Cuba: coming in from the cold?

After 17 Cuban prisoners were freed by the US in December, Mike Gonzalez charts the recent deal between Washington and Havana and asks if this really is the end of an era with the lifting of the embargo 

As an internationally recognized artist, you would expect Leonardo Padura Fuentes, Cuba’s outstanding contemporary writer, to be aware of major changes in his own country. So it was odd to read in an interview with a Chilean newspaper that the announcement of an agreement between Washington and Havana came as a complete surprise to him, as it did to most Cubans, and indeed most Latin Americans. Even Cuba’s most important ally, Venezuela, was caught unawares, though it is now living through the extremely damaging repercussions of the deal.

no fear

In fact, secret negotiations had been going on for a year and a half at monthly meetings in Canada between representatives of the two governments. The announcement finally came on December 17th 2014, effectively ending the economic embargo imposed in 1960, one year after the Cuban Revolution, and maintained by successive Washington administrations of both parties for the next fifty years. The Cuban economy would be opened to foreign capital, the rules on travel between the U.S. and Cuba and remittances sent back to the island by Cuban exiles, would be further relaxed. And there was an agreed release of prisoners – the remain three Cuban intelligence officers still in jail in the U.S. on the one hand, and the American Alan Gross, and a hitherto unknown US agent in Cuba who had been held for twenty years.

A siege is lifted

Given the relentlessly hostile laws repeatedly passed in the U.S. Congress against Cuba, we might assume that there will be major resistance to the deal. The Helms-Burton Act (1996) forbids the ending of the embargo as long as the Castros remain in power; it reflects the lobbying power of the first generation of Cuban exiles, whose pathological hatred of Fidel drives them still. But the younger generation of Cubans in the U.S. do not share their idealized version of pre-revolutionary Cuba. In fact in the recent elections, 48% of Florida’s Latino vote went to Obama. More significantly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have both actively supported the lifting of the embargo for several years. Among those welcoming the agreement is Pepsico. And the New York Times was a vigorous advocate of a new relationship with Cuba in a series of editorials before the December announcement. None of these, we can assume, were moved by a sudden political conversion to socialism! What they all share is a conviction that Cuba offers major commercial opportunities, especially in areas like technology. Food exports to Cuba, fresh and processed, began a few years ago – under pressure from the far from progressive organization of wheat farmers in the Mid-West, among others. They have reasons to be confident, after all, as Cuba under Raul Castro’s leadership has carefully prepared the way for this moment with its programme of reforms, economic and political.

From Castro to Castro

There is little doubt that the Cuban Revolution has been dominated to an extraordinary degree by Fidel Castro. Within weeks of the defeat of the corrupt Fulgencio Batista on January 1st 1959, Fidel took effective control through his 26th of July Movement. This is not the place to enter into his complex biography, but his domination of Cuban politics for the next 47 years is not in question. As Antoni Kapcia shows in exhaustive detail in a recent book[1], in all those years Cuba has been ruled (and that is the right word) by a small inner circle around Fidel whose powers bridged the Cuban Communist Party, the Council of State, and the Army. The model that Fidel proposed for the new Cuban state made no concessions to popular democracy, or to any kind of public accountability. It was a command model, which reproduced the structures of the guerrilla army in the institutions of the state. This is not to deny Fidel’s enormous and enduring popularity; nor to deny that there were others beyond the “inner circle” who exercised power at lower levels. But popularity, acclaim in public squares, the influence of a big and charismatic personality and a sharp political mind, is not the same thing as accountability.

The institutions of the new state, the mass organizations like the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, and the trade unions, were appointed and led from above from the beginning of the revolution onwards. And at the heart of the system was an elaborate and enormously effective intelligence system. This could be easily justified, of course, by the conditions of siege and the unceasing attacks on every front waged by the U.S. Internal unity was a function of the ever-present eternal enemy, and dissent could always be represented as collusion with that enemy. The result was the absence of any form of independent mass organisations or of any tradition of critical engagement with leadership – the kind of grass roots democracy, in other words, which has been the defining feature of the mass movements of resistance that emerged in Latin America in the 1990s.

The “inner circle” which still governs, or rules, Cuba consisted at its core, of a handful of trusted members of the original guerrilla army – the few hundred fighters who brought about the fall of Batista. Others have been brought in or removed over time – but the critical thing is that the process whereby those inclusions and exclusions has been conducted has been as mysterious as it is secret. Perhaps the most notorious case was that of General Arnaldo Ochoa, a hero of the Angolan war and a close friend of Fidel’s, who was summarily tried and executed in 1989 within four days for reasons which remain unexplained, though there are several theories. Others were subjected to less extreme penalties, but always by the same methods – with no attempt at transparency and without explanation.

And beside Fidel, throughout the revolutionary process from its first action at the Moncada barracks in 1953, stood his brother Raúl, who has headed the army since the revolution. We cannot know what their personal relations are like, and what it meant to be second in command to Fidel for 47 years; what we do know is that there has never been any public indication of disagreement between any of the members of the ‘inner circle’. And when there was public dissent, as conditions deteriorated for most Cubans, it was addressed with violent mass campaigns and repression – like the Rapid Response Brigades, gangs of thugs brought out to quell protest when the Panamerican Games were held in Cuba. That is as clear an indication as we can have of the character of the Cuban state. It might be argued that the congresses of the Cuban Communist Party were forums of discussion; in fact, they were rubber-stamping assemblies with delegates nominated from above. When a Congress threatened to be divided – in 2002, for example – it was repeatedly postponed, in this case until 2011 (the first under Raúl’s leadership).

By 2006, it had become obvious that Fidel was ailing, and he withdrew, passing on his posts – as president, commander in chief and secretary of the communist party – to Raúl, at first temporarily and then definitively in 2008. Although some analysts have suggested that he “acknowledged the call of history”, it is very obvious to me that he was no longer able to lead, that he was too ill and frail to continue. But it might also be that he did not want to be publicly associated with the reforms that he knew Raúl was committed to, reforms which would, as it proved, deal a fatal blow to the reputation of Cuba as a last defiant bulwark of socialism.

The final journey

Cuba’s reputation, and its image, owes much to the decade or so after the revolution, when Fidel and Che Guevara were identified with a combative internationalism, summarized in Che’s call for “one, two three, many Vietnams”. By 1970, however, after Che’s death and the failure of the Great Sugar harvest of 1969-70, and faced with the aggressive U.S. embargo, Cuba entered the Soviet ambit, its economy tied to the Soviet bloc and its foreign policy tied to Moscow’s global strategy. In southern Africa Cuban troops played an often heroic role in the liberation struggle; in the Horn of Africa, by contrast, Cuba gave support to the repressive Derg regime in Ethiopia, which was Moscow’s ally. This new dependence on a powerful external mentor, however, meant that the Gorbachev reforms of 1986, preceding the fall of the Wall, and the withdrawal of Cuba’s favoured economic status, would have devastating and immediate effects there. The final severing of that relationship, in 1989, brought the island to the very brink of disaster, the period known, euphemistically, as “the special period in time of peace”. Food and electricity were severely rationed, diseases associated with malnutrition, like neuritis, reappeared, and living standards in general fell dramatically almost overnight.

Although Cuba survived the 1990s, the economic and social effects of the crisis of those years were far reaching. The highly educated Cuban population, working for the state in health, or education, or public administration, was limited to a wage paid in pesos which would be equivalent to perhaps $50 a month – but they were pesos which could only be spent in the domestic economy where almost everything beyond basic food was unobtainable. It was different in the expanding tourist sector, of course, where waiters, guides, cleaners, or prostitutes could earn dollars and spend them in the special stores. It was painful to walk down a city centre street in Havana in the late nineties past the empty shelves of state shops and the windows of the dollar stores where most luxuries were available, but only to those with foreign currency.

That was why the consultant pediatrician who drove my taxi worked a second job – to buy basic educational materials and clothes for his children, he explained. Where until the 1980s it was degrees of power and influence that separated Cubans from one another, in the 1990s it was increasingly wealth. Income differentials began to widen, and the temptations of the dollar economy led large numbers of people in positions of power to earn money from restaurants or B and Bs set up in their homes, for example. Corruption, which had existed before, became more obvious and more widespread. While public services were universally available, their quality was falling and resources beyond the basic provisions were scarce. Cuba began to export its expertise and some of its medical products. But the internal conditions for the majority remained very poor, as the literature by Cubans at the time, began to show[2]. Agricultural production was falling, disease was attacking the sugar crops, and the new joint enterprises with foreign companies like the oil company Total guaranteed the best terms for capital and the worst for Cuban workers.

Raúl’s reforms

Raúl Castro has been characterized as a reformer and a pragmatist. Both are true, but the significance of those terms in Cuba needs to be understood differently. What was being reformed – and his reforms were economic and political – was a state owned economy, with only small scale private property – in other words a socialist economy as the term was understood in the Soviet system – under the control of a ruling bureaucracy. From the special period onwards, when Raúl’s reforms were embarked upon, the Cuban experiment was transformed. Cuban socialism had never claimed to represent workers participation or democracy from below, but it did have the best welfare indicators in Latin America in 1989 – in its provision of free education at all levels, a universal and free health system, a social housing sector, and old age pensions for all Cubans. Everything changed after 1989, however; with the second oldest population in the regime, the value of their pensions fell from 100% in 1989 to just over 16% in 1993. Social spending was cut drastically, unemployment (though very low) doubled, 30% of clinics were closed in that disastrous decade.

While tourism, which was Cuba’s short term salvation, was increasing well beyond one million a year by the end of the decade it essentially exacerbated the problem, since only a small portion of the population benefitted from tourism, (and a disproportionately small number of black Cubans) while social spending continued to fall. Raúl’s solutions, however, were managerial and technical in the first place, addressing problems as issues of efficiency and profitability; he brought in Japanese management consultants to reform the military, for example. It is now clear that he was introducing market criteria in preparation for the reintegration of Cuba into the global system.

Once in power, in 2006, Raúl moved quickly to confirm the suspicion. He announced that one million state functionaries would lose their jobs, that free education could no longer be guaranteed, that the private sector of the economy would be expanded (in part to absorb the now redundant civil servants). Most significantly, he denounced “shallow egalitarianism” – which being translated meant accepting the widening income gap as a fact of life in an economy ruled by the laws of profit. In the same speech he redefined equality as about opportunity rather than the equal distribution of wealth – a concept that neo-liberalism is entirely comfortable with. The age of retirement was to be raised. By now real wages were still at only 27% of their 1989 value, while health spending had fallen by 3.3% of GDP, and the numbers receiving direct social benefits by 72%. It was by any standards a catastrophic economic situation.

Politically this period saw a hardening of political control and an increasing concentration of both economic and political power in the armed forces. It was this, as well as a closer relationship with Beijing, that led to the conclusion that Raúl’s model for the new Cuba was Chinese – political control by the ruling party which, he reiterated, was not open to challenge – coupled with the ‘liberalisation’ of the economy. Raúl was preparing his ground well. Yet by 2013, the available data showed no more than 1% growth in the economy.

The Venezuelan factor

Bad though Cuba’s current situation is, the crisis would almost certainly have become a catastrophe long before now were it not for Hugo Chavez, whose enthusiasm – one might almost say worship – of Fidel is well known. He visited Cuba shortly after his release from jail in 1995, where he was received with honours by Fidel – an odd thing for him to do, since Chavez was a rebellious army officer with no obvious prospects for power at that stage. But it proved to be one of Fidel’s more far-sighted decisions, since once he had won the Venezuelan presidency (in 1998), Chavez’s unconditional support for Cuba, the 2004 accord between the two countries, and the key roles he gave to Cuban personnel in several areas of Venezuelan society almost certainly saved Cuba from collapse.

fidel and hugo

The central pillar of Chavez’s Bolivarian vision was the nationalization of Venezuela’s oil industry and the diversion of its earnings towards social spending. This began in 2004, and the first of these programmes), Barrio Adentro, created a national health system for the poor barrios of the country. The new centres were staffed by Cuban medical personnel, and paid for by Venezuela, though the resources certainly did not go to the individual doctors and nurses who continued to be as poorly paid as they were in Cuba. Venezuela also agreed to provide 90,000 barrels a day at knockdown prices to an oil-starved Cuban economy. The new education programmes in Venezuela employed Cuban personnel and advisers, the military and the intelligence services absorbed large numbers of Cubans, and they appeared in increasing numbers in a number of areas of the state. And if the flow of knowledge and professional expertise was one-directional, from Cuba, the flow of public funds, both legitimate and illegitimate, in the opposite direction grew exponentially. To all intents and purposes, Venezuela was subsidizing Cuba.

And in return Cuba was gaining political as well as economic influence in Caracas. It is almost impossible to assess the sums involved, still less to measure Cuban involvement in the massive corruption within the state and the staggering mismanagement of the economy that has contributed so much to the economic crisis that is now gripping Venezuela. The crisis has another cause, of course, in the systematic hoarding of goods, the capital flight on a huge scale, and the economic manipulation of a bourgeoisie, both national and international, that would like nothing better than the collapse of the Bolivarian republic. It is the combination of both factors has created a situation of extreme gravity in Venezuela.

And it is that situation, in my view, that accelerated the Cuban decision to enter negotiations with Obama. Behind the rhetoric of international solidarity lay the brutal realities of economic calculation. Raúl Castro was clearly aware of the direction that Venezuela had taken after the death of Chavez, and of its deepening economic crisis with its attendant risks for Cuba. He now looked for another ally to drive forward his programme of economic reform, his pragmatic return to the capitalist market. And he did so without consulting his erstwhile favourite allies. Like Fidel, Raúl’s central consideration is always the survival of the Cuban state and its single ruling party. For the Cuban working class, faced now with an economy dominated by foreign and domestic capitalists exempt from profits tax for the next eight years, and a new ‘free trade zone’ in Mariel, financed to the tune of $1bn by Brazil, there is little prospect of their wages returning to their 1989 level in the coming decade. For the wider majority population, the cutbacks in public spending effectively mean the end of a welfare state, though external investment in these sectors will not be permitted; only banking and the state sector are exempted under the agreement.

All that remains of the Cuban workers state that many on the left internationally, and in Latin America more generally, saw as an emblem of hope, is the memory.

But there are wider implications too. Chavez’s 2004 agreement with Cuba was not only a generous gesture of solidarity. It was the first step in building the Bolivarian alliances across the region which he hoped would bring an end to U.S. dominion. If his most important ally in that enterprise, at least at the level of rhetoric, has deserted, what are the real prospects for survival of those alliances, led by ALBA (the Latin American Boliviarian Alliance)? In Venezuela, the shock of the Cuban announcement has been palpable, especially since it took place against the background of a collapsing oil price. Far from reciprocating past support in this hour of need, Raúl has, unforgivably, made a pact with the enemy. The effect in Latin America beyond Venezuela is already visible, in a subtle undeclared distancing from the Bolivarian alliances by its previous supporters. Venezuela, meanwhile, is in a desperate situation. The recent tour to China, Saudi Arabia,Qatar and Russia by Venezuelan president Maduro seems to have produced very few results, and most cruelly of all, at his last port of call – Havana – he was received coldly, and very briefly, by Raúl. And the Fidel with whom Chavez seem spent so much time has made no public statements about the agreement.

For socialists there is nothing to be gained from pretending, as some international commentators have done, that nothing has really changed and that the agreement is a victory for Cuban socialism. Nor can we associate ourselves with the gloating of a global capitalist class which, sadly, will be the beneficiary of the decision. From the Cochabamba water wars of 2000 onwards, a new understanding of what socialism means has been on the agenda, active on the historical stage. And it is a very different understanding from the centralized, bureaucratic state structures of the Soviet era, which Cuba reproduced. The new vision is of a society run and controlled directly by its majority, shaped by their priorities, and defined by its transparent, democratic processes. That is some way ahead, but it is present and alive in the logic of the movements that have brought change to Latin America in this last exciting decade and a half and that will continue to organize, in a complex reality, for the realisation of the dream of a better world.


[1] Leadership in the Cuban Revolution: Zed Books,London,2014.

[2] Like Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy  or the Mario Conde novels of Padura Fuentes.



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