For leftists, Cuba has always been kind of like the promised land. The country that has stood up to the imperialist giant to the North — the United States For the past 60 plus years, it is Cuba that has led the fight for liberation and socialist struggles both in Latin America and around the world. The country that never gave in, or gave up, no matter how hard the United States came down on the socialist island.
And now I was there, on my first day, drinking a Mojito in one of the Palavers in an upscale neighborhood near the University of Havana. Although I was with a government sponsored mostly American delegation studying cooperatives, we were clearly in a tourist area since Americans are not allowed free access to all areas of the country. I was told, we were eating in a “self-organized” cooperative — not a State sponsored cooperative (the innuendo being that it would be less bureaucratic and "top down" as workers had organized it themselves).
The restaurant was beautifully appointed, the menu was international (read comfortable for Europeans and Americans), the large warehouse beautifully renovated and decorated, with many attractive young waiters . The menu was in Spanish and the prices were in CUCs. CUCs are the special tourist currency (one CUC is equal to one dollar) and was introduced into Cuba during the “Special Period” in reaction to the intensification of sanctions by the United States against Cuba’s socialist economy.
(Special Note: The whole time I was there, the 1990s were always referred to as the “Special Period" — the same way that Americans talk about the Great Depression. For Cubans, this was the time when the fall of the Soviet Union [which had supported Cuba since the revolution in 1959] led to intense food, housing, and gas shortages).
Back to the CUCs
The CUCs are especially for luxury items. Most Cubans are paid their wages in pesos, the currency for everyday items. One CUC equals 25 pesos. Most of the wait staff in the restaurant that I talked to were delighted to be paid in CUCs; but I wondered what it felt like when they went back home to a pesos economy after watching us casually drop $10 CUCs on what was considered a moderately priced appetizer and a drink but which was equivalent to one month’s salary in pesos.
Some of the members of our delegation, especially the younger folks, felt somewhat used and disappointed that Cubans they would meet in a club or on the street would ask them to go to dinner and then expect the tourists to pay. Considering that as Americans we had pretty much destroyed their economy for the last 60 years, I felt that what I came to call the “CUCs for Cuba” campaign was just one more way we could do our bit of restitution for all the harm we had caused.
For the next two weeks, our delegation was privileged to dialogue in conferences at the Institute of Philosophy and the University of Havana with our peers in the Cuban academic community. The tour organizers had been making the trek to Havana for fifteen years providing an space for the two groups of academics to exchange ideas. This was the first time the group had focused specifically on cooperatives as the Cubans were currently holding discussions on a new cooperative law.
In the mornings we would share papers on US- Cuba relations, socialism, diversity in the culture (discrimination against Afro Cubans), Cuba’s version of democracy — not so different from ours — only their Congress and “one party” system is coordinated behind the scenes by the Communist party whereas ours is coordinated behind the scenes by the Koch Brothers and Goldman Sachs.
We also learned about the planning and development of both state run and private sector cooperatives which are a form of business where there is no boss and workers democratically decide on the business’s goals and democratically share the proceeds (a sort of semi-socialist form within the capitalist market).
In the afternoon we would visit the newly formed coops. We focused on the urban worker owned and managed businesses. Some of the businesses would continue to be run by the state — others were privately organized. All were expected, with significant help from the state in the early stages, to be self-supporting businesses within three years.
Our group included a number of experts with many book titles to their names on both the American and Cuban side, as well as active members of both producer coops (where you share space, initial resources and then market your products together) as well as worker owned and managed coops (our focus) in the urban areas. There were also young aspiring academics who just wanted to learn more about Cuba’s socialist enterprise. I think many of us felt that, while the cooperative project introduced a mixed capitalist economy into Cuba’s socialist system, it also gave people an opportunity to create a more from the ground up type of economic structure that would involve all the workers in a more democratic way.
Most of the tour members were American but we had a couple of folks from India, two women cooperative organizers from Mexico, a woman from Germany who had experience with the European cooperative movement (as well as in the ex-Yugoslavia).
My roommate was a young member of the Chinese Communist Party who was on a traveling scholars visa to the West. China has been a big supporter of the idea of State planning mixed with capitalist markets. Some call it State capitalism. My roommate, justifying the move toward capitalist markets noted that “they could all be poor and equal together or they could provide people with a booming economy which increased wealth for everyone and if it was for the good of the people, this was the main criteria for socialism.” She (as well as many other young people in Cuba) seemed very enamored with the commodity economy and seemed to blur the ideas of capitalism and communism together — needless to say there was little talk of Marx’s idea of exploitation of workers in capitalist production. She talked about coops providing equality among the coop members as well as the coops’ focus on human needs instead of capitalist profit as the main criteria for socialism.
The mixture of socialist planning and small private sector businesses that Cuba is attempting seems to mirror some of the same paths as that taken by the Chinese; although I think that Cuba was forced into this path by the deprivation caused by the embargo (what Cuba calls the blockade). The inability to obtain sufficient raw materials under the harsh sanctions of the blockade after the Soviet Union dissolved and the fact that the state could no longer keep the economy afloat, forced Cuba into the private sector market to survive.
Still, the major industries are under state control, and Cuba’s foray into experimenting with worker owned and managed coops and other forms of private enterprise like sustainable farming and a sharing economy are being carefully planned. In most cases, the state still owns the land or buildings and provides the initial training. Agriculture has been in the process of transitioning into increasingly smaller cooperatives, and private farms for some time now, where farmers or cooperatives work on land given to the farmers to use by the state.
Our group focused more on the urban cooperative businesses which seem to be limited to those businesses which provide local services — primarily restaurants (we ate well and often leaving the requisite CUCs), transportation (taxis), local residential construction (although the major renovation of historical buildings in downtown Havana to bring in more tourists is also supposed to use some cooperative labor).
Although the coops are managed by the workers and the workers share the profits, many of the criteria of a coop seemed to be missing or in progress — i.e., there was usually one spokesperson who appeared to be the manager or “boss” or a husband and wife heading up the business (coops are not supposed to be family businesses) and there did not always seem to be a clear path as to how the people who worked there could elect a different manager or board members (they all had elected boards) if they wanted to do so. In some cases, the members were encouraged to participate in the decision-making process, in others not so much. There were usually several pay scales, and often a sense of the manager and boards as separate from the rest of the “workers". Mostly the workers didn’t mind, however, because they were making a lot more money and they seemed to get to vote on the pay scales.
As I mentioned earlier, among our group there seemed to be an implied criticism of the State-run coops and more support for the “self-organized” private sector model as they sometimes seemed more interesting and successful. While most of us assumed it was because they are less bureaucratic (and there may be some truth in that), we didn’t consider that the state coops were hampered by their lack of access to raw materials necessary to create the coops. As a visiting Puerto Rican educational scholar pointed out to me, the privately organized coops have come in and taken over the failed state coops because they have the money (capital) to develop the business that the state run coops do not. When I asked self-organized coops where they got their capital, they were often evasive. My source suggested that many of these businesses were started with money from remittances from wealthy relatives in the United States. She also noted that since most of the wealthy people living in the States are white, this ability of one group of Cubans to obtain and invest capital not only was reintroducing class divisions, but increasing the divisions again between the races since most Afro Cubans did not have access to remittances.
If coops are still a work in progress and less than ideal, I could say the same for our attempts to create coops in the United States and other regions where coops are just starting. Whether they become a transitional form, or a sort of amphibious form of socialism or just a road back to capitalism remains to be seen.
So the last day before we left, I was sitting at a table at lunch with one of the professors who is also a big wig in the Cuban Federation of Women. We were talking about family and kids and women and we got onto the subject of housing. This was also really revealing — how the public and private spheres have been balanced in a hopefully socialist state. I was told when I arrived that 85% of all Cubans owed their own house/apartment. I was surprised since this is higher than home ownership in the United States (at least New York). But there is a back story.
Apparently, after the revolution in 1959, the State gave everyone a residence. You could trade your home for another one, but you had to apply through the State. You could even find your own trade and then apply for the change if both parties agreed. In the 1970s, they changed the law so you could pay a small rent, and buy your own home (don’t know if the motivation for the change was personal or financial in that the state needed the money) but 85% of Cubans took advantage of it. You could also have a second summer home.
A couple of years ago, they cut out the middle man and you could buy a home directly from another Cuban on the open real estate market. This of course will have consequences for housing planning. What if you need to move to another sector to be closer to work, but with an open competitive housing market, the houses are now too expensive for you to buy? What if they renovate your apartment (like they are doing with the units in old Havana)? Is it likely that you will be allowed to move back into such a desirable place once it is redone or will you be moved somewhere else and will we have the Cuban version of gentrification? (Air BnB is already in Cuba).
However — These are only for individual homes which is still limited to two (regular and summer) homes. Large hotels cannot be purchased in Cuba. Hotel chains can only get a contract to manage them. A good portion of the money from the proceeds goes to the State (so that the money cannot be taken out of the country and will be spent on the Cuban economy). So there are still some limits on real estate.
The Obama factor
Obama was here just a little over a month ago, and everyone is talking about him with great pride, as if he is one of their own. Everyone wants to know where he ate breakfast so they can go there.
Obama has held out his hand in friendship although it is mainly with the offer of sweet capitalism, commodities Cubans have not had access too for a long time and the internet. You would think the embargo has been lifted. But it has not. It is still in place denying the Cuban society the resources and the right to develop the system it wants. There is the promise of internet (which sometimes works), credit cards (not available yet as promised) and bank loans (the banks are still not giving loans — the punishments rendered by the United States when the banks broke the embargo in the past have made them hesitant to start giving out money yet).
At the same time Cuba is trying to find its way to rapprochement with the United States, Obama is actively trying to destabilize the ALBA states in Latin America. Essentially, since Chavez started the Bolivarian regime in Venezuela, ALBA has been able to fend off the neoliberal agenda of the United States. And Obama wants the ability to interfere in the economies and politics of those countries back. Cuba has always been the symbol and real support for the progressive movements in Latin America; but the visuals in Obama’s divide and conquer approach don't look very good for progressives in the Southern hemisphere. A couple of weeks ago, Obama was asking the OAS to declare Venezuela a non-democratic country and sanction it yet again (a prelude to an excuse for an invasion). Bolivia is also on his radar. While the importance of ending the embargo to Cuba’s ability to survive and move forward is critical, one should always be careful of new friends. Don’t know if Obama is the proverbial iron hand in the velvet glove or just the velvet glove trying to push through the TPP, but Cuba, as the main leader of the left in LA has been put in a tough spot.
Cuba, mi amor
In spite of the lack of material resources due to the blockade, Cuba has developed and utilized their human resources beyond anything that could be expected..
Cuba has developed medical and educational resources which have even been exported. Right now, medical students from the United States are studying at little or no cost in Cuba to go back to the States and practice in under-served areas where our own wealthy physicians don't care to go. Physicians are always available to the people (there is a doctor on every block and there was one in our hotel).
When Cuba was unable to import the necessary pesticides and farm equipment, they developed a sophisticated program of organic gardening which is a showcase of environmentally sustainable urban agriculture. Their streets may have broken sidewalks but they are clean. The human expression of creativity is alive and well through the art and music displayed throughout the country. And sitting on the concrete wall along the Malecón looking out over the blue blue ocean … Que Lindo! I’ll be back!
P.S. There has been an uptick in strikes in China in the last year.