An article by William M. LeoGrande, “Cuba’s Deepening Economic Crisis Is Putting Diaz-Canel in a Bind,” was published in World Politics Review on January 26, 2023. My commentary today reflects on LeoGrande’s analysis. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington.
The article correctly observes that Cuba is currently experiencing serious economic difficulties, which are primarily a consequence of the intensification of the U.S. blockade under Trump, essentially preserved by Biden; and by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which virtually shut down the tourist industry, the largest sector of the Cuban economy. The result, LeoGrande reports, has been a 45% reduction in Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings, such that imports were reduced 27% in 2020 and 40% in 2021, creating shortages in goods.
But the article presents a distorted image of Cuba today. It claims that the government is divided and unable to forge a consensus among the people, in a situation in which the success of any strategy is dependent on global dynamics that are beyond Cuba’s control, such as world food and energy prices as well as the recovery of international tourism. And it maintains that the economic situation has generated unprecedented popular discontent, to which the government responds by tightening down on dissent, including arresting and harassing critics.
LeoGrande mentions the protests of July 11, 2021, as a manifestation of popular discontent. This comment brings to mind the Cuban saying that goes something like “making a storm out of a glass of water,” which I think we express in English as “making a mountain out of a molehill.” In today’s world, when popular discontent is made manifest in the streets, it is expressed by tens of thousands of protestors (or more) every day, not a mere few thousand on a single day. Such sustained massive protests commonly occur when a country experiences the level of economic loss that Cuba experienced in 2020 and 2021, but they did not occur in Cuba. Moreover, the paltry protest in Cuba on July 11 was not spontaneous, as LeoGrande asserts; it was a consequence of a technologically sophisticated social media campaign, launched as part of the U.S. unconventional war against Cuba. The July 11 event is interpreted by many in the Party as yet another failure of the U.S. strategy to provoke disorder and destabilization in Cuba. It failed because of the support of the people for their Revolution, and because those who have lost faith in the Revolution refused to go along with the destabilization strategy of the USA. (See “The US unconventional war against Cuba: The revolutionary people quickly retake the streets of Cuba,” July 16, 2021; “Cuba defeats US interventionist plan: The people show that they are the revolutionary people of Fidel,” July 20, 2021; “Reflections on the July 11 disturbances in Cuba: Is the Cuban government taking a dictatorial turn?” September 17, 2021).
Popular discontent also is indicated, LeoGrande observes, by the lowest voter turnout ever for city council elections. LeoGrande is correct in saying that the voter participation rate in the November 27 elections (65.56%) is the lowest voter participation rate since the system of people’s power was established by the Cuban Constitution of 1976. But it is a high level of participation by world standards. Moreover, the voters were not divided between pro-government and anti-government forces; 89.11% of them cast votes for one of the two or three candidates that had emerged from the neighborhood nomination assemblies, a strong endorsement of the system of people’s power. The decline in voter participation, in comparison to previous years, can be interpreted in part as a reflection of discontent in the context of the current economic difficulties, but it also be seen as a normal tendency in revolutionary processes, involving high levels of support, participation, and legitimacy in the years following the triumph of the revolution, with a gradual decline occurring as the revolution confronts various obstacles in the attainment of its goals. The story of the November 27 elections could be framed in terms of the continuing legitimacy of the Cuban Revolutionary Government, in a world context defined by the crisis of legitimation of representative democracy (See “Cuba elects delegates to people’s assemblies: False premises of US blockade exposed,” December 2, 2022).
This is not to say that there is not popular frustration with the current economic situation, especially the difficulties in attaining goods and the high levels of inflation, as well as anxiety for the future. However, the causes for the situation have been repeatedly explained to the people, accompanied by a well-conceived reality-based plan of action. No one is putting forth an alternative plan. Certainly, neither the Cuban counterrevolution, nor U.S. imperialism, nor the Latin American Right has a better idea, and the Cuban people have little trust in the genuine interests of such actors in their wellbeing. Nor does LeoGrande put forth a better idea; indeed, he acknowledges that the government understands what it needs to do to get the economy back on the path to development.
LeoGrande describes Díaz-Canel as “in a bind.” I see the Cuban President differently. I see him among the people, constantly explaining and constantly exhorting to the only possible road. And all the government ministers, leaders of the Party at all levels, and leaders of the mass organizations are doing the same, with the consensual support of the Cuban news media and academic world. Although somewhat confused and anxious, a solid majority of the people are with them. Meanwhile, a credible and potentially viable alternative political-economic project for Cuba has not been conceived by anyone.
LeoGrande maintains that the economic reform, launched in 2011, has “gone awry,” and that the currency and exchange rates have been mismanaged, giving rise to surging inflation and currency devaluation. He does not defend such declarations in economic terms. As was explained to the people by the Minister of the Economy Alejandro Gil, inflation and currency devaluation were anticipated by the plan for the unification of the two Cuban currencies, a unification that will have long-term benefits. Additional inflation has been caused by the (externally provoked) shortage of supplies combined with the steady capacity of the people to buy, and it has been increased further by hording by unscrupulous informal retailers, a form of corruption that the government is trying to control. The solution to inflation, Gil maintains, is increasing productivity, because it would increase supply in relation to demand. The government is currently implementing and developing various strategies to increase productivity, some in cooperation with allied governments. And it is also developing alternative financial relations with other nations, to replace those that have been blocked by the recent financial restrictions of Trump and Biden, thus reconstructing Cuban importation of necessary goods.
LeoGrande maintains that there is an internal division within the government between those who favor accelerating the reforms and those who want to slow down the pace of reform in the current crisis. We ought to understand in this regard that the reform was initiated by the people through its demand for a higher standard of living, which was not expressed by protests in the street but within mass organizations and the structures of people’s power, designed expressly for this purpose. The Party responded to the popular demand with an economic reform package oriented to increasing productivity by expanding private capital and expanding incentive for work. Further developed in popular consultation, the reforms have been strongly supported by the majority of the people, although a minority, mostly academics, have criticized the reform from an ultra-leftist perspective.
It would make little sense to interrupt the reforms, which seek higher productivity, in the context of a crisis provoked by low supply of goods in relation to demand. And to do so would provoke a negative reaction by the people, who support the reforms. To be sure, the people are sometimes mystified by the talk of currency exchange rates and devaluation, in spite of clear explanations by the Minister of the Economy. But if anyone in the government openly expresses the view that the reform or any of its measures ought to be postponed because of the current economic difficulties, they would be brought to their senses by their comrades. The revolutionary government has demonstrated during the last sixty-four years its capacity to adapt to the demands of existing realities.
In the structures of people’s democracy, debates are conducted in a political environment that has been liberated from the pernicious consequences, first, of competing electoral political parties; and secondly, of the promotion of particular interests by the wealthy and the powerful. In essence, the Cuban political process has been brought to the more advanced stage of people’s democracy, beyond the distorting structures of representative democracy. In this situation of political emancipation, people do not tend to form competing bands. In Cuba, everyone expresses their point of view, and the highest leaders in the Party and the government collectively seek the attainment of a consensus that is rooted in empirical reality and in the fundamental principles of the revolution. Those who have not been persuaded remain on board in support of the consensus, out of respect for a process in which their views on the issue were heard and taken into account. Given these dynamics of the Cuban political system, consensus rather than internal division is the norm in the Party and the government. (For more on the Cuban political process, see “Political and civil rights in Cuba,” June 24, 2021; “Cuban people’s democracy at work,” May 17, 2022; and “Concentration of power in legislatures: The cases of the USA and Cuba,” September 20, 2022).
LeoGrande correctly notes that the Cuban political process can no longer rely on the unifying presence of Fidel and Raúl. Nonetheless, the Communist Party of Cuba, formed by Fidel and Raúl, continues to teach with moral authority and political legitimacy, and it is a decisive factor in the current political stability of Cuba, in spite of the economic difficulties.
LeoGrande is right in mentioning recent increased emigration as a manifestation of the exhaustion of the people. But he looks only at the costs of emigration for Cuba. Since the Special Period, and even more so in recent years, the revolutionary government has worked to normalize relations with the Cuban émigré communities in other nations. Cuban emigrants in other lands not only send remittances to their families; they also form organizations of support for Cuba, calling for the end of the blockade, and many are active supporters of the Cuban Revolution. To be sure, many who emigrate have lost faith in the future possibilities of the nation; but many others intend to earn money abroad for a period of time and return to Cuba to start a small business, much more possible today as a result of the reform. When Díaz-Canel travels to another country, he always meets with the Cuban émigré community, where he is received with much enthusiasm.
Although LeoGrande mentions the impact of high world prices for food and energy on the possibilities for the Cuban Revolution, he does not address other world dynamics that are favorable to Cuban prospects. There has been emerging during the last two decades an international movement for a pluripolar world, in which key governments have played a leading role. China has taken the lead in this process, as a consequence of its clear political will and of the large size and productive strength of its economy. The governments of BRICS (especially Russia), the Non-Aligned Movement, and regional associations in Latin America, East Asia, and the Arab world have been active participants in the process, which has accelerated as a result of the recent launching of unconventional war by the United States, and as a consequence of the U.S./NATO aggression against Russia. (See “The Construction of a Pluripolar World: The neocolonized peoples seek cooperation and mutually beneficial trade,” December 9, 2022).
All of these nations have a strategic interest in the continued persistence of the Cuban Revolution. Appreciating that Cuba is a symbol of the capacity of nations to follow a sovereign road, in spite of U.S. and Western imperialism, these governments are coming to the support of Cuba in the diplomatic, economic, commercial, and financial spheres. Their support is a positive result of the diplomatic efforts and expressions of solidarity by Cuba for the last six decades.
Because of such international support from China and the Third World, including emerging large economies, there is a favorable possibility that Cuba will recover from the present economic difficulties, in spite of the persistence of the U.S. blockade. However, the possibility of a worldwide economic or military disaster, provoked by U.S. imperialism in full decadence, cannot be discounted. If that happens, it will not only be Cubans who will be compelled to abandon hope.
If U.S. imperialism in decadence does not destroy the world, and if the nations of the Third World plus China continue to construct step-by-step a more just world, one would assume that the United States will have to eventually abandon its blockade and sanctioning of Cuba, compelled by unanimous international opinion. If that occurs, Cuba would emerge as a nation of peace and prosperity, and all who persisted with faith in the revolution through the difficult moments of the present, who constitute the majority, will wear their persistent faith as a badge of honor. They will be like the gentleman who prefaced his comments to a Cuban social club with the declaration, “I am among the 3,000 doctors who remained in Cuba following the triumph of the Revolution,” a comment that was greeted with sustained applause.
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Very welcome response to the doom and gloom expressed by Leogrande. It is true that assuming we aren’t all incinerated in nuclear imperialist aggression, the US will need to relinquish its blockade of Cuba condemned around the world. In addition there is more support inside the US for ending the coercive economic measures so unjustly applied against Cuba. Please do not discount that.
National Network on Cuba