Cuba's battle of ideas

May 10, 2006

Marce Cameron

"The world is rapidly being globalised; an unsustainable and intolerable world economic order is rapidly being established. Ideas are the raw material from which consciousness is forged; they are the raw material of ideology par excellence. I prefer to call them the raw material of consciousness to emphasise that it is not a question of strict and rigid ideology, but rather of an advanced consciousness, that is to say, a conviction that hundreds of millions and billions of people on this planet will inevitably arrive at, and that it will constitute, without a doubt, the best instrument to secure the victory of those ideas throughout the world." — Cuban President Fidel Castro addressing the closing session of the congress of the Union of Young Communists, 2004.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba's supporters wondered if the country's revolution could possibly survive. Today, the revolution is entering a new stage as it begins to leave behind the post-Soviet crisis known as the Special Period.

The sudden demise of its principal trading partner left the Caribbean island nation with drastically reduced imports of fuel, food, machinery, raw materials and spare parts. By 1993, the economy had contracted 35%. Severe food shortages, frequent blackouts, empty stores, lack of transportation and the spectre of malnourishment became facts of daily life for 10 million Cubans accustomed to a modest but dignified standard of living.

Wealthy Cuban-American emigres prepared their triumphant return to the island to recover "their" factories, estates and mansions, and to invest their dollars in a seemingly inevitable capitalist restoration. However, the much-anticipated fall of the "Castro regime" never came.

From the bustling narrow streets of Old Havana to the sleepy rural townships, nobody starved; not a single school, hospital, or childcare centre was closed; there were no privatisations or mass sackings — no tear gas, riot shields or rubber bullets. Thousands of Cubans tried to escape the hardships by paddling to the US on homemade rafts; millions confronted the crisis with dignity and solidarity.

The revolution prevailed because the great majority of Cubans decided to resist. Those who resisted placed their trust in the historic leader of the revolution, Castro, and the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) with its 700,000 cadres, whose moral authority and practical leadership is felt in every neighbourhood, workplace and study centre.

The revolution's birth

On January 1, 1959, the Cuban people — led by Castro's July 26 Movement — overthrew the hated US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. At the head of a new state based on the armed working people backed up by a succession of gigantic mass mobilisations, the revolution's leadership was able to break the resistance of the capitalist class to agrarian reform and, in late 1960, to the wholesale expropriation of big capitalist property and the overthrow of capitalism.

US imperialism retaliated with an economic blockade, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which took the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The 1960s in Cuba was a decade of tumultuous change, a heady time when just about anything seemed possible. Repelled by the Soviet caricature of socialism and lacking experience or "textbooks" to guide them, Castro, Che Guevara and the other young leaders of the revolution tried to "storm heaven" — to pass quickly through the transitional stage of socialist construction so as to arrive, within a generation or two, at a communist society.

This culminated in the failure of the country to reach its target of 10 million tonnes of sugar — Cuba's main source of foreign exchange — in the 1970 harvest. The exodus of factory and office workers to the fields, machetes in hand, almost brought the country to a standstill. Having accepted responsibility for the debacle, the Cuban leadership increasingly turned to the Soviet bloc for assistance.

Soviet technical assistance, weaponry and generous terms of trade were an indispensable lifeline for the island, which was the victim of a US trade embargo. But the revolution paid a high price for survival. While it did not suffer a usurpation of power by a bureaucratic elite, as happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin, it did cede ground to a pervasive "Sovietisation", which made itself felt in politics, economics and culture.

Bureaucracy flourished in bloated ministries; the mass organisations began to wither at the grassroots; a generation of cadres was miseducated in the sterile dogma of Soviet "Marxism"; and political work — the cultivation of ideas and values and the power of example — began to give way to the "science" of the Soviet-trained administrators.

By the third congress of the PCC in 1986 it had become obvious that something was very wrong. The accommodation to Soviet ideas and methods was severely criticised, and Castro called for a return to the ideas of Che Guevara. The congress launched a wide-ranging campaign to rectify errors and negative tendencies, which began the complex and difficult task of de-linking from Soviet "actually existing socialism". Rectification was interrupted by the rapid disintegration of the Soviet bloc and the onset of the Special Period.

Emerging from the Special Period

As it begins to emerge from the Special Period, the Cuban Revolution must grapple with the period's legacy — an accumulation of crumbling infrastructure, economic distortions, social tensions and unmet needs, and something less tangible but no less real: the spiritual and psychological trauma that has caused some Cubans to succumb to bitterness and resignation.

But Cuba also builds on the many hard-won achievements of the Special Period, among them the world's only large-scale transition from conventional farming to low-input sustainable agriculture; ongoing efforts to strengthen the institutions and culture of the country's participatory socialist democracy; an infant mortality rate that is now lower than that of the US; and a country that has learned to do so much with so little.

To avert total collapse in the early 1990s, Cuba had no choice but to reintroduce elements of capitalism and concessions to market mechanisms — more foreign investment, making legal possession of US dollars, a free market in agricultural produce, the expansion of self-employment, self-financing of state enterprises and a tourism-led recovery.

While this had the desired effect of stimulating the economy, which began a gradual recovery in the second half of the 1990s, it also led to a sharp rise in income inequality as a "new rich" sector emerged among the more successful self-employed entrepreneurs.

Others amassed small fortunes by plundering state property to sell on the thriving black market, while still others received substantial remittances from relatives living in the US. That a taxi driver could earn more in one night ferrying tourists than a heart surgeon earned in a month became an insoluble ethical dilemma.

A social divide opened up between the minority who had access to US dollars and those who didn't, undermining the political and ethical foundations of the revolutionary project. Large-scale tourism stimulated prostitution, corruption, consumerist values and the cynical disaffection of some young Cubans.

As Guevara wrote in 1965, "The basic clay of our work is the youth. We place our hope in them and prepare them to take the banner from our hands." The continuity of the socialist project depended on a new generation taking up the struggle, amid the hardships of the Special Period.

Cuba's answer to this dilemma grew out of the vast popular movement that swept the island to demand the return of the Cuban child Elian Gonzalez, who had been kidnapped by his Miami relatives in 1999. Gonzalez was found clinging to a tyre after the boat carrying him and his mother sank en route to the US. At first, the Clinton administration refused to return him to his father in Cuba.

The 'Battle of Ideas'

For seven months until Gonzalez was returned in June 2000, Cuba was inundated with huge protest marches as every sector of society was roused in indignation. The movement for his return was initiated and led by the mass organisations of Cuba's youth and students. From the momentum of that struggle, Cuba launched the "Battle of Ideas", a multifaceted social, ideological and cultural counter-offensive, led by the country's youth, against the corrosive impact of the market concessions.

In an interview published in the Spanish journal Julio Otero Tiempo de Cuba in November 2004, Cuba's culture minister Abel Prieto explained that Cuba — a blockaded Third World country with one-thirteenth of the per capita GDP of the US — cannot compete with capitalist, consumer societies by seeking to provide every Cuban family with two cars, a swimming pool and a holiday house.

"However, we can guarantee conditions of a decent life and at the same time a rich life in spiritual and cultural terms. It is a conception of culture as a form of growth and personal realisation that is related to the quality of life. In this sense, we are convinced that culture can be an antidote against consumerism and against the oft-repeated idea that only buying can create happiness in this world."

In the words of Castro, "Education is sowing feelings. Education is seeking all of the good in the soul of a human being, whose development is a struggle of opposing forces, with an instinctive tendency towards selfishness and other attitudes that must be counteracted, and can only be counteracted through awareness".

The Battle of Ideas now encompasses more than 170 educational, cultural and social programs. Among them are the proliferation of higher education campuses and youth computer clubs in the municipalities; a more holistic approach to teaching and the reduction of class sizes to 20 students at the primary-school level and 15 at the junior-high level; 15 new arts colleges from which have graduated thousands of young instructors who teach music, dance and fine arts in schools and in the community.

There are now two TV channels dedicated solely to educational programs, including tertiary-level courses. An annual travelling book fair draws huge crowds in 35 cities and towns. Schools in remote localities have been fitted with solar panels to power TVs, VCRs and computers, even those schools with just one or a few students.

Perhaps the most far-reaching initiative has been the creation of a small army of some 28,000 young revolutionary social workers — mostly young women from disadvantaged backgrounds — who go into the communities and seek out disaffected youth. Their approach is not to preach Marxist doctrine or to repeat revolutionary slogans. Rather, they try to befriend them, win their trust, convince them with ideas and arguments to be part of the revolution, and to help them to find a rewarding life-project that coincides with the larger collective project of the Cuban Revolution.

The social workers have also been assigned other important tasks. Following a nationwide door-to-door survey that discovered 37,000 elderly people were living alone and in need of personal attention, the government raised pensions and launched targeted programs to assist them.

In October, more than 10,000 social workers took over 2,000 petrol stations for several weeks and monitored the delivery of fuel from the refineries. The exercise revealed that half the revenue from fuel sales was being lost to theft and corruption. Social workers are now being deployed to break up other networks of entrenched corruption that flourished during the Special Period, thus making an important contribution to the country's economic revival and the redistribution of wealth from the "new rich" to the working class and the poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

Now, the social workers have another mission — to replace every domestic incandescent light globe in the country with an energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulb, and the replacement of ancient Soviet fans and refrigerators with new, more efficient appliances. This is part of Cuba's 2006 "energy revolution", which is projected to save the country US$1 billion a year.

Venezuela's revolution

Cuba's youth have also made a vital contribution to another battle of ideas — in Venezuela. Tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, teachers, nurses and sports instructors have been working in the poor barrios of Venezuela, among them many young people.

This "propaganda of the deed" is empowering the poor majority by restoring their health, hope and dignity, allowing them to become evermore active participants in Venezuela's unfolding revolution. In turn, the opening of the socialist revolution in Venezuela — a semi-industrialised country of 23 million people that is the fifth-largest supplier of oil in the world — is helping to end Cuba's isolation and providing some much-needed moral and material reinforcement.

Standing together in open defiance of US imperialism, the fates of these two windows on the socialist future of humanity are now inseparable. As Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez pledged in a speech to his supporters in Caracas on April 22: "If the US empire were to invade Cuba, Venezuelan blood would run in the defence of Cuba and its people."

From Green Left Weekly, May 10, 2006.
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