Cuba: The Revolution Lives On
Cuban society objectively is incredibly difficult, given 45 years
of unremitting U.S. propaganda against Fidel Castro, the Cuban government,
and Cuban society. Even for those individuals critical of the U.S.
mainstream media, constantly hearing the Cuban government called
a dictatorship that has failed its people influences our perceptions.
So do interviews or discussions with Cubans who have immigrated
to the United States, most of whom are very critical of the Cuban
system. To understand Cuban society, we have to place the political
economy of Cuba today, its successes and problems, in the context
of the following:
400 years of Spanish colonialism
. This began with genocidal
attacks against the indigenous people of Cuba, followed by an economy
organized around sugar plantations, where most of the labor force
were enslaved and super-exploited Africans. Slavery ended in 1886,
but racism and economic segregation of blacks continued until 1959.
U.S. domination and aggression.
During the 1895–1898
Cuban war for independence, the U.S. intervened militarily, claiming
to support independence for Cuba, but then dominated Cuba economically
and politically until 1959. As a condition for the U.S. ending its
military occupation, Cuba had to sign the Platt Amendment, which
was the basis for establishing the U.S. base in Guantánamo,
Cuba. Today in Guantánamo, prisoners from around the world
are being held indefinitely with no rights and subject to extreme
brutality by the U.S. military and CIA. In addition, U.S. and Cuban
elites dominated Cuba from 1902 to 1959, with the U.S. sending troops
and supporting Cuban governments favorable to U.S. investors and
undermining those who weren’t.
Cuba’s alliances with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.
In 1961, two years after the victory of the Cuban revolution, Cuban
President Fidel Castro declared the country socialist and oriented
its politics and economy towards the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union
and its allies paid a good price for sugar and sold oil to Cuba
at reduced prices. They also extended many loans. Cuba’s economy,
including its technology and machinery, consumption goods, imports
and exports and methods of economic planning became increasingly
integrated with that of the Soviet Union and its allies.
The Soviet system collapsed in 1989, and ever since Cuba has had
a difficult time maintaining socialist principles while developing
a different economic model from the Soviet-inspired one. The transition
to different technologies has been difficult and costly. Cuba has
not been successful in developing an economy that is both equal
and also increasingly improves the standard of living.
. Cuba is part of a global economic system
that is increasingly unequal within and between countries. For example,
Cuba’s main export, sugar, sells for lower on the world market
relative to the prices of Cuban imports like machines and consumer
durables like refrigerators.
The United States blockade
. During the period of Cuba’s
alliance with the USSR, the U.S. claimed that hostility towards
Cuba was because Cuba was an extension of the USSR in the Americas.
However, notice that the U.S. intervention has become even more
aggressive since the collapse of the USSR, which should lead us
to question the U.S. rationale in the past as well as the present.
The U.S. embargo, which the Cubans call a blockade because it limits
Cuban trade with other countries besides the U.S., means that Cuba
has had to pay a higher price for goods on the world market, such
as medicines and food, and has had to maintain a larger military
budget than it would otherwise.
The blockade has also significantly reduced Cuba’s ability
to export, which in turns means its ability to import has also been
rom the 1960s
to the late 1980s, almost all production in Cuba was owned and organized
by the state. There was free healthcare, equal access to free education,
and full employment. In the countryside, electrification, indoor
plumbing, drinkable water, and basic housing was provided for almost
all Cubans. Hunger and absolute poverty were overcome.
However, there were limited and insufficient consumer goods, slow
economic growth, with a very slow rising of the standard of living,
and a paternalistic system where the government listened to the
people and management listened to worker complaints, but the decisions
were made at the top. There were important and major gains for women
in accessing higher education and entering and advancing in significant
numbers in many professions, but little change in the sexual division
of labor at home, as women still did most of the housework.
There were striking changes towards achieving racial equality as
discrimination was outlawed and the proportion of black Cubans in
secondary and higher education and in higher status jobs began to
approach their numbers in the population, although the top leadership
in Cuban society was still disproportionately white and male. The
gains for families who were poor before the 1959 Cuban revolution,
particularly in rural areas, were impressive—in education,
income, health, housing, and in being treated with respect and dignity.
This is an accomplishment whose significance cannot be overstated.
In the early 1980s, an article in the
Wall Street Journal
admitted that the standard of living for working people in Cuba
was the highest in Latin America, with the possible exception of
Cuba called itself socialist, meaning most production was nationalized
and state-owned and production was not organized for profit, but
rather was centrally planned to meet the economic needs of the population.
However, the population had limited power in making major economic
and political decisions, e.g., on whether to develop nuclear power.
The input of the population then and now comes mainly through mass
organizations, such as the community-based Committees to Defend
the Revolution (CDR), the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), and the
Cuban Federation of Workers (CTC). It is through these mass organizations—as
well as through the Communist Party, whose current membership numbers
over a million and whose members are for the most part respected
by the Cuban people and closely linked to the grassroots—that
people can express their needs. To look at this system as totally
top down where Fidel orders and the people follow misrepresents
the reality of a government quite connected to popular sentiments.
On the other hand, a viewpoint that claims that the Cuban people
and their elected representatives have real power is also inaccurate.
The Special Period
ith the collapse
of the Soviet Union and various economic and trade arrangements
that Cuba had with the Soviet bloc, Cuban production fell by more
than one-third from 1989 to 1993 and imports and exports were reduced
by more than two-thirds. In the early 1990s there was widespread
blindness and other health problems, most likely from an insufficient
diet and lack of vitamins. Cuba has managed to survive with slow,
but significant economic growth over the last ten years. Nonetheless,
most of the population as of 2004 has a lower standard of living—around
25 percent lower than they had in the mid-1980s. Most Cubans, unless
they have some way of earning or receiving dollars or foreign exchange,
live in poverty, although they are not hungry or homeless. The Cuban
government has called this difficult time from 1989 to the present
the Special Period.
Most countries in the third world or global South have had to structurally
adjust their economies since the early 1980s because of balance
of payments problems, meaning they imported more than they exported
and thus had to make deals with foreign lenders, such as the International
Monetary Fund, in order to get loans to pay off their foreign debt.
The resulting structural adjustment plans increased economic inequality
and reduced social spending as countries were forced to reduce government
spending and public employment and to open their country up to foreign
Cuba’s structural adjustment since 1989 has been different,
although they, too, have major foreign debt and have struggled to
reduce the imbalance between high imports and low exports. To its
credit, the Cuban state has maintained basic social services—free
and available medical and dental care, free education up to and
including university level, and food rations for the population
at low and affordable prices, although not the quantity or variety
that Cubans need and desire. Housing and utility bills are affordable
although housing is often very crowded and most people do not have
phones. Infant mortality has continued to fall and life expectancy
has continued to lengthen. In Cuba infant mortality is the lowest
and life expectancy the highest in Latin America; both of these
key health rates are almost equal to those of the much wealthier
With the exception of agriculture, most production is still organized
by the Cuban state. Although there no longer is full employment,
jobs are easier to obtain and keep compared to other countries in
the Americas. Most young people can find jobs, although wages for
most jobs are very low. The unemployed as well as parents of children
under a year old receive 60 to 70 percent of the earnings of their
last employment and parents are guaranteed their job back when they
return to work. Child care is available and affordable.
in the Cuban Economy
he major changes
Cuba has made since 1989 have led to some improvement in the standard
of living, but has created a new set of social problems. The main
changes are the following:
Legalization and widespread use of the dollar by Cubans.
1993, both the dollar and the Cuban peso have been used as money.
Many goods in Cuba, mainly luxuries and imports, are priced in dollars—for
Cubans paid in pesos, prices for these are very high because they
are converted at the rate of 25 pesos to the dollar. For example,
chicken sells at about $1 or 25 pesos per pound. Because of the
high prices of goods and services in relation to salaries, many
goods are inaccessible to Cubans who don’t receive dollars.
The average salary in Cuba is 250 pesos a month. This is worth far
more than $10 in terms of purchasing power, though, because health
and education are free and prices are low for food purchased with
ration cards. For other goods and services, a peso is roughly equal
in value to a dollar, e.g., movies or bus transportation. Life is
nevertheless very difficult on a peso salary.
Both the Cuban economy and Cuban families are dependent on remittances,
money sent by relatives to their families in Cuba. This provides
foreign exchange to the Cuban government, as much of this money
is spent on Cuban goods and services and the Cuban state and Cuban
enterprises then use these dollars to buy needed imports. It also
provides purchasing power for the 40 to 50 percent of Cuban families
who directly or indirectly receive remittances. However, George
W. Bush, in an increased effort to destroy the Cuban economy and
cause an uprising against the Cuban government, announced, in May
2004, further restrictions on remittances and gifts to Cuban relatives.
Some Cubans in government enterprises earn dollars. Since 1993,
some highly skilled jobs considered essential pay an incentive in
dollars besides the salary in pesos. For instance, an engineer might
get $11 a month in addition to a monthly salary of 350 pesos.
However, since April 2005, the dollar is no longer being used directly
in the Cuban economy. This change was put into effect as a response
to the tightening of the blockade in 2004 making it more difficult
to use dollars in international economic transactions. There are
now two currencies. Goods and services are bought and sold either
for Cuban pesos (CUP)—still roughly 25 to the U.S. dollar—or
traded for the convertible (CUC), which is roughly equivalent to
the U.S. dollar. The prices of most imports, and goods and services
in the tourist sector, are in convertibles. There is a 10 percent
penalty for converting U.S. dollars to convertibles so increasingly
tourists bring in euros or Canadian dollars. This is also true for
an increasing proportion of remittances. The effect of this move
away from the U.S. dollar on the Cuban economy thus far is small.
Two million tourists now visit Cuba annually, mainly
from Western Europe, Canada, and Mexico. The U.S. government not
only is putting further restrictions on U.S. tourism, but is trying
to limit tourism to Cuba from other countries. Tourism is the main
earner of foreign exchange and Cuba is increasingly producing more
of what tourists consume. Two-thirds of each tourist dollar is now
spent on Cuban-produced goods and services and thus creates foreign
exchange that can be used for imports for the Cuban people.
Tourism is a mixed blessing. It creates foreign exchange, but it
also increases desire by the Cuban population for a first world
standard of living. It reinforces sexism as Cuban women often sell
themselves to foreigners. Tourism also furthers racial inequality
as black Cubans are under-represented in the tourist sector, both
in Cuban-owned enterprises and in mixed enterprises—joint Cuban
and foreign ownership. The government and unions have acknowledged
this problem, but it continues.
Much of the income generated from tourism does trickle down to the
general population as it ends up with the government and in government
banks. It is then used to purchase necessary imports—medicines,
buses, oil, machinery, even agricultural products from the United
On the other hand, many Cubans working in the tourist sector get
most of their income in dollars, mainly from tips, which distort
incentives. Doctors, engineers, and foreign language specialists
often do not use their education and training, but instead work
as waiters, taxi drivers, cleaners, and hotel staff because they
can earn much more in the tourist sector.
The tourist industry and the aforementioned remittances also contribute
to a growing inequality of income between those who get dollars
or their equivalents such as euros, and those who don’t. Cuba,
while far more equal than the rest of the Americas is much less
equal than it was 20 years ago and this is a source of discontent.
Most tourism in recent years has been of the “beaches and sun”
variety. Other forms of tourism less destructive of socialist values
are being promoted—ecological tourism; cultural tourism (tourists
coming to learn about Cuba’s history, culture, and revolution);
educational tourism; and medical or health tourism. In 2005 there
has been a major increase of people from the Americas, primarily
Venezuela, coming to Cuba for affordable medical care. This has
been financed by the Venezuelan government and is the main reason
for a recent improvement in Cuba’s balance of payments, contributing
significantly to a high rate of economic growth in 2005.
. Cuba encourages up to 50 percent ownership
by foreign companies in various industries, e.g., hotels, nickel
mining, biotechnology. This is an attempt to bring in foreign capital
and become more integrated into the global economy and to replace
obsolete Soviet technology. The hope is that this can be done without
being dominated by multinational corporations. Most contracts include
technology-sharing and teaching of skills. Perhaps most important
is ongoing off-shore oil exploration. Cuba currently imports one
half of its oil. Finding low sulfur Cuban oil would substantially
strengthen the Cuban economy; it would make it easier for Cuba to
import other goods and reduce its continued imbalance in international
trade. Nevertheless, Cuba has benefitted greatly by the below market
price it pays for Venezuelan oil.
In agriculture, Cuba has moved away from state
farms and centrally planned agricultural production. There has been
a steady growth of private ownership of farm and of cooperative
ownership of the land. Organic farming techniques are increasingly
used and there has been large growth in urban gardens. Privately-run
farmers’ markets play an important role in supplying food.
In them, farmers sell produce, above what they are required to sell
to the state, at market prices. These reforms have significantly
increased agricultural production over the last 12 years, particularly
the organic production of fruits and vegetables. Food consumption
has increased significantly, although meat, except for pork, is
still scarce and expensive. Reforms have also created a group of
high-income Cubans who sell produce in the farmers’ markets
at prices that are too high for those Cubans who do not have access
to dollars. Recently, the Cuban government has cracked down on middlepersons
selling food at farmers’ markets, so that the sellers will
be actual farmers. It is part of a major campaign to reduce economic
inequality and restrict the earning of high incomes, particularly
. Cuba has an educated and skilled labor force.
There are significant research and development resources invested
in state industries, such as medical instruments, developing and
producing medicines for AIDS, for curing cancer, hepatitis, malaria,
meningitis, and other diseases. This is part of what the Cubans
call biotechnology. There is also growth in the development and
production of computer software, which Cuba hopes to sell globally.
The continuing hope is that this industry could be globally competitive,
pay a livable wage, and bring in substantial foreign exchange. Not
surprisingly, the U.S. is trying to prevent these sales by pressuring
other nations not to buy Cuban goods, but there is interest in developing
and marketing these products even by U.S. firms.
survival in the face of the U.S. attempt to destroy the revolution
is a great achievement, as is its continuing to provide for the
basic needs of its population. For example, every single person
in Cuba has free dental and eye care; every person in Cuba with
AIDS gets free, high-quality retroviral drugs.
Cuba deserves critical support from the people of the U.S. even
though there are real problems. For instance, Cuba has not developed
a workable strategy for achieving economic and social equality,
people’s power, and an improving quality of life. The main
efforts of the Cuban government have been aimed at surviving, maintaining
basic services, and increasing economic production. They have accomplished
the first two of these objectives, but have not so far developed
a strategy for sustainable economic development. One bright sign
has been significant economic growth in 2005, possibly 9 percent.
Stimulated primarily by Cuba’s medical or health tourism, it
has also substantially improved Cuba’s balance of payments.
It has meant an increased availability of consumer goods, a significant
rise in social security payments and pensions for retired people,
and a 25 percent increase in the minimum wage. Whether a rapid growth
of output and income will continue and be sustainable is too early
Income inequality has been worsening from the early 1990s through
2004. This is a major concern to Castro. Income equality could be
improved by increasing the types and quantity of goods available
at subsidized prices and/or moving to one currency and price system
and raising wages substantially for those getting paid in pesos.
However, unless production is increased and higher incomes are taxed
more heavily than now, these reforms would cause strong inflationary
pressures as demand increases and further balance of payments problems
as imports increase. Castro recently announced that the ration books
for food at reduced prices will be ended shortly and Cuba will have
one price for goods, determined primarily by costs of production.
Unless purchasing power and incomes for the majority of the Cuban
population and production increase, high rates of poverty will continue.
Cuban society is not the dictatorship you hear about in the media
here; people do speak up and criticize and there is no torture or
disappearance of dissidents. There is some suppression of the organized
opposition. This repression is because of the fear and the reality
of the U.S. commitment to overthrow the Cuban revolution and return
Cuba to neocolonial status. The U.S. government supports much of
the opposition in Cuba—for example, the 75 dissidents who were
arrested and imprisoned in 2003. If Cuba openly financed opposition
to capitalism in the U.S., or intervened in the U.S. elections,
think how people in the U.S. receiving money from the Cuban government
would be treated. Also, the U.S. is a clear threat to Cuba; Cuba
is not to the United States, meaning that Cuban fears and actions
are more justifiable than comparable U.S. actions would be.
responsibility as U.S. citizens is to stop the criminal embargo/blockade
against Cuba that is being waged by the U.S. government in our name.
For 46 years, the United States has been unwilling to accept a sovereign,
independent Cuba. That is the main reason behind the past and present
immoral and illegal U.S. actions against Cuba. We have a responsibility
to change U.S. policy. Of course, if the people in the United States
are successful in getting our government to end the blockade, U.S.
tourism to Cuba will no doubt grow exponentially, causing new problems
in Cuba, but it is up to Cubans who unanimously want the blockade
to end, to deal with this.
The Cuban government and many Cuban people fear a U.S. invasion.
I think it is possible although not likely, though there is continued
U.S. pressure and aggression against Cuba. U.S. provocations such
as flying military planes with radio and TV transmitters, which
Bush announced in May 2004, could lead to violations of Cuban airspace
and U.S. military attacks on Cuba if Cuba defends itself against
these violations. The position of the Democratic Party on Cuba is
not as bad as the current Administration’s, but, for the most
part, they do not accept Cuban self-determination and sovereignty
as a basis for U.S. foreign policy. For example, Kerry, in his presidential
campaign said, if elected, he would end the travel ban, but not
the embargo/blockade, nor establish normal diplomatic relations
with Cuba. Still there are a growing number of politicians—
mainly, but not only, Democrats—who support normal relations
with Cuba. If we are concerned about human rights and the right
of all nations to choose their own systems, we should do what we
can to stop the U.S. from waging war against Cuba whether it is
an invasion or the continuing blockade.
One hopeful change is Cuba’s improving economic and political
relations with other governments and countries. I have already mentioned
Venezuela, which has become Cuba’s main trading partner in
a relationship beneficial to the people of both countries. Trade
with China is growing rapidly. As countries in South America have
become increasingly independent from the United States—e.g.,
Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina—their relations with Cuba have improved
as have their criticisms of U.S. behavior towards Cuba. Cuban relations
with Spain have also improved significantly since the 2004 election
of Zapatero as prime minister there. The U.S. is failing badly in
its attempt to isolate Cuba; the most recent evidence being the
182 to 4 vote in the UN General Assembly on November 8, 2005 in
favor of ending the U.S. embargo/blockade against Cuba.
The survival and maintenance of the Cuban revolution is incredibly
important for the Cuban people and globally. It is an alternative
to neoliberalism and a beacon of hope for oppressed people around
the world. I am often asked what will happen after Fidel Castro
retires or dies. I think there will be no big immediate changes
nor will U.S. hostility end, as it is aimed at the Cuban system
not just at Castro. My hope for the future of Cuba is, as we work
to reduce U.S. aggression and as Cuba gains more economic and political
allies in the world, such as Venezuela, that Cuba will experiment
with more people’s democratic power and build a socialism that
is participatory, egalitarian, and increasingly meets the needs
of its people.
Bohmer has been an activist since the mid-1960s. He is on the faculty
of Evergreen State University in Olympia, Washington. He has been
studying Cuba for more than 35 years.