The Communist Party of Cuba held its 8th congress in Havana from 16 to 19 April, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the proclamation of the socialist character of the revolution on the eve of the attempted invasion of Playa Girón [Bay of Pigs]. The congress was the culmination of the process of replacing the historical leadership in a context of serious economic crisis and of dangerous economic reforms.
In Cuba, symbols are important and sometimes they say more than documents. The PCC congress, reduced in numbers by the conditions imposed by the pandemic, was presided by portraits of Martí, Baliño, Mella and Fidel. A Cuban comrade asked, “where are Marx and Lenin?” The truth is that the last time that the representatives of international communism presided was at the V Congress held in October 1991, while Stalinism was crumbling in the USSR under the leadership of the CPSU.
The portraits presiding over the VIII Congress reinforced the main idea that the meeting wanted to convey: the continuity of the Cuban revolution. Thus, Baliño represented the continuity between the Cuban Revolutionary Party of Martí and the first Communist Party of Mella, and Fidel represented the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
Furthermore, the holding of the congress coincided with the 60th anniversary of Playa Girón, on 16 April 1961, when the Cuban revolution, arming workers and peasants, dealt a crushing defeat to the counterrevolution and imperialism. On the eve of the attempted imperialist invasion, Fidel Castro proclaimed the socialist character of the revolution, which had already in fact expropriated the land, the banks, and the large multinational and Cuban companies.
The idea that was being conveyed here was that, although the historical generation – the one that led the Cuban revolution – is retiring, the revolution continues. Raúl Castro, 89, left the post of first secretary of the PCC, after having stepped down as president of the Council of State and of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Cuba in 2018. There are also 88 members of the Central Committee who are stepping down from that body, including the entire historical generation, and 20% of the membership of the Political Bureau is also being renewed.
This handover is not something minor. This was the generation that not only led the revolution in 1959, but that resisted the pressure of capitalist restoration after the fall of Stalinism. The leadership that is now being replaced has a prestige and an authority that cannot automatically be transmitted to those replacing them. Their departure also reflects the evolution of Cuban society. The passage of time means there are now very few Cubans who remember what life was like under capitalism. Cubans under 40 years of age have grown up and lived in the time of the special period and the introduction of concessions to the market. They have no memory of the time when aid from the USSR allowed for better living standards.
The Congress took place after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a brutal impact on the Cuban economy. GDP in Cuba fell by 11%, the worst since 1993, leading some to speak of a new special period. One of the main factors was the sharp drop in tourism, with the arrival of only one million tourists, 75% less than in 2019 when there were 4 million. And indeed, that year tourism figures were already 20% lower than in 2018 because of Trump’s toughening of sanctions.
The fall in tourism income meant a sharp fall in foreign exchange income, limiting Cuba’s purchasing power in the world market. To this must be added the increase in expenses caused by the pandemic. Some 300 million dollars were spent to purchase PCR tests and molecular biology laboratories, and social isolation measures cost the equivalent of 85 million dollars. This situation has led to a sharp increase in food shortages, causing long lines to purchase basic food items.
The arrival of Biden to power in the US has not, so far, meant any change in the policy of embargo and aggression on the part of imperialism. All the measures taken by Trump to toughen sanctions and the blockade remain. In this context, the Cuban government accelerated a series of economic measures that had already been approved in the Guidelines of the VI Congress in 2011, but which had never been applied. These measures, under the name of “Monetary Ordering Task” include exchange and monetary unification, in addition to other measures that strengthen the market and the private sector of the economy.
The application of the Ordering has not been without problems, with exorbitant increases in prices and cuts in some social benefits causing a serious malaise and complaints among the population. In a struggle of living forces, the government has been forced to make some adjustments to the application of the Ordering measures.
Raúl Castro's report to the VIII Congress reflected this dissatisfaction, with a harsh criticism of the Commission for the Implementation and Development of the Guidelines, which “failed to organise, in an adequate manner, the participation of the different actors involved in the implementation of the Guidelines and the assumed functions that exceeded the mandate given by Congress.” As a consequence of this criticism, the head of the Commission, Marino Murillo, considered by the international bourgeois press as the “czar of reforms” was removed from the CC.
The foreign trade monopoly and the limits of reforms
Raúl Castro’s report also contained some very interesting statements regarding the economy. Castro mentioned the expansion of the list of activities allowed to the self-employed sector and pointed out how “this decision, ... was, as expected, questioned after a few days and described as insufficient by those who dream of capitalist restoration in the country and of massive privatisation of people’s ownership of the main means of production. … It would seem that selfishness, greed and the desire for greater income provoke in some people the encouragement to wish for a privatisation process to begin that would sweep away the foundations and essences of the socialist society built over more than six decades.” Raúl Castro correctly linked capitalist restoration with the destruction of the conquests of the revolution: “In this way, in a short time, the national education and public health systems would also be dismantled, both free and universally accessible for all Cubans.”
Raúl Castro clearly defended the monopoly of foreign trade: “Others, hoping to blow up the socialist principle of the State monopoly on foreign trade, have been demanding that private commercial importation be authorised in the spirit of establishing a non-state system of domestic trade,” and linked it to the limits of economic reforms: “There are limits that we cannot go over because the consequences would be irreversible and would lead to strategic errors and the very destruction of socialism and therefore of national sovereignty and independence.”
This part of Castro's speech is very significant. In fact, in the 1920s, during the debate on the New Economic Policy [NEP], Lenin insisted on the importance of the monopoly on foreign trade and formed a bloc with Trotsky to defend it against Bukharin’s opinion who was in favour of replacing the monopoly of foreign trade with a system of tariffs, and against the opinion of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev who wanted to relax the monopoly. Lenin’s defense of the monopoly of foreign trade was expressed in terms that are very relevant to Cuba today: “I will add that the partial opening of the frontiers would be fraught with grave currency dangers, for in practice we should be reduced to the position of Germany; there would be the grave danger that the petty-bourgeoisie and all sorts of agents of émigré Russia would penetrate into Russia, without our having the slightest possibility of exercising control over them.” (Lenin, Re The Monopoly Of Foreign Trade, December 13, 1922, CW, Volume 33, Progress)
Lenin, who was aware of the dangers of the concessions to capitalism that the NEP represented, considered this question to be very important. During the illness that finally led to his death, Lenin launched a fight against the bureaucracy that concentrated on two aspects: one was the question of the monopoly of foreign trade; the other was the fight against the great Russian chauvinistic tendencies in the treatment of the question of nationalism in Georgia by Stalin and his allies.
Later, in 1927, in the fight against the Stalinist bureaucracy, Trotsky once again insisted on the question of the importance of the foreign trade monopoly: “The monopoly of foreign trade is a vitally necessary weapon for socialist construction, when the capitalist countries possess a higher technique. But the socialist economy now under construction can be defended by this monopoly only if it continually approaches the world economy in respect of technique, cost of production, quality and price of its products.” The Platform of the Unified Opposition of 1927 declared: “We must resist with determination all attempts to tamper with the monopoly of foreign trade.” (The Platform of the Unified Opposition, Ch 4, 1927)
Clearly Raúl Castro's speech at the VIII Congress was directed against those who wanted rapid advances towards the restoration of capitalism, something that we cannot but applaud. However, the problem is that the economic reforms applied so far are going precisely in that direction, although perhaps not as quickly as some would like.
As we have previously explained, the measures adopted under the name of the Ordering Task head in the direction of increasing market mechanisms within the Cuban economy, applying them to the evaluation of the efficiency of state sector companies, prioritising material incentives and competition between companies, the elimination of the principle of universality of social policies, etc.
Differences with the NEP
Unlike the NEP in the USSR in the 1920s, which Lenin clearly presented as a series of setbacks imposed by the economic situation – concessions to capitalism that were necessary but not without dangers – in Cuba, economic reforms are presented as something positive, the only way to “unleash the productive forces,” as if state planning were the corset that prevents economic development. This is potentially very dangerous.
Another crucial difference is that in the USSR, while concessions were being made to capitalism through the NEP, a battle was being waged to strengthen workers’ democracy and combat bureaucratism. In Cuba, the discussion on workers’ control and the effective participation of workers in the management of the economy and public administration has been totally absent from the official discussions of the PCC Congress.
While in the Party Congress Raúl Castro criticised those who yearn for capitalist restoration, the day before it began a meeting between representatives of the government, the Party and the National Assembly and the private sector (“representatives of Non-State Forms of Management”) was held to underline the role the private sector plays in the Cuban economy. The message of the meeting was summarized by Cubadebate, “Cuba will continue to advance in the development of forms of non-state management.”
Castro himself in the same report said: “Structural problems of the economic model that do not provide sufficient incentives for work and innovation have not ceased to be present. To irreversibly transform this scenario, it is necessary to give greater dynamism to the process of updating the economic and social model.”
In reality, despite the words Raúl Castro used in his report, the course of economic policy in Cuba is clear. The measures approved ten years ago, and above all the turn of the Ordering Task, represent a set of reforms that have their own dynamic: the strengthening of the market to the detriment of planning, and the strengthening of private accumulation to the detriment of the state sector. This dynamic is independent of the subjective will of those who apply the reforms.
This is also the opinion of the pro-capitalist, Cuban-American economist, Arturo López-Levy, who downplays the significance of the “limits” mentioned by Castro: “The limits and the red lines will move with life. The reforms will bring more pressure for other reforms, and other types of changes will come by fluke”.
In reality, the representatives of international capital do not seem very concerned about Castro's warnings. The Financial Times interpreted them as follows: “Similar words were uttered before just about every reform undertaken over the past decade, signalling that serious resistance remains in the ranks.” In other words, for them, Castro’s warnings were only a nod to the audience, towards a sector that resists applying pro-capitalist measures, but does not have the power to stop them.
The entry into the Politburo of General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, director of GAESA, the business complex linked to the Revolutionary Armed Forces, is illustrative of the power that this sector – i.e. managers of the economy – have in the leadership of the party.
When the Guidelines were discussed in 2011, the Congress documents were the subject of a broad discussion process involving millions of people. The process had a plebiscitary character. That is, the discussion was broad but there were no real channels for the discussions at the rank and file to be reflected in the final decisions. This time there has been no such discussion. It can be argued that Congress did not make decisions on fundamental changes, but the truth is that the political and, above all, economic moment is of crucial importance for the future of the Cuban Revolution and no mechanisms were enabled to discuss them, not even the limited ones that were used in 2011.
That does not mean that there was no discussion. Widespread internet access and social networks have created a large number of forums, discussion groups and chats that allow for a lively discussion about the Cuban Revolution and its future. Many of these discussions are dominated by counterrevolutionary and openly restorationist elements. Others by liberal and social democratic points of view. But there are also some such forums that rally those who consider themselves openly socialist, communist, or Marxist, despite being critical of the bureaucracy.
One of those discussions, using the hashtag #MásSocialismo [#MoreSocialism], ended up drafting a letter to the VIII congress of the PCC. The letter is very interesting as a symptom of some of the discussions that are taking place about the future of the revolution among young Cubans who describe themselves as “Marxists, anti-capitalists and followers of Martí”. The writers of the letter point out “with concern phenomena that could compromise the future of Cuban socialism,” and go on to describe them: “many of the current non-agricultural cooperatives (CNoA) are a fraud, because in practice a wealthy owner (sometimes living abroad) pays a salary to its workers instead of distributing profits. They are micro, small and medium-sized private companies (MSMEs) in disguise. Likewise, many of the current self-employed (TCP) are owners of MSMEs as well, that is, they do not comply with the true concept of TCP, which is the worker who employs himself and his family in an economic activity. Since the ‘TCPs’ were allowed to hire workers, they became small capitalists.”
The authors of the letter point out the impact that this development of a capitalist petty bourgeoisie has had in the field of social differentiation and ideology: “Various negative phenomena have manifested themselves during these years of openness to small scale capitalism, such as gentrification in cities and tourist areas, sexism and racism in the hiring of workers, extreme labor exploitation (which violates the Labor Code), as well as the proliferation of corruption and negative values such as selfishness, individualism and insensitivity.”
The letter, although it reflects the confusion typical of a debate that is just beginning, also points to the centre of the question: while there is state ownership of the means of production, in reality the workers do not feel they are the owners of the means of production. “The workers are not and do not feel they are the owners of their workplace, they do not have control of production, they do not elect their leaders, but they are appointed “from above”, the unions are just a sad shadow of the real power that they could and should have, mistakes are made in management that cost millions due to a lack of transparency and popular control, not a few leaders and middle managers profit from their position and are authentic state capitalists.”
The existence of a bureaucracy that manages the economy and the state, leads to inefficiency, waste, corruption and indolence. Faced with this situation, the Ordering Task proposes using the market mechanism and material incentives as a whip to increase labour productivity. The problem is that this path opens the door to powerful tendencies towards the restoration of capitalism. The petty bourgeoisie described by the authors of #MásSocialismo is not dangerous in itself, but rather because it has the world market and the Cuban capitalists in Miami behind it.
The authors of the letter correctly oppose the current state of affairs with workers’ control: “Workers’ power must lead the management in a socialist company. The labour movement must be trusted ... Transparency in economic management plays an essential role in citizen and worker control that must exist in a socialist society. Without transparency there will be no control, and vice versa.”
Although some of its specific proposals are confused, and others are counterproductive (for example, the “capitalisation of Limited Companies”), in general, the document points in the right direction: in favor of workers’ control, against capitalist restoration and against the bureaucracy. For example, there is talk of “mechanisms for the transfer of power to workers, ... the democratic worker election of cadres and middle layer managers and transparency in economic management.” They also propose to “prohibit by law that cadres of the Communist Party of Cuba and senior government officials own (they become owners of) private MSMEs; in order to avoid deviations observed in similar economic opening processes.”
The discussion about #MásSocialismo, beyond the errors or limitations that it may have, is symptomatic of some of the debates that are taking place in Cuba among those who want to defend the revolution and oppose capitalism, but at the same time reject the bureaucracy. The problem is not state ownership of the means of production per se, but their bureaucratic management, and therefore the solution is not the market but workers’ control.
The way out of the situation the Cuban Revolution finds itself in, is through the struggle for workers’ control and for an internationalist policy. For our part, we place ourselves firmly on the side of the defence of the revolution, against imperialism and we want to contribute modestly to the debates which are taking place, with the ideas of revolutionary Marxism: the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky.