The Alternative in Cuba

The resumption of US – Cuban relations is a real victory. But Cuban workers face renewed economic liberalization with little political opening.

By Samuel Farber*

US President Barack Obama announces restored diplomatic relations with Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.
US President Barack Obama announces restored diplomatic relations with Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.

HAVANA TIMES — On December 17, 2014, Washington and Havana agreed to a pathbreaking change in a relationship that, for more than fifty years, was characterized by the United States’ efforts to overthrow the Cuban government, including the sponsorship of invasions, naval blockades, economic sabotage, assassination attempts, and terrorist attacks.

The new accord set free the remaining three members of the “Cuban Five” group held in US prisons since 1998 and, in exchange, Cuba freed the American Alan Gross and Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, a previously unknown US intelligence agent imprisoned on the island for almost twenty years, in addition to over fifty Cuban political prisoners. Far more consequential are the resumption of official diplomatic relations and the significant relaxation of travel restrictions and remittances to Cuba.

The agreement covers the political normalization but not the full economic normalization of relations: that would require Congress repealing the Helms-Burton Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996.

Past failures

There were previous efforts to resume political and economic relations between the two countries since the United States broke ties in early 1961. The most important was undertaken by the Carter administration, which in pursuing an initiative originally undertaken by Nixon, renewed secret negotiations with the Cuban government in 1977, when the Cuban exile right-wing in South Florida was still a negligible political force.

Cuban president Raul Castro makes his surprise announcemnt on the results of 18 months of secret negotiations with the Obama administration.
Cuban president Raul Castro makes his surprise announcemnt on the results of 18 months of secret negotiations with the Obama administration.

The two countries made mutual concessions that included the establishment of diplomatic “interest sections” in Washington and Havana and the lifting of the ban on tourist travel to the island, a restriction later reinstated by Reagan in 1982. In the wake of the Carter-Castro negotiations, the Cuban leader released most political prisoners, of which about 1,000 left for the United States, and in 1979, Cuban-Americans were, for the first time, allowed to visit their relatives on the island.

Yet the reconciliation process came to a halt. While the presence of US troops throughout the world was taken for granted by Washington as an imperial entitlement, the deployment of Cuban forces in Africa became an obstacle to the normalization of relations. Many in the US blamed Castro’s foreign involvement as the decisive reason for the collapse of the talks both under Nixon and Carter. But there were other more important factors at work.

For one thing, the Carter administration was itself divided on the question. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance supported the resumption of normal relations with Cuba, while Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s powerful national security adviser, opposed the move. But it was domestic political developments in the US unrelated to Cuba, which ultimately stopped the process.

The American right was becoming agitated over the negotiations concerning the transfer of the Panama Canal back to the Panamanians. In September 1977, Carter suspended negotiations with Cuba until after the Canal treaties were ratified by the Senate.

The suspension turned out to be indefinite. Faced with attack over Panama, the Carter administration decided to shore up its right flank by adopting a tougher posture on Cuba, a stance that was shortly after reinforced by the victory of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and by the political weakening of the Carter administration as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, visited Cuba last May.
Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, visited Cuba last May.

American capitalists approve                      

Why did Obama succeed where previous US administrations failed? More than anything else, the end of the Cold War, the departure of Cuban troops from Africa, and the less militant stance of Cuba in Latin America have, through the years, qualitatively downgraded the importance of Cuba in American foreign policy, as witnessed by the fact that practically all US government strategic studies in the last two decades don’t even mention the island.

At the same time, however, the American capitalist class, except for its most right-wing fringe, has come to support not only the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, but even more so the elimination of the economic blockade. This has been the position adopted by the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers in the last several years, and also the general stance taken by the business press. Business columnists have been arguing, with more than a grain of truth, that massive American investment and trade with the island would “subvert” and eventually overcome the Communist economic system, as has been happening in China and Vietnam.

Alan Gross after his release from prison in Cuba where he served 5 of 15 year sentence.
Alan Gross after his release from prison in Cuba where he served 5 of 15 year sentence.

Moreover, after exemptions to the US economic blockade allowing the export of agricultural goods and certain processed goods to Cuba were authorized by the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, firms such as Cargill, Archer Daniel Midland and Tyson Foods got involved in trade with Cuba. After the current December 17 agreement, other corporations, such as Caterpillar and Pepsico joined in supporting it. During the last several years, dozens of business people and politicians, particularly from the South, Midwest and Southwest have been visiting the island and discussing with the Cuban government future economic prospects especially if the blockade is repealed.

Reflecting the attitude of their business constituents, many Democratic and Republican politicians, such as Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, have been advocating political and economic relations with Cuba. It remains to be seen whether these forces will be strong enough to amend, if not repeal, the Helms-Burton Act and allow for a full normalization of economic, as well as political, relations with the island.

The exile community is changing

The leading Cuban-American voice in the US House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

As the Cuba issue lost importance after the end of the Cold War, and as major business sectors have begun to favor economic and political relations with the country, the right-wing leadership of the Cuban exile enclave in South Florida remains the only political force firmly defending the blockade. Its political clout was particularly important in a closely divided state like Florida, where Cuban-Americans account for around 5 percent of the electorate.

But the conservative exile generation of the sixties has been dying out and by now the growing majority of the Cubans residing in Florida came to the United States since the eighties. In contrast with the older exiles, many of these people regularly visit the island and are more concerned with the welfare of their Cuban relatives than with Cuban exile politics. It is no wonder then that public opinion polls have shown that a majority of the Cubans and Cuban-Americans residing in Florida favor a change in policy leading to full relations with the island.

Nevertheless, many of these people are not yet citizens and affluent, conservative Cubans still have great power over the media and political system. The three Florida representatives in Congress of Cuban origin are still right-wing Republicans strongly committed to the blockade.

And yet the fact that Barack Obama won 48 percent of the Cuban vote (and larger proportions among younger Cubans) in the 2012 elections is a clear indication of the political trends among Cuban-Americans away from right-wing positions on Cuba. Moreover, as the Cuban-American sociologist Alex Portes has indicated, the Cubans who have arrived since 1980 generally come from modest class backgrounds in the island and are hardly distinguishable from other Latin American immigrants in socio-economic terms. One wonders about the future of the Latin American “model minority.”

The Cuban road to China

Cuba's Minister of the Economy and chief supervisor of the economic reforms, Marino Murillo.
Cuba’s Minister of the Economy and chief supervisor of the economic reforms, Marino Murillo.

For its part, the Cuban government has been intent to find a way to resume diplomatic relations with the United States even though this may in the long run undermine its legitimacy as it won’t be able to blame the blockade for continuing political repression and economic woes.

Ever since Raúl Castro assumed power — informally in 2006 and formally in 2008 — he has been moving towards adopting the Sino-Vietnamese model, meaning a state-capitalism that retains the monopoly of political power through the Communist Party, and that controls the strategic sectors of the economy, such as banking, while sharing the rest with a domestic and foreign private sector. But this has been a contradictory road where the Cuban government has tried to “have its cake and eat it too,” accompanying every economic change with restrictions that limit their effectiveness.

Despite the rosy picture drawn by Castro sympathizers, such as Emily Morris in New Left Review, the results of the Cuban government’s new policies have been meager and unable to finally overcome the long economic crisis that has gripped the island since the Soviet Union’s collapse. The real wages of state employees, who still constitute the great majority of the labor force, had only reached, in 2013, 27 percent of their 1989 levels.

Since 2008, spending on education, health, social welfare and housing have diminished as a proportion of the state budget and gross domestic product. Furthermore, for the last several years economic growth has been low (1.2 percent in 2014) and capital investment has been a meager 10 percent of the GDP compared with the average 20 percent for Latin America as a whole.

Not surprisingly, Marino Murillo, Cuba’s Minister of the Economy, has said that the island needs at least 2 billion dollars a year in investment to achieve an economic takeoff. This is the key to Castro’s willingness to resume relations with the United States, especially in the light of the serious political and economic problems that Venezuela (Cuba’s principal ally) and Russia are currently facing along with the relative decline in growth of the Chinese economy.

Aging Havana billboard.  Revolution is: modesty, unselfishness, altruism, solidarity and heroism.  Photo: Yamila Mayet

Castro has nothing to lose, since even if the Helms-Burton law is not amended or repealed, the Cuban economy is bound to benefit by the liberalization of travel and remittances recently decreed by Obama. For the Cuban leader, any benefit he obtains from the agreement may be the lever he needs to vanquish the resistance in his own bureaucratic apparatus to the full implementation of the Sino-Vietnamese model in the island.

For his part, Obama must surely be conscious of the opportunity to reassert American political influence and its economic power in Cuba, aside from other real political benefits to be gained by this new agreement in Latin America and the rest of the Global South.

The alternative in Cuba

Independently of the considerations that led the governments of Cuba and the United States to reach this agreement, it is a major gain for the Cuban people.

First, because it acknowledges that the imperial power of the US was not able to coerce the imposition of its socio-economic and political system, handing a victory for the principle of national self-determination. It is up to Cubans and Cubans alone to decide the destiny of their country. Second, because in practical terms, it can improve the standard of living of Cubans and help to liberalize, although not necessarily democratize, the conditions of their political oppression and economic exploitation, making it easier to organize and act to defend their interests in an autonomous fashion against both the state and the new capitalists.

Photo on the Havana Malecon Seawall by Yamila Mayet
On the Havana malecon seawall.  Photo: Yamila Mayet

This has been the case of China, where thousands of protests occur every year to protect the standard of living and rights of the mass of the population in spite of the persistence of the one-party state.

Contrary to what many liberals thought right after the Cuban Revolution, the issue was never whether the end of the blockade would lead the Castro brothers to become more democratic. That possibility was never and is not in the cards, except for those who believe that the establishment of Cuban Communism was merely a reaction to American imperialism instead of what Che Guevara admitted was half the outcome of imperialist constraint and half the outcome of the Cuban leaders choice.

What is real is the likelihood that the end of the blockade will undermine the support for the Castro government thereby facilitating the resistance and political formulation of alternatives to its rule.

That Cuba will be free from the grasp of US imperialism even if the economic blockade comes to an end is not likely. The more “normal” imperialist power broadly experienced in the Global South will replace the more coercive and criminal one of the blockade era, especially if a successful alliance develops between American capital and the native state capitalists of the emerging Sino-Vietnamese model, as it happened in China and Vietnam. Even at the purely political level, there are many conflicts that are clearly foreseeable, like, for example, one that was left unmentioned in the Obama-Castro agreement involving the return of revolutionary exiles, such as Assata Shakur, to prison in the United States.

With the passing of the historic generation of revolutionary leaders within the next decade, a new political landscape will emerge where left-wing opposition political action may resurface and give strength to the nascent critical left in Cuba. Some may argue that since socialism of a democratic and revolutionary orientation is not likely to be on the immediate agenda, there is no point to put forward such a perspective. But it is this political vision advocating for the democratic self-management of Cuban society that can shape a compelling resistance to the economic liberalization that is likely to come to the island.

By invoking solidarity with the most vulnerable, and calling for class, racial and gender equality, a movement can build unity against both the old and the emerging oppression.

(*) Published originally in Jacobin Magazine.



12 thoughts on “The Alternative in Cuba

  • Cubaqus and John Goodrich, points well made, let’s move on.

  • I said that Cuba is what communism is in reality.
    The utopian form never existed and will never exist.
    Cuba is on record for mowing from a Stalinist state capitalist system to a oligarchy under a private capitalist system.
    By your own admission the Cuban regime has no real “socialist” bone in its body.
    If you reject the hypocritical actions of the Castro regime then why do you support it?
    Democracy is not the “aberration”. It is the rule for lots of countries with a mixed capitalist system. Democracy is non-existent in “socialist” or “communist” states.

  • Thanks for admitting that Cuba is not and never was socialist or communist.
    The U.S. foreign policy of the past 100 years has been one of overthrowing, preventing or harassing any country that attempts any steps toward socialism .
    Since Cuba is on record as supporting a move towards socialism and has always supported socialist/leftist/anti-imperialist countries , the U.A. will never come to terms with Cuba unless it re-adopts capitalism and moves away from planning a democratic economy.
    Cuba is the same as the other countries run by a Communist Party . It is totalitarian and state capitalist .
    Mixed economies might work in very advanced and wealthy countries but capitalism easily gains control of any society if and when it chooses to and due to its financial power and its totalitarian way of operating.
    It cannot be a part of any democratic society because of that overwhelming power.
    In this Sweden , France etc are the aberrations while the rest of the countries of the world with massive income disparities and 50% poverty rates are the norm .
    The European societies and their informed democratic ways cannot be replicated in the Third World for a number of reasons too involved to go into here.
    Democracy IS the answer and capitalism , even when contained somewhat by taxation etc , remains a force against a democratic society and will as long as it lasts
    The demise of capitalism within 20 years due to automation and smarter-than-human machine intelligence is something you might want to figure in when you consider what will work and what won’t.
    How will capitalism survive a workerless society ?

  • There is no “blockade”. The US has been the 5th largest trading partner of Cuba for years.
    The often misused propaganda slogan “blockade” is a lie. there are no warships of the US blockading Cuba. US air force does not push back planes flying to Cuba. lots of nations trade with Cuba without any hindrance. The abuse of these terms in any post just weakens its impact as it creates serious doubt about the motives of the author.

  • Communism is a utopia. It is an idea that can not work in reality as it denies reality.
    I agree that “utopian communism” has never been implemented anywhere. The Catalan Anarchist Communes in the Spanish civil war are – in my view – the (small scale) initiatives that came closest. They were also destroyed by the Spanish (Stalinist) communist party.
    I agree that Cuba is what communism has been everywhere in reality: a perversion of an unworkable utopia. What the world has as “communism” or “socialism” is indeed no more than a foul dictatorial system emanating from the perversion of people like Stalin.
    Still though millions of people call that communism and it is as such that I use the term.
    It is also why I reject the Cuban state capitalist perverted system that goes by that name.
    My point stands: no “communist” state has ever been a democracy nor shall it ever be. The states with the most democracy have a (mixed) capitalist system. That is a fact you can’t deny.
    Sweden, Denmark, ….. all very good examples of non-communist mixed capitalist systems that ensure democracy.
    Your statement that the US fears a free and democratic Cuba is incorrect. The US doesn’t fear Cuba in any form. It just wants an end to the Castro aberration you most often support by rejecting any alternative.
    The Castro regime was rotten to the core from the start. It is a aberration. Fidel turned “communist” out of convenience, no conviction. Cuba never was “socialist”. It was a typical Latin American dictatorship with a socialist veneer.

  • Cubaqus,
    There has never been a communist country.
    There has never been a socialist country.
    There have been countries run by the Communist Party -all solidly Stalinist/totalitarian and STATE CAPITALIST which call themselves communist or socialist .
    You can call yourself a frog if you wish but it does not make you a frog.
    You must remember that back around 1918 Lenin and Trotsky dissolved the worker’s soviets which were the bottom-up organizations that would have created a socialist society and did so as one of their first acts once in power.
    That effectively ended the first attempt at communism/socialism and the worldwide Moscow -oriented Communist Parties have followed suit ever since.
    That’s why you cannot talk about this communist country or that socialist country . They have never existed and what you had and have are state capitalist economies where instead of a boss you have an elected official as the boss. The rules are still made at the top only.
    In order to be a socialist or communist form, it must be run from the bottom up and not from the top down as these so-called communist countries were and are..
    If you wish to have a serious debate with someone it is necessary to agree on the meaning of words and clearly , you have no idea as to what communism and socialism are and are not.
    Capitalism is totalitarian and is incompatible and irreconcilable with democratic forms like socialism and communism as ACCURATELY defined .
    Tell me I haven’t wasted all this time and thought on you.

  • Its an embargo not a blockade. A simple reference dictionary will explain the difference. The rest of your post is however accurate.

  • It is communism that is antithetical to democracy. All real democracies are (mixed) capitalist systems. All communist countries have dictatorships.

  • This is a superb analysis and perspective on what is going on and why.
    The U.S. cares not a whit for democracy as democracy is antithetical to capitalism.
    The U.S. fears a democratic economy and society and Cuba represents neither nor are there any serious signs that Raul , the PCC are heading anywhere other than the state capitalist road.
    The Cuban leadership has lived out the anarchist’s basic belief that all governments , long enough in power , become self-preserving, corrupt and ultimately totalitarian.
    They will not relinquish power peacefully any more than the oligarchy in the U.S. will .
    The U.S. G. , once assured by Raul & Co. that totalitarian forms only will be allowed going forward both in the economic sphere and the government/electoral systems , will embrace Cuba like a long lost lover.
    Unless Raul & Co. do something to prove me wrong.

  • Over the past 22 years I have made 86 research visits to Cuba. There is one problem that most people are not cosidering. There are over four million people is the USA that have Cuban back ground. This group is 92 % of European lineage
    and many are very wealthy.

  • Conflict is not about differences. Conflict is about power. ‘ Affluent conservative Cubans still have great power over the media and the US political system. The three Florida Congress reps of Cuban origin are still right-wing Republicans strongly committed to the blockade.’ Conflict is not about differences of values, opinions or ideals …it is about power!

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