The recent visit of the Pope to Cuba has again focussed upon the island and the economic and political changes it is under-going. Ahead of his visit, Pope Benedict had suggested Cuba’s “Marxist” structure ”no longer corresponds to reality” and called for the adoption of a ”new model”. Pope Benedict XVI has urged Cubans to build an ”open and renewed society”. His prayers at the island’s holiest site included a plea for ”those deprived of freedom.” but Cuba is not Poland, where the catholic church was an important influence upon the opposition to the state-capitalist regime. Although around 60% of Cubans are baptised as Catholics, only 5% are practising. Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion, has more adherents.
Under Raúl Castro, Cuba has begun the journey from state-capitalism towards a more free-market capitalism. What Fidel Castro and Che Guevara called “socialism” did not correspond to Marx’s “first phase of communist society” that many erroneously associate with the term since it was based on the state, not the common, ownership and control of the means of production, the majority remaining propertyless and having to sell their working skills to live. As the state was controlled by the leaders of a minority vanguard party, these leaders became in effect the employers of the excluded majority.
Compared to many of its neighbours in Latin America and the Caribbean, for all its faults, Castro’s Cuba did accomplish many achievements in social welfare that has to be acknowledged. Its social programmes from cradle to grave, provided free world-class health care and education as well as free pensions and funerals. Child malnutrition and adult illiteracy were eliminated. Life expectancy and many other social indicators rose above those of the United States. Thanks to good health care very few children die in infancy, and Cubans live to a ripe old age. Cuba is also the only Latin American country whose population is falling. In 2010, 37,000 Cuban doctors and other health workers were working in 77 countries around the world, mostly in Venezuela but also in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America. The Cuban government also offers scholarships to 20,000 Latin Americans to study.
Every Cuban household had (and still has) a ration book (or libreta) entitling it to a monthly supply of food and other staples, provided at nominal cost. Many other services were (and are) similarly subsidised. Compared with the rest of Latin America, Cuba seemed to be achieving greater racial and sexual equality.
But ever since the fall of state-capitalism in the Soviet Union and the disappearance of its subsidies which had offset the economic embargo imposed by the United States in 1960 suddenly dried up, Cuba covered the gap by printing money, which stoked inflation. Cuba is starting to resemble the rest of Latin America. The Gini coefficient of income inequality (where 0 represents complete equality and 1 complete inequality) rose from 0.24 in the late 1980s to 0.41 a decade later, according to research quoted in Espacio Laical, a magazine published by Cuba’s Catholic church. A confidential later study is said to have put the figure at 0.5, similar to the Latin American average of 0.53 in the mid-2000s.
In real terms the average wage has dropped to just 25% of its value in 1989. A survey in Havana in 2000 found that 20% of the population was poor (defined as “at risk of being unable to satisfy their basic needs”); the national figure now is almost certainly higher.
Social services have suffered, too. According to a paper by Carmelo Mesa Lago, a Cuban economist at the University of Pittsburgh, and Pavel Vidal, an economist at Havana University’s Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEEC), in 1989 Cuba outranked every other Latin American country in all social indicators except housing. But between 1989 and 1993 social spending per head was slashed by 78% in real terms (It has since recovered somewhat.)
And now health services and education are becoming harder to access and getting worse. Secondary-school enrolment is below its 1989 peak. There is a surfeit of humanities graduates and a shortage of agronomists and engineers. Although infant mortality has continued to fall, maternal mortality has risen. Many drugs are in short supply. Hospital patients sometimes have to bring their own bed-sheets. There are reports of doctors starting to demand payment. But the main reason for the shortage of medical staff is low salaries. A woman who gave her name as Grisel says she worked as a family doctor for just $23 a month, but now earns $40 a month in an improvised craft shop in Havana. As a doctor “I faced a choice of buying shoes or eating.”
Cuba’s growing social inequalities are symbolised by the dual currency system introduced. The “convertible peso”, or CUC, is now fixed at par to the dollar. The ordinary Cuban peso is theoretically worth the same as the CUC, but that is an accounting fiction. In fact the peso is pegged at 24 to the CUC. The CUC is used for foreign trade and tourism. Wages and the prices of basic goods in the domestic economy are set in pesos. The average monthly wage is 454 pesos, or $19. The shelves of state-owned shops selling merchandise in pesos are sparsely stocked. Many things, from white goods to processed foods, can be bought only with CUCs. Having repeatedly defaulted on its foreign debt, Cuba has little access to credit. Instead of devaluing the CUC, which would have pushed up inflation, in January 2009 the government seized about $1 billion in hard-currency balances held by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and foreign joint ventures.
Cuban statistics are incomplete, inconsistent and often questionable. But Carmelo Mesa Lago at the University of Pittsburgh has calculated that output per head of 15 out of 22 main agricultural and industrial products was dramatically lower in 2007 than it had been in 1958. The biggest growth has come in oil and gas and in nickel mining, largely thanks to investment since the 1990s by Sherritt, a Canadian firm. But output per head of sugar, an iconic Cuban product, has dropped to an eighth of its level in 1958 and 1989.
Across Cuba small businesses are proliferating. In 2008 private farmers and co-ops were permitted to lease idle state land for ten years. By December last year 1.4m hectares had been handed out. The government has now agreed to extend the lease-period to up to 25 years, allow farm buildings to be put up and pay for any improvements if the leases are not renewed.Cuba has no visible oligarchs as yet, but it does have a number of increasingly wealthy people. They include farmers, owners of some tourist-linked businesses such as guest houses and restaurants, and some officials who profit from their contacts. “Habana Libre”, a recently published book about the lifestyles of the city’s privileged caste of artists and musicians, included photographs of sons of Fidel and Che Guevara.
The “Communist” Party remains the only legal political party in Cuba. Cuba’s 1976 constitution defines the “Communist” Party as the “directing force of society and the state”. It has 800,000 members, and another 700,000 in its youth wing. The party bureaucracy has been accustomed to exercising power at all levels in a top-down fashion. When in 2002 activists gathered the 10,000 signatures needed to ask the National Assembly to debate their request for multi-party elections, the regime responded with a counter-referendum in which 8m citizens were persuaded to vote for a constitutional amendment to declare socialism “irrevocable”. Much of the resistance to democratic political change can be explained by bureaucratic inertia and the fear of loss of power and the perks that go with it.
Many political prisoners have been freed and Cuba has signed on to the UN covenants on human rights. Repression has become less brutal, though two prisoners have died on hunger strikes. Books are still being censored, but a few more critical ones are being published, along with films and art works. La Rotilla, an annual alternative-music festival that attracted thousands of young people, was cancelled last year after the government tried to take it over. Cubans grumble far more openly than they used to, and academic debate has become a bit freer. But calls for democracy and free elections are still silenced.
The romantic Leftist supporters of Cuba put their concerns for “national rights” before class solidarity, in supporting the Cuban regime, excusing the repressive parts of Castro’s regime as mistakes, or excesses due to the American economic embargo against it. Many apologists stay stoically silent on Cuba’s internal regime. They excuse its actions as a necessary defence against US aggression.
Cuba does indeed show what could be possible, even with meagre resources to meet the needs of human beings, and how artificial the deprivation across much of the rest of the world is. The Socialist Party do not, however, consider that the best way to assist the workers of Cuba is to support the régime that dragoons them in siege warfare with the US, but that the spread of the world socialist revolution is the only way to rescue them from the unpalatable set of choices facing them. To do that, we need to free socialism from the taint of the undemocratic methods applied in Cuba and stand clearly for the political freedoms of association and speech for the working class the world over, so as better to spread the ideas and consciousness required for the building of a truly stateless classless world co-operative commonwealth.
Statistics from the Economist magazine