How Cuba Survived

For decades, commentators predicted that Cuba's socialist model couldn't survive without the USSR or Fidel Castro. They were wrong – and even in the face of continued sanctions, its unique system endures.

For sixty years, the Cuban Revolution has defied expectations and flouted the rules. Cuba is a country of contradictions; a poor country with world-leading human development indicators and has mobilised the world’s largest international humanitarian assistance; a weak and dependent economy which has survived economic crisis and the extraterritorial United States blockade; anachronistic but innovative; formally ostracised, but with millions of ardent defenders around the world. Despite meeting most of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2015, Cuba’s development strategy is not upheld as an example. These contradictions require explanation. ‘Cuba is a mystery’, Isabel Allende, director of the Higher Institute for International Relations, told me in Havana, ‘it is true, but you have to try to understand that mystery.’

Historians like anniversaries; they help to mark the passage of time and to provide perspective to its passing. 2019 marked sixty years since the Rebel Army seized power from the Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. But at the half-way point was another useful marker: it was thirty years since Fidel Castro publicly declared that were the Soviet Union to disintegrate, the Cuban Revolution would endure. He said that on 26 July 1989, eighteen months before the USSR collapsed and four months prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. For three decades, the survival of Cuban socialism was attributed to Soviet aid. Today, the Revolution has existed in the post-Soviet world for longer than it did under the Soviet sphere of influence. How on earth did Cuban socialism survive?

The Revolution is now older than the new head of state, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who is entirely a product of Cuban socialism. He is the son of a mechanic and a schoolteacher, born in April 1960 in Placetas, a small city in central Cuba founded by Spanish colonists in 1861. In April 2018, with a not-quite unanimous vote from the National Assembly of People’s Power, Díaz-Canel took over from Raul Castro. His ascendency is one of history’s conundrums solved: the end of the Castro reign did not signal the end of the Cuban Revolution.

For years, students of Cuba were conditioned to believe that the Revolution’s trajectory could only be understood by reference to Fidel Castro’s biology or psychology. Then Fidel ailed, he resigned, he died, but the Revolution lived on. Raul Castro took over. He was referred to as the ‘brother’, as if that explained his governance; the ‘reformer’, as if a peaceful transition to capitalism was assured. Raul came, he reformed, he resigned, and the socialist system prevailed.

So, if it wasn’t the ‘Castro brothers’ who explained the endurance of the system then other factors must account for its survival into the post-Soviet world. Have we been too distracted by all the talk about what the Revolution was doing wrong to enquire about what it was getting right and how?

A Revolutionary People

My book sets out to tell that story. We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World shows how decisions made in a period of crisis and isolation from the late 1980s shaped Cuba into the twenty-first century in the realms of development strategy, medical science, energy, ecology and the environment, and in culture and education. Many of these developments have taken place ‘under the radar’, astonishing outsiders like Dr Kelvin Lee, chair of immunology at a New York Cancer Centre which is trialling a Cuban lung cancer immunotherapy, who described the achievements of Cuban biotechnology as ‘unexpected and very exciting’.

The book focuses not just on the policy, but on the restraints and conditions that shaped each course of action, as well as the motivations, agendas, and goals behind them. It brings out an essential element that has been understated in most commentary on Cuba: the level of engagement by the population in evaluating, critiquing and amending policy changes and proposed reforms, through representative channels, public forums, national consultations, and referendum. Therein lies the voice of the revolutionary people. In socialist Cuba, the relationship between the ‘government’ and the ‘people’, through their organisations, is extremely permeable. Cuban socialism has survived with the backing of the revolutionary people and failure to recognise this leads to distortions and misconstructions about the legitimacy of the revolutionary government and the balance of power.

This is not to deny the indefatigable leadership and authority of Fidel Castro, and the subsequent dominance of Raúl Castro. But as military historian Hal Keplak pointed out, ‘neither the FAR [Revolutionary Armed Forces] nor even important police resources were ever needed in an internal security role’ to quell civil unrest. The projects the Castros initiated were dependent on their ability to get the Cuban people behind them. Hence the need to constantly go to the people, to explain, urge, debate, and win the consensus in order to mobilise the revolutionary people to action.

The label ‘revolutionary people’ in the book’s title does not just mean communist militants, party apparatchiks, or state bureaucrats. It includes the communities and ‘ordinary’ Cubans who just got on with the art of living, pulling together to pull through the Special Period of economic crisis. I discuss the city dwellers who became urban farmers to provide food for themselves and their neighbours; the ‘disconnected’ youth who became the Citizens’ Army in the Battle of Ideas; the environmentalists pursuing sustainable development and renewable energies; the medical personnel who left behind their homes and families to serve the world’s poorest and most neglected communities; the medical scientists who worked tirelessly to produce medicines the island could not import because of the US blockade or the international market price; the social scientists who warned policy-makers that Cubans were being left behind in the drive for efficiency; and the millions of Cubans who turned out time and time again to debate the proposed policies and reforms which would affect them.

But the label ‘revolutionary people’ can also include the malcontents and critics of government policy, those who ‘pilfer’ state resources, work illegally, or live off tourists, the self-employed and private farmers, the marginalised youth outside of employment. In the cycle of revolutionary regeneration any of these groups can and have been reincorporated into the socialist project, as the book shows.

My endeavour was to write about Cuba as a ‘real country’, without the cynicism or condescension that characterises so much of what is written about the island. These episodes include: the acceleration of Cuban medical internationalism from the late 1990s; the Battle of Ideas from 2000, with its emphasis on culture and education; the Energy Revolution from 2005, which promoted energy efficiency and renewable energies; and the development of Cuba’s biotechnology sector. I am also concerned with the political economy of development in different stages: during the period of ‘Rectification’ in the late 1980s; the economic crisis of the 1990s known as the ‘Special Period’; reforms from 2008 under Raúl Castro’s mandate; and more contemporary debates over economic efficiency and social justice moving forward. Today, the socialist development path is in the balance and whilst being wary of attempts to predict the future, history can help us assess the internal and external factors which will determine the outcome.

How Cuba Survives

The political representatives, heads of scientific institutions, youth leaders, and others whose voices are represented in my book do not herald from an elite or aristocracy any more than Díaz-Canel does. Over the years in Cuba I have visited the homes of former ministers, diplomats, political leaders, intellectuals, and other professionals who live in ‘ordinary’ homes lacking luxury, and who share the daily deprivations of their neighbours. As state sector employees, many of my interviewees receive low salaries, even by Cuban standards, notwithstanding their qualifications and the responsibilities of their post.

Before the Revolution, Allende told me, her family’s ‘big dream’ was for her to work as a secretary in the US-owned Cuban Electric Company. Instead she attended university, became an ambassador and is today director of an important institute which trains diplomats and academics. ‘I am not a millionaire, I do not have any of that, but from the point of view of what I did in my life … Could that have happened before the Revolution? No. That is due exclusively to the Revolution.’ Likewise, Jorge Pérez Ávila is the son of a bus driver who became the head of a world-renowned hospital of tropical diseases, the IPK. These are ‘ordinary’ people given the opportunity to do extraordinary things by the Cuban system.

The analysis also draws on my own experiences of visiting and living in Cuba frequently since the mid-1990s when I first stayed on the island as a teenager. This was an austere time during the Special Period; we saw how Cubans dug deep to survive, as individuals and as a socialist society. It was a transformative experience. I returned regularly: for world festivals, solidarity brigades, research trips and field work, personal visits, academic seminars, and more research trips.

Following the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in summer 2015, Havana became ‘the place to be’ for veteran rock bands, pop stars, politicians, film-makers and the fashion industry. President Obama visited Cuba in March 2016, followed swiftly by the British foreign secretary, the French president and other European ministers. They were trailing behind Russian, Chinese and Latin American heads of state. The sharp edges of the US blockade were chipped away through licences for trade and investment issued to US companies by the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, major internal developments have been underway in Cuba since 2008. The distribution of two million hectares of state land to private farmers; the Guidelines for Updating the Economic and Social Model approved in 2011 and updated in 2016 reduced state control of the economy and cut government spending; the Mariel Special Development Zone and a new Foreign Investment Law of 2014 sought to channel foreign capital into Cuba; hundreds of thousands of workers were transferred from state jobs to cooperatives and new private sector employment, prompting a rise in remittances; and Cubans were permitted to sell their homes and cars on an open domestic market for the first time in thirty years.

The market openings have led many external commentators to conclude that, intentionally or not, Cuba is re-introducing capitalism. They gave US policymakers a pretext to initiate rapprochement under Obama in December 2014 while Western policy makers, analysts, and academics speculated about whether Cuba would experience an Eastern European style transition to capitalism, or a gradual economic liberalisation under existing centralised state structures, the ‘Chinese model’. Meanwhile, the Cuban government insists that these measures are necessary to preserve the socialist Revolution. Where does the truth lie?

Like a castle made of sand, rapprochement was washed away with the Trump administration’s default to hostility. By March 2020, the Trump administration had implemented 191 measures against Cuba; a new existential threat to the Cuban Revolution. However, the Cuban response to the Covid-19 pandemic, has garnered international admiration for the revolutionary people of Cuba once again. A Cuban anti-viral drug is showing positive results in the treatment of patients and Cuban healthcare personnel are travelling to dozens of countries to provide medical assistance. Just how can a small, Caribbean island, underdeveloped by centuries of colonialism and imperialism, and subject to punitive, extra-territorial sanctions by the United States for sixty years, have so much to offer the world? My book goes some way to answering that question.