Cuba's socialist renewal: changes under Raul Castro

Since becoming Cuba’s president (initially acting president) in August 2007, when Fidel Castro became gravely ill and had to step down, Raul Castro has called for a nationwide debate on the future of Cuba’s socialist revolution. The debate is aimed at consensus on what must be done to revitalise Cuba’s socialist project.

Most if not all of the central leadership of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), led by Fidel and Raul, who are first and second secretaries respectively, recognise that a radical renovation of Cuba’s socialist project is needed if the revolution is to endure in the post-Fidel era. While the debate has unfolded, Cuba has been changing. So far these changes lack the coherence and depth to carry through the necessary and urgent renovation without abandoning the revolution’s ethical and political principles.

Yet the direction of the changes, which flow not only from government decrees but from the massive participation of Cuba’s working people in critical reflection and debate, is clear enough. To the disappointment of the revolution’s enemies abroad, who had hoped that Raul might lead Cuba towards a restoration of capitalism, Cuba is changing in the spirit of Raul Castro’s response to US demands for US-style “democracy” and capitalist restoration in a speech to Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power on August 1: “[The National Assembly] didn’t elect me president to restore capitalism in Cuba or to surrender the Revolution. I was elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting socialism, not to destroy it.”

Respected Cuban journalist Luis Sexto, recipient of the 2009 Jose Marti journalism award, Cuba’s most prestigious, commented on the pro-revolution Progreso Weekly web site on July 15: “Cuban society, rigid for many years, shakes off the starch that immobilized it ... to change what is obsolete without compromising the solidity of the Revolution’s power”. What’s obsolete are many of the revolution’s concepts, structures, methods and mentalities.

Economic reforms

Much of what is obsolete flows from, or is reinforced by, a structural dysfunction in Cuba’s post-capitalist, centrally planned economy: while many goods and services are free or heavily subsidised by the socialist state, wages are both insufficient to meet all basic needs and too low to act as much of a stimulus to productivity. In any society, labour productivity growth is the wellspring of economic and social progress.

By reinforcing social inequality that is not linked to the individual’s or work collectives’ labour contribution to society, excessive universal subsidies, combined with low wages, undermine the economic and ethical foundations of Cuba’s socialist project. “Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income”, Raul said in a speech to the National Assembly on July 11, 2008. “Equality is not the same as egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is in itself a form of exploitation: exploitation of the good workers by those who are less productive and lazy.”

A degree of social inequality is inevitable in any post-capitalist society that is not fully communist. Cuba, a small Third World country suffering half a century of US economic siege, is far from a communist society, which is conceivable only on a world scale. While unavoidable, inequality should be the result of those contributing more to society through their work receiving more from society in the form of goods and services. Yet in Cuba today, people who receive substantial remittances from relatives in wealthy countries such as the US, and those who choose not to work because they’re too busy selling goods stolen from the state on the black market, receive the same highly subsidised food rations, among other subsidies, as conscientious and productive workers. In effect, Cuba’s working people are subsidising what Fidel called “the new rich”.

In a landmark speech at Havana University on November 17, 2005, Fidel warned that the revolution could destroy itself as a result of its own errors and weaknesses, and called for the dismantling of the edifice of universal state subsidies and gratuities — apart from those guaranteed in Cuba’s socialist constitution, such as the right to free health care and education — in order to reassert the socialist principle of “to each according to their work”. He also called for more public criticism and debate within the revolution to expose official corruption and negligence.

While the structural dysfunction in Cuba’s post-capitalist economy has its roots in the malign influence of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” during the 1970s and ’80s, egalitarian paternalism is largely a consequence of emergency measures adopted at the beginning of the Special Period, the deep economic crisis precipitated by the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, at the beginning of the 1990s. Cuba is yet to fully recover from this crisis period, but oil-rich Venezuela, now undergoing its own socialist revolution, brings Cuba some much-needed moral and material reinforcement. The convergent paths and growing integration of these two revolutions add impetus to the socialist renovation that has begun in Cuba.

Among the economic reforms initiated under Raul’s presidency, the cap on bonus payments tied to productivity has been lifted, and a new payments system that ties incomes to productivity is being generalised across state enterprises; Cubans may now hold multiple jobs and students may work part time to supplement their allowances and gain work experience; and excessive universal subsides are being gradually withdrawn. The aim of these reforms is to put more money in the pockets of productive workers, allowing more workers and their dependants to live with dignity on their legal incomes, rather than having to turn to the black market to make ends meet.

“From now on, if the bureaucracy doesn’t hold us back … [n]obody will have to wait for the generous hand of the state for an increase in salary or pension, which may have to be postponed … If you need it, or if you want to live more comfortably, you can work more”, Luis Sexto commented on July 15.

In other reforms, Cubans may now stay in tourist hotels and buy electrical goods such as mobile phones, computers and electric scooters. Previously, Cubans other than hotel workers were barred from entering tourist hotels in an effort to contain the negative social consequences of Cuba’s opening to foreign tourism, such as prostitution. The sale of consumer electronics was limited to discourage visible displays of social inequality in times of great hardship, which would undermine social solidarity, and to prevent the collapse of Cuba’s antiquated electrical grid prior to the “energy revolution” launched in 2005. Now that workers and farmers can legitimately earn higher incomes, they have to be able to spend this money on something.


The most significant reforms so far have been in agriculture. Raul has declared increasing food production the government’s top priority and a matter of national security. While Cuba spends billions of dollars on food imports, half the farmland has been lying idle, much of it overrun with a woody tropical weed known as the marabu bush. The government is promoting a large-scale “return to the land”. In Cuba, most arable land is socially owned, while some belongs to peasant farmers.

Land belonging to the state will not be privatised. Rather, individuals, cooperatives and state farms are being encouraged to grow crops or raise livestock on idle state land. Raul reported to the National Assembly in December that 54% of this land, or almost a million hectares, had been granted in usufruct, i.e., leased rent-free on a long-term basis. These land grants have benefited around 100,000 people. A social movement among producers has sprung up to pass on knowledge to new farmers. Urban agriculture, the outstanding success story of Cuba’s large-scale transition to more sustainable farming methods during the past two decades, is being complemented by creating or consolidating “green belts” around the cities.

Farmers can now buy some supplies directly from a new chain of state stores instead of everything being centrally allocated by the state, while the state has greatly increased what it pays to producers to stimulate production and thus lower prices in the free markets. Guaranteeing a stable supply of cheap locally produced food to replace expensive imports is a precondition for the elimination of the libreta, or ration book, through which all Cubans are guaranteed a monthly quota of highly subsidised food and other basic goods.

In a bold administrative decentralisation, responsibility for deciding what crops and livestock are to be farmed where has been devolved from the agriculture ministry in Havana and the provincial capitals to Cuba’s 169 municipalities, bypassing a notorious chain of administrative bottlenecks. In November, a report in the newspaper Granma estimated an excess of 89,000 administrative personnel, some 26% of the total, in the state farm sector alone. This “engenders bureaucracy, raises costs, hampers productivity, creates disorder and prevents workers from improving their incomes”. A rationalisation and reorganisation of the sector, long plagued by inefficiency, has begun. In March, the government announced that around 100 unproductive state farms would be closed.

From above and below

To sum up the changes under Raul’s presidency, they are broadly consistent with the diagnosis made by Fidel in his November 17, 2005, speech at Havana University and the line of march he proposed then to achieve “true and irreversible socialism”, while not being limited to the ideas expressed by Fidel then or since.

Secondly, while most of these changes flow from government decrees, some — such as efforts to forge a more mature and permanent culture of public criticism and debate within the revolution, and the gains won against homophobia in recent years — result from encouragement or support “from above” meeting with a groundswell of activism “from below” to overcome administrative opposition, inertia and backward attitudes.

Thirdly, the pace of change is constrained by the need to strive for consensus on the most far-reaching changes and the fact that the Cuban leadership has had to devote much of its energies to crisis management, because of the devastating 2008 hurricanes — which caused economic losses equivalent to a fifth of Cuba’s GDP, and from which the country is still recovering — and the global economic turmoil of the past year and a half, which has hit the Cuban economy hard. This makes further changes all the more urgent, yet it has also delayed their timely implementation. The Sixth PCC Congress, originally scheduled for late 2009, has been postponed at least a year, and a new date has yet to be publicly announced. On the plus side, this leaves more time for a clarifying public debate and the PCC’s internal preparations for the congress.

As Luis Sexto noted in a March 24 commentary for Progreso Weekly, “A careful observer might even believe that the revolutionary government (well described, because of the renovative task it has to perform) is subjected to intense pressure from its bases of support”. Here Sexto is referring to the popular mood for changes in the direction of socialist renovation. Yet administrative opposition and inertia have proven to be formidable obstacles to the implementation of reforms decreed by the government, while among those who urge a socialist renovation there is a vigorous debate. Thus, “We perceive a tug … about what to change and how much to change without excessively endangering the power achieved by the Revolution and sometimes, unfortunately, the bureaucratic power of some entrepreneurial entities”, Sexto observed.

Progreso Weekly’s Havana bureau editor Manuel Alberto Ramy commented on March 31: “We are burdened by a government apparatus that is overweight, excessively centralized and plagued with bureaucrats who turn their little parcels of power into knightly feuds. And many of them, instead of adequately enforcing the decisions [of the revolutionary government], have an infinite capacity for hindering, delaying and/or sidetracking them.” Following the announcement of the closure of 100 inefficient state farms and the redeployment of their 40,000 workers to more productive work, Alberto Ramy hears of “similar stirrings in other ministries and institutions” that have “begun to study the convenience of turning some of [their] companies into cooperative societies”. Such studies indicate that widening the scope of cooperative forms of ownership or management of certain productive entities has “received the blessing of the political leadership of this country”, and suggests that “the top circles of leadership have sketched a more flexible economic model and are willing to explore it gradually and assume the consequences.”