Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College/CUNY and Director
of the Center for Community Planning and Development. He coedits Progressive Planning
Magazine and is a participating editor of Latin American Perspectives.
Some things grow, others stagnate. That’s dialectics.
In the middle of Latin America’s lost decade of the 1980s, Cuba seemed to
be doing relatively well. Economic indicators were up, the institutions set up a
decade earlier after the first congress of the Cuban Communist party in 1975
were working, and the future of the socialist camp seemed assured (Angotti,
1988). Party members headed to the third congress and listened intently to the
report from Fidel that enumerated the accomplishments, problems, and challenges
for the future.
But something happened on the way to the congress: the Cuban
Revolution, again. Criticisms cascaded: bureaucracy, waste, machismo, discrimination
against blacks, individualism, corruption, overreliance on material
incentives. The mechanisms for central planning that borrowed liberally
from the Soviet and East European experiences were under assault, and the
central focus was not the institutions themselves but what Fidel later called
the “blind belief . . . that the construction of socialism is basically a question of
economic mechanisms” (Castro, 1986: 12). “We started believing that everything
would run perfectly with the economic management and planning system,
with the system of salary linked to amount produced, a panacea that
would almost build socialism by itself.”
One approach to changing these beliefs could have been to amend the congress
documents and send everyone home with new orders. Or there could
have been a purge, a Cultural Revolution, or a “reign of error.” But there were
too many hot and even emotional issues, and they were not evaded. Extensive
discussions ensued at all levels of Cuban society over the period of a year, and
a second meeting of the party was convened at the end of 1986.
This was Cuba’s rectification process—the rectification of errors in the party,
the economy, and society at large (Fitzgerald, 1994). After a series of interviews
in 1989 with Cubans in different sectors of society, including many in
leadership positions, I concluded that the campaign had had a significant
impact on the way Cubans were dealing with problems. Most of the impact
was in the year of intense debates launched at the first meeting of the party
congress, but the discussion continued to influence the way people thought
about their own work and society. By 1989 the intensity of the rectification
process had diminished significantly, but Rafael López Valdéz of the Cuban
Academy of Sciences assured me that the rectification process was not a transitory
one. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of the Special
Period, conditions changed dramatically, questions of material incentives
acquired new meaning in light of the austere conditions, and all institutions
and beliefs were challenged in entirely new ways. But, as López Valdéz suggested,
rectification proved to be more than just another short-term political
campaign that came and went. It may well have been one of the main reasons
Cuba did not follow the USSR into the dustbin of twentieth-century socialist
experiments. In a profound misreading of the rectification process, Carmelo
Mesa-Lago (1990) focused on immediate economic impacts and Cuba-Soviet
relations, missing the essence of rectification and the ways in which the
process and its context made comparisons to perestroika problematic.
The rectification process was in effect a rekindling of the spirit of Che, the
boldness of the Moncada attack, and the ineluctable capacity of Fidel to
understand and practice dialectics. Fidel encouraged and embraced the criticisms,
revealing his own impulses: “I think revolutions are born from this
eternal dissatisfaction, and human progress is born from this eternal dissatisfaction,
and this eternal dissatisfaction that we have made with our socialism
in the long run will one day lead us to communism” (Martínez Heredia, 1988:
105, my translation).
Edward Boorstein (1968) described planning por la libre in the early years of
the Cuban Revolution as an often chaotic mélange of experimentation driven
by the desire to disrupt existing economic and social relations and replace
them with new ones. When the main objectives of the Moncada program were
achieved, dissatisfaction with a lack of structure and process led to institutionalization
in the 1970s with the formation of the Cuban Communist party,
the constitution, Poder Popular, and the first Five-Year Plan (Angotti, 1988). In
the field of law, for example, Debra Evenson says that in the early years of the
revolution the legal profession was in disrepute and no one needed lawyers,
but by the 1970s the process for resolving most issues was confusing and haphazard
and people were beginning to demand a more systematic and fairer
approach. When they later discovered the faults in the new system, those then
became the targets of dissatisfaction. The rectification process, therefore, was
an updated version of eternal dissatisfaction.
The rectification process highlighted one of the durable paradoxes of the
Cuban Revolution: relative political stability and resilience over its 50 years
accompanied by perpetual reinvention and change. The Cuban Revolution is
full of paradoxes: a small island that promotes internationalism, a “poor”
country with rich health care and educational systems, a country dedicated to
building socialism with a next-door neighbor that is the epitome of freemarket
capitalism, the most powerful military machine in the world, and a
bitter enemy of socialism. But the most enduring paradox is the uneasiness
with narrow orthodoxies that promote the uncritical continuation of ongoing
practices and policies, an uneasiness that underlies the long-term stability of
Cuba’s political process. Fidel’s uneasiness arose in part from the revolutionary
tradition of José Martí and has strong roots in Cuba’s working-class and
social movements, and it is deeply ingrained in Cuban political culture.
Newer generations, often in direct challenges to their predecessors, seem to be
reproducing it quite effectively. The United States and global capital, of
course, would love to see it transformed into a counterrevolution.
Cuba has survived the collapse of the socialist camp and adapted to the
changed world long enough to be joined by new progressive allies in Latin
America, especially Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. Socialism in
the twenty-first century will certainly be different from the primitive efforts of
the twentieth century, and it will be more sophisticated and developed if the
spirit of rectification and eternal dissatisfaction prevails. Cuba’s survival is
one reason that socialism is even a topic for twenty-first-century political
debate in Latin America. After more than a century of bloody repression and
dictatorships wrapped in a U.S. version of democracy defined narrowly by
elections and free trade, Latin Americans are now able to explore opportunities
for true democracy based on participation, economic development, social
equality, and human welfare. If their dissatisfactions lead to concrete progress
and change, they will be on the way to democracy and socialism.
North Americans may gain insight from Fidel’s address to the second meeting
of the Cuban Communist party in 1986 (Castro, 1986: 13), which may be
read as an ironic comment on the U.S. model of development: “If we continued
along the road we chose in thematerial production sphere, we would be paving
the way for a surgeon to perform twenty operations a day, any type of operation,
even if the patient didn’t need it, and it wouldn’t be important whether the
person died or not . . . unless we threw in a bonus for saving the guy.”
This is, of course, how health care works in the United States and a telling
reason that Cuba continues to lead the Americas in human development.
LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 164, Vol. 36 No. 1, January 2009 127-129
© 2009 Latin American Perspectives
1988 “The Cuban Revolution: a new turn.” Nature, Society, and Thought 1: 527–549.
1968 The Economic Transformation of Cuba. New York: Monthly Review Press.
1986 “Closing speech at the deferred session of the Third Congress, Communist Party of
Cuba.” Granma, December 14.
Fitzgerald, Frank T.
1994 The Cuba Revolution in Crisis: From Managing Socialism to Managing Survival. New York:
Monthly Review Press.
Martínez Heredia, Fernando
1988 Desafíos del socialismo cubano. Havana: Centro de Estudios sobre América.
1990 “Cuba’s economic counter-reform (Rectificación),” in Richard Gilllespie (ed.), Cuba after
Thirty Years: Rectification and the Revolution. London: Frank Cass.