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Cuba's revolution: can it survive the `new world order'?

interview with Juan Antonio Blanco

[this article first appeared in the US magazine CrossRoads in 1993. Interview conducted by Medea.Blanco is a former diplomat and senior analyst with the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party who now runs a non- government think-tank in Havana]

Cuba is presently going through two parallel crises. By the mid-1980s, the model of development that we imported from the Soviet Union had begun to stagnate. We had started to seriously address this structural crisis through the [1986] rectification campaign when we were affected by a conjunctural crisis that began in 1989 with the upheavals in the Soviet Union.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc meant that overnight over 85% of our markets disappeared. The Bush administration, knowing that the upheavals in the Soviet Union would cause a crisis in the Cuban economy, tightened the blockade.

The word crisis does not imply a kind of apocalypse. I use the term the way doctors use it when you have to make some radical reform of your system in order to survive. If you have appendicitis, you have to first understand that you have the condition, and then take measures to deal with it. If you take correct measures, the crisis does not have to be lethal.

We are aware of the need for change. We know that we are in a critical moment. This means we must lead the crisis and not let the crisis lead us. We have been criticising the Soviet model of socialism, but we have not yet come up with an alternative. We are inevitably moving towards a mixed economy in terms of the relations of production, and we are trying to save the socialist nature of the redistribution of wealth created through this mixed economy.

This is a very difficult task with no certain outcome. A revolutionary can't ask Lloyd's of London for an insurance policy on the success of the revolution. There are no guarantees in this business. But we are trying to come up with an alternative socialist model.

When I first studied Marxism, I was intrigued with the discussions about whether it was possible to construct socialism in one country  -  and here we are trying to construct socialism in one small island surrounded by a capitalist sea! We may not achieve the complete construction of an authentic socialist society in the current circumstances  -  I don't think that's really possible. But if we are able to keep the revolution alive and moving in that direction despite the present adversities, I think we will have been extremely successful. If we try and fail, the world should at least give us credit for the dignity and heroism of our attempt.

A devastated economy

In 1989 we imported about 13 million tons of oil from the Soviet Union; in 1992 we could only import 6million tons. In 1989 we imported around $8.4 billion worth of goods; by 1992 our import capacity plunged to $2.2 billion. By 1992 we had only 30% of the resources for the sugar harvest that we had in 1989, so sugar production has been dropping sharply.

When we lost the trade with the socialist bloc, not only did we lose our markets, but we lost a trade in which our prices were indexed to those of our trading partners. For example, if the price of oil went up, the price of sugar would go up as well, and the reverse was also true. At the beginning of the revolution, with around one million tons of sugar you could buy about eight million tons of oil in the world market. But today we can get only 1.4 million tons of sugar.

When we lost those terms of trade as well as our markets and sources of technology, our economy was devastated. It means hardship for every single Cuban. The food supply has been dramatically affected, because much of our food and animal needs was imported from the Eastern bloc. The average Cuban today gets around one-third of the consumer goods that he or she received in 1989, although the social services like health care remain in place.

Then, just when we thought we had reached rock bottom, we were hit by the worst storm in the century in March 1993. It did over $1 billion worth of damage and destroyed over 40,000 homes. It destroyed a large portion of the crops in the green belt surrounding Havana. And many hotels, which bring Cuba much-needed hard currency, were severely damaged.

For the first time in the 35 years of the revolution, we had to go to the international community for emergency relief. Some US non-governmental organisations asked their government to make a humanitarian gesture of excluding food and medicines from the embargo, but to no avail.

Our crisis is real and profound. But it is also relative. If you would bring a working-class Bolivian to Cuba, he would think he was in paradise. The same with poor people from Venezuela, or Mexico, or the Dominican Republic, or Honduras. There are 60 million people in north-east Brazil who are living in conditions much worse than any of the 11 million Cubans live with.

All our social services are still free. We may close factories for lack of spare parts or fuel, but workers go home with 60% of their salary guaranteed. If you are sick, you will never be fired from your job; you will be maintained by the state, free of charge, and in many cases with 100% of your salary. So our crisis is certainly not at the level of Somalia or Ethiopia, and not at the level of many places in Latin America either.

But the Cuban population was accustomed to a certain standard of living, it was used to having certain social benefits in health and education that people in the United States don't even have. These services have deteriorated as a result of the crisis in the 1990s, and life is much more difficult than it was just five years ago.

One of the ways we are coping is by increasing tourism, which brings a new set of problems. The cost of tourism  -  building hotels, providing transportation and food  -  must be paid for in hard currency. If we opened up our tourist facilities to Cubans, we would not make the hard currency we need for our imports. If we rented all the hotels in pesos instead of dollars, Cubans would saturate all the hotels and restaurants. So the government has had to deny Cubans access to many tourist facilities, or only open them to Cubans who can pay in dollars.

Denying access to facilities creates an ideological and political problem because Cubans have been trained in an egalitarian system by the revolution. Every single Cuban correctly believes that he or she has the right to go anywhere in Cuba and have access to any facility  -  a belief they actively exercise. Until this crisis, almost all facilities used to be open to everyone, and Cubans had plenty of money to spend on "non- essentials" since their basic needs were either free or inexpensive. So we are sacrificing equality in one area in order to maintain equality in other areas. Hopefully, when we overcome this critical economic situation, we will go back to having equal access to all these facilities, too.

What is socialism?

This leads us to an even larger question: what is socialism? What is the essence of socialism that we want to save? This is not a simple question of a planned versus an unplanned economy, because there is a lot of planning in the West as well. In fact, there was more planning in the West than in the Soviet Union. In the United States, every major corporation has a strategic plan. Some 60 to 80% of the economies in the West are planned by the state or by the large corporations.

But we have a different concept of the market. We don't believe blindly in the laws of supply and demand. We don't believe market forces should determine if you have a right to have a roof over your head, if you have the right to see a doctor, if you have a right to a university education. Some things  -  like basic human needs of all citizens  -  should never be left to blind market forces. We believe that human beings and their dignity are above the market; that the right to life is more important than the "free market"  -  which, by the way, is not that free any more anywhere in the world.

The core of socialism is the question of how wealth is distributed. We can be flexible in other areas, but we must keep the redistribution according to socialist principles.

We are trying to restructure our economy while keeping the essence of the revolution intact. We have opened the economy to foreign investment, mainly through joint ventures. But these joint ventures are totally different from the type you find in countries like Guatemala or Mexico or Taiwan. They are not joint ventures between foreigners and Cuban individuals, but with the Cuban state. And whatever profit the Cuban state makes goes back into the social redistribution of wealth in the form of health care, education etc.

Foreigners can have 50% ownership or more and can even manage companies. But Cuban workers in joint venture companies have the same benefits as other Cuban workers. Foreigners, however, have more flexibility when it comes to firing workers. But firing someone in Cuba is, in reality, transferring the worker to another job, not leaving the worker unemployed.

In the past, with the paternalistic socialist approach, workers who were not fulfilling their responsibilities could go on forever without any kind of punishment. The Cuban revolution has been obsessed with the issue of incentives, with the carrots  -  material or moral  -  but we have not talked enough about the sticks. Even Che Guevara, who promoted the idea of moral incentives over material incentives, had a carefully planned system of penalties that included the firing and transfer of workers who did not deliver, or docking of pay if they didn't complete the norm.

US: punish the people

For years the US has been saying that Cuba should drop its dependence on the Soviets and enter the capitalist world economy. Now that there is no longer a Soviet Union and we are trying to insert ourselves in the world economy, the United States is trying to stop us through its blockade.

The US government and media use the term embargo, but an embargo would refer to a policy that affects only the United States and Cuba. The US policy goes way beyond that. It is an extraterritorial policy that tries to impose its policy on the rest of the planet. US embassies around the world monitor and track every investment deal with Cuba and tell all business people who trade with Cuba that they may be exposing themselves to reprisals.

Recently, I met a Mexican who had made a deal with Cuba to send two containers of soap, a transaction worth about $40,000.

Soon after, this man was invited to breakfast with a friend of his where he met a man who turned out to be an official with the US embassy in Mexico. Taking out a bunch of documents, this guy said bluntly, "Look, we know that you recently sold some soap to Cuba for $40,000. And we also know that you've sold $1.5 million worth of goods to the United States. Now, you have the right to choose your friends, but you ought to choose your friends wisely and decide who is a better friend to have  -  the United States or Cuba." The US policy of stopping others from trading with Cuba constitutes a blockade, not merely an embargo.

It is a policy designed to make the daily life of Cubans miserable. The United States wants to make sure that you wake up in the morning and there is no toothpaste to brush your teeth and no soap to take a shower. You try to make some breakfast and all you have is sugar water. You wait hours in the morning to get a bus to go to work, and there are so few buses you end up clinging for dear life. You get to work and your workplace is closed because there is no electricity. You go home and stand in line for hours to get food for your family.

This policy has meant that we can no longer give one litre of milk a day to all children under 13, as we used to do. Now we can only give it to children under seven. It has meant that cases of malnutrition have reappeared in a country that had achieved the best health record in all of Latin America during the past two decades.

It's a way to punish the Cuban population, to promote tension and anger against the system. When you don't have important medicines for a patient whose life is in danger, if you have to go without milk for the children, you're pushing the population into desperation. This is a war of attrition. If Cubans have not died in large numbers as a result of US policy, it is due to the incredible efficiency on the part of the government in ensuring equal distribution of scarce resources. Otherwise we would be experiencing massive starvation.

By normalising relations with Cuba, the United States would gain stature internationally, because its policy is rejected by most governments in the world. Economically, the United States would do well to gain the Cuban market. Cuba would buy US goods worth at least $1-2 billion a year, which would create more US jobs. And when the US lifts the travel ban to Cuba, who is going to cash in on the $2-3 billion dollars a year that American tourists will be spending? Will it be European and Latin American companies, or American ones?

Cuba has also developed a high-tech sector in biotechnology, which is the only one in the world with cheap labour. It has the possibility of significantly reducing the cost of medicines in the United States. The US pharmaceutical industry could even make arrangements to use the research and development capacity or the production capacity of our labs. This could help the US lower health care costs.

But I'm not advocating that we go back to dependence on the United States. We had that before the revolution and then we had the problem of dependence on the Soviets. We certainly don't want to go full swing backwards again.

In today's world, self-reliance is virtually impossible  -  even the United States is not self-reliant. But the only way to have some sort of economic independence is by having a variety of trading partners. We want to strengthen our trade relations with all of Latin America, and with Japan, China and Western Europe. But because of geographic proximity, it is logical for a major percentage of our trade to be with the US.

Cracking the code

The revolution has gone through 35 years of hostility, but we haven't gone through one year of peace. We are accustomed to direct US subversion. We are trained to resist aggression, we have built miles of tunnels and thousands of trenches. We have proven our efficiency in this struggle. So we're in all likelihood better equipped to handle an invasion by the 82nd Airborne Division than an ideological and cultural invasion.

If the US administration were to switch to "friendly subversion", we would be confronting a new terrain. Are we as prepared as we are for direct confrontation?, I'd say no. Does this mean that we could not survive? Not necessarily. But we will be better able to survive if we don't wait until this change happens to then try to adapt ourselves ideologically and culturally. An essential ingredient in fighting such co-optation is to decipher the codes.

When the counter-revolutionary message speaks of "freedom", it means free enterprise. When it speaks of "democracy", it means the re-establishment of juridical equality within a structure that is divorced from economic opportunities. When the United States speaks to us of a "new world order", it is speaking of the acceptance by Cuba of a transnational power, with its headquarters in Washington.

These code words are accompanied by other ideological messages. One of them is that humanitarian utopias are not viable, that there is no alternative to capitalism. It says that capitalism has proven to be the only viable society and therefore we should concern ourselves with improving the capitalist system and not with building an alternative system. Another message is that life only has meaning for each of us as individuals, and only in the present. We should not search for meaning in life in relation to the future or in relation to others. A related message is that in society, as in nature, only the fittest survive. If people are poor, that is because they have lost out in the social competition, and the only thing I can do is to guarantee my future and not try to establish a sense of solidarity with my neighbours.

A corollary concept is that neither I as an individual, nor my nation, nor history, has a meaning or an objective other than the search for success, and success defined as power over others.

And the ultimate message which is logically tied to the others, is: I can be successful if I try hard enough. As the saying goes, "You can make it if you really try." In the last analysis, the message is one of selfishness, immediacy and egotism  -  the antithesis of revolutionary values and ideals.

We have to prove to ourselves and posterity that we were truly willing, in the words of Marti, to cast our fate with the poor of the earth. If we are not successful, perhaps the next generation will be.