Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 263 | Junio 2003



Governability in Cuba’s Uncertain Transition

Cuba is again at the center of world debate. Many analysts ignore or do not come to grips with the characteristics of the transition Cuba has been undergoing for over a decade. But an understanding of this uncertain transition explains better than anything what is happening, what just happened in March and April, and what will likely happen in the future.

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

This essay has more questions than answers. Even when I state something, I am really trying to put forward hypotheses that may help generate a more thorough meditation on the current situation in Cuba, its multiple paradoxes and the fascinating questions it raises. It doesn’t have the dubious virtue of a pat discourse, but that does not mean it‘s ideologically neutral. It is a critical evaluation based on a socialist aspiration that does not identify with certain specific practices of the Cuban Revolution or with the claims of the official discourse and its intellectual helpers.

Socialism is seen in this essay as a goal of social equity, environmentally sustainable development, political democracy and unrestricted respect for the political and civil rights that validate the citizenry; in the words of classical Marxism, “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto).

Following the presentation of certain essential functional definitions, this essay briefly explains the historical foundations of revolutionary governability in Cuba. It then analyzes the social and political changes resulting from the crisis and the redesign of the model of capital accumulation, closing with some interpretations of the content of government policies and the influence they will likely have in the immediate future.

Two key words

The title of this piece contains two words—“governability” and “transition”—that are bandied about in both the most sophisticated theoretical bodies and the most profane political discourses, resulting in a flexibility of use that always merits certain explanations. As it is impossible to produce a more definitive discussion of their meanings in the space available, I will limit myself to explaining my own working definitions.

The Spanish term gobernabilidad is one of the most contradictory in the contemporary lexicon of political science. It was originally coined by conservative sociology during the sixties with the same meaning as the English word “governability”: a power relation between the governors and the governed that in its optimum conditions guarantees that the governed act in accord with formally consecrated norms and procedures. Governability has to do with a relative and unstable balance between diverse social demands and a political system’s capacity to institutionally process them, which is not limited to positive administrative and public policy actions, but also includes negative responses (the obliteration or repression of demands), and the production of ideology/culture and information.

The discussion of this term and its limitations in covering a broader notion of the art of government led to its replacement in English-language political science by the term “governance,” which includes other factors such as the quality of public policies related to general well-being, democracy, the environment, etc. The lack of a similar substitution in Spanish has led to a revision of the term gobernabilidad, resulting in frequent confusion about which concept is really meant.

Governability: A relation of power

I will use the Spanish word gobernabilidad in its original sense of referring to a relation of power. Although I recognize that this kind of governability is strictly speaking achieved through pacts, alliances and agreements operating in the political sphere, its systemic viability is conditioned by a series of factors. The first of these is unquestionably the existence of a pattern of accumulation able to satisfy not only the capital requirements, but also all of society’s material reproduction, as well as producing upward social mobility, or at least generating real expectations of it among significant sectors of the subordinated population. Another equally relevant factor is the functioning of efficient social and political control mechanisms (institutions, norms and procedures) able to administer both inclusion and exclusion.

Finally, any governability scheme requires an ideological and cultural production that explains the existence of a general interest and legitimizes the public institutions embodying it. It is, in short, a systemic continuum able to establish the affirmative, repressive-coercive or ideological filters needed to process demands and control inclusion and exclusion to ensure the system’s legitimacy and protect capital accumulation. Seen this way, governability could be considered the reflection of hegemony-domination (in Gramscian terms) in the strictly political sphere, and would therefore be strongly conditioned by the predominance of consensus among the dominant sociopolitical sectors (able to articulate an “ethical-political direction”) and the consent of the dominated.

The only “transition” in
Cuba is towards capitalism

What meaning does the term transition have in today’s Cuba? The revolution that started in 1959 was marked by three very clear goals: economic development, social justice and national self-determination. These are what gave it its socialist characteristics and its natural leaning towards Eastern Europe, which was the world bloc most inclined to offer it protection without altering its basic goals. During the sixties, as the socialization process advanced, the revolution was strongly oriented towards socialism, although permanently limited by the underdevelopment of Cuban society and the threat of foreign aggression.

Starting in the seventies, with the country’s insertion into the Soviet bloc, the socializing process was definitively frozen and the revolution restricted to a process of modernization and national independence with strong socialist characteristics in the areas of distribution and consumption. But to the extent that it was incapable of promoting an authentic and viable anti-capitalist alternative, the revolution was not socialist; and neither, therefore, was the resulting political model. This explains why, alongside highly positive characteristics in the social field or in international policy, Cuban society has been characterized by frankly deplorable features of authoritarianism and intolerance, exacerbated—but not justified—by US aggression. It also explains why its political style is closer to Latin America caudillismo than to the now-extinct Soviet Union’s “socialist” gerontocracies.

The lack of any “model of its own” with respect to Cuba’s social reality explains the zigzagging of official discourse over the last 40 years when defining the Cuban system, whether identifying it with some specific external model—as happened with the USSR—or contrasting it with any external model, as happened in the sixties and is happening again today. It also explains the embarrassing speculations of Cuban sociology, resorting to Sophisms such as “the transition to alternative possible Socialism” (Espina, 2000) or the at least imaginative “socialist reorganization and transition process” Hernández (1998) advocates.

Bearing all this in mind, the only recognizable direction of what we might term a transition in Cuba is towards capitalism. It is not, however, a linear transition, nor is it a simple return to the starting point that the bands of rightwing internal and emigrant opposition idealize as the 1958 reality. The Cuban revolution has produced an unusual social mobility and socialization of values, accumulated participatory processes and established institutional anchorages that will prove valuable assets in any future scenario. This could allow the country to take better advantage of the global economic environment based on undeniable systemic competitive advantages and provide reservoirs of political and social capital for the formulation of anti-capitalist alternatives in the future.

Governability’s resources

For three decades since 1959, the revolutionary political class could count on exceptional political resources. It had an optimum quota of “external” and “internal” sovereignty on its side. Externally, the rupture with the United States—even given all the military, economic and political risks involved—eradicated the main historic factor behind the coercion of national sovereignty, while feeding the emerging political consensus with justified nationalist motives. It also implied allying with the Soviet Union to ensure political and military survival, and subsequently joining the Eastern Bloc, with the resulting sacrifice of the revolution’s most exuberant features.

Leaving this last consideration to one side, it must be recognized that the Soviet Union was a power as distant as it was strange, and in terms of pure political realism, allying with it offered many more advantages than disadvantages. Cuba received considerable resources of all kinds that allowed it to develop an energetic social policy and an enormous international projection relative to the island’s real political dimensions and to successfully confront the US threat. Undoubtedly, the Cuban state has been much more geopolitically autonomous since the alliance than it had ever been in the past and surely ever will be again.

Two exceptional conditions provided
tremendous domestic sovereignty

The most relevant detail for our analysis is that the political class had a degree of internal autonomy the likes of which few political regimes on the continent have ever had. It was supported by two sui generis conditions, the first of which was an overwhelming asymmetry in political capacity between the governors and the governed. It should not be forgotten that the dynamic of the revolutionary process had triggered the emigration of not only the bourgeoisie, but also many of the country’s middle-class professionals and intellectuals. And in political terms, it had destroyed not only the right, but also the moderate left. The result was a society in the process of recomposition and therefore characterized by a low level of universalization and social reflexivity. Caught off guard by a believable but ultimately false dilemma between a fair and equitable social system and a political regime that could guarantee civil and political rights and democratic functioning, the popular masses opted for the former. The main sociological and anthropological studies done during the sixties and seventies by figures such as Maurice Zeitling, Paul Sweezy, Oscar Lewis and Martha Harnecker repeatedly encountered the Cuban population’s aversion—or at least indifference—to the restoration of a liberal-democratic system.

The inadequacies of the new social classes in power were expressed in their incapacity not only to run the island’s economy efficiently—as demonstrated by Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s anxiety during his years in Cuba—but also to lay the foundations of a more democratic political order. The only possible result was a very high concentration of political authority—and I use authority here in its absolute Weberian sense—and a voluntarist radicalism fanned by US hostility and regional isolation.

The second condition was the state’s quasi-monopolistic status in resource allocations, ideological-cultural production and sociopolitical regulation. There was an overwhelming predominance of state assignation and ownership in the economic sphere, with the market limited to very strict functional uses and private ownership restricted to a few economic ghettoes.

The arrival of Soviet subsidies sealed a dangerous but very comfortable political situation in which the material reproduction of society depended less on basic economic factors such as productivity or efficiency than on political relations with the Soviet bloc. The most prominent institutional expression of this was the promulgation
of severely centralized, voluntarist and bureaucratized development plans with little room to debate alternatives.

A highly credible ideology and
constant grassroots mobilization

At the same time, the state was able to produce highly credible ideology without even averagely efficient competitors. The revolutionary ideological production was easily able to deal with the challenge of what was “good,” “existing” and “possible” and present the new regime as embarked on a teleological march with a discourse consistent with a material matrix of economic growth, equitable distribution and national security.

The hard core of the ideological discourse reinforced the fusion of the new leaders’ jurisdiction and authority and tended to present the normal course of events as the work of universal laws of history. Policies appeared to common people as the products of the social community itself, and thus unappealable, while it was very hard for them to perceive “the moral fragility of positive law.” The political obligation implicit in any regime was carried out as a self-assumed obligation.

Finally, the Cuban leaders understood the need to organize their social base into cadres, which would allow them rapid and effective grassroots mobilization in response to any danger of foreign aggression or domestic destabilization or simply to provide a mass response to economic and social tasks. This was initially achieved through the social and mass organizations—conceived as the typical conveyor belts between the party and society. Starting in 1976 that shifted to the establishment of the municipal system, a program of neighborhood meetings and assemblies that allowed the Cuban state, despite its high centralization, to remain open to demand flows and receive effective information for drafting public policies in line with its social base.

Paternalistic, back-scratching
relations and a subsidized utopia

In summary, revolutionary governability was based on an asymmetrical social alliance between an extremely powerful political class and grassroots sectors in the process of recomposition. This relationship worked effectively for decades. The grassroots sectors benefited from substantial social policies, notably equitable personal consumption and real expectations of upward social mobility. In exchange, they were asked to display unswerving loyalty to a political class that organized the common good and national defense and which, even though it enjoyed consumer privileges, was not insultingly distant from the majority of the population. It should be noted that although this political relation argued in favor of the unity of the whole population, such unity was only achieved at the top levels of the political class, as sociopolitical fragmentation was precisely a condition for administrating governability. This was evident, for example, in the participation schemes operating during that period.
This led to the formation of a paternalist, back-scratching relationship permanently besieged by the very social mobility the system generated. As a result, this model of governability had fragile foundations that started to crack in the mid-eighties and to display the extent of their weakness in 1990, when the model lost the foreign support that facilitated this kind of subsidized utopia.

The cardinal problem:
The erosion of traditional alliances

The cardinal problem that has faced Cuba’s political leadership since the nineties has been how to prevent the revolutionary project’s social alliance from breaking up and reverse the consequent shrinking of its social base in general and its areas of active consensus in particular. The essence of the problem is how to do it without substantially affecting the leadership’s role as the quasi-monopolistic administrator of social reproduction, only ceding quotas of authority where doing so is unequivocally needed for the continuation of the political power project.

This is the case, for example, in the relationship between foreign capital and its native associates or the promulgation of preferential policies on migration, income, access to information, etc. for specific sectors such as the technocracy linked to foreign capital or the artistic and intellectual elite. This has led to aberrant fragmentation, and to the Cuban state’s inequitable distribution and discretional administration of citizens’ rights in exchange for political loyalty.

This reality is a strange dynamic that is difficult to explain according to standard patterns of political rationality. It combines the most stoic anti-imperialist rhetoric with the prominence of a horde of businesspeople of all kinds (which in an excess of rhetoric the Cuban President once termed the “joint liability bourgeoisie”). It subjects Cuba’s population to incessant and costly political mobilization with no visible effect in terms of their declared ends. It justly demands the right of Cubans to dissent from the single international neoliberal way of thinking while denying common citizens the same right in relation to the single official line of thought at home. And it increases spending to turn the inhabitants into the most educated people on the planet while the island is suffering from a dramatic lack of resources.

However, if we recall Marx’s advice to the economists of his age not to take people at their word, such actions have a undeclared political rationality that is far more important to governability than using popular mobilizations to rescue little Elián González from his relatives in Miami or getting the average Cuban to read Marcel Proust more assiduously.

The crisis is one of
more poverty and more opinions

The crisis in general and the economic reform in particular was more than just the contraction of economic surplus or the acceptance of rather undesirable social dynamics. It was the alteration of a model of governability that depends on the quantity and quality of “exchangeable political goods” in state hands in its relations with the social body.

The crisis has definitely restricted resources and therefore influenced the spread of poverty and under-consumption to a significant part of the Cuban population. Nonetheless, this does not necessarily translate into the levels of social exclusion or the elements of extreme poverty experienced elsewhere in Latin America.

This reality has not only increased political demobilization due to the logic of discontent generated by impoverishment, but has also played a decisive part in highlighting the particular identities of subjects who had grown up in and benefited from the revolutionary social mobility. Above all, when the political class, still thrown by the course of events, tolerated the emergence of relatively autonomous organization and opinion, Cuban society experienced an unprecedented climate of debate in which everybody was trying to come to terms with a past that no longer seemed recognizable, while at the same time imagining the best of all possible worlds. This issue of the emergence of a trained, complex and diverse Cuban social subject deserves greater consideration than it has received in studies of any stripe on the country. I would only like to note here that this has undoubtedly been the main success of the Cuban revolution.

Emergence of the market
and a new class

More relevant than the crisis itself—and thus less immediate and more systemic—is the fact that the emerging accumulation model, geared to inserting the national economy into the global capitalist one with the demands that this implies nationally, is impeding the reproduction of the relatively equitable prosperity the state provided for many years, and which underpinned the model of governability.

The Cuban economy has been growing since 1995, but is no accident that this growth has not positively or significantly affected consumption levels and that the reported improvements are possibly more influenced by external factors—such as family remittances—than by state assignations. In a study conducted in one Cuban municipality by a team I led, I was able to verify that the sale of products included in the basic basket of subsidized goods declined most between 1996 and 1998 (around 50%) and remained static from then until 2000. Although there are regional differences in the models for distributing the subsidized rationed products, there is no reason to think this municipality was an exception.

The emerging accumulation model also imposes other social conditions, such as the fact that millions of people are starting to reproduce their lives partially doing without state services. In particular, many of them are beginning to believe—surely with excessive or naive optimism—that they could improve their quality of life if the state stopped intervening in a way they now consider excessive.

As is normal in the market’s modus operandi, there is a diversity of actors. In Cuba these include tens of thousands of urban and rural micro-businesses; hundreds of thousands of cooperative members; millions of people who depend for their survival on remittances from relatives who emigrated; a smaller sector of managers of decentralized national public or mixed companies; members of the intellectual elite; and private commercial actors who occasionally manage to amass considerable sums of money and eventually capital.

Although all of these people share a mercantile paradigm, there are also distinctions among them. While the overwhelming majority barely manages to sustain a more comfortable level of survival, the higher strata belong to what I have termed an incipient technocratic-business class.

A new and unique social actor
has appeared on the Cuban stage

The rise of this class is probably the most relevant factor in Cuban social history over the last decade. There are no studies on the subject and it would be difficult to do one in the current context, but it is well known that hundreds of Cubans have very sizable bank deposits. The available data itself is limited, but suggestive. Around 1996, for example, the National Bank of Cuba’s reports stated that 13% of its bank accounts accounted for 85% of savings. Just two years earlier, the same proportion of savers only controlled 77% of total savings. A study based on a households survey reported that while the lowest fifth of the population received 7% of the income, the highest fifth enjoyed 58%, while the Gini coefficient came out at 0.38, with a very modest improvement in the second half of the decade. If this figure is relatively reliable, Cuban society was still the most egalitarian one in Latin America in income and individual consumption terms, but was already less equal than some developed and underdeveloped capitalist societies.

It is well known that many of the hundreds of Cubans in privileged positions are really the co-owners—or simply owners—of the foreign firms they supposedly work for, or they run tourist operations that far exceed the narrow limitations imposed on micro-businesses. Furthermore, they do so with a political and legal impunity that is totally incompatible with the island’s prevailing ideological climate, unless it is admitted that the Cuban government has a state monopoly on permissiveness.

As this sector comes fundamentally from the political class and has resulted from its current policies, it is not rebellious; it could even be said that in its gradual consolidation as a class it feels that maintaining the current status quo shields it from any greater competitors that might appear in a scenario of more economic openness. As it stands, all transnational capital on the island is affected by a bi-univocal relationship with the political class, which offers it protection to develop and conditions for accumulation in exchange for the economic surplus essential to reproduce the project of power.
The uniqueness of this new social actor on the Cuban stage is that for the first time its main support comes from its linkage to the world market, it possesses a great capacity for ideological and cultural production and it has an expansive dynamic that tends to absorb the traditional political class. It even possesses its own albeit delegated political representation in the highest decision-making bodies. For obvious reasons, it sees itself as a hegemonic social bloc in the future.

The state: Social responsibility
combined with irrationality and inertia

Cuban society’s growing diversification and stratification are basic elements influencing the forms and methods of governability and the state’s complex position in all of this. The Cuban state has adopted a firm stance in defense of the population’s social consumption, which has largely reduced the impoverishment’s effects and avoided exclusion. In doing so, it has retained a basic principle of any state: universal commitment to social prosperity. This is very relevant in an international context in which this inescapable principle of public responsibility is being abandoned.

The state has similarly defended its role as owner and direct provider of goods and services, another laudable element in the wasteland of anti-state rhetoric currently predominating in world politics. All of this implies additional physical, administrative and other costs and tensions for the Cuban state, but it is a kind of cost that goes hand in hand with responsible administration for the common good.

This positive will loses its effectiveness and credibility, however, when subsumed in an aspiration for bureaucratic control that penetrates every nook and cranny of daily life. The state assumes an overwhelming amount of demands that it can barely satisfy at the price of economic and political irrationality, while obliterating the deployment of individual initiatives, constraining the arenas of liberty and tolerance and limiting the quality of democratic participation.
Refusing to carry out a systemic reform that, while establishing preventive measures against US interference and guarantees of social conquests, would increase spaces for individual and cooperative economic activity and for public debate and politically include the existing social diversity, the Cuban leadership has opted for a simple aggregating practice compatible with its political inertia. It is attempting to use this aggregation to respond to both social demands and the requirements of accumulation—which necessarily includes the emerging business-technocratic sector.

What does being
“revolutionary mean”?

In 1994—the hardest year for everyday life, which triggered the “raft” crisis when many Cubans set sail for Florida in improvised craft—the well-known public opinion firm Gallup surveyed people in the streets of Cuba, asking them to express their alignment with a list of political positions. The survey showed that 48% considered themselves “revolutionaries,” 11% “communists” and 11% “socialists,” while only 23% said they opposed the system. The figures about the minority against the system were conclusive, but what was not clear was how these ordinary Cubans differentiated between being revolutionary, socialist and communist. The latter two terms are probably indistinguishable ideologically speaking, with both expressing a strong commitment to the system. But the majority preference for the term “revolutionary” offers at least a trace of doubt, particularly give the presence of more militant options. In this sense, being revolutionary could refer to recognition of the revolution’s social and patriotic gains and/or to an antithetical definition negating the work of “counterrevolutionaries.” In any event, we must not forget that there has been a tendency in Cuban history for the past 150 years to identify political virtue with being “revolutionary.”

Elections and emigration:
What do the numbers tell us?

In Cuba’s system, elections for national parliamentary representatives are based on closed lists of candidates selected by electoral commissions presided over by the unions, with only one candidate presented per post. Citizens have the right to vote for all posts or for as many as they want. Any candidate receiving less than 50% of the valid votes is not elected. Technically, it is impossible to vote against all candidates, as that would mean a blank ballot, which would be considered invalid.

National elections were held in Cuba in 1993 and 1998. In both cases, the government allowed no counter propaganda and engaged in an intense campaign not only to encourage people to go vote, but also to ensure a “united” vote—the term used for choosing all candidates on the ballot—defining it as the only way one could vote “for the homeland, the revolution and socialism.”
The electoral figures for both years are very similar. With almost 8 million potential voters, the abstention rate was derisory, 88% cast a “united” vote and the remaining 10-12% left their ballots blank, spoiled them or voted in a way that was not “united.” There is no reason to believe that all of these roughly 800,000 latter responses reflected opposition. Only around 300,000 of them, a rather insignificant minority of 4%, either ruined their ballots or left them blank—a more emphatic act of protest than voting for some rather than all candidates.

Is it possible to infer from these results that the vast majority that voted “united” represents a sector of active consensus? Such an affirmation would not be very well founded. Citizens have many different reasons for voting rather than abstaining: the ease of voting, which takes around ten minutes in electoral colleges located only a few meters from their home; avoiding social and political pressure; civic culture; or simply routine. Another reason for voting “united” is that the candidates often have support in the districts or enough social merits to be considered good representatives.

If we look at the available statistics on the number of people who requested visas to emigrate to the United States in 1998, we can see that around 732,000 did so out of around 2.5 million people eligible to apply. We therefore have to assume that some part of the voters who cast their ballots “for the homeland, the revolution and socialism” that year were hoping to emigrate to the capitalist country par excellence, the historical enemy that has dedicated itself to defeating the revolution for over 40 years.

More than offering an answer, my intention here is twofold. First, to raise questions about an issue that has much to do with Cubans’ social psychology and their great capacity for simulation in response to power, ever since the far-off times of the Espejo de Paciencia, the first poem written in Cuba. Second, and most importantly, to offer the hypothesis that prospects for the Cuban system’s governability are more related to an axiological shift than a conscious and radical breaking of political loyalties.

A survey done in 1997 by Guillermo Milán among a small but fairly representative sample (137) of Havana residents, found that 20% of them expressed a total lack of confidence in the current political system’s capacity to resolve national problems, while 26% were of exactly the opposite opinion. More significantly still, 47% preferred to focus on solving those problems through individual efforts, without referring to the political system as such. It should be born in mind that the capital has always had higher levels of explicit discontent. The figures of active support would almost certainly be greater in the provinces and smaller cities.

Active or passive consensus:
Who and where?

On this basis, another hypothetical consideration can be put forward: Cuban society is starting to experience a polarization of attitudes and behaviors, one of whose extremes is occupied by a minority and atomized sector of the anti-system opposition, while the other is occupied by a sector of active consensus, also a minority but effectively organized. The majority occupying the center band consists of people who have opted for individual solutions, more fearful of uncertain change than of all of today’s precariousness and seduced by the expectations of upward mobility that the market always provides, though very few really achieve any kind of suitable access.

Given the information available, it is very hard to create a socio-demographic characterization of these sectors. It is tentatively possible to suggest, for example, that the sector of active support consists mainly of two types of people. First are those who want no change due to their age, educational level or political sentiments, fearful that it could be worse than the present; they long to return to the pre-1989 situation. It presumably also includes a leftover social sector of older people with a lower educational level and living conditions that require strong state protection, who tend to accept the charismatic pattern of authority, making it an essentially pro-Fidel sector. Then there are those with higher positions in the current political and economic system, for whom a change could produce an immediate reduction of their status. This includes, of course, most of the traditional state bureaucracy, as well as the new technocrats who quite rightly assume that they would be unable to compete advantageously in an open market. This sector is currently a minority, although it is sufficiently well organized to offer obvious support to the system.

The majority band of passive consensus is more heterogeneous, making it harder to describe and making its expressions more politically dangerous. It is a majority that has opted for individual solutions even though compelled to participate in collective support activities, whether due to an instinct for preservation, sociopolitical pressure or simply because the act of supporting is far less costly than not supporting. Undoubtedly the displacement of this band is key to the country’s political future, and a worsening of its already notably precarious living conditions could translate into anti-system positions.

And the real dissidents?

The anti-system sector is fed by breakaways from the majority passive consensus sector. Its composition might be marked by a greater presence of young people and people with higher educational levels, but the records of the main dissident activists show that many of them held relevant mid-level positions in the political regime or had family links with the elite, but for various reasons have seen their status reduced. Not only is this sector not growing significantly, however, it has not managed to establish itself organizationally or programmatically.

It is a basic fact that the Cuban regime has found it less costly to repress this organized opposition than tolerate it, which attests to its weak social insertion. Although it could be argued that this weak insertion is directly related to the repression and political control, it is unlikely that this opposition will become more socially representative if it does not abandon its maximalist discourse, contemptuous of the collective memory of an undeniably virtuous political process to which millions of people enthusiastically dedicated their lives. It should be noted that the Catholic Church’s arrival on the scene implies a change of quality, insofar as it is the only institution with a nationally organized public vocation.

Individualism, depoliticization and anomie among
the Cuban population

Cuban society is currently experiencing a degree of political exclusion greater than the economic and social exclusion, which is directly influencing the shrinkage of the system’s social base. The most widespread social response to the crisis and the economic recomposition is not opposition to the system or the political regime, but rather individualism, depoliticization and social anomie. Between 1990 and 1995, according to Milán (1998), there was a consistent rate of 20 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants in Cuba, an already high rate that doubled among people over the age of 40. Among 2 million crimes committed, 300,000 involved violence, which was a 55% rise in criminal violence reported to the police. A million and a half people passed through the courts of justice in that period and a quarter of a million went through the prison system. Another author pointed out that if we assigned 100 to represent the 1948-1958 crime rate data in Cuba, it was 61 in the 1981-84 period, 87 in 1985-88 and 169 in 1989-94. Everyday corruption in Cuba is expanding in an alarmingly permissive climate.

Emigration is another survival formula, which takes on anomic features due to the illegal nature of many of its routes and the fact that it is officially anathematized. Its distribution is not random; it is concentrated in socially very significant sectors. Between 1990 and 1995, some 142,000 people emigrated from Cuba, 75% of them to the United States. Most of these emigrants were male workers around 30 years old who lived in Havana. The migratory potential expressed in response to invitations from the US Interests Section in Cuba was 190,000 in 1994, 496,000 in 1996 and 732,000 in 1998; given the requisites imposed by the invitation, the eligible proportion of the current Cuban population of just over 11 million was approximately 25%, or 2.75 million.

All of these situations are perfectly administrable for a considerable length of time without affecting the political continuity, even if that continuity is always achieved with a fragile balance and to the detriment of the quality of governability. In this light, the policies developed by the “hard core” within the Cuban government acquire a sense of rationality.

Further contradictions in the
recomposition of the political class

The 1989-1995 period was probably marked by more contradictions within the political class and more ruptures of the elite than can be inferred by the triumphal official discourse. The sensational Trials 1 and 2, which sent very prominent figures from the military and security services to prison or to face firing squads, rocked society in 1988. In 1993, the monochord National Assembly of Popular Power had to postpone important decisions about implementing an anti-crisis policy due lack of consensus within the elite itself. The brief careers of some of the most prominent emerging figures in local politics culminated in political downfall during this time, as in the well-known cases of Carlos Aldana and Roberto Robaina. But probably nothing is more illustrative of these contradictions than the unstable composition of the top political leadership organs, particularly the Party Politburo.

Between 1975 and 1986, the Politburo’s composition was surprisingly stable. During that time, it consisted of 13 full members, who also sat on the Council of State and were generally backed up by their involvement in historical insurrections or leadership positions in the party apparatus. The only relevant figure in the economic area was closely linked to the Soviet Union and its cooperation organizations. This period unquestionably represented the greatest continuity and concentration of political authority by an elite that directly controlled all institutions.

The Council of State, consisting of some 25 people, is the highest collegiate organ of state power. It is elected by the National Assembly, which it also represents between sessions. Given that the Assembly only meets for a few days a year, the Council actually acts as the legislative body by promulgating decrees. I am defining the political “elite” in a very functional way: those members of the political class who have a seat on the Politburo and at least one of the two highest organs of state: the Council of State and Council of Ministers. I should also clarify that all information presented here on the composition of these institutions is taken from the official state newspaper Granma and other public government bulletins.

Two key pieces:
The military and the technocrats

The 3rd Communist Party Congress in 1986 led to the replacement of over half of the Politburo members—many of them historical leaders—by provincial cadres and representatives of social and mass organizations. The next Politburo, formed in 1991 in the heat of the 4th Congress, again involved substituting over half its members, clearing out still more historical figures and emphasizing three kinds of new people: provincial leaders, ministers from economic areas and members of the military. Of the 25 members, 3 could be considered historical figures (based on their revolutionary backgrounds), 4 were leaders of the party apparatus, 4 were members of the military (one of whom had designed the armed forces’ business system), 5 were leaders related to economic areas, 6 were provincial leaders and 3 represented other activities. Fourteen of those members also sat on the Council of State.

From a certain point of view, this renovation can be seen as positive, to the extent that it displayed the regenerative will of a political class only subjected to a very controlled electoral scrutiny. But if we consider the characteristics of Cuba’s political regime, it must also be admitted that the changes in both years, particularly those of 1991, reflect the leadership’s instability and recomposition during a critical period. And it is no coincidence that, analyzing the continuity of the different figures since 1986—when the changes began to be produced—to the present day, we can see that only seven leaders remain. In reality there are only three (two members of the military and one provincial leader), if we omit the four—Fidel and Raúl Castro, Juan Almeida and José Ramón Machado—who have remained in their posts since 1975.

The Politburo for the 1997-2002 period confirmed the previous tendency in the composition, while reducing the level of change to a quarter of its members. In addition to the four permanent members were five members of the military, four economic leaders, six provincial leaders, two leaders of the party apparatus and four assorted political leaders. Of those, eight had a seat on both the Politburo and either the Council of State or the Council of Ministers: two historical leaders, two members of the military, two economic leaders and another two state leaders.
The recomposition of Cuba’s political elite was based on consolidating a relative majority of two components vital to the future: the military and technocrats, the two key pieces for guaranteeing the new accumulation model.

Reactive, short-term domestic policy,
with social services and nationalism

If we leave aside everything related to modernizing the economic apparatus of public administration and opening up to foreign capital, Cuban domestic policy has had an essentially reactive, defensive and short-term character aimed at two main ends: containing the reduction of its social base and subordinated co-opting of the emerging sectors. This policy could be summed up according to five aspects.

One: preservation of the traditional health, education, culture and social security services and of a minimum level of subsidized personal consumption. This is still the main political resource for consensus. Although the crisis has seriously affected the quality of some of these services, they are still a paradigm for the underdeveloped world. Presumably social expenditure in this area will run into greater difficulties in the future, given the limited resources, the demands of accumulation and the need to satisfy the increasingly more sophisticated consumption of the “nouveaux riches.” Another limiting factor is that in the middle of a very severe constriction of resources and deterioration of basic services, the Cuban government—in its typical “fleeing forward” reaction—is implementing very complex, costly social plans at the expense of rational public administration.

Two: Extreme polarization of the official discourse around a key issue: nationalism. On one level, this nationalism is expressed in opposition to the United States and its political hegemony, but it is also expressed in relation to a world before which Cuba presents itself as the only worthy alternative in power, preferentially compared to the not very edifying Latin American democracies. This ideological offensive has a strong emotional value for a population with a strong sense of patriotism and national self-esteem, but it is only effective in the short run and for the minority sector of active consensus.

But it is also a confused, contradictory discourse that shifts between the needs to feed internal consensus and adjust to the requirements of world politics. It is a discourse that in the end anathematizes many international phenomena, ignoring the fact that many of them are already part of Cubans’ everyday lives. And finally, it is a discourse that serves to sustain a practice that, whatever its defensive justification in response to US interference, creates very delicate diplomatic situations with corresponding political and economic costs.

Three: Restriction of arenas for public debate and the generation of new alternatives. On one level, this is expressed through the repression of the small anti-system groups, but it includes intellectual sectors that have demonstrated a critical side not considered tolerable even from socialist positions. The case of the Center for Studies on the Americas in 1996 is just the best known in a process that has involved the dissolving or neutralizing of NGOs, associations, emerging groups or simply individuals who have shown certain renovating belligerence. By acting this way, the Cuban state deprives society of renovating ideas and practices and closes down arenas for autonomous popular organizations that could play a key political role in the defense of the revolution’s social, cultural and political advances in the future. It thus clears the way for a capitalist restoration without any effective opposition.

Four: Differentiated policies for co-opting sectors vital to reproducing the power project (technocrats, members of the military) or are strongly corporativized and of great symbolic significance (artists, professional elites). This has produced
an asymmetrical distribution of civil rights having to do with migratory privileges, information, salaries, etc. But at the same time, this co-option severely limits the development of these very sectors, in particular because it condemns them to public and economic confinement. It also explains the reticence of Cuba’s political class to continue the business reform in the only way possible (increasing the levels of autonomy of the businesses and their managers) or the economic reform in general (by opening spaces for small and medium businesses), which would de-fragment the markets to the benefit of the independent actors operating in them.

Five: Institutional affirmation of the Armed Forces as the backbone of continuity. Although, legally speaking, the Communist Party has the dominant status in the Cuban political system, and with its half a million affiliates is still a considerable political force, it has evidently been relegated to second place in the country’s political life. Its collective leadership bodies barely function, its last Congress was a simple legitimization of the policies being implemented and its functions are becoming increasingly administrative. In any case, the Communist Party would be one of the main points of discussion in any political transition in Cuba.

The situation is very different regarding the Armed Forces, which are the most respected state institution, whether because of their effectiveness in guaranteeing national defense, their undeniably positive external military record or their effective involvement in highly sensitive social actions. Meanwhile, they have also provided society with a model of business organization and economic opening in times of greatest uncertainty. No political change will be possible in Cuba without the support of the Armed Services. But at the same time, none of their proven efficiency in these specific fields suggests that they have the capacity to offer a viable model of societal and political organization.

The inevitable opening to
the market and end of the embargo

Other elements could be added to this balance sheet, but it would be hard to alter the conclusion that the short-term nature of this political game proposes postponing problematic situations, not solving or preventing them. The first of these elements remains a permanent cause of stress, just as it was throughout the nineties. It consists of the inevitable truth that sustained economic recovery can only be obtained at the price of increasingly opening up the market and thus inevitably ceding decision-making powers to its agents, to the detriment of the political class’ persistent desire to exercise complete control. At the beginning of 2002, the situation was even more complicated due to the recession of the global capitalist economy and the devastation caused by Hurricane Michelle across 45% of Cuban territory, which according to official calculations implied material losses of nearly US$1.8 billion.

The second element is the course of the US embargo and other aggression against the revolution, which have existed for as many decades as the revolution itself. US pressure has redoubled since the nineties. One example is the promulgation in 1996 of the Helms-Burton Law, an act lacking both legality and ethics. It must be recognized that the Cuban political class has handled this foreign threat with great skill, whether by reducing its effects and leading the United States down more than one blind alley in its relations with the island, or by using the conflict as an argument for mobilization and maintaining consensus around nationalist bases.
What is generating most stress, however, is not the continuation of the embargo, but rather the increasingly obvious fact that it is coming to an end, because the Cuban market is starting to interest US business. Cuban policy has focused precisely on encouraging this interest as a way to normalize relations without prior conditions (which would offer it a less restricted negotiating scenario, and to a certain extent allow it to follow the same strategy as Vietnam). It has simultaneously exploited the holes appearing in the embargo to increase internal legitimacy, presenting them to the population as the successful results of Cuban policy and popular mobilization, as the case of Elián González clearly demonstrated.

But even if it were possible to achieve a negotiating scenario that was totally advantageous for the Cuban authorities, the end of the embargo would also mark the end of a certain kind of politics and lead to the depolarization of Cuba’s political system. Given such a scenario, the part of the political class educated in a climate of confrontation and incapable of acting under other conditions would possibly have to step down. Of course, this scenario does not rule out probable reverses, some of them potentially dramatic, particularly at a time in which the US administration is headed by an ultra-conservative team determined to wage an “anti-terrorist crusade” with consequences that, while unpredictable, will certainly be pernicious.

A third stress factor is the aging of the revolution’s historic leadership and the inevitability of its disappearance from the public stage. The Cuban system certainly possesses regulatory mechanisms for succession, including the fact that the Party’s second-in-command is also second in command of the state and heads up the Armed Forces, the most coherent and prestigious state institution. But Cuba’s political system is based on a strong concentration of charismatic authority and a good part of the active support still enjoyed by the political process is undeniably based on loyalty to Fidel Castro.

This does not mean that the public withdrawal of the Cuban leadership will lead to political chaos. Cuba has enough institutions and actors to rearticulate the different scenarios, or at least great ability to negotiate them. But it will no longer be possible to carry out this rearticulation through the use of charismatic authority, which has been an invaluable factor of consensus and unity for the political class over the last 40 years. New ways of doing politics will inevitably have to be thought up.

The only possible option?
A series of lost opportunities

As is true of most political matters related to Cuba, I am involving myself in this issue fully aware that I risk subjecting myself to the polarizations that characterize Cuba’s political system and the academic interpretations surrounding it, and of being interpreted accordingly. From a certain point of view, the subject of governability in Cuba is also the subject of the continuity of the national liberation project and of the socialist orientation that has remained in power for over 40 years despite brutal US hostility. Any crisis of governability in Cuba necessarily implies a systemic replacement of that project, but a systemic replacement does not necessary have to pass through a crisis of governability. Such a replacement is currently underway, through gradual ascription to the norms of the global capitalist economy and the generation of actors organic to this process who are and will continue to be the out-and-out winners of the economic adjustment and the opening. It could be thought that it was the only possible option, and that is largely true.

But it is also true that the Cuban leadership has obliterated the emergence of the autonomous arenas of popular organization in the economy and politics that could have refracted the dominant tendencies in favor of preserving and developing the system’s socialist characteristics, including an authentic participatory and pluralist democracy. In so doing, the Cuban political class sacrificed its professed socialist goals to the continuity of its project of bureaucratic power. It could have allowed it with probable success in 1986, when Cuban society was expecting something new from the call for the revolution to take a more positive direction. It could have as well in 1991, when Cuban society experienced the most democratic national public debate in its history. There was also some chance that it could have been allowed in 1994, following the crisis of the “raft people” and when the rigors of the economic adjustment began to be felt. This is a regrettable list of lost opportunities.

The legacy of this revolution

Today, the political and intellectual spokespeople of the Cuban revolution are embarrassedly assuming its bankruptcy, and capitalist restoration is inevitable. None of this can be interpreted as the historic loss of 40 years for the Cuban nation, as the rightist bands of emigrant and domestic opponents proclaim from their respective isolation. On the contrary, they have been 40 years of unprecedented social, cultural and political realization that history—always more receptive than its actors—will know how to revalidate. For those of us who believe in the superiority of the socialist option, it will leave a legacy that is as contradictory as it is suggestive.

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