The Future of the Cuban Revolution

Since Raúl Castro assumed power in 2006 promising reforms, Cuban politics has seen the slow emergence of new tendencies and debates. The prospects for the country's left, however, remain uncertain.

AP Photo / Fernando Lezcano

Cuba stands at a crossroads.

Fifty-five years after its revolution overthrowing the Batista dictatorship, its original generation of leadership has begun to pass away and the future of its “socialist” project remains uncertain. Will it experience capitalist “shock therapy” like the countries of the former Eastern bloc? Will it follow the state-capitalist road established in China and Vietnam? Will economic liberalization be accompanied, as some claim, by an expansion of political freedoms and tolerance for dissent? A socialist democracy may not be in the cards; if so, what does that mean for the nascent critical left on the island?

Whatever the case, since Raúl Castro assumed power in 2006 promising reforms, Cuban politics has seen the slow emergence of new tendencies and debates. What we know about these currents is limited and few Cubans speak openly about their political preferences, but we can still sketch out the changing landscape of politics on the island.

Castro’s political program has prompted the release of most long-term political prisoners, greater acknowledgment of and efforts to mitigate racial and gender discrimination, and the opening of some migration out of and into Cuba. The reforms share similar characteristics: the relaxation of administrative rules and concessions to popular demands without recognizing any citizen rights independent of the government’s discretion, and a significant degree of political and cultural liberalization. Yet there has been no concomitant democratization that would allow a challenge to the Cuban Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

The focal point of Castro’s economic reforms is an attempt to revitalize the Cuban economy through the adoption of elements of the Sino-Vietnamese model — a state-capitalism that retains a monopoly of political power through a single party, which controls the strategic sectors of the economy, such as banking, while sharing the rest with a private sector both foreign and domestic. But unlike in China and Vietnam, Cuban economic liberalization has been obstructed at key turns — not at the grassroots, but by sectors of the bureaucracy afraid that the implementation of Chinese-style reforms could erode their power. This prospect has become a major topic of discussion in the island’s academic circles.

Cuban social scientist Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, in particular, has discussed the influence of “statist” elements whom she describes as a group of “middle-level administrators and state functionaries who fear losing their jobs and the ability to benefit from the state through corruption.” They advocate for the improvement, as opposed to the elimination, of state socialism along these self-interested lines. Although Piñeiro Harnecker limits the scope of this resistance to mid-level bureaucrats and names no names, her analysis could also be extended to the functionaries higher in the bureaucratic food chain like hardliner José Ramón Machado Ventura, who was until recently Raúl Castro’s presumed successor.

Besides fear about the march towards the Sino-Vietnamese model, little is known about the prevailing attitudes among other important sectors of the power structure and the population as a whole towards these reforms. The views of the managers and technicians administrating the island’s most important enterprises — including joint ventures with foreign capital — within and outside the military can’t be assessed.

Like their peers in the collapsed Eastern Bloc, one might expect managers of state companies to be strong supporters of Raúl Castro’s reform program and advocates of a sharper turn to state capitalism. And some do indeed argument this, but there’s no concrete evidence that’s actually the case. The steps already taken have been relatively modest: allowing state companies to keep 50 percent of profits for recapitalization and the freedom to make decisions about minor investments and wage raises. These measures were enacted as part of a 2012 Communist Party program aimed at establishing enterprise autonomy, which promised (but by and large has not delivered) bigger changes like partially decentralizing prices and terminating poorly-performing state companies through liquidation, privatization, or conversion to cooperatives.

Castro’s economic reforms have garnered institutional support from a group of economists working at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana (CEEC). Despite voicing concerns about his program’s limited scope, they have dubbed it a welcome step towards the establishment of a state-directed mixed economy. Most prominent of these advocates are Omar Everleny Pérez-Villanueva and Pavel Vidal Alejandro. For Piñeiro Harnecker, who also works at the CEEC but does not share its politics, this group, which she labels as “economicists,” advocates economic growth as the principal objective of socialism. The CEEC also hints, though not openly, at the advantage of private capitalist management.

According to Piñeiro Harnecker, these “economicists” see autonomous enterprise  guided by private interests as the most effective and efficient way to coordinate economic activities. Concerns regarding the consequences of privatizing the economy — that it would increase inequality, further marginalize the disadvantaged and speed environmental deterioration — should, in their view, be largely left for later. Measures can be taken to mitigate them, however, such as a tax system to regulate the income gap and the adoption of laws that protect customers, workers, and the environment — a stance reminiscent of Third Way social democrats in Europe.

According to Piñeiro Harnecker, the “economicist” perspective is most fervently shared by the administrators of state enterprises, who look forward to reforms that drastically increase management autonomy as a step towards the final elimination of planning and the restoration of private ownership. It is not clear whether they have a direct nexus with the CEEC, but the CEEC “economicists” have had a role proliferating pro-market ideas in Cuba’s political-intellectual establishment. The prominence has put the group in a bureaucratic crossfire.

The University of Havana’s rector singled out Omar Everleny Pérez-Villanueva as being too critical of the current Cuban economic system and subsequently prevented him from attending the meetings of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in Washington in 2013, which several of his like-minded CEEC colleagues were able to attend. Yet Pérez-Villanueva appears undeterred, continuing to act, along with CEEC associates, as economic advisor to Marino Murillo Jorge, the Minister of Planning and Economy. In June 2013, he appeared on Cuban television to lead a seminar on “The Economy and Enterprise Administration in Cuba.”

Up until a few years ago, it would have been inconceivable to think of the Catholic Church as a major player in Cuba’s political life. Throughout its history, the church maintained a relatively weak (by Latin American standards) presence on the island. Yet Castro’s government has granted the Church a number of concessions, allowing it to organize religious processions, establish a web presence, and to print bulletins, magazines, and numerous small parish and group publications. Moreover, Castro has permitted the Catholic Church to operate the Félix Varela Cultural Center since 2011. It has become one of the few public spaces in which critics of the government can express their opinions openly. The center serves in part to train the entrepreneurs of tomorrow’s Cuba, in conjunction with a Spanish Catholic university.

While one may question what the Cuban government has gained from these concessions, it is clear that the Catholic Church has gained a great deal. The church is among the most efficiently managed organization on the island, second only to the military. Strategically and tactically conscious of how to pursue its goals, it aims to become a formidable moral force on the island, as a “neutral” arbiter standing above every conflicting social and political interest in Cuba.

To that end, the Church is attempting to shape its identity as the long-time custodian of Cuban cultural traditions, emphasizing features of Cuban culture associated with popular Afro-Cuban religion, like the worship of the the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the Patron Saint of Cuba known as Ochúnin the Yoruba tradition (while at the same time seeking to distance itself from that “pagan” cult). In donning its “custodian” clothes, it has worked hard to dodge such thorny historical and political issues as its militant support for Spanish rule, particularly during the last War of Independence, and its ties to right-wing opposition during the early years of the revolutionary government.

The Cuban Catholic hierarchy would likely prefer a Cuban transition with an important political party tied to Catholic traditions, like the Christian Democratic parties that exist in Europe and Latin America. The Church knows, however, that a party of this kind, which already exists in exile, does not have popular roots on the island and would not be allowed to legally function in the Cuban version of the authoritarian Sino-Vietnamese model. It has thus opted to pursue more realistic goals, pushing for the implementation of a Catholic social agenda that advocates “reforms” limiting abortion and divorce, expanding its role in higher education and instituting religious education in public schools — a demand of the Cuban Catholic hierarchy since the days of the Cuban Republic in the first half of the twentieth century.

Following an ambiguous multi-track policy, the Church has, on one hand, been publishing Espacio Laical, the official publication of the Félix Varela Cultural Center since 2012. It has opened its doors to liberal, social-democratic, and nationalist views, as well as those of the new critical left and the CEEC economists. The magazine has occasionally clashed with the dissidents who reject a dialogue with the Cuban government and/or collaborate with the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, but nevertheless has sponsored and published the democratic proposals put forward by a variety of views grouped under the Laboratorio Casa Cuba.

One of its editors, Lenier González Mederos, a lay spokesperson for the Church, has used the magazine to implicitly propose a political pact between the Church and the military. He describes the two institutions as likely to remain “unscathed” for the next 200 years, arguing that “the Armed Forces, together with the Catholic Church, has the patriotic and moral responsibility to watch for and facilitate the best of possible futures for Cuba.”

While using Espacio Laical to project a liberal and social-democratic image, the Church has also been publishing Palabra Nueva, the official organ of the Archdiocese of Havana, to promote conservative views. Setting the political tone of the magazine, its editor, the Archdiocese’s official spokesperson Orlando Márquez, declared in his article “Sin miedo a la riqueza [Without Fear of Wealth]” that the emergence of an affluent stratum is a welcome symptom of prosperity on the island and rejecting the notion that there is anything problematic with burgeoning economic inequality. As part of its conservative agenda, Palabra Nueva has been promoting figures of the past, like the anti-left ABC political organization of Cuba in the thirties, and Carlos Castañeda, a well-known pro-Washington Cuban exile journalist and editor of newspapers in Puerto Rico and Miami. (The magazine has also rediscovered Walt Disney as a “genius in the service of children and universal culture.”)

What has happened to the left of Cuba’s political center? Since the economic crisis provoked by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, a liberal Communist tendency critical of various aspects of Cuban society but loyal to the regime has been developing among the elite academic circles on the island. This liberal Communist camp is best represented in Temas, which has become the most important social science and intellectual journal in Cuba with an audience encompassing intellectuals, academics, and artists. It often publishes factually rich and critical articles, but characteristically avoids even an indirect questioning of the one-party system, much less its principal leaders.

Temas also sponsors a monthly discussion forum on a variety of topics, which for years was open to the public without any restrictions. Since October 29, 2009, however, when well-known dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez appeared in disguise at a panel discussion on the Internet and made controversial remarks from the floor, Temas has posted guards at its monthly panel discussions to prevent dissidents from attending.

Rafael Hernández, Temas’ principal editor, is a shrewd academic and political operator with a keen sense for identifying the mood among Cuba’s populace. If he has identified popular discontent, he has been unafraid to publish a diluted version of that discontent — but always within the bounds of acceptable discourse set by the regime.

One of the best examples of this is his open letter to young people planning to emigrate, where he acknowledges and even appears to side with many of their complaints, but somehow ends up with a sophisticated apology for the regime. On other occasions, especially when addressing foreign audiences, his liberal Communist stance has become a cover for what is fundamentally a straightforward defense of the Cuban regime. In an article published in La Jornada, the Mexican left-wing daily newspaper, he concocted a number of sophistries to justify the one-party state, the imprisonment of political dissidents, and the undemocratic institutions of “Popular Power.”

As for the development of left-wing protest on the island, potential key figures include those critics who, like Rafael Hernández, are loyal to the system but are propelled by their own political integrity and rebellious spirit to voice fully their dissent in spite of the costs. Another such critic is Esteban Morales Domínguez, a black professor who used to frequently appear as the US expert in Mesa Redonda (Roundtable), the most important political program on Cuban television. In a 2010 article, Morales Domínguez sharply criticized the rising levels of corruption in the country, calling it a greater threat to the revolution than internal dissidence.

Breaking taboos, he pointed at the circles of power at the center of that corruption and warned that the people in the government were strengthening their own positions to transfer state property into their own private hands as soon as the current regime falls — exactly as it happened in the Soviet Union. In response to his article, the authorities pulled Morales off the Mesa Redonda and suspended his membership in the Cuban Communist Party. He was later reintegrated to party membership but not to his previous rank as television commentator.

Morales Domínguez has also written critically about racism on the island. Although he has not yet touched the political “third rail” of advocating the independent organization of black Cubans outside official state organizations, he has recently been raising “dangerous” questions like whether “institutional racism [has] truly disappeared” in the country and has directly questioned the regime’s attitude towards racism, stating that it “has disappeared only relatively, for our state institutions still do not offer us the results we would expect from them were they actually designed to combat racism.”

Morales later denied that institutional racism still exists in Cuba but continued to insist that “a lack of political will and an excess of bureaucratic hurdles” prevented the government from doing as much at it should to mitigate racism. He has also challenged, albeit implicitly, the old official government line about racism being the legacy of Cuba’s capitalist and colonial pasts, arguing that “these phenomena aren’t entirely inherited from the past; they are also the result of flawed social systems that contribute to their reproduction. These flaws we continue to perpetuate stem, to a considerable extent, from the flawed mechanisms of different State institutions.”

There are other critics who are loyal to the system but, like Morales Domínguez, have gotten into trouble with the authorities for their views. This includes the three academics at the University of Matanzas, located 65 miles east of Havana, behind the blog La Joven Cuba (LJC). The blog was established in 2010 with the purpose of “defending the Revolution,” but also to facilitate an “internal debate about its present and future.” Although it has strongly attacked dissident bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez, the blog provides a platform for its visitors (many of them Cuban exiles) to offer their own critiques in comments, and it has debated these assessments respectfully.

This feature of the blog, along with its repeated criticisms of the official Marxism taught in Cuban schools and the party newspaper Granma, and the slow pace of the implementation of the resolutions adopted at the 2012 Party Conference, is likely the cause of the ten-month blocking of the site from July 2012 to April 2013, imposed by University of Matanzas administrators.

There is also a decidedly open left-wing critical current that has been developing in the island. Although they avoid the label of “dissidents” for fear of being associated with the free-market economics and allegiance to Washington that has characterized a good part of the moderate and hard right-wing dissident politics in Cuba, they have mounted an openly critical stance. This crosses the line drawn for Cuban authorities, who see any form of criticism of the regime as oppositional. These left-wing critics have thus been subjected to official harassment and the loss of benefits, such as the paid trips to conferences abroad that are permitted to those who may be critical but “respect” the system. Like all those left of Cuba’s center, they are mostly students, academics, artists, and intellectuals, but the faction has been especially active trying to reach people outside their own milieu and engage in popular causes.

Most striking about this new critical left is the ideological consensus it has developed around the centrality of worker’s self-management, a notion with shallow roots in the Cuban political tradition. This focus is shared by groups with different origins that occasionally collaborate with each other to form a critical left-wing milieu. One of these organizations has coalesced around retired diplomat Pedro Campos Santos who, along with his associates who participated in the early years of the Cuban Revolution, is trying to marshal the traditions of classical Marxism to develop ideas for a participatory and democratic management.

The most visible group of that left-critical milieu is the Red Observatorio Critico, made up mostly of young people whose politics are not based on a hard program but a loose ideological front that includes ecologists, anarchists and even left Catholics. The Observatorio has attempted to promote a wide variety of causes related to the environment and gay and women’s issues, which perhaps explains why members of the Observatorio have been specifically targeted by the authorities and occasionally arrested.

Also active in this milieu is the Proyecto Arcoiris (Rainbow Project), which is dedicated to gay liberation and seeks to establish its independence from the official Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (CENESEX) led by Mariela Castro Espín (a daughter of Raúl Castro) and the Observatorio de los Derechos LGTB, associated with moderate and conservative dissidents. Another independent group formed by Afro-Cuban critics of the system, the Cofradía de la Negritud, has collaborated with the Observatorio Crítico in activities intended to highlight the role of black Cubans in Cuban history. One such effort was to commemorate the massacre of the five Abakuás, members of an Afro-Cuban secret society, for having tried unsuccessfully to defend eight white medical students from being executed on November 27, 1871, for desecrating the tomb of a Spanish military officer. 

In spite of their efforts, Observatorio and other elements of the critical left have not yet been able to establish a deep relationship with any major social group, a difficulty shared also with right-wing dissidents. Official repression, the government’s stranglehold on the mass media, and highly limited Internet access explain why few Cubans are exposed to the critical thinking anywhere on the political spectrum.

An unfortunate byproduct of the emphasis on local self-management has been a relative lack of attention to the elephant in the room: the all-controlling, all-encompassing, undemocratic one-party state.

Discussions of self-management have tended to ignore the necessity for planning at the national level and the fact that the CCP will inevitably dominate 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 only function when there is economic planning that is national in scope, but does not neglect democratic workplace participation.  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 — new structures are needed to facilitate exchange between them.

In the case of Observatorio Crítico, its lack of attention to the party and the state may be due to the growing influence of anarchism, a political ideology that predominated the Cuban labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th century but was virtually eliminated by the rise of the Communist-led unions in the 1920s. Some of today’s Cuban left-wing critics have begun to turn to anarchism — which, whatever its many flaws, has had an honorable political record on the island — as a past that validates their own politics.

Cuba’s ongoing process of moral decay and social breakdown, denounced even by Castro himself, is a reflection of a political and socioeconomic system to which many poor and working-class people — particularly the 40 percent of the population which does not receive remittances from abroad — see no alternative to emigration or law-breaking.

With the passing of the historic generation of revolutionary leaders in the next five to ten years, a new political landscape will emerge where oppositional political action may resurface. Some could argue that since socialism of a democratic and revolutionary orientation is not likely to be on the immediate agenda, there is no point to put forward such a perspective. But it is this political vision advocating for the democratic self-management of Cuban society that can shape a compelling resistance for what is likely to come. Through cultivating solidarity with those most vulnerable and calling for class, racial, and gender equality, a future movement can build a united front against old and emerging oppressors.

In that vision lies hope for the people of Cuba and the broader region.