No thinking please, we’re red-baiting

The red-baiting of Bernie Sanders is in full swing. From Democrats. Yes, the silly season is upon us as Senator Sanders was roundly condemned because he believes literacy campaigns are good things.

I know the United States is a uniquely anti-intellectual country, but, still, you’d think teaching reading and writing might be thought of as positive goals. The Republican responses to Senator Sanders’ 60 Minutes interview in which he condemned the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism but also acknowledged Cuba’s social achievements, such as drastically improving literacy rates, was predictable. It was only to be expected that there would be pushback by Florida Democrats, who continue to believe they have to roll in the dust at the feet of right-wing Cuban émigrés.

Nonetheless, Democrats outdid themselves. Let’s first pause to quote the words of Senator Sanders that sent them into paroxysm of indignation: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

Evidently it is. Particularly humorous was the response of Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat, who said of President Castro on Twitter: “His ‘literacy program’ wasn’t altruistic; it was a cynical effort to spread his dangerous philosophy & consolidate power.”

Teaching people who previously had been left in miserable poverty and without adequate education how to read and write? Run, run for your life!

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

And demonstrating yet again his complete ignorance, Senator Marco Rubio offered this “history” lesson: “Democratic socialism sounds benign, but at the core of Democratic socialism is Marxism, and at the core of Marxism is this fake offer that if you turn over more of your individual freedom, we’re going to provide you security. We’re going to provide you free healthcare. We’re going to provide you free education. But the problem is that when they can’t deliver on it or you’re not happy with it, you don’t get your freedoms back.”

Where does one begin with such nonsense? Before we get to what socialism actually is, allow me to inform Senator Rubio and other bloviators that virtually every country on Earth, and every advanced capitalist country other than the U.S., has universal health care — and gets better results than the U.S. for a lot less money. Arranging for everybody to have access to health care really isn’t a spectacular achievement. It is not even necessary to be a socialist country to achieve it.

It ought to be possible to hold more than one thought in one’s head at a time, that there could be positive and negative attributes at the same time. Nor should it be forgotten that although demonologists like Florida politicians reflect those who didn’t like Cuba, we never hear from those inside Cuba who support their revolution.

Can reading be a conspiratorial act?

A short-hand definition of socialism would be this: Popular control of production so that enterprises are oriented toward meeting the needs of everyone in a democratic system instead of for the profit of an individual owner or for speculators. A system in which working people make the decisions in their enterprises and their communities and that such decision-making is done in a broader social context so that decisions with social repercussions are made with the peoples and communities affected. In other words, when people have real control over the conditions of their lives — the rule of people instead of the rule of capital.

Incidentally, Senator Sanders isn’t offering anything like that. He’s also been in favor of some U.S. overseas offensives, such as the bombing of Yugoslavia; echoes the right-wing lies about Venezuela even if he opposes an invasion; and refers to Hugo Chávez as a “dead communist dictator” even though President Chávez and his Bolivarian movement won 16 out of 17 elections in an electoral system the Carter Center called “the best in the world.” So the red-baiting of Senator Sanders is not based on reality but on an inability to distinguish between New Deal liberalism, designed to save capitalism, and socialism.

Miami skyline (photo by Wyn Van Devanter)

As I am writing these lines, I happen to be reading the autobiography of Dorothy Healey, the long-time Communist Party organizer who rose to be the chair of the party’s Los Angeles branch, then the second biggest in the U.S. In her book, she gave a detailed account of the political trial she and several other party leaders underwent in the 1950s on trumped up, political charges. Without minimizing the seriousness of the many years of jail they faced, this story also makes useful parallels with today. The prosecution used a strategy of guilt by association, and by distorting the party’s ideas, whether intentionally or out of ignorance of what those were. Healey wrote:

“As in the Foley Square case [a previous political trial of Communist leaders], it was a trial of books. The prosecutor would have witnesses read big chunks of violent-sounding passages from Marx, Engels, and Lenin. This kind of trial could not have been conducted in any other advanced capitalist country — France or England or Italy — because the basic concepts of Marxism were so well known, studied in every university, and familiar to every active trade unionist, that people would have laughed at the outrageous simplifications offered up so solemnly at our trial. That was a peculiarly American phenomenon.”

The mere act of reading and self-education was considered part of the “evidence” against Healey and her co-defendants! She wrote:

“The assistant prosecuting attorney, Norman Neukom, was a vulgar, ignorant man. He was so astonished when one of the defendants was quoted on the need for Communists to engage in continual study. ‘Imagine,’ he told the jury, ‘grown-up people feeling the need to continue to study history and economics and philosophy after they’ve left school.’ For him, somehow, this was further evidence of the evil nature of our conspiracy, grown-ups discussing books they had read. In his cross-examination he wasn’t interested in or capable of refuting any of the substantive points Oleta [O’Connor Yates] made about Party theory and activities.”

Times certainly haven’t changed.

Cubans under Batista had good reasons to join a revolution

None of the above is to suggest that Cuba is above criticism, or that the constrictions on political expression in Cuba is something to ignore. Cuba needs more democracy as it continues to convert the services sections of its economy from state-owned enterprises to cooperatives, as agriculture has long been. We might, however, reflect on the crushing burden of 60 years of attempts to strangle the country by its giant neighbor to the North.

The United States not only threatens to use its overwhelming power in military might but abuses its desirability as a huge market for exports by making its embargo extra-territorial and fully leverages its position as the controller of the global financial system. U.S. embassy personnel have reportedly threatened firms in countries such as Switzerland, France, Mexico and the Dominican Republic with commercial reprisals unless they canceled sales of goods to Cuba such as soap and milk. Amazingly, a American Journal of Public Health report quoted a July 1995 written communication by the U.S. Department of Commerce in which the department said those types of sales contribute to “medical terrorism” on the part of Cubans! Well, many of us when we were, say, 5 years old, might have regarded soap with terror, but presumably have long gotten over that.

Conditions in pre-revolutionary Cuba were ripe for a revolution. The country’s hundreds of thousands of agricultural wage earners averaged only 123 days of work per year. Nearly half of the rural population was illiterate, 60 percent lived in huts with earth floors and thatched roofs and two-thirds lived without running water. Not surprisingly, poor health was rampant with health care generally unavailable and unaffordable to the poor who made up the huge majority of Cuba’s population. Plenty of force was used to maintain that level of inequality. In Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city, Batista’s police would torture people to death, with mutilated bodies strung from trees in city parks or dumped in gutters; victims could be as young as 14.

Those conditions and the use of state terror tactics to keep those conditions in place were swiftly reversed after the revolution, never to return. But let us not have any fear of acknowledging that authoritarianism is not unknown in post-revolutionary Cuba and although there are fully free elections at the municipal level, higher-level government positions are not subject to popular vote. One-party states are not conducive to democratic decision-making, regardless of where on the political spectrum the one-party state sits and even in a case like Cuba where citizens are widely consulted and policies adjusted based on popular feedback. Consultation isn’t the same as the power to make decisions.

There is terrorism, but it comes from Washington

But is the United States in any position to point fingers at another country? Let’s look at the record of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The mere fact of the revolution, and its insistence on developing Cuban resources to benefit Cubans rather than immiserating them to enhance U.S. corporate profits, was sufficient to ensure steady hostility from Washington. Aviva Chomsky, in her book A History of the Cuban Revolution, reports the Central Intelligence Agency’s Miami station alone was given $50 million per year to coordinate the sabotage and overthrow of the Castro government following the Cuban rout of the Bay of Pigs invaders. Not content with the CIA’s efforts, President John Kennedy established a separate effort to sabotage Cuba, called “Operation Mongoose,” tolerated terrorist activities by Cuban exile groups based in Miami, and oversaw a series of sabotage operations against Cuban infrastructure, one of which led to the death of 400 workers at an industrial plant. A steady stream of raids intended to sabotage infrastructure and industry continued after the missile crisis, including a CIA-organized operation in which Cuban exiles mined a harbor, which led to the destruction of boats and the deaths of several people.

Cartoon by Carlos Latuff

Later in the 1960s and thereafter, CIA tactics switched to encouraging exile groups to conduct those types of terrorist operations rather than directly conducting them itself. Instead, the CIA concentrated on biological attacks that resulted in a variety of crop, animal and human outbreaks of diseases. The CIA goal (carrying out U.S. government policy) remained fixed, as an agency operative would later admit: “We wanted to keep bread out of the stores so people would go hungry. We wanted to keep rationing in effect and keep leather out, so people got only one pair of shoes every 18 months.”

In a report published on April 20, 2000, in the Miami New Times, Jim Mullen compiled a list of terroristic acts committed by Cuban exiles in the Miami area, a list Mr. Mullen said is “incomplete, especially in Miami’s trademark category of bomb threats.” Mr. Mullen listed 71 acts of violence from 1968 (all but two from 1974) through April 2000. The list includes seven people, six of whom were exile figures, murdered in a three-year span of the 1970s; a radio reporter whose legs were blown off by a bomb after the reporter condemned exile violence; dozens of actual bombings; several beatings of demonstrators, including a nun; and bombings of cultural events.

Who gets to point fingers?

There is no bigger hypocrisy than U.S. government officials condemning other governments. Martin Luther King was correct when he called the U.S. the biggest pervader of violence in the world, and that is no less true today. The list of countries that the U.S. has invaded, overthrown governments or interfered in elections is too long to fully recount. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, the U.S. has invaded 96 times. That total represents only the direct invasions; it doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., including Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973.

Chile under Salvador Allende was similarly denounced as a dangerous dictatorship even though the Allende government kept strictly within legal bounds while the right-wing opposition used extralegal means to oppose it and when that didn’t work called in the military to bomb, arrest, force into exile, “disappear,” torture and kill hundreds of thousands. What “crimes” did President Allende commit? These three statistics concisely summarize the story:

• In 1970, on the eve of Allende’s electoral victory, 50 percent of Chile’s children were undernourished, stunting their development; there were 600,000 considered developmentally disabled because of lack of protein and other problems of malnutrition.

• In 1972, the Allende administration arranged for 550,000 breakfasts and 700,000 lunches to be served daily to students.

• By the early 1980s, under Pinochet, more than half the population of greater Santiago was unable to develop normally either physically or mentally as a result of lack of proper nourishment.

It takes a breathtaking level of ignorance to see providing health care, seeing to it that children receive proper food and raising literary and cultural levels is a form of terrorism while believing such basics should be provided only to those who can afford them. Unfortunately, such ignorance is bipartisan.

Conceptualizing cooperatives as a challenge to capitalist thinking

As capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis, and a world beyond capitalism becomes a possibility contemplated by increasing numbers of people, finding a path forward becomes an ever more urgent task.

That path is likely to contain a multitude of possibilities and experiments, not all of which will prove viable. Psychological barriers will surely be a major inhibition to overcome; possibly the biggest roadblock given the still ubiquitous idea of “there is no alternative” that has survived despite growing despair at the mounting inequality and precarious futures offered by capitalism. In short, a viable alternative to the capitalist structure of enterprises and society is urgently necessary.

cooperatives-confront-capitalismCooperatives represent a “counter-narrative” to the idea, inculcated in us from our youngest ages, that a small group of bosses are naturally entitled to exert leadership and thus are the only people with the capabilities of running an enterprise, argues Peter Ranis in his latest book, Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy.* Putting to use his considerable knowledge of Argentine and Cuban cooperatives, and combining that with a challenging argument about the possibilities of worker cooperatives in the center of world capitalism, the United States, Professor Ranis argues that the cooperative form can indeed posit a challenge to capitalist hegemony.

In his opening chapter, in answering his own question “Why worker cooperatives?,” in the context of working people building a Gramscian “counter-hegemony,” he writes:

“This requires a working class movement that moves beyond wages, hours and working conditions and into the realm of owning and maintaining production that leads to controlling local economies that demonstrate working-class capacity for impacting on societal economies and, by extension, politics and the concomitant public policy. Cooperatives would, indeed, be the key ingredient to a proletarian hegemonic outcome. … What worker cooperatives provide is a counter-narrative to the one that assumes that only owners and managers can provide leadership and function effectively in the world of production.” [pages 15-16]

It is indisputably true that counterposing living examples of working people’s successful self-management is a prerequisite to breaking down current capitalist cultural hegemony. But, in contrast to more traditional ideas that state ownership should be the alternative, Professor Ranis argues that it is the cooperative form, because workers there assume all management functions, that can build an alternative. His argument, however, is not pollyannaish by any means — cooperatives face serious challenges at the hands of capitalist governments not to mention the direct hostility of capitalists themselves.

No easy path for Argentine cooperatives

For all the success of Argentina’s cooperatives in providing a better standard of living and vastly superior working conditions to their members, the road has been a hard one — and those cooperatives still constitute a minuscule portion of the Argentine economy. Moreover, not all those in Argentina who formed cooperatives necessarily wished to do so — converting the recovered factories into state-owned enterprises with worker control was often the original goal and in some cases that is still the hoped-for outcome. (Although at the moment, given the harsh neoliberal policies of the new government of Mauricio Macri, that is off the table for now.)

Cooperatives Confront Capitalism does not hold back from discussing the difficulties. These cooperatives formed when the former capitalist owners decided to close down production and/or had not paid the workers for long periods, sometimes months. Forced to take matters into their own hands, workers occupied their workplaces and physically defended themselves, with the help of the surrounding communities. Argentine law was not on their side — bankruptcy codes heavily favor creditors, assets are quickly sold and judges have too much arbitrary power. Nor is there a national law facilitating this process; a patchwork of provincial and municipal laws, with varying terms, prevail. New coops face difficulty obtaining loans and credit, and are often forced to pay for supplies in cash.

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The route to survival for coops has been involvement with local communities, making donations, becoming involved in others’ struggles and fostering the idea that cooperatives can’t survive on their own but must be part of a struggle for socialism. Leaders are rotated, positions of day-to-day management have set terms and all major strategic decisions are made collectively in meetings of all members. Coop salaries are higher than salaries in capitalist enterprises and working conditions are far safer. This sense of solidarity is a principal — Professor Ranis quotes a leader at the FaSinPat ceramics plant (the former Zánon factory) in this way:

“When we have to support another struggle, we stop production because it is a social investment, a sowing that we reap in the future.” [page 66]

Thus struggle does not stop at the factory gates. Professor Ranis elaborates:

“The Zánon workers see their factory as being at the service of the community and not the market, and that attitude has been translated into countless acts of solidarity, for which they have been compensated by the community in five attempts by the provincial police to take over the factory. … They argue that an effective state must take responsibility for creating jobs while allowing workers to control production and extend its surplus to the whole community.” [page 68]

An easier path in Cuba?

Cooperatives have become a steadily growing experiment in Cuba. There, cooperatives have a firmer footing because they are being formed with government support. This, however, is mostly a top-down process, with most coops being formed at government insistence by converting state-owned enterprises. Cooperatives Confront Capitalism does not shy away from critiques of this process, noting the top-down decision-making, that although there is considerable input from below it remain consultative, and that bureaucratic barriers impede the formation of coops created from scratch.

The self-employed sector remains larger than the cooperative sector, and most Cuban workers continue to work in the state sector as the coops are concentrated in services. Professor Ranis also points out that inequality is returning to Cuba. Only some have relatives elsewhere who can send home remittances, and the re-sale of goods bought in the U.S. is highly profitable, and thus another source of inequality. The author argues that a movement from below is necessary to re-establish egalitarianism, especially as ration books are likely to be phased out for all but the poorest.

Nonetheless, he argues Cuban coops are a positive step forward and have a much better chance at success than do coops in Argentina or the United States. They are one of the best ways to democratize and de-centralize Cuban society, and also provides a path for fallow agricultural land to be put back into productive use. Neither private capital nor the state sector can meet workers’ needs; a worker-centered approach can defend against capitalist and state socialist forms, he writes.

Professor Ranis, in the middle of the book, makes a case for a great increase in the use of the cooperative form in the United States, where coops remain rare. Although most readers will likely find at least some of his prescriptions controversial, he does make them effectively. Arguing that capital that relocates should pay penalties for a “broken contract” with the local community, he calls for the use of eminent domain to block such moves. In what could be seen as a partial misstep, he argues that the controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision Kelo v. New London provides a legal precedent that can be used for worker and community benefit.

The argument for using eminent domain to take over enterprises that would otherwise be moved by their capitalist owners certainly is intriguing, and merits the exploration that Cooperatives Confront Capitalism provides. But an expansion of the Kelo decision runs the risk of becoming pyrrhic. The Supreme Court found constitutionally legal a plan by the city of New London, Connecticut, to tear down a neighborhood to build a speculative complex intended to attract shoppers and tourists; a move that backfired when the pharmaceutical company Pfizer did not in fact expand there but instead moved from the area.

The author paints the Kelo decision in a more positive light than merited by asserting that the city government had a well thought out plan that would have benefited the displaced community when in fact it was to benefit corporate interests. He also, without being specific, mentions a Brooklyn eminent-domain case as an example of positive development. I do not know what example the author had in mind, but the most prominent example of this activity in Brooklyn is the destruction of a neighborhood to build an unneeded basketball arena (there were already four in the metropolitan area) and luxury housing too expensive for the people of the surrounding area to afford. That is not the sort of “development” any community needs.

The creative use of eminent domain in the U.S.

Thus eminent domain risks being a tool for corporate plunder rather than the hoped-for tool to save jobs. Professor Ranis argues that the Kelo decision provides a legal cover for the taking of property for “the public good,” but doesn’t mention that the judge who wrote the decision, John Paul Stevens, was clearly uncomfortable and took the unusual step of advising state governments in how to circumvent the ruling. On the other hand, that such a decision went against the personal preferences of the ruling judges does admittedly boost the author’s argument that Kelo provides a possible route to expropriating runaway capitalists. In this reading, Kelo provides the legal basis for a government to take over an enterprise that would otherwise be moved and turn it into a cooperative, and should even become the “default option” to combat a closure.

Notwithstanding issues we might have with specific examples, the author does advance his case well:

“We need to use eminent domain for development purposes much as we use the legislative rights to tax and spend, zone for economic purposes, and regulate for consumer and environmental protections. … When workers occupy factories and enterprises they are not really taking something. They are trying to keep something that is already theirs, through their work, through their production of important goods and services, through allowing capital to be invested, and supplying the community with their taxes, their consumption expenditures and their everyday involvement in the civic life of their community.” [page 109]

Regardless of the route to their formation, government support and early subsidies are necessary for the coop sector to flourish. Such support is not currently the case; as an example, New York City provided $3 million in subsidies for 44 cooperatives while the New York state government gave $70 million to one capitalist aluminum factory to keep it from relocating. Without government help and access to low-interest credit, the odds of success are not high, given the capitalist headwinds that are inevitable, although the author notes that, for one example, Canadian coops survive at a higher rate than traditional enterprises.

But those that do make it provide a sterling example, superseding the “simplistic idea” that private property belongs only to the owner — “workers cannot be separated from the capital they produce.” [page 116] The book concludes with a call for “human development”:

“Cooperatives are basic to human development because their success depends on the emancipation of the whole worker rather than what the erstwhile capitalist wanted of them and determined for them.” [page 155]

However we might quibble with this or that specific passage, Professor Ranis has provided a well-reasoned argument for cooperatives as a form that shatters the tired, self-serving shibboleths of capitalism, when advanced in tandem with militant social movements at community and national levels. Demonstrating to ourselves that we can run the enterprises we work in is indispensable, and his book is thus a strong step forward.

* Peter Ranis, Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy [Zed Books, London 2016]

Cooperatives becoming bigger part of Cuba’s reforms

The continuing debates over cooperatives, including whether they represent a promising form of socialism or a reinforcement of capitalism, will likely have fresh evidence in coming years from Cuba.

The nascent cooperative movement in Cuba is genuine and growing, but many questions about its future direction are yet to be answered. That the Cuban cooperative movement is largely a top-down process, and subject to still opaque decision-making by party and government officials, adds more uncertainty. And inevitably intertwined with these debates are long-standing tensions between traditional state-owned models of property and emerging de-centralized models of cooperative property.

Perhaps the safest observation that can be made today is that nobody knows where Cuba’s experiment will lead.

Sunrise in Havana (photo by Jvlio)

Sunrise in Havana (photo by Jvlio)

The beginning stages of Cuban cooperatives were handled with considerable input. Thousands of meetings were held throughout the country in advance of the Communist Party of Cuba’s Sixth Congress, held in April 2011, to discuss the document Lineamientos de la política económica y social en Cuba (Guidelines on Economic and Social Policy in Cuba), which listed more than 300 goals intended as significant reforms to the Cuban economy. The guidelines approved at the Sixth Congress included autonomy for the state enterprises, an expansion of cooperatives, new taxing laws and changes in the system of subsidies.

Changes came swiftly. Almost 200 occupations previously limited to state enterprises were opened, and within three months of the Sixth Congress, more than 100,000 new small-business licenses were granted. The Cuban government estimated that about 489,000 people, representing nearly a tenth of the workforce, were self-employed in the first half of 2015.

The cooperative sector has not grown as fast, but by October 2013, 270 urban cooperatives had been approved. By late 2014, that number had reached nearly 500. But cooperatives are not new to Cuba — agricultural cooperatives have existed since the early years of the revolution and they produce about 80 percent of the food grown in Cuba. What is new is that cooperatives are now encouraged outside of agriculture, although they are primarily in services rather than manufacturing.

Reversal of previous openness to discussion

The Communist Party had intended to “update” the Guidelines at its Seventh Congress, held in April 2016. But no final documents have been released, nor had the documents to be discussed at the Congress been made available for discussion. This lack of transparency, said to be due to a continuing inability to complete the work, resulted in considerable public disapproval. A commentary in Green Left Weekly, contrasting this lack of transparency with the public input that helped shape the Guidelines approved by the Sixth Congress, noted the party faced a choice of either abandoning public consultation or postponing the congress.

The congress was not postponed. But the party did acknowledge the criticism directed at it. In a March 28 article (shortly before the Congress convened) in Granma, the official party newspaper, the paper wrote:

“The editorial office of this newspaper has received, by various means, expressions of concern from Party members (and non-members, as well) inquiring about the reasons for which, on this occasion, plans were not made for a popular discussion process, similar to that held five years ago regarding the proposed Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and Revolution.

The fact that such opinions and doubts were expressed is in no way reproachable, much less when they come from people who are genuinely concerned about the work of the Party and the country’s destiny.”

The Granma article argued that the discussions scheduled for the Seventh Congress would be a “continuation” of the work of the Sixth Congress, and that most of the Guidelines were still in the process of being implemented. Therefore, “what is more appropriate is finishing what has begun” rather than opening new discussions. The article argued that:

“[T]he guidelines approved by the 6th Congress serv[e] as the tactical approach to reach our aspirations, reflecting their continuity and development. These documents do not, therefore, represent anything different in terms of the road taken, but rather a higher level expression based on what has been discussed and submitted for consultation to all Party members and the people.”

Responding to criticisms of this line, President Raúl Castro later proposed that the Seventh Congress would adopt any documents “in principal” rather than definitively, promising further public consultation. The Congress did agree, but the documents still have not been released. This delay appears to be due to the drafts still being in progress; one of the documents is reported to have been drafted eight times.

Differing ideas as to direction of reforms

There is a consensus among informed observers that a primary reason for the Communist Party’s slowness in promulgating clear rules for the formation of cooperatives is that the party leadership has yet to reach a consensus itself. The Green Left Weekly commentary mentioned above suggests this division of opinion is behind the delays in producing the updated documents promised for the Seventh Congress. The author, Marce Cameron, wrote:

“The Central Committee’s glacial progress in drafting the two key documents suggests that it has tried to reconcile, behind closed doors, divergent conceptions of the new Cuban socialist model that is aspired to. They had to be reconciled if the leadership were to present a more or less coherent programmatic vision to the party as a whole—rather than strive to involve the party as a whole in developing that vision from the outset over the five years since the 6th Congress.”

In a thoughtful NACLA article, Roger Burbach, basing his analysis on the work of Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, summarized three visions of socialist economic development in Cuba. They are:

  • A statist position, largely reflecting the old guard. Advocates of this position call for more discipline and greater efficiency among state industries and enterprises, and argue that Cuba’s economic problems can be corrected through a more efficient state, not through a dismantling of the state.
  • A market socialist perspective, advanced by many economists. Advocates of a “socialist market economy” argue for privatization, even at the price of increased inequality, the exploitation of wage workers and environmental degradation, as the route to increased productivity and efficiency. These advocates assert the state can always step in to correct excesses.
  • An “autogestionario,” or self-management, stance that calls for democratic and sustainable development primarily through the promotion of cooperatives. Participation, association and solidarity should be at the heart of the new economy, advocates say. In this view, control should not come from the top down but from the bottom up, as workers engage in self-management to further their social and economic concerns.

The so far strong push for cooperatives from the party, and the assistance provided to them, is a good indication that cooperatives will be a part of Cuba’s future. To what degree remains an open question, but however that question is ultimately answered, the intention is that a significant portion of the economy will remain in state hands for the foreseeable future.

No return to capitalism

In a presentation on Cuba cooperatives at the Left Forum in New York last May, Isaac Saney noted that, despite the top-down manner of cooperative creation and the ongoing debate on whether the state should drive the development of cooperatives, popular support remains firm. He gave the example of U.S. President Barack Obama, on his trip to Cuba, saying the U.S. would buy coffee directly from Cuban coops, but the coops condemned that as intended to undermine the socialist state, which they would not go along with.

In the same Left Forum presentation, Al Campbell offered five considerations:

  • Cooperatives tend to build a sense of responsibility for the participants.
  • Coops build collective consciousness.
  • A negative is that coops can develop competition and rivalry with others; structures and practices are necessary to connect coops with the rest of society.
  • The danger of leaving economic coordination to the market; planning is an essential aspect of socialism.
  • Self-determination is a collective process; different decisions must be made by different people.

Parallel to these factors, in a part a reflection of the complex nature of the reforms, is that many cooperative enterprises did not become so on their own initiative. The Left Forum presenters, and others, have interviewed members of cooperatives who, when asked why they became a cooperative, did not know, saying they were told their state enterprise would now be a cooperative. Of 124 non-agricultural cooperatives created by mid-2013, 112 were former state enterprises, according to the Inter Press Service.

Complimentary to the creation of cooperatives, enterprises remaining in state hands are to be given more autonomy. The Inter Press Service reports:

“The authorities have defended ‘social ownership of the basic means of production’ as an essential aspect of the new economic model being built on the basis of reforms outlined by the ‘economic and social policy guidelines’ of the governing Communist Party of Cuba, considered a roadmap for ‘updating’ the socialist system promoted by President Raúl Castro.

In recent legislative debates that touched on this issue, the vice president of the Council of Ministers, Marino Murillo, said the changes underway were aimed at building ‘prosperous and sustainable socialism, in which the main protagonist is the public enterprise, strengthened with greater autonomy in its management and the distribution of its results.’ ”

Cooperatives not necessarily a path to socialism

There is some fear that cooperatives could lead Cuba back to capitalism. Although cooperatives represent a socialized form of production, and potentially can form the basis of a socialist economy based on democratic principles, coops are also completely compatible with capitalism. The formation of cooperatives in itself does not eliminate competition, not even capitalist competition. Locating the cause of greed, injustice, inequality and other social ills in the authoritarian, hierarchical structure of the capitalist enterprise is an overly simplistic analysis.

Co-op symbolAlthough that structure certainly is a factor, the cut-throat nature of unfettered, market-driven competition is central. The relentless pressure to increase profits, maximize market shares and eliminate competition — on pain of enterprise death for those who don’t do this sufficiently — makes unethical or anti-social business decisions inevitable. Putting social decisions in the hands of the capitalist “market” means putting those decisions in the hands of the biggest industrialists and financiers.

What if an economy was dominated by cooperative enterprises, but those coops competed ruthlessly with one another in unfettered market competition? Cooperative members would wind up reducing their own wages (which would be a commodity in such a scenario) and cutting whatever corners they could to survive the competition, just as capitalist enterprises do today. Smaller coops would go under or sell themselves to larger coops — an oligarchy would inevitably arise in most industries.

Working for a cooperative has its advantages, even under capitalism, but even a hugely successful cooperative such as Mondragon faces limits due to the relentless nature of capitalist competition, as the 2013 closing of its household-appliances company, Fagor Electrodomésticos, demonstrates.

An economy based on cooperatives would have to have cooperation between its cooperatives, rather than competition. Prices would have to be negotiated up and down the supply chain (with all enterprises’ financial information available to prevent unfair price-gouging) with perhaps an arbitration board to step in when parties could not agree. Community input would also be desirable, in the industries in which a given community is directly involved and for retail prices of consumer goods.

Cooperative enterprises can be responsible for investment, production and financial decisions — subject to democratic oversight — but might be required to demonstrate full compliance with a range of standards on issues such as equal opportunity, workers’ rights, health and safety, environmental protection and consumer protection. Enterprises could be required to be certified on all relevant issues before conducting business, and perhaps be re-certified at specified intervals.

And of course an economy based on cooperatives does not preclude that certain key industries remain in state hands (with democratic control). Banking, energy and basic utilities such as water come to mind as too important to allow any private control.

Old patterns of hierarchy not eliminated

The foregoing are theoretical constructs for a more developed system. In present-day Cuba, as would any society moving toward a cooperative model, there are many practical questions still to be worked out. There are also growing problems that need to be tackled. Writing in Daily Kos after a trip to Cuba, “Geminijen” observed that hierarchy seemed to stubbornly survive in some coops. She wrote:

“Although the coops are managed by the workers and the workers share the profits, many of the criteria of a coop seemed to be missing or in progress — i.e., there was usually one spokesperson who appeared to be the manager or ‘boss’ or a husband and wife heading up the business (coops are not supposed to be family businesses) and there did not always seem to be a clear path as to how the people who worked there could elect a different manager or board members (they all had elected boards) if they wanted to do so. In some cases, the members were encouraged to participate in the decision-making process, in others not so much.”

Although the writer noted that workers mostly seemed to not mind these conditions because they were making more money and had a say in pay scales, nonetheless inequality is a potential problem. In examining why “self-organized” forms of private enterprise approved by the state seemed more successful than state-run coops,

“[W]e didn’t consider that the state coops were hampered by their lack of access to raw materials necessary to create the coops. As a visiting Puerto Rican educational scholar pointed out to me, the privately organized coops have come in and taken over the failed state coops because they have the money (capital) to develop the business that the state run coops do not. When I asked self-organized coops where they got their capital, they were often evasive. My source suggested that many of these businesses were started with money from remittances from wealthy relatives in the United States. She also noted that since most of the wealthy people living in the States are white, this ability of one group of Cubans to obtain and invest capital not only was reintroducing class divisions, but increasing the divisions again between the races since most Afro Cubans did not have access to remittances.”

The Cuban government is making efforts to assist the coops created from state enterprises. Earlier this year, the government announced that restaurants and some other ex-state enterprises would be able to buy products at reduced prices from wholesale operations to be established for them, along with a tax cut, in exchange for price controls. Construction cooperatives are also hampered by inconsistent access to supplies and the sometimes poor condition of equipment inherited from state companies.

Cubans not looking north for answers

Forming a cooperative from scratch can still be difficult. There are heavy barriers, a Cuban anarchist visiting New York earlier this year reported in a presentation — approval is needed from the government, and there is no time period in which a response must be made. Political resistance remains; the presenter reported that his group was told to take down a banner saying “socialism is democracy” while participating in a parade, although they refused to do so. He is also fearful that Cuba is headed toward the model of China and Vietnam — a capitalist direction that he disapproved of.

Concomitantly, his biggest fear was of genetically modified organisms and other ills pouring into Cuba from the United States. Although there is a widespread desire among Cubans to be rid of the U.S. blockade that has done so much damage to their country, there is little desire for Cuba to revert to capitalism.

Daniel Hellinger, writing of the increased incomes but widening class divisions resulting from the reforms, reports that Cubans are firm in seeking to defend their gains. In a report written after a two-month stay in Havana, he wrote:

“They unfailingly welcome change — so long as three major accomplishments of the revolution are left untouched. No one wants a future without free, quality universal health care; free, quality education; and the peace of mind that comes with streets that are virtually free of crime or violence at any hour of the day or night. Moreover, while Cubans clearly welcome the thaw in relations, they are not looking to the U.S. to save them. Virtually everyone who talked to me seemed to agree with the government’s approach to rectifying problems; where they disagreed was over the pace of change, with most hoping to see it speed up, but more than a few anxious about their jobs, rations, pensions, etc.”

The Cuban government has consistently said it intends its reforms as a renewal of socialism, not a retreat. An objective accounting of the old Soviet model of centralized control with state ownership of all means of production has to acknowledge the disadvantages that come with it, along with the accompanying political constrictions. Change came too late, too haltingly and too much on the backs of working people in the Soviet Union, factors that can’t be ignored in assessing why the Soviet Union crumbled.

Cuba is a different country, but does face the problems of centralization. To the leadership’s credit, it is making a bonafide effort to effect necessary change, even if that change is yet to be agreed upon. It is much too early to say where Cuba’s experiment in cooperatives will lead, but the surest guarantee that it will prove to be an advance and not a retreat is the Cuban people themselves, who have stood up to unceasing U.S. attacks for more than a half-century.