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Post-Castro Cuba in a Post-Communist World

Updated on December 21, 2010
A 1956 Ford automobile in Trinidad, Cuba. The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has prevented the importation of newer vehicles.
A 1956 Ford automobile in Trinidad, Cuba. The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba has prevented the importation of newer vehicles. | Source

Cuba as a state is something of an anomaly. While most communist states have fallen, Cuba remains despite its proximity to the influential capitalist powerhouse that is the United States. However, their success as a state from the revolution of 1959 until 1990 is easily explained; the regime has been legitimized through its charismatic revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro. Furthermore, aid from the Soviet Union allowed Cuba to enjoy a prosperous economy in spite of the U.S. trade embargo, which has been in effect since 1960. Yet times have changed – the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and Fidel Castro’s health is in decline. As a result, their major source of revenue has dried up, and the man who defined and brought about the socialist regime in Cuba has handed power to his brother Raul.

While the Cuban regime has strong enough security forces and a weak enough civil society to prevent a rebellion against Raul in the short term, there will be more burden on him to improve the lives of Cubans in order for him to perpetuate the legitimacy of the socialist regime, given that it was largely vested in Fidel himself at the expense of a more institutionalized government. Given these major changes in circumstances, it would be imprudent for Raul to maintain the status quo for his own sake; there will have to be some change in Cuban policy to maintain the authority of the state. More important, however, is the welfare of the people; given that Cuba is a welfare state, any new revenue attained by the government would ideally be to help provide for the people of this island nation. As communism failed in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, Cuba may inevitably need and adopt a policy of liberalization with the intent on normalizing trade relations with the United States. The extent to which this is necessary or even possible is subject to debate, especially given the “ultra-nationalist, anti-imperialist” rhetoric of Fidel Castro. Yet pragmatism may win favor if it prevents an anti-communist, anti-Castro uprising borne of a welfare state unable to provide for the general welfare (whether that uprising be strictly of domestic origin or sponsored by a foreign entity).

Perhaps the best example of Cuba as a welfare state is the world-renowned health care system. Although it spends four percent as much on health care as the United States government and is one of the poorest countries in the world, the health indices of Cuba are comparable to that of the much wealthier United States. Furthermore, the world’s first meningitis B vaccine was produced in Cuba, and Cuba has provided immunization services for countries such as Haiti. The state also uses its muscle to engage in preventative health through food rationing, organically grown foods, and supplying bicycles to use for transportation. All of these innovations originated from Cuba having to do with less. As the Soviet Union was no longer able to provide Cuba with chemical fertilizers, they developed new farming techniques. Additionally, bicycle transportation was devised as a replacement to automobiles fueled by subsidized Soviet oil that was no longer available.

This innovation would make it sound as though Cuba has fared well in spite of the lack of support from the Soviet Union and especially the United States. This is not the case. In 1991 alone, the GDP plummeted by 60%, and the health care system has suffered specifically because of the U.S. embargo. Brown’s “Strangling Cuba: Does the Embargo Even Make Sense?” details various ways in which Cuban health care is affected by the lack of supplies. In addition to being in constant short supply of basic equipment such as syringes and oxygen, Cuba was unable to provide an implantable defibrillator for a heart attack patient, as the U.S. company that manufactured it was barred by the U.S. government from selling it to Cuba. These are problems not originating necessarily of the failures of communist government, but from Cuba not being allowed to participate in trade with the United States.

This ban not only prevents an American company from engaging in unfettered trade, but prevents Cuba from exercising its role as a welfare state, free health care being one of the perquisites which could help keep the socialist regime afloat whether Fidel Castro is present as the head of state or not. While Castro, as previously mentioned, has railed on the United States for being an imperialist force, the United States in turn viewed Cuba as a Soviet satellite startlingly close to home. Indeed, Castro seized American properties in Cuba without compensation and sought to spread communism throughout the Americas. Thus it could be argued that the embargo was a national security measure to prevent the spread of communism into the United States, especially given Cuba’s proximity to the United States. Indeed, at a meeting of the Organization of American States in 1962, Secretary of State Dean Rusk noted that the United States’ objections to Cuba refer to its interactions with other countries, and not its economic practices. The collapse of the Soviet Union, rendering the argument that Cuba was a Soviet satellite null and void, did very little to ease U.S. tension against Cuba.

The United States has sought democratic and market reforms, as well as compensation for property seized by the Cuban government. On one hand, it would help Castro’s cause to maintain ideological ground and stay firm. The Cuban regime exists on the basis of a “moral economy,” which idealizes a classless society and is scornful of accumulating wealth. By posturing his government as the moral alternative to a capitalistic, materialistic society such as the United States, he has helped to ensure that his government stayed in power. Yet eloquence and nationalism could only take him so far; Soviet assistance helped keep this moral economy afloat for decades. With the Soviet Union gone, there is no ally with a comparable economy who could aid Cuba. Therefore, if it means being able to provide for its own people, Cuba may have to form a pragmatic alliance with the United States.

For such an alliance to get off the ground, Cuba would need to demonstrate its commitment to American interests. It stands to reason that Cuba could make amends by compensating those from whom his government seized property. Incidentally, this topic came up when President Jimmy Carter was negotiating with Cuba the withdrawal of troops from Angola. While Cuba recognized it was required under international law to make such compensations, it made the counter-claim that Cuba suffered damages from the Bay of Pigs invasion, and that it would not be able to pay reparations in any case, as the embargo has severely affected their economy. Following Cuba’s involvement in the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia, Carter further requested that Cuba withdraw from Africa and show “greater respect for human rights.” Cuba made good on many of these requests by the time George H. W. Bush became President, yet President Bush did not uphold the United States’ end of the bargain.

In fact, 1992 saw the passage of the Cuban Democracy Act, which made the embargo even more restrictive, under the argument that it would cause the regime to “fall within months.” Followed up by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which aimed to force other countries to join the United States’ opposition to Cuba in lockstep, the United States’ behavior toward Cuba has been anything but toward improving the relationships between the two countries. If the United States cannot demonstrate its own interest in Cuba, then Cuba could dangle its own carrot: a potential trade agreement, wherein Cuba could trade the goods of its country in exchange for an end to the embargo. This would continue the trend of the United States of the past twenty years to expand free trade.

In a simulation by Petrolia and Kennedy which predicts the effect of Mexico and Cuba having unfettered access to the U.S. sugar market, the U.S. price of, and production of, sugar drops, while demand increases slightly. While the immediate effect is that Cuba being able to sell the United States sugar at U.S. prices would provide “an immediate boost” to their sugar industry, it would be done at the expense of other countries to be able to sell sugar to the United States, given the tariff-rate quota system in place.

Consider the various proposals and concessions that would be made by Cuba: in addition to concessions already made, such as the end of all military involvement in Africa, as well as an improvement regarding the human rights situation in Cuba, they would have to sacrifice some of their core economic values and not only compensate U.S. landowners for their seized property, but also flirt with the idea of market liberalization. Such a Cuba is hardly identifiable from the Cuba we know now.

But, assuming the United States would agree to lift the embargo as a result of such liberalization, the result would be that the largest economy of the world would be allowed to invest in Cuba. (This assumes that the United States in this political climate would be interested in further economic liberalization, especially given the likely protest of U.S. sugar beet farmers.) This would simply be an expansion of other market reforms pursued in the 1990s, which permitted foreign investment for mining and tourism, but this time, the “permanency of Cuban socialism” would not be a factor for Cuba to perseverate over.

The times simply dictate that Cuba, especially in the face of a leadership crisis, needs to adjust. Its stance as one of the few remaining cheerleaders for communism is one mired in impracticality, given that a large communist economic force such as the Soviet Union is no longer around to provide support for Cuba. Thus I have presented a new reality for Cuba: one which requires them to accept the times and agree to cooperation with the United States, simply so that Cuba’s economy would expand. This would not necessarily precipitate the transformation of Cuba into a capitalistic society much like the United States. Indeed, Raul Castro could justify such market reforms by noting that they are to help ensure funding for the welfare society of Cuba. If the liberalization results in the United States lifting its embargo, then Cuba would be able to purchase all the medical supplies it was previously unable to purchase, stimulating the U.S. economy and allowing for Cuba to provide for the welfare of its people. The welfare of the people, after all, is of utmost importance.

As the legitimacy of the Cuban regime stands, Raul would be able to consolidate support in a way his brother was unable; firstly, by securing the support of the United States, and secondly, by providing the economic mobility which Gonzalez and McCarthy have argued would be necessary for Raul to win the support of the substantial Afro-Cuban bloc without having to divest from other expenditures.

With the key stakeholders satisfied – the United States, through increased trade; Cuba, through secured popular legitimacy; and the Cuban people, through improved services; such reforms would come at the cost of adherence to pure, ideological socialism. While some ideas of socialism, such as providing for the health care of the population, would likely survive, it is up to Cuba to decide which it values more: ideological orthodoxy, or remaining in power while having an increased capacity to serve its people.


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    • jeanie.stecher profile image


      7 years ago from Seattle

      Cuba has already evolved after Fidel's rule yet his brother proved to be not the same. A good shift to Socialism would sometimes be the best solution for a country who wants a good change.


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