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Sam Bowles Takes a Look at Cuba

How Is The Revolution Going?


(Samuel Boyles is an assistant professors of Economics whose area of interest and research is the economics of education, an area of economic study which he has been partly responsible for developing. This spring, on leave from Harvard, he spent two months in Cuba. Radicalism is a tradition in his family; his great-grandfather, of the same name, was the Abolitionist editor of The Springfield Republican. Here, in an interview with SUMMER NEWS Contributing Editor Jerald R. Gerst, Bowles discusses his impressions of Cuba.) Just How Was The Decision To Visit Cuba Made?

Well, about this time last year--a little earlier, actually--a number of us decided we'd like to go. As economists, we were interested in the Cuban economy as a case study in revolutionary development.

It took a long time to get our visas from Cuba. Permission finally came through last August, and Art MacEwan [instructor in Economics] did go then. I decided to wait in order to do a little more preparatory work and so that I would be able to stay longer.

The Cubans, it turned out, were--and are--interested in learning more about the study of economic planning in this country and, particularly, in the study of the economics of education. On my part, I was anxious to offer whatever skills useful to them I had, and to learn about the Cuban economy, and its relation to the educational system. Did You Do Any Teaching While You Were There?

I taught two courses on mathematical models for economic planning at the Economic Institute, which corresponds roughly to a department of economics at a university here, at the University of Havana. And I gave a series of seminars--colloquia really, since the membership varied considerably--on the economics of education. I also spent some time advising economists in the Ministry of Education and as well as the men responsible for the long-term planning of the University. What About Your Family

Well, the kids, my two daughters, went to school, and my wife Nancy did research on housing policy, the role of housing in social and economic development strategy. She's working on her master's in city planning at M.I.T. Both Nancy and I participated in voluntary labor, she worked at planting fields, and I helped clearing brush. Although It May sound Like A Hopelessly Vague And Shopworn Question, What Impressions did You Get Of The Cuban Economy And The Progress The Revolution Has Made?

There are, or at least seem to be, two major objectives of the Cuban Revolution, and what I can say relates to them and the problems and drawbacks surrounding them. The first is to simultaneously establish equality and increase per capita income. The second is to change the nature of man's relation to the process of production, and to alter the way he feels about work.

What is striking about Cuba is the depth of the commitment to achieving equality at the same time as increasing income. The rhetoric is not unique; the commitment is. There are four sorts of inequality that Cuba is trying to eliminate: racial, urban-rural, rich-poor--there is some overlapping between these, of course, but they don't overlap completely--and the social and economic inequality between women and men.

There has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of professional women in Cuba since 1959. It's particularly remarkable because of the pre-revolution situation of women in Cuba. Like most Latin countries, women in Cuba weren't particularly active, and their opportunities were limited by the tradition of male dominance. But in Cuba, because of the particular form of tourism, the problem took on an extra dimension, that of prostitution and the dependence of many woman on other service industries associated with tourism. The Revolution, of course, ended the prostitution and gambling immediately. Now, I don't want to make it sound like all the women of Havana were prostitutes or cleaning women; but it was significant numerically and much more so psychologically. The Revolution broke that pattern, and women are playing an increasingly independent role in the economy.

With regard to racial inequality, immediately after the Revolution all formal racial exclusions from clubs, associations, and the like, were eliminated. Accomplishing racial equality is being helped, naturally, by eliminating inequalities between rich and poor.

Racism was never as extreme in Cuba as here, though, so the problem is somewhat easier. And I get the impression that there still hasn't been a complete elimination; for example, some people still frown on mixed marriages.

The inequality between rich and poor, to the extent that it was based on the ownership of property, has been virtually eliminated. Except for taxi cubs and a few other minor exceptions, all non-agricultural means of production are owned by the state, and the government owns about 60 per cent of all the land. And the social inequality due to ownership of property is pretty much gone. There are still some peasants, who by Cuban standards are fairly wealthy and you can make a very good living through owning housing. Private Individuals Can Still Own And Rent Housing?

Yes, There is a limit to the amount of money an individual can obtain from renting housing, but it is fairly high. The fact that the government allows this is evidence of its willingness to accommodate as many groups as possible--at least, in the short run. However, large property owners and shopkeepers were eliminated; one night they nationalized something like 550 bars in Havana alone.

But what is really important is that the tremendous inequalities that existed from this source, from the ownership of property, before have been eliminated. What Percentage Of Housing Is Nationally Owned?

I don't know, exactly. But the government has committed itself to abolishing all rents by the early 70's.

But the rich-poor distinction was not entirely a function of ownership of property. Even if inequality in property ownership could be completely eliminated immediately, which the revolution has, wisely, I think, not attempted to do, significant social inequalities would remain.

Still there is a remarkable absence of social distinction due to dress, speech, and habit. When you walk into a plant you can't tell who the manager is' he's dressed in construction boots and work clothes just like everybody else.

The approach to achieving equality in income has been not to knock down high salaries, except for the very highest, but to distribute the gains due to economic growth amongst the lower-paid groups of workers.

Also, the social importance of income itself is being reduced. More and more items are being removed from the markets and offered free--health care, education, housing by the 70's telephone service. You Mean You Can Just Pick Up A Phone And Call Anyplace In Cuba?

Well, not long distance, I guess, but anywhere in Havana. They have pay phones just like we do, phone booths, except that you don't have to put in a dime; you just pick up the phone and use it. They have free major league baseball, too. The guy who likes baseball most comes earliest and gets the best seat in the house. What About The Urban-Rural Inequality?

The policy of the government has been to stress agriculture, not simply because they think their comparative advantage lies in agriculture (although I think that is, in the short run, a correct evaluation)--but part of an integrated development of rural society, including social services, and housing. The rural areas were neglected in every way prior to the Revolution, and the government is doing its best to correct the balance.

This emphasis on rural economic development has been concurrent with the achievement of full employment for everybody, including agricultural workers. How Did The Revolution Find Employment For People Where There Didn't Seem To Be Any Before?

Workers were unemployed before because activities they could have been engaged in, to the benefit of the society, simply weren't profitable to the men who had the money to hire them. It was a simple case of private benefits not exceeding costs, even though the social benefits were much greater. In pre-Revolutionary Cuba, it was in the interest of capitalists to have a labor surplus--to keep wages down and make people worker harder. And So Now There Is Plenty Of Work For Everybody?

In fact, the government has undertaken such an ambitious investment and development program that, given their failure to achieve marked increases in labor productivity, a labor shortage has actually been created. To help relieve it, during the harvest season people who normally work at, say, office jobs or in factories, go out to the fields in the voluntary labor program.

There are still some inequalities between the country and the city; for example, fewer rural children go on to secondary school. The striking fact, though, is not that inequalities still exist, but the degree to which they have been reduced. It should not be surprising to a social scientist that Cuba has not been able to eliminate all its inequalities in a mere ten years. What About The Second Objective, Changing The Relation Of Men To The Means Of Production?

People in Cuba talk about "work" in the pre-revolutionary capitalist system as Marx did in his Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts. They view man in a passive role, used like any other tool. They believe that, in a capitalist system, man has no intrinsic interest in either the process of production or the product itself because it is being produced not for society but rather for the profit of the owner of the means of production which the worker uses.

Given this critique, Cubans reject the capitalist system of production as a way to organize society. They base their strategy--their vision of the role of work in the "good society" --upon several beliefs. The first is that under the right conditions work is a creative function, and that man cannot fulfil himself as a creative social being unless he participates in the productive process. The second is that, in a system where production is motivated by social need, men can find work intrinsically enjoyable.

The Cubans are trying to do this in a number of ways. They involve the entire nation in the productive process by means of political speeches on the importance of production for Cuba and the voluntary labor program, to get people to understand the jobs of other workers and the lives they lead. Most People Participate In Voluntary Labor?

Most participate, at least somewhat. However, voluntary labor on a part-time basis is regarded as in interim measure for coping with the labor shortage Social pressures a sense of patriotism, or loyalty to the revolution can motivate people to do most jobs, but some are simply not very rewarding. Such As?

Cutting cane. It's back-breaking work. So the government is giving priority to finding some way of mechanizing the job. I find that intriguing, that the society is committed to eliminating any sort of labor that is not capable of being intrinsically rewarding. Just How Important Is The Factor Of The External Threat Cuba Faces In Making Its People Work Together? In Other Words, Can Cuba Maintain A Spirit Of Cooperation Without Some Sort Of Defensive Nationalism?

Well, that is certainly one of the reasons cooperation, instead of competition for personal reward, has been as successful as it has in Cuba. How Do You Sum Up Your Impressions?

I don't want to give the impression that Cuba is without economic problems. There are serious problems, in labor productivity, in making investments pay, in earning enough foreign exchange, problems of inefficient in public administration. But, the progress that has been made towards equality and the commitment to what seems to me a more humane relation of man to production make Cuba a very exciting case study of the possibilities for a radical transformation of a poor society.

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