Cuba: What Social Justice are We Speaking Of?
October 11, 2013
HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s ongoing reform process is widening the gap between
the individuals and groups favored by the structural changes and those
who, caught between a market that turns its back on them and a State
that continues to manage and curtail their rights, have ended up at the
Today, these expendable beings include different categories of urban and
rural workers, families who do not receive remittances and the residents
of peripheral neighborhoods in Havana and the interior – blacks, mixed
race, the old, women.
This situation came to mind some days ago, following a brief Internet
exchange I had with an acquaintance, who wrote: “People can at least get
by in your country, because the State covers their basic needs.” Faced
with such impressions, we have no other choice but to make the state of
Cuba’s social justice a topic of debate, take a close look and analyze
some of its concrete features.
Though I would like to be able to share my friend’s optimism, I think it
prudent to curb such enthusiasm. To do this, I will begin by reminding
readers that, for some time now, a number of authors (myself included)
have been using the term “social contract” to metaphorically allude to
the peculiar link established between the Cuban population and the
Under this contract, the former relinquished a great number of civil and
political rights to the latter, in exchange for a number of forms of
subordinated political participation and, above all, far-reaching,
generous and (in some cases) exemplary social policies.
For three decades, this afforded Cubans a degree of social inclusion and
mobility that was enviable in Latin America, within a State-command
system and thanks to the massive subsidies of the former Soviet Union.
Today, however, this pact has practically capsized, and the boss isn’t
giving back his protégés what they once entrusted him with. This
situation appears to clarify one point, that Cuba’s “social
achievements” were never rights, per se, but, in the best of cases,
At least, we have good reasons to doubt that these “rights” meet the
three essential conditions that define rights per se: that of being
exigible (and equipped with mechanisms for demanding and protecting
these rights), universal (applicable to everyone, regardless of their
political or socio-economic condition) and, most importantly,
indivisible (such that, if one does not enjoy full civil and political
rights, we cannot speak of social rights as such).
Thus, faced as we are by partisan calls for order, efficiency, profit or
freedom (of the kind made by different political camps), it would be
worthwhile, in the context of Cuba’s complex situation, to demand the
kind of social justice that today runs the risk of becoming a mere memory.
If we take one aspect of the situation, say, the state of Cuba’s food
security – understood as general access to adequate, safe and nutritive
food, capable of meeting the nutritional needs of the population and of
sustaining a healthy and active life – we’ll see that this most basic of
elements of any policy based on the ideals of justice and solidarity is
Over the last two decades, Cuba’s food security has been significantly
undermined by a drop in agricultural production – which, in 2012, was
lower for most products than what it was in 1989 – and by the high costs
of food and other essential products, in both private and State markets.
Elderly people who live alone are the most severely affected by this
situation, for they receive flimsy pensions (be it in the form of their
retirement or a “welfare” program – and because they are unable to
compete in the new market of the self-employed.
The much-advertised distribution of rationalized/subsidized products
continues to dwindle and all trends appear to indicate that the renowned
ration booklet will ultimately disappear (having slowly bled to death,
rather than met a sudden demise), despite protests in broad sectors of
the population that depend on these basic, subsidized products, as was
demonstrated by debates organized by the government itself.
This is such a polemical issue that it makes its way into the island’s
debate fora, giving rise to diverse opinions from participants. In one
of these debates (published in Ultimo Jueves, “The Last Thursday”, a
forum organized by the Cuban journal Temas), economist and former
government official Jose Luis Rodriguez said that the rationed products
cover 60 % of the protein and calorie needs of the populations. Other
participants touched on the fact that Cuban families – whose real
salaries are today half what they were in 1989 – devote 60 to 75% of
their income to cover basic nutritional needs.
We should here point out that government authorities have been taking
products out of the ration booklet to sell these on the open market at 3
or 4 times their price.
The prices of rationed products have also been on the rise. Today, a
Cuban ration booklet contains per month the following products: 5 pounds
of rice (at 25 cents of a regular Cuban peso a pound) and two additional
pounds (at 90 cents the pound); 10 ounces of beans (80 cents); 3 pounds
of refined sugar and 1 pound of raw sugar (at 15 and 10 cents the pound,
respectively); ½ pound of cooking oil (20 cents); one 4 ounce packet of
ground coffee (mixed with ground, toasted chickpeas) for 4 pesos; 1
pound of chicken (70 cents) and 11 ounces of fish, or, failing that,
chicken, at the same price; 5 eggs (15 cents) and one 80-gram piece of
bread (daily) at 5 cents.
This quota covers approximately one week’s eating needs. Products for
the rest of the month must be purchased at high prices, at hard-currency
stores or agricultural and livestock markets. In the latter, eggs are
sold at 1.10 pesos the unit, rice at 5 pesos the pound, black or red
beans at 15 pesos per pound, pork at 30 pesos per pound, an avocado for
10 pesos, a mango for 8, a pound of onions at 15, and so and so forth.
As products included in the ration booklet are not enough to cover a
person’s basic needs, the population is forced to look for additional,
high-demand consumer products (toilet and laundry soap, detergent,
toothpaste, cooking oil, tomato puree, spices, coffee, and others) in
the Cuban peso or hard-currency market, where prices are much higher,
contributing to their low purchasing power.
Prices at these establishments (which are beyond the financial reach of
the country’s poorest sectors) are rising. This is coupled with
irregularities in the supply and availability of numerous products, a
tendency which favors the growth of the black market and of speculation.
The average monthly salary in Cuba (around 460 pesos), is not enough to
cover even the most elementary needs: according to a number of experts
and the testimony of numerous citizens, a person requires around three
average salaries in order to purchase all of the essential products they
need in the course of a month.
With such salaries, most Cuban families live in poverty, getting by one
income secured through illegal means: the misappropriation of State
resources, black market sales, thefts, and others.
The exceptions are those who hold important positions connected to
Cuba’s hard-currency economy (joint venture companies, companies with
foreign capital), a number of special job categories (officials of the
armed forces, some athletes and artists), those in the tourism industry
or operating a business related to this sector (restaurants, clubs) or
those who receive financial assistance (remittances) from abroad.
Though it is true, as many often say, that the State continues to offer
educational and healthcare services free of charge – in sectors that are
also currently threatened by the crisis and cutbacks, as we will see in
future posts – it is also true that, even in these sectors, the
population needs to devote part of its incomes to ensure, if not access
to these, at least the quality of the service.
Faced with this situation, in a country with a long-standing tradition
of social struggle, with a high standard of education, shouldn’t we
expect people to express their disagreement? Those who ask this fail to
notice that this is already happening, so much through institutional
channels (at union and neighborhood meetings, the complaint boxes of the
State and the press), as through street conversations and the
demonstrations of the besieged opposition.
However, the official press and civil society respond to the interests
of the State and all dissenting voices run the permanent risk of
suffering sanctions of every sort – in a country where the State is the
boss and law enforcer, as well as the authority responsible for giving
out permits for private initiative.
Complaining under one’s breath, venting one’s frustrations in confidence
and becoming involved in black market activities (a mixture of stealing
from the State and one’s neighbors), apparently continue to be the most
common individual reactions to this situation.
If the impoverishment of society is to continue in these times of
liberalizing reforms, it is not rash to assume that we will be seeing
ever more frequent expressions of discontent and social protest in the
not-so-distant future, particularly in the forsaken regions of Cuba’s
interior, and that these will be more chaotic and spontaneous than
politically conscious and organized.
Some recent experiences in other countries reveal how frustrations
arising from daily problems can unleash personal protests with
unforeseen consequences: the much-publicized case of Tunisian Mohamed
Bouazizi, whose public immolation sparked off the so-called Arab Spring,
is a paradigmatic case in point.
The truth of the matter is that the main social achievements of the
Cuban revolution, that once benefited the majority of working people,
are today threatened and in danger of disappearing. Defending these
achievements must be a task, not only of the Left, but of all who
consider themselves democrats, as no authentic, legally constituted
State can be erected on the poverty and inequality of the majority.
In any event, the romantic version of the discourse that claims Cubans
live in decorous poverty, like so many other myths, ought to be
Source: “Cuba: What Social Justice are We Speaking Of? – Havana
Times.org” – http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=99380