Rick Smith: We are talking about Cuba and during the break Dr. Morris shared an interesting observation when hearing this John Lennon song. Can you share that with the audience?
Doug Morris: Sure, the song is John Lennon’s “Power to the People.” In Cuba, the popular form of democracy is called “People’s Power.” Under harsh circumstances, filled with many conflicts and contradictions, some successes and some failures, and in no way static, it could be argued that they are attempting to create a form of people’s power in which the population can participate in meaningful and effective ways in shaping the decisions and managing the organization of how people live together with one another in society in order to satisfy needs and fully develop human abilities.
RS: So, they are really trying to be the antithesis of America; instead of us being the “me” society, they are really trying to be the “we” society.”
DM: They are definitely the antithesis of the neoliberal model that has been imposed on the world. One of the serious struggles for Cuba is that Cuba is a tiny island attempting a people-first experiment in politics and economics and it is trying to exist in a rising sea of global neoliberal capitalism whose values are in opposition to the values that Cuba is trying to implement. The Cuban values they are trying to implement, not always successfully, Cuba is not “Utopia,” and in fact, Cuba is not interested in utopia, they are interested, in mobilizing people to create a people-first social order around the values of social justice, critical inquiry, respect for others, a rising standard of living measured not in the accumulation of commodities but in the flourishing of human well-being, full and meaningful employment, substantive forms of equality and freedom, freedom of the sort where people have the knowledge and ability to make meaningful choices that impact their lives, sustainability and ecological rationality, around notions of civic courage and a deep concern for the collective good because they understand that the free and creative development of each is conditioned on and nurtured by the free and creative development of all and the free and creative development of all is conditioned on and nourished by the free and creative development of each.
That is in opposition to the neoliberal values that are rooted in self-interest, profiteering, privatization, hyper-individualism, ruthless competition and rapacious greed. All of this gets back to a comment made earlier in your show about people falling through the cracks in the United States. If you operate a society on those neoliberal values you are going to have large and growing numbers of people sinking through the cracks because there is little sense of the common good and little sense of mutual responsibility.
So, getting back to notions of democracy, a substantive democracy cannot stop at the level of formal electoral procedures, it must develop projects and processes dedicated to the ongoing creation of a good and decent society grounded in promoting inclusive, informed, involved and energized citizens. It must be a society that recognizes and understands the crucial and reciprocal links between social conditions and individual fulfillment. I don’t want to suggest that Cuba has succeeded in all of these domains, and I don’t want to suggest that Cuba is without serious struggles, mistakes and contradictions politically, economically and socially, but as I understand the struggle in Cuba, the development of more substantive forms of democracy, economically, politically and socially, is central to the Cuban project of empowering the citizens.
Integral to such projects and processes is economic democracy. That, arguably, is the most advanced form of democratic unfolding, and it is virtually entirely lacking in the US because the economy is under the control of tyrannical institutions called corporations, institutions over which the public has very little control, especially since the introduction of neoliberalism’s agenda of deregulation, i.e., eliminating the capacity for the public to regulate what corporations do, and privatization, i.e., policies that hand over all public spaces to corporate exploitation, including the space of the public mind. For a compelling discussion of substantive democracy, I would recommend a fairly recent piece by Atilio Boron, called “The Truth About Capitalist Democracy.” It is published in a wonderful Monthly Review Press book titled Telling the Truth, edited by Leo Panitch & Colin Keys. It is part of the ongoing Socialist Register series, always worth reading.
So, in the end, I think one can say that because the Cuban experiment provides a deeper and more expansive notion of democracy through which Cuban citizens can participate more broadly in running and managing their society, the Cuban population is more empowered than the US population.
RS: One thing I find most interesting is that one of Cuba’s largest exports is the export of doctors. They export doctors to Venezuela, for instance, in exchange for oil. What is amazing to me is that this is a country that has not surrendered to neoliberal, IMF, WTO plans. They have not been pried open as an export model. They have remained their own entity and have found ways to exist despite all the pressures against them. On the one hand you say it is an amazing story, but on another hand you say aren’t a lot of their people suffering in poverty and starvation. We see this in the media when they talk about Cuba; they never say anything good. I’m excited to hear about what you are saying, but is the other side true as well.
DM: It depends how you measure poverty. Cuba is a poor country, no doubt. But if understanding poverty is linked to access to basic human needs such as food, health care, education, housing, child care, recreation, and we look at Cuba’s infant mortality rate, life expectancy and measures of sustainable development, all areas in which Cuba has equaled or surpassed the US, and then also note that in Cuba there is not really the ability to profit off the suffering and exploitation of others because it is a non-profit based society, and add the more egalitarian distributions in Cuba, then the poverty in Cuba is of a much different sort than one finds in most other countries of what is sometimes called the “developing” world.
Furthermore, Cuba, a poor country, exports more doctors than any country in the world, as far as I know, and those doctors work with the poor. It is one of the Cuban examples of working to address the horrors of poverty on an international scale. The others include the literacy workers and the agricultural workers Cuba sends to other countries to assist in addressing issues of poverty. So, an important question would also be “how is it that Cuba accomplishes so much, given so little?” And answering that question would lead us to start examining the benefits of alternative ways of organizing society; that is, ways of organizing built around social, political and economic democracy.
The poverty at the height of the Special Period when Cuba lost about 85% of its trade virtually overnight, when the GDP was down roughly 40%, and caloric intake was at the level of Haiti, that was very serious poverty, but Cuba survived, and that survival points to the resilience of the Cuban revolution. One might say that during this harsh period Cuba attempted to equalize the suffering and also ensure that those who needed assistance most were given assistance first.
As of 2005, the Cuban economy basically had recovered to where it was back in 1989 before the onset of the Special Period. In 2005, the GDP was up 12.5%; in 2006, it was up 12%; and in 2007 it was up about 7%. This is compared to an average in Latin America between 4 and 5%. Around the world one in five people live in abject poverty. In Latin America, about 60% of the people live in poverty and a good portion of those people live in abject poverty. Latin America, outside of Cuba, has the most acute inequality in the world. One would be hard pressed to find many people in Cuba living in abject poverty, in part because of the social programs in Cuba that provide access to food, health care, education, etc., and Cuba has the lowest rate of inequality in Latin America.
Around the world there are about 100 million street children. In Cuba, one sees no street children. Half of the world’s more than a billion people living in severe poverty are children. In Cuba, there is a major investment in children; so again, one would be hard pressed to find any Cuban children suffering under conditions of extreme poverty. 90 million children in Latin America live in poverty. 200 million children around the world lack access to basic health care. Cuban children have access to health care. There are about 115 million children around the world of primary school age who are not in school, and who will probably remain illiterate. Cuba has a 100% literacy rate, and virtually all Cuban children attend schools that produce what some consider the best education in the hemisphere at the elementary level.
So, you don’t see Cuban children going hungry the way you do in other developing countries. You don’t see elderly people eating cat food to survive. In the United States, 13 million children live in poverty. About 10 million children lack health care coverage. Millions of US children attend schools that provide at best a very poor education in schools that are deteriorating. 50% of the children in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. live in poverty.
People here often talk about a lack of freedom in Cuba, and there are some freedoms lacking. For example, Cubans are not free to live in a society that does not provide health care for all of its citizens. Cubans are not free to live in a society that does not provide a great elementary education for its children. Cubans are not free to live in a society dedicated to international relations grounded in domination and military aggression. Cubans live in a society that is dedicated to carrying out international relations founded in solidarity and that gets back to your point about the export of doctors, the export of literacy workers, and the export of agricultural workers, both scientists and farmers. The latter export is crucial because Cuba is carrying out an experiment in sustainable agriculture that is very successful and that is one reason why Cuba is considered the one country in the world that has achieved a point of sustainable development.
So, Cuba is engaged in an internal struggle for a people first society, while at the same time they always have a foot in international solidarity. The international relations with countries like Venezuela help to ensure that the social project in Cuba based in human dignity, social security and meeting human needs continues in the context of being a poor society that has been living for 50 years now under the threat of US military violence, under US terrorism and US propaganda against Cuba, the economic blockade.
So, yes, Cuba has poverty, for sure, but it is not the kind of poverty one sees in every other Latin American country.
RS: During the break we were talking about another freedom in Cuba. We have family medical leave in the US, but it is unpaid, in Cuba apparently it is paid medical leave. When you think about it, that is an important family value.
DM: Absolutely, that is a deep family value. For example, maternity leave in Cuba, which has also been extended to fathers, provides mothers 18 weeks of leave, 6 before birth and 12 after birth at full pay, and an additional 40 weeks at 60% pay, and they keep their job. There is a national subsidized day-care for children starting at one year of age. In 2003, the leave-option was extended to fathers for 60% pay for 40 weeks. So, families can now decide if the father or mother stays home with the children during those 40 weeks. Labor laws have also been passed to protect women from work-related activities that may be harmful during pregnancy. Women have six paid days of leave during pregnancy to attend prenatal care sessions and examinations. Creating social programs that support families are deep investments in family values.
Cuba has a social contract that grows out of something very, very important. Any serious social contract should grow out of a very serious commitment to the well-being of young people and Cuba ensures that every child is well-fed, has access to great education, access to health care, and Cuba sees children as a vital investment in the future. Furthermore, providing access to employment, and now a project directed toward meaningful employment, social security, health services and primary care along with preventive medicine, multiple forms of education including a new “univeralization of university education” program through which Cuba wants to work to ensure that every Cuban receives a university education, literacy projects, social assistance for the sick, etc. are all social commitments linked to family values, because the values families bring to the table are not disconnected from the values encouraged in the society in which the family is living and growing.
RS: OK, now the BIG question… considering that we seem to revel in the fact that we have 1,300 billionaires. How many billionaires do they have in Cuba?
RS: Ah, there the problem…
DM: Cubans live in a non-profit based society. That is a key value difference in Cuba. That is why, arguably, people develop a different sense of having a link in a chain of human activity and why one could argue that there is a different set of “family values” in Cuba. In the United States we often lack an understanding of our links through this chain of human activity because our relationships are mostly driven through commodities and we thus develop a relationship with the next commodity we are driven to purchase. That is not so true in Cuba because it is a non-profit society, so you don’t have people promoting commodities through 24/7 advertisements and commercials. In fact, in Cuba you don’t see billboards advertising commodities, you only see billboards celebrating the accomplishments of the revolution, or reminding people of the plight of the Cuban Five where the billboard announces accurately “In prison in the US for fighting terrorism.” The Cuban Five have been in US prisons now for ten years because they were engaged in a fight AGAINST terrorism.
So, in Cuba, rather than developing relationships with commodities, people have greater opportunities to develop a concept of what it means to develop meaningful and supportive relationships with fellow human beings. Again, I do not want to paint a utopian picture. Cuba does definitely have serious problems, but miraculously there is a lot of resilience in the Cuban struggle and they have found ways to continue this project under harsh conditions.
Phone question: I was wondering what it might take to become a citizen of Cuba, and I was wondering if Dr. Morris was going to become a citizen of Cuba or if he is going to remain a US citizen?
DM: The first part of the question I cannot answer, what it would require to become a Cuban citizen. As to the second part, it is easy: I am going to remain a US citizen.
RS: OK, so you have laid out a very utopian view of Cuba, one that most people have never heard, including me. It seems like a great place, so why do we see people leaving? Why would anyone leave?
DM: People regularly leave any area of the world to go to other areas. I am sure that plenty of people leave Pennsylvania every day to go to other areas of the US. These moves are typically driven by economic reasons. Historically, when poor countries exist next to rich countries, some people in the poor country will make the choice to try to go to the rich country in an attempt to improve their economic situation. It is not an entirely irrational decision under the circumstances. Cuba is a poor country, and it is located next to the richest country in human history, the United States. So, it makes sense that some Cubans would be leaving in order to try to get to the US.
In the US media there is often a flood of coverage when Cubans leave Cuba and it is presented from a perspective that suggests that Cubans are leaving because of political persecution.
But even the US Interest Section in Havana states that they are hard pressed to find real cases of political persecution in the processing of visa applications. In the 1990s, they wrote that most people were applying in order to escape deteriorating economic conditions. They noted that human rights cases are the least solid category of the refugee program and they are the most susceptible to fraudulent claims. So, Cuban emigration does not exist in a historical vacuum. We rarely hear that roughly 600,000 Colombians fled in the years 1999 to 2002, or of the more than 500,000 who left Ecuador in the same period.
Compared to the rest of Latin America the number of Cubans leaving, legally or illegally is almost surely both relatively and absolutely lower. Still, the number of Cubans who leave is overplayed in the public mind because of the overblown coverage Cubans receive. So, we hear about Cubans but we do not hear about Salvadorans, Haitians, Peruvians, etc. who leave. In addition, there is a long-term US policy of encouraging Cuban emigration, something that is not done with other countries. Radio Marti, a US propaganda station that encourages Cubans to leave, broadcasts regularly into Cuba. During the Special Period the US intensified the blockade by passing the Helms-Burton Act and the Torricelli Bill, both designed to make the Cuban economy scream, with the concomitant impact of encouraging Cubans to leave for economic reasons.
Cuba and the US signed an immigration agreement in 1994 calling for the issuing of a minimum 20,000 visas by the US per year. The number of visas offered by the US typically falls far below that number. Cuban law is clear regarding immigration. People can leave Cuba after they have received the proper documentation and authorization to do so from the country to which they wish to migrate. Then there is the Cuban Adjustment Act. Because of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cubans receive preferential treatment compared to other immigrants.
Cubans are welcomed by the US far more than any other migrants from Latin America and with special conditions attached for Cubans. Cubans get a greased path to work-permits, a social security number, and permanent residence status in the US. While others are generally seen as economic refugees, Cubans often fall into the category of political refugees from the US perspective and are given what amounts to political asylum. That designation is essentially US propaganda. A political refugee must clearly demonstrate a well-grounded fear of persecution to be granted asylum in the US, but persecution has little to do with US judgment in the case of Cuba.
Persecution in Cuba compared to persecution in many other Latin American countries over the years is virtually invisible. When Haitians fled the vicious and murderous US backed military dictatorship in the early 90s they were clearly escaping from very harsh political repression and persecution. The standard US response was to send them back to Haiti, sometimes to be killed. The same was true of Guatemalans in the 1980s, etc., etc. There are many such cases.
While Cuban immigrants are granted political asylum virtually 100% of the time, those from other countries are only granted asylum in a minority of cases, well-under 50%. Unlike others, Cubans have no stringent requirements. Cubans who make it to US soil are typically granted financial assistance for basic necessities, for education, a fast track to employment, access to welfare and unemployment, etc.
We could ask some other questions: “Why do so many Mexicans leave?” “Why is there not a Mexican Adjustment Act, or a Haitian Adjustment Act?” If there were such acts, how many Mexicans and Haitians, not to mention people from every other country in Latin America, would go to the US? Clearly, there would be millions of people rushing across borders.
So, given all that is done to encourage Cubans to leave, and to grease the path to the US, one might ask a different question, “Why do so few Cubans leave Cuba?” I think it was at the 1994 Pan American games where the US put on a major propaganda effort to entice Cuban athletes to defect. Huge sports contracts were offered, there were billboards put up to make the offers very visible and very attractive. Of the many hundreds of Cubans who participated in the games, only a few decided to defect. We should note that 1994 was the height of the Special Period when Cubans were suffering most. Athletes from other countries told the Cubans that if the US offered them the same things they were offering the Cubans, virtually 100% of the people would take the offer.
If we want to understand some of the darkness behind US foreign policy imperatives, we might reflect on why the US has over the years typically returned people to hellish conditions of repression, back to countries with the worst human rights records, where people suffer poor health, malnutrition, possible death squad terror, homelessness, high infant mortality, poor education, etc., but when it comes to Cuba, a country with perhaps the best health care and education in Latin America, the best reforestation project, the most serious commitment to sustainable agriculture on the planet, an infant mortality and life expectancy rate soon to surpass those of the US, some of the best scientific research in all of the Americas, the US is working overtime to encourage people to leave? Again, at the core, I would argue, is US power’s opposition to the Cuban “people-first” rather than “profits-first” project.
RS: The more I learn about Cuba the more I am amazed that in this country we are not following best practices. We are not attempting to do things differently to make our lives better. We seem to be plodding along the same path and it is leading down the same failed road we have been in the past.
DM: Can I mention one last thing related to that where Cuba is offering an alternative that I think the rest of the world should study very carefully? There is a growing global food crisis. Last year alone 100 million more people were put into conditions of chronic hunger, beyond the 800 million who already live in conditions of chronic hunger. Cuba is carrying out an agricultural experiment in sustainability that is unlike any experiment, as far as I know, being carried out in any other country.
The Cuban experiment, part of the larger decentralization and expansion of democracy experiment in Cuba, is rooted in an ecological rationality that involves: bio-control of pests and the use of organic fertilizers, along with animal traction in place of tractors that use fuel and despoil conditions (farmers also discovered they can develop a relationship between an animal and the interactions with local environmental conditions and of course no relationship can be established with a tractor); soil conservation; a decentralization of control and decision making that has encouraged more popular participation; a diversification of crop production and crop adjustments even at the very local level of a single farm; a redistribution of land to farmers; a commitment to small farms that inspires more worker participation, production, enthusiasm, and a sense of belonging; fair prices for farmers (contrary to the neoliberal model that is undermining small farmers across the globe) without increases in food prices at the market; increased community participation which includes a tapping into local knowledge; the creation of energetically and democratically organized cooperatives called Basic Units of Cooperative Production; environmental education programs in rural communities; and an inversion of the standard pattern of rural to urban migration.
In Cuba there is an urban to rural migration. All of this is carried out within Cuba’s continuing commitment to the larger humanist social project. Whereas in the not too distant past more than 80% of farms were under State control, that has been reduced to under 15% as part of the decentralization plan and the commitment to small, organic farms that link the land to the people and the people to the land and that encourage the democratization of production, distribution and consumption.
So, this Cuban revolution in sustainable agriculture is a possible model that could raise people’s ecological consciousness across the world, transform the way we think about the relationship between people and the environment and between people and people, and perhaps, from that, we can also develop a consciousness around alternative forms of economic and political organization grounded in forms of substantive democracy.
Istvan Meszaros, in The Power of Ideology, reminds us that at this point in human history anything other than global solutions to the crises and challenges we now confront is really unacceptable because our problems on a global scale are so immense and multiple that the elementary conditions for human survival on the planet are seriously in peril. Perhaps the Cuban example, even with all of its conflicts and contradictions, can inspire us so that we can develop a consciousness on a global scale in order for people to better understand Jose Marti’s point of how our “homeland is humanity,” and start to build relations evolving from another of Marti’s maxims: “from the good of all; for the good of all.” Viva la revolucion!