Is Cuba Turning Capitalist?

The fall of the USSR and the death of Fidel Castro has prompted some to believe that Cuba is turning to capitalism.

Martin Barakov
Jul 12, 2020 · 5 min read

The collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe and Central Asia during the rough and unstable years of 1989–1991 also resulted in the absolute collapse of national economies in the region. Unfortunately, it also signaled the end of major trading partners for countries like Cuba and other socialist allies around the world. Unlike their Eastern European counterparts, Cuba stayed firmly committed to the ideas of Fidel Castro, José Martí, as well as the ideological principles of Marxism-Leninism following the absolute failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the former USSR.

As a result of the dissolution of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), Cuba entered into what Fidel referred to as the Special Period, an era in modern Cuban history characterized by economic crisis due to the severe drop in foreign imports and exports.

The Cuban government had subsequently emphasized the importance of self-employment and the creation of worker cooperatives to help mitigate the issues caused by the economy effectively being thrown into forced self-sufficiency. The end of the Special Period came about when Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela and then emerged as a new trading partner, as well as when foreign relations between Cuba and Russia were gradually developing.

Many mainstream and particularly Western journalistic outlets took to describing the events that were unfolding after Fidel Castro’s death in 2016 as a move or shift towards the embrace of capitalism. In July 2018, the National Assembly of People’s Power, or the legislative parliament of Cuba, passed a new constitution that was then put to a vote that took place on February 24, 2019. The people of Cuba voted in favour of the new constitution in an overwhelming fashion, with “86.85 percent of voters” voting for it, alongside an “84.4 percent” turnout, paving the way for its inception in Cuban society not long after.

What Changed in the Constitution?

The main justification for the idea that Cuba is turning, somehow, capitalist, lies in the contents of the new constitution that was passed. Most notably, the constitution now recognizes private property ownership, as well as foreign investment, despite the former being seen as a “vestige of capitalism” as per an article by Reuters. There is also the omission of building communism in the new constitution, instead opting for the move towards constructing socialism, leading some to ponder about whether or not this means that Cuba is slowly abandoning the ideology.

First of all, the mere recognition of private property in the constitution is nowhere near enough of a statement to announce that Cuba is moving towards capitalism or turning away from its socialist principles. Private property had already existed in Cuba, only that now it is being constitutionally recognized, slowly removing the themes of a ‘black market’ with regards to the economy. Moreover, the new constitution emphasizes that public property and socialist enterprise is still the most important and main driving force of the economy.

Secondly, while the removal of communism in the constitution may seem as a step backwards with regards to revolutionary Cuban political goals, the President of the National Assembly of People’s Power, Esteban Lazo, stated that this new constitution “does not mean we are renouncing our ideas…we believe in a socialist, sovereign, independent, prosperous and sustainable country”. The removal of the word communism in the constitution does not mean that the country has, somehow, renounced their commitment to communism. In fact, the case can be made for the opposite argument: The fight for communism is best understood as a long-term endeavour, as opposed to a short-term one.

As such, adapting to the social and material conditions of Cuban society as well as the current state of global economic affairs is a sign of maturity, not a shift away from its ideological foundations. In the current age of American hegemony, Cuba is not to be working towards establishing communism, but rather, they are to defend and preserve the currently existing socialist system.

The new constitution has also reintroduced the position of Prime Minister, with Manuel Marrero Cruz holding the post as of late 2019. It has also banned “discrimination based on gender, ethnic origin or disability”. The constitution also changed the way in which marriage is defined, signifying positive development towards the future establishment of same-sex marriage in the country.

However, some Cuban intellectuals have raised concerns regarding putting same-sex marriage and adjustments to the family code to a referendum, as it is seen as a question of human rights rather than, for example, a specific economic policy. According to Harold Cardenas, a Cuban blogger and political analyst, marriage equality “should be a presidential decree, not a referendum that exonerates the state from responsibility and opens the door to conservative homophobia” as per an article by Reuters.

What Lies Ahead for Cuba?

Cuba is, without a doubt, still a socialist country that is simply adapting to global capitalism, as they are understanding the current social, material, and political conditions around the world. Given the world is, presently, of a capitalist-dominated mode of production, it is extremely difficult to survive as a self-sustaining socialist society, especially when countries like Cuba have historically relied heavily on foreign trade.

The primary changes that have come about through the reforms in the constitution are related to the progression of LGBTQ+ rights in the country, as well as various changes to governmental structure.

In order for Cuba to survive, concessions are required to be made in place of dogmatically adhering to philosophical texts to maintain some superficial notion of ‘pure’ socialism. A constitution does not seek to identify the possible future developments of a country, but rather, it seeks to express the importance of current conditions within said country. Therefore, it can be said, with relative certainty, that Cuba is not moving towards a capitalist economic system, but that they are simply making adjustments and concessions.

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