The protests in Cuba have resurfaced a long-standing debate between the left and right: capitalism versus socialism.
Because this discussion centers around the word “socialism,” let’s take a look at what each side means by the term.
When the right hears “socialism,” they tend to picture starving people in the Soviet Union, out-of-control inflation in Venezuela, and oppressive control of individuals in China. To the right, the word “socialism” symbolizes a restrictive society where power is consolidated among the elite at the expense of ordinary people — in this way, socialism and authoritarianism are inseparable and synonymous. Socialism means communism.
When the left hears “socialism,” they tend to picture the robust social safety net in Denmark, the generous paid parental leave in Finland, and the thriving middle class in the Netherlands. To the left, the word “socialism” symbolizes a freer society where power is shifted from the wealthy to the working class — in this way, socialism and authoritarianism are separate and incompatible. Socialism means social democracy.
Each side then takes their image of socialism and applies it to the situation in Cuba. The right attributes the unrest and shortages to Cuba’s self-described communism, while the left declares that authoritarianism is the problem, not the economic system.
By applying our own definition of socialism to the conversation on the other side, we immediately misunderstand each other. It’s no wonder our opponent’s argument often appears nonsensical.
Both the left and the right recognize that the food shortages in Cuba are worth protesting. Where the disagreement begins is why these shortages are occuring — is it corrupt governance, a fundamentally flawed economic system, or a combination of the two? Although there’s probably an answer to this question, we lack the information needed to be certain, and so we lean on our existing framework to do the leg work.
We all live and operate within a distinct system of values, ideas, and conceptualizations which helps us more readily make sense of the world. When we understand that groups of people apply very different frameworks to new information, it’s easy to see how different people can look at the situation in Cuba and draw such different conclusions.
We don’t have to agree with the other side’s definition or conclusions, and we certainly don’t have to come to a consensus. But we have very little to lose from trying to learn from each other. If we allow our subconscious instincts to keep us from understanding other perspectives, we can never grow. By taking the time to understand the other side in their own terms, we can discover new ways of seeing the world and better understand not only others, but ourselves.
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Below are some academic descriptions of the economic systems that are commonly referenced in this discourse. The inherent issue with offering any type of definition of complex concepts is that it will always be somewhat incomplete. Additionally, these concepts are not mutually exclusive, and different elements from each can be present at once. To reiterate — these definitions are not the same as the functional definitions each side uses in everyday conversation.
“A form of economic order characterized by private ownership of the means of production and the freedom of private owners to use, buy and sell their property or services on the market at voluntarily agreed prices and terms, with only minimal interference with such transactions by the state or other authoritative third parties.”
A Glossary of Political Economy Terms: Capitalism, Auburn University
Translation: Individuals have strong private property rights, and people can buy and sell their labor and belongings at will through voluntary transactions. The government may or may not protect these property rights through law.
“… social democracy has become something of a catch-all category for welfarism, Keynesianism, economic growth and consumerism, in short, for the postwar boom achieved through markets supported by state intervention.”
Social Democracy and Social Justice, Peter Beilharz, La Trobe University
Translation: Social democracy can mean any of the following:
A strong social safety net or wealth redistribution (think public welfare, robust unemployment support, universal basic income, etc.)
Federal regulations for employment (think paid family leave, paid vacation, high minimum wages, etc.)
Government control of certain industries (think single-payer healthcare, universal college, environmental regulations, etc.)
Most politicians who self-identify as socialist in the U.S. fit this category, as do most of the countries they point to as socialist success stories such as Denmark or Finland.
“A class of ideologies favoring an economic system in which all or most productive resources are the property of the government, in which the production and distribution of goods and services are administered primarily by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which any remaining private production and distribution (socialists differ on how much of this is tolerable) is heavily regulated by the government rather than by market processes.”
A Glossary of Political Economy Terms: Socialism, Auburn University
Translation: The majority of the manufacturing and distribution of goods is controlled by the central government. There is some degree of individual ownership and private industry, but the government regulates this through processes such as wealth redistribution.
“Any ideology based on the communal ownership of all property and a classless social structure, with economic production and distribution to be directed and regulated by means of an authoritative economic plan that supposedly embodies the interests of the community as a whole.”
A Glossary of Political Economy Terms: Communism, Auburn University
Translation: Property is owned by society, not by individuals. At the onset, some form of central government dictates what is produced and when, how it is produced, and how it is distributed. This inevitably concludes with a system where no central power is in charge, but people give and take freely according to their ability and need.
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Cubans take to streets in rare protests over lack of freedoms and worsening economy, Patrick Oppmann and Tatiana Arias for CNN
Cuba sees biggest protests for decades as pandemic adds to woes, Marc Frank and Sarah Marsh for Reuters
Cuban anti-government protesters wave American flags during march, Edmund DeMarche for Fox News