Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cuba's changes: what would Che say?

Cuba's changes: what would Che say?

Plans to sack 500,000 state workers in the next year might not spell an
end to socialism, just a reconfiguration.
Chris Arsenault Last Modified: 10 Oct 2010 14:29 GMT

It is hard to imagine what Che Guevara, the legendary communist
revolutionary, would make of Cuba's plan to lay off 500,000 state
workers by 2011 as the island moves closer to a market economy.

Since his death in 1967 at the hands of US-backed forces in Bolivia,
Guevara's iconic image has been used to sell everything from soda pop to
cheap Chinese made t-shirts. Even symbols of socialism have great
commercial value, suggesting the philosophies that motivated Guevara
resonate on some level with a wide variety of people.

Given this "revolutionary" legacy, market reforms might not spell the
end for Cuban socialism, which has outlasted ten US presidents since the
1959 revolution.

"Che would have understood that Cuba exists in the real world," Isaac
Saney, a Marxist scholar and author of Cuba: A Revolution in Motion,
told Al Jazeera. "You have to be able to live within your means and the
state sector itself can no longer carry people who are not involved in
productive activities."

Presently, Cuba's socialist government employs about 90 per cent of the
labour force, according to John Kirk, a professor at Dalhousie
University in Canada, who has worked as a translator for Aleida Guevara,
Che's daughter.

"You'll often have two or three bus drivers sharing the work of driving
one bus … the bottom line is that the Cuban economy is not efficient,"
Kirk told Al Jazeera.

Formally announced in late September, the lay offs reportedly began this
week. Unemployed workers will be encouraged to get small business
licenses and start work in one of 124 chosen fields - creating their own
jobs managing restaurants, driving taxis, installing plumbing, grooming
dogs or operating farms, Kirk said.

Margaret Thatcher in Havana?

At first glance, the massive lay offs may look like Cuba's adoption of
neoliberalism, with Raul Castro, Cuba's president, taking on the role of
a Latino Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan – western politicians who
gutted the public sector in favour of private enterprise and profit.

Kirk suggested that "the laid off people will work in three basic
employment groups".

"The largest portion will keep doing what they have already been doing -
[illegally running small businesses]. The underground economy in Cuba is
massive. The second largest group will go into farming. They don't want
to do it but there is no alternative, and the government will make
growing veggies attractive. The third group will go work for foreign

In an attempt to avoid the massive inequality and dislocation that often
follow market reforms, Cuba has vowed to maintain its public health and
education systems. These so-called "jewels" of the revolution, which
don't fit into the ideology of free market capitalism, have garnered
praise from the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and many
other international bodies.

"Cuba demonstrates how much nations can do with the resources they have
if they focus on the right priorities - health, education, and
literacy," Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, said in 2000.

Even after market reforms come into effect, Kirk says Cuba will still
"have the best statistics for infant mortality and literacy in the
developing world."

These public services provided by a socialist government may,
ironically, be Cuba's ticket to a successful transition towards a market

"Biotechnology exports earned Cuba approximately $300m last year, and
they continue growing," Kirk said. "They produce 83 per cent of their
own pharmaceutical products. The drugs are cheap and they don't depend
on [Western pharmaceutical] cartels."

As nations in the global South search for cheaper drugs - lifesaving
products that are not priced out of the poor's reach by Western drug
companies - Cuba's well educated population could stand to benefit.

But for now, tourism and nickel mining, along with remittances from
Cubans living abroad, are the country's largest sources of foreign

Red-tape and 'inefficiencies'

Biotechnology development and other advanced, knowledge intensive,
export businesses which utilise the country's high levels of education,
are hampered by a lack of investment capital, outdated machinery, and
government red-tape.

Colin MacDonald, a Canadian businessman who chairs the board of
directors at Clearwater Seafoods Limited, a multinational fisheries
company, experienced some of these economic irritants first hand.

He visited Cuba at the government's request several years ago as a
consultant to the island's lobster industry, and what he experienced
could be analogous to broader economic set backs.

During processing, lobsters need to be moved from ambient to cold water
tanks to keep them healthy and tasty. "The cold water tank at the Cuban
operation was broken and everyone knew it. Nobody reported it, including
local management, as they did not want to be the messenger with bad
news," MacDonald told Al Jazeera.

"The workers continued moving the lobsters as if the cold water tanks
worked, which meant they would experience high mortality" when they were
shipped to overseas markets.

"The system was organised so people were disincentified to do a good job
as they were paid, in money and compliments, the same no matter how well
they did or did not do the job," the businessman said, underlying some
of the historical critiques of socialism as an economic system.

The average government employee in Cuba earns about $20 per month,
although food, accommodations and other necessities are heavily subsidised.

The China option

Some analysts believe Cuba will follow the economic trajectory set out
by Deng Xiaoping, China's former leader, who proclaimed "getting rich is
glorious" when he opened the country to market reforms in the 1980s. Or
nominally communist Vietnam, which is experiencing high levels of
economic growth due to a similar set of policies called Doi Moi or the

But Isaac Saney doesn't see that happening. "Unlike [China or] Vietnam,
Cuba has faced 50 years of financial and commercial blockades from the US."

The US first imposed a trade embargo in 1960, one year after Fidel
Castro, Che Guevara and other revolutionaries overthrew the US-backed
dictator Fulgencio Batista.

"So much hinges on the US normalising relations. That is the logical
market for investment and exports," Kirk said. Despite the embargo, much
of the seed money for new small business is expected to come from
Cuban's living abroad, particularly in Miami.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it became fashionable for western
intellectuals to link economic liberalisation with political freedom.
But with the rise of state capitalism in single-party states like China
and Vietnam, along with rapid growth in other market-orientated
non-democratic countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar,
that interpretation does not seem correct.

Cuba remains a one party state with heavily censored media controlled by
the ruling communist party. In a country with almost universal literacy
and high rates of university education, Cubans deserve something better
than Granma newspaper which carries "a very dry, one dimensional party
line," according to Kirk.

US intervention

Some hardliners in the government fear economic openings could lead to
renewed violence from the US, who backed Cuban exiles linked to the
mafia in an unsuccessful attempt to invade the island in 1961 at the Bay
of Pigs.

Since then, the US has tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, the former
Cuban president and Raul's brother, on several occasions. An exploding
cigar was reportedly one of the plans.

"The [US] state department has already set up shop for people who want
to work for 'civil society' in Cuba to build institutions to bring down
the government," Kirk said.

During the revolution in 1959, Delia Luisa Lopez Garcia was a student
radical coordinating armed campaigns at the University of Havana, where
she is now a professor of economics. Standing four feet, ten inches
tall, Dr Garcia is fully trained with an AK-47 assault rifle and
embodies much of the intellectual culture of socialist Cuba.

"After the end of the Cold War, it seemed as though the neoliberals
won," she told Al Jazeera during a 2007 interview in Havana, Cuba's
capital. Most observers in the US believed Cuban socialism would
collapse along with the Soviet Union.

"Now, in many places, neoliberalism has been rejected because it was not
successful," Garcia said. "Brazil kicked out the IMF [International
Monetary Fund], as did Argentina… States need to take power back from
companies in order to have control over economic policies."

In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, when western governments spent
hundreds of billions of dollars in public funds bailing out banks, it
was Nicolas Sarkozy, France's conservative president, who proclaimed the
end of "Anglo-Saxon capitalism".

"The approach in the media is that the Cuban revolution is on the
skids," Kirk said. "Before you throw out the baby with the bathwater,
look at what is happening in the rest of the world … look at capitalism,
look at the bailouts and the recession."

As the global financial crisis holds large economies for ransom, it
seems ironic that Cuba's economy breaks a long held tradition and edges
closer towards the free market system.

However, with many different models of capitalism practiced throughout
the world, there is nothing to prevent Cuba from defining a distinct
system, appropriate to its modern history and better suited to its ideals.

Whether or not Che Guevara would support Cuba's economic changes is a
matter for biographers, historians, and activists to try and decide
because, in the next few years, Cubans are going to be busy cutting
hair, growing crops, fixing tractors and seeking foreign investment.

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