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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 146 | Septiembre 1993



Is Cuba Resisting or Retreating? (Part I)

María López Vigil

The Berlin wall fell and the foundations of Socialist Europe crumbled. Two years after the disintegration of the USSR, Russia once again hoisted the banner of the Czars and begged its adversaries for a seat at the table of capitalist "welfare." No nation in the world was or still is as affected by this rapid and unexpected turn of affairs as Cuba, a small country that depended almost totally on the existence of a socialist world over six thousand miles away, a world that has now disappeared.

Four years ago "history came to an end," according to the victors. Or the shortsighted. Cuba feels the "end" more than any other place. The security of its powerful economic rearguard, which explains Cuba's impressive economic development of the last 30 years, disappeared. So did the partner for 85% of its commercial trade. Support for military defense was reduced to zero. The "new" international order was ushered in four years ago by the world's well?known military power, the United States, which for 200 years has wanted Cuba to be one more star in its flag, and for 35 years has been sharpening its hostility to the Cuban revolution. "They wanted to see a satellite where there was a sun and today our revolution shines as a star in a dark sky," explains Fidel Castro.

Cuba continues despite everything, in the same place as always and with the same people. It is in a "special period," but it continues. Surviving and also developing, two equally difficult goals. Without meat, without buses, without soap and without hard currency, without parts, with less fuel and with very little milk, with the trade embargo stronger than ever and even with the "storm of the century," which caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, and an epidemic of unknown origin that has brought blindness and nervous disorders to 40,000 people. Cuba is a mess but it continues, trying daily to re?tool the machinery of its socialist ship in order to stay afloat on the stormy neoliberal sea of the century's end.

A Shining Star or a Black Hole?

During 1990, Cuban exile groups from Miami sponsored contests with huge prizes to guess when Cuba would "fall." They also packed their bags in anticipation. At that time, "Cubanologists" predicted an imminent end similar to that of Rumania. Fidel was the creole Ceau?cescu and an avalanche of his irate people would pull him down. But nothing happened.

No one won the contest. The disintegration of the USSR once again raised talk about the end of socialist Cuba. But 1992 passed and 1993 is now coming to an end. Still nothing. No one is financing contests anymore and the only news about Cuba is chaotic. Silence prevails, when in such difficult times for the island, each day of survival, each new foreign investment, each scientific discovery is prime material for a prominent news feature. In the image war controlled by US transnationals??and increasingly by a powerful Cuban exile group as well??the Rumanian model has been discarded. Now it is Somalia. The image of Cuba is now of an indigent and malnourished population escaping in small rafts or awaiting boats full of humanitarian aid, in emaciated expectation of the day of liberation.

In his first, and very paternalistic, comments on Cuba, US Vice President Albert Gore said, "Our task is to convince the Cubans in Cuba that the system they live in is a failure." The phrase suggests an absurd policy: even when made paupers they aren't convinced...

The predictions continue, and Cuba also continues. Cuba resists, say some, applauding the resistance. Cuba is in its death throes, say others. The current survival is seen as the last phase, the revolution's end in slow motion. Heroically slow. But the last brilliant agony before the end, before being slowly sucked into the black hole left by a star that has gone out.

And what do Cubans say? On February 24, 1993, Cubans had a chance to express their views on the country's course by electing the country's principal authorities in a direct and secret vote.

Plebiscite on socialism

For many years, many voices??of both friends and enemies of the Cuban revolution??have risen around the world to urge, or to demand, that Fidel Castro submit to a plebiscite on his permanence in power and Cuba's current system. February's elections were in fact just that, although they were not planned as such; they were not called a plebiscite and on the ballots there were no plebiscite?type questions, just lists of candidates for municipal, provincial and national posts.

The alternative to the revolution was not a person or a party??the election was not between rival candidates of different banners (see "The Making of the Cuban Elections," also in this issue). But there was another option: annul the ballot by leaving it blank, spoiling it, or writing insults to the leaders on it, as happens in any election in the world.
The elections had such a plebiscite character, that day and night the exiles in Miami urged the Cuban people over their radio stations to use the opportunity to reject the government, the system, and Fidel Castro in particular. Any transistor in Cuba receives Radio Martí and the 20 other stations transmitting from Florida. The Cuban exile leaders announced that the rejection of socialism would be massive.

It was indeed a chance to reject socialism. And there was full liberty to do so, because it was a secret vote, for the first time ever. The almost eight million Cubans who went to the polls spent as much time as they wanted behind the curtain, accompanied only by their conscience, to say with a pen whatever they wanted to say. There was no military presence at the polling sites, which were open for observation by any foreign journalist or tourist. Each of the 60,000 urns where the voters deposited their ballots was guarded only by a pair of children in their red and white school uniforms.

The revolutionary leaders also capitalized on the plebiscite character of the election. Theirs was not your typical campaign: no signs, no t?shirts and no commercials, just words. The campaign inside Cuba focused first on voting and later on what was called the united vote. The counter?campaign from Miami focused first on abstention and later, when it became clear that the elections offered a chance to express rejection of Fidel, on annulling the ballot. The Cubans on the island listened to the arguments from both sides and made their decisions.

All citizens 16 years of age or older are eligible to vote, and 99.75% of them did. That almost unanimous turnout can be explained by the social control??more than state control??that characterizes Cuban society: the organized and the committed in each neighborhood or workplace pull the passive along, "obliging" them to participate. But if that explains the turnout, does it explain why 93% of the votes were valid? Why there was no anonymous outpouring of rejection, as the exiles had urged? Was it fear of later repression? But an inmate in a totalitarian prison takes advantage of any chance to escape.

The Cuban people are surely no exception. Fraud in the count? If that were the case, wouldn't the exile leaders be the first to decry it?

Just before the elections, Carlos Alberto Montaner??leader of the Democratic Platform and one of the revolution's most publicized opponents in Europe??had declared that he expected the annulled ballots to exceed 50%. After learning the results, neither he nor the Miami radios claimed fraud; in fact, they made no comments at all. The Cuban elections simply vanished from the news.

How, then, can this massive vote in favor of the revolution be explained, in the midst of so much shortage and uncertainty? How can the Cuban people's resistance and survival in recent years be understood? We have put together four possible responses, four angles from which to view Cuban society and its revolution??egalitarianism, nationalism, defensiveness and intelligence. In the end, they are little more than a personal approximation of the complex reality of post?Cold War Cuba.


In the Cuban electoral system registration is not necessary to vote. All Cubans are automatically registered and have the right (but no obligation) to vote when they reach the age of 16 years.

This right to vote is similar to other rights. When born, and before, every Cuban is guaranteed health care, education, employment, social security, vacations, culture, sports and limitless opportunities; they are protected by a state committed to social equity. This has given the Cuban revolution a solid consensus. It changed the lives of a majority of the population, providing concrete benefits that even today, in times of scarcity, are maintained and that no one can lose. "Why does a government exist? To protect the health of all, to bring education to all, stability and opportunities for all. That is our duty as ones who govern. It is not the government's duty to give in to human selfishness and devil take the hindmost. We prefer that everyone live an austere life than that some live in luxury at the cost of hunger and poverty for the majority." These are words from a recent interview with Carlos Lage, Cuba's virtual prime minister, the non?"historic" leader of greatest relevance in the country today.

Equality at the Bottom

Cuba's is the most egalitarian society in all of Latin America and the South. "And surely," adds a Cuban journalist, "the most egalitarian in the world. Because, although we don't have everything that the Swedish have, the difference between rich Swedes and less?rich Swedes is much greater than the differences between us." If we accept that equity is a prerequisite for development, not only ethically but also technically, then Cuba is the only country on our continent that has laid this necessary foundation.

Social equity means equal access for all Cubans to all social services. Every pregnant woman receives 15 free pre?natal visits; all children receive a dozen free vaccines against as many illnesses; any person needing it receives the most sophisticated transplant or brain surgery free. Equity means equal opportunity for any Cuban to become a highly?trained and distinguished scientist, professional or technician, or an olympic athlete. Or, if he/she prefers, to remain a worker??or a mediocre functionary. Even for the latter, employment is always guaranteed, and the differential between the highest and lowest salary is only 4 to 1. Little is ever said about the democratic equaling that the Cuban revolution has achieved between whites and blacks??a third of the population. Little is also said about the democracy that trains men and women equally and has guaranteed economic security and intellectual and moral development to half of the island's population. Today women are 56% of the technical force in the country and have 28% of the management roles in central state administration.

Much equality has already been achieved in Cuba. Equality "at the bottom," in all the basics, is almost total. There is perhaps an excess of it "at the top," which transforms equity into homogeneity and controls or prohibits the healthy and righteous initiatives of those who are most dissatisfied or out of step or brilliant within the society. So much equality can be excessively homogenous, constraining, unstimulating. Boring? The "special period" has made clear as never before the dangers, risks and disadvantages of an excessive egalitarianism.

Three "Economies" Co?exist

Three decades of economic and commercial exchanges between Cuba and the USSR, based on the principles we all demand for a new economic order, of more fairness and solidarity between large and small nations, allowed Cuba to organize a state that guaranteed this colossal equity and start down the road to development. Preferential prices, soft credit, a variety of projects and technical advice joined with Cuban talent and made a miracle.

The "end of history" brusquely interrupted this long?term project, after many advances had already been gained but some elemental steps were still lacking. The revolutionary economy?? after the US started the blockade at the beginning of the 1960s??became more and more integrated with those of the socialist bloc and especially with the USSR. If leftist movements lost their compass with the current crisis, Cuba lost more; it lost the sea on which it was sailing.

The peacetime "special period," initiated at the end of 1990, tried to save what has already been gained and, with a drastic cut in resources, readjust the economy to continue advancing along the chosen course: ambitious development with total equity. Is this ideal possible in a country so small, with so few resources, impoverished and pillaged over centuries? Or does the fall of the walls demand pragmatism from Cuba?
Almost three years of the "special period" have consolidated three "economies," both contradictory and complementary, on the island: the state economy, the tourist economy and the black market economy.

Administering scarcity

The state economy??still centrally planned??produces, invests, assumes all health and education costs, and distributes and subsidizes the prices of all basic consumption goods for the whole population. It is closely involved in the egalitarian division of resources. And since there is now quite little, everything is strictly rationed. Each vehicle owner has the right to 10 gallons of gas per month, and, up to seven years old, each child is guaranteed a liter of milk a day. Each person gets one small loaf of bread daily, and eight eggs a month. Vegetables and fruits, according to the season, are also rationed, when they get to the market. But they do not make it to the market, or only rarely. Goods distributed through the ration book are in permanent fluctuation, depending not only on the harvest cycles but on what is or is not bought in the foreign market.

There is continuously less to distribute. The socialist countries that traded with Cuba in order to get sugar, nickel, citrus, electronic products, etc, no longer exist, and so do not facilitate oil and 700 other products, basic and otherwise, and innumerable raw materials for use in Cuba. The countries and the relationships disappeared while the United States blockade remained, and got tougher, making it hard for Cuba to open new markets, attract new investments, import the same products from countries closer by or get credit from western countries to buy them.

Disintegrated economically by the fall of the USSR, blocked obstinately by the United States, and in need of a complete economic adjustment to adapt to the new international situation, the Cuban state economy is in a serious crisis. Based on gigantic investments, subsidies, a centralism that led to inefficiency and an economic rearguard that "went flat"??as Cubans say of the crisis of "real socialism"??it administers ever more scarcity and does it in an ever more short?term manner.

Oil: The Weakest Link

Lack of petroleum is the most serious aspect of the current crisis. Crude oil is extracted in Cuba, but it is insufficient and very dense. If petroleum were to show up on a Cuban marine platform (foreign companies are looking now), the crisis would significantly change hue.

Over the years, the revolution developed an enormous infrastructure around the country: highways, bridges, airports, docks, dams, electricity for 95% of the population... This effort erased many borders between the capital and the "interior," between rural and urban. But this infrastructure drank 13 million tons of fuel annually in order to function. Today Cuba can only buy one third of that.

There is no more solidarity trade: the price of oil rose and the price of sugar dropped. Today oil is half of Cuba's imports. And sugar's value has been cut by 70%. "It's as if your salary was cut from 100 to 30. And of those 30 you spend 15 on fuel." That's Cuba's crisis.

The country no longer functions as Cubans were accustomed to. Tractors, paralyzed by the lack of fuel, have been substituted by 180,000 oxen. More than 500,000 Chinese and Cuban bicycles circulate on Havana's streets, where more than 2 million people live. Today it is the capital city with the least carbon monoxide in the world. The 152 sugar mills, the heart of the economy, have problems, and every Cuban has problems. Despite all this, the state economy continues to invest in three areas priority areas: tourism, biotechnology and the food plan.

"The revolution will be finished once there is just one child who doesn't have the necessary health care or education, and once there's no investment for future development and we're only surviving," an economist told me. "We're not far from that moment," he added.

It isn't easy to adjust an economy totally conceived for one world to a new, wider, more adverse one. The Cuban adjustment has to be macro and micro at the same time. The state economy not only abandoned its five?year plans but also its improvised annual plans. It functions like a low?income family, or like a tiny corner grocery. Every month, every day, it has to do short?term accounting: see what it can buy, how much it can buy, analyze the most serious shortage, decide where to invest its tourism income... There are problems on all fronts: obsolete parts, a scarcity of hard currency, pressures from the US blockade, ships that take longer than planned to arrive, no culture of returning empty bottles, which must be learned... and then just the ever?changing world. It is the most complex "economic adjustment" that any Latin American country has carried out, according to Enrique Iglesias, director of the World Bank.

In the midst of all this tension, 1993 brought three unexpected emergencies. The "storm of the century" affected 10 of Cuba's 14 provinces, causing massive losses in sugar, tobacco, and intensive cattle pasturing, to say nothing of the crops for domestic consumption, the seaside aquarium and the thousands of houses left roofless. A second series of unexpected rains destroyed what was left of the sugar harvest in its last phase, so Cuba is producing less sugar in 1993 than in any other year of the revolution (4.2 million tons)??a loss of $450 million from its main hard currency earner. The third crisis is the suspicious epidemic of optical neuritis, an illness unknown to the best specialists. The state, guaranteeing free health care to the whole population, had to spend extraordinary amounts, some $20 million, to manufacture and distribute thousands of vitamin B pills, which all Cubans are now taking daily to prevent the illness.

Tourist "apartheid"

For now, the state economy is being sustained by the tourist economy. Cuba was always interested in developing tourism. A country with year?round sun, magnificent beaches and views, a stable society, no environmental contamination, also uncontaminated by drugs and casinos, Cuba has an immense potential in tourism.

The "special period" gave priority to tourism as the quickest way to get the hard currency that would allow Cuba to continue functioning. In 1993, the number of tourists will increase 45% over 1992, with visits from 700,000 people. Cuba expects a 1,000.000 by 1995. Canadians, Italians and Spanish come the most. Latin Americans also visit from Mexico, Argentina, Chile. The blockade prohibits US citizens, the closest and perhaps most curious of potential tourists. In 1958, the last year before the revolution, 228,000 US tourists visited Cuba. If the same number were to visit today, spending the average that tourists spend, Cuba would have $200 million in additional income. Knowing that 6,000.000 US citizens now spend their vacations in the Caribbean, it is logical to imagine that more would visit Cuba than in 1958.

The Cuban economy needs tourists. Without tourism??second in income only to sugar??there would not be as much equity today. But the equity faces a challenge precisely because of tourism. Housing is not being built??and there is a deficit of thousands??but new hotels are always going up. Fuel is scarce, but not for tourists, who can travel wherever they want. They lack nothing: not electricity, milk, or lobster in the restaurants where they pay with dollars.

For every 40 cents Cuba invests in tourism, the country earns $1. The state reinvests part of those benefits in the tourist industry it self, and the rest to finance other development investments as well as the subsidies of the state economy.
Tourism both resolves and complicates. It resolves objectively, economically and in the short term. But it erodes subjectively and politically, also in the short term.

It affects equity. Tourism has broken the guidelines of equality that were tenaciously built over the years. Any Cuban, no matter his or her political conscience, feels like a second?class citizen when confronted with tourism. Is tourism in Cuba not beginning to take the place that, in other Latin American societies, is filled by the affluent class, which, as everyone can see, has everything? The tourists travel in fancy cars, dress in high fashion, have fun and eat lobster. Will socialism come to mean scarcity and end up putting itself at the service of capitalist dollars? Although the tourist infrastructure grows and grows, it is not yet big enough for Cubans themselves to go the tourist centers and eat in good restaurants as they did until 1989. It is a question of capacity but also of quality: Cubans pay in "worthless" national currency.

The entire spectrum of Cuban opposition has denounced what it calls tourist "apartheid" as violating the population's human rights and decries the new inequalities as if it had spent the past three decades defending Cuba's system of equality instead of pining for the Bautista days of glittering casinos and showgirls.

Cuba's leaders have explained the reasons for the discrimination, this "necessary evil." But explaining does not convince; much less does it resolve the subjective problem. It is an issue of perception, of conscience. It is also not easy to answer the question: what other short?term option than tourism does Cuba have while it is readapting its economy?

An excessive ideological puritanism, characteristic of the Cuban revolution, accentuates tourism's negative aspects. There are still many unnecessary barriers between the population and the tourists, justified as preventing "contamination" of revolutionary values and conscience. For many years, Cubans could not even enter tourist hotels. Today, the two are still worlds apart. Why can't a Cuban rent a room to a tourist? Why stigmatize the "jineteras" (free?lance women who "accompany" tourists) as hookers, if their attitude is more complex than a simple phenomenon of social decomposition, and can reflect anything from a personal decision toward "the prohibited" to the most accessible way to resolve their problems during the special period? Why not organize young women from the same municipality to be tour guides for its occasional visitors? Why so much formality towards tourists if Cubans are not normally formal? Tourism is not a "necessary evil" but a "desireable good" for Cuba and for any nation. Objectively, it beautifies the country by assuring care for the natural resources that attract the tourists in the first place, and, subjectively, it signifies a cultural challenge for the people and the socialist revolution.

The Black Bag

The tourist economy (because of the circulation of dollars) and the state economy (because of its scarcity) both feed the black market, which is called the "black bag" in Cuba. It is a powerful and growing economy.
In the 1980s, Cubans had an acceptable living standard, though never as irrational and wasteful as consumerist societies. The state's permanent investment in national development demanded austerity and resource control. But with the essentials subsidized and health and education free, Cubans dedicated a large part of their incomes to buying other things, necessary or superfluous, in what was called the "parallel market." Good shoes or a ham or a case of beer to celebrate a birthday, a color television or a vacation at Varadero. The Cuban peso was strong and there was choice. All Havana residents could regularly eat in restaurants where today there are only tourists.

The special period abruptly cut off this possibility to make life, which was already just, also more enjoyable. The important escape valve was closed. Today Cubans spend a small part of their salary on the few items that are found with the ration card and the rest to buy in the black market all those items no longer found with the ration card. But the Cuban peso is so devalued that the rest of the salary often can only buy a basic pair of tennis shoes. Although the official exchange rate is still 1 to 1, the black market rate is more than 50 to 1. The Cuban government recently made it legal for citizens to have hard currency. Up to then, no Cuban, including diplomats while they were in Cuba, could legally have dollars. Reality has imposed itself. At the time of the announcement, various analysts calculated that more than 40% of the population had dollars and used them to buy or sell in the black market. They calculate that no less than $1 billion was in circulation.

Tourism and visits from family in the United States or the packages they sent filled not the pockets but the corners of Cuban houses with "illegal" dollars. Using these dollars and a friendly hand (a tourist or family member or through a jinetera), Cubans bought products in the tourist stores, then resold them in Cuban pesos on the black market. The goods were increasingly sold on the black market in dollars as well. Products on the black market also come from the small or large theft that is tolerated in hotels or in factories where there are discipline problems.

The black market also feeds on unemployment. Adjustments in Cuba have, as in other countries, brought unemployment, though the statistics are not officially released. Cubans do not employ the inhuman "shock policy" of neoliberalism, which leaves thousands without work and on their own. Unemployed Cubans receive 60% of their salary and the state offers training options or new jobs, which they are free to accept or refuse. Many of those whose days are free find "employment" in this broad but clandestine dollarized economy. Even the authorities use it, turning a blind eye to its illegal nature. Only the major robberies are punished.

Once upon a time...
Once upon a time there was a mother with 14 children, all still growing up. She worked very hard, and was able to give them a dignified life with security and health. But finally the mother's life got so complicated that her efforts were insufficient to give her children all that they needed. To guarantee that there would be enough food, she rented the nicest part of her house to a foreigner, and waited on him with the best she had to offer: delicious food. "With what he pays us the whole family will eat," she told her children when they got jealous and complained. And indeed, the foreigner paid
enough so that everyone ate and no one went to bed hungry.

When the children had finished their simple and boring
plates, the foreigner was only beginning to enjoy all that the mother cooked. To satisfy their appetites or to live more happily, as in earlier times, some of the children stole in the streets and others got involved in dirty deals. The mother, worried about making ends meet, turned a blind eye to her children's activities and refused to see that her children were no longer the same. They were only a bit skinnier; the change was inside. Until one day...

It's only a parable. But it applies to Cuba today.

Pending "Rectifications"

The adjustment of the Cuban economy began in 1986 with the "rectification," but was forced even further with the end of the USSR. Many structural rectifications were left undone due to the emergency. There has been a daily emergency since 1989. And every year has been worse. How much longer, asks everyone? It's hard to answer. Is time on Cuba's side or not? The "special period" means uncertainty.

There is much debate in Cuba on how viable this situation, with its contradictory dynamics (among which can be added the presence of pampered foreign investors), can remain unless important economic changes are introduced in time. There is talk of the urgency of finally developing an economic system that takes into account all the pieces of the new reality.

On July 26, Fidel Castro explained that, to survive, the revolution's economy had to confront two serious problems: the excess of national currency in circulation and the scarcity of hard currency. To capture the hard currency in the black market and attract potential money sent by families, he announced that all Cubans could have and use dollars in the tourist and special stores (a "parallel market" for those who have dollars). The state would invest these in improving subsidized food for all.

Many other measures also get mentioned, among them revising current prices, which are artificial due to the subsidies, and giving Cuban money its real value. Also talked about are policies of more limited and selected subsidies, of incorporating a tax or income control mechanism into the economy, of authorizing free?lance workers or small business owners to legally offer services that are currently inefficiently centralized by the state, of establishing a correct relationship between wage and work, and of rethinking the best possible relation ship between individual, business and national interests.

Many are speaking again of the error of prohibiting the free peasant market, especially since the food plan cannot overcome inefficiencies in production and, above all, in the over?centralized distribution. The plan is a priority, but people aren't eating well.

Some 20% of the land is in the hands of peasants who did not want to join cooperatives and still have their private plots, but must sell all their harvest to the state. In the mid?1980s they were authorized to sell part of their harvest on the parallel market, presupposing an immediate improvement in food production and distribution.

But it also ruptured the egalitarian ethic by "enriching" a sector of those peasants and especially of the new "middlemen" (despite the condition that the peasants sell their crop surplus in the market themselves to avoid the creation of an intermediary class). Because of ideological purism there has been a desire to avoid these and other privileges. But the ideological cost of the double morality created now with the black market, and the social and political cost of shortages, are greater than the costs of having some privileged sectors.

In the changes that must be made, "concessions that life forces on us," "concessions to capitalist economy principles to save the conquests of socialism," according to Fidel Castro, "we will be neither dogmatic nor crazy," specifying, faithful to his purism, that the measures Cuba is taking now "are not to perfect socialism but rather so that the revolution can survive." But isn't it hard in these confusing times to separate the two?

Rafters and deserters

The equitable society that Cuba built, and is today trying to maintain at all cost, is without doubt a giant cushion that explains the socially stable manner in which Cuban society is living through the complex economic crisis. Cubans did not vote "with their stomach." And although there is delinquency, and outbursts of protest, they are minimal expressions of instability, particularly when compared with the uprisings that occur daily in explosive neoliberal Latin America. The equity stabilizes and explains the massive support for the revolution. Where the margin of inequality is small, violence is less. In the failed capitalism of Latin American countries, the opulence of a few and the display windows of consumer society, visible to all in the streets and on television, generate violence and social decomposition.

But in Cuba's "special period", the strong state egalitarianism, broken by tourism and mocked by the black market, also frustrates many Cubans. Some high officials??who are not numerous in Cuba and always lived austerely??and, above all, those who became highly qualified professionals through socialism's equal opportunities and their own enormous personal sacrifice, now have disappointingly low living standards. They are measured by the same yardstick the state uses to measure the idle who always lived off of state paternalism and are today dedicated to exploitation in the black market.

These frustrated professionals, who see no solution to Cuba's economy, are more tempted today to desert it. In the unequal capitalist societies, which they know directly from their travels, their experience and knowledge would not only be better paid but also more recognized. Their family would live with less insecurity and more happiness and their living standard would justify the years of effort. This is a strong temptation when added to the fact that, for political reasons, all Cubans who leave the country illegally have many doors opened to them as to a hero. So much egalitarianism in times of such scarcity explains the desertion of many Cuban professionals. Information about Cuba's "political crisis" is fabricated around them: lack of freedom. But the essential explanation is economic: an excess of equity.

Deserters are the exception among the hundreds of thousands of professionals trained during the revolution who do not make news. Those who stay are the really newsworthy ones. They are the medical and scientific specialists who get to work on bicycles, hardly eat breakfast and work 15 hours daily to discover formulas and technologies that will allow the country to better use its resources and overcome all the blockades in the world. "Our greatest victory will not be that the Yankees lift the blockade, but that we ourselves learn to overcome it," they say.

More stay than leave. They are the many anonymous Cubans who cope daily with ration cards, lines and difficulties, not the few who stay in an airport or get on a boat or an inner tube and cross the Florida straits looking for paradise in Miami where they have the freedom to be millionaires, drug dealers or beggars.

Day?to?day life in Cuba is more heroic than the adventures of the "raftsmen." Cubans, like everyone else, want to live better. But the majority of Cubans don't want to at whatever price.


It is said that national sovereignty is an obsolete concept, a relic of the history that "ended." In Cuba, nationalism, defense of national sovereignty and dignity, national pride, not only still exist, they are another key to the social stability and the majority's support for the revolution as recently expressed in the elections.

The Cuban revolution is as nationalist as it is socialist. The recovery of national sovereignty stands alongside social justice as one of its main achievements. It is a nationalism that defends socialism, since it is the exact opposite of what prevailed in the European socialist countries. Cubans' anti?imperialist and anti?US sentiment pushes them toward socialism, while the anti?USSR sentiment of the Polish, Czechoslovakians and Hungarians pushed them away from it. The country?revolution?socialism identification that Cubans make today reflects a conviction born of Cuba's own history more than it does a worn?out ideological pig?headedness. Cuban socialism has nationalist roots, although the Cold War hid them from some Cubans.

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Citizens of a Nation

Before the USSR ever existed or Lenin had even been born, the United States dreamed of annexing the island of Cuba. José Martí's patriotic fight was as much to prevent this catastrophe as it was to liberate Cuba from Spain. The United States' first imperialist war took place on Cuban territory. The US fought against Spain at the end of the 19th century to win Cuba, not to help liberate it. Fidel Castro had not been born and the Cuban nation was already defining itself in opposition to the North's pretensions. The Cuban revolution, begun only 50 years after Cuba's independence from Spain, sought another independence: to be a nation and not a US appendage. Today, only 110 square kilometers of Cuban territory??the Guantánamo naval base??remain as a vestige of that past.

Cubans have a clear collective sense of being citizens of a nation. In the other Latin American countries, that sense is as devalued as their currencies or political parties. There the neoliberal projects, designed only to benefit a minority group whose interests and lifestyle are anything but national, are killing the sense of "citizen identity," the awareness of being part of a whole. The neoliberals stud? ied in US universities, send their children to study there now and keep their money in US banks. They are partners in US transnational businesses and think about their countries "in English." What they think of as "national" is reduced to typical foods, folklore and the flag flying over sports events. The national projects with which the majority of our peoples identify are being painted over with a different color wash.

It's not like that in Cuba. The revolution is a project. It has woven together an organization and unity so tight and strong that what it achieves or fails to achieve, its successes and failures, are felt as everyone's responsibility. Cubans speak of the "special period" in the first person plural, a "we" that commits everyone. This social psychology is stabilizing and permits enough margin of governability to allow the Cubans to face this crisis. But how? With heroism? With patience? With fatalist resignation? With confidence and hope that there's light at the end of the tunnel?

What Kind of Pluralism?

The government periodically takes polls to learn the public's opinion of the crisis. Faithful to a secretive style now 30 years old, the polls are ultra?compartmentalized and even some high?level officials do not know their results. This, together with the lack of access to other information sources, prevents debate. The raw material is there, but the "factory" is closed.

The desire to defend the almost monolithic unity that has been achieved generates fear of opening a debate that could cause splits, even though it could also help to make national unity more mature, more rooted, less merely gut?level. "It's dangerous to open debate when the table is empty," say some.

"But the table isn't empty only because of the blockade or because the Soviets disappeared, but because of our own mistakes and our resistance to change, and that all needs to be debated in order to fill the table," offer others. The culture of debate continues to be another deficit of Cuban democracy.

"The pluralism we need is not the one prescribed to us, of a ton of parties, but rather pluralist debate within the party of the revolution," a unionist told me, adding, "we need more grassroots pluralist discussion among those organized in the revolution and more in the media. There's a lot to debate, because there are many different views within the revolution about polemical topics. It's not enough to debate in the National Assembly. No matter how representative our representatives are, the debate should be broad, public, in all society, even if many people say stupid things. That's how it starts."

The existence of a single party, the Communist Party, is justified more on the basis of nationalism than on doctrine, because of the national unity needed to confront the United States. This justification, historical and real, of a necessary unity, has been broadly applied in other areas. The ideological richness of the single party has been expressed only in black and white. The colors are missing.

Fidel Castro's Record

Fidel Castro's unique leadership has to do both with the unity the nation has acquired to defend the nation and with the fear of breaking that unity by an open debate. Fidel stands behind this unity; heading up this starkly defined situation is his personal style. He is the undeniable symbol of an entire nation, and of its pride and dignity, both inside and outside of Cuba. His decisions and his leadership style have powerfully marked the Cuban revolution. And although, quite naturally, the "special period" has eroded his leadership, he undeniably still has it. The electoral results are the most recent evidence of this.

"Practice has shown me that, despite me, without me, with me in the opposition or outside of it, Fidel is the country's top leader, so I am not going to discuss his legitimacy," declared poet María Elena Cruz Varela in June, as she left prison after spending a year and a half there on charges of illegal association. The Cuban exile population had held Cruz Varela up as their ideal: woman?mother?poet?dissident?victim of totalitarianism. Now those politicians are disconcerted by such declarations from somebody who, once freed, has complained about their manipulations.

Fidel Castro has been the indisputable center of attention of the three Ibero?American summit meetings (Guadalajara, Madrid, Salvador de Bahía) as he is at any international event he attends. This is not a gratuitous phenomenon. The man has done much and said much. He is always a star, shining with a light of his own.

Cubans today speak of Fidel's obstinacy, but never have they spoken of corruption, opportunism or charlatanism. He continues to be the leader most removed from petty politicking that one can imagine in our Latin American sphere in these times. He shines as a living example of politics understood as service, dedication to the people, responsibility, unceasing work, intelligence and will. What Latin American politician today has such a record?

"Don't the younger generations see him now as almost a grandfather?", I asked a middle?aged Cuban. "That could be," he responded, "but that's not bad, here grandfathers have authority and inspire respect. Being 67 years old doesn't automatically disqualify someone. And the young kids trust him. They know his history, they know that Fidel has been able to come out ahead in every single crisis."

The US government and the leaders of the Cuban opposition in exile have always gone after Fidel Castro full tilt. In doing so, they actually recognize the weight of his leadership and end up strengthening him even more among the Cubans on the island. This tendency is even more exaggerated today. A spate of Castro biographies has come out, predicting his "dark end" as part of the much?heralded "end of history." Annexationist Cubans and US meddlers constantly demand Castro's retirement in order to "solve" Cuba's problems. But any observer with a modicum of objectivity knows that this is an absurd idea, because Fidel Castro's moral authority is indispensable to making any change in Cuba viable.

Alternatives to Fidel?

It has been an error for Fidel Castro to be the only voice and virtually the only public face of the Cuban revolution for so many years. And, although the Cuban government makes decisions collectively, the majority of Cubans do not know or understand or see where and how responsibilities are shared. Inside and outside of Cuba, both victories and defeats are laid at Fidel's feet because of this.

Inside Cuba, there has been no other face than Fidel's. And the opposition in exile is faceless to the Cubans on the island. The most acclaimed exile, the one who makes the most noise, is Jorge Mas Canosa, a personal friend of the Bush family. He is well known in southern Florida for the activities, both clean and dirty, of his Cuban?American Foundation. But he is wholly unknown inside Cuba, where nobody would concede him even a speck of political credibility. US money and effort gave the Cuban exile community life and made it strong. Today, some sectors of that community have amassed veritable fortunes and have staked out their own territory within US politics. But they are anonymous within Cuba, lacking both prestige and influence. Those who criticize Castro from international tribunals know all too well how little this "opposition" represents. The truth is that there is no alternative to the leadership provided by Fidel, who has become virtually synonymous with national identity. If there is to be a political alternative to this historical symbol, it can only come from within Cuba and the revolution itself.

Carlos Lage: A New Face

The revolution is prepared for a change. And so is Fidel. After the elections, he gave an interview to a US television network in which he said he was "tired." He also said that, by the next elections, some five years away, he would consider retiring.

More and more new public figures are speaking and appearing in public these days, figures who are not just the "historic" faces from the days of the Moncada or the Sierra Maestra. The most visible faces right now are Roberto Robaina, who went from Communist Youth leader to foreign minister; Ricardo Alarcón, formerly foreign minister and now head of the new National Assembly; Abel Prieto, a writer who has become a member of the country's inner circle of leaders; and, most particularly, Carlos Lage, a 41?year?old pediatrician. Lage has been a Communist Youth leader and a medical volunteer in Ethiopia; today he is at the helm of the complex economic changes challenging Cuba on a daily basis, and is also responsible for explaining them to the Cuban people. Lage is a good communicator, people like him and what he says is credible. "Our problems are economic, not political," he declared in a recent interview. "Applying political changes to our economic problems would be like treating an upset stomach with aspirin, which runs the risk of causing gastritis and exacerbating the problem."

Welcome, Foreign Investors

It has fallen to Carlos Lage to deal with the foreign investors who are making approaches to Cuba for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its attractive Investment Law, passed in 1982 but only broadly applied once the crisis began. Foreign investors see in Cuba a stable country, with a healthy, educated and well?prepared working population and an infrastructure lacking in many other countries. Cuba sees in the foreign investors its only hope for putting new factories on line and idle ones??those no longer competitive due to a lack of capital, raw materials, advanced technology and markets??back on track.

The special period has starkly revealed the disharmony in Cuba's development model, one dependent on socialist schemes thought of once as inalterable and perfect. It is not only a lack of petroleum that affects the country. In 30 years, Cuba has been unable to guarantee food self?sufficiency. Less than 40% of the agricultural land produces for domestic consumption. And although, as Fidel Castro likes to repeat, the sugar, oranges and grapefruit that Cuba exported to socialist Europe meant food for more than 40 million people, Cuba's own 11 million inhabitants did not have their own food needs assured. In 1989, as the walls in Eastern Europe began to crumble, 57% of the protein consumed by Cubans, and 51% of total calories, were imported. That is why the "special period" is taking such a drastic toll on Cubans' daily diets, both in variety and in quantity. It is unusual to find someone in Cuba today eating three square meals. And even rarer to find someone who isn't up to here with the scarce diet.

The opening to foreign investment??now primarily by capitalist nations or big private investors??aims at overcoming the lack of harmony in the old model. It is a key mechanism of Cuba's economic adjustment, and includes mixed enterprises (in which foreign capital can be as much as 100%), cooperative associations, investment only in marketing and merchandising, etc. The formulas vary widely.

As are other Latin American governments, the Cuban government is promoting foreign investment, but Cuba is not "selling out" to foreign capital or handing over its work force so the island can be transformed into one massive maquila factory. The key difference with Latin America lies in the fact that the foreign investor must play by the rules of the game??rules set out by a strong, nationalist and popular state, atheistic toward this new free market "god" so venerated by the neoliberals. In terms of profits, taxes and collaboration, the rules of the game are attractive to investors, but so far these rulers have not put the nation's economic sovereignty at stake, and Cuba reserves the right to control strategic areas as well as the overall design of its development model.

Foreign investment began and continues to grow particularly in tourism. Since 1990, it has spread to other areas as well. Up to now, all foreign investment in production has been in export goods, which provides profits for the state economy. The foreign investors still have not begun to hook in to the domestic market. Cuba gives preference to Latin American investors, seeking to accelerate the much?needed integration of the continent.

Investment is growing, albeit slowly. What slows it down is the US economic blockade. "Of every ten people who would like to do business with us, they discourage nine," Fidel Castro told the press several months ago, with the Clinton administration already in power. Also slowing the process down is the revolution's economic management, hampered both by bureaucratic delays and by the fact that it is looking to move forward both boldly and cautiously.

Small Great Power

During all these years, Cuba was able to cultivate the image of a "small great power," an image born of reality. In a number of areas??medical, sports, military, diplomatic??Cuba spoke out loud and clear on behalf of the impoverished nations of the South. Cuba could always be counted on. In Latin America??from which the United States distanced Cuba by expelling it from the OAS??Cuba also wielded this policy of a small great power, supporting liberation movements, opening its doors to exiles, organizing events and meetings, pitching in after natural disasters, leading the battle against the foreign debt. Among the countries of the South, Cuba was not a small force of solidarity, but a huge one. No single country has been more generous to other nations than small, socialist Cuba.

In the international arena, this policy was indispensable to Cuba. Since the United States controls so many forums and mechanisms where the Cuban case is heard, the revolution needed, and still needs, to play the role of small great power in order to be heard. Inside Cuba, this same logic nourishes nationalism and national pride.

Cuba is blockaded and under siege, but it has outwitted those who would fence it in; its athletes have astonished the world at the Olympics, its troops were victorious in Angola, its voice in the United Nations and the Nonaligned Nations Movement never faltered, its prestigious medical teams did voluntary service as far away as Yemen and its sugar technology was the most developed in the world. All this was a source of joy for the Cubans, who felt themselves a part of this ambitious national project.

The "special period" cut short many dreams and also that arrogance that powers tend to have, even when small. Cuba is still the vanguard of the South in a number of fields: biotechnological discoveries, innovative vaccinations and medicines, sports and is the always free and dignified voice speaking on behalf of what is still called the Third World, even though there is no longer a second one. But with the disappearance of the Eastern bloc, this small power of the South is increasingly dependent on the great powers of the North.

The special period, while stirring nationalist sentiment (we must resist, not falter, not fall to our knees), also wounds it. Today, this "medical power" receives donations of aspirin and boats arrive at its ports carrying pencils, clothes, powdered milk and rice. The disharmony in the Cuban development model explains this paradox, which engenders solidarity, but still perplexes, even those in solidarity. Because although there is no generalized hunger in Cuba, just circumstantial scarcity, the image transmitted??that Cuba itself transmits??is of hunger.

"We're not going to go around the world begging," declared Fidel Castro at the 1992 Ibero?American summit meeting in Madrid. But in this past year, things began getting worse in Cuba. It's not just the failure of socialism, it's everything at once. After the devastating "storm of the century" passed through Cuba, the country called on the whole diplomatic corps to ask for help from the countries they represented. Cuba had never done that in the entire history of the revolution. Today Cuba is looking for aid and isn't hiding that fact. "For Cuba, brutally blockaded, attacked and threatened, because it's small, because it wanted justice, because it refused to surrender, I ask for solidarity from my Latin American brothers," Fidel Castro said at the recently?held III Ibero?American summit meeting.


Cuba is a small island at the doorstep of a great and hostile power. Cuban society opened up with the revolution, but it also closed down. Today it is held together by many defense mechanisms. This defensive scaffolding??expressed in the very way Cubans speak??is also a factor of social stability and support to the revolution. But it is a double?edged sword.

The hostility toward Cuba of eight successive US administrations has had a wide range of expressions??political, diplomatic, military, paramilitary, terrorist and propagandistic, in the camp of the mass media. There have been dozens of crises in the bilateral relations that the US officially broke in 1961.

A Destructive and Absurd Blockade

The economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba has been the most ongoing expression of US hostility. It is a bilateral embargo turned effectively into a blockade, because for 32 years the United States has also attempted to affect Cuba's relations with other countries, other markets and other institutions. And it has been successful on some occasions.

The blockade does not only mean one or several laws and regulations. It is a carefully woven and consistent network of measures and attitudes aimed at blocking Cuba's development as much as possible. At the beginning, the justification was that Cuba was a "Soviet beachhead." Now that the USSR no longer exists, no more justifications are given, but the strings of the blockade network keep on being pulled tighter.
With socialist Europe gone, the blockade is a more destructive and also far more absurd weapon: it aims at impeding the normal integration of Cuba's economy with the capitalist countries. The United States' dogmatic worship of the free market has only one exception, which is not socialist China or Korea, or Vietnam. Only Cuba.

"During the Bush administration, the mission of torpedoing our economy was listed as a priority task of the ambassadors, something truly unusual, even bordering on the ridiculous," says Carlos Lage, who estimates that the blockade has caused Cuba $40 billion in losses over the years. Because Cuba has had to import goods from more distant markets, pushing up both transportation and storage costs. Because it has had to export goods to more distant markets, ditto. Because any economic transaction becomes more complicated and expensive since it has to dodge US pressures on other governments and non?US enterprises and entrepreneurs. Because the US government will not allow US tourists to visit Cuba. Because US?Cuba telephone calls were prohibited until very recently. Because the United States does not allow any film to be filmed in Cuba, not even Robert Redford's "Havana." Because the United States will not buy any product from any country if it contains even a gram of Cuban nickel. Because the new Cuban medicines are blocked from entry into the markets of the international laboratories. Because... The blockade has transformed any normal step or new initiative by the Cuban economy into a conspiratorial activity.
Lifting the blockade would not resolve the Cuban economy's inefficiencies or mean calling a halt to the colossal changes its adjustment demands. Nor would it mechanically mean an end to the current hard currency shortage or the overwhelming debts. But it would mean a change. "It would not solve all our problems with one fell sweep," admits Lage. "But it would greatly facilitate their solution. Without producing a single ton more of goods, we would receive hundreds of millions of dollars more annually. Without the blockade, we would have one less problem to worry about."

Normal Relations with the USA

The priority of Cuban diplomacy today is the lifting of the blockade. International solidarity with Cuba has also taken it on as a priority. Denouncing the blockade gains Cuba space, time and sympathy. But the more Cuba or those in solidarity stress the blockade's importance??at times simplistically, as if it were the only explanation for the crisis??the more fiercely the militant Cuban exile community supports it. At the same time, however, it also seeks to reduce the blockade's importance, simplistically insisting that Cuba's crisis has nothing to do with any blockade but rather reflects the universal failure of socialism or, more concretely, the bad adminstration of a single man, Fidel Castro.

The blockade thus serves as a political pulse point, and both sides tend to be absolutist. That pulse is beating faster now that Clinton is in office, since the Democrats tend to be less indulgent towards the terrorist activities of the minority sector of Cuban exiles at open war with revolutionary Cuba. Will the United States continue standing by the blockade due to political inertia, thus damaging the economic interests of its own corporations, which are forced to reject such a great market only 90 miles away? Although the blockade against Cuba is the most obsolete and well?known trace remaining from the Cold War, the answer to this question is anything but simple.
How do the Cubans in Cuba read this international pulse? Since they know from within the problems of an insensitive or negligent bureaucracy, the inefficiencies in administration, services and distribution, since they lived through the imprudent or irrational times during the Soviet "years of plenty," they do not point to the blockade as the only explanation for the current shortages. But it pains them to know the complicity of Cuban groups in Miami with the blockade, including their lobbying for in the tough new Torricelli legislation. This pain pulls them together and strengthens them even more in their defensive attitudes.

The majority of Cubans??both inside and outside of Cuba??want not only an end to the blockade, but also an easing of tensions in US?Cuba relations. This is important for everybody. There are many divided families, and normalization would let them travel, speak by telephone or send money or gifts, just like other Latin American emigrants do with their relatives who stayed behind.

More than anyone and today more than ever, the Cuban government wants to normalize relations with the United States. For the Cubans, this means discussing all bilateral topics "as equals," each nation according to its own perspective and interests. "Cuba wants to dialogue and negotiate many things with the United States," says Foreign Minister Robaina, "and the only condition is that this be a dialogue without conditions." Both before and after the Cold War, the US government conditions any easing of its hostility towards Cuba on an internal political matter??the establishing of "democracy" on the island.

Are They All "Gusanos"?

The Cuban government has not always known how best to manage its relations with the more than one million Cubans in the United States. Its basic error towards the "community" has been an undifferentiated "you're either with me or against me" policy, pinning the "gusano" (worm) label on all and essentially politicizing any discussion of this community. This happens mainly with those in Miami, but also with those in other countries. Faced with Cubans who left, the revolution went overboard with its defense mechanisms and, instead of trying to attract them, pushed them even further away. It has not understood how to relate to the vast unorganized Cuban population scattered throughout the world that is neither opposed to the revolution nor takes actions against it, though it may well have differences. It complicates with bad attitudes, unpayable tariffs or bureaucracy any step that Cubans outside take to once again come closer to their country, whether for family, nostalgia, curiosity or sincere interest. The Cuban government's hard currency need will somewhat modify this situation; measures have already been announced that will facilitate visits to the island by Cubans living in the United States.

The rightwing anti?Cuban offensive is very powerful and has created virtually indelible negative images. Cuba, faithful to its defensive culture, has been slow and monothematic in its publicity offensives abroad, preferring to entrench itself at home. "But," comments one journalist, "trenches are for military actions, not for a battle of images."

The revolution has lacked bold initiatives in its international work. Some think, for example, that, had some of Cuba's many intellectuals gone to live in other countries, they would have really distinguished themselves, contributing positively and creatively to the war of images. This was not done in time and perhaps it is already too late.

A Powerful, and Inexpensive, Army

Because of defense needs and the heat of the Cold War, Cuba created one of the most powerful armies in Latin America, one that befits a "small great power" allied to the East but located in the very heart of the West. Raúl Castro, the head of the Cuban army, estimates the cost of Soviet arms to Cuba over the years at some $10 billion, at "old prices." All of it was donated. Since 1990, Cuba has not received a single weapon and, since 1992, not even one spare part for the equipment it already has.
The challenge for the army in this special period is to become the lightest burden possible on the national economy. Fuel costs must be reduced to the bare minimum and some units already transport their arms on bicycles tied together. The military units must produce all the food that the army consumes and already produce everything except sugar and salt. The fuel cutbacks primarily affect the air force. An air force unit costs three times as much as a land unit, and Cuba has the continent's largest air force, after the United States.

"We will continue to be the most powerful armed forces in Latin America, but also the cheapest," Raúl Castro declared recently. But being "powerful" doesn't mean being confrontational or aggressive. The military conception was always, and is today more than ever, defensive. For many years, the Cubans have been preparing themselves to both avoid and, if absolutely necessary, meet a US attack.

"We've been thinking with our own heads for more than 10 years," Raúl Castro says. To be exact, since 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the US elections and the Soviet authorities told Raúl Castro that the Soviets would not fire one single shot on the island in the event of a US attack against Cuba, in spite of previous commitments. "We carefully kept this secret," Raúl revealed last May, "so as not to stimulate the enemy." And Cuba worked to consolidate the military doctrine known as "the war of all the people", whereby each citizen knows exactly what to do, and where to go, when a conflict begins.

Children and elderly people cannot take part in combat and all of them??in the case of bombings??would be protected in gigantic underground bomb shelters that have been painstakingly constructed the length and breadth of the island. Although there are no visible signs, Havana sits on top of a veritable honeycomb, a network of tunnels with hospitals, schools, light, water, recreational spaces, mushroom crops, everything. And not just in the capital. Under every city lies another city.

"Are these tunnels for the holocaust?," I ask, remembering the televised horrors as "Desert Storm" was unleashed over Iraq. "It would be a holocaust if not for these tunnels!" a construction worker shot back. "We have two responsibilities: one is not to provoke the Yankees, not commit the error that they made there. And the other is to protect ourselves if they decide to attack. If they never do, it will be sad to have spent so much on the tunnels, but that sadness will be happiness. We've never wanted war with the United States." The island's hard terrain collaborated with the Cubans in this monumental engineering work, which meant investing considerable sums of money, thousands of tons of construction materials and interminable working hours, most of them voluntary. The housing deficit in Cuba??the most acutely felt social problem??is greatly influenced by the surplus of tunnels.

Did Cuba Make Strategic Errors?

When the United States declared its embargo against Cuba in 1961, with the OAS expulsion following in its wake, Cuba sought support in the socialist camp. And found it. It was the only way to preserve the future of the revolution. Cuba scored that one great advantage from the East?West conflict. But that decision, based on realism, evolved over the years into increasing dependence.

Fidel Castro has said that the Cuban revolution has made no strategic errors. "We are not responsible for the errors of others," he insists in all speeches since the crisis in Eastern Europe. But, is it not a strategic error that the Cuban revolutionaries believed, in the way they did, in the USSR and its Communist Party? This error is so strategic that still today only some of the consequences of this "blind faith" are visible, and then perhaps not even the most tragic ones. Cuba should have prepared alternatives, and should also have preserved the principle of creativity and national originality that it had in its first years. Not doing so was a grave error.

For some 20 years, Cuba's position towards the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party was acritical. If, during those years, Fidel Castro or other leaders had a critical vision, it was never or hardly ever sufficiently reflected Two generations of Cubans were formed in a framework of admiration, as followers, in a way that allowed for no critical nuances.
Was this done so as not to put at risk the cooperation Cuba received in solidarity from the Soviet giant? That may well be, but the passage of the years turned that stance into a deeply rooted conviction, and no criticisms were heard...until the walls started to fall.

After the original freshness of the revolution during the 1960s, and after the "defeat" of the revolution??and Fidel in particular??with the 1970 sugar harvest, the still unreached 10?ton harvest, revolutionary ideology become increasingly Sovietized. Cuba turned to "another" history and another ideology, relegating its own to the back burner. The Cuban Communist Party copied party structures, ideas and work styles from the Soviet Communist Party, and even today many of those imitations??the good and the bad??are largely intact.

The United States fights with Cuba because of its communism. Although many have read the history of these 34 years that way, the reality is different. Cuba challenges the United States, and gets under its skin, because of its nationalism. However, the "Sovietization" over so many years has only fed the confusion on this matter. By Sovietizing, Cuba was left on the sidelines of many important currents of Latin American thought. Economically blockaded from without, Cuba erected its own ideological blockade from within.

A Gift Cuba Could Give

The economy developed and ideology underdeveloped. The rich arsenal of Marxist thought was rotely assimilated through the impoverished channels of Soviet manuals. The norm was passed down that Marxism is not to be criticized, but learned.

Today it is not criticized and it is scarcely learned, which is another error. There is ideological confusion in Cuban society today, a strong subjective rupture among a people massively educated to venerate an ideological reference point that no longer exists. It is as if "God has died." Most Cubans feel this confusion as they keep up with the daily changes in what used to be the Soviet Union, the hardly stimulating changes that increase their pain and perplexity but push them to search for national solutions.

There is a kind of theoretical paralysis toward publicly getting into these topics in any depth. "Better to grow plantains than waste time in discussions," some think and a few even say. So, sheltered by the economic emergency and the complex material problems facing the nation, they postpone taking up this key problem.

The Cuban revolution has engaged in no original or creative reflection, based on its own experience, about the current crisis facing socialism. Fidel Castro??teacher of the Cubans and of so many revolutionaries throughout the world??has formulated some important considerations, but they are scattered and incomplete. In such a systematic, coherent and in?depth reflection, Cuba has a gift pending for all the revolutionary and progressive movements throughout the Third World, in fact, throughout the Whole World. Can it do that? Can Cuba offer up a critical assessment of the Soviet errors without making a thorough self?critical assessment of its own errors? Will the revolution want to make this self?criticism? Can it at such a dramatic time?

The ideal thing would be to propose a debate to the different sectors of Cuban society, so that the analysis that emerges would be the fruit of a collective reflection. Cuban society has not only the theoretical capacity to take on these tasks, but also many practical experiences. And it also has a socialist vocation. Nobody in Latin America can speak with more authority about "real socialism" than the Cubans. But a fear prevails about the risks of opening such a debate during this kind of crisis. This is true even though not beginning it means maintaining inherited norms, styles, habits, ideas and values in all spheres that contain the virus of the same illness that brought death to the Soviet system.

However, there is a cure. The Cuban system did not "Sovietize" in some crucial aspects. Although the popular organizations have undergone an excess of bureaucratization, they are still original. In electoral terms, even the old method was different from the Soviet style and there are original mechanisms of control and oversight. Regarding problems of corruption, there were also differences and the Cubans always had a rapid response, weeding out those responsible, and immediately rescuing the ethical credibility of their leaders. There were copies, but not photocopies.

A Wasted "Idea Bank"

A second error made by the Cuban revolution that could also be deemed strategic, is similary linked, to a certain extent, to a fear of the risks of debate.
Throughout these long years, the Cuban revolution has engaged in an ongoing evaluation of the country's reality in the most diverse assemblies, meetings and forums. But, except for the first years and at the great moment of discussion around the "Call" document for the IV Party Congress in 1990, the revolution has not wanted to or has been unable to organically incorporate intellectuals, artists, writers and social scientists into this reflection so they would "think about the country" along with the workers, party members and officials. The potential of the many revolutionaries Cuba has always counted on has never been used to the full.

They were heard, but out of commitment more than anything else. What was missing was a systematic relationship, a permanent call to debate. The intellectuals were never really given the room or the recognition necessary to influence national decisions. They were never interlocutors. "The idea bank" that was used came from technical experts, social scientists, government officials, workers. And though the ideas of those thinkers were always more integral, they didn't sufficiently enrich the revolution. The chance to really open a debate??more complex among intellectuals??was not taken. Thus, due to an excess of defensive ideas, an enormous, perhaps incalculable, revolutionary treasure was lost. Today, with the crisis so acute, that loss is felt more than ever. This lack of communication explains a film as controversial in Cuba as "Alice in this Wonderland," as well as the fact that the revolution lost such a valuable intellectual as Jesús Díaz.

The National, The Religious

"One only destroys what can be replaced," runs a popular saying about romantic disappointments. In Cuba, the subjective crisis about the destruction of the USSR has been dealt with by replacing values and symbols imported from the East with national ones. José Martí never ceased being studied and Cuban history was never forgotten, but now what is national is much more emphasized and valued.

Religious expressions are also valued more and religion is a substitute value. The Cuba of the "special period" is seeing a veritable boom in religion, as a refuge, spiritual sustenance, alternative. Official atheism has all sorts of cracks at the base. And there is a general loss of inhibition. "God willing," and "Hail Mary!" have returned to common language and sound normal, even among some functionaries.

Both the Catholic and Protestant churches are filling up. More than anything, Afro?Cuban religiosity is flourishing: meetings, rituals, vestments, images, promises...almost a display. Popular music vigorously reflects the novelty. The most popular Cuban bands sing and dance to Yemayá, Changó and Obatalá, asking their help in these critical times.

Cuba has taken off its ideological hat. The "special period" could well be the occasion for the revolution to reaffirm its Cuban identity, independent of the United States, and, finally, independent of the most negative elements of Soviet socialism. Lage sees it this way: "Today we are freer than ever of stock formulas. We know which roads lead to failure and, though we are not self?sufficient, we are increasingly sure of ourselves."

The Hour of the "Other" Education

Young Cubans are defensive toward the United States too, but not the same way their parents and grandparents are. They have less prejudices and generally feel more secure and better prepared to take on US hostility. The "desert" of the "special period" has meant that some of these young people, even as they see the US as their historic enemy, also see in the States and its culture the forbidden paradise, where perhaps life is not more just, but is at least less controlled and less boring, more exciting.
It will be very difficult to compete with the United States, unless the competition is based on something very specific and specialized. New York recently had an outbreak of meningitis?B among school?age children. Only Cuba has the vaccine to immunize against this illness, which the US did not buy because of the blockade. Such exceptions are startling, but rare. The only defense Cubans have against the capitalist values of US culture is an education that teaches people to think and consciously choose other values. Not merely a technical or scientific education, much less a slogan?laden propagandizing curriculum.

Cuba has never been isolated from capitalist culture. Its geographical proximity to the United States makes that impossible. Information, events, movies, music, fashions ??and the values they reflect?? have always made it to the island. And hundreds of thousands of Cubans have travelled to capitalist countries on all kinds of missions.

The international crisis of socialism and Cuba's crisis today demand a tremendous educational effort from the revolution. No purism that avoids "contamination" makes sense in today's world. But, how to immunize against today's illusions? And still more. Because the challenge is more complex??adequately communicating these values is more difficult than immunizing against opposing ones. Revolutionary ideology faces a new challenge to its creativity. The world changed and education in this new world must change as well. I have the sense that the schools, universities, popular organizations and mass media are not doing enough to counteract these illusions and disappointments, and rebuild convictions. The economic emergency serves as a justification for this omission. Very few understand that the fuel deficit could be less serious than the deficit of a special educational system during this special period.

"On the terrain of consciousness, are we not merely living what has already been accumulated? In ideological terms, are we moving forward, or are we in retreat?" asked an economist, concerned about the harm that the generalized scarcity has caused to consciousness and values. There are not many concerned about these issues, caught up as people are in dealing with the immediacy of the adjustment measures. "Though we defeat the blockade," the economist adds, "though we make it through this special period, won't people's consciences be affected? Like in an accident: cells die that are never recovered. We aren't giving this enough attention." The pain, the crisis, the "special periods"??both personal and social??are ambiguous. They don't always strengthen and mature people. Sometimes they may weaken them.

The methodology of popular education??based on debate, contrasts, participation, personal discernment, search??something the Cuban top?down style never gave enough space to all these years, is today more necessary than ever. The popular organizations have a theoretical grasp of this, but have not incorporated it into the way they think, and young people have only recently begun to come into contact with it.
If the United States were to lift the blockade against Cuba today and Cuba were inundated with US businessmen and tourists and dollars, would not this normalization simply sweep away a number of principles that have been taken for granted and are still shaky among many? "We have to be prepared for this future," many Cubans told me with great concern.


Very costly, and perhaps irreparably damaging strategic errors were made. But there have also been strategic successes. In these times of cholera and neoliberalism, these key successes differentiate Cuba from the rest of Latin America. In Latin America the poor only make it in sports, the lottery, carnivals and soap operas. But in Cuba, hundreds of thousands have left poverty behind and triumphed in all walks of life.

"Human capital" is what the economists call it. The Cuban revolution did not only invest in industries, public works and roads. It invested much more in its people. Billions to guarantee health care and education for everyone at all levels. No country on the continent has a population as intellectually and physically developed as Cuba's. All Cubans have at least a ninth?grade education. Of every 8 workers, 1 is a medium?level technician and of every 15, one has a university education. There is 1 teacher for every 10 students, the best rate in the world. There is 1 doctor for every 231 inhabitants. Cuba's investment in research and development (key to predicting a country's future in the current technological revolution) is $20 per capita, the highest in all of Latin America. Cuba, which had only one technical institute at the time of the revolutionary triumph, is today at the head of the Third World in biotechnology research and genetic engineering, as well as in some fields where it can compete with the most developed countries in the world.

Also a "Green" Revolution
There is also ecological capital. The Cuban socialist project, although it was not conscious of this, was born ecological at a time in which the future of the planet was not of such great concern as it is today.

Due to intuition (nationalism? humanism?) at the beginning; due to vocation always (Cuba aimed to develop itself, not to be a "consumer society") and due to urgent necessity today, because of the "special period", Cuban socialism has acted with vision and environmental criteria.
For a number of years, there have been good examples of this ecological effort in terms of treated water, millions of trees
planted and extensive areas reforested, lands rescued from salinization, eroded coasts and soils revitalized, animal and vegetable species saved.

More recently there are other signs: the avalanche of bicycles, accelerated research into biological fertilizers and biopesticides, a willingness to recycle, the boom in "green medicine," the growing use of alternative energy sources??based, for example, on the residues from the sugar industry??and new cattle raising techniques. In 1992, a million hectares of cultivated land were treated with biological pesticides, produced in Cuban research centers.

A Greenpeace activist visited Cuba shortly before the
World Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and was surprised and enthused. "The Cubans," this activist told me, "have made tremendous ecological progress, but they don't make a lot of noise about it, they don't boast about it. They speak about it completely naturally. They offer you a glass of gold as if it were a glass of water."

Cuba was the first country in the world to incorporate into its Constitution the basic conclusions from the Rio summit. Article 27 of the Fundamental Cuban Law says: "The State protects the country's environment and natural resources. It recognizes its close link with sustainable economic and social development to make human life more rational and assure the survival, welfare and security of current and future generations. It corresponds to the competent institutions to apply this policy. It is a duty of citizens to contribute to the protection of water resources, the atmosphere, soil con? servation, the flora and fauna and all of nature's rich potential.:

Thus, Cuba is as green as it is red.

Great Potential for Generosity

Cuba does not selfishly hold on to its human capital. It has shared it with other countries in the world, especially those fighting to develop themselves. Cuba has been accused of "exporting revolution," but, more than any other thing, it has exported health. Sixty million people throughout the world have been treated??and many saved??by Cuban doctors since the first medical brigade was sent to Algeria in 1963. And some 4,000 women and men from the South studied various health careers in Cuba, returning to their countries to offer free health services to their compatriots. None of those studies cost the students or their countries a penny. Cuba's generosity was similar in other arenas. Though the "special period" has forced Cuba to "adjust" its solidarity, even today 3,000 Cuban doctors are collaborating on a virtually volunteer basis in 35 different countries, especially in the impoverished nations of Latin America and Africa. And 20,000 young men and women from countries of the South are studying on scholarship in Cuba.

The "special period", has taught the Cubans to search for ways to also use their comparative advantage??as the economists call it??in specialized human capital to pull out of the crisis. More and more patients are coming to Cuba from Europe and Latin America in search of specific cures, what is known loosely as "health tourism." Orthopedic, dermatological, kidney and brain problems as well as problems affecting the elderly, receive First World attention at competitive prices. It is the same quality treatment that Cubans receive for free, although the best hospital wards, or even whole hospitals, are reserved for these "tourists."

Cuba is also "selling" its sports know?how, a field in which it is still a considerable power. Almost 500 Cuban trainers work in 31 countries on 4 different continents and there are hundreds more requests for their assistance. The most significant ongoing interchange is with Mexico. Athletics, baseball, basketball, volleyball and boxing are the most requested specialties.

This human capital finances the 35 sports currently practiced in Cuba, preventing their quality from dropping even in the "special period". In 1992, the Cuban trainers' international work meant over $1.5 million in hard currency for the country.

Who Won? Socialism or Capitalism?

There are still "brains" in Cuba. The brain drain there is minimal. This makes the Cuban crisis qualitatively different from those wreaking havoc on the other Latin American countries. The challenge facing Latin America, with half of its population impoverished and illiterate, is to build human capital. The one facing Cuba is to lift a blockade and organize its population to get through this crisis. In 30 years, socialism gained in Cuba what capitalism has not been able to do in Latin America in more than 100. Which system failed on this side of the world? Today, the neoliberal capitalist model makes it even less possible for Latin America to cultivate the massive human capital it will need for its development??and which Cuba already has.

Although any professional who can get the fare??paid abroad??and a visa into some country can leave Cuba for good, Cuba makes every effort possible to conserve its professional force, to impede the brain drain. Although at times these efforts do not move in a parallel fashion to those that could open spaces for those same professionals to express themselves. Architects should not leave Cuba and should be discouraged from doing so. But sometimes, in such a regulated top?down society, they find no incentive to develop their own initiatives at home.

The massive training of Cubans permits Cuba to face the crisis in a better position than any other country. When a part is needed, one that will perhaps never again come from the USSR or Bulgaria, any Cuban worker is capable of inventing an equivalent piece. Where chemical fertilizer is lacking, worm farms multiply, or a scientist comes up with a formula for the best organic substitute for that particular soil??which other scientists had already studied in depth and have a profile on.
The movement of "rationalizers" and "innovators" is huge. The scarcity has sparked creativity among the Cubans, trained over years to be creative and not mere mimics, but not always given opportunities to show it. From the most eminent scientists to workers at the very base, everyone is inventing and experimenting with what to do when almost everything one had before is no longer available. The battle today is not to create, it's to win over managers??who have more time, inertia and power in the businesses??who resist introducing these innovations into the productive process.

This technical and scientific creativity, this spark and flexibility, contrasts with the routine, the numbness and the officialdom in ideology, in political education and in more visible areas such as the media which, save for some radio programs, silence discussion of problems, are repetitive, simplify reality and neither stimulate debate nor even reflect what exists. They also do not favor the people's democratic control over their leaders.

Some years ago, there was a Latin American news show, directed by Santiago Alvarez, that was seen in all Cuban movie theaters. With a format of participatory journalism that looked at the most controversial themes in depth and with a good dose of humor, that news space became a national touchstone. It is an example of what the media could do and are not, losing the opportunity to capitalize on a debate that, although not public, is crisscrossing society and coming to a boil.

A Violent Society?

According to the eminent neuropsychologist James Prescott a society that loves its children, is physically affectionate to its children, and is open and unprejudiced about the sexuality of its adolescents, is a society immunized against violence, a stable society, more disposed towards solidarity and tolerance, both key foundations of democracy.

Anyone who knows Cuban society closely, a society modeled for 30 years on socialism, knows that Cuba is this way. Children are royalty and adolescents don't have to deal with the many taboos of the past. In addition, Cubans have always been a spirited, joyful people, both before the revolution and even today.

In spite of everything, Cuban children today live happily and the adolescents are free. But the special period has cast an air of sadness about Cuban adults. Today is sad and tomorrow is uncertain. Streets dark and empty, recreational centers closed, almost nothing to read, reduced television viewing hours, endless electricity cut?offs, dull Sundays where eating a pizza or having an ice cream is a tragedy or an impossibility, couples with few alternatives for spending time together, the daily ordeal of reality. The media do not reflect this hard reality. They still speak with the enthusiasm that has and will overcome everything and even of abundant crops of vegetables that hardly anyone ever sees.

Life has not become more violent, but it's more boring and ugly. The official line calls for more sacrifice in the name of dignity. This is logical, as it's not easy to emerge from the current economic labyrinth without leaving anyone behind. But the official line never speaks of the fears, the weaknesses, the longings for happiness, the dissent, the doubts, all those things that are neither black nor white. Almost all the escape valves are closed, due to both a lack of material resources and a style charged with severity, where attention to the subjective is secondary, where paying attention to "stupidities" is seen as a waste of time.

Not By Bread Alone

The development of the Cubans' intelligence guarantees their society stability and gives the revolution the potential to make it through the crisis. This raw material is abundant, it's there and doesn't have to be imported. But not all Cubans think alike.

The sector of those fully opposed to the revolutionary project is a minority, is not organized and so far has been passive. Among revolutionaries??many more than the 800,000 Party members??three types can be found. The first is made up of those who maintain a "blind" faith that Fidel will know how to move ahead, although they can't quite see how. Is this fanaticism? The difficult history of the past 30 years would lend rationality to this faith, although never has the world and its crises been so "irrational."

Then there are those who, given the world situation today, feel that Cuba has no other way out but to "surrender" fully to capitalism, recognizing that the socialist project is just but not viable. Although they feel like losers, they will never be traitors: they won't leave Cuba, they will fight in the case of a war, they will fulfill all their tasks...and they'll keep quiet. There are revolutionaries, including CP members, who are showing signs of being eaten away by this despair.

Finally, there are others??who would seem to be the majority??who see an out for Cuban socialism through social equity and national sovereignty, within this wave of neoliberalism. They see the need for thoroughgoing adjustments, not only economic but also political, not just objective but also subjective. This is the way, they feel, to construct a more mature people, a society with more horizontal relations, where socialism is not only just and nationalistic, but also attractive, stimulating and parti? cipatory, with space to dream and make mistakes. Cubans have their own proposals for change, what they have yet to find is the space and the rhythm.

Analyzing the errors of "real" socialism, the Brazilian theologian and journalist Frei Betto, a great friend of the Cuban revolution, declared, "To be able to privatize material goods, capitalism socializes symbolic goods. Through religion or through television, which do not distinguish the hut of the poor from the mansion of the rich, it socializes the dream of material well?being. Socialism has done exactly the contrary: it socializes material goods and privatizes dreams, to the degree that only those who possess power can aspire to the exercise of transgression??such as how to change a way of thinking and acting in political terms??which is one of the attributes of liberty. In socialism, imagination is obliged to take only short flights. Man does not live by bread alone, Jesus warned. Would real socialism have ignored the hunger for beauty, supposing that bread is sufficient to satiate human voracity?"


We have focused on the very unique reality of Cuba from four different angles, at a time when the "special period" has been in force for some three years. There are other perspectives as well. So, is this the final period? Is everything explained?

Does this very contradictory reality explain the surprising results of the February elections? Does the equitable, nationalistic, defensive and intelligent society that the revolution forged explain how Cuba has resisted so much and why the Cubans have given so much support to their revolution? Is the ideological weight of this real socialism such that it will overcome so many contradictions and gaps? There are no categorical responses, only approximations.

There are already cracks in this equity, the reality will open even more and some have already surrendered. Nationalism makes gaps in the economic transnationalism through which Cuba must sail in order to make it. Defensive attitudes are not the most appropriate during these still very confusing times of change. And people, like all human beings, however conscious and prepared they may be, also see mirages, make mistakes and even commit suicide.

So, does what we have tried to describe explain nothing at all? It's not quite like that, either. There are no categorical formulas. Perhaps we should return to José Martí, as the Cubans themselves have. Martí said: "He knows our country very poorly, very poorly, he who does not know that there is in this country, like a soul of the present and guaranty of the future, a spirited whole of that original freedom that created men in themselves, the juice of the earth and the sorrows he sees, and with his own ideas and of a haughty nature. And we Cubans are not just going to want, but rather will work with our heads, taken from the mold of our country." It is perhaps in these cultural roots that the key to understanding what is happening today in Cuba might be found.

By María López Vigil, editor of envío's Spanish?language edition.

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