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No workers’ paradise

Cuba's not my idea of socialism, says Dave Osler in his retort to Diana Raby

July 11, 2008
4 min read

Seen some of the news stories coming out of Havana lately, Diana? Here’s a taster: Carlos Mateu, vice-minister of labour and social security, has announced a radical shake-up of the pay structure in the public sector, which comprises 90 per cent of the Cuban economy.

‘Egalitarianism is not convenient,’ announces one government newspaper – not that there are any other kinds of newspaper in Cuba, of course. So while workers are to be eligible for a bonus of up to 5 per cent on their meagre £10-a-month salaries, managers are set for pay rises of 30 per cent.

Meanwhile, many analysts – including some of those on the spot – are predicting moves towards the reintroduction of capitalism in the contemporary Chinese or Vietnamese variant of authoritarian Market-Leninism. You insist this isn’t happening; we shall see.

I guess that, at bottom, the point of my objections to your starry-eyed support for Cuba is that I am not convinced that the government is pursuing a socialist project. As the genuine left used to point out to Communist Party fellow travellers after the rise of the Berlin Wall, a country cannot be a workers’ paradise if so many workers are prepared to risk their lives to get the hell out.

Of course the affluence of Miami accounts for a lot. But it is not the main reason for discontent on Havana’s streets, as you will know if you talk to many ordinary Cubans. The desire for greater political freedom is very real.

I don’t know whether or not you consider yourself a Marxist, Diana. But as the Cuban leadership applies that designation to itself, let’s consider Cuba from the standpoint of the Marxist theory of the state.

For a start, the working class played no central role in the 1959 revolution. That was entirely by design; it was not accorded any significant part in the plans of the 12 members of the 26 July Movement who survived the Granma landing, who did not at that point consider the revolution socialist in conception.

At no subsequent point did workers and peasants gain control over Cuba’s economy or society. A small strata – and yes, I would call them a ruling class – exercises this instead. It is this elite that directs the nationalised industries and runs the collective farms.

If Cuba has not degenerated into a family business, how come it is in the gift of a sickly Fidel simply to announce that kid brother is taking over?

Nor is the Cuban state in any sense withering away, as the continued influence of the armed forces underlines. Far from being some sort of souped-up revolutionary militia, as you seem to believe, the Cuban military – which was quick to move onto the streets when Fidel announced he was standing down – remains a body of armed men that in the last resort guarantees the rule of the elite over the subordinate classes. That’s not my idea of socialism.

‘Poder popular’ is anything but people’s power. It represents essentially a devolution to the local level of the detailed implementation of government plans and strategies. It is a top-down exercise, a transmission belt for a ruling party, in which all candidates for local office come pre-approved by that ruling party. The ‘limitations’ Diana cites are actually the entire point of the system.

None of this is to apologise for the neoliberalism of the British state. But let’s not put scare quotes around ‘democracy’ in reference to the UK, either. As a university lecturer, Ms Raby tables her criticisms of the political system from the safety of a reasonably well-paid public sector job. In Cuba, this would put her behind bars.

And while I would allow that Chavez deserves a certain degree of credit for his brand of populist petro-social democracy, the model is simply not transferable to countries that lack Venezuela’s oil endowment, with or without Cuban inspiration.

But to speak of some sort of new radical axis in Latin America is to miss the point. Apologetics on behalf of illusory workers’ fatherlands should not inform the British left’s current thinking. The tasks we face are rather closer to home.


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