The last few years have been one of profound transformations in Cuba. The streets of its main cities seem to change their appearance in a dizzying way, new places appear along with types of consumption that were not seen before. In popular perception, these changes are very palpable. In any street conversation, the comment “the country has changed” inevitably comes up.

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And the country is certainly changing. In the last decade, Cuba has been going through important debates about what it calls “updating the economic and social model of the Cuban Revolution”. A process of transformation within the Revolution that, over this time, had advances and setbacks.

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However, it was in the last three years that the most important transformations took place. From 2021 onwards, the main update measures began to materialize.

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In January of that year, the “monetary and exchange rate reunification process” was carried out, a change in the currency that resulted in a strong devaluation – with a drop in purchasing power -. At the same time, in September 2021, small and medium-sized private companies, known as Mipymes, began to open.

However, these changes were implemented at the same time that Cuba was experiencing a serious crisis. The covid-19 pandemic had a major impact on one of the country’s main sources of income, tourism. During 2020, the Cuban economy had suffered a 10% drop in GDP, a figure from which it has not yet fully recovered. At that time, Donald Trump’s government in the United States took advantage of the pandemic to reinforce the blockade against Cuba, causing even more difficulties for the island.

In this way, many of the debates on the “updating of the economic and social model of the Cuban Revolution” remained in the background, given the need to provide urgent responses to the crisis.

A horizon called socialism

Until the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, Cuba always lived under the yoke of foreign powers. The country was the last colony to gain independence from the Spanish Empire. However, shortly before Cuban fighters won the war of independence, the United States occupied the island.

From that moment on, American imperialism implemented neocolonialism in Cuba. Although there was a formal system of independent government on the island, all economic and political activities were monitored by Washington.

It was only with the triumph of the 1959 Revolution that the country gained its independence. Two years later, in April 1961, Cuba declared that it would begin moving toward building a socialist society.

“From an economic point of view, socialism is based on the social ownership of the means of production. What this allows is that the appropriation of wealth is social and not private”, explains Ileana Díaz Fernández, PhD in Economic Sciences and professor at the Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy, Brazil in fact.

Disinformation and false propaganda have always been tools to attack socialist ideas. However, Ileana emphasizes that socialism is based on a relatively simple idea, “the fact that the means of production that drive the economy are owned by all people.”

To this end, she explains that “first and foremost, it is the State that, on behalf of all the people, manages these resources in some way. But ultimately, it is the people who own them. So this is something that cannot must be privatized. And there is a line that must be preserved”. Elucidates on current debates in Cuba.

Plan the future

The idea of ​​”Economic Planning” is at the center of the history of socialism, despite being despised by liberals, for whom the economy should be subject only to free competition and the pursuit of private profit. But for defenders of “economic planning”, the production of goods and services inevitably has a social function that cannot be delegated to the anarchy of market forces, whose sole objective is the accumulation of profits.

Therefore, it is believed that the economy must be directed so that its functioning tends to solve social goals or problems.

During the 20th century, it was the Soviet Union that, due to its geopolitical weight, installed its particular way of understanding economic planning in the socialist field. But there has never been just one way to understand what this planning should be like. Even different models that could not even be seen as socialist, from mid-century Latin American popular governments to European welfare states, have experimented with some degree of planning of their economies.

Ileana Díaz Fernández argues that Cuban socialism must have a planned economy. However, she highlights that many of the debates the island has been through in recent years are centered on how this planning should be understood.

Since September 2021, small and medium-sized private companies, known as Mipymes, have been opening in Cuba as part of several “economic upgrade” measures in the process of being implemented in the country for a decade.

“Planning does not necessarily mean that one government body makes all economic decisions,” he says, referring to the old Soviet model. As an alternative, Ileana proposes understanding planning as “the way in which the State conducts the economy in accordance with certain goals, certain strategic objectives in accordance with its vision of the country or what it wants to achieve.”

The researcher usually illustrates the meaning of planning using a metaphor. She proposes thinking about economic planning as a road laid out by the State. In it, the economic actors would be vehicles, of different sizes and traveling at different speeds. These cars can make whatever decisions they want, but always respecting certain rules imposed by the State.

“Cuba needs to continue planning, but it needs to improve the way it manages its economic agents, all its private, state-owned and cooperative companies. And how, at the same time, it manages to make the State more efficient in its functioning”, he states.

The Cuban Revolution faces a great challenge: generating the necessary changes that can update its model and, at the same time, fighting to preserve the heart of the project, which is social justice and the defense of the most humble.

However, in addition to these challenges, Cuba not only faces the internal problems of any country, but also the constant hostility of the main international power, the United States. This creates extraordinary difficulties in an unequal struggle.

“Social justice is the soul of the socialist project. And it is the horizon to which we aspire”, says Ileana.

Over these 65 years, several efforts were made to achieve social justice: distribution of land to landless peasants; the extension and universalization of free health and education systems; the democratization of access to sport and art; etc. However, the horizon of social justice is a constant challenge that always needs to be updated. No achievement, no matter how important, is irreversible. Each battle subjects social achievements to new challenges.

“When we talk about social justice, not everyone has the same living conditions, even in socialism. For reasons of origin or for life itself. The objective is to achieve this over time. There may always be people who, for certain reasons, are in a vulnerable situation. Therefore, these people need to be protected.”

The block: between the urgent and the important

“Cuba is subject to constant economic asphyxiation that it cannot resolve with its own means alone,” reflects Ileana. The idea of ​​asphyxiation is not just a metaphor, but it is exactly the objective of the economic blockade policy: to cause the collapse of the Cuban economy.

The Cuban State cannot carry out any commercial or financial operations normally, as most countries do. This is because Washington not only bans its companies from trading with Cuba, but also sanctions third parties who try to trade with the island. This is clear extraterritorial coercion.

Furthermore, the blockade prevents Cuba from accessing international credit to finance large infrastructure projects that could improve its productive capacity: from building a road to modernizing a power plant. Many of Cuba’s energy problems can be explained by these factors.

The blockade against Cuba is one of the great examples of the systematic and constant violation of international law. Every year since 1992, the UN General Assembly has spoken out, by an overwhelming majority, against the blockade maintained by the United States. Arguing that it is a policy that violates “the sovereign equality of States, non-intervention and non-interference in their internal affairs, and the freedom of international trade and navigation.” However, throughout these more than three decades, Washington has maintained its authoritarian policies with impunity.

According to the latest UN estimates, the blockade generated losses of US$13 million dollars (R$66 billion) per day for the Cuban State last year alone. A gigantic amount of resources that the country is prevented from using to improve the quality of life of its population.

These difficulties mean that “what may not be a crisis for another country is a crisis for Cuba,” says Ileana. “We’ve been under blockade for 60 years and there’s no sign that that’s going to change. So as a country, we have to think that that’s not going to change. It might get a little worse or a little better, but at the moment it’s not going to change,” he notes.

During the 2020 US presidential election, Democratic candidate Joe Biden promised to reverse some of the measures his opponent Donald Trump had taken to further enforce the lockdown amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, at the end of his term, none of these promises had been fulfilled. It does not seem likely that in an election year, despite internal pressures, Biden will fulfill his promises. While an eventual triumph of the ultra-rightist Trump in this year’s elections could, once again, further strengthen the stranglehold on Cuba.

Ileana argues that the blockage should be thought of as a chronic illness. “You know you’re going to have it for the rest of your life and it’s very dangerous because it can get worse. The exceptional conditions imposed by the lockdown are suffocating. And they also require you to be constantly looking for creative ways to escape that suffocation.”

But all these efforts to mitigate the corrosive effects of the lockdown require a huge mobilization of resources, time and energy. A constantly open battlefront that worsens any crisis. The challenge is that “the other causes of the crisis must be minimized, looking to the future. And of course this is not easy, because we constantly have emergencies arising from the lockdown.”

Of course, not all of Cuba’s problems are a result of the embargo. But it is also true that all problems are made worse by the lockdown.

The lockdown imposes a logic in which emergencies must be constantly attended to. Purchases made across the country are canceled by selling companies at the last minute due to pressure from the United States. Suppliers who cannot arrive in the country due to the sanctions they may suffer. Payments made by the Cuban State and retained by banks. And so on, a long list of difficulties that need to be overcome daily.

It’s food, energy and medical supplies that the country needs to obtain to function and that are constantly being blocked. This directly affects the Cuban people, including the most vulnerable sectors.

The constant need to resolve emergencies makes it difficult to provide solutions for important long-term changes. Ileana says this is the main challenge “looking to the future, to the future and to the future”.

Editing: Rodrigo Durão Coelho


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