May Day in Cuba With Little to Celebrate

Shortages of food have made the daily routine difficult for Cubans who now have to stand in long lines to buy it. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Elías Amor Bravo, Economist, 1 May 2019 — The relationship between Cuba’s communist regime and the world of work has been difficult. Therefore, there is not much to celebrate this May Day, nor has there been on previous ones. This relationship has always referred to, by the Cuban government, as “adverse times, characterized by the resurgence of aggression, threats and lies by Yankee imperialism and its lackeys,” but the reality is quite different.

There is no external reason to explain why Cuban workers have become the great defeated of a regime which, nevertheless, has wanted to present itself to the world as the “workers’ paradise.” Forget all that. Let’s go back to the beginning.

A bit of history can serve to illustrate what is we’re talking about. After the process of revolutionary transformations that upset the Cuban economy and its position in the world, one of the recurring nightmares of Fidel Castro was the low productivity of labor in the economic system that he himself designed. Without understanding that this fact is a direct consequence of the revolutionary structures, the patches that were placed on the system over several generations, far from resolving the situation, made it worse.

It is worth remembering that it was that distant August 2, 1961 when the fledgling regime announced a change in the labor legislation and the role of the unions. In an attempt to control the “Cuban Workers Center” (CTC) — as the only legal union, totally controlled by the government, was called –the regime adopted in Cuba the labor relations model of the communist countries.

Until then, most of the companies not expropriated or nationalized maintained a labor framework similar to the one before 1959. But this year saw the real start of the disaster when all Cuban workers became, at one stroke, “employees of the state.”

From then on, the problem became how to produce more, despite the absolute control of the economy by the communists. So much so that only one year later, on March 3, 1962, the first “work card” was created to register the work history of each worker, which ultimately resulted in an assessment of their acceptance of the new regime. and willingness to participate in the activities organized by it. Che Guevara did not take long to question the quality of production, while rationing and shortages were extended to all products.

Four years later, at the congress of the CTC, a document was published in which low productivity and absenteeism were noted as the two main ills of the Cuban labor world. And thereafter, the issue began to be increasingly serious and a must-solve for Fidel Castro, who launched the theme, little thought through and hasty, of the “moral stimuli” as a solution to increase productivity.

The 1968 “Revolutionary Offensive” that led to the nationalization of 50,000 small private businesses was of little use, rather it finished poff the economic system, which had barely survived until then.

From then on, the lack of food became an additional concern for the authorities, who did not want to understand the origins of this. In August of that year, the labor minister ended up imposing, compulsorily, the much-criticized “work cards,” which would openly report the behavior and political attitudes of the workers.

Popular trials in the workplace spread all over the country. The failure of the “Ten Million Ton [Sugar] Harvest” was a leap into the void, mobilizing all of the country’s economic resources in a goal that was known to be unattainable, but that would have negative conclusions for the world of Cuban labor.

Nothing in all this could end well, and in May if 1970, taking advantage of the fiesta for May Day, Castro announced a strong attack on the unique union, denouncing the problems of productivity and absenteeism as responsible for the failure  of the zafra (sugar harvest), at the same time announced a reorganization, hidden in the call to “democratize the union.”

A year later, and on the exact same date, Castro announced that from then on wages would be established based on workers’ contribution to production, breaking forever with the revolutionary principle of equality.

In the new tradition of giving each year a name, 1972 was called “The Year of Socialist Emulation” in what was interpreted as an approach to the Soviet institutionality.

However, in July of 1973 Fidel Castro announced in a speech that in Cuba the socialist principle of “to each according to his work, from each according to his needs” would be applied as of that moment, in what was interpreted as a retreat forced by events.

In the CTC congress in November of that year, the regime returned to the idea of material stimuli and the unions recovered part of the lost relevance, with the election of Lazaro Peña as general secretary, but he died only six months later.

From that point forward, things went from bad to worse. The institutionalization of the regime after the approval of the Soviet-inspired 1976 constitution was a failure, and provoked the outbreak of social protest in the Peruvian embassy and the subsequent exit by way of the Port of Mariel of hundreds of thousands of Cubans in the Mariel Boatlift.  This was the first major emigration since the revolutionary times of Camarioca and the “freedom flights.”

In any case, the system created by Fidel Castro continued to expel people from the island, but it was no longer “the rich, the exploiters and collaborators of Batista” who were clinging to the boats leaving from Mariel to flee the country. The arguments were over. The failure of the “workers’ paradise” had been shown clearly before the world.

But the “Special Period” took care of the rest, that time after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its subsidies plunged the Cuban economy into deep crisis. During those years, Cuban workers found themselves imprisoned by the contradictions of a regime locked in its ideological postulates, which one day said yes, and another sais no, to the same measures and performances.  Now, without Soviet help, the culprit of all evils was the blockade or the embargo, decreed by Kennedy, of which nobody had paid attention to before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

In its congress of 1990, the CTC, for the first time, had to analyze the problem of unemployment in Cuba, which it tried to explain by the “lack of raw materials,” and only a month later, Instruction 137 of the People’s Supreme Court urged the denouncement of those who had a high standard of living, persecuting and repressing the coleros and macetas, as people who were seen to “line their pockets” were called.

The social outbreak was immediate, and led hundreds of thousands of Cubans to escape the island in rafts, causing another conflict with the US in the waters of the Straits of Florida. There was an attempt to solve the problem by assembling those who fled the island on the US Naval Base in Guantánamo, from which most were eventually allowed to leave for the United States.

This historical record confirms that Cuban workers have not seen a solution to their aspirations in Cuba, and all those who have been able to do so have chosen to leave the country in search of a place where they can make their dreams come true.

In the current situation, in which the regime is paralyzed as a result of the end of aid from Venezuelan, and the failure of the Raulist measures to improve the functioning of the economy, another social explosion is possible. The question is whether there will be a viable way to escape from the country under the current conditions. Castroism remains determined to implement, without democratic support, an economic model different from what they call “savage capitalism,” a model which no longer exists in any country in the world, and so it goes.

If we really want Cuban workers to help promote economic development and improve the quality of life and prosperity of the nation, we must restore a different system of labor relations, because the one that exists does not work. Otherwise, on the 1st of May, the Castro regime will always have little to celebrate.


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