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Last updated: 02 August 2019. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Cuba: lessons in the construction of pragmatic socialism

Gary Fraser


In the summer of this year my wife Anthea and I had the pleasure of visiting Cuba. It was exciting to be in Cuba at a time of great change in the island. For the first time in its history Cuba truly stands alone. In the 18th and 19th century Cuba was dominated by Spanish imperialists. Then, in the first half of the twentieth century, it was the turn of the Americans to dominate Cuba’s economy and its culture. Following the 1959 revolution, it quickly transpired that the socialist experiment in Cuba could not survive without support from the Soviet Union and consequently Cuba entered into a period of economic dependency which brought problems but also rewards. All of that changed in 1991 when Communism collapsed. Cuba nosedived into the biggest economic crisis its people have faced. Yet to the surprise of many, Cuban socialism survived the fall of Communism. In the 1990s, in the early days of what excited neo-liberals called the ‘new world order, many predicted the imminent collapse of the Cuban regime. The narrative of the period, to borrow from Fukunyama’s overused term, was ‘the end of history’. Yet the Cuban people continued to make their own history, different from the one espoused by the neo-liberals. In this essay, I want to examine that history in detail. I want to argue that socialism in Cuba survives because it is based on pragmatism first, ideology second. Furthermore, I want to discuss the current reforms taking place in Cuba and locate them within the overall discourse of socialism.



The Gains of Pragmatic Socialism


The gains of pragmatic socialism in Cuba are considerable, particularly when Cuba is contextualised as a Third World country. In 1959, around 40% of Cuban’s were illiterate, yet within two years of the revolution, Castro’s reforms had abolished illiteracy. Today, a comprehensive system of education is in place making Cubans some of the most highly educated people in the world.

In regards to health care, Cuba illustrates the curious fact that first world health standards are possible in a Third World country. Cuba has the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America. In fact, Cuba’s levels of infant mortality are more comparable to rich Western countries like Canada. According to recent research by UNICEF, if Latin America as a whole had the level of medical and health care experienced in Cuba, then 700,000 children would be saved every year. Meanwhile, the life expectancy rate for Cubans (currently 77.5 years) is 18 years longer than it was in 1959. Cuba continues to train a surplus of doctors and other medical staff which it exports to many developing countries throughout the world.

The health specialist Aviva Chomsky notes that in Cuba a social model of health care is in place which recognises health in the widest sense of the term. Chomsky explains how community workers collaborate closely with health professionals in overseeing clinics, diagnosing health problems in the community, promoting people’s health in schools, and designing future health strategies. Moreover, health care is provided in neighbourhoods and not just in hospitals and clinics, something we witnessed firsthand when we were given a tour of a neighbourhood clinic in Mantanzas. Chomsky explains that family doctors live in the communities they serve accompanied by a small team of nurses. On average each small team cares for over 100 families and according to recent figures there is one doctor for every 200 inhabitants, which is one of the highest rates in the world.

Chomsky makes an interesting point when she notes that many global health care policy makers often omit Cuba from their analysis and data. They do this Chomsky argues because the Cuban experience contradicts thirty years of Third World countries being told that in order to improve health care they should embrace the doctrines of neo-liberalism. According to the neo-liberal discourse, the best way for a country to improve health care is to increase its share of GNP as a pre-requisite for improving overall health outcomes; wealth will then ‘trickle down’ and find its way into social welfare programmes.

Countries that sign up to such policies are forced to implement structural adjustment programmes imposed on them by the International Monetary Fund.  The IMF then demands the opening up of economies to international finance capital accompanied by the privatisation of state assets. The result has been a disaster for the global poor. Instead of equitable systems of health care emerging the reality is a patchy system of health care in most ‘developing countries’. Charities and NGOs often do their best to plug the gap but at the same time health inequalities between the poor and the more affluent continue to widen.

Why then is Cuba, a Third World country, boasting first world standards of health care? The primary reason Cuba stands out is twofold. Firstly, surplus wealth in Cuba, the bulk of it anyway, is reinvested into public goods and services. Secondly, the gains in health care would not be possible without a strong and interventionist state. These two factors make the Cuban model socialist. For Chomsky, Cuba demonstrates that the distribution of resources within a country is more important than overall GNP when it comes to impacting on health outcomes.


The Special Period


That Cuba performs well in regards to health indicators is remarkable given the fact that Cuba has recently experienced what the Cuban government called ‘the special period’. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuban society and its economy went into free-fall. The sudden demise of the Soviet Bloc brutally exposed Cuba’s economic dependency on the Soviet Union. In the early 60s, whilst simultaneously advocating a strategy of promoting revolution across Latin America, argued passionately by Che Guevara, Fidel Castro recognised that if socialism in Cuba were to have any real chance of survival then his country would need the active support of the Soviet Union. Always a pragmatist Castro recognised that there could be no third way. He paid a political price for the direction he chose. In 68, Castro surprised and disappointed many when he supported the Soviets crushing of the Prague Spring. Yet given the historical and economic context Castro chose the only path available to him, the path of pragmatism and for a time he did what was best for his people in the circumstances.

Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union was problematic. There were times when the Soviet Union failed to consult Cuba on strategy, especially during the difficult days of the 1962 Missile Crisis, but on the whole the relationship was an enabling one from a Cuban perspective. Unlike American or European colonial powers the Soviet Union did not seek a profit from Cuba, instead it subsidised the Cuban economy for the best part of thirty years. The main Cuban export was sugar which the Soviets paid for at higher than average world market prices. By the 1970s and 80s, 70% of Cuba’s trade was with the Soviet Union. The consequence was that the Cuban economy became highly dependent on sugar. The historian Richard Gott, in his excellent study of Cuba notes that in addition to paying over the rate prices for sugar, the Soviet Union wrote off Cuban debts, or delayed them well into the future, and provided Cuba with fresh credit for capital investment programmes at low interest rates. The result was a period of economic growth in the 1970s and 80s and an overall increase in living standards for the Cuban people.  The collapse of the Soviet Union was devastating for Cuba. Cuba realised the hard way that dependency on a single export had made it incredibly vulnerable to external factors.

The scale of the problems Cuba experienced in the 1990s cannot be overestimated. In one single blow the country lost 85% of its foreign trade as sugar production collapsed. Factories closed and workers roamed the streets desperate for work and hungry for food. There was electricity and fuel shortages and for a time cars and buses disappeared from Cuba’s streets. Malnutrition, once a problem of the past returned in some areas. In addition to this, Cuba has had to address the injustice of being subjected to an economic blockade by the world’s only remaining superpower.



The US and Cuba


Since the early 1960s, the US declared war on a small Caribbean country simply because it dared to put its own people before the interest of American capital. The many attempts made on Castro’s life are well known. As early as 1960, the Kennedy administration wanted Castro removed. ‘Operation Mongoose’ was the codename for the American invasion of Cuba which was personally overseen by Robert Kennedy. The plan was to train a group of Cuban émigrés and mercenaries to invade Cuba who would then topple Castro. The invaders were the sons of rich landowners and wealthy families who wanted to return Cuba back to the status of a US colony.

Fortunately they were defeated at the Bay of Pigs, which helped to consolidate support for Castro. There is not the space to go into detail here but it often claimed that the Bay of Pigs invasion failed because JFK refused to provide the invaders with air cover (a point made by Oliver Stone in his absurd movie JFK, a film which ludicrously suggests that Kennedy had a soft spot for communism). Whilst it is true that Kennedy did not provide air cover his primary reason was that US intelligence had briefed him beforehand that the invaders had no real support base in Cuba. Most Cubans instinctively knew that the invaders were paid mercenaries acting at the behest of a foreign power. Led by Castro, fiercely patriotic Cuban men and women defeated the agents of US imperialism in what was one of Cuba’s finest hours. 

The failure of the invasion did not end the US’s war on Cuba. A terror campaign was waged against the Cuban economy which included many attempts to sabotage the sugar harvest. American aggression against Cuba was the primary cause of the 1962 Missile Crisis. The cruellest of all the American actions is the economic blockade, whose impact was felt in full force during the special period. When I walked the streets of Havana, and other areas, the most common form of political graffiti I saw were slogans calling for the blockade to end. The blockade is responsible for robbing Cuba of billions of dollars. In addition to this, it denies Cuba access to specialist medicines, particularly specialist drugs manufactured in the US for treating cancer and leukaemia patients. Even though the blockade has been condemned by the world community it continues to be enforced by the US. There are only three countries which support the blockade at the UN: Israel, which comes as no surprise, and two tiny Pacific Islands, the Marshall Islands and Palau, two islands whose economic livelihood depends entirely on the US.


Reform in Cuba


Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war against its people by the US, Cuban socialism survives, albeit with imperfections. During the special period not one school or hospital closed on the island. Instead the entire state was mobilised to defend the gains of the revolution. In addition to this, the Cuban government demonstrated their commitment to pragmatic socialism by initiating a series of reforms. Gott argues that the reforms may have saved Cuba from the worst excesses of post communism seen in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The reforms are varied and driven primarily out of necessity. In 1992, the state’s monopoly over foreign trade was abolished because Cuba desperately needed inward investment. The dollar was legalised and two currencies now operate in Cuba, the dollar, which is used by tourists and some Cubans, and the traditional Peso which the vast majority of Cubans use. Meanwhile, tourism has replaced sugar as the biggest industry in Cuba. The tourism sector grows every year with more and more hotels springing up across the island. The bulk of tourists come from Canada and the EU, most in search of a relaxing beach holiday in the Caribbean. Other reforms included the relaxation of laws in relation to self-employment. Many trades that once formed a ‘black market’ were legalised in the late 1990s. In total, 125 occupations and trades have now been legalised with the self-employed now having state permission to employ others. The Cuban constitution was amended and Cuba is now officially a ‘secular state’ not an ‘atheist’ one.

Last year, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), now under the leadership of Raul Castro, initiated further reforms which will qualitatively change the economic landscape in Cuba. These reforms have been subject to intense debate, not only inside Cuba but across the international left. Dr Stephen Wilkinson, (Director of the Centre for Caribbean and Latin American Research and Consultancy at London Metropolitan University) detailed the nature of the reforms in a recent article for Red Pepper magazine. The economic background to the reforms lies in the fact that the recent global financial crisis, coupled with the effects of the blockade, has reduced Cuba’s exports by 15%. Moreover, world food prices are going up and according to Wilkinson the Cuban government can no longer afford to subsidise food alone for 11 million people. The economic reality is that the Cuban state is close to bankruptcy. This is evident just by taking a brief walk around the centre of Havana. Empty spaces and gaps in between buildings are everywhere with crumbling architecture commonplace.

Wilkinson argues that there is simply no other option available except what he calls a ‘fundamental re-direction of the economy’. If successful, re-structuring will mark the end of central planning and the beginning of a greater role for co-operatives, the self-employed and privately owned businesses. The state will become a regulator not an administrator of the economy (my italics). Approximately, 500,000 state workers could be re-deployed into workers co-operatives or social enterprises as they are sometimes called. According to Wilkinson these new enterprises can then sell their services back to the state, services which could include refuse collection, catering and office cleaning. State land is also being distributed to Cuban citizens who are being encouraged to become small farmers.

The PCC has consulted extensively with the Cuban people on these issues. Cuba is often criticised by the right and the liberal left for not being democratic, yet the term ‘democratic’ is usually constructed in a very narrow sense. The consultations in Cuba constitute a form of participatory democracy. As of last year, 7 million people had attended more than 160,000 meetings to discuss the reforms. Meanwhile, 3 million members of the Cuban Workers Confederation have been involved in the consultation process and over 80,000 workplace meetings having taken place. Wilkinson refers to this process as, ‘re-structuring through consensus’.


The Politics of Reform


How Cuba adapts to the reforms in the next ten or fifteen years is going to be interesting. Will the reforms aid economic recovery and consolidate support for the PCC or could we see the advent of a new middle class demanding Western style democracy and for their class interests to be represented? Some observers are curious to see if Cuba might follow the Chinese model. Both Fidel and Raul Castro have been complimentary towards China in recent years, certainly more complimentary since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In an article in Granma, Fidel wrote that ‘China has become objectively the most promising hope and the best example for all the countries of the Third World’. Yet we should note that that every country is different. In Cuba, there is not a surplus of rural peasantry ready to work in factories for poverty wages as is the case with China.  

The reforms also present challenging questions for the left. There is nothing new about left debate on the question of Cuba, and the question, ‘is Cuba socialist’ has been discussed at length since Castro first came to power. Those with a history of criticism towards Cuba are unsurprisingly highly critical of the reforms, which they see as constituting a return to classic capitalist restoration.

Sandra Lewis, writing in Red Pepper, typifies this position. She argues that the Cuban reforms must be seen within the context of the neo-liberal financial crisis. According to Lewis, the Cuban government is making ordinary Cubans pay for the crisis. From this perspective, Cuba is no different from any other capitalistic state. Lewis argues that the industries which generate the most income for Cuba, namely agriculture, pharmaceuticals and tourism, remain highly centralised and controlled in a top down manner. For Lewis, the best solution would be to return the resources and institutions into the hands of the Cuban people and to advance the revolution towards what she calls a ‘truly liberatory socialism’. Yet quite what this means in practice is not clear. Neither is it clear why ‘people power’ to put it crudely would solve Cuba’s current economic crisis.

Lewis’s argument is based on the purist assumption that socialism is only socialism if it is ‘self-emancipatory’ and comes from below. For me, this is a narrow and ultimately idealist (or unrealistic) vision of socialism, and an easy assessment to make when not confronted with the realities of being in power. Moreover, it is based on a failure to understand two things. Firstly, there is not one variant of socialism just as there is not one variant of capitalism. From this perspective, Cuba is not abandoning socialism but initiating an experiment with a new variant of socialism, namely market socialism. I would argue that Cuba is socialist because market mechanisms are being adopted under firm state control. The state has a 51% stake in ‘joint enterprises’ and its uses it’s economic leverage to reinvest surplus wealth back into Cuban welfare. My second criticism of Lewis’s arguments, espoused by others on the left concerns the nature of the state itself. The Cuban state is socialistic in nature and the working class in Cuba exercise political power through the state. From this perspective, it is perfectly possible for a socialist state to be top-down and participatory at the same time.

From a more theoretical perspective the recently deceased Eric Hobsbawm noted that socialist governments arise not out of class, but out of the characteristic combination of class and organisation. According to Hobsbawm it is not the working class itself which takes power and exercises hegemony but the working class movement or party. Hobsbawm concluded that unless one is an anarchist, it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. This analysis enables an understanding of how the working class, through PCC and the National Assembly, exercise power in Cuba.




Cuba demonstrates that there is no blueprint on how best to construct, or in Cuba’s case, defend and manage socialism and every country is different in terms of social and historical contexts. The creation of social enterprises and self employment has not created a capitalist class as some have argued. Based on my own experience the self employed people I met in Cuba live modestly, and like self employed people in the UK they come across as genuine hard working folk trying to do the best for their families.

Of course the reforms are not without problems. Inequality is rising in Cuba. This is compounded by the mixed currency and the creation of a two tier economy. Some Cubans, particularly those that work in the tourism sector have access to goods that can only be bought with the dollar. The same is also true for Cuban families who get access to the dollar via their families living in America, mainly Miami. Yet such inequalities are miniscule compared to the grotesque inequality we see in capitalist societies and they may be a price worth paying if the Cuban state is able generate income. It is also true that the arrival of tourism can create its own problems, particularly the creation of a mono-culture. The main tourist resort can be found on the Varadero peninsula and the peninsula is one long line of hotels catering for Western tourists. When we travelled though Varadero both my wife and I felt that it was cut off from the rest of Cuba, both geographically and culturally.


However, the bigger picture in all of this is that the tourism industry is creating jobs and income for the economy. Moreover, the Cuban government has a 50% stake in the hotels, something that would be unheard of in the West.

For me, Cuba can best be described as socialism but with compromises. This is the socialism of pragmatism first and ideology second. It is a socialism which is part of Cuba’s history. From 1959 onwards Cuba has been a laboratory of socialism where the realities and constraints but also the possibilities of being in power are realised every day. Under Castro’s guidance the Cuban people and the Cuban nation have made their own history. Although no longer at the helm he was the driving force that got Cuba through the special period and he was the instigator of many of the reforms being carried through today. For Gott, in initiating reform Castro may have performed his last great revolutionary service to his country. Fidel Castro put Cuba on the map. Yet I was encouraged to find that there is no cult of personality associated with Fidel. There is not a single school, hospital or factory named after Fidel. Whilst Westerners and Americans in particular see Cuba as being about one man the reality is somewhat different. Today, the bulk of the Cuban government and ministries are run by young graduates from universities and technical schools and according to Gott, 75% of them were born after the revolution. Castro said long ago that if the young are not in charge they might stand against it. By putting them in charge Castro has ensured the longevity of his revolution. Hopefully the reforms will ensure that the gains of the revolution, particularly in health care, will continue to live on long after their leaders' passing.

There is an old saying, I think it derives from the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping but I have heard it from others, which sums up the Cuban experience of socialism well. I thought of it as I stood in Revolutionary Square in Havana and considered the nature of Cuban socialism in 2012; the saying goes

‘it does not matter whether the cat is black or white, what’s important is that it catches the rats’.


The author, and his partner Anthea, in Revolution Square


Chomsky, Aviva, The Threat of a Good Example, 2000, article published in the book Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor

Gott, Richard, Cuba: A New History, 2005

Lewis, Sandra, Cuba in Context, Published in Red Pepper, Oct/Nov Issue 2011

Wilkinson, Stephen, Cuba and the Updating of Socialism, Published in Red Pepper, Oct/Nov Issue 2011 

Other articles by Gary Fraser in The Point can be found here

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books