By Nicholas Partyka
The following is Part One of a multi-part project entitled, “A Crossroads for Socialism: Cuba in Transition.” This series of analyses, observations, and dispatches of Cuba focuses on the country’s unprecedented, post-Fidel transition. With a heavy reliance on macroeconomic, geopolitical, and foreign policy analysis, Hampton contributor Nicholas Partyka seeks to pinpoint the nuanced economic, political, and social changes that are occurring on the island nation, and how these changes are impacting everyday Cubans.
Given the coverage (or maybe, more correctly, the lack thereof) of Cuba in the US media today one might be forgiven for offering the following as mildly shocking news to some readers; the Cuban revolution has not been defeated, and it is not over. Cuba garners little attention in the US media, and has for some time been something of an off-the-radar topic in US foreign policy discussion; save perhaps a few perfunctory lines in a party platform every four years. The times when Cuba does grab attention are either in the role of foil for US espionage, aka “development” efforts (see the recent ZunZuneo case), or as “a rouge state run by a power-mad tyrant” (see the case of the North Korean-owned and bound ship loaded with Cuban ex-Soviet weaponry and sugar). In light of this context, it seems like Cuba today is mainly forgotten by the American public, hostage to a few extremists in congress, and an easy target for politicians scoring political points. The public might have this misconception that the Cuban revolution has failed, and that its transformative project has run its course; and most would likely believe that it has little to show for itself after fifty plus years. However, let me assure you at the outset: The Cuban revolution has neither been defeated, nor is its work over. The series of analyses and dispatches in this forthcoming project will elaborate on what I mean by this.
Along these lines, let me give an important disclaimer before getting into anything substantive. This will not be a travel blog where I present an image of the “stereotypical Cuba” – of the Cuba you think you know, and are comfortable with. I am going to pass over, save these few lines, in silence the tropical splendor of Cuba. I’m not going to spend time talking about how Havana is full of old American cars from the 1950s. First of all, I don’t care at all about cars, and as I’m not a baby boomer, I don’t get nostalgic about them. Second, there is a very good reason why these cars are still on the road – the Cubans have had little choice but to keep them running. This series will not be about beaches, restaurants, and cool little places to hear and dance to lively Cuban music.
I should add to my disclaimer that I do not know everything about Cuba. I don’t even speak Spanish terribly well. What I present here are my impressions, analysis and insight based on my experiences in Cuba and with the Cuban people, as well as my studies of its history, economy, and society. I would not be comfortable calling or presenting myself as a Cuba expert. Nonetheless, the serious attention I’ve given to the study of Cuba’s political and economic history – as well as my personal experiences from within the country – provides a good enough reason to be allowed serious consideration.
At this point, I should say something about who I am so that the reader can have some context for the views and analysis I give, and also to give the reader some insight into the basis of the claims and arguments I will advance. I am a PhD candidate in the Philosophy Department at University at Albany SUNY. I am finishing up my dissertation on the political consequences of capitalist work organization. My specialty in philosophy is political-economy. I have studied (for more than twelve years at the graduate and undergraduate level) economic and political institutions and their interactions, both contemporarily as well as historically, in the US and many other countries. Related to this work, but not officially, I have been a life-long student and avid reader of history, with special interest in geo-politics and US foreign policy.
This is the background that I bring to the views and analysis I will give of Cuba. I also just recently returned from a visit to the island. What I will be talking about in the rest of this series will thus be informed by my reading in Cuban history, my academic training and experience in the analysis of political and economic systems, and first-hand experience of and interaction with Cuba and the Cuban people. I don’t consider myself to be a Latin Americanist, but I trust the grasp of facts and history I demonstrate here will show me to be a more than qualified amateur in the subject.
My purpose in writing this series is to present an image of Cuba as it is today. This is, in part, to combat the misinformation and subsequent misperception created by the US media. What I want to present is a truer image of Cuba, to present a view of the reality of life in Cuba. This is all, of course, part of an effort to make a change in US-Cuba policy. In order to make good foreign policy decisions about Cuba, as well as any other nation, we need to understand the reality of that nation. I would like this project to contribute to portraying the reality of Cuba today so that more Americans can understand the island nation, its revolutionary process, and current situation. Cubans and Americans have much in common, as well as a lot to learn from each other. Unfortunately, for both sides, US policy prevents a mutually beneficial relationship from prevailing between these two neighbors.
I should say right up front that I am very to extremely sympathetic to the Cuban revolution, and its aims and ideals. That said, this series will not be a puff piece about how great everything is in Cuba, and how there are no problems in sight. As an independent socialist-minded critic, I can and will present with rigor, clarity, and without bias, what I take to be the main accomplishments of the revolution as well as its historical failings and contemporary problems. What I want to focus on here is contemporary Cuba and its future. This will involve, from time to time, some words about its past, but I want to keep these to a minimum. This series will not be a history lesson. I can recommend many excellent books about Cuba, and will more often than not – in the dispatches that follow – point to some of these books, where appropriate, instead of presenting a lot of historical background.
There are some general remarks about Cuba that I would like to make by way of a preface to this series. The first is that Cuba is going through a profound process of transformation at present. The future of the Cuban revolution is being decided as we speak. This is a promising, yet dangerous time for Cuba as it has to navigate a difficult transition under extremely difficult conditions. Many things are up in the air in Cuba today, and while this is (to me as well as many Cubans) reason for optimism about the future of the Cuban people, it is also a source of tension and uncertainty for Cubans as the status quo is being altered in ways the outcomes of which are not clear. Many Cubans are accustomed to the way things have been, and so the portent of changes can be unsettling. Many Cubans see the changes and transitional process as an opening to construct a more prosperous socialism, one that builds off the gains of the revolution.
There is a point I think needs to be emphasized about the nature of the current transitional process in Cuba. Though the government is working to decentralize many parts of the Cuban economy, though they are embracing tourism and foreign investment, though they want to do business with the capitalist world, they are not abandoning socialism. If anything, the Cubans are attempting to navigate a transition that will successfully consolidate the gains of the revolution at the same time as it lays the foundations for a new socialism. This process of transition, where Cuba attempts to bring market-oriented reforms to its economy, is most definitely not a transition away from socialism. On the contrary, Cubans see this process of reform as deepening their revolution – as a transition from a centralized planning model to a more authentically Cuban form of socialism.
Perhaps the single, biggest, complicating factor facing Cuba as it attempts to navigate its transition is the unrelenting hostility of US policy. Anything and everything the Cubans may try to do to increase productivity, efficiency, or development is effected by the economic blockade policies pursued by the US. This attempt, originally designed to isolate Cuba, has served only to isolate the US. Cuba continues to be a kind of obsession of the US foreign policy establishment. This stands in stark contrast to the typical lack of discussion about Cuba by the media or politicians. Yet, year after year, the US expends valuable actual, as well as metaphorical “diplomatic”, capital to impose its blockade policy against Cuba on many other ‘third-party’ countries around the world. Wayne Smith, the last US ambassador to Cuba, has described the US-Cuba relationship in the following way: “Cuba is to the US what a full moon is to a werewolf.” I think this is entirely apt. The US reaction to the Cuban revolution has always been wildly disproportionate. Both China and Vietnam are both still communist, and the US does good business with both. US policy towards Cuba in particular betrays the deep obsession with the Castro brothers and bringing them to heel on the part of US foreign policy elites, by hook or by crook so to speak. We simply cannot stand the example they set for others.
If I had to neatly summarize the main differences between the societies of the US and Cuba, I would rely on the words of a Cuban doctoral student I met. What he said was that “in the US, there is the utopia of consumption, while in Cuba there is the consumption of utopia”. I met Mike early on in my trip. I confess I didn’t quite understand the latter half of his statement. Towards the end of my trip I think I gained some insight into this. The easy part to understand of course is the first half. To say the US is “the utopia of consumption” is something that requires little explanation, especially for US citizens who are intimately aware of the ever increasing commercialization and alienation in US society. We Americans are guilty of becoming extremely passive, all too enamored of buying and consuming private goods, and in many ways politically disenfranchised through distraction and media manipulation.
To say that Cuba is “the consumption of utopia” is more challenging. Part of what I think he meant by this is that Cuba and Cubans are getting by in some ways by looking to an ideal of a future society. Many Cubans, it seems, find solace or strength in dealing with their problems by thinking of their socialist society in comparison to capitalist ones. We often talk of “utopia” with negative, usually mocking, connotations of unachievable even if desirable perfection. I don’t think Mike intended this when talking of utopia. The essence of what he said strikes me as expressing the idea that both Americans and Cubans rely on and actively participate in creating a false sense of their social reality.
In America, we consume too much of the illusion that we’re free. We pretend the choice between twelve kinds of chips and soda makes us free. We think that open access to the internet and social networks is actually liberating, and that these help us express ourselves rather than help capitalism construct ourselves. Many Americans still believe in something called “the American Dream”, without knowing what it is or that it is mostly unachievable for a large majority of Americans. We consume this dream, and let it color our perception of reality. This false reality where something like what is called the American dream exists is much more pleasant than the one that really exists, and as such provides less reason for active participation in democracy, less reason for activism, less reason to question, less reason to look for problems.
Cubans, on the other hand, consume too much of the ideal of a prosperous socialism to come. Cubans are consoled by what could be as they struggle with what is. The poverty and desperation of the Cubans is very much oversold in the US media, but that is not to say Cuba does not have problems with poverty and the need for increased development. In response to the absence of freedoms or privileges that people in other countries have, Cubans are given what amounts to an IOU from the government. “We will have these things later when socialism is more developed, for now there are more pressing issues” is the essence of the content of the government’s IOU. There is, of course, much truth to what the government says – the US blockade does impinge severely on Cuba’s ability to freely develop the kind of society it wants. But nonetheless, the desire for these kinds of freedoms met with the persisting lack of them will, without a doubt, create some level of disaffection; especially so among young Cubans.
In the series of dispatches and analyses that follow, I will aim to present the most accurate insight into the reality of Cuba today that I can. I will focus on the very interesting economic, political, and social changes that are ongoing, and how they are impacting Cubans. I will, as much as possible, attempt to convey to the reader the impressions and views of Cubans on these processes of reform. I will not be able to say everything about every topic here. In a perhaps selfish way, I will focus on the aspects of Cuba contemporary reality that interest me the most. Therefore, macro-economic, political, geo-political, and foreign policy questions and topics will predominate my discussion of Cuba in this project.