Reactions on the Street to Cuba’s Economic Downturn

By Progreso Semanal

Photo: Kenna Klosterman

HAVANA TIMES — Reports presented by the Minister of Economy and the Finance Minister, as well as a speech given by President Raul Castro to the National Assembly on December 27th, have had an impact on Cuban society.

The reason? The economy slumped even worse than expected in 2016, going from a GDP growth rate of 4% in 2015 to -0.9% in the year which has just come to an end. Cuba has clearly entered a recession.

We took to the streets in order to find out what some Cuban citizens, who were willing to answer some essential questions, think about the impact of these reports.  What points have caught their attention? How do they view the year which is just beginning? It isn’t a survey – which is more serious and technical – it’s simply a basic first account of people of different ages, levels of education and jobs.

“I didn’t understand a lot, but I got what was important and the fact that the situation we’re faced with is extremely difficult and will be hard. Nothing, we don’t get out of one situation before we enter another. We can’t live like this,” Laudelina said, an employee at a state-run office while walking along the Obispo Street pedestrian boulevard in Old Havana to buy a pizza from a small shop (a tiny private business) near her workplace.

There is a swarm of people on Obispo Street: tourists with their cameras, salespeople, “self-employed tour guides” (which isn’t a legal profession). Churros are being sold on a street corner. I met Raciel there, an auto mechanic waiting for his packet of churros.

“I wasn’t surprised; we’ve been living this recession everyday for quite some time now. Today, we can’t find this thing, tomorrow it’s something else,” he answers and goes on: “look you have to walk all over Havana to get a hold of toilet paper or some kind of medicine… nothing is stable and prices are sky high… nobody can deal with these prices because nobody has that kind of money,” he added.

In the small square in front of the famous Floridita bar, an elderly man shouted “mani, mani” which he sells in some paper cones. We bought a couple and asked him the question. “In my 79 years, I’ve experienced and lived through everything and if we have to work more, we will. I’m a revolutionary, very, very upset, but a revolutionary,” he said and continued on shouting.

Meanwhile, Orlando, a self-employed driver of a private collective taxi which covers the route between Marianao and Central Havana, says that “I agree with the fact that they have approved the law about not using Fidel’s image.” Then he cuts off the conversation saying “don’t ask me anything else because, well, I don’t want to say anything more.” He’s annoyed. About the questions? Only he knows.

People at one of the Wi-Fi points on La Rampa.  Photo: Caridad

La Rampa is the heart of Vedado and has perhaps been the hub of the capital city for many years now. On the corner of J and 23rd Streets is Quijote Park, with its beautiful statue. In the shadow of this sad figure, Gilberto Fandino, 73 years old and retired, was reading Granma newspaper. I sat next to him and asked him my question.

“Things are clear to me, until we resolve the subject of the embargo with the United States, we will be like this and they know it, they’re a real nasty bunch and now this crazy man of a president is coming,” he says and looks at me to add, “My concern right now is that my pension doesn’t cover my needs and life is quite hard as it is but now things are going to get worse… I don’t know how I’m going to live.” He takes up his newspaper and starts reading again, thereby ending his comments.

“Forgive me for my choice of word, but there isn’t any other, I’m pissed,” 52-year-old Herminio answers, who defines himself as a builder, while waiting for a city bus and his unease relates to “the year 2000 when Fidel said that we needed to change everything that was necessary.” He takes a long drag of his cigarette and continues to tell us that “it’s been 16 years since then and have we changed everything, absolutely everything we needed to change? No.” He exhales the smoke and continues: “now that the Comandante has left us, we signed that oath [supporting his concept of Revolution]; I signed it because I agree with it, if we don’t change nothing good will happen. Will they change?”

Again on La Rampa, but now in the line to Coppelia ice cream parlor, Jorge, a young man wearing glasses and wearing a rucksack on his back said “What I saw on TV was predictable,” He claims to be in his third year of studying economy at university.

“It pains me to hear them using the word “decline” when we are in a recession,” he clarifies. “The situation is serious, we don’t have hard cash, but we do have debt, we’ve lost good partners and we don’t have a lot to export, so it’s logical that imports will be reduced which will mean a shortage of goods and the consequences that this will bring…” He stops and looks at me to add “we can’t blame everything on the United States because, when will we be able to free our productive forces, something that has been called for so many times in the past? Or apply pending measures? What are we afraid of?”

Next to him, a young woman who also says she’s an economy student, shakes her head, scrunches up her mouth and when she opens it to speak she says “look, Malmierca (she’s referring to Rodrigo Malmierca, the Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment) had already said it, now Raul has repeated it when he criticized the unnecessary delays in making contracts and sealing deals with foreign investors…, if we desperately need foreign investment, what’s the reason for months and months of delays in responding to investors, whatever it might be? They aren’t going to wait for us,” she argued.

“If it’s because of the bureaucrats well then there are more than enough reasons… we have to get rid of them, maybe that way we will be missing less things and we will make progress faster because my life is short, everything is on standby… and not to mention my personal expectations… let them tell me what they are because I’m going to laugh in their faces.” She ended her comment by holding onto her friend’s hand and moving forward in the queue.

One man was wearing a light blue shirt with long sleeves, beige trousers and was carrying a portfolio in his hands. He was heading towards the Ministry of Justice, which was also situated on La Rampa. He said he was a lawyer and accepted to give his opinion about the subject “out of the many which have caught my attention,” he pointed out. I thought that he was going to go down the Legal route. I was wrong.

Retirees at the bank. Photo: Juan Suarez

“I don’t understand, they say that agriculture has grown a little, but the industrial sector which can process crops has failed and therefore the number of imports has been reduced,” said Heriberto, identifying himself. “The Food Minister explains that industry is outdated, the machinery is broken, etc. etc.; but this hasn’t just happened now, this has been the case for years… If the agriculture and livestock sector and its industry are key to food security then they are vital… Too many excuses and a country can’t live off of excuses and justifications, many of which are debatable,” he claimed. When I thanked him for his time, he stopped to add: “if the problem is based on the fact that the mentality of those in power to make decisions isn’t changing, then we’ll have to change those people.”

We also looked for people’s reaction to the economic news outside the capital

“Fidel’s name will only be on the stone of his ashes,” said Juan Manuel Seara, a 60 year old electrician, while he participated in the already traditional New Year celebration that this capital city holds, thereby bringing one of the most attention-grabbing subjects to light: the fact that the Revolution’s Historic Leader’s last will has been established as a law.

“Five years is a long time for an experiment which needs to have a much more efficient management system,” said Alberto Suarez, a university professor from Las Tunas, who was referring to the experiment that the government and administrative functions have been separated in the new provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque. “The fact that Raul has admitted that this matter wasn’t dealt with like it should have been isn’t any small problem, more so when the time for the historic generation to hand over power to the new generation,” he added. “If there is no prejudice among those who lead the country towards foreign investment, where then is the resistance?”

In Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in the country, several of its residents also gave their opinions about the general panorama of the nation as we enter the new year.

Gabriel, 80 years old, retired and the leader of a small Cuban Communist Party (PCC) grouping gets emotional remembering Raul’s speech when the latter “said that we have to follow Fidel’s ideas. That’s what caught my attention.” Then his voice trembled a little and he sobbed. He said that “we have to get rid of the taboo” surrounding the subject of foreign investment and “seal deals but this isn’t something that will happen overnight, we have to see what they will manufacture.  That is to say, we have to see what it is that Cuba needs to be manufacture,” he added. Gabriel didn’t stop there and went into detail, highlighting the point that investment benefits us as “we are a country that produces trained professionals, but we aren’t able to give them work. People leave. Even good baseball players leave Cuba. They leave because they don’t earn any real money here, they have to abandon their country,” he ends with a notable sadness in his voice.

En Las Tunas. Foto: Ernesto González Díaz

For Juan Jose,55,  a former physics teacher and self-confessed anti-Communist and retired because of an illness, answering was easy: “I didn’t watch it. And therefore, I don’t know what he said. That’s my opinion. And I didn’t watch it because I was doing something else.”

“I was laying down in my room and I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention, he was talking about Fidel, it seemed like it was more of the same thing, but when he began to talk about foreign investment, then I really picked up my ears,” Roxana said, a 33-year-old woman, a researcher in a Social Sciences field. “If this is something (opening up the country to foreign investment) that you say, then it doesn’t mean anything, but if they say it then it means it’s going to happen.” She stopped to think and continued noting that “there is prejudice when it comes to foreign investment and a whole lot of other things too. That’s what I think. Meanwhile, we’re left eating the same bullshit we have to eat every day.”

“No, man, I didn’t listen to Raul’s speech,” answers Juan Carlos, 23, an equipment technician at a city hospital. “I’m not interested in politics,” and he also said that he hadn’t heard anyone else talking about it on the street because “people are more interested in other things.”

According to Dainet Castaneda, 30, a professor at the Universidad de Oriente, Raul “wanted to give the outside world confidence in Cuba, to foreign investors. There is only a year and a few months left now until Cuba will have a new president. And it’s vital that creditors are confident in what this country will become, and express security in continuing on. It’s well-known that political events heavily impact economic ones. And we have to begin to learn not to lead with charismatic leaderships. Fidel and Raul’s governments have been charismatic leaderships, they transmit trust. However, the next leader won’t be charismatic. But there will be continuity in Fidel Castro’s charismatic spirit.”

From such different backgrounds, we can say that these inquiries and their well assessed answers provide material for upcoming investigations of more importance. After all, people were listening.

2 thoughts on “Reactions on the Street to Cuba’s Economic Downturn

  • January 4, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    Jorge and Herminio were brilliant. Great insight, well done and thanks.

  • January 4, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    The problem is obvious, and the solution is not more government.

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