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How Cuba survived and surprised in a post-Soviet world

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The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the consequent demise of its multilateral economic assistance programs shook what had been the socialist world. By the time the USSR voted to formally dissolve, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON)—the economic trading bloc that provided crucial economic assistance and preferential trade agreements to smaller Communist states—had already been dismantled.

This threw Cuba, COMECON’s only member in the Western hemisphere, into economic turmoil. Nearly overnight, the island nation found itself cut off from its primary trading partner. It lost more than four-fifths of both its import and export markets, which had supplied it with energy, food, and machinery, helping sustain the Cuban economy for over three decades, ever since the start of the US embargo in 1961.

GDP plunged by 35 percent over the space of three years. Cuban agricultural output fell by 47 percent, construction by 74 percent, and manufacturing capacity by a staggering 90 percent. The lack of fuel imports from abroad paralyzed Cuba’s industries. Lengthy blackouts and food queues became a feature of daily life.

With no gasoline to power their cars or buses, Cubans had to walk or cycle to their destinations. Lack of electricity meant there were no fans to stave off the sweltering tropical heat—and no way to power refrigerators, either. People’s intake of calories fell by about one-third, as hunger and malnutrition rose to levels not seen since before the 1959 Revolution.

After the fall

Few in the Western world expected Cuba’s political and economic system to survive. History, we were told, had ended; capitalism reigned, while the socialist world was crumbling. It was only a matter of time before the Cuban exception ceased to be exceptional. Yet in Cuba, “history” has continued to plod on.

Thirty years after the fall of the USSR, the government that emerged from the Cuban Revolution still holds power. It has now existed in the post-Soviet world for longer than it spent under the wing of the Soviets. The distinctive Cuban model has endured, and its leaders still seek to balance the pressures of functioning amidst an overwhelmingly capitalist global system with the objective of advancing a non-capitalist economy that doesn’t follow the same logic.

In her book We Are Cuba: How A Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World, Helen Yaffe sets out to explain how Cuba’s model of socialism has held out against such odds. The answer, Yaffe argues, can only be found by taking the Cuban Revolution on its own terms, instead of allowing the residual insularity of US Cold War battles to condition the debate.

Those who perceive the Cuban system exclusively as a repressive dictatorship are unable to come to terms with the real society that exists—and by some measures, even thrives—beneath the obfuscating layers of political rhetoric. Yaffe aims to provide an economic and policy-based analysis of Cuba’s last thirty years, evaluating the island’s progress and setbacks on the basis of its own objectives.

The special period

Yaffe’s book identifies several reasons for the persistence of the Cuban model. A willingness to adjust the parameters of centralized government control is one of them. Cubans remember the 1980s as a time of relative abundance and stability. Soviet goods filled store shelves, and workers who met or exceeded production quotas frequently received beach vacations—even international travel.

From 1981 to 1984, Cuba’s annual average growth was 7.3 percent—starkly at odds with the downwards trajectory in the rest of Latin America. The region as a whole experienced a 10 percent drop in GDP during those years. However, there were a number of challenges associated with managing economic productivity—the growth of excessive bureaucracy, and a focus on providing material incentives for workers that bloated the budget—which eventually led to stagnation.

In 1986, Fidel Castro opted not to follow in the liberalizing strides of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost program in the USSR. Instead, he sought to reform Cuba’s central planning system by recentralizing control over the economy. His government also launched several new platforms for citizen participation and opened the island up to tourism.

Yaffe argues that this renewed emphasis on state intervention against what the government saw as the inadequacies of the market put Cuba in a better position to withstand the Soviet collapse a few years later. Since the state had recentralized agricultural production, for example, it was able to get food to those who needed it most during the worst years of the crisis—roughly 1991 to 1995—which became known as the “Special Period” (shorthand for what Castro called the “Special Period in Time of Peace”).

In explaining how Cuba made it through this crisis, Yaffe also stresses the importance of a “humanistic austerity” as the state’s budget dried up in the early 1990s. Cuban leaders made drastic cuts: state spending on defense, for example, fell by 86 percent, and the government eliminated fifteen ministries altogether. However, it maintained and even increased expenditure on health, welfare, and social services. Subsidies helped ensure that basic goods reached people and protected jobs.

Broken infrastructure or equipment might have gone unrepaired, but every school and hospital stayed open. The share of GDP accounted for by spending on welfare and health rose by 29 percent and 13 percent, respectively, from 1990 to 1994. The mid-1990s saw the graduation of 15,000 new medical professionals, bringing the doctor-to-patient ratio to one doctor for every 202 inhabitants.

Despite the economic collapse, Cuba’s child mortality rates actually dropped, and life expectancy inched up from 75 years in 1990 to 75.6 in 1999. Although an increase of six months may appear trivial, it would have been reasonable to expect a drop under the circumstances—something that did occur in ex-Communist European states like Russia, where life expectancy fell by six years between 1991 and 1994.

Cuba’s fiscal deficit soared as a result of this approach, but it averted the threat of famine. To make up for the lack of imports, Yaffe reports, local food production expanded, ushering in the organic urban farming systems for which Cuba is now widely known. After eight years of state control over agriculture—an attempt to curb price gouging in food supplies—the state allowed private farmers’ markets to reopen.

By choosing fiscal stimulus over austerity, Cuban economists helped shield the population from some of the most devastating effects of economic collapse. In 1995, economic growth resumed. Although it took ten years to get GDP back to pre-crisis levels, incremental improvements made it easier for people get by. By comparison, recovery from the 2008–9 crash in the US also took nearly a decade, while the recovery period for most ex-Soviet countries was even longer—about fifteen years.

Innovations

After making it out of this trough, the Cuban government launched a number of initiatives that were meant to stabilize the economy. The island’s lack of access to fossil-fuel energy had proved catastrophic in the 1990s; in the 2000s, it still experienced constant blackouts. In 2006, the government began pursuing alternative development strategies and making large-scale investments in renewable energy.

In a series of chapters, Yaffe describes the development of job training programs that turned unemployed young Cubans into social workers, an “Energy Revolution” that reduced wasteful practices and expanded the use of renewables, and ensured the country’s successful entrance into the biotechnology industry. Yaffe argues that such programs allowed Cuba to get back onto a path of economic growth, which in turn enabled it to improve the standard of living.

Cuba’s commitment to international solidarity has also paid off. Cuban medical internationalism is now the island’s principal export, bringing in $6.4 billion in 2018. This practice goes back a long way, well before it was a source of national income. In 1960, Cuba dispatched a disaster response brigade to Chile following a devastating earthquake. It then sent doctors to Algeria during that country’s independence struggle, and later to North Vietnam and central Africa. By the end of the 1960s, Cuban medics were working in twelve different countries.

Over the decades that followed, Cuba expanded its programs for overseas medical assistance, training tens of thousands of foreign students to become doctors at no charge. In many countries, Cuban doctors helped eliminate diseases like polio, malaria, and dengue, saving thousands of lives.

This has become a key plank of Cuban foreign policy, directly challenging established notions of the medical profession and the function of development aid in the leading capitalist states. While Cuba does now receive payment for its medical assistance, its commitment to providing free healthcare abroad still endures: nearly half of the sixty-two countries that housed Cuban medical brigades in 2017 paid nothing for their services.

Many Cubans remember the early 1990s not only as a time of long queues and unfilled stomachs, but also as one that produced new ideas and activities. As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. But Yaffe argues that a commitment to socialist principles has also fostered such innovation, favoring models for sustainable development that prioritize human wellbeing.

Cuba’s state-led, centrally planned approach to medicine, for example, contrasts with the growth of profit-making healthcare services in the wealthiest capitalist countries—even those that had previously established public systems of provision. The small island’s current efforts to develop and complete clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine rival those of its vast northern neighbour.

Politics in Cuba

The portrait of Cuban society presented in We Are Cuba will be unfamiliar to readers who rely on the mainstream press in the US. Yaffe believes that Cuba’s variety of socialism has survived in part because the island has a dynamic citizenry, many of whom are committed to socialist ideals and willing to participate in efforts to advance them.

There is, of course, a long-running and bitter debate about the nature of Cuba’s one-party state, and whether its existence means that the Cuban people have no say over their own lives. The author challenges those who consider the Cuban political system to be a priori illegitimate and undemocratic, insisting that its electoral process is in fact characterized by “grassroots representation and participation in decision-making.” According to Yaffe, public engagement in local administration through a number of state-led organizations strengthened bonds among Cuba’s citizens and renewed a sense of community that was critical to its post-Soviet survival.

After Fidel Castro stepped down in 2006, his brother Raúl took over as head of government and introduced structural reforms that were designed to address problems like dependence on food imports, low wages, and poor productivity. Instead of pushing through these measures in a unilateral manner, Yaffe argues, the government launched a series of forums and debates that sought to engage all sections of Cuban society, aiming to get a sense of what reforms were considered necessary or desirable, and what kind of changes would be broadly acceptable.

Yaffe describes a similar process that took place in 2011 when the Cuban Communist Party held its Sixth Congress. Several million Cubans took part in consultations that drew up a set of guidelines for updating the national economy, considering proposals to eliminate the ration book, reform pricing, and improve the quality of services like health, education, and transport.

The lengthy process of consultation and debate included 163,000 meetings held locally by residential, political, and workplace groups. It registered over three million opinions and organized them into 780,000 distinct recommendations. Before the Congress took place, 68 percent of the guidelines had been revised, while 45 proposals were rejected.

A national debate to write a new constitution began in 2013. Proposals for the constitution included reforms in the areas of private business and property ownership, age limits and term limits for government positions, and decentralization of administrative and political structures. In July 2018, the National Assembly of People’s Power released a draft of the constitution for two months of debate.

Yaffe describes Cuban citizens attending assemblies with annotated copies of the draft, demonstrating their level of engagement. A month in, three print editions had been sold out, with requests for additional copies arriving from the most remote mountainous regions. Social media became a space for critical views; some of the strongest criticism came from evangelical groups that opposed recognition of same-sex marriage.

In 2019, after substantial revisions to the draft, 87 percent of voters—6.8 million people—voted to ratify the new constitution. While the final draft retained Cuba’s commitment against capitalism and the one-party state, it introduced reforms to the way it functions, such as presidential term limits and the right to legal representation upon arrest.

Meanwhile, the lack of independent trade unions and constraints on civil liberties are at least two areas of democratic deficiency identified by Cuba’s critics. The yardstick that Yaffe uses purposely leaves those types of critiques out of her assessment. And to be fair, there are many other elements of capitalist democracy that Cuba doesn’t have: hedge funds, corporate control over the economy, and endemic homelessness, for example.

If the Cuban system has endured, Yaffe shows, it is because enough people on the island have continued to engage and identify with it. And whether or not people agree with Yaffe’s largely positive evaluation of that system, it’s vital to acknowledge the context that has shaped it.

Since 1959, there have been credible threats of invasion from the US at several points, along with other forms of violence orchestrated by Washington and a debilitating economic blockade that has been in place for more than half a century. During the same time period, left-wing governments elsewhere in Latin America have repeatedly been ousted by force, from Chile in 1973 to Bolivia in 2019. If the US ceased to apply such overweening pressure and recognized the right of a vastly weaker nation to follow its own course, it would change the political calculus in Cuba.

A state-centered view

While Yaffe’s book seeks to correct some important misconceptions about Cuba, it also raises a series of questions. How, for example, can we explain the large numbers of young Cubans who want to emigrate? It’s true that the US economic blockade is a major cause of Cuba’s deprivations (and as Yaffe points out, rates of defection among Cubans who work and travel abroad—doctors and sports players, for example—are actually quite low).

Yet if Cuban socialism has survived by combining innovative policies with popular participation and support, as the author suggests, then what accounts for the seeming abandonment of the revolutionary project by many young people—the very people who came of age during the period upon which the book focuses?

We Are Cuba tackles a wide range of subjects, but in many ways, it is a portrait of post-Soviet Cuba as seen from the vantage point of the Cuban state. Many of the sources and voices cited by Yaffe are Cuban diplomats, professionals, and government officials. The book offers less insight into how Cubans have experienced the last three decades of crisis, recovery, and reform on an everyday basis, or into the question of whether and to what extent their relations with the state have become more strained. It does, however, contain some important perspectives on Cuba’s trajectory from those who support the system.

Yaffe could have strengthened the message of her book by interrogating some of the categories it deploys. There are multiple references in the text to a rather amorphous group called “the revolutionary people of Cuba,” a label that comes across as passive and formulaic when the author clearly does not mean it to be either. Cuban society is not static or unchanging; like that of any other country, it is dynamic and complex. Its government has critics and supporters alike, and not all Cubans are “revolutionary.”

Treating everyone on the island as if they belonged to a single revolutionary monolith flattens out the real stories of hardship and endurance over the past thirty years. The Cuban government is now trying to figure out how to respond to the new demands of a vibrant civil society, whose members are not necessarily less committed or less socialist in their outlook.

Towards the end of 2020, for example, there were protests against the detention of the rapper Denis Solís by several hundred artists and intellectuals: some oppose the Cuban system outright, while others want that system to be reformed, retaining a commitment to socialism while ending what they view as arbitrary detention and censorship.

The road ahead

We Are Cuba fills an important gap for readers outside the country who mostly lack basic information about how its leaders have navigated a unique set of challenges since 1991, showing how government policies have developed over time in impressive detail. Yet many more challenges lay ahead.

The reinsertion of Cuba’s economy into the global capitalist market and subsequent liberalizing reforms have led to the return of the US dollar and with it, growing inequality. Yaffe describes the Cuban government as being concerned to balance a commitment to equity and social justice with the introduction of new market mechanisms, while not succumbing to capitalism altogether—no easy task when US sanctions, embargoes and political threats still keep the island very much under siege.

Cuba also has to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, the tightening in recent years of US sanctions that were already harsh, and the potential economic fallout from plans to unify the double currency, which may result in devaluation of the peso. Its government also plans to finally eliminate the ration book, which has guaranteed basic food supplies to all Cubans, regardless of income, since 1963.

Despite the limitations that have been imposed upon it from abroad, Cuba has still managed to forge its own path in a post-Soviet world to a greater extent than most people would have thought possible in the early 1990s. Yaffe’s book should prompt readers to wonder what it might achieve without the burden of US intransigence—if the island finally had the opportunity to prosper rather than simply survive.

Sara Kozameh is a postdoctoral research associate working on the history of Cuban agricultural reform at Princeton University.

This article originally appeared in Jacobin.

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