Ideas & Debates


Cuba: Thaw in relations with imperialism

On May 29, President Obama took Cuba off the list of the "governments that sponsor terrorism." It is a new step, politically significant, in the process of re-establishment of relations, and soon, the establishment of embassies in both capitals could be agreed on.

July 07, 2015

Photo: Reuters

Spanish version from Ideas de Izquierda 20, June 2015

On May 29, President Obama took Cuba off the list of the "governments that sponsor terrorism." It is a new step, politically significant, in the process of re-establishment of relations, and soon, the establishment of embassies in both capitals could be agreed on. Meanwhile, there is already a significant liberalization of trips and remittances from the United States, and cultural, artistic, sports and commercial contacts of every type are proliferating with a setting in Havana. Although the commercial and financial blockade remains in force, some of its restrictions are being relaxed.

With it, the "thaw" in the relations with the United States is advancing. After a long period of secret negotiations, in December 2014, the exchange of the three political prisoners (part of the "Five" Cubans jailed since 1998 in the US) was completed by Alan Gross and another US spy. Meanwhile, Obama was announcing the reorientation of the policy towards the island, by recognizing that "the decades of isolation of Cuba by the US have not achieved the lasting aim of promoting the emergence of a stable, prosperous and democratic Cuba," which, at the same time, impedes US firms from taking advantage of the Cuban opening to foreign capital, from which the capital and commerce of other countries (China, Europe, Canada and Brazil, among others) are benefiting.

Subsequently, at the VI Summit of the Americas in Panama," the meeting between Obama and Raúl Castro ratified the new course. Under the sign of the re-discussion of the relations with the US, a new stage has been opened for the Cuban process. The "normalization" of relations between both states is a partial achievement forCuba, but at the same time and before all else, it is a "lethal concession." A "thaw," "changes," and a "dialogue" are reconfiguring the setting that could stimulate a leap in the "transition to the market" under the leadership of the Communist Party, that is, of the process of capitalist restoration "in the Cuban style."

Cuba and the changes in Caribbean "geopolitics"

Obama, accompanied by important groups of the establishment, recognizes that the policy of blockade and isolation, such as it was, did not obtain the historic results that it was hoping for, and it became dysfunctional facing the current situation; the changes that Raúl Castro’s government is introducing are favorable to the "market" and foreign investment, while the hypothesis of a short-term downfall of the regime has not come true. Without renouncing pressure for a "political opening," the recognition of Castro’s government and the "thaw" reflect the step from the traditional policy, centered on a head-on policy of hostility, to a tactic with more emphasis on negotiation (which is certainly based on coercion and blackmail) to pursue its strategic objectives: recovering Cuba for capital.

From a general point of view, this application to Cuba of the "Obama doctrine" seeks to remove consequences from the epoch of the "Cold War" in its relationship with Latin America, and it is a central element in Washington’s efforts to recover lost ground in the region, by adapting itself to the relationships of force and challenges that confront US power, with an attitude more prone to dialogue, taking advantage of the decline of the progressive governments, that are also seeking an easing with Washington.

With the "thaw," the United States is aiming at recovering a direct effect on Cuba, that not only maintains relations with all of Latin America and the majority of the European powers, but has established economic, political and even military agreements with China, Russia and other countries. Meanwhile, the "thaw" is attracting negotiation to Cuba, that, while it has tightened links with the moderate Brazil, has been cooling down the alliance with Venezuela, which, now without the leadership of Chávez and in the middle of a big economic crisis, cannot assure the petroleum support of years ago, and the weakened Maduro is not guaranteeing the solidity of the "Caracas-Havana Axis" in the medium term. On the other hand, Cuba’s role is very important as a host of the "peace dialogue" between the Colombian government and the FARC, that could end another half-century conflict, an inheritance from the "Cold War": the civil war in that country, strategically important and a close ally of Washington.

The easing with Cuba helps, strategically, to reaffirm the United States’ power over what it considers its "mare nostrum" ["very own sea"]: the Caribbean, where other strong interests are now active.

Changes in the Caribbean’s "geo-economy"

The link between the Pacific and the Atlantic across Central America and the Caribbean has multiplied its importance in the most recent years, with the increase of business between East Asia and the West, which is modifying the relationships of exchange and transport streams of the whole Caribbean basin, under the far from negligible impact of trade and Chinese investments.

The expansion of the Panama Canal and the construction of a new canal through Nicaragua put Cuba in a strategic position on the routes for the new large-draft container ships (Panamax and Post-Panamax) that make connections between China and the US East Coast ports, as well as Brazilian ports.

This suggests the strategic possibility of putting Cuba back, even on a modest scale, into the streams of commerce and "global" chains of production controlled by the US transnational corporations, from the "workshops" of East Asia to the US market.

The Cuban government’s plans incorporate this perspective. The Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) [1] with its deep-water port and its broad industrial area, is being built as a big logistical hub close to the US ports. On the other hand, the Cuban market is small, but not negligible for that reason. "Feeding the Cubans" would be an attractive business for the agricultural industry of the US southern and central states. But while the investments and projects with foreign investment are multiplying on the island, US capital is "self-excluded" from those opportunities.

If the "thaw" intensifies, and the restrictions that the blockade imposes are eased or lifted, the US corporations could vie for space with the Chinese, European, Brazilian, etc., competition, and the Cuban economy would remain exposed to a much more direct influence from the enormous gravitational force of the US market. And Mariel seems destined to play an important role in that direction.

The economic situation and the "reforms"

The opening with the US could make possible a temporary improvement for the Cuban economy, by toning down the external restrictions, thanks to the greater entry of foreign currencies (via the increase of visitors from the US, although tourism has not been authorized, and greater remittances to relatives), as well as encouraging interest among foreign businessmen anticipating a lifting of the blockade.

This is not a minor fact, since the Cuban economy has been showing low indices of growth and finds itself affected both by the unfavorable international context, as well as by the overwhelming weight of the internal contradictions, in which is expressed the combination between the disastrous bureaucratic management of the nationalized economy and the partial reintroduction of "market" mechanisms in a hostile context of international isolation.

The measures adopted six years ago, in the context of the "Guidelines" of the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, involve a deepening of the process of "pro-market" reforms, that, with advances and retreats, have been applied since the "Special Period" in the 1990’s.

For that, it was proposed to reform the management of the enterprises with criteria of individual profitability, reduce the staff of state employees, hand over lands to the use of cooperatives, and open new areas to individual initiative, among other measures, like raising the age for retirement, making the hiring of workers more flexible and authorizing payment of wages for productivity. Also, a new foreign investments law was approved, and the terms of the salary policy for the mixed-capital enterprises and foreign investments were made more flexible. However, the bureaucracy’s plan was incapable of consistently re-invigorating the economy, that in the most recent years has recorded weak increases of the GDP. In this framework, the reforms have advanced slowly and without achieving big results: half of the lands granted continue to be unproductive; only 150,000 employees could be removed from the state sector, reflecting a certain resistance, although passive, among the working class and also the distrust from groups of the intermediate bureaucracy, of the changes in management.

The bureaucracy’s response is to strengthen the bet on foreign capital. Since a central problem is the low rate of capital investment, the government seeks to attract foreign firms with the new legislation, having already negotiated some 250 projects that involve nearly 9 billion dollars of investment. As Minister Marino Murillo said in Panama, they wanted to get some 2 billion dollars annually, by presenting the ZEDM as an attractive "showcase" of the opportunities open.

For that, negotiation with the United States is crucial. An easing that will authorize US commerce and investment in the island could provide fresh resources to the economy, but, at the same time, greatly increase the danger that the intertwining of interests of foreign capital with the highly-placed bureaucracy and the directors of Cuban enterprises, represents; an alliance that is key to the forces that are pushing towards restoration, while the still minority private sector (half a million people in scattered activities, of low productivity) generates a favorable social terrain, tied to corruption and the privileges of the bureaucracy.

Up to now, contrary to the opinion of some groups of the non-Castro left, that has held the restoration as consummated for some years, if not decades, the degradation of the conquests of the revolution has advanced seriously in these years under the policy of the ruling bureaucracy, but a qualitative leap has still not been carried out. This is a source of instability and explosive contradictions. In terms of an émigré intellectual and opponent, López-Levy II,

"The idea of giving the market the freedom of a bird in the cage of the planned economy has been shown to be a dead end. China and Vietnam progressed rapidly, because they resolved that dilemma by adopting an economy of a regulated market, not a command economy with segments walled off from the market. The central structure to build must be one of competition, and that requires a change of mentality and model, not a mere updating." [2]

The road to the leap of that "restructuring" for "competition" can look more unobstructed if a background agreement is arrived at with Washington, that could include certain "guarantees" for the ruling caste, for instance, against the possible revenge of the émigré Cuban bourgeoisie and the rest of the owners expropriated between 1959 and 1964. Something feasible to imagine, if the "hard" groups of the anti-Castro lobby in Washington are subordinated to the new policy.

Preparing the political "succession"

The "thaw" with Washington is a political and diplomatic success for Raúl Castro’s government, permitting it to expand the international consensus for its gradualist plan, under the command of the Cuban Communist Party, as well as renewing expectations on the reforms among the population and lining up all the wings of the bureaucracy. At the same time, it shows that the strategy of imposing an alleged "democratic opening" by force is losing ground in the imperialist media.

All that, very important when the succession of the historic leadership, inevitably close to their biological decline, is being organized by a new brood, born and educated after the Revolution, of which the First Vice President, Díaz-Canel (52 years old), a likely candidate to head that renewal, is a part.

It is not a matter of a simple generational replacement, but of a big political re-adaptation, in order to move forward in the economic reforms. The time that Raúl has at his disposal is until 2018, and, as López Levy indicates:

The current time is relatively favorable. Domestically, President Raúl Castro can hurry the reforms, as Díaz-Canel will not be able to do in a context of a more collective leadership, with more consultations and debates. From an institutional logic, it would be positive that the most painful changes, that require a civilian-military consensus, occur under his aegis, since he has a referee’s power in the Cuban Communist Party-Armed Forces relationship, difficult to compare. [3]

Those "painful" changes, directed at "conforming to live according to the real possibilities," as other right-wing dissidents say, will require bigger attacks on state ownership, employment, the educational and health systems, and the people’s living conditions, based on the "market," something that, until now, the government has tried to avoid, by implementing the reforms with caution and by avoiding "shocks." Furthermore, Raúl’s authority and prestige is no longer equal to that which Fidel had, and it collides with the deterioration of the institutions of the bureaucracy’s Bonapartist regime, as well as of the CubanCommunist Party itself and the mass organizations (like the unions), afflicted with an incurable sclerosis. On the other hand, keeping the equilibrium between the economic and political "communist" bureaucracy and the armed forces, that now hold a decisive role in the management of the main enterprises, does not resolve the problem of how to incorporate "escape valves" in order to contain phenomena of social dissatisfaction.

It is from this point of view that the relationship with the Church acquires importance, as a privileged conversational partner of the government and moderating mediation with influence in Cubansociety as well as among the exiles. This allows understanding the idyll between Pope Bergoglio and Raúl Castro, who, at the end of his encounter with the Pope in the Vatican, declared: I left impressed by his wisdom, by his modesty and all the virtues that we know he has. I, and the leading circle of my country, read the Pope’s speeches every day. And I told him that if he continues speaking like that, I will return to praying, and I will return to the Catholic Church, and it isn’t a joke," expressing gratitude to him, in addition, for his "active role in favor of an improvement in the relations" with the United States. The Pope’s blessing on the government’s course will be affirmed in the September visit, when Bergoglio will officiate at Mass on the island before continuing a journey to the United States[4] , with which, the agreements are being deepened with the Catholic Curia, that is offering its good offices to support "from outside" the course of reforms of the bureaucracy.

Support to the program of Raúl Castro or defense of the revolutionary conquests

The spokesmen of Havana do not cease to insist that the reforms have as an aim the "updating of the economic model," in order to construct a prosperous "socialism," a proposition ever less credible in light of the facts.

Some groups of the left, although critical of this path, justify it because of Cuba’s isolation in the capitalist world, as a "lesser evil" facing the danger of a violent capitalist restoration. But the Cuban plan is not an intelligent "third way" that will avoid the restoration, but the road to take to it, in a controlled manner, "in the Cuban style," keeping the monopoly of political power in the hands of the bureaucracy, for their conversion into a new property-owning class, after the example of their peers in China or Vietnam. This course, that is increasingly accepted by imperialism (as Obama’s calculations show), is enormously demoralizing for the Cuban people and for all of Latin America, since it appears to show that there is no other road than "market socialism" (or a "twenty-first century socialism," with capitalists included), and that it is useless to struggle against imperialist oppression.

For example, the Marxist economist Claudio Katz justifies the Cuban government in terms of a mandatory "NEP." [5] But a retreat, although mandatory, cannot be presented as an "improvement," and, in addition, it strengthens the internal enemies of socialism and thus must be explained. Katz also denies that introducing a genuine socialist democracy could be a "panacea." It is not a matter of a "panacea," but that the regime of a "single party" of the bureaucracy stifles every trace of independent political life of the masses, and it reduces the space to the minimum or directly represses the critical groups on the left. Facing that, it is essential that the workers and the youth have a full right to get organized and express themselves, which includes the right of the political currents that declare themselves against imperialism and for the defense of the revolution, to act freely. It is the working people who must discuss, decide and review the measures in place to adopt, according to the people’s interests, and exercise collective control over all aspects of economic life. Workers’ democracy is a practical necessity, in order to confront reaction,combat the bureaucracy and balance the relationship between the centralizing plan and the margins to offer the "market," not a "luxury" that can be replaced by the plebiscitary, ultra-controlled mechanisms of elections like the recent municipal elections.

Political support to Raúl’s government and to the monopoly of the Cuban Communist Party is a support to the Cuban road to restoration[6] . A workers’ and socialist alternative for Cuba, part of independence facing the government and criticism of its measures from a strategy and a program to defend and restore the conquests of the Revolution, by confronting the imperialist maneuvers, interference and blackmails (like the blockade), as well as putting an end to the power and privileges of the bureaucracy, by building a new regime based on the democratic organizations of the masses. In summary, it is about the program and strategy of political revolution, the only one that can regenerate the CubanRevolution.

Translation Yosef M.


[1] The ZEDM, inspired by the special zones open to foreign investment on the Chinese coast (in which the return of the Asiatic giant to capitalism was created), is built and financed at a cost of some 900 million US dollars, with big Brazilian participation; a Singapore transnational administers it, and it has investment projects of dozens of foreign enterprises.

[2] Entrevista a López-Levy II, en La JovenCuba.

[3] Ídem.

[4] La Nación, 10/05/2015.

[5] Claudio Katz, “La epopeya cubana”,

[6] While there are groups of the left that continue identifying the conquests of the Cuban Revolution with the leadership that is taking them to ruin, incapable of breaking politically with Castro’s policy, there are also others that, considering the capitalist restoration already consummated years or decades ago, overlook the fact that there are still structural conquests to defend, although they are already very degraded, and they are being adapted to the logic of "democracy in general" that imperialism extols.


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