The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 81 (Spring 2008).
Below is a letter from the LRP to an Argentine correspondent. It was written before Fidel Castro announced his retirement, which has whet imperialist and governmental appetites for heightened capitalist attacks on the Cuban working people. A revolutionary defense of Cuba against imperialism is needed. This discussion is now clearly more urgent than ever.
You ask us what our program toward Cuba is. This is a very important question which we must take seriously.
As you know, we regard the Cuban state as capitalist. So our program for Cuba is the same as our program in every country in the world: proletarian socialist revolution. However, we would fail in our responsibility to provide leadership and guidance to the working class if we did not attempt to take account of the peculiarities of Cuba’s history and society, and explain what the primary tasks of a proletarian socialist revolution in Cuba would be.
Likewise, as an organization based, for now, mostly in the United States, our primary responsibility with respect to Cuba is to defend the people of Cuba against the ongoing attacks and embargo imposed by the U.S. ruling class. We must do this precisely because we give no political support to the Castro government or the Communist Party of Cuba. It is necessary to demonstrate practically that authentic communist opposition to Stalinist rule has nothing in common with pro-imperialist subversion.
Yet we would be remiss in our internationalist duties if we did not use the theoretical gains we have made in understanding the class nature of Stalinism to help our fellow workers, in Cuba and elsewhere, develop a political program to combat Stalinism. Since our political program is permanent revolution, not socialism in one country, we recognize that the struggle for socialism is an international task. In contrast, while Cuba’s isolation has been enforced by imperialist attacks, it has been deepened and sustained by the Castro government’s self-serving, conservative discouragement of struggles elsewhere in Latin America – Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador being just a few examples – from taking the revolutionary road.
As you know, we hold, with Trotsky, that, by the late 1930’s Stalinism had become definitely counterrevolutionary. We hold that the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union was even more successful and thoroughgoing than Trotsky realized at the time, and that by 1939, the Stalinist bureaucracy had destroyed the last remnants of the proletarian dictatorship and fashioned itself into a capitalist ruling class, presiding over an extensively statified capitalism which had usurped the workers’ revolutionary gains. Russia’s imperialist extension of this system to eastern Europe posed theoretical challenges to the post-war leadership of the Fourth International, which they attempted to resolve with the anti-Marxist concept of a “deformed workers’ state” – that is, a so-called workers’ state created without a workers’ revolution.
Cuba is unlike most states of Eastern Europe but like China, Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia, in that Stalinism was established there not by Russian imperialism but as a result of a locally led and inspired revolution. In all these cases, the revolution was not proletarian in its leadership and methods and was led not by a proletarian revolutionary party but by a faction of the middle-class intelligentsia. Thus the gains of these revolutions were not fundamentally socialist; they were partial national and democratic gains, in that they won a certain breathing space with respect to imperialism.
Cuba, however, was unlike China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia in two important respects. The first difference is that the middle-class leadership of the Cuban revolution was not yet Stalinist at the time of the revolution, though certain figures (Raúl Castro, Che Guevara) had a definite sympathy for Stalinism. The second, and more important for the purposes of this letter, is that the Cuban working class played a significant though subordinate role in bringing about the revolution.
The Stalinization of the Cuban middle-class leadership was essential for bringing the Cuban working class under control. This was a historical process that is very interesting and instructive. The role of workers in the revolution meant that the middle-class leadership had to make extensive concessions to the working class to avoid the threat of workers’ revolution. These gains have been significantly eroded over the course of nearly half a century of Stalinist rule, and they are coming under accelerated threat; they must be defended. As Trotsky explained, a class which cannot defend its past gains will not be able to conquer new ones. To understand the real gains pertaining to the Cuban working class, it is necessary to put aside the clichés that are routinely trotted out to defend the idea of the “deformed workers’ state.”
For example, the “planned economy.” Contrary to Castro’s apologists, that Cuba has never had an overall economic plan but rather a series of micro-plans governing various industries and enterprises and thrown together in an ad hoc fashion. A monopoly of foreign trade, which is a necessary condition for a planned economy, has never existed in Cuba. Various state-owned enterprises in “non-strategic” industries are able to secure their own arrangements for foreign trade, alongside central government treaties covering major commodities like sugar or oil. And since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has seen the expansion of the tourist industry, the establishment of joint ventures with various imperialist and other foreign-owned corporations (Canadian and Spanish, primarily, but also Latin American enterprises from Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, etc.), and the growing role of remittances in the Cuban economy. Whatever centralized control once existed over the extensive trade that is essential to Cuba’s survival is now greatly attenuated. It never made sense to speak of a “planned economy” in Cuba, but it makes even less sense now.
Consider “full employment.” It is true that official unemployment figures in Cuba are very low, and that, on paper, every Cuban has a right to a job. In practice, however, much unemployment in Cuba is masked. The labor force participation rate in Cuba – that is, the percentage of the adult population counted as either being employed in wage labor or seeking it – has stagnated for most of the fifty years since the revolution, and is well under 50 percent. Where once Cuba had one of the highest rates in Latin America, now it has one of the lowest. This is especially notable for women workers. Before the revolution and for the first couple of decades thereafter, Cuba had the highest percentage of women active in the economy of any Latin American nation, rivaled only by Argentina. In recent years, this crucial index of women’s social status has declined in Cuba, while it has risen elsewhere in Latin America.
Furthermore, the very low level of wages in Cuba allows the government to mask unemployment through underemployment. The basic wage of 250 regular pesos per month has very little purchasing power. For a labor force of less than 5 million, this totals 15 billion a year in regular pesos. That is 600 million in convertible peso terms, or about US$556 million at the official exchange rate. Compared to Cuba’s nominal GDP of US$39 billion, this means that workers’ basic wages account for less than 2 percent of the economy. Many workers receive more than the basic wage, though not much more, and some receive additional payment in convertible pesos.
But for workers in less productive industries and enterprises, it costs the state very little to keep them nominally employed at the subsistence level represented by the basic wage, in order to prevent the greater costs of social instability associated with mass unemployment. The old bitter joke of Polish workers under Stalinism – “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work” – still applies for many Cuban workers, while a privileged minority get both real pay and real work. The small portion of the Cuban economy comprised by workers’ wages indicates a startlingly high rate of exploitation.
Extensive state property is a gain for the Cuban working class, though it was not won by the working class directly. Were the working class to take state power in Cuba, the fact of state ownership of major enterprises would make the establishment of a real planned economy easier, though it would still be necessary to establish adequate statistical controls and a monopoly of foreign trade, and conduct a thorough reevaluation of productive priorities in light of the masses’ urgent material necessities. This is why we recognize state property as a “proletarian property form” – though we also recognize that this form, in order to result in a transformation of property relations away from capitalism, must be filled by the content of proletarian state power.
Furthermore, the statification of Cuban industry was a blow to imperialism, since before the revolution most Cuban industry was either owned by or in debt to imperialist finance capital. As the Castro government has sought over time to repair its relations with imperialist powers other than the U.S., various agreements have been reached for the compensation of the non-U.S. capitalists for their losses in the revolution, which has been paid for by Cuban workers through their exploitation by the state. Yet the much greater losses of U.S. capital have not yet been compensated, and this represents a sore point for U.S. imperialism and a victory for the Cuban working class and the Cuban people as a whole.
Any attempt by this or any future Cuban government to negotiate a compensation deal with U.S. imperialism, or to privatize state property, must be fought wholeheartedly. Likewise, the extensive debts which the Cuban government has accumulated to imperialist banks and governments – both debts to Western Europe and the large debt to the Soviet Union on which the current Russian state has begun to collect – represent a persistent burden on the working class. They should be repudiated, as should the massive debts that bleed the life out of Latin America and the rest of the “third world.”
Other important gains are matters of basic consumption or social services which are provided not to workers as a class, but to the population as a whole, primarily benefiting the working class. Some of these, such as the right to affordable housing, are made a travesty by conditions of scarcity – by the Cuban government’s own statistics, there is a shortage of 500,000 housing units, no trivial amount in a nation of 12 million people.
Yet other benefits, such as the national health care system, are justifiably famous. Even in this case, however, there are vicious inequalities. The best doctors and technology are reserved for the tourist hospitals, open only to members of the top bureaucracy and to foreigners bearing large sums of hard currency. And within the national health care system open to the public at large, there is the problem of scarce medicines available only in the special convertible peso stores.
The main class contradiction in Cuba today is between the working class, and the top echelon of the bureaucracy, which acts as a “regent class,” a transitional class standing in to rule on behalf of the absent bourgeoisie. Increasingly it is a partner with the international bourgeoisie, through the joint venture industries, and it shows signs of spawning a new Cuban bourgeoisie, similar to what has already happened in different ways in Eastern Europe, Russia and China.
There is an additional division that is politically very important – that between those with access to significant sums of the convertible peso and those without. Such access can come through a job in the tourist industry, a professional position in a high salary echelon or through remittances from relatives abroad. In most cases, membership in the Communist Party is helpful to getting a job in the tourist industry or access to the level of education necessary to secure a middle-class professional position. Thus, Party membership serves as a means toward upward social mobility, and the division between the regular peso economy and the convertible peso economy has helped to solidify a middle class and a labor aristocracy with a material stake in the regime’s stability. Further, there is substantial evidence that access to the tourist industry jobs has been confined to Cubans of mostly European descent, thus deepening the longstanding color line in Cuban society.
From these facts we can sketch a rough outline of some of the key demands that revolutionary workers in Cuba would raise:
First, there are the democratic demands. The monopoly of the Communist Party over political power, and especially over control of the trade unions, must be ended. This is not for the sake of building up bourgeois liberalism, but so that the working class may be free to organize in defense of its own class interests – most importantly, so that politically advanced workers can have better opportunities to cohere their own vanguard revolutionary party. The right of free speech and freedom of assembly, without the vigilance of the political police, must be conquered.
Second, there are the defensive demands: No to privatization. No to compensation. No to the imperialist embargo, or any form of imperialist intervention. Third, there are the immediate economic demands. The distinction between the regular peso and the convertible peso has clearly served as a mechanism for deepening the masses’ exploitation and the accumulation of capital by the state. It must be ended.
Yet the economic difficulties faced by Cuba could never be solved within the boundaries of Cuba alone. Take, for example, the imperialist debt. In the mid-1980s, when Cuba was cut off from Western financing for defaulting on its debts, Fidel Castro made some demagogic noises about the need for a debt moratorium. Within a few years, as Cuba reached agreements to get back in the good graces of European capital, such talk was quietly dropped. Yet debt repudiation would be an urgent task of any workers’ states in Latin America, Africa or Asia, allowing those states the opportunity to reorganize their economies to produce for the masses’ urgent needs, not debt service.
If a few Latin American nations were to repudiate their debts and develop an international economic plan, it would dramatically improve the masses’ standard of living and deal a tremendous blow to imperialism. This will not happen under any of the existing regimes, including those of “socialist” Cuba and Venezuela. That is why our program is proletarian socialist revolution. Moreover, such action could accelerate the rebirth of class consciousness in imperialist nations like the U.S. and thereby advance the final victory of socialism internationally.