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From The Socialist newspaper, 20 April 2001

ONE OF the consequences of the worldwide revolt against global capitalism, is the newfound popularity of Cuba.

Tourists attracted to Cuba in their millions in the 1990s, and offering a lifeline to the Cuban economy, are now followed by Western rock groups, such as the Welsh band the Manic Street Preachers.

Socialist Party general secretary PETER TAAFFE looks at the recent development of Cuban society:

Cuba At A Crossroads

THE MANICS - the band who have put the Cuban flag on the sleeve of their recent hit record Masses Against the Classes - received widespread publicity in Cuba and in Britain during their recent visit to the island.

Contrasting Cuba to their native South Wales, one of the band, Nicky Wire, declared: "What about the human rights of the 5,000 people who lost their jobs in South Wales last week... who are now having to work in call centres? No one talks about that. [Cuba] may be imperfect," he says, "but Cuba is the nearest thing we have on the planet to a true socialist state... it has higher literacy levels than the UK. There is a decent health service available to all and the average life expectancy is 76, which is higher than in the US."

Fidel Castro recently tapped into this mood by declaring that he is now a "Lennonist", as he unveiled a statue to John Lennon in Havana. The head of the Cuban writers association has stretched the truth somewhat, however, in declaring: "The tenets of our Cuban Revolution match the beliefs of John Lennon". Nevertheless, the stance of the Manic Street Preachers does illustrate the growing rage amongst young people in particular against neo-liberal policies.

As we have documented elsewhere, especially in the book Cuba Socialism and Democracy, there is much in Cuba which contrasts favourably with the situation in the capitalist world.

Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the average life expectancy of men was 48 and 54 for women. Now male expectancy is 74 - the same as in the UK - and for women it is 76 (79 in the UK). Infant mortality is 7.1 per 100,000 births, which is not much higher than Britain's.

Besieged fortress

THE ADVANTAGES of a planned economy, even in the poor besieged fortress which Cuba is today, are undoubtedly shown in welfare. Officials from the Department of Health in Britain, together with 100 General Practitioners, recently visited Cuba and were astonished at what they saw.

Healthcare expenditure is 750 a head in Britain, whereas in Cuba it is 7. Cuba has 7,000 GPs, the same number as Britain, but with a fifth of the population. There is one family doctor for every 500 to 700 people in Cuba, compared to 1,800 to 2,000 here.

These and similar achievements in housing and education have been in the teeth of the economic vice which US imperialism has used against the Cuban economy, particularly in the precarious 1990s.

This, together with the spiteful withdrawal of the huge subsidies from the former USSR, which previously underwrote the Cuban economy, struck a savage blow against Cuba's economy and the living standards of its people.

The country's fate hung by a thread in the early 1990s, with a drop of 13.7% in the economy in 1993. Cuba has since managed to painfully crawl out of the abyss and now it has one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America - growing by 6.2% in 1999 and 5.5% per cent in 2000.

Foreign investment

Having a planned economy still has big advantages over a so-called 'free market' capitalist one. This is despite the drawbacks of Cuba's inefficient bureaucratic one-party system of government, with power concentrated in the hands of an elite in the Cuban 'Communist' Party.

However, it has also been boosted by tourism, which has grown massively in recent years bringing in excess of $2.2 billion of revenue to the Cuban government. The estimated $3 billion annual remittances from Cuban exiles, which are received by about two million of Cuba's eleven million population, has also buoyed up the Cuban economy.

The Castro government was compelled to retreat in the 1990s with the introduction of partial 'dollarisation' and the opening to the market through both foreign capital and small-scale industry. This has some parallels with the introduction of the New Economic Policy in Russia in 1921-22.

Since the green light was given to foreign capital in 1995, 370 'mixed enterprises' - partnerships between outside investors and the Cuban government - have been formed. European capitalism, particularly Spanish capitalism, has been the main investor.

This roughly translates into foreign investment of over $4 billion. This has generally benefited the Cuban economy and helped compensate for the disappointing sugar crop of just under four million tonnes, the lowest in 50 years.

Cuba is still dependent on foreign oil imports and has been prey, like much of the neo-colonial world, to the vagaries of oil price on world markets.

In 1999, it owed more than $300 million to oil 'providers'. However, some salvation was at hand as a result of the radicalisation in Venezuela, which brought to power the Hugo Chavez regime.

Following Castro's visit to Venezuela in October 2000, Chavez agreed to supply Cuba with crude oil to the equivalent of about one-third of domestic consumption over a five year period, at an average price of $25 a barrel. Moreover, repayment by Cuba - unlike other deals which Venezuela has cut with neighbouring countries in Central America and the Caribbean - will be in bartered goods and services.

But, the economic concessions that the Cuban government has made have, particularly through 'dollarisation', opened the pores through which elements of capitalism have developed. The number of small businesses and legally 'self-employed workers' has mushroomed.

A parallel economy has also developed in dollars, to which the government has been compelled to turn a blind eye. The average monthly wage is 232 Cuban pesos ($11). This is not enough to cover the basic needs of the average Cuban worker or family.

Those in the 'informal sector', reliant on tourism, linked to the 'mixed enterprises', can not only get by but also live relatively well. According to the Chicago Tribune (28 January 2001), "bell boys are better paid than surgeons".

This inevitably undermines the very supporters of the regime, who are the majority, who work largely in the official sector and are paid in pesos. In order to make ends meet they are inevitably compelled to 'moonlight' in the black economy, working two or more jobs.

Shortages

DESPITE THE iron grip exercised over information by the state, enough accounts come out of Cuba to show the contradictory mood of the population. There is undoubtedly still mass support for the gains of the Revolution but a growing discontent is also evident with the continued shortages.

The crisis in transport, for instance, has led to a black market for spare parts for state-owned buses and taxis.

One taxi driver declared: "If we don't buy the parts, we cannot work... my family has to eat... I haven't worked for two months because the engine in my vehicle needed a part worth 10 pesos. Yet to solve the problem I had to pay $10".

This contrasts with a recent case of a provincial chief from the Interior Ministry who was found using prison labour to build a house for himself.

Prostitution, commonplace in pre-revolutionary times but largely eradicated by the revolution, has reappeared. Crime is on the increase and even in the much vaunted educational and health sectors, shortages have undermined the achievements.

Fewer teachers are signing up for training courses because more can be earned now outside of education than the $20 a month salary for the average teacher.

Unlike the Russian Revolution, the break with landlordism and capitalism carried through by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their compatriots in the 26 July Movement in 1959-60, was not the product of a conscious socialist working class with clear national and international aims.

They came to power largely at the head of a peasant and rural movement and were pushed by events - a combination of the pressure of an armed and aroused mass movement and the threats and actions of the US Eisenhower/Nixon administration - into breaking with landlordism and capitalism.

The regime which developed, while enormously popular and resonating throughout Latin America and the world, was not a regime constructed on the lines of the October 1917 Russian Revolution.

That Revolution saw the working class as the dominant force, ruling through democratic workers' and peasants' councils (soviets) and consciously seeing their revolution as the beginning of a European and world revolution. Workers' control and workers' management operated in this first phase of the Russian Revolution.

In Cuba, there were elements of workers' control and 'popular power' but real power was in the hands of a charismatic Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their group. There were no elections for officials or right of recall, no soviets and the other features which were present in the Russian Revolution.

What we saw established in Cuba was a planned economy but shackled by a bureaucratic regime and heavily reliant for support, economically in particular, on the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

It was this support which propped up the Cuban economy but at the price of a more and more bureaucratic regime.

Power was concentrated in the hands of an elite and wielded in particular by Fidel Castro and the group around him, who were not, and are still not, fully and democratically accountable to the mass of the organised working class and poor peasants and farmers.

Rock groups, and other workers and young people, in their hatred of what capitalism does to working people, sometimes support what appears to be the most extreme opponents of this system. They can understandably, but mistakenly, describe Cuba as 'socialist'.

However, socialism is not possible without democratic control and management. Even for a transistional regime between capitalism and socialism, like Cuba, to move towards the beginning of socialism there must be democracy and the revolution needs to be spread internationally.

End the blockade

WE OPPOSE and work to break the blockade of Cuba and do not side with the capitalist enemies of Cuba. But we also support the implementation of workers' democracy, including the demands raised above, together with the independence of the trade unions and the right of all parties which accept the planned economy to fight in open, free and fair democratic elections for the support of the Cuban working people.

We implacably oppose a return back to capitalism, which is now the declared approach of all shades of capitalist opinion. The main body of US capitalist opinion is also in favour of lifting the blockade of Cuba.

Its maintenance is seen as completely counterproductive to their aims of seeing a repetition of what happened in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union unfold in the Caribbean island.

However, US Vice-President Dick Cheney recently declared: "I don't think there is any prospect certainly for lifting those sanctions as long as Fidel Castro is there" (NBC's 'Meet the Press'). But the chorus clamouring for concessions to Cuba stretches from the US House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, to Wayne Smith, former Chief US diplomat in Havana, and the International Chamber of Commerce.

Yet, despite in words partially lifting the ban on US sales of food and medicine to Cuba, the restrictive conditions which still prevail, in effect cancel out this 'concession'.

Bush is also caught between what Wall Street and business wants and having to pay back those Miami groups who helped him steal the US presidential election, conscious they could also determine his brother Jeb's fate, in his bid for re-election as Florida state Governor in two years' time.

New revolution

CASTRO SEES the danger for him and his regime, and has recently clamped down on dissent. He has also been encouraged by the international situation, particularly the growing crisis of world capitalism.

Castro also needs the threat posed by the blockade to bolster his support in Cuba itself.

The more farsighted US capitalists calculate that by lifting the blockade this will open the floodgates to a capitalist restoration in Cuba. Such a development will be a blow, not just to the Cuban people, but to the struggle of the working class and poor peasants on a world scale.

Cuba is at a crossroads; the only sure guarantee that the counter-revolutionary schemes of the various groups of capitalists who greedily look for a 'slice of the action' in Cuba is by introducing a democratic socialist regime in the island.

To continue as before, as Castro clearly intends, risks the liquidation of the great gains of the Cuban Revolution. In the event of his death, the situation could change fundamentally, with the Cuban elite now divided as to the way forward.

Sections of the Bush administration believe that they can repeat the alleged experience of Reagan and Thatcher in bringing the USSR and Eastern Europe to its knees in the case of Cuba. However, the international background is entirely different with the onset of a world capitalist crisis and the greater room for manoeuvre of the Cuban regime.

Ultimately, however, only workers' democracy in Cuba can regenerate the Cuban Revolution, consolidate and improve on all its achievements and ideals, sparking off in turn a renewed wave of successful democratic socialist revolutions in the Latin American continent.

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In The Socialist 20 April 2001:

Fight The Job Cuts Avalanche

Socialist Councillors Force Climbdown On Childcare Charges

New Labour's menacing Zero Tolerance

Huddersfield: Growing anger at racism

Review: Preaching revolution or rhetoric?

Cuba At A Crossroads

Socialist Party fight right-wing smear campaign

Reinstate Martin Warsama

NUT conference For real unity through action


 

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