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Deep roots of Cuba's dilemma

Published:Sunday | September 19, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Dennis Morrison, Contributor

The late Dr Eric Williams would have been struck by the irony that after 52 years of the Cuban Revolution, which had been sparked in part by chronic unemployment in the Cuban labour force, a whopping 500,000 state employees are to be made redundant in short order. But this announcement which came less than a week after Fidel Castro's reported admission that Cuba's economic model no longer works would, perhaps, not have surprised him.

Dr Williams' assessment of Cuban economic policy set out in From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969 had, after all, analysed critical mistakes made in the first decade of the revolution, the effects of which are now blamed for the mass redundancies.

International scholars have continued to document the flaws in Cuba's state-directed economy and in its political system, and to analyse the impact of the US embargo on trade in shaping economic realities in that country. Despite these flaws, the system has survived sweeping changes in the global economy and paradigmatic shifts in ideology and the political economy of its former allies in Eastern Europe. Even China which, like Cuba, is still politically directed by the communist party, long ago modified its economic framework.

It is in this international context and broad-based stagnation in the Cuban economy that the Raúl Castro regime is now forced to find a new development dynamic and to "update the Cuban economic model". No doubt, Cuba's economic problems, like those of many developing countries, have been aggravated by the global recession and steep declines in commodity prices in 2009. Major hurricane damage in the order of US$10 million that it suffered in 2008, would also have added to the distress.

Deeply-rooted problems

Cuba's problems, however, have deep roots in the policy failures of the early years of the revolution. Among the fundamental errors pointed to by sympathetic economists such as René Dumont and Charles Bettelheim - who observed policy-making in Cuba in the 1960s - was excessive nationalisation, including land. They expressed alarm that Cuba had "nationalised and centralised too much, too far, and too fast". Starting with land reform laws that were meant to break the stranglehold of American sugar companies on 75 per cent of Cuba's arable land, the Fidel Castro regime soon found itself up against powerful US retaliation.

This confrontation released political dynamics that heightened anti-Americanism and helped set in train wide-scale expropriation of the private economy. The Castro regime and Cuba thereafter were on a radically different ideological path from that which Fidel outlined in the Declaration of the Sierra Maestra on July 12, 1957. As Eric Williams noted, whereas Castro's initial political programme and the 1957 Declaration were typical of Caribbean nationalists, the conflict with the US over land reform changed the course of the revolution and the ideological stance of Fidel himself. This is summed up by Herbert Matthews, Castro's great American adviser and 'friendliest critic' thus: "Communism was not a cause of the Cuban Revolution; it was a result."

Nearly 50 years later, President Raúl Castro must confront the consequences of excessive nationalisation that is reflected in the reality, where about 95 per cent of the 5.1 million Cuban labour force is employed by the government. By his own estimate, the Cuban state supports businesses, production enterprises and services with inflated payrolls, in a system where up to one million workers are superfluous.

This state-directed economy, built on the wholesale adoption of Soviet-style central planning, was warned against by Dumont and other Marxist economists who identified it as one of the "socialist errors" that Cuba was committing as it repeated "the cycle of errors as the USSR, starting from theories abandoned in their country of origin". The Cuban economy still operates as an inefficient bureaucratic system, long after those of the former Soviet Union and its East European allies collapsed.

Cubans expecting too much

Another reality facing the Raúl Castro regime, which has been the subject of frequent comments by him, is that Cubans expect too much from the government which provides free education, free health care, as well as heavy subsidies for housing, transport, and basic food. Again, the policies on which this was based hark back to the days when revolutionary fervour ran high and Fidel declared in 1967 that his aim was "to give free sugar, free coffee, and free food" to the Cuban population. Rather than money as the incentive for work as under capitalism or as "practised in Russia or China", the incentive under the Cuban system of Marxism/Leninism would be the guarantee of a decent life in which workers and their children would be educated, cared for, housed, and fed.

British development economist Dudley Seers and his team, which included Chilean economist Andrés Bianchi, emphasised this as one of the serious errors of the revolution, causing the allocation of too many resources to social as opposed to economic investments. Its distorting effect on the development of the economy and contribution to low productivity are manifested in the severity of the adjustments that must now be made in the workforce.

The dilemma in which the Cuban government is caught is how to reform its development model while preserving the undoubted gains of the revolution in health, education, medical technology, and other industrial fields, as well as social discipline and social solidarity. Cuba's contribution in assisting other developing countries to free themselves from colonial domination is also notable, as evidenced by Nelson Mandela's recognition of its role in the struggle to beat back the aggression of the apartheid South African regime against countries in Southern Africa.

Dennis Morrison is an economist. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com.