Cuba’s Democratic Left

Cuba’s Democratic Left

Outside of Cuba, debate around the future of the island hangs on a misleading binary: free-market capitalism or bust. Consistently written out of the picture are Cuba’s democratic socialists—a few of whom I caught up with on a recent trip.

Calle Obispo, Old Havana, 2009 (Jordi Martorell / Flickr)

Notwithstanding the predictable fury on the Republican far right, Barack Obama’s recent overtures to the Cuban government—the president has announced overhauls to travel, commerce, and internet restrictions as well as a mutual opening of embassies—have been welcomed by everyone from the editors of the Economist to Noam Chomsky. Even among those who remain implacably hostile to Cuba’s Communist dictatorship, there is a sense that a change in tack is required; half a century of belligerence from its northern neighbor has made Cuba neither prosperous nor democratic. Indeed the opposite is arguably true: the economic embargo has provided the Castro government with a ready excuse for economic failure and the restriction of civil liberties.

Fittingly, considering the embargo was always more about protecting the profits of American corporations than safeguarding human rights, the thawing in relations between the United States and Cuba comes at a time when the latter appears to be inching towards capitalism. Since Raúl Castro succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008, restrictions on private business have been relaxed and large numbers of state workers have been laid off. In 2010 less than 15 percent of Cubans worked in the non-state sector of the economy, but the government aims to increase that figure to 40 percent by 2016. Meanwhile the Cuban government has eliminated the upper limits on government salaries and allowed Cubans to take out business loans from the state bank, buy and sell houses and cars, and register as self-employed.

Yet while economic reforms have been gathering pace, the apparatus of the one-party state remains much the same. As the Cuban-American scholar Samuel Farber has written, since Raúl Castro assumed the Cuban presidency, he has “taken a number of measures that he claims will improve the economy, while the key institutions of the one-party state that control the country’s economy remain fundamentally unaltered.” Reforms are being enacted with the stated aim of “updating” rather than abolishing socialism—socialism in this instance being of the top-down Stalinist variety rather than of an independent and emancipated working class.

Outside of Cuba, much of the debate around the future of the island’s political system hangs on a misleading binary: that Cuba must surrender to American capitalism or remain poor and adrift under the Stalinist system. The third option—apparently favored by Raúl Castro—is a hybrid of the two along the lines of the Chinese or Vietnamese model of state capitalism and political dictatorship.

This assumption of free-market capitalism or bust is shared by most mainstream Cuba-watchers. Consistently written out of the picture is the Cuban democratic left—those who reject both the capitalist assumptions of the White House and the Stalinism of the Cuban government. With this in mind, I recently traveled to Cuba and caught up with some of Cuba’s democratic socialists to learn about the prospects for the independent left as Cuba goes capitalist.


Having previously stumbled across his writings, I chatted in Havana with retired diplomat Pedro Campos Santos, who leads a group of Marxist critics of the Cuban system. Named SPD (Participative and Democratic Socialism), Pedro’s group advocates a socialism that is both participatory and democratic with an emphasis on workers’ control of production. Despite the rhetoric of change emanating from both the Cuban and U.S. governments, Santos tells me that for the majority of Cubans life carries on much as before.

“[Since Raúl came to power] there has been some wage improvement, but minimal, for workers in health and education,” Santos says. “A small middle class is developing since the government decided to permit some self-employment. It is this class—as well as the bureaucracy at all levels—which has mainly benefited from the measures to allow the buying and selling of houses and cars, the setting up of small businesses, access to tourist facilities and the legalization of cell phones.”

As for how the regime intends to “update socialism,” the Cuban government has, according to Santos, “not allowed a discussion within the party or among the people about the type of society, the kind of socialism, that Cubans want.”

“There is not a word on workers’ self-management of business, and state monopolies of all kinds are being strengthened. There is talk of a new constitution and a new electoral law, but with all of the people remaining on the outside of the discussions,” Santos tells me.

As part of its tentative reconciliation with the United States, the Cuban government recently released the last of seventy-five dissidents incarcerated during the so-called “Black Spring” of 2003. It also handed over the American prisoner Alan Gross, a former USAID contractor arrested in 2009 for allegedly bringing satellite phones and computer equipment into the country (specifically for members of Cuba’s Jewish community) without a government permit. Yet despite perceptions in the United States, government repression in Cuba has, according to Santos, not diminished but simply become “more sophisticated.”

“From what I read, since I live in Havana, repression inside the country has not diminished. The overall look is more sophisticated. Imprisonments are more frequent but for less time.”

Yet others I spoke to did acknowledge a slight loosening of the screws since Raúl took power. Erasmo Calzadilla is a left-wing writer for the independent Havana Times website whom I met at a café near Havana’s famous sea wall, El Malecón. Calzadilla was fired from his job at a Havana university in 2009 after writing articles that were critical of the government. Yet despite his misfortune, he says the climate of fear on the island has started to dissipate since Raúl took power. Since 2008 there has been a “gradual disappearance of an atmosphere of fear mixed with the personality cult built around the ‘Great Leader,'” he tells me.

“Since the beginning of his mandate Raúl has called on Cubans to express themselves more freely. This in itself is a big change from the way of doing things under Fidel and his followers. Events like [my getting fired] were much more common in the past. At that time not only did you lose work, but you also ran the risk of being arrested or being harassed by a government-sponsored repudiation rally.”

Still, freedom of expression at work is far from universally respected. “Raúl is a little different but workplaces are still dominated by a bureaucratic or military caste that is loyal to the regime,” Calzadilla says. “Manifesting an openly rebellious stance puts the worker in a delicate position with a risk of being called a ‘counter-revolutionary.'”

As in the old Soviet Bloc, being deemed a “counter-revolutionary” in Cuba is a dangerous business, and once the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution—set up on every block in 1960 to, in Fidel’s words, “establish a system . . . in which everyone knows who everyone is”—put a black mark against your name it can be hard to expunge. “I have tried to find work at several universities and schools but recruiters are frightened when they see a spot on my record,” Calzadilla recounts.

It has become a cliché to point out that a walk through Havana leaves foreigners feeling trapped in a time warp. Admonitions to visit Cuba before the Americans “spoil it” have become standard fare in European tourist brochures, with Cubans themselves cast as props to be gawked at by affluent visitors. Change is undoubtedly coming to Cuba, but for all the government’s truisms about “updating socialism,” it remains unclear what sort of system the Castro regime actually wants.

Rogelio Manuel Díaz Moreno, a fellow socialist writer for the Havana Times website, calls the model of government envisioned by Raúl Castro “enlightened despotism.”

“To our knowledge Raúl Castro hopes to build a kind of enlightened despotism with the military leading the economy under state ownership, with a very small fraction of participation of the workers, greater economic rewards, some job security and basic rights on the condition that the economy has good results,” he says.

As for free expression in Cuba, Moreno largely echoes Calzadilla’s sentiments: things are getting better, albeit slowly.

“Today it is possible to talk more openly in some public places and workplaces, and express personal criticism of the work of state and the government,” Moreno tells me. “[At work] it is possible to raise problems, such as corruption and bureaucracy, but with great care not to offend the sensibilities of one’s immediate superiors.”

Alongside Moreno during our conversation was his wife, Yasmín S. Portales Machado, a Cuban science-fiction scholar and gay-rights activist. The Cuban LGBT community has suffered severe persecution under communism. In the 1960s many gay Cubans were rounded up, placed in UMAPs (Military Units to Help Production), and forced to do hard labor. While the labor camps were abolished in the late 1960s, homophobia was institutionalized in the early 1970s, with the Cuban Educational and Cultural Congress in April 1971 declaring homosexuality a deviation incompatible with the revolution. (This ruling was overturned in 1975 by the Cuban Supreme Court, and homosexual acts were decriminalized in 1979.) According to the dissident poet Armando Valladares, who was imprisoned by the Cuban government from 1960 to 1982 for refusing to put a sign saying “I’m with Fidel” on his desk at work, “there have been few examples of repression of homosexuals in history as virulent as in Cuba.”

The government’s position on homosexuality has improved dramatically since the 1960s and ’70s, though as recently as 2004 the Cuban police were reportedly conducting campaigns against queer and trans people. The liberalization in government attitudes—openly gay Cubans can now serve in the military, while in 2012 Adela Hernandez became the first trans person to hold public office—can in part be attributed to the work of Mariela Castro, daughter of Raúl and prominent LGBT campaigner, but also to a change in attitudes in Latin America more generally.

Yet despite some advances, homophobia remains widespread in Cuba. According to Machado this stems partly from a larger pattern of homophobia across Latin America and the Caribbean but is reinforced by the lack of specific legislation and training for members of the Cuban government and judiciary to address the problem.

One of the problems faced by the LGBT community reflects a larger problem with Cuban society under the Castros, Machado told me. “In Cuba they [the LGBT community] are not guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, so Cuba does not have a civil society that reflects the demands of the collective. The legislature, marked by dependence on the PCC [the Communist Party] and political passivity, does not have the ability to talk directly with Cuban society nor the obligation to be accountable to the electorate for their work.”

As an example of the problem, Machado points to Cuba’s long-awaited new Family Code, which is supposed to institute same-sex civil unions but has been stalled in the upper echelons of government since 2008. “The draft document has spent nearly a decade under development but has never been officially submitted in Parliament,” Machado points out. And the lack of a recognizable civil society makes it impossible to push the government to move things forward more quickly. “Despite the urgent need for recognition of gay and lesbian families, there is no way to exert pressure [on the government],” she adds.

Before I left I asked the Cubans about the prospects for democratic socialism on the island.

“The biggest obstacle for democratic socialist activists may be reaching people who, disenchanted with the Stalinist experience, believe in purely market-based solutions,” the Havana Times‘ Moreno tells me.

“One also cannot exclude the possibility that, with the withdrawal of Raúl and Fidel Castro from the stage, some of the more ambitious people in the entrepreneurial sector will turn over state assets to private ownership. This scenario would be similar to that produced in post-Sandinista Nicaragua in the late 1980s.”

Campos, of the SPD, believes the prospects for democratic socialism in Cuba depend very much upon the ability of leftists to reach out to “broad sectors of the population”—but also to elements of the ruling Communist Party.

“We are looking to coordinate the efforts of the various groups and figures of the socialist and democratic left. Much depends on the success we have in achieving this . . . [and whether we] manage to establish alliances with sectors of the Communist Party itself and with moderate democratic opposition groups.”

He also calls on the international left to look beyond the romantic images of the revolution and to stand in solidarity with groups such as his own. “Stalinism works to maintain disunity and has more forces and resources. We need more solidarity and support of the international democratic left.”

“Socialism is done from below,” says Calzadilla, and is not created by “an elite . . . that spreads the misery more or less equally and cares only about maintaining decent indicators in healthcare and education. From my point of view, that is not enough to be called a socialist system.”

So I ask Calzadilla, what would be enough?

“Socialism requires a minimum of social and political consciousness among the working class and the people,” he says. “An alienated, fragmented, politically idiotic half a century of paternalism and ‘ideological work’ and people may become compliant with the King, but they will never be a socialist people.”


James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward.


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