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Camila Piñeiro Harnecker: `Cuba needs changes, to take us forward rather than backwards'

Cuban workers march on May Day 2009. Photo by Bill Hackwell/Havana Times.

[For more analysis and discussion on the economic reforms in Cuba, click HERE.]

Translator's introduction

January 15, 2011 -- Cuba's Socialist Renewal -- Alongside and intersecting with the grassroots debates on the Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines and the informal debate, there is a rich discussion and debate taking place among Cuban intellectuals and academic specialists from a variety of disciplines and a spectrum of political perspectives within the broad camp of the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban magazine Temas (Themes) is one publication that carries contributions to this debate among Cuba's revolutionary intelligentsia.

The demise of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s precipitated not only the "Special Period" economic crisis in Cuba, but also a flourishing of Cuban social sciences in the Marxist tradition. With the Soviet manuals on "Marxism-Leninism" discredited, a revival of genuine Marxism was spurred by both the ideological challenge presented by the demise of Soviet Stalinism and concrete investigations into the changes taking place in Cuban society as the Special Period unfolded.

Camila Piñeiro Harnecker holds a degree in sustainable development from the University of Berkeley, California. She is a professor at the Centre for Studies on the Cuban Economy at Havana University, and her works have been published both in Cuba and outside the island. She is also, incidently, the daughter of Chilean-Cuban journalist and author Marta Harnecker (who now lives in Venezuela) and her late husband, Manuel "Red Beard" Piñeiro, who headed revolutionary Cuba's state security and intelligence service for many years.

Here is a complete and corrected translation of one of her recent contributions to the discussion on Cuba's economic reforms.

How to reassert the principle "to each according to their work" without money-making becoming the main or sole motivation to work? Here, Piñeiro Harnercker's concerns echo those of Che Guevara in the 1960s. Today, revolutionary Cuba returns to the classic debate over material vs. moral incentives four decades on with the Soviet Union itself long gone but its presence still felt in many of the Cuban Revolution's concepts, structures, methods and mentalities, and with the PCC leadership acknowledging certain idealistic errors. Rather than the victory of one side over the other in this decades-old debate, the new Cuban "model" of socialist development that is emerging will be a synthesis of the valid contributions of both sides.

Cuba needs changes, but to take us forward rather than backwards

By Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, translation and introduction by Marce Cameron

October 20, 2010 -- Espacio Laical no. 4, 2010, pp.15-18 -- Finally I have the opportunity and the frame of mind to respond to a comment published in Espacio Laical no. 2, 2008 on a commentary that I wrote titled "Socialism needs solidarity and is not constructed with appeals to egoism", published in Temas magazine No. 52. This commentary was written in response to the views expressed by Aurelio Alonso in an interview for Progreso Semanal on October 7, 2007.

Aurelio is someone I have a lot of respect for and I know we agree on essentials, but it seemed to me important to initiate a debate on the objectives that must guide the changes we will make in Cuba and the means to achieve them. When I read what Juan Valdes Paz wrote in response to our exchange, also published in the same edition of Temas, I thought I had managed to explain my views clearly enough, except for the very complex theme of the role of the market and of planning in socialist construction. Given that I agreed almost completely with Juan Valdes Paz, it did not seem necessary for me to respond.

At the time, I had intended to organise meetings around these themes related to the construction of socialism in various more or less academic spaces, because it seems crucial for the future of our country that we engage in a constructive debate that contributes to clarifying certain gaps in understanding and confusions — and I am no exception in this regard, of course —  that could lead us to propose and support changes that are not the most appropriate to resolve our problems, and that in the long run would result in capitalist restoration or a continual zigzagging without a clear horizon in mind nor the paths that would take us toward this goal.

For this reason I decided to re-enter the public debate and run the risk of being misinterpreted again. In fact, the commentary in Espacio Laical revealed a communication problem, motivated perhaps by my difficulty in expressing myself and by a superficial and prejudiced reading of the ideas I put forward then, and which I still hold to. While it is doubtless relevant to know the life experience of those that defend a position, it seems to me unnecessary and even counterproductive — if the objective really is a constructive debate — to cast aspersions on those who participate in an exchange of views. So, without personalising the debate, I'll try to explain better what I wanted to say and what many think, both of my generation as well as others, who are concerned for the future of our homeland, not because of ideological stubbornness but out of genuine concern for the conditions that will impact the lives of Cubans and the repercussions of what we do for other peoples of the world.                  

I reiterate once again what is obvious to anyone who knows Cuban reality: that we must change innumerable structural aspects of the organisation of our society in all spheres of economic, political, juridical, communication, etc., life. We must break the inertia of so many years of not addressing the root causes of the grave problems that wear us down and degrade us and provoke a generalised and justified discontent.

However, it's important that we realise that something as simple as any change will not necessarily allow us to solve the problems and advance towards what we want. Since we are human beings with the capacity to think and be sensitive to the fact that the negative consequences of erroneous measures will fall on the most vulnerable people, and those who have sacrificed themselves the most for a better future for all of us, it seems to me important to try to do it as best we can. We must also avoid derailing what has been achieved to date, above all the humane outlook that characterises us.

Democratisation

What I propose are really radical changes, which does not mean extremism but recognising that it is necessary to go to the roots or deep causes of the problems that stalk us to really solve them. For example, in place of the decentralisation of [state] enterprise management and of government, I propose their democratisation, which is something more. Democratisation implicitly includes decentralisation, but to democratise means that people can participate in decision making about that which affects their lives, in its implementation and control; and there are innumerable decisions that fundamentally affect a work collective or a specific community, so these are the decisions that — taking into account the broadest social interests — should be taken in a decentralised fashion. What is proposed here is that the power to decide, to manage, no longer be in the hands of the management councils of the enterprises or local governments, but in the hands of the workers and citizens themselves.

If we promote a decentralisation that is not democratic, the management of these decentralised spaces, and therefore with greater autonomy, will be guided by the individual interests of the administrators and not necessarily by those of the collectives they should represent. The growth of corruption among state administrators that has taken place since the [economic] reforms of the 1990s is due not only to the fact that they cannot satisfy their necessities with their [low] salaries, but also because neither workers or citizens had the means nor the motivation to control their management [of enterprises or local governments]. In addition, democratic management is indispensable for the full self-development of individuals, not only by satisfying their spiritual necessities but also by allowing them taking greater control over the conditions required to satisfy their material necessities, both individual and collective (shared with their communities or collectives of work, residence or other social activities). 

I was also branded as conservative or naive because I drew attention to the importance of taking into consideration that the interests of human beings cannot be reduced to individual material interests. However, I propose that instead of creating a system of incentives that focus on individual material incentives — as is proposed in the call for "allowing the people to make money" —  what we believe is needed is a system of incentives that takes into account that people also have collective and social material interests that cannot be satisfied in an individual way; as well as spiritual interests. 

Full and integral human development

To avoid confusion, it's important to note that the spiritual interests or needs of people are not satisfied solely with social recognition or so-called "moral incentives", that have rarely been concretised as demonstrations of social recognition given their merely formal character rather than being the fruit of a collective and truly demanding evaluation. Social recognition is important and just, but people's spiritual necessities also require opportunities for personal, professional and human realisation, and are closely related to people's daily experiences in their interaction with other human beings.

All these interests, material and spiritual, individual, collective and social, must be taken into account when we organise our institutions, especially if we are interested in promoting a full and integral human development, that is, one that takes into account all these dimensions of human individuality. This, as I said then, is the horizon that socialist ideas that do not deny their humanist essence point towards. To be alert to the importance of taking into consideration the other interests that move human beings as well as individual material interests, is not to ignore the irrefutable importance of the latter, but to promote a more complex understanding of human nature and conduct.

What motivated my commentary was precisely that Aurelio Alonso in his interview appeared to suggest the use of individual material incentives as the lever or motor of economic activity. And it is when the focus of human activity is "making money" or "self-enrichment" — as the Soviet defenders of economic calculus [a system of relations between state enterprises and the socialist state] and the Chinese leadership would say to justify their pro-capitalist reforms — that the view of what is essential in the building of socialism has been lost. I insist that we're not going to arrive at the same place [i.e. socialism] as a society if our objective, instead of full human development, is the satisfaction of material necessities.

Of course, I am in agreement that individual material incentives are needed to motivate people to increase their productivity and the quality of their work. Moreover, it is unjust that those who don't make an effort or do not carry out their responsibilities receive the same incomes as those that do. But the motivation of the people involved in the building of socialism cannot be reduced to their personal incomes. The logic of profit maximisation or individual benefit, the driving force of capitalism, has proved incapable of solving problems related even to the satisfaction of material necessities for basic consumer goods; as well as the spiritual impoverishment of people.

Participation

As I said then, the underlying cause of the low motivation of the majority of Cuban workers cannot be reduced to the fact that their wages do not cover all basic necessities or the size of the additional incomes they earn, there is also the fact that they cannot participate in the management of their enterprises. This has been seen in the limited results obtained following the introduction of payment according to output (Resolution 9 of the Ministry of Work and Social Security), since this was not accompanied by other resolutions to grant state enterprises the powers they would need to be able to manage effectively, as well as allow real participation by the workers in enterprise management. Thus, many workers and [enterprise] managers when interviewed said they were even less motivated, because it's unjust that their incomes depend on decisions over which they have no real control, since they are handed down by superior entities.

The managers and workers will be really motivated when they are able to democratically manage their enterprises, and [when] one of the many managerial decisions they make is how to distribute the net earnings among themselves, after the payment of taxes and other financial commitments, as well as ensuring the availability of their working capital, investment funds and reserves. Only in such a situation will the workers really be motivated to make an optimum effort and ensure that their work colleagues do the same, because individual interest joins with the collective interest of the enterprise achieving the best possible results. That is to say, it's not necessary to choose between individual material and spiritual ["moral"] incentives, it is possible to do both simultaneously if we democratise the management of enterprises.

My response was also motivated by Aurelio Alonso seeming to suggest — although in other writings he clarifies his preference for democratic enterprise management — that private capitalist enterprises are a better option than enterprises managed democratically as cooperatives. Also because, like many others, he did not point to the possibility of combining market relations with [social] planning in a new synthesis.          

As I explain in a draft commentary, a synthesis of which was published on Rebelion.org under the heading, "Risks associated with the expansion of non-state enterprises in the Cuban economy and recommendations for how to avoid them" [English translation here], to promote small capitalist enterprises and market relations in Cuba would be a backwards step in the levels of social justice achieved by our country and would not necessarily contribute to the satisfaction of our material necessities, much less spiritual needs. To clarify for those who read it superficially, while I am against the promotion of [small] capitalist enterprises and market relations in our country, I do not want to say that I do not recognise the convenience of legalising and regulating that which for a long time have been operating illegally in our country. In fact, it is impossible to prohibit people from organising their economic activity in such a  way that they maximise their individual material benefit whether by the contracting of other workers as subordinates, without the right to participate in management (wage labour); or by trading without taking into account social interests (that is, market relations).

Worker's self-management

What I propose is that both [the hiring of labour and market exchange by small capitalist enterprises] are legalised and strictly regulated, but that we at the same time do promote, through credit and other state assistance, that both state and non-state (cooperatives and other forms of self-management of small and medium enterprises) are managed democratically and that they establish horizontal exchange relations that respond to social interests. If we understand the "market" or market relations as simply relations of horizontal exchange that are not necessarily guided by the logic of narrow individual benefit, then our differences are not so great. But I do think that it is important to recognise that for horizontal exchange relations to internalise the social interest, it is essential that first of all we identify these social interests through democratic planning mechanisms; for which it is evidently also indispensable to democratise our political system, in such a way that the local governments have the powers they need so that their public administration really is democratic and effective.

Of course, any analysis of the changes we need to make to solve the current problems and advance in the construction of socialism (which is nothing more than advancing towards a truly just society) must take into account the objective conditions (productive capacity, distribution of economic power, international insertion, etc.) and subjective conditions (education levels, political consciousness, solidarity etc.) in our society. But when differentiating between short-term goals — given the limitations imposed by existing conditions — and long-term goals, we must not fall into the error of neglecting the latter. Short-term goals must point towards the achievement of the conditions needed to reach long-term goals; and not, as some propose, that make us neglect the long-term goals.

`Productive forces'

Moreover, where is the Marxist methodology when it is repeated that we must achieve a high level of development of the productive forces before we can construct socialism, without perceiving that the technologies of the developed world where, according to Marx [in the late 19th century], the objective conditions for socialist construction existed are superseded in relatively underdeveloped countries today? Have we really understood Marx when we reduce the "productive forces" to technologies, forgetting that according to Marx men and women constitute the most important productive force?

It should be clarified that the "abundance" that Marx foresaw as characterising the society of full justice (called "communism" or "socialism") is not identical to abundance in the sense of having all material necessities satisfied, but in the sense of ensuring the conditions so that people can fully satisfy their material and spiritual human development needs. Those who today try to seduce us with the promise of material abundance do not warn us that the path towards this supposed abundance — by means of material incentives — will leave many of us behind, that is, it will be abundance for only a few. Moreover, these few will have lost their human essence along the way. What they propose, in appealing to narrow individual self-interest, does not recognise the social nature of human individuality, and what's more, one's need to internalise the interests of others.

Precisely because I take into account the objective and subjective conditions in Cuba today, it seems unwise to me to promote capitalist enterprise and market relations. If this were some other country, dominated by capitalist monopolies or with a low level of education and solidarity, perhaps it would be correct to promote capitalist businesses to the same extent as self-managed enterprises [i.e. cooperatives]. But since in Cuba the majority of the means of production were de-privatised, and people have relatively high levels of education and solidarity, and it is also a well-organised society, it seems to me an error to promote capitalist businesses and market relations when the conditions exist — without prohibiting the latter — to promote self-managed enterprises, popular self-government (municipal, provincial and national) and socialised exchange relations.

I understand people who have lived in our country for a long time and [who are] now, understandably, disappointed with this attempt to build a more just society. I understand that they're tired of a "socialism" that promises a better future but makes daily life a frustrating odyssey. But I don't understand those who identify, in the errors committed in Cuba and in other attempts at socialist construction, irrefutable proof in the infeasibility of a society superior to capitalism, call it socialist or whatever you want.

Association and cooperation, not subordination and competition

I draw attention to the importance of how we organise our economy at the level of the enterprise, the community and the society precisely because I understand the essence of the Marxist doctrine, according to which the social relations of production (understanding production to be everything in the production-distribution- exchange-consumption cycle) determine the institutional superstructure of a society (or mode of production, in the words of Marx), to which human conduct ultimately responds. Precisely because of this, I defend the thesis that if we want to construct a society in which everyone will be able to develop themselves fully as human beings, we must organise our enterprises and local governments and all spaces of social activity in such a way that the social relations are of association and cooperation, not subordination and competition.

What I have explained in various works in which I analyse the relationship between democratic practice and the development of solidarity, by people involved in these experiences (in particular a group of Venezuelan cooperatives — see Temas, nos. 50-51 and 54), is that solidarity is not promoted effectively through formal education, appeals or even the example of leaders. Rather, solidarity is promoted above all through organising social institutions in such a way that people's daily practice (or, in Marxist terminology, the social relations that are established) promotes these values. It's precisely for this reason that I try to alert us to the fact that if we promote the hiring of labour [by capitalist small businesses] and exchange via market relations, in place of the democratic management of our enterprises and exchange relations guided by the social interest as determined by democratic planning, we'll be undermining, as we have been doing, the levels of [social] justice, dignity and solidarity achieved in our country.

I repeat once more: we should not fear Cubans democratically administering our enterprises and local governments, and eventually our economy and society! We should fear and distrust the "tired" ones who tell us that all solutions pass through narrow individual self-interest and that only certain elites are capable of administering effectively, because these two fallacies are precisely the ones that have historically justified injustice.

[This above translation first appeared at Cuba's Socialist Renewal, a site edited by Marce Cameron to "open a window to the English-speaking world on the debates and changes taking place in Cuba and provide a space for discussion and debate among supporters, however critical, of the Cuban Revolution". Cameron is an activist with the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (ACFS) and president of the Sydney University Cuba-Venezuela Solidarity Club. To follow or to receive email updates from Cuba's Socialist Renewal, click on the link.]

Comments

Future directions for Cuba

I plan on being in Havana between April 14th and the 21st to gauge first hand how Cubans receive the final passage of the reform package. I am taking a Masters Course in Integrated Studies at Athabasca University in Alberta and am interested in Cuba and how it deals with globalization and the international market forces. I understand that you teach couses at the University of Havana and I was directed by Dr. Boris Fortes to talk to you regarding doing a course or courses there. Unfortunately I am not in agreement with all your suggestions for reforms in Cuba. I have visited Cuba numerous times since 1998 and once in the company of my friend Dr. David Whitefield now deceased who was a strong communist and supporter of Cuba. My impression gathered on those trips was that most Cubans I met want the opportunity to experience the type of material life style which only can come from increased income in their own pockets. While workers would like the opportunity to make suggestions on how the enterprise should be operated they would gladly leave the day to day major operating decisions to good managers. Of course good managers only become that way if they have an incentive to work long and hard in building up the business of the enterprise. The incentive is income and bonuses and other forms of incentives. While Cuba is to be admired for its successes in the area of social programs these need foreign investments and export revenue to continue these at the current or optimum level. You speak of not wanting to encourage the spread of small private enterprises even though in most countries small businesses create many jobs. But let me take one area as an example of how change can come to Cuba. That is the area of renting rooms in private homes to foreigners. This is an area that seems to be over regulated. In Canada if I wish to rent my home or a room in my home to a visitor that is entirely my decision. By doing so I earn income and against this income I am entitled to charge the expenses incurred by me in keeping up my home for this purpose. It includes upkeep-painting, repairs, etc. Now in Cuba it is my understanding that the government heavily regulates this activity and takes the bulk of the income derived if not all of it. Where does the homeowner derive funds to carry out repairs and maintenace? This is the reason so many of the homes in Cuba need repairs, painting, etc. What better way to encourage sales of paint and other repair material and their production! Of course if the homeowner could not justify his expenses then the government would be able to tax the excess income.

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