Social Challenges Facing Cuba

Social Challenges Facing Cuba

by Dr Andy S. Gomez


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Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have witnessed a rapid transition from communist regimes to more democratic forms of governments around the world. In most of these situations, the changes and pre-transition analyses have focused on the areas of political and economic transformation while paying very little attention to the impact such dramatic changes have on the people. This book attempts to analyze some of these human factors as it applies to Cuba and what impact it will have for the future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491874981
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 05/06/2014
Pages: 126
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.30(d)
Age Range: 1 - 17 Years

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Copyright © 2014 Dr. Andy S. Gomez
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ISBN: 978-1-4918-7498-1




The fall of the Soviet Union brought about an end to the economic support Cuba received from the communist nation (approximately $6.5 Billion). This brought about an economic crisis in Cuba known as the "Special Period" (Periodo Especial). One of the Cuban governments strategies to help them overcome the problem was to asked the Cuban people to make additional sacrifices in order to save the revolution (1). This strategy would help them find other allies that could come to their rescue.

The Cuban government economic plan called for the adjustment to the distribution of goods and services by giving equal access to the entire population to basic necessities such as food and shelter. These measures were received by the Cuban people with mixed reactions particularly by those members of the government that had been benefiting from the spoils of the system. For the first time, we begin to see resistance for "change" from the privilege members of society. Those at the bottom of the economic scale of society also began to question the new policies and whether they were willing to make more sacrifices for the revolution. These new economic changes brought about a high level of human suffering and anxieties as Cubans wondered how they would survive.

The economic crisis of the 1990's had a catastrophic impact on Cuban society. The "Special Period" can be divided into three parts:

(1) Survival: 1990-1994. This period began with the free fall of the economic conditions on the island; in a short period of time the gross domestic product dropped by 36%, consumption fell by 40% and the economy suffered unquantifiable losses of social capital. During this period, strategic contingency plans were implemented including emergency measures to counteract the plummeting energy supply and productive capacity. The deteriorating standards of living were devastating.

(2) Slow Recovery: 1994-2001. During this period, economic strategies introduced by the government consisted of adjustment policies, small measures to open up the economy and structural changes. Changes in the economic structure included a dollar-based monetary system; diversification of the forms and structures of ownership; and the emergence of parallel markets. One major change was driven by tourism. Cuban-Americans visiting the island or sending remittances to family and friends. This measure in particular began to create a high level of social inequality. Afro-Cubans who now made up approximately sixty percent of the population received very little support from outside Cuba where white Cuban-Americans in exile represented over ninety-five percent of the population. Other relevant institutional changes made by the government included administrative decentralization of government functions, bank reforms, the creation of a commercial sector with foreign exchange, and some legal reforms. All these measures produced very limited results that helped alleviate the economic hardships. Between 1995—2001, the economy only grew by four percent. More importantly these changes by the government told Cubans for the first time since the start of the revolution not to count on the government for all their needs. The government would no longer be the primary supporter of the people.

(3) Recession: 2001-2006. The national economy began to show signs of recession. They included falling prices of raw materials, increased fuel and food costs, decline of tourism, and decline of direct investments. The liberalizing economic reforms proved to be too limited to have long everlasting effects. The recovery slowed down further to two-percent annually, delaying the goal of restoring the gross domestic product to 1989 levels. At the same time the governments social spending in programs such as healthcare and education declined significantly. During this period enrollment in higher education dropped fifteen percent indicative that young people did not see that getting an education could lead to a good job. These outcomes began to create a psychological level of hopelessness among Cuban society. During the recession period, unemployment reached as high as twenty percent while the government continued to grow at levels the economy could not support it.

During the 1990's, the social scenario in Cuba declined tremendously. There was an increase in crime, corruption, prostitution, drug trafficking, and illegal immigration. By 1995 it was estimated by the government that twenty-five percent of the population lived in poverty. In the late 1990's the Cuban population was approximately 11.2 million; of that total, 8.8 million had been born after the start of the revolution; and 2.2 million were born after the start of the "Special Period."

At the end of the 1990's we find a society in Cuba that is not what we scholars call a civil society. According to Professor Damian Fernandez, " what one found on the island was a proto-civil society somewhere between a defensive and emergent stage." (2) These groups were small with different identities and interests. For example, in 1987 Oswaldo Paya's Christian Liberation Movement was born along with the Independent Library Movement Co-founded by Ramon Colas and his ex-wife Berta Mixor and a number of human rights groups.

As the state's economic reforms put additional pressures on society, the government started to loose some control of what Professor Fernandez called "La Calle" (the streets) (3). This opened up space for additional and alternative groups to form with the primary purpose of seeking new sources of economic welfare and a personal identity outside the official channels. It is during this period that the term "Doble Moral" (Double Moral) is born. Professor Jose Azel describes this concept in his book Mañana in Cuba as a "form of dual morality where one standard of conduct applies to the public sphere and a different one applies to the private conduct of the individual." (4)


Throughout the years I have discovered that the term civil society has multiple meanings and many times it is misused by scholars and policy makers alike. I argue that the term civil society has two basic meanings, first as an analytical category, and second as a movement that creates political activism.

Civil society can be defined as the realm of public groups and associations created for the purpose of articulating or representing individual or group interests. It plays an intermediary role between individual and family interests and the state as well as other actors. As such, it cannot be understood in isolation from other elements of polity. (5) It is very important to understand that the presence or absence of a civil society is dependent to the level of development and nature of the political regime.

According to Professor Juan Carlos Espinosa, "societies are born from the increasing complexity of social and economic life and the proliferation of interests, identities and causes." (6) Therefore, a particular civil society is the result of unique combinations of structures, cultures, values, and notions of public versus private. For example, we cannot put in the same category the emergence of civil societies in Post-Soviet States, the "Arab Spring" or those in other parts of the world. Each development is quite unique. As Anthony Smith explained in his classic, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, what distinguishes ethnic communities from other groups are a collective name, a common myth of descent, a shared history, a distinctive culture, an association with a specific territory, and a sense of solidarity with each other. (7)


Weigle and Buttefield (1992) concluded that the seeds of civil society sprouted in Central and Eastern Europe as a result of a systemic crisis brought about "the failure of the regimes to adequately perform clearly defined functions and the failure of the regimes to efficiently respond to the basic needs of society." (8)

Weigle and Butterfield go on to describe four stages in the development of a civil society that can be applied anywhere. they are:

(1) Defensive: Private individuals and independent groups actively or passively defend their autonomy from the party-state,

(2) Emergent: Independent social groups or movements seek limited goals in a widened public sphere sanctioned by the party-state.

(3) Mobilization: Independent groups or movements undermine the legitimacy of the party-state offering alternative forms of governance to a politicized society.

(4) Institutional: Publicly supported leaders enact laws guaranteeing autonomy of social action, leading to an agreement between the state and society with the ultimate goal of having free elections.

When analyzing these stages, we can say that the first two stages (Defensive and Emergent) are shaped by the characteristics of the existing regime, while the last two ( Mobilization and Institutional) depend largely on historical precedent, political culture, nationalism, and the level of institutional development in the country. In order to understand how the process starts, we must examine the nature of the regime, the severity of the systemic crisis, the capabilities (or lack) of the state, the status of social initiative, the political culture, and finally the historical trajectory of the country.

The most important preconditions for the emergence of a civil society are the survival of independent thought and of some patterns of social organization. In the case of Cuba, the communist regime eliminated the opposition from the early stages of the revolution and dissolved independent sources of power that could rival the communist party such as other political parties, trade unions, professional organizations, religious organizations, as well as any other possible threat to their control of power.

Pre-1960 non-communist organizations were banned, co-opted, or merged into new entities created by the state. For example, the creation of the Federation of Cuban Women, founded in 1960 by Vilma Espin (1930-2007) former wife of Raul Castro served as its president until her death. Prior to 1960, there were over 1,000 women's groups on the island. While the majority of the population were inducted (voluntary or not) into mass organizations that served as "Voceros" (Voices) for the party and state. Alternative visions and ideas that differed from the state disappeared or went "underground", or into exile.

According to Ariel Hidalgo, "The social contradictions repressed by all means will, by necessity, emerge later illegally. Despite the rigid totalitarian structure, the emergence of parallel trade unions, human rights committees, and independent cultural and religious associations is inevitable (9). Hidalgo is referring to what we have seen in Cuba since the late 1980's and early 1990's which is the emergence of dissident, opposition and independent social organizations.

Starting with the late 1980's, the Cuban government had to take a number of measures with some of the ideological challenges the regime was facing. Unlike the "New Russia", and other of its former satellite nations, Cuba's respond to "Glasnot and Perestroika" was to resist any type of political change. Fidel Castro made it very clear that Cuba would not follow the pattern of changes taking place in Central and Eastern Europe.

However, by 1992-1994 it was clear that the Cuban government's limited economic reforms were not going to be enough to meet society's needs. The government's response was to utilize the "exile option", the exportation of opposition leaders and others that were discontent to other countries. This led to the "Balsero Crisis" of 1994. It was a way of decapitating the emergence of a civil society. This strategy had been used before. First in 1965 with the "Camarioca Boatlift," and later the "Mariel Boatlift" in 1980. Weigle (1991) referred to this process as "decompression." (10) A way by which any government allows some pressure of daily life to escape.

By 1995 we find that many new organizations had flourished on the island. During this period of activism, we can divide social life into three parts: (1) Socialist civil society; (2) Alternative civil society; and (3) Informal civil society. The defining characteristics for all three groups are the relationship with the party-state. A relationship that has limited conflict within its boundaries of operation. This leniency on the part of the Cuban government is carefully monitor by the political and security apparatus. The kind of behavior and practices allowed were quite limited.


One can argue that the "Special Period" was not just an economic crisis. According to Professor Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Cuban Magazine Temas and a leading intellectual on the island, after the "Special Period" "Cuba passed from Socialism A to Socialism B" (11) The plan was to create a less state-centered model of Socialism all mandated by the economic hardships of the period.

The transformation of Cuban society started in the 1980's when Cubans in general began to loose faith in the ideology they had been indoctrinated. This was compounded by the decline of living standards as well. It was during this period that we begin to see the government open up more space for debate on the issues affecting society in general.

The socialist renewal that took place in Cuba had vey different characteristics than those that took place in the old Soviet Union. For example, "Perestroika and Glasnot" began as reform policies that eventually gave rise to properly anti-socialist sectors. The Castro brothers understood very clear that they could loose control and while they were willing to entertain ideas for reforms, this would not change the system.

The emergence of civil society in Cuba during this period had similar characteristics of those in Russia and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. However, if we apply Weigle's and Butterfield's theory, we can argue that even today Cuba's civil society is in the defensive stage. The Cuban case exhibits an old amalgam of elements that by society coexisting, it calls into question the relationship between an emerging civil society and the hopes of a democratic transition in the future. Yet some of the characteristics that would define a passage into the "emergent" state appeared in 1991 when the communist party changed its attitudes towards religious practices by allowing believers in God to join the communist party.

The independent civic movement started with the state authorizing the creation of the first Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in 1992. The Centro Felix Varela led a boom of new NGO's between 1992—1996. It did not take long for everyone to learn that these NGO's were part of the state apparatus. They became known as "Gongos". Government Controlled Organizations.

The real independent civic movement started tentatively in Cuba in the mid-1990"s with the formation of various independent professional organizations and more importantly with the emergence of the independent journalist movement led by Raul Rivero who created the first independent Cuban Press Agency. Some 135 of these groups came together in October 1995 to form the Concilio Cubano; an umbrella organization that declared its determination to struggle for an absolutely peaceful and non violent transition in Cuba to a democratic state of law. The Concilio Cubano plans to hold a meeting on February 24, 1996 were blocked by the Cuban regime, which arrested many of the leading activists, labeling all in the group to be "counter revolutionaries" created and funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the "Miami Mafia" often referred to the Cubans living in South Florida. The movement showed persistence and resilience despite continued repression. Today, its leader Raul Rivero lives in exile in Madrid, Spain.

Another example of this new civil society in Cuba was the birth of the Independent Library Movement Co-Founded by Ramon Colas and his former wife Berta Mexidor both Afro-Cubans from Las Tunas. They started by establishing a library of books in their house for their neighbors to read. Colas and Mexidor encouraged others across the island to join the movement in-order to provide Cubans uncensored access to literature and information they had not seen or heard before. At its peak the movement had 130 libraries all over the island with an estimated quarter of a million patrons. After hearing of the movement, Fidel Castro declared at an International Book Fair in Havana, that " there were no banned books and magazines in Cuba, only the lack of funds to purchase them." (12) Colas and his family were forced into exile. Today Ramon Colas lives in Jackson, Mississippi and the libraries in Cuba have slowly disappeared due to lack of funds and support.


Excerpted from SOCIAL CHALLENGES FACING CUBA by ANDY S. GOMEZ. Copyright © 2014 Dr. Andy S. Gomez. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Prologue, xi,
Introduction, xv,
Chapter One Emergence of a Civil Society, 1,
Chapter Two How Cubans Think, 19,
Chapter Three Challenges in Developing a Civil Society in Cuba, 47,
Chapter Four The Role of Education in Creating Civil Society, 63,
Chapter Five Final Thoughts, 85,
Works Cited, 93,
References, 97,

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