Monday, 6 June 2011

RATB Reports: Fernando Jacomino in Newcastle, UK

On Tuesday 17 May 2011, Fernando León Jacomino gave a public meeting for Rock Around the Blockade (RATB) in Newcastle upon Tyne. Fernando Leon Jacomino is the former Vice-President (and interim President in 2010) of the Instituto Cubano del Libro (Cuban Book institute). For a good part of the 2000s, Jacomino was involved as a cultural policymaker and worked closely with the Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (UJC, Union of Young Communists) the Asociación Hermanos Saíz and, more generally, the Ministerio de Cultura (Ministry of Culture). However, he is also a published poet and a researcher, specialising in Cuban theatre, especially street theatre and film adaptations of theatre. Although Fernando was in the UK when the 6th

Congress of the Communist Party took place in April 2011, he has been involved in the debates and discussions leading up to the congress and gave an insight into the principle debates of the congress and the economic and political situation in Cuba currently. Below is a transcript of his translated speech and questions he answered at the meeting.

As anyone who has ever travelled to Cuba will know, the international press coverage of Cuba is very different to the reality. One small island attracts more press coverage than the rest of South America put together. There is a disproportionate level of media interest compared to the economic importance that Cuba has to the US. The only explanation therefore is that this disproportionate amount of press coverage is based on a political decision which is linked to the role that Cuba plays in its relationship with Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. Over the last 50 years Cuba has tried to build a different society with an aim of achieving the well being of the majority of people. But we have had to work with an under-developed country and a fragile economy. All the international propaganda against Cuba has a primarily political aim, compounded by the fact that Cubans don’t have a voice in the international media. This means that Cuba is trying to build itself as a country but in terms of international trade and political support it is dependent on the opinions of other countries that don’t get to hear Cuba’s own voice. I’m explaining this to set the 6th Congress of the Communist party in context, there will undoubtedly be a high level of media coverage, expectations of the congress from the media and a biased portrayal of the decisions and suggestions made. To overcome this you need to read Cuban media instead, because it actually reports the facts. However, this is only in Spanish and English, therefore if you live in France, Germany, Russia, any non Spanish or English speaking country, it’s difficult to find out what’s really going on in Cuba.

I’d also like to outline a bit of Cuban history incase you don’t know it. In 1959 we had the triumph of the Revolutionary war; in 1961 there was the declaration of Socialism, followed by the imposition of the US blockade in 1962. From 1962 we therefore developed a closer relationship with the Soviet Union which lasted until 1989. In 1989 the Soviet Union disappeared and we entered “the special period” where in order to preserve the revolution we had to make various concessions including introducing the dollar and tourism. This brought disadvantages and advantages, tourism meant more people were visiting Cuba, before this it was mainly only those who had already identified with the revolution through special solidarity brigades etc. It was a very difficult period but Cuba survived through people’s creativity, determination despite economic shortages, through consciousness. Since 2000 the economic situation has become less difficult but the political and ideological situation has become more difficult. Now we find ourselves in the context where other countries are following a socialist and anti imperialist path in Latin America. This new context has lead to the formation of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America. ALBA has permitted Cuba to expand trade and has helped the economy become more stable. Yet it’s a process with many contradictions.

In the process of building socialism in Cuba, we’ve committed errors, for example excessive bureaucracy, inefficiencies because the state has tried to provide everything for people but this hasn’t been provided through peoples own effort. For example, whether you work or not, you still get everything the state provides, regardless of whether you need it or not. Cubans live in a country where education is free up to and including university level. There is guaranteed free healthcare accessible to everyone. Although the levels of healthcare deteriorated a bit during the special period the service was maintained and now in the midst of a global economic crisis the state is still committed to healthcare and education, and committed to improving efficiency. Free education and academic development however, has produced its own problem. Everyone is raised and supported to have a really high expectation of themselves in their area of study, but Cuba hasn’t achieved the economic level where everyone can work in the area they’ve studied in. If this situation isn’t resolved soon, if the country isn’t able to achieve the economic levels necessary for everyone to work in relation to the role they want to play in society, then professionals that can’t work in their chosen fields will want to go abroad and work there. This isn’t an exclusive problem to Cuba, if you look at the pattern of migration around the world, there is constant migration from poorer countries to richer ones, this is even more so the case if someone has a higher level of education as it’s more likely they’ll get a job. But if you look at the statistics of migration from Cuba, people go to a much more diverse group of countries than migrants from countries comparable to Cuba. The majority of migrants from Latin America go to the US, but Cuban migrants tend to go to all continents except Africa, because they tend to go to the more developed countries. The explanation for this is that people are educated to have high expectations and they can’t currently all live out their expectations in the Cuban labour market. However, Cuba has also developed collaborations with countries in the fields of healthcare, education and engineering. There are Cuban doctors currently working in over 30 countries around the world and Cuban engineers working in almost every country in Latin America. This international collaboration represents planned migration and is one solution to the problem discussed above that Cuba has found. These international collaborations may even increase in the next few years, but it’s not a complete solution, it’s also important to develop the economy so that people feel they can play a useful role in society within Cuba.

For this to be possible, it will be necessary for the salary to play the same role that salary plays in all countries but currently doesn’t in Cuba. For example, professionals currently earn a wage that isn’t sufficient ‘to live’ [Fernando actually used the phrase ‘to survive’ but doesn’t mean in the sense of being fed, clothed, educated, etc, think of it as ‘to live to a materially comfortable level’ - RATB] There are products that you have to buy in CUC [Cuban convertible pesos] because they are imports. If you receive your salary in MN [national pesos] then to buy some products you have to search for other forms of income which distracts from your job or profession. This means that individuals in Cuba face a contradiction between finding individual solutions for them and their families, and the desire to serve their communities and country, the work their paid to do. This situation can’t be resolved until productivity in Cuba is high enough for there to be one single currency, once this happens it will be possible for people to be paid a salary that corresponds to the work they do. This theme is so important for the survival of the revolution in Cuba that it was the principal theme of the congress.

One of the ways the State is trying to resolve things in the short term is through measures of self employment in jobs not critical to socialism such as restaurants, bars etc, not healthcare or education for example. It has been proposed that self employment could be introduced in areas not critical to socialism but in which currently the state isn’t managing them very well. In these fields there has been a decision to decentralise control and open up opportunities for private initiative. Another thing the state doing is cutting costs and inefficiencies, cutting the amount of money the state spends on public services. There will be half a million (500,000) people whose jobs are going to go, but unlike in Britain, these people aren’t just going to be laid off, left to fend for themselves, they’re going to be relocated in to more productive areas, construction, agriculture, or have opportunities for self employment, rather than just being in bureaucratic inefficient roles.

Another impact that the high expectations that people have in terms of education, has been rural to urban migration. Less people have chosen to live in the countryside, this has meant less food production. We need to improve the productivity of agriculture so that Cuba can produce not all, but much more of its own food and become more self sufficient, especially since food is becoming more expensive on the world market. These are more or less the main challenges we face in Cuba currently, these have been the basis of the debated in the congress. At the same time there are policies that value culture, culture in Cuba is free and critical, we’ve developed a broad environment for culture. The congress did however, highlight problems regarding the media, Cubans have criticised it from within, that it’s been too dogmatic, too rigid and not critical enough. It’s within this environment that economic changes need to take place; we need to make the changes at the pace of the mass of people in Cuba.

And all of these debates and changes need to take place taking into account the hostility Cuba faces from the US, the economic blockade, the purposeful fostering of US backed and financed opposition groups in Cuba. What’s clear is that the majority of Cubans have issues, problems in their day to day lives, but there’s a consensus that they support the revolution. Therefore the attempts that have been made to generate a counter revolution supported by the US haven’t had any weight in Cuban society. But that doesn’t mean people are dancing in the street with happiness everyday, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction, people want a quality of life they’ve wanted for the last 50 years but they still haven’t achieved it. The youth in Cuba don’t have the same experience as the older generation, they don’t remember Cuba before the revolution, some of the young people now didn’t live through the special period and unless the state makes a big effort to educate the young people, they won’t have the same understanding of what the countries come through, they will have different expectations. So when the communist party says the survival of the revolution depends on the economic situation, we mean that there will be a high political cost if the economic situation is not resolved for the younger generations.

So these are the challenges Cuba faces, we’ve got an imperfect system, we’ve got lots of problems, but we’ve got a government that won’t just abandon the social achievements we’ve made, but simultaneously is committed to improve things in the future.


Q1) How much inequality still exists in Cuba? Why and what do you think could be done?

Inequality has arisen in various ways, not all employment has an equal salary, not all families have the same income and if members of people’s families live abroad, they can receive remittances which boost their income. People who are self employed earn more than those employed by the state, and although it’s not a big issue in Cuba, yet it’s the most talked about in international press, there exists opportunities for corruption for people who work in mixed enterprises with foreign companies. Although this is focused on by international press, this type of corruption is the most severely punished by the state and there’s a big drive within the Cuban people to expose and combat this kind of corruption and privilege. There is also a difference between Havana, the capital, and the rest of the country, the state is trying to solve this by giving more autonomy to regional governments.

There are also “egalitarian” solutions which have generated inequality, for example the ration book, everyone receives it but some people really need it, and others don’t. The solution could be to give more supplies to those who need it and less or not at all to those who don’t. There’s also the illegal economy, this exists in every country around the world but in a regulated economy like Cuba, it’s more prevalent. The biggest problem stems from those who want to preserve their own individual situations or resolve their own individual problems at whatever cost. This could be through stealing from the state or others, for example if I worked in a factory but my wage wasn’t sufficient for my needs, I could take something in order to sell it and get more money for myself, this generates the belief that stealing from the state isn’t stealing. So this breeds the attitude that “the state isn’t providing for more or doing something that I need, so I have the right to take justice into my own hands and resolve the issue myself at the expense of the state” This detracts from production being concentrated in the state to meet the needs of everyone. From all of this results a problem that there isn’t a correspondence between the work that you do and what you get from society. That’s why it’s so important to increase production to allow the salary to play that role. If we can make salaries enough in themselves to meet peoples needs that people won’t be as tempted to steal. For me this is the most severe problem we face now in Cuba.

Q2) In relation to the need to increase productivity, Che Guevara talked about the need to change our relation to work so that under socialism, work becomes a social duty. Under Capitalism we have a specific relation to work and raising production often means increasing exploitation of workers. Can you talk more about the role of work as a social duty and the differences for this between socialism and capitalism, what discussions have there been in the congress around this issue and it’s relation to social consciousness?

The Congress did discuss this. The relation of work and consciousness, what Che talked about and everything he did during a time of crisis, when the revolution first triumphed, permitted the survival of the revolution today. However these values are more difficult to defend when there isn’t a minimum level of economic stability in the country, the situation that Cuba currently finds itself in. If you’re trying to resolve the problems of the economy whilst denouncing and criticising those who are trying to get rich for themselves. That’s not the same thing as criticising those same people if you’re not trying to resolve the problems or change the situation. I’d like to point out that in Cuba there’s still a very high level of solidarity and cooperation between people, when the economic problems are resolved, I believe these values will reign. These values are so much a part of the development and political and cultural formation of the Cuban people. The context we find ourselves in is a crisis situation where these values of solidarity and cooperation are surviving but they don’t carry the same weight as in a situation without economic crisis.

Q3 As someone from the Caribbean, I’d like to know more about the international solidarity brigades and programmes for healthcare, I was involved in trying to support a friend going to Cuba for an operation, is this programme still on going?

Of Course it is. International collaboration in healthcare has two main strands. One the presence of Cubans in other countries and two, the special school ELAM in Havana where students from all over Latin America and the Caribbean can come and study to be healthcare professionals. Within the medical brigades of Cuban doctors that go abroad, there are a further two strands. One is response to humanitarian disasters, for example brigades sent to Haiti, this is provided as immediate and free assistance. The second strand is the longer term more permanent presence of medical staff for months or years. These depend on the governments of other countries, if Cuban doctors are to stay in a country long term, there needs to be an agreement between Cuba and that country about what Cuba is going to get in return, to cover its costs and how the doctors and health workers are going to be provided for, housed, fed etc. In terms of foreigners going to Cuba for medical care there has to be a cost, but it’s often less than medical care in the country they travel from and is also a higher level and quality of care and sometimes is paid for through international collaborations such as ALBA.

It’s important to point out that this international collaboration, sending doctors abroad, is completely separate from Cuba’s own internal healthcare system, its not that the doctors are taken away from national needs. For example, last year was the year that the most ever medical staff were abroad working in other countries, but it was also the year where Cuba had the lowest infant mortality rate in the last 10 years, it has dropped to 4.5 per 1000 for infants below 1 year old. I’m not trying to say that the healthcare system is perfect, because all the problems we talked about before, the issue of salaries, inefficiencies etc, influence the healthcare sector as well. You can’t say to a doctor that they’re going to get paid more the more patients they see, you can’t talk about increasing productivity in this sense in healthcare because that would dehumanise this important work, this would go against the values of the system we’re trying to develop.

There are also serious problems around infrastructure, getting primary materials that are needed to make medicines etc. We find organisational problems that could be improved to increase efficiency. Since you don’t have to pay to see a doctor, Cubans often go to the doctor for every little tiny thing, for example if you go to hospital for blood analysis at 7am, there might be 500 people waiting there, but they’ll all be seen in that day. Every blood analysis is free for the patients but costs the state, the electricity it uses, the equipment, the salary of the doctor. We’re trying to improve efficiency through TV campaigning focusing on preventative healthcare, encouraging people to see their local community doctor rather than going to the hospital.

There is also an issue that, throughout the course of the revolution Cuba has built hundreds of hospitals, some of which are in areas where there practically aren’t any patients. We are trying to see if these hospitals really are necessary, because it might be more efficient to transfer the patients 5-10 miles to the next hospital instead. It’s going to be a lot cheaper to transport 5 patients to a nearby hospital than it is to keep a hospital open that only has 5 patients a week. These are the kinds of adjustments and improvements we’re thinking of making in healthcare.

There are similar ideas and situations for education. Sometimes you have schools in remote areas for just 2 students. It’s more logical to build a boarding school for children from these far flung communities where they can be transported to school and stay there for the week, going home at weekends. Currently all the children in the cities are required to study their high school in the countryside and learn to farm and grow food alongside their study, but it’s going to be necessary to change that system so children in the cities study in the cities and live and eat with their families. We’ve also created universities in each community, this reduces the cost of transport and food for university students, it’s important to point out that when you study at university, if you live away from home, you get you food, accommodation, books uniform, everything paid for, it’s not just the course that’s free.

So the congress is proposing lots of changes that don’t compromise the services provided but make it more rational to run, we’re aiming to reduce costs that don’t reduce the level of service provided.

Q4) the situation you described in your speech about people feeling it’s not a crime to steal from the state, this implies these people have a bad integration into society. What relationship do the mass of people have with the questions and big issues being debated and discussed in congress? How does this involvement of the mass of people in these big debates, affect their social consciousness in their day to day lives?

This is the problem, the mass of Cubans don’t renounce collective life, or the need to work, and they support socialism. But at the same time they’re not going to stop fighting for their own individual family. When there’s a situation where salary isn’t sufficient, the rest is theory. The communist party are part of society, their members are in the same situation, we’re not blaming people for trying to survive and live comfortably. Until the economic situation is resolved, the problem of consciousness can’t be resolved, it’s dialectical.

The situation has created a contradiction between people’s public, collective attitude and their private attitude. At the end of the day you’re going to support your family. An example can be seen in people who work in tourism, who earn their salaries in CUC or get tips in CUC (convertible currency). In Cuba there’s two currencies, 1 CUC is equal to 25 national pesos. A person who has a salary in CUC is generally more respectful of state property than those who work for the state and earn in national pesos. The tourist worker isn’t going to risk their salaries for a few pesos worth of anything. It’s like there’s a line drawn between crimes or acts that directly hurt someone else, murder, violence etc everyone is very critical of these kinds of acts, but stealing from the state is seen as a mechanism for survival, its not seen as a real crime, but the impact it’s having overall is very big, all the little bits add up. There’s a kind of double morality which can’t be solved with slogans, it can only be solved through finding and developing solutions to the economic situation.

Q5 Voluntary labour in the past has played an important part of raising consciousness and productivity. What role does voluntary labour play now? What role does the communist party play within that?

The party continues to organise and do voluntary labour, but what’s important is that voluntary labour needs to play a more effective role. It became, not tokenistic, but became inefficient, particularly if people just did a bit or this and that, here and there. It’s important to remember that when Che was arguing to voluntary labour, it was a time of great industrial expansion in Cuba, that’s not the case right now. Today voluntary labour needs to be geared towards agricultural production, growing food, this is what’s needed. Of course other things like giving blood are important forms of voluntary support too.

Q6 I have read about the internet cable that has been laid between Venezuela and Cuba, what do you think will be the positive and negative effects of the internet for the Cuban people?

There are two challenges that need to be overcome first. One is the actual building and laying of the fibre optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba, and the second is the internal development of infrastructure to deal with broadband. Cuba could have been connected to the internet years ago, all the fibre optic cables between the US and Latin America go past Cuba, but because of the blockade, Cuba is refused access. This is an example that shows the blockade is political; it’s not just a trade embargo. Currently all Cuba’s internet is through telephone wires, it’s slow and expensive. The first thing Cuba needs to do is develop infrastructure which can deal with broadband from fibre optic cables. Currently Cuba’s internet capacity, the amount of information it can transmit to the whole country, the bandwidth, is equivalent to just 4 houses in Japan! So for this infrastructure to be developed, the first areas that will be prioritised are institutions for the collective use of the internet, schools, hospitals, community centres, after that, internet broadband will be broadened to individual use. This is the policy. We will also have to provide internet broadband to areas used by tourists. Tourists have certain expectations, currently one hour of internet for tourists costs $10, so anyone who depends on the internet for their work, even when they’re on holiday, isn’t going to go to Cuba. So the internet can also be part of increasing tourism, the principal income of the economy. I think overall the internet will have a positive impact, getting a better idea of what the world is really like, obviously some people might react to it negatively, wanting to leave the country for the US, but currently most of the people who want to go to the US don’t really understand what life is like there, they think its easy, the American dream.

Q7 Do you think Cuba sees ALBA as a way of developing socialism in Latin America or as a method of survival?

It’s an alliance which is principally economic; an important principle is that ALBA respects the sovereignty of other countries, a principle of non-interference. ALBA doesn’t have its own newspapers, it’s not about dictating the policies of other countries, but at the same time ALBA has the right to develop links against US imperialism. This is the context in which Telesur (an international news and media channel) developed. ALBA does help the development of socialism and anti imperialism through the bank of ALBA, through this bank, it provides credit at a much lower rate of interest than the IMF or World Bank. It’s an economic alliance but it has a very clear political intention, just as the World Bank and IMF have a very clear political intention. So it’s like ALBA is an alternative and a way of poorer countries defending themselves from US domination.

Q8 What did the congress discuss in relation to the housing situation in Cuba?

There’s a big housing problem in Cuba, there are fewer houses than people who need houses. During the special period and the last decade since 2000, there’s been a decrease in birth rate. People are very cautious of starting a family. Currently it is illegal to buy a house from another person in Cuba privately. So the congress suggested reforms so that people can buy and sell their house to someone else. Because house trade is currently illegal, selling houses has become a source of corruption, people have made a lot of illegal profit out of it and it’s also increased house prices. The aim of the reforms are to make it easier to distribute houses that are currently empty to those who need them, for people to live in them, this will have an impact on reducing the housing shortage. Currently there are empty houses that can’t be sold because it’s illegal, this could be resolved. Congress has made a suggestion that a new law is passed to allow houses to be sold in a regulated way. The blockade also affects the housing situation because of shortages of materials, plus the fact that Cuba doesn’t have a surplus of money to invest in housing. Houses have to be sold in national pesos at a lower price, so the state is subsidising every house, investment which can’t be recuperated by the state. The state has to buy construction materials abroad in hard currency, so the cost of building houses is higher than the price they arr sold for. It’s not the same as under capitalism when, if they’re going to build a block of flats, before it’s been built the flats have been sold, because they know they can sell it, however I’ve also seen many estates in Manchester that are half built because they’ve run out of money.

Q9 Has there been any progress on lifting the blockade?

Well, one thing Obama has done is he has made it easier for US citizens to travel to Cuba, in the long term this will help end the blockade because more people will visit Cuba and know the reality about Cuba. But neither Obama nor any US president can make any decision without considering the Miami Lobby. The primary block on getting the blockade lifted is the Miami Lobby which owns a lot of businesses which depend on the blockade being in place. I think Obama would have preferred to lift the blockade if only to try and destabilise the revolution further, but he’s not been able to because of the Miami Lobby. I don’t think the blockade will be lifted within Obama’s administration, nor the next one which I imagine to be Republican. One thing that is true is that the more non Cuban US citizens who visit Cuba, the more internal pressure there will be to lift the blockade because people will see the reality of Cuba and it’s also in the US’s economic and trade interests. For Cuba it would be much easier to buy food imports from the US, currently Cuba buys rice from China, Chicken from Canada, this doesn’t make sense, all of these products and produced in the US or in other Latin American countries which are punished if they trade with Cuba due to the restrictions within the blockade. I think that it’s people in the US who have the power to get rid of the blockade, there has to be more focus on developing relations between ordinary people in the US and Cuba, and not just people in the US, UK, France, all these countries. If young people are interested in Cuba and want to find out more about it, there will be more pressure against the blockade and the US imposition. We have to remember that it’s a very interconnected world currently. Everyone here at this meeting can go home and inform others around the world about the discussions we’ve had tonight. This wasn’t possible 20 years ago. So people need to understand that Cuba is a different viable model. The Miami Lobby will never want the blockade to finish, it’s not in their economic interests. To give an example, there was a campaign in the US which raised enough money to put up a billboard demanding freedom for the Cuban 5 illegally imprisoned in the US. Immediately the Miami Lobby kicked up a fuss and got it taken down. So it’s clear that it’s important for them that people don’t find out what’s really going in Cuba.

Q10 What have you learnt from your experience of working in culture and literature in Cuba? What role has culture played in developing consciousness and defending socialism?

I’ve worked for 20 years in cultural activities. Firstly with the Hermanos Saiz association for all artists and writers under 35 years old in Cuba. Then in the Ministry of culture in the UJC, then for 6 years I was the Vice President of the Cuban book institute. I graduated as a mechanical engineer but then I studied the science of theatre, I changed my mind and interests to focus on culture. A job opened up as a theatre critic and then a second opportunity to manage and support Cuban song writers, promoting Cuban culture internationally. We wanted to be called the Malavista social club, to promote young people who have grown up with the revolution, because although I love the Buena vista social club, the message is that Cuban culture is the same as what existed before the revolution triumphed, and the indirect message is that the revolution hasn’t had any impact on Cuban culture, that Cuban culture hasn’t developed under the revolution which is a big lie. The truth is that it’s not convenient for the international media to show how culture has been developed and supported by the revolution. So now internationally famous Cuban artists were only 2nd or 3rd rate in Cuba domestically, but they’re presented by the media as marginalised or forgotten artists. The Buena Vista social club were actually retired when they were discovered by the world circuit business managed by Nick Gold. My aim is to organise tours of contemporary Cuban artists around the world and I’m counting on your support.

I believe culture in Cuba, historically and now, has played a critical role in reflecting on society, this is really useful because it propels change, perfecting society. Luckily the leadership of the party and the government understand this and continue to promote culture as a right, they continue to be committed to it, ensuring it’s accessible not just in Havana, but across the country.

To sum up, I’d like to encourage people to visit Cuba as much as possible, preferably as independently as possible, not just on a tourist package. Stay in people’s houses (casa particulars), talk to as many people as possible to experience this alternative economic model. Although this model is vulnerable and imperfect, it’s a different and viable model of society.

Rock Around the Blockade would like to add, that in the fight for socialism in Britain, we clearly have a lot to learn from Cuba and its experiences and there is an obvious need to work in solidarity with Cuba and build international pressure against the blockade.