Taking the Chinese road
This week, Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, makes her first state visit to Cuba. James Turley sees another step from Stalinism to capitalism.
As many commentators have pointed out, this is an ironic sort of homecoming. In the 1960s and 70s, Rousseff was engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Brazilian military government, and foremost among the inspirations for her and her comrades was the successful overthrow of the Batista regime by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the rest.
This time, however, the newly minted head of state will arrive in Cuba after many years of participation in social-liberal governments of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) - as Reuters rather pithily points out, this week “she’ll have capitalism on her mind”. Specifically, she will want to talk about the $800 million construction of a container terminal at the Cuban port of Mariel, a large natural harbour west of Havana. The contract for this job has gone to a Brazilian firm.
There is nothing particularly new about Brazilian capital being ploughed into nearby Latin American countries, even ‘dissident’ ones such as Cuba or Venezuela. There is particular significance to this, though. That container port can make money one way - by facilitating trade with the United States. In the opinion, at least, of the Brazilian president - and, indeed, the Brazilian state development bank, BNDES, which will pony up most of the money - the 50-year-old American embargo on Cuba does not have much of a future.
At this point, the embargo is an increasingly embarrassing anachronism. It is a relic from the cold war days, when Cuba represented an agent of the Soviet Union just a few miles off the coast of the USA. Soviet dominance and the concomitant rule of Castro’s Cuban Communist Party were broadly accepted by a Cuban populace sick of being an American plaything.
The Soviet Union, however, is gone. To any sensible American policymaker, the political threat posed by a small and impoverished island state is negligible. To an American bourgeois, with half an eye on China, Vietnam and the other extant Stalinist countries, the embargo is basically an obstacle to otherwise lucrative business opportunities, opportunities that look even more attractive with the ascendancy of Fidel’s ‘reformer’ brother, Raúl.
Nonetheless, something about the American electoral cycle has kept the blockade in place. Graphic illustrations were forthcoming from the two Republican front-runners as they electioneered in Florida this past week. Newt Gingrich, moralistic hypocrite and the looniest rightwinger still in the race, promised the Floridan people a new round of covert ops missions to overthrow the Castro brothers; Mitt Romney, a man with one eye at least on Realpolitik (much to the distaste of the unhinged Republican activist base), was more circumspect, but could still be drawn into frothing against the Cuban regime.
This is, in a sense, the fault of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who infamously deployed all kinds of dirty tricks to swing the 2000 presidential poll there. The Floridian vote was on a knife-edge, and eventually the whole election turned on it. Just as the Cuban embargo was truly becoming a useless throwback, then, American politicians were given a very sharp lesson in the importance of winning the sunshine state.
With that lesson comes an obvious solution - courting one of the tightest bloc votes in the US, the Floridian Cuban exile community. This notoriously anti-communist layer has traditionally been winnable through anti-Castro sabre-rattling; giving quarter on the blockade is, conversely, a sure way to alienate the Cuban Americans.
Now, however, even that may be changing. A substantial amount of money is moving from the exiles back to the homeland - in some cases, this amounts to petty cash and commodities to help surviving relatives get along, but in others it involves serious investments, in Cuba’s lucrative tourist industry and elsewhere.
Opposition to the regime may still be staunch among the exiles, but capital has a way of numbing those kinds of feelings. Investors in Cuban businesses will see a good whack of their profits stemming directly from low labour costs, for which gratitude is due to an authoritarian regime which can be relied upon to keep the working masses in their place. More generally, if you are onto a financial winner, rocking the political boat looks a less attractive option.
Raúl Castro’s admiration for his comrades in the Chinese Communist Party is well known, and his intent to drive Cuba down the Chinese road to a peculiar state capitalism, reliant on foreign investment, is pretty obvious to all not blinded by nostalgic Castroite dogma. What is remarkable, perhaps, is how closely Cuba is tacking to the Chinese example. When Deng Xiaoping and his allies initiated the first economic reforms in China, the Chinese diaspora around the world was an important early source of investment. For the Castros, whatever their overall plans, the same narrative appears to assert itself.
It is not at all clear that there is a happy ending to this narrative. For the Cuban masses, of course, the increasing penetration of capital into the economy is likely to erode that welfare system which is the object of so much envy in the region (Cuba presently has higher life expectancy and literacy rates than many states of the US), just as Dengism destroyed the so-called iron rice bowl. More to the point, as noted, consent for the regime - which is real, in a way that it never was in eastern Europe - is substantially on nationalist grounds. Re-enslavement to the dollar will be a slap in the face.
Even the Cuban party bureaucrats may not come out of this too well. The underlying drive is for them to become, as their Chinese counterparts have, a peculiar caste of the capitalist class, offering off-the-peg labour discipline. China was able to do this at least in part due to the particular historical circumstances of the time - the USA launched its final drive to conclude the cold war, and used China to further isolate the Soviet bloc. At the same time, outsourcing and related economic processes were necessary to discipline the working class in the west, for which the Chinese ‘communists’ were equally willing partners.
The world is a very different place now. Despite the new wave of Sinophilia that has ripped through sections of the bourgeois commentariat, it is by no means clear that China’s present economic and political set-up has a bright future. The recent battles with the US over the value of the yuan suggest that China’s status as a mass exporter of cheap goods to America may not be taken for granted.
Should it have to go alone, the augurs are not good. Unlike ‘ordinary’ capitalist regimes, the Chinese are proving unable to raise labour productivity, which remains lamentable compared to other major exporters. The early stages of this crisis saw thousands of factories closing in China. Whatever future awaits Raúl Castro’s Cuba, a ‘Chinese miracle’ is not the most likely option; a return to the country’s previous status as an offshore brothel for the American bourgeoisie looks a little more likely.
What, then, of the world’s remaining starry-eyed Castroites? The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain should, naturally, have no problem with these developments, as it is also is a cheerleader for ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Nonetheless, the Star’s coverage remains characteristically evasive, reporting on a gripping-sounding Cuban Communist Party conference “to discuss proposals on how the party can bolster its capacity to govern amid the drive to boost national economic efficiency”. Such is the wonder of the Yawning Star - when the subject at hand is a misbehaving western government, all manner of shallow populist language is available; when, alternatively, the subject is a Stalinist gerontocracy, the prose becomes as jargon-laden and euphemistic as an IMF press release.
As for the comrades of the Revolutionary Communist Group, it is business as usual - which is to say, the uncritical repetition of whatever line the Cuban regime considers it clement to peddle. Recent delights include a puff piece on the rights of Cuban women, and a more intriguing article about the possibility of substantial oil reserves being tapped off the island’s northern coast. Up to 20 billion barrels-worth of black gold may be lurking in Cuban waters, a figure which would place Cuba, fittingly enough, directly between China and the USA in the oil wealth league table.
For the RCG, this would make Cuba “energy-independent”; but it is not energy which the Cuban masses lack: rather, basic consumer goods, including almost all foodstuffs beyond the basic staples. (‘If only there was cheese,’ goes the Havana refrain.) The Soviet Union was not short of fossil fuels, and it collapsed readily enough. The contradictions in Stalinist regimes are above all social, which is why they so readily conform to type. The RCG seems unable to grasp this at all; its articles on China are content to repeat banal Maoist drivel about malignant ‘capitalist roaders’, as if that was ever more than an exercise in question-begging.
The grand irony is that the RCG, and similar formations, have long been fighting strenuously for an end to the US blockade - which is, let us be clear, an imperialist obscenity. Now it looks likely that the blockade will end on US terms, however; the result will not be flattering to Cuban ‘socialism’, nor to its disciples around the world. How far down the ‘capitalist road’ must Raúl go before they finally lose faith?