Looking at Cuba Today: Four Assumptions and Six Intertwined Problems*

Introduction: Assumptions to be considered

The changing Latin American scenario, now colored by the international economic crisis, has raised once again the question of possible future trends and the question of whether socialism offers a solution to the local and global problems that currently face humanity.

To examine the Cuban experience as a specific expression of real socialism1 requires at least a very general look at the conception by which it is judged. Therefore I pose some initial ideas regarding features that seem to me essential in a process of socialist-oriented change:

The integral nature of socialist transformation. Socialism should be thought of as an integral transformation. It is not limited to a particular area (economics, politics, culture, etc.), but rather occurs as an articulation and interaction among them. Within this holistic perspective, the role of the cultural dimension is recognized as a synthesis, a space for values, for the symbolic, and for meanings. It rescues the dialectic of the relation of whole to part and of micro to macro in their relative autonomy and in their interconnections, in the ability of each part of a system to generate an effect and thereby to modify the system in its entirety.

Socialism as a stage and process of change. Socialism, and the transition to it, is a long process of change, a society of and in transition to a higher state, not a fully realized society. Due to the radical nature of the changes it poses and the historical novelty of the society that would emerge from it, an extended period seems necessary. Therefore, some (or many) of the forms of social relationships that it creates along the way become stable and function as if in a fully realized society. This is, to some extent, a condition required for going forward with the change, but it does not imply that these structures should be set in stone. On the contrary, these moments of stability allow the pursuit of a dynamic of change. Therefore, the socialist process is inherently one of change, with its advances, reversals, contradictions, conflicts, and ambivalences; and the ability to transform and constantly renew itself is key to its economic, social and political management. From this perspective, reform and socialism are perfectly congruent.

The pluralistic (multiactoral) nature of socialist transformation. It is necessary to understand the range of options, alternatives, routes and social actors as corresponding to (a) the variety of political, economic, cultural and historical conditions of every society and every stage, and (b) the state of those forces that opt or could opt for this path of transformation. I think that the idea of diverse sets of protagonists (diversidad actoral) is essential for contemplating socialism today, in contrast to the historically dominant view of socialism as a transformation propelled by one class that embodies the only possibility of progress and that always establishes partnerships with other classes and strata, but considers them to be subalterns or minor actors.

The absence of closed models of transformation. When we speak of models of socialism, we should use this notion as an analytic tool to describe and evaluate specific experiences from the standpoint of the ideals that inform the transformation and the mechanisms that are applied to put those ideals into practice most efficiently (an ex post facto mechanism), rather than see a model as the embodiment of a realizable utopia, or as some variant of a more or less delimited and predictable prescription. Even less should we see a model as “the” only way. It would seem more useful to emphasize the novelty of each transformation that socialism can guide and inspire.

The emancipatory nature of socialism. In any case, socialism as a concrete practical transformation should be seen as an emancipatory process, as an alteration and reconstruction of economic, political, social, and cultural relations with the intention of eliminating alienation by means of social inclusion and devolution of power. It is not a process that takes place all at once or that is oriented only toward the elimination of alienating relationships based in macrostructural exploitation established by the previous society; rather we should recognize that socialist transformation may also generate its own forms of alienation on a macro and micro scale. This would be the key to permanent self-criticism and self-correction. A minimum program and summary of initial changes would include the gradual elimination of exploitative relationships, socialization of property in various forms and degrees, satisfaction of basic needs for everyone at a dignified level, an agenda of social change based on justice and that prioritizes the demands of popular sectors, and increased popular participation leading to self-management.

On this foundation, I consider the following to be epistemological assumptions essential for observing today’s Cuba: 1) the relative and mediated nature of all truth; 2) the absolute requirement of diverse perspectives, which can only be obtained by recognizing the multiplicity of possible viewpoints; 3) the need to think about problems and their possible solutions not from an all-knowing center but rather relying on the capacity for reflection and self-management that is potentially present in all social collectivities involved in the process of change; and 4) the adoption of a complex notion of causality which rejects linear, proportional, dichotomous and fixed determinations (e.g. “base determines superstructure,” disregarding mediation and feedback) in favor of a perspective in which cause and effect are interchangeable and not necessarily of the same magnitude.

Intertwined problems

After specifying these assumptions, I pose my suggestion of problems, accepting their relative and reflexive nature. I to use the idea of a knot to represent a bundle of intertwined problems that in turn comprise or relate to another set of conflict areas of different scale and nature and whose influence, for this reason, is decisive for the reproduction of the whole, in such a way that unraveling the knots presupposes activating many varied areas of change. The knot concept also reflects the fact that the problems identified make up a complex system articulated in such a way that each problem forms part of the causes and effects of the other problems.

My final choice of specific problems is based on observing and evaluating daily life in terms of its ability to provide the vast majority at once with well-being and with opportunities for empowerment and for overcoming alienation. Each problem could and should be seen as a web of solutions that will generate new problems. In other words, these are not virgin territories, where there have been no advances. On the contrary, each problem presupposed a choice of intervention by the revolutionary power in the given situation, engendering advances which today are coming up against their own limitations and are in need of a fresh evaluation and approach.

I identify six knotty problems. The order in which they are presented does not indicate a causal hierarchy. Any one could be the first or last; what matters is what their interaction produces:

1. Techno-bureaucratic-political control of the social change agenda. What is meant here is that the choice of a social management strategy (in policy, planning, economics, administration, etc.) has been placed in the hands of technocrats under the assumption that this will be more effective and will be democratic, and that the point of view of the beneficiaries is secondary and subordinate to a supposedly higher knowledge. The people (envisioned as heterogeneous) who should be the protagonists of the transformation, controlling its outcomes and its use of resources, are merely consulted and mobilized. All this is expressed in hyper-State control of social relations, centralization and verticalism, paternalism and authoritarianism, and one-size-fits-all distribution with insufficient sensitivity to meet the diverse needs and heterogeneous interests (of groups, regions, localities, labor collectivities, etc.), causing alienation due to a lack of real participation in decision-making. Among the problems recursively associated with this entanglement we can observe a lack of technological and social innovation, lack of participation, lack of political commitment, and withdrawal into the individual and immediate family environment; and a social agenda that does not sufficiently address issues that are of priority to the people (housing, food, transportation, income, etc.).

2. Economically Unsustainable Social Project. To illustrate this problem let us take as an example the relationship between the growth of social spending and the evolution of some economic indicators. The trend of social spending has always been ahead of economic performance indicators. Thus, while social consumption grew annually by an average of 12% between the second half of the 70s and the early 80s, during that period the total Global Social Product2 increased at an average annual rate of 9%, and the income generated by a productive worker rose by 2.3%. Between 1980 and 1987 the value of industrial production increased on an average of 5.6%. Between 1998 and 2000 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had an average increase of 6.4%, while expenditures on social services climbed at an average annual rate of 13.1%, far exceeding improvements in labor productivity.3 This relation between social spending and GDP is obviously an expression of the priority given to social needs in the logic of Cuba’s socialist transformation and is the basis of Cuba’s significant social progress. However, wealth generation sets limits to social policy; it is a substantive component of sustainability. When that limit is routinely violated, other problems are generated parallel to the advances, such as low productivity, failure to achieve food security, low rates of return on social investment, weak individual and collective financial incentives for high-yield performance, expansion of the informal economy and the black market, and the impoverishment of large swaths of the population. In any case, the problem is not in the high macroeconomic priority given to social spending, which is an exceedingly positive aspect, but instead it is in the way that this priority is economically supported.4

3. Exacerbation of social inequalities. It is a well-known fact that one of the strongest impacts of the crisis and reform of the 90s in Cuba was an abrupt and accelerated increase in economic inequality that has been described in some studies as “social restratification.” Despite the time elapsed since the beginning of this period and despite the influence that subsequent modifications have had on the level of inequality, this restratification is still going on. Rising inequality should not be treated as negative in an absolute sense, but rather as ambivalent. On the one hand, it has led to increased production incentives, expansion of sources of employment and income sufficient to meet basic needs, diversification of the supply of goods and services, and, for certain social groups, the restoration of a link between individual contribution and access to material welfare. On the other hand, it has damaged essential aspects of social justice and equity to the point of even strengthening unjust socioeconomic disparity (unearned wealth that is unrelated to entitlements for persons or groups with special needs), causing impoverishment (20% of the urban population lives in poverty),5 and intensifying disadvantages associated with race, gender and locality that are reproduced from generation to generation, making this entanglement especially relevant because it undermines and negates one of the primary bases of the socialist project.

4. Loss of the value of work as a means of making a living and of attaining material well-being and personal satisfaction. The obvious gap between the wages of salaried workers and the purchasing power of other income sources (remittances, black market, and illegal actions) has devalued work as a social value. This is tied up with social inequalities not associated with work, and the adoption of strategies of life and survival that legitimize illegal, semi-legal, and informal activities. It is reinforced by weak participatory and self-management mechanisms in the world of work, leaving very little room for actual direct involvement and influence over decisions concerning workplace life or the general strategies of the country. Thus this aspect is more a mechanism of alienation than of human fulfillment.

5. Weakening the affinity between the current political project and its role as a social model, on the one hand, and the aspirations and expectations of individual and family life on the other. In some cases there has been a complete disconnection. The previous four knotty problems lead to this one, which in turn reinforces the first four, not only in terms of gaps between individual and collective demands and the priorities of the national “Plan” (including the ratio of investment to consumption), but also in terms of a whole set of connections between the social and the individual, between material and subjective dimensions. Expectations that remain unfulfilled by the paternalistic/homogenizing system – the disassociation of work from well-being, impoverishment, lack of participation, material standards that are promised but postponed from generation to generation, and an individual freedom apparently set against the higher interests of the community and the nation – all reinforce in the common imagination a vaguely conscious feeling that it is impossible to construct such an affinity, which in turn has led to the notion of “struggle,” of “resolving” difficulties informally, of a society that has little to offer. This is concretely expressed in individual and family strategies adopted irrespective of their consistency with the social project, and in life plans disconnected from the fate of the nation, all of which is most dramatically manifested in corruption and migration.

6. Failed or truncated socialist institutionality. Here I point out that the formation of an authentic socialist citizenship, characterized by civility and solidarity, has been frustrated by bureaucratization, insufficient legal anchoring of our constitution, weak problem-solving capacity of People’s Power as a form of democratic government, the notion of a mass media averse to serious criticism, the absence of a real vocation of service by public institutions, and the lack of popular democratic control over them and of systematic, transparent and reliable information about their operations, their actual impacts, their inefficiency and their “leftisms” (sus “por la izquierda”). Socialist citizenship is consequently undermined by widespread popular cronyism (for lack of a better term).

Possible directions for change.

Before offering alternatives I want to recall certain traits that shape the national context and that delineate the options and constraints for possible courses of action.

My first comment refers to a common assertion that feeds the collective imaginary: that the serious problems we have today are due to the crisis and subsequent reform (reform understood only as short-term crisis-management rather than a strategy for socialist renewal), and that the solution depends on availability of resources. My view is that although the crisis, the reform, and the availability of resources must be taken into account in any solution to the problems, they do not explain why the problems exist. The problems began before the crisis and are associated with the adoption of a socialist concept that wrongly identifies 1) socialization of property with State ownership, 2) the market with capitalism, 3) equality with uniformity, 4) a social agenda with voluntarist subordination of the economy to social purposes, and 5) the State with society. Therefore, the solution to our problems is not just a question of resource availability (an obviously essential aspect), but also of a new understanding.

My second comment emphasizes that it is not a matter of introducing reforms onto a static or stable scenario. Cuban society displays elements of both change and continuity. The effects of the early 90s reform, with its ongoing fluctuations and zigzag trajectory, are interwoven in the current scenario, which also includes the unavoidable generational change in political leadership and in all spheres of life, all of which in turn heralds the beginning of a new era of reform.6

Changes of personnel in government and the State are accompanied by a platform of action marked essentially marked by economic imperatives that, so far, seem to focus on: strengthening the leading role of the Communist Party in the economy and society; reducing the bureaucratic nature of the State apparatus by shrinking its structure and personnel and, especially, by decreasing the restrictive power of bureaucracies over personal conduct and rights (travel permits, buying and selling of goods, housing swaps, etc.); restoring civil rights and rights of personal and family property ownership; expanding the availability of “luxury” goods and services (in accordance with Cuba’s living standard these include computers, cell phones, DVDs and videos, access to hotels and resorts, etc.); reorganizing agricultural production toward truly self-managed cooperative structures and small family commercial farming; decentralizing food production policy to the local level and expanding the market; enhancing material incentives for productivity by increasing business autonomy in salary decisions; and fostering opportunities for debate, public criticism and civic participation.

Such a platform, if it is finally consolidated and radicalized, could mean a new era of reform that will restore the intention of implementing a pluralistic (multiactoral) model of socialism (in the sense of diversification of economic actors linked to different forms of ownership and with emphasis on their interactions and complementarity in productive roles and in decision-making, and with greater opportunities for decentralization and self-organization). Such an approach was inherent in the design of the early 90s reform, but was not sufficiently activated or was reversed at various stages of actual implementation.

The above elements of change, which could be considered macro-structural and formal, are accompanied and driven by a current of change that arises, more or less consciously or explicitly, from micro-scale everyday practices. At least two elements are clearly visible in the composition of this micro-scale: the widespread and documented “family strategies for surviving and raising income”7 and the little-studied phenomenon of alternative communication and virtual networks that has arisen from private or State access to cyberspace and the many opportunities for information exchange offered by portable digital media storage.

A broad repertoire of strategies has been identified. They are not unique to this period, but what is new is how long they have persisted and how widely they have been accepted.8 They include, among many other practices, internal and external migration (permanent or temporary, in order to send remittances and to create a chain of later family migration); marriage as a means of upward social mobility; legal or illegal activities in the non-state sector and creation of small family businesses; sale on the black market of products from various sources and of inconsistent quality; household labor; illegal subcontracting in profitable State activities, especially in tourism and restaurants; illegal services to tourists and foreigners; renting houses, rooms, and spaces in the home; transportation services; and private gainful use of State property and facilities.

What is interesting is society’s flexibility in identifying gaps and rapidly providing the goods and services that the formal market fails to provide, in bringing into play the resources and social capital available to a family unit, and in conveniently blurring the conventional line between legal and illegal, right and wrong, revealing the independent organizational power of the family unit and micro-scale activities and their importance in achieving efficiency.

The internet has generated, to give just three simple examples: a semi-virtual market,9 a network of free or paid exchange of TV series, music, and movies, thereby establishing an alternative source of leisure activities outside the State’s formal institutional control, and a rapid system for discussion and consensus-building on issues of interest to public opinion.10

This atmosphere of designing a decentralized and flexible reality, with a pattern of transformation that links chaos and order (or rather emerges from a self-organizing chaos), is in itself a reform from below, with its own directions and intensities, which absorbs planned actions and reinvents them in distinct directions and ways.

Moreover, these domestic factors are linked to others coming from the international setting in which we are immersed, which shapes opportunities, presents threats, and sets limits on the range of activities open to a small, island-bound economy that is heavily vulnerable to external forces such as the US blockade, regional environmental circumstances, global food and fuel prices, the zonal selectivity of globalization, increasing armed conflicts, the international economic crisis, etc.

If it is difficult to identify specific problems, it is even more difficult to suggest solutions, which require even more an approach from multiple viewpoints and disciplines and a multifaceted vision. I venture to propose here a general outline for change drawn from ten years of research in the field of inequalities and social policy in which I have participated.11

The following remarks are conceptualized, as were the problems, as areas of interlaced change. Contradictions may emerge between or within them, as may unexpected effects, positive or negative, which indicate the need to correct actions that have been undertaken, recognizing that no a priori “everything is under control” design is possible. What can be offered is a platform of discussion and collective action that continually loops back on itself and has the potential to self-generate, based on Edgar Morin’s idea of “ecology of action,” according to which any action undertaken escapes its pre-established intentions in concrete practice when it enters a universe of interactions and is absorbed by the environment in one way or another, to entwine with chance factors, uncertainties, bifurcations, and emerging processes. In these circumstances, the strategy must prevail over the program. “A program sets up a sequence of actions to be executed without variation in a stable environment. Strategy elaborates a scenario of action based on an appraisal of the certainties and uncertainties, the probabilities and improbabilities of the situation”.12 Therefore I propose to consider some steps for nurturing what we might consider a general strategy for change.

One of these essential steps would be to move toward defining and implementing a new strategy of economic viability for the Cuban social project. This strategy should have several spatial-temporal scales and its primary focus should be an improved integration of Cuba into the world economic system and production chain, a system that cannot be substantially changed by a peripheral country (let alone Cuba, subject to the hostility of the world’s superpower), but in which such a country can at least try to position itself more favorably. Here we find the proposal of moving permanently from the import substitution model to one of export substitution based on the export of technology-intensive products. This does not exclude, but rather complements, processes of import substitution and of export of natural resources, but bars them from becoming defining factors of the process.

I believe that modifying the external structural constraints in the current extraordinarily complex international context will require using the logic of the export substitution model in order both to pursue political alliances that present new possibilities for regional integration and cooperation, and to be able to deal (as is unavoidable) with the global market. This would be a selective option entrusted to the State economy, which also requires a supportive domestic market and must necessarily be linked to economic restructuring that would expand productive activities utilizing the most diverse technology, skills, and forms of property.

The absolutization of State ownership has limited the diversification of employment and income generation options, has restricted productive incentives, and has overburdened the State in its productive and distributive functions. Strengthening the State’s ability to ensure that its social strategy is economically sustainable would widen of the range of possible forms of non-State social ownership in a pluralistic (multiactoral) socialism through the diversification of economic actors.

There are many possibilities for rebuilding the organizational framework of ownership of the means of production without altering its hard core of socialization and collectivization: collective ownership of towns and municipalities, community property, urban cooperatives of producers and service providers, professional ownership and partnerships, joint ownership (State-private, State-cooperative) in small and medium size firms, and micro private firms, as well as diversified and expanded self-employment opportunities.

The issue is complicated and always leads to the question of whether this is a problem of formal ownership or real power. In the latter case, the solution would lean more toward the implementation of self-management processes (based on the right of use) than to diversification and denationalization of ownership. I believe that the legal expression of ownership in the Cuban constitution – “the property and riches of the socialist nation,” “the people’s socialist ownership of the fundamental means of production” or “socialist State property” as “the property of the entire people” – which amounts to absolutization of the centralized State as the highest and almost only expression of collective and popular national ownership – in fact alienates and depersonalizes the collective subject of that patrimony.

Luis Marcelo distinguishes between “ownership” and “rights of ownership” and believes that what happened under socialism is that, even though State ownership of the fundamental means of production exists, the ownership rights of actual producers in State enterprises (in terms of decision-making) have not been recognized as State ownership rights. In his opinion, it would not be appropriate to try to solve the problem by separating ownership (which corresponds to the State) from management (as self-management in collective firms), because this variation continues to depersonalize commitments and obligations, thus weakening contractual responsibility. He believes the solution lies in “designing social co-ownership between the State and producers.”13

Surely there is not just one solution. Usufruct under self-management should be combined in varying ways – as appropriate to each situation – with individual or collective ownership subject to mechanisms of social management, but retaining essential autonomy (contrary to what happened with agricultural cooperatives).

A further proposal would be for public intervention, through social policies, to have responsibility for improving the management of social development by honing the sensitivity of these policies to identify and manage differences guided by a sense of social justice. This involves replacing any homogenizing goal with a social policy based on socialist norms of equality/inequality and establishing a system of basic priorities for managing the tension between equity and inequity. It also includes promoting affirmative policies that recognize regional differences as variables of development. For this, it is essential to identify local socioeconomic actors, both as agents of change and as an indispensable methodological requirement in the design of development programs or self-transformative activities at the local level.

On the other hand, prioritizing depressed areas has a wider effect on social disadvantages, since these are usually spatially concentrated, considering that the appropriation of space is socially stratified, depending on the ability to seize opportunities. The idea of regional targeting is not to abandon or replace the mechanisms of universality, but rather to make them more powerful. The targeting complements, deepens, and focuses universality. Here we would also include a change of priorities and proportions of social spending toward areas of need such as housing, transportation, employment, income and nutrition.

In addition, amplifying the socialization and democratization of power requires a more participatory and less bureaucratic type of decision-making to respond to public demands in all areas (work, community, governmental, extra-governmental, etc.) and to prioritize co-management, strategic planning, and popular control of processes as well as results. This would involve participation from all levels and sectors and would not restrict anyone’s capacity for thought and action. It would apply to all levels of management and to all sectors of activity. Participation by each actor is local, direct and immediate; it expands the possibilities for intervention to encompass general development strategies, and would include voicing criticism, making proposals, auditing, carrying out change and renewal. It would emphasize direct participatory control rather than delegation of responsibility.

I prefer to close my analysis here, leaving it as a general proposal at the strategic level. I am convinced that any progress toward practical solutions will depend on a change in philosophy and on the unfolding of collective intelligence and open debate.


*This is a summary of the article, “Mirar a Cuba hoy: cuatro supuestos para la observación y seis problemas – nudos,” which appeared in Temas, No. 56.

1. The idea of “real socialism” distinguishes between theoretical constructions of socialism, on the one hand, and, on the other, historical experiences that have attempted in practice a non-capitalist, Marxist- inspired path of transformation. These experiences had four characteristics in common: they did not occur under developed capitalism, so that most of them had to create the material preconditions for socialism; they occurred in a global system dominated by capitalism, so that each inevitably unfolded as a revolution in one country; they took place in societies that were highly heterogeneous due to their underdeveloped state, so that the aspiration to a unique socialism was “virtually impossible”; and they were the result of political revolutions and not of endogenous evolution from capitalism. See Juan Valdés Paz, “¿Qué es el socialismo del Siglo XXI?” Presentation in Martes de Debate, Fondos del CIPS, Havana, 2008.


3. Data taken from the Comité Estatal de Estadísticas (CEE), Censo Nacional de Población y Viviendas, Havana, 1981. and ONE, Anuario Estadístico de Cuba, Havana, 2006.

4. For recent analyses on diverse aspects of the Cuban economy relevant to this problem, see Omar Everleny Pérez’s article elsewhere in this issue, as well as other chapters in his edited collection Reflexiones sobre la economía cubana, Havana: Ed. Ciencias Sociales, 2006, esp. those by Juan Triana, Pavel Vidal, Armando Nova, and Anicia García.

5. See Ángela Ferriol, “Política social y desarrollo: Un aproximación global,” in E. Álvarez and J. Mattar, eds., Política social y reformas estructurales: Cuba a principios del siglo XXI. (Mexico: CEPAL-INIE-PNUD, 2004).

6. Aspects of the new reform moment are discussed by Raúl Castro in his speeches of July 26, 2007 and February 24, 2008.

7. These strategies are defined as a form of popular response to the crises and as the set of procedures used by the family unit in order to satisfy its basic needs and to withstand the pressures around it. Their goal is to minimize uncertainty and maximize the use of available resources, drawing on its surrounding social networks. Despite unpredictable variations, they are considered strategies because they combine anticipation, foresight, prior experience, and ingenuity, while yet being flexible and transitory. They are a permanent adaptive innovation in the face of infinitely varied situations. See José Luis Coraggio, “Política económica, comunicación y economía popular,” Procesos Políticos y Democracia No 17, Quito, 1989.

8. The repertoire was compiled from Departamento de Estudios sobre Familia, Familia y cambios socioeconómicos a las puertas del Nuevo Milenio (Havana: Centro de Investigaciones Psicológicas y Sociológicas, 2001); Mayra Espina, Políticas de atención a la pobreza y la desigualdad: Examinando el rol del Estado en la experiencia cubana (Buenos Aires: CLACSO-CROP, 2008); see also Zabala, in this issue.

9. See the google groups superpccuba and pccuba, or visit www.revolico.com or google search ventashabana.

10. In this last aspect, it is enough to recall the so-called “Guerrita de los correos” (email war) – a quick cyber response from the artistic-literary sector which developed a common stance protesting the appearance on two TV programs of individuals who had leading roles in the administration of cultural institutions during the so-called Quinquenio Gris (Gray Half-Decade) “characterized by dogma, censorship and ideological repression – especially in the arts, literature and social thought” (Centro Teórico Cultural Criterios, La política cultural del período revolucionario: memoria y reflexión, Havana: Colección Criterios, 2008, 5).

11. For more detail see Espina 2008.

12. Morin, Edgar Los siete saberes necesarios para la educación del futuro, Paris: UNESCO, 1999.

13. See Luis Marcelo, “El sistema empresarial estatal cubano y la realización de la copropiedad Estado-productores,” in Pérez.

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