Cuba in Search of Renovation

Against the Current, No. 141, July/August 2009

Janette Habel

ON JANUARY 1, 1959, the rebel Army entered Havana and brought down the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Fifty years later, Fidel Castro has given up power, but his brother Raúl has relieved him. Far from being characterized by paralysis, this transition period has witnessed the emergence of an intense debate about the future of socialism, both among opponents as well as those who defend it with the desire to see it evolve.

“To get out of the chaos without falling under the domination of the law of the jungle,” is how sociologist Aurelio Alonso sums up the Cuban dilemma. Half a century since the rebel Army took power, the island finds itself at a turning point in its history. “Provisionally” absent since July 2006 for reasons of health, Fidel Castro is now no longer President, since he resigned his responsibilities in 2008. But he continues being first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) until its next congress, which his brother Raúl has proposed should take place in the autumn of 2009.

The political scenario is unprecedented. “I am not saying good-by to you. I only want to be a soldier of ideas. I will continue writing under the title ‘Reflections of Compañero Fidel.’…Perhaps my voice will be heard. I will be careful.”(1) So explained the Commander in Chief on February 19, 2008, upon announcing that he was retiring from the top leadership.

During his swearing-in five days later, Raúl Castro asked the National Assembly to consult with his older brother regarding the great strategic questions of defense, foreign relations, and economic development. The legislators, in a show of hands, unanimously ratified the proposal.

Some observers see this vote as having given Fidel Castro a kind of veto power, which would explain the slowness of the reforms. Since then, the ex-president continues to publish his “reflections” in the media. For his brother Raúl, the succession is a sensitive issue.

No sooner had it begun than the succession collided with an unforeseen congeries of difficulties arising from specific situations (a rise in the prices of primary agricultural materials, the seriousness of the disasters arising from three consecutive hurricanes,(2) a world financial crisis, a slowing of Cuban growth) and structural obstacles (a heavy dependence on imports, low productivity, a dual monetary system,(3) hyper-bureaucratic centralization).

The latitude for financial maneuvers in order to carry out in a timely fashion the changes announced in 2007 with the goal of modernizing the productive machinery is limited. In 2008, food and petroleum imports should have represented at least five billion dollars, that is half of the existing exporting potential of Cuba, including the sale of services to Venezuela.(4)

The decentralization of agricultural systems, the use of uncultivated lands which have been turned over to small farmers, the policy of the substitution of imports supported by private agricultural producers, and the new wage policies(5) make up some of the important measures already taken by the new executive branch.

Some economists argue that it is necessary to “liberate the productive forces,” as the Vietnamese government succeeded in doing. The current system cannot, in their opinion, serve as a point of departure for development. The economist Pedro Monreal suggests the necessity of an “economic, social and political re-foundation.”(6)

Nevertheless, support for individual economic activity and the consequences of an extension of the market economy could aggravate inequalities, already very unpopular, at a moment in which wages are inadequate, as Raúl Castro has publicly recognized and lead to an expansion of the informal economy and the black market.

Social Stratification

The economic market reforms of the 1990s destabilized the society and led to the creation of new social strata. The Cuban sociologist Mayra Espina asserts that “the urban population living in poverty whose basic needs are not satisfied increased from 6.3% in 1988 to 20% in 2000.”(7)

“The urban and rural petty bourgeoisie [small capitalists] was restored as a result of the informal economy, independent labor and the broadening of market mechanisms for distribution. In the informal economy some operations can be observed which function like small businesses and in which it is possible to clearly see the boss or employer of wage earners, of family members and even of apprentices.”(8)

The social homogeneity and the equality achieved at the beginning of the Revolution have receded, even though they remain deeply rooted values of the society. Before the crisis, the universal character of social rights guaranteed total coverage in the areas of basic food needs, education, health, social security, employment and access to cultural resources. Society had achieved relatively high levels of equality and had increased racial integration.(9)

The crisis has undermined these achievements and has increased tensions. Never was the gap between the younger and the older revolutionary generation so great.

The new generations have never known anything but the austerity of the “special period” (provoked after 1991 by the fall of the Soviet bloc) and a society which has nothing to do with that of their elders. They consider the Batista dictatorship to be ancient history taught in the school books. The adventurous period of the 1980s is nothing more than a vague memory, even though it was in many cases what permitted their parents to move up in society.

While education deteriorated, some teachers gave up their jobs for better paid activities in the market. Sometimes they are replaced by “teacher trainees,” young educators with little experience who have taken a short teacher training course. “Teaching is a disaster,” exclaims one of the participants in a public debate organized by the magazine Temas, echoing the notable intervention of Alfredo Guevara, the director of the Latin American Film Festival during the convention of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), when he criticized “the absurd standards and the practices that dominate education.”(10)

Why is there such a lack of interest in politics among the youth? “It makes me sick,” said one of them, exasperated by the leaders’ daily “exhortations” and political “orientations.” The feeling that they have no professional future corresponding to the education they have received is widespread and many try to get away from the island.

In February 2008, during a very well-publicized debate, a student presented his complaints to Richard Alarcón, the President of the National Assembly: Why does one need permission to travel? Why is access to the internet restricted?

During an investigation carried out over several months, Michelle Chase, a historian from the United Status, pointed out that the principal criticisms have to do with the lack of discussion and the sclerosis of the institutions.(11) Some students and researchers put their emphasis on the need to “socialize power.”(12)

In 2007, at the University of Havana there was a public meeting attended by six hundred people where information on the October Revolution [in Russia in 1917] was presented. These Inheritors of the Revolution call themselves socialists and re-read the “classics” of Marxism. But, a sign of the times, none of them calls himself a “fidelista.”

A Space for Hope

By publicly recognizing that the system isn’t working well, that wages are inadequate, and that it is necessary to make “structural changes,” Raúl Castro has created a lot of hope. By calling upon his compatriots to participate in a great national debate, the new President opened a space for the expression of differences.

Even though no synthesis of the discussion has been made public, it is known that the party members said that were in favor of a more participatory and democratic socialism. The population — and principally the opposition — demands above all improvements in everyday life. There must be change. But what sort? When? And how?

“Cuba is beginning to move, the existing model is in crisis,” comments the young researcher Ariel Dacal. For two years now there have been collective expressions of criticisms about the existing problems, or about the meaning of the experiences of the past.

In January 2007, during the convalescence of Fidel Castro, the broadcasting of a television program which was complacent about the old censorship of the 1970s led to a collective petition, called the “war of the emails,” because for the first time it was carried out on the Internet.

The text, signed by numerous public figures, cultural, political (Alfredo Guevara, Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raúl Castro) and religious (Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes), was followed by a series of conferences and a book which drew a blance of the “leaden years.”(13)

In a way that is unprecedented, observes Disiderio Navarro, director of the magazine Criterios, “a public sphere has been created which makes up for the failings of the media.” The debates continued in April 2008 in the convention of UNEAC, during the Book Fair, and in meetings organized by the magazine Temas, or in educational centers, such as the Martin Luther King Center.

The existence of the Internet site Kaosenlared [Chaos on the Internet], which makes available Cuban writing, makes possible reactions and the spread of exchanges and discussions on a scale unknown until now.

What is talked about? What are the differences of opinion? Party members, researchers, intellectuals and some student groups are looking for another kind of socialism. This search is accompanied by a critical reexamination of real socialism [referring to the system formerly existing in the Soviet bloc — ed.]  and an evaluation of the fall of the Soviet Union, an analysis which, as the writer Amborsio Fornet remembers, was always rejected in the past “so as not to unity in jeopardy and not to give arms to our adversaries.” But that was a case of a “phony unity.”(14)

Alfredo Guevara criticizes “the conversión of ideas into ritual, into words, into ceremony, a frequent thing in history among bureaucrats and opportunists.”

Two big issues stand at the center of the debates. In first place, the economy. And then the role of popular participation. Why doesn’t the economy work? What are the relations between the state and the market in an economy in transition to socialism? What can Cuba learn from the Chinese experience, and, above all, from the Vietnamese?

The answers given by “Raulistas” and “Fidelistas” differ. Even though neither the one  nor the other lays responsibility at the door of their mentors, the differences can be seen at the highest levels.

Where is Raúl Castro headed, and where might he arrive? Pragmatic, Raúl emphasizes the need to get the economy out of the doldrums and to improve the revenue from agriculture (more than half of the land goes uncultivated). At the same time, he promotes a better organized operation, one that is more respectful of the institutional order, which had been regularly subjected to short circuits by his older brother.

With these economic reforms, he hopes to perpetuate the political system, but without destabilizing it, in order to prepare for a post-Castro era. That explains his interest in the Vietnamese experience, which seems to show that one can take from capitalism all that is efficient in the market economy, without calling into question the one-party political system.

A Transition to Where?

But can this experience be brought to Cuba? And would the Cubans accept their social cost, after so many years of difficulties? Once the idea of shock therapy has been set aside, the idea of a slow and gradual transition begins to gain ground. Nevertheless, Raúl Castro is 77 years old: he has little time.

On the other hand, those who oppose market reforms warn of the danger that these reforms would mean for the system. Fidel Castro has never hidden his reservations with regard to these “capitalist mechanisms” whose political consequences he fears. He always emphasized voluntarism and social mobilization.

Juan Valdés Paz, a political scientist, sums up the differences: “For some the revolution is a historical process which advances by leads and that, in order to progress, should propose the impossible. This is a very strong current of opinion, perhaps the strongest in the revolution. But other revolutionaries are more realistic, since they’ve come to understand that there are situations which the revolution lacks the means to resolve. It is an interesting debate between, let us call them, utopian options, between subjective Marxists and more realistic party members, preoccupied with concrete objectives who take concrete circumstances into account.”

Significantly, the theoretical and political journal of the Central Committee of the PCC, Socialist Cuba, has republished the old speeches of Fidel Castro.(15)

One of these, given in 1988 and “always timely” according to the editor, points out the importance of the defense of the country and the ideological battle: “Some occasionally ask themselves if it would not be more worthwhile to dedicate all of these energies, all of these efforts, all of the resources to the construction of socialism, to the development of the country…But that would be a grave misunderstanding, a criminal misunderstanding, because it is the price that our people must pay for the revolution, for their freedom, for their independence.” This was before the crisis: the Cuban economy already had difficulties.

Who’s running Cuba? This irate question is spoken in a low voice. Fidel Castro asserts that it is not he, and that he will not be the head of any “faction.” Nevertheless, a detailed analysis of the November 19 issue of [Cuba’s daily government newspaper] Granma is revealing. At the top, on the first page, a headline in thick red letter proclaims “Fidel Receives Hu Jintao.” And on the bottom of the page, in smaller black letters, one finds an announcement of the meeting between the Cuban President and the Chinese President: “Official Conversations between Raúl and Hu Jintao.”

It’s hard to believe that this was simply a mistake made when the paper was laid out, particularly when one knows the control exercised [over the paper] by the Central Committee of the PCC.

It is difficult in itself to identify leanings of the various state agencies. The Revolutionary Armed Forces continue to be omnipresent. Raúl Castro was their minister during almost half a century, and they control directly or indirectly two-thirds of the economy. Their firms are at the center of many transformations, and the military officials who direct them have begun to experiment with capitalist management methods, so that one can imagine they will throw their weight behind the reforms. Even so, it is important to be careful with any generalization.

Some Party cadres, from the unions or from the popular organizations express their reservations. A union leader points out to us the risks inherent in the phenomenal development of China, confronted with a “an unequal distribution of revenues, poverty, and a marked difference between the city and the countryside, as well as the degradation of the environment.”

Celia Hart, whose political sensibility inclined toward Fidel Castro, declared in August of 2008 that she feared that “Cuba may follow the same direction as China.”(16) A high Cuban functionary cited the former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki: “No one has experience with the transition from socialism to capitalism. If I had known that there would be 18 percent unemployment, perhaps I might have tried to go less quickly.”

Even though none of the leaders proposes political changes, under the influence of the Latin American left one feels the aspiration for a participatory democracy, a self-managed socialism. “The people criticize institutions that are too bureaucratic, they ask for greater participation from the social base,” comments Juan Valdés Paz.

This demand, theorized by the intellectuals, is accompanied by a criticism of the role of the PCC. “The party cannot direct the state, it is the people who should do it,” declares a party member. “I believe that that we should recognize that we have constructed a structure which is too dominated by the state, highly bureaucratized, with a very limited participation by the people in the decision making system,” says Aurelio Alonso.

For the first time, “programmatic proposals” have been published on the website Kaosenlared intended for the Sixth Congress of the PCC set for the end of 2009. This platform, titled “Cuba needs a participatory and democratic socialism” is presented by “Cuban communists and revolutionaries” and is inspired by Pedro Campos, a former diplomat who, in the past, held positions in the Ministry of the Interior.(17)

Campos, who makes a poor living and rejects interviews, did accept one with Le Monde diplomatique. Those who do not have access to the Internet can go to his house and get the text of the thirteen “proposals” which condemn authoritarian “state socialism.”

In the opinion of the authors [of the proposals], it is necessary to create workers’ councils that would control the decisions in the workplaces, to modify the electoral system so that there is more democratic participation, to revise the penal system’s practices which lead to convictions for political reasons, to declare illegal “aid” from foreign governments with subversive objectives, at the same time it is necessary to legalize the right of [free] association and expression.

Finally, the proposal comes out in favor of a Communist Party which would permit the existence of internal currents [tendencies, factions]. Some very popular demands complete the proposal, especially the elimination of [the need for] permission to leave the country and unlimited access to the Internet. Cuban public figures take part in this electronic forum, discussing the relations between the state and property, self-management and the market, socialism and democracy, at a time when we are approaching the end of an historic cycle.

Slowly Changing Behavior

As the change of this current period is being sketched out — including the arrival in the White House of Barack Obama — behavior is evolving in an imperceptible manner; political differences are being expressed. Rafael Hernández, editor of the magazine Temas, asks: How “to reconstruct the consensus”?

Any break in the top leadership could put in danger the system as a whole. How to replace the arbitrary acts carried out until recently by Fidel Castro, a charismatic (and, according to his brother Raúl, “irreplaceable”) leader? Through a more collective leadership, responds the new President, insisting on the regular and efficient functioning of the institutions. He has now isolated the “Taliban,” a nickname given to the young hacks who had surrounded the former President [Fidel] in his last years [in office].

Whether or not the historic generation which still occupies key positions can reform that which they themselves created, or if, frightened by the changes, they will become paralyzed remains an unknown. In reality, the existing leadership is no younger than the former one — in fact, older. There are those who think that they need new actors so that the transformation will be credible. Among those whose days are numbered and those who are being pressed by time, history has still not given its verdict.


  1. “Mensaje del Comandante en Jefe,” Granma, La Habana, February 19, 2008.
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  2. In 2008, hurricanes Gustav, Ike y Paloma damaged more than 400,000 houses, left 200,000 people without homes for a period of time, and completely destroyed 55,000 hectares of various crops.
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  3. The Cuban peso serves principally to pay wages and to buy basic necessities. The convertible peso (which replaced the [US] dollar in 2004) is used by tourists and is needed to acquire various commodities.
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  4. Philippe Colombani, La Lettre de La Havane, nº 82, French Embassy, Economic Mission, June 2008.
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  5. From now on workers will be paid according to their production; their basic wage will be established without consulting the national wage table and within firms there could be different pay systems.
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  6. Espacio Laical, La Habana, February 2008.
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  7. Mayra Paula Espina Prieto, Políticas de atención a la pobreza y la desigualdad, CLACSO, Buenos Aires, 2008.
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  8. Mayra Paula Espina Prieto, “Viejas y nuevas desigualdades en Cuba,” Nueva Sociedad, nº 216, La Habana, July-August 2008.
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  9. Alejandro de la Fuente, A Nation for All. Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
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  10. Séptimo Congreso de la UNEAC, April 1, 2008.
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  11. Michelle Chase, “Cuba’s Generation Gap,” NACLA Report, vol. 41, nº 6, New York, November-December 2008.
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  12. Julio Cesar Guanche “Todo lo que existe merece perecer,” September 15, 2008:
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  13. “La política cultural del período revolucionario, memoria y reflexión,” ciclo de conferencias organizado por el Centro teórico-cultural Criterios, Havana, 2007.
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  14. “El quinquenio gris: revisitando el término” in “La political cultural” conferences cited in note 13.
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  15. Fidel Castro, “Defendernos en el terreno militar y en el terreno ideológico,” discurso de 1988, en Cuba Socialista, nº 47, Havana, April-June 2008.
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  16. Página 12, Buenos Aires, 25 de agosto de 2008. Celia Hart, daughter of historic leaders of the Cuban Revolution Armando Hart and Haydée Santamaría, had been expelled from the PCC. She died tragically in an automobile accident.
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  17. correo electrónico:
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ATC 141, July/August 2009