Cuba's Upcoming Communist Party Congress: Moving Away from Socialism and Workers' Democracy

The Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) has set April 2011, the 50th anniversary of the revolution’s victory over the US-Cuban exile mercenary force at the Bay of Pigs, for its 6th Congress. I follow this process with special attention, in part, because I participated in the PCC’s 4th congress preparatory discussion, in 1991.

Like millions of others around the world, I feel the Cuban revolution was (and is) fought for me too. Cubans, including their leader Fidel Castro, help make us feel so. For instance, as recounted in the book Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel Fidel told Lee Lockwood: “Those who are exploited are our compatriots all over the world; and the exploiters all over the world are our enemies… Our country is really the whole world, and all the revolutionaries of the world are our brothers.”

Although I was not a Party member, and not a Cuban citizen, I was permitted to participate in the PCC discussions because I was working as a volunteer on an oil tanker in Santiago de Cuba, one of five I sailed on. (My experience was recounted in the article “Cuba at Sea” in the London journal Socialist Resistance.)

After hours of discussing ideas, including my own about the need for greater journalist freedom and citizenry participation in the media, the seamen passed two motions: my proposal, and democratization of decision-making generally. After the meeting, most said these discussions were a waste of words. In the end, they saw no results from their motions, but the Party did listen to some of the one million complaints and proposals.

Several times in the last half-century of revolutionary Cuba citizens have been allowed to discuss national policies (not international ones) but the results have been consultative rather than binding—with the exception of adopting a new constitution in 1976, and modifying it in 1992. Three years ago, shortly after Raul Castro took over the presidency, the Party launched a national discussion about the future of the revolution. Millions contributed ideas, but there was no real mechanism to implement anything debated.

Last November, the leading members of the PCC, several of whom hold key government positions, announced 291 proposals for reforms in 12 areas of economic and social life Cubans. A burning question is if the 800,000 Communist Party members’ discussion, plus that of non-members, will actually affect the policies to be taken at the forthcoming PCC VI congress.

There is no proposed mechanism to assure this happens in the 32-page document. Nor is there any procedure for introducing other matters.
Cuba's Communist Party Congress meets this AprilCuba's Communist Party Congress meets this April

The aim of the proposals is to increase production, decrease the budget deficit, balance exports-imports, and pay off the country’s $20 billion foreign debt. The guidelines call for reducing the state’s role by delegating more authority to local governments and some work sites, increasing taxes and other revenues, while cutting back on social benefits and subsidies.

While it calls for more private enterprise and foreign investments, the document maintains that “only socialism is capable of overcoming the difficulties and preserving the conquests of the Revolution”.

Some of the proposals for discussion have, in fact, already been made into temporary laws by the “interim” policy-making body, the Council of Ministers. The Parliament of unpaid elected delegates meets once or twice a year for two days. One of its tasks is to make the temporary laws permanent, which it always does.

The PCC wants the state to continue as the central economic planner, using the budgetary method, but it will permit more farmland as usufruct property, greater self-employment (in 178 areas) and small businesses which, for the first time, will be allowed to employ people outside the family.

In Overall Terms

I find positive and worrisome some aspects in the guidelines.

Positive goals are those aimed at becoming self-sufficient in foodstuffs; uniting the two currencies into one which all Cubans posses; some decentralization of decision-making and use of more finances by local governments and companies. They affirm that Cuba is too dependent on foreign capital and imports, that Cuba must cut back on excessive costs and waste, strengthen the desire to work and eliminate companies operating at a loss, which often leads to producing less than a company spends.

On the downside are several proposals which would continue mono-culture dependency for exports, a dual economy and class inequalities generally viewed as necessary tactical setbacks in the early days (1990-2000) of the Special Period austerity program following the fall of eastern European socialism. Many analysts, including myself when working for Cuba media (1987-96), expressed the fear that these retreats could become permanent (see my book, Cuba at the Crossroads, Infoservicios, Los Angeles, 1994). Our fears proved warranted. as concessions to capitalism have deepened and become entrenched.

The greatest shortcoming in the proposals is the failure to plan for a transfer to workers’ power, in which workers actually manage the state and the economy—in other words real democracy. Because workers do not have authentic decision-making power, and because the majority have sufficient foodstuffs and essential consumer items due to low wages and little supply, there is rampant demoralization, apathy, cynicism and alienation. This results in epidemic thievery of needed items from workplaces and warehouses and an omnipresent black market. Thievery and corruption among many government officials and bureaucrats exacerbate the situation.

The Cuban media refuse to publish critiques of this nature, other than by Fidel and Raul. (See especially Fidel’s “Self-destruct” speech at Havana University, November 17, 2005, and Raul’s speech, July 26, 2007.) Recently, however, Esteban Morales, a prominent Cuban Communist and researcher on race relations in Cuba, wrote a critical article from a left socialist perspective, titled “Corruption, the True Counter-Revolution” (published abroad but also allowed on the website of Cuba’s writer-artists association-UNEAC), for which the PCC expelled him, affirming the widely held view that ordinary Cubans are forbidden to have any real influence. (4)

Another problem is that many of the state’s economists propose “market socialism”, believing that the solution to scarcity is more capitalist investment and supply-demand pricing. This leads to petty-bourgeois production relations and an individualistic mentality—worker-capitalists. If one is to be paid according to what one produces and sells, as proposed, then nickel and sugar cane workers, for instance, would be poorer than workers in citrus farming when global capitalist pricing favors oranges, in the inevitable speculation cycle, and mining nickel becomes unprofitable. Thus the basic principle of solidarity and equality is in serious danger.

Why can’t prices be based on socialist relations of production, taking into account worker incomes in relationship to their necessary consumption?

Furthermore, the proposals do not call specifically for greater barter trading with ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of America) countries, although there is a vague statement that the eight progressive ALBA countries are a priority. There is little trade with ALBA, with the exception of Venezuela. Most trade is with major capitalist countries. Ironically, the US is Cuba’s number one food supplier (25-30% of all foodstuffs; Cuba imports 80% of its food). Overall it is the fourth leading importer—6% of all imports are from the US. Officially, the US continues a blockade of Cuba, but since 2000 US businesses have been selling foodstuffs and medicines on a cash-only basis in US dollars. This one-way trade places Cuba at a security risk, by making the country increasingly dependent for food upon the imperialist whims of its main enemy.

Reliance on an export economy plays into the hands of a vulnerable world capitalist market. Cuba industrializes very little, something Che Guevara, before he left to promote revolution in South America, had endeavored to change without serious results. But with what little industrial development there is, current proposals call for orienting it toward export production while reducing the domestic component. How can Cuba meet its people’s own industrial needs by exporting more and importing less? It is nearly impossible already to find new clothes for sale in national pesos, for instance.

Cubans have never had sufficient housing. Many people live under the same roof—three generations is not unusual. But young people, especially those wishing to marry and have children, are discouraged by this “custom”. Nor will they be enthralled by a proposal calling for more tourism-based construction–golf courses, aquatic parks, spas–all of which divert scarce labor and materials needed for housing.

Another proposal calls for diminishing state financing of social security by extending the contribution of workers in both state and private sectors. One of the pillars of social welfare brought about by the socialist revolution is now to be conditioned, in part, on taxes paid by already underpaid workers. Until now part of one’s “income” had been free access to health care and education, and subsidized low prices for foodstuffs and clothing. The ration book has guaranteed some basic foods, albeit fewer and fewer. The party-state now wants this basic rationing eliminated. That means that real wages will decrease. The food sold in farmers markets, even the state controlled ones, are too costly to provide enough food for most people for the entire month. Proposed cutbacks will result in greater frustration, thievery and remittances reliance. Will more people flee to capitalist countries, in order to send their families some money just so they can eat?

The party-state offers a promise of increased wages, particylarly in the $ equivalent (CUC, which is valid only in Cuba) economy, and farm workers once production increases. But hungry, frustrated workers will not work harder before they are better paid and treated. They will be angrier and more open to corruption.

Besides my critique, another major reason for Cuba’s economic crises is the weather. Between 1998 and 2008, Cuba suffered over $20 billion in losses due to 16 hurricanes. Three of them, in 2008 alone, caused half that damage.

Workers Power is the Only Future for Socialism

I am not alone in maintaining that without workers’ power real socialism cannot be built, and even half-real socialism will fail—as we have witnessed in the other countries that made attempts.
Workers power should include oversight committees staffed on a rotating basis by actual workers across the country. I firmly support what James Petras wrote:

“A new income policy in itself can contribute to greater incentives for productivity if it is combined with greater direct participation of all workers in the organization and administration of the work place as well as the opening of multiple spaces to discuss the restructuring of the economy.

”What especially requires reform is a new system of public accountability based on independent accounting authorities, consumers’ and workers’ oversight commissions with the power to ‘open the books’.  Workers and professional control will not eliminate corruption altogether but it will challenge the authorities through independent periodic reviews…Greater accountability within the leadership is necessary but not sufficient.  There must be control and vigilance by authorized commissions from below and by a parallel independent general accounting office…a new system of elected representatives to oversee the allocation of the budget to the various ministries and the power to summon responsible officials to televised hearings for a strict public accounting.”

When revolutionary organizers are engaged in workers’ struggles under capitalism, one of their best arguments, when confronted by management claims that their demands are not economically possible, is the demand: “Open the books.” So why can’t the workers see the books in proletariat-led Cuba?
I close with a sober quotation from Fidel Castro

“Capitalism tends to reproduce itself under any social system because it is based on egotism and on human instincts. Human society has no other alternative but to overcome this contradiction; otherwise, it would not be able to survive.”

RON RIDENOUR, who was a co-founder and editor with Dave Lindorff in 1976 of the Los Angeles Vanguard, lives in Denmark. A veteran journalist who has reported in the US and from Venezuela, Cuba and Central America, he has written, Cuba at the Crossroads, Backfire: The CIA’s Biggest Burn, and Yankee Sandinistas, and is an occasional contributor to ThisCantBeHappening!