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How Cuba’s Communists Survived the Fall of the Soviet Union

Even Sandvik Underlid

The fall of the USSR in 1991 left Cuba mired in economic crisis and increasingly vulnerable to hostility from Washington. For the revolution to survive, it had to draw on its own domestic legitimacy — including its independence from the Soviet model.

Portrait of a Cuban man in his home in Matanzas in 1991. (Lily FRANEY/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Interview by
David Broder

Before the July 11 protests, the last major display of public dissent in Cuba came in 1994, early in the “Special Period” of economic hardships following the collapse of the USSR. Since soon after the 1959 revolution, the Eastern Bloc countries had been important allies for Havana, but Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1980s reforms and then the USSR’s final crisis spelled trouble for Cuba at a time of defeats for the Left across Latin America. Yet the revolution survived — also proving that it had sunk deeper roots in society than Eastern Bloc governments.

Even Sandvik Underlid is author of Cuba Was Different: Views of the Cuban Communist Party on the Collapse of Soviet and Eastern European Socialism, a study based on extensive interviews with members of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) as well as a systematic examination of the party daily, Granma. He spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about how Cuban media presented events in Eastern Europe, PCC members’ sense of Cuban “national specificity,” and the changes in the country since the Special Period.


DB

During Mikhail Gorbachev’s mid-1980s reforms in the USSR, Cuba launched “Rectification.” What was this?

ESU

In many ways, it ran contrary to Perestroika. Fidel Castro knew that Cuban-Soviet relations couldn’t stay the same — and feared that Gorbachev’s reforms would wreck a system showing cracks. He proposed a “purer,” “more Cuban” socialism.

This wasn’t the first time Cuba acted alone. From 1959, the revolution was characterized by radical nationalism, and then shifted to building its own type of socialism under the difficult circumstances of the US blockade and violent internal conflict. But isolated in the Americas, in the 1970s Cuba oriented more toward Moscow, copying much of the Soviet model though not really becoming a satellite.

In the mid-1980s, Castro developed what José Bell Lara called a “practical critique” of Soviet policies. He couldn’t openly criticize the USSR, on which Cuba depended economically in particular. He was more diplomatic, saying that Cuba was going to adapt socialism more to its national specificities.

This partly echoed Che Guevara’s 1960s criticism of “capitalist methods” in the USSR. Castro also thought quite early on that the Soviet system was turning into an empty shell — a distant party and bureaucracy without popular content.

During Rectification, Cuba closed some of the limited spaces for a market economy. It also returned centrality to Castro over the party — there was more mobilization, populism, and charismatic leadership, a bit like in the early days of the revolution, albeit without returning to the most radical experiments of the late 1960s or changing the system formed in the 1970s.

This may have contributed to Cubans’ feeling when it fell that they’d distanced themselves somewhat from the USSR. But with the collapse, Cuba lost almost all its foreign trade, Rectification had to be interrupted, and the revolution had to go largely in a direction opposite to what Castro wanted.

DB

How did Cuban media cover the fall of the USSR?

ESU

Cuban media was PCC-controlled, without domestic alternatives. But it was also penetrated by foreign, including Western, cultural products and information. This was less true in the 1970s, but in 1988, Cuban television broadcast 288 US-made films. There was also some contact with migrants, the odd foreigner, and books (though imports were state-controlled), and radio programs, sometimes including the Miami-based Radio Martí, though the state tried to block the signals.

Soviet publications containing reformist ideas were permitted until they started criticizing Cuba or attacking Soviet-Cuban relations. State media partly opened up in the late 1980s — maybe largely accidentally, though perhaps not only accidentally.

Coverage of Cuban affairs remained highly propagandistic. But the international coverage was much more contradictory. News often came from foreign (even Western) press agencies, but some Cuban correspondents’ descriptions of events also seemed somewhat sympathetic to certain changes in the Eastern Bloc, at least initially.

Editors in Havana clearly sought to guide the reader ideologically, via commentary but also subtle tricks. That could mean pushing important but “uncomfortable” stories into less noticeable spots; not including photos; putting headlines with a different tone to the main text; or putting uncomfortable news from a reforming socialist country alongside a success story from some unreformed one. The information was there — and with some exceptions, it was generally factually reliable. But it would have been easier for alert readers who weren’t just letting the newspaper guide them.

DB

What sense did Granma readers get, for instance, of the opening of the Berlin Wall?

ESU

There was little explicit analysis of the countries in question — possibly as the newspaper didn’t want a more open public debate on the causes behind the changes. Furthermore, Granma, which was seen as the voice of the Cuban state, certainly wanted to avoid showing disrespect to allied countries.

There were notable exceptions — most famously, Castro’s July 26, 1989, speech clearly stating that the USSR could disappear. There were also notes criticizing anti-socialist or “anti-Cuban” views in Soviet-reformist publications.

Editors and journalists were also professionals, and, despite the various pressures, they did mention the important events. Furthermore, the Cuban state didn’t want to lose the reform-socialists in Eastern Europe as allies, or alienate possible future governments, by criticizing them too harshly. So the news stories themselves generally centered on describing events.

For instance, Granma gave quite detailed information about the semi-democratic elections in Poland and covered Hungarian reformists’ proposals to dismantle the one-party system — even citing rhetorically convincing arguments that could have been reused in Cuba.

The Berlin Wall is a particular case. By 1989, there was relatively open coverage, even of countries that had once been covered apologetically. But in the German Democratic Republic’s case, Granma mostly repeated what its government said.

There were mentions of unauthorized East German migration via Eastern Bloc countries and the mounting demonstrations — often accompanied by commentary suggesting the West was behind them. Granma did publish a brief story on the press conference where Günter Schabowski announced the opening of the borders. Yet the later moments on November 9, 1989, when protesters demanded to be let through border points or climbed the wall, are really absent, as is the celebratory aspect and the real historical significance of the events.

DB

Did Granma’s discussion of these events draw lessons for Cuba?

ESU

There are implicit suggestions, but no in-depth, self-critical debate. Granma mainly focused on problems that didn’t exist in Cuba and on social problems after the transitions — suggesting that an imperfect socialism is better than no socialism. What predominated, especially right after the USSR’s dissolution, were suggestions that Cuba was more solid, its revolution authentic and popular, to be defended at all costs.

One “lesson” was the need to be careful with imperialism — that people had been fooled by leaders or by the West, and that it was necessary to avoid ideological “softness.” In an internal publication directed at the military, there were more critical assessments, recognizing not only errors but wider issues that were clearly delicate even in Cuba’s case, such as the growth of bureaucracy, the aging leadership, and violations of socialist legality.

By 1989, coverage of Eastern Bloc countries was already a bit distant — there was little on their culture or everyday life, perhaps as if to say that it wasn’t relevant to Cuba. But we shouldn’t one-sidedly accept the post-Soviet claim that Cuba was always distant and only forced into such a close economic relation with Moscow by the US blockade. Though that is a part of the truth, there was also admiration and much ideological, political, economic, and even cultural influence, as documented in Caviar with Rum.

DB

Events in Eastern Europe and defeats for the Left in Central America clearly made Cuba vulnerable in the early 1990s “Special Period.” You tell us that Granma avoided discussion of these events’ wider meaning — but, having interviewed some PCC members in 2013, what sense do you have of how this was perceived as credible by the party base or the wider public?

ESU

Remember, there was some public discourse on these events — it wasn’t a complete taboo. There was some analysis from above, from Castro and others, and maybe the odd self-critique on having copied too much from other countries. But generally, what was presented to the wider public explained the collapse and the crisis of the global movements in terms suiting the political necessities of the moment.

Castro had warned of the USSR’s potential collapse over two years before it happened, and this allowed him to claim some credibility on the issue. And US policies had pressured Cuba into a closer relationship with Moscow than Castro would perhaps have wanted.

Some of the PCC members I interviewed suggested that people had other things to take care of, especially as Cuba suffered an extreme economic shock: there was very little food or oil, people could go eighteen hours without electricity, one foreign journalist told me that you could sit on the Malecón for over an hour and only see a few cars go by. Perhaps he exaggerated, but not that much. Even if you had schools and hospitals, many things were barely working, salaries were worth almost nothing, the shelves were empty.

This situation also allowed the government to suggest that this debate should be postponed. Some — or many, it’s hard to tell — may also have feared US invasion.

I’m sure that many would have preferred a more open debate on the USSR, or at least for the government to publish some more nuanced and diverse analysis, but really, there were more pressing issues.

Even many who might still consider themselves revolutionaries were probably frustrated that Cuba had not developed its own economy, though there had been some timid attempts in the 1980s, such as opening a biotech industry and, later, receiving the first foreign tourists. But I think Castro and the system had quite strong support even during the worst years of the crisis. Marifeli Pérez-Stable writes, for instance, that as many as one-third of Cubans made a “protest vote” in the 1993 elections — but even if that’s true, it still leaves us with a majority that didn’t.

DB

When you sought interviews with PCC members, what did you expect that they’d be able to tell you?

ESU

I’d lived in Cuba in 2007–9, so I knew that such interviews were possible, even if not everyone would be willing to talk politics with foreign academics, especially without a promise of anonymity. But I had little experience with the PCC, and I was worried they’d simply repeat a party line.

In this case, there wasn’t really any official position, or only a vague one. The government had relied on letting people draw their own interpretations, which varied depending on their background and the information they had access to. Furthermore, 2013 was a reasonably good moment for a project like this, as Cuba had opened quite a bit, and the party was also more open to diverse views.

Most that were asked agreed to take part — perhaps because they wanted to tell their story to the outside world. They feel that Cuba is misrepresented, and perhaps also sympathized with the project since they had wanted a public debate on the changes in Eastern Europe and the collapse.

DB

Many of your interviewees had been to Eastern Bloc countries. How did they compare them to Cuba — and what importance did they lay on being part of the “socialist camp”?

ESU

It varied a lot, depending on when they went, how long they stayed, knowledge of the language, etc.

One woman worker recalled being awarded with vacations to the USSR, and saw only the good sides, but that was before the crisis. Others described a country in complete decay, especially from the mid-1980s.

One interviewee, a former civilian pilot, told me that he was in Kiev when the missile crisis was going on. When Moscow withdrew the missiles without involving Castro, that created major tensions, yet my interviewee pointed out that Cuban-Soviet relations quickly improved again. He also spoke of resentment toward Russians in Czechoslovakia, after 1968, and claimed that hotel staff there treated Cubans badly because they were Moscow’s allies.

But most Cubans didn’t ever go, didn’t speak the languages, and were mainly concerned with their own reality. Relations were mostly state-to-state. Some interviewees felt ill-equipped to talk about Soviet reality or Cuban-Soviet relations and seemed to honestly not know or remember — they were concerned with their own lives and country.

There seems to have been an idealized view, but the USSR was powerful — they didn’t think that just because of propaganda. Some told me about their admiration for the Soviets conquering space and being strong enough to challenge the United States. Many had thought about the USSR as industrialized, sophisticated, solidaristic, etc., but also as a very distant world.

DB

Your interviewees offered different explanations of Cuba’s political system — whether seeing the vanguard party as inspired by José Martí’s example, or else unavoidable in the circumstances. How far is this focus on a national revolutionary tradition — even telling us that Martí was a Leninist before Lenin —motivated by the post-1991 situation?

ESU

A national revolutionary tradition inspired by Martí certainly existed even before 1959. There is a very interesting book by Louis Pérez Jr, The Structure of Cuban History, describing how Castro connected to a myth of the unfinished revolution, like many politicians and social leaders before him.

Martí was surely no Leninist, but he did warn of US imperialism very early. As far as I know, he never defended one-party government, but he suggested that patriots should avoid splits like the ones that ruined Cuban chances during the First War of Liberation. So, to some degree, it depends on interpretations, though the Martí presented to Cubans also largely suits contemporary political interests. He wasn’t a socialist. He also wrote about freedom of the press and other, let’s say, not entirely uncontroversial issues in Cuba. I don’t believe that he was the anti-socialist that some Cubans claim, though I’m no Martí expert.

Some revolutionaries probably always identified with a more Martí-derived tradition — and may have been skeptical of the Soviet ideology that flooded Cuba in the 1970s. There was likely no open debate at the time, though one could perhaps note certain competing discourses and practices. Castro often tried to negotiate somewhat different ideas, but also to legitimize major changes using his personal legitimacy as the leader of the revolution.

DB

Helen Yaffe’s We Are Cuba! emphasizes that half of the Cuban Revolution’s six-decade history has now taken place without Soviet support — implying a need to focus more on its particular experience. What sense did you get from your interviewees that they believe Cuban socialism has taken different forms from the Soviet model?

ESU

I haven’t been able to read Yaffe’s book yet, though it’s definitely on my list. I think a lot suggests that the Cuban experience has been more genuinely participatory and responsive to popular demands than Eastern European socialism.

Even in the chaotic very early days, there was the direct democracy of public meetings, where the leader of the revolution got shouts of yes and no, or the “great debate” on socialism in the 1960s, in which even some foreigners participated. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, organized in neighborhoods, were established for surveillance purposes, but surely did have strong majority support at the time, given that Cuba faced constant terrorist attacks. There is mobilization and participation, more than in the USSR; Cuba’s famous internationalist missions could perhaps also be seen in this perspective, though it’s also both a type of foreign aid and a source of income.

Cuba’s Popular Power electoral system isn’t at all politically pluralist: the individuals you vote for don’t have to be PCC members, but most that reach the National Assembly, certainly are (while it is normal for many deputies in local parliaments not to be so). These institutions effectively operate according to party guidelines. It would be difficult to impossible for an oppositionist to be elected. But since many representatives are first nominated in their neighborhoods, and there must be at least two competing candidates, you can often vote against someone whom you don’t want to represent you. Someone strongly disliked by their neighbors would be less likely to get elected.

There is also a different mechanism of joining the party, apparently intended to prevent careerism: you first need to be nominated by your colleagues, and so on. While the party elite surely lives comfortably, most party members today don’t have much privilege and there may even be personal disadvantages to being a member.

In recent years, there have been public consultations involving millions of people — though often they appear to recommend something, and then policies stay largely the same. There is some concern for knowing what people think and sometimes adjusting policy accordingly, even through secret polling, but “the people” in this sense doesn’t include the opposition or exiles. Many people are openly critical without getting into trouble, but the organized opposition is still harassed — even before the current protests there were detentions and exclusions from state jobs.

So the Cuban Revolution is not pluralist, but it was and is perceived by many Cubans as following the logic of the majority. It has many authoritarian features, but also things that could be seen as elements of radical democracy.

It’s also true that the model was never static — on the positive side there were things like the opening of the party to religious believers (in 1990) and the removal of the loathed travel permits to leave the country (in 2013) — though the state can still deny someone a passport. So yes, more responsive, probably, but clearly not always responsive enough.

DB

The last big wave of protests came in 1994, in the early Special Period. Did the PCC learn anything from it — and what’s different in the current situation?

ESU

I think they did — but actions count for more. And again, the picture is contradictory.

There have been huge changes since the 1990s, some because of global changes, technological changes, changes in society itself. Political change often came slowly — there were periods where nothing happened or changes were even reversed, or partially reversed, such as with small businesses. There are still major popular demands that the government has not wanted to prioritize or been able to deliver on.

I’m a bit hesitant to comment on the recent protests: others, especially Cubans, are better placed to do so.

But I’d warn against seeing this only as the result of some coordinated malicious plan. There has been poverty, restrictions, and discontent among a significant part of the population for a long time, now. Even some of the PCC members and a former member that I interviewed in 2013 suggested that they wanted more radical changes, and some painted a picture of a weakened party and a revolution at risk.

Beyond the more recent triggers for the July 11 protests stand thirty years of crisis. That doesn’t mean that everyone was always having a hard time — at least when I did my interviews, more than just a small minority of the general population was living more or less comfortably. But hardships have increased considerably in recent years — apparently even more so in recent months. And some features of the system have always had a mixed reception.

Government errors and restrictions have contributed to this. But also the blockade, which was heavily reinforced under the Trump administration. The draconian US sanctions on Venezuela also affect Cuba, as Caracas used to be an important source of support. COVID has taken many lives and paralyzed the key tourism industry. Any country would suffer under such circumstances.

Yet independently of the causes, there are many people that are simply fed up and who have a very bad experience of the system. As in other moments of crisis, there has been strengthened repression, many arrests, and violence, sometimes from state or state-mobilized actors.

Despite everything, I’d hope this could be an opportunity for dialogue. Many have called for social protest to be normalized. It’s a basic right and, while I’m not Cuban, I’m sure that this should have been done long ago.

There’s also still a large portion of Cubans who support the system, and many believe that they have a lot to lose. They still fear the loss of gains of the revolution, like health care, education, safe streets, and national independence. Some fear becoming like the underdeveloped capitalist countries in the region. That’s not to mention fears of military intervention, civil conflict, or exiles reclaiming their properties. Without significant popular support, the system would have disappeared a long time ago.

The blockade was designed to create discontent and make people take to the streets. In response, the Cuban government can claim that it has to limit certain rights to protect the state — and a significant part of the population accepts this. For some, the protests could open up space for an externally backed “color revolution,” with violence used as pretext for a US military intervention, like in Libya. As an historian and an anti-imperialist activist, I know that these fears are warranted, and at least not illogical. And there certainly are people that want this. On Facebook in recent days I have received a frightening amount of fake news, some surely designed to promote violence, though I don’t know who’s behind it.

So, we should build bridges to all Cubans, not accept one-sided excuses for all Cuba’s ills, and stand with Cubans demanding rights. But one thing almost everyone in Cuba agrees with — some may claim it is not very important; I believe they are wrong — is that the blockade should be lifted. I think that we, as foreigners concerned with Cuba, ought to prioritize this demand.