Cuba Turns the Page

Leysis Quesada Vera, Avril and Thalia on the Rooftop, Havana, 2017.

At the height of the Cold War, Cuba developed its own socialist model of government. Its centralized, state-led economy was built on exporting sugar to the Soviet Union at highly subsidized prices and then investing the subsidies in education, health, and a social safety net. Since the collapse of the USSR and the end of sugar subsidies, Cuba has struggled to diversify its economy, find its place in the international market, and explore new paths to development.

In December 2017, over two snowy days in the Hudson Valley, a group of Cuban thought leaders and critics of U.S. market capitalism gathered to discuss how Cuba’s economic and political future might intersect with new economic projects around the world. What follows is an edited and condensed version of an expansive discussion about the building blocks of equitable societies, experiments in community-controlled economies, and the unique challenges facing societies with different growth patterns.

All these topics circled the question of how capitalism and state socialism can both give way to a culture of community. The flaws of capitalism and the market economy are all too clear: dysfunctional levels of poverty juxtaposed against untold wealth, the concentration of political and economic power, and disregard for environmental destruction. But the historic alternative, state socialism, has demonstrated its own flaws: economic stagnation, top-down political control, and no less indifference to environmental concerns. At the heart of this discussion was the challenge of transcending this familiar binary. What are the possible paths to a more sustainable, equitable, and democratic future? What kinds of experiments are going on to test new models for the economy? And what do we have to learn from each other?

Meet the Participants

Gar Alperovitz, political economist, historian, author, former government official, and cofounder of The Democracy Collaborative, an organization that works to carry out a vision of a new economic system based on shared ownership and ecological sustainability.

Patricia Arenas Bautista, Cuban psychologist and organization development researcher. She collaborates with the Havana-based Center for Psychological and Sociological Studies (CIPS) and has been involved in efforts to restructure and democratize workplace decision making in Cuban state-owned enterprises.

Pedro Monreal González, Cuban economist and program specialist at UNESCO in Paris. He writes regularly on the process of reform and restructuring in the Cuban economy, and on the economic and political choices that Cuba faces as it seeks to update its economy while maintaining its values.

Joe Guinan, senior fellow at The Democracy Collaborative and executive director of The Next System Project, a multiyear initiative aimed at thinking boldly about what is required to deal with the systemic challenges the United States faces now and in coming decades.

Christopher Nye, retired dean and chair of Orion’s board of directors.

Andrea Panaritis, executive director of The Christopher Reynolds Foundation, which supports work and discussion in Cuba related to social economy, sustainability, agroecology, and local development.

(Moderator) Geoff Thale, vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas, who has followed Cuba and U.S.–Cuban relations since the mid-1990s.

Armando Marino, La Patera (The Raft), 2002. Watercolor on paper, 39.37 x 78.75 inches.


Radical Rethinking

Geoff Thale: As we look at Cuba, the U.S., and what kind of future we want for ourselves and our children, we have to do some radical rethinking about economics, politics, and what kind of society we want to build. Can you all talk about how you understand that?

Gar Alperovitz: Years ago, really the only available model being discussed was state socialism. But that alternative was very structured, one that also concentrated power at the top. That wasn’t what we were looking for. Any serious alternative will need to be built from the bottom up through active community participation. One that goes beyond simply voting and allows people to actively participate in suggesting and creating new alternatives.

Christopher Nye: A lot of discussions about radical rethinking talk about socialism, and I think it’s important to be clear that there are different kinds of “socialism.” They all involve some form of popular control of the economy, but they don’t all involve the state. I think the cooperative models we’re interested in exploring today are forms of nonstate socialism, where government is not always in the driver’s seat. 

Pedro Monreal González: In Cuba, while we hear some lip service to the notion of decentralization, the basic idea is still “Let’s reinvent the top-down process.” But I fully agree about the need for a deep, systemic transformation.

Christopher: Otto Scharmer is an author whom I admire and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Scharmer believes what we really need to do is change our thinking. He thinks the deepest way to address a challenge is through presencing. In his books he explains how to develop the capacity within oneself to “lead from the emerging future.” I think presencing is a technique that would be useful here, as we think about the future of Cuba and the United States, and the world, for that matter. We’re anticipating future needs, and starting to address the way we think and problem solve.

Gar: The process we’re talking about is neither simple revolution nor reform of the existing structure. We need an entirely different term because it is more complex than that. I like the term “evolutionary reconstruction”: so, you’re reconstructing the whole system, but in an evolving, transformative way that includes many dimensions, including the cultural, psychological, environmental, and political.

Joe Guinan: In thinking about where we go next and how we get there, I’m really interested in thinking about economic democracy. The role of the state is up for discussion under economic democracy models. And that’s not exactly new — even under the old Soviet model there was thinking around worker ownership and cooperatives, and on the Western side, there was a huge movement toward workers’ control and community empowerment. There is a spectrum of possibilities between state and private ownership that leaves room for community and worker control and so on. There may still be a state in the next system, but I see a lot of nonstate content.

Patricia Arenas Bautista: My own work is on the micro level — helping state-owned enterprises and cooperative businesses function in more cooperative and participatory ways, using what we know from sociology and psychology to improve how people communicate and relate. That’s important, because in Cuba if we start with the idea that property is social, it’s necessary to strengthen the relationships between people at work, to make workplaces more efficient for the good of society. I’m interested in how that connects to the macro level in terms of transforming a whole society away from an individualistic model.

Growth and Equality

 Geoff: I think as a vision it makes sense to talk about economic democracy, direct participation, and cooperative forms of association at work, but any particular formula for how we get from here to there seems, to me, premature. We’ll have to try some things and learn from experience rather than impose solutions. So what are the guiding principles in shaping a just, strong, and resilient economic system for Cuba or any other country? We can probably all agree that societies need to have enough growth to overcome scarcity and ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met and an overall higher standard of living is achievable, but how much growth, and what kind, is needed? 

Gar: There is conflict between the drive for economic growth and environmental and social considerations at every level. How does that get resolved? Traditionally, in capitalism, there was an attempt to regulate business from the outside, while in socialism there often was no regulation. I think that you have to build in, at the local level, a relationship between ownership of enterprises (even of cooperatives) and larger environmental and social community considerations. That has to be built in from the bottom.

Geoff: In building new models, how radical should you be on the issue of wage inequality? We agree, I think, that economic justice and equal opportunity are realistic goals. How far can and should we try to go toward complete economic equality? Economists in capitalist countries sometimes argue that the drive for wealth and success is behind initiative and enterprise, and so if you completely get rid of inequality, you’ll undercut the incentives for work and innovation. Are there things we can learn from the socialist experience in Cuba particularly, but in other places as well, about other drivers of initiative?

Pedro: Since the ’70s, in Cuba, with state enterprises — where salaries are regulated — the main difference between a minimum wage and the salary of the director of the enterprise was limited by a multiplier, which was seven, I think. Today the multiplier has expanded: it’s now ten or twelve. But the point is that in Cuba there is a relative consensus, at least among economists and people working in the government, that they have some idea of the limits, of the difference between the minimum wage and the highest wage.

Geoff: In the United States, where there’s no regulation about this at all, what’s the range from lowest-paid to highest-paid? What’s the ratio?

Joe: In broad terms, we’re now back to Gilded Age levels of inequality — four hundred individuals own as much as the bottom 190 million Americans put together. Inequality is so dangerous that even the International Monetary Fund is warning about its economic consequences, let alone its social consequences.

The Mondragon industrial cooperatives in Spain have a ratio of about nine to one. There’s a few exceptions to that, where you have to bring in outside individuals for particular functions, but that’s the sort of principle across the group; and, you know, similar-sized American or British companies would have a salary ratio more like 100 to 1 or 150 to 1. 

Geoff: It’s pretty clear that we could dramatically reduce wage inequality; you may not eliminate it, but you can drastically reduce it, and still have good outcomes in terms of work. As Gar has pointed out, right now productivity in the U.S. is so high that everyone could live well, and we could start cutting back on work, and maybe shrink the economy and consumption. Cuba, and lots of other countries, aren’t in the same place and do need to grow, though not necessarily to the level of the U.S.

Emilio Perez, Sombras Silvestres, 2018.

Culture of Cooperation

Christopher: What are some of the driving forces behind the low levels of wage inequality in Cuba?

Pedro: Cuba’s workforce is one of its strengths. Cuban workers are educated and adaptable. They may not be educated at the highest level of technology, but they can learn new skills quickly. 

Patricia: We’re an organized country with a cooperative culture. I think it’s important to keep the human aspect at the heart of these discussions. In many ways, our people are used to working together, and that’s a tremendous strength. 

Geoff: I think the capacity to work collaboratively and share resources is important in any country, but because of its history of political organization since the Cuban Revolution, Cuba is probably farther along on that scale than most. 

Patricia: Because we have lived with limited resources and a low level of consumerism, we’re in some ways more adaptable than others. I think we have less discrimination, less social inequality, and less corruption than many other countries do. We have a kind of social solidarity in Cuba that is important.

For instance, Cuba recently had two Category 5 hurricanes: one in October 2016, and then again in September 2017. Before the storms landed, hundreds of thousands of people needed to be relocated. In many countries, the government would put an evacuation plan in place, but in Cuba most of the people who left their homes didn’t need to be officially evacuated: they just found shelter in another neighborhood. When the government sent in buses to evacuate people, they said, “No, no, we’re all set.” They took care of it themselves because people naturally look out for one another. It’s a way of life.

Geoff: From my first trip to Cuba in 1995, one of the things that most impressed me was the reduced social distance between people of different standings. So, the janitor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs interacts with the vice minister of whatever on a much closer human level than would ever happen here. If I went to the State Department in the United States to meet the deputy assistant secretary of something or other, the chances that person would treat the building’s janitor as an equal are pretty much zero.

Andrea Panaritis: Years ago, we had an office in New York, and a Cuban visitor came who had never been to the U.S. He was clearly agitated when he arrived at my office, and I said, “Pedro, what’s going on?” He said, “I just came through Penn Station and all these people in business suits were rushing through and they were jostling the janitors. They didn’t look them in the eye, they didn’t say ‘Good morning,’ as if their job was less important.” He was shocked because this was not his world in Cuba.

There is conflict between the drive for economic growth and environmental and social considerations at every level. How does that get resolved?

Joe: We are in many ways prisoners of our own cultural mythologies. Our stories are very pervasive, and they can have very particular political effects. A big American one is the myth of the lone hero, the lone pioneer hacking out a space in the wilderness, the lone entrepreneur. You know, you talk about the economy and the stories we’re told are of these heroic individuals who, through ingenuity and perseverance against the odds, built these enormous stores of wealth and value, whether it’s Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or whomever. But of course, those stories are not at all true. They involved a huge network of resources and people in public research, development, investment, and so on, as well as years of technological inheritance. We’ve got to start telling more stories about the collective.

Pedro: In Cuba culture isn’t really considered from an economic perspective; rather, it is something produced, subsidized, and made accessible and affordable on the local level. So typically, in every province or municipality, you’ll see a museum, a chorus, an orchestra, a ballet or theater, a debate club — these kinds of things.

Andrea: Last December I was at a big film festival in Havana. It was in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and the theater was packed with all ages, and all different types of people. It was very different from what you would see at a U.S. film festival in the middle of a day, in the middle of the week. People take their vacations to see the films.

Pedro: One of Cuba’s main political discussions right now is about culture — how it impacts the way people perceive themselves, how they work, how they communicate, how they do things for their own, how they perceive culture in relation to political processes. But as soon as you say we need to rethink the way we imagine economics and investment and rates of growth and consumption, you immediately move into a dangerous area of politics. Discuss the need to reduce and transform patterns of consumption, to reduce growth, and many young people will stop listening. They perceive this as a proposal to be conservative in the way you reform and a sign that you are not willing to change things in Cuba, which doesn’t make sense for them.

Patricia: We have our assets related to culture and solidarity, but for many people, the younger generation especially, there is also a growing sense of uncertainty and inequality. Economically speaking, one of the biggest problems is that for most people their salary doesn’t permit them to meet their needs; they need to make money from other methods.

Geoff: Cuba hasn’t entirely recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the development aid and subsidies they lost in the process. Three-quarters of the workforce is still employed by state-owned enterprises, and average wages, if you translated them to U.S. dollars, would be between twenty dollars a month at the low end and forty dollars at the high end. This doesn’t exactly translate to the United States because Cuban expenses are far less — health care is free, your mortgage or rent is 10 percent of your salary fixed by law, public transportation is all but free, food is subsidized — so there is not an exact translation. 

Patrica: One of Cuba’s most important strengths is that it offers free and equal education and health care. 

Geoff: That’s very true, but even so, forty dollars a month for most people is not enough to live on. And if you work in the state sector, and you don’t have another source of income, the last week of the month is really hard. And for most people, additional income either comes because they have remittances from relatives abroad, or they bring in extra money through work bonuses, or tips if they work in the tourism and service sector. And because remittances and tips usually come from countries with very different income levels, and come in dollars, they create distortions in the economy. If you’re working in a high-end tourist hotel, for example, you might make more in tips in one day than you earn in your state salary in a month.

The first time I went to Cuba, we hired a guy to drive us around. He had been trained as a nuclear physicist, and he made more money driving us around for three days than he made at his job in probably six months.

Juan Roberto Diago, Untitled, 2017. Mixed media on canvas, 58 x 47 inches. Courtesy Pan American Art Projects, Miami.

Economic Stagnation

Pedro: Cuba is an island and has an export economy. So far, we have been forced to specialize in several commodities, in huge quantities, and import most of our other needs. Of course, you can work very well being an exporter country — look at Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. But it requires thinking politically.

Patricia: You say Cuba could be Singapore, but we have been so closed off to much of the world, because of the U.S. embargo and the indirect effects of that on other countries’ relationships with us.

Geoff: It’s fair to say U.S. hostility continues to be a big challenge for the Cuban people and economy — not just because of the trade embargo, but also because of its impact on relationships with other countries.

Pedro: The changes and setback to Cuba’s economy have had a big impact on the collective work ethic. Part of that has to do with the fact that for many years in Cuba, education and employment were perceived as the main mechanisms for social mobility. As in, you get higher education to get a better job, and you get a better job to live better. But now, with state salaries so low and more money to be made in the private service sector, young people have far less interest in going to universities. Because it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to be an engineer. Actually, if you are a doctor, you live more poorly than the guy who pours drinks.

Geoff: You could say that in many ways the work ethic that was common in the past — the idea that rewards come to those who work hard and study — has eroded some in recent years.

Patricia: Cuba is also seeing a rise in consumerism. During the Special Period, 1990–2000s, we learned to live without many things and to make do with less. But now, as private-sector businesses grow, that economic activity feeds consumerist desires. Suddenly, some people think they can’t live without all this new stuff.

Geoff: The discussions about sustainability and changing patterns of consumption are different here than they are in the United States. In part because the country starts from a lower level of development, but also because young people have been denied access to what they have seen their cousins in Miami having. Certainly, it’s a sensitive discussion in the U.S., too — all sorts of people support sustainability and reductions in consumption in principle, but when you get to concrete action in their own backyard they are unwilling to think about changes. 

Joe: If you look at a lot of the shifts that are starting to take place on the ground politically in the U.S., you’ll find many are propelled by young people in response to a system that is increasingly excluding them, burdening them with a trillion dollars of student debt, offering them prospects far worse than what was offered to previous generations, distancing them from the possibility of lifelong, well-remunerated employment, putting them into situations of precarity, having to live back in their parents’ basements, and so on.

We’ve found that once you give people decision-making power, they want to roll up their sleeves and get involved.

Geoff: The strains of an increasingly two-tiered economy.

Joe: Stagnant wages.

Christopher: Urban decay and neglected infrastructure.

Joe: Regional inequality. High private debt.

Geoff: Both the U.S. and Cuba face troubled pension systems. And, probably, both have an aging population and labor shortages.

Joe: And so now many young people in the U.S. view socialism more favorably.

Geoff: It’s easy in this kind of discussion to bash the U.S. At the same time, it’s clearly a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world, and it obviously has a lot of strengths.

Joe: The U.S. is also remarkably self-sufficient. If you look at the U.S. compared to the rest of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and if you threw up tariff walls and just had to live off your own market, you’d do fine. It’s like only 10 or 15 percent of U.S. gross domestic product is international trade.

Experimental Models

Geoff: What local, on-the-ground experiments in new social and economic communities around the world get you excited?

Christopher: Have you heard of this place called SEKEM? It’s an intentional community that started on an oasis in the Egyptian desert. It was founded in the late 1970s as a sort of communal arrangement based on principles of Islam to grow organic, sustainable medicinal herbs and teas. Over the years it’s grown far beyond the original oasis and has been quite profitable. Individuals are directly involved throughout the entire economic process, from growing the plants to distributing them through a wholesaler or retailer, all the way into the hands of the consumer. They are partners in this economic process, and this transparency leads to a stable base of mutual trust, fraternity, and fairness. You know who you are doing business with — know them on a human level — and so are less likely to cheat others to get yourself a better deal. They recognize their dependence on one another. So, here in a country that’s kind of coming apart, out in a desert where there’s a shortage of water, in the most inhospitable conditions you can imagine, they’ve managed to make something work. I find that really inspiring.

Joe: Mondragon, which I mentioned before, is another promising model of economic democracy. It grew up in the Basque region of Spain, founded by a Catholic priest who essentially decided that the economic rejuvenation of the region was going to depend on the region itself, on its own resources and capacities. So, they created a linked network of co-ops. There are over 250 companies and cooperatives and more than 80,000 workers who are part of it. Everything is connected to their own bank, so the community has its own source of capital and also its own social functions, like universities. If you become a member of Mondragon, you become a worker-owner. Each business has a works council. There’s voting for board members and other decision makers. They aren’t entirely immune to many of the problems that workers in the rest of the capitalist sector face, but wherever possible, any workers that get laid off are employed elsewhere in the Mondragon network. And there are generous social and retirement provisions for people that needed to be pensioned off. Mondragon isn’t perfect, and it’s been forced to go global because of competitive corporate capitalism, but it is an interesting model.

Christopher: And there’s the Ocean Spray cooperative. Here is this little berry that seemed on the surface to have no market value whatsoever except maybe to make cranberry sauce during the holidays. But these people, who were not driven by principles of competition and grabbing market share, developed cranberry juice, and it was a big hit. And then they added apple juice and had Cran-Apple and then they had Cran-Grape, and dried cranberries, and so on, and they built a tremendous market for this formerly rather obscure crop, and the farmers prospered and it really worked.

Joe: At The Democracy Collaborative, we’ve done some work with Native American communities that don’t have much in terms of capital or major financial resources but have other types of resources — cultural resources, traditions, and so on — that can foster businesses. For example, the Lakota Oglala tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota created buffalo-based Tanka Bars, which are being created and sold by the tribe, and it’s become a viable, profitable local enterprise.

Pedro: Look at the old sugar towns in Cuba for an interesting example of community. For two hundred years, Cuba was the world’s main exporter of sugar. Whole communities were organized around sugar mills, which were by far the most important component of manufacturing in the country. But they were also the centerpiece of community life in Cuba. Today sugar is a much smaller part of the Cuban economy, but for all those years, whether privately or eventually state-owned after the revolution, the mills were so linked to their towns that workers saw themselves as working for the community — and even the country — not just for themselves or for the old owners.

Cuba’s Next Chapter

Geoff: So, there are interesting local examples of cooperative projects, of boards that help make producers sustainable, of enterprises and communities that are closely linked. Let’s step back a bit and look at some bigger-picture work as we continue thinking about how to move ahead toward a better and more sustainable future.

Joe: The United States is now well into a period of systemic crisis and decay. You can see this if you look at trends on inequality, mass incarceration, loss of faith in institutions, democratic and labor force participation, and rising environmental issues. The list goes on and on. And many of these are forty-year trends that have been building. We have enough stabilizers so that the system won’t collapse. On the other hand, the balance of political and economic forces is such that you’re unlikely to get massive reform, either. So, we’re stuck in this sort of agonizing period of decay and stagnation.

But it’s not hopeless! The pain of massive budget cuts to housing, education, new jobs, and so on is causing more people to turn to their own resources and their own ability to create these local efforts toward resiliency — this is what we’re working on with the New Economy Coalition. We view the U.S. as a sort of checkerboard of places where it’s possible to begin to advance new models and experiments on a smaller scale. You may move forward as much as you can in one place and then hit an obstacle, but luckily, there is somewhere else in the system where you can start anew with a different push. Experimentation is happening on a local level, and we’re starting to see a rise in municipalization. And that kind of base of policymakers, worker-owners, and participants in land trusts and co-ops is already pretty extraordinary. One in three Americans is a member of some kind of co-op. We’ve got large retail co-ops like REI and Ace Hardware. If you add all the resources in credit unions together, they’re bigger than Goldman Sachs, right? And these are one-member-one-vote democratic financial institutions.

This could be a viable pathway to displacing corporate power and building the foundation of a new movement with local economic institutions underpinning it, creating a genuine base for what comes next, and then beginning to transform the system by moving up from the local level.

Gar: Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood houses Evergreen Cooperatives, a linked collection of significant-scale, worker-owned companies founded in 2008. I’ve spoken with Orion about this before [see “The Cooperative Economy,” July/August 2014]. We’re talking about a mostly poor neighborhood with a high unemployment rate. Now it houses one of the largest cooperative urban greenhouses in the country, a solar energy installation company, an industrial-scale laundry cooperative that serves hospitals in the area, and several other local cooperatives that are anchored to their community and to each other in part by their relationship to a big, stable, quasi-public institution like the Cleveland Clinic, which can purchase directly from this local complex.

We really tried to build a model that brought democratic decision making into economic institutions. So there’s the revolving fund of the community corporation, which is what anchors these businesses. That board consists of public officials, workers, community representatives.

Recently, when an industrial-scale laundry became profitable, there was a meeting about what to do with the profits. They decided to give everyone a cash bonus payment, and they also voted to kick back some of their profits — around 20 percent, I think — to revolving funds that would then go into the creation of new businesses in the community.

You could describe a lot of this stuff as radical democratic socialism. But there’s a sort of common sense to what’s being attempted there in terms of rebuilding the local economy. Cleveland has lost over 50 percent of its population since the ’50s. The Fortune 500 companies left. The city’s been devastated, and many neighborhoods have high levels of poverty. Say your household income is $18,000 a year, and suddenly you get a $2,000 bonus and an equity stake in your cooperative business — that’s a big deal. We’ve found that once you give people decision-making power, they want to roll up their sleeves and get involved. So, this is how we’re attempting to build democracy and sustainability into an institution, into a community.

Geoff: Ecuador and Bolivia are doing some interesting things. Both countries, partly in response to their significant indigenous populations, expanded their constitutions to give rights to Earth itself, and maybe moves like that will lead to a different way of thinking about the planet. 

Gar: Whenever you’re looking to implement new economic models, it boils down to: what is the starting point locally? Many people would start with cooperatives, which I think is useful — to begin at the economic unit level. But another way to start, which is reflected in the work we’ve done in Cleveland and other places, is to look at the community as a whole and link cooperative industries to community interests and decision-making processes. I mean the whole community — not just its “workers” but also stay-at-home parents, the ill and elderly, students, and children. Everyone.

So, the distinction between structures that embody community/ joint venture with cooperative forms, like the Evergreen model, is important because it has community backing and not just backing within the model of small cooperatives. It also has the possibility of building a communitywide vision of culture and politics and sustainability and political economy, as opposed to what happens in the co-ops that become exclusively worker-oriented rather than community-oriented.

I think that’s a debate that’s starting in the progressive left because people are excited about co-ops, and worker ownership, but it’s by no means clear that that excitement is going to produce the result that people hope it will produce. But perhaps Cubans have a head start because there is a culture of socialist vision; and that may make this a very different conversation.

Geoff: In 2010, the Cuban Communist Party drafted a set of guidelines for economic reform. Fidel Castro had retired from power for health reasons, and his brother Raúl Castro came in, looked around, and thought the economy was not working so well. So, the government developed a set of proposals for economic reform. In broad terms, the reforms called for a shift toward a mixed economy, with state-run enterprises in key areas and a cooperative sector as well as small and medium businesses, some opening to foreign investment. Then they launched a nationwide process of consultation through neighborhood assemblies, workplaces, universities, and so on to gather input. The proposals were developed, handed out, and then discussed publicly.

Pedro: And at first the party wanted limits on these discussions; they wanted only socialist proposals. But they ended up listening to opinions outside the limits they had originally established, ones that were not always socialist — some that were actually against the system.

Geoff: And this is new in Cuba, where there’s a history of participation in local issues and decisions, maybe, but not a lot of popular debate and input about the direction of the country, about what the political and economic model should be.

Patricia: After reviewing thousands of suggestions from the public, over three hundred lineamientos — specific proposals for change — were approved. But in the five years since they were discussed, not all were able to be implemented. Of course, often when you propose significant changes, you also generate significant resistance. But the reality is, it will take a lot more than five or ten years to push ahead the kind of change you ultimately want.

Geoff: The fact that the system has opened enough, that more alternatives are being explored, is a very encouraging sign.

Pedro: I think the drive to decentralize the decision-making process in Cuba has been slowly gaining momentum for the last decade, and that’s promising. 

Christopher: Just the fact that we are able to have this conversation gives me hope. To be talking about alternative economic systems in a spirit that transcends political considerations is very important. We plant a small seed and see if it grows into something much more robust over time.

Geoff: I fully agree. This whole discussion — with Cubans, about Cuba — is not something that would have happened even ten years ago, at least not at this relatively public level. 

Pedro: Cuba may have an opportunity to bypass some of the uglier phases of development by incorporating new innovations around not just environmental conservation but also social equity and new ownership models, rather than simply pursuing the capitalist phases of development. Cuba is already facing some serious challenges around a climate-related rising in sea level. It’s a huge question of how the government will deal with it, but it offers us an opportunity to deal creatively with the problem.

Geoff: We’re seeing some interesting experiments in sustainability emerging in Cuba: recycling and energy conservation projects; an investment in organic agriculture; research centers to promote cooperative practices. They are fledgling, and sometimes controversial, but exciting.

Patricia: The social-political base Cuba has built in the wake of the revolution and the way the transition from that historic leadership toward a new generation of leadership is maintaining those core values gives me hope. And perhaps more than anything, so does the recognition that there are many of us, in Cuba and the U.S. and around the world, who aspire and act to make a better world. O


Note: In the year and a half since this dialogue took place, the national debate over Cuba’s economic and political future has continued. Proposals and experiments continue to surface, but at a slower rate now due to renewed economic sanctions and political pressure from the United States. The U.S. government has cut back embassy personnel, making it difficult for Cubans to obtain travel visas to the U.S.; at the same time, it has imposed restrictions on individual travel to Cuba and halted prior efforts to expand U.S. businesses to Cuba. Cuba remains a proving ground for economic and political ideas that transcend the old dualities, but the country’s political energy remains in turmoil. —Geoff Thale

This meeting and article were made possible with support from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.


  1. Afraid the opening of Cuba towards ‘capitalism’ turns into a cultural and political infection without return…

    One key conclusion from this exchange between Cubans and Americans is that binary thinking often doesn’t suit today’s tough and complex problems. The formulation of either capitalism or communism, really gets us nowhere. Instead, we might try putting our prejudices and predilections on hold, learning from what we know about human nature and past experience, being as creative as possible, and thinking differently. To think differently, as I pointed out in the discussion, Otto Scharmer’s technique of “presencing” can be uniquely helpful. Here’s a link that explains it.

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