For Cuba the 1990s meant a series of changes that, while challenging the historical logic of the revolution, were necessary to adjust to a post-Soviet world. After undergoing the difficult process of extricating Cuba from its economic links to the Soviet Union and Comecon (Council of Mutual Economic Assistance)1 – with serious negative repercussions on the population’s quality of life – the island adopted a series of strategies designed to ameliorate the resulting foreign and domestic impact through tourism and foreign investment.2 Cuban economists in those years described tourism as the engine that pulled the train. This was true until the emergence of new alternatives in the service sector, principally medical and technical assistance personnel being sent on time-limited internationalist missions to other countries, and who also benefited Cuba by sending home remittances, returning with scarce consumer goods, and allotting a substantial portion of their salaries to the state. The human capital formed by the educational revolution that began in the 1960s was thus put into service of these new challenges.

Foreign investment, however, never became an important part of the Cuban economy because of a series of domestic and foreign limitations and restrictions. These include, on the one hand, Cuban government measures to prevent money-laundering and, on the other, the impact of US laws in the 1990s that tightened the economic blockade in part by extending its application to other countries (which several governments in the region challenged through measures known as “antidote laws”3). In any event, a Cuban entrepreneurial sector linked to joint ventures with foreign investors emerged that was frequently affected by a conflict between historic values of the revolution and those of capitalist logic. This led to the adoption of a Code of Ethics in the late 1990s to combat corruption, which became one of the most worrisome problems of current Cuban society. The leadership of the Cuban Communist Party has identified finding solutions for this as an indispensable priority because of its detrimental effects on society.

In this period the word “market” became commonly used given the new Cuban realities. The 1990s saw the expansion of the range of occupations permitted for self-employment, which has become a source of jobs for a small but significant number of people. Private cafeterias and street vendors selling snacks appeared, both of which had practically ceased to exist after the March 1968 Revolutionary Offensive. This marked another change, since the State was no longer the only employer. Private family restaurants, popularly known as paladares, also appeared as well as people renting out one or more rooms in their homes, especially to foreigners but also to Cubans. Another new word emerged: “taxes,” which up to the present have only been imposed on the self-employed but not on those who work for the state. Private farmers’ markets, which had been abolished in 1986 during the Rectification period, were again allowed in 1994 after what became known as the “Rafter Crisis” – in which around 35,000 people emigrated to the United States, the majority under 35 years of age. These markets, popularly known as “los agros,” in which prices are determined by supply and demand, have helped compensate for the limits of the rationing system that has existed in Cuba since the 1960s and which is increasingly coming under scrutiny. A consequence of all these changes has been a questioning of the level of state paternalism in the lives of Cubans. This has even been discussed in the letters to the editor section of the Communist Party’s newspaper Granma. To be sure, the state is still ambivalent about the issues of the market and of self-employment, which are also controversial among economists and other experts.

Meanwhile, new actors brought more diversity to the Cuban social fabric. Inequities increased as never before since the triumph of the Revolution. The country opened up much more to the exterior as a result of new migration patterns – known as the Cuban diaspora – which brought a changed dynamic between the nation and those who emigrated, not only because of monetary remittances sent to Cuba (especially after legalization of the possession and use of hard currency in 1993), but also due to “cultural remittances” which in various ways affected the idea of what is “national” and even influenced the formation of certain identity groups (transvestites, transsexuals, gays, fans of rap music, Rastafarians, emos4 and others). New survival strategies included one or several household-members deciding to emigrate to assist their family with monetary remittances. In sum, major changes took place including tourism, markets, foreign investment, emigration, and sending Cuban healthcare and technical workers abroad, all of which meant that access to hard currency is not so limited as it was a decade ago.

Cuba begins the 21st century in the context of a new situation in Latin America, with a wave of recently elected leftist governments, leading to the consolidation of its relations with other countries in the area (a process that began in the 1970s). The emergence of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) has led, despite its possible limitations, to greater integration of Cuba within the region and to a coordination of economic, political and cultural strategies aimed at overcoming the challenges faced by the Revolution. Having achieved the principal objective – survival in the face of unrelenting US hostility – many scholars believe that the biggest problem now is how to address adversities resulting from the current world economic crisis, which has caused a drastic drop in the annual rate of economic growth, a negative balance of payments, and a difficult situation in the financial sphere. Domestically, food production and distribution of idle land are still matters of great importance whose progress must be monitored to see if the problem of food self-sufficiency – which was recognized but not resolved in the 1990s – will finally be adequately addressed.

In the political sphere, the postponed Communist Party Congress (originally announced for September 2009, but not yet rescheduled) should deal with key issues in Cuba relating not only to economic strategies but also to leadership, since this is likely to be the last Congress in which the historic generation who made the Revolution will participate. This obviously poses the problem of continuity of the revolution in a situation characterized by the aging of the country. Indeed, as a result of social and public health advances since the 1960s and the drop in birth rates – a side effect of the economic crisis – Cuba today has one of the oldest populations in the world. It is one of the Cuban paradoxes: as a poor Third World country it has social indicators equivalent to developed nations (as recognized in United Nations Human Development reports). It is in this context that we present the articles that follow, in the hope that they will shed light on some of these problems and processes.


Since the 1990s new currents of social thought have emerged in Cuba that try to address current realities and to examine the challenges on the domestic and international stages. Many of the resulting studies, though perhaps not all, are open and unorthodox, following an eclectic tradition generally present in Cuban culture since the 19th century. Topics have been broad and varied, ranging across economic policies and their repercussions (poverty, marginality); social issues (race, racism, national identity, religion); cultural (identity), literary production (including literature from the diaspora and the relation between language, nation and literature) and others.

The articles in this issue are part of this process in which the social sciences and social thought have developed new approaches, not only in response to internal dynamics but also because of greater contact with approaches and scholarship found outside Cuba, sometimes beginning a critical dialogue with the latter. These studies emerge from within the Revolution, and support its commitment to social betterment, with corresponding doses of criticism of recent practices.

The opening essay, “Revolution/Reform and Other Cuban Dilemmas,” is an example. The author, Rafael Hernández, is a Cuban intellectual who reflects on Cuba and its image abroad, and on such themes as civil society and emerging social thought. This text refutes certain past and present views of prerevolutionary Cuban history which argue that radical change may not have been the best way to address accumulated problems. Hernández discusses the claim that at two important conjunctures before the revolution, Cuba could have taken a more moderate path. According to that point of view, a negotiated autonomy with concessions from Spain would have been preferable to war and the break with Spain. Similarly, moderate reform – rather than revolution – was possible after Batista’s coup on March 10, 1952, which would not have incurred the high cost of breaking with Cuba’s dependency on the United States. Hernández disputes both positions. He goes on to briefly survey Cuban history in the 1950s to 1959 and then discusses the different stages of the Revolution generally recognized among scholars. He examines the relationship among revolution, reform, and institutionalization, which cannot be understood, he notes, as separate categories. He also points out the current obstacles to achieving necessary reforms within the socialist structure.

In “Cuba: The Left in Government, 1959-2008,” political analyst Juan Valdés Paz discusses the original emergence of a new left, composed of young people from the “Centennial Generation,”5 led by Fidel Castro. This generation had a decisive impact on the revolutionary process, which Valdés Paz sees as inspired by nationalism and by José Martí’s thought. These influences persisted even in the most institutionalized stage of the revolution when the influence of so-called “real socialism” and the Soviet model were prevalent. Valdés Paz examines the scope of the term “left” and revisits the problem of institutionalization from a different angle than Hernández, elaborating on the post-1959 political order and emphasizing the political and economic factors that conditioned government policies.

The relation between the political system and democracy – one of the most controversial topics outside of Cuba where “democracy” is often reduced to the principles of liberal ideology and practice – is the focus of the article by University of Havana professor Emilio Duharte. He starts with the moment in 2006 when Fidel Castro left the government and his brother Raúl Castro assumed the presidency. Duharte discusses some of the implications of changes in leadership style, a greater degree of collective decision-making, restructuring of various ministries, and the replacement of some top officials. On the other hand, he also argues that popular participation in decision-making must be deepened at all levels to work toward a culture of debate as the only way to find widely accepted solutions to the country’s problems. This is not a new appeal, but has yet to become accepted in some of the mass media where a “bunker mentality” is firmly rooted.6 He argues that the functions of the Party and the State should be more clearly delineated – a classic problem of “historical socialism” that has not yet been resolved in Cuba.

Several authors in this issue identify economic sustainability as a major issue for Cuban socialism. Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva and Pavel Vidal of the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEEM) present a detailed discussion of the internal and external problems of the national economy. Internally it suffers from low productivity, inefficiency, and an increasingly questioned dual monetary system.7 Externally it has been beset by the current world crisis and hurricane devastation, leading economists to make many proposals, some of which are included here. The authors see economic reform as a necessity priority, including non-state forms of property in agriculture, manufacturing and services. In an economy where state control has played a predominant role and has often been a source of more problems than benefits, they explore the potential role of the market in achieving growth with equity while retaining the historic gains of Cuban socialism.

Sociologist Mayra Espina, researcher at the Center for Psychological and Sociological Research (CIPS), offers an overall evaluation of Cuban socialism in “Looking at Cuba Today: Four Assumptions and Six Intertwined Problems.” She sees Cuba’s principal problems as bureaucratization (an issue identified by leadership since the early 1960s, but unresolved and even getting worse), excessive centralization, and a top-down approach. In this suggestive and polemical article, she calls for a more democratic and participatory institutional system to overcome the shortcomings of Cuba’s form of bureaucratic socialism. Especially relevant is her vision of a pluralistic (multiactoral) socialism built by people from the ground up and not only from the state down.

The goal of achieving higher levels of social justice and emancipation requires confronting the problem of poverty. María del Carmen Zabala of the University of Havana emphasizes that Cuban social policies, past and present, have given poverty in the island unique characteristics compared with other countries. In her study of urban poverty, she analyzes basic indicators related to gender and housing conditions. The continued expansion of squatter settlements, reflected in the documentary film Buscándote Habana by the young filmmaker Alina Rodríguez (available on YouTube), shows that there is a “Cuba B” – the three most backward provinces, Guantánamo, Las Tunas and Granma, which have been the source of the greatest number of migrants to the capital. These migrants are called “Palestinians” because they “do not have land” and are frequently subject to discrimination. Racism based only on skin color is not the only problem that needs to be resolved in the context of the crisis, as is often assumed.

Gender has been recognized as an issue in Cuba only recently, but its analysis has been gaining strength and legitimacy. Many disciplines, especially the social sciences and literature, have started to present women as protagonists. Marta Núñez, sociologist at the Center for the Study of International Migration of the University of Havana, shows that women constitute the majority of the skilled workforce, implying that they have achieved in Cuba a higher level of intellectual and technical development than men. This, however, does not mean that they are adequately represented at each level of management. Their exclusion is due to the combination of historical cultural patterns – the “double day” (i.e, being responsible both for their jobs and for domestic tasks and childcare), and various forms of prejudice and stereotypes.8

Aurelio Alonso, a leading scholar of Cuban religion, shows that contrary to conventional thinking outside of Cuba, which often acknowledges only santería and similar religions, a wide range of religions is found in Cuba. After discussing the tensions that have marked relations between state and church, and between state and believers, Alonso discusses the process leading up to the decision, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, to admit religious believers as members of the Communist Party and to reform the Cuban Constitution to restore a secular state (rather than an atheist one). The crisis of values in the 1990s led to a religious revival, with a growing number of young people entering churches and a more open and less prejudiced attitude toward religion. No longer carrying a stigma, public religious displays became more common, such as people wearing a cross around their necks or the white clothing and necklaces typical of santería. According to Alonso, the 1971-85 period of “scientific atheism,” copied from the Soviets, could not eliminate Cuba’s particular forms of religiosity, which are clearly a part of the national culture and cannot be suppressed by ideological decrees.9

Race has been an issue from the beginning of Cuban history. Though racial mixing (mestizaje) was common before the Revolution and Cuba did not have Jim Crow forms of segregation, racial prejudice continued to be a blot on social relations. In 1959 the Revolution adopted policies, programs and laws to counter racism, but racism persisted “naturally” despite changes in the structural conditions that had made it possible.10 In their article, sociologists Rodrigo Espina and Pablo Rodríguez show that there was silence on the topic of racism until the mid-1980s, when the Third Party Congress recommended what the authors call a form of affirmative action to promote a greater number of blacks and women to leadership. Public discussion of racism had previously been curbed because of the need to maintain national unity in response to persistent US aggression. This led racism to retreat to more intimate social spaces, such as the family, where neither laws nor education were sufficient to eliminate it. Inequalities re-emerged in the 1990s and many continue today: unequal incomes for blacks (because of limited access to emerging sectors of the economy more than salary discrepancies), remittances (because far more white than black families had relatives who had emigrated), and residence in predominantly black and mestizo neighborhoods. The authors conclude that this is an issue that requires solutions appropriate to the Cuban reality rather than copying policies designed for other contexts.

Finally, this selection of recent writings does not offer an exhaustive compilation of Cuban sociological, economic and political thought, but we hope that it will demonstrate the great diversity of ideas being discussed in Cuba today and show that in this period of transition, there are many possibilities under consideration for the future direction of Cuban socialism.


1. Translator’s note: The Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, known as “Comecon” in English, was the Eastern European and Soviet Common Market, later expanded to Cuba, Vietnam and Mongolia.

2. See Pedro Monreal, “Development as an Unfinished Affair: Cuba after the Great Adjustment of the 90s,” in Philip Brenner, Marguerite Rose Jiménez, John M. Kirk and William LeoGrande, A Contemporary Cuba Reader (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

3. Translator’s note: Canada and Mexico enacted laws declaring that the measures in the Helms-Burton Law were invalid in their countries.

4. Translator’s note: “Emos” – from the word “emotional” – are a new urban tribe of young people. They dress in black, get depressed because society (and their parents) does not understand them, and listen to a specific kind of rock and roll. Women wear white makeup and very dark, often black, lipstick. The young men have unusual haircuts (short on one side and long on the other).

5. Translator’s note: The Centennial Generation (Generación del Centenario) was a group of young people who left Cuba’s Orthodox Party, which was projected to overwhelmingly win in 1952 elections had the coup not occurred, to take up armed struggle against Batista. They called themselves the Centennial Generation because the beginning of their struggle coincided with the hundredth anniversary of José Martí’s birth in 1853.

6. For a discussion and critique on this issue, see María López Vigil, “The Cuban Media,” in Brenner et al., A Contemporary Cuba Reader, 373-78.

7. Translator’s note: Cuba has two circulating monetary systems. The Cuban peso represents the national system, used by most Cubans for purchasing daily necessities. The convertible peso represents the equivalent of hard currency and its value is pegged to the US dollar. It is used by tourists and by Cubans with access to dollars and other hard currencies to purchase items not available in Cuban pesos.

8. See Luisa Campuzano, “Ser cubanas y no morir en el intento,” Temas no. 5 (January-March 1996), 4-10.

9. See Margaret Crahan, “Introduction” to Religion, Culture and Society: The Case of Cuba (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, 2003).

10. See Alejandro de la Fuente, A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

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