My testimony opposing JHU’s private police bill

Testimony Opposing HB1094 / SB793
Maryland House and Senate Judiciary Committees
Corey Payne, Graduate Student at Johns Hopkins University
February 22, 2019

My name is Corey Payne. I am a sociology Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University, an alumnus of JHU’s undergraduate program, and a six-year resident of Baltimore’s 43rd district. I am testifying today to strongly urge the delegation to oppose HB1094/SB793. Private institutions, no matter their import, should not be permitted to establish armed private police forces.

As a student, my university has encouraged a sense of solidarity with my peers and my Baltimore neighbors that leads me to have grave concerns about the marked increase in danger for students of color, non-affiliate community members, and the majority Black service work force at Hopkins. Despite promises that the JHU private police force would overcome implicit biases, I have seen no evidence of JHU’s ability to accomplish this with other affiliates (such as staff, faculty, and students) despite their many years of efforts. I fear that a private police force would unduly target individuals who did not “appear to belong” to the Hopkins community. I have witnessed JHU security ask a Black visiting faculty member why he was in his office after business hours. I remember receiving a “shelter in place” order on the day after the first protests following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, when three non-affiliated Black boys with bicycles dared to wander onto our “open” campus. I remember sitting in meetings following this incident in the Office of Multicultural Affairs where my Black friends and peers discussed the need to wear JHU-logoed shirts and sweatshirts to avoid similar encounters. As a student, I do not trust Johns Hopkins to create a private police force that would overcome racial profiling.

As a social scientist, my university has taught me to value evidence and reject the idea that the simplest solution is always the best one. While my own research is not on policing, this bill has forced many of us to read more deeply about crime-prevention and police. There is no scholarly consensus that increasing the number of police increases the safety of residents. In most crimes, police are not present until after the incident is over. Visible police presence generally focuses on minor crimes that do not harm individuals but offend the sensibilities of property-owners. Moreover, the largest proportion of crimes involving JHU affiliates are alcohol violations and sexual assault. These crimes are largely perpetrated by JHU affiliates against JHU affiliates. The university largely frames this private police force as if it were guarding a fortress (JHU) against an enemy (Baltimore), when the evidence does not support that perspective. Despite JHU’s fear-mongering, the public data available shows a decrease in crime around both the Homewood and East Baltimore campuses. As a social scientist, it is not clear to me that drastic solutions such as this one need are needed—or even that there is a crime problem to be solved.

As a researcher, my university has taught me the importance of ethical conduct, of the unbiased presentation of evidence, and of good faith interactions. In this regard, I have been disappointed to see Johns Hopkins fail to live up to the standards it expects of its students and researchers. The university administration has continued to publicly declare that it has received “mostly positive feedback” on this bill, despite overwhelming opposition. 75% of undergraduates oppose the bill, according to a poll by the student government. Over one hundred faculty members have signed a letter in opposition. Student organizers have over 2,600 signatures on a petition. One large on-campus labor union and the plurality of adjacent neighborhood associations oppose this measure. The administration cites a single survey of only 96 individuals (students, staff, faculty, and community residents) to support its claim to “largely positive feedback.” That’s bad research practice. At forums which JHU purportedly held to discuss this police force proposal, there was little open discussion. Johns Hopkins instead used these events to try to sell community members and affiliates on the idea of a private police force. Yet now, JHU cites these as listening sessions—as if the university leaders’ minds were not already made up a year ago. What’s more, the decision to pair state authorization of this private police force with state funding for youth programs is cynical and deceitful. This money would fund anchor institutions (like JHU) and only indirectly fund Baltimore’s children. Any expansion of Johns Hopkins power—such as the establishment of a private police force—should be accompanied by an expansion of Johns Hopkins’ duties to the community. That starts with paying taxes to fund programs like these. Johns Hopkins University has acted with bad research practice, with disingenuity, and with bad faith. As a researcher, I’m compelled to condemn my university’s conduct.

Finally, as a citizen of Baltimore, my largest concerns come from the privatization of state functions and the lack of accountability to the community. This bill, as written, is anti-democratic. The bill does not provide any true measures to hold JHU accountable to the communities it will be policing. The university will appoint the overwhelming majority of the members to the so-called accountability board. The board itself, as written, is largely toothless—only able to suggest changes to JHU’s private police force and without any means to oversee or enforce the conduct of officers. There is no mechanism to sanction or punish JHU—or abolish the private police force—if it fails to comply with any of the specifications in this bill. Private institutions like Hopkins are not compelled to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, and recent scandals such as the failure to address reports of sexual assault demonstrate JHU’s inability to faithfully report data. Perhaps most stunning about this bill is the remarkable lack of clarity regarding the boundaries of operation for this private police force. The bill’s language is imprecise and, if Clery Act boundaries are followed, would allow for Hopkins to police the city largely without limits, as JHU purchases new properties each year. In truth, this private police force would be accountable only to the university president and the unelected board of trustees. As a citizen, I strongly oppose a panel of out-of-state multi-millionaires dictating Baltimore’s policing policies.

In the six years that I have been a student at Johns Hopkins, I have watched my university make harmful decisions regarding some of the most pressing issues of our time. On workers rights, on climate change, on immigration, on addressing racism, and on justice for sexual assault victims, Johns Hopkins has time and again decided to take the expeditious and lucrative road at the expense of its students, workers, and neighbors. I believe this bill is another example of Johns Hopkins staking a claim on the wrong side of history. In the end, this bill amounts to JHU saying: “Trust us.” Trust us to be accountable. Trust us to overcome racism. Trust us to carry guns. Trust us to respect the citizens of Baltimore and their rights. While I appreciate the good things Johns Hopkins does, I cannot in good conscious trust my university with an armed private police force. As a student, a social scientist, a researcher, and a citizen, I strongly urge all representatives—especially my own from the 43rd district—to do the right thing for Baltimore and oppose this bill. Thank you.

Johns Hopkins, ICE, and the Militarized University

Mira Wattal, Emeline Armitage, and I got the old Hopkins SDS band back together last week for an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun regarding the recent revelations that JHU has been collaborating with ICE–to the tune of (at least) $10 million–since 2009.

While any left-of-center citizen worth their salt has already come around to the idea that collaboration with the deportation force is morally bankrupt and that ICE needs to be abolished, we attempted to lay out in this op-ed the ways this new-found development is linked to other militarized practices at Hopkins.

While you may have been surprised at first to see JHU in the list of the largest Maryland ICE-profiteers, a closer examination of Hopkins’ record shows this is simply standard procedure for a university bent on increasing militarization. Johns Hopkins is one of the largest academic contractors of the Department of Defense and has long been an engineer of the military’s deadliest weapons, from missiles in World War II to assassination drones in the War on Terror. JHU recently received a contract for nearly $1 billion for the development of nuclear weapons technologies. On a more local scale, Hopkins caused a controversy this past spring for attempting to push a bill through the state legislature that would allow the university to create its own armed police force — something unheard of for a private entity in the state of Maryland. While public opinion and student-led organizing forced the withdrawal of the measure this past spring, Hopkins will almost certainly try again in the next legislative session.

[Read the whole op-ed here]

But there are two tendencies of militarization happening here at JHU. The first is good old-fashioned war-profiteering: the DOD’s weapons contracts and ICE’s leadership development programs fit in here. This is the standard of universities and companies across the board; A violent organization (like the U.S. military or deportation services) requires bureaucratic collaboration and ‘R&D’ in order to maintain and innovate. Hopkins just wants a piece of the vile pie.

The second is a stunning change: the establishment of a private police force. This moves from ‘simple’ war-profiteering into the realm of state-like behavior. Max Weber defined the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

If JHU gets its way, from Calvert Street and 29th to University Parkway and 39th, the new user of physical force may wear a JHU badge, not a BPD one. The implications of this have been much debated in spaces on this campus and at others where similar moves are being made. The most important, in my view, is the near-certainty that JHU will use violence against both its “citizens” (affiliates) and against “the other”: Baltimoreans.

These two tendencies are, of course, inter-related. That’s the entire point of our op-ed. They’re driven by the same broader social forces: As neoliberal austerity continues to rear its head and sources of funding dry up, the formerly-small shares of budgets coming from militarized sources start to loom large. And, as any who study recent U.S. history know, there is never a shortage of funding when it comes to military spending.

As places like Hopkins become more dependent upon militarized spending, as weapons research matches cancer research in the workers’ consciousness, the new norms are violent ones.

As economic deprivation (stemming from similar processes as militarization-through-austerity) drives the working class to revolt–in a myriad of ways, from the Baltimore Uprising to an uptick in crime–institutions like Hopkins feel the need to protect themselves.

The new norm of omnipresent weaponization and the renewed threat of working class revolt converge: the only logical solution is a unconstrained, weaponized entity to protect people and property; A private police can save the day.

Thus it is not just in outcomes (i.e. increased militarization) that these tendencies are related. It is also in driving forces. At least in part, both the increase in university reliance on military spending and the apparent need to protect oneself against the public stem from recent political-economic developments.

So what?

To me, this points out the need to tackle all of these elements together.

With the public uproar and anti-deportation sentiment of the current moment, it will (hopefully) be fairly straightforward to force Hopkins’ hand in ending their collaboration with ICE. A petition to that effect has already gathered nearly a thousand signatures.

But without tackling both the university’s dependence on military funding and the university’s desire to protect itself from the working class, they will simply find more ways to maneuver into other violent and immoral activities.

[For example, the expansion of the university’s ‘special security forces’ following student-led opposition to the private police bill. The university expanded its contracting of armed off-duty officers in a loophole circumventing both the will of the community and the decision of the Maryland State legislature.]

This is easier said than done. It requires recognizing that, while we are most effective in our struggle at the local level, the broader political-economic configuration is constraining the options available to us–and to Hopkins. So while we demand an end to DOD contracts, ICE-profiteering, and armed private guards, we must also imagine how to overcome the conditions which created this status quo.

And on that hopeful note, I leave you with a note from one of our many fans:


Thanks for your feedback, Mimi.

A Self-Critique in Defense of Cuba

Two years ago, I wrote my first article in Jacobin Magazine. I had naively drafted it part way through my first extended stay in Havana, before I had fully understood the imperial power dynamics undergirding my relation to the revolution. The main problem discussed in the article is, in my current view, still relevant: the turn towards openness with the global capitalist system has left the Cuban socialist project vulnerable. This was something that the Cuban revolution will have to reckon with, and something that socialists in the imperial core should be aware of.

But the way I elaborated that point was wrong. In a simplistic classification of dissidents with anarchist tendencies as “the Left” and the Cuban Communist Party as the “authoritarian state,” I obscured the complex reality that is Cuban socialism. I also, in a small way, contributed to the imperial project of undermining the Cuban revolution through delegitimization. I implied it was not true to the Marxist-Leninist values that is purports to represent; I should have been more careful with my analysis.

We have seen that “takes” such as this have been explicitly used to undermine revolutionary movements and parties throughout the Global South—most recently, an article in Jacobin Magazine condemning the Bolivarian Revolution and Telesur was cited by the right-wing opposition to undermine the legitimacy of the press and the government of Venezuela. This is a concerning trend of which socialists in the imperial core must be aware and actively defend against.

We should make every effort to learn from the successes and failures of socialist projects around the world—a task that undoubtedly requires the identification of their failures. But to do so without an understanding of the underlying imperial power dynamics is dangerous.

Our commitment to the defense of socialist experiments in the Global South from imperial attacks must always come before our desire to critique those experiments.

In this spirit, I want to briefly address the challenge I raised in the original article: Cuban socialism faces an uncertain future given the willingness of leaders to open the doors to foreign capital– a complicated move that has been debated at length both in the island and among the global left. As this process unfolds, how can Cuban socialism be revitalized in the twenty-first century, instead of re-incorporated?

Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes: “If [Cuba’s] problems are solved within a socialist framework, Cuba may once again become an agent for the renovation of the Left . . . bringing about a different kind of socialism from the one that failed in the twentieth century.” The sources of failure of Actually Existing Socialism were undoubtedly more external than not. Still, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the gradual turn towards the market in China, Vietnam, and Cuba, we are faced with a challenge that twentieth century socialism has been unable to solve.

But there is evidence to suggest that the Cuban revolutionary government acknowledges this challenge, despite its turn towards the market. Cliff Durand, writing in the Monthly Review, explains one example better than I could:

Today, as the Cuban Revolution moves away from the centrally administered state socialism of the last century, its leaders are seeking to socialize their institutions in a new way. Although in the 1960s the new Cuban government reclaimed the resources of society from capitalism, it did not fully socialize them. Instead, the state stepped in as the agent of society, in effect removing the people from active participation. A paternalistic state provided universal free health care and education, along with secure employment, and in return, the people gave the state their loyalty. But they have remained passive participants, rather than protagonists in a participatory democracy, shaping their own destiny. As a result, by the end of the twentieth century, it was civil society, rather than the state, that threatened to wither away.

Now the Cuban state is devolving power downward, to local levels of government and to cooperatives. While most property remains state-owned, where possible, its management is being transferred to those in actual possession of property. With management thus separated from ownership, the operation of small enterprises is placed in the hands of collectives of workers. Following the principle of “subsidiarity,” daily decisions are to be made at lower levels, with the support or supervision of higher levels where necessary. Through these reforms, the Cuban state is recreating democracy from the base of society upward, and the constituted power of the state is facilitating the constituent power of civil society.

Two striking elements emerge from reading this passage: one on process, one on content.

First, on process: Durand expertly assesses a shortcoming of the Cuban revolution (“the state stepped in as the agent of society, in effect removing the people from active participation”) without condemnation.

Second, on content: the Cuban state is actively working to revitalize socialism in Cuba. This implies an acknowledgement that the socialism of the twentieth century is no longer sufficient in the twenty-first.

None of this is to say that we should blindly support the actions of (any) government, or that we shouldn’t critically assess Cuban socialism. We must if we are to learn how to replicate and expand its many successes. It is only to say that, as the above passage demonstrates, we can approach this critique without doing harm and without falling into hypocrisy.

Importantly, our critical assessment must not result in lecturing, scolding, or prescribing. The purpose of critical assessment must be to further our own anti-capitalist project, not “perfect” or “purify” another’s. Socialists in the Global South don’t need our critiques—they’re doing just fine on their own. We should focus instead where our energy is best served—at reducing the violence of global capitalism, centered here in the imperial core.

Thanks to Emeline Armitage for her comments on this post

The University as a Space—and a Tool—for Left Organizing

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” These opening words of the Port Huron Statement defined a student movement for a generation that would become known for both its vision for a better world and its activism to make it a reality. This “Agenda for a Generation” was one of the longest, most ambitious, most detailed, and most eloquent manifesto of the American left in the twentieth century—written by undergraduate students sensing an impending revolutionary moment. The movement that followed—with participation from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and others—brought the concept of “participatory democracy” into leftist discourse and identified the struggles against racism and against war as the defining fights of their time. The document and the movement are described as foundational moments in the development of the New Left.

Undoubtedly the movements of that era were successful when they incorporated the systematically oppressed and exploited beyond the halls of universities—the struggles could not have survived on student participation alone. As Freddie DeBoer and Amber A’Lee Frost have recently pointed out, it is important for the left to recognize the necessity of broad based movements and the centrality of workers in the struggle. Their primary argument is not debatable: the university cannot be the only site of radical organizing. But as the SDS Agenda for a Generation shows us, university organizing can also be formative and guiding. While universities by their very nature cannot be the primary site of left organizing, many of these same features cause them still to be important sites of left organizing. Instead of abandoning them or reducing their importance in our organizing, we must use them to our advantage.


Hubs for Organizing

Universities must remain important sites of our struggle for two main reasons, one which was true of SDS and SNCC in the 1960s and one which has emerged as a result of the political and economic projects of the late twentieth century. First, universities serve as an entrepot—a hub in which easily organized groups of people are omnipresent. Second, universities have become “anchor institutions” in many cities since the 1970s—playing key roles in (under)development projects and carrying disproportionate weight in local politics. Having strong radical organizations within the belly of the beasts has proven useful in affecting communities beyond the campus borders.

The centrality of young people to our struggle has been long recognized. As Frantz Fanon wrote: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” He writes that we must learn and respect the fighters in generations which came before us, but acknowledge our own role in the continuation of the struggle. Molding activists when they are young proves easier too—when people arrive at college, or the workplace, at age 17 or 18, they come with their political persuasions still in flux. As is the case with countless students, arriving at school as a liberal, and then being organized, often results in the embrace of revolutionary socialism by the end of undergraduate careers. The youth, then, are an indispensable group for our organizing. And, in the most basic way, universities are important because the presence of young people in one place creates an ideal environment for this organizing. Just as union organizers would agree that organizing workers in a single workplace is easier than organizing those spread around several locations, the same is true of students. Not only does it take less effort to reach more people, the social and discursive nature of universities yields greater turnout for similar effort.

This is not to say that organizing students is sufficient—as DeBoer points out, only 7.5% of the U.S. population is regularly on a university campus. But rather to say that it is a necessary part of our struggle. University populations are increasingly energetic in demanding justice and equity. The inspiring unionization drives by graduate student workers since the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) decision to classify graduate student teachers and researchers as employees, the conflicts between administrations and faculty that have often escalated to movement-building moments, and the upsurge in undergraduate student activism linked to Black Lives Matter and labor unions all create momentum that we must seize upon and therefore lend credence to the argument that universities should remain a central space for revolutionary organizing.


Fighting the Beast from Inside It

The presence of organizable populations alone may be enough to see the university as a valuable site for socialist movements, but the outsized role universities have played in the underdevelopment of their surrounding communities over the past quarter century (or longer) make organizing these populations even more critical. Universities often are some of the largest employers in their cities and states—and their long-standing resistance to paying living wages and providing adequate benefits has resulted in vast inequalities between the university elites (faculty and administrators) and low wage university workers (often subcontracted staff in food service, security, and janitorial services). This is combined with other, structural aspects of university-led underdevelopment: “Eds and Meds” (universities and hospitals) became “anchor institutions” in cities across the United States. Beginning in the late-1950s, universities began to promote “urban renewal” projects dedicated to “improving” the neighborhoods surrounding campuses. These developments resulted in the displacement of local residents and the gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods. These projects often altered their shapes during the neoliberal era, but the effects have been the same: dispossession and segregation.

In many places, such as Baltimore, behemoth institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and its health system became one of the largest investors in urban ‘development’ and emerged as the largest non-state employer in Maryland. The development projects planned by Hopkins—in concert with the City government and others—in the early and late 2000s faced swift resistance by community organizations. But the organizing by neighborhood groups was largely unsuccessful, and the development project went along anyway—resulting in the dispossession of over 2,000 residential homes in East Baltimore. At the same time, a coalition of workers and students within the Hopkins institution (organized and supported by prominent scholars such as David Harvey and Noam Chomsky, respectively) were fighting for living wages. Working together, this coalition was able to pressure the university administration through public humiliation and direct confrontation. After a prolonged struggle, the workers were successful and the university committed to wage increases. The success of the internal struggle for better working conditions and wages along with the failure of the external struggle against underdevelopment suggests that organizing within the university against the university’s role in the project may have been more fruitful.

This is a strategy that is currently being taken up by student organizations, workers unions, and equitable development advocates in Baltimore—and has been met with some degree of success. In addition to teaming up for equality for subcontracted workers at Johns Hopkins, these groups (which count among them two large workers unions, the campus Black Student Union, and the chapter of the new SDS) are currently pushing for broader changes—such as better workers’ protection policies in Baltimore City as a whole and more equitable housing development policies from Johns Hopkins. This strategy of pushing Hopkins from within—and pushing the City government and other stakeholders from without—successfully resulted in the recent passing of a displaced worker protection ordinance in Baltimore.

This victory, significant yet small, signals that this strategy could be used to win other battles against underdevelopment in which universities play a key role but are not necessarily themselves the primary site of struggle. In this way, building strong left movements on campuses—among workers, faculty, and students alike—can have tangible results beyond the boundaries of the universities themselves. As primary stakeholders in university actions, these populations make powerful allies—particularly undergraduate students, who serve as important sources of revenue for colleges and universities. It is obvious that simultaneously fighting ‘in the belly of the beast’ and outside of it gives more opportunities for the success of left movements.


A Space and a Tool

Universities, then, are both important spaces and tools for our organizing. The space of a campus allows for easy access, and the populations of students and workers on it are groups traditionally most open to anti-systemic ideas. Moreover, influencing power centers within universities themselves—notably students and faculty—allows for more sites of struggle when conflicts arise in broader communities. In this way, left organizing on campuses becomes an important tool for influencing the trajectories of community development and for engaging in harm reduction on local scales.

For these reasons, ongoing calls to de-emphasize universities in our struggles are well-intentioned, but misguided. While there is no doubt a tremendous need to emphasize workers’ struggles—and primarily low-wage, vulnerable, and informal ones at that—allowing university organizing to fall by the wayside will prove to be a strategic error. Centering the most vulnerable groups of people in our organizing does not require ignoring other critical spaces and tools. So long as universities play a role in the underdevelopment of their communities, there will remain a need to fight them on many fronts. For this reason, we must continue to work on and with university campuses. And, like in the struggles of the last century, we may just find clarifying voices and visions for a better world along the way.

Testimony to Baltimore City Council

Today I testified before the City Council supporting the Displaced Workers Protection Ordinance. This bill would give contracted service workers the guarantee of continued employment when contractors change. This is a policy we have been fighting for at Johns Hopkins for a year, with little progress. I’m glad to have been a part of the bill’s unanimous passing in the Labor Committee. It now heads to the full Council, which will vote on it by the middle of June.

Here is a transcript of my testimony:

Thank you, Madam Chair. My name is Corey Payne and I have been a student at Johns Hopkins University for four years. It is clear to all of us on campus that subcontracted workers are important members of our community. In addition to the outstanding services that they always provide, they are regular, friendly faces in a university environment that often offers too few. As a freshman, I remember looking forward to my meals in the dining hall because I had developed friendships with many of the workers there. They would ask me how my day was going, how I did on the exam I had that morning, or why I wasn’t there yesterday for lunch. They looked out for me and made me feel like part of a community. One of the standard aspects of dorm living at Hopkins is getting to know which security officers guard which buildings and who has shifts at your own front door. In my sophomore year, I would pick up a soda from the dining hall on my way home every Wednesday for the officer out front. She had a long shift that evening and had worked all day at her second job beforehand. She always had a story or a joke; she was happy to see us even during her toughest days. She made us feel safe and at home.

These types of stories are not unique to me. Countless students have built relationships with the contract workers at Hopkins. Having people around who know you and know the campus makes you feel at home even when you are thousands of miles away, maybe for the first time. This familiarity is of the utmost importance to us and it is one of the main reasons why more than one thousand students at Johns Hopkins have signed petitions, attended demonstrations, and volunteered their time over the past year with the Student-Labor Action Coalition, or SLAC. SLAC is currently pressuring the university administration to implement policies giving contract workers greater equality with direct employees. One of SLAC’s goals, which has received this widespread support from the student body, is displaced worker protection.

This goal emerged out of a situation in the summer of 2016 where the university administration threatened to change security contractors, as Officer Summerville already spoke about. This change put the jobs and the newly earned healthcare benefits of security workers at risk. Suddenly, the futures for hundreds of employees and members of the Hopkins community were uncertain. Students worked together with the security officers’ union to fight back against the change. We were ultimately successful, but currently nothing is preventing a similar situation from arising in the future. With a displaced worker protection policy enacted, Hopkins would have been able to switch contract companies without threatening the jobs of hundreds of security officers. Such a policy would have allowed for workers to continue in their roles in our community while also offering Hopkins the freedom to choose a company that best meets its needs.

SLAC is currently collecting survey data from contract workers at Hopkins. While the study is still ongoing, we have found that nearly all of the contract workers are Black Baltimoreans. In a city and at a university with strong legacies of racism and classism, this bill presents an opportunity to begin to right an historical wrong.

On behalf of the over one thousand Johns Hopkins students who have supported our efforts, I strongly urge you to pass this bill. Doing so would give workers more certainty in their employment, guarantee greater stability in their incomes, and ensure that the communities we have built together will not be disrupted at a moment’s notice.

Thank you.

My Publications from 2016

I stole this idea from a journalist friend who writes WAY more than I do– you can check out her great list here— but I thought this would be a nice way to reflect on my studies and struggles throughout the year. Here is a list of the articles that I am proudest of this year:

1) The School of Subcontracting
I wrote about the struggles of unionized subcontracted security guards at Johns Hopkins whose employment, union, and benefits were under attack from the university administration. In Jacobin Magazine.

2) Reentry Through Resistance
The counter-narrative of US-Cuba détente, which was accomplished through resistance and solidarity, not “imperial benevolence,” is often left out of mainstream punditry. I wrote about it in CounterPunch Magazine.

3) After the Blockade
I analyzed the current challenges of the Cuban left, both inside and outside of the Communist Party. These stem from newly opened doors to Western capitalism as well as the state, which cracks down on leftist dissent as much as its reactionary counterpart. In Jacobin Magazine.

4) JHU efforts to cut a union company raises doubts about its commitment to Baltimore
Johns Hopkins attempted to cut a unionized subcontractor this summer, and many of us banded together to stop it. This op-ed in The Baltimore Sun proved instrumental to our success, putting pressure on the university. It is co-authored with two friends and fellow travelers.

5) After last week, we need to keep fighting against injustice
This last piece is a little lower impact. Posted in The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, this short op-ed summarizes the excellent activism happening at Johns Hopkins and calls on students to continue the struggle. But at a school that has been historically apathetic, the activism of the past two years has been inspiring.

Happy New Year!

The School of Subcontracting

This article originally appeared in Jacobin Magazine on 10/25/16

The School of Subcontracting

Universities use subcontracting to distance themselves from their low-wage employees’ needs.

by Corey Payne

The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) decision to classify graduate student teachers and researchers as employees in addition to students — granting them the right to employee protections and unionization — is the most recent in a string of developments focusing the Left’s attention on colleges and universities. From unionized faculty being locked out of their classrooms, to a professor on hunger strike after having his tenure unilaterally vetoed by the university president, to the rise of undergraduate movements parallel with Black Lives Matter, the university remains an important arena for class struggle.

But often overlooked in this struggle is low-wage university labor, including janitorial, dining hall, and security staff. While all members of university life have been affected by the neoliberalization of academia, it is often these workers who have been dealt the harshest hand. University administrations have pursued cost-cutting measures like subcontracting and slashing wages and benefits with gusto.

Facing a rising tide of unionization and collective action, universities are also resorting to blatant efforts to push unions out. This is what was attempted this summer at Johns Hopkins University. In the north of Baltimore, Hopkins is one of Maryland’s largest employers and considers itself an important “anchor institution” in the city.

Hopkins president Ron Daniels — popular with the Board of Trustees for his continued push for higher university rankings and lower costs — loudly and frequently claims “So goes Baltimore, so goes Hopkins.” But Daniels’s efforts to “save” the city often run counter to the needs of working people in Baltimore. This was made starkly apparent in recent months, when Daniel’s administration tried to cut ties with the local security guards’ union.

Pushing Out a Union

Two years ago, the employees of Allied Universal — a security guard firm that is contracted by Johns Hopkins University — unionized with the SEIU local 32BJ. After unionizing, the workers — specifically the security guards patrolling Hopkins’s Baltimore campus — won health benefits for the first time. Joining in the SEIU’s national push, the local has since been struggling for an increase in wages (which are currently below the costs of living) and the provision of additional benefits. The newly won health-care coverage, a big victory, was set to begin in January 2017.
But this summer, Johns Hopkins decided to open the contract for campus security to companies other than Allied Universal — many of which are not unionized. According to union representatives, the contract process was tailored away from Allied Universal and towards a different, nonunion company with close ties to Hopkins called Broadway Services.

Suddenly, the security guards were not only looking at losing their newly won benefits and possibly their union — they were facing the prospect of losing their jobs. The official administrative line from Hopkins is that the move represented a “performance review,” but many saw it as a thinly veiled attempt to remove a union whose gains were beginning to cut into the university’s bottom line.

The union quickly responded in a push to keep the contract — and the union — intact. Representatives reached out to two Hopkins student organizations that had been involved in on-campus activism during previous years: the Black Student Union (BSU) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Over the past two years, student organizers led the struggle against injustice at Hopkins. This struggle paralleled the rise of Black Lives Matter nationally, and we were intimately involved in student organizing during the “Baltimore Uprising.” Our organizing reached a peak last fall when over two hundred student protesters surrounded President Daniels on a quad during a promotional video screening, demanding that the administration respond to structural racism and inequality on campus. Because of ongoing struggles over these and other issues the union saw the student organizations as potential allies with experience combatting a hostile administration.

To assist the security guards, SDS and BSU organized a petition among the undergraduate students, which received nearly six hundred signatures (not bad for the middle of the summer, when the university is largely empty of students), published a critical op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, and coordinated with SEIU organizers — who had already been canvassing in and around Hopkins.

These efforts convinced the administration to postpone the decision, and to push back through a media campaign to quell rising criticism. Hopkins administrators published their own op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, and the Hopkins media relations office issued a statement:

Union status was not a factor in the decision to initiate this contract review. While union representation is not a requirement of the contract, contractors with unionized employees are welcome to bid and a number of those invited to bid, including Allied Universal . . . are in fact unionized.

Even if the opening of this contract had nothing to do with the unionization of the employees, the university’s refusal to commit to contracting with a unionized company underscores the real threat that collective bargaining poses to the neoliberal university. This threat, while grounded in a desire for enhanced profitability, is not predicated solely on the material costs that unions pose to universities’ profit margins. Unionization poses an existential threat to the continued neoliberalization of academia — one that universities fear indulging, no matter how small the monetary cost.

Who’s the Boss?

The contemporary wave of marketization gripping the world economy, promoted by the political project of neoliberalism, has seen an all-out assault on academia and intellectualism. Although the rising power of university administrators and the shift of academia into the corporate realm can be traced back to the 1970s, the greatest changes have occurred after the 2008 financial crisis, which hit universities as hard as it hit other Western enterprises. High tuition, low wages, and the quelling of campus activism are staples of growing austerity at universities. But just as important is universities’ growing reliance on subcontracted labor to keep the institutions running.

Labor subcontracting is a standard practice in the global push for flexible labor — workers that are less expensive for capital because of low skills and high demand for jobs, temporary or seasonal contracts, informal hiring practices, the replacement of full-time work with part-time work, and subcontracting. While these practices can be found in nearly every industry, they are also prominent at universities.

Subcontracting — whereby companies push the responsibilities of being an employer onto other companies instead of hiring labor themselves — allows institutions to circumvent labor laws and pay lower wages. A report on subcontracting in the University of California system shows that subcontracted employees earn as much as 53 percent less than employees hired by the UC system directly — and often the subcontracted employees have no benefits and fewer job protections.

In this respect the situation of security workers at Johns Hopkins is fairly typical. By contracting with Allied Universal, Hopkins is able to absolve its responsibility for the treatment of workers who fulfill essential university functions, and even remove an entire unionized labor force from its ranks at will.

The difference in bargaining power between employees hired by Hopkins directly and those hired through a subcontractor is made clear by the experience of other low-wage employees at the university. Approximately two thousand employees of the Johns Hopkins Hospital System are also organized by SEIU. In 2014, these workers pushed for a wage increase (aiming for $15 an hour) and won a small, but significant victory. The policy — agreed to by the union and Hopkins — was that “Hopkins will set a $15 hourly wage for employees with 20 years under their belts and a $14 hourly wage for workers with 15 years of experience. All current employees will earn at least $13 an hour by 2018. And the minimum wage for first-year employees will increase annually to $12.60 in 2018.”

These hospital workers are directly employed by Johns Hopkins and so were able to direct their demands for better wages to the university itself — the physical place where they worked, not a different, middle-man company. Allied Universal guards don’t share this relationship. Whatever polices that Hopkins has implemented for its own employees do not apply to them.

Repeating History

This is not the first time that Johns Hopkins’s relationship with subcontracted workers has been a point of contention — nor is it the first time that a coalition of students and labor propelled the movement. In fact, it’s not even the first time Broadway Services has been involved. In the late 1990s, a group of (largely graduate) students formed an organization called Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) with David Harvey — who at the time was a geography professor at Hopkins — as their adviser. SLAC began to collect information from workers throughout the university and hospital systems and began to piece together the hardships that low-wage workers at Johns Hopkins were facing.

At the time, Hopkins was beginning to phase in subcontracting as an alternative to hiring employees outright. SLAC discovered that the company being hired to provide these subcontracted workers — Broadway Services — was owned by the Dome Corporation, a company created by and for Johns Hopkins University. Basically, in order to institute subcontracting Hopkins created a shell company with which it could then enter a contract. Straight out of an absurd dystopia, the building that served as Broadway’s headquarters was less than a block away from the Hopkins medical campus.

SLAC leaders argued that this demonstrated that Hopkins was, in fact, the employer of these workers and, in concert with the ongoing national fight for a living wage, began planning actions.

Teaming up with the SEIU, the All Peoples Congress, Unity for Action, the Center for Poverty Solutions, ACORN, Students Against Sweatshops, the Black Student Union, and other local community organizations, SLAC orchestrated several pro-worker actions against the university administration. These included dropping banners during speeches, organizing thousands of signatures on petitions, building a “shanty town” with “Hopkins Creates Poverty” signs on a quad, and hosting rallies across the campus.

The climax came three years later in March 2000, when SLAC organizers and hundreds of supporters stormed the administrative office building and eight activists locked their necks together and to the building doors. The sit-in lasted over one hundred hours and received support in the form of food and supplies from local businesses. Notable academics and activists such as David Harvey, Howard Zinn, and Beverly Silver all came out to show support. Noam Chomsky even called the students to offer praise and solidarity.

The university eventually capitulated and agreed to raise wages for all low-wage workers — both employees of the university and employees of subcontractors — at Hopkins. I spoke with some of the activists involved in this action, who claim that this was the first victory at a private institution in the living-wage campaign. It was a powerful victory — but one that did not have long-lasting effects. Wages are still low and workers are still voiceless — and the institutional memory of activists at universities like Hopkins is devastatingly short.

Building a Movement

Academia is transient. It’s difficult to build directly on the work of those who came before us. The living wage struggle led by SLAC activists eventually subsided and those involved moved through the university and dispersed around the world. The current struggle at Hopkins has barely begun — the guards have only been unionized for two years and a coalition of students and labor has only recently been formed.

But noteworthy achievements have still been accomplished. In the face of public pressure, Hopkins announced earlier this month that it would renew its contract with Allied Universal — despite the tailored bidding towards Broadway. This was a victory for the unionized workers and for the student organizations that pushed the university. When it was solely the unionized subcontracted workers — and the company, Allied Universal — pushing to renew the contract, union and university insiders largely believed (or were resigned to the fact) that Hopkins would ignore the calls and hire Broadway Services. However, once students got involved, Hopkins postponed its decision — and eventually capitulated to the demands. While on a smaller scale than earlier actions at the university, parallels can be drawn; by working together, two groups of “stakeholders” in university life were able to achieve success.

Low-wage workers, along with graduate students, adjuncts, faculty, and undergraduates, face uphill battles with their administrations in the fight against the ongoing capitalist transformation of the university. Demands from past and current struggles are constantly unmet. But if we stand together, learn from those who struggled before us, and understand that our struggles are linked, we will be more successful than we could ever be alone.


JHU efforts to cut a union company raises doubts about its commitment to Baltimore

This op-ed originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun on 7/29/16

By Corey Payne, Gracie Hargrove, and Chase Alston
Johns Hopkins University and the AlliedBarton security guards who patrol its Homewood campus have a subcontracting relationship — removing much of the responsibility of labor protections and adequate support from JHU and placing it on a “middle man.” Through solidarity and organization, the security guards at JHU have been able to combat the worst effects of this precarious working relationship. Two years ago, they unionized through the SEIU, and have since fought for and won health care coverage, and they continue to advocate for a living wage.

Recently, that collective bargaining power has been threatened. JHU has opened its contracting to companies other than the unionized AlliedBarton, tailoring its bidding process to a company with close ties to JHU — Broadway — that is not unionized. If a non-union company replaces AlliedBarton, the gains made by the security guards are thrown into question; the slated changes to health coverage weren’t scheduled to take effect until January.

There is no doubt that University President Ron Daniels’ watchful eye on the “bottom line” has been a leading factor in his continuing reappointment. Up until now, the administration has succeeded by running the university like a business. With the addition of the current unionization conflict, attempts are being made to cut back on labor costs — a measure of austerity that is easily implemented when workers are not unionized. In its desire to cut expenditures, the administration is willing to cut the rights and advancements of its own security guards.

On Wednesday, after four days of organizing, our two Johns Hopkins University undergraduate student organizations — Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Student Union — delivered a petition to President Daniels and other members of the university administration. The petition, signed by 588 affiliates (89 percent of whom are current or former students), demands that JHU enter into a contract with a union security company in order to protect the gains — and maintain the collective bargaining rights — of Homewood security guards.

Given that Homewood campus is mostly empty during the summer months, and that our organizations had only four days to organize this response, this petition shows immense solidarity with our university’s security guards. In the past year, Hopkins students have proven to be more engaged about their own lives on campus; from hundreds demonstrating against racism to over a thousand petitioning against academic policy changes, we students have broken our historic apathy. We will not solely organize for ourselves; we stand shoulder to shoulder with our security guards and the Baltimore community. Even when that puts us at odds with the JHU administration.

Nearly all of the unionized security guards are black Baltimoreans — the same demographic that JHU has had a long and often cruel history of exploiting and oppressing. Through current projects such as HopkinsLocal and the Homewood Community Partners Initiative, President Daniels is trying to demonstrate a stronger and more improved relationship between JHU and the Baltimore community. The JHU administration has already supposedly committed to protecting the benefits of staff, as outlined in the administration’s Roadmap to Diversity — a rather toothless document that was released after the Black Student Union led protests against racism at Hopkins last fall. Yet if the administration removes this union from Homewood campus, President Daniels’ frequent statements of community partnership and solidarity will prove to be empty words.

The JHU administration’s white savior complex forces it to “help” Baltimore — but only if it results in greater benefits for the university. In order for JHU to stand with the Baltimore community, Hopkins must be willing to reduce the harm it still causes many Baltimoreans. This can begin here and now, with these workers. To display this supposed solidarity, President Daniels and the JHU administration must enter a contract with a union company. Anything less is a slap in the face to the university’s workers and the city at large.

Corey Payne (, Grace Hargrove (ghargro2@jhu.ed), and Chase Alston ( are student organizers at Johns Hopkins, where they are in the class of 2017.


Reentry Through Resistance

This article originally appeared in CounterPunch Magazine on 5/31/16.

After President Obama’s historic trip to Havana this spring, liberal politicians and pundits have praised the Administration’s policy of temperance towards the United States’ long-time adversary. Since Presidents Obama and Castro announced the “normalization of diplomatic relations” in December 2014, the U.S. government has claimed credit for allowing Cuba back into the international system of states, as Obama said in his 2015 State of the Union Address:

…our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere. It removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba. It stands up for democratic values, and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.

While the White House may want the public to believe that Cuba is reentering the system of states because the U.S. has decided to be benevolent in ending a harmful policy, the real reason is that the U.S. government no longer had a choice in the matter. After a half-century of attempting to overthrow Cuba’s communist government, the U.S. has failed to decimate the culture of resistance that exists in Cuba. Through it all, the Cuban people have bested U.S. imperialism.

Cuba’s reentry is a product of Cuba’s resistance, bolstered by Latin American solidarity. By removing the agency from the Cuban people and Latin American states, the U.S. narrative attempts to turn a defeat into a victory for imperial power.


Cuba’s Defiance

After toppling a U.S.-friendly dictator in 1959, the Cuban revolutionary government—led by Fidel Castro—was immediately thrust into an ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Just before Castro declared the revolution communist and official allegiance with the Soviets, the U.S. implemented the embargo (known in Cuba as the blockade) in response to the nationalization of U.S. oil refineries on the island without compensation.

This blockade restricts access to medicine, food, and other traded goods; it is considered a violation of humanitarian principles by myriad international organizations and governments—even the American Association for World Health found that doctors in Cuba lack access to more than 50 percent of the drugs on the world market because of the restrictions, and held that the blockade has led to significantly more suffering and death in Cuba. This has led Amnesty International to condemn the blockade, chiefly due to the unavailability of simple drugs protected by U.S. patents.

But Cuba has not only had to face humanitarian crisis at the hands of U.S. policy—the U.S. government has actively tried to overthrow the Castro regime dozens—if not hundreds—of times since 1960. The most famous instance was the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when CIA-trained Cuban dissidents led a failed invasion of the island in order to orchestrate a coup d’état.

Assassination attempts against Fidel Castro (and later, Raul) by the CIA were numerous—as many as eight confirmed attempts in the decade of the 1960s alone—and ridiculously imaginative. Moreover, this policy is not an old one; the latest confirmed attempt was in 2007, when the CIA used poison pills to attempt the assassination.

But through economic and social hardship, military invasions, and political assassination attempts—all orchestrated by the strongest imperial power in the world—the Cuban people (and state) have resisted. No attempts have succeeded, and the failure of the United States has oftentimes inspired pride and bolstered resistance. And now, after more than a half-century of exile, Cuba is no longer alone on the margins of the interstate system.


Pan-American Solidarity

It was not through singular resistance alone that Cuba was able to join the ranks of un-exiled states. After more than a century of U.S. imperialism in the Western Hemisphere, the states of Latin America stood with Cuba against the North American hegemon. The greatest example of this was the formation of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) in 2004, with Cuba and Venezuela as founding members. The alliance was formed to create a system of leftist nations which countered U.S. imperialist foreign policy and promoted socialist governing styles. With the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Dominica, Ecuador, Grenada, Nicaragua, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines joining in stride, ALBA became a political and economic force for left-wing governments in Latin America.

But the solidarity did not end with those nations who had already declared themselves anti-imperialist (whether through their embrace of socialist ideologies or their resistance to neoliberalism). In 2008, Cuba was officially admitted to the Rio Group, an international organization of Latin American states designed to create Latin American solutions to Latin American problems, twenty-two years after the formation of the group. In addition to some of the left-wing ALBA states, the twenty-four member states of the group included traditional pro-U.S. governments such as Colombia, Mexico, and Panama.

Cuba was also a founding member of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2010—when it also gained the presidency of the group. From 2010 to 2011, Cuban diplomats spoke on behalf of thirty-three member states in Latin America to international forums around the world. In 2014, the second summit of CELAC was hosted in Havana—and the heads of state from all thirty-three nations were present.

It was clear at this point that the tides were turning. The U.S. government had long been criticized internationally for its policy towards Cuba (the United Nations has voted nearly unanimouslyevery year since 1991 calling on the U.S. to end the embargo), but the open embrace of Cuba by Latin American nations it considered regional allies began to force its hand.

But one of the most pivotal moments of solidarity came in 2012, when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos—the host of that year’s Summit of the Americas and not a leftist by any sense of the word—called for Cuba to be present at the next summit. Since the Cuban revolution, Cuba had been excluded from the Organization of American States (OAS) and from all of the successive summits.

The U.S. government immediately renounced this call, refusing to budge on the issue or extending an invitation to the Cuban president. President Obama even went as far as criticizing the Latin American leaders who stood with Cuba as “ignoring the…principle… of [resisting] oppression.”

The summit ended without a resolution to the ‘Cuba question’ and Obama returned to Washington defiant. But shortly afterwards, many Latin American governments announced that they would boycott the next summit (to be held in 2015 in Panama City) if Cuba’s leaders were not invited.

It is no coincidence that shortly after the announcement of the boycott, the U.S. and Cuba began to engage in secret talks that culminated in the restoration of diplomatic relations in December of that year.

At the summit, held four months after the announcement, Cuban President Raul Castro was present—and was the star guest. He gave a forty-nine minute speech (after only being allotted eight minutes, he said he deserved the time for all of the summits he had been excluded from) and gave a detailed history of U.S. imperialism in Cuba—from the Platt Amendment to the invasion attempts to the military base at Guantanamo, U.S. policy was skewered while Obama watched.

Nearly every head of state praised Cuba, and some went further by criticizing the U.S.; Argentine President Christina Kirchner Fernandez took credit away from the Obama Administration for the diplomacy and praised Cuba for fifty years of resistance. Bolivia’s Evo Morales called on the U.S. government to compensate Cuba for half a century of an inhumane blockade.

The solidary campaign of resistance worked. The White House evenadmits that they were pressured into diplomacy: “[the policy of isolation] constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere.” If the U.S. government wanted to continue to “influence outcomes” in Latin America, at least in this case, it would have to play by the new rules written south of their borders.


Solidarity Beyond Cuba

Latin American leaders rightly basked in their victory at the 2015 Summit of the Americas. They had successfully stood together to force the hand of the U.S. government in bringing Cuba back into the fold. But, as with all movements based on solidarity and resistance, this victory should be seen merely as a starting point for battles to come.

In calling for the need for solidarity of the peoples of the underdeveloped world, Frantz Fanon wrote in his master work, The Wretched of the Earth: “It is clear therefore that the young nations of the Third World are wrong to grovel at the feet of the capitalist countries. We are powerful in our own right and the justness of our position.” Fanon understood the potential for the exploited countries of the world to stand together and beat Western imperialism.

As many social scientists have pointed out, U.S. hegemony is weakening on all counts. Its attempts at holding onto power have resulted only in a further regression on the global stage. As it continues to grow weaker, U.S. imperialism can be more easily combatted.

The actions taken by Latin American countries to push for Cuban reentry to the world-system is demonstrative: when the exploited stand together, they can beat an empire. This can and should be emulated across the globe: through solidary, it is possible to change the nature of the world-system and resist imperialism in all its forms.

As Fanon wrote, merely a year after the implementation of the blockade on Cuba:

The Cuban people will suffer, but they will win in the end…That will be a day for rejoicing since it will be a crucial moment for men and women throughout the world. The almighty power of the dollar, whose security after all is only guaranteed by the slaves of this world…will then cease to dominate these slaves who created it and who continue to drain their heads and bellies of all their substance to feed it.

This day has not yet come, but perhaps this reentry is a sign of future triumph. But the Obama Administration will continue to weave a narrative of benevolence, temperance, and diplomacy. So long as history remembers the success of U.S. actions, it will forget the resilience of those who stood together. In order to overcome, we must push to remember not a story of imperial victory, but one of solidarity and resistance.

After the Blockade

This article originally appeared in Jacobin Magazine on 4/8/16

Last month, Barack Obama became the first US president in nearly ninety years to set foot in Cuba and the first ever to make an official state visit to the island. Obama’s trip came on the heels of his historic decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba — a move he hopes will burnish his foreign policy legacy and, equally importantly, solidify a sea change that even a hostile successor would find difficult to undo.

With Obama back stateside, discussion has now turned to the embargo — namely, what will happen if (or, more likely, when) it is lifted. Cruise ship companies are skirting the embargo’s remaining restrictions, launching “culturally themed” trips to Havana this spring. The number of US visitors to Cuba has increased 50 percent since Obama announced the rapprochement. And if the embargo disappears, the Guardian reports, Cuba “could see as many as 10 million US tourists a year — a deluge for which the creaking, crumbling bones of Havana are far from prepared.”

But it is not just the “creaking, crumbling bones of Havana” that are unprepared for the arrival of US consumers. The Cuban left may be even more vulnerable than the country’s infrastructure — and harder to repair.

Can it survive in this new era, in which capitalism no longer stops short of Cuba’s shores?


The Blockade

In the US, restrictions on trade with Cuba are called “the embargo”; in Cuba, they are known as “the blockade.” The billboards lining the streets of Havana rotate between anti-imperialist and pro-revolutionary messages, often sporting phrases like “el bloqueo es genocidio” (“the blockade is genocide”).

Most Cubans object to the fifty-four-year-old blockade, which restricts access to medicine, food, and other traded goods and gives the state a ready-made excuse to repress political dissent.

The American Association for World Health found that doctors in Cuba lack access to more than 50 percent of the drugs on the world market because of the restrictions, and argues that “the US embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering — and even deaths — in Cuba.” Amnesty International condemns the unavailability of simple drugs protected by US patents, and members of the United Nations (with the exception of the US and Israel) have overwhelmingly voted against the embargo every year since 1991.

Indeed, just about the only people who support the embargo are those, like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who think that removing it would rejuvenate the Castro regime. But as Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat and US-Cuban relations expert, said earlier this month, Cubans generally worry more about the quality of their material lives than abstract concepts of human rights. “It would be a mistake to assume most Cubans prioritize political questions and are scared to express themselves,” he said. “They hope to live better. Change, political and economic, is coming to Cuba anyway, but on our own terms.”

For the Cuban left, the blockade is a far more complicated issue.

Instituted just before Fidel Castro declared the revolution a communist one, the embargo was the US’s response to the Cuban government’s uncompensated nationalization of US oil refineries. Tensions between the US and Cuba continued to escalate after the blockade’s enactment, culminating in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Throughout the Cold War, the US government viewed the nation as a Soviet foothold disturbingly close to American shores — a threat, both materially and existentially, to US hegemony.

But when the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1991, Cuba was thrown into crisis. People in Havana still talk of the years when electricity would only work for twelve hours a day, alternating between day and night.

The US, meanwhile, solidified its dominance on the global stage. The beleaguered country could no longer conceivably be seen as a menace to the US — much less one that warranted continued restrictions. Yet the blockade persisted, even when it proved unable to topple the Castros.

Today this impasse is finally waning. By engaging with the Cuban government, the Obama administration has admitted the failure of this Cold War vestige and the need for a new relationship.

The Cuban left has no illusions about the harmfulness of the blockade. It is an act of US aggression aimed at the civilian population of the island, and getting rid of it would improve the quality of life for millions. The US government should do so immediately.

At the same time, we shouldn’t ignore the potentially negative ramifications of such a change, both for the Cuban left and for the country more broadly.

Lifting the embargo would open up Cuba to American corporations and the US government’s attempts to “export democracy.” As the experience of countries in the region and around the world shows, neither would bode well for the island nation.


The Incoming Wave of Capitalism

In addition to US-based tour companies — which for decades have tried to circumvent the blockade — myriad other businesses and industries are looking to ride the wave of change straight into the Cuban market. AT&T is attempting to reach an agreement with Cuban telecommunications monopoly Etecsa; Major League Baseball hopes to capitalize on Cuba’s baseball culture; and Starwood Hotels and Marriott International both plan to open hotels in Havana once it’s permitted.

Then there are the companies that were fighting for a place at the table even before Obama’s visit was on the horizon. Verizon and Sprint both offer roaming services in Cuba and the Obama administration has let American companies sell construction materials, agricultural equipment, and telecommunications infrastructure to Cuba’s small capitalist class for years.

The list goes on: Airbnb and Netflix operate on the island, US credit cards are beginning to be accepted, and US airlines have been watching the détente closely, preparing for the flood of tourism.

Earlier this year, the US and Cuba signed an agreement to restore commercial air service, permitting twenty daily round-trip flights to Havana. Thirteen US airlines immediately pounced, then requested fifty-two flights. As of December, over two dozen US companies had submitted formal business proposals to the Cuban government — a sum that will only expand after Obama’s visit.

The potential end of the embargo has also whet the appetites of other countries. In the past, many international firms and governments feared a US backlash for being too friendly with the Cuban regime. But since Obama’s December 2014 announcement, countries like France and Japan have joined Russia and most Latin American nations in attempting to curry favor with the Cuban state and obtain permission to invest on the island.

The influx of companies has already changed Cuban society. For example, new telecommunications deals have brought public wi-fi hotspots to the parks of major cities — providing many Cubans their first opportunity to access the internet. (Direct mail between the US and Cuba has also surged since December.)

Obama will no doubt use these business deals to demonstrate that his open policy towards Cuba is good for both US businesses and Cuban consumers. But while the restoration of trade and green light to invest will certainly benefit US capitalists, it’s less clear whether and how it will benefit ordinary Cubans.


Foreign Capital in Cuba

There’s no consensus among economists about whether foreign direct investment (FDI) — an outside company buying or opening a firm in another country — is good or bad for host countries.

Most mainstream economists see it as a necessity for economic growth, contending that when FDI is combined with liberalization (i.e. austerity and privatization), development takes off. Left-wing economists disagree. They consider FDI an exploitative mechanism that, at its most basic level, uses a host country’s resources and markets without improving the lives of residents.

As evidence, they point to the weak (or, some argue, nonexistent) causal link between FDI and human and/or economic development. The case of Eastern Europe is instructive. According to the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the region had $300 million worth of FDI in 1990. By 1991 (directly following the collapse of the Soviet Union), FDI had spiked to $2.448 billion. Ten years later it was up to $27.2 billion.

The flow of FDI into Eastern Europe was part of a broader regional integration into global capitalism, and, as economist Jasminka Sohinger has shown, many countries in the area experienced economic growth. However, as social geographer Petr Pavlienek has pointed out, FDI also negatively impacted the region, intensifying instability, increasing economic and social inequality, and creating a “dual economy” of haves and have-nots.

For the most part, Pavlienek says, foreign investors failed to develop meaningful ties with local and regional economies — creating neocolonial relationships in which local economies were controlled by foreign capital with little chance of advancing into higher value and higher wage production.

Results did vary across Eastern Europe. What was crucial, Nina Bandelj and Matthew Mahutga argue, was how countries responded to FDI. The same goes for Cuba, although it’s unclear what approach the state will adopt.

The Cuban system has not fallen, and there is no evidence to suggest that it will if the blockade ends. Nor is a transition to liberal democracy on the immediate horizon. The ruling Communist Party appears partial toward a Chinese or Vietnamese state-capitalist model and is unlikely to implement sweeping austerity or privatize state enterprises. In this sense, the Cuban government will probably deal with the inflow of foreign capital as it has for the past six decades — as a “communist” state.

Of course, the way the Cuban state regulates the expansion of trade and FDI will present its own set of problems. At the moment, Cuba provides incentives to firms that are joint ventures between foreign capital and the Cuban state. But this says little about how ordinary Cubans will fare if an explosion of FDI enters the country.

As Samuel Farber recently noted, the government often positions itself between Cuban workers and foreign capitalists, facilitating an exploitative relationship in which workers’ wages are driven down. This is on top of labor’s broader obstacles, which include a lack of transparency and an inability to organize independent trade unions.


A Strange Struggle for the Left

The Cuban left is still groping toward a strategy that acknowledges the detrimental effects of the blockade, while refusing to waiver in their belief that a turn to capitalism is any kind of solution.

Racism, sexism, and homophobia mingle with poverty and scarcity in Cuban society — to say nothing of the authoritarian state apparatus that governs in the name of the revolution. No one can seriously place all blame for Cuban society’s difficulties on the US blockade, but a turn to capitalism hardly presents a solution.

One leftist historian and intellectual explained his fears: “When the day comes that there is a US-funded business at every corner, when the day comes that consumerism surrounds us, I will not be able to recognize our revolution. And that day is coming.”

Others expressed similar trepidation. A prominent LGBT rights and anticapitalist organizer told me:


These changes are going to bring us towards the Trump brand of capitalism. Cuba has never been a worker’s state — it is a state-capitalist system, not a socialist one. The party is forcing us to swallow their vision of the future by leading the people to believe there are only three options: their way, US capitalism, or civil war. But we fear that their way and US capitalism will appear too similar.


To build a better post-blockade future, leftists like sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos advocate a leftward shift: “If [Cuba’s] problems are solved within a socialist framework, Cuba may once again become an agent for the renovation of the Left . . . bringing about a different kind of socialism from the one that failed in the twentieth century.”


The New Guard

But is a turn to the left possible?

Last year, Samuel Farber described the state of Cuba’s left, pointing out the hard truth that most would-be leftist dissenters do not stray far from the Communist Party mainstream. The leftists who do exist receive no more sympathy from the state than their conservative counterparts.

The artists, intellectuals, and academics in the Cuban left have also struggled to expand their base — many Cubans are staunch supporters of Fidel and remain committed to the party out of loyalty to the revolution. The revolutionary university student organization, la Federación Estudiantil Universitaria (FEU), often holds gatherings that erupt in chants of “Viva Fidel! Viva la Revolución!” (“Viva Raúl! Viva las reformas!” are curiously absent.)

Yet intellectual and political collectives such as the Critical Observatory of Cuba, Project Rainbow, and Participatory and Democratic Socialism (PDS) have sprung up to advocate more radical solutions to the problems Cuban society faces.

Last summer, PDS leader Pedro Campos Santos spoke with Dissentabout the transition. The Cuban state, he said, has


not allowed a discussion within the party or among the people about the type of society, the kind of socialism, that Cubans want . . . There is not a word on workers’ self-management of business, and state monopolies of all kinds are being strengthened. There is talk of a new constitution and a new electoral law, but with all of the people remaining on the outside of the discussions.


In attempting to offer some sort of alternative, Santos and others have had to contend with a dizzying array of obstacles.

For starters, surveillance and repression have increased since the diplomatic thaw. Opposition demonstrations, once rare events, occur more frequently. But security forces usually break them up and detain the participants. November 2015 had the highest number of arbitrary arrests in years — until the first two weeks of December surpassed it.

Activists also suffer material consequences for organizing. The Cuban state still controls more than 75 percent of employment (a number that’s even higher in the academic and white-collar sectors), and has been known to strip privileges and ranks from those who oppose it. The intellectual and antiracist Roberto Zurbano, for instance, was dismissed from his prominent position in the cultural organization Casa de las Américas in 2013 after publishing a critical op-ed in theNew York Times.

In addition, the absence of an independent civil society hamstrings activists. While many groups in official civil society — workers unions, student groups, community organizations — better the lives of Cubans, they are also tied to, and constrained by, the Cuban Communist Party. And it is often the party itself that must be organized against — a tall task when building an opposition means building illegal organizations, usually without the advantage ofreliable, unrestricted internet access.

Many opposition groups respond to this set of challenges by coalescing around US-supported actions — whether through recognition, funding, or organizational support. This tactic, while incredibly prevalent among right-wing and centrist dissidents, is also found among social democrats and other would-be leftists, who choose to embrace imperialism out of expediency.

The remaining leftists advance a mish-mash of causes and struggles. From antiracists to anarchists to LGBT rights activists, those on the party’s left flank are often as disorganized as they are passionate. This organizational weakness is compounded by the organizational strength of the Communist Party, which dominates the plane of left ideas. The FEU is illustrative: a group of young, passionate leftist students with significant social and organizational capacity that remains committed to the only party they know to support the revolution.

Many on the Left fear that, because of the party’s strong grip on political power, the country will begin to shift toward a China- or Vietnam-style system without significant leftist resistance. For those who support socialism and democracy, this outcome would be just as bad as US-style capitalism — an exploitative labor relationship without the consolation of a more open civil society and political process.


Building an Alternative

Cuba cannot continue to starve on the margins of the world system, cut off from the international community by an inhumane blockade. But neither should we accept unfettered foreign capital, and with it, the defeat of the socialist project. The Cuban state seems to be internalizing this binary. The Left knows there are other paths to be taken.

As Cuban PDS activists wrote last year: “The policy of aggression and blockade pursued by the United States for half a century failed of its own nature, as did the ‘state socialism’ [the government] tried to impose on the Cuban people. Nothing sustainable can ever be built from the top down.”

But there is an alternative from the bottom up, if the Cuban left can defeat both incoming capitalist forces and an authoritarian state: a true anticapitalism built on a free civil society, workers’ power, and democracy.