Revolution/Reform and Other Cuban Dilemmas

In Latin America and Cuba during the 1960s, the debate over reform and revolution was conducted as though the two were mutually exclusive (Petras 1966; Jaguaribe 1972; Varios 1973). This polarization is explained by historical circumstances.

The Alliance for Progress, launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, articulated an explicitly reformist alternative directed at containing the threat of “other Cubas” in the hemisphere. To a great extent, the natural partners in this alliance were the Latin American social democratic regimes and their leaders – the Venezuelan Rómulo Betancourt, the Costa Rican José Figueres and the Puerto Rican Luis Muñoz Marín, all of them former supporters of the Cuban revolution and ideologues of modern reformism. Although it is said that this policy lost its way, in reality, it never had much chance of success. The idea that social democracy was going to lead the charge in “containing communism” in Latin America or in Cuba itself was revealed as wishful thinking, hastily improvised by the founding intellectuals of the New Frontier (Schlesinger 1965: 186) and their counterparts in the region. Counterinsurgency, the armed facet of this policy, quickly prevailed over the reformist façade. Instead of aid for development, poverty reduction, agrarian reform and populist governments like that of Brazil’s João Goulart (1961-64), the region was inundated with military regimes that drowned revolutionary ambitions in blood, discarding all the trappings of democracy, rule of law, and development programs. In the few countries where the armed forces and the ultra-right did not usurp control of the state, reforms faded from the public agenda under the reign of party dominance by Christian Democrats and social democrats – the latter increasingly less social and more center-right.

Thus, the debate of the 60s and 70s over reform and revolution had a paradoxical and unexpected outcome: with the imposition of military rule, revolutions were thwarted, but so also was reform.

The view of the reform vs. revolution debate as involving sharply contrasting opposites1 would also color the historical interpretation of and the discourse about the Cuban revolution from its beginning to the present (Pérez-Stable 1993; Domínguez 1978).

This essay looks at revolution/reform not as a dichotomy but as a dialectical counterpoint that permeates the Cuban revolutionary process through its various stages. It questions interpretations centered on conspiracy theory and on viewing Fidel Castro’s leadership, charisma, and all-embracing powers as explanations of the process; and it emphasizes the complex role of social and political forces at play. It sees change as resulting from social demands, the evolution of consensus, and the development and exhaustion of successive projects, rather than simply from the will of the leadership or the implementation of a prefabricated plan. It argues that only the periodic renewal of consensus and reform has been able to achieve political stability and continuity in the system. Finally, the essay examines some conceptual aspects related to the debate over reforms and their significance in present-day Cuba.

Back to the beginning

The Cuba that began armed insurrection in December 1956 was a country in profound need of reform. Although the Constitution of 1940 had been inspired by the social reform agenda left unfulfilled by the revolution of 1930, during the next 12 years, none of the governments produced by multiparty elections troubled themselves to implement even a modest agrarian reform. The pluralism of the Cuban political system had sprung a leak on both sides. Independent unions and the legal Communist left, which managed to function within the system for several years, would be buffeted by Cold War winds and the pressure of interests created during the Auténtico governments in the second half of the 1940s.2 Converted into a bottomless pit of sinecures, theft, and raids on the public treasury, the State institutionalized depravity as a style of governance, permitting gangsterism to plague everyday politics from the town hall to the university. Meanwhile, the bloc of sugar-baron families, the import industry, and their allies – the large US companies – were concerned only about guaranteeing free enterprise and private property. As a famous beer advertisement proclaimed, “the others don’t count.”

Except for the Ortodoxos,3 whose slogan “shame on money” expressed citizen discontent with the dearth of public morality, the parties in the system had already defrauded the public treasury and shown indifference to the will of their constituents. Cuban businesses producing for the domestic market, small landowners and shopkeepers, public employees and workers in education and health – to say nothing of labor organizations and the rural and urban poor – had no significant representation in the Cuban State during those years. How could there be reforms when those in power were not supported by a social base that could drive them?

Fulgencio Batista’s coup on March 10, 1952 was far from being an anomalous event in the political order, as some authors believe (Pérez-Stable 1993). The coup and subsequent dictatorship were only the final stages in the crisis of liberal democracy and its institutions that was expressed in the State’s growing ineptitude at reforming the republic (which dated from 1902), in the loss of legitimacy of the political party system, and – last but not least – in the anointing of Cuba into the holy alliance of the Cold War (Morley 1988). Revolution remained the only avenue open for reform (Blackburn 1989).

It might have seemed that those who took the road of revolution in the 1950s had given up on promoting reforms. In reality, however, they had only given up on playing according to the rules of the established institutions. The organizations that took up arms to overthrow the dictatorship did not stop practicing politics in the sense of holding dialogue with other actors and seeking tactical or strategic alliances with forces ranging from unarmed parties and organizations to groups within the dictatorship’s own military, as well as leaders of civil society and legally established institutions (Sweig 2002; Ibarra 2007). Within the bloc of organizations opposed to the Batista regime, including those that were fighting it with arms, very diverse ideological currents coexisted and issued social reform programs, often minutely detailed. But the July 26 Movement alone issued the Moncada Manifesto (1953), History Will Absolve Me (1953), and the July 26 Manifesto (1956), and endorsed the Mexico Pact (1956), the Sierra Maestra Manifesto (1957), and others (Brenner 1989).

Despite this, the political thought and actions of the Cuban revolutionaries did not constitute a specific ideology, as viewed for example from Europe (Sartre 1960). In the North-centric and dichotomous world of the Cold War, the revolution’s style did not sound like class struggle or Communist workerism, and even less like social-democratic conciliation. Instead, it was more like an indeterminate mixture of pragmatic improvisation, peasant populism, pro-independence patriotism, and advocacy of social justice.

Although the stereotype of “a revolution without ideology” continues to be repeated, the aforementioned programs clearly encompassed the major national problems and included the reform policies needed to address them and even an inventory of specific laws to pursue. Anyone who takes the trouble to reread them today will find clear definitions of the State’s role in guiding the economy, agrarian reform, profit-sharing, recovery of national industry and agriculture, expansion of employment and labor guarantees, along with specific projects for public health and education systems, development, social security, independence and sovereignty. The State, Cuban capitalism, and its democracy had left all of these as “unfinished business.”4

Paradoxically, not only would the revolution in power have to take charge of all the reforms that the political parties had “relegated,” but their modest implementation would unleash a mortal conflict with the Cuban and US upper classes, and of course, with the political godfathers on the other side of the Florida Straits.

The point of no return in this confrontation would occur during the first five months of 1959. It took the form of a modest agrarian reform that would maintain private property ownership for considerable amounts of cultivable land, multiply the number of farmers owning small parcels, and assist in all aspects of agricultural production (credits, cooperatives, prices, etc.). However, with one stroke it would also eliminate the privately owned large sugar plantations – the base of the Cuban and US landholding class and the core of economic and state power on the island (Valdés Paz 1997; Valdés 2003). When Fidel Castro signed the Agrarian Reform Law on May 17, 1959 in the Sierra Maestra village of La Plata, the Soviet Union was very far from imagining that one day it was going to have an ally in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the old Cuban Communists went on believing that this was only “a democratic-popular revolution” that was taking care of the “unfinished business” of a “rural petite bourgeoisie” and was still a thousand miles away from socialism.

Nevertheless, the Cuban-US establishment and the US government would see this law as an act of war. From then on, politics became permanently polarized. On one side was the revolutionary power that had secured popular consensus with its reforms; on the other was the Cuban bourgeoisie, the sugar oligarchy and the modern industrialists glued to its tail, in tune with US interests on the island (Pérez 1987). The two blocs contended not only for real power, but also for control over the whole process.

Henceforth, the thesis of the “revolution betrayed” (de Varona 1960) would serve as the standard for those who claimed that the ideas of national capitalism, administrative integrity, Keynesian development, anti-communism and an international alignment with the United States made up the genuine nucleus of the “original revolution.” Consistent with this thesis, the “hidden Marxist” corollary took ideological and explanatory shape, inspired by the theory that conspiracy was the motor of history and the revolutionary process. It held that Fidel Castro had secretly struck a deal with the Communists and the Soviet Union to divert the “normal course” of the process, thwarting a revolution “as green as the palms” and turning Cuba into “the red island.”

The fact is that the nationalist program was impelled by a popular revolution, not by a Marxist party or by Red Army tanks. Nevertheless, it is also a fact that from early on, it was perceived by these same interests to be sufficiently threatening for them to brand it as communist. The very style of the Revolution frightened its enemies even more than the actual reformist content of its political programs. That style was not simply the product of speeches given by the young leader, protected by a guardian angel, who had “made virtue fashionable” (Mañach 1959). Rather, it was something more dangerous: the behavior of the masses, their growing demands and their active engagement (protagonismo) in public forums.

Before the agrarian reform, the Revolution had put into practice other and equally unexpected non-socialist policies. These included confiscating property misappropriated by the dictatorship’s associates, proclaiming that Blacks had the right to go to the same beaches as Whites, and subjecting Batista’s military and police – called henchmen in those days instead of human rights violators – to justice for the murder and torture of thousands of people. The Revolution also drastically reduced housing rents and, in addition to nationalizing large plantations, nationalized electric and telephone services that were in foreign hands, according to the law and under strict compensation (except for misappropriated property). All these measures received thunderous popular support (Buch 2004).

The political power this consensus supported did not reside in the cabinet or the formal government, but rather in the Revolution and its leadership, which went beyond the State of the ancien régime and its nominal institutions. This real power, which permeated and overwhelmed institutionalism, was grounded not only in the revolutionary army but also in the permanently mobilized masses; and although the Revolution could conceive its policies in informal networks, it perfected and formalized them in interaction with the renewed civil society that took over the streets. This completely transformed public sphere was the political stage par excellence of the Revolution (Fagen 1969).

Thus, the path of the Revolution would not be determined in advance by the secret will of any of its principal leaders,5 nor could it be scripted as if in some kind of manual. Instead, it would reflect the very unfolding of the social and political conflict that it unleashed – long before the major nationalizations and the socialist character of the process were announced.

The counterrevolutionary war encompassed a complete panoply of actions – many covert, others less so – including tactics that today are considered terrorism: sabotage, burning and bombing of civilian targets, subversive networks based in Miami, attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, and the landing of hundreds of exiles armed to the teeth on a Cuban beach. President Eisenhower officially approved the Bay of Pigs operation, already underway seven months before the Cuban government decided to nationalize all the large Cuban and foreign corporations. The massive nationalizations of October 1960 were not yet part of the planned reforms but were a wartime emergency measure.

Before the final anti-private property reforms were carried out, there would first occur the Bay of Pigs, the threat of U.S. invasion, the Cuban-Soviet alliance, the missile crisis, the almost complete isolation of Cuba in the hemisphere, the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia, the solitary undertaking of Cuban socialism, and the conviction that Cuba would be the first society to experience communist forms of organization and social life.6 In the spring of 1968, almost ten years after the Revolution began and was declared socialist, the revolutionary offensive would nationalize the small private markets and workshops – more than 2,500 of them in the capital alone. Only taxi drivers who had old cars, doctors who graduated before 1959 and maintained their practices, and all of the small farmers would continue to work for themselves (Cluster & Hernández 2006).

Institutionalize the Revolution?

In that watershed year of 1968, Cuba felt the full weight of a transitional stage. The Revolution mourned Che’s death in the midst of its greatest isolation and vulnerability since 1959 and in the face of a triple siege: the threat embodied by US impunity at the height of the Vietnam War, ostracism by the rest of the region’s governments, and pressure to choose sides in the Sino-Soviet conflict. The challenge of building a socialism distinct from the Soviet and Chinese models heightened the spirit of defending the nation’s independent path, with its vision fixed on the ideal of a superior society (Castro 1967a). The revolutionary offensive would be the final blow against what was then seen as the remains of the old order.

With the failure of the great leap attempted in the 1970 sugar harvest – and its impact throughout the economy – the question of institutionalizing the process was again brought to the fore. In fact, the revolution/institutionalization dilemma had been identified as a problem since the 1960s. Although it had not been avoided, its resolution was consciously postponed because of the priority of revolutionary strategies (Guevara 1965; Castro 1967b). The experimental content of Cuban socialism, the threats it faced, its mobilizing style, and its willingness to skip stages toward the full satisfaction of social needs had been the reasons for this postponement.

The new emphasis on institutionalization was shown as incessant marches and countermarches and wartime mobilization gave way to a stable order that would consolidate the transformations and elevate living standards and well-being.7 In the 1971-76 period, a new wave of reforms would reconfigure the country’s political system and economic structure. Taken on consciously as part of a series of agreements with the Soviet Union, this new order moved away from the experimental socialism of the 1960s to adopt formulas closer to those of Eastern Europe. A new system of management and planning, as well as integration with the socialist camp, would permit growth and a better standard of living during the next decade and a half. The new Constitution (Constitución de la República 1976), the system of electoral bodies known as People’s Power, and a new government structure would reorder the political system and the state apparatus, including the armed forces.

This system continued to exercise centralized control over practically all means of production and services, as well as the dissemination of ideas. Its main axis was a social policy directed at preserving equality by means of a strongly homogenizing order that dispensed the right to work, health, education, access to culture, as well as very inexpensive public services, entertainment, transportation, housing expenses and vacation opportunities. The cornerstone of the distribution system was the so-called “grocery allotment” (the ration book for food products) along with the now defunct “ration book for clothing” (manufactured products), which provided a more than adequate level of consumption. The system offered, at subsidized prices, a certain amount of clothing, footwear, household items and basic products like bread, rice, sugar, eggs, beans, cooking oil, meat, milk, and even coffee, cigarettes and rum. This was not merely an egalitarian system; it was also uniformly leveling.

This uniform order, however, made room for more than one kind of distribution and market system. Besides rationing, it established the “parallel market” using a network of state stores where national and imported products would be sold in national currency and at non-subsidized, accessible prices, which expanded and diversified the consumption of food and manufactured goods. In addition, a sector was opened for private commerce, similar to what existed in Eastern Europe, in which food (“farmers markets”) and small manufacturing (“crafts markets”) were offered, with prices subject to supply and demand.

The culture of the 1960s, with its austere values, semi-military styles, and stoic attitudes that rejected as superfluous and bourgeois all consumption that deviated from the rigorous pattern of socialist civility – “study, work, rifle” – would be transformed by the new order in force during the 1970s and 1980s. Consumption ceased to be seen as a concession to capitalist ideology. A relatively greater differentiation was legitimized in accordance with the classic socialist concept, “to each according to his work.” As the benevolent State became the guarantor of citizens’ needs and rights, Cubans, without any great incentive to save, could spend almost all their income. A new consumer culture was developing under the auspices of the munificent state through a relatively ample and equitable system of subsidized distribution, and by moderately differentiated access to the market. Paradoxically, the achievements of the socialist order – full employment, mass access to education, rules of upward mobility based on personal merit – would produce greater social heterogeneity, which in the 1980s would be superimposed on the homogeneous structure of classes and groups that emerged from the transformations of the 1960s (Espina 1998).

Equality, material betterment, high standards of development and social justice, and the reaffirmation of national independence and sovereignty would renew the pact, fostering socialist civic culture and consensus and reinforcing once again the base of revolutionary political power.

This socialist order, which for many in Cuba remains today “the real thing” because of the social benefits involved, nevertheless had increasing costs: an increasing bureaucratization of the state apparatus, an economy becoming ever less efficient, declining incentives to work and participate politically, verticalism, ideological dogmatism, veiled forms of discrimination against religious believers, and a propagandistic communications media.

In the field of culture and thought, the so-called grey half-decade (1971-76) had left its mark on the universe of discourse and cultural practices, not only in areas like literature, theater and artistic instruction, but also in the social sciences. This narrowing reached into higher education, the media, the institutional order, legal concepts, and a part of ideological production. In the area of social thought, the grey period lasted for at least a decade and a half. In comparison with the publishing richness of the 1960s, the narrowing of discourse had a considerable social impact in a country of voracious readers, and in which Marxist philosophy was a required course from secondary school to university. The immense majority of texts on social thought were Marxist-Leninist books from Eastern Europe, which did not present challenging examinations of socialism. The most widely used text to explain Cuban history of the second half of the twentieth century was Cuba, el camino de la revolución (Cuba: The Path of the Revolution) by Oleg Darushenkov (Hernández 2007).

In summary, despite material well-being, new contradictions were growing in the heart of socialist society and culture, partly because of progress itself. These contradictions began increasingly to appear in the first half of the 1980s. Their repercussions in politics were not long in coming.

Revolutionize the institutions?

In the mid-1980s, a new wave of revolutionary reformism, once again led by Fidel Castro, would question the functioning of the country’s institutional order. In effect, the revolution/institutional order dilemma, in dynamic equilibrium for more than a decade, became more acute, occasioning a new cycle of debate about reform. Running parallel with perestroika and glasnost in the USSR, rectification, as it was called (Castro 1988), criticized the socialist system on the island, called for abandoning ideological conformity, and for the first time opened public discussion through meetings in schools, workplaces, neighborhoods and communities. The politics of rectification invited into the debate not just revolutionary militants and the working class, but also the nation, that is, all citizens. Opening established institutions to public discussion revitalized them, de-ritualized politics, and revived the original democratic thrust of the process.

Once again, this process could not be reduced to mere words or to policies from above, but responded to a new social dynamic. Cuban civil society in the second half of the 1980s, more complex than that of the 1960s and 1970s, had already generated this new dynamic, evident in the greater diversity of actors and the rise of new generations and social practices that incorporated a critical attitude toward institutions. To the degree that this questioning was exercised from within the system, civil society would continue to respond to the hegemony of revolutionary power, but at the same time, it expressed more heterogeneous and contradictory views within an overall consensus.

But before a systematic program of reforms could be consolidated, rectification would be submerged under the tide of an economic crisis that descended on the island when the Berlin wall and the socialist camp collapsed. The crisis affected not only the general functioning of the economy and daily subsistence, but also ideology, values, social psychology, and political culture. In this sense, although it would not produce levels of devastation as severe as war, its effects were politically deeper and more serious than what an enemy bombardment could cause. To name this crisis, a military term was used that suggests its significance as a national security threat: special period in time of peace; and to confront it, emergency measures planned for a state of war would be taken. But these were not sufficient, and Cuba would have to enter a new phase that was not described in any manual on military contingencies or in any pre-planned program. In fact, unlike the cycles of 1959-68 and 1971-76, the reforms of 1993-96 were not born from a previously announced project or long-range plan.

That package of reforms – the transfer of large tracts of state-farm lands to new cooperatives in usufruct, the opening of markets with unregulated prices, licenses for self-employment, free circulation of foreign currency, a foreign investment law, new fiscal and monetary regulations – would, however, be proceeded by a notable reform of the 1976 Constitution. This political and legislative process would result in far-reaching conceptual modifications affecting 53% of the text of the Constitution (Azcuy, 1995), by which the reforms would be implemented.

The Constitution as amended by the National Assembly in 1992 discarded the concept of dictatorship of the proletariat, reformulated the concept of vanguard party to represent not just the working class but the whole nation, reaffirmed the proscription of all religious discrimination, and mandated that National Assembly delegates be elected directly by the people. Of special importance, it recognized non-state forms of ownership of non-strategic means of production (Constitución de la República, 1992). This reform legitimized social organizations, religious institutions, and the ownership rights of cooperatives and the self-employed over their means of production; it also ratified the rights of small farmers over their land. Likewise, it opened up the possibility of ownership, in theory, not only by foreign investors, but also – through specific legislation (for non-strategic means of production) – by Cuban citizens, such as small- and medium-size businesses.

To reduce the significance of the 1990s reforms to their economic content would be, however, as simplistic as viewing the special period as an economic depression, from which, once it was overcome, the nation could simply pick up where it left off. If civil society during the rectification period was already heterogeneous and had generated its own contradictions, the combined effects of institutional stagnation (agotamiento del ordenamiento anterior), loss of the socialist camp, sharpening of tensions with the United States, and other external pressures would create a whirlwind of centrifugal forces in whose vortex the measures taken to mitigate the crisis would provoke a kind of perfect storm. The emerging resource of tourism, the opening to foreign capital, dollarization, and the opportunities suddenly conceded to the private sector would have as side effects the rise of inequality, the expansion of poverty, the growth of migratory flows, an increase in corruption, and the rise of phenomena such as prostitution and drugs.

In a few years, the political culture of socialism, grounded in equality, meritocracy, a standard of living achieved through work, and certainty about the rules of the system, would enter into daily tension with individualism, disillusionment, uncertainty, despair, and skepticism; and would be placed at a disadvantage in a debate with the recognized styles of capitalism which were now reinforced and made fashionable as the unassailable natural order of things in the post-socialist universe.

The onset of the 1990s crisis had opened a parenthesis in the reformulation of the social pact that had been taking place during the rectification period, postponing structural reforms in the established socialist order. To put this in architectural terms, instead of redesigning the foundations of the building, it was necessary to urgently strengthen the roof that had suddenly cracked and was in danger of collapse. Once the moment of great danger had passed, the very experience of the threat of collapse would lead to revisiting the problem with the foundation, but now not as an abstract issue to be addressed later, but rather as a concrete political matter of immediate significance.

In contrast with the traditional understanding of the major threats stemming from external sources – US military attack or blockade, the fall of the Berlin wall, etc. – the leadership’s discourse now called attention to the “internal causes” of a possible reversal of socialism (Castro 2005).

On the other hand, the crisis had generally blown a new wind into the sails of social and cultural thought. The issues emerging from the special period would engage not only the social sciences but also literature, the visual arts, theater, film and even popular dance music.8 Among those issues were the impact of the collapse of the socialist bloc, the heartbreak of the Angola war and of the rafters who attempted to reach Florida, and the reemergence of a marginalized population, along with previously taboo themes such as homosexuality and poverty. Since the 1990s, Cuban literature and art have examined the state of the value system and the deterioration of living standards. Participants in this discussion included not only writers, artists, journals, experts, teachers and researchers, but also community leaders, churches, professional associations, NGOs, environmentalists, religious figures and ordinary citizens.

When the end of the crisis came into view, it became clear that the emerging society was one that had changed over the intervening decade. Efforts to assure that the established order – partly diminished and repaired – would continue serving as the force for economic accumulation and growth failed to notice that this order had become less efficient politically in the face of a heterogeneous consensus that was more differentiated than ever, and that was demanding new ideas. The policies aimed at revitalizing the social mobilization of earlier stages had only partial or short-term success. Remedies for the faults bequeathed by the crisis did not go to the root of the problems and created additional obstacles. Civil society did not see itself represented in the repetition of old formulas (CIPS 2003), and each step forward was seen as too slow for the scale of the accumulated needs.

Furthermore, the existing forms of social control, inspired not only by previously effective administrative mechanisms but also by the premise of social norms and values reflecting an earlier level of need-satisfaction, gave clear signs of ineptitude. The political will that was limited to repairing the old building showed itself to be increasingly useless and counterproductive. Its biggest cost was postponing the structure’s redesign and its replacement with a renovated socialist order in step with the new society. This was once again a situation typical of a transitional stage.

Reforms: An Economic and Political Problem – or a Cultural One?

Although state-centric socialism, based on defining social ownership as state ownership and on a vertical chain of command, has prevailed in Cuba since the 1960s, it obviously has not always been consistent. Neither can what really exists today be taken as the end of the story. Cuban society, whose consent this socialism has been able to count on for almost half a century, today openly favors the implementation of policies responding to a number of problems whose postponement would compromise not only social development but also socialism’s very continuance.

In the economy, for example, it is expected that the official policy will be to continue expanding the reform of the state enterprise system (the so-called “business improvement” program), which gives each enterprise greater autonomy, managerial discretion, and power to promote efficiency. Transferring land to new cooperatives, which was first tried in 1993, has again been implemented as an economic policy in the agricultural sector. There is also “talk” about other specific ideas: to extend cooperatives to sectors other than agriculture such as services, small-scale retail and manufacturing operations; to legalize private micro-enterprises that can interact in a collaborative way with state enterprises; and to increase private self-employment.

Nevertheless, at the heart of these issues, problems arise that pertain not only to the nature of desirable economic policies, to their coherence as a “package of measures,” and to their ability to go beyond “maintenance and repair” of an obsolete order, but also to the establishment of a new economic model – as the experts call it. It makes no sense to think of a new economic model without considering the social and political actors who are involved in defining and implementing it, and without pondering the elements that make up political and cultural resistance to change in general. Let us succinctly examine this matter.

Resistance to reforms has always been two-pronged.

Although the political and state bureaucracy has no self-awareness and does not deliberately dedicate itself to protecting its interests, but rather is limited to following its reflexes and instincts as a social entity, it resists any alteration in the regulated order that it is charged with defending. It is allergic to changes unless they appear in the form of new regulations that replace the old ones. Otherwise, changes are perceived as disorder, turbulence, and erosion in the regulatory foundations of the system (Deutscher 1977). It does not matter if political discourse recognizes the incapacity of the old order to accommodate practices and mechanisms developed to resolve daily emergencies. Even if an inspiring discourse about the new order discredits the old, the bureaucracy will repudiate and even ridicule it. Until the new order is expressed in a set of clear and distinct rules, comprising an organic whole completely capable of replacing the old in all its parts, the bureaucracy will not see the new order as entirely legitimate. Though it may accept the policies and to some degree comply with them, the bureaucratic consciousness refuses to definitively consider them as the established order, but, instead, sees them as merely temporary measures, subject to conditional enforcement. It does not see the new policies as its spiritual guide or its daily prayer book.

The other source of resistance to reforms is rooted in the deepest part of society, in its culture and social psychology. This is, no more and no less, the conservatism emerging from a social system born of revolution. This conservatism nourishes resistance in times of crisis; it serves as glue to close ranks in defense of what has been won and to avoid strategic reverses; it allows the Revolution to survive necessary retreats; and it activates primordial instincts such as defense of nation, land, community, and family. It appeals for the preservation of fundamental rights, such as life, food, education, shelter; it warns against poverty, destitution, and lack of guaranteed access to “what belongs to each one of us.” This conservatism is expressed in a certain common-sense idea that sets in stone “what has been won” and, in so doing, puts “new gains” on indefinite hold, thus freezing socialism and the Revolution in a past where they were apparently not questioned. This conventional wisdom views the present as merely the lingering embers of a glorious and rich past, and not as a field of action, transformation and possibilities. Down deep, this conservatism resists promoting fundamental changes, and instead tries to defend what was.

In the logic of this conservative common sense, “the new” is, of course, seen as unstable, forced by circumstances, alien, unpredictable, full of traps, and dangerous. This defensive attitude is captured in folk sayings like, “Don’t leave the road for a path,” or “Don’t change horses in midstream.” Such resistance to political and cultural change is beautifully described by Machiavelli: “For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had the actual experience of it” (Machiavelli 1993: 44).

Furthermore, reforms are not a panacea for “the desires and needs of the people.” For one thing, they produce “side-effects” which are inevitable given the logic and consistency of the package of recommended economic measures, and are undesirable for the majority of citizens. These side-effects are related to two basic issues – two sides of the same coin of democratic reforms. The first is, what effect these changes will have on the public, and especially on those living in poverty, whose numbers rose to 20% during the crisis, and to whom the State owes protection not only by means of a new social security program but also by a general reduction of poverty (Espina 2007). The second refers to the role of workers in making decisions concerning these reforms and their modalities. This raises a key question for many Cubans since their understanding of socialism – including policies within the system – continues to be intimately connected with interpreting the desires and needs of the majority of citizens.9 They demand full restitution of the purchasing power of their wages in pesos; access to the expanded but newly stratified consumer market; more efficient public services; restoration of levels of medical and educational services that existed prior to the crisis; and solutions to the problem of housing shortages and deterioration. They want People’s Power, the Party, and state institutions to listen and respond to them, and above all, to resolve all these problems. Many are convinced that the State should guarantee them full access, and they blame the state for each and every daily misfortune (CIPS 2003; Espina 2007). Though they show a considerable willingness to cooperate with and support the system, they are by no means easy to govern.

In fact, beyond their differences in age, gender, skin color, social class, or political views on socialism, the majority shares an acute awareness about what they are due as citizens. Compared with 1959 or 1970, their educational level is much higher; they have become accustomed to the idea of equity. It seems normal to them to have a job and for their children to have full opportunities to study whatever they want, and although they no longer expect everything from the State, they believe the State exists to listen to them and resolve basic problems. They feel they have the right to demand, to complain and to get what they need, even if to do so they sometimes have to break the law.

For the majority of them, the issues of democracy and the role of civil society are not resolved by a multi-party system, or by merely being consulted on proposed legislation and mobilized for the implementation of policies. They want to decide and control politics from below. Their uncertainty about transition refers not to what is discussed outside of Cuba10 but rather to the reality the island has experienced since the decade of the 1990s. Keeping in mind those aspirations, it becomes evident that no political opposition group, inside or outside of Cuba, has the recognition, legitimacy, and authority to represent their will and their interests. Even less is this the case for organizations in the Cuban exile community – that heterogeneous mass of émigrés that has been accumulating especially in southern Florida – whose ability to project a democratic alternative for the island is nonexistent. Obviously, this opposition does not open any doors, quite the opposite.

Epilogue: “Many clear ideas and many questions”

“Can a revolutionary process be irreversible, or not? What are the ideas or the level of consciousness that would make the reversal of a revolutionary process impossible? When those who were the forerunners, the veterans, are dying and making room for new generations of leaders, what is to be done, and how? After all, we have been witnesses to many errors, and we didn’t notice,” said Fidel in 2005. Among the factors that facilitated errors was the power ofa leader…when he enjoys the confidence of the masses that put full trust in his abilities.” The consequences of errors committed by those in authority are “terrible…” One of the worst errors, committed not only at the beginning of, but often throughout the Revolution…was believing that someone actually knew how to build socialism… Today, in my view, we have relatively clear ideas about how one goes about building socialism, but we need many very clear ideas and many questions directed toward you [the youth], who will be the ones responsible for how socialism can or will be preserved in the future” (Castro 2005; my emphasis).

These words, which may be seen by posterity as the last of Castro’s great speeches,11 comprise a true political testament. In them, he again turns to the old illusion of scientific communism concerning the linearity of history, the existence of routes to socialism already laid out, the certainties assumed and turned into policy by the most loyal and reliable leaders, upon which the ideal of a new society would be built, one which, in the end, was revealed to be fragile and flawed. Those errors cannot be attributed just to a youthful, inexperienced era of the Revolution; they accompanied the Revolution in an almost permanent manner. The road to socialism depends not on men – that is, the leaders and the organs of power they fill – but rather on ideas and social awareness. It is up to the new generation of leaders to continue what the veterans began and maintained. But this renewal does not by itself assure a socialist future. It will be effective only if the new leaders are able to learn from the negative experiences of the veterans, especially the abuse of power and of the people’s trust, and the presumption that correct ideas are born in their heads and that they are better able than others to judge which is the correct path to socialism.

In summary, there is no one truth about socialism, nor can we take for granted ideas that, with the benefit of a half century of experience, are accepted in the present. Only from a multiplicity of ideas, and especially of questions, of problems, can the younger generations build that new society. Their ability to do so, of course, does not come from a linear logic associated with their youth and the possibility of living 50 years, but from the political will to contemplate socialism and to pursue it on new terms, different by definition from those of their fathers and grandfathers. This changeover does not consist of passing the baton, so to speak, but of a change in batons, of roles for all the runners, and of running styles.

The Revolution and socialism in Cuba have now entered that home stretch.


1. Here, I use the concept of revolution to signify transformation of the social order, that is, of the social relations (hierarchies) and political culture (attitudes and behaviors) of the citizens. I do not reduce it to insurgency, taking power, great nationalizations, orcollectivizations, civil wars, mass mobilizations; nor do I understand by it the leadershipbodies of party or state, which we find in such phrases as “the Revolution has been generous” or “has never been unjust” or “has committed errors.” I sometimes use the term Revolution to refer to a sector of the political arena (or a bloc of social forces) that is opposed to reaction, to the exploiting class, and to the US government. I use the phraserevolutionary power to designate institutions and organizations of the political system that emerged from and were legitimized in the revolutionary process, including those that were created in civil society, not simply synonymous with the State or government. I take the concept of reform to mean a political instrument that may be – and has been, in the case of Cuba – at the service of the revolutionary transformation of the economic, political and social order, and that has permitted the profound restructuring of the system on behalf of majorities and minorities; not merely in the antirevolutionary sense of Latin American reformism which consists of “changing things so that they will stay as they are.”

2. The Partido Revolucionario Cubano Auténtico governed Cuba between 1944-48 (Ramón Grau San Martín) and 1948-52 (Carlos Prío Socarrás).

3. Partido del Pueblo Cubano Ortodoxo was founded by Eduardo Chibás in the 1940s as a left-wing faction of the Auténticos. From its youth section would come Fidel Castro and a good portion of his early followers.

4. This expression, recurrent in the current of Marxism that analyzes history as a linear process, remains a metaphor. Cuban capitalism went as far as was possible in Latin America and the Caribbean. To suppose that it left “unfinished business” would imply that the social individual, the “industrial” or “national bourgeoisie,” lacked the “capacity,” “courage,” “decision” or “will” to control the State, as did their counterparts in the Mexico of Cárdenas or the Argentina of Perón. The hypothesis that this model was capable of self-reform turned out to be contrary not only to Cuban historical experience, but also to the logic of the hegemonic interests that controlled their State. This model underwent considerable modernization, a historical consequence of the revolution of 1930-35, that was legally expressed in the Constitution of 1940. In the structure of domination of Cuban capitalism, intimate ties with the United States were already an exceptional modernizing force, and at the same time, a barrier to the alternative of a “national” or “popular” capitalism. The nature of this dependent modern capitalist model and of its dominant class (Zanetti 1997-98; del Toro 2003) is key to understanding the social logic and meaning of reforms within the revolutionary process, as well as the controversial question of its stages – although to explain it would go beyond the scope of this work.

5. The idea that policy responds to “the rational decisions of the elites in power” (Rojas 2005: 126) is, curiously, shared among the recent interpreters of Cuban history, trained in the dogmatic Marxism that was taught in Cuba in the 1970s and ‘80s, and the believers in conspiracy theory. Although various experts on revolution (Marx 1852; Skocpol 1985) have shown the complexity of socio-political interactions in the midst of these processes, the “rationalist” focus replaces the mediations and complexities with a linear, teleological perspective: “the Cuban revolution was able to triumph…because the revolutionary process was oriented in conformity with the interests and ideology of the proletariat, which was reflected and expressed by the revolutionary vanguard lead by Fidel Castro” (Darushenkov 1986: 27f).

6. [Ed. note: In the late 1960s, Cuban leaders postulated that the island could leap over the socialist stage and go directly communism.]

7. The social revolution is not just about property relations or control of the State apparatus; it also modifies the relations of leader to follower and of educator to educated, insofar as it transforms people as social individuals, that is, in their social relations and their political cultures (Marx 1852). It is not my purpose in this essay, especially when I use terms like revolutionsrevolutionary powersocialist society and culture, to take a position in relation to such questions as, “How long did the revolution really last?” “Has true socialism ever existed in Cuba?” etc. – questions which, in the way certain authors present them, are divorced from historical analysis of the real process, besides being foreign to the concept of revolution developed here.

8. Some authors think that the plastic arts of the 1990s retreated from the inquisitive and questioning stance and direct discourse that had predominated in the 1980s, in favor of new, more symbolic and impenetrable language (Caballero 2008). Even if this is the case, however, it does not apply in the areas of literature, theater, film, novísima trova (new song), or lyrics to dance music, which since the 1990s have shown a polemical and rebellious spirit (Valiño 1998; García Borrero 2001; Borges Triana 2004; GarciaMeralla 2004; Arango 2001).

9. The measures implemented in 2008 – allowing Cuban citizens resident on the island to rent rooms in tourist hotels and to buy cell phones or computers – are popular to the degree that they restore the equality of rights to all citizens, although they do not directly benefit the majority in terms of effective access.

10. Paradoxically, what is advocated outside Cuba as the “Cuban transition” does not mean just a change of government, or even a restructuring of the single-party system. Rather, it implies a profound transformation of the economy and society that would move Cuba, in terms of a “model,” closer to the Dominican Republic than to Norway. The canon of “free elections” that is proposed for Cuba is not one whereby parties that have as their premise the preservation of socialism compete electorally for citizens’ votes, but rather one in which capitalism would be represented by “two, three, many parties.” The presence of other parties capable of really competing for power yet representing another social system does not exist in any of the great western democracies. What is proposed for Cuba is not a simple transition – a series of reforms but a complete revolution in reverse.

11. The speech, conversational in tone, was given to a group of students at the University of Havana – scene of some of his most dramatic and memorable declarations – and was directed mainly toward youth, presenting ideas that were upsetting to many, especially the warning about the reversibility of the Revolution and of socialism.


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