The Current Debate
In the mid-1960s, when Che Guevara dropped out of sight to begin his guerrilla campaign in Bolivia, some on the left were asking whether Fidel had had him murdered. In the late 1980s, some were quick to assume that the trial of the Cuban general Ochoa on charges of attempting to organize a drug ring in collaboration with the Medellín cartel was really a political purge. What is striking is that these accusations against Cuba were accepted by so many without investigation, as if the abuses that were alleged were only to be expected and therefore must be true.
Why are so many progressives and liberals taken in by even the most outrageous falsehoods about Cuba? Why do they often accept uncritically the line of the Miami and Washington reactionaries about Cuba when they doubt almost everything else from these sources? Possibly some are tired of nay-saying all the conventional wisdoms. They do not want to appear “hard-line” or “ideological,” and rejecting Cuba is a cheap and easy way of being a little more mainstream. Cuba may be relegated by some to the list of youthful enthusiasms from the time when “we thought we could change the world.” This stance is reinforced by the accumulated cynicism of many defeats that says that no place can be all that good, that all dreams come to naught. Or, perhaps since Cuba’s socialism is one of the few to have survived, it has become harder to romanticize it.
But, mostly, this vulnerability of the left to rightist propaganda is derived from the discouraging experience of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe and the unwarranted assumption that Cuba has a similar regime. As well, too many progressives have accepted cold-war anti-communism assumptions: that all Reds are the same and that any accusation against any of them is probably an understatement, that they support good causes only to serve their own noxious ends, that revolutionaries once in power are all cynical manipulators and monopolizers of privilege, and that their public statements are merely propaganda. The burdens of internalized cold war anti-communism and conventional political science allow for careless judgments and casual denunciations.
Dismissal of Cuba is sometimes simply an off-handed remark in writings about other subjects. For example Marc Cooper wrote a piece in The Nation, “Remembering Allende” (9/29/03). It was a thoughtful commentary, reflecting real experience, knowledge, and sympathy for the Chilean struggle. But in the course of it he threw in a careless unsupported denunciation of Cuba, referring to “the wholesale jailing of dissidents and summary executions by an ossified and dictatorial Cuban state.” He is of course free to disapprove of the trials of political de-stabilizers in April 2003. But by linking the execution of hijackers to the trials of the “dissidents,” he makes it appear as if dissidents were executed. In fact the hijackers were not political people. Two of them had prior criminal records, and they were threatening to kill their hostages. Most of us oppose capital punishment and support worldwide calls to eliminate it, but this does not justify singling out this case as an example of Cuban depravity.
It is worth looking more closely at Cooper’s comments in The Nation, his article in the L.A. Weekly (April 18-24, 2003), and the letter organized by Leo Casey and signed by Cooper and by other progressives and liberals, many of whom should know better and some of whom undoubtedly do. Anyone the least bit familiar with Cuba knows that it is anything but “ossified.” Cuba has been undergoing rapid changes since 1959, including the transformations of education and healthcare, the adoption of the Family Code, two agrarian reforms, the adoption of an ecological pathway of development, and the gradual invention of a mixed participatory and representative political system. There was the struggle against homophobia in the ‘70s, the encouragement of whistle blowing during the “rectification” campaign of the ‘80s, the Special Period after the collapse of foreign trade with the Soviet bloc and the tightening of the US blockade, and the legalization of dollars in a dual system of currency with the Cuban peso. As well, Cuba has experienced a tremendous increase in tourism, the phasing out of dependence on sugar, widespread decentralization, and the current “Battle of Ideas.” This last refers to the campaign to increase university enrollment, as well as to raise the cultural, scientific, and political level of the whole Cuban population. During the decade 1993-2003 the Cuban economy, even measured by the misleading GDP, grew four times faster than the average for Latin America. Musical and artistic styles, movie making, and theatre are also constantly changing.
Cuba is not a dictatorial regime. There is a whole complex of elected assemblies at all levels, mass organizations of labor, women, and farmers, and all sorts of NGOs that make Cuban socialism what it is (more on this below). It is facile and disingenuous to brand this profoundly participatory political system as “dictatorial.”
As for the “the wholesale jailing of dissidents,” the trial of the 75 Cubans was not for “thought crimes.” They were accused of being financed, supported, guided, and even organized by the United States Interest Section in Havana in its efforts to overthrow the Cuban government. The Casey letter refers to the “dissidents” as “independent thinkers.” But given their close ties to the US Interest Section and the Miami right wing (amply documented by the prosecution at the trials and not challenged by the defense),1 this seems at best naïve. When one of the “dissidents,” Gustavo Arcos, suggested that dialogue with Cuba might be productive, he was scolded by the head of the Miami right wing, Jorge Mas Canosa, who warned that dissidents inside Cuba “have no business making any proposals whatsoever without first consulting with the leaders of the exile community.”2
The Casey letter repeats the claim made by the mainstream US media that the trial was closed and “without adequate notice or counsel.” In fact, 44 of the accused had lawyers of their own choice and the rest had court-appointed lawyers. Their lawyers and family members were present at the trials. Several weeks from arrest to trial may seem short to Cooper, coming as he does from a country that guarantees a speedy trial but where prisoners are often held for months or even years before trial.
The letter describes the trials as “reminiscent of the Moscow trials of the Soviet Union under the rule of Stalin.” But the defendants in the Moscow trials were falsely accused of conspiring with foreign intelligence services. None of the Cuban defendants denied their links to the US Interest Section. The Soviet defendants were tried after a long period of being held incommunicado. The Cuban defendants were held for a few weeks and had free contact with their families and lawyers. The major evidence in Moscow was confessions, extracted in some cases by torture and intimidation. The evidence in the Cuban case included eyewitness testimony, photographs, and physical evidence, including money. There was never any claim by anyone involved that the accused were abused in any way. The Moscow purges, aside from a few show trials, were conducted by special administrative tribunals, set up outside the judicial system. The Cubans were tried in regular courts. And, what is more important, the Moscow trials ended in many death sentences. There were no death sentences in the “dissidents’” trial. The death sentences were handed down in the non-political case of hijacking, taking of hostages, and threatening to kill them. While many, if not most of us, may oppose capital punishment in this or any case, nobody was condemned to death for political charges. Cooper’s conflating of the two cases is evidence of his anti-Cuba prejudice.
The letter ends by pronouncing that the Cuban state “is not a government of the left, despite its claims of social progress in education and healthcare…” Claims? The Cuban achievements in education have been verified by UNESCO surveys showing that Cuban third and fourth graders perform so much better in language and mathematics skills than the rest of Latin America that UNESCO returned to test them again.3 The Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization both recognize the phenomenal health statistics.4 But perhaps the letter signatories know this and simply dismiss them as mere social progress. Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and educating the illiterate are not very exciting to the well fed, healthy, and college-educated.
Cooper and Casey et al.’s letter-signers decide that the Cuban government really loves the blockade. Cooper says that the trials “help confirm my longtime suspicion that Castro lives in mortal fear that his most powerful tool of social control, the US embargo, will one day be lifted.” And the letter argues that the Cuban actions “amount to collaboration with the most reactionary elements of the US administration in their efforts to maintain sanctions and impose even more punitive measures against Cuba.”
It is a serious claim to assert that the Cuban government really loves the blockade; it should at least be supported by serious argument. It is not. The underlying assumption is that Havana blames the US for all its troubles. It doesn’t. It’s too busy talking about the lack of resources, lax enforcement, bureaucracy, and other homegrown failings. While the harm the US government causes Cuba is certainly important in Cuban consciousness, the main “tool of social control” is the shared sense of building a more just and equitable society despite the aggression. The Cuban report to the Secretary General of the UN specifies exactly how the blockade harms Cuba. The report details the injuries field by field, in lives and in money, in higher prices paid for medicines, in medicines they couldn’t get (for instance, the Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine could not obtain diagnostic kits for identifying SARS), and in extra shipping fees for their imports. They offered estimates of an economic impact of some 79 billion US dollars over the 44 years of siege, or about $1.8 billion per year.5 The Cuban national budget in 2003 was some 11.5 billion pesos (26 pesos to the dollar). Imagine what could have been done if that amount had been available for investment in economic growth.
Finally, Cooper lapses into pop political science, writing that “the Cuban State [is] concerned with maintaining its monopoly of power above all else.” Once again it is given to us as wisdom without supporting evidence or argument. Yet this claim is almost never true of any regime. Even George Bush, who rigs elections and manipulates news in order to stay in office and who clearly enjoys being “the War President,” wants the presidency in order to carry out a particular program with messianic fervor. He would never protect the environment, provide healthcare, guarantee universal free education, or separate church and state, just to stay in office.
There are also more subtle instances of the US-based left-liberal community dismissing Cuba. For example, Achy Obejas begins a review of Alma Guillermoprieto’s book Dancing with Cuba as follows: “It’s been a while since Cuba, that caiman-shaped Caribbean isle, ceased to be a place on the map. At some point, it came unhinged and floated away.” And a bit later, “…if Cuba inspires, it also provokes despair.” These comments reinforce the notion within the US left that it’s over, that Cuba is no longer worthy of our support or even interest. This thinking is no doubt influenced by the anti-communism and cynicism so prevalent in this country.
More than 16,000 days have passed since President Eisenhower declared that “Castro’s days are numbered.” A whole generation of progressives has grown up with Cuba-bashing as a steady background. Antagonism to Cuba has been a constant of US policy through all the changes of administration. Despite any differences in style and strategy, they all aimed to destroy a revolutionary society that almost alone in the world has resisted domination by the corporate empire. It is clear that the Bush administration is escalating this war on Cuba. This is a continuation of more than 40 years of aggression, during which the US government has used military, terrorist, economic, diplomatic, and disinformation weapons to weaken and isolate Cuba in the hopes of overthrowing Cuban socialism. There have been guerrilla bands organized by the CIA in the 1960s and more than 50 attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. A Cuban civilian airliner in flight from Venezuela was downed in 1976, and Cuban diplomats have been murdered. A “transition to democracy” is supposed to result from these aggressions by increasing popular dissatisfaction until it becomes disaffection, by promoting international isolation, and by the murder or natural death of Fidel Castro.
The history of United States propaganda warfare and dirty tricks in the Cold War, against the Mossadegh government in Iran, against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Allende government in Chile shows that the US government exercises no moral restraint on the stratagems used to justify its policies and hide its interventions. The discussion in Judith Miller’s book Germs6 shows that the US government considered as a legitimate option even the blowing up of a commercial airliner and blaming it on Cuba.
As the more violent interventions, such as military invasion and assassination attempts, failed and then fell out of favor (although violence is certainly still being employed), greater emphasis was placed on covert political intervention and disinformation campaigns. Anti-Cuban propaganda is now focusing on discrediting or discounting the most inspiring achievements of the revolution. The recent Bush administration document on a “transition to democracy in Cuba” has a complete program for capitalist restoration that promises such things as a comprehensive immunization program for Cuban children, universal education, and environmental protection, as if Cuba were not already ahead of the United States in all three.
Given what we know, progressives should approach all fresh incidents and accusations against Cuba in the light of this history of cynical disinformation aimed at justifying escalated aggression. Our first reaction should be one of skepticism. We should examine the evidence offered, check the Cuban response to the accusations, and make sure we are not taken in. We must not automatically assume that Cuba has all the faults of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Progressives need to place what they see and hear in the context of the siege of Cuba. I will review the scope and impact of this siege in the next section. Then we will be better placed to examine how Cuba really works and to refute Margaret Thatcher’s depressing claim, “There is no alternative.”
The Siege of Cuba
Phillip Agee and others have shown that US funding of dissident activity in Cuba adds up to more than $25 million since 1992.7 Directly appropriated funding is an underestimate. Some funds are channeled through third countries such as Spain and even Norway.
The war against Cuba is directed from two major centers: Washington and Miami. The Washington center is controlled by the White House and includes the National Security Council, the CIA, the Pentagon, State Department, FBI, the Agency for International Development (AID), ad hoc interagency working groups, and their allies in Congress. They combine clandestine operations, largely CIA, with diplomatic, legal, and propaganda activities. Further, they work through non-governmental organizations. AID alone has distributed some $20 million to groups such as Freedom House, the Center for Free Cuba, the Institute for Democracy in Cuba, the Pan American Development Foundation, Partners of the Americas, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the Sabre Foundation, Florida International University, the International Republican Institute and many others. Some are longstanding collaborators with the government’s schemes, others were established for the Cuba operations, still others have legitimate as well as noxious activities.
The Miami center is based in the right wing of the exile community. Its economic base is the network of medium-sized and large businesses owned by Cuban Americans and serving the emigré community and Miami as a whole, and the professional counterrevolutionaries who can mobilize broader rightwing resources. It serves US policy goals for Cuba and for the rest of Latin America. In return it receives favorable publicity, training, funding, guidance, access to government agencies and toleration of shady business practices.
Its core has been the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) until it split recently after the death of its founder. It is a legal umbrella organization organized by Jorge Mas Canosa at the instigation of CIA officer Richard Allen, who called for the creation of an organization “that could speak with one voice.” The CANF groups around itself a large number of smaller overlapping organizations engaged in propaganda aimed at US policy makers, the general public and Cuba. They also engage in propaganda and harassment aimed at Cubans outside their country. Groups such as Brigade 2506 (veterans of Bay of Pigs), Abdala, Alpha 66, Omega 7, Commando F-4 and CORU are openly military and sabotage units. Some of their members have been trained by the CIA and used in such operations as Iran-Contra, the civil war in El Salvador, and the invasion of Grenada.
After the failure of Operation Mongoose (the Kennedy plan to overthrow the Cuban government with armed and terrorist actions in the 1960s), many of the terrorists branched out into more varied forms of struggle. José Basulto’s career is illustrative. A veteran of Bay of Pigs, he served with CIA infiltration teams, shelled a Havana theatre and a hotel from the sea, and then began to present himself as a non-violent resister. He organized Brothers to the Rescue supposedly to help rafters, but also to test Cuban communications and provoke confrontations. A similar case is that of Carlos Alberto Montaner who began by placing bombs within Cuba, went into exile, and was later trained in clandestine skills at Fort Benning by the CIA. He is now a central figure in the new “moderate” counterrevolution. He is based in Spain where in 1990 he founded La Unión Liberal Cubana and in 1991 took the initiative to form La Plataforma Democrática Cubana as a coalition of political parties within Cuba. He urged dissidents to form these parties, the Liberal Party, the Coordinadora Socialdemócrata (Elizardo Sánchez, Vladimiro Roca) and the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (Oswaldo Payá). He explained to them that the purpose in forming these parties was not just ideological but a means of tapping the resources of the like-minded international organizations and of getting access to European governments. But with the collapse of European socialism there was once again an increase in violence. From 1990 to 2000 there were some 108 terrorist actions against Cuba including the shelling of hotels from the sea and the placing of bombs in five hotels. Prominent leaders of counter-revolutionary groups move back and forth freely between violent and non-violent actions. The dissident organizations within Cuba have ties with many of them. Even though the role of the dissidents is public relations at present, they have occasionally been assigned minor intelligence tasks by the US Interest Section, such as finding the home addresses of Cuban leaders who might be targeted for assassination.
There are a large number of counter-revolutionary groups that split, unite, change names, overlap and quarrel. They disagree on tactics and vie for resources. Therefore there are frequent attempts to unite them. There are various umbrella groups such as the Concilio Cubano that includes 140 groups. In January 2004, the Carter Center hosted another such conference to gather the counterrevolution together.
It is often said that US policy toward Cuba is irrational, given the absence of a Cuban threat to US security such as Soviet missiles or terrorist bases, and is continued only because of the connections and the campaign contributions of the Cuban rightwing in Miami. But the real reason for US hostility is more political: Cuba represents a bold challenge to US domination of Latin America, living proof that a small third world country can stand up to the colossus of the north. Most of all, Cuba shows that another world is possible. It is this continuing challenge that gives the Miami gang political clout in Washington as well as Florida. This clout is more a consequence than a cause of Washington’s policy. In this way, the political influence of the Miami Cubans is analogous to that of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States: in both cases a policy originating in US geopolitical concerns creates the space for the ethnic-based lobby to have an impact.
The emigrés have friends in high places in government and are represented in Congress especially by Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ross Lehtinen. The Bush administration has been particularly eager to recruit emigrés such as James Cason and Otto Reich into State Department and National Security posts.
The US agencies and the emigré foci work together but also have their conflicts. The FBI and CIA don’t completely trust the emigré groups and infiltrate them. Occasionally operations of one or another Miami group has been interrupted by the Coast Guard or FBI and their activities have become public. After a brief flurry of publicity the culprits usually are quietly released. At times the criminal activity of emigré terrorists cannot be hidden, as when in 1984 Eduardo Arocena of Omega-7 was tried for the murder of a Cuban diplomat in New York. In this case, the defendant got even with the CIA by revealing that he had released in Cuba plant disease germs provided by the CIA.
Within Cuba the rise and fall of “dissident” activity reflects outside political events. With the end of the Soviet bloc, enemies of the revolution expected the imminent collapse of the Cuban revolutionary government and increased hostile activities in all arenas, especially with information warfare. Here is where the internal “dissidents” come in. Their main task is to provide ammunition to discredit Cuba. They do this by inventing incidents or inflating real deficiencies of the society so that they can be presented as the norm.
The “dissidents” that are known are those engaged in more open activities (as distinguished from those engaged in espionage and sabotage). They number perhaps a few hundred individuals belonging to a shifting set of organizations with similar goals. The distinction between the Human Rights Party (some 15 members) and the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights or the Comité Pro Derechos Humanos, or the Asociación de Periodistas Independientes de Cuba and the Federación de Periodistas de Cuba is usually that their leaders can’t get along with each other and compete for attention and funding. The Comité had some 15-20 members all of whom earned their visas and left, so that the present group is completely new. Groups claiming to speak for “free” unions, librarians, journalists or doctors arise, regroup, disappear and then show up again under new labels but with familiar faces.
Disaffected individuals become “dissidents” for a variety of reasons and then join the “dissident” world of cliques creating images of their own political importance and competing for US support. They often leave their jobs to work full time as professional “dissidents” living on subsidies from abroad but claim they were fired because of their dissent. Although at present there is no significant social base for the counterrevolution in Cuba, the growing sector of employees of foreign corporations and proprietors of small businesses (now numbering some 150,000 people and, with their families, perhaps half a million) may some day begin to demand political influence as a class, perhaps around issues of taxation. This might change the political situation from the maneuverings of marginal disaffected individuals to one of class conflict.
The dissidents are all linked directly or indirectly to US operations through the United States Interest Section in Havana, the CANF, and foreign governments of Spain, Czech Republic, Norway, and Lithuania, among others, and foreign NGOs. On visits to Miami their leaders meet with emigrés involved in both propaganda and terrorist activities. For instance, Social Democrat Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz met with leaders of the PNUD (Partido Nacional de Unidad Democrático), a group that supports armed actions. None of these organizations straighforwardly call themselves Partido Terrorista Revanchista or Coordinadora Unitaria de Asesinos, of course. Today the major strategic ploy of the US government and its Cuban assets is the call for a democratic and peaceful “transition,” and its newer allies posture as “moderates.”
How Cuba Works
The Cuban revolution was one of the great liberating events in Latin American history; it threw off half a century of United States imperial domination that had sustained a corrupt pseudo-democracy while sponsoring the systematic looting of the country’s wealth. Cuba began to build a kind of life that is equitable, just, sustainable, and participatory. Even without the continued hostility and aggression from the United States, this was an overwhelming task.
When the old ruling class left the country, it took with it its colonels, police chiefs, torturers, and the corrupt politicians who had looted the national treasury. It left behind a poor, plundered country with decrepit industries, eroded landscapes, high unemployment and illiteracy, few doctors (most of them in Havana), and a typical colonial economy of sugar monoculture. The Cuban working people have improvised, copied, backtracked, invented, compromised and forged ahead to create the present work in progress that has won the admiration of people throughout the world. It is far from perfect. Socialists do not talk of perfection. The term “workers’ paradise,” used now as a putdown by enemies of the revolution, is not a claim by participants or observers who know the enormous difficulties, frustrations, and contradictions of the process of changing a whole society and also changing themselves.
Cuba is a socialist society with a mostly socialist economy. Two different principles of distribution have coexisted in Cuba: the socialist principle “to each according to work” and the communist principle “to each according to need.” The principle of distribution according to work accords wages with a remarkably small spread to all who work, who have worked (pensioners), or who study: the median wage for all wage-earners in Cuba is 250 pesos a month, while a cabinet minister earns only 450. In addition, goods in short supply such as opportunities for vacations at tourist hotels are given as bonuses and awards to outstanding workers. Cooperative farmers earn their share of the cooperative’s returns, often taken as monthly advances as well as at the annual settling of accounts.
The principle of distribution according to need is reflected in social consumption available to everyone: free healthcare and education up to and including the university level, subsidized basic rations, school meals, and daycare, cheap and widespread access to cultural and sport activities. In addition to what is universally available, special arrangements are made to meet unequal needs: diabetics, pregnant women, and nursing mothers get special rations. There are schools for the disabled with employment guaranteed afterward, and special programs for the many young people who dropped out at the start of the Special Period (when jobs were not available and education no longer guaranteed employment). There is teacher training for those who work with deaf-mute and autistic children and university programs for seniors. Teachers are sent to children too isolated to get to school daily, and photovoltaic solar collectors are placed in schools in remote locations that are off the national electric grid. There are also programs to develop special talents in the arts and sports.
That said, it is important to recognize that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, the bulk of its international trade (which brought on what is known in Cuba as the Special Period), foreign capitalist enterprises and joint foreign/Cuban companies have been allowed to operate in Cuba in order to capture some needed hard currency. Small-scale private businesses were also legalized. Capitalist economics undermines these socialist/communist principles of distribution. It promotes inequality by paying exorbitant salaries to marketing and managerial personnel, especially in the tourist industry. Profitability, marketability, and family connections determine reward in private restaurants, private repair services, the private sale of their own tapes by musicians, and remittances from family abroad. Although the opportunities for corruption are much more limited than in the United States, there was a range of remunerative activities (theft, diversion of state property, gambling, prostitution, and black marketeering) that grew during the height of the Special Period, when people individually had to take care of what was formerly provided collectively. There was a general relaxation of social discipline in that emergency, a tolerance for victimless crimes committed to solve urgent personal economic problems. It will take some time to recover from the impact of this period on people’s consciousness.
Most Cubans own their own homes and the others pay minimum rent toward purchase. Of the millions of children who sleep in the streets in the third world, not one is Cuban. Healthcare is not only free but also uniformly distributed. Cuba has the best healthcare in the developing world and is even ahead of the United States in some areas such as reducing infant mortality. Quality education includes such innovations as a limit of 20 children per teacher in primary grades, 15 in junior high and 10 in high school. Since everybody has a right to education, there are some schools in the most isolated places with only a single or a few pupils. Cultural and recreational facilities are also widely diffused throughout the country. Employment is a right, and when industries reduce their staff or close, the workers are guaranteed other jobs with at least equal pay, or else retraining, return to school, or unemployment compensation. Today unemployment stands at about 3%.
Most Cubans believe that they are inventing a new kind of democracy, superior both to what Cuba had before the revolution and to what they see today in the United States and other capitalist countries. In these liberal democracies public office is a marketable commodity and the end result of all the political excitement at election-time is that the same group of people who own the economy continue to own the government. Cubans describe their own system as a way of getting as many people as possible to help run the country through a mixture of participatory and representative processes.
Cubans are very aware of the history of defeats in the early struggles for national independence and workers’ rights, defeats caused in large measure by divisions in the movements. This has given Cubans a strong sense of the importance of unity as a political goal. Their system is designed to reach consensus rather than promote adversarial conflict. Consensus is sought through extensive discussion at countless meetings in the workplace, the neighborhood, and the 2,200 non-governmental organizations. In fact, when I once asked a meeting of ecologists how aliens on a spaceship flying over Cuba would know there was socialism down below, the answer was, “Everybody is at meetings.” The purpose of the meetings is to reach a consensus strong enough to mobilize the active participation of the membership, their enthusiasm, energy, and ideas. The premium placed on consensus is a source of strength for the revolution, but also can at times lead to intolerance of deviant opinion.
At these meetings the major issues of concern to Cuban society are discussed. The Federation of Cuban Women led the discussions on the Family Code and regularly examines the status of women in order to identify obstacles to full equality and make proposals for removing them. The farmers’ association leads on questions of agriculture, and so on. In 2004 the new farmers’ cooperatives initiated discussions on their relations with the state, the degree of autonomy, how to reconcile their need for an adequate income with the need of the urban population for inexpensive food. In 1993, at the height of the economic crisis of the Special Period, workers’ parliaments were convened at thousands of workplaces to discuss which of the revolutionary achievements had to be retained at all cost, what compromises could be made, which of the emergency measures that the National Assembly was proposing were acceptable. They rejected a tax on wages. Every six months the union leadership meets with the heads of government departments to examine issues of wages, bonuses, compliance with the regulations of labor protection, the grievance system, and other issues of concern to the unions and to the country.
Cubans from the age of 16 vote in elections for the municipal and provincial assemblies and for the National Assembly.8 The elections are non-partisan rather than single-party. The Communist Party runs no candidates although individual members are prominent among those nominated. Nominations for municipal assembly elections take place in open neighborhood meetings, where from two to eight candidates are proposed. There is no campaigning, nor any of the apparatus of lobbyists, speechwriters, and public relations consultants that goes with it. Rather, biographies of the candidates are posted giving their occupation and contributions to society. In some ways they resemble job resumés, or the candidate listings for the Boards of Directors of food cooperatives or professional societies in our country. The voting is by secret ballot and the counting is public. In about 10% of the districts, run-off elections have to be held because nobody has won more the 50% of the votes. Elected representatives hold weekly office hours and twice a year have formal report-back meetings with their constituents.
Direct elections are also held for the provincial and national assemblies, with the difference that at these levels there are single candidacies that are determined by candidacy commissions composed of representatives from mass organizations led by a union representative. Among the concerns of the candidacy commissions is the composition of the elected bodies by gender, race, age, and occupation. It is important to have all sectors of the society represented, and progress in the participation of underrepresented groups is noted with satisfaction.
Another aspect of election results is their role as referendums on the revolution. Counterrevolutionaries call on Cubans not to vote or to turn in blank or damaged ballots. Some 10% of the eligible voters either do not vote or do not submit valid ballots. Not all of these represent protest. However this gives a rough idea of the extent of disaffection. When I ask friends whether they are satisfied with their representation, I get a mixed response. Some representatives carry out their duties formally and respond to complaints in bureaucratese, while in other districts they energetically promote their neighborhood’s interests.
Cuba has a parliamentary rather than presidential form of government. The 31-member Council of State, elected by the National Assembly every 5 years, acts on behalf of the National Assembly when the latter is not in session. Fidel Castro is the elected head of the Council of State. A few words are in order about the role of Fidel Castro. He is undoubtedly the outstanding political leader in the Americas in the last hundred years. Like Bolívar and Martí he led the struggle to free his country from foreign rule, in this case from the pseudo-republic run from the US Embassy. Unlike the other two he has continued to lead the construction of a new society based on equality, social justice, and sustainability. He has a dual role, as a symbol of the revolution and as its most able politician. When crowds throughout Latin America cheer “Fidel! Fidel!” he knows that it is a cry of admiration for the Cuban revolution rather than his personal charisma. Within Cuba, his formal position is as a delegate to the National assembly, elected from his home district in Santiago by secret ballot. The National Assembly then elects him to head the Council of State, also by secret ballot. Many Cubans see him as a superb visionary and strategist and a not very good administrator. My personal preference would be for him to relinquish the administrative position of Prime Minister and concentrate on what he does best, but this is the Cubans’ decision, not mine.
There are unresolved problems of Cuban democracy, but the ones the Cubans are concerned with are not the ones that foreign critics are most interested in. One example is that membership in elected bodies is not a full-time paid job. Delegates continue at their day jobs. They do not always have the expertise to rule on the more technical issues that arise. Another is the lack of resources for governments to use, especially at the local level.
The struggles against racism and sexism are vital elements in meeting Cuba’s goals of equity. Old Cuba experienced a combination of an inherited Spanish colonial racism and an imported North American variety. Advances in eliminating racism are visible in the widespread and growing Afro-Cuban leadership, in the self-identification of Cubans as an Afro-Caribbean people, and in the deeply felt solidarity with Africa that sent Cuban soldiers to fight the South African apartheid regime when it invaded Angola. It is seen in the recognition of the Yoruba and Congo religions as co-equal with Christianity. But racist discrimination persists. For instance, there are no black prima ballerinas in the National Ballet, and Afro-Cubans are still underrepresented in academic fields and overrepresented in vocational schools. After making racial discrimination illegal, Cuba has become aware that this is not enough and that action is needed to extirpate racism from the culture as well as to prevent its re-introduction by foreign investors. One Spanish hotel chain was thrown out of Cuba in part because of racist hiring practices.
The full equality of women has been a revolutionary goal from the beginning, with its specific content evolving as consciousness deepens. The Cuban Family Code recognizes equal responsibility of men and women to contribute to maintaining the household and proclaims equal rights to work, study, and leisure. However women still work 4-6 hours a day at housework in addition to their paid jobs and participation in all sorts of organizations and in government. There are many stories people tell about how the Family Code works out in the complex struggles within the family. This struggle is also seen in a high divorce rate. As one women’s leader explained: “Men dream of women who no longer exist, and women dream of men who do not exist yet.” Still, among the children of my friends, relations between men and women are much more egalitarian than in the older generation.
Women occupy 36% of the seats in the National Assembly, are a majority of the professionals and 26% of the directors. In my own areas of experience, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment, the minister and at least one vice minister are women. The director and all vice directors at the Institute of Citrus Research, the dean of the faculty of mathematics and other centers were all women, many of them Black.
Nevertheless sexist attitudes and discrimination persist, and women are not yet 50% of leadership. The Federation of Cuban Women recently held workshops on why there are not more women leaders. They refuted the idea that women are reluctant to take on those posts, and blamed continued underestimation of women’s capacity to lead.
At the time of the revolution in 1959, ecology was not part of the program for the new society. There was, however, awareness of the erosion and deforestation caused by four centuries of foreign rule and that, as a small country, Cuba had limited land and fresh water. Many separate ecologically sound programs were initiated but the prevailing view was developmentalist. That viewpoint, especially popular among economists and planners, saw development as the progression from “backward” to “advanced” along the path previously followed by Europe and North America. It required making use of vast quantities of energy, and a narrowly calculated “efficiency.”
In agriculture this meant high inputs of pesticides, fertilizers, mechanical power, and expensive animal feed in giant monocultures, i.e., industrial agriculture. The ecologists argued that this kind of modernization undermined the productive capacity of the land, made systems more vulnerable to natural and economic disasters, and poisoned nature and people. They developed an alternative approach based on biological pest control, the use of nitrogen-fixing crops and bacteria, on compost, earthworms, and beneficial fungi to improve soil fertility. They proposed a combination of mechanical and animal traction, with a diversity of crops among regions, within farms and even within fields.
In 1975 the new Cuban Constitution proclaimed environmental protection as a duty of the state and the whole society, and all enterprises were required to include environmental impacts in their plans. Despite the continued predominance of the developmentalists in agriculture and industry, there existed a variety of programs in ecological agriculture, alternative energy, urban planning, and occupational health. These, along with some programs working to protect biodiversity, resist desertification and erosion, and replant forests, gradually coalesced into an ecological perspective in the course of the struggle.
The ecologists won. When imports from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe were suddenly cut off and the high-tech path was no longer an option, there was in place an articulate community of ecologists, a tested alternative technology, and a spreading ecological consciousness available to meet the emergency. Ecologists-by-conviction were joined by the new ecologists-by-necessity.
Nevertheless, there were setbacks because of material scarcity of the period, for example, the cutting of wood for fuel, and a laxity in the enforcement of environmental regulations. But there were also notable achievements: organic agriculture has become the rule in the organopónicos and huertos orgánicos, the urban vegetable gardens that provide a great deal of the food for the cities and are spreading on rural farms. Forest cover has increased from 14% of the Cuban land surface at the time of the revolution to about 23% today toward a target of 27%. Freon is now being replaced as a refrigerant by the Cuban sugar cane derivate LB-12 which does not destroy the ozone layer. The water pollution level is being reduced at the rate of 5-10% per year. Cuba has signed on to the international treaties concerning the environment and climate, and holds workshops to evaluate its own compliance. An ecological society is gradually becoming a conscious goal reflected in policy and education. Cuban socialism is evolving toward a society in which the goals of development are the overcoming of poverty, the improvement in the quality of life, and a sustainable relation with nature rather than a race for unlimited increases of production and consumption at all cost.
The campaign against Cuba is an integral part of the United States’ new imperial stance in the world, its claim to the right to intervene in other countries and “take out” leaders they don’t like or force “regime change.” We should be demanding that Congress reverse the laws aimed at strangling or coercing Cuba, laws that violate international law. If the US escalates its aggression against Cuba, no matter what the excuse, we should be ready to go out in protest immediately, to defend one of the very few societies in which equity, the satisfaction of basic human needs, participatory democracy, and international solidarity are first principles.
We need to free our movement from cold war ideology. Only then can we begin to challenge the disinformation war against Cuba. We have to be ready to reject new excuses for the blockade and other coercive measures and to correct the dismissal of Cuban achievements. What we can learn from Cuba is that there are living alternatives to the way we do things here and that the Canadian national health system is not the only model for providing healthcare for everyone. In healthcare, education, and environmental protection, catching up with Cuba can be a worthy national goal.
We would then be in a position to offer Cuba real criticism, well informed and respectful. Foreign progressive critics have had their impact in the past, in the struggle against homophobia, for example, and for ecological agriculture. The rich American traditions of people’s struggles can be a source of valuable insight for the Cubans, while their creative solutions to enormous problems can be a source of hope for us.
Cuba warrants the respect, appreciation, and solidarity of progressives in the United States and throughout the world.
I thank Rosario Morales for help in reworking and editing the manuscript.
1. [Ed. Note: see Rosa Miriam Elizalde and Luis Báez, “The Dissidents,” reviewed elsewhere in this issue.]
2. Cited in Global Justice, Publication of the Center on Rights Development Vol.4 #1, Fall 1993, from Gustavo Arcos, Twenty Years and Forty Days: Life in a Cuban Prison.
3. Christopher Marquis, “Cuba Leads Latin America in Primary Education, Study Finds,” New York Times, December 14, 2001.
4. See also Sarah Boseley, “Cubans tell NHS the secret of £7 a head healthcare,” Guardian (London), October 2, 2000
5. Cuba’s Report to the UN Secretary General on General Assembly Resolution 58/7, “Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Embargo Imposed by the United States of America Against Cuba” (2004), p. 31.
6. Judith Miller et al., Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001).
7. See Philip Agee, “Terrorism and Civil Society as Instruments of US Policy in Cuba,” Socialism and Democracy no. 34 (Summer-Fall 2003).
8. On Cuba’s constitutional structure, see Peter Roman, People’s Power: Cuba’s Experience with Representative Government, updated edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).