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We Are Cuba: How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World

Helen Yaffe, Yale Press, 2020, 363pp. £18.99 RRP or £15.99 inc p&p from FRFI.

Drawing on extensive inter-view documentation with Cubans from all walks of life, We Are Cuba: How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World offers a remarkable insight into why and how Cuban socialism was able to survive after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Helen Yaffe eclipses the literature that has tried to answer these questions within a reductive framework based primarily on the political aspects of Cuban socialism with a focus on the Castro brothers. Looking at both the economic history and political economy of Cuba, We Are Cuba incorporates a deeper analysis by examining the impacts of underdevelopment, imperialism, crisis and isolation in terms of Cuba’s development strategy, medical science, international solidarity, energy and environment to find how the revolutionary Cuban people survived a period critics were sure would destroy them.

Surviving a post-Soviet world

We find the answer to why Cuba was in a position to withstand the collapse of the USSR in chapter one, after a thorough analysis of Cuba’s economic history and political economy from 1959 to 1991. Following the victory of the Revolution in 1959, Cuba faced the same challenges as all underdeveloped countries: how do they obtain the capital necessary for development without jeopardising their sovereignty?

US capital had dominated Cuba for decades prior to 1959. The Cuban economy was developed to be structurally reliant on sugar production, two thirds of which was controlled by US companies by the 1920s. The Cuban revolutionaries identified ‘colonialism and imperialism [as] the principle explanations for the island’s structural weakness’ (p270). In Havana nearly 35% of the population was unemployed, only 9% of rural Cubans had electricity, 24% of the population was illiterate and infant mortality was 60 per 1,000 live births. ‘Poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment [were] inherent aspects of society’ (p17).

But the new revolutionary government had a host of other challenges too: their ambitious socioeconomic reforms had prompted rich Cubans to flee the country, taking their wealth with them; within a year of the Revolution the US was planning covert terrorist activities to overthrow the revolutionary leadership; within two years the US imposed the crushing blockade against Cuba that is still in force today; within three years the US had launched a military invasion of the island using Cuban mercenaries. In 1961 the revolutionary leadership declared its commitment to building socialism.

Cuba had to address the chronic economic dependency it had inherited from years of colonial underdevelopment within the broader framework of increasing productive capacity and labour productivity in the transition to socialism, without becoming over-reliant on capitalist mechanisms that undermine the formation of new revolutionary consciousness (p19). This had to be done while being blockaded by the world’s biggest imperialist power (p22). After the US reduced the sugar it was purchasing from Cuba to zero in an attempt to strangle the Cuban economy, the USSR stepped in to purchase the deficit. This was a significant lifeline to Cuba, especially because the socialist bloc agreed to pay above market prices in line with equal terms of trade.

Without such support, the Cuban economy – completely reliant on sugar exports for survival – would have collapsed. There is no guidebook on how to build socialism in a blockaded and trade-dependent island and, as We Are Cuba points out and goes on to look at in greater detail, consensus on how to do it has never been achieved in Cuba.

The first chapter analyses the multitude of different systems of economic management for the socialist transition that Cuba has adopted. Che Guevara pioneered the Budgetary Finance System in 1961, based on practical measures to confront concrete issues in a country that had been underdeveloped by imperialism. Guevara was a critic of the Soviet model for its focus on economic production, vocal in his assertion that raising consciousness and productivity simultaneously was both possible and necessary. Other Cuban ministers thought the system was too centralised and lacked necessary financial incentives.

Here emerged the ‘Great Debate’ about which economic model to pursue, ‘[establishing] a tradition of open discussion, within the socialist paradigm, in the search for solutions, consensus and legitimacy’ (p22). New systems formed out of the continuing debates and reflections on how to strike the balance between market forces and the state, under the constant influence of changing economic circumstances. Yaffe points to the period of Rectification, the Revolution’s fifth political and economic management system, as being ‘important for the clues it holds about how and why the Cuban revolution outlived the Soviet bloc’ (p27).

Rectification followed the Third Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in February 1986 at which two problems were identified with the then-current Soviet Planning and Management System (SPMS): a growing gap between party leaders and rank and file members and a deterioration in economic efficiency. To get to the roots of the problems, the Congress allowed ten months for broader consultation before reconvening.

Thousands of proposals and ideas emerged from months of debates across the country in workplaces and Party branches. Hundreds of those suggestions were incorporated into the Communist Party programme. The agreement was that the growing bureaucracy, corruption, inefficiency and production for profit were in large part caused by the pursuit of the material rewards being offered for meeting production targets under the SPMS. In response, the economic system was replaced by the process of Rectification. Through interviews with former Cuban Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez, Yaffe sums up the period as characterised by ‘a return to Guevarista notions about moral incentives, consciousness and political participation, including the return to voluntary labour’ (p33).

It was this process, with an ‘emphasis on political mobilisation, on socialism as a conscious process of construction and self-transformation, the renewal of the link between the Cuban Communist Party and the people’ that pulled the revolutionary people of Cuba through the ‘Special Period in Times of Peace’, the economic crisis that plagued Cuba throughout the 1990s (p35).

The measures of the Special Period began to replace policies of Rectification in 1989 as a result of the declining military and economic support from the USSR under Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. But the dissolution of the Soviet Union and dismantling of the socialist trade bloc in 1991 made Cuba’s problems all the more severe. In the proceeding three years Cuba’s GDP fell by 35%, while imports fell by 75% and imports of equipment by 90%. As a result of the crisis, calorie intake fell by one third and real wages by 50%, and government spending on investment dropped 86%.

With the disintegration of the socialist bloc, socialist Cuba was now isolated in the world. Taking advantage of the situation and ‘hoping to topple the Revolution, the United States tightened the screws, approving three new punitive laws in 1990, 1992 and 1996 to strengthen the blockade, and expanding its extraterritorial imposition to prevent trade and financial relations between Cuba and the rest of the world’ (p41).

World economists waited for the collapse of the socialist system and a transition back to capitalism. And yet the revolutionary people of socialist Cuba prevailed, precisely because the Rectification period had ‘reaffirmed the Cuban resolve to turn to state action, not market exchanges, as the best solution to Cuba’s historical development challenges’ (p36). The subsequent chapters evaluate how socialist Cuba was able to survive in a post-Soviet world.

Participatory democracy

In almost every chapter We Are Cuba identifies another example of how Cuba’s truly outstanding democratic process has allowed it to withstand the most adverse conditions. Chapter two gives an in-depth analysis of the Special Period, describing how, responding to the deep economic crises, the Cuban leadership called for ‘emergency mobilisation to facilitate an organised collective response, a set of mobilisation policies and economic restructuring’ (p43).

The ways to move forward would be found through collective discussion in months of nationwide debates, just as they had during the period of Rectification. The process of open, inclusive debates to reach accord was one way of ensuring the inclusion of the mass of the Cuban people in conversations and decisions surrounding laws and legislation that would govern their everyday lives. Socialist Cuba could never be sustained by force, but it is in times of catastrophe like the Special Period, Yaffe asserts, that it is more important than ever to secure the commitment to building socialism from the Cuban people.

Over three million Cubans took part in the nationwide debates about economic policy in 1991. ‘Extensive public consultation prior to significant economic reforms’ thereby became ‘the modus operandi’ (p45). Cuban economist Rita Castineiras Garcia notes that ‘this unique participatory process created some sense of public ownership of policy, contributing towards the acceptance of economic reforms and their consequences’ (p66).

Chapter eight demonstrates how this process continues today. The 2017 economic updates were preceded by intense debates involving 1.6 million Cubans. Following the suggestions from these debates, 92% of the original document was modified. In April 2019 the Cuban constitution was updated, but not before over eight million Cubans took part in over 133,000 meetings across the country to debate the proposed changes. Over 60% of the document was modified, with proposals being added and removed, based on the consensus emerging from the debates.

Participation in debate is only one way in which socialist Cuba ensures the inclusion of all Cuban people in the revolutionary process. Chapter three tells the stories of the ‘disconnected’ sections of society who were brought to the fore in the Battle of Ideas from the mid-1990s. Thousands of ‘disconnected’ youth were employed to undertake surveys among children, prisoners and teachers to pinpoint specific socio-economic factors contributing to social isolation, poverty and inequality during the crisis.

The youth social workers were reporting not just on numbers and statistics, but more importantly on circumstances that might be impacting on health and education. They wanted to know how to help each individual child reach their potential. Those found to be in ‘critical’ condition were supplied with financial and material aid from the state, demonstrating ‘to ordinary Cubans the state’s political will to address the problems of the most vulnerable families on a case-by-case basis’ (p79).

Sustainable development

The loss of the Soviet trading bloc exposed some of Cuba’s structural weaknesses, including its dependence on oil imports and its small, concentrated energy sector. Fixing this was crucial for surviving in a post-Soviet world. But alternative energy sources had been key areas of research and investigation since the 1960s.

While the agreement in 1961 to export Cuban sugar to the USSR and import Soviet oil at below market prices undoubtedly aided Cuba immeasurably, the agreement also ‘inevitably perpetuated the island’s energy dependence and structural underdevelopment’ (p102). In the 1990s, without the support of the USSR, in the spirit of the Revolution’s historical record and in line with a socialist development framework, Cuba accelerated its turn to organic farming and renewable energies.

Yaffe identifies the Energy Revolution of 2005-2006, occurring alongside the Battle of Ideas discussed in chapter three, as being a ‘turning point in Cuba’s commitment to renewable energies and sustainable development’ (p109). The Energy Revolution encompassed a drive towards energy conservation through: mass education campaigns to promote energy-saving advice, spearheaded by the young social workers; replacement of energy-wasting bulbs and household appliances; a desire to provide more consistent energy to rural communities in a bid to ‘improve social and economic justice by raising living standards and universalising access to energy’; and a distributed system of electricity to reduce vulnerability to external attack (p108).

In 2006 the World Wide Fund for Nature recognised Cuba as the only country in the world to be developing sustainably. As a small island nation ‘Cuba is particularly vulnerable to climate change: extreme weather events, heat waves, drought, torrential rain, hurricanes and rising sea levels’ (p97). But socialist planning means that already ‘thousands of Cuban scientists and environmentalists [are] preparing for climate change’ with a 100-year plan to protect the population from its impacts (p97).

Medical science and international solidarity

The revolutionary people worked tirelessly to improve healthcare provision after centuries of underdevelopment and relentless economic warfare left services depleted, as we find out in chapter five. This process later helped to reduce chronic dependency and increase trade in a post-Soviet world.

With the imposition of the US blockade, Cuba found itself unable to purchase life-saving drugs, medicines, equipment and technology, having previously been dependent on US pharma. In 1959 the island was left with only 3,000 doctors to cater for a population of 11 million. Mass training programmes were launched to enable the government to introduce free universal access to medical treatment. Tens of hospitals were built in rural areas, contagious diseases were eliminated, new research units were established, national public health campaigns were launched, thousands trained to become medical personnel and physicians and nurses lived in the communities they were attending to (see ‘Cuba: medical science in the service of humanity, p6).

Unlike in capitalist market economies, ‘the Cuban state was motivated by socioeconomic and welfare concerns, not simply economic gains’ (p120). The onset of the Special Period did not change the revolutionary government’s commitment to free and universal welfare provision using central planning and state ownership. In fact, ‘despite the severity of the economic collapse, the share of Cuba’s GDP spent on social programmes in the 1990s increased by 35%’ (p128). Cuba’s biotechnology sector was also significant for diversifying exports, finding new export markets and providing much needed currency: ‘by the mid-1990s, they were earning USD 100 million a year’ (p136).

The motivation to provide universal public health domestically is extended internationally, as examined in chapter six. Combining thought from Karl Marx, Vladmir Lenin and Jose Marti, ‘Cuba’s revolutionary leaders saw that liberating the people from exploitation and underdevelopment was a global endeavour’ and ‘they made the internationalist tradition an explicit sphere of state activity’ (p151).

We Are Cuba powerfully conveys the deep-seated commitment to the progress of humanity felt by the revolutionary people, which finds its expression through solidarity action around the world, with ‘around one in ten Cubans [having] been on an internationalist mission’ (p150). These voluntary missions can require spending months or years away from home, living in uncomfortable circumstances and even facing life-threatening situations.

Still, the Cuban people assist the world with material aid and healthcare professionals in times of desperation and disaster, as part of the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. The book explores some of the moving examples from the hundreds of thousands of medical professionals who have worked in 164 countries since 1960. One such example is the Henry Reeve contingent, set up to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005, an offer rejected by the Bush administration. By 2017, when it was awarded the WHO’s Public Health Prize, the contingent had worked in 19 countries.

This included Pakistan after the devastating earthquake in Kashmir in 2005, where the Henry Reeve contingent ‘stayed for seven months, with 2,400 healthcare workers treating 1,743,000 patients, three quarters of all those treated following the earthquake’ (p166). A young doctor returning from this mission expressed that the experience had only made her more revolutionary, exemplifying an understanding that the life-saving work being undertaken was only possible because of Cuba’s socialist values.

Even during the Special Period, when there were huge shortages of food, fuels and medicines, Cuba extended its help to victims of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion. By 2004 ‘over 26,000 people [impacted], nearly 22,000 of them children, received free medical care, accommodation, food and other facilities in Cuba’ (p158). It was during this period when the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) was established to offer free medical training for people from poor communities around the world, on the condition they return to serve those communities. It is an inspiring example of ‘fostering a “class conscious” commitment to serve the poor’ (p160).

Yaffe marks the ‘doctors for oil’ exchange programme between Cuba and Venezuela as being the catalyst for Cuba’s recovery from the Special Period. As part of the programme, thousands of Cuban healthcare professionals travelled to help improve the Venezuelan healthcare system while Venezuela paid the cost in oil, ‘sold to Cuba at below world market prices’ (p163). This highlighted a way of trading based on solidarity and cooperation, as opposed to theft and exploitation.

Commitment to socialism

Chapters eight, nine and ten consider the ‘tightrope’ that Cuba still walks in trying to discover ‘how market forces [can] be both encouraged, as a means of increasing employment and enterprise, and simultaneously constrained, which is imperative to maintain the dominance of non-exploitative social relations’ (p205). As the author says early in the book, the ‘Great Debate’ has never been resolved.

After the death of Fidel Castro, and failing to understand the Cuban people’s commitment to socialism, critics and imperialist media waited in anticipation for Cuba’s transition to capitalism. The reforms introduced in 2007 under Raul Castro were ‘portrayed as a faltering march towards economic liberation’ outside of Cuba (p205). Chapter eight illustrates the reforms as reflecting the tension between political preference and economic necessity, ‘the attempt to balance equity, social property, central planning and socialist consciousness with the urgent need to increase productivity and economic efficiency’ (p205).

These problems are not unlike those Cuba faced during the Special Period, or indeed since its inception. The introduction of market forces was the only way of ensuring the economic development necessary to raise the standard of living for the entire population while maintaining socialist values in a global capitalist market. Since the loss of the socialist bloc Cuba has remained economically isolated, unable to access loans or financial aid without undermining its sovereignty, something that is unacceptable to the Cuban people.

‘Raul’s reforms’ included opening to controlled foreign direct investment, small private businesses and self-employment, while recognising that these concessions ‘[introduce] serious contradictions into the process of socialist development’ (p206). The chapter considers the motivations behind the measures to conclude that ‘underlying [these] reforms was the drive to improve efficiency and productivity within the socialist framework’ (p12).

This approach has been maintained, as discussed in chapter nine, with constant monitoring to ‘[rein] in economic progress when it sacrifice[s] social justice’ (p12). The commitment of Cuba’s revolutionary people to socialist development has not faltered: during the debates surrounding the constitutional update in 2019 the goal of progressing towards communism, omitted from the original document drafted by government ministers, ‘was reinstated by popular demand’ (p251). The inclusive and ever-evolving nature of Cuban socialism enabled it to prevail in the Special Period and is what will equip it for survival in the difficult economic conditions today.

Chapter seven outlines the history of sabotage and terrorism launched by the US against revolutionary Cuba to try and reinforce economic and ideological control over the island, which between 1959 and 2006 was ‘responsible for 3,478 Cuban deaths, with another 2,099 Cubans left permanently maimed’ (p179). Wealthy Cuban exiles living in Miami, operating behind lobbies such as the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), ‘[buy] influence with campaign contributions to politicians’ and ‘[finance] terrorist operations’ (p181). They receive millions of government dollars to run radio stations, illegally broadcasting subversion propaganda into Cuba to try and foment internal opposition.

The blockade, codified into US law, has been internationally condemned for decades. While the Obama presidency was widely portrayed as initiating a new chapter of ‘normalisation’ in Cuban-US relations, in Yaffe’s interview with Cuba’s Director of the Higher Institute for International Relations Isabel Allende, the latter is clear that ‘you cannot have normal relations when you have a military base in a country, against their wishes … when you are constantly trying to overthrow that country’s government, when you want to impose your way on others’ (p201).

Obama’s tactics did not signify acceptance and respect for Cuba’s right to self-determination, but rather ‘instead of isolation and aggression, Obama sought to erode Cuban socialism by persuasion, seduction and bribery, through “engagement”: foisting the logic of the capitalist market, social relations and cultural values on the revolutionary people’ (p201). The Obama administration made no attempt to dismantle the genocidal blockade that costs Cuba an estimated $12m every day; the President’s promise to close the Guantanamo prison camp on stolen Cuban land was left unfulfilled and under his presidency ‘a record-breaking 49 entities were fined for transactions with Cuba’ (p202).

The Trump administration has departed from Obamas ‘smart diplomacy’, in November 2018 declaring war on the ‘troika of tyranny’ Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua and further tightening the screws of the blockade with the application of Helms-Burton title III, the imposition of travel restrictions and placing limits on remittances being sent from the US to Cuba (see FRFI 265: ‘Cuba debates new constitution’). The brutal new sanctions pose a threat to the survival of the revolutionary people, but ‘the socialist state retains the mobilising capacity to support the people through economic crisis’ (p276). It is impossible to know if this will be sufficient to overcome these latest attacks. Yaffe leaves us wondering ‘what could the revolutionary people of Cuba achieve if they were left in peace – if they were finally given the chance to prosper, and not just survive?’ (p278).

We Are Cuba eloquently conveys the struggles of the revolutionary Cuban people and government to overcome immense challenges while remaining committed to socialist transition and international solidarity. It is clear that key to Cuba’s success in withstanding these persistent challenges is its grasp that building socialism is a continuing process, requiring constant dialogue and debate involving the entire population. The inspirational resilience of the Cuban people is woven into a flowing narrative, bringing the voices of Cuban economists, sociologists, political scientists, environmentalists, youth leaders and more to the fore. This book will fill you with the hope, courage and anger necessary for taking the action needed to build a society like Cuba’s – a society fit for all of humanity.

Ria Aibhilin

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 275, March/April 2020