Last month, Barack Obama became the first US president in nearly ninety years to set foot in Cuba and the first ever to make an official state visit to the island. Obama’s trip came on the heels of his historic decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba — a move he hopes will burnish his foreign policy legacy and, equally importantly, solidify a sea change that even a hostile successor would find difficult to undo.
With Obama back stateside, discussion has now turned to the embargo — namely, what will happen if (or, more likely, when) it is lifted. Cruise ship companies are skirting the embargo’s remaining restrictions, launching “culturally themed” trips to Havana this spring. The number of US visitors to Cuba has increased 50 percent since Obama announced the rapprochement. And if the embargo disappears, the Guardian reports, Cuba “could see as many as 10 million US tourists a year — a deluge for which the creaking, crumbling bones of Havana are far from prepared.”
But it is not just the “creaking, crumbling bones of Havana” that are unprepared for the arrival of US consumers. The Cuban left may be even more vulnerable than the country’s infrastructure — and harder to repair.
Can it survive in this new era, in which capitalism no longer stops short of Cuba’s shores?
In the US, restrictions on trade with Cuba are called “the embargo”; in Cuba, they are known as “the blockade.” The billboards lining the streets of Havana rotate between anti-imperialist and pro-revolutionary messages, often sporting phrases like “el bloqueo es genocidio” (“the blockade is genocide”).
Most Cubans object to the fifty-four-year-old blockade, which restricts access to medicine, food, and other traded goods and gives the state a ready-made excuse to repress political dissent.
The American Association for World Health found that doctors in Cuba lack access to more than 50 percent of the drugs on the world market because of the restrictions, and argues that “the US embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering — and even deaths — in Cuba.” Amnesty International condemns the unavailability of simple drugs protected by US patents, and members of the United Nations (with the exception of the US and Israel) have overwhelmingly voted against the embargo every year since 1991.
Indeed, just about the only people who support the embargo are those, like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who think that removing it would rejuvenate the Castro regime. But as Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat and US-Cuban relations expert, said earlier this month, Cubans generally worry more about the quality of their material lives than abstract concepts of human rights. “It would be a mistake to assume most Cubans prioritize political questions and are scared to express themselves,” he said. “They hope to live better. Change, political and economic, is coming to Cuba anyway, but on our own terms.”
For the Cuban left, the blockade is a far more complicated issue.
Instituted just before Fidel Castro declared the revolution a communist one, the embargo was the US’s response to the Cuban government’s uncompensated nationalization of US oil refineries. Tensions between the US and Cuba continued to escalate after the blockade’s enactment, culminating in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Throughout the Cold War, the US government viewed the nation as a Soviet foothold disturbingly close to American shores — a threat, both materially and existentially, to US hegemony.
But when the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1991, Cuba was thrown into crisis. People in Havana still talk of the years when electricity would only work for twelve hours a day, alternating between day and night.
The US, meanwhile, solidified its dominance on the global stage. The beleaguered country could no longer conceivably be seen as a menace to the US — much less one that warranted continued restrictions. Yet the blockade persisted, even when it proved unable to topple the Castros.
Today this impasse is finally waning. By engaging with the Cuban government, the Obama administration has admitted the failure of this Cold War vestige and the need for a new relationship.
The Cuban left has no illusions about the harmfulness of the blockade. It is an act of US aggression aimed at the civilian population of the island, and getting rid of it would improve the quality of life for millions. The US government should do so immediately.
At the same time, we shouldn’t ignore the potentially negative ramifications of such a change, both for the Cuban left and for the country more broadly.
Lifting the embargo would open up Cuba to American corporations and the US government’s attempts to “export democracy.” As the experience of countries in the region and around the world shows, neither would bode well for the island nation.
The Incoming Wave of Capitalism
In addition to US-based tour companies — which for decades have tried to circumvent the blockade — myriad other businesses and industries are looking to ride the wave of change straight into the Cuban market. AT&T is attempting to reach an agreement with Cuban telecommunications monopoly Etecsa; Major League Baseball hopes to capitalize on Cuba’s baseball culture; and Starwood Hotels and Marriott International both plan to open hotels in Havana once it’s permitted.
Then there are the companies that were fighting for a place at the table even before Obama’s visit was on the horizon. Verizon and Sprint both offer roaming services in Cuba and the Obama administration has let American companies sell construction materials, agricultural equipment, and telecommunications infrastructure to Cuba’s small capitalist class for years.
The list goes on: Airbnb and Netflix operate on the island, US credit cards are beginning to be accepted, and US airlines have been watching the détente closely, preparing for the flood of tourism.
Earlier this year, the US and Cuba signed an agreement to restore commercial air service, permitting twenty daily round-trip flights to Havana. Thirteen US airlines immediately pounced, then requested fifty-two flights. As of December, over two dozen US companies had submitted formal business proposals to the Cuban government — a sum that will only expand after Obama’s visit.
The potential end of the embargo has also whet the appetites of other countries. In the past, many international firms and governments feared a US backlash for being too friendly with the Cuban regime. But since Obama’s December 2014 announcement, countries like France and Japan have joined Russia and most Latin American nations in attempting to curry favor with the Cuban state and obtain permission to invest on the island.
The influx of companies has already changed Cuban society. For example, new telecommunications deals have brought public wi-fi hotspots to the parks of major cities — providing many Cubans their first opportunity to access the internet. (Direct mail between the US and Cuba has also surged since December.)
Obama will no doubt use these business deals to demonstrate that his open policy towards Cuba is good for both US businesses and Cuban consumers. But while the restoration of trade and green light to invest will certainly benefit US capitalists, it’s less clear whether and how it will benefit ordinary Cubans.
Foreign Capital in Cuba
There’s no consensus among economists about whether foreign direct investment (FDI) — an outside company buying or opening a firm in another country — is good or bad for host countries.
Most mainstream economists see it as a necessity for economic growth, contending that when FDI is combined with liberalization (i.e. austerity and privatization), development takes off. Left-wing economists disagree. They consider FDI an exploitative mechanism that, at its most basic level, uses a host country’s resources and markets without improving the lives of residents.
As evidence, they point to the weak (or, some argue, nonexistent) causal link between FDI and human and/or economic development. The case of Eastern Europe is instructive. According to the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the region had $300 million worth of FDI in 1990. By 1991 (directly following the collapse of the Soviet Union), FDI had spiked to $2.448 billion. Ten years later it was up to $27.2 billion.
The flow of FDI into Eastern Europe was part of a broader regional integration into global capitalism, and, as economist Jasminka Sohinger has shown, many countries in the area experienced economic growth. However, as social geographer Petr Pavlienek has pointed out, FDI also negatively impacted the region, intensifying instability, increasing economic and social inequality, and creating a “dual economy” of haves and have-nots.
For the most part, Pavlienek says, foreign investors failed to develop meaningful ties with local and regional economies — creating neocolonial relationships in which local economies were controlled by foreign capital with little chance of advancing into higher value and higher wage production.
Results did vary across Eastern Europe. What was crucial, Nina Bandelj and Matthew Mahutga argue, was how countries responded to FDI. The same goes for Cuba, although it’s unclear what approach the state will adopt.
The Cuban system has not fallen, and there is no evidence to suggest that it will if the blockade ends. Nor is a transition to liberal democracy on the immediate horizon. The ruling Communist Party appears partial toward a Chinese or Vietnamese state-capitalist model and is unlikely to implement sweeping austerity or privatize state enterprises. In this sense, the Cuban government will probably deal with the inflow of foreign capital as it has for the past six decades — as a “communist” state.
Of course, the way the Cuban state regulates the expansion of trade and FDI will present its own set of problems. At the moment, Cuba provides incentives to firms that are joint ventures between foreign capital and the Cuban state. But this says little about how ordinary Cubans will fare if an explosion of FDI enters the country.
As Samuel Farber recently noted, the government often positions itself between Cuban workers and foreign capitalists, facilitating an exploitative relationship in which workers’ wages are driven down. This is on top of labor’s broader obstacles, which include a lack of transparency and an inability to organize independent trade unions.
A Strange Struggle for the Left
The Cuban left is still groping toward a strategy that acknowledges the detrimental effects of the blockade, while refusing to waiver in their belief that a turn to capitalism is any kind of solution.
Racism, sexism, and homophobia mingle with poverty and scarcity in Cuban society — to say nothing of the authoritarian state apparatus that governs in the name of the revolution. No one can seriously place all blame for Cuban society’s difficulties on the US blockade, but a turn to capitalism hardly presents a solution.
One leftist historian and intellectual explained his fears: “When the day comes that there is a US-funded business at every corner, when the day comes that consumerism surrounds us, I will not be able to recognize our revolution. And that day is coming.”
Others expressed similar trepidation. A prominent LGBT rights and anticapitalist organizer told me:
These changes are going to bring us towards the Trump brand of capitalism. Cuba has never been a worker’s state — it is a state-capitalist system, not a socialist one. The party is forcing us to swallow their vision of the future by leading the people to believe there are only three options: their way, US capitalism, or civil war. But we fear that their way and US capitalism will appear too similar.
To build a better post-blockade future, leftists like sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos advocate a leftward shift: “If [Cuba’s] problems are solved within a socialist framework, Cuba may once again become an agent for the renovation of the Left . . . bringing about a different kind of socialism from the one that failed in the twentieth century.”
The New Guard
But is a turn to the left possible?
Last year, Samuel Farber described the state of Cuba’s left, pointing out the hard truth that most would-be leftist dissenters do not stray far from the Communist Party mainstream. The leftists who do exist receive no more sympathy from the state than their conservative counterparts.
The artists, intellectuals, and academics in the Cuban left have also struggled to expand their base — many Cubans are staunch supporters of Fidel and remain committed to the party out of loyalty to the revolution. The revolutionary university student organization, la Federación Estudiantil Universitaria (FEU), often holds gatherings that erupt in chants of “Viva Fidel! Viva la Revolución!” (“Viva Raúl! Viva las reformas!” are curiously absent.)
Yet intellectual and political collectives such as the Critical Observatory of Cuba, Project Rainbow, and Participatory and Democratic Socialism (PDS) have sprung up to advocate more radical solutions to the problems Cuban society faces.
Last summer, PDS leader Pedro Campos Santos spoke with Dissent about the transition. The Cuban state, he said, has
not allowed a discussion within the party or among the people about the type of society, the kind of socialism, that Cubans want . . . There is not a word on workers’ self-management of business, and state monopolies of all kinds are being strengthened. There is talk of a new constitution and a new electoral law, but with all of the people remaining on the outside of the discussions.
In attempting to offer some sort of alternative, Santos and others have had to contend with a dizzying array of obstacles.
For starters, surveillance and repression have increased since the diplomatic thaw. Opposition demonstrations, once rare events, occur more frequently. But security forces usually break them up and detain the participants. November 2015 had the highest number of arbitrary arrests in years — until the first two weeks of December surpassed it.
Activists also suffer material consequences for organizing. The Cuban state still controls more than 75 percent of employment (a number that’s even higher in the academic and white-collar sectors), and has been known to strip privileges and ranks from those who oppose it. The intellectual and antiracist Roberto Zurbano, for instance, was dismissed from his prominent position in the cultural organization Casa de las Américas in 2013 after publishing a critical op-ed in the New York Times.
In addition, the absence of an independent civil society hamstrings activists. While many groups in official civil society — workers unions, student groups, community organizations — better the lives of Cubans, they are also tied to, and constrained by, the Cuban Communist Party. And it is often the party itself that must be organized against — a tall task when building an opposition means building illegal organizations, usually without the advantage of reliable, unrestricted internet access.
Many opposition groups respond to this set of challenges by coalescing around US-supported actions — whether through recognition, funding, or organizational support. This tactic, while incredibly prevalent among right-wing and centrist dissidents, is also found among social democrats and other would-be leftists, who choose to embrace imperialism out of expediency.
The remaining leftists advance a mish-mash of causes and struggles. From antiracists to anarchists to LGBT rights activists, those on the party’s left flank are often as disorganized as they are passionate. This organizational weakness is compounded by the organizational strength of the Communist Party, which dominates the plane of left ideas. The FEU is illustrative: a group of young, passionate leftist students with significant social and organizational capacity that remains committed to the only party they know to support the revolution.
Many on the Left fear that, because of the party’s strong grip on political power, the country will begin to shift toward a China- or Vietnam-style system without significant leftist resistance. For those who support socialism and democracy, this outcome would be just as bad as US-style capitalism — an exploitative labor relationship without the consolation of a more open civil society and political process.
Building an Alternative
Cuba cannot continue to starve on the margins of the world system, cut off from the international community by an inhumane blockade. But neither should we accept unfettered foreign capital, and with it, the defeat of the socialist project. The Cuban state seems to be internalizing this binary. The Left knows there are other paths to be taken.
As Cuban PDS activists wrote last year: “The policy of aggression and blockade pursued by the United States for half a century failed of its own nature, as did the ‘state socialism’ [the government] tried to impose on the Cuban people. Nothing sustainable can ever be built from the top down.”
But there is an alternative from the bottom up, if the Cuban left can defeat both incoming capitalist forces and an authoritarian state: a true anticapitalism built on a free civil society, workers’ power, and democracy.