HAVANA TIMES — “The biggest economic mistake we made was thinking that building socialism would guarantee development,” one of the Cuba’s most reputable economists said to me. It was something of an informal conversation, but that idea stuck in my head.
I find that this idea is alive in the position that some Cubans assume with respect to the nation’s future. It is present among those who regard socialism as a magic formula and those who believe that capitalism will solve all of the country’s problems.
Some continue to believe that, without the US embargo, Cuban socialism would be automatically viable. At the other end we find those who claim private property is the key to success. It is as though they believed that one of the two systems is going to guarantee, in and of itself, the future development of the country.
The truth of the matter is that, in a little over a century, Cuba has already gone through the two systems and has failed at both. Cuban capitalism created much wealth but it did so on the basis of brutal inequality, with fortunes built upon the extreme poverty of the countryside.
Inequality was so pronounced that the political program advanced by Fidel Castro as a rallying banner, History Will Absolve Me, focused on demanding more social justice and a fairer distribution of the nation’s wealth.
Capitalism in Cuba was a failure in many respects. Suffice it to read the report issued by the Catholic University Youth in 1957 to get a sense of the malnourishment, illiteracy, lack of medical services and terrible sanitary conditions that a great many Cubans were subjected to (1).
Violence reached such levels that one president was forced to strike a deal with local thugs and another leader struck an agreement with US mobsters, who ran businesses in Cuba with no restrictions whatsoever.
The “democratic system” forged over half a century of capitalism was a joke. It had a mere decade of normal operations, as opposed to 40 years of institutional crises, three decades with the Platt Amendment hanging over the constitution, foreign invasions and several coups (2).
Nor was Cuba an example of national sovereignty. Dependence on the United States was such that one US ambassador wrote the State Department requesting to be relocated to another country. He said he was exhausted because Cuban politicians did nothing without consulting with him first.
Revolutionary leaders believed socialism would allow them to solve many of these problems and convinced the majority of people that this was the path towards economic development, a fairer society and a country with greater sovereignty.
They achieved enviable equality, at least in comparison to their regional context and to pre-revolutionary Cuba. The agrarian and urban reforms, free health and education and even the ration booklet guaranteed a more just distribution of riches.
When the available resources ran out, the Soviet Union began to “sponsor” the Caribbean experiment and offered financing. The long-term effect of this, however, was to accustom Cubans to depending on the port-transportation-internal economy chain, that is to say, on imports. The crisis of the 90s drove home again that the country was underdeveloped and devoid of natural resources.
Ironically, the country evaded collapse thanks to the remittances of émigrés and tourism. Today, it survives thanks to the sale of medical and other professional services.
Fifty years of brutal capitalist inequality and another fifty years of a socialist system incapable of reaching economic prosperity should suffice to make people distrustful of any magic spell that would cure everything through the repetition of certain words or some political slogans.
Instead, the nation should look to the wide range of talented professionals it has produced. Intellectuals and common Cubans could contribute a lot to the nation if truly effective (not merely consultation) participatory mechanisms were created.
The nation’s challenges cannot be overcome with a mere label; they call for a model capable of brining economic prosperity while offering equal opportunities for all, without ditching free healthcare, access to education, culture and sports.
(*) Visit the website of Fernando Ravsberg.