In 2007, The Economist feted West Bengal’s chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee with the unusual epithet of “capitalist communist”. Despite the oxymoron, it was an appropriate calling card. In those days, Bhattacharjee had resolutely, if somewhat ineptly, moved towards economic progress, and things had started looking better for the state after decades of regressive miasma.
The scene has changed for West Bengal since, and Bhattacharjee’s epithet now has another candidate in a rather different part of the world. Cuba’s Raul Castro this week took over as head of the ruling Communist Party. And with his accession in a four-day congress, Cuba approved hundreds of political and economic reform measures that even a few years ago would have been unthinkable.
Some are indeed startling for a country that has till now been one of the last true bastions of socialism in the world. In a clear nod to the right to private property (one of the plinths of capitalism), Cubans may now be able to buy and sell homes and cars. Havana also promises to open up the private sector and, in a land where the government pays for pretty much everything, cut down on state spending.
To be sure, a quick paradigmatic shift is wishful thinking. In Cuba, the socialist sobriquet is set to remain. Castro said: “The first secretary’s primary mission and purpose is to defend, preserve and continue to develop socialism, and to never allow the return of capitalism.” And Cuba’s mammoth bureaucracy can still derail reforms.
Yet the direction is unmistakable, as are the parallels with China, which has its own mix of state and market. In both cases, economic stasis has given way to a reform mentality. Understandably, Beijing has quickly praised Havana’s new moves.
A survey recently reported in The Economist claimed popular support for capitalism had declined in the wake of the last financial crisis. Cuba’s progressive promise not only provides an interesting counterpoint to that sentiment, it also has the potential to change the trajectory of the island nation and help it integrate better with a world that has long moved ahead of it.
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