Cuba’s Problems Cannot Be Solved with Magic Spells

Fernando Ravsberg*

A Cuban neighborhood ration booklet store. Photo: Raquel Perez

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.

Nixon with Batista (r). Few countries in Latin America were as dependen ton the United States as was Cuba.

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).

Inequality among Cubans during the first 50 years of the republic was brutal.

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.

The history of Cuba demonstrates that political labels do not guarantee development with equity.

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.


36 thoughts on “Cuba’s Problems Cannot Be Solved with Magic Spells

  • November 2, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Do you find it at all peculiar that both communism and capitalism were/are controlled by the same “people”?

    Why are these “people” always on both sides of the issues…. Remember WW2, who funded both hitler and the allies?

  • September 3, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    One of my brothers-in-law manages one of Cuba’s State poultry operations. With labour at well under a $1 a day and the Cuban climatic advantages, it ought to be possible to undercut the production costs of the US industry.
    I am not opposed to small farms, providing that they are efficient and competitive.When in the UK prior to emigrating to Canada, I managed large agricultural estates. By efficiency we were able for example to produce milk at a lower labour cost per gallon whilst simultaneously paying staff more.
    But, I think dani that I detect your recognition that the individual operating the business irrespective of size is a critical factor. I mentioned paying more to staff and that is difficult for the small farmer, who as you have pointed out, cannot fully mechanise.
    Regarding rural Cubans wishing to sell up nd move to cities, that for several reasons is not possible in Cuba. In my opinion, good management of economically sized businesses can provide a better standard of living than most (not all) small farms.
    What we have to keep in mind when discussing agricultural mehods is that the world has a rapidly increasing population with an ever increasing demand for food. I like others can sit and criticize companies involved in genetic manipulation of both plants and animals. But without that, the green revolution in Asia could not have occurred and millions more would have starved. Those emotive pictures of children with distended bellies much used by some of the well intended do-gooders, display the effects of hunger and starvation. Apart from utilising them to raise funds for charity, let us address how we increase food production. Cuba has been increasingly guilty of allowing good agricultural land and with a very substantial rural workforce available to revert to bush> That in my view is criminal!
    I first visited Cuba with a group of fairly distinguished agricultural producers (note my choice of words). We held our AGM there. Without exception we were amazed by the inefficiency displayed and the poor working conditions. One obvious problem is that labour is far too cheap and in consequence is not valued.
    I would love to persuade a company like that of the Green family to manage a chunk of Cuba’s agriculture and demonstrate really sound agriculture. But conditions in Cuba don’t permit that. The State has to pay the employees, and so cuts off any possibility of reward for production.
    I want to see Cuba increase its food production, I want to see an ensuing reduction in imports for the benefit of Cubans! The current State system doesn’t work – and the evidence for that statement is there to behold.

  • September 3, 2015 at 11:41 am

    I would bow to your superior knowledge, but I’m not sure you are arguing against me. The issue was whether splitting up the large estates into 50 acre parcels of land was efficient and from what I have read it wouldn’t on either a per person or a per acre basis. Without mechanization the large estates wouldn’t be efficient either.

    I think you are making another point that small farmers if they expand can grow into massive productive farms. I think that is more likely in America as you don’t have a load of people in Cuba wanting to sell up and move to the cities/industry. You may be right regarding poultry but you need to remember that rich countries are happy to offload their surpluses/substandard products on the third world at prices that third world can’t compete with.

  • September 2, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    As a qualified agriculturalist with a lifetimes experience, I have to correct your no doubt genuine view about the relative productive capacity of different farm sizes.
    For some emotive reasons, the urban public at large like to think of agriculture as a way of life not as an essential industry. Its role is food production.
    The Soviet mistake was thinking that the State by nationalising and introducing five year plans, could improve agricultural production, a lot of theoretical bunkum!
    How efficient do you consider US agricultural companies like Mann’s to be? They alone promoted broccoli from an almost unknown vegetable to one which many North American families consume almost daily.
    How do you explain the success of the Green family of Soham, England. From John and Andrew Green starting as tenant farmers in 1966 to today a business farming 86,000 hectares in England, Scotland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Spain.
    Have you physically looked at Cuban agriculture – I have! Near San Antonio de Los Banos in the province of Artemisa, there is a so-called agricultural co-operative which strives to be a multi-crop business. Controlled by the State, there is research in biological controls operated by a Cuban graduate of Moscow University – he graduated in nuclear physics and worked in the Russian nuclear program until the implosion of the communist system.
    If you go further west in the Province of Artemisa, you will find wonderful potentially high yielding red soils, which farmers elsewhere in the world would envy. So what is the regime doing with those soils? Well about one third is reverting to bush – in agricultural and productive terms a disaster! But does the regime care? The local sugar plant is an empty rotting shell. Ah! you may respond, but that is a consequence of the collapse of the industry following Russia ceasing to take 85% of Cuba’s production. Well why not produce more poultry instead of importing frozen chicken from Brazil, Mexico, Canada AND the US of A?
    I could go on, but find thinking about the potential of agriculture in Cuba, the potential employment it could create, the ability to replace imports, frustrating. I have sat at home in Cuba and watched Marino Murillo prattling on about his economic plans to the Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba – and I have seen the results of Socialismo agricultural planning. As long as Cuba is controlled by theoretical socialism it will continue to be in agricultural terms an economic basket case!

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