Another utopia? Yoani on neoliberalism in Cuba

Yoani Sánchez recently imagined for her readers a blissful, free market-economic future for Cuba. Entitled “Neoliberalismo,” the post hailed Cuba’s new economic reforms as an early sign that the “sirens of capitalism” would one day prevail over the “false illusion of utopia” (Marxian political-economic utopia a lo cubano) that the Cuban revolution has insistently pursued for so long. Was this real? Or was she poking fun? I’m not sure, but I’m going to take this idea seriously here.

The post didn’t include a word about actual economic policy or civil liberties. That wasn’t the point. The point was to dream.

In my somewhat dubious position as a Latin Americanist grad student at the University of Chicago,[1] I’ve learned a bit about the foundations of free market economic theory, and the outcomes that it has rendered in practice. Neoliberalism grew out of the theory that a truly free market and a truly free society are fundamentally interdependent—one cannot exist without the other. Here, any form of government regulation or social service program that interferes with the market is thought to stifle the “freeness” of society. There is a lot more to it. But this peculiar, abstract notion of freedom of all things and people is the golden rule. Like Cuba’s rendition of Marxism, this too is a utopian model. I’m not sure if Yoani meant to pit one utopia against another, but that is what she has done.

For decades, Cubans have been told that the work of the revolution brings a kind of freedom greater than what any free market society could ever provide. Freedom from want of food, healthcare, education. Freedom from the poison of information in a world driven by economic interests. Freedom from imperialism. They enjoy these freedoms (or at least, some of them do) at the expense of freedom of movement, speech, information, and many other things. Without question, this must change.

But would Cubans really be willing to give up their healthcare, food rations, education system, and everything else, for yet another utopian model?

Most Cubans agree that the system is broken in many ways, but few argue for the eradication of the nation’s social programs—they are far too ingrained in everyday life and in the identity of the nation as a whole. The sudden disappearance of a strong state in Cuba would throw the country off balance in a potentially damaging way. Of course the state needs to shrink. Of course people need to be able to travel, speak their minds, and run their own businesses. But there is a gulf between this and the neoliberal fantasy that Sánchez imagines.

In her many writings on technology, and informal economies in Cuba, Sánchez has celebrated the magical, ubiquitous world of (somewhat) free exchange that occurs on the island’s black market. She proves to her readers that Cuba has no shortage of shrewd, business-minded people. But I don’t think that this automatically translates to a neoliberal national order. I don’t see how a country like Cuba could experience this free market utopia any more than any other country in Latin America has. And given its somewhat paltry resources, I don’t think it would fair nearly as well as others in the region have.

There are also deeper issues of culture and community at play here. However many problems they may face, most Cubans today grew up “within” the revolution, and this has shaped their individual and collective consciousnesses. Just as a society cannot whitewash its collective psychology and social, economic, and intellectual modes of being because a revolution asks it to, it also cannot be expected to successfully transform these things once again, in the name of yet another model for progress that is based on a utopian vision.

I hope that Cubans can use the resourcefulness and ingenuity that they are so known for to come up with a better way, to find something that does not just make them a late addition to the neoliberal wave in Latin America. Cuba has had enough—it doesn’t need hyperactive growth, it doesn’t need to be catapulted into global financial markets, and it certainly doesn’t need more ideology. Cuba needs a stable system that can sustain itself, politically and economically. It needs to become a place where people can live and work and think without having to contend with the inflexibilities overbearing political or economic frameworks.

Where reforms might take Cuba in the years to come, I don’t know. But I hope that future leaders can find a way to preserve the more generous, just parts of its revolutionary self.


[1] The U of C economics department, also known as the birthplace of the neoliberal model, is (perhaps fittingly) housed in a building just opposite the Center for Latin American Studies, where I work. The department has been a proud but politically embattled institution since the 1950s, when the University (in conjunction with the CIA) began funding the graduate work Chilean students of economics. This effort to create a free market political-economic stronghold in South America (intended as a political counterweight to the Cuban revolution and other socialist movements in the region) became the impetus for the 1973 military coup in Chile that led to the death of President Salvador Allende, the ensuing military dictatorship of Agosto Pinochet, and the neoliberal economic transformation that came with his leadership. In spite of the thousands of Chileans killed, kidnapped, and disappeared during this period, many faculty and students in the department look upon Chile’s current economic stability and steady growth and contend that Chile “got the [neoliberal] recipe right.”

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