The overall situation in Cuba, at least economically, and therefore in terms of class relations, is one of defence and even retreat. That is, defending as much as possible of the existing gains of the revolution while retreating as little as possible, in the most orderly ways possible and with the smallest chance of things getting out of control.
This defensive posture is inevitable given the objective situation that Cuba faces. It is caused by the isolation of the Revolution, especially its isolation from the most advanced and powerful economies and societies within the imperialist world system – where no revolutions have yet occurred. Of particular importance is the hostility and aggression from the most powerful of all the imperialist states – the United States. The U.S. is also Cuba’s close neighbour and historical trading partner but has economically blockaded the country for 60 years.
A small, poor, largely unindustrialised and in many ways underdeveloped country that does not possess any unusually rich stock of natural resources, Cuba does not have prospects of rapid economic progress to resolve the basic social and economic problems. No policy adopted by the Cuban government, no matter how good or thoroughly developed, can overturn or sidestep these fundamental characteristics of its objective situation.
This means basic problems – like low levels of material consumption, shortages of some consumer goods and producer goods, low labour productivity and inability to fully develop the productive forces of the country – will remain until there a change in the objective situation. This is not only the case for Cuba, but for all poor societies. The size, degree of isolation and endowment of natural resources only effect the degree to which this is the case in different Third World countries.
Cuba is not without natural resources, but neither are these exceptional. It exports sugar, tobacco and nickel and has small proven oil reserves that currently produce around one third of its petroleum consumption. It has a fairly large area of agricultural land, but this has also been hit hard by hurricanes over the last several years. Like all small societies (and increasingly like all societies rich or poor), the majority of consumption and production goods have to be imported.
The tightening of the blockade under Trump, the economic effect of Covid-19 – which has put international tourism on hold – and the outbreak of the delta variant of Covid-19 this year were proximate causes of the current economic crisis. Though the cumulative effects over many years of being forced into a situation of survival-under-siege as a small, blockaded and poor country must also be seriously considered.
The principal “resource” that Cuba does have is its highly educated population – a product of many decades of prioritising the education system at all levels. This most revolutionary fact not only means Cubans live longer, it improves the quality of life in all areas. But the extent Cubans’ knowledge and ideas can be converted into needed products or to generate foreign exchange is also limited by the underdevelopment of the economy overall.
What is possible?
At the same time, Cuba’s underdevelopment and isolation doesn’t mean that no positive initiatives are possible, whether in politics, economics, arts, science, sports, the environment or elsewhere. Nor does it mean that any such initiatives will fail. Perhaps the best example showing that some progress is possible – even in the most difficult conditions – occurred in the wake of the last major period of retreat: the economic crisis that developed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Soviet collapse resulted in the loss of some 80 percent of Cuba’s overseas trade and brought on a prolonged period of extreme austerity and terrible shortages – including serious food shortages – as Cubans scrambled to find machinery, parts, fuel and consumer items that had previously been imported from Russia and other countries of the defunct COMECON system. Cuba had to try to rapidly source these things on the capitalist world market using what little foreign exchange it could muster just as its exports collapsed and the U.S. simultaneously tightened the blockade.
The necessary retreat from production at that time was wide-scale and deep. The severe crisis and adjustment were described by Fidel Castro as “a special period in a time of peace”. Agriculture, for example, had to be completely re-organised on the basis of more backward, smaller scale and lower productivity methods – even re-introducing oxen to plough fields where farmers had previously used Soviet tractors, fuel and chemical fertilisers on large scale plots. Similar crises, adjustments and widespread destruction of productive capacity also occurred industry and transport. Many industries, including sugar, have never recovered.
Few in Washington, or even perhaps on the left, expected Cuba could survive such extreme disruption and deprivation. Yet, the Cuban Communist Party militants and the broader working population were able to stabilise the revolutionary state power and adjust to the radically new political situation. It was fortunate historical timing that the Cuban army had already routed the Apartheid armed forces in Southern Africa before the Soviet collapse.
Slowly, after a period of extreme crisis which lasted for years, Cuba was able to adjust, re-orient its economy and ultimately come out of the economic crisis, resolving the most acute shortages and returning to economic growth. The achievement represented a powerful testament to the high level of political consciousness and social development that the Revolution had achieved up until that time. The new Cuban economic policies combined both retreat (as in agriculture) and new positive initiatives. Importantly, there was an overall retreat from the high degree of social ownership over the means of production – the socialist economy – that had been possible with Soviet trade.
The retreat involved the introduction of joint business ventures with foreign capitalists in the tourism industry and allowing Cubans a greater freedom to open small businesses in designated sectors – albeit within defined limits and highly regulated. This including selling food, opening restaurants and accommodating and servicing tourists, as well as things like hairdressers and salons.
A key aim of this opening to capitalism included using the private profit that individuals could earn to motive them to create greater and more efficient food production. Another was to allow some people who wished to and had the resources to generate income or supplementary income for themselves – as the state no longer had the resources to provide high incomes. Profits generated both by the large capitalist joint ventures and small-scale enterprises were taxed to bolster funding for Cuba’s renowned health care system (which continued to improve) and other strategic state priorities.
Of course these capitalist policies, while controlled, limited and necessary according to the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), came with all sorts of negative consequences and risks. A socialist state which is forced by its internal and external circumstances to make a certain retreat into capitalist property relations can hardly be so strong that these new social relations it permits pose no risk to it.
The positive counter-attack that Cuba launched out of the “special period” involved mobilising many of Cuba’s home-grown scientific workers to develop what became a series of medical breakthroughs over many years. One notable recent example is the Cuban vaccine for treatment and prevention of lung cancer.
Marketing of medical achievements has never been a priority or strength of the Cuban system. However, revolutionary state power in Venezuela from 2002 allowed Cuba and Venezuela together with Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other friendly countries to develop a trading system based on mutual co-operation. This meant Cuba could better circumvent the US economic blockade and begin to exchange Cuban medical expertise for oil, foods and other necessary imports.
Still today, solidarity from Venezuela means Cuba is less isolated than during the early 1990s. However, the effect of US sanctions on Venezuela has – among many other things – crushed that country’s ability to produce and transport oil (and thereby its foreign exchange and imports) meaning the degree of practical economic cooperation is very limited.
Another Revolution is Needed
Overall, the period will remain one of defence and retreat in Cuba (and Venezuela) until there is another revolution that can provide greater solidarity to both. If the next socialist revolution occurs in yet another underdeveloped country such as Chile, Colombia, Peru or Indonesia then the objective economic situation will still not fundamentally change. The difference between having one, two or three underdeveloped countries fighting for socialism, could greatly alleviate but not resolve the fundamental situation of material shortage, social underdevelopment and hostility from imperialism. On the other hand, the global political impact of a new revolution would be enormous, as is Cuba’s global impact.
By contrast, a socialist revolution in the United States would almost immediately resolve this basic contradiction for Cuba and open the way for the construction of an advanced and abundant socialist economy (both in Cuba and in all societies) as this could then proceed with the support and collaboration of the US proletariat and its newly established revolutionary state power. However, a revolution in the US and the other advanced countries may be some time coming – we can’t know.
In the meantime, the basic problem that the Cuban Revolution faces each day is to work out and implement a concrete policy of what to do today, tomorrow and for the next months and years. What to do, that is, with the power that they have accomplished and would be foolish and irresponsible to give up. Party policy must simultaneously attempt to ensure adequate levels of material consumption, manage the problems associated with the actually low levels of consumption achieved, manage distribution of goods and build up the productive forces as much as possible. This is at the same time as they attempt to help to bring on new socialist revolutions in other countries as rapidly as possible.
These concrete problems of what specific policies can and should be pursued by the Cuban state and party in the current context is what should also pre-occupy the international left when we are thinking about the situation inside Cuba. The answers are not easy or obvious because Cuba’s path forward is not easy or obvious. It is also not possible to analyse this in any serious manner except in collaboration with revolutionaries in Cuba who know the situation in sufficient detail.
As mentioned in article two, the idea or expectation that Cuba can or should somehow step over the objective situation, that it could somehow create an advanced socialist society on a small island is an expression of the belief in socialism in one country. Socialism in One Country was the official policy adopted in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s under Joseph Stalin. It ultimately failed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As we will see in article four of this series, the Soviet policy in the early 1920s under Lenin actually had quite a bit in common with what the Cubans are doing.
The final article in this series can be found here.