Reflections from Cubans on Castro (2/2)
James Early and Paul Jay discuss the potential role of independent trade unions in Cuban politics and the future of relations with the US under President Trump
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We’re continuing our discussion about the death of Fidel Castro and responding to on-the-street interviews in Cuba. Joining us again is James Early.
James was the former Director of the Cultural Heritage Policy for Folklife Programs at the Smithsonian Institution, and he’s on the board of The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, James.
JAMES EARLY Thank you.
PAUL JAY: The next clip is with an older guy, looks like a working class guy, in one of the communities, asking what comes after Fidel, are you concerned that socialism will be lost? And here’s what he says:
(start video clip)
MAN: (speaking in Spanish)
(end video clip)
PAUL JAY: It’s an interesting choice of words, “…at the moment”, James. First of all, there was always a certain amount of privilege, both in terms of leadership of the party and certain sectors of the society, like well-known artists and others. Now, to be fair, the difference in terms of the living standard and privilege of that group compared to ordinary people, when you look at other countries, was nothing. I mean, there was a difference, there was a certain level of privilege, but you can’t even compare it to the way the elites of all the rest of the Caribbean, or certainly even the American elites, to ordinary people here.
But there was a difference. You couldn’t just say, “We are one”. But with all these… with these new capitalist forms, they are going to be spontaneously engendering wealthy people, and if you start having what becomes more like the Chinese model, over time you wind up with millionaires and billionaires, and it’s not going to perhaps be at the scale of China. But the idea that we are one, it’s not going to be the same. You’re not going to be a society without the same, mitigating the class differences.
One of the fights that took place earlier in Cuba, quite a few years ago, there was a big fight about whether now that these partnerships with foreign capital — like Spanish companies over hotels and some of the other sectors, Canadian companies had come in — is there a need for independent trade unions? That you can no longer say that we are one. There are now… there’s going to be a class struggle that the foreign capital will exaggerate. Is there now a discussion, debate, about having independent unions, independent mass organizations – independent from the party – so people can organize and fight for their interests?
JAMES EARLY Well, on the first part of this, just so I fit in, “I am Fidel” or that “we are one,” is a historic reflection of nationalism in Cuba, of which Fidel Castro was just the more recent towering expression of that nationalism, of being a common citizenry which dates back to the defeat of Spain. It’s always been a very, very nationalist country, so much so that it has not wanted to avow positive racial identification within the country, because they thought that that would sort of tear the country asunder, and they argued that “we are one”. So, it comes out of that nationalism. And that Fidel Castro was, if he was anything, he was a left-wing nationalist, a follower of José Martí, also a follower of Karl Marx, but fundamentally a follower of José Martí — to wit, his tomb is right next to that of José Martí.
So, I think this is the expression that you’re seeing among ordinary citizens, and it’s the pledge that citizens have been asked to take, is to maintain their nationalist, independent, self-determination and sovereignty. That, however, does not obscure the historical fact that’s built on the socialist principle – from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs — which reflects to you that all individuals are not equal. Now, you may have free healthcare and free access to education, but that does not mean that everybody will come out in cookie cutter fashion, of having the exact same blood pressure, the same heart condition, or the same intellectual propensity, with regard to physics or farming. And so, that there have always been differentiations in that society, and there will continue to be differentiations in that society.
The key issue is to what extent will it be allowed for individual initiative, to exploit and go into individualism, rather than a social individualism.
So, already there is express concern about monopoly. The government has been very clear: it will not allow monopoly. It will not allow super-profits. But it does not mean that everybody will be living on the same income, or living in the same kind of physical environment. It does mean, though, that there will be a basic minimal standard of a wholesome living environment, in terms of one’s habitat, in terms of one’s access to transportation, in terms of one’s access to healthcare and educational needs, and one’s access to culture.
I think we have to break with this Western capitalist framework, that somehow it’s only the Cubans who live in an unequal society, and the implication being that all men, unquote, women, in parentheses, are created equal in the United States, and that’s just not true. We are not born into equal circumstances, and we face certain barriers in this country, as well as every country in the world.
The difference in Cuba is that this small country of 11 million people, on a planet, I like to say of 7 billion, has done extraordinary things in that natural context, if you will, where there will be these differentials among people in any society, to actually achieve a social equity in issues of education and health and culture and national welfare.
PAUL JAY: But I’m raising a specific problem, which is when you get the Cuban government doing joint ventures — and they’ve been doing it — but when it gets even more so, either with Spanish or perhaps now with American hotel chains and other tourist ventures, and the government is led by the Communist Party, and then you have the trade unions also led by the Communist Party, it’s kind of an inherent conflict of interest, and I know there’s been a lot of debate about this in Cuba. Did you come across this, about now you really need independent trade unions, otherwise the party’s leading both the joint venture relationship and the union? You get a situation in China, for example, some of the plants in China that are co-ventures, or part of this fabric of creating relatively cheap labor to create an export economy, and the Chinese government clamps down on worker organizing, or tries to, in order to keep that kind of economy going. Again, pointing to the need for an independent union.
JAMES EARLY: I do not come across the discussion, but it is one of the primary topics in the month-long tour that I am about to take in Cuba, to talk about independent trade unions. My own vantage point is, that the key to democracy is the self-organized citizens, and then they send their stewards forward in government, whether they come from the Communist Party or someplace else, but they cannot be conflated into one.
So that, yes, I think there is a problem when the civic organizations are a mere extension of a party perspective. And to some extent, there is some indication that that debate is underway — although I cannot say with certainty — but what leads me to consider that that debate is underway, that one of the first pronouncements in 2008 by the new President, Raúl Castro, was to challenge the Communist Party, in noting to them that you are not the citizenry and you are not the government, and that while the Communist Party is seen as indispensable to the overall direction and security of the country, it is a suggestion that that triad of citizen, party and government has got to be recalibrated.
Another instance would suggest to me that that debate is going on, is that Raúl Castro has been consistently very critical and very forceful about the pervasive corruption in the country — at the highest levels because there is no middle sector, it goes from government to the citizenry — and there is a huge problem of corruption that the Cubans themselves are openly debating and talking about, and the president consistently raises, and a number of people have been locked up.
This suggests to me that there is concern over centralism. It’s also within the Communist Party, that the Communist Party has taken on itself to direct society, rather than to be the steward and the facilitator of society, and the irony is is that with this very well-educated population, according to the United Nations, they produce almost nothing, until recently these new small enterprise policies came into being.
So, indications are that this is a discussion and debate going on, but I quite frankly cannot tell you to what level they’re going on at this point, and particularly on the fundamental question of organized labor, is one that is not just another social question of proactive citizenship, but it is a foundational question, both in the construct of socialism, or for that matter, any society working people are a key.
PAUL JAY: Right. Okay, just finally, there’s going to be a new president pretty soon, and the one thing I found when I was in Cuba, even people I talked to who were extremely critical of the Cuban government, the Cuban Communist Party, Fidel Castro, were almost as critical, or even sometimes more critical, of what they would call the Cuban mafia in Miami — the critique of the Cuban government did not lead them to be pro-American. I guess that has a lot to do with the nationalism, the sovereignty you were talking about, desire for sovereignty. But also a real critique and dislike for the right-wing factions in Miami. And now they’re going to have Donald Trump as the president, and, surrounding himself with the far-right of the far-right, in terms of foreign policy and domestic policy. Anyway, we asked our production company there, asked people what they thought of Donald Trump, and everyone said more or less the same thing. Here’s a typical answer:
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MEN/WOMEN: (speaking Spanish)
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PAUL JAY: My guess is this is a pretty typical feeling in Cuba. What are the early signs of whether this might be a change in US/Cuba policy?
JAMES EARLY Well, certainly there are signs that there will be harsh rhetoric, which is very characteristic of the President-elect, Donald Trump, but then we’re also beginning to see that that harsh rhetoric on a number of topics outside of Cuba, is now settling into the realpolitik where you have within the same party, the same ideology, different perspectives and interests, and so that there will be debates. In the case of Cuba, one of the things that I think we have to focus on, is that the accords between President Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama have gone a fair piece down the road in which there is a lot of capital already in play. There are already US hotel companies renovating, for example, the oldest hotel, the Inglaterra in the capital of Cuba, Havana, and there are other joint ventures already in play. There’s already in play an interdiction, the postal exchange, coast guard exchange, there is a US coast guard office in Cuba that works on a daily basis with the Cuban coast guard, in terms of potential oil spills, security of people at sea, and the interdiction of drugs.
So, there is a realpolitik underway, in that the Donald Trump Administration will have to intersect that reality. When you look at the fact that the head of the Chamber of Commerce went down to Cuba almost two years before this accord on the establishment of diplomatic relations, and that other entities have been selling Cuba about a half a billion dollars worth of food, cash on the barrel, chicken wings and vegetables coming down the Mississippi River, or the delegations from Mobile, Alabama, and Tampa, Florida, competing who was going to have access to Cuba, and who will have a consulate, since in Miami they don’t want it, these are real socio-political factors into which Trump now steps, and he will not be able to dictate on all counts.
So, yes, there will be harsh rhetoric and there will be some hard times, but the Cubans have demonstrated over a half a century, that not only are they very resistant, they are also very shrewd negotiators, so, I think that the fundamental elements of these accords will be maintained.
Finally, with regard to Cubans in Miami, there is no one group of Cubans in Miami. The most recent social science studies done by Cuban-Americans from institutions, educational institutions, in Miami, notes the multigenerational dimensions of Cuban-American citizens and new immigrants, and notes the different sensibilities and outlooks and different levels of intensities, of what they feel about Cuba. The fact is, is that the right-wing has lost ground, both in its voting potential to elect a President of the United States from the right-wing community, and has lost ground in being able to prevent Cubans from going back and forth. So, you’ve got people like Rubio who wants to get rid of the wet foot, dry foot policy, because so many Cubans come to the US for economic reasons, not ideological or political reasons. Once they get here, they get full access, they’re able to earn money, and they’re able to travel back and forth as often as they want to, or have the resources to, and so they’re being able to take material goods and money back and forth to Cuba, and taking advantage of this right-wing proposition, although they may not be anti-socialist, or anti-Castro Cubans themselves.
So, it is a complex situation into which Trump steps, and we have to follow and engage the realpolitik and I would caution on over-speculation.
PAUL JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, James.
JAMES EARLY Thank you.
PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.