Cuba: 'No one is excess'

February 28, 2009

Cuba is struggling to exit the "Special Period" — as the period of economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main trading partner, in the early 1990s is known — and the trade union movement is helping to chart the way forward, a leading Cuban unionist told Green Left Weekly in December.

Despite the massive problems Cuba continues to face, its handling of this crisis indicates the potential for an alternative way of handling the economic crisis, and subsequent job losses, hitting Australia and the rest of the world right now.

It indicates there are measures beyond governments simply throwing their hands in the air or throwing money at the same corporate interests that caused the crisis.

The catastrophic economic collapse caused by the end of the Eastern European COMECON economic bloc (when Cuba lost 80% of its export market) produced many problems, Alfredo Vazquez, head of the economic business section of the Cuban Workers' Confederation (CTC) explained.

Despite the ongoing impact of the decades-long US economic blockade, trade with revolutionary Venezuela and an easing of its isolation across Latin America means that Cuba is heading towards the end of the Special Period.

However, this transition is producing its own problems.

"The most difficult years of the Special Period have finished", he explained. "But the Special Period has not yet finished."

During the Special Period, factories experienced disruptions due to shortages of materials.

Despite this, workers were not sacked, but stayed at home on full pay. "In Cuba, no one is excess", Vazquez said.

But with little to buy because of the US blockade, many people turned to self-interest to survive, producing a black market and leading to weakened support for the socialist ideals of Cuba's revolution.

The growth of tourism as a source of foreign currency also produced a certain social inequality (depending on access to tourist dollars), with ostentatious consumerism among some and individual competition.

Vazquez said the CTC was "in the middle of a struggle to reverse the situation".

At the heart of this is the struggle to reactivate production in the country while staving off inflation. The unions have had to explain that production needs to be doubled to revive the economy, and the lax work practices learned during the Special Period have to end.

"During the Special Period, people got paid a full wage for a half-day's work; now salaries must reflect production because inflation is the problem", according to Vazquez.

The unions "have to lead, so that people regain the need to work. We have to look for ideological and economic mechanisms", he said.

The CTC had been facilitating workers' meetings all over Cuba to discuss the new social security law, which includes the need for increased production.

Vazquez said the workers had very bluntly said that if they were expected to work harder then they wanted the black marketeers dealt with, revealing a lot about Cuban power relations.

"We have been accused of being a dictatorship [by foreign powers]", Vazquez said. "We are a dictatorship of the workers, not a dictatorship of a personality."

The workers in their discussions pointed out the many "brokers" (the Cuban expression for black market dealers), demanding that the state act against them. "People know that when the workers discuss something then the law will back them", Vazquez said.

Reports of the workers' discussions caused a flood of people previously surviving through black market activity to register as officially unemployed, legalising their status.

Between January and September last year, 23,000 had registered, according to Vazquez. In October, a further 45,000 jumped out of the black market.

This surge in job seekers has created the need to generate many more jobs.

"In Cuba, we need all workers", Vazquez said, because there is a need for production. Constitutionally in Cuba, work is a duty and a right, but cannot be imposed.

A worker can be moved to another job if they are capable of doing it, but the unions see to it that individuals are protected in such circumstances.

While the pressure of the world market means Cuba must become more efficient, "we prefer to be less efficient but more human", he said.

For example, when sugarcane workers became redundant, they were paid for three years to retrain for other jobs.

The human values of the Cuban Revolution are expressed in facts like the existence throughout the Special Period of 117 schools for children with special needs with a teacher/student ratio of one to three.

Education and health care are free and people pay a maximum of 10% of their salary for their housing until it is paid off. Eighty percent of housing is privately owned.

"Cuba has only a few facilities like mobile phones and the internet due to the blockade", he said. "But we have subsidised access for people in remote areas."

Vazquez told GLW: "In Cuba, such things are not a matter of business but a problem of equality of access."

Among other acts of international solidarity, Cuba has thousands of doctors working as volunteers providing free health care to the poor in dozens of countries around the world. Vazquez explained the principle: "In Cuba, we don't give from our excess; we share what we have."

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