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

  • September 2, 2015 at 8:46 am

    “Cuba used to be a net exporter of food & could be again”. This is misleading as Cuba was also a net exporter during the Soviet era ie Sugar in both cases. “Cuba went from an era of large colonial plantations, to large corporate farms (with many small independent small farmers too, by the way), to the collectivized farms of the state-socialist era.” Again this is misleading as a lot of the independent small farmers were in fact tenants. After the revolution many received the title to their land for the first time. The majority of the large farms (but not all) were turned into state farms and a limit was set to how much a single farmer could own. Also individual farmers were encouraged but never forced to join cooperatives. However a large proportion (my figures are 200,000) remained private farmers. “give farmers their own piece of land to work and let them sell their produce & meat on the open market”. The problem here is that neither small nor large farms are the most productive – this was a Soviet mistake. The most productive are medium sized – small farms only tend to supply their families rather than a creating a surplus. Farmers are allowed to sell their produce on the open market after they have supplied the state quota. This isn’t ideal but can’t be changed overnight otherwise people will starve.

  • September 1, 2015 at 3:24 pm


  • September 1, 2015 at 7:28 am

    Erik Brynjolfsson’s, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management believes differently. He argues that advances in computer technology (from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services) are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years. Even more ominous, he foresee dismal prospects for many types of jobs as powerful new technologies are increasingly adopted not only in manufacturing, clerical, and retail work but in professions such as law, financial services, education, and medicine. His research show that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them.

  • August 31, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    “Capitalism versus socialism is an endless debate.”
    Capitalism is based upon energy and individualism.
    Socialism is based upon envy and theory.
    Successful capitalists provide employment and higher living standards as demonstrated by the EU and North America.
    Socialism provides equality of the type demonstrated by Cuba and member countries of CELAC.
    Compare the GDP’s!
    How much is donated to charity in Cuba?
    How much is donated to charity in North America and the EU.
    Cuba is the recipient of charity.
    Oxfam and the Gates Foundation are the providers of charity.

  • August 31, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    “Hong Kong benefitted all of China.”
    That is correct, the development was the child of the British and remains a huge asset for China. Hong Kong is a consequence of capitalism.

  • August 31, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    And the end result nidal was that Hong Kong was a major financial asset to China. It was also the only part that had multi-party democracy. Prosperity for the people obviously runs counter to your personal beliefs, but it was all summed up by Sophie Tucker when she said:
    “I’ve been rich, I’ve been poor, rich is best.”
    There is no way that the dedicated Socialismo Castro family regime could possibly mimic the success that the British created in Hong Kong. Doing so requires capitalism!
    Singapore is another result of what you describe as “British greed.”

  • August 30, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    Simply not true. Intuitively it may appear to be true but empirically, for example, there are more jobs created by the iPhone than jobs it displaced. Now this has been true so far. It remains to be seen if this will continue to be the case.

  • August 30, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    Actually, in Johns defense, and I’m no great fan of his, he is correct insofar as technology is displacing more jobs than it creates. Manufacturing, specifically, has taken the greatest beating.

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