We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Raúl Castro (left) and Che Guevara in the Sierra de Cristal mountains, 1958.
Some things look to be changing in Cuba. Earlier this year, when Raúl Castro announced plans to step down in 2018, the Communist Party leadership appointed Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez—a high-level functionary with vast experience in the party apparatus and the armed forces—to replace the much older José Ramón Machado Ventura as Raúl’s top vice president and de facto successor. Díaz-Canel was born in 1960, a year after the victory of the Cuban Revolution. This generational turnover in Cuba’s top leadership reinforces the image of reform Raúl has been eager to project in recent years in light of the country’s ailing economy.
But like all images in politics, this image of reform conceals a complex array of competing ambitions and commitments. Raúl Castro is as much a Communist as Fidel, but his Communism has a style and a history all its own. A close look at Raúl’s particular brand of Communism suggests that his recent reforms do more to illustrate his own political cunning than they do to effect much-needed change—and that Raúl’s own politics may be what stands in the way of the Sino-Vietnamese type of economic reform he claims he would like to bring to Cuba, as well as any real democratization of the country.
Raúl’s Political Background
Raúl, five years younger than his brother Fidel, began his political education when he joined sometime in the late 1940s or early ’50s the Juventud Socialista (JS), the youth group of the PSP (Partido Socialista Popular, or Popular Socialist Party), the Cuban Communists who followed Moscow’s political line. In contrast with the political gangster action groups, and later on the Ortodoxo Party—a democratic populist party opposed to Communism—that Fidel joined, the JS and the PSP were organizations of disciplined cadres who loyally implemented the tasks assigned by a bureaucratic organization. Although sectarian and dogmatically Stalinist, the Cuban Communists could also be pragmatic and opportunist for the sake of political advancement and self-preservation: one day they could swear their loyalty to the “proletarian revolution” as interpreted by Stalinist dogma, and the next they could engage in unprincipled electoral politicking with the most corrupt bourgeois political parties in order to gain a few additional seats in the Cuban Congress. They did not share the dedication to violence of the revolutionary populists, but that did not preclude them from risking their lives for the cause, especially given the persecution they suffered with the onset of the Cold War. Until 1958 the JS/PSP would remain opposed to the armed struggle against Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.
Raúl’s relationship with the JS/PSP was not always a simple one. He disregarded the JS opposition to the armed struggle against Batista when he joined his brother Fidel in the July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks—an early insurgency that marked the beginning of what would become known as the “26th of July Movement” in the Cuban Revolution. He served time with Fidel in prison and in their subsequent exile in Mexico. But despite this departure from the PSP on the question of how to oppose Batista, Raúl stuck to the political ideas of his youth. He continued to share the general Stalinist politics of the PSP—concerning such matters as the nature of socialism, the importance of bureaucratic unanimity, the suppression of opposition, and the necessity of the one-party state after the revolutionary victory—while learning from their willingness to sacrifice rigid adherence to political principles for the sake of maintaining power. Before leaving on the Granma expedition from Mexico to Cuba in late 1956 that arrived too late to coincide with an uprising in eastern Cuba on November 30, he wrote a political testament not with Fidel but with another member of the expedition, Antonio López Fernández (known as Ñico López, later imprisoned and murdered by Batista’s army), who also had roots in the JS/PSP. In a summary of its political aims, the testament envisions “a government of National Liberation as it is presently interpreted by the Party of the Cuban workers,” clearly alluding to the PSP rather than to the 26th of July Movement, which was never considered nor claimed to be the Cuban worker’s party.
More than a year after arriving in Sierra Maestra, when he was sent to open a new guerrilla front in March 1958, Raúl had the chance to put to work what he had learned from the JS/PSP style of organization and discipline. He emphasized the importance of carrying out military commands in a timely and orderly manner, similar to the way in which the JS/PSP had conducted its own organizational affairs. And he established a more sophisticated and efficient organization than Fidel’s there, which included departments of war, health, justice, education, finance, propaganda, and construction and communications.
After Batista fell on January 1, 1959, Raúl joined Ernesto “Che” Guevara and other revolutionary leaders close to Soviet-type Communism to lead the group that many of their opponents called “the watermelons”—green in the outside, red in the inside—within the 26th of July Movement. This group collaborated with the PSP to fight not only the conservative right who opposed the revolution, but also both liberals and independent anti-imperialist revolutionaries—David Salvador, Marcelo Fernández, and Carlos Franqui among others—who from inside the revolutionary ranks opposed a pro-Communist course. Fidel publicly avoided their position and openly distanced himself from Communism in a visit he made to the United States in April 1959. (Guevara began to distance himself from the USSR only toward the end of 1960.) Raúl became so alarmed that he called his brother to tell him that rumors were circulating in Cuba that he was being seduced by the Yankees. Declassified Soviet documents show that Raúl briefly considered splitting the 26th of July Movement to convince Fidel that he could not rule without Communist support.
Fidel nonetheless named Raúl as his successor in late January 1959. In part he was sending the message that if he were assassinated, his successor would be harsher and more radical. And Raúl’s hard-line interventions were indeed many and highly visible. He presented the accusatory report at the trial of the “microfracción” of old Cuban Communists lead by Aníbal Escalante in 1968. He was the main driver of the process leading to the execution, in 1989, of General Arnaldo Ochoa and three other army officers accused of drug trafficking. In 1996, he led the attack and dismembering of the Centro de Estudios Sobre América, a think tank of the Cuban Communist Party that gathered a significant number of important Cuban intellectuals and academics. Especially after October 1959, Raúl Castro continued to put his organizational talents to work, as Minister of Defense and chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. After the collapse of the USSR, when the lack of material resources forced the Cuban government to reduce radically the size of the Armed Forces, he led the army’s coordinated efforts to develop its economic activities through its GAESA corporation, which became the most important enterprise on the island. Earlier, in 1987, contrary to the prevailing Guevaraism that opposed the use of capitalist techniques to increase production, Raúl introduced managerial reforms throughout the enterprises of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, inserting elements of economic rationality copied from the capitalist world with respect to organization, discipline, and efficiency. Later on, these reforms were extended to many of the state’s civilian enterprises.
Political liberalization without democratization
How does Raúl’s political trajectory relate to the reforms he has overseen since taking over the presidency in 2006? Contrary to what the right wing claims, Raúl’s reforms have led to a welcome and significant political, as well as cultural, liberalization—but primarily as a response to the grave economic crisis he inherited from Fidel. The government had been unable, since the demise of the USSR, to guarantee for the mass of the Cuban people even the secure if austere standard of living it had delivered until the early ’90s. This development seriously undermined the popular acceptance on which the government’s rule partly depended. Raúl saw the importance of liberalizing in order to increase and consolidate the government’s legitimacy.
But Raúl’s policy of liberalization has not included any democratization. His regime seems willing to make concessions to popular demands, but refuses to acknowledge the existence of citizen rights independent of government discretion. The migratory reform that took effect in January 2013 illustrates the situation: though it loosens restrictions significantly, it still ignores the right of citizens to enter and leave the country as they wish. The government no longer confiscates the property of emigrants, and no special permit is necessary to leave the country: emigrants only have to present a valid passport and a visa from the country of destination. However, the new policy does not confer on Cuban citizens the right to get a passport when they request one; the government can deny a passport for reasons of security and national defense and to preserve a qualified labor force in the country. The government can also deny reentry to any Cuban residing abroad who is opposed to the regime, and although Cubans who travel for personal reasons can now stay outside the country for up to 24 months, those permanently residing abroad who have not given up their Cuban citizenship can visit the island for a maximum of 180 days. Thus, while the new rules liberalize migratory policy, they penalize those who reside abroad with a loss of rights, and they completely ignore the democratic principle that the right of free movement resides in the citizenry and not in the state.
The loosening of social restrictions, including a better treatment of gays, is real and important, but it has not changed the fundamental structure of the political system. Raúl’s government goes on trying to pass off top-down manipulation as democracy. A case in point were the preparations for the VI Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) in April 2011. Before that Congress, Raúl had issued a call for a three-month-long “open discussion” regarding the CCP proposed Guidelines (a summarized version of the Party’s programmatic proposals). These “discussions” pretended to be democratic, but were organized in a manner that contradicted and subverted the essence of democracy. The official press retained the exclusive control of what and how to report about what transpired in the “discussions” ongoing in offices, factories, and community centers. People participating in the “discussions” in one place could not communicate and organize with people participating in “discussions” in other places. As a result, they confronted the representatives of the nationally organized rulers, the CCP, only as isolated groups and could not support each other’s demands. Prior to these discussions, the CCP had trained those representatives to “guide” each “discussion” and to transmit there the “orientations” that came from above. Raúl’s “discussion” process was more akin to the complaint box that capitalist management uses to pacify its employees than to a true democratic debate.
Every authentic process of democratic reform involves the opening of the mass media. During Gorbachev’s Glasnost, for example, highly critical press organs such as Ogonyok and Argumenty I Fakty circulated widely among the population. In present-day Cuba, however, the mass media is still controlled by the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. Through the Web, which reaches well under one in ten Cubans, and Catholic publications of limited circulation, such as Espacio Laical, a narrow segment of the population has access to opinions that differ significantly from the government line. Aside from the very small concession that allows Cubans access to Telesur, the station sponsored by the Venezuelan government, there have been no significant expansion in access to information or in the range of opinion presented in mass media.
Reforms Undermined by Bureaucracy
More than anything, Raúl’s reforms have been aimed at revitalizing the deeply ailing Cuban economy. But his government has imposed obstacles and made mistakes that have undermined, even countered, many of the reforms’ goals. Some errors might simply be attributable to bureaucratic inefficiency and can, at least in principle, be remedied. But there are obstacles of a more structural origin that stem from the contradiction between the aim of the new policies and the fear that bureaucratic and political bosses may lose their power and privileges under a reorganization of the existing order.
The agrarian reforms—essential for the Cuban economy to feed a population highly dependent on imported products—are an important example. As a result of a reform that granted state lands to private citizens, the government had distributed, by November 2012, 1.5 million hectares (58 percent of the unused government land) to 174,271 people, the great majority of whom had no prior agricultural experience. In that same year, it also extended the amount of land that private citizens could receive to 67.10 hectares. But the government has refused to guarantee the right of these private farmers to use the land beyond ten years, although it is willing to consider extending that limit for a similar term when the first one expires. In contrast with the much more liberal policy adopted in China and Vietnam, the time limits imposed on the usufruct of the land in Cuba discourage farmers’ effort, planning, and capital investment. Private farmers are also required to work together with the various official agrarian “cooperatives” and to sell to the state most of their produce at the prices established by Acopio, the state agency in charge of that task. Although in China and Vietnam, as in Cuba, the state retains title to the land, the Chinese and Vietnamese private farmers, unlike their Cuban counterparts, decide what to plant, where to sell, and how to set the prices of their products. These limitations—in addition to the obstacles that Cuban private farmers face in obtaining the tools and basic inputs to clean, prepare, and cultivate the land, and to transport and distribute the crops’ surplus—explain the modest results of the agrarian reform, which overall show agricultural production well below the level reached in 1989.
Beyond agriculture, in the urban sector, Raúl’s employment reforms have been incoherent, impeded by significant obstacles created by his own government. In September 2010, plans were announced to lay off half a million state workers in the course of the following twelve months, the expectation being that the majority of them would become self-employed. Soon after the announcement it became clear that no such transition would be possible, especially in light of the fact that Raúl’s government allowed so few occupations for independent employment. In its typical fashion of failing to publicly acknowledge mistakes, the government extended the term for carrying out its layoff plan to five years. It is estimated that by the end of 2012, some 250,000 state workers had been laid off and that the rest of the half million will be “liberated” from their jobs by 2015.
The incoherence here involves a government planning massive layoffs while at the same time—afraid of losing control of an important sector of employment and of the economy—restricting the kinds of occupations it allows the self-employed to hold. In 2010, the government published a list of 178 occupations (21 more than originally permitted in 1993, and then reduced to 117 several years later) Cubans could legitimately hold as self-employed people. Given the policy of massive layoffs, it would have made more sense to allow self-employment throughout the economy, perhaps with only a small number of occupations excluded for economic or political reasons. This criticism does not come only from “free market” economists. It is also compatible with the Marxist notion that nationalization and socialization are relevant only to social production and not to individual (and family) production. As of this writing, over 400,000 people have obtained licenses legally permitting self-employment. Raúl’s government did allow them, for the first time since the ’60s, to hire employees who were not relatives, but it imposed such a high tax on their utilization of the labor force that such hiring was impracticable. In the face of that reality, the government decided to temporarily suspend the application of this tax to those self-employed workers with five or fewer employees. Still, it is doubtful that self-employed micro-enterprises, with a relative shortage of credit, inputs, and capital, will be capable of contributing significantly to economic growth.
Economic Change and the Sino-Vietnamese model
For some time Raúl Castro has expressed an inclination toward the Sino-Vietnamese model: maintaining a powerful state that monopolizes political power through the Communist Party and controls strategic sectors of the economy, such as banking, while sharing the rest with domestic and foreign private capitalists. In the manner of opponents of capitalist globalization, Raúl has expressed his admiration for the Chinese model, declaring publicly that China shows that “a better world is possible.”
However, the implementation of that model in Cuba has been very limited. Why? Raúl has attributed the lack of progress to “the psychological barrier created by inertia, paralysis, simulation or double standards, indifference and insensitivity, a barrier which we are obliged to surmount with constancy and firmness.” Although those psychological barriers do exist, they are rooted in a social and class structure that stimulates and reproduces them. The bureaucratic system that rules over the Cuban economy systematically replicates the irrationalities and inefficiencies of the economy and encourages attitudes that undermine the sense of individual and collective responsibility among workers as well as among managers. There is no doubt, for example, that top bureaucrats are responsible for failing to anticipate the measures needed to complement the legalization of self-employment, such as the creation of a credit system and of establishments to sell indispensable inputs, at wholesale prices, to the self-employed. There have been attempts to remedy these problems, but what seems irremediable under the contradictions of Raúl’s government are the limitations it imposes on its own reforms that systematically blunt their success, as in the case of the legalization of occupations for the self-employed. Likewise, single-party control together with the absence of citizenship rights reinforce the sense of “double standards,” since people say one thing in private and another in public to avoid problems with the authorities, which could seriously affect, at a minimum, their educational and work possibilities.
Authentic democratic reform would require a more open mass media.
The same structural analysis suggests that many government leaders fear that a clear-cut change in the direction of the Sino-Vietnamese model will cause them to lose their influence over sectors of the bureaucracy and even their own jobs. For example, any major change in the administration of Cuban agriculture could place in danger the bureaucratic structure of Acopio, the agency in charge of collecting the agricultural produce of the private farmers.
This sense of insecurity is fomented also by Cuba’s tense relationship with the United States, always intent in reasserting imperial control of its “backyard.” Unlike the Chinese government with its favorable relationships with its capitalist diaspora, the Cuban government has not yet “bonded” with the Cuban-American capitalists, although some of them, such as the “Cuba Study Group” led by Carlos Saladrigas, have shown an interest in investing in the island should the Cuban government provide certain legal guarantees to their investors. It is conceivable that there are ideological and political divisions within the Cuban leadership cadres with respect to the direction and speed of the changes. But it is not very likely; in Cuba there does not seem to be any group comparable to the “Gang of Four” who, invoking Mao Zedong, resisted the changes pushed by Den Xiaoping.
Raúl has criticized the bureaucracy on numerous occasions, but always in general and abstract terms; he has never dared to threaten bureaucratic consensus by pointing out individuals or sectors of the bureaucracy specifically responsible for “bad” decisions. The government’s criticisms have been limited to minor- and medium-level functionaries through the columns of journalist José Alejandro Rodríguez of Juventud Rebelde, and the weekly complaints section of the official newspaper Granma. Although such silences are typical of Communist systems, they are especially notable in the case of Cuba. In contrast, Soviet Communist leader Yegor Ligachev publicly challenged Gorbachev, and the same thing happened in China, where public divisions among Communist leaders culminated in the confrontations that occurred during the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s, and later when several Communist leaders openly and publicly resisted Deng and his economic project.
For Raúl and his top leadership, however, bureaucratic consensus is paramount. Fidel showed a great affinity for political monolithism, and Raúl and his associates share that affinity. That may explain why Fidel, the great micromanager of the Cuban economy, has refrained from expressing any opinion in his “Reflections” about the economic changes promoted by Raúl. Fidel’s behavior suggests he has made an implicit pact with Raúl, according to which he limits his published opinions to issues where there are no disagreements with his brother, such as foreign policy and the environment. The Castroite inclination toward monolithism was probably reinforced by the destructive consequences of the divisions they witnessed among the leaders of countries like Algeria and Grenada to whom they were close.
It is likely that Raúl’s business executive mentality, which, contrary to Fidel’s, affirms the delegation of power, reinforces his emphasis on consensus, especially among “his people”: those ministers and functionaries he assigned to substitute Fidel’s appointees. And, given that enterprise management can fail for reasons having nothing to do with managerial dedication and efficiency, Raúl’s delegation of power could have the unanticipated effect of providing much more power, autonomy, and security to the cadres of the bureaucratic apparatus than they had under Fidel Castro. This may lead to the establishment in the island of what historian Robert V. Daniels in his book The Rise and Fall of Communism in Russia called “participatory bureaucracy” to describe what happened under Leonid Brezhnev in the USSR: the growth of influence and job security of the experts and bureaucrats at the local and regional levels, at the expense of the top leadership, which led to a mutual level of vulnerability among them. It is these characteristics of Raúl’s governing style that may interfere with the implementation of his own policies and may convert Raúl into a truncated reformer, in contrast with leaders such as Deng and Gorbachev, who pushed through many of their decisions (even though they came back to destroy them, as in the case of Gorbachev). Raúl Castro is not the Cuban equivalent of Deng or Gorbachev.
Raúl Castro’s Communism was deeply influenced by his early participation in the JS/PSP, which shaped his “elective affinity” for tight discipline and recourse to repression while allowing, within that Stalinist context, for political pragmatism. It is true that he has significantly loosened the cultural straight jacket in Cuba and, to a limited extent, increased the political liberalization that started in the ’90s under Fidel as the collapse of the USSR sparked an economic disaster. Whereas Fidel persisted in his reluctance to permit any more than a small amount of private enterprise, Raúl was willing to go further because he ultimately inherited from the PSP a sense of the power of political flexibility. But what remains to be addressed is nothing less than the thoroughgoing economic and political democratization of Cuba.
What has been happening in that regard? On the one hand, the Catholic Church—the only important independent institution on the island—has been sponsoring, in its zeal to promote itself as a reforming mediator, a group of people from different ideological backgrounds who propose a long list of democratizing measures for Cuban society. On the other hand, when the Church speaks on its own behalf, its lay spokesman calls on the Armed Forces—which he describes as the only other institution besides the Catholic Church that will “persist unscathed” for “another two hundred years”—and tacitly invites them to enter into a political pact.
Most of the island’s nascent critical democratic left, which has a lot less political weight than the Church, proposes worker and peasant self-management as the road to the democratization of Cuban society. The recent government decision to create some 230 experimental cooperatives in various economic sectors such as transport, food services, and construction has created some expectations among some supporters of self-management in Cuba and abroad. But based on the experience of the official agricultural cooperatives, which are administered from above by the state, one cannot place much hope in the possibilities of self-management.
Even within the new critical left itself, the proposals for self-management tend to ignore the necessity for planning at the national level, and the fact the CCP will monopolize that planning unless its political monopoly is abolished. The Yugoslavian experience of the last century shows that authentic self-management at the local level can function well only when there is planning at the national level and when such planning is democratic rather than dictated by the market or a one-party state. After all, the decisions concerning vital questions such as accumulation and consumption, wages, taxes, and social services affect the whole society and significantly limit what can be decided in each work center. And self-management requires motivated and involved participants. It is only a democratic movement from below that can generate in people the motivation to democratically control their work centers as well as their countries.
Unfortunately such a democratic movement from below is not on the political horizon in Cuba. While the government may no longer have the popular support it enjoyed until the early ’90s, it still commands a substantial degree of loyalty, particularly among older people, despite its ongoing repression of political opponents. The process of social breakdown Raúl Castro has denounced reflects popular hopelessness and individualistic solutions to a public crisis that range from emigration to law breaking—a practically unavoidable alternative for at least the 40 percent of the population that does not receive remittances from abroad. Perhaps the passing of the historic generation of revolutionary leaders during the next five to ten years will create a new political landscape where collective political solutions to public problems will reemerge with new force. But the critical left cannot wait until then to resist and to lay the groundwork for a future democratic and socialist movement on the island.
Photograph: Che Guevara Study Center
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
In his new book, philosopher William MacAskill implies that humanity’s long-term survival matters more than preventing short-term suffering and death. His arguments are shaky.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.