The Cuba Issue Collective Section I: Economy and Society


Every Cuban felt the effect of the economic crisis following the collapse of the Eastern socialist bloc and the suspension of CMEA (socialist bloc common market) trading agreements. From 1990 to 1993, according to official statistics, the GNP fell by just under 35% and consumption plummeted (including such basics as food). The crisis affected not only living standards but social relations and political morale as well.

To promote recovery, Cuba in the early 1990s undertook major reforms. These included expanding opportunities for self-employment in small-scale individual and family owned businesses. Cuba also invited foreign capital to join in large-scale investments, especially in the tourism sector. While courting foreign capitalist investment and expanding the areas for individual enterprise may have been the only option, this policy poses real risks by enlarging the non-socialist sectors of the economy. Indeed, several economic factors are operating which make it difficult to preserve economic and social equality. These include: the need to accommodate to the demands of the international market; hard currency remittances from abroad to some families but not others; foreign investment; and the growth of small privately-owned businesses in various forms, some legal, some quasi-legal, and others clearly in the black market. By these and other means, some people get access to dollars, enhancing their opportunities for consumption and investment.

During the first years of the crisis, almost everyone lost ground. The impact of the slow recovery beginning in 1994, however, while improving everyone’s lives, did not affect everyone equally. Inequalities developed based on people’s access to dollars. Increasing social inequality raises questions about where the Revolution is heading. Is the Revolution’s egalitarian project secure, or do the new economic policies threaten a creeping capitalism? In the aftermath of the economic crisis, Cuba faces major challenges in the effort to achieve economic recovery and still preserve revolutionary gains.

Cubans who analyze their own society forthrightly acknowledge the severe hardships imposed by the crisis and its differential impact on diverse population groups. This section includes articles by three Cuban social scientists working in Cuba and one now living in the United States, who examine the varied impact of policies designed to achieve economic recovery. They consider what these policies may mean for Cuba’s future in economic, social, and political terms.

Pedro Monreal, an economist at the University of Havana, provides an overview of the policies of economic recovery in the 1990s, notably the partial, de facto dollarization of the economy and the joint ventures with foreign capital in certain areas of the economy. While these policies have permitted a recovery in production and standards of living, he argues, they introduce distortions. He proposes a long-term development strategy which promotes cumulative growth by taking advantage of the high level of education of the Cuban population, and which orients export production toward technologically advanced and knowledge- intensive products and services (e.g. bio-tech, health services) rather than products and services based on the intensive use of natural resources (e.g. sugar, minerals or citrus).

Mayra Paula Espina Prieto, a sociologist working at the Center for Psychological and Sociological Research, examines the effects of economic reform on Cuban social structure. She considers the hypothesis that those who are taking advantage of the liberalization of rules for private economic activity are becoming the nucleus of an emerging petite bourgeoisie. Self-employment is highly regulated, but some individuals have been able to enrich themselves through small business activities. Acknowledging that the reforms have brought profound social changes, Espina cautiously argues that as long as the development model continues to emphasize state property, socially guided redistribution, and collective social services, Cuba’s economy will remain socialist.

Alejandro de la Fuente, an historian at the University of Pittsburgh, examines the status of blacks and mulattos in the past decades and, more specifically, the impact of the crisis on that group. He argues that while blacks and mulattos ranked among the major beneficiaries of the Revolution and have traditionally supported it enthusiastically, the crisis appears to have affected them harder than others. Further, white Cubans feel freer today to express racist attitudes than they did during the first three decades of the revolution. Consequently, he contends, some blacks and mulattos have become more openly disaffected with the Revolution.

Marta Núñez Sarmiento, professor of sociology at the University of Havana, analyzes the effect of the changing economic structure on the employment of professional women. Unlike the other authors, she blends macroeconomic data with women’s own accounts. Her sample shows a high level of professional commitment, but those in her universe continue to suffer from unequal pay (despite mandated equality, most women work in lower-wage sectors of the economy) and the obligation to care for children and elderly family members.

They have, therefore, devised survival strategies which take advantage of the gains made under the Revolution, particularly in educational opportunities, and at the same time rely on traditional family and community ties. While confronting the special burdens that the reforms have imposed on women and the still prevalent sexist attitudes among spouses, male co-workers, and other men, women have learned to use the revolutionary gains to their advantage.

Since the debt crisis of 1982, most Latin American countries have adopted austerity programs which have impoverished much of their population. The poor and lower middle groups bear most of the burden.

The benefits of the recent “recovery” have mainly accrued to the wealthy, further exacerbating economic inequality. Cuba too has been forced into austerity, and while the pain has been felt among all sectors of society, some have clearly suffered more than others. The government, nonetheless, has maintained essential social services for all, albeit at lower levels. No school or hospital has been closed, and health care is still universally available and accessible, although at reduced levels of efficiency. Cuba must strike a delicate balance, however, between accommodating to the world market and maintaining its commitment to equality. The articles in this section illustrate some of the ways that the Cubans have grappled with the problem and have confronted the dilemmas raised in trying to pursue economic growth based on foreign capital while maintaining socialism.

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