“I asked him [Fidel Castro] if he believed the Cuban model was still something worth exporting.”
— Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic Blog, September 8, 2010
“In their ravings they pretend that Cuba is an exporter of revolutions. In their sleepless business and usurers’ minds they believe that revolutions can be sold and bought, rent or lent, export or import as one more merchandise.
— Fidel Castro, February 4, 1962
“We maintain that a revolution cannot be imported or exported. A socialist state cannot be established through artificial insemination or by the transplant of embryos. Revolution required the proper conditions developed within the very society, and only the people of the country can be its own creator.”
— Fidel Castro, December 7, 1989
Is there a “Cuban model” of socialism? Apparently the rightwing thinks so; the left disagrees. The phrase “Cuban model” is not a common occurrence in Cuban government circles.
What exactly is a “model”? The Collins Dictionary of Sociology defines “model” as a “simplification of complex reality” that avoids “complicating factors.” As a rule of thumb I would claim that those who know little history [or sociology] tend to grasp for the term model when they are merely generalizing because they do not have much more to go on. This vague term leaves readers with no other choice but to reinforce their preconceptions about “the Cuban model”. A model can also imply something that others ought to follow or copy.
Nevertheless, it is possible to discern a number of features that have been fairly consistent and characteristic of the Cuban revolutionary experience.
First, the Cuban revolution has stressed and continues to stress that national sovereignty is paramount and will be defended to the death and that no concessions will ever be made. That is certainly a central feature. Moreover, they have managed to survive US government dictates and pressures.
Second, the Cuban revolution has created a political and social system that depends on mass mobilization. The extent and degree that mass mobilization has been used has changed over time. All the mass organizations in the island have been structured on the basis that people are organized to implement policy. In certain periods mass mobilization have been more used than at other times – for example, in sugar harvest time, census taking, health campaigns, or nomination of candidates for political office. There are other examples that one could provide. But, should such features constitute a “model”?
Third, the Cuban revolution has followed a fairly practical, pragmatic and result-oriented approach in the organization of the economy. That has led a number of scholars to point out that Cuban revolutionary economic history could be organized in fairly distinct “periods.” Usually the outsiders, particularly journalists and visitors who happen to have little knowledge of economics in general assume that in the island there has been just one economic arrangement in which everything flows from the top down and that output, prices, etc are simply part of a so-called command economy. Such characterization would be consistent with the movie Bananas, but it is hardly a description of the historical process. Consequently, people are shocked when they are informed that in Cuba hotel chains compete with one another on the prices offered to tourists. Outsiders do not realize that there is a budgetary system of finance and another financial system called cálculo económico, or a sistema empresarial. In fact, it is assumed that “capitalist methods” are not used or that the opposite is true – when outsiders assume that any item that is sold for a profit is an example of capitalism!. Such economic ignorance is certainly quaint but leads to simplistic views and assumptions.. The reality of the Cuban economic system is that there are over 100 flowers blooming at the same time – to use a Chinese metaphor. One example should suffice: there are three types of cooperatives in the country’s agriculture; and there are also different types of state agricultural properties.
Fourth, the Cuban revolutionary regime has developed a “modelo medico;” that is, a medical approach that stresses the decentralization of medicinal services [the family doctor] as well as paying much more attention to prevention in order to avoid expensive medical treatment. THAT model, which also happens to be free of direct charge to the consumer, is indeed, a model that has been emulated and copied by countries throughout the world. But the model is not exported by the island; rather third countries import the personnel to have it in their own nation states.
Fifth, there is a Cuban model as well in the use of highly educated professionals who generate money for the country by providing services as educators, technical personnel and other skilled labor abroad. The Cuban educational methods of teaching the illiterate and achieving very high positive results in elementary and secondary education constitute models that UNICEF and UNESCO have considered worthy of emulation.
Sixth, the Cuban revolution certainly committed itself to as much social equality as possible – thus a free health care, free education and free [or fairly cheap] child care. Since 1964,, Cuba also has had a subsidized food distribution system. But that has changed over time as well. These programs have changed over time. Note: a portion of the Cuban military budget is self financed; is that a model to be emulated?
There is no such a thing as a Cuban revolutionary model. The revolutionary regime has been pragmatic and changed over time, whenever circumstance required it, which is why it is possible to speak of different periods since 1959. Only those who are ill acquainted with the Cuban reality could come up with the assertion that there is an all encompassing, never changing Cuban model. Last, but not least: The Cuban process takes inspiration from over a century of self-definition and historical developments. The influence of José Martí in particular is essential for an understanding of contemporary Cuba. [This is a point provided to me by Professor John Kirk of Dalhousie University].
Needless to say, the United States government and its mass media and academic institutions do preach and compel the export of a neoliberal “model” to the rest of the world. That model, of course, has not taken into account the unique histories and cultures of other societies. In the neoliberal paradigm the model fits all nations states, all cultures and all needs. The neoliberal model in its claim to be global and universalistic dismisses the right of self determination and sovereignty. That is, in the final analysis, the the core assumption of the questions made by Jeffrey Goldberg. Fidel Castro, on the other hand, has consistently supported the right of self determination – including the right of each country to find its own path and way.
The following colleagues provided useful comments and suggestions: Karen Wald, Machetera, Robert Sandels, John Kirk, Joseph Garcia, and Ned Sublette.
Nelson P Valdés is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and director of the Cuba-L Direct Project at the University of New Mexico.
This article was written for CounterPunch and Cuba-L Direct.