Cuba: Voluntary work abolished -- a step forward?

By Luis Sexto, Havana

September 7, 2011 -- Progreso Weekly -- Voluntary work in Cuba, as a practice on weekdays or Sundays, has been abolished. In view of this action, neither original nor daring, one might suppose that the decision by the Cuban Trade Union Confederation (CTC) to end voluntary work, except in times of disaster or when enterprises face acute needs, has earned the implicit approval of most Cubans.

But to state the opposite, namely that many Cubans are not in agreement, might mean that one dons the mask of someone who is unthinking or opportunistic, or of a dogmatic person who does not understand the society in which they live and the circumstances that surround it.

To deny the decision's importance in the strategy of changes would not be accurate either, in my view. The effects of the measure – adopted during the 87th plenum of the CTC's national council on February 18 – are several. First, we must acknowledge that voluntary work, as it evolved, shortened leisure time for workers and reduced their status as free individuals through union and administrative pressures.

The very fact of recording the workers' willingness to be "volunteers" in a book where supervisors put down his name on the "available" column or on the "not available" column meant either a merit or a mark against one’s political character.

Therefore, rather than the unpaid work the workers could have performed, the stress was on attendance, even though in practice the summons sometimes served only to waste time and resources. But the summons also helped some to feign a social conscience that would enable them to accumulate hours without pay that could be paid back by the distribution of goods or positions.

Second, and no less important, voluntary work ends as an ever-available tool to complete the production or other tasks that went unaccomplished in the usual eight-hour workday. Put more clearly: the measure has removed one of the veils that concealed inefficiency. Beginning now, according to the criterion of the CTC, "the entities that need to hire labour for eventual or emerging tasks, temporary or seasonal, or to replace workers absent for reasons recognised by law, must hire workers from the labour pool".

Can we make an unprejudiced evaluation of the political and economic meanings of this decision? Let us remember that voluntary work was conceived in Cuba for the purposes of ideological education, and as a means to articulate "the new socialist human being", a social being willing to work for the sake of solidarity and altruism, someone for whom work would also represent an ascetic of ethical improvement. Che Guevara was among those who introduced voluntary work and was one of its most enthusiastic theorists and practitioners.

Later, following the inevitable fate of anything that is made absolute and done without a rational strategy, voluntary work became lax, became a ceremonial activity that rather than increasing social wealth squandered it, and instead of encouraging respect for and attachment to work limited it by insisting on ritualism.

Although one might believe otherwise, it is not the first time we have talked this way about Che Guevara's initiative. Personally, in the decade of 1990, I recall the following episode. At a session of the National Assembly that I covered for the magazine Bohemia, a deputy reproached me for having expressed, on the Straight Talk program of Radio Rebelde, critical judgements about the distortion of voluntary work. "You discouraged a very large mobilisation for this weekend", he scolded me. "On one hand, I summon the workers; on the other, you ruin my effort."

Perhaps I am not wrong when I note that in Cuba there was often controversy, a clash of ideas about how to conceive of socialism. To me, socialism someday will be the realm of freedom and equality. And in dialectical harmony, because without equality freedom will not prevail.

But even without volunteers, work that is effectively and efficiently performed and fairly paid will be a means and an incentive to wellbeing and ethical growth, both individual and collective. Would immorality have characterised a volunteer mobilisation where workers had previously worked poorly because of a lack of interest or discipline?

Some people are never satisfied. In Miami, they have criticised such a laudable decision because it was made in February and announced in the CTC weekly in early August, coinciding with the meeting of the National Assembly and President Raul Castro's speech there. This is evidence, they say, of a subordination of the trade union movement to the power of the state. It is indeed subordination: to the strategy of transforming Cuban society.

In my view, the news was postponed until the appropriate political moment so its drastic nature would not raise doubts and misunderstandings, even opposition in more conservative minds, if it had been announced in an unsupportive environment. Following the condemnation of dogmas and taboos, the cancellation of voluntary work fits into the process of readjusting an economy that seeks efficiency and effectiveness by trimming bloated payrolls. Wouldn't it be inconsistent to ask for voluntary work from someone who is redundant, or someone who works alone in a place that formerly employed three?

In my view, those who deny that the abolition of voluntary work implies a step forward in the rational modernisation of Cuba's socialist society are reading yesterday's newspaper as if it were today's. Those who think so (and I say this not to offend, but to state a fact) are slipping on an iron mask without the visor that would enable them to see the distortion between their perception and the reality.

That, think about it, is a defect among many who have made anti-Castro eloquence a way of life and a justification for the exile movement. Maybe that's why their efforts have failed for 50 years.