How Cuba Survived and Surprised in a Post-Soviet World

Sara Kozameh (Jacobin) reviews We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World, by Helen Yaffe (Yale University Press, 2020). Kozameh writes, “After the fall of the USSR, most observers expected Cuba to follow in its wake. But the Cuban system has now lasted for 30 years since the Soviet collapse. To explain its persistence, we need to drop Cold War stereotypes and look at the Cuban experience in its own right.”

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the consequent demise of its multilateral economic assistance programs shook what had been the socialist world. By the time the USSR voted to formally dissolve, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) — the economic trading bloc that provided crucial economic assistance and preferential trade agreements to smaller Communist states — had already been dismantled. This threw Cuba, COMECON’s only member in the Western hemisphere, into economic turmoil. Nearly overnight, the island nation found itself cut off from its primary trading partner. It lost more than four-fifths of both its import and export markets, which had supplied it with energy, food, and machinery, helping sustain the Cuban economy for over three decades, ever since the start of the US embargo in 1961.

GDP plunged by 35 percent over the space of three years. Cuban agricultural output fell by 47 percent, construction by 74 percent, and manufacturing capacity by a staggering 90 percent. The lack of fuel imports from abroad paralyzed Cuba’s industries. Lengthy blackouts and food queues became a feature of daily life.

With no gasoline to power their cars or buses, Cubans had to walk or cycle to their destinations. Lack of electricity meant there were no fans to stave off the sweltering tropical heat — and no way to power refrigerators, either. People’s intake of calories fell by about one-third, as hunger and malnutrition rose to levels not seen since before the 1959 Revolution.

After the Fall

Few in the Western world expected Cuba’s political and economic system to survive. History, we were told, had ended; capitalism reigned, while the socialist world was crumbling. It was only a matter of time before the Cuban exception ceased to be exceptional. Yet in Cuba, “history” has continued to plod on.

Thirty years after the fall of the USSR, the government that emerged from the Cuban Revolution still holds power. It has now existed in the post-Soviet world for longer than it spent under the wing of the Soviets. The distinctive Cuban model has endured, and its leaders still seek to balance the pressures of functioning amidst an overwhelmingly capitalist global system with the objective of advancing a non-capitalist economy that doesn’t follow the same logic.

In her book We Are Cuba: How A Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World, Helen Yaffe sets out to explain how Cuba’s model of socialism has held out against such odds. The answer, Yaffe argues, can only be found by taking the Cuban Revolution on its own terms, instead of allowing the residual insularity of US Cold War battles to condition the debate.

Those who perceive the Cuban system exclusively as a repressive dictatorship are unable to come to terms with the real society that exists — and by some measures, even thrives — beneath the obfuscating layers of political rhetoric. Yaffe aims to provide an economic and policy-based analysis of Cuba’s last thirty years, evaluating the island’s progress and setbacks on the basis of its own objectives.

Yaffe’s book identifies several reasons for the persistence of the Cuban model. A willingness to adjust the parameters of centralized government control is one of them. Cubans remember the 1980s as a time of relative abundance and stability. Soviet goods filled store shelves, and workers who met or exceeded production quotas frequently received beach vacations — even international travel.

In 1986, Fidel Castro opted not to follow in the liberalizing strides of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost program in the USSR. Instead, he sought to reform Cuba’s central planning system by recentralizing control over the economy. His government also launched several new platforms for citizen participation and opened the island up to tourism.

Yaffe argues that this renewed emphasis on state intervention against what the government saw as the inadequacies of the market put Cuba in a better position to withstand the Soviet collapse a few years later. Since the state had recentralized agricultural production, for example, it was able to get food to those who needed it most during the worst years of the crisis — roughly 1991 to 1995 — which became known as the “Special Period” (shorthand for what Castro called the “Special Period in Time of Peace”).

In explaining how Cuba made it through this crisis, Yaffe also stresses the importance of a “humanistic austerity” as the state’s budget dried up in the early 1990s. Cuban leaders made drastic cuts: state spending on defense, for example, fell by 86 percent, and the government eliminated fifteen ministries altogether. However, it maintained and even increased expenditure on health, welfare, and social services. Subsidies helped ensure that basic goods reached people and protected jobs. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.jacobinmag.com/2021/01/we-are-cuba-review-socialism-soviet-union

Also see https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300230031/we-are-cuba

[Photo above: People walk away after watching the convoy of vehicles escorting the remains of former President of Cuba Fidel Castro pass by along the malecon at the start of a journey across the country to Santiago de Cuba where he will be buried, on November 30, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Castro died on November 25th at the age of 90 and the country is in the midst of a 9 day mourning period that lasts until his funeral on Sunday at the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)]

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