Fifty Years On: Cuba’s Challenges

December 26, 2008 | Print Print |

By RON RIDENOUR

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The Cuban Revolution has survived relentless US hostility, photo by Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, December 26. – Seventy days after the Cuban revolutionary victory, the National Security Council under the Eisenhower-Nixon regime issued a directive on March 10, 1959, to bring “another government to power in Cuba.”

This decision was made precisely because Cuba’s young leadership initiated politics of solidarity among human beings. A week later, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to train Cuban exiles for an invasion of their country, according to Eisenhower’s “The White House Years: Waging Peace 1956-1961.”

The Cuban revolution was declared to be socialist by Fidel Castro speaking before an approving crowd as US planes flew over Havana dropping bombs. The April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion had begun. Following its rapid failure, President John Kennedy instituted a blockade of Cuba, which remains today.

In 1967, President LB Johnson, then bogged down in Vietnam, told a reporter: “We were running a goddamn Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean”. He said so after learning the CIA had used the Mafia to try to assassinate Fidel Castro. The CIA was also infecting humans, animals and crops with poisons, terrorizing its people from the air and on the ground. (See my book, “Backfire: The CIA’s Biggest Burn”, Editorial Jose Marti, Havana, 1991.)

I merely touch on the history of US subversion against the Cuban revolution in order to set the background for why the original Marxist ideas of political democracy and workers control, of equality without privileges to any sector or leaders, were not thoroughly forthcoming, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s other trading partners in Eastern Europe.

Now, however, nearly two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union and as Cuba begins to celebrate its 50th anniversary, it is the only remaining socialist country, at least in the western hemisphere.

Solidarity and Equal Opportunities

The revolution’s solidarity ethic started at home. From the first, racism was officially combated and discrimination made illegal. In one of the first acts of the young government an agrarian reform was initiated that benefited small farmers who had been promised land by the rebel army fighting the US-backed dictator Batista.

The Cuban Revolution has many other accomplishments to boast for those that believe in universal opportunities for education at all levels and socialized medicine. In the first years illiteracy was eliminated with the participation of 100,000 young people and today all children attend neighborhood schools for nine years. Free education extends all the way to post graduate studies and the university system is currently extending to all of the country’s 169 municipalities.

In 1959, infant mortality was at 78.8 per 1000 births; in 2007, it was down to 5.5. Life expectancy was 62 years; today it stands at 77. Cuba produces 12 of the 13 vaccines it inoculates each child with. The nation has an exceptional and modern biotechnology industry and has developed unique medicines and vaccines, including the world’s only meningitis B vaccine.

Cuba’s widespread development in culture and sports is another easily recognizable achievement.

The government policy to assist other developing nations in areas it excels in goes beyond the development programs of the world’s leading economic powers. Cuban professionals are currently serving in over a hundred nations.

Growing Gap of Rich and Poor

Shopping Center where everything is sold in CUC

Shopping Center where everything is sold in CUC

Cuba maintained its solidarity ethics even during the severe economic crisis in the first half of the 1990s, but concessions to market oriented measures installed for shear survival have created inequality: a growing gap between a new poor and a new rich.

“This country can self-destruct; this Revolution can destroy itself, but they [the US] can never destroy us; we can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault,” so spoke Fidel Castro, November 17, 2005, about the consequences of a double economy and decay in morality and consciousness.

Four areas of greatest popular discontent are: a) low salaries and the two currency system, b) shortages of sufficient foodstuffs and other basic goods; c) perpetual lack of sufficient housing made worse by this year’s hurricane destruction; d) insignificant improvement in worker empowerment, with few exceptions.

The two currency system includes the regular Cuban peso, in which people receive their salaries. It exchanges at 20 to one US dollar and has little value outside the subsidized economy. The other money that circulates is called the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC, (the country’s hard currency equal to about US $1.20) needed to supplement the products provided via the government ration card.

Those who must live exclusively on regular pesos can not afford to buy basic items, such as shampoo and soaps, shoes, clothes, hardware, household appliances or even sufficient food stuffs-not to mention repair materials for their residences, which can not be found in regular pesos.

Therefore, a large part of the population has become disillusioned. With inadequate wages many steal at their workplace or hustle on the street simply to meet basic needs, and many fall into the pit of consumerism, pursuing individual greed. These growing sectors have rejected the motto set by the revolution-in the words of Che-“The ultimate and most important revolutionary aspiration: to see human kind liberated from alienation.”

A renowned economist, Dr. Omar Everleny, told me: “You can’t stimulate people with morality, with revolutionary propaganda, with anti-imperialism for a lifetime. People get tired of this and they must eat. Sure, everybody goes to the plaza for the marches, but when they return home they demand that the state provides them with their needs.”

One sees youths, who have never worked, spending more money drinking beer in one session than a pensioner must live on for an entire month. These same teenagers often adorn themselves in gaudy t-shirts advertising US products or brands, promoting the FBI or the US military-whose illegal base on occupied Cuban territory is a torture chamber. Some of these youths grease their hair, wear their pants midway down their asses, and jabber on mobile telephones, which costs more to buy and speak on than in the rich capitalist west. When I asked some why they behaved thusly, they replied that “it is the fashion.” Maybe so in the decadent west but very few people in Cuba have the money to adopt such a life style even if they wished to, and why should they?

Most fuel is sold in CUC

Most fuel is sold in CUC

While there are fewer automobiles than in any capital around the world, there are far more cars and motorcycles on the streets and fewer bicycles than when I lived here in the 1990s. Most cars are privately owned and most parts and gasoline must be bought in CUCs. The price of gasoline is almost as high as European prices and today is double or more the cost in the US. And the state sells bicycles from China only in CUCs.

The brain drain to the capitalist world, which the government speaks of lamentably, is a growing phenomenon, but it is also internal. More and more car owners are using their vehicles, especially the old US cars, as taxis. Some do so legally by buying a license, paying taxes and insurance; many do not. Taxi drivers earn more money in one day than my friend, a former captain of Cuban ships, who risked his life as an infiltrator inside enemy lines (the CIA), in an entire month. Acquaintances who have doctorate degrees, who were heads of media outlets, officers and other professionals have left their positions to find ways of earning convertible currency, such as taxi chauffeurs.

The double economy and its negative consequences are so rampant that the government allows the film industry to make films with this theme. The most recent one, “Horn of Plenty” (“Cuerno de la abundancia”), revolves around the greed and envy connected with this inequality. Rather than concluding, as one would expect by a propaganda-oriented state-run medium, the people involved did not learn their lesson.

Yet most media do not address this problem, or at least do not come up with analyses or solutions. The youth daily, Juventud Rebelde, does have a column of complaints from readers concerning specific failures of agencies and institutions, usually having to do with the lack of promised services and reparations. There are also a few magazines with limited press runs and audiences that do go a bit deeper sometimes: La Geceta, Cajman Barbuda, Temas.

Caminos is published by the Martin Luther King Center has a somewhat wider circulation in pesos. It can do so because of donations from solidarity people such as Pastors for Peace.

While no cojes lucha (don’t fight city hall) is still a common motto, some Cubans are acting to overcome that anti-revolutionary attitude-which is generated from a deaf bureaucratic institutionalized structure. The MLK center is a protagonist of fighting that attitude. Its director, Rev. Raul Suarez, is so respected that he is an elected delegate to the National Assembly. His center provides consultation to many of the 20 neighborhood community centers called “Talleres de transformation integral.” This involves the Paulo Freire participatory sociology principles, seeking to stimulate people to involve themselves in projects to improve the community.

The next half-century

Once Fidel became ill and stepped down from government, his brother Raul won the next elections. Many see him as an innovator. He has broadened some rights, such as that anyone with hard currency can buy imported mobile telephones, computers, cars, etc. and rent luxurious hotel rooms. But that does not affect the vast majority of Cubans. During his term thus far, and also due to the most damaging hurricanes in modern history, the gap between the new rich and a relative poor sector is increasing. Some think Raul will take the country more in the direction of China. Signs include: granting more land to private farmers; monetary incentives for greater production; the raising of retirement age by five years (women from 55 to 60; men from 60 to 65); increased credits and trade with China, buying everything from cheap items made by over-exploited workers to modern buses, trains and all sorts of manufactured items for energy and infrastructure.

The fact that Cuba has survived the wrath of US imperialism, whereas no other country attempting socialism has (we must wait more for Venezuela’s development to make a judgment here), is a miracle in itself and enough reason for solidarity people abroad not to be disillusioned. Nevertheless, 70% of the population was born after 1959 and much of it demands greater results than has been forthcoming. One cannot placate these demands by harping on the gains of, for example, free and full medical care, especially when service is less today than it was ten years ago, because so many medical workers are abroad on missions.

Greater worker participation may be the key

Greater worker participation may be the key

A successful revolution must be one in permanent development, one that can solve the basic needs of adequate housing, food and clothing otherwise people will seek solutions elsewhere as is evidenced by so many people leaving Cuba for economic gain. And for those who remain, they are glad if they have family members working abroad, including the land of the enemy, who send them benefits from capitalism’s exploitative economy. That is not the way to teach one’s people that socialism has greater virtues than capitalism.

People ask: why is the best service, the best production made by those earning incentives or tips in convertible currency? Is that not evidence that privatization (capitalism) is more effective?

The answer must lay in having confidence in the workers to run the farms and factories, to eliminate the incompetent bureaucracy, and to instill a culture of debate and real participation in decision-making. Although Cuba has yet to accomplish this, it must be noted that no other socialist experiment has either.

The globalized economic crisis upon us could be an excellent opportunity for workers and progressive labor and civic organizations the world over to shed profit-over-people solutions. But that requires sacrifice and struggle at great personal risk. My reading of the times is, unfortunately, that those most adversely affected may choose a survival of the fittest attitude instead of seeking collective solutions. The culture of fear with its terrorist wars, racism and xenophobia in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, could well lead the world into a new fascist era.

The progressive regional alliances taking root in Latin America, on the other hand, are a positive sign for the future of an independent continent, one in which socialism sows roots, and for a more participatory socialism in Cuba.


What's your opinion?

  • Michael N. Landis

    Congradulations for candidly addressing these economic issues. As you say, the greatest threat to the Revolution is within, by failing to solve economic injustices. If the Revolution is not successful in dealing with the issues of fair remuneration for work, of a sufficient and varied food supply, of adquate housing, etc., then I fear it may go the way of the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, the Russian Revolution and so many revolutions before. Let us hope that the Cuban people will come up with new and more dynamic solutions which will carry forward their Revolution. (And, for that matter, I have the same hopes that we here in the States will do likewise in the case of our own flawed revolution of 1776.)

  • I have always believed that Cuba has made economic realtionships with countries around the world, including the United States. I do not believe that Fidel Castro is so lucky, to not have been assasinated, in fifty years, by his enemies or in reality, his associates.

    American born, with Cuban parents, I have always heard the horror stories and disbelief, on how such a terror, can maintain and continue to live so long. And my answer has and will always be, ECONOMICS.

  • F. Dom

    Thank you Ron for this exeptional article.
    First time reading HT and then this, from an American born Cuban.
    I am looking forward for more of such articles and will make an abo for my e-mail.
    F

  • Alberto N. Jones

    If radical, non structural changes are not implemented in Cuba immidiately, I fear Fidel’s speech at the University in 2005, in which he advanced that Cuba could self destruct, is real. After a month long stay 8-9/09 in Cuba, these signs are palpable with thousands of citizens longing for other countries citizenship, requesting scholarship abroad with no intention of returning, significant increase in dissertion of sports, cultural, scientific and professionals serving abroad. Internal corruption have increased 10 fold, with bus hospitality or service employees, openly stealing from the cash register or demanding bribes to provide services as simple as selling an airline ticket. Teachers, physicians and other professionals have lost their drive and their sole focus is on how to “Resolver” or solve their problem. Urgent salary adjustment of state employee, create of a million jobs through small enterprise co-op or joint venture and remove many arbitrary regulations is an…