¡Adiós Comandante! Cuba without Fidel

For the first time in decades in Cuba the New Year will be a year without Fidel.  The dawn comes and he is no longer there.  But life goes on towards an uncertain future.  Other dawns and other roosters sing today.  They bring back to mind a song from the Spanish civil war:

 Cuando canta el gallo negro

es que ya se acaba el día.

Si cantara el gallo rojo,

otro gallo cantaría

 When the black rooster crows,

It’s because the day has ended,

If the red rooster crowed,

Another would crow too.


The death of Fidel Castro prompts in me some reflections on what his revolution and his regime have represented.

Ten years after the triumph of the Chinese revolution, in the Americas the island of Cuba underwent an equivalent upheaval. The Cuban revolution provoked an extraordinary interest throughout the world. In the middle of the Cold War, Cuba acquired a geopolitical significance out of proportion to its size and economic weight—and almost provoked a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers.

The importance of Cuba, however, was of a different kind. The Cuban revolution was the latest of a series of socialist experiments in moving beyond capitalism and toward a new society of radical equality.  The Cuban revolution vowed to “build a new man” and demanded nothing less than a new conception of human nature. The prestige of the Cuban revolution rested primarily on the equalization of social conditions and on the universal access to health and education—two achievements attained with record speed during the first decade of the revolution.

Those of us who were very young in 1960 remember the passionate curiosity that the Cuban experiment provoked. In the West postwar prosperity had given rise to leftist libertarian hopes among the youth. In the communist East, where socialism had solidified into an oppressive form of bureaucratic domination, the Cuban revolution seemed also to offer a better hope. From a sociological point of view however, one must pose two different and perhaps disturbing questions: One, to what extent are those achievements linked to the form of the regime that took shape during the initial surge of the revolution? And two, what price did the Cuban society and economy pay for the relentless pursuit of total and egalitarian inclusion? Is there an inner logic that connects the enforcement of social justice with limits on civic and public rights and the prohibition to move away? The official complaints in the West about the violation of human rights fail to fathom a different view of what is right and what is wrong, a view of the world that does not recognize as legitimate acts of dissent, that refuses to consider voice and exit as worthy of respect.

There was an intimate association between two processes during the first decade of the revolution, namely, the rapid equalization of conditions imposed by the revolutionary regime upon the entire society and the extraordinary concentration of power in the figure of Fidel Castro. The one made no sense without the other. The revolutionary project was one of transforming society from the top and from a high point of visibility, surveillance, and control. The project rode on a wave of popular enthusiasm and a collective feeling of emancipation from a corrupt and despotic past. It was not the replacement of one despotism for another, but something very different: a radical overhaul of existing inequalities that required total and central control and mass participation. The coincidence of the rational and the charismatic is a phase through which all revolutions pass.  In the long run however, rationality trumps the “cult of personality and charisma becomes bureaucratically “routinized.” The Cuban peculiarity consists in the persistence of charisma and the longevity of Fidel—a process that has provided the regime with long-range stability but also some fragility.

Aside from these distinctions, what count for the present discussion are the speed, the depth, and the manner of construction of an egalitarian society during the first phase of the revolution. In a very abridged form, what one discerns in this period is the rapid equalization of society from the bottom up, by favoring the rise of the downtrodden and the excluded, but enforced “without ifs or buts” from the top of political power. In other words, radical equalization and centralization of control were two sides of the same coin.

The first ten years witnessed two agrarian reforms: the first an expropriation, break-up, and redistribution of large holdings to the landless, and the second an imposition of state control over all agricultural production, large and small. The non-agrarian sectors of the economy too were nationalized and passed into the property of the state: foreign subsidiaries, sugar refineries, commerce, utilities, and construction. The state also took control of health and education, and regulated housing. All these measures favored those at the bottom of the social pyramid and progressively alienated those above, first the privileged elite and then the middle class, including small property owners initially favored by redistribution. Each wave of equalization produced a corresponding wave of exile—first the recalcitrant, then the disenchanted. It was a period of “terror and progress”.

At the top level of leadership a voluntaristic model of forced development prevailed (first embodied in the figure of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and subsequently by Fidel Castro himself), with the stress on altruistic as opposed to material incentives. In the language of the times, it was an attempt to construct socialism (efforts-based compensation) and communism (needs-based compensation) simultaneously. In practical terms, the process eliminated all the economic agents that were not agents of the state.

What was the upshot?  In society there was a radical leveling of difference and distinction; in the economy, a phenomenal disorganization of production. The economic dislocation happened in part due to the eviction and exodus of qualified people, but more significantly due to the inability of the state to manage and to allocate activities without economic signals. The former was a serious but temporary effect; the latter a serious flaw.

The centralization of control in few hands and the marginalization of other decision-making centers affected not only the “natural” enemies of the revolution, but some of its original supporters as well. The influence on student organizations, labor unions, and the cultural and artistic producers was quit significant. The single party of the revolution suffered successive purges becoming a docile political machine, subordinated to Fidel.

For the wider society, quieter forms of organized consensus gradually replaced the initial enthusiasm of revolutionary mobilization. Daily life under such conditions passed from a state of charismatic endorsement to a watchword culture. From an economic point of view it meant the downgrading of initiatives which required ever more unpleasant dispositions, like stock outs and rationing.

The Cuban economy became dependent on the support of the Soviet Union. When the latter collapsed, Cuba suffered enormous penury until it was partially bailed out by Chavez’s oil-rich Venezuela. The early dependence on the USSR tempered the initial voluntarism of the revolution, and the aggressive but clumsy foreign policy of the United States helped to provide a justification for tightening control. But ultimately the model of soviet-type society that was established in Cuba was the product of a deep internal logic.

Forced equality produced economic disincentives and dysfunctions negatively affecting growth and development—among them ersatz full employment, absenteeism, theft of public property, a clandestine market, and a “double morality” of conformity and deviance at the same time. For example, an ordinary Cuban would denounce the exiles in Miami but cash in on remittances by relatives in the United States. Moreover, goverment soon discovered that social inequality has not one source but many—and that the regime was generating its own.

As the original leadership faced old age and death, Cuba teetered unprepared for a transition to a world mired in crisis. Excluding inequality, on many other comparative indicators, Cuba today does not fare better than other Latin American economies. The conclusion is sobering: Cuba has attained greater social equality at the price of economic stagnation. The question pending for the future is how to accede to a modality of economic growth that does not destroy social achievements of the past—how to overcome the communist bathwater without ejecting the egalitarian baby as well. That is a tall order indeed.

The world does offer examples of managed transitions from egalitarian socialism to unequal but high growth capitalism—some more attractive than others. In some intellectual and policy circles there is discussion of the “Vietnamese way” in which the communist power structure itself sponsors opening of the country to foreign investment, while protecting not just its own interests but also social solidarity. A superficial overview of social behavior however, raises the question of whether the Cubans—after decades of forced-fed altruism—have not lost their appetite for solidarity as well as the initiative for entrepreneurship that East Asians managed to retain.

If the Cuban leadership decided to undertake “Vietnamese reforms,” the situation would look like this. The regime would propose measures that would give greater scope to private initiatives, reduce budget deficits, and boost the output of agricultural and consumer goods in order to raise market supplies and exports. Specifically, the government would seek to make prices more responsive for farmers and industrial producers to make profits. Barriers to trade would be lowered; the checkpoint inspection system that requires goods in transit to be frequently inspected would be abolished; and regulations on private inflow of money, goods, and tourists from overseas would be relaxed. In the state-controlled industrial sector, overstaffing in state administrative and service organizations would be slated for reduction. Government leaders also would plan to restructure the tax system to boost revenue and improve incentives. Non-traditional exports would increase, while outside investors may grow in numbers and hopefully in quality. As in Vietnam, the economy would then grow at 6 percent or more a year, but inequality would increase (an inevitable byproduct of a capitalist surge). With luck and investments from another tropical republic—Brazil—Cuba could mitigate its dependence on foreign fossil fuels and become a net exporter of sugar ethanol. The transition would be for Cuba another large social experiment, this time based no longer on the proposition that sacrifice should be shared equally, but on the proposition that a rising tide may tend to lift all boats.

In the immediate future, Cuba will navigate treacherous waters—a passage full of danger between the reefs of two rent-seeking mafias, one inside the country and the other one outside: on the one hand the attempt by exiles to settle accounts, and on the other the pretensions of functionaries of the regime to become the new capitalist masters, Russian style.


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