An exchange between 2 veteran Marxists about Cuba

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Dec 19 17:16:52 MST 2000

Hi Barry:

You asked about our visit to Cuba. I suppose by now you have seen Pat and
she would have filled you in. I met her there and some other comrades from
the D.S.P. I didn't speak long with them, but they all seemed like nice
people. At least they do talk to you and seem to be interested in hearing
what one has to say.

The conference was one of the most interesting Jess and I have attended in
a long time. Over 4600 people, some formal governmental representation from
Vietnam and North Korea, for example, and delegations from revolutionary
groups from all over the world. All the left groups were there, including
many with Trotskyist backgrounds. The Marceyites were there as were the
Posadistas -- all selling their papers, giving out leaflets, on the streets
outside the conference centre or selling their books from literature tables
in a large area next to the conference location. Ocean Press from Australia
received a big promotion. This publishing company which publishes mainly
works on Cuba, and which I understand is run by someone who used to
distribute Pathfinder in Australia, was recommended from the platform
several times -- and their launch of a new book with Castro's writings got
a big play, even from Castro himself.

There were large representations from Chile, Peru, and Mexico. A large
delegation from the United States -- probably the largest -- about 800 and
from all over the country. About 100 from Canada, a lot from Quebec. Many
groups from all over the colonial world -- the Polisaro Liberation Front,
from Morroco, groups from Africa. There were different political currents
there, even a delegation from the Russian State Duma (mainly C.P), and
delegates from Ukraine. (The Cubans are giving medical assistance to 14,000
children, brought from around Chernobyl to Cuba.) But it was clearly a
gathering of the worlds revolutionary organizations, who now look to Cuba
for leadership in light of the "collapse" of the C.P.s. There were quite a
few young anti-globalization activists there, and the Cubans paid tribute
to them.

The Cubans took the conference very seriously. The three top Ministers,
including Lage, Alarcon and Roque, gave major presentations. What was
amazing to me was the openess of the whole affair. They all took questions
from the floor, and if anyone was serious about asking one, it would have
been possible to ask one. There were mikes all over the place. Lage's
speech was very interesting because he talked about what was happening in
the economy under the embargo and said that they had had an extremely
difficult time but now there was some recovery and that the economy had
grown by over 4% last year. To a question from the floor, he took up the
problem of the currency. There are now in effect three currencies in Cuba
-- the dollar, a convertible peso which trades at par with the dollar and a
regular peso that trades at approximately twenty-three to one dollar. He
says that this arrangement is temporary and that if they had been inside
the international financial system, they would not have been able to have
the flexibility to manage the economy in the way they had to overcome the

At the close of the conference, Castro spoke for five and a quarter hours.
I had heard of these speeches, but this was the first time I had
experienced one. It was truly amazing! He has a sort of "socratic" method,
of sort of posing questions, puzzling over them, examining them, engaging
the audience at times, with some in the audience calling out and making
comments. I'm omitting what he said about the blockade, but he spoke at
length about Venezuela, about the oil agreements, and what his advice to
the Chavez government was: "even within the frame-work of the property
relations in Venezuela, an honest government, with Venezuela's oil
resources, could make vast improvement in the standard of living of the
masses". To a question from a Puerto Rican (there was a large delegation)
he said that when the new government came to power in Cuba in 1959, the
Americans quietly asked them to drop their support for Puerto Rican
independance. He said he told the Americans that they, the Cubans would
rather give up their own revolution than back-down from their support for
Puerto Rican independance. He was asked about the "situation of art in
Cuba", by a British delegate. I found his answer interesting because it
revealed how realistic the Cuban leadership is about life in Cuba. He said
essentially that there cannot be liberation without culture, and that even
though they graduate 1200 art teachers a year, they are many miles away
from having a meaningful cultural life. The material conditions in the
country are too hard.

Another aspect of his speaking style, was its total lack of pomposity.
There were none of the tricks of oratory very common to bourgois
politicians -- and this was true of all the main speakers -- the
manipulation of the audience to score a point (which is also not uncommon
on the left).

It was clear that an important political objective of the conference was to
speak to the Cuban people about the place of Cuba in the world. Each night,
around supper time, the events of the conference were broadcast on T.V. all
over the island. Viewers were asked to send in their comments. Castro read
a lot of these out -- including the critical ones --"Why are you wasting
your time on these things, and not spending more time on helping us solve
our problems". -- "I'm sick and tired of seeing these people going around
in luxury buses while we ordinary Cubans have to walk." And he answered
them. He also said that they are engaged in a program to install T.V.s in
each class-room as part of campaign to teach English through this means. He
read out some complaints of how this was going and some of the problems
with it.

After the conference, Jess and I went down to Pinar Del Rio at the Western
end of the island, and did some wandering around. Life is still very hard,
it seems to me. A measure of the difficulties can be seen in the use of
oxen in the fields, a pre-industrial form of agricuture. On the roads there
are still large numbers of people waiting for transportion. Its not as bad
as when we were there just around the time of the collapse of the USSR when
there was no electricity and hundreds upon hundreds of people in the rural
area waiting and walking, trying to get home from work.

The people are extremely friendly. One of the difficulties one has when
walking around and talking to people, is their hospitality and general
friendliness. A lot of people you meet want to invite you into their homes,
and it's difficult to extricate yourself.

Even though everyone says things are improving, we should not underestimate
how hard things are. If you are involved in tourism or are connected to
someone in tourism, life is better. You have access to dollars. But
although I only have anecdotal evidence, the economic crises seems to be
having severe economic and social effects. For one thing, the "shadow"
economy is growing and lives off the tourism industry and government
enterprises. Ordinary Cubans have a words for it, "la resuelva", where
people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to solve their individual
problems, causing high absenteeism making it difficult for some of the
enterprises to function efficiently and can even siphon off material from
the enterprise as individuals who have access to resources make those
available to others who have a need for them. It can take the form of
someone needing a special medical procedure for a child from an
under-equipped and underfunded medical system, doing a favour for a doctor
who needs a load of sand to build a new room or repair their house. The
Cuban government has taken a strong stand against choosing the "way of the
market" to solve some of the problems in the economy, but I think it won't
go away so easily and can only be overcome by a general improvement in
everyones standard of living. I think they may have experimented at one
time with the market, but the events in Russia and China may have made them
very cautious about this approach. Their way of dealing with the issue is
by setting a high moral example and to maintain a revolutionary
perspective. For example, Castro when he was speaking to the conference
talking about the U.S. now allowing Cubans there to send up to $9000 to
relatives in Cuba, said that for $1000 they could pay the monthly salary of
the Council of Ministers and still have some left over.

One of the other difficulties they have -- and they do not admit that this
is a "difficulty" -- is that the workers do not have a right to strike. We
raised this in a meeting with the union and management at "La Conchita"
canning plant, which employs 350 people and were told they do not need this
right by both the Director and the union leader. "Both of us are in the
Communist Party", they said. They were in not uncomfortable with the
question, and dealt with it in a very relaxed way, saying they have no need
to strike. I think the independence of the unions is important, even when
the workers have power, and it is for the workers to decide when and if
they should exercise the right to strike. Its another way of dealing with
bureacratic deformations and keeping them under control.

 We also visited state-owned super-markets in Cuba which are dollar-only
supermarkets. The prices are on a par with food in Canada, perhaps a little
cheaper. In the mornings, there are large crowds on the streets waiting for
the store to open, and then most of the meat, for example, is virtually
cleared out. It's a way by which the "shadow" economy increases its
penetration. It does not require much imagination to realise that this is a
one source of supply for the many small private restuarants that have
opened up in recent years. One of the questions in my mind is the degree of
growth in the economy and I wonder what the "4%" really means. We should
look at the figures more closely. When you walk around Havana, its truly
amazing the amount of construction going on. It looks like a boom, but
these are hotels, for tourism and very important, but this presents its own

Old Havana is still a very poor part of town. It seems the families who
flooded into this part of the city at the time of the revolution are still
there. There is an obvious need to repair infrastructure and build homes.
Castro in his speech mentioned some of the social problems they were
having. He said that a survey of the prison population shows that only 3%
are from families with higher education, much smaller than that segment's
representation in the population. He said they have organized students to
go into the barrios to try and get a handle on this. Young people are sort
of dropping out, hanging around the house all day doing nothing and often
breaking into neighbours homes and stealing. He says there has been an
uproar from neighbours, demanding the government do something.

I mention these things, because they are not often discussed among
supporters of the Cuban Revolution so that we can better understand the
pressures operating on the Cuban leadership. I would imagine that
consciousness in the population ebbs and flows under the difficulties and
it requires tremendous effort for the leadership to maintain their line.
Cuba is unlike any other country in Latin America in its policy of
inclusiveness in dealing with the social and economic problems of the
population. It is a beacon, but it is still facing very difficult times,
and most Latin Americans understand that very well.

Thats all for now,


Louis Proyect
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