`Orientalism' and Cuba: How Western media get it wrong

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By Tim Anderson

September 14, 2010 -- Misunderstandings over Cuba run very deep, and not just among the enemies of socialism, or those who have had little contact with the country.

Naturally, people are influenced by the corporate media, which wages a ferocious and relentless propaganda campaign against the little independent island. As Salvador Allende told the Chilean Senate in 1960 “day by day and minute by minute ... they [the corporate media monopolies] misrepresent what is happening in Cuba”.

However, we can also see elements of what Edward Said called "orientalism" – a series of false assumptions about the country, conditioned by cultural prejudice.

For example, the constant moral pressures of the revolution are often misinterpreted as state "coercion"; while a well-coordinated and caring health system has been derided as "paternalistic" and denying "choice" in health care. These are the results of trying to understand Cuba through a set of individualistic, liberal assumptions.

Let's look at some recent misinterpretations.

The corporate media has seized on Fidel Castro’s comment to US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine that “the 'Cuban model' now doesn't work even for us” as an admission that Cuban socialism had failed and that Cuba would now have to take on US-style capitalism. Julia Sweig, Goldberg’s adviser on Cuba, said she took the comment “to be an acknowledgment that ... the state has much too big a role in the economic life of the country”. Goldberg excitedly interpreted the comment to mean “Cuba is beginning to adopt the sort of economic ideas that America has long demanded it adopt”. Goldberg’s article launched thousands of other stories.

Ahem. Neither writer had much sense of Cuban phraseology. On September 13 Fidel clarified and Cuban television pointed out (by reference to an episode of The Simpsons, in which Fidel is shown as admitting the defeat of "communism") that the Cuban leader meant Cuba was constantly adapting, and that there had never been a rigid "Cuban model". What they have held onto are principles, not models.

Furthermore, and in response to Goldberg's specific question about "exporting" a Cuban "model", Fidel was repeating an old theme that "we don't export any model". Among English-language articles on the Atlantic interview only a few, such as Steven Wilkinson’s in the September 10 British Guardian ("Cuba: from communist to co-operative?"), noted this point.

The misinterpretation of this simple phrase is a good example of the "orientalism" regarding Cuba, where a revolutionary country, constantly adapting, is portrayed by its enemies as representing a rigid model of the past. Any change or admission is seen as the fracture of a monolith; but what monolith?

A second example of this same process can be seen in stories on the restructuring of state enterprises in Cuba. The BBC reports on September 14 ("Cuba to cut one million public sector jobs") that Cuba’s peak trade union body the CTC says “more than a million workers would lose their jobs ... [they] will be encouraged to become self-employed or join new private enterprises” and half a million will be laid off in the next six months. On the back of this a multitude of right and left commentators predict Cuba’s reversion to capitalism.

The thinking here is that a major efficiency drive in Cuban state enterprises must mean a surrender to the logic of private corporations. Never mind that hundreds of thousands were laid off from Cuba’s sugar industry, almost two decades ago when the sugar-for-oil agreement with the Soviet bloc collapsed. In its much worse economic crisis of the 1990s, Cuba maintained its system of social guarantees, allowing foreign investment through joint ventures and a small private business sector.

On the current restructuring, if the BBC and others had read further in the September 13 CTC statement, they would have seen that the “alternative employment” for the laid-off workers comprises “land renting and usufruct leases, cooperatives and small business”. Big corporations don’t get a mention; where they exist in Cuba they are joint ventures in which the state owns land and buildings and hires all the labour. Nevertheless, work bonuses are being revised in a wider range of sectors.

The CTC says state employment is to be maintained in some sectors of agriculture, in construction, teaching and industrial work. Furthermore, there is an ongoing diversification of state industry into petroleum (Cuba is developing its own reserves and is set to become an oil exporter), construction (including for expanded tourism), biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, tourism and other areas.

Change is a constant in Cuba, as one might logically expect of a self-described "revolutionary" society. However others portray this society as a monolithic state.

Does any of this matter to Western audiences, with their short attention spans and modernist tendencies to see the world through their own self-image? Outside commentators have been characterising Cuban socialism according to their cultural prejudices for half a century now, and no doubt will continue to do so. Those who look closer might understand a bit more.

[Tim Anderson is a senior lecturer in political economy at Sydney University.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 09/15/2010 - 19:24


Prensa Latina

September 14, 2010


Havana, Sep 14 (Prensa Latina) Achieving labor efficiency and the best use of available resources to meet the county's needs are two goals guiding the reorganization of the workforce and its remuneration in Cuba today.

This step is part of the renovation of the Cuban economic model, and the first ideas for accomplishing that were decided in a Council of Ministers meeting held on July 16 and 17.

At the close of the fifth session of the 7th Legislature of the National Assembly of People's Power on August 1, President Raul Castro stated that a series of measures would be taken to gradually reduce considerably inflated payrolls in the state sector.

In the first phase, which is planned to conclude in the first quarter of 2011, work and wages will be modified for available and laid-off workers in a number of agencies of the central state administration, the president said.

To achieve that objective, Cuba will eradicate paternalist approaches that discourage the need to work for a living and with that, reduce unproductive expenditures, which involves egalitarian pay regardless of years of employment, a wage guarantee for long periods for people who do not work, he said.

The head of State recommended creating an atmosphere of transparency and dialogue, where opportune and transparent information for workers predominates, and in which decisions are agreed upon together appropriately and the required organizational conditions are created.

[hr/rab/iff/dsa Modificado el ( martes, 14 de septiembre de 2010 )]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Wed, 09/22/2010 - 13:06


Apparent U-turns have led some to declare Cuba's revolution dead. It has life in it yet, however.

By Richard Gott

Friday 17 September 2010

The ever-surprising island of Cuba has come up with some fresh economic measures this week that pose the question: is this the end of socialism? For President Raúl Castro to sack half a million state employees, and then allow his brother Fidel to hint to an American reporter from the Atlantic that the country's economic model is not working, suggests that there is certainly something significant in the pipeline. But this is not the end of the revolutionary dream, nor is it a simple rectification of policy, of which there have been many over the years. It is, more importantly, the start of a major new programme, long-awaited. How it should be ideologically defined remains to be seen.

Everyone who lives in Cuba and those who follow Cuban affairs closely know that the existing economic model has not been working well. It hardly needs Fidel to spell this out. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, which deprived the island of its principal model and benefactor, the Cuban authorities have improvised brilliantly, breaking every rule in the rulebook, both socialist and capitalist. Tourism has replaced sugar as the country's principal earner of foreign currency. Collective farms have been broken up. Hundreds of thousands of people now work on their own account, soon to be joined by half a million others – or possibly more.

The outlines of the new programme are still barely visible, but will become more so in the months to come, as an embryonic private sector begins to re-emerge. In 1968, at the height of the Prague Spring, Fidel shut down all small enterprises, as well as cafes, bars and nightclubs, accusing them of fostering a counter-revolution. Havana and Cuba's other cities soon lost much of their sophisticated charm. The commanding heights of the economy were already in the hands of the state by then, so the attack on tiny businesses seemed motivated more by ideological severity than economic necessity.

Today the wheel has turned full circle and the small-scale private enterprises that characterise a city, and make it worth living in, will return. Yet the changes outlined this week have more to do with the wider plan for the future economic organisation of the country than any desire to make the cities more attractive. The plan has been worked on and endorsed by the country's powerful state trade union federation, and there is no doubt that the new policies will be well received by most people.

The Cubans are by no means thirsting to embrace the capitalist system, as some commentators have suggested, but they are certainly ready to take more responsibility for their own lives. Unlike many other people in Latin America (or indeed in the US), they are well educated, well looked after, and healthy. The state will not just throw the workers in at the deep end. There will be programmes of training to ease the move from state employment into the world of private enterprise.

This is the first step in the reorganisation of the Cuban economy, and the Cubans are fortunate in having the powerful backing of oil-rich Venezuela. Hugo Chávez will be helpful during this transition period, not least because the Cubans will be moving closer to the mixed economy that he has always favoured. The current arrangements, with Cuban doctors working in Venezuela and being paid for with subsidised oil, work well for both parties.

But what of the larger question of the wider economic framework? The Cubans, government and population, have been well informed about the collapse of the communist system in Russia and eastern Europe, and its replacement by unbridled capitalism of the most vicious and corrupt kind. There is little enthusiasm to start down that road. Nor does anyone want to see the rich Cuban millionaires in Florida returning to reclaim their homeland. (Nor, to be fair, do most of the millionaires.)

So, with private enterprise back on the agenda, the Cubans will soon have to formulate a strategy for relinking their economy with the wider world. Much has already been done. Cuba trades with Latin America with few problems, as it does with Canada, Europe and Asia, and of course with Russia and China. Even US agricultural produce now arrives by regular boat.

Foreign investment is another matter. Cuba wants a decent relationship with the US, and an end to the economic embargo, but it will be a long time before it welcomes foreign investment without strings attached. The Cuban revolution was always more nationalist than socialist, and while elements of socialism can be surrendered relatively easily, the nationalist achievements of the past half-century will not be lightly abandoned. The Cuban model, however modified, has life in it yet.