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Cuba: response to Dave Osler

Diana Raby responds to Dave Osler

May 29, 2008
5 min read

Dave Osler’s reply to my initial piece on Cuba is a caricature. I find it sad that such a dedicated activist on the socialist and democratic left should fall so completely for liberal clichés.

To begin with a few of Dave’s specific allegations. It is a myth that the ‘Castroites’ were fundamentally middle-class. Although some obviously fit that description, the majority of the revolutionaries were of worker or peasant background.

Secondly, the Cuban leadership is not ‘a family business’. Raul is there on his merits, having played a leading role in the struggle alongside his brother from the beginning. None of Fidel’s children has a significant role in the government.

It is also a caricature to compare Cuba to former Latin American military regimes. This is a revolutionary army which shares the same values and conditions of life as the majority of Cubans and has never taken repressive action against its own people; and in any case the regular military establishment has been reduced in size in recent years with the adoption of the ‘War of All the People’ defence strategy.

But Cuba, for Dave, is ‘a dictatorship’ and ‘not a democracy of any sort’. What exactly does he mean by this? In particular, what is a democracy? The remarkable success of liberal ‘democracy’ in the UK, the US or most capitalist countries in co-opting, neutralising or dividing any movement for real popular empowerment should give pause for thought. (In no way is this an apology for arbitrary rule, but rather a plea to consider seriously alternative mechanisms of popular empowerment.)

Democracy – rule by the people – begins from below. It means direct engagement of communities, beginning at street and neighbourhood level, in running their own affairs. Similarly at the workplace, in factory, field, office or school, it implies direct worker and citizen involvement. At one remove, democracy is the coordinated authority of local communities in running municipal, county or provincial affairs, and at further remove, in national government.

Cuba has a vigorous system of local democracy. The direct nomination of candidates in community meetings and their election as delegates of popular power in multi-candidate, secret-ballot elections, plus their obligation to report back in person every six months in not just one but several local meetings (with a real possibility of recall), guarantees a degree of local control unimaginable in the UK. I have witnessed such meetings myself and they are quite impressive.

True, at higher level there are limitations, but there is still a very real effort to ensure popular input into decision-making through systematic consultation processes by commissions of the National Assembly, ‘workers’ parliaments’ and similar devices.

To say that Cuba has ‘plenty of political prisoners’ is also seriously misleading. Even the numbers given by international agencies are quite small, and virtually all of them are detained for illegally taking financing from the US interests section.

So long as the US is actively committed to the overthrow of the revolution it is impossible to have a legitimate and independent opposition in Cuba. Yes, this does limit the full expression of socialist democracy, but analysis has to be based on actual existing conditions and not just on abstract ideal models, which is what David Osler does.

Another myth repeated by Dave is that Cuba faces ‘economic sclerosis’. In actual fact it has enjoyed steady recovery for 14 years since the depth of the crisis in 1994, and last year posted the highest growth rate in Latin America at 12 per cent. Reforms are needed (particularly in agriculture) and are being introduced, but on neither neoliberal nor Chinese lines, both of which have been explicitly rejected.

Nominal salaries in Cuba are indeed tiny by Western standards, but the importance of the ‘social wage’ and of worker entitlement makes comparisons very misleading. It is not only a matter of free health care and education, but highly subsidised rates for electricity, gas and other utilities, housing laws which ensure that rents and mortgages do not exceed 20 per cent of household income, and other measures to ensure a basic civilised minimum for all. Direct worker involvement in enterprises, unions and People’s Councils also means that arbitrary sackings, excessive overtime or other infringements of labour rights are virtually unknown.

Of course there is a scarcity of consumer goods in Cuba, but this is an inevitable consequence of the blockade and also of the attempt to achieve a rational system of distribution. If the world ever adopts the kind of environmental measures advocated by green activists as essential for human survival, we may all have to accept restrictions which will make Cuban rationing look like a consumer paradise.

Finally, Dave completely ignores my point about Cuba’s significance for the new wave of popular and progressive governments in Latin America. But then they probably don’t measure up to his high standards either.

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