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The Cuban revolution differed from the Stalinist regimes (How the Workers’ Parliaments Saved the Cuban Revolution reviewed in ‘Counterfire’)

How the Workers’ Parliaments Saved the Cuban Revolution:
Reviving Socialism after the Collapse of the Soviet Union

By Pedro Ross
$27 / 288 pages / 978-1-58367-9784

Reviewed by Orlando Hill for Counterfire

Pedro Ross is a retired General Secretary of the Cuban Workers’ Unions (CTC- Central de Trabajadores de Cuba), Cuba’s TUC. Most importantly, he was actively involved in the Workers’ Parliaments during the special period in the early 1990s when Cuba was faced with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, its main trading partners. In addition, trade unions in the West, which supported Cuba in practical solidarity campaigns, were being attacked by neoliberal policies led by the governments of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Worldwide socialism was off the agenda, replaced by a focus on market economies. The United States government at the time was convinced that the Cuban regime would be the next to fall and tightened its embargo.

All of this had a devastating impact on the Cuban economy. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ‘fell by nearly 35 percent. Cuba lost more than 70 percent of its foreign markets. The oil supply fell from 13 million tons to 5.8 million. In 1990, 3 billion rubbles in products were no longer received’ (p.29).

In the debates I have had with comrades and friends whom I respect, I have encountered various conflicting views on Cuba. One is that Cuba’s economic system is an example of state capitalism similar to the one experienced by the Soviet Union under Stalinism. According to this view, production is not controlled by the workers but by a bureaucratic ruling class (the nomenklatura) who follow the instructions of the Party. Accumulation of capital, similar to any capitalist system, is prioritised over the consumption of the masses. In other words, the objective of the system is profit and not the needs of the people. In times of crisis, the workers are the ones who pay with an increase of their exploitation. The objective is to extract more surplus value. Workers experience real-wage cuts, and reduction in social spending, i.e., austerity.

If Cuba were a capitalist state, in an event of an attack on the state, Cuban workers would have little interest in coming to its defence. In his book State Capitalism in Russia, Tony Cliff noted that if ‘the USSR was a workers’ state, however degenerated, then when capitalism assaulted it workers would have come to the defence of their state … however corrupt and depraved the bureaucracy dominating it’ (Cliff, p.11).
Workers and state capitalism

Workers did not come out in defence of the USSR or of the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe. When ‘it came to the crunch in 1989, the workers in Eastern Europe did not defend “their” state. If the Stalinist state had been a workers’ state one would not be able to explain why its only defenders were the secret police forces of the Securitate in Rumania and the Stasi in East Germany, nor why the Soviet working class supported Boris Yeltsin, the outspoken representative of the market’ (Cliff, p.11).

The case of Cuba is much less clear than those ones are, however, since whatever legitimate criticisms socialist may have of the regime, it has clearly never been anything like as brutal as the Stalinist regime, and probably wouldn’t have survived if it had been. Moreover, being under open and sustained imperialist attack for decades, the state does not need to be a genuine workers’ state for the population to want to defend it against foreign aggression, and to value the material gains in living standards and conditions they have made under it.

In Cuba, in every assault by capitalism, at least sections of workers have come out in defence of what they regard as their state. It was no different in the Special Period. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro warned of the problematic phase looming ahead and prepared the country for it. Cubans would have to make great sacrifices both personal and collective, but the essential achievements in education, public health, and social security would be preserved. The restrictive measures would not be imposed by government decree and would not be buttressed by a neoliberal framework. ‘They would result from broad and profound consultation with the entire country, including agricultural workers, students, and the general population. The National Assembly of People’s Power adopted this approach, which led to the establishment of the workers’ parliaments during the first months of 1994’ (Ross, p.21).

The workers’ parliaments were ‘a venue for workers to debate what to do at the national and local levels and to discuss problems freely and candidly… and to suggest solutions’ (p.47). They were organised by the trade unions along with the National Assembly. At this moment it was crucial to strengthen the union bases ‘so that they would represent the specific needs of the workers and be organizational and politically prepared to play a decisive role in moments of crisis’ (p.36). If this was all that Ross claims for it, it is not something that would have happened in Stalinist state capitalism. There, trade unions functioned as representatives of the party. The State used them as a link to transmit orders and make sure that the measures decided by the party were implemented. It did not ask workers for solutions. The approach taken in Cuba does bear comparison to revolutionary Russia of 1919, when Soviet power was represented by the indissoluble union of the trade unions, party cells and central government.

The main issue that the workers’ parliaments faced was the lack of basic items caused the illegal sanctions imposed by the US government. There was an excess liquidity in the economy as result of a policy of protecting wages. There was an excess of income in an economy with scarce goods. The result was an inflationary pressure. The workers’ assembly had to decide which items’ prices could be allowed to rise, and which would be maintained frozen.
International solidarity

Crucial to the success of the Cuban revolution has been the international solidarity of trade unions, more so during the Special Period. Many of the trade unionists, especially in the US, had to confront the leadership of their unions ‘to demand reestablished relations with the Cuban people and its workers’ (p.88). Ross particularly acknowledges the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC) in Britain along with the TUC and trade unions such as Unison who ‘played an outstanding role, sending three ships carrying ambulances, buses, surgical material, medications, public-health uniforms, and other important items’ (p.88).

Not everything went smoothly. On 5 August 1995, riots broke out in Havana. Cubans responded, as they had done in previous moments and would do in the future, by marching to the scenes and confronting the rioters. Police units mobilised to establish order, but no weapons were used against the rioters (p.31). Fidel Castro spoke to the protestors. With his moral authority and the force of reason and argument managed to disperse the crowds. When asked about his presence during the riots he responded, ‘If some stones were really being thrown and there was some shooting, I wanted to get my share of stones and shooting too.’ He had a special interest in ‘talking with our people, to exhort them to be calm, patient, cold-blooded, and not to let themselves be provoked’ (p.32).

Some of the readers might feel a bit uncomfortable with the panegyric presentation of Fidel in the book. Some might feel that this just proves that Cuba is an example of a regime where a cult of personality betrays the true nature of the state. However, Castro, like other national-revolutionary leaders, was able to maintain considerable legitimacy with Cuban people, partially because he did intervene to check the bureaucracy at points. The Cuban state’s care to develop consent for its policies during the crisis indicates a different balance of class forces than that of the Stalinist states.

By examining the Special Period that Cuba went through, Ross gives us an example of how during periods of austerity, workers do not and should not need to pay the price of the crisis. For those who still think that Cuba is far from their ideal, I would like to paraphrase Marx. In theory, we assume that the laws of the socialist mode of production develop in their pure form. In reality, this is only an approximation; the approximation is all the more exact, the more socialism is developed and the less it is adulterated by survivals of earlier economic conditions with which it is amalgamated.

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