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Cuba in the 2010s: Creative reform or geriatric paralysis?

Archibald R. M. Ritter

Is Cuba at the threshold of a reform process, pushed by economic imperatives and forces from below? Or will it continue to be paralyzed by a gerontocracy obsessed with political control? So far, economic and political scleroses have dominated. However, there have also been some modest changes and critics within Cuba are still able —though barely— to speak up with candour and courage, irrepressible so far despite intimidation and harassment.

Hope for change rose when Raúl Castro came to power in July 2006. A number of aggravations for Cuban citizens were removed: they were allowed to visit tourist hotels and to purchase electronic items; private taxis were liberalized; small farmers were permitted to obtain long-term leases on unused state farmland, a reform with major potential if implemented and supported vigorously.

Yet political reforms have been undetectable. The arrest of ‘dissidents’ continues under the so-called ‘contempt for authority’ and ‘dangerousness’ laws that permit incarceration as a ‘pre-criminal’ security measure. According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch Report, New Castro, Same Cuba, “The Cuban government bears full and exclusive responsibility for the abuses it commits.”

To the credit of the government, it has not shut down the independent bloggers. But on Nov. 7, 2009, the high-profile blogger Yoani Sánchez and three others were picked up on the street by state officials and later deposited in another part of the city in a very clear but unsuccessful attempt at intimidation. At the end of that month, a concerted character-assassinating attack was levelled against Sánchez —and indirectly against the other independent bloggers— by government-sponsored bloggers, by foreign pro-Castro journalists and in a major article on the website of Granma, Cuba’s main newspaper.

More recently on March 21, 2010, the Ladies in White, a group of wives, daughters and mothers of political prisoners incarcerated in 2003, were attacked by government-sponsored gangs during a march in yet another unsuccessful intimidation effort.

On an economic level, the global recession hit Cuba hard. The intense foreign exchange shortage has made the need for reforms urgent. The dual monetary system continues to generate a behaviour-warping incentive structure deforming people’s work and lives. The internal blockade against small enterprise suppresses people’s initiative and entrepreneurship. Centralized economic control results in pervasive micro-economic absurdities as well as large-scale fiascos.

Infrastructure and housing deteriorate steadily due to the lack of maintenance and new investment. There are, for example, an estimated 1.2 building collapses per day in Central Havana alone. The manufacturing crisis continues: production in 2008 was at 52 per cent of the 1989 level, according to official statistics.

Once a large net agricultural exporter, Cuba has become a huge net food importer, mainly from the United States. The 2010 sugar harvest is coming in at roughly one million tons, a historic low compared with an average of roughly 8 million in the 1980s.

Cuba has become dependent on Venezuela for subsidized petroleum, financial credits and state-to-state payments for Cuban doctors’ services abroad. Worst of all, Cuba’s average inflation-adjusted real wage in 2008 stood at 24 per cent of the 1989 level, according to analysts from Cuba’s leading economic research institute, the Centro de Estudios sobre la Economía Cubana.

To deal with the crisis, Raúl Castro’s government has exhorted citizens to consume less, save more and work harder. He has also postponed payments to foreign suppliers and investors. There has been some public discussion of discontinuing rationing although the system currently covers less than half of people’s food needs. Apparently, reforms such as liberalizing small enterprise and monetary reform have been considered within relevant ministries. In March 2010, an experiment in co-operative ownership in beauty parlours in Central Havana was started, which could become significant if broadened considerably. But the leadership has been conservative and has militated against reforms in fear that that such a process could spin out of control, in Gorbachev-era glasnost style.

There are signs of ferment at the grassroots level. The most obvious example is the independent and outspoken blogs and websites of dissident analysts, although these have limited visibility within Cuba where the rate of Internet access is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Citizens increasingly say publicly what they think privately. Young people are becoming more independent, critical and defiant. The desire to leave the country is at a fever pitch. The regime appears to be losing moral authority as well as its confidence.

At his trial in 1953, following the apprehended insurrection at the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, Fidel Castro said to the judges: “Condemn me. History will absolve me.” Contrary to his hopes, it is hard to see how history could absolve him given his 50-year denial of basic rights for Cuban citizens. However, if Raúl Castro, or more likely his successor, were to initiate basic economic and human rights reforms, history and the Cuban people could absolve him. Improbable? Yes, but increasingly possible.blue square

Archibald Ritter is FOCAL’s Interim Program Director, Research Forum on Cuba. He is also a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus in Economics and International Affairs at Carleton University.

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