Introduction: The Cuba Issue Collective

This special issue on Cuba stems from Socialism and Democracy’s fifteen-year history of theoretical and practical concern with the interrelated fortunes of socialism and democracy in the contempor- ary world. Because Cuba occupies such an important place among the countries that have had to cope not only with the problems of socialist development but also with specific situations arising from the demise of the Soviet Union, it seemed obvious to the journal’s editors that a special publication on Cuba was long overdue. We offer this issue in a spirit of critical inquiry and from a point of view that is in general sympathy with the goals of the Cuban Revolution.

In order to provide readers with perspectives and experiences not easily obtained in the United States, we decided to publish articles by Cubans living and working in Cuba today, with the exception of two contributors who have lived and conducted extensive research on the island. These authors thus write from within the framework of Cuba’s overall socialist structure, but not without a critical eye to the realities of the Revolution. As such, they are in a position to fairly evaluate contemporary trends and tendencies within Cuba, which those outside the country or brief visitors often have difficulty seeing.

Cuba is one of the few countries in the world that still openly proclaims itself committed to socialism. It does so, moreover, in defiance to the implacable hostility of the United States, a political reality that, materially and ideologically, places the Cuban government virtually in a category all its own. Some of the reasons for Cuba’s special status are explored in this issue. The prospects of Cuban socialism today depend on answers to questions that have been asked since the Revolution came to power in 1959. Is it possible to build socialism on one small island, located just ninety miles from the U.S. colossus, i.e. within the traditional U.S. self-proclaimed “sphere of domination”? Is it possible to create a viable socialist society over time in a world under capitalist hegemony? More or less the same questions were asked at the onset of the Soviet Revolution in 1917, but in regard to a country that had vast untapped human and economic resources at its disposal. While Cuba possessed significant agricultural, mineral, and human resources for its size, it nonetheless represented, in global terms, a small, underdeveloped country.

At time of the breakup of the Socialist Bloc in 1989, growth in the Cuban economy had slowed. The disintegration of the socialist common market (Council on Mutual Economic Assistance, CMEA) proved a severe blow. The country lost its favorable trading status, along with sources of cheap oil, long-term and large-scale credits, plus vital food imports and industrial inputs. As a result, the economy went into free fall. Between 1990 and 1993 the GNP contracted 34.8%, according to official figures, before bottoming out in 1994. Serious shortages of industrial goods (fuel being the most important) resulted in widespread blackouts, factory downtime, and severe transportation problems. Indeed, the price of over-dependence upon the socialist bloc (official figures show that some 85% of external trade took place with that area) proved high.

In response, the government declared a “special period in time of peace,” in which the immediate goals of socialist development took second place to assuring survival of the Revolution itself. The government initiated drastic measures in the economic arena. It further opened limited sectors of the economy to controlled foreign investment, creating mixed areas in the economy, mainly in tourism and export-oriented sectors such as mining. It legalized the holding of dollars. It expanded the establishment of small businesses owned by single proprietors and often family-staffed. It downsized state enterprises and certain government ministries. And, finally, it promulgated sweeping changes in the agrarian sector, eliminating many large state farms and replacing them with cooperatives. Some of the above changes actually increased socio-economic disparities that had previously been held largely in check.

Whether these changes and adaptations will become permanent is hard to say. The impact of even limited profit-seeking businesses on Cuba’s heretofore relatively egalitarian society is not predictable in the long run. It is clear, however, that Cuba remains committed to its original social and political objectives in crucially important areas such as education, the justice system, health, sports and recreation, and various forms of participatory democracy at the local level. One of the reasons for this sustained commitment, we should remember, is that the Revolution was not imposed from above. It came about as a result of a popular struggle that sprang, to a large degree, from inequalities in Cuban society that favored the interests of a privileged minority and foreign capitalists, and from a more elite opposition which sought to overthrow the authoritarian regime headed by Fulgencio Batista (1952-1959).

These articles focus primarily upon the 1990s. Our authors examine the Revolution from within. We have consciously excluded issues that would arise from an examination of Cuba’s international relations such as the country’s foreign policy, the concerted efforts on the part of the US to undermine the revolution, and the exile community in the US and elsewhere. We must nevertheless note the substantial impact of the US embargo that has existed in one form or another since 1959. Given the almost total integration of the Cuban economy into that of the US prior to the Revolution, the embargo has had a significant impact upon the country. The collapse of the socialist bloc only made the embargo more effective, as alternative supplies dried up. The embargo in the 1990s has strangled access to convertible currency, tripled the cost of medicines, starved Cuban agriculture of needed imports, blocked Cuban exports in such areas as bio-tech, and created scarcities across the board. The bans further aim to prevent trade, investment, and tourism in Cuba.

Ostensibly directed at Cuba’s leaders, the embargo, a slow-acting but nonetheless potentially lethal form of aggression, has had its major impact on civilians, mainly those least able to stand its deprivations: the very young, the elderly, and the ill. Although in the past two or three years things have eased throughout the economy, the embargo remains a major obstacle to Cuban development. The Cuban government’s main “crime” has been the attempt to declare economic independence of the US and establish its own socio-economic system.

The writers in this collection represent, for the most part, a stratum of Cuban intellectuals who support the Revolution, but who are aware of unresolved problems and thorny issues that it faces. These articles demonstrate that Cuban scholarship is not monolithic. Diverse currents of thought are alive and circulating throughout the country. Further, scholars are actively searching for new ideas to advance the nation’s socialist agenda. The authors here examine Cuban society, economy, and government in the 1990s. They ask questions about the extent to which the Cuban Revolution has achieved its goal of overcoming historical inequalities. They look, either tacitly or explicitly, at efforts to promote democratic government and participation without reproducing the model of democracy typically found in most capitalist countries. While in general they see many positive features within the system, they note that room for improvement still exists. At one level, these articles provide insight into how serious scholars view the Cuban situation. In another sense, they are relevant to much more than the Cuban case. They represent contributions to the whole question of building socialism in today’s world.

Thus, while cast in the Cuban context, they have import far beyond just that island’s particular experience.

The issue divides into three sections, each with an introduction that the reader is encouraged to look at before plunging into the individual texts. The first contains articles on economy, society, race, and gender. Pedro Monreal examines changes in the economy in the 1990s. Mayra Paula Espina Prieto looks at how the Revolution has struggled to maintain its historic promise of equality and the degree to which hard times may threaten some of the Revolution’s basic tenets. Alejandro de la Fuente takes up the question of race and ethnicity. Clearly Blacks and mulattos have been major beneficiaries of the Revolution, yet they still have furthest to go. Some evidence exists that they have been disproportionately hit by economic hardships. Marta Núñez Sarmiento assesses the role and attitudes of professionally and technically trained women, asking to what degree their situation has changed due to the “special period.”

The second section includes two contributions on Cuban representative government. Juan Valdés Paz discusses overall changes in government but particularly democratization and centralization in the past decade. Jesús Pastor García Brigos focuses on difficulties of the role played by the People’s Councils and the leadership of the municipal assemblies both on the local level and on issues regarding local representation in the nation’s highest body, the National Assembly. Both authors find that while genuine democracy exists, problems remain in terms of reaching the highest level of popular participation.

The last part presents pieces that discuss the agrarian sector, one from a macro and one from a more micro perspective. Hans- Jürgen Burchardt examines the general changes that the government has instituted within the agrarian sector in the last decade or so. He looks at attempts to diversify away from sugar and one or two other crops, and also at the implementation of new forms of landholdings. Niurka Pérez Rojas and Dayma Echevarría León specifically examine the UBPCs (Basic Units of Peasant Production), another recent form that has decentralized many sectors of agricultural production into medium and small units worked as cooperatives by local producers. Both authors see encouraging signs of progress in the sector, but also point to continuing problems.

In all, the contributions to this issue present a variegated array of analyses of Cuba after 1989. They show that, despite considerable progress, problems exist at the social, economic, and political levels. They also demonstrate that social scientists are thinking about these problems and searching for ways to solve them in consonance with the goals of the Revolution.

Note on Translations

English versions of the articles in Part I (except for Espina’s), were provided by the authors (in Monreal’s case, with the assistance of Jack Hammond). For the remaining articles, the following individuals prepared draft-translations: Francine Cronshaw, Karen Hatherley, and Jane McManus. The draft-translations were checked and revised by Jill Hamberg, Yolanda Prieto, Peter Roman, and Victor Wallis.

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