“You represent the victory of life over death, of solidarity over selfishness, of the ideal of socialism over the myth of the market,” was the message delivered by President Miguel Díaz-Canel to the Cuban medical staff of the Henry Reeve Brigade on their return from Lombardy. These words sounded like much more than mere rhetoric, and the applause of the crowd present at the welcoming ceremony confirmed this impression.
The policy of the Cuban government to contain the COVID-19 contagion has been, and still is, working effectively. The numbers speak for themselves: Wednesday (June 10) was the 11th day without any deaths, while there were only six new confirmed cases of contagion, all asymptomatic and identified thanks to the 2,344 swabs carried out the day before among the population at risk.
The prevention measures adopted seem to have worked: isolation at home in the most at-risk neighborhoods, social distancing, face masks, the closure of schools and all non-essential businesses as well as of public transport. In addition, a series of locally produced medicines were distributed free of charge to strengthen the immune system and help contain the consequences of contagion. Since March, 2,025 cases of infected persons have been recorded, out of which—as of Wednesday—1,880 had been classed as recovered, while the total number of casualties is at 83.
If one compares this situation with that of Chile—which has almost the same number of inhabitants as Cuba—the difference is staggering: the latter has recorded 148,500 infected and almost 2,500 dead. Such figures come from a country that is the flagship of the “Chicago boys” approach and their neoliberal policy which was offered as salvation for the entire Latin American subcontinent (despite the fact that the first enthusiastic adopter was the dictator Pinochet).
In addition to the figures regarding the containment of the coronavirus, there is another fact that is impressive and does Cuba proud: the fact that it was able to send medical personnel in missions to 28 affected countries, including Italy. A small island with eleven million inhabitants that has been subject to an economic, commercial and financial blockade for 60 years, which the Trump administration has recently strengthened with the intention of strangling its economy, has sent hundreds of doctors and nurses around the world to fight COVID-19.
It is a shining example of solidarity which, in the view of many, should be given a Nobel Peace Prize. However, for the US (with its almost 1.5 million confirmed infections), it makes the comparison between the two countries particularly humiliating.
This is felt to such an extent that both the State Department, run by the hawk Mike Pompeo, and the allies and organizations who are directly or indirectly on Washington’s payroll are stubbornly trying to defame this initiative, calling the Cuban doctors and nurses “slaves” being leased out by a “dictatorial regime.” In this view, the Italian patients from Crema who were treated by Cuban doctors should be ashamed that they’ve allowed themselves to be treated by “slaves” instead of taking the risk of losing their life to uphold freedom “made in the USA.”
Cuba is paying a high price for these successes, both economic and social. The island’s economy was already in serious difficulties before the pandemic, due to the financial, economic and social chokehold implemented by the Trump administration. After almost three months of paralysis in the country, the crisis is even more serious. The government coffers are almost dry: the main sources of cash coming into the country—tourism and remittances—have been blocked by COVID-19 and US sanctions, and the production of export goods has been reduced by the pandemic.
One of the weaknesses of Cuban socialism is that the island depends on food imports to meet the needs of the population (in 2018, the government spent around $2 billion). In the midst of a liquidity crisis, the government has drastically reduced these imports. Many basic necessities are scarce and there are large queues in front of the shops or bodegas (where subsidized products are sold). Some queues—for chicken and hygiene products—can last for more than a day, leading to high anxiety (sometimes the stock is not enough to reach the people at the back of the line) and dissatisfaction. Furthermore, even though these queues are supervised by police or military personnel entrusted with police functions, the social distancing measures are often impossible to respect.
For some days now, there have also been shortages of products essential to the local diet, such as boniato (sweet potato) and tomatoes, and even bananas are scarce. It is yet another clear sign—as if there was any need for one—of the inefficiency of Acopio, the state monopoly on the marketing of agricultural products, so much so that President Díaz-Canel has made clear the need for both reforming Acopio and finding alternative forms for the marketing (and thus for the setting of prices) of agricultural products.
As a result, the pandemic has made the need to “modernize” Cuban socialism even more urgent.
These reforms have largely been outlined in a series of documents drawn up after debates involving almost the entire population, approved by the National Assembly and whose implementation instruments are also supported by the new Constitution (passed in April 2019). But they are still in the process of being implemented.
The central objects of these reforms have been the subject of debate, including online, for months: monetary reform to eliminate the two currencies in circulation, a law on businesses that would involve a decentralization of state-owned companies, a law on small and medium-sized enterprises (which would formalize their legal status and therefore give them the possibility to conduct import and export), a law on foreign investment (also opening it up to Cubans living abroad) and priority given to production that would replace imports.
As the economist (and academic) Julio Carranza has recently emphasized, a socialist economy does not involve the suppression of the market, nor of private property, but the subordination of the private interest to the public interest, of the market to society. “In this international situation in which capitalism, as a global system, especially in its neoliberal version, has proved to be incapable of protecting the interests of the vast majority of the world’s population, in addition to the environmental sustainability of the planet, the socialist alternative is a difficult one, but it is not only necessary, but also possible.” This is where Cuba is called to make its contribution.