Posted on Tuesday, 11.12.13
Cubans heartened by possible reversal of 3-D ban
BY PETER ORSI
HAVANA — Something unusual appears to be happening in Havana.
The Communist government may be backing off an unpopular economic
crackdown barely a week after it was announced — a feat of political
dexterity that islanders say they are not used to seeing from a
leadership in power since the 1950s.
The brouhaha centers on a ban announced Nov. 2 on the dozens of private
home cinemas and video game salons that have mushroomed in recent
months, becoming a popular diversion for entertainment-starved residents.
The government denounced the cinemas as spreading uncultured drivel to
the young, and ordered them closed for stretching the boundaries on the
kinds of private businesses allowed under reforms instituted by
President Raul Castro.
Then came the backlash, with entrepreneurs bemoaning thousands of
dollars in lost investment and moviegoers saying they were exasperated
by heavy-handedness toward a harmless diversion. The official reaction
was swift, and unprecedented.
An article in the Communist Party newspaper Granma on Monday
acknowledged there was wide disapproval of the ban, and hinted it was
Analysts said the reversal could signal a greater willingness by the
government to heed the desires of private entrepreneurs and their
customers, as well as their growing influence in a country where the
government still controls as much as about 80 percent of the economy.
“It’s extraordinary because the government made a very clear decision,
and now it seems it’s being walked back,” said Philip Peters, a longtime
Cuba analyst and president of the Cuba Research Center. “That’s not
something that happens every day.”
The article in Granma said the paper had gathered more than 150 opinions
on the ban and surveyed the backlash on social media. It acknowledged
there was wide disapproval and said some considered it to be “a step
back” for President Raul Castro’s program of limited economic
Islanders interviewed by The Associated Press have repeatedly defended
the salons as healthy entertainment options for teenagers. It’s commonly
held that they should be reopened, regulated and taxed just like the
thousands of other private businesses launched since Castro’s reforms
began in earnest in 2010.
In Cuba, decision-making tends to happen from the top down, even if
authorities stress that popular input is sought again and again in
public gatherings. Official opinion polls are essentially nonexistent
here, and it was surprising that authorities would take the temperature
of the masses in such a public way.
“I think they realized how much people were bothered,” said Rolando
Orejuela, a 52-year-old government worker who previously enjoyed
treating his grandson to 3-D movies. “It’s good that they study and
reconsider such a radical decision.”
Others cautioned not to read too much into the about-face. The same
Granma article also offered a full-throated defense of another recently
announced ban, this one on the reselling of imported hardware and
clothes. Many Cubans depend on the small clothing boutiques to keep
fashionable, and lamented their demise.
But Peters said the article is still a reflection of the increasingly
powerful role of the 436,000 private-sector workers operating today,
about triple the number that existed before the reforms.
“It could mean that this is a constituency that the government wants to
take into account,” Peters said. “Raul Castro’s government does not view
these entrepreneurs as a necessary evil … They’re viewed as necessary
to the economy.”
In recent years Cuba has rolled back other unpopular rules that once
barred most islanders from having cellphones or staying in tourist
hotels. Both decisions were made under Raul Castro after he took over
from ailing elder brother Fidel in 2006, and after years of complaints.
Today there are 1.8 million mobile phones for a population of around 11
million. And it’s common to see Cubans lazing at plush beach resorts
like Varadero, at least for the small percentage with the financial
means to afford it.
“It’s not just about doing the reforms, but walking hand-in-hand with
the political rhythm of society,” Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban economist
at the University of Denver, said of the government’s apparent change of
heart on home cinemas.
“It gives a bit of a measure of how the Communist Party is changing its
prior arrogance, where (authorities) dictate what’s best and there’s no
other choice but to accept it.”