For ordinary Cubans, Obama’s historic visit is already fading and the
future looks sadly familiar
One month on since US President Barack Obama’s historic visit, Cuba has
just held its seventh Communist Party congress
Bethan McKernan 9 hours ago1 comment
Before the 1959 revolution, the tiny town of Soroa in a
rainforest-covered valley in Artemisa province was one of the American
mafia’s favourite playgrounds. They built a kitschy Hawaiian-style hotel
and pool in the middle of nowhere – but Fidel Castro and friends
interrupted the party before work on the casino was finished, taking
over the resort in the interests of the state.
Since then, almost nothing has changed. But in the hills above the town,
some of the forest has been hacked back to expose rich red earth, and
for locals, the green coffee plant shoots emerging from the soil are a
fittingly fragile metaphor for their hopes of a new beginning.
One month on since US President Barack Obama’s historic visit, Cuba has
just held its seventh Communist Party congress. More than 1,000 party
members from across the island met in Havana to discuss the island’s
future, with its economic roadmap at the front and centre of talks.
But despite the enthusiastic lip service about reform that President
Raul Castro impressed upon Obama in March, the party congress has made
it clear that Cuba’s revolutionary vanguard is not willing to let their
socialist state make the transition to a market-style economy any time
“This is basically setting the future of Cuba,” Carmelo Mesa-Lago, an
economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Associated
While there were promises at the last party congress in 2011 to take
measures to free up private enterprise and boost economic growth, Cuba’s
economy is still in desperate need of a shot in the arm; according to
the Communist Party’s own newspaper, Granma, only one fifth of 2011’s
planned reforms have actually been implemented.
A boom in privately-owned restaurants and legions of new tourists
drinking the country dry of beer show that change is taking root in
Cuba’s more visited areas, but in sleepier spots like Soroa the
government is still in control. Of the crops farmed by the descendants
of slaves and people with aboriginal Taino heritage in Artemisa province
– who are among Cuba’s poorest demographic groups – up to 90 per cent
will go straight to the state.
Beatrice Soroa, who bears the same name as the town and of French coffee
plantation owner Jean-Pierre Soroa who owned her ancestors, avoids the
midday heat under an open shelter made from royal palm tree next to her
one room, windowless home, constructed from the same wood. Reggaeton
comes in through tinny radio speakers, powered by a nearby solar panel
recently installed by the German government’s development aid agency.
There is a television set from the Eighties perched on a
“It wasn’t my idea, but it was free, and the solar panel means I have
light and sometimes TV. But the next hurricane….” She nudges the
bolted down panel with the toe of her green government-issue wellington
boots, which are a familiar sight all over the island. “It’ll be gone. I
did try to tell them.”
Even if a hurricane doesn’t come along, whether these initiatives – the
government still has a monopoly on the fuel, fertiliser, seeds and tools
needed to start cultivating crops, but will subsidise those who want to
grow coffee – will yield results remains to be seen. Botched
Soviet-style collectivisation was a major factor in decimating Cuba’s
economy, and the country was reliant on sugarcane exports for decades.
The Cuban leaders’ latest idea is re-energising the flagging coffee
industry, since it’s a higher-value export crop, but Cubans themselves
are limited to 57 grams of coffee a fortnight, with the rest sold mainly
to Japan and the Netherlands through state agency Cubaexport.
Although the government is pinning its hopes on coffee, the Cuban stuff
– dark roasted, smooth and sweet – deserves its high price tag. It is
hard to grow in this part of Cuba without enough natural shade from the
island’s sun, as French colonists who abandoned their Artemisa
plantations in the mid-1800s realised. And since almost everything they
harvest will go to the state, as Ms Soroa points out, the problem that
plagues every sector of Cuba’s centrally-planned economy is also
apparent here: no one is incentivised to work that hard.
“No one grows up here without knowing about the gap between what the
government says and does. No one really bothers listening,” she added.
The detente in relations with the US is a particularly nifty bit of
razzle-dazzle on the part of the Cuban government. There had been hope,
before the three-day party conference began, that the island’s leaders
would announce that they are passing on the torch to the younger
generation of reforming politicians.
Instead, 84-year-old Raul Castro declared he would be staying in the
post of party secretary for a second term, as would several other ageing
revolutionaries currently in senior roles. The decision means Castro and
his political allies will remain powerful, even after he steps down from
the presidency in 2018.
Castro told delegates that he wants to move “slowly but surely”, and
that Cuba won’t administer “shock therapy”, despite the growing popular
frustration at the country’s economic performance. This is partly
because the state’s finances are so weak – the state has a monopoly on
foreign trade and must therefore bear the cost of all imports, which
private sector businesses demand. Even so, Cuba’s reforms to date have
been slow compared to countries that have made the transition to
market-driven economies before it, such as China and Vietnam.
On Tuesday the party congress made an effort to quell the discontent by
announcing that some cooperatives and small businesses will be allowed
to buy wholesale from producers rather than through the government, but
the move – which only applies to businesses previously owned by the
state – is a gesture that won’t satisfy those already frustrated by the
government dragging its feet.
State figures show that private employment is at just 23 per cent, up
from 18 per cent in 2011, and there are indicators that the number of
self-employed people running their own businesses is stagnating.
Reported self-employment rates were down from a peak of 504,600 in May
2015 to 496,400 in January of this year.
The “economic problem” is Cuba’s top priority, Carlos Alzugaray, a Cuban
diplomacy analyst based in the US, told Reuters. “But there is a
particular juncture in Cuba right now, which I call a generational
transition. And we need to create the institutions that will help that
new generation to govern the country effectively.”
While on the surface Cuba appears to be changing rapidly, meaningful
effects are not yet trickling down to most of its people, or their
pockets. Ms Soroa is blunt about the prospects for her town, which is
starting to see tourists stop by on their way from Havana to Pinar del
Rio, tobacco country.
“Tourists think it’s beautiful here, they stay with the rich cattle
farmers on the other side of the valley, or the government tours take
them to the hotel,” she shrugs. “So what?”
Source: For ordinary Cubans, Obama’s historic visit is already fading
and the future looks sadly familiar | Americas | News | The Independent