Should We Finally Take Cuba’s Reform Process Seriously?

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

Havana street vendors.
Havana street vendors. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — I often wonder how much of what Cuban leaders say is based on knowledge of the subject in question and how much is sheer nonsense. For the good of the country, of the people who eke out a life on the island, day after day, I mean, sometimes I even wish these leaders were compulsive liars who are hiding a secret agenda but ultimately know what they’re talking about.

For, if these fellows truly believe what they’re saying, then there’s no doubt in my mind that the fate of my compatriots on the island is anything but enviable.

Some weeks ago, the government decided to authorize the creation of urban service cooperatives. This is an interesting topic which has been enthusiastically received by some of Cuba’s left-leaning lot, who still do not understand that cooperatives aren’t intrinsically left-wing (or right-wing), that they are merely administrative spaces whose orientation depends on how they relate to the rest of society.

As regards to this last point, Cuba’s reform process is steering such cooperatives towards market relations (and, as such, the Right), for the system of domination that still prevails on the island does not tolerate any horizontal relations outside the market. And you don’t mess around with such an authoritarian government.

In any event, it is a positive step, for it helps loosen the State’s grip on society, gives people the opportunity to improve their lot and makes daily life more comfortable and easy, among other things.

 Always watching. Photo: Juan Suarez
Always on guard. Photo: Juan Suarez

The problem lies in the fact that, even though Cuban leaders have no choice but to do this (and other things they still refuse to do, fearing it will weaken their authority), they ceaselessly criticize and downplay what constitutes real progress for the country, to end up voicing all manner of unwitting and premeditated nonsense. With this, they disorient the whole of society, or at least those who still put any stock in what they say.

Recently, it was Ms. Grisel Trista Arbesu’s turn to do this. This woman is the head of the Improved Business Management Group of the Permanent Implementation and Development Commission, a long title which, if referring to anything factual, surely entails significant responsibilities and skills.

According to Mrs. Trista, 124 cooperatives were created around the country, most of them out of previously existing State entities. “With this measure,” she said, “we are hoping to place inefficient State activities under cooperative management. In addition, this allows the State to gradually unburden itself of matters that are not essential to the country’s economic development.”

That is to say, in this public official’s view, cooperatives (and all small-scale private enterprise, I would imagine) are there to do the State’s dirty work, to shoulder the “inefficient” sectors which the State doesn’t want to deal with anymore and, what’s more, aren’t really important.

Nap time.  Photo: Juan Suarez
Nap time. Photo: Juan Suarez

A singular perspective, not only with respect to cooperatives and the private sector, but also regarding what’s important for the country. For, if memory serves me right, I believe the strategy the government has adopted to overcome Cuba’s serious food deficit is to put food production in the hands of private businesses and cooperatives.

The creation of urban cooperatives stems, in fact, from issues related to the management of agricultural and livestock markets. So, for this government official, producing food and administering how the population accesses such food is an issue of secondary importance, not a strategic priority, one could say.

At the end of her explanation, to my even greater surprise, Ms. Arbesu clarified that cooperatives “are being called on to occupy an importance place within the country’s economy,” but not, to be sure, because this is a process of privatization.

“Cooperatives,” she said, “aren’t the result of a process of privatization. Rather, they administer State property, which is, ultimately, the property of the people.”

Well, there you have it. Should we take this seriously?
(*) An HT translation of the original published in Spanish by

15 thoughts on “Should We Finally Take Cuba’s Reform Process Seriously?

  • Spot on Griffin.

  • One of the more perplexing questions on the table soon that Cuba will need to answer: What does it plan to do with all of the foreign debt it owes as well as the $7 billion in Certified Cuba claims held by U.S. citizens?

  • Indeed.

  • In the Soviet Union under Gorbachev the first step in capitalist restoration were so-called co-ops. Of course, they were a screen for setting up businesses by grabbing the most profitable divisions of formerly nationalized companies

  • “Cooperatives not intrinsically left-wing”, I don’t know where you got that from.

    Secondly I understand the comment by Ms Arbesu. There is a difference between control and ownership. Ultimately ownership means ability to buy and sell to who ever you want. Tenants for example have control over their land and are able to gain profit selling the produce but can’t buy or sell the asset. There are however some gray areas. Someone who pays a mortgage on their house isn’t really the owner as the mortgage company can reclaim the house if payments aren’t kept up and if the house is sold the mortgage has to be paid off before any other transaction.

    Anyway my understanding of the comment is that the state outsources to cooperatives and self-employed but that the business can’t be bought or sold.

  • Freedom has several aspects: intellectual freedom, religious freedom, economic freedom, freedom of speech, political freedom, social freedom, sexual freedom, freedom of labour, freedom to travel, & etc.

    There are some countries which have a high degree of economic freedom, but no religious freedom and very restricted political freedom (ie. Saudi Arabia).

    The United States has a high degree of freedom of speech, of religious freedom, sexual freedom, and of political and economic freedom, although both those last two freedoms are increasingly limited by the growth of the corporate-state alliance called “Congress”.

    In Cuba, the people have very little economic freedom, a modest degree of religious freedom, no political freedom and no freedom of speech.

    Which of the freedoms do value most? Are you willing to give up some freedoms to obtain some benefit you think is more important?

    You seem eager to give up your economic freedom in exchange for the dubious benefits of enforced economic equality. But if you do so, you may find that along with your loss of economic freedom you will have lost your political freedom, your intellectual freedom, your freedom of speech, freedom of travel, freedom of association, freedom of labour and freedom of religion. That has been the experience of every nation which pursued the revolutionary goal of economic egalitarianism.

    The alternative to freedom is tyranny. Take your pick.

  • I’m not sure how privatizing equates to freedom however. In places like Greece, Spain, the United States, etc. the most coveted right by the bourgeoisie is the right to own property and can we really say that those societies have “freedom”?

    The liberal (in the classical sense) project of equating freedom with the ownership of property is an outdated concept that has been thoroughly debunked. Cuba should not move towards private ownership but rather should strengthen collective ownership if it wants to remain a viable alternative to Western capitalism. This alternative is greatly needed right now.

  • Until the Cuban people enjoy the rights to free speech, free assembly, free association and free elections, then no, one cannot take the limited economic reforms seriously. These changes introduced by Raul are intended to preserve the power of the regime, not to help the Cuban people. As he said himself, “There will be no political reforms.”

    To underline that point, so far this month, agents of the Cuban State Security have arrested over 100 dissidents in the past week. In Holguin, 43 local dissidents were arrested on the afternoon of August 5th, the anniversary of El Maleconazo (when numerous Cubans took to the streets in Havana demanding freedom in 1994). The activists had plans to divulge and debate “The Path of the People”, a pro-freedom project started by Oswaldo Paya.

    State repression of the Cuban people is worse now than it has been in a long time.

  • That is a falsehood. The fact is the world is richer almost everywhere today than at any time in human history. The rich are richer, but the poor are also richer.

    The most brutal ideology of the 20th century was without a doubt, Marxism, under which hundreds of millions of people suffered and tens of millions were murdered by the Communist State.

  • A failure? ..I guess that’s why the Cuban government is so desperate to hoard dollar; the very reason for the creation of the CUC. It’s why the old Soviet Union and China abandoned the Marxist model in favor of capitalism. …but you are welcome to your Cuban standard of living.

    Enjoy, cheers!

  • For Cuba to be truly vibrant, the government must give the people free and clear property ownership rights. They own and exploit the land, and their minds, not the state.

  • The American system is the failure: the entire population of the world suffers and is subjected to brute force, so that a tiny minority of Americans can enjoy the planet’s wealth.

  • I’m not sure that this article’s conclusion really follows from the start. Is the Cuban govt supposed to privatize these enterprises to be “legitimate”? Why is the retention of state property a negative thing as this author implies?

  • It is prolonging the inevitable: admission that the system is failure. Tinkering. The Cuban government is tinkering with the edges of a force that, once unleashed, will never be contained again unless it decides to use brute force. How can a government sit by and watch a population suffer as much as it does as a result of socialism? There is no compassion in that, never will be. It is a flawed ideology. The free world looks forward to the day when Cubans will be back in control of their destinies. One person at a time.

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