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The situation in Cuba

Look to Scandinavia – the museum of the good parts of the capitalism, says Vegard Bye in this interview by Siv Oltedal.

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Havana, Cuba. Photo: Falkenpost/Pixabay.
Political Scientist and Cuba specialist Vegard Bye.

Political Scientist and Cuba specialist Vegard Bye has visited Cuba and studied the situation for many years. The book by Vegard Bye & Dag Hoel (2014) Dette er Cuba alt annet er løgn (This is Cuba, everything else is a lie), shows that Bye is familiar with many different aspects of the Cuban society.

In this interview by Siv Oltedal (the leader of the Norpart project: Cuban and Nordic Welfare), he talks about the situation based on his Phd which is reflected in the book: Bye V. (2019) Cuba, From Fidel to Raúl and Beyond. Palgrave MacMillan.

There are poverty and small signs of political changes today. How to describe the situation in Cuba today? Are you optimistic or rather pessimistic?

Starting with some quotes from the book: “Cuba, From Fidel to Raúl and Beyond:

 “Raúl Castro—rather than handing over a country on a recovery path as intended by his reform programme—is ending two generations of rule initiated by the 1959 Revolution with the worst economic and social crisis since the 1990s. Two of the main reform aims were never achieved: there has been no improvement in food self-sufficiency or reduction of currency demanding imports, and chronic food shortages are continuing. An inefficient state sector still has to cope with a largely redundant public workforce receiving salaries that continue falling far short of subsistence needs, thus forcing most public employees to seek additional informal and illegal survival options.» (Bye p 275)

“To be poor in itself is hard; to be falling from a relatively acceptable socio-economic status in a country with small social differences, all brought about by the Revolution, to a situation where you simply cannot make ends meet and the social security no more exists, is far worse. This is not at all compatible with the idea of social justice, the very bedrock of the Cuban Revolution.” (Bye p 277)

“What we may conclude is that neither economic nor political reform has gone deep enough to really allow us to respond to the overall question of causal relations between economic and political transformations. We have seen a significant growth of a small-scale private economic sector challenging the state economic power monopoly with potential effect for the growth of a more autonomous civil society. Significant information pluralism has emerged, making the political power monopoly less effective and relevant even when it formally persists. But these later phenomena are also consequences of political openings, like the emigration reform, the rapprochement with the US during the Obama regime, the conversion of significant groups of urban citizens to real estate proprietors, as well as rural citizens to individual land tenants and the growing access to Internet.” (Bye p 281)

Vegard Bye: I would say that it is very difficult to be optimistic. Since April 2018 when Díaz- Canel’s became president of Cuba, there are very few signs of the president being able or willing to turn around. Maybe there are some signs of what we can call a more populistic and popular policy with raising salaries and freezing prizes. There is today no economic basis of such populistic changes. Therefore, this will rather cause increased strains on the macro economy.

There is a positive sign with the appointment of the new prime minister late last year. There are few other signs that the new government will implement more important changes. It is necessary to have a complete change in the economic basis, to support the future welfare state.

The position of the military. How important do you consider the military to be, in what might happen in Cuba?

 “There is a more dynamic and sustainable part of the state sector, dominated by military-managed corporations. An interesting difference is emerging between this sector where the need for complementary private services is recognised and public-private partnership is promoted, and on the other side, the highly inefficient rest of the state sector afraid of being outcompeted. It is noteworthy that this relatively successful part of the state sector is often working quite closely with the more entrepreneurial and professional part of the private economy. Both are concentrated in the most dynamic part of the domestic economy: tourism.“ (Bye pages 276-277)

Vegard Bye: The military is the only strong political force regarding internal policy. Regarding security the military has an important role. We can identify increased political openness the last two-three years. The most important role of the military in the Cuban society today, is in the economy.

What do you consider as rather positive sign for changes? 

“Cuba is in the quite enviable position of having a strong and unified state, so the missing link here is a stronger civil society capable of challenging that state.” (Bye p 274)

 “The informal character of the non-state economy is also blocking the introduction of a rational tax system, depriving the state of significant income opportunities and of an essential measure to combat the rapidly increasing social inequalities.” (Bye p 277)

 ”The fear of losing political control is paradoxically driving the market economy underground, undermining equality values to an extreme degree and effectively undercutting the political legitimacy.” (Bye p 279)

 “The deep Cuban crisis may soon oblige the new government team to revive Raúl’s unfinished reform agenda: give peasants and farmers more autonomy, expand the private sector and the market economy, legalise private companies, offer cooperatives more autonomy and a strategic role in the economy. Such measures may now be more unavoidable than ever, in order to provide people with food on the table, liveable jobs and a hope for the future in a legally regulated and law-abiding society.” (Bye p 283)

 “One may argue that Díaz- Canel’s best opportunity to build a new legitimacy lies precisely in an alliance with intellectuals, youth and the new economic actors—which may even enjoy the support of the corporate section of the military.” (Bye p 249)

“If Díaz-Canel and his new regime returns to more systematic promarket economic reform—with the support of Raúl Castro who was the original architect of these measures—it could lay the foundation for gradual and perhaps negotiated changes also in the correlation of political forces, which is precisely what the Party hardliners have been worried about. If it is not permitted, social tensions may increase, with a possible need to apply more repression to control the situation.” (Bye p 254)

Vegard Bye: The only interesting sign I can see in the Cuban situation today, is the appointment of the new prime minister Manuel Marrero Cruz just before Christmas in 2019. He has been Minister of tourism and as such he has worked closely with the military, which is the more reform-oriented sector in the state. At the same time, Mr. Marrero Cruz was also responsible for relations with the private entrepreneurs within the tourism sector. As such, his promotion to Prime Minister may be seen as a sign that public-private partnership within the country’s most dynamic sector will be more promoted.

How can Cuba learn from other countries and what can they learn?

“We have also argued that a very different alternative is perceivable: a participatory democracy with socio-economic rehabilitation and the revival of the welfare state.” (Bye p 285)

“Normally, more market economy would be expected to lead to more inequality. We are already seeing this happening in Cuba, with the careful reforms that have been implemented. Considerable social differentiation has emerged in a formerly very egalitarian society, although we cannot really so far speak about elite enrichment in any way comparable for instance to other Latin American societies, or to the Russia that was built on the ruins of the former communist USSR. A deepening of economic reforms would be expected to lead to more private enrichment and further increase in social differences. However, this may be avoided if organized within a strong regulatory framework like the one practiced in Scandinavian countries, or in Latin American countries like Costa Rica and Uruguay. We will argue that important aspects of such a model might be viable in Cuba, allowing for a relatively equitable distribution of resources and making it possible to rehabilitate the social security built by the Revolution but now increasingly under threat from a dysfunctional economy. ” (Bye pages 242-43)

Vegard Bye: What I would claim is that Cuba has in many ways a better point of departure for applying some of the most positive elements of the Nordic welfare model, than many other countries in Latin America. The Nordic model is quite unique in the world context.  

I know that many Cubans admire this model. Even Fidel Castro himself did really admire that Nordic model. I think at some point he told the Swedish Prime Minster Olof Palme who visited Cuba many decades ago, that in the future when communism is dominant in the world and capitalism is abolished, we should maintain Sweden as a museum of the good aspects of the capitalism.

I think this vision of rebuilding the welfare state within or based on a functional economy, is still a very important dream for the Cubans. Cuba used to have a welfare state. That is no more possible to maintain because the economy is not functioning. I think that most economists in Cuba will agree that they need to have a mixed economy, with a strong regulatory state sector in order to rebuild the economic basis of the welfare state.  

In that sense, in order to rebuild a modern welfare state, I think many people look to Scandinavia, Costa Rica and Brazil under Lula. Those are examples of important aspects of the Nordic model that have been implemented in the Latin American context. Cuba has in this context a better base than many other countries. Then is the question; are they willing to gho in that direction, as this may also imply a recognition that you need to reproduce parts of the capitalistic system? This is ideologically very difficult to accept, especially for the old guard of the political system. So far - they have not been willing to do that. The question is: Will the younger leaders need to do that to survive in power positions? Young people in academia and maybe parts of the party, think like this. Many see such signs and hopes represented with the new prime minster.  Only the future will tell us what is going to happen.

First published 24.04.2020