Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Social Policy in Cuba: Across the Great Divides

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Social Policy in Cuba: Across the Great Divides

Article excerpt

Social Policy in Cuba: Across the Great Divides

A REVIEW By CHRIS TILLY

Social Policies and Decentralization in Cuba: Change in the Context of 21st-Century Latin America, edited by Jorge I. Domínguez, María del Carmen Zabala Argüelles, Mayra Espina Prieto, and Lorena G. Barbería (David Rockefeller Center Series on Latin American Studies, Harvard University, 2017, 272 pages)

From my snapshot views of Cuba in five visits over the years, two eye-opening moments stand out. In 1980, after visiting one workplace after another where union and management representatives explained how no conflict existed between labor and management under socialism, I stumbled on a heated open-air labor-management negotiation in Santiago that was rapidly degenerating into a shouting match. In 2003, co-leading a participatory community workshop in Havana, I was startled to hear a government representative identify the biggest obstacle to community development as "the bureaucracy." Both moments speak to the continuing inequalities of power and resources in socialist Cuba.

In fact, I would suggest a Cuban-U.S. volume on social policy in Cuba like this one must engage at leastfive great divides. The first is the rapidly growing income inequality in that country, which has exploded since the Soviet Union collapsed and discontinued its economic support of Cuba. That inequality is most starkly visible to natives and visitors alike in the disjunction between the dollar and peso economies. The second is the gap in power and opportunities between Havana and the rest of the country. A third divide, found in Cuba as in most countries, is the distance between the Cuban state and its people embodied in top-down policies and limited opportunities for bottom-up input. Collaboration between Cuban and U.S. researchers entails two other divides. One is simply differing perspectives across the two countries. A U.S.-Cuban analysis must also contend with the sharply polarized views of Cuba's government and its policies within each country and more broadly in the world.

Social Policies and Decentralization in Cuba is the latest in a series of DRCLAS books from an ongoing research project on social and economic change in that country. The authors make a strong case that the policy terrain has shifted significantly in recent years, making this new addition not just an update but an exploration of new policy processes. The chapters spotlight individual sectors (enterprise development, education, health care, environmental policy, remittances) and processes of participation and decentralization, as well as framing these in-depth looks with an overview and two chapters on social policy in the broader Latin American context.

Viewing the book as a whole, what do we learn about Cuban social policy? First, we learn that in ways analogous to broader shifts across Latin America and the world, Cuba has shifted from universal subsidies and services toward more targeted programs-while maintaining universalist ideals about access to health care, education and economic opportunity. Second, the authors point out the ways in which formal universalist policies can fall short at the implementation level in the context of limited and unequally distributed resources. Some chapters address disparities in outcomes, some underscore disparities in access to benefits and services, some touch on both-and some avoid the issue altogether-but taken as a whole the essays make this point repeatedly and effectively. These observations are particularly salient in a Cuban context in which resources have become both more limited and more unequally distributed since 1990. A third lesson: there has been significant movement away from centralized, top-down policy implementation. This glass is definitely half-full, but that marks an important advance from the Cuba I first saw four decades ago.

The book's editors and authors gamely take on the five great divides-in ways that are distributed unevenly across the ten chapters. …

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