Waiting for a Bus to Somewhere: Reflections on Cuba and its Context

by Eric Hershberg [1. Max Cameron and Sarah Doty offered observations and corrections in response to an earlier draft of this essay. The opinions presented here are solely my own.]

During the summer of 2006, a month before Fidel Castro stunned the world by temporarily stepping down from his responsibilities as Cuba’s head of state after 47 uninterrupted years at the helm, a companion and I traveled back roads of the Western Cuban province of Pinar del Rio. We picked up dozens of hitchhikers, from many walks of life. Our passengers—students, police officers, homemakers, retirees, farmers, a geologist, veterans of missions to Angola—shared with us their perceptions of everyday existence in their country and their hopes for the future. With nary an exception, we encountered deep frustration, bordering often on rage, among people struggling desperately to move from town to town in the absence of a functioning system of public transport, and lacking reliable access to such necessities as food and basic medicines amidst the ruins of a socialist economy run aground. An abandoned sugar mill near the coastal town of Mariel, empty except for a solitary metalworker crafting tools on a creaky lathe in a dilapidated outbuilding, weeds breaking through its rusting skeleton, provided an archaeological metaphor for a society in protracted decline. Yet along the roadside there arose from time to time an incongruous billboard: a graying but spry Fidel Castro, gazing benevolently toward the horizon and stating, reassuringly, that “Vamos bien,” Things are good.[2. Alternatively, “We’re going well.”]

Today, during the Spring of 2008, this particular sign is nowhere to be seen, although most of the still ubiquitous billboards proclaim slogans unchanged from those of two years ago. Che is ever-present, Hugo Chávez’s portrait accompanies celebration of a Bolivarian project for Socialism, and Yanqui imperialism and the bloqueo are condemned time and again. My own personal favorite depicts George Bush with a Hitler moustache. Among the few new images occupying roadside space that in the capitalist world would be rented out to commercial advertisers vying to sell wares that nobody needs, we are struck especially by one of Raúl Castro declaring—shades of Deng Xiao Ping?—that “To Have More We Must Produce More.”

Our present excursion took place in the wake of the Comandante’s definitive retirement, announced in February 2008 and followed immediately by the ascension to power of his 76 year-old brother, who pledged to carry out his responsibilities in close consultation with Fidel. Rolling our way beyond the outskirts of Havana, through Matanzas and on to Cienfuegos, we encountered much of the Cuba that, in its antiquated cars as in its traditional cuisine, gives the misleading appearance of time standing still.

By placing in service a thousand or so buses purchased on generous terms from China, the government has gone a long way toward addressing a core grievance expressed in 2006 by our admittedly biased sample of interviewees. Improvements in the transportation system are especially evident in the still not-quite-bustling capital. In the countryside, by contrast, hitchhikers continue to wait for hours on end in hopes of catching a ride in a passenger car or on the back of a truck.[3. One of our passengers, from a village in Cienfuegos, attributed this urban-rural divide to the fact that Havana residents were “mas bravos” and were perceived therefore as a threat to socio-political stability, whereas country folk were seen by the authorities as more docile.] Around noon on Easter Sunday we picked up a ten year old and her great grandmother who, sheltered from the sun under an overpass, had been waiting since six in the morning for a ride to take them the more than 200 kilometers to their home in Havana. The elderly woman was effusive in her gratitude, thanking us for acting as Christians, who she distinguished as having empathy for others, unlike practitioners of satanic witchcraft, la brujería satanica, who, she explained, lack the good will to help people stranded by the roadside.[4. It is my strong impression, based on a dozen or so trips since the early 1990s, that the religiosity of Cubans is increasing substantially. Casual conversations with people from various walks of life frequently turn to an emphasis on the importance of Christian faith, values and practices. I heard this from people who identified themselves variously as Methodists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Catholics, most of whom, when asked, complained of discrimination in schools and in their places of employment.]

One interlocutor after another—a hospital janitor living in rural Cienfuegos, a beachfront innkeeper operating a bed and breakfast catering to foreign travelers, a law student in the Capital—alluded to the imminence of change, even while its nature and scope remained uncertain.[5. Parallels are inescapable with the contemporary U.S., where even Presidential candidates who embody continuity, or a dynastic return to the 1990s, vie with one another to grab the mantle of “change.”] Part of what we heard concerned economic and social conditions, but more than I can recall from any of a dozen or so previous visits over the past 15 years, Cubans I spoke with conveyed a yearning for greater political space, and particularly for free access to information. Pleas for greater openness may result in part from Raúl’s invitation to Cubans to speak their mind and to criticize weaknesses of the system, but I suspect that something deeper is at work. Time and again the desire for news from abroad, for exposure to the mass media now available primarily through clandestine satellite dishes—clearly widespread despite the crackdown announced by Raúl Castro a year or so ago—arose as a central demand of a population aware of its exclusion from global culture and from reliable news about its own circumstances.[6. Asked by my companion how the neighborhood-based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and the police dealt with the illicit satellite dishes, one passenger contended that they were as eager as anyone else to peek surreptitiously at the offerings from abroad.]


That some shifts are underway is already evident. On March 28 the government announced a decision to legalize cell phone use, though for some time now de facto access has been available to the small minority of the population able to pay for it. That same week the government decreed that Cubans will be allowed to stay in hotels that until now have been restricted to foreigners, though this will largely be an empty gesture given that a night’s stay in such lodging costs the hard currency equivalent of several months’ earnings. And the buzz among graduate students in Havana is that it will no longer be necessary to get authorization in order to travel abroad for business or pleasure: all one will need is a passport and a visa from the country to which one is traveling. Of course, few Cubans will be able to get one or the other, not to mention both.

But symbolic gestures may matter, and not all of the changes that loom are merely symbolic. Perhaps most important, thanks to timid reforms in pricing for agricultural inputs and products over the past year, farmers are bringing more food to market and consumers are accessing it at relatively more affordable prices. A rumored revaluation of the peso would boost purchasing power. The aforementioned improvements in transportation are also significant, as are efforts to ramp up construction of new housing units and accelerate renovation of the country’s terribly decayed housing stock. A Mexican economist studying the sector indicated to me, however, that progress on the latter during 2006 was not matched during 2007 owing to shortages of essential building supplies, an obstacle that seems as much institutional as material in nature.

The degree to which the new leadership can or will make good on pledges to overcome those bottlenecks remains to be seen. Conventional wisdom outside Cuba holds that Raúl is intrigued by the Chinese and Vietnamese models of stable Communist Party (and military) hegemony buttressed by reliance on market mechanisms to foster rapid economic growth, whereas his older brother saw such strategies as a betrayal of the Revolution’s ideals and a threat to the egalitarianism for which it stood. There may be some truth to this distinction, but it is probably overblown. Fidel understood that the remarkable social achievements of the Revolution were inconceivable absent resources—regardless from where these were generated—and Raul surely is well aware that the degrees of inequality that have characterized market-oriented “socialism” of China and Vietnam could themselves prove destabilizing in a country that takes its commitment to equality seriously. It is clear that, historically, the revolutionary leadership has put the brakes on market-oriented reforms whenever they seemed on the verge of engendering a class of private producers, thus threatening the emergence of alternative centers of power.

The consequences of this conservatism for productivity and social welfare have been devastating: today two thirds of food production is generated on the small fraction of farmland cultivated privately, while roughly half of the arable land remains fallow, left unattended by farmers who see no benefit to planting crops.[7. These estimates are based on a recent presentation by Armando Nova, of the Universidad de la Habana, and on consultations with economists at the Mexico City headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).] Thus, Cuba devotes an estimated $2 billion annually to food imports—roughly a quarter of that paid in cash to U.S. agribusiness—when food self sufficiency should be well within reach.[8. See Anicia García Álvarez, “Sustitución de importación de alimentos en Cuba: ¿Necesidad o posibilidad?” in Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva, ed., Reflexiones sobre economia Cubana. Havana: Editorial de las Ciencias Sociales, 2006.] It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the decades-long obsession with the specter of kulaks is directly eroding social welfare, diminishing system legitimacy and fueling an underground economy that fosters corruption and inequality, all at a cost of $2 billion a year. Socialism or Death, goes the famous saying; perhaps it would be more apt to proclaim Orthodoxy or Penury.

In agriculture, as in other spheres, the persistence of multiple, overlapping systems of hierarchical organization poses the most serious obstacle to prospects for economic advances that could salvage at least some of the social gains that remain from the heyday of the Revolution. That the government recognizes this at some level is evidenced by Raúl’s references to decentralization as an urgent priority. From improvements in the supply and quality of housing to the invigoration of industrial production, vertical structures rooted in the centrally planned model adopted during the heyday of Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union stifle innovation. If such vertical arrangements were conducive to mobilizing resources for rapid industrialization, they are ill-suited to carrying out complex tasks of resource allocation and technological upgrading that require horizontal structures of decision-making, implementation and monitoring.[9. I am grateful to Rick Doner and Valeria Fargion for sharing reflections on this topic in conversations on March 25, 2008.] Yet to unravel these hierarchical structures is to diminish the central authorities’ control over important domains of social and economic life. Whether this proves palatable is among the major unknowns concerning prospects for meaningful reforms under the leadership ratified during the February 2008 National Assembly.

Raúl’s decision on that occasion to bypass younger candidates such as Vice President Carlos Lage and to instead elevate the 75-year old military leader José Ramón Machado Ventura to the position of First Vice President has been greeted by widespread dismay among reformers throughout the Island. For the most part this and other appointments announced last month are seen as a sign that the old guard is circling the wagons, although in a spirit of irony one Cuban economist I consulted suggested that Machado’s ascension reflected Raúl’s decision to play a game of “Nixon in China.” Intriguing though this hypothesis may be, the more frequent interpretation is that a cohort of octogenarians, associated most closely with the military, will seek to temper tight control over the political sphere with symbolic openings—access to cell phones and hotels and doing away with travel authorizations, for example—and with cautious economic reforms that will boost growth rates in order to generate revenues that can buttress the teetering social welfare system and improve living standards. Perhaps this is what will constitute the “transition” from Fidel’s rule to that of his immediate successors.


Witnessing first-hand a process of leadership succession in a longstanding authoritarian regime, one is tempted to look to precedent elsewhere for hints as to how events might unfold. My own first instinct, rooted in superficial similarities between the two cases and in long-past academic concerns, was to venture a comparison between the sorts of reforms being articulated by Raúl Castro and those introduced by Carlos Arias Navarro, Spain’s Prime Minister at the time of General Franco’s death in 1975. It was Arias whose timid gestures toward apertura were embodied in the 1974 Ley de Asociaciones Politicas, a measure which relaxed constraints on speech and assembly but stopped short of authorizing political parties. This would-be liberalization was short-lived, and gave way amidst popular protests to the king’s fateful decision to appoint as prime minister Adolfo Suárez, a mid-level bureaucrat from within the regime, to do away with a closed system which had nurtured his own career but seemed to have exhausted its economic and political possibilities and to have left Spain a pariah in a region where the Third Wave of Democratization had begun with the fall of the dictatorships in neighboring Portugal and Greece.

Cuba today finds itself in a somewhat analogous status as an outlier in a region of democratic polities, yet no Suárez figure appears over the horizon, and countless important features, beyond their ideological orientations and historical contexts, distinguish the Spanish and Cuban cases from one another. By the 1970s Franco’s regime was one of limited pluralism, to cite Juan Linz’s insightful formulation,[10. See Juan J. Linz, “Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes,” in Nelson Polsby and Fred Greenstein, eds., Handbook of Political Science (Reading, Pennsylvania: Addison Wesley, 1975). For a review of developments in the two years following Franco’s expiration, see Raymond Carr (with Juan Pablo Fusi), Spain: From Dictatorship to Democracy (London: Unwin Hyman, 1979). A more obscure analysis of the period can be found in chapter 2 of Eric Hershberg, Transition from Authoritarianism and Eclipse of the Left: Toward a Reinterpretation of Political Change in Spain (PhD. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1989).] whereas the Cuban system today remains politically monolithic.[11. A significantly different reading of contemporary political landscape of Cuba is presented in Armando Chaguaceda, ed., Participación y espacio asociativo (Havana: Publicaciones Acuario, Centro Felix Varela, 2008). While the empirical material contained in the volume is quite useful, it does not undermine the notion that, as practiced in contemporary Cuba, participation reflects mobilization through structures dictated from above rather than the articulation of interests in civil society and their transmission through autonomous representative institutions.] The legalization of opposition parties is unfathomable, and unlike the situation in late-Franco Spain no such parties operate as de facto players. Opposition to Franquismo was widely tolerated during the waning years of the dictatorship—albeit with important exceptions—and the international context, in hindsight so important to the Spanish transition, differed radically from that of contemporary Cuba. Instead of the prospect of integration into a European Community comprised of prosperous, socially egalitarian democracies, Cuba faces an antagonistic neighbor with no record of commitment to social welfare in its client states and with a rapacious exile community obsessed with dismantling the revolutionary order and replacing it with a savage, colonial capitalism akin to that put to rest by the Revolution itself.

But turning our gaze beyond Cuba’s borders may be useful in another respect: just as the Cuban Revolution itself impacted the geopolitical order, particularly during the Cold War, how events unfold on the Island during the coming years will surely be conditioned by the international context.[12. Laurence Whitehead has edited the authoritative work on the topic. See his International Dimensions of Democratization: Europe and the Americas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).] It seems to me that four aspects of the international environment deserve mention. A first set of issues, not surprisingly, concerns the influence of the United States. Unattenuated hostility toward the U.S. government and its efforts to starve the Cuban system through a draconian and senseless embargo have long provided a rationale for Cuban authorities to govern as if the country were in a permanent state of war: hence the de facto state of exception that has prevailed in Cuba for decades, and the designation as state secrets such matters as the nature of Fidel’s illness or the findings of academic research about social conditions on the Island. If Cubans are in agreement about anything it is their resentment toward U.S. aggression, a consequence of which is likely to be an enduring opposition to American intervention in Cuban affairs. Yet how those in charge of the Cuban system would respond to a unilateral abandonment of the blockade by a new administration in Washington is an intriguing question, and one that might be put to the test in the early days of an Obama presidency that could actually take seriously the motto of “change.” How the Cuban population would react is of equally uncertain, and significant, import.

Another factor related to the potential impact of the U.S. on Cuban affairs is the declining credibility of Washington worldwide, a loss of hegemony that stems in part from the catastrophic effects of its policies in Iraq and elsewhere throughout the Middle East, as well as from the generalized incompetence that has characterized the current administration. To the eventual benefit of much of the planet, and certainly of Latin America, the ineptitude of the Bush regime may have ensured a geopolitical era of multipolarity. For Cuba, this could have consequences for a number of reasons, including the possibilities it opens up for engagement with influential nations outside of as well as within the Western Hemisphere.

The three further dimensions of the international context that hold relevance for Cuba all stem in part from the trend toward multipolarity. First, China offers a model for economic reform alongside continued party hegemony—Vietnam may provide such a referent as well—and looms large as a source of material support, including but not limited to trade and investment.[13. For a useful summary of China’s growing economic and diplomatic ties with Latin America, see He Li, “Red Star Over Latin America” in NACLA Report on the Americas, Special Report on “The Multipolar Moment: Latin America in the Global South,” Vol. 40, No. 5 (Sept-Oct. 2007).] While the economic impact of China is of growing significance throughout much of Latin America, in the specific case of Cuba one can emphasize its importance in the provision of buses, investment in natural resource extraction, and its potential as a vast market for health services.

There are also two developments in an increasingly autonomous Latin America that bear monitoring during the years ahead. The first is Cuba’s engagement with the emerging “Bolivarian Matrix.”[14. To the best of my knowledge the term was coined by Pedro Monreal. See his “La globalización y los dilemas de las trayectorias económicas de Cuba: matriz bolivariana, industrialización y desarrollo,” in Omar Everleny Perez Villanueva, ed., Reflexiones sobre economia Cubana (Havana: Editorial de las Ciencias Sociales, 2006).] Anchored by Venezuela and buttressed by the addition over the past year and a half of Bolivia, Nicaragua and perhaps Ecuador, the rise of this counter-hegemonic alliance in Latin America testifies to the decline of U.S. influence throughout the region. The impact of Cuba’s ties to Venezuela should not be underestimated, although it would be a mistake to equate it with the subsidization associated with COMECON participation prior to the collapse of the state socialist bloc. Contrary to the claims of critics who portray an unviable Cuban economy being propped up by Hugo Chávez, by some accounts Cuba’s trade balance with Venezuela may actually be in surplus, though it is difficult to say in that the price assigned to the services of Cuban health professionals is negotiated at the top levels of government, rather than through market mechanisms. Be that as it may, participation in the Bolivarian project has provided a lucrative if not competitive market for health services, an area where Cuba’s decades of investment in education and health turn out not only to have improved human development indices to levels typical of a developed country but also to have translated into export revenues. At the same time, Venezuela’s provision of energy has meant the end of electricity blackouts in Cuba, while diminishing the drain on foreign currency reserves associated with Cuba’s lack of energy sufficiency.[15. Chávez’s defeat in the Constitutional reform Referendum of December 2, 2007, and subsequent sharp decline in public opinion polls, calls into question the permanence of the Bolivarian revolution in its country of origin. This is a subject of increasing concern in Havana, where observers are all too well aware of the potential consequences of reliance on external actors who can disappear all of a sudden.]

A second feature of the regional landscape at the moment, and one that is more likely to endure, is the increasing assertiveness of South American diplomacy with regard to issues of Hemispheric importance, particularly with regard to the strengthening of democracy and the prevention of armed conflict.[16. I refer to South America because Central American countries carry virtually no weight in Hemispheric affairs and because it is unclear whether Mexico, under the contested, conservative leadership of the pro-U.S. President Felipe Calderón, will exercise influence with regard to developments in major countries to its south. With regard to Cuba, however, signs suggest that Calderón does intend to deepen Mexico’s involvement, a function, perhaps, of its greater proximity to South American as opposed to North American positions toward relations with Cuba. Personal exchange, Andrés Serbin, March 23, 2008.] Articulation of Latin American perspectives, diverse though they may be, is encouraged by the boom in South American economies which afford governments unprecedented room for maneuver in domestic and international affairs alike. The success, temporary though it may prove to be, of mainstream Latin American democracies in defusing the recent crisis between Colombia and Venezuela over the former’s incursion into Ecuador in pursuit of FARC rebels testifies to the growing capacity of the region’s diplomats to take on the most vexing of Latin American security issues. That Washington played no role whatsoever in that diplomatic effort hints at the degree to which its influence in the region has declined. Should internal Cuban affairs become conflictual, the U.S. is unlikely to represent the major international player in mediating the results. Quite the contrary, it is likely to be a marginal player, with major South American governments stepping in to play central roles in avoiding severe conflicts.

Empty signifier though it tends to be, change is the word for the season, as much in Cuba as in the United States. In the former, part of the population of 11 million people yearns simply for a ride, whereas others of their compatriots aspire to a transformed country; for one group as for the other, Things aren’t so good. Their bus cannot arrive too soon, but one suspects that it will be delayed for considerable time to come, and that the route that it might follow is a mystery, perhaps even to its drivers, whose course will be shaped by forces located outside as well as within Cuba.


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