01/21/2015 10:19 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

Modernization and the Ghost That Haunted Europe


This post was originally published in Palabra Nueva.

I once heard an old Soviet joke that I believe dates from the era of Perestroika. It went more or less like this: Faced with a grave economic crisis, a regional leader of the Communist Party decided to open a new nightclub that he hoped would raise revenue and feature scantily clad dancers. After a little while, the regional leader called a meeting to evaluate the progress and found that the results had fallen short of the desired outcome -- tourists were largely uninterested and the revenue was minimal. "Have you done a rigorous analysis of the dancers and the services offered?" asked the leader and convener of the meeting to the Party official entrusted with enacting the experiment. "We already have, comrade," responded the official. "We offer the best caviar and the best vodkas, and the dancers have been chosen from the oldest and most reliable Party members in the area. I don't understand why our plan didn't succeed."

The joke has to do with the old dilemma that frequently thwarts attempts to apply new methods to old structures. "Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth?" says Jesus in the gospel, "For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before." (Matthew 9:16).

Obviously people are not fabric -- they are people, human beings, endowed with rational thought, and while they live, they can adapt themselves to new circumstances with some effort. But these changes are not issued by decree, and not everyone succeeds, nor wishes to succeed, in adapting to new circumstances. The Party official in the joke, who had a more realistic view of the context, broke with certain useless dogmas and proposed new methods in correspondence with new needs, but he ultimately adhered to the old state structures, which were too rigid and ideological to interpret the new times and adapt appropriately. Not everyone was ready to decide for themselves and contribute fresh ideas to the new proposal.

The truth is starker than the joke. Along with the slow pace of economic reforms and "system upgrades," the emigration of young people and our aging population (a mounting crisis) have accelerated at a time when there is no lack of economists calling for a faster reform process. Achieving that progress and reducing the chasm between those that have the most and those that have the least is a difficult task, but I believe that the biggest challenge lies elsewhere: how can people be convinced to change something that was never meant to be altered?

It is certainly very difficult.

Perhaps this might explain, or help us to understand -- but not justify -- the slow pace of economic reform in our country. Up to a certain point, it makes sense to proceed with caution, in light of the experience of the defunct Soviet Union and the entire socialist system of Eastern Europe. Even within the Soviet Union itself, when some leaders of the CPSU advocated for political reform and widespread modernization, they encountered the same dilemma because economic change necessitated political change. In reality, every economic reform, of what few there were, represented a political reform to the leaders of the system, and they were right. Thus, they simplified the problem to a choice between individual and societal progress -- or maintaining the Soviet Communist Party's control over the entire society.

The Party always opted for control through the threat of force, but in the end they lost that, too, because the system ossified and their lack of timely decisions compounded the crisis -- first economic, and later moral, social and political -- until it spread to the entire system. There was also an added complicating factor: nationalist sentiment among the annexed republics, which were reluctant to be subsumed by the centralism of the CPSU into Russia, grew with time. In the end, the combination of peripheral nationalism and the economic weakness of the system steadily weakened the central Party, and after going unnoticed and ignored, it finally imploded. The USSR didn't die from being stabbed in the back, but rather like a mother that never was, abandoned by foreign lands that it alternately stole from and coddled, and by the homeland it had begotten but couldn't nurture, Russia. The USSR died of dehydration in the middle of a room filled with glucose serum, with the power cut off, but surrounded by energy.

Although we have seen actions and initiatives on the part of the government that demonstrate a willingness to implement certain economic reforms to revitalize the country, they are accompanied by obstacles and restrictions that impede their success. The "yes, but no" policy is confusing, but possibly understandable. The explanation that I find, barring ulterior motives, is the excessive consideration given to the "ghost haunting Europe" in the mid-19th century, and that the young Karl Marx -- having not yet turned 30 -- not only baptized by naming Communism, but also defined as a perpetual guarantee of happiness for the worker -- a sacred, immutable project for posterity that he never got to see for himself. That's what Lenin thought, whose reinterpretation of the work was enacted in the entire Euro-Asiatic socialist bloc, and which arrived on our island like a new religion. But the genetic errors of the project have proved irreparable.

I don't like to speculate about "history" that never was, but considering that Communism was the proposal that marked much of the major history of the twentieth century, and the twenty-first, I wonder how things would have been different if Marx had thought more of the "proletarian democracy," or about the socialization of property and wealth created, which is not necessarily synonymous with nationalization.

Marx's diagnosis of capitalism was good for his era, but the cure he proposed proved incapable of recognizing true human nature, on the one hand, and of foreseeing that the same development that contributed to social progress might not alleviate inequality or injustice. He was right to denounce the incipient atrocities of capitalism, and his efforts spurred a movement that has given power and respect to workers. In reality, what has been recognized historically as "the left" has played an important role in various crucial labor and social improvements. But Marx was wrong to consider that the abolition of private property through a violent worker uprising, and its subsequent implementation as a dictatorship, would be the definitive cure for all ills.

I also think he was wrong to restrict the issue of liberty to the issue of necessity. In attempting to explain, in Capital, that "the realm of liberty only begins where the labor forced by need and the coercion of external ends finishes," and that it can only flourish with "the reduction of the workday," which was linked to his collectivist thinking and the implementation of Communism, he not only dismissed both individual and collective liberty, but appears unaware of the inner freedom of spirit that constantly seeks itself beyond, or independently from, the material forces acting in society. The essence of all his materialist and Atheist thought was to usher in a "redefinition" of human liberty -- a fundamental practical error. But it was this condition of collective freedom, issued at a particular moment that neither he nor his disciples could recognize, that created a permanent restriction to liberty, which was, in addition to being unfair, counterproductive to society. He also failed to justify the annexation of part of Mexico by the United States, in his writings on Bolivar and the Jews. He was equally wrong in "prophesying" in The Communist Manifesto that, upon breaking from the traditional regime of property, the Communist revolution would bring an end to religion. He was smart, but not infallible; still, he became idolized by many.

It was with this mutated gene limiting fundamental freedoms that revolution was waged in October 1917. It was alleged that freedom would only be denied to the exploiters, but that wasn't the case. In his work The State and Revolution (1917), Lenin frequently cites Engels to show that only after the disappearance of the capitalist class through violence and repression "will the State disappear, and it will be possible to speak of liberty." In fact, he didn't have an idea of when that would happen, and he recognized that while the revolutionary process continued, there would be repression, and "where there is repression, where there is violence, there is neither freedom nor democracy." And when, in 1920, the Spanish socialist Fernando de los Rios asked him when they would see "a period of true transition to a regime of pure freedom for the unions, the press and individuals," the Soviet leader offered a cutting response: "We have never spoken of liberty -- rather, only of a dictatorship of the proletariat..." as the Spaniard wrote in his book My Journey to Soviet Russia (1921). And so began the process of waking from the dream, thus paving the way for brutal Stalinism and, eventually, to suffering, economic weakness, and the debacle of the Soviet Union.

If political considerations like these prevail, or aren't "upgraded," there are very few possibilities for enacting economic and social reform; even discriminatory laws on foreign investment can remain in place, and all that we can do to usher in a society with more prosperity, independence and economic sovereignty, is reduced to the printed word. History has shown that the "ghost that haunted Europe" can be used to scare and expropriate the rich, but not to create a prosperous society.

The elimination of some restrictions in recent years in our country has been beneficial -- at least for a part of society. These steps acknowledge that individual liberty is necessary for personal and social progress, although the cuentapropismo (Cuban self-employment initiative) has already shown its limitations. It is necessary to facilitate better spaces for liberty -- all the liberties -- that contribute to material and spiritual progress for citizens and the nation. It is that time.

One way of achieving this is through social consensus. One instance of that type of discourse was the public discussion regarding the Lineamientos (Cuban political and social guidelines). We don't know all the results, or if everything was included, but it is an improvable method that should be applied to all matters of public interest.

This is everyone's problem -- the solution should be, too.

The Social Doctrine of the Church has defined and defended the social function of wealth, and it suggests that, without discrediting the right to property and personal prosperity, legal mechanisms are established that make those with more responsible for those with less.

This isn't meant to punish those with more simply to foster dependence among those with less, but rather to distribute responsibility for the destiny of society as a whole. This can be achieved with institutions and citizens that defend individual and social justice, because it's clear that capitalism per se does not solve social ills, nor search for democracy or justice -- that is not its function. It is the citizens that are just and democratic, and capable of creating governments, institutions, associations and laws that tame the capital created and put it to work for everyone while respecting liberty. That is the issue at hand.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to (subject line: "90 Miles").