Socialism or Death (Part I)

Yusimi Rodriguez

Abraham with his wife Camelia.

HAVANA TIMES — I met Abraham Ortiz in late 2003 in a course on narrative techniques. For seven years we had shared the dream of being writers and the frustrations of living in Cuba. His life changed in 2010 when he married a Spanish woman and left the country. After a year and seven months, he has returned…to visit.

HT: Now you live in the First World and you can compare. What can you say to Cubans wishing to leave the country and others who consider this the most perfect and democratic nation in the world?

Abraham Ortiz: A system can be the most perfect and democratic but not be functional. You can find an iron dictatorship where everyone lives well. You can have a lot of freedom of speech but people eat poorly. Though freedom of expression doesn’t really exist.

In Spain you can’t say whatever you want. What people need is to meet their individual needs on their own. According to pronouncements here in Cuba, we’re the most democratic country in the world, but there was a time when everyone wore the same style shirt.

Your TV was like mine or was obtained by the same mechanism: the state educates me, I would study and then start working, but I would have no buying power. I have to wait for a leader to discover that it’s cheaper for people to have these (Chinese) TVs instead of those old Caribe B&Ws, and replace them at the national level. What’s normal would be for me to meet my needs through my work, but under “socialism” this isn’t possible. You have to hope that those who head the state remember you.

It happens with everything. When people all over the world began to have tape recorders, here these were prohibited. They later legalized them, but then there were problems with VHS players, and later people had trouble buying DVD players. Then you couldn’t have a computer. Then you couldn’t get a cellphone. This system is afraid that people can manage their individuality. In theory, there’s democracy, but it doesn’t work.

The four synonyms of the Apocalypse

HT: What do you think of Spain, where supposedly there’s democracy but protests are suppressed and criminalized? Our situation here makes us idealize other countries. People are crazy about going anywhere.

AO: Bombs are falling in Syria, but I just saw its embassy here with a line of people who want to go there.

HT: Do you mean that any place is better to live in than Cuba?

AO: Any country is better for managing your individuality. Before I left, (our mutual friend) Bernardo told me something vital: You don’t leave Cuba to solve your problems, but to change your problems. In Spain and France, state control is much greater than here. But here the state is a single person, there it’s many.

In Cuba there are four synonyms of the Apocalypse. People, revolution, state and Fidel are synonymous. If you speak ill of the revolution, you’re speaking ill of the people, if you speak ill of the people, they can do almost anything with you. It’s the same if you speak ill of the state or speak ill of Fidel. When those four words are synonymous, they justify a series of excesses and laws that limit people’s individual development.

Abraham Ortiz

During a meeting of the fifth-year students to organize our rankings in college, one student pounced on another student who had made a joke about Fidel three years before, and that it cost him a level in his ranking. Those are the luxuries that “socialism” gives: limiting people’s freedom without considering the consequences, because everyone must respond to an ideology.

HT: But here, although you didn’t finish your graduating project, you were able to work as a professional, you were a teacher. In Spain you’re a waiter.

AO: I support the words of Marti: “Being educated is the only way to be free.” One must study because knowing frees you. You should make yourself independent, though we don’t always do that.

HT: Is the aspiration of someone who studied physics to work as a waiter?

AO: Social being determines social behavior. Here, I may have continued being a poorly paid teacher. There, I don’t mind being a waiter, but I’d rather work in something related to what I studied. Possibilities exist but they depend on my effort. I’m continuing to study to show that I’m fit for a position. Not just for the title, like here. There’s something that doesn’t exist here: efficiency. Where four people are required, twenty are employed. There, they have sixteen people out of a job trying to replace those four.

HT: Have you ever felt discriminated against for being an immigrant, Latino and black?

AO: Yes, but that doesn’t affect me. Here (in Cuba) I feel it less, but it affects me. Discrimination is a problem when it’s economic. If you decide that I can’t sit on the bus but I have the same purchasing power as you, I can build my own bus. In the United States, some whites didn’t allow blacks to sit in the seats on buses. Change came not because they became less racist, but because blacks — who were facing discrimination in public transportation — decided to walk. Whites realized that if blacks didn’t take the bus then they wouldn’t pay their fares – a situation that was no longer profitable for the white-owned bus company.

Socialism or death, pun intended

HT: What demands did you make to your elected representative before you left?

AO: We are run by a seniors club. I think they are afraid of having not having anywhere to go if they left power. Raul has a degree in accounting. He should know that a country with two currencies doesn’t develop. Although here there are actually more than two currencies. The plastic bags of toiletries and vouchers to make purchases in hard currency shops have also become such. It’s something the bureaucrats of “socialism” like: giving people toys to entertain themselves, like bags of toiletries and vouchers.

HT: Did you suffer any retaliation for your demands?

AO: No. Abroad people say that there is repression in Cuba, but such things happen all over the world, except for a few countries. I’m not in agreement with that, but it’s not a reason to change the system. What are they going to do now that the Spanish police are beating up people – change the system? In Cuba, repression isn’t similar to that in other places, in terms of violence.

The reason to change things in Cuba isn’t repression, but the lack of economic access for people to manage their lives. Economic censorship conditions all the rest. If you earn 13 CUCs (US $14) a month, where are you going to travel? What political party are you going to found? Socialism doesn’t elevate people, it lowers everybody. When you look around and see that everyone is equal, you think you’re fine. When you lack economic freedom, you don’t need other freedoms.

HT: I remember a quote of yours that I enjoyed a lot:  “Socialism or death, pun intended.” But a few days ago I was surprised when you said that socialism is basically superior to capitalism. Aren’t you contradicting yourself?

AO: No. By saying “pun intended” I was attempting to give the phrase famous of the Cuban Revolution, “Socialism or death,” the double sense it really has. This is because socialism is death of the individual as a creator and manager of their own life. Here people don’t live their lives, but the ideology of someone else, which has created a scaffold that mobilizes, or immobilizes, the Cuban people.

Neither what the Russians had nor what we have is socialism. When you see the theoretical framework that supports socialism, you see that countries like Sweden and the Netherlands are more socialist than Cuba. In order to remain in power the “socialists” here demonized private property.

But what is really satanic is the distribution. If there is private property but the system sees that redistribution is more or less equal, there’s no problem. I consider socialism superior as a system, because it isn’t based on the voracity of appropriation.

Capitalism is more automatic and easier to build than socialism because each person acts for themself. Capitalism encourages selfishness and greed. If the government functions, it regulates and ensures that people produce for themselves, but in the end it must give something to those who can’t produce. Doesn’t socialism preach taking from one to give to another?

Abraham con Camelia, Mariela, administradora del Centro de Formación Literaria Onelio Jorge Cardoso, y Erick Mota, escritor, están en el Centro de Formación.

HT: What I remember is that our government has taken things away from us to benefit poorer countries. That doesn’t demonstrate the superiority of socialism to me.

AO: Right. We built an airport in Barbados and could have constructed another neighborhood in Havana. But I’m talking about taking away in an efficient manner from those who have more and giving a little to those who have less, or taking away from those who have more for the time when there’s nothing. Currently in Spain, many people are unemployed, but they receive help from the government.

The Pope recently said that socialism isn’t fashionable. But you can’t forget that many of the social gains of capitalism are socialist. There was a time when capitalism had to compete with socialism and capitalism had to adopt socialist measures. This is why people live well in most of those European countries.

HT: So why are there so many protests in Spain that lead to repression?

AO: Remember, you’re watching Cuban television.

HT: Are they inventing those images?

AO: No, but they can edit the news. When Katrina hit, we were talking for six months about its death toll in the United States. That same year three people were killed by flooding and negligence in Marianao, but nothing was mentioned.

In Spain, some protests are justified, some aren’t. When the economy was good in Spain, the public sector received perks, but measures undertaken by the socialists made the economy inefficient, so those perks had to disappear.

HT: So socialism is not superior, because, according to you, those “socialist” measures were inefficient to the Spanish economy.

AO: You can create mechanisms to ensure that these measures are not exceeded. Socialists sometimes lose perspective.

To be continued…


10 thoughts on “Socialism or Death (Part I)

  • Griffin, you may be correct in your pessimism regarding a Cuban transition to a workable form of socialism. Those in power may indeed be unmovable. There is always the chance that there are people within the PCC however who are readying themselves for a chance to lead the country in a cooperative republican direction. All i can do is try to speak the truth as I see it, and hope for the best.

  • Thank you for the correction, Grady. You are quite correct, you use the term “monopoly socialism” to describe the Cuban system. That’s an accurate enough term.

    But your dream that Cuba could transition to a democratic, cooperative socialist republic is laughable. The regime will fight tooth and nail to hold onto power. They don’t believe in their ideology as it is and hoping for “theoretical rectification” is not realistic.

    More likely, Cuba will transition from a socialist monopoly system to a fascist monopoly system characterized by an alliance between the Party, the military and state controlled corporations such as GAESA, which now controls some 60% of the economy. In fact, wouldn’t you say Cuba is well on the way to such a system by now?

  • Important correction: I have NEVER called the Cuban system “monopoly capitalism.” Nor have I ever said or implied that Cuba is not a socialist country. Please stand corrected, my dear Griffin.

    You may be confusing the cooperative republic movement’s view of Cuba with that of the ultra-Lefts, like the Trotskyists. They mistakenly refer to the Cuban system as “state capitalist.” Our view has nothing in common with theirs, thank you very much.

    Cuba, in my view, has a “form” of socialism that we understand as “state monopoly,”–where that socialist state owns everything productive, according to the erroneous Marxian formula. As long as socialist state power is maintained–flawed though it surely is–there is a chance for a democratic, cooperative socialist republic to evolve. This evolution could occur easily if the PCC were to achieve theoretical rectification.

  • In fact Grady, I don’t spend any effort defending capitalism. My posts are exclusively about Cuba’s failed system and the virtues of democracy and freedom. This is a website about Cuba so I stick to that topic.

    You too employ the No True Scotsman argument when you call the Cuban system “monopoly capitalism” and not true socialism.

    Your utopian fantasy will not survive first contact with reality.

  • Griffin, it would be more accurate to shout “Monopoly Capitalism is Death!”

    You’re good at pointing the finger of damnation at the negative aspects of Marxian state monopoly socialism, but not very good at finding fault with brutal, environment-destroying monopoly capitalism. Why is that?

    There is only one hope for human kind: a world network of socialist cooperative republics. You however are too caught up in a self-righteous defense of the monopoly capitalists–and its bloodsucking banks–to understand.

  • The author makes a number of absurd statements:

    1. “In Spain and France, state control is much greater than here.”

    In Spain & France, the people are free to travel without asking government permission. People are free to buy and sell their own property, and the majority of the economies of Spain and France are privately controlled. In Cuba, the State owns nearly all property and controls nearly all economic activity . In France & Spain there are many independent media organizations. In Cuba, the state controls all.

    2. It is not illegal to protest against the government in Spain. The clashes with police occur when the protestors engage in violence, arson and property destruction. Those actions are illegal. Protesting and free speech are not illegal. The same dynamic was seen in the US & Canada during the Occupy protests. So long as the protests were peaceful, the police stood back. The police only arrested people when the protests allowed organized groups of violent activists, such as the Black Bloc, to commit arson & vandalism within the cover of the peaceful protests.

    3. The tired old excuse “what Russia had wasn’t real socialism” is just another case of the rhetorical lie known as the No True Scotsman: socialism is supposed to be a perfect society, and even though the USSR attempted to implement socialism, the results were tragically less than perfect. Therefore it wasn’t “really” socialism. But next time we’ll get it right!

    Time and again, in every case when Marxists have come to power, the very same things happen: the people are dispossessed of their property, denied their rights and freedoms and oppressed by an all powerful State. In the end the people suffer and the promises of the revolutions vanish in the brutal reality of the dictatorship.

    Maybe it’s time to finally realize it is not possible to build a perfect society through the exercise of brute force by an all powerful State? How many more Gulags and Holomodors and Killing Fields and Great Leap Forwards and Katyns and Tugboat Massacres do you need to see before people will admit the truth about Marxism?

    The slogan is “Socialism or Death”, shouted by a man who held a gun to the head of the people to see his vision forced on them.

    The reality was “Socialism is Death”

  • Actually, that conflict ended decades ago. The US senators uphold the embargo just for the sake of pandering votes from anti-communism Cuban immigrants.

    The US isn’t anti-socialism, we have one of the most extensive socialist systems on earth, 20% of our budget goes to Social Security to pay the wages of those too old or too sick to work. We also subsidize health care and have been since the 1920s. We also have a food voucher program and government subsidized housing (it isn’t very good though).

    We were on the other hand anti-Russia up until about ten years ago and have recently begun to be friendly with them. A lot of what the US did through from the 1950s through the 1990s was anti-Russian related. I’m not saying it’s right, but calling a pile of manure a puddle of urine doesn’t make it smell any different.

  • Thanks, Yusimi, and HT. This interview is rich in both ideas and wisdom. For just one example, Abraham says, “Neither what the Russians had nor what we have is socialism.” This recognizes apparently that the “form” of socialism in both countries is not “real” or “functional” socialism.

    We are wrestling with this fundamental question in the US and Canada: What is real or functional socialism? We know without question that it is not the Marxian state-monopoly ownership form.

    By co-incidence, the modern cooperative, state co-ownership we’ve hypothesized takes into account the Basque workers’ experience in northern Spain. (I wonder if Abraham might comment on that experience?)

    I look forward to Part 2.

  • Is it me or is HT sounding more and more like a Miami rag, burying it’s head in the sand as to the other side of the problem — the small island’s conflict with the most powerful country on the planet?

  • Very ineresitng interview. Honest and insightful. I look forwrd to Part 2.

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