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On Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay, James Early who has visited Cuba more than thirty times says what’s needed is more citizen participation and less centralization but Cuba is not headed towards the Chinese capitalist model. This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced November 18, 2013.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself.
We’re continuing our series of interviews with James Early. And you should watch the earlier parts, ’cause you’ll kind of get the whole context of this. But one of the reasons I wanted you to meet James is that he’s been to Cuba. He’s been traveling to Cuba for 38 years. When I say been to Cuba, he’s been to Cuba, like, 30, 40 times or something like that. So watch the earlier ones, come back and watch this one, or just watch this one if all you care about is Cuba.
Thanks for joining us again, James.
JAMES EARLY, DIRECTOR OF CULTURAL STUDIES AND COMMUNICATIONS, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION: Thank you. It’s good to be back.
JAY: So, once again, really quickly, James is the director of cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian, at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
So let’s talk about Cuba, but I’m going to start with Raúl Castro’s reforms. At the Sixth Party Congress, held not so long ago, a series of reforms were enacted. And here’s a list of some of the more important ones.
So, first of all, as most of you probably have heard, Cubans can now travel relatively freely. There’s a few classes of Cubans that have some restrictions–high-level professionals, certain artists, and sports stars. But in principle, most Cubans are going to be able to travel now.
And here are some other things that have been decided. First of all, sales of computers, DVDs, and other home appliances are now taking place. I don’t understand some of these–microwaves, computers, why they couldn’t have them before. I guess ’cause some people could and some people couldn’t, so it’s more fair not to have so much. But I don’t quite get it, ’cause they had dollar stores at some point where you could get these things. But, anyway, now people can freely buy these electronics. And one of the more important things now is people can all have cell phones.
Still, apparently, restriction to the internet.
Cubans who are able to afford to can now go to luxury hotels, which they were prevented to before. Some might wonder, why are some Cubans able to afford luxury hotels and others are not? But that’s part of what we’re going to get into.
A lot more self-employment. Businesses can now be started more easily. This isn’t brand-new. This had started a few years ago. But now it’s easier to start a small business. Less restrictions. It’s not so hard to get a license.
On the other hand, there’s some critique of all this. Apparently something like half a million state workers have been laid off, and said, go start your own small business. So we’ll talk more about that, ’cause that doesn’t always work out so well.
People can now buy and sell houses and cars (which was something that was restricted) now. I think new cars still have some restriction, but real estate and used cars can now be sold fairly freely. Bank loans are being given to people to start small businesses to encourage this. And as I said, people can travel, and there’s–it’s easier if you want to emigrate from Cuba; it’s now easier to do that.
So, James, without getting into the detail of some of these, although we might, why was all this necessary? And is this somewhat by Raúl Castro a refutation of the policies of Fidel?
EARLY: Well, first of all, I think Raúl Castro is a reflection of different kinds of debates and mediations in the party. Because he carries the last name Castro and because he is a faithfully loved brother, there is an element of why Fidel Castro trusted him. But I think what we’re seeing is a negotiation, a mediation, a debate, both in the Cuban Communist Party, that is now coming to fruition, and within society itself.
I think we have to turn our analysis around, in the case of Cuba and other places, that there is no one leader who makes a decision. Cuba is a broken economic system.
It is an extraordinary humanistic system. The world’s leading male ballet dancer, a black man who comes from relatively impoverished background. Cuba’s most noted contemporary artist, a black man who worships African religions, came from a very humble background. Chucho Valdés, one of the leading jazz pianists. And I could go on and on. The ballets of the world, after you talk about Russia and England, there is Cuba, 7 million people–11 million people on a planet of 7 billion people.
So they’ve had some great humanistic policies, but an overly centralized, idealistic, smothering, ironical system through the Communist Party.
I say ironical because they are some of the most educated people on the planet by analysis of neutral organizations who do this. Their kids score very high in math and science. Cuba’s one of the leading biotechnical production countries in the world, virus–producing biotech to fight cancer. Even the U.S. in its blockade has had to allow certain business relationships on patents.
So overcentralization of the Communist Party, that’s a critique that we’ve got to face up front, a political class that happens to be communist. But we’ve got a political class in the Democratic Party, a political class in the Republican Party, a failure to really have confidence in the people that they educated. Mariela Castro, a socialist, a loving daughter of Raúl Castro, says the biggest problem in Cuba is the lack of citizen participation.
So we’ve had a kind of socialist/communist top-down representational democracy rather than the discourse that–actually, Michael Manley raised it to the first level of scale. This turned–predates Michael Manley, and that is a participatory democracy which /fɛrˌnandɛ̃ɳˈruk/ Henrique Cardoso in Brazil brought to another level and then Lula in Brazil brought even to a deeper level. And Hugo Chávez took it to even another level of work with the people, not for the people. That’s really the bottom line.
JAY: Now, a lot of the reforms seem to be connected with the kind of reforms that a lot of the left, including the Cubans, really objected to. For example, they’re going to–they’re creating a new port, and it’s going to be one of these free economic zones, which apparently is going to be somewhat modeled on the same kind of free economic zones that allowed for low taxation, low wages, and very corporate international finance friendly structures. This idea of everyone starting small businesses and telling laid-off state workers, I mean, that starts to sound like this informal sector that exists all through Latin America and the Caribbean, which is people working for next to nothing selling whatever they can find.
EARLY: When you juxtapose that up against basically–as the late Saul Landau used to say, and with great love and respect for Cuba, Cubans don’t produce anything, and their almost single natural resource, nickel, ain’t worth almost a dime on the market.
So you’ve got to start with something. You know, the road to paradise means you’ve got to walk through certain corners of hell. And they have a very ideal system with regard to health, with regard to education, with regard to the production of all forms of culture and access to that culture.
But when it comes to producing the basic necessities of life, they’ve been a complete failure.
JAY: Yeah. But why? For example, this thing I said earlier–I’m sorry I don’t remember the exact numbers, but it’s at least a third–and if my memory is correct, it might have been as–half of agricultural land is not being tilled. I mean, Cuba should be producing massive amounts of food, and not just for its own consumption, even for export. But what is it? People are so educated they don’t want to work in the fields?
EARLY: No. When you’ve got a top-down central committee saying, this is going to be economic planning, and you’re not allowing the citizens to use their imagination, the power of their imagination, then you have a small number of people who have an ideal. And it’s not working, but they hold on to it. But finally the system says, we’re going to lose this revolution. In fact, Raúl Castro said, you could take this embargo away tomorrow; we would do a little better, but our biggest problem are the problems we’ve created for ourselves.
And so they’re decentralizing. They’re looking more to the imagination and the ingenuity of its citizens to help produce development for the country.
Now, that will bring certain contradictions, there is no question about it, particularly up against the idealism and theory that we can make it even for everybody. But what will they try to maintain? The most important socialized quality of life factors: health for everybody, education for everybody, everybody is eating sufficiently nutritious foods. But there will be unevenness.
JAY: But when I was–I’ve been to Cuba a couple of times. And I don’t speak Spanish, but I had a pretty good translator. And I used to drive around the country. And most Americans don’t understand how easily it is if you’re a tourist to move around Cuba.
EARLY: It’s very easy.
JAY: I mean, you can go wherever you want and talk to–
EARLY: It’s very easy.
JAY: –you more or less talk to whoever you want, although if you really go into places and people’s homes, you know, there is a bit of a neighborhood watch committee which is kind of looking and saying, oh, really, you have a foreigner at your home. Hmm. But if you want to do it, you kind of do it, and I don’t think anyone suffers any repercussions.
But what I heard a lot of resentment about was that, you know, we’ll make the sacrifices you’re asking us to make, but not everybody is. You know, of course there’s resentment that people making this money that are in the tourist sector and able to get dollars–. You know, I picked up a doctor once who was traveling, you know, from one town to the other, and she was saying that I don’t–it just makes no sense that the guy parking cars at the hotel is making ten times what I’m making as a doctor.
But more than that–but that there’s this political class, as you say, and they’re not, you know, they’re not living and at the same level that everybody else is. They’re not making the same sacrifice. And in the kind of reforms–if you do this kind of, you know, neoliberal reforms, it’s going to increase that gap of inequality, not decrease it.
EARLY: Well, not necessarily. I mean, one of the things it seems to me that Cuba has lost most significantly is a kind of socialized comportment. You know when everybody used to call each other comrade? And these were not members of the Communist Party. It was like neighbor. It was like, I’m in this with you for you and for me. The economic crisis has really undermined a lot of that. How to build back up that sense of social responsibility for the overall development of the nation, which starts with how do I carry out my own agency, how do I use my own skills to help improve my life and the life of my family and the life of my community, rather than to have a top-down bureaucrat say that I can only do it this way or I can only buy this or that–.that’s not the real world. We hope society will get to a place at some point where it is sort of like a paradise, in small p. But that’s not what they have. So they don’t have any alternative at this point but to trust the skills and to try to continue to foster a social ethic among their people.
JAY: But if they’re–but the question people are asking, and I think mostly Cubans are asking, especially progressive Cubans, which–and not all are–you know: is this another going to be Chinese/Vietnamese model, where it’s–you have, like, a one-party state, except essentially a capitalist economic system?
EARLY: I don’t think so. I mean, I think we have some signs, and I would not suggest that they’re signs that are solid enough to make a big extrapolation on this. For example, Raúl Castro, under his leadership, has moved through the party ranks and through the parliament that you can only stay in office eight years. Now, there’s nothing magical about eight years or four years or 16 years, but I think what they’re trying to deal with is there is a human tendency to get comfortable, to reify this notion of leadership and not provide for new ideas to come in. To Cuba’s credit, it has produced an extraordinary number of diplomats and people in statecraft who are really capable and it’s giving them a lot more flexibility.
Just in the last few weeks or so, there’s been a shakeup within the Communist Party’s main organ, Granma, over the last year and a half to two years. There’s been a lot of critique coming from top leaders and party leaders, and certainly from the public, that Granma does not reflect anything people are really interested in. It gives a rosy picture of everything, and life is always complex, even under the best of circumstances, and we must trust people to be able to work with those contradictions and not just be passive and rely on leaders to do it. So the notion of a participatory democracy, that kind of terminology is now emerging within Cuba, and we’re seeing a decentralized [incompr.] policy in where the state will take primary social responsibility for those big nodes of quality of life but allow flexibility, promote flexibility.
JAY: Is there any sign that there will be a space and some kind of financing for real independent journalism, independent media? I mean, one of the things I think–again, this is based on my little anecdotal experience, but I believe it to be true, is there is this feeling–and I don’t even know if it’s true or not, but that there’s a very privileged class in Cuba, and that people resent–as I said before, you’re asking us to make sacrifices, and this privileged class isn’t. Now, I don’t even know if that’s true that there is this big privileged class, but people believe it. But, you know, without an independent media that can do investigative journalism and not worry about anything but facts and trying to seek truth, people aren’t going to know the truth or falsity of that. And if it is true, it needs to be exposed, because I don’t–how do you–you can’t have participatory democracy if people don’t know what’s going on.
EARLY: Right. Well, first of all, I should be self-reflective and a little self-critical. I’ve been a little too loose in the use of the term class to say a political class–protected grouping, ’cause class does have a more precise term.
But to your point about media, there are independent voices in the context of socialism who do believe that everything within the revolution, outside the revolution–and I think that means we should criticize this revolution to make it better, but we should not tear it down to go back to capitalism. We’re going to see more and more of those voices.
There is limited access to internet. I remember having a debate several years ago at the First International Conference on Culture and Development, which had come out of UNESCO (Cuba was the only country to do it), when I had to debate two old communist guys who says, this internet is an imperialist tool and we should not let it in here. And my response to them–and I got an applause when I stood up on the floor and say, this is a neutral instrument. The question for you is how you are going to use it, for what values, for what ethics.
So we’re going to see more–there are over 60 or so bloggers, independent news magazine, online kinds of magazine issues. We’re going to see–even in the Communist Party ranks we’re already seeing it–a diversity of voices, a debate, because out of debate around common interests–there will be contradictions, but they feel that they can move forward in a relatively even way.
I have great hope for the Cubans. I have great confidence. They are a tenacious people that have shown, by what they did develop, that they are strong and that they can survive, and through the special period and all.
JAY: It’s actually–and let me just say it’s completely remarkable that there is still a Cuba and as whatever–you know, they still have a big amount of socialism there, and it’s remarkable.
EARLY: They still have a big amount of socialism, and they have a big amount of ethical capital, if you will.
I–again, I’m redundant on this point. Seven billion people on the planet, 11 million Cubans. I can go some places and say “Indonesia” and people glaze over: “What are you talking about?” Most places I go where I mention Cuba, they said, oh, there’s a doctor down the street, there is a dentist, there is a poet, there is a child who has a prosthetic that–they got that from Cuba. This is the humanistic capital that they have developed.
And I think they are going to make it. It is going to be rough. And I think those of us who are deep into theory and frameworks about how life should work, I think we’re going to have to change our methodology.
JAY: But why–it seems like they’ve come to the conclusion that to have a more dynamic economy and for workers to be more productive, they have to go to more capitalist models. They need more private ownership and such. And why have they reached that conclusion?
EARLY: Because their centralized model has not worked. And I’m not sure we should call them capitalist models. These are threads that we see in the whole cloth of [capitalism], but I think we should be careful that–because we see a thread of capitalism in another system, that somehow–.
JAY: But let me take, like, state enterprises for example. There are state enterprises, for example, in Canada. They have–British Columbia has a public insurance plan. Ontario has a publicly owned liquor board. You know, I have never seen any study that hasn’t shown that they are actually more efficient, that the workers there are–actually do as well as private, in fact probably better. In the United States, if you want to go to a hospital, the last hospital you want to go to is privately owned. You’ll die more–you’re more likely to die in it then a state-owned hospital. The nonprofits do best, the states do next, and then privately owned. I mean, there’s no reason. I don’t understand, frankly, why state-owned enterprises don’t work. Why do they have to, you know, find some private forum or downsize them and such?
EARLY: I don’t have an answer on that, except to say that they haven’t worked, and therefore they’re tinkering with the system to see if they can get a larger amount of people with an ethic of national social development by making themselves individually and collectively more productive. And they’re going to have to test that out, and there are going to be some sharp learning curves, and there’s going to be some deep pain.
But I think we have to see what is the upward trajectory or, in an old left kind of way, where is the red thread running through this. But this notion, this textbook notion that many of us have lived with that you’ve got a well-planned society and you’ve got a party that’s leading that, it’s not going to work.
There was a recent debate in Cuba where some musician went on stage and says, I think we ought to be able to elect anybody we want. We need more than one party. And it is said that he was censored. I have not–certainly something happened vis-à-vis the Ministry of Culture to say, hey, we are not supportive of that. Silvio Rodríguez, a renowned Cuban trovador, singer, socialist, the next day invited this singer to be on stage with him, and the singer got up and said, I apologize to my band, because I made the statement without consulting them; I still believe the statement. And Silvio’s line was, I think he should have a right to say what he wants to say. It’s not a question of whether I agree or disagree. So this dialectic, this developmental linkage between an imaginative, creative, critically reflective citizenry and the leadership that it comes out of, their families, is becoming more fluid, more horizontally integrated than this vertical top-down model that socialism has used and Cuban socialism has used.
And let me just put one asterisk on this. We must go back and reflect on Hugo Chávez, the great humanistic mind and heart who really changed Latin America, the integration of Latin America. He said 21st-century socialism must be democratic and it must be plural. What he meant by Democratic: you must be elected. And he was really saying these wars, characteristically, going to war leaves countries destroyed. Look what happened to all the liberation movements [incompr.] He’s not saying you must not go to war under any circumstance. But generally war leads to such devastation of the people who are trying to overthrow a government that you have nothing left. So how can you take a longer route to that? So it must be democratic and it must be plural. People must use common principles that will flower in very different ways, given their different historically evolved realities. And in effect we know how much he loved Cuba, but in effect he was saying the Cuban model won’t /hʌt/ in the 21st century. And he said that in great love.
And we now see the Cubans moving more towards a dynamism. But the Cubans are much more advanced than Venezuela or Bolivia or Nicaragua or Ecuador. They actually have control of the means of productions. These are socialist governments that are still dealing with capitalism and trying to extract more liberty from that. So they have a longer, more difficult course. But in that regard, I’m very hopeful, even with these early signs within this Cuban transition.
JAY: Alright. Thank you. We are going to make a Real News trip to Cuba and try to answer some of these questions.
EARLY: I would love to go with you.
JAY: Alright. I hope you will. And we would like to ask the Cuban people and Cuban leaders just to answer some of these questions about–I mean, my big question is: why wasn’t socialism, which was supposed to, you know, break–breaking the fetters of private ownership, was supposed to give this burst of tremendous energy and productivity. And I think the issue you raise has a lot to do with it. If it isn’t a company by democratization, then you get this bureaucratic paralysis.
But on the other hand, I don’t want to sound one-sided here, because Cuba has tremendous accomplishments, and the fact that it’s still there–. In fact, I talked to a Brazilian socialist once who I think made an important point, that doing this in a big country, you know, is far more possible. And when you do it in a very small place that’s so easily to isolate, you know, it’s far more difficult.
EARLY: And, I mean, the imperial threat–and that’s what it’s been from the very founding of the Cuban Republic,–
JAY: Yeah, 40 miles off the coast. Yeah.
EARLY: –not to mention since 1959 with the Cuban Revolution that became socialist–has certainly circumscribed much of what they can do. But then Cuba is also a physical environment with not a lot of natural resources, except its human resources. And, again, it has done extraordinary things, and contributing to humanity not in abstract, idealistic ways, but in doctors, in teachers, in health care for countries around the world. You go in the continent of Africa, almost any country on the continent of Africa you go to they will say, it’s the Cuban doctors. Even Brazil. Brazil, the seventh-largest economy in the world, has just imported, through contract, 4,000 Cuban doctors because the elite medical doctors in Brazil will not treat the poor, will not go into the interior interior in those neighborhoods. South Africa’s a similar situation. South African Medical Association, including leading black South Africans, objected when the new government in South Africa brought Cubans in, because these Cuban doctors are socialized around an ethic. They will go into the interior. I’ve seen them in Venezuela living upstairs in one room, and downstairs is a clinic.
JAY: Yeah. I’ve seen the same thing in–it’s just on the hills of Caracas. And you talk to them, and these are very political people. They’re there, you know, to earn money, but they’re also there for–you know, it’s part of the cause of being a doctor.
EARLY: And they have their criticisms of the country, such as they should. And when it’s time to go home, 99.9 percent of them said, I’m going home, I’m not running away. Even you talk to Carlos Acosta, the world’s leading male ballet dancer with the Royal Ballet of London, he says, you know why I am today? He’s not a socialist. The Cuban Revolution. You talk to Mendive, who worships these African gods and lives in this pristine and natural environment, he says, I am a renowned artist today because of the policies of the Cuban Revolution. Or Chucho or any of these people.
JAY: Okay. So this is just the very beginning of a discussion about Cuba. This is one of the more complicated discussions probably we can have about any country. And as I said, I’m hoping sometime next year Real News goes to Cuba and starts trying to–from–at least as well as we can, grapple with some of this.
Thanks very much, James.
EARLY: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.