Cuba’s future: an assessment

This article is based on a talk delivered at the Bildner Center of the CUNY Graduate Center, in New York City, on December 8, 2011. It was transcribed by Matt Korn and adapted by Sam Farber for publication.

I CANNOT really present a synthesis of my book in 20-25 minutes. What I think I can do is present some major themes discussed there that I believe are important. In any case, you should buy the book and find out the rest. The themes I want to concentrate on are the economy, politics, and the issues of racial and gender oppression.

For the last several years, and especially since the Sixth Communist Party Congress in April 2011, there have been many changes, and some reforms—which are not the same thing—in Cuba which the US press has to some extent covered. However, it’s striking to me that one element of what was approved at the Sixth Party Congress that I consider absolutely critical has not been talked about at all. It is a section of the Program adopted at that Congress that is crucial to the development of the Sino-Vietnamese model in Cuba, a model that combines political authoritarianism with openings to private enterprise and capitalism, with the state retaining a very strong role in the economy.

I am referring to the section on enterprise autonomy that was approved at the Sixth Party Congress. These specific changes have not yet been carried out, but are part of the Party Program that is supposed to be implemented over a period of five years. According to this program, state enterprise managers will get a much freer hand in handling those enterprises than has been the case until now. The section on enterprise autonomy also states, among other things, that there will be no more state subsidies for enterprises. This is a perennial feature of enterprises in Cuba: they go to the state for more money because they cannot cover their expenses. The Party Program also created the possibility of bankruptcy for state enterprises, something that happened in China quite a few years after Deng’s reforms began in 1978. That is already being announced in Cuba. Once the enterprises go bankrupt they will be transferred to the non-state sector, which means either privatization or perhaps becoming some kind of cooperative. Last but not least, this section of the Party Program promised the decentralization of some of the prices of the products of state enterprises. This will open the road to competition among state enterprises and between state enterprises and the private sector. 

Even though this appears in black and white in the program adopted by the Congress, there is virtually no discussion of that either in the US press or among academic Cuba watchers. Why do I pick up on that particular theme? Because that part of the program fits perfectly well with the interests of a very important cadre of technocrats and administrators in the Cuban economy involved in joint ventures with foreign capital and in the army’s economic enterprises. There is a gigantic entity called GAESA (Grupo de Administración Empresarial, S.A.) that incorporates all the economic enterprises of the Cuban army. GAESA is currently run by Major Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, who happens to be a son-in-law of Raúl Castro, and who was recently promoted to the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party at the Congress that took place last April. I should add that it is Army officers, either in active duty or retired, who through GAESA or other venues control over half of the Cuban economy.

The combination of this managerial/technical cadre with the party program, opening the road to enterprise autonomy, points to the transformation of the Cuban economy into the Sino-Vietnamese model, with elements of the Russian model of nomenklatura privatization—that is, the members of the bureaucracy individually appropriating enterprises. The Cuban political scientist Esteban Morales Domínguez got into a lot of trouble when he wrote an article pointing to that danger.

From the point of view of the Cuban rulers, there is no alternative to the measures adopted at the Party Congress. This is due to the severe crisis of the Cuban economy: high debt, unfavorable trade balance, very low productivity, and especially capital loss—in short, the economy using up its own capital base. The problem becomes particularly acute with the absence of a USSR to bail the country out, and with Venezuela being unreliable for all sorts of reasons that I cannot go into here. 

Why is the Cuban economy in such a mess? Many people, especially the spokespersons for the Cuban government, have historically pointed to the criminal economic blockade that the United States that has been conducting against Cuba for fifty years, which has to be rejected absolutely, both on the principle of national self-determination as well as on pragmatic grounds. It just has to go. Period. Unfortunately, this is not about to happen. But it is absolutely inadmissible. The other side of that coin, which is not discussed by the Cuban authorities, is the disastrous bureaucratic economic system that is devoid of any real incentives. The old saying of East European workers—“they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”—completely applies to the Cuban economy. It is also an economy of unbelievable waste. There is plenty of waste under capitalism, as we know, but in the Cuban bureaucratic economy there is a different kind of waste.

There are some things that the Cuban system does rather well, however. In most things, in my opinion, the system does a lousy job, but some things they do rather well. The question is: how do you explain that? How do you explain both: the few things that the Cuban economy does well, and the many more things that it does so badly? In my book, I try to take a stab at this question. I don’t pretend to have presented a grand theory, but I do make an attempt to explain it. I borrow from Charles Lindblom’s concept of “strong thumbs and no fingers,” which he discusses in his book Politics and Markets. An economy that has only “strong thumbs” is able to do homogeneous, repetitive activities rather effectively. But when it comes to the discrimination and adaptation for which the fingers of the hand are necessary, it is a total failure. Strong thumbs, no fingers.

Strong thumbs allow that society to line up thousands of children to be vaccinated in a mass vaccination campaign. This is a homogeneous task which is obviously important and which that society can do very effectively. Strong thumbs allow that system, in advance of a hurricane, to prepare and implement a systematic five-step evacuation plan, in sharp contrast with the criminal neglect that we saw in New Orleans in 2005. Those are the sorts of things that it does rather well.

But when it comes to any kind of innovation, discrimination, or adaptation to local conditions, that thumb’s economy is a disaster. That is why it has done so poorly when it comes to agriculture. Not surprisingly, the Achilles heel of the old East European Communist economies was also agriculture. Cuba is also a disaster when it comes to consumer goods. I finished my manuscript in May 2011 (about six months before the book actually came out), and that summer several reports appeared about a crisis with school uniforms involving a shortage of small sizes. That is a classic problem of an economy without fingers. It cannot get it right when it comes to the discrimination, the variety, and the adaptation required for many consumer goods. 

So, yes, the economic blockade has hurt the Cuban economy, especially during the first years of the revolution. There is no doubt that removing the blockade—a goal to fight for—will considerably improve the Cuban economy. But to just talk about the blockade is highly misleading. (By the way, Raúl Castro himself has made fun of the notion that everything is to be blamed on the economic blockade.) Clearly, the nature of the bureaucratic economic system is at least as important as the blockade in creating the mess they are now trying to get out of—not by appealing to workers’ control and workers’ management of the economy, thus motivating the workers to give a damn about what they do, but instead by designing another method to keep a state-dominated economy going.

When looking at the Cuban economy and the Cuban polity as a whole, going back to the nineties, but especially in the last few years, we can see that there has been a process of liberalization, but not of democratization. By liberalization I mean the withdrawal of the state, the pulling back of the Cuban Leviathan state, which is what it is, withdrawing from some of the activities that this undemocratic Leviathan used to carry out. 

Politically, this limited withdrawal has meant the creation of a certain space for certain elite groups in society, such as academics, intellectuals, and artists, to have a little more freedom to express themselves than was the case before. As a result, there are some good journals of limited circulation in Cuba —Temas for example—where you find excellent articles about problems of inequality, for example by Mayra Espina Prieto, an excellent social scientist, or about racial inequality in Cuba. But when it comes to drawing political conclusions that are problematic, Temas becomes very shy. When it comes to assessing the responsibility of the political leaders, then forget it. That is not going to be discussed in an article in Temas. Nonetheless, it is very good that Temas exists, and I look forward to reading it, notwithstanding its severe limitations. (I don’t look forward to reading GranmaJuventud Rebelde, or Trabajadores, which are continually a pain in the neck.) 

So there has been a liberalization in the economic realm and, to some extent, in the political and intellectual realms. But not a democratization of a state that continues to run, and will continue to run, like in China, most of the life of the society—a state that is not subject to popular democratic control and that bans the organizational framework necessary for having popular democratic control. The mass media continues unreformed—run, as always, by the Ideology Department of the Cuban Communist Party, led by a man named Rolando Alfonso Borges, the head ideologue of the Cuban Communist Party. He gives “orientations” to the mass media, the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, and the newspapers, and they peddle the party line. Thus, Juventud Rebelde favorably covered the demonstrations that the Syrian government organized some ten days ago [November 29, 2011]. What the Cuban mass media has reported in the case of the Arab Spring and in the case of Syria is disgraceful—that is the only word for it. I find their disgraceful coverage and support for the regime in Syria, quite frankly, disgusting in this day and age.

The Cuban one-party state continues unreformed. In my book, I discuss in great detail why the so-called popular power is not at all democratic, and why preparations for the Congress were more akin to the suggestion boxes that capitalist managers use in capitalist economies, where workers put in suggestions and the managers pick up on some of them. That is exactly what happened at the recent Party Congress. 

I want to make clear that when I object to the one-party state, I object to its political and legal monopoly. I don’t do it from the perspective of a political scientist who might ask, “Now, what would be the ideal party system in a socialist society?” I don’t get into that. Not that it might not be a worthwhile discussion, but that is not my purpose. What I do get into is a reasoned but drastic critique of that party’s monopoly on political organization, and not just of that party, whose monopoly is enshrined in the Cuban constitution, but also of the monopoly of the mass organizations, which have been the transmission belts of that party; the monopoly of a single official trade union; of a single official women’s organization, all of which also have constitutional backing. Let the actual social life of the society, the actual social conflicts within society, determine the number of popular defense organizations and parties. 

Let me say something briefly on the issues of racial discrimination and homophobia in Cuba. Traditionally, and even to this day, the Cuban government defines the problems of racism and sexism as leftovers of the Spanish colonial past and of capitalism. I take on that argument in my book. I try to explain that in terms of racism, for example, although the government carried out important reforms, it did not revolutionize race relations on the island. Continuing institutional realities in the media, in housing, and in the correctional system have perpetuated institutional racism. Cuba is one of the top countries in terms of the number of common prisoners (as opposed to political prisoners) per capita. You can find the data in my book: it ranks fifth1—the United States, of course, being number one. Black Cubans are very disproportionately represented among the population of common prisoners on the island. 

These phenomena are manifestations of the continuation of institutional racism. Some aspects of Cuba’s institutional racism were changed after the revolution, but the rest was left untouched. Since 1962, and until very recently, the Cuban government maintained that the problem of racism in the island had been solved, and therefore the issue was seldom discussed. This racial silence has a long history, the roots of which I believe are to be found in the 1912 race war in Cuba, which was in fact not a war but a massacre of Black people. The lack of a systematic program of affirmative action, of an authentic multiculturalism, and most of all, the absence of independent political organization of Black people (as in the case of women and workers) have allowed institutional racism to continue on the island.

Similarly, with respect to gays: it is not true that homophobia is simply a leftover of the past. As a matter of fact, a few years after the revolutionary victory, homophobia in Cuba was taken out of the closet of civil society, where it had existed for centuries, and was politicized in order not to liberate but to persecute gays. It became an important element of the creation of a militarized, monolithic culture in Cuba. That was the whole point of it. It is simply false, notwithstanding Fidel Castro’s claims, that his responsibility for the rise of homophobia during the Revolution was limited to his lack of attention to the issue because of the urgency of other, more pressing matters. That is an absolute falsehood: he personally agitated against gays. In his speech on March 13, 1963, on the sixth anniversary of the failed attack on the Presidential Palace, he stated that young gay people had to be prevented from being gay. The old ones, there was nothing you could do about them, he said, but the young ones should be prevented from becoming like them. In that speech he also noted that the countryside did not “produce” gays. Homosexuality was a question of urban degeneracy and decay. He didn’t use those exact terms, but the clear implication was that the decayed, degenerate city produces homosexuality. These ideas were contained in various speeches; the one he delivered on March 13, 1963 was the most important on this matter. So it is simply not the case that he was merely negligent, as he has recently claimed.

It is undeniable that since the nineties, CENESEX (National Center for Sex Education), led by Mariela Castro Espín (a daughter of Raúl Castro), has done good work in this area. But that good work does not solve the problem of the need for gays (as well as women, workers, and Black people) to be able to organize independently of the state to defend their interests. That is the central issue, and not their mobilizing and even protesting when the government says that they can do so. Even though CENESEX has a much more liberal line than the rest of the government, it nonetheless depends on the government’s say-so over what it can do, so in the last analysis and the not-so-last analysis, it is controlled by the government. 

Cuban women continue to have the double burden of laboring at the workplace as well as at home. In addition, they are at the center of a very serious issue that is being talked about in Cuba today: domestic violence against women. Women are not allowed to organize independently to deal with that issue. And that is the crucial issue here: the necessary development of independent organizations that will, if necessary, confront the government and its so-called mass organizations. 

What is the way forward? It would be presumptuous of me, comfortably living in New York, to preach a program to people in Cuba. All I can say is that for Cuba to go forward, number one, its prospects depend on the total and unconditional rejection of the criminal blockade of the United States. That is a must. There is in addition, the nascent left wing. This developing left should be encouraged and supported, for example by collaborating with havanatimes.com, although unfortunately most people don’t have access to the Internet in Cuba. 

I have no illusions that this developing left in Cuba can be a contender for power when a transition comes after Raúl Castro’s demise. But I think that this left can be essential to the development of a progressive opposition to whatever comes about in Cuba: an opposition that unites workers, blacks, women, gays, and others rather than pitting them against each other; that unites the workers, especially those in the winning sectors of the economy, such as tourism, with the workers in the losing sectors, such as “uncompetitive” manufacturing and most of the agricultural sector. In that context, a developing left can play a very important role. But most important of all is that Cubans decide what happens to them, not the people here, and especially not the government here.


  1. On Christmas Eve of 2011, the Cuban government pardoned close to three thousand common prisoners, approximately 5 percent of the total number of common prisoners. This may marginally affect Cuba’s world ranking, discussed above. “Nota Oficial,” Diario Granma, Havana, Cuba, December 24, 2011. Vol. 15, no. 358.  Available at http://www.granma.co.cu/2011/12/24/nacio....