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Home > 2022 > July 2021 Protest Is No Cuban Spring | Jos Chathukulam

Mainstream, VOL LX No 32, New Delhi, July 30, 2022

July 2021 Protest Is No Cuban Spring | Jos Chathukulam

Friday 29 July 2022, by Jos Chathukulam

Abstract

While the critics and foes of the Communist regime in Cuba hoped that the July 11, 2021 protests in the Caribbean island nation would turn out to be a ‘Cuban Spring’, the evidences show that Cuban government has managed to survive the protests despite ‘brewing discontent’ among Cubans. As July 11, 2022, marks the first year of the massive protest, one of the biggest in the last 27 years, it is also a time to review country’s exceptional resilience over the years in handling various crisis that threatened the fall of the communist regime. Meanwhile, the Cuban government should adopt a social solidarity economy perspective along with steps to foster cooperatives, promote decentralization and incorporate a Gandhi - Kumarappa framework on sustainable development within the Marxist paradigm to address the challenges and problems in Cuba. On a personal note, this article offers a first-hand account on the present-day Cuba and author’s reflections based on his three-week trip to Cuba.

Keywords: Cuba, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Social Solidarity Economy, Cooperatives, Decentralization and Gandhi — Kumarappa

 Introduction

During the 2010 - 2011 Arab Spring, when a series of pro-democracy and anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions were taking place across the Middle East and North Africa, the Western media was rife with reports of a possibility of creating a ‘Cuban Spring’ to destabilize the communist regime in the island nation(Andrikiene, 2012). One of the central ideas popularized by the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya was that ‘technology, especially social media could ignite a revolution’ (Wylie and Gliden, 2013) and the long-time critics of Cuba and American discourses were toying with the idea that United States of America (USA) could provoke a revolution in Cuba with the help of communications technology and such a broader historical narrative has been part of the US understanding of Cuba for decades (Benjamin, 1992). The American foreign policy in general has been hostile towards Cuba was guided by the conviction that the communist regime in the island nation is on the verge of collapse and potential role of US in this regard.

 In short, the idea behind the Cuban spring is that “the anti-government dissidents will use the internet, cell phones, and social media to foment a popular uprising on the island, modelled after the ‘Arab Spring’, is ultimately predicated on a particular understanding of Cuba that portrays an imminent collapse of the Cuban experiment,” (Wylie and Gliden, 2013). However, such notions remained as fallacious assumptions on Cuba. Though it failed to materialize, the concept of ‘Cuban Spring’ started gaining traction since then. The massive protests organized with the support of social media that rocked Cuba on July 11, 2021 was seen by critics and foes of the Communist regime in Cuba as a Cuban Spring in the making.

Cuba and its Tryst with July 

July is a sacred month for Cuba [1] and Cubans, considering its historical, geographical, political and emotional significance. It was in July 26, 1953 (26 De Julio), El Comandante (Commander) Fidel Castro [2] launched an attack [3] on Moncada Military Baracks in Santiago De Cuba, to overthrow the government of US - backed dictator Fulgenico Batista [4]. Around 68 years later, on July 11, 2021 (11 De Julio), Cuba witnessed one of the biggest anti-government protests (Anderson, 2021). The protests began in San Antonio de los Banos, a town on the outskirts of Havana, that had hit been hit by hour long power cuts for a while. The shortage of basic amenities including food, medicine, rising Covid 19 infections and slow vaccine roll out were the other reasons that forced Cubans to take to the streets to express their concerns and raise their demands. The news of the protests spread like a wildfire as the images, videos and write-ups were all over social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Within hours, the protests spread across the communist-run island, from Holguin, Santa Clara, Matanzas, and Camaguey to Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba. Protesters looted shops, walked off with washing machines, mattresses, and bottles of rum. Video Footages from Havana showed youth striding through streets clutching rocks and throwing them at police patrol cars (Yaffee, 2021). Images on social media showed the security forces detaining, beating and pepper-spraying some of the protesters (BBC News, June 14, 2022). More than 300 people have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms between six to 30 years for taking part in this anti-government protest (BBC News, March 17, 2022). It is also important to note that the artists [5], musicians, writers, performers and academics who are part of an art collective called San Isidro Movement in Cuba played a significant role in the July 11, 2021 protests. The art collectives like San Isirdo have been pushing for greater freedom under the Communist regime in Cuba [6] (Kirbi, 2021).

The 1994 Maleconazo Uprising

The closest Cuba came to something close to the Arab spring was way back in 1994 during the ‘special period [7]’ (Wylie and Gliden, 2013). It was on August 5, 1994, an uprising called Maleconazotook place in Havana’s Malecon. A riot took place in Malecon, where several attempts by residents to flee Cuba by sea were thwarted by authorities and it resulted in violent outcomes. When Castro came to know about the incident, he rushed to Malecon and the rioters fell silent upon seeing Castro. That night Castro gave a televised address to the nation and announced that any Cuban who wanted to leave the island nation could do so. Around 35,000 people left Cuba in improvised boats and rafts and sailed to Miami. Though it was dubbed as an embarrassing episode to Castro regime, it in a way helped him to remove a good number of ‘troublesome malcontents’ from the island (Anderson, 2021).

The June 11, 2021, protests has been termed as one of the massive protests that have rocked the communist-run island in the last 27 years. The last time a major protest broke out in Cuba was in connection with Maleconazo(Bye, 2019).  Discontent over frequent blackouts, shortage of food and medicines, poor water supply, curbs imposed on freedom of speech and expression and stagnant economy triggered the protests in the 1994 and the reasons for the unrest in 2021 are also similar and the only exception would be the problems aggravated by the Covid 19 pandemic in Cuba. Another major difference is that - the 94 incident took place in the Castro era and it was the pre-internet age, and hence demonstrations were easier to contain. Though the economic situation in Cuba is not as catastrophic as in 1994, the protests are bigger and more threatening to the present communist regime. The prevalence of social media and the economic problems exacerbated by the pandemic are the two new additional factors that can be viewed as the major differences. While the Communist regimes across the world [8], in the past and the present, crushed dissent and protests with bloodshed and cold — blooded murders, the Cuban government did not resort to such gruesome practices to handle the July 11, 2021 protests. The Communist government in Cuba has shown the much-needed maturity by not resorting to violent suppression. Meanwhile, people should be given the space and freedom to raise their concerns and suppressing the dissent by imposing information/internet blackouts and sentencing them to long -term imprisonment needs to be changed.

Covid 19 Crisis in Cuba

Cuba confirmed its first Covid 19 case in middle of March 2020. Even before the country reported its first case, the government came up with the Plan for Prevention and Control of the Disease to mitigate the pandemic. It included the healthcare worker training, reinforcement of the National Program of the Surveillance of Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI) and expansion of laboratory infrastructure and facilities for molecular diagnostic of Covid 19 infections (Osunmo, 2020). Cuba initially succeeded in handling the Covid 19 through extensive measures undertaken to contain the spread of the pandemic such as testing civilians, widespread contact tracing, enforcing social distancing measures and wearing of masks in public places. It worked initially and Cuba was praised internationally for bringing the pandemic under control when compared with other countries, big and small, across the world. For instance, on March 22, 2020, Cuba had only a total of 40 confirmed Covid 19 cases and the Primary Healthcare System was entrusted with monitoring identified suspected cases. The suspected cases were immediately isolated for 14 days and underwent molecular diagnostics and confirmed cases were hospitalized and treated. By August 2020, Cuba had 2,726 cases and 88 deaths and it was one of the lowest when compared even with highly developed and technologically advanced countries [9] However, Cuba couldn’t sustain the initial success and by December 2020, it had 11, 205 cases and 142 deaths. Studies and researches suggest that Cuba’s decision to sent a large a number of Cuban doctors on the missions abroad, doctors from unrelated specialities were forced to treat Cubans needing specialized treatment (Torres, 2020). Inadequate hospital facilities, emphasis on medical diplomacy at the expense of the domestic healthcare and cuts to public healthcare, increased healthcare costs, tight financial restrictions on importing medicines, inefficient health resource allocation have undermined its pandemic response (Mesa-Lagoet.al,2020). The widespread poverty, lack of formal employment opportunities and fractured economy have also rendered the country more vulnerable to distressing implications of the Covid 19 pandemic. In addition to that, the tourism sector in Cuba also suffered greatly owing to pandemic and the economy shrank by 11 per cent.

Cuba has Five Covid 19 Vaccines

Despite the precarious condition, economically and otherwise, Cuba’s prestigious biotech sector has come up with 5 Covid 19 vaccines. They are Soberana 1, Soberana 2, Soberana Plus, Abdala and Mambisa and out of these Soberana 2, Soberana Plus, and Abdala have been authorized by the Cuban authorities for use and export and the other two (one of which is a nasal spray vaccine) are still in clinical trials (Beaubein, 2022). It has also been reported that Cuba has also started vaccinating children as young as two against Covid 19. Reports from island states that the phase I and II trials of Soberana 2 and Soberana Plus vaccine in 350 children aged between three and 18 found no serious adverse effects (Augustin, 2022). Meanwhile, neither the World Health Organization (WHO) nor major international regulators have authorized these vaccines. It has been reported that Cuba has vaccinated a greater percentage of its population against Covid 19 than the highly developed countries. The government claims 90 per cent protection against symptomatic Covid when administered in three doses (Meredith, 2022). Cuba is also reportedly the only country in Latin America and Caribbean to have produced a homegrown shot for Covid. In the midst of all the adversities, Cuba was able to maximize its state capacity to produce and manufacture homegrown vaccines and it is a matter of self-esteem and pride for every Cuban.

US Blockade on Cuba

Cuba has been under US embargo for the last 60 years. It all began in 1959, when Castro overthrew a U S backed puppet regime in Havana and established a socialist state allied with the Soviet Union. In the last 60 years, successive US administrations (the only notable exception is the Obama Administration [10]) pursued policies intended to isolate country economically and globally. Though US initially had no problems in recognizing Castro government, the island nation’s ties with Soviet Union, nationalization of American owned properties and hiked taxes on US imports by the Castro regime didn’t set well with the US and as a result it started imposing economic penalties on Cuba. It started with the slashing of Cuban sugar imports and US imposed a ban on nearly all exports to Cuba and during the Kennedy Administration it expanded into an economic embargo on full scale along with travel restrictions. Then in 1961, the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, the botched CIA attempt to topple Castro, further deteriorated the US — Cuba relations (Rasenberger, 2011).

Years later, in 2014, US President Barack Obama took some extraordinary steps to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba by meeting with the then Cuban President Raul Castro and restoring full diplomatic ties. It should also be noted that Pope Francis and the Vatican played an instrumental role in the U.S — Cuba negotiations (Miller and Dais, 2014). According to Pew Research Centre, just over half the Cuban population is Catholic and the Vatican has stepped up its relation with the Cuba in the last two decades. In 1998, Pope John Paul II became the first Pope to visit Cuba. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba and at an Outdoor mass held and he urged Cuba to build a renewed and open society which is worthy of humanity and better reflects the goodness of God (Miller and Dais, 2014). In 2015, Pope Francis visited Cuba. However, the Trump administration reclassified Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” and a slew of tough sanctions. The Biden Administration has eased some restrictions, but the recent ant-regime protests and worsening human conditions will complicate it further. Cuba should organize a global campaign against the US blockade with the support of other countries and pressurize United Nations and other humanitarian agencies to remove the inhuman blockade.

The US Blockade and Its Impact on Cuban Economy

The economic warfare that the US has perpetrated against Cuba since 1960 is the foremost reason for the problems plaguing Cuba. The six-decade long blockade crippled the Cuban economy and the Cubans are at the receiving end as there are perpetual shortages of almost every basic necessity in the island. Cuba survived the Cold War years with the help of Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but after 1991, especially with the fall of Soviet Union, it has faced isolation from all frontiers. The decade long blockade also had a severe impact on the health sector, as hospitals are understocked, as US embargo has forbidden the export of medical technology with US components, leading to chronic shortages of over the counter medicines. The US has banned all remittances through Cuban firms and their affiliates to the millions of Cuban families that rely on assistance from abroad. The United Nations General Assembly has been demanding to end the inhuman blockade for years but it has failed to make any significant impact. The UN estimates that the embargo has cost Cuba over $130bn in damages — costs that are compounded by the penalties imposed by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on Cuba’s allies and investors (Adler, 2022). Between April 2019 and March 2020 alone, OFAC penalties amounted to over $2.4bn, targeting banks, insurance firms, energy companies and travel agencies (Adler 2022).

Can Social Solidarity Economy and Cooperatives Save Cuba?

Production and exchange of goods and services by a broad range of organizations and enterprises that pursue explicit social and environmental objectives can be broadly termed as Social Solidarity Economy (SSE). In Cuba, social responsibility and solidarity theoretically constitute the raison d’être (the most important reason for someone or something’s existence) of economic activity, promoted top-down by the central government in an economy with a strong predominance of the state sector (Betancourt, 2018). In short, Cuba is more of a ‘socialist economy’. In 1959, when Castro came to power, Cuba embarked on a socialist path with greater emphasis on national development and centralised resource allocation. This approach led to accumulation of human capital and high level of human development. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Cuba fell into a deep economic crisis and it threatened to break off its socialist model characterized by centralized command economic and political systems. In the midst of these crisis, Cuba became self-reliant in agricultural production and experimented with urban organic farming and ‘organoponics’ (Ewing, 2008).

Above all, Cuba made attempts to move to a more sustainable form of socialism (Tharamangalam, 2019) and experiments in solidarity economies and cooperatives stand as a testimony for this. For instance, the agricultural transformations in Cuba in the 1990s can be viewed from a social and solidarity economy perspective. Some researchers opine that a Social Solidarity Economy in the Cuban context is the potential union of three spheres — public, enterprise and private — comprised of a variety of economic actors- state, associative and autonomous- that adopts as part of their economic process of production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, the principles of responsibility towards society and the environment”,(Betancourt, 2018).

It has been noted that self-managing cooperatives are promoted as instruments for the transition of Cuba towards a sustainable socialism in tune with the 21st century (Tharamangalam, 2019). Cooperatives in Cuba is as old as its socialist system and initially it was limited to agricultural sector and later non-agricultural sectors were also roped in under the umbrella of cooperatives. After Raul Castro became the Cuban President in 2008, a slew of economic reforms was launched including relaxing the monopoly of the state on private economy and restructuring Cuba’s agricultural sector. The new Castro administration also devolved a measure of economic planning and control to municipalities. Above all, the role of cooperatives in transforming the Cuban economy was particularly stressed. As a result, Cuba has embarked on its experiment with newer forms of co-operatives in the urban/industrial sector, self-managed and independent of state control and within the framework of the new guidelines (Tharamangalam, 2019). “These began with the transfer of some state-owned enterprises to workers who were organised into co-operatives basically holding the enterprise and its equipment as usufruct on favourable terms - rent-free and with state subsidies and tax concessions”, (Tharamangalam, 2019).

Though there have been criticisms that the Cuban government was slow and cautious when it comes to approving new cooperatives around 450 cooperatives have flourished between 2008-2013. These cooperatives include restaurants [11], cafes, wholesale and retail produce markets, construction firms, manufacturers of clothing, furniture, bus companies and car washes, recycling operations, body shops, computing and accounting services, beauty salons and night clubs (Frank and Valdes, 2014).While Cuba can succeed with emerging forms of solidarity economies, “the project of downsizing the state has its limits in that the state’s role will continue to be critical in providing legal and institutional framework as well as oversight for the new co-ops and other new institutions”, (Tharamangalam, 2019).

Cuba should effectively make use of the social solidarity to become economically self-reliant and to foster development. For instance, the urban transport system [12] in Cuba can be rejuvenated with the help of social solidarity networks and cooperatives. Then, poultry farming, piggery, courtyard farming, kitchen garden etc can also be strengthened with the help of cooperatives. Similarly, to resolve its power crisis, Cuba can embrace renewable energy including production, supply and installation of solar panels in Cuban homes by operating within the framework of social solidarity economy models. To solve the shortage of drinking water in Cuba, desalination units as a cooperative entity can be used. At a time when many Cubans are finding it difficult to find jobs that meet both their professional aspirations and their salary expectations [13], cooperatives can serve as a helping hand to many who are in search of decent jobs. It has been observed that communities having strong solidarity among themselves were able to overcome or minimise the adverse effects of the pandemic (Jose & Chathukulam, 2022). Therefore, it is high time to rejuvenate the cooperative ideology in the true sense in Cuba. Cubans should see the cooperatives opportunities as a social solidarity economy enterprise and make use of it in which the development approach becomes people-centred.

Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in Cuba 

In an attempt to strengthen country’s development with own resources, the Cuban government has started encouraging micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). It has been reported that as on September 2021, a total of 35 MSMEs are functioning in Cuba (Molina and Cabrera, 2021). SERVIMAV (Green Areas Maintenance Service) in the province of Cienfuegos and Santa Clara based Bromey srl [14], a business that manufactures over 30 products including peanut bars, turrones (a Spanish almond candy), grains, candies, and confectionery were among the first two business that got upgraded as MSMEs in Cuba.

Local Governments in Cuba and the Scope for Decentralization

Local governments in Cuba are hardly autonomous and tightly controlled.Literature discussing local governments and decentralization in Cuba is very scarce. Available researches and studies show that local governments and its functioning has largely been ignored.Moreover, being widely perceived as a hard — lined communist regime, its role may generally have been misunderstood (Greenwood and Lambie, 1999). Though the local governments working within a communist regime cannot function within a liberal democratic framework, there is still space for active citizen participation. Cuba is divided into 15 provinces and one special province (Isla de la Juventud) and 168 municipalities. Havana, the capital city of Cuba has its own form of local government similar to provinces and is made up of 19 urban municipalities (United Cities and Local Governments, 2008). The Communist Party in Cuba heavily influences the actions of local governments, controls media outlets and citizen access to the internet (Human Rights Watch, 2012). Meanwhile, many in Cuba including academicians opine that cooperatives and decentralization have huge potential to accelerate development in the country [15].

Digitalization in Cuba

Cuba is mostly portrayed as a communist regime struck in ‘digital dark ages’, especially due to the limited access to computers, phones, internet and internet censorship imposed by the Cuban government. Though, Cuba took decades to finally embrace digital technology, the architects of Cuban revolution were convinced with the fact that technologies, especially digital ones occupy a significant space. For instance, in 1963, Commander Ernesto Che Guevara, who was the then Minister of Industries, declared “computing and electronics strategical for the development of the country” (Garcia, 2020). In 1969, Fidel Castro created a Digital Research Centre for creating the first Cuban computer and a year later CID-201, the first Cuban minicomputer was created (Jiménez, Morell, and Negrin, 2008). However, it was only years later, that is in 2000s, the Cuban government launched Program for the Computerisation of Cuban Society (PRIS).

While the PRIS proposed an ordered and intensive use of ICTs and integration of several Cuban computer networks, it was mostly private networks managed at the ministerial level or the ‘Cuba Network’ which facilitated secure, massive and organized access to information at the national level (Garcia, 2020). According to the 2007 National Statistics Office report, the telecommunication data of Cuba showed that 1.241 million telephone lines in the country for a population of 11.2 million and out of it only 910,000 were residential and the rest of it were in state hands. As per the 2007 report, a total of 330,000 mobile phones were found to be in use and four/five personal computers per 1000 residents, but this was mostly limited to government offices, schools and health facilities.

According to reports that appeared in Western Media publications, Cuba was "basically offline" until 2008 and it was only in the last 12 to 15 years, it embarked on a digital revolution (Ortutay et.al, 2021). In 2008, after Raul Castro became the Cuban President, the sale of computers and cell phones were legalized. By 2014, it was reported that around 27 per cent of Cubans had access to internet mainly through government -controlled intranet at their workplaces. In 2018, Cubans got access to mobile internet for the first time via data plans. As per various reports that appeared in media, at the close of 2019, around 7.1 million Cubans had access to the internet, that is around 63 per cent of the population of approximately 11.3 million (OnCuba News, February 28, 2020). Of these, mobile data customers reached 3.4 million and more than 650,000 have the service with 4G speed (OnCuba News, February 28, 2020).
Today technology has started to reach all walks of life in Cuba. For instance, a museum in Ernesto Ché Guevara Sculpture Complex in Santa Clara [16], which also houses the mausoleum of Che Guevara, narrates the life and times of the Che with the help of technology. Though it was established in 1988 and later attempt were made to digitalize it with the help of technology. In 2021, the Fidel Castro Ruz Study Center [17], an institution dedicated to the study and dissemination of his thought and work was opened in Cuba and the digitization of this is also underway.

Conclusion

The time has come for Cuba to embrace sustainable socialism in a full — scale. The Communist regime in Cuba has already understood the relevance of ‘sustainable socialism’ and Cuba’s experiments in cooperativism and social solidarity economies stand as a testimony for these efforts. Since 2008, the Cuban government has been making serious attempts to restructure the old Cuban economic model by strengthening the socialist state enterprise in key sectors and by granting greater autonomy and decentralization and devolution of a significant chunk of the economy activity and by transferring a great number of jobs from the public sector to private sectors and cooperatives (Betancourt, 2018). Though today cooperatives and enterprises rooted in social solidarity have become an integral part of the Cuban socialist model, how far these entities are free from the government control and the positive impact needs to be discussed, especially at a time when there are concerns that the island nation is evolving towards the “deconstruction of its social and solidarity economy”(Betancourt, 2018) and the economic crisis aggravated by the pandemic further threatening to worsen the situation in Cuba.

In Cuba, there is still space and potential for the advancement of solidarity economies and cooperativism provided that the political will and stability of the government committed to social solidarity economy principles. Cuba should study the various social solidarity experiences in developed and developing countries. The institutions of higher learning in Cuba including universities and research institutes should discuss and debate various experiments and models of social and solidarity economy across the world and come up with ideas and recommendations to put it into practice and to encourage Cuban policy makers to emulate viable solidarity economy models and take steps to promote cooperatives.

The Cuban government can promote the principles of cooperation, democratic participation, mutual aid and social inclusion with help of cooperatives and social solidarity economy models. With the help of cooperatives and solidarity economy framework, Cuba can address a number of economic, social, demographic and environmental problems. Cooperatives can contribute to local development and for this to make a reality, a vibrant local government at the grassroots level is a must. Cooperatives can contribute to greater social equality by complementing the redistributive policies of the state. Through cooperatives and solidarity economy frameworks, domestic savings and capital and in some cases, it can also help attract foreign capital and access to niche markets (Betancourt, 2018). It has been observed that that cooperatives do play a significant role in maximising welfare (Jose & Chathukulam, 2022). For instance, AMUL in India and Desjardins in Canada are successful cooperative organizations in their respective countries. In addition to that, the “social solidarity enterprises make up a significant part of the plural economies in places such as Quebec in Canada and Kerala, a state in India” (Utting 2015).
Cuba should also adopt an element of austerity into their culture and the Gandhian mode of ‘austerity’ could be taken as an inspiration to an extent. Mahatma Gandhi once said “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” [18] According to J C Kumarappa, a renowned Gandhian economist and a close associate of Gandhi, “What the Gandhian Economy aims at is to furnish all our people with their full requirement of food, clothing, hygiene, etc. These are our primary needs and it is not beyond our capacity to meet them if we will only concentrate our efforts in this direction. Over and above these, if we aspire for luxuries and indulgences, man’s life becomes wasted in the effort to acquire such things” (Kumarappa, 1945). Gandhi and Kumarappa shared an objective of building a non-violent social and economic order that promoted equity and justice for all individuals. Their social and economic understanding led them to conclude that “the only path to true democracy in political life, and to peace among nations” was a decentralised economic and political system where, necessarily, the “rewards were moderate”. The Gandhi- Kumarappa economic framework that strive towards a sustainable development that in a way promotes values of cooperation, democratic participation, mutual aid and social inclusion. Though a Gandhi- Kumarappa economic model and way of living cannot be fully replicated in the Cuban context, the principle of austerity and sustainable development can be put into practice to some extent.

Within the Marxist framework, the theory of social order is centered on the economic structure of society and the social relations involved in the production of goods and it is entirely different from a sociology perspective as in the case of Emile Durkheim’s views on social order which arise out of the shared beliefs, values, norms, and practices of a given group of people (Bottomore, 1981).

To solve the unemployment crisis, Cuba should give emphasis to ‘niche structures’ at decentralized level , that are conceived within a framework of comprehensive co-operation that promotes collective ownership and self-organization in which capital is not assigned the central role and instead capital and labour can work together in harmony (Ray, 2022). In other words, “construction of niche structures is development of collective enterprises at the decentralised level with small capital base in all fields of activities including manufacturing, repairing, processing, trading, marketing, services including education, health and others”, (Ray 2022). Though some amount of capital may be required at each stage while the niche evolves, the labour is assigned primary responsibility to construct it and through this process they bring about economic empowerment (Ray, 2022). Solidarity economy also enjoys huge significance in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) especially in matters related to inclusive growth, reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions, affordable food production and promoting civic engagement, participation (Nair, 2020) and accomplishment of these goals is crucial for Cuba too.

*(Author:Jos Chathukulam is former Professor, Sri Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralisation and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru and currently the Director of Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala. He can be contacted at joschathukulam[at]gmail.com

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[1According to Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Cuba has been a communist regime for more than six decades. As on 2020, it has a population of about 11 million (11,305,532) people who primarily speak Spanish. Cuba has an area of 110,860 square kilometres and is about the size of Pennsylvania state in USA. Cuba has a GDP of $100 billion. Its per capita GDP is roughly $8,000 (CFR, 2020). Despite the fragile and fractured economy, Cuba’s remarkable achievements in Human Development (HDI) needs to be appreciated. Cuba’s HDI value for 2019 is 0.783— which put the country in the high human development category— positioning it at 70 out of 189 countries and territories (UNDP, 2020). On the other hand, Cuba is classified as an authoritarian regime in the 2021 Democracy Index with a dismal score of 2.59. However, Cuba’s score of 2.59 is better than that of China, also classified as an authoritarian regime with a score of 2.21 (Democracy Index, 2021).

[2A Cuban revolutionary and politician who was the leader of Cuba from 1959 to 2008, serving as the prime minister of Cuba from 1959 to 1976 and president from 1976 to 2008. Ideologically a Marxist—Leninist and Cuban nationalist, he also served as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba from 1961 until 2011.

[3Although the attacks were unsuccessful, the rebellion marked the beginning of the Cuban revolution and laid the foundation for the anti-imperialist movement that eventually defeated Batista’s military dictatorship on January 1, 1959. On December 2, 1956, another attempt led by Castro and an Argentinian Marxist Revolutionary Che Guevara took place. Though it failed, Guevara won Castro’s confidence and was the given the rank of comandante. In the late 1958, Guevara’s column derailed an armoured train filled with Batista’s troops and took over the city and it played a crucial role in the ultimate victory of Cuban Revolution in 1959. On January 1959, Guevara, along with the Castro brothers, were recognized as one of the three most powerful leaders of the Cuban revolution.

[4Batista seized power in Cuba in 1952 and ran the country for seven years. (Carothers, 1994).

[5On June 22, 2022, the author met a Cuban artist named Saulo Serrano, who is a member of the National Union of the Writers and Artists of Cuba also known as Unión Nacional de Escritoresy Artistas de Cuba, (UNEAC). Though Serrano’s canvases are filled with socio-economic problems plaguing Cuba, the artist said that he has not faced any government action in the name of his paintings and pictures so far. He also stated that he has full professional freedom in his artistic business.

[6The author met a few college students who participated in the protest and during the conversation they said that some positive changes have been observed in the attitude of the government. The name of the students has been kept anonymous for their privacy.

[7The country was ravaged by shortages following the collapse of its benefactor, the Soviet Union. When the USSR fell, around a third of Cuba’s GDP disappeared almost overnight.

[8For instance, the Great Purge (the purges of 1936-1938) in the Soviet Union, a state -organized bloodshed that took place under the Stalin regime. The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in which the Communist Regime in China mercilessly killed student protestors, who were demanding democracy, free speech and free press in China, is another example of the crimes committed against humanity by authoritarian regimes.

[9On June 22, 2022, the author visited a Family Medical Office in a community in Cuba and had a discussion with the doctors and staff at this health facility regarding how Cuba was successfully able to mitigate the pandemic in the initial phase and the reasons for the sharp rise in Covid cases afterwards. The staff told that the initial success in flattening the Covid 19 infection curve led to premature celebrations and this led to relaxation of stringent preventive measures and it instilled a false sense of security. The author replied that Kerala, a state in India also had a similar experience. Kerala incorporated the test, trace and isolate strategy and flattened the infection curve during the first wave of the pandemic and it led to premature celebrations of Kerala model of Covid 19 management. It instilled a false sense of security in the minds of people and the government and eventually Kerala became a victim of its own success as it failed to contain the spurt of Covid 19 infections after the first half of May 2020. (Chathukulam & Tharamangalam, 2020 and Chathukulam & Joseph, 2022). On June 25, 2022, the author also met with some students at the Latin American School of Medical Sciences and discussed about the Cuban healthcare system and its efficacy in handling the pandemic. They told that polyclinics in Cuba were very much in the forefront to contain the spread of the pandemic at the local level. The names of the persons have been kept anonymous to protect their privacy.

[10On June 21, 2022, the author, a faculty member the Institute of Philosophy, Havana, Cuba. During the interaction, the author learned that that though Obama tried to restore ties with Cuba, in one or other way the former US President was trying to Americanise Cuba. The name of the faculty member is withheld to protect their privacy.

[11On June 23, 2022, the author went to a Cuban restaurant named El Biky. The El Biky is a successful cooperative restaurant in Cuba that started functioning in 2013. It is a non-agricultural cooperative. The author interacted with the staff working at the El Biky and they said that the cooperative venture is hugely popular among the Cubans and the author saw a large number of people coming in groups to the El Biky Restaurant (which houses a Caféteria, Sweet Shop/Candy Store and a Bar) itself is an evidence for this. One of the faculty members of an academic institution affiliated to a Cuban university said that even academic community working in universities now prefer to work in restaurants like El Biky, as restaurant jobs pay well. The author also met an Interpreter, who is also a retired University professor. He opined that restaurant jobs offer good salaries and that’s why many prefer a job in this sector even as part-time. All these gives an impression regarding the potential and success of cooperatives in Cuba. The author also got a chance to stay at a Santa Clara based Homestay named Hotel Casita B & B and during the stay over there the author felt that Cuba should promote more Homestays in all its provinces and it would give a big boost to tourism industry in the island nation. The author also felt that restaurants like ‘El Biky’ is also turning into a ‘public sphere’ where locals discuss about various issues and share ideas and solutions. The situation is similar to the public sphere that evolved in Indian Coffee Houses in India.

[12According to a newspaper report from Havana, the public transport is running at 30 per cent of its potential owing to fuel crisis and shortage of spare parts (Toque, 2022). The author during his visit to Cuba came across people in Havana waiting to catch a bus to Santa Clara for more than two and a half hours. The same situation was observed in Santa Clara too. To reach Santa Clara from Havana takes around 5 hours and vice-versa. The author came across many men and women trying to get a lift in a private vehicle and to show that they are willing to pay for the ride they wave the Cuban Pesos. However, none of these vehicles care to stop and the poor people are forced to spent two to three hours on road for catching a vehicle that can take them to their destination. If urban transport system in Cuba can be turned into a cooperative enterprise, then the present crisis can be solved to an extent.

[13The author met a Cuban Chauffeur working with an institute in Cuba. He has a professional degree in Aviation Security Systems from a Russian University. When he returned to Cuba after completing his studies from Russia, he found it very difficult to find a job that meets both his professional and salary expectations. As a result, he was forced to take up the present job to make ends meet.

[14On June 20, 2022, the author visited Bormey srl, an MSME in Cuba. Bormey srl’s products are popular not only in Cuba but also abroad too and it has been reported that they exported 5,000 bars of peanuts to Italy in the first year itself. The products of Bormey srl also have a following in United States, Canada and Germany (Molina and Cabrera, 2021). Meanwhile, the author observed that the profit margin is very thin due to various government restrictions within Cuba especially relating to exports, availability of raw materials and lack of advanced technical equipment.

[15On June 25, 2022, the author met a Professor at University of Havana. He said that cooperatives and decentralization still hold great potential in Cuba and can play a catalytic role in reviving the Cuban economy and in reshaping its growth trajectory. The author also got the opportunity to interact with another Professor at Latin American School of Social Sciences affiliated to University of Havana. The Professor said that Universities and Municipalities in Cuba are coming up with joint collaborative initiatives to foster decentralization and strengthen local governments in Cuba. The Professor added that that though the Central government gave some funds to municipalities, only 14 per cent of the funds were utilized by them. The local governments in Cuba lack autonomy and freedom to function as they are still under the control of the Central Government in Cuba. The name of Professors has been kept anonymous to protect their privacy

[16The author visited the memorial and mausoleum on June 19, 2022 and saw the revolutionary life and times of Che and other martyrs.

[17On June 21, 2022, the author visited the Fidel Castro Ruz Study Center. The Institute was created as a result of Law 123 approved by the National Assembly of People’s Power of Cuba, on December 27, 2016. By law, it is prohibited to use Fidel Castro’s name in squares, streets and other monuments. It was created under a provision, on an exceptional basis, to create a place for the study of his life’s work and thought, that would bear his name.

[18Mahatma Gandhi, quoted by E. F. Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.

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