Tag Archives: Economic Reforms


Pavel Vidal Professor, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana Cali

CUBA STUDY GROUP, February 2018

Complete Article, English:  Pavel_Is Cuba’s Economy Ready English

Complete Article, Spanish:  Pavel En qué condicion llega la economia cubana a la transicion generacional


Cuba has changed considerably in these last ten years of economic reforms, though not enough. Family income, tourist services, food production, restaurants, and transportation depend less on the state and much more on private initiative. The real estate market, sales of diverse consumer goods and services, and the supply of inputs for the private sector have all expanded, in formal and informal markets. Foreign investment stands out as a fundamental factor in Cuba’s development. The country has achieved important advances in the renegotiation of its external debts.

Nevertheless, many other announced changes were defeated by internal resistance, half-heartedly implemented, or put in place in ways that replicated mistakes of the past. The bureaucratic and inefficient state enterprise sector, tied down by low salaries and a strict central plan, impedes economic progress. Cuba’s advantages in education and human capital continue to be underexploited. Neither has the international environment provided much help. The U.S. trade embargo remains in place, the Trump administration has returned to the old and failed rhetoric of past U.S. policies, and Cuba continues to depend on a Venezuelan economy that does not yet seem to have hit rock bottom.

As a consequence, the growth of GDP and productivity has been disappointing, agricultural reform has produced few positive results, and Cuba is once again drowning in a financial crisis. The reforms implemented to date did not create sufficient quality jobs, and, all told, half a million formal positions were eliminated from the labor market.

The second half of 2017 proved especially challenging due to the impacts of Hurricane Irma and new restrictive measures announced by the U.S. government. To these difficulties one must add the decision of the Cuban government to freeze (temporarily) the issuance of licenses to the private sector.

Even so, the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) reported that the economy has not fallen into recession. There are reasons to doubt these statistics, however. Such doubts only multiply when we take into consideration the decision to delay, or altogether avoid, the publication of reports on individual sectors of the economy and the state of the national accounts. For 2018, the government has proposed a rather optimistic economic growth plan (2% increase in GDP) that once again does not appear to appropriately evaluate the complexity of Cuba’s macro-financial environment.

Three highly significant events are anticipated this year: the generational transition within the government, new norms for the private sector, and the beginning of the currency reform process. These three issues have raised expectations on the island, but each may be tackled in a disappointing fashion.



Two Other Changes that Could Disappoint A generational transition in the Cuban government will take place on April 19, 2018. Beyond indications that Miguel Díaz-Canel will be the future president, there are no signals as to who will be vice president or who will direct principal ministries such as the Ministry of the Economy or the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Nor do we know where politicians of the “historic generation” will end up.

The new government will want to demonstrate continuity with the former in order to assure its position with various spheres of political power. It appears that the new government will not have its own economic agenda. We can expect that documents approved by recent Congresses of the Cuban Communist Party—which define the limits of reform, the desired development strategy, and the social and economic model to which Cuba aspires—will continue to serve as economic policy guides.

Whatever the composition of the incoming government, in the short term, Cuba’s new leaders will need to convince other state actors that they have the authority and will to, first, achieve the objectives laid out in the “Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy” (Lineamientos), and then deepen the process of reform, overcoming internal forces resistant to change. The new government will thus have to carefully assess the political costs and benefits of implementing reforms to different degrees and at varying speeds, but it will start with low initial political capital due to less popular recognition and a lack of historic legitimacy. Cuba’s new leaders, moreover, must confront these challenges at a time of renewed conflict with the U.S. government. The task is by no means easy, and we will have to wait to see how they handle it.

Another change we can expect this year is the publication of new rules governing the operations of the private sector, and thus unfreezing the issuance of licenses. A greater degree of control over tax payments, as well as efforts to more strongly “bank” the sector, appear to be two basic objectives of the forthcoming rules.

It is very important that the private sector contribute to the Treasury in proportion to its earnings. This is impossible to guarantee if private sector operations are not registered in banks. An effective and progressive tax system provides net dividends to all. The state budget would benefit, exorbitant gaps in income distribution could be avoided, and the societal image of the private sector would be improved. It will be much easier to defeat political and ideological resistance to expansion of the private sector when its income also serves to finance expenses in education and healthcare, and when individual contributions are in line with variable levels of income.

We still do not know if the new rules for the private sector will focus only on fiscal and banking control, or if new policies will address some of the many complaints that the private sector itself has made—high tax rates, the struggle to obtain inputs, and the difficulty of linking operations to foreign trade, for example. A draft of the rules that has circulated does not contain answers to these problems, but rather suggests a focus primarily on more control and penalization.6 If the rules that are ultimately implemented do not differ much from what appears in this draft, depleted prospects for the private sector will be the first disappointment Cubans face in 2018.

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EFE,  17 de marzo de 2018 01:15 PM



Mercabal, el primer mercado mayorista de Cuba, abrió el sábado sus puertas en La Habana destinado inicialmente solo a cooperativas privadas no agropecuarias y con la promesa de extenderlo a los demás trabajadores autónomos de la isla, informa el diario oficial Granma en portada.

El mercado cuenta ya con 35 clientes, que tienen acceso a un descuento del 20 por ciento del precio de venta minorista en productos como frijoles, cigarros, refrescos, cervezas, azúcar, sal, confituras, hamburguesas y salchichas, muy demandados en los restaurantes, cafeterías y bares del sector privado.

El pollo, uno de los alimentos más consumidos, se rebajará hasta un 30 por ciento respecto a su precio en la red minorista, indica Granma, que reconoce que el gobierno cubano responde así a “uno de los reclamos más reiterados de quienes ejercen las nuevas formas no estatales de gestión en el país”.

Localizado por ahora solo en la capital del país, los próximos mercados mayoristas abrirán “de forma paulatina” en el resto de la isla, “una vez que esta propuesta inicial esté en óptimo funcionamiento y en dependencia de los lugares donde más trabajadores por cuenta propia existan”, señaló la ministra.

En Cuba existen hoy más de medio millón de trabajadores privados o “cuentapropistas”, acogidos a las categorías de trabajo permitidas por el gobierno cubano.

Más de 12,000 son socios de cooperativas no agropecuarias, que ya suman unas 420 en todo el país, en su gran mayoría dedicadas a la gastronomía, el comercio, los servicios, la construcción y la industria.

Ubicado en el municipio habanero de Plaza de la Revolución, Mercabal abrirá de lunes a sábado con productos de diez proveedores directos, que reabastecerán el mercado según los pedidos mensuales de los clientes.

Para poder contratar los servicios de la nueva instalación los autónomos deben tener actualizada su ficha de cliente y poseer una cuenta con tarjeta magnética, emitida por el estatal Banco Metropolitano.

La ampliación del trabajo privado -donde se incluyen las cooperativas no agropecuarias- en el 2010 ha sido una de las reformas clave del gobierno del saliente mandatario cubano Raúl Castro para actualizar el modelo socialista y reducir las abultadas plantillas del sector estatal.

Desde agosto, la isla comenzó un proceso de reordenamiento del “cuentapropismo”, dentro del que paralizó temporalmente la entrega de licencias a restaurantes privados y casas de renta turísticas, entre otras actividades, para frenar ilegalidades, “desviaciones” y “corregir deficiencias”.

Las licencias congeladas son, precisamente, las más demandadas del sector.

A pesar de que prometió que no mantendría “por un período de tiempo muy largo” esta medida, el Gobierno cubano aún no ha retomado la entrega de autorizaciones a los autónomos cubanos, que ya representan el 12 por ciento de la fuerza laboral del país.


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Sarah Marsh  FEBRUARY 22, 2018 / 7:08 PM

HAVANA (Reuters) – A draft of new Cuban economic regulations proposes increasing state control over the private sector and curtailing private enterprise, a copy of the document seen by Reuters showed.

The tightening may signal that the ruling Cuban Communist Party fears that free market reforms introduced eight years ago by President Raul Castro may have gone too far, amid a broader debate about rising inequality.

The draft document, circulating among Cuba experts and private entrepreneurs, goes beyond proposed restrictions announced in December. For example, it would allow homes only one license to operate a restaurant, cafeteria or bar. That would limit the number of seats per establishment to 50. Many of Havana’s most successful private restaurants currently hold several licenses enabling them to have a seating capacity of 100 or more.

There is uncertainty over the direction of economic policy generally as Cuba prepares in April to mark the end of six decades of rule by Castro and his older brother Fidel, who stood down formally as a leader in 2008. That has been heightened by U.S. President Donald Trump partially rolling back the Obama-era detente with the United States.

The head of the Communist Party’s reform commission, Marino Murillo, announced restrictions on the private sector in December, some of them included in the new document. But the draft regulations go into greater detail and show how far the push back could go.  “The decree strengthens control at a municipal, provincial and national level” over the private sector, according to the 166-page document, dated Aug. 3, 2017 and signed by Marcia Fernández Andreu, deputy chief of the secretariat of Cuba’s Council of Ministers.

The document said resolutions were drafted by the reform commission and were being sent to provincial and national organs of administration for consultation. Reuters could not independently verify its authenticity. Cuban authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some analysts said they suspected the draft was leaked to gauge public opinion and could be revised.

The regulations state that measures that will apply to infractions will be more “rigorous.”

The government has increased criticism of wealth accumulation over the past year and gone on the offensive against tax evasion and other malpractices in the private sector.

The number of self-employed Cubans soared to 567,982 as of the middle of last year, versus 157,731 in 2010 at the start of the reform process designed to boost Cuba’s centrally planned economy.  Private sector workers now make up roughly 12 percent of the workforce, but the prosperity of some Cuban entrepreneurs, particularly those working in the tourist sector and receiving hard currency, has become a source of tension. The average state monthly wage is $30, the same sum a B&B owner can charge for a night’s stay.

The restrictions unveiled by Murillo in December included limiting business licenses to a single activity per entrepreneur.

Some entrepreneurs had hoped they could get around that by transferring business licenses, for activities as diverse as manicures or bookkeeping, to family members.

It was unclear from the draft document whether the measures would be applied retroactively.

Murillo said in December the number of categories in which self employment would be permitted would be reduced and in some cases consolidated. For example, manicurist, masseuse and hairdresser would fall under an expanded beauty salon license.  The draft lists 122 categories, down from approximately 200 previously.

The document calls for a new division under the Ministry of Labour to administer and control self-employed work.



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Mario A. Gonzalez-Corzo and Orlando Justo, The City University of New York

The Journal of Private Enterprise 32(2), 2017, 45–82

Complete Article Here: 2017_Private Self-Employment under reform Socialism in Cuba Journal_of_Private_Enterprise, 32, 2.



The expansion of private self-employment is one of the main economic measures implemented by the Cuban government since 2010 to update its socialist economy under a unique brand of “reform socialism.” State policies (a “push factor”), as well as economic incentives and the desire for greater economic independence (“pull factors”) have contributed to the remarkable growth of self-employment in Cuba since 2010. While employment in the state sector has declined significantly (13 percent) since 2010, self-employment has grown by more than 187 percent, and its share of total employment has increased from 3 percent to close to 9 percent. Despite these advances, Cuba’s self-employed workers face significant obstacles that limit their growth and potential economic contributions. In addition to addressing these challenges and obstacles, ensuring the success of Cuba’s self-employment reforms requires re-conceptualizing the state’s attitude toward self-employed workers and their potential contributions to economic development and growth.

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Richard E. Feinberg, Nonresident Senior Fellow – Foreign PolicyLatin America Initiative

Brookings, December 4, 2017

Original Article: Order from Chaos
In many ways, Raúl Castro’s 10-year presidential rule, ending in February 2018, has been utterly disappointing. Cuba’s economy is stagnant and economic reform has stalled. Political power remains highly centralized and secluded. The island’s educated youth are fleeing in droves for better opportunities abroad. And the Trump administration is renewing U.S. hostility.

Nevertheless, during his decade in power Raúl Castro oversaw historic shifts in Cuban foreign and domestic policies. Raúl initiated some policy innovations, deepened and consolidated others, and merely watched while forces beyond his control drove other changes. Regardless, these changes have paved the way for the successor generation of leaders—if they dare—to push Cuba forward into the 21st century.


Fidel’s younger brother, now 86, can be especially pleased with his achievements in foreign affairs. Cuba had been a colony of Spain, a dominion of U.S. capital, a cog within the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) system. Now, for the first time in its 500-year history, Cuba has escaped the grip of a single world power.

Today, Cuban traders circumnavigate the globe, engaging both state-directed and free-market economies. The top trading 10 partners in goods in 2016 were (in rank order): China, Venezuela, Spain, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Germany, and Vietnam. The next tier of merchandise trading partners (between $275 million and $100 million) includes the United States, France, Algeria, the Netherlands, Russia, and Trinidad and Tobago. No single country accounts for more than 20 percent of total merchandise trade.

This trade diversification began in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Raúl’s economic team extended and consolidated it. Under Raúl, Cuba also expanded the number of countries that purchase its main service export—the labor of educated professionals, especially in the medical field. While Fidel initiated large-scale service exports to Venezuela, Raúl followed suit with Brazil and dozens of other developing countries.

In the last 10 years, Cuba has also diversified the sources of foreign investment. For example, in the economy’s bright spot, international tourism, investors hail from Spain, France, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, China, and Malaysia, among other locations.

A small island economy cannot hope to be fully autonomous; it must adapt to global constraints. But by diversifying its economic partners, Cuba has minimized its vulnerability to external dictates, and maximized its own margin for maneuver. This diversification of economic partnerships has paid handsome diplomatic dividends. Cuba has become an accepted participant in various Latin American forums and diplomatic initiatives; overcame its exclusion from the Summit of the Americas leaders’ meetings; gained membership in the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI); and gained access to resources at the multilateral Andean Development Corporation (CAF). President Donald Trump is alone in his efforts to damage the Cuban economy through comprehensive economic sanctions.


The slow, halting pace of economic reform has discouraged many Cubans, especially recent university graduates. Conservative forces resisting change remain strong within the Cuban Communist Party. Nevertheless, Raúl leaves a legacy that could greatly facilitate the work of reformers in the future. (I will further evaluate the economic reforms and pathways forward in a February 2018 Brookings policy brief.)

Raúl’s legacy lies not in standard measures of economic performance, such as per capita GDP growth, labor productivity, or investment rates, where results have varied from disappointing to disastrous. Rather, Raúl’s legacy in economic policy lies in breaking once forbidding ideological barriers. True, Raúl’s public statements often have been contradictory and shifting, as he apparently sought to balance conflicting tendencies within the Cuban Communist Party. But in key areas, Raúl demolished or at least cracked these obstacles to change: rejection of globalization (a favorite Fidel bugaboo), fear of foreign investment, and hostility to private business and markets. He also transformed relations with the United States.

In daily life, Cubans have left behind the comfort of social uniformity and relative economic equality for the more tumultuous worlds of greater social heterogeneity and income inequalities.

Raúl is no cheerleader for globalization. But he set aside his brother’s heated denunciations of multinational corporations and “exploitative” markets. Instead, he went about the practical business of building economic relations with a multitude of governments and foreign corporations. Without much pomp and circumstance (although there was the occasional ribbon-cutting), Raúl advanced the process of normalizing Cuba’s integration into global markets.

Raúl’s decision to normalize diplomatic relations with “the historic enemy,” the United States, dramatically revised his regime’s foreign policy doctrine. The hegemon just across the Florida Straits was no longer an imminent, existential threat, readily justifying economic deprivations and tight political restrictions. Notwithstanding the altered attitude in Washington today, so far a number of the concrete gains from the Obama era détente remain in place, notably the facilitation of travel (commercial airline flights and cruise ships) and the generous flows of remittances to many Cuban families, whether for household consumption or business start-ups.

Of the reforms most directly attributable to Raúl, the suppression of the special (and expensive) permit to travel abroad was among the most important to many Cubans. As a result, most Cubans can freely leave the island (provided they can acquire an entry visa elsewhere), to be enriched by their contact with foreign lands and ideas. Greater access to mobile technology and rapidly expanding social media, permission to sell homes and cars, and more freedom to stay in once-forbidden tourist hotels have also improved life for many Cubans during his tenure.

De facto, by building commercial partnerships worldwide, and by accepting the freedom to travel, Cuba has now embraced core components of globalization.


To stave off complete economic collapse in the early 1990s, Fidel had invited in limited foreign investment. El Comandante en Jefe made these concessions holding his sensitive ideological nose and again closed Cuba’s borders once he felt politically secure. In sharp contrast, Raúl has publicly chastised his ministers for not accelerating foreign capital inflows (although he hesitated to fire them).

Periodically, the government releases a “Portfolio of Opportunities for Foreign Investment.” Each edition is fatter and glossier; the 300-page 2017-2018 version features 456 projects with a cumulative price tag of $11 billion. Yes, most projects have remained on paper, victims of bureaucratic foot-dragging and red tape; but these documents are products of an inter-agency process whereby many ministries and state enterprises join in a collective waving of hands to the international commercial community.

In a 2011 official document outlining proposed reforms, foreign investment was derided as “complementary,” a secondary afterthought. In contrast, when addressing Havana’s annual international trade fair in 2017, Raúl’s minister for foreign trade and investment sang a very different tune: “Today foreign investment ceases to be a complement and has become an essential issue for the country.”

Mariel, the new economic development zone facing the Straits of Florida, has gotten off to a slow start, having approved over three years only 26 projects worth about $1 billion. However, 15 of these projects have broken through another ideological barrier: allowing 100 percent foreign ownership.


Fidel disliked and distrusted private property. In 1968, for example, he nationalized remaining mom-and-pop businesses. In contrast, over the last decade the government has issued hundreds of thousands of licenses to small-scale private businesses. Raúl has also encouraged some 200,000 Cuban families to farm as homesteaders (although not all survived). In addition to these authorized private businesses, many Cubans augment their income in more-or-less tolerated gray-market activities. Altogether, as much as 40 percent of the Cuban workforce have at least one foot in the private sector.

Recently, Raúl criticized private business for illicit activities, and the government halted the granting of new business licenses. Nevertheless, these concessions to anxious Communist Party stalwarts appear to be a temporary pause. The ideological foundations, and public constituency, for the acceptance and eventual expansion of a market-driven private sector have most likely been set too deep for a full-blown counter-revolution to succeed.


This increase in economic pluralism has unleashed public debates on economic policy. Criticism of government performance is widely voiced with less fear, even if journalists and academics are still careful not to directly confront senior authority.

Another major shift that accelerated during the last decade: the evolution of Cuban society from socialist uniformity toward a more heterogeneous mix of property relations, income levels, and social styles. While legal statutes remain to be written, property can now be private (often in partnership with diaspora capital), cooperative (in numerous variations) and foreign-owned, as well as state controlled.

Income inequalities have become more visible, even if less jarring than in other Latin American and Caribbean nations. Many Cubans still honor social solidarity. But the transition toward a more normal, relaxed, and individualistic society is unmistakable. On Havana’s streets, Cuban youth—increasingly exposed to international tourists, travel opportunities and the worldwide web—sport the variety of hairstyles, tattoos, music, and other signatures of global youth.

These ideological adaptations do not guarantee speedy policy changes, much less their faithful implementation. The Cuban government is grappling with a severe foreign exchange crisis, and the sudden, unanticipated chill in bilateral relations imposed by the United States. All the more reasons for the next generation of Cuban leaders to build upon the diversity of international economic associations and the new ideological currents unleashed during the reign of the second and last Castro brother—and to launch their island state into deeper phases of global integration and economic transformation.

Richard Feinberg

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Why economic opening on the island has been slower  –  and less effective  –  than many hoped.


America’s Quarterly, Cuba’s New Economy, 11 October 2017,

 When Raúl Castro steps down as Cuba’s president in February 2018, he will hand off to his successor the unfinished task of reforming the economy. It is Cuba’s most urgent need and, at the same time, an increasingly controversial one.

Castro succeeded his brother Fidel as president in 2008 amid serious structural economic problems on the island. State salaries were inadequate to cover basic needs, productivity in state enterprises was weak, and foreign reserves were chronically low. Agricultural production was so poor that Cuba had to import 80 percent of its food at a cost of $2 billion annually. The dual currency and exchange rate system produced severe distortions in the labor market and external sector.

Three years later, the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba endorsed the Guidelines of the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and the Revolution, a document of 313 economic objectives comprising Castro’s plan to “update” the economy. In it, Castro was unsparing in his criticism of the hyper-centralized economic system imported from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The key problem was low productivity. “No country or person can spend more than they have,” he reminded his comrades. “Two plus two is four. Never five, much less six or seven – as we have sometimes pretended.”

The Guidelines were a blueprint for a new economic policy in which the state’s role would be restricted to strategic sectors, leaving the rest to private enterprise and cooperatives. Decision-making would be decentralized to give managers greater authority, and state enterprises would be required to operate profitably or close. Wage incentives would reward productivity, and market mechanisms would balance supply and demand. Foreign investment would be actively sought. The social programs emblematic of the revolution – free health care and education – would continue, and no one would be left behind.

The pace of change had been intentionally deliberate – “without haste, but without pause,” in Castro’s oft-repeated phrase. But recent signals indicate the reforms may be stalled and that some of Cuba’s leaders are having doubts. At the Seventh Communist Party Congress in 2016, Castro reported that only 21 percent of the guidelines adopted in 2011 had been fully implemented.

The process of rationalizing state enterprises, which produce about three-quarters of GDP, has been especially slow. In April 2010, Castro noted that a million state sector workers – 20 percent of the labor force – were employed unproductively. By 2015, the state labor force had been reduced by 718,000 people and 15 percent of state enterprises had been closed. Nevertheless, productivity remained low and a significant number of firms still operated in deficit.

As workers were laid off from state enterprises, the private sector was expected to provide alternative employment. Although self-employment (cuentapropismo) was first legalized in the 1980s, it was not until Castro’s new economic policy that the state accepted the private businesses and cooperatives as a permanent part the economy. By 2017, some 543,000 people had self-employment licenses, operating a variety of small businesses.

The Seventh Party Congress promised to give private businesses legal status, but the National Assembly has yet to make good on it. Instead, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. In July 2017, Castro criticized the private sector for tax evasion and black-marketeering, though he insisted that private enterprise would remain a permanent part of the economic landscape. On Aug. 1, however, the government suspended the issuance of new licenses for some private occupations, including the most popular – private restaurants (paladares) and bed and breakfast rentals (casas particulares). A number of successful, high-profile businesses were closed for violating their licenses. More ominously, in a private Communist Party meeting, First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, Castro’s likely successor, accused some private businesses of being counter-revolutionary.

Ideological suspicion has also hampered Cuba’s search for foreign direct investment (FDI). In 2014, Cuba adopted a new FDI law with competitive tax rates and concessions, hoping to attract $2 billion in FDI annually. By the end of 2016, however, only $1.3 billion had been approved in total. The problem was interminable bureaucratic delays in the approval of proposed projects. “It is necessary to overcome, once and for all, the obsolete mentality of prejudices toward foreign investment,” Castro insisted. “We must rid ourselves of unfounded fears of foreign capital.”

The most difficult task that Cuba’s new president will inherit is the unification of the dual currency and exchange rates. State sector employees are paid an average monthly wage of 779 Cuban pesos (CUP), which is insufficient for a decent standard of living. Convertible pesos (CUC) exchange 1-to-1 with the U.S. dollar and 24-to-1 with the CUP. Some Cubans have access to CUC through remittances or through work in the tourist sector (from tips), the private sector, in joint ventures, or work abroad. The imbalance drives highly skilled professionals out of the state sector and into low-skill jobs paying higher wages in CUCs – what Cubans call the “inverted pyramid.” Among state enterprises, half a dozen different exchange rates between CUPs and CUCs are in effect, ranging from 1-to-1 to 10-to-1, creating disincentives to export at a time when Cuba suffers from chronic balance of payments shortfalls and inadequate foreign reserves.

The government has been promising monetary unification since 2013, but implementation keeps getting delayed. The task is complex, and will reverberate through the economy with effects that are not entirely predictable. The government has little margin for error; it has no significant foreign reserves to cushion dislocations and no access to assistance from international financial institutions. Moreover, Cuba currently faces other serious economic challenges: the decline in shipments of cheap oil from Venezuela; the unprecedented damage from Hurricane Irma; and the unpredictability of relations with the United States.

Finally, while the reform process has had limited success stimulating growth, it has produced a noticeable rise in inequality, price increases that outpace wage growth, and rumblings of political discontent. When food prices surged in 2015-16, the state stepped in, imposing price controls. It did the same to taxi drivers, some of whom resisted by stopping work. The message, Castro made clear, was that markets had a role to play in the new economic policy, but a strictly regulated one, subordinate to political exigencies.

Formidable challenges await Cuba’s new president. He or she will have to hold together a shaky elite coalition behind the economic reform process, push the needed changes through a reluctant bureaucracy while maintaining economic stability, and simultaneously navigate the political shoals of popular discontent over a stagnant standard of living and growing inequality. At stake is nothing less than the future of Cuban socialism.

LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of  Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015)


“ACTUALIZANDO” (UPDATING) THE Cuban Economy: An Immense Task

Cuba’s unsung heroes! Professional and amateur car mechanics, keeping the economy ticking over.

Maintenance and repairs: urgent everywhere.

Coffee imports from Vietnam in a quasi-“dollar” store. Cuba provided technical assistance to Vietnam’s coffee sector in the 1970s. Now Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer while Cuba’s coffee production has plummeted.

Photos by Arch Ritter, March 2014

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Carmelo Mesa-Lago, University of Pittsburgh,

Latin American Research Review, July 2017  https://doi.org/10.25222/larr.2

This essay reviews the following works:

Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy. By Richard E. Feinberg. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2016. Pp. vii + 264. $22.00 cloth. ISBN: 9780815727675.

Miradas a la economía cubana: Análisis del sector no estatal. Edited by Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva and Ricardo Torres. La Habana: Editorial Caminos, 2015. Pp. 163. $5, paper. ISBN: 9789593031080.

Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape. By Archibald R. M. Ritter and Ted A. Henken. Boulder, CO: First Forum Press, 2015. Pp. xiv + 374. $79.95 cloth. ISBN: 9781626371637.

Retos para la equidad social en el proceso de actualización del modelo económico cubano. Edited by María del Carmen Zavala et al. La Habana: Editorial Ciencias Sociales, 2015. Pp. vi + 362. $20 paper. ISBN: 9789590616105.

Soon after current president of the State Council Raúl Castro took over power in Cuba from his brother Fidel in 2006, he started structural reforms to cope with the serious socioeconomic problems accumulated in the previous forty-five years. Some authors, including a few in this review, argue that Cuba is in transition to a mixed economy. Despite the importance of these changes, however, the official view is that central planning will predominate over the market, and state property over private property.1 A main reform goal was to fire 1.8 million unneeded workers in the state sector, which demanded an expansion of the “non-state sector” (NSS) to provide jobs to those dismissed. The four books I review are commendable additions to the growing literature on the NSS (inside and outside Cuba), as they fill some of its existing gaps, to be identified below.2 A few authors rely on surveys to gather data, but surveys are not easy to take in Cuba; hence the majority used interviews of different size and representativeness, as well as in-depth conversations.

Within the NSS, the most dynamic four groups are self-employed workers (507,342), usufruct farmers (312,296), and members of new nonagricultural and service co-ops, NASCs (only 7,700 so far). Altogether these make up 17 percent of the labor force, out of a total 29 percent in the entire NSS.3 Except for the most recent NASCs, the other three forms were legalized during the severe crisis of the 1990s but did not take off until much later. Selling and buying of private dwellings, banned in 1960 and reauthorized in 2011, involve at least 200,000 transactions but still only 5 percent of the total housing stock. The books reviewed in this essay mainly concentrate on self-employment and to a much lesser extent on NASCs.

The main gaps treated by the books are the NSS’s history; size and personal profiles; relations with the state; progress achieved and obstacles faced; the role of variables—age, gender (most treated), race, educa­tion, and location—on growing inequalities; particular issues such as access to raw materials, capital and credit, competition, and taxes; and NSS perspectives. This review discusses the data, method, and evidence that each researcher uses and the major issues and findings, arguing that the size of the NSS remains questionable.

In Entrepreneurial Cuba, Archibald Ritter and Ted Henken combine their economic and sociological exper­tise to produce an encyclopedic, balanced, and laudable volume on the development of the NSS in Cuba. Targeted on self-employment and, to a lesser extent, on NASCs, the book also tackles broader topics like the “underground” economy. It starts with an examination of small enterprises in general, internationally, and its lessons for Cuba. Based on historical and comparative approaches, Ritter and Henken discuss the evolution of self-employment throughout Cuban contemporary history. In the socialist period, they com­pare Cuban policies with those of the USSR and Eastern Europe; furthermore they contrast Fidel’s hostility to the NSS (except for reluctant support in times of economic crisis) with Raúl’s more pragmatic and posi­tive style, which does not exempt the sector from tight controls, restrictions, and taxes. Largely based on my cycles approach,4 the history of self-employment under socialism is divided in three periods (each one covered in a chapter): 1959–1990, trajectories and strategic shifts; 1990–2006, the “Special Period”; and 2006–2014, Raúl’s reforms.

Ritter and Henken conclude that the NSS has grown and achieved substantial progress: for instance, increase in authorized activities and licenses, broadened legal markets, deduction of part of the expenses for tax purposes, micro credits and banking facilities, and rental of state facilities. Conversely they identify limi­tations, like narrow definition of legal activities, exclusion of most professional and high-tech occupations, multiple taxes and taxation at a high level, lack of wholesale markets, bureaucratic resistance, obstacles to hiring employees, and discrimination in favor of foreign firms. They provide suggestions to overcome these problems. Lack of space impedes a more profound treatment of this book, the most comprehensive and profound on self-employment so far. The structure of the book, combining historical stages and current analysis of self-employment and NASC, however, is somewhat complex and leads to a certain overlapping.

Ritter and Henken rely on three series of interviews conducted in Cuba with sixty self-employed workers in 1999–2001, half of them re-interviewed in follow-up visits in 2002 and 2009 and, finally, some revisited in April 2011 to evaluate the impact of Raúl’s reforms. The authors select the three most dynamic, lucrative, and sizeable private activities: small restaurants (paladares), taxis, and lodging. They asked their informants about three issues: (1) ambitions and expectations for the future (whether they expected to become true small- and medium-sized enterprises—SME—in the long run); (2) survival strategies in negotiating with the state (how they responded to the government regulations, licenses, and taxes); and (3) distinctions between licensed and clandestine self-employed workers.

Accompanying abundant evidence, deep analysis, statistical tables, synoptic charts, figures, and useful appendices (including a list of the 201 authorized activities for the self-employed and a timetable of the evo­lution of NSS in 1959–2014), the authors intersperse vignettes that allow the reader to better understand the daily life of the self-employed. Occasional jewels in the book brighten our knowledge, such as uncover­ing in fascinating detail the bureaucratic shutdown of El Cabildo, which was the most prosperous private, medium-sized business in Cuba.

Miradas a la economía cubana, a collection edited by well-known Cuban economists Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva and Ricardo Torres, includes twelve essays that offer a first-rate sample of scholarship on the NSS at the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy, the best economic think tank in Cuba. The anthology, an excellent complement to the Ritter and Henken book, includes self-employment and NASCs. In the prologue, Juan Valdés Pérez notes that “the new economic model in Cuba is moving [transita] toward a mixed economy, based on a public sector, a mix-capital sector, and a private sector, mostly SME” (14). Most contributors to the volume propose reasonable policies to help the consolidation and further expansion of the NSS.

In the opening chapter, Torres discusses the role of the private sector in a centrally planned economy such as Cuba, which generates an intrinsic conflict. Despite NSS advances, the government still sees it as a supplement to the state sector and imposes clear limits. Hence the NSS role is and will continue to be very minor, if currents trends hold. An important point, among many discussed by Torres, is that its productivity is low, despite the very highly educated labor force (ranked at the top of Latin America), and shows a declin­ing trend due to the low skills of the activities approved. He ends by suggesting, “In a scenario [Cuba] where public enterprises are predominant and mostly inefficient, wealth is not socialized and man is not liberated from alienation, just the opposite” (25). Torres believes that the solution to all existing problems is neither privatization of all public assets nor to insist on old formulas overcome by time, and urges a serious national social debate on these issues.

Pérez Villanueva analyzes and defines self-employment and SME, tracing their evolution and identifying needs such as autonomy, a wholesale market with competitive prices, facilitation of payments through the national banks, and use of highly skilled personnel; he also notes adverse effects like social inequalities (see Zavala et al., below). At the end of his chapter, he asserts that “the Cuban SME would be more viable than the actualization of our economic model and contribute more positive results, providing that the government understands its role and potential” (35).

Camila Piñeiro provides the most comprehensive and deep analysis of NASCs so far. These cooperatives grew 74 percent, from 198 to 345, in 2013–2014, but their tempo slowed to 6 percent in 2015.5 Based on diagnosis and audits done on sixty NASCs in 2014, Piñeiro identifies their achievements (increase in income and motivation, improvement in the locale and working conditions) and problems (complex and delayed creation, insufficient training, and lack of a wholesale market). The most successful NASCs are those cre­ated by the voluntary initiative of a group of persons that share the same goals and values (23 percent of all NASCs), and the least successful are those coming from former state enterprises, without negotiating with their workers so that they accept what is decided from above (77 percent).

Mariuska Sarduy, Saira Pons, and Maday Traba analyze tax evasion and underdeclaration of income among self-employed owners. They report that evasion was 12 percent of total fiscal revenue and 60 percent of registered self-employed contributors in 2013–2014. They carried out 300 interviews with self-employed workers in Havana in 2014 and found that 55 percent omitted income in their declaration for the follow­ing reasons: 95 percent due to very high taxes; 77 percent blamed the complex procedure to pay taxes; 80 percent knew that evasion or underdeclaration are toughly penalized crimes, but half believed that they were necessary to survive, and 20 percent thought that it was improbable that fiscal authorities would catch them.

Expanding her substantial work on geographic inequalities, Luisa Íñiguez uses the 2012 population census to explore the distribution of NSS enterprises in Cuban provinces and municipalities and shows their differences and contribution to social inequalities. She develops various maps of the island, displaying the location of total NSS enterprises, as well as key components such as the self-employed, usufruct farmers, and small private farmers. In addition, she calculates percentages of components of the NSS relative to the employed labor force. The NSS developed much further after 2012, but her work remains valuable and sets a solid foundation for future study.

The role of women in microenterprises is examined by Ileana Díaz and Dayma Echevarría, relying on data from the 2012 population census and Ministry of Labor and Social Security in 2013, and a survey of thirty-five self-employed owners in Havana circa 2014 (63 percent women and 37 percent men). Among other gender inequalities, they find that women are more hurt than men by the lack of a state policy to foster microenterprises, and by poor access to credit as well as to legal and accounting advice. Interviewees answered key questions with a fair consensus: 50 percent noted unfair competition from state and mixed enterprises; most preferred to work as self-employed instead of for the state; public or private financing was judged insufficient; elementary-secondary school didn’t help in their activity but university did; and they noted poor access to wholesale markets, telecommunications, and vanguard technology. Virtually all inter­viewees, but a sizably lower percentage of women than men, said that their success was more than expected. Both genders agreed on the major obstacles: limited demand, excessive state bureaucracy and regulations, too much competition, absence of a wholesale market, and difficulties to get inputs.

Retos para la equidad social, edited by Maria del Carmen Zavala et al., contains twenty contributions, all but one authored by women, focused on socioeconomic inequality under Raúl’s structural reforms. Three chapters of the book deal with expanding inequalities among the self-employed by age, gender, race, educa­tion, and location, and also with their motivation, satisfaction, competition, capital access, obstacles faced, and views of the future.

The best chapter in the collection, by Daybel Pañellas, Jorge Torralbas, and Claudia Caballero, relies on a survey taken between October 2013 and March 2014 among 419 persons self-employed in fifty-seven activities and located in three districts of Old Havana. They find that age, gender, education, and location are important factors in the quality of occupation, access to capital, and earnings of the self-employed. In the sample, 76 percent worked by themselves, without employees; 13 percent were employers and 11 percent employees; 64 percent were men and 36 percent women; 48 percent were white and 52 percent nonwhite; 54 percent were middle-aged adults, 30 percent young people, and 15 percent elderly; 54 percent had precollege or university education, 31 percent had a low level of education, and 15 percent had a technical education (a highly trained labor force and NSS, also noted by Torres). Not only are women underrepresented, but their activities reproduced their roles in domestic life, such as work in cafeterias, food preparation, manicure, makeup, and as seamstresses. While women rented rooms mostly in national pesos (CUP), men rented rooms in the more advantageous convertible pesos (CUC = 24 CUP). Combining education, race, and gender, the best-educated white males had better occupations than the lowest trained nonwhite females (e.g., computer programing vis-à-vis seamstress). The self-employed were mainly attracted by these features of self-employment (not exclusive categories): better income (80 percent), easier labor journey (20 percent), and being their own bosses (15 percent). Their level of sat­isfaction ranged from so-so (53 percent), to good/very good (38 percent), to bad/very bad (9 percent)—the higher the educational level the more occupational satisfaction.6 Success in competition was attributed to the quality of product or service (56 percent), business location (24 percent), and low prices (14 percent). Access to capital was mostly by employers that receive remittances, are white, and have higher or mid­dle education, ample social networks, and good locations; conversely, investment is minimal among low-educated nonwhites. Obstacles encountered by the self-employed were lack of access to raw materials (49 percent), heavy taxes (44 percent), lack of financing (35 percent), state control and inspections (33 percent), and legal procedures (23 percent). These proportions varied in the three districts and were influenced by gender, race, and type of activity; for example, controls and inspections were mostly mentioned by workers with low education, nonwhites, and women. On their perceptions for the future, 81 percent believed that the self-employed would prosper—especially if the mentality of the state and the self-employed changes— and 10 percent didn’t think so.

Geydis Fundora expands on the growing inequalities enumerated above, based on a study of fifty-two self-employed residents of Havana Province in 2010–2013, reaching similar conclusions. Out of the 201 activities approved, 65 percent have a male profile; paladar owners mostly hire women because of their sex appeal to clients and because the work is similar to that done at home; other activities are in practice barred to the “weak sex.” Men tend to be employers and women employees, thus resulting in lower decision making and income for women. The elderly are disadvantaged because most activities require physical strength; most young people are hired as employees and in less specialized activities. There is no political will to gather statistics on race, but whites predominate over blacks and mulattoes, opposite to what Pañellas, Torralbas, and Caballero found; nonwhites have less access to capital and hence to success and higher earnings. Those that have a high initial capital—coming from savings, remittances, or hidden foreign investment—enjoy an advantage over the rest not only to establish the business but also to buy inputs, pay taxes, and bribe inspec­tors. Location in more attractive and populous zones are keys to success.

Magela Romero targets self-employed women engaged on infant care, a most-needed occupation to increase female participation in the employed labor force, which was 37 percent of the total in 2015;7 the low proportion is an outcome of resilient traditional gender roles at home and work. Based on eighteen cases in the town of Cojímar (in Havana) in 2013, the study found that all those self-employed in infant care were women, and half of them had previously been informal domestic employees. All said that their main attraction was a higher income, but all also complained of exhausting work and high responsibility with a monthly salary of 200 CUP per infant, with a maximum of five infants, equal to US$40, still three times the mean average salary in the state sector.

Open for Business by Richard E. Feinberg deals mainly with the economic events following the process of normalization between the United States and Cuba that started at the end of 2014, preceded by a summary of the previous state of the Cuban economy and Raúl’s reforms. Feinberg believes that the emerging NSS “offers the best hope for a more dynamic and efficient Cuban economy, especially if it is permitted to partner with foreign investment and with more efficient state-owned enterprises” (132). One chapter on emerging entrepreneurs is based on a monograph he published in 2013, which at that time provided substantial data and analysis on self-employment, preceding the other three books reviewed herein.8 One graph and one table are updated to mid-2015, but most of the text remains unchanged. The author and an assistant had in-depth conversations with twenty-five microentrepreneurs between March 2012 and April 2013, emphasiz­ing financial issues (averages of time open, number of employees, starting capital, and use of domestic and foreign capital). Interesting profiles of self-employed activities are given on paladares, cafeterias and cater­ing, bed and breakfasts, accounting, a shop selling handicrafts to tourists, building construction and house remodeling, electronic repairs, and renting of 1950s cars; from such profiles he extracts useful lessons.9 A stimulating innovation is the selection of twelve young Cuban “millennials” (aged 20–35), one of them the owner of a cafeteria, for appealing interviews based on ten questions.

Feinberg envisages four stages of capital accumulation of microbusinesses: primitive household accumu­lation, early-mover super-profits, growth and diversification, and strategic alliances with state enterprises and with foreign investors (not yet authorized). Like the other authors whose books I review here, he stresses the progress and achievements of self-employment, perhaps more so than other authors. But he also pin­points the many constraints the self-employed face: poor banking and meager credit, serious scarcity of inputs of all sorts (as a visible exception he gives the wholesale market “El Trigal,” temporarily closed in May 2016), shortage of commercial rental space, a very challenging business climate, and government restric­tions including persecution by government inspectors and heavy fines, as well as constraints on capital accumulation and business growth. He provides his own recommendations to alleviate these problems.

One fundamental question left unanswered is the size of the NSS. Unfortunately, there are no official data on the NSS, complete and disaggregated by components. Neither Ritter and Henken nor most Cuban authors provide such a figure (Torres estimates it as 27 percent of the labor force; p. 21). The only elaborated calculation in the four books is Feinberg’s, who states that “altogether, as many as 2 million enterprising Cubans—40 percent of total employment—and possibly even more can be counted within the private sector” and predicts that “in the next three to five years, total private employment could reach 45 to 50 percent of the active labor force” (Feinberg, 132, 139; emphasis added); this exceeds by 10 percentage points Torres’s middle-term estimate of 35 to 40 percent (24).

Feinberg overestimates the NSS’s size. First, an important semantic and substantive issue is that not all NSS participants are private, only most self-employed workers and their employees as well as small private farmers are. Usufruct farmers, NASCs, and other cooperatives’ members do not own their land or buildings; these belong to the state, which leases them to the workers. Second, several figures in Feinberg’s estimates are either questionable or not supported by specific sources; the main query is what he labels “other private activities (estimated),” such as full-time unregistered self-employment and partial self-employment done by state-sector employees, which add up to between 185,000 and 1,185,000, based on guesstimates (while it is true that some government employees work part-time as self-employed workers, it is impossible to know for how many hours, which makes it difficult to estimate average full days of work). Third is the inclusion of 353,000 members of credit and service cooperatives (CCS), because that number exceeds by 65 percent the total number of all co-op members in 2015, including agricultural production (UBPCs, Basic Units of Agricultural Production, and CPAs, Agricultural Production Co-ops), CCSs (Credit and Services Co-ops) and NASCs.10 Furthermore, many private and usufruct farmers are also members of CCSs, thus they are counted twice. Fourth, the category of “land lease farmers” (172,000) is confusing; on the one hand Feinberg does not specifically include usufruct farmers (312,296), and on the other hand the official data on land leasers (arrendatarios) is only 2,843.11 Fifth, employees of self-employed workers are counted since 2011 in the total number of the self-employed, mixed with owners, and we have shown that there is a double counting in the overall figure. In any case, the official statistics on the total NSS share in the employed labor force expanded from 17 percent in 2008, when Raúl officially became president, to 29 percent in 2015.12 In conclusion, there is no doubt that the NSS is important and growing, but certainly not as much as Feinberg estimates.

In summary, the most studied NSS group is the self-employed; NASCs are briefly discussed by Ritter and Henkel and in Piñeiro’s chapter in Zavala et al. Largely excluded from the discussion are usufruct farmers, and totally omitted is the selling/buying of private homes. The historical approach is followed most inten­sively by Ritter and Henken, although several Cuban authors provide summaries of the evolution in their respective topics. The preferred methodology is interviews or conversations combined with research. There is a consensus that the NSS (mostly self-employment) has been successful despite considerable obstacles. We lack a reliable estimate of the NSS’s size.

Missing in the four volumes is an evaluation of the NSS’s macroeconomic effects.13 Ritter and Henken refer to some results of self-employment, such as job creation, noting the nonfulfillment of the official target of dismissing more than one million unneeded state employees. None of the books discuss the impact of usufruct farming on agricultural output, where NASC members are still minute and their impact is even more difficult to assess. It is true that the scarcity of available data hinder the task, but still some estimation could have been done on the NSS’s effect on produce sales, fiscal revenue, and GDP.14

Feinberg and Ritter and Henken are the only authors who explore the future of the NSS. Feinberg provides three broad overall scenarios, which are thought-provoking but touch little on the NSS: (1) “inertia” with little change, without citing potential precedents and projecting self-employment to 750,000, 48 percent higher than the March 2016 official figure of 507,342; (2) “botched transition and decay,” the most pessimistic, similar to former states of the USSR, but with self-employment expanding to 1 million, twice its 2016 size, as some restraints are removed; and (3) “soft landing” in 2030, the most optimistic, under market socialism as in Vietnam, where self-employment really takes off and reaches 2 million employees and 40 percent of the labor force—this is somewhat confusing because he refers to the private sector and had previously predicted, for the entire NSS, 45 to 50 percent in 2019–2021 (203–222).

Ritter and Henken offer three possible alternative routes for the NSS, without predicting its size: (1) reversal to Fidel’s hostile approach, which they judge very improbable because it is totally unfeasible and discredited (“unlikely to be reversed” for Feinberg, 131); (2) stabilization of Raúl’s current (2014) and cautious reform package to self-employment and NASCs, which would remain in place for the rest of his presidency, but with a significant expansion of both and the potential of creating a “mixed cooperative market economy”; and (3) acceleration of the reform and rebalancing among public, private, and cooperative sectors, with medium and large private enterprises advancing at the expense of co-ops and smaller private enterprises; the viabil­ity of this scenario, they say, could be helped by a “serious relaxation of US policy toward Cuba” that could “encourage the Cuban government pro-market openings” (311).

Cuba is always unpredictable, and none of the three scenarios by the above authors completely fit the situ­ation in August 31, 2016, when this review essay was finished. Ritter and Henken’s book was concluded in October 2014, thus this reviewer has the unfair advantage of almost two years that have brought significant changes, such as the evolution of US-Cuba rapprochement in 2014–2016 and the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party held in April 2016.15 In light of those events, their first and third alternatives are implau­sible, at least in the medium and long run; the second might be conceivable if the emphasis is placed on “stability” instead of significant expansion. By August 2016, however, rapprochement, rather than helping the reforms, appeared to have the opposite effect due to dread in the leadership caused by Obama’s visit and it effects, reflected in the results of the Seventh Party Congress. The number of self-employed workers peaked at 504,613 in May 2015, declined to 496,400 in December, and climbed again to 507,342 in March 2016, an increase of 0.7 percent in ten months, substantially lower that the expansion rate in 2014 and 2015 (14 and 3 percent, respectively). Furthermore, at the Congress, Raúl warned that although NSS forms are not antisocialist, “powerful external forces” try to “empower” them as agents of change, and could risk further “concentration of wealth and property” (the latter was not among the agreements of the Sixth Congress in 2011), making it necessary to impose “well-defined limits” on them.16 The Seventh Congress also recom­mended to halt the creation of new NASCs because of their deficiencies, and to concentrate on the existing ones instead.17 Finally, the only existing wholesale market was temporarily closed in May 2016. Feinberg’s book ended in early 2016, much later than Ritter and Henken’s, but his scenarios and predictions don’t cor­relate well with the facts explained above: “inertia” looks optimistic and even more so “decay”—both appear to be short- or middle-term effects—whereas the 2030 “soft landing” would require the drastic changes detailed by him, which are difficult to visualize now.

1 These basic principles of the reforms were set in the Sixth Communist Party Congress of 2011 and ratified in the Seventh Congress of 2016.

2 The pioneer book in the field is Jorge F. Pérez-López, Cuba’s Second Economy: From Behind the Scenes to Center Stage (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1995).

3 Oficina Nacional de Estadística e Información (ONEI), Anuario Estadístico de Cuba 2015 (La Habana, 2016).

4 Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Market, Socialist, and Mixed Economies: Comparative Policy and Performance; Chile, Cuba, and Costa Rica (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000).

5 ONEI, Anuario Estadístico de Cuba 2015.

6 A series of interviews conducted by five authors in 2014–2015, in a much wider part of Havana City, agreed with the predominance of men over women, the highest participation of middle-aged adults, and the important role of education, but found a prevalence of whites and a higher level of satisfaction. Carmelo Mesa-Lago et al., Voces de cambio en el sector no estatal cubano: Cuentapropis­tas, usufructuarios, socios de cooperativas y compraventa de viviendas (Madrid: Editorial Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2016).

7 ONEI, Anuario Estadístico de Cuba 2015.

8 Richard E. Feinberg, Soft Landing in Cuba? Emerging Entrepreneurs and Middle Classes (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2013).

9 These cases are more varied than those discussed by Ritter and Henken, but the latter provided the most comprehensive and profound analysis of paladares.

10 ONEI, Anuario Estadístico de Cuba 2015.

11 ONEI, Anuario Estadístico de Cuba 2014 (La Habana, 2015).

12 Mesa-Lago et al., Voces de cambio en el sector no estatal cubano; ONEI, Anuario Estadístico de Cuba 2015.

13 Valdés notes in the prologue to Pérez Villanueva and Torres’s book the absence of a macroeconomic essay to place all NSS forms in the proper context.

14 The percentage of GDP generated only by self-employment has been estimated as 5 percent by Saira Pons, Tax Law Dilemmas for Self-Employed Workers (La Habana, CEEE), but by 12 percent by Torres (in Pérez Villanueva and Torres, p. 24), a significant gap. For an assessment of some NSS effects see Mesa-Lago et al., Voces de cambio en el sector no estatal cubano.

15 After this essay was finished, the guidelines (lineamientos) for 2016–2021 were published; a rapid browse indicates no significant changes from the guidelines of 2011.

16 Raúl Castro Ruz, “Informe central al Séptimo Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba,” Granma, April 17, 2016 (emphasis added), 1–3. Mauricio Murillo mentioned, as examples of the limits to be imposed, the establishment of limits on the number of hectares that somebody may have (“Intervención en el VII Período Ordinario de la Asamblea Nacional,” Granma, July 9, 2016).

17 Carmelo Mesa-Lago, “El lento avance de la reforma en Cuba,” Política Exterior 30, no. 171 (2016): 94–104.155



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Presented at Florida International University, Cuban Research Institute Conference: “Beyond Perpetual Antagonism: Re-imagining U.S. – Cuba Relations.”

February 24, 2017

Complete Presentation:  FIU CRI 2017 Presentation

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Ted Henken,  November 14, 2016

zzazaOne example of freer markets in Cuba isthe Paladar La Cocina de Lilliam (Lilliam’s Kitchen), a home-based restaurant garden where President Jimmy Carter ate on his first visit to Cuba in 2002. Photo: Ted Henken

While Americans have been reeling over the shocking outcome of our presidential election, Cubans are experiencing perhaps even greater vertigo as a result of the surprise victory of Donald Trump.

As the saying goes, “When the U.S. sneezes, the rest of the world gets a cold.” Or perhaps the old Mexican adage is more appropriate to the situation Cubans find themselves in: “Poor Mexico! So far from God, but so close to the United States!”

Cubans went from a largely acrimonious relationship with the U.S. prior to December 2014, to one of unprecedented “hope and change” during the past 22 months under bilateral efforts to achieve diplomatic normalization between the erstwhile adversaries, to one of great trepidation and uncertainty over the past week given the president-elect’s campaign promise to “cancel Obama’s one-sided Cuban deal.” President Raúl Castro perfectly captured the moment’s ambivalence for Cuba by quickly sending the president-elect a brief note of congratulations while simultaneously ordering a five-day military mobilization.

In my more than half-dozen trips to the island over the past year, I have noted a palpable, ebullient expectation among Cubans for a better, more prosperous future under Obama’s “new rules” of engagement. This was especially pronounced among Cuba’s emergent entrepreneurial class, which includes old school cabbies in their even older school American cars, hip app designers in Cuba’s surprising tech start-up scene, and some of the many restaurateurs behind the island’s surging circle of “paladares” (private, home-based restaurants) which now number more than 1,800.

This hard-won hope was also born of Cuba’s own “new rules” introduced in late 2010 under President Raúl Castro aimed at expanding the island’s long-suppressed private sector. However, I also found that most entrepreneurs were under no illusions that the Cuban government would be fully lifting its own counter-productive “auto-bloqueo” or internal embargo against grass-roots entrepreneurial innovation and inventiveness any time soon.

This sense of rising hope inside Cuba reached its climax in Obama’s brilliant deployment of soft power during his historic state visit to the island in March 2016. Many Cubans identified with this youthful, optimistic, and eloquent African-American family man endowed with both a sense of history and of humor much more than with their own waxworks of old white ideologues.

However, Cuba’s old guard realized that Obama’s charm offensive had begun to fatally undermine their own authority and undercut their long-effective use of the U.S. boogeyman as a scapegoat for their own economic failures and as a justification for their continued political authoritarianism. In response, the Cuban leadership has spent the past eight months constantly reminding Cuban citizens of the continued U.S. existential threat to Cuban sovereignty under the Revolution and simultaneously dashing their hopes for a better, more open and prosperous future by stepping up detentions of peaceful political opponents and independent journalists and slowing economic reforms to a manageable trickle.

The clearest example of the Cuban government’s efforts to lower expectations has come on the economic front. First, April’s Seventh Party Congress included no new resolutions about deepening or expanding much needed market-oriented reforms apart from a vague reference to studying the possibility of granting status as legal businesses to a portion of the half-a-million strong micro-enterprise sector. Nothing has come of this idea in the intervening seven months.

Second, price controls have been reimposed in the private agriculture and transportation sectors, reducing incentives for greater production. Third, this past summer saw the government scale back economic growth estimates for 2016 to under 1 percent and impose severe energy saving and cost-cutting measures across the state sector due to a liquidity crisis and the Venezuelan debacle.

Finally, the issuing of new licenses for Havana’s surging private, home-based restaurant sector were suspended for six weeks in the fall in order to root out legal violations such as providing bar services and live entertainment without permission, obtaining supplies from black-market sources, staying open past the state-imposed 3 a.m. closing time, and tax evasion. Some have even been accused of doubling as sites of prostitution and drug trafficking and shut down.
show chapters

However, the government has so far not delivered on its promise to provide affordable access to wholesale markets for these restaurateurs nor has it allowed them to legally import supplies from abroad or expand beyond the arbitrary limit of 50 place settings. Moreover, the tax system for the private sector provokes “creative bookkeeping” by imposing a rigid 40-percent deduction limit for business often burdened by much higher supply costs due to Cuba’s environment of chronic scarcity. It also imposes a labor tax on any more than five employees disincentivizing legal hiring.

To add insult to this injury, the moribund network of their state-run competitor restaurants do enjoy access to wholesale markets and suffer no seating or size restrictions or employment taxes. Especially frustrating for Cuban entrepreneurs is the fact that this emphasis on law and order comes in the context of shrinking output in the state enterprise sector, a looming emigration crisis with record numbers of new Cuban arrivals in the U.S., and in the midst of a tourism boom that the state hospitality sector has proven unable to absorb.

As Cubans like to say: “¡No es fácil!” (It ain’t easy!)

President-elect Donald Trump could follow the recommendation of some Congressional Republicans by adding his own isolationist wind to the already full sails of the Cuban government’s rigid control that attempts to keep Cuban entrepreneurs in their frustrated and impoverished places. Or he could send Cuba’s business pioneers a message of support and solidarity as they attempt to build a more prosperous future by continuing America’s historic opening to Cuba that aims to empower the island’s mergent capitalists through engagement, investment, and trade.

For someone who campaigned as a anti-politician who would bring a hard-nosed business sense to Washington, Cuba presents Trump with a golden opportunity to place economic pragmatism and the tangible benefits it would bring to citizens of both countries over the out-dated and counterproductive Cold War ideology that undergirds the embargo.

Commentary by Ted A. Henken, an associate professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies at Baruch College, City University of New York and co-author with Arch Ritter of the book “Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape.” He is a past president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (2012-2014). Read his blog and follow him on Twitter @ElYuma.


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The Jacobin. October 12, 2016


 By Samuel Farber

 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.

RevolucionIn 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.

No Recovery

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.

In the last analysis, as Catherine Samary points out in Yugoslavia Dismembered, Yugoslavian self-management could not confront either the bureaucratic plan or the market. The 1970s was the last decade of growth. Eventually a $20 billion debt led to the International Monetary Fund’s intervention.

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.

Economic Obstacles

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.

Ecological Obstacles

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.

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