Reflections on Cuban socialism
A people’s anti-imperialist revolution with conservative values
There is a great line in a Robert Redford movie, set in a casino in Havana on December 31, 1958, shortly before Batista fled. A gambler was lamenting that Cuba was about to become socialist, and a Cuban responded, “Yes. But it will be socialism cha, cha, cha!”
Indeed, Cuban socialism responds to its own rhythms; it has characteristics that reflect its history and culture. It has very little in common with the former socialisms of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Yet, U.S. public debate about Cuba is influenced by assumptions and beliefs concerning the characteristics of socialism that were formed during the Cold War. These beliefs, shaped during a multidimensional superpower conflict of four decades, are not accurate depictions of the Soviet Union. But they are even more inaccurate as portraits of socialism in Cuba. We must work to free ourselves from these ideological distortions, by encountering the Cuban revolution, that is, by listening to its discourse, to what it claims about itself and the world; thereby enabling us to criticize its defects in the context of an understanding of its insights.
Anyone with a well-developed historical understanding will readily appreciate fundamental differences between Russia and Cuba. Russia in the nineteenth century was an empire, and its imperialism competed for control of extensive territories with American, European, and Japanese imperialisms. Cuba, on the other hand, is a small island nation that could never aspire to assume a place among competing world powers; to the contrary, it has struggled for independence from Spanish and American imperialisms. This has given the Cuban revolution an anti-colonial practice that would exist in the Russian Revolution only as an expression of solidarity with colonized peoples.
A revolution, if it is truly a revolution, overthrows the ruling class, and places power in the hands of delegates of another class. In this regard, the Soviet Union is a complicated story. I am influenced by the writings of Leon Trotsky and the British Trotskyite Ted Grant. Based on their accounts, I have arrived to the view that the October Revolution brought to power a leadership sector consisting of radical intellectuals and workers, led by Lenin, who were supported by an alliance of workers and peasants. However, with the death of Lenin and the emergence of Stalin, the revolution fell into the hands of a bureaucratic petit bourgeoisie, which gave ideological and political space to Leninism, but which governed primarily in accordance with its particular interests. These dynamics were far different from the Cuban Revolution, which was a revolution of united and diverse sectors of the people, led by radical intellectuals, which took power from a national bourgeoisie that had been subordinated to foreign capitalist interests.
When an underdog class takes political power, a fundamental challenge that it confronts is keeping power; its survival depends on the development of political structures that ensure that the sectors that it represents continue to have decisive voice in the political process. The development of such political structures during the 1960s and 1970s, viable to our days, has been the most important but least recognized achievement of the Cuban Revolution. The revolution disdained structures of representative democracy, which it viewed as facilitating rule by the corporate class, posing as democracy. In the 1960s, it developed mass assemblies and mass organizations, proclaiming these structures to be “direct democracy.” In the 1970s, seeking to institutionalize the revolution, it developed structures of “people’s power.” In this alternative political system of people’s power, neighborhood nomination assemblies are held, in which the people put forth candidates in elections to the 169 municipal assemblies of the nation. Said elections are held in 12,515 voting districts of the nation, and they involve secret voting for one of two or more candidates. In turn, the elected delegates of the 169 municipal assemblies elect, based on recommendations of representatives of the mass organizations, the 602 deputies of the National Assembly of People’s Power. The National Assembly is the highest authority in the nation, authorized to elect the president and other members of the executive branch, enact legislation, and interpret and amend the constitution.
In the Cuban political process, the Communist Party plays an important role in guiding and educating the people. In fulfilling this role, the Party is an important factor in promoting political stability in Cuba. But unlike that National Assembly, the Party is not empowered to elect the executive branch, to legislate, or interpret the constitution.
You may not like the Cuban political system. You may believe that a system of direct elections involving two well-financed candidates has more merit. But it is shameful and dishonorable to refer to the Cuban political system as a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime. The people of the United States have the right to know of the alternative political structures that the Cuban revolution has developed.
In the 1990s, in the era of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, there was much talk of a “third way,” an approach between capitalism and socialism. Those proposals were really a capitalist third way, that is, a synthesis of capitalism and socialism in a form that ensures the control of transnational corporations over the economy. I view the Cuban economy as a socialist third way, that is, a mixture of capitalism and socialism in a form that ensures that the state, under the authority of the deputies of the people, directs the economy.
The mixture of capitalism and socialism was present in Cuban socialism from the beginning. Fidel had envisioned the participation of Cuban big industry in a project of nationalist economic development, breaking from the peripheral role to which had been assigned by the neocolonial world-system. It is perhaps the case that Fidel understood from the outset that the Cuban national industrial bourgeoisie could not play this role, due to its economic and ideological subordination to U.S. capitalist interests; but that Fidel did not want to prejudge the matter, that he wanted to provide the opportunity for the participation of Cuban industrialists in a project of nationalist, independent economic development. When it became clear in practice that the Cuban national industrial bourgeoisie was abandoning the country and participating in the Cuban counterrevolution supported by the U.S. government, the Revolutionary Government took the step of nationalizing Cuban big industry and converting the companies into state property. But even here, it left space for small privately-owned economic enterprises.
Fidel’s initial vision of Cuban socialism also included cooperation with the United States, as is revealed by the Cuban proposal for the compensation of U.S. nationalized properties. The Cuban law authorizing nationalization of U.S. properties, emitted on July 6, 1960, allowed for Cuban compensation for the nationalized U.S. properties through a bank fund that would be fed by Cuban deposits equal to 25% of U.S. purchases above the sugar quota, with the fund reaching maturity in thirty years. The idea was to maintain the Cuba-USA sugar trade, but increase its quantity in order to fund compensation as well as investments in Cuban industrial development. It was a proposal that envisioned the transformation of the historic exploitative relation between the United States and Cuba into a relation defined by the principals of North-South cooperation, which would have benefited the Cuban revolutionary project as well as the people of the United States. It would have been an important example to the world, suggesting the possibilities for transformation from a neocolonial world-system to a more just, democratic and sustainable world-system, characterized by cooperation, mutual respect, and mutually beneficial trade among nations.
With the Cuban proposal for cooperation rejected by the United States, and with the Cuban national bourgeoisie in flight to join the U.S.-directed counterrevolution, Cuba integrated into the socialist bloc from the 1960s to the 1980s, with small-scale private property being a small part of the economy. But there were two subsequent historic moments in which Cuba expanded space for private property. The first was in the early 1990s, in response to the extremely difficult economic situation provoked by the collapse of Cuban markets and suppliers in the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc. The second has been from 2012 to the present, responding to the dissatisfaction of the people, whose aspirations, stimulated by rising tourism and emigration, were rising faster than the rate of recovery from the depths of the early 1990s. In both cases, the objective was to increase productivity and the availability of goods. In both cases, the expansion of private capital did not end state regulation and control of the economy. Private capitalism in Cuba continued to exist, as before, in a context of a socialist economy, that is, an economy planned, directed, and regulated by the state (under the authority of the elected delegates of the people). However, in the case of the new model of 2012, there was a recognition that privately-owned economic enterprises could, in determined situations, elevate production. Reflecting this recognition, the Cuban Constitution of 2019 recognized various forms of property in its socialist economy.
So, Cuba has developed a pragmatic approach to its socialist economy, adapting in accordance with changing situations. It seems to me that if we were to take a look at its economy, rather than dismissing it on the basis of irrelevant stereotypes, we could not overlook the merits of the Cuban approach. Surely, we are aware that neoliberal capitalism in the world today, a system with nearly unconstrained rule by corporations, has generated a host of problems, many of them not only tragic but seemingly unresolvable. Cuba has its problems, but nothing in the order of the problems that result from a system of rule by profit and rule by markets. Clearly, we need to reflect on the appropriate relation between the state and the economy, concerning which we have not advanced very far in the United States, settling for competing superficial understandings. In this necessary task, Cuba’s experience of pragmatic socialism may provide relevant insights.
Over the last few years, the Cuban government has used the Mesa Redonda, a daily evening television and radio program of one or two hours, to explain components of the new social and economic model. As I listened to the various ministers provide detailed explanations of problems, their causes, and their proposed solutions, I found myself thinking, “these folks really do have a well-developed, intelligent, and comprehensive plan,” designed to elevate the wellbeing of all. I cannot say that I have seen anything comparable in the United States, where economic proposals, badly flawed at the outset, go through modifications at the hands of the political games between two political parties in conflict, with one eye on the next well-financed election campaign.
The Cuban Revolution is a spiritual revolution. It has been described by Raúl Suárez, a well-known Cuban Baptist minister, as a synthesis of three intellectual and moral currents: Cuban revolutionary nationalism rooted in José Martí; Marxism-Leninism; and Christianity. Indeed, Fidel declared, in a 1985 interview by the Brazilian priest Frei Betto, that if the Church were to develop a state, if would do exactly what the Cuban Revolution has done, if its intention were to be faithful to its teachings. In that interview, Fidel also stated that the priests who were his teachers in Jesuit primary and secondary schools could not bring him to religious faith; but they demonstrated, in their teachings and in the power of their example, the importance of ethical and moral values in human societies and of the need to treat one another with justice. Thus, the Cuban Revolution feeds the hungry, gives shelter to the homeless, and cares for the sick and the elderly; not after capitalist interests are met, but as a fundamental mission.
In accordance with this mission, Cuban institutions are dedicated to the cultivation among the people of such Judeo-Christian-Islamic values, which are called socialist values. Among the institutions integral to this social transformation is the family. The Cuban Revolution has nothing of the concept of the abolition of the family declared by Marx. Cuba is pro-family; it sees families as central to the socialization of children into socialist values. To be sure, divorce is easy to obtain in Cuba; and blended families and single-parent families are fully accepted as part of Cuban reality. However, parents are called to parental responsibility in the education and formation of the children, playing a central role in supporting the educational system and other institutions of the society in the formation of citizens with socialist values. Before the pandemic changed the customs of the world, a common early morning sight in Cuba was children, dressed in school uniforms, walking to their neighborhood public school, accompanied by a parent or grandparent. No image more fully illustrates the commitment of the Revolution to education and to the formation of values, with the participation of the family.
The Cuban Revolution pertains to the international left, and it has the support of many leftist intellectuals and organizations. As a matter of international diplomacy, the revolution likes to be in tune with global tendencies of the left. Accordingly, during the last few years, Cuban television has aired educational programs with respect to the issue of homosexuality and gay rights, spearheaded by the National Center for Sexual Education. When the Party proposed a new Constitution in 2018, the proposal included an amendment to the due process clause to include sexual orientation and sexual identity. When the constitutional proposal was presented to the people for an extensive popular consultation, the amended due process clause was accepted by the people with little commentary.
The proposed constitution submitted to the people by the Constitutional Commission of the National Assembly included recognition of gay marriage. It proposed changing the definition of marriage in the 1976 Constitution, “a relation between a man and a woman,” to “a relation between two persons.” This would have provided the constitutional foundation for a new family law that recognized gay marriage. However, the proposal encountered significant opposition from the people, generating far more public debate than any other question during the extensive popular consultations of August 13 to November 15, 2018. In deference to the sentiments of the people, the Constitutional Commission decided to not include “between two persons,” thus avoiding defining who enters into the marriage relation. It called for further public discussion of the issue by the National Assembly and through a popular consultation, in preparation for a new family law; and it mandated that a proposed new family law be presented to the people in referendum.
In announcing these recommendations, the chair of the Constitutional Commission declared that “democracy cannot be imposed on the people.” The Cuban Revolution wants to be in tune with leftist tendencies of the world, but it recognizes that a revolution makes a strategic if not historic error when it gets too far ahead of the people. Perhaps the international left ought to appreciate the importance of this insight, and avoid a moral righteousness that implies a disdain for the values of the people. Perhaps the international left could learn from the Cuban experience: constitutional protection of the due process rights of all is one thing; but gay marriage, which implies sacred celebration by the state of a life-style choice that goes against the values of many of the people, is quite another.
Although the Cuban Constitution of 2019, developed with the participation of the people and overwhelmingly approved by the people, recognizes the rights of all regardless of gender identity, the question of transgenderism is largely below the radar. As a phenomenon and as a matter of public discussion, transgenderism has not advanced in Cuba nearly as far as in the United States. It may never do so, because of the culture of the people, not necessarily the resistance of the government. In accordance with its orientation to not impose, no law authorizing transgender treatments would be enacted without the extensive participation of the people in discussion and debate of the proposed law.
Cuban abortion law permits abortion in the first ten-weeks, but never after ten weeks. The rationale of the revolution for prohibiting mid-term and late-term abortions is the health of the mother, but there also is a belief among the people that after ten weeks the fetus has matured to be a human being, and thus in that situation abortion constitutes murder. Before ten weeks, the costs of an abortion are fully paid by the state, as are all medical procedures. No medical procedure in Cuba, be it abortion or any other medical treatment, is carried out on minors (eighteen years of age or less) without the participation of the parent(s). Cuban abortion law is recognized throughout the world for allowing abortion; but in reality, it is a balanced approach, in that it prohibits late-term and mid-term abortions and requires parental consent for early-term abortions for minors. The abortion law is widely accepted among the people, and it does not generate the divisive conflicts like those that occur in the United States.
Cuban socialism is patriotic, and it sees patriotism as a virtue. It embraces the historic figures of the nation, recognizing their defects by the moral standards of today, such as attitudes with respect to gender and race, but celebrating their contributions to the development of a sovereign and dignified nation. At the same time, Cuba has respect for the patriotic sentiments of all peoples and for the sovereignty of all nations. No Cuban revolutionary, although strongly opposed to U.S. imperialist policies against Cuba and Latin American and Third World nations, would ever burn an American flag or demonstrate disrespect toward the symbols of any nation in the world. The Cuban Revolution is opposed to particular polices, not to particular nations or their peoples.
In the international left, patriotism is viewed with ill fame, as a result of the manipulation of patriotic sentiments by national elites during the mass slaughter of World War I; and because of the manipulation of patriotic sentiments by global powers, with the intention of attaining the support of the people in imperialist wars. This anti-patriotism tendency of the left conceives of a “world without borders” and “citizens of the world.” But such concepts are idealistic. They ignore the extent to which patriotic sentiments are central to the subjectivity of the people; and they do not see the centrality of the nation-state in the modern organization of the world. The key to a just world is not the elimination of national borders, but the creation of just relations among nation-states. The Cuban Revolution recognizes the historic pattern of the manipulation of patriotic sentiments by global powers. But it also sees love of one’s country as an important human sentiment, and as integral to the construction of socialism; it envisions a world characterized by solidarity and mutually-respectful and mutually-beneficial relations among nations.
Cuba aspires to be prosperous, but it rejects the consumerism of the North. In the critiques by the Catholic Church of the materialism of the modern West, the Cuban Revolution stands with the Church. In the critiques by popes of the inhumane social consequences of the neoliberal model of capitalism, the Cuban Revolution is on the side of the popes. Indeed, three popes have visited Cuba to embrace Fidel, and to salute the revolutionary leaders. In the discourses of today, there are signs of an emerging alliance among Christianity, Islam, and socialism, in opposition to decadent neoliberal capitalism and imperialism.
The Cuban Revolution rejects the post-modern cynicism of the North. It assumes that we can understand the difference between true and false and between right and wrong. It proclaims a number of universal truths for our time: respect for the sovereignty of nations; mutual respect and mutually-beneficial relations among nations; respect for the rights of all persons in the world to nutrition, shelter, health care, and education, which Franklin Delano Roosevelt once called “freedom from want;” among others. The revolution believes that the Party, the government, the educational system, the press, and the scientific community ought to work together to discern the true and the right, and to cultivate them among the people. Even though the national version of the truth can never be completely and eternally true, it is basically true and in evolution toward greater understanding, when delegates of the people are fulfilling their responsibilities in the various institutions of society, without being corrupted by money or the pursuit of profit. The Cuban Revolution believes that no nation has an interest in the division and confusion of the people, which occurs when, rather than collectively seeking truth, each socio-economic sector shouts to promote its particular interests.
I believe that the key to understanding Cuba is personal encounter with the Cuban Revolution, because personal encounter enables us to overcome assumptions and beliefs that are rooted in the social groups and statuses in which we have our being. Our different social positions lead us to form divergent perspectives, where what is true in one perspective is dismissed as nonsense in another. I first fully confronted this phenomenon when I encountered black nationalist thought in the early 1970s at the City for Inner City Studies in Chicago, whose scholars formulated an understanding of the modern world that was fundamentally different from that of white social science. The experience led me to the investigation of epistemological questions. How can we arrive to understand, when our assumptions and the way we select elements from a complex empirical reality are shaped by our society and the social positions we occupy? Is it ultimately a question of opposed and competing perspectives, with money and power being the decisive factor, functioning as the arbiter of truth?
As I addressed these questions, Fathers Joseph Fitzpatrick and Gerald McCool, professors respectively of sociology and philosophy at Fordham University, guided me to study of the cognitional theory of Bernard Lonergan. The Jesuit philosopher and theologian maintained that correct understanding, beyond the initial comprehension rooted in social position, can be attained by personal encounter with persons from other horizons, criticizing the defects of these persons from other horizons, but also taking seriously their insights, permitting them to transform one’s own understanding.
Such an open approach to the perspectives of others would enable us to understand Cuba. Many international travelers to Cuba arrive with the orientation that what the government and leaders of mass organizations say is merely the official version; to get at the truth, they believe, you need to talk to the people in the street. This orientation has some validity in a capitalist society with representative democracy, where politicians represent corporate interests, and they formulate a discourse that pretends to defend the people. But in Cuba, the state and the social institutions are in the hands of the delegates of the people, and they have formulated a discourse in defense of the nation and the people, standing against the imperialist intentions of international capital, and against their allies from the Cuban national bourgeoisie that abandoned the nation. It is a discourse that is entirely blocked from discussion in the USA, even though it is expressed by the delegates of the Cuban people. If you want to understand Cuba, you must encounter this voice, lifted up by the Cuban people to speak in its name. You ought to listen to other voices as well, to round out the picture. But that is not the essence of the task. To encounter Cuban socialism, we have to listen to the leaders of the Cuban socialist project, past and present. A valid criticism of its defects can only be made in the context of full awareness of the insights and values of the Cuban Revolution, as it is expressed by its most informed and committed sons and daughters.
In twenty-five years of encounter with the Cuban revolutionary project, I have discovered many insights into the human possibilities for developing a just and politically stable political-economic system, insights that I had not at all previously anticipated. These include: people’s democracy; a socialist economy with space for entrepreneurship; a public mass media that informs and unifies the people; a focus on total equality of educational opportunity at all levels; a commitment to the development of a scientific knowledge that is integrally tied to the material needs of the people; a tone of mutual respect in debates involving ideological differences; and a sensitivity toward the needs of children, the old, and the sick.
We the peoples of the United States ought to encounter the Cuban Revolution. It would be good for our national soul.
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Thanks for the detailed analysis of the Cuban political system, Charles. It is very illuminating.
How would you respond to critics who argue that the institutions of representative grassroots democracy that you describe, which formally give decision making power to the people, are in practice heavily controlled and manipulated by the communist party?
In socialist Yugoslavia we used to formally have the institutions of "worker self-management", which on paper gave major decision-making power over management of state owned companies (as well as other major political decisions) to the company's workers, organized in worker councils. In practice, however, the party found various ways to intervene in the process of worker self-management to make sure that the decisions ultimately followed the political line laid out by the leadership of the communist party. This ultimately led to a great deal of apathy and cynicism on the part of ordinary workers, who pretty much stayed out of enterprise politics as they recognized the process as being heavily rigged. It also severely eroded the legitimacy of the system in their eyes.
Wheil I find your description of the Cuban governance mode very appealing, the cynic in me suspects that the Cuban system functions in much the same way our Yugolsav model did. However, I recognize that I am ignorant in these matters and am ready to hear your views and arguments.
Your friend in Moscow,
PS: Did you get your Russian aid package? Was there any vodka inside? :)