In the 1970s and 80s the members of the Red 
Balloon Collective, founded in 1970) like similar 
groups all over the country, discussed the sort 
of historical analysis that I'm reposting below 
for breakfast. And not only discussed, but 
immediately applied whatever lessons we'd take from what we were reading.

It's what we did. It seemed so ... natural. The 
same thing was happening everywhere.

It is incredibly hard to believe today that there 
was a time in this country, before the internet, 
when tens of thousands of activists integrated 
into their daily lives debates, detailed accounts 
of what was happening in other countries, and 
twists and turns in Marxist and anarchist theory, as a matter of course.

In some sense, the study of Marxism and radical 
movements was Talmudic. We pored over newspapers 
and texts and grappled with the latest wrinkle in 
interpreting what another group had written just 
a week or two or three before, as well as 100 
years before that. And we added our own wrinkles 
to the compilation and published them in our 
journal (a true "periodical" as it came out very 
periodically over the decades, whenever we felt 
the need to publish). The thought was alive and 
vibrant, not dead writings by dead men on dead trees.

We were inspired by, in particular, the Cuban 
revolution and the idea that an island of 11 
million people right off the coast of the United 
States could actually succeed in making a 
socialist revolution, which we sought to protect, 
criticize, learn from. Red Balloon would receive 
copies of Granma, Cuba's radical newspaper, in 
our mailbox in the offices of Stony Brook 
University student government. It would be 
wrapped in a plain wrapper (it later graduated to 
manila envelopes), as would the Militant and other papers we devoured.

No one -- at least not the many students I knew -- thought this to be unusual.

Che Guevara was one of the Independent Caucus of 
SDS's "Must Read" heroes, as was Rosa Luxemburg, 
Labor's Untold Story (Boyer & Morais), Malcolm X, 
and Lenin's State and Revolution. When Che was 
assassinated by the CIA in October, 1967, in 
cahoots with Bolivian military personnel they had 
trained, Spencer Black and I took out an obituary 
in the New York Times and billed it to student 
government (which Stony Brookers knew as 
"Polity").  (The Independent Caucus of SDS at 
Stony Brook was Red Balloon's immediate 
predecessor. Both were official "clubs" of student government.)

I'm writing all this today as an introduction 
here to situate the fascinating article, below, 
published in January 2019's Monthly Review. When 
I read it last evening I thought: We all knew Che 
as someone who put his life on the line for the 
revolutionary cause, and who wrote a lot about 
the need for the creation of a new socialist 
human being, which shaped us immensely. But I 
never knew -- or even asked! -- the details of 
how Che organized the revolutionary financial 
structures in Cuba in the 6 years he was in 
charge of them before heading off to the Congo and then to Bolivia.

There's so much to be learned from Che's work for 
us today, and particularly for Venezuela! I 
immediately looked to share my enthusiams with 
others in my household -- but I just turned 70, 
for Marx sake! Those collective living days are, sadly, passed.

My daughter was visiting from California, and I 
briefly touched on some of this on the bus to 
Coney Island, but her life is soooo different. 
Like most people her age she really doesn't have 
a clue about how we lived, what we thought about, 
and knows only small pieces of what we did when 
some of us get together and start reeling off 
stories. Which caused me to reflect on what was 
it about in those days that were so different 
than the way people live today. Do they have any 
idea of what we experienced, how the music was 
integrated into our daily lives, the intense joys 
and accomplishments as well as the defeats? So, 
now we text each other in short burps, but rarely 
do we delve into the meat (excuse me, the tofu) 
of an essay with others right then and there. 
There's an estrangement today, where essays are 
not only not immediately devoured but not read at 
all. (My 26-year-old nephew tells me that he's 
read maybe three books in his entire life. The 
books I gave him -- wide-ranging, fiction as well 
as current non-fiction -- are still sitting in 
his laundry basket for the past year unopened.)

And yet, he knows a lot. He learns it by being on 
his phone all day long 24/7. But the important 
continuity is lost, the Talmudic (again) 
reflections on others' reflections on still 
others' written experiences, sometimes 
perfecting, other times tearing into the writing 
that has come before. A single word can make a 
huge difference in understanding. Whole phrases, 
like "Socialism in one country", call up a long 
history of debate, betrayal, revolution, and 
sabotage of those revolutions. Who wants to talk about that?

The Red Balloon Collective -- well, pretty much 
the entire New Left, actually -- had a view on 
the question of "Can a socialist revolution 
succeed if it's limited to one country?". We were 
-- all of us in the New Left it seemed -- 
internationalists, and Che Guevara was one of us.

And so, when I read the article in Monthly Review 
and found all sorts of history in there that was 
new to me, I wanted to talk about it. and I want 
to talk about it with you. Anyone here want to read it and talk about it too?

Frankly, there need to be reading groups 
organized all over the place, to begin the 
process of rebuilding our movements beyond the 
immediate issues of this or that. We need to 
tease out the nuances, what actions rely on this 
interpretation vs. that one? What new ways of thinking, of seeing.

This may not be the greatest or most inspiring 
article in the world -- probably far from it -- 
but it caught my attention, taught me something 
new (that probably few folks today would 
appreciate), and has provoked these memories, 
thoughts, and analysis, which I will shortly add 
to my website along with other articles about 
Che, John Gerassi, Cuba that I have posted there.

- Mitchel Cohen
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn,
March 29, 2019

Cuba, Che Guevara, and the Problem of “Socialism in One Country”

by <>Ron Augustin

The presidential elections in Cuba may have 
marked the end of an era. On the face of it, Raúl 
Castro’s decision to step aside symbolized, more 
than anything else, the departure of the 
revolution’s historical generation and the 
process of rejuvenation of the Cuban leadership­a 
process that had begun much earlier than the 
Western media cared to acknowledge. Detractors of 
the Cuban government have been quick to express 
their regrets over the unbroken continuity of its 
socialist project and to predict, once again, the 
island’s eventual return into the capitalist fold.

The disintegration of the Soviet bloc thirty 
years ago and every policy change by Cuba have 
triggered speculations that the breakdown of 
socialism, the wholesale introduction of economic 
liberalization, and the restoration of capitalism 
in Cuba are imminent. By adding pressure from the 
outside, the objective of the U.S. blockade of 
Cuba has been just that: the destruction of the 
Cuban revolution’s economic base. But looking at 
Cuba’s relative isolation in a world of 
consumerism, indifference, and reactionary 
politics­in addition to the policy adjustments it 
has already been compelled to make­one does not 
have to be an enemy of the Cuban model to cast doubts on its viability.

It is indeed legitimate to ask whether, in the 
long run, Cuba as a socialist society can 
“survive” in a hostile environment. Or rather, 
how Cuba, and therefore socialism in one country, 
can hold up and develop against the economic, 
cultural, and military encirclement of U.S. 
imperialism in particular and the capitalist 
system in general. Dialectically, external 
contradictions take effect by means of internal 
contradictions and, if it were not for the Cuban 
people’s persevering resilience, the U.S. embargo 
and other capitalist pressures could have been 
enough to seriously undermine Cuba’s political and economic independence.

The Political Economy of Socialist Transition

 From the early days of the Cuban Revolution, 
strengthening the internal and external 
conditions of its survival has been of great 
concern to its protagonists, even though their 
approach has never solely been a defensive one. 
After the seizure of power, converting the rebel 
army into a more regular defense force was 
perhaps the easiest task. However, shaking up the 
economy and developing a planning system as the 
basis of Cuban society’s socialist transition has 
been a completely different story. At the time, 
two of the most delicate and urgent economic 
measures to be taken­industrialization and the 
transformation of the banking system­were assigned to Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

In November 1959, only two months after he had 
started to organize the Department of 
Industrialization at the National Institute of 
Agrarian Reform (INRA), Guevara also took on the 
presidency of the National Bank of Cuba. In this 
function, he directed six major operations to 
stop capital flight and regain control of the 
country’s financial resources: 1) the withdrawal 
of Cuban gold reserves from the United States, 2) 
the introduction of foreign trade licenses, 3) 
the nationalization of the banking system, 4) the 
termination of Cuba’s membership in 
U.S.-dominated international finance 
institutions, 5) the setup of a foreign trade 
agency, and 6) the pivotal replacement of 
banknotes. Following the first U.S. sanctions in 
October 1960, Guevara led a two-month trade 
mission to the Soviet Union, China, East Germany, 
Czechoslovakia, and North Korea. At that point, 
he already had trade experience from his travels 
to Yugoslavia, North Africa, and Asia the previous year.

In February 1961, Guevara was instrumental in 
establishing the Ministry of Industries, which he 
headed up until his departure for the Congo four 
years later. Simultaneously, he continued to be 
active as a military commander and as one of the 
architects of Cuba’s new State Security 
Department that organized support to liberation 
movements in Latin America and Africa. The fact 
that he stayed at the Ministry of Industries for 
so long shows that he considered it necessary to 
domestically consolidate the revolution before 
turning to international projects. Despite its 
continental inclinations and Guevara’s own 
aspirations abroad, the Cuban leadership’s top 
priority was implementing and deepening the 
economic conditions of the country’s first phase 
of socialist transformation, while in no way 
neglecting international conditions impacting the 
revolution. Guevara only renounced his functions 
in the Cuban leadership when he was confident 
that the systems he helped put in place were 
mature enough to advance without him.

Before leaving for his final undertaking in Latin 
America, Guevara spent three months in a small 
summerhouse near Prague, codenamed Venkov (Czech 
for “the cottage”), preparing a book on the 
political economy of socialist transition. In one 
of his notes for the book, he posed and 
implicitly denied the rhetorical question: “First 
of all, can communism be built in just one 
The question referred to statements by the Soviet 
Union’s Academy of Sciences in its Manual of 
Political Economy, which had been widely used for 
training government employees in countries 
receiving Soviet aid. The core of Guevara’s notes 
from this period revolve around a critical 
assessment of the Manual and his disapproval of 
the economic, social, and political consequences 
of Soviet practices­from V. I. Lenin’s New 
Economic Policy to the ensuing politics of 
“socialism in one country” and “peaceful coexistence.”

The book project fit in with the discussions 
Guevara had initiated during his years at the 
helm of Cuba’s Ministry of Industries, which came 
to be known as the Great Debate. While the 
discussions centered on advocating for the 
Ministry’s Budgetary Finance System over the 
so-called Autofinancing System or Economic 
Calculus applied in the other socialist 
economies, their scope included the fundamental 
issues determining the period of transition from 
a capitalist to a socialist economy, both from a 
Cuban and an international perspective. Moral 
values and “facts of consciousness” were 
Guevara’s major concerns, and his most 
comprehensive analysis of their significance in 
socialist development can be found in one of a 
series of articles published in the Ministry’s 
magazine, Nuestra Industria, throughout 1963 and 

In a Ministry meeting on October 2, 1964, Guevara 
cautioned his staff against conflating the 
definitions of socialism and communism, pointing 
out that socialism, as the period of transition 
between the capitalist order’s destruction and 
the building of communism, could not be conceived 
in a linear way. He reminded them that, “if you 
read Lenin attentively,” an additional period can 
be distinguished: a period of socialist 
construction that “moves from the establishment 
of workers’ power until the moment when society 
can be called socialist, i.e., when the means of 
production will all be in the hands of society, 
when there will be no exploitation of human 
beings by other human beings, etc. Rewarding 
according to labor will determine the period 
spanning from socialism to communism, while under 
communism rewarding will be according to 

Noticing that “the political economy of the 
period of transition is still missing entirely,” 
he tried to provide some of the main analytical 
elements for understanding and transforming “a 
period during which workers’ power is 
established, where the decision to move towards 
socialism has been taken, and where nevertheless 
a whole series of production relations closely 
linked to capitalism 
Guevara thought that these relations could be 
overcome by more or less centralized planning and 
the gradual shift in emphasis from material to moral incentives.

Referring to the extent to which the law of value 
still applies in a socialist economy surrounded 
by market economies, Guevara concluded, in the 
same meeting, that socialist planning finally 
enabled humanity to “break and create economic 
laws”­a capacity, however, “which cannot be 
reduced to the development of the productive 
forces in one country, but which implies the 
development of socialism on a world scale, 
because socialism is a global system and 
influences the entire 

“Socialism in One Country”

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had expected the 
socialist revolution to take place after the full 
development of the productive forces, and 
therefore in the most developed capitalist 
economies first. This view was based on the 
observation, as expressed in the Communist 
Manifesto, that the bourgeoisie had not only 
“forged the weapons that bring death to itself,” 
but also created those “who are to wield those 
weapons,” that is, the modern working class. In 
notes that came to be known as the German 
Ideology, they wrote: “Empirically, communism is 
only possible as the act of the dominant peoples 
‘all at once’ and simultaneously, which 
presupposes the universal development of 
productive forces and the world intercourse bound 
up with 

In preparation for writing the Communist 
Manifesto, Engels drafted a list, known as 
Principles of Communism, in which, in 1847, he noted:

Will it be possible for this revolution to take 
place in one country alone? No. Large-scale 
industry, already by creating the world market, 
has so linked up all the peoples of the 
earth…that each people is dependent on what 
happens to another.… [I]t will develop more 
quickly or more slowly according to whether the 
country has a more developed industry, more 
wealth, and a more considerable mass of 
productive forces. It will therefore be slowest 
and most difficult to carry out in Germany, 
quickest and easiest in England. It will also 
have an important effect upon the other countries 
of the world, and will completely change and 
greatly accelerate their previous manner of 
development. It is a worldwide revolution and 
will therefore be worldwide in 

Based on these assumptions, more than half a 
century later and under changed international 
conditions, advanced capitalist accumulation was 
still considered a prerequisite for the start of 
a socialist revolution. This is what Lenin 
referred to when, in 1915, he stated that “uneven 
economic and political development is an absolute 
law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of 
socialism is possible first in several or even in 
one capitalist country 
His assessment of the Russian situation after the 
forced abdication of Tsar Nicolas II in March 
1917 was that, due to the peasant character of 
the country, “the Russian proletariat cannot 
bring the socialist revolution to a victorious 
conclusion. But it can give the Russian 
revolution a mighty sweep that would create the 
most favorable conditions for a socialist 
revolution, and would, in a sense, start it. It 
can facilitate the rise of a situation in which 
its chief, its most trustworthy and most reliable 
partner, the European and American socialist 
proletariat, could join the decisive 

In the first years after the October Revolution, 
its leaders expected to be at the beginning of a 
process of world revolution, which they 
considered indispensable for the development of 
socialism in an economically underdeveloped 
(“backward”) country like Russia, under 
conditions of military encirclement and limited 
resources. They had high hopes for the rise of 
the German working class, which at the time was 
considered the most advanced despite the 
nationalist opportunism of its social-democratic 
leaders during the First World War and their 
ignorance of “the international functions of the 
German working class” already pointed out by Marx 
But revolutionary upheavals in Germany were 
rapidly smothered in blood. From prison, only 
months before her assassination, Rosa Luxemburg 
commented bitterly: “It is not Russia’s 
unripeness which has been proved by the events of 
the war and the Russian Revolution, but the 
unripeness of the German proletariat for the 
fulfilment of its historic 

The more it became clear that the Russian 
Revolution’s consolidation could not depend on 
the workers’ movements in the West, the more the 
Bolsheviks saw themselves forced to attempt a 
breakthrough within their own confines. As 
foreseen by Lenin a decade earlier, the economic 
consequences of the antagonism between 
proletariat and peasantry, or between urban and 
rural interests, began to determine their 
policies. In the meantime, counterrevolutionary 
troops supported by the imperialist powers had 
been pushed back by the Red Army and solidarity 
movements in the capitalist centers helped prevent further military incursions.

Defending the adoption of the largely 
market-oriented New Economic Policy in 1921, Lenin concluded in retrospect:

When we started the international revolution, we 
did so…because a number of circumstances 
compelled us to start it. We thought: either the 
international revolution comes to our assistance, 
and in that case our victory will be fully 
assured, or we shall do our modest revolutionary 
work in the conviction that even in the event of 
defeat we shall have served the cause of the 
revolution and that our experience will benefit 
other revolutions.… Before the revolution, and 
even after it, we thought: either revolution 
breaks out in the other countries, in the 
capitalistically more developed countries, 
immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must 
perish. Actually, however, events did not proceed 
along as straight a line as we had 

A year later, Lenin even affirmed that “as early 
as 1918 we regarded state capitalism as a 
possible line of 

Nevertheless, it took the leadership of the young 
Soviet Union another five years or so until they 
definitively subordinated the prospects of 
international revolutionary movements to the 
protection of immediate national interests. A 
year after Lenin’s death in 1924, “socialism in 
one country” became the paramount policy 
doctrine, replacing international solidarity with 
geopolitics, or, in Guevara’s words, 
“internationalism with 
The acknowledgement of a failing world revolution 
turned into denial of its necessity and the 
conviction that everything had to be subordinated 
to the defense of domestic interests, again at 
the expense of revolutionary potential elsewhere. 
As a policy, it had repercussions on the Soviet 
Union’s own transformation processes. 
Glorification of the existing system replaced 
critical analysis. Assuming that Lenin would 
eventually have tried to rectify the course of 
things, Guevara ironically reproached him for 
having made “two major mistakes, the first one 
was the New Economic Policy, the second one was 
to have died, albeit not on 

Socialism in one country has never been a 
well-founded theoretical concept, even when it 
continued to be closely related to the 
deterministic view that capitalism would succumb 
to its own contradictions, or that the 
development of the productive forces would almost 
automatically lead to socialism. Ever since its 
inception, the phrase hardly evolved beyond a 
mere justification of realities and practical 
policies. It was, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, an 
“ideological monstrosity” at “the root of the 
institutionalization of the Russian 
With dogmatic determination, both Joseph Stalin 
and his opponents dug their heels into the slogan 
with out-of-context Lenin quotes and, in the end, 
it only served to justify political purges and to 
keep Communist parties around the world under 
“Moscow’s” thumb. It kept Trotskyist and Maoist 
parties bogged down in pointless debates. The 
Soviet Union continued to support organizations 
in the West, as well as liberation movements in 
what came to be called the third world, but its 
orientation and the support extended to other 
forces were increasingly conditioned by narrow geopolitical considerations.

Rather than fostering revolutionary movements 
wherever they emerged in order to weaken the 
capitalist system’s grip on people’s lives, 
countless initiatives were sacrificed, left with 
little support, or actively stopped. 
Organizations and popular uprisings were 
instrumentalized in questionable coalitions for 
the good of “socialism in one country” and, 
subsequently, “peaceful coexistence,” with 
devastating consequences for the international 
communist movement and peoples at large. Examples 
of this are known too well to be enumerated here. 
The doctrine of socialism in one country has 
become a metaphor for defensive ideology 
substituting itself for offensive revolutionary 
praxis, which is “dangerous and egoistic in a 
profound sense, because it morally disarms the 
peoples and would cause socialism to forget the 
other, slower, peoples in the emulation 

“Moral Missiles”

In the new capitalist world order created by the 
Second World War, revolutionary dynamics shifted 
from the workers’ movements in its centers to the 
anticolonial and anti-imperialist liberation 
struggles in its peripheries. After the Chinese 
Revolution and the Vietnamese victory at Dien 
Bien Phu, guerilla warfare became the predominant 
form of struggle against the old colonial powers 
and neocolonial expansion. The third world, 
initially termed by a sociologist to describe the 
emerging Non-Aligned Movement, became the 
consciousness of a battlefield for what Franz 
Fanon called the creation of “manifold Dien Bien 

 From the outset, Cuban revolutionaries had an 
internationalist perspective, even though every 
social revolution is first a struggle for 
self-determination, occurring, consolidating, and 
developing within a national context. Political 
sovereignty and economic independence were the 
main objectives of the Cuban guerilla war, which 
turned into one of the first social revolutions 
driven by a majority of peasants and rural 
workers in alliance with the urban working class 
and the intelligentsia. After the seizure of 
power, their first international contacts were 
established with the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement.

While critical about the realities of socialism 
in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Cuban 
revolutionaries were convinced that the 
development of socialism in Cuba had to go hand 
in hand with revolutions elsewhere, particularly 
in Latin America, in order to divide the 
imperialist forces and thus take away some 
pressure off the Cuban Revolution. For them, the 
“continental character” of their struggle was a 
matter of protecting its domestic outcome but 
also a matter of revolutionary identity with the 
poorest masses, based on their personal 
experience and political affinities from their 
time in exile. In the tradition of José Martí, 
they understood Latin America as a single patria 
or nation and “the independence of Cuba as an 
integral part of the Latin American 

Contrary to U.S. propaganda and widespread 
belief, the Cuban leadership, including Guevara, 
never tried to spread their convictions by 
fomenting “social unrest” abroad. When they 
talked about the “organization of a continental 
front,” they were referring to authentic 
struggles already taking place in almost every 
corner of Latin America. Cuba did all it could to 
help and bring these together, but its main 
credo, persistent to this day, was “to convince 
by example,” sending out “moral missiles” by 
pursuing its own social revolution. Its prestige 
alone was enough to inspire anti-imperialist 
struggles worldwide, including the left in the 
West and various movements in the United States. 
Guevara, who considered his own job “a function 
of orientation,” defined the Cuban Revolution’s 
significance as “the power of its moral 
influence. ‘Moral missiles’ are such a 
devastatingly effective weapon that they have 
become the most important element in determining 

Even so, Cuban leaders did not expect a social 
revolution to hold in a single Latin American 
country alone: “The Yankees will intervene 
because of shared interests and because the 
struggle in Latin America is decisive.… They will 
try to destroy the new state economically, in a 
word, they will try to annihilate it. Given this 
overall panorama of Latin America, we find it 
difficult to believe that victory can be achieved 
in one isolated country. The response to the 
unity of the repressive forces must be the unity 
of the popular 

For Guevara, with regard to the wider world, it 
was crucial to support any people fighting for 
independence and to intervene “wherever the 
balance of power offers the least margin,” 
because “each time a country is torn away from 
the imperialist tree, it is not only a partial 
battle won against the main enemy but it also 
contributes to the real weakening of that enemy, 
and is one more step toward the final victory. 
There are no borders in this struggle to the 
He said this in a speech in Algiers in February 
1965, two months before leaving for the Congo and 
two months after he had told Josie Fanon that, in 
the same vein, the defense of the Cuban 
Revolution was “not just a defensive struggle but 
at the same time an offensive battle against 

Of course, the Cuban leadership could not neglect 
the possible repercussions of their foreign 
policy on the island’s national security. Guevara 
had warned State Security staff in May 1962 that 
“the attitude of Latin America is intrinsically 
tied to our future and our revolution’s 
But for Cuba, international solidarity remained 
unconditional and largely independent of 
geopolitical motives. It has ranged from 
providing humanitarian aid to Chile in 1961 and 
medical care for Chernobyl victims in the 1980s 
to present-day literacy and health campaigns by 
thousands of Cuban volunteer teachers, 
technicians, and medical staff across the world. 
At their request, the country provided weapons, 
training, and medical care to guerilla movements 
in Algeria and Latin America. In addition to the 
military training mission in the Congo headed by 
Guevara, Cuba also assisted a dozen African 
liberation movements and governments with 
military advisors. Between 1975 and 1988, it sent 
up to fifty-five thousand troops to help push 
back South Africa’s invasion of Angola.

In sync with Guevara’s activities in Africa and 
Bolivia, the Cuban leadership hosted two major 
meetings of revolutionary organizations: the 
Tricontinental Conference in January 1966 and, 
eighteen months later, the Conference of the 
Latin American Organization of Solidarity, which 
included the continent’s guerilla movements “in 
order to elaborate a common strategy to fight 
Yankee imperialism.” Stokely Carmichael and other 
black militants from the United States attended as special guests.

In his Message to the Tricontinental, written 
just before leaving for Bolivia in October 1966, 
Guevara outlined a strategic perspective, stating 
that “imperialism is a world system, the last 
stage of capitalism­and it must be defeated in a 
His ultimate objective was to help the Vietnamese 
Revolution by opening up a second front, 
asserting that it was Latin America’s task to 
create “the world’s second or third Vietnam, or 
second and third Vietnam,” based on the 
consideration that “the confrontations of 
revolutionary significance are those that put the 
entire imperialist apparatus in 

Concretely, Guevara’s efforts in the Congo and 
Bolivia consisted of trying to lay the 
foundations for what eventually were to become 
“international proletarian armies.” In the words 
of Harry Villegas, one of the guerrilleros who 
joined Guevara in both undertakings,

in elaborating his strategy, given the struggles 
already under way in different countries of the 
continent, Che envisioned the possibility of 
forming a guerrilla nucleus, a mother column that 
would pass through the necessary and difficult 
stage of survival and development. Later on, it 
would give birth to new guerrilla columns 
extending outward toward the Southern Cone of 
Latin America, giving continuity to a battle that 
would become continent-wide in 

In this endeavor, the overarching principle was 
to lead by example, and Guevara, too, may be 
reproached for having “died, albeit not on 
purpose.” In his notes from Prague, he had 
written: “We are lending our modest grain of 
salt, fearing that the enterprise exceeds our 
strengths by far. At least, what remains is the 
testimony of our 

Cuba’s Economy Today

Two years into the Cuban Revolution, Paul Baran 
pointed out that it was “not merely a political 
revolution.… The acid test of the purely 
political rather than social nature of any such 
upheaval is its 

The acid test of the Cuban Revolution’s 
irreversibility came with the collapse of the 
Soviet Union and the end of the Council for 
Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), of which 
Cuba had been a member for more than two decades. 
As a result, Cuba’s foreign trade fell by 80 
percent, manufacturing capacity utilization by 85 
percent, GDP by more than 35 percent. The U.S. 
government deepened the crisis by ramping up 
economic sanctions in 1992 and 1996, paralyzing 
trade and financial transactions in dollars, and 
permanently costing the Cuban economy 10 percent of its GDP.

Fortunately, as early as 1985, the Cuban 
leadership had already dismissed the Soviet 
Union’s politics of perestroika and, the 
following year, launched a Rectification Campaign 
that helped the country get through the worst 
hardships of what came to be known as the Special 
Period. The main objective of this campaign was 
to rectify the excessive centralization of 
economic decision-making and the size and makeup 
of the country’s bureaucracy. Its underlying 
philosophy was explained by Fidel Castro as a 
return to Guevara’s “economic thoughts,” which 
conceived of the socialist process as, above all, 
a “phenomenon of 

By reinvigorating the local councils and 
introducing the direct election of delegates at 
the provincial and national levels, the 
rectification process strengthened people’s 
participation in developing and implementing 
social and economic policies. It heightened the 
political motivation and accountability in 
different industry sectors, diversified and 
decentralized power generation, and increased 
self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs by 
sustainable cultivation, biotechnology, and urban 
After much discussion, it opened up the economy 
to foreign investment in order to fight the 
chronic currency deficit and, in 1993–94, more 
than half of state-owned agricultural land was 
conceded to Basic Units of Cooperative 
Production, with more freedom in decision-making. 
Foreign investments in the tourist industry, 
supported by considerable Cuban resources, became 
the real engine of economic recovery, followed by 
major foreign and domestic investments in nickel 
mining, as well as credits from China, Brazil, and Venezuela.

However, building socialism under conditions of 
capitalist encirclement has its economics. As a 
small island economy, in order to achieve minimal 
levels of productivity, Cuba has to produce goods 
at scales larger than its national market. To 
this end, it has to have access to financial 
markets, it needs to import significant parts of 
the production inputs, and it has to find markets 
willing to absorb the products that are exceeding 
national consumption. After the demise of 
COMECON, the only way to restore capacity 
utilization and productive employment was to 
engage with and in the capitalist world market. 
Aware of the risks for its socialist project, the 
Cuban leadership aimed to give new impetus to the 
rectification process by proposing the 
“actualization” of the Cuban economic and social 
development model. Following five years of 
discussions with broad popular input, the Cuban 
leadership presented a first set of guidelines 
for this program in 2011 “to guarantee the 
irreversibility and continuity of our socialism.” 
After further popular consultation, an updated 
version of the guidelines was adopted in 2016, 
together with a comprehensive Concept for Cuba’s 
Economic and Social Development Plan until 

One of the first consequences of the 
“actualization” of the economic model was the 
dismantling and reorganization of nonproductive 
workplaces and the expansion of the nonstate 
sector, including self-employment and 
cooperatives both in agricultural and 
nonagricultural occupations. So far, the move has 
affected about half a million jobs and mainly 
applies to the service sector and petty-commodity 
producers. In order to prevent any concentration 
of capital and property, business ownership is 
limited in numbers and size. A new law 
facilitated the lease of idle land to individual 
farmers, providing them with access to 
microcredits and enabling them to sell produce to 
hotels and restaurants. Health care, education, 
defense, and arms-related institutions remain 
excluded from any kind of privatization and 
foreign investment. Monetary unification has been 
planned for the near future, strengthening the 
local peso and doing away with the convertible 
peso that was introduced in 1994 as a temporary 
solution to the Special Period’s currency problems.

Perhaps most important to the new model is the 
decentralization of decision-making, comprising a 
major shift from the central state institutions 
to regional and local bodies, as well as to the 
state sector’s enterprises. Decentralization is 
also to impact the country’s comprehensive 
planning system, expected to become more flexible 
and reactive, leaving more space for indirect 
control mechanisms. Nonetheless, all documents 
and government statements related to the 
actualization process insist that “the socialist 
planning system will continue to be the main way 
to direct the national 

In Cuba, education and health care are free and 
of a high quality, but a huge gap still remains 
between people’s income and their needs, and 
between the resources and needs of the country at 
large. Social realities determine people’s 
consciousness, and pressures from the 
outside­both present and future – should not be 
underestimated, nor should the effects of modern 
communication technologies and four million tourists every year.

The fact remains that maintaining and 
transforming the country’s socialist development 
does not depend on internal conditions alone. As 
long as Cuba has to go against the tide of 
present-day international realities, its process 
of socialist development will continue to be an 
extremely complex and difficult one. Thus, the 
question is hardly whether the Cuban Revolution 
can survive, but whether its isolation in a 
capitalist world will be broken by other social 
revolutions. Instead of making that tourist trip 
“before it’s too late,” we better ask ourselves 
how we can help create two, three, many Cubas.


Ron Augustin is a freelance journalist and editor 
based in Brussels. In collaboration with the 
International Institute of Social History in 
Amsterdam, he has been involved in editorial and 
digitization projects documenting some of the 
anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s.

Safehouse in Ladvi near Prague used by Che Guevara

The safehouse in Ladvi near Prague, where Che 
Guevara wrote his Critical Notes on Political 
Economy between April and July 1966. Photo: Ron Augustin.


    * Ernesto Che Guevara, Apuntes Críticos a la 
Economía Política (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2006), 
203. An English-language edition, Critical Notes 
on Political Economy, has been announced by Ocean 
Press several times but appears to be unavailable 
as of yet. Only a chapter on Marx and Engels has 
been published in English so far. For an 
extensive contextual analysis of Apuntes, see 
Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of 
Revolution (London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
    * Ernesto Che Guevara, On the Budgetary 
Finance System, in Bertram Silverman, ed., Man 
and Socialism in Cuba: The Great Debate (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 122–56.
    * Ernesto Che Guevara, appendix to Apuntes, 338–39.
    * Guevara, appendix to Apuntes, 339.
    * Guevara, appendix to Apuntes, 342.
    * Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected 
Works, vol. 5 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 49.
    * Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6, 351–52.
    * Lenin, On the Slogan for a United States of 
Europe, in Collected Works, vol. 21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 343.
    * Lenin, Farewell Letter to the Swiss 
Workers, in Collected Works, vol. 23, 372.
    * Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 
in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 24, 90.
    * Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, in 
Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson, eds., The Rosa 
Luxemburg Reader (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 283.
    * Lenin, Report on the Tactics of the Russian 
Communist Party, in Collected Works, vol. 32, 479–80.
    * Report to the Fourth Congress of the 
Communist International, in Collected Works, vol. 33, 421.
    * Guevara, Apuntes, 145.
    * Guevara, Apuntes, 345.
    * Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical 
Reason, ed. Arlette Elkaim-Sartre, vol. II (London: Verso, 1991), 98–104
    * Guevara, Apuntes, 204.
    * Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth 
(New York: Grove Press, 2004), 70.
    * Informe de la Delegación Cubana a la 
Primera Conferencia de la OLAS (Havana: OLAS, 1967), 30.
    * Guevara, Apuntes, 336; Ernesto Che Guevara, 
Táctica y Estrategia de la Revolución 
Latinoamericana, in Escritos y Discursos, vol. 9 
(Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1977), 226.
    * Guevara, Táctica y Estrategia de la Revolución Latinoamericana, 237–38.
    * Guevara, Escritos y Discursos, vol. 9, 265–66.
    * Guevara, Escritos y Discursos, vol. 9, 337.
    * Guevara, Escritos y Discursos, vol. 9, 199.
    * Guevara, Escritos y Discursos, vol. 9, 
364–69. For an English version, see Che Guevara, 
Message to the Tricontinental (Havana: Executive 
Secretariat of the Organization of the Solidarity 
of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin 
America, 1967), available at
    * Guevara, Escritos y Discursos, vol. 9, 364–69.
    * Harry Villegas, Pombo: A Man of Che’s 
Guerilla, With Che Guevara in Bolivia 1966–68 
(New York: Pathfinder Press, 1997), 31.
    * Guevara, Apuntes, 33.
    * Paul A. Baran, Reflections on the Cuban 
Revolution, in The Longer View (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 391.
    * Fidel Castro, Por el Camino Correcto 
(Havana: Editora Política, 1989), 45.
    * Fernando Martínez Heredia, Desafíos del 
Socialismo Cubano (Havana: Centro de Estudios sobre América, 1988).
    * Partido Comunista de Cuba, Lineamientos de 
la Política Económica y Social del Partido y la 
Revolución para el Período 2016–2021 (Havana: 
Partido Comunista de Cuba, 2017), 1–47; Partido 
Comunista de Cuba, Conceptualización del Modelo 
Económico y Social Cubano de Desarrollo 
Socialista (Havana: Partido Comunista de Cuba, 2017), 1–54.
    * Partido Comunista de Cuba, Lineamientos, 3; Conceptualización, 16.

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