The following is an interview I did with Professor José Bell Lara in September this year. I spent September in Cuba, trying to understand the economic system, some of the IT systems behind it all and how Cuban (students) see it all.
Edited versions of this interview was published in the Australian Links International Journal for Socialist Renewal as well as the Turkish language site soL. A short version in German was printed in Neues Deutschland. A Norwegian version was published in Rødt! Nr. 4 2010.
The Cuban state has been acting paternalistically
Interview with Dr. José Bell Lara, Professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Cuba (FLACSO-Cuba), University of Havana, Cuba
Dr. Bell Lara has written essays such as “Globalization and Cuban Revolution” (2002) and “Cuban socialism within Globalization” (2007) and is part of the International Advisory Board of the journal Critical Sociology.
This interview was conducted in connection with changes in the economic model of Cuba announced by the Cuban government in September 2010.
Johannes Wilm (JW): Welcome. I would like to start the interview by relating the Cuban revolution in the context of Latin America. In the northern part of Latin American there have been three leftist revolutions that have survived at least a few years during the last century: Mexico 100 years ago, Cuba a little more than 50 years and Nicaragua about 30 years ago. In the case of Mexico, the revolution ended in a deadly mix of corruption and neo-liberalism. Will the same happen in Cuba? Is it impossible to make such revolutions last for more than a certain number of years?
Jose Bell Lara (JBL): Well, the problem is in the nature of the revolution. What social forces made these revolutions? In the case of Mexico, the fundamental social force was largely rural. It was a revolution against the Porforio Diaz dictatorship. But the leadership of this revolution was in the hands of the middle classes. And their social project went no further than to install in Mexico a capitalism without the evils of the leader — ie the Porforio Diaz regime. And although there was a lot of participation by poor people, during the first decade of the revolution, most revolutionary leaders who had support amongst them were killed by other middle class revolutionaries. It happened to Zapata, who represented the south with its peasant population and the most radical revolutionary project. The same happened to Pancho Villa.
A new group assumes the leadership of the revolution and decides upon the direction of where the revolution was going: rebuilding a capitalism that was the Latin America equivalent of the European “welfare state”. It reaches its high point at the end of the 1930s, during the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas. During those years the oil is nationalized and there are a series of measures to increase living standards.
However, the restructuring of the ruling class in Mexico and the readjustment of Mexico to the world-wide capitalist system, always follows the general trend of the system. And the general trend of the system today is neo-liberalism, as just another phase. Because there is no competition with the Socialist camp anymore, all the social gains in Europe and America are being lost. And that is also the case of Mexico.
The case of Nicaragua is also a revolution of the middle classes. However, it is a revolution that is immediately attached by the imperialist aggression, and the revolutionaries commit some mistakes. It is a revolution that attempts to find a third position, although there is a project of the poor masses, the “Sandinista” project. Nicaragua sought non-alliance, political pluralism and the mixed economy. That leads to something like Venezuela’s capitalism today. The Nicaraguan capitalist class did had the power, but continues to control much of the economy. The revolution is unable to face imperialism and it leads to a counterrevolution. The country experiences an aggression in the form of the low intensity war developed by Reagan. There is an economic crisis the country. And some mistakes are committed in the war against the contras, such as the imposition of obligatory military service. All that accumulates in the mind of the population. In the end the revolution is finally stopped through elections which are lost by the revolutionaries. However, it is not the end, and 16 years later Ortega has regained power, although not with the same force as before.
In Cuba, the middle class had a very important role. However, the anti-imperialist struggle is present an ethical element, a moral element in the project of nation building. And the middle class commits suicide as a class and identifies with the interests of the rest. With that I don’t mean that they physically commit suicide, but that they ditch their own ideology and take as their own the ideology of the poor. Che Guevara wrote a text about it called “War and peasant population” that explains how people like him, coming from a urban middle class, identify with the rural peasant population. This identification leads them to be more radical. Besides, the revolution against the imperialist aggression does not recede. Instead it has been serving its purpose despite the imperialist aggression. No wonder Cuba has been blocked 50 years. It exists because imperialism can not tolerate a revolution that is popular, that is anti-imperialist.
There is a Cuba syndrome in the ruling class of the U.S. . If you read journals from the last 50-60 years in Latin America, all popular revolutions have been destroyed, minus that of Cuba: Guatemala 1944/54, Bolivia 1952, Chile 1971-73, and Nicaragua 1979-90.
Cuba has been able survive, although the U.S. has developed a massive assault unit. They have committed sabotage, organized contra-revolutionary groups, and continue to publicly dedicate a few tens of millions of dollars every year to defeat the revolution.
JW: So it is impossible for neo-liberalism to reach Cuba?
JBL: Objectively speaking, it is impossible. At what point should that happen? Today the system is in crisis and all Latin American governments have anti-neoliberal positions, although admittedly the economic practice of some countries is still the same. Neo-liberalism did not come here in the 90s when Cuba had a much bigger crisis either. So why now?
JW: Speaking on the structure of how the revolutions were structured: in Mexico many different groups of revolutionaries who pertained to the revolutionary process. For some years the Mexican state as a well-structured entity was virtually gone and it was unclear where the revolution would lead. In Nicaragua there was a strategy of uniting almost all radical leftist forces, everything from Marxist-Leninist to anarchists, under the title “Sandinista.” But here in Cuba it is as of today communist party that is in charge. Does that make it all easier?
JBL: Well, in the end it makes it easier, of course, because all revolutionaries are under the same flag. But that does not mean that it was easy to reach this unity. Going the way of creating a unifying party was an experience we had had before, with José Martí and the struggle for independence from Spain. Martí founded a political party, to lead the struggle for independence. That was the first time in the world, a political party was to lead a war for national liberation. And the party managed to start a war against Spain despite all the strength that country had.
Fidel said in some texts that the mastermind of this strategy in this regard was José Martí. The groups that were united were groups like the Movement of the 26th of July and the Popular Socialist Party, which previously had also been called the Communist Party of Cuba. It was Fidel who managed to gather all these groups in the early years of the revolution. The party took the name Communist Party, but it is a project were unique to the Cuban revolution.
JW: And the former Communist Party is part of this.
JBL: It is subordinated. Yes, exactly.
JW: And the ideology of the new communist party …
JBL: … is Marxism.
JW: But was there a difference between the former Communist Party ideology and the new?
JBL: It’s different because it has a very important national component. One recognized the fact that belonging to a nation is part of the human being.
Mariategui, a Peruvian Marxist, said in 1930 that socialism in Latin America could neither be a calculated nor populist project, but had to be based upon a heroic act of creation. Socialism in Cuba is a system highly adapted to the Cuban reality. It is not a copy of models that exist in other countries. And each socialism in Latin America will be different. In Venezuela it will be marked by the Bolivarian component, in Ecuador it will carry an important project of citizenship and citizen rights, in Bolivia there is the indigenous part. If ti were any different, it would not be Latin American socialism. Copies of Cuba or Venezuela will not succeed because the realities are different.
JW: But everybody has always the option to learn, right?
JBL: … learn from mistakes?
JW: Yes, for instance in the case of Nicaragua, the Sandinistas, they had the option to learn from Mexico and Cuba. Of the things that worked well and the things that did not work so well. But do you think they took this opportunity?
JBL: I think partly yes and partly no. Making a revolution is not like going to a school, as if you are an architect and you went X years to college, learning how to build houses and then do exactly that later.
You have to learn how to make a revolution while doing it. And what you’re creating, you have to defend. And we are not speaking about a single person, but millions of people who are to make a revolution, all learning and participating at the same time. In addition there are a lot of illiterates. The average Cubans had reached the third grade when the revolution triumphed. In the case of Nicaragua the number of illiterates was much worse.
These illiterates now suddenly have to organize a revolution and manage factories. Oftentimes it are the former workers who are managing the factories. And they have to learn all these things. That makes the process much more complex.
Plus you have to learn how to manage a state: social aspects, economy, welfare, and always think about all possible future developments. And then there’s the aggression from outside. And it’s not just a military aggression. It also includes ideological elements through the press, radio, etc. .
JW: The Cuban government recently announced some changes. Among other things, it will be possible to work independently for more people. What is it that Cubans expect from these changes?
JBL: This is a time of deep economic crisis globally. And of course Cuba is affected by this crisis. For the Cuban economy it has, taken together with the the embargo by the U.S., a strong impact. To maintain the socialist project it is necessary to achieve an efficient functioning of the economy. In this sense, we must extend the gains of the factors that can increase productivity and the better conditions of life.
For a long time we have had a paternalistic policy on the part of the Cuban state in when it came to state employment. There is more personal than what is needed in the state. Where it takes five people, you have eight. Those who can produce more, produce less, because the distract one-another. We have to find the optimal level of employees in the state sector, while simultaneously giving an opportunity for the extra workforce to be employed meaningfully.
In Cuba no one will end up as unemployed due to our social protection mechanisms. In any country in Europe or North America, the surplus workforce would simply be sent home with 4-6 weeks of state aid. Here, together with the process of seeking greater efficiency in the state sector, other possibilities are opened, such as working independently and through the cooperationization of many activities. In agriculture we are speaking both about cooperatives for the production of food crops that can be grown without much technical help, and others that produce more advanced crops and have the technological means to do so. Over 100,000 people are receiving a title of a piece of agricultural land.
Also in our towns there sometimes is difficulty with some services: general repairs, shoe-making, plumbing, personal services, etc. . Now there is an opportunity for people developing it, both personally and as a cooperative. One can imagine cooperatives that build and repair houses or to make construction materials or provide a service such as repair or carpentry, etc. . In this area there is the prospect of growing the sector to solve both a social problem and also to contribute to the efficiency of the country, resulting in a stronger economy.
It is necessary that the central state, and, in my personal opinion, also the public sector at a more local level through the popular councils, develops certain economic activities that benefit the community, thus contributing to the enrichment of the country.
The important thing is that the state has to have the most basic means of production, which are decisive in the economy. But many basic services are very difficult to manage centrally.
JW: In Nicaragua, the cooperatives have been a fundamental part of the Sandinista program. Here in Cuba there are also cooperatives in sectors such as agriculture. But still not in other sectors such as transport. Will we see them there as well?
JBL: There is a possibility. I cannot confirm that it necessarily will be that way, but we have a series of new mechanisms. For example, one could imagine that certain licenses are handed out to cooperatives to operate in this sector, or that the state establishes a different kind of relationship with the drivers. There may be various forms within the transport sector. I think also the production of crops, a series of foods that can be meaningfully done by cooperatives or individuals. For example there are places where people produce wine for themselves and their friends. And some might even produce enough to sell some. Or for example the conservation of onions. This sort of thing.
JW: And the mini-company? Will that be a small business that will produce a product?
JBL: The idea is not new. For example, in the city of Havana, there are currently 23 state-owned mini-companies. They are not part of the central state, but rather properties of the municipalities. And others are cooperatives. There is a cooperative producing yogurt and another producing soya sauce, for example. These companies have results and are not that big. They are not used to produce hundreds of millions of gallons of sauce. In general, Latin America’s largest source of employment is not big business. Small and medium enterprises are those that produce more jobs. Why? Because those small companies that do not depend on very complicated technology do generally create jobs with an investment of under 50,000 USD. Big companies have to get more USD than that to be able to hire someone.
JW: But if production is organized as a business, what is the difference between this and a capitalist system?
JBL: It is different in character. The basic means of production are state owned and are in function of the majority, such as the sugar and mining industries, bio-technology and electronics.
JW: How exactly does the pension system work here?
JBL: Of your salary, you pay 5% for the social security system. Retirement starts at age 65, and is automatic. A worker submits an application for retirement, and 90 days later it is approved. There is one central fund retirement. And in the state budget there is an item devoted to social security spending. Whenever the workers or companies fail to meet the expenditure, the state assumes the difference. In general there is a deficit of 200 million pesos. The state has to provide this amount.
JW: Are there plans to change this system now?
JBL: No. The system is indispensable. Moreover, the experiences of Chile and the countries that privatized the pension system were quite horrible. That will never happen in Cuba.
JW: So what else are larger problems of the Cuban economy today? Other than the changes announced now, there are programs to address them?
JBL: No doubt, these changes are not isolated. One of the fundamental problems currently is food security. And the state confronts this in different ways. For example, developing bio-technology together with vaccines. What I call our scientific-productive health constellation. And the University of bio-informatics is doing everything possible to computerize the Cuban society. Another strategy is the establishment of organic agriculture in cities. There is also a program of suburban agriculture around different cities.
It is not just a spontaneous thing, although there are parts that people just created like that. There is state leadership to promote this type of culture and promote organic and urban agriculture. There state addresses many things like that, because food security is part of the revolution.
JW: But is that really realistic? Will, for example, every bus driver have to be able to relate to the food he is going to consume?
JBL: No-one here is forced to anything. These are people who chose to participate. The countryside has great influence in the city. There are many people here with peasant background. They are taking up their habits of growing the earth again. I personally could not do anything with earth, I have a totally urban culture. Currently there is land being handed over to individuals. And there are municipalities where demand for such land is already greater than the supply.
We have changed in our conception of food production. Before, our concept was that of the green revolution: big machines, chemicals, fertilizers, etc. . Now we must also connect it with other objectives. And these are the problem of climate change and the high cost of oil. So now we are trying to lessen the use of all those products.
JW: Since the early 90s there is also foreign Capitalist operating in Cuba. In what sense is this different than the processes in Eastern Europe before 1990? There it also began like that. How do you prevent that these investments do not lead to a capitalist life-style and dependence on foreign capitalists?
JBL: Capitalism is a relation of production that goes beyond the exact amount of foreign capital investment. That brings a lifestyle, lifestyles, ways of thinking and so on. .
A revolution in order to compete and to allow development in a globalized world has to understand the logic of capital and the ideology of the market. And foreign investment, can provide some of that. Therefore it is a marriage of convenience. The foreign capitalist comes here to make more money. We come to learn to work with the world of capital. To achieve a place on the market for some products and gain experience, to prepare people to work in the capitalist world.
Cuba in 1989 received a maximum of 200,000 tourists. Now we receive more than 2,000,000 a year. It’s the largest increase in the Caribbean. And so it is important to learn to manage hotels. In the Caribbean if you go to a hotel in any other country, the directors are all foreigners, and represent gigantic companies.
We insure first of all that the hotels continue to be Cuban property. And on the board of the Hotel, there are Cubans. These are there to learn about the world of capital and there are other hotels, like the Hotel Nacional, that are completely run by Cubans.
The second aspect is that capitalist who comes with his resources, does not invest wherever he wants to, but where the Cuban government wants investment. In addition, large investments are approved one by one. They are evaluated, and the impact is measured. It is a very rigorous process, but safer for the country.
JW: But those who work with these tourists – do they not want that lifestyle? They mainly see foreigners throwing around a lot of money, right?
JBL: No doubt it has a cost, in the form of ideological influence. It is true that people who are associated with sectors handling foreigners earn much more than the rest. An engineer earns less than a person working in a hotel. But because there is this phenomenon, we can not deny the necessity of the revolution.
JW: The U.S. embargo is likely the biggest problem of the Cuban economy. But at the same time, if they were to end the blockade tomorrow, would that now create a chaos for the Cuban economy as well? Could it mean the fall of the socialist planned economy?
JBL: I wonder why one would come to such a conclusion. First of all, the embargo is not going to end. And second, if it were to be lifted, it would make the Cuban economy improve.
JW: Yes, but a change so abrupt? If Obama were to sign something tomorrow to end the embargo? Picture what would happen if 500,000 U.S. tourists were to arrive here next week! Would that not create any problems?
JBL: It may create some problems in concerns of access to rooms, but it will not end the revolution. Those are conventional lies, illusions. When the Pope was going to come, it was said “Here comes the Pope and socialism will fall” The Pope came, a million people went to see him, and the revolution continued. Of course, if the embargo was lifted, it would permit us to show what exactly we are capable of doing. For example, the Internet: Here if you need to download a document I have to wait 30-60 min. while in other countries one download the same in five minutes. In this sense, the end of the embargo would allow us to make a lot of things we need to do.
In any case, it is an illusion to think that today, tomorrow or any day in the future the embargo is going to be lifted. The U.S. Will not accept the revolution. They will always do everything possible to eliminate it.
JW: Outside of Cuba many people probably think that when Fidel Castro dies, 20 minutes later the U.S. Marines land in the center of Havana, capitalism will be installed with-in six months, and the whole country will be sold off to multinational companies with-in a year. Is this a realistic prognosis?
JBL: It’s an illusion. If the U.S. Marines show up here, the U.S. will see its second defeat here in the Americas. The first one was in Bay of Pigs. The Cuban people are not going to allow them to land, and we have an armed populace.
Furthermore it is not only Fidel. There is an entire party. There are generations of people who have the ideology of the revolution and will stand up to defend it. The revolution’s just going to move forward. In fact Fidel is already no longer leading. When Fidel got sick, the revolution continued without any problem. Nobody here began to mourn or anything like that. I think people outside of Cuba will have to learn that there are thousands who are capable of leading the revolution and take the position of Fidel and Raul.
JW: For many years Cuba was very lonely. Now it has found new allies in the framework of ALBA. What does that mean for Cuba?
JBL: It means a lot for both Cuba and Latin America. For Latin America it means that we can begin to walk on our own. The political map of Latin America has changed, slightly interrupted by the military coup in Honduras. That showed us shows that the rulers of the world and the local oligarchy do not allow for any change whatsoever. However, we have not just gone back to what things were like before, because there is now a group of countries that is no longer ruled by the big stick of the U.S..
JW: and what does the ALBA mean for Cuba specifically?
JBL: The possibility of economic cooperation. There is an exchange, there is the possibility of a different kind of trade. There is the possibility of a common currency, which at the moment is virtual, the Sucre, which allows to exchange without using the USD. All other treaties of commerce and integration projects do not prioritize the social factor, and serve more than all for the transnationals. The ALBA means another type of integration. So it is obviously important for Cuba, for countries that are part of the ALBA and the whole of Latin America.
JW: Abroad it is oftentimes said that Cuba is a dictatorship in the Americas perhaps the last. But in letters to the editor in Granma and discussions with students it seems that there is quite some room for criticism of the government and the revolutionary processes. Has it always been like this or is this something new?
JBL: To be honest, it wasn’t always like this. But without criticism, there is no real revolutionary process. There is no discussion of reality, and it is in reality that problems are encountered. Understanding that is a big step. In the Granma newspaper on Friday and in Juventud Rebelde on a daily basis, you can see letters to the editor criticizing. That is part of health of a revolutionary society to see where there are problems.
JW: In Eastern Europe they believed that it could destroy socialism.
JBL: That’s how we’re different, because we believe it strengthens us. And life shows us that we’re right.
JW: So you don’t fear that one day it will lead to…
JBL: No, I personally I have no fear.
JW: I have not found students who would like to introduce the savage capitalism of the U.S.. But some students tell me they would like to convert Cuba into a country like Denmark, which according to their point of view is not as capitalistic, due to its high level of social security systems, etc. . Do you think that capitalism could be introduced so that the standard of living would be similar to that of Denmark?
JBL: I think that is an illusion, because we are an underdevelopment country. If capitalism gets here, it would be the capitalisms of Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua or El Salvador. Objectively it is this way because capitalism is a global system in which peripheral countries are dominated by central ones.
So they can not just turn Cuba into Denmark, just because they would like for it to be that way. If we are to reach the standard of living of Denmark, it will be under socialism.
JW: But they say we have an educational level similar to that of the first world…
JBL: … and a health care system.
JW: So they wonder: why shouldn’t we be a first world country?
JBL: Because we are constantly being attacked by the U.S. . We are only 90 nautical miles away from Miami. Denmark, Norway, nor Sweden are in that situation.
JW: True, but wouldn’t that end if Cuba changed to a capitalist system?
JBL: North American investors would come to take with them our wealth. They do not care about Cuba, but what they can earn. That is, simply, the real problem. There is a phrase of Columbus: I went to find gold. And that’s what they would come to look for.
JW: But the U.S. knows that here there is no gold left here!
JBL: Oh, there is! If they privatize the institute of bio-genetics, for example. That is worth a lot of money. We are underdevelopment because we had great wealth of gold and silver. That was shipped off to Europe. And now we’re rich too, because we have this human capital. And they want to take that.
JW: Cubans read a lot and are aware of what’s happening in the world. For example, Cuba now takes a central role in the fight to prevent a nuclear war between the U.S. and Iran. But given the U.S. embargo, the access to the Internet is through a slow and expensive satellite. Most Cubans still do not have access to this medium. Is that going to change?
JBL: Yeah, they’re working and possibly the middle of next year, Venezuela will have a cable installed that will allow faster and wider access. Meanwhile we have to use a system of privileges. In colleges we have Internet for example, because that is prioritized. It is not our fault, but we must work with that.
JW: Critics say it is the Cuban government that wants to prevent …
JBL: … is a mis-information. You can open any newspaper in Miami and it will tell you that. It does not affect us, but it can affect those who are intoxicated with North-American propaganda.
JW: So when you get this cable to Cuba finally, and access will give more people, through public computers or something like that, will that change Cuban society?
JBL: I can not say how exactly, but it is always good. I am no prophet, but I think no matter what, it will be for the better. At least it will help me a lot to do my job. Even though the U.S. has people paid to try to dominate public opinion on the Internet and restrict access to it.
JW: So it will not change the ideology of socialism?
JBL: On the contrary, I think it’s going to strengthen us. People are going to have much more information on other countries and their problems. It will allow more development in social science.
JW: Thank you!