US Policy on Cuba: From Regime Change to Systemic Change

Cuban philosopher Concepcion Nieves and US philosopher Cliff DuRand at annual seminar at University of Havana. (Photo: Cliff DuRand)Cuban philosopher Concepcion Nieves and US philosopher Cliff DuRand at annual seminar at University of Havana. (Photo: Cliff DuRand)

Regardless of other changes in US policy on Cuba, President Obama still thinks the United States has the right to shape the future of its neighbor and will work toward reinforcing a petty bourgeoisie that will bring Cuba back into the capitalist fold.

For over a half century the explicit objective of US policy toward Cuba has been regime change. On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced the abandonment of that objective, at long last acknowledging that the policy had failed. But at the same time, he explicitly embraced what had, in fact, been the fundamental objective of the US political elite all along: bringing Cuba back into the capitalist orbit.

Back in the 1960s, toppling the Castro regime was the necessary condition for preventing the consolidation of socialism under a popular revolutionary government. It was really opposition to socialism in “our back yard” that was the basis of US policy. That’s why Obama can now shift tactics from regime change to systemic change. US policy now has a new focus: undermining socialism in Cuba by promoting capitalism within Cuba’s civil society. It is a shift from a political strategy to an economic one.

The opening for this strategy lies in Cuba’s efforts to renovate its socialism. That effort includes economic space for small to medium-sized private businesses. It is these new entrepreneurs that the United States will now be supporting with money, supplies and business training, thereby growing and strengthening a nascent capitalist class. It is not just the small group of political dissidents opposed to the regime who will be receiving US support; it will be ambitious businessmen receiving remittances from relatives in Miami and US tax dollars through other private channels. The United States seeks to expand “opportunities for self-employment and private property ownership . . . strengthening independent civil society.” The White House explicitly states, “Our efforts aim at promoting the independence of the Cuban people so they do not need to rely on the Cuban state.”

In extending diplomatic recognition to Cuba, the US government is acknowledging Cuba’s government. It is also accepting the reality that destabilizing a close neighbor is not in the interests of the United States. The foundation of US policy up to the present was laid in the Eisenhower years in an April 1960 State Department guideline:

[E]very possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba. . . . a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of the government. [Office of the Historian, Bureau Of Public Affairs, US Department Of State; John P. Glennon, et al., eds., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volume VI, Cuba – Washington, DC: GPO, 1991, 885.]

The Obama administration has accepted that this hard line has not worked in Cuba. Regime change in Cuba would not produce a stable society – witness Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya etc.

That strategy is what has failed. But alongside it there has been an increasing resort to what are euphemistically called “democracy promotion” programs. These involve support to opposition groups to strengthen civil society – as if there were no socialist civil society in Cuba. The civil society that the United States supports is those small groups who are against the government. This approach has also been unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Obama announced its continuation. Upgrading the US Interests Section in Havana to embassy status will not end its support of dissidents. Nor will the CIA agents operating there under diplomatic cover be going home. The so-called “democracy promotion” programs will continue. Obama still thinks the United States has the right to shape the future of its neighbor.

What is new in Obama’s approach is an emphasis on economic rather than political subversion. Recognizing the Cuban government does not mean accepting its socialist economic system.

Many observers expect a flood of US businesses into Cuba. But they forget that the embargo is still in place. Obama has relaxed aspects of it, but ending it would require congressional action – not a likely prospect in the near future. In any case, Cuba has been very open to foreign investment for 20 years. Cuba recently enacted a new law on foreign investment designed to make it more attractive to investors from abroad. US corporations are eager to get a piece of the action that the embargo has long denied them. But when they are able to get in, Cuba will no doubt apply the same kind of limits as they do on other foreign investment. That means it will be in partnership with the Cuban state, and for a specified number of years. Cuba is not about to give up its sovereignty.

What is more likely to transform Cuban society is the increased flow of money to individual private entrepreneurs in hopes of building the germ of a new capitalist class. This method takes advantage of Cuba’s opening to a non-state sector of its economy that includes private businesses, cooperatives, and foreign and joint ventures. Officials expect that in the next few years this non-state sector will provide 35 percent of employment and 45 percent of gross domestic product. It is the private businesses that are especially problematic for Cuba’s socialism.

The acceptance of small private businesses signifies that the leadership recognizes that a petty bourgeoisie is compatible with building socialism. As it is often said, the state cannot do everything. However, that does not mean the petty bourgeoisie is socialist. Cuba’s reform program has been clear that the accumulation of private wealth is to be avoided, in other words, the petty bourgeoisie is not to be allowed to become a big bourgeoisie. The prophylactic to that is imposition of heavy taxes and licensing fees on small private businesses and placing limits on their size. At the same time, the state gives advantages to the other major sector of the non-state economy – cooperatives. If a private business exceeds a certain size, it should be converted to a cooperative so that all who contribute to its profitability can share in the benefits. That is the socialist way.

Co-ops are recognized as a socialist form of organization in the guidelines or lineamientos. In part, this is because they foster a social consciousness. By bringing people together in their daily work life in democratically self-managed organizations, co-ops nurture the democratic personality that can sustain socialism. Unlike co-ops that nurture a social consciousness, private businesses foster individualism. Self-interest becomes the primary concern of private businesses. For that reason, the petty bourgeoisie is a decidedly non-socialist class. While its existence is allowed, its growth should not be encouraged where co-ops can do the job instead. Obama’s aim is to help private businesses occupy as much of the non-state economic space as possible. The danger presented to socialism lies in the fact that if they were to become a sizable part of the economy, the state, committed to the growth of the economy, would find it increasingly necessary to favor its interests. The basis of class power is not just direct control of the state, but the weight of a class in the economy.

That is why it is vital for the continued construction of socialism in Cuba, and that cooperatives come to occupy as much of the non-state sector as possible. Progressives need to think seriously about how we can support the growth of cooperatives – genuine, democratic, worker-run cooperatives. Cuba is now open to that and Obama has cleared the way for us to accept this unique opportunity. Obama’s strategy is to change Cuba, not through regime change, but by promoting capitalism within the country through support of a petty bourgeoisie. After all, that has always been the fundamental objective of US policy – to bring Cuba back into the capitalist fold. Solidarity calls on us to help it move forward along the road to a socialism for the 21st century.