A “Friend of Cuba” Interprets the Reforms

By Armando Chaguaceda

Fidel Castro and Atilio Boron. Photo: escambray.cu

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 13 — There is a group of world travelers that identify themselves as “friends of Cuba.”   They are members of solidarity committees, are invited to the island’s embassies and forums, write in the popular and academic press; and they lead campaigns for causes related to the agenda of the Cuban government, such as the struggle against the blockade and freedom for the Cuban Five.

Although within their ranks coexist sincere self-denying activists alongside all sorts of opportunists, many share a schematic identification with the nation (Cuba), with the political regime in power (state socialist) and even with the current policies of the government.  Other people interpret this solidarity as blindness or (self) censorship given the errors that have been committed by that government.

One of those “friends” — with influence in academia and regional left organizations, and whose analyses are widely circulated — is Argentinean political scientist Atilio Boron.  Atilio has been an important actor in the academic development of my generation through his dual role of theoretician and the general secretary of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences – contributions that we have recognized in diverse forums.  Recently he published an article expressing his unconditional support for the reforms announced by the Cuban government (Las reformas económicas en Cuba in http://www.atilioboron.com/2010/11/las-reform-economic-in-cuba.html ).  His interpretations prompted me to comment on them.

Total confidence in the Cuban leadership

Atilio’s argument is centered on the logic of the Cuban government more than on the conditions, dynamics and demands of the population, as he expresses his full confidence in the capacity of the Cuban leadership to successfully implement a program of socialist reform.

In his writing he accurately recognizes that, “Among Cubans, what has taken on flesh is the conviction that the current economic structure — inspired by the Soviet model of ultra-centralized planning — has become drained,” and he immediately highlights the role of Fidel and Raul as the driving forces of change.

It’s necessary to make a first distinction here: we can all agree that the current president has always pled for more collegial leadership, managerial autonomy and the acceptance of mercantile monetary instruments, those which — incidentally — mean neither socialist improvement per se nor betrayal in favor of capitalism, but are measures for implementation that acquire their character in an integral system of changes and institutions.

However, to date, no figure in the historical leadership has made an assessment of the structural causes of the national problems and their concrete expressions.  Nor did these appear in the government-issued “Lineamientos” (Guidelines) explaining the planned reforms or in debate for the upcoming Sixth Congress of the Communist Party (PCC).  In this sense, it is worth highlighting the analysis of the crisis conducted by the public and by Cuban intellectuals, who have been discussing this in informal and academic forums.

Who have been the planners?

Atilio hits the mark when he recalls: “Historical experience has taught us that irrationality and the waste of markets can reappear in an economy completely controlled by state planners, those who are not exempt from committing grave errors that produce irrationalities and misspent resources that affect the population’s well-being.”

Graffiti against blackouts. Photo: Angel Yu

Notwithstanding, in that same reflexive vein, it’s worth wondering (and asking him) who have those planners been in Cuba for half a century?  Moreover, we could ask whether they shouldn’t answer for their errors and take the responsibility for those mistakes.  Especially, we need to avoid repeating those same mistakes by those same people and their identical styles of control over of the decision-making structures.

As we well know, “responsibility” and “answerability” are not identical.  The first supposes the giving of information to the aggrieved and receiving a moral sanction from them, and — if one is decent —punishment by their own conscience.  The second implies the possibility of administrative and criminal sanctions.

A perverse tradition in the political culture of the island’s leadership (which has permeated the whole of Cuban society) is that the achievements are privatized and the costs socialized.  While in the face of a success it seems that the “illustrious leader’s vision” is key (overlooking the sacrifice and dedication of millions of people who construct whatever work of the Revolution); yet in the face of a failure, we are reminded that “we made a mistake, comrades.” It is as if in the hierarchical and centralized Cuban structure, the worker and the minister had identical roles.

I agree with Boron in that “activities such as hairdressers and beauty shops should not be government enterprises — on what page of Capital did Marx recommend such a thing? — in which workers receive all the implements and materials to carry out their work and are paid a wage, despite the fact that they charge their clients ten times more than the officially established price (set decades ago), and without paying a cent in taxes.”

Sweeping dirt under the rug

The example is illustrative and overwhelming, but it happens that the same leadership of the Revolution that he avoids criticizing (and in whose corrective capacity he trusts) was the very one that on successive occasions insisted on comprehensive nationalization (in 1968) and in halting its “rectification” (in 1985 and 1997) by raising moral criticisms of the corruptive effects of private property and sporadic clamp downs on merchants.

These campaigns did nothing more than sweep the dirt under the rug (and multiply it), worsening the selection of goods and services for the suffering consumer.  This is without mentioning the endemic corruption of a statist model that — owing to the alienation of the producer — effectively legitimizes daily theft as a spurious and individualist form of the socialization of what is produced.  This occurs in a work environment where “the government acts like it pays the workers who in turn act as if they work.”

Atilio highlights that a half million copies of the “Lineamientos” were picked clean in a question of hours by a population that was anxious to read it, discuss it and learn about its proposals.  He recognizes that the longing for participation is enormous.

It is only that this, as we have said before, does not correspond to a model of participation like the one currently in force (in the Poderes Populares, the unions and other institutions of the political system) which has only an advisory nature (without the possibility for citizens’ feedback and/or the control over the execution of the agenda once the plans are made) is thematically parochial (therefore oriented to discuss local matters and services) and is spatially fragmented (where channels do not exist to articulate or add demands given the precariousness of the existing political lines of communications and control).

We can only hope, as Atilio says, that those people are mistaken “who have illusions that the introduction of the beginning reforms will lead to an unseemly — and suicidal! — return to capitalism” and that “what will be tried is nothing more or less than advancing “socialists reforms” that promote social control, which is to say popular control over the processes of the production and distribution of wealth.”

It will be necessary to discuss what social controls will be able to exist with the expansion of the market and where the unions lose their identity as the defenders of the workers.  Raul Castro himself has better expressed the need to debate the document than the leadership of island’s official trade union, the CTC.

Functional Paralysis and Programmatic Obsolescence

What catches ones attention is the a priori emphasis and certainty of Boron regarding the direction and outcome of a process that he recognizes as being uncertain, thereby giving his analysis a dogmatic shade, which is characteristic of faith and not the rigor of his other writings to which we have become accustomed (those analyzing the debacle and fallacies of the neoliberal model).

Rural Cuba photo by Noelia Gonzalez Casianoen

The Argentinean academic points out that: “The gist of the question is in the political compass, the orientation that these processes of change will have.  And the Cuban people and government have a very good compass that has been proven for more than half century.”

Let’s suppose that segments of the population (and not the people as a monolithic block) that support socialism have compasses that point away from imperialism, inequality and — in the case of the elderly — bad memories of the capitalist past.  But those factors are in all cases only powerful (and exhaustible) moral and ideological springs and not mechanisms of broad control and participation that are within reach of the citizenry.

This is because the Communist Party and the workers’ organization (understood as spaces for mass activism and not as apparatuses for functionaries) seem to be sunk — except for exceptions, which always exist — in functional paralysis and programmatic obsolescence.

Atilio correctly insists that “Socialism, properly understood, is the socialization of the economy and of power, not its nationalization.”  However, he immediately points out that “To socialize, it’s necessary first to produce, because otherwise there won’t be anything to socialize.  Therefore, he argues, these involve reforms will deepen socialism and have absolutely nothing to do with those [neoliberal reforms] that have plagued Latin America since the 1980s.”

The means and the end

If we believe (as history has taught us) that in a socialist policy one cannot differentiate the means, rhythms and the ends, in that they are all co-determining.  Is it enough to expect that effective managers and honest technocrats will generate accumulation that an increasingly tightfisted “papa state” will distribute equitably?

If workers and citizens are not beneficiaries and direct agents of change from the beginning, who will determine the backing of the reforms and their socialist course?

In addition, it seems probable that the negative effects of the measures will be seen much earlier than the successes, and with pronounced speed and depth.  And, as that time moves forward, millions of people of the “lost generation” characterized by Padura (that group to which my parents and many friends belong) see themselves drained of their energy and hopes.

I wish to conclude with a passage by Boron where he says “if there is something that would liquidate the historical conquests of the revolution, that would sweep them away in one stroke, it would be the re-mercantilization of its rights and their conversion into merchandise – meaning the reintroduction of capitalism.  And no one wants such a thing to happen.”

From my hopes for a better country, I fully share his aspiration, but wouldn’t dare judge reality so categorically.  Although it is lamentable, the return to capitalism is wanted by many; at the same time there are opportunists at all levels of the bureaucracy, citizens influenced by the Miami’s consumerist model and countrymen impoverished by two decades of persistent crisis (and who would be again losers with any Thermidor Reaction).

For the battle against that neoliberal and authoritarian hegemony, we hope to count on the critical commitment of the true “friends of Cuba,” as we were taught with the example and actions of the unforgettable Howard Zinn.


2 thoughts on “A “Friend of Cuba” Interprets the Reforms

  • February 14, 2011 at 8:51 pm
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    Armando, you quote Atilio as saying: “Socialism, properly understood, is the socialization of the economy and of power, not its nationalization.” This is an interesting distinction.

    Using this distinction, it seems that the productive property of the socialist state is not necessarily “socialist property.”

    If we accept this, it means that the Marxian stipulation that the socialist state must “centralize all the instruments of production in its hands” is incorrect. I wonder if this is what you mean?

    You know, Armando, the general idea of socialism has been to build a bridge from capitalism to what has been thought of as “full communism.” In this classless society of full communism the institution of private productive property was supposed to be absent. Then, a strange thing happened to the theory.

    Zealots with state power in their hands–in 1968 in Cuba–took the absence of private property rights out of the far-in-the-future society of full communism, and forced it onto present-day society during the socialist bridge. This was done by thinking that only state property could be socialist property.

    And so, the zealots nationalized everything in sight, from the small farm to the barber shop to the sugar mill, thinking this was the way to go over the bridge to full communism. This made socialism a “statist” mode of production, and the results are what we see.

    And it doesn’t even make sense. If abolition of private property is only possible or appropriate in the far-in-the-future society of full communism, then who the hell had the idea of forcing it onto society during the socialist bridge?

    I think the alternative to a statist mode of production is not abstract calls for power to the workers, but the re-institution of private property rights, plus ensuring that the major workplaces are cooperatively owned by the workers. A model exists for this in the Mondragon cooperatives, where real power rests with the owner-workers.

    It’s our…

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