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Voices from the Collective: Response to Aldama's Cuba Libre

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx famously notes the tendency of the Left to engage in perpetual self-criticism; tearing down what has already been built, only to begin it anew once more. In this respect, little has changed since the 1850s: perpetual, sometimes vicious, self-criticism remains the cultural style of the Left.

J C Myers

Issue #66, February 2004

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx famously notes the tendency of the Left to engage in perpetual self-criticism; tearing down what has already been built, only to begin it anew once more. In this respect, little has changed since the 1850s: perpetual, sometimes vicious, self-criticism remains the cultural style of the Left. Frederick Luis Aldama's "Cuba Libre", however, manages to transcend the self, becoming firmly aligned with the other. Rather than a critical reflection on Cuban socialism from within the socialist Left, the article rehashes in strident, swinging style the same arguments made by the enemies of every socialist experiment to see the light of day.

First is the claim, with which the article opens, that in Cuba a decent life is available only to those having economic ties to the outside world: business contacts with tourists or family in the United States. Cuban socialism, in other words, is argued to have failed miserably in economic terms. On the one hand, modern socialists have often warned of the challenges to be faced by lone, underdeveloped countries attempting to transcend capitalism on their own. Marx himself worried that a socialist revolution in France would be a lost cause if it remained an island adrift in a capitalist world. Thus, the Cuban revolution always depended upon its relationship with the Soviet Union and faces its greatest challenge now that the red flag no longer flies above the Kremlin. On the other hand, then, now that Cuban socialism is truly an island, how should it continue to live in a world almost completely dominated by global capitalism?

For scholars and journalists, the question is easily answered with uncompromising pronouncements. For those actually responsible for managing an economy on which eleven million people depend, the matter is not quite so simple. Aldama browbeats the Cuban government for its compromises: the tourist economy, the trade deals. Yet, he has no alternatives to offer; no economic models for socialism-in-one-country waiting in his files. Aldama, I suspect — like so many other critics of really-existing socialism — has never given a moment of thought to the question of how real economies operate, how real economic planning takes place, or what the real possibilities are for socialism in Cuba or anywhere else. The important question, for these critics, is not, "what types of socialist institutions are possible?" but, "why is really-existing socialism never good enough?"

Sounding almost precisely like the right-wing critics of social welfare institutions in the United States and Western Europe, Aldama argues that in Cuba, education and health care services are hopelessly encumbered in bureaucratic red-tape. A similar story was a regular feature of anti-communist propaganda during the Cold War. Yet, the same voices that rang out with horror stories of Soviet citizens waiting in line at the local clinic are strangely silent now that the lines have been dramatically shortened by magic of the market mechanism: those who can't pay simply don't show up. In any event, the supposed disaster of Cuban bureaucracy is easily disproved by a quick comparison of social statistics. In 2003, the rate of infant mortality (one of the best indicators of overall public health) stood at 7.15 deaths per 1000 live births. By contrast, in 2003, Guatemalan citizens — living blissfully free of the socialist nightmare — had an infant mortality rate of 37.92 deaths per 1000 live births. Life expectancy in both countries shows a similar pattern. The average Cuban can expect to live to nearly 77, while the average Guatemalan survives only to 65. Bureaucratic red-tape may have featured prominently in whatever anecdotal tales Aldama was told during his taxi ride to José Marti International Airport, but it seems to have little effect on the health and welfare of the average Cuban.

Economic failure, though, is not the only charge laid against Cuban socialism, nor is it even the most important one for Aldama and other critics like him. The real heart of the argument, of course, is that wonderful old anti-communist standby, so deeply ingrained in all of us that we instinctively know its meaning, despite having reflected on it so little: totalitarianism. Here, Aldama goes so far as to compare the Cuban Communist Party to Hitler and Mussolini's fascist states in its supposed drive to destroy pluralist politics. And like the right-wing critics of Cuban socialism, Aldama swallows whole the myth of Fidel as all-powerful dictator, while completely ignoring the scholarly research suggesting a very different picture of Cuban politics. A recent study by political scientist Peter Roman, for example, concludes that institutions of local government in Cuba are highly democratic. A separate investigation by sociologist Linda Fuller found that most Cuban workers feel they have a high level of input into decisions that directly affect their lives at work and at home.

No such study, however, is likely to change the minds of those who see only the steely grimace of a totalitarian state looming over Havana. Research will not change their minds, because their beliefs are already firmly rooted in an irrational idea. No state ever has been and no state ever can be 'totalitarian' in the way that term has been understood since the middle of the 20th century. The myth of the all-powerful leader/party has been disproved again and again — in the collapse of the former Soviet Union, in the fall of the Apartheid state. No state is sufficiently powerful to repress a large majority of its citizens who are deeply aggrieved by the conditions of everyday life and who possess a relatively clear understanding of what they believe to be an achievable alternative.

But this, too, is a reflection on politics in the real world that critics like Aldama are unlikely to make. For them, it is enough to say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, without questioning why a member of the British House of Lords would want to warn us about the dangers of acquiring power. For such critics, it is enough to demand American-style elections in Cuba without asking what role the US State Department 'advisors' and multinational corporate 'donors' might play in such a process. For these critics, no matter what the question, the answer is always, "It's not democratic enough!"

Real socialism will be imperfect. Real institutions, real governments, and real leaders will never have clean hands in a dirty world. To demand perfection and purity not only asks the impossible, it undermines the work of those who seek to build a better world, rather than just to dream of one.

J.C. Myers is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.

Copyright © 2004 by J C Meyers. All rights reserved.