Understanding a Cuban Transition

By Smith, Roy C.; Walter, Ingo | Independent Review, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Understanding a Cuban Transition


Smith, Roy C., Walter, Ingo, Independent Review


The joint announcement by Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama in December 2014-after eighteen months of negotiations-that Cuba and the United States would begin efforts to "normalize" diplomatic relations came as a surprise. It was greeted as a sign that normalization of economic relations was likely to follow and that Cuba's half-century experiment with communism would end in transition to some form of market-oriented mixed economy.

Indeed, beginning around 1990, all of the world's other Communist states except North Korea had transitioned to economic systems that relied to a significant degree on market orientation and a central role for the private sector. The Soviet Union and its central European bloc have disappeared, and China and Vietnam have transitioned to pragmatic forms of socialism that coexist with robust forms of market capitalism. All now have for-profit private corporations that benchmark the performance of state-owned enterprises, stock exchanges, foreign direct investors in stand-alone or joint ventures, as well as portfolio investors in local equities and bonds, and they provide legal protection (though often questionable) for private property.

Cuba now faces the kind of existential crisis that the other Communist counties faced twenty-five years ago: unless it abandons its political ideology, it won't generate sufficient economic growth and prosperity for the system to survive and adapt. The transitions in the former Communist countries have generally been successful, but they have taken time and had their ups and downs. But economic liberalization has invariably encouraged political liberalization and demands for key elements of a civil society. This has been most evident in countries such as Poland and Latvia. The process has been more gradual but nevertheless perceptible in China and Vietnam.

Economic transition will force Cuba down the same path, but it will come at a price-political transition that may undo much of the fifty-year legacy of "Fidelismo," which the government, now led by Raúl Castro, is likely to resist. Fidelismo, however, is more than socialism-it also has embraced a passionate desire for independence from the United States.

Cuba's Long Search for Independence

Spanish rule of Cuba was chronically troubled by local unrest among Cuban-born Spaniards, other ethnic Europeans, and a large population of Afro-Cubans who arrived as slaves to work the sugar plantations and were emancipated in the 1880s. The first and the most brutal of Cuba's three wars for independence began in 1868 (the Ten Years War). The cause was taken up by sympathetic Americans who pressured the U.S. government to intervene, but President Ulysses S. Grant refused to do so (Smith 2001,498-99). The Spanish prevailed but had to suppress a second uprising (the Little War of 1879-80). The third effort, the War of Independence (1895-98) inspired by founding father José Marti, in which the United States intervened on the part of Cuban revolutionaries (the Spanish-American War, 1898), was successful. American involvement broadened the dimensions of the conflict and ended Spanish control of the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

After independence and contrary to Marti's and his followers' hopes, U.S. politics exerted significant influence on Cuban affairs. To justify withdrawing American military forces still occupying Cuba, protect America's substantial commercial interests, and limit Cuba's economic and political relations with foreign powers, Congress passed the Platt Amendment in 1901. In return, Cuban sugar was given preferred access to the U.S. market. Thus, Cuba's independence was never fully achieved; indeed, the United States simply displaced Spain as the overseas power on which Cuba was dependent.

Cuba's domestic political condition from 1901 to 1959 was tumultuous, and the benefits of economic development for ordinary Cubans, especially in the countryside, were well below expectations. …

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