Written by RATB
Written by RATB
I wrote this book review of Stephen Kimber's 'real story of the Cuban Five' for Science & Society. It is not due to be published until October 2014 (Vol. 78, No.4), but they have kindly given me permission to post it on my blog prior to publication. I wanted to post the review early to draw attention to an important event which takes place in London next month: the International Commission of Inquiry into the Case of the Cuban Five, on 7 and 8 March. The Commission website can be found here: The following day, Sunday 9 March, there will be a rally to demand justice for the Five in Trafalgar Square from 2pm. Details here:
Stephen Kimber, What Lies Across the Water: the real story of the Cuban Five, Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2014. 296 pages. $29.95 CAD. ISBN: 9781552665428
Review by Helen Yaffe*
According to the author, this book owes its existence to serendipity. In 2009 Stephen Kimber was in Havana researching for a love story he planned to write when, he explains, he ‘got sideswiped by the truth-is-stranger-but-way-more-interesting story of the Cuban Five.’ (1) Thanks to serendipity, Kimber has produced the first full-length book in English about the case of the Cuban Five. During his research, the Canadian writer, broadcaster and professor of journalism read 20,000-pages of court transcripts, and a mass of books, media reports and documents. He conducted interviews and established correspondence with the Five in prison. The book is organized chronologically into sections which are sub-divided by diary-like entries providing updates on the entire ‘cast of characters’. This work is meticulously researched, factual without being dull and written with sensitivity and honesty - warts and all. It is as gripping as an action-packed movie and deeply moving.
Most important, it contextualizes the story of the Cuban Five within the shocking history of Miami-based Cuban exile attacks against the Cuban Revolution and the turning-a-blind-eye, or often complicity, of US authorities. Since 1959, 3,478 Cubans have died and 2,099 been injured as a result of terrorist attacks or aggression against Cuba. Kimber’s account covers the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet bloc heralded the end of the Cold War and Cuba took an economic battering following the loss of 80% of its trade and investment, resulting in a GDP collapse of 34%. The US government (intensifying the blockade) and right-wing exiles (increasing terrorist attacks) hoped to exploit Cuba’s vulnerability and undermine its efforts to end political isolation and economic crisis, partly by developing its tourist industry.
At the centre of this exile opposition is the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), ‘ostensibly the single most powerful American lobby group working for peaceful, democratic regime change in Cuba. CANF has helped elect – and influenced the Cuba policy of – every American president since Ronald Reagan.’ (7) However, Kimber explains, members of CANF, ‘were also organizing and financing their own secret paramilitary wing whose purpose was to overthrow the Cuban government by force, and, if possible, murder Fidel Castro.’ (7) At least 638 assassination attempts have been documented by Cuban authorities.
The US government created the monster, Kimber explains. Shortly after the Cuban Revolution of January 1959: ‘the CIA set up shop on the south campus of the University of Miami, doling out $50 million to hire a permanent staff of 300 to oversee the insurrectionist work of more than 6,000 Cuban exile agents.’ (15) The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 catalyzed the campaign of sabotage and terrorism. Among the young exile recruits who received training in bomb-making and sabotage from the CIA were Felix Rodriguez, the CIA’s operative behind the execution of Che Guevara, Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of CANF, and, ‘the founding fathers of anti-Castro terrorism’(7): Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch Avila. Most infamous among their joint criminal enterprises is the blowing up of a civilian Cubana Airlines flight in 1976, killing all 73 people on board.
This book demonstrates that terrorist attacks against Cuba have never ceased and were actually escalated in the 1990s. A hotel bombing campaign in Havana left an Italian tourist dead in 1997. Posada’s plan to bomb the popular tourist night club, Tropicana, was thwarted by a Cuban intelligence agent whom he entrusted with the task. The agent had been promised $10,000 per bomb. Another plan uncovered by Cuban agents involved bombing civilian airlines carrying tourists to and from Cuba. This was three years before the terrible airborne terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the so-called ‘war on terrorism’.
The need to keep abreast of these plots, and the abject failure of the US authorities to prevent or punish the perpetrators, led Cuban intelligence to create the Wasp Network (La Red Avispa) to infiltrate Miami exile-groups and gather information. The agents who stepped into this murky labyrinth of conspiracy and intrigue were Gerardo Hernández, Rene González, Fernando González, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero. In fact, Kimber explains, ten Cuban agents were arrested in 1998, but five of them struck deals with the US authorities; lesser sentences in exchange for testifying against their compatriots. That’s not all. According to Kimber: ‘Adding up all those names and code names, I arrived at a total of 22 members of La Red Avispa.’ (9)
The agent’s preparations involved affecting growing disillusionment with the Revolution before ‘abandoning’ the country. In December 1990, Rene González ‘escaped’ to the US on a hijacked Cuban aircraft. That night, Rene was wined and dined by the Cuban-American president of Key West’s Latin American Chamber of Commerce. He joined exile-group Brothers to the Rescue, led by CIA-trained José Basulto, which ran hostile flights over Cuban airspace.
Kimber describes the personal anguish and sacrifice involved for the Cuban agents. With trepidation we read that the FBI began surveillance of the agents in 1996. In June 1998, an unprecedented meeting took place in Havana between Cuba’s Interior Ministry, the FBI and other US agencies. This followed Fidel’s warnings, delivered via Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez directly to President Bill Clinton, about CANF plans to ‘set up bombs in planes from Cuba or any other country’s airline carrying tourists to, or from, Cuba to Latin American countries.’ (185) Kimber explains: ‘the Cubans presented the Americans with a blizzard of material: photos, audio and video tapes, confessions, wiretap transcripts, bomb-making paraphernalia…’ (199) and three documents: a 65-page Report on Terrorist Activities Against Cuba, a 61-page who’s-who of 40 exiles the Cubans had identified as terrorists, and a 52-page Operational Appendices with intricate details of operations. Unaware that Wasp Network was under FBI surveillance, the Cubans were determined to hide the identities of their agents. The FBI took the information away to ‘evaluate’. Then they arrested the Wasp Network.
The court case took place in Miami; a fair trial was impossible. The Cuban 5 were convicted of false identification, conspiracy to commit espionage and, in Gerardo Hernández’s case, conspiracy to commit murder. He was blamed for the shoot-down of Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in 1996. They received sentences ranging from 15 years to life. In 2005, a US court conceded that the Cuban Five did not receive a fair trial and ordered a retrial in a new location. The US Attorney General overturned this decision and the convictions were upheld. Evidence since obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveals that the US government paid millions of dollars to Miami-area journalists to prejudice the public against the Cuban Five before and during their trial.
The Five have received ‘cruel and unusual’ treatment, including long stretches in isolation and being denied access to lawyers or family-visits. In late 2011, Rene González (15 years) was granted ‘supervised release’ on a three-year term, initially under life-threatening conditions; to remain in Miami alongside the terrorists he monitored. In spring 2013 he returned permanently to Cuba. In late February 2014, Fernando González (18 years) will be released into detention by US immigration authorities, prior to his return to Cuba. Antonio Guerrero (22 years) and Ramón Labañino (30 years) face many more years of incarceration. Gerardo Hernandez (two consecutive life sentences) will never leave prison, except through political intervention.
All of this has been tracked and opposed by an international campaign to demand the freedom of the Cuban Five. Campaign committees are active in many countries and especially active in the US. Some progress has been made in engaging international ‘dignitaries’, from actors to politicians, in raising the campaign’s profile. However, as mainstream media censorship has prevailed public knowledge of the case is limited. Kimber makes a vital contribution to addressing that by revealing the real story of the Cuban Five.
*Dr Helen Yaffe, completed her doctorate in Cuban economic history at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Che Guevara: the economics of Revolution, first published by Palgrave MacMillan in English in 2009.
By Helen Yaffe*
On 28-29th January 2014, Havana hosts the Second Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC in Spanish), with the participation of the heads of states, chancellors and other representatives of all 33 independent nations in the region. The Summit rounds off Cuba’s one-year presidency of CELAC, which focussed on combating regional poverty, hunger and inequality. Cuba is part of CELAC’s three member troika, along with Chile, which held the presidency in 2012 and Costa Rica which takes over in 2014. Over 30 documents are being drawn up for discussion and analysis, including a Plan of Action, and standards and principles which will govern cooperation. The Summit was preceded by two days of discussions by national experts on 25-26 January and a meeting of chancellors on 27 January. The Summit is expected to emit specific statements, for example, demanding that Britain return Las Islas Malvinas (the Falkland Islands) to Argentina and that the US blockade of Cuba be lifted.
CELAC was launched with the Declaration of Caracas in December 2011. It is the first organisation in 200-years, since Latin America’s formal independence, to integrate the sovereign nations of the region without either being convened (or attended) by the United States, or other foreign powers, and without excluding Cuba. Indeed, the insistence on Cuba’s inclusion is a principal motive for CELAC’s foundation. CELAC stands as a rejection of, and alternative to, the Organisation of American States (OAS), set up in 1948 with its headquarters in Washington. In 1962 Cuba was expelled from the OAS because Cuba’s revolutionary government, it stated, had ‘officially identified itself as a Marxist-Leninist government, [which is] incompatible with the principles and objectives of the inter-American system.’ As Cuban academic Luis Suarez Sálazar pointed out to BBC Mundo: ‘the restoration of relations with all nations of the region and the presence in this gathering of their Heads of State demonstrates clearly that the US failed in its policy of isolating us.’
In 1994, following the collapse of the soviet bloc when neo-liberalism went on its triumphant offensive, the OAS held its first Summit of the Americas. It was a political forum for the US to pursue its economic agenda: the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a neo-liberal treaty that would undermine national sovereignty and facilitate the pillaging and looting of resources by US and international capital. The Spanish acronym for the FTAA was ALCA. Direct opposition to this led then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to propose an alternative ALBA (which means dawn in Spanish); the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (see http://tinyurl.com/pntnwbt). While the 2005 deadline for the implementation of the FTAA came and went, US imperialism witnessed rebellion in its ‘back-yard’. At the last Summit of the Americas in Colombia in 2012, the final declaration draft demanded an end to the US blockade of Cuba and Cuba’s expulsion from the hemispheric events. This was vetoed by US and Canada so no agreement was reached.
CELAC’s other distinguishing characteristics are that it binds the Caribbean with Latin America, realising the vision of independence heroes such as Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti for ‘Our America’, and that it is not constituted as an narrowly economic mechanism for establishing free trade between member states. The general function of CELAC is to promote sustainable development, social and environmental investments, and create a ‘zone of peace’ where differences are resolved through dialogue and diplomacy. Securing the latter would not only benefit the regions nearly 600 million inhabitants, it would also undermine the ability of imperialist powers to provoke confrontations in their own interests. In the last few years, tensions between the governments of Colombia, a strong, right-wing ally of the US, and the Bolivarian socialist government of Venezuela have almost led to military confrontation.
Tensions between left, centre and right governments within CELAC are evident and are constantly aggravated by US machinations, for example the recent push to create the Alliance of the Pacific, so far formed of Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru; right-wing governments allied to the US. However, CELAC aims to undermine divisive manipulation through open democratic discussion in which each participant’s views have equal weight. Cuban Foreign Minister, Burno Rodriguez Parrilla told a press conference on 24 January that during the Summit in Havana: ‘Decisions will be taken on the basis of full, participative and democratic process of debate and negotiation, which has been happening over many months and will conclude the in the next few days.’
Rodriguez also said that deliberations at the Summit would focus on strategies and policies to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger and provide access to free health and education.’ In this, Cuba is the regional leader par excellence. Its achievements are not just domestic. In Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine thousands of students from the region study for free. Millions of people have benefitted from its literacy programme, ‘Yes I can’. Through Cuba’s Operation Miracle, set up with Venezuela, between 2004 and 2011 two million people in Latin American and Caribbean had their eye-sight restored in 60 eye hospitals which Cuba had donated to 35 countries. Cuba therefore has the moral authority and practical experience to set the CELAC agenda.
The importance of the goals set out for the Summit cannot be underestimated. Despite recent progress, Latin America remains the most unequal region in the world. This reality, and the suffering which accompanies it, is especially brutal given the abundance of mineral, forestall, water and agricultural resources. Within CELAC are the world’s greatest supplies of mineral resources: copper (Chile), Iron (Brazil), Silver (Mexico) tin (Bolivia and Peru). Venezuela has the world’s greatest proven oil reserves, 18% of the total. And the Guarani Aquifer, located beneath the surface of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, is one of the world's largest aquifer systems and sources of fresh water. Latin America and the Caribbean produce more food than required by their populations, and yet 8% of Latin Americans and 18% of Caribbeans suffer from malnutrition. The question is who controls the resources and in whose interests.
Luis Suarez Sálazar states that Cuba ‘was the first country in Latin America that included the goal of integration in its Constitution’. He sees CELAC as ‘the result of the existence of leftwing governments that seek to solve social problems and achieve more autonomy.’ There are multiple, overlapping and conflicting trade and cooperation agreements in Latin America and the Caribbean. ‘The great contribution of CELAC is that everyone could now converge in the same forum’, says Suarez. At CELAC’s invitation, the event will be attended by OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza. This will be the first visit to Havana by the holder of that office since before Cuba was expelled from the OAS.
*Dr Helen Yaffe, completed her doctorate in Cuban economic history at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Che Guevara: the economics of Revolution, first published by Palgrave MacMillan in English in 2009 with subsequent editions appearing in Spanish, Korean, Indonesian and Turkish. In 2009 she interviewed Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa about the procress of Latin American integration and the Citizens' Revolution in Ecuador. In 2013 the Ministry of Communes in Venezuela invited her for consultations about the Communal Economic System and to give a series of lectures about Che Guevara and the transition to a socialist political economy.
Among the key aims in the process of ‘updating’ the Cuban economy, approved by the 6th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in 2011, is the reunification of Cuba’s two currencies: the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). In October 2013 it was announced that steps towards this had begun. The CUP has been Cuban currency since 1961. In 1993 during the economic crisis of the Special Period, the US dollar was legalised and ‘dollar shops’ initially opened to sell non-essential or imported items to tourists, as the tourist industry became a growing source of income. The CUC was introduced in around 1993 to substitute the function of the US dollar. It was pegged to the US dollar but printed and controlled by the Cuban Central Bank. Helen Yaffe reports.
In the 1980s, the peso/dollar exchange rate had been 1:1. During the economic crisis, however, the value of the peso fell massively against the dollar in the informal market. Cuban economist Pavel Vidal Alejandro explains that: ‘This [depreciation] was accepted by the government network of exchange houses (Cadeca) created in 1995 to effect operations with Cubans and tourists. However, the new value of the Cuban peso never reached the accounting and exchange operations of the business sector. Institutions continued to operate with the official exchange rate of the 1980s – 1 Cuban peso (CUP): US$1.’ (Cuba Standard) The current exchange rate for individuals is 24 CUP to 1 CUC, but it remains 1:1 in state-owned companies.
In 2004 Cuba ‘de-dollarised’; the US greenback was removed as legal tender. The elimination of the US dollar from domestic commerce became imperative following renewed attacks by President Bush’s administration to prevent Cuba from accumulating or trading in hard currency – a Cuban Assets Targeting Group was set up to stop dollar flows into and out of Cuba.
Cuban salaries continued to be paid, for the most part, in CUP, while many consumer goods are retailed in CUC. The average monthly Cuban salary in 2012 was 466 CUP, equivalent to nearly 20 CUC. Cubans may receive hard currency or CUC via remittances sent from abroad, tips in the tourism sector, or if they have a salary component paid in CUC (usually in joint ventures with foreign companies). Those without access have an extremely limited capacity to purchase goods sold in CUC. As Raul Castro himself recognised in 2007: ‘wages today are clearly insufficient to satisfy all needs and have thus ceased to play a role in ensuring the socialist principle that each should contribute according to their capacity and receive according to their work.’ In 2005, Fidel Castro referred to ‘the dream of everyone being able to live on their salary or on their adequate pension’. However, it is important to recognise that many essential costs, and those that consume the largest portion of family incomes in most countries: rent, utility bills, transport, education and healthcare costs, are negligible or non-existent in Cuba. The Cuban salary does not determine Cuban consumption in a broad sense.
Not only is the currency differential a source of irritation and inconvenience but it has also created serious economic distortions. For example, after receiving free education and training to the highest levels, many qualified Cubans leave their area of expertise to find employment that brings them access to CUCs and a higher level of consumption. Inequalities in access to CUC exacerbate pre-revolutionary socio-economic inequalities, undermining the impressive progress made by the socialist revolution. On the whole, wealthy, white Cubans – the first to leave Cuba after the Revolution – have done better in exile, where they are integrated into racist, class structures, and therefore send back more remittances to families remaining on the island.
The 1:1 exchange rate in state enterprises is particularly problematic. It means that for accounting purposes it makes no difference to those companies if they sell their produce internally for Cuban CUP, or if they export it for Cuban CUC, even though the monetary value to the Cuban government is significantly different. This obscures economic losses and surpluses in their accounts. For example, if a cigar factory sells 100 cigars for 5 CUP each within Cuba, it earns 500 CUP or 20 CUC ($18). However, if it exports 100 cigars for 5 CUC each, it earns 500 CUC ($480). This is a simplified example, but the point is that the process of updating the Cuban economy aims to increase productivity and efficiency, and the dual currency has become an obstacle. It obstructs evaluation of economic performance and removes incentives to increase productivity and exports.
On 22 October 2013, the government announced that it had initiated the process of monetary unification: ‘monetary and currency exchange unification is not a measure which will, in itself, resolve all of the economy’s current problems, but its implementation is indispensable to re-establishing the value of the Cuban peso and its function as money; that is to say, as a unit of accounting, payment and savings.’ The first stage will affect the Cuban state-entities, ‘with the purpose developing the conditions which will lead to increased efficiency, more accurate measurement of economic activity and incentives for those sectors which produce goods and services for export and to replace imports.’
The Cuban government’s methodology usually involves patient and careful testing of new policy initiatives. In this case since December 2011, the government established a special exchange rate of 7 CUP:$1 for direct transactions between state hotels and restaurants and agricultural cooperatives. In 2013 this exchange rate was raised to 10 CUP:$1 – effectively a 900% devaluation of the Cuban peso. There is still a long way to go before the enterprise exchange rate and that used by individuals – both Cubans and tourists – is equal, and Cuba returns to having one currency.
The 22 October statement reassured Cubans that no one with legally held CUCs would see their value fall in the process of monetary unification, as the current exchange rate would be used to calculate the value of CUCs in CUPs. From 2014: ‘Experimentally, in selected sites, CUP payments will be accepted in cash for the equivalent, based on the current Cadeca exchange rate of 25 CUP to 1 CUC.’ In Cuba the news was greeted positively. The process of monetary unification could take three or more years, but it is an important step in the process underway – improving the Cuban economy and defending the gains of socialism.
On 26 November 2013, the Cuban Interests Section (a substitute for an embassy) in the United States announced that it would immediately halt its consular services – the issuing of visas, passports services and the authentification of documents, except in exceptional or humanitarian cases. Its press release explains that in summer 2013, the New York-based M&T Bank had informed the Cuban Interests Section in Washington and Cuba’s permanent mission at the United Nations in New York that it was withdrawing banking services from foreign missions, and therefore ordering the Cubans to close their accounts. It states: ‘Due to the restrictions still in force, derived from the US policy of economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba, and despite the numerous efforts made with the [US] Department of State and several banks, it has been impossible for the Cuban Interests Section to find a US bank with branches in the US to operate the bank accounts of the Cuban diplomatic missions.’
The announcement is likely to cause a stir, given the number of US citizens and Cuban-Americans needing travel documents for impending trips to Cuba. Around 350,000 Cuban-Americans visit Cuba annually and the increase in special licences for US citizens engaged in educational, cultural, and other exchanges saw 100,000 US citizens visit Cuba in 2012. The Cuban statement points out that the US government is violating its commitments under the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations of 1961 and 1963, ‘which stipulate that the receiving State shall accord full facilities for the performance of the functions of the diplomatic missions and consular offices.’ The US government is also violating the 1977 agreement between Cuba and the US, signed under US President Carter, which established the interests sections in both countries.
The US blockade has cost Cuba $1.14 trillion. It is a policy of collective punishment to promote regime change by creating scarcity and suffering to turn the Cuban people against its revolutionary government. Not even medical equipment is exempt. Because of the blockade, the Frank País Orthopaedic Hospital is unable to replace equipment necessary for the diagnosis of malignant tumours, bone and joint infections, and Cuba cannot import the drugs necessary to help children born with HIV to survive. The Obama administration has tightened the implementation of the blockade. Between January 2009 and September 2013, 30 US and foreign companies have been fined more than $2.45 billion for trading with Cuba and other countries.
The announcement by the Cuban Interests Section comes less than one month after 188 countries voted in favour of a Cuban motion condemning the US blockade in the United Nations General Assembly. Only Israel and the US voted against the motion. The only three countries to abstain were Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands, all recipients of billions of US dollars received under the Compact of Free Association agreement, which makes them ‘associated states’ with the United States. It was the 22nd year in a row that the US policy has been rejected by the UN. Following the vote on 29 October and responding to claims by Ronald Godard, the principal US Advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said: ‘Mr. Godard lies when he says that the United States promotes human rights on the island, because the blockade is a massive, flagrant and systematic violation of these rights and an act which qualifies as genocidal.’
Despite its punitive nature, the US blockade has failed as a tool for overthrowing Cuba’s socialist government. President Obama recognises this. As part of a Democratic Party fundraising tour, on 8 November he visited the home of Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, a right-wing organisation set up by his father Jorge Mas Canosa, who, until his death in 1997, led sectors of the ultra-right in Miami and sponsored confessed terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch. There Obama met with stars of Cuba’s tiny internal opposition, professional hungerstriker Guillermo Farinas and leader of the ‘Ladies in White’, Berta Soler, effectively mercenaries, who urged Obama to strengthen the blockade against their own people.
Interestingly, given the pro-blockade stance of his audience, Obama declared that the blockade of Cuba was not effective and stated that US policy towards Cuba needed updating. ‘[U]ltimately, freedom in Cuba will come because of extraordinary activists and the incredible courage of folks like we see here today. But the United States can help. And we have to be creative. And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies. Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.’
This came with a promise to continue funding the internal opposition, to increase US investment – around $20 million annually – in order to create political instability. The aim remains the same: to overthrow the internationalist socialist government of the Cuban people and to return Cuba to its neo-colonial status. But Cubans are educated, activated and mobilised, and this policy will fail, just as the US blockade has done.
Helen Yaffe and Victoria Smith
The International Women’s Forum endeavours to provide ‘a platform for leaders to meet among their peers…bettering global leadership today and cultivating women leaders of tomorrow’, so I was pleasantly surprised to be invited as a guest speaker at its 2013 World Leadership Conference in mid-October. The conference, hosted in the beautiful city of Vancouver, was entitled ‘Modern Movements Shaping the World’.
Founded in the United States three decades ago, the IWF now has some-5,000 members, ‘women-leaders’ from across five continents in 26 countries. The elite-status of the IWF is secured by invitation only membership. Most of the participants I met in Vancouver, IWF members and their guests, were retired, or close to retirement and from the financial or other corporate sectors. They have an interest, albeit philanthropic, in global issues and debates. The event was opulent and glamorous.
IWF Gala in Vancouver October 2013
I was invited on the basis of my book, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (Palgrave 2009). The speakers’ programme incorporated a range of political perspectives, suggesting that debate was encouraged. In other words, I was not the only ‘leftie’. Among the keynote speakers opening the event was SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) Professor of Development Studies Guy Standing, author of the 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class who joked with me about being fish out of water. ‘At least you’re the right gender’, he pointed out. The ‘precariat’ refers to a growing section of the world’s population who live and work precariously; a dangerous class because in their frustration and vulnerability they may turn to destabilising political extremes.
An officious retiree from the finance sector complained about Standing’s ‘doom and gloom’ depiction of the state of the world and appealed to my own co-panellists for a more positive outlook. Our panel was on ‘Shaping Finance, Public Debt and the Future’ – so that wasn’t likely. The other speakers were Jonathan Tepper and Louise Bennetts, financial analysts working comfortably within the neo-liberal paradigm. Nonetheless, the pre-prepared questions proposed by the conference organisers showed no inclination to censorship – in fact I could hardly have thought up better questions for facilitating a critique of capitalism and advocating alternative development paths.
IWF panel on Modern Movements: Shaping Finance, Public Debt and the Future
The moderator for this panel, Canadian television journalist Jane Carrigan, opened the session by asking for our take on the global economic crisis. After my fellow panellists had tangled the audience in labyrinthine commentaries about financial (de)regulation, it was my turn. I talked about the long-run crisis of profitability inherent in the capitalist system and how the expansion of credit and loans was used to stave off the crisis, helping to expand capitalism globally by financing production beyond the limits normally set by profitability. Having re-read an excellent article by Steve Palmer about the housing bubble I pointed out that this process is facilitated by deregulation – an integral part of the neo-liberal agenda – and the emergence of financial organisations, alongside banks, which engage in lending and borrowing at greater risk. Speculation becomes a mechanism for redistributing and concentrating capital and inflates the price of assets and fictitious capital. Leveraging mostly re-distributes surplus value among capitalists, rather than increasing it, but eventually speculative activities run up against the barriers erected by the crisis of profitability; hence the crisis.
I moved on to explain why the economic crisis has been so acute in Britain. Using facts and statistics pulled out from David Yaffe’s recent article exposing the myth of the Britain’s economic recovery, I explained that Britain’s economic growth is 3.3% below its pre-recession peak and that, after four years of falling real wages, British workers were enduring the most protracted squeeze on incomes in nearly 150 years. While investment and productivity are stagnant, any growth that can be claimed has been driven by debt-fuelled consumer spending and inflated house prices, conditions which risk recreating the housing bubble crisis. Britain is dependant on the European Union for 50% of its exports, I explained, but more importantly, Britain is dependant on earnings from its overseas assets, particularly from banking and financial services. I cited David from another recent article on the European Union and Britain, ‘At the end of 2012 British international investments, including financial derivatives, amounted to £10,212bn or more than 6.6 times Britain’s GDP’ – a large part of which is ‘a gigantic usury capital’. Britain’s net earnings in 2012 were £1.7 billion, down from £26 billion the previous year. Given that Britain has a massive balance of payments deficit in the trade of goods, which has been compensated for by the surplus on services trade, this significant fall in net earnings indicates a pending balance of payments problem resulting in a continued decline in the British standard of living.
The moderator then addressed me with a bespoke question: ‘Concerning Cuba, you set out to find how Che Guevara created a system of economic management that was unique to socialism – his budgetary finance system. What did you find? Can you describe it for us?’ I began to summarise Guevara’s attempt to adopt management techniques and technology from the most advanced capitalist corporations, describing how he had examined those companies’ books as the fell into state hands during the nationalisations of industry and the banks. I referred to his criticisms of Soviet political economy and explained the emergence, scope and objective of his alternative Budgetary Finance System, and the range of areas in which he developed policies - from sugar by-products to computing and the psychology of social work.
The mention of Cuba, Guevara and socialism triggered a kind of murmuring dissent from the audience, bordering on heckling. ‘I was assured by the organisers’, I said, ‘that this discussion would be carried out in an atmosphere of respect for diverse views. So I would appreciate if you would stop interrupting and let me speak – which is what I was invited to do’. The silence was palpable.
The moderator invited me to comment after quoting me from an article I had written for Red Pepper in 2009: ‘Barack Obama, has poured enormous sums of money into the US economy, propping up failing banks and financial services, car manufacturers and the housing sector. Rational economic man has given way to an unprecedented level of state intervention in a desperate attempt to save the capitalist system’. I duly expanded on the statement and then asserted the need to disentangle two concepts: the development of the productive forces, and the social-relations of production – explaining these concepts in terminology the audience would understand. The challenge, I said, was to use technological, scientific and innovative advances for the benefit of all humanity. Explaining how the privatisation of key infrastructure and services in Britain had lead to higher prices and worse service – in railways, gas, electricity, water – I said it was a myth that markets necessarily lead to efficiency. The market is wasteful – it leaves people out of work who could be contributing to social development. The child who dies every five seconds of malnutrition and hunger is life wasted. It is possible to have planning and efficiency; the real question is about the objective of production.
To counter my assertions, my co-panellist Tepper placed his i-phone on the table, boasting about its capacities and thanking capitalism for such technological progress. He received applause. I thanked him in turn for using this example, as it was an excellent characterisation of the capitalism; technological advances made at great human cost. I explained that his phone, like all the phones the audience carried in their pockets or handbags, contains a metal called coltan which is extracted from the Congo, and the violent scramble to exploit that resources had led to the deaths of 4 to 5 million Congolese people in the last decade.
I went on to discuss the need for developing countries to reject the ‘wests’ industrialisation development model; the planet would not survive if every Chinese person acquired a car. I talked about the importance of the kind of regional integration underway in Latin America, which fosters endogenous development and south-south trade, reducing dependency on the imperialist countries and on volatile international markets. Key components of this project include the establishment of regional financial and development institutions, independent of the IMF and the World Bank, and currency schemes that remove the need to trade in the US dollar. I cited the examples of the Local Currency Payment System between Argentina and Brazil, or the SUCRE virtual currency for trade between the countries in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) bloc. I talked about the return to active states committed to welfare-based development and about the demand for real democracy, with citizen participation and ‘economic democracy’.
The moderator’s final question to the panel allowed me to mention the development of the communal economy in Venezuela, with the enterprises of social production which I had been studying and visiting just prior to the conference in Canada. ‘If you could choose one aspect of the movements underway that you think could improve the future of finance, public debt and human security, what would it be?’
That was the hard part over – or so I thought… until the audience comment and questions began. The first woman to address me directly declared that she was born in Cuba and left as a child in 1960 when her family’s banks (plural!) were violently nationalised by Che Guevara. ‘If Che’s system was so good, why is Cuba such a disaster?’ I assumed that she was not interested in ‘Guevarista pendulum’, outlined in my book, which shows how Cuba has swung towards or away from Che’s analysis in the half century since he left Cuba. Instead I asked what was her measure of disaster. If it was simply their GDP figures then, yes, Cuba was doing badly. However, ‘economic growth’ as such has not been not the objective of Cuba’s development, but rather a welfare-based development model, in which case Cuba is doing pretty well. Cuba is among the few developing countries in the world to have reached the ‘high development’ category in the United Nations Human Development Index, which considers indicators such as infant mortality, access to clean water, women in politics, and so on. There are more doctors, teachers and art instructors per capita than anywhere else in the world. 56% of engineers, technicians and managers are women.
Furthermore, I said, if we want to be objective and analytical then we have to consider the impact of the US blockade, now estimated to have cost the island $1.14 trillion. I gave just two examples of what that means in practical terms: the Cuban children who have received leukaemia treatment but are denied access to anti-nausea tablets which would prevent them from vomiting up to 20 times a day; Cuba being obstructed from importing any product from any company anywhere in the world if just 10% of it was produced by - not just a US company - but a third-country subsidiary of a US company. Incredibly my commentary received a splattering of applause.
Next a Polish woman stated that she was born under the repressive communist system. Her example was the denial of her freedom to travel as when she decided to leave the country she had to go to the police station for permission to get her passport. In response I asked the 200-strong audience to raise a hand if they were from the US - almost all of them were - and then keep it raised if they had been to Cuba. A mass of hands dipped - just one elderly couple at the back kept their hands aloft. I spelt out the obvious point: US citizens do not have the freedom to travel to Cuba, even now after Cuba removed its exit controls. Cuba is the only country in the world which US citizens are prohibited from visiting without a special licence. No other country in the world prohibits its citizens or subjects from travelling to Cuba.
Finally, the man who had been to Cuba said his wife had been mugged and that the police had arrested and beaten up the culprit (out of their view) in the police station. There was really no point in engaging them on the veracity of their claim. Instead I acknowledged that his story was about repression and social injustice and said that I had another story about repression and injustice, this time in the United States. I went on to tell them all about the case of the Cuban Five, how Cuba had resorted to infiltrating right-wing extremist groups in Miami because of the failure of the US government to stem the acts of terrorism and sabotage against the Cuban people. How they uncovered a plan to blow up civilian airlines full of tourists from Canada and Europe travelling to Cuba for their holidays. This was three years before the terrible airborne terrorist attacks of 9/11, but instead of acting on the evidence the Cuban government handed to the US authorities, the US government had the five Cubans arrested and they had been incarcerated since then (with Rene Gonzalez only released recently after 13 years). I urged them to read the excellent new book by Canadian author Stephen Kimber, What Lies Across the Water which details the case (I am reviewing the book for Science & Society). Several people in the audience jotted the title down.
As the session closed, one woman congratulated me for my bravery as: ‘It’s not easy talking to a US audience about Cuba’. Later that evening, during drinks prior to the extravagant Gala dinner, as I squeezed through the 800-strong ball-gown wearing, wine-drinking crowd, several people thanked me for me contribution, saying how interesting they found it and that they had learnt a lot. Let’s hope the IWF organisers share their enthusiasm; I look forward to my invitation next year!
The road was steep with sharp curves, but at least it was made with concrete and not the mud track that existed before the Venezuelan government provided materials for the barrio (neighbourhood) of Antimano. We drove up towards the top of the mountain to meet the consejo communal (communal council) of Las Torres. The consejo was set up in 2000 with some 350 inhabitants, but the population has now doubled to 715, including children. It was a stunning view, looking down over the precarious homes balanced on the mountainsides surrounding the urban sprawl of Caracas in the valley below.
Las Torres is one communal council among ten which have amalgamated into a “Comuna” called Las 17 Voces de Ezequiel Zamora. The total population of the Comuna is 5,860 and they meet every Wednesday in assemblies attended by hundreds of residents.
Las Torres alone has 50 “voceros” and “voceras” (male and female spokespeople) and less than two weeks ago held its two-yearly elections to 17 committees or areas of representation.
1) administration and finances (4 committee members)
2) social control (5 committee members)
3) health (this and all the rest have one representative)
4) habitat and housing
5) communal economy
8) people with disabilities
12) children and adolescents
14) energy and gas
15) national territorial defence
In addition to the construction of the new road, since 2008 Las Torres has received materials and technical assistance for the construction of housing and other social facilities like a playground, a school (to be built) and they are currently improving the medical clinic which is run by Cuban doctors. The construction of the additional social facilities has been funded with the “exedente” (surplus) earned from the consejo’s own transport service, the “ruta communal” (communal route), set up with help from the government and now possessing 17 minibuses for transporting locals up and down the mountain at prices below those charged by the private companies. This service employs 30 locals.
Prior to the reconstruction process, Las Torres had 109 “ranchos”, precarious homes made from slim wooden planks, many of them donated by the Coca Cola corporation. Since 2008, the community itself has built 108 new homes from scratch and land has been cleared for numerous additional homes to be built. The process starts with representatives sent from the national land institute, who evaluate the safety and conditions on the site of proposed constructions. Ranchos are dismantled (the material recycled) and the strong concrete buildings erected in their place. 17 “ranchos” were declared to be in high risk locations so the new homes were relocated to different plots. One individual in Las Torres handed over a large plot of his unused land to the community for the construction of 7 of those houses. The houses have three bedrooms, a sitting room, kitchen and a bathroom. A good portable drinking water service has also been established and the process of electrification is at the planning stage.
The construction materials are produced by the community in its own ironworks and other construction teams producing the housing blocks and other elements, as well as building the houses. The ironworks employs 3 locals and the other construction work employs 36, but this number will rise to 70 with the new projects underway and more residents incorporated. Next week work will start on the construction of another socio-productive unit, a workshop to make household products, such as detergents and soaps. This will employ an additional 15 locals.
It is clear from meeting the residents of the consejo comunal de Las Torres, that the grassroots organisations formed in the early days of Chavez´s first presidency as a political expression of People’s Power are consolidating and expanding into integrated organisations with socio-economic functions, which in turn increase their political strength.
One of the "ranchos" to be dismantled and replaced with a newly built home
Working on construction materials
"Voceras" of Las Torres in one of the newly built homes and its owner
Inside a new home built by Las Torres consejo comunal
Playground built with money made from the communal transport service
A young woman and her baby standing on the plot of land that has been prepared for the construction of her new home
View from Las Torres
Workshop where building blocks are made for the housing construction
Discussions with representatives of the consejo comunal of Las Torres
On Thursday 26 September, 2,397 Venezuelan families received the keys to new homes built under the Great Housing Mission. Initiated in 2011, the programme aims to construct 2.6 million new homes by 2019 and is well on the way to the 500,000 milestone. The new home owners were handed the keys by government ministers, vice ministers and state governors in 17 of Venezuela’s 23 states. Acts of this type take place throughout the country ever Thursday.
I travelled over mountains and above clouds to the Consejo Comunal de Cumboto in Municipio Costa de Ora, Aragua State to learn about how the housing mission is organised there and to celebrate the “entrega de casas” (presentation of the houses) to members of that community. Surrounded by fertile mountains, the ceremony of entrega was presided over by Ana Maldonado, Vice Minister of the Communal Economy and General Ramos Viñas, President of the Housing Institute in the state. Despite the incessant rain the community had gathered for the ceremony and there was a party atmosphere. The exception was the brigades of mostly young workers who continued labouring on the construction of an additional 51 houses for the communal council. Their work starts with clearing the land and laying foundations. Many of them were local youngsters outside of work or education. Under this scheme of “socialist work brigades” they have received training in construction skills and many of them will benefit from the construction project. The recipients of the homes are determined democratically by the community itself, through the Citizens’ Assemblies, and in this case most of the beneficiaries are elderly people and single mothers. The population of the area is 900-1,000 and in addition to the 65 homes already built or under construction they calculate that an additional 100 homes will be needed. In some cases this work may involve dismantling rickety wooden houses to replace them with the new structures which have 2 to 3 bedrooms, sitting room, kitchen and 1 to 2 bathrooms.
The Vice Minister and the General visited several of the new properties and spoke to the beneficiaries, community representatives and members of the community gathered. The people’s sense of pride at having constructed their own homes was palpable, without depending on private companies or even state institutions to execute the work for them. The beneficiaries, including elder women, contributed towards the construction effort in any way they could. The community gathered, most of them women with their children, under a marquee in the middle of the street where there was a sound system and a table on which were laid out, not just the 14 keys to be handed over during the ceremony, but also samples of products made from Cacao plant by a collective of 8 locals, including chocolate, punch, soaps and herbal tea. The men and women involved have received education in Cacao ecology under the Revolution and were extremely proud of their organic and diverse production.
After addressing the community about the political objectives and goals of the Housing Mission, the Vice Minister and the General handed over keys to the 14 homes which have been completed. The people cheered and applauded as the women and men of their community received the keys to their new homes. The Vice Minister and the General made two announcements which were received by rapturous applause and cheers. First, that the Vice Ministry of the Communal Economy would provide micro-credits to assist with the production of Cacao derivatives and that the community producers would be invited to participate in the national production fair in December. Second, that all the new houses inaugurated that afternoon would be provided with the white goods, or kitchen equipment, within the month.
The handing over of keys to this small community was an emotional and exhilarating celebration. It will have a huge impact on their lives. Meanwhile, this type of ceremony happens every Thursday throughout the length and breadth of this big country. The experience of meeting the community and beneficiaries in the consejo communal de Cumbotes gives us some idea of the impact this will have across the nation, for the Venezuelan people.
Vice Minister of the Communal Economy, Ana Maldonado, lends a hand to the "socialist Work Brigade" labouring to build 51 new houses in the community.
Another family receive the keys to their new home.
The invitation to Venezuela came from the Vice Ministry of the Communal Economy, part of the Ministry of Communes and Social Movements. The Vice Ministry is responsible for fomenting production and services within grassroots communities to accompany their political organisation through communal councils and communes. Having read my book, Che Guevara: the economics of revolution (published in Cuba as Che Guevara: economía en revolución) they were interested in discussing whether elements of Che´s Budgetary Finance System could serve as useful tools in Communal Economic System (Sistema Económico Comunal – SEC) and in other sectors or branches in the Venezuelan economy.In just five days we have already participated in seminars, discussions, and visits to Enterprises of Social Production (Empresas de Producción Social – EPS) which along with the Family Productive Units, constitute the Communal Economic System.
The morning after arriving, we travelled to a mountainous region of Aragua State to join over 70 participants at a two week seminar on Latin American political theory, named after Peruvian Marxist José Mariategui. Most of the participants (still) there are Venezuelans, representing multiple different social movements, communes, EPS, and institutions of people’s power (poder popular). The participants are divided into self-coordinating groups which share responsibility for the functioning of the seminar, thus empowering and training them in the organisational and political challenges involved in this type of theoretical work. Once the seminar has finished, the participants will organise similar seminars in their grassroots constituencies, as part of the process of multiplying the knowledge and skills necessary to empower the population.
On Sunday 22 September, I gave a presentation about Che’s approach to political formation in the transition to socialism. It covered his vision of the role of education: education as culture, political education and education for production; as well as his attitude towards the political and material position of technical personnel and explained how the new salary structure created in revolutionary Cuba served to break the link between work and remuneration, undermining the operation of the law of value in the transition to socialism, and linking personal improvements to national development.
The audience engaged with the presentation and appropriated the theoretical and practical principles to their own reality in Venezuela today, discussing contradictions which emerge and the extent to which it would be possible to adopt similar policies in Venezuela – especially those promoting technical training and education for production in general. The presentation and discussion went on for four hours, with informal discussions continuing on to the following day.
On Wednesday 25 September I accompanied the Vice Minister of the Communal Economy, Ana Maldonado to two EPS in Guarenas, 45 minutes outside of Caracas. There are two forms of EPS, one is DIRECT social property – which means that the community in which they are established own, as well as manages, the means of production. The other is INDIRECT social property, where the state (the viceministry) owns the means of production, but the workers manage it. These tend to be larger and more strategic units of production but the intention is that as the workers capacity and commitment increase, these will be transferred under ownership of the community, becoming enterprises of DIRECT social property.
In both forms of EPS, the producers elect representatives to administrative positions from among themselves on a two year rotational basis, so that all the workers have the opportunity to develop managerial, organisational and accounting, as well as productive or manual skills. According to those I met, these administrative workers continue to participate in the productive process when their administrative tasks are completed or when there is a specific need.
The enterprises we visited were a carpenters and an ironworks, both of them producing for the Great Housing Mission Venezuela (Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela) which has already built nearly 500,000 housing units since 2011 and has a goal of constructing 2.6 million new homes by 2019. Both EPS were located within a large warehouse which had been empty for 30 years prior to its rehabilitation for these projects. The nearly 60 workers in these two enterprises are local residents who were unemployed before they joined the EPS. In both enterprises the workers received three months of training on site when they began. They have seen the fruits of their labour as new homes have been erected in their own neighbourhoods and in surrounding states.
There are 32 carpenters, half of them women, and including disabled workers. In a discussion following the tour of the workshop, their “vocera”, there woman spokesperson, explained to the Vice Minister that their production process was being jeopardized because the private company which supplied the specific nails they needed for their production had refused to provide more. This led to a discussion about the problems of dependence on private interests which are politically opposed to the Bolivarian Revolution. The Vice Minister and her team immediately began coordinating with the workers to find a solution.
There are 24 workers in the ironworks, many of them young men, but with a smaller proportion of women. They produce iron doors for the construction of homes under the housing mission. They were clearly very proud of their work and the fact that they had repaid the initial start-up credit provided through a government funding institution and had also generated an ‘excedente’ – a surplus which would permit them to purchase additional machinery.
Having read about the EPS and the Communal Economic System it was extremely useful to start visiting those productive units and talking to their workers about what this new productive model means for them today in Venezuela.