To save communism, Raúl experiments with consumerism
This article appeared in the Guardian on Monday April 07 2008 on p21 of
the International section. It was last updated at 00:15 on April 07 2008.
From the ample girths and gold jewellery you could tell the Fuentes
family was doing well, and from the determined way in which its five
members strode into the shop you could tell they were about to do even
They had come for a Wanjiu pressure cooker and Daewoo washing machine,
counting out the money with a certain panache. Why not? To be fleshy and
flashy is to be part of Cuba's new revolutionary vanguard: Havana bling.
This was Dita, an electronics store in Galerías de Paseo, Cuba's dowdy
answer to Harrods, and it was an incongruous scene. While Fidel Castro
exhorted revolutionary solidarity from a banner outside the shop, the
family members could hardly see the leader's words over the cardboard
boxes they were hauling.
Out on the street they packed their trophies into a 10-year-old Ford – a
modern showcase by local vehicle standards – and with a screech of the
tyres sped home. En route was the Karl Marx Theatre, but you doubted
they would stop to see what was on.
Cuba is changing. In the past five weeks the government has announced
and enacted a series of reforms unimaginable under Castro. It is now
legal to buy mobile phones, computers and DVD players. Cubans may now
rent cars and stay at hotels previously reserved for foreigners. More
significantly, farmers can now cultivate idle state land and buy
equipment without special permission.
Havana is buzzing with rumours of further announcements. Lifting
restrictions on foreign travel, perhaps, or strengthening the
near-worthless peso so more people can afford the goods that are priced
in a separate currency created for foreigners.
"Finally the government is listening to us. This is stuff we've been
asking for for years," said Andrea, a 44-year-old technician. It is
fitting that a popular new import is an electronic pedal-bike. "Not a
new era, a new cycle," she added.
Optimism is cautious. So far the changes do not add up to
perestroika-style economic reforms, much less a glasnost-style cultural
opening. The one-party state is tinkering with its half-century-old
system to ease material hardship. The idea is to save communism in the
Caribbean, not abandon it.
Havana remains a sea of decrepitude. Traffic remains a time-warp blend
of 1950s American cars, three-wheel yellow cabs, Soviet-era Ladas and
new Chinese-made buses. Stallholders still offer meagre wares in an
illegal type of mouse capitalism. Most people are lean – if less gaunt
than before thanks to easing food shortages.
"What the government is doing is a very small first step," said a
western diplomat. "They are doing the easy things and giving people more
freedoms. We are still waiting for the big changes that will make a
difference economically. And that will be much harder to do."
The most important change so far is in agriculture, in which
mismanagement has shrivelled cash crops such as sugar, tobacco and
coffee and forced the lush island to import 80% of its food. Now
decision-making has been decentralised and some restrictions lifted to
give farmers more incentive to produce.
The other changes have merely legalised what has been common practice.
The moneyed Cubans listening to reggaetón music by the pool bar in El
Nacional hotel yesterday were the same ones who were there a month ago.
Many had wangled computers, DVD players and mobile phones long before
the bans were lifted. Those unable to afford such goods before still
cannot afford them.
The announcements have signalled greater tolerance for displays of
wealth and, by extension, displays of inequality. "Before if you had
cash you would hide it but now people feel freer to show it," said the
It is not news to Cubans that a small minority of the 11-million
population is well off thanks to remittances from relatives in the US
and shady hard currency dealings. The offspring of Communist party
officials are among the so-called "mickies" who flash their designer gear.
Free universal education and healthcare remain solid but sanctioning
spending sprees on previously banned consumer goods has given ironic
resonance to revolutionary slogans.
"We can construct the most just society in the world," Castro's brave
words said in another banner, this time overlooking the Carlos Tercero
shopping mall. Beneath it passed some families with boxes marked Yamaha,
Samsung and Phillips, and many who did not.
José, a waiter at a state restaurant who earns £9 a month, was off-duty,
sipping a soft drink along with his nine-year-old daughter. The
neighbouring table's family was clustered around a newly purchased £130
DVD player and sorting through a hawker's pirated wares. "We've got a
VHS player but you can't get films for it anymore," José said. "My
daughter doesn't have cartoons."
It is no coincidence that José was black and the neighbouring family
white. Racism is illegal on the island but paler-skinned Cubans dominate
government and the economy and are more likely to have relatives in the US.
The authorities appear uncomfortably aware that lifting economic
restrictions risks exposing and compounding that inequality, at least in
the short term. Speakers at a state-sponsored Intellectuals' Conference
last week welcomed the reforms but hinted that social divisions could
deepen. The comments were reported in the Communist party daily
Raúl Castro knows reform is essential. Nobody starves but most Cubans
struggle to put decent food on the table. Since taking over from his
ailing brother Fidel in 2006, a transition confirmed with Raúl's
inauguration as president last month, the 76-year-old has repeatedly
spoken of the need to improve an economy, 90% of which is controlled by
Only so much ruin can be blamed on the US embargo and when the Castro
brothers die, taking with them the revolution's founding legitimacy, its
fate will hinge on delivering better material conditions, said one
Havana economist: "They know they have maybe five years to turn things
around. It's fix or perish."
Sceptics say the effort is doomed. That no matter how much a moribund
agriculture blossoms or how fast greater wealth trickles down, Cuba will
remain an outpost of unworkable ideology until the day the place implodes.
Others paint a rosier scenario for a government with several advantages:
a cowed opposition and submissive population; subsidised Venezuelan oil
courtesy of President Hugo Chávez; strengthening ties with Asia and
Latin America; and the example of China's and Vietnam's communists
successfully riding economic liberalisation.
Raúl can already boast one remarkable feat: he has tamed the big brother
who used to rail against the reforms now unfurling. Fidel's published
"reflections", newspaper articles which are his only form of public
communication, have largely avoided commenting on the changes. No one
knows whether Raúl has persuaded the sickly 81-year-old to go along or
simply overruled him.
The bigger unknown is how Cubans will react. Being given a little more
economic opportunity could sate or whet the yearning for change, and
shore up or undermine the regime. It is Pandora's Box and opening the
lid even a fraction is a gamble.