By Richard Gott, the author of ‘Cuba: A New History’ (THE GUARDIAN, 18/04/06):
At a petrol station outside the provincial Cuban town of Cienfuegos, half a dozen teenage girls stand languidly by the pumps, jumping to attention when a car or lorry pulls up. They work the pumps efficiently, take payment and enter the transaction on to a large official form. They are dressed neatly in T-shirts and jeans and a slogan across their backs proclaims their identity as trabajadores sociales, or social workers. They are Fidel Castro’s latest army of guerrillas, deployed in the struggle against corruption, the scourge to which state-run economies have always been peculiarly vulnerable. They are also the vanguard of the generation upon whom the future of the Cuban revolution will depend.
On earlier visits to Cuba I have observed, indeed participated in, the petrol problem. Driving through the countryside you could always find a willing accomplice to direct you to a tank in someone’s back garden, where petrol would be sold at an advantageous price, or simply off-ration. It had been siphoned off the state’s supplies. The practice seemed harmless enough. Yet it had begun to create a large hole in the economy. Castro complained that “as much petrol was being stolen as sold”, and last year his government stepped in with a novel solution. Some 10,000 young activists, more than half of them women, have taken control of the country’s pumps, while the usual attendants have been sent home on full pay.
The social workers’ jobs do not stop at the petrol stations. They also go from house to house to hand out low-energy light bulbs, to check that everyone has the new electric pressure cookers provided by China and to prompt the exchange of old, gas-guzzling fridges from the 50s for something more energy efficient. Others will move on to examine financial practices in bakeries and the construction industry. Some 30,000 of these youthful revolutionaries have been deployed across the country, aged between 16 and 22. Identified some years ago as a potentially counter-revolutionary class, they are now trained in accountancy and helping to keep alive the revolution’s mystique.
One of the revolution’s endearing features has been its ability to reinvent itself. Castro was originally a guerrilla revolutionary with a utopian programme to create a new society; later, in the 70s, he became a Soviet placeman with a traditional communist blueprint; then in the 90s (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) he was a simple hand-to-mouth survivor, regardless of the ideological cost. Finally, in the 21st century, with the economy recovering from years of disaster, he still describes himself as a socialist but is also a fully paid-up green campaigner. Efforts to curb corruption, save energy and promote organic farming are all part of a new struggle to put revolutionary fire into the bellies of a younger generation that doesn’t remember the palmy days of the Soviet-subsidised era, let alone the revolutionary excitements of half a century ago.
Castro, in his 80th year, is the same age as the Queen of England. He has been Cuba’s ruler for almost as long and is still apparently as active as ever. Last November, he spoke for five hours at the university and then talked to the students until dawn. Yet he doesn’t look well. People close to him report that he sometimes finds it difficult to sustain an argument. His intelligent but sometimes rambling speeches tend to get well edited before they appear in print. While I used to think he could go on for another decade, I now suspect he may not last much beyond the celebrations of the revolution’s half century in 2009.
Castro may well be of the same opinion. Speaking to the university students, he addressed the problem of what might happen after his death, and asked a series of rhetorical questions: “When the veterans start disappearing, to make room for new generations of leaders, what will be done? Can the revolutionary process be made irreversible?” He gave warning that although it was difficult to imagine the revolution being overthrown from outside, it would be possible for the country to self-destruct. He argued that it would be up to the new generation to see that this did not happen, admitting that his own rule had hardly been perfect. “After all, we witnessed many mistakes that we simply did not notice at the time.”
One such mistake was the failure to notice that sugar production had become dramatically uneconomic. “The country had many economists and it is not my intention to criticise them, but I would like to ask why we hadn’t discovered earlier that maintaining our levels of sugar production would be impossible. The Soviet Union had collapsed, oil was costing $40 a barrel, sugar prices were at basement levels, so why did we not rationalise the industry” – instead of continuing to sow thousands of hectares a year. “None of our economists seemed to have noticed any of this, and we practically had to order them to stop the procedure.” In practice, many economists knew exactly what was going on. All they lacked was a free press in which to argue about their findings. Although private discussion is often well-informed and sometimes explosive, public debate about economic strategies is almost entirely absent.
Cuba, which once produced 8m tons of sugar a year, has now all but left the sugar business, dispensing with 300 years of its history. Barely 1m tons are now produced, enough for home consumption. Today’s income is derived from tourists, the sale of nickel and the export of doctors and sports instructors to Venezuela. This latest project, coupled with the local production of 50% of its own oil needs, has put oxygen into the economy for the first time since the Soviet collapse 15 years ago. Although the cities remain in a sad state of repair, plenty of food finds its way (at a price) into the private markets. People complain less than they did a couple of years ago, although poor transport remains amajor difficulty.
The girls at the pumps are part of a project designed to tackle youth alienation. Now Castro is trying to tackle the growing inequality of incomes that has been a feature of the past decade. He has criticised the “new rich” who, securing dollars from relatives in Miami or from work in the tourist industry, can earn 20 to 30 times more than a doctor or teacher. He is not moving towards a market economy but to a society that is made more aware of the value of what it consumes. While health and education will remain free, subsidies on electricity and housing will be lowered, and food rationing will eventually be phased out.
These are substantial changes, though wages and pensions have been increased to soften the blow. They form part of Castro’s desire to safeguard his revolutionary legacy. “Are revolutions doomed to fail?” he asked the students last year. “Can society prevent them from collapsing?”
No one knows the final answer, although Castro’s personal place in history looks assured. Europeans sometimes seem to feel that Castro is well past his sell-by date, a dinosaur from the long-gone Communist era. Yet with the current leftist mood in Latin America, Cuba has become re-attached to the mainland, enjoying diplomatic and trade links unimaginable in the past half century. Castro himself is regarded by Latin Americans as one of their most popular and respected figureheads, recognised by new generations as one of the great figures of the 20th century.