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Cuba: Building on Sugar or Sand?

by Adam David Morton on March 20, 2016
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Guevara

With the first visit to Cuba in 88 years by a sitting U.S. president unfolding this week, this co-authored piece with Chris Hesketh – stemming from a joint visit to the island in 2013 – is offered as a snapshot reflecting on the changing dynamics facing revolutionary politics in Latin America.  

In Memorias del subdesarrollo [1965, available in English Memories of Underdevelopment], the novelist Edmundo Desnoes captures the idée fixe of uneven development in Cuba by noting that the people of Latin America have often been confronted with ‘nothing but a bad imitation of the powerful, civilised countries, a caricature, a cheap reproduction’. Clearly, the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and its series of cycles since broke with that pattern of imitation. The mass mobilisation and structured participation of the Revolution has meant that Fidel Castro has survived nine U.S. presidents, one U.S.-backed invasion, various assassination attempts and the longest sanctions in history. Talking about revolutionary processes, Che Guevara once declared in his famous statement to the Tricontinental: “Either a socialist revolution or a caricature of revolution”.

More than half a century after their imposition, U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba are estimated to have cost more than $751 billion, undermining a functioning health system on the island and leading to a state of siege, or blockade. As Salim Lamrani details in The Economic War Against Cuba, the United States has pursued the extraterritorial application of economic sanctions that affects the citizens and companies of third countries operating in Cuba. This has resulted in the prevention of the treatment of children suffering from cancer and diverse ophthalmic conditions. Meanwhile the Barack Obama administration has continued to apply the extraterritorial measures of the blockade, imposing a fine of $575 million on the Australia and New Zealand Bank Group, Ltd. for transacting with Cuba in dollars and punishing the Dutch bank ING with a fine of $619 million for the same reason, resulting in the largest penalty since the inception of the economic siege against Cuba in 1960.

CDRiiMeanwhile, the social gains of the Revolution have been well documented, including education, employment, land reform, housing, gender equality, and the development of the arts and culture alongside an expansive foreign policy abetting social revolution. For example, in 1961, the Literacy Campaign brought the illiteracy rate in Cuba down in less than one year from 23.6 percent to 3.9 percent. The land reform of 1963 nationalised 10,000 properties and placed some 70 percent of Cuba’s arable land in the state’s hands. Revolutionary mobilisation witnessed the creation of the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (CDRs: Committees for the Defence of the Revolution), established in 1960, numbering approximately 800,000 to 1.2 million members that rallied against invasion. As such, mobilisation became replaced by institutional structures in the 1970s and the guerrilla ethos of the Revolution dwindled in preference for an apparatus of political representation and formalised institutional participation. The Revolution has since evolved from the “special period” of austerity in the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union to witness a complex mix of cubanía (“Cuban-ness”), a particular manifestation of revolutionary nationalism, in combination with demands for egalitarian social revolution.

From the viewpoint of Cuba specialist, Antoni Kapcia, in his excellent book Cuba in Revolution:

despite appearances of Cuba as an enclosed, militantly defensive community, the Revolution has more often than not (except at moments of national crisis or perceived or real external threat) operated as a system with a surprisingly high degree of leeway and space being given to those who, though not fully committed, are nonetheless passively supportive of the aims and meaning of something which they see as “the Revolution” . . . That is not to say that the political system has not been tolerant; at certain times greater or lesser levels of coercion, peer pressure or harassment have ensured a conformity that can be stultifying and oppressive, leading to excesses of intolerance.

One such historical manifestation would include the rise of the Unidades Militares para Ayuda a la Producción (UMAP: Units to Aid Military Production), or work camps, that targeted sexual, religious, and political dissenters in the 1960s to provide cheap labour for the state. In 2010, Fidel Castro admitted responsibility for such imprisonments committed during the revolutionary period, as detailed in the Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada. For Samuel Farber, in Cuba since the Revolution of 1959, this evidences how Cuba has been organised along a Soviet-type system where the dull compulsion of economic relations has been replaced with more direct coercion and the militarisation of labour. However, Kapcia’s stress on avoiding a petrified Cold War framing of Cuba, as simply the reproduction of a Caribbean version of the Socialist Bloc, is astute. Concurrent with Kapcia, ‘one constant in the understanding of Cuba’s complex system has been the need to eschew the paradigm of the Socialist Bloc and, in fact, to focus on Cuba’s differences’.

IMG_03560036One of these differences is Cuba’s emergence in the context of global capitalism or what George Lambie details in The Cuban Revolution in the 21st Century as ‘market socialism’ in which the state retains firm control over key sectors of the economy while allowing private enterprise and foreign capital to enter the country alongside participatory democracy. This is the most fascinating aspect of Samuel Farber’s book Cuba since the Revolution of 1959 in detailing how, since the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), the ‘statification’ of the Cuban Revolution is leading to a form of capitalist restoration. The renovation of Old Havana, through the ubiquitous tourist-oriented Habaguanex, directed by Eusebio Leal, is one expression of this form of economic development. Cuba, an island the size of England, and with a current population of some eleven million people is attracting over 2 million tourists annually. Indeed, walking around Old Havana it is impossible not to notice both the gentrification of the city and the rise of private markets, sometimes initiated by a hiss and whisper of ‘Cigar? Cigar my friend? Cohiba?’ (Cohiba being the premier brand of Cuban cigar once smoked by Fidel Castro himself). It is with a certain irony that a Revolution inspired by the excesses of US-based interests and the regime of Fulgencio Batista, now seeks to precisely utilise such symbolic capital as a form of branding alongside the old classic cars of Havana excitedly touted as ‘American taxis’. 

IMG_03220005Today, along with the liberalisation of rules governing small businesses and foreign investment we are witnessing the emergence of civilian and military joint ventures with foreign capital and economic enterprises, administered for example through the Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA). As a result, Farber’s book is highly useful in delineating the emergence of what he refers to as a ‘reconstituted ruling class’ in Cuba, through enterprise improvement.

The official organ of the Central Committee of the CCP, Granma, indicated as recently as 22nd November in an article entitled ‘Continúa el fortalecimiento de la empresa estatal socialista’ that the strengthening of state socialist enterprises would continue into 2014. Under the application of the new concept of ‘Encargo Estatal’ [State Order], specific enterprises and products notably linked to the ministries of industry, construction, energy and mining sectors would be gradually included in the policy of commercial strengthening of state socialism. ‘The implementation of this project’, as stated in Granma, ‘will allow enterprises to increase their sales and profits, which is a source for recapitalisation and increased incomes for workers’. Here, the concept of ‘the state as the centre of accumulation’ begins to enter the picture, as detailed by David Ruccio in Development and Globalization.

RuccioIn Cuba as elsewhere across Latin America, there is a return to a conception of the role of the state in planning and controlling economic surplus, through the ‘new extractivism’, so that the state becomes the centre of accumulation by centralising the so-called surplus and thereby planning the use of that surplus in accumulation. The state can therefore ‘siphon off’ surplus realised in nonstate enterprises that could then be used for the reactivation and restructuring of the economy on the basis of state investment. However, these attempts then position the state in a wide range of political and economic class struggles and tensions: the elimination of subsidies and social benefits (food, education), attempts to lower real wages (to increase the amount of surplus extracted), or increase taxes on joint-venture capitalist enterprises in order to direct the surplus into fiscal revenues could all generate conflicts threatening the central role of the state in accumulation.

In 1960, as relayed in Eduardo Galeano’s classic book Venas abiertas de América Latina [1971, available in English, Open Veins of Latin America], Jean-Paul Sartre apparently asked about Cuba, ‘Is building on sugar better than building on sand?’ With sugar production falling from 7.2 million to 4.5 million tons in the 1950s and then rising to a high of 7 to 8 million tons in the 1980s to fall to 1 and 1.5 million tons more recently, it seems that Cuba is building less on sugar and more on sand in the form of tourism with the state as the centre of accumulation. Struggles from below, meaning the democratic self-management of the Cuban economy and the fight for the self-emancipation of the working classes against capitalist priorities might be one outcome, as argued by Farber. Resolving popular demands through new forms of co-option within state institutions and retaining the state as a centre of accumulation within a form of capitalist restoration might of course be another outcome. It is too early to say whether Cuba is now nothing but a caricature of socialism. Nevertheless, rather than talking about a revolution, it does indeed sound more like a whisper of ‘Cigar? Cigar my friend? Cohiba?’.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007); Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011), recipient of the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG); and co-author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (2018) with Andreas Bieler. He co-edits Progress in Political Economy (PPE) with Gareth Bryant that was the recipient of the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group) and the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media.
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  • Tim Anderson
    March 21, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    Quite a good article. However it misses two important foundations of Cuban socialism and economy: mass education and internationalism. Cuba’s ‘free education for all for life’ practice (with strategic planning in training) not only delivers good social indicators and underwrites social participation, it is the foundation of the country’s ‘high road’ economy in human services, especially health services and medicines. While it is true that tourism (now well over 3 million per year, not 2 million as stated) effectively replaced sugar as a hard income earner in the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, health services have, for some years, earned more than tourism. That is important because, while well managed tourism has wide benefits, it does not really offer a great future in human capacity building. Internationalism has undermined the US long-standing policy of isolating Cuba, alongside other benefits. A large component of the health services surplus is in large state to state contracts (especially with Venezuela, Brazil and some other oil-rich states) involving Cuban health personnel. Strong internationalism also led to Cuba’s presidency in 2013 of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the 33 country, 600 million person federation created by the late Hugo Chavez, with Cuban backing. That achievement arguably catalysed Obama’s change of policy direction in December 2014. The US Government finally saw itself isolated in the Americas.

    • March 21, 2016 at 8:44 pm

      Many thanks for the engagement, Tim. Yes, the piece was written in 2013 so that might explain the figures on tourism. The foundations of mass education and its link to health services was touched on but needed amplifying in the way you outline along with the neglected focus on internationalism. Many thanks again for raising these issues.

  • Kevin Lin
    March 23, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Thanks for this fascinating article, Adam. I see several parallels with the Chinese state socialist experience prior to the 2000s, a comparison that used to be made more often. In the case of China, its capitalist transition (starting gradually in 1980s and in full force by the 1990s) was preceded by diplomatic opening with the United States to break from isolation political and economic (China started to negotiate entry into global economic institutions in the 1980s), the reforming of its state socialist enterprise, the tolerance of a small domestic private sector and state-foreign joint ventures (accompanied by labour reform and FDI inflow) among other developments. It was very much a managed, cautious transition by the Party-state. One difference is – in the case of China – a break in the revolutionary leadership: a generation of revolutionary leaders was either persecuted (Liu Shaoqi) or died naturally (Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai) by late 1970s, and a “coup” riding of Mao’s successor enabled Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun to claim a break from the past and chart a market reform path. Subsequently, an established state industrial sector, a massive rural labour force, the productive investment from Chinese diaspora/East Asian/Western capital that incorporated China into the existing Asian-centred production system all contributed to its economic takeoff; in this, the Cuban experience would likely be very different.

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