As far back as ten years ago, an old pal of mine — much, much warmer to the Cuban regime than I — described Cuba as a sort of jet airliner, circling, circling and circling; a society up in the air and unsure where and how it was going to land.
Looks now like the suspense is over. Time to buckle up your seat belts and put your head between knees and pray you survive.
Just days after Fidel Castro said the Cuban economic model didn’t work and then said he didn’t say it, the Cuban state has announced it is laying off a million workers, 20% of the national work force. So, I guess Fidel meant what he said he didn’t say. The layoffs had been rumored for months and come as little surprise to most Cubans — though I think it fair to say that few predicted the shock would be quite of this scale.
The Cuban trade unions of all people, in language similar to a Thatcherite cabinet minister has applauded the move and has re-assured its nervous members that nobody is really going to lose their job. Instead, they will be transitioned into an expanded private sector. Service workers, like barbers and taxi drivers, will be forced –for better or worse– to work for themselves and to pay a Steve Forbes-like 25% flat tax for social services. Others state employees will be “allowed” to form cooperatives. Details are sketchy but some factories might be semi-privatized. Some Cubans will be allowed to open, or re-open small businesses like restaurants and so on. In other words, a million or so Cubans (and their families) will be cut loose to thrive or fail in a capitalist marketplace.
While the already wildly insufficient ration card will be maintained, state subsidies on some basic goods are already being cut.
You can perfume this anyway you like but what we are seeing is a second-drawer emulation of the Chinese model: the formal introduction of an expanded capitalist market(and all the class differences that come with it) unaccompanied by any democratization of the political system. In other words, the worst of both worlds.
(Standby, now, for the hilarious rationalizations for the introduction of savage capitalism into the Cuban economy by “revolutionary” Castro apologists here and abroad. NONE of whom will be able to say they had previously called for or supported such a radical move bit now magically think it’s great).
Make no mistake: This is is formal beginning of the post-Castro era and the definitive end to any lingering illusions that Cuba was able to create a new, more equal society. It’s an oft-repeated joke, but one that is absolutely true when Cubans wryly comment that ‘The only victory won by the Cuban Revolution is the right not to work.” True. True. True. It was meager and always not enough. But everything in Cuban was given. Basically free rent, free transportation, dirt cheap food staples and absolutely guaranteed employment whether you showed up or not or if you performed any work or not.”
Those days are now over.
Of course, the assurances that the laid off workers will all now be taken care of by the new, larger, private sector are patently absurd. I think readers of this blog, who actually live in a market society, know that nothing is guaranteed in the market. Ask the 250 million rural Chinese who have become permanent nomads how much they are guaranteed once the state-granted “iron rice bowl” was snatched by similar capitalist reforms.
Don’t misunderstand me. I think this sort of move has been inevitable for a long, long time. The Cuban state cannot afford to bankroll the lives of all its subjects. But the transition to as a civil as possible a market economy should have begun two or three decades ago when it was already evident that the Cuban system had failed. There might have been a much softer landing rather than a jarring social crash.
And I do mean “system” because what exists in Cuba has never been and is not socialism. It is a freakish state plantation capitalism. Not only are workers exploited directly by the all-powerful “people’s state” in which they have no voice — but for two decades now the same Cuban state has acted as a ruthless labor broker renting out portions of its oppressed and powerless work force to foreign private capitalists who have been allowed to set up shop in strategic sectors of the economy. The Cuban state charges the foreign firm a market rate in hard currency and pays the worker a meager Cuban wage while working for a Spanish, Dutch, Canadian or Mexican capitalist cartel.
Dissident Havana-based writer Yoani Sanchez hits the mark when she writes:
One of the most frequent topics of discussions when talking about Cuba, is whether the reality in which we live can really be called “socialist.” For my generation, which grew up with books on Marxism, manuals on scientific communism, and volumes of the writings of Lenin, it is difficult to find the Cuban model in those works. When someone asks me about it I say that on this island we live under state capitalism, or, as one perhaps could call it, on the Party’s plantation… the family clan’s plantation…
My theory derives from those ancient books I was forced to study, where there was one factor essential for characterizing a society as socialist: the methods of production were in the hands of the workers. But what I see around me is an “omni-proprietary” state, owner of the machines, the industries, the infrastructure of a nation and of all the decisions made about it. A master who pays the lowest possible wages and demands applause and unconditional ideological fealty from his workers.
This miserly owner now warns that he cannot continue to employ more than one million of those working on the public payroll. “To advance the development and actualization of the economic model,” we are told payrolls must be drastically reduced, whilewill see only the smallest and most controlled expansion. Even the Cuban Workers Center — the only labor union allowed in the country — reports that the layoffs will come soon and we must accept them with discipline. A sad performance for those whose role it is to represent the rights of their members vis-a-vis the powers-that-be and not vice versa.
What will the antiquated owner, who has possessed this Island for five decades, do when his unemployed of today become the dissatisfied of tomorrow? How will he react when the labor and economic autonomy of the self-employed turns into ideological autonomy? Then we will hear cursing and stigmatization of the prosperous, because any surplus — like the presidential chair — can only be his.
Well, you can agree or disagree with Yoani’s bitter attitude. But some realities she suggests are undeniable even to those knuckleheads who think this is just some or another “adjustment” in the ongoing work of the Cuban Revolution. When you introduce a private sector, you formalize class divisions. Those divisions have long existed inside Cuban “socialism.” Those who work in the “dollar sector” — in foreign-owned hotels, other tourist sectors, and in some areas of foreign-owned enterprises, have been able to, legally or otherwise, siphon off streams of hard currency. The end result is that waiters, valets, maids and, of course, hookers, made upteen times per month than a doctor or teacher.
Till now, this has been something that polite Cuban society just didn’t talk about. The new Cuba will now have to tolerate, somehow, people who are getting openly wealthy while other less fortunate Cubans become their wage slaves (without a real union). I don’t want to go all Marxist on you and everything, but that new CLASS of self-employed and entrepreneurs are going to want political representation as they grow. And they will get it. They will either give rise to some sort of opposition, or much more likely, the actually existing Cuban state will make a shift and will represent them. Again, look at the Chinese model in which fabulously wealthy exploiters are more than happy to be represented by a reptilian Communist Party which serves to keep the workers nice and docile and ready to work 60 hours a week.
Likewise, Cuba is not only going to have a lot more rich people, it’s also going to have a lot more poor people. All those people who are going to be at the bottom of the private sector pyramid. You know, like the unemployed and the homeless. I reckon that some of this might be mitigated for a short period. But, remember, the state is already bankrupt. That’s why it’s laying off one out of five of its workers.
One final thought that might interest only those engaged in Marxist trivia. But much of the economic catastrophe in Cuba is a result not only of the American embargo, but also because of Fidel Castro’s rather crude and incomplete understanding of the Marxism he contends to embody. Marx saw “socialism” as an economic stage superior to capitalism. He didn’t mean morally superior. Marx meant that socialism, a society of equality, could ONLY be built upon a fully developed and mature, indeed over-ripe, global capitalist system. The ideal of socialism was to more equally distribute wealth, not poverty. It wasn’t until Stalin himself bastardized and perverted Marxist economic theory that any serious Marxist –anywhere– believed. Let alone an impoverished third world island.
By now you have probably stopped reading so I might as well continue for another few paragraphs. In this regard, in the economic sphere, Castro is one of the purest Stalinists in history. There was no historical “law” nor any moral reason why he couldn’t have led the revolution he did and even proclaim his government “socialist.” But if he knew anything about Marxism or just basic economics, he would have known that he had to create some wealth, not just distribute the scarcity that he inherited. To have nationalized what Marxists call the “commanding heights” of the Cuban economy in the early 1960′s — major industry, major services and major financial sectors might have made a lot of sense and might have helped accelerate Cuban economic development if done in the proper political-economic framework. But by 1965, Castro had gone way, way off the rails as the state had literally expropriated one hundred per cent of all economic activity (well, not exactly all activity as some peasants were allowed to toil the land- but almost everything). That shoe shine boys and snow cone vendors were nationalized and became state employees (!) were merely comic relief. The real tragedy resided in Castro eliminating all small business, all private services and allowing no space for private industrial or technological development, innovation and investment, even within the bounds of a more just, more equal society (the bitter irony, of course, is that a half century after the fact, he is forced to do so anyway). FAIL.
For Castro a monopoly on political power was not enough, He demanded and created an undemocratic monopoly on every aspect of economic life as well. And I assure you, what Castro did in that regard, has NOTHING to do with a Marxist conception of a society movingtoward socialism.
OK. Enough of that. We can end this history lesson on a lighter note.`A couple of decades ago as The Wall was crumbling, there was yet another sardonic joke that became popular in Eastern Europe. It now, sadly, applies to Cuba as well. It went something like this:
Teacher: “Comrade Student Nikolai, what is the correct definition of the word Communism?”
Student: (snapping to attention and beaming with self-satisfaction)” Comrade Teacher, that is an easy question. Communism is the historical phase between Capitalism and Capitalism.”