Two decades after the crisis that followed the collapse of Cuba’s main trading partner, the Soviet Union, the working class is still in control on the Caribbean island...
If you were to take any notice of some of the British press recently, you would think that Cuba was about to re-establish capitalism, or at best that Cuba was outdoing Britain in its desire to sack public sector workers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Described as taking the revolution to the next stage after two decades of the “Special Period”, it looks like a direct application of power and control by Cuban workers.
When the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe collapsed around 1990/91, Cuba lost 80 per cent of its trade and suffered a fall of more than 40 per cent in its GDP. Its economy was dependent on growing sugar, bought each year in total by the USSR, after the imposition of the US blockade. Food and manufactured goods, and in particular oil, came mainly from the USSR and Eastern Europe.
After the collapse, all this ceased and the USA tightened its blockade of Cuba with the intention that Cuba also would collapse. The Cuban government declared a “Special Period not in time of war”.
Cuba suffered power cuts and hunger, with shortages of everything. The economy was similar to that in wartime Britain with a black market, spivs and everything else. It was difficult to get to work because of the absence of fuel and no spare parts or tyres for buses. Often there was no work to do because of shortages of raw materials and items such as paper, pens and other essential goods.
The country used all its ingenuity to survive these hardships, but the USA tightened the blockade with the Helms Burton Act of 1996 and then the establishment of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC) with a budget of tens of millions of dollars to bribe Cubans to act as agents of the US in their attempts to overthrow the regime and appoint a US governor for the island and effectively annex Cuba to the US. Those Cubans arrested in 2003 and now being released were all on the payroll of CAFC.
Real solidarity: the 300-strong Henry Reeves Brigade in Havana about to go to Haiti to tackle the cholera outbreak at the start of the year.
Cuba managed its economy as best it could, developed trade links with countries around the world, especially with Latin America and the ALBA countries, as well as China, Russia, Africa, and Asia. It continued with its internationalist work and prepared to come out of the Special Period. By 2005, Cuba’s economy had recovered its pre-crisis GDP. Tourism, biotechnology, scientific and medical services sectors had all contributed to this.
With very little access to international finance markets because of the blockade – and notwithstanding deals with Venezuela, China and Brazil – the saving of material resources and a more productive use of the workforce are seen as crucial sources of investment. Human capital (in the sense of organisation), educational and technical capacities played vital roles.
The sugar industry declined with retraining and redeployment of workers. Also, because of the right to free education, in particular higher education, guaranteed by the constitution, it has not been easy to develop crucial sectors of the economy, namely construction and agriculture. This is because Cuban youth has often preferred to seek professional qualifications rather than become bricklayers or farmhands. All the reforms enacted during the Special Period were discussed in specially convened “workers’ parliaments” attended by over 3 million workers or 85 per cent of the workforce.
Changes at work
So, to exit the Special Period would require some changes in the world of work. Over the last decade, Cuba embarked on the development of a new Labour Code and a debate on the nature of the future workforce.
By 2006, the 19th Congress of the Cuban TUC noted the problems: the fall of the USSR, the intensified blockade, the global economic crisis and “our own deficiencies that comrade Fidel has repeatedly signalled”. It also pointed to the moral and ideological impact of the Special Period. But the most important job had been done: “Nevertheless, the principal conquests of the Revolution have been preserved, first of all the political power of the workers,” it said.
The task now was to move from crisis management to restoring normal working practices, including full use of the working day. It means modernising human resource management under Cuban standards, professionalising administration and re-codifying workers’ legal rights and responsibilities in the changed world of work. It also means addressing the salary system and distribution of incomes.
Cuba’s constitution guarantees the right to work, equal pay for equal work, health and safety protection at work, an eight-hour day, paid annual leave and social security. The law guarantees local collective bargaining with unions and workers.
A process of consultation, similar to the earlier workers’ parliaments in which workers and unions have a complete veto, has been under way for some years. All of the proposals are discussed by “asembleas”, or workplace meetings. 1.5 million proposals from job descriptions and redeployment, to health and safety, productivity, incentives and salaries have already been discussed and voted upon at more than 20,000 asembleas.
What the British press describe as “massive public sector layoffs” are nothing of the kind. They are the result of this enormous consultation process controlled by workers. The press would not dare tell us this as it is far removed from our regressive anti-trade union laws. Those moving out of the direct state sector are from the overmanned sections and those services that should not be maintained by the state such as hairdressers. All will be offered full pay and training, either in higher education, skills training or in new areas of work.
These new areas include developing the agricultural cooperative model into small-scale manufacturing and repair workshops. Others will receive training to become self-employed. New areas of work have arisen from the economic integration with Venezuela, Bolivia and the other countries in ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America). This requires novel relations with private capital in those countries as joint companies are developed on the island. But Cuban workers will develop the regulations governing these ventures, insisting that the state will be the central feature and not market forces.
So, at all stages workers are in control. Unions can even initiate legislation; senior trade unionists sit in the National Assembly and participate in ministerial decision-making. Legislative proposals affecting workers are always referred to the unions for their agreement or criticism.
The dictatorship of the proletariat is a phrase used to describe a state totally controlled by workers in their own interest. If you ever wondered what it might look like, just have a look at Cuba, and particularly this process. ■