Cuba: The Party, the Market

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

Milton Fisk

THE STEPS CUBA made over the past year in the direction of a market impressed me during two recent return visits there as already having made a big difference in daily life. Whether the new measures will be for the overall good can’t be determined yet.

Many people have access to more goods. But marketization is inevitably leading to new inequalities. And so far it is going ahead without any hint of a political opening.

There are state dollar stores for groceries in most Havana neighborhoods. The Cuban with dollars can put chicken, beer, good bread, and tomato sauce on the table. There are also state dollar stores for imported appliances in various regions of Havana. One can buy floor fans, tires, washers, and TVs in these stores.

Of course not every Cuban can enjoy the fruits of shopping at dollar stores. Dollars must first have been gotten from gringo friends, relatives, or clients. (In addition, state workers get foreign-exchange certificates that give them access to such stores.) To be sure the prices are state controlled, but they reflect the prices the products are bought or sold at on the world market.

The man who drove me around buys his tires and gasoline with dollars he makes transporting foreigners. He uses a Lada he had been able to buy because he was designated a model worker before he retired. He makes enough money to allow him to operate a boat for ocean fishing out of Havana’s river harbor.

Despite his “dirty work” as an unofficial taxi driver, he is an unreconstructed Fidelista. He is a veteran of fights against counterrevolutionaries in the Sierra del Escambray and at the Bay of Pigs. In both places he fought with the militia formed in his Havana neighborhood. He remains the commander of this militia, and practices with it one Sunday every two months. (Since they are under the direction of the army, the militias are not truly autonomous forces.)

Some older revolutionaries, though, feel betrayed by the regime for promoting “dirty work,” or hustles, as a way of giving birth to a market. They feel that it goes against their principles, principles Fidel continues to invoke.

A sociologist expressed just such a feeling of betrayal, even though her nephew, who lives in her house, puts food on their table and brings home appliances by way of dollars he makes from hustles of various kinds.

After the revolution, she became a member of the Central Committee–with about one thousand members then–and gave up that post only much later after she felt the party had become bureaucratized. While on the Central Committee, she worked in a secretariat of the party in which she came in contact with a group she felt was doing creative work. Once the group broke up, she requested and got a transfer to an academic post so she could continue that work without distorting interference.

Issues of Party Control

It is commonplace now for intellectuals in Cuba to call for the “creation of civil society,” repeating the call that was made a decade ago in Eastern Europe and the USSR. One professor sees this in terms of three specific demands: (1) to separate the party from the state by terminating the party’s guiding role; (2) to allow criticism of the leadership within the ranks of the party; and (3) to open society by promoting civil organizations that do not have to be certified by the state in order to function.

In his view, there are several organizations that have achieved a certain independence from the state–for example, the National Union of Writers and Artists now under the direction of Abel Prieto (who is also a member of the party Central Committee).

Asked if intellectuals, like those in Prieto’s organization, can begin to form civil society, this professor’s reply was that intellectuals must play a guiding role, giving structure to civil organizations in which ordinary people will in general make up the majority.

Presenting views such as these about the role of the party can create trouble for party members. There is always at hand the old argument that those who deviate from the party line place themselves outside the party. But today many Cuban intellectuals are asking, “If the party line on fundamental issues can’t be openly debated in the party, then who can legitimately claim the right to decide it?”

Staying in the party has its benefits. For this reason the party card is called “el carnet del corso.” Of course, this reference to the privileges granted by the Spanish crown to the corsairs in the colonial period is recognized as hyperbole. Party privileges are puny by comparison.

Still, on being ousted from the party, one’s chances of acquiring appropriate housing are reduced. One’s ability to teach sensitive courses may be revoked. One’s ability to travel overseas may be jeopardized.

The ideological part of the University of Havana is subject to scrutiny to determine the orthodoxy of goings-on there. A paper I gave in 1993 was criticized in advance as inappropriate by a University of Havana dean in a communication to the leader of our U.S. delegation to Cuba.

My paper raised the issue of how, despite a voting system, there could be democracy while dissidents were being abused. I was led to believe during this visit, in 1995, that the dean had acted in 1993 on the advice of an official concerned with orthodoxy–who must, then, have seen the paper.

What was new was that a number of the Cubans who denounced my 1993 presentation from the floor seemed anxious to make clear to me that now, in 1995, they found themselves taking heterodox positions.

Nonetheless, there are certain persons who seem to avoid repercussions from taking a critical stance. For example, one center for the discussion of the current situation regarding Cuba makes rather sweeping criticisms with impunity. It gets support from certain leftists and liberals in the United States and is directed by an urbane and persuasive man who has most delegations from abroad eating out of his hand.

He claims for his center the status of a non-governmental organization, which would make it a building block in a civil society. It has testified behind closed doors to the government on human rights, and publicly before the Foreign Ministry in preparation for international meetings.

Yet the language the director uses for the center’s critique is the vague language of post-industrialism and post- modernism–not the pointed language of separating the party from the state.

It is the language of the information revolution and of the obsolescence of “really existing socialism,” which like capitalism was a child of modernity, a modernity in irreversible crisis. The regime can, then, point to its tolerance of such generalities when it is charged with not allowing diverse voices in the revolution.

Democracy Without Diversity?

In two earlier trips, in 1991 and 1993, I had found that a common Cuban response to criticism was that Cuba was making democratic advances. Flow charts of the complicated system of representation were trotted out to prove that there was no deficiency of democracy.

This type of argument is rarer now: There is general awareness that, though the party does not choose the candidates any more, it nonetheless controls the elections and their outcomes.

For example, municipal council seats were being contested while I was there in 1995. A xeroxed sheet listing each candidate’s qualifications was posted on the windows of laundromats and ration book stores. Two things were notable about these candidate sheets.

First, most candidates had experience mainly in party organizations–the Communist party itself, its youth group, or the women’s federation. In a society without a significant civil society or organized political diversity, where else would people get their political experience?

Second, there were no campaign promises made on these candidate sheets. Thus there could be no open political debate on matters of vital importance. If, though, it were known that a candidate held views at odds with those of the party, then at party meetings called to discuss the elections key party members would suggest that votes should go to more reliable candidates.

Tensions of the Crisis

As an activist with an organizing instinct, my response to long bus lines composed of drooping people was an intense desire to rush from one to another of the lines, organizing them within an hour into a demonstration that would have filled all the busy streets in central Havana.

Many bus lines have been dropped; others have been rerouted to pick up the slack. Despite donations of buses from abroad and the creation of the huge “camel” buses drawn by International cabs from Canada, people still wait interminable periods for buses.

My Cuban friends told me to cool it. On the one hand, they knew that any leader I might get to organize a queue would be arrested immediately. On the other hand, they suspected that a significant number of people in those queues would feel the regime was doing what it could to alleviate the transportation crisis.

My friends hammered home the point about arrests with the example of the control of the riot of a large number of youth on August 5, 1994.

The rioting involved attacks on dollar stores. There are different views on whether the dollar stores were targeted for their potential to create inequality or simply out of general frustration with the regime. In any event, a battalion of tee- shirted riot control agents ended the demonstration and the attacks on the dollar stores in short order.

The official line on the rioting immediately became that the people of Havana had successfully defended the revolution against the young counterrevolutionaries. Yet no one looking out of the windows or passing by on the street had seen “the people” defending anything. Only the riot squad was in evidence in attacking the youth.

The market has also been spread through the revival of farmers’ markets. (While these markets were closed over the past decade, produce was clandestinely sold in the neighborhoods.) By comparison with the richly provisioned Mexican markets, these are the markets of an impoverished people.

Demand is limited since salaries are between 200 and 400 pesos a month, whereas a melon or a package of guyaba paste costs 10 to 15 pesos and a leg of lamb costs 80 pesos. Of course, only if you have a lucrative hustle, a rich uncle in Miami, or have saved your pesos during the period before the markets reopened will you be able to make full use of these markets.

Another manifestation of the market occurs in parks and parking lots where artisans and wine makers show up. One can buy delicious coconut, cherry, and pineapple wines for a dollar and a half a bottle. Elsewhere, children sell small amounts of popcorn at their front gates to pick up the odd peso. And family members take turns watching bicycles
in crude wire cages while cyclists are at work.

Pragmatic Marketization

At the production level, behind the manifestations of a market in agricultural produce lies the promotion of cooperatives. These are exclusively agricultural so far and are replacing state farms. With the part of their produce that cooperators don’t sell to the state, they can make handsome profits by going with it to the farmers’ markets.

The cooperatives are tightly regulated by the state. They do, though, serve to promote production through traditional market incentives. Lenin’s late (1921-1923) praise of cooperatives provides the Cuban regime with the needed ideological support for the shift from state farms to cooperatives and for the settlement of urban families on the land as cooperators.

The idea behind everything from state dollar stores to cooperatives seems to be that increasing supply will somehow promote increased demand. The regime doesn’t care any more what your hustle is; but it seems convinced that if products are on the market, potential buyers will get the money to buy them–through hook or crook.

Yet the growth of 0.7% in 1994 that ended the long decline, of at least 34%, in the economy since 1989 seems to have had more to do with exports and joint ventures with foreign firms than with stimulating hustles.

Still, the efforts to build a local market are creating a frenetic competition for dollars and pesos, not through climbing career ladders as in the United States, but through selling anything or any service one can deliver.

Socialist solidarity is already weakened and won’t last much longer under the pressure of this competition. All that will be left is the negative nationalism of being against the U.S. blockade, against the Helms-Burton bill, against the return of Mas Canosa from Miami.

ATC 61, March-April 1996