19 June 2019

The Cuba myth


Last week, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell gave a speech at the Rail and Maritime Transport (RMT) Union’s “Garden Party for Cuba” event, attended, among other luminaries, by the Cuban ambassador. McDonnell made the following pledge:

“We’re here in solidarity with the Cuban revolution […] I want to say this to our Cuban comrades. When […] a Labour government is elected, not if, we will be your staunchest allies to support the Cuban revolution. And that means the support, the political support of course, but it means also the support, financial and on trade […] We stand with you comrades.”

This was greeted with chants of “Viva Cuba” and “Viva socialismo”. Just two weeks earlier, when asked about the poor track record of socialism in Cuba, Venezuela and the former Soviet Union, McDonnell had declared that “it was never socialism.”

So which one is it? Is Cuba socialist now, or not? Did it suddenly become socialist in the last two weeks, after 60 years of faux-socialism? Is it an on-and-off kind of socialism, which alternatives between the real thing, and the fake version? Is it a Schrödinger’s socialism?

However, while McDonnell’s comments are an extreme example of Cuba flip-flopping, they are not wholly unrepresentative of the Left’s ambiguity on this issue. We could see the same phenomenon writ large three years ago, after Fidel Castro’s death, when some prominent figures on the Left praised Castro a great socialist hero, while others disputed his socialist credentials.

In this, Cuba is somewhat unusual. As I show in my book Socialism: The Failed idea That Never Dies, socialist experiments usually go through three stages, in terms of their reception by Western intellectuals. The first is a honeymoon period, during which they are widely held up as a glorious example of “real” socialism in action. The second is a period of angry defensiveness, during which some of the system’s failures are acknowledged, but blamed on external constraints. The third stage is the stage of retroactive disowning: intellectuals now claim that the country in question was never socialist, and that it is a cheap strawman to even mention it.

The Western reception of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Vietnam and, more recently, Venezuela followed this pattern to a tee. Cuba, in contrast, is a bit of an outlier, in that the country seems to be permanently stuck somewhere between stages two and three. It may no longer attract widespread enthusiasm, but Cuban socialism has never completely gone the way of Soviet, Maoist, Vietnamese or North Korean socialism.

What explains Cuba’s special status?

Part of the reason has to be that the regime’s achievements in terms of social progress are widely overestimated, including by its critics. It is true that Cuba ranks highly on measures like the Human Development Index. Life expectancy at birth is almost 80 years, there is virtually no adult illiteracy, and the child mortality rate stands at just 0.6 per cent of all live births.

However, this cannot simply be ascribed to ‘socialism’. By regional standards, Cuba was already relatively highly developed before Castro. Around the time of the Revolution, life expectancy already stood at 63 years, which was 8 years above the average for Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole. Child mortality was already down to about 5 per cent, considerably lower than in any of the neighbor countries for which data is available. Four out of five adults were already able to read and write, again a very high share by the standards of the region.

So it is nonsense to compare Cuba to Haiti or Guatemala, and declare it a great socialist triumph. With or without the Revolution, Cuba would never have been like Haiti or Guatemala. These are just not realistic counterfactuals. If we compare Cuba to countries that were also already quite highly developed at the time, such as Costa Rica or Uruguay, the gains look far less impressive. The best thing that one can say about Cuban socialism is that it did not reverse or choke off the social progress that was already being made.

Secondly, Cuba-romanticism developed at a time when dictatorial rule and economic underdevelopment were the norm, not the exception, in Latin America. Until the 1980s, the majority of Latin Americans lived under various right-wing, military dictatorships, and their economies went from crisis to crisis. Compared to those alternatives, it was far from obvious that the Cuban system was uniquely bad.

This is changed in the meantime. Most Latin American countries are now democratic middle-income countries, and many have made serious inroads in reducing poverty. But expectations in the West have not yet caught up, and Cuba is still held to lower standards than, for example, North Korea, where an obvious benchmark exists in the form of South Korea.

Last but not least, the absorption of Cuba iconography into “rebel chic” culture is another reason why Cuban socialism never became toxic in the West. When I see a Che Guevara poster or a Cuban flag, I cannot help thinking of my own 16-year-old self, trying too hard to be cool and edgy. As a result, I just can’t take pro-Cuba guff entirely seriously. I cannot react to it in the way I probably would if it was a poster of Kim Il Sung, or a North Korean flag.

And so, Cuba’s special status will probably endure. Not “real” socialism, sure. But not entirely un-real either.

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the IEA.