Future China of the Caribbean?
Raul rolls the dice
Globe and Mail Update
April 19, 2008 at 12:05 AM EDT
HAVANA — Alejandro, a 20-year-old history student at the Universidad de
la Habana, proudly shows off a sampling from his collection of foreign
"Chile, Argentina, Bahamas," he trumpets while shuffling the money he
has just pulled from his wallet. "Do you have Canadian dollars — just
for looking? In my whole life, I've never seen Canadian dollars." He
marvels at the royal blue of a $5 bill and says he dreams of visiting
the "very good country" to the far north.
"I want to travel," says Alejandro (who, like most Cubans speaking to
foreigners, is wary about giving his full name). "In Canada, you work
and you get money. In Cuba, you work and you get nothing."
But now, for the first time in Alejandro's life — and that of the
generation before him — expectations of being able to profit from their
labour or see the world outside their insular nation are on a dramatic
upswing as the communist country undoes some basic tenets of the 1959
revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Ailing leader Fidel Castro resigned as Cuba's president early Tuesday.
It effectively ends his rule of almost 50 years in power
President Raul Castro, who officially succeeded his frail, 81-year-old
brother on Feb. 24, has shocked many with his hasty moves to introduce a
flurry of economic and administrative reforms that Fidel had
dogmatically resisted for decades.
The biggest, and potentially most subversive, came a week ago with a
decree that will allow those who retire or leave their jobs in public
enterprises — more than 90 per cent of working Cubans are state
employees — to gain title to homes or apartments normally reserved only
for workers. It amounts to nothing less than property ownership.
The decree came on the heels of the April 10 removal of wage limits on
state salaries — henceforth, those who work more will be duly rewarded.
While meant to encourage productivity in Cuba's woefully inefficient
economy and thwart discontent with salaries that average less than $20 a
month, the elimination of the wage ceiling transforms workers from
comrades into free agents and entrepreneurs.
Despite the "more perfect socialism" spin put on it by an editorial this
week in Granma, the state-run newspaper, it's clearly
counter-revolutionary — especially added to Raul's other recent moves,
such as allowing Cubans to own cellphones, DVD players and personal
computers; to stay at hotels previously reserved for foreign tourists;
and to become private farmers.
Raul Castro, 76, is negotiating a fine line. He is trying to initiate
just enough change to alleviate the pent-up anger — and demand — Cubans
have accumulated during five decades of political repression and
economic decline, without undermining the Communist Party's grip on power.
But as reform-minded communists have discovered everywhere, outside
perhaps China and Vietnam, it is rarely possible to open the door to
political and economic freedom just partway.
On the eve of its 50th birthday, is communist Cuba on the cusp of
joining its fallen Soviet allies among history's failed experiments?
A sub-ultimate leader
Most Cuba experts agree that Raul Castro, who ran the military with an
iron fist before succeeding his ailing brother on an interim basis in
2006, is no softy.
But with his popular reforms, he is imitating every other
charismatically challenged politician — from Paul Martin to Gordon Brown
— who follows a lider maximo (ultimate leader, as Fidel called himself):
He's trying to get his approval rating up.
"Raul is pragmatically going step by step" by removing the "nasty little
irritants" that cause deprivation for average Cubans, says Arch Ritter,
a professor of economics and international affairs at Carleton
University in Ottawa. "In the longer run, it's hard to predict where
these steps will go.
"There is still a solid phalanx of people who support the regime, and
not just in the military. … Fidel and the party have presented
themselves as the embodiment of universal virtue and morality. A lot of
Cubans certainly don't buy that, but a lot do."
Eliminating travel restrictions, as Raul has all but vowed to do, might
swell the ranks of those pushing for change, as more Cubans see other
ways of life with their own eyes rather than through the propaganda lens
of the state-run media and schools.
Even without travel, Cubans are developing an appetite for the
accoutrements of capitalism as they marvel at the electronic gadgets and
designer clothes of foreign tourists. (Many are even marrying
foreigners.) Canadians are doing more than their share, accounting for
more than 600,000 of the 2.1 million foreigners who visited Cuba last
year. Americans, officially banned from visiting Cuba since 1961, remain
Conspicuous consumption — officially illegal, of course — is newly
apparent everywhere, even in the crumbling slums of Central Havana, as
more Cubans get their hands on coveted pesos convertibles, the currency
used by foreigners, worth 24 times the Cuban peso with which locals are
paid. (One convertible peso is worth about $1.09.)
No Cubans officially earn enough to contemplate such extravagances as a
cellphone or DVD player, which can easily cost a year's salary. Yet that
doesn't stop a group of taxi drivers huddled around their cars — mostly
old Ladas and a couple of newer Hyundais — from comparing their new
phones and bending over in laughter. It becomes clear why when one
flashes his new gadget to a passerby: It's playing porn.
"Two hundred pesos," one of the drivers offers when asked how much he
paid for the phone. "Convertibles."
The taxi drivers are proof of a growing inequality: Like most workers
who have the chance to rub shoulders with foreigners, they probably got
their hands on convertibles via clients' tips. A rising number of Cubans
earn them by exercising a much older profession.
The result is a two-tier economy in which obedient foot soldiers of la
Revolucion wallow in poverty while those clever enough to squeeze money
out of foreigners join senior state officials in economic privilege.
Alejandro is not among them. Sitting under one of the giant laurel trees
on campus, he explains that only the "children of government people"
have cellphones. "I have no computer, no Internet, no telephone, no
nothing," he shrugs. He writes his essays longhand.
Havana hotels, meanwhile, are teeming with delegations of business
people from Europe and Canada, as the government openly courts foreign
investment to develop its tourism, mining and energy.
"In one or two years, this place will be like China," says a German
businessman, who withheld his name to protect a potential deal. "The
government is moving faster to expedite contracts."
The foreign-business presence means that it's increasingly common to
spot a Murano or Mercedes on the streets of Havana, among the sea of
fifties-era U.S. models and Soviet-era Ladas that belch out thick smoke
and break down constantly.
But Raul Castro's Cuba is full of contradictions. Propaganda remains
ever-pervasive — and not just in pages of the communist-run Granma and
Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth). Anti-American billboards line the
highways and Fidel Castro's slogans cover walls: "Before threats and
aggression Cuba answers: More Revolution."
In central Havana, a notice taped to walls announces an evening meeting
of the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, warning
members to be on time. All Cubans technically belong to a neighbourhood
CDR, whose job is to monitor and report on counter-revolutionary
activity — that is, to snitch.
On a park bench in front of the neo-classical Museum of the Revolution,
Ricardo Lopez, a 26-year-old high-school teacher, says many Cubans will
be wary of openly taking advantage of some of Mr. Castro's reforms
because their local CDR would question where they got the money.
"If you go to a hotel, that information goes directly to the CDR in your
block," Mr. Lopez explains, asking his name be changed to avoid retaliation.
"This is an idea to get the last enemy of the Revolution," he says of
the reforms. "It is to know which people are not under control."
His fears may reflect the paranoia that infects citizens in all
totalitarian regimes, but it's clear that, as more Cubans watch their
neighbours accumulate wealth, envy is bound to set in. Some will react
Mr. Lopez holds out little hope that the regime will crumble. Cubans
have "the virtue of impotence," he says: "Cubans live with this wall
because they know they cannot break it down. … That is why Cubans are
happy — because if a problem has no solution, it is no longer a problem."
He is echoed by Jose, 31, a driver and interpreter for the German
businessman. "No one learns independence in this country because
everyone needs the authorization of someone else to do anything."
As a rule, independent thinkers are persecuted here. As military chief,
Raul Castro imprisoned — even executed, experts say — journalists and
opponents of the regime. More than two dozen were locked up as part of a
major crackdown in March, 2003.
Lately, some dissent has been tolerated. A group of wives and female
relatives of those in jail, known Las Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in
White, have held peaceful protests weekly. Yoani Sanchez, a 32-year-old
philosophy graduate, has been allowed to write a critical blog called
Generacion Y from within Cuba, with only intermittent harassment.
Real ideological troublemakers are either sent into exile or jailed.
Cuba remains, for all intents and purposes, a police state. La patrulla
(the patrol) saturates Havana streets as zealously as ever as a
deterrent to "delinquency."
Simply speaking with an outsider can land a Cuban in trouble.
On El Malecon, Havana's waterfront thoroughfare, three young Cubans
chatting with a foreigner are interrupted by two policemen who check
their IDs, then order them to squeeze into the back seat of their Lada
patrol car. They are driven away. The police refuse the foreigner's
requests for an explanation.
"So many critics of the government have emigrated. And if and when they
let the political prisoners out, they will be forced or encouraged to
emigrate," Prof. Ritter says, adding that the opposition remains too
fragmented to be effective.
"What they need is a Lech Walesa — or three, or four," he says,
referring to the Polish labour leader whose brave opposition to the
communists in the early 1980s emboldened dissidents throughout the
Communism's demise in Europe, however, was not really sealed until later
that decade, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev embraced glasnost
(opening) and perestroika (restructuring).
Raul Castro probably has China, rather than the Soviet Union, in mind as
he introduces elements of capitalism. But by giving Cubans a hint of the
possibilities that come with economic freedom, the pragmatic Castro
brother has a chance to become another Gorbachev — in spite of himself.
Konrad Yakabuski is a member of The Globe and Mail's Montreal bureau.