by Camila Piñeiro Harnecker

Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy, University of Havana

[Originally published in Spanish as “Visiones sobre el socialismo” in Temas 2012

 English translation by Emily Myers, Research Assistant, Center for Global Justice]


The form that the new Cuban model takes will depend on the relative influence of different ways of understanding socialism and visualizing the future of Cuba. Although these positions or schools of thought, generally agree that the main long-term objective should be a more just society freed of the economic difficulties that we are facing today, they differ markedly in their way of understanding justice and freedom, and, therefore, socialism. To a great extent they share the systematic diagnosis of the current situation, but they identify different underlying causes and solutions for these problems. Also, they tend to establish dissimilar goals in the short and medium-term, and, more important still, to propose different means for achieving those goals, therefore--although not always recognized--they lead us towards different stadiums.

This work identifies the three principle positions or visions of socialism in Cuba that are influencing the current changes: the statist, the economist and the self-governing. These are no more than tools of analysis to broadly characterize the existing approaches on the Island to what is necessary to save the Cuban socialist project. The sole purpose of their use is to point out the most identifiable ideas, since in reality even those who can most clearly identify themselves with one of the positions share some points of agreement with the others. The contrasts of the three schools of thought can be observed we analyze the objectives that follow our visions of socialism. This is reflected in the fundamental problems that are identified in Cuban society today as well as in the solutions that are proposed, evidencing the dissimilar strategies for socialist construction.

The observations outlined here are based on unbiased analysis of public discourse - official statements, formal and informal debates, assertions in the media - and publications - academic, journalistic -of cubans in recent years. The objective of this work is to contribute to the debate clarification of the most important positions, and thus to facilitate consensus on questions as central as  what are the objectives of the changes we are experiencing and what means are most effective to achieve them.

Visions emerging from various schools of thought

Statists: Let us perfect the socialism of the State

The main objective of socialism for the Statist is a well-managed representative State that controls society. Its emphasis is on achieving a strong State, not a larger one, but one that functions correctly and ensures that subordinates comply with the assigned tasks. The representatives of this vision stress that the Cuban State is different from that of capitalist countries: it is “socialist” because it responds to the interests of workers and not of capitalists.

According to the Statist, the most adequate way to provide the goods and services that all citizens need to meet their basic needs is a State centralized through a vertical structure. For them, the horizontal coordination by autonomous actors, individual or collective, is impossible and results in chaos. However, due to the deficiencies in authoritarian planning, some have accepted the certain presence of market relations as something inevitable. Autonomous organizations--especially those managed democratically--generate conflicts and promote social disintegration. According to this aspect of socialism, citizens are not prepared to manage their own affairs, and if given the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process will only take into account their own narrow individual and short-sighted interests, which would result in economic inefficiency and social disintegration.

Central to the changes proposed by the Statist is to restore control and discipline to Cuban society and in particular to the economy. Reducing the fiscal and trade deficit seems to be the number one priority. This has resulted in the tendency to impose excessively high taxes, for state-owned enterprise as well as non-state, and to reduce costs by cutting social services or closing businesses without considering whether the affected communities and workers can assume their management and, therefore, reduce their need for subsidies.

This school of thought sees no need to make profound changes: with greater control and demands for the directors and the Party, together with some decentralization and consultation with the masses, the existing institutions can function properly; especially if the State unburdens itself with the management of small and medium businesses and local governments have their own resources to resolve problems in their territories. In their opinion, if State salaries can satisfy basic needs, the majority of problems will be resolved. They repeat the cry of president Raul Castro to “change working methods,” but they don’t mention allowing institutions to be more autonomous and democratic, nor do they mention establishing minimal levels of transparency to make public the budgets of local governments and state enterprises.

According to the Statist, the main problems of Cuban society are the indiscipline and lack of demands by administrators, officials of ministries and members of the Party. This has resulted in low levels of productivity and quality, mismanagement and disorganization, which has allowed the diversion of State resources to become natural and corruption to expand. Certainly control, discipline and, even more, efficiency are absolutely necessary for any project to be successful, and these practices have not been common among Cuban workers and administrators in decades.

However, although the three positions agree on the harmfulness of lack of control in State institutions, they differ on identifying the background causes, as well as in the types of control methods which they consider effective and just and, therefore, should be implemented. The statists insist on the cultural nature of the problem, which might be solved through education by direct or indirect traditional methods. A “change of mentality” is presented as the solution without specifying how to carry it out. While the economists indicate that the cause of the problem is low salaries and propose to institute better material incentives; for the self-governing it is a question of the form in which Cuban institutions are organized, and they propose to establish management models with less alienating social relationships that allow the feeling of camaraderie and free the creative capacities of individuals.

Namely, the solution for the statists is better control and supervision within the vertical structure, and something--as little as possible--of an autonomy for administrators. They think only in bodies external to the group that should be supervised, as directors think about workers, or as the newly created General Controller’s office of the Republic think about managers. They seem not to recognize the limits of external and vertical control, nor the advantages of internal control or auto-supervision on the part of collectives--of workers or communities--that are truly recognized as owners, and of the social control of people over their superiors through real accountability - transparent, direct and permanent - within public institutions.

It would be a mistake to assume that the majority of the officials of the State apparatus identify themselves with the Statist position. At all levels of the Cuban State there are those who are really interested in reducing intervention in people’s lives; they come closer to the tendencies of the economists or self-governing, depending on their life experience and their exposure to alternative ideas. However, the statist has a solid representation among mid-level State administrators and officials who are afraid of losing their jobs and hence their professional lives (status, social esteem) and/or their capacity to benefit from the State through corruption.

This position is also supported by many Cubans who, tired of incompetent bureaucrats, want to restore order. Also by those concerned about the lack of social control in recent decades that manifests itself in anti-social behaviors which are economically and culturally harmful. Some Cubans reject more substantial changes for fear of losing the social gains of the Revolution. In addition, there are a few intellectuals educated in Marxism of the Soviet type who are opposed to any form of decentralization and openness to organizations not directly and closely controlled by the state, both private and collective. Although you may think that the officers of the Armed Forced are closer to statism, some - in particular, managers of military enterprises - consider the economist position as more pragmatic, while others understand the benefits of participation and the risks that promoting privatization and the market pose to social cohesion.

Economists: the socialism of the market is the only feasible change

In accordance with the economists, the main objective of socialism should be the development of the productive forces, understood as the technological capacity to create more wealth, i.e. economic growth. Socialism is understood as a redistribution of wealth; Therefore, representatives of the economistic current argue that the construction of this is not possible until the forces of production have sufficiently developed: if there is no wealth there is nothing to distribute. Hence the current changes in Cuba should strive, especially, for a better performance of the Cuban economy with the goal of putting the country on the path to development capable of satisfying the growing material necessities of the population. Moreover, they argue that, with an effective redistribution of wealth, all efficient and productive management models are useful for the construction of socialism: the color of the cat doesn’t matter, as long as it catches rats.

According to the economists, privatization and commodification are essential and vital for the economic development of any society, socialist or no; while to the statist private companies and market relationships are risky but necessary evils, that can be domesticated by the State, and for the self-governing these can be overcome gradually with the expansion of alternative organizations merging economic and social objectives.

Economists identify the principal causes of the poor performance of the Cuban economy in centralization, the state monopoly of commerce and production of basic goods and services, the soft budget constraints and the absence of material incentives resulting from private initiatives and market relations. Although they do not always recognize it publicly, economists think that the model of capitalist private management (an autonomous, authoritarian company guided by private interests) is the most effective way of running a business, and that markets are the most efficient coordinators of economic activity. Furthermore, they underline the importance of efficiency and argue, with reason, that the inefficiency of the state managerial sector, having made unsustainable the social gains achieved by the revolution, affects all Cubans.

According to this view, to ensure that economic agents behave optimally - i.e. managers make the right decisions and the workers increase productivity - inescapable, and largely sufficient are material incentives and ‘market discipline.’ The producers and consumers should suffer the consequences of their actions in the form of better/worse income, even if they don’t have control over their own options. The economists are against the paternalistic relations between Cuba and State institutions, which encourage people to hope for others to solve their problems. But the representatives of this opinion  seem to forget that the role of the State - even in a capitalist society - is to protect its citizens; not directly meet their needs, but to ensure that they have the conditions and the capacities to do so, if possible, by themselves.

 This position remains important in concerns that privatization and commodification will result in increased inequality, marginalization of social groups, exploitation of workers, and the deterioration of the environment. Such social concerns, we are told, should be left to the higher ups, and we should not interfere with the advancement of such changes. The collateral consequences of reforms are natural, and some steps can be taken to reduce them, the economists argue. In addition, they call for acceptance of the fact that there are ‘winners‘ and ‘losers‘ depending on their capabilities of dealing with the new rules of the market. Social justice seems to be an uncomfortable expression. For the economists, social goals are too abstract, and it will be sufficient with a tax system to control the income gap along with legislation to protect clients, salaried workers and the environment.

  Looking for ways to achieve accelerated economic growth, they defend the need to insert Cuba into the international market and attract foreign investment. They insist on the undeniable fact that Cuba cannot do without external funding, and point to the success of China and Vietnam to promote growth through the attraction of foreign direct investment. However they do not mention the negative effects of the reforms in these countries: growing inequality, abuse of entrepreneurs and local governments, social unrest, environmental degradation and spiritual emptiness.

Influenced by the hegemonic neoclassical economic thought, economists have accepted much of its reductions and assumptions, as well as its inclination to ignore social conditions and demands, and to overlook the advantages of association and cooperation over privatization and market competition. In rejecting the central Marxist argument that wage labor is an exploitative relationship, they avoid calling the self-employed hiring wage labor what they actually are: private businesses, because it allows them to also ignore the social effects of these types of enterprises. Not taking into account that market flaws are not due to lack of competition, but are inherent even in competitive markets, they expect more competition and less regulation to solve the short-term, quasi-cartel and anti-social behavior that many self-employed already demonstrate.

This trend tends to dismiss arguments that point to the complexity of human behavior and social components of individuals to explain the efficacy and viability of democratically managed businesses. Democracy is good, but it is an extra; it is not really essential for a better society: experts must be the ones who make decisions. Calls to use measures of human fulfillment other than material goods, such as harmonious relations with others, professional development or social recognition, and warnings about the dangers of irresponsible and compulsive consumption, seem to them retrograde, oppressive to individual freedom and, therefore, limiting to the progress of the Cuban economy.

As with the Statists, it would be a mistake to identify all academics or professionals in economics/related occupations as subscribers to this position. There are economists who do not undervalue social goals because they recognize the need to look integrally at the whole social system and to view economic activities as interdependent and, therefore, responsible for its effects. On the other hand, economism has fertile ground in State technocrats and bureaucrats in charge of designing new policies, because it is easier for them to assume that private agents will self-regulate relative to the laws of the market, and can therefore ignore social concerns. The most fervent economists are surely those administrators of State-owned enterprises that hope their management will be transferred -they know that the legal property, at least initially, will remain in State hands - but to finally be able to manage them according to their own interests, as well as to avoid all obstacles and the nonsense that the current “planning” system means for them. More autonomy and less control, less job security and only formal participation of workers, seems to them an almost perfect situation.

Nevertheless, economism is not only present among State managers, economists and technocrats. Many Cubans, exposed to the idea that social objectives are irreconcilable with efficiency and economic sustainability, as well as the economic growth of China and Vietnam based on extensive privatization and commodification, they see these economic proposals as the only possible solutions to the current deficiencies in the Cuban economy.

Self-governing: only a democratic socialism is true and sustainable

Like the Statists--and contrary to the most pure economists--the self-governing defend the necessity for a more just and sustainable social order than capitalism. However, they provide a different path from “statist socialism” which has strongly marked the cuban version and which statists intend to renew, and from “market socialism” which economists present as the only feasible option. The self-governing argue that true socialism cannot exist without solidarity, equality--not egalitarianism--sustainable participation of people in decision-making at all levels of social organization - political, economic, cultural, etc. For them, the essence of socialism is self-management or self-governing by people in their places of work and communities all the way to the national level; and eventually to encompass the entire human family. Socialism is social control, of society, of the State, of the economy, the political system and all social institutions.

  Inspired by the conceptualizations of socialism in the 21st century, and reaffirming the humanist ideals, emancipators and egalitarians that have marked the cuban revolution since its beginnings, the self-governing argue that the goal of socialism must be the integral human development of all people. This supreme happiness, self-awareness, total freedom can be achieved, basically, permitting each person to develop all his/her capacities through active participation in daily social activities, especially in decision-making that affects them. To build socialism is, therefore, to democratize or socialize powers; it is to free individuals of all forms of oppression, subordination, discrimination and exclusion that interferes in the satisfaction of their material and spiritual needs. The self-governing seek emancipation from the oppressive State, as from non-democratic economic institutions that don’t satisfy the needs of the majority; like private businesses and State companies, and markets or mechanisms of vertical distribution.

For them, the goal of Cuban socialism should not be solely to cover the growing material needs of its citizens, but also to establish conditions that allow them to fully develop their capabilities as human beings and thus their material and spiritual needs; and they assume the former will change when daily life is more liberating. Although relations of wage labor and market are also forms of oppression, the majority of self-governing agree that they should not be banned, and that society can move towards gradual improvement or elimination --not absolute-- making businesses more democratically-managed and horizontal social relations (socialized markets) be more effective and attractive.

The main problem of Cuban socialism is not that politics have overcome the economy, as the economists presume, but how this “politic” has been defined. The self-governing argue that decisions, at the central state level and including local governments and companies, have been made very often without real participation of the people, and that consequently the benefits of participation have been lost. The conditions for successful economic activity - or “economic laws” that always remind us of the economists--would have been taken into account if the decision making process had allowed participation of all the social groups affected and the criteria of the experts would have been heard. It is little or no democratic participation in political and economic institutions, the insufficient democratic control of executive bodies and the direction, which - in addition to low incomes - results in little motivation towards work, bad management decisions and corruption at all levels of the State.

Although the self-governing agree with the statists on the need to exercise greater control and with the economists on the need to establish a coherent system of incentives in Cuban institutions, they identify different underlying causes of the problems and propose different solutions. The lean performance of the State institutions is a main consequence of little sense of belonging in the workers and even the managers. Unlike the other two trends, it considers that the problems in carrying out this sense of ownership in State institutions are derived, in essence, from the nature of the decision-making process and the social relations established within this; and not primarily from lack of education or the need for private incentives. Without a real property--that is not equated to legal ownership--for workers, there will be no motivation to ensure that resources are used properly.

The self-governing position underlines the need not only to redistribute wealth, but above all to change how it is produced, so institutions are organized to enable the exercise of true Socialist relations. This would develop the productivity and creativity of the people, and wealth would be generated from the start in a more just and equal manner. For the self-governing, ‘to democratize’ or ‘to socialize’ is to establish social work relations (free) associated and association in general, that is to say, the social property that Marx identified as the base on which a society rests that aims to transcend capitalism. What’s more, they point out that such relations, and not only higher wages or greater autonomy to managers, are an important source of incentives for productivity and efficiency, and which at the same time promote the development of ‘new’ men and women without which socialist construction is unthinkable. The self-governing emphasize the need to promote solidarity, socialist consciousness and revolutionary commitment to the historically marginalized, and they add that this can only be achieved as a result of everyday practice under relations of partnership and cooperation.

According to the statist and economist democracy in the workplace is in essence an uncomfortable utopia that defies the superiority of its blueprints, experts or entrepreneurs and would result in a chaos that would lead to inefficiency. However, for the self-governing desirable levels of productivity and efficiency (although not those achieved through exploitation of men and nature) are achieved precisely through democratizing the management of companies. They are convinced that participation - although it is not easy to achieve - is an indispensable means to achieve higher levels of development of capacities for workers (physical, intellectual, spiritual) and of productive forces in general, since social control ensures the effective use of resources and provides positive incentives for productivity not available in any other way. They reject the false dichotomy proposed by the economists: you have to choose between efficiency with inevitable inequality and social justice with material deficiencies.

Those who identify with this position warn about the risks of decentralization of local governments and State-owned enterprises without democratization, i.e., that allow new authorities to use resources according to their criteria and without control of the alleged benefactors. In the same vein, they call attention to the liberalization of the very necessary horizontal relationships between economic agents, and to the need not to reduce coordination to a set of norms. Some defend the need to establish, in addition to a well-designed regulatory framework, democratic coordination spaces among producers, consumers and other social groups (ecologists, feminists, minorities, etc.) so that the local economy can be oriented towards social interests instead of towards the maximization of gains. While others reduce macroeconomic coordination to a regulated market and do not explain how to avoid the emergence of external group interests.

 But the self-governing are perceived as voluntarist when they do not take into account that not all Cubans are interested in assuming the responsibility to participate in the management of their companies and local governments. They have not clearly argued for the feasibility of democratization and the resulting gains in efficiency and productivity. However, this does not negate the possibility of establishing policies that allow a gradual increase in the substantive participation in decision-making in these organizations, nor of education about the benefits of participating in those decisions that affect us.

It is difficult to define which sectors of Cuban society are identified with this trend. In fact, with the constant messages in defense of privatization and corporatization through various national and international media, it is not surprising that many Cubans see the self-governing stance as utopian. In Cuba, there have been few experiences of businesses and local governments managed democratically, before and after 1959. In addition, the idea of democratic participation may have lost its meaning among Cubans because the authorities have repeated that the Cuban political system and State-owned enterprises are as participatory as is possible, and also because the autonomy of management and even operation of agricultural ‘cooperatives’ have been seriously limited. Hence it is understandable that the strongest defenders of this stance are intellectuals and professionals that have read about this alternative form of thinking and building socialism, or that have been exposed to the speeches on socialism in the 21st century.

However, the preference for democratic-management of social organizations is intuitive (it is a human instinct or intuition) for all Cubans who perceive that the best way to solve some of their most pressing problems is through collective work, or cooperating with those who suffer the consequences of authoritarianism in their jobs or communities, or those that begin to suffer the negative consequences of privatization and commodification - increase of prices, tax evasion, relationship of subordination for hired workers, etc. In addition, State workers, against linking salaries to company performance, are becoming more interested in having control over them, and have even asked that they be able to choose their directors. Some are even calling for the creation of cooperatives in non-strategic State enterprises. In certain localities (Cardenas, in Matanzas, and Santos Suarez in La Havana), the citizens have intended to autonomously resolve problems in their communities.

Final Considerations

Cuba is currently defining a new path for the nation. It will consist of a better organized socialist State, one of market, one truly democratic, or--more likely--a combination of the three. To predict what vision will prevail in the current changes is an exercise in speculation. However, some evidences allow us to evaluate the weight of each posture, and the possibilities of the fluctuation of its influence.

Without a doubt, economism is predominant in both the State and among the majority of Cubans. Introducing private enterprise and the market as the most efficient means, considering the failure of conventional state enterprise and authoritarian planning, and the ignorance to other feasible forms of socialization of the economy, many do not believe that there are better alternatives. However, many Cubans do not see the operation of private enterprise and markets as something natural, and want to be able to avoid its irrationalities - differentiated prices and variables, more benefits for trade than for production, exploitation, etc. - and negative effects - inequality, pollution, discrimination, etc.

Statism is openly acknowledged as the line of thought that has led us into the current situation, and therefore that we have to get away from this thinking. However, mostly due to an instinct for preservation, it still enjoys significant support within the State and among those who fear losing the social achievements of the revolution. In fact, the final version of the guidelines of the economic and social policy of the party and the revolution is less economist and more statist than the initial draft.  Other evidence of the loss of influence of the economist trend is the moratorium on the plan that sought to relocate or lay off 10% of the Cuban labor force.

For the vision of self-governance there is very little in the guidelines...and the current changes. Nor do these reflect the objectives - satisfaction of the material and spiritual needs of individuals, i.e. those relating to human development - nor mediums - participatory democracy, democratic societal control, in particular, of politics and the economy - proposed by the self-governing. Although President Raul Castro and other senior officials of the State have mentioned several times the importance of “participation”, the party document only mentions it three times, and only in the sense of inquiry or implementation of decisions made by others.

The only mention of the self-governing position is in the recognition of cooperatives as a socialist form of business, although they did not declare any intention to give them preference over private enterprises. The decision to grant greater autonomy to State-owned enterprises and municipal governments is a positive step, but still unrecognized is the imperative to democratize them. Such omissions reflect the fact that the self-governing are a minority - at least in the current realms of power - which is largely a result of the top-down, authoritarian and patriarchal culture that has characterized Cuban society before and after the revolutionary triumph. 

However, the imagination of social justice and emancipation is still present in the identities of many Cubans. Although the grandchildren of the “historical generation” are less familiar with the socialist and revolutionary ideals, a large number also value dignity and justice, and even reject positions of subordination. The culture of solidarity cultivated by the revolution still endures, in which social differences become uncomfortable and unjust for many. Some people have warned that without participation and social control of businesses and without autonomous local governments, Cuba is paving the way for capitalism. Recently some signals have arisen about the growing presence of the self-governing position, in articles that defend the need of workers to actually participate in management decisions to be able to assume the role of true owners.

The three positions analyzed cannot be reduced to “good” or “bad” options. All are legitimate concerns that should be considered in any strategic decision. However, the convenience of democracy - not the liberal representative, but a “real” or “participative” democracy - is widely accepted in the world today. Hence, from a policy perspective, the vision that seeks greater levels of democracy must be more desirable. It seems more just that a society democratically decide their destiny, rather than placing the power with State officials who are committed to representing the interests of society, or - worse still - in economic actors well endowed to direct from the shadows that “invisible hand” that affects us all.

In the current process of defining the kind of socialism Cubans will be building in the coming decades, we must know that there are options between State and the market. If our objective remains to achieve as just a society as possible, it should open up more space for self-governing ideas in the media; and the leaders should return to an emphasis on the values of equality, justice and solidarity. It would also have taken into account the importance of other current revolutionary processes in Latin America that have given participatory democracy to all spheres of society. As private companies have been licensed, so should cooperatives, so that more Cubans can experiment with self-management. Now local governments and state businesses will have more autonomy, at the least they should experiment with more democratic methods, such as budget and planning necessary to be pragmatic, but from a less simplistic notion of society and a less condescending view of ourselves. Cubans willing to experiment with self-management should be able to do so, to so decide, based on their experience, if this is the preferable way or not.

A strategy focusing only on sustaining economic growth and improving the performance of the Cuban state can improve the living conditions of a part of the population and could help to maintain support for the Cuban socialist project. However, to the extent that economic growth comes primarily from privatization and commodification - rather than democratization or socialization of the economy - the interests of new entrepreneurs are inevitably going to move away from the social, and are going to find a way to contribute less taxes, charge higher prices, to externalize costs to society as much as possible. Not too late, as happens in capitalist nations with market economies, they will look to the State to respond to their private interests. Similarly, where administrators of local governments and state businesses have more autonomy without democratization, abuses of power will become common and the more capable workers and revolutionaries will become disillusioned with the private sectors of other countries. Therefore, if changes are concentrated only in a “perfect economy”, not only will the goal of improving the material conditions of the Cuban population not be achieved, but the social cohesion that sustained the revolution will also be affected. The main defenders will be less inclined to support a project that does not consider their needs and expectations for justice and dignity.


[This article was published with a different English translation as “Cuba’s New Socialism. Different Visions Shaping Current Changes” in Latin American Perspectives May 2013 vol. 40 no. 3 pp.107-125



Do you like this page?

Be the first to comment