The following is Part 1 of an edited and enhanced radio interview conducted in August 2008 with Dr. Doug Morris, Eastern New Mexico University Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
Rick Smith: One of the things I love hearing about is what is happening in other countries. I like to hear from the inside and I like to hear different opinions. This is why we have our next guest, Dr. Doug Morris, from Eastern New Mexico University. He just returned recently from Cuba, and I am always interested and fascinated to find out what goes on in the closed-arena there. Why did you go? I can’t go, as far as I know… how did you get there?
Doug Morris: I went as part of the “Research Network in Cuba Group,” sponsored by the US based “Radical Philosophers Association.” The group does research in Cuba and participates in a yearly conference at the University of Havana as part of that research, and shares that work back here in the US in various academic and public settings. A number of the participants travel back and forth to Cuba numerous times over the year to carry out research and to keep open lines of communication, for example around socialist economics and agriculture. The group travels legally on an academic research general license provided by the US State Department. There are different categories for research and legal travel to Cuba, including journalistic research, so one would guess that you would be able to obtain a license to do “legal” journalistic work and research in Cuba. We should add that it is not Cuba that is trying to keep US citizens out of Cuba; rather, it is the US government that is violating our Constitutional right to travel.
I should also say that the reasons for going to Cuba are many and also share that I am not an expert on Cuba. Cuba is not my primary area of academic interest but more peripheral. Cuba remains a source of interest and inspiration mostly because Cuba is attempting to carry out a social project outside of the global neoliberal model, a neoliberal model that places profits first and is a source of many global calamities and much human suffering. Cuba’s project, filled with contradictions and struggles, is working to ensure that people come first. Cuba remains an inspiration because they have accomplished so much under very trying conditions and circumstances, not least of which is the presence of the hostile global behemoth just to the North.
Cuba, as one Cuban scholar pointed out, always “walks on a razor’s edge, and does so in a world that stands on the edge of a precipice.” In other words, Cuba, always struggling to survive, is often forced to pursue policies against their basic commitments, but they must survive, and they are trying to survive as a socialist island in a rising sea of neoliberal abominations. There is no rule book available for revolutionaries so they can simply open to page 155 to find the answer to the latest dilemma. Cuba, though it walks on a razor’s edge, is an inspiring source of alternative political, economic, agricultural and pedagogical knowledge that we, standing on the precipice, so desperately need as we now face ever-growing global threats through climate change, ecological catastrophes, growing poverty and inequality, food and hunger crises, water shortages, political authoritarianism, corporate tyranny, and an increasingly militarized globe. So, Cuba has been designated the only sustainable society in the world by the World Wildlife Fund, and that is of great importance at a time when a sustainable human future is in serious question.
As to Cuba being a “closed-arena” one must be careful on how that gets interpreted because people in the US will use that to intimate that Cuba is some kind of Stalinist society in which people lack all freedoms, where everyone lives under constant surveillance and fear, where people are abducted from the streets in the middle of the night if they disagree with State opinion, where people are sent off to torture camps, etc. But that is not the case in Cuba, although one might draw links between what was just described and the US base at Guantanamo, a real core of human rights abuse on land that belongs to Cuba but is occupied by a US Naval base. The “closed-arena” in Cuba is partially a myth created by US propaganda in order to keep the US population distanced from understanding what really happens in Cuba, and partially a consequence of Cuba living constantly under the threat of US aggression, a situation that compels certain forms of centralized control and suspicions that may occasionally result in forms of repression beyond that which one could support.
One might ask why US power is interested in keeping US citizens from understanding what is happening inside Cuba, and I would argue that the primary reason is that Cuba is working to carry out an experiment in economics and politics that puts human interests and well-being first, is committed to ecological rationality and sustainable agriculture, and assumes that there are sets of human rights that should be honored, for example, the rights to food, health care, education, housing, employment, access to culture, sports, participation, etc. Cuba sees these rights as basic to human needs, and they should not therefore be available only to those who can afford them in the market. The problem with Cuba from the perspective of US power, I would say, is that if Cuba succeeds in carrying out this people-first experiment in politics and economics, it will demonstrate the legitimacy of what in Cuba is called “people’s power.” The Cuban revolution violated 150 years of US policy and belief as expressed in the Monroe Doctrine, i.e., US power owns the hemisphere and US power will determine who does what and in whose interests, etc.
Soon after the Cuban revolution the Kennedy Administration made it clear what the problem was. The Cuban model, they suggested, was providing a source of inspiration for people across the hemisphere who had been robbed and exploited for hundreds of years, people who now might want to follow the Cuban example and take matters into their own hands to advance their own interests and live lives outside of misery, poverty and despair. Of course, if that interferes with profits and power concerns, that is intolerable from the perspective of US power. So, one of the central problems with Cuba from the view and interests of US power is that Cuba can show that a society can be run by the people through various interactions between formal and informal democracy, between participatory and representative forms of democracy, and, crucially, Cuba can demonstrate that a society can be run in the interest of people without resorting to a profit-based and tyrannical economic system.
And, secondly, the threat of US aggression is very real as history has demonstrated quite clearly. More than 200 years ago, John Adams argued that Cuba is a “natural extension of the US,” and that Cuba should be annexed by the US. Jefferson wrote that “Cuba [is] the most interesting addition that can be made to our system of states,” and John Quincy Adams referred to “the inevitability of the annexation of Cuba,” suggesting that it would eventually fall into US hands by the laws of political gravity, like “a ripe fruit.” In the 1850s, the US Ostend Manifesto warned against Cuba becoming “Africanized [like Haiti]… with all the attendant horror for the white race.” In addition, of course, were commercial interests, and by the 1880s Cuba was a key US commercial “partner,” especially around sugar. The US provided 70% of the Cuban market. Prior to the US intervention in Cuba’s second war of independence, the US undersecretary of war, J. Breckenridge wrote that Cubans were incapable of managing their own society, that they had only “a vague notion of what is right and wrong,” and therefore the US should “destroy everything within our cannon’s range of fire, impose a harsh blockade so that hunger runs rampant, undermine the peaceful population, and decimate the Cuban army.”
In 1901, the US forced the Cubans to accept the Platt Amendment, still used to “justify” the US military base at Guantanamo Bay. It also gave the US the “right” to intervene in Cuban affairs anytime to “preserve Cuban independence” (but not independence from US intervention, of course), and to protect life, liberty, and crucially property. The US acted on the amendment in 1906 and militarily occupied Cuba until 1909. From 1901 until 1959 and the triumph of the revolution that overthrew the US backed Batista dictatorship, Cuba, in Robert Scheer’s words “was more of an appendage of the US than a sovereign nation.” Most of the land and resources was under various forms of US control.
The US has, for close to fifty years now, been hostile to the Cuban revolution, has wanted to reestablish US domination over Cuba, and has engaged in outright military aggression, economic strangulation of multiple sorts, endless forms of terrorism, biological and chemical warfare attacks, diplomatic maneuvers to isolate Cuba, introduced legislation such as the Helms-Burton Act and the Torricelli Bill to punish Cuba and other countries that deal with Cuba at a time when Cuba was in dire straits and in need of serious assistance not further punishment, sponsored people who carried out bombing attacks in Cuba or blew-up a Cuban airplane (killing all on board), planned dozens of assassination attempts against Cuban leaders, engaged in widespread propaganda attacks around the world against the Cuban experiment (a good portion of it through US embassies), funded anti-Cuban think tanks, etc.
We should also keep in mind, that if we consider the definition of terrorism to be “the use of force and violence, or the THREAT of force and violence, to intimate, coerce or control, in order to advance ideological, political, religious or economic interests,” a close paraphrase of the official US definition, then the US is engaged in terrorism 100% of the time because the announced policy of its willingness to not only attack anyone, anywhere, anytime for any reason, made formal in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States, and demonstrated in the illegal US attack against Iraq, but the US also reserves the “right” to use nuclear weapons in a first strike. That means the US is always engaged in the THREAT to use force and violence around the world, i.e., always engaged in terror. Cubans are well aware of this, and we should be too.
The continuing hostility against the Cuban revolution is grounded, arguably, in three main considerations. The first is the commercial and financial losses for US business interests in Cuba. The Wall Street Journal referred to the revolution as a “watermelon.” The more you slice it “the redder it gets.” For example, Cuba nationalized the oil refineries. Cuba had signed a trade deal with the Soviet Union in early 1960, and it included Soviet crude. At the command of the US government Texaco and Standard Oil refused to refine the crude, thus forcing Cuba to nationalize the refineries. Nationalizations were carried out with offers of compensation based on the reported assets and earnings provided by the companies in their official record. These assets and earnings were typically underreported in order to save on taxes.
The second is Cuba’s commitment to pursue a course of economic, political and social development that is independent of US hegemony, and the concomitant threat that the Cuban revolution could provide inspiration for others in the region to challenge US domination.
Advisor to JFK, Arthur Schlesinger stated that the problem with the Castro regime, i.e., the Cuban revolution, was that it represented a successful resistance to US hegemony, and that defiance undermined 50 years of US policy in the region. In other words, the Cuban revolution was providing an emancipatory opening for people to move beyond subservience and subjugation. In short, as the Administration said, “the poor and underprivileged [i.e., exploited] might demand opportunities for a decent living,” and that is simply unacceptable. The Kennedy Administration responded to this “threat” by implementing the “Alliance for Progress.” Interestingly, about ten years after the Alliance began, a major US study demonstrated that Cuba, the one country excluded from the Alliance, was the only country that had achieved what the Alliance purported to be carrying out, for example, advances in public health, education, transportation, as well as the integration of rural and urban sectors.
And, the third is Cuba’s commitment to international solidarity, revealed in Cuba’s international projects in medicine, literacy, and agriculture, as well as “Operation Miracle,” through which more than one million people have been treated to restore their vision. Cuba demonstrates that international relations can be built on solidarity rather then exploitation, domination and aggression. And then there is the matter of people’s power, i.e. people taking matters into their own hands.
RS: What was the purpose of the conference in Cuba?
DM: The purpose of the conference includes efforts to build bridges of solidarity and understanding between Cuban and US academics and Cuban and US citizens. The conference itself revolves around different areas of research including research in economic matters, philosophical issues, education, agriculture, various forms of social organization, history, projections about what kind of future we should struggle for, the role that civil society plays in creating popular empowerment in Cuba and the role that civil society could play in producing citizen empowerment in the United States, etc.
RS: Would you say we are not politically empowered in the United States?
DM: I would argue that the Cuban population is much more politically empowered than the population in the United States for a fairly simple reason, one that is surely considered a controversial perspective by many people in the US. Cuba has a much different, more wide-ranging and stronger concept of democracy than we have in the United States.
In the United States the notion of democracy basically stops at the most elementary, rudimentary and least developed form of democracy, electoral democracy. Every two or four years, people are permitted to vote for a set of candidates who are essentially pre-selected by the owners of society, the business class. Anyone who challenges the interests of the owners is essentially marginalized or excluded from serious consideration. The case of Dennis Kucinich demonstrates this rather clearly. We vote for one or another of the corporate-sponsored candidates and very little changes in terms of the public interest being advanced, in terms of public well-being improving, in terms of pursuing the overall public good, in terms of the public developing capacities, resources and knowledge to meaningfully and effectively shape politics in ways that represent real public concerns, such as universal health care, environmental protection, a political system that responds to public concerns, better education, less militarism, infrastructure repair and development, a fairer economic system, etc.
Electoral democracy in the US generally produces a form of competition limited to major parties funded by wealthy elites and the corporate sector, and while public interest and enthusiasm, in some sectors, can be temporarily elevated by the hyper-spectacles that are regularly presented during campaign season, the barrage of PR materials, or by the constant repetition of largely empty slogans around “hope” and “change,” the final result is that very little of substance changes in regards to policies that promote, represent or fulfill public interests, needs and concerns, or stimulate public empowerment.
The public is largely aware of this sham, and that is surely one reason why participation in electoral democracy is so low in the US. In electoral democracies, voters vote every two or four years, with virtually zero input into policies and programs, but as George Soros makes clear, “markets vote every day,” suggesting that without meaningful forms of democratic participation in the economy and in social arrangements, democracy remains a largely empty and formal vessel, a shadow that hides the substance of power and decision making which lives and works largely at the corporate level.
In Cuba, I would suggest, they have extended the idea of democracy beyond electoral democracy (they do have elections in Cuba, contrary to what we have been taught in the US), to include political democracy, which is the beginning of more participatory forms of democracy, as well as social democracy and economic democracy. So, elections in Cuba are not funded and controlled by elites but organized by the people.
RS: Wait a second, how it that possible? Castro has been the leader their for a long time; is he being elected? What I keep hearing is that he is a communist dictator.
DM: Cuba, as I understand it, is carrying out an experiment, and this has to be emphasized, what is happening in Cuba is an experiment being carried out under extremely harsh conditions not of their own choosing. Still, it must be said that Cuba exhibits none of the chronic human abominations one witnesses in most other countries of the region: there are not droves of homeless people rotting in gutters, no children starving, no mass illiteracy, no high levels of infant mortality or unemployment, no death squads roaming the countryside, no monstrous inequalities, no high levels of political and social instability, etc. There is a housing crisis, but there are programs underway to address the housing crisis. For example, in 2006 Cuba constructed roughly 110,000 new houses, and in 2007 roughly 67,000 new houses. They project that if they can average 50,000 new houses per year for ten years, they will have addressed the main issues of the housing crisis, and they are on target to meet those expectations.
What they are attempting to do in Cuba is mobilize the collective intelligence and imagination of a population of people to manage and run the society and they are doing it through a combination of participatory and representative democracy organized through local and national political organizations such as the Youth Communist League with roughly 800,000 members of young people between the ages of 14 and 30, the Communist Party of Cuba with roughly 1.5 million members (it should be noted that the Party is not an electoral party, that is, the Party does not participate in the nomination or election of political candidates at the local, provincial or national levels of assembly elections, nor can the party propose legislation in the representative political bodies; this is not to say that the Party lacks influence in Cuban politics, it is clearly very influential across Cuban society in its role as sort of protector and stimulator of socialist consciousness and in encouraging people to, as they say, “Be like Ché,” which essentially calls for developing a concern for and a commitment to the collective good and a willingness to make sacrifices for the collective good).
Then there are the mass organizations that include the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Women’s Federation, the Worker’s Unions, Student Federations at the University, Secondary and Elementary school levels, professional organizations and the organs of the state which include judicial bodies, the armed forces, the Organ’s of People’s Power that include the National, Provincial and Municipal Assemblies, and the Popular Councils that serve as a bridge between neighborhoods and Municipal Assemblies, the Council of State, and the Working Commissions of the National Assembly of People’s Power. The National Assembly has legislative authority and the delegates to the assembly are elected by the Cuban electorate. The National Assembly chooses from among the members of the Assembly the Council of State. The Council of State is then responsible for selecting the Council of Ministers.
As I understand it, the Council of State selects a president, but the president must first be nominated at the level of his local municipality in order to achieve the status of National Assembly representative who then moves into the Council of State, etc. Furthermore, as I understand it, the status of President does not accord any dictatorial powers, but it does provide the opportunity for the President to present arguments for or against any piece of legislation. There are numerous cases over the years in which Fidel argued one way and others argued the other, and Fidel’s position did not carry the day. Legislation and decrees must be ratified by the National Assembly. Fidel’s status, or now Raul’s status, provides a symbolic and influential power in Cuba that others may not have by virtue of their participation in the Cuban revolutionary struggle since the early 1950s, in particular since the attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, 55 years ago this July 26th.
At the same time, one should note that there has been a significant turnover in the Cuban political system over the last decade or so, and many of those running the system are in their 30s and 40s. The creation of the Popular Councils in the early 90s, in the early years of the Special Economic Period (after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost roughly 85% of its trade overnight), was carried out as a bulwark against centralization and bureaucracy and as a way to enhance local government power and popular participation. Candidacy Commissions, made up of people from the mass and popular organizations and presided over by members of the worker unions were established to organize the provincial and national assembly elections. Their primary purpose is to ensure a fairer representation from across the populace. In other words, the citizenry is involved in both nominating and electing its representatives. Provincial and national elections are held every five years, and municipal elections every 2½ years.
Roughly half the representatives in the National Assembly are from the Municipal Assemblies and the other half are comprised of national figures who are politicians, scientists, intellectuals, artists, athletes, workers, etc. Of particular interest to the audience for this program in the US, “where working people come to talk,” is the role of unions in Cuba and the worker assemblies. Isaac Saney, in his book, A Revolution in Motion, describes how Cubans are involved in an intense political learning process and how “the system responds to popular demands for adjustment.”
In 1993, during some of the worst times of the Special Economic Period when the Cuban economy was in the gutter, and Cubans were suffering, the National Assembly wanted to introduce a tax on wages. Union representative opposed this proposal on the grounds that the workers had not had an opportunity to discuss and debate the measures. The National Assembly thus delayed any action until the worker’s parliaments could meet. There were three months of meetings, over 80,000 meetings, involving over 3 million workers where these matters were discussed and debated, and new proposals were offered. National policy reflected worker views. When the new tax law was finally passed the taxes were primarily on the self-employed rather than on wage workers. This is one example that demonstrates how mass consultations and input from citizens distinguish the Cuban experiment from other countries.
All Cuban citizens can vote upon turning 16, and they can be nominated by fellow citizens in local popular assemblies at the age of 18. So, people are nominated in neighborhood mass assemblies at the local level to serve in Municipal Assemblies. It is a process of consultations and dialogues within popular and community organizations. We should also note that
Cubans possess the capacity to recall the representatives they elect if it is determined that the performance of the representative is unsatisfactory. This Cuban right is carried forth in periodic meetings, sort of accountability sessions with constituents, where representatives report on their work.
Let me return to the point of moving from electoral democracy to political democracy, and then from there into social and economic democracy. Democracy becomes more engaging politically when forms of effective and more participatory political representation are permitted and encouraged. In short, where there is established public controls on the financing of elections, not private control by those who own the society; where access to vital information is available and accessible rather than the kinds of limited access we experience in the US through the dominant corporate media where we very seldom learn what public opinion really is and only see it refracted through corporate interests; where the role of lobbies is constrained (so in the US the oil lobby spent roughly $83 million last year and will probably surpass that figure this year in attempts to direct legislation and voting their way…the pharmaceutical industry, the Chamber of Commerce, Phillip Morris and General Electric are near the top of lobbyists working to ensure that policies are endorsed and legislation passed to protect and promote private power, corporate profits and wealth for the privileged…), so lobbying would be constrained except to the extent that lobbying is carried forth in the public interest not to promote private power and wealth.
Political democracy also would be a form in which legislative bodies are empowered to carry out the will of the people, by the people and for the people; with the people having opportunities to recall candidates who are not serving the interests of the public; where there are instruments through which the public can express its interest and concerns through forms of collective consultation, dialogue, discussion and referenda; and where there are more equitable and responsible distributions of power. To some folks in the US this “of, by and for the people” notion of democracy would sound crazy, but it does reflect a rather Lincolnesque notion of democracy and that is as American as apple-pie, yes?
Democracy becomes more meaningful when politically engaging forms are combined with electoral forms in the context of social forms that recognize citizenship as a component of a social contract in which rising standards of living are measured through how well the society provides access to basic services and needs around food, recreation, education, social security, health, housing, arts, and transportation. In short, effective citizenship is rooted in social justice, a de-commodification of society, as well as equality of rights and conditions because people are fundamentally citizens in a participatory democracy rather than consumers in a profit based and undemocratic and dehumanizing market system.
Basically, in a social democracy needs are not satisfied through the ability to purchase commodities but are seen as a social right and duty. This form of social democracy eliminates the rampant exclusionary prejudice present in commodified markets where goods, needs and services are available only to those who have enough money and power for purchase rather than being available to all by virtue of their condition as citizens and human beings living under a mutually fulfilling and responsible social contract. This is the de-commodification mentioned above. In the United States, all of the goods and services mentioned above, from food, to health, to education, to sports, etc. are not available to people as a human right, but are seen as a privilege and available only to those who can purchase them on the market. I would suggest that is very anti-democratic and it has the consequence of dehumanizing people and social relations because too many people lack the ability to have their needs satisfied and they don’t live in a culture dedicated to fully developing their capacities.