To be sure, there were some tendencies prior to 2012 toward passive acceptance among the people to direction from above, in spite of the efforts of the leadership to develop structures of popular power and popular participation. A few Cuban academics have written of the phenomenon. But neither the Cuban leadership, journalists, nor people have demonstrated much awareness or concern with the problem. In my view, it is a normal phenomenon. In the best of circumstances, some 25% or 30% of the people will be creative, dynamic, and hardworking; but most people will support the society in a more passive form, except for particular moments of national challenge, when sacrifice and commitment will soar.
DuRand’s article suggests that there was popular dissatisfaction with the decision-making process prior to 2012. But I have not found dissatisfaction in Cuba with the decision-making process developed by the revolution, or a belief that Cuba had a top-down form of socialism prior to 2012. Indeed, there is a fair amount of national pride with respect to the alternative structures of popular participation and popular democracy that have been developed in revolutionary Cuba, institutionalized in the 1970s.
Without question, the overwhelming and principal dissatisfaction since the 1990s has been with respect to the level of production, the limited resources of the country, and the low income of most people. This material dissatisfaction has become stronger in the last five years or so, and it has arisen because of an increasing popular tendency to use the consumer societies of the North as a frame of reference, a phenomenon that has emerged as a result of the growing number of tourists, and because of emigration to the societies of the North by Cubans who support their families in Cuba. Tourism and emigration have been central to the economic recovery since 1993. But they have contributed to a material dissatisfaction among the people, even as material needs have been increasingly met. The rising expectations of the people include desires for necessities (better housing and transportation), items that are not necessary but useful (cell phones and Internet access), and false needs (designer clothes and jewelry).
The Cuban leadership has responded to this new situation with a concerted national campaign to increase production in order to satisfy the expectations of the people. The campaign includes decentralization of decision-making, accompanied by exhortations that the people should openly identify sources of problems in production, so that the problems can be addressed and efficiency improved. It includes an expansion of cooperatives to non-agricultural sectors, with the hope that this will expand work incentive and improve efficiency. And it includes changes that can be seen as movements toward capitalism or a capitalist attitude: expansion in self-employment, expansion of small-scale capitalism, less restrictions with respect to foreign investment, and the connection of wages to productivity. These capitalist-like measures, it should be understood, are not concessions to a national bourgeoisie or to foreign capital; they are concessions to the people, and they are made with the belief that they will improve production to the benefit of the people. And they are made with recognition that the people have suffered and sacrificed much, and their needs and desires should be met.
The concessions to the people with respect to self-employment and small-scale capitalism is a dynamic that has been unfolding for many years. In poor societies, people invent concrete ways to survive and/or improve their material circumstances. These include working as small-scale retail traders and independent service providers in such trades as carpentry, plumbing, house repair, hairdressing, taxi driving and cafeteria services. In Cuba prior to 2012, there was limited space for such individual entrepreneurship in the formal economy, so people engaged in it “on the side.” When they needed materials for their crafts, they often would acquire them illegally from state employees who had access to them. Inasmuch as the materials were destined to some other purpose in state planning, this form of corruption contributed to inefficiency in government projects. This dynamic had been present in socialist Cuba from the beginning, but with the economic difficulties following the collapse of the socialist bloc, it increased significantly, becoming a serious problem.
The new social and economic model of 2012 seeks to address this problem. In expanding self-employment in 2012, the government was recognizing small-scale entrepreneurial work as legitimate and as part of the formal economy, so that people now can much more readily attain licenses in these trades and services. And the same time, the government is making necessary materials available for purchase in state stores, so there is no need to buy them on the side; a reform that is coupled with government clampdown on corruption, so that state projects can be carried out more efficiently.
In significantly expanding small-scale entrepreneurship, the party and the government have taken a decision that goes against the classic socialist view that work should be collective. But the view of the Cuban government is that dignified individual work has a place in a socialist society, insofar as the workers are organized into labor organizations, and they are part of a society in which the principal institutions of the economy and the media are managed by the state, which is controlled by structures of popular democracy. The concession of small-scale entrepreneurship by the revolution to the people is consistent with the notion that socialism is defined by the people in practice.
From a socialist point of view, the desire of the people for dignified individual labor is not as challenging as the growing consumerism of the people, stimulated by tourism and emigration, which is in tension with the view of the new socialist person formulated by Che Guevara in the 1960s. In my view, the Cuban revolutionary experience of the last twenty years shows that it is very difficult to cultivate and maintain a purely socialist attitude among the people in the context of a capitalist world-economy and an international consumer society.
But at the same time, Cuba has been able to develop the new socialist person among a significant minority, comprising 25% to 30% of the people. Formed by socialist educational institutions and the media, with the support of families with revolutionary traditions, these socialist persons have a solid understanding of national and international dynamics, and they have a strong commitment to universal human values. They serve as dedicated professionals in health, education, journalism, and other fields; and they serve as leaders in the mass organizations and in the political structures of popular power. They form in practice a revolutionary vanguard, and they are central to the survival and continued growth of the revolutionary project. They are of the people, for they come from all sectors of the people, and they are connected to the people, by blood, emotion and spirit. But a distinction can and should be made between the vanguard and the people.
The recent national congress of the Union of Communist Youth, covered on national television, provided clear evidence of a youth vanguard with advanced understanding and commitment to socialist values, a youth vanguard that has been formed in spite of the fact that its members were born in the depths of the Special Period. One of the delegates eloquently expressed the view that a “war of thought” is on the horizon, as US ideas and presence will increase in the next years. He called upon the delegates to be effective in explaining to the people the virtues and benefits of socialism. Another delegate described it as a battle between a society that calls people to a form of being, and a society that manipulates people to acquire things. In his address to the Congress, Cuban Vice-President Miguel Díaz Canel expressed it as a struggle between a society guided by universal human values and a society ruled by the market. The vice-president also noted that the proceedings of the Congress clearly demonstrated that the revolution had succeeded in forming the new socialist person that Che envisioned.
I am confident that the Cuban vanguard is winning and will prevail in the “war of thought,” which Fidel has called the “Battle of Ideas,” because of the high moral and intellectuals qualities of the youth vanguard, and because there is a deep fund of respect for the revolutionary project and the revolutionary leadership among the people, even if they do not fully embody the new socialist person.
The evolution of the socialist project in Cuba parallels the evolution of the popular movements in Latin America, where “Socialism for the Twenty-First Century” has been declared, with Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador at the vanguard. Today’s Latin American socialism distances itself from twentieth century socialism in Eastern Europe, but it has embraced twentieth century socialism in Cuba, considering Cuba to be the model of Latin American dignity. Like twentieth century socialism, Latin American socialism sees the state as playing a central role in economic development, but it recognizes multiple forms of property as legitimate, including private property, cooperatives, and joint ventures with domestic and foreign capital, in addition to state ownership. Like twentieth century socialism, Latin American socialism today is led by charismatic leaders and a vanguard in each nation; however, the vanguard is not conceived as being formed from the working class, but from multiple popular sectors, including workers, peasants, students, women, the middle class, indigenous persons, and ecologists.
Revolutionary and progressive governments in Latin America have changed the political reality of the region during the last twenty years. They provide important lessons for Leftist activists and intellectuals of the North.
Key words: Cuba, socialism, vanguard, cooperatives