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Assessment: Cuba
April 2008

Assessment: Cuba is published monthly by PRIMA-News in Moscow in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, based in Washington, D.C.

Cuban Communism: Last Shallow Breath or Second Wind

    The Cuban Revolution is lifeless, as is its enfeebled leaders and worthless ideology. Like a long-distance runner who has run out of breath, the country frantically needs fresh air to invigorate social life and give some impetus to an economy suffering an agonizing decline. A business-as-usual reliance on Socialist dogmas will most likely result in a social explosion and economic collapse. It seems even the Cuban elite, which is not distinguished by intellectual prowess and generally rejects political analysis, has begun to see the situation for what it is.

    When Raul Castro took the reins of power, the new communist leader introduced the idea if breaking some of Cuba’s rigid rules of political life. His task is not easy. Like Homer’s Odyssey struggling to sail through the Straits of Scylla and Charybdis, Raul Castro must decide precisely what measure of freedom can be given to Cubans without posing a threat to the system of power. But is it possible to give an asphyxiated man a gulp of fresh air and for him to stop gasping for more? Preventing those gasps is the task of the younger brother of Fidel Castro.

    The first months of spring in Cuba were marked by a series of changes that are affecting the everyday lives of millions of ordinary Cubans.

    Raul Castro has authorized the unrestricted sale to the general public of computers, DVD players, television sets, electric rice cookers, microwave ovens, and other home appliances. The Cuban government also will allow ordinary Cubans to buy and use cell phones freely for the first time in the country’s history. The state telecom monopoly ETECSA announced in the official newspaper Granma that it would offer mobile services to the public in the next few days. Some Cubans own mobile phones, but they acquire them through a third party, often foreigners. Now Cubans will be able to subscribe to pre-paid mobile services under their own names.

    Cuba is considering the easing of restrictions on its nationals who want to travel abroad. Cubans currently must both obtain a letter of invitation issued by a foreigner and get a government permit to travel overseas. They must pay a fee of several hundred dollars to obtain an exit permit, which, given the average wage of $15, is an enormously large sum of money for ordinary Cubans. Cubans living abroad also need government approval to return.

    For the first time since the 1959 Revolution, a draft lesbian, gay and transsexual rights bill has been formally submitted to Cuban legislators for consideration. If adopted by the National Assembly in June this year, the proposed new law would recognize same-sex unions, along with inheritance rights of same-sex couples. It would also give transsexuals the right to free sex-change operations and allow them to switch their gender on ID cards, with or without surgery.

    Cuba is also lifting official restrictions on Cubans’ wages. A new decree signed by President Raul Castro on April 10 is aimed to boost economic activity of the population and to improve the country’s economic performance. Commenting on the latest reform, Cuban television said that “one reason for low productivity is there is little wage incentive and this prevents productivity and stops bigger salaries.” The average salary in Cuba is about 350 Cuban pesos ($15) per month.

    Cuba has lifted another ban, allowing ordinary citizens to stay in foreigners-only hotels. Word of the change came from Cuban hotels that have received a government memo. “We’ve received the ban-lifting instruction, and it’s already lifted,” said the manager of the famed Copacabana Hotel in Havana. The news was confirmed by employees of the Riviera and Nacional hotels in the Cuban capital. Until now, ordinary Cubans were barred from checking into hotels previously reserved for foreigners.

    The Cuban government is leasing underused and fallow farmland to cooperatives and other farming organizations. “All production, credit, and service cooperatives have begun receiving plots of land,” said Orlando Lugo Fonte, president of Cuba’s national small-scale farming association. At present, farming cooperatives control 35 percent of Cuba’s arable land. The country has 3,500 cooperatives that account for 60 percent of Cuba’s total agricultural output.

    Farmers in Cuba have been allowed to buy their own supplies with the freely convertible currency they receive from selling agricultural produce to the state at fixed prices. For the first time agricultural supplies such as tools, machinery, fertilizers will not be assigned by the central government. From now on, small-scale farmers will be allowed to buy these items from state stores. The list of supplies for unrestricted sale includes agricultural tools such as machetes, wire, work gear and herbicides. Previously, agricultural supplies were assigned by the central government, and farmers required special government permit to buy some of the goods they needed.

    Thousands of Cuban citizens have gotten the right to privatize their state-owned apartment or house. This step is expected to pave the way for broader property reforms on the island. A new decree published on April 11 allows Cubans, renting from their state employers, to keep their apartment or house after leaving their posts, and to gain title and even pass on the property to their children or relatives. By law, Cubans still cannot sell their homes to anyone but the government.  Cuba has no real estate market, but people can swap homes through a legal process called a “permuta” in which money is paid under the table. Many Cubans hope that future reforms will eventually include the buying and selling of homes.

    For the first time ever, the Cuban government has publicly acknowledged the major role the informal economy plays in island life. Cuba’s National Office of Statistics has even released a report on prices and inflation in what it calls the rather limited private sector. In its survey, the National Office estimated that the cost of goods and services purchased from private sources rose 4  percent from February 2007 to February 2008. According to the study, the goods and services most frequently obtained from private sources are rice, eggs, pork, vegetable oil, lard and the informal exchange of the regular pesos for the convertible pesos.

    Cuba’s formal economy is predominantly state-owned. In the early 1990s, the government allowed some private enterprise, but it still subsidizes key services and industries. But because Havana is unable to supply everything, a quasi-market system has evolved in Cuba in the form of illicit trade and currency exchange. Cuban farmers sell at black-market prices any excess agricultural goods after meeting production quotas, as well as food, medicine and other products stolen from state warehouses and factories, and exchange their pesos into dollars.

    Cubans responded to the lifting of all these bans by rushing to buy DVD players, electric bikes, and other consumer goods that were banned under Fidel Castro. Western news agencies say the demand is high even though the prices are astronomical for most Cubans. Many Cubans were seen lining up outside phone offices on April 14 to sign up for phone service. The contracts cost about $120 to activate — half a year’s wage on the average state salary. And that cost doesn’t include a phone or credit to make and receive calls. Making or receiving local calls is 30 cents a minute; a call to Europe is $5.85 per minute; and to the United States $2.70 per minute. Cubans will have to pay for a basic phone model twice as much as the cost in the U.S. Cubans will pay for their mobile phones with hard currency they have access to through foreign tourists.

    But it is not only on consumer goods that Raul Castro’s government has loosened controls. Being aware that the grey market exists in the media as well as the economy, the government has decided to adjust its information policy. Cuba’s state-run television broadcaster will start a 24-hour channel with mostly foreign content. The Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, ICRT, made the announcement on April 2 at a conference of the Cuban writers and artists’ guild, where intellectuals have criticized the poor television programming in the country. Indeed, Cuba will now air U.S. television dramas. “The Sopranos," which depicts the life of a New Jersey Mafia boss and his family, will be broadcast by state-run television on Tuesday evenings, while “Grey’s Anatomy,” which follows the lives of doctors working in a hospital, will be broadcast on Thursdays. The government said in a statement the television series have high ethical quality and pose no threat for Cubans.”

    Cuba’s political opposition is skeptical of Raul Castro’s reforms. Calling them a step in the right direction, dissidents consider the measures insufficient. In a statement circulated in Havana, the Democratic Solidarity Party described Raul Castro’s recent reforms as positive but belated, but not changing anything beyond the purely economic. Still, the group considers the measures as the first steps paving the way to dismantling the communist regime. But so long as more than two hundred prisoners remain in Cuban jails, these changes will not lead to the much-sought stability and national reconciliation desired by the nation.

    In a message from prison, Cuban prisoner of conscience Pablo Pacheco Ávila called on the government to go further than just allowing ordinary citizens to have cell phones and to stay in luxury hotels, and to recognize the Cubans’ right to choose their own future.

    The U.S. Department of State has called Raul Castro’s reforms “cosmetic,” in a statement on April 18. Cuban people still do not have “any say whatsoever in whether or not they want that person [Raul Castro] to head their government, or even what kind of government they’re going to have,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack at a daily briefing. He said the U.S. Government was closely following announcements by the Cuban government, and its assessment is that they have not “qualitatively changed the situation,” he added. “A handful of people” were deciding Cuba’s future and people could not express their views freely, a situation that “qualitatively has not changed from, you know, today to 10 years ago to 20 years ago,” he concluded.

    No matter how “cosmetic” the changes may appear, Cuban dissidents have responded to them. A new opposition alliance called “Agenda for the Transition” held its founding meeting on April 10 at a private house in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. Many prominent dissidents and former political prisoners attended the event. One prominent oppositionist, René Gómez Manzano, said, “In our country, a process of changes (although a rather timid one) has just begun; that is certainly something that Cuba needed desperately after decades of absolute immobility. At present, our peaceful fight as activists of the Agenda for Transition will be aimed, God willing, at making those changes gather speed and become deeper.”

    In sum, the immediate political future of the country is not hard to foretell. The standoff between dissidents and the state will continue. The communist government, which might choose to adopt the “Chinese model” or at least the Russian one, will carry on reforms with two goals in mind: preventing the country from plunging into social and economic anarchy while at the same time retaining an absolute monopoly on power.

    Dissidents have already gradually transformed themselves into a political opposition. They will continue their push for full-fledged democratic changes, giving real     meaning to reforms initiated by the authorities. Their task is not to let Cuba stop halfway between dictatorship and democracy.

Alexander Podrabinek
Moscow, April 2008