Monday, August 26, 2013

Cuba's Paradox of Paradoxes

Socialist Cuba is seemingly rife with contradiction. The “Cuban paradox” has become a cliché, and scholars and commentators are quick to point out inconsistencies in Cuban health care,[1] education,[2] agriculture,[3] race relations, gender equality, political economy,[4] and other areas. In traveling to Cuba I hoped to disentangle some of these apparent inconsistencies. A slew of questions motivated my journey. As a student of natural resources and sustainable development I was fascinated by Cuba’s much-touted agricultural paradigm. As a child of counterculture parents born and raised on a commune I was eager to see Cuba’s unique brand of socialism in action. As someone who has spent considerable time elsewhere in Latin America I was thrilled to explore Cuba’s rich culture and intriguing history. My first foray into the Cuban paradox did not disappoint—it far exceeded my expectations, in fact. Yet, unsurprisingly in retrospect, it failed to provide definitive answers to many of my most pressing questions.

At first glance, paradoxes indeed abound in Cuba. Cuba’s world-renowned National Health System flouts the widely held assumption that public health is directly tied to economic health: Cuban health indicators consistently top those of the US and other developed nations despite a comparatively minuscule GDP. Cash-strapped Cuba also boasts a highly ranked universal educational system that produces 11% of the scientists in Latin America from only 2% of the population.[5] In terms of agriculture, the small island nation has turned conventional wisdom on its head by managing to reliably feed its populace throughout the massive economic shock of the 1989 Soviet collapse and the acute scarcity induced by el bloqueo—the most enduring trade embargo in modern history.[6]

Not all Cuban paradoxes are positive, however. Cuba is justifiably admired for its cultural integration, yet racial equality is more evident in discourse than in practice. The exodus of wealthier, typically whiter Cubans in the wake of el Triunfo de la Revolución (the “Triumph of the Revolution,” as Cubans refer to the events of 1959) may have in fact undermined crucial transculturation processes. Similarly, gender equality is emphasized in state policy while machismo reigns in society, as evidenced by prostitution concerns and the popularity of purportedly denigrating reggaeton songs. Cuba is eager to demonstrate its impressive self-sufficiency, yet it imports significant amounts of food and humanitarian products—ostensibly as a means of eliciting international anti-embargo support.[7]

Cuba’s evolving political economy is often cited as its most notable paradox. After five decades of rule by avowed Marxist-Leninist revolutionary Fidel Castro, the government is now encouraging privatization, liberalization, and marketization. Current president Raúl Castro assures followers that the economic restructuring occurring on his watch is intended to strengthen Cuba’s socialist foundation, yet the reforms are arguably consistent with the US-led neoliberal globalization processes that so incensed Fidel. This appears to reflect an irreconcilable ideological contradiction. On the one hand, Cuba vehemently clings to the revolutionary ideals formalized in 1959, emphasizing equitable resource distribution, human development, and social justice over capital accumulation. On the other hand, the government desperately needs capital to fund its socialist project. In effect, socialist Cuba must embrace capitalism in order to reject it.

This apparent contradiction manifests itself in various ways. Cuba’s dual currency system, which originated with the 1994 introduction of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and has since become an indispensable source of revenue and universal confusion, is itself a paradox. Given the strength of the dollar-pegged CUC over the Cuban peso, doctors, engineers, and highly educated public servants are incentivized to work as taxi drivers and waiters to gain access to CUC-bearing tourists. The fledgling private sector has witnessed a proliferation of enterprises such as paladares, or private restaurants, that cater to foreigners but are inaccessible to most Cubans, effectively reinforcing social stratification. In 2000, at the height of public outrage over global trends in water privatization, the Cuban government quietly signed over the management of Havana’s ailing water system to a multinational corporation.[8] Other corporations are gathering like barbarians at the gate, while President Castro bemoans the decline of culture and civility catalyzed by the período especial, Cuba's post-Soviet economic crisis.

Cuba’s fate remains as unclear as ever. What became clear to me during my visit, however, was that the so-called Cuban paradox is largely a product of outsiders’ preconceptions. Cubans’ excellent health is only paradoxical when one presupposes North American lifestyles and consumption habits. Cuba’s educational performance is only remarkable if one assumes that government investment in education must be as proportionally low as it is in the US and elsewhere. Cuba’s relative food security is only counterintuitive if one fails to question the myopic logic of the high-input agricultural paradigm prevalent throughout the Global North. Conversely, some degree of racial inequality is inevitable in any former colony that has experienced centuries of disruptive foreign intervention, regardless of more recent ideological commitments. Gender is a social construct that transcends political economy, yet Cuba’s fifty-year socialist experiment has fostered levels of gender equality unattainable in nearly four centuries of capitalism. No nation has achieved full economic independence, yet Cuba, despite the blockade and associated geopolitical isolation, has made gains toward that end that are unimaginable among its peers.

It is ironic when critics of Cuba cite its recent reforms as evidence of socialism’s failure, since the thinking behind such criticism is precisely the reason socialism has never had a fair chance in Cuba. When speaking with Cubans in Cuba it is clear that the US embargo is widely regarded as an insidious and increasingly unwarranted attack. This attack, along with the previous century of hostile US intervention, continues to color Cuban perceptions of the US government—justifiably. Cuba is on the defense, still, and the role of the US in shaping the struggling nation’s governance, economic, and social structures cannot be overstated.

Many of my questions about Cuba still lack answers, but my experience there was nonetheless deeply educational. Perhaps the most profound realization I had during my visit was simply that Cuban socialism is and always has been a reaction to external pressures. If socialism has indeed failed in Cuba, it is because of these pressures. Cuba’s de facto guiding principle is captured in the oft-invoked term resolver, which means to make do, improvise, or get by. When seen in this light, there is no internal paradox in Cuba—there is only that which is externally imposed. Cuba is only paradoxical if we assume, paradoxically, that it was somehow engineered in a vacuum. It was not. Though far from perfect, Cuba has much to teach us, if only we would pay attention.

[1] Spiegel, Jerry M., & Yassi, Annalee. (2004). Lessons from the margins of globalization: Appreciating the Cuban health paradox. Journal of Public Health Policy, 25(1), 85-110.
[2] Breidlid, Anders. (2007). Education in Cuba--An alternative educational discourse: Lessons to be learned? Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 37(5), 617-634.
[3] Miguel, A. Altieri, & Fernando, R. Funes-Monzote. (2012). The paradox of Cuban agriculture. Monthly Review, 63(8), 23.
[4] Angotti, Tom. (2009). Fifty years of rectification. Latin American Perspectives, 36(1), 127-129.
[5] Altieri, Miguel A., Companioni, Nelso, Cañizares, Kristina, Murphy, Catherine, Rosset, Peter, Bourque, Martin, & Nicholls, Clara I. (1999). The greening of the barrios: Urban agriculture for food security in Cuba. Agriculture and Human Values, 16(2), 131-140.
[6] Rosset, P. (2005). Cuba: A successful case study of sustainable agriculture. Environmental Sociology: From Analysis To Action, 430.
[7] Funes, F., Altieri, M.A., & Rosset, P. (2009). The Avery diet: The Hudson Institute's misinformation campaign against Cuban agriculture. Global Alternatives. <>
[8] Cocq, Karen, & McDonald, David A. (2010). Minding the undertow: Assessing water privatization in Cuba. Antipode, 42(1), 6-6.

1 comment:

  1. Moses,
    All this talk about paradox - you helped settle a few thoughts on the interplay of internal and external factors that for now I can only speculate. I hope to travel with my study abroad sponsor Spring 2014, pending I get enough donations. - Thank you for posting.