Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 1-2012, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

Cuba’s “new path to socialism”
State-Organized Third-World Capitalism

After months of discussions within the Communist Party and with the population, Cuba’s leaders have adopted a resolution approving far-reaching economic reforms and laid them down in the form of “Guidelines for the economic and social policy of the Party and the Revolution” — “lineamientos.” The decisions to “update the economic model” essentially include: developing and furthering foreign exchange–generating branches as a priority and attracting foreign capital to such areas; committing state enterprises to profit-oriented production standards; dismissing at least a quarter of state employees in two stages; considerably expanding the small-business private sector, promoting private farming, and soon abolishing any remnants of the previous state-guaranteed basic supply system, the “libreta.”

The government explains its catalog of measures as being due to the country’s disastrous situation that Cuba partly brought on to itself by its own mistakes:

“We either rectify our mistakes — because we no longer have time to keep on skirting around the precipice — or we will sink, and, as I said before, we will also be sinking the efforts made by entire generations … we strongly believe that we have the elemental duty to correct the mistakes that we have made all along these five decades during which we have been building socialism in Cuba” (Raúl Castro, speech to the National Assembly, Dec. 18, 2010).

Secondly, the government refers to difficult external circumstances that make corrections unavoidable:

“As for external factors [of Cuba’s economic situation], the international setting has been characterized by the existence of a systemic structural crisis with simultaneous economic, financial, energy, food, and environmental crises; with greater impact on underdeveloped countries. Cuba, with its open economy and dependent on its external economic relations, has not been exempt from the repercussions of this crisis, which have shown themselves in the instable prices of the products it exchanges, the demand for its export goods and services, as well as greater restrictions on ways to obtain external financing. … Since 2005 one has clearly seen the economy’s limitations in dealing with the deficit in the balance-of-payments capital account, banks withholding foreign transfers, and the high level of maturing debt …” (Introduction to lineamientos, hereafter cited as L).

Thirdly, the state leadership justifies its radical decisions by promising “that the measures we are now applying and all the changes whose introduction will be necessary in updating the economic model are aimed at preserving socialism, strengthening it and making it truly irreversible” (Raúl Castro, ibid.).

So there is no way around a rigorous reversal that bodes ill for the population, because it is for the good of the country — that is the message from those in charge. They are determined to take this path.

I. The reform measures: Turning the national economy inside out under the dictates of the state budget

1. The government focuses on Cuba’s desperate situation

The national leadership arrives at its diagnosis by viewing Cuba’s desperate situation from the standpoint of the state’s budget balance. What it sees as the crucial problem is the elementary foreign-exchange shortage the state is suffering from. The country is dependent on taking in foreign exchange from world market transactions, but unable to procure a sufficient amount for its needs. It is not earning the required funds from abroad, and instead its foreign debt is growing at a rate the leadership no longer finds acceptable.[1] The leaders in Havana attribute this budgetary situation to errors, omissions and adverse circumstances just as bourgeois economic experts do, and claim it is an objective constraint making the measures they are adopting unavoidable.

What looks like the usual worries that national leaders have about their public finances in the many countries faring badly in the world economy is in this case actually an admission of sweeping failure. Fifty years ago, Castro and comrades set out to free Cuba from the ruinous grip of the world market and from US dependence. Under the control of US capital, the people and the country were going to the dogs as America’s sugar plantation, tourist paradise, and brothel, so the government set about developing the country for and with the people. Today, the national economy fails to provide what people need for their reproduction and what the state wants in the way of means of power. The country is forced to rely on the world market; machines, technologies, energy sources and even a large quantity of food must be purchased on the world market. But the state does not have the amount of foreign currency that requires. Its lack of suitable national means and results of production is also reflected in what it has to offer the capitalist business world abroad. Cuba has no industrially produced goods that can be profitably sold, but only goods and services coming from an unproductive economy unable to compete on the world market — primarily natural resources and nature.[2] The country therefore suffers from the well-known economic problems of a primary producing country in global capitalism: rising import prices and expenditures alongside insufficient and fluctuating export earnings. Insofar as the state is at all able to finance shortfalls with credit, it accumulates constantly growing monetary claims against itself, which it is less and less able to serve — while being additionally harmed by American sanctions.

2. The Cuban state takes its society to task

This precarious situation of the state is no longer acceptable to the leaders in Havana. It leads them to define a mandate that all other state purposes have to take a back seat to: the mandate to overcome fiscal distress and overhaul the economy. So it no longer offers a critique of the world market and its ‘constraints’ so ruinous for a country like Cuba, but rather takes it as a challenge for Cuba to overcome. Accordingly, the economic dependencies on foreign business calculations that have such a negative effect on the state budget are now registered as problematic conditions, crisis factors and difficult structures that Cuba has to deal with. The country’s leaders are determined to require the population to make a national effort so as to decisively improve the state’s ailing balance sheets in that way. What has to be done is raise the country’s creditworthiness in international economic relations… (L 65), regain export capacity in traditional sectors, sustainably increase and diversify exports of goods and services, as well as reduce the high import dependence, in order to fundamentally turn around the external debt situation (L, Introduction).[3] The leaders are using their power and taking society to task for a radical budget-overhaul agenda.

Earn foreign currency!

A state-commanded economy that is neither equipped nor designed to compete by the standards of profitable business on a global scale is now supposed to satisfy the political demand of fixing the foreign exchange balance. This means that everything potentially of interest to the world market and convertible into world money for Cuba will from now on be considered a vehicle for national development and receive primary state support. Those investments are to be given priority that promptly generate revenue and increase exports of goods and services (L 110). The tourism sector must pursue the basic objective of directly acquiring fresh foreign exchange, from a competitive position (L 235) — which requires: better service (L 236), better marketing (L 237), more tourists and ones from new countries (L 238), as well as new market segments such as water sports, golf, adventure tourism, cruises, health tourism, etc. (L 239); increasing efficiency in construction by introducing piecework and shift work, especially at construction sites for tourism (L 269); wages are to be increased primarily for jobs that bring in or save foreign exchange (L 157).

What all this is heralding is a reorientation of state planning and a general reallocation of available resources — not to mention the country’s labor force being mobilized so as to generate foreign exchange. Human and material resources are to be devoted primarily to the growth of tourism and the export of raw materials.[4] This, in turn, necessitates the use of foreign exchange and, in the state's view, justifies it. For a society where elementary shortages in production and consumption are the rule, this means taking away energy, raw materials, technology, building materials, etc., that there are already not enough of. Thus, entire cities are already decaying, lacking food, housing, electricity and more, while modern tourist resorts are fitted out with every amenity. Existing resources are absorbed by the foreign exchange–generating tourism business. This also increasingly applies to the medical progress the country has achieved. Medicine tends not to serve public health but rather, when necessary, business with tourists who bring in foreign exchange, and as an export product.

The country’s leadership moreover hopes that redirecting national resources to this program will attract foreign capital to act as a big development aid worker. It bets on investment from abroad to remedy Cuba’s economic backwardness by financing progress that domestic enterprises are incapable of for lack of capital resources. So the intention is to continue getting foreign capital to participate, to complement the nation’s investment strength (L 89). The state speculates on the attraction of foreign capital meeting various objectives: providing access to advanced technology and management methods, diversifying and expanding export markets, import substitution (L 90). It thus plans to create special development zones that are supposed to allow an increase in exports, import substitution, high technology projects and local development, and to be a new source of employment (L 96).

So since they lack economic means of their own, the reformers are offering profitable investment opportunities in their country for the business calculations of capitalist investors. They are promising to remove obstacles to investment and to create attractive conditions for their involvement — once again, and more than ever, at the expense of the normal national way of living and working that exists separately from such reform. The normal way of life is being turned upside down in accordance with the state’s resolve to lower its budget expenses and increase its revenues.

Reduce the amount of foreign exchange needed to provide for the people!

The state leadership is applying this imperative above all to the country’s agricultural production. The fact that about 80% of the food required must now be imported despite Cuba’s favorable soil and climatic conditions — testifying to the lack of agricultural productivity — is seen by the government as an intolerable burden on the foreign exchange balance. It is reacting by reorganizing the country’s food production. To a greater extent than in the past, privately operating small farmers are to be allowed to lease land, hire farm workers, and produce and sell on their own account. Giving private producers more autonomy and exploiting market relations more effectively is intended to increase efficiency in food production (L 167). Prices are to be set by supply and demand instead of government price fixing, which is now considered a misguided subsidy and is to be gradually abolished (L 177). The government is thus increasingly leaving it to the most unproductive form of peasant farming to supply its population’s elementary needs. Without the necessary tools to work the largely fallow land, with little more than their own labor, small farmers and farming cooperatives are supposed to solve the problems of Cuban society’s food production. Once these have-nots have been released into the freedom of self-exploitation, they are to be motivated by the right to sell their notoriously scarce foodstuffs freely to customers who are just as notoriously short of money. Under conditions of general neediness, the state-arranged market is supposed to provide poor producers with an independent income and at the same time supply poor buyers’ needs.

Since the state now also intends to reduce its financial support for state farms and cooperatives (L 167) one must expect a general increase in food prices,[5] which will additionally aggravate the food situation. This is the consequence of making people’s access to the necessities of life dependent on their buying power, as Cuba too is now doing. When the state is unable and unwilling to organize a collective system ensuring sufficient food production, it actually looks like private operations, driven by the need and possibilities to earn a modest income, are the more effective method while the state economy seems hopelessly unproductive. This is cynical, objectively speaking, but it is merely consistent from the state's point of view that an increasing number of small private farmers are to produce additional foodstuffs in order to save imports and thus the state’s foreign exchange.

Save costs and produce profit in the public sector!

State-owned enterprises — still by far the largest part of the Cuban economy — are also being re-evaluated according to whether they figure as a surplus or a deficit in the state budget. For state services, which accordingly appear as nothing but budget expenses now, this results in a sweeping program of slashes affecting services and employees alike:

"The number of budget-financed firms [enterprises or institutions financed directly from the state budget and performing state and government functions, as well as health and education functions] shall be reduced to the minimum that guarantees fulfillment of the assigned functions, following the criterion of maximum savings of personnel and state expenditures of a material and financial nature” (L 31).

Institutions whose costs were previously justified by the state’s interest in education, health, culture, sport, etc., and at the same time provided social services for their workforces, are now seen as no longer financially viable and therefore dispensable, and are being cut back to the absolute minimum necessary.

From now on, state-owned production enterprises are to calculate their costs and revenues entirely on their own account. In principle, there should be no more state subsidies to maintain them; state-owned enterprises should take care of getting the funds they need themselves:

“As a rule, businesses will not receive budgetary financing to carry out the production of goods and services.” (L 17) “Expenditures for investments will normally have to show they are capable of being amortized with their own results, and they will have to be realized with external credits or their own capital, and repaid with funds created by an increase in revenues or by a reduction in expenses” (L 116).

The enterprises are supposed to operate as independent economic entities, finance their costs with their business revenues, furthermore generate surpluses figured in money, and thus not only relieve the state of subsidies but also produce tax revenues for it.[6] Businesses that have been calculating in terms of money according to state guidelines but were able to exist regardless of their monetary returns because they were set up and maintained by the state as indispensable providers for domestic needs, as production sites or institutions of social reproduction, are now being forced to make cost-income calculations that not only bring them into conflicts of interest with one another — profits for one are costs for another — but also into conflict with their workforces. Previous terms of employment and company social benefits now are seen as costs that must absolutely be reduced,[7] while work performance has to be increased. To ensure that this mandate is met, the state is organizing an effective substitute for the coercion of competition by threatening to shut down loss-making enterprises:

“Those state-owned enterprises that persistently show losses and insufficient working capital in their financial balance sheets and prove incapable of meeting their obligations on the basis of their assets, or show negative results in financial audits, shall undergo a liquidation process in compliance with the relevant regulations” (L 16).

Even though they may still produce useful things and give people jobs and livelihoods, the new point of view makes them a wrong kind of subsidy. The state’s threat to liquidate them is a threat to the whole economy it administers, since this economy is operating with insufficient means, an unproductive organization of work, and not enough yields, i.e., with losses at the state’s expense according to the political calculation that now holds.

Shrink the public workforce!

The state does not leave it to the individual enterprises and services to calculate costs and returns for their employees. It gives binding instructions to them, i.e. to itself as the political organizer of employment relations, as to what is to be regarded as an unaffordable burden and has to be cut. In two stages, starting in 2011, a million state employees are to be made redundant — in the long term twice that number, i.e., one quarter to one half. They are summarily declared to be unproductive freeloaders the state can no longer be expected to support:

“Speaking of sensitive issues, I must inform you that after months of study for updating the Cuban economic model, the Council of Ministers in its last meeting, held on July 16 and 17, … agreed on a set of measures to undertake, in stages, the reduction of the considerably swollen workforces in the state sector. In a first phase, which we plan to conclude in the first quarter of next year, the labor and salary treatment of laid-off workers from a group of agencies of the central state administration will be modified …” (Raúl Castro, speech, August 1, 2010) — meaning, they will lose their jobs, pay, and previous social benefits.[8]

As an alternative, the reformers are offering those who lose their jobs the new opportunity of earning money privately with a state license, usually for a fee that must be continually paid:

Work and earn money on your own account!

To alleviate the effect of the layoffs, 460,000 licenses will be issued for all types of self-employment (BBC Mundo, La Habana, September 13, 2010).

What the state presents as permission is in fact its forcing people to create their own income and livelihood from now on and somehow get by in competition with the mass of people in the same bad position. Those deprived of their jobs and income are not provided with the necessary means for setting up their own business, nor is there sufficient ready demand for a million private entrepreneurs to draw on — the potential customers’ already meager buying power is additionally reduced by these state measures. The majority of those made redundant possess nothing more than the willingness to exploit themselves including their families or — this too is now allowed — a few ‘employees’ who are as badly off as they are.[9] Those who manage to sell their cheap services to get their hands on dollars or their state-created counterpart, ‘convertible pesos,’[10] can count themselves among the successful.

These licenses legalize private strategies of coping with the shortage situation that were previously forbidden. The reform now makes them ways of struggling to make a living that are to be taken for granted and officially permitted, i.e., legally decreed.[11] When the state declares the reproduction of most of its people a burden it can no longer bear and privatizes its masses’ struggle to survive, it creates a new poverty economy in which the majority on both sides, as service providers as well as buyers and consumers, suffer from the same shortage of goods and money. On the basis of this general poverty, it is now promoting what it used to fight against as the consequence of temporarily permitting private business and possession of dollars: the population being split into the better-off having access to good money and decent consumer goods, and the mass of those relegated to the peso economy as their basis of making a living and competing to have some part in the other sphere where foreign currency is earned. At the same time it intends to be a tax-financed state, making this newly organized poverty serve its budget: it no longer provides any security, it now takes what it can get.[12]

Privatize supply shortages!

At the same time, the government moves to take steps to abolish the libreta de abastecimiento (supplies booklet) as a form of standardized distribution, egalitarian and at subsidized prices, benefiting the needy and non-needy citizen alike (L 162).

It now considers the state guarantee to supply every Cuban with basic foodstuffs, which it has already been increasingly cutting back, to be a state subsidy system. What is too much for its budget, it declares, is no longer needed — the proof being the practices of bartering and reselling on the black market that have taken hold. This evidence of supply shortages — the population being split into a minority of dollar or CUC holders not dependent on cheap basic foodstuffs and a majority needing to buy libreta products to boost their basic supplies — is actually cited by the state leadership as an argument for its guarantees being largely unnecessary and harmful. It is compelling its people to buy everything they need on the market from now on — if they can find the money and depending on how much they are able to earn and which kind of money they can get hold of, pesos or dollars. As for the retail trade, it is being assigned the task of gearing up for the two levels of customers by providing premium and low-budget segments from now on.[13]

Make people work!

At the same time, the state leadership makes it clear that the end of the libreta and the mass dismissals are intended not only to save on state expenditures but also to be a way of forcing the people to perform better at work. That is the purpose of introducing the new rule that wages and means of subsistence must be earned by one’s own efforts. Thus, Raúl Castro is certain that

“no one can fail to notice the significant contribution to improving social and labor discipline that will result from applying these measures” (Raúl Castro, ibid.).

This coercion intended to transform the people from freeloaders to taxpayers financing the state budget will obviously mean austerity and social distress — which the government makes known at the same time. It gears itself and its people toward it: the idea is to

“strengthen the role of wages in society, making it necessary to reduce improper handouts and excessive personal subsidies while providing compensation for those in need” (L 161).[14]

With their promise to make the economy “more productive” and “more effective,” the state reformers are making the subjective side of labor responsible for the inadequate results. No condition of production is being improved, certainly not the cooperation and coordination of labor, in order to increase yield and reduce labor effort. The state is abandoning its aspirations to organize the nation’s labor under its own direction, and depriving it of material resources by planning to gear it toward more world market business. It is making the people’s livelihood dependent on their making money, while at the same time taking the livelihood away from a great number of them by dismissing masses from state employment. It is relegating them to private work as their only means of subsistence, without the majority having any foundations for securing even a modest income. The reformers are betting that those who have lost their previous means of reproduction will somehow manage to fend for themselves, the majority finding a job somewhere in the dollar or CUC economy, and that all this will bring more revenues for the state. Thus, the only way the national economy can become more effective is in terms of the state budget: by reducing the burden the state sees its society as, and by increasing the returns that the world market and the people are supposed to supply to the state.

3. The result: The state establishes third world conditions

With these reforms, the Cuban state is settling into the role of a primary producing and tourism country, and thus into being dependent on the world market. It is delivering the greater part of its people to a poverty economy that offers no secure reproduction either for those employed in state-owned or other enterprises or for the majority of those released into the competition of the ‘self-employed.’ And it is already expecting a multitude of needy people without income, who from now on should be taken care of by relatives first and only in cases of “real” need by its welfare system.

On the one hand, such conditions are nothing special. There is a whole “Third World” of more or less damaged “developing countries” with masses of impoverished populations that looks this way. These are states tied into global capitalism, opened up by international capital, and themselves incapable of setting up their own internationally competitive growth economy. They are dependent on foreign exchange, and international credit that finds too little profitable use to justify it. They are therefore constantly struggling to be creditworthy and with the lack of foreign exchange they need to maintain their international solvency. They treat their own people as a costly, uneconomical burden — and are therefore all the more ruthless in trying ever harder to make the country and its people a source of enrichment for foreign interests.

On the other hand, Cuba is a special case. The new path to “socialism” that those in charge are promising the people with their reforms is in fact a demolition job on what remains of a society they considered a revolution necessary for establishing fifty years ago. Their reforms end a national path that state leaders pursued for decades, despite all adversity and watering-down, to free Cuba from the fatal dependence on the world market so detrimental to social progress for the population. Now they are enforcing the ‘laws’ of this world market against their people. On their own national initiative, they are executing the logic of a global capitalism that the country is supposed to exploit as an opportunity.

II. An end to fifty years of “Cuban socialism”

1. A radical reckoning with yesterday’s “achievements of the revolution”

Cuba’s leaders direct their sharp self-criticism against the mistakes supposedly made for fifty years while socialism was being built in the country. A clean break must now be made in the name of a better socialist future; it is finally time to put an end to the previous way of doing things, which has supposedly corrupted the people and brought the state to the brink of ruin:

“It is just about transforming erroneous and unsustainable concepts about Socialism, which have become deeply rooted in broad sectors of the population for years as a result of the excessively paternalistic, idealistic and egalitarian approach instituted by the Revolution in the interest of social justice. Many Cubans confuse socialism with freebies and subsidies; and equality with egalitarianism. Quite a few consider the ration card to be a social achievement that should never be gotten rid of. In this regard, I am convinced that several of the problems we are facing today have their origin in this distribution mechanism. Although it was inspired at the time by the wholesome commitment to ensure people a stable supply of foodstuffs and other goods to counter unscrupulous hoarding by some for profit, it is an evident expression of egalitarianism that benefits equally those who work and those who do not, or those who do not need the service, and it generates bartering and reselling practices on a black market, etc, etc." (Raúl Castro, speech, December 18, 2010).[15]

Castro promotes the reforms as a salutary instrument for eliminating wrong egalitarianism and state paternalism, and as a program for teaching a pampered, work-shy people

“social and labor discipline, eliminating the paternalistic approaches that discourage the need to work for a living and thereby reduce the unproductive expenses involved in the equal payment, regardless of the years of employment, of a guaranteed wage for long periods to people who do not work. We must erase forever the idea that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working” (Raúl Castro, speech, August 1, 2010).

In his zeal to finally make the population feel the goad of the wholesome need to work for wages, Castro no longer cares that people can live extremely well without working if they only have enough property and live in the capitalist countries around the world, which Cuba’s leaders used to criticize but now hold up as models due to their efficiency. Nor does he care that in Cuba, as everywhere else on the globe, state leaders and their power apparatuses live off the work of the masses and not vice versa. Instead, he tells the Cubans they are living off what the state so generously gives them despite their laziness, which they could at least show gratitude for by working harder.

In any case, the Cuban head of government is now agitating against the very “achievements” that were once the centerpiece of an alternative rule. What he is castigating as a mistaken anti-work policy is the state guaranteeing and organizing employment for everyone, sparing the people from being blackmailed by the prospect of losing their jobs and incomes. It is true that work was always organized as work for wages in Cuba, too; but there was no pressure to earn one’s livelihood by working to make some business profitable because otherwise one was in danger of utter social destitution. This is now being seriously criticized as a major political error, as is, logically enough, the state modestly supplying people’s basic needs for food and other services. For Cuba’s leaders now think these aberrations have made life all too easy for the people. This leads to some harsh judgments about conditions in the country. When the state organizes basic supplies, it is being overprotective, showering totally unnecessary gifts and leveling out the differences between people that would stimulate them to perform! When people are surviving in organized neediness, that is proof of how well off most of them are and that the masses are living at the state’s expense! Secure state employment is a case of abused state largesse that saves people from having to work!

Adopting the stance that the state is gifting its people when it commands their work and distributes the results as its sees politically fit, the leaders of the Cubans have come to the conclusion that only a great liberating blow can help if five decades of socialist construction in Cuba are to be corrected. People have to lose the elements of social security they have become so comfortable with, so the state is free from providing such services and can focus on what really matters (Raúl Castro, speech, December 18, 2010). This puts an end to the reason of state that Cuba had up to now.

2. What used to be the alternative to the destitution of a Third World country: “socialism” and “fatherland” under the direction of a pro-people government

The revolutionaries of old championed the standpoint, now criticized as a political aberration, that a well-intentioned national rule must not let its people dwindle into misery but rather make sure they get what they are entitled to, including material goods. They were firmly convinced this would also pay off for the government of a poor country. It would benefit from lifting the constraint that its people’s lives were entirely dependent on money and serving capital. The Cuban revolutionaries had experienced in their own country how large sections of the people became impoverished in the wake of US hegemony, and were politically determined to spare the masses this hardship by way of a nationally independent, better government. And they also believed they knew how to achieve such improvements. A pro-people state commanding the nation’s wealth and a mutually supportive labor force should advance the people and the state. According to the revolutionaries, this would require that the state take proper care of the people if they were to function reliably as the basis of the polity in the future. The insurgents apparently had no theoretical concerns about the opposition between what state power needs and what the people need to live, an opposition the reformers are demonstrating unmistakably today. Nor did they bother to distinguish between liberating the majority of the population suffering under the Batista regime and liberating the country, which had been economically tailored to meet US needs and politically kept in subjection. There was no room for such concerns in their world view, since they took it for granted that removing US-dependent rule, liberating the people from destitution, and advancing the state were all the same thing. The people, they hoped, would quickly see the value of their new rule, and this now sovereign rule, committed to the people and supported by the people, could finally turn Cuba into a prosperous nation.

At the same time, Cuba’s struggle for national independence was also to serve as an example for the outside world. It was supposed to be leading the struggle to liberate the entire Third World from the domination of the imperialist powers, which were denying Third World states the right to national self-determination and oppressing their peoples. For the Cuban revolutionaries, liberation of course meant that other countries should do the same and also engage in international relations that were at last free from claims to domination and based on cooperating in solidarity.

So what was actually brought about in Cuba, first as an overthrow inspired by disappointed notions of fairness, and soon under the banner of Caribbean socialism? It was not just the more or less radical reform program of social-democratic administrators of a capitalist class-state, bent on politically representing a national labor force as a part of society with equal rights, pacifying them democratically and reconciling them with their capitalist circumstances, and out to thereby strengthen their nation’s power and assert it in the competition of states. But, on the other hand, it was not the doing of a revolutionary working class or of masses rising up because they could no longer endure their wretched situation. When the rebels removed the old rule, claiming it had been oppressing the people and keeping them in bondage, this was by no means the matter of a people taking control of their living conditions in order to improve them, being of a mind and able to do what that takes. The oppressed people were instead liberated from foreign domination and being without property by a small group of guerrillas committed to the people who were not content with merely taking over rule. Once they were in power, the fighters therefore saw themselves as new agents of the state who were compelled to use their newly won power, in accordance with their ideas of just rule, to wrest the people from the conditions they were living in and to enable and animate them, more or less from scratch, to productively take part in the new state reality. First, they wanted to use government power to create the most elementary preconditions for the national progress they had in mind for the people and the state. And to do this, they first had to establish a new state command over society to start out with. Thus, the first thing Castro’s victorious crew did — wisened and radicalized by US pressure — was to eliminate the old order of power and property by nationalizing all property as the precondition, basis, and means for reorganizing social relations. This affected the US capital freely operating in Cuba, as well as large landholdings (in 1959) and later smaller ones (in 1963). With their command over all national resources, they proceeded to plan and organize the nation’s labor and social life. Everyone was guaranteed work, and needs were supplied throughout the country independently of an individual’s labor and its yields, and of any private owners’ financial calculations. Alongside this, and above all, the organizers of national progress had their hands full providing the people with the most elementary prerequisites for the envisaged transformation, for them to take part productively in national life: education, comprehensive health care, housing, and other basics for living. On the other hand, they also saw to building up the state, including an extensive military, mobilizing the people and insisting they do their part to support the state against US hostilities. In all of this, they constantly had to struggle to convince the people that these state concerns were what they themselves needed.

But the Castros and their Party never had the opportunity to implement their program of good rule, to organize the good of the people and the progress of the state according to their own ideas without interference, and help progressive forces triumph abroad. This very attempt to build a pro-people state included unforgivably violating America’s property rights and removing Cuba from its imperialist backyard patronage, which obviously made that world power a sworn enemy and caused the new state project to be ostracized by the free world led by that power. It also soon won the support of the real socialist states led by the Western camp’s powerful opponent, the Soviet Union. The USA, in particular, took steps to cut the Cuban undertaking off from all means of survival, using economic and political isolation and military threat to sabotage the building of a national community based on solidarity under the revolutionary party’s leadership. On the other side, the Soviet Union’s assistance was oriented in material terms and in scope towards making Cuba useful for the interests of the socialist camp within the worldwide clash of systems. From the outset, these outside power interests thus defined the quantity and quality of the means available to the Cuban project. So it struggled from the beginning with the hostilities of imperialism; but also from being subsumed under the interests of the Soviet Union, which was (until its end) Cuba’s guarantor of survival in the face of the USA’s threats to annihilate it.

Caught in this contradiction, the revolutionaries, although laying great store by an independent, anti-imperialist development of the nation, felt compelled as agents of the state to align their program to the conditions set by enemy and friend. They tried to squeeze out of the situation as much of the alternative rule they were aiming for as possible. However, this increasingly exacerbated the antagonism between the goals that were supposed to go together: a rule that serves the people, thereby advancing this rule’s national economic development, asserting and strengthening national independence, and taking on a pioneering role in the worldwide struggle for anti-imperialist progress. In the course of their fifty-year history, the Cuban state-makers have been increasingly driving apart their social development efforts and their national ones, executing the clash between the people-oriented principles of their governance and the inherent necessities of state survival they acknowledged as being inescapable.

3. The new path in the Cold War: Cuba asserts itself against the United States, its national progress being based on and limited by Soviet aid

The Soviet Union’s support made it possible for the insurgents to escape the world market calculations intolerable to them, and stand up to US hostility and being deprived of all material means for implementing their politics. The economic basis on which the Castro crew founded their state was to supply raw materials in exchange for machinery, petroleum, foodstuffs, and other goods from the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, while the political and military basis was Soviet world power. And they utilized this support for their kind of state-building as best they could and as far as the Soviet Union’s supplies and the Eastern Bloc’s accounting system allowed. For the people, that meant the majority were spared the old conditions of poverty and violence and instead had a certain degree of economic security and a lot of material progress, while many partisans and beneficiaries of the old regime, and those disappointed by the way things developed, chose or were pressed to leave the country.[16]

The Soviet Union’s support, however, came at a price. The new Cuban agenda was subject to constant supervision and control by the standards of the USSR’s world-power politics. Its intention was to assign Cuba, like the other states dependent on its support, economic and political tasks to serve its global system competition with the West’s imperialism, and to make sure these tasks were performed.

Economically, Cuba was required to fit in with these calculations of the ‘real socialist’ leading power by joining the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA or Comecon), first as a cooperating country, later as a full member. The resulting division of labor meant that Cuba become completely dependent on whatever access it was allocated to oil, machines, foodstuffs, and so on, from the Eastern Bloc, and on the purchase quotas for sugar and Cuban raw materials. Cuba’s leaders aligned their national state-building project accordingly, shifting it when necessary, and watering it down to still try and advance it somehow under the given conditions. However, they were not able to rid their nation-advancing program of its dependence on the Soviets, whose support was not sufficient for creating an independent domestic industrial base. Nor was it sufficient for allowing any crucial progress in fulfilling the tasks assigned by Comecon, which, especially in sugar production, were difficult if not impossible to meet despite all national efforts.

The plans to build up a national industry and make the people’s work productive already failed before they got going, and were de facto abandoned. Instead, Cuba’s leaders accepted its role as a primary producing country for Comecon, a role that was one-sided and dependent but still fairly safe compared to being at the mercy of the capitalist world market, and they did what they could to make Cuba benefit. They mobilized state funds, land and people for decisively increasing the production and export of sugar, which the Soviet Union paid for at prices above the world-market level. The deficit in means of production, which always persisted despite lofty plans when Cuba joined Comecon,[17] was to be made up for by expanding the area for growing sugar cane and by organizing masses for the harvest — at the expense of food production and labor needed elsewhere. This battle for agricultural production was also lost, due to a lack of mechanization and insufficient storage and transport capacities, which could not be compensated for by the massive deployment of the population and the moral agitation campaigns urging them on. After that, these big drives were also discontinued, while Cuba was left with permanent damage since its agriculture remained one-sided.

Cuba’s leaders could thus only try to pursue their new national path by accepting conditions that eventually left their ideas of progress in shreds. In formal terms, state planning was done according to their own ideas and under national direction, but in material terms it always had to be oriented to Soviet needs and allocations. Muddling through this contradiction was the only material basis for their project to exist, and the revolutionaries ran their economy accordingly, trying time and again to make the best out of the fundamentally unfavorable situation — and in the end mainly just managing more and more shortages.[18] Thus, the socialist ideal of ‘the people’s welfare’ turned into state allocation of food and goods at low prices through the libreta. This not only documented the state’s will to give all national comrades the same material guarantees for their reproduction, but was at the same time also an admission that there were persisting supply shortages, which the state was seeking to overcome as fairly as possible. It shared out what it could distribute among everyone, and procured goods that were lacking from abroad. This meant both sides were in want: the people had too little for their reproduction, and the state for its budget.

Militarily, Cuba was for a time tied into the clash of ‘systems,’ being the Soviet Union’s aircraft and missile carrier off the American coast. This made it an important location in the Warsaw Pact’s world war strategy and thus a target of American nuclear strike threats. Cuba had come to terms with this, at first reluctantly, but then hoping to benefit from the strategic importance of the nuclear armed island and accordingly guaranteed protection. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was ended by a deal between the USA and the Soviet Union (Soviet missiles were to be withdrawn in return for the US removing missile bases in Turkey) — Cuba’s being entirely bypassed brought home to its leaders that administrating the socialist camp was ultimately up to the Moscow bosses, who proceeded solely according to their own global political and strategic points of view, even when divergent national interests were involved. Cuba found itself the strategically downgraded object of Soviet nuclear diplomacy, a persisting Warsaw Pact outpost with a limited guarantee of protection. This at least made it less likely for the United States to directly eliminate Cuba militarily, but it did not spare the island America’s overt and covert policies to destroy it.

In foreign policy, Cuba’s leaders therefore considered it all the more necessary, and for them quite feasible, to utilize the Soviet Union’s protection — sometimes going against its global political calculations — to get involved in liberating the Third World as a model, supporter, and champion of leftist guerrilla struggles in Latin America and elsewhere. Like their Soviet protectors, the liberators of the Cuban nation had always seen independence movements as progressive forces since they were rebelling against colonialism and imperialism. As enemies of the imperialists, at least halfway down the road to socialism, they deserved to be Cuba’s friends. Unlike the global politicians in Moscow, however, who were often unwilling to confront the hostile imperialist world power openly since they were fighting for world peace and peaceful coexistence, the Cubans held the view that their revolution could only be made to last if oppressed peoples elsewhere also succeeded in gaining independence following the Cuban model and — if necessary — with Cuban help. Although the Soviet Union repeatedly curbed their militant diplomacy, the Castro crew eventually crowned the solidarity they were showing rebel and independence movements in Latin America and Africa (Algeria, Congo, Benin, and elsewhere) with a thirteen-year large-scale military campaign with regular troops in Angola and Ethiopia. Cuba intervened militarily with tens of thousands of soldiers and numerous civilian experts in wars of independence and civil wars against South Africa and the USA in support of liberation movements or civil war parties that were left-wing nationalist or defined themselves as socialist somehow. As an independent, robust third-world military power, which was always suspected of being a proxy for the Soviet Union, it thereby got “its” gangs in power in Angola, Namibia and Ethiopia. These gangs then proceeded to run their countries in ways that had nothing to do with benefiting the people or socialism. Cuba sacrificed soldiers and materiel, deployed doctors, technicians, and teachers on a grand scale — not for any leftist anti-imperialism, but rather for independent African states to arise and counteract a purely Western imperialist dominance during the decolonization process.

The Cubans repeatedly acted without regard for the Warsaw Pact’s interests or Soviet coexistence policy, sometimes sharply criticizing the Soviet Union’s calculating way of treating national emancipation movements. Their anti-imperialist activities caused the Soviet Union to impose disciplinary measures, delaying the delivery of crude oil and machinery, which sometimes brought the Cuban economy to the brink of collapse.[19] The Soviet Union combined this economic pressure with political rebukes directed at Cuba’s leaders. In Moscow’s view, their assessment of the world situation underestimated the international balance of power in relation to Cuba, and how effective the policy of peaceful coexistence was; their theories were confused, they were arrogant nationalists, and had a preference for ‘military solutions’ in their policies toward the United States, its Latin American lackeys, and the Latin American liberation movement. At one climax in the dispute, Moscow found the official state view in Cuba to be anti-Soviet and anti-Marxist[20] because Castro and his comrades would simply not learn the compulsory East-bloc lesson that a socialist’s main duty was to support the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. The Cuban Party sometimes responded to such hostility by arresting pro-Soviet conspirators against the Castro government.

Cuba’s ideological disputes with its leading power, which all concerns of its state system were ultimately dependent on, also had consequences for the Castro crew’s internal debates on policy. Just as with its domestic reconstruction projects, in the long run it had to take the Soviet Union’s interests into account when practicing its militant internationalism as well. Che Guevara, the main critic of Soviet foreign policy and a propagandist of anti-imperialist liberation struggles in Latin America and elsewhere, withdrew from official politics, followed his need for revolutionary action into the Bolivian jungle — quasi unofficially, not as a Cuban state operation — in order to induce impoverished peasants to revolt through his struggle, and went down along with his project. However, the later (for Cuba) large military interventions in Angola and Ethiopia, while not being officially agreed to by the Soviet Union or directly involving it, were not carried out against its express will. In Latin America, Cuba remained isolated. Soviet foreign policy was, in the official terminology, committed to responsible socialist internationalism under conditions of coexistence of systems, so the USSR was unwilling to challenge the US by promoting leftist revolutions in its Latin American backyard. Thus, the US always had a free hand in wiping out subversive efforts and leftist movements. So the Cubans were not even successful in their own Latin American region in making the fears of the American domino theory come true by creating like-minded leftist regimes around the world that would support each other against the Yankees.

Despite the free world’s unrelenting agitation against the Cuban model, however, Cuba acquired a certain worldwide reputation as an assertive representative of a disadvantaged Third World treated unfairly by imperialism. Not only did it hold its own against all hostility — its social conditions, its military fighting ability, its political intransigence, as well as the achievements of its scientists and sporting aces demonstrated a development that stood out from the wretched surroundings in the US’s Latin American backyard for many years. As this showcase country for an alternative development in the Third World, Cuba fit into the Soviet policy of worldwide system competition. Cuba was the Soviet Union’s proof, and a lesson to the new nations of the post-colonial era, that there was indeed a progressive alternative to the poverty the world market was condemning them to: political friendship and economic cooperation with the great Soviet Union. It was by cooperating with the socialist camp that social development, national success, military security from imperialism, and worldwide recognition could be achieved if, like Cuba, they only decided to work together as brothers.

Cuba utilized the means offered by this global political charm offensive, despite all the contradictions involved, as an opportunity to make limited progress in the good years of the 1970s and 1980s. Without being able to create an independent material basis for the nation, the leaders managed to keep the country going and provide modestly for the population under the conditions guaranteed by the Soviet Union — and to consolidate their state power. At home, they could count on the approval of the vast majority of their people. Although the masses had been liberated from their old unbearable conditions, however, they by no means saw any need to take their new conditions into their own hands, but rather acted as what they were — human material for their rulers. They were constantly being agitated and urged to do their part for an alternative people-oriented rule that guaranteed them better living conditions, relative economic security and less economic coercion compared to the past and to other Third World countries, and overall a more or less modest livelihood. They accepted the new circumstances and living conditions organized from above and settled into them in their way. On the one hand, they took part more or less enthusiastically in political life at all levels in the state-organized manner, cheered Fidel’s speeches, were proud of their fatherland and its progress. On the other, they tried to cope on the basis of the supply and production shortages and state work requirements, to find opportunities to improve their personal situation, and to struggle along that way, sometimes neglecting state work duties or ‘misappropriating’ state property. So from the beginning the Cuban leaders had quite a bit of trouble with the much-vaunted unity of the government with its people, who sought to make the prescribed relation between labor and supplies more bearable by independently reducing their main work and moonlighting in all kinds of ways. The state leaders, who saw themselves as the organizers of people-oriented progress and had abolished the leverage of capitalist wage labor, struggled in their way to induce people to make a bigger effort. They reacted to the popular habits running contrary to their aims and demands on the people by imposing exemplary punishments in some cases. They also periodically introduced and then abolished ‘material incentives’ for working harder, and campaigned to win the people over to their ‘own cause’ that the government had defined for them. It was a standard component of Cuban socialism from the outset to complain that the people were widely neglecting their duty to fulfill the production plans, and to appeal to their morals. The people were to trust in their leadership who were committed to their good, and prove themselves in the ‘economic battle’ under their direction. They were to contribute with ‘self-sacrifice’ and ‘revolutionary devotion,’ like Che had, to advancing or defending socialism and/or the fatherland — socialismo/patria o muerte! This was how the people and the leadership dealt with the fact that the progress the country was making with material Soviet support and the state organization of work and life in the country was increasingly failing to satisfy the interests of both sides, the population and the Party.

4. After the end of the Soviet Union — still a special case: A social state asserts itself at the expense of its social achievements

With the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, Cuba’s state-organized and Comecon-oriented economy was no longer able to provide the means for maintaining the state or the people on its own.[21] After the loss of Soviet support, the leaders therefore devoted themselves to the task of averting collapse. The people and national economy continued to be directed by the state, but for all crucial material concerns Cuba was now dependent on the world market and being able to pay in the required hard, internationally valid currency, which the country had nowhere near enough access to. Thus the state leaders suddenly found themselves confronted with the same problems that governments of other Third World countries have always had, not being able to secure the means of survival for state and society on the world market against the superior competition of the capitalistically developed countries. In Soviet times, dollars to finance the state’s progressive agenda had come into the country through the resale of Russian oil, as well as through early attempts to diversify exports and also through the tourism business that had already been started. One of the important sources of dollars was always, and still is, the remittances that Cuban exiles send their relatives on the island. While previous efforts to earn foreign exchange that was additionally necessary for the state’s development needs had repeatedly been successful with the Soviet Union’s help, it was now a matter of fighting for survival, the only goal being to squeeze out of the new circumstances a halfway sustainable basis for the state to persist — so the only goal was to earn foreign exchange. The decision was that in order to procure the means of purchase demanded on the world market, the country must be turned into a worthwhile proposition for foreign business interests. Efforts were made to attract new export customers and to expand the tourism business. Entire sections of the state economy were converted to meet the requirements for generating foreign exchange, and operated separately from the emergency economy that continued to exist alongside. Foreign investors were attracted with the guarantee of ownership rights, joint ventures were established in economic sectors of interest to foreign capital, and the necessary workforces were made available to be profitably utilized for Cuba to acquire foreign exchange.[22]

All this was intended to make it somehow possible to keep to the agenda that was still expressly — now more than ever — directed against world market dependence and its devastating effects on the nation. National life was to remain free of the dictates of money multiplication; the state economy was under no circumstances to become a mere appendage of capitalist world-market calculations or the target of imperialist blackmail. And this was to be achieved in a situation where Cuba had lost the old basis for its existence but not its old enemies.

For one thing was certain: Cuba would not follow the example of the Soviet Union and give itself up! That would have meant giving up national independence, maybe even reinstating the USA’s and Cuban exiles’ old claims to power and property, and thus betraying the cause. Thinking they could rely on the people and determined to master the new state crisis, the leaders therefore imposed an emergency program on their country. This already meant Cuba’s leaders were taking on a lot, especially for their people.

As foreign-exchange–consuming food supplies became scarcer, the rations provided through the libreta shrank. It became increasingly difficult for the population to survive without some kind of self-organized supplementary income, especially without access to dollars, which could buy goods for higher prices in special shops and in newly permitted private farmers’ markets. The population’s access to the dollar currency had always been more or less restricted in various ways, depending on the needs of the state economy that was always short of foreign exchange, on the one hand, and the Party’s concerns about domestic dollar freedom undermining political morale, on the other. The state emergency program made it more and more important to have illegal, semi- or fully legal possession of foreign currency for escaping the worst poverty. At the same time, the state took all kinds of steps — even inventing a domestic peso replacement for US dollars at a one-to-one exchange rate — to try and divert circulating foreign currency, from whatever source, from private to state hands to the greatest possible extent in order to collect funds for imports.

The conflict between economic sectors geared entirely to generating dollar earnings and the peso economy existing alongside made food shortages a permanent fixture. Anyone with foreign exchange had access to coveted imported goods rather than just the poor supply of basics. This undermined the old principles of social equality and the solidarity throughout society that was still being upheld. Thus, in the face of the political necessities involved in consolidating the state, saving Cuba’s old, alternative program of progress meant, in practice, constantly watering down its alternative principles of rule. There was an increasingly blatant conflict between the needs of the state, which still saw itself as its masses’ most important means of survival, and the people’s necessities of life.

This produced a great need for new agitation. The government presented its measures to the people as being most “unfortunate” and underlined its own basically good intentions. It used national rallying calls to get them to show solidarity and stay the course, appealed to the Cubans’ pride and self-sacrifice, and denounced the run to the dollar that its measures were both instigating and trying to contain. It wanted the people to understand the necessity of the measures, and see the crisis and the deviations from the old revolutionary principles of non-capitalist economic life as a joint task requiring every good Cuban to tighten his belt and work harder in order to save the joint project of a better Cuba.

The leaders spoke of and treated the situation and the struggle to cope with it as an unavoidable but merely temporary concession to the constraints of their desperate need for foreign currency, which they continued to condemn.[23] To them, they were forced to act this way in order to secure their program of people-oriented rule, which would be utterly impossible if the state could not maintain itself, ensure its own survival. That is why they called this program Special Period in Times of Peace, expressing their view that it was a kind of forced war economy in peacetime that was supposed to overcome the immediate crisis so the government could again be free to return to the fairer conditions it had once achieved. In actual fact, the state command was now serving to subordinate social achievements to the necessities of preserving the state. The idealism of national development and its pro-people practice had morphed into an emergency-type organization of the state’s will to persevere under difficult circumstances, and invoking the Cuban people's own strength was now supposed to fuel the national morale and willingness to make sacrifices that the state was demanding and organizing. Maintaining independent rule against the hostility of the USA was the goal overriding everything else: Cuba would not give itself up or abandon its path!

5. Offensively abandoning Cuba’s special path: World market and organized competition as the new path to saving the state

In the first decade of this century, the Cuban economy recovered somewhat due to the rise in nickel prices, the tourism business, an increase in oil production, Venezuelan oil deliveries and Chinese investments and loans. According to F. Castro, Cuba was in the process of exiting from the special period in times of peace with a vengeance.[24] The Western public also noted this, attributing it to Cuba’s new alliances with China and Latin America.[25]

In the years after 2008, in trouble again due to drops in export prices and the tourism business as a result of the global financial and economic crisis and three devastating hurricanes, the state leaders have officially ended the período especial program of struggle. They are abandoning the plan to save their previous agenda of national development and their old, materially based unity between people and leadership and carry them over to the new world situation in which the heirs to the Cuban Revolution are more or less on their own. If the state’s accounts do not add up, then nothing else will work; so the paramount guideline for government has to be to preserve the state by improving its accounts, which means putting the onus on the people, who would be helpless without their state. If the people’s benefit does not coincide with the state’s as it is supposed to, this is put down entirely to one side. If the people are not providing their state with sufficient economic services, then the state has to be strict about making them do so for the sake of its self-preservation in their own best interest. It has to release itself from its (self-imposed) obligations to be of service to the people — this was how the state now reads the crisis situation. True to this view, the state leaders are resolving the conflict they have been struggling with, between costly social principles of rule and the state’s financial distress, to the detriment of the people. It is holding them accountable for their overall economic performance simply not sufficing to meet the state’s demands under the prevailing political and social conditions, for them not enabling it to expand its power and assert itself against its adversaries. The state can no longer let its people get away with this.[26] The political leaders are sacrificing their old reason of state to its preservation and hoped-for future success.

The Cuban leaders’ hopes and calculations are focusing on changed world-market conditions and the new competition that has flared up among the imperialists. They are looking to their like-minded helper, the Venezuelan state; and to Brazil and China as new players on the world market and potent lenders who are prepared to do business without demanding political subordination. They are hoping for these potent upstarts to weaken US hegemony, allowing Cuba to assert itself successfully as an independent nation. What has remained of its old enmity with US capitalism and US imperialism is that the Cuban leaders are fighting for their own national control when going into the world market, being intent on defending their nation’s sovereignty against all hostility. This is what they mean when they speak of preserving socialism, strengthening it and making it truly irreversible.[27] Cuba is not taking the path back to being an appendage of US capital and US world power!

It is in the spirit of this newly defined socialism that the state reformers are agitating their people. They are utilizing the old agreement between people and leadership for breaking it to them that this agreement has come to an end in material terms, while at the same time demanding that it continue in their heads. Citing fifty years of Cuban socialism is meant to make clear to the masses, who they are imposing completely new living conditions on, that in Cuba even the harshest state measures are taken solely to serve the people. Accordingly, the highest leader also appeals to his old comrades-in-arms to use the position of trust they acquired in better days to make the people accept the harm being done to them:

“The Sixth Party Congress must be, by life’s law, the last to be attended by most of us who belong to the Revolution’s historical generation. The time we have left is short, the task that lies ahead of us is gigantic, and without an ounce of immodesty, personal vanity or sentimentality, I think we have the obligation to take advantage of the weight of the moral authority we have vis-à-vis the people to leave the route to be followed and some other important problems resolved (applause).”[28]

If it is the old militants proclaiming that corrections are necessary, that is the best way to make them plausible — as being unavoidable and for the good of the people! If it is the undisputed moral authorities telling the people the new path is needed and the old organization of society is over, then the masses will hopefully realize that this too is a path to socialism, in fact the only way to get there. And that socialism consists above all in Cuba having stood its ground against all powerful enemies and adversities up till today.

III. Solidarity with Cuba and hatred of Cuba then and now — based on wrong anti-imperialism and irreconcilable anti-communism

From the beginning, the fate of the Cuban Revolution and the resulting state system has been the object of intense interest, the starting point for lots of sympathetic solidarity as well as for unwavering hostility. For both the left and the right, Cuba has stood for more than a Caribbean sugar island.

Left-wing partisanship for Cuba: From a model of third-world revolution to an example for national self-assertion

Many on the left regard Fidel Castro’s state, through all its ups and downs, as an example for and model of anti-capitalist revolution. Over time, however, what they mean by this big term has changed quite a bit.

At first, leftist sympathizers did not only wish the victorious guerrillas the best for their overthrow and socialist construction, they pinned their hopes on this heralding a revolutionary upheaval of capitalist conditions around the globe, emanating from the Third World. They were subscribing to a kind of reverse reading of the American “domino theory,” according to which the United States must not allow a socialist economic system or alliance with Moscow to come about in a single one of the colonies that had gradually been given their independence, nor in any of the dependent countries, because otherwise — as the “theory” went — these wobbly dominoes would inevitably fall over one after the other, necessarily leading to world domination by communism. With this warning, the US was putting its will to dominate the world without allowing any exception outside the Eastern Bloc and to combat the alternative Soviet world power, in defensive terms, as the need to contain a Soviet advance. This hypocritical flip was catnip to anti-imperialist leftists. They took the falling-domino image as meaning US world domination was actually weak and threatened, and interpreted social and national upheaval in the colonies and client states of the West as so many dominoes that would sweep each other along, eventually push back American imperialism and finally even drive the revolutionary movement that had failed to form in the industrialized countries.

This is inherently wrong thinking. The student fans of Third World revolution were counting on breaking the world-dominating power of capitalism starting at its impoverished periphery, of all places. They had written off the firmly integrated working classes in Europe and the US. Instead, they placed their bets on the masses in the three ‘underdeveloped’ continents who were destitute for lack of capitalistic usefulness. The wretched people there, suffering directly from violent ‘oppression’ and being excluded from the most basic necessities, would surely have the best reasons for revolution and nothing to lose. The supporters of post-colonial liberation movements didn’t care that those not needed by capital had no economic means or political ones, as members of poor and dependent states, to overturn imperialist relations of force. Leftist sympathizers in the metropolises considered them to be subjectively qualified to lead world revolution. Leftist notions of revolutionary change were so narrowly political, focused on overthrowing power relations, that they did not distinguish between the guerrilla uprising of a small, radical political elite in a poor Third World country and a socialist revolution. In the latter case, capitalist exploitation is eliminated by a working class who have been continually reproducing capital relations and maintaining the power of the state with their labor. This puts them in a position to go against capital and the state — if they want to — and take possession of the productive forces used to exploited them.

So the exceptional and exceptionally long-lasting success of Cuba’s uprising was no indication to leftist Cuba fans of how much this success was due to the Soviet Union’s interest in its Caribbean outpost. Instead they inferred that “it” was possible after all and the revolutionary way would be found where there was a revolutionary will. They accordingly styled Fidel’s Caribbean socialism as an attractive model of ‘humane’ socialism as opposed to the Eastern Bloc’s gray, overly bureaucratic brand, although Cuba’s could only succeed and persist because the USSR’s was backing it.

The old basis for the left’s siding with and banking on the Cuban ‘model’ has now been taken care of in two ways. What the US feared and leftist fans of rebelling peoples hoped for failed to happen. No other dominoes fell over following Cuba’s example. And some time ago the Soviet Union fell over itself, no longer guaranteeing the Cuban exception in America’s backyard. Since then, the United States’ uncompromising hostility, the Western boycott pressure it has initiated, and the consequences of the normal capitalist world economy have broken up the internal structure of Cuba’s pro-people polity to the point that its leaders are now setting about clearing away the wreckage of its old anti-capitalist policies themselves and looking for world-market opportunities to make a new start inside and outside its borders.

What remains for the left when it comes to socialism is a great deal of disillusionment, no wonder after so much illusion. But there is also new hope: an organized ‘solidarity with Cuba’ won’t be shaken in its partisanship for ‘socialist Cuba’ by the enacted reforms, even when faced with the anti-social hardships they entail. Cuba’s steadfast friends do see the social ruthlessness following from the state’s agenda to assert itself on the capitalist world market, but they read it in a way that excuses Cuba’s leadership. They attribute the government’s attacks on previous living conditions to a situation that leaves it no other choice, insisting it has the good intention of trying to save the very principles and exemplary achievements it is abolishing. Thus, an article in the left-wing newspaper Junge Welt credits the Raúl Castro crew with fighting to maintain and develop socialism even under very complicated conditions (April 23, 2011). The only thing the good socialist cause that is supposedly being salvaged in Cuba has in common with old leftist ideas of a better world — but this it still does have in common — is that such leftists have always considered socialism identical to a genuinely social state, and confused proletarian revolution with liberating oppressed nations from their colonial and imperialist dependence. Someone who thinks socialism is synonymous with a kind of state rule that is nationally self-determined, builds upon its own people and is socially minded will obviously also believe that preserving the state is the first and foremost prerequisite for all the good works it is capable of — and that social achievements might have to be sacrificed for it to survive:

“What is at stake is nothing less than Cuba’s existence as a truly independent state. Its sovereignty stands or falls with the revolution.” (Junge Welt, September 15, 2010)

This makes the ideal of a better world somewhat more specific: what the people really need and leftists want them to have is now the national state’s sovereignty. The power of the Communist Party of Cuba is only a condition for the island state to assert itself as an independent sovereign against the claims and threats of its overpowering neighbor. This is all the socialism that is left over: Cuba is still a shining example for left-wing anti-Americanism.

Right-wing Cuba-bashing: It is an obstinate troublemaker

On the bourgeois right, the years have only slightly mitigated the hatred of those old gray revolutionaries still clinging stubbornly to power. Right-wingers will not forgive the Cuban regime for daring to be the globally noted exception to prevailing capitalist conditions, sparing a generation of Cubans the “natural” struggle for life in competition, and achieving quite a bit of social progress compared to its Third World neighbors in Latin America. The fact that the Cuban reformers are now taking back their alternative path themselves, sacrificing their social achievements to preserving the state, and orienting the economy to world-market requirements, shows bourgeois commentators how fundamentally wrong the socialists were from the beginning. That they are changing their system as a way of saving Cuban socialism is testimony, as far as their enemies are concerned, that they are not truly repentant. Rightists are more than willing to take the new-policy revolutionary slogans at face value: it’s still about socialism! As long as the Cubans’ national will is aiming at self-assertion and showing signs of resisting the natural dominance next door, the democratic camp cannot be convinced that the Cuban reformers are after real change. Now the poverty generated and intensified by the government’s capitalistically inspired transformation of the island economy is even more proof of how communists typically disregard the people and what a system with no freedom will lead to. There is nothing Cubans can do short of giving up and abolishing the “regime.”


[1] In spite of the US embargo, Cuba has found wealthy lenders. In addition to its politically based special economic relations with Venezuela — it buys oil from Venezuela at special prices and in exchange for 3,000 Cuban doctors — it gets credit from aspiring US competitors China and Brazil, among others. Its foreign debt has grown to about 30 billion toward the Paris Club of creditor states (that is, excluding its obligations to Brazil and China, but including about 15 billion in old debts from Soviet times that Russia as the successor state insists be repaid). Cuba stopped servicing these debts ten years ago, so has no credit with these states and is constantly on the verge of insolvency. In 2008 the Cuban state therefore froze the foreign currency accounts of foreign investors at Cuban banks and asked for deferral of its other debt service.

[2] Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings come mainly from mining nickel and cobalt, from tourism — both with international capital participation — from growing tobacco and sugar, and from the dollars Cuban exiles send home. The main imports are oil, machinery and vehicles, as well as foodstuffs.

[3] “The essence of the lineamientos … and the precise orientation of economic development right now is to produce whatever can be exported, reduce imports, and invest in the areas that can yield the quickest returns...” (Raúl Castro, ibid.).

[4] Using an example with plenty of symbolism for Cuba, the export of sugar, Raúl Castro enumerates to his comrades the world market opportunities that have been missed in the past through Cuba’s own sloppiness:

“We stopped receiving so many millions because of the price of sugar; throughout all these years sugar prices were at rock bottom (on the world market). And now that it has risen we stopped receiving so many millions because we did not meet the sugar production plan, for one reason or another. In this and other economic areas we stopped receiving so much because we failed to meet the production plans … just imagine how many problems we could have solved (Raúl Castro, ibid).

The question of why the plan was not fulfilled is of no concern and is ticked off with “for one reason or another.” Raúl Castro is much more interested in making it clear to his comrades that it meant missing an opportunity to utilize price fluctuations on the international market, i.e., (of all things!) the ups and downs beyond Cuba’s influence, as a chance to solve a whole lot of the country’s problems.

[5] This is in fact welcome up to a limit rather freely defined by the government: “so that … in correspondence with the savings in food imports, farmers obtain fair and reasonable income for their hard work, which does not justify imposing exorbitant prices on the population” (Raúl Castro, ibid.).

[6] As a reward for their success, they are given the prospect of being allowed to freely dispose of the funds they have earned — after paying their taxes to the state: Firms can set up development and investment funds, and bonus funds for workers, on the basis of after-tax profits and after fulfilling other obligations to the state, once they have met the specified requirements (L 18).

[7] From now on, training courses are to take place in the workers’ spare time (L 142), and canteen meals and transportation to work are to be abolished with a small financial compensation for the workers, with the aim of lightening the state’s burden for some of these services (L, Introduction).

[8] The Cuban Trade Union Confederation approves:

“It is well known that the overhang of jobs exceeds one million people in state funded businesses. Our state cannot and must not continue to maintain enterprises and budgeted, productive and service agencies with bloated workforces … It is necessary to increase production and quality of services, reduce bloated social costs, and eliminate unjustified freebies, excessive subsidies, study as a source of employment, and early retirement” (Statement of the Secretariat of the Cuban Confederation of Trade Unions CTC, September 13, 2010).

Up to now, wages have continued to be paid when plants close down or production is interrupted due to a shortage of raw materials or spare parts, as often happens, and those out of work have been sent to college or pensioned off.

[9] The list of 178 newly licensed ‘private businesses’ that are to enable those made redundant to earn their living and pay state taxes from now on includes such illustrious occupations as musical instrument tuner and repairer, water carrier, artisan, barber, used books seller, umbrella and parasol mender, and tarot reader. But it will now also be officially permitted to rent out and sell apartments and cars.

[10] In 2004, the Cuban government replaced the dollar as Cuba’s common secondary currency with the peso convertible (CUC), a currency issued by the Cuban National Bank whose value is pegged to the dollar. World money coming into the country through tourists, Cuban exiles or joint ventures must be handed in to state banks and exchanged for CUC for someone to gain access to the goods and services purchasable only with CUC.

[11] Many of the small businesses that are now being officially licensed already exist in the country — mainly as illicit ways of earning additional income alongside wages received from the state. “Many of the new laws are really just ‘legalizing’ things we already have,” says Enrique, a lecturer at UCI, a major computer science university. “the difference being that now the state is making money on them through the new taxes” (Lateinamerika-Nachrichten [Latin American News] November 2010). But legalization fundamentally changes the nature of these businesses for those getting the new licenses: while they were previously outside the state’s reach and supplemented an income otherwise funded by the state, and its social benefits such as the ‘libreta,’ they are now being established as a sole source of income subject to state control. They must now not only feed their ‘owners’ but also bring in taxes for the state.

[12] “The application of a tax system for self-employment was approved that corresponds to the new economic scenario and ensures that those engaged in this activity contribute to social security and pay personal income tax and sales tax; and that those who hire workers pay a tax for the use of labor” (Raúl Castro, speech, August 1, 2010). To help cope with the new requirements, the Cuban state now offers courses on accounting and the tax system for small business owners (Granma, January 4, 2012).

[13] The structure and organization of retail trade will have to aim at diversifying the quality and selection of products and services to meet the demand of the different segments of the population and their buying power, as one of the factors that will help stimulate work (L 284).

14 So from now on the state will be applying harsh criteria of neediness to decide who it will give social benefits to: there will be subsidies, not for products, but for those Cubans who really need them for one reason or another (Raúl Castro, speech, December 18, 2010). The relevant regulations are to guarantee that social assistance is only given to those who really need it because they are prevented from working and have no family to support them; and to abolish services that can be taken care of by the persons themselves or their relatives… (L 165).

[15] This is echoed by the trade unions with their loyalty to the state: losses that burden the economy prove to be counterproductive, generate bad habits, and deform workers’ behavior (Statement of the Secretariat of the Cuban Confederation of Trade Unions CTC, September 13, 2010).

[16] The mass exodus did nothing to disillusion the new statesmen in their idealism of the people being one with their leadership. No matter whether those who left the country were formerly well-to-do, opponents, critics or disappointed individuals, ones worn down by the shortages, or ones lured by the promises of capitalism abroad: they were morally ostracized and shut out from the imagined national community.

[17] Twelve million tons of sugar were to be delivered by 1990 by extensively reconstructing and mechanizing the plantation complex (J. Hell, Geschichte Kubas [History of Cuba], VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1989); at the end of the Soviet Union, just four million tons had been delivered.

[18] Cuba’s leaders accordingly reacted to their various crises by trying again and again to close supply gaps by introducing “market economy elements.” In 1978 they allowed private handicraft and transport businesses, in 1980 private farmers’ markets, from 1980 to 1985 private house-building. They repeatedly allowed and then prohibited private dollar ownership. Each time they soon called off the undertaking again in view of the material damage to the state economy and the undesirable effects on the people’s morale, and exercised “self-criticism.”

[19] Cf. V. Skierka, Fidel Castro. Eine Biographie, Kindler-Verlag, 2001, p. 238. English translation by Patrick Camiller: Fidel Castro: A Biography, Polity, 2006.

[20] An assessment by the East German embassy in Havana, quoted from V. Skierka, ibid. pp. 219 f, 247.

[21]Cuba’s sugar exports fell to 1.5 million tons and exports overall fell by 70%. Industrial plants had to be shut down for lack of energy and spare parts. Agricultural production fell 47% overall due to shortages of seed and fertilizer and due to defective machinery.

In addition, Washington tightened the economic embargo to force Cuba to give up after the end of the Soviet Union, and extended its sanctions to non-US companies that traded with Cuba.

[22] Joint ventures were established in oil exploration and refining, nickel smelting, the cement industry, tourism and telecommunications. Investors came from Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Europe.

[23] Today, life and reality force us to do things we would never have otherwise done … We have to make concessions to save the revolution and the achievements of socialism … Some of these measures we detest (F. Castro, quoted after B. Hoffmann (ed.), Wirtschaftsreformen in Kuba [Economic Reforms in Cuba], Schriftenreihe des Instituts für Iberoamerika-Kunde, vol. 38, p. 44). However, even then Castro saw joint ventures not only as an unfortunate concession but also as a possible engine of development for Cuba: The capitalists of course have great profitability, our 50% partners recover their capital in three years, we recover our capital in three years too, the money we spend on gravel, sand, cement, construction, excavation, labor and all this. … and both sides win (F. Castro, Fourth Party Congress, Hoffmann op. cit., p. 72).

[24] Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), January 3, 2005

[25] NZZ, March 26, 2005

[26] Over a quarter of a century ago, Comrade Fidel already diagnosed that Cuba had turned into a paternalistic state that was protecting and supporting everyone to the utmost but being exploited by those without principles, and that people had become indolent, negligent, incompetent and irresponsible. However, he did not conclude once and for all that this must be combated by consistently blackmailing people in terms of wages and performance, as in capitalism. Despite all his dissatisfaction he still banked on the lever of political and moral agitation, on teaching people to be socialists as a revolutionary task (quoted after J. Hell, ibid., p. 251 f.). Moral exhortations to work hard to serve the common national cause acted as a substitute for threats of job loss — and for the state’s inability to organize worthwhile performance for everyone. Now the state is instead banking on the persuasive power of material blackmail, though not without the moral come-on.

[27] Our opponents abroad blatantly demand that we dismantle the economic and social system that we have achieved, as if this revolution were willing to submit to the most humiliating surrender or, in other words, govern its destiny by accepting demeaning conditions. Throughout 500 years, from Hatuey to Fidel, our people have spilled too much blood to now accept the dismantling of what we have built with so much sacrifice (applause) (Raúl Castro, speech, December 18, 2010). It is for the sake of this aim of asserting Cuba as an independent nation that the Party is dismantling its social system itself. And that is necessary so that the Cuban nation can continue to resist humiliating surrender and accepting demeaning conditions. For this, from today's perspective, is evidently the importance of what we have built and justifies all the spilled blood.

[28] That is why the political leaders do not simply dictate their reforms; they want the Party and people to agree to them and stage their decisions as the result of a process of discussion involving the entire population. As Raúl Castro says, it is vital to explain, provide arguments and convince the people of the rightness, necessity and urgency of any measure, no matter how harsh it may seem. The Party and the Communist Youth, as well as Cuba’s Workers’ Central and its unions, along with the rest of the mass and social organizations, have the capacity to mobilize the support and the confidence of the people through debate, free from unviable dogmas and ways of thinking that constitute a colossal psychological barrier that has to be dismantled little by little, and we will achieve this together (Applause) (speech, December 18, 2010).

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