After Fidel: Will Cuba change direction?
Sam Farber is a long-time socialist who was born and raised in Cuba and
the author of numerous books on the country, including The Origins of
the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered. He spoke to Lee Sustar on Cuba's
March 7, 2008 | Issue 664
IS THERE anything new in Fidel's formal retirement and Raúl's formal
election to the presidency?
THE ONLY thing new here is that a lot of people, including myself,
expected a more dramatic succession.
It was seen as most likely that Carlos Lage, a medical doctor from the
younger generation, who has been in charge of the Cuban economy for some
time now, would be officially named the number two.
But that's not the way it went. José Ramón Machado Ventura was named
first vice president of the council of ministers. And he's a few months
older than Raúl Castro, who is 76. That was surprising and suggests that
this is a very temporary measure, for obvious biological reasons.
They selected someone who is a historico–a medical doctor who was in
charge of taking care of the injured during the guerrilla fighting in
the Sierra Maestra. Macado Ventura is a military man and a hardliner, in
charge of ideology for the Communist Party.
What else to read
Sam Farber's book The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered
examines the character of the 1959 revolution that overturned a
U.S.-sponsored dictatorship, and the early years of the new regime under
For more on the background to the revolution, see Farber's Revolution
and Reaction in Cuba: 1933-1960, recently reissued in a new paperback
Paul D'Amato's article in the International Socialist Review, "Cuba:
Image and reality," analyzes the various claims that Cuba is a socialist
country. See also "Cuba, democracy and the Bush Doctrine," by Héctor Reyes.
This suggests to me–and here, I am guessing, after the fact–that
perhaps there was an agreement between Fidel and Raúl, that Fidel would
resign if there was a promotion of someone he absolutely trusted, even
though the arrangement may not last very long. What this means is
continuity, represented by an old-timer and a hardliner.
As I've said for some time, as long as Fidel is around, Raúl won't go
too far. By being around, I don't mean biologically alive, but in good
enough health to meet with foreign dignitaries, as he did recently with
[President Luís Inacio Lula da Silva] of Brazil. And he obviously has
access to the phone.
As long as Fidel has the ability to function to that extent, Raúl won't
go too far. It's a status quo succession, to a large extent.
On the other hand, there may be some measures of liberalization that
Raúl is able to implement. Perhaps the biggest single issue now is
agriculture. With the collapse of the sugar industry, there are huge
areas of farmland that aren't being used for anything.
So the question has come up: Should it be turned over to private
farmers, as in the former Stalinist states of Eastern Europe? There, as
well as in Cuba, private farms have been shown to be more productive and
efficient. Raúl has hinted that he may do something in that direction.
That would be a very big step, and I don't know how Fidel would look at
HOW DOES this political change fit into the broader economic context in
THE CUBAN government actually claimed a lower rate of growth for 2007,
at 7.5 percent, than it did in 2006, when it reported 12.5 percent.
Those claims for 2006 were sharply criticized.
Perhaps more relevant is that there was significant improvements in the
delivery of electricity. Blackouts, frequent in the past, have almost
disappeared. And with the import of buses from China, urban
transportation, which is a humongous problem in Cuba, has improved–and
that in turn would have an impact on the productivity of the labor
force, as people are better able to get to work on time.
But a bifurcated economy continues to exist. Forty percent of Cubans
have no access to dollars, and for the other 60 percent, access can vary
a great deal. Some of those who have access get dollars sent by
relatives from abroad, and the others mainly through the joint ventures
and the tourist industry in Cuba.
Raúl has hinted at a revaluation of the Cuban currency so that people
will get more dollars for their pesos. And he has already made it very
clear, in his important speech on July 26, 2007, that the salaries of
people are inadequate to make a living.
A substantial upward revaluation of the peso in the absence of a
dramatic increase in the production of goods would leave very little to
buy in a very short period of time. Right now, the dual currency acts as
a very inequitable but effective form of rationing.
I ask myself how they can have a significant revaluation of the Cuban
economy if there isn't a significant change in the real economy? I'm no
economist, but it would seem to me that you would have immediate
shortages and tremendous inflation.
There would be a new black market in dollars. There is no black market
in Cuba now. You can go to a booth in Havana, and they'll give you the
going rate. But in the countryside, you don't have as much access to
There are other things the government could do in this context. They
could say that, sure, Cubans can go to the tourist hotels–who the hell
can afford it? I'm not saying they're about to do it, but they could.
There are also a lot of complaints also about the tremendous extortion
of those who want to travel outside the country. People have to have a
relative in Miami send them $1,000 or so. The government could soften up
on that and other areas.
But I don't see how they could move away from the dual currency without
having another method of rationing.
WHAT SECTORS of the economy are doing well?
THE NICKEL industry is doing well, and so is tobacco, which is much less
Sugar is doing slightly better than the previous year, but it is really
terrible. The last harvest didn't grow enough to honor Cuba's contracts
with foreign firms; they had to import sugar to meet the commitments
they had made. The harvest was somewhat over 1 million tons, compared to
5 to 7 million tons in good years in the past, and the failed "10
million ton" harvest in 1970.
The question is what is happening with tourism. They had a slight
decline from the previous year, but the figures aren't in on the current
season, which ends in March-April.
HAS THE army increased its economic weight since the "special period" of
the early 1990s following the collapse of the USSR?
ABSOLUTELY. THEY have a corporation called GAESA that coordinates all
the army's economic activities. One of its holdings, Gaviota, is
probably the single biggest tourism company in Cuba. And that's the
army's own activities. In addition to that, there are people from the
army running the sugar industry.
In relative terms, the army is the most efficient and best-organized
institution in Cuba. Its people are being promoted now, and they're
cementing that power. For example, as head of state, Raúl Castro
promoted another old-timer, Major Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, as minister
of defense. Casas oversaw the "perfeccionamiento empresarial"–an
efficiency drive in companies run by the military.
So the army is a major force. Then there are the managers, what I call
the businessmen in uniform. They are people in the armed forces who are
economic managers, even though they're in the armed forces. And there
are civilians in these positions also.
So you have this milieu of people are managers and technicians who are
bound to be a force in Cuba in a situation of transition.
HOW DOES Fidel Castro view these developments? Is he trying to block or
ONE INDICATION of his view was an article he wrote a few months ago
attacking an article by James Petras and Robin Eastman-Abaya in the
magazine Canadian Dimension–not exactly a mass circulation publication.
Fidel Castro wrote a long article attacking them for being "ultra-left"
In my opinion, Fidel used the article to get back at people in Cuba,
including people around his brother, who were advocating some of the
same things that Petras and Eastman-Abaya were proposing. For example,
Petras and Eastman-Abaya implied that they would favor the importation
of foreign labor to improve agricultural production.
Fidel Castro didn't refer to Petras by name, but he made it clear he was
referring to the article. Why in the world would Fidel bother with this?
It doesn't make any sense, unless he is using Petras as a whipping boy
to get at somebody else.
My interpretation of Fidel's view is that he is for changing the
absolute minimum necessary to survive. For example, in the crisis of the
mid-1990s, it was clear to everybody that he had given certain
concessions–for example, allowing self-employment. But as soon as
things got a little better, he cracked down on this. He didn't say it in
so many words, but the record is clear.
He is trying to have as much state control as possible without the state
committing suicide. Another example is that they cut down on foreign
investment in Cuba by restricting the number of joint ventures.
WHAT DOES Raúl Castro represent?
RAÚL REPRESENTS the introduction of elements of the Chinese and
Vietnamese economic model–a turn to the free market while retaining
In April 2005, he went to Shanghai and said, "Here, I found that another
world is possible." This is obscene–taking over the slogan of the World
Social Forum to express his admiration for the Chinese model.
Obviously, there are huge differences between Cuba and China, and the
United States is an obstacle. But if Barack Obama is elected president,
and he follows through on what he is hinting at–resumption of relations
with Cuba–all sorts of things are conceivable. Of course, Democratic
Party politicians are masters at promising things that they have no
intention of carrying out.
Politically, the U.S. is unlikely to collaborate with a Vietnamese or
Chinese type transition in Cuba as long as someone named Castro is
heading the Cuban state. But it's possible, for example, to remove
limits on Cuban-Americans' travel to Cuba.
During Bush's first term, Congress was about to pass a law that would
have removed those limits on even Americans traveling to the island.
That would pretty much have taken the heart out of the blockade. Bush
lobbied to get it off the agenda. But it was nearly approved, because a
lot of Republicans are for it.
I don't think that the capitalist class in the U.S., or any significant
part of it, wants to continue the economic blockade of Cuba. Most don't
care one way or another–Cuba's not that significant. It's more of a
In the past, of course, it was a different ballgame, when Cuba was
allied with the USSR. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba
doesn't have the importance to the U.S. ruling class that it had originally.
WHAT POLITICAL currents are likely to emerge in post-Fidel Cuba?
THERE ARE no significant forces in Cuba today that would stand for a
collectivist economy under workers control–anti-capitalist and for
Think of China as a parallel. There, you had the "Gang of Four" types,
who stood for the old Stalinist system. In Cuba, they're called the
"Taliban"–people like Felipe Pérez Roque, the former chief of staff for
Castro, who is now foreign minister. Interestingly, he wasn't promoted.
I think his crowd has no future as long as the army stays united, and
I've seen nothing to indicate that Pérez has support within the army.
Then, there are people who are market-inclined–who are liberals. This
includes the great majority of Cuban intellectuals. They aren't
neoliberals, but they favor the perestroika-type market reforms that
Mikhail Gorbachev tried in Russia.
There are others who want to make concessions to the market who aren't
liberals. But they will be allied with the liberals in certain areas
that are less politically threatening to the regime.
The market liberals and the market non-liberals may be able to cement an
alliance, because the introduction of the market is bound to bring about
liberalization in the social realm, but not in the political
realm–which is what happened in China. It's worth noting that Temas,
which is probably the principal magazine of the liberal Cuban
Communists, ran an article on China that was fundamentally uncritical.
Frankly, I don't see how you can get around the issue of having foreign
investment in Cuba today, or how you can get around the issue of farmers
growing their own crops.
For us, those are concessions to objective economic and social
reality–it's not something that we're for. But the people in Cuba who
are for both socialism and democracy are very small in number. Those who
are opposed to the market do so from the Stalinist point of view. And
that's no good to us.