Who Subsidizes Who in Cuba?

Bakery where Cubans purchase their subsidized daily bread roll.  Photo: Caridad
Bakery where Cubans purchase their "subsidized" daily bread roll. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 14 – The issue of paternalism and “false entitlement,” within the relationship between the Cuban State and the public, recently became the object of controversy.  Debate was generated from an editorial by Lazaro Barredo, the director of Granma (the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba), which was rebutted by a letter circulated on the Internet supposedly by Cuban actor Luis Alberto Garcia, who later denied having authored the letter.

Due to the importance of their content, we offer the two writings so that each reader can draw their own conclusions:

He’s Entitled, You’re Entitled, I’m Entitled …*

Lazaro Barredo Medina

For our socialist project to move forward, economic rationality and sense must prevail within each one of us.  Comrade Raul Castro’s call by for us to “adjust ourselves to living with what we have” should not be appreciated as a slogan, a phrase or a cliché.  We cannot aspire to more if there is not an objective evaluation and if we do not adopt measures that act with realism – but instead with groundless optimism.

In Raul’s speeches, he repeatedly underlined the political will of our Party to carry out far-reaching decisions.  These are aimed at confronting the tasks of strengthening institutionalism, re-shaping the planning and organization of work, eliminating the dual currency and implementing salary stimulation to unfetter the productive forces, collecting taxes, ending many subsidies, reviewing the provision of free services, and other matters that will not rob the State of its responsibility but aim to achieve forms of benefits that are more flexible and direct in small services, among other objectives.

Most of those questions require mobilization and understanding by society for us to live up to -over a judicious period of time- the country’s mission, which we want, are capable of and need.

The terrible damage of last year’s hurricanes and tropical storms desolated an extensive part of the island and resulted in losses of nearly ten billion dollars; simultaneously added was the damaging effects of the global economic and financial crisis.  Taken as a whole, these forced a deceleration in the rhythm of the application of many ideas that were being studied after the wide national debate undertaken around Raul’s July 26, 2007 speech in Camagüey.

The impact of those events has forced the government to carry out deep readjustments to economic plans and the budget so as to “tighten our belts.”  This is being done without abandoning the search for our own solutions which revolve around possibilities of increasing material production, despite the lack of import capability that the country now faces. Instead, we are looking at the material reserves we have available that provide real and concrete efficiency – especially in agricultural production, (energy) conservation and other practices.

In fact, this is the intention of the debate now taking place within the Party as well as in work collectives to look at ourselves from within.  They are discussing, “with their sleeves rolled up,” how we can create more and what we must do to break with routine and our coexistence with things that are known not to work well. There are many inadequacies that must be solved, especially in our own workplaces, without double standards or pageantry.

It has been proven that we will get out of crisis only through more work and -parallel to this- if we look critically at our false sense of entitlement, an ingrained phenomenon that has saturated most of people. This is a vice which does not allow us to advance and which hinders clarity concerning the decisions we must all make.

The exchange of opinions that has taken place through letters to our paper on issues of  [eliminating] the ration book and [closing] workplace cafeterias, for example, provide crystal clear proof of the degree to which some mistaken concepts have soaked our consciousness concerning social justice.

Social justice is not egalitarianism; it is the equality of rights and opportunities.  In socialism this means distribution under the principle “from each according to their capacity, to each according to their work.”

A bodega store where Cubans buy rationed products.  Photo: Caridad
A "bodega" store where Cubans buy rationed products. Photo: Caridad

The ration book was a necessity at a certain moment, but with its current attributes it has become an impediment to the group of decisions the nation will have to make.  It will be necessary for these to be solved not by decree but through economic measures that protect and guarantee the access of low-income people to the basic food basket and stimulate all other people to work to obtain wage gains based on their output.

The same (situation) occurs with workplace cafeterias, which require purchases of food at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and which in turn provide meals at subsidized prices, though they often do not satisfy their own workers and serve as a significant source for the unscrupulous misappropriation of resources.

No one can deny that in its work of highly human sensitivity, the revolutionary State has invariably attempted to address the needs of its citizens, often beyond its own capacity. Perhaps here resides one of the reasons that many people have gotten used to the State having to solve everything.

From its beginnings, the Revolution was a torrent of justice, which has not always been appropriate.

A few days ago, a comrade told me that Cuban society has to solve four “syndromes” to dislodge it from this paternalistic practice:

1. The nestling (pichón) syndrome: We walk around with our mouths open wide because a significant number of the mechanisms we’ve designed have been conceived to provide us with everything.  You don’t go to a neighborhood bodega store to buy; you go for them to give you what you’re entitled.  You don’t repair your house or apartment, because -in addition to not having the means to acquire the needed materials- things are conceived such that (the State) gives you those materials. This is true in most matters of our daily lives.

2. The volleyball syndrome: We have gotten used to jumping up and knocking the ball over into the other court, supposedly because most matters are not our problem but those of someone else.  Bureaucratic spiking is exhausting.

3. The ostrich syndrome: We have become accustomed to burying our heads in the sand, almost always to avoid looking at problems and to evade having to act with our full energy and innovative forces against routine, negative habits and -especially- to cease being systematic.

4. The obstacle syndrome: The transformation of the economy and the satisfaction of the nation’s basic needs are not achieved in a month, though some would like this. However, as soon as they encounter the first obstacle, they stop and wait for others to remove it or tackle it for them.

This may seem humorous, but it’s for us to begin to think. In one way or another, these vices or customs are in most of us; they are reflected in our behavior.  I think (their remedy) involves “stepping up to the plate” that comrade Raul says we all must do.

An anonymous letter responding to the editorial by Lazaro Barredo*

I don’t have the soul of a spokesperson, but I feel repulsion for the irresponsible individuals (of whom, unfortunately, there are quite a few) who presume the right to speak on behalf of the Cuban people without their consent.

I will limit myself to relating my personal situation, knowing that it corresponds to that of a large percentage of the Cuban population.

Arithmetic -though it no longer seems trustworthy to some people, given the many contrived and convenient manipulations- continues to be an exact science, oblivious to subjectivity, and therefore it is a useful ally for knowing our situation; in this case, my situation and that of those who wish to contend that 2 – 2 = 3.

By the force of neurons, when these were indispensable for graduating from the university, I obtained my degree.  After six years of professional practice I’ve ended up earning a glorious monthly salary -glorious because it’s the maximum- of 480 pesos [$19 USD].

That wage can be broken down into the standard monthly expenses in the following way: Thanks to an old air conditioner, which I try -God willing- to use as little as possible, I spend 170 pesos on electricity. With the vilified ration book, Mr. Barredo’s duly noted “State subsidy,” I spend (I don’t know if anyone who receives the staples for free) around 150 pesos; this is used for buying a few quarts of cooking oil, a little bit of rice, a few scarce beans, our daily bread, coffee, a bar of soap once and a while, tooth paste and a few other things, which all constitute the quota for me and my two kids.  To this we can add the water bill that I have to pay, the gas that I also have to pay, as well as the payments on the refrigerator and electric cookers that the State generously “gave us.”

By simple arithmetic we can reach the conclusion that after you pay for those items “subsidized” by the State, your pocket is left pretty thin, if not completely shriveled up, to face the sea…no…the ocean of basic goods that are not “subsidized” by the State.  One has to skillfully spend their “240 pesos” (the average wage)…well, that’s as far as I’ll go, but I suspect that now it’s much more.

What this means, comrade Lazaro, is that we should give thanks to the kind State for charging us almost 70 percent of our meager wages that it pays us to buy its “subsidized” goods; and in passing, I should say, I also thank it for us keeping us “pichóns” (nestlings) with our mouths wide open, given how we’re required to live for the rest of the month stretching the little money left after acquiring our quota of ration book staples, which only last long enough -through supreme austerity- to allow you to eat poorly for 13 days out of the 30 or 31 in the month.

Anyone who was not Cuban would think, comrade, that the products offered by the ration book were a kind of bonus from the government, but people here on the ground know all too well that the prices of those products correspond exactly to the wages paid by the State, the sole employer of the labor force.

Who’s Subsidizing Whom

Taking this into account, I ask you: Who’s subsidizing whom? Are the people subsidizing the State with their poorly paid labor or, as you say, does the State subsidize the feeding of the people?  Or better yet, I should ask you: Where does the little or much the State distributes come from if not from the almost disinterested effort of the workers?  Or are you trying to convince us of the preposterous idea that the State, per se, is capable of producing more than it squanders?

You should know, comrade Barredo, because it seems you don’t get it, that the characteristics this people has always had is the love of work; the capacity for sacrifice, amply demonstrated; and the courage to take on the challenges of labor put forth, no matter how crazy some or many have been.

This island (please review the history) has been the cradle of enterprising people of abundant inventiveness and endowed with a not so common strength in our geographical region, the absence of chauvinism.  It seems that you conveniently ignore the fact that the Cuban diaspora, dispersed over the four corners of the world, was and is characterized as being an outstanding and supremely hard working community.  We have earned the respect and admiration of more dissimilar societies.

The educational advances of the last 50 years…or 45 (with all respect and responsibility, I question what has occurred over the last five years) have been good in developing a solid and qualified work force that is the envy of more than a few countries. But you put in question our intelligence, crudely trying to pass off a cat for a hare.

Or is it that you, in an exercise of intellectual indolence, ignore or want to ignore or it’s convenient to ignore, or they have directed you to always ignore, the true origin of paternalism in our always malleable society, which has responded to the directives that invariably come from above, like the echo of the voice.

We are not fools, quite the contrary; we are children of a revolution who learned how to develop our intellect – and our mistrust.  In a glance we note that, for the time being, you’re no more than an unlucky spokesman.

Your thesis, it goes without saying, comes from others from above, redundancy, or maybe from all of those up there who -a little over here, a little bit over there and a great deal through you- are trying to drum into people a feeling of guilt, exceedingly undeserved.

The Neck Syndrome

But you, with the superficial semiotics of your “syndromes,” have offended people by accusing them of faults that they do not possess, nor can they possess, if we believe in the maxim that only the people are sovereign.  In passing, one could describe you as having a “neck syndrome,” which prevents you from looking up.  It is simple to look for the guilty, especially if they’re below.

What do I, a mere mortal, have to do to demonstrate to you that all those social vices that you describe were engendered into consciousness by a State that legislated even what type of underwear its workers must wear?  Do I have to remind you that the State left zero space for popular initiative?  Do I have to invite you to look at the ridiculous vests of the State parking attendants, which adorn the city like a sample of the omnipresence of bureaucracy?

Your article is unacceptable because it’s unacceptable to exempt the State from its responsibility for the reigning paternalism when it was precisely the State that engendered it – and even uses it in its own interests.

To reduce the country’s economic problems to the heavy “subsidies” that the State has applied to food, taking into account that the same kind State subtracts form the workers’ pocket a huge percentage of the low wages this same State pays, is to simplify misfortune, and -worse still- to turn your back on the working class.

Why don’t you, Mr. Journalist, do us ordinary Cubans a favor, one for the working class in general, and serve as a spokesman in reverse?

It’s unnecessary to write articles; in fact we won’t request you to.  It’s unnecessary to apologize; that’s not our custom.  But you could help us to find the cure to another syndrome that you didn’t describe: The “hypoacusis syndrome,” apparently related to the lack of oxygen suffered or enjoyed by people at certain heights.  Despite your neck problem, you could take advantage of this opportunity to learn and transmit the various demands that communists in the real world have made to combat those same syndromes that you accuse us of.

*Havana Times Translations

One thought on “Who Subsidizes Who in Cuba?

  • Thanks, HT, for both sources. Thanks, “Anonymous,” for quite a zinger!

    Anonymous correctly points out that Lazaro’s article is him singing chorus to leaders higher up. It’s always safe to earn one’s pay by echoing what the guy in charge is saying.

    This being said however does not alter the fact the neither of the men offers a program for making Cuban socialism workable. The exchange seems more of–what we call them in the capitalist media–one “presstitute” blaming the people, not the state, for engendering the systemic dysfunctions; and another person pointing out the absurdity of doing so, as though it were due to a personal defect of character.

    Anonymous needs quote the Scientific Method and say: “The state owing everything has been the Party’s “hypothesis” for our socialist experiment, and the experiment shows that hypothesis to be false.”

    Cuba needs a new hypothesis. See “The Mondragon Experiment,” a 50-minute BBC film at “video.google.com.”

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