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Opinion

Cuba's bold shift to a postsocialist era

It amounts to the worst of both worlds: a state-controlled economy in which the government shirks its social responsibilities.

By Luis Martínez-Fernández / August 12, 2008



Orlando, Fla.

In an address to the National Assembly a few weeks ago, Cuba's new president, Raúl Castro, announced the latest and most profound ideological shift in the five-decade-long history of the Cuban Revolution.

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In his speech, Mr. Castro redefined socialism and effectively declared the end of that system – as we know it – on the island. "Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income," he said.

This remarkable declaration represents an embrace of a postmodern version of socialism. Rather than moving Cuba toward European democratic socialism – a capitalist economy with a socialist social-services system – his prescription advocates what amounts to the worst of both worlds: a state-controlled economy in which the government shirks its social responsibilities.

The new path goes well beyond revolutionary Cuba's historically alternating socialist formulas. Che Guevara's preferred model of socialism is based on the application of radical egalitarian measures and the principle of "moral incentives." In that model, individual workers are motivated by spiritual rewards derived from individual sacrifice for the common good.

Then there is the orthodox Marxist-Leninist socialist model, which allows the retention of capitalist vestiges, such as market activities and material incentives including overtime pay, salary bonuses for high productivity workers, and private business activities.

Following several years of applying the Guevarist model, Fidel Castro reintroduced material incentives in 1970, with the hope of improving the economy by increasing worker productivity.

In 1986, Mr. Castro switched gears again and launched the so-called Rectification of Past Errors campaign in which moral incentives replaced material incentives.

Among the targets of rectification were independent merchants, black marketeers, and others who had profited from past economic opportunities.

In light of the profound economic crisis of the so-called Special Period (1990-2002), Castro reluctantly allowed many of the same market practices that he had condemned during the short-lived rectification process. The ownership of business by private individuals became legal, as did the circulation of the enemy's currency: the US dollar.

More recently, in 2002, the Cuban government codified the return to a radical form of socialism through a constitutional amendment that promised never to return to capitalism and declared Cuba's political and social systems "irrevocable."

Raúl Castro's recent pronouncements, however, signal a dramatic ideological shift that actually heralds the end of socialism.

His new definition of socialism bears no resemblance to the traditional usage of the term. Not only did he state that "equality is not the same as egalitarianism," he went on to say that "egalitarianism is in itself a form of exploitation; exploitation of the good workers by those who are less productive and lazy."

This is the opposite of Karl Marx's prescription for communism: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

Castro's indication that his government will eliminate some free services and excessive subsidies to consumer goods is further evidence that Cuba is about to enter a postsocialist era.

If these changes materialize, the Cuban state will retain control of the economy while pulling back from the historical social responsibilities of a socialist government.

Luis Martínez-Fernández teaches at the University of Central Florida. He is writing a history of the Cuban Revolution.

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