The latter defended Castro’s record, and Cuba’s status quo, without any reservations. Cuba a dictatorship? Don’t make me laugh. Look at those huge rallies! The Cuban people love their leaders! It may not be a ‘democracy’ in the petty-minded, bourgeois Western sense, but it is an authentic People’s Democracy in spirit. Repression? What repression? Everyone I know who’s ever travelled to Cuba told me that they did not notice any.
The former accepted that Cuba may lag a little bit behind, say, Sweden in terms of civil liberties and political freedoms, but blamed this exclusively on external factors. Cuba is in a permanent state of war, and in times of national emergency, civil liberties may temporarily have to take a backseat. Very reluctantly, Cuba’s revolutionary leaders have taken that task upon themselves.
A refreshing exception to all this was offered by Owen Jones, of all people. He wrote a piece in which, after a long detour of the usual left-wing Cuba Karaoke (Free healthcare? Check. Free eduation? Check. What about Pinochet? Check. What about our relationship with the Saudis? Check.), he made clear:
“Cuba […] is a dictatorship. Socialism without democracy […] [is] paternalism with prisons and persecution. Socialism means socialising wealth and power — but how can power be socialised if it’s concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable elite? […]
Cuba could democratise and grant political freedoms currently denied as well as defending […] the gains of the revolution. […] [T]his is the next stage of the revolution.”
Not bad at all. Jones could have taken the easy way out; he could have played to the gallery, and told his followers what they want to hear. Instead, he chose to challenge his own tribe, and he must have known that he would immediately be attacked as a sell-out, a traitor, and a corporate shill for this.
As always, however, the problem I have is with Jones’s economics. He does not say in detail how he thinks Cuba should proceed, which is fine, because that’s not really the point of his article. But if I understand him correctly, Jones wants to leave Cuba’s economic system more or less as it is, and combine it with Western-style democracy, human rights and civil liberties. Alright, let’s do a thought experiment:
Raul Castro and his pals lose interest in governing, resign, and retire. Upon leaving, they hand over the reins of power to the ‘democratic radical leftists’ Jones refers to in his article. They immediately allow a free election, which is won by a coalition of democratic radical leftists and reform-minded members of the Communist Party: voters repudiate neoliberalism, and decide to give the revolution another chance. The new Coalición para la Democratización de la Revolución allows a free press (including foreign newspapers), internet access for private households, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom to travel, freedom to emigrate, and so on. The US responds by lifting all travel restrictions, and begins to phase out the embargo.
So far, so good. While this would undoubtedly make Cuba a much better place in many ways, it would not solve the country’s economic woes, because these have nothing to do with the fact that Cuba is not a democracy. China is not a democracy, but that has not stopped it from growing at phenomenal rates since the 1980s. South Korea and Chile only became democracies when their economic take-offs were already well under way. A study on the relationship between political systems and long-term economic growth rates finds:
“Political regimes have no impact on the growth of total income […] The few countries that developed spectacularly during the past fifty years were as likely to achieve this feat under democracy as under dictatorship. On the average, total incomes grew at almost identical rates under the two regimes.”
In short, Cuba would still be as poor as it was before. But people would now have unlimited access to American and European newspapers, websites, movies, social media – the full package. News sources, including foreign-owned ones which might have an overt anti-socialist agenda, would be free to remorselessly expose the scale of economic failure. They would be free to attack the government, and the very idea of socialism, including in a sensationalist way. Imagine Sun-style or Daily Mail-style headlines, denouncing shortages of goods and services. And, crucially, people would now be free to leave. More, some news sources, perhaps owned by exile-Cubans living Florida, might explicitly encourage them to leave, perhaps by painting an overly rosy picture of life in Miami. What I’m trying to say is: How likely is it that Cuba could remain both socialist and politically liberal for longer than five minutes?
But it’s not all just about material prosperity, I hear you say. After democratisation, the Cuban people would be able to run ‘their’ economy together, as a one big community. Is that not a wonderful idea?
Perhaps, but it is also nonsense. Jones is right that the Cuban system concentrates power in the hands of an unaccountable elite. But he is wrong to attribute this solely to absence of democracy. Even if Cuba became a beacon of democracy, its economy would still be run by unaccountable elites, because socialism, no matter how democratic, must necessarily always concentrate power in the hands of unaccountable elites. As Arthur Seldon once explained:
“[T]he notion that ‘society as a whole’ can control ‘its productive resources’ is common in socialist writing but is patently unrealistic. The machinery of social control has never been devised. There is no conceivable way in which the British citizen can control the controllers of ‘his’ state railway or NHS, except so indirectly that it is in effect inoperative.”
“What belongs nominally to everyone on paper belongs in effect to no-one in practice. Coalfields, railways, schools and hospitals that are owned ‘by the people’ are in real life owned by phantoms. No nominal owner can sell, hire, lend, bequeath or give them to family, friends or good causes. Public ownership is a myth and a mirage. It is the false promise and the Achilles’ heel of socialism. The effort required to ‘care’ for the 50-millionth individual share of a hospital or school owned by 50 million people, even if identifiable, would far outweigh the benefit; so it is not made, even if it could be. The task is deputed to public servants answerable to politicians who in turn are in socialist mythology answerable to the people. In this long line of communication the citizen is often in effect disenfranchised.”
Democratisation could very well bring freedom and prosperity to Cuba, but not in the way Jones has in mind. It could do so if it led to the Communist Party being kicked out of office, and replaced with a government committed to converting Cuba into a capitalist economy. That, of course, would not be ‘the next step in the revolution’. It would mean the undoing of the revolution – the reversal of a historic mistake.