Arguably the greatest success story of Cuba, for a small country, under Fidel Castro, was that the island, under a punishing economic blockade by the US during the Cold War, expanded human development more than many other developing countries.
Ignacio Ramonet, former editor of the French newspaper Le Monde, rightly concludes that “despite the unceasing harassment from abroad, this little country, clinging to its sovereignty, has achieved undeniable admirable results in the area of human development: the abolition of racism, the emancipation of women, the eradication of illiteracy, a drastic reduction in infant mortality rates… In questions of education, health and medical research and sports, Cuba has achieved results that many developed nations would envy”.
Frei Betto, the Brazilian liberation theologian, and former advisor to Lula da Silva, the former Brazilian president and leader of the governing Workers’ Party of Brazil said, “Fidel Castro has freed this country not just from hunger, but also from illiteracy, begging, criminality, and subservience to the empire (of Western countries)”.
Cuba introduced free healthcare and education, embarked on a comprehensive national literature campaign to educate both children and adults. Its literacy rate is 99.4%. It made education and healthcare free and introduced a basic income for every Cuban with a guaranteed job for those who are able to work, and housing.
Housing reform after 1960, converted half of urban tenants into homeowners, others were given long-term rent-free leases. Housing built by the government after 1961 were leased at 10% of household income, transferred into ownership after between 5 and 20 years after payment. It handed over land to tenant farmers. The country has a homeownership of 95%.
Life expectancy in Cuba is at industrial country levels. The country made massive strides in gender equality. In the annual rankings of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap reports, Cuba ranks consistently high in terms of gender equality, when it ranks the status of women in terms of health, literacy, economic status and political participation.
The UK Overseas Development Institute (ODI) puts Cuba in the top 20 countries in the world in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, set by the United Nations in 2000.
During the Cold War, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party leadership focused on economic development rather than on building democracy. Typically, in the style of revolutionary movements turned governments, focusing on meeting the economic needs of society became the “central theme in the bargain between the people and the state and a basis of the legitimacy of the political system”, and when the state cannot deliver on such needs, “in the equality of sacrifice”.
Castro and the Cuban government’s popular legitimacy during the Cold War were secured by delivering on “equality, health, education and secure employment, national sovereignty and dignity, and active role for Cuba in international solidarity”.
The US embargo against Cuba was also an important glue that held Cubans together, so as with many African countries’ liberation struggles where the fight against colonialism and apartheid unified the oppressed in individual countries. During the Cold War, there was a widespread belief among ordinary Cubans that even in the instances where there were hardships, they were all suffering equally – whether leaders or ordinary citizens, and that some leaders, families and elites were not better-off than ordinary people in such a struggle.
Many African liberation and independence movements turned governments have mostly not only failed to bring democracy, they also failed to deliver on human development. For another, many African liberation and independence movements turned governments have, when failing to deliver on economic needs, not shared the “sacrifice” of poor delivery equitably either: the political elite often benefit materially, while the masses suffer. Failing both delivery of economic needs and to share suffering equally – in the context of non-democracies – has often caused the erosion of legitimacy of such movements, often leading to coups, succession and ethnic and religious fundamentalism.
There were two weaknesses in Cuba’s development project. The first is that Cuba had high human development with little or economic growth, which undermined the long-term sustainability of the human development. In contrast, African liberation movements turned governments often experience high economic growth rates with low human development rates.
The second weakness of the Cuban development project is lack of democracy.
Favourable trade relations with the Soviet Union helped Cuba. It joined the Soviet bloc common market, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON). Cuba has been described during the Cold War period as the “most highly externally subsidised national economy in the world”. It is estimated that Cuba received during the 1971-1989 period an annual subsidy of roughly US$5billion in the form of the Soviet Union bartering Cuban sugar in exchange for Soviet oil, whereby the Soviets priced the oil at rock-bottom low compared to the sugar price.
Many of Cuba’s foreign solidarity campaigns drained the fiscus, but it was partially compensated by Soviet Union preferential financial support. Cuba was essentially a one-commodity export, one-trading partner dependent economy. The collapse of the Soviet Union has shocked the Cuban economy.
The problem for Cuba during the period 1971-1989 when it was subsidised by the Soviet Union, that it did not, like the first generation East Asian ‘tigers’, such as South Korea and Taiwan, who were heavily subsidised by the US, but who used the financial inflows to diversify their economies, built new manufacturing bases and improved the global competitiveness of their industries. This is also a lesson for Africa.
Immediately, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the continued embargo by the US, Cuba’s economy also slumped, which some analysts say by a third. In the post-Cold War period Cuba has launched several structural economic reforms programs, to lift growth, diversify the economy, expand tourism, update technological infrastructure, improve the efficiency of the state and introducing viable private sector, what it calls a “non-state sector”.
As part of the structural economic reforms, the Cuban government has cut social spending and downsized the public sector. In the post-Cold War period Cuba has exported its human capital – medical and education – to allies to earn hard currency, making it the biggest foreign currency earner. By the 2000’s, the economic rise of close allies including China, Brazil and Venezuela helped raise Cuban growth again. However, the 2008/2009 global financial crisis dashed that turnaround, when it, the European Union and developing country trading allies experienced economic declines.
The economy had another shock more recently on the back of the Venezuela economy falling into a tailspin, the Chinese economy wobbling and Brazil’s political and economic downturn. Russian President Vladimir Putin has written off US$32bn, which amounts to about 90% of the debt Cuba owed the Soviet Union. Outgoing US President Barack Obama has eased the economic embargo, but not abolished it, and US and allied industrial country investment, tourism and technology to Cuba has been sluggish.
However, the Cuban economy is still in a rut. The good thing is, because of investment in human capital before, Cuba economy is potentially in a better position than most other developing countries to transform its economy, in an era where technology brought about the rise of the “gig” economy, automation and new modes of economies, away from the traditional ones.
In Cuba, people supported the government because it brought individual economic development for them – even if they may not have individual political freedoms.
However, the opening of the Cuban economy, and the rising economic difficulties, has increased inequalities within Cuba. At the same time, a new economic elite has developed linked to the leadership of the party, increasing inequality between the new elite and ordinary citizens. Cuba’s challenge is for the country, currently in economic stagnation, not only turn around its economy, but spread the benefits of any growth equally, and for the leadership not to be the only beneficiaries, while the masses suffer.
Interviewed about the future of Cuba by Ignacio Ramonet before his stepping down from the Cuban leadership, Fidel Castro said: “This country can autodestruct … if we do not manage to put an end to the many vices: to a great deal of robbery, to many deviations and to many sources of money of the new rich … There has to be a change again because we are in difficult times, inequalities and injustices are being created.”
In Cuba, the party dominates society, is organised in cells across all sectors of society, with the party leadership in control, sending decisions to ordinary members, supporters and society which they need to follow. Any democratic debate about policies – if it takes place is confined to the leadership of the party.
Cuba’s government adopted central Soviet planning in the economic development, and adopted the Marxist-Leninist centralisation model to run the party and the political system. The Cuban Communist Party is the only party allowed. The media, judiciary, trade unions and civil society were controlled by the party.
The centralisation of politics and economy is not sustainable.
The decline in the incomes of Cubans will increase the pressure for them to meaningfully participate in decision-making – not through the central leadership. The challenge for Cuba is Castro’s advice to Nicaragua in the 1980s: “Concentrate on establishing a mixed economy and a pluralistic political system”.
Fidel, and his brother Rail, introduced democratic reforms in the party and the government, however, these are too limited.
Since the end of the Cold War there is a new generation that has not experienced the fear of an imminent US attack. The Cuban government had in the past used that real fear of a US threat to rally the majority of Cubans behind the government. That threat is now dissipating. New technology, the internet and alternative media platforms have made the world increasingly open. Cubans are now able to compare their situation with others abroad. This will fuel further calls for greater participation.
Cuba will have to introduce genuine democracy at all levels – starting with the party itself – if not, the country risks what happened in Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s, when citizens rejected the centralised socialist governments. Fidel Castro’s death is the end of an era. Unless, Castro’s successors democratise the party and government; restructure the economy in such a way that it diversifies and upgrades technology, while retaining the extraordinary human development progress achieved in the past, Castro’s death, will also bring to an end the governing Cuban Communist Party, as Cubans will seek out new political movements and leaders.