Cuba: Trump's threats, constitutional reform and the economic situation

After Donald Trump came into office, Washington’s position on the Cuban Revolution has become ever-more belligerent, in a radical change of policy from that followed by President Obama. Although the ultimate objective of both administrations was the same – the destruction of the Cuban Revolution – Obama recognised that the politics of direct aggression had failed, and so pursued the same goal in the economic sphere instead. The objective was to restore capitalism through the penetration of the market into the Cuban economy. Trump, it seems, has decided to return to the policy of open aggression and has taken a series of concrete measures reflecting this.

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On 17 April, coinciding with the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, announced the decision to limit remittances to Cuba to $1,000 per person once every three months, as opposed to the previous situation where there were no limits. Bolton also announced a limitation on travelling to Cuba. These measures have the potential to severely impact the fragile Cuban economy. On the one hand, remittances represent an important and growing part of the Cuban economy. On the other, hundreds of thousands of Americans have travelled to Cuba in the last few years, especially on cruises as a result of the relaxation of visas, bringing much-needed hard currency.

Finally, perhaps the most impactful measure was the lifting of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, which would have come into force on 2 May. Remember that the Helms-Burton Act, initiated by Republican representatives who gave it its name, was signed into Law by Bill Clinton in 1996 and is a key element in the politics of the US embargo and blockade against the Cuban Revolution. The law includes the possibility of companies from third-party countries that operate in Cuba with either goods or property confiscated by the revolution to be denounced in US tribunals. However, complaints and protests by European countries and Canada, who would be most affected by this, led the US to suspend the application of that particular clause of Title III of the law, a suspension that has been renewed regularly for more than 20 years.

Imperialist aggression

Not only article III, but the Helms-Burton Act as a whole, is a scandalous display of imperialist aggression that also violates the same international legal system that the US cynically claims to respect, by including the principle of extraterritoriality. That means the possibility of litigation in one country (USA) against companies based in a second country for activities carried out in a third (Cuba). Although the EU, Canada and other countries that will be affected by this measure have already energetically protested and threatened to carry out reprisals, it is clear that the decision to bring Title III into effect will greatly impact not only the investment decisions of companies that are currently operating in Cuba, but the future investment decisions of new companies as well.

The policy of threats, concrete measures, and the reversal of measures taken by the Obama administration, are also part of Trump’s offensive against the Maduro government and the Bolivarian Revolution. Washington’s policy appears to be firmly led by a coalition of officials linked to the counter-revolutionary Cuban exiles in Miami and their political operators, mostly in the Republican party; and Cold War veterans, many of whom were implicated in Reagan’s Dirty War in Central America in the 1980s. Amongst them you can find characters such as Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Marco Rubio. Trump needs the support of this important section of Republicans in the run up to the 2020 elections.

Trump Bolton Pompeo Image U.S. Department of StateAfter Donald Trump came into office, Washington’s position on the Cuban Revolution has become ever-more belligerent, steered by hawkish figures like Pompeo, Bolton and Rubio / Image: U.S. Department of State

In addition to these measures, on 30 April, in the midst of another coup attempt by Guaidó in Venezuela, President Trump threatened that “a full and complete embargo, together with highest-level sanctions, will be placed on the island of Cuba.” These threats are not in vain, they must be taken very seriously.

Since the collapse of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy has been at the complete mercy of the world market, into which it has been inserted in an extremely unequal and unfavourable way. The period after the fall of the USSR was a gruelling trial for the Cuban Revolution. Their resistance was a sign that, despite everything, the revolution was still alive and maintained deep roots of popular support. This was based on the conquests of the revolution, including universal healthcare and education, stemming from the nationalised ownership of the means of production.

The extreme situation of economic collapse in that period was finally overcome through a series of measures to open the economy up to the market and attract foreign investments, in particular, the tourism industry. Cuba needs to obtain foreign currency from the world market, which it earns from remittances, the export of nickel and medical services, and tourism, to be able to import commodities it is not able to produce on the island itself. Obviously, the US blockade makes this all the more costly and burdensome.

For a period of time, the development of the Bolivarian Revolution was a lifeline for the Cuban Revolution from a political and economic point of view. Trade with Venezuela was very favourable to Cuba, which acquired oil at subsidised prices and sold medical services in exchange.

The thaw of relations with the US, following the agreements with Obama at the end of 2014, allowed Cuba to contemplate greater foreign investment and even an end to the imperialist blockade.

In that context, the pressure to broaden the role of the market in the economy increased. During that period, the idea of a Chinese Way (or a Vietnamese Way, which in practice is the same) gained followers at all levels of the state and the party. However, concessions to the “market” generate their own dynamics, which are dangerous and carry with them the accumulation of private capital and subsequently the political expression of those sectors that have accumulated said capital.

In China and Vietnam, the process led bureaucratic regimes based on state ownership of the means of production and the planned economy towards the restoration of capitalism. Although it is true that these countries have had strong economic growth, this is based on super-exploitation of the working class, which has no trade union nor political rights. Furthermore, it comes with an unprecedented polarisation of wealth. Today, the Chinese economy has begun to reach its limits of capitalist development, which will inevitably provoke an explosion of working-class struggle.

The panorama now facing the Cuban Revolution, however, is very different from that of five years ago. The economic crisis in Venezuela has provoked a sharp decline in favourable trade relations with Cuba. The forced withdrawal of Cuban doctors in Brazil due to the victory of the reactionary demagogue Bolsonaro has also aggravated the situation. The new offensive by President Trump is added to all these factors.

Constitution and concessions to the market

We must take this context into consideration when analysing the discussion of the new Cuban Constitution, which was approved with more than six million votes on 24 February, after a process of discussion involving millions of people. First of all, it should be noted, that though the discussion process was broad, in reality the proposal was elaborated by “a tiny committee of senior state officials… behind closed doors” as Ariel Dacal explained in “Where do the words that were left out go?

On the one hand, there was a debate on same-sex marriage. The original text of the 2002 Constitution described marriage as the voluntary union between “a man and a woman”. The initial proposal issued in July 2018 under debate changed the wording to “two people”. This was one of the most controversial points. All the forces of reaction, coordinated through several churches, launched an attack on this issue to mobilise opposition in order to vote against the new Constitution. It was like a dress rehearsal of the formation of a bourgeois opposition on the island. Faced with this attack, the Assembly of Popular Power in December decided on a formal retreat, changing the proposed phrasing to the more ambiguous: “Marriage is a social and juridical institution”, leaving the question of who exactly constitutes it for a future law. In reality, the fundamental objective was achieved: eliminate the restrictive description of the 2002 Constitution regarding marriage. But part of the debate was postponed as a concession to the forces of reaction, who were against same-sex marriage being explicitly established in the Constitution.

Cuba tourism Image lezumbalaberenjenaThe initial draft of the new Constitution lessened its socialist and communist content and gave recognition to private property and the market, reflecting concessions that have already been made / Image: lezumbalaberenjena

The initial proposal of the Constitution also contained a series of changes that, although apparently minor or simply details, when taken as a whole represented a series of concessions that distanced it from a clear communist or socialist conception.

To mention a few: the preamble no longer spoke of the subject of the revolution (“We, Cuban citizens”) being inspired “by those who promoted, integrated and developed the first workers and peasants organisations, disseminated socialist ideas and founded the first Marxist and Marxist-Leninist movements”. In the same preamble, the statement: "we" are "determined... with the Communist Party at the head... with the ultimate goal of building Communist society;” was deleted.

The following statement was also removed:

"[...] that the regimes sustained in the exploitation of man by man determine the humiliation of the exploited and the degradation of the human condition of the exploiters; that it is only in socialism and in communism, when man has been liberated from all forms of exploitation: of enslavement, of servitude, and of capitalism, that the entirety of humanity shall achieve dignity.”

Although the statement “Socialism and the social, political revolutionary system established by this Constitution, are irrevocable” was maintained, the phrase that followed “and Cuba will never return to capitalism” was deleted!

In article 5, on the Communist Party, “the advance towards a Communist society” was erased from the party’s objectives.

The economic base of the Republic was defined by the 2002 Constitution thusly:

“In the Republic of Cuba the economic system is based on the socialist property of all the people over the fundamental means of production and in the suppression of the exploitation of man by man.”

The proposal was to modify it to:

“In the Republic of Cuba, the economic system is based on the socialist property of all the people over the the fundamental means of production, as a main form of property, and the direction of the planned economy, which considers and regulates the market, to function in the interests of society” (my emphasis.)

As well as the additions about the market, the statement relating to “the suppression of the exploitation of man by man” was withdrawn.

Moreover, for the first time, private property was recognised “over certain means of production."

As Ariel Dacal excellently explains in his aforementioned article, the question is not about whether one formulation is better or worse than another, but rather the reason for eliminating a series of very bold statements that were in the Constitutions of 1976, 1992 and 2002. Including, for example, the affirmation that Cuba "will never return to capitalism", introduced in the constitutional reform of 2002 and approved by referendum in response to Bush's provocations at the time. Nor is it a question of whether these statements in the Constitution corresponded to the real practice of the state. The fundamental question concerns the general meaning behind these changes. Clearly, it is to lessen the socialist and communist content of the Constitution and to give recognition to private property and the market. That is to say, these were a set of modifications that tried to adapt the constitutional legal norm to the reality of the concessions to the market that have already been made. Surely, among the supporters of the "Chinese (or Vietnamese) Way”, the modifications were also an attempt to give greater legal security to the private sector and to potential foreign investors.

The masses stand up for the revolution

However, the most interesting thing was that, during the discussion period, there was strong criticism of many of these proposals and strong resistance from those communist activists and workers in general who considered, correctly, that these modifications represented a setback and a threat to the Cuban Revolution.

It was that resistance that finally led the Commission, in December, to reverse many of these changes in the final text that was put to the vote. For instance:

"Those who promoted, integrated and developed the first organisations of workers, peasants and students; disseminated socialist ideas and founded the first revolutionary, Marxist and Leninist, movements", reappears in the preamble.

The passage: “that Cuba shall never return to capitalism as a regime based on the exploitation of man by man, and that only in socialism and in communism shall human beings achieve their dignity”, also reappeared in the final version.

Among the objectives of the Communist Party, “the advance to a communist society” is reintroduced.

Other important aspects, concerning private property and the role of the market in the economy, were maintained as per the initial proposal. However, the modifications that were made to the initial draft are significant and reflect the opposition caused by concessions to the market and attempts to diminish the communist character of the text.

Finally, of course, a constitutional text is actually of limited importance. Many constitutions the world over are full of good intentions and grandiose declarations that in reality have never been carried out. What is significant and to be noted here is the content of the debate, which was between those who wished to accelerate the march towards a more prominent role of the market (and ultimately, the restoration of capitalism) and those who oppose it.

CheLaCoubreMarch Image public domainThere was strong resistance from communists and workers in general, who considered the proposed modifications to be a threat to the Cuban Revolution. As a result, some of the original wording was restored / Image: public domain

This is a vital debate for the future of the Cuban Revolution. The entire experience since 1956-62 demonstrates that it is not possible to build socialism in one country (and that was also the experience of the Soviet Union). Faced the growing threat of US imperialism, the Cuban Revolution must be strengthened through a thorough debate about what socialism means and how to build it. The planned economy cannot function without the oxygen of the active and democratic participation of the working class, and it is also not viable without the support of international revolution.

We must return to the teachings of Lenin and Trotsky. A workers’ state, as Lenin described in his classical text, The State and Revolution, is but a quasi-state that immediately begins to dissolve, as it represents the dictatorship of the majority over the minority. Thus, Lenin proposed a series of basic rules inspired by the lessons of the Paris Commune: the election and recall of all public officials, that no public office has a higher wage than that of a skilled worker, the people in arms instead of a standing army etc.

The necessary complement was a conscious policy of the need for the extension of the socialist revolution, particularly to the more advanced capitalist countries, as the only guarantee to avoid the bureaucratisation of the revolution, which is the inevitable result of the scarcity of resources.

The process of concessions to the market has already led to a growing social inequality in Cuba: the beginning of the polarisation of wealth. This will sooner or later have a political expression. Indeed, it is already being expressed as we have seen in the debate surrounding the Constitution.

The gains of the revolution, which are what give it its strength and capacity for resistance, are based on the state ownership of the means of production - the abolition of capitalism - and they would be impossible to maintain under a regime of private property. The only way to effectively continue the struggle to defend the gains of the revolution is through workers’ control, the fight against bureaucracy and a perspective of international socialism.