Archive for September, 2010

The Chavez Disaster: A Brief Recapitulation

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

The amazing results of the Venezuela elections were unexpected. Hugo Chavez’s government has just lost the complete control he held over the National Assembly for a decade, making it impossible, from now on, to pass new laws that require the approval of parliament without consent of the opposition, which limits their pretensions re-election.

The centuries of social injustice, lack of democracy, warlordism, violence and government corruption, exacerbated by the failure of developmental projects and neoliberalism generated in Venezuela a degree of social discontent that manifested itself in several attempts to repeat the experience of the Cuban revolution. Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez, after failing in a coup attempt in 1992, tried to come to power through elections, and in the 1998 elections presented himself with a nationalist message and captured a large segment of the population dissatisfied with the existing inequalities. Upon assuming the presidency in 1999, Chávez announced a “peaceful and democratic revolution” and called for a referendum to amend the Constitution, which, when approved, strengthened presidential power, eliminated the Senate, took power from the unicameral legislature in the Assembly and established national and greater state control of economic activity and the media.

In 2001 Chávez called for the creation of the “Bolivarian Circles,” a copy of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in Cuba, and with aggressive language began to blame everything bad on the “external enemy.” To be reelected in 2002 for another six-year term, the President announced a profound transformation of the economic and social structures of the country and requested special powers from the National Assembly to legislate by decree in economic, social and public administration matters, which generated a wave of strikes and clashes with the opposition, which described Chavez’s measures as dictatorial. Violence and civil disobedience led the coup that overthrew Chavez in 2002 followed almost immediately by his return to power. However, the persistence of his intentions to perpetuate his power, led again in the same year, to military and civilian demonstrations against him, including the taking of the Plaza Altamira in Caracas and the general strike, including employees of the PDVSA oil company who demanded the resignation of the President. The response was the laying off of thousands of workers who supported the strike. The climate of violence created continued until 2003, when thanks to the mediation of the OAS, the Carter Center and “friends,” the government and the opposition signed an agreement.

Returning to the non-violent path, the opposition opted to call for a recall referendum, collected the required signatures and the National Electoral Council announced a referendum for August 2004. At that time, Chavez has concentrated his efforts on the most marginalized and those who did not go to the polls in previous elections. The result was 5,553,209 votes (59.06% of those cast), almost two million more than in the elections of 2000, while the opposition gained more votes than previously as well, but their growth was lower than that obtained by the President.

In 2006, Chavez called for a consultative referendum to amend 69 articles of the Constitution in order to increase his powers, however, most said NO to the reform; but winning again in 2008 regional elections, the President took his success and once again urged the National Assembly to out forward another referendum in 2009, this time to reform a single article, which would allow his re-election in 2012, which he won with about 55% of the vote.

The Venezuelan president, submerged in his desire to remain in power, lost sight of the fact that electoral victories are nothing more than a challenge and an opportunity. That is, success is measured not by majority vote but by the structural changes intended to address the accumulated debt of social justice and participatory democracy, as demonstrated by Ignacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, who proposed by social justice to increased production, but did not take the wealth of the owners for redistribution to the dispossessed.

In Venezuela, although oil hit a price that exceeded $144 per barrel, GDP declined, inflation rose, the real value of wages fell, while corruption and violence soared. In the end, Chavez was unable to transform the revolutionary populism into effective action, while the Venezuelans have learned to make use of effectively institutionalized democratic mechanisms. The mixture of demagoguery, militarism, aggressive language and control of political power, and his self designation as the “Bolívar” of today, is a new aspiration to totalitarianism in a region where this style is simply exhausted.

The result is clear: the populist caudillo can not find the solution of the backwardness of Latin America, which explains why the percentage of the population does not share Chavez’s policies has held steady in the ongoing elections at about 40%,  preventing the government from reaching the two-thirds of the Assembly needed to pass anything they propose. Government and Opposition were tied with regard to the elected representatives in the Latin American Parliament (five for each side) and in terms of popular vote, the opposition for the first time pulled off a dead heat, which predicts that attempts to re-elect the President will fail.

What happened in Venezuela contains at least seven valuable lessons:

1. Venezuela has been an important demonstration of accepting, at each opportunity, the results of elections, which is a test of maturity, and a guarantee of social peace and future prospects.

2. The division of votes in the recent electoral process, split about half each between Government and Opposition, both legitimizes each to the other and Venezuela and the world, which prevents both parties speaking for all the people of Venezuela.

3. Chavez, in his quest to develop a revolution in the image and likeness of Cuba, and making use of the additional powers granted him, limited, but could not sweep away, the existing civic spaces, mechanism and procedures. It is a lesson: the establishment of a revolution, albeit through the ballot box, has to be constantly revalidated by the polls.

4. The attempt to lead modern nations as a personal cult under the hegemony of one party over others, leads to totalitarian governments that ultimately deny the freedoms in the name of which came they to power.

5. If the loss of control of the National Assembly is not surprising, nor will Chavez’s failure be in the 2012 presidential election. His possible re-election depends on the willingness to transform revolutionary populism into something positive and permanent, something nearly impossible and too late.

6. Venezuelans, for or against Chavez, have learned to make use of democratic mechanisms institutionalized, which is a valuable civics lesson, especially for the Cubans, who have no such mechanisms and institutions.

7. What is happening in Venezuela will have an impact on the new Cuban scenario, characterized by timid reforms inside and search for outside funding sources, which will force the acceleration of the process of change if they don’t want the outcome to be similar to that which caused the demise of socialism in the Soviet block, because the current terms of trade with Venezuela are very fragile, since they are based on a political relationship. At the same time it indicates the way forward for Cuba — the only country in the region without legal opposition and the support of elections —  with regards to the public policy debate and the winds blowing in the region.

September 28, 2010

Categories: Dimas Castellanos

Laid-off Workers and Self-employment: A Critical Analysis

September 22, 2010 Leave a comment

After exhausting all possible avenues to run the economy from a totalitarian concept, the Government has taken the path of reforms under the name of updating the model. Among the first measures announced are labor reform that will leave more than 1 million workers without jobs, and the expansion of the allowed variants of self-employment, including hiring labor. However, these measures show that the government has not renounced the totalitarian vice of ignoring totalitarian citizen participation and deciding everything from the state, which augurs new failures.

The exclusion of sectors or social groups in decision-making has been a constant in our history. Since the claims raised by Felix de Arrate in the mid-eighteenth century — with the exception of Father Felix Varela and then with José Martí, who conceived the idea of the modern republic with everyone participating — the movements and the figures who starred in the different episodes, whether it was Spaniards versus Cubans, the fight between status as a Spanish province versus autonomy versus independence, always represented the social classes they came from to the detriment of other classes or sectors on the island. The process initiated in 1959 with the stated purpose of finishing the struggles started in the nineteenth century, ended up reproducing the evil in its most developed form: those excluded by the state are not one sector, but the entire society.

The two closely related measures announced recently are attempts to correct serious errors. Labor reform is a failure of the policy of “full employment” imposed against all economic logic, with the intention to display artificially to the world the superiority of the Cuban system, while the promotion of self-employment is an attempt to lessen the impact of current layoffs and the failure of absolute state ownership. Both measures, past and present, were implemented by the state, ignoring participation of citizens, which is impossible without the existence of a civil society, understood as an interrelated system of associations, public spaces, rights and freedoms, which form the basis the exchange of views, consultative behavior and decision making, without further authorization by those who make the laws.

When the state abrogates civil society, as has happened in Cuba, it can impose its decisions; what it cannot achieve is a positive outcome. Hence, the implementation of fundamental rights and freedoms constitutes a prerequisite for overcoming the current structural crisis, whose root causes lie precisely in the absence of the freedoms that underpin human dignity, What peculiarities of the new scenario allow the State, after all of its failures, to continue deciding the destiny of the nation by itself? In the first place, the State has the advantage of being almost the sole owner of the means of production, which allows no opposition reforms, only special interests, without relying on external forces.

Secondly, as I have stated in other articles, the social changes usually occur under the direction of new forces which take power, while in Cuba, the initial actor is the same force that has held power for more than half a century, which facilitates, in the absence of an independent civil society, its determining the starting point, speed, depth and direction of change. And third, as the logical alternation of power did not exist, the force that has ruled for the past half century is responsible for everything good and everything bad that has happened, which explains its return to self-employment while it doesn’t speak of its own error with the Revolutionary Offensive 1968, which eliminated most small property.  Finally, fourth, because the powers-that-be act on their own personal interests or those of the group that influences their conduct.

This explains that in neither of the two cases do they recognize the mistakes committed, because the Revolutionary Offensive of March 1968 eliminated at a single stroke tens of thousands of small landowners, many of whom employed contracted labor and offered goods and services that the State was never able to supply. As a result of the totalitarian desire to control everything and to prevent the formation of a middle class, they ignored both foreign and domestic experiences. Because in Cuba, from the Bishop Juan José Díaz de Espada in the early nineteenth century, until Julio Sanguily in the twentieth century, passing through José Antonio Saco, Francisco de Frías, Enrique José Varona and Jose Marti, innumerable thinkers argued the need to promote both a diversified economy of small farmers as well as a national middle class.

By eliminating the small proprietor, inefficiency appeared as State enterprises assumed everything, resulting in the emergence of another vast network of production and services, at the margin of the Law, which, lacking a supply of raw materials, tools and spare parts, led to widespread theft, renamed with verbs such as “to escape,” “to fight,” and “to resolve,” setting off behaviors which survive today, having become part of the predominate morality of today’s survival.

Effectively turning citizens into prisoners distorts the economy and even makes it a factor in the material and spiritual poverty of the nation. It requires a social structure that guarantees the participation of all citizens, with legal rights and conception of property coexisting and cooperating in various forms, because ownership, whether individual, family, cooperative or state, fulfills the social function of mobilizing the capacity and initiative of individuals to produce; thus every form of ownership should be allowed to exist and coexist to support this function.

There can be no return to the stagnation, nor simply an engagement in criticizing the measures, but rather changes need to be encouraged from a critical position so that they can transcend simply updating the model and lead to the path of democratization, that is to say that Cubans must be freed of their function as “the masses” and become active participants in defining their own nation.

Categories: Dimas Castellanos

The Virgin of Charity of Cobre

After a mass at her shrine by the Bishop of Santiago de Cuba, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre began on 8 August a pilgrimage across the country, with a message of dialogue and reconciliation, which will run until 10 December 2011.

The precession, commemorating the 400th anniversary of her appearance in Cuban water, coincides with a profound structural crisis provoked by the failure of the totalitarianism that monopolizes the politics, economy, and communication media, and eliminates civil society and independent civic spaces, generating a series of losses reflected in the despair, apathy, generalized corruption and the exodus; its repair requires a huge dose of spirituality. In this context the pilgrimage of the patroness of Cuba begins, through all the towns and cities of Cuba, with a message of freedom and love, two concepts which represented a turning point with Christianity, and without which it would be impossible to overcome the current crisis.

Freedom, the birthright of man, establishes that the inner conscience of human work is the freedom granted by God. Love, understood as a relationship that abandons the narrow context of only the Jewish people to include all men and all peoples, becomes an instrument of transformation to create a community where all men are brothers. So, live, the first condition of the concept of Christianity, stands as the highest form of free will, while its infrastructure is freedom.

The worship of Mary had earlier manifestations in Cuba but with the appearance of the image of the Virgin of Charity, floating in the waters of Nipe Bay — found by two aborigines and a black man — which was identified as Mary by the Spaniards, as Atabey by the aborigines, or as Oshun by the natives of Africa, deities associated with water, the sea, the moon and motherhood, which represent the universalization of love. Attributes that, from its appearance, turned it into the most Cuban of the Mary devotionals and part of our country’s history as evidenced by the following facts:

In the mines of Cobre de Santiago del Prado, site of the Shrine of Charity, history locates the first mass rebellion against slavery and the first liberation of the slaves. In 1731, due to mistreatment, the slaves in the mines in the surrounding mountains rose up to defend their freedom. In this conflict, Pedro Agustín Morell de Santa Cruz, a leading figure of the Catholic Church, not only acted as a mediator between the Governor and the rebellious slaves, but sided with the latter. Seventy years later, copper miners, led by Father Alejandro Ascanio, gained their freedom by royal decree, which was read before the Virgin, 19 May 1801.

Carlos Manuel Céspedes, on taking the city of Bayamo on October 20, 1868, celebrated a solemn mass in honor of the Virgin, putting his revolutionary army under her protection and in November of the same year he went to her Shrine to present her his arms and honor and to ask her in her position as Queen and Mother of Cubans, for the freedom of Cuba.

In the war diary of Ignacio Mora, one of the patriots of Camagüey who rose in November 1868, he wrote on September 8, 1872: “The fiesta of the Virgin of Charity of a delirium for him (the people). Without eating, they dedicate these days to looking for wax to have a mambí-style fiesta, that it they light many candles and assume that the image of the Virgin is present. On all the farms there is not a single cooking fire, only candles lit for the Virgin of Charity!”

General Antonio Maceo, who during the war would wear an insignia with the image of the Virgin, once told his men: “We must all give thanks to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, because she is also fighting in the jungle.”

At the conclusion of the War of Independence, representatives of the Liberation Army were excluded from the signing of surrender, which is why the General Calixto Garcia ordered his General Staff, with General Agustín Cebreco at the front, to advance to the Shrine to celebrate the triumph of Cuba over Spain in a solemn Mass with a Te Deum at the foot of the statue of the Virgin, a fact regarded as the Mambisa Declaration of Independence of the Cuban people.

In September 1915, a group of veterans of the War of Independence led by Major General Jesús Rabí, asked Pope Benedict XV to name the Patroness of Cuba and September 8 as the date of her celebration. The petition argued: “…(because) in the heat of the battles and major events of life when death was closer or we were nearer to despair, there was always a light dissipating any danger, or consoling water sprinkling for our souls, the vision par excellence of this Cuban Virgin, Cuban by origin and by secular devotion and Cuban because… having proclaimed our soldiers, all of them praying to her for victory, and for the peace of our unforgotten dead.” The request was granted by papal bull.

Fermín Valdés Domínguez, a close friend of José Martí, said: “The miraculous Cuban Virgin of Charity is a saint who deserves my respect because she is a symbol of our glorious war.”

For these reasons in December 1936, by delegation of Pope Pius XI, the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Bishop Valentín Zubizarreta, crowned the statue of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre facing Santiago Bay. Between 1951 and 1952, as part of the fiftieth anniversary of the Republic, the Virgin made her first pilgrimage around the island. In November 1959 her image was moved to Havana and placed on the altar of the José Martí Plaza to celebrate the mass of the closing of the National Catholic Congress. In 1977, Pope Paul VI elevated the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity to the dignity of a Basilica. In 1998, Pope John Paul II crowned the Virgin of Charity of Cobre a second time, where he said: “From her sanctuary, not far from here, the Queen and Mother of all Cubans — without distinction of race, political opinion or ideology — guides and sustains, as in the past, the steps her children to the heavenly realm and encourages them to live in a such a way that authentic moral values will always reign supreme in society, which is the rich spiritual legacy inherited from our elders.

With a historical and divine foundation, the Virgin of Charity of Cobre is an enormously valuable spiritual force in our history. Like a supporter for a phenomenon as painful as childbirth, her presence is significant at the moment of delivery. For all these qualities, for the fact that she is Cuban, that is for her identity with and belonging to the culture of Cuba, the image of Mary personified in the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, is with is, speaks to us, unites us and fills us with the strength that emanates from faith and from hope, love and freedom. Hence, the relevance of this pilgrimage in this critical moment of our nation’s life.

Categories: Dimas Castellanos

Cuban Labor’s Lack of Autonomy

The newspaper Granma, on Monday, September 13, issued a statement from the Cuban Workers Union (CTC) which is a good reason to discuss the autonomy of trade unions, looking at the scenario that is emerging in Cuba.

According to the document: “The leadership of the Government has been working on a set of measures to ensure and implement the changes necessary and urgent to introduce into the economy and society…: In correspondence with the process of updating the economic model and the economic projections for the period 2011-2015, the Guidelines provide for a reduction in the coming year of more than 500,000 state workers…; Our State can not and should not continue to keep businesses, productive entities, with inflated payrolls and budgets, and losses that weigh down the economy…; The union is responsible to act in its sector at a high level of exigency and to maintain systematic control of the progress of this process from start to completion, taking the appropriate measures and agencies to inform their superior organizations and the CTC…”

The selected fragments, like the rest of the document, show the total lack of independence of the CTC. There is no mention of the interests of the workers this organization allegedly represents, such a mismatch between wages and the cost of living. The investigation of why the unions have become the appendage of the state, requires a look back at the history of the Cuban labor movement.

In Cuba, the unions arose during the substitution of slave labor for wage labor, starting from the year 1865 with the creation of the Association of Tobacco Workers of Havana, the debut of strikes and the establishment of workers newspapers. The growth and strengthening of this movement led to the creation of the great twentieth-century labor unions, which, supported by the freedoms and rights recognized by the Constitution of 1901, staged a major strike movement aimed mainly at wage increases and decreasing the length of the workday, while playing an important role in political events such as the overthrow of the Machado regime by the general strike on August 5, 1933, an unprecedented event in the history of Cuba.

Thanks to the strength of the labor movement, labor legislation was passed which recognized the legal existence of trade unions, the right to strike, the eight-hour day, the minimum wage for sugar workers, job security, holidays and sick leave and maternity pay, among other measures, which were complemented by the enactment of Decree 798 of April 1938, the most important labor law in the Republican period. Likewise, many workers’ demands became law. Another manifestation of power and autonomy was the construction of modern building of Carlos III for the Retiro Power Plant and its leasing to the Power Company, the construction of the Havana Hilton hotel by the Culinary Union  and the Grafico development by the Graphic Arts Union.

Since 1925, however, there began a process of subordination of trade unions to political parties. In that year, almost simultaneously, the National Workers’ Union of Cuba (CNOC) and the Communist Party of Cuba were both founded. Since 1934, with the founding of the Cuban Revolutionary Party (commonly known as the “Authentics”), a struggle began with the Communist Party for the control of organized labor, which worsened with the victory of the Authentics in the 1944 elections. During the 5th Congress of the CTC –, which was actually two congresses, one controlled by the Authentics and the other by the Communists — a Ministerial Resolution declared the Authentic congress to be legitimate at the expense of the Communists.

The subordination of unionism increased sharply before the coup d’etat of March 10, 1952. Eusebio Mujal, who had ordered a general strike against the coup, accepted an offer from the Batista government in exchange for retaining the rights acquired by the CTC, another blow to Cuban labor. In 1953, with the resurgence of strikes, the union leadership was trapped: support labor and be in conflict with the government, or support the government and lose labor; Mujal chose the alliance with the dictatorship.

The government that took power in 1959 the needed the trade union movement to succeed, and a general strike from January 1 to 5 consolidated the revolutionary power; thus the labor movement was said to be a decisive factor in the revolutionary triumph. However, on January 22, 1959, came the first coup against the unions. The CTC was dissolved and replaced by the “Revolutionary-CTC” (CTC-R). The resistance to was immediate. The Humanist Workers Front was created, combining 25 o the 33 industry federations under the slogan, “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” This opened a period of conflict which was resolved at the X Congress of 1959, where David Salvador, designated Secretary General, when asked if he was for the workers, replied firmly and laconically, “Whatever the Comandante says.”

Before the vote, Fidel Castro, Prime Minister of the Government, proposed a vote of confidence on the candidacy of David Salvador, leaving the communists and anti-communists out. However, after the Congress, Augusto Martinez Sanchez, then Minister of Labor, achieved the impossible during the sessions: he dismissed directors, and took the side of unions and federations, a process that concluded when the majority of the elected leaders in the X Congress were excluded.

Already in the XI Congress of the CTC-R, held in 1961, there were no vestiges of the former labor movement. For the first time a candidate ran for each position and delegates, representing the Government renounced almost all the historical achievements of the Cuban labor: the nine days of sick leave, the additional Christmas bonus, the working week of 44 hours and a constitutional raise of 9.09%, among others. The association was under state control and CTC became the auxiliary arm of the Communist Party. The results were reflected in the 1976 Constitution, in which only six articles of Chapter VI are dedicated to the rights of workers and they ignore almost everything achieved by the union movement since the creation of the CNOC in 1925.

In short, this is a consequence of considering that people are reducible, a form of organization where people act as mere executors. What happened in Cuba with the union movement corroborates this indisputable thesis: without autonomy the existence of genuine trade unionism is impossible. Now, faced with the acceptance of failure, the Government is undertaking some reforms under the name of updating the model, a decision that will have a strong impact on workers due to the absence of genuine trade unionism, since the absence of independent civil society, including unionism, makes Cuba an unarmed society that allows the state to decide by itself and asking for the support of the workers, as evidenced by the current Statement of the CTC-R.

The update of the model, if it is conceived to be for the good of Cubans, must begin by giving workers effective participation and ceasing to consider them as a mass. The restoration of independent trade unionism, therefore, is a requirement.

Categories: Dimas Castellanos