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The Cuban revolution and its relevance today
Every year the United Nations General Assembly votes on a Cuban motion for the necessity to end the blockade. Every year the vast majority of the world’s countries vote with Cuba, the exceptions being the USA, Israel and one of its other clients, usually a Pacific micro-state. Not even a country like Colombia votes with the USA.
It is important to remember what this blockade means in real terms for the Cuban people. The UN General Secretary compiles a report  with submissions from most countries (shamefully not the UK) and the UN’s organisations. To illustrate the impact of the blockade, it is worth quoting from the submissions from two of them, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). According to the WFP:
“The United States embargo continues to severely limit trade and has a direct impact on the capacity and efficiency of Cuba’s logistics infrastructure (port, warehousing, commodity tracking), food processing and agricultural production. The efficiency of the food-based social safety nets of the Cuban Government’s, which are instrumental to household food security, is thereby negatively affected. This year, the effect is even more crippling because of the combined factors of rising food prices and persistent drought in Cuba. Along with limited access to agricultural inputs, these factors constrain domestic food production and force the Government to continue importing a significant portion of its domestic food requirements. This, in turn, places pressure on the strained social sector budget and has an impact on people’s well-being, especially those most dependent on social safety nets. Micronutrient deficiencies are a concern. Anaemia prevalence continues to be high, especially among children under 2 years of age, jeopardizing their development potential.”
The WHO / Pan American Health Organization reported:
“In economic terms, calculated using data from various Cuban governmental sources, the cumulative cost of the embargo to the health sector amounted to $2,334.5 million as at May 2011 [...] The embargo affects the individual health care of all people, regardless of age or gender, through its impact on Cuba’s unified health system institutions, research facilities, epidemiological surveillance institutions and disease control agencies...
“The embargo continues to limit scientific exchange, despite the recognized advances in innovation and science in the country.
“Oncology services have had difficulty obtaining cytostatic cyclophosphamide, used in cancer treatment, as well as difficulty acquiring flow cytometers, because the manufacturer, Becton, Dickinson and Company, has refused to sell them to Cuba [...]
Care for patients with serious renal failure who require transplants has been affected by the impossibility of purchasing a gamma topography chamber from General Electric and high-quality anti-HLA (human leukocyte antigen) reagents from One Lambda, a United States company, which has resulted in the shutdown of the national transplant programme.
“The Camilo Cienfuegos International Centre for Retinitis Pigmentosa has found it impossible to obtain the electrodes necessary for the piece of equipment used in electro-ocular stimulation.“In addition, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)/WHO office in Cuba received a letter from the Minister of Health of Cuba addressed to the PAHO Director reporting that the funds allocated to the priority programme to fight AIDS and tuberculosis (more than $4 million) provided by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which had been transferred to the account of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), had been intercepted by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Department of the Treasury. Through numerous efforts by Fund and UNDP, the funds were finally released late in April 2011.”
Clearly the Cuban example troubles the USA enough for it to ignore the international clamour against the blockade. Aurelio Alonso, Cuban sociologist and Deputy Director of the Casa de las Americas Journal recently described  three surprises that Cuba has given the United States over the last half century. We should add a fourth – the original surprise of an incorruptible revolution, a socialist revolution, directly under its nose, on its very threshold.
Alonso’s three surprises - and this is my loose translation – are:
“1) The capacity of this little nation to resist the hegemonic might of Washington.
2) Having defeated the Cuban project of spreading revolution in Latin America in the 1960s – what should happen but Cuba pops up in Africa contributing decisively to the defeat of apartheid.
3) Despite the tremendous damage to Cuba of the blockade, the Torricelli and Helms Burton Acts, despite the incessant propaganda war against the country, Cuba – its political system (needing as it does initiatives to open it up to more effective participation), its economy (more disordered and inefficient than ever, and its society (full of hardship, disaffection and uncertainty) – Cuba has not lost the values that distinguish it and nor has it shown interest in abandoning the socialist utopia. It does not want to lose what it has gained. It wants more of course, but it recognises that only within a realisable version of socialism can it exercise its true sovereignty.”
Now that passage tells us a lot about Cuba and the Cuba struggle for socialism. Firstly, here is a Cuban social scientist writing a piece that openly names the shortcomings of the system, political, economic and societal, in overseas publications (in Chile and Brazil). Secondly, this person has a responsible position in the leadership of Cuba’s cultural establishment. Thirdly, his pride in the revolution, at the same time nationalist, internationalist and socialist, is palpable. Fourthly, he frames the review (which covers far more ground than I have quoted) in terms of the bullying, the frustrated bullying, of the USA.
Let’s now turn to look at what’s happening in Cuba today . Cuba has always been prepared to review and adjust its approach, from the very early years. In the 1980s, while Gorbachev was playing with fire, the Cubans were reviewing their model in what they called the ‘rectification programme’, and the changes begun then surely helped them to survive the worst of the Special Period after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
In his last major speech, in 2005, before standing down from the presidency, Fidel made a blistering critique of inefficiency, waste, (petty) corruption and ideological malaise that he saw threatening Cuba from within. He made two particularly memorable comments: “One of our biggest mistakes was to assume we knew how to construct socialism” and “The revolution could destroy itself from within”.
This initiated a process of examination and quickening reform which was mainly to be carried out under Raúl’s leadership. Briefly, this has involved a process of consultation and participation throughout the island in all the popular organisations: the Trade Unions, the Federation of Cuban Women, the Association of Small Farmers, the Federation of University Students, the Communist Party, the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution and in workplaces. Processes of this type took place in 2007, 2009, 2010: there were thousands of meetings, thousands of submissions of proposals dealing with the everyday lived reality and with practical reforms to improve things.
Commissions worked on specific areas. The Party and the National Assembly debated. The reforms introduced cover a variety of areas:
1. Energy security / efficiency.
2. Food security – especially increasing food production by changing land use.
3. Decentralisation of powers and decision making: national to local, ministries to (public) enterprises.
4. Rationalisation of supply chains.
5. Improved managements and accounting (clarity and an end to ‘improvisation’).
6. Improved workplace discipline and anti-corruption drives.
7. Removal of unnecessary restrictions.
8. Reduction of the state workforce: transfers to co-operatives and self employment. 200,000 state employees moved from the state to non-state sector between October 2010 and April 2011. The state will focus on the commanding heights of the economy and not try to manage every detail.
9. Streamlining of ministries – but “Planning will prevail as a socialist feature of management” 
10. Ending the ration book – this was amended to include the qualifier ‘gradually’ during the consultation process – to subsidise people rather than products and to focus on need.
As the Cubans emphasise, nobody will be abandoned and there will be no shock therapy. The programme is one of socialist reform – not abandonment. There are some steps back and many steps forward as Cuban socialism is refocused under different conditions. This is an ambitious programme in a context of worsening international economic conditions, climactic disaster (hurricanes in 2008, droughts), but interestingly we can now begin to see some successes.
In addition to data available on things like the area of land brought back into cultivation, we have validation from a surprising source. Freedom House, an anti-socialist NGO which is funded in part by the USAID funded US National Endowment for Democracy, conducts surveys in Cuba from time to time. In June, 2011 they interviewed a representative sample of people from across the island. They compared the results with those they obtained in December, 2010. 79% now see change to be happening. In December 2010, 15% were optimistic about the future while by June, 2011, 41% were. In December, 45% thought the reforms would improve the country’s economic situation – by June it was 63%. Is the country making progress, stuck or moving forward? 15% thought it was making progress in December – by June 41% thought so. 31% thought it to be moving backwards in December while by June only 12% did.
I don’t want to read too much into this survey, but it does seem to indicate that the reforms are beginning to take effect and that the confidence of the people in their revolution is being renewed.
Finally, I want to say something about the character and meaning of Cuban socialism. This is always for me a good test of our comrades of the ultra left groups’ revolutionary credentials: “What’s your group’s line on Cuba?” – “Well of course Cuba isn’t socialist”.
Let’s go back to first principles. What happens to surplus in Cuba? It goes three ways:-
1. Yes, indeed some of it goes to foreign Capital, to companies like Pernod-Ricard who market Cuban rum for the hard currency and expertise that Cuba needs in this globalised world, or to the Melia hotel group who have built hotels and bring in tourist revenue (gaining for Cuba the highest return to the local economy in all the Caribbean. And Cuba keeps a controlling 51% stake in these joint ventures and so returns a very significant share of profit to the national economy.
2. Some of it goes to individuals and to co-operatives. While the socialist offensive of 1969 meant the nationalisation of everything down to barber shops and street vendors, the reforms of the 1990s and the more recent ones have opened up a strictly controlled part of the economy to small enterprises of these two types. But this has not created a capitalist class: their capital does not accumulate endlessly for its own sake and again the state takes its significant share, returning money to help fund Cuba’s health, education, cultural and transport sectors.
3. Finally, as you would expect, in those industries run directly by the state, surplus goes direct to the government to use for the needs of the population, in investment and in the distribution of goods and benefits.
So yes, Cuba is socialist – with compromises. Surplus is basically shared wherever possible (although there is some ‘leakage’) – to meet human need and not the needs of capital. Contrast that situation with the intervention of the British state to open up education and health to international capitalist interests, converting common goods to private profit centres. And where Cuba meticulously consults its people on every significant policy change, I somehow don’t recall the present Tory-Liberal-demagogue regime consulting us on the 25% cut to council budgets in Manchester in its Comprehensive Spending Review.
Sitting as it does in a capitalist world, Cuba is in effect a laboratory of socialism where the real dilemmas, advances and reverses of socialist construction are being explored – for example in the integration of a new network of cooperatives in an increasingly democratically controlled system under strategic state coordination.
This means that not only must we show solidarity with Cuba and its people in their struggle, but it is also in the interests of progressives everywhere to support and promote this incredible experiment in the construction of what Che called the “New Man” – which we might today rephrase as a people that consciously creates its own destiny, changing itself for the better in the process.
 United Nations General Assembly (2011) Necessity of ending the economic,
commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against
Cuba: Report of the Secretary-General.
 Alonso, A Cuba 1959-2011. Logros y reveses sociales. Rebelión 17-10-2011.
Original source: Punto Final, edición Nº 744, 14 de octubre, 2011.
Simultaneous publication in Portuguese: Etudos Avançados, Nº 72, del Instituto de Etudos Avançados de la Universidad de Sao Paulo, Brasil.
 There is a useful summary of the change process and principal reforms in Green Left.
The article is by Marce Cameron who maintains the blog, Cuba’s Socialist Renewal.
 Raúl Castro. Central Report to the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, April