Cuba IV: Rethinking development in a revolutionary situation

“Peace + Friendship = Development”

My time in the Dominican Republic and Mexico had convinced me that most proponents of “development” failed to address the unjust structures in the world, including inequalities that have roots in colonial times. Development needed to be understood (as Gustavo Gutiérrez and others argued) in terms of liberation: a radical transformation of global systems of power and domination.

And so, once I had the opportunity to work among churches in Cuba, I was eager to learn about the practice of development in a revolutionary, socialist society.

In the years after the Cuban government’s rapprochement with organized religion in the early 1990s, some churches and especially their ecumenical agencies made major efforts to contribute to the overall well-being of Cuban society. Cuba was in its “special period” of adjustment to the loss of the Soviet Union as a major trade and aid partner. Cuban churches drew from their own creativity and resources from their global partners to assist.

Today, church-based development programs include strong emergency response capacity and training to manage small businesses and to produce and conserve food (including urban farming). Such training includes empowerment of vulnerable groups, notably farmers with disabilities and senior citizens.

Juan Carlos Cabrera, Sibanicú, Camagüey: a hearing-impaired participant in the CIC’s project with farmers who have disabilities.

The Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) has long supported a pastoral ministry among people living with disabilities. In recent years, that ministry began to focus on farmers with disabilities. You can hear from some of the families and learn about their work in a video I helped to make with The United Church of Canada in 2019. 

In Cárdenas (near Varadero in Matanzas province), the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) has run a “meals-on-wheels” style program for people in need because of age or illness. Support goes beyond delivery of a daily meal, and includes (according to need) provision of clothing, laundry service, house-keeping, medication, and attention to health and hygiene. 

Much of the food used in that program (and in schools and hospitals around Cárdenas) is produced at CCRD’s 32-hectare farm, El Retiro. It is also a place for training of farmers in the area. You can read more about the farm and about agriculture in Cuba in an article by Gary Kenny (a friend and former staff colleague at the United Church).

CCRD’s farm: “development means that… everyone has a voice”

In conversations with CCRD staff in March 2018, the word “development” kept coming up. I asked them what the concept meant to them. At first, they did what I sometimes do: add an adjective (“community development” or “participatory development”) or an object (“development of capacities”). Eventually, they said: “that everyone has a voice.” And: “Participation means the extent to which people can participate in community, as persons; to express themselves, with their collective and individual interests.” 

In practical terms, that means holding fast to a vision of the common good that embraces all—even as the Cuban government opens the economy to small business initiatives. Tourists already know independent restaurants (paladares) and bed-and-breakfast places (casas particulares). But now there are beauticians, repair shops, and designers of fashion and everything else. In Cuba, they are called cuentapropistas: people who work on their “own account.”

At the same time, the government also encourages people to take up farming. But the new farmers need training in everything from bookkeeping to organic farming practice. This work is carried out in a decentralized way by the CIC together with CCRD and various NGOs and state agencies. Challenges include lack of machinery; ecological awareness; impacts of climate change (drought, hurricanes); market distortions (some hotels buy directly from farmers, bypassing public systems intended to ensure food security for all); and the risk of introduction of GM seeds. 

The Cuban Council of Churches’ areas of work.

As market systems evolve and while holding fast to that vision of the common good, CIC and CCRD are taking up concepts of “social and solidarity economies” and structures of cooperatives (as opposed to individual or competitive initiatives). These are not top-down programs, but initiatives hatched in networks across the country. The idea is to get people with different interests matched up with people who have capacity and experience within the same area, working with municipalities, churches and other non-governmental organizations. The networks come together without money for projects, but proposals can emerge from their work—which is what happened with the effort to support farmers with disabilities.

In Cuba and beyond, debates continue about development. We may have “sustainable development goals,” but does the practice change? Are we transforming systems and practicing liberation?

From their experience, Cuban church leaders and theologians contribute to the global ecumenical conversation that unfolds in the World Council of Churches and the ACT Alliance of 135 faith-based development and relief agencies.

In December 2010, Reinerio Arce (a former CIC president who was then serving as rector of the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas) called for what he called “prophetic diakonia.” (Diakonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to service—every kind of service: helping people, serving at tables, and offering leadership in faith communities.)

“In our country the churches are playing a more active role serving the people in need at this moment when our economy is shifting increasingly; we need to build capacity for this task,” he said an interview with the WCC news service.

“God sends us out in mission to bring the good news to the poor and oppressed, in word and in deed. Faithful to this call, we try to serve human needs, focusing on the marginalized, the ‘least of these,’ not only by comforting them but also by addressing the root causes of their pain, sorrow and shortages. This ministry of prophetic diakonia seeks to confront the powers of this world that lead to violence, exclusion, death and destruction, and it calls for the transformation of unjust structures and practices into God’s kingdom of justice, with fullness of life for all and for creation.” 

In Matanzas on Oct. 4, 2016, we watched on TV (left) as Hurricane Matthew crossed southwest Haiti before moving on to eastern Cuba. Three days later, I joined CIC staff as they continued their emergency response (right), including provision of shelter in churches.

Peru’s election: a battle between “rich and poor, master and slave”

The government palace in Lima. Inset: Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori

On June 6, Peruvians will choose between Pedro Castillo, a rural teacher described in mainstream media as “far left,” and Keiko Fujimori, described in mainstream media as “market friendly.” Those tags obscure deeper truths about the political moment.

A day after first-round results of the presidential election gave Peruvians a choice between these political opposites for the second round, I asked my Facebook friends what they thought. Several responded, and I have been learning.

First lesson came in a message from a friend: an Indigenous woman who is a medical doctor serving communities high in the Andes and far from Lima. 

“What happened in Peru is that, in the midst of this pandemic that further deepened the injustice and the inequities in health, education, access to work and extreme poverty: as always, Lima, the capital, only saw its own context. It had no interest in the regions and their right to decide by whom they should be government. For this reason, they were surprised when the teacher, Pedro Castillo, led the voting and passed to the second round. He is someone they treat as a nobody, who in social media they insult because he is part of Perú profundo (deep Peru), where every day survival is a challenge, not just because of Covid, but also because of hunger and unemployment. 

“There were other options, but as a people, we know those who give flowery and beautiful speeches but then in real life reject us, when they use our culture that they have learned about through books without feeling respect for us and connection with our land and spirituality, our Pachamama and Apus. I think this is a good time for someone who is like the majority of Peruvians to assume the leadership of our country, just as our brother Evo Morales did in Bolivia. Perhaps we will make a mistake, but I think that after so many years of being pushed aside and made invisible in our own land, we have the right. I hope that I have been able to express the feeling of a great many of my sisters and brothers.

“My people are suffering a lot. They don’t have masks. They don’t have water to wash their hands. They get sick and die alone. But in the midst of all of this, they are in solidarity, they care for their elders. These are my people and ojalá (I hope) they have the chance to be heard and taken into account.”

Second lesson came from several friends, either writing directly to me or posting in social media. Be cautious about media coverage. Fujimori, appearing on the final ballot for the third time, is well-known. She is the daughter of a former president who is in prison for corruption; she faces her own criminal charges related to money-laundering and irregular campaign contributions arising from her time in Congress.

Castillo, as someone whom the media have ignored, is harder to get to know. The Bolivian news service Kawsachun translated one of his speeches into English so that you can read his own words as you watch the video. Here, Castillo himself excoriates the media: 

“I want to denounce publicly those media outlets with national coverage that twist reality. Those outlets that do what they want and defend the oligarchy, but they forget about the people who have no bread, no education, no healthcare. They forget about those who demand their rights and ask for justice. That’s why we’re here, if we have to give our lives for a better country then we’ll do it with dignity. We won’t back down.”

Fujimori and mainstream media decry Castillo, tagging him as a Communist and worse, a supporter of the old Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla movement. It’s a false claim, given that he was part of the ronderos campesinos, rural patrols that were key to defeating Sendero.

In many communities today, the ronderos protect collectively-held land and the rights of the Indigenous and peasant farmers who live there. Their role is constitutionally-protected and built into municipal structures. Moreover, the state is required to attend to people in their language and people are recognized as having rights to their ethnic and cultural identities. The ronderos are also responsible for administration of communal justice. Some of the women’s groups I know train the ronderos so that they will bring a gender justice perspective to their work, so as to protect the rights of women.

Castillo is a rural teacher in the city of Chota in the Cajamarca region, 600 km north of Lima. An organizer in the teachers’ union, he was one of the leaders of a 2017 strike by teachers that sought to defend their employment rights and increase salaries. The academic Roger Merino writes that Castillo’s “left” might be more the classic trade union left—and certainly an emphasis on issues confronting urban and rural workers would be a step forward—and not the multi-sectoral left that has won power (and lost it) in many Latin American countries in the past two decades.

Farms in Peru’s Sacred Valley, high in the Andes

Castillo campaigned on the slogan, “no more poverty in a rich country.”  He has won the support of Veronika Mendoza, who represented a more broadly inclusive left, and he will need to build bridges with social movements of environmentalists, women, LGBTI people and Indigenous peoples. He has promised to re-write Alberto Fujimori’s 1993 constitution (which favours private enterprise and restricts the role of the state), improve the quality of Peru’s media through regulation, and increase public spending on health and education. Like many Peruvian families, his is religiously diverse: he is Catholic and his wife and children are part of the Nazarene Church. 

Keiko Fujimori, on the other hand, would not hesitate to break with democratic commitments or institutions. She is favoured by the business elites who warn of capital flight. Writing for the ALAI news service, Jesús Ospina Salinas says Peru’s current polarization comes from those who have no interest in “reducing inequalities, and who would continue a model that only brings short-term economic gains, but not structural ones that are sought and needed by the poor. The campaign of fear will not cease.”

“This is a battle between the rich and the poor, the struggle between the… master and the slave,” Castillo has said. With three weeks and one more debate before the election, the rich, who control most media, are doing all they can to catch up in opinion polls.

No global recovery so long as most countries are excluded from solutions

Back in the mid-1980s, as Dominican farmers and trade unionists were teaching me and the rest of the world about debt conditionality, structural adjustment and the International Monetary Fund, their critics said they merely mimicked the government’s excuses for inept policies. The fact that we’re having the same conversations again almost 40 years later says to me that the farmers and workers were right.

Take a moment to recall what people in many global South countries were enduring in the 1980s. A glut of oil money in U.S. and European banks in the 1970s had led to a loans frenzy: developing countries got cheap credit. But the recession in the 1980s saw interest rates skyrocket. 

Protesters in the Dominican Republic in 1984 took their protests into the street. Many civil society organizations try to carry voices of those locked out of decision-making spaces inside meetings like the UN gathering on debt relief.

The resulting “third-world debt crisis” (as it was called at the time) became a shock-doctrine opportunity to strengthen a harsher form of capitalism, one that came to be called “neo-liberal economic globalization” (or simply neoliberalism or globalization). Dominicans and countless others around the world protested, but by the turn of the millennium, this new world order was firmly entrenched.

A new crisis—the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic—has revealed the old, unhealed fractures as countries struggle to sustain already-weak health systems, provide testing and vaccines, and keep economies at least partly functioning. 

To their credit, the United Nations secretary general, Antonio Guterres, and Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau of Canada and Andrew Holness of Jamaica, convened a conversation March 29 among world leaders and heads of various international financial institutions.

Top row: Prime Minister Andrew Holness, Jamaica; Lidy Nacpil, Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, World Trade Organization. Bottom row: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada; President Alberto Fernández, Argentina; and President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela.

Holness and Argentinian President Alberto Fernández called for fundamental reform of “debt architecture” and the need for a “multilateral framework for debt restructuring.” Such steps would break from current practice, which allows wealthier countries (G7, G20) or groups dominated by them (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), along with private creditors, to make decisions binding on all the other countries. Fernández added that there can’t be a global recovery when there are countries excluded from the solutions.

Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, said nations should ensure that “measures are not a weapon to control our countries.” He urged “comprehensive restructuring” and an end to use of “unilateral, coercive and criminal” sanctions against his country and others.

The civil society organizations (CSOs) that have laboured for decades to build a system to manage and resolve debt issues said later that the leaders “continue to kick the can down the road” on meaningful reform. The groups welcome measures like the G20 agreement to further delay debt payments by the most impoverished countries (a mechanism called the Debt Service Suspension Initiative, or DSSI) to June 2021, and action to use global reserve funds (“special drawing rights,” or SDRs) to support recovery efforts in developing countries. [On April 1, the IMF approved a third tranche of grants for debt service relief for 28 countries through Oct. 15.]

But more needs to be done, said the CSOs. “Rich countries are continuing to prioritise their own power over global solidarity, leaving many people behind.” Moreover, the measures do not do enough to assist middle-income countries (like Argentina and Jamaica) with their challenges, or address the problem of the private-debt “cartel.”

“Throughout decades of exploitation, rich countries accumulated a social and ecological debt owed to the people in developing countries which is higher than our financial debt. Today these same rich nations fail to deliver the system changing solutions that we need, including immediate debt cancellation by all lenders for all countries in need”.

Lidy Nacpil, Coordinator of the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD)

“A multilateral framework under the UN is the only way to resolve the crippling debt crises affecting the world’s poorest. This is the only way to ensure debt cancellation in a fair and orderly fashion, where developing countries have a seat at the table. This would ensure a future of responsible lending and borrowing together with regulation based on human rights and gender justice.”

Patricia Miranda, Advocacy Coordinator at the Latin American Network for Economic and Social Justice (Latindadd)
World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, January 2005

One potential forum for further work would be a global conference next year on Financing for Development—”Monterrey+20”—with the issue of global economic architecture firmly on the table.

At the 2002 Monterrey conference, the World Council of Churches was among those who pressed for  

“Pursuit of a permanent solution to the debt problem both for poor countries and middle-income countries starting with an immediate cancellation of the external debt of poor countries and setting up, under UN auspices, an independent and fair debt arbitration mechanism for current and future loans which will promote ethical lending and borrowing policies.”

As Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the newly appointed Director-General of the World Trade Organization, stated during the meeting: “lost decades are a policy choice.”

No doubt those Dominican farmers would agree.