Dalton Liebknecht is a Cuban worker and activist in the new independent left on the island. He answered a series of questions sent by Marx21 about the living conditions of ordinary people in Cuba. He completed the interview just before this August’s terrible fire at an oil depot in Matanzas. Nor does he comment on the 96th anniversary of the birth of Fidel Castro, on August 13. That date was celebrated by some uncritical supporters of the Cuban regime with Havana Club Rum and a cigar that — as Dalton himself explained in a private message — would represent a large part of the monthly salary of a Cuban worker. Both facts only confirm what he argues in the interview.
In recent weeks there have been street protests in various municipalities, from Pinar del Río to Santiago, passing through the poor neighbourhoods of central Havana. Why are they occurring?
Basically the same causes that led thousands of Cubans to take to the streets just over a year ago, on 11 July 2021: widespread shortages, inflation that continues to rise, and power cuts. The health crisis caused by Covid is no longer present, but there has been a significant increase in cases of dengue in various areas of the island and the lack of medicines continues to affect the population. A year has passed since those protests and nothing has changed, in fact, food prices have increased and the Cuban government is still taking no measures to improve things.
Can you give us an idea of the conditions of daily life for ordinary people in Cuba: housing, public transport, health and education, power cuts, etc?
Things are very difficult. In 1953, Fidel Castro mentioned housing as one of the great problems affecting the nation, but 70 years later this remains unresolved. In Cuba it is very common to find several generations living together: grandparents, children, grandchildren sharing the same space. Having your own home is almost impossible for young people, even repairing your home is very difficult given the fact that the production and marketing of construction materials is so reduced that you can only find them in the informal market at high prices, or in the network of shops in Freely Convertible Currency (MLC). [Translator’s note: MLC is only available in exchange for foreign currency sent from abroad, thus in practice a large part of the Cuban population is excluded from these shops.]
Public transport is in a terrible state, not only because of its poor technical condition but also because of the lack of fuel. Every day the Cuban people go to their schools and workplaces in overcrowded and excessively hot buses. It is very common to wait more than an hour for a bus to come by, it is also typical to have to walk long distances in the hot sun or have to pay high prices to a private taxi driver.
The Cuban health service is free, but it is in a poor state, affected by the crisis and it is not free of corruption. The lack of medication is an ongoing problem; I have heard of stories where patients have had to obtain medical supplies themselves to treat an illness. A few months ago a work colleague had to get gauzes at his own expense for his son’s hernia operation. I have never experienced anything like that, but I have heard stories that some medical procedures are paid for and expensive. I have not verified it myself, but there are rumours of payments for abortions and childbirth, for example. Health institutions are deteriorated, doctors are underpaid and the ambulance service is characterised by long delays.
Education suffers the same fate, with schools in poor condition, a lack of basic study material, poorly paid teachers, lack of training at all levels of education. You only have to go to a Cuban student residence and look at the food that the students receive to see the appalling conditions they live in.
Blackouts, cuts in the electricity supply to different neighbourhoods, are a never-ending story. One thermoelectric plant is fixed and another one breaks down. This is due to several decades without maintenance or technological renovation. This leads to the use of fuel for generators, fuel that is thus removed from transport or industry. So the electrical situation affects the entire nation, practically all sectors.
In recent years Cuba has opted for renewable energies and has received lines of credit to invest in thermoelectric plants, but nothing has worked. Millions of dollars were spent on the construction of a bioelectric plant in Ciego de Ávila and today it operates with massive losses and other investments in thermoelectric plants are either minimal or go wrong.
Explain how you do your shopping, between the ration book, the shops in convertible currency, the informal market, the queues…
You can buy practically nothing in the state shops in Cuban pesos. For example, right now, I can’t go to a shop and buy chicken or sausages with my salary. I would have to buy foreign currency to go to an MLC store and see what they have there — though from what I’ve been told there isn’t much choice there either.
Another option is to wait for something to be sold in some establishment in my neighbourhood or town, and for that you have to queue up for hours and you cannot buy what you want, everything is controlled and regulated.
There are also some workplaces that do deals with companies that sell food and sell so-called “combos” or “modules” to workers: at my work they have sometimes sold us food and toiletries.
The mechanism of food sales to the population can vary according to the province or the municipality, sometimes it also has to do with supply. For example, in Havana there is more food available: there are huge queues and restrictions, but it is there.
In the interior of the country, it is much more difficult. More than a month can go by without you seeing what is called a “main dish”. So you have to resort to the black market where there is food but the prices are exorbitant. And I am only talking about chicken, mincemeat and sausages, which is practically the only thing the state sells. If you want fish, it’s hard to find, and you have to pay high prices. As for pork, it costs 300 pesos a pound and the minimum wage in Cuba is 2,100 pesos a month, or 7 pounds of pork.
What is your work situation? What kind of company do you work for, how much do you earn? Is it enough to live on? How does your situation compare to other people’s?
I am a university graduate and I work in a services company, that is to say, it doesn’t manufacture things. My salary is around 5,000 pesos a month and every three months they pay me a supplement that has never reached 3,000 pesos and sometimes not even 2,000 pesos. With that income I can survive, I don’t starve, but it just covers food and maybe a few other very basic things.
I mean that if I want to buy something like a pair of shoes I have to save for 5 months, because they cost 4,000 or 5,000 pesos, a whole month’s salary.
Right now my mobile phone (where I am responding to this interview) is very damaged. To buy a new one I would have to save more than a year, because they cost more than 20,000 pesos.
I don’t have any children, so I don’t have it that bad. Cuban parents might earn 5,000 pesos a month and a school bag for their child can cost 3,000, so that single simple purchase takes more than half of their monthly salary, and if we add in lunch and shoes, things get very difficult.
Right now, Cuban workers have to choose between food, clothes and fixing their house, and of course the priority is to eat. To put it in perspective, with my whole monthly salary, I could only buy 16 pounds of pork or 20 beers.
The government insists that all the problems are due to the US blockade. Is that true?
The blockade gravely affects the Cuban economy. There are many things that other countries can buy on credit and Cuba has to buy in cash, and under authorisation and licenses from the United States. There are things that could be bought in Latin America, but we have to go to Europe to get them, sometimes we also have to pay extra for the ships to bring goods to Cuba. Access to articles manufactured with US components is difficult, transactions and operations with banks, etc. are difficult.
To sum up, it is true that things aren’t easy and that Cuba has to operate in unfair conditions, but the blockade is not to blame for many of the problems that we face on a daily basis.
Poor investment decisions are not the fault of the blockade, nor is the corruption. Economic losses due to the poor execution of construction projects, where resources are wasted and stolen, is an example. The losses that I mentioned in the Ciro Redondo Bioelectric Plant are also a very clear example.
The years of delay in the maintenance of thermoelectric plants while luxury hotels were being built; insufficient investment in agriculture; the decision to buy tons of chicken meat each year from the USA instead of importing animal feed to strengthen national pork production… is damage due to government mismanagement.
In Cuba many public transport routes have few buses due to the lack of parts, and they say it’s because “transport is affected by the blockade.” However, the tourist sector is full of smart modern buses and they are never short of parts. The car rental agencies for tourists have a huge fleet of modern cars, but the public hospitals have old ambulances. In Cuba there are many poor neighbourhoods without paved streets or sewage systems; however, the resources are there to fix the roads in tourist areas.
Much of the international left speaks of “defending socialist Cuba.” Do you live in a socialist society?
It is common for people from outside to refer to Cuba as a “workers’ state” or a “dictatorship of the proletariat” but I tell them that in the leadership of the Cuban state there are no workers and in Cuba there are no proletarians who dictate either.
In Cuba, political and economic power is not socialised, as workers we do not own the companies, the unions are only there to collect our subs and note down workers’ complaints but these are never resolved.
The workers do not decide how much to produce, or how or to whom to sell, everything is done following orders that come from the top.
The directors of the companies earn much more than the workers, they are assigned a car while workers have to travel on appalling public transport, company expenditure is not put to a vote, it is not transparent.
In Cuba we cannot make the state invest in what we think is beneficial for society.
In Cuba there are rich and poor, there are people in charge and people who have to obey.
And now there are private businesses and foreign companies.
Cuba is not socialist, in Cuba there is state capitalism where the state acts as the owner of wealth and does deals with international capital, with Russian and Chinese imperialism and with the emerging private bourgeoisie.
There is an incipient new left in Cuba. Can you give a brief summary of the situation? What are your main challenges?
In recent times, an incipient left has made itself known. It distances itself from the Cuban government; a good part of that left recognises Cuba as a country under state capitalism that is taking more and more steps towards private capitalism. It is a heterogeneous group that ranges from very revolutionary positions to more reformist views. Precisely this heterogeneity constitutes a challenge when it comes to achieving unity of action, but the biggest challenge I see is making the leap from the digital universe of social networks and theorising, to practical activity, connecting up with where the people are.
In Cuba it is very difficult to do activism, you are practically condemned to a life of being watched. There are very valuable people, with excellent ideas, but if they publicly express their disagreements they can be expelled from their jobs and see their employment opportunities limited, especially if they are teachers or doctors, that is another challenge.
But the biggest challenge is to make the working class understand that what we are living under is not socialism, that there is an alternative beyond either what exists today or else privatising everything. Ordinary people here identify Cuban society as socialist or communist and there is a growing rejection of these ideals. Both the government and the Cuban right-wing based in Miami insist that there is socialism in Cuba: regrettably, their propaganda is winning the battle right now.
What would you like the international left to do to help you?
That people from the international left who are sympathetic to the government, instead of coming for organised tours guided by state officials, should come on their own and visit the poor neighbourhoods and see the reality. They should visit the companies and talk with the workers and see what they think. Let them understand that the Revolution was made by a whole people, not just one group of individuals, and that the bureaucracy is not the people.
They have to be coherent and understand that you can and must criticise the Cuban government without siding with the international right. It is about defending the working class, because in Cuba there are also injustices.