Cuba at the crossroads

January 24, 2014

Sam Farber analyzes recent political developments in Cuba and reflects on prospects for the left. For more background, see his book Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment. --PG

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The Future of the Cuban Revolution


by Samuel Farber

Since Raúl Castro assumed power in 2006 promising reforms, Cuban politics has seen the slow emergence of new tendencies and debates. The prospects for the country’s left, however, remain uncertain.

Cuba stands at a crossroads.

55 years after its revolution overthrowing the Batista dictatorship, its original generation of leadership has begun to pass away and the future of its “socialist” project remains uncertain. Will it experience capitalist “shock therapy” like the countries of the former Eastern bloc? Will it follow the state-capitalist road established in China and Vietnam? Will economic liberalization be accompanied, as some claim, by an expansion of political freedoms and tolerance for dissent? A socialist democracy may not be in the cards; if so, what does that mean for the nascent critical left on the island?

Whatever the case, since Raúl Castro assumed power in 2006 promising reforms, Cuban politics has seen the slow emergence of new tendencies and debates. What we know about these currents is limited and few Cubans speak openly about their political preferences, but we can still sketch out the changing landscape of politics on the island.

Castro’s political program has prompted the release of most long-term political prisoners, greater acknowledgment of and efforts to mitigate racial and gender discrimination, and the opening of some migration out of and into Cuba. The reforms share similar characteristics: the relaxation of administrative rules and concessions to popular demands without recognizing any citizen rights independent of the government’s discretion, and a significant degree of political and cultural liberalization. Yet there has been no concomitant democratization that would allow a challenge to the Cuban Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

The focal point of Castro’s economic reforms is an attempt to revitalize the Cuban economy through the adoption of elements of the Sino-Vietnamese model — a state-capitalism that retains a monopoly of political power through a single party, which controls the strategic sectors of the economy, such as banking, while sharing the rest with a private sector both foreign and domestic. But unlike in China and Vietnam, Cuban economic liberalization has been obstructed at key turns — not at the grassroots, but by sectors of the bureaucracy afraid that the implementation of Chinese-style reforms could erode their power. This prospect has become a major topic of discussion in the island’s academic circles.

Cuban social scientist Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, in particular, has discussed the influence of “statist” elements whom she describes as a group of “middle-level administrators and state functionaries who fear losing their jobs and the ability to benefit from the state through corruption.” They advocate for the improvement, as opposed to the elimination, of state socialism along these self-interested lines. Although Piñeiro Harnecker limits the scope of this resistance to mid-level bureaucrats and names no names, her analysis could also be extended to the functionaries higher in the bureaucratic food chain like hardliner José Ramón Machado Ventura, who was until recently Raúl Castro’s presumed successor.

Besides fear about the march towards the Sino-Vietnamese model, little is known about the prevailing attitudes among other important sectors of the power structure and the population as a whole towards these reforms. The views of the managers and technicians administrating the island’s most important enterprises — including joint ventures with foreign capital — within and outside the military can’t be assessed.

Like their peers in the collapsed Eastern Bloc, one might expect managers of state companies to be strong supporters of Raúl Castro’s reform program and advocates of a sharper turn to state capitalism. And some do indeed argument this, but there’s no concrete evidence that’s actually the case. The steps already taken have been relatively modest: allowing state companies to keep 50 percent of profits for recapitalization and the freedom to make decisions about minor investments and wage raises. These measures were enacted as part of a 2012 Communist Party program aimed at establishing enterprise autonomy, which promised (but by and large has not delivered) bigger changes like partially decentralizing prices and terminating poorly-performing state companies through liquidation, privatization, or conversion to cooperatives.

Castro’s economic reforms have garnered institutional support from a group of economists working at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana (CEEC). Despite voicing concerns about his program’s limited scope, they have dubbed it a welcome step towards the establishment of a state-directed mixed economy. Most prominent of these advocates are Omar Everleny Pérez-Villanueva and Pavel Vidal Alejandro. For Piñeiro Harnecker, who also works at the CEEC but does not share its politics, this group, which she labels as “economicists,” advocates economic growth as the principal objective of socialism. The CEEC also hints, though not openly, at the advantage of private capitalist management.

According to Piñeiro Harnecker, these “economicists” see autonomous enterprise guided by private interests as the most effective and efficient way to coordinate economic activities. Concerns regarding the consequences of privatizing the economy — that it would increase inequality, further marginalize the disadvantaged and speed environmental deterioration — should, in their view, be largely left for later. Measures can be taken to mitigate them, however, such as a tax system to regulate the income gap and the adoption of laws that protect customers, workers, and the environment — a stance reminiscent of Third Way social democrats in Europe.

According to Piñeiro Harnecker, the “economicist” perspective is most fervently shared by the administrators of state enterprises, who look forward to reforms that drastically increase management autonomy as a step towards the final elimination of planning and the restoration of private ownership. It is not clear whether they have a direct nexus with the CEEC, but the CEEC “economicists” have had a role proliferating pro-market ideas in Cuba’s political-intellectual establishment. The prominence has put the group in a bureaucratic crossfire.

The University of Havana’s rector singled out Omar Everleny Pérez-Villanueva as being too critical of the current Cuban economic system and subsequently prevented him from attending the meetings of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in Washington in 2013, which several of his like-minded CEEC colleagues were able to attend. Yet Pérez-Villanueva appears undeterred, continuing to act, along with CEEC associates, as economic advisor to Marino Murillo Jorge, the Minister of Planning and Economy. In June 2013, he appeared on Cuban television to lead a seminar on “The Economy and Enterprise Administration in Cuba.”

Up until a few years ago, it would have been inconceivable to think of the Catholic Church as a major player in Cuba’s political life. Throughout its history, the church maintained a relatively weak (by Latin American standards) presence on the island. Yet Castro’s government has granted the Church a number of concessions, allowing it to organize religious processions, establish a web presence, and to print bulletins, magazines, and numerous small parish and group publications. Moreover, Castro has permitted the Catholic Church to operate the Félix Varela Cultural Center since 2011. It has become one of the few public spaces in which critics of the government can express their opinions openly. The center serves in part to train the entrepreneurs of tomorrow’s Cuba, in conjunction with a Spanish Catholic university.

While one may question what the Cuban government has gained from these concessions, it is clear that the Catholic Church has gained a great deal. The church is among the most efficiently managed organization on the island, second only to the military. Strategically and tactically conscious of how to pursue its goals, it aims to become a formidable moral force on the island, as a “neutral” arbiter standing above every conflicting social and political interest in Cuba.

To that end, the Church is attempting to shape its identity as the long-time custodian of Cuban cultural traditions, emphasizing features of Cuban culture associated with popular Afro-Cuban religion, like the worship of the the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the Patron Saint of Cuba known as Ochún in the Yoruba tradition (while at the same time seeking to distance itself from that “pagan” cult). In donning its “custodian” clothes, it has worked hard to dodge such thorny historical and political issues as its militant support for Spanish rule, particularly during the last War of Independence, and its ties to right-wing opposition during the early years of the revolutionary government.

The Cuban Catholic hierarchy would likely prefer a Cuban transition with an important political party tied to Catholic traditions, like the Christian Democratic parties that exist in Europe and Latin America. The Church knows, however, that a party of this kind, which already exists in exile, does not have popular roots on the island and would not be allowed to legally function in the Cuban version of the authoritarian Sino-Vietnamese model. It has thus opted to pursue more realistic goals, pushing for the implementation of a Catholic social agenda that advocates “reforms” limiting abortion and divorce, expanding its role in higher education and instituting religious education in public schools – a demand of the Cuban Catholic hierarchy since the days of the Cuban Republic in the first half of the 20th century.

Following an ambiguous multi-track policy, the Church has, on one hand, been publishing Espacio Laical, the official publication of the Félix Varela Cultural Center since 2012. It has opened its doors to liberal, social-democratic, and nationalist views, as well as those of the new critical left and the CEEC economists. The magazine has occasionally clashed with the dissidents who reject a dialogue with the Cuban government and/or collaborate with the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, but nevertheless has sponsored and published the democratic proposals put forward by a variety of views grouped under the Laboratorio Casa Cuba.

One of its editors, Lenier González Mederos, a lay spokesperson for the Church, has used the magazine to implicitly propose a political pact between the Church and the military. He describes the two institutions as likely to remain “unscathed” for the next 200 years, arguing that “the Armed Forces, together with the Catholic Church, has the patriotic and moral responsibility to watch for and facilitate the best of possible futures for Cuba.”

While using Espacio Laical to project a liberal and social-democratic image, the Church has also been publishing Palabra Nueva, the official organ of the Archdiocese of Havana, to promote conservative views. Setting the political tone of the magazine, its editor, the Archdiocese’s official spokesperson Orlando Márquez, declared in his article “Sin miedo a la riqueza [Without Fear of Wealth]” that the emergence of an affluent stratum is a welcome symptom of prosperity on the island and rejecting the notion that there is anything problematic with burgeoning economic inequality. As part of its conservative agenda, Palabra Nueva has been promoting figures of the past, like the anti-left ABC political organization of Cuba in the thirties, and Carlos Castañeda, a well-known pro-Washington Cuban exile journalist and editor of newspapers in Puerto Rico and Miami. (The magazine has also rediscovered Walt Disney as a “genius in the service of children and universal culture.”)