Where is Cuba headed?
September 20, 2010
The Cuban government of Raúl Castro announced last week that it would
push 500,000 workers out of state jobs next year. According to the
official trade union at least half of the 500,000 workers would be given
new licenses for self-employment, and another 200,000 would be absorbed
into cooperatives. The layoff announcement marks the latest stage of
Raúl Castro's drive to transform the Cuban economy from the heavily
state-owned economy that dates back to the years after the 1959 Cuban
Sam Farber is a veteran socialist who was born and raised in Cuba. He is
the author of numerous articles and books on the country, including The
Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered. He spoke to Alan Maass
about the meaning of the layoff announcement–and what's ahead for Cuba.
WHAT'S THE background to the dramatic announcement about Cuba shedding
half a million state jobs?
I THINK it's important first of all to place this in the context of the
Cuban regime being in decline, and that decline being accelerated
because of the terrible economic situation.
This is the result of a combination of factors. One is the
irrationalities and crises generated by the bureaucratic system itself.
Another, of course, is the world recession, which has had a very
negative economic impact on the Cuban economy.
For example, while the number of tourists to Cuba has continued at more
or less the same rate, income from tourism is down. And income from
nickel production, which has actually been even more important than
tourism for the last several years, really fell dramatically because of
the big drop in commodity prices–though since then, the price has
So the economic crisis is very severe, and for a couple years now, the
regime has been talking about how there are 1 million excess state
workers–not half a million, but 1 million. So this is what I imagine
could be considered a "compromise position"–of laying off half a
million people, instead of 1 million, as had been discussed.
Of those half million, 250,000 are supposed to be given licenses for
self-employment, and another 200,000 are supposed to be placed in
non-state jobs–by which they mean many state businesses are going to be
converted into co-ops, where the employees will be the ones responsible.
This is what they've already done with taxis, and barbershops and beauty
parlors. They want to do that with a lot more occupations and industries.
The official announcement of the layoffs from the main trade union
federation–and by the way, shouldn't that be the function of the
employer?–left 50,000 workers unaccounted for, perhaps because they
will be given new state jobs different from the ones they had before.
THIS IS certainly not the regime's first step in this direction, is it?
I WOULD call this new move an important milestone in a process that's
been going on for some time.
A couple years ago, the government began to lease land–in 10-year
renewable contracts–to farmers after the sugar industry almost
completely collapsed, and the land was going to waste. The idea was for
the farmers to become private farmers–to use the land for whatever they
wanted. But they aren't owners. They pay rent to the state to use
previously idle land, and they must sell most of what they produce to
the state at prices determined by the government.
I think this experience with farming might indicate tremendous problems
ahead in terms of whether the shift of half a million state workers into
self-employment or co-ops will work.
In the case of private farming, the majority of the people who were
given land hadn't previously engaged in agriculture. They were people
from the cities who were clearly desperate to improve their economic
situation, so they took this opportunity.
However, it has been very difficult for those people to acquire the
tools they need. And by tools, I don't mean high-tech scientific
equipment or tractors or anything like that–I mean quite basic
agricultural tools. The state has done a very inadequate job, to say the
least, in helping these people with the basics. So the results so far
have been far from impressive.
I expect that similar problems will take place with these new private
businesses. For example, one of the occupations that will be shifted
into self-employment or co-ops is auto repair. So a previous state
employee becomes an auto mechanic. Where is he going to get spare parts?
Where is that auto mechanic going to get the appropriate tools, except
from the state?
Here's where the problem of corruption comes into play. Corruption in
Cuba is absolutely pervasive, and people are driven to steal in order to
survive. At the most basic level, this takes place because you simply
can't survive on a monthly government ration that only covers two weeks.
The ration book is being cut down all the time, and even sharper cuts
So people carry out theft from the state as a way of surviving, and I
suspect that if somebody becomes an auto mechanic, they'll have to
engage in even greater theft to be able to survive as a small
The other possible avenue here is that people may get help from outside
Cuban capital, particularly from South Florida. That would be illegal
from the U.S. point of view, though it probably won't be illegal in
Cuba, because they want that capital to come in. But the consequences of
allowing in outside Cuban capital on any scale are uncharted territory.
The Cuban government is in classic contradictory situation in Marxist
terms. It has to take these actions, and yet if it does, all kinds of
outcomes that could potentially subvert the system arise. They are
between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Before this latest move, there were 591,000 people employed in private
businesses. That includes the struggling farmers I just mentioned, but
it also includes 143,000 self-employed in the cities. This is going to
add another 250,000 people to the self-employed, plus 200,000 people in
co-ops. If you're just talking about strictly private businesses, there
will be 450,000 private farmers, plus 400,000 self-employed people who
will be legally allowed to hire other people. We're talking about
850,000 people out of a labor force of 5 million–that's 17 percent.
So they are creating a legal petty bourgeoisie in Cuba–and I say legal
because a lot of people have been doing this illegally for some time.
What consequences this will have is uncertain because there hasn't been
a situation like this, really, since the sixties. This is uncharted
territory–especially if they succeed in getting investment money from
Cuban friends and relatives in Miami.
Again, that's illegal under American law, but there has always been a
section of the American political establishment that thinks it's
important to provide money to private enterprises in Cuba to the extent
that it can enter the island. Now, the Cuban government will probably
allow it, and this will place heavy pressure to modify the U.S. economic
blockade to make it possible.
IS RAÚL Castro responsible for this new direction in economic policy?
Does any of it extend back to when Fidel Castro was in charge?
ALL OF this–back to the initiative around private farming–has taken
place under Raúl Castro. Raúl Castro took over de facto in 2006 and
officially in 2008, so he has been the principal person leading the
government on a day-to-day basis. It's unclear what role Fidel Castro
has played in setting policy during that time, and what role he will
play in the future.
So these measures have been underway since Raúl Castro took over, which
can be explained in part by the fact that Raúl Castro has been a great
admirer of the Chinese model–since long before he took power. But even
more important, of course, is the severity of the economic crisis
THE MEDIA largely describes what is taking place in Cuba as a turn to
capitalism–away from socialism. But is that accurate–to describe what
has existed in Cuba for the past 50 years as socialism?
I HAVE always maintained that what existed in Cuba had nothing to do
with socialism. But unfortunately, large sections of the left have
confused state ownership with socialism.
When we talk about socialism, we should be talking about rural and urban
workers–and their class allies, like the peasantry–running society
together. That has never existed in Cuba.
It is true that for long periods of time, the regime was popular because
it was able to deliver significant improvements in standards of living
for the poorest people–and it provided a great deal of social mobility,
which is something that is sometimes underplayed in terms of the popular
support for the Cuban regime. Just in terms of the massive emigration of
the petty bourgeoisie, the big bourgeoisie and professionals from Cuba,
that alone allowed for a great number of people to take over those jobs.
But the point is that socialism, in our view, is not state ownership of
the economy–because the question then is: Who controls the state?
Certainly, working people in Cuba don't control the state. Rather, it is
a bureaucracy, organized around the Cuban Communist Party, that does.
So it isn't socialism that is being replaced. A bureaucratic state
ruling class has decided to incorporate as a very junior partner in the
economy a newly created petty bourgeoisie–some of whom will be
successful, and may become a new group of private capitalists, which has
not really existed in Cuba since the 1960s.
So the bureaucracy will share power with this new group–economic power,
at any rate–and a situation like China may eventually develop. But
there is also the question of political power, and the central
bureaucracy isn't going to share power with newly minted capitalists
unless they totally assimilate into the ruling bureaucracy. But this has
also happened in China–you have capitalists joining the Communist Party
and becoming a part of it.
WHAT ARE the implications of that analysis for what socialists should
say about the U.S. blockade of Cuba?
THIS seems to me to be something that needs to be said over and over
again, quite independently of the crisis in Cuba and independently of
the crimes and misdeeds–and they are numerous–of the bureaucracy. We
should continue to insist that the criminal economic blockade of Cuba
must come to an end.
There is a matter of principle here: The United States has no right to
intervene in the internal affairs of Cuba and try to use its economic
might to force its preferred capitalist system to be installed in Cuba.
This is the principal reason for our continued opposition to the
blockade–to reaffirm the principle of national self-determination and
stop the domination of U.S. imperialism.
But there is also a practical reason. The fact of the matter is that the
Cuban regime has used the U.S. blockade for years and years as an excuse
to hide its own dictatorial nature and economic incompetence.
So for both principled and practical reasons, I think it's high time
that this criminal blockade, which has gone on for more than 50 years,
comes to an end.
WHAT WILL the effect of the state layoffs be in Cuba? Will they spark a
I THINK a lot of people are going to be left out in the cold, because a
lot of these enterprises will not have adequate access to the resources
they need to succeed.
With respect to the so-called co-ops, they will be created from above.
They won't be co-ops created as a result of a surge in the workers'
movement, as has taken place, for example, in the U.K. and the
Scandinavian countries, where a co-operative movement developed as an
ally of the nascent labor movement. Co-op members in Cuba may have
neither the access to resources nor the political motivation to succeed.
So it will be the case that many of these co-ops and private enterprise
will be failures–for the reasons I was talking about before.
What is going to happen to those people? Emigration form Cuba has been a
safety valve for quite some time. But it's bureaucratically difficult
and quite expensive to emigrate–there's no legal right to travel in
Cuba–so this won't be sufficient.
Up until now, discontent and disgust with the political system has, to
some extent, been directed into criminal activity. As I was saying, the
problem of theft in Cuba is enormous–not just theft for the purpose of
private enterprise, but to survive.
Most promising in terms of the breadth of alternatives about what goes
on in Cuba is the tremendous youth alienation that is taking place,
particularly among Black youth. There is a hip-hop movement in Cuba that
expresses the disgust of young Black people, specifically against police
harassment and brutality.
So youth frustration and alienation may express itself in political
protest. This is possible, though we can't be sure. I don't want to be
like so many people on the left and say that this is going to happen
because we want it to happen. Unfortunately, things don't work out that way.
But the objective possibility of a radicalization and a higher level of
struggle will be considerably increased with the kinds of measures that
the regime is taking. I have no doubt about that.
Transcription by Rebecca Anshell Song