One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back

By Gonzalez, Gerardo | Hemisphere, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back

Gonzalez, Gerardo, Hemisphere

Cuban society is facing a very complex economic and political situation. The events surrounding the February 24, 1996 downing of two civilian aircraft and the subsequent announcement from the Communist Party politburo of a new ideological offensive, complicated the domestic scene at a time when several factors augured a more propitious framework for a transition on the island. Such a transition pointed toward an economic and political restructuring with different characteristics from the prevailing structure.


The economic results of 1995 and a "softening" in the relations with the US were two positive factors which could pave the way for future change. While it is premature to state that the Cuban economy has entered into a phase of sustained recovery, the results thus far have demonstrated that the downward spiral has been halted. In contrast to the weak economic growth of 1994, which was basically inflationary and driven by the recovery of a few nonproductive services, the 2.5 percent growth rate achieved in 1995 was more impressive. This growth rate was largely the result of significant increases in productive sectors such as nickel (64.4 percent), tobacco (52 percent), and steel (45.7 percent). (These sectors have benefited from important doses of foreign investment.) The recovery had three other important dimensions: a significant increase in exports (20 percent); the stabilization of the exchange rate relative to the US dollar; and, the reduction of the fiscal deficit to 3.6 percent of GDP.

The transformation occurring in Cuban society is a result of a strategy to confront the impact of a crisis. These changes are incipient but in the mid- to long-term, they will signify a new economic and social restructuring of the island. The presence of foreign investment in the most dynamic sectors of the economy produced substantial changes in the way in which modes of production, distribution and consumption are organized. These changes have had grave repercussions in other sectors of the national economy, forced to seek internationally competitive levels and to acquire the same technological and organizational patterns prevalent in the mixed and private sectors. A significant impact has been felt in the productive matrix which will imply major shifts in the nature of the productive sector. First, state administrators will have to adapt to the market-oriented culture brought in by foreign investors and will have to forego state paternalism--administrators could derive a greater share of power due to their contacts with the world market. Second, labor relations in all state enterprises will also undergo a severe transformation. As a result, a contradiction has developed due to the state's requirement of high levels of capital accumulation and labor intensive technological and productivity norms.

Such a scenario inevitably implies the appearance of new conflictive areas and the shifting of power quotas to the emerging entrepreneurial elite. As a consequence, it also implies the obsolescence of many mechanisms, practices, and participation arrangements that characterized the previous paternalistic scheme. Thus, there will be a need to develop a process of adjustment and institutional development capable not only of dealing with these contradictions but also of empowering workers with mechanisms in tune with the new reality.

The adoption of market norms has implied a cardinal variation from the rules of the game that guided the Cuban economy and society for more than three decades. Under the socialist project, the state played a highly centralized role based on the notion that only the central government--possessing a national perspective of the problems and armed with vast financial assets--was capable of protecting all social interests and achieving the principal national objectives which included: creating a basic infrastructure; developing key sectors of the economy; guaranteeing social justice; and ensuring national independence.

While these considerations were justified at certain historical moments, the adoption of uniform measures to carry out national objectives did not necessarily satisfy the demands of distinct social sectors. As a result, these sectors were totally subordinated to the central government.

With the onslaught of the crisis, state prerogatives and decision-making capacity became restricted by the dramatic scarcity of resources, which severely penalized the interests and necessities of the social sectors that depended on the state. In this context, the 1993 reforms placed the market in open competition with the state as the source for the redistribution of income, resources, and place of survival. As a result, important segments of the population enjoyed a relative liberalization from state tutelage as they resorted to the market in search of economic roles and resources that the state could no longer deliver.

On the political front, the state was also forced to make concessions. With the collapse of the socialist camp and the precipitation of the economic crisis, the ideological dogmas that sustained the government began to crumble--as did the capacity of the Communist Party to exercise control. Thus, in Cuban society, a gradual clamor for a "socialization" of power and for a forum for political debate began to develop. Cuba's leadership attempted to abort or prevent these social demands from playing a role in state institutions. To the government's dismay, a period of rich public debate emerged as of 1990 thus becoming an "informal marketplace of debate." One of the most significant moments came during the discussion for the convocation of the Fourth Party Congress. Thousands of proposals were made, revealing the plurality of opinions that could be found in Cuba in the early 1990s.

The vocalization of demands was also the result of the maturation of a 'social subject' who had a high participation potential but was trapped in an institutional arrangement that frustrated the accumulated political energy. By the 1990s, Cuban society had experienced radical changes. The most noteworthy included: substantial increases in schooling levels; the entry into public life of new generations whose socialization process differed markedly from previous ones; the incorporation of a highly qualified, technical and professional female workforce; notable increases in urbanization; and an intense process of politization and political maturation. Moreover, nearly one-third of the voting age population was born after 1959; nearly two-fifths of the labor force was female; and almost one million persons had completed university and technical studies and were professionally employed in production, service, and public administration sectors. In short, Cuban society had undergone a process of "autonomization" which was evident in the expression of positions that sometimes conflicted with official dictates. Also, there has been an emergence of new economic actors (e.g., entrepreneurial technocrats linked to the world market and self-employed workers) whose medium- and long-term interests are not necessarily compatible with the socialist project--future political tensions could arise.

Beginning in 1993, these changes were anchored to the course of US-Cuba relations. The Clinton administration's decision to modify traditional immigration policy regarding Cuban immigrants, its initial intention to veto the Helms-Burton Bill, and the decision to implement the Torricelli Law's Track Two provision, implied a significant change in the treatment of Cuba. The new policy rejected confrontation and became one of "bridge building." If one considers seriously rumors regarding the possibility of bolder actions toward Cuba during Clinton's second term, the arrival of a period of slackening of tensions would support economic reform and strengthen Cuban civil society.


Cuban leadership was not oblivious to the socioeconomic transformation and its political and ideological costs. However, it reacted slowly to direct the transformation. It was not a coincidence that the reforms were delayed despite the fact that the economic situation demanded a transformation of the system. Reforms were allowed only when the crisis reached a point where the government was losing the ability to govern (as exemplified by the events of the Summer of 1994). A bold step might have been a policy to propose a new development strategy based on the requirements for economic efficiency (including institutional, procedural and normative reforms in the political sphere). One of the conditions to resolve the severe economic crisis may be to search for some coherence between the political and economic spheres. The objective would be to resolve the contradictions which spring from the economic transformation. Cuba's political leadership, however, has elected against innovative economic change and the introduction of political reforms. Instead, it has confronted current and future political trends with traditional mechanisms. Such a choice is not strange to a leadership which has always stressed ideological supremacy over other factors.

The decision to block tolerance and autonomous action--which had been allowed in recent years because of the Revolution's internal and external weaknesses and less as a result of a will for change--was taken when the course of US foreign policy moved in concert with domestic events. In my view, the catalyst was the decision on the part of dissident groups to form a single organization named Concilio Cubano and the announcement of February 24, 1996, as the launching date. The US move toward reconciliation was perceived by Cuba's leadership as an assault on its traditional power base. In this sense, it is worth noting that the Revolution constructed its domestic and international policy based on the notion of "fortress under siege" which mandated the need to protect national security and which served to justify political intolerance and stringent control measures. Under a nonconfrontation scenario with the United States, the absence of the traditional popular mobilization element would force Cuba's leadership to deal with a novel political situation. It was advantageous for Cuba's leaders to continue living under the tense situation that has characterized relations with its northern neighbor--at least until these leaders eliminate or control internal political discontent. As a result, the shooting down of the two airplanes on February 24, 1996, was a calculated political decision by the Cuban government to unravel the Clinton administration's intentions to seek closer ties with Cuba. The incident also provided an excuse to flame nationalist sentiment and launch the "ideological offensive" Fidel Castro announced before the Central Committee.

The announcement of this offensive signified a regression--ten steps back--in the political life of the island. In 1986, a Process of Rectification was initiated under a different context; however, it heralded what would occur a decade later. The Process of Rectification was born with a high ideological content. Its central argument, to rescue "lo nacional," found a fertile ground in the popular patriotic sentiment fueled by hostile US postures and by the pro-capitalist trends in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Rectification was explained not only as the only genuine socialist alternative (given the capitulation of former allies), but also as the only alternative through which the Cuban nation could guarantee its survival. Now as then, the arguments of the Cuban government are similar.


Cuban events and change are always likely to generate controversy and a number of interpretations. This essay has only provided a partial interpretation of the contradictory transformation that unfolded--and will continue to unfold in Cuba. Many questions remain unanswered; perhaps the most relevant is whether the events of 1996 will abort any possibility of a transition on the island.

Given the complexity of the situation, only a few clues on Cuba's future can be provided which may be significant in any scenario. An important premise must be noted. Despite the government's claims that measures aimed at combating the crisis are temporary, these have defined, and will continue to define, a Cuban reality that will be difficult to revert.

In the short- and medium-term, progress will depend on three distinct factors: the form that the much announced ideological offensive will take; the economic results obtained in 1996, especially the sugar harvest; and the policy that the reelected Clinton administration adopts in the near future toward Cuba.

Gerardo Gonzalez is a professor of Economics at the Universidad Interamericana of Puerto Rico.

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One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back


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