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    Visiting Raúl Castro's Cuba
    Samuel Farber

    ON JULY 31, 2006, THE CUBAN government announced that due to a
    serious illness, the nature of which was declared a state secret, Fidel
    Castro was stepping aside as the head of state. His younger brother
    Raúl, officially designated as his successor since the early days of the
    1959 Revolution, was "temporarily" replacing the commander-in-chief.

    Raúl is reputed to be more pragmatic and a better organizer and
    administrator than his older brother. He has favored economic reforms
    such as those implemented in the mid-nineties, like the expansion of
    joint ventures with foreign capital, the legalization of the dollar, and
    the opening of agricultural markets and small family enterprises in the
    cities (although in recent years, the Cuban government has retreated
    from some of these concessions to private enterprise and the market.)
    Raúl is also an open admirer of the current Chinese model of
    development. He has made the army the most important actor in the Cuban
    economy, as in the case of the major tourist enterprise Gaviota and
    hundreds of other enterprises where capitalist-type methods have been
    introduced through the Sistema de Perfeccionamiento Empresarial (System
    of Enterprise Perfection). High Army officers have also assumed
    leadership roles in various sectors of the country's industries such as

    Raúl is also known as a political hard-liner, like the Chinese
    leaders he admires. He played a central role in the execution of Arnaldo
    Ochoa and other high army officers in 1989 and in the 1996 dissolution
    of the Center for the Study of the Americas, an unorthodox Communist
    Party think tank.

    On the surface, nothing much seems to have changed since Raúl
    replaced Fidel. The policies of the regime seem to be pretty much the
    same as they were until July 30, 2006. The commander-in-chief may not be
    in but neither is he out. Although he is no longer the hands-on chief
    giving long speeches and moving around the country issuing orders and
    instructions, he does have access to the telephone and regularly talks
    to ministers Carlos Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque (see below.) He also
    receives visitors, most prominently Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has
    come to see him several times during the last months. Chavez' visits
    with Fidel, parts of which have been televised, and broadcast phone
    interviews, have become the main channels through which Cubans and
    people abroad get a glimpse of Fidel Castro's physical condition.

    Nevertheless, some significant developments have taken place below
    that surface. Most important of all has been the marginalization of
    Fidel Castro's staff. His "Grupo de Apoyo" (Support Group) constituted
    by figures such as his personal secretary Carlos Valenciaga was the
    principal organizational means through which Fidel intervened in the
    political and economic life of the country. The Grupo de Apoyo, known as
    the "Talibanes" because of its ideological orthodoxy, but now also
    jokingly referred to as "los huerfanitos" or little orphans, has existed
    for a long time, but recently acquired much greater importance and
    relative autonomy within the system because of the central role it has
    played in the Commander in Chief's campaign for the "Battle of Ideas."
    This "Battle" was not just about ideological and political struggles and
    the frequent massive demonstrations that went along with those, but also
    about implementing economic projects, which often departed from existing
    plans and usurped the powers and functions of the government's
    departments and ministries. One such project involved the decision by
    Fidel and his Grupo de Apoyo, contrary to established construction
    priorities, to renovate the University of Havana's Law School that the
    Cuban leader had attended in the late forties. These kinds of
    interventions have apparently come to an end as Raúl Castro has made the
    delegation of powers to ministries and other government agencies a
    central feature of his rule, and has strengthened the role of
    established government plans. In addition, there has been a reduction in
    the number of government-sponsored mobilizations at places such as the
    U.S. interest section building, apparently in order to increase the
    productivity of labor, while also softening the constant pressure on
    people to disrupt their lives and show their support for the regime.
    Thus, it appears that "normal" ruling class bureaucratic rationality has
    trumped Bonapartist and charismatic chaos and disorder in Round One of
    the Transition.1

    It is hard to predict what will happen in the rounds to come. Raúl
    Castro, at 75 years of age, may well turn out to be a short-lived
    transitional figure. Among the people in the next leadership rung there
    is first, Carlos Lage, a medical doctor in his fifties who has been put
    in charge of the Cuban economy; he has a reputation as a "moderate." So
    does Ricardo Alarcòn, in his late sixties or early seventies, former
    Foreign Minister and the head of Cuba's Parliament, although he appears
    to be playing a lesser role in the transition that began last July 31.2
    The youngest is Felipe Pérez Roque, the current Foreign Minister, who is
    in his forties. As former chief of staff of Fidel Castro, he is seen not
    surprisingly, as close to the "Talibanes" of the Grupo de Apoyo to which
    he used to belong. None of these people, however, have the power and
    prestige of the major "historic" leaders of the revolution. That is why
    there has been a fair amount of talk about a "collegiate" leadership
    team eventually taking over after Raúl passes from the scene. The record
    of "collegiate leaderships" has been unimpressive in every type of
    political system, even more so in Soviet-type systems like the former
    USSR or China. In the absence of well-established, let alone democratic,
    mechanisms to resolve important differences that are bound to develop,
    it is likely that one or another individual leader will inevitably rise
    to the top. If the army leadership remains united, whether under Raúl or
    some other general, it is very unlikely that either the "Talibanes," or
    any other force within the ruling circles, could prevail against them.
    Thus, Cuba will probably follow a state sponsored capitalist road of
    development in the manner of Vietnam and China.3 Meanwhile, a number of
    Cuban leaders have reported that Fidel Castro's health is improving and
    that he may even return to office. While unlikely, such an event would
    greatly complicate and make much harder a prediction of Cuba's future.

    I ARRIVED IN CUBA during this transitional period on January 23,
    2007 and stayed for two weeks. I was born and raised in Cuba and left
    the island in early 1958 while the Batista dictatorship was still in
    power. I visited the country for two weeks in January of 2000 and,
    before then, for one week at the end of 1979, a few months before the
    exodus from the port of Mariel in the spring of 1980. My impressions of
    those two trips were published in three different socialist journals.4

    The Havana metropolitan area that I saw this time looked poorer
    than the impoverished Havana of 1979, although perhaps slightly better
    off than the Havana of 2000. There was definitely more automobile
    traffic with its accompanying pollution and smell of burned fuel. The
    proportion of the ancient North American cars of the forties and fifties
    had visibly declined. People, particularly women, were better dressed:
    they wore new looking clothes and shoes. Jeans, in generally good
    condition, were worn everywhere, whether in the relatively more
    fashionable area of Vedado or in the various poor, working class
    districts that I visited. Women of all ages wore makeup and nail polish.
    There were a handful of beggars here and there, but these were always
    old people rather than children. Many more elderly people were selling
    peanuts and the Communist daily newspaper Granma, a multifaceted irony
    that reflects the inadequate level of peso-denominated pensions, one of
    the many serious problems confronting the country. The Cuban press also
    recently reported that the authorities were trying to stop, as a threat
    to public health, the growing activity of people going through garbage
    bags in search of empty containers to be sold to self- employed traders
    and for discarded food to feed animals.5 These expressions of extreme
    poverty however, are considerably less visible than in the major cities
    in Mexico, where I have traveled often. Friends told me that there had
    been fewer blackouts in recent months, although I experienced a couple
    of short-lived ones, lasting two minutes or so. Although more dwellings
    looked freshly painted than in 2000, they frequently had broken window
    panes, crumbling window frames, and rusty hardware. The overall
    condition of urban housing in Havana seemed to be getting worse, as the
    cumulative impact of rain, hurricanes and the sheer impact of time's
    wear and tear, has gradually destroyed the housing stock. The Cuban
    government claims that it built 100,000 housing units in the country in
    2006, thereby expanding new construction by 30 percent in comparison
    with 2005. I saw very little if any evidence of this in the poor,
    working class areas of Old Havana, Cayo Hueso and other neighborhoods of
    Central Havana, and various barrios of my native city of Marianao (near
    Havana). Urban transport is in the worst condition with the incredibly
    congested "camellos" (camels — or long buses with humped roofs built on
    top of flatbed trucks) barely making a dent on people's need to get
    around, including getting to and from work. This problem has had
    devastating effects, isolating people in their neighborhoods and
    seriously affecting work as well as family, leisure and cultural life.
    Most of the streets in Havana were in a more or less acceptable
    condition, but sidewalks were generally in a terrible state of
    disrepair. The poor state of the sidewalks has been worsened by the
    expansion of the telephone system carried out by ETECSA, the joint
    Italian-Cuban enterprise, which has left gaping holes and telephone
    poles lying on the sidewalks without signs or lights to indicate danger.
    This has become a real problem particularly at night, since, in order to
    save energy, streets are dimly lit.

    Only those with access to hard foreign currency are able to afford
    the best taxi service, and the comfortable bus service connecting Havana
    with the principal cities of the interior. For example, a round trip bus
    from Havana to Cuba's best known beach at Varadero — 120 kilometers
    each way — costs 20 USD, a veritable fortune for Cubans since each
    dollar is worth around 25 Cuban pesos (according to official figures,
    the minimum salary is 250 pesos a month while the average salary is 385
    pesos). A similar situation exists with respect to food. Walking around
    various Havana metropolitan neighborhoods, street markets seemed to be
    better stocked than they were in 2000, but at high prices in Cuban
    terms. One dollar for a pound of pork is cheap in U.S. terms but out of
    reach for the majority of Cubans with little or no access to foreign
    hard currency. The peso- denominated official rationing book only covers
    about 40 percent of the dietary needs of Cubans. The rest have to be
    acquired in the parallel and free markets at much higher prices. As it
    is, Cubans today are spending 57 percent of their income on food.
    However, in assessing this figure, one has to keep in mind that the very
    congested and deteriorated housing is practically free.

    The relatively greater availability of consumer goods but only at
    high prices is key to understanding the acknowledged growing inequality
    of Cuban society and one of the things that most impressed me during
    this visit: an all-encompassing law breaking and corruption. Although it
    was visible during my visit in 2000, it did not seem as pervasive and
    intrusive as I found it this time. I was often personally affected by
    having to informally work out a fare with drivers of state owned taxis
    whose meters suddenly "broke down" in the middle of a ride, prodding
    cashiers who were trying to short-change me, or avoiding people offering
    stolen goods in the street. Everybody I talked to agreed that breaking
    the law had become a way of life in order to survive in Cuba. No wonder
    then than in an important speech delivered at the University of Havana
    in November of 2005, Fidel Castro warned that corruption could destroy
    the revolution from within. In October of 2006, the Cuban newspaper
    Juventud Rebelde ran an investigative report detailing how customers
    were systematically cheated in retail establishments such as cafeterias
    and shoe and watch repair services.6 More recently, on February 19,
    2007, the daily Granma published a two-page centerfold on the important
    social and economic damages caused by the frequent theft of the
    "angular" sections of high-tension electric towers, notwithstanding the
    risk to life and increased criminal penalties.7
    Economic Conditions During the Transition

    WHAT ARE THE ECONOMIC CONDITIONS that underlie the kinds of
    behavior that we just described? How well is the Cuban economy doing? If
    we are to believe the Cuban government, the economy is doing very well.
    They have developed a new method of measuring Cuba's Gross Domestic
    Product (GDP) that includes the freely provided social services which in
    other countries are paid for by the public. Based on this new method,
    Cuba's leaders claim that the economy grew by 12.5 percent in 2006, an
    even higher rate of growth than China's. An independent-minded economist
    I interviewed questioned this claim, arguing that there was a great lack
    of transparency in the calculations that official government economists
    made to arrive at such a figure. In his own estimation the Cuban economy
    had grown in 2006 by 6 or 7 percent, a very respectable performance.
    Notwithstanding some relatively good years, Cuba is probably just about
    to catch up with the 1989 levels of production, right before the
    collapse of the Soviet bloc.

    Aside from nickel, a raw material that in conjunction with other
    commodities has enjoyed several very good years in the international
    market, and is produced in a joint venture with Sherritt, a Canadian
    corporation, Cuba's economy has become rooted primarily in the provision
    of services. Tourism is the most important of these services, and the
    principal earner of foreign currency, although it experienced a decline
    of 3.6 percent in the number of tourists that came to the island in
    2006.8 The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean
    (ECLA) has estimated that 62 percent of Cubans have access to hard
    currency [obviously in greatly varying quantities] while 20 percent of
    the island's urban population is at risk of not covering its minimal
    basic needs (Cuba is currently 75 percent urban).9 The impact of foreign
    remittances, the source of hard currency for two thirds of those with
    access to it, is highly concentrated, however, because a
    disproportionate number of those receiving them are white Cubans
    residing in the Havana metropolitan area. The possible benefits of
    biotechnology and the oil that Cuba has explored and found in the Gulf
    of Mexico in partnership with various foreign companies mostly lie in
    the future, although Cuban oil is already covering 48 percent of the
    country's domestic energy needs. The sugar industry is a shadow of its
    former self as the majority of sugar mills have been shut down. Cuba
    produced 1.2 million tons of sugar in 2006, and is facing difficult
    climactic and organizational problems as it tries to reach its goal of
    producing 1.6 million tons in 2007. These figures stand in stark
    contrast with the long-term historic annual averages of 5 to 7 million
    tons before the onset of crisis of the "special period" after the
    collapse of the Soviet bloc. The non- sugar agricultural production is
    not carrying its weight either, as Cuba has been importing 84 percent of
    the basic foodstuffs destined for the Cuban non-tourist market ("canasta
    basica") consisting of such items as rice, chicken and canned fish at an
    annual cost of a billion dollars.

    Although the Cuban government has placed much hope on Chinese
    investment, not a lot has happened along these lines as the Chinese have
    driven a harder bargain than the Cubans expected. Nevertheless, China
    has become Cuba's second largest trading partner accounting for two
    billion dollars in 2006, doubling the amount traded in 2005. For
    example, Cuba has been exporting 400,000 tons of sugar to China, which
    added to the 700,000 tons it consumes internally, accounts for the
    lion's share of current sugar production. More significant is the
    economic exchange with Venezuela, Cuba's principal trading partner,
    although, to put these matters in perspective, neither Venezuela's nor
    China's role in the Cuban economy approximate the massive subsidies that
    the USSR provided from the early sixties until the late eighties.
    Venezuela provides oil to Cuba in exchange for services, particularly in
    the medical field, with thousands of Cuban doctors periodically sent to
    the South American country. This has had a significant negative effect
    on the Cuban health care system. The number of patients per doctor in
    the up to recently well-regarded family doctor program has substantially
    increased, and the number of specialists available to Cubans has been
    reduced.10 The lack of medical supplies and provisions, from medicines
    to bedding, has become seriously aggravated since the collapse of the
    Soviet bloc in the early nineties. First aid and over the counter
    remedies from aspirins to Imodium are difficult to get. The Cuban
    government is unable to purchase large wholesale quantities of medicine
    from the U.S. because of the criminal blockade that the U.S. has
    maintained against Cuba since the beginning of the sixties. But this is
    only part of the problem, the other part being Cuba's relative lack of
    goods to offer for export and its overall poverty and consequently its
    inability to purchase whatever non-U.S. medicines and equipment it can
    afford to purchase from Canada, Latin America, and Western Europe.
    During the last several years, Cuba has been allowed to import
    agricultural and processed goods from the U.S. under a "humanitarian"
    exception to the blockade established in November 2001, making the
    United States the main supplier of food to the island. Cuba, however, is
    not allowed to export anything to the U.S. to pay for these imports.
    While these imports have amounted to 1.5 billion dollars, they have been
    a financial drain that would be greatly alleviated if Cuba could sell
    things to the U.S., or if, more likely, several hundred thousand U.S.
    tourists could travel to the island.

    The abolition of the blockade would be welcome for both principled
    reasons — the right of nations to determine their own destiny against
    foreign domination — and practical considerations: it would greatly
    increase economic activity in Cuba11 and undermine the regime's
    principal anti-imperialist claim to legitimacy. However, it would not
    diminish the effect of the other principal source of economic problems
    in the island, the visibility of which has, in fact, been hidden by the
    imperialist blockade: the inefficiency and waste inherent in the present
    bureaucratic administration of the economy. The old maxim attributed to
    Soviet and East European workers that "they pretend to pay us and we
    pretend to work," fully applies to Cuba. This became evident in the
    visible lack of care, attention and maintenance of every type of public
    sector property, from planes to hotels, restaurants, parks and
    buildings, no matter how recently they were, often beautifully,
    renovated. While economic hardship and the U.S. blockade may explain the
    lack of building materials necessary to carry out certain kinds of
    upkeep, it does not explain the absence of the simple, labor-intensive
    activities that have no significant capital components such as cleaning,
    sweeping and just plain run-of-the-mill neatness.

    The fundamental problem is the lack of initiative, motivation and
    of managerial and labor discipline. Over the centuries, capitalism
    developed bureaucratic, hierarchical systems where workers make no
    decisions and have no idea of what the overall process of production is
    for or about. Nevertheless, workers were bound to perform up to a
    certain level of competence prodded by the sticks — produce or you will
    get fired — and carrot — the promise, if not the reality, of higher
    wages and promotions — policy. On the whole, the Soviet type systems
    have not been able to develop a parallel system of motivation that could
    at least match the effectiveness of capitalist methods. Workers in this
    equally, if not more, bureaucratic and hierarchical system, do not grasp
    any better than in capitalism what the whole process of production is
    for or about. One of the "sticks" available to the single government
    employer was removed by the policy of overall security of employment
    (except for those who get in political trouble with the authorities).
    The systematic scarcity of goods characteristic of what the Hungarian
    economist Janos Kornai called "shortage economies" has taken care of
    removing a good part of the carrots. This provides the context of and
    helps to explain the preachy, ascetic emphasis on "moral" incentives
    that people such as Che Guevara advocated as a fundamentally flawed
    solution to the bureaucratic dilemma I just described. Classical
    Marxism, besides assuming that socialism would take place in a society
    with a relatively high level of material abundance and cultural
    advancement, emphasized not "moral," but what could be called "political
    incentives" that involved democratic control of the economy, polity and
    society, including the control of the workplace by the workers.
    According to this approach, only by participating and controlling their
    own productive lives would people become interested and responsible for
    what they do for a living day in and day out; that is, only thus would
    they get to care and give a damn. In this sense, workers' democracy was
    seen both as a good in itself — people taking control of their lives —
    and as a truly productive economic force.

    Absent an alternative approach, Cuba will witness an inevitable
    drift towards capitalist ideology and practice. Cubans who are
    witnessing the small existing private enterprises, whether farms or
    small urban firms like the tiny restaurants called "paladares" being run
    better and more efficiently than the larger state enterprises, are
    already concluding that capitalism can deliver the goods better than the
    state. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the mass of the
    population will adopt a neo-liberal version of capitalist ideology.
    Although they may look towards capitalism as the desirable system to
    produce goods and services, they will ferociously defend free public
    health, education and other social services, no matter how much they
    have deteriorated, particularly under the impact of the "special period"
    since the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

    Viewed statically, there seem to be few prospects for a democratic,
    revolutionary socialist politics in Cuba. However, the ample history of
    Communist transitions to capitalism shows that it is highly unlikely for
    a transition to take even a relatively benign form. Instead, we are
    highly likely to witness "shock therapies" and sharp reductions of
    "welfare state" institutions and spending enforced by dictatorial rule,
    whether in the openly despotic Chinese form or the cosmetically
    disguised Russian style (these two countries share with Cuba the
    significant fact that Communism originated in home grown revolutionary
    upheavals.) Such a neo-liberal course is likely to be accompanied by a
    substantial U.S. control over the internal affairs of the island, with
    its IMF-type structural adjustment, privatization and austerity
    policies. It is in opposition to such a type of transition that the
    possibilities of a democratic revolutionary politics lie.
    Intellectuals Defend Themselves

    Period that came about after the collapse of the USSR in the early
    nineties was a major factor in forcing the Castro regime to allow a
    religious and cultural liberalization that has continued until now. On
    the religious front, the Fourth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party
    that took place in 1991 removed restrictions on religious practitioners
    and declared the latter eligible for party membership and to hold
    official positions in the government. (It is interesting to note in this
    context that in my recent visit I saw half a dozen Cubans, mostly women,
    openly wearing Christian crosses on their necks, something that I had
    not seen in the year 2000, much less in 1979.)

    A similar relaxation took place in the cultural front. The public
    harassment of homosexuals and other "deviants" significantly diminished,
    although there was, and continues to be a marked tendency for most
    homosexuals to "stay in the closet." Since then, more critical views,
    although well short of political opposition, which would automatically
    be a one-way ticket to dissident status outside of the system's
    boundaries and all that implies, have begun to be expressed in a number
    of small but sophisticated and well-written journals. Among these are
    Temas, La Gaceta De Cuba (organ of the UNEAC, or writers' and artists'
    union) and Revoluciòn y Cultura. These journals have on several
    occasions included contributions on exile writers and academics and read
    very differently, in style and content, than the turgid, boring and
    dogmatic Granma. Plastic artists and musicians have also been given more
    leeway including much greater ease to travel abroad, a concession that
    writers and academics have also obtained. In fact, there are now many
    artists and professionals who are allowed to work and reside abroad and
    regularly return to visit their relatives on the island. Needless to
    add, the Cuban government gets a cut of the action through a substantial
    taxation of these activities abroad.

    Given the unavoidable uncertainty of a transition that just started
    on July 31, 2006, it is no wonder that Cuba's intellectual and artistic
    worlds were alarmed with the startling events that took place at the
    beginning of January. Three former high cultural functionaries — Luis
    Pavòn Tamayo, Armando Quesada and Jorge "Papito" Serguera — reappeared
    in several television programs and were presented as important
    contributors to Cuban culture. The three former functionaries had
    presided over the most culturally repressive period in the history of
    Cuban Communism, the so-called "Quinquenio Gris," Gray Five Years
    period, from 1971 to 1976. The sense of alarm was strengthened by the
    fact that members of this group had, in the past, been closely
    associated on and off with Raúl Castro. For example, Luis Pavòn Tamayo
    had worked directly under Raúl as the editor of Verde Olivo, the Army's
    official newspaper, before he became Cuba's cultural czar in the
    seventies. Writers and intellectuals were also worried about the coming
    elections in the UNEAC (National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba)
    and who would replace the current relatively liberal leadership that was
    stepping aside.12

    A storm of protest ensued among intellectuals and artists and
    continued through the remainder of January, during the time when I had
    coincidentally arrived in Cuba. The protest was politically limited. It
    was mostly aimed at preventing a return to the darker and more
    repressive past, and not at abolishing censorship and expanding the
    concessions that had already been obtained from the state, much less to
    protest the repression of outright dissident artists and writers. But,
    the protest was, at least initially, truly spontaneous, a rarity in
    Castro's Cuba. The artists and intellectuals relied on the email as the
    principal means of expressing and organizing the protest. (Computers are
    relatively scarce in Cuba, and people have access to them usually in the
    workplace, where access to Internet sites is supervised by the
    authorities and must be justified in terms of relevance to work duties.
    Email communication, particularly among people inside Cuba, is less
    supervised than access to Internet sites.13) The regular Party-
    controlled press essentially ignored what had taken place. A brief
    communiqué formulated the Party's response that essentially conceded
    that the appearance of the three former functionaries in television had
    been an error and tried to reassure the intellectuals and artists that
    no change in cultural policy was being contemplated. Abel Prieto, the
    minister of Culture, played a key role as a go between the party and the
    protesters who were represented, in this context, by the UNEAC. With the
    support and endorsement of the Party, a big, invitation-only meeting of
    over 400 people took place on January 30 at Casa de las Americas, one of
    the most important cultural institutions in Cuba. The meeting was
    addressed by Ambrosio Fornet, a leading Cuban intellectual associated
    with the current relatively liberal policies of the regime who in the
    past has argued that the intellectual and cultural life of Cubans abroad
    had to be part and parcel of a single Cuban culture. His address was an
    account and reflection on the Quinquenio Gris — a term which he had
    originally coined — but with the clear implication that it stood in
    contrast with an obviously satisfactory present. It goes without saying
    that Fornet did not address the key question of who gave the orders to
    the functionaries who presided over the Quinquenio Gris. His speech and
    the meeting where it took place was an effort, endorsed by the party, to
    contain and bring the matter to a close. This is possibly why this
    important party-endorsed event was not even mentioned by Granma.
    Nevertheless, a few days later, on February 9, the poet César Lòpez, in
    his address to the inaugural crowd at the Havana Book Fair that included
    Raúl Castro, revindicated several deceased writers who had become
    prominent exile oppositionists such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante,
    Heberto Padilla, Reinaldo Arenas and Jesús Díaz . César Lòpez claimed
    that their work was an important component of Cuban national culture.
    Although Granma reported that Lòpez had spoken at the event, it omitted
    any reference to this most unusual content of his speech.

    The emphasis that people such as Ambrosio Fornet and Cesar Lòpez
    have placed on incorporating exile writers and artists into the national
    canon poses some interesting questions. To the extent that raising these
    matters is intended as a blow against the harsh censorship that for many
    decades has prevented people from even being able to listen to the music
    of Celia Cruz on the radio, it is welcome news. Beyond that, there is a
    degree of ideological ambiguity and lack of clarity about the problem of
    the "divided Cuban family" that has long troubled many Cuban
    intellectuals, and Cubans in general, both inside and outside the
    island. In so far as it constitutes an at least implicit demand for
    removing the travel barriers that have been imposed by both the Cuban
    and U.S. governments, it is again, good news. But something else is
    lurking in these discussions that goes beyond these incontrovertibly
    democratic demands. There might be a tinge of liberalism among some of
    these thinkers, in the sense that they regard that what is needed is to
    "split the difference" in order to have the capitalism of South Florida
    and the Communism of Havana converge with each other. Unfortunately, the
    regime's censorship and controls have prevented a frank and open
    discussion of these critical matters. I should note that in my
    discussion I have described this intellectual and artistic milieu, as
    predominantly a liberal Communism loyal to the system. In reality,
    however, it is a more complicated environment that includes people to
    the right and left of that group. The liberal Communism that prevails in
    these circles in many ways provides a protective umbrella under which
    both conservative and revolutionary leftist opponents of the regime that
    have not become open and public dissidents can take cover and at least
    survive, if not prosper, politically. During my trip, I had the
    opportunity to talk with one of an informal group of young revolutionary
    Cuban intellectuals who function within the broad limits of this
    milieu14 and who have been influenced by such figures as Leon Trotsky,
    Rosa Luxemburg and other leftist libertarian thinkers. This group is
    interested in what these major thinkers had to say about the
    relationship of equality, democracy and liberty to socialism. They are
    also concerned about how they can be politically active and relevant in
    a way that will help to empower and politicize people in what overwhelms
    the great majority of Cubans: the daily struggle to survive. It is
    revealing that this young revolutionary used the Marxist metaphor of the
    "Old Mole" to refer to their small group's present role in Cuba.

    Left pending is the question of why the three former functionaries
    appeared on Cuban television one after the other within such a short
    period of time, particularly in the context of a political transition.
    This was a question I repeatedly raised with a number of people of
    varying persuasions and could not get a fully satisfactory answer.
    Responses ranged from its having been instigated by Raúl Castro as the
    prelude to a crackdown, to the notion that it had just been a
    coincidence. I heard a third interpretation, somewhere in the middle,
    which, regardless of its truth-value, was put forward by liberal
    Communist academics and intellectuals who personally did not know each
    other, and is thus sociologically revealing. According to this view,
    repressive elements in the media, formerly associated with Raúl Castro,
    saw the transition as the right moment to send a signal to the new top
    leader that they were ready, willing and available to go back to the old
    days the moment he gave the go ahead. This may be a reasonable and
    plausible hypothesis. The problem is that the liberals putting forward
    this interpretation also saw Raúl Castro as a man who was going to
    maintain and perhaps expand the existing liberalization, and, much more
    telling, that he was not, in any case, the repressive type he was
    reputed to be. These liberals claimed that Raúl had just done the dirty
    work at the behest of his older brother who did not want to be directly
    involved in those disagreeable tasks. In other words, Fidel Castro had
    forced him to behave like the "bad cop," although Raúl was in fact a
    very practical fellow who would improve the economy of the country by
    introducing more rationality into the system and would also experiment
    with some additional economic reforms.

    It may well be that there will be no more "crackdowns" under Raúl's
    rule if for no other reason than from his standpoint as a "practical
    leader" fundamentally uninterested in those matters, he may see little
    danger in allowing intellectuals and artists some elbow room while they
    play in their "sandboxes." From this perspective, what counts is what
    appears in the very strictly controlled mass circulation newspapers and
    television, and not in the little magazines and artistic exhibitions
    that relatively few Cubans ever see or hear about.

    Be it as it may, even if the government succeeds in containing and
    bringing this protest to a close, the fact that artists and
    intellectuals "flexed their political muscles" independently of the
    control of the one- party state constitutes an important precedent and
    contribution to future democratic struggles to the island.15
    Race and Marginality — The Sleeping Giants?

    HAVING ARRIVED IN CUBA in the middle of the artists and
    intellectuals' protest against the possible return of the darkest days
    of the revolutionary period, I attended every intellectual and artistic
    event I heard about that was open to the public. My purpose was to hear
    what was said and discussed and also to look around to get a feeling of
    the various audiences involved. I was shocked although not surprised to
    see that the speakers and audiences were overwhelmingly White. No more
    than five percent of the people present in the various venues were Black
    or Mulatto (a term widely used in Cuba to describe people of visibly
    "mixed" White and Black descent). Interestingly, many of the darker
    Cubans who did attend these events were rather young: they might have
    been students or disciples of the White presenters.

    Compared to my previous trip, the racial situation looked a bit
    more balanced in the various tourist-related locations that I visited.
    While the front-line personnel in those kinds of jobs was still
    predominantly White, there were many more Black Cubans than in the year
    2000. This might be due to a change in the government's recruitment
    policies in response to widespread criticism. In particular, people
    broadly associated with foreign left and civil rights organizations
    strongly objected to the blatantly racist policy of excluding darker
    Cubans from front-line jobs in the tourist industry under the claim that
    they lacked a "good appearance."

    Or perhaps the tourist industry is merely reflecting the major
    demographic changes that have been taking place in Cuba. Historically,
    the present Cuban government has not been quite open about the racial
    breakdown of the country, although it did acknowledge that the last 2002
    census registered a 24.9 percent increase in the number of people
    classified as mixed race in comparison to the previous 1981 Census.
    According to the 1981 census, 66 percent of the Cuban population was
    White, 12 percent Black and 22 percent mixed-race. This in turn
    constituted a significant increase in the mixed-race population since
    the last pre-revolutionary census of 1953 where only 14.5 percent of the
    population was counted as mixed-race (the proportion of people
    officially counted as Blacks had not changed significantly from 1953 to
    1981).16 The official figures for the post-revolutionary period almost
    certainly overestimate the size of the White population in Cuba. While
    Cuban fertility has been very low for quite some time (raising worries
    about overall dependency rates in the near future), emigration has
    continued at a steady clip. The United States has committed itself to
    accepting 20,000 Cuban emigrants a year (this figure does not include
    the rafters and others who manage to touch U.S. land and are thus
    eligible to apply for political asylum under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment
    Act). Emigration to other countries is also taking place. On various
    occasions during my trip, I saw long lines at the Spanish Embassy
    located near the entrance to the port of Havana. Spain has extended
    immigration and citizenship rights to the numerous Cuban descendants of
    the more than a million Spaniards who emigrated to the island, one of
    its last major Western Hemisphere colonies, in the late nineteenth and
    early twentieth centuries. As one can imagine, the great majority of the
    descendants of these emigrants are White, as are those going to the
    United States. In the case of the U.S., a family tie to those who have
    already gone to that country is the easiest way of obtaining a visa in
    Havana, and since the Cuban community in the U.S. is overwhelmingly
    White, so will be the new emigrants. There are, in addition, educational
    and work criteria that facilitate entry into the U.S., requirements that
    are much more likely to be met by White Cubans.

    The Cuban government has, ever since the early days of the
    revolution, adhered to a "color-blind" policy that allowed Cuban Blacks
    and Mulattos to make some progress but fell far short of what an
    "affirmative action" policy could have accomplished. Under the
    "color-blind" policy, Cuban style Jim Crow was abolished. While Cuban
    Jim Crow was historically never as important as in the U.S. prior to the
    revolution, darker Cubans were barred from most beaches and in many
    provincial towns were segregated from Whites in public parks. Darker
    skinned Cubans were also barred from many white-collar jobs,
    particularly in the private sector. Under the revolutionary
    "color-blind" policy, darker Cubans, who have been a disproportionately
    large part of the Cuban poor, have been able to benefit from measures
    designed to help the poor, particularly in terms of health and access to
    educational facilities. As a result there are, proportionately speaking,
    many more Blacks in positions of influence and power than there were
    before the revolution, but still substantially below any even rough
    correspondence to their overall proportions in the population as a
    whole.17 Most of all, under the one- party system prevailing in Cuba,
    Blacks (along with any other groups such as workers, women, gays) are
    not allowed to independently organize to defend their interests.
    Notwithstanding this ban, there has been an amorphous but growing Black
    youth protest developing in Cuba today, centered on the issue of police
    brutality and often expressing itself through a Cuban version of hip-hop
    music. A friend also mentioned that protests had taken place in the ICRT
    (Cuban Institute for Radio and Television) objecting to the overwhelming
    dominance of White faces in Cuban television.

    The issues of race and class have been more intermingled in Cuba
    than in the U.S.; consequently, much of White Cuban worries and
    hostility toward Black Cubans have been so mixed in with the issue of
    social marginality that it has been very hard to separate one from the
    other. This historical entanglement was exacerbated by the serious
    economic effects of the Special Period after the collapse of the USSR
    that led to the growth of a mass of disproportionately Black unemployed
    or underemployed people living in highly precarious conditions. So many
    of them migrated to overcrowded Havana that the government officially
    restricted movement into the city, although nobody seems to know with
    what actual practical effect. New terms began to be coined to refer to
    this increasingly visible marginalized group, like "Palestinos" in the
    case of the dark-skinned migrants from Oriente, the easternmost part of
    the island. The Cuban author Pedro Juan Gutiérrez made an international
    name for himself, with his "dirty trilogy" describing life among the
    marginalized people of Havana in all its gory and, especially sexual,
    detail. The sophisticated liberal Communist magazine Temas had nothing
    less than eleven social scientists and writers discuss the issue of
    marginality in one of its issues.18 The foreign press got into the act
    with, for example, the important Mexican newspaper El Universal having
    recently published an article about "El Fanguito" ("Little Mud"), one of
    the favelas surrounding Havana.19

    In reaction to this phenomenon of marginalization, White Cubans —
    including those integrated in the ruling system — made many more
    hostile and open comments directed towards Black Cubans than I heard in
    2000. A high housing official trained in the Soviet bloc brought up
    Oscar Lewis' "culture of poverty" theory to explain what was to her the
    otherwise inexplicable behavior of many of the poor people who had moved
    into new housing she had helped to plan for. No sooner than having moved
    into their new quarters. the poor people had dismantled and disconnected
    the brand new fixtures in order to sell them in the black market. To
    her, this was irrational behavior that could only be explained on the
    basis of the values of a "culture of poverty" passed from generation to
    generation. Apparently, the official, manual-based "Marxism" that she
    learned in Cuba and in Eastern Europe had never exposed her to what Marx
    called "the same old shit," referring to what serious scarcity could
    bring about in people's behavior. Although it was unfortunate and even
    tragic that these new tenants would ruin the facilities that they had
    just been provided by the state, that was not irrational since they
    needed money, and hard currency, to feed and clothe themselves. In any
    case, it is not necessary to raise the issue of so-called values, even
    if we make the highly doubtful assumption that they have any independent
    explanatory power, to explain why these poor, marginalized people
    behaved they way they did after they were installed in new houses and

    As it turns out, none other than Fidel Castro himself has recently
    endorsed and put to use the "culture of poverty" theory. In his 2005,
    and probably last major book-length interview, with Ignacio Ramonet, the
    Spanish-born editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, he alluded to it on a few
    occasions. Thus, Fidel Castro told Ramonet that "at the beginning [of
    the Revolution] we eliminated some marginal neighborhoods. But already a
    culture of marginality had been created, that even if you make new
    houses for them, the phenomena that took place in those areas, prolong
    themselves. That is a culture that repeats itself, and then their
    children . . . " Elsewhere in the interview, Fidel Castro also asserted
    that "I remember that we discovered that there was a culture of rich
    people and a culture of poor people. That of the rich, very decent: I
    buy and I pay. That of poor people: how can I get this? How do I steal
    from rich people or from whomever? Many good, humble and patriotic
    families, told their son who works, for example, in the hotel industry:
    'Hey, take away a bedsheet, a pillow, bring me this, bring me that.'
    Those attitudes are born from the culture of poverty, and when social
    changes are made to change all that, habits last a much longer time."20

    In that interview, Fidel Castro added a twist to the "culture of
    poverty" theory that has a special resonance in Soviet-type societies
    such as Cuba with highly selective institutions such as the famous Lenin
    School outside of Havana. He indicated to Ramonet that the country's
    selective and meritocratic education system had created a situation
    where the children of workers and of Afro-Cubans tended to perpetuate
    themselves in the lower levels of society. Castro explained that this
    had happened because "the parental level of schooling, even where there
    has been a Revolution, continues to have a tremendous influence in the
    eventual fate of the children. And you see that the children whose
    parents come from the humblest sectors, or with less knowledge, don't
    get the necessary grades to enter the best schools. And that tends to
    perpetuate itself through the decades. And if you leave things as they
    are, you can predict the children of those people will never be
    directors of enterprises, managers, or will occupy important positions
    because today you cannot direct anything without a university education.
    What they can expect, in the first place, is to go to prison."21
    According to Fidel Castro, the Cuban government had begun to tackle the
    problem in 2001. At that time, the government began to substantially
    expand access to higher education through a system of university
    extensions in a variety of locations such as municipalities, sugar
    mills, and even prisons. As Castro explained it, this expansion had, on
    the one hand, turned into state-supported university students people
    between seventeen to thirty years of age who had not finished their
    secondary education and who for a variety of causes were neither
    studying nor working when they were grafted into the program. On the
    other hand, the expansion made adjunct professors out of laid off
    personnel from the administrative staff of enterprises such as those in
    the sugar industry. According to Castro, there were 500,000 university
    students in Cuba in 2005 and over 90,000 [or approximately 20 percent of
    the total] had been recruited through these new means.22 What Castro
    left unsaid was the obvious fact that this was a program designed, in
    great part, to address the issue of unemployment. (I should mention that
    during my recent visit, one former academic explained that the principal
    reason for her recent retirement had been her objection to the low
    educational quality of the new program.)

    Leaving aside the intrinsic merits or flaws of Fidel Castro's
    educational innovations, he assigns an excessive weight to education as
    an explanation for the fate of marginalized people in Cuba. This is
    Castro's way to change the subject from the state of the Cuban economy
    since the collapse of the USSR, and particularly the devastating and
    sharply inequitable effects of the establishment of a two-track economy
    of pesos on one hand and hard currency on the other. Fidel Castro's talk
    about educational inequalities, as real as they undoubtedly are, is a
    way of not talking about class and race as such or about the fundamental
    economic inequalities mentioned above, let alone the political
    inequalities of the highly hierarchical one-party state. It remains to
    be seen what impact these changes in higher education will have first,
    on the educational system itself, and second, on the composition of the
    higher circles in Cuba. It will be important to find out the impact that
    a program not specifically and explicitly oriented to the elimination of
    racial exclusion may have on the latter.

    We do not know, in the last analysis, what actual role race and
    marginality are likely to play in a Cuban transition. For one thing,
    racial consciousness in Cuba is not likely to develop along the lines it
    took in the United States, nor we do know at this time what political
    and organizational forms popular resistance to the likely state
    sponsored capitalist transition is going to take.


    1. I was unaware of these developments previous to my recent
    visit to Cuba. See "An Interview with Samuel Farber: Cuban Reality
    Beyond Fidel," Against the Current, 126, January/February 2007, 14-15.

    2. In an interview with the Argentinian newspaper Clarín (March
    3, 2007), Alarcòn declared that "the reforms of the compañero Deng
    Xiaoping in China are very positive for the Chinese people. But one has
    to understand those reforms within the context of the Chinese
    revolution." In the same interview, Alarcòn also stated that "the world
    has not changed in a restorationist sense that will bring back the
    Bolsheviks and the soviet model, nor will it be the bare capitalism of
    neoliberalism. It will be a diverse world. Why shouldn't we copy
    something from China or the United States? And why wouldn't the United
    States adopt some of the good things that Iran, Korea or Argentina may
    have? There has to be pluralism and to let everyone choose its own road.
    We will search for ours within our revolution." return

    3. For a more elaborate analysis of this prospect see my article
    "Cuba's likely transition and its politics," International Socialist
    Review, Issue 48, July-August 2006, 43-50. This article was published a
    little over a month before Fidel Castro left office on July 31, 2006. return

    4. Samuel Farber, "Going Home to Cuba," Critique (Glasgow,
    Scotland), No. 13, 1981, 138-150, "A Look at Cuba Today," Changes,
    July/August 1980, 13-21, and "Cuba Today & Prospects for Change," New
    Politics, VIII, 1, Summer 2000, 164-174. return

    5. See "Busca Cuba frenar a pepenadores de basura," La Jornada
    (Mexico City), March 26, 2007 reporting on an article that had appeared
    the same day in the Cuban regional weekly Tribuna de la Habana. return

    6. Yailin Orta Rivera and Norge Martínez Montero, "La Vieja Gran
    Estafa," Juventud Rebelde, October 1, 2006. return

    7. María Julia Mayoral, " 'Canibaleo' en las Torres," Granma,
    Lunes, 19 de Febrero del 2007, 4-5. return

    8. Tourism continued to diminish in the early months of 2007
    with a decline of 7 percent in January and 13 percent in February
    compared to the same months in 2006. The high season for tourism in Cuba
    starts in January and ends in April. "Turismo en Cuba sigue declinando
    por precios y embargo," Reuters dispatch of March 14, 2007. return

    9. Andrea Rodríguez, "Expertos cubanos investigan sobre
    marginalidad," Associated Press dispatch, December 8, 2006. return

    10. Thus, for example, the wife of an old friend of mine had a
    botched colonoscopy that was administered by a technician, rather than
    by a qualified specialist, and without anesthesia, since there was none
    available. return

    11. Pedro Alvarez, the head of Alimport, Cuba's food import
    agency, has stated that if the U.S. blockade was lifted, bilateral trade
    in goods and services could total as much as $21 billion in five years.
    Esteban Israel (Reuters), "Cuba says US rules limiting food trade,"
    Washington Post, March 28, 2007. return

    12. At the time of this writing in late March of 2007, no changes
    in the leadership of UNEAC had yet taken place. return

    13. In fact, one of my friends in Havana asked me to locate some
    research sources on the Internet and to email him what I found there. return

    14. For an example of an article written from an leftist
    oppositionist perspective inside Cuba see Manuel Paz Ortega (pseudonym)
    " 'The Battle of Ideas' and the Capitalist Transformation of the Cuban
    State," IV Online Magazine: IV386, February 2007. return

    15. In fact, the ferment among intellectuals and artists that
    began in January apparently still continued at the time of this writing
    as shown by a very critical article by the distinguished architect Mario
    Coyula that was being circulated in Cuba via email in March of this
    year. Under the title of "El Trinquenio Amargo y la Ciudad Distòpica.
    Autopsia de una Utopía," Coyula argued that the darkest period of
    repression of the present regime lasted fifteen, and not five years, as
    Fornet claimed, and that its consequences have lasted until the present
    day. Coyula goes well beyond historical matters and presents a very
    critical perspective of things that need to be corrected in Cuba, with a
    special emphasis on urban issues. return

    16. Alejandro de la Fuente, A Nation for All. Race, Inequality
    and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba, Chapel Hill, N.C.: The
    University of North Carolina Press, 308, and "Data from the 2002
    Population and Housing Census are officially announced," Granma Digital
    Internacional, November 14, 2005. return

    17. A recent article by Henley C. Adams in the Latin American
    Research Review (February 2004) painstakingly documents the relatively
    small proportion of Blacks in the Political Bureau and Central Committee
    of the Cuban Communist Party, in the Council of Ministers, and among top
    officers of the Cuban Armed Forces. return

    18. "Controversia. Entendemos la marginalidad?" Temas, 27,
    Octubre-Diciembre 2001, 69-96. return

    19. César Gonzàlez-Calero, "Cuba: Memorias del Subdesarrollo," El
    Universal, Monday, November 20, 2006. return

    20. Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro. Biografía a Dos Voces,
    Barcelona, Spain: Random House Mondadori, S.A., 2006, 211, 323-24. My
    translation. return

    21. Ramonet, 365. My translation. return

    22. Ramonet, 365-67. return

    SAMUEL FARBER was born and raised in Cuba. He is a long-time
    socialist and the author of numerous works on Cuba including The Origins
    of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (University of North Carolina
    Press), 2006.

    Farber, Visiting Raúl Castro's Cuba (5 June 2009)

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