- by Bob Treasure
- The Guardian
- Issue #2046
Cuba has been been a permanently sanctioned country by the USA and its vassals since 1959. Photo of the “Bridges of love” action in Perth on Sunday 31st October 2021, at the Matagarup Bridge over the Swan River. Organised by Australia Cuba Friendship Society, and supported by Communist Party of Australia, and trade unionists. Photo: CPA
When the Soviet Union and socialist bloc of Eastern Europe collapsed in 1990-91 the results were catastrophic for Cuba. Overnight GDP fell by 35 per cent. 70 per cent of Cuba’s foreign markets evaporated. Oil supply fell from 13 million tonnes to 5.8 million tonnes. Public transport to and from work, as well as energy supplied to do that work, were thrown into crisis.
Whole sectors of industry had to curtail or close operations. Idle workers in factories were sent home. The government stuck by their payment of the 70 per cent guarantee, along with the universal ration, the “Libreta,” which assured every Cuban a minimal amount of goods for survival. No-one would starve.
The Cuban government: the National Assembly of the Peoples Power, the Party Congress, Cuban Unions (CTC), and Fidel himself, all refused to sacrifice the vital pillars of socialist Cuba; free education and free health care. Not for them the capitalist mode of Thatcher/Regan neo-liberalism sweeping the globe at the time. Teachers and health workers would stay at their posts and receive their pay.
REVOLUTION UNDER THREAT
Meanwhile critics of the Revolution were boasting of “socialism as failure” and “the end of history” while touting capitalism as the best of all possible systems. Some predicted that Cuba would collapse within weeks.
To foster the predicted collapse, the US encouraged illegal immigration (the “Cuban Adjustment Act”) by promising acceptance of people who fled Cuba secretly, while at the same time restricting legal visas. The “Toricelli Law” was enacted to reinforce the blockade. Later the “Helms-Burton Act” was introduced to punish third-party countries trading with Cuba.
Surging inflation, black marketeering and iniquities spread. In August 1994, riots broke out near the port and in central Havana. There were reports of stones being thrown and shots being fired and the police were mobilised, but Fidel arrived on the scene to insist that weapons not be used against the rioters, and stared the rioters down.
Asked why he risked injury to confront the crowd, Fidel replied, “If some stones were really being thrown and there was some shooting, I wanted to get my share of stones and shooting too!” He added that he wanted to, “… talk with our people, to exhort them to be calm, patient, cold-blooded, and not to let themselves be provoked.”
Generally, throughout the “Special Period” of the 1990’s the Cuban people remained co-operative, calm, and patient, and loyal to the revolution. Nevertheless something had to be done.
“ORGANOPONICS” AND “WORKERS’ PARLIAMENTS”
In August 1994 Raul Castro Ruz identified the guarantee of food for the people as number one priority.
The call was answered: “Tens of thousands of workers, men and women, from enterprises that had shut down machinery or reduced their activity because of shortages of fuel, raw materials, and other inputs, made their way to the fields. Workers were trained as oxen handlers all over the country … Numerous work centres, institutions, and organisations requested plots of land for agricultural production for their workers’ cafeteria, to feed their families, and for their children’s circles, schools, and health facilities.”
They developed “organoponic gardens,” furrows surrounded by a low rectangular wall of wood, stone, bricks, or concrete. After the first crop, the garden’s earth is improved by crop residues, household wastes, animal manure, or any other organic material that could replenish the soil. Gradually the garden grows in height but improves its yield over time – “fields” could be created anywhere: building sites, vacant lots, roadsides, and in terraces on sloping land.
Yet basic agriculture did not address the desperate state of industrial lethargy. As General Secretary of CTC (the Workers Central Union of Cuba) Pedro Ross was called upon by Fidel and the government to mobilise the working class and improve productivity to drag Cuba’s manufacturing industry out of its inertia, for without doing so inflation would continue to accumulate, corruption, and inequality grow, and class society recur.
“Parliaments” were called across the nation, in factories and workplaces to encourage Cuban workers to speak up, air their grievances, identify specific problems, and develop solutions.
Instead of “easy-fix” solutions to the inflationary crisis, like changing the currency or cutting state subsidies, the parliaments emphasised “looking inwards” – to the factories and work discipline inside each workplace. It was the workers who owned the factory space, the resources, the rules, structure and allocation of duties, and they needed to own the solutions.
From January 1994 three and a half million workers from 80,000 union sections, plus 158,000 small farmers, and 300,000 students came together to plan and set up the parliaments. The whole country became a school of Marxist political economy.
THE “LENIN CENTRAL WORKSHOP”
The Lenin Central Workshop repaired combine harvester engines for sugarcane production. When the parliament opened, workers there admitted to 11 per cent absenteeism, and that 12 per cent of engines supposedly repaired had been rejected because the repairs had not been thorough enough. This meant that the workshop was only productive for nine months of the year.
The Lenin Central workers adopted a “Basic Unit of Cooperative Production” (UBPC) of 250 fully repaired engines per month. This was not a dictated target but a reasonable guide to work goals and safety processes based on the know-how of the workers themselves. It was well within their capacity and they surpassed the target in future months.
The physician handing out false medical excuses was replaced. “Surplus workers” who might otherwise be “downsized” were redeployed growing food for the depleted canteen in an organoponic garden near the factory. Transport problems for some workers were overcome when they were allocated bicycles (a million of which were donated by China and assembled in Cuba for the “Special Period”).
Furthermore the Lenin Central Workshop set up another UBPC for “Marabu” (sicklebush – a prickly invasive weed growing in the local vicinity) which could be harvested by idle off-season machines and processed into charcoal, thus becoming a valuable commodity at the domestic and export level. The whole concept of “recycling” became part and parcel of every workers’ DNA, and was a huge factor in rebuilding productivity.
By the end of 1994 Cuba was now able to reduce its debt by 24 per cent and stem inflation, while at the same time preserving the precious pillars of the Socialist Revolution. Numerous surveys confirmed worker satisfaction with the parliaments.
To quote Ross: “The parliaments promoted solutions … for many obstacles. They provided a space for collective analysis of the crisis the country was confronting after the collapse of the European socialist model and the reinforcement of the US blockade. The parliaments also exposed our own insufficiencies – the instances of indiscipline, the lack of order and control, bureaucratic inertia, and obsolete practices that hindered innovation.
“The workers parliaments expressed the political culture of the great majority of Cuban workers in hard times. In them, they asserted their confidence in Fidel and the Revolution and their will to defend the Revolution’s work.’’
Pedro Ross’ account of the difficulties and responses of the “Special Period” is invaluable, and very relevant to Cuba’s dire situation now, as it emerges from the privations of COVID, both natural and industrial disasters, intensified US blockade pressures, and inflated currency problems. The answers once more lie with the will of the Cuban working class.