Political economy is more often than not depicted as a Left-Right bifurcation. This is too simplistic. It overlooks the difference between, on the one hand, right-wingers such as the Conservatives, Labour Party, and Liberal Democrats from, on the other hand, the far Right British National Party in the United Kingdom. It also omits the differences on the Left, for example, between Communists and anarchists.
Since right-wingers are capitalist in orientation, they are supported by moneyed interests, aka elitist class interests. And, insofar as money denotes power, the right-wingers have a significant advantage over socialist-oriented left-wingers.
Given the uneven playing field, leftists realize that to bring about socialism a broad-based solidarity is needed, particularly in systems that hold first-past-the-post elections. Despite this, there are definite schisms on the Left; this is especially pronounced between Communists and anarchists. Anarchists favor egalitarianism and eschew the hierarchy of Marxist-Leninists’ “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
The anarchist-Communist schism was particularly evident during the Spanish Civil War when anarchists fought to establish egalitarianism. Of the anarchist revolution, George Orwell, who fought with POUM (an anti-Stalinist Communist party) during the Spanish civil war, wrote:
Above all there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having emerged suddenly into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.1
Even within the rigidly hierarchical world of military, the egalitarianism extended to those fighting for the revolution:
The essential point of the system was social equality between officers and men. Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equality. If you wanted to slap the general commanding the division on the back and ask him for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it curious. In theory at any rate each militia was a democracy and not a hierarchy. It was understood that orders had to be obeyed, but it was also understood that when you gave an order you gave it as a comrade to comrade and not as superior to inferior.2
Yet, the Communists waged a counterrevolution, directed by Russia, which undermined the revolution of the masses by essentially backing the fascists of Generalísimo Francisco Franco.3
There were also struggles between anarchists and Communists during the Cuban Revolution. One anarchist, who went to Cuba to work with the Ernesto Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade in 2010, told me that some people from the anarchist brigade found her choice of Cuba to be odd given that “Cuban anarchists were not treated very well after the revolution although they did play a big part it making it happen.” Nonetheless, this anarchist found Cuba to be “very democratic.”
How has the Cuban revolution play out between anarchists and Communists? For a perspective on this, I interviewed Arnold August,4 a Canadian journalist and lecturer, the author of Democracy in Cuba and the 1997–98 Elections and, more recently, Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion. In Cuba and Its Neighbours, August compares the level of democracy in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and the United States. Not surprisingly, when one actually looks beyond rhetoric and focuses on the level of democracy in practice, the US fares poorly against Cuba and other nations moving toward democracy.5
But how democratic is Cuba’s Communism vis-à-vis the anarchists who also supported the revolution? This cannot be known. What can be discussed is respect or tolerance between revolutionary anarchists and revolutionary Communists in Cuba. These and other themes are discussed in the following two-part interview with August.
Arnold August: Kim, thank you very much for this interview. It provides us – you, me and the readers of Dissident Voice – the opportunity to further reflect on Cuba at this time. Not since its 1959 Revolution has there been as much international public debate and controversy over Cuba. Your first question is indeed a good starting point, as its gets to the heart of the matter. There are several aspects to the opening query, so let’s take one feature at a time.
The term “criticism” is used in reference to Cuba being a dictatorship run by the Castros. I think that the word “criticism” itself has to be clarified. In this particular case, it is not a critique but rather an incessantly repeated mantra. For example, in preparing for another interview on Cuba, I was asked to watch two very recent videos clips of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews program Hardball. The subject was Cuba and the current situation. The show hosted the full U.S. establishment political spectrum, from the liberal Matthews and other liberal politicians and commentators to the openly right-wing from Florida. What they all had in common was the penchant to repeat as a truth that Cuba is a dictatorship run by the Castros. They all insisted on making that assertion. They provided the usual spectacle of a recurring squabble over tactics; however, they agreed across the board that the strategic problem for the future of Cuba is the dictatorship of the Castros. Why do I insist that it is merely a recitation and does not merit the term “criticism”? There are two basic reasons.
First, this invocation is meant, consciously or not, to obscure and keep from the public eye the role of the Cuban people in the political process. The people are obliterated by this Castrocentric supplication. That is, while not a fully developed, perfect democracy in which people actually and effectively participate, people at the base do have a real role to play. For example, a lot is being said in the international arena about the economic changes that are taking place, such as the right to buy and sell homes and cars, or the flourishing of small self-employed enterprises and cooperatives. If I told your readers that the principle features of these new initiatives emerged mainly from the base despite the fact that the Castros did not entirely propose them, would this lead to a stupor among many people? Probably so, because the notion of a Cuban dictatorship is so ingrained in the minds of many in the Anglo-American world. In fact, the political institution that is supposed to be the epitome of dictatorship – the Communist Party of Cuba and the Castros – initiated a public debate in 2007 in all the neighbourhoods, work centres and educational institutions. It carried on until the party Congress held in 2011. As a result of this input from the people at the base, as I detail in my book (Cuba, 121-7), new policies on houses, cars and small businesses, including cooperatives, were developed by the party. They were then elaborated in the National Assembly (NA) in the form of legislation. The initiatives did not come from the top, but rather primarily from the bottom. How is it possible that a conception of what is supposed to be the antithesis of democracy (the Communist Party and the Castros) is converted into its very embodiment? “Facts are stubborn things” said Mark Twain.
Second, the “Castro dictatorship” sideswipe serves to conceal real criticism (and here the term “criticism” is worthy of the appellation) that is carried out, for example, by social scientists on the island. There has been, and continues to be, vigorous deliberation to improve Cuba’s own political system within the context of preserving and enhancing the role of the people in fashioning the country’s intrinsic destiny. Coming from a capitalist country such as Canada, it was refreshing to me to discover these lively contentions during my lengthy fieldwork in Cuba. This invigorating atmosphere inspired me to include an entire section on the role of social scientists in striving to catapult Cuban society toward a new level of people’s participation (Cuba, 136-45). If I may add a personal note, my book, as you have written in your review, “does not sugarcoat the situation in Cuba.” Furthermore, as stated by a reviewer of my work, “some of the harshest criticisms come from those August interviews – Cubans who support the revolution, but are brutally self-critical.” Yet, my book has been translated into Spanish in Cuba and it is to be published and released there in February 2015 by an official Cuban publishing house, Ciencias Sociales of the Cuban Book Institute. This, in turn, operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture. Not to mention that I am not Cuban! Therefore, in my view, this reflects an appreciation for and the encouragement of the proliferation of criticism.
Let us now move on to another feature of your opening question. It centres on the omnipresent role of Fidel Castro and, subsequently, his younger brother Raúl Castro in Cuba’s history as the only two presidents of the Council of State and Ministers. You understandably ask whether this is a reflection of nepotism. After all, they are brothers. As you mention, I counter this preconceived view in my book (Cuba, 193-4), by explaining several features exhibited by Raúl Castro from 1953 to date, supporting the view that his ascendency to the presidency is based on merit.
However, I would like to highlight the role of elections, often completely discounted in discussions revolving around the topic. How are ministers and the president of the Council of State elected in Cuba? They are elected from among those elected to the NA. Some may ask whether this election to the NA is not automatic, a foregone conclusion. My investigation revealed that this is not necessarily the case. In order to become deputy, one needs 50 percent plus one vote. Elections are held every five years; since those held in 1993 until the last ones, in February 2013, there has been a noticeable voting trend. The popular vote has been declining steadily. For example, in 1993, 99.5 percent of the elected deputies garnished between 91 percent and close to 100 percent of the popular vote. There has been a steady reduction in the popular vote to the extent that in February 2013 elections, only 35.78 percent of the deputies got between 91 percent and 100 percent of the votes. What is also noticeable is that for the first time, in 2013, some deputies only got between 61 percent and 70 percent of the vote. Encouraged by the top, the electors are becoming more discreet and selective.
And how did Raúl Castro fare in the face of this negative voting tendency? He held his own and got about the same popular vote in 2013 as he had received in previous elections, bucking the voting trend, that is, 98.04 percent. He was therefore one of the candidates to be elected from the deputies for president. I know Cuba and Cubans well enough to state that, if people were fed up with the Castros and suspected nepotism, Raúl Castro’s popular vote would have plummeted, as was the case for many others in the last elections. However, this is not what happened. While there are quite a few members of the Castro family in politics and the powerful armed forces, the first vice-president – and thus the successor to Raúl Castro when his last term ends in 2018 – is 54-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez; he is not a Castro. Mark Twain’s full quote states that “facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.” These statistics on Raúl Castro maintaining the popular vote cannot be pliable. They constitute figures that are as stubborn as the political facts of his track record as a leader in his own right. In a sense, this particular case defies Mark Twain’s famous quote.
On the issue of “holding on to the reins of power,” this is always one of my favourite interview questions. It comes up all the time. However, it affords me the opportunity to deal with a very ingrained prejudicial view that is hammered into the minds of the American people by the mainstream media. Thus, I am pleased that you raise it, as I imagine playing the necessary role of the devil’s advocate as any good journalist should do. My short response: every political system has to be viewed based on its own history and merits, and not on preconceived views. When I hear that question, I am always tempted to respond in the following manner in order to jolt people: in the U.S., the ruling elites have been “holding on to the reins of power” as far back as the 17th-century Puritans and Pilgrims. This power is based on the “chosen people” concept that fuels domestic and international domination of the few – the mainly white, wealthy one percent. Oh yes, the faces change, but the internal and international policy not only remain the same, but can become even more aggressive and dangerous as time wears on. This is why I hold the view that different concepts mean different things depending on the country and the system. For example, in the Anglo-American world, I am proud to be a dissident and, for example, collaborate with Dissident Voice. However, in Cuba, “dissidence” has another connotation. In fact, it means collaboration with the U.S. for regime change in Cuba.
In your opening question, there is a quote from Raúl Castro in The New York Times indicating that Fidel “is irreplaceable.” This quote is simplified and truncated by the newspaper report perhaps in order to paint a god-like figure of the personality and thus contribute to Castrocentrism in the eyes of the non-Cubans. What did Raúl actually say? He declared that “Fidel is Fidel. We all know this. Fidel is irreplaceable… The Communist Party, a sure guarantee of the unity of the Cuban nation, is the sole worthy heir to our people’s confidence in its leader.” “Fidel is Fidel” means that since 1953 he has carved out a unique space for himself through his words and actions as the leader of the Cuban Revolution and of many peoples’ struggles for independence and new social systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. Only in this sense he is, as Raúl says, “irreplaceable.” Cuban history does not give rise to two or three Fidels. Yes, he has been the uncontested political leader since 1959. Since direct elections for deputies were inaugurated in Cuba in 1993, he has consistently obtained over 95 percent of the votes in his district, despite the very noticeable downward trends in popular vote for many of the other deputies. However, let us concede for a moment to Mark Twain by admitting that these statistics are “pliable,” that number crunching is not so valid. Based on my experience in Cuba, irrespective of the vote and the formality of elections, Fidel has been and is still the most popular political personality in Cuba. Even today, as the world watches the reactions of different authorities on Cuba, some of whom I have spoken to in Cuba in the last few days, all are anxious to see what Fidel will have to say. I may be wrong, but by the time this interview is published, he may well have written an article on the issue. Furthermore, it will prove once again to be a significant contribution toward evaluating the evolving complex situation.
In the full quote from Raúl that The New York Times did not reproduce, please notice that he points to the Communist Party as “the worthy heir” to Fidel. Here we are talking about a collective leadership in the form of the party. Fidel is thus “replaceable” by a more concerted leadership. In fact, one of the features of Raúl’s new leadership is the further institutionalization of the collaborative leadership. Fidel and his closest comrades also put emphasis on shared leadership right from the beginning. Moreover, this joint leadership was not limited to individual militants. For example, in the case of deciding on the necessity of elections in 1959 and 1960, the decision not to hold them in those early days came about as a result of consultation with millions of people (Cuba, 102–6).
To date, Cuba has had only two leaders since 1959, with another new one on the horizon for 2018, as the party under Raúl’s leadership adopted a resolution in 2012 limiting terms to two. In 2018, Raúl will already have served two terms. Does this mean therefore, as is suggested by some, that the Cuban political system will remain “elitist” until the upcoming date for a change of leadership in 2018 to a non-Castro? No one but Fidel, it is said, was ever envisioned as “equally being capable as serving as a leader” from 1959 until the time that Raúl formally took up his post in 2008 after Fidel’s illness. Fidel was, in fact, the most capable. He led the building of a new society and maintained the sovereignty of Cuba in the face of all the U.S. attempts to subjugate Cuba. There were definite mistakes on tactics, such as the highly centralized economic state-oriented system, but no errors on principles. While the Cubans mechanically copied in economic matters from the U.S.S.R., it never became a satellite of that country. When the time came, the former U.S.S.R. and Cuba parted ways. This is proven by, among other events, the fact that Fidel successfully led the transition to a new leader – Raúl – and with him a more institutionalized political system, further involving the people in their own governance. Do we not remember the horror stories spun by the Anglo-American media moguls and many establishment academics and authors that all hell would break loose in Cuba when Fidel was no longer leader or passed away? “There will be chaos,” it was wrongly predicted. Well, nothing of the sort happened. They were all wrong based on their Castrocentric prejudiced view of the Cuban political system.
KP: Is the structure of Cuban democracy and its institutions not hierarchical? Does this not detract from it being truly grassroots and egalitarian?
AA: It may come as a surprise to you that, despite the effort above to illustrate the participatory nature of Cuban democracy, my answer to the question is yes, it is indeed hierarchical. The Cuban Constitution clearly spells out in Article 5 that the Communist Party is the organized vanguard of the Cuban nation and the highest leading force of the society (Cuba, 152). Articles 69 and 70 indicate that the NA is the only body that has the right to legislate (as opposed to the provincial and municipal assemblies that lack this prerogative) and it is the supreme body of state power (Cuba, 193–4). Thus the political system is “hierarchical” from the top down.
However, the story does not end there. My response to the question “Can Cuban democracy be truly grassroots and egalitarian?” is also yes! This may seem, on the surface, to be a contradiction. Well, it is, in a sense. The resolution of this discrepancy emerging from the Cuban experience is one of the main threads that run through all the chapters dealing with contemporary Cuba. Not only is this theme illustrated through today’s Cuba, but the attempt to resolve this apparent paradox finds its roots in the second half of 19th-century Cuba. The people in the Spanish colony at the time organized a leading political party and liberation army based on the need to involve the grassroots in its own liberation from Spanish colonial rule, slavery and an unjust economic and social system (Cuba, 76–90).
I would go further and claim that striving to resolve this seeming incongruity between leadership and the people’s own input from the bottom up at the grassroots level is a historical challenge to be met by any society. Even in the U.S. today, when demonstrators congregate and protest massively, their slogan often proclaims “This is what democracy looks like!” (See “The Occupy Movement: Breaking Out of U.S.-Centrism?,” Cuba, 40-2.) Of course, as we know, the grassroots in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. are up against the brick wall of the elitist, one percent, bottom-down hierarchy.
On the other hand, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are all striving to find a just balance between the leadership of a “hierarchy” who are expected to lead, but not without the full and effective real daily input of the grassroots (Cuba, 45–72). Venezuela, from where I just returned, is an example of this monumental endeavour in motion.
I do not consider hierarchy to be a negative term as such. It implies, according to textbook definition, that some at the “top” have more authority than those at the “bottom.” I do believe in the need for a revolutionary state and leadership. Therefore, I prefer the term “revolutionary leadership” rather than “hierarchy” in dealing with my case studies, such as Cuba. While the Cuban Constitution indicates the importance of leadership at the top, as cited above, its Magna Carta also enshrines Article 3, “sovereignty lies with the people” (Cuba, 152). This apparent mismatch between authority, on the one hand, and grassroots control, on the other (or “power of the people,” as it is often and correctly called), is the historically recurrent challenge facing all those who are interested in democracy.
Has it been solved anywhere such as in Cuba? No. Furthermore, I do not think that it can ever be viewed as having being settled. This is why my book deals with “democracy in motion” as an ongoing process, unfettered by fixed structures as a criterion. The only measuring rod is the effective daily participation by the grassroots in what they must consider their own system and destiny, not to be supplanted by those who are elected. After all, if “sovereignty lies with the people,” then it has to take on real meaning on a daily basis. At least, the Cubans have this in their constitution – and they participated in the drafting of it. This participatory drafting was followed by a referendum in which over 97 percent voted and, of this percentage, a similar amount voted in favour of the new 1976 constitution. It is not, in my view, a banal fact that the Cuban Constitution contains this clause “sovereignty lies with the people.” For example, the U.S. Constitution, drafted and adopted exclusively by the slave-owning ruling elites, includes neither the term “democracy” nor the concept of “sovereignty being vested in the hands of the people” (Cuba, 14-20).
When you ask whether Cuban democracy is truly “egalitarian” along with its being characterized or not by grassroots control, this amounts to a very perceptive and important question. Given its significance, it can perhaps be dealt with, and provided the attention that it merits, in the question below dealing with growing inequality in Cuban society.
KP: One thing you did not deal with in your book is remuneration among the directos, the vice-presidents and the presidents, and how this compares to the average Cuban. Could you comment, please?
AA: In fact, I do deal with remuneration among all those elected to the Cuban NA. Most of the deputies carry out their responsibilities on a voluntary basis after their work hours. They receive no additional salary or perks. However, among those elected as deputies, there are those who are delegates to the Municipal Assembly. Cuba has a unique feature in its electoral system, which is not found anywhere else in the world. The law states that up to 50 percent of the elected deputies to the NA must come from the base. They must be nominated and elected to the Municipal Assemblies as delegates. Once the municipal election takes place, the Municipal Assembly meets and, from among those elected as delegates, elects the president and vice-president of the Municipal Assembly. Given the extensive and time-consuming nature of these functions at the head of the Municipal Assembly, they must carry out their roles on a full-time professional basis. However, in these cases, they receive the same salary as they had earned from their place of work.
Now, if these local presidents are elected to the NA as deputies as well, then they are, of course, already being remunerated. I think this is what you are referring to in your question. In addition, those who are elected as deputies to the NA as directos (i.e., they had not previously been elected as municipal delegates) as well as subsequently named president of a parliamentary permanent working commission, these deputies are then liberated from their work. The reason is, in general, the responsibilities at the head of a working commission, which operates virtually 12 months a year, require full-time attention. Nevertheless, they still receive the same salary as they had received at their place of work.
Thus, in your reference comparing the professional full-time elected salaries with those of “average Cubans,” they are the same or very similar. Unlike our systems, those elected are “average Cubans” with “average salaries.” There is no significant difference. If someone who had been a doctor is elected and remunerated as a full-time professional deputy, he or she will receive the salary of a doctor. If someone is a factory worker or a teacher, he or she will receive their respective salaries, not less, not more. Given that salaries for doctors or factory workers are similar, there is therefore no major difference in the salaries of elected professional deputies and those of the average Cuban (Cuba, 148, 216, 219-20). One of the many deputies whom I interviewed was president of a working commission, but he had been a director of a factory at the time of the election. When he became a full-time professional because of the requirements of the working commission, he received the same salary as he had earned as a plant director. However, there is not a major difference in salary compared with the worker on the shop floor (Cuba, 181–2).
The problem with the salaries of “average Cubans” is that they are too low. Nevertheless, there are some who get far more than others, such as tourism industry workers who receive additional hard currency salaries though tips and incentive bonuses. Taxi drivers represent another example: those who have visited Havana will notice that many taxi drivers have abandoned their original professions as doctors or teachers in order to drive taxis. However, these sectors of the society are not normally involved in elections. Thus the reasonable concern that you raise about gaps between the salaries of professional deputies and those of average Cubans does not apply at this time, due to the way the political system is developing. This may change in the future. Take, for example, the thousands of self-employed business owners, many of whom have an income noticeably superior to the “average Cuban.” If an entrepreneur wants to get involved in the elections and is eventually elected and then goes on to be a full-time professional at the head of a Municipal Assembly or an NA working commission, how will the salary be determined? This risks becoming complicated and can therefore perhaps be dealt with on a later occasion, as these possibilities may become real issues.
KP: While hardly an unbiased source of economic news and information, The Economist, in a special report on Cuba, did begin by acknowledging extensive “social programmes that reached from cradle to grave, providing free world-class health care and education as well as free pensions and funerals. Child malnutrition and adult illiteracy were eliminated. Life expectancy and many other social indicators rose above those of the United States….”7
It was a set-up for claims that social services were deteriorating and that “Cuba now has some shantytowns.” While the World Bank shies away from speculating, The Economist cites the GINI coefficient to have risen from 0.24 in the late 1980s to 0.41 (citing “research quoted in Espacio Laical, a magazine published by Cuba’s Catholic church” … hardly an authoritative peer review economics journal), and claims it is now 0.5.
Since a level of economic prosperity for all citizens would seem to be non-negotiable for a society dedicated to social justice, how accurate is the growing inequality The Economist purports?
AA: In fact, without delving into the exact figures, I have to say that The Economist is right regarding, as you correctly sum up, “growing inequality.” It is also accurate to say that social services are deteriorating, but only in the context of the world-class services provided to the entire population, as The Economist admits. This downward swing indeed represents a challenge, as you indicate, to a society dedicated to social justice. However, The Economist’s report is otherwise misleading in that it unfortunately provides the notion of what it calls the emergence of “shantytowns” in Cuba. The image of shantytowns in the Anglo-American world is what we perceive to exist in countries such as Haiti and the poorest flavelas in Brazil. In these two examples, there is no, or very sparse, running water, drinking water or electricity; the dwellers furthermore often do not know when – or if – they will eat that day, not to mention being deprived in different degrees with regard to health and education. This is not the situation in Cuba, not even in the poorest neighbourhoods of the major cities such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba.
Nevertheless, the disinformation provided by The Economist must not allow us to gloss over the basic reality that there is growing inequality and a certain amount of degradation in the social services. I have carried this concern for many years now. Based on my investigation into this issue since the year 2000 and shared by Cuban academics and political leaders at all levels, I wrote in 2004 that “as the Cuban economy continues [on] its present path, the door for some individuals to acquire more clout and standing remains open. The political system must rise to the occasion, ensuring that the electoral process will allow elected officials to effectively prevail over the growing technocratic cadres and any other serious obstacles, while defending the people’s best interests” (Cuba, 216). Here we are, 10 years later, and the problem of growing inequality has deepened.
Many factors have contributed to a situation causing the conditions of increasing inequality. However, social inequality is relative. In Cuba, there exists one type of phenomenon, while in the U.S., for example, it is something else where you have the famous one percent of the very wealthy and powerful versus the 99 percent.
What happened in Cuba? I do not believe that this situation in Cuba came about as a conscious decision. It was not something negotiated, that is, sacrificing economic prosperity for all citizens on a relatively equal basis for another orientation that favoured more wealth to some to the detriment to others. Inequality in a socialist system is a complicated matter and has to be dealt with carefully.
Thus let us consider some factors as examples that will illustrate the current situation. With the implosion of Cuba’s main trading partner, the former U.S.S.R., in 1989 and the early 1990s, the Cuban government had to find mechanisms to save the economy from disaster. One of the main solutions sought was the accelerated growth of the tourism industry in the form of foreign investments in hotels and beach resorts; this was coupled with the more active promotion in foreign countries of tourism. The use of the U.S. dollar, at first illegally and then sanctioned by law, combined with the explosion in tourism, created one of the most fertile grounds for a new inequality. Before this period, while relations with the U.S.S.R. flourished, the Cuban society, economy and culture was quite healthy. One can say that the basic principle of social equality, while far from being attained fully, was in fact the main feature of the Cuban system.
With the introduction of tourism, the circulation of hard currency and goods available only to those who had access to hard currency, those directly or indirectly linked to tourism, both legally and illegally, started to enjoy a privileged position. This is so especially when comparing this situation with that of those who did not work in that sector of the economy. Another factor fuelled by the introduction of hard currency was the remittances from Cuban-Americans living mainly in Florida to their families in Cuba. Not everyone in Cuba has family in the U.S. Thus the results were obvious as far as inequality is concerned.
These and other factors resulted from the conscious attempt to stimulate the economy. I remember being in Cuba during the 1990s – the situation there was so desperate after the fall of the former U.S.S.R., I wondered whether Cuba would survive. In fact, for me, it was the second Sierra Maestra. The first one was the struggle against all odds in the late 1950s by an initially small group of armed guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra, which led to an incredible victory over one of the most powerful nations on earth at the time, the United States of America. Thus I believe that Cuba had no choice but to jump-start the tourism industry and welcome the introduction of hard currency as a form of income for the Cuban economy and society. In the same vein, as long as the U.S. administrations allowed remittances from Cuban-Americans to family members, the Cuban government fully encouraged this “sector” of the economy. This opening was allowed to grow in parallel with access to the goods and services that only this section of the population could afford.
This undesirable side effect still exists. However, it is mitigated by the fact the many sectors of the economy that are not related to tourism also have access to the Cuban currency pegged to the U.S. dollar. For example, Cuba has flourishing bio-technical and pharmaceutical industries. Its world-class products are sold abroad for hard currency. The workers in this sector thus get part of their salary in hard currency. Cuban doctors and other health professionals sent to countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil, to name just a few in the Latin American region alone, are paid in hard currency. A portion of this income goes to the health workers, who in turn can funnel it to their families back home in Cuba. However, the major part of these salaries goes to the Cuban state. Nevertheless, this growing income is allocated to the maintenance of social services, such as health, education, culture and sports, which remain hallmarks of the Cuban social system.
This, however, is apparently not sufficient, as it is well known at the grassroots level in Cuba that these social services have suffered a decline in quality and quantity. Salaries for teachers in relation to the prices of food and other goods are still insufficient, even though salary increases have been accorded to these sectors over the last few years. This would not have been possible if it were not for the decision to encourage the tourism industry, for example. Therefore, this is why I maintain that the problem of inequality is not the result of a consciously negotiated deal. It came about rather as the inevitable result of attempting to restore the economy and prevent the Cuban Revolution from falling into the abyss of widespread poverty and lack of, or vastly deteriorating, public services, as is the case in capitalist countries.
Had Cuba not taken these desperate measures, as briefly outlined above, it would not have been able to dedicate itself to what you call the prosperity of all citizens, deemed to constitute a precondition for a society dedicated to social justice.
There is another negative spinoff effect of foreign investment, not only in the tourism industry, but in other economic sectors: white collar corruption on a high level. This includes the ministerial strata as well as the intermediate levels of the society and the state. Those involved in fraudulent activities represent the quintessence of social inequality. This is one of the main challenges facing the Cuban people. Raúl Castro has dealt with this on innumerable occasions. For example, he is quoted by the official press to have declared in one of the regular Council of Ministers meetings that “corruption is now equal to counter-revolution.” (Cuba, 190). This problem, which is a life and death issue for the future of the Cuban Revolution, was first raised in the current period by Fidel Castro in 2005. He boldly declared that the situation of corruption and bureaucracy (which he enumerated in detail as was his habit) is so bad, that “this country can self-destruct; this Revolution can destroy itself, but they can never destroy us; we can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault” (Cuba, 121).
Thus the struggle against inequality in its different forms, both legal and illegal, is very much on the agenda. Regarding the stances mentioned above by Fidel and Raúl Castro, I believe they serve to substantiate my contention in response to your first question. You asked for my view regarding the Cuban leaders and their longevity in power. It cannot be seen in the abstract, but by their words and actions over the years. The example that they exhibit as mentioned above regarding corruption and bureaucracy is a case in point. They have both been in the forefront of this endeavour to maintain – as much as possible – the Cuban principle of economic and social prosperity for all citizens based on equality.
This amounts to one reason that allows me to maintain that Cuba is not heading toward capitalism. There are other economic and socio-political factors indicating that, taking into account the economic changes, Cuba remains socialist. This contention is based on my premise that “socialism” has to be analyzed not by quoting Marxist manuals out of context, but by examining the concrete history and conditions of Cuba from the point of view of the 21st century (Cuba, 142–5).
KP: History tells me that solidarity is the sine qua non of a successful and long-lasting evolution. However, Cuban anarchist author Frank Fernández tells of a bad history between Cuban anarchists and communists.8 Anarchists are said to have never fully trusted Fidel Castro, seeing him as hungry for power.
After the revolution, Fernández says many anarchists were purged by Castro. Later, the anarchist publications El Libertario and Solidaridad Gastronómica were suppressed, and the anarchist movement was forced into exile.
How do you see this history? And can participatory democracy genuinely be construed to flourish after a revolutionary movement – likewise dedicated to liberty and social justice, albeit a competitor – has been driven from the political scene?
AA: I fully agree with your statement about history showing that “solidarity is the sine qua non of a successful and long-lasting evolution.” Let us try to define the term “solidarity,” seeing as the thrust of your question is the role of the anarchist tendency in the Cuban Revolution, with which it has conflicted. I guess we both agree in general with the following: Cuba’s track record is clear, and even exemplary, when the concept of solidarity is applied to Cuba’s foreign policy (given the examples of its role in the liberation of Africa from apartheid and its medical and educational assistance to hundreds of countries around the world, including, most recently, its participation in the fight against Ebola, recognized even by the U.S. Administration). However, applying “solidarity” to its domestic policy implies, in my view, that the Cuban Revolution has always striven to instill as a sine qua non among the grassroots the social consciousness of the collective good, that is, solidarity. This consists of the economic, social and cultural flourishing of the people at the base as part of the new society that they strive to build. Solidarity on the domestic front does not mean favouring a free-for-all where even political trends that disagree with this orientation should be allowed to profit from the outstretched and altruistic hands of Cuban solidarity.
Let us take your example of anarchism. Granted, this is complex. However, allow me to establish as a talking point a dictionary definition of anarchism: “a political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups.” Anarchists are basically against the state in any form. The common denominator is opposition to “authoritarianism” in the form of a capitalist/imperialist state, such as under the U.S.-dominated Batista regime or a revolutionary state such as to be found in Cuba.
This is why, when you mention the “bad history between the anarchists and the communists” or that the anarchists “never really trusted Fidel Castro,” I would tend to categorize these as understatements. The readers can consult in full the pro-anarchist book that you cite above, as I did. What caught my attention was this introduction to the book, whereby the pro-U.S. dictators are put on the same footing as Fidel Castro: “power-hungry dictators as Gerardo Machado, Fulgencio Batista, and Fidel Castro.” Furthermore, the anarchist author writes, in reference to the Fidel Castro-led 1950s revolution: “His armed uprising, known as ‘the struggle against the dictatorship’ (despite later propaganda), never had a solid campesino base, let alone a proletarian base. It was, rather, in good part the work of capitalism and the Cuban bourgeoisie.” Really?
In the same vein, while writing against the suppression of the anarchist newspapers you mention, El Libertario and Solidaridad Gastronómica, the anarchists provide us with some excerpts of the papers before they were outlawed by the revolution. There are innumerable appeals against authoritarianism, placing the revolutionary leadership on the same footing as the old Batista regime, even going so far as to complain about scenes in 1959 of the Cuban youth in uniforms that “remind us” of the “Mussolini” and “Franco” youth. Do these anarchist documents and many such others not reveal a thinly disguised outpouring of hatred that is openly expressed by the U.S. and its allies against the Cuban revolution? In fact, in the very same document on the suppression of the papers, the authors inadvertently reveal that “in the face of the growing oppression, the libertarian movement, while constrained to modulate its criticism so as not to be confused with the counter-revolutionary reactionaries or the more liberal bourgeoisie, nevertheless succeeded in making its position unmistakably clear” (emphasis added). Readers can perhaps reach their own conclusion by asking, if they are so revolutionary, how can their publications be “confused with the counter-revolutionary reactionaries”?
You ask me how I see this history. The way I view it may not be how you perceive it; however, it makes for a healthy debate among people genuinely concerned about the legacy and the future of the Cuban Revolution. There is opposition to the Cuban Revolution from the openly right-wing pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist forces based in the West with their allies in Cuba. There is also opposition from the left dissidents in Cuba and the West, based mainly in the U.S. and Spain, but also in some Latin American and Caribbean countries. These leftists oppose what they call the authoritarian and dictatorial nature of the Castros. They do this, of course, in the name of the workers and democratic socialism. The anarchists fall into this latter category of opposition from the left.
This is a very fine line to tread, from open (right) to disguised (left) opposition. This is why I highlighted above that, in working out their position against the revolution, they unwittingly let the cat out of the bag by fearing being “confused with the counter-revolutionary reactionaries or the more liberal bourgeoisie.” I believe that this opposition from left dissidents is far more dangerous than that from those on the right. This is based on a serious study of this type of opposition, covering a period that includes U.S. policy in 1958 up to today. Unfortunately, my book is the only one, to my knowledge, both inside and outside of Cuba, whether in English or Spanish, that deals with these left dissidents. For those interested in this question of anarchism as part of the left dissidence we are now dealing with, it is worthwhile consulting my book to gain access to this theme alone. (See Cuba, 95-86, 98, 107-8, 137-44, 176-8, 207-8.)
The last part of your question asks, “Can participatory democracy genuinely be construed to flourish after a revolutionary movement – likewise dedicated to liberty and social justice, albeit a competitor – has been driven from the political scene?” Given my serious concern about the leftist dissidence to which anarchism currently belongs, I will state something that may startle you. Participatory democracy can be construed to flourish if, among other tasks, it also takes on opposition to these left dissidents. Why? The left dissidents include the anarchists eating away at the Cuban Revolution from within, especially among some of the youth, intellectuals and artists. When I say participatory democracy will prosper if it opposes left dissidence, I am talking about political and ideological resistance and not necessarily physical coercive action. People at the base, especially youth and intellectuals, and both the famous artists and the not-so-well-known performers, must confront the left dissidents, rather than collaborate with them. The left dissidents need credentials from the ranks of the Cuban Revolution in order to give them credibility so that they appear in a better light. Why is this so? By incorporating the collaborative efforts of revolutionaries, the dissidents, whose publications are based on eclecticism and incoherence, can more surreptitiously spread their message against the “authoritarian” nature of the Cuban Revolution. This remains the thrust of their publications. Their basic and consistent target is the authoritarianism of the Castros and the Communist Party of Cuba, by far overshadowing the occasional comment that seeps in from those in favour of the revolution.
With regard to the suggestion in your question that the anarchists are dedicated to liberty and social justice, I already have dealt with this. However, let us expand on the specific word “liberty.” In words, the anarchists are dedicated in the extreme to “liberty.” In fact, they are also known as “libertarians.” This is to emphasize that they are so much in favour of “liberty” that they have no qualms about calling for the downfall of the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban state – according to the left dissidents, including the anarchists – supposedly puts the brakes on liberty because of the important role that the state plays in striving to develop the socialist system. They see every state, per se, as an impediment to liberty. Their main target in Cuba has been the seed of the new socialist state as it emerged in the Sierra Maestra in the late 1950s, and then the socialist state with all its twists and turns from 1959 to date.
You ask whether the anarchist trend can be considered to have been a “competitor.” In the late 1950s, there were different political groups, such as the July 26 Movement founded by Fidel Castro, the communist party and other organizations, including the March 13 Revolutionary Directorate. They were, in a sense, in competition with each other because of their different views. For example, the communist party originally did not favour the path of armed revolution that had been suggested by Castro (Cuba, 111–2). Nonetheless, these three groups did not allow their competing views to get in the way of unity. Over a lengthy period in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they united to form the new Communist Party in 1965. However, the anarchists isolated themselves from these collaborative efforts, given that their main target and focus of attention was the authoritarianism of the communists and the Castro movement. Their opposition to Batista was far less evident, a goal that united all the progressive forces and left the anarchists out in the cold. Thus, the anarchists were not, as you suggest, “driven from the political scene”; rather, they steered themselves away from the mainstream political revolutionary movement that targeted the U.S.-dominated Batista regime.
Next: In Part 2, Arnold August discusses the apparent opening in US-Cuba relations.
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (London: Secker and Warburg, 1938): 3. [↩]
- Orwell, 15. [↩]
- See Noam Chomsky, “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship” in Barry Pateman (Ed.), Chomsky on Anarchism (AK Press, 2005): 11-100). Writes Chomsky, “… there is much reason to believe that the will to fight Franco was significantly diminished, perhaps destroyed, by the policy of authoritarian centralization undertaken by the liberal-Communist coalition, carried through by force…” p. 68. [↩]
- Arnold can be followed on Twitter @Arnold_August. [↩]
- See review. [↩]
- James C. McKinley Jr., “Raúl Castro becomes Cuban president,” New York Times, December 4, 2008. [↩]
- See “Inequality: The deal’s off,” The Economist, March 24, 2012. [↩]
- See Frank Fernández, Cuban Anarchism: The History of a Movement, 2001. [↩]