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Socialism Is Dead, Long Live Socialism

Cooperativism and Solidarity Economies in Cuba

Joseph Tharamangalam ( is professor emeritus, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Mount St Vincent University, Halifax, Canada.

Faced with an existential economic and political crisis in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba launched reforms that were aimed at making its socialist system more sustainable. Self-managing cooperatives, which were to be independent of state control, started getting promoted as the preferred instruments for Cuba’s transition to 21st-century socialism. Drawing on fieldwork in Cuba and on secondary material, it is argued that these cooperatives have a fair chance of success, but that uncertainties exist, especially with respect to the project of “downsizing the state.”


Cuba, arguably the last of the still-surviving socialist countries spawned by the great revolutions of the 20th century, is now in a period of change and transition. Global commentators had a surge of interest in Cuba and its impending transition of power after the passing of its “maximum leader” Fidel Castro. However, within Cuba, the debate about change has been underway for a while; at least since the sudden crisis it faced in the early 1990s following the precipitous collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet block, its only patrons and trading partners.

The sudden implosion of what has since been called “20th century socialism” almost everywhere in the world—with China and a few others also transitioning into forms of capitalism—forcefully drove home major deficits in that model. For Cuba, which was facing near collapse and even mass starvation, the need to rethink and reform its socialist system was not just a theoretical or ideological issue, but one that was essential to its very survival. Cuba was forced to seriously address the need to reform its system in order to make it more sustainable. But, even as the public debates and rethinking began, Cuba quickly launched various reforms, especially in the early 1990s—what Fidel Castro called a “special period in [a] time of peace”—which were mostly aimed at economic survival.1 Castro declared emergency and austerity measures in response to the crisis which saw a sudden and steep fall in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), its import capacity, food availability, and calorie intake. The reforms ensured that the immediate crisis was largely overcome in just a few years.

However, the end of the special period saw an intensification of debate in the country as the need for more far-reaching changes to the Cuban model was recognised. Cuba’s leaders, policymakers, intellectuals, and the majority of its people, from all the evidence I have been able to find, have been striving to sustain the country’s human development achievements, the core values of the revolution—social justice, human dignity for all its citizens, and freedom from hunger—and to resist the forces that are at work to turn Cuba into a marginal partner in the global neo-liberal capitalist system. In this task, they feel emboldened by the growing worldwide disillusionment with the neo-liberal system (nowhere more so than among its own neighbours in Latin America), which has had disastrous effects across the world. These include the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few—within and across countries—at a scale unseen since the 1930s, while a billion people remain entrenched in poverty and hunger and environmental degradation reach unsustainable levels, all of which have been well-researched and documented by scholars such as Piketty (2014).

This article examines the Cuban transition, the country’s attempt to move to a more sustainable form of 21st century socialism. It draws on my own fieldwork in Cuba as well as secondary material. This introduction is followed by a discussion of the successes and deficits of Cuban socialism. The next section reviews its ongoing and increasing reforms, and debates its transition with a special focus on the expanded and relatively independent space being made available for cooperatives as the preferred instruments for the transition. The article concludes by raising a few questions about the prospects of the changes. It will also argue that the model of 21st century socialism envisioned by Cuba will not necessarily lead to any significant decentralisation and democratisation of state power or reduction of the special role played by the powerful Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

Cuban Socialism

Cuba’s remarkable achievements in human development have been the focus of my research in the last 15 years (Tharamangalam 2010). I have followed the human development approach and the measures used by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to gauge achievements in social security, general well-being, and human quality of life.2

Cuba is a rare example of a country in the global South that has practically eliminated hunger as defined and measured by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which produces the annual Global Hunger Index (GHI). The following quote from a group of United States (US) researchers will provide an appropriate prelude to the GHI scores.

With all the authority of hindsight, it is important to analyse and criticise the methods Cuba has chosen to eradicate hunger … But we should never lose sight of the fact that the Cuban revolution declared, from the outset, that no one should go malnourished. No disappointment in food production, no failed economic take-off, no shockwave from world economic crisis has deterred Cuba from freeing itself from the suffering and shame of a single wasted child or an elderly person ignominiously subsisting on pet food. No other country in this hemisphere, including the United States, can make this claim. (Benjamin et al 1984: 180)

Cuba does not figure in the GHI. Its score is less than 5, the threshold below which the level of hunger in a country is deemed to be too low for inclusion in the index (IFPRI 2016). The GHI uses a composite index of four parameters: malnutrition, childhood wasting (the proportion of children under age five with low weight for their age), stunting (the proportion of children under five with low height for their age) and under-five child mortality rates. These problems have long been eliminated in Cuba.3 Note that this is not to deny severe shortages of many consumer goods in Cuba or the very low purchasing power of Cuba’s people. This, in fact, is what is unique about the Cuban model: its ability to guarantee basic security and services with little wealth and low per capita income.

To be noted also is the fact that many Cubans (including some university professors I know) went hungry during the special period when Cuba’s GDP—and food availability—saw a steep decline. People ate whatever they could find; birds and animals disappeared from Havana’s zoo and Cuba’s cattle population saw such a steep decline that the country still suffers from severe shortages of milk and beef. The shortage of milk was so severe during the special period that the meagre supply available, supplemented by imported milk powder, was reserved exclusively for children through the country’s well-functioning ration shops. It is remarkable that there was no famine, no serious malnutrition, and practically no slowdown in its human development. Indeed, Cuba’s success in overcoming the catastrophic crisis (often compared to the 1929 crisis in the US) is not only one of the most remarkable achievements by a state and society in recent times, but also a testimony to the value of social solidarity, cooperation, and mutual help, buttressed by a robust institutional framework. The key to its success seems to have been its ability to mobilise a well-organised and educated population to undertake various innovative and creative measures, including those aimed at attaining self-sufficiency in sustainable forms of food production.4

Cuba is also known for its exceptional achievements in education and health. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Cuba has perhaps the best-educated and healthiest people of any country in the world. It boasts of the highest number of doctors and PhDs (in all disciplines, including the sciences) per unit population. Indeed, in some critical measures of human development, such as infant mortality rate, life expectancy, access to food, and access to basic healthcare, Cuba outperforms the US (despite per capita GDP being about seven times higher in the US). Cuba’s healthcare system ensures that, at birth, every child is weighed, measured, and assigned to a neighbourhood pediatrician for continuous monitoring and care. There are special hospitals that provide care for women with difficult pregnancies (Tharamangalam 2010).5

During the past 25 years, Cuba has been showcased several times for its exceptional achievement in health and education by international agencies such as the UNDP, UNICEF, the Food and Agricultre Organization, and even by the World Bank—unbeknownst to Cuba’s critics abroad, especially in the US. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report stated that Cuba had achieved high human development (greater than 0.8) with a sustainable ecological footprint of less than 1.8 hectares, the only country to have done so. The World Health Organization (WHO 2015) declared Cuba to be the first country to have eliminated mother–child transmission of HIV.

Cuba’s achievements are of immense human and world-historical significance in two respects. First, Cuba has shown that the terrible suffering of one-fifth of the world’s people—the acute hunger of 200 million children under five, the many untimely and painful deaths—is needless and can be eliminated without turning the poor countries of the global South into industrialised high-consumption societies of the Western kind. Second, Cuba has shown a path of ecologically sustainable development, which is of great relevance to all countries as they are forced to confront the unsustainable nature of the conventional development path premised on continuous GDP growth and increasing consumption (unless they begin to colonise other planets, as suggested by Stephen Hawking).

An Over-centralised State

The process of rethinking triggered by the multidimensional crisis of the 1990s has continued unabated since, raising people’s aspirations for greater prosperity as well as greater social, economic, and political freedoms. The extensive nationwide debates especially intensified during the two recent congresses of the PCC in 2011 and 2016. What, then, are the issues and deficits that Cuban analysts have identified?

The state, as constructed in 20th century socialism, produced mixed results. On the positive side is its success in public provisioning of social welfare and social safety nets for all. And on the negative side is its suppression of individual and community initiatives and rights, the worst of which were seen under Stalin, Mao, and other similar leaders who seized power in the century’s great “peasant wars” and revolutions. Cuba followed the Soviet model, though a more benign version in many respects, and was not free from some of the now well-recognised deficits of that model.6 But, first, it is important to acknowledge the fact that Cuba’s strong and proactive state has played a critical role in sustaining national security and stability in the provisioning of basic public goods, and in the promotion of science and technology. Yet, today, the deficits and failures of this model are being intensely debated and identified.

(i) There is a bloated bureaucracy with its reach over the entire economic, social, and political system. The attendant problems of inefficiency, corruption, and black marketing, in tandem with a diminution of personal, local, and group incentives, initiatives, enterprise, and innovation. This has resulted in the slow progress of the project of decentralisation and local development, which has been exacerbated by the severe scarcity of financial and other resources at the local level and the low capacity of local democratic organisations to address daily problems and needs.7

(ii) The technocratic styles of command and control result in a relative lack of debate, democratic control, and checks and balances. A Cuban commentator noted that bureaucrats exercise more power than elected representatives. He then made a tongue-in-cheek remark, saying that they are very clever at “finding a problem wherever there is a solution.”

(iii) There is an excess of non-productive employment in the state sector (up to 1.5 million employees may be redundant), which is now understood as unsustainable.

(iv) There is suppression of the market, including at the local level, and of people’s ability to barter, exchange, and trade; an issue that has already been partially addressed.

(v) Unsustainable amounts of free goods and services are offered by a patronising state and are given regardless of, and independent of, specific citizen contributions. These have a negative influence on the motivation to work, productivity, and economic development. Many of these failures are well known, as neo-liberals have never stopped condemning these practices as hampering economic freedoms and free markets.

Cuba is now reimagining the relationship between state and society, particularly the role of civil society. Despite the myth about the self-regulating market, it has been apparent that capitalism and the capitalist market do not exist apart from and independently of the (capitalist) state. Similarly, socialism has been backed by a socialist state, its 20th century incarnation having generally taken the form of an all-encompassing—and according to critics, totalitarian—state. A reformed 21st century socialism seeks to downsize the state (though not in the neo-liberal sense) by reducing state control over the economy and society as a whole. Cuba is now focusing considerable attention on the dimension of economy, while its agenda with regard to society remains more ambiguous.

The attempt to free the economy from state control brings into focus the question of what constitutes socialist property. Karl Marx saw the first task in constructing socialism as that of “socialising the means of production.” But, he seems to have paid little attention to what institutional form this was to take, except for his suggestion of a short period of the dictatorship of the proletariat that would shape the future “socialist man” and his institutions until the state would finally wither away. Ever since the Bolshevik revolution, socialist property has, in fact, taken the form of ownership and control of all property by a centralised and all-encompassing and controlling state. As is now recognised by all, including Cuban reformers, this has been one of the major flaws of 20th century socialism. It is widely recognised that such control of the economy by the state has suppressed the autonomy, creativity, innovation, and enterprise of individuals and communities.8 Whether workers in such a system are also controlled and alienated in a manner similar to those in capitalism is an issue not generally debated by left scholars. However, the discontent among workers in socialist countries—from Poland to Cuba—calls for a fresh examination. The current Cuban debate does address this issue.

Is there also a democratic deficit in Cuba, as claimed by several US administrations to justify their blockade that has considerably aggravated Cuba’s hardships? A short answer to this complex question needs to make two points. First, there are different models of democracy. The US model is by no means the ideal or the standard. Cuba’s “people’s democracy” is a more effective, participatory, and vibrant form of democracy, if democracy is to be understood as a system designed to represent the interests of the majority of the voting population, with the backing of appropriate institutional mechanisms and procedures.9 By contrast, the US system of “democracy” can be seen as one in which state policy is blatantly tilted in favour of a small corporate elite—“the one percent”—as claimed by the Occupy Wall Street movement, a claim backed by considerable empirical evidence (Tharamangalam 2011; Picketty 2014). Furthermore, the Cuban system guarantees to all citizens such basic human rights as the right to food, to employment, to education, and basic healthcare, again, in sharp contrast to the US system.

Once this basic point has been made, we are in a better position to deal with the deficits in Cuba’s system, which was basically built on the Soviet model. Not only does the Cuban state control the means and instruments of production of both the material goods and the ideology that supports state power, but state power is also concentrated in the hands of a small elite group that also controls the powerful armed forces and the PCC. Freedom of the press, as well as of writers and artists, is restricted. The few national and regional newspapers are controlled by the PCC and/or its affiliates such as the Young Communist League. It appears that the new spate of artistic creativity unleashed by the excitement of the revolution made Fidel Castro nervous. He reacted by issuing his infamous injunction to the artists and the intellectual class in 1961: “Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing.” That restriction is enshrined in Article 39 of the 1976 Constitution. Article 53 further stipulates that “all organs of the mass media are state or social property.” The PCC plays a dominant role in Cuba and the all-pervasive “mass organisations” under its umbrella, such as the Committee to Defend the Revolution, keep watch on all social activities, severely restricting independent civil society activism.

It is noteworthy that Arnold August, an expert on Cuban democracy and an admirer of Cuba’s participatory democracy has pointed to a possible imbalance between two founding principles in the constitution. While Article 3 stipulates that “sovereignty lies in the people from whom originates all the power of the state,” Article 5 states that the PCC is “the highest leading force of society and of the state.” If the PCC functions apart from the state and cannot interfere in matters of the state and its administration, as Cuba’s leaders and theoreticians claim, how can it also be “the highest leading force of the state”? August (2013: 189) admits that “this is not an easy balance to maintain,” but implies that maintaining such a balance has been the Cuban tradition, something that makes the Cuban system different from the Soviet one.

It is interesting to note that in the workshops and conferences dealing with reforms, we generally find our Cuban colleagues and commentators very vocal in critiquing the economic deficits of the model. However, they are much more muted and indirect in addressing the political and democratic deficits. They tend to blame the corrupt bureaucracy for many of the problems, sidestepping the fact that the bureaucracy has been an integral part of the Cuban state system. Nevertheless, there is recognition of the need for greater decentralisation and freedoms and rights for individuals and communities and greater democratic control of the state and participation in policymaking. “People’s participation,” always an ideal and a slogan, is once again an issue of policy debate and strengthening the institutional framework is a new priority. Regardless of the nature of the theoretical debate, it is reasonably clear from evidence on the ground, including from our own fieldwork and interviews, that most Cubans, especially the middle class that is better exposed to the outside world, aspire to greater social and political freedoms, the freedom and ability to travel abroad (some travel restrictions have been already eliminated), more democratic freedoms to participate in the political system, and a greater decentralisation of power.

Reform and Transition

As Cuba searches for a new paradigm, it should be made clear that the country is not abandoning the basic premises with which it began its socialist experiment over half a century ago. This means that Cuban socialism continues to reject the neo-classical premise of a Homo economicus being who is self-seeking, utility-maximising, instrumentally rational, amoral by nature, and removed from society: by definition a sociopath. In contrast to this, it reaffirms the premise of socialism that the true human is a Homo moralis and socialis, embedded in society and its normative and moral structures, cooperating, mutually dependent and supportive; an idea shared by all world religions and shown by evolutionary biology, anthropology, sociology, and history.10

Cuba also continues to engage with the “the social question” posed in the wake of the rise of capitalism, of how to rectify the rupture of society and its economy, what Polanyi (2001) famously called “the great transformation.” It is committed to the principle of societal control over the economy and over the provision and protection of the common good, instead of leaving these vital societal tasks to a mythical self-adjusting market, an “invisible hand.”

The reforms that began in the 1990s—towards a transition to forms of property and economic enterprises outside the state sector—have been accelerated recently, moving into the manufacturing and service sectors for the first time. The focus of attention has now shifted to a model of a solidarity economy organised through new forms of self-governing and self-managing cooperatives, free from state control. These “principal instruments of the Cuban transition” are favoured by not only the old generation of revolutionaries and socialists, left intellectuals, and the governing elite, but have also been studied and found to be promising by independent observers and researchers from Cuba and across the world. Yet, despite the prolonged debates and consultations conducted during the two recent congresses of the PCC (far more widespread, free, and open during the sixth congress in 2011 than during the seventh congress in 2016), and despite the formulation of basic guidelines already approved by these congresses, the Cuban state is slow and cautious in moving forward.11 It has yet to finalise an overall legal and institutional framework and has been very slow in approving new cooperatives. While some observers, especially those from outside Cuba, are critical of the “slow pace of reform,” there is a credible argument in favour of caution (though not of indefinite delay) to avoid the pitfalls of many former socialist countries in the Soviet block which implemented similar reforms without first creating an appropriate legal and institutional framework.

After widespread discussions, the two party congresses approved the following basic principles and guidelines:

(i) As many economic activities as possible must be transferred to the non-state sector.

(ii) The transfer must be executed in the most “socialised” way possible in order to sustain the country’s socialist achievements and to preserve the core values of the socialist revolution.

(iii) The state is still mandated to control and concentrate on core economic activities—the “commanding heights” of the economy—and to continue the public provisioning of education, healthcare, and other basic services as well as guaranteed social protection for vulnerable groups who may be negatively affected by the new reforms.

Even as the concept of social property is being redefined, some reforms have already been implemented. Small privately-owned businesses have been functioning since the 1990s. Foreign investments, within government-approved rules and partnership arrangements, are now part of the Cuban economy in some sectors like tourism. Even the hiring of wage labour, still controversial, is now allowed to a limited extent. Nevertheless, the preferred choice for the future are cooperatives, seen as “solidarity economies” that are more compatible with the idea of socialist property.

Cooperatives in Cuba

In Cuba, cooperatives are at least as old as its socialist system and the early land reforms. But, until recently, they existed only in the agricultural sector. Their trajectory has been uneven and dependent on changing state policies. Some of the early cooperatives merged into state farms when the government made the move to adopt the Soviet model of state-owned, large-scale, high-input farms with the aim of increasing sugar production for exports. However, the cooperative movement persisted, experiencing a spurt of growth when a well-organised and active group of small farmers, the Association Nationale de Agricultores Pequenos (which is active to this day and is one of the most influential independent civil society organisations in Cuba), took the initiative to organise relatively more independent cooperatives from below with small farmers as voluntary members. These early Credit and Services Cooperatives were aimed at facilitating the acquisition of machinery, credit, and other inputs while retaining individual ownership and utilisation of land. In 1976, some of them moved to a higher stage of cooperativism by pooling their lands to produce collectively, with the aim of maximising efficiency and productivity. The members of these Agricultural Production Cooperatives became collective owners of land and equipment.

During the special period, a new wave of cooperativism began. Beginning in 1993, the Soviet model of state-controlled farms and agribusinesses were dismantled, transferred to the workers, and formed into cooperatives called Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs). These lands are held as “usufruct,” with the state retaining ownership but the farming and management being handled by the cooperatives, collectively and democratically. Most of the cooperatives of this kind that I have visited are successful and generate incomes for their members that are about four times higher than what they earned as state employees. In fact, their incomes are much higher than those earned by state-employed professionals such as doctors and academics. One such cooperative in Alamar in the outskirts of Havana (Organopónic Vivero Alamar) has now become well-known across the world as a model of organic urban agriculture. It produces its own organic fertilisers from locally available materials. Its members proudly say that one day they went to bed as workers, but woke up the next morning as owners and managers of their own farm.

By 2007, the cooperative sector managed about 45% of the total land and 64% of all agriculture in Cuba (37% of it was handled by the UBPCs) (Diaz 2014). The non-state sector, dominated by cooperatives, produced most of Cuba’s staples for internal consumption: 86% of rice, 97% of beans, and 85% of milk. Notably, they also provided a variety of social benefits for members and their families: over a million people. I was at the Alamar cooperative on a day when the neighbourhood medical team was making its scheduled visit to the cooperative community centre, where it stayed all afternoon, attending to the health needs of the workers and their families.

The New Cooperatives

Cuba has now embarked on an experiment with newer forms of cooperatives in the urban/industrial sector which are self-managed and independent of state control and within the framework of the new guidelines. This experiment began with the transfer of some state-owned enterprises to workers who were organised into cooperatives, which held the enterprise and its equipment as usufruct on favourable terms: rent-free and with state subsidies and tax concessions. A second type of voluntary grass-roots cooperative is also being encouraged, but is still at a very initial stage in its development.

During a visit to Cuba in June 2016, I participated in a week-long seminar that included field visits with an international team of specialists in cooperatives. We visited seven of the new types of urban cooperatives: two from the manufacturing sector and the rest from the services, ranging from restaurants to taxis. We also held an extensive presentation and discussion session with a group of young men, all self-described “dropouts” from school, and friends from the same neighborhood community, who are now planning to launch their own cooperative. These men were determined to stay in their community and not look for employment elsewhere. They were planning to open a bakery, which will also arrange deliveries of their products to households in the community.

It was striking to hear that the members of practically all of these new cooperatives were now earning incomes that were about four times higher than what they earned as employees of the state in the same factories. Evidently, they were happy and enthusiastic about this. However, the source of this increase remained unclear. We were left to guess that though there may have been some increase in labour productivity, most of the increase may be attributed to a smaller portion of the product being siphoned off by the state. The cooperatives are democratically controlled and their managers are elected by the members. They also benefit from government subsidies and concessions. They do not pay rent for the building and equipment, though they need to pay for electricity and other utilities. Remarkably, they set aside a portion of the income for social protection of their members—including pension plans and paid vacations—a fact that points to the possibility of decentralising the provision of public goods, including education and healthcare. One cooperative producing bamboo products offers social services in return for the free rent and other concessions they receive from the state. They offer free training, apprenticeship, and employment opportunities for young people who have left school. All these cooperatives and their members are eagerly waiting for laws and constitutional provisions which will assure them of long-term security and stability.

Bringing Back the State?

Cuba is at a critical juncture in its long journey towards socialism. Having withstood numerous problems and existential threats, it must now address the latest threat arising from the long-term effects of the weaknesses in its own model of 20th century socialism. As mentioned earlier, several positive factors—the country’s exceptional resilience, levels of solidarity, and the massive and collective effort to overcome the crisis—have helped sustain its remarkable achievements in education, health, and social and food security. Nevertheless, the crisis did trigger a rude awakening, leading to a process of rethinking and reimagining its own socialist system. The reforms launched during and after the crisis have opened up sections of its economy, accommodating forms of property outside the state-owned sector. But, the pressure to move to a system that promises higher economic growth and greater prosperity for its citizens has only intensified.

Even as Cuba is moving to implement more reforms, its leaders and policymakers are eager to tread this path without abandoning the core values of the country’s socialist system. To this end, an attempt is being made to give a central role to cooperatives; the principles and guidelines for these have now been worked out and approved by recent congresses of the PCC, the de facto decisive policymaking body in the Cuban
system. The new forms of cooperatives, seen as the most socialist form of property outside state ownership, are to be given preferential treatment by the state. Nevertheless, the long-promised legal and institutional framework has not yet been finalised. There is considerable speculation and apprehension about this delay, fed also by the fact that the 2017 congress was controlled and secretive in comparison with the widespread participation that was encouraged by the authorities during the 2011 congress. The explanation for this from above seems to have been that all inputs from the popular bodies have already been received and that the top policymakers are now in the process of studying these extensively and moving forward cautiously.

It appears that even as the state is being downsized in some respects, it will be “brought back” in other respects. According to some observers, there are some very good reasons why the state must continue to matter. First, empirical evidence suggests that systems collapse when states became weak. Second, high levels of social well-being have been associated with well-governed (and democratic) states. The experience of the former socialist countries in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe offer some salient lessons here: in the absence of a robust legal framework and state oversight, public property, transferred to a wide variety of “pseudo-cooperatives,” quickly came into private and criminal hands (Bateman et al 2016). Determined to preempt such possibilities, Cuba’s policymakers want to ensure that the state will continue to provide the necessary legal and institutional framework. But, this has involved a certain paradox: a reform process that begins with downsizing the state ends with the imperative to bring back a robust state.

In conclusion, our analysis leads us to believe that Cuba’s path to a more viable form of 21st century socialism has a fair chance of success. It has considerable strengths it can draw on: valuable experience with a wide variety of cooperatives (including an understanding of their weaknesses), traditions of social support and solidarity, continuing state support, and finally, high levels of accumulated social, human, and intellectual capital. However, how democratic and decentralised the transformed Cuban state will be remains an open question. The concentration of political power in Cuba in the hands of a small group at the top is a well-established tradition of over half a century. Add to this the critical role of the PCC, whose moral and legal authority is enshrined in the Cuban constitution. While the PCC is not an electoral party, it controls the numerous mass organisations in the country and those who have held power in Cuba since the revolution have always occupied top positions in the party, with the President himself being the general secretary. However, the renewal process, as well as the expanding space for self-managed and democratically controlled solidarity economies that are independent of state control point to the possibility of a reformed and renewed form of 21st century socialism.


1 Immediate measures included the legalising of the US dollar (leading to a dual currency system, which is still in existence), the opening up of the country to tourism and to some limited foreign investments, the dismantling of the Soviet model of the agricultural system, and the launching of a campaign for organic farming and urban agriculture.

2 Amartya Sen’s widely read book, Development as Freedom (1999), provides an easily readable overview of the human development approach. Since 1990, the UNDP has brought out annual human development reports that cover most of the world. They provide detailed measures of human development indicators such as life expectancy, literacy, and infant mortality rate.

3 It may be of interest to note here that India figures very poorly in most of these measures and especially in the GHI where its record is even worse than that of Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. India is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry, which is the single largest pool of hungry people in any country in the world. An examination of the historically entrenched structures of inequality and exclusion in India (for example, caste) is critical for assessing India’s political economy, its development path, and its model of democracy. Amartya Sen has written extensively about these issues, which I have made a modest attempt to deal with in my comparison of human development in Kerala and Cuba (Tharamangalam 2010) and in India and China (Tharamangalam 2015). In sharp contrast to the Indian path, both Cuba and China took early and radical steps to dismantle such structures, thus creating the preconditions for more inclusive human development. Kerala took some modest steps, more radical and decisive than India in general, which resulted in very good outcomes in terms of its human development achievements.

4 There is yet another irony (an unforeseen, yet benevolent one) in the effect of the food and fuel shortages: an even healthier population. Scientists have reported that the period of the shortages saw a significant decline (as much as a third or more) in deaths attributed to diabetes, coronary heart disease, and strokes (Shiffman 2013). Lower food consumption and greater physical activity in the absence of cars, buses, tractors, along with the presence of high quality medical care, made this possible.

5 A recent study on food insecurity by the US Department of Agriculture reported that 50.2 million Americans (15% of the population) including 17.2 million children (one in four) were food insecure in 2009 (Nord et al 2010). Another study (NCBR 2010: 2) stated that the number of people seeking emergency food assistance each year through food banks has increased by 46% since 2006, from 25 million to 37 million, the highest numbers seen in the organisation’s 26-year history.

6 Two factors may help explain why Cuba did not become a brutal dictatorship of the Soviet or Chinese kind. The first is the leadership of Fidel Castro, an extraordinary and charismatic idealist, who was committed to what he saw as the humanist goals of the revolution. The second is the presence of a more effective form of socialist democracy in which a variety of people’s organisations helped to provide a degree of checks and balances (Tharamangalam 2010; Roman 2003).

7 This issue was discussed in detail at a three-day seminar in 2007 in the provincial town of Sancti Spíritus, organised by my research team with the participation of representatives and staff of the local government. The local government had considerable autonomy to pursue local development policies, but was severely constrained by a lack of funds.

8 The combination of a centralised state and a “vanguard” communist party led to some of the worst forms of totalitarian and oppressive dictatorships under Stalin and Mao.

9 Several researchers from outside Cuba have done extensive fieldwork on the Cuban model of democracy and its effectiveness. See August (2013), Roman (2003), and Saney (2004). See also my discussion of human development in Cuba (Tharamangalam 2010).

10 Even today, large parts of people’s economies in the informal sector—family economies including unpaid child and elderly care, the substantial remittances being sent by migrant workers to their families and relatives—can be seen as functioning within the sphere of such solidarity economies, something to which economists pay little attention. An article in the Economist (2015) stated that India alone received over $70 billion in remittances in the previous year, and in the small state of Kerala, remittances amounted to about 36% of its GDP.

11 According to information provided by the congress, the draft guidelines for the congress were disbursed to people at all levels, from the grass roots to the parliament. From 1 December 2010 to 28 February 2011, there were 1,63,079 meetings involving 89,13,838 participants who contributed 30,19,471 separate inputs. This resulted in the modification of 68% of the original guidelines and the addition of 36 new guidelines in a final total of 311 (August 2013).


August, Arnold (2013): Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion, London: Zed Books.

Bateman, Milfred et al (2016): “The Importance of Local Institutional Support for Cooperative Development in Cuba: Policies,” paper presented at workshop on cooperatives in Cuba, St Mary’s University, Halifax, Canada.

Benjamin, Medea, Joseph Collins and Michael Scott (1984): No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today, San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy.

Diaz, Beatriz (2014): “Cooperatives within Cuba’s Economic Model,” Center for Global Justice,
1 March,

Economist (2015): “Remittances: Like Manna from Heaven,” 3 September,

IFPRI (2016): “2016 Global Food Policy Report,” International Food Policy Research Institute Washington, DC,

NCBR (2010): “USDA Reports Hunger Reaching Record High,” Northern Colorado Business Report, 21 November, asp?id=54681.

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