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.