Cuba seeks 'sustainable socialism'
By Tom Fawthrop
In 2010, Cuba marks the 51st anniversary of the revolution that
transformed the Caribbean nation from a sleazy centre of casinos run by
US gangsters, to the only outpost of socialism in the Americas – defying
US superpower only 90 miles from the shores of Florida.
That Cuba's defiant brand of socialism has survived so many upheavals in
the world and a crippling US trade embargo has surprised most observers.
During the last 50 years the small island nation has impressed with its
achievements in education and in creating a comprehensive and free
public health system staffed by excellent doctors.
But its citizens are growing increasingly impatient with hard times,
suffocating bureaucracy and the badly-run state economy.
In 2006, ill health forced Fidel Castro to hand power over to his
younger brother, Raul.
The new Cuban president has been encouraging a wide-ranging public
debate on how to fix and reform the ailing economy, without abandoning
some of the socialist ideals and principles that inspired the revolution.
He has also exhorted citizens to engage in a national dialogue on the
future of the country's socialism under the control of the ruling
International media usually reports that Raul Castro, suitably impressed
by his visit to China and Vietnam where major economic reforms were
introduced long ago, favours a similar acceptance of a market-based economy.
However Mariela Castro, the president's daughter, does not believe
Cubans want to adopt a foreign model.
"Cuban people are asking for a much more sustainable socialism, not a
return to capitalism," she explains. "They want a permanent system of
consultation, better mechanisms of participation to work for a
Many observers predicted that the revolution was doomed when the Soviet
bloc collapsed; by 1991 Cuba had lost 80 per cent of its trading
partners and 100 per cent of all economic aid.
At the same time Washington tightened the screws on its economic embargo
hoping to precipitate the regime's collapse.
But, against the odds the revolution survived.
However, the country is now reeling from devastating hurricanes, the US
trade embargo – which has been renewed under the Obama administration –
and the global economic crisis, with a reported $2bn hard currency trade
deficit incurred since 2007.
After a period of recovery during the last decade, hard times and
belt-tightening beckon again.
Raul Castro is calling for an overhaul of the system to cut back on
imports, and public spending while calling on Cubans to improve
efficiency, grow more food and increase productivity.
He has already scrapped free canteen lunches for all state employees as
a cost-saving measure.
Mariela, who heads the country's national sex education commission and
is a prominent gay and lesbian rights activist, is well-known as an
independent voice within Havana's ruling elite.
"The Soviet legacy is a problem," she says, referring to the alliance
Cuba forged with the former Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.
Inside the Communist leadership, she says "some segments think in very
rigid and dogmatic ways".
"Yes they have blocked reforms, [but] they coexist with sectors
searching for new ideas and methods."
Rafael Hernandez, the editor of Temas, a critical quarterly journal,
says: "The control by the central bureaucracy, this is stupid and it
can't run things efficiently."
But like many Cuban intellectuals, Hernandez rejects the simple
dichotomy of Western analysts that the only alternative to the state-run
command economy is to turn towards capitalism and switch to a market
He argues that there is a place for the market but that "we need
socialism with markets not market socialism – more democracy in
workplaces, more market mechanisms with social control, otherwise the
market will swallow the system".
The world food crisis which has pushed up prices for the import of food
has drastically hit Cuba, which imports 70 per cent of its food and fuel.
It is a strange contradiction that the island that has become one of the
top 10 countries in biotechnology – exporting vaccines and cutting edge
cancer treatments around the world – is strangely unable to feed its
11.5 million population from its own agricultural production.
But despite attempts to liberalise agriculture, provide more land to
cooperatives and private farmers, overall agricultural yields are still
low and even these modest reforms are stymied by bottlenecks in supply
The new leadership is under increasing pressure to deliver higher living
standards at a time when revenues have dropped in several sectors,
including tourism and exports of nickel.
Driving Cuba's economy
Future prospects pinned to Cuba's medical resources are, however, very
positive, with biotechnology and vaccine production pharmaceutical
exports and medical services contributing an estimated 40 per cent or
more to hard currency earnings.
Cuba has international medical teams working in 70 countries, receiving
just food and basic accommodation from their host countries
However, in the case of oil-rich Venezuela and a few others, there are
In return for more than 20,000 doctors and other health workers,
Venezuela provides subsidised oil and cash payments for the doctors,
which has helped to keep Cuba afloat and also sustain their massive
commitment to serving the health needs of the poor in the developing
world. Although the exact figures have never been made public the total
value to the Cuban economy, including the oil supplies and all medical
sales and services, is estimated at nearly $2bn.
Cuba's biotech industry has just launched CimaVaX EGF, a lung cancer
vaccine, and Germany, Malaysia, China and India have all signed joint
venture agreements for the marketing and use of Cuban cancer treatments.
In the future, Cuba potentially stands to earn billions from their
"If we get access to the Western market, then this hi-tech sector could
become the locomotive of the entire Cuban economy," says Dr Rolando
Perez, a research director at Cuba's Centre of Molecular Immunology (CIM).
But with such vaccines taking many years to pass rigorous international
clinical trials, it is doubtful that Cuba can wait for this breakthrough.
In the ongoing debate engaging the nation, it is clear that the small
group of US- supported dissidents have no monopoly on criticising policy
failures and blunders by the state.
But in demanding political change, economic reform and more
participatory socialism, the body of critics attacking the bureaucracy,
seeks to enhance the socialist system, not to dismantle it.
The big question for Cuba in 2010 is can the clamour of ordinary Cubans,
intellectuals and, above all, the youth of the nation, effect such novel
Hernandez says: "Now the only way to rule Cuba is to allow power to the
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