Continuity and Change in Cuba at 50
The Revolution at a Crossroads 
Carlos Alzugaray Treto is a professor at the Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies of the University of Havana, a member of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, and a former ambassador to the European Union.
Translated by Victoria J. Furio
After Fidel Castro’s retirement from his main governmental positions, Cuba finds itself at a crossroads. Two main challenges emerge, one economic and one political. The economic one arises from the need to design a productive system that resolves the imbalance between workers’ salaries and the actual distribution of basic goods and the imbalance between different sectors of society without destroying the revolution’s social achievements. The political one must deal with the creation of a new form of governance and consensus building in the absence of the revolution’s founder and leader. The changes to be introduced require the broadening of democracy. These challenges entail a national deliberation process during the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party that will identify several fundamental issues.
Keywords: Cuba, Socialism, Political change, Democracy, Transition
What must be done at any given moment is whatever that moment requires.
Revolution is a discernment of the historical moment; it means changing everything that needs to be changed.
Fifty years after the successful rebellion against Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship and the start of the transformation process generally referred to as “the Revolution,” Cuba finds itself once again at a momentous crossroads. On the eve of his eightieth birthday, having governed for almost half a century, Fidel Castro temporarily transferred his duties as head of state to his constitutional successor, General Raúl Castro, on July 31, 2006, because of a serious illness. What was originally projected as a difficult and painful recovery process requiring several weeks of absence resulted in a definitive retirement. Some 19 months later, on February 24, 2008, the newly elected Seventh Session of the National Assembly of People’s Power appointed a new government, led up to that point by the interim president. A few weeks later, on April 28, during the Sixth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, in which that organization’s Sixth Congress was officially convened, Raúl Castro (2008b) stated: “The agreements we have approved close the provisional phase initiated with the Commander-in-Chief’s Proclamation on July 31, 2006, and ending on the eve of February 24, 2008 with the message in which he expressed his desire to be only a soldier of ideas.” This has opened an uncharted phase in recent Cuban history in which Fidel Castro has ceased to be the head of state and/or government for the first time since February 1959, when he assumed the role of prime minister, later becoming “Compañero Fidel.” At this writing, however, he retains the position of first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party’s central committee. This historic moment for Cubans raises the prospect of inevitable changes and the associated uncertainty.
THE CROSSROADS: CONTINUITY AND CHANGE
This essay is an attempt to reflect and meditate on continuity and political changes—on the challenges and opportunities of this period and their significance. My intention is not to pontificate or point to inevitable paths. Nor do I wish to propose fixed alternatives, because the issue requires reflection that is open to dialogue, debate, and deliberation. My essay is part of the process—also essential—of contributing from a social science and in particular a political science perspective to the national consultation launched by President Raúl Castro’s speech on July 26, 2007. As Julio Carranza (2008: 147) has put it, “Scientists and scientific institutions have a responsibility for public service, which consists of communicating specialized information and analysis directly to society not as political proposals but as well-founded interpretations that contribute to improving culture and public awareness on a variety of issues.”
The hypothesis that is the essay’s point of departure is that a predictable process of evolution toward new ways of governing Cuban society has begun. It is not what current political science has called a “transition” (giving rise to a whole school of “transitology”), although the need for adjustments, transformations, and changes within continuity may correspond to a broad sense of this notion. Paradoxically, the use of the concept of political and social transition appeared well before the current trend, being used in the Marxist literature to refer to the evolution of socialist society from an initial to a more advanced stage (Marcuse, 1967: 37–54). Today, however, the concept is too “loaded” and presumes “regime change” and, more important, the enthronement of political systems that Atilio Borón (2000: 135–211) has called “democratic capitalism” in societies previously governed by regimes labeled “authoritarian” or “totalitarian.” Cuba’s situation does not fit this description; neither its starting nor its ending point matches those of the political transitions most frequently analyzed in the current literature.
Some writers have insisted on labeling as “transitions” the processes of reestablishing capitalism in former socialist or European “popular” democracies, although it is appropriate to acknowledge that “transitions” has also been used to refer to the replacement of once-dictatorial, right-wing regimes in southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, and Greece) and in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1970s by governments chosen through so-called free, competitive, and democratic elections (O’Donnell, Schmitter, and Whitehead, 1986; Huntington, 1991; Przeworski, 1991; Alcántara, 1995; Linz and Stepan, 1996). In many cases (as in that of Spain) the concept of “transition” has a positive connotation. In Cuba’s case, use of the term could cause additional misunderstanding because it is endorsed by a subversive and antinational project of the University of Miami, financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and in the designation by the United States of a so-called transition coordinator within the interventionist program detailed in the Assistance to a Free Cuba Report adopted by the Bush administration in 2004 and renewed in 2006.
The fact is that Fidel Castro has governed Cuba in a way that for obvious reasons cannot be replicated. Some leadership sectors in Cuba have affirmed on more than one occasion that Fidel’s absence will change nothing, to the point of including in the Constitution the idea that socialism is irrevocable. This is a reaction that can be logically explained by the need to emphasize the continuity of the project begun on January 1, 1959, as a counterweight to attempts to reverse it from the outside, precisely by the superpower that has most interfered in internal Cuban affairs, the United States (Alzugaray, 2007). This caution notwithstanding, it is obvious that changes must be made in politics and governance, although these changes will be a response to an internal dynamic rather than to demands coming from outside as has happened throughout Cuban history. This principled position, for which popular support is evident, was advanced on July 11, 2008, by President Raúl Castro: “I reiterate that we will never make a decision─ not even the smallest one!─on the basis of pressure or blackmail, no matter what its origin, from a powerful country or a continent” (2008c)
These changes are taking place, as they always have in Cuba, in the context of clear continuity, shattering preconceptions. This situation raises questions about the Cuban nation’s likely future in these new extreme circumstances. Calculations and conjectures are appearing, especially outside of Cuba, that are based on what appear to be similar processes in recent history. Once again, Cubans will probably provide their own responses to the current challenges, stamping their own imprint on the future—taking “the road less traveled” as in Robert Frost’s famous poem.
FIDEL CASTRO, THE REVOLUTION, AND THEIR PLACE IN HISTORY
The Cuban Revolution, creator of the political regime currently governing events on the island, was a necessary and original process. The need for it, in historical terms, was born of what could be called the four great national aspirations thwarted since the nineteenth century: sovereignty, social justice, sustainable economic development, and autonomous democratic government. The triumph of the revolution in 1959 was the result of specific internal circumstances and not, as with socialism in Eastern Europe (with the exception of the USSR) of foreign imposition.
After 400 years of Spanish colonial oppression and 60 years of U.S. domination, the Cuban people and its progressive political and social sectors had long demanded a truly free and sovereign nation. The recovery of national self-determination was therefore one of several driving forces—perhaps the leading one—in the process of radical change initiated in 1959. By that time it was clear that the principal obstacle to self-determination and national sovereignty was U.S. imperialism’s hegemonic designs on Cuba (Pérez, 2008).
Another vital demand of Cuban society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was social justice—the country “including everyone and for the good of all” that José Martí demanded. The nation was ill; it suffered from unbearable inequalities and inequities that the ruling oligarchy happily ignored.
Third, the political system created in the shadow of U.S. hegemony had demonstrated not only its total inoperativeness but also a perverse tendency toward venality and corruption. Throughout Cuba’s brief postcolonial and prerevolutionary history, between 1902 and 1959, three dictatorships (those of Gerardo Machado from 1925 to 1933, Fulgencio Batista (behind the scenes) from 1933 to 1940, and Batista again (now openly) from 1952 to 1959, had revealed the total inability of Cuba’s political class to generate a sustainable democratic capitalism. Worse yet, government largely amounted to political dishonesty and immorality. The few administrations produced by elections, rarely free and fair, were known for theft and embezzlement of the public treasury to such an extent that in 1952 the Party of the Cuban People, favored by the popular majority to win the elections derailed by Batista’s March 10, 1952, coup d’état, had a broom as its symbol and the slogan “Shame on Money.” Because of this, one of the unfulfilled demands of Cuban society was for “good government”—responsible, efficient, and honest public administration.
Lastly, and above all at the middle-income and professional levels, there was a need to transform the national economy. Although cold statistics reflected a relatively high economic level compared with the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, three factors were worrisome. Cuba was a mono-producing and mono-exporting country whose wealth depended almost exclusively on one item, sugar, and one market, the United States. Martí had warned against such a situation, arguing that “the nation that purchases rules.” The great disparities in income and well-being dissolved any satisfaction over the gross domestic product (GDP), and, as a result of the intimate ties with the neighbor to the north, Cubans did not compare themselves with the rest of the region. Their reference point was the highly sweetened image of the “average American” conveyed to the island by the constant cultural and ideological presence of U.S. consumption models. And, finally, the vulnerability of an underdeveloped economy was a source of constant concern because of its dependence on the fluctuations of the world market, always unstable with regard to sugar and other staples of the developed capitalist world produced in what we now call the Global South.
The outstanding political success of Fidel Castro during his 47 years of governance was precisely his ability to lead the nation toward achieving these four historical aims. While not all of these demands have been met in optimal form and degree, there is no question but that Cuba’s situation today reflects a radical change from that of 1958. There is also no doubt that this change took place in the direction desired by the populace and its political vanguards despite the obstacles placed in its way, especially the constant hostility of its powerful neighbor, the United States, whose policy of “regime change” toward Cuba is almost a half a century old.
To illustrate this point, a lengthy citation of the Cuban-American Harvard University professor Jorge Domínguez (2008), a source hardly considered a supporter of socialism or of the prevailing model on the island, may be worthwhile:
“To honor another honors ourselves”: a noble quote from José Martí that entered the Cuban cultural vocabulary more than a century ago. Let us honor Fidel Castro, then, as we observe the twilight of his life, not only those who supported him, but also those, like me, who did not. He was the one who transformed a people into a nation, who decisively modernized the society, who best understood that Cubans wanted to be “people”, not just appendages of the United States. He was the one who understood that its hypochondriac population needed more doctors and nurses per square centimeter than any other on the face of the earth. He was the architect of a policy of investment in human capital, which transformed Cuban children into the Olympic champions of Latin American education and which, therefore, allows us to envision a better future for Cuba. He designed a policy that allowed Cubans of all racial characteristics to have access to public health, to education, to the dignity that belongs to every human being, to the right to think that I, my children, and my grandchildren, whatever the color of their skin, deserve the same respect and opportunities as everyone else. He was not the one who invented the idea that women had equal rights in society but was a promoter of gender equality in citizen endeavors.
He was the author of a gesture that humanity is thankful for: to have risked the blood of his soldiers for the noble cause that powerfully contributed to preventing the racist South African apartheid regime from expanding into Angola. It is also he who deserves recognition for contributing to ending apartheid in South Africa, to the independence of Namibia, and to defending the independence of Angola. The day that Fidel dies, the flags of those African countries should be lowered in national mourning.
It is highly improbable and indeed implausible that the Cuban people and its leadership would voluntarily and consciously abandon and renounce the achievements of these 50 years. Nevertheless, Fidel Castro’s successors face serious challenges in reproducing the system without him. The reversibility of the Cuban revolutionary process as a result of internal mistakes and not from outside pressure was dramatically presented by Fidel Castro himself in his speech to the university of November 17, 2005 (F. Castro, 2005; Guanche, 2007).
Among the strengths of the Cuban political regime in its current structure is, first of all, its high degree of internal and external legitimacy. Externally, this legitimacy stems from the well-known Cuban activism in the international arena and the broad network of foreign relations that has allowed the country to head the Movement of Non-Aligned Nations twice and to achieve a series of successes in the United Nations General Assembly on a resolution condemning and calling for an end to the U.S. blockade of Cuba. Having neutralized the policy of international and diplomatic isolation of Cuba begun by the Eisenhower administration and continued through the recent Bush administration has been one of the most important victories of the Cuban revolutionary leadership.
Internally, in addition to the majority recognition of what have been called the “conquests of the revolution,” legitimacy is conferred by an institutional framework upheld by two basic pillars: the Communist Party of Cuba and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias—FAR). It is a very common error in foreign spheres, especially among political scientists and analysts, to assume that the Cuban Communist Party is copied from similar ones in the Eastern European socialist countries. Despite the fact that the party’s leadership has committed widely acknowledged and/or rectified errors and that some methods and work styles—such as excessive centralism—bear the mark of their origins in the Soviet political model persist, in reality the Cuban revolutionary leadership has concerned itself, among other things, with two central aspects: the role as political vanguard of the activists who must be and have been at the forefront of any sociopolitical initiative and the struggle against any instance of corruption in its ranks. The honesty, simplicity, and sacrifice promoted by Che Guevara and not the privileges and benefits of a nomenklatura, as in the USSR and Eastern Europe during the socialist years, have been the paradigm of Cuban Communist behavior.
The influence of the provincial party leadership is also significant, as it is the most important sector of governance at the local and regional levels, in close coordination with the bodies of People’s Power (the provincial and municipal assemblies). Although this system generally functions satisfactorily, the contradiction must be pointed out that at the provincial and municipal levels, much more so than at the central level, the party openly and unapologetically plays a hegemonic role. At those levels, the first secretary of the local party committee is undoubtedly the most important political figure in the area, even formally assuming the presidency of the defense councils, the highest government bodies in cases of natural disaster or war. At the central level, however, it is much clearer because of the overlap of the positions of president/vice president with those of first/second secretary of the party.
Nevertheless— and this is an important challenge— we are still far from achieving a truly democratic culture. As Aurelio Alonso (2007) has pointed out, “The Leninist proposition of ‘democratic centralism,’ as a formula for proletarian power, has ended up establishing the centralist line for decisions and the democratic one for support when its merit would lie in all centralized action’s being subject to what is decided democratically.” In too many leaders there seems to be a common perception that the only purpose of debate is to convince the population that the course of action designed by the higher authorities at any given time is the only truly revolutionary one. “Bold attempts at analysis outside official discourse are stigmatized as immature, naïve, gullible, or simply provocative” (Fernández, 2007). According to the political discourse of many leadership cadres, those who dare to do so “are not adequately informed,” but the required information is unavailable because “disseminating it might be useful to the enemy.” Sometimes the paternalistic reproach is heard that anyone who disagrees or dissents is “naïve.”
In addition, Cuba has lacked a real culture of debate, dialogue and deliberation. Jesús Arencibia Lorenzo (2007) has identified seven “bricks” that obstruct the path toward truly productive deliberation within the national project: fear of risk, the siege syndrome, monopoly on information, unintelligible ambiguities, extreme puritanism, comprehensive planning, and the language of tasks.
Lastly, the need to defend the conquests of the revolution from imperialism’s increasing aggressiveness and the practices of property nationalization and centralization of the decision-making process over the years have led to what Mayra Espina (20070) has called the “hypernationalization” of social relations: “centralization, verticalism, paternalism/authoritarianism, distributive homogenization with insufficient sensitivity in dealing with the diversity of needs and heterogeneous interests (of groups, territories, localities, etc.).” On occasion one perceives a transformation of the relation between average citizens and those officials, also ordinary citizens, who hold some position in the state apparatus. These bureaucrats act more like bosses giving instructions on what can or cannot be done and enjoying that role, than like persons at the service of the people and subordinate to them. As early as 1963 Raúl Roa identified bureaucracy as “one of socialism’s worst stumbling blocks” (1964: 590).
NEED FOR ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL CHANGE
In the absence of Fidel Castro’s power to mobilize and to build consensus, the need for a mind-set of respect for dialogue, debate, and deliberation will increase. It will entail strengthening real collective participation and the construction of what could be a democracy that is both participatory and deliberative. Some form of debate was not completely absent in the past, but it was always subject to the ultimate authority of Fidel Castro, who frequently circumvented it in order to create a consensus that often became unanimity.
It is impossible to discuss alternative democratic models here. Most of the left has contrasted “participatory democracy” with the traditional “representative democracy” typical of capitalism and its political institutions. The latter was closely associated with the idea of “procedural democracy” first presented by Schumpeter (1954) in his classic Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, with the addition of the requirement of deliberation and the idea that citizens should not only participate in making or implementing political decisions but also contribute to their design through a rational and informed dialogue about the possible options.
The concept of deliberative democracy has been the object of significant debates in contemporary political science. The promoters of this idea (Gutmann and Thompson, 2004: 3) have emphasized that in essence, it means the need to justify the decisions made by citizens and their representatives. It is expected that both will justify the laws to be enforced. In a democracy the leaders must therefore explain their decisions and respond to the points raised by citizens as retorts. But not all matters require deliberation all the time. Deliberative democracy opens up space for other forms of decision-making (including negotiations and agreements between groups and secret operations ordered by executives), as long as these forms are justified at some point by a deliberative process. Its primary and most important characteristic, therefore, is the requirement that explanations be given.
The FAR and its important sister institution the Interior Ministry (responsible for the country’s internal security but closely linked in its origin and composition to the Rebel Army, predecessor of the FAR), constitute the most effective and prestigious of the institutions created by the country’s historical leadership. Their popular origin, continual involvement in people’s problems, historic contribution to the country’s defense and the liberation of other peoples, and economic pragmatism, demonstrated by the introduction of “business perfection” into their industries, allow them to enjoy the trust of broad sectors of the population. The upper echelons of the armed services have amassed a tradition of heroism, pragmatism, reliability, and professionalism not often seen in Latin America and the Caribbean or in the world.
Cohesion between these two institutions, which must be constantly nourished, will depend on the prevailing tendencies in other important leaderships in Cuban society. On the one hand we have the important business sector, composed in part of high-level FAR officers but also of a young generation of economists and administrators. One might presume that there is a desire in this sector to maintain consensus, but within it we find demands for the flexibilization of economic policy also present in the upper-echelon military although for different reasons. Among the former, it arises from concerns about administrative effectiveness; among the latter, it is also due to the need to maintain social stability. It is not a question of establishing a market economy but rather one of adopting initiatives that grant more autonomy to administrators, as set forth in the business- perfection program begun in the military-industrial sector. The ultimate goal is to stimulate production and develop the productive forces. It also has to do with creating more opportunities for individual initiative, a concern dating to the reforms that lifted the country out of the Special Period in the mid-1990s. These demands have begun to be expressed publicly in several recent scientific works (Monreal, 2008; Sánchez Egozcue and Triana, 2008; Everleny, 2008).
Traditionally, youth, especially students, have had a central role in Cuban politics. Almost all of the high-level leaders in the country were members of and had their first schooling in public participation in the Federación Estudiantil Universitaria (University Student Federation—FEU). In recent years, this organization, along with the Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (Union of Communist Youth), has been among the pillars of the social programs promoted by Fidel Castro. Its role in the transformation period, which will inevitably affect Cuban society despite growing demands for greater leadership opportunities, will have to take the policies articulated by the other leaderships into account. The difficulties of this process are not lost on the various social actors, as Carlos Lage Codorniú, former FEU president, noted in a symposium sponsored by the magazine Temas: “It is not about lack of communication, but there are many new ideas that must be allowed to be expressed. And ultimately, it is we young people who are responsible for this shortcoming. In order to strengthen the weight of the young generation we must push, be more visible. Some sectors have recognized the need for young people to take part, but others still have great reservations” (Hernández and Pañellas, 2007: 160).
The organizations that serve the working class and campesinos will tend to seek new positions within the structure. Under Raúl Castro they will foreseeably be afforded more leadership precisely because of the need to develop a new national consensus. Such is the case of the recently initiated process of granting lands in usufruct with a view to increasing food production, in which the Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequeños (National Association of Small Farmers—ANAP) has been playing an important role. (Granma, July 18, 2008; Lacey, 2008). For its part, the growing role of the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (Federation of Cuban Workers—CTC) was demonstrated by the year-long national consultation on the new social security law that preceded its approval by the National Assembly in its final session of that year (Valdés Mesa, 2008). While there is no doubt that this process provided the opportunity for broad debate, the unanimous adoption by the Assembly was not a true reflection of the divergent opinions that existed.
Lastly, the Cuban intelligentsia, recently affected by the memory of the “gray quinquennium” (the phase in which the USSR’s cultural policy of the early 1970s was copied), will seek greater levels of autonomy and freedom while defending its commitment to the core objectives of Cuban society. This was evident in the recent congress of the Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (Union of Cuban Writers and Artists—UNEAC), which was an important example of deliberative democracy and of opening spaces for dialogue and public debate.
The most important internal challenge that the leadership initially headed by Raúl Castro will face will be to resolve the increasing demand for salaries and legal income that are sufficient to permit all Cubans to cover their most important daily necessities. As a result of the crisis of the 1990s and the economic policies adopted, two significant equilibriums prevailing until 1989 were shattered. One was the balance between people’s incomes and the prices of basic goods, in some cases rationed and in others subsidized by the state budget. The disappearance of the mutually advantageous relations with the Soviet Union and the socialist camp knocked this plan out the window.
The other equilibrium that unraveled during the Special Period was the one existing among the various sectors of the population. Although Cuba abandoned its egalitarian policies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a healthy tendency not to allow excessive inequality persisted. With the reforms introduced in 1993–1994, this balance disappeared; inequities arose that were the more unbearable because of the previous disparities between salaries and their purchasing power and the fact that many of these disparities were the result of illegal and corrupt practices.
Most Cubans aspire to maintain current levels of social security but would like to see Marx’s formula “from each according to his ability and to each according to his work” applied. This precept is not being fulfilled today. Although it is very difficult to determine the degree of national agreement on the issue, it can be said that Cubans, while maintaining an essentially socialist economy, would like to see more opportunities for prosperity, even at the cost of privatizing certain sectors.
This, of course, is nothing new. In 1973, during his speech on the twentieth anniversary of the July 26, 1953, assault on the Moncada garrison, Fidel Castro underlined it. After pointing out the need to “valiantly rectify” the “errors of idealism that we may have committed in handling the economy,” he stressed that communism “can only be the fruit of a communist education of the new generations and the development of the productive forces.” He continuted: “We are in the socialist phase of the revolution, in which, because of the material realities and level of culture and consciousness of a society that has recently emerged from capitalist society, the appropriate means of distribution is the one proposed by Marx in his “Critique of the Gotha Program”: from each according to his ability, to each according to his work!” (F. Castro, 1973). In his July 26 speech 35 years later (2008d), President Raúl Castro called this statement “fundamental”: “This speech, in addition to being a solid analysis of the past and present at the time, constitutes an accurate and precise appraisal of the harsh realities ahead and the means to deal with them.”
The situation described has led many Cubans to supplement their salaries with illegal activities in the so-called informal sector of the economy. This and none other is the root of the growing corruption at the lower and middle levels of business and services. The Cuban leaders have only recently understood that this is the most serious threat to the sustainability of the Cuban project, as Fidel Castro himself acknowledged in his speech to the university of November 17, 2005 (F.Castro, 2005). Nevertheless, despite some salary increases and other measures, the impression is that government responses are insufficient. The ideological consequences of the persistence and expansion of this phenomenon are the system’s greatest weakness.
This weakness is now intensifying. First of all, for the third consecutive year a GDP growth rate of more than 10 percent has been announced, creating even higher expectations, as yet unfulfilled, regarding personal prosperity for each individual. Second, Fidel Castro’s foreign policy involves increasing Cuban involvement in South-South cooperation, especially in the health sector, with repercussions at various levels. For example, in the medical arena there is a perception that domestic attention is being sacrificed in favor of international solidarity. Third, Cuba’s principal strategic allies in this phase, China, Venezuela, and Vietnam, albeit under different conditions, are implementing economic policies that provide more opportunity for individual initiative in achieving personal well-being.
In sum, in order to understand the need to deal with corruption and lawlessness and to preserve the revolution, we should recall an admonition of José Martí: “Being good is the only way to be fortunate. Being learned is the only way to be free. But, most often in human nature, one must be prosperous to be good” (1991 : 289).
The events of the past two-plus years since Fidel Castro’s illness and convalescence show that modest but solid changes are occurring in politics and in the search for solutions to the above-mentioned challenges. It is not just that Raúl Castro prefers to stress collective leadership rather than Fidel Castro’s high level of public and discursive leadership. Rather, as Cuba’s highest official, he has been developing and promoting a series of policies that go to the heart of the problems being faced by the country.
A smooth succession has been possible despite U.S. efforts to derail it for a number of reasons. The first and most important of these is, of course, the level of support and consensus that exists in Cuba around Fidel Castro and the strategic objectives of the revolution he has led. The second is the painstaking preparation displayed by the president to achieve it. This should dispel any doubts about the sustainability of the Cuban Revolution beyond Fidel Castro and his companions, the “historical leadership.” But there is another factor worth noting. The way in which this transfer of power took place, in which Raúl Castro established his own style and his own priorities with Fidel Castro still alive, indicates complete identification between them within diversity. We can surmise that there is a mutual recognition and acceptance of the respective roles they must play. While the first was the visionary who founded and designed the policies for creating an independent and sovereign Cuba, the second has been the guardian who has faithfully fulfilled his role as what he once called the “protector of the rearguard.” At the same time, by knowing when to withdraw and let his successor take the necessary measures based on his own nature, style, and tendencies, Fidel Castro has guaranteed the continuity of the project under the new conditions and the success of his heir in being what he must be, the transitional figure who will facilitate the transformation of politics and governance in Cuba.
The Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in October 2009 should produce the identification and consolidation of some of the economic and political changes that will guarantee the process of transition within continuity toward more polished and successful forms of structuring Cuban society. They have been delineated in Raúl Castro’s major pronouncements throughout these two and a half years but are subject to the deliberation process convened by the party’s leadership. As the Cuban president has said, the congress “will be a magnificent opportunity to meditate collectively on the experiences in power during these years of revolution and an important moment to design the policies of the party in the various realms of our society, looking toward the future” (R. Castro, 2008b).
In these speeches and statements by Raúl Castro, the high priority given to the principal economic challenge, which also becomes a political one, is very clear: improving the living standard of the population through an increase in production and services. In 2008, after being elected president of the Councils of State and Ministers, he reaffirmed the following concepts in two key declarations— his speech upon assuming office on February 24 and his pronouncement during the First Session of the Seventh Legislature on July 11:
I reiterate that the country’s priority will be to satisfy the basic necessities of the population, both material and spiritual, through sustained improvement of the national economy and its productive base, without which, I again repeat, development would be impossible. . . .
Today it is a strategic objective to advance in a coherent, firm, and well-planned way so that salaries will recover their role and that people’s living standards will be in direct relation to their legal income—to the importance and the amount of the work that they contribute to society. (2008a)
Workers’ feeling of ownership of the means of production does not depend merely on theoretical explanations—we have been providing them for some 48 years—or the consideration of their opinions on labor matters. It is very important that their incomes match their personal contributions and the fulfillment by their work centers of the social objectives for which they were created—meeting the established levels of production or provision of services. . . . Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income. Equality is not egalitarianism. Ultimately, it is also a form of exploitation: of the good worker by the one who is not or, worse yet, by the slacker. (2008c)
Achieving these cardinal objectives implies a series of challenges of a practical and theoretical nature, with debates of great importance to the left at their core. On December 28, 2007, referring to the need to increase agricultural production, the president stressed: “We have made progress in studies and will continue to proceed as rapidly as circumstances permit, to have the land and resources in the hands of those who are able to produce efficiently, that they may feel supported and socially recognized and receive the material compensation they deserve” (2007b).
Previously, in his first major speech of 2007, delivered on July 26 in Camagüey, the then-interim chief of state, referring to the imperative increase in economic outputs in agriculture, stated: “To achieve this goal, we must introduce the structural and conceptual changes that may be necessary.” The central theme was “working with a critical and creative sense, without paralysis or preconceptions,” making it necessary “to question everything we do in order to do it better, to transform ideas and methods that were once appropriate but have now been superseded by life itself” (R. Castro, 2007a). Quite logically, these ideas have been implemented first in the agricultural sector, but they will likely also be applied to other productive and service sectors.
These proposals inevitably raise the question about what definitions the Party Congress will adopt regarding several classic debates within socialism: centralization vs. democratization, moral stimuli vs. material stimuli, reform vs. orthodoxy, development of the productive forces vs. development of a socialist consciousness. Also on the table will be the issue of the forms of ownership that will be adopted in the Cuban development model.
Finally, like it or not, there will also be discussion of the relevance of the development model adopted by the Chinese Communist Party to the future of the Cuban process, keeping in mind the criticisms being made by the left but also the visible results in development of their productive forces. As recently as November 17, 2008, the newspaper Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, published an article entitled “China Continues to Show the Validity of Socialism” in which that country’s economic successes were highlighted and Fidel Castro was quoted as saying that “China has objectively become the most promising hope and the best example for all Third World countries” (Sánchez Serra, 2008).
It is not hard to see that in terms of territory, population, economic and social importance, historical traditions, and cultural identity, the differences between Cuba and China are so great that it would be impossible to copy of the Asian giant’s development model exactly. Nevertheless, to achieve the objectives proposed by Raúl Castro, several aspects of the reform processes introduced in China are extremely important for Cuba. Among these are prioritization of the development of the productive forces as a principal means of achieving socialist goals; adoption of the principle that socialism is built according to the specific characteristics of each country and emphasis on results in the development of economic policy, in line with Deng Xiaoping’s “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white; what matters is that it catch mice”; recognition and use of monetary-commercial relations through the “socialist market economy” formula; and, finally, the constant review of the means and forms adopted for making the essential adjustments arising from the changes in social contexts and the unintended outcomes that all courses of action entail (Díaz Vázquez and Regalado, 2007; Bregolat, 2008).
Applying these practical principles, the Chinese leadership has managed to lift some 300–500 million people out of poverty and in a relatively short time to create a middle class estimated at 180–200 million that has given the country significant social stability. It is true that these achievements have not been free of negative aspects, but we must acknowledge, first of all, that there is no perfect society and, secondly, that the Chinese Communist Party leaders themselves are the first to admit these difficulties. Accepting the principle that everything should be repeatedly reviewed, as Raúl Castro is proposing, the Asian country’s leaders are in a position to introduce whatever rectifying policies may be needed at any time.
Another important element in the economic policy decisions tentatively made by the Cuban Communist Party leadership on the basis of President Raúl Castro’s major proposals is the one related to the United States’ economic, commercial, and financial blockade. Denouncing the pernicious and aggressive nature of the goals of this policy, the chief of state announced in July 2007: “We must all join the daily battle against the errors that increase the objective difficulties derived from external causes, especially those provoked by the U.S. economic blockade, which truly constitutes a relentless war against our people. The current administration of that country has fiercely sought to hurt us in even the slightest ways” (R. Castro, 2007a) In February 2008 he outlined this idea in the following terms (2008a):
We are conscious of the enormous efforts required to strengthen the economy, an indispensable condition for progress in any realm of society, due to the real war being waged by the government of the United States against our country. Its intention has been the same since the triumph of the revolution: to make our people suffer as much as possible until it desists from the determination to be free. The reality is that, far from intimidating us, it should make us stronger. Instead of using it as an excuse for our mistakes, it should spur us to produce more and provide better service, to work to find the mechanisms and means to eliminate any obstacles to the development of the productive forces and take advantage of the important potential represented by savings and the proper organization of labor.
In addition to containing a central element for achieving Cuba’s economic development, the notion that this could be attained under the severe economic, commercial, and financial blockade by the United States contains within it the seed of what could be called the benefit of economic invulnerability. This has particular importance when the changes occurring in this neighboring country with the inauguration of President Barack Obama could signify a change in the policy whose scope is hard to predict. To be able to affirm that the blockade, while damaging, cannot stand in the way of the country’s prosperity as a whole and of its citizens individually would take away from any administration in Washington what it has always considered a fundamental instrument of pressure and a key bargaining chip.
On a strictly political level, what has characterized President Raúl Castro’s major pronouncements has been the continual call to deepen democracy and dialogue, debate, and deliberation as irreplaceable tools for creating the consensus necessary for clarifying and advancing national policy, beginning with his speech on July 26, 2007, in Camagüey: “We should not fear discrepancies in a society like ours, which by its nature does not contain antagonistic contradictions because the social classes composing it are not like that. The best solutions come out of the intensive exchange of diverging opinions if it is guided by sound intentions and handled responsibly” (R. Castro, 2008a).
In his view, not even a proposal manipulated by imperialism’s propaganda machine should be excluded from consideration: “We are not going to refuse to listen to anyone’s honest opinion, which is so useful and necessary, because of the ridiculous ruckus it kicks up every time a citizen of our country says something to which those making the scene would not pay the slightest attention if they heard it anywhere else on the planet” (R. Castro, 2007b).
He thus invited every citizen to discuss even the issue of socialism and the ways of constructing it. In February 2008 he recalled that in his speech to the university Fidel had made the following self-criticism: “One conclusion that I have reached after many years: of the many errors we have all committed, the most significant mistake was to believe that anyone knew anything about socialism or that anyone knew how to build socialism” (Guanche, 2006: 42). He presented the matter to the National Assembly in the following terms (2008a):
Are we constructing socialism? Because to be truthful, I’m also saying that, besides these problems that we are studying in the new social security law, we’re not working much; we’re working less. That’s a situation you will find in every corner of the country. Excuse the bluntness of my words, you don’t have to agree with them. I am conveying these ideas first of all to make you think—not just you, compañera and compañero representatives, but all Cubans, the whole country. Some are personal estimations that should not be interpreted as unalterable. They are issues that we have the obligation to study and debate, deeply and objectively, as the only way to discover the most appropriate formulas for moving forward with the revolution and socialism.
This invitation to disagree even with his own proposals was reiterated in a striking way when he referred to the controversy aroused by the draft social security law (2008c):
Some viewpoints gathered regarding the social security bill demonstrate that it is necessary to continue informing people on this strategically important matter. The process of study and consultation with the workers that will begin next September, prior to the approval of the law by the National Assembly in December, will help clear up all the questions and provide an opportunity for the expression of opinions. Whether or not they agree with the majority’s view, all will be listened to attentively as we have been doing with the proposals resulting from reflection on the speech of last July 26. We do not aspire to unanimity, which usually is a fiction, on this or any other issue.
In his reflection on the need for ever more democratic processes during his inaugural speech as president, he did not exclude the party: “If the people are firmly united around a single party, it must be more democratic than any other, and along with it society as a whole, which of course, like any human work, can be perfected. But without a doubt, it is just and all its members have the opportunity to express their views and, even more important, work to realize what we agree on in each case” (R. Castro, 2008a). Shortly before that, in December 2007, in summarizing the conclusions of the national deliberation process around his July 26 speech that year, he had emphasized the need for all party or government leaders to stimulate the broadest debate and consultation among their subordinates (2007b):
This process ratifies something fundamental: anyone who occupies a leadership post must know how to listen and create a favorable environment for others to express themselves with complete freedom. This is something that must be fully incorporated, along with guidance, criticism, and timely disciplinary action, into the work style of every leader. Our people receive information from many sources. We are working to perfect them and eliminate the harmful tendency toward triumphalism and complacency in order to guarantee that all those who have political or administrative responsibilities systematically report what they should with realism, in a transparent, critical, and self-critical way.
Another issue that has received special emphasis in Raúl Castro’s speeches and statements since taking on the top leadership of the country is the institutionalization and efficiency of government bodies. This is a particularly important matter because of the discomfort created by bureaucracy, inefficiency, and corruption. In this vein, he has requested and obtained from the National Assembly authorization to modify the structure of the central government (2008a):
Today we need a more compact and functional structure, with fewer central administrative government bodies and a better distribution of the functions they perform. In sum, we must make the management of our government more efficient. . . . Institutionalism, let me repeat the term: institutionalism, is an important mainstay of this decisive proposal and one of the pillars of invulnerability of the revolution in the political realm, which is why we must constantly work to perfect it. We should never think that what we’ve done is perfect. Our democracy is participatory as are few others, but we must realize that the operation of the state and government institutions has not yet reached the degree of effectiveness rightfully demanded by our people. This is an issue that we should all think about.
These assertions on the importance of the institutions and their effectiveness (which is an essential part of their legitimacy) stand in contrast to a fairly widespread view that the best way to fight bureaucracy is to subvert the institutions and replace them with more informal mechanisms for making and implementing decisions. The truth is that undermining the institutions inevitably leads to the loss of legitimacy of the entire system. This would suggest that the correct policy would be to oblige those who direct and participate in institutions to act within the law and with accountability.
An element that has not been dealt with sufficiently in public, although it has been debated in more private and semipublic forums, is that of the role of social sciences in the process of debate and deliberation. There has even been a proposal to hold a national social science conference. In keeping with the call for dialogue that characterizes the president’s discourse, there is a need to stimulate more and better empirical studies of the social situation and to cause Cuban social scientists, whose international prestige is significant, to participate in popular consultation on their professions and specialties. Two initiatives would seem to be key: to convene the proposed conference and to give free rein to the creation of national associations of sociologists and political scientists similar to those already forming in other branches of science as well as among economists and historians. At the same time, there is a need for the stimulus of an autonomous social science committed to the development of its organic task.
The written press should play an important role. Cuba must be among the few countries where daily opinion pages hardly exist. As Carlos Lage (2008) pointed out during the UNEAC Congress, we have “a press that does not reflect our reality as we would like it to.”
Cuba finds itself at a crossroads at which changes must be made within continuity. These changes have already begun and are reflected in measures and declarations by the new administration led by Raúl Castro. They will inevitably mean a transformation of Cuban society, both economically and politically. The Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party will be obliged to give a definitive response to the collection of problems afflicting the country. This is not a matter of denying the achievements made under the leadership of Fidel Castro but rather one of making the necessary adjustments and transformations. The next party congress will have to make decisions on key issues reflected in the following questions:
- What are the bases for building a just society that reflects the ideals once
clearly identified as socialism? We must resolve the discrepancies between the different forms of ownership, between centralization and decentralization, between moral and material stimuli, between the development of the productive forces and the development of a revolutionary consciousness. What the history of Cuba and other models has demonstrated is that hypercentralization, underestimation of the laws of the market, inappropriate handling of the relationship between the different forms of stimuli, and underrating the efficiency and development of the productive forces lead to dead ends and are not conducive to the formation of “the new man.” While there are clear dangers in the unrestricted use of market mechanisms, to ignore people’s need for progress and prosperity, collectively and individually, is not a solution to the problem. As Martí would say, “one must be prosperous to be good.”
- How is democracy to be strengthened and perfected? Cuban society needs to develop the democratic forms it has created. The absence of Fidel requires a search for new ways to create consensus. Introducing the concept of deliberative democracy, in which leaders are obliged to discuss the reasons for their decisions and citizens participate in decision making in an informed and rational way, will correct some of the system’s current shortcomings, but this will require more and better information for the citizenry and the creation and promotion of public spaces in the press and other media.
- In Cuba, the absence of a “culture of debate” has been much criticized, along with the tendency to seek unanimity at all costs under the pretext of defending the necessary unity in the face of the internal and external challenges. This matter warrants profound reflection on the means of creating public space for the analysis of the nation’s problems based on the unity of its strategic objectives. It has been suggested that the solution is promoting debate, but I believe that we must also encourage “cultures of dialogue and deliberation” in which participants are obliged to come to a decision or solution for the problem that is the subject of the exchange.
- Dobry (2007: 23) writes. “The tasks of the different currents of what I have here called ‘transitology’ are often rich in observations, intuitions, and theoretical questionings.” What he questions is the politicized handling of the concept “peaceful transition toward democracy” by various social actors attempting to promote “regime change” in certain societies.
- According to the twenty-second edition of the Diccionario de la Lengua Española (2001), transición is defined as “Action and effect of passing from one way of being to a different one. / 2. A more or less rapid passage of a test, idea or subject to another in speeches or writings. / 3. Rapid change in tone and expression.”
- Started in 2002 with funds from the USAID (contract EDG-A-00-02-00007-00), the Cuba Transition Project is affiliated with the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies of the University of Miami. (It preceded the Commission for the Assistance to a Free Cuba, organized by the government of the United States in 2004.) It describes itself as “an important and timely project to study and make recommendations for the reconstruction of Cuba once the post-Castro transition begins in earnest” (see González, 2002, http://ctp.iccas.miami.edu; see also Department of State, Commission for the Assistance to a Free Cuba, 2004 and 2006).
- The addition to Article 3 of the Cuban Constitution by the Constitutional Reform Law of June 26, 2002, reads as follows: “Socialism and the revolutionary political and social system established in this Constitution, tested by years of heroic resistance in the face of all types of aggressions and economic warfare by the administrations of the most powerful imperialist nation that has existed and having demonstrated its capacity to transform the country and create an entirely new and just society, is irrevocable, and Cuba will never return to capitalism.” Granma, June 27. http://granma.co.cu.
- In his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken,” Frost wrote: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by, /And that has made all the difference.”
- Guanche’s essential work also contains abundant maerial on the current challenges of the revolution, including exchanges with well-known Cuban political scientists, historians, jurists, sociologists, and philosophers.
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