The Cuban Case

Spanish colonialism came to the Western Hemisphere in the fifteenth century. Indigenous people were killed or enslaved. Africans were brought to the occupied land to produce sugar, tobacco, coffee, dyes, and other commodities that would find their way to Europe and processing for sale in the new global market place. The era of primitive accumulation, as Marx called it, marked the “happy dawn” of a new era.

Cuba became part of this new imperial system. Indigenous people were destroyed. Sugar plantations were established. And Cuba became an administrative center of Spanish colonialism in the “new world.” Some of Havana’s landmark buildings were constructed in the fifteenth century to house Spanish administrators.

Resistance and the passion for national autonomy were embedded in Cuban culture. Slave revolts and revolutionary campaigns occurred throughout the nineteenth century. The so-called “Spanish American War” constituted the culmination of Cuba’s anti-colonial struggle and the imposition of United States neo-colonialism on the island.

From 1898 until 1959, U.S. investors controlled the plantations, businesses, tourist enterprises, and public utilities while American tourists enjoyed Cuban beaches and culture. When the Fidelistas marched joyfully into Havana in early January, 1959 after Fulgencio Batista’s armies were defeated, a new era of hostile Cuban/U.S. relations was born. From 1959 to the present, the Cuban regime has experienced non-recognition, an economic blockade, a nuclear crisis, sabotage, efforts to cut off Cuban relations with neighboring governments as well as those in Europe, and sustained campaigns to undermine and overthrow the Cuban revolution. Despite enormous pain and suffering and extensive internal debates about the direction the revolution should take, the Cuban revolution survives until this day.

Socialist Paths: Material vs. Moral Incentives, the Socialist Command Economy, Rectification, the Special Period, to 313 Guidelines

The United States project from 1959 on was to stifle, dismantle, and destroy the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban revolutionaries had two main projects in mind: national self-determination and achievement of the basic social and economic rights referred to in Fidel Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech. In this speech Castro proclaimed that the Cuban people wanted to secure basic social and economic justice within a framework of national independence.

Over the next sixty years, Cuban society has been an experimental laboratory for testing and evaluating the effectiveness of economic and political policies designed to achieve the goals of the revolution. During the 1960s, leaders of the revolution debated whether the Cuban people were ready to embrace fully an economic system of moral incentives modeled after altruism and self-sacrifice or whether, given the neo-colonial capitalist system out of which the revolution occurred, a period of continuing material incentives was needed to encourage production for revolutionary change. The system of moral incentives was put to the ultimate test during the campaign of the late 1960s to produce 10 million tons of sugar. It failed.

After the disastrous sugar campaign, Cuba joined the Eastern European common market (COMECON) and shifted more in the direction of Soviet bloc command economies. Despite economic growth over the 15 years of command economy experience, the Cubans, in 1986 committed themselves to a campaign of “rectification” or reintroducing incentives and exhortations to rebuild revolutionary enthusiasm which they believed had been stifled by the Soviet state socialist model. From the point of view of the Cuban leadership, bureaucratization and centralization of control had reduced ties between the revolution and the popular classes.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and COMECON, the Cuban regime, because of deep economic crisis, shifted away from socialist command economy policies and revolutionary enthusiasm to policies, referred to as the special period, designed to save the revolution from collapse. The Cuban economy was opened to foreign investment, tourism was reinstituted as a core foreign exchange earner, some shift to small scale markets was allowed to resume, and state farms were shifted to cooperatives. The result was, despite the predictions of U.S. “experts” on Cuba, some economic recovery and growth from the depths of depression in the mid-1990s until 2006.

For a variety of reasons, including the retirement of Fidel Castro, rising generations of post-revolutionary youth, reduced growth in tourism due to global recession, and severe natural disasters, the Cuban economy’s growth rates were modest after its remarkable recovery from the special period. Economic inequality and inadequate absorption of a highly skilled work force added to a growing malaise. Leaders of the Cuban Communist Party, economists, and social movement activists began to argue that substantial changes needed to be made to better satisfy the twenty-first century needs and wants of the Cuban people and to sustain economic growth in a world still dominated by global capitalism. The state-dominated economy led to excessive bureaucratization, corruption, too many state employees, and insufficient innovation and competition.

Raul Castro, who replaced his brother in 2006, initiated a public discussion of Cuba’s economic future. Literally 2.3 million proposals for policy changes were introduced in various assemblies over a three year period. These were concretized and publicized as 291 “Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution.” In April, 2011 after extensive debate a new document with 313 guidelines was presented and adopted by the 6th Party Congress of the Cuban Communist Party.

These guidelines have become the basis of a model of 21st century socialism that incorporates a strong but rationalized state sector, expanding markets, and the encouragement of workers to form various cooperatives in urban as well as rural areas. Also the guidelines allowed the expansion of private enterprises in small business, service, production, and agricultural sectors. Almost two million state workers overtime would be shifted to the non-state sector of the economy, private enterprises and cooperatives.

While the guidelines have begun to be translated into policy, Camila Pineiro Harnecker suggests debates continue between those Cubans who believe that the regime should continue to maximize the role of the state, those who argue that markets should become primary, and those who see economic democracy and workers’ cooperatives as central to Cuba’s future development of twenty-first century socialism. Interestingly, all three positions are represented in the guidelines; a better organized state sector, broadening of markets, and a growing sector based on workers’ control of production and distribution.

Among the central features of the guidelines are the following:

-socialist planning will continue more efficiently and will open spaces for other forms of management, production, and distribution of goods and services in the economy. A significant shift in employment from the state sector to the marketplace and cooperatives will proceed over a modest time period.

-along with state enterprises, the guidelines allow capitalist enterprises including foreign investment, the leasing of state-owned farmland, the leasing of state owned premises, self-employment, and the encouragement of urban and rural workers’ cooperatives.

-Expansion of categories of self-employment.

-Economic entities of all kinds will be required to maintain themselves financially, without subsidies for losses.

-Wages and incomes in state, private, and cooperative sectors will be determined by real earnings.

-Self-sustaining cooperatives will be encouraged that will decide on the income of workers and the distribution of profits after taxes.

The guidelines, while incomplete and still being developed, represent an effort to move beyond the dilemmas of a poor, but developing country historically committed to improving the quality of life of its people as to education, health care, culture, and economic security.

Vietnam, Cuba, and 21st Century Socialism: A Work in Progress

Vietnam and Cuba share many experiences in common. They both are historic products of years of colonial and/or neo-colonial domination and patterns of national resistance. Twentieth century nationhood was formed during the period of emerging global industrial and finance capitalism. Both Vietnam and Cuba resisted imperialism and won revolutionary wars against it only to be forced to survive in an era of harsh neoliberal globalization and political/military subversion. Concretely both experienced economic blockades from the United States at their most vulnerable time of economic reconstruction. And both as allies of the Soviet Union were forced to embark on the path of transitioning to socialism at a time when the socialist bloc was collapsing.

The generation of revolutionaries who fought the U.S. marines in the countryside and creatively withstood horrific bombing in Vietnam and fought against U.S. puppet armies in the mountains of Cuba, brought to victory a hardened vision of constructing a radically new society based on state socialism. With the collapse of state socialism as a world force and the shift virtually everywhere to neoliberal economic policies, Vietnamese and Cubans came to the realization that transitioning to 21st century socialism would require the construction of a more complicated economic model that continued to support a renovated state sector, allowed a regulated marketplace, and encouraged local socialist forms, such as workers cooperatives.

Presently advocacy of workers' cooperatives seems stronger in Cuba than Vietnam. As the Cuban guidelines suggest, workers cooperatives are advocated to continue the socialist vision by more effectively institutionalizing worker participation in decisions that affect their lives. Decisions about management, distribution of profits, commitments to the communities in which they work all would be determined largely by those in the cooperative units. Given the broad array of grassroots mobilizations that dot the map from the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and North America, some creative combination of workers’ states and workers’ cooperatives might constitute the centerpiece of a 21st century socialism.


The discussion of Cuba draws upon Cliff DuRand, “Renovation of Cuban Socialism,” March, 2013, (and insightful editorial comments on a draft of this paper from that author) and Camila Pineiro Harnecker, “Visions of Socialism Guiding the Current Changes in Cuba,” translated by Emily Myers, Center for Global Justice, both available from ; Roger Burbach, “A Cuba Spring?” NACLA Reports, Spring, 2013; Raul Castro, “Report to the 6th Communist Party Congress,”; Olga Fernandez Rios, “The Socialist Transition in Cuba: Economic Adjustments and Socio-Political Challenges, Institute of Philosophy, University of Havana, translated by Emily Myers, Center for Global Justice, 2012; Pedro Campos, “New Cooperative Policy Big for Socialism,” Havana Times, April 9, 2012,

Part 2 of a presentation prepared for The Labor and Working-Class Studies Project, Working Class Studies Association, Madison College, Madison Wisconsin, June 12-15, 2013. To access Part 1 see