HAVANA TIMES — When we look back at the late Brezhnev era, we find that, while an increase in military spending was bleeding the Soviet Union dry, shortages of crucial consumer products and the deterioration of agriculture, industry and services were quickly becoming rampant. It was the USSR’s period of greatest “stagnation.”
Owing to the lack of sensible leadership caused by the senility, alcoholism, complacency and illnesses of the most decorated of all Soviet citizens, the Party’s bureaucratic elite and government focused on narrow interests, idly waiting for the post-Brezhnev era to begin.
Differences of opinion resulted in one’s dismissal. The democratic opposition, the struggle for human rights and civil liberties, was stifled through repression, summary trials and imprisonment. The shadows of Stalinism were still visible, which Gorbachev would later acknowledge.
Apathy towards “socialism” became widespread and alcoholism became an increasingly common way for citizens to “escape.”
Tensions with the West, particularly the United States, were on the rise. The “anti-imperialist” rhetoric of the official press sought to justify internal repression, the absence of democracy and the arms race.
The panorama in today’s Cuba is by no means identical, but, even though it has unique characteristics and despite the “reform process”, it resembles Brezhnev’s USSR in no few ways. In others, the situation is more complex.
The economy could not be faring worse. State management and the results of the “updating” process face more and more questions. The opposition grows despite far-from-subtle forms of repression. All-encompassing State control mechanisms are being forced to yield more and more ground. New technologies are making their mark.
The image of collective leadership that Raul Castro wishes to convey comes into contradiction with the reality of the established, central-command system. Despite the 4 stars on his lapel and his many ranks as head of the Party, Council of State and Council of Ministers, his leadership does not appear to persuade a bureaucracy accustomed to the direct, personal and itemized rule of Fidel.
And Fidel, with his “reflections,” offering answers or imposing now-obsolete guidelines on the State/Party/government, only adds to the confusion.
The enigmatic Raul barely makes any public appearances and his opinions are heard only at Party Congress speeches and the gatherings of the National Association of Small-Scale Producers (ANPP), held only twice a year.
Only a handful of Politburo members occasionally make isolated and general statements, divorced from reality and the serious problems facing Cuban society.
The second-in-command in the government, Diaz Canel, the “young face” with which they hope to project an image of renewal, is not the second-in-command in the Party, the institution which, according to the Constitution, is responsible for steering the country. Nor does he come from the ranks of the military nomenklatura, which monopolizes the country’s political and economic control.
The innovative spirit of Raul Castro’s first speeches as president and of some aspects of the updating process are constantly put in question by the government’s very laws, by the regulations set up by the bureaucrats responsible for applying policies and by the very slow nature of the reform process as a whole.
Self-employment and cooperatives, which, according to the Party Guidelines, ought to take on a more important role within the Cuban economy and society in general, are thwarted by senseless impositions. The autonomy sought for State companies, without worker control, fuel the expectations of bureaucrats, eager to become their owners after the piñata bursts.
State monopolies and entities like ETECSA, Customs, the National Tax Administration Bureau (ONAT), tourism corporations and, more recently, Labiofam and others, act in contradiction to the spirit announced by official policies or make the government appear ridiculous. Corruption is generalized and many officials are being tried at all levels.
The apathy towards “socialism” of the majority grows, as does the number of simple workers willing to leave the country through any means possible, in search of a better life. The number of baseball players, athletes, artists and people working in missions abroad who “desert” is alarming.
The number of Cubans who arrive in the United States or are intercepted in the high seas recall similar crises in the country’s past. The difference now is that, coupled with legal emigration prompted by the recent migratory reforms, this is bleeding the nation dry, depriving it of its young, professional and enterprising population.
The “socialist” project that mobilized the country’s majorities during the first decades of the revolution no longer gives them any hope, and the imperialist blockade continues to be blamed for everything.
The announced “change in mentality” is nothing but a slogan and militarism discourages individual initiative.
The poor economic results of the wage-paying State, the understandable fears over the crisis facing the economy and the almost absolute control the State continues to exercise, coupled with the intensification of the US blockade-embargo, aimed at placing obstacles in the way of the government’s finances, keep fresh, foreign capital from flowing into the island in any significant way.
Raul Castro’s government believed that freeing those of the group of 75 who were still in prison (through the mediation of the Catholic Church), relaxing a number of unconvincing market measures and eliminating some of the country’s absurd regulations would change its international human rights record and allow it to become influential among the main controllers of international capital, particularly those in the United States.
When Fidel was still president and the country was still waiting for the lifting of the blockade, the State monopolized tourism, a monopoly Raul Castro intensified with the merging of the military and State monopolies and the creation of the Mariel and other marina projects, as well as golf-courses and residential areas for the rich.
Investments in housing, food and transportation – the sectors that most directly affect the population and, as such, their degree of support for the government – were left for more auspicious times.
Today, the blockade is still in place and people with money around the world have not changed their opinion as to the totalitarian nature of the Cuban State.
The emergence of left-wing governments across Latin America and the interest in maintaining good relations with Havana that other democratic administrations have (as a means of distancing themselves from their previous commitments with the extreme Left), have favored exchanges of all kinds. Contributions from Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador and other countries, in exchange for medical services, represent a breath of air for the State economy.
Nostalgic rapprochement with China and, most importantly, Russia, whose internal changes and imperialist cravings some do not understand or pretend not to understand, supplies the government with political support, but they continue to mean very little in terms of true economic recovery.
If the revolution’s so-called “historical leadership”, still clearly influenced by Fidel Castro, does not wish to end up like those in Brezhnev’s leadership, it will have to undertake important economic and political changes.
In order to free up the country’s productive forces and stop (and even revert) the mass exodus of Cubans, in order to change the perception that the international capitalist community has of the country’s internal situation, the government must apply economic measures beyond the scope of the “reform process” soon, aimed at freeing the market, encouraging the development of non-State autonomous forms of production and reassessing its State-centered conception of property and the market.
Parallel to this, it must set a national debate in motion, a debate which need not be direct, to start with, but simply allow for the free exchange of different opposing ideas, in conjunction with the suspension of all repression, with a view to creating an atmosphere of trust that will facilitate the reform and democratization of the country’s political system.
This would entail the recognition of all peaceful political tendencies and would lessen the tensions that currently stir Cuban society up. Criticisms leveled at governments aren’t born of people’s freedom of expression or new technologies, but of their mistakes and lack of transparency.
Democratic forces of all shapes and colors could also contribute to the public formalization of the government’s commitment to a nationwide debate and peaceful and democratic political struggles, against the use of violence and direct foreign intervention.
This would put them in a better position to help move the government in the same direction, as it does not look as though it is going to change much by itself. The government will have to come to the understanding that it is better to channel the growing current than to dam it up.
If the government does not take steps in this or a similar direction and fails to involve everyone in this process, the situation will continue to get worse, with unpredictable consequences for the future of the Cuban nation.