Cuban Co-ops: Legitimate Children or Bastards?

Fernando Ravsberg*

Agricultural and livestock cooperatives are much more productive than “State socialist farms.”
Agricultural and livestock cooperatives are much more productive than “State socialist farms.”

HAVANA TIMES — During a visit to a Cuban farm-prison, I interviewed a very polite gentleman working as a teacher for the other inmates. In the course of our conversation, he confessed he had ended up in prison for misappropriating resources at the “socialist State company” he managed.

I thought it comical that a confessed embezzler continued to use “politically correct” terms like those. These are so deeply rooted in the mindset of high public officials that they make use of them even after having been demoted or convicted for theft.

Then, I asked myself whether those who defend the system are wise to refer to these unproductive and inefficient companies, eaten up by growing managerial corruption, as “State socialist.”

In the countryside, to mention one example, State socialist farms are the least productive from the word go, even though they have the most land, the best machinery and all of the State’s resources at their disposal.

It is a contradiction to say that the current system must be consolidated while calling some of these abominations, which discredit the State and the viability of socialism, “State socialist companies.”

Foxes and Cooperatives

Ironically, State companies look a lot less “socialist” than cooperatives. The latter choose their leaders at worker assemblies, draw up their statutes collectively and distribute benefits more fairly.

The former manager of a “State socialist company”, now in prison, teaches the other inmates different subjects.
The former manager of a “State socialist company”, now in prison, teaches the other inmates different subjects.

The process of creating cooperatives, however, is making slow progress, with the government putting the fox to look after the hens. Cooperatives must first secure approval from the ministries that manage many of the “State socialist farms” that compete with them.

It is not unusual for these ministries to take more than a year to approve each cooperative. The process is long, slow and complex. The required documents are submitted to the Municipal Administrative Council (CAM) and, from there, they are sent to the Provincial Administrative Council (CAP).

When the cooperative has received the green light from these two lower institutions, it is ready for the big leagues. The application is passed on to the ministry, many of which have only one official to process requests arriving from Cuba’s 169 municipalities.

Not long ago, I told a story involving the Ministry of Construction, where cooperatives had to wait months to receive approval because the only official who processed their applications was sick and they hadn’t assigned anyone to take his place.

If the said officially ultimately approves the creation of the cooperative, they convey the application to the minister. With the minister’s signature, the documents can be passed on to the Commission for the Implementation of the Party Guidelines, which again goes over the cooperative’s application.

Those aspiring to establish a cooperative will have to fill up more and more forms down this long, bureaucratic road. In addition to those required by law, the CAM has its own form and the ministries others, forms applicants will only find out about on reaching that level.

The request to form a cooperative is studied by each body before being elevated to the next level, where they will again be analyzed. Finally, they are sent to the Council of Ministers, which has the last word.

There are few other countries in the world where setting up a simple air-conditioner repair or shoe manufacturing cooperative requires the approval of so many different entities and the final green light from the full ministerial cabinet.

Clandestine Cooperatives

Cooperatives are the alternative to many unproductive, inefficient State companies now riddled with managerial corruption.
Cooperatives are the alternative to many unproductive, inefficient State companies now riddled with managerial corruption.

This Kafkaesque process explains why only 246 of 498 cooperatives requesting authorization have been approved. Some applicants, tired of so much waiting, have begun to work together illegally, securing a self-employment license and working collectively afterwards.

There is simply too much apprehension surrounding the members-owners of cooperatives, despite the fact that they could well constitute the ideological common ground in Cuba, for both collectivist socialists and those who demand the existence of an owner.

They are also the quickest way of achieving a real wage increase. The self-employed and members of cooperatives, in fact, earn three times as much as State employees. On occasions, they earn as much as 10 times what the State pays.

For cooperatives to flourish, however, Cuba must eliminate much of the bureaucracy today deciding their fate and put behind its fears and prejudices. Conceiving of cooperatives as a bastard-child that is undeserving of the surname of “socialist” could be a serious mistake.

Perhaps one day Cuba’s politicians and press will understand that recognizing cooperatives as a legitimate child honors the system much more than continuing to defend a first-born that everyone knows is both clumsy and reckless.
(*) Visit the web page of Fernando Ravsberg.

8 thoughts on “Cuban Co-ops: Legitimate Children or Bastards?

  • Yes. I advocate for a free, democratic, independent and sovereign Cuba. Period.

  • Free of U.S. hegemonic desires ?
    Free to adopt a socialist-style economy ?
    Sovereign ?
    Only if the U.S. permits Cubans to decide what they want and not what the capitalist leadership of the USG wants.
    Tell that to all those who support the U.S. economic war on the entire Cuban society .
    The problem is not the Cuban government but the imperial actions of the United States which are no more than a continuation of a foreign policy that has existed for about one hundred years.
    Here’s a challenge for you.
    Go to ZNet and read today’s Paul Street entire article on that U.S. foreign policy and come tell me where his facts or opinions are in error.
    The article deals with the “Cold War” and what it REALLY was all about.
    You should find it thought provoking .
    But it does contradict what you now believe .
    I’d like your views on where you think Street is wrong and will not critique your review unless you specifically ask for a response.

  • I believe each person should be free to decide for himself what style of economic activity he wants to engage in. Self-employed, or co-operative, or a small business or large corporation operating on capitalist principles. Even publicly owned enterprises, where appropriate, such as public schools, or a post office etc.

    This is how things are in Canada; a liberal democratic system with a mixed economy. We have a multi-party electoral democracy, with everything from “Communists”, socialists, Trotskyists, Liberals, Conservatives, Quebec Separatists, Christian social conservatives, and so on. We have a free press, freedom of association & religious freedom. Our Constitution protects our human rights and bans discrimination based on sex, religion, race, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. We have independent labour unions who are free to organize, collectively bargain and go on strike. Same sex marriage is legal across the entire country. We have free (ie publicly funded) education & healthcare. Our corporations & businesses are innovative and profitable. Our stock markets are dynamic and growing.

    It seems to work just fine, not perfectly, there are always problems, but nobody goes to jail for criticizing the government, authors are not banned from publishing, people are free to move, to leave the country without having to ask the government for permission. Millions of immigrants come to our shores wanting to live here. We have good relations with the US, and their military has never occupied our territory.

    The point of everything I write here at Havana Times is that the Cuban people have the right to live like that, too.

    Free. Democratic. Sovereign. Prosperous.

    Is that too much to ask?

  • I’m glad Ito have checked the HT website today. If not, this excellent article would have been missed.

    The question of cooperatives in Cuba brings up an interesting point. (It has to do with the very nature of authentic, that is, “workable” socialism itself.)

    The truth is that my country, the US, (1) needs to progress to a socialist cooperative republic at some point in the near future, and (2) such a republic is precisely the type of system to which Cuba needs to progress.

    This is a big thought, perhaps too big for many HT readers.

    Ironically, worker-owned cooperatives were the original idea for socialism. In the first half of the 1800s, it was common sense among French and English workers that workers, not absentee capitalists, should own major industry.

    Then, two bourgeois intellectuals–one of whom was a textile capitalist who had no room in his thinking for cooperative textile mills–came into the workers’ socialist movement. They announced pompously that “scientific” socialism would be where the socialist state would own the land and all the instruments of production–that is, state-monopoly socialism.

    Cuba needs what the US needs. Private property rights should be guaranteed, but actual ownership needs to be by those who do the productive work. The workers’ cooperative corporations in the Basque region of Spain are a good template for this kind of direct worker ownership, for most industry and commerce.

    Material incentives, for all working people, are a natural, necessary part of authentic socialism. But “material incentives” should not be equated with the profit lust of parasitical monopoly capitalists, just as the desires of workers for higher wages should not.

    The theoretical advance the US revolutionary socialist movement has made is that the socialist state can still own a major part of industry and commerce, perhaps one-third, by holding non-voting stock ownership, and receive its revenues quarterly, without most taxes or any tax collection bureaus. This would eliminate the need for the state to micro-manage everything under the sun.

    Also, the small bourgeoisie would play a significant, prosperous part in the scheme, and make socialist construction truly a collaboration of all the working classes and strata. Farmers and ranchers should have clear title to their lands; restaurateurs, shop owners, etc., should have clear title to their places of business; and, workers should own most significant industry and commerce cooperatively.

    The comrades of the PCC should take the lead in making all this come about.

    What Cubans need to do, I would respectfully suggest, is to participate enthusiastically in the further development of authentic, workable, cooperative republican socialism.

  • Miribile dictu we are in complete agreement on this !.
    It IS the basis for anarchist belief AND for anyone who loves direct democracy.
    Now if we can only limit our discussions to coops, we will soon be posting love letters to each other.
    FYI, there is a very good article on the development of cooperatives in the U.S. at ZNet today :
    ” The Cooperative Economy ” by Gar Alperovitz and Scott Gast
    You can Google it any time but it will be at ZNet front page just today and then it gets archived.
    It’s a good look at where cooperatives have been, are now and where they might be going in the U.S.
    IMO, cooperatives are the solution to the economic woes of both Cuba and the U.S., hell, the entire planet.
    Working together for the good of all beats the hell out of fighting and competing with one another for a great many reasons I’m sure we all can think of.
    I appreciate this opportunity to agree on something very important .
    Thanks Griffin

  • For the umpteenth time, I do not have an economic agenda for the Cuban people. I am a proud capitalist but I am a realist as well. It is not likely that Cubans, if given the real choice, would choose a system like what Americans enjoy. That is their right. You fail terribly at mind-reading and since I have written what it is that I would like for my Cuban friends many times before, your reading comprehension leaves much to be desired as well.

  • Sorry to have to shake your world, John, but I very much support the new independent co-operatives in Cuba. Many years ago I participated in founding an artists’ run co-operative organization in Canada. It has been successful and is still running 25 years later, although I am no longer involved with the group. Putting economic power into the hands of the people doing the work will bring improvements in productivity and quality of life for the Cuban people.

    The government announced they will be allowing non-agricultural co-operatives to organize, as well as the agricultural co-ops. It is not clear what all of the rules & regulations will be, nor what kind of bureaucratic hoops they have to jump through. That’s partly what this article by Fernando is about: the tension between workers trying to set-up co-operatives and the bureaucracy which sees them as a threat to their power.

    This isn’t the first time independent workers co-operatives were established in Cuba. Several co-operatives were formed in the early 1960s when small land owning farmers joined together to establish larger co-operatives. For a while, the Revolution encouraged this process, but not for long. Soon the co-operatives were disbanded by the government and forced into State-owned monopolies.

  • That Cubans are surreptitiously organizing democratically operated cooperatives as difficult as the ossified bureaucracy makes it , is a simply marvelous turn of events.
    It amounts to a revolution within the revolution and is a giant step towards a truly democratic society.
    IMO you cannot have and never will see a totalitarian government install a democratic economic system because that power is always linked to a totalitarian economic system .
    It takes a bottom up approach to the electoral system to establish democratic practices in government and that can only happen
    through an electorate which is grounded in bottom-up democratic practices in a day-to-day manner and exactly as found in cooperatives.
    This ongoing development in which the people are really pushing the agenda and the government is moving in a quite deliberate (slow. cautious) manner is still a matter of the government agreeing on the principle but not the pace of the introduction of the cooperatives.
    I am sure Moses and the others who want a return to capitalism and bourgeois (capitalist supporting) democracy will be very unhappy with the development we are seeing in direct democratic institutions in Cuba.
    They have completely totalitarian belief systems as they have admitted/ not contested.and this turn towards direct democracy (which is at the center of anarchist belief as well) , is their worst nightmare .
    What hopeful news.

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