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How Cuba Works
by Richard Levins

The Cuban revolution was one of the great liberating events in Latin American history; it threw off half a century of United States imperial domination that had sustained a corrupt pseudo-democracy while sponsoring the systematic looting of the country's wealth. Cuba began to build a kind of life that is equitable, just, sustainable, and participatory. Even without the continued hostility and aggression from the United States, this was an overwhelming task.

When the old ruling class left the country, it took with it its colonels, police chiefs, torturers, and the corrupt politicians who had looted the national treasury. It left behind a poor, plundered country with decrepit industries, eroded landscapes, high unemployment and illiteracy, few doctors (most of them in Havana), and a typical colonial economy of sugar monoculture. The Cuban working people have improvised, copied, backtracked, invented, compromised and forged ahead to create the present work in progress that has won the admiration of people throughout the world. It is far from perfect. Socialists do not talk of perfection. The term "workers'paradise," used now as a putdown by enemies of the revolution, is not a claim by participants or observers who know the enormous difficulties, frustrations, and contradictions of the process of changing a whole society and also changing themselves.

Cuba is a socialist society with a mostly socialist economy. Two different principles of distribution have coexisted in Cuba: the socialist principle "to each according to work" and the communist principle "to each according to need." The principle of distribution according to work accords wages with a remarkably small spread to all who work, who have worked (pensioners), or who study: the median wage for all wage-earners in Cuba is 250 pesos a month, while a cabinet minister earns only 450. In addition, goods in short supply such as opportunities for vacations at tourist hotels are given as bonuses and awards to outstanding workers. Cooperative farmers earn their share of the cooperative's returns, often taken as monthly advances as well as at the annual settling of accounts.

The principle of distribution according to need is reflected in social consumption available to everyone: free healthcare and education up to and including the university level, subsidized basic rations, school meals, and daycare, cheap and widespread access to cultural and sport activities. In addition to what is universally available, special arrangements are made to meet unequal needs: diabetics, pregnant women, and nursing mothers get special rations. There are schools for the disabled with employment guaranteed afterward, and special programs for the many young people who dropped out at the start of the Special Period (when jobs were not available and education no longer guaranteed employment). There is teacher training for those who work with deaf-mute and autistic children and university programs for seniors. Teachers are sent to children too isolated to get to school daily, and photovoltaic solar collectors are placed in schools in remote locations that are off the national electric grid. There are also programs to develop special talents in the arts and sports.

That said, it is important to recognize that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, the bulk of its international trade (which brought on what is known in Cuba as the Special Period), foreign capitalist enterprises and joint foreign/Cuban companies have been allowed to operate in Cuba in order to capture some needed hard currency. Small-scale private businesses were also legalized. Capitalist economics undermines these socialist/communist principles of distribution. It promotes inequality by paying exorbitant salaries to marketing and managerial personnel, especially in the tourist industry. Profitability, marketability, and family connections determine reward in private restaurants, private repair services, the private sale of their own tapes by musicians, and remittances from family abroad. Although the opportunities for corruption are much more limited than in the United States, there was a range of remunerative activities (theft, diversion of state property, gambling, prostitution, and black marketeering) that grew during the height of the Special Period, when people individually had to take care of what was formerly provided collectively. There was a general relaxation of social discipline in that emergency, a tolerance for victimless crimes committed to solve urgent personal economic problems. It will take some time to recover from the impact of this period on people's consciousness.

Most Cubans own their own homes and the others pay minimum rent toward purchase. Of the millions of children who sleep in the streets in the third world, not one is Cuban. Healthcare is not only free but also uniformly distributed. Cuba has the best healthcare in the developing world and is even ahead of the United States in some areas such as reducing infant mortality. Quality education includes such innovations as a limit of 20 children per teacher in primary grades, 15 in junior high and 10 in high school. Since everybody has a right to education, there are some schools in the most isolated places with only a single or a few pupils. Cultural and recreational facilities are also widely diffused throughout the country. Employment is a right, and when industries reduce their staff or close, the workers are guaranteed other jobs with at least equal pay, or else retraining, return to school, or unemployment compensation. Today unemployment stands at about 3%.

Most Cubans believe that they are inventing a new kind of democracy, superior both to what Cuba had before the revolution and to what they see today in the United States and other capitalist countries. In these liberal democracies public office is a marketable commodity and the end result of all the political excitement at election-time is that the same group of people who own the economy continue to own the government. Cubans describe their own system as a way of getting as many people as possible to help run the country through a mixture of participatory and representative processes.

Cubans are very aware of the history of defeats in the early struggles for national independence and workers' rights, defeats caused in large measure by divisions in the movements. This has given Cubans a strong sense of the importance of unity as a political goal. Their system is designed to reach consensus rather than promote adversarial conflict. Consensus is sought through extensive discussion at countless meetings in the workplace, the neighborhood, and the 2,200 non-governmental organizations. In fact, when I once asked a meeting of ecologists how aliens on a spaceship flying over Cuba would know there was socialism down below, the answer was, "Everybody is at meetings." The purpose of the meetings is to reach a consensus strong enough to mobilize the active participation of the membership, their enthusiasm, energy, and ideas. The premium placed on consensus is a source of strength for the revolution, but also can at times lead to intolerance of deviant opinion.

At these meetings the major issues of concern to Cuban society are discussed. The Federation of Cuban Women led the discussions on the Family Code and regularly examines the status of women in order to identify obstacles to full equality and make proposals for removing them. The farmers' association leads on questions of agriculture, and so on. In 2004 the new farmers' cooperatives initiated discussions on their relations with the state, the degree of autonomy, how to reconcile their need for an adequate income with the need of the urban population for inexpensive food. In 1993, at the height of the economic crisis of the Special Period, workers' parliaments were convened at thousands of workplaces to discuss which of the revolutionary achievements had to be retained at all cost, what compromises could be made, which of the emergency measures that the National Assembly was proposing were acceptable. They rejected a tax on wages. Every six months the union leadership meets with the heads of government departments to examine issues of wages, bonuses, compliance with the regulations of labor protection, the grievance system, and other issues of concern to the unions and to the country.

Cubans from the age of 16 vote in elections for the municipal and provincial assemblies and for the National Assembly.[8] The elections are non-partisan rather than single-party. The Communist Party runs no candidates although individual members are prominent among those nominated. Nominations for municipal assembly elections take place in open neighborhood meetings, where from two to eight candidates are proposed. There is no campaigning, nor any of the apparatus of lobbyists, speechwriters, and public relations consultants that goes with it. Rather, biographies of the candidates are posted giving their occupation and contributions to society. In some ways they resemble job resumés, or the candidate listings for the Boards of Directors of food cooperatives or professional societies in our country. The voting is by secret ballot and the counting is public. In about 10% of the districts, run-off elections have to be held because nobody has won more the 50% of the votes. Elected representatives hold weekly office hours and twice a year have formal report-back meetings with their constituents.

Direct elections are also held for the provincial and national assemblies, with the difference that at these levels there are single candidacies that are determined by candidacy commissions composed of representatives from mass organizations led by a union representative. Among the concerns of the candidacy commissions is the composition of the elected bodies by gender, race, age, and occupation. It is important to have all sectors of the society represented, and progress in the participation of underrepresented groups is noted with satisfaction.

Another aspect of election results is their role as referendums on the revolution. Counterrevolutionaries call on Cubans not to vote or to turn in blank or damaged ballots. Some 10% of the eligible voters either do not vote or do not submit valid ballots. Not all of these represent protest. However this gives a rough idea of the extent of disaffection. When I ask friends whether they are satisfied with their representation, I get a mixed response. Some representatives carry out their duties formally and respond to complaints in bureaucratese, while in other districts they energetically promote their neighborhood's interests.

Cuba has a parliamentary rather than presidential form of government. The 31-member Council of State, elected by the National Assembly every 5 years, acts on behalf of the National Assembly when the latter is not in session. Fidel Castro is the elected head of the Council of State. A few words are in order about the role of Fidel Castro. He is undoubtedly the outstanding political leader in the Americas in the last hundred years. Like Bolívar and Martí he led the struggle to free his country from foreign rule, in this case from the pseudo-republic run from the US Embassy. Unlike the other two he has continued to lead the construction of a new society based on equality, social justice, and sustainability. He has a dual role, as a symbol of the revolution and as its most able politician. When crowds throughout Latin America cheer "Fidel! Fidel!" he knows that it is a cry of admiration for the Cuban revolution rather than his personal charisma. Within Cuba, his formal position is as a delegate to the National assembly, elected from his home district in Santiago by secret ballot. The National Assembly then elects him to head the Council of State, also by secret ballot. Many Cubans see him as a superb visionary and strategist and a not very good administrator. My personal preference would be for him to relinquish the administrative position of Prime Minister and concentrate on what he does best, but this is the Cubans' decision, not mine.

There are unresolved problems of Cuban democracy, but the ones the Cubans are concerned with are not the ones that foreign critics are most interested in. One example is that membership in elected bodies is not a full-time paid job. Delegates continue at their day jobs. They do not always have the expertise to rule on the more technical issues that arise. Another is the lack of resources for governments to use, especially at the local level.

The struggles against racism and sexism are vital elements in meeting Cuba's goals of equity. Old Cuba experienced a combination of an inherited Spanish colonial racism and an imported North American variety. Advances in eliminating racism are visible in the widespread and growing Afro-Cuban leadership, in the self-identification of Cubans as an Afro-Caribbean people, and in the deeply felt solidarity with Africa that sent Cuban soldiers to fight the South African apartheid regime when it invaded Angola. It is seen in the recognition of the Yoruba and Congo religions as co-equal with Christianity. But racist discrimination persists. For instance, there are no black prima ballerinas in the National Ballet, and Afro-Cubans are still underrepresented in academic fields and overrepresented in vocational schools. After making racial discrimination illegal, Cuba has become aware that this is not enough and that action is needed to extirpate racism from the culture as well as to prevent its re-introduction by foreign investors. One Spanish hotel chain was thrown out of Cuba in part because of racist hiring practices.

The full equality of women has been a revolutionary goal from the beginning, with its specific content evolving as consciousness deepens. The Cuban Family Code recognizes equal responsibility of men and women to contribute to maintaining the household and proclaims equal rights to work, study, and leisure. However women still work 4- 6 hours a day at housework in addition to their paid jobs and participation in all sorts of organizations and in government. There are many stories people tell about how the Family Code works out in the complex struggles within the family. This struggle is also seen in a high divorce rate. As one women's leader explained: "Men dream of women who no longer exist, and women dream of men who do not exist yet." Still, among the children of my friends, relations between men and women are much more egalitarian than in the older generation.

Women occupy 36% of the seats in the National Assembly, are a majority of the professionals and 26% of the directors. In my own areas of experience, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment, the minister and at least one vice minister are women. The director and all vice directors at the Institute of Citrus Research, the dean of the faculty of mathematics and other centers were all women, many of them Black.

Nevertheless sexist attitudes and discrimination persist, and women are not yet 50% of leadership. The Federation of Cuban Women recently held workshops on why there are not more women leaders. They refuted the idea that women are reluctant to take on those posts, and blamed continued underestimation of women's capacity to lead.

At the time of the revolution in 1959, ecology was not part of the program for the new society. There was, however, awareness of the erosion and deforestation caused by four centuries of foreign rule and that, as a small country, Cuba had limited land and fresh water. Many separate ecologically sound programs were initiated but the prevailing view was developmentalist. That viewpoint, especially popular among economists and planners, saw development as the progression from "backward" to "advanced" along the path previously followed by Europe and North America. It required making use of vast quantities of energy, and a narrowly calculated "efficiency."

In agriculture this meant high inputs of pesticides, fertilizers, mechanical power, and expensive animal feed in giant monocultures, i.e., industrial agriculture. The ecologists argued that this kind of modernization undermined the productive capacity of the land, made systems more vulnerable to natural and economic disasters, and poisoned nature and people. They developed an alternative approach based on biological pest control, the use of nitrogen-fixing crops and bacteria, on compost, earthworms, and beneficial fungi to improve soil fertility. They proposed a combination of mechanical and animal traction, with a diversity of crops among regions, within farms and even within fields.

In 1975 the new Cuban Constitution proclaimed environmental protection as a duty of the state and the whole society, and all enterprises were required to include environmental impacts in their plans. Despite the continued predominance of the developmentalists in agriculture and industry, there existed a variety of programs in ecological agriculture, alternative energy, urban planning, and occupational health. These, along with some programs working to protect biodiversity, resist desertification and erosion, and replant forests, gradually coalesced into an ecological perspective in the course of the struggle.

The ecologists won. When imports from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe were suddenly cut off and the high-tech path was no longer an option, there was in place an articulate community of ecologists, a tested alternative technology, and a spreading ecological consciousness available to meet the emergency. Ecologists-by-conviction were joined by the new ecologists-by-necessity.

Nevertheless, there were setbacks because of material scarcity of the period, for example, the cutting of wood for fuel, and a laxity in the enforcement of environmental regulations. But there were also notable achievements: organic agriculture has become the rule in the organopónicos and huertos orgánicos, the urban vegetable gardens that provide a great deal of the food for the cities and are spreading on rural farms. Forest cover has increased from 14% of the Cuban land surface at the time of the revolution to about 23% today toward a target of 27%. Freon is now being replaced as a refrigerant by the Cuban sugar cane derivate LB-12 which does not destroy the ozone layer. The water pollution level is being reduced at the rate of 5-10% per year. Cuba has signed on to the international treaties concerning the environment and climate, and holds workshops to evaluate its own compliance. An ecological society is gradually becoming a conscious goal reflected in policy and education. Cuban socialism is evolving toward a society in which the goals of development are the overcoming of poverty, the improvement in the quality of life, and a sustainable relation with nature rather than a race for unlimited increases of production and consumption at all cost.


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