Cuba - a tale of two countries
By Tony Mulhearn
A recent trip to Cuba reminded me that it is a land of contrasts. Magnificent beaches, lush foliage and palm trees, luxurious resorts and hotels, managed and staffed by, in the main, dedicated and helpful workers.
Castro's Cuba is celebrated for its comprehensive free health service and the highest literary rates in the hemisphere.
This is contrasted by poor wages, poor housing and, particularly in Havana, evidence of neglect and poverty.
However, despite any shortcomings in the system and mistakes by Fidel Castro, Cuba continues to be recognised worldwide as a symbol of resistance to the US imperialist bully and who tenaciously fought to defend the workers' state.
Millions of working-class people and the poor worldwide hope that the social gains of the revolution will endure.
As well as some holiday fiction, I took the opportunity of reading some of the material on Cuba: Castro's biography by Volker Skierka and Peter Taaffe's book Cuba, Socialism and Democracy, as well as some of the official literature published by the state.
When the shortcomings of Cuba are raised, the question is posed: what can you expect when Cuba has been deliberately isolated and harassed over decades by a vengeful American imperialism? That Castro's system remains in power (with Raul as his successor, appointed not elected) after over 50 years of a one-party state is testimony to the loyalty of the masses.
Stalinism in USSR
It is well recorded that Cuba, while being a one-party state, has many different features to the USSR before its collapse.
Castro is not a Stalin but, despite the Cuban revolution's enormous popularity at the beginning, its weaknesses were evident in the absence of democratic control and management, and a clear class consciousness by the working class and the poor.
This was confirmed by discussions I had with some of the workers in the tourist industry. There is no doubt that, in contrast to the murderous onslaught on trade union activists on the Latin American continent, and the equally murderous attacks on trade unions by Batista in Cuba before the revolution, trade unions exist relatively unhindered in Cuba today.
Of the approximately 4 million people who are economically active in Cuba, 98% belong to a trade union.
In addition there are 250,000 pensioners who are union members. But, it was clear that they were controlled from the top, with an absence of democratic shaping of union policy.
For instance talking to dissatisfied workers who complained about low wages and relying on tips to pay for basic necessities like energy and food, when I suggested that they should go to their trade union branch and demand better wages the response ranged from total incomprehension that such mechanisms exist, to astonishment at the suggestion that the government should be challenged.
It is also true that, as Peter relates in his book, elections for officials have taken place, but all candidates have to be members of the ruling party. In capitalist countries this would be an unacceptable condition.
A walk around Havana reveals conditions which belie Castro's claim in 1960 that in five years Cuba would enjoy Swedish living standards. Sweden's workers then enjoyed the highest living standards in the world.
One thing symbolised the situation, the holes in the road. On the main concourse outside the Capitol building whose architecture is based on Washington DC's Capitol, and which cost £20 million under the Batista regime, huge holes exist.
A trap for unaware tourists. If such holes appeared in Liverpool's main thoroughfares, the city would be bankrupted by paying out all the compensation payments to Liverpudlians with damaged limbs.
In addition there are the areas without running water. I witnessed a municipal wagon distributing water to residents of grim-looking apartment blocks in the centre of Havana.
Our guide assured us that the residents did not have to pay for the service. If workers' democracy existed in Cuba the holes in the road would be reported and repairs carried out, and the lack of running water would be a priority for attention by the workers' organisations.
Relatively small points in the global scheme of things, but vitally important to workers and their families.
In his book Peter makes the point that given all the economic pressures on Cuba, the absence of workers' democracy is an added factor in exaggerating want, because of the bureaucratic mismanagement.
While the nationalisation of hot dog stands and ice cream wagons stands as a bureaucratic measure which took no account of the low level of development of the Cuban economy, the nationalised taxi service is far superior to the private taxis which are now allowed to trade in Cuba.
The privateers charge at least a third more than the state-owned taxis. After a couple of trips the tourists soon recognise what is value for money.
Other areas are being loosened up. Hairdressers, for instance, are being allowed to function as private concerns.
Our guide related how his father maintained he was better off under Batista. I expressed surprise at this, pointing out Batista's record as a murderous dictator who operated hand-in-glove with the organised crime.
He readily agreed with that but then told me that his father had built a small successful engineering business in the years prior to the revolution, employing about ten workers.
This had been nationalised and he then worked for the government. Overnight, his income was halved, so disheartened was he that the business declined and collapsed.
As Peter relates in his book, to nationalise such small operations which rely on individual motivation, without the alternative of massive state investment in engineering which could then demonstrate its superiority to tiny units of production, which could be absorbed with living standards being maintained, then his fate was inevitable.
It is not the purpose of this piece to analyse in detail the Cuban revolution and its history and prospects, but to give a firsthand impression of workers' existence in Cuba, and how working class tourists who visit Cuba would view life in a society which is claimed by Fidel and his allies to be socialist.
For a full analysis of both the social and industrial developments, and a penetrating analysis of the political character of the Cuban state, Peter Taaffe's book is essential reading.