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An Assessment of the Cuban Government’s Management Over the Last Six Years

Four decades after taking power through revolution in 1959, the factors which made totalitarianism in Cuba possible have reached their limit. The populist measures imposed during the first years after the revolution were accompanied by the dismantling of civil society and a process of government takeover which began with foreign-owned companies and did not end until the last 56,000 small service-related and manufacturing businesses, which had managed to survive until 1968, were eliminated.

The efforts to subordinate individual and group interests to those of the state has led to disaster. The confluence of the breakdown of the current economic and political model, national stagnation, citizen discontent, external isolation and the absence of alternative forces capable of having an impact on these issues have created conditions for change. On the one hand this has led to despair, apathy, endemic corruption and mass exodus, while on the other hand there has been an emergence of new social and political figures.

It was in this context that the provisional transfer of power from the Leader of the Revolution took place. The fact that this transfer was carried out by the same forces that led the country into crisis meant that the order, depth and pace of change were determined by the power structure itself, which explains the effort to change the appearance of the system while preserving its character – an unresolvable contradiction – doomed governmental efforts from the start. This process, now in-progress, has passed through three phases led by Army General Raúl Castro.

Phase One

On July 31, 2006, as a result of illness, the First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), President of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, and Commander-in Chief, Fidel Castro, divided his multiple responsibilities and temporarily transferred them to seven party and government leaders. Raúl Castro was named First Secretary of the PCC, Commander-in-Chief and President of the Council of State. José Ramón Balaguer Cabrera was tapped to head the National and International Program on Health. Ramón Machado Ventura and Esteban Lazo Hernández were named to the National and International Education Program, and Carlos Lage Dávila became the driving force behind the National Program for an Energy Revolution. The programs for Health, Education and Energy were to be led respectively by Carlos Lage, Francisco Soberón (President of the Central Bank of Cuba), and Felipe Pérez Roque. These appointments marked the beginning of Raúl’s administration.

In discussions, interviews and statements the new leader spoke of the need for change, including a willingness to normalize relations with the United States – an idea he expressed in an interview published in Granma on August 18, and which he reiterated on December 2 of that year in the Plaza of the Revolution. Without blaming his predecessor, Raúl began discarding previous methods and plans. Military marches, secret trials and other politically motivated actions which made up the Battle of Ideas disappeared while strong criticisms were leveled at the inefficient agricultural production industry.

In the same vein, on July 11, 2007 the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP) raised the idea that “Each province should have its own builders, should have its own teachers, should have its own police… ” It criticized the bloated labor force (an artificial means of “reducing” unemployment to almost zero in order to demonstrate the superiority of the Cuban system). It called on retired teachers and professors to return to the classroom. It announced the elimination of improper free services and excessive subsidies. It set out to reverse the trend towards a reduction in the area of land under cultivation, which had decreased by 33% in the years between 1998 and 2007. Later, on July 27, 2007 in Camagüey, he spoke of the need to introduce structural and conceptual changes. He emphasized the vital importance of manufacturing products in Cuba which are now purchased from overseas, and acknowledged that huge tracts of land are now overrun by the marabou weed.

Subsequently, he initiated the sale of computers, DVD’s, electronic equipment and access to mobile phones. He allowed Cubans to book hotel rooms reserved for tourists and to rent automobiles using hard currency. The licensing of private food vendors was expanded. Workers dining halls were closed. Cars, barber shops with up to three chairs and small beauty salons were rented out to workers. Regulations on the construction and repair of homes were relaxed, and the sale of fruits and vegetables from pushcarts was allowed.

Most striking was Decree/Law 259, which covered the leasing of idle land. It was an important but insufficient and contradictory measure. While it acknowledged that food production was a serious national security concern and recognized the inability of the state to produce it, the law allowed the state to retain ownership of the land, thus reducing efficient producers to lessees.

Phase Two

As a result of Fidel’s deteriorating health, the “Message from the Commander-in-Chief” was published on February 19, 2008 in which he permanently gave up his numerous positions. Five days later, on February 24, the ANPP elected Raúl Castro President of the Council of State, marking the second phase of his administration, which gave rise to a period of conjecture, desire, aspiration and hope.

The fragmentation of power that Fidel Castro had decreed in June 2006 was no longer in effect. Lage and Pérez Roque left the PCC, while the others quit their positions and assumed others in the new government. Among these were José Ramón Machado Ventura, who became Second Secretary of the PCC and Vice-President of the Council of State, and Esteban Lazo, who kept his position as member of the Politburo.

This second phase began with the introduction of a series of measures that could be classified as a basic reform plan. It was limited to certain sectors of the economy and its goals could be outlined as follows: 1) To achieve a strong and effective agricultural sector capable of feeding the population and replacing imports, 2) to make people aware of the need to work in order to survive, 3) to firmly reject illegalities and other manifestations of corruption, 4) to reduce the state  workforce, whose redundant job positions exceed one million workers, and 5) to jump start self-employment.

In the second half of 2011 various decrees and resolutions were issued authorizing the private sale of automobiles, the buying, selling, exchange and donation of homes, a relaxation in rules governing rentals, and the commercialization of agricultural production in the tourism industry. The credit policy was expanded to cover self-employed workers and small farmers, and restrictions on emigration from the countryside to Havana were relaxed.

Among other factors, this basic program of reform was limited by a kind of power sharing arrangement in which the new leader agreed to consult with Fidel on major decisions and the latter provided indirect criticism in the form published reflections and public statements. The most critical point in this duality came in the middle of 2011 when the leader of the revolution reappeared in public. On July 11 he appeared at the National Center for Scientific Research and on July 13 at the Center for World Economic Research, where he ordered that an urgent investigation into the post-war era be carried out. On July 15 he appeared at the National Aquarium and on July 16 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he met with Cuba’s overseas ambassadors. On July 25 he appeared in Artemesia on the eve of the anniversary of the assault on the Moncada Barracks, dressed in military fatigues. On the following day, July 26, he celebrated the commemoration with artists, intellectuals, members of Pastors for Peace and other invited guests.

Finally, on Saturday, August 7, at an extraordinary session of the ANPP, Fidel appeared to once again express his concerns about eminent nuclear war and relations with the United States. In his address he asserted that the world would be saved if it accepted the logical arguments he was espousing. Referring to President Obama, he said, “Perhaps he will not give the order if we can persuade him.”

In the midst of these activities, in a regular session of the ANPP on August 1, Raúl Castro announced the expansion of self-employment along with a reduction in the state labor force – something unprecedented in Cuba. On August 13 the release of six political prisoners was announced. These two events revealed two contradictions that could suggest a failure of government.

What is significant about this second phase of Raúl Castro’s administration is that the measures, which were introduced in an unfavorable national and international economic environment and which no country could sustain indefinitely, made it impossible to return to the stagnation of the past.

Phase Three

At the Sixth Party Congress and the First National Conference of the PCC, which took place in April 2011 and January 2012 respectively, were defining events for change.

In a report to the Sixth Party Congress, Raúl argued that self-employment should become a facilitating factor for the building socialism in Cuba by allowing the state to concentrate on raising the level of efficiency of the primary means of production, thus permitting the state to extricate itself from the administration of activities which were not of strategic importance to the country. At the session he explained that updating the current economic model would take place gradually over the course of five years. He acknowledged that, in spite of Law/Decree 259, there were still thousands and thousands of hectares of idle land. He called on the Communist party to change its way of thinking about certain dogmas and outdated views, which had constrained it for many years, and declared that his primary mission and purpose in life was to defend, preserve and continue perfecting socialism.

The outlines of a basic reform plan, approved by acclamation at the party conclave, were codified in the Political and Social Guidelines, but constrained by the socialist system of planning which viewed state-run enterprise as the primary driving force of the economy.

Several days after the Sixth Party Congress had agreed to separate political from administrative functions, Machado Ventura began reiterating the following ideas at the fifteen provincial conferences of the PCC: “The party does not administer. That is fine, but it cannot lose control over its activists, no matter what positions they may occupy… We have to know beforehand what each producer will sow and what he will harvest… We must demand this of those who work the land.” These were arguments intended to keep the economy under the control of the party and to hamper the interests of producers.

It was in this context that, in the thirty days between Thursday, May 10 and Saturday, June 9 of 2012, Fidel Castro published four essays. Between June 11 and June 18 he then published eight short pieces – each forty-three words on average – on Erich Honecker, Teófilo Stevenson, Alberto Juantorena, Deng Xiaoping, poems about Che Guevara by Nicolás Guillén, the moringa plant, yoga and the expansion of the universe. Nebulous messages with no relationship to each other and divorced from our everyday reality. Since then there have been no more such writings, and their disappearance seems to have marked the end of the period of power sharing. Only now and not before are we able to talk about Raúl’s administration.

At a meeting of the Ninth Regular Period of Sessions of the ANPP in July, 2012, after Fidel’s essays had already been published, Raúl Castro returned to proposals he discussed in his report to the Sixth Party Congress, such as the increase in the amount of idle land. On July 26 in Guantanamo he once again took up the theme of relations with the United States. And on July 30 he led the Martyr’s Day march in Santiago de Cuba, which seemed to confirm that he had entered the third phase of his administration.

Results of the Three Phases

In spite of efforts to achieve a strong and efficient agricultural sector capable of providing Cubans with enough to eat, agricultural production fell 4.2% in 2010. GDP in 2011 grew less than expected. Food imports rose from 1.5 billion in 2010 to 1.7 billion in 2011. Retail sales fell 19.4% in 2010 while prices rose 19.8%. On the other hand the median monthly salary rose only 2.2%, a factor which made things worse for the average Cuban just at the moment that changes began to be introduced. The 2011-2012 sugar harvest, officially slated to produce 1.45 million tons, had the same disappointing results as in the past in spite of being able to count on sufficient raw material, as well as 98% of the resources allocated to this effort. It neither met its target nor was completed on time.

The proposal to make people realize they need to work in order to survive, an issue closely associated with illegalities and other forms of corruption, has gone nowhere. On the contrary, criminal activity has increased to such a degree, as evidenced by the number of legal proceedings that have either been held or are ongoing, that corruption, along with economic inefficiency, now threaten national security. The government’s response, which has been limited to repression, vigilance and control, has not been successful. Even the official state media has reflected in recent years on the continual instances of price fixing, diversion of resources, theft and robbery carried out daily by thousands and thousands of Cubans, including high-ranking officials who are now being tried in court. Nevertheless, the problem persists.

In regards to shrinking the state’s labor force, the limitations imposed on self-employment have prevented this sector from absorbing the projected number of state workers. Of the 374,000 self-employed workers, more than 300,000 are people who were either already unemployed or retired. Besides being unconstitutional – the constitution stipulates that ownership of the means of production by individuals or families cannot be used to generate income through the exploitation of outside workers – self-employment has absorbed less than 20% of state workers. The assumption that this measure would absorb layoffs from the bloated state labor force by allowing the state to focus on raising the level of efficiency of the fundamental means of production and permitting the state to extricate itself from the administration of activities not of strategic importance to the country have not yielded the expected results.

The implementation of the new measures which have been announced – among them, an income tax exemption through 2012 for businesses with as many as five employees, an increase in tax exemption of up to 10,000 pesos of income, a 5% bonus for early filing of income tax returns, the creation of new cooperatives and a new law which will relieve the tax burden on the private sector of the economy – will not resolve the crisis either.

 The Real Causes

To deal with a profound structural crisis like Cuba’s, changes must be structural in nature. With the passage of time it has been shown that small changes in some aspects of the economy must be extended to include coexistence of various forms of property, including private property, the formation of small and medium-sized businesses, and the establishment of rights and freedoms for citizens. Proposals which try to preserve the failed socialist system of planning as the principal route for the direction of the economy, and the refusal to accept that diverse forms of ownership should play their proper roles mean that the economy – the starting point for any initiative – will remain subject to party and ideological interests, while citizen participation will be notable by its absence.

The failure of the totalitarian model has forced the Cuban government to belatedly opt for reforms that have already been introduced by Cubans operating on the fringes of the law. Updating the model has been more an acknowledgement of the existing reality than an introduction of measures arising out of a real desire for change.

The First Cuban Communist Party Conference definitively demonstrated the infeasibility of the current model and the inability of its leaders to sever the ideological attachments preventing it from moving forward. Their refusal to consider citizen’s rights shut off any possibility of change. The delays in relaxing restrictions on emigration, democratizing the internet and reincorporating into Cuban law the rights and freedoms outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are the principal causes for this failure.

Additionally, it must be added that time is running out. Now, with little time left, there is talk of going slowly and steadily, which clearly suggests a decision to not change anything that might threaten the grip on power.

Independently of the obstacles that have hampered General Raul Castro in the three phases of his administration, the decisive factor has been the infeasibility of the current model. Even if his management of the government had been carried out under the best possible conditions for implementing reform, it still would have failed due to a lack of freedom – something which is a prerequisite for modernity – and the lack of a high degree of political will to forge a new national consensus. Without these it is impossible to wrest Cuba out of the profound crisis in which it is immersed. The abilities and intelligence of one man or of his governing team, no matter how high they might be, are not enough to overcome the current situation. That is both the reality and the challenge.

Originally published in http://convivenciacuba.es/content/view/842/58/ 

November 5 2012

Categories: Dimas Castellanos

From Radio to Internet in Cuba

November 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Immediacy, a longstanding Cuban tradition in the introduction and democratization of scientific-technical advances in Cuba, had a memorable episode in 1922, when a string of inventions and discoveries in the nineteenth-century — the theory of electromagnetic waves from the British physicist Maxwell; the demonstration of the transmission of electricity in the form of electromagnetic waves by the German physicist Hertz; the development of transatlantic communication by Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi, among other advances — made it possible for the first radio station in the world to go on the air in Pittsburgh, USA, on November 2, 1920.

In Cuba, two years later, the lieutenant and deputy director of the Army General Staff Band and the creator of the criollo genre, Luis Casas Romero, after installing an amateur radio station, built the 2LC station, which went on the air with a signal played on a toy horn at the moment when Havana’s nine o’clock canon fired. At that moment 2LC began to transmit a bulletin on the weather, which was the first Cuban radio newscast.

Two months later, at 4 pm on October 10, 1922, the Cuban Telephone Company’s PWX station was officially inaugurated, airing from its towers a program on the anniversary of the Cry of Yara. That day, through a telephone line that connected the president’s office with transmitters in Aguila Street, Alfredo Zayas gave a speech in English addressed to the American people: the first remote control of the national radio broadcasting.

For the first time a head of state went to another country on the radio, an artistic program was transmitted from one country to another, transmission was established between two stations in countries separated by the sea, Cuban music was heard on a ship at sea and a danzón was danced to it in Ciego de Avila, 461 kilometers from the capital. The radio burst into life changing tastes, ideas and interpretations that accelerated social modernization. Cultural, labor, economic, political, scientific and sporting events arrived simultaneously to hundreds of thousands of Cuban homes and establishments, which even the illiterate enjoyed, though not the deaf.

The role played by the family of Luis Casas Romero was outstanding. Among other contributions, 2LC was the first station in Latin America that had a woman announcing the musical numbers, for which their daughter Zoila Romero, who read stories from 1923 in a program for children, is considered the first Latin American woman broadcaster.

In 1941, child auditions were aired by COC (the first shortwave mounted in Cuba) and on CMKC, Luis Angel, a grandson of Luis Casas, played the role of Pinocchio on the radio version. His son, Luis Casas Rodriguez, was visited by the American engineer E.D. Mille when he came to Cuba, who invited him to visit the PWX plant and he became part of the technical team that was sent to Key West to install the loudspeaker system connected to a receiver that brought the inaugurations of this station.

Based on the freedoms established in the Constitution of 1901, radio associations expanded from 1923 and stations multiplied to transmit alternative programs. Eight years after its inauguration, there were 61 radio stations in Cuba, proportionately higher than those in New York. The station 2EP opened, the first radio press, and Voice of the Air, the first radio newspaper. These data placed Cuba fourth in the number of radio stations, after the United States, Canada and Russia. In turn, the massive acquisition of radio receivers allowed in 1953, the year of the assault on the Moncada Barracks, meant that 80% of Cuban households had  such equipment; so together with the press and television, the assault was known immediately across the nation.

The written press, which initially saw radio as a rival, ended in contacts between newspapers and radio. If it’s true that in 1931 radio broadcasts began of the journalism of the Parisian newspapers Le Figaro and Le Monde, it is also true that in 1923 2LC announced in the Cuba Herald that it would release breaking news hourly. On 2AZ the Diario de la Marina was the first newspaper to begin an informative news on the radio; in March 1925, the newspaper El Pais opened 2EO and late in 1932 the station CMBZ read what was published in the newspaper El Mundo.

With the Internet, officially inaugurated in October 1996 — more than ten years after its inauguration elsewhere — the tradition of immediacy and democratization was lost. The current constitution does not recognize rights and freedoms other than for the defense of the current political system.

Ninety years after the inauguration of radio in Cuba, Internet, the information superhighway network that is radically transforming conceptions of life, communications, information, space and time, is unavailable to the vast majority of Cubans. As are the thousands of radio stations that broadcast over the Internet, which we cannot listen to in this way because it is necessary to have a computer that supports audio formats and an affordable internet line.

These developments are occurring in Cuba just as the extent of the information highways around the world set the tone in a way, that prevents modern man living outside the new technique, which constitutes a mockery of the Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action adopted at the Summit of the Information Society, held in 2003 in the Swiss city of Geneva and signed by the delegation representing the government of the Island there.

Cuba is the country in the Western Hemisphere with least connectivity to the web. Several studies have shown that the rate of network connectivity is even lower than for countries like Haiti. The number who access the Internet only reaches 1.6 million, a figure that does not exceed 14% of the Cuban population, not to mention that many of them are limited to an account that only allows state-controlled local intranet browsing.

In late 2007 it was reported that Cuba would connect with Venezuela through a fiber optic cable that would multiply by thousands of times the connection capacity. However, nothing has been published in the media about the facility, which was finished about a year ago, demonstrating the willingness of the State to maintain a monopoly on information and making Cubans long for the days when radio began in Cuba.

Published in Diario de Cuba.

October 22 2012

Categories: Dimas Castellanos

Elections and Citizen Sovereignty

In his book The Social Contract – one of the most influential works of political theory of the 18th century – the French writer, Jean Jacques Rousseau, proposed the following theory: The union of persons to protect their well-being emanates from a general will that transforms the parties to the contract into a collective political body. The exercise of this will confers power, which is referred to as sovereignty, and the party exercising it – the people – is sovereign. Based on this contract, the people choose officials to carry out the general will and temporarily invest them with a mandate to propose and effect laws, and to preserve citizens’ liberties.

From this work of philosophy and political theory it is possible to infer the vital importance of civil, political and economic rights constitutionally ratified through popular participation, including the ability to retract the mandate granted to these officials. It is this sovereign power that grants the parties to the contract the status of citizens.

Elections, like referendums, are two manifestations of popular sovereignty. Through them the sovereign chooses, from among nominated candidates, officials to hold public office and temporarily invests them with authority over certain areas and distinct functions. Through referendums the sovereign participates in decision making on different matters of common interest such as the approval or rejection of laws before they are promulgated. Both tools, although not comprehensive, make up an important and decisive aspect of popular sovereignty.

In Cuba the constitution of 1940 widened the rights and freedoms envisioned in the 1901 constitution. It ratified the division of powers, confirmed the sovereignty of the Cuban people from which the Assembly of People’s Power is derived, extended universal suffrage to women, and in article 40 provided adequate safeguards for the protection of individual rights which had previously been guaranteed. These legal precepts – guarantees of sovereignty held by citizens – provided the basis for the democratic electoral processes which took place between 1940 and 1948, and the civil and military resistance that led to the 1952 government overthrow.

Fidel Castro acknowledged the freedoms outlined in the 1940 constitution during his trial for the assault on the Moncada Barracks when he said, “I will tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a republic. It had its constitution, its laws, its freedoms. A President, Congress and its courts. Everyone could assemble, associate, speak and write with complete freedom. The government did not satisfy the people, but the people could change it, and it only took a few days to do so. Public opinion was respected and accepted, and all the problems of common interest were freely discussed. There were political parties, doctrinal hours on the radio, polemical programs on television, public demonstrations, and the public pulsed with enthusiasm.” He explained that, for these reasons, the first of the five laws to be proclaimed after the triumph of the revolution would return sovereignty to the people and proclaim the constitution of 1940 the supreme law of the land. This made clear that the revolutionary movement, as the temporary incarnation of this sovereignty, assumed all commensurate authority except the authority to modify the constitution itself.

On January 8, 1959, after assuming power, the revolutionary leader made assurances that elections would be held as soon as possible, which presumably implied the restoration of the constitution of 1940. Nevertheless, on February 7 of that year the Magna Carta was replaced with the Fundamental Law of the Republic of Cuba, violating one of the essential attributes of popular sovereignty – the ability to reform the supreme and fundamental law of the nation. Under provisions of the Fundamental Law, which was in effect until the passage of the constitution of 1970, the Council of Ministers assumed all legislative functions, thereby concentrating power and facilitating the turn towards totalitarianism.

Currently Cuban elections are governed by the Fundamental Law, promulgated in 1992, which stipulates that Cubans sixteen years or older can – through free, equal and secret balloting – elect or be elected to various positions in the assemblies of People’s Power, to the offices of President, Vice-President, and Secretary of these assemblies, and to the Council of State.

Under the Electoral Law the direct vote is limited to the election of delegates to municipal assemblies since the candidates for provincial assemblies and for the National Assembly of People’s Power, as well as for the President, Vice-Presidents, Secretary and the other members of the Council of State are chosen by the Commission on Candidates. This body is in turn made up of the Center of Cuban Workers, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women, the National Association of Small Farmers, the University Students’ Association and the Federation of Middle Education Students, all of which are members of the only political party permitted under the current constitution. As a result, in elections for provincial or national office, the candidates coming from municipal assemblies – those elected by direct vote – cannot exceed more than 50% of the total number of candidates. The other 50% are nominated directly by the above-mentioned commissions, which include individuals who have not been elected by direct popular vote, rendering popular sovereignty useless.

The constitution of 1976, revised in 1992 and 2002, ignores the rights and freedoms guaranteed under previous constitutions, while the Electoral Law now in force limits direct popular vote to municipal elections. This explains why in today’s Cuba there are Cubans but no citizens, as exemplified by the lack of interest in certain elections held in order to legitimize the status quo, but useless in bringing about changes that society demands.

Unequivocal proof of this lack of national interest is that these days Cubans talk about and discuss the elections in Venezuela or the United States, but no one except the news media talks about elections in Cuba. All this is an indication of the necessity to include, among other changes, a radical reform of the current electoral system so that popular sovereignty occupies the position it deserves.

Published in Diario de Cuba

October 29 2012

Categories: Dimas Castellanos