Monday, September 6, 2021

China: Neither imperialist nor part of the Global South

China’s insertion in the global capitalist system has prompted many critical analyses among the Marxist left. Most debated is a simple but basic question: is China socialist, or capitalist? Some are unequivocal. For example, a recently published “manifesto” of a group centered at the University of Manitoba[1] states grandiosely that “no country represents working people’s advance – economic, technological, ecological and social – more than China….” Its ruling Communist party “has made China the indispensable nation in humankind’s struggle for socialism, offering aid and inspiration as a worthy example of a country pursuing socialism,” more precisely, a form of “market socialism.”

Other analysts sharply differ with this jovial portrayal. Some argue that post-Maoist China has experienced a counter-revolution that now ranks the country as a major imperialist power, second only to the United States in its geopolitical weight, while still others – unfortunately, very few – go behind these binary alternatives to engage in a dialectical examination of the evolving geopolitical reality and to probe the evolution of the conflicting social forces within the Chinese social formation.

A notable example of the latter group of scholars is the Argentine Marxist economist Claudio Katz. In the following article, which appeared first on his website (my translation), Katz confines his analysis to assessing China’s location within the global constellation of national forces. I follow it below with links to a series of articles Katz published in 2020 discussing, inter alia, the evolution of China’s internal class relations in the post-Maoist period.

- Richard Fidler

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China: Neither imperialist nor part of the Global South

By Claudio Katz

ABSTRACT

China’s geopolitical status is the subject of increasing controversy. Its presentation as an imperialist power is based on mistaken analogies that overlook the way in which its productive expansion is accompanied by geopolitical restraint. An imperial profile is defined by international acts of domination and not by economic parameters.

China exhibits the features of an empire in formation, but only in an embryonic form. The limits to its capitalist restoration affect the degree to which it resembles an empire. It profits from Latin America’s dependence on raw materials exports, but its intervention there is a far cry from that of the United States.

The tensions that capitalism generates in China are disguised by indulgent views that ignore the incompatibility of that system with an inclusive globalization. Its current trade and investment relations contradict calls for cooperation. China is not part of the Global South. It is grappling with the imbalances of a developed economy and the tensions of a creditor. Three possible scenarios can be envisaged for the medium term.

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The imperialist character of the United States is an indisputable fact of contemporary geopolitics. Extending this qualifier to China, on the other hand, arouses passionate debates.

Our approach highlights the asymmetry between the two contenders: Washington’s aggressive profile and Beijing’s defensive reaction. While the United States seeks to restore its ailing world domination, China is attempting to sustain capitalist growth without foreign confrontations. It also faces serious historical, political and cultural limits on its ability to intervene forcefully on a global scale. That is why it cannot at present be classed as part of the empires club (Katz, 2021).

This approach contrasts with approaches that describe China as an imperial, predatory or colonizing power. It also defines the degree to which it approximates such status, and what conditions would be needed to acquire it.

In our view, China has left behind its old status as an underdeveloped country and now is a core country among the world’s central economies. This allows it to capture large flows of international value and benefit from its expansion with access to natural resources from the periphery. Because of its location in the international division of labor it does not form part of the Global South.

This view shares the various objections that have been raised to identifying China as a new imperialism. But it questions the presentation of China as an actor interested only in cooperation, inclusive globalization or the overcoming of its partners’ underdevelopment.

A review of all the arguments being debated helps to clarify the contemporary complex enigma of China’s international status.

INADEQUATE COMPARISONS

The theses that postulate the total imperial alignment of China attribute it to the post-Maoist turn initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. They hold that this turn established a model of expansive capitalism that meets all of the characteristics of imperialism. They argue that this is confirmed by the African continent’s economic subjection by China. And they denounce the hypocritical discourse used to hide this recurrence of the old European oppression (Turner, 2014: 65-71).

But this ignores the significant differences between the two situations. China – unlike France – does not dispatch troops to the African countries to protect its business. Its only military base, in a commercial hub, Djibouti, contrasts with the cluster of facilities installed in Africa by the United States and Europe.

China avoids getting involved in the explosive politics of the African continent and its participation in “UN peacekeeping operations” does not give it imperial status. Countless countries clearly outside of that category, such as Uruguay, contribute troops to UN missions.

Also debatable is the comparison of China with the trajectory followed by Germany and Japan during the first half of the 20th century (Turner, 2014: 96-100). This is not a course consistent with the facts. China has to this point avoided taking the warmongering path travelled by those predecessors. It has achieved impressive economic protagonism, taking advantage of the competitive openings encountered in globalization. It does not share the compulsion for territorial conquest associated with German or Japanese capitalism.

China has developed in the 21st century globalized forms of production that did not exist in the previous century. This has given it novel and unprecedented leverage to expand its economy with patterns of geopolitical discretion that were inconceivable in the past.

The erroneous analogies extend as well to what happened in the Soviet Union. China, it is said, is establishing capitalism in a similar way and substituting “social imperialism” in place of internationalism. This is a foretaste of conventional imperialist politics (Turner, 2014: 46-47).

But China has not followed the lead of the USSR. It has imposed limits on capitalist economic restoration and maintained the political regime that collapsed in the neighboring country. As one analyst rightly notes, Xi Jinping’s management has been guided throughout by an obsession with avoiding the disintegration suffered by the Soviet Union (El Lince, 2020). The differences currently extend to the foreign military terrain. China has not taken any action similar to what Moscow has deployed in Syria, Ukraine or Georgia.

WRONG CRITERIA

Assessments inspired by a widely-used text of classical Marxism, Lenin’s Imperialism, are also used to situate China in the imperialist camp. It is said that China conforms to the economic characteristics listed in that book, such as the weight of capital exports, the size of its monopolies, and the existence of financial groups (Turner, 2014: 1-4, 25-31, 48-64).

But those economic features are insufficient to define China’s international place in the 21st century. To be sure, the increasing weight of monopolies, banks or exported capital accentuates rivalries and tensions among the powers. But those commercial or financial conflicts do not illustrate imperialist confrontation or define the specific status of each country in the pattern of global domination.

Switzerland, the Netherlands or Belgium occupy an important place in the international ranking of production, exchange and credit, but they do not play a leading role in the imperialist realm. France and England do play a prominent role on that terrain, but this is not derived strictly from their economic primacy. Germany and Japan are economic giants, but their intervention is largely confined within that sphere.

China’s case is much more unique. The pre-eminence of monopolies on its territory is simply consistent with the existence of such conglomerates in any country. So also with the influence of finance capital, which plays a lesser role than it does in other large economies. Unlike its competitors, China has achieved its position in the global order without resorting to neoliberal financialization. Furthermore, it bears no resemblance to the German banking model of the early 20th century studied by Lenin.

It is true that the export of capital – which Lenin singled out as an outstanding characteristic in its time – is a significant characteristic of China today. But its influence simply confirms the country’s significant connection with global capitalism.

None of the analogies with the economic system prevailing in the past century is of help in defining China’s international status. At most, they help us to understand the changes registered in the functioning of capitalism. It takes another type of thinking to clarify what is happening in global geopolitics.

Imperialism is a politics of domination exercised by the global powers through their states. It is not an enduring or final stage of capitalism. Lenin’s writing clarifies what occurred a century ago, but not the course of recent events. It was developed in a setting quite distant from one of generalized world wars.

The dogmatic attachment to this book leads to a search for forced similarities in the present conflict between the United States and China to the conflagrations of the First World War. The major contemporary struggle is seen as a mere repetition of the inter-imperialist interwar rivalries.

China’s militarization of the South China Sea is denounced using a similar comparison. Xi Jinping, it is said, is pursuing the same goals covered up by Germany in seizing Central Europe or by Japan in conquering the South Pacific. But overlooked is the fact that China’s economic expansion up to now has been achieved without firing a single shot outside of its borders.

It is also forgotten that Lenin did not claim to be elaborating a classificatory guide to imperialism based on the capitalist maturity of each power. He simply emphasized the catastrophic militarism of his time without specifying the conditions that each of the participants in this conflict had to meet in order to qualify as part of the imperialist world order. For example, he placed an economically backward power like Russia within that group because of its active role in the military bloodbath.

Lenin’s analysis of classical imperialism is a theoretical acquisition of great relevance, but another toolbox is needed to clarify China’s geopolitical role in the 21st century.

A POTENTIAL STATUS ONLY

The basic Marxist notions of capitalism, socialism, imperialism or anti-imperialism are not enough to characterize China’s foreign policy. These concepts provide only a point of departure. Additional notions are needed to account for the country’s course. Its conversion into the “second biggest economy in the world” (Turner, 2014: 23-24) is not enough to deduce imperial status, or to ascertain the enigmas involved.

More successful is the search for concepts that register the coexistence of China’s enormous economic expansion with its great distance from the primacy of the United States. The formula of an “empire in formation” is an attempt to portray its place in this gestation, still far from North American predominance.

But the specific content of that category is controversial. Some are prepared to assign it a scope that is more advanced than embryonic. In their view, China is already on the fast track toward acting as an imperial power. The military base in Djibouti, the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, and the offensive reconversion of the armed forces are evidence of a turn, they say.

According to this view, several decades of intensive capitalist accumulation have now led to the beginning of an imperial phase (Rousset, 2018). This assessment approximates the typical contrast between a dominant imperial pole (United States) and another imperial power on the rise (Turner, 2014: 44-46).

But there are still major qualitative differences between the two powers. What distinguishes China from its North American counterpart is not the degree to which the same model has matured. China has yet to complete its own capitalist restoration before it can embark on the imperial adventures undertaken by its rival.

The term “empire in formation” could serve to indicate the embryonic character of that gestation. But the concept would only be meaningful if China were to abandon its present defensive strategy. Neoliberal capitalism exhibits this tendency in its investments abroad and its expansive ambitions. However, for that faction to prevail, China would have to subdue the opposing faction, which privileges internal development and preserves the present modality of the political regime.

China is an empire in the making only in potential terms. Its GDP is second in the world, it is the primary manufacturer of industrial goods, and it receives the largest volume of funds. But that economic weight has no equivalent correlate in the geopolitical-military sphere that defines imperial status.

UNRESOLVED TRENDS

Another view is that China has all the characteristics of a capitalist power but lags in developing a hegemonic imperial profile. In its description of the spectacular growth of China’s economy it points to the limits the country faces in order to achieve a winning position in the world market. And it notes the restrictions it confronts technologically compared to its Western competitors.

From these ambiguities it concludes that China is a “dependent capitalist state with imperialist features.” It combines restrictions on its autonomy (dependency) with ambitious projects of foreign expansion (imperialism) (Chingo, 2021).

But while this view is correct in assigning China an intermediate location, it includes a conceptual blunder. Dependency and imperialism are two antagonistic notions that cannot be integrated in a common formula. We cannot refer to them – as we do in the distinction between center and periphery – as economic dynamics of transfer of value or hierarchies in the international division of labor. That is why the specific pattern we find in the semi-periphery is excluded.

Dependency presupposes the existence of a state subject to external orders, requirements or conditioning, while imperialism implies the opposite: international supremacy and a high degree of external interventionism. These should not be intermingled in the same formula. In China the lack of subordination to another power coexists alongside great restraint in its involvement with other countries. This is neither dependency nor imperialism.

The characterization of China as a power that has completed its evolution toward capitalism – without being able to jump to the next stage of imperial development – presupposes that the initial development does not provide sufficient support to consummate advances toward global domination. But this reasoning presents a set of different economic and geopolitical-military actions as two stages in the same process. It overlooks an important differentiation.

A similar view of China as a finished capitalist model navigating in a lower echelon of imperialism is expressed by another author (Au Loong Yu, 2018) along with two auxiliary concepts: bureaucratic capitalism and sub-imperialist dynamics.

The first term indicates the fusion of the ruling class with the governing elite and the second portrays a limited policy of international expansion. But because the country is also assumed to act as a superpower (competing and collaborating with the US giant), it is only a matter of time before it becomes fully imperialist.

This assessment emphasizes that China has completed its capitalist transformation without explaining the reasons for the delays in this imperial conversion. But those delays could also be noted in terms of its capitalist transformation.

To avoid these dilemmas, it is easier to note that the continued insufficiencies of capitalist restoration explain the restrictions on its evolution toward imperialist status. Since the dominant class does not control the levers of the state, it must accept the cautious international strategy promoted by the Communist party.

In contrast to the United States, England or France, China’s capitalists are not accustomed to calling on the political-military intervention of their state when they confront difficulties in their international business. They have no tradition of invasions or coups when confronted by countries that nationalize companies or suspend debt payment. No one knows how quickly the Chinese state will or will not adopt those imperialist habits, so it is incorrect to think that trend is consummated.

PREDATORS AND COLONIZERS?

The presentation of China as an imperial power is frequently exemplified with descriptions of the impact it is having in Latin America. In some cases it is argued that China acts in the New World with the same predatory logic employed by Great Britain in the 19th century (Ramírez, 2020). In other visions warnings are issued against the military bases that China is said to be building in Argentina and Venezuela (Bustos, 2020).

But none of these characterizations makes any solid comparison with the overwhelming intrusion of the US embassies. That is the type of intervention that signifies imperialist conduct in the region. China is miles away from any such encroachment. Profiting from the sale of manufactured goods and the purchase of raw materials is not the same as sending the Marines, training police and financing coups d’état.

Saner (and more debatable) is the presentation of China as a “new colonizer” of Latin America. It is argued that the ascendant hegemon tends to agree with its partners in the area on a “commodities consensus” similar to the one previously forged by the United States. This networking with Beijing is said to complement the one secured by Washington and to increase the region’s international insertion as a supplier of unprocessed commodities and purchaser of manufactured products (Svampa, 2013).

This approach accurately portrays how Latin American’s current relation to China deepens the dependency of the region on raw materials exports or its specialization in basic lines of industrial activity. Beijing is emerging as the continent’s primary trading partner and it exploits the advantages of this new position.

On the other hand, Latin America has been gravely affected by transfers of value in favour of the powerful Chinese economy. It does not occupy the privileged position China assigns to Africa, nor is it an area of manufacturing relocation like Southeast Asia. South America is courted for the extent of its natural resources. The present oil, mining and agricultural supply scheme is very favorable to Beijing.

But this economic exploitation is not synonymous with imperial domination or colonial invasion. The latter concept applies, for example, to Israel, which occupies other peoples’ territories, displaces the local population and seizes Palestinian wealth.

Chinese emigration plays no similar role. It is scattered in all corners of the planet, with significant specialization in retail trade. Its development is not remotely controlled by Beijing, nor does it adhere to underlying projects of global conquest. A segment of the Chinese population simply emigrates in strict correspondence with contemporary movements of the labour force.

China has consolidated unequal trade with Latin America, but without consummating the imperial geopolitics that is still represented by the presence of the Marines, the DEA, Plan Colombia and the Fourth Fleet. Lawfare and coups perform the same function.

Those who are unaware of this difference tend to denounce China and the United States alike as aggressive powers. They situate the two contenders on the same plane and stress that they intervene indifferently in those conflicts.

But this neutralism fails to note who is primarily responsible for the tensions that shake the planet. It fails to see that the United States sends warships to its rival’s coast and raises the tone of its accusations in order to generate a climate of growing conflict.

The consequences of this positioning are especially serious for Latin America, with its stormy history of US interventions. Equating this trajectory with some equivalent conduct by China in the future confuses realities with possibilities. And it overlooks the role of potential counterweight to US domination that China could develop in a dynamic of Latin American emancipation.

On the other hand, the discourse that places China and the United States on the same plane is permeable by the anticommunist ideology of the Right. Those tirades reflect the combination of fear and misunderstanding that predominates in all the conventional analyses of China.

The Latin American spokespersons for this narrative tend to combine it with broadsides against Chinese “totalitarianism” and regional “populism.” Using the old language of the Cold War, they warn of the dangerous role of Cuba or Venezuela as pawns in a forthcoming Asian capture of the entire hemisphere. Chinaphobia encourages absurdities of all kinds.

FAR FROM THE GLOBAL SOUTH

Approaches that rightly reject the characterization of China as an imperialist power include many nuances and differences. A wide spectrum of analysts – who correctly object to its classification among the dominators – tend to include it as part of the Global South.

This view confuses China’s defensive geopolitics in the conflict with the United States with membership in the segment of economically backward and politically subordinate nations. China has so far avoided the actions carried out by imperialist powers, but its conduct does not place it on the periphery, or in the universe, of dependent nations.

China has differentiated itself from the new group of “emerging” nations, becoming now a new hub for the global economy. Suffice it to note that in 1990 it accounted for less than 1% of total manufacturing exports, while today it generates 24.4% of industrial added value (Mercatante, 2020). China absorbs surplus value through firms located abroad and profits from the supply of raw materials.

In this context, it has mounted the podium of the advanced economies. Those who continue identifying it with the agglomeration of Third World countries ignore this monumental transformation.

Some authors maintain the old image of China as an area of investment by multinational corporations that exploit the huge eastern workforce and transfer their earnings to the United States or Europe (King, 2014).

This outflow was indeed present in the takeoff of the new power and persists in certain segments of production. But China has achieved its impressive growth in recent decades by retaining the bulk of that surplus.

Today the mass of funds captured through trade and foreign investment is far greater than the outward flows. One need only look at the size of its trade surplus or its financial claims to gauge what this means. China has left behind the major features of an underdeveloped economy.

The scholars who posit the continuity of underdevelopment tend to play down the development of recent decades. They tend to highlight signs of backwardness that are now of second-rate importance. The imbalances China faces derive from over-investment and processes of overproduction or over-accumulation. China has to deal with the contradictions characteristic of a developed economy.

China does not suffer the outflows that typically drain the dependent countries. It is exempt from the trade imbalance, technological deficiency, scarcity of investment or strangling of purchasing power. There are no data from today’s China suggesting that its stunning economic might constitutes a mere statistical fiction.

This new power has risen in the global economic structure. It is incorrect to situate it in a place similar to the old agrarian peripheries, subordinate to the metropolitan industries (King, 2014). That is today the place occupied by the enormous cluster of African, Latin American or Asian nations which provide the basic inputs for Beijing’s manufacturing machinery.

China is from time to time ranked along with the United States as the G2 powers, those that define the agenda established for the G7 of the big powers. This is hardly compatible with ranking the country in the Global South. Assigning it to the Global South cannot explain the battle it wages against its North American rival for leadership of the digital revolution, or the leading role it has played during the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result of its accelerated development, China is now in the position of a creditor, in potential conflict with its clients in the South. The indications of those tensions are numerous. Fear that China will seize the assets that guarantee its loans has generated resistance (or cancellation of projects) in Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar or Tanzania (Hart-Landsberg, 2018).

The controversy over the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka illustrates this typical dilemma of a major creditor. The non-payment of a large debt led in 2017 to a 99-year lease of those facilities. Malaysia reviewed its agreements and questioned the accords that locate the best employment activities in Chinese territory. Vietnam raised a similar objection to the creation of a special economic zone, and investments involving Pakistan re-ignite disputes of all kinds.

China is beginning to contend with a status opposed to any membership in the Global South. At the end of 2018 there was fear that China might take control of the port of Mombasa if Kenya were to suspend payments on its liabilities (Alonso, 2019). The same concern is beginning to emerge in other countries with many commitments of doubtful collectability such as Yemen, Syria, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe (Bradsher; Krauss, 2015).

INDULGENT VIEWS

Another stream of authors that is tracking the unprecedented role of today’s China praises its convergence with other countries and hails the transition toward a multipolar bloc. These scenarios are expounded with simple descriptions of the challenges facing the country as it continues its upward course.

But these cheerful portraits overlook the fact that the consolidation of capitalism accentuates in China all of the imbalances already generated by overproduction and surplus capital. These tensions, in turn, accentuate inequality and deterioration of the environment. Ignoring these contradictions prevents us from noting how China’s defensive international strategy is undermined by the competitive pressure imposed by capitalism.

The presentation of the country as “an empire without imperialism” – a self-centered operation – is an example of those condescending views. It posits that China is developing a respectful international demeanour so as not to humiliate its Western adversaries (Guigue, 2018). But it forgets that this coexistence is broken not only by Washington’s harassment of Beijing but by the existence in China of an economy increasingly subject to the principles of profit and exploitation, which amplifies that conflict.

It is true that the current scope of capitalism is limited by the state’s regulatory presence and by the official restrictions on financialization and neoliberalism. But the country already suffers from the imbalances imposed by a system of rivalry and dispossession.

The belief that a “market economy” governs in the East that is qualitatively different from capitalism and oblivious to the disruptions of that system is the enduring misunderstanding cultivated by a great world systems theorist (Arrighi, 2007: ch. 2). This interpretation fails to note that China will be unable to escape the consequences of capitalism if it continues with the as-yet unfinished restoration of that system.

Other ingenuous views of the present developments tend to characterize China’s foreign policy as “inclusive globalization.” They highlight the peaceful tone that characterizes an expansion based on business and boasting the alleged benefits shared by all participants. They also praise the “intercivilizational alliance” generated by the new global linkage of nations and cultures.

But is it possible to forge an “inclusive globalization” under capitalism? How could the principle of mutual gains be reflected in a system governed by competition and profit?

In fact, globalization has involved dramatic rifts between winners and losers, with the consequent widening of inequality. China cannot offer magic remedies for those hardships. On the contrary, it boosts their consequences by expanding its participation in economic processes governed by exploitation and profit.

So far it has managed to limit the volatile effects of that dynamic, but the ruling classes and neoliberal elites of the country are determined to break from all restraints. They press for Beijing to accept the increasing asymmetries imposed by global capitalism. Ignoring the reality of this tendency is an exercise in self-deception.

The Chinese government itself praises capitalist globalization, exalts the Davos summits and extols the virtues of free trade with vacuous praise of universal values. Some versions attempt to reconcile this claim with the basic principles of socialist doctrine. It is claimed that the Silk Road synthesizes the contemporary modalities of economic expansion analyzed by the Communist Manifesto in the mid-19th century.

But critics of this unlikely interpretation have recalled that Marx never applauded that development (Lin Chun, 2019). On the contrary, he denounced its terrible consequences for the popular majorities of the entire planet. The irreconcilable cannot be reconciled with theoretical alchemy.

CONTROVERSIES OVER COOPERATION

Another complacent view of the present course underscores the cooperation component of Chinese foreign policy. It notes that China is not responsible for the misfortunes suffered by its clients in the periphery and highlights the bona fide nature of investment powered by Beijing. It recalls as well that export strength is based on increases in productivity which in themselves do not affect the subordinated economies (Lo Dic, 2016).

But this idealization of business relations omits the objective effect of unequal exchange, which marks all transactions carried out under the aegis of global capitalism. China appropriates surpluses from the underdeveloped economies through the particular dynamic of these transactions. It obtains large profits because its productivity is superior to the average productivity of those clients. What is presented naively as a peculiar merit of China is the principle of generalized inequality that reigns under capitalism.

Affirming that China does not relegate its partners in Latin America or Africa to production of raw materials tends to assign exclusive responsibility for this misfortune to the world system. This overlooks the fact that China’s leadership is a central fact of international trade.

To suggest that China is “not to blame” for the general effects of capitalism amounts to covering up the benefits obtained by the country’s dominant classes. They profit from the weighted increase in productivity (through mechanisms of exploitation of salaried employees) and realize those earnings in the exchanges with the lagging economies.

When Chinese expansion is praised as “based more on productivity than on exploitation” (Lo, Dic, 2018), this fails to note that both components are interrelated aspects of the same process of appropriation of alienated labour.

The contrast between the vaunted productivity and the spurned exploitation is characteristic of neoclassical economic theory, which envisions the convergence in the market of distinct “factors of production,” forgetting that all of those components are based on the same extraction of surplus value. That expropriation is the only real source of all profits.

The mere recognition of China’s productive profile also tends to highlight the counterweight it has introduced to the international primacy of financialization and neoliberalism (Lo Dic, 2018). But the limits imposed on the first of these (international streams of speculation) do not dilute the support provided to the second (capitalist abuses of workers).

The reintroduction of capitalism in China has been the great incentive for the relocation of firms and the consequent cheapening of the labour force. This turn has helped to reconstruct the rate of profit in recent decades. If China were to play an effective role in international cooperation it would have to adopt internal and external strategies for the reversal of capitalism.

DICHOTOMIES AND SCENARIOS

China has left behind its former status as a territory torn apart by foreign incursions. It is no longer experiencing the tragic situation it faced in recent centuries. It confronts the North American aggressor from a status far removed from the prevailing destitution in the periphery. Pentagon strategists know they cannot treat their rival as they treat Panama, Iraq or Libya.

But that consolidation of sovereignty has fragmented with China’s abandonment of its anti-imperialist traditions. The post-Mao regime has turned away from the radicalized international politics sponsored by the Bandung Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement. And it has buried any gesture of solidarity with the popular struggles in the world.

This turn is the other side of its international geopolitical restraint. China avoids conflicts with the United States, without interfering in the outrages that Washington commits. The governing elite has buried all traces of sympathy with the resistances to the planet’s main oppressor.

But this turn confronts the same limits as restoration and the leap toward a dominant international status. It is subject to the unresolved dispute over the internal future of the country. The capitalist orientation favoured by the neoliberals has pro-imperialist consequences as compelling as the anti-imperialist course promoted by the Left. The conflict with the United States will directly affect these demarcations.

What are the scenarios envisioned in the conflict with the North American competitor? The hypothesis of a détente (and consequent reintegration of both powers) has been attenuated. The signs of enduring struggle are overwhelming and refute the predictions that China will be assimilated into the neoliberal order as a partner of the United States, as some writers have posited (Hung, Ho-fung, 2015).

The current context also dispels the anticipation of the gestation of a transnational capitalist class with Chinese and US participants. The choice of a path that is distinct from neoliberalism is not the only reason for this divorce (Robinson, 2017). The “Chinamerica” association – prior to the 2008 crisis – included neither amalgamations of the ruling classes nor the outlines of an emerging shared state.

In the short term, there is the robust rise of China in the face of an obvious decline of the United States. China is winning the dispute in all areas and its recent management of the pandemic is a confirmation of this. Beijing quickly achieved control over the spread of the infection while Washington coped with an overflow of cases that left the country with one of the highest numbers of deaths.

China has also excelled in its international health assistance, in contrast to the shocking self-interest of its rival. The Chinese economy has regained its high rate of growth while its US counterpart is coping with a doubtful recovery in its level of activity. Trump’s electoral defeat capped the failure of all the US operatives to subdue China.

But the medium-range scenario is more uncertain and the military, technological and financial resources maintained by North American imperialism stand in the way of any prediction as to which power will emerge victorious from the confrontation.

In general terms, it is possible to conceive of three dissimilar scenarios. Should the United States gain the upper hand it could begin to reconstitute its imperial leadership, subordinating its Asian and European partners. If, on the other hand, China manages to triumph with a capitalist free-trade strategy, its transformation as an imperial power would be confirmed.

But a victory for the Eastern giant achieved in a context of popular rebellions would completely modify the international context. It could induce China to resume its anti-imperialist stance in a process of socialist renewal. The profile of 21st century socialism will be determined by whichever of these three scenarios ultimately prevails.

April 20, 2021

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-Lo, Dic (2018). Perspectives on China’s Systematic Impact on Late Industrialization: A Critical Appraisal SOAS University of London July

-Mercatante, Esteban (2020). Desarrollo desigual e imperialismo hoy: una discusión con David Harvey, 30-08 https://www.laizquierdadiario.com

-Ramírez, Sebastián (2020). Más sobre el carácter de China 05 de diciembre https://pcr.org.ar/nota/mas-sobre-el-caracter-de-china/

-Robinson, William (2017). I China and Trumpism: The Political Contradictions of Global 14 feb. https://www.telesurtv.net

-Rousset, Pierre (2018). Geopolítica china: continuidades, inflexiones, incertidumbres, 25/07/ https://vientosur.info/spip.php?article14038

-Svampa Maristella, (2013), “El consenso de commodities y lenguajes de valoración en América Latina”, www.iade.org.ar, 02/05.

-Turner, N. B (2014). Is China an Imperialist Country? Considerations and Evidence March 20, https://redstarpublishers.org/

FURTHER READING

In the following articles (unfortunately, unavailable in English), Claudio Katz focuses on the major dichotomies of China’s heterogeneous class structure and socio-political regime: in particular the creation in recent years of a new urban proletariat that is already mobilizing in defense of its interests; the rise of a new capitalist class heavily involved in international trade and investment but not in direct control of the state; and a bureaucratic and autocratic ruling elite that is still autonomous of this bourgeoisie. China’s future evolution, he concludes, depends very much on external circumstances, and in particular the impact of mass workers’ and popular struggles in the global context.

DESCIFRAR A CHINA I. ¿DESACOPLE O RUTA DE LA SEDA?https://katz.lahaine.org/b2-img/DESCIFRARACHINAI.DESACOPLEORUTADELASEDA.pdf

DESCIFRAR A CHINA II. ¿CAPITALISMO O SOCIALISMO? https://katz.lahaine.org/b2-img/DESCIFRARACHINAII.CAPITALISMOOSOCIALISMO.pdf

DESCIFRAR A CHINA III. PROYECTOS EN DISPUTA https://katz.lahaine.org/b2-img/DESCIFRARACHINAIII.PROYECTOSENDISPUTA.pdf


[1] Through Pluripolarity to Socialism: A Manifesto, https://internationalmanifesto.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/through-pluripolarity-to-socialism-a-manifesto-final.pdf

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Cuba: The single party system confronts the crisis

A critical perspective from a Cuban historian

None of the ostensibly post-capitalist regimes established since 1917 has managed to find a way to sustain mass democratic forms of governance and to build the popular consciousness and capacities needed for the transition to socialist society. Whatever their origins, these regimes have come to rely on monolithic party formations that function essentially as a part of the institutional structure of the state, not independently of it. Cuba is no exception, notwithstanding its heroic history of mobilization against imperialist threats and in internationalist solidarity.

In the following article Cuban historian Alina Bárbara López Hernández explores this dilemma in the context of the social protests that occurred throughout Cuba on July 11. She focuses in particular on the way in which the single-Party system has shielded the government from popular concerns and demands, curtailed public political debate, alienated the youth, and fostered the growth of bureaucratic lethargy that hinders efforts at economic and social reform. Although she does not suggest a solution to this problem, she emphasizes the need to open up a debate on it within Cuba, and to encourage all forms of democratic expression within that process.

Alina Bárbara López Hernández is a professor, writer and historian based in Matanzas. She is the coordinator of the on-line publication La Joven Cuba, in which this article appeared. I have revised the English translation published in International Viewpoint. – Richard Fidler

* * *

The single party system faced with the crisis

by Alina Bárbara López Hernández

A political party that governs alone, does not compete with another organization, and does not have to run in an election to be in power, would seem to have a great advantage. Paradoxically, that privilege is, at the same time, its greatest weakness.

Not having to negotiate power, taking it for granted that it will not be disputed, leads politically to a harmful attitude that assumes any hint of social pressure is unacceptable. When it occurs, the consequent reaction shows absolute ineptitude shielded with recklessness.

This authoritarian perspective is also strengthened by the teleological, mechanistic and anti-Marxist approach to history which assumes that the socialist revolution, once victorious, cannot retreat. This over-optimism closes off the possibility of any process of successful improvement or reform.

The collapse of the socialist camp shattered many constitutions that declared it irreversible. It is not the text in a legal treatise that counts, but the involvement of the people who find in that system the embodiment of their aspirations and who can modify it with that objective in mind.

The pressure of the majorities from below is what has made political systems evolve from ancient times until today. In the one-party model of bureaucratic socialism, the real and spontaneous participation of the citizenry in political activity is not allowed. This discriminatory condition explains why, faced with the July 11 social outburst, the Party reacted with brutality, in an authoritarian way rather than politically.

The lesson of thirty years ago was not learned in Cuba. In 2002, more than ten years after the disintegration of the USSR, a constitutional article declared socialism was irreversible, while the 2019 Constitution established that the Party is the “superior leading force of society and the State (...).” From that vantage point, the Party should have been in a better position to see that the conditions for a social explosion existed in Cuba. But not only was it not, but it has also demonstrated its incapacity to interpret the true causes of the conflict and to act accordingly.

The real causes of 11-J

The internal contradictions of social processes are the fundamental and determining factors. This principle of materialist dialectics is not applied by the Party in spite of its declared Marxist affiliation. Therefore, in the face of the social unrest, it has preferred to stick to a narrative that explains what happened based solely on external factors, real but not decisive: the pressures of the US blockade on Cuba, a soft coup, a fourth generation war.

Up to now, there has not been a deep and self-critical analysis by the Party concerning itself and its responsibility for the crisis. If there were, they would have admitted that none of the key proposals that in recent times created hope for changes to transform socialism from above came to anything. They were:

1. A reform process announced in 2007, fourteen years ago now, which promised – clarifying that it would do so “without haste” – “structural and conceptual changes” that we are still awaiting in the Cuban economy. And I say “in the economy” because the reform process never included the political dimension.

2. A Constitution approved in 2019 that, despite the debate it generated and the expectations it raised by including the concept of a Socialist Rule of Law, excluded any approach aimed at the transformation of the political system.

3. Three Party Congresses: the 6th, 7th and 8th, which in less than 15 years actually engaged less and less with the idea of reforming the model. In the last one, a little more than three months ago, a bucket of cold water was basically poured over the people, by perpetuating the thesis of stagnation and failing to address the serious social and political problems that had generated concern, not only among the youth but also in society as a whole.

A socialist system that cannot be influenced from below is a pipedream, and ours is trapped in a flagrant contradiction: we have approved a Constitution that is not viable. One part of it tends to sustain a situation of infringement of freedoms – especially in its Article 5 which declares the superiority of the single Party – while another part recognizes these rights and freedoms under a Socialist Rule of Law.

No exclusively economic reformist process is feasible because, when the citizenry is not actively involved in controlling the direction, results and speed of the transformations, changes run the risk of being dismantled or curtailed. Cuba has been no exception. The bureaucracy has become a “class for itself” within society and hinders changes and reforms that, although it accepts them on paper, it has delayed in practice.

A great unresolved conflict, wherever bureaucratic socialism is established, is that of converting state property into true social property. This aspiration has been utopian due to the lack of democratization, the lack of citizen participation in economic decisions, and the fact that the unions are no longer organizations that defend the interests of the workers.

The arrogant attitude of the Party is typical of a political model that failed. In February 1989, the Soviet magazine Sputnik devoted an issue to the stagnation that characterized the period of Leonid Brezhnev, and it asked these questions:

“Should the Party leadership become a special organ of power, which is above all other organs? If the Central Committee is a special organ of power, how do we control it? Can its decisions be protested as unconstitutional? Who is responsible in the event of failure of a decreed measure? If this superior organ in fact directs the country, then shouldn’t it be elected by all the people?”

In this political model the Party is selective, a “vanguard,” and not a popular party open to all, so that if it declares itself as a force superior to society it also sets itself above the people. For this not to be so, the people should be able to elect those who head the Party, and this is not allowed. If it is over and above everybody, and it is not “an electoral party,” it is out of the people’s control. That’s the political model that must be changed.

The younger sectors have no memory of the initial and most successful social policy stages in the revolutionary process. To them, the revolutionary narrative, the evident transformations and the benefits of the first decades have little impact.

They have known the last thirty years, with its legacy of poverty, a sustained increase in inequality, failed life prospects and the anticipation of emigration at ever-younger ages. The arrival of the Internet has coordinated them as a generation, allowing them to contrast opinions, build virtual spaces for participation that the political model denies them, and to generate actions.

So we must recognize that the main contradictions that led to the 11th July outburst are eminently political. The demands were not only for food and medicine or against the power cuts. These may have been the catalyst, but the “freedom” slogans that swept the island indicate the demand of the citizens to be recognized in a political process that has ignored them up to now.

Bread, circuses… and Senate

The party was totally disoriented by the 11th July events. This was shown by:

  • the brutal scenes of repression against the demonstrators;
  • the declarations calling for violence by the newly appointed first secretary of the Party – later toned down;
  • an urgent meeting of the Political Bureau the day after the events – of which nothing has been revealed;
  • and the usual organized acts of revolutionary reaffirmation almost a week later.

However, although it never acknowledges or apologizes, the Party knows that it made a very costly mistake.

Voices have been raised from sectors of the left and some prestigious figures and organizations, demanding respect for the political rights of peaceful demonstration and for freedom of expression in Cuba. Several governments, and the European Union as a bloc, have criticized the violent repression, surely unconstitutional.

Palliative measures are now beginning to be taken to alleviate the tragic shortages: an increase in the amount of rice, a staple in the standard food basket, effective this month until December; free distribution of products donated to Cuba (grains, pasta, sugar, and in some cases oil and meat products); a price reduction in some services of Etecsa, the communications monopoly.

In addition, long-standing requests that would have served to mitigate the crisis much earlier have now been approved: imports of food and medicines without restrictions and free of customs charges; credit sales in stores. Others may be announced in the coming days.

There is no doubt that the situation will be somewhat alleviated, but the Party must be very aware that none of these decisions will solve the Cuban dilemma which is, as I have already stated, of a political nature.

Perhaps they believe that by applying these palliatives they are discovering a new politics. They are wrong. Thousands of years ago, the Latin poet Juvenal, in his Satire X, immortalized a phrase that designated the practice of the rulers of his time: “Bread and circuses.”[1] It was the plan of Roman politicians to win over the urban plebs in exchange for wheat and entertainments so that they would lose their critical spirit, feeling satisfied by the false generosity of the rulers.

In Cuba we need bread and circuses, we are a suffering people, but – above all – we need to govern from below. We need to be the Senate, since our Senate has disappeared from the political scene. There is not a single statement from any member of the National Assembly of People’s Power, as such, in spite of the seriousness of the violent acts against a part of the people they are supposed to represent.

They have violated the legislative schedule saying it is impossible to meet in the middle of a pandemic. However, under the same conditions, the Party held its 8th congress and, after July 11, massive activities were organised in support of the government in all the provinces.

There has not yet been an official pronouncement from the Party leadership analyzing the facts, offering exact figures of the cities and towns involved, participants in the protests, people arrested and prosecuted. It was of no use to the single Party to have analyzed in the Political Bureau, a few days before the 8th Congress, a report entitled: “Study of the socio-political climate of Cuban society.” They understood nothing of that climate, or those who wrote the report did not portray reality.

Single Party bureaucratic socialism creates a kind of political demiurge that escapes the rule of law, since it places itself above it, accentuates political extremism and separates itself from the citizenry. So far all models with these characteristics, far from leading to a socialist society, have disguised a state capitalism with features of corruption and elitism.

It is time to debate this and organize ourselves to change it. It is possible now. As the president of the People’s Supreme Court declared to the international press, in Cuba the Constitution guarantees the right to peaceful demonstration.

July 30, 2021


[1] “Panem et circenses,” Juvenal suggests, are the only remaining cares of a Roman populace which has given up its birthright of political freedom. https://www.ancient-literature.com/rome_juvenal_satire_x.html. – RF.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Cuba’s Crisis, Our Response

With Cuba at a crossroads, we must respond to recent protests by listening to the Cuban people and recognizing the country’s accomplishments and its shortcomings, its past and its potential.

Margaret Randall is a feminist poet with a long history of social activism in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua, as well as the United States. In Mexico, she  cofounded the bilingual journal, El Corno Emplumado. Among her best-known books are Cuban Women Now, Sandino’s Daughters, Sandino’s Daughters Revisited, and When I Look into the Mirror and see You: Women, Terror and Resistance (all oral history with essay). In this article, which appeared first on the NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) website, Randall imparts some well-chosen and necessary advice to everyone sympathetic to revolutionary Cuba and its people.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Cuba’s Crisis, Our Response

By Margaret Randall

The recent protests in Cuba, especially those on July 11, 2021 have provoked consternation in some and hope in others. The protests, which began in the Havana suburb of San Antonio de Los Baños, the eastern city of Palma Soriano, and quickly spread nationwide, are the first examples of visible large scale discontent since the demonstrations that took place in 1994 at the height of the economic crisis brought on by the Soviet Union’s collapse.

By and large, the “news” reflects entrenched positions. Corporate media publishes opinion pieces about a people bravely seeking freedom and treats these protests as if they are the beginning of the end of the Cuban revolution. The virulent Right screams about fake disappearances and invented torture, while remaining silent about countries such as Colombia and Nicaragua where such horrors are actually being perpetrated. Meanwhile, acritical sectors of the Left deny any sort of official violence or justify it in the name of the revolution’s survival. None of these lenses reflect the real story. Unsurprisingly, the most factual and complete accounts come from Cubans who live in the country and have for years contributed to constructing its revolution.

It has been 40 years since I’ve lived in Cuba and, although I visit frequently, I know it makes a difference that I am not there on the ground right now, experiencing current events for myself. When reading the variety of interpretations that have emerged over the past several weeks, it is important to take into account not only the writer’s political position but where she or he lives. A Cuban who resides in Cuba, a Cuban who is part of the vast diaspora, or a foreigner defending a particular political position: each of these placements has its lens. And in a country that has surprised us for so long, any opinion may be nothing more than a snapshot of the moment.

The Cuban government’s response to the mass demonstrations set a disturbing tone for their immediate aftermath. President Díaz-Canel went to San Antonio de los Baños hoping to calm the crowd as Fidel Castro had so often been able to do. But Díaz-Canel misjudged the protest’s importance and temperature. Phrases such as “the streets belong to the revolutionaries” and “we are prepared for anything” met genuine discontent with thoughtless dogmatism. To say that this was a poor response is an understatement. Inside as well as outside of Cuba criticism came swiftly.

Díaz-Canel apologized, and the Cuban government announced conciliatory measures on July 14 in an attempt to address the people’s legitimate concerns. The changes, which included lifting some taxes and import limits on medications and food, announcing changes to the state sector’s salary scale, and loosening some restrictions on food rationing, may be all that are possible given the country’s dire economic situation. However, they probably won’t be enough to placate long frustrated demands.

The Cuban Communist Party has demonstrated its ability to remain in power through decades of crises. And those of us who know and love the revolution fear that the focus on survival at any cost will leave us with a situation that is far from the one envisioned by the revolution’s creators. I speak as someone who experienced the revolution’s glory years: nationalized natural resources, newly acquired literacy, free education and healthcare, almost full employment, an equitable distribution of food and other necessities, a legal system with real input from people who discussed new law at neighborhood meetings, extraordinary promotion of the arts and sports. Cuba also developed programs of international solidarity and disaster relief beyond anything carried out by much wealthier countries. While the rich nations offer their surplus, what Cuba offers often means sacrifice for its own population. During the decade (1969-1980) I lived and raised four children there, these achievements weren’t statistics but the day-to-day reality.

Cuba’s reality today is one in which education and healthcare are still free and universal, but also one in which important constitutional changes and party promises aimed at producing a more equitable society have been enacted in word only. In the midst of tremendous economic and social stress, follow-through has not materialized or been too slow.

It isn’t unusual for politicians to promise more than they can produce. It happens on a daily basis in the United States and in most of the world’s countries. But in Cuba, where a genuine people’s revolution created mechanisms for transparency and change, this contradiction is not acceptable. Not to the old timers who remember what life under the Batista dictatorship was like, and not to the youth who, like youth everywhere, demand justice and demand it now.

In Cuba, the list of challenges seems endless. On top of the extreme economic problems brought on by 62 years of blockade and a difficult transition from a socialist system to one that can function in today’s world, Covid-19 is out of control. The country’s excellent biochemical industry has developed two proven vaccines, Soberana (91.2 percent efficacy) and Abdala (92.28 percent efficacy) and is attempting to vaccinate its entire population. But even with Cuba’s organizational expertise, a shortage of syringes—one outcome of the blockade—has rendered this a slow process. The severity of the pandemic has also devastated tourism, putting an additional strain on the country’s economy. A long-awaited consolidation of the monetary system has been rocky. In July, a major power plant suffered a breakdown, causing frequent blackouts. Scarcities became more acute. Tropical storm Elsa was another blow. Many Cubans are frustrated beyond their ability to wait for incremental change.

Over the past decade Cuba has foolishly cracked down on artists and others whose work has protested the status quo, creating the current complex situation. Despite this pattern of repression, authoritative voices from inside Cuba—including Andrés Perdomo Guanche, Jorge Fornet, Arturo Arango, Margarita Alarcón, and Víctor Heredia, to name just a few—are attempting to situate the protests in context.

La Tizza, an independent Cuban news source that describes itself as “a venue for thinking and making socialism,” in its July 15 editorial wrote: “Those who came out to protest the State and socialism in Cuba were ordinary people….Those who continue to read Cuba as if the Caribbean were the Baltic are excitedly sharing via social media images of Berlin or Prague at the moment of European socialism’s demise. They don’t know that the Cuban Revolution won’t melt like some merengue because it’s never been made of merengue. Not because it hasn’t been sweet, but rather because it’s also had its moments of bitterness, which up to now we’ve been able to transform into strength.”

The La Tizza editorial goes on to describe protests not between the people and the state but between two groups of people with two very different social projects. One group, victim of capitalist propaganda, has given up on its dream of a just society. The other is unwilling to relinquish the revolutionary aspirations it has nurtured for generations, the legality of a socialist constitution ratified by democratic referendum, or the idea of a nation of peace, social justice, and national dignity exemplified by a revolution resting on tarnished laurels rather than opening new pathways to the future.

Beloved singer-songwriter and truth-teller Silvio Rodríguez asks, “who are the comrades responsible for the fact that, after two Communist Party congresses and what is set forth in the Constitution, what needs to change hasn’t changed? Who,” he asks again, “in the upper echelons of government? I want names and positions. And I want to hear what they have to say for themselves.”

Marcia Leiseca, one of the founders of Casa de las Américas, who even at an advanced age is still active in cultural work, writes, “it’s time to speak, to exercise opinions and offer ideas.…We must establish a dialogue with young people, encourage their participation in a new present and future. What happened on July 11 has been manipulated by the extreme Left and the extreme Right, the former blaming the unjust blockade and outside interference, overstating the resultant vandalism and absolving us of all responsibility. The latter exaggerates what took place, invents horrors such as disappearances, torture, and violation of human rights.”

Cuba is at a crossroads, and how the current crisis is handled may well determine the revolution’s survival. The U.S. government needs to repeal its blockade and stop the overt and covert operations designed to destroy the revolution. Cuba’s leaders must issue verifiable lists of detainees and name and punish those officials who beat protestors or otherwise failed to follow Cuba’s own civil guarantees.

Cuba is rightly indignant that the United States continues to interfere in its internal affairs. An analysis of social media bots shows that many, although not all, of the protests are being organized and funded from outside the country, by U.S. government agencies and rightwing Cuban forces. During the protests, people received repeated messages claiming that provincial governments had fallen to the demonstrators and urging people to join a victorious situation that didn’t exist. This is understandably a sore point in a country that has endured attacks from the United States throughout the history of its revolution. I hope the Cuban government will begin to answer the protests with dialogue rather than repression.

Before July 11, dissent in Cuba was sporadic and limited to specific social groups or isolated experiences of censorship or repression. On that day, they were larger and more comprehensive. Thousands have protested excessive government control. I believe they should be heard.

I also believe that the Cuban government has a responsibility to issue information about incidents of violence on both sides, make available lists of those currently being detained, and name and punish police and other officials who have gone against the country’s own constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and dissent. At the same time, I think it is worth noting that Cuba is a nation of eleven million. The recent protests are far from constituting a tipping point.

I urge people on all sides to think about how extraordinary it is that a tiny island 90 miles from U.S. shores has been able to survive for more than half a century against every sort of covert and overt attack. Let us help Cuba become what its revolution has promised rather than try to mold it to some specious image in which profit obliterates justice and equality.

August 11, 2021

For more on Margaret Randall and her works, see Margaret Randall (Wikipedia) and her website: http://www.margaretrandall.org/.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The July 11 protests in Cuba

  Young demonstrators in Havana

Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The following article by Cuban academic and feminist activist Ailynn Torres Santana outlines what happened in Cuba on July 11, discusses the issues raised by the protesters and the government’s response, and concludes that in the wake of the protests Cuba needs political solutions that resist all forms of co-optation. This article was originally published in Spanish and English by OnCuba News. I follow her article with some suggestions for further reading in relation to the July 11 events. – Richard Fidler

J-11 in Cuba

By Ailynn Torres Santana

July 22, 2021

Protests began in Cuba July 11, 2021 (J-11). They spread gradually from San Antonio de los Baños (Artemisa province) and Palma Soliano (Santiago de Cuba province) to other parts of the country. Digital traces show that social media played a central but not singular role in this process. Social media had a kind of contagion effect, spreading protests from one area to another, or served to directly call people to the streets. This also meant that what happened rapidly reached beyond Cuba through “direct” connections on social media and by content going viral on people’s personal profiles and in foreign media.s200_ailynn.torres_santana

An unmanageable amount of information circulated and continues to circulate on social media, quickly becoming difficult to process. Fake news with traces of truth and lies also started to emerge. Confronting fake news was a price to pay for accessing information via citizen journalism. Meanwhile, official media exclusively reported the government’s line.

Ailynn Torres Santana

At the time of writing, the government speaks of “turmoil” (disturbios) while others speak of “social outcry” (estallido social), like the popular uprisings in Latin America throughout 2019, 2020, and 2021. An uprising or not, what happened in Cuba touched the region. No one has remained silent. And the country’s politics continues to be a red line in imaginations, instincts, and political agendas and arguments in Cuba, Latin America, and the world.

Numerous artists, influencers, intellectuals, and politicians with different political leanings have weighed in. From [Argentine] neoconservative Agustín Laje—who released a diatribe about what he called “the blockade myth” and has said that “a nation has awakened” against the “left” (zurdaje) in Cuba—to Residente of Calle 13, Noam Chomsky, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Frei Betto, Ignacio Ramonet, Claudia Corol, Gerardo Pissarello, Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, and many others.

Internationally, Cuba sparks polarized passions that—it must be said—are caricatures. Some outright claim that the recent protests are nothing more than a U.S. plot amplified by sensationalized media coverage and that the only thing we know for sure is that this is an attack on the Cuban Revolution. Others celebrated the “end of the dictatorship,” seeing protesters as fulfilling their prophecies of the “end of the regime.” It is fair to say that there have also been attempts to critically analyze the situation.

Seen from Cuba—the Cuba both within and outside the island—the situation is more intense and complex. Our material, spiritual, political, and moral life depends on it. For the government, the protests were a mechanism of counterrevolutionary destabilization, led from the United States, that capitalized on “confused” people and manipulated discontent stemming from unmet needs. For some people, these days of protests were a mistake because they worsened the crisis in the country. Other diverse voices called for urgent—and improbable—humanitarian or military intervention to address medical and food shortages; these commentators, often weighing in from outside Cuba, held up the protests as the realization of their own aspirations. They don’t want dialogue with the government and, reaching ever-louder extremes, claim that it’s time to “kill the communists.” They make lists of “pro-government” figures, “disgusting communists,” and anyone who does not align with their political agendas.

For other people and groups, all intervention is unacceptable, and merely the suggestion of it is reprehensible. The anti-intervention camp has achieved a significant level of consensus, but it also contains differences within it. Part of this camp rejects the protests, viewing them as a threat that could spur the restoration of capitalism in the country. Another faction calls for listening to the people in the streets and starting a civic dialogue process. This group does not subscribe to the idea that the demonstrators are puppets of U.S. policy, but rather sees the protests as an expression of exhaustion on the part of at least some Cuban people due to: the impossibility of material survival; the accelerated shrinking of “equality zones,” particularly in terms of health services and supplies, that previously dulled Cuba’s successive crises beginning in the 1990s; absent or insufficient guarantees of rights to civil and political association, participation, and expression; absent or ineffective institutional responses to growing precarity; and the conviction that, if unchecked, this unsustainable situation will continue.

This sketch of different positions is not fixed nor final. There are other perspectives. And the sectors mentioned here sometimes fluctuate, overlap, and change quickly. Nevertheless, this gives a general sense of the landscape.

Agendas, Actors, and Violence

Shortly after the protests started in San Antonio de los Baños on July 11, President Miguel Díaz-Canel went there. This move continued the repertoire that Fidel Castro epitomized in 1994 during the “Maleconazo,” a popular protest in Havana responding to the crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Díaz-Canel soon spoke on national television. He described the protests, not yet expanded to many areas, as part of a “soft coup” attempt or “unconventional war” organized from the United States. He also said that the protesters were “confused revolutionaries” and “people with unsatisfied needs” who had been manipulated by “counterrevolutionaries.”

In the same address, he said, “the streets belong to the revolutionaries,” “the order to fight has been given,” and “we are prepared for everything.” He received strong criticism for these statements. The speech was read as an authorization of violence between civilians. Violence did indeed occur: there were civilians who went out into the streets to confront protesters because they saw them as a threat to their political ideas or to Cuba’s sovereignty; there were civilians who were taken or called by labor and political organizations to do so; and there were law enforcement officers dressed in civilian clothes that acted as para-police. There was violence, and the matter of violence—including its magnitude, actors, means, and settings—is important.

The protests started peacefully, and there is evidence that they continued this way in many places. There was also damage to property, especially police vehicles and state-owned businesses, particularly the new freely convertible currency (MLC) stores. These stores only accept payment in cards charged with the newly approved single official currency, either in a local Cuban bank or online from abroad. [Editor’s note: In January, Cuba underwent a long-awaited monetary reform that unified its former two-currency system, leading to inflation]. There was violence between civilians and between demonstrators and uniformed police forces. This all happened. But the official narrative zoomed in on protester violence against pro-government civilians, the police, and state property. This narrative ignored the peaceful demonstrations and the many cases of violence against protesters. There has been much discussion about this in recent days. But there have been few attempts to connect the violence that took place during these days to the other forms of violence before and after.

Geopolitically, the violence that the United States exerts against the Cuban state and society—through the economic, commercial, and financial blockade and destabilization policies, such as federal funds for “regime change”—are part of these protests. These policies leverage a systematic, one-way force that squeezes the Cuban collective subject and its sovereignty. This violence is important not only because of how it strangles Cuba, but also because of how it links up with other kinds of violence.

Seen from within, from below, and looking into the eyes of those who demonstrated, the violence during the days of protests cannot be understood separate from the violence that deprives them every day of the material conditions of survival. It doesn’t matter, as the president said, that the electricity cuts or the lack of medicines and food are not a malicious strategy on the part of the Cuban government against the people. People can understand the reasons for the crisis and the role the blockade plays. But what does matter, at the scale of survival, is that life is not sustainable.

Many other things also matter: The Cuban government’s proven systematic inefficiency in designing and implementing economic policies. The unprecedented slowdown of the agricultural reform, while millions of pesos, without a clear economic logic, are funnelled into expanding hotel infrastructure. The incomprehensible and zigzagging measures that affect people’s lives here and now and that dramatically increase uncertainty. The demonstrable reduction in social assistance in the last decade. The 30-year decline in real wages, which has become more acute since the start of the monetary reordering (Tarea Ordenamiento). The absence of labor rights in the private sector because it is not regulated, and the absurd reluctance to operate and recognize small and medium-sized businesses with efficient state regulation. The unprecedented halt in the expansion of non-agricultural cooperatives that truly function as cooperatives and that embody democratic forms of production. The lack of interest in workers’ democracy and unions. The impossibility of creating legally recognized associations and the slow passage of a new association law that will allow the dense fabric of Cuban civil society to become formalized. The fact that the most important governing documents for economic and social reform and party congresses do not center a discussion of poverty and inequality. The opacity on issues that people are concerned about and on which many solutions could be provided. Secrecy and lack of transparency, and the criminalization of various kinds of activism as if they were inherently and undoubtedly a threat to institutions and the government itself.

At least a good part of the items identified in this long, incomplete list of issues could be considered together with and in spite of the U.S. blockade—which, besides, will remain in place for an indefinite amount of time and to our detriment.

The blockade was at least partly at stake in the protests, though some want to capitalize on it and others want to ignore it. People demanded “medicines,” “food,” “vaccines,” and “freedom.” They said, “the people united will never be defeated” and “we are not afraid.”

During the protests, criminal offenses were committed, including looting and attacks on MLC stores. Noting that it was MLC businesses as opposed to, for instance private businesses, does not justify the damage. But it allows us to understand part of the logic behind these actions. State media have reported that mostly high-value electronic appliances were stolen, suggesting that these were profit-seeking acts, not acts out of necessity. Even if we assume this to be true, this version of events fails to account for how the popular economy works and how one could sell this equipment later to generate income or meet consumption needs that are forbidden for the popular classes. In any case, the videos aired on national television show people taking mattresses, drinks, soap, and toilet paper in addition to appliances. In one video of these lootings, someone says: “All that belongs to the people.” Theft, looting, and encouraging these acts are crimes. Yet so is ignoring the economic violence, stemming from both external and internal factors, that some sectors of the population experience.

As the government has stated, there are “established channels” for expressing “dissatisfaction” or needs. But those “established channels” don’t work or no longer have legitimacy—and that doesn’t need to be a problem. Institutions respond to people, not the other way around. If, after these protests, the government insists that the only way to channel this unrest is through the “established channels,” in practice that means that the avenues for handling these conflicts and needs are closed off or unacceptably narrow. In any society, the “established channels” are never the only way to intervene in public life. The way civil society has organized for many years during tornadoes, cyclones, and other emergencies has outgrown the “official channels.” For that and other reasons, people should and do explore routes, spaces, and repertoires that they feel represent them and that help to put general and specific political agendas on the table.

Such exploration was also part of the recent protests. A very clear example is that of trans women who asserted their presence in the protests. Their concerns: food shortages, police harassment of trans people, social discrimination of trans people, specific labor policies for the trans community, and the lack of condoms to ensure their sexual and reproductive rights. In the protests they sought space to dignify their existence and to denounce violence in general and specifically against them as trans women. Different groups will try to capitalize on, co-opt, or otherwise wield trans women’s participation in the protests, but “politics doesn’t fit in the sugar bowl,” as Cuban songwriter Carlos Varela sings.

Violence also came after the protests. There was a technological and telephone blackout. People, especially women, visited police stations to get information about their detained loved ones, file appeals, and bring supplies. The president recognized that people could have been unjustly detained, but many innocent people now have criminal records under their belts. At the time of writing, July 15, there are detainees whose whereabouts remain unknown.

There is also violence on social media, including a dispute over arbitrary classifications and reclassifications—an accelerated mission to annihilate difference and frame the narrative. Every character, comma, and screenshot seeking to prove guilt contains cruelty. There are doomsday pronouncements and expressions of the brutality with which “the communists”—or those who want to “dialogue with the dictatorship” or those in “la gusanera”—will be finished off.

“The Bad Victim”

Up to a point, being recognized as a victim is a privilege. It means that you are seen and you are subject to protection. When an attacked person is no longer thought of primarily as a victim, they are erased from the scene.

The government’s handling of the conflict has chosen some victims and erased others. The president and other official political voices have recognized that the protests expressed some legitimate needs and that they contained different groups, who have been classified and reclassified in recent days. At the same time, the narrative constructing the protests as entirely violent paints the actors involved in them mainly as people who carried out “vandalism,” as “criminals,” and as people who interrupted a peaceful family Sunday.

Words have context and referents. President Sebastián Piñera in Chile and former President Lenín Moreno in Ecuador, among many others, also called people who demonstrated during those countries’ respective social uprisings vandals, vagabonds, and criminals. There, the governments responded to protests in a deeply bloody way. Discourses that classify protesters in this way, such as in Cuba now, do little to effectively handle the situation politically. Rather, it shows disinterest, if not directly sets up barriers. This also reproduces the myth that legitimate claims are those of “good citizens,” an idea that is both widespread and classist.

If those who demonstrated were vandals, then so are a good part of those who make up the impoverished population. Some of the images broadcast on national television to support the vandalism narrative show ordinary young people, dressed in the clothes surely sent by family members who send remittances, through which the state survives with revenues from the MLC stores. Criminal acts must be avoided, prosecuted, and condemned. But that is different from the arbitrary classification of good vs. bad citizens that results in erasing some kinds of violence while visibilizing others. No victim can be written off, as happened with Diubis Laurencio Tejeda.

Laurencio Tejeda was the only person killed in the demonstrations that has been officially acknowledged. The statement noted that “36-year-old citizen Diubis Laurencio Tejeda died…with a criminal record of contempt, theft, and disorderly conduct, for which he served a prison term.” Laurencio Tejeda’s criminal record was completely irrelevant in the events leading to his death, just as the way a woman was dressed or whether or not she had ever been convicted matters at the time of a femicide. Communicating Laurencio Tejeda’s death in this way strips him of victimhood, as if he is not deserving of mourning.

Where Is J-11 Going from Here?

We can see a clear transformation in the institutional political discourse in recent days. Since the president’s J-11 “combat order,” the language has progressively transitioned to a vocabulary of conciliation and calls for solidarity, unity, and peace. That matters.

From now on, seeking political solutions is essential. The government announced new measures on July 14. One lifts customs taxes and limits on the entry of medicines, food, and toiletries for travelers. This will cushion some domestic needs of those who have family or close friends abroad who can travel to Cuba. The measure is important not only in content, but because it responds to a demand from Cubans inside and outside the island. The government also announced changes in the salary system in the state sector and access to food ration distribution for people who live in areas other than where they are legally registered.

These measures should be understood as part of the current situation, but they do not respond to it in a broad sense. An extensive discussion and political transformation that allows the protests to be processed is essential. Different strategies are most essential at this time, even more so considering that the change in U.S. policy toward the island will now slow down even further. There are urgent tasks: building a more inclusive framework, recognizing not only the legitimacy of demands but also different ways to express them, imagining a diversity of solutions, and continuing to translate the people’s exhaustion into civic power to propose collective solutions and resist all forms of cooptation of what began on J-11.

Although the protests sparked shock, political upheaval, and sadness, the protests were not the cause. A society does not break down with a social uprising. It goes the other way around. A social uprising occurs when society is already broken. It had already exploded, silently. No matter how carefully it is charted out, there will be no return to total “normality.” The protests did not end when people left the streets. Different sectors tested their strength in public space, and that experience will continue to be deeply processed at home, in neighborhoods, online, on the sidewalks, and in the body.

Crises solidify cracks, and the cracks show the losses. But the losses can also have transformative effects and produce reflections about the meaning of political community and about the awareness that my fate is inseparable from yours and that Cuba is only partly mine and ours because it also belongs to others. If the government resorts to old dogmas, it will effectively blow up bridges and make the political rage of at least a sector of the population unintelligible. More than ever, the question of what is good and just for Cuba is an open question. And now more than ever, the answers cannot be captured in a single still photo or tone of voice.

Ailynn Torres Santana is a postdoctoral researcher with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies (IRGAC), visiting scholar at the Freie Universität (Berlin), and associate researcher at FLACSO Ecuador. She has a PhD in social sciences from FLACSO Ecuador.

Further Reading:

Canadians Reject Economic War Against Cuba: Thousands Already Sign Parliamentary Petition

Britain: Cuba Solidarity Campaign statement on the current situation in Cuba

Social explosion in Cuba: The ignored signals (Alina Bárbara López Hernández)

From Cuba: a description of the protests (Comunistas)

Cuba today: Homeland, people and sovereignty (Julio César Guanche)

A scream: Leonardo Padura on the recent protests in Cuba

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The ‘Free trade’ Agreement of 1989, a decisive moment in the rise of neoliberalism in Canada

The Society for Socialist Studies has just published a special issue of its journal Socialist Studies/Études Socialistes featuring articles on the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, the predecessor of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its recent successor the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA).

From the introductory article, “Reflections on the Struggle Against the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA), 30 Years Later,” by Chris Hurl and Benjamin Christensen:

“The implementation of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (CUSFTA) in January 1989 marked a decisive moment in the rise of neoliberalism as a political project in Canada. While the left, and socialist political economists in particular, played a central role in galvanizing [opposition to] the agreement and contributed in no small part to the demise of the Conservative government in 1993, the free trade agenda continued to move forward through the 1990s. This Special Issue revisits the history of struggles against free trade in Canada with two aims in mind: first to remember the coalitions through which opposition was organized, the mobilization of socialist critiques by activists and intellectuals, and the key events leading up to the adoption of the agreement. Second, drawing from this history to make sense of how things have changed over the past 30 years, as right-wing nationalists have increasingly taken the lead in opposing free trade, while neoliberals have sought to rebrand their project as ‘progressive’. How can those on the left effectively confront the project of free trade today while at the same time challenging both far-right nationalism and neoliberal globalization?”

I recommend in particular the article by Marjorie Griffin Cohen, “Confronting Power, Money and Most Economists: The Class Action of the Anti-Free Trade Movement.” The Canadian movement against this novel trade and investment deal, she writes,

“was a genuine ‘movement’ that originated locally in many different places throughout the country and was soon consolidated in a loose coalition at the national level. It was extraordinary for several reasons. First, it brought together a large number of groups that had never worked with each other before and their coalitions were strong and effective. Second, it was a movement based on class issues and was understood that way by its leaders and most of those who participated in it. Third, it democratized thinking and knowledge about economic policy, and this, in turn, meant that many groups and issues that were normally absent from a discussion of macro-economic policy, became central to the debate. Fourth, the critical arguments that developed over time focused on the problems of having market mechanisms dominate both the economic and social spheres. This scrutiny and discussion of the market system itself has not been replicated in debates on any subsequent major policy issue.

“The loss of the free trade election in 1988 and the subsequent proliferation of comprehensive international free trade agreements profoundly changed Canada. [...] [Y]et the many successes of the anti-free trade movement should be remembered for the way it propelled masses of people to deal with an issue that, until then, was in the hands of government, business, and mainstream economists. It showed that thinking about economics could be shifted away from establishment professionals to become more accessible and that large groups of people can focus on complex details, such as those in the proposed agreements, as they develop their analyses and strategies.”

This issue of Socialist Studies can be accessed here. The issue was launched at an on-line panel on March 19 featuring, in addition to Cohen’s comments, presentations by Professors Bill Carroll and Paul Kellogg, and Claude Vaillancourt of ATTAC-Québec. It is to be hoped that the journal will soon make their analyses and other articles in this issue available to non-subscribers.