Eyewitness to Cuba: Report by the Scottish Socialist Party's delegation to Cuba

Che memorial statue, Santa Clara. Photo by Gerry Corbett.

In February 2009 for two weeks, a nine-strong delegation from the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) visited Cuba at the invitation of the Communist Party of Cuba (CPC). Bill Bonnar reports on the visit.

The delegation had a number of purposes: to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, to cement relations between the two parties and to allow the delegation an insight into the development of socialism in Cuba in the first years of the 21st century. The invitation to send a delegation followed a meeting in Edinburgh between the SSP and Teresita Trujillo, a political officer attached to the Cuban embassy. They were keen to re-establish contact with the SSP following the split with Solidarity and, with that, the removal of elements from the SSP who were hostile to the Cuban Revolution. The delegation, when assembled, represented a cross-section of the party with members from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Fife. Two of the nine delegates were women.

The program organised by the CPC was both demanding and insightful. It involved stays in Havana, Santa Clara and Pinar del Rio and involved travel of more than 700 miles.

The tour began with a meeting with Teresita Trujillo in the offices of the International Relations Department of the Communist Party in Revolution Square, Havana. She outlined what she saw as the political situation in Cuba today and gave an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the revolution, 50 years on. There then followed a visit to the impressive Jose Marti Monument in the square and a brief tour of Havana. One of the highlights of this was a visit to the Museum of the Revolution. The next day saw meetings with the Federation of Cuban Women and a visit to the School of Social Workers.

After two days in Havana the delegation travelled south to the city of Santa Clara where it would spend the next three days. We were met by representatives of the provincial party committee and taken on a visit to the Che Guevara memorial. This must count as one of the most impressive political monuments in the world. Sitting at the edge of a large square it consists at the base of a visitors' centre, museum and the mausoleum holding the remains of Che Guevara and 37 other Cuban and Bolivian fighters who died in the unsuccessful guerrilla campaign in Bolivia in 1967. One top is an imposing bronze statue of Che Guevara. The whole complex left a deep impression on the entire delegation. The visit also included a visit to the Armoured Train, the scene of one of the key battles of the revolution. The next day the delegation visited a local health centre to gain an insight into how the Cuban health system works followed by a visit to a factory.

From Santa Clara the delegation then travelled several hundred miles north to Pinar Del Rio where it was accommodated in a Communist Party holiday centre for the next five days. Starting with the usual meeting with the provincial party committee it was followed by visits to a local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, a day trip to the Vinales Province, a local nursery school and cigar factory. The delegation also met with students at the local university and workers at a canning factory. Some members of the delegation even attended a baseball game.

Then it was back to Havana for four days and visits to an urban agricultural project, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Metropolitan Park, presentation on the energy revolution, visit to a disability centre, arts school, a tour of colonial Havana, the International Book Fair and another Che Guevara Museum. All in all a demanding yet productive visit.

The revolution today

The delegation arrived in Cuba with a number of questions, with more emerging in the course of the visit. What does the revolution mean for Cubans today? To what extent has Cuba emerged from the privations of the Special Period? Have some of the more recent reforms led to a partial reintroduction of capitalism on the island? What has been the impact of tourism and what of the role of women? More generally, is it correct to characterise Cuba as socialist?

The delegation's visit coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. One of the things we wanted to find out was how most Cubans viewed this event. Was it simply an important piece of history to a population most of whom were born after the revolution or was it something more?

The most striking thing was the way that reference to the revolution was almost always in the present tense. People seemed to have a clear view that the revolution was an ongoing process which began in 1959 yet continues to this day. The revolution may have had its ups and downs but is viewed in an overwhelming positive fashion. Most good things which have happened to Cuba and its people over the years are attributed to the revolution and this is still very much the case. An example of this came from a visit to one of the local Defence of the Revolution Committees in Pinar Del Rio. After the formal part of the meeting was over the event quickly developed into an impromptu party. During this members of the delegation were invited into people’s homes.

In the kitchen were new fridges and cooking pots, all low energy and provided very cheaply by the state as part of the ``energy revolution''. People would proudly point to them and say, ``from the Revolution''. For most Cubans the revolution is about the defence of sovereignty against a powerful and aggressive neighbour, about economic and social progress, about a profound commitment to international solidarity and faith in a better future.

Special Period and the energy revolution

On the visit there were frequent references to the Special Period. This was the time in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Cuban economy went into freefall. The reason was a dramatic and almost overnight reduction on imports, particularly oil, an equally dramatic collapse in Cuba's export market and a ruthless tightening of the US embargo. The main effects of this were an effective collapse of large sections of industry, frequent power cuts and a dramatic reduction in food production. Living standards plummeted although the country did manage to maintain its impressive levels of spending in health and education.

The crisis provoked a twin response from the government. The first was economic with a serious of emergency measures aimed a reducing the dependency on imported fuel and in securing food supplies. The second was ideological with the government launching what it described as the Battle of Ideas. Reducing the dependency on imported fuel saw the launch of the energy revolution while the collapse of rural agriculture saw the dramatic growth in urban farms. The purpose of the battle of ideas was twofold. To reassert the validity of socialism after it had become discredited with the collapse of the Soviet Union and ``the final triumph of capitalism'', but also for society to engage in a debate as to what now constitutes socialism. The Special Period ended in 2000 yet it is interesting that many of its features, which began as emergency measures, have been retained. In particular, many features of the energy revolution have now become permanent as have most of the agricultural reforms. As for the battle of ideas, still proclaimed in billboards all over Havana, the constant renewal of the ideas of socialism seems to have become built-in to the political system.

One criticism that has been levelled is that some of the economic reforms implemented in the 1990s have allowed a limited reintroduction of capitalism to the island. It has to be said that the delegation saw little evidence of this although discussions revealed that in terms of the tourist industry most of the big new hotel complexes were being built by foreign companies on a basis of joint ownership between these companies and the government and that there was a definite encouragement of private faming in the countryside. The delegation was also aware of a large, informal, black market economy which existed alongside the official state run economy.

Evidence of the dramatic expansion of tourism was everywhere from new and refurbished hotels to the large number of foreign tourists even in February. Tourism is now the country's most important source of income bring in tens of billions of euros every year. A combination of a convertible currency and the fact that almost all this income goes directly to the government means that Cuba has a large source of trading currency and allows the government in bring in imports at a level not apparent in the past. However, this also makes the government dependent on the vagaries of international tourism and has created a duel economy based on whether you have access to ordinary or convertible pesos. In discussions it was obvious that the government are well aware of these issues and is trying to steer a course between the obvious advantages and pitfalls of this strategy.

One thing that impressed everyone on the delegation was the prominent role women played in Cuban public life. We had all read the statistics comparing the fortunes of women prior to the revolution and the achievements since but when one considers that almost every leading member of the Communist Party we met was a woman it was obvious that the advances were very real.

Is Cuba socialist?

In more general terms, would it be correct to describe Cuba as socialist? The short answer to this is yes. Cuba had a popular revolution which although initially was about sovereignty very quickly developed a socialist character. It has a government in power which describes itself as socialist and is described in the same way by friends and enemies. It has an economy in which public ownership predominates and is regulated by a system of national planning as opposed private ownership regulated (if regulated is the correct term) by the market. It has a social system based on the collective provision of society's needs based on need as opposed to the individual provision of individual need based on ability to pay. Ideologically the state promotes the ideas of sovereignty and socialism as the guiding ideas of society and internationally, Cuba has a proud record of support for those forces opposed to capitalism and imperialism.

In opposition to this there are the very real issues to discuss. Can socialism ever be constructed within the confines of the nation state? If one takes the perfectly legitimate view that it cannot then by definition Cuba cannot be socialist. However, those arguing this position need to come up with an explanation on how to characterise Cuba as it is also clearly not a capitalist state. In this context, explanations such as ``deformed workers state'', state capitalism etc. simply won't do. What about democracy? A socialist state by definition is democratic. How democratic is Cuba's political system? There are clearly democratic aspects of Cuban society. The political system appears to enjoy broad based legitimacy and popular support, ordinary citizens enjoy a range of civil rights and the state is strong enough to support both. There is also appears to be a thriving civil society and a vibrant grassroots democracy. On the other hand the further up the political structure one travels the more elusive and unaccountable the system becomes. In the workplace there appears to be little concept of workers' control and even the trade unions seem to have a very limited role.

In terms of equality, although Cuba is light years ahead of any other society in the Americas, there are clear inequalities in society, something which has grown in recent years with the development of the tourist industry and the use of a twin currency. In fact, wealth and inequality are now overwhelming based on whether or not you have access to the convertible peso. All of this provides ammunition for those arguing that Cuba is not socialist.

Of course, this argument borrows on a long-standing debate as to the nature of socialism; a debate which arose after the Russian Revolution when the topic moved from an academic to a practical discussion. There are those on the left like the Socialist Workers Party for whom socialism comes as a kind of ready-made prepackaged system, a model against which all attempts to build socialism can be measured to see if they are up to the mark. As no attempt at building socialism can ever, in practice, live up to this model then it is cast out in the name of revolutionary purity since a failed revolutionary state is no different from capitalism and requires to be overthrown just like any other capitalist state. The interesting thing here is the way so-called revolutionaries, who presumably have actually studied the subject, can have such little insight into the revolutionary process.

All revolutions contain within them a central contradiction. On the one hand the aims and ideals of the revolution both in terms of concrete objectives and a vision of what an ideally this socialist society would be like. On the other, the compromises which inevitably have to be made along the way in order to ensure that the revolution survives long enough to bring about the new society because above all else, survival is the central objective of all revolutions. When the revolutionary period is over and a post-revolutionary society emerges it reflects both the original aims and ideals and the compromises with those aims and ideals which have had to be made. By definition it will be a society that is more what was replaced but less than that what was hoped for.

The way round is to see the building of socialism as a process, a work in progress. The aim should be to defend those substantial elements of society which clearly are socialist and resist the non-socialist elements which would seek to undermine socialism. This is particularly true in a socialist economy which contains a private sector. It is an approach which also squares the circle in terms of wither it is possible to build socialism in one country. If the building of socialism occurs in stages then socialism in one country can be viewed as a necessary stage.

Cuban socialism is very much a work in progress. There have been impressive advances and equally depressive setbacks. Yet 50 years on, the revolution still survives and is still vibrant. It has survived the US blockade and the fall of the Soviet Union. With the emergence of a range of left-wing governments across Latin America and new chapter is opening.

[This article first appeared in the SSP's magazine Frontline, volume 2, issue 10.]