Dimas Castellanos: Cuba Needs a Market Economy with Social Justice

Yusimi Rodriguez

Dimas Castellanos

HAVANA TIMES — I heard about the website “Voces Cubanas” for the first time about two years ago. My idea about the bloggers associated with that site didn’t differ much from what the government tries to make us believe, seeing them as a group of cyber-mercenaries in the service of imperialism.

My interview with Miriam Celaya allowed me to see that the Cuban opposition is more complex and diverse than the government is willing to admit. Now I’m speaking with Dimas Castellanos, born in 1943 and holding a BA in political science, a diploma in information sciences and a BA in biblical and theological studies. His blog is also in Voces Cubanas, but — to my surprise — Dimas considers himself a socialist.

HT: Do you define yourself as an opponent to the Cuban government?

Dimas: Yes, though that term has different connotations here in Cuba. I prefer to define myself as a “critical analyst” of the national situation. But here, anyone who isn’t with one side is automatically included in the other, therefore, I’m also an opponent.

HT: If in the sixties someone would have predicted that you’d one day become an opponent or a “critical analyst of the Cuban situation,” what would you have responded?

Dimas: Maybe I wouldn’t have had any response at the time, but what I am today has to do with what I was then. I didn’t have the level of understanding to be at a critical analyst back then, but I was a critical revolutionary. My sequence of criticisms of the system at different times was leading me to the position I now hold. Right now I don’t think the model is viable, but I couldn’t think such a thing at that time because I was part of the process.

HT: Miriam Celaya describes you as a socialist. How can you continue believing in socialism when it has failed wherever it has been implemented?

Dimas: Miriam’s definition could have many interpretations. If someone says they’re a socialist, I would have to ask what they mean by “socialism.”

My socialist ideas emerged in my childhood, since I come from a communist family. I grew up among tobacco workers, the sector of workers with the highest educational level in Cuba since they’re constantly debating for eight hours a day. Ever since that time I identified socialism with the idea of social justice.

I began working when I was eight, accompanying my mother selling clothes from door to door and experiencing the terrible misery of capitalism, especially in rural areas… Later I was an active member of the Union of Young Communists, where I began to learn more and more about those ideas, but I was also becoming more critical. This is why I quit that organization in 1963, when I was living in the eastern part of the island.

HT: What did you see as wrong as early as 1963?

Dimas: The behavior of leaders. First I saw those at the middle level. We were able to identify the wrong in those people. But during the debates, we discovered that the great fault of the system was at the tip of the pyramid. You could see a structural problem that was systemic. That’s why I have to ask what socialism really is.

I never abandoned my ideas of social justice, but I lean toward democratic socialism, which even includes the market economy and attempts to correct injustices in distribution, not in production. The market economy is essential for increasing production, but that freedom alone doesn’t allow the necessary balance. This is why injustices emerge that lead to revolutions.

HT: From your point of view, do you think the changes the government is currently implementing — under the stamp of “updating the model” — are moving us toward or away from socialism?

Dimas: We’re moving away. The model implemented in Cuba was copied from the form of socialism that existed in the socialist camp, which failed wherever it was applied. There are other models, such as democratic socialism in Western Europe: Sweden and Norway have socialist principles, they have market economies as well as freedoms for citizens that don’t exist here.

It’s true that we don’t have the financial resources of those countries.  But we can aspire to have a fair society, where the citizens are truly free. We can’t expect for everyone to live equally, but the differences can be reduced.

Therefore, if this model failed, updating it is updating a failure. Things could have been corrected years ago, when the crisis was mainly economic, due to inefficiencies.

You can attack one aspect of society, in time and solve it, but when you delay too long, things metastasize and you find yourself in a structural crisis. Then you have to change the entire model, not just one aspect. What’s being done now has no prospects for solving the deep crisis in which we’re immersed.

Dimas Castellanos

Part of the responsibility lies with the government, but I think a large part has to do with the Cuban people. My thesis is that there are Cubans in Cuba, but there aren’t citizens here. Without citizens there cannot be change toward progress in contemporary times. You have to train Cuban citizens, and this is a task that has remained incomplete since the origin of the Cuban nationality.

This is what people like Felix Varela, Jose de la Luz y Caballero, Jose Marti and others devoted their lives to – though they didn’t succeed. That largely explains our citizenry’s indifference. This isn’t new, but it has become exacerbated by a system that is stuck, bogged down, one that disarms everyone and cannot be changed.

People don’t want to hear anything about politics. The strength of the government lies in the weakness of the people. The urgent task in Cuba, though it’s not immediate, is civic education. We need to change the system and the government, but if you don’t change the people you’ll continue on with the same thing or slip further backwards.

HT: What differentiates your vision from that of Pedro Campos, who’s also a socialist?

Dimas: I emphasize citizen education, which isn’t an essential aspect to him, though he doesn’t ignore it. For him, this isn’t true socialism because there’s no cooperativization. I think cooperativization is important, but with part of the property being private.

I always support what comes from the initiatives of workers and not laws enacted by the government. But let’s imagine that all of that existed. It’s like freedom and democracy. Our citizens aren’t ready to make use of them. So I emphasize civic education.

HT: What do you have in common with bloggers like Yoani Sanchez, Reinaldo Escobar and Miriam Celaya – who don’t share your socialist ideas?

Dimas: Everyone seeking change in Cuba has this in common. We agree on the need for civil liberties, human rights and that the model isn’t viable. This allows for tactical cooperation, but differences can be seen on the visions of each person, and others will emerge the day that democracy and human rights are restored.

Differences will always exist, and that’s the richness of all social phenomena. The Cuban government’s slogan has always been ideological unity, but that’s something amorphous. There are no social sciences here because of the absence of debate…the prohibition of differences.

In other scenarios we agree even with people who are in the Cuban Communist Party. I know some of them who have critical ideas that are more advanced than mine or those of Pedro Campos. We’ll need to count on them if we are truly moving towards inclusiveness in this country.

HT: Do you recognize any achievements as having been made over these past 53 years of revolution?

Dimas: Yes, but the delay in further change has been undermining these achievements, which were based primarily on voluntarism and then subordinated to a totalitarian mentality.

For example, the ideas put forth by Fidel in his treatise History Will Absolve Me (i.e. advocating the turning over of land to those who didn’t have any), was a progressive act. I saw how people lived in the countryside, the evictions…

The first agrarian reform law gave deeds to 100,000 campesino families, while around 40 percent of the land remained in the hands of the state. However the second law served only to reverse the first one, since state-owned land increased to 70 percent of the total. It was here that the decline in the economy that we’re now suffering first began.

Later came a process they called “induced cooperativization,” which put another five percent of the arable land in the state’s hands. In the end, what we now have is land filled with marabou brush that doesn’t produce. What could have been a breakthrough on the issue of social justice became a disaster.

Now they’re trying to reform it with measures that are less than those first announced by Fidel. Nobody’s talking about 166 acres like back then, but 33.2 acres for those who don’t have any land, and up to 99.6 acres for those who already have some. Previously they distributed land as property that was owned outright, now it comes only in usufruct (user rights) and with a lot of restrictions.

The same happened to public health, sports… In the cities, before 1959, public health was comparable to that of developed countries, though I admit that it was a disaster in the countryside. The revolution solved that problem with the National Health System, but currently it’s not working well because it has a serious problem.

Public health, education and sports depend on the level of economic development. Our system was subsidized by our uncle (the socialist camp), and when uncle couldn’t provide…everything was pretty much over.

HT: Did you, as a socialist, sign the document in 2002 declaring the irreversibility of socialism in Cuba?

Dimas: No. That had nothing to do with socialism. That was the response to the extent of participation and exposure received by the Felix Varela Project and the international pressure it generated. In a process of entrenchment the authorities proposed that absurd and contradictory constitutional amendment: it’s a constitution of today for the future generations of tomorrow and beyond.

Constitutions are always a reflection of a particular time. You can’t legislate for what will happen in the future. This was an attempt to put the brakes on history and is a violation of the principle of the constitutional history of Cuba. With the level of consciousness I had reached in 2002, I couldn’t sign anything like that.

See part two of this interview.

7 thoughts on “Dimas Castellanos: Cuba Needs a Market Economy with Social Justice

  • Was the Soviet Union really that incompetent? They achieved a functioning infrastructure that included a national space program. Their ICBMs & prowess at espionage made them the world’s revered alternate superpower. Soviet education, science & health was obviously world class. This took 70 years to achieve, well, really only about 20. I am still waiting for advances from the capitalist dictatorship that now governs Russia. A market economy there seems to have wreaked a certain amount of havok, but it is hard to confront the religion of supply & demand in today’s market economies. I think that consumerism is just another way to worship the new overlords of pop culture. TB2F bank enslavement of the first world countries demonstrates that unregulated market capitalism is no substitute for the ethical formulation, rule & application of laws which protect & develop our societies.

  • John, you make an excellent point. Coops are businesses. As with all businesses, good leadership is essential. Coops have a history of going out of business due to bad management, just as have many non-coop businesses. Worker-owned coops may have other problems, as well, but these are not relevant to the present discussion.

    The Mondragon coops began with 5 well educated engineers, led by a visionary Catholic priest. Their coop complex is very successful, and has been for over a half-century. (See my article in HT on Mondragon.)

    I am virtually alone on the left at this point when I insist that the cooperative entrepreneur is the key element in the success of coops, under both the monopoly capitalist regime and any future modern cooperative, state co-ownership socialist republic. The genius level or at least gifted leadership individual must be recognized, valued and brought to the forefront of a just, progressive, democratic form of socialism.

    As you may know, I’ve advocated throwing out the entire ideology and state monopoly program of Marxism into the drink. It has been my long-term goal to regroup the left around a form of socialism based on retention and utilization of private property rights and the conditioned trading market, plus socialist state power.

    The goddamned state does not need to own everything productive! The stupidity of insisting that it does has destroyed socialism and its reputation thru far. Under the concept of socialism that we advocate, the cooperative entrepreneur would be the most honored member of the economy and society.

    And so your point, John, is well taken and I agree. But perhaps you still feel that the whole coop question must stay within the bounds of the old society, and critique them as though they will always be hemmed in by the capitalist mode of production. My argument is that small businesses and worker-owned coops are the true economic base for “real” socialism, and that monopolism, whether capitalist or socialist, must be taken out of the picture. Cheers.

  • grady, the reason why there have been very few successful co-ops is simple, most workers have no idea how to run a business and when a co-op is successful it is because it has leaders who do know how to run a business. there was a clothing manufacturer and retailer in australia called fletcher jones. jones was a socialist who sold his workers cut price shares in the business according to their length of service. it was a great scheme until the business went bankrupt under pressure from imports. protectionism does work for awhile but in the end protectionism breeds inefficiency. when there are tariffs, tariffs should be phased out before an industry collapses from inefficiencies. in some countries tariffs are completely useless. if you stay at guest houses in hongkong you will see that most of the guests are smugglers smuggling products of all kinds into their home countries. fletcher jones sold very good quality clothing. the customers wanted fashionable basura! no one in the co-op could see that.

  • dimas castellanos writes that cubans need educating for a market economy. very true. one of the editors of granma has compared cubans to baby birds waiting to be fed. at least the problem is recognised. 2 things are needed. 1. a cuban business magazine and imports of major international business magazines would be a good idea too. 2. a source of capital. bangladesh has the grameen bank for micro business loans. a micro loan bank in cuba would have to make bigger loans than very poor bangladesh. the catholic monte de piedad bank in the philippines made loans to the poor. the bank went bankrupt. the reason was simple. everyone did the same thing and the bank didn´t stop them. too many taxis and tricycles. ¨the tragedy of the commons.” john locke. locke´s example was a piece of land that could support 10 cows owned by 10 men. if 1 man adds 2 more cows, 12 cows will be badly fed but the man with 3 cows will be better off at the expance of the other 9 men who each own 1 thin cow. the same applies to taxis and tricycles. the enclosure acts in britain took common land from inefficient small farmers and sold it to rich big efficient farmers but agricultural production increased dramatically and fed the workers of the industrial revolution. there are lessons here. if the government wants to privatise agricultural land the farms should be big enough to be efficient and economic. in australia there were rural banks. the american west was developed with banks that loaned mainly to farmers. many of the banks failed but the new farms were still there. the banks that developed the american west printed their own dollars so they had capital until there was a financial crisis and farmers couldn´t sell produce and pay their loans. as deng shao ping said “learn from facts.”

  • Grady, in this utopic non-state monopoly form of socialism that you expouse, how does a Michael Jackson become the “King of Pop” and purchase the Beatles song book? Does Oprah Winfrey get to buy her own cable station as a model for future young black women?. How does Michael Jordan become the first minority to be a majority owner of a professional sports franchise? Does Bill Gates still get to establish the Gates Foundation and give away more computers to children in third world countries than are purchased for children in those same countries? Does your cooperative worker associate model invent another Google or Facebook? Grady, I wish you were right. Name one truly socialist country on this planet? Other than North Korea and Cuba, name one country that isn’t a capitalist wolf in socialist sheep’s clothing? You are tilting at windmills my friend.

  • Good interview, Yusimi, thus far.

    Dimas, you’ve asked the right question: “What is socialism.” May I suggest that you take a look at our Cooperative Republic Movement’s answer.

    We believe in a non-state monopoly form of socialism, a form in which private property rights are valued, and in which those who do the work own the workplace, either cooperatively as workers, or privately as small farmers or other small business individuals or families.

    The state would own some enterprises 100%, but most significant industry and commerce would be owned partially and silently by the state. The state therefore would be relieved of enterprise administrative responsibilities. The primary owners, the cooperative worker associates would have natural self-management.

  • Market economy with social justice is impossible without democracy.

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