A traveller's notes from Cuba

The Cuban Revolution had always caught my attention. How was it possible for a planned economy to survive on a small island, less than 90 miles from the most powerful imperialist country on earth? Why didn't Cuba fall in the early 1990's together with the Soviet Union? What is the current situation in the island and what are the perspectives for the future?

These were some of the questions that I asked myself before my recent trip to Cuba. During the following couple of weeks I travelled across parts of the country, to get at least a taste of the complex situation facing the Cuban Revolution.

Capitalism abolished

The first thing that really springs to the eye, is the fact that Havana is so different from other big Latin American cities, not to speak of the metropolitan centres of Europe. There are no skyscrapers to be seen, nor any commercial billboards from multinational companies. The old colonial buildings in the Gothic style still stand, something which gives the city a unique cultural and historical heritage.

Another striking feature of Havana is that the extremely visible inequality, which you find in all other Latin American cities, is absent. You don't have that stark contrast between the super-rich bosses and the poor slum dwellers, which dominates Caracas, Quito or the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

No doubt, prostitution, alcoholism and drugs also afflict Cuba, but they are nowhere as widespread as in the rest of the continent and it is actually mainly confined to the tourist-areas. The same goes for the crime rate, which is remarkably lower than in Venezuela. Lumpen elements and homeless are a rarity in this society, so different from Venezuela, which still suffers from decades of the most extreme form of capitalist free market policies, “neo-liberalism”.

The revolution has made important leaps forward, transforming the lives of Cubans. Education is where it has probably gone the furthest, giving the possibility to study free for everyone, including higher University degrees.

Other conquests include the right to free abortion and the remarkable record low of 4.5 per 1,000 infant mortality rate. Compare this to Brazil, a much more developed economy, which still only manages to achieve 20 per 1,000.

The New Inequality

Tobacco workers. Photo: VgenecrTobacco workers. Photo: Vgenecr However, there is another side to the present situation. These major advances are being undermined by the capitalist elements that inevitably come in with the big inflow of foreign currency. During the special period of the 1990's, Cuba was forced to step up tourism as a way of dealing with the consequences of the fall of trade relations with the USSR.

As I quickly grasped, a new inequality between those who have access to the tourist industry and those that do not, is developing. The CUC is the convertible peso, which can be exchanged for dollars. One CUC equals twenty-five Cuban Pesos or Pesos Nacionales, as they are also called.

Whereas a school teacher or a metal worker will receive a monthly salary of 400 Cuban Pesos, equalling some 16 CUCs, the same amount can be earned by a taxi driver in three or four days. And many of the imported products can only be bought in shops which sell in CUCs, thereby excluding a decisive layer of the population.

Meanwhile, the government is removing a number of products from “La Libreta”, i.e. the food ration book, which previously gave all Cubans access to very cheap food-stuff. During my stay, Granma [the official Cuban Communist Party newspaper] reported on the decision to remove price regulations for toothpaste and soap.

These are all imported goods and therefore highly expensive for Cubans, something which is being aggravated by the criminal U.S. government imposed trade embargo on Cuba. The blockade is a huge problem for the Cuban economy, as it limits both the country's ability to export and to import cheaper consumer products en masse.

In many hours of conversations with Cubans from different walks of life, I learnt that most people have to resort to trickery, simply to make ends meet by the end of each month. They even have a term for it, in Cuba it is called “resolver”, which means “to solve”.

This implies that every family tries to get someone inside the tourist economy, whether registered or unregistered, whether as an official receptionist or simply as someone who provides services, such as taxi-drivers, etc. for tourists every now and then.

But it also involves many people being forced to indirectly steal from their workplace – something which would have been considered impermissible by ordinary working people in the past. This happens when a taxi driver only registers two rides to Miramar while he in fact has done three, or when a barman serves a soft drink with 270ml, which should in fact contain300ml – and then keeps the rest, to sell on the black market.

Problems of corruption and bureaucracy

Speaking to Monica, a veteran Communist, I get the impression that even those layers most loyal to the revolution are extremely concerned. She argues that Cuba is heading towards a new “Special Period”, as a consequence of the world recession and the fall in tourism and also because of the devastating effects of the 2008hurricane disaster.

“The new generation has only lived in a period of sacrifice and more sacrifice. They don't remember the struggle against Batista nor the first decade of the revolution, with those marvellous debates and experiments we had at that time. They only know austerity”.

Colonial buildings in Havana. Photo: Rudi HeimColonial buildings in Havana. Photo: Rudi Heim But according to Monica, perhaps the worst thing is that many people see the bureaucratic mismanagement and corruption which is flowering in many state institutions, with some top managers taking advantage of their positions to make lots of money.

She gives me the example of Rogelio Acevedo, the former manager of Cubana de Aviación (the state airline), whose chaotic workings are familiar to me, after a two-day delay of my own flight. In March 2010 Acevedo was removed from his position after being involved in a corruption scandal, where he had used the planes of the company to do unregistered transport work, in order to pocket the profits himself.

When I tell Monica of the experiences of workers' control in Venezuela, explaining to her the example of the INAF plant in Aragua, she nods approvingly. “I remember such control mechanisms from the early years. There were similar projects in Cuban factories at that time. But over the years we forgot this method...” It is clear that the only effective way of fight against corruption and bureaucracy is workers’ control over the running of the economy and the administration of public affairs.

Santiago: Fortress of the revolution

In the eastern part of the island, support for the revolution is certainly more solid than in Havana. Santiago, Cuba's second largest city, has a very revolutionary tradition, going back to the first Cuban revolution of 1933. It was home to the activity of such outstanding figures as Antonio Guiteras, the radical left-nationalist who expropriated American enterprises from his position of minister, in the short-lived 1933 government of Ramon Grau San Martin.

Santiago and the neighbouring regions of Holguín and Granma were also places where the sugar cane workers managed to set up soviets during the 1933 strikes. Santiago was also the stronghold of the urban underground struggle against Batista, led by the courageous revolutionary youth Frank País.

In Santiago I noticed that many of the social projects are in better shape than in the capital and the negative effects of tourism are of course much less felt here. More products seem available in national currency, as opposed to the situation in Havana where numerous consumer goods can only be bought with CUCs. However, average wages are also lower here in Santiago, around 400 Cuban pesos per month, which is barely enough to survive.

In the University of Santiago there are many students who discuss the future and are worried about the present situation. They explain that huge advances that have been made in terms of education, but they also look forward to the pre-congress debate in the Cuban Communist Party, where they believe that a profound discussion must take place about the new measures that the government is proposing.

Reactions to the new measures

In September last year the government announced new and rather drastic measures: The dismissal of one million state sector workers and the plan for the creation of hundreds of thousands of additional licences for “self-employed”, small scale businesses.

Everyone agrees that something needs to be done, that the present situation cannot be maintained. That is why people are inclined to accept these measures as a way forward. But at the same time, most Cubans that I spoke to, have family or friends that will lose their jobs and this obviously creates uncertainty. What will the future hold? Are there enough markets for such a huge amount of “self-employed” businesses?

Havana from above. Photo: Henryk KotowskiHavana from above. Photo: Henryk Kotowski There has already been a lot of experience with small businesses over the years. Carmen, an owner of one of the “Casas particulares” (bread-and-breakfast guest houses) in Trinidad, informed me that there are more than 900 of them just in that town. As tourism has dropped, this means that many of them had to close down.

A friend in Santiago told me, that the main problem isn't really the small businesses, as long as they are kept in check, but rather the fact that the new measures will allow further foreign investment and he fears that this will begin a process where imperialist capital will drown the revolution and roll back all its achievements in education and health services.

Most people for now have a “wait-and-see” approach towards the new measures, but there is also genuine concern about the way things are going. Especially among the intellectuals and in the University, there is a thirst for ideas and many Cubans are eager to discuss and hear the experience of other revolutions.

Some conclusions

It seems that the main reason why Cuba survived the collapse of the Soviet Union is due to two factors. On the one hand there is the personal authority of Fidel Castro. In contrast to Gorbachev, Honecker and the other leaders, Fidel had led a revolution himself and the heroic revolutionary struggle against the Batista regime was still alive in the collective memory of the Cuban people.

On the other hand, the revolutionary crisis and the sharp turn to the left which kicked off the 21st century in countries such as Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela, gave oxygen to the Cuban revolution. Materially, it provided Cuba with oil and foreign currency from Venezuela, but it also cut across the ideological isolation to which the revolution had been condemned previously.

But the world crisis of capitalism, together with the 2008hurricane disasters, has had its effects on the weak Cuban economy. It does indeed seem that the country is heading towards a new Special Period, but this time without Fidel Castro at the head of the government and more generally speaking, with the historic leadership of the Cuban revolution in its absolutely last stage (apart from Fidel and Raúl, the only one left from that heroic group onboard the Granma who remain in the government today is Ramiro Valdés and all of them are older than 75).

This can be extremely dangerous, because the imperialists are eager to destroy the revolution once and for all. The main reason why they have always detested Cuba was not in the main due to material interests (which they also have) but rather the political significance of having a planned economy, which showed in a concrete way the advantages of a society in which capitalism and the private profit motive have been abolished.

The overall impression that I had upon leaving Havana was that the future of Cuba will be largely decided by the outcome of the battles in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and the rest of Latin America. Internationalism was always a key element in the Cuban Revolution, not only because of Che Guevara's desire to spread the revolution to the Congo and Bolivia, but also because of Cuban involvement in Angola and today with the Cuban doctors, teachers and nurses stationed in Venezuela and Bolivia.

If the revolution is spread to these countries and if capitalism is abolished, this would provide the pre-conditions for a genuine planning of the huge natural resources of these countries. But just as in Cuba, in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia it will be necessary to expropriate the capitalists, bankers and landlords if these countries are to obtain genuine national independence from imperialism.