HAVANA TIMES — From time to time, a friend, acquaintance or taxi driver in Mexico will tell me that they want to travel to Cuba and get to know the country. The myths surrounding the revolution, the stories about sizzling sex with local women, tourism or health offers or quite simply the wish to tour Old Havana and go for a dip in Varadero prompt them to ask me what time of the year is best for visiting my native country. For a while now, my laconic answer has been: “go before Cuba becomes a normal country.”
The problem is that normality – living under a capitalist economy, without the generous social policies which characterized Cuban socialism for several decades – is slowly encroaching upon people’s daily lives like a bitter certainty.
I am not referring to the lives of those who pay for expensive meals at lavish Christmas dinners or buy the latest in fashion and gadgets, but to the majority of the population, overwhelmed by years of under-consumption, depressed by indecent salaries and, to make matters even worse, unfit – both in terms of qualifications and material possessions – for any successful inclusion in the market reform process currently underway in the country.
This reform process, as Daron Acemoglu and J.A. Robinson teach us in their recent book Why Countries Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, reveal how, under an authoritarian government, political and economic institutions mutually reinforce their extractive character, in a vicious circle that wards off any possibility of inclusive, just and democratic change.
This is the financial logic behind the latest liberalizing – and formally positive – measure authorizing the sale of cars in Cuba. I say formally positive because any measure which serves to broaden the comfort of sectors of the population while eroding the power of the bureaucracy to assign consumer goods – directly and at its own discretion – has, in my opinion, a positive human impact and the potential to broaden plurality in the country.
The ways in which the measure is being implemented, however, reveal a deeper extractivist logic, which is evident even in the figures announced by the government.
According to preliminary estimates (made on the basis of the announced prices), the cars currently offered in Cuba are being sold, cash down and without credit options, at 800 % their market price in the United States and Mexico – countries where salaries are much higher and road and service infrastructures infinitely superior.
Without a doubt, the island’s gerontocracy is applying a hybrid commercial policy, reminiscent of the Bantustans and Arab emirates: it pays its workers and consumers as though they lived in a Bantustan and charges them for goods and services as though they lived in an emirate.
Though profit rates – to invoke old Marx – are currently astronomical with these price policies, at one point the government, forced to move its unsold stock and after having swallowed up a mountain of money, may announce financing plans (with presumably onerous rates) and a gradual lowering of vehicle prices (perhaps down to 400 % of market price)
Some domesticated spirits will likely applaud such measures, calling them the result of “popular participation and demands” within a reform process that is advancing “slowly but surely.” In the meantime, the sale and purchase of old Russian Ladas and vintage American cars will continue to be a kind of rebellious and subversive practice undermining State monopolies, the option accessible to those who, with their meager earnings, seek to move about through their own means.
It remains to be seen whether the revenues amassed through such a feral price policy will lead to the announced improvement in public transportation, through the special fund to be created for this purpose. As there is no independent control mechanism, the State can decide to use these revenues as it sees fit – for political functions, homes for the military or police operations.
We can only hope this money will go to strengthening the material infrastructure, improving salaries and consolidating urban transportation cooperatives, where workers can manage their own affairs and see an increase in their earnings, to be able to offer services that meet the demands of citizens.
Changes such as authorizing the sale of vehicles, though beneficial for a given sector of Cuba’s population, not only reproduce the prevailing conditions of poverty and inequality but also benefit concrete actors and classes (the State bureaucracy, technocrats of emerging economic sectors and the petite bourgeoisie), interested in maintaining their positions of power or in securing greater participation in the reform process, so as to have greater access to the consumer market (in exchange for political support or loyalty).
When this does not go hand in hand with a redefinition of social spending – capable of combatting the noxious effects of two and a half decades of a nationwide crisis – or with a broadening of political rights, such market spaces do not lead to the empowerment of people. At the most, they lead to a recycling of the alliance between the dominant classes that have traditionally decided the fate of the country.
This is why, when I urge my friends to hurry and visit Cuba before it becomes yet another normal country, I feel I am projecting onto the present my good (and perhaps idealized) memories of a Cuba that is no longer, a Cuba whose architects – our parents, grandparents and relatives – continue to live and survive on the island after having given their all for the construction of a better future.
The truth of the matter is that the social achievements that once defined the Cuban revolution and benefited the working majority are retreating to oblivion, and that we are witnessing the transition towards a form of State capitalism grounded in an extractive, monopolistic and rapacious growth model, where it is virtually impossible to lay the groundwork for an authentic, legally constituted State and inclusive forms of development.