Freedom to Choose (III & final)

Dmitri Prieto

The Future Is Ours. Photo by Kate Forrester.

If we review the case of Cuban education, primary and secondary schools usually offer the same standard programs.

In the “pre’s” (pre-university senior high schools) of the past, most students had to study in “boarding schools in the countryside,” though now the decision has been made to set up facilities closer to the students’ families.

In terms of choice, youth today are offered —according to their abilities— “conventional” pre-university high schools, vocational education or the exact sciences, and technical training.

In the case of banking services, there are hardly any alternatives.  Each check, for example, must be cashed at the same branch that issued it, in the majority of cases.  That has been my experience at least along with the huge lines.

This stems from the fact that at one time the postal network performed certain banking functions, though this is not the situation today.  It would be best to eliminate the apparent monopoly in that sphere and to facilitate choice among clients (institutions and individuals) in selecting the bank they prefer.

I should note though that in several areas in recent years, the State has increased the possibility of choosing.  Because of this, Cuban TV (completely state-owned and operated) now has more channels, including one (Multivision) that is free of political propaganda.  Likewise, several territories (provinces and municipalities) are attempting to provide their own programming in their specific localities.

Recent experiments in the leasing of State-owned barber shops and hairdressers to their workers led to a diverse range of services being created.  On the other hand, Cuba has experienced the elimination of the different companies of State-owned taxis and tourist transportation, and the subsequent reestablishment of a monopoly.  Today all State taxis, for example, belong to the same company.  Only a few years ago this wasn’t the situation – alternatives existed.  Today “you get what you get.”

The situation of cellphones, where also only a single company monopolizes the entire market, makes one consider the experience of the steady fall in prices experienced for that service in other countries where there are wide selections.

What comes to mind is the “glorious past of liberalism [free-market capitalism] of the 20th century” and the German miracle of Chancellor Ludwig Erhard in the 1950s.  But Cuba is not Germany.  We need to re-accumulate capital in a de-capitalized country.  That was not the case of Germany in the postwar period, when the factories laid in ruins but there were those who knew how to rebuild them back in operation.

The current pitch for hyper-competition

Liberals always repeat that competition leads to development.  Meanwhile, some of their more fateful experiences of the 1990s (such as the privatization of the telephone system in Argentina) reinforced monopoly inefficiency by creating a company in each territory.  There was no freedom to choose; it only privatized the profits.  Let’s not forget that capitalism always functions as a monopoly: the monopoly of ownership in the hands of the capitalist class.

I’m not for the hyper-competition that the current yuppie pitch is trying to sell us, but nor do I like monopolies…

In the case of software —the commodity par excellence of the 21st century— one of the products competing most sharply with the Microsoft empire is the Linux system, the result of the voluntary labor of thousands of people around the planet.  And it does not operate under free-market concepts.

The market is without a doubt one of the great inventions of human beings, and I agree with the pragmatism of those who believe that it will be with us for a long time to come.  But we should seek variety.  Even when taking into account ideas that are always controversial, like those of Che Guevara, I believe that practice demonstrates that the totalitarianism of the State leads to disaster just as much as that of the market.

What worries me most in the case of Cuba is that the recently announced government proposal speaks in favor of small private companies and not those of collectives of workers forming cooperatives.

Even when one can accept a sort of “mixed” or “joint venture” company (a term that defines very little since it tells us nothing of the proportions of the “mixture,”), in the case of authorizing small private companies based on wage labor, an integrally socialist position would be to also allow citizens who want to create companies that encourage worker solidarity and that do not have capital-labor relationships to do so.

In China, for the bureaucracy to save itself it had to re-invent a bourgeoisie – a class that didn’t exist.

In 19th century England, workers created the first cooperatives under the Rochdale Principles.  They had to adapt these to the capitalist forms of organization because there were no specific laws for those companies.  But their initial effort led to a different type of production that over time was reinforced with a legal framework because the members of the cooperative pressed for it.

The freedom to choose that we lack most is between the wage-labor and the distributive cooperative economy.  I would prefer cooperatives, which means not being paid a wage from anybody but to have the opportunity to work in a micro-firm with people who think the same as me – even if it was a risk.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

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