Cuba's socialist renewal: key issues in the debate

Since becoming Cuba’s acting president in August 2007, Raul Castro has called for a nationwide debate on the future of Cuba’s socialist revolution. This debate has been taking place in workplaces, neighbourhoods, Cuban Communist Party (PCC) base committees and informally in bars, cafes and on the streets. Increasingly, a free and frank debate is also taking place in the island’s pro-revolution media, in particular the two daily papers Granma and Juventud Rebelde.

This debate is aimed at striving for consensus among the supporters of Cuba’s socialist revolution, the big majority of Cubans living on the island, on what must be done to revitalise Cuba’s socialist project after two decades of the post-Soviet Special Period, the deep economic crisis caused by the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, at the beginning of the 1990s. This process of public consultation and debate will culminate in the PCC’s Sixth Congress, likely to be held either in late 2010 or in 2011.

In the December issue of Direct Action, the PCC leadership’s efforts and those of others to forge a culture of public criticism and debate within the revolution was discussed (see “Cuba’s socialist renewal: forging a culture of debate”). Key to this is breaking with the harmful habits and practices of false unanimity and the suppression of differences, whether due to self-censorship or administrative acts. Such habits and practices are understandable given the state of siege Cuba is subjected to by US imperialism — an economic blockade aimed at causing hunger, disease and humiliation, internationally illegal radio and TV broadcasts from the US that urge Cuban citizens to rise up against the “communist dictatorship”, the huge US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and US-sponsored subversion and terrorist activities.

False unanimity and the suppression of differences are also rooted in the legacy of Soviet influence. From 1970 onwards, Cuba had no choice but to turn to the bureaucratically-ruled socialist states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for trade and development assistance in the face of US aggression. Soviet arms, technicians and trade were an indispensable lifeline for a socialist revolution faced with capitalist encirclement, but the revolution paid a high price for survival by gradually ceding ground to a pervasive “Sovietisation”. Even today, decision-making and public administration tend to be highly centralised in revolutionary Cuba despite efforts to institutionalise a participatory socialist democracy.

Socialist democracy

Cuba is far more democratic than any capitalist “democracy”. Under capitalism, most of the productive wealth is owned by a tiny number of super-rich families. The most important decisions affecting society are made in the corporate boardrooms and by the privileged officials at the head of the civil service. Participation in public administration is reduced to ticking a voting paper every few years for the candidates of parties that take turns running the government on behalf of the super-rich owners of the banks and other capitalist corporations.

Cuba neither practices nor preaches this kind of fake democracy. In Cuba, most of the productive wealth such as factories, farmland, transport, communications, etc. are socially owned. Established island-wide in 1975, Cuba’s municipal, provincial and national assemblies of People’s Power are inspired by the working people’s democracy of the 1871 Paris Commune. In Cuba, elected delegates (who also serve as state officials) are paid no more than a skilled worker; there are no special privileges; delegates must submit to periodic accountability sessions and can be recalled and replaced at any time by their constituencies. Electoral advertising is banned, so money has no influence and the smallest constituencies are based on a few city blocks or a rural township, so citizens are generally familiar with their candidates and elected delegates.

Other key institutions of Cuba’s socialist democracy are the mass sectoral organisations of workers, women, students, farmers and the 8-million member neighbourhood-based volunteer Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, which help maintain public order and organise such things as waste recycling, local community projects, and blood donations for the victims of disasters in other poor countries; and the PCC, a voluntary, selective organisation of around 800,000 of the most capable and committed revolutionaries.

Yet the democratic content of these institutions has rarely lived up to its full potential and to most Cubans reasonable expectations. Administrative “verticalism” refers to the situation in which public officials feel unable to decide anything without consulting their superiors, and so it goes on up the chain until it reaches the ministerial level, then a decision is taken and it creeps down the administrative hierarchy, leaving Cubans exasperated as they wait for an answer. When it seems like the real decisions are being made elsewhere, popular participation in decision-making is discouraged.

Critical renovationists

How to strengthen Cuba’s democratic institutions and culture is one key issue in the debate promoted by Raul Castro on the future of socialism in Cuba. Two currents of opinion have emerged in this debate. What could be called the “critical renovationist” current is made up of those revolutionaries who perceive, firstly, that unity of action and unanimity of opinion are two different things and their confusion in practice does great harm to the revolution; secondly, that nothing less than a deep, integral transformation of Cuba’s socialist “model”, i.e., of many of the revolution’s concepts, structures, methods and mentalities must be carried through if the revolution is to endure in the post-Fidel era.

Raul Castro and his elder brother Fidel, who retired as Cuba’s president in February 2008 but remains PCC first secretary, are part of this critical renovationist current. In a landmark speech on November 17, 2005, Fidel called for more public criticism and debate and an end to universal state subsidies, which allow what he called the “new rich” to pay next to nothing for many goods and services. Raul has called for structural and conceptual changes and has initiated some such changes, from the encouragement of fearless public debate to reforms which begin to dismantle the edifice of universal state subsidies other than those guaranteed in Cuba’s socialist constitution, such as free healthcare and education.

Given this, it must be assumed that most, if not all, of the PCC’s central leadership recognise the need for a radical renovation of Cuba’s socialist project. Most young Cubans, who have grown up amid the hardships and social inequalities of the Special Period, welcome the call for debate and are impatient for change. While some dream of an unattainable capitalist utopia, others, probably the majority, long for a more dynamic and participatory socialist project. This refers not to participation in mobilisations and in carrying out the tasks of the revolution — the Cuban Revolution has never lacked opportunities for this kind of participation — but participation in deciding what those tasks will be.

The other current is made up of those who are wary of debate and fearful of change. This conservative current has structural and generational contours. It is concentrated among the older generations, and among those who zealously guard their administrative prerogatives, and in some cases illicit privileges, from criticism and initiative “from below”. As respected Cuban journalist Luis Sexto noted in a December 9 commentary for the pro-revolution Progreso Weekly website, “the boxed-in mentality of some revolutionaries tries to slam the brakes on dialectical change, in the belief that everything done since [the] 1959 [revolution] is perfect”.

Sexto continued: “The rectification or readjustment of Cuba’s socioeconomic organization, within the scheme of a united society, scares some because it constitutes a correction of ... discredited dogma. And it horrifies others because it implies a hierarchical de-verticalisation of society to allow democratic horizontality, and that might eliminate authoritarian methods and privileges copied from extinct doctrines”, a reference to the influence of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” on the Cuban Revolution.


What are some other key issues that have emerged in this debate? One is debate itself, or the lack of it. Many letters to the editor rail against the habits and practices of false unanimity and the suppression of differences, and openly denounce “bureaucracy”. Another, and the most controversial topic, is the debate over the ration book and its possible elimination. Most letters are supportive, while some are against. Among those who agree with its elimination there is a discussion about how and when this should done, and what measures should be implemented to ensure that those who cannot work are not disadvantaged.

The libreta or ration book was introduced in 1962, after the US government had imposed its full economic blockade. Faced with an acute scarcity of consumer goods due to trade sanctions and an exodus of skilled personnel, Cuba’s socialist state moved to guarantee each household a monthly quota of basic goods at highly subsidised prices. This undercut hoarding and ensured an equitable distribution, while subsidies ensured universal affordability. The ration book came to symbolise the revolution’s commitment to social equality.

Today, when a significant minority of Cubans can live comfortably without having to work thanks to remittances from relatives in the US or black market activities, the rationing system entrenches social inequality by allowing those with higher incomes to buy subsidised goods.

Another key issue is paternalism, a complex phenomenon with both material and psychological dimensions. When people look to the state to solve all their problems for them and when they expect society to provide for all their needs regardless of their labour contribution to society, this is paternalism. When administrators treat citizens like children who can’t think and make decisions for themselves, this is also paternalism. Not only does paternalism stifle individual and collective initiative, it robs people of their sense of social responsibility. It is linked to the structural dysfunction of excessive universal state subsidies and low wages, and to the over-centralisation of administrative decision-making.

Paternalism is also a consequence of egalitarianism. When conscientious and productive workers are paid the same, or nearly the same, as loafers, a contemptuous attitude towards social property and the socialist work ethic tends to develop among the less politically conscious workers, who may think: “Why bother to work hard when I’ll get paid just the same?” In his famous essay Socialism and Man in Cuba written in March 1965, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who served as Cuba’s minister of industry in 1961-64, noted that despite the importance given to the social recognition of exemplary workers in Cuba — incentives of a moral character that Che argued would be decisive in the long run to the development of communist consciousness — there existed a “vanguard group” that was more committed to the revolution than the mass of workers.

Among these vanguard workers, Che noted, “there has been a qualitative change” in their attitude towards the revolution and its tasks “that enables them to make sacrifices in their capacity as an advance guard”, yet most workers still “see only part of the picture and must be subject to incentives and pressures of a certain intensity. This is the dictatorship of the proletariat [i.e., the political rule of the working people] operating not only on the defeated class [of capitalist exploiters] but also on individuals of the victorious class.” While Che emphasised the importance of moral incentives and warned of the dangers of relying on “the dull instruments left to us by capitalism”, such as individual material incentives, he argued that an appropriate combination of moral and material incentives was needed to simultaneously develop the productive forces and forge a communist consciousness. The distinction between a minority of exemplary workers and the majority who are less politically conscious and committed still exists in Cuba today.


Several closely related issues in the debate come under the heading “property forms, decentralisation and participation”. Regarding property forms, many argue that a different balance of social and private ownership of productive wealth is needed. At one extreme are a few who think that most or all state property should be turned into autonomous producer and service cooperatives — a shopkeeper’s utopia that would quickly lead back to capitalism. In the absence of economy-wide planning, the market would have to mediate the relationship between cooperatives, undermining the very basis for planning to meet social needs and ecological realities. There is also a practical objection: can Cuba’s medical biotechnology industry or its railway system be broken up into competing petty cooperative enterprises and still function?

A more common view is that a far more limited opening to private, and especially cooperative, property in non-essential services and small productive entities would be a step forward and a necessary retreat from the sweeping 1968 “revolutionary offensive”. In March 1968, Cuba’s revolutionary government decreed the wholesale expropriation of urban small businesses right down to the man in the street with his ice-cream cart. Bringing retail trade under state control undermined hoarding, profiteering, and subversion – US imperialism had found points of support for its campaign of terrorist bombings among the urban petty proprietors.

Today, apart from a limited number of family-run restaurants, there are very few small urban businesses operating legally in Cuba. However many small state-owned businesses have become sources of illicit earnings via the black market. As one Granma reader argued in a December 4 letter to the editor, “Arguably socialism, by definition, necessitates social ownership of the fundamental means of production, and this is not at odds with personal, family or cooperative property over some means of production or services. The state must free itself from the yoke of these entities which, far from being social property, have become a means for the enrichment of a minority group that exploits [the majority] to the detriment of the satisfaction of the needs of the client, that is, the people.”

The opposing view is that expanding the scope of cooperatives and other small-scale private initiatives is unnecessary and unwise. One Granma reader, referring to the 1968 expropriations, wrote in a December 25 letter that “the counter-revolution, which has not ceased in its determination to obstruct the [revolutionary] process, found in those small proprietors an excellent breeding ground from which to forge their destabilisation and terrorist plans against the Revolution”. It has also been pointed out that there seem to be fewer complaints about the quality of the services offered by the state outside of the capital, Havana, adding a geographic dimension to the debate.

Regarding decentralisation and participation, many advocate an adminstrative decentralisation to allow more scope for popular participation in economic planning and decision-making. In the early years of the Cuban Revolution there was no alternative given the turbulence of the confrontation with US imperialism and the immaturity of the administrative culture of the working people. Moreover, the centralised allocation of resources and the mobilisation of people in conditions of siege, scarcity and national emergency are behind much of what the world admires about revolutionary Cuba, from the “energy revolution” to hurricane evacuation and recovery.

During the Special Period, centralised control over the use of scarce resources became even more important. Yet today, as Mariela Castro, Raul’s daughter and a prominent leader in the fight for gay and lesbian rights in Cuba told the Aljazeera news service on January 1: “Cuban people are asking for a much more sustainable socialism, not a return to capitalism. They want a permanent system of consultation, better mechanisms of participation to work for a democratic socialism.”