Cuba’s Economic Surrealism

In his economic dreamland of surrealist juxtapositions and non-sequiturs, with visions free from conscious rationality, General Castro believes that improved state management is the way to save Cuba’s communist system. The hostility toward individual freedoms and success embodied in his economic reform program signals its inevitable failure. The desire for control by the military and the Party of every aspect of Cuban life is the antithesis of the individual freedoms and empowerment necessary to bring about an economic renaissance.


By José Azel l January 30, 2018

Havana in the 1950s and in the 21st Century

With his characteristic intellectual wit, Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner defines communism as “the time countries waste between capitalism and capitalism.” By this account, Cuba has now wasted six decades of economic development and appears incapable or ignorant of how to change course. The economic platform for the VI Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, revealed ideological bewilderment manifested in absurd and incongruous policymaking.

The Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy – the 32-page document that proposes to chart Cuba’s economic future – affirms that: “The new economic policy will correspond with the principle that only socialism [i.e. Cuban communism] is capable of conquering the difficulties… and that central planning and not the market will be supreme in the actualization of the economic model.”

The document persistently emphasizes General Castro’s militaristic themes of increased efficiency, discipline, and control. It insists, for example, on setting prices according to the dictates of central planning and insuring that any new “non-state” economic activities (apparently the term “private sector” is not to be spoken) do not lead to the accumulation of wealth. The General is not interested in introducing Deng Xiaoping’s market socialism with Deng’s pronouncement that “to get rich is glorious.”

In Cuba, central planning will be extended to include not only the state and mixed enterprises, but also the allowed forms of non-state activities with “new methods of planning and state control over the economy.”

It is not surprising that Raul Castro and his generals are more comfortable with the chain of command of a centrally planned economy than with the vicissitudes of a market economy. What is baffling is the failure to understand core principles of economic development. They appear to be clueless as to what to do.

To make the point, it is instructive to examine a representative handful of the 205 trades and professions authorized by the state for self-employment (of non-state sector activity) as a centerpiece of General Castro’s “bold” economic reforms to rescue the country’s economy. After much debate and with trepidation the Cuban economic reformers have decided to allow the 500,000 Cubans being fired to solicit permits to become self-employed in activities such as:

# 23 Purchases and sale of used books
# 29 Attendants of public bathrooms (presumably for tips)
# 34 Trimmers of palm trees (apparently other trees will still be trimmed by the state)
# 49 Wrapping buttons with fabric
# 61 Shoe shinning
# 62 Cleaning of spark plugs
# 69 Typists
# 110 Box spring repairs (not to be confused with #116)
# 116 Mattress repairs
# 124 Umbrella repairs
# 125 Refilling of disposable cigarette lighters
# 150 Tarot cards fortune telling
# 156 Dandy (technical definition unknown, male escort?)
# 158 Natural fruits peeling (Separate from #142, fruit sale in kiosks)

Clearly, this bizarre list of permitted private service sector activities will not drive the economic development of the country. Equally revealing is the fact that the Cuban technocrats find it necessary to list the economic activities that will be permitted with such degree of regulation and control.

An impediment to real reforms is simply that without inspired democratic leadership, the set of long-held Marxists economic assumptions will not be swapped for another set of economic beliefs. These are not reforms to unleash the market’s “invisible hand,” but rather to reaffirm the Castros’ clenched fist.

One does not have to be an economist to appreciate, for example, that the refilling of disposable cigarette lighters (permitted occupation # 125) is not an industrial activity that will contribute in any measure to the economic development of Cuba. Measures designed to encourage the domestic manufacturing of disposable lighters would come closer. Continuing with the example, what is needed are economic empowerment measures to encourage the entrepreneurial manufacturing of disposable lighters of high quality and low cost so as to be competitive exporting to world markets. This will not be allowed in Cuba.

In his economic dreamland of surrealist juxtapositions and non-sequiturs, with visions free from conscious rationality, General Castro believes that improved state management is the way to save Cuba’s communist system. The hostility toward individual freedoms and success embodied in his economic reform program signals its inevitable failure.

The desire for control by the military and the Party of every aspect of Cuban life is the antithesis of the individual freedoms and empowerment necessary to bring about an economic renaissance.

General Castro ignores what José Marti emphasized in 1884. During the struggle for Cuban independence from Spain, in a letter rebuking his military commander Máximo Gómez, Marti wrote: “A nation is not founded General, the way one commands an encampment.” The same holds true for the building of a successful economy.


José Azel arrived in the U.S. in 1961 from communist Cuba as a 13-year-old political exile with Operation Pedro Pan, the largest unaccompanied child refugee movement in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Dr. Azel earned a Masters Degree in Business Administration and a Ph.D. in International Affairs from the University of Miami, and is author of Mañana in Cuba: The Legacy of Castroism and Transitional Challenges for Cuba, and Reflections on Freedom. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the online-conservative-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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