The New Cuba: Capitalism with a Socialist Face?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is delighted that Obama normalized relations with Cuba.

Joel Bleifuss

Without independent labor unions, Cuban workers face capitalist development with little democracy. (Dylan Passmore / Flickr)

American progressives should celebrate the end of the United States’ Cold War with Cuba. At the same time, the developments that will follow the rapprochement are worth watching closely — particularly the role that U.S. economic interests will play in crafting the new relationship between the two countries. Indeed, unlike some high-ranking Republican pols, Corporate America is tickled pink by the prospect of a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.

If Cuba remains a one-party state with no meaningful democratic political structures, it stands to once again become a tropical playground for Big Money.

Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the December 17, 2014, announcement that Washington would begin to normalize relations with Havana: The steps announced today will go a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish.”

Donohue has reason to be excited. The experience of the last few decades demonstrates that capital can comfortably operate within societies governed by one-party regimes, including those states that continue to festoon their ministries with red flags and identify, rhetorically, with some variation of the tradition of Marxism-Leninism that came to power in Russia in late 1917. After all, such states can offer a business-friendly environment free from independent unions.

In Cuba, almost everyone who works is affiliated with the Cuban Workers Federation, the country’s one official labor organization. As the Washington Office on Latin America reports: The federation’s primary role is political — it transmits the government’s message to workers and transmits workers’ concerns to the government.” Like most other institutions in the country it operates under the guidance” and supervision” of the Communist Party of Cuba.

As for strikes, they have no place in this workers’ paradise. Elio Delgado, a writer for Hava​na​Times​.org, explains: Today, a strike in Cuba would be inconceivable, for such a strike would not deal a blow to the economic interests of any capitalist, but to those of all Cuban workers, who are the true owners of the country’s chief means of production.”

María Elena Hernández, a Communist Party official in Cárdenas, says change is coming but Cubans have no cause for concern. We’re going to be like China or Vietnam, a socialist country with capitalism,” she told the New York Times. It’s going to be hard, but it’s necessary for the revolution.”

In China, such a transition has resulted in troubling social stratification; wealthy members of prominent Communist Party families, derisively known as princelings,” wield immense influence. President Xi Jinping, himself a member of the Crown Prince Party,” recently embarked on a campaign to root out ideological deviants at universities and in the media who promote Western ideas like press freedom. The People’s Republic now boasts McDonald’s franchises and high-tech manufacturing, but little democracy.

The Cuban Revolution has succeeded in delivering education and healthcare to the Cuban people. Friends of Cuba should now hope that the island transitions to a system that allows for political pluralism, an independent media and free trade unions. If Cuba remains a one-party state with no meaningful democratic political structures, it stands to once again become a tropical playground for Big Money — and for a homegrown crop of well-connected Cuban princelings.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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