The Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), held in April, “endorsed for the first time a fundamental change in the political and economic model”, said Cuban political scientist and Temas editor Rafael Hernandez.
This does not mean abandoning Cuba’s socialist project, but renewing this project after two decades of the post-Soviet “Special Period”. This is a deep structural crisis in Cuba’s post-capitalist, centrally-planned economy and an ideological and ethical crisis of the nation’s socialist vocation.
The changes point to a socialist-oriented society purged of excessive idealism, elements of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism”, the crisis-driven improvisation of the Special Period and the pernicious habits caused by the struggle of individuals to survival amid the crisis.
Contrary to the notion that political processes can be only “top down” (as in the Greek austerity measures) or “bottom up” (as in the Arab Spring), Cuba’s socialist renewal unites revolutionary leaders and masses in a common struggle to “change everything that must be changed”.
This is the fruit of a democratic national debate of unprecedented candour, depth and detail over the draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution.
The final version of the Guidelines, adopted by the Sixth Congress and Cuba’s national assembly, bears the imprint of this consultative process.
In the late 1980s, Cubans enjoyed the highest living standards in Latin America thanks in part to Soviet fair trade. Then the USSR and its satellite states — and the dogmatic certainties of Soviet “Marxism-Leninism” — abruptly crumbled.
A bitter truth was revealed: Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” was a brittle caricature of the real thing.
The Fourth PCC Congress, held in 1991, resolved to continue the “Rectification” process launched in 1986. At the heart of Cuba’s “recification of errors and negative tendencies” was the abandonment of elements of the Soviet “model” that had been uncritically assimilated.
But the search for a new Cuban model of socialist development was overtaken by the needs of survival. The collapse of Cuba’s foreign trade with the Soviet bloc meant industrial paralysis, shortages and queues.
Cuba’s leaders were preoccupied with ensuring that what little there was was shared as equitably as possible, no schools or hospitals closed, and idled workers were not left destitute.
In a word, that social solidarity prevailed over selfishness.
For example, they had to ensure every Cuban child continued to receive a litre of highly subsidised milk each day.
Cuba had bartered lobsters for East German powdered milk. With East Germany absorbed into the capitalist West and the tightening of the US economic blockade, milk had to be bought at market prices from as far away as New Zealand.
The concessions to the market made during the 1990s to stimulate economic recovery, from the opening to foreign tourism to turning huge state farms into cooperatives under state tutelage, were emergency measures rather than building blocks of a new socialist model.
The building of socialism had to be put on hold. The Cuban Revolution had to preserve its core social achievements, above all free and universally accessible health care and education at all levels, and adjust to a new world in which US imperialism had emerged as the hegemonic superpower.
Cuba’s revolutionaries had to come to terms not only with the Soviet debacle and its political lessons for Cuba, but with the revolution’s own errors, some of which date back to the 1960s.
The spectacular rise of capitalism “with Chinese characteristics”, and Vietnam’s tightrope walk between socialist commitment and capitalist restoration, also had to be studied critically.
Finally, no overhaul of Cuba’s socialist model — the concepts, structures, methods and mentalities that seek to embody its socialist objective — could proceed without striving for political consensus, first among the PCC leadership and then among its broad social base, the big majority of Cuba’s working people.
All this has taken two decades.
Contrary to the nonsense peddled by the corporate media, Cuba is not a police state; its repressive forces have never been used against the people. It is the force of persuasion, rather than the persuasion of force, that is the outstanding feature of Cuban politics since 1959.
This is in stark contrast to Stalinist totalitarianism and capitalist “democracy”.
Unlike capitalist politicians, who may resort to state violence to persuade citizens to accept “what’s good for the country”, Cuba’s communist leaders have to explain and convince.
This is why Fidel Castro used to give such long speeches, interrupting baseball telecasts and soap-operas for hours on end. As Havana University’s Jesus Arboleya noted, Fidel has been the revolution’s sternest loyal critic.
Striving for consensus, while acknowledging that differences of opinion are healthy and inevitable, will become even more important, when the first generation of revolutionary leaders — whose personal authority was forged in heroic struggle against the Batista dictatorship — are no longer around.
Cuba today is not the same as in 1989. The market concessions have succeeded in stimulating a partial economic recovery amid a growing social differentiation based on access to convertible currency.
A substantial minority of Cubans can live relatively comfortably thanks to remittances, theft from the socialist state and other black market activities and employment in sectors linked to tourism and foreign investment.
With state salaries insufficient to cover all basic living costs, most Cubans have had no choice but to turn to the black market to make ends meet.
When workers are obliged to steal from their workplaces to live with dignity, they tend to turn a blind eye to corrupt administrators. How to instill a sense of individual and collective responsibility for socially-owned productive property when it has come to be viewed by many workers and administrators as a source of illicit personal enrichment?
This touches on an old problem that predates the Special Period. Hyper-centralised management of Cuba’s centrally-planned economy reduces the scope for worker participation, while excessive egalitarianism in the sphere of wages tends to breed contempt for social property: less politically conscious and committed workers may think, “Why bother working hard when I’ll get paid the same low wages?”
This is one example of the convergence of elements of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” with excessive revolutionary idealism.
Others are Cuba’s wholesale expropriation of urban small businesses in 1968, a policy that is now being reversed, and the all-pervasive nature of the socialist state, which is now retreating to its appropriate functions and dimensions in a society that envisages its eventual “withering away”.
Cuban President Raul Castro told the National Assembly in July 2008: “For the worker to feel like the owner of the means of production, we cannot rely solely on theoretical explanations — we have been doing that for about 48 years — nor on the fact that his opinion is taken into consideration in the workplace meetings.
“It is very important that their income corresponds to their personal contribution and to the work centre’s fulfillment of the social objective for which it was constituted.”
In a panel discussion on work in Cuba published by Cuba’s Bohemia magazine on October 13, 2010, Cuban researcher Jose Ramon Fabelo asked: “If I'm not able to decide what is produced, nor to what end, nor participate in management, in planning, and much of the time what I earn is not related to what I do, what sense of ownership am I going to have, am I going to extract this out of pure ideology? Sometimes yes, but not in the majority of cases ...
“We've often debated between these two extremes, between moral or material incentives, consciousness or money. I consider this contraposition to be very anti-dialectical.
“We need to harmonise the two, and I would caution: today we cannot go to the extreme of hoping that economic mechanisms by themselves will stimulate and restore the value of work to its rightful place. Educational, pedagogical, political and juridical work is very important in the here and now.”
[Marce Cameron maintains the Cuba's Socialist Renewal blog.]