By Pedro Campos
HAVANA TIMES, Dec 7 — “To avoid improvisation before such a complex challenge, prior to writing a law or adopting a policy on a particular matter, it is essential to investigate all aspects with the greatest scientific rigor, offering not only a mere diagnosis of the problem but also well-founded proposals and predictions. Nor can it be forgotten that in the center of the transformations under way, the people’s wellbeing must always prevail.”(*)
New presidential decrees (which aren’t laws) were issued this past November with the intention of giving new impetus to the implementation of the “updating” program being attempted by the new president and his team.
Additional ones are expected to be approved this month (such as ones related to changes in the immigration laws) and amendments to those already approved (such as building construction permits on the farm land distributed in accordance with Decree 259).
Recent provisions allow for the sale of cars and homes, permit residence in the capital to many non-Habana residents who have close relatives here, authorize farmers to sell produce directly to the tourism industry, and open lines of credit to self-employed workers and private businesspeople in general.
One very significant decree, No. 294, eliminates the Ministry of Sugar and creates the “Sugar Enterprise Group” (Spanish: Grupo Empresarial Azucarero), eliminating much of that former ministry’s unproductive bureaucracy.
However all of this is conceived based on the superstructure and the commercial interests of the upper-bureaucracy. Moreover, this was done without consulting the workers, who have been slid to the side like dominoes.
These regulations are beginning to change — without totally eliminating — some of the most obsolete and absurd regulations imposed from above. They seek to redress some injustices, stimulate the circulation of money, substitute agricultural imports supplying the tourist industry, increase productivity and reduce overall government spending on wages.
The old mentality remains in effect
But on the whole, the decrees do not abandon the old model’s original sin: its state-centric character. Likewise, its main implications remain intact: strengthening the role of the central state bureaucracy as the regulator and controller of the economy, continuing the centralization of decisions and the state wage-labor system, while maintaining prohibitions, discrimination and the host of bureaucratic procedures.
Most importantly, these continue to exclude participation in decision-making by workers and the people in general, who are showing little enthusiasm over some of these provisions.
What remains is the approach of the old mentality, which urgently needs to be overcome.
The changes introduced by some decrees are inconsistent with their stated purpose. What’s more, they seem designed to make a populist impact for dramatic effect, achieving some concrete and practical results such as allowing the sale of autos and housing, but while maintaining or introducing unreasonable procedures and discriminatory restrictions for the majority of the population.
Among the newly introduced bureaucratic procedures are the obligations to use bank checks for certain transactions between private individuals, and for self-employed workers to open bank accounts.
Many people interpret these as measures to control the money of the population since such decisions should be personal and arise out of need, not imposition. Also approved were new taxes and the requirement to produce certain documents and records that are difficult if not impossible to obtain, thereby complicating administration and processing.
It’s true that the new decrees remove some of the absurd measures of the past, but in all of them are new implications for obligatory banking, tax and legal procedures, which inevitably generate bureaucracy. What’s worse, some continue to contain regulations that remain illogical, such as limiting the buying of new cars to only Cubans in certain “categories.”
The decree that introduces bank lending could be a very useful tool for developing small businesses, but the high prices of equipment and inputs force the borrowers to seek larger loans, which they will have difficulty in repaying if their businesses fail to achieve (capitalist) profitability.
Loan could also help to build and repair houses, but those who live on an average salary of 400 pesos a month ($20), with no additional income, could hardly pay back the principal or interest. Several thousands of dollars are required for any new small construction or housing repair job given the current high prices of building materials.
The basic problem that impedes the development of an internal market — though this is going unaddressed — is the very low purchasing power of the Cuban population, given their low wages, high prices and the payments of capitalist principal and taxes with an undervalued currency.
None of the decrees address the dual currency, which is one of the main drivers of the current dislocation of the economy, a source of social dissatisfaction and a prop for the bureaucracy.
None of the decrees modify the corrupting and counterproductive tax laws/regulations in force, which remain major obstacles to the economic advance of Cuban society. In Granma newspaper’s “Letters to the Editor” section on November 25, a letter from the reader A. J. Alonso Fernandez, entitled “Concerning the Legal Affidavit of Personal Income,” gave a concrete example that demonstrated the need to radically change the law. There are many other examples.
Mistrust among the population
In general, the new rules always leave loopholes that generate uncertainty about the future, a factor that does not eliminate mistrust among the population and therefore hinders the progress of the system’s “updating.”
The very manner of issuing the laws (in the form of presidential decrees), continues to demonstrate with complete clarity the hyper-centralization of the model at a time when many Cubans are demanding direct democracy, as do a good part of the people around the world.
This is a clear sign that this body plays no significant role in the “updating” process, which remains as a vehicle that expresses the will of the government. Such measures should only be executed when approved by the ANPP in its capacity as the “representative” of the sovereignty of the people.
For others, it’s clear that the whole foundation that sustains the current National Assembly would have to be changed to succeed at creating a parliament that could represent the diverse interests of today’s Cuban society.
We’re continuing with the same old things: a small group on top that decides, and the great majority who carries it out — the essence of the bureaucratic system — when it should be completely the other way around.
What we have is a socio-economic model in which everything is in keeping with the interests of “state” and not in human beings and their environment. This model, where the workers and the people are implementers of decisions made by a group in the bureaucratic apparatus, can be described anyway other than socialist in the Marxist sense.
The absent theme of workers’ participation
Of course, no one denies that these decrees are inspired by many of the proposals and concerns raised by workers, grassroots communities and the people at large in various top-down meetings that have taken place since the 2007 national discussion and especially because of the Guidelines of the Sixth Congress of the PCC. But this falls far way short of the aspirations and sense of what was expressed at those times.
Suffice to note that the decrees do not address the direct involvement of workers in decisions that affect them nor in the distribution of profits. They fail to even address the wage increases for which people are crying.
Likewise, none of them refer to the great demand, adopted at the Sixth Congress, concerning cooperative laws extended to that form of socialist production in industry and services. Similarly, there still haven’t appeared democratic modifications in the political and electoral system, and there are is nothing new to guarantee freedom of expression and association.
If there is no freedom to express opinions about the decrees openly, publicly and horizontally before they become law, and if there are no civil associations capable of issuing independent assessments from the groups and sectors affected, such provisions will of course fail to consider their interests, and be the result of real democratic debate.
The important and defining ratification of signed human rights treaties relating to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are still awaiting a governmental decision.
If all these decrees were initially, horizontally and democratically discussed by the people, or if they facilitated the emergence of others from the grass roots and were then subjected to referendums (in the exercise of direct democracy), the state-centric character of the “updating” could be altered. But as long as they continue to be formulated and issued in the current manner, there is no way to ensure that they will take the interests of the people fully into account.
We are two months away from the holding of the Communist Party Conference (that will discuss some issues not discussed at last April’s Party Congress). The upcoming meeting of National Assembly this December will approve all the decrees in an end of the year “sprint,” through which the government/party seeks to broaden the legal basis for the “updating” of their model.
Nevertheless, one can glimpse no future promise offered to the people or openings for their participation in the decisions that concern them.
If we continue with these declarations of theatrical effect that fail to contribute deep changes to the state-centric model, the accumulation of inconsistencies, improvisations, errors, impositions, discontent and disappointment could precipitate unwanted results.
(*) I began this article by quoting the important statements by the deputy minister of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, Dr. Lina Dominguez Acosta, which appeared in the Granma newspaper, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) on November 26.
To communicate with Pedro Campos, write: [email protected]