknowledged that his desires to equalize incomes and forgo competition and individual incentives would be incomprehensible to some. He knew that to “learned,” “experienced” economists “this would seem to go against the laws of economics.” “To these economists an assertion of this type sounds like heresy, and they say that the revolution is headed for defeat. But it so happens that in this field there are two special branches. One is the branch of the ‘pure’ economist. But there is another science, a deeper science which is truly revolutionary science. It is the science of ... confidence in human beings. If we agreed that people are incorrigible, that people are incapable of learning; if we agreed that people are incapable of developing their conscience—then we would have to say that the ‘brainy’ economists were right, that the Revolution would be headed for defeat and that it would be fighting the laws of economics...”
Over the years the economic debate in Cuba has vacillated between two poles: competition versus solidarity, profit-maximizing versus meeting human needs, markets versus central planning, and individual incentives and inequality versus collective incentives and equality, with many swings back and forth. Consider the following comments from Castro when the left pole was in ascendancy: “A financier, a pure economist, a metaphysician of revolutions would have said, ‘Careful, rents shouldn’t be lowered one cent. Think of it from a financial standpoint, from an economic standpoint, think of the pesos involved!’ Such persons have ‘dollar signs’ in their heads and they want the people, also, to have ‘dollar signs’ in their hearts and heads! Such people would not have made even one revolutionary law. In the name of those principles they would have continued to charge the farmers interest on loans; they would have charged for medical and hospital care; they would have charged school fees; they would have charged for the boarding schools that are completely free, all in the name of a metaphysical approach to life. They would never have had the people’s enthusiasm, the masses’ enthusiasm which is the prime factor, the basic factor, for a people to advance, for a people to build, for a people to be able to develop. And that enthusiasm on the part of the people that support for the revolution is something that can be measured in terms incomparably superior to the adding and subtracting of the metaphysicians.” The problem has been that the left pole, which has argued for egalitarianism, solidarity, meeting needs, and collective incentives, has also wrongly argued for extreme central planning rather than decentralized, participatory planning with direct workplace democracy. The difficulty here is not only that something valuable wasn’t included on the left side of the debate, but that the positive goals the left championed—solidarity, equity, collectivity—were subverted by coordinator decision-making and central planning, plus absence of free speech, etc. When the left policy pole gained ascendancy, the continuing lack of real institutional participation and power on the part of workers meant that their enthusiasm and talent were not unleashed in the hoped for manner. Thus, after a few years of left influence over economic policy, the economy would eventually falter, and the turn back to the right—always urged by the Soviet advisers, empowered by virtue of Cuba’s dependence on Russian aid—would be legitimated.
In the face of the fall of the Soviet model, Cuba has not jumped on the free-market bandwagon preferring any alternative to resurgent commodity economics and a sellout to the West. But, as the years push on, what can they do instead? One depressing and the most likely possibility is that they will stay the current course, as they have over the past decade, defending coordinatorism while trying to rectify its worst abuses.
When the grassroots movement Solidarity began to succeed in Poland, it had the option of retaining its working-class composition and its emphasis on elevating workers to decision-making power via new economic institutions or of jettisoning all that in favor of elevating intellectuals and adopting markets, competition, and profit-seeking despite their obvious inadequacies. The liberating choice lost because the young movement put no structural, institutional supports in place. When Jesse Jackson galvanized new energies across the United States, he and the Rainbow Coalition had the opportunity to develop lasting grassroots organization and democratic movement, or to subordinate everything to narrow electoral priorities. The liberating choice lost because the young movement put no structural, institutional supports in place. Later, when Ralph Nader ran a powerful and popular presidential campaign, again there was the possibility to solidify the gains, create perhaps a shadow government or some massive continuing democratic and participatory institutional opposition, but the liberating choice was again lost.
The recent unprecedented international upsurge of anti-globalization and anti-war activism around the world has created a potential for establishing new levels of lasting organizational presence. We have to see what the results will be, whether new structures will solidify the gains or not.
Likewise, Cuba can either persist with its siege mentality and defend not only its virtuous accomplishments, but also bureaucracy, dictatorship, central planning, and workplace hierarchy, or it can develop participatory democracy and truly liberated economics consistent with revolutionary Cuba’s past aspirations. With their Eastern bloc bridges burned, facing continued and perhaps even escalated U.S. opposition, we can only hope that Cuba will once again opt for “a revolution within the revolution,” and there is no compromise in saying so.
Others will see the situation differently. But those who think that having the audacity to criticize dictatorship, the death penalty, and violations of political liberty more broadly is somehow casting aside radical commitment and aligning with imperialism, ought to think twice.
Michael Albert is co-founder of South End Press and Z Magazine. He currently staffs ZNet and is the author, most recently, of Parecon: Life After Capitalism (Verso).
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