Cuba and the Future: a Great Debate Has Just Begun

Cubans as well as progressive people around the world continue to discuss the kind of society that will be produced by the reforms now taking place in Cuba. The question, of course, can be debated based on what ought to be rather than what the present circumstances dictate. Typically, Cuban revolutionaries had the tendency to be idealist on economic matters and realist on political issues.

It was once reported that Fidel Castro said, in a not-for-publication setting, “Hemos hecho la revolución que pudimos hacer y no la que quísimos hacer.” [We have made the revolution that we could make and not the one that we wished to make.] Human agency, he recognized, was insufficient to overcome structural conditions of underdevelopment.

Progressives, as a rule, tend to think that the sky is the limit and what a society can attain is merely a matter of wanting it. Marxists know better. In The German Ideology, Marx reminds us that “with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.” It is clear that United States’ Cuba policy has been applied to block any possible improvements of the Cuban economy, particularly the state controlled sectors.

The question, then, is not whether the Cuban regime ought to choose between the side of the progressive angels or the capitalist devils. The question is what the prospects are for the best possible socioeconomic system and the greatest number of people while the US economic “embargo” continues. The issue is not ideological but empirical as well as political.

What do the Cubans have on their side? What do they have against it? What should and should not be reformed?

There are many Cubans who have no knowledge whatsoever of the most elemental aspects of economics despite the large number of economists the revolutionary regime has produced – over 40,000. Indeed, the early distribution policies of the revolution created a society of consumer-oriented Cubans rather than a society of producers actively involved in shaping the process of production, the administration of the workplace and determining what was to be consumed and how much was to be re-invested. There were numerous distribution policies (agrarian reform redistributed land ownership, rent reform reduced the price of rental housing, free education and health, and many other plans and programs). The consumerist ethic imposed by American influence did not end, but rather acquired a revolutionary character. The mentality of “me toca” (What is owed me) had no connection to the mentality of “cuánto nos cuesta”? (How much does it cost us?)

Now, the easy road seems to be to assume that somehow the logic and constraints of “the market” will fix everything and impose labor discipline on the non-working as well as working Cubans. This vision and premise seems to prevail within Cuba as well as outside, but for profoundly different reasons and expecting totally different outcomes. This, of course, is a road that has been travelled many times before. This naïve logic takes us back to Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1705) where personal selfishness benefits the whole of society.

As Sharpers, Parasites, Pimps, Players,

Pick-Pockets, Coiners, Quacks, Sooth-Sayers,

And all those, that, in Enmity

With down-right Working, cunningly

Convert to their own Use the Labour

Of their good-natur’d heedless Neighbour:

These were called Knaves; but, bar the Name,

The grave Industrious were the Same.

All Trades and Places knew some Cheat,

No Calling was without Deceit.

Karl Marx in The Critique of the Gotha Program said that “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” In other words, if Cuba is to move into the logic that capacity to purchase should be a significant mechanism to obtain things, how “fair” is that when some people have a head start because they have foreign exchange from abroad in their pockets while others do not? Is it that efficiency is to be measured by profitability, cost of production or something else? Is it that the social wage [services provided without citizens direct payment] will be reduced and the stress will be on personal income? Is the piece rate how work and income will be established? These are some of the questions concerning Cubans today. The newer policies and the expected outcomes could very well demolish the highly integrated and unique nation state that was created after 1959. It is this particular feature that separates Cuba from any society be it industrially developed or under-developed.

And then, of course, there is the new generalized theft taken from the state enterprises in order to supply the emerging “private sector.” The laborer as well as the administrator shows the income that the state enterprise was expected to earn by supplying the general population, but – in fact – the items are sold to the emerging private sector while the population receives much less. The state ends up with the proper income, but the consumer who depends on the state supply cannot compete with the price the “cuentapropista” can pay. The poorest consumers end up with less consumption and higher prices. [1] And, yet, the state earns what was planned. The majority gets less, the minority gets more and pays higher prices, and the state receives as payment what was planned as if the majority of the people had done the purchasing.

Abroad, many commentators (journalists, editorial writers, academics and politicians) assume that the supposed panacea of capitalism “could solve” Cuba’s problems today [although capitalism did not solve Cuba’s social problems pre-1959]. It is also presumed that none of the revolutionaries, starting with Fidel Castro, could conceive of making an opening to capitalist enterprise. Yet, there are over 600 state-owned “empresas” [mercantile societies] in Cuba that operate with stock [“acciones nominativas” – nominative shares] and follow the logic of capitalist cost accounting, profits, et al. Indeed, Cuban socio-economic reality is more complicated than recognized or imagined.[2]

Fidel Castro himself alluded to this matter at a major conference on the campus of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic on August 24, 1998:

“I remember that once I read how at a given moment Lenin imagined the construction of capitalism under the direction of workers, through a workers’ government. He said: Capitalism needs to be built; the productive forces need to be developed. But there was so much harassment and siege, so much aggression, and isolation and the situation turned so critical that he had no choice but to accept the challenge. Marx would have been very upset and would have raised his arms to the heavens, really.

“And I don’t blame them. I sincerely will say that if I had found myself in a similar situation, I would have done the same thing. I tell you, truly, if I had found myself in a situation such as that, I would have done so; because in the final analysis it would have been even more irrational to expect that our Revolution would have survived after the collapse of the socialist camp. Then the unipolar system surfaced and the enemy became ever more relentless, more powerful and strong than ever and we could not count on any foreign support… Presently we are not building socialism, fundamentally, at this time we are defending our sovereignty, the independence of the country and the achievements we had attained. If we can further socialism a bit, we will; but, the main thing that we want to improve is to enhance the quality of what we have done. [3]

Three years earlier, on August 6, 1995 Fidel Castro at stated,

The key to everything, comrades and friends is: the matter of power. Who has [political] power? …. We don’t have landlords but had them in the past… but we have thousands of independent farmers. Who has political power? Is it the bourgeoisie? Is power in the hands of the capitalists, for the capitalists and in their behalf? No. The key issue is who has power.

I have to say that some of the things we are doing is because we are seeking economic efficiency, we are doing many things to improve our socialism. But it is clear, ladies and gentlemen, that it is very difficult to socialize and collectivize the fixing of shoes – for example.

There was a time that we had such struggle and conflict inside the country that everything was nationalized. But there is in society and there will be many tasks that are appropriate for individuals to perform, which should be done by private persons, and the state should not attempt to do them. We reached that conclusion.” [4]

The Cuban political system is beginning to go through its most significant transition as the seasoned old revolutionaries step aside in what Havana is calling a “generational change,” while the United States government is attempting to foster as much growth in the Cuban private sectors of the island. In Washington, DC it is hoped that those Cubans born after 1980 will identify the revolution with all the shortages and difficulties that ensued after the demise of the Soviet bloc (post 1991), without acknowledging the national, social and cultural achievements.

Between 2014 and 2015 the money remittances from the US to Cuba drastically increased in amount and frequency. In the past the remittances had the main objective of providing financial resources to the relatives who stayed in Cuba and had to buy food and other commodities in a dollar based market. But, as state employment declined, those receiving remittances began to invest their foreign currency in other areas, not just consumption. The “cuenta propia” sector [small private enterprise appeared and grew in size and sectors]. As state employment declined the government allowed newer areas of private enterprise. Relatives from abroad sent dollars to help out. It was reported that new areas opened: investments in small businesses, loans to private entrepreneurs, rudimentary commercial transactions, “mules” bringing assets to private bed&breakfast and financially fronting “family” owned restaurants. The magazine TEMAS (Havana) noted that in an 18 month period, over 390 restaurants were opened in the city of Havana alone and it was estimated that 65% of the original investments originated from relatives and friends from abroad. And such was the case before the Obama administration announced its change of policy. Presently, Cubans living in the US can send up to $6000 per year to relatives and friends.” [5]

In fact, the emerging cuentapropistas [self-employed] in Cuba take for granted a number of items that are not that secure in the United States: free education from child care to university, free health care as well as numerous subsidies(food, medical prescriptions, retirement payments, transportation, and unemployment benefits) not found in most of Latin America. The recent re-gentrification of Cuba is another serious change. From one day to the next, housing which had been a use-value was transformed into an exchange value. That is, owners of homes that have been given by the state to most dwellers since the 1960s, for the first time were allowed to sell their homes. [6] Such a policy change, effective since January 2015, allowed the transformation of an asset into real capital. As a result, a large number of Cuban emigres began the process of buying real estate in Cuba. More remarkable still, the marketization of housing was done without much state mediation, except the change of legal titles. There was no establishment of a state controlled market that might generate state income from the transactions between the private seller and buyer. Physical money exchanged hands, or transactions with third parties abroad produced the transaction. Laissez faire was triumphant, in this case.

The re-stratification of Cuban society had begun. One should note that the size of the work force involved in state employment has declined while the private sector continues to grow.

Recent changes in US policy toward the island reveal the Obama administration objective: riding such major shifts in Cuban employment and property patterns in order to foment a Thermidorean Reaction that would bring to an end the Cuban revolutionary regime.*

In his recent public speech, Fidel Castro said, “To our brothers and sisters of the world we have to say, the Cuban people shall overcome.” [7] Fidel Castro has considered the possibility of two alternative Cuban revolutionary regimes: one without capitalism, the other with it but under the leadership of the Communist Party. In either case the issue, as in 1959, is sovereignty.


* Thermidorean Reaction refers to the overthrow of the French Revolutionary Regime of 1789 and the establishment of a more moderate and conservative/traditional set of institutions and practices; and the restoration of the old social order. Crane Brinton was the main exponent of the classic interpretation claiming that revolutions go through a natural cycle going from the rule of moderates to radicalization to a conservative [Thermidorean] reaction that restores many of the old practices and institutions. Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, NY: Vintage, 1938 [republished in 1965].



[3] Conferencia Magistral del Presidente de la República de Cuba, Fidel Castro Ruz, en el acto convocado por la Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, Primada de América, efectuado en el Centro de Eventos y Convenciones, República Dominicana, el día 24 de agosto de 1998.

[4] Discurso pronunciado por el Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz, Primer Secretario del Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba y Presidente de los Consejos de Estado y de Ministros, en la clausura del festival Juvenil Internacional Cuba Vive, efectuada en el Teatro “CARLOS MARX”, el 6 de Agosto de 1995.

[5] and assets


[7] It is informative to read Fidel’s article responding to President Obama’s visit to Cuba.

See also:

** I would like to acknowledge the very useful comments by Helen Jaffe, Arturo López Levy and Robert Sandels.

Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.