Cuba’s Economic System: Reform or Change?

Fernando Ravsberg*

Cuban factory (Photo: Raquel Pérez)
Cuban factory (Photo: Raquel Pérez)

HAVANA TIMES — Marino Murillo, Vice-Chairman of Cuba’s Council of Ministers and architect of the island’s recent economic reforms, has urged the country to aim for growth by eliminating “all of the obstacles that the current economic model places in the way of the development of the productive forces.”

The problem is that the greatest obstacle could be the model itself, which is based on relations of production that hinder the country’s economic development, slow down changes, interfere with reforms and bring about discontent among the population.

By implementing this socialist model, which dates back to Stalin’s time, Cuba obtained the same results seen in all other countries which copied it: agricultural production crises, industrial stagnation, shortages and a disaffected citizenry.

Murillo invoked socialism’s theoretical forefathers, who said that the new, socialist society would need to nationalize only the “fundamental means of production”, a prescription that wasn’t exactly followed by a model which placed even junk food stands in State hands.

To be at all effective, every economic change essayed in the country today, no matter how small, invariably demands a whole series of subsequent reforms. And it is precisely there where the model, and its defenders, prevent the reform from becoming effective or yielding its best results.

Though the Cuban government’s official discourse itself is calling for a “rejuvenation” of the country’s model, the fact of the matter is that it will be next to impossible to fit a new piece into this jigsaw puzzle without altering the pieces around it, without producing a domino-effect that will ultimately change the entire pattern.

Though the Cuban government’s official discourse itself is calling for a “rejuvenation” of the country’s model, the fact of the matter is that it will be next to impossible to fit a new piece into this jigsaw puzzle without altering the pieces around it, without producing a domino-effect that will ultimately change the entire pattern.

The government runs into these obstacles every time it attempts to move one of the pieces of the puzzle. When it decided to hand over State-controlled lands to the peasants, officials invoked Cuba’s “current legislation” to forbid farmers to set up their homes in farm areas.

Such absurd restrictions discouraged many and pushed others to quit the food production sector altogether and devote themselves to securing construction materials illegally, so as to be able to build a home elsewhere, far from prying looks.

Massive and hugely inefficient, the agricultural sector may well be the very paradigm of bureaucratic mismanagement, but it is far from being its only expression in the country. Cuba’s import system is a true bureaucratic gem, in which producers are those with the least say in official decisions.

A Cuban factory wishing to import a piece of equipment from abroad is required to approach the importing company assigned to it by the State. Technically speaking, this “importer” does not actually import anything – it merely puts out a bid among foreign companies with offices in Cuba.

Employees from these companies are the ones who travel to the manufacturing country, purchase the equipment and bring it back to Cuba. Under the country’s current model, the manager of a Cuban factory is expressly forbidden from contacting the foreign export company directly.

Thus, the person who makes the order is an office clerk who knows little or nothing about what the company needs and who, in the best of scenarios, will opt for the cheapest piece of equipment available, something which often leads to serious production problems later.

The status quo relations of production continue to find support in Cuba, from the defenders of “Real Socialism.” Ironically, or not surprisingly, most of them are isolated from the reality of this socialist system, enjoying government perks that compensate for the “small inconveniences” of everyday life.

In the worst cases, these “intermediating State importers” are bribed by foreign companies so that they will purchase obsolete or poor-quality equipment. In recent weeks, Cuban courts tried hundreds of State employees implicated in these types of “deals”.

These are the “relations of production” which keep equipment in Cuban factories paralyzed for months, waiting for the needed spare parts, while State importers take all the time in the world to decide what to purchase.

Most Cubans I know support the changes that have been implemented thus far and want these to make headway quickly and effectively. It is hard to come by anyone who feels nostalgia for the old model, which proved more efficient in establishing restrictions than in satisfying the material needs of the population.

But these relations of production continue to find support in Cuba, from the defenders of “Real Socialism.” Ironically, or not surprisingly, most of them are isolated from the reality of this socialist system, enjoying government perks that compensate for the “small inconveniences” of everyday life.

During a recent debate, a Cuban journalist suggested that these officials catch a city bus from time to time, so as to immerse themselves in everyday reality. When they told me of this, I recalled the old anarchist graffiti which warned us that “those who do not live the way they think end up thinking the way they live.”
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(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


2 thoughts on “Cuba’s Economic System: Reform or Change?

  • June 21, 2013 at 5:52 am
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    The description of the corrupt, convoluted and inefficient importation system explains why Cuba pays high prices for imported goods. The importation system is the real blockade afflicting Cuba. The “Criminal US Blockade” is a smoke screen the regime uses to hide their own incompetence and corruption.

  • June 21, 2013 at 4:14 am
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    Cuba’s state capitalist system is beyond reform. It is, as a whole, that inefficient and that ineffective that it needs to be changed. More freedom for small entrepreneurs. Creation of wholesale markets. An end to the dual monetary system. Adequate wages. Real productive investment in a secure and open economical environment.
    All these Cuban needs.
    Cuba’s state economy is dominated by the regime, its propaganda and its dogma. It should be set free. It should no longer be part of the totalitarian control system. through which the regime wants to control all aspects of life.

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