Cuba: Economic changes and the future of socialism --
interview with Cuban professor Jose Bell Lara
Dr Jose Bell Lara, professor at the Latin American
Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Havana
(FLACSO-Cuba), interviewed by Johannes Wilm. Bell Lara
has written essays such as "Globalisation and Cuban
Revolution" (2002) and "Cuban socialism within
Globalisation" (2007), and is part of the international
advisory board of the journal Critical Sociology. This
interview was conducted in Havana in September 2010.
* * *
Johannes Wilm: The Cuban government recently announced
some changes. Among other things, it will be possible
for more people to work independently. What is it that
Cubans expect from these changes?
Jose Bell Lara: This is a time of deep economic crisis
globally. And of course Cuba is affected by this
crisis. For the Cuban economy it has, taken together
with the the embargo by the United States, a strong
impact. To maintain the socialist project it is
necessary to achieve an efficient functioning of the
economy. In this sense, we must extend factors that can
increase productivity and better conditions of life.
For a long time we have had a paternalistic policy on
the part of the Cuban state when it came to state
employment. There is more personnel than is needed.
Where it takes five people, we have eight. Those who
can produce more, produce less... We have to find the
optimal number of employees in the state sector, while
simultaneously giving opportunities for the extra
workforce to be employed meaningfully.
In Cuba no one will end up unemployed due to our social
protection mechanisms. In any country in Europe or
North America, the surplus workforce would simply be
sent home with four to six weeks' of state aid. Here,
together with seeking greater efficiency in the state
sector, other possibilities are opened, such as working
independently and through the cooperatisation of many
In agriculture we are speaking both about cooperatives
for the production of food crops that can be grown
without much technical help, and others who produce
more advanced crops and have the technological means to
do so. More than 100,000 people are receiving a title
of a piece of agricultural land.
Also in our towns there sometimes is difficulty with
some services: general repairs, shoemaking, plumbing,
personal services. Now there is an opportunity for
people to develop that, both personally and as
cooperatives. One can imagine cooperatives that build
and repair houses or make construction materials or
provide a service such as repairs or carpentry. In this
area there is the prospect of growing the sector to
solve both a social problem and also contribute to the
efficiency of the country, resulting in a stronger
It is necessary that the central state and, in my
personal opinion also the public sector at a more local
level through the popular councils, develops certain
economic activities that benefit the community, thus
contributing to the enrichment of the country.
The important thing is, the state has to have the most
basic means of production, which are decisive in the
economy. But many basic services are very difficult to
JW: In Nicaragua, cooperatives have been a fundamental part
of the Sandinista program. Here in Cuba there are also
cooperatives in sectors such as agriculture. But still
not in other sectors, such as transport. Will we see
them there as well?
JBL: There is a possibility. I cannot confirm that it
necessarily will be that way, but we have a series of
new mechanisms. For example, one could imagine that
certain licences are handed out to cooperatives to
operate in this sector, or that the state establishes a
different kind of relationship with the drivers. There
may be various forms within the transport sector. I
think also with the production of crops, a series of
foods can be meaningfully produced by cooperatives or
individuals. For example, people can produce wine for
themselves and their friends. Some might even produce
enough to sell some.
Jw: And the mini-company? Will that be a small business
that will produce a product?
JBL: The idea is not new. For example, in the city of Havana
there are currently 23 state-owned mini-companies. They
are not part of the central state, but rather
properties of the municipalities. And others are
cooperatives. There is a cooperative producing yoghurt
and another producing soy sauce, for example. These
companies are not that big and they get results. They
are not used to produce hundreds of millions of gallons
of sauce. In general, Latin America's largest source of
employment is not big business. Small and medium
enterprises are those that produce more jobs. Why?
Because those small companies that do not depend on
very complicated technology generally create jobs with
an investment of under US$50,000. Big companies have to
get more US dollars than that to be able to hire
JW: But if production is organised as a business, what is
the difference between this and a capitalist system?
JBL: It is different in character. The basic means of
production are state owned... such as the sugar,
mining, biotechnology and electronics industries.
Jw: How exactly does the pension system work here?
JBL: You deduct 5% of your salary for the social security
system. Retirement starts at age 65, and is automatic.
A worker submits an application for retirement, and 90
days later it is approved. There is one central
retirement fund. And in the state budget there is an
item devoted to social security spending. Whenever
workers or companies fail to meet the expenditure, the
state assumes the difference. In general there is a
deficit of 200 million pesos. The state has to provide
JW: Are there plans to change this system?
JBL: No. The system is indispensable. Moreover, the
experiences of Chile and the countries that privatised
their pension systems were quite horrible. That will
never happen in Cuba.
JW: So what are the major problems of the Cuban economy
today? Other than the changes announced, are there
programs to address them?
JBL: These changes are not isolated. One of the fundamental
problems currently is food security. And the state
confronts this in different ways. For example,
developing biotechnology together with vaccines. What I
call our scientific-productive health constellation.
And the University of bio-informatics is doing
everything possible to computerise Cuban society.
Another strategy is the establishment of organic
agriculture in cities. There is also a program of
suburban agriculture around different cities.
It is not just a spontaneous thing, although parts of
it that people have created [themselves]. There is
state leadership to promote this type of culture and to
promote organic and urban agriculture. There state
addresses many things like that, because food security
is part of the revolution.
JW: But is that really realistic? Will, for example, every
bus driver have to be able to produce food they are
going to consume?
JBL: No one here is forced to do anything. These are people
who choose to participate. The countryside has great
influence in the city. There are many people here with
peasant backgrounds. They are taking up tilling the
earth again. I personally could not do anything like
that, I have a totally urban culture.
Land being handed over to individuals. And there are
municipalities where demand for such land is already
greater than the supply.
We have changed our conception of food production.
Before, our concept was that of the "green revolution":
big machines, chemicals, fertilisers, etc. Now we must
also connect it with other objectives, such as the
problem of climate change and the high cost of oil. So
now we are trying to lessen the use of all those
JW: Since the early 1990s there have been foreign
capitalists operating in Cuba. In what sense is this
different to the processes in Eastern Europe before
1990? There it also began like that. How do you prevent
that these investments from leading to a capitalist
lifestyle and dependence on foreign capital?
JBL: Capitalism is a relation of production that goes beyond
the exact amount of foreign capital investment... A
revolution, in order to compete and develop in a
globalised world, has to understand the logic of
capital and the ideology of the market. And foreign
investment can provide some of that. Therefore it is a
marriage of convenience. The foreign capitalist comes
here to make money. We learn to work with the world of
capital. To achieve a place in the market for some of
our products and to prepare people to gain experience
and work in the capitalist world.
Cuba in 1989 received a maximum of 200,000 tourists.
Now we receive more than 1 million a year. That is the
largest increase in the Caribbean. And so it is
important to learn how to manage hotels. In the
Caribbean, if you go to a hotel in any other country,
the directors are all foreigners and represent gigantic
We ensure first that the hotels continue to be Cuban
property. And on the board of the hotels, there are
Cubans. They are there to learn about the world of
capital. And there are other hotels, like the Hotel
Nacional, that are completely run by Cubans.
The second aspect is that the capitalists who comes to
Cuba do not invest whereever they want to, but where
the Cuban government needs investment. In addition,
large investments are approved on a one-by-one basis.
They are evaluated, and the impact is measured. It is a
very rigorous process, but safer for the country.
JW: But those who work with these tourists, do they not
want that lifestyle? They mainly see foreigners
throwing around a lot of money, right?
JBL: No doubt it has a cost, in the form of ideological
influence. It is true that people who are associated
with sectors handling foreigners earn much more than
the rest. An engineer earns less than a person working
in a hotel. But because there is this phenomenon, we
cannot deny the necessity of the revolution.
JW: The US embargo is likely the biggest problem of the
Cuban economy. But at the same time, if the United
States was to end the blockade tomorrow, would that not
create chaos for the Cuban economy as well? Could it
mean the fall of the socialist planned economy?
JBL: I wonder why one would come to such a conclusion. First
of all, the embargo is not going to end. And second, if
it were to be lifted, it would make the Cuban economy
JW: Yes, but a change so abrupt? If US President Barack
Obama were to sign something tomorrow to end the
embargo? What would happen if 500,000 US tourists were
to arrive here next week! Would that not create any
JBL: It may create some problems in terms of access to hotel
rooms, but it will not end the revolution. When the
pope was going to come, it was said "Here comes the
pope and socialism will fall". The pope came, a million
people went to see him, and the revolution continued.
Of course, if the embargo was lifted, it would permit
us to show exactly what we are capable of doing. For
example, the internet: here if you need to download a
document you have to wait 30-60 minutes. While in other
countries the same download takes five minutes. In this
sense, the end of the embargo would allow us to do a
lot of things we need to do.
In any case, it is an illusion to think that today,
tomorrow or any day in the future the embargo is going
to be lifted. The US will not accept the revolution. It
will always do everything possible to eliminate it.
JW: Outside of Cuba many people probably think that when
Fidel Castro dies, 20 minutes later the US marines will
land in the centre of Havana, capitalism will be
installed within six months, and the whole country will
be sold off to multinational companies within a year.
Is this a realistic prognosis?
JBL: It is an illusion. If the US marines show up here, the
US will see its second defeat here. The first one was
in the Bay of Pigs. The Cuban people are not going to
allow them to land, and we have an armed populace.
Furthermore it is not only Fidel. There is an entire
party. There are generations of people who have the
ideology of the revolution and will stand up to defend
it. The revolution is just going to move forward. In
fact, Fidel already is no longer leading. When Fidel
got sick, the revolution continued without any problem.
Nobody here began to mourn or anything like that. I
think people outside Cuba will have to learn that there
are thousands here who are capable of leading the
revolution and take the positions of Fidel and Raul.
JW: For many years Cuba was very lonely. Now it has found
new allies in the framework of the Bolivarian Alliance
for the Peoples of our Americas (ALBA). What does that
mean for Cuba?
JBL: It means a lot for both Cuba and Latin America. For
Latin America it means that we can begin to walk on our
own. The political map of Latin America has changed,
slightly interrupted by the military coup in Honduras,
which showed us that the rulers of the world and the
local oligarchy will not allow change. However, we have
not gone back to what things were like before, because
there is now a group of countries that is no longer
ruled by the big stick of the US.
JW: And what does the ALBA mean for Cuba specifically?
JBL: The possibility of economic cooperation. There is the
possibility of a different kind of trade. There is the
possibility of a common currency, which at the moment
is virtual, the sucre, which allows exchange without
using the US dollar. All other treaties of commerce and
integration projects serve the transnationals
corporations and do not prioritise social development.
ALBA means another type of integration. So it is
obviously important for Cuba, for the countries that
are part of ALBA and the whole of Latin America.
JW: Abroad it is often said that Cuba is a dictatorship.
But in letters to the editor in the newspaper Granma,
and in discussions with students, it seems that there
is quite some room for criticism of the government and
the revolutionary processes. Has it always been like
this or is this something new?
JBL: To be honest, it wasn't always like this. But without
criticism, there is no real revolutionary process.
There is no discussion of reality, and it is in reality
that problems are encountered. Understanding that is a
big step. In Granma newspaper on Fridays and in
Juventud Rebelde on a daily basis, you can see letters
to the editor criticising. That is part of a healthy
revolutionary society -- to see where there are
JW: In Eastern Europe they believed that it could destroy
JBL: That's how we're different, because we believe it
strengthens us. And life shows us that we're right.
JW: So you don't fear that one day it will lead to ...
JBL: No, I have no fear.
I have not found students who would like to introduce
the "savage capitalism" of the US. But some students
tell me they would like to convert Cuba into a country
like Denmark, which according to their point of view is
not as capitalistic, due to its high level of social
security. Do you think that capitalism could be
introduced so that the standard of living in Cuba would
be similar to that of Denmark?
I think that is an illusion, because we are an
underdeveloped country. If capitalism gets here, it
would be the capitalism of Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua
or El Salvador. Objectively it is this way because
capitalism is a global system in which peripheral
countries are dominated by central ones.
So they cannot just turn Cuba into Denmark, just
because they would like it to be that way. If we are to
reach the standard of living of Denmark, it will be
JW: But they say "We have an educational level similar to
that of the First World..."
... and a health care system.
JW: So they wonder: "Why shouldn't we be a First World
JBL: Because we are constantly being attacked by the US. We
are only 90 nautical miles from Miami. Denmark, Norway
or Sweden are not in that situation.
JW: True, but wouldn't that end if Cuba changed to a
JBL: North American investors would come to take our wealth.
They do not care about Cuba, but what they can earn.
That is, simply, the real problem. There is a statement
by Columbus: "I went to find gold." And that's what
they would come here to look for.
JW: But the US knows that here there is no gold left!
JBL: Oh, there is! If they privatise the institute of
bio-genetics, for example. That is worth a lot of
money. We are underdeveloped because we had great
wealth in gold and silver. That was shipped off to
Europe. And now we're rich too, because we have human
capital. And they want to take that.
JW: Cubans read a lot and are aware of what's happening in
the world. For example, Cuba now plays a central role
in the fight to prevent a nuclear war between the US
and Iran. But given the US embargo, internet access is
through a slow and expensive satellite. Most Cubans
still do not have access to this medium. Is that going
JBL: They're working on it and possibly by the middle of
next year Venezuela will have a cable installed that
will allow faster and wider access. Meanwhile we have
to use a system of privileges. In colleges we have
internet, for example, because it is prioritised. It is
not our fault, but we must work with that.
JW: Critics say it is the Cuban government that wants to
JBL: That is a mis-information. You can open any newspaper
in Miami and it will tell you that. It does not affect
us, but it can affect those who are intoxicated with
North American propaganda.
JW: So when you finally get this internet cable to Cuba,
and access is given to more people, through public
computers or something like that, will that change
JBL: I cannot say how exactly, but it will be good. I am no
prophet, but I think no matter what, it will be for the
better, even though the US has people paid to try to
dominate public opinion on the internet and restrict
access to it. At least it will help me a lot to do my
JW: So it will not change the ideology of Cuban socialism?
JBL: On the contrary, I think it's going to strengthen us.
People are going to have much more information about
other countries and their problems. It will allow more
development in social science.
JW: In the northern part of Latin America, there have been
three leftist revolutions that survived at least a few
years during the last century: Mexico 100 years ago,
Cuba a little more than 50 years ago and Nicaragua
about 30 years ago. In the case of Mexico, the
revolution ended in a deadly mix of corruption and
neoliberalism. Will the same happen in Cuba? Is it
impossible to make such revolutions last for more than
a certain number of years?
JBL: Well, the problem is in the nature of the revolution.
What social forces made these revolutions? In the case
of Mexico, the fundamental social force was largely
rural. It was a revolution against the Porforio Diaz
dictatorship. But the leadership of this revolution was
in the hands of the middle classes. And their social
project went no further than to install a capitalism
without the evils of the Porforio Diaz regime. And
although there was a lot of participation by poor
people, during the first decade of the revolution, most
revolutionary leaders who had support among them were
killed by other middle-class revolutionaries. It
happened to Zapata, who represented the south and its
peasant population and the most radical revolutionary
project. The same happened to Pancho Villa.
A new group assumed the leadership of the revolution
and decided the direction of where the revolution was
going: rebuilding a capitalism that was the Latin
American equivalent of European welfare states. It
reached its high point at the end of the 1930s, during
the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas. During those years
the oil was nationalised and there were a series of
measures to increase living standards.
However, the restructuring of the ruling class in
Mexico and the readjustment of Mexico to the worldwide
capitalist system, always followed the general trend of
the system. And the general trend of the system today
is neoliberalism. Because there is no competition with
the Socialist camp anymore, all the social gains in
Europe and North America are being lost. And that is
also the case in Mexico.
The case of Nicaragua was also a revolution of the
middle classes. However, it was a revolution that was
immediately attacked by US imperialist aggression, and
the revolutionaries committed some mistakes. It was a
revolution that attempted to find a third position,
although there was a project of the poor masses, the
"Sandinista" project. Nicaragua sought non-alignment,
political pluralism and a mixed economy. That led to
something like Venezuela's capitalism today.
The Nicaraguan capitalist class did not have the
political power, but continued to control much of the
economy. The revolution was unable to resist
imperialism and it led to a counterrevolution. The
country experienced aggression in the form of
low-intensity war developed by the US administration of
US President Ronald Reagan. There was economic crisis.
And some mistakes were committed in the war against the
US-backed contras, such as the imposition of obligatory
military service. All that accumulated in the minds of
the population. In the end the revolution was finally
ended through elections, which were lost by the
However, it was not the end, and 16 years later Daniel
Ortega has regained power, although not with the same
force as before.
In Cuba, the middle class had a very important role.
However, it committed suicide as a class and identified
with the interests of the rest of the Cuban people. It
ditched its own ideology and took as its own the
ideology of the poor. Che Guevara wrote an article
about it, "War and peasant population", that explained
how people like him, coming from the urban middle
class, identified with the rural peasant population.
This identification led the middle class to be more
radical. Besides, the revolution against imperialist
aggression has not receded.
Imperialism cannot tolerate a revolution that is
popular, that is anti-imperialist. No wonder Cuba has
been blockaded 50 years. In the last 50-60 years, all
popular revolutions in Latin America have been
destroyed, minus that of Cuba: Guatemala in 1944/54,
Bolivia in 1952, Chile in 1971-73 and Nicaragua in
Cuba has been able survive, although the US has
committed sabotage, organised contra-revolutionary
groups, and continues to publicly dedicate a tens of
millions of dollars every year to defeat the
JW: So it is impossible for neoliberalism to reach Cuba?
JBL: Objectively speaking, it is impossible. At what point
should that happen? Today the system is in crisis and
all Latin American governments have anti-neoliberal
positions, although admittedly the economic practice of
some countries is still the same. Neoliberalism did not
come here in the 1990s when Cuba had a much bigger
crisis either. So why now?
JW: Speaking of how revolutions were structured: in Mexico
many different groups of revolutionaries were part of
the revolutionary process. In Nicaragua there was a
strategy of uniting almost all radical leftist forces,
everything from Marxist-Leninists to anarchists, under
the title "Sandinista". But here in Cuba it is the
Communist Party that is in charge. Does that make it
JBL: Well, in the end it makes it easier, of course, because
all revolutionaries are under the same flag. But that
does not mean that it was easy to reach this unity.
Creating a unified party was an experience we have had
before, with Jose Marti and the struggle for
independence from Spain. Marti founded a political
party to lead the struggle for independence. That was
the first time in the world that a political party led
a war for national liberation.
[To make the Cuban revolution] Fidel managed to gather
groups together in the early years, like the July 26th
Movement and the Popular Socialist Party, which
previously had also been called the Communist Party of
Cuba. The new party took the name Communist Party, but
it was a project unique to the Cuban revolution.
JW: And the former communist party is part of this.
JBL: It was subordinated. Yes, exactly.
JW: And the ideology of the new Communist Party ...
JBL: ... is Marxism.
JW: But was there a difference between the Popular
Socialist Party's ideology and the new party's?
JBL: It was different because it had a very important
national component... Socialism in Cuba is a system
highly adapted to the Cuban reality. It is not a copy
of models that exist in other countries. And each
socialism in Latin America will be different. In
Venezuela it will be marked by the Bolivarian
component, in Ecuador it will carry an important
project of citizen rights, in Bolivia there is the
Indigenous part. If it were any different, it would not
be Latin American socialism. Copies of Cuba or
Venezuela will not succeed because the realities are
JW: But everybody has always the option to learn, right?
JBL: ... learn from mistakes?
JW: Yes, for instance in the case of Nicaragua, the
Sandinistas, they had the option to learn from Mexico
and Cuba. Of the things that worked well and the things
that did not work so well. But do you think they took
JBL: I think partly yes and partly no. Making a revolution
is not like going to a school, as if you are an
architect and you do X years of college, learning how
to build houses and then do exactly that later.
You have to learn how to make a revolution while doing
it. And what you're creating, you have to defend. We
are not speaking about a single person, but millions of
people who are to make a revolution, all learning and
participating at the same time.
In addition there are a lot of illiterate people. The
average Cuban had only reached the third grade when the
revolution triumphed. In the case of Nicaragua, the
number of illiterate people was much higher. The
illiterates now suddenly have to organise a revolution
and manage factories. Often it is the former workers
who are managing the factories. And they have to learn
all these things. That makes the process much more
Plus you have to learn how to manage a state: social
aspects, the economy, welfare, and be always think
about all possible future developments. Then there's
aggression from outside, not just military aggression.
It also includes ideological elements through the
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