Tuesday, February 26, 2008
The dearth of suspense [over the selection of Raul Castro for the presidency] underscored the authorities' tight control over the island and its 11 million people, many of whom hanker for relief from poverty harsher than that experienced in eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall.
The Bush administration called on Havana to move towards democracy, an implicit acknowledgment that Cuba retained the initiative despite Washington's economic embargo.
This is not one of the worst articles I've read, to be fair, but it does grate against common sense. Poverty in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Eastern Bloc? Yes, okay, there was plenty of it, but what about after? Surely one of the more unfortunate metaphors he could have chosen. And what about that economic embargo? Does it have anything to do with poverty in Cuba? Well, this is to be expected. Corporate media is the Land of Forgetting, a constant stream of Shocking Images and headline grabbing events with no context and no connections, just a very random assortment of things. Journos have to work fast and, if sense and context is required, they are under immense pressure to rely on internalised narratives supplied by official ideology.
One of the effects of Washington's economic embargo (and constant warfare) was to make Cuba highly dependent on the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, with whom most of its trade was conducted. It was partly for this reason, and the revolution's failure to spread, that Castro adopted the Sovet Union's model of economic development, which entailed strict targets and a highly disciplined labour force. In a way, they didn't have much choice - in order to develop in a highly hostile world system, they had to produce a huge surplus of commodities and try to export them. They couldn't afford to have serious discussion and dissent, otherwise they risked seeing the whole system unravel and get incorporated into the Washington Consensus. The invasion, the nuclear stand-off, the surreptitious guerilla warfare, the terrorism, the hotels blowing up here and there, airline hijackings, 630 assassination attempts and so on, also contributed to making the island state quite a repressive one. Falls in worldwide commodity prices could make the system very vulnerable, and stagnation in the Soviet Union could lead to lower growth in Cuba. For all that, the Cuban economy sometimes did better on average than Latin America as a whole. And, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, the Cuban revolution survived. You can't explain that simply by reference to the 'tight control' of Fidel Castro and his bureaucratic clique. It has, clearly, a substantial popular base because of the changes it has managed to achieve in extremely difficult circumstances.
What would have happened if the Cuban regime had fallen in 1989 or 1991? Realistically, it would not have become a thriving workers' state. It would not be a rich little Barbados either. What other state in the Carribean would it most closely resemble? Haiti. An American plantation with an exiled ring of death squad mercenaries ready to discipline the population as and when required. I mean, really, if people want to talk about dictatorship and poverty, look no farther, and it can't be more than a few dozen miles from the Cuban mainland. Constant US subventions, the repeated crushing of democratic dreams, virtual slave labour, staggering poverty, horrible inequality, low life expectancy, hardly any public sector, just a disgrace and constant misery. A whole new class of Andy Apaids, bumpkin billionaire oligarchs, gangster capitalists, would have sprang up. Life expectancy would have plummetted and poverty would be far worse than it is.
In Russia, the catastrophe of shock therapy was unleashed on 2nd January 1992. The shock came in two ways – first, the price explosion (food suddenly cost four times what it used to), and second, the massive public expenditure cut-backs. Inflation did drop – from almost 250% in January 1992 to approximately 30% in December 1992. Progress indeed. By 1995, it was estimated that 80% of Russians had suffered a serious decline in their income. Income from work for families had dropped from being about half of all income at the start of the 1990s to just 39% in 2000. From a mortality rate of 11 per thousand in 1990, the death rate soared to 15 per thousand in 2000, peaking in 1994 at almost 16 per thousand. In fact, in this “unprecedented peace time mortality”, we find an alarming underlying truth about Russian society. Between 1990 and 1999, there were 3,353,000 excess deaths in the whole Russian territory. Male life expectancy fell from 63.5 years in 1991 to 57.6 years in 1994. Female life expectancy fell from 74.3 years in 1991 to 71.2 years in 1994.
In Cuba today, the average life expectancy is a bit higher than that for the average American and is among the highest in the world, and that average takes no account of the horrifying nadirs in life expectancy for the poorest in the US. This is just because healthcare is a priority in Cuba, whereas in the United States profit is the only priority. You don't set up systems to look after human beings under capitalism - what about self-reliance and responsibility? - so naturally you just let the workings of the market wipe out the surplus population. Cuba has a slightly lower infant mortality rate than the United States too. Recently, there has been a severe increase in infant mortality in the south-east of the United States, which has reached 17 per thousand live births among black people, a figure comparable to Vietnam and Albania. Cuba, while it is not a socialist paradise, is a functioning state against all odds, and the population has been spared the fate of the poorest Americans. Inequality is rising in Cuba, but it remains one of the least unequal societies on the planet, which is one indicator of social justice. It has overcome a legacy of racist segregation and colonialism and slavery in a way that other states have not been able to. Unfortunately, it looks like Raul Castro is preparing to liberalise the economy further, presumably hoping to see growth on the current Chinese model of mixing neoliberalism with strong political oversight. But China doesn't have the disadvantage of implacable US hostility, which has shut off most sources of US investment and income from multilateral institutions that are effectively controlled by the US. China isn't in the American back yard. China is important to US capital, and can retain a measure of independence. Cuba, to put it crudely, is just going to get fucked.
I would love to see Cuba become a thriving socialist society and overcome its present impoverishment and difficulties. But the only way that can happen is if Latin America and the Carribean is revolutionised, (quite independently of the top-down politics of Castro, I might add), and if the American Empire is defeated. ALBA, (the Bolivarian Alternatives for the Americas, uniting Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela) is a step forward in that direction. So, just to rile the neoliberal consensus and just to play nice with the Fidelistas, I am toying with a new slogan: "Down With the Velvet Revolution!" Obviously that ain't a cri de coeur.