In response to crippling economic
stagnation, Cuba has passed regulations which hint at a turn towards a more
market-driven economy. However, political control over key sectors including
education and the media still lies heavily with the state. The most striking
policy, which allows thousands of professions to run outside the remit of the
state, will change the character of business within Cuba and may lead to
increased innovation and interaction with international markets. Could Cuba’s
economic liberalisation lead to further political freedoms?
Hints of Change
the number of tourists visiting Cuba dropped by 80% and its economy accordingly shrank by 11%.
Times are hard for Cubans, with queues growing outside grocery stores and
businesses being forced to close. The economic downturn has been lurking for
many years. In particular, Cuba has suffered from the Trump Administration’s
sanctions, imposed to placate the Republican voter base by designating the
Cuban government as a “sponsor of terrorism” from its support for
response to economic hardships and US sanctions, Cuba has indicated an
intention to liberalise the economy. A strong signal of change to Castroist
economic ideas are demonstrated by the Díaz-Canel government’s removal of the somewhat confusing dual currency system
in January 1, 2021, previously established in 1994 after the loss of Soviet
subsidies. This major change, which led to a surge in inflation and devaluation
of the peso, had costly implications for Cubans by placing downward pressure on
the purchasing power of salaries and pensions.
A Landmark Shift in Business Privatisation
currency change is just one part in a series of major reforms. On 6th February,
Labour Minister Marta Elena Feito Cabrera stated that the government would
allow private participation in more than 2000 professions; a stark contrast to
the previous limit of 127 professions. The expansion in private participation
means that previously illegal enterprises can now function openly.
hoped that this will unleash a wave of innovation in a wide range of sectors. This
could work in tandem with recovery from the pandemic. For instance, there
has been encouraging news regarding Cuba’s own “Soberana 2” Covid-19 vaccine: The government
believes that it can administer this vaccine to the whole of Cuba’s population
by the end of the year and export the vaccine to Latin America as a source of
the new private business law does have many caveats: private enterprises lack
certain resources and access to supply chains that state-owned enterprises
possess. For instance, the government maintains control of all large industries
and wholesale shops and monopolises 124 professions, thereby restricting
options for obtaining supplies. In the short-term, the large restructuring of
the economy will inevitably cause painful effects with bankruptcies and unemployment rising.
Yet, in the long-term, opening up may yield positive benefits through increased
opportunities for entrepreneurs. The sectors included within the 124 professions remaining under state remit (including
law enforcement, defence, the media, education) suggest that Cuba is looking to
follow the model of China or Vietnam through the
introduction of capitalist economic policies with the maintenance of tight
Could Improved Relations with the US Spur Political
Change in Cuba?
follow-on effect of Cuba’s economic liberalisation could be a strengthening of
relations with the Biden administration. Indeed, the recent theme of economic
policy changes would require more foreign investments and capital, for which
improved relations with the US would be important.
ties could have political liberalisation effects in Cuba. The Obama
Administration’s relationship with Cuba was emblematic of this trend: Obama’s approach
of normalising relations with Cuba, which was designed to “create economic opportunities for the Cuban people”,
increased US influence in other spheres of Cuban society. Citizens began to criticise issues such as access to medical care,
education, unemployment and domestic media sources while religious leaders and
artists started to articulate positions contrary to the official narrative. This
suggested that civil society was for the first time open to vocally opposing
the political system, despite the government responding with detentions of some dissidents and censorship of blog posts . A similar phenomenon
is possible if Havana’s new economic policies leads to a strengthening of
economic ties with the Biden Administration.
Is a new Cuba Realistic?
Cuba is ripe for change. The push and pull of reform efforts in recent years suggest disputes between traditionalists and more progressive, youthful factions. In April, Raúl Castro will step down as leader of the Communist party which will see the end of the Castro name in Cuban politics for the first time in over 60 years. This has major symbolic significance: Fidel Castro established the political and economic systems that endure today, such as the characteristics of a one-party state with complete control of the media. Combined with the election of Biden, who will likely take a more lenient approach to Cuba in comparison to Trump, and an array of free market policies in the midst of an economic crisis, it seems a realistic possibility that Cuba could undergo major structural change in the coming years.
Author’s Note – This article originally appeared
in Spanish in La Joven Cuba (Young Cuba), one of the most important
critical blogs in the island, where the Internet remains the principal vehicle
for critical opinion because the government has not yet succeeded in
controlling it. The article elicited some strong reactions including that of a
former government minister who called it a provocation.
The New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced by the revolutionary government in
1921 was in fact an attempt to reduce the widespread discontent among the
Russian people with measures designed to increase production and popular access
to consumer goods. Even though the Civil War (1918-1920) caused great hardship
among the rural and urban populations, it was the politics of War Communism,
introduced by the Bolshevik government during that period, that significantly
worsened the situation. This led to a profound alienation among those who had
been the pillars of the October Revolution in 1917: the industrial workers, and
the peasantry that constituted 80 percent of the population.
In the countryside, the urban detachments, organized to confiscate from the
peasantry their agricultural surplus to feed the cities, ended up also
confiscating part of the already modest peasant diet in addition to the grain
needed to sow the next crop. The situation worsened when under the same policy
the government, based on an assumed class stratification in the countryside
that had no basis in reality, created the poor peasant committees (kombedy)
to reinforce the functions of the urban detachments. Given the arbitrary
informal and formal methods that characterized the operations of the kombedy,
these ended up being a source of corruption and abuse, frequently at the hands
of criminal elements active in them, who ended up appropriating for their own
use the grain and other kinds of goods they arbitrarily confiscated from the
Moreover, during the fall of 1920, symptoms of famine began to appear in the
Volga region. The situation became worse in 1921 after a severe drought ruined
the crops, which also affected the southern Urals. Leon Trotsky had proposed in
February 1920, to substitute the arbitrary confiscations of War Communism with
a tax in kind paid by the peasantry as an incentive to have them grow more
surplus grain. However, the party leadership rejected his proposal at that
The politics of War Communism was also applied to the urban and industrial
economy through its total nationalization, although without the democratic
control by the workers and the soviets, which the government abolished when the
civil war began and replaced with the exclusive control from above by state
administrators. Meantime, the workers were subjected to a regime of militarized
compulsory labor. For the majority of the Communist leaders, including Lenin,
the centralized and nationalized economy represented a great advance towards
socialism. That is why for Lenin, the NEP was a significant step back.
Apparently, in his conception of socialism, total nationalization played a more
important role than the democratic control of production from below.
The elimination of workplace democracy was only one aspect of the more general
clampdown on soviet democracy that the Bolshevik government launched in
response to the bloody and destructive civil war. Based on the objective
circumstances created by the war, and on the urgent need to resolve the
problems they were facing, like economic and political sabotage, the Bolshevik
leadership not only eliminated multiparty soviets of workers and peasants, but
also union democracy and independence, and introduced very serious restrictions
of other political freedoms established at the beginning of the
decade of the nineties, and especially since Raúl Castro assumed the maximum
leadership of the country in 2006–formally in 2008 – economic reform has been
one of the central concerns of the government. The logic of that
economic reform points to the Sino-Vietnamese model–which combines an
anti-democratic one-party state with a state capitalist system in the
economy–and not to the compulsory collectivization of agriculture and the
five-year plans brutally imposed on the USSR by Stalinist totalitarianism after
the NEP. The Cuban government’s decision to authorize the creation of the PYMES
(small and medium private enterprises), a decision frequently promised but not
yet implemented, would constitute a very important step towards the establishment
of state capitalism in the island. This state capitalism will very probably be
headed by the current powerful political, and especially military, leaders who
would become private capitalists.
now, the Cuban government has not specified the size that would define the
small and especially the mid-size enterprises under the PYMES concept. But we
know that several Latin American countries (like Chile and Costa Rica) have
defined the size in terms of the number of workers. Chile, for example, defines
the micro enterprises as those with less than 9 workers, the small-size with 10
to 25 workers, the medium-size with 25 to 200 workers, and the big size with
more than 200 workers. Should Cuba adopt similar criteria, its mid-size
enterprises would end up as capitalist firms ran by their corresponding
administrative hierarchies. If that happens, it is certain that the official
unions will end up “organizing” the workers in those medium size enterprises
and, as in the case of Chinese state capitalism, do nothing to defend them from
the new private owners.
political reform, there has been much less talk and nothing of great importance
has been done. As in the case of the Russian NEP, the social and economic
liberalization in Cuba has not been accompanied by political democratization
but, instead, by the intensification of the regime’s political control over the
island. Even when the government has adopted liberalizing measures in the
economy, like the new rules increasing the number of work activities permitted
in the self-employed sector, it continues to ban private activities such as the
publication of books that could be used to develop criticism or opposition to
the regime. This is how the government has consolidated its control over the
major means of communication –radio, television, newspapers and magazines –
although it has only partially accomplished that with the Internet.
government is also using its own socially liberalizing measures to reinforce
its political control. For example, at the same time that it liberalized the
rules to travel abroad, it developed a list of “regulated” people who are
forbidden to travel outside of the island based on arbitrary administrative
decisions, without even allowing for the right of appeal to the judicial system
it controls. Similar administrative practices lacking in means for judicial
review control have been applied to other areas such as the missions organized
to provide services abroad. Thus, the Cuban doctors who have decided not to
return to the island once their service abroad has concluded, have been victims
of administrative sanctions – eight years of compulsory exile – without any
possibility of lodging a judicial appeal.
pending is the implementation of the arbitrary rules and the censorship of
artistic activities of Decree 349, that allows the state to grant licenses and
censor the activities of self-employed artists. The implementation of the
decree has been postponed due to the numerous and strong protests that it
provoked. All of these administrative practices highlight the fact that the
much discussed rule of law proclaimed by the Constitution is but a lie. Let us
not forget that the Soviet constitution that Stalin introduced in 1936 was very
democratic … on the paper it was written. Even so, Cubans in the island should
appeal to their constitutionally defined rights to support their protests and
claims against the Cuban state whenever it is legally and politically
beginning of the Cuban revolutionary government there was a variety of
political voices heard within the revolutionary camp. But that disappeared in
the process of forming the united party of the revolution that established the
basis for what Raúl Castro later called the “monolithic unity” of the party and
country. That is the party and state model that emulates, along with China and
Vietnam, the Stalinist system that was consolidated in the USSR at the end of
the twenties, consecrating the “unanimity” dictated from above by the maximum
leaders, and the so-called “democratic centralism”, which in reality is a
Communist Party (CCP) is a single party that does not allow the internal
organization of tendencies or factions, and that extends its control over the
whole society through its transmission belts with the so-called mass
organizations (trade unions, women’s organization), institutions such as the
universities, as well as with the mass media that follow the “orientations”
they receive from the Department of Ideology of the Central Committee of the
CCP. These are the ways in which the one-party state controls, not necessarily
everything, but everything it considers important.
ideological defenders of the Cuban regime insist in its autochthonous origins
independent from Soviet Communism. It is true that Fidel Castro’s political
origin is different, for example, from that of Raúl Castro, who was originally
a member of the Socialist Youth associated with the PSP (Partido Socialista
Popular), the party of the pro-Moscow orthodox Communists. But Fidel
Castro developed his “caudillo” conceptions since very early on, perhaps as a
reaction to the disorder and chaos he encountered in the Cayo Confites
expedition in which he participated against the Trujillo dictatorship in the
Dominican Republic in 1947, and with the so-called Bogotazo in Colombia in
in a letter he wrote to his then good friend Luis Conte Aguero, Fidel Castro
proclaimed three principles as necessary for the integration of a true civic
movement: ideology, discipline and especially the power of the leadership. He
also insisted in the necessity for a powerful and implacable propaganda and
organizational apparatus to destroy the people involved in the creation of
tendencies, splits and cliques or who rise against the movement. This was the
ideological basis of the “elective affinity” (to paraphrase Goethe) that Fidel
Castro showed later on for Soviet Communism.
can we do? The recent demonstration of hundreds of Cubans in front of the
Ministry of Culture to protest the abuses against the members of the San Isidro
Movement and to advocate for artistic and civil liberties, marked a milestone
in the history of the Cuban Revolution. There is plenty of room to reproduce
this type of peaceful protest in the streets against police racism, against the
tolerance of domestic violence, against the growing social inequality and
against the absence of a politically transparent democracy open to all, without
the privileges sanctioned by the Constitution for the CCP. At present, this
seems to be the road to struggle for the democratization of Cuba from below,
from the inside of society itself, and not from above or from the outside.
lesson of the Russian NEP is that economic liberalization does not necessarily
signify the democratization of a country, and that it may be accompanied by the
elimination of democracy. In Cuba there has been economic and social
liberalization but without any advance on the democratic front.
For a year now, a new scheme of executive power organization has been in place in Cuba. The issue has gone unnoticed in the increasingly less articulated debate on the Cuban situation. After four decades of the concentration of power in the person of Fidel Castro, the new Cuban Constitution approved in February 2019 has shifted to a division of functions among the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister of government, and the highest authority in the Communist Party. The current leaders of these bodies, Miguel Díaz-Canel, Manuel Marrero, and Raúl Castro, rather than a deconcentration of power, have projected a differentiation of responsibilities that acquires meaning through the recipients of their decisions and messages.
Although the wording of the articles of the Constitution that define these functions is not without contradictions and lends itself to more than one misunderstanding, it is possible to notice the difference in roles. As “chief” and “representative” of the State (art. 128), the President makes decisions involving national citizenship and the international community. On the other hand, the Prime Minister, as “chief” and “representative” of the Government (art. 142), is defined as “responsible to the National Assembly of the People’s Power and to the President of the Republic,” for his own management and that of the Council of Ministers.
The highest ideological and political authority residing in the Communist Party determines the difference in roles in Cuban presidentialism. Because the president must also assume maximum responsibility within the Party—at the next eighth congress, to be held in April 2021, Raúl Castro will cede the position of First Secretary to Miguel Díaz-Canel—, the responsibilities of both holders are divided into the spaces of the National Assembly and the Communist Party. The verticality of a single, non-hegemonic political organization is preserved through a pyramidal logic that compensates for the distribution of functions at the apex.
In the pages that follow I propose an approximation to some aspects of the discussion about the new format of the organization of executive power in Cuba. The most apparent peculiarity of this restructuring of presidential power on the island is the strengthening of the Communist Party as a maximum instance of national leadership. The risks of overlapping or reproduction of functions between the president and the prime minister are controlled by a merger between the figures of the head of state and the supreme leader of the Communist Party. This risk control ensures the preservation of the political command unit amid the administrative distribution of power.
I conclude by suggesting that the constitutional change that has taken place in Cuba gravitates towards a dispersion of the national executive power which, without some assimilation of parliamentary elements, the autonomization of civil society or, eventually, political pluralism, may be more conflicting than harmonious in a scenario, such as the one that will inevitably come, of a generational replacement of the country’s ruling class. Collegiate presidentialism such as that which aspires to be built in Cuba requires, for its own effectiveness, greater flexibility in the dimensions of political pluralism and electoral competence.
The move toward a presidential succession scheme, every two five-year periods, under a single Communist Party, as in China, seeks a permanent generational renewal in maximum leadership, which is secured with the sixty-year-old limit to be a presidential candidate in the first term. That would mean that in ten years most of the Cuban political class will be left out of the country’s top leadership. But as in China, generational renewal in executive power does not necessarily imply ideological and political easing or pluralization, given the immovable premises of the single Communist Party.
Given Cuba’s verticalist power structure, with a single Communist Party, which is supposed to be “the highest leading force of society,” and a vague distinction of roles between head of state (the President of the Republic) and head of government (the Prime Minister), a path to reform would be to truly strengthen the parliamentary elements of the system. In Article 128 the functions of the President are overreached, since he is given the power to “propose the election, appointment, suspension, revocation, or replacement” not only of the Prime Minister and the members of the Council of Ministers, but of the President of the People’s Supreme Court, the Prosecutor of the Republic, the Comptroller-General, and the authority of the Electoral Council.
Despite the sharing of executive functions, which would foster a collegial sense in presidential authority, the current constitutional regime engages in hyper-presidentialism, which subordinates legislative, judicial, and electoral powers to the head of state. An extension of the legislative powers of the National Assembly, in the process of division of powers, could help to better balance the Cuban political system. The increase in powers of the National Assembly would provide content for the representative government and the electoral process and would make it possible to compensate, at least in part, for the one-party system that limits political plurality on the island.
Dr. Rafael Rojas is Professor of History at the Center for Historical Studies of the College of Mexico, where he also directs the journal Historia Mexicana. He is the author or editor of thirty books on the intellectual and political history of Cuba and Latin America, including Fighting over Fidel: The New York Intellectuals and the Cuban Revolution (2016) and Historia mínima de la Revolución Cubana (Minimal History of the Cuban Revolution, 2015). He is a member of the Mexican Academy of History since 2019 and was selected as one of the 100 most influential intellectuals in Ibero-America in 2014. He has been a visiting professor and scholar at Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and Texas-Austin. He is a frequent collaborator of the journal Letras Libres (Mexico) and the newspaper El País (Spain). He earned his B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Havana and his Ph.D. in History from the College of Mexico.
Tres organizaciones opositoras cubanas que se habían propuesto nominar cerca de 550 candidatos independientes a delegados en las elecciones municipales del 26 de noviembre fracasaron en su propósito, admitieron este lunes sus directivos.
“Ninguno ganó la nominación por la intervención de la policía política fundamentalmente, no solamente por la detención de las personas que se iban a postular, sino por su presencia proactiva en las asambleas”, dijo a Julio Antonio Aleaga, de la agrupación Candidatos por el Cambio.
El proceso de postulación que terminó el 2 de noviembre se hace en asambleas de barrio, donde se proponen y aprueban a mano alzada los candidatos a delegado. Según la Comisión Electoral, se realizaron 60,870 propuestas para nominar 27,221 candidatos, entre los que se escogerán los 12,515 delegados en voto directo y secreto el día 26.
La plataforma Otro 18 buscaba postular a 182 opositores, la agrupación Candidatos por el Cambio promovió a 306 y el Partido Autónomo Pjnero 60.
Este es el inicio de un proceso electoral, primero municipal y luego general, que debe concluir con febrero de 2018 con la elección de un nuevo Parlamento y un presidente, que sustituirá a Raúl Castro.
“Ahora mismo, en la situación que está el país, un posible cambio de gobierno, era muy difícil, porque además se vive en una dictadura, era muy difícil que pudieran ganar los candidatos independientes”, opinó Aleaga.
Según Manuel Cuesta Morúa, de Otro 18, “no pudieron nominarse porque las autoridades desplegaron una batería de actos violatorios en todos los casos de la Ley Electoral y de la Constitución, que impidieron que estas personas pudieran ser nominadas”. Citó detenciones temporales, procesamientos jurídicos por diferentes causas, intimidaciones, cambios de fecha y hora de las asambleas y otras “artimañas”.
El intento de cambiar la situación política cubana participando en el juego electoral oficial es rechazada por parte de la disidencia.
“La oposición se divide ahora muy claramente en los que no creen en el proceso electoral y los que creen que se debe participar en los procesos electorales como forma de modernizar el país”, dijo Aleaga.
Pero ambos dirigentes sostienen que a pesar del fracaso en nominar, el hecho de participar significa avances.
“No es necesariamente una derrota de la estrategia, porque para nosotros la estrategia tenía tres puntos fundamentales: primero legitimarnos frente a la ley, luego frente a la sociedad y tres, obviamente, tratar de lograr que algún candidato pudiera competir”, dijo Cuesta.
Nomination meeting for candidates for Municipal Assembly, Havana.
The editors of Cuba Posible, Roberto Veiga Gonzalez y Lenier Gonzalez Mederos.
As most people know, the Cuban mass media – radio, television, newspapers and magazines – are totally controlled by the state and they exclusively publish or broadcast content that closely follows the “orientations” of the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC.) It is through mechanisms such as these that the government’s ordered “enforced unanimity” continues to prevail in the Caribbean island.
Yet, in spite of censorship, there exists a relatively free space created by the Internet. Although in Cuba access to the Internet is expensive and continues to be among the lowest in Latin America and the Caribbean, it has nevertheless increased, thus allowing for the existence of many publications and “blogs” critical of the regime from different vantage points.
The most important in Spanish of these publications is Cuba Posible, edited by Roberto Veiga Gonzalez and Lenier Gonzalez Mederos, two Cuban Catholic disciples of the deceased Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y García-Menocal, a progressive priest who was General Vicar of the Archdiocese of Havana. Until a few years ago, Veiga and Gonzalez Mederos were the editors of Espacio Laical, sponsored by the Félix Varela Cultural Center of the same Havana Archdiocese, but they were fired by the Catholic hierarchy that no longer wanted to support the political line of the editors.
Broadly speaking, Cuba Posible could be characterized as social democratic because of its support for a mixed economy, which in reality would end up as a market economy subject to the imperatives of competition and other economic laws of capitalism given the lack of workers’ control and a democratic planning of the economy.
With respect to the political system itself, Cuba Posible presents a pluralist perspective and has occasionally criticized the one party state as a questionable political system without making its opposition to it a central feature of its publication.
For the socialist and democratic left, those politics are troublesome enough in and of themselves. But they become even more problematic when coupled with Cuba Posible’s stated intent to act as a “loyal opposition” to the regime. In the first place, no such thing as a “loyal opposition” is possible in a system that, as a matter of political principle rejects the mere possibility of an opposition; it is even less possible that such an opposition, however loyal, can come to power through elections or any other peaceful means. Secondly, such intent injects into the publication a conciliatory tone when indignation is the most appropriate response to the government’s abuses.
It should be noted, however, that Cuba Posible continues to include among its collaborators people who represent a broader political perspective than that of its editors. And in any case, Veiga Gonzalez as well as Gonzalez Mederos have the absolute democratic right to submit their views to the consideration of the Cuban people, whether in the Internet or in the mass media, a right that is, of course, rejected by the regime stalwarts who have lately closed ranks against them and their publication accusing them of the sin of what these stalwarts have labeled as “centrism”.
What are those who speak about “centrism” saying?
Several months ago, a group of writers, who for some time have been agitating, supposedly on their own account, for a “hard line” position in defense of the Cuban regime, began a campaign against Cuba Posible and other moderate critics of the Cuban regime. The most important of those hard line writers has been Iroel Sanchez in his blog La Pupila Insomne (https://lapupilainsomne.wordpress.com), where he recently reproduced a whole book titled El Centrismo en Cuba: otra vuelta de tuerca hacia el capitalismo [Centrism in Cuba: Another turn of the Screw towards Capitalism].
The book includes his contributions as well as those of many of his co-thinkers. It is an open attack against what Sanchez and company call “centrists,” accusing them of using their moderate critique of the government as a mask to subvert and eventually overthrow the “socialist” system in Cuba.
Besides branding that supposed strategy as “right-wing nationalist” and “social democratic,” Iroel and his associates also brandish against those critics the term “third way,” which in reality has nothing to do with right wing nationalism or with social democracy, but refers instead to the policies espoused by Tony Blair, who far from being a social democrat, was a neoliberal trying to subvert the welfare state and the social democratic character of the British Labor Party. For Iroel and his hardliners, however, this doesn’t matter: there is no difference between right-wing nationalism, social democracy, and neoliberalism.
Of all the terms wielded by Sanchez and company against the opposition, the one that they really focused on was “centrism.” They wield it in a purely topographic sense referring to a location in between two extremes, capitalism and communism. Curiously, the supposedly communist Iroel Sanchez seems to ignore that in the political traditions of revolutionary Marxism and Communism, the term “centrism” refers to those political parties that, especially in the period 1918-1923, were more radical and to the left of Social Democracy but kept to the right of the Communist parties.
Among those “centrist” parties were the German Independent Social Democrats – a left-wing split from German Social Democracy (SPD) – and several other European parties that came together in the 1920s to form the so-called “Vienna International,” which, significantly, was also referred to as the “Two and a half International.” For the Communist International, these parties might have talked about socialist revolution, but in reality they were reformists and even counterrevolutionaries.
While centrism within that Marxist tradition referred to a specific phenomenon – left-wing radical groups that broke with Social Democracy but did not become Communist – Sanchez uses the same term to paint over with the same brush the wide political spectrum of political orientations between capitalism and Communism. If you are not 100% with the regime, your actual politics does not matter: and you are, by definition, an anti-revolutionary “centrist.”
Even in purely topographic terms, the characterization of the Cuban opposition and critics as “centrists” is highly questionable, because it assumes, as a political axiom, that the Communist parties in power are in fact left wing. This is how, by definition, Iroel and his people get to identify the left with a system that in reality is a class society based on state collectivism, where the state owns the economy, and manages it through the control mechanisms of the one-party state. To be part of the ruling class depends on the position that individuals occupy in the party-ruled bureaucracy. This type of power is hostile to democracy, civil and political rights, and especially to the working class and popular control of the economy.
Fortunately, there are other far better conceptions of what the left means. For Jan Josef Lipsky, for example, a leader in Poland, of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) in the 1970s, and of Solidarity in the 1980’s, the left is, as he explained in KOR. Workers’ Defense Committee in Poland, 1976-1981, an attempt to reconcile equality and liberty: “…being on the left” is “an attitude that emphasizes the possibility and necessity of reconciling human liberty with human equality, while being on the right…may mean sacrificing the postulate of human freedom in favor of various kinds of social collectives and structures, or foregoing the possibility of equality in the name of laissez faire.” (180)
But Iroel Sanchez and his associates defend the one-party state as the only political system compatible with socialism. They don’t even mention that Raul Castro’s “monolithic unity” proclaimed years ago disregards the profound differences in political power associated with class, race and gender in the “actually existing” Cuban society.
It is precisely because of that power differential, that those groups and individuals without power in society – workers, peasants, Black people, women, and gays among others – need the freedom to organize independently into associations and political parties to struggle for their interests. For this to happen it is necessary to abolish the political monopoly of the PCC, consecrated in the existing Constitution, through its mass organizations like the CTC [Worker’s Confederation] and the FMC [Women’s Federation], which blocks any independent attempt by workers, women and other groups to defend themselves.
Once deprived of its constitutionally mandated monopoly, and thus, of all the privileges it appropriated onto itself during its long lasting control of public life, the PCC could become an authentic political party, a voluntary organization materially supported by the dues and donations of its members and sympathizers. It would then function as one of many political parties representing the conflicts and divisions within Cuban society. To the extent that these parties represent the interests of the classes and groups that would emerge in a changing society, it would be impossible – and undesirable – to limit their number through legal mandates, or through administrative or police methods.
Who are the people attacking the “centrists”?
Some people in the opposition regard Iroel Sanchez and his stalwarts as “extremists.” But this is not an appropriate term: historically, there have been many “extremists” who did the right thing. The pro-independence Cubans of the War of Independence (1895-1898) could have also been accused of “extremism” since they rejected both the “volunteers” and “guerrillas” who supported Spanish colonialism (equivalent to the Right of those years) and the Autonomists (the moderates of that period).
Instead, Iroel and company are hard line Stalinists, as they clearly demonstrate in their book. Thus, in his contribution titled “Una respuesta para Joven Cuba” [An answer for the Joven Cuba blog,] Javier Gómez Sánchez lashes out against the blog under that title, a blog that has been frequently critical and fairly honest but clearly pro-government, as if they were just another group of “centrists.”
The content and inquisitorial tone of Ileana González in her contribution titled “Al Centrismo Nada” [Nothing for Centrism] does not fall far behind Andrey Vyshinsky’s, the prosecutor of the Moscow Trials from 1936 to 1938. The extremely detailed information about opposition persons presented in various articles in this book also suggests that many of its contributors are State Security agents or close collaborators of that repressive body.
It is worth noting, however, that these Stalinists do not seem to have gelled into a hard line political tendency within the PCC, as was the case, for example, of the “Gang of Four” that attempted to control the Chinese Communist Party after Mao’s death, but was quickly eliminated by Deng’s forces. They don’t even resemble Fidel’s Support Group at the beginning of this century, to which the Maximum Leader conferred a certain degree of operational and administrative power. Iroel and his group are no more and no less than propagandists in the service of the PCC. That is all.
What are the purposes of the campaign against “Centrism”?
The Cuban government initiated and is using this campaign to draw a line in the sand of what is and is not permissible. But it is not doing it itself through its official press and broadcasting stations to avoid sowing more doubts about the authenticity and durability of Raul Castro’s economic reforms and relative political liberalization.
Long term, the regime is using this campaign as an attempt to close the ranks of the party and the country with another call in the style of the “monolithic unity” of former years in preparation for the foreseeable physical disappearance of the historic leaders of the revolution in the next five to ten years, and for the problems that this can create for a fluid transition of power.
The call to “unity” has become ever more urgent with the gradual but definitive increase of Internet access, especially among the youth, the professional and technocratic strata, and among those with a university education who generally have a greater access to the Internet. The information acquired through those channels can potentially undermine the political loyalty to the party and regime. It is not for nothing that practically the entire campaign against “centrism” has been conducted through the Internet, and not in the official press and mass media.
Trump’s repeal of several measures favoring the slow process of relaxation and possible abolition of the economic blockade of Cuba, have not yet eliminated the limited but real softening of the opinion of many Cubans with respect to the United States. This softening was due to Obama’s initiatives easing various restrictions of the US’s criminal blockade, such as increasing the remittances that can be sent to Cuba, resuming regular commercial flights to the Island, and his successful visit to Cuba.
As we know, the official Cuban press has used every means at its disposal to fight that softening of Cuban opinion, which for obvious reasons, the regime considers dangerous to its power. The government’s attack against the so-called “centrist” opposition, is nothing more than another attempt to harden the Cuban people to close ranks around it and to maximize its control through its call to “unity.”
*Samuel Farber was born and grew up in Cuba and has written numerous articles and books about the country. His last book, The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice was published by Haymarket Books in 2016.
A self-styled socialist republic with a single party, Cuba continues to be Latin America’s worst media freedom violator year after year. Fidel Castro’s death in 2016 effectively changed nothing. The Castro family, which has ruled since 1959, maintains an almost total media monopoly and tolerates no independent reporting.
Arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, threats, smear campaigns, confiscation of equipment, and closure of websites are the most common forms of harassment. These practices are ubiquitous and are buttressed by an arsenal of restrictive laws. Unless forced to flee the island to protect themselves or to keep working, the few independent bloggers and journalists must cope with drastic restrictions on Internet access.
December 2, 2016
FIDEL CASTRO’S HERITAGE: FLAGRANT MEDIA FREEDOM VIOLATIONS
Castro has been hailed as one of the leading figures of the 20th century and father of the Cuban people in many of the thousands of messages that followed the announcement of his death. But behind the revolutionary’s romantic image lay one of the world’s worst press freedom predators. The persecution of dissidents was one of the distinguishing features of his 49 years in power, and constitutes the harshest aspect of his heritage.
The current situation in Cuba speaks to this. Cuba continues to be one of the worst countries in Latin America for media freedom and ranks 171st out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl, who replaced him in 2007, is now also on RSF’s press freedom predator list.
Cuba’s constitution permits only state-controlled media outlets. Independent news agencies and bloggers who try to dispute the state’s monopoly of news and information are subjected to intimidation, arbitrary arrest and draconian censorship.
As a result, independent news agencies have often had no choice but to go into exile and post their news reports online from abroad. This is far from ideal because Internet access within Cuba is still very problematic (only 5% of households have internet access).
Finally, with two journalists currently jailed, Cuba continues to be one of the few western hemisphere countries where reporters can still be found behind bars. Venezuela and Panama are the other two.
But the situation was much worse under Fidel Castro himself. The father of the Cuban revolution imposed a climate of censorship and used often violent methods to prevent the circulation of any news and information at variance with that provided by the state media.
The persecution peaked in 2003. In March of that year, the authorities arrested more than 75 dissidents including 27 journalists, who were given summary trials and sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years in prison for talking about democracy in Cuba.
They included RSF’s then correspondent, Ricardo González Alfonso, who ended up spending seven years in prison. There were several waves of arrests during this period, dubbed the “Black Spring.” Unauthorized journalists were targeted and accused of collaborating with the United States if their reporting referred to Cuba’s dissidents, human rights violations or the everyday lives of Cubans.
The persecution continued during the ensuing years and in 2007, when Fidel Castro was about to hand over to his brother, Cuba was the world’s second biggest prison for journalists, with a total of 25 held. Prison conditions were appalling and torture was often reported by the families of Cuba’s detained journalists and dissidents.
Many different methods were deployed against Cuba’s independent news providers including arbitrary arrests, beatings and phone tapping. But permanent censorship was one of the constants of the Castro years, both before and after the Black Spring.
Ever since its creation in 1985, RSF has constantly denounced these abuses, using awareness campaigns, protests and international mobilization. Several of our contributors and correspondents have been threatened or imprisoned. They include Roberto Guerra Pérez, who was sentenced to two years in prison in 2005 on a charge of disturbing public order and was released in 2007.
Guerra bravely continued his fight for media freedom, launching an independent news agency called Hablemos Press in 2009. But the Cuban police harassed him and his reporters and repeatedly prevented them from working. After receiving anonymous death threats, he had no choice but to go into exile in October 2016 in order to ensure his and his family’s safety.
The battle waged by RSF and many other local and international NGOs must go on so that exile is one day no longer inevitable. But for the time being, the day-to-day existence of Cuba’s journalists is still marked by fear and self-censorship.
Cuba’s journalists currrently fear that the father of the revolution’s death will be accompanied by a new crackdown. This must not be allowed to happen. Instead, it must open the way to a new era of pluralism and freedom of opinion.
Cuando una sociedad se corrompe, lo primero que se gangrena es el lenguaje. La crítica de la sociedad, en consecuencia, comienza con la gramática y con el restablecimiento de los significados”. Octavio Paz, Postdata (1970).
Desde el triunfo de la revolución, el gobierno cubano se ha esforzado para despolitizar la sociedad, “achicando” el lenguaje utilizado para hablar de política en el país. En la conocidísima novela “1984” de Orwell, desde hace poco desbloqueada en la isla, la “neolengua” se explica como un proyecto a largo plazo de reducción del lenguaje y de disminución del alcance del pensamiento. El triunfo de la revolución cubana (un triunfo de la voluntad política) condujo al fin en la isla de la disciplina académica que analiza el uso del poder en la sociedad: la ciencia política. Como el término “política” se hizo equivalente, tanto en la teoría como en la práctica, con la revolución, el socialismo y el marxismo-leninismo, la ciencia política desapareció durante la primer década del régimen, (como la sociología de 1980 a 1991), para ser reemplazada por un “diamat / hismat” tanto como ideología oficial que como un paradigma obligatorio en las universidades.
Los estudiosos cubanos parecen estar de acuerdo en que una “renovación” del discurso/paradigma comenzó a tener lugar durante la segunda mitad de los años ochenta, a raíz de la campaña oficial de “rectificación de errores”. Pero aún así, como sustituto a la ciencia política, lo que todavía encontramos en Cuba son las ciencias sociales y humanidades blandas que hablan de política, de diplomacia y de administración pública, pero nunca de poder y de quién lo tiene. Imagina esa situación: un montón de gente en una habitación con un elefante azul en el medio, y el reto es hablar de lo que está pasando en la habitación, sin hablar jamás del deslumbrante mamífero.
En un artículo reciente, el economista canadiense Arch Ritter destaca algunas de las implicaciones de esta situación. Para él, “una de las consecuencias de la ausencia de la disciplina de ciencia política en Cuba es que solo tenemos una vaga idea de cómo funciona realmente el gobierno cubano. ¿Quién en el Politbureau y el Comité Central del partido realmente toma decisiones? ¿Hasta qué punto y cómo las presiones de las organizaciones de masas afectan realmente a la toma de decisiones, o el flujo de influencia siempre es de arriba a abajo y no el inverso? ¿Qué papel desempeñan las grandes empresas conglomeradas que se encuentran en la economía del dólar internacionalizada y la economía del peso en el proceso de formulación de políticas? ¿La Asamblea Nacional es simplemente una concha vacía que, por unanimidad, aprueba cantidades prodigiosas de legislación en períodos de tiempo extremadamente cortos?” Enseguida pregunta retóricamente: “¿Por qué este análisis político está esencialmente prohibido en las universidades cubanas? Puedes adivinar la respuesta” -concluye Ritter. Bueno, sí, podemos: tiene que ver con los tabúes acerca del elefante azul. Pero la respuesta completa no es tan obvia. La ciencia política puede existir bajo un régimen no democrático. Y de nuevo, vale la pena explorar por qué un país desbordado de política, donde casi nada sucede sin la intervención del gobierno y la inapelable revolución, es a la vez extrañamente apolítico. Por apolítica quiero decir que a pesar de toda la inflación de los símbolos políticos y el llamado popularmente “teque”, no hay espacio para discusiones políticas genuinas, debates verdaderos y análisis del proceso político, y escasas fuentes confiables de información y datos sobre “quién obtiene qué, cuándo y cómo”, para utilizar la definición de la política del politólogo Robert Dahl. La política está en todas partes, pero como un tótem, no como un proceso deliberativo en el sentido de Aristóteles o Hannah Arendt.
En el ámbito de la expresión pública en Cuba, es generalmente posible: 1. Deplorar públicamente los errores cometidos en el pasado (especialmente durante el purgatorio llamado Quinquenio Gris) por malos funcionarios; 2. Lamentar la pobreza de crítica y debate en la isla como consecuencia de problemas internos tanto en el ámbito cultural y educativo como en los medios de comunicación; y 3. Examinar con algún aliento crítico los problemas sociales en Cuba, especialmente si ya han sido identificados públicamente como tales por la dirección política, pero sin discutir sus posibles causas políticas. Esos son los parámetros. En ciencias sociales, es aconsejable partir del marxismo-leninismo como fundamento metodológico e ideológico, o al menos no ponerlo en tela de juicio. Desde allí se pueden explorar teorías no-marxistas (el posmodernismo fue popular durante los años 90), pero con cuidado, sin cuestionar el paradigma único. También se acogen con beneplácito las blandas descripciones de las estructuras jurídicas y los debates técnicos sobre las políticas públicas en revistas de ciencias sociales como Temas. Por último, pero no por ello menos importante, los estudiosos de las ciencias sociales e intelectuales deben denunciar el dogmatismo y celebrar las críticas y el debate, como invariablemente lo hace el mismo liderazgo político, pero asegurándose de reafirmar los dogmas oficiales. En otras palabras, la tarea principal y el desafío para los académicos es doble: fingir el pensamiento crítico, y stay in the game (permanecer en el juego).
Previsiblemente, los “debates” en Cuba cuentan con oradores ultra-cautelosos que en su mayoría están de acuerdo unos con otros, siendo toda la energía redirigida hacia las polémicas contra los enemigos oficialmente sancionados y los flagelos intemporales del gobierno: dogmatismo, burocratismo, corrupción, descontento juvenil, residuos pre-revolucionarios del sexismo y el racismo, y por supuesto, el imperialismo norteamericano, el “bloqueo” y el orden mundial capitalista. Todos se animan para “mejorar el socialismo”, y de hecho los líderes políticos rutinariamente desafían a los “intelectuales públicos” a atreverse más, pero el espacio permitido es mucho menos tangible que la anticipación del castigo si se violan los parámetros. La mejor estrategia de supervivencia es la autocensura y la ambigüedad. En cualquiera de estos “debates” (como los de Último Jueves, por ejemplo) las soluciones a los problemas convergen hacia la posición oficialista: más participación, más compromiso con L’Etre Suprême revolución, y a mejorar un sistema político en movimiento (La Revolución sin fin) pero irrevocable (Artículo 62 de la Constitución vigente). No se puede hablar de cómo funciona el sistema político exactamente porque eso necesitaría, en Cuba, como en cualquier otro país, un examen crítico de quién obtiene qué, cuándo y cómo. Es significante que cuando unos se atreven a abordar el tema, como fue excepcionalmente el caso de un “debate” de Último Jueves en febrero de 2016, no hay ninguna discusión sobre “cómo funciona”, solamente comentarios generales sobre posibles mejoras, las cuales invariablemente pasan por una reafirmación de los objetivos oficiales.
Marxismo-Leninismo comopensée unique
El marxismo-leninismo es una ideología conveniente para el gobierno cubano por dos razones. En primer lugar, abrazar y estudiar sus textos canónicos adormece la curiosidad sobre los procesos de toma de decisiones reales bajo un tipo de régimen que fue solo un sueño durante la vida de Marx: el comunismo. Marx escribió ampliamente sobre las fallas estructurales de las sociedades capitalistas (y pre-capitalistas), pero casi nada sobre la transición al comunismo. Aparte de las nebulosas referencias a la Comuna de París y las glosas sobre las estrategias revolucionarias en su “Crítica del Programa de Gotha”, el análisis de Marx del comunismo es más teleológico que político. En Cuba de hoy, el marxismo es una ideología que permite criticar los enemigos del gobierno. En segundo lugar, el marxismo-leninismo puede usarse como una teoría o un paradigma en ciencias sociales, como ocurre en todas partes (hoy más en humanidades y estudios culturales que en ciencias sociales y no en economía). Pero en sociedades abiertas, el marxismo compite con otras teorías e interpretaciones, lo que le da una vitalidad inexistente en países donde es una pensée unique. No es sorprendente que el Marxismo no sea muy sofisticado en Cuba: la ausencia de crítica genuina, la cual pasa por la confrontación con otras perspectivas, es una sentencia de muerte para cualquier perspectiva científica o filosófica. Por consiguiente, se puede repetir infatigablemente que el marxismo cubano es crítico y humanista, al revés del marxismo soviético (i.e. del pasado) “rígido” y “mecánico” defendido (y definido) por nadie. Pero no se puede realmente explorar cual es la diferencia entre los dos. En otras palabras, se puede criticar el “estalinismo” (como desviación del modelo marxista-leninista) pero no la Constitución de Stalin de 1936.
Uno de los efectos de la parametración en ciencias sociales es la presencia de un cierto estilo de comunicación que es blando, resbaladizo y oblicuo, que finge la complejidad y termina siendo poco concreto. Rafael Hernández, director de la revista Temas, declaró en 2014, en un artículo sobre las “estructuras políticas” en Cuba, que en su país se puede encontrar:
“[…] un consenso político alterado, contradictorio y heterogéneo, en cuya reproducción convergen viejos y nuevos sujetos sociales, que son los ciudadanos cubanos reales. Estrictamente hablando, estos no están repartidos solo en fábricas y campos sembrados, cursos universitarios y maestrías de negocios, hospitales y hogares de ancianos, cooperativas, talleres de equipos electrónicos, parroquias, sino en ministerios, oficinas del PCC, batallones de artillería, escuelas superiores para la formación de cuadros de dirección, y publicaciones estatales y eclesiásticas. Estos diversos sujetos sociales ejercen su condición ciudadana desde una inusitada pluralidad, correspondiente a una gama de clases y grupos, ocupaciones, generaciones, géneros, colores de piel –además, naturalmente, de sus particulares ideas políticas”.
Un país no puede sobrevivir sin historiadores, matemáticos, economistas, biólogos, etc. Aparentemente sí se puede subsistir sin genuinas ciencias políticas… pero ¿a qué precio? Para funcionar bien y utilizar plenamente su capital humano, un sistema político necesita información, transparencia, examen crítico y comparativo de las políticas y de los dirigentes, con respeto pero sin miedo a la verdad. No hay sistema político perfecto, ni mucho menos. En Cuba se necesita mejores datos sobre cómo funciona realmente su sistema político, y análisis a fondo de los problemas y de sus posibles causas políticas, levantando el velo del secreto que cubre la mayoría de las transacciones políticas. Para que esa importante transición tenga lugar, mis estimados colegas tendrán que jugar un papel crucial. Historiadores de la diplomacia, filólogos marxistas y tímidos contadores de la administración pública no son sustitutos de politólogos de verdad. La iniciativa podría emerger dentro de las filas de las ciencias sociales o incluso, de institutos de investigación y centros de estudios, como Convivencia. De otra manera, el “debate” político en Cuba seguirá siendo, para parafrasear lo que Borges dijo sobre la metafísica, una rama del género fantástico.
Yvon Grenier, Profesor del Departamento de Ciencias Políticas. St. Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia, Canadá.
In July 2016, thanks to a 20 percent reduction in oil shipments from Venezuela, Cuba’s economy minister Marino Murillo announced a 6 percent cut in electricity and a 28 percent cut in fuel. Meanwhile, he ordered an immediate drop in public sector energy use, with consequent working-hour reductions for state employees, and warned of possible blackouts, raising the specter of the dark and hungry days of the Special Period of the nineties.
This turn of events delivered another blow to Raúl Castro’s attempts to establish a Cuban version of the Sino-Vietnamese model, which maintains a one-party state while opening the economy to private enterprise and the market.
In the political realm, this has meant a relaxation of state control over the citizenry. But this hasn’t been matched with democratization. For example, the 2012 emigration reform facilitated Cuban citizens’ movement in and out of the country, but did not recognize travel abroad as their right.
In the economic realm, the government has implemented a modest and contradictory strategy. For example, the agricultural sector’s structural reforms provide land leases for a maximum of twenty years; the Chinese and Vietnamese governments, in contrast, established much longer and, in some cases, permanent contracts.
The government now allows self-employment in few occupations (a little over two hundred). Had it opened it up for the whole economy — reserving only those sectors regarded as high social priorities, like medicine — the reform would increase available products and services.
Complementary changes introduced to bolster these structural reforms — like the establishment of wholesale markets and commercial bank credits — have been inadequate and ended up negatively impacting the reform program. In addition, the bureaucratic and inefficient Acopio — the state agency with the monopoly power to buy most agricultural products at prices established by the government — has slowed agricultural production. As a result, harvested produce has spoiled while waiting to be processed at government plants.
The Castro regime’s half measures will, more likely than not, push Cuba closer to a form of state capitalism without democracy. But there is a feasible alternative for the country.
Until this new crisis, the Cuban economy had partially bounced back after the worst years of the Special Period, which devastated the country in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late eighties and early nineties.
The country hit bottom between 1992 and 1994, when extreme food shortages led to an outbreak of an optical neuropathy epidemic that affected some fifty thousand people. Since then, the Cuban economy has surpassed the GDP it achieved in 1989.
But other indicators — such as real wages and pensions, which in 2014 were still at 27 percent and 50 percent of their 1989 level, respectively — never came back. Meanwhile, social spending is still falling, and family consumption is expected to decline 2.8 percent in 2016 and 7.5 percent in 2017.
Although the hunger of the early nineties is gone, Cubans still struggle to find enough food. The much-praised development of organic and urban agriculture on the island represents a relatively small part of agricultural production. As Cuban economist C. Juan Triana Cordoví pointed out, declining domestic production has forced hotels to import vegetables, including yucca, the root-vegetable mainstay of the Cuban diet. The small progress in sustainable agriculture doesn’t make up for the fact that food production has never regained its 1989 level and that more than half of Cuba’s food supply comes from imports, at an annual cost of $2 billion.
Many of the revolution’s gains in education and health have also been lost. The teachers who fled the educational sector’s low pay haven’t been fully replaced, and private tutoring — often provided by public school teachers in their spare time — has grown exponentially. In addition, numerous school buildings, libraries, and laboratories are crumbling. Before the start of the current school year, 350 schools were closed after they were found to be in dangerous physical condition.
The same applies to many hospitals and other medical facilities, which now operate with skeleton crews: the government sends large numbers of general practitioners and specialists to Venezuela and other foreign countries in exchange for oil or hard currency.
The regime’s contradictory reforms will likely pass with the historic generation of leaders. Second-generation bureaucratic officials are likely to fully commit to the Sino-Vietnamese model, perhaps tilting somewhat toward Russia’s capitalism, which combines massive oligarchic theft of state property with a nominal “democracy” that would give US Congress the political cover it needs to repeal the 1996 Helms-Burton law and remove the island’s economic blockade.
Besides winning the United States’s enthusiasm, this new generation of leaders will enlist foreign capital and at least a sector of Cuban American capital by reassuring them that the government will maintain total control over the state, the mass media, and the mass organizations — including state-controlled unions — to guarantee their new capitalist investors, foreign and Cuban, peace, law, and order.
Yet there are other economic models that are being talked about inside and outside the government, although in a rather discreet fashion due, in great part, to the political system that does not allow a full and candid exploration of ideas.
Free and Rational
Mainstream critics have for some time been arguing for the establishment of a free-market economy, which they present as the only “rational” alternative to the bureaucratic economic management of Communist Party rule.
This group covers a wide spectrum, ranging from a hard free-market stance to a more social-democratic welfare state perspective. In this latter grouping, moderate critics overlap with sections of the island’s academic economists, including members of the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy at the University of Havana.
Yet hardly any of these critics have openly addressed the question of what to do with the most important part of the Cuban economy, the larger state-owned enterprises. Instead, they focus on establishing private PYMEs — the Spanish language acronym for small and medium size enterprises — although they haven’t clarified what “medium” actually means.
They have also supported the government’s move toward replacing the universal rationing system with one that subsidizes categories of people instead of products. Today, all Cubans, regardless of income, can receive a number of products at low, subsidized prices. The new system would only provide these products to the poorest and most disadvantaged, thereby rationalizing agricultural markets and reducing the government’s budget. The government’s recent reduction of the number of products distributed by this system marks the first step in this means-tested direction.
Finally, they imply that the state monopoly of foreign trade should end, and Cubans should be free to import all they can afford from abroad.
Tito in Cuba
Like all of the regime’s opponents, the nascent critical left — mostly composed of anarchist and social-democratic currents — has had to operate under close state monitoring and repression. These left-wing formations resist reductions to state benefits and — unprecedented in the Cuban left’s history — call for a worker-managed economy.
Interestingly, they never mention democratic planning or coordination among economic sectors. As a result, their version of worker self-management would create an economy of self-sufficient firms in competition with each other. This resembles the system implemented in Tito’s Yugoslavia from the 1950s until the 1970s.
This market socialism was locally self-managed, but regionally and nationally controlled by the League of Communists. It did increase worker input, decision-making, and productivity at the local level but, because of its competitive and unplanned nature, also created unemployment, sharp trade cycles, pay inequality, and notable regional disparities that favored the northern republics.
The workers’ powerlessness to decide on anything beyond what happened in their workplaces encouraged parochialism, isolating them from broader, national economic decisions. Workers felt no reason to support investment in other enterprises, particularly those located far away.
The Yugoslav model is a fraught one to emulate in Cuban, then. Further making any kind of worker control unlikely, none of the government’s left-wing opponents have explained how it might be implemented in the absence of a workers’ movement or how it might operate if workers aren’t motivated to fight for those goals.
There are other voices on the critical left that reject any concession to private enterprise and capital on the grounds that capitalist enterprise by definition contradicts socialism. But they have been unable to answer the critical question of how a socialist and democratic Cuba could emerge from poverty and economic stagnation without concessions of any kind.
What is Possible
A growing number of Cubans on and off the island, see socialism — whether democratic or authoritarian — as an impossibility. A diminishing number of Cubans still regard it as either desirable or likely. Certainly, the island’s current economic conditions — combined with extraordinarily powerful international capital — make it hard to imagine a fully fledged form of socialism.
This view derives from a specific application of the general Marxist theory that rejects the possibility of socialism in one country, particularly when that country is economically underdeveloped and exists in a capitalist world currently unthreatened by socialist revolutions.
Besides having to face the hostility of its imperial northern neighbor, autarkic “socialist” economic development won’t fit for Cuba because the country still depends on oil imports. Further, its reliance on tourism and medical service, nickel and, to a lesser degree, pharmaceutical product exports and the dramatically shrunken sugar industry underline the foreign-trade character of Cuba’s economy. The island’s considerable integration into the capitalist world market prevents the establishment of a full socialist democracy.
This does not mean, however, that Cuba should abandon socialism. Instead, critics must think in terms of a transitional economy, a holding operation that can realistically be implemented until an international situation more favorable to socialism develops.
Classical Marxist political economy provides a model for what that possible holding pattern could be. This theory recognizes the greater role that individual, family, and small-scale production and distribution play in less-developed economies like Cuba.
In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Friedrich Engels distinguishes between modern capitalism — where production is a social act, but the social product is appropriated and controlled by individual capitalists — and socialism — where both production and its appropriation are socialized. Following this distinction, the productive property requiring collective work becomes the proper object of socialization, leaving aside individual and family production as well as personal property.
A transitional economy in Cuba would therefore allow for small, productive private property. This accommodation derives from a fundamental Marxist analysis of capitalism, not an opportunistic adaptation to liberal, free-market politics.
In Cuba, as in many other less developed countries, a transitional economy would subordinate a private sector of small enterprises ruled by market mechanisms under a commanding state sector that administers the island’s big industry — pharmaceuticals, tourism, minerals, and banks — through workers’ control and democratically coordinated and planned in a democratic polity. The government would strive, through its knowledge of market conditions and adequate economic forecasts, towards harmonizing the state and self-employed economy according to a definite plan.
But we must first honestly assess the Cuban economy, which, even before a reduction in Venezuelan oil shipments provoked the current crisis, had been in a marked state of deterioration.
For one thing, its all-encompassing public sector is floundering. As the Cuban economist Pedro Monreal reminded us, the government has openly admitted that 58 percent of state enterprises function “deficiently or badly.”
Also, the island’s economic growth has been generally low, a situation that will only be aggravated by the current crisis. Cuban economist Pavel Vidal Alejandro estimates that Cuba’s GDP will not grow in 2016 and will likely shrink by almost 3 percent in 2017. This would mark the first year of negative growth in the last quarter century.
Important voices in the left opposition have argued against economic growth for ecological and other reasons. But improving most Cubans’ material conditions is a condition of a successful democratization. The alternative — continual stagnation and declining living standards — will encourage massive emigration. This represents a tragedy in itself, but would also undermine potential democratic and progressive — let alone socialist — opposition movements.
Alarmingly, the rate of new investment, necessary to replenish the existent capital stock, has become among the lowest in Latin America, dropping below 12 percent of GDP. Government forecasts indicate that investments will fall 17 percent in 2016 and 20 percent in 2017. This will result in a rate of gross capital formation slightly over 10 percent, barely half the rate of investment considered necessary for economic development
The deterioration of Cuba’s capital stock makes it impossible to maintain the current economic output and living standards, much less to expand them. As a result, the substantial increase in tourism — from 3 million visitors in 2014 to 3.5 million in 2015, and a projected 3.7 million by the end of 2016, sparked by the resumption of US-Cuba relations in December 2014 — has strained Cuba’s tourist capacity to its limit.
Further, President Obama’s elimination of restrictions on the remittances sent to the island by Cuban Americans has significantly worsened food and beverage shortages. Supply cannot meet the increase in demand.
The Cuban economy’s productivity also lags. Agricultural yields — with the exception of potatoes — are well below the rest of Latin America. In industry, biotechnology is the only sector that enjoys high productivity relative to the region.
Rising productivity isn’t just a profit-driven capitalist scheme. An economy that prioritizes reducing backbreaking labor, improving living standards, and maximizing leisure time can only do so if it also prioritizes making more with the existing workforce.
Che Guevara advocated what in effect was the “sweating of labor.” But better organization, technology, and — most importantly — worker control would have the same effect.
Control, in itself, represents a powerful motivator. The current low productivity comes from a bureaucratic system that systematically creates disorganization and chaos and does not provide workers either with political incentives — allowing them to have a say and control over what they do — or with material incentives — typical of the developed capitalist world — to motivate them. Guevara’s moral incentives failed: they were a method to get workers to take responsibility without power and to work harder without control or pay.
Much of the island’s left opposition to economic growth is grounded in environmental considerations. Cuba now confronts many serious ecological problems, including the increasing number of breakages and leaks in the old and poorly serviced water pipes all over the island. This has led to a massive loss of water, which often spills into streets and empty lots, and to the frequently inappropriate storage that many residents have been forced to resort to in response to the lack of water. Consequently, the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which transmits the dreaded Dengue illness, has proliferated.
Moreover, the growing number of pigs, poultry, and house-grown crops — part of the much-vaunted, but very problematic, urban agriculture movement — has combined with deteriorating garbage collection services to considerably increase the risk of urban health crises.
The recent government claims to have held off the Zika epidemic and almost eliminated the Dengue fever must be met with skepticism as long as these and other conditions that propitiate the spread of diseases remain.
Anti-growth sentiment among Cuban left-wing oppositionists was reinforced when, on a recent visit to Havana, the economist Jeffrey Sachs recommended that “the Cuban people don’t progress into the twentieth century.” As the left-wing journalist Fernando Ravsberg explained, Sachs argued that Cubans should not forget sustainability and concentrate on the development of organic agriculture, sowed without tractors and grown without using chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
If Ravsberg’s account is correct, Sachs’s argument fails to weigh the relative costs and benefits of environmentally conscious measures. Small and economical tractors, like those the Cuban government is planning to produce in association with US capital, do still consume oil. But oil’s negative environmental effects do not compare to the cost of human- and animal-powered agriculture. The latter model produces less food while requiring massive energy inputs from workers and animals.
Cuba’s history already proves this: the forced abandonment of motorized agricultural vehicles at the beginning of the Special Period constituted, in net terms, a huge setback for the Cuban people.
Also in the nineties, urban transport was demotorized, and many city residents turned to bicycles. They were later abandoned — not because Cubans abstractly preferred the infrequent and overcrowded buses or the expensive urban collective taxis (only a small proportion of Cubans own automobiles), but because bicycles don’t let workers arrive on time from distant working-class suburbs nor do they protect riders from tropical rains and winds from June until November.
The Chinese government has encouraged individual car ownership, which has contributed to the country’s overwhelming urban pollution. This should serve as a warning sign for Cuba to aim for the adoption of an effective mass transit system as an alternative environmental policy.
Finally, at a minimum, Cuba needs to improve on the 5 percent of its electricity derived from renewable sources, which is a quarter of the Latin American average.
The Politics of a Socialist Alternative
The move toward a socialist society does not only require a program, but also a politics. This requires using principled strategic and tactical considerations to engage with the government’s and various oppositionist currents’ proposals.
In doing so, Cuban socialists might find areas of overlap with the liberal Catholic and social-democratic critics. Those include proposals that would promote agricultural production and productivity, such as codifying individual farmers’ usufruct rights, eliminating the compulsory sale of agricultural produce to the government at prices dictated by the Acopio, and creating wholesale markets for small firms and individual producers.
In the field of urban employment, these proposals include forming cooperatives based on the initiative of interested workers, rather than on government diktats trying to dispose of so-called lemons — unprofitable enterprises or businesses that are difficult to administer on a centralized basis, like small restaurants.
At the same time, this new left will need to counter other proposals from those same groups. For example, they call for legalization of all forms of self-employment, including occupations that should be run on behalf of the public interest, like education and medicine.
The Left can respond to the call for free importation by arguing that a democratically run state should allocate foreign exchange on a strict priority basis, with social criteria that favor the most economically deprived sectors of the population and the purchase of capital goods that would most support the country’s economic development. Otherwise, affluent Cubans might waste the country’s relatively scarce foreign exchange on frivolous imports, such as expensive vehicles or luxurious furniture and household effects.
Socialists should also resist the dominant view — held by both critics and an increasing number of government economists — that the government should subsidize people, not products, that it should replace its universal subsidies with a system that provides for only the neediest citizens.
To be sure, those universal subsidies unnecessarily benefit wealthier Cubans. However, the critics of this program never mention their proposal’s downside, which is that it undermines social solidarity. International experience has shown that income-tested programs for the poor produce stigmatization and, as a result, lose political legitimacy over time, thus threatening their long-term funding and viability.
One answer to this problem would be the introduction of a sliding scale where everybody benefits in inverse proportion to their income. This would recognize differential need while maintaining maximum political support.
Socialists in the Marxist tradition understand that subsidies must be selective: if, under current conditions, everything was provided free of charge or sold below production costs, an economy would collapse in short order. Moreover, a relatively underdeveloped economy like Cuba’s has a much smaller surplus to leverage for free and subsidized goods.
But keeping the idea of universal subsidies alive leaves the road open for their future expansion as the Cuban economy becomes more productive and wealthier.
Liberal critics and the government itself support foreign investment as a means to deal with the Cuban economy’s undercapitalization. Many on the Left have opposed it, seeing it as the Trojan horse of capitalism and foreign domination. However, a policy of controlled and selective foreign capitalist investment is indispensable in the absence of a domestic developed-goods industry. These imports could bring in new machinery and renew transportation and utility infrastructure.
New investments from abroad can also have significant employment and multiplier effects that trigger the development of entirely new industries that complement and further develop the established ones.
Further, the impact of foreign investment on wages and working conditions could be negotiated by independent unions, which, among other things, should prioritize the immediate abolition of the Cuban government’s practice of collecting salaries owed to Cuban workers from foreign investors and then turning over to their citizens only a small fraction of the money collected. The government claims that they do this to finance social spending and other government operations. But the same goal could be achieved through a transparent and equitable tax system rather than through the government monopoly of the sale and control of labor.
It is true that worker-controlled production and powerful unions may deter foreign investment. However, an honest public administration and tax system as well as the existence of natural and human resources not reproducible elsewhere can also serve as a draw that supersedes those disadvantages.
Right-wing critics and oppositionists play down — if not ignore entirely — the crucially important issue of Cuba’s growing inequality. For the Left this presents a unique opportunity to push for independent unions, which, along with a progressive tax system, could be a more effective policy than the current one, in which the proliferation of bureaucratic rules harasses small firms and the self-employed.
This is not to do away with regulation entirely; it is necessary in occupational safety, health, pensions, and union rights. If these rules were administered — under worker control and supervision — by professional organizations rather than by a central bureaucracy, they would surely benefit workers, not owners. But to do so will require distinguishing between rules designed to protect the interests of the workers and those that protect the interests of bureaucrats.
Engaging with the specific proposals put forward by both the undemocratic government and by the pro-capitalist opposition sector, the Left will have the opportunity to formulate specific demands and to mobilize people to fight for them. This would build a movement — or at least a clear organizational pole — in spite of government repression and popular skepticism.
Cuba’s present regime will not permit the existence of other legal political parties, independent unions, or a free mass media. Of course, these elements constitute precisely the political setting that would facilitate the kind of transitional social and political system outlined here.
Nevertheless, the left opposition must talk about an alternative model that openly acknowledges both the possibilities and the difficulties involved in building a socialist democracy. This empowers people, rather than making them feel that nothing can be done to push the country in an anticapitalist, radically democratic, and socialist direction. But there is an alternative.
Since President Barack Obama left Cuba, the Castro government has carried out a campaign to diminish the importance of the historic visit, according to Cuban human rights activists and U.S. officials.
Obama’s trip to Havana in March – part of ongoing efforts to normalize relations with Cuba –made him the first sitting U.S. president to visit the island in nearly 90 years. Activist Antonio Rodiles described how the Cuban government had launched a media push criticizing the U.S. government and praising communist leadership.
“They were trying to encapsulate – to close or create a bubble – around the visit. And they started to talk about the communist congress party. A lot of articles attacked the president’s position,” Rodiles said Wednesday during a panel discussion in Washington.
The dissident leader said, however, that Obama’s message still had gotten through to the Cuban people. Rodiles joined former Ambassador Roger Noriega, the former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department, for a discussion on human rights in Cuba at the American Enterprise Institute research center in Washington.
Rodiles described the situation in Cuba as a fight over the public space in that country. And he doesn’t think Obama demanded enough on human rights, allowing the Cuban government to give the “illusion” of change while it works to transition power to a younger generation of Castros.
“This is something crucial for me and many people who are working on this, to show to the whole international community, to show to the Cuban people, to show to everybody that if the Castro family is there, nothing is going to change,” Rodiles said.
Since embarking on cozier relations with Cuban leader Raúl Castro last year, the Obama administration has been eliminating stiff regulations on travel and commerce. It has expanded opportunities for Americans to visit the island, but the administration has been criticized for not doing enough to fight human rights.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group that tracks human rights and political repression in Cuba, reported more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions in 2015, a 315 percent increase from five years ago. In the first two months of this year, there had already been more than 2,500 arrests.
Rodiles said more people were willing to speak out about their frustrations as they saw an opening for change, but he said it had also given the Cuban government a sense of legitimacy.
It’s important to keep the focus on Cuba while Obama remains in office, Noriega said. Obama placed a bet that this opening will bring about change. Noriega, who has raised concerns about the opening of relations, said momentum was beginning to slow as multinationals reported that there was little investment opportunity.
He pushed Obama to focus more on human rights:
“You can’t separate economic rights and political freedoms, because the pillar of both of them is the rule of law. If you don’t have the rule of law, you’re not going to be able to create the economy they need.”
Rodiles praised parts of the president’s visit. He thanked Obama for spending so much time with opposition leaders. The president’s speech, he said, was the first time in 60 years for many Cubans to hear someone talk about human freedoms.
But he said the United States needed to decide who really were its friends:
“The people are pushing and facing the Cuban regime. We’re the friends of the democracy world. And we’re taking the risk for that. We need your support.”