Cuba's Changing Government Examines Asia Model
by Nick Miroff
August 21, 2012
Cuba is one of the world's last remaining communist states. Cuba's
allies in China and Vietnam also maintain firm one-party rule, but have
prospered by introducing market principles to their economic models.
With Cuban President Raul Castro easing government controls on property
rights and private enterprise, many are wondering if the struggling
island is looking to Asia for a way forward.
The intersection of 23rd Street and 12th Avenue in Havana's Vedado
District is a Cuban landmark in Cold War history. It was here during the
Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 that Fidel Castro dropped his
democratic assurances and declared at the peak of a fiery speech that
Cuba "had carried out a socialist revolution right under the United
States' nose." It was the first time he'd openly used the S word to
describe his leftward plans for the island.
What Cubans ended up with was a tropical version of Soviet economics,
defined by centralized planning and the elimination of most private
property. Even Cuba's ice cream vendors had their Popsicle carts seized
by the state in the name of ending inequality.
That the same Havana intersection is changing. The dreary state-run
businesses that were long ago nationalized now compete with private
restaurants, snack bars and newly licensed entrepreneurs like Yoel
Gonzalez, 31, who sells Puma and Adidas sneakers where Castro once
rallied the crowds of Cuban militiamen.
"You have to work a little harder when you have your own business, but
you get to see the benefits," Gonzalez says. "When you work for the
state, your salary is guaranteed, but it's not enough to survive on."
To advocates for change, Gonzalez is precisely what's wrong with Cuba's
current model. Gonzalez was trained as a computer programmer but quit
his government job to make ends meet by selling shoes.
Starting a software company or working as a private computer engineer
isn't among the 181 occupations that have been permitted so far by Cuban
authorities. Licenses are available for stone cutters, horse cart
drivers and birthday clowns, but not architects, scientists or other
And unless that changes, the mentality of Cuba's Communist Party will
remain decades behind China and Vietnam, says University of Havana
economist Julio Diaz Vazquez.
"Cuba's model continues to be for the State to own and distribute
everything. That has nothing to do with Marx. It's not possible to have
socialism if you don't have a productive economy to sustain it," he says.
On the scale of liberalism, Cuba is still closer to North Korea than
China, a country that looks relatively open to Diaz Vazquez. Chinese
citizens have access to the Internet, he notes, and can publicly
criticize corruption or pollution.
But economic changes are bringing subtle political shifts, according to
Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Cuban journal Temas. He says a new model
for Cuba is still taking shape, but it would be foolish for the island
to try copying China or Vietnam.
"These are Asian societies with their own cultural traditions and
history. So I don't think that economic policy is something you can
develop like a vaccine, this is not about a lab test that you can apply
elsewhere. The social, historic and cultural circumstances in which you
are going to develop an economic and political model is fundamental,"
Raul Castro, 81, made a rare trip abroad to visit China and Vietnam in
July, promising closer ties. But while those countries churn out
iPhones, textiles, cars and nearly anything else the world economy
wants, Cuba still struggles to make its own laundry detergent and grow
Opponents of the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba point out
that Asia's communists have been transformed by business ties to the
U.S. market. But the embargo's backers insist the Cuban model won't
really change until the Castros are gone.