A review of a book by George Lambie.
Those who love Cuba live in fear that what seems an inevitable future change towards a more market-oriented economy will sweep away all that is good about the country – its excellent health system, the absence of extreme poverty, its schools, its largely crime-free streets and the day-to-day solidarity that Cubans show both to each other and to outsiders. Will all this be lost because Cuba succumbs to international capitalism?
Of course, there are also other people who ‘love’ Cuba, including many of the exiled Cubans living in Miami, who see it from the other end of the telescope – a land in which people are suffering economically under a harsh dictatorship that has inexplicably lasted for 60 years, and whose demise will bring an influx of investment and material goods which will transform Cubans’ lives. As George Lambie points out at the beginning of his book, if those who discuss Cuba’s political future do not necessarily call for such a wholesale transformation they are nevertheless in most cases influenced strongly by the calls for greater market access as being the ‘solution’ to the problem which Cuba seems to pose, as an anachronistic outpost in an otherwise post-Communist world.
Lambie’s argument is that this approach is, indeed, to see Cuba through the wrong end of the telescope. Cuba has made huge achievements over the last 60 years which no rational person would want to risk losing. Rather than starting by asking the question ‘how can market-led reforms be introduced without prejudicing these achievements?’, he suggests that the question isn’t this at all. Instead, he asks whether Cuban socialism offers possible alternatives to those losing faith in market-oriented economics more generally, in the wake of the global financial crisis and subsequent challenges to the hegemony of global capitalism.
Lambie covers many important recent developments in the Cuban revolution, such as the growing materialism of young people and the problems of corruption, on one hand, and the growth of locally-based food production and the export of Cuba’s health services, on the other. But his book is ten years old and there have been other changes that may undermine his conclusions. Within Cuba, shortages of basic goods continue – as I write (in Cuba) both flour and eggs are in short supply; a year ago it was toilet paper. The difference in material standards of life between those families who do and those who don’t have relatives living in the USA is more obvious as time goes by. This in part is due to the high cost of consumer goods such as cars or motor bikes, which can be anything from four times more expensive in Cuba, in an economy where the average wage of state-employed people is around $12 monthly (matched, of course, with very low living costs for basics such as food and electricity). A new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is gaining respect by listening to complaints at regular provincial-level meetings but resources aren’t available to address many of the problems raised (such as inadequate public transport). Cubans – both young and old, but especially the former – increasingly judge their expectations against the yardstick of what their relatives and friends can achieve in the US, aided by the internet and the now ubiquitous smartphones. As a Cuban friend commented, ‘they have developed-world expectations in a country that is still not developed.’
Internationally, the modest reforms in US-Cuban relations made by Obama have been partly undone by Trump, who has no interest in engagement and has a national security adviser who regards Cuba (along with Venezuela and Nicaragua) as part of a ‘troika of terror’. More importantly, the death of Hugo Chavez deprived Cuba of its most powerful regional ally, and not only is Venezuela in the midst of crisis but in the rest of Latin America much of the ‘pink tide’ of leftist government has been reversed or is under threat (although the election of ‘AMLO’ in Mexico runs against this trend). The change was signalled recently when there was a large majority vote in the OAS (Organisation of American States), supporting the US in demanding outside intervention in Nicaragua (a vote unthinkable a decade ago when Latin America was united in condemning the US-inspired coup in Honduras).
Nevertheless, rather against these trends and despite huge challenges, Cuba has just celebrated the revolution’s 60th anniversary and it seems no more under threat than at many earlier stages in its history. A factor which Lambie only lightly touches on, the unsustainability of Western lifestyles in the face of climate change and massive over-exploitation of natural resources, is now a much bigger element in discussions about political and economic change, even as a new generation of leaders such as Trump or, in Brazil, Bolsonaro, treat them as part of a left-wing plot. Cuba has for many years struck me as the country perhaps best prepared to face the challenges of a world with resource restrictions at the same time as inequality grows exponentially, as it already has limited resources (and in the recent past faced greater shortages), while it has succeeded in drastically reducing inequality and in eliminating the worst poverty (homelessness, malnutrition) which afflicts other countries both poorer and richer than it is.
George Lambie’s question about its future remains highly relevant – to what extent can it use its revolutionary strengths to show us a way towards a more sustainable world? He gives us a rather limited answer to it it, however. While rejecting both outright marketisation of Cuba’s economy and partial market-based reforms (even the latter in his view inevitably involving compromises in Cuba’s socialist principles with the revolution being betrayed, albeit more slowly than by the first approach), his alternative model of retaining and adapting Cuba’s unique approach to socialism is rather sketchy.
Yes, it is possible to see how participatory mechanisms could be strengthened and the need for government by diktat reduced. But conversations with ordinary Cubans rarely, in my experience, revolve around such issues. They are instead worried about how to improve their material circumstances, how the perpetual shortages can be remedied and how they can gain more spending power than is allowed by the typically low wages. Many will also say that they want to do these things while retaining the many benefits that Cuba enjoys and that a lot of other countries do not (including, in many respects, the US). Yet there is no obvious route to reconciling these desires, except perhaps the slow and hesitant market-based reforms which the government has introduced. In a world which seems much more hostile to the Cuban revolution’s survival than was the case when George Lambie was writing, this to me seems to still be an urgent and unresolved quandary, important not only for Cuba but for those pursuing progressive politics across the globe.