Planning the Transition to Capitalism: The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba

‘There is no alternative.’ This has been a consistent theme of politicians, corporate officials, and intellectuals for the past twenty-five years. Global capitalism has been presented as an inevitable, irreversible process that is beyond the control of states. Besides, we are told, global capitalism is good for everyone, in terms of both economic prosperity and the spread of democracy, so even if there were an alternative it would not be desirable (Steger 2005). The politics of global capitalism are defined by neoliberalism -– a coherent program of market liberalization, state deregulation, and privatization which privileges market forces above all else (Petras & Veltmeyer 2001; Tabb 2001). All non-market forces that might challenge the hegemony of the market run the risk of being either marginalized or absorbed through commodification. At the same time, labor and other subordinate social forces are disciplined by legal restrictions on union activity, punitive reductions in social welfare provision, and the extension of formal institutions of social control. The collapse of social democracy in the advanced capitalist countries (perhaps best exemplified by Tony Blair’s success in expunging the Labour Party’s socialist heritage from ‘New Labour’) (Panitch & Leys 2001) seemed to confirm – as did the collapse of the Soviet Union – that nothing could stop the tidal wave of capitalist globalization. While the Soviet Union subordinated national liberation movements and revolutionary governments in the Third World to its own interests, it also provided them an alternative to integration into global capitalism; at the same time, the Soviet Union’s existence put pressure on the advanced capitalist countries to ameliorate the most destructive and alienating features of capitalism. More recently, China’s move to a ‘market socialist’ system that seems more market than socialist (Hart-Landsberg & Burkett 2005) appears to be further evidence that global capitalism is a juggernaut that lies outside political control.

As Steger (2005) points out, such arguments play an important ideological function within global capitalism. They portray states as the passive victim of forces outside their control, and in doing so they are designed to demobilize opposition to global capitalism. In addition, such arguments are not valid empirically. States are active participants in the construction, development, and, potentially, resistance to global capitalism (Panitch 1996; Poulantzas 1975). The experience of Cuba since 1959 provides strong evidence of this. Cuba’s socialist economy and its prominent role in global opposition to capitalism, as well as the unique role that Cuba plays in US politics, show the importance of nation-state policies, politics, and histories in shaping a nation’s relationship to global capitalism. The continued existence of Cuba’s socialist system indicates that alternatives to global capitalism are possible. At the same time, the United States has not chosen to wait for the inevitable forces of capitalist globalization to wash over Cuba, but rather has engaged in a 45-year campaign of economic and political isolation and destabilization to bring capitalism back to Cuba. In this paper I examine critically the most recent and, because of its comprehensiveness, most important statement of US policy toward Cuba -– the 2004 and 2006 reports of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.

The Reports

In October 2003, George Bush announced the creation of a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba “to plan for the happy day when Castro’s regime is no more and democracy comes to the island” (US Department of State 2003). The Commission was chaired by Secretary of State Colin Powell and included representatives from all Cabinet-level agencies, as well as the National Security Council, United States Agency for International Development, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Management and Budget, Office of the United States Trade Representative, and Office of National Drug Control Policy. Core group members included Secretary of the Treasury John Snow, Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Commission. The Commission held its inaugural meeting in December 2003. Five working groups produced detailed recommendations

identifying additional measures by which the United States can help the Cuban people bring about an expeditious end of the Castro dictatorship; and (2) identifying US Government programs that could assist the Cuban people during a transition (Commission 2004: xi).

The Commission’s first report (hereafter referred to as ‘CAFC I’), was presented in May 2004. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reconvened the Commission in December 2005, with Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez serving as co-chair, to prepare a second report “with both updated recommendations to hasten democracy and an inter-agency strategic plan to assist a Cuban-led transition” (US Department of State 2005a). This report (hereafter referred to as ‘CAFC II’), which elaborates on the major themes presented in CAFC I, was released in July 2006.

CAFC I identified six tasks that the United States should undertake to hasten the transition to capitalism in Cuba. First, the United States should “empower Cuban civil society” (Commission 2004: 15). The $7 million budget administered by the US Agency for International Development for support of Cuban opposition groups was to be supplemented with an additional $29 million for USAID, State Department, and other government agencies. This money was directed for support for non-governmental organizations in disseminating information within Cuba on “transitions to a political system based on democracy, human rights, and a market economy” (22) and in providing material support for opposition groups. Such support would include medical supplies for distribution outside Cuba’s socialized health care system, publications for inclusion in ‘independent libraries,’ and computers, fax machines, copiers, satellite dishes, etc. for ‘independent journalists.’ CAFC II has called for $80 million to support these programs over the next two years and a commitment to provide no less than $20 million annually after that “until the dictatorship ceases to exist” (Commission 2006: 20).

Second, the United States should “break the information blockade” (Commission 2004: 26). In order to facilitate the spread of anti-Castro information as well as that supportive of a transition to capitalism, CAFC I initiated the use of a military C-130 as an airborne platform to overcome Cuban jamming of Radio and Television Marti broadcasts. It also called for the provision of video and audio tapes, CDs, and DVDs of Office of Cuba Broadcasting programs for distribution within Cuba by NGOs. CAFC II calls for the continuation of these programs.

Third, the United States should “deny revenues to the Cuban dictatorship” (Commission 2004: 28). Cuba has increased its reliance on tourism as a source of foreign exchange in recent years, and in response CAFC I called for actions to make tourism more difficult. It is against the law for US citizens to travel to Cuba without a license, but this law has in the past been flouted by people who have traveled to Cuba by way of a third country such as Canada or Mexico. An important result from CAFC I has been increased inspection of travelers and shipments to reduce unlicensed travel and tightened restrictions on the import of Cuban goods into the United States by licensed travelers. It also placed substantial constraints on educational travel to Cuba, allowing it only when the program “directly promotes US foreign policy goals” (30). While the United States cannot prohibit tourism to Cuba from elsewhere in the world, CAFC I called for building support among international NGOs to discourage travel to Cuba. It also placed tight restrictions on family travel and shipments to Cuba. New restrictions were placed on the dollar value of gift parcels, the amount family members can spend while visiting Cuba (reduced from $164 per day to $50), and the frequency of permitted family travel (from one visit a year to one every three years). Finally, CAFC I called for intensified efforts to deter foreign investment in Cuba by filing suit in US federal court against foreign nationals who benefit from properties expropriated from US nationals by the Cuban government and by denying visas to such foreign nationals. CAFC II seeks to continue and expand these programs to deny revenue to Cuba, stating that “[t]he more financially stressed the system is, the more difficult it will be for any leader who follows Fidel Castro to preside over a succession within the dictatorship” (Commission 2006: 29). In addition, it calls for more aggressive efforts to prevent Cuba from importing medical equipment that might be used in medical programs that generate revenue by treating tourists and foreign patients (31) and to impede Cuban exports of nickel, which have become more important in light of CAFC I’s restrictions on revenue (32). It also identifies an important source of revenue which has complicated US plans: Venezuela. Although CAFC I acknowledges the agreements between Venezuela and Cuba in which the former provides low-cost oil in return for Cuban doctors and teachers to serve in the Bolivarian missions (Commission 2004: 13), Venezuela takes on a more prominent role in CAFC II as one of the major “spoilers” (Commission 2006: 16) of United States policy. Although there are no explicit statements of how to respond to these spoilers, and although “Fidel Castro is calling the shots” (23) in this relationship, implicit in the Commission’s report is the suggestion that continued hostility to the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela will contribute to US transition plans for Cuba.

Fourth, the Commission seeks to “illuminate the reality of Castro’s Cuba” (Commission 2004: 44). CAFC I called for a $5 million public diplomacy campaign to disseminate information regarding

Castro’s record of harboring terrorists, committing espionage against the United States and other countries, fomenting subversion of democratically elected governments in Latin America, and the US Government’s belief that Cuba has at least a limited developmental offensive biological weapons research and development effort (45).

Fifth, the United States should “encourage international diplomatic efforts to support Cuban civil society and to challenge the Castro regime” (45). Both CAFC I and CAFC II call for intensified activity to support international NGOs in spreading information about Castro’s Cuba and US transition policies. In addition, CACF II indicates that the United States must win support from international institutions and NGOs to help “accelerate Cuba’s reintegration into the world economy, bring useful experiences to bear from other countries that have succeeded in transitions, and ease the humanitarian and financial burden on the Cuban Transition Government” (Commission 2006: 77).

Sixth, and finally, the Commission seeks to “undermine the regime’s succession strategy” (Commission 2004: 50); in the words of CAFC II, the United States seeks “transition, not succession” (Commission 2006: 14). The goal of US foreign policy is to prevent the smooth transition of leadership from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl (who is Defense Minister and, in his capacity as second secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and first vice president of both the governing Council of State and Council of Ministers, is first in the constitutional line of succession). This is to be done by

stripping away layers of support within the regime, creating uncertainty regarding the political and legal future of those in leadership positions, and encouraging more of those within the ruling elite to shift their allegiance to those pro-democracy forces working for a transition to a free and democratic Cuba (Commission 2004: 51).

CAFC I called for the creation of a new State Department office to coordinate Cuba’s transition to capitalism and to serve as “[a]nother signal of the unwillingness of the United States to accept the Castro regime’s ‘succession strategy’” (Commission 2004: 52). As a result, in July 2005, Caleb McCarry, a veteran staff member of the House Committee on International Relations and former Vice President of the Americas Program at the Center for Democracy, was appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as Cuba Transition Coordinator (US Department of State 2005b). This office has been reinforced by other, post-CAFC II, developments. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte announced in August 2006 that an Acting Mission Manager for Cuba and Venezuela had been appointed with responsibility “for integrating collection and analysis on Cuba and Venezuela across the Intelligence Community, identifying and filling gaps in intelligence, and ensuring the implementation of strategies” (Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence 2006). In addition, five new interagency working groups have been created to more closely monitor Cuba and assist in implementing transition policies. These include three groups led by the State Department addressing diplomatic actions, strategic communications, and democracy promotion, one led by the Department of Commerce concerning humanitarian assistance, and one led jointly by the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security on migration (Bachelet 2006).

In addition to discussing how the United States can assist the transition to capitalism in Cuba, the Commission makes recommendations on the substance of this transition. A major theme in the Commission’s analysis of Cuba is that of a grossly inefficient and corrupt state socialist economy that has failed to satisfy the needs of the Cuban people:

Meeting the basic human needs of the Cuban population involves the removal of the manifestations of Castro’s communism; the introduction of the values and practices of democracy and free enterprise, and the building of institutions and services that will improve the health, nutrition, education, housing, and social services available to the Cuban people (Commission 2004: 55).

A free market economy will, according to the Commission, lead to a flowering of Cuban entrepreneurial energy which will allow for economic growth and adequate social welfare provision. The Commission recommends the privatization of all state-owned industries and infrastructure (including ports, air transport, public transportation, energy, and telecommunications), as well as the replacement of socially-owned housing with private housing markets. Privatization of education is to be encouraged by permitting the operation of private and church-related schools and by support for business partnerships with schools, and Cuba’s socialized health care system is to be subjected to “restructuring and/or modernization” (Commission 2004: 84). Legal reform must remove the constitutional privileges accorded to state property and restore protections for private property, as “the protection of private property is fundamental to Cuba’s future development” (189). In addition, the Commission envisions the creation of a private banking system “either through entry of new private banks, entry of foreign banks, or privatization of existing state banks” (235). Government ministries that “deal with non-market economic issues” must be reformed “to encourage market development, promote private sector economic growth, and expand trade” (237). Price decontrol will remove distortions to the allocation of economic resources, while “sound fiscal and monetary policies” (211), by limiting deficits and government borrowing to finance these deficits, will stabilize the economy, thereby providing a more rational context for investment. The Commission calls for a US-Cuba Free Trade Agreement as well as eventual membership for Cuba in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Trade Organization, and encourages the use of free trade zones to stimulate foreign investment. Foreign investment is also to be encouraged by removing existing rules favoring the Cuban government in joint ventures, settling outstanding property claims, and establishing favorable protections for intellectual property. Finally, the Commission recommends the creation of free labor markets and the promotion of “strengthened labor-management relations” (245).

Evaluation of the Reports

The Commission’s reports are nothing short of a blueprint for neoliberalism in a post-Castro Cuba. The Commission (2004) makes use of a number of discursive devices in making its claims for support for a transition to a ‘free Cuba,’ but on closer examination these are revealed to be specious. First, it offers a specific interpretation of the history of US-Cuba relations that emphasizes US altruism and dedication to high moral principles (italics mine):

Improving Cubans’ condition will require dramatic reforms to ensure that democratic values and a civic culture return (xx).

It has been the historical role of the United States to support the Cuban people’s aspirations to hasten the day when they can restore their country to a respected, peaceful, and constructive role in the international community (2).

Because Cuba has not functioned under a stable democratic system within the living memory of most people in the country, we cannot expect democratic values and decision-making processes to be readily understood (77).

Cubans will be able for the first time in decades to enjoy the freedoms that prevail in all of the other countries of the Western Hemisphere (156).

Protection of private individual and corporate property rights, including the rights of intellectual property, will provide the basis for private sector development and Cuba’s return to the rule of law (161).

Settling the issue of expropriated properties…will be seen by many as a signal that Cuba will be open for normal business once again (224).

Despite the frequent references to a ‘free’ and ‘democratic’ Cuba in CAFC I, similarly frequent references to pre-revolutionary Cuba (those emphasized in the above quotes) imply that the transition will return Cuba to a kind of golden era, ignoring the poverty and oppression that characterized that period. In the period between 1898 and 1959, when the United States exercised authority over Cuban political and economic life and either directly occupied the island or supported dictatorships, pre-revolutionary Cuba was ‘open for business’ to the sugar companies and casinos, foreign capitalists were ‘free’ to accumulate capital, and Cuban workers and peasants were ‘free’ to sell their labor power for miserable wages. The Commission’s homage to the ‘good old days’ before Castro reveals that the genuine goal of US policy is the wholesale reintegration of Cuba as a dependent outpost of global capitalism.

CAFC II’s position on the ‘good old days’ is more complicated. On the one hand, it continues to present the idea that a post-Castro transition in Cuba would restore freedom that existed previously but that had been lost:

The United States and other friends of democracy should acknowledge and honor the courage of Cuban democracy activists by supporting them as they work to secure the rapid return of sovereignty to the people of their nation (Commission 2006: 15)(my emphasis).

A Cuban Transition Government will face the daunting challenge of ending the brutal, one-party totalitarian state that has exercised complete control over all aspects of life on the island and of organizing a democratic process so that the Cuban people can reclaim their right to determine their own future (52) (my emphasis).

On the other hand, unlike CAFC I, CAFC II does acknowledge the immediate pre-Revolution past in a few brief references to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. However, these references are striking in that they emphasize the continuity between Batista and Castro:

Since 1952, Cubans have lived under a succession of dictators, first under Fulgencio Batista, and then Batista’s totalitarian successor, Fidel Castro (Commission 2006: 17f).

Just as Fidel Castro replaced Batista in 1959, Cuba’s current dictator wants to impose his brother on the Cuban people (22).

This connection serves an important ideological function for US policy. It erases the Revolution from history by suggesting that Castro ‘succeeded’ Batista and that “the entire system has been constructed for the sustenance of the regime, not to serve the Cuban people” (Commission 2006: 34), just as it had been under Batista. The use of the terms ‘succession’ and ‘successor’ is no coincidence, especially given the Commission’s statements, discussed earlier, that the United States seeks a ‘transition, not succession,’ in Cuba. The Commission may hope to stigmatize Castro with the image of Batista, but this is a potentially dangerous connection to make, as it raises the question of what United States policy was toward Cuba during as well as before the Batista dictatorship.

Finally, to the extent that the history of Cuba-US relations since 1959 is discussed by the Commission, it would appear that the United States has been the innocent victim of Cuban aggression. The history of US-supported military attacks against Cuba, attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and destabilize the Cuban government through psychological warfare, use of biological weapons against Cuban agriculture, protection of Cuban exiles who have engaged in terrorist attacks against Cuba, etc. (Lamrani 2005) go unmentioned by the Commission. Instead, CAFC I reports discredited claims of Cuban support for terrorism, the torture of American prisoners of war in Vietnam, production of biological weapons, and encouragement of prostitution and sex trafficking (Commission 2004: xviii, 12, 18, 51)1 and points to Cuba’s use of immigration as “an effort to intimidate and harm the United States” (12); CAFC II takes it a step further with reference to “the dictatorship which advocated nuclear war against our nation” (Commission 2006: 13). Likewise, the US blockade of Cuba which has been in force for over forty years does not exist in the Report. For example, Cuba’s aging infrastructure is seen by the Commission as the direct outcome of Cuba’s socialist economic system rather than the constraints imposed by the blockade. The Cuban government estimated in 2005 that the direct economic losses due to the US blockade since its inception were over $82 billion, a figure which does not include an estimated $54 billion in losses due to sabotage and terrorist attacks and to production lost due to lack of access to credit (United Nations 2005a: 13). In the Commission’s eyes, Cuba exists only as a bully that has victimized the United States for decades.

The absence of any acknowledgement of the history of US aggression against Cuba is replicated in CAFC I’s discussion of plans for a post-Castro ‘truth commission’ to investigate former government officials for alleged violations of human rights. The Commission cites approvingly the experience of truth commissions in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, South Africa, El Salvador, and Guatemala (Commission 2004: 172f), but fails to note that in each of these cases the United States had previously supported the governments that carried out the human rights violations that were the subject of the truth commissions. It also offers the US record of supporting the establishment of civilian police forces in Latin America as a model for post-Castro Cuba (196-98) without acknowledging that the United States had supported for decades police use of violence against political dissidents (Blum 2003; Kornbluh 2003; McSherry 2005).

The second discursive device employed by the Commission is its use of the term ‘democracy.’ Cuba is portrayed as a dictatorship in contrast to the democracy and freedom “that prevail in all of the other countries of the Western Hemisphere” (Commission 2004: 156). Such a sweeping statement falls flat when one considers the examples of Haiti, where the United States forced the democratically elected president into exile and continues to support forces associated with earlier dictatorships, and Colombia, where the United States finances a government associated with death squads targeting political dissidents. More broadly, the Commission reflects an understanding of democracy that Robinson (1996) refers to as ‘polyarchy,’ which he defines as “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites” (49). As Robinson argues, polyarchy serves to legitimate neoliberalism by defining acceptable boundaries of political participation that do not threaten the fundamental interests of capital and by establishing a procedural equality among citizens that obscures the structural inequalities of class. For example, there are frequent references in the Report to private and religious organizations as major agents of transition in Cuba and, more specifically, as “important democratic institutions”  (Commission 2004: 55). There is no necessary reason why these should be seen as democratic institutions (other than, perhaps, that they play a major role in US social life), and as their dominance suggests a substitution of private for public space there are good reasons to question their assumed democratic nature. Polyarchy simultaneously delegitimizes alternative forms of democracy, such as socialist democracy, that see social equality as a necessary foundation for genuine democracy (Ehrenberg 1992; Held 1987).2 The advocacy of this limited and, to capitalism, safe form of democracy is reflected in the Commission’s use of the United States as a model to which a ‘free Cuba’ should aspire. The Commission offers US assistance to Cuba in setting up political parties and running democratic elections (Commission 2004: 177-181) and in establishing free trade unions and labor law (244-248). The Commission fails to note, however, that the United States has both the lowest voter turnout rates and lowest unionization rates of any major country (Kloby 2003), and so the use of the United States as a model for a ‘free Cuba’ seems ironic at best. However, as with the frequent references to Cuba’s pre-revolutionary ‘golden age,’ this apparent lack of self-awareness disguises a more significant meaning. Low levels of electoral participation are concentrated among the poor and working class in the United States (Piven & Cloward 2000) and this, along with relatively weak unions and a system of labor law that offers extensive opportunities for capital to undermine unionization campaigns (Yates 1998), contributes to the continued dominance of the US capitalist class. Thus, offering the United States as a model for electoral politics and labor relations for a ‘free Cuba’ is consistent with the US goal of imposing neoliberalism on Cuba.

The third discursive tool found in the Report is its discussion of human needs. The free market and democracy will, the Commission argues, replace the scarcity imposed on Cubans by state socialism with economic growth and prosperity. The problem here is that the evidence points in the opposite direction. Cuba is considered by the United Nations to be a ‘high human development’ country which, despite low Gross Domestic Product per capita, performs so well on health (life expectancy, infant mortality, nutrition) and education (public expenditure on education, literacy, enrollment) measures as to make Cuba one of the top-ranked developing countries, substantially outperforming measures for all developing countries and for Latin American and Caribbean countries (United Nations 2005b). Cuba is ranked 5th among 103 developing countries in terms of the U.N.’s Human Poverty Index for developing countries; interestingly, the United States ranks seventeenth among eighteen OECD countries in terms of the Human Poverty Index for high-income countries (United Nations 2005b: 229, 231). As a relatively poor country Cuba has faced enormous challenges, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet trade, but to portray Cuba as an economic disaster in need of capitalist shock therapy is simply incorrect. When compared with other ‘developing’ countries, the success of Cuba’s socialist system is obvious. The proposed dismantling of Cuba’s socialist system, therefore, threatens the human needs of the Cuban population which the Commission claims to champion. It does, however, make sense if the goal of US policy is the full integration of Cuba into global capitalism.

As revealing as these themes are, equally revealing is what is not discussed by the Commission. Earlier I pointed out that the Commission ignores the long history of US military aggression against Cuba. This is important not only because it reflects a distortion of history, but also because of how pronounced the absence of military issues is in the Commission’s discussion of the planned transition to capitalism in Cuba. Reports indicate that CAFC I contained a classified section that was not released (Gedda 2004), but there is no statement to this effect in CAFC I. In contrast, CAFC II contains the following statement:

This is an unclassified report. For reasons of national security and effective implementation, some recommendations are contained in a separate classified annex (Commission 2006: 14) (emphasis in original).

Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency contributions to the transition plan are likely contained in this annex. There are isolated references in the Commission’s reports to military issues, but these are made in the context of the need for a transition government to maintain order:

[The United States should prepare] to respond positively to a request from a transition government to assist with public security and law enforcement during the initial stages of transition (Commission 2004: 81).

If severe economic hardships are not quickly addressed, a transition government might have to deal with increasingly urgent demands from a newly empowered populace.

A peaceful transition to democracy will therefore require the presence of effective, professional Cuban security institutions that are committed fully to supporting the democratic transition (157).

A transition government may also conclude that loyal and dependable military units will be needed at least until a democratic government can be consolidated and a new constitution approved by the people. Reliable military forces could help transition authorities prevent massive seaborne migration and distribute humanitarian assistance (193).

A Cuban Transition Government will likely rely on this institution to perform many tasks during the transition period. The challenge for the Transition Government will be to harness the military’s energies and direct it in ways that contribute to a successful transition period (Commission 2006: 60).

The question of what happens should the Cuban military resist US plans for a post-Castro Cuba is left unaddressed. The emphasis on non-military means to hasten the collapse of Cuba’s socialist system could be taken as further evidence of Robinson’s (1996) argument that there has been a major shift in the forms of US intervention since the end of the Cold War from coercive to consensual strategies of ‘democracy promotion’ (polyarchy). The significance of this strategy, Robinson argues, was brought home by the military defeat of the US in Vietnam. Coercion was judged to be counterproductive to the goal of winning the political subordination of the periphery. The strategy of ‘democracy promotion’ grants symbolic concessions to the periphery by providing assistance in transitioning away from dictatorship. This assistance takes the form of direct financial assistance to political parties and social movement organizations, training of officials and activists, and development of media strategies. The Report, with its emphasis on supporting Cuban ‘civil society’ in its domestic and international organizing campaigns, appears to fit neatly into Robinson’s framework. However, there are limits to this. The US has supported ‘democracy promotion’ only when it has been safe for it to do so. For example, in the case of the Philippines and Haiti, the US supported ‘democratization’ only after dictatorships long supported by the US had lost legitimacy and thus were no longer serving US interests. Elsewhere, ‘democratization’ was accomplished only after military dictatorship had so thoroughly institutionalized neoliberal policies that dictatorship was no longer necessary (as in Chile), or after a war of such devastating social costs that people chose the ‘correct’ leadership (as in Nicaragua). In other words, a transition strategy based on civil society is not an alternative to one based on coercive power. Instead, the two must be seen as complementing and reinforcing each other.

As a result, there are good reasons to be skeptical of the argument that the Commission’s reports represent a major shift in US strategy. This is most evident if the CAFC I and CAFC II are read not as isolated documents, but in a broader context defined by recent statements of US political-military strategy and by the US invasion of Iraq. According to the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones” (White House 2002: 1). In the face of such threats, the Strategy proclaims the right of the United States to take “anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively” (15). The Strategy declares that such preventive intervention should “promote economic growth and economic freedom beyond America’s borders.” This means “pro-growth legal and regulatory policies,” lower taxes, “strong financial systems” and “sound fiscal policies to support business activity,” and the expansion of free trade by strengthening the World Trade Organization and creating regional and bilateral free trade agreements (17). It should also promote freedom, which is defined as including “limits on the absolute power of the state” and “respect for private property” (3), and “opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy” (21).

The US invasion of Iraq is the National Security Strategy put into practice; it represents the imposition of neoliberalism by force. Under the leadership of the Ba’ath Party, Iraq’s constitution promoted a statist version of socialism through state planning, nationalization of natural resources, state-owned industries in major economic sectors, and limits on the ownership of private property. In addition, the state subsidized the prices of basic necessities, provided free education and health care, and offered extensive employment guarantees to workers (al-Khalil 1989; Khadduri 1978). The Ba’ath Party saw the Soviet Union and its state socialist system as a development model for Iraq, but the Ba’ath’s commitment to socialism existed within the context of its pan-Arab nationalism; resident citizens of Arab countries were granted the same rights as Iraqis to operate or own private businesses. The imposition of neoliberalism on a conquered Iraq has been a central element of elite policy makers’ planning (Center for Strategic and International Studies 2003; Council on Foreign Relations 2003; King 2003; Klein 2004). In order to dismantle this statist economic system, the Coalition Provisional Authority enacted a massive program of shock therapy on Iraq. Examples of the CPA’s neoliberal program were the seizure of all public property, suspension of tariffs and trade restrictions, abolition of laws guaranteeing employment for state workers, creation of laws providing for private ownership (as well as foreign ownership) of businesses, and reduction of individual and corporate income taxes.

It seems clear that Iraq is to serve as a lesson, for both the global South and the capitalist core, of the determination of the United States to ensure the success of US-dominated neoliberalism on a world scale. This is the context in which the Commission’s reports on Cuba must be read. The absence of any direct examination of military power in the US transition plan is not because it will play no role (or, at best, a subordinate one) but because, given the current war in Iraq, there is no need to make such explicit statements. CAFC I’s claims that Cuba supports terrorism and has a “limited developmental offensive biological weapons research and development effort” (Commission 2004: xviii), both of which have been shown to be outright lies or gross simplifications (Landau & Smith 2002; Smith, Muse & Baker 2004), mirror equally unfounded claims used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq; CAFC II’s oblique reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis reinforces this manufactured fear of weapons of mass destruction. It is also worth noting in this context that prior to the appointment of a mission manager for Cuba and Venezuela, the only other countries similarly monitored were Iran and North Korea, both of which are seen as nuclear threats (Bachelet 2006). If structural adjustment or ‘democracy promotion’ are insufficient to impose neoliberalism on a recalcitrant country, then neoliberalism will be imposed by force or the threat of force. Cuban officials understand clearly the relevance of the war in Iraq for the Commission’s transition plans. Cuba’s U.N. mission issued a response to the appointment of Caleb McCarry as Cuba Transition Coordinator which made clear this connection:

In Iraq they also appointed a US coordinator [L. Paul Bremer, Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority] as the foreman of a large property, but they first invaded the nation and occupied it militarily. In the case of Cuba, he was nominated without doing one thing or the other, in the certainty that if they invaded the nation they would face a much higher resistance than in Iraq (Permanent Mission of the Republic of Cuba 2005).3

Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque has made the same connection, referring to McCarry as “Paul Bremer for Cuba” (Superville 2006). There is, of course, another possible explanation for the lack of attention to the role that force might play in Cuba’s transition to capitalism. The Report reflects considerable confidence that the Cuban population will, upon Castro’s death, turn en masse toward neoliberalism. Just as US officials misunderstood the possibilities for resistance to their occupation of Iraq, so too they may not fully appreciate the likelihood of large scale resistance from Cubans to a transition to capitalism. Should that situation arise there is little doubt about the significance that US military power would then have in completing the transition.


Cuba poses, in Noam Chomsky’s phrase, the ‘threat of a good example,’ and so if the closing off of alternatives to global capitalism is to be made reality, Cuba must be transformed. The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba provides a blueprint for this transformation, and as such the Commission is important on a number of levels. Its importance in outlining how the United States will take a leading role in transforming the institutions which make up Cuba’s socialist system is obvious. The transition to capitalism is to be accomplished through ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Harvey 2003), with the United States serving as the principal agent of capitalist development. In order for a ‘free Cuba’ to be re-integrated into its appropriate location within global capitalism, state and socialized property must be converted into private property and a working class with certain economic and social rights must be reconfigured to be ‘free’ of those protections. The Commission’s significance, however, goes beyond the relatively narrow boundaries of US-Cuba policy. Indeed, CAFC I and CAFC II should be seen as major documents of capitalist globalization. If there is indeed no alternative to global capitalism, then the very idea of revolution must be rendered meaningless. The central elements of the Commission’s analysis of Cuba – the transformation of Cuba’s revolution into a brief interruption of a golden past that must be ‘restored’ or, alternatively, into the simple succession of Batista by Castro, the reduction of democracy to the limited forms of polyarchy, and the conversion of Cuba’s human development successes into failures – are nothing less than an effort to erase discursively the possibility of revolution. Without revolution and its promise of a better world, then all that remains is the inevitability of capitalist globalization.

This exclusion of alternatives, however, is not an inevitable process. Cuba has held off heroically almost fifty years of political, military, and economic destabilization by the United States. It has also provided inspiration to anti-imperialist movements and movements opposed to capitalist globalization. In this regard, despite important differences it is difficult to imagine how Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution could have achieved what it has without the material and moral support of Cuba. Because of this, it is essential for scholars and activists opposed to capitalist globalization to take seriously the work of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. It would be a mistake to see CAFC I and CAFC II as merely election year sops to Florida’s Cuban exile population or as dealing ‘only’ with Cuba. The Commission’s work expresses the central theses of neoliberalism, and it is directed against the state which has consistently been neoliberalism’s most significant opponent. For this reason the left must renew its commitment to defending Cuba against US plans for the transition to capitalism.


1. For a critical discussion of these claims, see Landau and Smith (2002), Reynolds (2004), and Smith, Muse & Baker (2004).

2. For an examination of Cuba’s socialist democracy see Fuller (1992) and Roman (2003).

3. On a 2003 visit to Cuba, the author heard similar connections voiced repeatedly by Cuban officials and social scientists.


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