by Dr Stephen Wilkinson, International Institute for the Study of Cuba, London Metropolitan University, 15 May 2008.
Introduction: What was the ‘Special Period’
The term ‘Special Period in Peacetime’ has a curious etymology that explains much about its nature. It is derived from the phrase ‘Special Period in time of war’ which was the name given to the survival plan that Cuba had prepared during the Cold War in case of a conflict breaking out between the Soviet Union and the United States. In such a scenario, Cuba would have been bereft of its supplies and possibly completely blockaded, so there was a contingency plan that would ensure that there would be an orderly response to the scarcities of food and fuel that would ensue. When the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989-91, Cuba was left without its main trading partners and economic patron, to all intents a situation exactly similar to that which would have happened in a war - hence the adoption of the war contingency plan and it being called by the same name save for the circumstance of ‘peacetime.’
Thus the ‘Special Period’ was initially the putting into action of a planned response to the economic crisis that began in 1991 as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the COMECON countries of Eastern Europe. The ‘Special Period’ became institutionalised later to signify the extended period of deprivation that ensued and the long haul out of recession. By being called ‘special’ and a ‘period’ it always conveyed a sense of the ephemeral. Implicit in the name is the notion that the situation is temporary, the bad times would eventually pass.
The economic depression of the Special Period was at its most severe in the early-to-mid 1990s before slightly declining in severity towards the end of the decade. Since the beginning of the present century, and especially since 2003 onwards, Cuba has been experiencing an accelerated economic growth so that while officially the ‘Special Period’ has not been formally ended, it is now increasingly perceived as a thing of the past. Recent economic reforms instituted since Raúl Castro took over the Presidency in February 2008 are indicators that the restraints imposed on the Cuban population to combat the crisis are now no longer necessary. Thus it is increasingly possible to talk of the Special Period in the past tense.
The Special Period was defined primarily by severe shortages of hydrocarbon energy resources in the form of petrol, diesel, and other oil derivatives that occurred when the economic agreements between the oil-rich Soviet Union and Cuba suddenly ceased. Internally, the period was characterised by a reform process that transformed of the Cuban revolutionary programme, bringing changes in the economy, the introduction of sustainable agriculture techniques, a decreased use of energy, the overhaul of industry and a diversification of the economic base. The period also required political changes that introduced some elements of greater democracy and involvement by the Cuban population in decision-making (though not liberal democracy as understood in the West) as well as a relaxation in some aspects of cultural expression. The pursuit or construction of ‘communism’ as a project was officially abandoned and replaced by the goal of “preserving the social gains of socialism” meaning the preservation as much as possible of the welfare state, while making some concessions to private capital in terms of allowing foreign investment and some local private enterprise to operate.
Externally, the Period ushered in a new era of Cuban Foreign relations as the country was forced to seek new markets for its products, develop new export and foreign currency earning industries and attract foreign investment. At the same time, the government found itself having to combat intensified attempts by the United States to isolate the island and extend its embargo.
The Special Period had a number of negative social effects not least the rise in the informal market and an increase in the division between those who had income in hard currency and those who did not. There has been an increase in prostitution and of petty corruption, though how far these phenomena are threatening to the system is debateable as it is possible to argue that these pernicious trends have been exaggerated by the Western media.
What is more certain is to observe that the response of the Cuban population to the crisis can be encapsulated in the phrase ‘flight and fight’. Over the last decade and a half out migration became a survival strategy for many as significant numbers of Cubans have left the island to seek employment. In 1994 there was the famous ‘rafters crisis’ in which some 100,000 Cubans left in makeshift boats. This crisis produced a migration agreement in 1995 with the US in which the US has undertaken to accept 20,000 legal migrants per year. In addition, an illegal traffic in migrants estimated of between 10,000 and 20,000 Cubans per year, adds significantly to the drain on the population. It could be that as many as 500,000 Cubans have left Cuba since 1995, and for the first time in 2006 and 2007 the population of the island has shown a negative growth trend.
On the other hand, it is clear that of the 11.2 million Cubans that have remained on the island, a significant majority have opted to ‘fight’ the privations of the Special Period. There has been a stoical resistance in order to preserve what are perceived to be the gains of the revolution. Radical engagement with the Cuban government has been remarkably evident within broad sections of the working and professional classes. The government has assiduously worked to engage with and incorporate the population, especially the youth. It has been the unity of the population that has remained and the support it has shown for the government that has been the major factor in the survival of the revolutionary process to date.
As the economy continues to grow and the passing of Fidel Castro from power has been taking place, it is becoming evident that the Cuban revolution is entering a new and unprecedented stage. Another reform process, not unlike that which occurred at the start of the ‘Special Period’ has been undertaken under the guidance of Raúl Castro that could have far reaching consequences. At the same time, new challenges are facing the country- in particular the ecological and world food crises that require urgent government attention. This paper will end with a brief summary of the changes being introduced and make some suggestions as to where they might be leading, although a certain prediction is not at this stage either possible or advisable to make.
Economic woes: political challenges
The collapse of Soviet Union in 1990-91, had a devastating impact on the Cuban economy. Cuba lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. Along with food and medicines that were imported, half of Cuba’s oil used to be supplied by the USSR and by 1992 oil imports trickled to 10% of previous amounts. This was loss made worse by the fact that Cuba had been re-exporting the Soviet oil it did not consume to other nations for profit (oil was Cuba's second largest export product before 1990). Once Soviet imports fell, Cuba faced a net deficit of oil, resulting in a need to reduce domestic consumption by 20% over the course of two years. The effect was felt immediately; dependent on fossil fuels to operate, Cuba’s transportation, industrial and agricultural systems were paralyzed. There were extensive losses of productivity in Cuban agriculture and in Cuban industrial capacity.
Agriculture in particular suffered as it was dominated by the use of modern industrial tractors, combines, and harvesters, all of which required oil to run, and the application of imported fertilizers, pesticides and feeds all of which came from the former Comecon countries.
Thus the early stages of the Special Period were characterised by a breakdown in transport and farming sectors culminating in widespread food shortages. A movement to grow food in urban gardens started and organic gardeners from developed countries arrived to distribute aid and teach techniques to locals, who soon implemented them in Cuban fields, raised beds, and urban rooftops. The Cuban government as a means to augment the food supply supported this drive towards organic urban agriculture.
The effects of the shortages were acute: waiting for a bus could take three hours, power cuts could last up to 16 hours per day, food consumption was cut to 1/5 of the previous intake and the average Cuban lost about 20 pounds. Although outright starvation and famine were avoided by the use of the rationing system that guaranteed a minimum of food to every citizen, hunger was a daily experience and malnutrition in children under five became evident in the worst of the period (1992-4). In 1993 a neuropathy epidemic affected tens of thousands of Cubans causing temporary blindness among many of the afflicted. This was later diagnosed as a consequence of vitamin deficiencies in the diet.
In order to face this crisis, the Cuban government was forced to adopt emergency measures. To earn foreign hard currency it immediately embarked on seeking out tourism deals with Canada, various Western European and South American countries. Additionally, faced with a near-elimination of imported steel and other ore-based supplies, the government closed refineries and factories across the country, eliminating the country's industrial base and many jobs. Immediate actions taken by the government included televising an announcement of the expected energy crisis a week before the USSR notified the Cuban government that they would not be delivering the expected quota of crude oil. Citizens were asked to reduce their consumption in all areas and to use public transportation and carpooling. Alternative transport, most notably the mass distribution of cycles and the introduction of the "camels" - immense 18-wheeler tractor-trailers fitted as buses to carry many dozens of Cubans each –were introduced. Meat and dairy products, having been extremely fossil fuel dependent in their former factory farming methods, soon diminished in the Cuban diet. Herds of cows that were dependent on imported feed had to be slaughtered as they could not be fed merely on the local grass. By necessity, Cubans adopted diets higher in fibre, fresh produce, and ultimately more vegetarian in character than before. Cuba hurriedly diversified its agricultural production in order to grow more food.
As time went on, more structured strategies were developed to manage what would turn out to be a long-term energy/economic crisis which would take the country into the 21st century.
It should be noted here that the government response was political as well as economic. An unprecedented series of consultations with the general population was undertaken. So called ‘workers parliaments’ were instituted across every workplace in the country to discuss the problem and elicit responses. At first the Cuban government faced international criticism for appearing to not be acting fast enough to resolve the crisis facing the country. However it became apparent that the government was taking time to win a consensus among the population as to changes that would have to be made. The ‘workers parliaments’ were followed in 1991 by a Congress of the ruling Communist Party in which key decisions were made that mapped out the government strategy throughout the coming decade.
Following the Communist Party Congress of 1991, the government began to introduce a more structured plan to lift the Cuban economy out of crisis. This included changes in the following key areas:
- The legalisation of the dollar.
- A new law of foreign investment.
- Increased investment in the nickel, oil, tourism and the biotechnological sectors.
- Agricultural reorganisation and the opening of farmers’ markets.
- Introduction of self-employment and permission to run some small businesses.
- Limited political reforms.
- Foreign policy initiatives
1. Dollar legalisation
By allowing Cubans to possess dollars and to keep dollar bank accounts the government made it possible for the family of Cubans abroad to send money to help their relatives out. Alongside the growth in tourism the dollarisation allowed for a two tier economy to develop in which the tourists would spend hard currency while the local Cuban Peso continued to be the currency in which the majority of Cubans were paid. The effect of the measure was to very rapidly restore monetary stability with the dollar: peso exchange rate declining from 1:120 to 1:25 in a very short time. The rate has remained stubbornly around 1:22-25 throughout most of the period. It is this differential that fuels the informal market. Cubans are paid in Cuban pesos and receive a basket of food each month at heavily subsidized prices. Other charges such as electricity, gas and rent etc. are also subsidized. However, as luxury items and food over and above the monthly ration have to be bought in hard currency, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to live without having some hard currency income. It is this ‘duality’ that is perceived as a major contradiction and weakness in the system that has developed during the Special Period. Cubans talk of a ‘double morality’ because it is not possible even for the most ardent socialist not to dabble in the informal sector in some way in order to make ends meet.
This issue has been addressed in two main ways, firstly by repeated attempts by the leadership to start moralising campaigns against corruption and secondly through the gradual increase in wages and the payments of bonuses or some part of the monthly wage in hard currency. Neither strategy has wholly worked nor has the government be able to alleviate the plight of the poorest Cubans although it is officially estimated that 60 per cent of the population has access to hard currency. Recently, in 2006 the dollar was removed from circulation and replaced by a Cuban convertible peso, (a move that was popularly received as it removed the ‘enemy’s money’ from free circulation) and imposed an extra tax on it to encourage the introduction of other currencies into the economy.
In his inauguration speech on 24 February, 2008, President Raúl Castro alluded to the dual currency and hinted that moves would be made to unify the two currencies. It is expected therefore that this will eventually come about although economists find it hard to see how it can be done without there being a sharp increase in state revenues.
2. New Foreign Investment Law
This law introduced in 1993, allowed for foreign direct investment in the Cuban economy in all sectors except for defence, health and education. It permitted foreign joint ventures in a variety of associations that offered up to even 100% ownership of the firm in some circumstances, but usually something in the order of 50%. The main sectors that attracted foreign investment were in nickel extraction and refining, telecommunications, tourism, tobacco and rum production. Within a few years more than 400 joint ventures had been formed, mainly with Canadian and western European companies. However, the number of joint ventures declined after 2000 when the government began to restrict them to large foreign corporations. However, again since the advent of Raúl Castro as President there seems to be signs that there is going to be a renewed relaxation and more opportunities to foreign capital will be offered.
3. Increased investments
The upshot of the new investment programme has been to diversify Cuba’s economy on a hitherto unknown scale. One downside of its relationship with the Soviet Union and COMECON was the way in which the island swapped one form of dependency (with the USA) for another without sufficiently diversifying either its markets or its industries. The Special Period has had the beneficial effect of altering this state of affairs. The graph in fig. 1 shows clearly how this transformation has taken place.
Source: Emily Morris 2007. Economist Intelligence Unit, London. ‘Futures for Cuba: The economy’ paper given at Chatham House London, 27 March 2007
The graph shows how the economy has both recovered its export earning capacity and how that capacity is no longer dominated by sugar. Growth accelerated noticeably in 2004 onwards through the increase in earnings form ‘other services’ which are mainly human capital (teachers, doctors etc) exchange deals with most importantly Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Note too how the export of medicines has become a small but growing earner from 2000 onwards. Not showing on this graph is the increase in domestic oil production which makes a significant contribution to the GDP because now that Cuba has re-equipped its power generation plant to burn domestically produced oil, the island has become self-sufficient in electricity.
4. Agricultural reform.
The main reform initially in Agriculture was to turn large state owned farms into cooperatives called UBPCs (Unidades Basicas de Produccción Cooperativa) with the coops owning the land in ‘usufruct’. The other change was to allow these coops and private farmers to sell surplus products in free farmers markets where prices were fixed by supply and demand. While this measure did increase the amount of food available to consumers it also meant that consumers had to pay vastly higher prices for it than they would if they would be able to purchase it from the state run ration stores. Farmers and middle men have been accused of profiteering at people’s expense and the prices in the markets mean that people are obliged to spend a huge portion of the wages on food.
These reforms have not worked in the way they were intended and has not resulted in the growth of production of food that was hoped for.
Later in the period a decision was taken to downsize the sugar industry because falling sugar prices made many Cuban mills unprofitable. This resulted in large swathes if unemployment. While no workers were denied an income or the opportunity to retrain, the rural areas have been slow to switch former sugar lands to other production. In 2007 it was revealed that up to 51% of the arable land in Cuba is lying fallow and Raúl Castro has made it a priority to energise the agricultural sector. He has increased state payments to farmers for produce and announced moves to give more land to private farmers who are by far the most productive sector. Furthermore he has decentralised decision making in agriculture and introduced local markets and distribution in an effort to make it more efficient.
At the same time what is very encouraging is the success of the urban gardening movement that continues to provide a healthy food supplement to people’s diets. Nonetheless this ‘organic revolution’ as it is sometimes termed is not sufficient to prevent Cuba from having to import huge amounts of food, the price of which, as recent headlines show is increasing rapidly. The world food crisis has made the situation in Cuban agriculture acute.
5. Small businesses and self-employment
The government allowed for some 200 different tradesmen to work for themselves: mechanics, roofers, decorators, electricians, plumbers and the like. People were allowed to run a taxi service using their cars, people were allowed to operate a small restaurant in their homes and to let rooms to foreigners in a bed and breakfast type operation. In the beginning of the Special Period this resulted in an explosion of this type of activity but gradually over time with the economic recovery this has diminished as people have returned to work in the state-owned sector. A system of taxation was introduced on foreign currency earnings. The government in some cities such as Havana has also increased the taxes and charges for licences to operate businesses in order to discourage them. This was interpreted as a sign of a ‘roll back’ from the market under Fidel Castro, but recently once again with Raúl now in charge there is talk of this sector being revitalised. People who do have the opportunity to earn hard currency through restaurants or letting rooms have become conspicuously richer as a result, making this area of reform a particular point of debate and speculation.
6. Political/social reforms
The most surprising feature of the reforms of the early 1990s was the way in which the system apparently liberalised in the face of the crisis. The 1991 Communist Party Congress for example allowed for the first time religious believers openly into its ranks and following the Congress the electoral system was reformed to allow for the National Assembly to be elected by direct ballot for the first time. These measures and the workers’ parliaments gave Cubans a sense of being involved more directly in decision-making. Of course, the moves were in no way a prelude to the introduction of a liberal democratic system, but nonetheless there was lessening of control over society that went along with the economic changes. Because writers and artists could now travel and work abroad and sell their labours for hard currency their freedom to express themselves was relaxed. Thus an opening in the arts got under way. In some cases this had a remarkable impact on social mores. The film Fresa y chocolate of 1993 must be mentioned here as it was responsible for the relaxation of discrimination against homosexuals- one of the most salient transformation in Cuban society to have taken place in the Special Period. Remarkably, Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela is leading the campaign to change the law to allow same sex marriages and for transsexuals to have sex change operations provided by the state. Both these changes are expected to be voted on by the National Assembly soon.
The ideological changes of the Special Period had effects on Cuban society and culture. The increased responsibilities that Cuban women had within their families as a result of the economic effects also gave them more authority within Cuban society. In recent years, many Cuban women have chosen to enact this power and authority on the dance floor to the music of the pleasure and body-focused reggaeton genre, through highly controversial, explicitly sexual dance moves. Whereas reggaeton in Cuba emphasizes dancing and the female body without any regard for lyrical content, Cuban hip hop evolved as a socially conscious movement influenced heavily by the effects of Cuba's conversion to a 'mixed economy' on the younger generation. The arrival of rap in Cuba was very much shaped by the Special Period.
7. Foreign Policy
Cuban foreign policy has always been a central and vital concern for the revolutionary leadership principally because of the close proximity of the island to the United States and the animosity expressed by the powerful neighbour from the outset. Following the Missile Crisis of October 1962 the island enjoyed an unprecedented favourable relationship with the former Soviet Union, which was happy to subsidize its Caribbean ally heavily in order to maintain it under the nose of its Cold War enemy. In this context the US justified its embargo policy on the grounds that it had a Soviet surrogate close to its border and therefore faced a security threat. In addition, Cuban adventures in support of revolutions and anti-colonial struggles in Africa and elsewhere made it a prime concern for the US in terms of the challenges it faced in the developing world. Thus, in the 1980s a change in US policy was predicated on Cuba withdrawing its troops from Africa and ceasing to be a Soviet ally.
By 1991 both these conditions had been met and it was expected that the US might address its embargo policy in the wake of the end of the Cold War. This did not happen. In response to pressure from the powerful right-wing Cuban exile lobby that grew up under the presidency of Ronald Reagan and against the advice of foreign policy analysts, George Bush Snr., as President changed the conditions for lifting the embargo to the democratization of the island, release of political prisoners and the adoption of a free market system.
Thus the stage was set for the US to intensify its embargo. During the 1990s, Congress passed three new bills that increased the economic effects. The Mack Amendment (October 1990) “prohibits all trade with Cuba by subsidiaries of U.S. companies outside the U.S.” Before this bill passed, 70% of Cuba's trade with U.S. subsidiary companies was for food and medicine. The Torricelli Act (October 1992) also prohibits foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba but adds prohibition of travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, and monetary assistance to family members in Cuba. It also prevents ships that have docked in Cuba from visiting US ports for 6 months afterwards. The law did, however, allowed humanitarian aid in the form of food and medicine by private groups. Then in March 1996, The Helms-Burton Act imposed penalties on foreign companies doing business in Cuba, and allowed for U.S. citizens to sue foreign investors who use American-owned property nationalised by the Cuban government. Helms Burton also codified the embargo and made any changes to it contingent on the Cuban government abandoning socialism and adopting a free market- multi-party democratic model.
The passage of these laws and the inability of the Presidency to unlock the grip of the Florida lobby have meant that until the present moment US policy has remained staunchly antagonistic and increasingly anachronistic. Rather than bring about a change in the political direction of Cuba, what has happened in some ways is for the Cuban system to become further entrenched often, it is argued, because the US position is so extreme. This may be partly true but a thorough understanding of the nature of the Cuban government’s position is required before a clear analysis is possible. In the case of Cuba domestic and foreign policies are closely aligned for three profound reasons that are related to the peculiar geography and history of the island. The revolutionary government has deeply held commitments to what it perceives as the national interest that can be summarised as follows:
A. Sovereignty and independence
Because of the island’s close proximity to the US it has been a historical object of desire for Washington, which came to dominate the island and mediate the newly independent republic’s sovereignty throughout the 20th century. The revolution of 1959 was as much a rejection of US influence in Cuban domestic affairs as it was the overthrow of a dictatorship. The commitment of the Castro government to defending Cuban sovereignty and independence, especially against encroachment by the US is paramount among its foreign policy goals.
B. Trade imperatives
Cuba’s lack of natural energy resources and its topical climate mean that it is never going to be self-sufficient in fuel or food supplies. The island cannot grow wheat nor has sufficient areas suitable for rice culture in order to feed itself. Unless large and viable reserves of light crude are found in Cuba’s waters in the Gulf, Cuba is going to have to find at least half of its oil needs through imports because the crude it currently produces is too sulphurous to be refined into gasoline. Thus Cuba’s foreign policy is driven by an imperative to find commercial trade partnerships with as big a variety of countries as possible. Its experience of being a client of the Soviet Union and a neo-colony of the United States has ingrained this principle.
C. Social cohesion
The third consideration of the revolutionary government in terms of its foreign policy relates to its ethnically mixed population and the way in which the need to maintain unity drives a sense not only of intense nationalism but egalitarianism. In order to face the challenges that were posed by the US, the government has strived to create as much unity as possible, thus anti-racism and social justice have been key elements of its domestic agenda. This translates into a commitment to such values in the world and therefore Cuban revolutionary foreign policy has a commitment to development and internationalism. This manifested itself in military interventions in the past but since the end of the Cold War has switched to medical and educational aid. It has also meant that Cuba has taken a lead in Third World politics and presently holds the Presidency of the non-aligned movement for the second time.
As these three elements are determined historically, geographically and demographically, it is very unlikely that the change in leadership from Fidel to Raúl Castro will change them in any fundamental way. Indeed, since assuming power, Raúl Castro has reiterated that Cuba is not willing to negotiate with the United States unless the US accepts that such an undertaking should be done without preconditions and in respect for each country’s sovereignty. Cuba has continued to press for trade and investment and some economic reforms have been directed at opening up the island to more investment from abroad. At the same time, Cuba has not reversed any of its programmes for medical aid and other projects. Thus observers predicting a change in the US-Cuba relationship are looking to the US Presidential elections rather than to Cuba for the prospect of a transformation.
The impasse of US-Cuba relations in the Special Period
As explained above the United States chose to strengthen rather than relax its embargo after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was at first driven by an argument that without its Soviet mentor, the island’s economy would implode and the government would be overthrown. All that the US needed to do was turn the economic screw tighter to assist the inevitable collapse.
The passage of the Mack amendment and Torricelli Bill were aimed at choking off trade with the island but it failed to succeed. Rather than dissuade Europeans and Canadians from trading with Cuba, the bills actually had a reverse effect and made countries intervene more in order to prevent a meltdown and the consequent crisis in the Caribbean that would ensue. This was why, in 1995-6, the right wing Cuban American lobby campaigned for the so called Helms Burton act, which was aimed principally at trying to prevent/dissuade foreign investment in the island. But this too has failed. Although it might have slowed investment down, Helms Burton has been unable to bring about the desired result of weakening the Castro government sufficiently to cause a rupture. Since the advent of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the introduction of new Chinese aid from 2003 onwards, it has become evident that the Cuban economy is performing rather better than many had predicted. Thus the argument within the United States that the policy of embargo is a failure is gaining ground.
This sense of failure is underlined by successes in Cuban diplomacy. The election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and the advent of the integrationist ‘Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) proves that Cuba is not only no longer isolated in the region but also now a central player in an international movement that is challenging US hegemony. Despite its continued exclusion from the Organization of American States, Cuba enjoys diplomatic relations with almost all the countries of the region. In the Special Period the island has cultivated relationships with both the Caribbean (CARICOM) and the Latin American (MERCOSUR) commercial and trade blocs. It has recently been elected onto the new Human Rights Council of the UN and annually at the UN General Assembly presents a motion calling for the removal of the US embargo that garners almost total support, even from the US’s closest allies. In addition, Cuba has mended its fences with the Vatican, welcoming the Pope to Cuba in 1998, where he called for an end to the embargo, and the island is currently occupying the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement for the second time. The embargo is therefore rejected almost universally as a policy, an embarrassing state of affairs for the world’s sole superpower.
Furthermore, the embargo policy is riddled with contradictions, the most obvious of which is the food sales exception. Since 2001 when an amendment to allow US companies to sell food was accepted by George Bush, Cuba has become the ninth biggest customer for US food exports in the world. Defenders of the embargo now have the difficult task trying to argue that the embargo, which is aimed at causing hardship, can possibly succeed if the US itself is selling the island food! Another contradiction is evident in the case of migration. Since the 1995 migration accord the US has been accepting 20,000 legal migrants a year, thus those who are unhappy and might join an opposition movement within the island invariably leave and take up residence in the US. This explains the weakness of the opposition movement within the island. US policy is therefore self-defeating in two important ways since it neither breeds discontent nor does it help the creation of an opposition. What opposition there is remains small and easily isolated by the Cuban government.
In addition these new migrants are now living in Miami and are registering as voters. They have a direct interest in wishing to send money home to their hard up relatives in Cuba and also of wishing to visit them as often as they would like. This is perceived by the older migrants who lead the right-wing anti-Castro lobby as being a prop to the hated Castro regime. They succeeded in getting the Bush administration in 2004 to restrict remittances and family visits. By doing so a split has appeared in the Cuban American community that is being represented for the first time in the Florida electoral campaign. If he wins the presidency Barak Obama has promised to lift the family visits and remittance restrictions introduced by George W Bush and even to talk to Raúl Castro without preconditions. At the local level credible Cuban-American Democrat candidates are running for office against the Republican right wing old guard on a similar ticket. It could be therefore that this Presidential election will produce a result that might see the US change its embargo policy. This is an absolute requirement before any alteration of Cuba’s political system can be effected.
From an ideological point of view, the embargo policy reinforces the Cuban sense of nationalism and increases the determination of the most stoical to resist at all costs. The Helms Burton Act is particularly retrograde in this regard since it contains a prescription as to what kind of government Cuba must have if the US is to lift its embargo. Such a prescriptive approach is an affront to the sovereignty principle. Thus there is a curious symbiosis between the positions- the more the US presses Cuba the harder the Cubans resist. It is an impasse that has proved impossible to break, thus far.
The matter has become more complicated since the events of 11 September 2001 and the addition of the issue of ‘security’ to the foreign policy agenda of the US. This has inserted a threatening nuance into the relationship with Cuba. Against all evidence the US maintains Cuba on the list of states it considers to be sponsors of terrorism. The US also carries out a huge international campaign aimed at demonising Cuba as a gross violator of human rights. It is in this context and the ‘war on terror’ that makes the Cuban government fear the possibility of armed intervention by the United States. While this might be far from the official policy of the administration, nonetheless the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were justified on the basis that they were permissible on the grounds of a) removing a perceived threat to US security (i.e. a potential terrorist haven) and b) for the humanitarian reason of installing a ‘democratic regime’ even when such a regime had no real basis of support amongst the general population.
This notion that ‘democracy’ is something that can be imposed from outside is another contradiction in US policy since the act of providing a subject state with ‘democracy’ ipso facto deprives it of the self – determination that ‘democracy’ would imply. It is this contradiction that Cubans generally instinctively know yet apparently Western governments, especially the US, do not seem understand. There is not the slightest sign that the government of Raúl Castro will see the world any differently than his brother’s in this regard. If the US-Cuba political impasse is to break it must be from the US side first. Cuba can only ‘democratise’ itself and it will certainly not do so until and unless the US stops trying to impose it will upon it.
Raúl in charge
Raúl Castro has assumed power at a propitious time. Economically, the country has emerged from the ‘Special Period’ and internationally the Bush administration is in its ‘lame duck’ phase with supporters of the embargo very much on the back foot. This has given Raúl Castro tremendous room for manoeuvre.
Since he took over as acting President in the summer of 2006 he has instigated a broad consultation in which thousands of meetings have been held across the country (in a manner similar to the ‘workers’ parliaments’ that took place at the start of the Special Period) and he has called for a broader debate within society to find solutions to problems. There has been an opening to more direct criticism in the press of shortcomings within the system and greater autonomy has been granted to departments and enterprises. It is clear that Raúl prefers to delegate and administrate than to manage himself – a style very different from that of his brother.
Since fully taking up office in February 2006, based on the findings of the national consultation, Raúl Castro has introduced a number of economic reforms including the removal of restrictions on the purchase of electrical appliances such as computers and mobile phones. In addition, Cubans are now allowed to stay in hotels that were reserved for foreign tourists. Cubans living in social housing have been told they will be allowed to purchase them. There is talk of a liberalisation of the housing market and the removal of the exit permit requirement for foreign travel.
In addition there have been some important institutional changes and changes to the way that agriculture is organised.
One of the key organisational changes involves a new seven-member executive committee that will preside over the Political Bureau. This comprises Raúl Castro, José Ramón Machado Ventura, Juan Almeida Bosque, Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, Carlos Lage Dávila, Esteban Lazo Hernández and Julio Casas Regueiro, who are likewise the President, first Vice-President and Vice-Presidents of the Council of State. Together this group brings the full weight and experience of the Cuban revolution, its security and its management into a single body able to guide future change within the Communist Party, mass organisations and government. This committee replaces the provisional committee initiated on 31 July 2006 with the handover of power from Fidel to Raúl and the delegation of Fidel’s responsibilities to a collegiate body. It marks the final transfer of authority from Fidel to Raúl. A new era in Cuba has therefore now officially begun.
In addition, seven permanent parliamentary commissions subordinated to the Political Bureau have been created, covering: Ideology and Culture, Economy, Food and Agriculture, Import Substitutes and Increasing Exports, Education, Science and Sports, Health and International Relations.
It has also been announced that the 6th Congress of the Communist Party will be held towards the end of 2009 – the first in 12 years – to map out the country’s political and economic future.
Despite this, decisions remain consensus-based with President Castro arbitrating in the event of a significant disagreement.
Taken together these measures indicate that the Cuban leadership is starting to prepare a debate within the Party about the eventual transition to a new and younger generation.
The strengthening of central control provides a basis for a clear strategic direction in relation to important decisions that may be required if a change of administration in Washington should wish to explore a changed relationship. It also enables political oversight of the decision to increasingly devolve responsibility for problem areas in the economy such as agriculture.
Running parallel to reforms to the structure of government is a wide-ranging programme of reforms to revitalise the agricultural sector. The control of the country’s farms is being shifted from officials at the Agriculture Ministry to more than 150 local delegations. The move is part of the multi-faceted programme to boost food production and reduce Cuba’s food import bill. In 2007, Cuba imported US$1.7bn of foodstuffs, but importing similar volumes this year is expected to increase the food import bill to US$2.2bn.
The government also plans to dissolve 104 uneconomic state-run farms and to “streamline” the remaining state-run farm operations. Farmers are reporting that decision-making, from land use to resource allocation, has been moving to the local level, that stores are opening where they can buy some supplies for the first time in decades and that increasingly they can sell their produce directly to local consumers and state institutions like schools and hospitals. More land is also being granted to the private farmers and the1,100 cooperatives that dominate food production even though they produce on just 20% of the tilled land.
In other areas the government has announced that wages in general will be increased in due course while raising immediately the wages of those employed in the country’s courts. At the same time old age pensions increased by 20%. A reform of the state wage system is under way to allow workers to earn as much as they can. In another move, the death penalty was commuted for all but terrorist offences, a measure that the EU had called for.
By the time this paper is delivered there will most likely have been a number of other announcements, things are moving so fast. Anecdotally, the evidence is that the measures have been extremely popular and that the Cuban people are looking forward to further liberalisations and changes that will improve their living standards in the months to come.
What must be realised however is that the policies being adopted are aimed at securing the continuity of the revolutionary process that began in 1959. They will have an impact on opinion in the United States in election year, but they are not moves that will see Cuba adopt any positions that might lead to a ‘democratic transition’ as currently envisaged by Washington. While ever Fidel Castro lives and his brother remains in charge that is not going to happen.
. For a full discussion of this issue see: ‘Cuba’s population drops again, worrying officials’ CubaNews March 2008, p 7. www.cubanews.com
. For a discussion of this period and its effects see: Brundenius,Claes, ‘Wither the Cuban economy after recovery: The reform process, upgrading strategies and the question of transition’ Journal of Latin Ameircan Studies 34, 2002 pp366-7.
. Full speech can be found at: http://hcvanalysis.wordpress.com/2008/02/24/cuba-pres-Raúl-castro-speech-at-the-national-assembly-of-peoples-power-havana/
. See ‘Cuba shifts controls of farms’ Philadelphia Enquirer 2 May, 2008: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/nation_world/20080502_In_the_World.html
. For a complete discussion of these principles: Alzugary Treto, Carlos, ‘Cuba Foreign Policy during the “Special Period”: Interests, Aims, Outcomes’ in Erisman, H Michael; and Kirk, Jon eds. Redefining Cuban Foreign Policy: The impact of the “Special Period” University of Florida Press. 2006. pp49-72.
. For a full discussion of this contradiction: Offe, Claus writing in the preface to Hoffman Bert and Whitehead Laurence eds. Debating Cuban Exceptionalism, Palgrave MacMillan, NY. 2007. pp xi-xvi.
. The agricultural reforms that had been carried out to the time of writing were in summary as follows:
• Prices paid to farmers increased.
• Debts owed to food producers by the state settled.
• Administrative decentralisation.
• Farmers and cooperatives permitted to sell directly to local consumers, hospitals and schools,
and to buy equipment and supplies directly from state stores.
• A free choice on what crops to grow.
• Permission to expand operations onto unused state-owned land, in what one official described
as a “massive distribution of land.”
• The closure of unproductive farming co-operatives.
• Studying the possibility of opening up the farming sector to foreign investment.