Two decades after the demise of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” and the onset of its “Special Period” crisis, Cuba is immersed in an ongoing debate on the future of its socialist project.
When Raul Castro became interim president in August 2006, he called for free and frank debate. He launched a series of nationwide consultations in the lead-up to the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in April last year.
Intersecting with these organised debates is a wider discussion in Cuba’s revolutionary press, academic journals and other institutional spaces.
Numerous mass consultations involving millions of citizens in local workplace and neighbourhood meetings have been held in Cuba.
What is different about this debate is its depth, scope and detail ― and the candour with which different viewpoints are expressed in a climate of growing respect for differences.
In other words, Cuba’s culture of debate is maturing.
Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernandez said in November 2007: “When we talk about debate or criticism we often talk about censorship, restrictions, control, but we never talk about our own lack of a ‘debate culture’. We must foster a culture of debate from the start, because our society doesn’t have it.
“We often call a debate ‘good’ when the participants say the same as we think. That’s not debate; debate is disagreement. And it’s very important that in a debate we express divergent positions in a spirit of dialogue, of mutual respect.
“I think [Cuban] politics is going through this stage right now.”
Cuba has been undergoing a deeply popular socialist transition for five decades. Why is it only now developing its culture of public debate?
One reason is US imperialism’s relentless siege. It has not only been subjected to an economic blockade since 1960, but illegal radio and TV broadcasts, sponsorship of subversion and terrorist acts, an immigration policy aimed at depriving Cuba of skilled workers and a propaganda crusade aimed at demonising Cuba as a “communist dictatorship”.
This state of siege has fostered a siege mentality in Cuba. Many people have viewed public criticism and debate as unwittingly aiding the enemy. Others have used the blockade as an excuse to evade responsibility for their own mistakes and wrongdoings.
Another reason is that during the 1970s and '80s, Cuba assimilated elements of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism”. Above all, it adopted its hyper-centralised decision-making by a vast administrative apparatus that micro-managed almost the entire economy.
Such top-down tendencies were reinforced by idealistic errors, acknowledged as such today by the PCC leadership, which entrenched the negative phenomenon of state paternalism.
Paternalism has two faces: citizens looking to the socialist state to do everything for them, such as fixing a broken window in the home, and provide for all their needs regardless of their labour contribution to society; and officials treating citizens like children who cannot think or decide things for themselves and who do not need to be informed.
This stifles individual and collective initiative that could contribute to Cuba’s socialist project. It also robs people of their sense of social responsibility.
It has weakened mechanisms of accountability and sapped the vitality of Cuba’s institutions of socialist democracy.
Revolutionary Cuba has never lacked opportunities to take part in popular mobilisations and in carrying out the tasks of the revolution.
What is has lacked is enough opportunities for involvement in deciding what those tasks will be.
Cuba has developed its own unique institutions of socialist democracy. Cuba's system of popular self-government is based in local communities, where neighbours gather to nominate candidates for election to the municipal assemblies. Delegates must report to their constituents and can be recalled by them at any time. The PCC is banned from backing candidates and all citizens have the right to be nominated.
Despite this, there remains a disconnect between Cuba’s highly educated and politically sophisticated populace, a product of the revolution itself, and the lack of real participation in decision-making at all levels.
This is felt most keenly by the younger generation who are most susceptible to disaffection and emigration.
The charismatic leadership style and immense personal authority of Fidel Castro ― an indispensable asset to the revolution in past decades ― tended to overshadow the revolution's institutions and institutional forms of consensus-building.
New democratic mechanisms and practices will have to be developed now that Fidel is no longer at the helm.
Currents of opinion
What currents of opinion have emerged in the national debate initiated by Raul Castro?
Since this is a debate about how to save Cuba’s socialist project, not how to end it, the views of those who long for capitalist restoration ― because they have material interests or illusions in it ― lie outside it.
Besieged by US imperialism, Cuba does not allow political parties other than the PCC or factions within this party.
Raul Castro told the PCC National Conference in January: “To renounce the principle of a one-party system would be the equivalent of legalising a party, or parties, of imperialism on our soil.”
The debate has unfolded in this context. Whatever differences there may be among PCC leaders, they have presented a united front to the rest of the party and to the nation around the key principles and strategic objectives of the renewal process.
Within the revolutionary camp, two poles can be identified: a renovationist current and those who defend the status quo in words or deeds.
The renovationist current views Cuba’s socialist development model as having exhausted its ability to move society forward, necessitating an urgent and integral transformation of this model to avoid stagnation and retreat.
It insists on the need for public criticism and debate and a dialectical, rather than dogmatic, conception of the socialist-oriented society in Cuba’s conditions.
This current is led by Raul Castro and PCC leaders. It is concentrated among the revolutionary vanguard in the PCC, among intellectuals and artists and youth who identify with the revolution.
It does not embrace all PCC members, some of whom are opportunists masquerading as revolutionaries. On the other hand, many revolutionaries are not members of the PCC yet are part of the renovationist current.
Within the renovationist current, there is a spectrum of opinion on the key issues in the debate and on how the changes should be implemented.
There can be little doubt about the outcome of the debates held in the lead-up to the Sixth PCC Congress: a solid majority of Cuban society supports the basic principles and objectives of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines adopted unanimously by the 1000 congress delegates elected by the grassroots.
Leftist critics of these guidelines worry that too much is being conceded to the market. Some propose a far more sweeping “cooperativisation” of the state enterprise sector than that contemplated in the guidelines.
They propose radical democratic measures reminiscent of those advocated by the leftist opposition to Lenin and Trotsky’s New Economic Policy in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
To the right, some economic specialists argue that medium-sized private enterprises should be permitted alongside self-employment and small-scale private and cooperatives management of social property. The Guidelines rule out privatisation and the concentration of productive property ownership in private hands.
At the other pole are those who are wary of debate and fearful of change, among them many sincere and humble revolutionaries. This conservative current has generational and institutional contours.
It is concentrated among older Cubans and those who zealously guard their administrative prerogatives, and in some cases illicit privileges, from criticism and initiative “from below”.
In a December 2011 interview with Edmundo Garcia, Rafael Hernandez distinguished between “constructive” and “frankly negative” opposition to change.
Constructive opposition is expressed by those unable to directly benefit from the openings to self-employment, small businesses and cooperatives and the projected overhaul of the state enterprise sector. This sector is also found among the 20% of the population that, some Cuban studies say, live below the poverty line.
Among them are retirees dependent on their small state pensions.
These sectors “face these changes with a considerable degree of uncertainty” and “don’t necessarily view the reform process with the expectations, desires and enthusiasm of others”.
There is another kind of resistance that “government leaders have explicitly called the bureaucracy”, Hernandez said. It “doesn't oppose through speeches, it doesn’t oppose the reforms with a document”, but “in its slowness to implement the measures already adopted”.
He said: “It’s very logical that the old mindset, which sees the emergence of capitalism in every expression of the market and in every segment of small-scale private property, should exist, because for a long time... socialism was defined in absolute terms as state-centric socialism.”
[Marce Cameron runs Cuba's Socialist Renewal blog.]