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Cuba: Economic change and authoritarian stasis

Cuba: Economic change and authoritarian stasis

Octavio Alberola looks at the Cuban state’s post-Fidel shift towards a more privatised economic model and the way it has prioritised retaining elite interests while the masses remain locked out of the decisions affecting their lives. Alberola, an author and anarcho-syndicalist veteran of the fight against Franco, has spent decades critiquing the Castro regime from an anarchist perspective.

In response to the latest peaceful demonstrations of dissent in late 2020 and early 2021, the regime has announced an expansion of its security regulations, prohibiting rallies in Havana neighbourhoods where Cuba’s powerful elites usually live and work: the areas around state ministries and government buildings, as well as tourist shops.

Although official history establishes the beginning of the Cuban Revolution with the triumphal entry of the Barbudos into Havana on January 1st, 1959, it was not until April 16th, 1961 that Fidel Castro declared its socialist character. And the reality of the daily life of Cuban workers since then belied the revolution’s purported emancipatory objective. Not only because Castro’s socialism is a simple Caribbean expression of Soviet socialism — actually state capitalism — but also because it was a dialectical excuse for Fidel Castro and the Castroist bureaucracy to seize and stay in power. 

Beyond the speeches and proclamations, the reality is that this revolution has never tried to fulfil the promise of eradicating capitalist exploitation or suppressing class difference. That is why, in Cuba, tourists and Cubans with dollars have been able to enjoy everything, while the majority have lived in scarcity and some even in misery from the early days of the Revolution until now. 

This reality was aggravated throughout the “Special Period” — caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union — during which time Cubans could not even enter, much less buy from, the Diplotiendas (department stores reserved exclusively for diplomats)That apartheid practice, which came to include markets, hotels, hospitals and recreation centres, was in addition to political apartheid. A constant authoritarian practice of the Revolution that has resisted all efforts to democratise it and make a truly emancipatory socialism possible. Hence, the only changes produced have been only those necessary for everything to remain the same, without altering the traditional relationship between the elite and society. 

Limits and direction of changes

It is therefore not surprising that the changes — which began in the nineties after the fall of the socialist camp, and accelerated once Fidel left the leadership of the State to his brother Raúl in 2006 (see below) — have been concentrated in the economic sphere, to open more space to the market in the allocation of resources. But this is only to solve the excessive prohibitions that saturate daily life and administration in “socialist” Cuba, forcing most of the population to take refuge in countless social practices of survival and simulation, especially during the years of the Special Period.

Chávez’s triumph in Venezuela in 1999 prompted the Cuban authorities to once again temporarily privilege the centralised and nationalised model. But this return to centralism and the litany of statist socialism entered into a new crisis in July 2006 with the virtual disappearance of a (very unwell) Fidel from the scene and his provisional replacement by Raúl, who was aware of the critical economic situation and social apathy which reigned in Cuba despite Venezuelan subsidies. This difficult-to-maintain situation forced him to appeal for change, and he convened a “popular debate” to set the Guidelines for Cuba’s Economic and Social Policy in 2007.

It was ultimately an inconsequential debate, but necessary, to justify the scope and pace of the new changes that Raúl would later announce in his 2018 inauguration speech: “In December I spoke about the excess of prohibitions and regulations, and in the next few weeks we will begin to eliminate the simplest ones.” Indeed, in March the most “simple” and absurd prohibitions were eliminated so that Cubans can stay in any hotel in their country, rent a vehicle or a tourist motorcycle and spend their vacations in a tourist establishment on the island, including Varadero (depending on resources), as well as being allowed to sell a property without prior authorisation. 

But it was not until 2011 that the authorities decided to give a new boost to self-employment by approving 181 activities, and two years later 201 more jobs, in addition to authorising Cubans to legally leave the country for two years without losing the right to their home. It was a gradual reformism which reached a new milestone with the new migration measures of 2016 and 2018, facilitating temporary visits by Cubans who had left the country illegally before 2013. 

In addition to these reforms, there has this year been a new plan of economic measures announced by the President of the Republic, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, endorsed by Raúl (now formally PCC president since October 10th, 2019). This was a plan that, in addition to promoting “monetary and exchange unification”, eliminated a list of activities disallowed to the private sector, leaving just 124 occupations, will be applied “on the basis of guaranteeing all Cubans greater equal opportunities , rights and social justice, which will not be possible through egalitarianism, but by promoting interest and motivation for work”.

The drift of the Revolution towards private capitalism

Faced with such a balance, of the limits and the direction in which the changes in Cuba have gone, how can we not conclude that the Cuban socialist Revolution is less and less socialist (state capitalism) and more and more simply private capitalism?

This drift has been decided by that leadership in the face of the proposals and attempts — inside and outside the revolutionary movement — to democratise and direct the proclaimed socialism of that Revolution towards truly emancipatory objectives. Proposals and attempts which were rejected and repressed with equal or greater zeal than is used against the exiled right in Miami who call to reinstall Cuba’s old bourgeois democracy. 

President Diaz-Canel seeks to justify it with the invocation of “efficiency economy” and “elimination of excessive subsidies and undue gratuitousness” to cynically justify a “transformation of income” and celebrate “family”, the New Year and the 62nd anniversary of the Revolution depending on the potential of each pocket: some in palaces and others in huts, as in any capitalist country. 

Few perspectives

Despite history’s frequent setbacks and the fact we never know what the future holds, it seems to move towards democratic and emancipatory horizons; but, in Cuba, nothing indicates that this is an immediate prospect.

Either by the effect of the changes produced during the 62 years of the Revolution or by the repression (in some cases extreme) of dissent, and the massive exodus caused by the urgent need for most of the Cuban people to find how to survive in a country where everything depends on the State, it has not been possible to articulate an opposition capable of offering a real alternative for Cuba. Even more so in these moments, with such a fragmented and polarized political spectrum. 

For this reason, although in such a context there are social explosions, frustration and discontent, “each one to his own” stops the oppositions that appear form being truly emancipatory perspectives for Cuban society. Such is the case of the San Isidro Movement and the mobilisations to demand dialogue with the authorities, as well as the last one carried out by 300 Cubans — of different professional and ideological strata residing in Cuba or abroad — sending an Open letter to the President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. to ask him to end the blockade of Cuba. A Letter, published by La Joven Cuba,  in which, despite acknowledging that “the United States is not solely responsible for the problems facing the country” and that it is still far from “totally democratic”, does not clearly state (although some of the signatories acknowledge it privately) that it is the internal blockade which prevents a solution to these problems from emerging. In addition, none of these initiatives questions the drift of the prevailing state capitalism in Cuba towards private capitalism. It derives that, in addition to being promoted by the business sector of the Revolution, it is the main claim of the right-wing Opposition in Miami. 

Hence, no matter how much media noise is made about such initiatives, it is not from them that emancipatory or even democratising perspectives will be opened for the Cuban people. This drift is compatible with the maintenance of the dictatorship. Although it is often said that capitalism rhymes with democracy, the truth is that there are many examples where it rhymes very well with dictatorships of all kinds. 

Faced with such evidence, the only perspective is that of the authoritarian revolutionary status quo, of the one-party government, with the extension of the business economy to all sectors of economic activity (except the 124 prohibited ones), in a gradual process controlled by an elite that has not ceased to control the government and the party during the 62 years of the so-called “Cuban Revolution.” 

Of course, being aware of this does not prevent us from continuing to desire a “society where all public affairs are resolved through the self-organisation of those of us who live, work, create and love, in Cuba and the planet”, as Cuban libertarians wish. A society “where there is no wage labour, the imposition of authority, the cult of personality, the various direct, structural or symbolic violence, hyper-competitiveness, bureaucracy, decisions in the hands of an elite, the concentration of wealth and unequal appropriation of knowledge”, like the one we want and for which all libertarians on the planet fight. Well, even though “the current organisational deterioration of the working class and the most precarious segments of Cuban society,” and of the world, make such a wish unrealistic in the immediate future, the history of the peoples continues to show that nothing is definitively written forever and that therefore it is not utopian to wish for it. Indeed it is increasingly necessary to move towards it for reasons of social justice, and the survival of humanity, in the face of current health and environmental threats — in all the countries of the planet in the face of the catastrophic fiasco of private and State capitalism. 

~ Octavio Alberola

This article is an edited machine translation of an essay at Portal Libertario OACA. Any problems let us know!

Pic: Pedro Szekely

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