Cuba: Still Making It Tough To Screw Others

August 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

By Stephen Gowans

New York Times reporter Damien Cave has written an article about changes that will allow Cubans to buy and sell their homes.

Cave seems to criticize the plans because they’ll likely outlaw real-estate-related social parasitism, limit “opportunities for profits and loans,” and prohibit foreign ownership.

Havana, 2011. Stephen Gowans.

“The plan outlined by the state media,” he writes, “would suppress the market by limiting Cubans to one home or apartment and requiring full-time residency.”

Gasp!

Cave seems ruefully pessimistic that budding entrepreneurs—both Cuban and foreign—will have much chance to get rich flipping Cuban properties. “Some Cubans expect rules forcing buyers to hold properties for five or 10 years,” he writes.

“Others say the government will make it hard to take profits off the island, through exorbitant taxes or limits on currency exchange.”

And Cave points to one Cuban who “cannot imagine a real open market,” anticipating, instead, that the government will set a per square foot price.

Finally, there’s a “thorny” issue that threatens to dampen the zeal of even the most ambitious social parasite: Evictions are outlawed.

How’s anyone to get rich on the backs of others under this plan?

A failed system’s failed promises

May 9, 2010 § 1 Comment

By Stephen Gowans

With Communism’s demise, and the return of Warsaw Pact countries to the capitalist fold, the world was promised a new age of peace and prosperity. The shadow of war would lift. Military expenditures would be cut back, and troops would be brought home from Cold War postings. There would be more money for new wars — on poverty and homelessness, this time. And capitalism, the single sustainable model of success (it had, after all, emerged triumphant in a decades-long battle with Communism) would deliver the poor from poverty, and bless the world with a bonanza of consumer goods.

Talk about failed predictions.

In place of peace, we got the lone remaining superpower waging war to sweep up the few remaining stragglers that continued to resist integration into the US dominated global economy. Iraq was conquered, at the expense of countless dead, homeless, mangled and ruined; campaigns of intrigue and bombing in the former Yugoslavia pushed the region into the US orbit; and a war on Afghanistan continues to blast away thousands of peasants but cements a US military presence in a Central Asia pregnant with the promise of oil and gas wealth. Wars on Iran and north Korea are real possibilities.

Today, the United States is asserting its military might over the face of the globe more audaciously than ever. There are 368,000 US troops deployed in nearly 130 countries around the world. (1) US citizens think their military protects their interests abroad and defends host countries from threats. They rarely pause to wonder whether what’s called “their” interests are really their own personal interests or those of people who live in bigger houses and get bigger tax breaks and have sizeable investment portfolios. Nor do they make a habit of wondering how it is that with the US exercising a virtual military monopoly over the world, host countries could be under a threat so imminent they would require a US force presence. Exactly which of the tiny collection of countries not hosting US troops are threatening the remaining 130?

Could it be that US troops gird the globe to enforce the access of US firms and investors to the land, labor, markets and resources of others? Do “our” interests equate to Iraq’s oil, Indochina’s tin, Central Asia’s natural gas, Kosovo’s mines, the Balkan’s pipeline routes, Africa’s treasure trove of minerals and oil, and Indonesia’s sweatshops? “A lot of people forget,” remarked Alexander Haig, former Supreme Commander of NATO and Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, that the presence of US troops in Europe is “the bona fide of our economic success…it keeps European markets open to us. If those troops weren’t there, those markets would probably be more difficult to access.” (2) A lot of people forget, because they were told something quite different: That US troops were stationed in Europe to deter a Soviet invasion, not to put a gun to the head of Europeans to keep their markets invitingly open to US firms and investors. The obvious question, With the threat of a Soviet invasion long passed, why are US troops still there?, is rarely asked. So it doesn’t really matter that we’ve forgotten. The most blatant of Washington’s latest exercises in imperialism run amok has a similar character. It was said that the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein was hiding banned weapons. None were found. But US forces stay in Iraq anyway, to ensure the conquered country remains the refashioned paragon of free markets and free trade Washington’s policy makers have turned it into.

Which is to say, the emergence of US capitalism triumphant hasn’t given us peace, as promised; it has given us a bold US military prepared to wage war. And it seems to be waging war to facilitate US capital settling everywhere, nestling everywhere and establishing connections everywhere, to paraphrase a shockingly topical passage from the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a document whose irrelevance was said to have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt when the Berlin Wall was razed to the ground. Yet, today, it seems to be more relevant than ever; certainly more relevant than when a competing ideology forced the stewards of capitalism to tidy up the image of their vaunted system lest the rabble get it into their heads that they could do better. It’s said in newspapers and on TV that Washington’s wars have to do with fighting terrorism, but the documents which define the US national security strategy are long on paeans to free markets and free trade and capitalism and short on concrete measures to protect the lives of US citizens from attacks by radicalized West Asians bearing legitimate grievances against the United states. On the contrary, the strategy is a recipe for provoking terrorist attacks.

Marx and Engels: While the irrelevance of Communist Manifesto was said to have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt when the Berlin Wall was razed to the ground, today it seems to be more relevant than ever

Bourgeois society,” to use Marx’s and Engels’ phrase, hasn’t given us prosperity either, unless by “us,” you mean the people who own and control the economy. For the bulk of humanity things are a lot worst materially than they were when communists, socialists, and nationalists kept upsetting the capitalist apple cart by bringing vast tracks of national economies under public control, and putting the public welfare ahead of the profit interests of bondholders and investors.

According to the United Nations, 54 countries are poorer today than they were in 1990, about the time Communism was declared failed, and capitalism lionized as the single sustainable model of success. More children under the age of five are dying in 14 countries, and enrollment in primary schools is down in 12. Extreme poverty remains the fate of over one billion people. And in former Soviet republics — cradle to what has been dismissed as a failed system — poverty had tripled one decade into their liberation from Communism. Seventeen countries in Eastern Europe and the countries that made up the former Soviet Union have hardly become dynamos of prosperity, which should leave anyone with an ounce of gray matter wondering by what standard success is measured; surely not by the majority’s well-being. (3)

After having been demonized for decades by a capitalist establishment bent on making Communism radioactive (along with anyone so cavalier about their standing in polite society to utter a kind word about it) it’s sometimes forgotten, if ever apprehended in the first place, how impressive Communism’s economic achievements were…and still are, considering the barren and poisoned ground in which the lone holdouts have been forced to eke out precarious existences.

Let’s start with the most reviled of the hold-outs: north Korea. The idea that north Korea is a threat to the United States is about as believable as the idea that a colony of ants is a threat to the elephant whose foot hovers three inches over its hill. North Korea hasn’t a single solider stationed outside its borders. Washington, on the other hand, has 37,000 troops deployed, on, or near, the north Korean border, 65,000 troops stationed in nearby Japan, the Seventh Fleet lurking in nearby waters, and bombers within striking distance. It has dismissed Pyongyang’s pleas to sign a nonaggression treaty, declaring bizarrely that it will not succumb to blackmail. And what has north Korea done to threaten the United States (or to blackmail the country)? It has fired up a mothballed nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons grade material, and withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but only after Washington reneged on an agreement to build light water reactors and provide fuel oil shipments. And only after Washington issued a virtual declaration of war, designating north Korea part of “an axis of evil.”

Could a north Korea with one or two crude nuclear bombs pose much of a threat to the United States poised to strike with overwhelming force? Quite the other way around. Indeed, north Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons can be said to be a rational response to an overwhelming US threat. And there have been plenty of signs the threat is real.

“This is just the beginning,” a Bush administration official told the New York Times, after US and British troops marched on Baghdad. “I would not rule out the same sequence of events for Iran and north Korea as for Iraq.” (4) The Pak Tribune cited CIA sources that revealed a “list of countries where replacement of government has been declared essential.” (5) The list included north Korea. US undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, warned Pyongyang to “draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq.” (6) It has. “The DPRK (north Korea) would have already met the same miserable fate as Iraq’s had it compromised its revolutionary principle and accepted the demand raised by the imperialists and its followers for ‘nuclear inspection’ and disarmament,” declared the official daily of the ruling Korean Workers Party, Rodong Sinmun. (7) Later, the government issued this statement: “The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent.” (8)

Washington ultra-hawk, Paul Wolfowitz, anticipating similar words US Secretary of state Hilary Clinton would utter seven years later, warned, “north Korea is headed down a blind alley. Its pursuit of nuclear weapons will not protect it from the real threat to its security, which is the (internal) implosion brought about by the total failure of its system. Indeed the diversion of scarce resources to nuclear weapons and other military programs can only exacerbate the weakness of the (government).” (9) So what’s the choice? Head down a blind alley, or turn over the country to Washington, and the multinational corporations it represents? Who’s the blackmailer?

History has not been kind to the tiny country. The mountainous north was once the center of the peninsula’s heavy industry, the south its breadbasket. The Korean War, which saw US bombers destroy every building in the north over one story, changed that. The north was reduced to rubble. But it rebuilt, and until the 1980s, outpaced the south economically. By 1961, it was self-sufficient in agriculture. North Korean children were better vaccinated than their counterparts in the United States, according to the World Health Organization and United Nations, who commended the country for its delivery of health care. And life expectancy was higher than in the capitalist south. (10)

Then disaster struck. The socialist trading bloc collapsed, depriving Pyongyang of its major trading partners. Oil subsidies from Russia ended. And if that weren’t enough, floods and droughts ravaged crops. Famine followed. But, for a time, the country had enjoyed impressive material gains, an affirmation of what can be achieved outside the capitalist system, even where resources are diverted to defense against an unrelenting foe than remains poised on your borders to strike. Imagine what the country could have achieved without the United States breathing fire down its neck.

Cuba, in many respects, fits the same mold: Astonishing social and economic gains under a communist government, the implacable and unrelenting hostility of the United States, and some backsliding after the collapse of its major trading partners. (The United States has maintained an economic blockade for half a century.) Still, despite these challenges, Cuba is a much kinder and egalitarian place today than it was before the revolution, under the rule of the US-backed Batista regime, when the country’s economy was an appendage of that of the United States. The United States fears Cuba, journalist Seamus Milne observes, not because it is a threat to the safety of US citizens, but because it’s an example of what can be accomplished outside the US dominated capitalist model. (11 )

In 1953, the illiteracy rate in Cuba exceeded 22 percent. Today it is under one percent. Three percent of those over the age of 10 had a secondary school education. Today, almost 60 percent do. Back then, at the height of the sugar harvest, when unemployment was lowest, eight percent were jobless. Today, the unemployment rate is three percent, making Cuba one of the few countries in the world to boast full employment.

Well over 80 percent own their own homes, and pay no taxes. The remainder pays a nominal rent.

No other country has as many teachers per capita. Education is free through university. The country also provides free university educations to 1,000 Third World students every year. And classroom sizes put those of Western industrialized countries to shame.

Health care is free. And while the United States has deployed over 300,000 troops in almost 130 countries to keep markets open to US investment, Cuba has sent 50,000 doctors to work for free in 93 Third World countries to heal the sick. (12)

Infant mortality is lower than in any other Third World country and even some Western capitalist countries (it’s higher in Washington, DC.) Life expectancy is 76 years, and is expected to rise. (13) By comparison, the return of capitalism has pushed life expectancy down in former communist countries.

These gains, seldom mentioned in the United States, place the country head and shoulders above other Latin American countries firmly ensconced in the US orbit, for which Washington’s single sustainable model of success continues to deliver grinding poverty, misery, and gross inequality, but the profits necessary to keep the capitalist system afloat and the capitalist class awash in mansions, retinues of servants, stables of luxury cars, exclusive schools and private clubs.

There are elections, and, contrary to Washington’s anti-Cuba propaganda, Cubans do vote. But they don’t choose among two largely identical parties, as in the United States, where the parties, and their candidates, are almost invariably in thrall to, or are representatives of, the capitalist class. As for human rights, Cuba stands as a model of what can be achieved by way of economic and social rights, the basic rights to food, housing, clothing, health care, education and jobs, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but not recognized as human rights in the United States. (14) Washington, on the other hand, has made a fetish of civil and political liberties, which, in the case of its relations with Cuba, has everything to do with giving its agents in the country, mistakenly called “independent” journalists and “independent” librarians (they’re not independent of Washington, which bankrolls their activities), room to maneuver to organize destabilization, with the object of overthrowing the revolution and banishing economic and social rights in favor of investors’ rights. That Cuba, a poor country, has been able to guarantee the right to food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and jobs, despite trying economic circumstances and US hostility, can be seen as extraordinary, or simply what can be readily accomplished outside the strictures of capitalism. If a poor Third World country, harassed by a powerful neighbor, can deliver high quality health care and education for free, why can’t the world’s richest country do the same? The answer: Capitalism drives towards better profits, not better lives.

Ever since the US-dominated global economy has, with the collapse of Eastern Bloc Communism over 10 years ago, more boldly sought purchase everywhere, US military imperialism has run amok, wars of aggression have been started, and poor, and formerly communist, countries have become poorer. The leaders of the Western world declare capitalism to be the single sustainable model of success, but countries that rejected capitalism, and committed to egalitarianism, have done better in terms of guaranteeing economic and social rights than comparison countries, despite difficult circumstances. Meanwhile, those that have rejected egalitarianism in favor of a return to capitalism have regressed. The promises of peace and prosperity that attended Communism’s collapse were a fraud based in the self-interest of a narrow band of wealthy people in the world’s richest countries. That it is a fraud is richly evident in the failed promises and dismal record of the post-communist era.

1. “Where are the Legions? Global Deployments of US Forces,” GlobalSecurity.Org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/global-deployments.htm)
2. UPI, January 7, 2002.
3. “UN report says one billion suffer extreme poverty,” World Socialist Web Site, July 28, 2003.
4. “Pre-emption: Idea With a Lineage Whose Time Has Come,” The New York Times, March 23, 2003.
5. “Iran to be US next target: CIA report,” Pak Tribune (Online) March 24, 2003.
6. “U.S. Tells Iran, Syria, N. Korea ‘Learn from Iraq,” Reuters, April 9, 2003.
7. “North Korea vows to make no concessions,” Agence France-Presse, March 29, 2003.
8. “Administration Divided Over North Korea,” The New York Times, April 21, 2003.
9. “Wolfowitz Visits US Military Base In Korean Buffer Zone,” AFP, June 1, 2003.
10. “Peace, the real resolution to famine in North Korea, ZNet, July 23, 2003.
11. “Why the US fears Cuba,” The Guardian, July 31, 2003.
12. Ibid.
13. Speech by Fidel Castro on the 50th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks, July 26, 2003.
14. Karen Lee Wald, “Democracy, Cuba-Style,” Canadian Dimension, July/August, 2003.

Originally written in August 2003, revised and updated May 2010.

Cuba and the real battle for democracy

April 30, 2009 § 6 Comments

By Stephen Gowans

While Obama may have contrived to create the impression at the recent Summit of the Americas of extending an open hand to Cuba, it’s clear that his aims are no different from those of George W. Bush or any other of his presidential predecessors, all the way back to Kennedy. The point for the US state has always been to recover Cuba as a field for US investment, and the surest way to achieve this goal is to dismantle Cuba’s socialist system, or at least to severely limit it. So it is that after making the obligatory rhetorical references to Cuba needing to improve its human rights situation (see Netfa Freeman’s recent Black Agenda Report article on Cuba and US hypocrisy), Obama’s “aides outlined a series of steps that Cuba…could do to demonstrate a willingness to open its closed society.” The principle step was “allowing United States telecommunications companies to operate on the island.” (1) In other words, moves would be made toward lifting the US embargo, if Cuba first made moves toward opening its doors to US capital. Since the purpose of the blockade has always been to extort this concession, how could it be said that the Obama policy is any different from that of his predecessors?

That the prize is an “open society” in Cuba, which is to say, open to capitalist exploitation from abroad, was made plain when Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, remarked that, “If the objective is to see change in Cuba, it’s hard to see how a trade embargo would do anything other than keep the economic system closed.” (2) Harper opposes the blockade, not because he wants to see Cuba’s socialism thrive, but because he thinks lifting it is the best way to undermine Cuba’s socialist economy. Engage Cuba has always been the Canadian position. Eventually it will come around to our way of thinking.

Cuba’s socialist system offers a materially secure existence to all, with free health care and education through university. It does this despite limited resources and in the face of nearly 50 years of economic warfare by the United States. Imagine what it could accomplish if the United States wasn’t continually trying to undermine it.

Prying open Cuba’s economic system would profit Western banks and corporations. But would it benefit Cubans in the majority?

Not under conditions the US government would favour. The ideal situation from the point of view of the US state and the corporate interests it represents is the replacement of Cuban socialism with an open, multiparty electoral democracy – which to Westerners, even most leftists, is a political summum bonum.

To those with lots of money, and the need to find places to invest it, multiparty electoral democracy offers two advantages.

The first is that practically everyone is for it. Accordingly, marshalling support for measures to build democracy abroad is never difficult. The US government can act in whatever way the structural imperatives of the capitalist system demand without incurring too much opposition so long as it says it’s promoting “democracy”, implicitly understood as regular electoral contests between two or more parties (not the ancient’s rule by the rabble or Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat.)

The second advantage of a multiparty electoral democracy to the states and interlocked corporate interests that favour it, is that the entire process can be easily hijacked by the rich. Modern elections, popularity contests contested by ambitious exhibitionists who vie for the backing of wealthy patrons, are driven by money. Generous campaign financing – or lack of it – can make or break a campaign. Ambitious politicians know this, and make their peace with the reality, or are weeded out. Once in office, they know that if they play their cards right, there are perks and handsome opportunities awaiting them in their post-political lives. Easily circumvented electoral laws forbidding foreign donations fail to stop funding from foreign sources rolling into candidates prepared to sell their country’s sovereignty, natural resources and labor to the imperial center. It may be facile to put it this way, but the golden rule of multiparty electoral democracy is that those who have the gold, rule. And so democracy has travelled the path from rule by the plebs to the dictatorship of the proletariat to ambitious lawyers chasing after the patronage of the rich.

Not in Cuba. But if Obama and Harper had their way, the golden rule would prevail. And what would the consequences be? A minority of Cubans – those who facilitated the exploitation of their country by foreign business interests — would benefit. But the majority would find their lives becoming increasingly insecure, roiled by the vicissitudes of the market, and in turn, by decisions made in foreign boardrooms. Hollow promises would be solemnly made. Cuba needs foreign investment, and the way to get it is to turn Cuba into an investor-friendly environment. Do this, and Cubans will be lifted out of poverty. The deception is evidenced in the state of Cuba’s Caribbean neighbours, in Haiti, in Jamaica, where free trade and the open door and untrammelled foreign investment have piled up misery and poverty at one end, while vast riches are accumulated at the other, hundreds of miles away, to the north.

While lifting the trade embargo would be a welcome step, the act, by itself, would in no way represent a lessening of hostility to Cuban socialism, only a different tact in the unceasing campaign of corporate-dominated governments to recover Cuba as an open field for investment and cheap labor.

There are no changes Cuba needs to make to accommodate the US; the US has not been wronged. But it would be naïve to think that whatever concessions Washington makes, if any, will represent Washington taking the first step along the path to peaceful co-existence. So long as the United States remains a corporate-dominated (that is, a capitalist) society, and Cuba a socialist one, a structural compulsion will exist to shape US foreign policy toward unceasing efforts to remove whatever obstacles are in the way of profit-making. Since an egalitarian system which defines a materially secure existence for all as the summum bonum is the antithesis of one based on the incessant drive of the few to accumulate great wealth by exploiting the many, there shall never be peace between the two. The only hope for peace is the destruction of one by the other, and in these days of renewed economic crisis, it is clearer than usual which system it would be in the interests of the bulk of us to prevail.

It may be objected that whatever the advantages of Cuban socialism in offering a materially secure existence to all, it is still an existence at a lower level than enjoyed in advanced capitalist countries, and therefore, how can socialism be the preferred system?

To this could be replied, first, that to the bulk of humanity, which lives outside the advanced countries of the West, capitalism is hardly a system of consumer riches and abundance. It is instead a system of dearth, misery, and ceaseless toil. This too is true of tens of millions of poor people who live in the advanced capitalist world.

It is true that socialist countries have been poorer than advanced capitalist countries, but their lower material level has not (and in the case of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European people’s democracies had not) been caused by socialism; on the contrary, it had been largely overcome as a result of socialism. The socialist countries started out at a lower level compared to their advanced capitalist counterparts, building their productive assets without the benefits of the slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism advanced capitalist countries relied on to get rich.

In popular Western discourse, the division of the capitalist world between the affluent countries of the north and the underdeveloped countries of south is glossed over. Capitalism is equated with the West, and therefore with great affluence. Capitalism could just as readily be associated with the south, and therefore with great poverty, for the south is as thoroughly capitalist as the north. But it suits the purposes of spreading the capitalist doctrine to equate capitalism with a part of the world whose affluence is due to capitalist imperialism rather than capitalism itself, as if any country that embraced multiparty democracy and free markets would soon find itself a facsimile of the United States.

In 1983, Shirley Ceresto found that if you divided countries into poor, middle income and rich, the socialist countries occupied the middle range, even though most were poor before embarking on paths of socialist development. In terms of satisfying basic human needs, the socialist countries did better than all the capitalist countries combined, better than middle income capitalist countries, and as well as advanced capitalist countries. (3) (What socialist countries offered that advanced capitalist countries didn’t, was security of income, gender equality, and secure access to health care, education, housing and necessities.)

As the socialist countries were struggling to catch up to the West, they found they needed to safeguard their revolutions from the incessant threat of military intervention from a stalking capitalist world. This diverted a significant portion of their more limited resources to military spending and away from productive investments. Despite these handicaps, socialist countries did grow at a rapid pace, and were closing the gap with their capitalist adversaries. At the same time, the socialist community was becoming more egalitarian, both within and between countries, and an increasing portion of necessary goods were available to their populations for free or at highly subsidized prices. (4)

Nowhere is the incidental (and not causal) connection between socialism and poverty more evident than in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) where the regression to capitalism has done nothing to close the gap with the former West Germany or make the lives of east Germans better. After experiencing two decades of a resurrected capitalism, half of east Germans want to return to what they had before. Reuters, hardly known for promoting socialism, revealed that a public opinion poll had found that 52 percent of east Germans had no confidence in capitalism, and most of them wanted to return to a socialist economy. Here’s what east Germans told Reuters’ (5).

Thomas Pivitt, a 46-year-old IT worker from east Berlin:

“We read about the ‘horrors of capitalism’ in school. They really got that right. Karl Marx was spot on. I had a pretty good life before the Wall fell. No one worried about money because money didn’t really matter. You had a job even if you didn’t want one. The communist idea wasn’t all that bad.”

Hermann Haibel, a 76-year old retired blacksmith:

“I thought communism was shit but capitalism is even worse. The free market is brutal. The capitalist wants to squeeze out more, more, more.”

Monika Weber, a 46-year-old city clerk:

“I don’t think capitalism is the right system for us. The distribution of wealth is unfair. We’re seeing that now. The little people like me are going to have to pay for this financial mess with higher taxes because of greedy bankers.”

Ralf Wulff:

“It took just a few weeks to realize what the free market economy was all about. It’s rampant materialism and exploitation. Human beings get lost. We didn’t have the material comforts but communism still had a lot going for it.”

The former socialist countries have not been transformed into the consumer paradises many of their citizens believed they would become. Instead, citizens of former socialist countries have been liberated of materially secure existences and are now dominated by decisions made in boardrooms, many located in foreign countries, and are governed by ambitious exhibitionists who cater to the interests of the wealthy by necessity (for if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have access to the resources they need to get elected.) The same retrograde fate is the desired future for Cuba of the Obama administration, and will remain the desired fate for Cuba of every succeeding administration, until such a time as corporate interests no longer dominate the US state and the few no longer exploit the many; that is, until the real battle for democracy is won. (6)

1. Ginger Thompson and Alexei Barrionuevo, “Rising expectations on Cuba follow Obama,” The New York Times, April 19, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Shirley Ceresto, “Socialism, capitalism and inequality,” The Insurgent Sociologist, Vol. XI, No. 2, Sprint 1982.
4. Albert Szymanski, Is the Red Flag Still Flying? The political economy of the Soviet Union today, Zed Press, 1983.
5. Reuters, October 16, 2008.
6. “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy,” wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto. Democracy would be exercised through the dictatorship of the proletariat. The working class would use its state powers to repress its class enemies and prevent their return. Since dictatorship and democracy are today understood to be opposites, it’s difficult to grasp how a dictatorship could be thought of as democratic. The democracy Marx and Engels were thinking of was closer to the original definition of democracy than the current understanding based on universal suffrage, representative democracy and regular multiparty elections. Democracy from antiquity had always been a class affair, which is why anyone who mattered was against it. The Marxist view was that capitalist democracy couldn’t be democracy in the original sense, because it allowed the majority to be governed by the few, who use their money power to dominate elections and the state. In a democracy as Marx and Engels understood it, the state would be dominated by the working class, its policies aimed at the interests of the working class and hence encroaching upon those of the capitalists, who would ardently seek to recover their previous advantages. The only way to secure democracy against the counter-revolutionary designs of the capitalists would be to be dictatorial in a new way – against the capitalist class. To socialist countries, most of which had had no tradition of liberal democracy, this meant that elections needed to be dominated by the Communist Party, as the leader of the working class. What was clear was that no party committed to reversing the gains of the revolution could be allowed to operate freely. In Cuba, elections are not party-based, and the Communist Party has no role in them. Instead, individuals stand for election. It is understood that elections are carried out within the socialist system and that the reversal of socialism is not on the table.

Neil Clark, Progressive Cuba Basher

February 24, 2008 § 2 Comments

You cannot hope to bribe and twist, thank God, the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.” -Humbert Wolfe

By Stephen Gowans

Neil Clark, British journalist, blogger and self-described paleo-lefty, has joined the unctuous club of “progressive” Cuba-bashers, by writing a screed against “Castro’s Cuba” that repeats hoary right-wing myths about the socialist country and adds some of Clark’s own.

In a 20th February 2008 article published in the Spectator, Clark launches a broadside against Cuban socialism with sneeringly ironical references to a “left-wing Utopia” and “socialist paradise” – the stock-in-trade phrases once favored by anti-communists, both of the paleo-lefty variety who eked out livings writing for “democratic left” publications financed by the CIA, and the unabashedly pro-capitalist editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.

The workers’ paradise moniker was never one Cuba or any other country that has ever called itself socialist has adopted for itself. Instead, anti-communist ideologues invented the phrase, attributed it to Marxism-Leninism, and then used it to discredit communist countries by showing the reality didn’t live up to the Utopia they had supposedly claimed.

Clark, whose own socialism amounts to nostalgia for Old Labour, says he turned sour on Cuba when he discovered, on a visit to Havana, that it was terribly poverty-stricken! You might think he would have turned sour on Washington’s five-decades long blockade of the country – one of the principal causes of Cuba’s poverty — but as Richard Levins once wrote of other progressive Cuba-bashers, maybe Clark wanted “a cheap and easy way of being a little more mainstream” – helpful when you supplement your income, as Clark does, by writing for mainstream newspapers.

The origins of Cuba’s poverty are plain enough. Unlike Britain, whose wealth was built on centuries of slavery, colonialism and imperialism, presided over just as enthusiastically by Clark’s beloved Old Labour as by his hated Conservatives and New Labour, Cuba had always been on the exploited, not exploiting, side of the global ledger. With aid from the socialist bloc, it was, for a short time, able to pursue a new developmental trajectory, but the fall of the Soviet Union has deprived Cuba of its old supports. Add nearly five decades of unremitting US effort to strangle Cuban socialism, and Cuba’s poverty ought to come as no surprise.

Clark acknowledges US sanctions on Cuba, and denounces them as morally indefensible, but fails to acknowledge the connection between Washington’s blockade and all the things about Cuba he despises (and attributes to Castro) — from its poverty to the inequalities that have arisen as a result of the country being forced to turn to tourism to attract foreign currency. Clark notes with disgust that while Cubans have to wait in a queue for two hours to buy ice cream, tourists and Cubans with convertible pesos can buy their ice cream immediately.

You would think Clark’s egalitarian sensibilities have been outraged, but his over-heated rhetoric points to his playing at propaganda. The inequality between the peso- and convertible peso-economies becomes, in Clark’s hands, “a form of apartheid” that still operates “14 years after South Africa abolished apartheid.”

Heaping slur upon slur, Clark reaches into the anti-communist grab-bag for this pearl: The “regime” uses sanctions as a smokescreen to cover up inefficiencies and corruption — a line Clark could have lifted directly off the pages of a George Bush speech. If the line is true, why not drop the sanctions, and deprive the Cuban government of its smokescreen?

The use of “regime” to refer to Cuba’s government also marks Clark as a propagandist — or as a journalist ingratiating himself with editors of mainstream newspapers (the same thing.)

The typical discourse in the Western media used to be to refer to the Soviet Union as having a regime, secret police, and satellites, while Britain had a government, security services, and allies. Clark borrows from this lexicon, referring to Cuban ministers as Castro’s “cronies” who make up “a tiny, corrupt, elite” that “lives in luxury.” The luxury, according to Clark, is a fleet of BMWs used to ferry high state officials from one appointment to another. As to corruption, it’s impossible to say what Clark is referring to because he doesn’t follow up. He simply makes the corruption charge, and moves on to more bashing.

Much as Clark dislikes Brown and his ministers, I’ve never heard him refer to the cabinet as Brown’s cronies, who head up a regime, and live in luxury, because they have access to government limousines. But maybe that’s because Britain has never claimed to be a socialist paradise or a left-wing Utopia. But, then, neither has Cuba.

Indefatigably mimicking tired right-wing nonsense, Clark warns us that in Castro’s Cuba you can be threatened with prison “just for criticizing the country’s leadership,” but offers no examples of anyone this has ever happened to. No matter. Despite the mainstream press’s boasts about its devotion to fact-checking, anyone who writes for the Spectator, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, The Times and Guardian, as Clark does, is free to make whatever allegations are necessary to blacken the reputations of socialist states without having to bear the burden of producing a jot of evidence to back themselves up.

But if Clark’s making unsubstantiated accusations paints him as someone who’s happy to stoop to innuendo to grind an ideological axe, his complaining that in Cuba the threat of prison can be made just “for querying a medical bill” marks him as a rank propagandist.

Clark is referring to himself here. Visiting Havana, Clark came down with an earache, and consulted what he understood to be a nurse at his hotel, but turned out to be a doctor. Presented with a bill for services rendered, he refused to pay. When he tried to skip out, the hotel threatened to call the police.

There is a huge difference between being threatened with prison for querying a bill and being threatened with a visit by the police for refusing to pay a bill. But in the hands of a journalist trying to shore up his mainstream credentials with a bit of Cuba bashing, the difference disappears, and becomes a tall tale to discredit a country led by real socialists.

Clark’s lament that “Castro’s Cuba was no place for a socialist like me” puts me in mind of a self-proclaimed Italian paleo-Anglophile visiting London after the Blitz. “I’ve certainly witnessed devastation, but nothing prepared me for the back streets of London,” he writes. “German bombing is routinely blamed by Britain’s defenders for London’s plight. But while the bombing was harsh and morally indefensible, there’s little doubt it has been used by the regime as a smokescreen to cover up inefficiencies and corruption.”

Absurd, but no less absurd than Clark’s Cuba bashing.

Sicko

July 12, 2007 § 1 Comment

By Stephen Gowans

Michael Moore’s Sicko is an entertaining and emotionally compelling film. It exposes the harshness of profit-based healthcare to the majority of Americans, and does so in the film-maker’s accustomed engaging way. There is no one as deft in connecting on issues of concern to the left and ordinary people with as large an audience as Moore. On this, he has no peer.

While the film has been labelled controversial by the US media, it is anything but. Few Americans would disagree with the thesis of the film – that for them a program of universal healthcare would be far better than the current profit-based system.

What controversy the film has generated has been confined to those in whose interest universal healthcare is inimical: insurance companies whose profits would suffer grievously were universal healthcare adopted; banks, investors and corporations, who have an interest in shrinking the commons, not seeing it expanded; and the media, which – owned by the same class — reliably promotes its interests.

Media pundits accuse Moore of fudging the facts, warn Americans that Canada, France, Britain and Cuba (countries whose healthcare systems are highlighted in the film) are not healthcare paradises, and stress that free healthcare for all is not free, but comes with crushing taxes. (It is not pointed out, however, that the taxes are mainly shouldered by those most able to pay, i.e., the same people sounding the alarm about universal healthcare.)

For a Canadian who knows something about the single-payer health insurance plan Moore idolizes, the US media campaign against Moore’s film is a transparent propaganda offensive whose goal it is to discredit Moore and universal healthcare. It’s true the Canadian system has flaws – fatal ones if you believe the US media spin — but the flaws US scare-mongers cite have nothing whatever to do with the system itself, and everything to do with what Canadian politicians have spent the last two decades doing: under-funding the system to make Canadians increasingly dissatisfied so they’ll demand the wonders of the US for-profit system CNN is always touting and investors privately clamor for.

The fact of the matter is that the US spends considerably more per capita on healthcare than Canada does, and yet healthcare outcomes for ordinary people are better in Canada. The US spends infinitely more than Cuba does, but only manages to place a few notches higher on healthcare rankings. That the richest country in the world only manages to edge out a Third World country – and one it has spent the last four and half decades trying to strangle economically — says (1) much for Cuba’s system, (2) unless your wealthy, the US for-profit system sucks and (3) the Cuban system in an industrialized country would — by comparison to what’s available today — be the “healthcare nirvana” the US media warns doesn’t exist.

While Moore has cogently exposed the deep flaws of the US for-profit healthcare system, his comments to the media on what Americans should do to secure a better system are less compelling.

In a testy exchange with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Moore suggested that “the people (who) have gone to my movie, the people that are concerned about this issue … write to Mrs. Clinton and say, please, universal healthcare that’s free for everyone who lives in this country.”

In response to the charge that the government is incapable of competently administering healthcare, Moore counters that there’s nothing wrong with the government, only with the people who get elected.

The implied solutions are straight out of Moore’s high school civics class textbook. Vote, write letters, be informed. If we press for universal healthcare, and elect the right people, we’ll get what we ask for.

But a deeper analysis would ask two questions:

Why is it that the “right” people rarely, if ever, get elected?

Why did Hilary Clinton’s proposal for healthcare reform die 14 years ago?

Contrary to what Moore and others learned in their high school civics classes, the US political system is not democratic, but plutocratic. It is minimally responsive to the interests of the majority of people, but maximally responsive to the interests of the slim minority that owns and controls the economy, and is able, by virtue of its ownership and control position, to command the resources that allow it to tilt the playing field decidedly in its own favor. Sure, there are elections, and most everyone is free to vote. But those who have money – and lots of it — can dominate the system. And who has lots of money?

Money power plays an overwhelming role in selecting candidates to stand for election, and not surprisingly, those candidates who are best able to command the considerable financial backing needed to get elected lean towards looking after the interests of the wealthy people and corporations cutting the checks. As a Canadian prime minister once said of politicians elected in capitalist democracies, “You dance with the one who brought you to the dance.”

Moore himself points to the subversive role money plays in politics. Hilary Clinton, who has reconciled herself to the monstrosity of the US healthcare system, is one of the largest recipients of insurance industry backing. Moore’s website calls her a leading “Sicko for Sale.”

So why does the film-maker think that people writing letters to beseech a co-opted Clinton for free healthcare is going to make a difference, especially when, as Moore acknowledges, 14 years ago the insurance industry “went after her” and “stopped her cold”? What has changed in 14 years to deny the insurance industry the power to stop (or co-opt) champions of universal healthcare?

Moore also genuflected to the nonsense he learned in high school civics classes when he scolded Wolf Blitzer and the US media for not doing their job in acting as an unofficial opposition, not safeguarding the public interest, and “not bringing the truth to (Americans) that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.”

Like other liberals, Moore is aggrieved that the US and its institutions don’t live up to their rhetoric, believing that through pressure and moral suasion, politicians, CEOs, and the media can be forced to hew to civics textbook ideals.

But where, outside of the nonsense kids are force-fed in school, does it say the media have to be an unofficial opposition? And where does it say the media have to behave in a manner that puts the mission of informing the public ahead of their first and only obligation – to make profits for their owners?

CNN, FOX, The New York Times and other major media are under no obligation to ask tough questions of US leaders, to act in the public interest (is there a public interest that reconciles the conflicting interests of class?) or to “tell the truth to Americans that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.” As businesses, their only obligation is to their owners, and their owners’ interests are decidedly at odds with those of the people who go to Moore’s films.

Call it a class-issue. If you deploy capital to generate profits, you have interests opposed to those of Moore’s audiences: war for oil profits versus not dying as a grunt in Iraq; the profits to be secured from private healthcare versus the security of free healthcare; a media that instils an ideology congenial to your profit-making interests versus one that challenges it.

Notwithstanding Moore’s complaints, Blitzer and other journalists haven’t failed to do their jobs. They’ve performed remarkably well. What Moore hasn’t figured out is that there isn’t a public interest for Blitzer to serve, only class interests. And since it’s not white and blue collar workers who own CNN, but the owners of Time-Warner who do, Blitzer isn’t working for us. He’s working for people who have an interest in private, for-profit healthcare, an aggressive foreign policy that’s good for business, and any other policy that takes money, wealth, labor and sweat from you, me, Iraqis, Venezuelans, Cubans and so on, and gives it to them.

Moore has also shown a certain blindness when it comes to Canada. On Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Moore pointed favourably to Canada for not invading other countries and for operating a healthcare system Moore believes the US should adopt.

Canada’s healthcare system, while preferable to that of the US, still comes up short against Cuba’s. Moore explored the relative merits of the US, Canadian and Cuban healthcare systems in a “healthcare Olympics” segment of his former TV program TV Nation. While network censors forced Moore to declare Canada the winner, the film-maker admitted that Cuba had really won. If Cuba’s system is better (and it is) why endorse Canada’s?

As to Moore’s lionizing Canada for not invading other countries, he’s under the spell of an illusion.

•Canada took part in the UN “police action” in Korea in the 50s, which saw a US-led coalition invade the Korean peninsula to put down a national liberation movement operating in both the north and south.

•Canada is part of a force that invaded Haiti after its president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was ousted by US intrigues.

•Canadian troops are occupying Afghanistan. Since US forces kicked down the door, and were never invited in, Canada’s occupation – which frees up US military resources to concentrate on the occupation of Iraq — is in any practical sense an invasion.

It might also be pointed out that Canada doesn’t play in the same league as the US and Britain when it comes to invading other countries, not because Canadians are peace-loving, but because Canada doesn’t have the military heft to mimic its neighbour to the south. Canada is driven by the same profit-making imperatives that impel US and British policy makers to use force, subversion, economic pressure, diplomacy and civil society to secure export and investment opportunities in other countries. Had Canada its neighbor’s military muscle it would just as ardently use bombers, missiles and tanks to kick down foreign doors.

Moore’s film, Sicko, is to be commended for the entertaining and engaging way it addresses an important issue. But the film-maker’s high-school civics class understanding of system, and his naïve illusions about Canada, leave much to be desired.

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