Rethinking Cuban Socialism in the New Times of Crisis

July 1, 2010

“Cuban Perspectives on Cuban Socialism,” Socialism and Democracy 24, no. 1 (March 2010), 181 pp., $15,

Not since the so-called special period of the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a severe economic depression in Cuba, has the island nation’s socialist experiment confronted the profound challenges that it does today. Three major hurricanes pummeled Cuba in 2008, and although the authorities successfully evacuated citizens from the storms’ path, the country’s agricultural sector was nonetheless devastated. At the same time, the worldwide financial meltdown led to severe economic difficulties—debt imbalances, falling wages, decreasing food production, and the decline in value of Cuba’s major exports.

There are also problems still lingering from the 1990s. Corruption, for example, persists as a serious concern despite government efforts to control the worst excesses. And the emerging economic disparity caused by Cuba’s dual currency system—in which those with access to the convertible peso, set up a decade ago for use by tourists, are enjoying a higher standard of living compared to Cubans who deal only with the weaker national currency—has yet to be resolved.

In response to these problems, the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy has brought together a collection of nine essays in its journal, Socialism and Democracy. The articles, all of them written by Cuban intellectuals, analyze how this pequeño periodo especial could transform the country’s social and economic structures, as well as how it might offer an opportunity for Cubans to strengthen their country’s socialist model. In many cases the authors, most of whom are University of Havana professors, offer direct and unvarnished examinations of the nation’s troubles as they critically examine the socialist government and the failures inherent to the country’s political system.

The essays are unanimous in calling for today’s challenges to be met with an effort to allow the Cuban people more self-management through increased economic decentralization within the socialist context. This can come about, the authors argue, despite two major roadblocks, one external and the other internal: the never ending hostility from the United States and Cuba’s intransigent political bureaucracy. Although criticism of U.S. policy toward Cuba is a staple of Cuban political writing, the authors’ emphasis on re-examining the Cuban state may come as a surprise to some readers who may have been unaware of the amount of space permitted by the Cuban government for this type of critical analysis.

While the essay collection is mostly a worthwhile effort, it does fail to meet expectations when the contributors simply recite events in Cuban history since the Special Period, offering few if any solutions. Fortunately, there is a sufficient amount of insight to satisfy almost anyone interested in understanding where Cuban society may be heading during the next few years, and in the rich academic dialogue taking place in Cuba about how to get there.

Many of the essays discuss the relationship between the government and its citizens in the present-day confines of Cuban-style democracy, which comes in for a great deal of scrutiny. The authors grapple with how to improve direct public participation in political processes and to better ensure the accountability of political representatives. Sociologist Mayra Espina Prieto reminds us that the early revolution was a bottom-up process, while its subsequent institutionalization in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s came from the top down. She looks toward a return to popular participation as a key element to develop new ideas in order to confront the crisis. Don’t fear change, Espina Prieto counsels, although her position requires an important balancing act—instituting reform without sacrificing the revolution’s logros sociales (social achievements).

In the economic domain, most authors emphasize the centrality of market reforms of the 1990s, which conceded ground to global capitalism, in shaping contemporary Cuban reality. Responding to the Soviet collapse, the Cuban government instituted major reforms, more out of necessity than desire—including the re-establishment of the tourist industry, experimentation with foreign joint ventures, and relaxing various aspects of the state economy to allow private enterprise in restaurants, taxis, and casas particulares (private homes offering rooms to rent).

The restructuring saved the Cuban experiment, and during the late 1990s and into the first decade of the new century, the nation’s financial indicators strengthened. But the emerging new economy had a serious impact on Cuba’s unique brand of socialism. The reappearance of class and racial differences based on access to employment in tourism; increased crime, drugs, prostitution, and corruption; and an emerging consumer mentality coinciding with a rising individualism were but a few of the new social ills the government had to contend with.

Since taking over from his brother in 2006, Raúl Castro has continued these kinds of reforms, implementing a series of adjustments to reduce what even his daughter Mariela has called the excessive absurdities and unnecessary restrictions in daily life. These latest reforms have included permitting the sale of cell phones, computers, and electronic equipment; allowing Cubans back into the tourist hotels; expanding private business; instituting wage incentives; and eliminating limitations on earnings.

While the call for reforms that would encourage a more participatory economy is mostly unanimous in the journal, how will the state respond? And how soon? So far it has taken a go-slow approach, but that pace may not be as tolerated in next few years unless improvements are easily demonstrated. Conversely, Cuban leaders, well aware of the pressures, intuitively sense that reorganizing too quickly may be counter-productive, bearing in mind the history of the Soviet Union’s disintegration.

Furthermore, there is a legitimate fear that the U.S. government would intervene in any situation in which extensive reform offered an opportunity to distort things for its benefit. It is not an unrealistic expectation that the State Department would do its best to manipulate Cuba’s movement toward a more capitalist economy. That potential maintains a sobering effect on government officials interested in change. And as Castro continues to stock the higher echelons of the government with first-generation revolutionaries, the hard-line elements, together with U.S. policy designs, keep the pace of change slow.

In any case, the future of Cuba (as in any country) depends on the youth of today, as Omar Everleny Pérez Villa-nueva and Pavel Vidal Alejandro, both members of the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy, point out. The two speculate that the younger generation will expect more participation in political institutions and will follow new paths for economic improvements based on their experiences of the Special Period’s turmoil.

Despite government rationalizations, its reforms, some more cosmetic than others, were in response to the increased amount of corruption, personal frustration, and class separation emerging from the new economy of the mid-1990s. Most recent innovations, like releasing barber shops and beauty salons to private interests, are small but important steps which should lead to more decentralization of the command economy, similar to what happened in the Ministry of Agriculture, which has gone through structural changes resulting in more autonomy to local farmers and reducing the state control over food production.

Espina Prieto is again particularly astute as she identifies the critical examination of Cuba’s social problems—including social inequality, poverty, and gender and racial issues—as the preeminent means of developing a strategy for socialist renewal. As part of that strategy, Espina Prieto calls for the rethinking of previously linked concepts that need to be separated—socialization of property with state ownership, the market with capitalism, equality with conformity, and the state with society.

Delinking those concepts would result in opening up discussions and bringing forth new ideas that could address solutions to Cuba’s social problems, she argues. Espina Prieto then goes on to outline a series of solutions ranging from diversifying economic opportunities, encouraging alternative communication technology (Internet, CDs, DVDs), and creating greater spaces for criticism. Her essay recognizes the popular frustration with Cuban technocrats who control the decision-making apparatus, in exact opposition to what should be the strengths of a socialist society. Such proposals should not be interpreted as an attempt to move toward neoliberalism, as sociologist Marta Núñez Sarmiento emphatically states.

Yet I would add that there can be commonalities between capitalist or socialist responses to economic stagnation, such as paying attention to increasing productivity, wages, and standards of living, and government efforts in shaping and directing social changes in times of crisis. As Núñez Sarmiento explains, Cuban measures from the first Special Period were the result of an ongoing readjustment to rapid and enormous social pressures. Reforms that emerge from the current crisis will follow the same patterns of socialism in transition.

Emilio Duharte Díaz, a University of Havana political science professor, echoes this theme, arguing that these new approaches would amount to a transition from one stage of socialism to another, not a regression to capitalism. He suggests the primary conflict Cuba now faces is the balance between the forces of doctrine and dogma against the processes needed for re-invigorating the revolution. Recognizing Cuba’s errors in strictly emulating the Soviet model in the 1970s, Duharte recommends shifting the interpretation of property, based not on unsustainable consumerism or market vagaries but on the community’s needs.

He also decries the Cuban workforce’s lack of productivity, the overall weakness of the economy, and the vital necessity to ensure that the younger generation be connected with revolutionary ideals. Cuba’s leadership has realized that some concession to the marketplace must be made. It is the tightrope between market reform and capital influence that will be crucial to the future direction of socialism in Cuba.

Turning to how Cuban society has treated the most vulnerable, María del Carmen Zabala Arguelles, a University of Havana professor and researcher in the Cuba Program of the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty, explores the impact that the recent economic crisis has had on Afro-Cubans, women, and children. Her essay examines the economic losses non-white Cubans and women (particularly household heads) have suffered have been disproportionate during the past decade, resulting in higher levels of poverty within those demographics.

Estimates range that up to 20% of the urban population, particularly in Havana, are living under the poverty levels standardized by the Cuban state. As she notes, however, recognition of the various social justice programs help diminish categorizations of social exclusion as a result of extreme poverty. Compared to other third world and developing nations, Cuban efforts to reduce the impact of poverty is laudatory.

Religion has seen a substantive alteration in social attitudes in Cuba since the Special Period, and particularly following the ending in 1991 of the government’s informal opposition of the institution, leading up to the pope’s visit in 1998. Aurelio Alonso, associate director of the journal Casa de las Américas, categorizes the more tolerant attitudes towards religion, and the impressive revival of faith seen throughout the island, not entirely as a response to the economic crisis.

Rodrigo Espina Prieto tackles the race issue, detailing how the revolutionary programs were of substantial benefit to blacks, institutionalizing the elimination of discrimination. In fact the governments insistent that racism was eradicated resulted in the concoction of a set of social formulas that resulted in racism neither discussed nor acknowledged, until the third congress of the communist party in 1985 where it was shown blacks getting smaller amount of social benefits. The Special Period brought a new dimension to the problem as blacks were often shunted to the less desirable positions in the economy, particularly within the tourist sector.

The contribution of well-known author Juan Valdés Paz centers on his assessment that the legitimacy of the Cuban government has been the product of a majority consensus based on merits and socialist ideals, not through oppression or controls as American media and political elite try to convince the rest of the world. International relations are based on political consideration and the response to U.S. aggression, including a long history of terrorism against Cuba. Since the beginnings of the revolution Cuba has had to structure its national policies and international relations in response to the threats of its powerful northern neighbor.

This was again shown in the recent comments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who claimed that Cuba uses the blockade as an excuse for all internal problems. The Cuban response was simple—end it for a year, and let’s see what happens. Notwithstanding the political grandstanding, the fundamental question remains how effectively the Cuban people will take things in hand to determine where the future of their socialism will lead. There is no reason to believe Cuba won’t emerge from this little special period with new direction, new challenges, new hopes. The journal is a significant indication that dynamic, critical thought is alive and well in Cuba. The next few years will again prove to be interesting ones for this fascinating island nation.

Keith Bolender is a freelance journalist and the author of Voices From the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba (Pluto Press, 2010). He lectures on the Cuban Revolution at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.


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