Cuba’s Coming Co-Operative Economy?

Published on ZNet (first on The Bullet), by Marcelo Vieta, by Marcelo Vieta, July 21, 2012.

…  Almost instantly upon arriving in Cuba in late June of 2011 I noticed the wherewithal of its people, especially their tenacity to get by on little. In many ways, I discovered, Cubans have already been forging an alternative socio-economic reality for decades now. For instance, we can think of how they revolutionised their agricultural sector during and after the Special Period, making Cuba the first nation to adopt a predominantly organic farming sector rooted in agricultural co-ops and the notion of subsidiarity (i.e., economic activity with a strong focus on the local and managed by local people).  

The two conferences I presented at in June 2011 were exceptional, if ultimately a bit surprising for me in ways. First, I participated in the “Corporate Social Responsibility, Cooperatives, and Local Development” conference on June 21 with a diverse group of co-op practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and social and solidarity economy researchers from different parts of Latin America and Canada. Organised in part by the University of Havana’s Centre for Studies on the Cuban Economy, a Latin American NGO called Fundación AVINA, and a US social entrepreneur Eric Leenson. At this first conference I presented some of the results of my ethnographic and political economic work with Argentina’s empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores (worker-recuperated enterprises, or ERTs) … //

… The potential for a social and solidarity economy:

The second conference I presented was at the Centre for Studies on the Cuban Economy (CEEC in Spanish). It was its annual conference of mostly Cuban economists, government officials and municipal development officials. This conference was a slightly different but equally rewarding experience. There, I gave what I thought was a straightforward conceptual definition of the “social and solidarity economy”. In this presentation, I made an effort to bridge Canadian, European and Latin American conceptualisations while connecting notions of the social and solidarity economy to actual on-the-ground experiences in Latin America. Drawing from these traditions, in this presentation I defined the social and solidarity economy as:

“…social and economic practices and organisations that are not investor-owned or for-profit entities (although its organisations can make and draw on surpluses), nor government-owned or controlled (although its organisations may receive government funding), and that operate with the values of provisioning, first and foremost, for the socioeconomic needs of members. Known also loosely as the ‘third sector,’ social and solidarity economy organisations tend to have social objectives (such as sustaining and creating jobs, provisioning less expensive or environmentally sound consumer goods and services, facilitating the social or economic capacities of individuals and communities, etc.) and are usually organised in some sort of democratic fashion where each member has a vote or say in the operation, governance, and goals of the firm.”

The Cubans who listened to my presentation were very interested to know more about the social and solidarity economy but seemed not to be as familiar on the whole with a working definition of the concept. This was the case, as some Cuban academics told me, because they haven’t needed such a concept until now with a Cuban state and economy that is already “socialist” and “socialised”. This was surprising to me at first, especially given Cuba’s already-existing social economic practices that in many ways have been part of their daily reality for decades now. Think, for example, of their mostly do-it-yourself and community-based car parts manufacturing and repair shops, or the common practice throughout Cuba of sharing scarce commodities and products among neighbours.

Here some rich debates emerged amongst us concerning the terms socialised, social and socialist; how a social and solidarity economy is different or similar to what Cubans have been practicing under state socialism; and how such conceptualisations of the social and solidarity economy could help Cubans think about a new socialism that connects the broad economic reforms the Communist Party is proposing with the everyday practices of Cuban people. Conceiving of the “non-state” sector as a social and solidarity economy could also prove to be a softer landing for the hundreds of thousands of state workers that are expected to become (without a clear transition plan so far, it seems to me) cooperativistas andcuentapropistas.

Challenges, tensions and possibilities for a co-operative economy in Cuba: … //

… But, on the whole, opening up the Cuban economy more and more to straight up capital-labour relations and free markets is, I believe, the most perilous part of the suggested reforms and what might very well put Cuba’s many socialist gains (i.e., free health care, excellent public education, low poverty rates, low crime rates, virtually no unemployment, subsidised housing, public transportation …) at most risk of eventually evaporating into a market-driven system.

The degree of inter-firm competition that this new economy could involve is particularly unclear. And what of the characteristics of a new wage-based labour market that will be needed to supply employees to private firms, where the labour-power of a new class of “productive” workers would become one of Cuba’s newest commodities and where out-and-out surplus-value extraction and capital accumulation would be the prime mover for more and more privatised firms and economic sectors? Surprisingly, there is very little mention of such basic socialist concepts and critiques from some of the Cuban economists I have heard and read in the past year.

Another set of issues posed by some Cuban economists and co-operative developers is how production inputs will be provisioned in a non-state sector. They realise that some sort of wholesale market will be needed, for instance, but are not clear about its make-up. This has been traditionally handled by state quotas in Cuba. How will the non-state sector adapt to supply and demand constraints? Will a production input and supplies market be driven and regulated by price-indicators for new non-state businesses to capitalise, or will state planning still be maintained there? Both of these scenarios have their downsides for a potential co-operative economy.

And what is the role of foreign businesses and suppliers? The issue of what type of consumer markets will emerge is equally vague still. Finally, if the Cuban government’s plan is to transition former state employees to the new “non-state” economic sector and, in so doing, increase the country’s non-state workers by as much as a fifth by 2015, how exactly will this transition happen and how will the Cuban state guarantee the lineamientos’ and Raul Castro’s repeated assurances that “no one will be left unprotected” in the process?

All of these questions remain without clear answers to most Cubans I spoke with. But what is clear is that co-operatives will surely be allowed to emerge outside of the agricultural sector as service, consumer, housing and worker co-operatives. There is, moreover, a pending law of co-operatives that is being written right now, set to be released sometime this year, that should clarify to what degree the government is expecting co-operatives to take a leading role in the new non-state economic sector (Piñeiro Harnecker, 2012).

In sum, from the countless conversations I had while in Cuba with academics, government workers, co-operators and people on the street, many Cubans are very willing to contemplate and consider the role of a larger co-operative sector. There is no doubt that many Cubans are working hard to make this a reality in the coming months and years.

My sense is that many – perhaps the majority – of Cubans know that they have too much to lose to go down the neoliberal path, a distinct possibility given the trajectory of other “socialist” command economies, and the structural reforms that are unfolding. The co-operative path to economic sustainability would, I think, be a viable alternative development model for many key sectors of the Cuban economy. Such a development model would keep social wealth within the country and expand the capacities of Cuban workers in self-management. Such activism and participation among workers can also be a key spur to the nature of reforms in crucial areas where large state enterprises will remain, whether fully state owned or in joint enterprises. The co-operative road to reforms, most importantly, could help conserve the successes of Cuba’s brand of socialism, notably its egalitarian education, cultural and health sectors, which remain quite unique across South America and the Caribbean. At the same time, such co-operative-based reforms could help Cuba move along a new path toward 21st century socialism.

Additional References on Cuba’s new co-operatives: … (full text).

(Marcelo Vieta recently completed his Ph.D. from York University’s Program in Social and Political Thought with a dissertation looking at the innovations, challenges and political economic conjunctures of Argentina’s empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores (worker-recuperated enterprises). He is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Trento’s European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprises (EURICSE) in Trento, Italy. Marcelo can be reached here, or here).



CSR (corporate social responsibility) Case Study – Co-operative Financial Services/Governance, on article 13 – the responsible business experts (CSR Case Study Series, May 2005);

Social responsibility – The Co-operative;

Failing to Break Up the Big Banks is Destroying America, on Global, by Washington’s Blog, July 21, 2012.

The Libor Scandal In Full Perspective, on Global, by Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, July 20, 2012.

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