21st Century Cuba Seminar Report, Latin America 2011

In a lively discussion on economic developments and labour relations in 21st century Cuba, Emily Morris from London Metropolitan University began by contextualising the challenges facing Cuba’s evolving economy.

Emily demonstrated that, by 2004, the Cuban economy had recovered to the same levels as before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The recovery prior to 2004 had been driven by tourism and nickel and this had been buoyed by a surge in export services to countries such as Venezuela. Therefore, Emily concluded that, “it’s important to note that the current situation in Cuba is not due to economic mismanagement, but as a result of global financial crises” combined with the effects of three devastating hurricanes and a collapse in the price of nickel.

Emily noted that there is increasing acknowledgement of the significance of changes in Cuba and observed that some on the left – drawing parallels with the USSR’s pursuit of perestroika and glasnost – are concerned about the implications of these changes.  Emily argued that it’s wrong to characterise changes as an abandoning of socialism because socialist planning will remain the main means of economic management, although it will take the market into account. Instead, Cubans talk about “perfecting socialism”.            

Emily also challenged the Western assumption that economic changes in Cuba are part of “Raul’s project” by citing a speech made by Fidel in 2005 which signified a major reassessment of how the economy was run.

Furthermore, it is wrong to view changes in Cuba as a result of top-down government. As Emily showed, all policy decisions were reached through mass public consultation. Over 9 million Cubans participated in 163 000 public meetings. 3 million contributions were made and, from this, 800 000 individual ‘opinions’ were discerned which formed the basis of 311 new guidelines.

Dr Steve Ludlam of Sheffield University acknowledged that, although Cuban GDP had recovered to pre-Special Period levels by 2004/5, this had not been matched with real investment and much of the economy was still disrupted and unproductive. The economy was struggling to raise incomes and agricultural production whilst the socialist principle of distribution – that remuneration is based on input – was being challenged by unearned income through remittances.

Steve reiterated what Emily had said and argued that changes in Cuba were aimed at making the economy more efficient and “preserving the conquests of the Cuban revolution”. Steve re-emphasised the long process of public engagement and noted that all changes and developments will be carried out in a planned and orderly fashion with close consultation with workers and trade unions. “Workers are entitled to be consulted on any legislation which affects them and trade unions effectively have a veto on all workers’ legislation”. Workers’ assemblies must approve all production plans, implementation laws and collective bargaining with a turnout of at least 70%.

According to Steve, the process of restructuring “shows the power and influence of workers and trade unions in Cuba”. Cuba is trying to break away from the attitude of the 1990s and embrace self-employment. Trade unions are at the centre of these developments and are communicating directly with self-employed people to find out how they can represent them and offer support. As a result, self-employed people have the same rights to pensions, accident benefits and other social security as other Cuban workers. All this testifies to the inclusive and democratic nature of politics in Cuba which embraces trade unionism and workers as a core pillar of government.

Carlos Alfaro from the Cuban Embassy echoed the conclusions of the two British academics and emphasised Cuba’s commitment to socialism. Carlos said that there has been three crucial moments for the Cuban economy since 1959: First after the triumph of the revolution, second after the collapse of the Soviet Union and third the current global financial crisis. “Three times we have faced a major economic dilemma and three times we have rejected a capitalist model – why would we adopt capitalism now?”