Saturday, March 31, 2012

Guest Post: Cuba's Economic Reforms: Strengthening the Cuban Revolution by Bill Preston and Carl Gentile

I am pleased to present this guest post, which was co-authored by Bill Preston and Carl Gentile.  This article first appeared on the Marxism-Leninism Today website.

The writers are Cuba solidarity activists in the U.S. Peace Council and U.S. Labor for Friendship with Cuba.

Almost 80 people packed a classroom at Pace University's downtown New York campus on a relatively warm, mostly sunny Saturday afternoon, on March 17, 2012, to learn about new developments in Cuba directly from diplomats of the Republic of Cuba.
The panel's purpose was to explain the economic reforms and new period of socialist construction launched in Cuba in 2011.  Marxism-Leninism Today ( sponsored the panel, a first for the electronic journal, at this year's Left Forum.  The Left Forum, which takes place once a year in New York City, gathers activists and intellectuals across a wide range of political tendencies from anarchist and social-democratic to Communist. 
Its venue, on a college campus across the street from City Hall, is a short walk to Wall Street and an even shorter walk to the park that continues to be a site of Occupy Wall Street, where dozens marking the movement's six-month anniversary were beaten and arrested by the New York Police Department the same day of this panel on Cuba on the nearby campus.

Walter Tillow, a member of the editorial board of Marxism-Leninism Today and of the Louisville, Committee to Free the Cuban Five, first explained that the two invited speakers from Cuba were unable to make it because of the U.S. blockade.  Juan Lamigueiro, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC, and Patricia Pego Guerra, First Secretary at the Interests Section, were denied the right to travel from the nation's capital to New York City by the U.S. State Department.

The Cuban diplomats were not given the courtesy of a reply to their request to travel within the country, but rather received a "no answer" type of denial.  The prohibition on their travel outside of Washington, DC made it impossible for the Cuban diplomats to participate in this, the largest annual gathering of Left academics in a country whose rulers boast of its freedom of speech.  Tillow  also said that professor Nelson Valdes, also slated to be on the panel, was unable to attend because of illness.

The audience was urged  to contact the White House and the U.S. State Dept. to protest  the prohibition on travel within the country and the specific fact that Left Forum attendees were not allowed the right to hear the Cuban envoys to the U.S. in their own words.

Roger Keeran, a professor at Empire State College, SUNY, chaired the panel and introduced participants who, already in New York City, were able to substitute for Juan Lamigueiro and Patricia Pego on such very short notice: Jairo Rodriguez Hernandez, Attaché, and Alaim Pena, Third Secretary, both with the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Cuba to the United Nations. 

Prof. Keeran mentioned that Cuba had adopted about 300 new policy guidelines in 2011 in furtherance of the economic reforms, and that when he visited Cuba last year with the second annual delegation of U.S. Labor for Friendship with Cuba everybody in Cuba was talking about the changes.

Jairo Rodriguez began by discussing Cuba's economic development in general perspective.  Rodriguez noted the challenges facing Cuba, which he explained to the U.S. audience was a small poor country with no significant  resources.  He enumerated as well the critical external factors that have always impacted Cuba's historical development:  Four hundred years of Spanish colonialism, followed by 60 years of U.S. neo-colonialism until 1959--during which the real decisions on Cuba were made in Washington, DC and, finally, the U.S. aggression and blockade for the past 50 plus years.

Rodriguez explained that in the early 1990s Cuba lost 85 percent of its foreign trade and about 34 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) when socialism in the U.S.S.R. and many other socialist countries was overthrown.  However, because of Cuba's socialist system, not one hospital or school closed.  Nor was a single worker laid off.  Socialism's continuing existence in this small poor country meant the continued provision of free healthcare for all and free education through university.

However, U.S. blockade measures only increased after the overthrow of the U.S.S.R. and other socialist countries, becoming stronger in 1992 with the Torricelli Act and in 1996 with the Helms-Burton Act.

Rodriguez concluded his initial overview by noting that the global economic crisis from 2008 on, plus several major hurricanes that hit the island in recent years, added to Cuba's challenges of recovering from the aggravated U.S. blockade in the wake of the collapse of mutual aid and cooperation with former socialist countries.

This is the context in which the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in 2011 adopted the general guidelines for the new period of economic reforms.  The Constitution of the Republic of Cuba provides for the Communist Party to lay out such guidelines.

Pena explained the details of the guidelines now being implemented.  First of all, there were thousands of meetings and proposals put forward at all levels of political responsibility among wide masses of the people of Cuba prior to the Sixth Congress.  The economic reforms adopted by the Sixth Congress proceed from the socialist character of the Revolution proclaimed 50 years ago.  They continue and form part of the ongoing guarantee of the irreversibility of the Revolution, of its socialist character.  The main focus in the new period is to update the economic and social system with a view to adapt to the challenges noted above.

The guidelines of the Sixth Congress are oriented to the people's socialist ownership of the means of production.  Only socialism is capable of overcoming the difficulties encountered by the Revolution.  Socialism means equal rights and opportunities for all citizens in this society characterized by the people's socialist ownership of the means of production.  "No one will be left unprotected," Pena stated.

The guidelines were discussed and approved by a majority of the Cuban people in an open, democratic, and participatory process.  Almost nine million people participated in over 150,000 meetings, as a result of which two thirds of the initial proposed guidelines--or 68% to be precise—were modified before the Sixth Congress finally approved the final guidelines.

Pena specified the international context for the Sixth Congress's approval of the guidelines:  The structural and systemic crisis of capitalism, with its financial, cultural, and environmental ramifications.  Cuba is affected profoundly by this crisis, as manifested by instability in the prices of its exports, and increased demand for and problems of access to credit.  In sum, the purchasing power of Cuban goods has declined. 
He acknowledged positive counteracting trends that have arisen, creating new opportunities whose fuller development will be stimulated by the economic reforms:  Since 2004, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America has deepened Cuba's economic relations in the Hemisphere.  Increased revenues have come from healthcare services exports to Venezuela.  And Cuba has expanded economic relations with China, Vietnam, Russia, Iran, Angola, Algeria, and Brazil.  In the context of the crisis, the solution requires a strategic and long-term vision.  In Cuba's socialist society these plans are being implemented not only by government agencies but also by the concerted efforts of the entire people.

Pena stressed that in the new period of economic reforms the economic system will continue to be based on socialist ownership and will be governed by socialist distribution principles:  From each according to his or her individual capacities, to each according to his or her work.  Within this system, economic reforms will accentuate the following:  Deficit reduction, import substitution, energy self-sufficiency, competitiveness, and high value-added goods and services.  All of these policies will be guided, Pena reiterated, by the overarching principle that no one will be unprotected.  Everything will be conducted and assessed and if necessary modified to fit the goal of guaranteeing the continuation and irreversibility of the development of socialism.

Rodriguez explained the relationship between economic reforms and the Cuban Revolution's enduring goal of protecting the country's national sovereignty and independence.  

He unequivocally stated that Cuba will correct its new policies in the future if outcomes are not conducive to this core commitment of the Cuban Revolution:  Decisions will be made in Cuba, not in Washington or Miami.  The goal of the economic reforms is to maintain the fundamental social and economic achievements of the revolutionary process in health, education, and culture--and the success of the reforms implemented will be gauged against this perspective.  Economic reforms are aimed at adapting to internal and external challenges--without dramatic social impacts.  Education and healthcare are free and will remain so.  The core perspective animating the Communist Party of Cuba's approach to the economic reforms is that people, not capital, are central to the process.

During the question and answer part of the panel session, it was noted by one of the audience attendees to the overwhelming approval of other audience members that the independence and sovereignty of Cuba will not be decided by people in the U.S. or other imperialist countries who say they're left-wing intellectuals.  It was also pointed out that one of the big advantages of the economic reforms is that they will bring the black market out into the open. 
The role of the Workers' Central Union of Cuba, the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC), the country's four-million member labor federation, was also pointed out, and how the CTC's involvement in the deliberative process before, during, and after the promulgation of the guidelines shows that the Cuban Revolution is not a mere "revolution from the top" as imagined by petty-bourgeois critics, that the CTC's organization of the working class in the economic reform deliberations reflects a continuation and deepening of the revolutionary process.

Fielding questions, Pena noted that Cuba is not following any foreign experiment or model in updating socialism.  He addressed the updating of socialism in the areas of housing and self-employment.  One of the Revolution's first measures was to give the Cuban people property rights to the housing in which they lived.  Prior to the Revolution, the vast majority had to pay rent.  The economic reforms aim to build on this fundamental revolutionary achievement in order to address an existing housing shortage.  Economic reforms in the area of housing will make it easier to sell or buy housing.  Self-employment is another area of economic reform. 

New forms of self-employment created through implementation of the guidelines will not damage the essence of the socialist system:  It will be self-employment in what Pena termed non-essentials, such as in cafeterias, restaurants, barber shops, and auto repair.  New licenses have been granted for self-employed workers in these non-essential activities.  Pena specifically noted that this does not change the essence of socialism or create a new class of big capitalist exploiters in Cuba.  "People won't get rich through auto repairs," he added.  The Communist Party and the government and people will focus anti-corruption policies on preserving the socialist essence of the economy by combating the tendencies and individuals representing its opposite.

During the questions and answers period, Rodriguez introduced Oscar Leon Gonzales, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Cuba to the United Nations, who reiterated for the audience's benefit that Raul said Cubans need to continue to discuss the economic reforms in a democratic way, that Cuba will not allow investors to profit through corrupt officials.  The rule of transparency, the Ambassador made it clear, is manifestly in Cuba's interest, since the country would actually demotivate foreign investment by failing to crack down on corruption.

On the issue of housing, Rodriguez added that Cuba does not aim for big business in real estate to emerge, that the Communist Party, government, and people will keep reviewing developments to ensure that this does not occur.  He acknowledged a reality that presently exists, and has for some time, namely the fact of differing social status by virtue of simply having family or friends in the U.S. or Spain--the impact of an extra $50 given by an overseas family member, for example, makes it possible to do many things because health and education are already free.  The solutions to the inequities, Rodriguez affirmed, will be found in the enterprises and in the neighborhoods by the Cuban people, who are one and the same as the Cuban government--unlike in capitalist countries.

On the issue of self-employment, Rodriguez added that in the past, state-owned cafeterias paid salaries to workers regardless of the quality of their services, good or bad, and that nobody could get fired from a cafeteria job no matter how bad the quality of their work.  With self-employment, the self-employed will also pay taxes.  In addition to obeying regulations, self-employed business people, such as barbershop owners, will pay taxes to the government.  Until now, in Cuba's socialist society no one paid any tax.

By law, in Cuba's socialist society everyone has a place to work.  Rodriguez reiterated that nobody will be left unemployed:  This is a principle of socialism.  But now, with the economic reforms, people will be redirected to sectors where labor is actually needed.  For example, university studies will be geared much more to agricultural engineering and other sectors where talent is needed and skills and knowledge must be more widely developed for the sake of the people.  Too many individuals--he gave as an example an institution with which he was familiar, the University of Cienfuegos--are studying law or journalism or philosophy for that to make sense for Cuba's economic needs at this time.

Pena noted that Cuban youth, an important part of the revolutionary process, themselves took up a central role in the discussions leading to these conclusions.  Rodriguez added that the role of youth changes with the development of the revolutionary process.  Fidel at Moncada, that was youth,  then.  Now, youth, with their energy and knowledge, need to be in school or working, or on the road of doing either:  Their main role and responsibility is to defend and implement the Cuban Revolution in the current period, as well as to defend the independence of Cuba.  Rodriguez noted that Raul said that Cuba needs more young people in the National Assembly of People's Power; needs more young people as managers, and also needs for young people to become businessmen and businesswomen.

In the more general realm of labor allocation, Pena noted that management and unions together are analyzing which employees should be moved to other activities

The U.S. blockade is the biggest obstacle and challenge to Cuba, Rodriguez reiterated towards the end of the panel session.  U.S. relations are a priority for Cuba, while Cuban relations are not a priority for the U.S.--with the exception of Miami.  The U.S. remains the main threat to Cuban independence and national sovereignty.  Notwithstanding this, Cuba reaffirms its willingness to work with the U.S. to fight terrorism and narcotics trafficking.  At the same time, Cuba will not relent in ceaselessly working for freedom for the Cuban Five unjustly imprisoned in the U.S., and for an end to the U.S. blockade:  These two big issues dominate U.S. relations for Cuba.

Pena noted in response to an audience member's comment that Cuba is the largest per capita producer of organic food in the world that Cuba is an agricultural country that has become a net importer of food.  The economic reforms aim to stimulate national production of food, for example, vegetable production in the cities.

Rodriguez noted in response to an audience member's question that the economic reforms mean people in the licensed areas of self-employment mentioned above can now hire others unrelated to them.  Previously, people could only legally hire family members.  Now, the self-employed in those non-essential sectors such as cafeterias, restaurants, barber shops, and auto repair can hire others and as many as they wish for their own single individual cafeteria, restaurant, barber shop, or auto repair shop.  But they will need to pay taxes on each hire.  And in addition to regulations the self-employed owners of these businesses must accommodate themselves to a trade union of private-sector workers that organizes workers in the new businesses.

The authors found the panel discussion by the Cuban diplomats most helpful in grasping the nature of the economic reforms and their relationship to the ongoing process of socialist construction in Cuba.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Labor's New Odd Couple, Or A Match Made In Heaven?

There is the familiar old adage, politics makes strange bedfellows.  The recent announcement that the NationalUnion of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and the International Association of Machinistsand Aerospace Workers (IAM) are discussing a possible affiliation may have some people reworking that statement to include the labor movement.   

Like many in the labor community, I have to admit I was puzzled when I first heard of this possible partnership.  Why would an independent union of healthcare workers who are locked in an epic struggle against what is arguably the most undemocratic union in modern labor history consider teaming up with a union that has no history of representing healthcare workers, and frankly, has had its own issues in the past with internal democracy?

            According to John Borsos (Vice-President of NUHW), “IAM shares NUHW’s vision to build a national healthcare union.”  The fact that IAM is not involved in healthcare is seen as something of a plus to NUHW, as Borsos believes this will afford his organization a greater level of autonomy.  Of course, all of these issues are yet to be hammered out by the two unions, and any affiliation would be subject to approval by the respective memberships. 

So why would NUHW choose IAM over another independent union, such as the United ElectricalWorkers (UE) or another healthcare union like the California Nurses Association(CNA)?  While Borsos confirmed that there were other suitors who showed interest in NUHW, he declined to confirm specific organizations who expressed interest. 

While detractors will likely speculate that the NUHW-IAM alliance is based solely on the fact that NUHW needs resources for the upcoming rerun of the Kaiser Permanente elections, it is important to point out that if there were the case, why wouldn’t NUHW just affiliate with Unite Here, who, according to the Department of Labor, gave NUHW $4.8 million in 2010?  When asked about what kind of support IAM would be giving NUHW in the upcoming elections, Borsos would only say that IAM would be offering assistance – “Both financial and otherwise.” 

While there is no question that NUHW will benefit greatly from this alliance, it should be pointed out that IAM will also benefit from its willingness to consider an affiliation with this upstart democratic union.  If they are committed to making their union more democratic, then this affiliation could be a step in the right direction.  While some may view this as the labor movement’s current version of the odd couple, skeptics should at the very least applaud the willingness of IAM to take on the purple monster, which is something that most unions have not had the intestinal fortitude to do thus far.   

(SEIU did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Review: Civil Wars In U.S. Labor by Steve Early

Ever since Florence Reese wrote the lyrics to Which Side Are You On? in 1931, that question has been posed between labor and the bosses. With his latest offering, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, Steve Early will have workers and activists asking themselves where they stand in the labor movement.

In Civil Wars, Early, who is a well known critic of SEIU’s lack of internal democracy, meticulously dissects the various internal issues that have plagued the organization over the last several years. At the same time he also gives a historical background to provide adequate context for the reader to understand where the problems originated. Early discusses the failure of the MAC (Member Action Center) Call Centers in a chapter that is humorously titled, Dial 1-800-My-Union? The MAC line was a running joke during my time as an SEIU Organizer with District 1199 in West Virginia, as it consisted of an answering machine and an email being sent to the organizer to fix whatever issue had been reported.

While Civil Wars gives a very detailed account of the hostile takeover of United Healthcare West that led to the formation of NUHW (National Union of Healthcare Workers), Early also points out that while this trusteeship is by far the most publicized and biggest action by SEIU, it is certainly not the first. Early explains how Andy Stern crushed dissent in other locals by forcing their members into other locals who were either already under trusteeship, or under the leadership of Stern loyalists.

Early does not end his coverage of SEIU’s woes with internal issues. In a section titled How EFCA Died for ObamaCare, Early explains how SEIU burrowed into a position of influence inside the Obama administration and effectively elbowed out other unions. This is something that has put even more stress on the already fractured relationship SEIU has with the rest of big labor.

As a former SEIU staffer, I found myself cringing as I read Civil Wars, much as many rock stars must have cringed watching Spinal Tap for the first time. I believe this book should be required reading, not only for members of SEIU, who will find Civil Wars to be a disturbing peek behind the purple curtain, but also for anyone who cares about the future of the labor movement.  I found Civil Wars to be a disturbing validation of what I experienced firsthand as an organizer with SEIU.  The chickens have finally come home to roost after twenty years of shifting from a grassroots democratic union into a top-down bureaucratic corporation that places a higher value on political influence than it does on member representation.  

Civil Wars offers a unique look inside the challenging proposition facing NUHW that is all too familiar for IWW members – surviving as an independent union.  Among the major labor organizations in the United States, only a few, namely IWW and the United Electrical Workers(UE) have survived over the long-term.  NUHW’s recent partnership with the Machinists(IAM) demonstrates just how difficult it can be.
While Early focuses on SEIU, the issues that are raised in Civil Wars are faced by members in many other unions. When unions begin to look more like the corporations they are supposed to be fighting than the militant, democratic voice for workers that they are meant to be, it is only natural that the battle lines will begin to form, as Civil Wars clearly shows.

The real question Early seems to be asking is, very simply, Which Side Are You On?