In recent months,each spent at least a week in Havana, Cuba. Here, they offer their observations about conditions in Cuba today and what the future may hold in the era after Fidel Castro’s death last year.
FIDEL CASTRO, the leader of the Cuban Revolution and longtime Cuban president, died on November 26 of last year.
In both the Western and Cuban media, Castro’s death took on a key significance, though in sharply different respects. In the West, many news outlets rejoiced, hoping that Cuba would pursue a new and less combative course. In Cuba, the media eulogized the death of a heroic fighter who secured a free and independent state in the Caribbean.
But during our encounters with Cubans in Havana, we found that most people refrained from such overheated rhetoric.
No Cubans we talked with assumed that the death of Fidel would lead to a sharp rupture with the politics of the past. Rather, while Fidel’s death may represent the symbolic closure of a chapter in history, no one, whether supportive or critical of Castro, saw his death as marking a fundamental change in the orientation of the Cuban state.
But even if Fidel’s death doesn’t signal a break between the politics of the past and the present, many Cubans are wrestling with the real antagonisms and contradictions drawing Cuba in new directions.
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IN REALITY, Cuba had been changing long before the death of Fidel. After the collapse of the USSR, Cuba was plunged into an economic crisis now known euphemistically as “the special period.” The Soviet Union had heavily subsidized the Cuban economy since the 1970s, and when it collapsed, Cuba was forced to alter its economic approach.
In 1994, the Cuban state created a dual-currency system, pegging one of the currencies (the CUC) directly to the U.S. dollar. Additionally, Cuba slowly began to open its economy, reorienting towards tourism, allowing remittances, and looking for international investment.
Many of the Cubans we talked with–especially those who remember the revolutionary year of 1959–spoke fondly of the early days of the revolution, before the rise of the bureaucracy stemming from a close relationship with the USSR.
Many of these people approvingly recognized that the Cuban state still prioritizes basic human needs like health care and education for its people. Cuba’s relaxation of restrictions on foreign investments over the past couple decades calls into question how these priorities may change over the coming years.
“The key problem is how we both preserve our social institutions while opening up more greatly to foreign investment,” said a city planner and Communist Party member in describing what he considered one of the biggest threats to Cuba’s future.
Ultimately, he believed–along with other Communist Party members we spoke to–that if planned correctly, the bureaucracy could come to a successful resolution of this contradiction.
However, while Communist Party members were attuned to the significance of these economic contradictions, their answers reflected the limitations of the Cuban Communist Party’s (PCC) conception of socialism.
Socialism is understood by the CCP primarily as a set of economic and political programs clustered around public institutions and a strong welfare state, similar to Scandinavian social democracy. These programs include universal health care, public education, funding for the arts and wealth redistribution. Other features of Cuba’s political system after the revolution include state direction of the economy, a one-party state, and a large bureaucracy.
It can’t be denied that Cuba’s revolution brought about a much more just system than what had existed before–and a system which is enviable in many respects, even for citizens of the most developed capitalist countries. But the CCP’s vision leaves out the most crucial aspect of socialism: workers’ democratic control.
As Karl Marx famously wrote, “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Socialism cannot be handed to the working class by bureaucrats or benevolent guerillas, nor can it be decreed in a speech two years after the revolution, as happened in Cuba.
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MANY OF the Cubans we spoke with shared experiences that highlighted the contradictions inherent in “socialism” without working-class rule.
One man, a retired physics professor at the University of Havana, spoke of wanting to move to Chile in search of a new teaching job. Unlike Cuba, he said, “In Chile, the professors can protest to raise their wages.” Indeed, it’s a bitter irony that Cuba claims to be a communist country, but workers possess very little collective bargaining power in relation to their employers.
Others spoke of Cuba’s reliance on capitalist economies. An artist we spoke to lamented that because of the absence of an art market on the island, contemporary Cuban artists gear their work specifically for export to Western markets, resulting in what he described as a sort of deference to Western tastes.
Ultimately, attempts to build “socialism in one country” both ignore the centrality of internationalism and working-class rule and cannot sustain themselves indefinitely against the weight of the world capitalist system.
Cubans continue to hope for an end to the U.S. embargo, but the recent election of Donald Trump appears to have dimmed the immediate prospects for completing the normalization of relations that Obama initiated.
The embargo has negatively impacted the economy of Cuba for generations. But if the embargo ends, and Cuba opens up significantly to foreign investment to solve its current economic problems, it will not be able to do so on its own terms, as the PCC suggests.
Economic investment never comes without strings attached. The West utilizes investment and aid as a means of domination and control. Thus, opening to the West poses a threat to much of the progressive content of the Cuban system. On the other hand, without more investment from outside Cuba, the necessary funds to continue progressive programs will run dry.
The long-term choice facing the Cuban ruling class is to watch its economic system falter or to respond to the imperatives of economic openness by cutting back on health care and other public spending, at the price of eroding the positive contributions of the revolution.
The only way to preserve and ultimately complete the Cuban Revolution is for the working class to take power into its own hands in Cuba, as part of a worldwide and internationalist struggle against capitalism.