On Cuba's Farmers, Lettuce and Hotels
December 1, 2011
Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES, Dec 1 — The recent authorization given to different types
of cooperatives to sell products directly to the tourism industry is
positive and significant for two reasons.
Firstly, this is a measure that introduces a note of rationality to the
Cuban economic system – after five decades of its having been incredibly
mediocre and bureaucratic.
Farming and livestock products of whatever kind has been only recognized
as payable merchandise after they're recorded by bureaucracies designed
for that purpose, with all the waste entailed. Even though this rigidity
has weakened somewhat in the heat of the unending crisis, in essence, it
continues in this vein.
I remember one case that I observed directly in the small town of
Chambas (in Ciego de Avila Province) while conducting sociological
research in the late 80's. There's no doubt that it would have inspired
the great dramatist Eugne Ionesco, as well as his theater of the absurd.
Though in Chambas there was a port close to the Punta Alegre fishing
operation, which supplied fish to a cooperative, those same fish had to
be transported many miles to the provincial capital, where they then had
to be registered as payables, thereby becoming "real." Subsequently they
had to be transported back that same distance to Chambas.
However, since the trucks' cooling systems were poor, the freight would
often return spoiled. This meant that the locals couldn't eat fish, not
unless they turned to the black market. It was here that the fishermen
of Punta Alegre (many of whom lived in Chambas) became responsible for
shortening the path of those unfortunate denizens of the sea.
Fast forwarding to the 90's – amidst the terrible crisis that Cuban
authorities euphoniously refer to as the "special period in a time of
peace," I had the opportunity to learn a little about the issue of
foreign investment in hotels in Varadero.
At one of them I talked at length with a young Spanish manager, a
Taylorist technocrat who had decided to siphon off as much surplus value
possible from each of his Cuban employees in the shortest amount of time
I remember that the person in charge at the front desk was a former head
of the philology department of a university in the middle of the island.
This was someone who not only knew English and French, but who had read
Racine and could recite Walt Whitman by heart. Nonetheless, her legs
were always swollen because of having to stand up all day.
Then too there was this manager of a jewelry store (also a former
university professor), so refined and intelligent, capable of selling a
wedding band to an 80-year-old priest. This woman would complain and
carp daily about her frustration with a job that only allowed her to
survive with some low level of comfort while others fell victim to
poverty and deprivation.
The young Spanish manager was delighted with his situation, except with
the purchasing of the hotel's fresh fruits and vegetables. He had to buy
them from an intermediary who lived in nearby Cardenas, though this
person was usually short on produce and could only offer wilted lettuce
and overly ripened mangoes. The challenge wasn't about what this junior
manager wanted, but what he could get.
With a mischievous smile, he confided in me that he found out a way to
obtain many products directly from places like the Bahamas, Cancun and
Florida (a fact that I hope won't be taken into account as
circumstantial by US congress member Ileana Ros-Lenthinen).
The new measure allowing direct sales should have had a positive effect
on reducing costs and on the formation of a chain of products and
services vital for local development. This is a way to boost tourism as
an engine for economic growth – and for that reason alone I think it's
important and beneficial. I also believe that steps of this nature
should occur in all directions, not just in relation to agriculture.
But there's a second point that I think is even more important: its
The Cuban system — economically and politically — has always been based
on the existence of a severely centralized vertex and a fragmented and
isolated base. In this centralization has resided the capacity to
control and prevent critical disruptions.
As such, if we review the history of the system, we'll see that
preventive banning and prohibitions have been more frequent and
effective than the direct repression of dissent.
In politics this has been very clear: Each institution is a vertical
structure which in turn feeds into the political center. There are no
horizontal relationships or communications. Everything ultimately issues
into a very small cupola of power occupied by a leader (for whom we
parade in front of every May Day) surrounded by a narrow circle of
subordinate collaborators (who vary according to circumstances).
For decades this leader and his inner circle were the only legitimate
producers of politics and ideology. The rest of us have been nothing
more than consumers.
The economy evolved in the same manner. Everything began with a
bureaucratic and centralized plan, which was constantly violated by that
same bureaucratic and centralized structure.
Operating exactly like the regimented political system, the market was
fragmented to avoid free contact with its agents. Moreover, starting in
the 90s, the economy was also marked by two different currencies. This
opened the door to the promising field of currency exchange
profiteering, which was actively taken advantage by officials
metamorphosing into the new bourgeoisie.
All of this explained the Spanish manager's anxiety and his final
decision to seek overseas vegetables, despite having excellent
agricultural fields only a few miles away from his tourist ghetto. All
around was land teaming with farmers ready and willing to produce, but
they were hamstrung by inspectors and police officers intervening to
commandeer the produce into state warehouses.
With this recent measure, another step forward has been taken in the
defragmentation of markets. This is moving in the same direction as the
new law that will deregulate the housing market. Therefore, this
represents another serious step in that other process — which will be
long and painful — of the construction of capitalism in the country.
But let me reiterate: It's a positive step. It will help boost the
economy and food production, all of which is extremely important for a
society which, because of mismanagement, has been reduced to poverty and
an alarming degree of vulnerability.
If there ends up being more food produced in Cuba and most Cubans eat
better, this is a positive. If there will be more autonomous actors —
even if only in this limited area of ??the economy — this too will be
positive. And if these actors engaged in production and accumulation
wind up employing workers and paying them better than what the state
does, then it's so much the better.
In addition, all of this creates a less rarefied atmosphere for
advancing an agenda of national reconstruction, one of a democratic
republic of justice and solidarity.
Yet obviously this is not what is suggested by the reforms of the
general/president, whose anti-democratic pedigree no one has the right
to doubt. His agenda is not that of democracy. This is because the
expected autonomy will be in the market, not in politics. And it's not
certain that a commercial invigoration of the economy will lead in a
linear direction to a democratic opening.
There will be production, yes; and liberalization (meaning more
liberalism), but not more democracy.
In fact, I would dare to argue that the production of democracy would be
dysfunctional, because the opening taking place in Cuba, one aimed at
achieving optimum performance, must coexist with a working class and a
citizenry without rights and without the organizational infrastructure
or experience to raise demands.
Borrowing from the infamous anti-Cuban metaphor posited by Granma editor
Lazaro Barredo, the public is like insistent wide-mouthed nestlings, but
in this case they would find themselves with their mouths closed shut.
In politics, the Cuban government will only concede what's necessary to
assure that its economic model functions in its behalf. Hence we saw the
agreement with the Catholic hierarchy, the release of prisoners and the
recent relaxation of internal migration – all of which is ultimately a
better scenario for the housing market to work, the laundering of
fortunes and converting treasures into capital.
Soon we will see a few liberalizing steps with regard to emigration.
These are necessary to attract "foreign savings," which represents the
money of emigrants, arriving in the form of remittances or investments.
But that's it. The Cuban authorities, their intellectuals and their
subservient underpaid bloggers have been very clear in that the opening
of democracy and the rebellion of the island's "indignant" already took
place in 1959 – way back 52 years ago.