Regime Survival in Cuba in Comparative Perspective

October 12, 2016

The collapse of ten communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Mongolia in 1989-1991 was one of the most important events of the twentieth century. Equally important, though often ignored, was another phenomenon: the survival of communist parties in Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea. Although their fortunes seemed precarious in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, these regimes have now persisted for a quarter of a century past the 1989 watershed. Their durability poses a challenging puzzle that requires a theoretical explanation.1

This brief essay offers a theoretical framework for interpreting the survival of communist regimes past 1989. It argues that communist regimes have persisted as a result of both institutional continuity and adaptive flexibility. Although the specific mix of continuity and flexibility differs across the five countries, the set of institutions that may be preserved or undergo adaptation is identical and consists of what Friedrich and Brzezinski identified as the six “traits” of totalitarian regimes: an elaborate ideology; a single mass party; a system of terror; near-complete monopoly on the means of mass communication; near complete monopoly on the effective use of all weapons of armed combat; and central control and direction of the entire economy.2 I argue that these “traits” are the key governance institutions that sustain communist rule even when communist regimes transition away from totalitarianism. Therefore, understanding the evolution of these institutions can reveal the core mechanisms that have allowed some communist regimes to survive past 1989.3

This essay argues that regime survival in Cuba has been a result of rigidity with regard to maintaining the single-party system and the monopoly on all weapons of armed combat and flexibility in terms of ideology, control over the means of mass communication (Cuba has the least restricted Internet of all surviving communist regimes), and the extent of repression (Cuba is the least repressive communist regime today). Until recently, Cuba resisted economic reforms, but the post-2011 initiatives with regard to the actualización del modelo económico (update of the economic model) suggest that Cuba might be following, with a three decade delay, China’s path of economic liberalization. The rest of the essay will briefly examine each of the six institutions of governance and will discuss its importance for regime preservation in Cuba.

One lesson from 1989 is that communist regimes begin to unravel once they legally sanction the existence of a multi-party system and thus allow opposition parties to be formed and to challenge the monopoly on power of the communist party. Having learned that lesson, Cuba is firmly committed to maintaining the single-party system. This is true even though, in accordance with the 1992 Constitution, Cuba currently has more than one political party. We should be mindful, however, that these political parties are not allowed to campaign and do not present any meaningful challenge to the communist party.4 Other important changes such as the introduction of direct elections for deputies in the municipal assemblies, provincial assemblies, and the National Assembly; the adoption of term limits (Raúl Castro has promised to step down in 2018); and the toleration of civil society groups in the non-critical realm (essentially NGOs that focus on the provision of public goods) do not represent an aberration from analogous practices in other communist regimes. None of these limited reforms challenge the core of the single-party model in Cuba.

There has been no departure from the classic model with regard to maintaining a monopoly on all weapons of mass combat. Because it came to power through protracted guerilla warfare, the Cuban regime has a sound understanding of the exceeding importance of maintaining firm control over all weapons of mass combat. The danger from the point of view of the regime is that liberalizing access to weapons of mass combat may allow discontented citizens to get organized into armed regime resistance groups. Rigidity with regard to this institution of governance attests to its essential role for maintaining communist rule.


Ideological Change 

An area where there has been significant change is ideology. Like all other communist regimes that have survived 1989, Cuba abandoned its normative commitment to Marxism-Leninism. However, the break with the orthodox tenets of communism did not mean the end of ideology. If anything, the regime-legitimating functions of nationalism have assumed an even greater importance since the collapse of the Soviet Union. By maintaining the trade embargo, the U.S. continues to provide fodder for this nationalism. Although the regular staged protests outside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana seem to be a thing of the past, not a day passes by without a mention of el bloqueo on the evening news. Nationalism today provides the only ideological glue that could bind citizens with those in power.

Another area where important change has occurred is in the monopoly of the regime over the means of mass communication. On the one hand, old practices like the jamming of Radio and TV Martí and the refusal to permit the publication of independent newspapers persist. At the same time, fundamental changes have taken place as well. Some independent-minded highbrow journals like Temas and Espacio Laical are now published, albeit in very small print runs. Blogs like La Joven Cuba, Observatorio Crítico, La Polémica Digital, Desde Cuba, and even Generación Yare not consistently blocked. And finally, Cuba does have the least restricted Internet of any communist country. In contrast to China, where Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail are all blocked, Cuba does not restrict access to these communication platforms -except by making Internet use prohibitively expensive. Although prices were reduced in 2013, the cheapest access to the Internet can be obtained for CUC4.50 (about $5) per hour, which is equivalent to a week's worth of wages for the average Cuban with a state-sector job. Freedom House estimates that less than 5 percent of the population has access to the World Wide Web (though over 30 percent use the barebones intranet-like Cubaweb).5 As of 2014, Cubans can also receive email on their cell phones, even though this service is restricted to a small subset of the population with access to convertible pesos. Alternative information also circulates through jump drives that contain everything from foreign soap operas to the latest political blog posts. These changes suggest that communist rule in Cuba is compatible with a relaxation of the erstwhile excessively tight control over information.

A third area where the regime has demonstrated flexibility is the use of repression. By comparison with communist regimes like the Soviet Union and China, Cuba was never excessively repressive, even in 1965-1968 when it operated the infamous UMAP (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción) labor camps that were used to exile counterrevolutionaries ranging from gay men and religious devotees to intellectuals and latifundistas. Since the 1970s repression has gradually been relaxed. The most important uptick occurred during Black Spring in 2003, when the government arrested and sentenced to lengthy imprisonment 75 human rights activists. Following an international outcry and domestic pressure by groups like Damas de Blanco (formed by the wives of the imprisoned activists), all of those imprisoned in 2003 were released by 2011. This led Amnesty International to briefly declare that there were no prisoners of conscience in Cuba.6Although Amnesty International has since identified several dozen political prisoners, the overall level of repression on the island today is very low. The regime practices short-term detentions (detenciones a corto plazo) rather than imprisonment. Furthermore, political dissidents like Yoani Sánchez and groups like Damas de Blanco are allowed to operate. These important changes indicate that single-party rule in Cuba is not incompatible with increased tolerance for limited political dissent.

Finally, and most crucially, there has been extensive change in the economic sphere. Despite concluding after careful study of other socialisms that the Chinese and Vietnamese reform experience is not applicable to its particular circumstances, Cuba seems to have embarked upon Chinese-style reforms with a three-decade delay. Cuba today is roughly where China was circa 1985. Reforms in China were initiated in the late 1970s and by the mid-1980s featured agricultural liberalization, the establishment of township and village enterprises, the promotion of export-oriented manufacturing in Special Economic Zones (SEZ), and the legal sanctioning of small businesses employing fewer than seven people. Although the vastly lower level of development of China in the late 1970s than of Cuba today raises questions about the utility of fully embracing a reform strategy identical to that implemented by China,7 it is nevertheless remarkable that Cuba has initiated reforms that are roughly similar to those unveiled by China more than three decades ago. Agricultural reform is progressing very slowly, but the rise of agricultural markets and the introduction of usufruct are positive steps. Much more important is the recent liberalization of private-sector employment regulations. Beyond those engaged in the production and selling of food, the list of 201 legally sanctioned private-sector occupations includes hairdressers, real estate agents, and taxi drivers -though not lawyers and doctors. Finally, the 2014 revision of the Foreign Investment Law and the ongoing expansion of the Mariel special economic zone (zona especial de desarrollo) present intriguing parallels to China, where the special economic zones that were established following the passage of the 1979 Foreign Investment Law proved to be one of the key long-term drivers of economic growth. Various challenges to economic reform remain, key among them the persistence of rationing and of bloated state-sector employment. Here the experience of China is instructive: rationing was not definitively eliminated until 1993 (fully fifteen years after the initiation of economic reforms) and the politically sensitive restructuring of large urban state-owned enterprises was not carried out systematically until the late 1990s. Thus, the key point is that Cuba has now embarked on a process that will have to eventually culminate in a definitive break with the centrally planned economy. This is indeed a major change for any communist regime.

In conclusion, this brief essay has argued that the survival of communist rule in Cuba has been a result of both institutional rigidity and institutional adaptation. The single party and the monopoly on the weapons of mass combat have been preserved with only minimal adaptation. There have been more substantial changes in ideology and the control over the means of mass communication. But the most substantial changes have occurred in the use of terror and in the dominant economic model. Although this combination of rigidity and flexibility has helped prevent regime collapse so far, a question arises as to whether some of the adaptations that have already been undertaken may over the long term subvert the single-party system. One potential fault-line concerns the improved access to information and the increasing availability of communication devices that allow for mass coordination. Thus far the Cuban regime has successfully prevented the use of communication technology for anti-regime mobilization. Nevertheless, its ability to do so in the future remains uncertain. Another scenario has to do with economic reform, which can bolster regime legitimacy if it is successfully implemented, but can also undermine stability should the regime prove unable to manage the complicated issues involved in agricultural liberalization, industrial restructuring, and the re-employment of workers laid off from state-sector jobs. Finally, President Obama's 17 December 2014 announcement of the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba has ambiguous implications for the future: it could have system-stabilizing effects by improving the potential for economic growth but it could also weaken anti-American nationalism, which has been the main ideological pillar of the system since 1989. In sum, although the Cuban regime has persisted for a quarter century past the fall of the Berlin Wall, it would be premature to claim that its survival formula will continue to be successful beyond the relatively short-term time horizon of another decade or so.


1 For a detailed treatment of the theoretical significance of this issue, see Martin K. Dimitrov, ed., Why Communism Did Not Collapse: Understanding Authoritarian Regime Resilience in Asia and Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

2 Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 2nd rev. ed., p. 22.

3 See Martin K. Dimitrov, “The Survival of Communist Regimes in China, Vietnam, and North Korea,” in The End of the Soviet Union, 1989-1991, ed. Mark Kramer, Stefan Karner, and Mikhail Prozumenshikov (Harvard Cold War Studies Book Series, Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2015).

4 In this regard, Cuba is similar to China (where eight parties other than the Chinese Communist Party exist, yet none of them functions as an opposition party) and to pre-1989 East European countries like the German Democratic Republic, Poland, and Bulgaria, each of which had more than one political party, yet these non-communist parties functioned as puppets of the communist party. (accessed December 1, 2014). (accessed December 1, 2014).

7 China had a per capita GDP of $300 at the time and an urbanization rate of less than 20 percent.



About Author(s)

Martin Dimitrov's picture
Martin Dimitrov
Martin K. Dimitrov is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University. His books include Piracy and the State: The Politics of Intellectual Property Rights in China (Cambridge University Press, 2009); Why Communism Did Not Collapse: Understanding Authoritarian Regime Resilience in Asia and Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2013); and The Politics of Socialist Consumption (Ciela Publishers, 2017). He has held residential fellowships at Harvard, Princeton, Notre Dame, the University of Helsinki, the American Academy in Berlin, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is currently completing a book entitled Dictatorship and Information: Autocratic Regime Resilience in Communist Europe and China.