Contemporary Cuba: Revolutionary Past, Revolutionary Present

15 min read

To launch the Socialist Party USA’s solidarity with Cuba campaign, organizers thought it would be useful to give an examination of where the island nation is today in its socialist project. Socialism knows no national boundaries, yet we live under a capitalist international order which is defined by borders, complicating the process of developing a worldwide proletarian revolution. As something the Cuban revolutionaries were acutely aware of, the first decade of the revolution was spent centralizing a socialist system at home while working to spread the class consciousness and armed struggle abroad. Cubans volunteered their services to the working class revolutionaries of the Dominican Republic, Panama, Haiti and Bolivia; and trained rebels to organize in Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Zanzibar, the Congo, and South Africa1. After Che Guevara’s murder in Bolivia and the diplomatic repurcussions for exporting revolution, Cuba was forced to calm their revolutionary fervor while remaining true to their socialist credences. This resulted in a new international relations for the Island, focused on promoting literacy among one of the world’s poorest regions, bringing students from around the world to study at Cuban universities, and sending health professionals across the globe. This is not to say Cuba was made to sit on her hands either. Eight years after Che’s death, Cuba would again be in Africa, this time supporting the liberation forces of Angola against apartheid2.

Cuba can be recognized as a global leader of the working class and a bulwark against U.S. imperialism. Yet when analyzing the SP-USA platform, the only reference to Cuba is for an end to the U.S. occupation of Guantanamo Bay. While this is certainly something we are supportive of denouncing, it is also not a socialist demand. Even a war criminal like President Barack Obama could campaign on closing “Gitmo” in 20083. For SP-USA to be true to its commitments to the workers of the world, it should be calling for an end to U.S. sanctions and the illegal blockade; reparations for the economic constrictions the U.S. has placed on the island since and after 1962; U.S. recognition of, and an official apology for the crimes it has committed against the Cuban people, including the biological warfare aimed at destroying Cuban crops during the Special Period; among other demands. These are some of the changes within SP-USA that we will be calling for alongside our campaign to end the illegal, genocidal embargo against Cuba.

The history of the socialist movement in the U.S. is one of missed opportunities, extreme sectarianism (and by extension liberalism) and U.S. chauvinism. These issues we aim to address, and we believe this should begin with an emphasis on internationalism and anti-imperialism. Thankfully for us, there is a nation which has acted as the guiding light of both of those points called for emphasis, and it is just 90-miles South of Florida.

This piece aims to analyze Cuba today in order to explicate the case for why SP-USA must militantly stand with the nation against U.S. aggressions. In order to do this properly, this article will begin with an examination of contemporary Cuban history, beginning in the 80’s and its impact on Cuba today.

The Rectification Campaign and ‘El Periodo Especial’

When Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the USSR he embarked on a program to reform the Soviet Union through glasnost, perestroika and demokratizatsiya4. The formal purpose of this package was to reform the political and social of the USSR. Gorbachev believed that the USSR would benefit from encouraging more freedom of speech; economic restructuring; a transparent political and judicial processes; increased exposure to the West; and other reforms. But most importantly, Gorbachev’s aim was to bring the USSR to such a status that it could be considered a sufficient competitor to the U.S.

What this meant for Cuba was less support from its greatest ally. Between 1981-1984, Cuba’s average growth was 7.3%, while the region experienced a 10% drop in gross domestic product (GDP) during the same timespan56. In 1985, the year Gorbachev came to power, Cuba had received a peak of 10,000,000 pesos from the USSR, which was buying sugar from the island at eleven times its global price; yet by 1989, the USSR was buying sugar at just three times its global rate, and in 1991, Cuba would only receive 3,500,000 pesos from its trade with the USSR7. With Gorbachev selling the USSR off for “better relations” with the U.S., the Communist Party of Cuba (CPC) could read the writing on the wall. Their options were to either follow along with the USSR and commit to liberalizing all aspects of Cuban life, or maintain their commitment to socialism while reforming the structures in place. That Cuba stands today should tell you which decision they made.

To reform existing structures, Fidel Castro encouraged a ‘rectification campaign’ in 1986 with the purpose of improving Cuban socialism. Of concern were the growing inequalities on the island, the deteriorating relationship with the USSR, the diversification and stimulation of the economy, and the realized lull in revolutionary fervor from the newest generation of Cubans. Essentially, Castro recognized that the system was in need of revamping. The CPC encouraged the production of a mass line which recognized that the vanguard party must be in constant communication with the people8. While encouraging this form of direct participation, the Party at the same time centralized control of the political, economic and social by both mediating and demonstrating the inputs-and-outputs of the rectification campaign. Nonetheless, the campaign was not successful in many of its aims, which included less material incentives and more moral incentives through volunteer work, increased economic productivity and a clamping down on market forces (recognized to be exacerbating income inequality).

The campaign came to a close with the collapse of the USSR9 which ushered in the El Periodo Especial. During the Special Period10 Cuba’s GDP declined 35% in the first four years (1991-1995), which resulted in what Helen Yaffe has termed humanistic austerity. When faced with economic difficulties like a contracting economy and loss of international allies, Cuba had to come to terms with its budget. However, rather than embracing Structural Adjustment Programs or privatizing core industries, Cuba reduced its defense spending by 86% and eliminated fifteen government ministries; while at the same time increasing welfare expenditures by 29% and health expenditures by 13%11. Between 1990-2000, social expenditures increased nearly 20%12. Cuba’s budget reductions were also assisted by it’s military successes in combating apartheid alongside the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which lasted from 1975-1991.

Still, the Special Period had severe effects on the Island. Soldiers came home to a desperate country, Cubans lost approximately 12-20 lbs on average13, 35,000 attempted to flee to the U.S., food production decreased by 40% and food imports decreased 75%, infrastructure investments were greatly limited, meat was scarce and food rations supported by the government were drastically reduced. What’s worse, the U.S. passed the Cuban Democracy Act14 in 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act15 in 1996.

Post-Soviet Communist Cuba Adapts

The Special Period forced the CPC to make several reforms now that it was divorced from the USSR. In 1993, the government began issuing a new currency that was tied to the dollar to deal with inflation concerns16. The Constitution was amended to allow for regulated private property and the U.S. dollar was decriminalized17. Airports and hotels were remodeled or developed and tourism became Cuba’s greatest economic sector. The government also became more tolerant of religion as the populace turned to immaterial comfort in the face of hard times and state retrenchment. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) previously prohibited from entry were welcomed and international faith alliances were established with the country.

The government and population devised cost-effective strategies to meet many needs. State farms became worker’s cooperatives while the loss of agricultural products resulted in creative environmentalist strategies18. Job training programs emphasized social workers who would help struggling families during and after the 1990s. Renewable strategies became more common as the 2005 Energy Revolution19 was launched while sustainable communes grew in popularity with government support. In 1988, Cuba established Popular Councils (consejos populares) which were utilized to bridge the gap between neighborhoods and municipalities. They are led by full-time representatives who advocate on their neighborhood’s behalf to Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), which are local CPC organs. In 2000, Popular Councils were codified into law as a means of encouraging participation from Cubans in their local lives, as well as being in charge of the “planning, development, and evaluation of the main activities that take place in its territory”20. Operating in coordination with Popular Councils are the “Workshops”, established in 1993 as bodies which use participatory community planning programs and cooperate with NGOs to serve their respective communities21.

Thus, despite a lack of financial reserves, Cuba and her people have seized the means of social (re)production at the community level and integrated alongside these developments democratic structures which offer them flexibility and longevity.

Castro to Castro, A State in Transition

In 2006, Fidel Castro came down with a grave illness that placed him in the hospital on-and-off for the next two years. In July, Fidel transferred operations to his brother Raul Castro. By 2008, an official transfer of Presidential responsibilities took place.

Raul is one of the fathers of the Cuban Revolution, and at the time of the Presidential transition was serving as Vice President and head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. A dedicated communist, Raul was also not a dogmatist and was willing to make concessions that Fidel opposed. Four days into his presidency, Raul implemented a series of economic reforms to increase efficiency and production, including raising Cuban salaries (as well as the prices of milk and meat), paying off state debts to farmers and encouraging small-scale private business activities2223. Much like the rectification campaign, Raul sought the input of the people and held thousands of state-sanctioned meetings in workplaces and Workshops, totaling 215,687 consultations and hearing 1,300,000 proposals within the first two years of the initiative, accounting for over 5,000,000 voices on the island24.

Another significant reform was Raul’s lifting of the ban on purchasing electronic goods such as computers, cellphones, microwaves, etc. Cuba similarly began establishing public wifi posts due to limited bandwidth25 in locations such as public parks, the workplace, schools. As of 2018 there were 50026. By 2019, Cubans with mobile-phones were granted internet access and residencies were able to host private wifi. While loosely enforced, the internet is regulated. Still, there are ways around the ‘censorship’2728.

Diaz-Canel and Cruz, A Castro-less Cuban Government

In April of 2018, Miguel Diaz-Canel was elected President of Cuba as Raul stepped down from the position. Diaz-Canel’s appointment marked the first non-Castro head of state since the revolution in 1959. Two months later, the National Assembly drafted a new constitution which was reviewed and edited throughout 135,000 public meetings. The new constitution recognized a right to regulated private property, restored the position of Prime Minister, acknowledged climate change as an official threat, paved the way toward formally legalizing same-sex marriages, and restored the presumption of innocence, among other changes. 6.8 million would vote on the constitution which was approved by more than 90% of voters. In December of 2019, Manuel Marrero Cruz was appointed Prime Minister. Both Diaz-Canel and Marrero Cruz were born after the Revolution, signifying a substantial change in leadership. Similarly, when Raul Castro stepped down as the First Secretary of the CPC in 2021 (now occupied by Diaz-Canel), the Cuban government was officially void of Castros.

Through all of these changes, the U.S. has not given an inch. In 2014, Obama rescinded Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror, restored diplomatic relations, and eased restrictions on travel, trade and remittances. Yet by 2019, Trump had walked back on essentially every move towards normalization that Obama had begun, and increased sanctions against Cuba. Since Trump’s departure, Biden has all but gone along with Trump’s policies, despite having been Vice President under Obama.

With market reforms introduced, a growing private sector, and a Castro-less government, it is difficult to discern what exactly the U.S. is waiting for. Since Diaz-Canel became President, the constitution has been changed to situate itself within the 21st century while holding true to its socialist and anti-imperialist convictions. What’s more, January 1, 2021 marked the beginning of a long overdue currency unification process to mend the difficulties associated with having three existing currencies and multiple exchange rates complicating the accounting process; not to mention the 11% GDP contraction in 2020 due to COVID.

Thus, we must ask: What will it take for Biden to make a move? The Administration says it is in no rush to ‘overhaul’ U.S. policy toward Cuba, yet all Biden has to do is nothing. If Biden were to simply not extend the Cuban embargo for 2021, it would be over. Cuba and her people could breathe. Of course, all signs point towards pessimism as on June 23, 2021, for the twenty-ninth consecutive year, the international community overwhelmingly voted against the financial blockade at the United Nations General Assembly. The two NO votes were a surprise to no one: the U.S. and Israel.

Conclusion

Even under the boot of imperialism, the revolution lives on. In terms of health, Cuba has the lowest infant mortality in all of the Americas and medical care (including both abortion and gender confirming surgery) is free of cost. Similarly, Cuba’s largest export is doctors, whose work has recently been highlighted by their nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize thanks to their international services offered throughout the COVID19 pandemic. Also notable, Cuba was able to achieve vaccine sovereignty June 21 of this year, with a three shot 92.3% effectiveness rate. Cuba also has the best physician-to-population ratio in the world. Regarding education, 63% of university graduates are women, and Cuban students have the best academic results in Latin America in all subjects. Literacy is above 99% and Cuba has helped design literacy campaigns throughout the world. Another considerable achievement is that Cuba ranks above average for nearly all Human Development Index (HDI) indicators according to the United Nations Development Program.

Thus, to conclude the first article of this campaign, we call on President Biden to not extend the Helms-Burton Act. By doing so he would remain true to his campaign promise and foreign policy strategy of ‘respecting human rights’ by not condemning the Cuban populace to death by economic and literal starvation. The international cynicism of the Biden Administration shown during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza must not be repeated in the Carribean. As socialists, it is our duty to make sure that happens to no nation, especially one’s operating under the control of a working class government.

¡VIVA CUBA! ¡VIVA LA REVOLUCIÓN!

Endnotes

1. The New York Times. (January 26, 1964). Castro Seeks to Export his Revolution; His Role in the Rebellion in Zanzibar Reflects Cuba’s Activity in Training Guerillas. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1964/01/26/archives/castro-seeks-to-export-his-revolution-his-role-in-the-rebellion-in.html

2. This liberation struggle would go on for 15 years with Cuban, and eventually Soviet military support, against right-wing nationalists and apartheidists supported by the U.S. and China.

3. President Obama of course failed in this effort, but that is beside the point.

4. Though vague, we can understand these words to mean: Glasnost, increased openness and transparency; Perestroika, restructuring of the economy; Demokratizatsiya, democratization of all aspects of Soviet life.

5. Kozameh, S. (Jan 30, 2021). How Cuba Survived and Surprised in a Post-Soviet World. Retrieved from https://jacobinmag.com/2021/01/we-are-cuba-review-socialism-soviet-union

6. The decrease in GDP can be recognized as a result of the so-called Volcker Shock, named after Paul Volcker, Chair of the Federal Reserve from 1979-1987. The ‘shock’ was caused in 1981-1982, when Volkcer reduced the money supply by constricting U.S. bank reserves, thus causing banks to raise interest rates and limiting the liquidity of the USD. It did help restart the U.S. economy, but this was at the expense of the “third-world” which had taken out many Western debts to promote the leading development theory at the time, ‘modernization’. When the interest rates rose, poorer countries saw their earnings sharply decrease. In turn, there was a global debt crisis, which the International Monetary Foundation used to impose neocolonialist policies through “Structural Adjustment Programs”, which entrenched a ‘new constitutionalism’ for those underdeveloped nations that codified support for privatizing a given nation’s goods by joining international agreements specifying a given nations limitations in supporting its economy and thereby reducing the ‘state’ to nothing more than an upholder of the status quo.

7. Bain, M. J. (November 2005). Cuba-Soviet Relations in the Gorbachev Era. Journal of Latin American Studies, Volume 37, No. 4. pp. 769-791.

8. The process of the mass line can be described as: the vanguard of the revolution must present its alternatives to the masses; the masses in turn voice their concerns, complications and needs to the vanguard party; the vanguard then develops a process of rectification in accordance with the demands of the people, who then either voice their approval or disapproval of the process as it unfolds. Essentially, there is constant communication between the vanguard (Communist Party of Cuba) and the masses (Cuban populace). If the party is failing to uphold these demands, the people have a right to revolution. The theory was developed by Mao Zedong.

9. The differences in both states’ attempts to rectify socialism is striking. Where the USSR embraced liberal reforms aimed at saving the economy and culture of the Soviet Union, Cuba re-centralized many of its affairs while endorsing the same liberal rights but offering them an outlet in the government. Despite the Cuban economy slumping, it is difficult to ascertain whether that was a result of the rectification campaign’s economic alterations or the island’s loss of great subsidies from the USSR. Even with the economic collapse in the 1990s, the Communist Party of Cuba was able to maintain itself whereas the USSR fell flat, most likely due to the less-inhibited liberalization in all spheres.

10. It is difficult to put a timespan on the Special Period. One could argue that because Cuba recovered to its pre-crisis levels by 1996, the crisis was effectively defeated in five years. Other observers have noted that it was not until Cuba received assistance from their allies (namely Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in the form of oil) that the crisis was defeated, which puts recovery at approximately ten years. In Cuba the Special Period is a sensitive topic. Our guide however explained that Cuba is still in, or is in the residual state of recovery from the Special Period (this was in 2017).

11. Kozameh, S. (Jan 30, 2021).

12. Uriarte, M. (2002). Social Policy at a Crossroads: Maintaining Priorities, Transforming Practice. Oxfam America.

13. While there was a significant decrease in food accessibility during the Special Period, Cuba also turned to innovative solutions recognizing a centralized system with little to provide was less useful than no system at all with little to provide. With a damaged export balance Cuba moved to encouraging domestic food production and the use of biopesticides and permaculture on a large scale and familial and communal gardens on a small scale. Even ten years after the Special Period, 60% of purchased food takes place at its site of production or its associated market. (For more on food sovereignty see: Thornburg, J. (n.d.) Facing Global Hunger: Cuba, Food Security and the Transformation of Agriculture. Draft. Benedictine University.

14. The CDA prohibited foreign based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with or traveling to Cuba, as well as limiting remittances to Cuba. The Act also permitted the President to seek nonviolent regime change operations.

15. Helms-Burton was proposed by Republicans in the Senate and Congress and signed into effect by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996. The Act magnified the CDAs trade restrictions of a 180-day docking ban and increased the sanction for trading with Cuba to legal recourse. It also granted the Legislature the power to override a Presidential cancellation of the embargo (which is now recognized to be unconstitutional), among other things.

16. The hyperlink will bring you to an article I wrote about the complications this has caused Cuba today, among other present issues Cuba is facing today.

17. This made remittances easier to send and brought an internationally stable currency to Cuba. It also resulted in the circulation of numerous currencies which made accounting nearly impossible.

18. One such example: When I was in Cuba in 2017, I recall a beautiful flower on the end of each crop-row. When I asked a farmer why the flower was at the edge o each row, he explained that pests go for the flower first, because it is so fragrant. This gives farmers the ability to ‘nip the issue in the bud’ before it gets out-of-hand. Organoponicos often plant garlic, onions and other fragrant herbs around a plant bed to deter insects from invading. Similarly, organic pesticide sprays are used on large farms.

19. Due to the loss of its oil provider in the USSR which accounted for more than 90% of Cuba’s power-grid, Cuba began experiencing common blackouts. Accentuating the crisis were thermoelectric plants functioning at 60% capacity. For a fantastic article on the Energy Revolution, visit https://www.renewableenergyworld.com/baseload/la-revolucion-energetica-cubas-energy-revolution/#gref

20. Uriarte, M. (2002).

21. Idib.

22. Jamison, C. (2009). Family Tradition: Cuban Policy Reforms as Raul Castro Takes the Reigns. Law and Business Review of the Americas, Vol. 15, No 4. pp 891-922.

23. One example that has flourished Cuentapropista (or autonomous workers). These are self-employed individuals who operate in the economy often through cafes and restaurants, but recently have more often than not found themselves standing in queues in the morning to sell goods at higher rates than purchased. This is an activity that the government is attempting to curtail in favor of the more traditional self-employment activities.

24. Idib.

25. The issue of limited bandwidth has been assisted by Venezuelan investments in connecting Cuba through a fiber optics IT linkage in 2011.

26. Xinhua. (December 30, 2017). Cubans gain access to mobile internet in 2018. Retrieved from http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-12/31/c_136862657.htm

27. For example, Slate’s John Sakellariadis published an article April 28, 2021 describing “This Week in Cuba”, a live-streamed discussion hosted on Twitter amplifying dissident voices every Friday night. Similarly, the San Isidro Movement’s popularity has largely been thanks to their utilization of the internet, specifically Facebook. Not to mention the U.S. is financing several members of the Movement. Both examples have made great use of live-streams.

28. Another example of circumventing censorship can be seen in the USAID developed Zunzuneo, a Twitter knock-off designed to sow dissent and hopefully stir regime change. This was established during the age of “Twitter Revolutions”, beginning in Moldova and Iran, later to be emphasized during the “Arab Spring”.