By PATRICIA GROGG
HAVANA TIMES, December 31 (IPS) – The Cuban Revolution’s 50th anniversary on Jan. 1 finds the country facing the challenge of sorting out the economy and improving living conditions, in the context of a complex international situation that may make reaching those goals particularly difficult.
The 1960s stand out in this Caribbean island nation’s history as the decade when major economic and social changes came thick and fast, including the agrarian reform that put land in the hands of peasant farmers, the laws slashing housing rents by 50 percent, the mass literacy campaigns and free education and health services for all.
These and other radical changes effected by the Revolution showed that “it is actually possible to build a country based on social criteria,” Pavel Vidal, a young economist with the University of Havana’s Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEEC), told IPS.
The Revolution “was able, in a relatively short time, to reduce extreme poverty, raise the level of and access to education, create greater opportunities for women and significantly improve the health conditions of the population,” he said.
However, the younger generations do not always appreciate these achievements. “What’s the good of studying engineering for free, when what I can earn from my work won’t be enough to live on?” said Manuel, a 22-year-old university student who also complained about the poor public transport and the lack of freedom to travel abroad.
Sonia Benavides, a 29-year-old drama consultant, also has unfulfilled dreams. She said she would like to have “a home of my own, a salary that covers the cost of living, and respect for my right to enter and leave the country,” but she acknowledged that, without the Revolution, “the gap between urban and rural areas and between rich and poor” would be much wider.
“The economy would be in the hands of the same bourgeoisie as ever, sold out to vested interests and providing very expensive basic services to compensate for the cyclical destruction caused by hurricanes,” said Benavides, trying to imagine what Cuba would be like if the armed insurrection led by Fidel Castro had not overthrown dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Half a century later, President Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in February 2008, said that “the victory of the (Revolution) did not mark the end of the struggle, but the start of a new stage, in which there has not been a minute of respite.”
At the end of the second period of parliamentary sessions on Dec. 27, the 77-year-old president described a picture of austerity with little relief for 2009, after a year of crisis in which three hurricanes cost the country almost 10 billion dollars in losses.
GDP grew by only 4.3 percent in 2008, almost half the previously forecast figure, owing to the combination of climate factors, the nearly five-decade U.S. embargo (called the “bloqueo” or blockade in Cuba), and substantial price rises for food and fuels in the international market.
“The coming year will be one of much uncertainty in the world economy,” shaken by the financial crisis that originated in the United States and has evolved into severe economic problems worldwide, “and we should be prepared to face this serious challenge, which is already affecting us considerably,” Castro warned.
He announced new adjustments in hard currency spending, by cutting 50 percent off planned spending on trips abroad by government agencies and the business sector, and doing away with “unjustified gratuities and excessive subsidies” paid for out of state coffers.
Among the first cutbacks planned is an end to the practice of providing vacations and other benefits at highly subsidized prices for leaders, outstanding workers and other sectors of the population, which costs the state some 60 million dollars a year.
“Let’s be clear on this; it is not a question of whether or not those who have enjoyed this possibility merited it, nor of limiting the right to go to those centers (vacation colonies). Rather, the question is whether it is rational to maintain it as a form of stimulus when it represents such a high cost, under the current difficult circumstances or any others,” Castro said.
In addition, a new social security law approved by parliament raised the retirement age from 55 to 60 for women, and from 60 to 65 for men, a measure intended to counteract the economic impact of the rapid ageing of the Cuban population.
To this must be added the forthcoming introduction of a wage system that links earnings with productivity, and future measures, as yet unspecified, to increase the number of people engaged in work, and their productivity and efficiency.
Castro also emphasized that a General Comptroller’s Office is soon to be created, answerable directly to the Council of State, to take control of public funds and to oversee “strict compliance on the part of all leadership structures.”
This plan and other issues linked to the “structural and conceptual transformations” promised by Raul Castro in a key Jul. 26, 2007 speech, given when he was still acting president, will be submitted to the consideration and approval of the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).
The governing party’s Sixth Congress, postponed since 2002, will be held in the second half of 2009 to draw up the country’s political, economic and social guidelines for the next five years. Its resolutions are binding.
Some researchers hope that the Sixth Congress will pave the way for a development strategy that includes a broad set of simultaneous economic measures, from monetary policy to those directly related to industrial and agricultural production.
After Raul Castro wished all Cubans health and much energy for 2009, because “there is plenty of work!” attention is now focused on the speech that the president is due to deliver in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba in the evening of Jan. 1.
The plan is for Castro to speak on the same spot where Fidel made his first speech to the nation in 1959, after coming down from the revolutionaries’ stronghold in the Sierra Maestra Mountains in eastern Cuba.
“The Revolution begins now. Our Revolution will be no easy task, but a harsh and dangerous undertaking,” said the historic Cuban leader at that time.