Three Short Works on Cuba

Three Short Works on Cuba
1. Lilah Rosenblum, A Time For Change: Rethinking US-Cuba Policy (Washington Office on Latin America [WOLA], Washington, D.C. 2002). 75pp

Lilah Rosenblum, WOLA’s Special Assistant on Cuba, has produced a useful booklet on US policy toward Cuba. Its fundamental premise is that this policy “has not been formulated on the basis of sound judgements about strategies that will best promote human rights and social justice on the island, but on the basis of outdated Cold War ideology and special interest group politics.” The first section discusses what’s wrong with US Cuba policy, noting that it is inhumane, ineffective, unpopular, and unrealistic. The author then briefly examines why the embargo the keystone of US policy still exists, concluding that the answer lies in domestic politics. She notes the well organized and financed Cuban lobby centered in Miami and New Jersey, and its contributions to key right-wing policy makers in Congress. She examines the generalized hostility toward Fidel Castro and the Revolution that still permeates much policy thinking and shows that, until very recently, no strong constituency in favor of lifting the embargo has emerged. Since Cuba does not pose any direct military or other threat to the US and since that country no longer supports armed revolutionary groups in Latin America, these types of security concern no longer apply. In fact, internal stability in Cuba is in the US’s long and short range interest. She states that there is much to criticize about human rights and Cuban democracy, but she sees the US in no position to take the moral high ground given its hostile acts toward that country. She fails to note, however, that the US holds many more political prisoners than does Cuba, and that basic democratic rights are regularly trampled here (e.g., the Miami Five, Mumia, Peltier; inequality in education, housing, etc.). Nor does she mention that convicted terrorists are walking around free in Miami.

The author suggests that any new policy among other things should restablish commercial relations, encourage exchanges between the two countries, allow US NGOs to operate freely on the island, explore common interests such as drug interdiction (one of the few areas where limited cooperation has taken place), and move to normalize diplomatic relations. The US should make clear its differences with the Cuban system within the context of respect for Cuban sovereignty. The text further suggests effective ways to support reform within Cuba, but warns that any policy changes may not produce instant results. Appendices to the text include a timeline of US-Cuban relations, myths and facts about the embargo, a list of organizations opposed to the ban on the food and medicines, responses to the standard arguments for maintaining current US policy, a list of Web resources on Cuba, and a bibliography.

As a whole this booklet is useful for its information and could make a nice teaching tool. A socialist observer might note, however, that it has not included Cuban points of view and that it views Cuba in liberal bourgeois terms rather than understanding the island’s particular version of socialist society and development. Perhaps more naively, it assumes that capitalism can tolerate a socialist government in its own backyard.

In February and March of 2002 a delegation of US labor and employment lawyers and trade unionists traveled to Cuba. They visited a variety of workplaces in city and countryside and met with Cubans from shop floors to the highest levels of the CTC (Cuba’s trade union confederation). This document is their report. They framed their work around three questions: What can US and Cuban labor and employment lawyers and trade unionists learn from each other? Are Cuban trade unions effective representatives of their members’ interests? And, how can Cuban workers live on salaries of around $20 a month? The main body of the text is devoted to recounting group experiences and what the visitors learned from their Cuban counterparts and, to a lesser degree, vice versa. Besides giving context for a US audience, the authors discuss topics like: work environment, labor-management relations, collective bargaining, union structures, membership and training, social benefits above wages (ranging from health and education to family care and maternity leave), and problems created within the working class by the new dual economy (dollar vs peso sectors). In addition, a section treats politics and elections plus, importantly, the role of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) in the workplace.

The expository material and conclusions are couched in cautious and often qualified terms, perhaps reflecting the group’s legal bent. Nevertheless, a number of theses come through. Unions and the CTC are not rubber stamps for the Party. Cuban union officials are sophisticated and clearly articulate the interests of the workers. Unions have succeeded, to a degree, in attaining many of their goals and, in specific instances, have proven instrumental in bringing about changes in policy at the national level (e.g. the law regarding worker contributions to Social Security taxes, which unions opposed and which was dropped). The report concludes that each side can learn a great deal from the other (e.g., Cuban non-antagonistic management-labor relations represent an important example for US workers) and that visits should continue in future years. In sum, the document makes for interesting reading for those concerned with both Cuban and US labor. As the authors note, workers in both countries have common interests such as combating unchecked globalization and, concretely, the FTAA as presently constituted. Progressive sectors of the US labor movement would do well to read this report and to use it as a basis for persuading workers that proletarian interests are stronger than narrow nationalistic political ones, and that other labor systems have much to teach workers in this country.

This study covers varied aspects of labor policy and labor relations inside Cuba. It is based on personal visits to work-sites and interviews with a variety of officials, professionals, and unionists, as well as extensive research. It focuses particularly upon workers’ rights and participation, how labor policy is developed and by whom, and the organization and functions of unions in the workplace and outside. One interesting theme is the new management and operational system (perfeccionamiento empresarial what Evanson calls the Decentralized Management System or DMS), first instituted in 1998 and now slowly spreading in the state sector of the economy.

After some historical and contemporary background material which includes remarks about the structure and function of the CTC and unions, Evanson presents six chapters covering respectively: employment and hiring practices, salary and other remuneration, collective bargaining, grievance procedures, social security and benefits, and foreign investment. The appendices list US project-advisers, work centers visited in Cuba, and persons interviewed, and also include tables showing distribution of workers by economic sector, category, and gender as of 1999.

Evanson, an attorney who has written extensively on Cuba and its legal system, is currently president of the Latin American Institute for Legal Services. Her study is richly documented. While the conclusions reached in the first chapters will come as little surprise to students of Cuban labor or society, some nonetheless bear mention. The CTC and unions play a dual role: to enhance the economic, social, and political interests of the country; and to advance the interests of workers. A clear separation exists between the CCP and the union movement, although clearly like all Cuban institutions the CTC recognizes the primacy of the Party. The CTC can and does influence the course of legislation. Unions today play a stronger role in the enterprise (and at the national level we might add) than they have previously. In the areas of worker-management relations, workers’ rights (sick leave, unemployment, etc.), and opportunities available to workers (training, job upgrades, etc.), Evanson leaves no doubt that the Cuban system is far more humane than its US counterpart. Workers’ rights in grievances are respected for the most part; pay differentials between management and workers are usually less than 2:1; and efforts are made to keep workers in productive jobs and to reincorporate them into the work force if they should leave for any reason. The author does note that pay scales across the board even when including the extensive social wage are low. Further, workers with access to dollars are far better off than those without, a source of irritation among workers as well as throughout Cuban society.

The more original part of this work is the discussion of foreign investment and the DMS. In response to the crisis that enveloped the country after 1989 (see S&D #29, Cuba in the 1990s), Cuba took a number of bold measures. It moved to decentralize the economy, placed enterprises on an accountability system, and delegated far more power locally than before. A controlled opening to foreign investment formed a part of the reform package as did a gradual implementation of DMS. The new system forced labor into a different role. In a flash, worker well-being became dependent upon enterprise efficiency, ability to engage constructively with management, and unit productivity. Since each work-site could now set salaries (within limits), the incentives became obvious. Most observers agree that this new system appears to have taken hold. My own experience (on a trip this past Winter) was that workers were enthusiastic about DMS where it had been started and eager for it to instituted where it had not. The down side, not addressed by Evanson, is the real possibility that Cuba will tend toward a market economy akin to that of the capitalist world.

Overall, the DMS experiment appears as a solid step toward economic growth. Problems in the foreign sector are similar: how to encourage and cultivate foreign capital without losing the socialist component. The labor movement, for example, successfully campaigned against the provision in the draft law governing foreign investment that would have allowed foreign companies to control hiring. Jobs in joint ventures are highly sought after, not only for higher pay scales but because a part of wages (supplements) is paid in dollars. But here too the specter of inequalities and violation of the basic social contract loom. In the end, Evanson concludes that the government and labor maintain a strong commitment to see that foreign investment does not have a negative impact on the rights of workers. The unions, recognizing the benefits for the country (and themselves), have responded with acceptance but also with vigilance. Finally, she reminds us that the goal of present economic strategy is the recovery and growth of state enterprises, not expansion of the foreign sector.

The works briefly reviewed above comprise a valuable trio for anyone who would evaluate today’s Cuba. The two on unions and workers contain crucial information and expert insight into the current situation of Cuban labor. If the Cuban economy is going to continue to recover, it must prove efficient and, increasingly, competitive as the country turns outwards. This can only happen through labor-management cooperation. Judging from these recent writings, this is happening, although not without problems and perils. The WOLA booklet addresses the other great incognito in the equation: the US stance towards Cuba. The blockade cannot last forever due to its increasing unpopularity among all sectors of society, including some of the President’s supporters particularly in mid-Western farm states. There is little doubt that the policy is anachronistic and short-sighted, even from the vantage-point of those who would change the Cuban system. Given the gigantic backward step that rationality in foreign and domestic policy has suffered in the past half year, however, the blockade’s demise does not seem imminent.

Reviewed by Hobart Spalding
Professor Emeritus
Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, CUNY

The reviewer  would like to thank the participants in the Spring 2002 global cities seminar at the University of Pittsburgh for their discussion of this book.

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