Cuba: What Social Justice are We Speaking Of?

Armando Chaguaceda  (Photos: Juan Suarez)

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s ongoing reform process is widening the gap between the individuals and groups favored by the structural changes and those who, caught between a market that turns its back on them and a State that continues to manage and curtail their rights, have ended up at the bottom.

Today, these expendable beings include different categories of urban and rural workers, families who do not receive remittances and the residents of peripheral neighborhoods in Havana and the interior – blacks, mixed race, the old, women.

This situation came to mind some days ago, following a brief Internet exchange I had with an acquaintance, who wrote: “People can at least get by in your country, because the State covers their basic needs.” Faced with such impressions, we have no other choice but to make the state of Cuba’s social justice a topic of debate, take a close look and analyze some of its concrete features.

Though I would like to be able to share my friend’s optimism, I think it prudent to curb such enthusiasm. To do this, I will begin by reminding readers that, for some time now, a number of authors (myself included) have been using the term “social contract” to metaphorically allude to the peculiar link established between the Cuban population and the post-revolutionary State.

Under this contract, the former relinquished a great number of civil and political rights to the latter, in exchange for a number of forms of subordinated political participation and, above all, far-reaching, generous and (in some cases) exemplary social policies.

For three decades, this afforded Cubans a degree of social inclusion and mobility that was enviable in Latin America, within a State-command system and thanks to the massive subsidies of the former Soviet Union.

Today, however, this pact has practically capsized, and the boss isn’t giving back his protégés what they once entrusted him with. This situation appears to clarify one point, that Cuba’s “social achievements” were never rights, per se, but, in the best of cases, merely benefits.

At least, we have good reasons to doubt that these “rights” meet the three essential conditions that define rights per se: that of being exigible (and equipped with mechanisms for demanding and protecting these rights), universal (applicable to everyone, regardless of their political or socio-economic condition) and, most importantly, indivisible (such that, if one does not enjoy full civil and political rights, we cannot speak of social rights as such).

Thus, faced as we are by partisan calls for order, efficiency, profit or freedom (of the kind made by different political camps), it would be worthwhile, in the context of Cuba’s complex situation, to demand the kind of social justice that today runs the risk of becoming a mere memory.

If we take one aspect of the situation, say, the state of Cuba’s food security – understood as general access to adequate, safe and nutritive food, capable of meeting the nutritional needs of the population and of sustaining a healthy and active life – we’ll see that this most basic of elements of any policy based on the ideals of justice and solidarity is in crisis.

Over the last two decades, Cuba’s food security has been significantly undermined by a drop in agricultural production – which, in 2012, was lower for most products than what it was in 1989 – and by the high costs of food and other essential products, in both private and State markets.

Elderly people who live alone are the most severely affected by this situation, for they receive flimsy pensions (be it in the form of their retirement or a “welfare” program – and because they are unable to compete in the new market of the self-employed.

The much-advertised distribution of rationalized/subsidized products continues to dwindle and all trends appear to indicate that the renowned ration booklet will ultimately disappear (having slowly bled to death, rather than met a sudden demise), despite protests in broad sectors of the population that depend on these basic, subsidized products, as was demonstrated by debates organized by the government itself.

This is such a polemical issue that it makes its way into the island’s debate fora, giving rise to diverse opinions from participants. In one of these debates (published in Ultimo Jueves, “The Last Thursday”, a forum organized by the Cuban journal Temas), economist and former government official Jose Luis Rodriguez said that the rationed products cover 60 % of the protein and calorie needs of the populations. Other participants touched on the fact that Cuban families – whose real salaries are today half what they were in 1989 – devote 60 to 75% of their income to cover basic nutritional needs.

We should here point out that government authorities have been taking products out of the ration booklet to sell these on the open market at 3 or 4 times their price.

The prices of rationed products have also been on the rise. Today, a Cuban ration booklet contains per month the following products: 5 pounds of rice (at 25 cents of a regular Cuban peso a pound) and two additional pounds (at 90 cents the pound); 10 ounces of beans (80 cents); 3 pounds of refined sugar and 1 pound of raw sugar (at 15 and 10 cents the pound, respectively); ½ pound of cooking oil (20 cents); one 4 ounce packet of ground coffee (mixed with ground, toasted chickpeas) for 4 pesos; 1 pound of chicken (70 cents) and 11 ounces of fish, or, failing that, chicken, at the same price; 5 eggs (15 cents) and one 80-gram piece of bread (daily) at 5 cents.

This quota covers approximately one week’s eating needs. Products for the rest of the month must be purchased at high prices, at hard-currency stores or agricultural and livestock markets. In the latter, eggs are sold at 1.10 pesos the unit, rice at 5 pesos the pound, black or red beans at 15 pesos per pound, pork at 30 pesos per pound, an avocado for 10 pesos, a mango for 8, a pound of onions at 15, and so and so forth.

As products included in the ration booklet are not enough to cover a person’s basic needs, the population is forced to look for additional, high-demand consumer products (toilet and laundry soap, detergent, toothpaste, cooking oil, tomato puree, spices, coffee, and others) in the Cuban peso or hard-currency market, where prices are much higher, contributing to their low purchasing power.

Prices at these establishments (which are beyond the financial reach of the country’s poorest sectors) are rising. This is coupled with irregularities in the supply and availability of numerous products, a tendency which favors the growth of the black market and of speculation.

The average monthly salary in Cuba (around 460 pesos), is not enough to cover even the most elementary needs: according to a number of experts and the testimony of numerous citizens, a person requires around three average salaries in order to purchase all of the essential products they need in the course of a month.

With such salaries, most Cuban families live in poverty, getting by one income secured through illegal means: the misappropriation of State resources, black market sales, thefts, and others.

The exceptions are those who hold important positions connected to Cuba’s hard-currency economy (joint venture companies, companies with foreign capital), a number of special job categories (officials of the armed forces, some athletes and artists), those in the tourism industry or operating a business related to this sector (restaurants, clubs) or those who receive financial assistance (remittances) from abroad.

Though it is true, as many often say, that the State continues to offer educational and healthcare services free of charge – in sectors that are also currently threatened by the crisis and cutbacks, as we will see in future posts – it is also true that, even in these sectors, the population needs to devote part of its incomes to ensure, if not access to these, at least the quality of the service.

Faced with this situation, in a country with a long-standing tradition of social struggle, with a high standard of education, shouldn’t we expect people to express their disagreement? Those who ask this fail to notice that this is already happening, so much through institutional channels (at union and neighborhood meetings, the complaint boxes of the State and the press), as through street conversations and the demonstrations of the besieged opposition.

However, the official press and civil society respond to the interests of the State and all dissenting voices run the permanent risk of suffering sanctions of every sort – in a country where the State is the boss and law enforcer, as well as the authority responsible for giving out permits for private initiative.

Complaining under one’s breath, venting one’s frustrations in confidence and becoming involved in black market activities (a mixture of stealing from the State and one’s neighbors), apparently continue to be the most common individual reactions to this situation.

If the impoverishment of society is to continue in these times of liberalizing reforms, it is not rash to assume that we will be seeing ever more frequent expressions of discontent and social protest in the not-so-distant future, particularly in the forsaken regions of Cuba’s interior, and that these will be more chaotic and spontaneous than politically conscious and organized.

Some recent experiences in other countries reveal how frustrations arising from daily problems can unleash personal protests with unforeseen consequences: the much-publicized case of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, whose public immolation sparked off the so-called Arab Spring, is a paradigmatic case in point.

The truth of the matter is that the main social achievements of the Cuban revolution, that once benefited the majority of working people, are today threatened and in danger of disappearing. Defending these achievements must be a task, not only of the Left, but of all who consider themselves democrats, as no authentic, legally constituted State can be erected on the poverty and inequality of the majority.

In any event, the romantic version of the discourse that claims Cubans live in decorous poverty, like so many other myths, ought to be rigorously questioned.

Armando Chaguaceda

Armando Chaguaceda: My curriculum vitae presents me as a historian and political scientist. I'm from an unclassifiable generation who collected the achievements, frustrations and promises of the Cuban Revolution and now resists on the island or contributes through numerous websites, trying to remain human without dying in the attempt.

Armando Chaguaceda has 143 posts and counting. See all posts by Armando Chaguaceda

13 thoughts on “Cuba: What Social Justice are We Speaking Of?

  • As Moses stated above, the Castros’s have always compared Cuban standards of living to the worst the 3rd world has to offer in order to justify their failures. Yet what is never mentioned is that prior to the revolution Cubans enjoyed a standard of living far superior to all but two Latin American countries and indeed some European countriesl (this data is readily available from the UN)

    The sad fact is the “revolution” and the betrayal of it’s original purpose, halted all the progress Cuba was making and instead placed the country in some strange stasis in which the only change is decay.

  • Without the same old canned rhetoric, how do you continue to justify the term “genocidal” in view of the remittances received by Cubans from the US, the hard currency through US tourism, and the exemption to the embargo permitting the unlimited sale of food and medicine? Genocide? Really?

  • you persist with that term “genocidal embargo” in spite of:

    1) Americans are sending the Cuban people remittances totaling the value of what Venezuela is contributing to the government.
    2) the US is selling Cuba all the food, medicine and medical supplies they want to buy.
    3) US residents are the #2 source of visitors to Cuba in numbers equal to #3 through #9 combined.

    If the welfare of the Cuban people truly was the highest priority of the Cuban state, they would acknowledge they were the cause of the economic problems impacting the lives of 99% of the Cuban people every day. Everyone agrees that money is not everything but poll Cuban people. Everyone will say their top problems are economic.

  • Cuba indeed does not generate the “economic wealth” to pay for the needs of the people. It has survived with Soviet (30-35% of GDP) and Venezuelan subsidies.
    Even so: social justice would imply that scarce resources are equally shared. The Cuban health apartheid system and the lavish lifestyles of the elite and especially the Castro family show that isn’t the case.

  • Much as your pals at the CIA must wish it were so, there is nothing “questionable” about Cuba infant mortality statistics. Even they have been forced to admit, to their obvious chagrin and without any qualifications whatsoever, that the Cuban rate is the best in the Americas.

    Such a feat against such overwhelming odds — your genocidal embargo again! — shows that the welfare of the Cuban people is the highest priority of the Cuban state. Such a feat would not have been possible without inspired leadership, a top notch education system open to all, various other progressive social programs and a democratic political system that is fully accountable to the needs of the people. The fact that US agents cannot operate with impunity on the island is no way undermines these facts. Quite the contrary.

  • Dan, social justice as measured by questionable infant mortality rates? Says who? So where’s the social justice when that newborn grows up? Even if the self-reported infant mortality rates in Cuba are to be believed, there is so much more to social justice indices, that your focus on this measure fails to justify the lack of political freedoms.

  • On the contrary, in California (you should know this), K-12 education is free and is indeed a fundamental right. Funny you would mention the quality of schooling in South Central LA. These poorest of the poor schools in Los Angeles are very similar to the quality of instruction and infrastructure in Havana (minus the student violence, sadly). You should resist comparing average Cuban schools to the worst that the US has to offer to make your point. It would more fair, if it is fair at all, to compare what the average school in Cuba is like to the average school in the US. Likewise, the AVERAGE Dominican or Haitian is BETTER off than the average Cuban. He/she lives in a larger home than their Cuban counterpart, drives a car, works a job that pays for monthly living expenses and enjoys political and social freedoms that Cubans only dream of. It is a common ploy by Castro supporters to compare the worst of other countries with the average Cuban to justify the failed regime.

  • One of the best indicators of social justice is the general level of health of the people. And the single most reliable indicator of overall public health is the infant mortality rate — the rate at which newborns die in their first year of life. Not surprisingly, according to none other than the CIA, Cuba’s infant mortality rate is the best in the Americas — much better the USA and even marginally better than Canada.

    Not bad when you consider the half-century of genocidal US trade sanctions targeting every man, woman and child on the island!

  • Cuba’s problem is unfortunately not one of how its resources are divided or who gets how much. The problem is the much more difficult one of simply not having enough resources. Cuba simply cannot grow enough food to feed its residents or provide sufficient housing.

    The logical question is why does a country with such potential natural resources available lack the final productivity to meet its own needs. The only answer can be gross mismanagement.

    The new Revolutionary government made a hard left hand turn in 1959 and embarked on a new social experiment. The actual failure of that experiment was masked for 30 years by massive external financial support. Anything can appear successful so long as external forces continue to pour in money. However that same experiment failed in the USSR, cutting off support and forcing distress in Cuba. Unfortunately those in charge have never acknowledged Cuba’s problems are fundamental and deep seated. Instead they hoped that little tweaks around the edges would solve everything.

    There will be no resolution to Cuba’s economic problem until people realize the problem is not one of how resources are divided but the basic fact that they are simply not enough resources.

  • It is absurd to think of government services as “rights”. In exchange for a few universal services to be provided via the state, with the costs paid by the people who suffer under the highest effective taxation rate on earth, the Cuban people were compelled to relinquish all of their true rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of economic & labour activities, and free elections.

    These social programs were only of decent quality so long as the USSR provided massive subsidies flowed to the island. Once the subsidies ended, the standards in education & healthcare rapidly declined, along with the content of the ration book. Yet as the State failed to deliver their obligations to the people, the other half of the bargain, the surrendered human rights & freedoms, were never returned.

    Sixty years ago, the Cuban people had they highest standard of living in the Caribbean, if unequally shared. Today, Cuba’s standard of living is the lowest in the region, with the sole exception of Haiti. And once again, the benefits are unequally shared. The Revolution has been a complete failure, except for those at the top.

  • There is no social justice in Cuba. Cuba is a Stalinist state capitalist state with a ruling privileged elite and an oppressed people. The health system is set up along apartheid lines. In education children of the elite get privileges like studying abroad. In housing members of the elite have luxurious homes and their cronies are paid with great apartments while ordinary Cubans struggle to keep a roof over their head. Corruption is rife. The best jobs are for the elite and their cronies. Raul Castro’s granddaughter buys Rolex, Vuitton, … and travels even to the US. Fidel’s sons flaunt their wealth, play golf, …Fidel remains in his luxury compound enjoying imported health food like he enjoyed imported wines and foods in the past.

  • Armando, let’s remember we are speaking of a 3rd world nation state, drawing comparisons to California (my home state as well) is misplaced. Compare Cuba to like islands (e.g., Haiti, Dominican Republic …) and I am sure you cannot help but discover that the average Cuban, even your Cuban friends, are far better off than the average Hatian/Dominican. I am in Cuba every month, sometimes more. Its not perfect, nor or we. Have you noticed that the poor kids in South Central LA and Spanish Harlem are not getting their monies worth as well. However, the difference here, as opposed to there, is that here (and it seems your parents neglected to tell you this, education is not a fundamental right nor is the inequity in its application offensive to the law.

  • Armando believes that the myth of Cubans living in “decorous poverty” should be questioned. Likewise, the ‘myth’ that health care and education is free in Cuba should also be set aside. I grew up in California public schools and my parents made me well aware that my schooling was not ‘free’. In Cuba, Cubans are taxed at 95%. In view of the bite that the State takes from Cuban salaries, not only is health care and education far from free, but given the current quality of the education and health care that Cubans receive, they are not getting their monies worth! During my last trip to Cuba this spring, I heard an increasing number of my Cuban friends who are self-employed complain about the taxes they have to pay and the services they DON’T receive in return. It all sounded very ‘capitalistic’.

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